"Okay," Billie Newman told the editorial conference, "I think that's settled. Main lead is the bank robbery and hostage story, second and third leads the water bonds scandal and the police corruption story, with the editorial on educational funding. Everyone happy with that? Good. Anything else?"
"What about the FCC ruling?" asked Nick Gibson, the financial editor.
"Legal are still adamant. We report it and any subsequent developments as they occur in the financial section only. We don't editorialize, we don't comment beyond the bare bones of the story. Whatever we say about this could be construed as an attempt to tamper with the process."
"It's a big story."
"I know. But it's a big story about us, and that means that the rules change."
"Okay. Not for publication, has there been any news?"
"Nothing since yesterday. The FCC has ruled that David Nabbit has to shed some of his communications interests, he's apparently decided that the Tribune is the part that'll have to go, to cause the least disruption to his other businesses. The FCC agree. He's got six months to find a buyer."
"Have you spoken to him?"
"I got an e-mail this morning. He says that he's already received several offers, he's hoping to accept one that will guarantee the future of the Tribune as an independent paper."
"Rather than going for the highest bid?"
"He specifically says not. Come on, Nick, Nabbit's been good for the Tribune. He's done a lot to get our technology up to date, he even had his company write a lot of the software we're using, he hasn't interfered in the editorial process, and he's pumped millions into staff training and welfare."
"So he'll be expecting to reap the benefits."
"I really don't think so. He could give the Tribune away and it'd hardly dent his finances. He really wants LA to have a good independent paper, I guess. We'll have to wait and see what happens, but I don't think you need to get nervous quite yet."
Billie fielded a few more questions, wishing she was as certain about the Tribune's future as she claimed, then went back to her office. It wasn't that she distrusted David Nabbit, she was fairly sure that his heart was in the right place, she just wasn't sure that a software and internet tycoon really knew what was best for the future of the paper.
There were a dozen messages waiting on her desk after the meeting. One asked her to phone a Doctor Hoskins, at the Barker Clinic, with a local number, "re: Janice Newman". She flicked through the other messages to make sure that everything else could wait, then punched in the number.
"Miss Newman, thanks for calling me back so promptly. As I told your secretary, this concerns your late sister, Janice Newman."
Billie tensed. Even after twenty-two years the mystery of her sister's death and the disappearance of her newborn child gnawed at her. "Go on."
"Miss Newman, we're a genetic testing and counselling facility. We've been approached by representatives of a client who was adopted as a child and is seeking her natural family. They think that it's possible that she's your niece. Could I just check a few facts?"
"As I understand it your sister dropped out from UCLA in 1979, saying that she wanted to see the world, and left without revealing a destination. Approximately a year later she was killed in a traffic accident in Santa Barbara, and the pathologist's examination showed that she had given birth approximately three to four days earlier. Is that all correct?"
"That's right. Nobody knew that she was pregnant, and we've never been able to trace the baby, its father, or her movements in the last few months before she was killed."
"The client was found abandoned in another city, but your sister could have travelled to Santa Barbara in the time available before she was killed. There are details such as blood group that would support the idea that she is your niece. She's also a redhead, which I understand is common in your family."
"It's possible, I suppose, but it wouldn't be the first time someone has claimed to be her. The story's reasonably well-known, and we've had crazies and fortune-hunters sniffing around. Not that there's any fortune to be had."
"As I understand it the client is a wealthy woman, Miss Newman, money would not be an issue. Her adoptive parents are no longer with her and there is no living family, she simply wishes to make contact with any natural relatives."
"What would you want me to do?"
"We would need samples for DNA testing. If you could call in at our offices I can take them. The procedure is more or less painless, takes about ten minutes. We will even pay your expenses should you wish."
"Okay, let's say I bite. What happens then?"
"If the client is your niece, a proportion of her significant genetic markers will resemble yours. That can vary considerably depending on your sister's genetic makeup, which unfortunately can't be verified - unless you have a sample of her genetic material, such as a lock of hair? A tooth, something of that nature? Something of the sort from either of your parents would also be very helpful."
"I'm sorry, I don't think I have anything like that. It's possible that the Santa Barbara police kept something, of course."
"We'll make inquiries, but since your sister's death was accidental it's unlikely. Anyway, in layman's terms the more markers that are the same, the better the odds that she is related to you. In fact the process is more complex than that, since some markers are rarer than others and would be very significant if they were found in both samples, some are very common in the population as a whole. We have a large database of samples for different ethnic groups, hair and skin colouration, and so forth, and would look for things that aren't common to all fair-skinned redheads and so forth. We'll know the results in two to three days, and notify our client's representatives. If the result is negative or further tests are required we'll also inform you, if it's positive the client will presumably contact you herself or via her representatives."
"And if she doesn't?"
"Then I'm afraid she doesn't. Since she's the person looking for her family I think it's highly likely that she will."
"But if she doesn't, you won't help me make contact with her?"
"We can't. Medical ethics, I'm sure you'll understand."
"Okay. Would this afternoon be possible, I can probably get out for an hour or so?"
"Any time between one and six."
"I'll be there."
* * * * *
The offices were aggressively modern, and gave her a feeling of uneasiness that she couldn't quite pin down. Maybe it was just a reaction to having to deal with doctors plus her tenseness over the situation.
"I'll need a sample of saliva," said the doctor, a nerdish-looking guy in a white lab coat, "I'd also like a swab of skin cells from inside your cheek, some hair, and a little blood."
"Okay, I guess. Um... did you test her?"
"The client? I'm afraid I can't answer that."
"Because I'm not permitted to discuss our clients. Medical ethics, I'm sure you'll understand."
Hoskins efficiently took the samples, labelling them with a case number and the date and time, sealed them, and made notes in a file. Billie tried not to show her interest, but like many investigatory reporters she had a talent for reading upside-down. The page on top was a check-list for taking the samples, but she could see the right-hand side of the first inch or so of another sheet. The handwriting was difficult to read, but she was fairly sure that the first line ended "...el Investigations". There was also an old-fashioned Rolodex address file on the desk, open to a name she recognised: Wolfram and Hart, a law firm that represented at least half the people and companies that sued the Tribune.
* * * * *
"Could be Sentinel Investigations," said crime reporter Tommy Fowler, a burly ex-cop, leafing through his address book, "but they mostly handle industrial espionage cases. Let's see, who else is there... Digi-Tel mostly handle computer fraud, they're not likely either. Angel Investigations... possible, I guess. That's about it. Any way it could have been 'al' or 'ol', not 'el'? There are eleven or twelve possibilities there."
"I don't think so. The other lead is Wolfram and Hart, there was a Rolodex open at their address, but if it is them I'll get nowhere. Or possibly there's a link between the investigators and Wolfram and Hart."
"In that case it definitely won't be Angel."
"Because Angel hates Wolfram and Hart, and they hate him."
"Angel is a person?"
"It's his only name as far as I know, like Sting or Madonna. He's a guy, seen him around a few times, talked to him but never got much in the way of answers. Let's see..." he looked through a file, "He was a real heavy hitter a couple of years ago. There's a story that he was the guy who really caught Little Tony Papazian, let the police take the credit. Around the same time he gave the police the evidence they needed to track down a serial killer, the one they called the Pope; he got away from them in the end, but he ran because Angel led them to him. He was Rebecca Lowell's bodyguard when she was being stalked. He caught the guy, it turned out to be some sort of publicity stunt and her people fired him. He persuaded another killer to turn herself in; Faith something, don't recall the last name. All four within a few months, and a bunch of other stuff that didn't make the news much. Then about eighteen months ago someone firebombed his office, after that things went quieter. Last year someone tried to frame him for multiple murder, but it didn't stick. Since then I've heard from three different sources that there's some sort of long-running feud between him and Wolfram and Hart, and that they were responsible for framing him, but I never got any reasons or solid proof I could put in a story."
"Okay, thanks, sounds like I need to talk to mister Angel."
"Good luck. The guy just doesn't talk to reporters, but here's the number. And if it is your sister's kid, and there's any sort of story in it for the crime desk, I want to be on it."
"You will be. But as I said, this is a personal matter, and it may not even be my niece, it might not be a story at all."
* * * * *
Billie went back to her office and punched the number into her phone. A woman's voice said "Hello, Angel Investigations, we help the helpless."
"Hi. My name is Billie Newman, I'd like to make an appointment to see Mister Angel."
"What's it in connection with?"
"I'd really prefer not to discuss it on the phone."
"Okay. We're based in the old Hyperion Hotel, if you'd like to call in he can probably see you."
"When would be convenient?"
"Any time this evening."
"It's seven already."
"Not a problem, he's a night owl."
"I don't normally leave work until after midnight, is there any chance he'll still be around then?"
"I'll check.." There was the clatter of the phone being put down, the noise of heels on a tiled floor, then she faintly heard "Angel, can you see someone late tonight, say one or so? A woman called Billie Newman?"
A man's voice with a faint Irish accent said "Newman? Are you sure?"
"That's odd.. Okay, make sure of the usual, other than that I can be here."
Billie guessed that he'd recognised her name, not surprising if he was responsible for the call from Hoskins. She decided to pretend she hadn't heard anything.
The footsteps came back, and the voice said "Is it a divorce, a lost dog, or industrial espionage?"
"None of them."
"Okay, can I ask who referred you to us?"
"Well, it wasn't exactly a referral, but I heard of your name in connection with Wolfram and Hart."
"Okay... I guess Angel will definitely want to see you then. I'll make sure he keeps tonight clear."
* * * * *
As Billie drove towards the Hyperion she didn't pay much attention to the large white van following her along the almost-deserted roads until it accelerated to overtake her, then suddenly swerved in front of her. Another van was coming up behind. Billie wondered if she was being paranoid, but thought she saw the opening moves of a kidnap attempt. Three years earlier she'd taken a survival training course at Nabbit's expense, following the kidnapping and murder of one of his executives in Argentina, and she thought she could still remember what to do.
Instead of hitting the brakes she floored the accelerator and swerved to avoid the van ahead, cutting it so close that she felt the side of the car thump into the van. For a moment she thought she'd got away with it, then there was a loud bang and her rear tyre blew out. She swerved across the road, doing her best to keep the car under control, then the van rammed her from behind and sent the car skidding towards a row of shops. It ploughed into a mail box and stopped, the air-bag inflating in time to protect Billie from serious injuries. She sat there, dazed, vaguely aware that she could hear someone talking, and tried to focus on what they were saying...
"Get her out and get the other one into the driving seat! Come on, move it."
She looked around blearily and saw a grey-overalled man open the door and start to pull on her arm. She shrieked with pain, vaguely realising that her arm must be broken, and almost passed out. Somehow the pain cleared her thoughts a little.
"Let her go," said a deep voice, and someone shouted "Get him!", then she heard shots, a metallic clang, screams, and silence. There was a hissing noise and the air-bag deflated. She looked up to see the silhouette of a bearded man leaning over her, his face thrown into shadow by the street light behind her.
"Your arm is broken," said a deep voice, "but I don't think there are any other serious injuries. Do you have a telephone?"
"Leave it," said another deep male voice, "we don't have time for this."
"Cellphone's in my bag," Billie murmured.
"Leave her, we have work to do. How do you expect to get your revenge if you stop for every damsel in distress you encounter?"
"A few minutes really don't matter," said the first man. "What is the number for the police, please?"
"911, of course." How the hell could anyone not know that, unless... he sounded vaguely foreign, maybe he really didn't know. He reached into the bag, punched in the number, and waited. "You have to press 'dial'"
"I see, thank you..... Police? A lady has been injured in a car crash at...." Billie felt herself drift into grey unconsciousness, coming out of it again to hear him say "No, nobody else has been injured, but several have been killed. My name? If it matters, my name is Holtz..." then finally drifted off completely.
"Would someone please tell me what's happening at the Tribune?" Billie asked, pressing the button that raised her into a more upright position.
"Things are pretty much okay," said Dennis Price, the picture editor, stealing another grape, "Joe Rossi is on top of things, he's moaning about being overworked trying to keep the foreign desk under control as well as yours, but then he always does."
"That's great, Animal, now what's the real story?"
"Things really are okay."
"Really," echoed Nick Gibson, "We just went over to the schedule we used when you were on vacation, Nabbit authorised us to take on extra people as needed to pick up the slack, and things are jogging along. To be honest, the biggest story right now is your little massacre, and even that's gone quiet in the last few hours."
"Have they identified anyone yet?"
"Five of the guys in overalls," said Tommy Fowler, the crime reporter. "All thugs with records as long as your arm, all of them sliced up. Same for the other three, but they haven't been identified yet."
"What about the woman in the van?"
"The body? No identification."
"Come on, I know there's more."
"You're not going to like it."
"Your height and build, roughly the same age. She was a redhead, she had a broken neck, and there were signs that the body had been refrigerated for some time; days, possibly weeks. Her fingerprints had been removed with acid..."
"You're really not going to like it."
"The pathologist noticed that there was a lot of very new dental work, done within the last day or so. So they compared her teeth to your records. It was an almost perfect match. They think someone got into your files and worked on her to match you. They're checking your dentist for signs of a break-in."
"No. Their best guess is that whoever it was planned to snatch you and leave the body in the car, set it on fire."
"And this guy that rescued me? I think he told the police his name was Holt, something like that? Has he surfaced yet?"
"They think he said Holst, like the composer. Nothing, nobody's ever heard of him. Whoever he was, he was using some sort of sword, they think a sabre, managed to dodge at least four bullets and killed all eight, mostly with single deep slashes, without leaving much in the way of evidence. There are some fingerprints on your phone, but they aren't on record."
"I was rescued by Zorro?"
"Sounds like it, except he didn't leave his initials."
"It's a hell of a story, I hope you're giving it full coverage."
"Six pages. I'd show you, but the nurse made me leave the paper outside, she thought the pictures might upset you."
"Come on guys..."
Animal reached into a deep pocket that usually held a small camera and pulled out some folded pages. Billie looked at them for a few minutes, then said "These are great, but this isn't the whole story. Tommy knows some of this already. Yesterday I was called by a doctor called Hoskins, said he wanted to run some DNA tests to see if I was related to someone...." She explained the circumstances. "I've told the police all this, and given them written permission to look at all my medical records. I'm really curious as to what was in them, if the samples Hoskins has right now match me or that body."
"That's a hell of a thought," said Tommy, "You're thinking that they wanted to slip in a ringer, tell whoever it is, your niece or whatever, that she wasn't related to you?"
"Or that the body in the car was, maybe. I can't really see the point, but I think it could be very interesting to find out. Maybe there's someone else in line to inherit or something, Hoskins said something about this woman being wealthy. The police will probably take their own sweet time telling me, see what you can dig up."
"I can tell you one thing I found out this morning," he said thoughtfully, "what he said about DNA testing was off. If both the people being tested are women they can use a different technique, something called mitochondrial DNA, which gives much more accurate results. It'd be yes or no, not maybe. Either the other person is a man, not a woman, or he was trying to make it sound like there could be doubt for some other reason. Maybe just stalling for time while they got the body ready, I don't know. Should I go see the detective?"
"Angel. You said you were going to see him."
"Maybe it'd be a good idea but better take company, for all we know it's him that's behind all this. Oh, and check out all of the bodies that have been identified for any link to Wolfram and Hart or Angel."
"Okay. Now get some sleep, you've got a broken arm and four busted ribs, the sooner you're out of here and back at work the happier Rossi'll be."
* * * * *
Billie looked up from a crossword to see a young woman carrying a bunch of flowers, some grapes and a stack of magazines. She was in her mid-twenties, beautiful and athletic, wearing casual clothes that looked good but probably weren't designer labels. Billie thought she could see some faint scarring on her hands and arms, and a newly-healed cut on her forehead.
"My name's Cordelia Chase, we spoke on the phone yesterday evening."
Billie said "Did we?" and tried to figure out who she was.
"I don't think you actually got my name. I work for Angel Investigations."
"Oh.. yes, I remember."
"Okay, we were a little worried when you didn't come in last night, then we saw the morning paper and realised what had happened. So I bought you this stuff and dropped by to say 'hi' and find out how you are."
"Can you tell me anything about it? About the accident?"
"That's what I was going to ask you. We just have the newspaper reports to go on, and some things we've heard from the police."
"I can't add much... maybe a little, if you can answer a question for me."
"Why did Angel recognise my name when I called? Does it have anything to do with the DNA tests I took yesterday?"
"I was coming to that. Looks like we picked the wrong doctor, but yes, we arranged them."
"The wrong doctor?"
"Hoskins has dropped out of sight. Supposedly on vacation, but it's a vacation that he's taking without any warning. I have a feeling he won't be coming back. All his records and samples are missing or destroyed."
"Okay, that answers one question. What did you want to know?"
"Why did you mention Wolfram and Hart when you called? For that matter, how did you know to call us?"
"There was a Rolodex on Hoskins' desk open at their number, and I saw part of your company name on a paper he was holding."
"Okay, no big surprise there... Now, about the guy who rescued you..."
"My turn first. Who is it that hired you?"
"I can't give you a name, but I can tell you that she's a friend, someone that I and Angel know pretty well and have done for a long time, that's why she hired us. She had no idea she was adopted until a few weeks ago, then she found out the truth and decided to look for her natural family. What's complicating things is that at the same time she apparently found out that she's getting a huge inheritance. And I really do mean huge. Anyway, when she didn't find anything in her home town she came to us, and we started digging into old files, your sister was the third possibility we found. The first two were negative. Or so Hoskins said, we may have to check them again if your results are negative too."
"It seems very bizarre. She's inheriting from her adopted parents?"
"And some relative of theirs, apparently. Now the guy who rescued you.. the police say his name was Holst, like the composer. Is that what he said? Can you describe him at all?"
"I was pretty much out of it.. tall, a small beard, he had some sort of heavy coat on, and he had a foreign accent, maybe some sort of British regional accent. His name certainly sounded like Holt or Holst. I didn't see the man who was with him at all, I just heard his voice. He kept telling Holst to hurry, to leave me... if he had I'd probably be dead. He had a very deep voice, that's about all I can tell you."
"Did he say anything that might explain why he was there?"
"No... I got the impression it was pure chance, that his friend was annoyed that he'd got involved. Okay, that's two questions I've answered, now it's my turn. Why are you so interested in Holst, and what's your interest in Wolfram and Hart?"
"Okay, the easy question first. You ever see The Usual Suspects, remember Keyser Söze?"
"Sure, what about him?"
"Wolfram and Hart wouldn't represent Keyser Söze.. come to think of it, maybe they would, they'd like the whole evil genius vibe.. but he'd be a little too small-time and noisy for them. They do business with corporations who pay millions to hush up their problems because the bad publicity would set them back billions. The fortune my friend has... they'd go for that. They'd sell their grandmothers for that. That's what this is about. I think they think they see a way to influence someone with that much money, maybe plant someone they control to inherit if she has an unfortunate accident." She mimed quote marks around the last words. "Considering who some of her friends are it'd be a remarkably stupid idea to try it, but they have people who may just be arrogant enough to think that they can get away with it. They also happen to hate Angel, he's ruined too many of their plans, so they keep a close eye on him which is probably how they found out what's going on."
"It's Holtz, tee zee, not Holst. You won't have any records on him, don't waste your time looking. He's one of the good guys, in a way. But Angel did him a terrible wrong years ago, in another country; there's nothing that can ever be done to put matters right, but he's decided to seek revenge any way he can. He only arrived in LA a couple of weeks ago. We think that he's going to go after Angel."
"And by pure chance he rescued me?"
"Chance, destiny, call it what you like. Not as rare as you might think. Okay, my turn. Have you made arrangements for some sort of bodyguard?"
"Do it. We can have someone here in an hour if you like, but I think you'd be happier if you made your own arrangements. Ask David Nabbit, he owns your paper, he'll probably pay for it if you tell him we recommended it."
"You know David Nabbit?"
"We've done some work for him. Now I think that the immediate danger is past, there's no way they'd get away with kidnapping you again now the police are wise to their substitution plan, but I could be wrong. What we'll do, if it's okay with you, is get the DNA testing done again, this time by someone in another city who has no idea what the score is. I've got a kit to take a set of samples, after that it'd be a couple of days to get results."
"Is there really no faster way to settle this?"
"My instinct, my gut feeling, is that you're related to her, but with all that's at stake we have to be sure. It's as much for your protection as for hers."
"If you are related... well, if what I've heard is right you'll be a target. For kidnapping, extortion, every crackpot in the country that wants her money and thinks you might be a way to get at it. It won't happen immediately, this whole thing is very low-profile right now, but sooner or later the crooks and the lunatic fringe will hear about her, and start to look for a way to get at her."
"What you're saying is that I shouldn't put this in the paper."
"I wouldn't if I were you. Or if you do, try not to emphasise the money side of it."
"Now you're really arousing my curiosity."
"If you are related you'll find out soon enough."
"Can I ask one more question? An impertinent personal one?"
"Your hands and arms... what happened?"
Cordelia anxiously examined them, then seemed to relax and said "The scars?"
"Thought you meant I was growing fur or something for a second... You're observant, I heal pretty well and most people tend to tune out that sort of thing if it isn't too obvious. I've been in a few accidents and seen my share of violence. Animal bites and claws, burns, some knife wounds and fencing injuries. You want to see a real beauty, I'll show you where I fell through some stairs and got a piece of rebar through my side and out through my stomach. Odd thing, in a way your niece... if she is your niece... was responsible for that one."
Billie felt ill at the thought of an injury like that. "Jesus. I'm sorry I asked."
"Don't be. I've done the whole 'if I had to do it all over again' thing, and I would in a second, so I can't bitch about the bad side of things. Okay, can I take the samples?"
"Sure, what's a little spit?"
"Okay, I'm not medically qualified so I'm gonna have to work my way through a check list, might take a few minutes. Let me know if you think I'm doing anything wrong..."
* * * * *
Billie waited until Cordelia had gone, scribbled two pages of notes with a little difficulty, then got on the phone. "Hi, Tommy, this is Billie Newman. How did you get on with Angel Investigations?"
"Nothing. He wouldn't see me or talk to me."
"Okay... I was just visited by someone who says she works for them, name of Cordelia Chase. Ring any bells with you?"
"Early to mid twenties, about five six or seven, hazel eyes, brunette, tanned, California accent, beautiful figure? Has some sort of tattoo round her left wrist like a bracelet?"
"I've spoken to her a few times. Comes across as a total ditz, but if you try to get any information out of her she has some very creative ways of not answering. She works for Angel all right, think she's also done some modelling and advertising work. What about her?"
"She told me pretty much what Hoskins did, and that they were the ones that originally hired him. They're going to run the genetic tests again with another doctor. Now there was one interesting remark... she mentioned that she actually knows my alleged niece, and that she was once injured in an accident caused by her. Something about a fall that ended with a piece of rebar through her body."
"I got the idea that the niece isn't from LA, or at least hasn't always lived here, and that Chase's accident happened some time ago, so see if you can find out where Chase comes from, and when and where that happened. Oh, and any other injuries, she has some odd scars on her arms and the explanation was a little vague."
"Still not for publication?"
"Not yet. She told me just enough to make me worry that premature publicity could put people's lives at risk."
"What the hell is going on there?"
"Damned if I know. Oh, one more thing. She says that they think that Zorro's surname is Holtz, ending Ell Tee Zee."
"How does she know that?" She could hear typing as she talked, guessed that he was sending queries to the Tribune's morgue.
"Says that he and Angel are old enemies. Something else you may be able to check."
"Christ, it's a small world."
"That or there are some really strange coincidences going on."
"That's not what I meant. Got a quick hit on Chase, you're gonna love this... social column mentions her as dating David Nabbit a couple of times a year or so ago."
"Our David Nabbit? David Nabbit who owns the Trib?"
"Says she doesn't see the relationship going anywhere because he's - and I quote - 'A total nerd.' end quote. That seems to be all we have on her at the paper, but I'll see what else I can scare up. Oh, the guys that tried to kidnap you... four so far have been defended by Wolfram and Hart and associated companies at least once, the others we don't know yet."
Billie ended the call and leafed through the magazines Cordelia had bought. Vogue, the New Yorker, Newsweek, the Weekly World News, Rolling Stone and Cosmopolitan. She snorted at the Weekly World News headlines "Lesbian Alien Witch Was Own Mother" and "Vampire Dies Giving Birth To Love-Child" and tossed it in the trash can, then started to read Newsweek.
After a few minutes she put the magazine to one side, called Nabbit, and asked him to arrange protection.
"What was the name again?" Billie asked two days later.
"Sunnydale," said Tommy, stealing a chocolate from the box on her bedside table. "Small town a couple of hours up the coast. Not to be confused with Sunnyvale, which is a lot further."
"Think I've heard of it... Where everyone started singing and dancing a couple of months ago?"
"That's the place, there's still scientists going nuts trying to work that one out, best theory is drugs in the water combined with subliminal TV messages, except that they haven't found a trace of either. It's also the town where everyone came down with laryngitis two years ago and someone murdered half-a-dozen people who had no way to let anyone know they were being attacked. Place has a lot of problems with gang-related violence and a very high homicide rate. Anyway, I got into the high school web site and the local paper's morgue. Cordelia Chase was born in 1981, wealthy parents, attended Sunnydale High School. Cheerleader, reasonable academic record, high SATS score. Her father was busted for tax fraud a few weeks before she graduated so she couldn't afford college. Sources here say she moved to LA, spent some time looking for film work, then joined Angel Investigations and is still employed by them."
"Did you get anywhere with her medical records?"
"Not exactly, but there was a story in the paper; she was hospitalized in ninety-eight for an abdominal wound following a fall."
"Get anything on the circumstances?"
"Trespassing in an abandoned factory, fell through some stairs. She's also mentioned as one of the people injured at the high school in ninety-nine, there was a gas leak and it blew up during the graduation ceremony."
"Damn, I knew there was another reason I'd heard of the place. Any explanation for all the other injuries?"
"Maybe she was involved in the gangs."
"Could be. Okay, that implies that my niece, if that's who she is, was also in Sunnydale at the time, because Chase said she was responsible for her fall. My guess would be someone she knew socially, maybe in high school. She'd be in the same year at high school so that seems the most likely relationship. Can you get a list of students in the graduating class?"
"No problem, like I said the school isn't there but there's a web site."
"The other thing we could look for is obituaries, they said her parents died a few weeks ago so maybe there's something there. Both parents dead, one daughter aged twenty-one surviving them."
"Or you could ask me," said a voice from the doorway.
"Miss Chase," said Billie, "We were just..."
"Digging into my private life to see what falls out?"
"Err.. yes, I'm afraid so."
"Well good for you," she said sarcastically, "it's nice to see people making an effort. Of course if you really want to meet your niece you could just ask me nicely."
"You've got the results?"
"Yep." Cordelia smiled, showing perfect teeth. "You're an aunt. Congratulations, I guess."
"So who is she, and when do I meet her?"
"Okay, that's the tricky part. She's a student and has tests this week, she can't get free until the weekend. Today's Wednesday, when do you get out of here?"
"Some time Friday if all goes well."
"That's pretty good. What she's suggested is that you meet up with her in LA. If you want to do that she can stay at the Hyperion for the weekend -- we're not open for business as a hotel but we do have a few rooms redecorated -- travelling back for classes on Monday. You could meet there and get acquainted."
"That sounds perfect. What can you tell me about her?"
"Okay, let's see. First thing, she says please don't put anything into your paper until you've met her and heard the whole story about her adopted parents. She didn't say why. I'd be interested to hear that one for myself."
"Well, it depends on what she tells me. For now I'll say yes. Tommy, you don't have anything ready to run at the moment, do you?"
"Zilch. But you've got me feeling really curious now."
"Let's say that we'll discuss this on Monday, see if we have a story or not. Okay?"
"Fine. I guess that means you want me out of here."
"Until I know the full story. I'm sorry."
"I guess it's understandable, but don't forget we've a paper to sell." He snapped her a mock salute, stole another chocolate, and prepared to leave.
"On your way out," said Cordelia, "better remind those guards you have out there that they want to do more than look at a visitor's legs when they're guarding someone. Even if she's a hottie." She put the word in quotes.
"Okay, I'll tell them."
"Sit down," said Billie, "and tell me about my niece. Chocolate?"
"Okay... mmm, Belgian, nice."
"David Nabbit sent them with the guards."
"He can afford the best. The best chocolate, anyway. Wish I'd hit it off with him."
"Why didn't you?"
"Honest truth? He's a total dork and incredibly boring, there just wasn't any sort of spark between us. He needs a nice quiet girl who's interested in computers and likes to play Dungeons and Dragons, but I only know two girls that are even vaguely like that, and one of them is gay and the other is committed to another guy, and both like more excitement in their lives. Anyway, what did you want to know?"
"Okay. Her name is Willow, Willow Rosenberg. She's about five six, a redhead with green eyes. I'll be honest, she doesn't look that much like you."
"Do you have a picture?"
"I thought you might ask." Cordelia dug into her handbag and pulled out a plastic wallet. "This first one is Willow on her own, her last high school year-book photo."
"Oh.. you're right, she doesn't look much like me, but there's a strong resemblance to my sister at that age. Could you pour me a glass of water?"
"Sure, here you go. Sorry, I didn't realise it would upset you to see her."
"I'm not upset, just... it reminded me of her. I think I would have guessed we were related if I'd met her. I'd like to think so, anyway."
"Here's a more recent photo, the last time I was in Sunnydale."
"She's pretty, looks even more like my sister.. but so sad."
"It was at the funeral of a friend, not the best time for taking photos but I wasn't sure I'd ever be going to Sunnydale again."
"Oh. I suppose under the circumstances..."
"Okay, this next one is much earlier, some of us in the high school library a couple of months before graduation. The older guy behind us is Rupert Giles, he's British, he was the librarian at Sunnydale High. He's still a good friend of Willow's although he moved back to England a couple of months ago. That's me on the left, then Xander Harris, he's pretty much Willow's best friend, used to be my boyfriend, then Willow and her boyfriend Oz..."
"Daniel Osbourne. They're not together any more, haven't been for a couple of years, last I heard he was seeking enlightenment in Tibet. Next we have Buffy Summers, another of Willow's friends. Mister tall, dark, and broody next to her is my boss..."
"Angel? I'm sorry, I shouldn't keep interrupting."
"Not a problem, Angel is paying my wages, so I don't care how long it takes. Anyway, yeah, that's Angel. He and Buffy had this whole doomed romance thing going back then but it didn't work out."
"Long story, but basically he's older than he looks and she was kinda immature. I don't think it would have ever worked, they had this love-hate-love relationship and his old girlfriends kept showing up and causing problems, so in the end they split. He came to LA and went into the private eye business while Willow, Buffy, and Oz went to UC Sunnydale..."
"Who's the dark-haired girl on the end?"
"Oh.. that's Faith, she was kinda a bad girl then, got into serious stuff later. She's in jail now."
"I think Tommy mentioned her... didn't Angel persuade her to surrender to the police?"
"That's right. Of course she nearly broke my jaw first, but she is trying to make amends. I guess." She didn't sound too sure. "I think that Wes took the picture, he used to work with Giles, then started working for Angel a while after I did."
"Why the exodus to Los Angeles?"
"I just wanted out of Sunnydale, Angel wanted a clean break from Buffy to end their relationship, and Wes had no job and went off looking for freelance work. Neither of us intended to end up working for Angel, we just ran into him when we needed work. Then Faith was on the run and wound up in LA, and Angel talked her into surrendering. It's what he does, help people any way he can."
"He sounds very... dedicated. "
"He is, kinda broody and intense. Hero type." She turned the next picture to show another group, this time in an old-fashioned looking shop. "Okay, this is the Magic Box, a shop that Giles ran in Sunnydale for a while. Specialised in occult books and materials. I think this was the day they opened it. That's Giles and Anya behind the counter, she's just married Xander and runs the shop now, the girl next to Willow is Tara McClay, she's another student at UC Sunnydale, then there's Buffy, her boyfriend Riley Finn, they're not together now, and her sister Dawn. I think Xander must have been taking the photo, it's kinda tilted."
She turned to another photo "Okay, this is the most recent photo I have, Anya and Xander's wedding three weeks ago. Willow was the best man, which was kinda odd since they had her dressed as a bridesmaid, but it apparently went okay. Wish I could have been there. The bridesmaids are Buffy, Dawn, Tara, and a friend of Anya, forget her name. Holly, something like that."
"She seems to have a dreadful rash." There was something very odd about her face too, but Billie didn't like to say anything.
"Some sort of birth defect, I think."
"Willow said she's used to it, does charity work with children."
"She's very brave."
"I guess. Well, that's about it for the photos, what else can I tell you?"
"Everything. What does she study, what's she like, what does she like to do, what are her plans for the future?"
"Let's see... her parents... sorry, her adopted parents... were Jewish, both of them were psychologists. I think they loved her but both of them had incredibly busy lives, spent a lot of time at conferences and lecturing once she was old enough to leave on her own."
"What happened to them?"
"That's something Willow's gonna have to explain, and not just to you. I'm not in on the full story yet. All I know is that somehow they've left her millions."
