DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of
course. And the chapter titles are
courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Iris has intercepted an early-arriving Stella at the bus station, Buffy and Spike have had a minor argument regarding his getting other demons involved, Giles and the gang have discovered what they think might be a lead, and Anya has taken matters into her own hands and demanded Halfrek tell her what is going on…
Suspecting what the hullabaloo was about was one thing. Hearing it with her own ears was something else entirely.
As soon as the admission came from Halfrek’s lips, Anya visibly deflated, her shoulders slumping. “Crap, crap, crap,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Why do I always have to be right about these things?”
“I don’t see why you’re having a problem with this,” Halfrek said, casually inspecting her nails. “Doesn’t knowing what this is all about just make it more of a good idea to stay away from it all?”
“Normally, my answer to that would be a resounding yes.” The ex-demon sighed. “But normally, Xander isn’t having his heart ripped out of his chest all because of some stupid apocalyptic artifact.”
Her friend wrinkled her nose, waving an elegant hand in dismissal. “It’s hardly apocalyptic, Anyanka. Inauspicious perhaps, especially for the local residents, but certainly not the end of the world.” The look on her face was condescending. “Really, being around these humans is turning you into a veritable doomsayer. There would’ve been a time you would’ve guaranteed yourself a ringside seat, just to enjoy the mayhem.”
“I was there the last time, remember? You were the one who skipped out on all the festivities.”
“If memory serves, you were also the one who stopped them.” Her tongue tutted in admonishment. “D’Hoffryn was not exactly pleased about that. He complained about that for a decade.”
Anya rose from where she was leaning against the table and began pacing the length of the small room, one nail almost constantly in her mouth as she chewed it away in nervousness. “The girl made a wish! I didn’t have a choice in the matter. And it’s not like I destroyed it. Although, you know, if I’d known that in a hundred or so years, I’d be human and potentially on the wrong end of the damn thing, I would’ve just turned it into a huge pile of goo and told D’Hoffryn to go screw himself.”
Halfrek watched as the smaller girl prowled around the room, her large eyes wary. “The question remains, Anyanka. Now that you know…what are you going to do?”
It was what she’d been asking herself. She knew what she wanted to do. The problem was, every time she considered her actions, Xander’s face rose before her mind’s eye, giving her the puppy dog eyes that said to her louder than words, “I’m so disappointed in you.” It’s not fair, she grumbled, her face screwed up in frustrated anger. This shouldn’t be that big a deal.
“Crap,” she muttered again, kicking helplessly at the table leg as she stopped before it. Slim fingers drummed along the wooden top, before she sighed in disgust and grabbed her bag from its surface. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that having a conscience is a good thing,” Anya warned the bound demon as she marched past her toward the door. “Because trust me. It really bites the big one.”
The sound of Halfrek pointedly clearing her throat stopped her. “And did you forget something here? Or maybe, someone?” Hallie called, her tone cold with annoyance.
Anya didn’t even answer. Instead, she just pivoted on her heel, tramped the few steps to the edge of the circle, and kicked over one of the candles that lined the inscription. The flash of the vengeance demon disappearing forced another weary sigh from her throat. “Tell D’Hoffryn I said hi,” she said to the now-empty space. “And thanks for nothing.”
There was no mistaking the bounce in her step as Buffy rounded the corner of the block, the sprawling shape of the bus station beckoning to her from across the street. This must be afterglow, she thought cheerily, darting through the traffic. Spike and afterglow. Who’d’ve thunk it?
The brief interval that morning when she’d doubted his feelings regarding what had happened between them had shaken her more deeply than she wanted to admit. She’d never really experienced anything before that could remotely compare to the happenings on the piano bench and the chat that accompanied it; the sudden fear that it would be a one-time occurrence had left a void in the pit of her stomach. Spike had this uncanny knack for not allowing her to hide from herself, forcing her to confront her feelings even when she didn’t want to, and though she personally found it more terrifying than having to face even the scariest of demons, the exhilaration that followed afterward was more than worth it. For the first time in forever, she had woken with a sense of wholeness, a sense she knew she could only attribute to him. There was no way she was ready to lose that just yet.
As she pushed open the doors of the station, Buffy was greeted with a blast of humid air and grimaced, feeling her tank top cling stickily to her back, a fine film of sweat beading on her upper lip. Air conditioning must be out, she thought, blowing up at her forehead to loosen her hair, aiming herself toward the arrival screens. It’s gotta suck to be working here today.
It took standing before the monitors for almost five minutes, scanning over the green type, before the edge of her mood began lessening, her face settling into a frown as her gaze lowered. Two steps took her to an empty customer service window, and she tapped on the glass to get the clerk’s attention.
