|Backstage 23: First Do No Harm
Author: Aadler PM
You may not get what you pay for … but you always pay for what you get.Rated: Fiction T - English - Humor/Adventure - Harmony K. - Chapters: 6 - Words: 26,008 - Published: 03-12-11 - Status: Complete - id: 6819248
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
First Do No Harm
Copyright February 2006
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
She stood in the pools of light from the street lamps, slim and blonde and pretty, hands on her hips and her mouth set in a pout. She wore a sheer dress that — for all its obvious and failed purpose of appearing très chic — nonetheless looked pretty darn good on her, and in the soft spring night the clean, classic lines of her face might have served as the model for a Raphaelite angel.
"Piece of shit," she announced distinctly, staring at the flat tire. "Stupid, cheap hunk of Jap-knockoff crap."
No, she was not quite what she appeared to be. The watcher (as yet unknown to her) could see that much already. But neither was she quite what he believed her to be, and of this he would remain unaware for some time to come.
She added a few more earthy comments regarding the vehicle's deficiencies (and some highly unlikely ones about provenance and mating habits) before deciding that the venting of her frustration, while briefly satisfying, did nothing to carry her further along her way. She glanced at her darkened surroundings and then at the dark, empty street before her, not in the least uneasy but thoroughly undecided. Part of her hesitation would have sprung from her footwear: stiletto heels, however stylish, have little utility for hiking … and if she took them off to protect them from such harsh use, well, marching along barefoot was just not stylish at all.
The man observing her had himself been undecided, but her clear uncertainty firmed his mind. He stepped away from the window, pushed the door open, and called out, "Do you need any help there, miss?"
Her reaction was both unnerving and reassuring: the moment his presence had become apparent (he suspected as soon as he moved behind the window), she was fixed on him with the calm concentration of a lynx. Yes, she might very well be what he was seeking; no, it was not at all comfortable to find himself the focus of those hunter's eyes. The most disconcerting aspect was that she didn't have to shake it off to smile and nod and reply airily, "Yeah, sure, I've got a flat and the spare is flat, too, which is SO just the way my life is these days. Is there, like, some place I could call this time of night? 'Cause I totally can pay." It was still there, running full-force behind the facile tones and sunny, slightly foolish smile.
Well, disquieting or not, these were the qualities he had hoped to find in her, and he automatically shifted into the mode that had always served him in dealing with women. "This isn't a large town," he said to her, returning the smile and standing in a casual stance that accented his height and musculature. "There are a couple of guys I could call, yes, but you pay a hefty bonus when they have to get out of bed to come help you. If you're willing to take a chance, though, I might be able to suggest another way to go about it."
"A chance," she said, looking blank rather than wary. "What kind of chance?"
"I know somebody in town," he told her easily, falling into the familiar rhythm, tilting his head to show his features to their best advantage. "He restores cars as a hobby, and does all his own engine work. He has a full auto shop in his garage, and I know he'd be willing to do me a favor. We could take him the tires, and he'd have no problem fixing them. He might charge you, but not as much as you'd have to pay for a tow."
"That sounds okay," she said. Her eyes assessed him with a matter-of-fact flatness at odds with the bubbly voice and mannerisms. "I still have to get there, though. With two tires."
"Oh, I'll be happy to drive you," he said affably. "No problem at all."
She smiled cynical understanding. "And what would I owe you? Cash, or favors?"
"I'm a Samaritan," he told her, smiling also. "This is strictly from the goodness of my heart."
"My lucky night," she said. He couldn't tell from her tone whether or not she believed him, but that didn't really matter. Not as long as she got in the car with him.
She caused him no problems, waiting patiently beside her immobilized vehicle while he went to get his own and pull it around. They loaded the flaccid tires into the back, then she seated herself in the passenger's side with no sign of hesitation or uneasiness. "I guess it's a good thing you were around," she remarked as they pulled out onto the highway. "When I coasted into the parking lot back there, there weren't any lights or anything, I figured the place was shut down."
"We've been doing some remodeling during the off-season," he explained. "This time of year, there isn't enough business to be worth staying open. Once we finish the upgrades, though, we should be able to keep a decent income year-round."