"Okay. Is Willow a practicing Jew? I don't want to make any silly mistakes, like taking her to a restaurant that isn't kosher. And won't she want to go to a synagogue on Saturday?"
"She got into Wicca, I think that's pretty much all the religion she has these days, but it's probably worth checking about the kosher thing. Okay, let's see, she's a brain, had the highest SATS scores in Sunnydale High that year, she could have got into pretty much any college in the country but she didn't want to leave her friends. I think she's majoring in computer science, minors in psychology, drama, four or five other subjects. From what I heard she's getting A's and A+ in everything. She's also the best hacker I've ever met."
"It sounds like she should be dating David Nabbit."
There was an uncomfortable silence, then Billie said "Oh... I take it that Willow isn't the one that's committed to another man."
"Umm.. No, she isn't."
"I thought you said she had a boyfriend."
"After Oz split she found herself falling for someone else. Tara. They've been together for a couple of years."
"You're very frank."
"Last year I said something to her that was probably pretty hurtful because nobody had bothered to keep me in the loop. I wouldn't want that to happen to you. I think Willow will tell you pretty quickly, until that happens you might want to avoid mentioning it."
Billie said "Thank you... it's probably good that you told me," and leafed back to the Magic Box photo and considered it. Cordelia said "Tara's pretty, kinda big-boned, but close to zero for fashion sense. Kinda old-style new-age look, suppose it comes from the Wicca influence."
"Will she be with Willow this weekend? I'd like to meet her."
"I think so. Willow said there were four of them coming down, I think it's Willow and Tara, her secretary, and the secretary's boyfriend."
"Willow needs a secretary?"
"She's just started, she's looking after Willow's business interests, her inheritance, it's apparently going to be a full-time job. April something, I haven't met her yet. Reminds me, Willow said that they might have to disappear for a short business meeting at some point, probably Saturday afternoon or early evening."
"That's a shame."
"Penalty of being rich, I guess."
"I guess. What about her personality?"
"Okay. On the surface sweet, shy, kinda a science nerd. Underneath I suppose... tough, incredibly stubborn and determined, spiritual, resourceful, ridiculously loyal to her friends... apart from the time she had a moment of madness and I caught her kissing Xander, about which the less said the better, I was running from the sight of that when I fell through the floor and got impaled... she's found a way of life she likes, I guess, but it's kinda left her with no roots now she knows she's adopted, and I think that's what she's looking for."
"And she's found me."
"Yeah. I think she'll want to get to know you and any other family, just to know that there's someone there, then pretty much stay out of your hair."
"You don't think she'll be looking for a closer relationship?"
"I think she'll leave that to you. My guess, don't push it too much, get to know each other before you start looking to get cosy, otherwise you might scare her off."
"You ever feel like giving up detective work, try the Trib and see if we're looking for an advice columnist. It pays reasonably well and I think you'd be good at it. Does she have any likes and dislikes?"
"Let's see... she likes mochas, chocolate generally, kittens, pastels. Dislikes... oh yeah, she's scared of frogs and gets stage fright."
"Frogs. Go figure."
"Okay, I wasn't exactly planning to bring any along with me. If she gets stage fright why is she taking drama?"
"Damned if I know..."
* * * * *
After Cordelia left Billie tried to get back to her reading, but had barely started when there was a soft knock on the door, and an Asiatic-looking man entered accompanied by a tall slim brunette. Both wore smart business suits.
"I'm Gavin Park, and this is Lilah Morgan, of Wolfram and Hart. It has come to our attention that reporters of the Los Angeles Tribune have been spreading malicious rumours that the men responsible for the attempt to kidnap you were in our company's employ." He produced an envelope and handed it to her. "This is a court order signed by Judge Francis of the District Court instructing you to cease and desist from such activities forthwith. I hereby serve you with it."
"When you say 'spreading malicious rumours'," said Billie, taking the papers, "I take it that your definition would include looking for evidence of a link between your firm and these men."
"And when you say 'you', you mean me specifically?"
"Very well. When I get back to work I'll certainly take heed. But since I'm currently on sick leave and have no immediate intention of returning to work I'm afraid that there's nothing I can do to help you. Have a nice day."
"What?" said Park, confused.
"I'm on sick leave. Therefore I'm not in a position to give anyone at the Tribune any orders. Have a nice day." She returned to her magazine. After a minute or so of being ignored Park left, and Lilah began a polite handclap.
"Was there something else you wanted?" Billie asked eventually.
"I was just enjoying the moment," said Lilah. "Gavin's a bug, and more often than not an incompetent bug. It's nice to see him squashed occasionally."
"And you knew it was going to happen," Billie said with absolute certainty.
"I had a feeling."
"How nice. Excuse me a moment." Billie picked up the phone, dialled Joe Rossi, and said "Joe, I know I'm on sick leave but I thought I'd like to make a small suggestion... I've just been visited by some lawyers from Wolfram and Hart, they seem to be under the mistaken impression that I'm in a position to tell our reporters what to do... They've given me a court order and told me I can't investigate their links to the people who tried to kidnap me. Since I'm on sick leave I'd imagine they'll be going back to Judge Francis or someone else they've bought looking for another court order, against you or the Trib itself... You might want to have some reporters in court, maybe from a few other papers too, and make sure that this gets the coverage that it should... Yeah, should make a very interesting story. Pity I won't be there to edit it... yes, you too. 'Bye."
"That's just... peachy," said Lilah, "It's almost a pity I'll have to tell him not to be an ass. He's lost this one, he'll just have to accept it."
"You don't sound too worried."
"It's Gavin's project, not mine. Personally, I have better things to do with my life than take on... never mind, give my love to Angel when you see him."
"Certainly. Was there anything else?"
"Nope, that was it. Good afternoon." She left, leaving Billie feeling puzzled. Why were they being so blatant? And what had she said, "I have better things to do with my life than take on... "; take on what? The Trib? Angel Investigations?
Or did she mean Willow?
There was something that Cordelia had said two days before, that she'd forgotten to ask about... she found her notebook and read through her record of their earlier meeting, remembering enough to piece together roughly what she'd said... "Considering who her friends are it'd be stupid to try it, but they may be arrogant enough to think that they can get away with it."
Who were Willow's friends, and what the hell was going on?
Billie got home later than she'd expected on Friday evening; the doctors had insisted on a long series of x-rays and tests, to make sure that her bones were beginning to knit properly where they'd pinned them. She wondered if they'd be taking that much trouble if David Nabbit wasn't footing the bills. Two of his rent-a-cops drove her home and checked the house before she went in, made her promise to set the alarm, and said they'd be back to escort her in the morning.
Billie was tired, but she wanted to get some research done before heading to bed. She wanted to know more about Sunnydale and Willow Rosenberg before she met her. Some information on the other oddities around her would also be nice; Holtz, Angel, Wolfram and Hart. If she'd been at work she would have sent down to the morgue and set some research assistants to work; as it was she thought about cooking, remembered her arm, phoned out for pizza and went on-line with her computer.
About twenty minutes later the doorbell rang and she went to answer it. The pizza boy was waiting outside, and she thanked him and tipped him for his speed; as she was about to shut the door a shadow loomed on the path, and a half-familiar voice said "Might I trouble you for a moment, miss Newman?"
Billie almost dropped the pizza, but said "Certainly. Come in, mister Holtz."
"You're most kind." Holtz stepped into the light. Billie had half-expected an anticlimax, but if anything he was more impressive than she remembered. A good-looking man in his forties, wearing a long brown coat in a style she vaguely thought was called a frock coat, he somehow had an oddly piratical air. "If you'd like to come into the kitchen I can offer you some of this pizza, I think I ordered way too much. And there's some wine in the fridge."
"You seem remarkably calm, miss Newman," he said, following her into the kitchen. As he walked she thought that she could see something rigid under his coat; a sword?
"Why shouldn't I be? You saved my life, or at least saved me from being kidnapped. You killed eight men to do it, which isn't so good, but I'd be stupid to be ungrateful. Sorry there's no meat on this, I'm a vegetarian. There are knives and forks and a pizza cutter in the drawer behind you."
"What would the cutter look like?"
Billie wondered again where Holtz came from, that he didn't know something like that. "A sharp metal disk with a handle. Oh, and see if you can find a corkscrew there." She took a bottle of red wine and a pot of grated Parmesan cheese out of the fridge, and got two glasses and plates.
"Ah, I have them."
"Would you mind cutting a few slices and helping with the bottle? This arm's getting in the way."
"Of course. This smells very good, what is it?"
"Three cheeses, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, capers, that sort of thing. Hope there's nothing you're allergic to. And there ought to be a bag with some slices of garlic bread. Pepper's in the mill on the table, if you could put sprinkle a little onto the pizza it'll be good."
Holtz efficiently cut the pizza into eighths, put three on Billie's plate, and took one for himself, and fiddled with the pepper mill for a moment before she told him to twist the top. Billie poured two large glasses of wine, and took a sip. "Not too bad. Cheers."
Holtz sipped a little, raised his eyebrows, and said "Your health. Spanish?"
"What can I do for you, mister Holtz?"
"Tell me why Angelus is so interested in you. I thought it was chance that we met, but now I learn that his employee has visited you, and your reporters have tried to see him."
"Do you mean Angel? Angel investigations?"
"Okay... briefly, twenty-odd years ago my sister was run over and killed in Santa Barbara. When her body was examined the doctors learned that she'd recently given birth, but the child was never found. We'd been out of touch for more than a year, and we never learned what had happened to the child or who the father was."
"And Angelus' part in this?"
"He was hired by a girl who recently learned that she had been adopted. Apparently she was found abandoned when she was a few hours old. She paid Angel to look for relatives, eventually he learned that my sister might be the mother. They hired a doctor to make some tests and apparently she's my niece. It looks like the people who tried to kidnap me were somehow interested in that, the doctor who tested me seems to have been working with them, but nobody is quite sure why." She didn't think it was a good idea to mention that Willow was a friend of Angel, or discuss the money.
"That was a very concise summary."
"I'm a journalist, it's my job to get the facts straight. Now it's my turn, Miss Chase asked me about you. Why are they so interested in you?"
"Because Angelus knows I plan to seek revenge for the murder of my wife and children and the rest of his victims."
"Why don't you go to the police?"
"Because they wouldn't believe me, or punish him as he deserves."
Billie thought over what Cordelia had said; that Angel had done Holtz a terrible wrong that could never be put right. She hadn't expected this. Unless...
"When you say murder, was it something he did himself, or did his actions lead to their murder indirectly?"
"He killed them, miss Newman. He and his bitch Darla murdered them. She's escaped me, but Angelus will pay."
"Oh... Maybe if you could tell me the circumstances..."
"Angelus is a monster, miss Newman, a monster that walks as a man. He will tell you otherwise, that he has reformed and seeks redemption for his crimes. If that was true he would have long since taken his own life."
"When did he kill them?"
"Many years ago and in another country."
"Miss Chase said something like that, that he'd done you a terrible wrong years ago. It doesn't really answer the question."
"You're not ready for the truth. Not yet. Speak to Angelus, find out what he really is. Then you'll be ready to believe me."
"Okay... I'm meeting my niece at his offices tomorrow, I'll see what he says. What about Wolfram and Hart and the kidnappers?"
He finished a second slice of pizza and drank more wine, then said "This is good. Wolfram and Hart?"
"Lawyers. We think they hired the men who tried to kidnap me, but there's no proof."
"Curious. I know nothing of this."
"Gavin Park? Lilah Morgan?"
"I've met miss Morgan. She also dislikes Angelus, but lacks commitment. She spends money to harass him, but fears to risk her own life. I do not."
"I got the impression that she's scared of him."
"She should be." He ate more of the pizza; Billie noticed that he used his knife and fork like an European, not an American.
"Where are you from?" she asked eventually.
"Currently Los Angeles. Previously Britain, France, Italy, a dozen other countries, wherever the search took me."
"For Angel... sorry, you were saying Angelus."
"That's right. I thought I had lost him for good, but I was offered a chance to deal with him once and for all, and that bought me to this city."
"You realise that I'll have to report this to the police?"
"Why?" He seemed genuinely curious.
"You've just told me that you plan to kill someone, and they're already looking for you for killing those men when you rescued me. It's my duty to tell them I've seen you again."
"And if you don't?"
"If they find out... oh, possibly arrest as an accessory, almost certainly my paper would lose some of its friends on the police force. If they don't.. well, I'd have Angel's death on my conscience if you succeed and I could have helped to stop you."
"You consider your conscience to be important?"
"Certainly. And I can promise you one thing; you need never feel responsible for his death. When you know more you will know why. And I can also promise you that Angelus will not thank you for police involvement."
"I'm beginning to get seriously annoyed with these riddles. Do you think anyone is going to give me the plain unvarnished truth any time soon?"
"I doubt it, but soon I shall try. I think that's all I have to say to you tonight; bon appetit, I'll let myself out."
Once he was gone Billie shuddered for a moment, knowing that he could have killed her in an instant if he'd wanted to, made some notes while their conversation was fresh in her mind, then called the police.
* * * * *
Billie had never been in the Hyperion, but she'd heard stories about the place. One of the most luxurious hotels of the forties and fifties, it closed after a string of suicides ended in mass-murder. In the eighties Joe Rossi had spent a couple of days camped out in the derelict building, interviewing the drifters who sheltered there, he'd come out so tired and depressed that he'd needed a weekend to recover.
At ten on Saturday one of the detectives David Nabbit had supplied walked Billie to the door, then went back to her car once she was safely inside. She suspected that he wanted to stay with her throughout the day, but there was no way she intended to have her first meeting with her niece upset by an armed guard.
The lobby of the Hyperion was impressive, but empty. There was a smell of fresh paint and solvents, and somewhere Billie could hear people talking. She looked around, shrugged, winced with pain as she remembered why her arm was in a sling, and went to the reception desk and rang the bell.
A skinny dark-haired girl came out of a side office, carrying a coffee mug, and said "Oh... Can I help you?" in a strong Texas accent.
"Billie Newman, I'm here to see Willow Rosenberg."
"Oh, Cordy said... you're her aunt, right?"
"I'm Winifred Burkle, call me Fred. I think she's in the garden, if you'all can wait just a second I'll show you."
She hustled into another room, a few seconds later a tall man with spiky dark hair came out. Billie recognised Angel. He said "Miss Newman, it's good to meet you at last," and came over to shake hands. He had cool dry hands, and a firm but gentle grip.
"Mister Angel, it's kind of you to arrange this."
"It's my pleasure. I owe Willow a lot, it's good to be able to help her. And maybe you'll be able to help me a little, at some point I'd be grateful if we could talk about the kidnap attempt. Maybe later, when Willow goes to her meeting."
"Of course. I have some questions of my own. I was visited by a gentleman named Holtz last night, he told me that you killed his family and that he seeks revenge. I really would love to know more."
"Yes, the police were here this morning, told me you'd been troubled again. I can only apologise, this is my problem, not yours."
"That doesn't really tell me much. I do have a lot of questions."
"I'd imagine you do, I hope I'll be able to answer some of them, but I expect you'd like to meet Willow first. Fred, show Miss Newman to the garden, and remind Cordy that Connor shouldn't be out in the sun too long."
"It's okay, Angel, the canopy's up on the chair, and you know how careful Cordy is. He'll be fine."
"I know, it's just..."
"Relax, he'll be fine."
"First child?" asked Billie, as Fred led her through the hotel.
"That's right, and Darla died when he was born. He's kinda over-protective, we're trying to wean him from hovering over the poor babe all the time."
The garden was beautiful, and a little crowded. Cordelia was sitting next to a stroller, and two other women were kneeling in front of it, their backs to Billie. She saw that one of them had red hair, and realised that she must be Willow. A third woman, a brunette with the look of a model, stood nearby talking to three men, one black and two white.
"Willow," shouted Fred, "Your aunt is here!"
"Thanks for the gentle introduction," said Cordelia, as Willow tried to stand and turn simultaneously and nearly fell over. The woman next to her, who Billie recognised as Tara, steadied her. "Willow," said Cordelia, "this is Billie Newman. Miss Newman, I'd like you to meet Willow Rosenberg."
"Hi," Willow said tentatively, getting to her feet properly and walking over to meet her. "I guess we lost track of the time, I meant to be inside to meet you."
"Hello," said Billie. "It's... um... you look a lot like Janice... your mother..." and to her horror burst into tears.
* * * * *
"Would you like some herbal tea?" asked Willow, once Billie was a little recovered. Willow and Fred had helped her to a comfortable bench on the shady side of the garden. "or something else? Coffee? A mocha?" Most of the men had hastily disappeared, leaving Cordelia and Tara with the baby, and the other woman talking to the one remaining man, who reminded Billie of a young Tom Cruise but was taller, on the far side of the garden.
"Tea sounds good," said Billie. Fred left to get it. "I'm sorry, I thought I was ready for this, but I guess I was wrong. I hadn't expected you to remind me of her so much, somehow. You even dress a little like her."
"And that's because Willow's fashion sense was formed when she was about five," said Cordelia, gently rocking the stroller.
"Ten at least," said Willow.
"If you insist," said Cordelia, turning to talk to Tara.
"Sorry about that," said Willow, "We've been having this argument since we were twelve or so."
"It broke the ice," said Billie, "I really wouldn't worry too much about her opinion, I think that look is right for you."
"I guess. What was my mother like?"
Somehow Billie knew that Willow wanted the unvarnished truth. "Bright, a little lazy, and a little wild. We thought she was doing well at college, then her grades began to slip and she suddenly took off. I think she just decided that she wanted to do something different for a while." She reached into her bag and pulled out a wallet of photos. "This is her. You can see what I meant about her looks."
"She was a lot more attractive than I am," said Willow, leafing through them. While she was looking Fred bought out tea for both of them and went back inside.
"I really don't think so. The last two pictures are your grandparents, I'm afraid they're both dead."
"And my father?"
"We don't know. You've got to remember that in the early eighties things were a little different; people were more promiscuous than they are now, and we were only just becoming aware of things like AIDS. There wasn't a steady boyfriend while she was at UCLA. We've never been able to learn anything about her movements beyond the first month or so after she left, after this length of time we probably never will, so it's pretty much a dead end. You would have been conceived about three months after she dropped out of sight, I guess, so presumably someone she met on her travels."
"I guess it was too much to hope for. Do I have any other relatives?"
"None in my family. As I said Mom and Dad are both dead. There are a couple of second cousins I haven't heard from in years, that's about it. How about you? What about your adoptive family?"
Willow took a deep breath. "That's a long and kinda complicated story. I thought they were my real parents, thought I knew them, a few weeks ago I found out that everything I thought I knew about them was a lie... no, that's not quite right, that it was the least important part of their lives. They really were psychologists, but their careers were... I guess you'd call it a cover. They genuinely did want a child, but at the same time I made them look more plausible. And that's about all I can tell you about them, except that they're gone."
"A cover? They were... spies, or something?"
"Not exactly. This is where it gets complicated. I've had to agree not to discuss the details of this with anyone, and I do mean anyone, who doesn't have a good reason to know. A few of my friends know all of it. I'm going to be asking for permission to tell you, but I already know that one of the conditions will be that the whole story never gets into the papers. Part of the problem is the money..."
"Cordelia said something about an inheritance."
"I'm a billionaire. Several times over."
"What?" said Billie, and was echoed by Cordelia. Connor began to cry, and Cordelia wheeled him inside.
"Goddess knows I didn't ask for it. A few years ago my uncle died... the guy I thought was my uncle, anyway... and it took a long while to unravel his finances. Horrendously complicated overseas investments, so complicated that governments were involved. I had no idea what was going on until after my parents were gone, then I was approached and told about it. The deal we've agreed is that they're taking over the management of the original assets, basically buying me out and leaving me free to do what I like with the capital as it becomes available. April's mostly investing it into technological startups, long-term research projects, that sort of thing."
"April Summers, my secretary. She's over there in the green dress, talking to her boyfriend, Tom Zapf."
"Miss Chase mentioned a Buffy Summers; is April a relative?"
"Buffy's my best friend, and Tara and I share a house with her and her sister in Sunnydale. April's her cousin.. adopted cousin, it's a long story... she's got some unusual qualifications for the job, starting with a photographic memory."
"And Tara?" asked Billie, trying to hide her knowledge.
"Tara," said Willow, raising her voice slightly, "could you come over a minute, sweetie... Billie, this is Tara McClay, she's... well, I suppose the best way to put it is that we're a couple."
"I'm pleased to meet you," said Billie, offering Tara a hand. Tara blushed and smiled, and said "It's a pleasure. I'm sorry if Willow's startled you, we both thought it would be best to be honest about this from the outset."
"I'm... well, saves me from having to worry about the traditional aunt's job of playing matchmaker, I guess."
"Yeah," said Willow, giggling, "it certainly does that."
"How long have you two been together?" asked Billie.
"A couple of years now."
"That's good. You're both at college?"
"That's right," said Tara. "But we have a lot of interests in common aside from that."
"I'm sorry," said Billie, "I've known you about twenty minutes and I'm already behaving like a nosy aunt. I'll be talking about 'young people' in a minute."
"It's good that you're taking an interest," said Willow, "it's more than Sheila and Ira ever did..."
"Sit down," said Billie, "then it'll be easier to embarrass you both."
"Maybe later," said Tara, "You two need to get to know each other first, and I want to talk to Angel about a blessing ceremony for Connor." She went inside.
"Cordelia said something about Wicca," Billie said hesitantly.
"We're both pretty much committed to it. We came to it by very different routes but it's one of the things that bought us together... well, that and hating the campus Wicca group at UC Sunnydale. Bunch of wanna-blessed-be's, more interested in bake sales than the spirit."
"I'm afraid I don't know much about it... is there anything that I shouldn't do or say, or give you to eat if you visit? Come to think of it, I understand you were bought up Jewish, should I get kosher food?"
"No, there's nothing like that, not in Wicca. As for Judaism, we did keep kosher at home and I took sandwiches into school, but it was almost impossible in college and I stopped trying eventually."
"Well, if it helps at all the family are nominally Episcopalian, but your mother and I were never really religious."
"It certainly adds to the confusion. Hey, that means I can watch the Snoopy Christmas show without feeling guilty... sorry, long story."
"I get the impression that there are a lot of long stories. Everyone I've met since I first heard that you might be alive has dropped odd hints, and even leaving aside the kidnap attempt and Holtz and the evil lawyers..."
"Wolfram and Hart; they served an injunction on me instructing me to stop investigating links between them and the kidnappers. As I was saying, they dropped some hints about your friends, so did Cordelia, so did Holtz, and the web searches I did on Sunnydale last night were so odd that I'm beginning to think that there really is something in the water, whatever the scientists say. If I promise not to print anything, would you please tell me what's going on?"
"I can tell you a lot of it, but you're not gonna like it... you're certainly not gonna be able to publish it."
Willow took a deep breath. "Okay, vampires and magic and demons are real, Sunnydale was built over the mouth of Hell by an immortal magician who had a hundred-year plan to become a giant demonic snake, and Wolfram and Hart serve the forces of darkness."
"I can tell that this is gonna take a while..."
"I still can't believe you already knew about vampires and demons," said Willow, half an hour later.
"Of course I do. I've been a reporter in this town for nearly thirty years and I've seen a few things in that time, things we can never put in the Trib. Most reporters, most good ones anyway, know something about it, we just don't talk about it much. Those that do tend not to last long in the business, or end up working for papers like the National Enquirer or the Weekly World News."
"There's a, I guess I'd call it a climate of disbelief. More, there's active hostility to the information. Most people really don't want to know these things, won't talk about them. The police, emergency services, everyone else that deals with them always comes up with other explanations, makes it almost impossible to put stories together. Then there's the hate factor. If we ever really publicised these things, and enough people believed us, there'd be species riots that'd make the race riots of the seventies look like a friendly snowball fight, and most of the victims would be human or creatures that aren't doing much harm. Oh, I know that there are total monsters out there, vampires and the rest, but most of them just seem to be trying to get by, same as everyone else."
"Wow, and there was I assuming that the papers in Sunnydale were just totally clueless."
"They are. I took a look at their web site, recognised a few names. Rejects from every major paper in California, I guess it's the only work they could get."
"Can't say I'm surprised. Umm, you should maybe know that not all vampires are totally evil. I know one that isn't, he got his soul back, and another one that kinda gave up on being evil but still has problems with being good. It's a good rule of thumb, almost always true, but there are exceptions."
"That's interesting, but what about the rest of what you've told me?"
"What parts are you still having trouble with?"
"Well, I know magic exists although I've never actually seen it in action, I think it's the giant snake and the mouth of Hell being in California that bother me."
"'Fraid it's all true."
"And you used to be a witch? And Tara still is?"
"I still have the mojo but I'm non-practicing, except for self-defence. Tara's kinda taken over as the family witch, she's never been addicted the way I was so she can handle it without giving in to temptation."
"And your friend Buffy is a super-warrior who fights demons and vampires but can't keep a job?"
"Fighting evil kinda sucks when it keeps screwing up your career prospects, but that's the way it's been for her. She's okay right now, got a big reward for busting the nerds I mentioned, she's going back to college. And something tells me that the college is gonna be very generous with its grants over the next few years, as soon as I finish setting up a few endowment funds with kinda specific targets. By the time she graduates there ought to be a few jobs she's suited for in the businesses I'm gonna be setting up. Assuming that she doesn't want to do something else, of course."
"You're right, there's no way that any of this could go in the paper. Okay, let's say for now that I'm believing all of this, there's just one question. What does all this have to do with your inheritance?"
"This is the part that's difficult to explain, especially since there's portions of it I can't talk about. Briefly, wishes can change reality, and there are vengeance demons that can grant them, except that they always twist them to cause the worst possible outcome. Two years ago their boss kinda head-hunted me as a possible recruit. I'd made a huge mess with my magic, more or less accidentally, and he thought I'd make a good vengeance demon. You with me so far?" Billie nodded. "I turned him down, then a couple of months ago Tara was murdered..."
"Tara was murdered and I couldn't save her. Tried magic, didn't get anywhere because it was natural means that killed her, not magic, then I thought of the vengeance demons. So I summoned their boss, thinking I'd make a wish that'd bring her back to life. Instead he offered me a job as a vengeance demon, and like an idiot I took it."
"Why an idiot?"
"Because vengeance demons can't grant their own wishes, and because something about being one messes up your sense of right and wrong."
"So you couldn't make a wish?"
"I could only grant other people's wishes. But even as a vengeance demon I was kinda sneaky. I found someone making a wish that could change my past and granted it, thinking that it might make things come out differently. It did, but it turned out that I had no memory of the way things had originally been, and the change wasn't big enough to save Tara, so I ended up as a vengeance demon again. Must have gone through that cycle eight or ten times until I changed things just enough. One of the changes was that I got my memories back and learned what had happened in my other lives. Another part was that something happened to Sheila. It was her wish that I granted a couple of times including the last; I didn't know it was her, there were good reasons why I didn't recognise her at the time, but that's kinda beside the point. The change she wished for threw her back through time, kinda merged her with me. I have all of her memories. So when the government guys came looking for her they found me, I could help sort out the mess, and that's why I'm suddenly rolling in cash. It's a lot more complicated than that, but that's enough to give you the basic idea."
Billie tried to imagine it, but the thought of changing time made her head hurt. The worst of it was that she was sure that Willow was telling her the truth, or at least believed that she was.
"What happened to the murderer?"
"Warren? One of the things about vengeance demons is that their spells always punish someone. No exceptions. He was already a criminal, led that nerd gang, in this time-line he suddenly started having really bad luck, incredible coincidences that left him broke and on the run and eventually killed him. I didn't have vengeance demon powers and I couldn't have stopped it if I'd wanted to. Buffy actually tried to rescue him, but he kept making things worse. I can't really say I'm sorry it ended the way it did."
"What about your father? Your adopted father?"
"That's part of the stuff I can't discuss right now."
"And Wolfram and Hart, and Holtz?"
"That you really need to talk to Angel about. Pretty much everything I've heard about them comes from him. But if he says they're lawyers serving the forces of darkness I'm inclined to believe him."
"All I know is what I've seen in the papers, hasn't really been time to discuss it much since I got here. I know that Angel has history with him, that's about it."
"Any idea why?"
"With Angel it could be anything, probably it's kinda nasty. But you'll have to talk to him about that for yourself."
"Just once I could wish that someone would give me a straight..." Her voice tailed off, and she looked past Willow towards the hotel. "Oh my god, is it really you?"
Willow turned, and saw a tall green-skinned demon with horns and a hooked nose, wearing a red suit, who grinned and said "Billie baby! Long time no see! And um... Willow, right?"
Willow stared; she and Billie said "You two know each other?" almost simultaneously.
"Sure, cupcake. Billie used to be one of my customers until she got to be too busy to spend time hanging out in bars. And I met Willow last year. Suddenly I'm guessing that you must be Billie's niece. See, Billie, I told you you'd find her."
"Lorne runs a karaoke bar," said Billie, "a place for demons and humans to meet peacefully, and he tells fortunes."
"Not any more, unfortunately. Place was fire-bombed a couple of weeks ago. I'm staying here au momento."
"I saw a club had been fire-bombed," said Billie, "I didn't realise it was Caritas."
"You mean to say you two have known each other for years and you didn't realise we were related?" asked Willow.
"My readings always said she'd find her sister's kid, how was I to know it was you? And you didn't sing for me, the hour or so we met, so there was no way I could know your fate."
"Well, considering I was here to tell Angel that Buffy was dead, I guess I didn't feel much like singing."
"I thought you said she's about to become a student again," said Billie, feeling even more confused.
"She was killed last year. One of the worse things I did when I was abusing magic was bring her back to life. It was chance in a million thing, only possible because it was supernatural forces that killed her."
"Abusing? That's a miracle."
"Not if the person you bring back to life was in heaven and thinks that our world is hell. Not if you think that the spell didn't work and you leave her buried in a coffin."
"She's pretty much over it now. I hope."
"You're the one that did that?" asked Lorne, "I'd heard it'd happened but people were kinda vague on the details. I knew you were powerful but that's major-league mojo."
"Too major, and too arrogant. I won't be doing anything like that again."
"If it upsets you to discuss this," said Billie, "maybe we should change the subject."
"It's okay. I'm in a kinda abuse program, a bit like AA, part of it is that you tell people what you've done if there's need, don't try to pretty it up. I know that I'm capable of much worse." She hesitated. "In some of the lives I remember I did terrible things as a vengeance demon and enjoyed every moment. I'm guessing that there were other time-lines where Warren killed Tara and I caught up with him without trying to change the past, if so I think I would have killed him. Slowly and very painfully."
"You'll never know now, sugar," said Lorne. "Maybe it's just as well I never heard you sing, I would have picked up on all those possibilities, maybe messed things up even worse."
"You never talked about possibilities with me," said Billie, "it was always 'you'll find the kid one day' or 'apply for the job, you'll get it.'"
"You're not a major probability nexus. Willow is."
"What?" said Willow nervously. "Me? Major?"
"What you've been doing with the Slayer, what you'll be doing over the next few years, there are endless possibilities, all of them important. What Billie does, well, it's important, but it isn't the kind of thing that actually changes the time-line much. Even when your stories are important, they're more of a collaborative effort, and that tends to stabilise the probabilities, makes things easier to predict."
"I can see that, I guess," said Billie.
"Sure you can. Let's have an example. Billie, ever been in real life-or-death danger, or had your life saved by a fluke?"
"There was the kidnap attempt a few days ago," she thought for a moment, "a couple of earthquakes where I suppose I might have been injured if things had gone differently, and back in eighty-two I was almost aboard a plane that crashed, but had to cancel the flight at the last minute because I was called back to the Trib for a conference. There were no survivors."
"There you go. Four you can remember, maybe a dozen more you don't, or never knew about. The hot-dog with botulism that would have been given to you if someone hadn't bought it thirty seconds earlier, that sort of thing. Willow, would I be right to guess hundreds of times for you?"
"Must be." Billie's eyes widened. Hundreds?
"And a lot of those times you've been saving lives, maybe saving the world?"
"That or just fleeing in sheer terror, I guess."
"And that's why I can't predict your future, or the futures you'll make for others. Prophecies and seers can try, but when they're dealing with someone like you or Angel or Buffy it's always chancy, no matter what they may say."
"Why Angel?" asked Billie.
"He's a Champion, sweet thing, a warrior for the Powers That Be. He's affected thousands of lives, saved the world a few times, same as Willow and Buffy. There are more of them around than you might think. Even the guy burned out my club was one once, might be again."
"You know who did it?"
"You've met him, according to the papers. Guy called Holtz."
"Holtz did that?" Billie felt a sudden shock, and tried to imagine the rage that would make someone do that.
"I guess he thought he had cause. He was after Angel and Darla, and the spells I had protecting the place wouldn't let him attack them directly. Trouble is that there was a bunch of other people in there including me, and it was a miracle we all got out."
"Darla? Holtz mentioned that name, so did Fred. Connor's mother? Let me guess, that's something I'll have to ask Angel about."