“Can I help you?” the clerk asked, setting aside the Glamour magazine she’d been reading.
“Can you tell me what time the bus from Sunnydale gets in?” she queried. “I thought it was scheduled for some time around eleven.” She waited, glancing around the nearly empty waiting room, as the attendant tapped a few keys on the computer. There must be some master blueprint they make bus stations from, Buffy thought distractedly. They all look the same, no matter what part of the country you’re in.
“Sunnydale, you said?”
“That got in early.”
Buffy felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. “How early?”
“Four-fifteen this morning.”
The time hit the Slayer like a sledge, and she thanked the clerk distractedly as she stepped away from the counter. Four-fifteen. Seven hours ago. That would be right about the time she and Spike had been…
Her mouth went dry. While she’d been busy playing sex games with Spike, Stella had been arriving in New Orleans early, getting away from them yet again, sneaking off to do whatever vodou mysticism she had planned for Willow. And Buffy hadn’t caught her in time.
Though reason told her she had no way of knowing it would happen, the Slayer couldn’t help the chagrin that rose in her throat, burning away its lining as her good mood vanished, to be replaced by anger, directed both at herself and at the singer. What the hell was I thinking? she admonished herself. Willow’s more important than a fling with a vampire. I should’ve known better. I should’ve been here. I should’ve---.
She was back at the window in a flash. “Excuse me,” she said, getting the attendant’s attention again. “Is the driver of the Sunnydale bus still around? Or anyone who might’ve seen the passengers get off?”
“No, Ralph’s already left for the day.” At Buffy’s crestfallen face, the clerk added, “But I think Clyde’s still around. He was the janitor on duty last night. I think he’s still talking to the police about that woman who got attacked.”
She had already half-turned away when the attendant mentioned the attack, and froze, sliding her gaze back. “Attack? There was an attack here this morning?”
“Yeah. It made a real mess out by the bathrooms. There was blood everywhere. Clyde’s been complaining all morning because nobody will let him clean it up.” The clerk gestured toward the double doors that led to the bus bays. “They’re all out there.”
Buffy thanked him and practically ran through the doors, pulling the sketch of Stella from her purse as she did so. Anything associated with blood was never good in her experience; she only hoped that the singer wasn’t the casualty. Or if she was, that she was at least still alive so that Buffy could get some answers from her.
The police were just walking away, leaving behind a portly man dressed uncomfortably in a pair of gray coveralls. Sweat was dripping down his nearly bald head, and he was mopping at it with a stained handkerchief when the Slayer approached him.
“Hi,” she said with her brightest, you-can-trust-me smile. “You must be Clyde.”
“I must be,” he replied, “unless you’re another cop, in which case I’m not.” Holding out the hanky to his side, he balled it into a meaty fist and squeezed, wringing the fluid from it so that it dripped onto the cement, then used it again blow his nose.
Buffy’s grin faded slightly, and she lowered her eyes to draw attention to the drawing in her hand. “No, not a cop. I was hoping you could tell me if you saw this person this morning. She came in on the Sunnydale bus.”
He barely gave the picture a glance before shaking his head. “Nah, don’t know her. Didn’t see any of the passengers, actually. I was out back emptying the trash when the bus got in. Well, except for the woman who got attacked. Her, I saw.” He stuffed his handkerchief into his pocket. “Just wish they’d let me clean the mess up. Nothing I hate more than things being unsanitary.”
Thinking of the scrap of cloth he’d just used for his various bodily fluids, Buffy couldn’t help the fleeing somehow I doubt that from skittering across her brain. Out loud, she said, “So lots of blood, huh?”
Clyde nodded. “I don’t know what they thought they were doing. They wanted to slit her throat, they should’ve just done it. The lady’s going to have a nasty scar on her neck now, I’ll bet you. Real shame, too, on account I don’t think they’ll ever catch the guy who did it.”
If she’d had any doubt that it was a vamp attack, it was now dispelled with his mention of the woman’s injury. “Why’s that?” she asked, folding her picture back up to tuck back into her purse.
“Because he was as normal looking as they come. Average height, average weight, average everything. Now, if they do the smart thing and look for the woman who was with him, then, maybe, they might stand a chance. She stands out in a crowd.”
“Well, by being about seven feet tall, for one thing. She’s probably a model or something, but what a looker like that is doing hanging around behind bus stations in the middle of the night is beyond me.”
