The Cruelest Month
RATING: R for violence and language
SPOILERS: Through Epiphany (US S2).
FEEDBACK: Makes me bloom like a spring flower.
ARCHIVE: Please ask.
CATEGORY: Post-ep for Epiphany. Action. Drama.
SUMMARY: The story of four detectives, two snitches, one candy dispenser, and an April Fool's day that Cordelia would rather forget.
A/N: A Stranger Things Foolish Fic Challenge for clln, who requested a story set any time in S2 with the immortal line: "I'm sorry, but I can't resist. I'm gonna have to eat those PEZ."
This story is set in "real time," and falls on March 31/April 2, 2001. If I've done my job right, it'll fit neatly between Epiphany and Disharmony.
Also, for the science geeks in the audience, just pretend I know what I'm talking about with this whole biotech thing. [g]
Thanks for the beta go to my favorite April Fools, Julie Fortune and littleheaven. And to Queen Mab who keeps the madness alive.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922
Merl leaned against the wall outside Caritas with his hands in the pockets of his Sansabelts, waiting while his friend Andy finished his cigarette. Some techno crap pulsed through the open door and the sound combined with the tangerine-colored light from the street lamps to give the night a weird, Farscape feel. He glanced over at Andy who was puffing his cigarette contentedly.
"I hate that music," Merl said.
Andy snorted and sent smoke rolling out the small blowhole on top of his head. "The Host's in a phase. Digging the manufactured vibe, you know?" He gestured toward the record store across the street. "Vinyl," he said. "They killed music when they left vinyl behind."
Caritas fronted on North Broadway, on the sloppy edge of Koreatown. At eleven o'clock on a Monday night, North Broadway was hardly crawling with traffic. If you weren't already at the bar of your choice, you were home getting ready for bed.
"Thought the rest of the crowd woulda followed us up here once he started playing that crap," Merl groused. Since Merl was an informant, his work came to him through his patronage of similar establishments in the Los Angeles area. He also did some work in Akron when he went home to visit his mom, but it was never enough to keep him solvent.
He jingled the change in his pocket. Not that you could call four dollars and thirty-two cents solvent. He really needed another job. Soon.
"Probably too old to climb the stairs more than once a night," Andy said. He reached up and scratched under his arm. "New deodorant’s giving me a rash. Hey, did you see that old geezer in the table next to the stage? A hundred and fifty if he was a day."
"The Mel Torme review always packs 'em in." Merl ran a hand over the bumps on his head and glanced out at the sluggish traffic.
"Yeah. Hey, can you believe they make us stand 10-feet away from the door?" Andy bitched, and took another drag. "It's not like any of 'em are gonna die from cigarette smoke."
It was an old argument, one Merl listened to every time he and Andy came outside. Since Andy recently stepped up to a 4-pack-a-day habit that meant Merl heard it a lot. But it was better than getting his eardrums punched out by synthesizers on acid. "The humans might," Merl said by rote.
"Humans. Pah. Who needs--"
Merl turned his head toward the sound. "Did you hear that?"
"Help me!" A young man ran--or rather, limped--around the corner of the building, one leg dragging behind him at an awkward angle, one hand pressed against his belly. His fingers were stained dark and his striped shirt was spattered with black-looking splotches.
As he came nearer, Merl realized it was blood. He took a step forward. "Hey, buddy--"
"Help me," the guy said, stretching out his free hand.
Merl took another step toward him, but Andy held him back. "Human," he whispered. "I can smell it."
"So what," Merl said. "We gotta help him."
"Looks like a mob hit," Andy said. Out of the corner of his eye, Merl saw him point with his cigarette. "Benny--you know, Koreatown Benny? The Fyarl demon?"
"Yeah?" Merl asked.
"That's his trademark. Take out the left knee, then finish 'em off with a gut wound."
"I knew that," Merl said, trying to sound nonchalant.
The guy groaned and collapsed to the sidewalk. Andy shook his slimy, yellow head. "Ow. That's gotta hurt."
Merl watched, torn. He did want to help him--but he wasn't stupid. Now that Andy mentioned it, it did look like Benny's work. But, hell, they couldn't just let the guy bleed to death ten feet in front of them, even if he was human.
So Merl did what he did best. He abdicated responsibility. "Do something, man!" he yelled at Andy.
Andy took another drag and blinked his piss-green eyes at the guy, who was now nearly at their feet. "Like what?" he asked, smoke trailing out the hole on top of his head like a silver line of fog.
The guy on the ground coughed, spattering blood on the concrete in front of him. "Caritas," he said with a moan. "Sanctuary." He laid his cheek on the concrete and Merl got a good look at him.
"Crap," he said. That was the kid who'd done a half-decent job on "I Will Survive" at disco night two weeks ago. "I--" Merl's voice cracked. He tried again. "I'm going for help." He fled into the upper lobby of the bar, and banged down the stairs.
“Hey, don’t leave me out here alone with this guy! Ugh!” Andy said, and followed him down into the bar.
The bar was dimly lit and Lorne tended bar alone. Mondays were usually slow. "Lorne!" Merl yelled, stuttering to a halt by the glossy black bar. "Lorne!" He shoved in between a Locos demon and an aging hippie. Andy crowded in behind him.
Lorne looked up from whatever he was mixing. "I heard ya the first time, Merl. What's the nine-one-one?"
Merl pointed toward the stairs. "There's--there's a guy up there! Needs your help!"
Lorne pursed his green lips. "Not Jimmy-the-Nut again, is it? I told him last week to find a shelter--"
"LORNE!" Merl hopped up and down on his cross-trainers.
The Locos demon growled. "Dude," he said through a bad under bite, "*You're* gonna be bleedin' in a minute, you don't stop with the hysterics." He shoved Andy back a few steps. “Hey, smoke-breath. Back off.”
"Sorry, sorry." Merl's voice cracked. Andy took a step toward the Locos and Merl shot him a warning glance. Then he patted the Locos on the shoulder and turned back to Lorne. "Mob hit," he said. "Human. Came around the corner and crawled to the front door. Think he needs help."
Lorne's mouth fell open. Then he dropped his bottles and picked up the phone. "Why didn't you say something? Jeez!"
The boy's face disappeared behind the zipper of the black body bag. The coroner's assistant looked up. "That about does it," he said. He motioned to the EMTs. The one leaning against the side of the ambulance uncrossed his arms and grabbed the stretcher.
Lorne nodded his head. "Thanks." It was a damn shame about the boy. Kevin Wating had been one of his semi-regulars, a nice young man with a good job who enjoyed an occasional evening in a roomful of demons.
"You knew the deceased?"
Lorne turned and found himself staring at the detective, a man of indeterminate age, gone to paunch. He held a small notepad and pen in his hands and worried a frayed toothpick with his teeth. Lorne didn't have to read his aura to see he would kill for a cigarette.
"Yeah, he used to come in and sing from time-to-time." Lorne shrugged. "I'd give him a reading; you know, the usual. Nice kid, but he was just that. Usual."
The EMTs loaded the body onto the stretcher and wheeled it toward the ambulance's open doors.
"That's some pretty fancy make-up you're wearin'," the detective noted.
Lorne glanced at the guy's badge, which was prominently displayed on the pocket of his lightweight gray, seen-better-days blazer. "Brings in the crowd, Detective Holmes." He paused for a minute. "Great name for a detective."
The detective tongued his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. "Geez, I never heard that before." He motioned toward the doorsill. "Any idea what that means?"
Lorne glanced down past his red, suede Stacy Adams. There, on the concrete floor just inside his doorway, Kevin had scrawled the letters "p," "e," "z" in his own blood. "Pez? Could be he had a thing for candy."
The detective grunted. "What about family, friends, job? He ever come in here with anyone else?"
Lorne shoved his hands in the pockets of his lemon-yellow suit. "Sometimes he came in with a friend." He rocked back and forth on his heels. "Uh, Don? Dan?" He squinted at the streetlight and let his mind take him back to the last time the guys had been in. Kevin was a beer man, but his friend preferred Scotch. "Dan! That was it. Dan Sparks. I think they worked together."
Holmes scribbled in his notebook and belched. "Sorry," he said, tapping his chest with the side of his fist. "Shouldn't have had that second piece of pie."
Lorne let the usual cliches about cops and dessert roam through his head. "Right. Hey, you guys gonna need to keep this crime scene tape up all night? Not to make light of what happened here, but tomorrow's kind of a big night for me. April Fool's, and all."
He gestured toward the tape roping off the entrance to the club. Beyond it, the press of onlookers was dissipating. The body was gone; nothing left to see but old, fat guys in badly-tailored jackets talking to green lounge singers.
Your usual Monday night in the city.
Holmes glanced toward the flashing blue lights. "Ramirez!" he yelled.
A dark-haired woman in a blue LA's finest uniform poked her head out of a parked cruiser. "Yo," she called back.
Holmes gave her a "come here" gesture. She tossed a clipboard and a stack of papers on the seat and joined them at the entrance to the club. "Yeah?"
"You about done filing the papers here?"
She nodded. "Yeah, we've about got it cleaned up. Rest of the stuff I gotta go to the station for." She glanced at Lorne. "You want us to send in a clean-up crew, or you wanna do it yourself?"
Lorne glanced down at the blood on his step. Kevin wasn't the type to mix it up with a bad crowd. From what Merl told him, he was pretty sure this had been a demon hit. The cops would do their best, but they'd never catch the right angle. Only one guy in the city could do that.
"I'll clean it up," he said. After Angel got a good, strong whiff.
Ramirez nodded. "How much more time you need?" she asked Holmes.
He chewed his toothpick thoughtfully. "'M done." He glanced at Lorne. "You'll need to stay available, though."
A card appeared in Holmes' fingertips and Lorne took it. "Guess I'll cancel that surfin' safari I had on my calendar for this week."
Holmes grunted then stuck his notepad in his jacket pocket. Ramirez gave them a wave, climbed in her car and radioed in to dispatch. The ambulance was already gone, the crime scene guys and their cameras and notebooks had disappeared, and now Ramirez and her partner nosed out onto North Broadway. Everything was back to normal except for the yellow tape and the drying blood on Lorne's doorstep.
And the memory of Kevin's face disappearing behind black plastic.
"I'll call you if I have any more questions," Holmes said. Then he turned and walked to his dusty, undercover wreck.
Lorne watched him go then reached into his pocket for his cell phone.
"Angelcakes," he said. "Call in the troops. I need your help."
Cordy woke, heart pounding in her throat, listening intently. Then she realized the phone was ringing. She groaned, reached for the receiver on her bedside table and knocked her glass of water to the floor. It hit the wood and shattered.
"Crap," she said. "Dennis! Phone?"
It floated in from the hall and she plucked it from the air and thumbed it on. "Who died?" she said, pushing her hair out of her eyes.
"One of the Host's clients," Wes replied.
She groaned. "Geez. I was just kidding." She took a long, tired breath. "We meeting at Caritas?"
"In twenty, if you can."
"Give me thirty." She clicked the phone off and laid it on the bedside table, then dropped her feet to the floor.
"Ow! Dammit!" she said, jerking her foot back and flipping on the lamp. "Way to go, genius." She lifted her heel and plucked out a piece of glass. A bright, red bead of blood welled up.
She thought about the vial of warm, viscous blood the nurse drew at the hospital today. How she still had the needle mark on the inside of her elbow. "Great," she muttered. "Now I have a matching set of holes." She looked up at the ceiling. "I hear some people collect salt and pepper shakers," she said to Dennis. "Of course, some people have the taste of a randy she-goat, but who am I to judge?"
She glanced down at the floor, assessing the damage made by the falling glass. Water dripped down the side of the bedside table and wall. Silver glass shards glittered in a shooting arc across the polished oak planks. She dropped her shard back to the floor with its friends, and exited the bed from the other side. "Should have asked him to give me forty-five so I could clean up this mess."
Her little clean-up broom and dustpan floated into the room. She reached for it, but Dennis pulled it away and made sweeping motions in mid-air.
"Oh, Dennis, would you?" The broom-and-pan nodded. "Thank you, sweetie. What would I do without you?"
Her foot throbbed as she hobbled to the bathroom. She slapped on a Band-Aid, rinsed her face, and brushed her hair. Then she pulled a pair of dirty jeans from the hamper and slid them on. Ordinarily she wouldn't wear dirty jeans if you gave her six brand-new Gucci bags and took her to lunch at Spago. But it was late. She was tired. Dead guys bled. You do the math, she thought, as she padded back to the bedroom for a shirt.
One stop for coffee later, she pulled up in front of Caritas and parked--something that never would have happened when the sun was shining. But it was late--or early, depending on your persuasion--and the only folks out were the street sweepers, the cops, and the third-shift workers.
Angel stuck his head out the bar's door. And vampires, she thought, as she locked the car. "Angel," she said, nodding at him.
He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Hey," he said, giving her a quick, almost unobtrusive once-over. His eyes lingered on her foot for just a second too long.
Creepy dead-guy Spidey sense, she thought, as she crossed the sidewalk. "I cut it on a piece of glass." She brushed past him and started down the stairs. "Oh, wait," she said. "What was I thinking? It's not like you care."
He hurried down behind her. "What does that mean?"
She didn't bother to glance over her shoulder. "You know what it means, Mister I-ditch-my-friends." She stepped into the large, open room that housed the main portion of the lounge.
"Well, lookee here. It's everyone's favorite little Seer," the Host said from behind the bar. His lemon yellow jacket hung over the back of a chair next to the door. He'd rolled up his shirtsleeves on his silk, red-and-yellow, leopard-print shirt. In one hand, he held his trademark Seabreeze; at his elbow the coffee maker peed a brown stream into the carafe.
Cordy took a deep breath and under the smell of freshly-perking coffee was the usual mix of alcohol, the bleach used to sanitize the glasses, and muted flop sweat.
Karaoke wasn't the most calming of experiences; most people who walked on that stage dripped like Woody Harrelson at a meat packing plant. She just hoped this little outing didn't mean any of them would have to take their turn in the spotlight.