"You got it. Now, is it just me, or am I picking up some seriously strange vibes off those two over there?" He waved towards April and her boyfriend.
"You might be," said Willow, "why don't you go ask them?"
"Does she sing?"
"Let me think... nope."
"How about her boyfriend?"
"I think it'd be more of a caterwaul."
"Neither very musical, huh. Sounds like half my customers."
"Ask them, I don't think either will bite."
"Okay." Lorne wandered towards them and started chatting.
"You're up to something," said Billie, watching Willow smile, and seeing her sister in her again.
"Not really. Well, maybe a little. This is something else I need you to promise won't go in the paper."
"Okay. April and Tom are good people, just umm, not exactly. I'm wondering how long it'll be before he catches on."
"Not exactly what? People?"
"I thought you said she was Buffy's cousin."
"Some sort of demon?"
"No. Did I mention that Warren was kinda a mad scientist?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Well, he kinda built April."
"Built? Like Frankenstein's monster?"
"No, thank god. She's a robot. We discussed this on the way down, decided that if we were going to spend much time around each other you'd know sooner or later, might as well be sooner."
"That's kinda the point. Warren wanted a robot girlfriend, pretty much a walking doll, then he got bored and abandoned her, then there were some accidents and she got rebuilt and reprogrammed with some software I'd modified pretty heavily, and suddenly she was starting to think for herself. I'm not sure what her IQ is now, my guess is well above average plus she has a perfect memory. Anyway, he tried to destroy her a couple of times and she started to help us against him. Pretty soon she was part of the team, so much so that when she needed a proper identity Buffy invited her to become a Summers."
"That's... that's extraordinary. Why did she need a proper identity?"
"She wanted to rent an apartment and pay her own way in life, that meant she needed a social security number and stuff to pay taxes, that sort of thing. You know, the sad thing about Warren is that if he'd just patented his inventions he could have been incredibly rich. He was closer to true artificial intelligence than anyone else I know. But no, he had to be a super-villain. I think he read too many comics."
"What about Tom?"
"We're straying towards the stuff I can't talk about, but someone else had him built as a bodyguard for me, and when they met they kinda clicked."
"Not to mention whirring and buzzing?"
"Ouch. Suddenly I get the feeling that you and Buffy are gonna have a lot in common, she kinda likes lame jokes too."
On the far side of the garden Lorne said "You're what?"
"I think they just told him," said Billie, smiling.
"You could be right," said Willow, smiling back. "Okay, now you know about me, any horrible family secrets I should know?"
"Not really. Compared to you I've been living the dullest life imaginable. Journalism classes, then a reporter, then editor, married and divorced a couple of times, that's about it. I've been working at the Tribune since the late seventies. Won one Pulitzer Prize which I deserved, another which I didn't, that's about it."
"I looked you up on the Tribune web site and read the stories, asked a couple of people who are taking journalism at UC Sunnydale. I think you're being too modest."
"I think I'm the one that ought to know, but never mind." She grimaced slightly.
"My wrist and ribs are hurting a little. I'm supposed to take pain-killers, but they make me a little drowsy."
"Let's go inside, see if Tara can do something for you. She has healing hands. If not, maybe you'd better take your tablets and rest for a while."
"Maybe you're right."
Billie came to with a start and looked around. They'd gone up to one of the bedrooms for the treatment, and she couldn't remember much after lying on the bed. Tara was sitting across the room from her, reading a sociology textbook. There was no sign of Willow. And, she slowly realised, little or no pain.
"Feeling better?" asked Tara
"Yes, much. Where's Willow?"
"Okay, you've been out for about two hours. The car for Willow's meeting turned up about half an hour ago and she and April had to go off. They'll be at least a couple of hours, I'm afraid."
"Did you hypnotize me?"
"Pretty much, but there was some magic there too. You're a good subject. I've taken care of the pain and helped your ribs to heal a little. Couldn't do much with your arm, the pins they put in tend to interfere with magical healing. You ought to be okay for a few hours now, but if you start hurting again you might want to think about taking those pain killers."
"All right. Now I'd better get up, I really have a lot of questions for Angel and I might as well get them asked while Willow's out."
"Mind if I tag along? I don't really know Angel too well, Willow and Buffy do but I'd like to get more of a read on him. It won't be easy, but I'd like to try."
"Why won't it be easy?" asked Billie. Tara hesitated, and Billie went on "And why does everyone go quiet when I ask questions about him?"
There was a knock on the door. Tara raised her eyebrows, and Billie said "Might as well see who it is." It turned out to be Cordelia.
"Hi," she said, "I'm going out to get food, do either of you want anything?"
"That's a good idea," said Tara, "Billie, you really should eat now, healing takes it out of you. You'll need some protein and calcium."
"Burger and shake?" suggested Cordelia.
"I'm a vegetarian," said Billie, "so unless they have some sort of soya burger..."
"Nut-burger do you? I think they have that, maybe some other vegetarian options."
"That sounds perfect. With chilli sauce if they have a non-meat version."
"Salad would be better."
"How about you, Tara?"
"I'll have the same, sounds good. But I'll have fries as well."
"Okay, I'll get it, probably be about twenty minutes."
"We haven't really had time to talk," Billie said after Cordelia had gone out, "and I think I need to apologise for being so nosy when I was talking to Willow."
"It's natural, and I think Willow likes someone taking an interest. Goddess knows, her mom never did. Or not so we knew about it anyway."
"But we're not talking about Willow, we're talking about you. As far as you're concerned I'm a total stranger who's asking impertinent questions about you and your girlfriend. I think you have every right to be annoyed."
"Willow's probably the best thing that ever happened to me, so I'm happy to be interrogated. Within reason, anyway."
"Okay, I'll try not to be too intrusive."
"Feeling okay to get up?"
"I think so... yes, a hell of a lot better, and I'm not feeling drowsy or giddy, just hungry. I think I should have gone for the fries too."
"You can always share mine, I probably won't want all of them."
Tom Zapf was standing outside the room and said "good afternoon" as they came out then followed them downstairs. He had an oddly soft voice.
"You really don't have to keep following me around," said Tara.
"I wasn't planning on doing anything else while Willow and April are out. You know my priorities."
"I don't understand," said Billie.
"I was built to safeguard Willow, but she has asked me to take on a general mission to protect her family and friends, especially Tara and now including you."
"Built. That's a hard one to grasp, I think, I can't imagine a person being built somehow. What about free will, what if you wanted to do something else?"
"Willow has told me that I don't have to guard her, so I'm doing it because I want to and because I enjoy my work. I know that I was built with those preferences, but I really do have enough free will to keep me happy, and I have plenty of leisure time. Since April is part of Willow's extended family I can satisfy my protective... I think the word I want is instincts... by spending time with her if there isn't any unusual danger. This satisfies me, and keeps me out from under everyone's feet."
"And April's your girlfriend?"
"I keep thinking that this must be some sort of elaborate joke. You can't be a robot. Nobody can build a computer to imitate a person that well, and robots don't fall in love."
"Trust me," said Tara, "they can. We've seen... oh, at least four including April and Zap and excluding the one that was controlled by a demon that tried to seduce Willow in high school. Plus several Frankenstein deals and man-machine hybrids. Sunnydale doesn't just have demons, we get weird science too."
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't discuss it too much," Tom said, "my effectiveness depends on people thinking I'm just a regular guy. By the way, as Tara said most people call me Zap."
"Tom is this body, which was originally built without self-awareness. Zap is me, the actual intelligence controlling it, a much smaller machine. When April and I got together I needed a body and this one was spare, so I'm using it."
"It sounds like a fascinating story." Billie said as they reached the lobby, thinking that it sounded like the ravings of a schizophrenic, then realised that something was going on. Cordelia was sitting on one of the lobby seats, drawing something, while Fred and the two men she'd seen earlier were rummaging through a cabinet filled with weapons.
"What's happened," asked Tara.
"Cordy has a vision," said the black man, rummaging through a cabinet filled with weapons. "We've got a kid being attacked by a demon in Griffith Park in an hour or so." He put two swords and an axe into a large bag.
The other man, who had a British accent, said "Angel's gone to question one of our informants, we're going to look for the kid. What the hell's happened to the silver-tipped crossbow bolts, Gunn?"
"Got them here, Wesley," said Fred.
"Good work. Right, let's move." The three of them raced out.
"I'm sorry," said Cordelia, "I didn't get out to get the burgers, and I'm gonna have to stay here near the phones and work on the vision, see if I can shake loose any more information and look after Connor."
"How do the visions work?" asked Billie.
"There was a seer called Doyle, a half-demon who used to work with Angel. There was a situation... he gave his life to save us, Angel and me and a bunch of other people. Anyway, he kissed me just before he was killed and I suddenly started to see things, usually people in trouble. The visions used to be accompanied by fits and incredible pain but I got over that, now it's more like full three-dee sensorama carnage without the crippling migraines."
"Can we do anything to help?" asked Tara.
"Not right now. They'll be gone for at least an hour or so. Tell you what, it'd be great if you could go for the food."
"Okay. Where's a good burger place around here?"
"I know one," said Billie, "but it's a couple of miles and I don't have my car here. I'm supposed to phone when I want to be picked up."
"We came down in Buffy's jeep," said Zap, "I've got the keys."
"If you don't mind getting them, mine's a small burger with salad," said Cordelia. "Rare, no mayo, meat not vegetarian. Better get something for Lorne too, he's around somewhere. He'd probably go for a burger and fries and a shake, don't know how he likes it."
"Small rare burger with side salad, hold the mayo," said Billie, "and a burger, fries, and a shake. Let's go."
* * * * *
"So let me get this right," said Billie, as they sat at traffic lights, "You're driving that body, and the body is driving the car?"
"Not exactly," said Zap. "Once I'm in here I connect my brain to the body's computers, essentially it becomes my body. Sometimes I have trouble remembering that it isn't me. Which is fine, especially when I'm with April, except that it might slow me down in an emergency."
"This body wasn't designed for combat. It isn't particularly fast or strong and there isn't much I can do to change that. Buffy helped with some martial arts training, tricks that help me get the best results with what I've got, but in a real fight I'd have to bail out and hope it doesn't get damaged too badly."
"Why bail out?"
"Because my real body is a lot stronger, faster, and tougher, and has built-in weapons and stealth systems."
"He's like the Hulk," said Tara, "except that instead of getting bigger and meaner he gets smaller."
"I've got to see this."
"Sure," said Zap, "but not in public, and not when I'm driving."
"Pull over just after the next lights," said Billie, "the restaurant's the place with the green awning. We should be okay to park outside."
* * * * *
They were loading bags of food into the jeep when Billie looked up to see Holtz watching them from the sidewalk. He walked over, and Zap quickly moved to block him.
"I don't mean anyone here any harm," he said to Zap, "so you're wasting your time."
"You're obviously following us," said Zap, "and you're armed. I don't think I agree."
"Do you think you could stop me?"
"Probably not. But if necessary I'll try."
"How heroic. I'm pleased you've hired a bodyguard, Miss Newman."
"He's not, he's a friend."
"And this must be your niece."
"Again no. My niece had to go to a business meeting, this is another friend."
"Good afternoon to you all. Have you spoken to Angelus yet, miss Newman?"
"Not yet. He had to dash out to rescue a child."
"Yes, really. I gather he does that sort of thing a lot. What is it you actually want?"
"Possibly nothing. Possibly your help, eventually. But first you need to see Angelus for what he really is."
"Don't you think your viewpoint might be biased?" asked Tara. "You obviously hate him, and I'm sure you have cause, but I don't think you really know what he's like now."
"Not yet. I know a little more than Billie, enough of what he's done to want to see for myself, but I've hardly spoken to him."
"You know what he's capable of?"
"I know. You have to know about the bad to understand why the good is so important, I think."
"I wish someone would explain it to me," said Billie, "because I don't understand any of this."
"You will," said Holtz, then looked around warily. "We're being watched. I'll talk to you again." He turned and began to walk away.
"One question," said Billie. Holtz hesitated then turned to listen. "I forgot to ask last night. When you rescued me from the kidnappers there was someone with you, someone who wanted you to leave me to die. I didn't see him, but it sounded like he thought he was pulling the strings. I know what you seem to want, but what's his agenda? His real agenda? Do you even know?"
Holtz looked thoughtful, then shrugged, said "No," and walked away.
"Should I follow him?" asked Zap.
"Better not," said Tara, "I think he might notice, even if you left Tom behind. Besides, I've got the same vibe, someone's watching us."
Tom looked around without seeming to pay much attention then said. "The white van parked on the opposite side of the road was parked across the road from the Hyperion when we left. The man in blue jeans and a denim jacket standing outside the hi-fi shop was walking past the Hyperion when we arrived this morning. And the jeep is emitting a homing signal, presumably a transmitter planted while we were inside the restaurant."
"Could it be the police?" asked Tara.
"I doubt it," said Billie. "If it was they would have tried to arrest Holtz, they know what he looks like. Let's get out of here, I think it might be the same people that tried to kidnap me."
"Okay," said Zap. "Tara, when we get in the jeep lower the window on the passenger side then lean as far back in your seat as you can. Both of you buckle your seat belts."
They got into the jeep, he started the engine, and Tara did as he'd asked. Billie was sitting directly behind him, and had no warning when the front of his face swung open towards her, like an opening door, except that it was a human face bisected neatly at the nose. The eye facing her winked. The half-face was in the way and stopped her from seeing the inner Zap. There was a peculiar faint thudding noise, then another, and his face closed again.
"That ought to slow them down," said Zap, putting the jeep into gear.
"Holy... I don't think I really believed what you were saying until now," said Billie. "What did you do?"
"Blew out two of their tyres and their transmitter."
"Laser for the tyres, focused magnetic pulse for the transmitter. I kept the power low, hopefully no-one else will be inconvenienced."
"Let's hope we aren't over-reacting," said Tara, "It could just be coincidence."
"It could," said Billie, "but I wouldn't offer odds if I were you."
"Wasn't planning to. Are we in the clear?"
"I can't see any pursuit," said Zap, "doesn't mean there isn't any, and they can probably guess where we're going." He swerved into a side street, then another, and zig-zagged back towards the Hyperion. "When we get there go straight in, don't wait for me to park the jeep."
After all that their uneventful arrival at the Hyperion was an anticlimax. Billie and Tara grabbed the food and hurried inside, finding Cordelia in the lobby talking to Lorne.
"Something wrong?" asked Cordelia.
"We ran into Holtz," said Billie, "and some other guys we think might be the kidnappers."
"Do you think Holtz is working with them?"
"I don't think so. He warned us they were around."
They were distributing the food and Lorne was suggesting that it was high time that someone invented a sea-breeze flavoured shake when Zap came in holding something that looked like a small cigar tube. "Is that the transmitter?" asked Tara.
"Yes. It's well made from common electronic components. I don't think it's a commercial product, but otherwise there's nothing unusual about it."
"Okay, put it somewhere safe, maybe Willow will have some ideas when she sees it, she's science-gal."
"Why not give it to the police?" asked Billie, "There might be fingerprints inside."
"I've touched the components," said Zap, "and it would be difficult to explain why it isn't working, and how we found it, without revealing my true nature."
"I suppose so. That's the trouble with all of this, there are too many secrets."
"Talk to Angel," said Cordelia, "he'll tell you the truth. You won't like it though."
"Why not you, or Tara, or Lorne?"
"We're all biased one way or another. Even Tara, she's hardly met him but she'll have heard Willow's stories. Best to hear it from the horse's mouth, Angel will give you the unvarnished truth."
"Are you sure?"
"I've heard Angel's version of events, and if I didn't know him I'd be siding with Holtz. But what happened to Holtz and his family is part of a much bigger story. You have to hear it all."
"Okay. Let's hope that he gets back soon. I want to get to the bottom of this."
"Don't worry," said Cordelia, "you will."
"How do you like the idea of being a fairy godmother?" Tara asked Billie as she finished her burger.
"Literally or figuratively?" asked Billie, eating a last fry. Cordelia eyed the remaining fries hungrily, but determinedly stuck to her salad, eating it with one hand while rocking Connor with the other.
"A mixture of both. Willow and I will be casting a protective spell for Connor after sunset tonight, I suppose you could describe it as an inoculation against bad luck, if it works really well it might give him unusually good luck. Won't last forever, but with Holtz around and the other problems I've heard about it might just help."
"What can I do? I'm not a witch."
"The spell works best with three women in the main circle; the closer the relationship between them, the better the spell should work. Willow and I are pretty close, but any sort of blood relationship is better still. We don't have that sort of close relationship with any of the other women here; Willow and Cordy are friends but not close, neither of us really knows Fred very well, and April's a robot and we're not sure how that would work out."
"What would I have to do?"
"Just sit still for about twenty minutes, link hands when we tell you, that sort of thing."
"Can't I be part of it?" asked Cordelia.
"Sure. It'll work best if it's Willow, Billie, and me in the main circle, but pretty much anyone who means Connor well can be in the outer circle. Let's see; you, Wes, Fred, Angel, Gunn, and Lorne? Umm... six isn't a great number, seven would be better."
"Me or April?" asked Zap.
"After what happened when Rack tried to read April's mind I'm kinda cautious of involving either of you guys in magical rituals. Not until we've tried some very cautious tests, anyway. We can go with six if we have to, although seven would be best."
"Who was Rack and what happened to him?" asked Billie.
"When he read April's mind he started to try to think like a computer, in binary, human brains aren't really built to work that way."
"Ouch. Did he recover?"
"Someone killed him in the psycho ward at Sunnydale Hospital."
"You don't sound very unhappy about it. Who was he?"
"Rack was a... I suppose the best way to describe him is as a magical pusher. Willow was already badly addicted when she met him, but he's the one that really sent her over the edge."
"How bad was it," asked Billie, "as bad as Willow made it sound?"
"Worse. Even before that she was doing reckless things that hurt people, even tampering with people's memory, me included, to try to make us happy. We just couldn't trust her."
"But she's over it now?" asked Cordelia.
"We both think so, but to be on the safe side she's sticking to protective magic for now, and leaves anything more active to me. I can draw on her power if I have to, but that's risky for anything more complicated than the spell we'll be casting tonight. One of the ways you get addicted is to have the power without having to work for it, and that's what it'd be like for me. That, and there's a real chance I simply couldn't handle her mojo, keep it under control."
"She's that powerful?" asked Billie.
"Even now, when she's hardly using her magic, Willow's probably the most powerful Wicca in the USA, maybe the world. We met some guys that had a gizmo to detect and measure it, she went way off the scale."
"Okay," said Cordelia. "Let's not mess with Willow's mojo then. Works for me."
"You've got some serious mojo of your own," said Tara, "a lot more than when we met at Buffy's funeral, it kinda shows in your aura. What happened?"
"The visions were killing me. Literally, as in my brain was dying, a year of CAT scans and pain-killers and no sign of a cure. A couple of weeks ago I had a particularly bad attack that left me in my astral body, with the real body in a coma. A demon came to me while I was astral and offered me a chance to change things, turn back time so that I had never had the visions. I tried it, it was a good life for me but horrible for Angel and Wes. I couldn't let that happen, so I took the visions back. To keep me alive the demon guy cast a spell to make me part demon, strong enough to withstand them. I'm still waiting to see the down side, so far it's been all good."
"You're part demon?" asked Billie, "Does that mean you have.. oh.. horns or something?"
"God, I hope not." said Cordelia, cautiously touching her hair. "Nope, so far there's no sign of anything different, except I spontaneously levitated once. But I'm still afraid I'm gonna sprout a tail or grow scales or extra..." she noticed Zap listening with interest and said "...things."
"You'd be really cute with horns," said Lorne, "Some green would be nice too. Oh, if you're not going to use those fries I could cram them in."
Cordelia gave them to him. "Thanks, Lorne, I don't think so. Remember, I've seen what women from your dimension look like."
"Well, if your sole basis for comparison is my mother, what do you expect? We have cute females too. Just not in my family."
"Is that why you were so alarmed the other day when I mentioned your arms?" asked Billie.
"Yeah," said Cordelia, "I thought you'd seen something odd. Tara, if you can see my aura what does it tell you about me?"
"Let's see.." said Tara, "powerful, kind, brave, confident and you like chocolate."
"Actually I am, there's no way I'd know about the chocolate from your aura, Willow mentioned it. The rest is there. I can't see anything evil, if that's what's worrying you, there's kinda a bright centre to it I can't make out, but it looks right for you. In fact it's less complicated than most people's auras, it fits you really well."
"The demon I mentioned said something like that. Said my astral form was a lot more like my real body than most people."
"That'd follow, I guess."
"What about Holtz's aura?" asked Billie.
"Vengeance," said Tara, "it's devouring him, everything else seems to be secondary to that. But he's brave, passionate, and was probably a very good husband and father. Oh, and he's had some very powerful magic worked on him recently."
"You've seen Holtz?" asked Angel, coming in from somewhere behind the reception desk, wiping green goo from a sword. "When and where?"
"Is everyone okay?" interrupted Cordelia.
"They're fine, we saved the kid, they've just stopped off to get food. Should be here in a few minutes. When did you see Holtz?"
"About an hour ago," said Tara, "Billie and Zap and I went out to get some food, Holtz was there watching us when we came out of the restaurant. Talked to us for a couple of minutes, said we were being followed, then left."
"Who was following you? Apart from Holtz, of course."
"We don't know, but Zap saw them, he can give you pictures."
"You can draw them?"
"If I can use a computer I can download images," said Zap.
"Oh... right, I almost forgot."
"This way," said Cordelia, getting up. "Can you interface with a Mac?"
"Let me guess, Xander showed you Terminator 2?"
"Affirmative," said Zap, in a perfect imitation of Arnold Schwartzenegger, grinning. He rummaged in his pockets, pulled out a small module and plugged it into the back of the computer, then leaned towards it.
"What's that?" asked Billie.
"Infra-red link, saves using cables. The computer should see it as a camera, download what I send it."
"Okay," said Cordelia. "Yeah, here we go. Five pictures, is that right?"
"Yes. The first one and the car I'm sure of, the other two people maybe fifty percent probability. The last one is Holtz. Right, upload complete."
"Okay. And print..." The inkjet began to whir, and in a couple of minutes they had five colour pictures.
"I think I recognise this guy," Angel said after looking at the printouts. "Not the one you're sure of, the one waiting at the bus stop reading a paper. He was one of the guards at a medical facility Wolfram and Hart used to run."
"What did they use it for?" asked Tara.
"Transplants. They were keeping people prisoner and stealing their organs. I kinda blew it up."
"I remember that," said Billie, "none of the people that escaped could say who owned it, or how they got out."
"It was Wolfram and Hart, I think they owned it and they certainly used it, although we couldn't prove it. One of their lawyers had a hand transplanted from one of the victims."
"I wonder if something like that is what they had planned for me," said Billie, shivering.
"Maybe," said Angel. "Assuming that the body they had didn't come close to matching Willow's genetic fingerprint, which we ought to check, my guess is that they wanted us to think that you weren't related, while they got someone prepped with a fake identity to be Willow's long-lost mom or something."
"How would they do that?"
"Could be transplants, could even be magical cloning. There are worse possibilities but I won't go into them."
"Might they still try them?"
"Not now you've met Willow. I don't think any sort of fake would fool her, not for long, and they know that if they've any sense."
"So why are they still following me?"
"That's a very good question. An even better one is why Holtz is so interested."
"He said something that made me think he was following Cordelia initially."
"Maybe," said Cordelia, "but I'm reasonably careful about that sort of thing, been kidnapped too many times."
"I wonder if Billie and Holtz could be related," said Tara.
"What?" said Angel.
"There's something about his aura, it's hard to describe, could be nothing to it but it reminded me a little of Willow. And since you're related it could be that you're some sort of distant family."
"He'd check, of course," mused Angel, "he'd want to know if there were any relatives still living."
"Still living?" asked Billie.
"I think this is where we have that conversation I promised, and I explain why Holtz wants to kill me."
"In more ways than you think. Let's go into my office, I think everyone else knows most of it."
"I don't," said Zap.
"Me neither," said Tara, "heard some of it but I'd like to hear your version."
"Okay," said Angel, wearily, "is there anyone who doesn't want to hear this?"
"I'll pass," said Lorne.
"Me too," said Cordelia. "Heard it already. Take it into the office anyway, I want to clean up out here and I don't want you waking Connor with your yacking."
* * * * *
"Okay," said Billie, an hour later. "That's probably the ugliest story I've ever heard. I'm beginning to think Holtz is right to want to kill you."
"If it were just me you'd probably be right," said Angel, "but everything we know says that there is some sort of major mystical event hinging on this, a decisive event in the war between good and evil. I'm needed for it, so is Connor, so is Holtz."
"But you don't know which side either of you will be on?"
"I'm hoping I'm on the side of good," said Angel, "but this one is turning out to be unusually cryptic even by the standards of prophecy. Wes is still working on it, for all I know I'm about to lose my soul and join the forces of darkness, but I don't think it's likely. Whatever, Connor is probably the key to it, Holtz and I are just caught up in events."
"It's more than that," said Tara, "someone used a massively powerful spell to bring Holtz to the twentieth century. You may not know what's going on, but someone does. I think it's the guy Billie mentioned, the voice she heard when she was trapped in the car. Someone who really doesn't care about anything else except ensuring that Holtz takes his vengeance."
"So Holtz is a pawn?" mused Angel, sounding pleased with the prospect. "That could make a lot of sense, except why would anyone with that much power have to work so indirectly?"
"What do you think, Zap? You've kept very quiet."
"I think we need Willow for this. I'm just a machine, and I'm pretty sure my builders didn't know anything about this stuff."
"Who are your builders anyway?" asked Angel. "Japanese? Korean? Some sort of high-tech demons or magicians?"
"Sorry; that's something I'm not prepared to discuss until Willow says it's okay."
"Where is Willow anyway?" asked Tara, "I expected her to be back by now."
"I'll check... yes, April says they'll be back any minute, they're just parking."
"Radio?" asked Angel.
"We think so."
"I think we're done here for now," said Billie, "although I think it might be a good idea to get Willow in on this, see if she has any ideas about Holtz."
Outside they heard voices, and Angel said "she's back. Let's see if she can tell us anything new."
"I hope so," said Tara, "it's kinda embarrassing not being able to tell you everything."
* * * * *
"So let me get this straight," said Angel, "Your parents were aliens?"
"Adopted parents," said Willow, "and is it that much weirder than vampires and demons? Look, if you want proof maybe David can convince you."
"It's quite true," said David Nabbit, who had arrived with Willow. "I've known for a couple of years now, my companies are one of the outlets used to get alien technology into use on Earth."
"You've kept that pretty quiet," said Cordelia, "here was I thinking you're a self-made nerd."
"Oh, I am. I was only let in on it after my company became one of the established technological leaders, and the main condition was that I'd never tell anyone."
"So why are you telling us?" asked Billie.
"Because there would be too many unanswered questions if we didn't," said Willow, "and I finally persuaded the MIB guys that if I didn't have some trustworthy friends in on the facts it wouldn't work. Over the next couple of years you're gonna see me gradually become a major player in industry and technological investment, it's the only way to explain the fortune I'm inheriting. It'll begin with David announcing some patents I'm selling him and snowball from there."
"But it'll actually be alien technology?" asked Gunn.
"Sure," said Nabbit, "about one patent in ten these days is actually that sort of deal, the only difference here is that I'm paying Willow for the science instead of MIB or some alien inventor."
"Actually," said Willow, "my technological investments will mostly be in real research, not cover for imports. Can't think of a better way to use the money."
"What happens if we aren't trustworthy?" asked Wesley.
"They wipe your memories," said Willow, "cover up anything you've done to reveal the truth, and fine me a few million dollars for my error in judgement."
"So we'd better not blab," said Gunn, "wouldn't want you out of pocket."
"Like I care," said Willow. "I'd love to do this without the secrecy, but they've proved to me that people just aren't ready to face the facts, same as when they run into demons."
"What about the supermarket tabloids," asked Billie, "why are they allowed to reveal the truth? Why shouldn't every paper carry these stories?"
"They're allowed precisely because nobody takes them seriously. By telling the truth in a way that won't be believed they provide an escape valve, a way for ideas to get to the public without scaring them."
"And if I go in to the Trib on Monday and write up this story?"
"It doesn't get published," said Nabbit, "you lose a few memories, so does everyone else you tell about it, and Willow has to find another explanation for her wealth."
"I could have lied from the start," said Willow, "but I'm a lousy liar, the truth seemed the best way to go, at least with my family and trustworthy friends. Please don't prove me wrong."
"I suppose this explains April and Zap," said Angel.
"Not exactly. April really was built on Earth, she's entirely home-grown technology. Zap's an alien robot that Sheila had built to bodyguard me, wearing a disguise that's normally used by aliens visiting Earth."
"He explained about Tom and Zap," said Billie. "So what does the real Zap look like?"
"You really want to know?" asked Zap.
"It's kinda odd," said Willow.
His face opened, revealing a tiny control room. Inside it was a small grey kitten, which waved a paw at them then pressed a lever on one of the consoles that surrounded it. The face closed again.
"A kitten?" said Cordelia.
"Sheila thought he'd be inconspicuous."
"And that's a... a bodyguard?" asked Wesley.
"Zap's got more firepower than Dirty Harry," said Tara, "not to mention claws and teth that can cut through anything and near-perfect camouflage."
"Plus I'm cute," said Zap.
"And modest," added April, kissing his cheek.
"That's just... weird," said Gunn.
"Yep," said Willow. "Now imagine what the aliens that built him can do when they want to build a big combat machine, and you'll know why we really don't want to annoy them by having their tourists bothered on Earth."
"If you hadn't told me I wouldn't have known," said Angel. "He looks right, even smells right and sounds right. I spotted April fairly easily, there's no heartbeat and you can hear the motors and gyros if you listen hard enough, but Zap's perfect."
"We'll have to see about a heartbeat for April, hadn't thought of that one. Okay, can everyone live without going public on this?"
There was a slow chorus of assent.
"Okay, you now know the biggest secret in Earth's history, not that it'll do you any good. Hey, it's getting dark. David, do you have to leave in a hurry?"
"Not really, why?"
"Angel, would you describe David as a friend?"
"Okay. David, how do you like the idea of being a fairy godfather?"
* * * * *
"...Tyche, Fortuna, guardians of luck, aid this child. In these names, and in the name of the Goddess, so mote it be!"
Willow, Tara, and Billie stood in the garden with linked hands, forming a circle around Connor. Around them Angel, Cordelia, Lorne, Fred, Gunn, Nabbit, and Wesley made a larger circle. Lines of coloured sand marked out a complex pattern. As Tara said the last word a golden glow seemed to rise from the ground around them, brightening as it drew in around Connor then slowly fading away. There was a faint smell, vaguely like eucalyptus, which gradually vanished.
"That's it, folks," said Willow, breaking the circle. "Show's over. Consider this baby blessed." She picked up Connor, who smiled sleepily at her.
"Wow," said Fred, "that was awesome."
"I think it went pretty well," said Tara. "Don't know quite how much difference we've made but it ought to help, can't do any harm."
"Thank you," said Angel, "I have a feeling it's going to help a lot."
"Real magic," said Nabbit, smiling broadly. "I've played Dungeons and Dragons, but that was the real thing."
"Billie?" asked Willow, noticing that she was still standing in the same place, "Are you okay?"
"I think so.. it's just.. I felt that, like electricity running through me. It's strange, I didn't think it would be like that."
"You're a sensitive," said Willow, "from the moment we met I knew you had a lot of empathy and intuition, I think with the right training you could probably kick mystical ass. I must get it from your side of the family."
"I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that idea. I've always gone by the facts and the evidence, not intuition."
"Then it's probably best you stay that way," Tara said firmly. "Don't let Willow con you into thinking magic's your mystic destiny or something, it's perfectly okay to leave it alone."
"Sure," said Willow, "didn't mean it that way, it's just... interesting."
"It is that," said Billie, "but I don't think it's for me. I really ought to think about getting home, get some rest and come back here tomorrow."
"Why not stay here for tonight and save the commute?" suggested Angel.
"I really don't want to impose, and I don't have any night clothes with me."
"It's no imposition, I'm pretty sure that Cordy will be able to find clothes for you somewhere, and it'll let you spend a lot more time with Willow."
"Plus he wants to pump you for anything else you can remember about Holtz," said Cordelia.
"Okay," said Billie, after giving it a moment's thought. "I'd better phone the security guys and tell them what I'm doing, or they'll get worried."
"I'll find the clothes," said Cordelia, taking Connor from Willow, "you're about the same size as that telekinetic girl that stayed with us last year, maybe a slightly lighter build, and we bought her some pyjamas that were never used. And you'll need a toothbrush and paste, towels..." She went inside and the others followed.
Billie got home late on Sunday evening, said good night to her escorts, and checked her e-mail and phone. One of the messages was from Joe Rossi, telling her that the Tribune had proved that all eight kidnappers had been defended by Wolfram and Hart; once that story was published on Monday morning he expected them to withdraw their injunction and start claiming that it was coincidence, or pick a scapegoat and accuse him of getting the gang together. Meanwhile she should stay away from the office and concentrate on her recovery. She set her alarm for a late start and went to bed.
