Disclaimer: the author does not claim ownership to the characters or plot development mentioned from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Angel". These properties expressly belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Greenwolf Corporation, 20th Century Fox Television, WB Network, etc. Any other characters contained in the original story are the author's.
Historical Note: The action in this story takes place after To Shanshu in L.A.
Author's note: Installment number six of my series "This Week at Angel's Investigations". Kinda spoiley for number five, "Heartstrung". Forewarning: the ending may cause freaking. e.c. 12 aug 00
by Evan Como
7 AUG, MONDAY
DON'T KNOW WHY I THINK OF VERY EARLY MORNING CALLS FROM CORDELIA AS FOREBODING. NOT THAT THIS WAS EARLY. ALREADY UP. 06:00. TENDING TO THE HERB GARDEN. THE MASTERWORT FINALLY TOOK, BTW, AFTER LOOKING SO IFFY FOR A WHILE. HOPE THE NEIGHBORHOOD SQUIRRELS DON'T TAKE A LIKING TO IT.
DRESSED RIGHT AWAY. MADE IT TO HER PLACE BY ALMOST 7. SHE ANSWERED THE DOOR BY STEPPING OUT INTO THE CORRIDOR AND HUSTLING ME DOWNSTAIRS. VERY STRANGE.
"Why can't I even go in to say good morning to Angel?" Wesley's tone went from annoyed to anxious in less than a heartbeat. "Or he didn't make it back this morning?"
"Guy, Wesley. Just chill, OK?" After unlocking the passenger-side door, Cordy pushed the Plymouth's keys into Wesley's chest. "He's back and... He's fine!" she finished after Wesley unlocked his own door and slipped into the seat.
DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF THE SITUATION, REALLY. ON ONE HAND, I KNOW THEY'VE BOTH BEEN ATTEMPTING TO GIVE ONE ANOTHER SPACE. ON THE OTHER, I'VE BEEN LIVING WITH CORDELIA'S SECRET FOR A LITTLE OVER A WEEK NOW, TOO. DENNIS ISN'T THE ONLY GHOST IN THAT APARTMENT.
THE EASTBOUND TRAFFIC WASN'T THE USUAL LA COMMUTER NIGHTMARE. WE MADE IT PAST DOWNTOWN IN LESS THAN AN HOUR ON OUR WAY VERY EAST. STILL HAD ANOTHER HOUR TO DRIVE. TO CHINO. NOT THE PANTS; THE COW-TOWN.
Wesley wiped the perspiration from the back of his neck with his palm. He lamented having dressed too quickly, forgoing his usual handkerchief that would have come in handy with the Southerly traveling sun beaming down directly on his neck.
"Only one the first time, then?"
The woman, Alene Gotthard, nodded solemnly while waving her hand at the air. After three or so waves, she'd smack her forearm or her neck, or brush each side of her nose. Then go back to waving as briskly as before.
They both stared at the four dead animals.
"The first two times. Just one cow each time," Alene waved. Alene smacked, "we figure, it's a dairy, we're gonna lose some stock. It's part of the profit margin--you lose some inventory every once in a while. But four? Unacceptable. We should've listened to Pick-Up Bob after the first one. Four. Unbelievable!"
SHE TSK'D. SHE WAVED. SHE SMACKED. FOR ALL HER EFFORT NOT A SINGLE FLY WAS FELLED.
"And Pick-Up Bob is?"
"P-U Bob? Oh, he's the carcass guy." Dwight Gotthard clasped his hands together inside his overall bib and let his elbows swing. "See, what we do is we lose a cow, we drop it by the side of the road out there and the haulers come get it."
Wesley shot her a stern look, realizing he couldn't be mad at someone who looked the way she did--all freckles and suntan standing in the middle of a grassy green cow pasture, the black-eyed susans--slightly out of perspective--haloing her shining brown hair. His stern look began to waver and he had to avert his attention to avoid gracing her with two dimples connected by a curvy line.
Alene affectionately pinched the bill of her husband's cap. "Don't call him 'P-U', Dwight. It just isn't kind."
WHAT WASN'T KIND WAS THE MANNER WITH WHICH THESE ANIMALS HAD BEEN MURDERED. ALL TYPES OF HOLES, FOR LACK OF A MORE SCIENTIFIC TERM--WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT TYPE OF UNTENSIL HAD BEEN USED TO MAKE THEM. VARIOUS SIZES. CAKED BLOOD ALREADY TEEMING WITH MAGGOTS. LIFE, NO MATTER HOW VILE, SIPHONING FROM UNLIFE. STILL BETTER THAN THE OTHER WAY ROUND.
Cordelia returned with an armful of flowers.