Cordy slid onto the barstool next to Wes and set her paper cup of coffee in front of her. "If you don't mind me saying,” she said to the Host, “you don't look so good."
He pursed his lips. "You try getting a dead guy's blood off your doorstep, sweetie. You'd be a little pink, too."
Wes nudged her with his elbow. "Thanks for coming," he said. "I know it was your day off."
"Next time remind me to find a boss who understands the concept of personal leave," she said.
Angel leaned against the end of the bar, obviously keeping his distance. "You do anything fun today?"
She thought about the endless round of CAT scans, the needles in her arm, the antiseptic smell of the hospital waiting room. "Went to Malibu. Got some sun." She reached up and hooked her finger in the collar of her shirt. "Wanna see my tan lines?"
Angel's mouth pulled into a near-smile. "A day in the sun," he said quietly. "That's-- Good. Good for you."
Cordy felt a pang of guilt. Then remembered what it was like to have a heart-stopping, head-splitting vision with no warrior to service it, and most of the guilt washed right on out.
"Cordelia," the Host said. "You want a hit of anything in that coffee?" He pulled a bottle of Bailey's from under the bar and waggled it at her.
She wasn't supposed to drink. It affected her medication. From the looks of her latest scan, though, affecting her medication was the least of her worries. "Sounds like a plan," she said, popping the plastic lid on her cup.
He dumped a glug in and stirred it with a swizzle stick. "Where's your other friend? Gunn?"
"Yo, dawgs," Gunn said from the doorway. He shifted his crossbow so it hung over his shoulder and scooted onto the stool next to Cordy. "Sorry I'm late. The crew found a nest down on Seventh."
She reached over and patted his hand. "Dust any vamps?"
Gunn glanced at Angel, who still lurked at the end of the bar. "About one too few."
Cordy snorted into her coffee. The fumes from the Bailey's made her nose burn, so she took a sip and let them burn her throat, instead.
She caught the Host shooting Angel a sympathetic look and her guilt-o-meter went off again. Darn it, he went postal on *them*, not the other way around. But nursing a healthy dose of anger was hard to do when he put on those puppy-dog eyes. So she closed her own eyes and concentrated on the warmth and strength of the men on either side of her. They were her real friends, the ones that didn't abandon her for four-hundred-year-old whores.
The ones who remembered the mission.
"So," Angel said. "Wanna tell us what happened?"
Cordy's eyes popped open at the sound of his voice. She heard Wes clear his throat.
Angel faded back into the shadows. "Sorry. Wes, why don't you, um, take the lead here?"
Cordy took in Angel's hunched shoulders and the hands-in-pockets slump. He didn't look like a predator or a betrayer. But he looked a whole lot like a sad, lonely guy. She glanced back down at her coffee.
It's not fair, she thought. He gets to take three months off to hunt skank, sticking her with *his* visions. Not only that, but now she got to feel his leftover pain. If she could just get her hands on those Powers for five minutes--
The Host interrupted her thoughts. "A kid named Kevin Wating used to come in and sing from time-to-time."
Cordy looked up at him, took a deep breath, and pulled in her focus. Next to her, Gunn leaned his elbows on the bar and sipped the beer the Host had put in front of him.
"Liked disco nights," the Host said. He took a sip of his Seabreeze.
Gunn grunted. "Probably what killed him. Too much Bee-Gees'll do that to a man."
The Host's eyebrows drew together. "Hey, don't diss disco." He gestured with his glass. "Besides, I hear the Bee-Gees are perfectly nice people. Not the type to blow out your kneecap or leave you with a sucking gut wound."
Cordy's stomach rolled. "Sounds like Koreatown Benny's work." She pushed her cup away.
Angel stiffened. "How do you know about Benny?"
She shot him a look. "Hey, some of us didn't take the winter off to track down our skank-tastic exes."
"Kids," the Host said. He put a hand on Cordy's arm. "Put a lock on it. I've had about enough bloodshed for the night." He sounded like he was talking to both of them, but he looked right at Cordy when he said it.
"Fine," she said. "Keep going. My apologies." She waved her hand. "Won't happen again."
"Thank you," he said.
"Welcome," she said, bordering on sarcasm.
The Host's eyes narrowed, but his attention was diverted by Wes's near-empty coffee mug. "Want me to warm that up?"
"That'd be great." Wes pushed the mug across the bar.
The Host grabbed the carafe from the warmer. "Actually," he said, over the wet slap of coffee hitting china, "Merl and Adam said the same thing about it being a mob hit." He splashed some more Bailey's in on top of the coffee and stirred.
"If it's a mob hit," Gunn said, "wouldn't the cops be in on it?"
"Oh, honey, they are. I had the whole forensics crew out here for hours. It was like something straight out of CSI."
"Why not let them handle it, then?" Wes asked. He twisted his mug back and forth in one spot on the bar.
Cordy noticed he looked a little wilted around the edges. Not surprising, considering it was about three-thirty in the morning. "Because Benny's a Fyarl demon, remember?"
Wes glanced at her. Behind his glasses his eyes were sharp, despite the crumpled hair and wrinkled shirt. "Still, a mob hit's a mob hit. I'm sure the cops would be all over it."
"They'll do their best," the Host said. He nodded at Angel. "But I needed more. Someone who knows something about blood."
Cordy held her tongue out of respect for the Host but that didn't stop her from shooting Angel one of her nastier smirks. "Why blood? I mean, besides the obvious gut-shot-knee-cap thing."
"Because Kevin wrote something in his own blood on my doorstep," the Host said.
"Like that guy on the X-Files?" Gunn asked. He jiggled his beer bottle against the bar. "The one who died at Mulder's door? What was his name?"
"Ex," Cordy said. "He was Mulder's informant. Same guy that used to play on Twenty-One Jump Street."
"Uh, guys," Angel said, "as important as pop culture is--"
Gunn turned toward him. Cordy couldn't see his expression, but she was pretty sure it wasn't friendly.
"Y-you should t-totally keep talking about it," Angel stuttered. He made a go-ahead motion with his hand. "All night, you know, if you want. I mean, the guy's already dead, right?"
The Host cleared his throat. "Doesn't anyone care what he wrote?"
"I do," Wes said. He elbowed Cordy and sent her a "behave" glare. "What was it?"
"It was the letters P-E-Z," the Host said.
"Pez? This dude's dying word was Pez?" Gunn asked
"Well, we all know candy's evil, Gunn," Cordy said. "Goes straight to your hips."
Gunn waggled his eyebrows and leered at her. "Your hips look jus' fine to me, girl."
She grinned at him.
"Why Pez?" Wes said, starting to sound a little impatient.
Cordy took that as her cue to quit goofing off.
The Host shrugged. "Heck if I know. That's where you guys come in." He glanced at Angel. "You get anything off the blood?"
Angel shook his head. "Totally normal. No sign of drugs or alcohol. He was pretty scared, though." He shrugged. "Sorry I can't give you more to go on."
"Hey, it's more than the murder cop gave me."
"So what do you want us to do?" Wes asked. "I mean, why call us in at all, if it seems like a clear mob hit on a human?"
"Because the last words he spoke were 'Caritas' and 'Sanctuary'," the Host said. "I know Benny's a Fyarl demon, and maybe he was just trying to get away from him. But that boy came here hunting sanctuary, and one way or another, I want to see that he gets it."
Wes nodded. "Why don't we start with a routine search? We'll look into Kevin's life; see what it tells us about his death." He glanced down the bar, eyes skimming Cordy and Gunn and landing on Angel. "Let's hold off on pumping Benny for info. We've seen his work before. The less we involve him, the better."
Angel nodded. "What about Merl? Didn't you say earlier that Merl and Andy were here when it happened?"
The Host nodded. "Yeah, they saw most of it. You know Andy. He wouldn't spit on a human if he saw one on fire. But Merl knew Kevin, so he came down and got me. Told me what happened." He shuddered. "It wasn't pretty, I'll tell you that."
"Why don't I go after Merl, then?" said Angel.
The Host nodded. "Offer to pay him, will ya? He owes me for last night's beer."
"Don't I always pay Merl?" he asked, looking as innocent as a vamp in the shadows ever could.
The Host snorted.
"Any idea where he worked?" Cordy asked.
"Genesys. The genetic research company out in the San Gabriel Valley."
"Near City of Hope?" Cordy asked. "The hospital?" After the last couple of months she knew a lot more about LA's hospitals than she'd ever imagined she could.
"Uh huh," he replied.
"Why don't I check it out tomorrow, see what I can come up with?"
"Sounds good." He glanced at Gunn and Wes. "You guys wanna handle his house? I suspect it'll be kinda tough to break and enter with the cops all over it, but maybe it'll give us a clue."
"'kay," Gunn said. He looked around at the crew. "Sounds like we all got our assignments. I say we break for the night, catch some shuteye."
Cordy yawned. "Now that you mention it, I could use a few more hours of sleep."
"Let's rendezvous at the office tomorrow about one o'clock," Wes said. “That'll give us enough time to make a preliminary analysis. We can go from there." He tapped his coffee cup. "Thanks for the fortifier," he said.
The Host nodded. "Least I could do after dragging you guys out of bed in the middle of the night."
Cordy pushed the barstool back and hopped off. "See you later, then."
"Cordelia, hold up a minute, will ya?" the Host asked. He waved goodnight and they watched as the guys shuffled toward the stairs.
Angel glanced over his shoulder. "You okay to drive home?"
He stuck his hands in his pockets and stood watching her for a few seconds. Then he turned and disappeared into the red glare made by the emergency exit sign over the door.
She leaned her elbows on the bar. "What's up?"
He rinsed Wes's mug in the sink. The sound of water on stainless steel soothed Cordy's frayed edges. She thought she could probably put her head down on the bar and conk out right there.
"You sure you're okay, sweetie?"
"Besides being tired enough to sleep for a week? I'm fine, thanks."
He nodded toward the door. "Kinda hard on Angelcakes, tonight."
Guilt's fist clenched. "Yeah, well, he deserved it."
The Host pulled a towel out from under the counter and started drying. "Far as I can tell, he's working really hard to make up for what he did." He arched an eyebrow at her. "Which was to make a bad decision. Nothing the rest of us haven't done."
She was too tired to keep up the walls. "I know." She slid onto the closest barstool. "It's just--" She waved her hand, searching for words. "I trusted him."
He put the mug on top of the tidy stack on the shelf behind the bar. It landed with a clink. "What he did was harsh, I won't deny it." He draped the towel over the faucet then folded his arms and leaned on the edge of the counter.
She snorted. "Harsh, my butt. What he did was cruel, irresponsible and selfish. And, damn it, he gave away my clothes!"
He glanced down at his leopard-print shirt. "If my best friend emptied my closet, I gotta say, forgiveness would be awfully tough." He tapped his temple with his finger. "But you guys are linked, you know?"
Cordy sighed. "That's part of what's pissing me off. I mean, I'm stuck with the killer visions, while Angel skates off to take a vengeance vacation? Where's the justice in that?"
He shook his head. "I don't think this about justice, Cordelia. I think it's about forgiveness. Life's a form of currency. You don't want to invest it all in one stock." He patted her hand. "All I'm saying is that bitterness is never a good deal, even if it's a buyer's market."
"I know you're right," she said. "I've been feeling guilty for giving him such a hard time. And believe me, that's hard to admit."
"That's a good first step, though," the Host said. He walked out from behind the bar. "Speaking of, let's get you stepping out of here, huh? You really do look tired." He waited while she slid off the stool then walked her upstairs.
They walked out the open door and onto the sidewalk. Crime scene tape fluttered in the light breeze and Cordy ducked under and made her way across the sidewalk.
"You really okay to drive?"
She rounded the car and shot him a glance. "Yeah. That wasn't just for Angel's benefit."
He nodded. "Good girl. See you tomorrow?"
She unlocked the car. "You bet."
He gave her a jaunty wave. "Drive careful, now." He closed the big, metal door and Cordy heard him throw the bolt.
She slid behind the wheel and listened to the silence. The Host was right. Life was short—and as bad as the visions had gotten lately, it could be very short in her case.
She started the car, put it in gear and pulled out into the street. She wasn't quite ready to let Angel off the hook yet, but maybe she could start cutting him some slack.
Angel found Andy and Merl at a bar not far from Caritas. Run-down was a kind description of the dark, narrow room. A line of vinyl-covered booths ranged down one wall. The open area in the middle held a few scarred tables and chairs.
He could smell the remnants of cigarette and cigar smoke embedded in the walls and wood--remnants that even years of non-smoking laws hadn't eradicated. Combine that with stale beer and mildew in the dirty bathroom and he really, really wanted to walk back out into the Los Angeles night and give his nose a break.
Unfortunately, Andy and Merl were sitting at the long, broken-down bar, swilling some of that stale beer. They couldn't see him in the mirror, so he got right up behind them before he spoke. "Merl," he said loudly.
Merl jumped nearly a foot in the air and whirled around on his barstool. "Angel!" His voice cracked.
Angel nodded at Andy. "Andy," he said, as the yellow-skinned demon stuffed an entire boiled egg into his mouth.
Andy chewed once then swallowed. He smiled, showing uneven teeth, flecked with greenish yolk. "Yo," he said, sticking out his hand.
Angel stuck his hands in his pockets and took a step back. "I hear you were at Caritas earlier tonight."
Merl turned back to his beer. "Don't know who told ya that," he said, muttering into the weak, yellow brew.
"The Host. Said you might be in need of a job?" He slid a folded twenty from his pocket and waved it in the mirror so Merl could see it.
Merl shrugged like he didn't give a shit. "Pretty flush right now," he said, taking a sip of his brew. "But thanks."
Angel put the bill back in his pocket. "Too bad. There was more where that came from," he said. He turned and walked toward the door. He had his hand on the doorknob when Merl spoke up.
Angel smirked and stopped walking. He glanced over his shoulder. "Yes?"
