DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Riley and Kate are starting to find ties between Lindsey and the Mayor’s murder, Jenny has arrived in New York, and Buffy has suggested a tentative plan to solve the problem of Angel and Wood…

*************

Chapter 36: Big Town After Dark

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her slip out the door, following Faith into the hotel hallway.  Girl talk, Spike reasoned.  With Red in the hospital, there were no other females in the room for Buffy to chat with while he and Ripper discussed the arrangements for the next day.  Not that she wasn’t welcome to join in.  Hell, he was chuffed to bits at her cunning for coming up with the possibility of a plan to get them all out of this mess.  But since the debating had started, she’d seemed to lose interest in the idea, merely listening as they argued ways and means to getting it done.  And now, with Faith stepping out for a smoke, she was completely out of the conversation, and he hoped that that wasn’t necessarily a sign for things to come.

“Are you even listening to me?” Ripper asked, annoyed.

“What’s that? Yeah, I’m listening.  ‘Course, I’m listening.  This is my future we’re jabbering on about here.”  Spike turned his head back to the group seated around the dining room table, fingers manipulating the unlit cigarette in a dance of white, his heel tapping like a jackhammer against the leg of his chair.

“Oh, really?  What did I just say then?”

All eyes turned to him.  “Something with too many syllables, I’m sure,” Spike retorted without hesitation.  He grinned, sheepish but unrepentant at being found out.  “Look, I’m just this side of done in here, so my apologies if the synapses aren’t firin’ as quick-like as they were.  What say we shelve the discussion and get a good night’s kip?  Not like the lot of us can’t use it.”

“But we haven’t reached any decisions yet,” Ripper argued.

“And something tells me that the decisions we do reach will be tossed out in the mornin’ when we realize how daft we’re bein’, all because someone’s idea of a good night means as little sleep as possible.”  His tone was harsher than he intended, and Spike sighed in frustration, rising from where he was straddling the chair to stretch the muscles that had spent far too many hours that day sitting down. 

“Look,” he continued, eyes weary.  “All I’m sayin’ is that with the dames gettin’ restless, Wesley still havin’ to wear Red’s blood like some soddin’ souvenir because he hasn’t had the chance to change yet, and Harris actually starting to sound like the smartest one of the lot of us, maybe it’s time to consider that a few hours of r-and-r would do us a world of good.  That’s all.”

“Spike’s right,” Xander said, leaning forward onto the table.  “We’re going in circles right now.  We’ll all be sharper in the morning.”

With a sigh of resignation, Giles tossed his pen down and pulled off his glasses to rub at his tired eyes.  “Fine,” he said  “Will you be taking Buffy back to the flat?”

He nodded.  “I figured I’d see if Faith wants to tag along and camp out on the couch.  It might do her good to be around a friend for a bit.  Buffy, I mean,” Spike added at Ripper’s raised eyebrow.

“You’re not going to try strangling her again, are you?” Wesley asked.

“Nah.  Might even apologize for bein’ a little hot under the collar tonight.  Looks like she’s taken enough of a beating as it is.”  Spike’s eyes fell on Lindsey, a niggle at something she’d said earlier tickling just beyond his reach.  “She happen to tell you who roughed her up?”

For a moment, the lawyer faltered before nodding.  “But if you want specifics,” he said, “you’re going to have to ask her yourself.  She told me in confidence, and I’m not about to break that.”

Spike laughed.  “An honest shyster?  Who’d’ve thunk it?”

“What about me?” Lindsey asked.  “I’m guessing going back to my hotel is out of the question.”

“You can bunk with me and Giles,” Xander offered.  “We’ll flip for the floor.”

“Actually, he can have my bed.”  Replacing his glasses on his nose, Ripper picked his pen back up, squaring the corners of the paper in front of him.  “I’ll stay here in the event Wesley learns something about Willow.”

