Hell Hath No Fury
Copyright September 2001
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
The woman behind the desk was a butterscotch blonde with one of those angular, high-cheekboned British faces. The impression was reinforced by her style of dress, a tastefully tailored suit in cream and subdued brown. She looked to be in her mid-forties, and chronically dissatisfied. At the moment, her visitor admitted to himself, she had little reason to be pleased. "You don't have an appointment," she was saying for the second time. "I must insist that you leave."
"Call your boss," he repeated in turn. "I have to see him." He gave the office another, closer inspection. The furniture was wood, polished to a high gloss rather than varnished. The walls were covered in an expensive-looking but rather unattractive textured cloth; the carpet was crisp and resilient. He didn't believe any of it.
"You're not authorised to be here," the woman told him. "You have no business with this organization. If you don't leave at once, I shall call Security."
With a heavy sigh the young man killed her, his roundhouse kick reaching across the desktop to crush her throat. Even as she slammed back against the wall, one of her shoes flipping upward in ironic counterpoint, he let his original spin carry him the rest of the way around, and came down facing the door, hands up and ready. No one was there. He held the stance for several seconds, waiting and listening, then settled back with a simultaneous sense of foolishness and unease. No reason why 'Security' — if they existed — would be constrained to use the door, but it wouldn't have done to ignore it.
The room, he noted, had not faded away when he killed the secretary. Further, it didn't appear that anyone was going to come to him, at least not immediately. He sighed again, and turned back to the desk. A stockinged foot protruded from beneath it; the woman had apparently rebounded from the wall, to slide out of her chair and down under the desk. The visitor chided himself internally for keeping his back to her for so long; he couldn't afford to repeat such carelessness.
The telephone emitted a dial tone when he picked it up, but that still left the matter of which number to try. He punched in "0"; if They could dream up an office, why not a switchboard? He heard ringing over the line, but broke the connection after ten rings without an answer. Next he ventured "411", then "911"; and, after some seconds' consideration, "666". None of the three connected him to another line. Either the telephone was just window dressing (much, he believed, as was the rest of this setup), or whatever infernal 'operator' worked it was out to lunch by now. Or else, he reminded himself, he was being watched, and the watchers would get around to him in Their own sweet time.
This was not getting easier. His eyes settled on a Rolodex, nestled between the telephone and the raised edge of the desktop, and he reached for it with a soft grunt of satisfaction. This, at least, should give him some idea where to start …
Nothing. The index cards were all blank. There were over a hundred, and he turned the Rolodex to flip through them; not one carried a name or number. He pushed the device away, lips pursed and eyebrows knit. A file full of blank cards. Right. This was the first explicit evidence he had found to support his strongest suspicion: that this office was pure phony, stage-set to divert or confuse unwelcome callers — if not for his own sole benefit — that the rules were not just different but wholly unknown.
He picked up the telephone again, though he doubted it was necessary. "I'm here, and you know it," he said into the mouthpiece. "We can talk, or I can see how much trouble I can cause. It's up to you." He hung up without waiting for an answer.
Strong words, and he had meant them, but actually carrying out the threat might pose something of a problem. The power here was enormously beyond anything he could hope to muster; theoretically he occupied a peculiar position that (theoretically) protected him from direct attack, but his own ability to affect his current environs and their unseen controller(s) was severely limited. For well over a year he had driven himself with pitiless determination in preparation for a battle that had then escaped him, followed by months of equally focused search for a means of entering this hidden domain: begging, blustering, bribing, using flattery or force or guile to gather mystical secrets or artifacts which could then be used to acquire yet greater advantage. In the end, however, he had gained only ingress, finding it impossible to take along anything beyond the knowledge in his head and the hard-tempered capacities of his body. Cunningly applied, those might be sufficient, but that brought him back to choosing the manner of application.
He glanced around the office one more time, turning in a slow circle, sorting possibilities. Start breaking furniture, expanding the circle of destruction as he proceeded? A fire would provide better effect for less effort, if he could start one, but it might be that the hands-on touch would communicate greater affront. Or he could take a lotus position on the top of the desk and begin reciting phrases in Attic Greek, biblical Hebrew, ecclesiastical Latin and vituperative Qart'araf and ceremonial Iroquoian and gutter Fyarll, painstakingly chosen and memorized for their offensiveness and projected disruption quotient …
He saw the second door when the surveying circle put his back to the main entrance. He stared for several seconds, his skin crawling despite his most brutal efforts at self-control. The central door faced the secretary's desk, so that visitors could be screened and the unwelcome turned away; the second door was behind the desk and to its right. Had it been there when he came in? He couldn't remember seeing it before. Conversely, he had no precise memory of its not being there. It seemed impossible that he could have inspected the office and searched the desk for clues without noticing another door, but that didn't mean it couldn't have happened …
He shook his head with a faint growl of disgust. He was prepared to face the deadly or the bizarre, but some orderly corner of his mind still rebelled against uncertainty. Well, he wasn't about to let that stop him. He crossed to the door and opened it.
