Disclaimer: Yep, we all know the drill…Making no profit from this yada yada yada…Smallville, and Supergirl, and any other shows made mention of here, are the profit of those people who own them (grrrr, and How I hate them.) If I did own Smallville, why in all of the wacky planets in our universe would I be doing this... :)

I cannot apologize more for my extreme tardiness when it comes to updating this story. I will promise to get the next edition out as soon as possible.

With that in mind...onto the next portion in our exciting chronicles of Clark and friends...

COUNTDOWN: 8 DAYS, 12 Hours, 30 mins

Smallville High towered above the scorching pavement; waves of heat sending the edges of the building into a shifting, wavering cast. The sun beat down, and the teens and teachers alike forgo-ed the lingering sociality of the parking lot for the dark, cool air conditioned halls inside that beckoned.

Those students pounding through the double doors had no idea that today two aliens would face down each other down by the time the sun set that afternoon; but if any of them did, they wouldn't have really been very surprised about it…

A lot tended to happen at Smallville High during the average week; Kryptonite mutants surfaced and either tried to kill off half of the Faculty, or go after Lana Lang, Chloe Sullivan, or the latest poor girl that had the misfortune of wrong time, wrong place syndrome.

Either way, most of the students shrugged it off. It was all relative. And this was high school.

It had been the hottest day on record, since…well, ever. Not even last year's swelter held a candle to the scorching heat that burned up the pavement. Students detested the urgency to leave the comfort of their air-conditioned cars, even for a second in this heat, and walk the many steps to the awaiting doors and halls, crowded and humid.

The school building stood behind a wavy, haze rising up from the ground. Not a cloud speckled the clear blue sky, no wind rustling the tree leaves. Just sticky, stagnant air.

As the crowds piled through the double glass doors of the main entrance, many breathed a sigh of relief as the slight, cool breeze that tousled their hair slightly, as they stepped further into the long corridors of Smallville High. One girl, all red hair and skirt, weaved through the crowds, unpolitic as she slammed into someone's locker door, and kept going.

Breathing out through her nose, Chloe extracted herself from the mess her fallen books created as she dropped them back into her locker, catching herself on the metal frame in time to avoid an embarrassing fall. She swore, shaking out her hand as the impact sting sent needles of pain up her arm.

She sent the perpetrator a foul look and slammed her locker shut, muttering curses as she twirled the lock. With a sigh, she reached back to pull the hair off the back of her neck, and dived into the crowds.

She thought briefly, of writing an article on the school policies regarding the ancient air conditioning system, necessary for a building that size, but not entirely maintained as it should. It broke down so many times she wondered why they even bothered turning it on at all. Because, maybe today will be that lucky time, when nothing happens at all!

"Hey Chloe," a voice rang out, cheerily innocent from behind her. Rolling her eyes, she answered.

"Clark, hey." He sauntered up, looking disgustingly sweat-free and clothed in a long-sleeved flannelette shirt that had seen better days. She frowned. The heat hadn't affected him at all- damn it. She wanted to kill him for that smile in this temperature. Instead, she turned back, gesturing to the lines of weary students, dragging through the corridor ahead.

"Look at that," she shook her head. "Hundreds of kids turned zombified because of the school's incessant need to cut back- primarily denying to replace the turn of the century air conditioner that should have been traded up when Bush retired from office- the older one."

"Who's a 'zombie'? And, more importantly, how does Clark stop them?" Pete jumped up, startling Chloe, slapping Clark on the shoulder with an acknowledging grin, who smiled back.

"Pete, hey!"

"Hey, man."

He turned to Clark, suddenly serious. "So, what's the 'Freak of the Week' 'ario, cause I have a genuine need not to get hit on the head anymore. The family doctor's getting kinda suspicious, me coming in twice a month for concussions and all. Anymore of that, and I gotta start paying rent for the room. No joke."

Chloe frowned; she was in no mood to deal with Pete's humour this early. "'Hello Chloe'", she waved dumbly at herself, her expression facetious. "'I don't have to talk to you because you're not here at all'," she screwed up her nose, tone rising in a lower, boyish pitch, "Gee, Clark I wonder where Chloe is this morning- I haven't seen her at all.'"