Time froze as Spike regarded the two men, the deliberate casualness with which Ripper avoided looking at his would-be host versus the controlled surprise evident in the other’s eyes.  There would be no more trouble between them---at least, not of the physical kind---but that didn’t make this a match made in heaven by any stretch of the imagination.  Still, if they were to work together as a team, he was going to have to start treating them as such.  And so, he only nodded in agreement.

*************

She followed the trail of smoke out onto the street, the cooling night air chilling her more deeply than an entire afternoon spent in a crypt.  Faith hadn’t bothered to wait before lighting up, but she’d beaten a path to the walk to finish her cigarette in peace, and it was there that Buffy found her, standing in a growing pool of gold from the streetlamp, her bruised body a blur of black and blue.

“Don’t worry, I’m not breezing off,” Faith said before Buffy could even open her mouth.  She glanced at the approaching woman behind the curtain of her hair, lips tight around the filter as she puffed away.

“I didn’t think you were,” she replied.  Rubbing her hands along her partially bare arms, Buffy stood next to Faith and stared at the traffic as it whizzed by in front of her.  “Do you ever feel as if we’ve suddenly stepped into some Cagney film?” she asked lightly.  “I mean, just a few weeks ago, Angel and Richard were dragging us to the Met to hear that Hungarian woman sing again.  And now, here we are…”  How did she qualify where they were at the moment? she mused.  Faith had lost a lot with Richard’s death, and the last thing Buffy wanted was to remind her of that.

“Could be worse.  We could be in a fuckin’ Capra flick.”

“At least Capra films have happy endings.”

“C’mon, B, you don’t see a happy ending in this?  A whore, a torchie, a failed fed, and a couple triggermen, all against two of the strongest family heads in the city?  How can we go wrong?  You even snagged yourself a guy with a white hat in all this.”  She grinned, but the humor didn’t leap to her eyes.  “Well, a guy with white hair, at least.”  She flicked her ash into the gutter, watching it snow along the grate before disappearing into the sewers.

“Listen, about Spike---.”

“Smart thing would be to stop that sentence right now.”  She used the carmine-tipped filter to punctuate her intent, her voice smoky and ragged.  “I’m not in the mood to hear you wax rhapsodic ‘bout your new lay, so just back off, OK?”

Folding her arms under her breasts, both in an attempt to keep warm and to convey her rising ire, Buffy lifted her chin in defiance.  “It’s not what you think, Faith---.”

“Really?  You’re not fucking him then?”  The ensuing silence was the only response she needed and she laughed, a crystalline cry echoing into the darkened street.  “Not that I’m faulting you for grabbing what you can, because damn, he is pretty, but you’ve really got to be a bunny for getting yourself in this deep, B.”

“You don’t know him the way I do.”

“I know he killed Richard.  That’s all I need to know.” 

“There’s more to it than that.”

“There’s always more to it.  Doesn’t change what he did.”

As Buffy watched, Faith tossed the remains of her cigarette into the street, watching as it stopped, and then rolled back towards them, following the cant of the road to nestle itself in the gutter.  “What are you going to do now?” she asked quietly.

Faith shrugged.  “I haven’t figured out that part of the script yet,” she said.  “Maybe do some traveling, go see the folks.  They’d probably drop a load if I showed up on the doorstep now.”

The pause that followed stretched into minutes, neither woman knowing exactly what to say next, concentrating instead on watching the cars pass by like ebony phantoms.  It was only when someone cleared their throat behind them, and both women turned to see Spike standing in the shadows, that the silence was shattered.

“Finally got Ripper to see sense and let us knock off,” he said.  He didn’t approach, though, eyes wary as they kept jumping to Faith.  “He’s stickin’ around to help Wesley with the planning, and Harris is takin’ the mouthpiece back to the other hotel for a few hours’ sleep.  That just leaves Little Miss Muffet here to suss out where she wants to park her tuffet for the night.”

“Linds got me my own room when he put me up,” she dared, her chin high.

