Thursday, January 01, 2009

Oleander

Clark/Chloe
Season 5
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: These characters belong to the CW and DC Comics, not to me.
Written for Secret Chlark, on a prompt from ladydreamer.

Screencap from Andreas@LJ.

"Death by floral arrangement."

Chloe Sullivan spoke under her breath, almost to herself, as she studied the computer screen in front of her. Clark Kent frowned down at her.

"What?"

She glanced up, seeing her best friend resting one hip on her desk, idly swinging a leg as he looked down at her. His eyes seemed very green and very intense, and her stomach gave a little twist, as it always did when he looked at her. Not that she was attracted to him or anything. But he was undeniably a really nice-looking guy.

"I'm working on a story," she answered. "Happened a few days ago. This guy, a vice president of Metropolis Industries, got a floral arrangement. A big, beautiful bunch of pink roses in his office. Next thing you know, he's dead at his desk."

Clark frowned, his forehead creasing. "They don't think the flowers did it, do they? I mean, flowers aren't poisonous..."

"Some flowers are," she said, clicking to pull up another window. "Have you ever seen White Oleander? It says here oleander is one of the most poisonous plants in the world."

He blinked. "Are you saying someone put oleander into the arrangement?"

"I don't know. I doubt it. Anyway, you have to ingest it, and I really doubt the guy was grazing on his floral arrangement."

His leg swung a little harder, a sign that he was thinking. "What makes you think the floral arrangement was to blame, anyway? Maybe he just had a heart attack."

"Maybe," she answered. "Except there have been six cases like this in the past three weeks. People get big floral arrangements, and wham, they're dead."

He frowned. "What do the cops think?"

"They don't think anything. They haven't noticed the pattern, as far as I can tell from the police reports."

"And the autopsies...?"

"Heart attacks. They aren't being treated as suspicious deaths, Clark."

He scowled. "They sound damn suspicious to me."

"Yeah, me too."

"Did all the floral arrangements come from the same place?"

She grinned up at him. "You read my mind. I was just about to go check that out."

"Okay," he said, and stood up, unfolding himself to his full six foot three inches, so that he towered over her. "Let's get moving."

*****

After several hours of careful interviews, they managed to establish that all the floral arrangements had come from the same shop, a little florist downtown on, of all things, Oleander Street. Chloe blinked at the street sign as they walked past it.

"So, what are we thinking here?" Clark asked. "Do we have a meteor freak killing people on purpose? Or has someone accidentally gotten hold of some kryptonite-mutated roses?"

Chloe cocked her head, thinking back on the notes she'd accumulated. "I'm not sure," she admitted. "But maybe talking to the florist will give us some clues."

They paused in front of the glass-fronted shop. Inside, a colorful riot of flowers was visible through the windows. Clark pushed the front door open, making a little bell ring. They stepped in, and Chloe drew in a cautious breath, smelling the scents of roses and carnations and other flowers she couldn't put a name to. Nothing strange assailed her nostrils. Beside her, she saw Clark sniff the air, and she knew he was using his much keener senses to analyze the smells in the shop.

"Hello." The florist, a small, balding, fortyish man, gave them a friendly smile, and moved forward. Chloe noticed he walked with a slight limp. "Looking for an arrangement?"

"Actually..." Chloe put on her brightest smile and gushed. "You sent a friend of mine the most gorgeous arrangement last week. His name was Robert Snow, and he worked over at the Met Industries building-- maybe you remember delivering it? It was so pretty. Mostly pink roses, but with some white flowers..."

The little man smiled back, but she thought she saw a trace of wariness in his eyes. "I remember that. Roses and baby breath, with some tendrils of ivy. A pretty standard arrangement, really. My assistant made that one."

"Really?" Chloe looked around, but the shop seemed to be empty but for them. "Is your assistant here?"

The little man stiffened, just a little. "I'm afraid he no longer works here," he answered.

Clark lifted his eyebrows. "Did he quit?"

The little man stiffened further, and an unmistakably wary look filled his eyes.

"He died two days ago," he said.

*****

"Baby's breath and roses," Chloe grumbled half an hour later. The two of them had returned to the Daily Planet, and she was clicking away at her computer, while Clark sat next to her. "How prosaic. I was hoping it would be something obvious, like oleander."