"Funny," he deadpanned, then turned to Clark, standing to the side, amused at the exchange. "Wassup?" he held up his hand in greeting. "Gimme some Kryptonian skin." Shaking his head in a half smile, Clark reluctantly lifted his hand up to finish the high five, the pair missing Chloe's expression shift from annoyance, to disbelief.

Her mouth dropped. "Pete," she hissed, dragging him into the stairwell. "Are you insane? Or did you just wake up this morning and think 'I'm going to stupidly expose my best friend today, before first period'?"

He stared at her incredulous, yanking his arm out of her grip, and shot back. "Okay, first of all: Clark and I were tight with this 'thing'", he drew it out, punctuating with air commas, "and were doing all good, long before you joined the 'I'm clued into aliens' club. Secondly: This entire school all wear blinkers with fashioned head-straps when it comes to mutants- they don't know, and they don't wanna know. High School, man! "

Shaking his head, he continued. "And third," she pulled back from him, eyes slitting in rising anger. "What is up with you this morning? You just wake up and say 'Today I'm gonna bust up Pete before first period, because it's wicked fun!'"

By this point, the three reached the door of the Torch, and Chloe stormed in first, dumping her bag down on the nearest desk, and crossed her arms, scowling back at Pete, who had moved over to stand next to the windows.

They glared at each other in silence for a moment, before Clark jumped in, slightly confused at the tension in the room. The tension the pair was swimming in certainly wasn't bad moods at this morning's quipping. This had a definite undercurrent of unsaid baggage to it.

"Guys," he started, but a double set of glares had him backing down. "Alright…" raising both hands to ward off the pairs shared look, he gave a quick glance over his shoulder, and sank into the desk chair behind him.

Chloe spoke first, tossing Clark's interruption aside. "This isn't about whose right and who isn't, Pete!"

"Sure it is- with you, it always is, Chloe!"

"Oh, come on Pete! Don't start this again…"

"Me? You're the one who started it! You just get angry when someone else comes up with an idea you don't like!"

"Pete, part of being a good reporter is searching every possible angle. But you need to have something more than 'a spooky feeling' to go on."

"…Oh for the love of…Chloe, you are sitting in the room with a little green man," Clark's eyebrow rose at this, catching Pete's attention and he back pedalled, mentally. "Sorry Clark…And you are attending Smallville High, mutant magnet for the Kansas area… Look behind you- does anything on the Wall of Weird not scream 'Spooky feeling' to you?!"

"FINE!" Chloe threw her hands up in the air, fed up. "You follow your instincts, and I'll do the same. Deal?"

Nodding, Pete sank into a hair at the opposite end of the room. Tersely, he responded. "Fine." The pair settled into the silence, glaring at each other from over their computer terminals every five seconds.

Clark, who had been watching this with growing confusion, sighed into the tense air, and chose his words carefully. "Does anyone want to…tell me…why you guys…"

Chloe looked up from her typing and steepled her hands on the desk. "Oh," she asked demurely. "You are referring to why Pete…" a grunt echoed from over the other side of the room, "is acting so childishly?"

Both of his friends had turned to stare at him now, eyes slits. Clark shifted in his stance, uncomfortable. "Well, actually you both seem…"

Chloe cut in, ignoring him completely. "Well, then I'll tell you- it seems that Pete had decided that, for reasons unknown, that he would like to try…something different…with the story we're currently researching. He seems to think that my methods are inappropriate in this instance! We both decided to resolve the issue…separately!"

Clark's eyes swivelled around to Pete, who shrugged his shoulders. "Look, all I know is this case is not the normal 'Wall of Weird' weekly mutant we're dealing with. When I told Chloe that-"

"Oh, you told me that huh? Funny because all I heard was 'Gee Chloe, I don't know' when I asked you the other day…" Chloe bit out, cocking her head to the side in mock confusion.