Merl scooted across the floor and sidled up next to him. "I, uh--" Merl looked back at Andy, who was stuffing another egg in his mouth. "That is, uh, Andy and I, we were at, uh--" His gaze darted around the room, as if he were actually worried that someone would overhear them. He leaned in and whispered. "We were at Caritas earlier tonight. We might have some information for you."
Angel arched an eyebrow. "Really? So the Host wasn't lying?"
Merl grinned, showing most of his teeth. "He's a good guy, but you know how it is. Don't wanna offend the local business people, if you get my drift." He looked around the room again.
It might have been a useful tactic if there was anyone else in the bar. As it was, the only other person there was the bartender, and he was in the back doing dishes. Angel leaned in. "You mean Koreatown Benny?" he whispered.
Merl jumped back like Angel had bared his fangs. "How'd you know--" He squeaked and pulled his collar away from his throat like he suddenly felt hot. "Who told you that?"
Merl really was a dim bulb. But that was part of what made him a good informant; he was like an information-absorbent sponge. "Wasn't too hard to figure out." Angel glanced at his watch. "Tick tock, Merl. I don't have all night."
"Fine, fine." He scurried to the barstool and grabbed his jacket off the bar. "Be right back," he said to Andy.
Andy stood and stuck his hand in his pants pocket. He came up with a bill and threw it on the bar. "Nah, I'm about ready to head, anyway. I'll walk out with ya."
Angel stepped onto the sidewalk. In the east he could see light slicing through the purpling sky. His skin prickled. Nearly time to head home, himself.
Andy and Merl crowded out behind him. "Let's make this fast," Merl said. He stuck his hand out. "Give me the money and I'll tell you what I know."
Angel shook his head. "You know me better than that." He crossed his arms over his chest. "You give me your info and I'll decide what it's worth."
Merl whined. Angel held firm.
"Fine," Merl said on a huff. "Me and Andy were out front at Caritas. He was smoking a cigarette."
"Speaking of--" Andy pulled a pack from his pocket , tapped one out and lipped it.
Angel ignored him. "Meter's running, Merl."
"So we were standing out there, and this guy comes up. Been gut-shot. Knee capped." He looked around furtively and leaned in. "Koreatown Benny's work, if you ask me," he said.
"Please," Andy said, touching his lighter to the tip of the cigarette and taking a long draw. "You wouldn't know Benny's work if it bit you in the ass."
Merl cut his eyes at Andy. "Whatever. Anyway, we went down to tell the Host, then the cops came." He held up his hands. "That was it. I swear."
Angel pulled the twenty out of his pocket and held it casually between his fingers. He glanced at Andy. "That all?"
Andy blew out a puff of smoke. "Didn't pay a whole lotta attention. Dude was human." He shrugged, but he glanced at the twenty.
Angel looked back at Merl. "Nothing else comes to mind? Nothing at all."
Merl stuck his hands in the pockets of his tan slacks, eyes darting toward the money and back to Angel's face. "Um, well, he did write something on the step in his own blood, but that was it."
Angel squinted at Merl. "That's it?" He shook his head. "You didn't give me anything new, Merl. Why should I pay you for information I already have?" He slipped the money back into his pocket.
"Hey!" Merl said, lunging at Angel. "Gimme my money!"
Angel danced aside. "You give me something worth paying you for, and we'll discuss it." He glanced at his watch again. "Oops. Time's up."
Merl bounced on the toes of his shoes. "Y-you! You dirty, rotten--"
Andy shook his head and pursed his lips. "What'd I tell ya, Merl? Never trust a blood-sucker."
Merl glared at Angel. "I have to make extra appointments with my therapist because of you."
"Hey, don't blame me. I wasn't the one who dropped you on your head when you were a baby." He arched a brow at him. "You find some new information, let me know." He turned, letting his coat flare behind him, and walked toward the Plymouth. He could still hear them talking.
"Come on, man. He's just yanking your chain."
"Yeah, well, that chain-yanker owes me," Merl said.
Angel smiled. Merl would come through for him. He always did.
The next morning, Cordy adjusted the dove-gray jacket to the last power suit in her wardrobe and slipped into her tall, chunky heels. The soft, black leather was a remnant of her old life, luxurious and sensual. A far cry from her fifty-percent-off's from Nordstrom, or--God forbid--her flip-flops from Penny Saver.
She looped her grandmother's pearls around her neck and for the final touch dug her black, smart-girl glasses out of her jewelry drawer. A glance in the mirror showed her five feet, ten inches of well-tailored, intelligent beauty.
Now, if only she could convince the people at Genesys of that.
She rested her hand on her stomach to still the butterflies, then blew out a cleansing breath, shouldered her smallest black purse and picked up her black leather briefcase. Dennis closed and locked the door behind her and she took the stairs down to her car.
"Hey, Cordelia," her neighbor, Matt, said as he unloaded a bag of groceries from the back seat of his beat-up Toyota. "You look great. Audition?"
She shot him a smile. "Thanks. Yeah, uh, I've got an audition." She unlocked her car and slid behind the wheel. "Wish me luck!"
"You got it," he called, balancing the groceries and shooting her a thumbs-up.
Cordy slipped into the flow of traffic and made her way to Sunset. While she waited for the light to change, she thought about her acting career. It had been ages since she'd had an audition, and time was seriously doing that sands-through-the-hourglass thing. If she was gonna have a shot at being the superstar she knew she was destined to be, she needed to do something now.
Sunset flashed past and she hung a left onto North Alvarado. She flipped her radio on and caught some new song KROC had just started playing called “Drops of Jupiter.”
It wasn't like her job at Angel Investigations was furthering her life in any meaningful way, she thought, as she tapped the steering wheel in time to the music. She nosed onto the Pasadena Freeway. "Two-hundred-fifty years and he never developed a stock portfolio," she grumbled.
Mid-morning traffic flowed sluggishly and she glanced at her watch. She'd given herself an hour of travel time, but if she was lucky, she could do it in forty-five. "Not that he has trouble with money," she said to herself. "Haven't quite figured that out, considering he never takes a paycheck. Wonder where--"
Just as she swung onto the 210 traffic clogged. "Crap," she said, scanning the road for signs of life. Nothing but a long, stinking line of cars adding to the already deadly haze.
She sighed and reached into her purse for her lipstick. Train faded to Rod Stewart and she ignored him while she touched up the sedate plum gloss and smoothed her hair. At least her looks wouldn't fade, she thought, as she glanced in the mirror.
Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse. Pretty standard philosophy for a graduate of Sunnydale High. But she was one of the few who graduated alive. And she refused to wait for that big hourglass in the sky to bury her without giving it one more shot.
She dropped her lipstick back into her purse and pulled out her cell phone. Her agent's number was still on speed-dial. She hit it and waited while the thing dialed. "Hey, Joe, it's Cordelia Chase," she said into the voice mail system.
"Long time no talk. Listen, I'd like you to activate my file again. I've got those seizures under control--" Which was a big, damn lie, but it was worth it if it got her a lead. "And I'd love to start auditioning again. TV, commercials, plays, whatever you've got. My time off has been incredibly beneficial. I'd love to show you my new head shots."
She rolled her eyes at the extra two-fifty she just committed herself to spending. "Anyway, call me. I'm at three-two-three, five-five-five, oh-one-seven-five." She powered down the phone and dropped it back in her purse.
Then she steadied her trembling hands on the wheel and took a deep breath. Nothing like a little proactivity to get the heart pumping.
Traffic burped, and she rolled forward with the line of cars. She aimed for the rumpled-sheet outline of the San Gabriel Mountains and let the 210 suck her straight into the 'burbs.
Genesys was handily located a couple of blocks from City of Hope. She hopped off at Central then wound her way through Duarte, a suburban wasteland of small, older houses, cheap hotels and car lots. If you believed the billboards, which advertised Bingo parlors and Metamucil, no one under 60 lived here. One of the circles of hell, as far as she was concerned, though it probably wouldn't be so bad if you just drove in to staff the hospital and its associated businesses.
Genesys was one of those associated businesses. City of Hope's main focus was cancer research, and Genesys helped them meet their goal for a cure by providing them with biotech services. Of course, Genesys served a much broader audience than City of Hope; it couldn't have survived otherwise.
And it was obviously doing well, Cordy thought, as she pulled into the driveway. The U-shaped building shot up from the desert floor and gleamed in the harsh morning sun. The long, green lawn surrounding it said more about Genesys' financial affairs than the building. No one watered that much grass in Southern California unless they had money to burn.
She passed the Genesys sign and curved around to the gatehouse. Her bumper nosed the striped barrier and Cordy rolled down her window. "I have a...." She glanced at the clock on her dashboard and fudged to the nearest half-hour. "Nine-thirty meeting with Kevin Wating."
The guard picked up a clipboard and ran his finger down a list. "He's in the B Wing." He pointed to the left side of the building. "You'll wanna park in Lot C," he said, setting the board down and holding out a parking pass.
"Thanks," she said, rolling up the window and dropping the pass on the dash. As she pulled into a parking space she took a deep breath. She'd gotten past the guard pretty easily; obviously word hadn't made it to the staff that Kevin was dead.
Now if her luck would follow her into the building.
Kevin Wating lived in a small, pink stucco house off of Grandview Avenue in Sierra Madre. His neighborhood looked like all the neighborhoods in this part of town: gentrified blue collar with big lawns and sidewalks that marched in straight lines from front doors to wide streets.
No one used the sidewalks except to get the mail; most houses had more than one car in the driveway, even at a time of day when most of the neighborhood was at work. Ah, Los Angeles, Gunn thought. Why walk when you can drive?
He and Wes circled the block to scope out the place.
“Looks like the police have already been here,” Wes said.
Gunn saw the black and yellow flutter of crime scene tape across the front door. “Quick work. You think they’ll be back?”
Wes shrugged. “Let’s park a block off and walk over, just to be safe.”
Gunn grunted and pulled the truck around to Laurel. It shuddered when he killed the ignition and he patted the dashboard. “Poor girl needs service,” he said.
Wes opened the passenger door with a squeak of the hinge and closed it with a bang. “Sounds like more than just the engine could use some tending,” he said. “You know the company will pay for that, right?”
Gunn wiped the back of his hand across his nose. “Sh-yeah,” he said. “Kinda hard for a dead guy to win the lottery last I heard. And that’s the *only* way that dude’s ever gonna be payin’ me anything more than a nothin’.” He locked up his baby and started around the corner toward Kevin’s.
Wes fell in beside him. At nine thirty on a Tuesday morning, there weren’t many people around. A green mini-van with a load of little kids passed. The woman behind the wheel was too busy refereeing to notice them, but Gunn ducked his head, anyway.
Habit, more than anything. Trying to blend in; not be seen.
As they walked down the wide, paved street, he took in the tidy lawns and good-sized trees. Wisteria’s soft purple trumpets crept up trellises, porches and roofs. The sweet, hyacinth-like smell hit him. He sneezed.
“Bless you,” Wes said.
Gunn wiped his nose again. “Damn flowers. This is why I don’t live in the ‘burbs.”
They came up on Kevin’s house. The grass was a little long, the mailbox door partially open so he could see the white flash of uncollected mail. Nothing beyond the crime scene tape to hint that Kevin didn’t live there anymore.
“It’s weird,” he said quietly as they walked up the sidewalk.
“What’s weird?” Wes asked, stepping onto the small porch. He rang the doorbell. The sound shimmered through the house.
“How the guy’s dead, but the house still looks lived in.”
“Mmm,” Wes said, punching the doorbell again. “Well, he only just died last night.” He looked at Gunn and raised his eyebrows. “Doesn’t seem to be anyone home.”
Gunn glanced across the street. No one home there, either. The jacaranda bushes on either side of the porch blocked the view of the neighbors next door. “Huh. Seems like the cops coulda missed something,” he said, elbowing Wes aside. “Maybe we should check it out, just to be sure.”
He pulled out a pair of surgeon’s gloves and snapped them on. Then he opened his jean jacket and grabbed a couple of tension wrenches from the inside pocket. “Cover me.”
Wes stepped in behind him and Gunn hunched over the lock and started picking it. After a couple of wiggles of the wrench the door swung open. “Yeah, I still got it,” he said over his shoulder.
They slipped under the tape and into the quiet house. “No need to get cocky,” Wes said, shutting the door behind them.
“It’s only cocky if you ain’t got the skills,” Gunn said, pocketing the lock picking tools. They stood in the foyer, which opened up onto one, large room. The dining room table sat on one side under the front window. The living room took up the other half of the space. Fingerprint dust smudged the surfaces, but otherwise the room looked normal.
“Pretty fly for a white guy,” he said, nodding his head at the leather couch and chairs and huge entertainment center on the back wall.
They moved through the rooms quietly, getting the lay of the land. “Not the Taj Mahal, but not the slums either.” Gunn poked his finger in the Mexican pottery centerpiece on the dining room table and found a couple of stray keys, a punch card for a free coffee at Beanie’s, and thirty-eight cents. “Shame to risk losing it all. ‘Specially when you’re likely to end up with a cellmate named Big Al.”
“Everyone wants to live better,” Wes commented as he flipped through a stack of magazines on the nearest end table. “Besides, a guy who deals with Benny knows there are risks,” he said. “Maybe he thought they were worth it.” He moved down the long, narrow hall that bisected the house.
Gunn lost track of him and decided to scope out the kitchen. The refrigerator held several take-out cartons, a six-pack of Michelob and a bottle of mustard. “Not much with the cooking,” Gunn muttered.
“Gunn,” Wes called.
Gunn followed his voice down the hall to one of the bedrooms that had been converted into a home office. A black leather and chrome chair sat behind a black, pressboard desk. The computer was steel gray with a large hard drive on the floor and a set of speakers resting on either side of the drive-in sized monitor.
Wes ran his hand over the back of the chair. “Dusty,” he said. “He must not have spent much time at home.” He opened the desk drawer and rummaged around. His hand stopped moving. He let out a soft laugh.