She was tempted to ask if the woman was blonde, but somehow, Buffy already suspected what his answer was going to be. Vampire attack. Tall, gorgeous woman loitering around at the same time Stella’s bus arrived. She had no doubt who it was, or what she was doing at the station at four in the morning.
“Thanks anyway,” she said distractedly, not even aware of being left alone when Clyde walked away. Something was going on between Iris and Stella; all her lies and smokescreens the previous night had been completely for her and Spike’s benefit. She must’ve been keeping track of the schedules or had a contact here at the station to know that the singer was arriving early; it had to be the only reason she would show up.
Something was going on tonight. Something that the female vampire was very interested in. Something involving a girl from California. The reference to a girl meant it had to be Willow, but if Iris and Stella were in it together, why didn’t the vamp know that she was traveling alone? Unless she was just a ride, there to guarantee Stella’s safety by picking her up in person.
She needed answers. Iris had them.
Time to go see Iris.
Determinedly, Buffy strode over to the pay phone against the wall, digging around in her pockets for the scrap of paper she’d scribbled the number of the cottage on. She was going to need back-up on this, and if anyone knew Iris, it was Spike. Time to cut short his little beauty sleep and drag him over to the club. Not like he’s actually going to argue about getting in a good fight before lunchtime.
She frowned when the busy signal came over the phone line, hurriedly disconnecting before looking back down at the paper. Maybe I dialed it wrong, she thought, and punched in the number again. Still busy.
What’s Spike doing on the phone? she wondered. Maybe it’s Giles. A glance at her watch reminded her how early it still was in California, but past experience told her that the time of day didn’t seem to make a difference to the Watcher when it came to research. It could be he’s come up with something that could help them find Willow.
Except she had their best lead right at her fingertips now, and the more time she wasted, the longer Iris had to get Stella away, or hide what they were up to, or any number of other things that could screw this up for Buffy. Better to do it now. Without Spike unfortunately. Not with the cottage in the opposite direction of the club. She’d just have to promise him first swing in the next fight they got into.
They stood outside the closed door, golden eyes flashing in the dim light, fangs bared as they squared off with each other.
“I’m not waking her up! You do it!”
“I’m not doing it! You do it!”
“She likes you more than she likes me. You do it.”
“Are you kidding? She’s still pissed that I broke that black chick’s rib. You do it.”
“No way. That Spike stomped a mudhole in my ass last night. I’m not about to let Iris finish the job, just because I disturbed her beauty sleep.”
“Maybe we should go get that black chick to wake her up. She won’t kill her. She needs her for---.”
“And maybe…,” Iris growled, whipping the door open to stare at the two minions in undisguised fury, her black negligee swirling around her long legs. “…I’ll just kill all of you and start myself a new group of minions. Ones that know better than to wake me up in the middle of the morning.”
The two male vampires shrunk back at her verbal onslaught, pressing themselves into the wall opposite her bedroom door. This was exactly why they hadn’t wanted to do this in the first place. Iris may have been scary when she was wide awake, but roused from her daily rest, she turned into the she-bitch from hell. It didn’t matter how good the reason.
A long moment passed, and Iris let her gameface slide away, folding her arms across her chest as she glared at the two demons. “I’m up now,” she said coldly. “What’s so damn important that you risked life and limb to do it?”
After a quick glance between them, the vamp who’d held Stella still at the station spoke up. “It’s Spike’s girlfriend,” he said.
Mention of Buffy immediately stilled Iris’ tapping foot, and her eyes narrowed. “What about her?”
“She showed up at the station like you said she might. Jimmy called in from there to say she just left. It looked like she was heading over to the club.”
“She’s on her way to Midnight?”
“That’s what Jimmy said. He’s been tailing her since she and Spike left last night, just like you asked.”
“And she’s alone?”
“Yeah. Spike’s still at the house Pablo set them up in.”
She was quiet for what seemed an eternity, eyes contemplative as they focused on the empty space between her and the two vamps. This was exactly why she didn’t reside full-time at the club; it was much safer to have a separate place where she could disappear to when the need arose. At the moment, the singer was sleeping away in one of the spare rooms of the sprawling mansion Iris called home, having already been tended to by the doctor, so Iris had no fear of her being caught. Her true fear rested in the procedures that evening getting interrupted, and this Slayer was looking just a little too resourceful for her own good.
“I want Pablo here in ten minutes,” she said firmly. Her lips spread in a cruel smile. “And in the meantime, get me Chief Thibaut on the phone. I think I need to report a crime.”