"…anyway," Pete turned back to Clark, continuing, "I though it might be a good idea to try something a little different… and hey presto!" He gestured to Chloe, "psycho reporter going ape. News at eleven!"

Clark doubted that was all there was to it, but wisely chose to keep it to himself. Knowing his two best friends like he had since grade school, he knew it take a while before it all settled itself out. He, however, decided to avoid the impending grief, and nip it in the bud right then.

"I just know I'm going to regret asking this; But what exactly happened after I left the hospital this morning?" He spoke slowly, addressing both other occupants of the room with a measured cool, which seemed to do the trick. After several more seconds of silence, Chloe sighed, swivelling the chair around to stare at him. Her eyes held his for a moment, reading the calm there, and a crooked smile threatened as the side of her mouth titled up.

She laughed then, and like a bubble popping, the tension drained out of the pair. Even Pete joined in. "I 'm sorry Clark. Pete and I had a mild disagreement," she spared a shy glance at Pete, who had relaxed enough to roll his eyes at the understatement. "About the Brandon Muller case we've been looking into for the past few weeks."

Clark grinned, infinitely feeling more at ease since his two best friends called a truce after the sudden flair of tempers in the hall. "'Mild' is a bit of an understatement," he chucked, drawing a set of rueful glances from the pair. "Brandon Muller?"

Pete and Chloe opened their mouths simultaneously, but it was Pete that got in the first word. Sitting back in his chair, the facts swirling around in his brain, he tried to compress the streaming mess, into a much simpler, Pete-style explanation.

"A couple of days back, this new kid…ahh…Brandon Muller, was found dead on the road, two miles out of town, along the Kansas interstate. Some truck driver for Wayne Industries found the body around five am, just as he was going under the overpass for the Metropolis turnoff."

Chloe jumped in, all business. "Police reports say there was no witnesses, but believe Brandon may have willingly jumped of the overpass, to, well,…you know," Clark grimaced slightly at the supplied implication. Chloe cleared her throat, and continued.

"Well, I checked the school files and turns out, our Mr Muller was paying regular visits to the local therapist the weeks prior to his death."

Clark jumped in at this point, circling the computer terminal in front of him to sit. "Yeah, but isn't that par for course, considering his mental state leading up to his death? He might have sought help before it got worse."

"Ah, hah," Chloe wiggled her finger at Clark. Pete smirked from across the room. "She loves doing this part," his smile widened as Chloe sent him a dark look before railroading on.

She sat down behind the Mac terminal next to Clarks, and after a second of typing, triumphantly brought up the window on the blue screen. With a small gesture, she motioned to the screen, half turning in her chair to face Pete and Clark as they came up behind her.

The trio stared at the screen. "Say hello to Mr Muller's psychological evaluations to date."

Clark frowned, several key words and sentences jumping out at him from the screen. "This can't be right." His eyes tracked down the page, scrolling through the information in less than a second. He looked up to see a similar expression echoed on his companions, but were holding theirs back with some amused smirks, waiting for him to arrive at their shared conclusion.

"Cue the 'spooky feeling' spine crawl", quipped Pete catching the questions in his friend's eyes. "Told ya it was Wall Wacky Weirdness material."

"Pete," Chloe cut in, mildly irritated.

Clark decided to head this newest argument off at the pass. He picked the most obvious question first. "So an exchange student with one of the highest IQ's in the school, and of near perfect mental health, by all accounts, with an intense fear of heights, is found underneath an overpass…and the police are saying, 'suicide'?"

He pursed his lips in concentration. "Chloe, do you think you could pull up the coroner's rep…"

"Done, and done." Swivelling back to the screen, Chloe clicked the mouse several times in quick succession, smiling as the Smallville Morgue homepage flashed on the screen. Muttering, she went through the steps for Clark and Pete's benefit, "revisit history, click recent case files, password…"

Pete stopped her there for a second, curious. "Are we worried that you have clearly 'borrowed' the Chief Medical Examiner's personal log code to do this?" He stared down at the asterisks as they appeared in the password space. He didn't see Chloe roll her eyes at him, hitting the final sequence of keys. She quipped back, "Wouldn't be the first time."