“Yeah, well, I’m not Linds.”  He pulled his cigarettes from his coat pocket, tapping the pack to make several dance free.  “You got three options.  Pick one.”

Stepping forward, she took one of the white sticks before he could, holding it between her fingers while she waited for him to light it.  “Well, gee,” she said sarcastically after she’d taken her first drag, “let’s see.  I can stick with the brain trust upstairs and sit around for the night feeling like a waste of space when they run circles around me figuring out how to help you.”  Another puff on the cigarette.  “Or, I can spend the night with the first two men who’ve turned me down since I was sixteen.”  A third drag, and this time, she exhaled the smoke directly into Spike’s face, smiling when he didn’t even flinch.  “Or I can tuck my tail and shack it up with the asshole who made this whole mess in the first place.  That’s a toughie.”

“Faith---,” Buffy started, but cut herself off when Spike held up his hand, warning her silently to stay out of it.

“You want me to apologize for offing the Mayor, pet, you’re goin’ to be waitin’ a yearful of Sundays because it’s not goin’ to happen.”  His face was grim, the set of his mouth serious.  “I had a job, and I did it, and given the choice again, I’d do the exact same thing.”  He grabbed Faith’s arm when she turned to walk away, jerking her back to face him.  “Doesn’t mean I’m not sorry things’ve gone so tits up for you, though.  And doesn’t mean I don’t regret losin’ it inside.”  His gaze flickered pointedly over her face, and she averted her head from his scrutiny.  “You’ve had enough rubbish to deal with.  You don’t need me addin’ to the pile.”

“I don’t need you period, Spike.”  She practically spat out his name, tossing her cigarette butt to the walk and grinding it to dust beneath her heel.  “If I had enough moolah, you can just bet I wouldn’t be hanging around you sorry lot, waiting to let Angel take another poke at me.”

Her words bounced around inside Buffy’s head, their meaning lost to her.  Another poke?  What did she mean by that?

Spike was nodding, though, as if he understood what she’d meant, his hand dipping inside his pocket, lingering there for a long moment before extracting the ring box Buffy had given him earlier.  “Not that it’s any of my business, of course, but seein’ as how we’ve picked up a spoil or two on this wild ride, and we’ve already been paid…”

Faith’s brows lifted when she opened the box, the diamond gleaming under the streetlight.  “Gee, and I didn’t think you cared,” she drawled, and then snapped it shut again, holding it out for him to take back.  “You really think you can buy me off with B’s baubles?  I don’t do cast-offs.”

He shrugged.  “It’s either you or the East River, duck.”  Releasing his grip, he stepped to Buffy’s side, his gaze remaining steady on Faith.  “Just figured, you’d be personally interested in putting the screws to the wanker.  I think a rock that size must’ve cost him a pretty penny.  Imagine how brassed off he’ll be if you’re the one who benefits from it.”

Her face was inscrutable in the shadows as Faith just stood there and stared at him.  Slowly, she drew her hand back, tucking the case into her fist.  “This changes nothing, you know.”

Spike shrugged.  “Didn’t think it would.”

“This is about Angel.  About hurting him.”

“Believe that’s been the tune I’ve been singin’ all night.  Got a catchy ring to it, don’t you think?”

Another pause.  And then, “I think…I’ll stick around here for the night,” she said.  “Take my chances with the brainiacs.  At least Wes…I still halfway understand.”

Buffy frowned when Faith disappeared back into the hotel.  “What was that all about?”

“Detente,” he replied cryptically, his gaze solemn as it remained locked on the closed doors.  She leaned her head against his arm when he took her hand in his, lacing their fingers together to lead her toward the car.  “Let’s go home, luv.”

