He said, "I can't. I can't take that risk again. It's far too dangerous for me to get close to anyone. I have to stay in the shadows. That's what I came here to do. It's time I learned that's where I belong."
Standing in his miserable Batcave of an apartment, all the prepared speeches I'd worked so hard upon already scattered uselessly to the air, I stared at him in disbelief.
He looked at me with dark eyes filled with old, old pain, and although his response had well and truly dropped me in it, I really felt for the guy. I mean, nobody should have to suffer that much, with no end - no hope of redemption - in sight. The hand he'd been dealt made my problems look like nothin'.
"Last chance, man," I said, quietly, not quite believing he could just turn and walk away from me. His feet weren't moving yet, but I could see the decision already made in his eyes. "Don't turn your back on what might be your only way to make it right."
But now a weary scorn had crept into his gaze to accompany the sorrow, so I suppose he must've grasped through my reactions that I had something to gain by his acceptance, that it wasn't just for his sake I persisted.
He said, flatly, "I'll make it right my own way."
That was when he turned and walked away from me. But after only a few steps he turned around again hesitantly, some sudden realisation in his expression.
"Doyle... whoever - whatever - you are," he said, an odd edge to his voice.
My resurgence of hope didn't last for long.
"Get out of my apartment."
And that was where I left him. Angel; a vampire with a soul and with over two centuries existence on me. Alternatively through all that unnaturally long life a cruel soulless villain, a cursed street bum living on the blood of rats, and the Slayer's faithful helper - and there's an irony that proves the Powers That Be have a sense of humour after all.
He was the guy who should've got to play Batman. He looked the part, with that big swishing black coat and with his brutal fighting style, all those slick moves like a psychotic dancer. The nasties of LA would have packed their bags and cleared out, I reckon, had Angel been on their case.
Course, though, even Batman didn't work alone. He had his faithful buddies to watch out for him. Well, mostly to get into trouble and have to be endlessly rescued by him, in truth, but...y'know, it makes you stronger to know you're not all alone, to know somebody cares. Angel... he turned his back on the world and cut himself loose from help when it was offered. And it wasn't long before I heard some demon or other had caught him in the sunlight, and that was the end of Angel. But man, it could have been so different.
I'm sorry. I'm jumping ahead of myself here.
Right, here we go back to Angel's apartment just after the guy threw me out. So there I am, standing outside feelin' lost and frustrated and not really knowing what to do next. Thinking that, by now, I really ought to have learned to get used to failure.
As you've probably already guessed, I was meant to be recruiting this Angel guy for something pretty big - the biggest, actually; the Powers That Be themselves wanted him for their caped crusader.
The Powers don't like takin' no for an answer. And I guess they're heavily into contingency planning. I had already half figured out what I was supposed to be doing when they hammered it home to me anyway. In spades.
The all-too-familiar blinding agony spiked down through the centre of my skull, images assaulting my eyes even though my eyelids were forced tight shut by the pain.
When I was in any position to notice the world around me again, I was crumpled shabbily on the pavement, half-supported by the crumbly brick wall of Angel's building at my back. I felt battered from falling and my head was spinning. I put a hand to it to check I hadn't gone all demon-face, and noticed how much my hands shook.
The real bitch of it was, though, that for all it had cost me in agonizing, wrenching pain, the vision had told me precisely nothin' new. Tina. Coffee Spot. 'Cept this time, Angel wasn't involved in it. With or without him, the girl still needed saving. Otherwise...well, the vision hadn't been too forthcoming on the essential details - as ever - but I had the feeling it could mean her death. I shakily pulled from my pocket the tattered scrap of paper Angel had refused to take, and stared at the words which were already branded in six foot neon letters across the inside of my brain.
Yeah, right, I thought. So it was to be Doyle the caped crusader, was it? I scowled up at the sky. No doubt the Powers were having themselves a good chuckle at my expense.
"Messenger does not mean combat ready," I snarled out. Unsurprisingly, the Powers made no response. I was their messenger - had agreed to it somewhat reluctantly, but all the same I had agreed, to atone for the sins of my past. But I had failed to persuade the one they'd chosen as their front-man to work for them in the battle against evil.
So...I guessed that meant I had drawn the short straw after all. At least until I, probably in the very near future, if not sooner, screwed up spectacularly and ended up getting myself well and truly dead.
I stared at the scrap of paper - Tina. Coffee Spot. - and wondered what to do about it.
Well, no, actually. I knew what I was supposed to do about it. What I was going to do about it - I didn't, after all, seem to have much left in the way of choices. I just sprawled there on the pavement like the drunk I'd sometimes been for a quarter hour trying to summon the will to get up and do it.
Until finally, I did.
'I could use a coffee anyway'. That's what I told myself as I headed across town. I'd just go there, and take a look, and see if there really was any Tina at the Coffee Spot. The girl in my vision had been a real looker, and I kind of hoped in spite of myself that she'd be there, a damsel in distress in need of my help. Whatever help I could give.
Then I'd see about pursuing my obligations and investigating the matter further. One step at a time. This wasn't meant to be my gig, after all.
I'd at least try to do what the Powers wanted of me, but they shouldn't kid themselves that they were getting any hero here. The hero material hadn't wanted the job, and I was simply the only one on hand to step in for him.
I couldn't help but think Powers That Be oughta have better judgement when picking their minions.
Tina was, just as I'd seen, a really lovely girl. I watched the name badge pinned to her shirt jump against her chest as she walked around waiting tables. She had pretty blond hair and an innocent, sweet face. And I was glad, sitting sipping coffee while my eyes followed her around the room, that I hadn't ignored the second vision and left her to whatever danger threatened.
I'd have really hated for the next vision I got to be of her dead.
It had happened before.
I suppose I oughta be straight with you. After all, no point tellin' the story if it's not told straight. You see, this wasn't the first time I'd been entrusted with the lives of others, given the chance to save someone, to make a difference in the world.
That last time, nearly four years ago now... it had ended badly. I'd pretty much hit the ground running at the idea of getting involved in other peoples' dangers. And the people I could have helped, they'd all died because I couldn't find the courage to lift a finger.
Now, looking at this Tina gal, I didn't think I could bear to fail again - especially if it meant failing her. But nor could I see how a guy like me could help her.
The first thing I had to do was persuade her to trust me. Not an easy feat, in a city full of seedy characters all too eager to prey on a young woman like her, and me without the advantage of Angel's rather overpoweringly distinctive looks. Although admittedly also without the disadvantage of his 'social skills' - I suppose it must be hard to communicate with people when your range of expression is split between the polar opposites of killin' and bitin' and heroic rescues.
I watched her talking to her boss - she was asking for overtime, so I guess money problems was at least one thing we had in common, but couldn't see it working too well if I opened up on that as a talking point - and waited for her to walk back out through the tables again, which she presently did.
"Hey, can I get another cup, um, Tina?" I asked, trying to snag her attention as she walked past, although actually I could have used something a bit stronger than coffee.
Unfortunately I surprised her - I had noticed she seemed a little jumpy - and, turning around sharply, she knocked an abandoned mug from the table next to mine. I shot a hand out to catch it but missed. It crashed to the floor and shattered.
Tina sighed and knelt down, snagging a cloth to wipe up the coffee, picking up the pieces. "I'm sorry," she said without looking at me. "I'll be with you in a minute." She wearily added something under her breath about her paycheck, but it wasn't directed at me. I was invisible - just another faceless customer among so many.
"Let me pay for that," I said. "I startled you. It was my fault."
She gave me a strange look. It must have been pretty clear to her that I could afford extra expenses just about as readily as she could. "No, no," she mumbled. "It's all right, I'm clumsy."
"You're unhappy." I joined her picking the pieces off the floor, ignoring her attempts to wave me off. "I, um... at least, you looked unhappy. Is something wrong? Something other than broken crockery, I mean?"
"You've been watching me?" she demanded, suddenly distrustful and scared.
I rolled my eyes. "Well, yeah. I got eyes, y'know. But... that aside, you looked like maybe you could use some help." I deposited the shards of mug I'd picked up in the ashtray on my table. Tina cast me an unfathomable look as she stood and took the ashtray away with her behind the counter to dispose of the pieces.
I waited, not giving up hope, although it hadn't gone quite so well as I'd planned. She'd yet to bring me my second coffee. I'd have another shot.
Except she sent another girl with the second coffee, and avoided me studiously for the next hour or so, until I had no choice but to leave or else look blatantly obvious by hanging around there all afternoon.
A sick feeling had started to gather inside me, draining away strength and hope. I couldn't help but fear that the past was repeating itself. I could feel myself failing all over again. And it was worse now, because this time I was actually tryin'.
'Angel,' I thought bitterly. 'Damn him. I bet he wouldn't have this trouble. He'd just have to brood in their direction and they'd fall over themselves to be nice to him. He should be doin' this.'
I paid Tina's boss the cost of the broken mug before I left the cafe, while she was busy hiding from me in the kitchen.