"Here," she frowned at the screen. She scrunched forward in the chair, so the boys could lean closer, all eyeing the screen with avid attention. The picture loaded onto the screen, illuminating the body with pinpoint pixel clarity, and all three gulped down, at the slight hint of nausea that surfaced.

Pete made an indecipherable grossed out noise in the back of his throat, sharing a look with the others before turning back to the macabre images scrolling down the page. Chloe stopped at one of the face, white blue and mottled with bruising, finger poised above the mouse, and echoed that sentiment. "I'll see you that ewww, and raise you a urggh, guys."

Shaking off a sensation of deep unsettlement, Clark leaned past Chloe's shoulder, and pointed to the next image, partially visible at the bottom of the screen. His head felt odd, instincts jumping to life, and he cleared his voice. "Chloe go to that last image."

Chloe moved, uncomfortable with Clark's close proximity, but complied. She couldn't help but wonder about her friend, friend, she strongly reminded herself, and what had caused the sudden response, as he almost squashed her into the desk, leaning in even closer to catch the last image as it came up.

His sudden intake of breath confirmed her suspicions, but as her eyes searched the picture, she couldn't pick up anything out of the ordinary. Her voice held her questions in it, slightly high with concern.

"Clark, what," With a quick glance over her shoulder, she wondered at the tightening of his eyes, the strain lines around his mouth. Following his fixed stare, she looked back at the image, and caught something she'd previously overlooked. Clicking on the last picture she maximized it, concentrating the little eyeglass that appeared on the lower half of the body's back. The tiny black mark came into shocking focus, and they all breathed out.

Eyes widening, she leant back in her chair, arms crossed as she considered this new piece of information.

Pete, typically, was the first to speak. He gestured to the small tattoo at the base of the spine, that had transfixed them all, "Isn't that…" he squinted his eyes, "from the inscriptions on the Cave walls?"

Clark moved off, drawn to the mid-morning light streaming through the stuttered windows, stared out at nothing, remaining quiet, drawn into a private line of thought. He was oblivious to the looks of concern Chloe and Pete shot him, before they looked back at the screen.

Chloe nodded. "I'd say, this case is definitely more than what the police have pegged. We need to find out what and fast," she spared another look over at Clark, who had yet to remark, "before this thing escalates."

Walking over to his discarded backpack, Pete felt the disgust he'd hidden at the first sight of the remains of the young man rise in force; another teenager, who'd been walking the halls of Smallville High with the rest of them, until a week ago. Someone's life was over, gone. Shrugging it off, to get to the next clue, just didn't seem…okay to him.

Clark felt it too, because he chose that moment to answer.

"The fact that someone's dead, means it's already escalated, Chloe," he spoke each word slowly, aware that both of his friends had turned to stare at him. Their faces were a mirror of his own; sadness, and seriousness all at once. "Now it's about getting to the truth; doing right by Brandon's memory...not letting the police let him go down as a kid who couldn't handle it anymore."

Chloe licked her lips and shut off the monitor, putting the images out of sight, into the computer's memory, and hers; determined, now more than before, to solve this mystery.

The sharp, sudden piercing ring of the bell for fist period echoed down the halls, hitting against the sensitive air in the Torch office abrasively, causing them all to jump, startled at the noise.

Gathering at her textbooks strewn over the desk, Chloe took the moment to compose herself for the barrage of classes ahead. As she crammed her overstuffed book bag with the intention of running off to make it to Chemistry before lockout, something niggling in the back of her brain, rushed into her consciousness, and her pretty, shiny features scrunched up in sudden displeasure. She'd completely forgotten; the principal would not be happy about her slip-up either.

Her groan brought the attention of the others swinging over to her as they all rushed out into the emptying halls, worry descending on their faces as they looked her over.

"Chloe, you are okay, right?" Clark asked for the pair, as they swung their backpacks onto their respective shoulders, rushing down the corridor in long strides that had her scurrying to match the pace.

Chloe sighed, stopping abruptly, turning to give them both a wry grimace. "I just forgot; I'm s'posed to be meeting the Principal in his office, oh like…five minutes ago."