There were two stories to interest her in Monday's Tribune; the story Rossi had half-predicted, and another in the business section:
Former Attorney "Engineered Kidnap Plot"
Police investigating the attempted kidnapping of Tribune editor Billie Newman, currently recovering from injuries received during the violent attack, have announced a breakthrough in the case leading to a new suspect. Following the Tribune's discovery that all eight of the attackers were defended by leading law firm Wolfram and Hart a year to eighteen months ago, the law firm began an internal audit which led police to former attorney Lindsay MacDonald, who left the firm last year.
MacDonald was described by former colleague Lilah Morgan as "...a tragic case, a high-flyer who became unstable. About eighteen months ago he nearly lost his hand in a freak accident; it was re-attached by micro-surgery and afterwards he had a delusion that it was actually a transplant. He used to call it his 'evil hand' and write obscene messages with it, there were also some instances of inappropriate touching of female staff, myself included."
An audit of Wolfram and Hart records showed that MacDonald had booked out the files of all eight perpetrators and at least a dozen other criminals in his last weeks with the company.
Police have yet to establish a motive for the kidnapping attempt but it is known that suspect Dr. Peter Hoskins, of the Barker Clinic, was a personal friend of MacDonald. LAPD Inspector Harry Barnes, who is in charge of the case, commented that "...we now know that Ms. Newman is the only living relative of an heiress who had been trying to trace her biological family and entrusted the DNA testing to the Barker Clinic. It seems possible that there was a plan to substitute a ringer, an impostor controlled by Hoskins and MacDonald.
Many questions remain unanswered, not least the identity of the murder victim who was to have been left in Ms. Newman's place. Police continue to seek a man known as Holt, Holst, or Holtz, who rescued Ms. Newman from her attackers but killed all eight men. Inspector Barnes has stated that "..until we know more about this incident we aren't sure whether to arrest the guy or reward him." The investigation, and the search for MacDonald and Hoskins, continues.
Nabbit Announces Solid State Storage Devices
Billionaire David Nabbit has announced that his company will shortly be marketing solid state storage devices in the 10-100 gigabyte range "at prices comparable to current hard disks". The devices, which use a newly-patented "holographic information storage" technology, still largely under wraps, will be fully compatible with existing drives and manufactured with built-in ATAPI, SCSI, USB and FireWire connections as standard. They will consume "virtually no power" in normal use, and are completely silent.
The technology has been licensed from new high-tech startup SunnyD Technology, a hitherto-unknown California company incorporated earlier this year, in a deal estimated to be worth in excess of a billion dollars over the next five years. Chip manufacturers Intel and Motorola and drive manufacturers IBM, Fujitsu, and Maxtor are also involved in the deal, and Nabbit has stated that "..we will do our utmost to ensure that nobody who is capable of manufacturing these components will be left behind. We need these drives, to reduce power consumption and unacceptable noise, and it's in everyone's interest to ensure that they become an industry standard."
SunnyD Technology is a privately-owned holding company specialising in "long-term investment in science and engineering"; the CEO, W. Rosenberg, was not available for comment as we went to press.
During the afternoon Rossi called her and told her that the injunction had been withdrawn, as expected. She saw her doctor and got her grudging approval to return to work the following day. There was no sign of anyone following her, apart from Nabbitt's detectives, and she began to hope that whatever odd conspiracy had led to her kidnapping was over.
That night's TV news opened with the discovery of two bodies in a Los Angeles motel; Dr. Peter Hoskins, formerly of the Barker Clinic, and attorney Lindsay MacDonald, formerly of LA law firm Wolfram and Hart. Police believed that Hoskins had murdered MacDonald then himself. Billie wondered what to make of that; it sounded a little too convenient to be true. She'd never heard of MacDonald, maybe Angel or the Tribune knew more about him.
As night fell Billie switched on the coffee machine, opened the patio door, and waited. Eventually, as she'd expected, Holtz stepped into the light.
"Well?" he asked, looking around warily.
"I expected to see you last night, but I suppose it was pretty late when I got home. Better come inside. Don't worry, it isn't a trap, unless the police have set one without telling me."
"Oh come in, for goodness sake. We need to talk."
He came in and said "Well?" again.
"I've met Willow, my niece, spent the weekend with her at Angel's hotel. She's a lovely girl, I think you'd like her. Do have some coffee, it would be a shame to waste it. There's cream and sugar on the table."
"And Angelus?" said Holtz, pouring himself a cup.
"Would you answer a couple of questions first? Honestly?"
"When you rescued me, did you know that the attack was going to happen, who I was, or that I was on my way to see Angel?"
Holtz looked surprised, and said "No. I was there on other business, saw the attack, and decided to help you."
"You really have no idea what the kidnapping attempt was about?"
"None at all, apart from the stories in your newspaper."
"So why did you start to stalk me?"
"Another coincidence. I had business at the hospital, saw Miss Chase at the enquiry desk, and found out that she had asked for you. It seemed interesting."
"That's more or less what I thought. So you saw me as someone who was going to be doing business with Angel, and decided that I'd be a useful contact if you could persuade me to help you?"
"Yes, that's correct."
"Okay. Well, to answer your question, it turns out that Willow and Cordelia Chase are old friends. They lived in the same town for several years. That's why she hired Angel, he and one of her other friends were once in love."
"What sort of woman..?"
"Apparently she's something called a Slayer. Ever heard of that?"
"Yes. The one woman chosen in all the world... in love with a vampire? Is that the woman you were with yesterday afternoon?"
"No, that's another of Willow's friends." Billie didn't think she wanted to discuss Willow's sexual orientation with Holtz, she had an idea that an eighteenth-century man would probably think she was unnatural. As for the magic... no, some things were probably best left unsaid.
"A Slayer is his lover. That complicates things."
"Friends now, not lovers, but if a tenth of what my niece told me is right that could still be a serious problem for you."
"What did Angelus himself tell you?"
"Pretty much everything, I think. He wasn't lying, although I'd guess he shaded the truth to put himself in a favourable light a few times. He told me about your family, if he were human I think he might have started sobbing."
"You like him, don't you?" said Holtz, sounding disappointed.
"Yes, but what's that got to do with anything? One of the most likeable men I ever met turned out to have eight bodies buried under his cellar floor. Three of them were women he'd married bigamously, two others children, the other three just strangers he'd happened to feel like killing."
"Angel's a monster, or at least someone that can become one. He's managed to convince people that he isn't any more, and I think he even believes it himself, but he's a killer. He tells the truth, but he edits the facts to suit himself; he repeatedly told me he'd had a soul for a century, then when I was talking to Willow I learned that he lost it just a couple of years ago, killed at least a dozen people and came close to destroying the world before they used magic to restore it. The victims included some of my niece's schoolmates. He's a danger to everyone around him and to the whole human race."
"Then you're going to help me?"
"If I can, and within my limitations; don't ask me to try to stake him. But there are conditions."
"I've heard a lot about you this weekend. You want to punish Angel, make him pay for everything he did to you."
"That's correct. What of it?"
"If I understand it correctly, anything you do to hurt Angel will actually be punishing his human soul, not the demon that lives inside him. The demon would enjoy it."
"You want to hurt Angelus, and to do that you would have to free him. But last time Angelus was let loose he killed Angel's friends. I can't allow you to do anything that might risk that happening again, since my niece and her friends would be amongst his first targets. Anything you do must be quick and final. No complicated plots, no mental or physical torture, no magic spells to get rid of his soul. You kill him and only him, you do it quickly and efficiently, and do it without releasing Angelus."
"Is that all?"
"There's more," said Billie, pouring herself another cup.
"I got to know the people who work with Angel this weekend. They think like my niece; to all of them he's a hero, a warrior much like yourself. They're good people, Holtz, and I don't want to see them hurt."
"Have you finished?"
"No. There's the child. Angel's son."
"What about him?"
"As of yesterday evening I'm his godmother, in a way, and I take my responsibilities seriously. I don't want to see him hurt, and I don't want to see anyone using him against Angel, because that's probably going to hurt him, or release Angelus, or both."
"Anything else?" asked Holtz, sounding a little tired.
"A threat. If you try anything that even looks like coming close to hurting my niece and her friends, the child, or the people who work with Angel, I'll do my best to help them against you."
"Will you indeed?" He sounded like he was humouring her.
"Yes. Mister Holtz, I know that you were born in an age when women were treated very differently, but please don't underestimate me. I'm the editor of one of the largest newspapers in the country. It employs more than a thousand people, several thousand if you count the printers and distributors. It's a powerful force in moulding public opinion, and it's owned by one of the richest men in the world, with all of the resources that implies. It has sources of information everywhere; paid informants, reporters, and members of the public who just can't keep their mouths shut. At the moment it stays out of the.. the supernatural world because we don't have much use for stories about it, but that could be changed if necessary. You're a wanted man, mister Holtz, I very much doubt you could operate for long under the spotlight of public attention. The police are already looking for you, if the public really got interested I doubt that you'd get very far."
"One more thing. If you do get rid of him, I want your word that you'll do everything you can to put right any problems that causes. One of the things I was told is that there's a prediction that you and he will be involved in the Apocalypse; if he's out of the picture you may be needed to help prevent it."
"You drive a hard bargain."
"And you obviously need my help, or you wouldn't be paying me so much attention."
"Obviously. May I have some time to consider this? There are others involved, so I can't give you an immediate reply."
"Certainly, if you'll promise not to take any action while you're reaching a decision."
"I won't make that promise, but my plans are still at an early stage, I think it is unlikely that I will be ready to act before we meet again."
"I'll settle for that. Finish your coffee before you go."
"Thank you, I will." He drained the cup, said "Until our next meeting," and vanished into the night. Billie locked the window, washed up, and went to bed. Tuesday was going to be a busy day.
"Okay," said Joe Rossi, "What's the big mystery?"
"I could tell you but I'd have to kill you," joked Billie.
"C'mon," said Animal, "give."
"Okay, but the whole story can't be published yet. Maybe never. Did you all read the business section yesterday?"
Rossi and Tommy nodded, Animal shook his head, all three looked confused.
"Okay, what was the lead story?"
"Solid state drives," said Animal. The others stared at him. "Hey, big news for digital photography, it's about the only story I did read in that section."
"Fine. SunnyD Technology, ever heard of them before that story?" Everyone shook their heads. "That's because it's a new startup company. W. Rosenberg, their CEO, is Willow Rosenberg, my niece."
"They said a billion dollars over five years," said Rossi, "no wonder the lawyers are taking an interest."
"Apparently there are some other inventions in the pipeline," said Billie, "mostly related to computers and robotics, and potentially as big or bigger." Animal whistled softly. "She'll probably be a billionaire before the end of the year."
"This niece of yours like older men?" asked Rossi.
"She's already in a relationship."
"So someone learned that she was gonna be rich," said Tommy, "and found out that she was looking for her family, and this guy Lindsay MacDonald decided to snatch you and... I guess try to get ransom for you, except that doesn't explain what the body was for."
"There are all sorts of theories. One I'm leaning towards is that MacDonald quit, and Wolfram and Hart kept tabs on him until they needed a scapegoat then framed him for the kidnapping attempt. Of course that makes them multiple murderers, and we can't prove that, but it's an interesting theory."
"I hope your niece has good security," said Tommy. "Someone with that much money, only just out of her teens..."
"She has," said Billie. "For obvious reasons I can't discuss it, but it seems to be good. How it'll hold out when every paper and TV station in the world wants an interview...."
"You'll have to help her through it," said Rossi, "and get us an exclusive, of course. Okay, what about the other stuff, that guy Holtz?"
"I was afraid you were going to ask me that. It turns out to be grade 'A' Twilight Zone material; Holtz, Angel, the whole deal. And I'm led to believe that Wolfram and Hart are in it up to their necks." Rossi groaned. All of them knew what she meant; the world of magic and the supernatural.
"All of it?" asked Tommy.
"I had to make some promises before they'd tell me much. Once they did I knew it was nothing that we could ever cover in the Trib. Let me put it this way... you remember Caritas? Lorne's bar?"
"Oh yeah." The others nodded, and Rossi said "Must be a year since I was there."
"You won't go there again, someone firebombed the place. Currently he's Angel's house guest. And he wasn't the strangest person I met there this weekend."
"I was afraid that there might be something like that," said Tommy, "once I started digging further into the background on Sunnydale. Makes Twin Peaks look normal. So I took a closer look at Angel, even more weirdness there."
"And you didn't tell me because...?"
"You were in hospital, I didn't want to worry you."
"Fine. Don't do that again."
"So is there anything for the Trib in this?" asked Rossi.
"Willow already agree to be interviewed, she's free from two onwards today. And she's giving us an exclusive." There were broad grins from the others.
"You planning to conduct the interview?"
"I was thinking Joe Trask from the business section and Kevin Blum for the science, I'd love to go along but I've just got too much work backed up here. It'd probably be a good idea to conduct the interview at UC Sunnydale if possible, give it a more appropriate setting than her home. I don't think her company is much more than paper, a web site and an e-mail address at present, so we can't use her office."
"What about the human interest story?"
"Which one?" asked Billie, although she already knew the answer, and had agreed with Willow that it would have to be written.
"The long-lost niece thing, of course. The police of three states were searching for her when your sister died, there were stories in the paper for at least a week. I think the public might want to know that the case has been solved, if nothing else it'll stop any more nuts from trying to claim your so-called family fortune."
"Okay, I'll write it, but it needs to be handled carefully. I think a story on the lines of 'Hey, I found my long-lost niece, she's a billionaire, and people want to kidnap me to put pressure on her' could cause a few problems."
"Not to mention giving other people ideas."
"Exactly. It's going to come out but let's take it slowly. I don't want to muddy the waters for the police."
"So keep it down to basics," said Rossi, "she's found you, she doesn't want publicity and you're respecting her wishes, the scientific miracle of genetic fingerprinting, yadda yadda."
"Okay, but nothing to identify her specifically, or link it to the kidnapping."
"People will work it out, the kidnapping and genetic fingerprinting have already been linked by the police."
"But we don't have to comment. If anyone asks, we just say that the police have asked us not to discuss the investigation. In a few days nobody will remember or care, some other story will have come along."
"Or it'll all blow up in our faces."
"That's always a possibility, let's hope it doesn't come to that."
* * * * *
Billie called Nick Gibson and arranged to send Trask and Blum to Sunnydale, briefed them on the story, and hoped that things would go smoothly. CNN, Reuters, and several other papers were also on the trail, but hopefully they wouldn't get far with the minimal information in SunnyD Technology's incorporation papers; a lawyer's offices in Los Angeles, a post office box in Sunnydale and an e-mail account registered to the post office box were the only contact details given. With luck the Trib would have a good old-fashioned scoop. Meanwhile Billie sat at her terminal and began to type.
by Billie Newman
Usually the Tribune doesn't comment on the personal lives of its reporters and editorial staff. We would carry the story if one of us was involved in a crime or some other newsworthy event, of course, but otherwise it's an area we try to avoid. However, there are occasional exceptions. Today I'm writing about an event which isn't news, but once was. Twenty-one years ago the personal life of my family briefly made the headlines, when the accidental death of my sister led to an unsuccessful three-state hunt for her newly-born child. Since then I've lost track of the number of times I've been asked about the case. There have been many disappointments; I've been contacted by impostors who assumed that there was something to be gained by pretending to be a niece or nephew, and by orphans who hoped that they'd found their true family. All eventually proved to be unrelated.
Today I'm finally able to report success, although it isn't my success. Twenty-one years ago a newly-born girl was found abandoned in a city not far from Los Angeles. Somehow the local police department never connected her to my sister. She was taken into care and eventually adopted by a childless family. Recently she learned the truth, looked into stories of missing children around the time she was born and discovered that she was probably my niece. Genetic fingerprinting has confirmed this, and we now have twenty-one years of catching up to do.
I'm happy, of course, but sad that we have both missed so much. I've missed her childhood illnesses and triumphs, her first school play, her graduation. She never knew her real mother or grandpar_
Billie frowned at the blinking cursor on the screen. It was trite, and she knew she could do better work, but how the hell was she supposed to write this without mentioning the kidnapping, Wolfram and Hart, Holtz, Angel, or Willow's name. She changed a few lines, changed it again, added sidebars on the death of her sister, the search for her child, and genetic fingerprinting, eventually put something together that looked vaguely like a human interest story, then sent it off to Rewrite and asked them to salvage it as best they could. What came back was too sugary for her liking, but a lot more readable. She toned down the sweetness a little and added it to the list of stories for tomorrow's paper, with a note that it could be held back if something more important intervened. It wasn't going to win her another Pulitzer, but it was the kind of upbeat story that made a useful filler if there was nothing better to replace it.
Trask and Blum got back from Sunnydale a little after six, and put together a nice little piece on SunnyD Technology and the new drives while loudly crowing over the media posses they'd managed to dodge on their way to the interview. Sunnydale Post Office was under siege, and a half-dozen TV network trucks were parked around a house which Billie could only assume belonged to Willow's adoptive parents; must be the only Rosenbergs in the Sunnydale phone book. It was impossible to avoid naming Willow, but Billie checked the story carefully and removed a couple of references that made it too obvious that Willow was still a student at UC Sunnydale, then sent it down to Legal to make sure that nothing in there could be construed as giving Willow or David Nabbitt an unfair trading position. Since SunnyD wasn't a publicly quoted company the risk was minimal, but better safe than sorry.
A little after seven Willow phoned. "Hi. Thought I'd better warn you, April's on CNN."
"April?" Billie switched her TV to CNN's evening reports, a newsreader she didn't know was talking with a chart of soy-bean future prices behind him. "She's not on the TV here."
"It's my fault, she goes to pick up the company mail every evening, I forgot to tell her to skip it tonight. The second she opened the box she was mobbed by reporters. Wait a minute, I think they're coming up to it again now. Call me back when you've seen it."
Bernard Fox, one of CNN's science journalists, was on the screen, with an animated diagram of Willow's new drive behind him; the caption credited it to SunnyD's web site. It showed tiny pulses of laser light bouncing through something that looked like a honeycomb made of orange Jello, but was labelled as 'Holographic matrix'. Billie turned up the sound. "...dramatic breakthrough allowing data transfer times about five times better than normal drives and virtually instantaneous access. Earlier this afternoon we spoke to David Nabbitt." The picture shifted to Nabbitt in a room full of computers, saying "Apart from speed and cheapness the really exciting aspect of this technology is reliability. With no moving parts and very little heat we estimate the mean time before failure at fifty to a hundred thousand hours, and that's being very conservative, it might be much more. Essentially, we'd expect the drives to out-last the rest of the computer." The picture shifted again, showing a group of reporters outside a post office. "Meanwhile reporters have still failed to make contact with SunnyD Technology, the closest encounter so far left a few questions unanswered." April came out of the post office wearing a smart business suit and carrying a bundle of letters. There was a barrage of shutter clicks and flashes, and someone shouted "Do you work for SunnyD Technology?"
"Yes," said April, moving toward the camera and tucking the letters into her jacket. A photographer stood in her path; she said "Excuse me", when he didn't move she picked him up by the elbows and moved him to one side. Willow had said that April was stronger than a normal human, now Billie believed it. The other journalists moved back to give her room.
Another reporter shouted "Where are your offices?"
"Can you answer a few questions?"
"Where are the offices?"
"You said you'd answer our questions."
April pushed past the camera, saying "I said I can, not that I would."
The camera swung round to show April walking away, with several reporters following. Buffy's jeep stopped at the kerb as she reached it, and Billie could see Zap driving. April climbed in before the reporters had time to react, and Zap drove off while they were still shouting questions. A second later the camera went back to the studio, and Fox said "Well, we lost our link to Sunnydale at that point, apparently due to a voltage spike, and that's really all that we've learned there today. SunnyD technology are alive and well and living in Sunnydale, and have at least one employee who knows how to handle journalists." The picture behind him shifted to a photograph of Saturn and a NASA logo; Billie turned down the sound and dialled Willow's number.
"Summers residence," said an unfamiliar girl's voice.
"Could I speak to Willow Rosenberg please? This is Billie Newman?"
"Willow's aunt? Just a sec, I'll give her a shout...." Billie heard a muffled yell, then "Okay, she'll be a couple of minutes. I'm Dawn by the way, nice to talk to you."
"Dawn? Oh, Cordelia showed me a picture. Nice to talk to you too."
"Can I ask you something while you're waiting?"
"Is being a reporter fun? 'cos it sounds really cool, and I need to start thinking about a major when I get to college. I always kept diaries and stuff, maybe it's something I should look at."
"It's mostly hard work, but there are times when it's very good."
"Maybe I'll hit you for a job in a few years... here's Willow."
There was a rustling noise, then Willow took the phone. "Sorry, I was in the middle of something on line and couldn't leave it. Did you see the report?"
"Just saw it. What happened after the link went down?"
"Well, they all kinda found out their electronics weren't working any more, and I think that they were still trying to work it out when April and Zap left."
"That's right. We're worried that they might trace the Jeep's licence plates so I've hacked the DMV, for the next few days they'll be shown as belonging to Mayor Wilkins, and he's been dead three years."
"I don't think you've got anything to worry about apart from that, most of those guys couldn't find their way across town without a native guide, they'll probably head to the nearest bar or back to LA in the next few hours. Once we've published our story a lot of the heat will be gone anyway, it'll be yesterday's news."
"LA is good, bars in Sunnydale not so good. Some of the customers aren't exactly human."
"Even TV reporters probably know the score well enough not to make waves."
"I hope so, but I'll warn Buffy to expect trouble. She can always get round them a little earlier than usual, make sure that nobody snacks on a camera-man or something. What did you mean, a native guide?"
"Some sort of local, a journalist or a cabbie who knows the town."
"I wish them luck, the cabs here kinda disappear at nightfall, and if any reporter in Sunnydale knows where I live I'll be amazed. The paper here isn't exactly noted for investigative journalism. They might know my folks address, but the TV guys have already been there anyway. Anyone who knows where I am, and who Buffy is especially, ought to know better than to point them in this direction."
"Okay. About the story... do you want me to mention April? Her name, that is, not any personal details. It might help explain that scene if people know she's your secretary."
"I'd have to check with her and she went home with Zap. I doubt she cares much, but I'll ask."
"Call me back within the next hour or so if you want to mention her, if I don't hear from you I'll assume you want things left the way that they are."
They chatted for a few minutes, then Billie said "I'd better get on, there's a lot to do before we put the paper to bed."
"Do you really say things like that? I always thought it was just in films."
"Where did you think the films got it from? The bed used to be part of a printing press."
"Oh, right. Okay, I'd better let you get on with it. Goodnight, talk to you again soon."
Billie hung off and thought fondly of her niece. And wished that she wasn't going to have to betray her.
"Good morning, you're through to SunnyD Technology, April Summers speaking. How may I help you?"
"Hi, this is Billie Newman, Willow's aunt. Is she around?"
"Hi, nice to talk to you again. She'll be in college all day. Can I help at all?"
"I just wanted to check if she's still planning to come up to LA this weekend."
"Yes, she'll be at the Hyperion on Friday night."
"The Hyperion again?"
"She's using a suite there, eventually it'll be our LA office until we need something bigger. Angel has room to spare at the hotel, and the rent will pay for a lot of refurbishment. Willow says that with Angel and his team around we can be reasonably sure it'll be secure when we're not there."
"Will you be coming this weekend?"
"No, I think it's just Willow this time, Tara has to study for another test and I'm staying here to look after the office. She's giving Dawn a lift but Dawn won't be staying at the hotel, she's visiting her father."
"I'm going to try to get in touch with some of our more distant relatives, try to arrange some sort of get-together, maybe a Sunday brunch if Willow's agreeable. Possibly some of my friends too, people who met her mother. Ask her to let me know if she has a problem with that. I'll be at my work number from about ten onwards."
"Have things quieted down since the drives were announced?"
"Once your story appeared some of the reporters left, the rest gave up once Willow had been interviewed four times and they got the idea that we simply aren't very interesting. What we're left with now is occasional science and computer journalists and even they are gradually giving up."
"How did you manage that?"
"Magic. As I understand it, it's the reversal of a spell which is supposed to make its user more attractive. I understand that Tara used it to make Willow seem boring when she was interviewed."
"I can't tell. It doesn't affect me."
"Oh? Oh of course, I was forgetting."
"That I'm a robot? Thank you, that's always good to hear. Some magic will work on me, I think, but I appear to be immune to that spell."
"That's useful, I suppose."
"Not so far, but it might be in the future."
"Okay, I'd better get back to work."
"Before you go, Willow has been watching to see if there was any news of the attempt to kidnap you, but there appears to be nothing. Have there been any developments?"
"Nothing. The police seem to have run out of leads, it looks like they've blamed it all on that lawyer and his doctor friend."
"MacDonald and Hoskins?"
"Willow is sure that Wolfram and Hart are responsible for attempting to kidnap you. She has tried to find proof, but that data does not appear to be available. She hasn't been able to work out how Holtz is involved."
"Holtz? I don't think he was working with them, I think he just happened to be there."
"The odds against that are astronomical."
"I know, but coincidences do happen."
"Certainly, but his subsequent interest in you suggests some prior knowledge." Billie wondered if that could be right; Holtz had already denied it, but he could be lying. April added "It seems more likely that he waited for the kidnappers to strike then intervened so that you would be grateful to him. Has he contacted you again?"
Billie thought quickly and said "I think I've seen him from a distance a couple of times since the day I met Willow, my guess is he may still be watching me." It was true enough, though far from being the whole story.
"If the situation changes please let Willow know, she is worried."
"Okay... and thanks for telling me."
"You're welcome. Have a nice day."
"Thanks, goodbye." Billie hung up and said "She'll be here this weekend, and I've made the suggestion you wanted. Now do you mind telling me what that's about?"
"It's simple," said Holtz, "I'd like a friend to attend your brunch..."* * * * *
"Hello, this is Lou Grant. I'm not at home right now, but if you leave..." The phone clicked, then the real Grant said "Hello, who's calling?"
"Hi, Lou, this is Billie Newman."
"Billie? How are you? I heard about your arm, how's that going?"
"It's healing well, Lou, should be out of the cast soon."
"And the guys that tried to kidnap you, and the guy that killed them, have the police got anywhere with that?"
"Nothing but dead ends, unfortunately."
"Okay, want me to put my investigative reporter hat on and see if I can find out anything?"
"Believe me, we're working on it."
"Okay, then what can I do for you?"
"You've heard that I found my niece at last?"
"Great human interest story, surprised you didn't do more with it."
"There are reasons. Anyway, you met my sister Janice a couple of times, didn't you?"
"Once or twice, when she visited you at work. What about it?"
"I'm hosting a Sunday brunch for Willow, that's my niece, to meet friends and family who knew Janice. It'd be great if you could make it and I'm sure all the gang would love to see you again."
"Sure. Are you still at the same address?"
"That's right. Oh, maybe you can help with something. I can't seem to get in touch with Charlie Hume, any idea where he's living these days?"
There was an awkward silence, then Lou said "He's in a home. Alzheimers."
"Oh... I hadn't heard. But you're okay?"
"Same old Lou."
"That's good. If you could let me have Charlie's address I'll send him some fruit or something, visit him when I get a chance."
"I'll bring it along on Sunday."
"So what's this deice of yours like?"
"Smart... very smart... she's still in college but she's already started her own business, looks like it's going to be very successful."
"What kind of business?"
"Well, let's hope she gets the breaks, there's plenty tried to make a go of that business and failed. Tell her to keep studying."
"I wouldn't worry too much, Lou, she's well on her way to her first billion."
"Her first what?" Billie smiled at the surprise in his voice.
"You heard. She owns a very important patent, a lot of the big companies are going to use it."
"Does she like older men?" he asked jokingly.
"In your dreams, Lou."
"Wait a minute... is this why they tried to kidnap you?"
"It's beginning to look like it. There's a theory that someone wanted to put a ringer in, someone who would influence Willow and maybe get control of her company."
"Any idea who?"
"Not really... it turns out to be real Twilight Zone stuff, if you know what I mean."
"Oh. That kind of stuff. Never did like dealing with those people."
"Me neither, most of them anyway, but my contacts have the idea that Wolfram and Hart are involved."
"Wolfram and Hart? Now there's a name I haven't heard in a while. There were a lot of rumours about them having fingers in some very nasty pies. If they're involved you want to be very careful indeed."
"I will be. Maybe we can talk about it some more on Sunday."
"Okay. Talk to you then."* * * * *
"Okay," said Billie, leading Willow through her house to the garden, where Lou was trying to get the barbecue lit, "I was hoping to get some relatives here, cousins and so forth, but it looks like nobody could make it. I guess I didn't give them enough warning, none of them actually live in LA."
"That's okay," said Willow, "I guess it's best to start off slow, get to know you before I meet the rest of the family."
"Maybe, but it'd be nice to have them here. Anyway, what I can do is introduce you to some colleagues from the Trib. First, this is Lou Grant. He was editor of the Trib in the seventies and eighties, he's now retired. I think you met my sister a few times, didn't you?"
"Once or twice anyway," said Lou, offering Willow a charcoal-black hand which she gingerly shook. "Let me get this damn thing lit, we can talk properly later."
"Okay," said Billie, "This is Joe Rossi, who runs the World New desk, and Animal, our photo editor. Both of them met your mother a couple of times."
"I'm pleased to meet you both," said Willow, shaking hands. "Joe, um.. Animal."
"Actually it's Dennis," said Animal, "Everyone used to call me Animal in the eighties when I met your mother, I had a lot more hair then, and it stuck."
Willow gazed at the bearded shaggy-haired photographer and tried to imagine where more hair could have possibly fitted in, then made an effort and said "I guess it was the style then. Did either of you talk to her much?"
"Not really," said Joe, "she was always in a hurry, came by to see Billie then ran off again."
"I did get some photos once," said Animal. "Came back to the office from an axe murder, shot half a roll of Tri-X of her and Billie to finish the roll."
"I remember," said Billie, "didn't the police take the negatives when they were trying to find out what had happened to.. to Willow?"
"That's the way I remembered it, but when I checked my files yesterday I found that I'd made a copy of the negatives for them. Still had the originals." He handed Willow and Billie folders containing stacks of black and white eight by ten glossies. Both women leafed through them, then Willow said "thank you" and kissed him.
"I wish they were better," said Animal, blushing, "but I was rushing to make deadline, didn't have time for fancy composition."
"They're better than anything else we've got," said Billie, "and I don't think that there are any that were taken later."
"My pleasure. It was nice to work with film again, don't use it much these days, but it's still handy sometimes. If these new drives of yours work as advertised I doubt I'll be using it much in the future."
"Drives?" asked Lou, as he finally got the barbecue alight.
"I kinda stumbled across a new way to store data," said Willow. "It's probably going to be pretty big, especially for things like portable computers and cameras where you want a lot of storage and don't want it using much power or space."
"It's been all over the business and science news for the last week or so," said Joe. "SunnyD Technology, you must have seen it."
"That's Willow?" asked Lou.
"Me, a secretary, a few computers and a web site."
"Then Billie wasn't kidding about you being rich. Like older men?"
Willow blushed and said "Actually I'm kinda in a relationship."
"So ditch him and..."
"Her. And no."
"Okay... well, I really don't want to have the operation, but if you ever change your mind give me a call."
"You're incorrigible, Lou," Billie said as Willow blushed again.
"Spent a lot of years being the stony-faced editor, decided to relax once I'd retired. Trouble is... hey, that damn thing's gone out again."
"Maybe I should use the stove," said Billie, while Willow fanned the embers with one of the old newspapers Lou had been using to start the fire and murmured "Ignis". A thin plume of grey smoke rose from the coals, then yellow flames began to flicker. "Hey, it's alight," said Willow, "you had it lit, it just needed fanning a little." Only Billie noticed the guilty look on her face and guessed what she'd done.
"Better put the food on quick," said Joe. "Once the steaks are cooking the fat should keep it going."
"I thought you were a vegetarian," Willow said to Billie, accompanying her to the kitchen.
"I am," said Billie, getting the meat and adding some vegetarian burgers and sausages, "but they're not and I want everyone to enjoy themselves. Was it my imagination or did you help that fire along a little?"
"Kinda. I try not to use magic for things like that, but I could see that Lou was pleased when he got it lit and upset when it went out. It's a slippery slope, but I think I managed to keep it under pretty good control. First time I tried to light a barbecue there were some serious side-effects, it rained for most of the afternoon."
"You're right, it did make him happy... but maybe he would have enjoyed lighting it again, I've given up trying to understand how men think."
"Maybe you're right... and maybe it would have lit again without the spell if I'd just fanned it. Anyway, let's get this stuff outside before the fire goes out again or it starts to rain."* * * * *
"The thing about Wolfram and Hart," said Joe, "is that they think that they're above the law. They use it, but they really hate it when anyone uses it against them. They're good lawyers, but they get careless sometimes. Serve an injunction on the wrong person, like they did with Billie, or leave gaps in their defences because they think people will be too cowed to challenge them. That friend of yours, Angel, one time he destroyed their case by producing a witness everyone thought had run off. I've always wondered how he found him.." There was a hint of a question in his voice.