"Oh." She thought for a moment, opened her mouth, then seemed to reconsider what she had been about to say. "I didn't see much, what with the no lights and everything, but it looked … quaint."
"Forty units," he said proudly. "We're in easy driving distance of the ocean, the mountains — and L.A., without having to pay their prices — and there are some nice tours at the national forest. People talk about a peaceful little getaway, that's what I'll be giving them. We've made a lot of improvements already, and I'm going to have high-speed cable, a sauna and hot tub, game room, might even get a pool into the area out back … It was a decent, comfortable little operation for the last owner, but I'm going to turn it into a real money-maker."
She didn't respond — in fact, he thought at first that her mind had gone to an entirely different subject while he was speaking — but then she gave herself a little shake and said, "Well, how much have you done so far?"
"Only two units, just now," he admitted. "But those were learning experiences, and now we know what to do and how to do it. We'll speed right through the rest, once we manage the next phase of funding."
"Funding," she repeated automatically; then, with a sharp look at him, she asked, "Don't you need to call this friend of yours, let him know we're coming?"
"I did that already," he said, patting the pocket of his windbreaker. "Cell phone."
She smiled at that. "Ooohh, I'd better keep my eyes on you. You're sneaky."
"I just try to plan ahead," he said. Then: "I haven't seen you around, and I think I would have heard of someone like you. Are you traveling?"
"Hmm? Oh, sure." She thought on it for a moment. "I left home a few months ago, actually, but I haven't settled anywhere yet. I just can't seem to find my niche."
"Really? Where are you from?"
"I just came from L.A.," she said. "I was staying with a friend, but … well, there was this guy, and it turned into a whole scene, and I just couldn't hang around after that."
"I can imagine," he said. "But you said you'd left home, and I was wondering where that was."
"Little place," she said. "You probably never heard of it … oh, wait, maybe you have, there was this freak deal last year when the whole town came down with total laryngitis, that made it into state news. Sunnydale? Ring a bell?"
He felt a surge of satisfaction, and worked at keeping it out of his voice. "Yes, I've heard of Sunnydale. Not the laryngitis thing, actually, but there have been stories. Some of them pretty hard to believe." He aimed a smile at her. "So you really lived there."
"I ruled there." She sighed. "But that was high school. Things just haven't been the same since graduation."
He laughed. "After my graduation, I spent most of a year soaking up the sun on one beach or another."
She actually shuddered. "Ugh. Not much for the sun, myself. I'm more of a night person."
"I don't know," he said, and favored her with the disarming grin that would melt three women out of four. (The fourth would have seen it before, from him or one like him, and brought away from the experience a dash of healthy cynicism.) "You'd be an absolute knockout in a swimsuit."
Her return smile was open and genuine, but something else lay behind it as she said, "Play your cards right and we might be able to set up something. But you'd have to make it worth my time … and it'd have to be by moonlight."
He nodded satisfaction. "I'll count that as a date," he said, "and I'll start planning the kind of thing you might enjoy."
"I just bet you will," she said.
It was, as he had said, a fairly small town, and the house he was seeking was close to the still-in-renovation motel where she had come to his attention, so they reached their destination within minutes. Despite the lateness of the hour, lights were on in several of the windows. He parked in the drive, and led her to the door, saying, "See? He's glad to help, just like I said. We're all pretty friendly around here."
"Hospitality, right," she said. "The whole 'won't you come into my parlor' thing."
Whatever other capabilities she might have, she would never be an actress. It was obvious that she thought he was leading her into a trap, that the prospect amused her, and that she was looking forward to surprising him in a way he wouldn't enjoy … and equally obvious that she was convinced she wasn't letting her awareness or anticipation show. Combined with her conversation during the drive, this was giving him a not especially flattering estimate of her intelligence. Fortunately, it wasn't her brains that interested him.
The door opened as they reached it; they had been expected. The man standing there could not have appeared less threatening: medium height, slightly built, with thinning hair and wire-framed eyeglasses; he would have been in his early forties, and looked from one of them to the other with doubt and worry. "Andy, what is this?" he said. "The way you were talking, I thought you'd got somebody from the FBI or the CDC. Exactly how is this … this …" He glanced at her. "I'm sorry, miss, but it's a fact: how can a girl like this be any help in our situation here?"