Pete quirked a smile, wiggling his fingers at her. "Straight-laced Sullivan sent to the principal's office? What did you do to earn that honour? Misquote the new lunch menu in the Torch?

Both of them wore large grins on their faces, and Chloe had to purposely restrain herself from another eye rolling before she ended up cross-eyed, thanks to the antics of her own personal Laurel and Hardy.

"No," drawing out the denial, she sighed again, realizing how late she was. "The new girl was arriving today, and the Principal wanted someone responsible…"

"Again, why you?" Pete interjected, and Clark grinned at the repressed scowl she tried to keep off her face.

She rode over the remark, continuing on in spite of her temper rising with the flush staining her cheeks. "…Enough from the peanut gallery please." The look she sent her friend said simply, 'shut up, or else.'

"She's staying in Smallville for the term, and needs someone responsible, to guide her through the trials of the Smallville High cliché system. Namely, yours truly," she finished, catching the shadow that passed over Clark's face.

Pete parted ways with them outside the Chem. labs, making them promise to update him on anything that came their way in regards to the case. As he tumbled into the labs, Chloe and Clark shared a smirk as they caught the sarcastic drawl of Mr Sherman before the door closed. "Mr Rose, so glad you could join us…"

The man was eternally mixing up the students last names, and today looked to be no different. Pete's indignant interruption to correct the mistake was overridden and he sat down, glowering at the snickers of the rest of the class.

He'd be wearing that name for a while, until the jocks tired of it. Discreetly he turned to look over his shoulder at Ashley Rose, the tall, pretty girl whose name he'd inadvertently wound up stuck with, and smiled at the pretty blush staining her nose and freckled cheeks. The answering grin warmed his face, and he snapped back to stare at the blackboard.

Despite the heat, today might not be so bad. The thought danced through his head, before he opened the textbook with a sigh. A cobra stared up at him from the pages of his fraying Chemistry handbook. Then again… Urgh. He hated snakes.

The two friends hurried down the silent halls, eager to make their respective classes. As they neared his destination, Clark gave way to the niggling of doubt that had been pursuing him since the Chem. labs.

"Chloe, a new student at the school might be more than co-incidence…be…"

Before he even gave his warning, Chloe held up a hand, silencing him. "Clark, you don't need to tell me to be careful. Besides, we have the rest of the day to figure out the newest turns in this whole thing. We agreed to work on it together. So no rushing off to search the caves on my own…Promise," she crossed her heart, and held up her fingers Boy Scout style.

Clark smiled down at her, mildly relieved at the reassurance, but troubled nonetheless. He knew Smallville, but more importantly, he knew what his friend was like around a new mystery.

"Okay, okay," he grinned for a second, then allowed his voice to lower to a more serious tone. "Even though you will be, just be extra careful, alright. We barely know anything yet, so eyes and ears open first. Okay?" he held her gaze, his eyes dark and assessing.

Reacting to the worry she saw in her friends eyes, she was quick to agree. She nodded, mentally crossing her fingers; since she knew her friend could, at times literally see through her. And she knew him as much as he knew her; letting him worry unnecessarily didn't sit easy with her. So she lied.

"Sure Clark, no running off half cocked. But you know, not everyone sees and hears as well as you do."

She was rewarded with a blinding smile, and felt herself go slightly weak at the knees. He really had to stop smiling like that; she doubted he really knew the affect the Kent charm had on a girl's nervous system. Oh, boy!

The classroom door closed, and Chloe realized she was standing alone in the corridor. Shaking her head to rid the cobwebs, she blew the fringe off her forehead, and jogged up the stairwell to the third floor.

As the door to the Principal's office loomed at the end of the hallway, she mentally drew a deep breath; chastising herself for her reaction to Clark, even after everything they'd gone through to remain friends. Sometimes, she griped, I just can't help myself.

"Careful, Sullivan. Be careful….except, I'm already there." Reaching for the door handle, she jerked back in surprise as the door was opened from the other side, and the doorway filled with the imposing shadow of the man himself.