Willow shrugged and said "I don't know much about what he's done since he moved to LA, but he's always been good at tracking people down. Look at the way he found Billie for me."
"You'd think he'd be better known," said Lou.
"He kinda specialises in odd cases, things that don't make the papers. Billie called it 'Twilight Zone' stuff, if you know what I mean?"
"Sure, we've all run into it, but how did he come to be in that line of work?" asked Joe. "For that matter, how do you come to know about it?"
"I think he spotted a gap in the market and took it on. As for me, my best friend used to be his girlfriend, and we all ran into a few odd things in my home town. Vampires, a werewolf, that sort of thing. I think that kinda started the ball rolling."
The doorbell rang, and Billie went to answer it, leaving Willow to field the awkward questions. There was a tense-looking woman with reddish-brown hair at the door, and Billie said "Hi, glad you could make it!" and led her back to the garden.
"Everyone," said Billie, "This is Willow's second.. no, third.. cousin by marriage. Willow, everyone, I want you all to meet Justine Cooper."
"That went pretty well," Justine said that evening after Billie's other visitors had left.
"Willow didn't suspect anything," said Billie, "if that's what you mean."
"It's a good thing that she had to leave to pick up her friend's sister," said Justine, "I was running out of family to talk about."
"I don't think you made any mistakes with the information I gave Holtz. I'm reasonably sure she was convinced. Let's hope she doesn't dig too closely into that side of the family, while there are a few Coopers there's nobody even remotely near your age."
"It was too good a coincidence not to use it. I could have got fake ID but you said she's a hacker, I didn't want to take a chance that she'd find out I didn't exist. Anyway, if she's friends with a vampire she can't be a very good judge of character, I suppose. It's odd, she seems smart in other ways."
"You haven't met him, have you?"
"Angelus? Or I guess I should get used to calling him Angel. No."
"He's amazingly convincing, like any clever psychopath, and I think he's deceiving himself as much as anyone else. He genuinely believes that he and the demon are separate beings. For all I know he's right, of course. It doesn't make any difference. He's a danger to everyone around him, including Willow and the baby. Especially Willow."
"Why?" asked Holtz, coming in from the dark garden. Billie was a little startled by his arrival, and almost told him that Willow had cast the spell to restore Angel's soul, or whatever it really was, but she was still half-convinced that Holtz might kill Willow if he knew she was a witch so improvised a less revealing answer. "She's the best friend of that girl in Sunnydale, the vampire slayer, and she's often in Los Angeles. If Angel becomes evil she's the logical target for him, hurting her would upset her friend."
"Perhaps. Yes, you may be right. It was how he behaved in my day, killing entire families, one at a time, so that the last survivors were insane with grief and fear. This.. this souled creature, this Angel, has friends, they and the child would be the first to die if Angelus were released."
"You believe it, don't you?" asked Billie. "That he has a soul, I mean. That he isn't just the monster any more."
"Does it matter? Whether he becomes Angelus by losing a soul or his self-control, the result is the same. Death for those around him."
"If I was sure he would never kill again..."
"Do you wish to end our agreement?"
"No. No, I don't. It's too big a risk to take. Something could trigger him... today, tomorrow, in six months or six years. I'm prepared to do my part, how about you? Are you still willing to keep to your side of the deal?"
"Yes. No harm to your niece, the child, or Angelus' associates. A quick death for the vampire."
"Okay. When do we do it then?" asked Justine.
"The equipment Miss Newman suggested is almost ready. There are some problems with the mechanism, but they should be resolved shortly. When will your niece be in Los Angeles again?"
"On Wednesday," said Billie, "another business meeting."
"That might be too soon. Has she asked you to meet her?"
"No. I think it's going to be a flying visit."
"When after that?"
"Next weekend. She's coming in with her secretary and a friend to set up their suite at the Hyperion."
"This friend, is she the Slayer?"
"No, the girl you met a couple of weeks ago. Willow's girlfriend."
Billie was furious with herself for letting that slip.
"Her lover," said Justine. "Should have spotted that she was gay, but I guess she isn't interested in relatives that way."
"I see." Billie guessed that Holtz wasn't comfortable with the information but he didn't comment. Instead he said "The equipment ought to be ready by the weekend. Perhaps you and Justine could visit with a suitable gift; a plant, perhaps, a bottle of wine to celebrate the new beginning, or some sort of ornament. Your arm is still in a sling, there would be nothing unusual about you asking Justine to help you. There might be an opportunity for you to deal with Angelus, even if there is not you will be able to show Justine around the hotel without arousing suspicion. If we can get them used to your presence, they will pay less attention to your movements."
"What about Wolfram and Hart?"
"What about them?" Holtz asked dismissively.
"Do you agree that it was probably them that tried to kidnap me?"
"Then what are they up to now? Will they try to interfere?"
"That's a good question," said Holtz. "Some time ago I talked to Lila Morgan and made it clear to her that it would be... unfortunate if they interfered with my plans. My impression is that their main interest is in the child. She herself would probably be grateful for the destruction of Angelus, but for some reason her superiors want him left alive. I haven't seen the woman since the attempt to kidnap you, would you like me to do so?"
"I don't think so. My guess, my hope, is that they've given up on whatever they had planned, things got too public for them. I wouldn't want to remind them that I'm a loose end. So why are they interested in Connor? What's so special about him?"
"A child of two vampires, apparently human?"
"When you put it that way, I suppose they must be curious about him."
"I want to make sure he'll be safe once Angel is out of the picture. After all, I'm one of his godparents now."
"You have my word that I'll do everything in my power to see that he comes to no harm," Holtz said patiently, "and I think that we can agree that the best way to be sure of that is if Angelus no longer poses a threat to him. His associates are competent to look after the child, and I am sure will do so."
"Okay... I guess you're right."
"All right," said Justine, "if we're agreed, let's go through this one more time, make sure that we'll be ready if we do get a chance at Angel..."
* * * * *
On Saturday morning Billie parked her car behind the Hyperion and held the door open while Justine carried in a blue ceramic pot, about a foot wide and two high, containing a tropical plant with stripy green and white leaves the size of large plates. Cordelia met them in the lobby. She was wearing green coveralls and carrying an electric drill.
"Cordelia, this is Willow's third cousin Justine, Justine Cooper. Justine, this is Cordelia Chase."
"Do you want me to help you with that?" asked Cordelia.
"No, it's fine," said Justine.
"How's everything going with Willow's suite?" asked Billie.
"The decorators finished on Thursday, and Willow and April just swept the place for bugs. Only found eight, Wolfram and Hart must be slipping."
"Why do you think it's Wolfram and Hart?"
"Because it always is. They don't give up easily."
"Wolfram and Hart?" asked Justine, playing her role of clueless cousin to the hilt.
"Lawyers," said Cordelia, in the tone of voice she usually reserved for cockroaches. "They like to keep tabs on us."
"What's the drill for?" asked Billie.
"Willow's putting in her computer network, they need to go through a couple of walls and put a satellite dish on the roof."
"Shouldn't they have put the cables in before you decorated?"
"They didn't want to risk the network being bugged. The workmen did put in some of the ducts for the cables, but they're going to put the wiring and hardware in for themselves."
"Where can I find them?"
"Top floor, used to be a conference suite and the bridal suite. We might as well take the lift, it's just been repaired."
"What was wrong with it?"
"It was kinda destroyed a few weeks ago, we weren't using it but Willow paid to have it fixed instead of a deposit on the suite."
"You're spending a lot to get ready for her."
"Actually, Willow's the one spending the money right now, although eventually she'll be getting it back. You remember Anya, our friend that got married a few weeks ago?" The lift arrived and they got in. "She came up with an interesting business plan for the Hyperion, redevelopment as a dozen or so corporate suites like Willow's, with the restaurant re-opening and used as a night club in the evening. Willow's funding it at a good interest rate, Lorne's coming on board to run the restaurant and club, we provide the building, services, and so forth. It ought to work pretty well, especially with Willow's company based here to set the pace." The lift stopped and they got out in a lobby that smelled strongly of paint. She led them through a large office, filled with boxed computers and office equipment and furniture, and back towards the sound of people talking.
"..at least Buffy and Spike aren't all over each other quite as much," said Willow, "it was kinda embarrassing for a while, but I think the honeymoon's kinda over. She's making him wipe his feet and go outside if he wants to smoke, and I think he's beginning to realise that she isn't exactly miss perfect herself."
"You made them sound so right for each other," said Fred, "don't tell me it's going sour already?"
"Not exactly," said Tara, "but I think they're starting to notice more of each other's flaws."
"It's one of those relationships that work well when it's new and exciting and a secret," Willow said as the others came in, "but I think the gloss is beginning to wear off a little now that everyone knows and they're more used to each other. Aunt Billie, Justine, hi!" Willow was wearing pink overalls with a picture of a kitten and looked about fifteen, and was up a ladder running a stud-finder over the ceiling. "Just give me a second to finish checking here and I'll be with you." Tara was holding the ladder steady, Fred was making notes on a pad.
"We bought you a little office-warming gift," said Billie. "I was worried that you might not have room for something this size, but I don't think it'll be a problem. This place is huge."
"Better put it on one of the crates," said Willow, making some marks on the ceiling with a pencil. "We're probably going to have a permanent staff of ten or twelve people here eventually, so it needs to be big." She climbed down and kissed Billie and Justine then looked at the plant. "Hmm... Calathea orbifolia?"
"That's right," said Billie, looking at the label. "How did you know?"
"Some Brazilian tribes use the dried leaves in magical rituals," said Tara.
"Really?" asked Justine.
"We've both worked in a shop that sells that sort of thing," Willow said a little evasively. "I don't do that any more, but some of it sticks. Oh, forgot to say. Tara, Fred, this is my cousin Justine, Justine Cooper. Justine, this is Tara McClay, my girlfriend, and Winifred Berkle."
"What are you doing to the ceiling?" asked Billie.
"Trying to find a good spot to fit a video projector for presentations. There's a beam where I've marked, ought to take the weight well enough."
"How will you get the cables to it? I don't see any ducts up there."
"There's a ventilation duct runs pretty close, we just need to run the cables through that and drill a hole. Tom'll get them through, he's pretty good at that sort of thing." Billie realised that Tom... or rather Zap... was small enough to walk through the ducts.
"Isn't he here today?"
"Not right now, he and April are out with Gunn and Wesley picking up the computers."
"What about Angel?"
"Oh, he's downstairs watching Connor and brooding."
"He's worried about things," said Cordelia, "this business suite idea has taken a lot of the financial pressure off us, but there's still Wolfram and Hart, and Holtz, and all the other odd stuff that seems to happen around us."
"What sort of stuff is that?" asked Justine.
"Well... we're private detectives," said Cordelia, "and Angel kinda specialises in unusual cases, things that the police and other detectives don't want to know about. Sometimes that means we have to deal with very strange people, and some of them hold grudges."
"We really didn't get into that when we met last weekend," said Willow, "a lot of what Angel does is kinda confidential, and sometimes he has to... work around the law a little. It's difficult to explain."
"That's okay," said Justine, "I totally get it, he's gay and so are his clients. I totally understand."
"Maybe we should leave it at that," Billie said hastily. She knew that Justine was playing dumb, but this was taking it too far.
"Okay." The others nodded agreement. "I've got to get on to my yoga class anyway," said Justine, "it was nice meeting you all. Willow, I'll see you soon. Billie, I'll wait for you in the car."
"Oh, is it that late?"
"No, I've got about half an hour before I have to leave, but I don't want the car to get towed. See you outside."
"Okay, I'll be down in twenty minutes."
She went out, and Billie said "She wouldn't believe what you really do if you told her."
"She's lucky," said Willow, "I guess she's never had to deal with our sort of problem. Let's hope for her sake that she never has to."
"Right," said Billie. "I'd better see about joining her, I've already taken up too much of her time. Willow, I hope you'll let me know when you're opening the office, I'd like to have a reporter here before the rush starts. That reminds me, I really must say 'Hi' to Angel while I'm here and see if I can persuade him to give an interview to the Trib."
"No chance," said Cordelia, "he really hates publicity."
"I was thinking more in terms of something for the business pages about these suites you'll be offering. Although something about Angel Investigations would also be good."
"You could give it a try, might be worth a shot."
"All right. Well, I'd better get on. Good luck with the wiring." She kissed Willow and went back to the lift and down to the lobby. Justine was waiting on a comfortable-looking chair, reading a magazine. Billie said "I'm just going to pop in to see Angel and the baby."
"I'd like to meet this mystery man for myself," said Justine, giving Billie a meaningful nod.
"Okay." Billie knocked on Angel's office door, and he came out carrying Connor on his arm. "Angel, I'd like you to meet Willow's cousin, Justine Cooper."
"It's a pleasure," said Angel, "I didn't know Willow had any other living relatives."
"We're related by marriage," said Justine. "That's a cute little girl."
"Boy," said Angel, "Connor's a boy."
"Sorry. He is cute though, can I hold him for a second?"
"Well..." Fatherly pride and protectiveness fought a short battle, and eventually pride won. He gently handed the baby to Justine, saying "He's got my nose, I think."
"Maybe," said Billie, moving round to Justine's side. "It's difficult to tell." She casually moved her arm, in its sling, until it was pointing at his chest, then pulled the trigger of the weapon it concealed. A powerful spring fired a stake into Angel's heart. There was a soft "whoosh" and his dust showered onto the floor.
"Put the baby back into his crib and we'll get out of here," said Billie.
"Okay," said Justine, nervously reaching into her bag for a cigarette.
"Don't smoke near the baby."
"Sorry." She put the cigarettes back into her bag and pulled out a black plastic box about the size of a bar of soap.
"What's that?" asked Billie.
"A small change in plans," said Justine, touching the Taser to Billie's other arm. As Billie collapsed she put it back into her bag and walked out, still carrying Connor.
Somewhere a woman was saying "I think she's coming round."
"What the hell happened?" said a man.
"Something bad," said another woman. "Angel and Connor are missing."
"She took Connor," said Billie, trying to open her eyes. "Justine took Connor."
"But where's Angel?" said the first voice, which Billie vaguely recognised as Cordelia.
"He's gone... can't hurt Willow now. Can't hurt the baby."
"Who can't?" asked the man... Wesley.
"Angel," said Billie, trying to make them understand "I made sure. He'll never hurt Willow."
"What have you done?" said Willow. "What the hell have you done?"
* * * * *
"I don't understand how I didn't see it before," said Tara, gazing into Billie's eyes as she sat one of the offices off the lobby. "Someone's really done a number on you."
"What do you mean?" said Billie, trying to understand.
"Someone's used something on you, I'd guess magic but it could be drugs. Made you obsessive about protecting Willow."
"But I had to stop him from harming her, can't you see that?"
"Willow's known Angel for six years, Billie. Why would she be in any more danger now than she was before?" Billie tried to think of an answer as Willow came in carrying a steaming copper beaker, followed by April and Cordelia.
"Drink this," said Willow.
"There's nothing wrong with me, can't you see I've saved you?"
Willow nodded, and April put her hands on Billie's shoulders and gently pushed her down into the seat. Cordelia held her arms.
"Are you sure about this, sweetie?" asked Tara.
"Positive," said Willow. "It's too late for Angel, but Connor's in danger, and we need everything that Billie knows. For that we need her sane. Billie, I'm sorry." She held the beaker to Billie's lips and said "Please. Drink it." Billie clenched her mouth closed. Willow sighed and pinched her nostrils, waited until she was forced to gasp for air, and made sure that she swallowed. After an agonising minute she let go.
Billie felt the drink go down her throat like liquid fire. Then there was an explosion in her head, an agonising fire that seemed to spread from her forehead to the back of her head, followed by an icy chill. As the pain cleared she began to feel nauseated and started to choke.
"Let her go," said Willow; April complied, and Billie bent forward and vomited onto the floor. Someone - Tara, she thought - gently rubbed her back as she coughed and spluttered. A minute passed as she slowly began to think clearly and realised what she'd done. Then she vomited again.
* * * * *
"It's a lot like the thrall some vampires can use," said Willow, "only a lot sneakier. It feeds on natural fears or a suggestion and makes the victims act like... well, like Billie acted. It's real hard to spot in the early stages, which is why I guess neither of us caught on."
"I just can't believe I killed him like that," Billie said numbly. "I was grateful to him for finding you, and somehow it was twisted into, into, I guess fear once I knew what he was. I had to protect you from him. Nothing else mattered. At first I was just helping Holtz, then somehow I was volunteering to kill Angel. It all seemed so right when I was doing it."
"In a way it's natural," said Wesley. "All of us can remember the dark side of Angel, and you heard enough about him, from us and from Holtz, to make it easy to fear him."
"That's one way of looking at it," Cordelia said harshly. "Another is that Billie betrayed Angel and Connor, lied to all of us, and let a child be stolen by someone who wants to see him dead."
"That wasn't Billie." said Willow. "Not really."
"I don't think that's Holtz's plan," said Billie. "I don't understand why he would have her take Connor if I killed Angel."
"He's the son of the vampires that killed his family," said Cordelia. "Isn't that enough?"
"I think it would have made sense while Angel was alive, but now... no, I don't think he was thinking in those terms at all."
"You like him?" asked Wesley. "Even now?"
"Not like, exactly, more respect. He did save my life. And I still feel pity for him, for what Angel did to his family."
"The hell of it is she's right," said Wesley. "Holtz is an admirable man apart from his obsession. Even Angel acknowledged that. And he may not have been entirely wrong about Angel."
"What?" said several voices.
"The prophecies I've been researching, the ones that relate to Connor. For the last week I've been trying to find an alternative translation for them."
"Why alternative?" asked Gunn.
"Because the one I've got reads 'The father will kill the child'. It's academic now, I suppose."
"Holy crap," said Cordelia. "That's not the only thing that's academic. All of the prophecies, everything that talks about a vampire with a soul, it's all wrong. No participation in the final apocalypse, no Shansu, nothing. Just dust."
"Maybe that isn't all bad," said Gunn. "'No fate... no fate but what we make.'"
"Terminator Two, when the chick decides to change history and whack the computer guy. 'The unknown future rolls toward us'. Everyone's level. Us, Wolfram and Hart, everyone else who thought that they knew what was coming. They were all wrong. Fred said, 'Screw destiny'. We've really screwed with it now, we're making it up as we go along and so are they."
"Except that there are still the predictions about Connor," said Wesley, "and even without Angel there's still enough there to put him in deadly danger. Without Angel to protect him..."
"We don't have time to worry about predictions now," said Cordelia, "we need to concentrate on finding him."
"What about the police?" asked Billie.
"At the moment I hope that only we, Justine, and Holtz know that Connor is missing," said Wesley. "If we involve the police Wolfram and Hart will soon know, and word is bound to get out to the demon communities. There are a dozen different factions that want to see Connor dead or worship him as the new messiah."
"Always assuming that Holtz or Justine isn't working for them."
"Not Holtz. Everything we know about him says that he wouldn't be a party to anything like that. Justine though... how much do we really know about her? Fred?"
Fred looked up from her computer, her eyes red from crying, and said "Not really a lot here. She had a twin sister who was killed a few months ago, the report says an animal attack but it sounds like vampires to me. There's no current address listed, she has a driving license but there's no indication that she owns a car. That might mean that the car she bought Billie in was stolen or rented, or just wasn't registered in her name. Are you sure you didn't notice the license number?"
"No," said Billie, "I'm not even sure it was a Taurus."
"What about magic?" asked Gunn. "Is there any way you can trace him?"
"I'm not getting any visions," said Cordelia, "Why the hell would the Powers let us down now?"
"Maybe we can do something," said Tara, "it's a simple enough spell if they don't have him screened some way, but it needs a lot of power, much more than to find a demon. Willow could do it better than me."
"What?" said Willow. "Are you kidding?"
"We don't have an alternative. If I try it I'll probably blow it, and muddy the waters so badly that nobody else can do it. It has to be you."
"Us. If we do it together we can use a different spell, one that needs a lot less power. You remember, the invocation of the Goddess. We could spirit-walk to find him. That way we'll be working the spell together and you can anchor me and keep me from going critical."
"Oh. Um... yeah, we could do that." Tara was blushing furiously. So was Willow.
"What's the problem?" asked Cordelia.
"Nothing," said Willow. "It's just... it's kinda the first really powerful spell we did together. Brings back memories."
"I think we have everything we need for it," said Tara, "We'll need something of Connor's, something like clothing or a lock of his hair."
"I've got that," said Cordelia. "Angel kept his first little shirt and his..." she began to sob helplessly.
"I think I know where he kept those things," Wesley said hastily, "start making your preparations, I'll find them. Charles, Fred, get maps and photographs, everything we have that might help Willow and Tara pin down a location."
"What can I do?" asked Billie.
"Go home," said Gunn, "I think you've already done enough harm."
"She can't," said Willow, "the potion I made her will only work for a few hours, after that she'll be under the spell again. Removing it completely will be a lot more complicated. For all we know there's another compulsion waiting to kick in once Angel is out of the way, so we have to keep Billie under observation, make sure that she doesn't hurt herself or someone else when it starts up again."
"Are you saying I'm a prisoner here?" asked Billie.
"Only until we can remove the spell," said Tara, "shouldn't be more than a few hours, but we've got to find Connor first."
"You know," said Willow, "Billie was part of the spell we did to protect Connor, and she's got a little mojo, although she doesn't really know how to use it. If she helps with the locator spell it might help us to get a lock on him."
"Me? How can I help."
"You'd just have to follow us in some simple movements and chants, maybe help support me if I go out of body. It'll look like I've fainted. Having you in it would give us a little more power. It might even give us a way to home in on whoever cast the spell on you if we can't find Connor."
"Can you adapt the spell for three people, one of them untrained?" asked Wesley.
"I think so," said Willow, "if not we probably won't be any worse off than we are now. Tara and I can do it on our own if we have to. Billie, are you willing to help?"
"Of course, if it'll help find Connor."
* * * * *
"The Inward Eye, The Sightless Sea, Ayala flows through the River in Me..."
Willow, Tara, and Billie sat on a padded gym mat on the lobby floor, their right arms linked and left arms holding crushed crystals, repeating the chant. Billie was trying to keep in step with the verses, aided by hastily scrawled cue cards that Wesley and Cordelia were holding up. All three of them were sweating, breathing deeply, in unison.
"This is like that show with the three witches," Gunn murmured to Fred. "Only it looks a lot sexier somehow."
"Charles, Angel's dead and you're talking about bad TV."
"My way of coping, Fred."
"The Inward Eye, The Sightless Sea, Ayala flows through the River in Me..."
All three cast handfuls of crystal in an arc, streaming them out to make a circle around them. Somehow their movements were perfectly synchronised. As the last crystals showered onto the floor they began to glow, softly at first then searingly bright, and Billie and Tara fell back onto the mat, Willow somehow supporting both and laying them down without hurting them. Wesley and Gunn moved to help, but Willow held up a hand and said "It's okay, just give it a little time, looks like Billie and Tara get to fly this one without me." She sounded confident, but everyone could see that she was worried.
* * * * *
White. Billie tried to look around and saw nothing, not even her own body, just white nothingness. She tried to say "Where am I?" but heard nothing. There was no smell, no taste, no feeling. She thought of blinking, tried to do it, but there was nothing but the light.
"We're astral," said Tara's voice.
"Where are you?" thought Billie.
"It's difficult to explain. We're out of our bodies right now, and we need to get orientated. Relax and try to think of your body, Billie. Imagine it, imagine the clothes you're wearing."
"I'll try." Billie did as she was asked, and gradually began to feel her body, slowly at first then suddenly snapping into focus. She tried to raise a hand, felt her arm move and saw it rise in front of her face. It wasn't broken.
"That's good," said Tara's voice, the first thing she'd heard since the spell took effect. Somehow she turned to face her, and saw... not Tara, but a goddess. "You look beautiful," said Billie.
"That probably means I'm idealizing too much," said Tara. She seemed to concentrate, and somehow looked more human, a little plainer. There was still nothing else to see, just the white nothingness and Tara. Billie wondered what her own face looked like if she could see it, and held up her hand again. The skin looked a little younger and firmer than usual, the veins a little less visible. She had a feeling that she looked about thirty.
"We'd better start at the Hyperion," said Tara. "Try to visualise the lobby, the way it was when we were casting the spell. Imagine it the way it was, with the mat on the floor and us sitting there." For what seemed like minutes nothing happened, then the lobby seemed to appear around them, ghostly, translucent. Willow was sitting by their recumbrant bodies, a worried look on her face. Everyone was motionless. "It's probably just a couple of seconds since we went astral," said Tara, "time's different on this plane."
"How do we get back?"
"When we're ready just lie in your own body, and remember that it's you. I'll help you."
"Okay. What do we do now?"
"Think of the past. Remember where you and Justine were standing, what you said, as you were talking to Angel. Try to visualise it."
Billie tried. There was nothing at first, then two ghostly outlines, misty and insubstantial. "I can see us, just about. Why isn't it any clearer?"
"We're not really seeing the past," said Tara, "it's a residue, a psychic trace left by your auras. I can barely see it, you can probably see it a little more clearly because you were there. Is one of them much brighter than the other?"
"Yes. I think it's me. Why can't I see Angel?"
"He was a vampire, Billie, they don't leave that kind of psychic trace. Sometimes seers can see them in visions, but that's a whole different ball game. There might be a very faint trace left by Connor, but he's a baby, it'd be almost impossible to see. I think Willow was too optimistic about that."
"What do we do now?"
"Can you see a faint trail for each of you? Like a vapour trail left by a plane?"
"That shows where you've been. What we want to do is fast forward a little and follow the trail, see where it takes us. I need you to visualise everything that happened up to the moment that Justine went out the door. Take it slowly... that's good."
The misty replica of Billie did something, paused for a moment, then fell to the floor. Justine walked out, slowly at first then faster until it looked like a speeded-up movie.
"Too fast, Billie," said Tara. "Take it back a little until she's in the lobby, then forward a little slower."
"But she went through the doors. They didn't open."
"They didn't open now, but they opened when she went through an hour or so ago. Don't worry about it. We're not physical, Billie, we can go anywhere we can imagine, up to a point. Just follow her through the door and out into the street."
They reached the road, after several false starts, and saw hundreds of misty trails. "Why is it like this?" asked Billie.
"Everyone who drives past leaves a trail. The low ones are cars, the high ones buses or trucks. What we have to do is find the one that leads to Justine and follow that."
"Let's take it back a little, to when she coming out of the hotel. I think I can remember where she parked, that ought to give us a good starting point."
They followed the trace that Billie prayed was Justine to the side of the road, about fifty yards from the ghostly replica of the Hyperion, then saw it move onto the road. "Are you getting a feel for it yet, for her aura?"
"Maybe," said Billie. "I'm pretty sure this track is her. But there are hundreds of others. It's like that film Koyaanisqatsi, like the tracks left by the tail-lights of hundreds of cars. How do we follow just one of them?"
"Think of it as a.. oh, as the rails on a flight of stairs. Imagine yourself sliding down it."
"What? How can we do that?"
"Billie, we're not really here. Everything we're seeing is our mind interpreting psychic traces. We can walk, or slide, or even fly, if we put our minds to it. Do whatever you think will make it easiest to follow the trail."
Billie thought for a moment, and remembered a team-building exercise she'd once taken part in, sliding down a rope that seemed a couple of hundred feet long. She imagined the wheeled mechanism that she'd held onto, visualised it clipped to the vapour trail. Suddenly it was there. She grabbed it, took her weight from her feet - except that there didn't seem to be any real weight, just a gentle pressure on her arms - and slid forward, slowly at first then faster as she gained confidence.
"That's great!" said Tara. Billie looked back to see her following on another roller. By now it felt like they were travelling as fast as a car. Faster. Much faster. Their route seemed to twist and turn, through side streets and back alleys, along the busiest roads. Billie guessed that someone trying to follow in a car would have had difficulty keeping up. Faster, the trail seeming to get stronger as they got closer to the present. An office block made of mist loomed ahead, and the trail swerved towards the entrance to an underground parking garage. Abruptly they jerked to a halt. It felt like they'd hit a solid wall.
"What happened?" asked Billie.
"We hit a barrier," said Tara. "Someone's got a privacy spell up, to keep out psychic snoopers. Looks like it stops us too." She tried to walk forward, and Billie was irresistibly reminded of the force field barriers in old science fiction movies. Something seemed to throw Tara back and wasn't gentle about it.
"Won't try that again in a hurry," said Tara. "They've got some serious mojo protecting that building. Any idea what it is?"
"Not a hundred percent, it looks different when it's made of mist," said Billie, "but I'm pretty sure that if we went round to the front we'd see a sign saying 'Wolfram and Hart.'"
The ritual described in this chapter is based on one used in the BtVS S4 episode Who Are You?.
"Do we tell Buffy?" asked Tara.
"Not yet," said Willow, looking up from her computer, "I want to break it to her in person. Even if she was here this minute there isn't much she could do except spend a couple of hours sobbing or run off after Holtz without any way of finding him, and right now I really don't have time to hold her hand."
"That's harsh," said Tara, "but I see what you mean. The clock's ticking and we need to concentrate on finding Connor first. But you'll have to tell her sooner or later."
"If we don't get anywhere by five I'll call her, get her here with Spike as soon as it's dark."
"Spike?" asked Billie, "isn't he another vampire?"
"We may need all the muscle we can get and vampires have tracker dogs beat hollow," said Cordelia. "Angel could probably smell Connor a couple of blocks away, Spike ought to be about as good. Why the hell aren't the PTBs sending me another vision? C'mon, guys, your champion's been killed and his son's in danger, let's have some info!"
"Typical," said Gunn, "Never a vision around when you want one, then three come along at once."
"What we really need is Oz," said Willow, turning her attention back to the screen, "but he's somewhere in Tibet."
"He a vampire too?" asked Gunn. "How many of these guys you got on your side?"
"Werewolf," said Wesley. "They're pretty good trackers too, and it's not the full moon so he'd be safe."
"That's it," said Willow, looking up from the computer, "we're in."
"How much access do you have?" asked Fred.
"How much do we need?"
"You're that good?" asked Billie.
"I was hacking the FBI when I was fifteen, this is kiddie stuff by comparison, Wolfram and Hart must be assuming that all of their serious problems will be magical."
"I think this is where I hand over to you, April. Before you plug in, tell Zap to be ready to go in if we give the word."
"Okay, he's ready." April connected a cable to the back of the computer then lifted the hem of her blouse, peeled open a patch of 'skin' to plug it into her abdomen and shut her eyes. "Anywhere in particular you want me to look?"
"Can you get into their internal security system? The password's encrypted, but I'm pretty sure the key is an anagram of 'Wolfram and Hart.'"
"Not very imaginative," said Tara, crumbling some dark green leaves into a crucible.
"I'm in," April said a few seconds later, "I had to try nearly three thousand permutations and pretend to be an authorised user, so it isn't completely insecure."
"Which user?" asked Wesley.
"Someone called Lilah Morgan."
"Holy crap," said Cordelia, "the bitch queen herself. She's not going to be happy."
"Then she shouldn't leave her computer switched on when she's out of her office," April said disapprovingly.
"Couldn't happen to a nastier person," said Wesley.
"What have you got?" Billie asked impatiently.
"Nothing really unusual," said April, "they don't seem to be on any special alert status."
"Can you get at visitor's logs, that sort of thing?" asked Willow.
"Yes. No Justine Cooper, no Holtz."
"Save what you can find," said Fred, looking at another screen, "I think they're onto you. Traffic on their phone lines has gone up by nearly fifty percent over the last couple of minutes. At least one of the calls was nine-one-one."
"I don't think it's me," said April, "There's still... oh, security alert. No, not us, there's a fire."
"Where?" asked Willow.
"Car in the basement car park."
"Green Taurus, registration... it has stolen plates."
"Justine's car," said Billie, "What the hell's going on?"
"It was left in visitor's parking forty minutes ago, it's on fire."
"Any information on the driver?" asked Wesley.
"No, nobody was logged in around that time."
"Can you get at the cameras?" asked Willow.
"No, they aren't connected to the network."
"Wait a minute... they're putting a screen shot onto the network, warning all security stations to look out for her."
"I don't know." A picture appeared on Willow's screen. "Is that her?"
"Yes." The picture showed her carrying a bundle that looked like a baby.
"Wait a second," said Fred, "can you enhance that picture, zoom in on the red van about four cars back?"
"Sure," said Willow, dropping the frame into another program. "Here we go."
"That's Holtz in the passenger seat," said Fred, staring at the screen.
"I've lost the connection," said April.
"Me too," said Fred. "The phone lines have gone completely dead."
"Try the police radio," said Gunn, "maybe there's something there."
"..code ten-eighty, repeat ten-eighty, at Wolfram and Hart building. All units in vicinity respond."