"Yeah, so just go up here three roads, just past that industrial park they're building, and then you'll turn right," Dwight motioned with the precision of a traffic cop, "and you'll go up that road for, say--"
Alene nodded and signaled straight, "the Herold Dairy. He lives on their property. They have a trailer fer him in the back. Just ask. They're nice people. The Herolds. Tammy and the boys."
"D'ja see the way they finished each other's sentences?" Cordelia asked, miming the direction 'right' for Wesley shortly after passing the industrial park. "That's so cool. I want my husband to finish my sentences. He should know exactly how I think."
PASSED ON THE OPPORTUNITY TO COMMENT. TOO DISTRACTED BY THE INCONGRUITY OF HAY GRAZING DAIRY CATTLE THAT--IF THEY BOTHERED LIFTING THEIR GRUBBING HEADS--WOULD EVENTUALLY BE STARING DIRECTLY INTO OFFICES ACROSS THE STREET. WOULD HAVE BACKFIRED, ANYWAY, MORE THAN LIKELY AND RUINED OUR OUTING. CORDELIA CAN BE GOOD COMPANY.
THIS SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA REGION. ON ONE HAND, IT IS EVER IN FLUX. SOMETHING NEW BUILT DAILY. ON THE OTHER, BARELY 50 KILLOMETRES FROM THE CENTER OF DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES LIES THE HEARTLAND. PASTURE. WILDFLOWERS. CORN, SILKY TIPS FINGERING TOWARDS HEAVEN. INDUSTRY. AND, BRAND NEW HOMES. ALL SIDE BY SIDE.
"These developers are patient enough, waiting to get their hands on our property," Tammy explained while walking Wesley and Cordelia around the side of the milking facility. "So, most of us have signed our deals--sell options and such. I'm looking to be out of here in about five years. Erich will be going to Davis, and my other two... Sand's already got his first year done at Mount SAC. He's my computer boy. And Alex wants to see the east coast."
"A way of life disappears," Wesley commented, deeply melancholy.
"Eh!" Tammy pointed at the tidy trailer. "It's not the way of life that's disappeared, Mr. Wyndham-Price. It's the quality of life. No one said dairying was going to be easy. I was a dairy baby, so I'm not going to complain."
She pointed at the dark wall billowing against the Northern foothills, inland from the West. "That smog bank. That's not bad, to tell you the truth. As hot as it's going to be today? Progress, just progress. "
EVEN THROUGH THE DARK LENSES OF HER SUNGLASSES IT WAS POSSIBLE TO TELL HER EYES HAD MOISTENED. SHE SAID NOTHING ELSE. JUST LEFT US ON THE PATHWAY TO BOB. CORDELIA COULDN'T RESIST RUNNING UP ON THE CHICKENS TO SCATTER THEM.
The door opened a mere centimeter, just wide enough for a singular brown eye to squint out. "I ain't 'specting no one."
Cordelia, preferring to greet a friendly border collie, deferred response to Wesley.
"There were four cattle slayings at the Gotthard dairy early this morning and--"
The door swung wide open and Bob--all five feet four inches of him--leaned forward enthusiastically. Cordy, who had stooped to make eye contact with the canine, nearly toppled over.
"Whoa, GnomeMad! I think you need--"
"But you're in the sun! I don't understand if you're in the sun how you can be here. It's not right." Bob scruffed the bridge of his nose. "Is it?"
AFTER ALL WAS EXPLAINED, WE WERE PROMPTLY INVITED INSIDE. THE DOG CAME, TOO. THINK THAT MADE CORDELIA FEEL A GREAT DEAL SAFER. MY EGO, OF COURSE, WAS SHOT STRAIGHT TO HELL.
"Y'all look hungry. You both hungry?"
"Well..." Cordelia looked to protect the dog.
"Vegetarian. Can't do what I do and not decide to just give up eating what walks. Got some cornbread. Red beans. You eat beans?"
NEVER WOULD HAVE BELIEVED IT IF I HADN'T SEEN IT WITH MY OWN EYES. CORDELIA HAD TWO HELPINGS. MANAGED TO GET HER TO SHARE THAT LAST PIECE OF CORNBREAD. OUTSTANDING, SIMPLE FARE. HIS COFFEE WAS DELICIOUS, TOO! STRONG. WITH PURE CREAM. THOUGHT TO PACK A CUP FOR ANGEL. SUDDENLY MISSED HIM, WONDERING WHAT HE WAS DOING WITH CORDELIA AND I GONE FOR SO LONG.
"Four at the Gotthard dairy last night. Three at the Van Ott dairy the previous night. One at this dairy, another one at another..."
"Are you sure it has nothing to do with these land developers? Because it reeks of extortion to me," Angel commented while toweling his head.