Perplexity drew her eyebrows together. "FBI? CBS? Okay, I didn't think this was a tire shop, but … what the heck are you guys talking about?"
"Trust me, Doc," the younger man said confidently. "She's exactly what we need. Is Katie up? She's gonna want to hear this."
"She's up," Doc replied. "And I couldn't keep her out of this business if I tried. Which I would, if I thought she'd listen." He looked back to the young woman standing on his porch. "I don't see any point in asking the two of you in, though, until you can tell me what's supposed to be so special about her."
Andy's grin widened. "Special? You have no idea." He put an arm around the shoulders of his bewildered guest. "Doc — she's a Killer."
She pulled away, looking at them with a distinct absence of pleasure. "What?" she said.
"The Vampire Killer," Andy prompted. "The Chosen One."
"Oh, the Slayer." Her forehead smoothed, then furrowed again. "What makes you think I'm a Slayer?"
"That's a good question," Doc said. "Well, Andy? What would a Slayer — assuming they actually exist — be doing here?"
"She knew what I was talking about," Andy pointed out. "She even corrected me on it. And Doc — she's from Sunnydale."
"Sunnydale." The older man considered it. "So she'll have heard the same stories Katie picked up from that lurid Web site. That's no guarantee they're true, or that this young lady is their object."
The young lady in question was showing signs of annoyance. "You guys are talking about me like I'm not here," she said.
Andy was undeterred. "Okay, so you need convincing. Fine. I was watching from the window of the front office; you know what I mean, the way things have been going I couldn't sleep, so I was just there, with the lights out, thinking or trying not to think, I don't know. Anyhow, she pulled into the motel parking lot with a flat tire, she looked around to see if anybody was nearby, and then she went to change the tire —"
"We're into the twenty-first century," Doc observed. "There actually are women who can do that kind of thing. Katie knows more about auto maintenance than I do."
"Really?" Andy's grin was triumphant. "And does Katie lift the back end of a car up onto the jack, and then twist the lug nuts off the hub with her fingers?"
Doc's eyes fixed on the blonde female visitor. Her expression blended embarrassment and annoyance. "Oops," she said.
"That's true?" Doc asked. "You did that?"
She sighed. "Yeah, I did. I didn't know Mister Sneaky-Pants was scoping me out."
Doc thought for another several seconds, his gaze doubtful. Then he shrugged, and said, "From a comment you made — and knowing Andy — I gather he persuaded you to come here without telling you the real reason. I apologize for that … but, if you're what he believes you are, there's something going on in this town that might very well interest you. You're under no obligation, but I'd appreciate it if you could hear us out." He stepped back away from the door, motioning her toward the interior of the house. "It's entirely your choice."
She studied him, frowning slightly. "You're inviting me inside?"
He nodded. "I am."
She started to move forward, paused. "You're sure," she said.
"Absolutely," he told her. "Please, come in, if you're willing to trust us this far. If not, no one would blame you."
She smiled quickly, brightly. "Okay, if you're sure."
As she passed by him, Doc looked to Andy and said, "You should have told her the truth. I don't like her being deceived this way."
"I had to get her here so you could explain it," Andy answered, showing no trace of apology. "Women like me, but they trust you."
"Yes," Doc said. "I wonder why that is."
As they reached the living room, a fourth person appeared, catapulting herself down the staircase like a self-propelled cannonball. The newcomer was a teen-aged girl in jeans and an armless sweatshirt: barefoot, pixie-faced, with dirty-blonde hair in a page-boy cut. "Is it her?" she demanded breathlessly. "Is it Judith?"
"No, Katie," Doc said. "I'm sorry, we still haven't had any word about Judith. What we have here … well, it's too early to make any promises, but maybe —"
"I found a Slayer," Andy said expansively. "Give it up for the Big A, I brought us back a Slayer."
Katie's eyes focused for the first time on the visitor. "Her?" she asked.
"Me," the other girl said.