"What does ten-eighty mean?" asked Willow.
"Explosion," said Gunn, flipping through a list of codes.
* * * * *
"If we're piecing this together right," said Cordelia, "Justine dumped the car at the Wolfram and Hart building, crossed to that van, and left with Holtz, leaving some kind of incendiary in the car. It caught fire and set off the gas tank, and the explosion took out their phones and cable."
"More likely blew some circuit breakers," said Fred, "their phones are already back on line, I doubt the cable will be long."
"Why would they do that?" asked Billie.
"They must be hiding their trail," said Wesley, leafing through a book of ancient prophecies. "Somehow they knew that the building was screened against magical prying, it'd be the perfect place to lose us and the fire would help against forensics."
"We know that someone on Holtz's team knows some magic," said Tara, pouring the contents of her crucible into a tumbler and giving it to Billie. "Drink this, it'll hold off the spell a while longer."
"Tincture of zinnis weed?" asked Wesley, raising his eyebrows.
"A mixture of zinnis plus some burba weed and bay leaves," said Tara, "You get the same result but it's a lot less toxic."
"Less?" asked Billie, pausing with the tumbler half-way to her lips. "Non-toxic would be nice."
"Don't worry, it'd take a lot more than that to hurt you."
"Wait a minute," said Billie, "do we want to stop the spell?"
"I don't understand," said Tara, "why would you want it to control you again?"
"If it didn't stop working once I'd killed Angel, won't it help to know what it wants me to do next?"
"Maybe," said Willow, "but that could be really dangerous for you."
"I don't see why."
"What if you're supposed to kill yourself?"
"You'd stop me."
"If I could, but for all we know it's something like a curse that'd stop your heart."
"I really can't imagine why Holtz would do that."
"But it isn't Holtz we're dealing with," said Tara. Everyone looked at her, confused. "There's nothing to suggest that Holtz knows magic, and with the background you've described it seems very unlikely, he'd more likely be a witch-hunter. But someone brought him through time, and cast the spell on Billie. Billie even heard him talking, although she didn't see him. Whoever or whatever it is has to be really powerful."
"Wait a minute," said Fred, "They bought Holtz a couple of hundred years into the future. How would they know that Angel would be here now?"
"A prophecy?" Wesley suggested.
"There are too many prophecies and most of them are way too vague. I'm thinking time travel."
"Good lord. Whatever gives you that idea?"
"Willow changed her past so we know it's possible, and I think something smells about the prophecies you've read. You remember that book? The one that was supposed to be incredibly rare? The one that said that Angel would kill Connor?"
"Yes, of course."
"How many copies were printed?"
"Maybe a hundred."
"How many copies did they have?"
"Doesn't it strike you as a little unusual that three copies of a book that rare would end up in the same place?" asked Fred, "half the world away from where it was published."
"Well yes, but..."
"Angel's been around LA on and off for fifty-odd years and he didn't have a copy."
"And there's nothing like it in Giles' collection or the Magic Box," said Willow. "And another thing, Buffy told me that some demon, what was his name... Whistler said that most of the prophecies about Angel were upset when he fell in love with her. Why should something so specific still be right?"
"Like I said earlier," said Gunn, "Never one around, then three come along at once. They saw you coming. Someone planted copies, must have arranged for them to be sold to the shop. You don't do that unless you know damned well that someone's going to come looking. Fred's right, it's time travellers. Terminator time."
"Maybe," admitted Wesley, "but that doesn't find Connor for us, or explain why they wanted Angel dead."
"It isn't just Angel," Cordelia said, horrified realisation in her tones. "I don't think it was ever really about Angel, exactly. It's Connor that's the target. Think about it, Holtz appeared just before Connor was born. We saw him at Caritas, he was all set to kill Angel and Darla, if he'd been a few seconds faster he would have killed them before Connor was born. When he saw Connor he stopped, I guess he saw that he was an innocent child. I'm willing to bet that wasn't what the guy who pulled the strings had planned. All along he's wanted Connor dead, Holtz was just his weapon."
"And now Holtz has Connor," said Billie, "and it's my fault it happened. Put the antidote away, I'll take my chances with the spell. Let's hope we learn something useful."
"How do you feel?" asked Tara.
"I don't know," said Billie. "Maybe... maybe a little angry that Willow doesn't appreciate what I've done for her."
Part of her mind knew that what she was saying was wrong, and saw Willow and Tara exchange glances. But all her attention was on Tara, who said "I know what you mean. The stories I've heard about Angel, about the things he did when he lost his soul, they were difficult to ignore. I never really knew him though, not like Willow."
"She should be thankful."
"How do you mean?"
"She should thank God he's gone."
"That's an interesting idea. You mean she should say a prayer?"
"She should go to church. We all should. We need to..."
The remote part of her mind that wasn't under the spell heard Gunn whisper "You sure she's okay?", and Willow reply "Positive. Tara's good at this, better than I ever was. Billie can't hurt herself, and she just won't pay any attention to anything we do or say until the spell is broken. She kinda knows we're here, but for now Tara is the only person that can get her attention."
"I'm running a search on churches," said April. "What type would appeal to her?"
"She's Episcopalian," said Willow.
"There are forty-two Episcopalian churches in the Los Angeles area, I'll print a list sorted by distance from her home."
"Wait a second," said Fred, "Don't you want Holtz's church?"
"Fine, if you can tell us where to look that one up," said Cordelia.
"With a name like Holtz he's probably German descent, my guess would be Lutheran," said Wesley.
"Ninety Lutheran churches," April said a second later.
"Damn," said Gunn, "we could be days checking them all out, even if you were sure. Don't you have any way to find out?"
"I daresay that if I had a week to spend on research and access to the Watchers Council library I could find more. But failing that..."
"Billie," said Tara, "do you want to go to church now?" Billie nodded emphatically, there was nothing she wanted more.
"...we fortunately have another option."
"Billie, you'll have to give me directions," said Tara. "Better wash up first, it's been a long afternoon." She took Billie out to the washroom. The door didn't quite shut, and the part of Billie's brain that was still paying attention to the rest of the world heard Gunn ask "What about the rest of us?", and Wesley reply "Willow, I'd imagine you'll want to go with Tara and Billie."
"I think Gunn should travel with you, he's our best guide to Los Angeles, the rest of us can use Cordelia's truck and my car. And we'd better go armed."
"It's not a truck," said Cordelia, "it's an SUV."
"I'd better come in Willow's car," said Tom.
"There isn't room for you as well in that piece of crap," said Gunn. "There's barely room for the four of us."
"I wasn't thinking of bringing this body along."
"Man, this place just gets weirder."
Billie and Tara came out of the washroom, and Billie absently noticed Tom leaning back with his eyes closed and snoring rhythmically. Zap was perched on Willow's shoulder.
"Okay," said Tara. "Left at the next junction. Billie, are you sure?"
"Yes, that's the way we need to go," Billie said dreamily. "It isn't far now."
"This isn't anywhere near Billie's home," said Willow. "Must be where Holtz went."
"Why would he want a church?" asked Zap.
"Kinda good place to fight off a vampire, I guess," said Gunn. "Maybe he's got the priest supplying him with holy water."
"Zap, get April to ask Wes if Holtz had any history of working with the church."
There was a short silence, then Zap said "Cordelia says that Angel described him cooperating with a Catholic faction, a remnant of the Inquisition."
"No help," said Gunn. "Those guys are long gone."
"Not according to Wesley," Zap said after another pause. "There's still a militant faction, they sometimes work with the Watchers."
"Holtz probably knows how to find them. One thing about the Catholics, they're big on tradition."
"Here we are," said Billie, as the car slowed outside a small church in a run-down area near the docks. Tara kept the car moving, blocking Billie's attempt to undo her seat belt, and stopped a hundred yards down the road.
"Okay," said Tara. "Maybe you'd better just sip this before we go in." She handed Billie a thermos cup full of the mixture she'd made before, and said "Drink it slowly, kinda small sips. The first sip will make you feel a little better.. okay, that's good. Now with the second sip, I think you're kinda seeing things more clearly, looking at your surroundings... good. Now keep taking those slow sips, while I fix you up a little."
"Are you sure?" asked Willow.
"Willow?" said Billie, "where did you come from?"
"Been here all along, you were kinda out of it."
"Keep sipping," said Tara, "I'm gonna get rid of the rest of the spell. I've been feeling it out while we've been travelling, it'll just take a few minutes while we're waiting for the rest of the gang."
"Can I do anything to help?" asked Willow.
"Put your hand on my shoulder, I'm gonna have to borrow a little power from you."
"Be careful, sweetie."
"This is dreadful," said Billie, sipping the liquid. "Don't you still need me under the spell?"
"I think we've got what we wanted," said Willow, as Cordelia's SUV draw up behind the car. Tara muttered a few words and touched her hand to Billie's forehead, then seemed to draw something invisible and intangible from it, wrapping it around her fingers like a skein of wool, chanting softly in a language Billie didn't recognise.
"Just a little more," said Tara, "lift the veil of lies, drive out the mist of deception, and free this woman's mind, for the sake of truth and the Goddess. So mote it be!" She plunged her fingers into the thermos flask, rinsed them in the liquid, quickly screwed on the cap and shook it.
"Okay," said Willow, "one spell neutralised. That was great, I would have never thought of doing it that way."
"You're so powerful that you wouldn't need to," said Tara. "I'm not in that league, so I have to be sneaky."
"Careful, you mean. Billie, you're lucky Tara's here, if I'd tried to do that you'd have migraines for the next six months."
Tara carefully wiped her fingers and poured the liquid into the gutter. Billie felt queasy but reasonably sure that her mind was clear. Of course she'd felt that when she was under the spell.
"Is there any way you can stop them from putting another spell on me," she asked.
"We can protect you while we're with you," said Tara, "and I'll prepare a crystal for you, that'll shield you if the spell isn't too powerful."
"Thanks. Wasn't Zap in the car?"
"Yeah, he's scouting out the church."
April tapped on the passenger window and said "Zap's inside. He says Daniel Holtz and Justine Cooper are there."
"What are they doing?" asked Billie.
"Sitting in one of the pews."
"Do they have Connor with them?"
Willow hesitated, then said "Is he still alive."
"Yes. But Holtz and Cooper are both armed, they could easily harm him."
"Okay, let's go in," said Willow. "Billie, you up for a confrontation?"
"Of course I am, I want an explanation. I thought he was an honourable man."
"Okay... Billie, Tara, and April with me, I guess, I don't think he'll see us as much of a threat. I hope he doesn't know what we can do. The rest of you had better watch the exits. April, you and Zap keep in touch with the rest, you've got the mobile phone numbers?"
"Okey dokey, I've got them."
"You sure this is a good idea?" asked Gunn.
"I caused this, I think," said Willow. "Billie's his victim here, just as much as Angel was, and things wouldn't have gone down this way if I hadn't got Billie involved. I think we're the ones that have to get Connor back.
Cordelia, Wesley and Fred had joined the group while they were talking, and Cordelia said "I'm coming in too."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," said Billie. "Holtz thinks of all of you as Angel's accomplices. He's a religious man, if we go in quietly, show some respect to the church, there might be some way to settle this without a fight. But if you come in with us that'll make it more difficult, I think."
Cordelia didn't look convinced, but said "Okay. We'll give you five minutes, if you haven't got somewhere by then we'll come in."
"Okay, but listen to your phones, in case we've making progress but need more time.
"Mister Holtz?" said Willow.
Holtz looked up, saw her with Billie, Tara, and April, and stood. Beside him Justine held Connor; Billie could see the glint of a knife in her hand. "Miss Rosenberg, I assume. Miss Newman. Ladies. What can I do for you?"
"Give us an explanation," said Billie, "and Connor."
"An explanation? You were a willing participant in our arrangement, Miss Newman, have you had second thoughts?"
"No she wasn't," said Willow. "You used a spell on her, some kinda variant of Rimbaldi's Entrapment."
"I can assure you I did not, Miss Rosenberg."
"Well, somebody has."
Tara gestured towards Justine and said "I can see it in her aura too."
"You really have no idea what's going on here, do you?" said Willow. "Justine, listen carefully. There's a spell on you, and I'm pretty sure it's trying to make you hurt Connor. I think you'd better put the baby down carefully."
"So you can take him away?" She held the knife closer to his throat.
"Mister Holtz," said Billie, "I think you'd better take Connor." He made no move to comply. "Are you going to let her kill him? What's the point? You have your revenge, Angel's dead."
"Is he? How do I know that this isn't all an elaborate trick?"
"So Angel... what, breaks the spell on Billie, puts a spell on Justine so she thinks she sees him dusted, and lets her walk out of the Hyperion with Connor? What the hell for?"
"Please don't blaspheme, this is a house of god."
"Okaay... what on earth for?"
"He's a monster, Miss Rosenberg, to him the child is a minor consideration."
"You really believe that? After what you've seen him do to keep Connor from harm?"
"I know that I have cast no spells, so you are wrong about that. Why should I trust you in other matters?"
"Boy, someone's really done a number on you, haven't they?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Someone brought you from the past to kill Angel, is that right?"
"To get my revenge on Angelus, yes."
"This someone... what's in it for him? Is he even human?"
"I have no idea. And no, he isn't human."
"Think he's a good guy?"
"I doubt it."
"Okay, so this guy transports you through time and space to Los Angeles, that takes powerful magic. He gets you here just a couple of days before Connor is born, is that right?" Holtz nodded. "Think that's just a coincidence?"
"This was never about you or Angel," said Billie, "Whatever this thing is that put a spell on you, it doesn't care about your revenge. It's after Connor. An innocent child."
"The child of two vampires, Miss Newman. Hardly an innocent."
"But he isn't a vampire, is he?" said Willow. "You've had him out in daylight, and I'll bet the first thing you did was touch a cross to him. Am I right?" Holtz nodded. "Tried holy water? Communion wafers?" He nodded again.
"He's a baby, far as we can tell kinda ordinary. He isn't any kinda monster. That means he's an innocent, you really gonna let her hurt him?"
Holtz looked at Justine, and saw the knife at Connor's throat. "Put the knife away, Miss Cooper."
"Why should I? Are you going to take the word of that dyke, you know the kid's evil!"
"Do I?" Holtz asked quietly, "When have I said so?"
"See what I mean?" said Willow. "The thing that brought you here, it's got her pretty much under its thumb, worse than Billie was. You'd better be ready to catch Connor, mister Holtz."
There was a quiet buzz, and Justine slumped sideways, releasing Connor as she collapsed onto the pew. Holtz caught him before he fell to the floor.
"How did you do that? Magic?"
"No." Billie thought she saw Zap under the pew, his fur suddenly a near-perfect match for the dimly lit floor.
"And now I suppose you plan to do the same to me," said Holtz.
"Not yet, not if you don't make me. I want to make a deal with you, end this without anyone else getting hurt."
"You surprise me."
"What's the good of hurting you? It isn't gonna bring Angel back. We could go on like this, chasing around with Connor in the middle, but that's not what any of us need."
A priest entered the church, genuflected at the altar, then came over to Holtz. "When you're ready, my son, we can perform the ceremony."
"Would you give us a few minutes?"
"It really is quite important."
"Very well." The priest went back to the altar, genuflected again, and disappeared through a side door.
"What ceremony?" asked Billie.
"Isn't it obvious?" said Holtz. "I want to be quite sure that the child is free of evil influences. I want him baptized."
"That's it?" said Willow, "Your master plan was to kidnap Connor and get him baptized?"
"That and remove him from Angelus. Bring him up to fight his evil, and eventually confront him."
"So you and Justine were going to set up house somewhere, bring up Connor as your kid, and raise him to fight vampires?"
"Still think that's a good idea?"
"Possibly not. Angelus is really dead?"
"He's dead and dusted."
Holtz seemed to be at a loss. Willow gestured towards Justine, and said "You really think she'd make a good mom?" Holtz shrugged.
"Can I make a suggestion?" said Billie, "Why don't we get Connor baptized, I think that's a good idea, then go back to the Hyperion and discuss things."
"Why should I agree to that?" said Holtz.
"Because there are.. um.. eight of us here and one of you," said Willow, "I can have you knocked out the same way as Justine if I want to, it'll happen without warning if you try to hurt anyone or take Connor away, and it's kinda bad to fight in church?"
"Good points. Very well, I agree."
"Okay... April, get the others in, we'll get Connor baptized and head back to the Hyperion for lunch."
"So now you're Connor's godmother," said Willow, as they waited in the lobby of the church.
"I know," said Billie. "It feels a little odd, considering..."
"Considering you killed his father," Cordelia said accusingly, rocking Connor gently in her arms.
"Cordy, this isn't the time," said Gunn.
"They killed Angel."
"You remember why? Remember what I was doing the first time I ran into Angel?"
"It's not the same."
"It's exactly the same. Vamps killed my sister. Angel killed the man's wife and kids. What do you expect him to do?"
"Cordy," said Willow, "We're all kinda numb right now, and I guess that sooner or later we'll have to mourn Angel properly. But right now our priority has to be to get through this, and I think our chances will be a hell of a lot better if Holtz isn't part of the problem."
"She's right," said Fred, helping April to support the barely-conscious Justine. Both took care to keep her well out of reach of Connor. "I hate it, but she's right."
"What now?" said Holtz, joining them from the chapel.
"Wesley's moving the cars," said Willow. "Once they're outside we'll head back to the Hyperion, have a late lunch."
"You were serious?"
"Yeah. We've got to de-spell Justine, and I think we need to talk about the guy that brought you here, make sure that he hasn't left any little surprises in you."
"You think I might be under a spell too?"
"Maybe. Nothing as obvious as Justine, but there could be something there. It'll take some tests to be sure you're clean."
"Then you are a witch."
"Used to be, not so much these days. We both are. You've got a problem with that?"
"I'm... uncomfortable with magic."
"But you let someone cast a honking big spell on you, to travel through time."
"I had nothing left in my own time, and it was the only way to get my revenge."
"I guess you got what you wanted."
"It feels less... satisfying than I'd expected."
"The trouble with revenge," said Billie, "is that once you've got it, there's nothing left to look forward to."
"Get that one out of a fortune cookie?" Cordelia asked bitterly.
"Cordy," said Fred. "Shut up." Everyone stared at her. "You think you're the only one that's sorry Angel's dead? We all miss him, but we've got to face facts and move on. And the fact we've got to face is that without Angel we're incredibly vulnerable. Wolfram and Hart are after Connor, so are all those cults and demons. We've got to find a way to protect him, and we're not going to find it by standing here bickering."
"Right now the only edge we've got is that nobody else knows Angel's dead. That's not going to last, while it does we need to work on our defences, find ways to keep them off our back. Any questions?"
"Uh.. no. I guess you're right. So what's your plan?"
"I was afraid you'd ask me that...."
Wesley came in and said "We'd better go. I've parked all the cars outside."
"Someone will need to drive us," said Holtz. "I don't think Miss Cooper is capable."
"I'll do it," said April.
"Right," said Wesley. "Let's move."
As they came out of the church three white vans screeched to a halt, boxing in the cars, and armed men in ski masks piled out. "Friends of yours?" asked Wesley.
"No," said Holtz.
"Hand over the child and nobody gets hurt," said the man in the lead.
"Indeed?" asked Holtz, drawing his sword. "Are you willing to stake your life on that?"
"Willow," said Tara, "I think this is an emergency."
"Yeah. Thicken" Her eyes darkened, and the air in front of them seemed distorted. Smoke began to pour from the hood of one of the vans. In moments all three were ablaze, and the kidnappers paused uncertainly. Their leader tried to fire his gun; the bullets hung in the air, as though embedded in thick jelly, slowly drifting down towards the ground.
"Okay," said Willow. "I can hold them for a while. Can you get the cars out?"
"Sure." Gunn got into Cordelia's jeep and drove forward in low gear, pushing one of the vans backward into the middle of the road.
"If he's damaged the chrome..." began Cordelia.
"Cordy," said Fred, "I love ya and all, but sometimes you are so amazingly shallow..."
Behind the distortion the gunmen seemed to be having problems. One after another collapsed, until only the leader was left standing. Suddenly his pistol began to glow redly. He dropped it with a yelp then raised his hands. "Okay," said Willow, sagging against Tara.
"Go back to your masters," said Holtz, "and tell them that we grow weary of these games."
"Better start running," said Billie. He looked at them and started to run, leaving the other gunmen without a second glance.
"Come on," shouted Gunn, "let's get out of here before they come back with reinforcements."
* * * * *
"Willow," said Wesley, once they'd reached the Hyperion, "If you and Tara can start to remove the spell from Justine, I'll order some food."
"Where's Zap?" asked Billie, suddenly realising that the kitten was missing.
"Still following that guy," said April. "He took a cab once he was clear of the church, Zap's riding on the back fender, says they're heading for the Wolfram and Hart building."
"I know their physical security isn't amazing," said Willow, "but I think we know what they want, and I'd rather they didn't get a good look at him. Maybe he'd better head back."
"He wants to reconnoitre."
"We already have a good deal of information on the building," said Wesley. "Chinese good for everyone?"
"Tell him no, it's too big a risk. Chinese is fine for me."
"And tell him good work with the gunmen and the vans."
"That wasn't you?" asked Holtz, pretending to ignore the way everyone was watching him.
"No. I kept them blocked, but Zap took them out."
"Friend of ours."
"Okay," said Cordelia, handing Connor to Fred, "I've had it with being nice. Why are we letting this guy anywhere near us?"
"Do you have a better suggestion?" asked Wesley.
"For all we know he's gonna kill Connor and the rest of us. Why shouldn't he? I want him out of here."
"I have what I wanted," said Holtz, "Connor and the rest of you are... irrelevant now. And I have no intention of leaving without Miss Cooper."
"He's telling the truth," said Tara, "and as far as I can tell he isn't under any spells."
"How did Wolfram and Hart find us then?" asked Cordelia, "Are you telling me that wasn't him?"
"That's a good question," said Wesley, "but we already know that they watch the hotel. I think that they must have noticed us leave and decided to follow."
"It makes sense," said Gunn, "must have taken a while to get those guys in position. Good thing they didn't stop that bitch before you two got together."
"Miss Cooper was followed when she left the hotel," said Holtz, "but told me she was able to shake them off."
"So they saw her with Connor, chased her but lost her, then saw us going after her and followed us to the church."
Cordelia sat down, looking defeated, and began to sob. Fred patted her back awkwardly and made "there there" noises.
"So what's her story?" asked Gunn, as Willow and Tara began to remove the spell from Justine.
"Vampires killed her sister," said Holtz, "she wanted revenge."
"Yeah, I know how that goes. So the kidnapping Connor part, was that just the spell on her?"
"She suggested it, with the idea that we would have to be sure that he wasn't demonic, I don't know how much of that was her, and how much was the spell. It seemed a good idea at the time."
"These things always do," said Wesley. "You'll appreciate that you've created a problem for us. Wolfram and Hart aren't going to go away, and our main deterrent against them was Angel. Presumably your sponsor... who might that be, incidentally?"
"His name is Sahjan."
"Presumably this Sahjan has his own reasons to want Connor eliminated. I have to ask if you intend to help him."
"Certainly not. Connor's my godson now."
"And you take that seriously, of course."
"Well then, perhaps you could tell me more about this Sahjan."
"I'm not sure," said Holtz, looking troubled. "He helped me to find Angelus, I don't feel that betraying him..."
"He's using you," said Billie, "like he used Justine and me. He's spent hundreds of years plotting against Connor. For all you know the death of your family could have been part of his plan."
"I don't think so," said Willow, looking up from a pile of herbs. "I'm sorry, I liked Angel when he had the soul, but I saw what he was like without it. Once he had someone in his sights he'd go after the family first, prolong the agony. It was the way he always worked."
"What happens now?" asked Fred. "Not just with Sahjan... there are decisions to be made about Connor's future."
"It's a mess," said Wesley. "I'm not sure if Angel has a will, but even if he does we have no proof of his death. Nothing that a court would accept anyway. Just the ownership of this building must involve a dozen different banks and state agencies, and they're gonna want to see some payment."
"Actually," said April, "that isn't the case."
"What do you mean?" asked Willow.
"When we began negotiating our lease here I realised that Angel was essentially at the mercy of the mortgage holders. If Anya's business plan worked as expected the property would become much more valuable, and they could use various stratagems to increase the interest and even foreclose. It seemed an unnecessary complication, so I took steps to eliminate it."
"Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"SunnyD Technology owns the mortgages on this building. It seemed a logical precaution, and the total budget commitment was considerably less than the renovation of the offices."
"And you were planning to tell me this when?"
"It's in the company records and last month's financial statement," said April, sounding a little hurt. "You signed the papers when we were negotiating with Angel."
"Oh... Okay, April, try to remember I'm really not very good at this stuff yet, and explain things simply. Right, so we own the mortgages. Who actually owns the building?"
"The owner of record is Connor. I think Angel had it transferred shortly after he was born."
"Okay... what about Angel Investigations."
"Wesley is the company's executive director, with all employees participants in a profit-sharing arrangement which pays their wages."
"Really?" said Wesley. "I never realised that Angel had formalised things to that extent."
"I checked thoroughly and I could find no problems with any of the paperwork."
"Lilah Morgan did it," said Cordelia. "One of the other lawyers, Gavin something, was scoring points by finding ways to harass Angel. She wanted to mess up his plans so she faked up a load of documents to make everything legal. That was before Connor was born, but Angel must have gone to another attorney to make the changes when Connor was born."
"That simplifies things considerably," said Wesley. "Then our major concerns are Connor and this Sahjan chap. And Wolfram and Hart, of course."
"Not to mention all the cults and the other guys that were after Connor. Angel took most of them out, but there are probably a few around."
"At the moment they all think that Angel's still... ah, alive. They'll be on us like a pack of wolves once they hear he's dead... um, deader."
"Unless we can find some way to scare them off," said Willow, "or make them think he's still around."
"We might gain a few days by a deception," said Wesley, "but that won't help us in the longer term."
"Does anyone outside this room know he's gone?" asked Billie.
Everyone looked at Holtz, who said "No, I've spoken to nobody, and as far as I know neither has Miss Cooper."
Justine spluttered out a mouthful of Willow's potion and said "Yecch... No, I didn't tell anyone either."
"How are you feeling now," asked Willow.
Willow slapped her. "That's for lying to me, and for what you called me in church."
"Uhh... yeah, well, lying was the only way I could get at Angelus. I'm sorry about the thing in church."
"Do you still want to hurt Connor?" asked Tara.
"He's really just an ordinary kid?"
"Then I suppose not. Don't know why I was so hot to kill him before."
"That would be the spell," said Willow. "Okay, we'll need to do a little more to counter it completely, but you ought to be okay."
"I got the same... I guess you'd call it a signature... from both spells," said Tara, "and it feels a lot like the residual aura Holtz has."
"From travelling in time?" asked Billie.
"I think so."
"So it was definitely Sahjan," mused Holtz.
"We're gonna need a lot more information about him," said Willow.
"I'm still indebted to him," said Holtz.
"But you won't interfere if we try to stop him?"
The lobby doors swung open, and a delivery boy came in with a box full of containers of Chinese food. As he was leaving Lorne came downstairs, followed by a tall muscular figure wearing odd leather clothing.
"Hey, everyone, look who just showed up!"
Everyone stared. Cordelia shouted "Groo!" and ran to him, hugged him, and started to sob again.
"And I thought today couldn't get any weirder," said Gunn.
"I can't believe he's gone," said Lorne, swallowing most of a Seabreeze in a single gulp. "I especially can't believe that none of you even came upstairs to tell me."
"We were all kinda caught up in things," said Fred. "What with the kidnapping and all. Sorry..."
"I had thought to help Angel and my princess," said Groo, "but if he is dead then I am at a loss." He morosely picked at his noodles.
"But we definitely need your help, Groo," said Cordy, letting Connor taste the sauce on her fingers, "things are a mess right now." Connor burped messily, and Cordelia began to clean him up.
"And this is the warrior that killed him?" He looked at Holtz appraisingly.
"I am responsible," said Holtz, who wasn't eating.
"Honour demands that I take your head to avenge my friend." He suddenly looked much more cheerful.
"Wait a minute," said Gunn, "first of all, the man had good reason. Angel killed his family. Second, when were you friends? You had one fight then helped each other take out the bad guys, that was it."
"We fought a common foe, it is sufficient."
"And third," said Billie, "he didn't kill Angel. I did."
"Why?" asked Groo, looking at her in disbelief. "And how?"
"I thought I was protecting Willow. Apparently there was a spell of some sort."
"Then you cannot be held responsible. As for this man, if he is the wizard who enchanted you..."
"It's more complicated than that," Cordy said hastily, "it looks like someone tricked all of us, used magic on Billie and Justine and Holtz to cause this."
"You said his name is Sahjan," said Willow, " we can probably find records if we try."
"C'mon," said Willow, "You know he's manipulating you."
"Yes.. but he did help me gain my vengeance."
"You did what he asked. I'll bet he didn't tell you he wanted Connor dead. An innocent child. Why help him?"
"When you put it that way..." said Holtz. "He is a demon that can't be touched."
"How come?" asked Fred.
He shrugged. "You can see him and talk to him, but he can't be touched."
"Intangible? Could be some kinda astral projection," said Willow, "or even something like a hologram. Have you seen him outdoors?"
"Indoors and outdoors," said Holtz, "I've walked with him on several occasions. He told me that he needed me because he couldn't do things for himself."
"I've never seen him," said Justine. "First I've heard of him."
"My guess," said Fred, "he's somehow out of phase with solid matter. Did he ever seem to sink into the floor as he was walking?"
"Into the floor? No."
"Did he seem to affect the world at all?"
"No... yes, I've noticed candle flames flicker as he passed."
"Then there must be some interaction with the physical world, if not very much."
"Okay," said Willow. "We can maybe deal with that, depends how it works."
"How visible is he?" asked Fred. "Are we talking semi-transparent, or does he look real?"
"Real," said Holtz.
"Find a way for me to attack him," said Groo, "and I will slay him for my Princess."
"Way to go, Groo!" said Cordy.
"As for you," he said to Holtz, "I shall forego vengeance for my friend Angel, since he harmed your family. I have no quarrel with you."
"That's good," said Holtz. "then I have none with you."
"You could have said that a little more sincerely," said Lorne.
"For now I am prepared to give this demon the benefit of the doubt," said Holtz, "as I do you. But I will have your heads if you harm any human."
"That seems fair," Lorne said nervously, careful to avoid mentioning that decapitation alone wouldn't kill him.
"It's okay," said Cordelia. "Groo's a Champion, kinda like Angel only alive."
"Cordy," said Willow, "You remember why Holtz is here?"
"Oh.. Okay, not that much like Angel."
"You know," said Tara, eyeing him appraisingly, "He is like Angel. Physically, I mean. Nearly the same height and build, same hair if he used a little gel, and from what you told us he's about as strong. If he made a few night-time appearances in the right clothes and didn't talk to anyone or get too close, we could keep up the pretence that Angel is alive... well, less dead... while we try to come up with a permanent solution."
"What are you smoking, girl?" asked Gunn, deliberately exaggerating his accent. "Cos' that's seriously weird. He don't move like Angel, he don't talk like Angel, he's got them weird blue eyes, sure as hell he can't pass for Angel."
Groo looked confused.
"She does have a point," said Billie. "Most people are very poor witnesses, if they saw someone that looked roughly right they'd believe it."
"People yes, but we're talking here about demons. They'd smell it wasn't Angel. Hell, some of them can pick up on body heat and aura."
"Those things can be disguised," Willow said musingly, "So can the eyes."
"Wouldn't fool someone like Lilah Morgan," Wesley mused, "not to talk to, but in a fight we might get away with it. The real question is if the Groosalug would be willing to fight disguised, if he would feel dishonoured by such a ruse."
"A ruse of war? Of course not, if it is in a worthy cause."
"Okay," said Willow, "we won't do it unless we have to, there's too much that could go wrong, but we'll keep that option in mind. Let's get back to Sahjan, we need to know as much as we can about him. Wes, get the books, let's see if we can work out who or what he really is... Oh dear, if he's really intangible, for all we know he could be invisible too. He might be here right now."
"He could be... one of us," said Gunn, then shook his head and added "Sorry, too much SciFi channel." Holtz and Groo both looked confused.
"Willow," said Wesley, "I think you may be undersetimating your own power. Surely you or Tara would notice?"
"Well, maybe. A lot depends on how he does it. But if Holtz was really seeing him, not just experiencing something that made him think that he was seeing him, it opens up all sorts of possibilities. April, when Zap gets back ask him to run a full spectrum scan. Tara and I will take care of the magical side of things."
"He's already back," said April. "He can't detect anything unusual."
"So where is he?"
"Watching mister Holtz."
Holtz looked around, confused. "What is this Zap? A ghost?"
"You know," said Willow, "I don't think I'm gonna tell you right now. Not that I don't trust you, but... well, to be blunt, I'm not sure I do trust you a hundred percent. Zap's here. Let me show you." She picked up a thick phone book, held it at arms length, and said "Zap, would you demonstrate please." There was a noise like a clap of thunder and a neat three inch hole appeared in the book, smoking at the edges. "Point taken?"