“What?” Gunn stepped farther into the room.
Wes held up a Pez dispenser.
"Hi, I have an appointment with Kevin Wating," Cordy said to the receptionist. She adjusted her glasses for maximum fashion-and-disguise impact. "I'm Cordelia Chase. He's expecting me at nine-thirty."
A look of surprise flashed on the receptionist's face, but was quickly covered. "I'm sorry," she said in a well-modulated voice. "Mr. Wating is...no longer with the company." The woman's French-blue shirt matched the color of her eyes. The shirt was silk shantung; the eyes were sharp as a hawk's.
Cordy feigned impatience. "Well, that's unexpected." She glanced at her watch. "I've traveled from Portland to meet him," she said. "Maybe there's someone else who can help me, Ms. ...." She raised her eyebrows.
"It's Mrs.," the woman said. "Mrs. Davis. And if you'll tell me what your purpose is, I'll be glad to see if I can find someone else you can speak with."
Cordy's mind went as blank as Mrs. Davis's Zenlike white screen saver.
"Ms. Chase?" Her eyebrow raised and she waited, hand poised over the phone receiver.
"Sorry," Cordy said, giving a toss of her head. "Having one of those I-think-I-left-the-oven-on moments." She took a deep breath--and a leap of faith. "Pez," she said, hoping like heck she wasn't gonna get tossed out on her butt by the burly guard at the front door. "I had some information for him on the Pez project."
Mrs. Price stared at her for a long, itchy minute. Then she nodded and dropped her eyes to the phone on the desk in front of her. "Ah, yes," she said, picking up the receiver and dialing a series of numbers. "If you'll just take a seat, I'll have his partner, Dan, come down and meet you."
Cordy eased herself into one of the navy-and-chrome side chairs and drew her briefcase into her lap. She watched as Genesys staffers, well-dressed and predominantly white or Asian, hustled through the lobby.
Elevators binged softly; lights and walls were muted white. Tall palms climbed to the top of the open, courtyard-like reception area. Brushed silver containers of camellias and trailing ivy were strategically placed to provide a sense of privacy in the midst of the openness. The overall feel was restrained, high-tech wealth.
For some reason it gave Cordelia the wiggins.
She turned to find a young man a few years older than she was standing just to her left. "Hi," she said, getting to her feet and extending her hand. "I'm Cordelia Chase." They shook hands, and she shouldered her purse and picked up her briefcase. "I was here to meet Mr. Wating, but I hear he's no longer with the company."
Dan blanched. "You could say that." His face was puffy, his eyes red. He'd obviously taken the news of Kevin's death hard. But he didn't mention it; instead he simply extended his hand toward the elevator. "If you'll come with me, we can go to my office and you can tell me what you're here for."
Cordy followed him to the elevator, which opened soundlessly and rode them up the building's spine. There were three other people in the cab with them, and no one spoke, so Cordy didn't try to make chit-chat.
The bell dinged, and the doors slid open. "This is my floor," Dan said, ushering her out.
They made their way down a plush, gray-carpeted hallway. Doors all the way down were closed, and they were the only two people in sight. She couldn't even hear phones ringing. It was eerily quiet. A shiver traveled up her back.
"Here we are," Dan said, unlocking the door to office B-10 with a pass card. She walked inside and found herself in a generic-looking office with a sleek, black desk and chair, bookcases filled with books and notebooks, and diplomas on the wall. One of the ubiquitous palms thrived in the light from the window that overlooked the profile of the San Gabriel Mountains.
"Nice office," she said.
"Thanks." He pushed his glasses up his nose. "Have a seat." He motioned toward one of the two guest chairs in front of the desk.
Cordy put her bags down, settled in, and crossed her legs, making sure to flash some thigh. A little thigh never hurt in a situation like this.
Unfortunately, Dan didn't even seem to notice. Instead he settled in his chair and folded his hands on the desk. "How do you know about PEZ?"
Her laugh was a nervous trill. "Everyone knows about Pez, Dan," she said, trying desperately to buy some time. "Who doesn't love their sweet, yummy goodness?"
Dan leaned forward in his chair, his face going grim. "Look, I don't know who you are but--"
Cordy dropped the act. "I'm working for Kevin," she said in a low tone. "Is this a safe place to talk?"
Dan's gaze skimmed to the ceiling over Cordy's shoulder, and then back down to her face. "Why don't I show you the grounds? It's a lovely day for a walk."
As they exited the room, Cordy's eyes trailed to the ceiling and found a camera's unblinking eye staring down at her. Not a safe place to talk, then.
They made the return trip to the lobby in silence. By the time they got to the sidewalk that led around the side of the building, Cordelia was sweating. At least Angel didn't monitor every little thing she did. Well, outside of occasionally stalking her on a date, but she'd almost welcome that over this Big-Brother feel.
Dan slipped his hands in the pockets of his khakis and strolled with her through the grounds. The sprinklers were on, and the sun reflected thousands of rainbows in the mist. Cordy slipped on her sunglasses and hung her fake glasses in the collar of her shirt.
"Tell me what you know about Kevin," Dan said under his breath.
"I work for a private detective who specializes in the paranormal. Our client asked us to check into Kevin's death."
Dan let out a long, shuddering sigh. His shoulders dropped and his head slumped. "You can't go around here saying that you know about PEZ," he said. "That's the sort of thing that causes trouble." He raised his eyes to her. "I think it's what got Kevin killed."
"Candy got Kevin killed?" she asked, her eyebrows rising about as high as they could go.
Dan's forehead wrinkled. "I thought, when you said-- I mean-- I thought you knew." He closed his mouth and made a "please explain" motion with his hand.
"Kevin died on Caritas' doorstep, asking for sanctuary. The last thing he did was write PEZ in his own blood."
Dan stopped walking and closed his eyes. "I knew it." He looked as clammy as Cordy felt.
"So, what is PEZ, if it's not, you know, Pez?" She shifted her briefcase from one hand to the other and followed when he started walking again.
They passed a landscaper, spreading mulch on a flowerbed. Dan waved and the landscaper nodded and went back to shoveling. "I shouldn't be telling you this." He walked until the man was out of earshot before he replied. "PEZ is a genetic experiment," he said quietly. "With worldwide military and financial implications."
Ahead of them Cordy could see a pond, round and flat as a silver coin. "What do you mean, military and financial?" She glanced at Dan in time to see him take his hands out of his pockets and pick one of the camellias blooming on the bush next to the path.
He handed it to her almost absent-mindedly and she twirled the hot-pink bloom between her fingers.
"PEZ stands for Proprietary Encapsulated Zygote," Dan said. He shifted and his face went into shadow. The sun haloed his head, turning his blond hair to a bright gold crown.
"Propri--what?" Cordy asked, squinting at him.
"Proprietary Encapsulated Zygote," Dan repeated, shifting so the light hit his face again. "It basically means you can take a zygote--a fertilized egg--and encapsulate it in a sort of genetic container. The container allows the zygote to be replicated thousands of times without harming the DNA."
Cordy wrinkled her brow, trying to piece it together. "So, that means, what, exactly?"
"That with the right environment, you can take one egg and reproduce it as many times as you want without using up the genetic material. It's like cloning--to the nth degree."
"You mean, instead of one person, you'd have thousands?"
"Hundreds of thousands—even millions. It's all still in the experimental phase." He shoved his hands in his pockets and rattled his change. "Kevin discovered it by accident. He was experimenting with stem cells for one of the cancer research grants."
"So you think someone is trying to raise an army with this?" No wonder this place gave her the willies. They weren't just trying to cure cancer; they were trying to rule the world.
He shrugged. "It's possible. The thing is, this works on all DNA, human and demon." He glanced out at the pond.
Cordy followed his gaze, startled when the fountains in the middle turned on. Arcs of shimmering water poured up from the pond's depths, cracking the glass-smooth surface into a million ripples. "Why Kevin? If he's the guy who invented this thing, why kill him?"
Dan glanced at her, and his eyes had gone from sad to afraid. "I think Kevin tried to sell the information on the open market to someone he met at Caritas."
“Damn. Cordy wasn’t kiddin’ about that stuff bein’ evil, was she?” Gunn asked.
Wes drew the Porky Pig head back with his thumb and peered down into the dispenser. “Nothing too evil that I can see,” he said, showing Gunn the empty plastic.
“Huh. What do you think it means?”
“I have no idea,” Wes said, dropping the dispenser back to the desk. He leaned down and flipped on the hard drive. The computer powered up.
Gunn left him at it and followed the hall past the bathroom and to the larger of the two bedrooms. It looked out over the back yard and the open curtains let the bright morning sun turn the room a cheery yellow.
He sat down on Kevin’s queen-sized bed and tried to figure out who Kevin was. A guy who held a good job, sang karaoke with his friends, and hung framed prints of the Sawtooth Wilderness on his bedroom wall.
Gunn stood and toed the hiking boots in the corner. On the bedside table sat a hiker’s guide to the San Gabriel Mountains. He poked it and let the quiet of the house overtake him.
He tried to imagine living in a world like this. Where you could afford to buy your own house, with neighbors who took yoga, and ate out with their kids once a week at the California Pizza Kitchen.
“It just doesn’t fit,” he said under his breath.
“No, it doesn’t,” Wes said.
“Gyah!” Gunn jumped. “Don’t *do* that!”
“Sorry,” Wes said. “It doesn’t add up. Literally.”
“What do you mean?” Gunn asked. He followed Wes back down the hall to the office.
Wes settled in behind the computer and started typing. Then he turned the monitor toward Gunn. “Look. His finances.”
Gunn’s eyebrows drew together. “Don’t you have to have a password for that?”
Wes shook his head. “He didn’t use any privacy controls. Look here.” He pointed to the Quicken summary of Kevin’s bank account.
“He sure wasn’t depending on a dead guy to win the lottery,” Gunn said. He whistled under his breath. “Remind me, in my next life, to come back as a biotech employee.”
“He was doing well,” Wes agreed. “But not as well as you’d think if he were accepting payments from an outside source.” His body went totally still. He glanced toward the hall. “Did you hear that?”
"Hear what?" Gunn asked. Then he heard it. The scrape of a key in a lock.
Cordy's breath caught. "Do you think he was trying to sell it to a demon?"
Dan nodded. "We started going down to sing on a lark. But then one night a couple of weeks ago, Kevin didn't meet me until nearly closing time. Said he'd been stuck in a meeting. Now, we work a lot of overtime, but nothing that goes until one in the morning."
"What makes you think he'd been meeting with a demon?"
Dan made a face. "This is gonna sound crazy, but he...smelled."
Cordy nodded. "Like what?"
Dan looked out over the jetting water. "Pond scum," he said.
"Fyarl demon," Cordy said.
Dan's eyes widened. "You know them by smell?"
"Sometimes. There's one I've had a few personal run-ins with." She thought about Benny and his pond-scum-scented pals. "The ones I know are more what you'd call middle management, but I could see why they might want to buy PEZ. They're highly organized, violent. Have a good head for numbers. Multiply them by, oh, say, a few thousand, and they could rule the city."
"Do you know who killed him?" Dan asked.
"Pretty sure," Cordy said. "Demon mafia. They leave their mark."
Dan closed his eyes and took a couple of shuddering breaths. "Yeah," he said quietly. Then his eyes popped open and he glanced at his watch. "Crap. I gotta get back to the office before I'm missed. You think you can find your way back to your car?"
Cordy looked at the winding path that led off to her left. "I just take that one back around to the front of the building?"
Dan nodded. "Uh huh." He turned and started for the building.
"Oh, wait," Cordy said. "Let me give you my card." She fumbled in her purse and came up with a white Angel Investigations card. "Here you go."
Dan squinted at it. "Is that a lobster?"
She huffed. "It's an angel. Call me if you think of anything else, okay?"
Dan nodded. "Be careful." He glanced over his shoulder toward the building. "And Cordelia--" He touched her arm. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." She watched as he made his way down the path toward the building then began walking down the lane toward the parking lot. The sun had risen high enough to make her suit warm, so she shrugged out of her jacket. The flower Dan gave her fell to the ground and when she bent down to pick it up, she noticed the landscaper from before had moved to a bed very near where she and Dan had been talking.
She shot him a friendly wave, picked up the flower and started walking toward the parking lot. Something flashed out the corner of her eye and she turned her head just in time to see the landscaper coming at her at a dead run. For three long seconds, everything around her stopped and hung suspended. Then it sped up again and she realized, oh, crap, she was about to go down under two hundred pounds of man-with-a-shovel.
She pivoted on her heel and tried to swing the briefcase toward him. Instead, it swung right into his chest, in the same direction the guy was coming from. Bad luck met good physics and the momentum spun him right past her. He went flying, ass over shovel, into a flower bed.
Cordy took off, cursing the heels and her full hands. She pounded down the lane toward the parking lot, heart in her throat. Don't look back, don't look back, she thought, knowing it would only slow her down. The hot prickle on the back of her neck intensified, and she nearly screamed. But she knew it wouldn't do any good.
She rounded a corner and leapt off the pavement. Cutting across the lawn would significantly shorten her trip. She didn't count on her heels sinking in the wet grass.
"No, no, no," she said, going down hard. Her glasses and briefcase tumbled off in opposite directions. She managed to collect them in one hand and push to her feet, but then her heels sank again.
“Shit!” She dropped the briefcase and glasses, kicked off her shoes, scooped them up, and ran like hell.
"Stop!" someone yelled behind her.
She was out of breath and panicked, but she ran faster. Finally she burst out of the gardens and into the lot. Pavement flashed beneath her, eating her pantyhose and pounding into the cut on her heel. She ignored all that. Instead she wove in and out of parked cars, jumping parking barriers, and trying desperately to remember where her car was.
The pounding sound of boots on concrete spurred her on. A flash of red caught her eye in Lot C--oh, thank God. She stumbled to a stop at her car door, fumbling in her purse for the keys. Just as she got them out, someone yelled again. The keys hit the pavement with a metallic clatter.