Katie looked her over in wondering assessment. "This is so cool," she said. "There's this whole site just about Sunnydale and all the off-the-wall stuff that goes on there, I've been going through it trying to get some ideas about what we've been … and about half the stories talk about you, you're sort of this Net-celebrity for the weird-but-true set … I mean, there was supposed to be another Slayer for awhile, only they say she's in prison now — like any prison could hold a Slayer! — and now here you are." She was beaming in awe and delight. "The Slayer, in my living room. Buffy Summers, herself!"
"Buffy?" Andy said.
Buffy?, Doc mouthed.
"Buffy, right," she said. "That's Buffy, I'm me." Blink. "I mean, that's me, I'm Buffy."
She was not, of course, Buffy Summers.
~ – ~ – ~
"I suppose I should explain our situation," Doc said. "And identify ourselves to you. I'm Douglas Ballard; I'm a general practitioner, the only one in the community, though we have four veterinarians. Katie is my daughter. Andy Sexton you've met; his wife, Judith, is my office manager.
"Cromwell — this town — has a population of less than five thousand, but it's also the hub for a rural population about five times that size. The thing is, because of some irregularities in the districting of this region, Cromwell has been grandfathered into a kind of special status; we're unaffiliated with any of the county governments, at least for now, and … well, things being the way they are, I've wound up as the official coroner for this little independent enclave. That really doesn't mean anything as far as what's going on right now, but it will give you some idea of how things stand. We're … isolated, officially; even though geographically we deal all the time with surrounding communities, there's an entire middle layer of government bureaucracy that doesn't touch us at all."
The young woman who had answered to 'Buffy' shook away a slightly glazed expression and said, "Isn't less government, like, a good thing?"
Andy laughed, and Katie grinned. "Most people feel that way," Doc said. "But it also means that, if something happens that's … unusual, but indefinite … then there's no one I can consult who's close to the matter, who understands the people and the conditions, and can make a decision or take action based on knowledge of the full situation."
Buffy's eyes were starting to go blank again. "Uh, you're talking a lot, but I don't have any idea what you're saying here. There's some kind of problem?"
"Yes, I've been giving you background so you can understand that." Doc pursed his lips, studying the purported Slayer with obvious reservation. "As I said, I'm the town's only doctor. Most of my work here is fairly routine: vaccinations, annual check-ups, minor injuries. I'm not a specialist, so people with severe problems tend to go to larger cities for treatment — I refer some of them myself, I know my limitations — and that works out well for everyone. The thing is, for the last several weeks … well, things go in cycles, you'll get a long, slow period and then a rush of cases … but, still, I've been referring quite a few cases lately. Things outside my normal practice, that I couldn't responsibly attempt to handle myself, but I see the initial symptomology, and over time I started to become concerned."
"You're seeing weird stuff," Buffy said. "I got that. What kind of stuff?"
"That's part of the problem," Doc said. "There's no pattern. That is to say, there's such a pronounced atypical absence of pattern that it begins to form a pattern itself."
"Uh … what?" Buffy said.
"In just the last few months," Doc went on, "I've seen people showing symptoms that might indicate malaria, mad cow disease, osteomyelitis, dengue fever, Tay-Sachs disease, liver fluke infestation, Guillaume-Barré syndrome, intestinal worms, bacterial meningitis, Kaposi's sarcoma — that's a classic AIDS marker — trichinosis, tularemia, pseudomonas, lupus erythematosis … over a dozen people with different symptoms, no discernible overlap or common factor, no toxin or biological pathogen I've been able to identify … People have been getting sick with everything, from no cause I can find, some of them with conditions it should be difficult or impossible to acquire in this area."
He shook his head. "I've done tissue cultures and found nothing. I don't mean I couldn't identify what I found, I mean there wasn't anything there, and I suspect the specialists elsewhere have been stumped as well. Meningitis, for instance: if that was confirmed, there would be epidemiological investigators here from the state, trying to find the source and make sure it wasn't spreading — and I can't imagine them shrugging off a mad-cow case, either — but there's been nothing. There are symptoms without any detectible causative agent. It's … incomprehensible."
Buffy blinked several times. "People are getting sick," she said at last. "What am I supposed to do about it?"
"You've never seen anything like this, as a Slayer?" Andy asked.