If asked, Spike would’ve had to claim to being quite chuffed with himself at the moment, replacing the phone back on its cradle and stretching himself out on the bed. After an hour of talking with half a dozen old cronies, he had all his chips lined up in getting the information they needed about Iris’ little shindig that night. Now, he just had to sit back and wait for them to come rolling in.
His anger toward Buffy had dissipated in light of his surprising glee at being able to one-up her on information gathering. Show her, he thought, satisfied. Thinks she’s such a bigshot. This’ll prove to her once and for all I can be just as big and just as much of a shot. She’ll have to appreciate me for real reasons after this. All of me.
The faint sound of pounding at the front door brought him to his feet, and Spike frowned as he went to answer it. Probably forgot her keys, he thought, and then grinned at the sudden image of Buffy standing on its other side, small fist working away at the wood, face screwed up in annoyance because she was locked out. See? She does need me to do her thinking. Can’t even remember her soddin’ keys.
The door had only opened a crack, with his body safely behind it to avoid the streaming sunlight, when a force from outside propelled it forward, shoving the heavy wood into Spike’s gut and thrusting him against the wall with a muffled grunt.
“Spike!” Pablo called out as he rushed past him.
“Right here, mate,” the vampire growled, kicking the door closed. He glared at his guest. “I know this is your place and all, but this storming in thing’s got to stop while we’re staying here. It’s gettin’ dangerous.”
The scaled demon ignored the admonition and whirled on his heel to look at the partially clothes vamp. “Get dressed,” he ordered. “We need to get going.”
“Oh?” Spike cocked his scarred eyebrow. “If it’s a fire you’re rushing me off to, hate to tell you, but I gave those up in favor of a longer life. Survival instincts, you know.”
“Well, that longer life is going to be all on your lonesome if you don’t come with me right now,” Pablo said. He held his hands up in surrender. “But, hey, she’s your girlfriend. Maybe she won’t be too pissed you let her rot in jail. Because women are just so understanding about that sort of thing.”
The amusement vanished from Spike’s face as he launched himself at the other demon, strong hand wrapping around his skinny neck to thrust Pablo against the wall. “What’s this about Buffy and jail?” he said, flashes of gold buried in the blue of his eyes.
Pablo scrabbled at the vise now blocking off his breathing, fingers clawing ineffectively at Spike’s hand. “She broke into Iris’ club just a few minutes ago and set off the alarms,” he whined through his gasps for air. “Except she doesn’t know it. And at this exact moment, there’s a whole bevy of cops on their way over to arrest her for breaking and entering. We go now, you can get her out of there before they show up.” When the sudden release from Spike’s hold dropped him sliding down the wall, he choked, pink eyes flickering over the vamp’s bare torso. “You might want to cover up before we go though. I don’t think you’d last long enough like that to risk a sunburn dressed like that.”
He was halfway to the bedroom before the question popped into his head. “How exactly do you know all this?” Spike asked suspiciously, stopping in the middle of the living room to look back at Pablo through narrowed eyes.
“I thought it might be a good idea to keep a lookout for you guys after what happened last night,” the demon confessed. If he could’ve blushed, he would’ve. As it was, his gaze ducked, avoiding looking at his friend directly “I had someone ready to follow you around in case you left. I still have to live in this town after you leave, you know.” He frowned. “Why would your girlfriend go to the bus station? You don’t think she’s planning on leaving you, do you?”
The explanation satisfied him, and he continued his march to the bedroom. “No,” he replied firmly. “I’m not letting her go anywhere.”
With a heavy sigh, Giles replaced the phone back on its cradle, eyes dark behind his spectacles.
“Still busy?” Xander asked from the couch.
“No,” the Watcher replied. “Now there’s not an answer at all.”
“Maybe they stepped out or something,” the younger man offered. “Don’t worry. Buff will be back. Could be she’s already found Willow.”
“Yes,” Giles murmured, though he sincerely doubted the veracity of Xander’s claim. A knock at the front door jerked him from his reverie and he strode the few feet to answer it.
On the other side, Anya affected a bright smile as soon as she was revealed, holding up the brightly colored box in her right hand. “I come bearing donuts,” she announced, but when she saw Xander rise to his feet in the depths of the room, shoving his hands deep inside his pants pockets instead of coming up to greet her, her grin faded.
“And information,” she added, not so helpfully, eyes darting between the disapproving faces of the two men. “I can’t tell you why Willow’s gone, or what a half-baked witch with a lion’s share of insecurity issues has got to do with any of this mess, but I can at least fill you in on some of the details you’re missing.”
“And you couldn’t have done this yesterday?” Xander asked, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice.