I spent the rest of the evening lurking in the alley around the back of the Coffee Spot with a bottle of piss-poor cheap whisky for company - which helped pass the time some, not to mention soothing my headache - while I waited for Tina's shift to finish. And, hell, the girl works long hours. It was ten by the time she finally snuck out of the door.
It was almost worth the wait, though, 'cause she'd changed into a little strappy black evening dress, a fairly classy number for a girl with her evident financial difficulties.
She stopped short when she saw me there. I quickly hid the half empty whisky bottle behind my back, waiting for an opportunity to drop it surreptitiously - and regretfully - into a pile of garbage. "Now I feel underdressed," I said, trying to lighten the moment. But... she looked scared, and appalled, and to be quite honest that wasn't really a reaction I was used to prompting in people. I look kinda non-threatening - at least as a human. I put a hand to my face in a moment of doubt, but found no spikes.
Tina recovered from her initial shock quickly, only to pull a bottle of mace or some such out of her handbag and aim it at me. I backed away, holding out my empty hands placatingly, laughing nervously. "Tina! Hang on a minute here! There's no need for that!"
She said, "I know who you are and what you're doing here. Stay the hell away from me. And you tell Russell to leave me alone!"
"Russell who?" I asked. "I don't know any Russell. Whatever you think I'm doing here, I swear I'm not!"
"You're lying." But an uneasy note had crept into her voice. She was beginning to realise it was possible she'd made a mistake.
I shook my head. "I'm not lying! I don't work for this Russell guy, whoever he is. Do I look like somebody's paid heavy?"
"Okay," she said hesitantly, "So you're a little shorter than his usual goons. That had occurred to me. But then why were you watching me, if not for him?"
"You... looked unhappy. I had a feeling like you needed help." 'Yeah. Some feeling; my head's still killing me from those two identical visions.' "And from the looks of things, with this Russell, you really do."
Tina sighed and lowered the mace. "I'm sorry. I don't usually threaten guys with bodily harm for trying to pick me up."
"S'all right. You wanna tell me about it, then?"
"That wasn't an invitation," she said, fixing me with a hard look. We held eye contact for a few uneasy seconds. Then she shook her head briskly and shoved past me, walking away. Not another one... I ran after her, the few steps it took to get in front and cut her off.
"Wait! Hey! I'm only here to help you!"
"The only help I need is a ticket home." Her voice was heartbreakingly bleak; she spoke as someone who had lost all hope. "And that wasn't me asking for money," she added quickly.
"And home would be?" I tagged alongside her as she walked.
She sighed with all too clear irritation, then caught herself, sniffed the air and wrinkled up her pretty nose at what she found there. "You stink of alcohol," she accused.
"Yeah, well. Long afternoon, y'know. Where's home, Tina?"
She caved in reluctantly, maybe seeing that I wasn't goin' to go away. "Missoula, Montana. You been there?"
I shook my head. "It's a big country. And I ain't been in it as long as all that." 'And that sure is a long way to go from here.'
She smiled, I thought in fond recollection. She had a beautiful smile, but it carried infinities of sadness within it. "Lots of open land, lots of nothing else. I came here to become a movie star. But they weren't hiring." She said it lightly enough, but there was bitterness underneath - and she was only one of thousands with the same story, here in this city. "Well," she said, changing the subject, "I have a fabulous Hollywood party to go to. Hence the glamour. The girl giving it owes my security deposit. It was nice threatening you, um..."
"Doyle," I said. "The name's Doyle."
She nodded slowly.
"So," I said, self-consciously pushing my luck. "Shall I get us a cab?"
The party was inside some grand type of hotel I'd have been thrown out of in short order on any other day in any other company. And it was certainly swingin' when we got there. I don't think I've ever seen such a vast collection of elaborate suits and gowns - or slimey types wearing 'em.
We'd barely got through the door when we were attacked by some appalling woman with a video camera who welcomed Tina with an enthusiasm I really hoped the poor girl knew was false to the core. I shifted on my feet, aware of the lense inadvertently pointing right at my face and uncomfortable at the thought of being on film. I tried my best to disappear behind Tina, except...
"Who's this?" the woman trilled, with a less than thrilled glance towards me. I felt abruptly self conscious in my comparatively shabby clothes. The piercing look she shot at Tina pretty much said 'So what park bench did you pick this one up from?'
"Doyle." Tina introduced me in a fairly deadpan manner, waving a hand in my vague direction in an indication she was thoroughly indifferent to my presence. I supposed since I'd pretty much invited myself along it was more or less what I deserved. She kept darting doubtful little looks my way as if asking herself why she hadn't set the bouncers onto me already. Maybe because I'd paid for her cab when she hadn't had enough for the fare here (and little did she know that now I didn't have enough for the fare home, so I hoped she could get her cash from this woman). "He followed me home. I'm still trying to decide whether to keep him or take him to be put down."
She forged on without missing a beat, "He's just a friend. Sort of. Margot, I really need to talk to you."
Margot struggled with the video camera, looking for someplace to put it. "Uh, grab yourself a drink. I'll be right there." She disappeared into the crowd.
While we waited for her return, Tina found a source of amusement in the star-shaped nibbles on the buffet table. She picked one up to show me. "Cute, isn't it? Everyone's a star." She was smiling, joking even, but there was that same old sadness lurking behind her eyes.
"Who's Russell?" I tried again, picking up a star and studying it absently.
"Someone I made the mistake of trusting."
I might have got somewhere if Margot hadn't shown up again just then, minus camera, and swept Tina away. I stared after her, feeling suddenly nervous to be alone in the midst of the party. I was out of my depth in this world. I wished I hadn't left the whisky in the alley behind the cafe; couldn't see anything around the party which was nearly as strong as the situation required. A couple of acting agent types shot me snide, disparaging looks.
Then I caught sight of the girl, and I have to admit, guiltily, that for a long moment all thoughts of Tina and whatever danger she was in clear vacated my brain.
This other girl was tall and slim, with a load of dark hair falling down past her shoulders. She had really great face... not to mention a great body... a smile which lit up the room and made my heart skip a beat... gorgeous, smart, penetrating dark eyes...
...And a voice that could strip paint.
She was talkin' to two guys in suits, who seemed rather to be looking for an escape route. "You know," she said, her strident voice full of haughty annoyance, "They asked me to come back and read for a third time! I'm an actress! I don't put up with things like that!"
I was lost the instant I first saw her. It was like when I'd first met Harry... well, actually no, it had taken a few weeks to get to the stage where looking at Harriet made me feel quite like that.
Unfortunately, my reaction was clearly one-sided. Well, it was bound to be, wasn't it? I mean, this girl oozed bank balance. It was in the way she stood, moved, dressed, spoke. And there I was, in a shabby leather jacket which had seen better decades and a wrinkled shirt just a little overdue a laundering.
The two guys she'd been talking to had managed to excuse themselves to get drinks and it was then she looked up and saw me standing there staring. Her expression turned very frosty very quickly.
"What are you looking at, little weasel man?" she snapped, taking a couple steps closer to me confrontationally. "And by the way, that jacket is so... not."
"Hi there," I said, involuntarily laughing a bit from nerves. "I'm Doyle. Good to meet you."
Didn't work. Didn't even come close.
"Huh," she said disgustedly. "Well, great as it would be to chat - or not - I have to get mingly. I really should be talking to people that are somebody." And with that she turned and stalked off into the crowd.
Leaving me feeling somewhat bemused, and not a little cut up and disappointed by her reaction. I'd probably never see her again... but man, what a gal.
With some difficulty, I dragged my thoughts back to Tina, who needed my help and whose response to me, while not great either, had become slightly more amenable. I looked around for her.
She must have finished her business with Margot because now she was talking to a black haired guy who had 'thug' written all over him. It wasn't a conversation she looked too happy to have been caught up in. I was debating whether I should intervene when even as I watched she broke away from him and walked back to me. She was clearly upset - must not have been able to get her money back from her 'friend'. I was surprised to see the relief which entered her expression as she neared me.
And if a mystery guy she'd just met - a guy who'd staked out her workplace and followed her, no less - was the person she trusted most out of everyone at this gathering, then the girl really was in a bad way.
"Doyle," she said. "I need to get out of here. So if you tagged along with me for the party I guess it's goodbye."
"What, this dive? I ain't stayin' here. They don't have a single drop of decent booze." I caught her arm and we headed for the exit. "Who's the creep?"
She just shrugged, silent. Her body language - all curled up and hunched over - was real defensive. She was frightened again.
'That guy,' I thought. 'It was talkin' to him that set this off, made her want to run. That's where the danger lies. So is that the mysterious Russell or just one of the bruisers she - ahem - mistook me for?' I cast a glance back but the guy had vanished in the crowd.
The two of us descended alone in the hotel elevator, in uncomfortable silence until she suddenly laughed shakily.
"I don't even know who you are. Or what you're doing here with me. Or if I can trust you," she said, with an edge of hysteria. "Yet here I am. I don't know what's wrong with me... except things have sunk so low, whatever you are couldn't possibly be worse than what I have left of a life in this city. What do I have to lose?"
"Maybe I'm just your friendly neighbourhood guardian angel," I suggested, trying to make her smile.