"Nope. Everyone seems cool, Angel. The dairy people are, like, so done with the cow pokey and the developers are, like, piece-by-property-piece is cool with them. Something about contained growth? Was that it, Wesley?"
CLOSE ENOUGH TO WHERE ANGEL BELIEVED HER. THE CASE WAS OFFICIALLY ON THE ROLL.
THE SECOND ANGEL SAT DENNIS HAD A CUP OF COFFE IN FRONT OF HIM. WAVED THE POT IN FRONT OF ME. OFFERING TO REMAIN FRIENDS. I LIKED THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF OUR OLD RELATIONSHIP BETTER.
"Here," Cordy tapped the styling product against Angel's shoulder blade before setting it on the table next to his cup. "Before it gets too dry and then you'll walk around looking like ScourgeBoy. Whattaya think of my flowers?"
Angel stopped staring at them and directed his attention to his cup. "How can you joke about that?"
THE DISCOMFORT LEVEL IN THE APARTMENT MADE IT SEEM THAT MUCH HOTTER. HE NEVER SAID WHETHER HE LIKED THE FLOWERS OR NOT. DIDN'T SAY ANOTHER WORD, EVEN AFTER BEING INTRODUCED TO BOB.
"They don't talk?" Bob whispered near Wesley's ear.
"Not only do we speak, Bob. We have really *great* hearing."
Bob swallowed. Angel wasn't the only one who heard. "I-- I'm so sorry. I-- I--"
"So you're saying you think there's a pattern to these slayings?"
Bob nodded affirmatively.
Angel stared at the almost-foot shorter man. "Where's next?"
THE BEACON DAIRY WAS JUST A FARM OVER, SO WE WALKED. THE NIGHT AIR, ALTHOUGH SCENTED WITH ANIMAL AGRICULTURE, WAS PLEASANT TO BE OUT IN. THE WALK FELT WONDERFUL. IT WAS A SLIVER OF A MOON BUT THE PATH SEEMED ALMOST DAY-LIT FOR SOME ODD REASON. IMAGINED I WAS CHANNELING ANGEL'S VISION.
HE'S STILL FAVORING HIS LEG. AND THAT WORRIES ME. WON'T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT IT. WON'T LET ME EXAMINE IT. READ ON ON THE SUBJECT AFTER THE FACT--THERE WERE CERTAIN THINGS I SHOULD HAVE DONE. CERTAIN PROCEDURES I'M SURE ANGEL KNEW ABOUT. WHY HE WOULDN'T HAVE SUGGESTED THEM, I DON'T KNOW. THE WALK, HE WAS STOIC. SILENT AND JUST STARING-STRAIGHT-AHEAD.
AND THEN HE FROZE. ALMOST AT THE EXACT SAME MOMENT BOB DID.
"Get Wesley out of here."
ANGEL BOLTED FORWARD. TOOK ONE, MAYBE FIVE LONG STRIDES AND HURDLED THE FENCING INTO THE PASTURE. DISAPPEARED. BOB TUGGED SO HARD AT MY SLEEVE, IT TORE. I WASN'T GOING ANYWHERE. I THINK, IN A WAY, BOB WAS CURIOUS, HIMSELF.
"In Boise. When I was up in Boise doing the same thing, I saw this, too. The same stuff. Eau Claire. Lincoln. Migrant that I am, no matter where I've been, I've seen this."
"Cult?" Wesley whispered, trying to hear anything. A helicopter buzzed by.
"No. Something ungodly. I know that for sure."
IT WAS NO LESS THAN VERY WARM OUT. HUMIDITY? SLIGHTLY HIGHER THAN NORMAL FOR THE NEAR-TO-THE-DESERT REGION, BUT NOTHING EXTRAORDINARY. SUDDENLY--AS SUDDENLY AS BOB AND ANGEL HAD HALTED--THERE WAS FOG UP TO MY WAIST. BOB WAS ONLY HEAD AND SHOULDERS ABOVE THE SOUP.
SOMETHING VERY NON-HUMAN SHRIEKED. TRULY A 'BLANKET OF FOG'. I WAS SWEATING PROFUSELY. REACHED OUT TO GRAB BOB'S SHOULDER, JUST TO MAKE SURE HE DIDN'T GET AWAY FROM ME.
"I've got to find Angel."
"You can't go out there. Not in this stuff. Just stay put. It'll go in a bit."
"You don't understand. I've got to find Angel."
GET SO APPREHNSIVE NOW. EVERY TIME I EVEN SUSPECT ANGEL'S LIFE MAY BE IN JEOPARDY. BOB HELD MY HAND. JUST REACHED AND TOOK MY HAND AND GAVE IT A HEARTY SQUEEZE BEFORE HE COMPLETELY DISAPPEARED FROM MY VIEW. MY EYES WERE CLOSED BY CHIN-LEVEL.