The inner room was consistent with the style he had seen so far, though the décor was both more tasteful and more lavish, and the lighting scheme more subdued. The desk was executive model, and a separate computer station was set into one corner of the room. On the other wall was a wet bar. "All right, then, you're here," said the old man at the bar. "I don't suppose you have a name?"
The one thus addressed stepped inside without answering, every nerve on shrieking alert. He didn't want to take his eyes off the old man, he didn't want to chance missing anything else. He felt the familiar tingle of adrenaline, his weight shifting onto the balls of his feet. This was like the charged seconds before a match began, but a thousand times more intense. He could die in the next minute. He had never been more alive. If his stomach didn't hold still, he was going to throw up.
The old man was just under six feet tall, and a bit too thickset to be categorized as 'medium build'. He wore a white short-sleeved polo shirt, white khaki slacks, and white canvas shoes, but there was nothing effete about him; he simply looked comfortable. His forearms were heavy with muscle, and the skin of his arms and face had the graininess that comes with age. He appeared to be around sixty years old, a very robust sixty. His hair was cropped short, not so much gray as evenly mixed black and white, and he had a short, crisp beard. The lines of the face were severe, but there might have been a hint of sardonic humor in the eyes. The newcomer drew no comfort from this; for all he knew, there was something entertaining in watching an idiot hurry to his doom.
"I asked your name," the old man prompted, impatience barely showing past the total, unruffled confidence. "It's only common courtesy to introduce yourself."
The intruder stopped when he was within five feet. (Optimum striking distance, and you could guarantee the old man knew it as well as he did. Still, you worked with what you had.) "You can call me Cale," he said.
The old man regarded him with a faint lift of one eyebrow. "Not your real name, naturally. Can't blame you for being careful, though you'd have been a lot more careful to just stay the hell home." He inspected thick, square fingernails. "Cale. Is that supposed to carry any special meaning?"
"No." The younger man shook his head. "But I'll answer to it."
"Hmmp. Well, it'll do," the old man said. He did not, Cale noted, offer to identify himself. Not that there was much doubt. "You aren't much for manners, but you made it this far, so I suppose I should offer you a drink."
Good. Good. Getting inside to begin with had been the first encouraging sign; not being killed within seconds of the meeting ratcheted that up by a factor of a hundred or so. All the same, this was no time to get reckless. Cale weighed the offer, and asked,"What do you recommend?"
"I don't know your tastes," the old man said with a shrug. "You invited yourself, y'know. But I have anything you might care to try." He gestured at the bar without looking away from Cale. "Liquor, soft drinks, fruit juice, your pleasure."
The words were out before Cale could stop them. "Pomegranate juice?" he said.
The old man's lips thinned, and his eyes were suddenly cold. "You won't make yourself popular with that kind of smart mouth, boy." He strode across the room to his desk, and sent a swivel chair spinning over to where Cale stood. "Sit down," he commanded. "I want to know how you found this place."
Cale considered it, then sat down slowly. "I think I'd rather not tell you," he said. "I can't see me wanting to come back here, but somebody else might, and I don't see why I should make it harder for them. Unless you'd like to bargain for the information?"
The old man's smile held no amusement, and he leaned back against the desk. "I don't bargain, boy, at least not here I don't, and definitely not with macho punks like you. As for coming back, you might not even leave. You have pissed me off royally: bulldozing in here, killing my secretary …"
"I was tired of being jerked around," Cale interrupted. "You know everything that goes on in this place, you knew I was here looking for you. She was trying to give me the brush-off, and I wanted to make it clear that I wasn't having any. You can always replace her … or bring her back, if she was real."
"I do have a sizeable labor pool," the old man admitted. "But I'm still torqued. Taekwon-do?"
"What?" Cale asked.
"The kick," the old man said. "Hard to tell from only one technique, and so many people mix styles these days, but it looked like taekwon-do to me."