It worked, 'cept she found it rather too funny for my liking. Like about as funny as the concept really was. She stopped short. "I didn't mean it like that. It's just..."
"Yeah, right. The guy who was the first choice, he had issues. I'm his stand-in."
There was a jolt as the elevator came to rest. I realised, with another jolt, that we'd come a floor too far and Tina was stepping out into the parking facilities in the basement. And I could have sworn I'd pressed the right button...
I stepped out of the elevator after her - intending to catch her arm and pull her back, sensing something suspicious about all this - and stepped into the midst of total mayhem.
The three guys seemed to come out of nowhere. One of them went straight for Tina, grabbing her roughtly - and there was nothing I could do to stop him 'cause the other two barrelled into me, knocking me back through the doorway of the still-open elevator. The doors slid closed on us as my back slammed against the far wall, an impact which left me without any breath left in my body and not feeling much like fightin'.
But one which was also enough of a shock to call my demon aspect to the fore.
That, they certainly weren't expecting. And it probably saved my life - or at the very least saved me from a severe beating at their hands.
Their stunned surprise stalled them for a long moment which I gratefully used to recover my breath. So by the time they'd overcome their shock I was more than ready for them.
Now, I don't usually choose to wear my demon form under any circumstances - not even in a fight when I really need it. It might seem stupid, petty even, not to use an advantage like that, but it never seemed like fighting fair. Besides, it just isn't me.
I'd rather stay as human as I can, damn it, even if I know that whatever I look like, the demon's always going to be there on the inside.
This time, though, it wasn't just myself at risk. Tina needed my help, and I had to get to her. And these guys were big, far more than I could handle as a human. Maybe more than I could handle as a demon, but at least I had them freaked now, and off-balance.
The guy on my left started to swing his fist in a hesitant punch at my stomach (ie, somewhere he wouldn't end up skewering himself on Brachen-demon spines). I head-butted him and he collapsed instantly, hands reaching up to his punctured face, a gurgle of pain escaping his throat as he fell to the floor of the elevator. I hadn't meant to maim and it gave me a moment's involuntary hesitation when I realised one of the spikes had pierced an eye. Anyway, bad idea. The remaining heavy abruptly had me in a painful arm-lock from behind.
He'd drawn a knife from somewhere and he tried to get it into a position to slash my throat.
There was little room to manoeuvre out of his grip. I'm stronger as a demon, but not up to, say, vampire standards, not quite. And this guy was professional muscles; pretty darn tough. In desperation, I managed to shove back, half-tripping over the thug curled up in agony on the floor. The guy who had hold of me got a taste what he'd been dishing out as he was caught between me and the wall. His grip slackened for a second and I broke clear of him.
He was fast, and he recovered himself quickly - the knife drew a shallow line of blood across my arm before I could get out of the way. He followed through with a lunge aimed at my heart. I dodged clumsily and he staggered, off balance, and tripped over his injured buddy. I clubbed him across the back of his neck on his way to the floor and he didn't get up again. The injured guy howled in pain as he got landed on.
I swayed on my feet, a little amazed to be the one still standing. I submerged my demon self and rubbed my sweaty human forehead with weary relief. The cut on my arm stung more than it had in Brachen form - the demon handles damage better than I normally do.
Tina. They'd taken her.
I thumped the control panel on the wall and the doors swung open slowly. It didn't occcur to me to be on my guard for any more muscles - or even innocent bystanders who'd be pretty shocked at what I'd left in the elevator - until I was already out the door and running. But the place was empty except for the big car just pulling out of the exit.
I hoped that was them. Because if it wasn't, there was no way I was going to find them again.
I ran to the nearest parked car, broke a window and let myself in. Swung into the drivers seat and fished frantically for the right wires. This wasn't something I'd had a lot of experience doing, mind, but a useful skill to have nonetheless, particularly for quick exits. I hadn't been on the other side of the equation before.
I wasn't precisely sure what I was going to do when I caught up with them. Images of James Bond style car chases flitted through my brain and I almost decided not to bother.
But Tina might die...
I started the car and floored it out of the place after the vehicle I'd just seen leave, hoping my hesitation hadn't wrecked my chances of catching them.
They were still in the lane exiting the parking facilities, held up by passing traffic. Maybe Tina had stuggled and delayed them, maybe they hadn't expected to have any reason to hurry - after all, it must have seemed like overkill to send those two big guys after me, and failure couldn't have even crossed their minds. But they were still there and that was what mattered.
From a distance of twenty metres or so, I could see Tina's blond head through the rear window. She was still struggling. Until someone beside her raised a hand and brought it down, hard, and she stopped.
I snapped the safety belt into place, put my foot down hard, and steered my appropriated car wide, scraping the wall of the exit but approaching them now to hit side on, from the side across from where Tina slumped.
I closed my eyes and waited for the impact.
I don't think I've ever been quite so terrified in my life. The crash, when it came - I opened my eyes again, because it seemed to be taking longer than I'd thought, just in time to see the moment of impact itself - wasn't as bad as I'd expected. At least not from my perspective. But their car - which had been a real nice, flash, expensive thing - was forced out into the junction and another vehicle ploughed into it from the front so it ended up a sandwich.
God. Tina. If I'd killed her...
My hands shook and I fumbled unfastening the safety belt on my first attempt. I cursed and made myself calm down and take it slower. Through the rear window, I could see the guy in the back of the car struggling upright and reaching for the door, a gun visible in one hand.
I snapped off the safety belt and fell out the door. Reached the smashed car in a few unsteady steps. The guy trying to open the battered and crumpled door finally succeeded just in time for me to kick it shut on him, trapping his arm. He yelled in pain - and I thought I heard the sound of breaking bone. The gun fell from his fingers and I picked it up. Pointed it shakily at him while I backed around the vehicle to Tina's side.
The other two guys had been in the front of the car, which had been badly crushed, and they looked pretty messed up. I turned my gaze away. I couldn't tell if they were dead... but they sure didn't look well. The other, still painfully trying to extricate the bits of his arm from the car door, no longer appeared to present any threat.
Tina was, thankfully, alive - and scrabbling desperately at the door. I stuffed the gun inside my jacket to join my efforts with hers and we managed to wrench it open. I pulled her out and supported her as she stood on unsteady legs.
"My god -" she began shakily, taking in the carnage with glazed eyes. "God. What are you?"
"Incredibly lucky," I said, truthfully enough. My voice sounded harsh and breathless to my ears. My heart was racing and I felt utterly sickened at the thought of what I'd just done. I could hardly believe it. "Come on, Tina. We gotta go. Or do you want to explain all of this to the police?"
Eyes wide, she shook her head. I pulled her along, picking a direction at random. There weren't any people around, luckily enough, except for the dazed businessman who was beginning to stir in the front seat of the car Russell's people had hit. And I was glad about that at least. But Tina and I, we had to get away from the area as fast as possible, and save working out what to do next until later.
After the first dozen steps, it was Tina who was pulling me along as my strength abruptly gave out and my knees went weak. The bruises ached and the cut on my arm stung furiously. But the gal was stronger than she looked and she kept me going until we were several blocks away and we stopped on a corner to catch our breath.
Tina, breathing heavily, gasped out, with a re-emergence of that bubbly spirit which she'd somehow kept, throughout all her years of despair, and throughout the last fifteen minutes of hell, "Great party, huh?"
And she was more resilient than I was, 'cause I couldn't think of any suitable reply.
By pooling together what small change each of us had left, we managed to get a cab to take us back to my apartment. Tina objected at first, but acquiesced upon the discovery that we didn't have enough to get her back to her place anyway.
Also, my place was safer; there was a good chance Russell would be able to find out Tina's address, even though she said she'd moved once already to avoid him. But someone at the party had betrayed her to Russell's goons, and my money - if I'd had any - was on her 'friend' Margot. Whom Tina had told her new address.
She was still nervous around me, although much of her reticence had disappeared after I'd rescued her from her abductors. The fear which remained I supposed was unavoidable. She didn't know who I was, or why I had come to help her, and I could hardly explain that the Powers That Be had sent me to her by way of a vision. Thing was, I'm fairly sure that if I hadn't been so shaky after the rescue, it would have scared her off. Because the fact I'd reacted like that convinced her I wasn't used to causing that sort of carnage.
So even incompetence had its benefits.
I couldn't help but wonder how Angel would have been doing in my stead. Probably he'd have dealt with this Russell guy already, I thought bitterly.
The cab drew up outside my dreary place. Tired and aching, I paid the driver and helped Tina out. She shook off my hands as soon as she was out of the car, and her fearful eyes met mine for an instant before looking away.
All I felt for her was sympathy. I think she was expecting me to try and take advantage, but too much had happened to us both that evening for my mind to devote any of its remaining energy to petty flirtations. See, sometimes I surprise myself.
Also, for some reason I kept thinking about that caustic brunette from the party.
I led her inside, abruptly aware of the mess I'd left the place in that morning after my vision, when I'd departed, hungover from the previous night and my skull practically splittin' with agony, intending to find this Angel guy and put the business to rest.