"Dammit!" Luckily they landed at her feet instead of going under the car. She jerked them up and shoved the key in the lock. When she looked up, the guard from the front door was running down the sidewalk, pulling his walkie-talkie from the holster on his belt. The landscaper hurdled a parking barrier and was only two lanes away.
She yanked open the door, threw her stuff in and fired up the engine. Then she burned rubber, weaving in and out of parking spaces, until she got to the guard shack. The old man at the station stepped out the door and waved his hands at her.
"Stop! Stop where you are!"
Instead of slowing down, she revved the engine, blasting through the wooden barrier and hurtling down the driveway. She didn't catch her breath until she was back on the 210. Then she fumbled for her cell phone and hit number one on the speed dial.
Gunn tensed. “Crap.” He scanned the room. “Closet,” he mouthed, pointing toward a door on the other side of the office.
They scrambled into a small, black space filled with sports equipment and out-of-season clothes. Gunn pulled the door shut. Wes’s chin poked his shoulder and his foot twisted awkwardly against something that felt like a free weight.
The muffled sound of footsteps told him that someone was entering the office. File drawers opened and slammed then the chair hinges creaked and the plastic crackle of fingers on a keyboard filled the small room. Gunn tensed.
“Computer,” Wes mouthed in his ear.
Gunn nodded but then realized Wes couldn’t see him in the darkness. “I know.”
The typing stopped and Gunn went totally still. Then the mouse-squeak of the disk drive started, like whoever was out there was saving something to a disk. There was more paper shuffling then the disk drive stopped. The room went silent.
Gunn and Wes stood, frozen, listening. A minute, two passed. Nothing.
Gunn's nose started itching. Oh, no. Not now. The sneeze climbed and his eyes watered. He reached up and rubbed his nose, trying to stop the itch. His body tensed. Sweat crawled down Gunn’s back and under his arms.
"Gunn?" Wes's voice was so quiet he almost didn't hear it.
The tickle went away. "Thought I had to sneeze," he said in Wes's ear. Then it hit him again, full-force. "AHHH-chooo!"
They stood, frozen, and waited for the door to open.
Nothing happened. He could hear his heart thundering in the quiet and behind him Wes was a column of tension. The room stayed quiet and Gunn eased the door open. A crack of light and a cool rush of air filled the closet. He blinked to clear his vision, then peered out and found the room empty.
His body went limp with relief. "Damn flowers.”
"Mercy, that was close," Wes said.
Gunn shoved the door open and ran to the window. A blond-haired guy with glasses got into a white BMW and pulled out of the driveway. He never even looked back.
Gunn sank into the office chair. "Remind me to bring my Benadryl next time we break and enter."
Wes came out of the closet looking pale and sweaty. “I'll make a note of it." His phone rang.
Gunn jumped again. "Gyah!" he said, pressing his hand to his racing heart.
Wes collapsed against the edge of the desk and thumbed the phone on. "This is Wesley." He arched an eyebrow at Gunn. “I’m sorry, Cordelia, did you say a landscaper chased you out of Genesys?”
“What’s she saying?” Gunn mouthed.
Wes made a just-a-minute-motion with his finger. "Why don’t we meet at the office. You can tell us what--” Wes frowned. “Twelve-forty-five? Cordelia, that's two hours from now. Are you sure you’re all right?”
He glanced at Gunn and his brow wrinkled. "All right. We’ll meet you at the office in two hours.” He closed the phone. “Cordy was chased off the premises at Genesys.”
Gunn’s heart stuttered. “Is she all right?”
“She says she is, but she sounds pretty shaken up.” He glanced out the window. “Blast. I can't believe all of us were nearly caught.” He hit the keyboard in frustration then stared open-mouthed at the screen. “Unbelievable.”
Gunn glanced down and instead of Quicken all he saw was the blue screen of death. “He wiped it.”
“Evidently.” Wes opened a file cabinet. There were several empty folders hanging on the rack in the drawer. “Cleared these, too."
Gunn shook his head. “I wonder what he took.”
“No idea.” Wes turned off the computer and stood. "We should go."
Gunn glanced around, studying the half-open drawers, the shuffled papers and the now-empty computer. “Good idea. This place is giving me the creeps."
Wes picked up the Pez. “Don’t forget this.” He flipped Gunn the dispenser.
He pocketed it. “Thanks.” His fingers brushed the plastic and he realized that he might be holding a child's toy, but they were doing anything but playing a game. "I think we need to go check on Cordelia. This could be serious."
"Dude," Matt said. "That must have been some audition."
Cordy limped up the stairs, hose torn to shreds, knees grass-stained, dragging her purse behind her. "Yeah," she said, her sense of humor at an all-time low. "It was a real killer."
Matt's eyes widened. "Can I do anything to help?"
Cordy shook her head, and it took everything she had left to put on a polite smile. "No, thanks. I'm fine."
"That's good." He rocked back and forth on his tennis shoes. "Well, then, guess I'll be going," he said, and he jogged out the breezeway.
She leaned her head on her apartment door. "Dennis," she whispered. "A little help here?" The door swung open and she stumbled across the threshold.
"Oh, my God," Wes said, dropping his book to the couch beside him. "Are you all right?" He rushed to her side and hovered like a mother hen.
Gunn stuck his head out of the kitchen. "Damn, girl, you look like you got dragged through a hedge. Backwards."
All she wanted to do was take a bath and have a good cry. Not necessarily in that order. Instead she got a roomful of testosterone. "I thought we said two hours. At the office." Her temper, which had dropped back to simmer, started bubbling in earnest.
"Yeah, well, we were worried." Gunn eyeballed her suit. "You seemed upset."
Cordy set her shoes and purse on the entry hall table with sharp, controlled motions. “A crazy guy with a shovel tried to kill me,” she said around gritted teeth. “Even now, he’s probably cackling and rubbing his hands with glee over my briefcase and glasses, which I *lost* while I was running for my life.”
She paced toward Gunn, feeling like one of those foamers on an espresso machine: set on high steam. “My father gave me that briefcase! And my shoes!” She pointed at the mud-stained leather. “They’re Prada! Granted, they’re two years old, but they’re my last pair. Do you understand what that *means*?”
“More flip-flops from the Penny Saver?” Gunn asked.
“No, you idiot! It means someone at Genesys wants to kill me!”
Gunn squinted at her. “Uh, how’d we get from shoes to murder?” He looked to Wes.
Wes shot him a look. “Actually, she may not be far from the truth." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Why don’t you go and change clothes. I’ll make you some tea. Then we can talk about it.”
She stared at him, open-mouthed. “Big Brother tried to hunt me down like a dog, and you want to make me some tea," she said flatly.
Wes’s mouth opened.
“Fine!” She said, throwing up her hand to stop him. “I’ll just go get cleaned up. You stay here and be all-- all *English*.” She dumped her shoes and purse on the couch and padded back to the bedroom.
And there was Angel, sitting on her bed. "Gyah!" she yelled, jumping back into the hall. She pressed her hand to her speeding heart.
He leapt to his feet. "Sorry, sorry! Hey, are you all right?"
She looked at her skinned-up feet and knees, her ruined power suit, and her sweat-stained shirt. "Do I look all right?"
Angel put her copy of the latest Nora Roberts book back down on the bedside table very carefully. "No, you look-- What I mean is, you seem to be--" He gestured awkwardly. "Can I do anything to help?"
She marched into the room, grabbed him by the lapels, and shoved him into the hall. "Why is everyone always asking me that?"
He backed up and hit the wall. His hands flew up in front of him. "All right, all right," he said. "I'll just--be in the living room. With Wes and Gunn. You won't even--"
"Oh," Cordy said, feeling a familiar pinch behind her eyes. Her hand flew to her head. "Not now!" The vision popped open like a movie on a black screen. She pitched forward and felt her head snap painfully on her neck. Her teeth clacked together even as the vamp in her vision buried his teeth into the neck of his victim.
She tasted blood. "Nnnnooo," she groaned. Then her consciousness shifted, and the dark alley became her hallway.
Her breath started again, and with it came lightheadedness and a sharp pain in her mouth. She opened her eyes and found herself face-to-face with Angel. She pressed her face into his neck and took a breath, waiting for the post-vision agony to bloom.
"You're bleeding," Angel said.
His voice sounded far away. The gong of pain reverberated through her head. "What?" She pulled back.
"You're bleeding," he repeated. His eyes were dark, panicky.
Her fingers brushed her lips and came away bloody. "Bit my tongue," she said, finally realizing what the sharp, pounding edge meant.
"Is she okay?"
Her head turned and she focused on Wes and Gunn, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, less than two feet away. Behind Wes's glasses his crystal-blue gaze showed the memories of a long winter of visions without a warrior to fight them.
"I'm fine," she said.
Gunn went into the bathroom and she heard water running. He came out with a washcloth and pressed it to her face. It was hot and damp and she leaned into it, feeling the throbbing ache behind her eyes recede slightly. She took the washcloth from Gunn and held it to her lips.
"Okay," she said, taking a step back. Every time her heart beat the gong rang again, the pain so great she could almost taste it. "Your usual vamp in need of dusting. Lady's walking out of a stop-and-rob at the corner of--" She closed her eyes and waited for the image to snap into focus. "Olympic and Burlington." Her eyes opened. "No rush; not gonna happen till after sundown."
She drew the washcloth away and the bright splotches of blood shocked her. Her gaze flew to Angel's, but instead of the hunger she expected to see, she saw a deep, sad ache. It looked a lot like guilt.
"I think she needs to rest," Angel said quietly.
"Yeah," Gunn said. He took the washcloth from Cordy's hand and led her into the bathroom, where he sat her on the edge of the tub and turned the water on. "Bath first, then a nap," he said quietly. He dropped the plug in the tub and adjusted the water temperature.
It was an intimate moment, but the three of them had weathered more than a season together; they'd taken on the visions and fought the good fight, side-by-side.
"Thank you," she said, glancing toward the door. Angel hovered outside, and even in the shadows of the hall she could make out the dark shine of his eyes. He was on the outside because he'd put himself there, and now he wanted back in. She wasn't sure she had the energy to make room in her life for him again.
"Wes and I will take Angel back to the office. We'll do some research, okay?"
She nodded, grateful that he understood her need to be alone.
"I'm not sure we should leave her," Angel said, stepping toward the bathroom door.
Wes held him back with a hand on his shoulder. "Best thing you can do for her right now," he said. He turned him toward the living room. "C'mon. We'll go check out the police reports. Then you can take care of the vision."
Angel dug in his heels and stared at her. "Cordelia?"
She waved her hand. "Go. Call me when you're done."
Gunn and Wes moved Angel down the hall and she heard the front door close. Her head dropped to her hands and the sound of running water and her own pain rang in her ears.
"Cordelia, it's Wesley." He sat at the desk in Angel Investigation's small office, pen in hand, doodling on a note pad.
"Hey, what's up?"
"I'm sorry to disturb you, but I needed to know...what happened at Genesys?" He listened while Cordy told him the story. "So, what you're saying is that Dan told you everything about a top-secret project?"
He twisted the pen between his fingers. "And you didn't find that suspicious?"
"I thought he was trying to help save Kevin. I-- I didn't really think too much about it, to be honest. The landscape guy came after me right after Kevin left. But now that you mention it, after I told him about the mob hit, he ran off like a scared rabbit--and that's when I got a load of Mr. Shovel."
"Okay, thanks." He paused while he let the pieces shuffle around in his brain. "You didn't happen to find any Pez dispensers in his office, did you?"
"We found one at Kevin's." He glanced over where Gunn worked, head down, over the dismantled piece of plastic. "It had a listening device in the head."
Cordy sucked in a breath. "I told you candy was evil."
Wes chuckled. "Gunn said exactly the same thing."
"Why would Kevin's house be bugged?"
"I have no idea," Wes said. "But it seems like some sort of inside joke."
"Call me crazy, but I don't find murder very funny."
"Mmm," Wes said. "Well, I'll let you go, then. Are you getting any rest?" Gunn glanced up from the broken bug, eyebrow arched.
"Not much. Feeling restless. Thought I'd get up and clean."
Wes shook his head. Gunn's eyebrows drew together. "Tell her to drink some tea," Gunn said. "Chamomile."
"Gunn says you should drink some chamomile tea," Wes offered.
"Tell him thanks, but I'd rather get on with the maniacal cleaning."
Wes shot Gunn a look. "Maniacal cleaning," he said.
Gunn nodded. "Works, too."
Wes hung up. "Dan pumped Cordy full of information right before she was attacked."
"Coincidence?" Gunn asked. He waved the Porky Pig head at Wes. "I might have thought so till we found out Porky was a spy."
"Something bigger than Kevin Wating is going on here," Wes said. "And I'd bet money Dan was in on it."
"And Genesys," Gunn said. "And don't forget Benny." He stared down at the Pez container. "Wonder who planted the bug?"
Wes shrugged. Then he got up, grabbed his jacket, and moved to the door. "No idea. But I'll bet our sources can pull up something on Dan." He patted his pocket for the checkbook. "Why don't we go find out?"
Gunn scooped the broken pieces of plastic and metal into the desk drawer and followed Wes out. The sun rolled over in the sky and pulled twilight's blanket over its shoulders. "Wonder if Angel found that vamp," Gunn said.
Wes rounded the hood and climbed into Gunn's truck. "Let's give him half an hour or so. Then we'll call him. Let him know what's going on."
Gunn hopped in and started the engine. It sputtered once, then growled. "Sounds like a plan to me."
VAST blasted out the speakers at top volume and Cordy scrubbed the inside of the toilet with vicious jabs.
The vision lingered around the edges of her consciousness like a pissed-off gang-banger, ready to blow her away for one, false move. She’d tried to sleep but ended up feeling restless and itchy. It left her just edgy enough *not* to roll over and play dead: thus the maniacal cleaning.