"Yes," said Holtz, "I think so." Willow smiled at him.
"Holy crap," said Cordelia. "You never said he could do that."
"Didn't I?" said Willow. "Sorry..." She didn't sound very sincere.
"The question remains," said Wesley, "what are we going to do? Wolfram and Hart are undoubtedly plotting against all of us, there are a dozen different cults and groups after Connor, we still don't know why there was an attempt to kidnap Ms. Newman - yes, I know we've all let that one slide - and this Sahjan wants Connor dead. Have I forgotten anything?"
"Buffy," Willow, Tara, and April said almost simultaneously.
"Buffy?" asked Wesley.
"Sooner or later one of us is gonna have to tell her Angel's dead," said Willow. "And when that happens she's gonna want to make someone pay."
"Oh wonderful," said Wesley. "Just what the world needs, a grief-stricken Slayer with revenge issues."
"Make that two," said Cordelia, "or were you forgetting Miss American Psycho 2000 over at the state penitentiary?"
"Surely that's not an immediate problem," said Wesley.
"He visited her every two weeks, Wes. You think she won't notice that he's stopped coming?"
"Damn. Well, at least she's behind bars."
"Sure, for about two minutes once she realises he's disappeared. She's staying inside because she wants to."
"To quote Giles, 'Oh dear lord.' Yes, that might be a problem." He rubbed his head.
"Who are you talking about?" asked Billie.
"Faith," said Cordelia. "Buffy was clinically dead for a minute or so, the Powers activated the next Slayer in line, a girl called Kendra. When she was killed Faith was activated. Only Faith was kinda... well, psychotic, I guess. She killed someone accidentally and that took her over the edge. To cut a long story short, Angel kinda turned her around, talked her into giving herself up."
"I remember the name, someone mentioned her the first time I heard about Angel."
"The trouble is," said Wesley, "that I think that she may be psychologically dependent on Angel. Now he's dead there's no knowing how she'll react."
"You think?" Cordelia said sarcastically.
"There are two Slayers?" asked Holtz, catching up with the conversation.
"For about three years now," said Willow. "It came as a surprise to all of us."
"And both of them are gonna be pissed when they hear what happened to Angel," said Cordelia.
"We can't tell her until I get back to Sunnydale anyway. Zap's been taking out Wolfram and Hart's phone taps and bugs at this end, but I never thought to check in Sunnydale. Wouldn't surprise me if they're tapping Buffy's lines too. I'll need to check all the cellphones too. Same for everyone's apartments."
"Don't worry," said Wesley, "we realised that some time ago. We're very careful what we say on the phone. Dare I ask if there's anything else?"
"Holtz," said Billie. Holtz looked at her enquiringly. "You're wanted by the police. By now they've got your name and fingerprints, and I gave them a pretty good description the first time you showed up at my house."
"Is that our concern?" asked Wesley.
"It ought to be," said Billie. "We know that Wolfram and Hart are watching this building, if they tell the police he's here they'll probably show up with warrants."
"And with at least half of them reporting back to Wolfram and Hart," said Gunn. "They might not get that Angel's gone, but they'd soon know he isn't here. If you get the distinction."
"And there's no way that Angel would leave for long with Connor here," said Cordelia.
"Maybe I'd better leave," said Holtz. "I assume you have a quiet route out, one that can't be observed?"
"That's not a bad idea," said Willow. "But not just you. I need to take a look at places where you've seen Sahjan. Tara too, honey, if you don't mind."
"Okay. Let me get my things."
"And me," said April. "If I understand this correctly, I'm immune to the type of magic Sahjan used on Billie and Justine."
"Good point," said Willow.
"I'd like to come too," said Billie, "for all we know Sahjan plans to cast another spell on me as soon as I'm on my own, I'd prefer to be with someone who understands these things."
"And me," said Justine. "I'm not staying here with.. that." She gestured towards Lorne, who shrugged and said "Your loss, honey."
"Okay, that's six of us," said Willow, "Anyone else?"
"Perhaps I should come too," said Fred, "if he really is intangible it'd be scientifically fascinating."
"Shall I charter a bus?" Wesley asked sarcastically.
"You brought my car, didn't you?" said Justine.
"Yeah," said Willow, "if you two use that the rest of us can fit in mine."
"Hey," said Cordy, "you've already... oh crap... vision..." Fred took Connor as Cordelia's eyes seemed to lose their focus. She sat immobile for about thirty seconds, then said "Demon, attacking a kid in Sorenson park."
"Another one?" asked Willow. "Wasn't there one in Griffith Park a couple of weeks ago?"
"Maybe it's the season or something. Wasn't the same type anyway."
"When?" asked Gunn, as Wesley reached for a bestiary showing most of the common species.
"Looked to be about mid-day tomorrow." She looked pale.
"Are you okay?" asked Tara.
"Sure. No pain since I did that deal with Skip, just kinda vivid."
"That's good," said Tara. Billie thought she looked troubled.
"Mid-day's good," said Cordelia, "means we can put in an appearance without anyone wondering why Angel isn't there, pretend it's business as usual. Gives us time to hit the books, do a little research."
"Maybe we'd better forget about Holtz's place for now," said Willow.
"No," said Wesley. "You're right, it needs to be checked. Perhaps you could do that, while we concentrate on research."
"I guess I'd better stay too," said Fred.
"Okay, then we'll check it out," said Willow. "April, can you and Zap take care of any cameras, that kinda thing."
"Let's get this show on the road."
* * * * *
"What's wrong, sweetie?" asked Willow, as they followed Justine's car towards the docks.
"I got a weird vibe," said Tara. "From Cordelia, when she had the vision."
"Weird?" asked Billie.
"She made a deal to stop the visions killing her... part of it was she was made part demon..."
"She mentioned it."
"Well.. just for a second there I thought I could feel something, the kinda vibe I get around vampires. It was faint, and I couldn't see anything in her aura, but I'm pretty sure it was there."
"Wouldn't you expect that?" asked Willow.
"Sure, but this felt... I don't know... kinda evil."
"Cordy isn't evil. She's kinda self-centred, but Angel told me about it.. she could have given the visions up completely and walked away from all this, she chose to keep them and carry on saving people."
"You know what they say, sweetie," said Tara. "Magic always comes with a price. And I've got a feeling that the price for that one's gonna be pretty high. What I felt was faint, but who says it's going to stay that way?"
"Do we tell her?"
"I think we have to. There's tests we could do, but she'd have to be a willing participant."
Billie felt horrified. The thought of Cordelia being taken over by something intangible was repulsive, and something she could relate to all too easily. She asked "Would it be like the spell that was cast on me?"
"Kinda," said Willow, "though that's not what was done to you. If Tara's right it'd start off with her getting some demonic powers, maybe starting to use them. The more she used them the more she'd become the demon, eventually it'd take her over. She'd start doing things that helped it, maybe without even knowing she was doing it, and she'd be more and more the demon until there was nothing left of her."
"Can you stop it?"
"Maybe. There's usually some kinda condition in spells, a way to pull them apart if you know how they work."
"Willow," said Tara. "You know I'm not strong enough to do that on my own. I probably don't even have the power to figure out the problem properly, not on my own. You'll have to help me."
Willow looked pale but determined as she said "I know."
"Holtz is slowing," said April. "His destination seems to be that warehouse."
"Have they said anything I should know about? Or spotted Zap?"
"Zap says they have been arguing about helping Connor. Holtz wishes to do so, Justine is ambivalent. And he is sure he has not been seen."
"Okay, no big surprises. Ask Zap to tag along, keep on staying out of sight."
"Okey dokey." She stopped the car a few yards behind Holtz.
"Why is it always warehouses?" Willow asked rhetorically. "Let's go take a look. Oh, Billie, April, please don't discuss what we were saying with anyone yet. Not Cordy even, not yet. Let us do a little research first."
"Please excuse the mess," said Holtz. "I wasn't expecting visitors." He led the way into the warehouse and down steps to a cellar, using an electric lantern to light up the area around them.
"What mess?" asked Willow, then spotted a row of demon corpses and said "Never mind."
"Why such a big warehouse?" asked Billie.
"I think Sahjan needed the room," said Holtz. He shone the light forward, illuminating a circle of stone blocks, about thirty feet across.
"Okay," said Willow, "he built his own Stonehenge. Where's Spinal Tap when you need them?" Holtz looked puzzled.
"Holtz? Is Angelus dead?" asked a voice from somewhere on the other side of the circle.
"Sahjan?" whispered Tara.
"Sahjan," Holtz confirmed.
A demon that had brown hair and seemed to have extra layers of skin tacked to his face entered the circle, peering towards the light. "Is Angelus dead?" he repeated.
"And the child?"
"The child must be killed, or one day it will destroy the world."
"And how exactly is a baby going to do that?" asked Willow.
"You didn't tell me we you were bringing guests," said Sahjan. "Miss Rosenberg, I presume."
"You mess with people's minds, do you think nobody's gonna notice?"
"I'm disappointed," said Holtz. "You've lied to me, and I think that our association is at an end."
"Ingrate! I gave you what you wanted!" Sahjan stepped towards them through one of the slabs. April seemed to be tracking him with some sort of instrument, while Willow and Tara were holding hands and staring at him. Sahjan glared at them, then turned his attention to Justine and said "Kill him!" Justine leaped towards him, shrieking with rage. She went right through him, staggering as she ran into the slab behind him. Sahjan laughed. For a second Billie felt the crystal that Tara had given her vibrate, and guessed that he was trying to influence her mind again.
"That's a good trick," said Willow, "but how do you stop yourself from falling through the floor?"
"Natural talent," said Sahjan.
"Okay..." Willow let go of Tara, pulled something from her bag and pointed it at Sahjan. There was a flash, blindingingly bright, and Sahjan howled with rage and clutched his eyes. "I guess you do interact with the world," she said. She pressed a stud, and it sprayed a cloud of gas towards his face. He ignored it, and her face fell slightly. "Just not very much." Some of the pepper spray reached Justine, who began to cough and hastily backed away.
"Bitch!" said Sahjan, "I'll scoop out your entrails and feast on your spleen."
"When I am restored from this miserable existence..."
"Has it occurred to you that you're safer where you are?" interrupted Billie.
"What?" said Sahjan.
"Think about it. While you're like this we can't hurt you. If you were solid there are all sorts of things we could try."
"Billie..." began Willow.
"We know you can travel in time," said Billie, "why don't you just travel a hundred or so years into the future and stay there? I doubt that Connor could do you much harm by then, and the rest of us will be long gone."
"Do you think I hadn't thought of that?" roared Sahjan.
"It's a good question," said Holtz, "why is the child so important to you?"
"Doubt you care much about the world," said Willow, "so what's the real reason?"
"Destiny, you moron!"
"Thought so. What is it, a predestination paradox?"
"A what?" asked Billie.
"You know, like Star Trek or the Terminator movies. He travels back in time to change the future, and ends up causing the events he's trying to prevent."
"You think you have all the answers," yelled Sahjan. "But I will change destiny. When at last we meet it will be Connor that dies!"
"Sure, maybe," said Willow, "been there, got the t-shirt, saw a lot of that kinda thing. Don't you get it yet? Everything happens, every possible outcome. You fight it, you try to confront Connor, it just raises the odds you'll get killed, because you're going into harm's way. You stay the hell away from him, that makes it a lot less likely."
"It won't happen, witch. When I'm restored I shall kill the child, and your magic will be useless against me!"
"Yeah? Willing to bet your life on that?"
"Is this some form of challenge?"
"No. A warning."
Sahjan laughed raucously. "You... You warn me?"
"Yeah." Willow stalked towards Sahjan, her eyes and hair somehow darkening. "Come near Connor again and you're dead. Try to harm him in any way, however indirectly, and you're dead. That fulfils your destiny, because Connor will be the cause of your death. Oh, and piss me off enough and you'll be dead too, that's one way you can escape your destiny. Although I suppose you can blame that on Connor too if you like."
"Do you really think you can harm me," said Sahjan, laughing. To one side April nodded slightly.
Willow moved forward until she was face to face with him and said "I'm certain."
"Then give it your best shot, little girl."
"All right. Thicken" The air in front of her seemed to distort slightly. Sahjan probed it with one hand and tried to push towards her, saying "Big deal. What are you going to do, squash me with air?"
"Nope. Now pay attention, because I'm only gonna say this once." She said something, so quietly that Billie couldn't hear it.
"What?" said Sahjan.
"I said 'Bored now.'"
Billie noticed that Sahjan's hair was glowing with tiny sparks. He seemed unaware of it, but said "What are you doing?" and seemed a little confused. The sparks disappeared then reappeared again... once... twice... again and again.
For another second Sahjan stood there then, looking disorientated, clutching his head. Suddenly his eyes exploded, steaming orange ichor spurting towards Willow, stopping as it hit her barrier. She hastily backed away. There was a loud crack, more goo erupted from his ears, and he slowly toppled, falling sideways and down through the floor.
"What the hell was that?" asked Billie. Willow's eyes and hair returned to their normal shades and she staggered. Tara supported her before she fell. The goo slowly vanished.
"Mostly misdirection, plus I had to keep him immobile for a few seconds."
"Is he dead?"
"He'd better be. Zap just microwaved his brain."
"The core temperature of his head rose from thirty-three to a hundred and sixty celsius," said April, switching off the sensor device she was holding. "I was unable to detect vital signs, neither could Zap, but on the evidence it seems likely he's dead or very seriously injured."
"Or deeply pissed at us," said Justine, shakily lighting a cigarette. "At you, anyway."
"It's a possibility," said Willow.
"I don't think so," said Tara, "his aura was breaking up before he fell."
"Any collateral damage?" asked Willow, sitting on the floor and leaning back against one of the slabs. Tara knelt by her side. Billie saw that Willow's nose was bleeding and rummaged in her bag for a tissue, while Tara pinched the bridge of Willow's nose.
"No," said April. "Zap was beaming upwards and from the side, it was tightly focused, and he checked for planes and satellites before he fired. Took nearly all his power."
"What about you, Willow?" asked Tara, "You were pretty close."
"There might have been a little scattering," Willow said, as clearly as she could with her nose blocked, "but it ought to be no worse than standing a few yards from a radar transmitter for a couple of minutes, and people do that sort of thing all the time."
"Yeah," said Justine, "and some of them get cancer." Tara, Billie, and April glared at her angrily.
"Wasn't there any other way?" asked Billie.
"No," said Tara. "He was ready to kill us instantly if he had the chance, we could both feel it. It was taking most of Willow's power just to hold him there. If he'd been properly in our world he might have killed all of us before Zap could stop him."
"Where is this Zap?" asked Holtz. "And what is he?"
"Well," said Willow, "with Sahjan out of the way I guess there's no reason not to show you." There was a scuffling noise and Zap walked out out of the shadows and climbed onto her lap. He looked tired.
"A kitten?" said Holtz, incredulously.
"Zap," said Willow.
"You're putting us on!" said Justine.
"Want to bet?" said Zap, in a quiet but clear voice.
"It talks!" said Justine.
"Well yeah," said Willow, "how would he know what to do if I couldn't tell him?"
"What is it?" asked Holtz. "A demon? Your familiar?"
"Nope." She took her cross and touched it to Zap. He ignored it. "You want to try holy water? It'll get his fur wet, but go ahead if it'll make you happy."
"But what is he?"
"Powerful enough to take out Sahjan," said Willow. "And that's all you really need to know." Zap stretched, yawned, jumped from her lap and slowly walked over to April, who picked him up, kissed him, and put him on her shoulder, where he seemed to go to sleep.
"What happens now?" Billie asked after a long silence.
"Damned if I know," said Willow, "Anyone got any suggestions?"
* * * * *
"...so we swept the place for magic," said Willow, "didn't find anything apart from some residues around the stone circle. Zap can go back and take it out when he's recharged, but it'll be a couple of days. Holtz and Justine are gonna get rid of the demon bodies and keep a low profile for a few days, unless we contact them and arrange something different."
"Can we trust them?" asked Wesley.
"I think so," said Billie, "They got what they wanted."
"Suppose they talk to Wolfram and Hart?" said Cordelia, who was giving Connor his evening feed. "What if the truth about Angel gets out?"
"Right now my guess is that Wolfram and Hart aren't too pleased with them," said Gunn, "or were you forgetting that they blew up their parking? Must have done a lot of damage, and by now they must have identified Holtz and maybe Justine from the camera tapes."
"More than two hundred thousand dollars," said April, "according to the last news report. But they're blaming it on a trash can fire, not Holtz."
"Why would they do that?" asked Fred. "Surely they'd want the police looking for Holtz."
"The police are already looking for Holtz," said Wesley, "and Wolfram and Hart don't want more attention paid to their activities."
"The Wolf, the Ram and the Hart are wily," said Groo, coming downstairs to the lobby in some of Angel's spare clothes. "What might they have learned?"
"That's a good question," said Wesley. "They have to know that Holtz and Justine kidnapped Connor, that he was baptized, and we got him back. If they've got any sense they'll figure out that Holtz was working with us by the time we left the church. What I hope they won't know is why."
"We need a reason," said Tara, "something that'd make Holtz and Angel work together."
"Mmmm... I think we have one," said Wesley. "Just a second." He went into his office and came back with a thick book, and opened it to a marker. "Phisto's Dictionary Of Demons and Dimensional Spirits. Is this Sahjan?" He showed them one of the engravings.
"Yeah," said Willow.
"Definitely," said Tara.
"We shold have looked earlier, if we had I would have never sent you on your own. Anyway, he was a Granok demon. Virtually unstoppable in their day, before they became immaterial. There's an account here of one destroying a city."
"So we... what?" asked Gunn.
"Somehow let it be known that there's a Granok on the loose," said Wesley, "and that Holtz and Angel are putting aside their differences for now. We don't reveal that Willow and Zap have already dealt with it, of course."
"And that gives us the perfect way to leak the story," said Willow. "You phone Sunnydale and ask Giles for everything he has on Granok demons, tell him you think it's close to getting back onto the material plane. Mention the fake prophecies and the rest of it, make it clear that it's a real emergency."
"It might work," said Wesley. "I might get away with mentioning that Holtz is helping us if I make it clear that it's a temporary truce to fight Sahjan."
"What about the other demon?" asked Billie. "The one from Cordelia's vision."
"We shall slay it tomorrow," said Groo, "we know these creatures on my world, they are mindless eaters of flesh, easy to track."
"Senih'd demon," said Wesley. "We know when and roughly where, what we need now is a plan for dealing with it without Angel, while making it look like Angel is somewhere at hand."
"But Angel wouldn't be there anyway," said Gunn, "unless it comes out of the sewers or something."
"Or he kept a coat over his head," said Cordelia. "D'you think you could fight that way?" she asked Groo, "if we disguised you to look like Angel?"
"For my Princess everything is possible."
"Isn't that great?"
"Wonderful," Gunn said dubiously. "Okay, I guess with Wes and me to back him up we ought to handle it okay. What about the rest of you?"
"I'd better head for work," said Billie, "we've a paper to put out and I need to relieve Joe. If I don't go in questions would be asked."
"Same for us," said Willow, "We've got classes tomorrow morning, and we have to tell Buffy about Angel before she finds out some other way. We would have left by nine or so anyway, let's try to keep things as normal as possible." Tara nodded her agreement.
"Okay then," said Cordelia, "I guess we can head home then. Groo might as well spend the night at my place."
"Umm..." said Tara, checking her watch. It wasn't eight yet. "I think that might be a really bad idea."
"What?" said Cordelia and Groo in unison.
"I think that might be a really bad idea," repeated Tara. "Groo's half demon, and you've got some demon blood in you too now, right?"
"I guess, something of the sort anyway."
"I think we need to have a little talk about the birds and the bees and auras and demon genetics..."
"I'm sorry," Billie lied, "I've heard nothing of Holtz since the night he appeared in my house."
"You're quite sure of that?" asked the homicide detective who'd called in at her office. "We had an anonymous tip-off you'd seen him again."
"I'm afraid not. Surely I'm not your only lead to him?"
"We're looking at some other possibilities. I think you said that Holtz claimed that a detective called Angel killed his wife and children."
"That's right. Have you asked him about it?"
"He's not co-operating, and he's not answering his phone."
"Well, my niece is renting office space from them, if I see mister Angel I'll mention that you're trying to contact him."
"Word is nobody's seen him in five days or so."
"I saw him last Saturday, if that helps."
"Not really. That's what everyone says."
"What about the men who attacked me?" asked Billie, "I'm rather more worried about that. Holtz saved my life, after all."
"We're still working on it. Trouble is that Holtz killed all of them so there's nobody to question."
"And their links to Wolfram and Hart?"
"Nothing more than we knew two weeks ago. Lindsay MacDonald seems to have been working alone, the way we put it together he heard that your niece was looking for you, somehow found out about her patent deal, and decided to slip in a ringer."
"And the rest of Wolfram and Hart is completely clean?"
"We can't prove otherwise."
"And you think?"
"This for you or the paper?"
"I think they're covering something; maybe MacDonald had help from someone else in the company. But we can't prove anything."
"Thank you. If I hear anything I'll let you know. Unless there's something else...?" There wasn't. Billie showed him out of her office and went back to work on the editorial for the next issue. She'd been typing for nearly five minutes when the phone rang.
"Yes?" There was a slight snarl in her voice
"Your niece is on four."
"Okay, put her through." There were a couple of clicks, then Billie said "Willow? I'm a little behind schedule, unless it's very quick I'll have to call you back."
"No problem, just wanted to let you know that Tara and I will be at the Hyperion tomorrow through to Sunday evening, got some business meetings."
"Okay, I'll try to drop by if I can. Or come round to my place tomorrow night."
"Can't, I'm afraid, we're baby-sitting for Angel."
"Oh. Okay, I'll probably call in at the Hyperion then. Give me a call if you change your plans. Now, I'm sorry, I'm going to have to dash."
"Okay, see you tomorrow night. 'Bye." Willow hung off, and Billie spent a moment wondering what the call had really been about. Willow thought that Wolfram and Hart were bugging the phones, so she could be trying to reinforce the idea that Angel was away for a few days. But sooner or later someone would surely realise he wasn't coming back... She resolutely pushed it to the back of her mind and set to work on the editorial again, wondering what Willow had in mind. She was nearly finished when the phone rang again.
"Miss Newman?" Billie was about to say something rude, but recognised the caller's voice in the nick of time. David Nabbit, the owner of the paper, at least for the time being.
"Mister Nabbitt? What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to let you know that I've received a very interesting offer for the Tribune. I can't go into details right now, but so far it's looking very promising." He sounded as enthusiastic as he'd been after Willow's blessing spell for Connor.
"Are they prepared to guarantee continued publication?"
"The initial offer included a five year committment to continued publication, and a three year no layoff guarantee."
"What about our other publications? The Sunday Trib,, the books, and the web business?"
"The five year commitment covers them, so does the guarantee."
"It sounds good, unless they're planning to asset-strip us a few years down the line."
"I'm still working on that side of things, all I can really say is that it looks promising, in fact it's a better offer than I made when I bought the Tribune, and the FCC shouldn't raise any objections."
"Can I say anything to the other staff?"
"I'd rather you didn't right now," said Nabbit. "I just wanted to let you know that things are in motion, and that there ought to be an announcement within the next few days. You'll be informed first, of course."
"What about a management buyout?" It was something she and the other editors had been considering, though the costs looked prohibitive.
"I doubt that you'll want to go ahead with that when you see what's on offer."
"I see. Okay, if you can keep me posted, I'd better get back to work."
"Sure. I really shouldn't be bothering you with this yet, it's just so promising that I thought I'd let you know. I'll talk to you again next week." He hung off. Billie looked at her computer screen, got her thoughts back into gear, and finished the editorial.* * * * *
"Okay," said Billie. "Main lead is the crime figures, secondary leads the Iraq censorship story and the school construction bond issue, then our page three spreads are the Hubble pictures and the charity rock concert, what's her name...."
"Celeste," said Animal.
"Yes, the picture of her and the bass guitarist, ahhh..."
"Yes, them. The picture of them with the giant cheque."
"It's corny," said Joe Rossi.
"Our readers donated the money," said Billie, "they'll want to see it given to the relief fund."
"It's a slow news day, if you've got something better to suggest tell me now, otherwise we need to move on."
"Okay. Let's move on."
After the meeting Tommy Fowler stopped Billie and said "Spare a few minutes?"
"Sure. What have you got for me?"
"Just an odd little fact," said the crime reporter, "about your favourite lawyers."
"Wolfram and Hart?"
"Them. More specifically, about Linsday MacDonald."
"Three days before he turned up dead in LA someone with the same name and appearance was in Reno, Nevada, working in a plumbing supplies store. Left work one evening, never came back. If it was him he'd been there for at least the last six months."
"Are you sure?"
"Not yet, it could be someone else with the same name. But I really don't think so, and neither do the Nevada police. For some reason they're having trouble convincing the LAPD."
"This is dynamite."
"I guess." He didn't sound happy about it. "I suppose he might just have organised everything from Nevada, but I really don't think it's likely, do you? But even if it's true, I'm willing to bet that another scapegoat will turn up before Wolfram and Hart have to answer too many awkward questions."
"I wonder...." said Billie.
"Wonder what?" asked Tommy.
"I wonder if we can spot the scapegoat before it happens, and persuade him to talk."
"Who did you have in mind?"
"I looked at the record on MacDonald," said Billie. "He worked in their Special Projects department. So do the lawyers who visited me in hospital, Gavin Park and Lilah Morgan."
"Do you think it'll be one of them?"
"I think I'd love to know more about their Special Projects department, what it does and who else works for it. But I'd rather not go to Wolfram and Hart and ask, and I'd rather you didn't either. Do we have any sources inside the company?"
"I'll ask around, see if anyone knows anyone."
"Keep it low profile and very very quiet," said Billie.
"Count on it."* * * * *
As Billie entered the Hyperion the following evening she heard Willow's voice from one of the rooms off the lobby. "Okay, that's pretty good, but you need to brood more." Intrigued, she followed the sound into an office where she found Willow and Cordelia talking to... talking to Angel. She felt faint, and he moved to support her before she fell. His hands were cool.
"It's okay," said Willow, "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you. It's Tom. You know, Zap."
"Zap?" said Billie.
"I got a customization kit for him, changed his appearance to match Angel."
"Oh..." Billie tried to think of something to say, settled for "It's very convincing."
"Trouble is the reflection," said Cordelia. "Angel didn't have one, Zap does."
"You don't look very enthusiastic, Miss Newman," said Zap. He even sounded like Angel.
"I was thinking about the earlier idea Willow had, to have Cordelia's friend take his place," said Billie, "and I thought of an objection to that. I think it applies to this idea too."
"What's that?" asked Willow.
"What do you do when he's unmasked? Sooner or later he will be, then Wolfram and Hart will know that you're hiding something. They'll soon work out what it must be."
"It's a good point," said Cordelia. "It might work once or twice, but what do we do in the long term?"
"We replaced Buffy with the Buffybot for more than three months," Willow said defensively.
"But the demons got wise to it eventually," said Cordelia. "And didn't she get torn to pieces?"
"Not my favourite scenario," said Zap, reverting to his normal voice. "I kinda like this body."
"We just wanted something to keep things under control as long as possible," Willow admitted unhappily. "But I guess that doesn't apply here. You need things stable, keep Wolfram and Hart off your backs until Connor's grown."
"And Connor's another problem," said Billie. "Who's going to look after him in the long term?"
"Me," said Cordelia. "Looks like I won't be having any kids of my own, at least until we figure out what to do about the demonic side of things."
"Won't your friend have something to say about that?"
"Groo? We're kinda not talking. It turns out that while I wanted to jump his bones, he was thinking more about founding a dynasty then returning to Pylea to conquer the place. And I am so not ready for another demonic pregnancy."
"Another?" asked Billie.
"Long story," said Cordelia. "Anyway, the point is that Groo and me won't be happening, and he's sulking about it. He'll get over it."
"But are you really ready to take on that sort of responsibility?"
"You mean, do I want to be a single mom?"
"Putting it bluntly," said Billie, "yes."
"It would have been better if Angel was around to be his dad, but yeah, I want it."
"And money won't be a problem," said Willow. "The way Angel set things up, there'll be more than enough money for his bills, college fees, that kinda thing. And he's gonna have a rich aunt to spoil him rotten."
"That," said Wesley, coming in behind Billie, "would imply that you were Cordelia's sister. Something else we should be worrying about?"
"God," said Willow, "I hope not. It's bad enough that the whole time travel thing made me my own mom and dad..."
"Definitely. Perhaps you should write a Country and Western song about it. Now then, how's our imitation Angel coming along?"
"Not so good," said Cordelia. "Billie just pointed out that we're not gonna get away with it for long enough to keep Connor safe."
"How so?" asked Wesley.
"You might get away with it once or twice," said Billie, "but Zap told me that body isn't much stronger or faster than an ordinary human. How are you going to make them think he's a vampire. Won't they notice he has a reflection, or detect the machinery somehow?"
"It's a good point," said Zap. "Can I go and change my skin now? This feels weird."
"Hold it right there, mister," said Willow. "Okay, is there any way around this? Zap, can that body be upgraded?"
"No. Baltian body suits are designed to imitate humans, not superhumans. It's not supposed to be much stronger or faster, and there's no room for modifications."
"I must admit that there are a few practical problems," said Wesley. "For example, I doubt that he's nearly as damage-resistant as a real vampire. And what would happen if someone touched him with a cross, or threw holy water at him?"
"Nothing," said Willow. "There's no way to fake that sort of thing convincingly. Damn!"
"Wait a minute," said Cordelia. "We're missing something here. We want an excuse to take Angel out of the game without killing him. What if he Feng Shui'd then vanished somewhere."
"Feng Shui?" asked Wesley, confused. "Rearranged his environment to attract auspicious spirits?"
"Don't be a... a Watcher, Wes. That thing Angel was supposed to do eventually. Become human."
"I think that the word you're looking for is Shanshu, Cordelia."
"If we do that," said Wesley, "it would leave us wide open here. Without Angel around they just aren't scared of us. Besides, if he's supposed to be human wouldn't he want to take you and Connor with him?"
"There must be something that would do the trick," said Billie. "What are Wolfram and Hart afraid of?"
"Angel, I guess," said Cordelia, "and champions like him. The Powers That Be, maybe. Apart from that, who knows?"
"You know," Wesley said slowly , "there is someone they're afraid of, I think. Miss Newman, I'd be grateful if you could help to arrange a couple of meetings..."* * * * *
"Let me see if I understand you fully," said Holtz. "You want me to take the place of Angelus?"
"Not exactly," said Wesley. "We're conscious of the differences in our philosophies, and I doubt that they can ever be completely reconciled. And I'm afraid that while we respect you, none of us actually like you very much, which would make a working relationship rather difficult. In the long term I'd suggest that you consider joining the Watcher's Council; they'd welcome you with open arms, and I suspect would have good use for your talents. I'd be delighted to make introductions. But first we'd greatly appreciate your help with a more immediate matter."
"Sooner or later our enemies are going to realise that Angel is dead. Once that happens there'll be a feeding frenzy. Wolfram and Hart and several different demonic groups will attempt to kill us all, try to capture Connor for whatever foul rites they feel appropriate, and so forth."
"We could go to the police," said Billie, "but they don't seem to be equipped to handle situations like this, and there isn't really any proof of anything."
"And you think that I can?" asked Holtz.
"Not exactly," Wesley repeated. "We simply wish to give them pause for thought, convey the idea that we are a rather difficult target, even without Angel, and are best left alone."
"And how did you plan to do that? By logic?"
"Well actually," said Wesley, "we were considering a practical demonstration."
"Exactly what did you have in mind?"
"Basically, we were thinking in terms of using a ridiculously excessive amount of violence." Billie felt her heart sink, and said "Just a moment, that wasn't what we discussed before I agreed to arrange this meeting."
"I know," said Wesley. "I've decided to change the plan a little. I hope that when you've heard all of it you'll agree to help."
"Violence?" said Holtz. "Against whom, precisely?"
"Oh, everyone, naturally. Why play favourites?"
Holtz slowly smiled. "Tell me more."
"I still think this is a really bad idea," Billie said three nights later.
"You don't have to be involved," said Wesley. "Everything's in place, you could go home and get an early night."
"Sure I could," she said sarcastically. "What time do things start?"
"My guess would be twenty to thirty minutes after our message arrives."
"I can't believe she agreed to do it."
"Harmony isn't the sharpest pencil in the box," said Cordelia, leaning forward from the back seat of the car, "but I promised to stake her if she stayed in LA, and she knows I can do it. She's broken her side of the bargain, there's only one way out for her."
"To betray us," said Wesley. "But fortunately that's exactly what we want her to do."
"There she goes," said April, pointing towards the Wolfram and Hart building. "Just entering now, and... yes, there go the anti-vampire alarms."