"It's not too neat, I'm afraid," I said as I let the door swing open.
I'd also forgotten about the pile of empty bottles on the floor next to the overflowin' bin. She walked inside, and only wrinkled her nose slightly in disgust. I cleared a pile of sports papers off a chair for her to sit down, which she did tentatively.
"You live like this, and you want to help me?" she asked, almost involuntarily, in her shock, and looked as if she regretted it as soon as she'd let the words out. She raised an embarrassed hand to her mouth. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me. You've helped me - amazingly - tonight, though heaven knows I didn't do anything to deserve it. I'm a little out of sorts."
"That's all right," I said. "I know it's not a pretty sight. Although it's not usually quite this bad. I had a rough night - and a rough mornin'." I picked my way across the piles of junk on the floor to the kitchen. "Do you want tea? Coffee?"
"Tea," she said. "Thank you."
I put the kettle on. "Milk? Sugar?"
I retrieved the milk from the fridge and regarded the lumps slopping around in it for a second, thinking I'd been sure it hadn't been there that long... oh, yeah, it really had. I threw it in the bin. "Sorry, milk's old," I called back to Tina.
"That's okay. Just sugar's fine."
While waiting for the kettle to boil I rooted around the cupboards for a bottle that still had something in it. After the previous night, I didn't really expect to find anything, but I did, and took a long drag from the bottle before I rinsed a glass and poured some out for appearances' sake with respect for the company.
"You want any extras in it? I've got scotch."
I entered the room carrying both drinks. She sipped at her tea and watched with a repulsed fascination she tried to hide as I attacked the scotch.
"You drink a lot, don't you?" she said. "It can't be good for you."
"No," I agreed. I set the empty glass down on the table and winced at the twinge from the cut on my arm. I craned my head around to look at it; it had bled a little, but seemed to have stopped now. "I'm going to deal with this. You can switch the television on, if you want. It was working yesterday, so you might be in luck. Make yourself at home, much as you can."
She nodded slowly, but I got the impression she was just going to sit there still and quiet until I got back.
In the bathroom, I stripped off my torn and bloodstained shirt, cleaned out the cut and dressed it awkwardly, one-handed. Emerged again in the stained T-shirt I'd had on underneath, and threw what was left of the shirt into the trash.
"I'm sorry you got hurt," Tina said, sounding guilty and remorseful. "I'm sorry I didn't notice..." Her voice broke up, and she stifled a sob. "Why are you doing this for me, anyway? I don't understand. What have I done to deserve your protection?"
Uncomfortably, I said, "I really can't say why or how... Just that I had to help. I've got a lot of past to make up for. Helping you... seemed a good way to start."
She looked as though she was about to cry. I said, changing the subject, "Does Russell have a last name?"
She started, surprised and scared again at the mention of him, caught herself just before she slopped tea all over the carpet - not that it would have noticed with all the stuff that was already ingrained in it. "Yeah, but you don't need to know it. You've done enough already."
After a hesitation, she added, "He's the kind of guy that can get away with murder. He has the money - and the lawyers. You can't touch him. You don't want to get involved. Maybe if you run, and quickly, you can get out before he tracks down who was responsible for that scene last night."
"I'm as stuck here as you are," I reminded her. "You'd have run if you had the money. I don't even have regular work - not for a long time. Besides, I can't run. I have to see this through." Thanks to the Powers That Be. I sighed. "Who d'you think he murdered?"
The hand she gripped around the tea cup shook and she had to put it down. Her voice shook too. "I don't know. Maybe nobody. He likes - he likes pain. I mean he really does. He talks about it like it was a friend. And you don't leave him, he tells you when he's had enough. I knew this girl, Denise Perkins. She tried to get away. She disappeared off the face of the earth. He finds you."
"He won't find you," I said. "Not if there's anything I can do to stop him."
But even as I said it I had the guilty conviction that there probably wasn't.
Not long after that she fell asleep curled up in the armchair, drained by the stress of the evening. I resisted the call of the remaining half-bottle of scotch and instead dug out my computer from under the rubbish strewn all over the desk. I switched it on and was mildly surprised to find it working. I pulled up a chair and engaged in some serious research.
Tina's friend Denise had had a little more luck in the acting business than Tina herself. I found an article about her, complete with a picture of an attractive girl in revealing clothes with a small tattoo visible on her shoulder.
I found the tattoo again, a little later - when I was looking through the coroner's reports from police files on cases of murdered young women. One of the unidentified's had a tattoo much like the one on Denise's picture.
Tina had been right, I thought, appalled. Russell had murdered someone. Possibly, if he was responsible for any of the other disappearances and corpses my search had brought up, he'd murdered lots of someones.
By the time I'd finished my research the first rays of sunrise were beginning to filter through the curtains. It was almost day.
A choking, moaning sound made me jump, but I shot to my feet and spun around only to find it was Tina, whose sleep on the chair was clearly less than peaceful. She writhed and shuddered as though gripped by the worst of nightmares.
Quickly, I went to her side and shook her shoulders until she woke up. Sleep, if it was sleep like that, wasn't going to do her any good.
She woke up, eyes wide and frightened, and clutched at me. Her fingers gripped like a vice. I'd have bruises. "I thought he was here!" she said.
"Nah. Just me, Tina. Nobody else has been here. It was only a nightmare." I hesitated, watching while her breathing slowed again, her grip relaxed, and she visibly calmed down. "Your friend, Denise," I said. "She had a tattoo. What was it of?"
"A rose. She had a rose on her shoulder... What did you find?"
She read the bleakness in my expression and her eyes slid past me to the computer screen. "Are those the police files?" she asked, her voice a choked whisper. "You broke into the police files?!"
I sidestepped the issue. "I think she was murdered, Tina. And there might have been others. Girls with no family, or at least no family anywhere near here, and there are no shortage of those in L.A. Tina, if he consciously chooses girls he thinks have nobody to miss them... he deliberately chooses girls he can kill."
She pulled away from me, stood up shakily. Something caught her eye and she took a few steps, staring down at the floor.
"Are you okay?"
She didn't answer. She was still staring at the floor. At the note...
The note I'd written for Angel.
Which must have fallen out of my shirt; which was lyin' face-up on the floor. 'Tina. Coffee Spot'.
"Why do you have that?" she demanded, her voice high and full of panic. "You knew who I was, yesterday evening? You came into the cafe after me..."
"Yeah. I did. But, Tina, calm down - it's not what you think. Someone gave me your name. Someone who knew you needed help and thought I could give it. I really did go there to help you. This isn't a set-up!"
But she was throwing her things into her handbag. And I could tell she felt betrayed again now and wasn't going to let herself listen. "This is some complicated game that Russell's playing with my head, isn't it?" she accused angrily. "How much is he paying you?"
"I'm not working for Russell, damn it! Listen, I might have killed two of those guys who were sent after us tonight, I don't know. You think that would have happened if I was paid to do this?"
"I think that part was an accident. And that's why you were so shook up afterwards, because that wasn't supposed to happen. And you're going to have to answer to Russell for it." She ran to the door, struggled with the lock and forced it open. I tried to stop her, following and grabbing her arm, but she ducked away from my grasp.
One of her stilletto heeled shoes turned over underneath her foot, and she crashed down to the floor of the hallway, shaking up dust.
"Tina! I'm sorry - " I moved to help her up and got a lungful of dust.
She screamed. The sound echoed around the apartments, long and piercing and cuttin' to the heart. "Oh my god! What are you? God!"
Before I knew what was happening she'd shoved me aside and she was down the steps. I staggered after her but another sneeze caught me and again I felt the reflex action cut through my control and bring the demon-face to the fore. I shook it off angrily. Holding my breath I reached the bottom of the steps and ran out into the street.
Where Tina was nowhere to be seen.
She wouldn't want to see me - and to be quite honest, after her discovery of what I was, and her reaction to it, I didn't especially want to face her again either - but I went after her anyway.
Not that I knew what I'd say to her when I found her. I mean, 'Hey, sorry, I'm half-demon, guess I forgot to mention that' doesn't cut it so well with the ladies. And besides, what could Russell possibly be that was worse than what was inside me anyway?
...I wish I'd never thought that.
It took me longer than I'd have liked to find where she lived. She hadn't told me the precise address before, only given me an idea of the general area. I had to return to the Coffee Spot and pry the information out of her reluctant boss once the cafe opened for business.
He was angry because she hadn't shown up for work. He made me promise to pass on the message she was fired - at length - before he would disclose her address to me.
Another delay I didn't like. My nerves were afire with a horrible unease and anticipation of what I'd find. Not wantin' to, I walked up the staircase of an apartment building not quite so dingy and run down as my own but nonetheless a close runner-up to it.
The stairs creaked under my feet. Certainly loud enough to alert anyone on edge and keeping a lookout for intruders. But she didn't venture out. In fact, there was no sound at all from the upstairs apartment where she lived.
I had a really bad feeling about this.