*************

The darkness engulfed him, the only light in the room streaming in through the cracks in the curtain from the golden streetlamps outside.  He wasn’t sure why he was surprised she wasn’t there, but deep down, Angel had hoped that his instincts were wrong, that Buffy wasn’t involved with Rook and that she’d merely grown too upset to face the rest of the funeral.  Where else could she go but back to her apartment? he’d reasoned.

He’d reasoned wrong.

Part of him wondered if she’d ever come back, but Angel immediately dismissed that as ridiculous.  Of course she would; all her stuff was here---the photo albums she’d insisted on lugging all the way from Sunnydale, the wardrobe full of clothes she’d accumulated over the last few years, the jewelry box overflowing with things he’d bought for her.  He was just going to have to assign a guy to keep an eye on the place until she showed her face again.

It was the in-between time that was slowly eating out his gut.  Nobody had been able to find hide nor hair of her after the funeral.  No note, no explanation, no Buffy.  Then, he’d realized Faith hadn’t shown up, but swinging by her apartment had only told him that she’d flown the coop as well.  He wasn’t actually worried about her, though; sooner or later, he knew she’d come crawling back, ready to spread ‘em again for a little financial relief.  It just meant having to find his jollies elsewhere in the interim.

Not that he thought he was going to be happy any time soon.  Not until he got Buffy back and made sure Rook paid for trying to corrupt her in the first place.

Slowly, his hand reached out to pick up the phone on the table, his fingers dialing the number by rote.  His eyes were glued to the picture staring up at him from his lap, the smiling snapshot of Buffy buried in the back of one her albums that was his favorite, the one she persistently refused to let him take away.  Too bad.  Carefully, he peeled away the corner tabs that held it in place while he waited for the other end of the line to pick up.

“Hello?”

“What’s the word?”

No need for introductions.  He’d known Wood had been expecting his call.  Besides, the other family head reserved this number for only the most private of conversations.

“Rook’s still at large,” Wood replied.  “And now it looks like McDonald’s taken the run-out.  I’m out two more men, one in the morgue and one in the hospital.”

“Rook’s got the lawyer?”  That couldn’t be good.  The lawyer could finger Angel in a heartbeat.

“Looks that way.  Trick saw one of Rook’s men when he went down to take McDonald out.”

“Damn.”

There was a long pause, and Angel heard the scraping of a chair from the other end of the line.  “I think we need to take a face to face with the other mouthpiece,” Wood said.  “I’ve already talked to her once tonight.  If she’d been around this morning when my men arrived, she would’ve seen straight through McDonald’s scam to get out of there.  My money says she’s more on the ball than he was.  If anyone can nail Rook, she can.”

Angel was beginning to believe that the only way to nail Rook was to do it himself.  “You meet with her.  I’m not risking being seen with you again.  Someone could mark us as working together.”

“Maybe you should’ve thought about that before you dropped in to my office the other night.”

“And maybe if you’d held up your end of the deal, I wouldn’t have had to pay you a little visit.”  His voice was turning into a snarl, all his frustrations and anger from the day leaking out to slur across the phone line.  “I should just call this whole thing off right now.”

“You call it off when I get paid.”  Wood’s tone was icy.  “I expect that territory.”

“You should’ve thought of that before you let Rook slip through your fingers.”  He slammed the receiver down before he could catch the angry reply, his fingers clenched bone-white around the phone.  With a furious growl, he leapt to his feet, yanking it from its anchor on the wall and hurling it through the window, pleasuring in the sound of the shattered glass pinging across the fire escape outside as the album skidded to the floor with a thud

Piece by piece, it was unraveling.  All his plans, disintegrating before his very eyes.

Wood’s revolt.

McDonald’s disappearance.

Faith’s desertion.

Buffy’s cheating.

And it all came back to one person.

Rook.

Angel’s eyes came to rest on the photograph that had slipped free from its bindings, a slightly askew Buffy laughing up at him from her new vantage point on the floor.  Bending over, he picked up the rectangular piece of paper, his thumb brushing across the curve of her mouth in a sensual caress, and he swallowed past the lump of hate that had risen in his throat.