"Must be handy having amplified ears," said Cordelia. April shrugged, seemed to listen again for a moment, and said "Zap's inside. He thinks that nobody noticed in the confusion."
"Even if they guess we're up to something," said Wesley, "they ought to think that Angel's broken in again. Why else would we use a vampire? Let's get out of here, nice and conspicuously if you will."
"Okay," said Cordelia, flooring the accelerator so that the SUV screeched off down the street. "Someone ought to notice that. Probably took a hundred miles off the life of the tyres."
"Is Zap okay on his own?" asked Billie.
"He's already in the ventilators," said April, "he says that the alarms aren't set up for anything his size, but he's had to kill two rats."
"Can he trace the air flow back to the main air-conditioning unit?" asked Wesley
"He should be there well before Lilah is ready to make her move."
"Excellent."* * * * *
"She's on her way," Fred said over the radio about half an hour later, "With... three cars and a truck following her. I think there may be a helicopter too, I saw the lights just after they left."
"What about Zap?" asked Wesley.
"He's ready to start," said April.
"No time like the present."
"Everyone know what they have to do?" asked Willow. There was a chorus of "yes," "of course," "yup", and "Naturally."
"Just passing checkpoint one," said Fred, "ought to be there in about twenty minutes."
"A helicopter just flew over really low," Tara said a couple of minutes later, looking up from a magically-enhanced building plan, "and we've got five new auras on the top floor."
"Playing SAS," Wesley said grimly. "Well, I hope that they've got good insurance, they're going to need it." There was a loud crash followed by a rumble and a high-pitched scream. "That'd be Fred's fire extinguisher trap, I think." The lights dimmed a little, and they heard another scream. Gunn grinned, and said "And that's the thing with the electrified door-knob. Five bucks, Willow."
"Didn't think that would work," said Willow, reluctantly giving him the money. "The others will be a lot more careful."
"Won't help though," said Gunn. "How long until Lilah gets here?"
"At least fifteen minutes," said Wesley. "Any word from Zap?"
"They don't know it yet," said April, "but they don't have an air conditioning plant any more. Not without replacing every motor and bearing. He's going after the water supply next."
"My cue to set the ball rolling on the sewers," said Willow. She hit enter on the keyboard of one of the laptops she was using, and watched the results with a mixture of awe, pleasure and horror. "All outgoing sluice gates closed, all incoming pumps at maximum... yep, emergency flushing system activated, but there's nowhere for it to go but up. About two minutes, then things really hit the fan. Literally, if they have fans in their washooms."
"David really came through for us," said Cordelia. "Hope he's got his ass covered when the authorities try to work out what went wrong with the control system."
"Year 2K error," said Willow. "Shouldn't have been using Windows."
"That was years ago."
"Um... never mind."
"Another one down," said Tara, watching the plans. "No... all three. Holtz and Justine got them."
"Dead?" asked Wesley.
"Unconscious, I think. They're keeping their end of the bargain."
"Let Justine know that's the last of the intruders," said Wesley. "We'll need them downstairs in a few minutes."
"How about our secret weapons?"
Another of Willow's laptops beeped, and she said "We've got movement in the sewers leading to our cellars."
"Not unexpected," said Wesley. "It was always on the cards that they'd try a pincer movement."
"Good thing you won't need that entrance again," said Willow, reaching for a panel of switches wired to a cable that snaked down to the cellar.
"Wait until they're trying to open the door. In the meantime check for life signs."
"Nothing human," Willow said a few seconds later. "Vampires with a side order of demons, I think."
The lift doors opened. Holtz and Justine dragged out the intruders from the top floor, bound and unconscious, and piled them to one side.
"Miss Cooper," said Wesley, "we have several vampires trying to break in through the sewers. Would you like to do the honours?"
Justine smiled, showing teeth, and came over to Willow, who handed her the switch box and said "Press this button and hold it down until the light comes on, then press the red one." Justine stabbed a finger at a green button, waited until the light flashed, then pressed the red. There was a rumbling noise then a loud explosion, and the hotel shook, the chandelier swaying and jingling. Outside manhole covers blew from their openings, and the street was momentarily lit by columns of blue flame.
"They're all crispy critters," said Willow. "Hope nobody was cooking, the gas for this area is gonna be out for a few hours."
"Three miles to go," Fred said over the radio. "I'd better break off before they spot me. I'll go back and pick up Zap."
"Maybe we should have left the sewers until they were in the street," said Wesley. "It might have given them pause for thought."
"This way's better," said Willow, "it'll be more of a surprise when they come inside."
"Don't count on it," said Gunn, "they must have someone watching the hotel."
"Zap's cut the water main," said April, "and he's found Harmony. He's taking out the guards and the locks now. Do you want him to help her escape?"
"God no," said Cordelia, "let her find her own way out, she's bound to do some damage along the way. But tell him to get out now, before they realise what's going down."
"Ask him to activate the fire alarms and sprinklers before he leaves," said Wesley, "that ought to add nicely to the mess."
"It'll wash the sewage about a bit," said Willow. "But hey, by now there's plenty of sewage to wash around."
"He's on it," said April.
One of the radios crackled, and a distorted voice said "They're outside."
"Places everyone," said Wesley, picking up a copy of the Tribune and a pen, and turning his attention to fifteen down on the cryptic crossword. Holtz and Justine went out towards one of the less conspicuous exits, and Willow pulled the office doors closed to conceal herself, Tara, and April. Moments later the doors slammed open and a dozen black-clad goons charged in, covering the lobby with AK-47s. Wesley looked up and said "I really wouldn't recommend trying to fire your weapons." Four guns turned towards him, and two of the intruders collapsed clutching their heads as he added "I'm afraid our anti-violence spell might hurt you." Gunn feinted, pretending to be about to throw his axe, and another of the guards collapsed.
Lilah Morgan walked into the lobby, looked disdainfully at the writhing mercenaries, and said "If we can't hurt you, I'd imagine that you can't hurt us. What's to stop us from burning the building down?"
"Good evening, Lilah," said Wesley. "That would be in the nature of a threat, I suppose. You know Miss Newman, I think? I wonder what her readers will make of it."
Billie smiled, and ostentatiously made a note on a shorthand pad.
"Do you really think that's going to save you?"
"Not at all," said Wesley. "Shall we put our cards on the table? You want Connor, I believe, and you've been told that Angel is dead. Would that be a fair summation?"
"More or less," said Lilah, with an air of slight surprise. "Miss Kendall's too stupid to lie convincingly, but of course she's only parroting what you've told her. What's the real story? Did Angel walk in while the guards were capturing her?"
"Not at all," said Wesley. "I'm afraid that Miss Kendall was telling the exact truth. You'll possibly want to reward her, if she's still there when you get back. Angel is dead, which I'm afraid means that all your neat prophecies are in ruins. No vampire with a soul, no apocalypse, no Shanshu."
"Then we'll settle for the boy."
"He's not here, I'm afraid. Oh, did I mention that all of the prophecies concerning him were faked by the demon Sahjan?"
"I don't care. We'll find him, and we'll find out what makes him tick."
"I'll save you the trouble of looking. He's in Sunnydale at the moment, staying with the Summers family and their friends. I'd imagine you've heard of them."
For a moment Lilah looked uncertain. Outside there were a couple of shots and a high-pitched scream. Wesley smiled and said "I believe your colleagues may be experiencing difficulties. Would you like to give them some help, perhaps?"
"They can take care of themselves."
"I really doubt that," said Wesley, "but we'll see."
After a moment Lilah said "Well? I'd imagine that there's a point in all this. Planning to let me in on the secret?"
"Certainly." Behind Lilah the door swung open and someone came in. Wesley added "Is everything under control outside?"
"Five by five." Lilah turned, paled slightly, and backed away from the door. Faith grinned at her, and added "Zorro and his chick are just loading the bodies into the van."
"I believe you've met Miss Morgan," said Wesley.
"Sure," said Faith. "Lilah and me go way back."
"How... How did you get her out of prison?" asked Lilah.
"She's been paroled," said Wesley. "Someone seems to have forgotten to tell the judge her real age when she was convicted. As soon as our lawyers remedied that omission and paid a fairly substantial bond for her good behaviour she was released into our care."
"That's right," said Faith. "Wanna guess who's footing the bill?"
"Rosenberg, of course," said Lilah, recovering a little composure. "We'll soon see about that."
"I really doubt that," said a dour Scots voice. A stranger walked into the lobby from one of the side offices, carrying a leather briefcase and a Trilby hat. "Hamish McLein, of Phipps, McLein, Godfrey and Chatterton, of Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and Boston."
"A little off your usual patch, aren't you?" Lilah said warily. It was obvious that she'd heard of them.
McLein reached into his briefcase and pulled out a bundle of papers tied with a red ribbon. "I am fully accredited with the California bar, Miss Morgan. This is a cease and desist order which has been filed with the Los Angeles Supreme Court and all relevant Demonic courts on behalf of our clients, Angel Investigations and SunnyD Technology." He handed them to Lilah, and reached into his briefcase again. "I am also serving you with restraining orders on behalf of the Watchers Council of Great Britain, the guardians of Connor Angel, and the conservators of the estate of the late Richard Wilkins." He gave her another bundle of papers.
"You have got to be kidding," said Lilah.
"Not at all," said McLein. "As you will find out to your cost should you attempt to defy these orders. Good evening." He put on his hat, tipped it slightly to Lilah and Cordelia, and walked out.
"We'll get those thrown out too," said Lilah.
"You might want to check with the Senior Partners first," said Wesley. "I can assure you that they are binding, in every sense of the word. Did you really forget that other companies practice supernatural law?"
For once Lilah looked uncertain as she asked "So what do you want?"
"Call off your dogs, Lilah. You leave us alone, and we'll leave you alone, unless we find that you are responsible for the problems of our clients. Otherwise I'm afraid that your company will find that things get rather... messy, shall we say. We've given you a small example this evening, and I'm fairly sure that we can be much more creative if we really try." Lilah looked at him, a little puzzled, and he added "Perhaps I should warn you that I've heard that things may be a little ...untidy in your offices for the next few days. Or possibly weeks."
"Even if I agreed to that," said Lilah, "there are still dozens of cults after the child. I can't control all of them."
"True," said Wesley, "but you might want to mention something to them. There is no evidence whatever that Angel is Connor's father."
"What?" said Lilah, echoed by most of the people in the lobby.
"Think about it. Vampires can't conceive but humans can, and Darla was human for several weeks. We know that for much of that time she was living with the late Lindsey MacDonald. If by some chance she were to become pregnant during that period, and the foetus somehow survived when she was turned by Drusilla, well then...."
"It's an interesting theory," said Lilah.
"And not entirely unprecedented," said Wesley, "pregnant women have been turned before, and some have even given birth. Connor seems to be unusually healthy for such an origin, but he's hardly unique, and a good deal less than miraculous. I'm sure that you have samples of their blood, I'd suggest that you get them tested to find out."
"Oh, one more thing," said Wesley. "Perhaps I'd better mention that Wolfram and Hart will not be acquiring the Los Angeles Tribune. I'm afraid that Mister Nabbitt has received a better offer."
"From Miss Rosenberg, I suppose."
"Hardly," said Billie. "There would be an obvious conflict of interest if my niece were to buy the Trib. The new owners will be Wilkins Investments of Sunnydale, California."
"Never heard of them," said Lilah.
"A company originally founded by the late Mayor Richard Wilkins in the nineteenth century," said Wesley, "and recently inherited by his sole heir, Miss Faith Lehane," Faith smiled, "although the trustees of the company, Phipps, McLein, Godfrey and Chatterton, will be making most of the day-to-day decisions until Miss Lehane's thirtieth birthday. For some reason Mayor Wilkins decided not to give the work to your company."
"And most of the money will be coming from Rosenberg, of course," Lilah said with a sneer.
"Prove it," said Willow, opening the office door. "We may eventually be investing in Faith's company, if they seem to be making a success of things, but that's down to our financial and legal advisors."
"And they might be...?"
"Actually, we hired Wolfram and Hart for some of the legal work. I'm pretty sure that they set up Wilkins Investments too, and drew up the Mayor's will, although he must have changed lawyers later. Didn't anyone mention it to you? No?"
"You know," said Wesley, "Your department does seem to be rather... exposed, shall we say. Poor Lindsey took the blame last time, I wonder who's next. You, or possibly that Park chap? I wonder what the Bar Association will have to say if it becomes known that you've been working against the interests of your clients."
"That's an interesting point," said Lilah. "Now, if there's nothing else...?"
"Don't forget to take your friends with you," said Cordelia, pointing at the mercenaries on the floor. Lilah issued some terse orders, and the survivors began to move the others out.* * * * *
"They didn't leave any bugs," April said a few minutes later, after Lilah and her forces had left.
"Thank the Goddess for that," said Willow.
"What was that about Angel not being Connor's dad?" asked Cordelia
"I'm sorry that I couldn't tell you earlier," said Wesley, "but your reaction had to look real."
"What do you mean?"
"It's what this evening was really about. Harmony was there to draw attention from the arrival of Zap. And Zap was there to substitute a few blood, tissue and hair samples, everything else was cover for that. We made sure that the building as a whole took enough damage to cover his tracks in their laboratories. Any tests they run now will show that Lindsey is Connor's father."
"That's pretty good," said Cordelia. "Think it'll work?"
"It's called FUD," said Willow. "Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. They'll get their act together eventually, maybe realise what we've done... hell, Lilah may already suspect. But they won't know for sure, not the way we messed things up for them. And they know now that most of the prophecies are wrong, so they ought to be pretty cautious for a while. And we weren't kidding about the Bar Association. They set out to be lawyers, they're gonna have to live with the consequences."
"We never had the money to go that route," said Cordelia, "but I can see how it could work. And hey, Willow can afford it."
"How the hell did you get the Watchers in on the act?" asked Faith. "They wanted to bury me."
"Simple," said Wesley. "Willow again - she gave them a million pounds and suggested that the best use for a Slayer was working against the forces of darkness, not rotting in a cell. And they really wanted to recruit Holtz, which helped considerably since I could broker the deal. I take it that you have no objection to working for Angel Investigations until your parole ends?"
Fred came in with Zap riding her shoulder and handed him over to April, who took him upstairs to put him into his body.
"Did you run into any trouble," asked Wesley.
"Harmony tried to hitch a ride," said Fred. "Zap had to knock her out."
"Where is she?"
"I left her on the street. Couldn't bring myself to stake her, and I knew that if I brought her back Holtz would do it. Where is he anyway?"
"He and Justine are on their way to London, I hope," said Wesley. "With air tickets and passports provided by the Watchers Council."
"So they get a happy ending," said Cordelia. "Everyone does, I guess, except for poor Angel."
"A really expensive happy ending," said Willow, "but never mind. Just one thing left to do. Now that we've admitted that Angel's dead, I guess we'll have to hold a wake. It's what he would have wanted."
"Now that we've admitted he's dead," said Willow, "I guess we'll have to hold a wake. It's what he would have wanted."* * * * *
"So you're the one that killed Angel?" said the bottle blonde.
"I'm afraid so," said Billie. "I was under a spell, of course, but..."
"Don't apologize," the blonde interrupted, "you've done something that a hundred demons couldn't manage. You ought to be proud. D'Hoffryn was able to close nearly thirty files."
"Anya," said the blonde's muscular husband, "you might not want to say that too loudly. You'll upset Buffy."
"Buffy's moved on," said Anya. "And if you weren't still in denial you'd admit it."
Xander glanced across the lobby of the Hyperion, and saw the blonde slayer chatting to Cordelia and Spike. "I guess. But remember, this is officially the party to open Willow's new offices, not a wake. Some of the guests aren't in the loop." He gestured to the bar, where Lorne was chatting animatedly to Tara, Dawn, and another woman who looked like Dawn's slightly older double... the rock star Celeste, of course.
"So what's going to happen to the brat?" asked Anya. "He seems surprisingly... normal for the child of two vampires. A little smelly. I don't think Buffy liked changing him much."
"All babies are like that," said Billie.
"But in the Game of Life they're pink and clean," said Anya, "Why mislead people that way?"
"They ought to make a scratch and sniff version," said Xander. "But Anya does have a point, what's gonna happen to Connor?"
Wesley joined them and said "I'm hoping to become his guardian. David Nabbitt has some influence in the appropriate areas of City Hall, and will help when the time is ripe."
"Where is he anyway?" asked Anya. "I want to talk to him about his money."
"He's upstairs in Willow's offices, making a conference call to Korea. Some sort of problem at one of his factories, I believe."
"Damn. I was hoping to persuade him to help finance Willow's new labs. Maybe he'll have time to talk later."
"Surely Willow doesn't need his money," said Wesley.
"Not really," said Anya, "but we need to do something to make the company finances look more normal. A major corporate investor would be ideal."
"Wouldn't that cost in the long term?" asked Wesley.
"Not really. It might even be profitable, if I set things up properly."
"And you're the girl for that," Xander said with a grin.
"Darn tooting... what does that mean, anyway? Willow says it all the time and it doesn't really make sense...."
"I really ought to talk to Billie for a moment," said Wesley. "Would you excuse us?"
"I was expecting Cordelia to be his guardian," said Billie, as they moved towards the office.
"Not yet," said Wesley. "Although I still hope that one day..." He tapered off awkwardly, then said "But there are practical reasons why it might not be a good idea at present. Until we know exactly what happened to her and can neutralize the demonic taint, it might be too dangerous for her to be near Connor for extended periods. Some demons are best kept well away from children."
"Oh... I hadn't thought of that."
"I hope you don't mind me taking you away from the party," said Wesley, switching on the light, "It's really not particularly urgent."
"Angel's disappearance needs some stage management. The police, in particular, still want to talk to him. At the moment he's a missing person, we need a way to explain his death in a way that doesn't incriminate any of us. Then I can start the adoption process, and hopefully things will quieten down a little."
"What did you have in mind?"
"Holtz. I spoke to him in London yesterday, he's agreed to claim responsibility. We both thought that you might be the best person to pass on the news to the police."
"Holtz likes you," said Wesley, "and if a mysterious videotape were to arrive from.. oh, let's say Germany.. with a note asking you to pass it on to the police, I'm sure you'd do your civic duty."
"Won't they suspect something?"
"It will genuinely come from Germany, his fingerprints will be on it, and they'll have to find a PAL video-recorder to play it. I should think that ought to add an air of conviction."
"If there's no alternative."
"We could send it directly to the police, of course, but it might be more convincing coming from you."
"I'll set the wheels in motion. If you'll excuse me for a few minutes..." He picked up the phone. Billie took the hint and went back outside.* * * * *
"...and so," said David Nabbitt, "without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to declare these offices open, and welcome my new trading partner, SunnyD Technology, to Los Angeles." He used a pair of gold scissors to cut a ribbon across the elevator gate, and handed a gold key to Willow. Everyone clapped.
Willow took his place in front of the microphone and said "Thanks to all of you for coming tonight. We're hoping to do a lot of business here over the next few years, and it wouldn't be possible without the help and generous support you've provided. I'd particularly like to to thank Anya Harris for her help in developing our corporate strategy... Anya, the check's in the mail... our company secretary April Summers for her excellent work that's helped to bring this project in ahead of schedule and under budget... and above all my partner, Tara MacLay, for... for everything..." Willow seemed to be about to burst into tears, but swallowed and said "I also need to thank Angel Investigations for providing our office space and security. Angel unfortunately can't be here tonight, but I'd like to introduce Wesley Wyndham-Pryce, executive director of Angel Investigations."
"Thank you," said Wesley. "I'd just like to thank Miss Rosenberg and her associates for choosing the Hyperion for their business venture, and for their patience while we've got things ready for them. Additional secure office suites will be available for long-term rental later this year, and the new Caritas bar and health club will be opening here next month. However, I'd like to emphasise that our core business will be continuing unchanged; we're Angel Investigations, and we help the helpless. Thank you, and please enjoy the rest of the evening." There was a polite ripple of applause, followed by a rush for the bar.* * * * *
"Okay," said Faith, "That's all of the civilians out of the way, apart from the creepy Dawn clone. Where is she anyway?"
"Don't worry," said Cordelia, "David's driving her home."
"So that's why she had the temper tantrum and fired her bodyguard," said Billie. "Clever..."
"You think...? Maybe, David's enough of a dork to fall for it, but I wouldn't wish that bitch on... on Holtz."
"So not our problem," said Willow, carrying Connor over and handing him to Cordelia, who sniffed, felt him, and took him away for a nappy change.
"She's actually a very misunderstood girl," said Lorne, pouring himself a large Seabreeze. "I think that she and David might be good for each other. Eventually."
"Where's everyone else got to?" asked Billie.
"Wesley's comparing notes with Giles and Tara," said Willow, "trying to work out how to test Cordy. I'm gonna stay out of the way, there's too much magic lying around in there. Dawn's surfing the web with Fred. Buffy and Spike went to check out that vision Cordy had this afternoon, probably won't be back for an hour or two. Everyone else is playing poker."
"It was a good party," said Lorne. "Maybe not quite the wake Angel would have wanted, but maybe we can do something about that once he's officially dead."
"If things ever quieten down," said Willow. "Every seer I know is tearing out his hair. Between Angel dying and the whole time travel thing half of the prophecies on record are gonna have to be thrown out. Nobody knows where they are any more."
"Is that good or bad?" asked Billie.
"Your guess is as good as mine. But one things for sure, there's gonna be one hell of a power struggle before everything settles down again. We're just gonna have to ride it out, make it clear that we're too dangerous to mess with."
"Don't worry," said Willow, "a lot of it will probably be fun."
Dawn came into the lobby carrying a piece of paper, and said "You know we never did work out who your dad was?"
"Sure. I can live with it."
"Think I might have something. Fred has some neat face-matching software. Take a look at this." She handed the printout to Willow, who looked at it and said "I don't remember this picture."
"That's because it isn't you."
"Wow..." Billie looked over her shoulder. Whoever it was could have been Willow's identical twin. "Who is she?"
"Trina Echolls," said Dawn, "Aaron Echolls' daughter."
"Holy crap," said Faith. "Like peas in a pod."
"You don't think..." said Willow.
"He's about the right age to have known your mom," said Dawn, "maybe at college."
"Maybe," said Billie, trying to remember her sister's tastes, "but I think he would have been a little too young for her. She liked older men."
"You don't know that," Dawn said excitedly. "C'mon, Willow, you've got to check."
"Maybe," said Willow. "But not tonight. Let's help Cordelia first."
Chapter 21: Epilogue
One minute he was in Hell, the next...
"Let's see if I've got this right," said a voice Skip recognized. Cordelia Chase. "This bastard put a demon into my body so that I'd somehow end up seducing Connor and giving birth to some sort of demon god?"
Something thudded into the side of his head. A kick, he thought. Skip writhed and tried to get free of the chains that held him.
"I know it's hard to believe," said another woman, "what with Connor being a baby and all, but things got derailed when Angel was killed. If it wasn't for that he'd have been sucked into another dimension and grown overnight."
"How could they know that?" wondered Skip. How could anyone... another blow to his head interrupted his chain of thought.
"So what happens now, Willow?" asked Cordelia.
"We've gotta get the demon out of you somehow, without letting the visions destroy your brain. Skip's gonna tell us how."
"Why should I tell you anything?" shouted Skip. "When I am free I will..." Another kick, and an English voice said "Oh, you'll talk." There was a noise, a mechanical clicking repeated a couple of times, then a sudden coughing roar. "You know," said the same voice, shouting slightly. "There are four basic torture groups. We thought we'd start with noisy this time. Faith, if you're ready with the chainsaw..."* * * * *
"Are you sure this is the place?" asked Lilah Morgan. "It looks like a dump." Behind her the squad of heavily-armed mercenaries checked their weapons.
"Quite sure," said the psychic. "This is where the vampire with a soul can be found."
"Okay," said Lilah. "Kick the door in, cover him, then wait for me to come in. I knew that the whole death thing was just a stunt."
There was a thud as the door went down, followed by a piercing scream, shouts, then silence. One of the mercenaries said "We're ready for you, miss Morgan."
"Okay Angel," said Lilah, striding into the room, "you had us fooled for...." She tapered off in confused silence.
"Sorry," said Harmony Kendall. "I'm so not Angel. Do I look like him?"
"Well?" said Lilah.
"It's her," said the psychic. "She's the vampire with a soul."
"Ewwww," said Harmony. "Don't be gross. Of course I'm not. Do I look like I've got a soul?" She undid one of the buttons of her blouse. "Why, I'm just a fluffy little..." another button... "girl. And all you big mean old men with guns are kinda scaring me..." By now it was obvious that she wasn't wearing a bra. "But hey," said Harmony, abruptly grabbing a distracted goon and throwing him at another, "I'm kinda scary too." Before anyone could react she had her fingers around Lilah's throat. "Now you're probably wondering if you can shoot me without hurting your boss. The thing is, if you don't hurt her, I will. Unless you guys get well away from the door. Then I might just let her go."
The guards reluctantly parted, and Harmony backed towards the door, using Lilah as a shield.
"There's a thing about souls," said Harmony. "All of you guys have got them, and you're still kinda nasty. Soul doesn't make me a nice person. But hey..." Her free hand lashed out with demonic speed, crushing the psychic's larynx and dislocating a neck vertebra. He fell to the floor, convulsing. "...you guys knew Angel, you should know that." She grabbed Lila's purse and threw her at the guards, and ducked out of sight before they could fire. By the time anyone reached the doorway she was gone.* * * * *
"No cure?" asked Cordelia.
"He was quite vocal eventually," said Wesley. "Either you have a demon in you, or you die."
"And if I die you lose the visions."
"It's already too far gone," Wesley said regretfully. "Your brain was already badly damaged when the demon was implanted, now..."
"Okay. How long have I got if the demon's removed?"
"Hours, maybe days. Even if you lose the visions, the brain damage will catch up with you sooner or later."
"And if the demon stays inside me?"
"Eventually it'll take over," said Tara, her eyes glinting with tears. "Even with you knowing it's there, it'll gradually drive out what's left of you and take control."
"Actually," said Willow, "We have, but you're not gonna like it."
"I did some checking and a vision quest before we started," said Tara, "just in case Skip couldn't fix things, and got an answer. You become a Higher Being."
"We pull out the demon and shove it into what's left of Skip," said Willow, "then a Higher Being takes its place. It'll keep you alive, repair the damage and help you with the visions."
"What happens to me?"
"Oh, you'll still be there, you'll just have a passenger on board."
"What's the catch?"
"You're gonna have to spend most of your time Ascended over the next few years."
"Buffy liked it."
"And your point is..?" asked Cordelia.* * * * *
"And there were four of these creatures?" Holtz asked in German, wiping blood from his sword, and turning over one of the eyeless bodies with the tip of his boot.
"That's right," the shaken potential said in the same language. "Good thing you got here when you did."
"It isn't the first attack," said Holtz. His radio crackled, and he lifted it and in English said "Yes?"
"We've spotted the priest," said Justine. "He's crossing the plaza now, heading directly towards you."
"Then finish him."
There was a staccato burst of shots, followed by a muffled explosion. Outside there were screams and cries of pain.
"He's bleeding, but he's still moving. We have civilian casualties."
"Pull out," said Holtz, "we'll meet at the agreed rendezvous. I'll get the girl out." In German he added "Head for the roof, there's a fire escape on the next building. Four blocks due north, the car park under the Holiday Inn. I'll cover you."
The potential began to argue, but paled as she heard a heavy pounding on the barred door to the plaza. Wood began to creak.
"Get out now," Holtz said again. He turned towards the door, ignoring the potential. After a moment she turned towards the stairs.
There was a crash, and a tall figure dressed as a clergyman stood in the shattered doorway.
"You migh as well tell me where the girl is," said the priest. "That way I'll kill you fast."
"That's an interesting theory," said Holtz, drawing a second sword. "But I think we'll test it..."* * * * *
"Maybe your tastes will differ a little..." said Wesley, "but you'd still be able to keep an eye on things down here, visit us if anything came up that needed a vision, and a few years down the line when your brain has finished healing you can stay down here permanently. But you'll still have a passenger as long as you continue to get the visions."
"Do I get any choice of Higher Being?" asked Cordelia.
"At that sort of level it isn't gonna be anyone or anything you've heard of," said Willow. "They're as far beyond us as we're beyond an amoeba."
"So what's in it for the HB?" asked Cordelia.
"My guess is curiosity," said Tara. "They watch us from the outside, but they miss the nuances, don't really understand how we think. You can help them with that."
"Fine. Let me get this right... these guys look at us the way that we'd look at a bowl of guppies, and one of them wants to ride in me so he can see what being a guppy is all about?"
"That's about it," said Willow. "It's kinda your guarantee of getting back, they want to experience life as a human."
"Okay..." said Cordelia. "What about Connor?"
"As we discussed. I'll adopt him," said Wesley. "With David's help Willow's lawyers can handle that without too many questions being asked."
"What about a mom for him?"
"He's got one," said Willow, looking at her. "Okay, kinda. She's not gonna be around a lot, but she'll be keeping a close eye on things, won't you."
"I guess. Okay... Okay, let's do it."
"Now?" said Tara.
"Now," said Cordelia, "before I lose my nerve."
Willow burst into tears, and Cordelia hugged her a little awkwardly. "Like you said," said Cordelia, "I'm still gonna be around." She kissed Wesley, Gunn, and Fred, taking care that the visions didn't transfer to them, hugged Connor, Lorne, and Tara, and shook hands with Faith.
Willow and Tara took her hands and they stood over the demon spread-eagled on the ground in the rear courtyard. There was a bright flash as something left her body, and the remains of Skip's body jerked. His exoskeleton began to rot, maggots crawling in the gaping wounds, and his shape slowly morphed to a rotting corpse.
"That was inside me?" said Cordelia, horrified. "Gross!" They stood clear as Gunn incinerated it with his flame thrower. It took several minutes to die.
"Okay," said Willow. "You ready?"
"I guess," said Cordelia. She looked at the night sky overhead and said "Beam me up, Scotty."
Willow and Tara began to chant something, with Wesley joining in on the choruses. A shaft of golden light suddenly shone down into the courtyard, illuminating Cordelia, and everyone felt a sensation of peace. She floated into the air, slowly at first but rapidly accelerating, and vanished into the night.
"Holy crap," said Gunn. "You sure it isn't permanent?"
"I think so," said Willow, "unless we got things really wrong. But..."
"I don't think you need worry," said Fred, pointing at the back wall. Glowing letters were slowly appearing, spelling out "I'll be back."
"Damn," said Gunn. "That's cool."
Inside the hotel a phone was ringing. "Back to work," said Wesley, and went inside to answer it.
Chapter 22: About Lou Grant
Since this story is set 20+ years after the show and is very much LA Tribune: The Next Generation it isn't too important to know too much about most of the original characters, but briefly:
Lou Grant was a CBS show, a drama spinoff from the Mary Tyler Moore comedy show, which ran from September 1977 to September 1982. The background was journalism, the editors and reporters of the Los Angeles Tribune, a major newspaper,. the stories it covered, and the paper's internal politics, business problems, etc. It was one of the first to deal realistically with issues such as school violence, mental illness, labour disputes, and rape.
The main characters were Lou Grant, a crusty journalist and editor of the Los Angele Tribune, Art Donovan his assistant, Charley Hume the managing editor, reporters Joe Rossi, Bille Newman, photographer Dennis Price, AKA Animal, and Mrs. Pynchon, eccentric owner of the paper.
For the purposes of The Rosenberg Inheritance Mrs. Pynchon is now dead and the newspaper is owned by media tycoon David Nabbit, who appeared in episodes of Angel. Grant and Hume have retired, Donovan now edits another paper in San Francisco, and Joe Rossi is now the paper's Foreign News Editor, Billie Newman the City Editor, and Animal the Picture Editor. All of these characters are now in their fifties.
Billie Newman is simply a good reporter, who feels that her competence is more important than her sex. She's red-headed (now greying), attractive, a vegetarian, extremely stubborn, and tends to dig deep for the facts, qualities that have carried over into her role as City Editor for this story. Since the 1980s she's married and divorced twice but has no children, and has kept her maiden name.
In the original series Rossi was played as an aggressively competitive reporter who tried to get stories fast, sometimes sacrificing accuracy for speed. For the purposes of this story he's mellowed a little but still expects quick results. As part of a long streamlining process the paper no longer has a Deputy City Editor; if Billie is ill or on vacation the other journalists share her workload, with Rossi taking over as City Editor and his role on the foreign desk taken by other members of the paper's staff.
Animal is a former hippie, still an excellent photographer although he now spends most of his time working with photographic editing and layout software; the paper has gone over to digital photography for most purposes, and Animal prides himself on being one of the few members of the staff who can still handle every stage of processing and using old-fashioned film when necessary.
Pictures and biographies of the staff and actors can be found on many web sites; the first two or three sites found on a web search for LOU GRANT CHARACTERS contain everything needed for the purposes of this story.
All other LA Tribune staff mentioned in this story have been invented by the author.
A good modern film equivalent of this series is the film The Paper, which covers some of the same issues, although it is more of a comedy than Lou Grant.