'Maybe she never came back here,' I thought, hopefully. 'Maybe all of this was just the final straw and she's hitched a lift outta here, takin' all the risks which that entails because it's better than what she faced when she saw me change and ran away from me this morning. And better than Russell too.'
Maybe her boss from the cafe had told me the wrong address; maybe she'd told him the wrong address. She had told me she'd been trying to hide from Russell for some weeks. Perhaps this was her old apartment, now empty.
But I didn't really believe any of that. She'd told Margot where she lived.
At the top of the stairs, I found her door ajar. I pushed it fully open, and stepped inside.
No answer. The gun I'd taken from Russell's man was still inside my jacket. I curled my fingers around it, and wondered if I'd be able to use it if I had to. Hoped it was loaded.
"Tina, it's me, Doyle. I really, really don't mean you any harm. I only wanted to help. What I am... I gotta explain, an' it could take a while. But I'm not one of the bad guys, honest."
Then I saw the pale hand lying on the floor. The rest of her was obscured behind a coffee table. For a moment I felt like my heart had just stopped.
I hurried across to Tina and knelt down at her side.
She was stretched out on the floor as though someone had taken care to arrange her neatly, her skin pale and bloodless. She wasn't breathing. I touched her wrist, looking for a pulse I knew wouldn't be there, and found her skin stone cold. She'd been there for hours. Probably since she'd first returned. Since my carelessness had driven her away from safety.
'Damn it all. Too late again and another failure to add to the list. How long am I gonna have to keep payin' if every chance to redeem myself ends with another corpse?'
I'd only known her for a little over a day, but all the same losing her hurt like hell. All my good intentions and I'd just succeeded in gettin' someone else killed.
Through the hurt and self-recrimination, it occurred to me to wonder how she'd died. I couldn't see a mark on her.
Then I noticed a little blood on her neck. Reluctantly, I touched her cold skin again, turning the dead weight of her head around…
To reveal the two small puncture wounds livid against the side of her pale neck.
All I could think, watching from the dark corner of an alley across the street as the emergency people carried her out in a body bag, was that I'd let her die. I'd been meant to protect her and all I'd done was scare her and drive her away from me - straight to her death. The accusation ran through my brain on infinite repeat. All my other thoughts were a jumbled confusion.
Those holes in her neck. Russell was a vampire. I should've realised before that the danger would be supernatural. Vampire. Angel. Would he have been able to save her, in my place? It was a question I'd never know the answer to - but I was very much afraid the answer would have been, yeah.
She was dead, and it was my fault.
And hers was the only the latest blood on my hands. My incompetence, my cowardice, had killed too many. Probably more than I even knew about. How many lives had I failed to save indirectly, through my years of shady dealings and lookin' the other way?
I used to teach kids, can you believe that? The people I knew back then wouldn't recognise what I've become. They'd shy away, repulsed, from the paths I've walked in the intervening years.
Does it surprise you to hear that once upon a time I actually had a life? It was a false one, though; built upon the lie that I was human. Then I found out I was half a creature I hadn't even known existed and it all fell apart. Oh, I did it to myself, I know that. But how can you continue to teach children knowin' you're the stuff their nightmares are made from? Or build a family, with your pretty wife, knowin' you're a demon halfbreed freak - like you'd really want to pass on those genes.
I hardly used to drink at all, y'know. And the gambling, I always used to believe that was only a game for the losers... well I guess I got that right, anyway.
I stayed on that corner staring over at Tina's empty apartment until long after the police had sealed the place off and everyone else had cleared up and left.
Eventually, I made my way back to my own apartment, where I stood just inside the doorway, still able to smell the scent of her there, and looked around at its emptiness.
Then I retrieved the half bottle of scotch from the kitchen and finished it off inside of five minutes.
After that I discovered there wasn't another drop to drink left in the place. Which was a bastard, because I needed to get seriously paralytic. I slumped down into the armchair, flinching away from the memory of Tina sitting on it wearing her nervous, sad smile, and I wondered why I even continued to live such a stupid, worthless life.
Damn it. The Powers That Be. Tina. Redemption. Chalk up one more failure. What was I supposed to do now?
Unexpectedly, my question was answered.
The pain hammered down through the top of my head feeling every bit as though somebody had driven a tent-spike into my brain. I'm pretty sure I cried out. It was about as bad as the visions get. Images forced their way unwelcome into my skull.
"You're a vampire!" A harsh, strong voice I recognise immediately, before her face even comes into focus. The girl from the party, all dressed up and confronting a rich-looking type with a bemused expression on his face. His face which suddenly transforms, becoming twisted and evil as the demon within reveals itself and he reaches for her...
A building. It flashes into sharper focus. A big, white mansion of a building. The sign on the gate. A name...
Focus closes in. I can see the name. I know where he is. And I know who he is. The vision screams it through the inside of my brain. Russell. Russell Winters. He's Tina's murderer. This girl's murderer, too, if nobody's there to stop him...
"Damn it!" I was on the floor with my hands clutched to my head and hell but I'd never thought I could hurt so much. It took me a good few seconds before I'd recovered enough to be able to form a thought. The first thing I did was reach for a pen. Couldn't find any paper within easy reach of my sprawled position on the floor; I wrote the name of the house on the back of my hand.
God, I so much needed a drink.
But I so much didn't have the time to spend getting drunk. The events I'd seen in the vision, I got the impression they weren't too far ahead. It had been evening. This evening? Probably. Then - I squinted dizzily at my watch to find it was already well past midday - I had maybe five hours. I had to be ready for then. If I was gonna do this...
...Was I going to do this?
It pulled me up short, that thought. The world seemed to stop around me as I realised that, yeah, I was.
'Aw, man.' The world knows I'm no superhero. I mean, yeah, I can hold my own in a fight - more or less. And then there's the part about being able to turn into a demon. But aside from an increased resilience, and a little extra strength, it's no big advantage. In fact, it's just another danger, because it means I got something I've got to hide. From the human good guys like the cops, who don't even know things like me exist let alone that they ain't always the villains, and would probably freak and shoot on sight if they saw me in demon form.
If you'll forgive the pun, I'm no Angel. I don't have his sort of supernatural strength and skill. I don't have two centuries' experience of this world. And I don't look that good in black.
But like him, I got a whole lot of past to make right. I owed it to Tina's memory to make sure her killer didn't live to kill again. And that other girl, my brunette from the party with the acid tongue, I couldn't just let her die.
I had to go.
The decision made, I'd have expected to be terrified, but I felt curiously calm and focused as I picked up the phone and called up one of my contacts who owed me from a 'small' bet on one of last month's big races.
The phone rang several times before it was hesitantly picked up. The voice on the other end of the line said, "Yeah?" cagily.
"Lenny? That you? It's Doyle here, man, don't get too stressed. Your brother-in-law still own that repair garage?" I listened to his reluctant admission that yes, he did. "Well, I need some wheels and if you can get me them this afternoon I'll call us even, okay?"
"Okay," Lenny said. "Erm, Doyle, you sound a bit strange, man. What's going on? Are you running from somethin', 'cause I don't want to get on anyone's bad side, y'know."
"More like runnin' after," I said. "But I might need a fast getaway, at that. Can you do it?"
"Yeah. You know where the garage is? Be there at five, and I'll have your wheels. Might not be anything too flash, at this short notice, but I'll make sure it moves. Okay?"
"Yeah." I slowly set down the phone. After all, whatever he got me, it only had to work twice. There and back again. From Russell's place.
I went over to the repair shop after an afternoon spent battling rising nerves and cutting up a broken chair to sharpen the pieces into stakes, and calling in a debt from another guy I knew who built his own explosive devices as a handy cash-accumulating sideline.
To say that the "Doylemobile" was less than I'd hoped for would be an understatement, but the garage was closed up for the evening by the time I arrived and the only person about the place was Lenny, standing leanin' against a pile of junk which purported to be a car.
"I tried!" he insisted. "You didn't give me a whole lot of time, y'know."
"It'll do." It wasn't as though I had the time to waste arguing. It had wheels. With luck it had an engine too. I sighed and got in, resting the bag full of stakes on the passenger seat, finding the keys ready in the ignition. It started on only the second try. "Here's hopin' I don't have to make any quick exits after all." I said to Lenny as a parting shot.
I navigated the stroppy machine out into the road. I hadn't driven a great deal in the last few years. Aside from the fact I often couldn't afford to run a car, it's a dodgy business when your nervous system could be butchered by incoming visions from the Powers That Be at any moment.
I headed straight to Russell's place. I knew exactly how to get there, as though a part of the vision clung to me still, guiding me. The fear coursed through me more intensely with every minute and mile that passed. This could be the last thing I ever did. I still couldn't quite believe what I was deliberately heading into.
The huge metal security gates were a forbidding barrier. Hell, this guy was one rich bloodsucker. There was no shortage of security around his mansion of a home, and as I approached I had to fight against the bleak conviction that it just wasn't possible someone like me could succeed against him. He even had a guy stationed outside on guard in a booth at the gate controls, who I watched nervously as I pulled up. There was probably an alarm somewhere within his reach.