Cale thought before answering. "A little bit of a mix," he conceded. "Some taekwon-do, but mostly hapkido." He wasn't ready to chance an outright lie, but at the same time he saw no point in giving away even the tiniest advantage. He hadn't done taekwon-do since seventh grade; his most recent and intense experience had ranged through muay Thai, American Kenpo, hard-style Shotokan, vale tudo … driving himself through group classes and one-on-one instruction, culling the essential techniques and then drilling himself for hours every day, striking and grappling in steel cages and fight clubs and private no-holds-barred challenges. Never using his own name (he had debts to settle, and that hadn't involved providing any kind of advance warning), so that in more than a year of savage conditioning he had begun to think of himself as Cale …
He pulled himself back to the moment; the old man was speaking. "… more in my nephew's field than mine, but the Asians do make fine warriors, though they get a little too esoteric for my tastes. You really think it'll do you any good?"
Cale shrugged with calculated nonchalance. "I doubt it. But it doesn't matter."
"It matters, boy." The old man moved behind the desk, sat down. "Believe me, it matters."
"No, it doesn't," Cale said, sharp and forceful. "And I'll tell you why. Before I started this trip, I worked out the possibilities in my head. Either you can kill me, or you can't. Personally, I don't think you can; I think the way things are set up, you can only touch the people who come here through normal channels. But if I'm wrong, either you will kill me or you won't. And I'm ready for either one."
The old man nodded. "Clear thinking, as far as it goes," he observed. "But you left out one option. If it comes right down to it, I can just wait for you to go away." A thin smile. "I've had a lot of practice at waiting."
"I'd advise you not to try it," Cale said. "I didn't come here unprepared, and I didn't really expect to find you in a cooperative mood. Push me to it, and I guarantee to make myself impossible to ignore."
The answer was a derisive snort. "Been awhile since anyone had the brass to threaten me. You in that big a hurry to die?"
"No, I'm not," Cale said. "I'll fight you every way I know how, if I have to, even though I don't think there's any chance I could win or even hold my own. But I'm not backing down. I don't leave until I have what I came here for."
The old man sighed and settled back in his chair. "Let me guess," he said with inexpressible weariness. "A woman?"
Cale's smile was a grimace without mirth. "Isn't it always?"
"Damn near," the old man admitted gloomily. "That doesn't stop me from hoping for something different, just to break the monotony." He shot a suspicious glance at Cale. "You aren't going to start singing, are you?"
"Singing?" Cale shook his head. "Would it make any difference?"
"A few have tried it," the old man said. "Should have known better, I never fall for any trick twice. Warriors lose their weapons on the way in, magic-users can't pack enough juice to make much of a dent … there was one guy who gave me a little bit of a challenge, a professional stage magician and escape artist, but that was a generation ago." He tilted back in his chair, looked Cale over again. "You're the first to think he could accomplish anything by sheer rudeness."
"Well?" Cale said. "Am I wrong?"
The old man let out his breath with a whoosh. "I'm having trouble figuring you out, boy. You can't have gotten here without knowing a lot about me, and if you know anything you know that I keep what's mine. Not greediness, it's just how the rules are set minstrel almost found a loophole, but that was a freak case. Only a dozen or so have tried it since then. They came up dry, and you're no different."
Cale was surprised, though he didn't let it show on his face; he would have thought there would have been more to make the attempt. Had he been luckier than he had realized in finding a side-entrance to the old man's domain? If so, he was ready to stretch that luck to its farthest limit. "I guess I really blew it," he said, standing. "So I was wrong. So there's no way to break one of your contracts. So send me back where I came from, and have a big laugh at the dumb bozo who thought he could waltz in here and tell you what to do." He forced his eyes to lock with those of his 'host'. "I'm waiting."
The old man drummed his fingers on the desktop. "You're going to come to a bad end, boy. You're wrong about me not being able to touch you; I can, if I really want to and if I'm ready to take the hassle that comes with breaking procedure. You can't tell me what to do, not here on my home ground, and that's the bottom line."
Cale folded his arms across his chest, said nothing. You didn't fight as many matches as he had without being able to feel an opening in your opponent, and one was there now. So stand pat, let it run …
"On the other hand," the old man said, "you just being here makes a hell of an itch, and I can't scratch it without causing more trouble for myself than you ever could. I could wait you out, if I put my mind to it, but I'm not in the mood. You up for a game?"
At once wary and hopeful, Cale repeated, "A game?" He'd been watching for some such overture; this was where the old man would try to catch him out, and this was where he might gain the leverage he needed. "What kind of game?"