I HATE THAT DAMN SMIRK. BOB AND I STANDING ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD STILL HOLDING HANDS. NO REASON. NO FOG. JUST ANGEL STANDING THERE WITH THAT SMUG LOOK ON HIS FACE. IN ACTUALITY, IT WAS NICE TO SEE AND I WAS QUITE HAPPY TO AMUSE.
"Hold out your hand." The chain poured into Wesley's palm from Angel's bloodied fist. "The charm at the end. Can you tell what it is in this light?"
9 AUG, WEDNESDAY
COULDN'T DETERMINE WHAT THE CHARM MEANT. IT'S DIFFICULT, AT BEST, WITH SO FEW REFERENCES AT HAND. A COUPLE OF ANGEL'S BEST ONES--NO HOPE FOR THEM. NOT EVEN A FEW PAGES. HANDWRITTEN VOLUMES, HOPELESSLY WATER-DAMAGED. ILLEGIBLE. HE'S NOT ATTACHED TO MANY WORLDLY POSSESSION, BUT HE MOURNS THOSE BOOKS.
THE PASTURE. HE NEVER EXPLAINED WHAT HAPPENED. A CHECK-IN WITH BOB CONFIRMED BOVINE SAFETY. YESTERDAY CORDELIA JOKED, 'GOT MILK?' TO ANGEL AND HE HASN'T SPOKEN SINCE. MADE DINNER FOR US AND LEFT. I DRIED WHILE DENNIS WASHED.
10 AUG, THURSDAY
MY USUAL SCROLL DAY. SAT DOWN WITH IT AND TRIED TO DECIPHER YET SOME OTHER SECTION. JUST WHEN I THINK I CAN'T TRANSLATE ANYTHING ELSE, I FIND THE MEANING OF A NEW WORD. OR, IN THIS CASE, THE SYMBOL ON A MYSTERIOUS CHARM COMES INTO POSSESSION THAT MATCHES A SYMBOL ON THE PARCHMENT.
ANGEL AND THIS SCROLL--THEY'RE TIED TOGETHER SO INEXORABLY. THIS NAMELESS 'VAMPIRE WITH A SOUL'... IT HAS TO BE ANGEL. I HAVE TO IGNORE THE SKEPTIC WITHIN THAT CONTINUALLY QUESTIONS, 'WHAT IF THERE'S SOME OTHER VAMPIRE WITH A SOUL?'
11 AUG, FRIDAY
"You *are* going to allow me to examine your leg, Angel. Period." His arms barred across his chest, Wesley made his inflexible opinion known.
The vampire cast an appreciative smile. "I'm not gangrenous, Wesley. Just drop the subject," Angel stated, swinging a shirt on over his wife-beater as he moved towards the door.
Coming to a gradual stop and slowly reeling around, Angel's dark eyes--darker--bore into the ex-Watcher while, with trademarked insolence, he deliberately undid his fly. After raising his hands in mock-surrender, the pants slunk to his ankles.
"Oh, my God. Angel," Wesley barely-breathed.
"I know I'm magnificent, Wesley, but you don't have to pray over me."
MY FIRST REACTION WAS TO BE FURIOUS.
BUT THEN OVERWHELMING ANGUISH TOOK ITS TOLL AND I LOST ALL WILL TO STAND. ON MY KNEES IN CORDELIA'S LIVING ROOM SUCCOMBING TO ONE ALLERGY AFTER ANOTHER. ANGEL SIMPLY REACHED DOWN, PULLED UP AND REZIPPED. THEN LIMPED OUT IN TO THE NIGHT.
MY NEW BEST FRIEND, DENNIS, BROUGHT ME TISSUES. A WET TOWEL.ONE OF CORDELIA'S FLOWERS.
I SUPPOSE THAT, AT TIMES, YOU HAVE TO BE AN EMPTY VESSEL TO UNDERSTAND SOMETHING SO COMPLETELY. LIKE 'SHANSHU'. HAD TO EXPERIENCE IT MYSELF BEFORE I COULD TRANSLATE IT. NOW ANGEL. SHANSHUING THE NIGHT. TOMORROW MORNING, HE'LL SHANSHU THE DAY. AND THEN, AT SOME POINT, HE'LL MUTILATE HIS LEG AGAIN.
EXHAUSTION. NOT THAT I HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT THE CHARM MEANS YET. JUST EXHAUSTED. AND THE ONE MEAGER SENTENCE CORDELIA HAS MERELY TO START? I'D BE MORE THAN HAPPY TO COMPLETE FOR HER.