Also, I could hear the sound of a television playing in there. Distracted for a moment, I remembered with a wince the not-so-small bet I'd made in the bar the night before last, and wondered if he was watching the Vikings.
I parked the car untidily and got out, staggering slightly, playing drunk - well, at least I'd had a lot of practice for the role. "Hey, man?" I said, walking over to the guard's booth. "That the game? Who's winning?" I craned my head through the window, trying to see.
He had barely made a move to object when I swung my fist as hard as I could manage and popped him one. He collapsed with a groan, hitting his head again on the corner of the TV as he went down.
"Ow!" I shook out my bruised hand and studied the gate controls. Picked a likely looking button. It worked like a charm and the gate slid smoothly open. "Good start," I allowed.
There was nobody in sight inside the grounds, but I could see a limo parked on the gravel outside the door. She was already here, then. I didn't have much time. I retrieved the bag of stakes from the car, reached a hand into my jacket pocket to reassure myself that the gun was still there for an emergency - though I knew it was more psychological comfort than anything else, as bullets can only slow down a vampire at best.
In ten minutes it would all be over, one way or another.
The timed explosive I placed on the fuse box worked as advertised despite my worries - explosives not really being somethin' I'd made a great deal of effort to acquaint myself with in the past, on account of the fact that making a mistake with them was something you were unlikely to have to live with, and with my record, well...
Anyway, it took down Russell's electrics and his security system, along with any unpleasant little surprises he might have set up against intruders.
After that, I had to hurry. Even if the scene I'd witnessed in my vision hadn't started to play itself out before the power went down, once that had happened it seemed all too likely Russell would skip the preliminaries and kill the girl to get her out of the way so he could turn his attention to the security situation.
I entered quietly through the front door seconds after the explosives had gone off, trying to keep to the deeper shadow and stay out of sight. I saw her almost immediately I was inside.
An impressive set of elaborate marble stairs dominated the hallway. Atop them a balcony curved across, several metres above my head. On the balcony, I could just see the girl struggling against Russell, who had his vamp-face on and was looking around in surprise, probably wondering what the hell had happened to his lights.
She broke away from him, stumbled a few steps. He grabbed after her, tripping her up. As she lost her balance she snatched up a vase from a shelf and broke it over his head.
This was not a girl you wanted to get on the wrong side of. Unfortunately her move didn't have much effect on Russell, though.
Through all this, I was just standing there at the base of the stairs, finding my feet had rooted themselves to the spot.
Russell... I could smell the power in him; maybe it was my demon blood working overtime with my nerves being so hyper, 'cause I don't usually get that unless I'm actually in demon form. But he was an old, powerful vampire. Perhaps more so than Angel. And he was definitely more than I could handle alone.
He'd got the girl by the throat, and he was lowering his fangs to her neck. I stood and watched, unable to move. Everything in me screamed, 'Damn it, do something!' But I couldn't make myself move. I guess I was just too much in the habit of failure...
The image of Tina, laughing while her eyes stayed so sad, flickered through my mind. Tina dead, in her apartment, at Russell's hand. I could hear her voice, a ghostly whisper, "'You live like this, and you want to help me?"'
Some barrier within me shattered, and my fingers tightened around the gun inside my jacket.
I took the stairs three at a time, drawing the weapon out. "Russell Winters!" I yelled as I reached the top, anger choking my voice, stopping him in the instant before his teeth closed into the girl's neck. "I got a message for you from Tina."
I fired, once, twice - he was already coming at me by the second shot, the girl thrown aside. The third shot went wide as he ploughed into me, knocking us both to the floor. The gun flew from my hand, landing somewhere across the room. The buckle on the bag full of stakes snapped open, scattering its contents.
He was stronger and heavier than I was, and the two bullet wounds weren't slowing him down any that I could see. Moreover, the sound of those shots would bring others, sooner or later. I had to deal with Russell and get the girl out of there fast... assuming I could do it at all.
His weight had knocked the breath right out of me, and he had me pinned down, but the awareness of the girl still around there somewhere made me hang on tight to my human form. I didn't want a repeat of what had happened with Tina.
I scrabbled on the floor where I knew the stakes had fallen with my free hand, the other tied up in my efforts to keep Russell off. After a few frantic seconds when I thought I wasn't going to find any within reach, my fingers closed on splintery wood. I tightened my grip and stabbed awkwardly for his heart.
He batted the blow aside without visible effort, but with a force which numbed my fingers. The stake fell out of my grasp.
Russell, his demonic face twisted in anger, staggered to his feet. His hands gripped with a strangling force on my collar, and he dragged me up with him. He pushed me back until the wall hit my shoulders, lifting me off the floor so I dangled helplessly, choking. 'Some great plan this was,' I thought, as he opened his mouth to show off his fangs and I realised with horror he was gonna go for my neck.
As heroic rescues went, this was not going at all well.
I could see the girl getting to her feet dazedly behind him, too late to do anything to help, only in time to look on appalled as Russell's fangs sank into my throat.
Now, I'd heard vampires didn't go for demon blood 'cause they didn't like the taste. Wasn't something I'd particularly tried to verify before, though. I mean, I'd also heard they didn't drink animal blood, but it sustained Angel. Maybe they had to get themselves a taste for it.
Man, it hurt like hell. It was right up there with the visions as far as blindin' agony goes. A cold sensation seemed to spiral out from my neck, splinters of ice in my blood. I could feel the life draining from me.
It lasted for less than a second. It felt like a lifetime.
Next I knew, Russell had flung me aside. I hit the floor awkwardly and with bruising force but managed to roll over weakly to stare at him. He was bent over spitting and retching. I guess he didn't like the taste of my demon blood after all.
First time I was ever grateful for that heritage.
"Hey, Mr Pervo I-help-young-actresses Vampire, bite this!" the girl yelled, causing him to turn his attention back to her. The gun was in her hand. She emptied the rest of the bullets into him in a stunning volley as I struggled to my knees and looked around for a stake.
I felt weak from blood loss, but it could have been worse... and it wasn't over yet. Once the girl ran out of bullets, she'd be next, and with her he wouldn't stop while she had any life left in her.
Russell, bloody and weak but pissed as hell, lunged for her as predicted. She threw the empty gun at him, screamed when that - unsurprisingly - failed to stop him, and managed a clumsy dive out of his way. The sharp edge of a table caught her dress and ripped it, and she wailed in distress. "Do something!" she angrily yelled at me.
"Like what? Die?" I snapped. Stake in hand, I stood up unsteadily to rush back into the fight. Not somethin' I usually make a practice of doing when I'm gettin' the crap beat out of me.
I raised the stake and lunged at the vampire.
Russell was in pretty bad shape, but so was I, and he moved at the last second so the stake caught him through the shoulder instead of the heart. He backhanded me in the face so hard it sent me reeling across the room. I crashed into the girl. She yelped in fear, and I realised we were right at the edge of the balcony and I'd almost knocked her over the rail. I gripped her arm to steady her.
I was thinkin' it was time to be outta there, and weighing whether I should try to get Russell first while he was in his current weakened state or just run like hell, when two of his heavies burst through the doors with guns in their hands and took the choice from me.
One of them I recognised - mostly from the collection of bruises on his face - as one of my pals from the hotel elevator.
They stared incredulously at the state of their boss, who was screaming bloody murder with a piece of broken furniture sticking grotesquely out of his shoulder.
"Kill them!" Russell spat furiously. "Kill them now!"
The two guys obediently raised their guns, fingers tightening on triggers.
'How the hell do the Powers That Be expect me to deal with this?' my thoughts screamed, incredulous. There weren't too many choices left; and the best of them involved utilising the demon blood I hated. Before it had consciously occurred to me just what I was doing I had stationed myself between the girl and their line of fire and assumed my demon form. The only way either of us was going to survive this was if we got out of there right now. And I could see only one way to do that.
I was already turning around when the first bullet caught me in the shoulder. I felt the second impact in my lower back as I literally picked up the girl - who was staring openmouthed at my demon visage and looked as though she was about to start screaming her head off - and launched myself off the balcony.
The hallway was a long way below. The girl's scream echoed hollowly in all that space.
I hit the ground as a demon and my legs didn't shatter, which was a nice surprise 'cause I'd never really tested the limits of that form and hadn't known what would happen. I staggered, and dropped the girl, who swore at me and got up anxiously smoothing down her nice dress.
"Go!" I urged. My demon form melted away from me and the pain hit me anew with several times its previous intensity. I collapsed onto hands and knees. I stared up at the girl, whose shocked gaze was fixed upon me in return. I wondered why she still hesitated. Realisation hit and I dug the car keys from my pocket and pressed them into her hands. "Car! Gates! Get outta here!" Only a second or so had passed since our jump from the balcony, but surprise wouldn't hold up Russell's guys for long.
But instead of running, she bent down and hauled on my arm, pulling me up, and supported my weight when I immediately almost fell over again. "Come on, spikey-monster-guy!" she snapped. "Put some effort into it!"