"You said yourself oleander doesn't kill people unless they eat it," Clark pointed out. He'd pulled up a chair and was reading over her shoulder. "But it doesn't matter. I think it's pretty obvious what's happened here. I mean--" One big, blunt fingertip tapped the autopsy on her screen. "The assistant died of a heart attack, too. I'm thinking we're looking at roses that came from Smallville, and a series of accidental deaths as a result."

"Probably," Chloe said. "But before we jump to any conclusions, I guess our next step is to look at all the victims and see if they have anything in common. Besides the fact that they all got big bouquets and promptly croaked, I mean."

She clicked, moving to another window. "It isn't hard to find basic information on people nowadays," she explained to Clark, who continued to peer over her shoulder. "Almost everyone has a page on Classmates.com or a blog or something like that... ah-ha."

Clark leaned closer, so close she could feel his breath on her ear. She struggled to ignore it.

"The first two both went to Met U," he said. "Graduated the same year, 1990."

"Yes." She nodded. "It's not really a surprising coincidence, though. Around here, half the population went to Met U. But... the third... and the fourth..."

"All of them," he said, reading over her shoulder. "They were all at Met U, and all graduated within a few years of each other. That's kind of unlikely, isn't it?"

"Yeah. I would think so." She stared at the screen, her heart pounding, as it always did when she got a break in a story. "I don't think we're looking at accidental poisoning here, Clark. I think someone's going after old classmates."

"The assistant," Clark guessed. "He was poisoning them for some reason, and eventually he got a taste of his own medicine by accident. And it killed him."

"I bet you're right. And if that's the case, then he was probably at Met U around the same time..." She clicked rapidly, then frowned. "No. Actually, he went to Florida State."

Clark cocked his head. "What about the guy who runs the shop?"

She clicked furiously. A moment later, a new window popped up, showing the smiling face of the balding little guy they'd met in the flower shop.

"Met U, class of '90," she read.

*****

"Here we go," Clark said, fifteen minutes later. He was seated at the desk next to Chloe, clacking away just as energetically as she herself was. "A Daily Planet article. 1989, Met U campus. James Pritchard-- that's our florist-- was beaten very badly one dark night. Broken bones and everything. I'm guessing that's why he limps. Anyway, he was apparently jumped by a big group of guys."

"What was the motive?"

"I don't know. The article doesn't say."

She looked thoughtful. "If James was into floral arrangements back then, that might have been the reason. Stereotypically gay guys are sometimes targeted that way."

"Could be. The thing is..." Clark frowned. "It says he didn't see his assailants."

"That's weird." She stood up and walked over to the desk where he sat, leaning over his shoulder. She dropped her hand onto his shoulder and thought she saw him shiver, just a bit. But that was silly. Obviously she was imagining things. "How could he be going after them if he never saw them?"

"Two possibilities. He knew who they were, but he was afraid to identify them. Or... he's just bumping off every guy who was at Met U that year."

Her hand tightened on his shoulder. "Clark, that would be hundreds of people. Maybe thousands."

He turned his head and looked at her. Suddenly their noses were only an inch or two apart, and her heart began to pound heavily in his chest.

"Uh," he said, sounding oddly distracted, as if the words he'd meant to say had all fizzled out somehow. His hand lifted slowly and wrapped around her arm, holding her in place.

She stood there, gazing into his eyes, feeling dizzy.

They stared at each other for a long moment, something strangely electrical humming between them, then she turned away with a jerk. "Uh," she said, sounding just as brilliant as he had.

He cleared his throat and looked back at the screen. "Um. Well. Yeah. Uh, I was saying, you're right, there might be a lot of lives at stake here. Maybe it's time to go to the police."

"And tell them a florist is killing people with pink roses?" She shook her head. "We have motive and opportunity, but we don't have method, Clark. How is this guy killing people? Is he a meteor freak? He's not even from Smallville, according to what I read. But any standard poison would show up on an autopsy. So what exactly is going on here?"

Clark sighed, and studied the screen for a long moment.

"Maybe we need to take a look at his shop," he said at last.

*****

The shop was very dark when they entered around midnight. Clark had argued against Chloe being there at all. If there were any poisonous flowers that could kill humans just by breathing in their fragrance, he pointed out, she was taking an awful risk. He, on the other hand, was invulnerable.

She'd countered by pointing out that if kryptonite was involved somehow, he was plenty vulnerable, and would need backup.