As she swished the toilet brush, the light glanced off the porcelain of the toilet and the bright surface faded into the shiny, white teeth of a grinning vamp. The lurking vision opened its jaws and swallowed her whole.
In her head the tall, undead Hispanic man danced around her, and she stood, screaming and alone, as he grabbed her by the hair and yanked her close enough to ram those gleaming fangs deep in her shoulder.
Then she flipped out of the vision and came back to herself. She paused to catch her breath and tried to relax, like her doctor had taught her. One breath, two, three, and her pounding heart started to slow. She rested her arm across the toilet seat and let her head drop against it.
Good thing there was no one here to see these little synaptic breaks. Except Dennis. Over her shoulder she could feel him hovering so she swatted her toilet brush at him then went back to scrubbing.
Then the first beats of Pretty When You Cry started up and her heart raced again. "You're made of my rib, or baby, you're made of my sin." Every time she heard it now she thought of Angel and she didn't sing it so much as rage it.
"I didn't want to hurt you baby. I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't want to hurt you but you're pretty when you cry--" She dropped the brush back in its holder and spun on her knees to reach for her rag on the floor behind her.
Out of the corner of her eye, a shadow moved. A tingle shot up her spine and she screamed instinctively and scrambled back, rubber-gloved hands in the air.
"Whoa, Cordy, it's me." Angel stepped across the threshold and squatted next to her, his black coat draping around him on the water-spattered floor.
She slapped his reaching hands away. "Don't touch me."
He scooted back but didn't mask the look of pure hurt on his face.
Cordy scrambled to her feet and over the harsh smell of Comet she could pick up the cinnamon-sweet scent of fight-warm vamp. "What do you want, Angel?"
He rose, towering over her. "I--" He stared at her for several, long beats, then dropped his gaze to his big, black boots. "I just wanted to tell you that the vamps were taken of. So you wouldn't, you know, worry."
Sure enough, the vision-trails dissipated like fog in the sun. And the headache drained out from behind her eyes so fast she stumbled.
Angel caught her, then, at her look, carefully let go of her arm. "I was just worried," he said quietly. "I'll go now." He spun and started for the door.
Cordy stepped out of the bathroom and watched him walk down the hall. "Dennis," she whispered. "Music." The silence was so sudden it rang in her ears.
Angel put his hand flat on the door. "You never locked me out," he said.
Even from fifteen feet away she could hear the wisps of hope and wonder in his voice. "More fool, me."
His shoulders stiffened and he turned the knob.
Her conscience gave her a good, hard poke. "Angel, wait."
He stilled, half-in and half-out of the entryway.
She shucked off the rubber gloves and threw them on the bathroom floor. Then she went to the door and put her hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said.
He looked at her, and for one moment, she saw the winter reflected on his face. The isolation, the loneliness. The brutal, overpowering rage that left him helpless to do anything but shut them out and fight his fight alone. Her soul *felt* it.
"God, I'm *so* sorry," she repeated.
There was a long beat as they stared at each other. Then Angel smiled, one of those bright, wonderful grins that were as rare as her mother's Bali Queen orchids and probably more beautiful.
Angel's phone rang once, twice, and still he stared at her, smiling.
"You gonna answer that?" she asked breathlessly.
He reached into his pocket without looking and flipped the phone open. "Yeah. Hey, Merl." He broke Cordy's gaze to nod at something Merl said. "Really? So the guy who met with Benny wasn't Kevin? Do you know his name?" He shook his head and mouthed the word, ‘Dumbass’ at Cordy.
She smiled, still buzzing on the aftereffects of Angel's grin. She'd forgotten what it was like; how it melted every bit of resolve in her system. It occurred to her then that the problem had never been about letting Angel in—it was keeping him from taking over her life from the inside out.
Angel's eyes narrowed. "Blond hair and glasses?" He glanced at Cordy.
"Dan?" she asked, surprise rippling through her. "That can't be right."
"Cordy says no way." A line appeared between Angel's eyebrows. "You're sure? Okay. We'll meet you at Caritas." He closed the phone and dropped it in his pocket. "Merl says it was Dan. He recognized him from the description. Which fits in with what Wes told me about your experience this afternoon." His forehead wrinkled. "Dammit."
"What?" Cordy was still trying to connect the dots between the guy she’d met and whoever had had Kevin killed.
"We need to find Benny. If Dan set Kevin up, then who’s to say he wouldn’t have set you up, too?" He narrowed his eyes, obviously thinking.
"Just because he told me everything? I'm a detective and I was trying to help his friend. Couldn't he have been trying to help us catch Kevin’s killer?”
Angel nodded. “But if you knew too much, then you’d become a threat to both Genesys and the potential buyers.” He looked at Cordy. “Either he was trying to help us find Kevin’s killer, or he was very neatly tying off his loose ends.”
Cordy shook her head. “Dan wouldn’t do it. He was too nice, too normal."
“It’s the normal ones you have to watch out for.”
She shook her head. “Can I just say that sometimes my job totally sucks?”
"I'm sorry about that." Angel looked at his feet. "If you hadn’t inherited the visions--" His voice sounded gruff.
"Not your fault," she said. “Besides, I like the visions. In a they’re-ripping-my-head-in-half sort of way.”
He glanced at her from under his lashes. "I don’t deserve your forgiveness--"
"Hey, that wasn't total forgiveness, pal." She crossed her arms over her chest. "You're still scoring pretty high on Cordy's list of doom."
"As long as I've dropped somewhere below--I don't know--Charles Manson." He brushed her arm with his fingertips. "You do a good job of taking care of yourself." He smiled ruefully. "Sometimes too good."
She tensed, wondering just how long he'd been watching her earlier. But when she searched his face she found no deeper meaning.
Besides, she thought. What would have seen? Her terrible singing, maniacal cleaning and the fact that she was tired? Like anyone with eyes and ears couldn't figure that out, anyway. She realized he was still looking at her, expecting a response. “Hey, kinda my job, you know?”
He shook his head. “It should be mine, though.” He stepped into the hall. "I'm gonna go track down Merl." He stuck his hands in his pants pockets, flaring his duster around his forearms in such a typical Angel gesture that it actually hurt to look at him. "Stay here, where it's safe."
She shook her head. "No way. I'm going with you."
She held up a hand. "Nope. Not sitting around by myself waiting for Benny to find me. Besides, we just concluded that I can take pretty good care of myself." She shot him her best, steely glare. "So I’m going. Got it?”
He sighed. "Fine. Just stick close."
She grabbed her bag and her jacket. "Like glue."
“Till April in Paris,” Lorne sang. The spotlight cocooned him in that other world, the one he went to when he got lost in a song. “Who can I run to?” He shifted, letting his arms lift, feeling the music surge through him. “What have you done to my heart?”
The last notes died away, leaving the bar in near silence. Then the warm, golden tide of applause flowed toward the stage. He stood up from the tall stool he’d been sitting on and laid the mike down, turning to let the applause wash over him. It built on the surge the song had started and crested somewhere in his soul—and he laughed and bowed, taking in the energy and the love from the group before him.
This was why he performed. It wasn’t about ego; it was about connection. And he was getting it in spades tonight. He stepped off the stage and started working his way to the bar.
Speaking of connections, he thought, catching a glimpse of Angel as he shouldered his way through the crowd. Behind him Lorne could just see the crown of Cordelia’s head. Neither of them hummed a tune but even without the aural clue he sensed that something had shifted. Much of the haunted look had disappeared from Angel’s eyes, and he could see that Angel held Cordelia’s hand so they didn’t get separated in the crowd. Lorne smiled.
“Angelcakes!” he yelled over the crowd noise. Angel caught his eye and nodded. Lorne pointed to the office door and motioned them in that direction. They slipped behind the bar and shortcutted to the back room. Lorne closed the door and the noise dropped radically.
“Hey, there, you April fools,” he said.
Cordy arched an eyebrow. “Guess that explains yours SRO crowd.” She had dark circles under her eyes and her hair looked flat on one side—like she’d been trying to sleep and hadn’t had much luck.
Lorne frowned at her. “You look zonked, kiddo,” he said. Now that he was closer, he could feel the tension radiating off of her like the sun off hot sand.
“Hey, thanks.” She smoothed her hair. “Always like to know I’m looking my best.”
Angel cut his eyes at her. “She had a vision.”
“Oh, sweetie.” He glanced at Angel. “You take care of it?”
Angel nodded. “His dust is getting sucked up by street sweepers even as we speak.”
Lorne nodded. “Glad to hear you’re back in the saddle.” He knew how hard the winter had been for Cordy and the rest of the crew; he also knew just how deep and dark Angel’s abyss had been. It wasn’t a lie or an understatement to say he was glad they were walking side-by-side again. “Any word on Kevin?”
Cordy nodded. “Someone from Genesys was trying to sell a biotech thingy called PEZ on the black market. We're pretty sure whoever it was had Kevin killed.”
Lorne leaned against the desk. “Who did it, then?” The phone buzzed but he ignored it; Julio would pick it up.
“We think it was Dan,” Angel said. He glanced at Cordy. “Well, Merl thinks it was Dan. Cordy doesn’t, though.”
“What’s the hold-up, pup?”
Angel shrugged. “Word from Merl is that a blond-haired guy with glasses met with the potential buyers."
Lorne raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like Dan. But there are lots of blond haired guys with glasses in the world.” Dan always seemed just as laid-back and normal as Kevin. But then, Dan never sang for him, either. Lorne could get a pretty good bead on most people even without a tune, but intuition only stretched so far.
“I still think we’re jumping to conclusions,” Cordy said. “Dan seemed genuinely upset by what happened to Kevin. I can’t imagine—“
“We’re not jumping to conclusions—“ Angel cut in.
“Yes, we are,” Cordy said. “We’re jumping to Dan-told-Benny-and-now-there’s-a-hit-on-Cordy conclusions.” She crossed her arms and glared at him.
“Look, I’m just trying to keep you safe—“
“Which isn’t your job, Angel.”
“Kids,” Lorne said. “I’m just gonna step on the brakes here before we skid out of control.” He shook his head. “I thought you’d put all your dark days behind you.”
“Partly cloudy, chance of rain,” Cordy said, shooting Angel a look. Then she sighed and pressed a hand to her head. “I’m sorry. I’m tired, I’m stressed. My head is killing me. I just want to get this case solved so I can go home and get some sleep.”
“Understood,” Lorne said. The phone buzzed again. This time he looked down at it and realized it was the intercom. He punched the speaker phone button. “Yeah, bubbe, what can I do for you?”
The ambient crowd from the bar muffled Julio’s voice. “Uh, boss? Thought you might want to know we have some gangland activity in the building.” Julio sounded spooked, and it took a lot to spook that six-foot-five piece of man-meat.
Lorne pursed his lips. “Demon or human?”
“Demon. Koreatown Benny’s boys. Snooping around, asking questions.”
“I’ll be right out.”
Angel moved toward the door. “I’ll go with you. Cordy, you stay here till we know what they want.”
She looked like she wanted to argue on principle, but then she nodded. “Okay. But only because there’s a chance you’re right, and I’m too tired to cross the line from courage to stupidity right now.” She arched a brow. “But if I don’t hear from you in five minutes, I’m coming out.”
Angel nodded and he and Lorne slipped out the door.
“Goons, three o’clock,” Lorne said, spotting them across the room. One of them leaned over a table, deep in conversation with the Bentback seated there. The other scoped the crowd, obviously looking for someone.
Lorne strolled up to them. “Welcome to Caritas,” he said, holding out his hand in his best host-ly fashion. “Don’t believe we’ve met.”
The goon with the Bentback stood…and stood and stood. By the time he got up to his full height, he was nearly three feet taller than Lorne. “Gosh, I’m gonna need a chiropractor just to serve you a beer,” Lorne said. He felt Angel’s cool weight behind him and was glad for it.
“Don’t need a beer. Looking for a girl.”
Lorne’s eyebrows rose. “If I had a quarter for every time I heard that….”
The guy didn’t even crack a smile. “Name’s Cordelia Chase. Hear she comes in with her friends occasionally.”
Lorne put his hand behind him and grabbed Angel’s arm. Information-before-bloodshed was a rule he liked to live by.
“I know Cordelia.” He glanced around the room, pretending to scan the crowd. “Haven’t seen her tonight, though. Can I give her a message?”
The shorter guy pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to Lorne. “Tell her Benny wants to have a word with her. If she don’t call him, he’ll call her.” He smiled, showing a gap where his front incisor should have been.
Lorne took the card and slipped it surreptitiously to Angel. “Sure thing,” he said. Just then, his office door opened and Cordy stuck her head out.
Angel must have noticed, too, because he cleared his throat and stepped out from behind Lorne. “So, how is Benny?”
“Hey,” the shorter one said. “Ain’t you that vampire?” He snapped his fingers. “Albert? Andrew?” Then a light went off behind his dim eyes. “Angel! That’s it!” He looked up at his cohort and grinned. “The vampire with a soul.”
The tall goon stared down at Angel. “Not the one Cordelia works for?”
Just then, Cordy spotted them. “Excuse me,” Lorne said. “I just have to go take care of, uh, thing.” He scooted through the crowd and aimed for the door, where Cordy stood, silhouetted by the light. He made shooing motions at her. “Get back inside,” he hissed. He looked over his shoulder and saw the big guy grab Angel by the lapels and hoist him into the air.
“Hey, that guy’s hurting Angel!” Cordy surged out and pushed past Lorne toward Benny’s boys.
Lorne grabbed her arm. “They’re looking for you! It’s Benny’s goons!“
She paled. “Oh, crap.”
He shoved her toward the office. “Get back in there before they—“
“Too late,” she said breathlessly.
Lorne glanced back just in time to see Angel hit the floor and the mobsters start toward Cordy. “Oy vey,” he said.
Just then, Angel popped up on the stage and picked up the mike. “Sorry,” he mouthed.