I was only dully aware of what happened after that, perceiving the world through a dizzying haze of pain. Consciousness seemed to float around my brain in little unconnected pieces. We staggered out into the drive, and I somehow managed a semblance of running. Lucky she was a tall, strong gal, 'cause she was taking most of my weight.
"You call this a car!" she yelped, as she poured me into the back seat of the getaway vehicle waiting by the open security gate. "God, we are so dead!"
Russell's men were running down the drive. They got a few shots off, which missed, but it scared the hell out of the girl. She was screaming as she fell into the driver's seat, her arms held up to protect her face.
She floored it out of there, shrieking angrily as a bullet passed close enough to part her hair.
If I were ever to tell any of my LA acquaintances about the events of that night, they'd never believe me. I mean, come off it now. Doyle? Puttin' his life on the line for someone else? Doyle, who wouldn't know the meanin' of duty or honour or sacrifice? Doyle who only believes in ready cash and where the next drink is coming from.
It'd never happen.
I wouldn't believe me, 'cept that Cordelia was there to swear to the truth of it. Lookin' back after it was over - even as soon as that nightmare car journey through the dark of LA listening to the constant stream of curses from the girl as she drove, and not knowin' whether we were safe or if they were coming after us, and all the time aware of my own blood gradually saturating the upholstery of the back seat – even then it felt like somebody else had done it. More like a story that had been told to me than my own memory.
I'd never had that kind of strength. I'd lived a long time certain of the fact I'd never find it within me to face the risk I'd run from four years ago... The risk I'd never really stopped running from since.
Well, okay, I could believe the parts of the tale where I'd screwed up royally. They were familiar territory. During that journey, they preyed on my mind almost in equal part to the pain of the bullet wounds.
I'd failed to avenge Tina's death, leaving Russell alive to kill again. And I knew he'd be coming after us, particularly - this new girl and myself. We knew what he was. We'd humiliated him in his own lair. There was no chance he was just goin' to overlook somethin' like that.
I'd be willing to bet he could find out where the girl lived easy enough. Myself as well, if he asked around. I was known in LA. Sooner or later, he'd find us.
Damn it, would Angel have had this much trouble? He should have been bleeding all over the back of that car, not me. He might have been a match for Russell to start with. My own attempt to fight him had been a bad joke.
Vampires. I'd just about had enough of the breed.
Another thing about vampires, y'know - they heal real quick. Half-demons, now - not so quick. Russell would be back to full strength a whole lot sooner than I would.
I was falling again, caught in that dizzying moment after I'd jumped from the balcony and waited an eternity for impact, not knowing whether my legs would shatter when I hit the ground.
I landed on my right shoulder and it hurt a hell of a lot. That part was all too real, and it brought me painfully out of the strange dream and back to consciousness. Somewhere quite distant, someone groaned in pain. It took a moment to realise it was me.
Oh man, what did I drink last night? was automatically my first thought.
I forced my eyes open only to find my vision full of darkness and sidewalk. The world looked all askew. I tried to shift, felt gravel abrasive under my hands and a blast of agony from my shoulder and back. I discovered I was wedged half out of the car, my legs still caught up on the back seat. Someone was tugging at my arms from behind, trying to lift me. My shoulder protested. "Come on!" the girl's voice said, loud and close to my ears, and edged with panic. "Help me here, short-dark-and-heroic! You're heavier than you look, and I'd kind of like to get inside before anyone takes too much of an interest in what's going on here and notices 'hey, bullet wounds'!"
The details flooded back then and I knew it was all real – the fight in Russell's mansion, the escape with the girl in the car. I must have passed out somewhere along the way. Couldn't have been out for very long, even though it felt like hours.
The girl pulled on my arms again and I yelled. She froze. "That – kinda – hurts," I managed.
"Sorry… sorry. Look, I'm not good at this and… oh, god, you've got blood all over my dress! This dress is totally ruined!"
I managed to untangle my legs while she was fussing over her dress and then, with her help, to stand up somewhat unsteadily. She left me leaning against the side of the car while she closed and locked all the doors.
She helped me to the front door of a large bulky shadow of a building, its features indistinct in the dark. My head was clearing and I was beginning to feel slightly better.
"Where are we?"
"My apartment." She fumbled one-handed for keys.
"God, no!" I gripped her wrist urgently as she reached for the lock. "That's the first place they'll look. We gotta go to my place."
"And if you hadn't been snoozing all the way back perhaps you could have given me the directions to your place," she snapped irritably, shaking off my hand. "But now we're here, why don't we deal with those bullet wounds before you bleed to death, buddy. I mean, frankly I wouldn't have thought you had that much blood left in you since Russell fanged you, but the back of your car testifies otherwise. Plus this allows me to get some clothes which don't look like costume rejects from a horror flick."
I reluctantly caved in on the issue, largely because I didn't have the strength to spare on arguing with her. Also, I didn't think Russell would catch up with us as fast as all that. After all, he probably wasn't feelin' too great himself right then. If we didn't hang around for long, we'd probably be okay.
"Why did you stop to help me, anyway?" I had to ask as we ascended some dingy stairs, every step creaking in protest underfoot. She'd seen her rescuer turn into a monster, and seemed to have brushed the matter off entirely. It didn't make sense. What was it about this girl?
The walls of the staircase had peeling paint and damp, and splintery cracks tracing intricate patterns across the plaster.
"What do you think I am?" she asked, sounding scandalised. "You think I'd just leave you to that Count Dracula wannabe after you saved my life? No way! I mean, whatever you are you're obviously better than he is and I am not going to have your death on my hands." At the top of the stairs she opened a battered door onto darkness. Searched the wall for a light switch; flicked it on to reveal a small, sad apartment which all too closely matched the state of the hallway outside.
I was shocked. I'd thought she was rich. She acted rich, talked rich. But this… this was a direct contrast to her million dollar mannerisms. It was the last thing I'd expected.
She'd noticed my reaction and she frowned unhappily, looking rather subdued – something I'd begun to think impossible for her. "Yeah, well," she said with a sigh. "This is mine."
There was a story there, somewhere, but one for another time.
"Sit down," she said, shoving a whole pile of stuff off an armchair that had seen better days, and letting it lie where it landed. "No, wait, let me put something down first, I don't want demon-gick on the furniture."
"You know. Whatever it is you bleed."
"I bleed blood. And I'll have you know I happen to be quite human, thank you very much."
"Right. And what I saw, that was just an attack of really bad, really temporary acne." She fetched an old sheet and threw it across the chair, and I collapsed gratefully into it, trying to sit so that I didn't put any weight on the bullet wound in my lower back.
I looked up at her. The faint edge of worry in her expression, directed at me despite what she knew, astonished me, giving the lie to her harsh exterior. After a pause, I said, "Half human. On my mother's side. The rest is Brachen demon."
"Never heard of them," she said, waving her hands in a gesture clearly meant to stop me elaborating – not that I was about to anyway. "And don't want to. God! What is it with me and you people? As if Sunnydale wasn't bad enough, where everyone turns out to be a vampire, or slayer, or werewolf, or vampire, or demon, or witch – and did I mention vampires? Moving to LA, I thought I might at least get to meet some normal people for a change. This is so not okay!"
"Sorry," I said, amused despite myself. Sunnydale… the Hellmouth. Where Angel had come from. Well, that explained a few things.
"Right," she said, suddenly focusing her attention. "Bullet wounds. Get your shirt off. I'll go see if I've got anything for the pain. You can take aspirin, yeah?"
"Aspirin?" I asked in disbelief. Hell, I didn't think I could cope with this level of pain until we got back to my apartment. "Is that all you've got?"
"Well, duh! I didn't expect to have to deal with stuff like this in LA, did I? I thought I'd left those days behind with the Hellmouth." Her expression mellowed as she watched me struggle to get out of the jacket and shirt. "I might have some brandy," she allowed.
As she left the room, I heard her continuing under her breath, just on the edge of my hearing. "It's the last of daddy's store, but…well, you did save my life, whatever you are. So I suppose that counts as a special occasion."
I don't even want to think about the next half hour. Just take it from me that bullets hurt even more gettin' dug out of your flesh than they do goin' in.
When it was all finished she wrapped clean white bandaging around my shoulder and ribs. Then she disappeared for several minutes. I wondered where she was until I heard the distinct sounds of someone throwing up emanating from the bathroom. Then I was amazed she'd kept her calm so well throughout the gory task. She couldn't be much more than twenty.
She returned looking pale but together, and smiled brightly, with determination. "Well, that's done. So, perhaps we can start with the introductions already. I'm Cordelia Chase. And you – you're Doyle, aren't you? See? I remembered… from the party." She abruptly avoided my gaze, looking somewhat ashamed. "I totally apologise for brushing you off like that, by the way. If I'd known you were going to end up saving my life and all that, I'd have been so much more polite about it."
There was a pause. "So," she added, "Is it just Doyle? Not that I don't know lots of people and, um, not-people without last names."
"Jus' Doyle." I nodded. My speech was slurred. Well, it would be after the half bottle of really expensive brandy she'd poured into me before going to work on the bullets.
Just Doyle would do for now. Maybe someday if she stuck around for long enough I'd tell her the rest.