Grudgingly, he'd admitted that they were better off sticking together. So he broke the lock to the back door, and the two of them crept stealthily into the shop, dressed in dark clothes and looking for all the world like a pair of burglars.

"Let's look around," he said in a bare whisper. "But whatever you do, don't smell any of the flowers."

She rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Sherlock. I would never have figured that out on my own."

He shot her an exasperated look, then stepped forward carefully, his way illuminated by the beam of a flashlight held in his hand. He began to look over the flowers, while she went toward the little office area in the back, shining her own flashlight to light her path.

Over the cluttered desk was a bulletin board with pictures and papers tacked up on it. She looked it over, seeing exactly what one would expect-- a few clippings and photos of a personal nature. Articles on the shop, photos of a German shepherd, two guys smiling together, their arms around each other, an old white house surrounded by roses in every possible shade, people gathered around a birthday cake. Nothing earthshattering, nothing shocking.

Except...

She squinted at one of the pictures of the two men together. One of them she recognized as the balding guy who ran the shop, James Pritchard. The other looked vaguely familiar, and she slowly realized she'd seen his picture while doing research.

He was Alan Sharp, the assistant who'd died, ostensibly of a heart attack.

And the two of them were standing right in front of...

"Is that Crater Lake?"

She nearly jumped out of her skin. Clark had slipped up behind her, with surprising stealth for such a big guy, and he was studying the pictures over her shoulder.

"Do you mind?" She twisted her head up and glared at him. "Do you want me to have a heart attack, too?"

"Sorry," he said, shrugging. "But that picture..."

"Yeah," she said. "So our friend Mr. Pritchard has visited Smallville. Want to bet he came into contact with the meteor rocks somehow?"

"How, do you think?"

"Does it matter? We've encountered people who were infected during one of the showers, but plenty of people have just been infected by incidental contact with kryptonite. One way or the other, he must have been infected."

"And he developed the power to make flowers exude some sort of poison? A new kind of poison that doesn't show up on an autopsy?"

"It makes sense, I guess," she said. "But it isn't proof that we can take to the police. I mean, there are thousands of people living in Smallville. Just because a guy has visited there doesn't make him a meteor freak-- assuming the police officially acknowledged such a thing existed. Which they don't."

"So we need to find one of the flowers he's altered," Clark said.

"Exactly."

"Can I help you?"

At the new voice, they both spun around. James Pritchard stood behind them.

In his hands, he held a perfect pink rose.

*****

Clark obviously hadn’t had his superhearing turned up, because he looked just as surprised as Chloe did. Maybe more so. He abruptly reeled backward, looking very green, and crashed into the desk, then slowly collapsed to the floor. He sprawled there, gasping, while Chloe stared warily at the little man. Obviously there was kryptonite in the rose or on Pritchard's person, which meant that Clark wasn't too much help to her in this situation.

Damn it.

She took a cautious step back, and Pritchard gave his gentle smile.

"Don't worry, my dear. I'm harmless."

"But your flower isn't."

Surprise flickered in his gray eyes. "It won't hurt you unless it's right up against your nose. From this distance, it's quite safe."

"You killed them," she said softly. "All those people. You killed them."

"No." Pritchard's smile faded, and he shook his head, looking grim. "It wasn't me."

"But the men who died—they were some of the group that beat you up in 1989, aren't they?"

"Oh, my." Pritchard blinked at her. "You've been reading up on me, young lady. Are you a police officer?"

"No. I'm a reporter."

Pritchard nodded, then looked past her shoulder. She thought about taking advantage of his momentary distraction to tackle him, but decided not to take the chance. "What's wrong with your friend?"

"Stomach virus," Chloe said shortly. "So tell me the truth, Mr. Pritchard. You killed those men because they beat you, all those years ago. You went to Smallville and recently developed the ability to alter flowers, to make them poisonous. And you decided to use your ability for revenge. Am I right?"

"The ability to alter flowers?" Pritchard blinked at her, as if he suspected she was unstable. "Are you serious?"

Chloe hesitated, thrown off balance by the clear skepticism in his voice. "You said that the rose was dangerous."

"Oh, it's more than dangerous. It's fatal, if you sniff it too closely."

"I've never heard of a rose that kills people."