“What for?” Lorne watched in horror as Angel did the one thing you never wanted to do in a crowded bar.
“Next round of drinks is on the house,” Angel called into the mike.
The crowd paused, as if absorbing the information, then rushed the bar. Benny’s men got swept up in the flow, even as Cordy sprinted behind the bar and toward the stairs. Angel, whose path from the stage had cleared, too, followed her.
Lorne squeaked and grabbed the mike off the floor. “April Fool’s!” he yelled. “Hey, April Fool’s!” He waved his arms, but the lure of free drinks was too great. He dropped the mike to his side. “You owe me!” he yelled at Angel’s back. Then he stepped off the stage and went to help tend bar.
"He must not be home," Gunn whispered. He had his hands cupped around his eyes and was peering into the downstairs windows of Dan's house.
"It's well after eight. You'd think he'd be back by now," Wes said.
"Let's see what we can find." Gunn broke out the gloves and the lock picking tools. Then he stopped, thinking. "Seems like the type of guy who has an alarm," he said.
Wes nodded. "Maybe we should check his mail, first. See if there's anything interesting."
The street was dark and quiet. The flickering light of TVs filled the windows and Gunn could smell food cooking on a grill somewhere in the neighborhood. He snuck down to the mailbox, slipped the mail out, and met Wes in the truck.
Wes pulled a small flashlight from his pocket, turned it on, and held it in his mouth. They flipped quickly through the mail. "Ah ha," Wes said. He took a letter from the stack, slid his pocket knife under the edge of the flap and pulled out a piece of paper. "'ank shtatemnt," he said.
"Huh?" Gunn leaned over, trying to get a closer look.
Wes pulled the flashlight out of his mouth. "Bank statement." He showed it to Gunn.
Gunn whistled. "Someone's got a little side business going." He took the paper and looked at the logo. "Not a local bank, either. He's trying to hide his deposits."
Wes nodded and slipped the statement back in the envelope. Then he licked the flap, sealed the letter, and returned the mail to the box. "That's enough for me," he said, getting back in the truck.
"Pretty circumstantial, though," Gunn commented.
"We need to catch him in the act." Wes buckled his seat belt.
"Let's go find him, then," Gunn said, starting the engine and pulling out onto the street.
"Good a place as any."
Angel and Cordy burst out the door and bolted down the sidewalk. Angel tugged her hand, guiding her toward the car. "Come on!" He had to slow his pace so she could keep up and was considering picking her up and carrying her when they rounded the corner. And ran right into a hard wall of flesh.
Cordy and Angel went tumbling. Angel instinctively tucked Cordy's head in his hand and rolled so she landed on top of him. They hit the concrete with a skull-rattling thud.
"Ow! Son of a *bitch*!"
The voice sounded familiar. Angel looked over and found himself face-to-face with someone's tennis shoe. "Merl?"
Merl rolled over onto his back and stared at the sky. "I should have known," he whined. Next to him, Andy flopped and gasped like a beached whale.
Angel pushed Cordy onto the sidewalk and leapt to his feet. Cordy rubbed her head. “Well, that took care of my headache.” She glared at Merl. “In exactly the way that it *didn’t*!”
“Hey, wasn’t my fault! If the bloodsucker had watched where he was going—“
"Sorry, guys,” Angel broke in. “No time to recriminate." He grabbed Cordy’s hand and pulled her up. "Come on, we have to get you out of here." The breeze brought him the scent of the tall mobster's cologne. "They're coming."
"Wait! Wait!" Merl squawked and climbed to his feet. "I have info!"
"You'll have to tell me on the fly," Angel said, and took off at a dead run, dragging Cordy behind him.
About half a block later he heard Merl panting behind him. "In here," he said, ducking into a corner store. The Korean shopkeeper stared at them open-mouthed. "We need to borrow your stock room," Angel said.
He ran through the aisle and down the short hall. The door to the stockroom was locked, so he broke the knob and shoved Cordy inside. Merl jumped in behind them, Andy hot on his heels.
The shopkeeper ran down the aisle waving his hands. "What are you doing? Stop!"
Angel pulled out a handful of money and handed it to the man. "Give us a minute. That should cover the lock. We won't steal anything, okay?"
The shopkeeper's eyes glazed over at the sight of the money. "No problem," he said. "Take all the time you need."
Angel stepped into the stockroom and looked around. There was another door to what was probably the back alley, but no windows. They weren't trapped, but their exit possibilities were limited. He pinned Merl with his gaze. "Talk fast," he said.
"Saw--" Merl put his hands on his knees, bending over to pant. "Saw that guy--" Another deep breath. "You were looking for. Kevin's friend."
Angel's skin prickled. "We gotta get out of here. They're close.”
“Angel,” Cordy said. “If they saw Dan, we need to go track him down.”
Angel took about two seconds to think it over. “You’re right.” He grabbed the car keys from his coat pocket and pitched them to her. “You take Merl and Andy. Find Dan. Don’t try to talk to him. Just lay low and keep him in your sight.” He eyeballed Merl and Andy. “Anything happens to her and you’re dead.”
Merl tugged his collar. “I’m not sure I want—“
“Don’t really care,” Angel said, shoving him toward the door. “Go,” he said to Cordy. “NOW!”
“What are you gonna do?” she asked, heading for the exit.
“Take care of Benny’s boys.”
“Benny’s boys?” Andy said. “No one ever said anything about—“
“Now!” Angel yelled. “I’ll find you!”
The car was parked three blocks over. They skimmed through the dark alleys and side streets, avoiding any place well-lit, and finally made it to the Plymouth.
“Get in,” Cordy said. She unlocked the driver’s door, then slid over and popped the locks on the passenger doors. Merl hopped in next to her and Andy climbed in the back. Cordy started the car and gunned the gas. They took off, fishtailing, into light traffic.
Merl grabbed the door handle. “Who taught you to drive? Jeez!”
She looked over her shoulder, but couldn’t see any sign of Angel or the goons anywhere. “Okay, where was Dan?”
“We passed him on the way to Caritas. Turn right!”
Cordy whipped across two lanes, barely missing a motorcycle. The guy swerved and yelled. Even though his helmet muffled the sound, she figured he wasn’t saying ‘thanks.'
“Why the rush?” She straightened the car’s nose and held the growling horses between the lines.
“Sorry,” Merl said. “Like I was saying, we were on our way to Caritas—“
“For dinner,” Andy said.
“Right,” Merl agreed. “You made us miss dinner.”
Cordy huffed and pressed down on the accelerator. “You can make Angel buy you dinner. But now you’re gonna tell me where you saw Dan.”
“He was talking to someone in a big, black car, about a block away from Caritas. That's why the rush. He could be halfway to Mexico by now.”
It was bad to grit your teeth; everyone knew that. But she couldn’t seem to help herself around these guys. "Merl! If he's already gone I'll--"
Andy leaned forward and folded his arms on the back of Merl’s headrest. “You'll drop us off at the nearest In-n-Out and we’ll call it even.”
Cordy heard something that sounded like Andy’s stomach rumbling. If a stomach rumbled like an earthquake. “So,” she said, layering the sarcasm on thick, “Where do you suggest we start looking?”
“How about we drive around Caritas and see if we see him?” Merl asked.
“Fine,” Cordy said. She turned onto North Broadway and headed the car toward Caritas. Traffic picked up on the bigger street and she got stuck at a light several blocks away. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. Then she stuck her hand in her pocket and pulled out her cell phone.
“Hit the first speed dial button,” she said, handing the phone to Merl.
He did it and held the phone to his hear. “Who’m I calling?”
“Wes. Tell him we may need help.”
“Wes? It’s Merl. Fine, thanks, you? Oh, nothing much. Same old, same old.” He laughed. “Yeah, you know how it is—“ Cordy banged her fist on the wheel. Merl jumped and threw her a look. “I’m just trying to be polite.”
“We don’t have time to be polite.” She held her hand out for the phone. Merl passed it to her. “Hey, Wes, it’s Cordy.”
She could hear the dim hum of the radio in the background. “Angel’s taking out a couple of Benny’s guys. Merl, Andy and I are trying to track down Dan.”
“Well, he’s definitely in on something big. We found some bank receipts at his house for deposits a lot bigger than his regular salary.”
“Anything I should be watching for?” she asked, scanning the road. They were about two blocks from Caritas. Maybe they’d catch a lucky break.
“He drives a white Mercedes. There’s not much else I can think of. Should we meet you somewhere? You’ll need back-up.”
She grunted. “That’s the problem. We have no idea where he-- Hey,” she said, looking out the window. “There goes a big, black car. Is that it?”
Merl nodded. “Huh. Could be. Andy? What do you think?”
“Looks like—but who cares, because there’s Dan.” He pointed out the window and they saw Dan getting into a white Mercedes and driving off in the opposite direction.
“Well, isn’t that handy?” Cordy asked, weaving in behind him. “Wes, we have him. We’re on North Broadway, about two blocks from Caritas. Heading North.” She stayed back a couple of car lengths, trying to look inconspicuous, which was hard to do in the Angel-mobile.
“We’re about 20 minutes away. Call me when you figure out where he’s going.”
“Will do.” She closed the phone and stuck it in her pocket, then concentrated on driving.
Dan turned off of North Broadway and drove deeper into Koreatown. Cordy followed him, growing itchier by the second. She didn’t like being down here at night, especially without protection, and Merl and Andy hardly counted.
The streets got narrower and darker and Dan turned down a side street. Cordy slowed down to a crawl and peeked in after him. He’d parked and was getting out of the car, so she hit the brakes and waited until he locked up and headed down the street.
She killed the engine. “Okay, get out. We’re following him. But remember, no contact.” She waited until the guys climbed out, then locked their doors, crawled out from under the steering wheel, and locked the driver’s side. Andy and Merl stood on the sidewalk looking useless.
“Come on.” She followed the route Dan had taken, walking into darker and darker shadows until the only light was whatever cut down the alley from the streetlights that hadn’t been shot out.
Across the street there was a rambling, ramshackle warehouse taking up an entire block. Most of the windows had been broken and were boarded up and the paint was peeling off the corrugated metal walls. A sign that read, “Pure Poultry Chicken Feed,” hung lopsided on the side of the building.
Dan slipped into a side door. Broken glass littered the dark, dingy side street and Cordy tiptoed through it, careful to keep her back to the wall. Andy and Merl ranged in behind her, close enough to touch. And smell. She wrinkled her nose.
Cordy crept up to the dark windows on the right side of the big, metal door. The windows looked old, made of glass lined with chicken wire and paned with some kind of rusty metal. Cordy crouched on the sidewalk and peered through a dusty pane. “What the heck is he doing?”
Merl rubbed the glass next to her with his elbow and cupped his hands around the clean spot. “Looks like he’s meeting with someone.”
“I’m really hungry,” Andy said. He stood behind them with his hands in his pockets like someone waiting for the bus.
“Shh,” Cordy hissed. “And get *down.* Do you want them to see you?” The shadows in the room shifted and someone hit a light switch. She blinked against the sudden change. Three men stood with Dan. One of them was freakishly tall like the guy at Caritas though the others looked normal-sized. Even through the dusty glass she could see the bulge of ill-concealed weapons under their suits. “Hey, isn’t that Benny?”
Merl pressed his nose to the window. “Oh, man, you’re right.” He gaze darted from the warehouse to the street and back to Cordy’s face. “Where’s Angel? I did my job. I want my money.” His jerked away from the glass and bolted to his feet.
“Hush,” Cordy said, making a “pipe-down” motion with her hand. “We don’t want them to know we’re here.”
“Here is exactly where I don’t want to be!” Merl squeaked. He leaned down into her personal space. “What is it with you people? Every time I work with you I end up on the wrong end of trouble.”
Cordy waved her hand in front of her face. “Geez, Merl, ever heard of toothpaste?” He huffed and started walking away. She grabbed his arm. “Angel told you guys to watch out for me.” She glared at both of them. “Who are you more afraid of pissing off? The bloodsucker or the mobster?”
Merl and Andy looked at each other. “I’m not really all *that* hungry,” Andy said.
Merl crossed his arms. “It’s not fair, making me choose between fangs and guns.” But he crouched next to Cordy and took up watch again.
The sound of feet hitting pavement had Cordy turning.
“Just me,” Angel said.
Andy looked around, obviously confused. “Where’d you come from?”
Angel pointed up. All four of them looked at the roof, four stories above them.
“You totally need a bell,” Cordy said, turning back to press her nose to the glass.
“Yeah, man, that ain’t natural,” Andy said.
“Don’t let’s discuss the irony of Andy using the word natural in a sentence,” Cordy muttered.
“I heard that,” Andy said.
“Hey, doesn’t anyone care about the mob guys?” Merl asked. “Did you kill them?”
Angel shook his head.
Merl huffed. “What do you mean, no?”
“Didn’t want to make a mess. Don’t worry, they’re out of commission.” He leaned down next to them. “I take it you found Dan?”
Cordy leaned back and let him stick his nose against the glass.
“Ah,” he said. “Backroom deal.”
“How can you tell?” Cordy asked.
Angel shot her a look.
“So, now that you’re here, can we go?” Merl asked. “After you pay me, of course.” He stuck out his hand.
Angel shook his head. “Not yet. I need back-up.”
“Crap,” Cordy said. “I told Wes and Gunn I’d call.” She reached for her cell phone.
“Drop it.” The sound of a gun cocking had her dropping her phone to the concrete. She turned and saw one of Benny’s mobsters standing behind them, a loaded 9MM in his hand. “You guys did realize the window was open, right?” He pointed up and, sure enough, one of the casement windows angled out.
“Son of a--,” Cordy said.
Merl jumped to his feet and broke into a run. The mobster, the really tall guy, simply reached out and grabbed his collar. Merl’s feet kept going, but the rest of him stopped like he’d hit a brick wall. The only sound he made was a strangled “whoof.”
“Wow, that was great! Just like something out of the Three Stooges,” Andy said.