There's another one with super hearing, Chloe thought to herself as she tried to smile apolitically at the glowering man.

"Principal……" She was proud; her voice only rose a little. "I'm sorry about being late. But you see, the thing is …traffic….errrr…the roads this morning was just insane, and I was stuck on the highway for an hour. It was just not moving." She barked out a little laugh. "You know how it is, I'm sure."

Only a little disconcerted that she was lying for the second time in as many minutes, she caught sight of a very tall, blonde beauty peering out from behind the Principal, wearing a distinctly amused expression, and Chloe's eyes widened as she remembered the face from this morning.

All the girl had to do was speak up, and she would be up for a month of weekend detentions. She was already skating on thin ice with the School administration, and thanks to Clark's recounting of his run-ins with the man, was fully acquainted with the Principal's tolerance for tardiness.

"I'm fortunately glad I am unaware as to how it is, Miss Sullivan," the big, dark man took a moment to pin her with a laser beam glare, and Chloe felt an urge to squirm she thought she'd outgrown in the second grade. But she must have passed, because she relaxed at the humourless smile he gave her.

"Try to be a little earlier in your arrival next time. Being kept waiting is not something I tolerate more than once. Is that clear?"

Chloe buried her signature grin she felt when she knew she'd just dodged the figurative, or literal bullet. She nodded, mock serious. "Clear as crystal." For a second she caught the sudden grimace on the other girl's face at her choice of words. She filed that one away, mildly curious at the reaction, before putting it to the back of her mind. One mystery at a time, Sullivan. The pair shared a glance as the blonde caught the inquisitive look Chloe sent her, and her face turned to stone.

Their attention turned back to the Principal as he spoke again, his deep timbre practically demanding obedience. "Well, Linda I hope the disruption of a new school is swift, and you join the many students at Smallville High with ease," he held out his hand politely, and had to clamp his jaw down on the pain that spasm-ed through his fingers as she returned the grip with a guarded smile.

"Well," he cleared his throat, smiling tightly down at the two as he pulled his hand back rather quickly, "I will leave you in the capable han…company of Miss Sullivan to show you around, help you adjust to your classes." With that he nodded briskly at Chloe, turned back into his office, closing the door forcefully as he hurried to nurse back the encroaching numbness in his hand.

Holding back a grin as she watched the man retreat into his office with a bang, Chloe felt the gaze of the new girl bore into her head, and she turned back to catch a look of profound intensity settled across her features. Something oddly familiar struck Chloe then, like that look she had seen many times before on the face of another. Something about the shape of the face, the set of the eyes….A shiver went down her spine as the blinding smile Clark had shared with her minutes earlier flashed through her brain.

Weird. She should get Clark and this one together for a staring match. Talk about intense city.

Then, the girl smiled, her blue eyes twinkling with mischief. "So, traffic jam, huh?"

Chloe let the train of thought disappear, and smiled back. "Yeah. Much like your impressive agility in the high jump arena, there are some things that would give everyone a headache to dwell on." Gesturing to the door, she added, "Shall we?"

The blue eyes twinkled again. "Sure." In one swift movement she retrieved her backpack from the base of the office chair and straightened gracefully, joining Chloe as she strode through the door out to the stairwell.

"Okay," Chloe studied the class-plan, "looks like you have the dreaded Miss Bernstein for English literature first…but since you're new, and it's your first day, lets spare the aggravation of turning up to that banshee's class late…"

Her companion cut in, a slightly worried look on her face. "Wait…banshee being…"

Chloe's eyebrow raised more than a bit, but answered seriously, "Figurative. Why do you ask?" She was more than a little curious.

The blonde blushed furiously, eyes cast downward, looking more than a little embarrassed, like she wanted to retract the question, but was stuck in the uncomfortable state of having to reply. "Well, I googled this place before I arrived. And Smallville, well, the reputation of this place was…definitely Inquisitive." The last word was loaded with a double meaning, and Chloe suddenly understood the reason behind the question. And groaned internally. The Inquisitor was amongst the highest gossip mongers of the happenings of the town than the actual townspeople themselves.