"A series of trials," the old man replied. "Pass them, I'll give you what you want. Fail, and you're mine." His gaze was appraising and amused. "Or you could let it go, leave while you're ahead. 'Course, I wouldn't lay heavy odds on you showing that much good sense."
"Trials," Cale said, again echoing the old man's earlier statement. He made a show of considering, then announced, "I don't think so. I'm not about to put myself in your hands, not without a better idea of what I'd be facing."
"You don't get a playbook, boy," the old man scoffed. "And you don't dictate terms to me. Take it or leave it."
Okay, now it was getting ticklish. He couldn't afford to take it, not as it currently stood, but a flat refusal would stiffen the old man's position. "The more trials there are, the more chances I have to fail," he pointed out. "You could just keep piling them on till I fumbled a play or fell over from exhaustion. Make it one fair challenge and I might take a chance."
The old man's laugh was like a gunshot. "First you threaten, then you try to haggle. You might've been better off singing." Despite the scorn of his words, his eyes were bright with growing eagerness. "No, one challenge you might sail through by blind luck. Five would make a nice, well-rounded test."
"Really?" Cale let his voice show some of the same competitive excitement, enough to keep the other on the hook. "I'd love to find someone sucker enough to buy a pitch like that. Use the first few trials to gauge the guy's weaknesses, and then shape the next set to zero in on them. No, if you want to rule out luck, two trials should be enough."
"Three," the old man said. "Final offer. Don't try to angle for better."
"I don't know," Cale said. "You've got the home field advantage here, I can't afford to give away too much. How about this: you get your challenges, but we go best two out of three."
The line of the old man's jaw had hardened. "I told you not to push for more," he said. "You don't listen too good, do you?"
"I listened to the part about me making an itch you couldn't scratch," Cale shot back. "That's an advantage I'm not about to lose. I might trade it for a good deal, but I won't throw it away for a crappy one."
The old man glowered at him, eyes like lasers, and Cale matched him glare for glare. He'd already put it all on the line here: not just his life, but an eternity of torment if he failed. What else was he supposed to have to lose?
"Three trials," the old man said at last. "Win them all, I give you the woman. Lose one, you still get to leave free and clear. Lose two or more, you come under my authority. And that really is the bottom line."
Could he gain any more points here? Probably not, the old man's words had carried a ring of finality. "Okay, what kind of challenges?" Cale held up one hand to forestall an eruption. "I'm not bargaining now, I just want to know if this is something I can agree to."
The old man's gesture was sharp and irritable; clearly, his patience was on a fast ebb. "Standard stuff: mind, body, spirit. The idea isn't to squash you, although I'll admit I'm starting to lean that way; no, this is to make sure no one wins a dispensation unless he's worthy." His eyes swept Cale in a slow, unimpressed assessment. "You've got nerve and guts, but I've seen my share of heroes, and you don't qualify. I'll give you a fair test because I don't see you passing a fair test. What do you say to that?"
This was it, Cale realized. He'd hit the limits, he wouldn't get a better deal than he had already. Nor was there any question of backing out; that decision had been made before he ever came here, he couldn't walk away now. "Three trials," he said briskly. "Body, mind, and spirit. One and I'm toast, two and I break even, three and I win. I've got your word on this?"
The old man stood and stepped away from the desk. "I will serve you no challenge that a strong, brave, clever man cannot meet," he said, his voice deepening into a knell of power. "And I will afford you such reward as you truly earn. By my name and dominion, this be so." He slanted a look at Cale, and in a normal tone he said, "Satisfied?"
It would have to do. The old man would keep his word or he wouldn't; in either case, it was out of his hands. "Your word is all I asked," he said in reply. "We have a deal."
"Okay, then," the old man said, rubbing his hands together in slow pleasure. "Might as well go straight to it … unless you'd like a chance to get yourself ready, or to reconsider?"
Cale gave it a moment's thought. Was there anything to be gained by playing for time, trying to learn more of what he might be facing? He couldn't see it; he had placed himself in the other's power, and added time was more likely to favor his adversary. "I'm ready now," he said, freighting the words with total conviction. "And I won't be changing my mind."
"Suit yourself," the old man said. "That door there —" (Damn it, there hadn't been any such door when he first came in, he knew he'd checked the room this time!) "— will lead to your first challenge." He sat back in the chair and crossed his feet on the surface of the desk. "Any last words you want to throw out?"
Cale barely heard him; he was already walking toward the door, all his attention narrowing and sharpening to the task ahead. Then the words penetrated. He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, searching for a snappy response.
None came. He shook his head without looking back, and turned the knob.