"Neither had I, until recently." Pritchard shrugged. "I think it's the fertilizer. My assistant and I visited Smallville a couple of months ago, and while we were there we picked up a few bags of fertilizer from an organic grocer there. Growing roses was our hobby, and this was a special blend designed to grow bigger, better ones. The roses grew big and beautiful, just as the grocer had told us, but when our dog died a few weeks ago, we realized they could kill."

Chloe nodded, remembering the picture of the white house surrounded by roses of every color. That made sense. Obviously some kryptonite had gotten mixed into the fertilizer, and had had an otherworldly effect.

"I see," she said, nodding. "So when you discovered what the roses could do, you decided to use them for revenge."

"No!" Pritchard took a step forward, glaring at her. "You aren't listening to me! I would never do that!"

"Then who..."

Clark's voice spoke behind her, weak and unsteady. "The... assistant. Alan."

Chloe remembered the photo of Pritchard with his assistant. The two men had been standing very close, smiling. She remembered him referring to their dog and their mutual hobby of growing roses, and realized the two men had been more than business associates.

"He was your partner," she said, piecing it together. "Not just your business partner, but your life partner. He found out about the attack somehow. And he..."

"I never meant for it to happen." Pritchard closed his eyes, looking anguished. "I was so afraid, I never even told the police their names. I just wanted to forget it all ever happened, but I couldn't. It haunted me. Finally I bought a diary. I'd had nightmares about the attack for years, and I wrote it all down... I had to get it out somehow... but then I put the diary away..."

"I understand," Chloe said gently. "Alan found the diary."

Pritchard nodded, his eyes still closed. "Yes, Alan found it. And he started sending the men I’d named in the diary the arrangements." He opened his eyes and stared at her pleadingly. "I didn't know. Please, believe me. I didn't know. I didn’t even know he was still growing the roses. After our dog died, I ripped them all up and burned them. But he was growing some in a greenhouse he rented, and…"

"But..." Clark spoke very haltingly, and Chloe could hear the pain in his voice. "What... happened... to your... boyfriend?"

Pritchard looked down at the rose. A tear slid down his cheek, splashing against the velvet surface of the flower.

"There were still three more men who'd been part of the attack," he murmured. "He was going to kill them all. I know he was. I found him here, creating another arrangement. I begged him to stop, but he wouldn’t. He was so angry about what those men had done to me.” His voice fell to a raw whisper. “I... I had to stop him. I had to."

Chloe's mouth fell open as she realized what Pritchard was trying to tell them. "Then you... you..."

"I told you, I had to do it," he whispered. "No one would have believed me. People don't die from floral arrangements, after all. The police wouldn't have listened... no one would have listened. No one could stop him except me. I loved him, so much, but I... I couldn't let three more men die..."

Oh, my God. Chloe stared at him, shocked and horrified, and yet full of a strange sympathy for Pritchard, forced into a terrible choice, killing the man he loved in order to save three men who'd once hurt him terribly.

She looked down at the rose in Pritchard's hands, and a tremor of unease went through her. She and Clark knew too much. Pritchard was almost certain to try to kill the two of them now. She'd certainly succumb to the poison, and since it was derived from kryptonite, Clark might, too.

She couldn't let Clark die. Somehow, she had to get the two of them out of this safely.

"James," she said, very gently. "Let us go. We won't tell anyone. We promise."

He blinked at her. "What do you mean, let you go?"

"I mean... don't hurt us. Please. We'll keep your secret."

He looked puzzled, and then his face cleared. He smiled at her, a little sadly, and lifted the rose. Chloe flinched.

"The rose wasn't meant for you two," he said, his voice as gentle as ever. "I didn't even know you were in here. I came here because this is the last place I saw Alan, and I wanted to feel near him when I… well.” He trailed off and shrugged, as if apologizing for his stream of words. “At any rate, the rose isn’t for you."

He lifted the rose toward his face, and smiled at her over it. His eyes were full of guilt and sorrow and grief.

"It's for me."

Suddenly realizing his intention, Chloe lunged for him, but he dodged, lifted the flower to his nose, and inhaled.

His body went limp, and he fell to the floor with a thud.

*****

"He was dead on arrival."

Clark sat down in the waiting room of the hospital and put a hand on Chloe's shoulder. She'd called 911, then helped Clark out of the floral shop. They'd made up a rather flimsy story for the cops, claiming they’d been passing by and had seen James' body on the floor, and had broken in through the back door to check on him.