"Yeah, well," she flushed with anger, "it's advisable to not take anything that trash-rag prints at face value only."

Linda nodded sagely, cocking her head slightly at the undercurrent of anger she felt. "So, you're really not a fan of their's, are you?"

Chloe spared the insightful girl a smile, "I'm definitely not on their frequent subscriber list, that's for certain. You?"

She grinned, "Definitely not. For one thing, they have absolutely no ideas as to the difference between mutants and zombies. Really sloppy reporting style too."

Chloe wasn't quite sure how serious the girl was, or how sane she was either, so she remained silent to commit to a response to that one. She did, however, rejoin with some humour of her own.

"Linda, I have the feeling you're going to fit in here just fine."

It was approximately seventeen blocks from the University to his apartment. He'd counted it in a supreme fit of boredom one day, as the heavy traffic he had found himself in, robbed him of the early start he'd wanted for his day.

And for each one of those blocks, Professor Manners was damn sure he was being followed.

Every few minutes, his gaze would swing from the cars in front, to the rear-view mirror, in which he would clearly see the dark sedan, keeping pace, about fifty metres behind him. The same sedan he'd spied outside his apartment building that morning at seven when he'd set off for the University. The same car he'd glimpsed out of the corner of his eye as he'd made his way to and from the grocery store the prior evening.

He was not an overly paranoid man by nature. But with the events of the past few weeks, and the sudden arrival of a very, important manuscript, left him feeling very on edge. All his attempts to rationalise this sudden conspicuous tail proved completely futile, relieving him none at all. After all, how many goddamn people in Metropolis drove the same make, model and colour car? One that it seemed, intent on deliberately shadowing his every move?

In any case, the book never left his side. He let his tired eyes stray to it, lying on the passenger side seat, gold lettering shining and fading as he drove down the sun dappled streets.

God, he had prayed for the manuscript. Reaching a red light, he stomped hard on the brakes, earning a string of colourful expletives from other motorists; scarcely noticing the symphonic domino effect of squealing tyres he caused behind him. Now, his face hard as he considered his latest dilemma, he prayed for time.

Hour upon maddening hour he had poured through its pages, hoping for the signifying set of key symbols he needed. The entire book read like…gibberish, without them. And he was running out of options, fast.

Blinking wearily, he took a half-hearted swipe of his eyes, gritty from sleeplessness, with the back of one hand. Damn it…looked like another night of crashing on the cot in his office. He exhaled, a sigh escaping, reinforcing the weariness he felt down to his bones. God, he was tired…and no closer to unravelling this mystery than when he started.

He'd desperately waited for that book; now it seemed more of a step backwards than anything. The niggling doubt that had been plaguing him ever since he first slammed the book shut in frustration, came back with force; and, damn it, the whole situation made him feel angry, if not downright stupid.

The turnoff for Met U approached fast on the left, and changing lanes without pause, he jerked the car around the sharp corner without thought. Ignoring another string of car horns, he pulled himself back to the present. He wouldn't get another chance to solve this mystery if he ended up wrapping his car bonnet around a tree; shaking his head at his own carelessness, he downshifted, his own breathing emulating the slowing rev's in the engine.

Unconsciously, his eyes strayed to the rear view mirror. Nothing. The tricks of an active imagination on the overtired mind, he decided wryly, relaxing as the miles hummed under the tires. Moments later, the flush summer gardens of the University entrance came into view. Turning into the drive; the car dropped its speed as the early morning traffic began to build.

Pulling into the Staff parking lot, he turned off the engine with a click, and let a moment of silence descend on the car as he leant forward to rest his head on the wheel. With a weariness he felt right down to the bones, he drug his errant body out of the car, and turned towards the Anthropology Wing, the manuscript tucked securely under one arm.

The cot in his office beckoned with a silent call. He'd sleep for a brief nap, and then it was back to it. The book held the key, or at least, the key to the key.

He just had to find it. The clock was ticking down; and soon, the darkness would be here, and then…

Then there would be no stopping it.