She shook her head. "Look, people, I don't think you understand how the whole Slayer deal works. Back in Sunnydale, there's a creepy old … I mean, there was this guy, a Watcher. He read up on stuff, and studied prophecies, and told me what was what. Me, I killed things. That's what I do. Slayer, get it? I don't figure things out, people do that for me. Then, once they point me at a problem, I go kill it."
"That's just it," Doc insisted. "We don't know what the problem is."
"Which, I can see, it's a total bummer for you." Buffy smiled cheerily. "But, without a target? not my job."
"There's more," Katie said suddenly.
"Like what?" Buffy said.
"There have been animals killed on some of the farms in the area," Katie explained. "Mostly sheep, but some cows, too, and one man near the county line had a horse disappear out of its stable. Just last night, nothing left in the stall but some blood. People have been seeing things out in the countryside, and sometimes inside the city limits, nobody's got a good look but they're saying everything from wild dogs to escaped hyenas. Three different times, somebody's painted funny symbols on the sidewalk at the town square — I got photos of one set — and some of them look kind of like glyphs listed in 'Demons, Demons, Demons'. And …" She stopped, looked to Andy and her father.
"Yes," Doc said. "That's what moved us from worry to a belief that something had to be done. Judith — Andy's wife — was the first to notice that we were getting several very odd cases that couldn't be explained. I would have seen it myself within a very short time, but she's quite perceptive. She's the one who helped me organize my inquiries, she's the one who suggested that there might be some connections to the other odd events —"
"She's just awesome," Katie said. "She's the coolest grown-up person I know."
"And she's missing," Andy added. "Nobody's seen her for more than a day."
Buffy brightened visibly. "Kidnapping? Now, that's juicy. What do the cops say?"
"They say there's no case," Doc said flatly. "I know the chief of police, and he's doing what he can off the record, but officially he has no cause to act. Her car is gone. There was a note saying she needed to spend some time by herself, and nobody should worry."
"Oh," Buffy said. "Forget that, then."
"Except she wouldn't do that," Katie protested. "She's just not like that. I can see why people might believe it, it's no secret her and Andy are having problems …" She faltered, looking around guiltily, then forged on. "Well, you are! But she's really responsible, and she wouldn't just leave without saying something to us." She paused. "Also, the note was printed out from a word processor. Even her name at the end, no handwriting at all. How lame is that?"
"Huh," Buffy said. "Okay, you might have something. Weird diseases, dead animals, hex marks, missing lady … I guess I could hang around for awhile, check things out." She glanced at the trio surrounding her. "So what's it worth to you?"
"Huh?" Katie said.
"You want to be paid?" Doc asked. "Is that what you're saying?"
"And why not?" Buffy demanded. "You don't give shots and slap on band-aids just for kicks, do you? You do a job, you charge a fee. Well, same here. You want me to help you, fine, that's what us Slayers do. But I'm nobody's free ride."
Doc and Andy traded looks. "I'm sure we could arrange something," Doc said. "We're neither of us rich, but —"
"Let's start with my car," Buffy said. "Sexy-Boy got me here by saying I could get my tires fixed. I'll want that by tomorrow. Meanwhile I'll need a place to stay." She turned to Andy. "You said you had two units done up already? Good. How are the drapes on them?"
"There are Levolor blinds, plus sliding curtains —" he began.
"Never mind," she interrupted. "You'll tape foil over all the windows as soon as we get back." She saw the confused expressions around her, and smiled. "Slayers hunt vampires, so we get our power from the night. Sunlight makes us weak, like … like mono. I'll stay indoors all day, and go hunting after dark. In fact, I'll make a sweep tonight while you're getting everything comfy for me, and then settle in till sunset tomorrow. Get that all set up, and then we can talk about money."
"Um, okay," Andy said. "You, uh, you want me to provide groceries for you?"
She smiled, an odd glint in her eyes. "Nuh-uh. Slayers have a special diet, I'll take care of that myself. These rooms of yours, do they have unicorn decorations? Like, you know, embroidered on the pillowcases or such?"
Andy was beginning to feel — and look — somewhat dazed. "N-no, no unicorns," he said.
"Get some," she told him, blithely imperious. "I like unicorns."