Time to stop fucking around. 

Time to return fire with fire.

For Buffy’s sake.

*************

She had to be careful not to be seen.  If anyone learned that Riley had put Kate on undercover work for the Wilkins investigation, he’d be in danger of losing his badge, and she wasn’t about to let that happen, not when he needed her so much, and not when he was doing his damnedest to break this case open.

So she watched the hotel from the diner across the street, hoping that her instincts were right and that Lilah Morgan was not the type to go skulking out back doors.  It was on her third cup of coffee, when Kate was debating if she could risk a trip to the ladies’ room, when she saw the attorney stride out of the building opposite as if she owned the city, perfectly coiffed, clothes now immaculate.

Dropping a couple bills onto the table, she grabbed her purse from the seat next to her, keeping an eye on the street as she did so.  As she watched, a long dark car coasted to a stop in front of the hotel, and Lilah made no hesitation to open the back door and slide inside, whispering away to vanish into the traffic.

“Damn it,” Kate muttered and bolted out the door, hailing the first cab she saw.  She flashed her badge as she slid onto the seat, barking, “Follow that car, but not too closely.  Don’t let them see you.”

It was hard not to smile as they came to a stop a few lengths back at the red light that held both of them up.  Excitement surged through her veins.  Just like in the movies, she thought.  Now let’s just hope I don’t get shot.

*************

“That won’t work,” Giles argued, crossing out several lines on the paper in front of him.  He sipped at the tea that had long grown cold, lips still pursed as he regarded the pair opposite him.  “It’s a suicide mission.”

“I believe that characterizes this whole job,” Wesley countered.  “And it will work.  With a…little bit of luck.”

“And that’s the particular aspect that returns me to my original assertion.  I can’t allow you to be so foolhardy.”

“You’re not the fool bein’ hardy, so why don’t you lay the hell off, Gramps.”  Leaning back in her chair, Faith picked at the chipped paint on her nails.  “I don’t suppose your girlfriend has any nail polish lying around I can borrow, Wes,” she said.  “I’m beginning to look like one of the girls over on the north side.”

“I’m not…” he started, and stopped, frowning.  “I haven’t…I don’t know.”  Abruptly, he rose to his feet, crossing to the phone.  “I’m going to check on---.”  A knock at the door made him jump, and the receiver clattered from his grip onto the table.

“I swear, I can’t believe you guys haven’t been nailed yet,” Faith said, shaking her head.  “’Cause the way you hop around this city?  You’re just askin’ to be spotted.”

Giles rose to his feet, stepping out into the lounge as Wesley pulled open the door.  He stiffened when he saw the unfamiliar form on the other side, eyes quickly darting around for anything suspicious.

“I’d say you look good for a dead man,” the woman said, “but that would be one whopper of a fib.”  She walked into the room as if it was her own.  “God, Wes, what the hell happened to you?”

She stopped short when she spied the others in the room, dark eyes sliding up and down Giles’ form in an appraisal that brought a flush to his cheeks.  It wasn’t until her eyes fell on Faith, though, and she saw the bruises that still mottled the other woman’s face, that she turned back to where Wesley was just closing the door.

“Any story that has you looking like that, and the Mayor’s mistress sitting at your dining room table looking even worse, has got to be a doozy,” she said.  “So spill it.  You owe me after today.”

“What are you doing here?” Wes asked.

“Are you kidding?  You’re dormy for months, and then I get how many calls from you asking for my help?  Evil law firms I’ve never heard of, gunfights.  My curiosity is piqued.  No way am I not getting in on what’s going on.”

“Who…is this, Wesley?” Giles asked cautiously.

She didn’t even wait for an introduction.  “I’m Jenny Calendar,” she said, sticking out her hand in greeting.  “His assistant.  Now.  Who the hell are you?”

 

To be continued in Chapter 37: The Lady and the Mob