"I'm sorry he's dead," she said, softly. "But the choice he made wasn't an easy one."

"No. It wasn't. And it was obviously too much for him to live with." He patted her shoulder gently. "You did a good job finding the greenhouse where Sharp was growing the roses. I supersped over there and torched every single rosebush, so we don’t have to worry about anyone accidentally getting a noseful of poison. And the good news is that no one else is in danger, since our murderer is dead."

"So those last three guys will never be punished for what they did to James."

"Chlo..." He sighed. "What they did was terrible, but it didn't merit the death penalty, either."

"No. Still, I can't help but wish James had told the police their names back then. Then maybe none of this would have had to happen."

"He was afraid. I guess that's a normal reaction."

"People ought not to have to be afraid." She stared into the waiting room, her eyes bleak. "I wish we could do more to stop crime, Clark. Sometimes I think just reporting on it after it happens isn't enough."

"Yeah," he admitted, "I know what you mean. Still, what should we do, Chlo? Put on a costume like the Angel of Vengeance and become vigilantes? You saw how that turned out."

"There's a line there that can't be crossed," she said. "But vigilantes don’t have to kill people, Clark. If we could save lives by becoming vigilantes... if we could stop people from being beaten, and killed, and robbed..."

"Chlo." He squeezed her shoulder gently. "We're only two people. There are millions of people in Metropolis. How much of a difference can we possibly make?"

She lifted her head and looked him straight in the eyes.

"If we save just one person," she said softly, "isn't that enough of a difference?"

*****

“I’ll see you in the morning.”

Chloe smiled up at Clark, very wanly. “It is morning, Clark.”

“True. Still, you have time to get a few hours’ sleep in before you have to be at the Planet. And I can nap for an hour or two before it’s time to do the chores.”

Standing at the door to her dorm room, she looked up at him, and his hand reached out, brushing over her hair gently. She closed her eyes, loving the feel of his hand stroking her hair.

Clark had been dating her roommate, Lana Lang, for months. But recently they’d broken up. And the way he’d been looking at Chloe lately made her think… well…

She opened her eyes and looked up at him. Clark bent and brushed a kiss over her cheek.

“Good night, Chlo.”

“Good night,” she whispered, unable to repress her smile. Clark didn’t ordinarily kiss her goodbye, even on the cheek.

It was, she thought, a step in the right direction.

He smiled back at her, then turned, disappearing with a whoosh and a rush of wind. She tiptoed into her room, careful not to wake up Lana, and stretched out on her narrow bed without even bothering to take off her jeans and t-shirt. She stared into the darkness, thinking.

Clark, she thought sleepily, had a lot of amazing talents that would make him a very good vigilante, if the two of them agreed to go in that direction. But she thought she could bring something to the table, too. She might not be superstrong or superfast or able to shoot heat out of her eyes—but she was damn good at finding information, and she was pretty good at thinking on her feet, too.

The two of them, working together, had saved a lot of lives over the past few years. She thought they could save even more if they got proactive about it, trying to stop crime before it started.

That would mean fewer stories to cover for the Planet, of course. But she could live with that, especially if they could spare even a few people from going through the kind of horror James Pritchard had had to cope with.

There would, she knew, always be crime. But maybe, just maybe, if she and Clark worked together, they could help more people, save more lives. It was certainly something to think about. Something to aspire to.

She closed her eyes, and dreamed of a better world.

-The End-

6 comments:

angelbsb said...

that was a wonderful story elly. loved how chloe wants to be a hero and clark to be one with her.

DeeDee said...

Oh, how I miss the Chlark scooby days! Reading this has shown me how great this show once was, and how far it has fallen. Thank God for fanfic, huh?

You really should be on the SV writing team, Elly - they're lost without you!

Thanks for another wonderful story!

Regards,
Dee.

Anonymous said...

Awesome story! That would have been a great episode. I agree. You should be on the writing staff.

Happy New Year...

Deborah

Jenny said...

Again a lovely, poignant story. If only they had made Clark and Chloe start up the vigilante-ing at the end of S5 and built up instead of putting his development on pause for Lana's invisababy plot-plot of doom.

Sigh. If only. Wonderful, babe.

Anonymous said...

That was a really touching story.

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorites - a fun little mystery that evokes memories of when SV was at its best.
-rtm