“I wasn’t sure yesterday,” she complained. “I had my suspicions, but…Look. I’m here now. Shouldn’t that count for something? I should get credit for that at least.”
“We’ll see.” Giles stepped away from the door, holding it open to allow her entrance. His mouth was grim as she swept past. “We’ll see.”
It almost seemed too easy. The club was deserted---well, it was deserted now that she’d staked the lone vampire who seemed to be guarding the place---and Buffy had broken the knob on the back door in order to let herself inside. Though her Slayer senses told her right away that Iris wasn’t around, a situation she suspected meant that Stella wasn’t around either, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to see what she might be able to dig up on the vampire. Maybe she had something in the bordello of doom that might tell Buffy what exactly was going on.
The scent of Iris’ perfume hung heavy in the air as Buffy slipped inside, leaving the door slightly ajar so that she could make a quick exit should the need arise. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. Eau de Slut, she thought petulantly. Must’ve had a killer sale at Tramps ‘R Us.
She knew she was being petty, but at the moment, the young blonde just didn’t care. It wasn’t like Spike was there to scold her or anything.
She started with the liquor cabinet, quickly going through its contents before moving on to the rolltop desk. Everything was neatly arranged, and while she found plenty of stuff regarding the running of Midnight, nothing seemed to hint at vodou, or Stella, or even Willow. Just ledgers with long columns of numbers that looking at gave her a headache, and various notes directed toward the staff about policies and procedures.
“Now if I were an evil plot, where would I be hiding?” Buffy mused as she stood in the middle of the room and looked around.
“Not in the bloody living room, I can tell you that,” sniped Spike from the doorway.
Her hair flew around her in a cloud as she whirled to see him leaning against the doorjamb, his thumbs hooked through his beltloops. “What’re you doing here?” she hissed, as if she feared someone could hear her.
“Saving your ass,” he replied, and straightened, taking a step toward her. “Let’s get out of here.”
“I haven’t finished looking around yet,” she said with a frown. “And what makes you think my ass needs saving?”
“Because you tripped about a dozen alarms breaking into this place. As we stand here wastin’ time talking about it, New Orleans’ not-so-finest are about to descend on you for your little b-and-e here. Now, let’s move it. Pablo’s got the motor running.”
His hand curled around her elbow to guide her out of the room, but Buffy yanked herself away, staring at him questioningly. “Pablo? How did he know where I was?”
Spike rolled his eyes. “Can we have this discussion after we’re free and clear? Time and essence and all that rot, you know.”
“But she’s got Stella. She picked her up at the bus station.”
“And neither of ‘em are here, so let’s move it!” His voice was rising in anger, his hand curling into a frustrated fist at his side. If it wasn’t for the chip, he would’ve just clocked her one and carried her out, then worried about the consequences after. Of course, if he didn’t have the soddin’ chip, he wouldn’t have come to New Orleans in the first place, so the entire issue was moot anyway.
He was surprised to hear her agree. “Fine,” Buffy said, brushing past him. Blue eyes watched her back in curiosity, widening further when she paused in the doorway and glanced back. “And thanks,” she added softly.
His ire immediately faded. Damn. Was there ever going to be a day when he didn’t turn into a poofter when she looked at him like that?
When she stepped into the sunshine, Buffy stopped, brow furrowed as she scanned the empty alley. “I thought you said Pablo was waiting,” she said.
From his vantage point on the shadowed side of the door, Spike did his best to search the space where he’d been dropped off, his blanket dangling from his hand. “He was s’posed to wait,” he said. “Maybe he had to drive around the block or something. Give him a second.”
The screeching of tires predicated four police cars pouring into the end of the alley, effectively blocking it off as a means of exit. Buffy’s lips tightened. “We don’t have a second,” she said as she turned and grabbed his arm, ready to lead him back down the hall from which they’d come. “Come on.”
They didn’t make it five feet. From around a corner in the interior corridor, a trio of beefy cops appeared, all of them bearing weapons, one of which was a very deadly looking crossbow.
The two blonds skidded to a halt, heads swiveling to see a group of similarly armed men materialize in the alley exit. “Something tells me we’ve been set up,” Buffy murmured, body tensing as it prepared to fight.
“Remind me to kill Pablo when we get out of here,” Spike said as he dropped his blanket.
“Freeze!” barked the nearest of the officers. “Hands in the air!”
“Do cops really say that?” the Slayer asked the vamp at her side. “I thought that only happened on TV.”
He shrugged. “Looks like these do.”
“I said, hands in the air!” The order’s repetition was accompanied by an audible click as someone in the doorway released the safety on his gun…
To be continued in Chapter 15: Recollections…