Merl hung from the goon’s hand, suspended a foot off the ground.
“You wanna put him down?” Angel said. “He’s turning gray.”
“And we all know gray isn’t in this season,” Cordy said.
The mobster gave Merl a good, hard shake. “You gonna behave?” Merl choked out a noise that might have been a yes. The mobster dropped him and Merl fell to his knees, clutching his throat and coughing.
“You wouldn’t happen to be Cordelia Chase, would you?” The mobster, who looked human except for the horns protruding from his temples, smiled like someone’s nasty cousin. The kind that gave you wedgies and told unrepeatable jokes.
Cordy swallowed. “Nope, not me,” she said, scooting over behind Angel.
Angel broadened his stance and reached back to put a hand on her arm. “I think you’re mistaken,” he said, in a hypnotic voice.
The mobster snorted. “Is that your best attempt at thrall, vampire?”
Angel shrugged. “I’m better with violence, frankly.” He moved in a sudden burst and the mobster hit the ground. “Run!” Angel shouted.
“Don’t gotta tell me twice,” Cordy said, hauling ass for the car. She heard Merl and Andy take off after them. Then she heard the sharp crack of gunfire.
“Don’t stop!” Angel yelled, taking the lead. “They can’t hit a moving target!”
Andy and Merl passed her. “Hey, wait,” she cried, having trouble getting her legs to work. Then it hit her—a flash of pain along the outside of her thigh. “Angel!” she yelled, and she stumbled to the sidewalk.
“Cordy?” He ran back to her.
“I think he shot me,” she said.
“Oh, God.” He scooped her up and started running—but before he got three steps, they were surrounded by Benny’s men.
Cordy moaned and bit her lip. “Angel.” She pushed against his chest. “Put me down,” she said softly. “They’ll let you go. It’s me they want.” She struggled against the pain arcing up her leg. It felt like someone gouged it with rebar then rubbed it with sandpaper.
He shook his head. “Forget it.”
The tall mobster had a smear of blood on his face, and his nose was swollen and bruising fast. “Come wid us,” he said.
“What about the other two?” one of the short ones asked.
“Fugged ‘em,” he said. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and winced. “You broke my node,” he said to Angel.
“Too bad. I was aiming for your brain.”
The guy’s eyes narrowed. “Take ‘em inside.” He gestured toward the warehouse with his gun.
The warehouse was as dingy inside as it was out. Crumpled newspapers, old bottles, spent rubbers and cigarette butts littered the floor. Stacks of dusty pallets crowded the corners and Cordy could see what looked like feed sacks rotting alongside them.
Her leg throbbed and she felt clammy, queasy. She saw Angel’s nostrils twitch as the smell of fresh blood hit the air. “Put me down,” she said, worried that she was distracting him.
“Hush.” He shifted her in his arms, gathering her closer. “Benny,” he said, nodding to the small man in the black suit.
“Angel,” Benny said, lifting a hand in greeting. “I see you brought me a present.”
“Sorry. Not your style. Far too classy.”
Benny shook his head. “You and me, we should be working on the same side, but instead you make my life a living hell.” He squinted at Cordy. “I know you,” he said.
“No you don’t,” she replied, clenching her teeth together against the ripping pain.
Benny snapped his fingers. “Back in February. You and your crew messed with one of my operations.”
Cordy glared at him, the best she could do under the circumstances. “You were extorting money from that actress. She came to us for help.”
“You guys worked with an actress?” Angel said, sounding surprised.
Cordy glanced up at him. “You thought you were the only supernatural detective with contacts in Hollywood? Please.” She nodded at Benny. “He was trying to force her to pay him a portion of her proceeds from a film he backed.”
“That’s enough,” Benny said, his soft, avuncular voice going sharp.
Something moved in the corner. “Dan?” Cordy squinted and she could just make out his profile in the shadows.
He stepped into the light. “Cordelia.” He sighed and shook his head. The light glinted off his glasses. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.”
She shook her head. “Shoulda thought of that before you told me enough information to get me killed.”
“Yeah, sorry about that." He hung his head and looked contrite.
"So this is all your idea, then?" She asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Yeah. It was my idea from the beginning. Kevin found out, so I bugged him--"
"With the Pez dispenser?"
Dan nodded. "Pretty clever, huh? That way, Benny, here, could track him down and, you know--" He waved his hand. Then he got misty-eyed. "He was my best friend," he said.
"Good thing he wasn't your enemy," Cordy said. "What about Genesys?"
"Oh, they're not involved. I planned on being long gone by the time they figured anything out."
"I told him you had a gun." He smiled. "The receptionist got suspicious and tipped the guard when you mentioned PEZ. They saw you running across the campus and drew their own conclusions."
"Excuse me," Benny cut in. “What is this, Scooby Doo? We don’t have time for you to go through your ‘meddling kids’ speech.” He nodded at the tall goon. “Take the samples,” he said.
Cordy noticed then that Dan held a briefcase. He pulled it to his chest protectively. “You haven’t paid me the rest,” he said.
The mob guy held out his hand.
Dan shook his head and stepped back. “Look, I thought we had a deal—“
“We do,” Benny said. “You give me the samples, and I’ll make sure you get home alive.” He smiled, teeth glistening, even in the low light.
Dan stared at Benny then finally nodded. He stepped forward, briefcase extended toward Benny’s outreached hand. “Here you go,” he said. Then, in a surprise move, he swung the briefcase and hit Benny in the head with it. The momentum carried him around, and he used it to whack one of the shorter goons, who collapsed on top of Benny.
“Can you stand?” Angel asked.
“Yes! Yes! I can stand!” Cordy said, shoving out of Angel’s arms. She hit the floor on her bad leg and crumpled. “Okay, maybe not.” But Angel was already gone to do what he did best: bust demon butt.
She crawled out of the way, aiming for the crates, where she thought she could take shelter. The time off her feet must have done her some good because she climbed to her knees and was able to stand up and hobble away from the fray.
“Cell phone,” she said, realizing she might be able to get outside and call Wes. About three feet from the door, she heard a distinct rumble--the truck's engine. She heard the engine rev--misfiring a couple of times--and realized what was about to happen.
She leapt out of the way just as the truck crashed through the wall and into the warehouse. The truck's bumper opened the corrugated metal like a can opener. The window blew in on top of the windshield all in one piece, then it smacked the hood at an angle and exploded. Cordy covered her head with her hands and closed her eyes.
When the dust cleared, she opened them in time to see Angel and the mobsters staring at the truck in shock. Then the doors flew open, and Wes and Gunn bolted out of the cab. "Everyone put your hands in the air!" Gunn shouted.
Merl and Andy ran in through the hole the truck left behind. "What'd we miss?" Andy said.
The gangsters took that opportunity to rush Gunn and Wes. Gunn fired the crossbow and one of the short guys screamed and went down with an arrow protruding from his shoulder.
Angel collared Benny and got him in a headlock. The tall guy tackled Dan, who held on to the suitcase for dear life. The other mobster, the last short one, ran for Cordy.
Cordy watched, open-mouthed, as Andy and Merl waylaid him and dragged him into the fray. Punches flew. Feet pummeled. People yelled. It was like one of those cartoons where a fight breaks out and all you can see is a ball of dust and flying fists.
And in the midst of it, Dan slithered free and went for the door.
“Hey!” Cordy yelled. “Stop!” She hobbled after him. “Dan’s getting away!”
Footsteps pounded behind her and Merl flew past and tackled Dan. The briefcase went flying and hit the ground with a crash, breaking the locks and sending small glass vials skittering across the littered concrete floor.
Dan gasped and reached for the nearest vial. “No you don’t,” Merl said, sitting on his back and bouncing.
Andy rushed out of the fight, and Cordy could see that one of his eyes was already going black. “Hey, Merl, you need some help?” He skidded to a halt and accidentally kicked one of the vials. It spun across the room. “So that's what all the fuss was about?” he asked, chasing after it.
His big foot crunched the glass, and he stopped and stared down at the puddle. Then he sniffed the air, squatted next to it and stuck his finger in it. He lifted his finger to his mouth and licked the solution.
"Hey, that's really good." His stomach growled loud enough that Cordy heard it over the fracas.
"Don't!" Dan said, but Merl bounced on him again, cutting off his air supply.
Andy pulled another vial up, broke the metal seal on it and sniffed it, too. Then he glanced at her and grinned. “I’m sorry, but I can’t resist. I’m gonna have to eat those PEZ.” Then he tilted his head back and slurped them down.
Dan howled. Merl bounced on his back. Cordy goggled as Andy opened another batch and slurped again.
“Uh, Andy?” she said. "You realize you're eating the evidence?"
Andy shrugged. "They'll make more."
Gunfire cracked the air and Cordy ducked her head instinctively. When she peered out from between her fingers, she saw Angel pointing a smoking gun at Benny’s head. “Stay down,” he said, in that ruthless, I’m a bad mo-fo voice that put the fear of God into everyone.
Benny, bleeding and bruised, quivered on the floor beneath him. Wes and Gunn had somehow made it out on top, and also pointed guns at Benny’s guys.
Angel turned Benny over with his foot and undid his belt. Then he trussed Benny up like a pig, looping the belt around his hands and drawing them back and down so he could tie them to his feet.
Angel nodded at Gunn and Wes. “Tie them up,” he said. Then he tucked the 9MM into his waistband, and walked over to where Cordy stood.
“You okay?” He put his hand on her shoulder.
“It’s just a flesh wound,” she said, balancing her weight on her good leg.
“Hey, you watch Monty Python?” Merl asked. Beneath him, Dan squirmed. Andy dropped the last of the vials to the ground and went to sit next to Merl. Dan stopped moving.
“You wanna call the cops?” Cordy asked.
Angel nodded. “Wes’ll take care of it. Let’s get you to the car.” He picked her up gently, easing her into his arms like she was something precious.
“I can walk,” she said, feeling embarrassed and shy.
He shook his head. “Merl? Andy? You guys gonna be okay here?”
"Hey," Merl said. "We still haven't gotten paid." He flipped Cordy her cell phone and she caught it one-handed. "We called Wes for you," he said. "I think that nets us a bonus."
"Come see me tomorrow," Angel said. "I'll write you a check."
“I could get used to this detective stuff,” Andy said, giving an extra bounce on Dan’s legs. Then he let out a loud, long burp. “Oops.” He pressed his fingers to his lips.
“I think he ate all the evidence,” Cordy said.
Angel stared at Andy, a look of profound distaste. “Cops’ll have to sort it out,” he said. “Wes? Gunn? You guys got it?”
Angel shook his head. "If I'd known we were gonna waste another truck, I'd have kept Lindsey's."
Gunn patted the hood. "It's all right. She needed some work, anyway."
"Company will cover it," Angel said.
Gunn shot him a thumb's up and Angel carried Cordy out into the cool, Los Angeles night.
When she woke the next morning, the covers on the bed were in exactly the same position they’d been in when she went to sleep. She drew in a breath, long and deep, and stretched, feeling the muscles in her arms and back relax for the first time in months.
Her leg burned and ached, but it wasn’t too bad. The doctor at the hospital cleaned it good, gave her some antibiotic cream and said it’d heal without a scar.
“Which is a good thing for an aspiring actress,” she said, climbing out of bed and limping to the bathroom. Just as she was spitting toothpaste in the sink, the phone rang.
“Dennis? Can you hand me that?” She plucked it out of mid-air and wiped her mouth on a hand towel. “Thanks,” she said, thumbing it on. “Hello?”
“Miss Chase, this is Deanna from Doctor Green’s office. We got your test results back from the scans. The doctor would like for you to come in today to discuss them.”
“Sounds serious,” Cordy said, dropping her toothbrush into the hanger.
There was a pause. “Ma’am, he’s cleared his calendar for you.”
Cordelia's lips felt numb. The pounding in her head became a roar.
“I, um.... I can be there in a couple of hours."
“Fine.” She hung up with a click and dropped the phone onto the edge of the sink. “Oh, God,” she said, staring at herself in the mirror.
The phone rang again, echoing in the silent bathroom. She jumped. “Hello?”
“Cordelia, it’s Joe. How are you, dear?”
“I’m, uh, great. Listen, can I call you back?”
“No need, no need. Just wanted to let you know I got you an audition for that suntan lotion company I told you about.”
“Wonderful,” she said, trying desperately to focus on what he was saying. “When?”
“Friday at two. Down in Burbank.” He rattled off an address.
Cordy grabbed an eye pencil and scribbled the information on the mirror. “Thanks. I’ll be there.”
“Pack a bikini, girl! I’ve got a good feeling about this one!”
“Good. Good, that’s…good.” Cordy turned off the phone and stood, staring at the sink.
Rage welled up in her, hot and thick, and she threw the phone at the wall. The plastic cracked and the battery cover flipped off and landed on the rug. Cordy collapsed on the toilet and sat, with her head in her hands, thinking, this is it. I have a date with death and I haven’t even finished living yet.
She leaned her head back against the wall and watched as the lights fractured and grew halos. She blinked back tears, swiped at the few that leaked down her cheeks. “Gotta get tough,” she whispered. “Gotta prioritize.”
Angel’s smile flashed in her mind, along with the shy, embarrassment she felt last night when he picked her up. Like she meant something to him. Like they were family again.
If he dumped her now, there was no way she could take it. She scrubbed her hands over her face. She didn’t have the reserves, the defenses, to lose him again. Better to make a preemptive strike, to stop the gradual merging of their lives before it started.
“We’re not friends, we’re co-workers,” she whispered. “Not friends. Not family. I’m his seer.” A sob welled up from the back of her throat. She swallowed it back and stood, turning the taps in the shower on with quick, authoritative jerks. “It’s better that way.”
When the phone rang a third time, she let the machine in the bedroom pick up. Through the open door she could hear his voice. “Cordy? It’s Angel. Just calling to check on you. Call me when you--”
She stepped into the shower and closed the curtain behind her, cutting off his voice completely.
| Fiction Index | Home Page | Back |