"You are totally drunk," she accused.
"Well…yeah." I tried to focus my brain. Not too easy, considering everything it was having to contend with. Focus. Russell. Impending danger. Right. "Start packin'," I said. "We gotta vacate this joint."
The next morning came as something of a shock. I woke up at the unholy hour of 6.37am, hurting like hell and hungover to boot. Almost staggered out of my bedroom in my underwear before remembering the girl, Cordelia, was around somewhere, so I painfully pulled on pants and a shirt before going in search of coffee and painkillers.
Cordelia was curled up on the armchair. The television was on, its screen flickery and oddly tinted with pink but showing pretty much as good a picture as it ever did. She wasn't watching it, though. Her eyes were closed and her mouth hung slightly open. She was asleep.
I flinched from the reminder of Tina, the one I'd failed to save. It had been Tina who'd given me the strength to go against Russell. If she hadn't died, if that weight of guilt hadn't been pushing me forwards... would Cordelia have been alive now? Tina and I could have hidden away in the shadows for a long time, keeping her safe enough but doin' nothing to solve the root of the problem, Russell himself.
Who we still had to deal with. The sleek, untouchable, millionaire vampire, hiding behind his guards in his fortress of a home. I was done with running and hiding; too many innocents had fallen victim to this guy. He had to be stopped. The only question was, how? I wasn't exactly in great condition to go up against him at the moment.
Sighing, I looked back to Cordelia, alive and so lovely and peaceful sleeping in the armchair. 'This one. This one I saved,' I thought. And it felt extremely odd to think she owed her life to me, of all people.
Granted, I owed my life to her as well, because if she had run and left me to Russell - as I'm sure the majority of people would have done in her place - I would have been dead for sure. And probably not too quickly or cleanly, at that.
I wondered what sort of courage, and honour, and compassion she must have locked up within that harsh exterior – the sort of guts it took to turn back and help a demon just because.
I wondered what was going to happen to her now.
A stab of agony from the left side of my lower back spurred me to return to the quest for painkillers. It didn't take me long to locate some in the back of a kitchen cupboard. Unlike Cordelia, I lived the kind of life that brought the occasional battering my way, if it was usually from a gambling debt a little overdue rather than from fighting the forces of darkness.
I tried to be quiet as possible moving around the kitchen, not wanting to wake her. But I was clumsy from pain and the residual weakness of blood loss which my not-quite-human system hadn't yet managed to recover from; and it wasn't long before one clatter too many brought her, yawning, to the doorway.
Her hair was a mess and she was wearing the faded jeans and oversized shirt she'd changed into last night, but she still looked great. "Are you, like, trying to destroy your kitchen?" she said. "Because there are better hours of the day for it. And all of them after 7am."
I winced. "Sorry. You want coffee? No milk, m'afraid."
She set her hands on her hips and glowered at me. After a moment she sighed. "Go sit down. I'll sort it out. You saved my life, I guess I can make coffee."
I retreated; I didn't really dare argue.
Presently she came through from the kitchen and handed me one of the worst coffees I'd ever had the misfortune to encounter. I'd taken the armchair, so she sat cross-legged on the floor facing me. I sipped at the coffee and somehow managed not to spit it back into the cup. She sipped hers calmly; presumably she was inured to it.
"So," she said, smiling brightly in a rather forced manner. "How are you feeling? Are your demon healing powers working yet? Ready to go and kick some vampire butt?"
"Demon healin' powers?" I stared at her.
"Yeah, you know. All those icky demons I saw in Sunnydale… you try to kill them, chop off limbs, all sorts of nasty stuff, and they just keep coming back! You know?" She hesitated. "You don't know." She looked a little stricken; I wasn't sure why.
"Maybe I heal a little bit quicker than, um, humans," I ventured, not actually sure. "Nothin' like vampires, though."
She choked on her coffee and put the mug down; but it wasn't because of the quality of the coffee. Her hands made fluttering gestures. "God! I thought... never mind what I thought. You went in there on your own without any powers or anything." She stopped, and a puzzled suspicion suddenly entered her expression. "Say, why did you go in there? How did you know about Russell? What are you, - a burglar who really, really picked the wrong house?"
"No, no, no," I stammered hurriedly. This was too much like what had happened with Tina. "Look, I have these visions. I saw what was going to happen with Russell in a vision."
"Visions? Like, 'Ooh, I see a tall, dark stranger' visions?" She pantomimed waving her hands over an invisible crystal ball.
"Sorta. Anyway, there was this other girl, Tina, that I was supposed to be helping." Hesitantly, I explained to Cordelia about what had happened with Tina, and how the second vision had alerted me in time to save her.
"Wow," Cordelia said when I'd finished. "So you're working for the greater good? Whoever sends you these visions, they want you to help people? Put things right. What was it you called them?"
"The Powers That Be. And this is only the third time, actually, that any of the visions were really for me. Other times, it's just been a case of deliverin' messages, to those more suited for the evil fightin'. Then I get outta there before the action starts. But in this case the guy who was supposed to get involved wanted nothin' to do with it."
"But now they've started sending these messages to you personally," she said. "Do you think they're going to continue doing that?"
That was a question I'd been wonderin' about myself. I thought about it for a long moment before I answered. "I don't know. But… I think they will. I think this is what they've been buildin' up to." I met her eyes. There was understanding there and, curiously… enthusiasm?
I wasn't sure how I felt about the idea myself. It scared the hell out of me, to think that even if I managed to finish this business with Russell it still might not be the end. But on the other hand…. After all these years, I'd finally done something worthwhile. I'd found some small part of myself that didn't disgust me, and it was the part that had gone in there and faced Russell and saved the girl, and it was irrespective of my demon heritage or my past. And now I'd found that I had an urge to know what else I might do if I tried.
I'd wanted to atone for the things I'd done. but I'd never before actually believed that I could. Now I'd found a spark of belief, and I didn't want to let it go.
"First, though," Cordelia chirped, interrupting my stream of thought, "We have to deal with the issue of a certain vampire climbing way higher on the social scale than fiends of the night ever should."
"Yeah. It's difficult." I sighed. To me, it looked damn near impossible. "He's got himself a nice cosy niche. Expensive layers, social standin', money. To all appearances he's a respectable businessman. We can't touch him through legal channels. And as for goin' after him physically… well, been there, tried that."
Cordelia shrieked and jumped to her feet suddenly. "Oh my god! A plan! I have a plan!" She bounced excitedly on her feet.
I managed to relax and start breathin' again. I'd thought there was something seriously wrong.
"I have a plan," she repeated, slower and calmer, gesturing emphatically with both hands.
"Yeah, I heard that bit," I said, frowning as I sipped at her bad coffee. "Are you gonna tell me the rest, or keep me hangin' in suspense all day?"
Once past the busy offices and security, we paused outside the meeting room which was our goal. Cordelia, austere in business dress, shot me a questioning look.
"I'm still not sure about this," I admitted, regarding the closed door apprehensively. I could hear the low hum of voices emanating from within. "I mean, what if they already know?"
"We'll think of something," she said, a shade crossly. "I mean, he's a vampire. Hello! There have to be laws against this. Plus my life is crappy enough at the moment without having to go on the run from this bloodsucker, thank you. What else can we do?"
Beneath her aggression, I knew she was as nervous as I was. There were a lot of ways for our plan to go wrong.
Cordelia had done the ringing around to discover Russell's whereabouts, with a telephone manner I imagined put the fear of God into the recipients. She had handled the wardrobe, picking out the bland office dress that had allowed us to walk through this alien environment. And it had been she, too, who had got us both this far, bluffing our way past security, bringing us through the foyer and corridors of Russell's big office building.
Her reasoning was that Russell wouldn't be expecting retaliation – and certainly not in this fashion. He'd expect us to be running, and a fast strike now could catch him off-guard.
And perhaps she was right. Perhaps it would work. I couldn't scrape together enough hope to really believe it, though. I was only really there because, as scared as I was, even I couldn't let her go face Russell alone.
I hadn't actually been sure I'd be able to make it this far, from the parking lot to the office. The business suit Cordelia had picked out for me hid the bandaging and bullet wounds effectively, but I still felt weak and faint, and just stayin' on my feet seemed to demand an unreasonable amount of energy.
"Are we going to do this today?" Cordelia asked. Her aggression faded into concern as she studied me. Our gazes locked.
I nodded slowly, not taking my eyes off hers.
"Come on, then." She briefly touched my shoulder, although I wasn't certain which of us the gesture was meant to provide reassurance for. Then she threw back the door and marched inside. I followed on her heels.
It was so perfectly on cue. One of the lawyer-boys was actually in the middle of talking about locating the 'intruder' that had 'broken into' Russell's home the previous night. Our entrance stopped him mid-sentence. He sat there with his mouth hangin' open, looking foolish.
"I believe we've located him," Russell said dryly. He was at the head of a table surrounded by seated suits, a big coated-glass window almost filling the wall at his back. His eyes fixed unnervingly upon me as he spoke. But it was Cordelia who marched across to where he sat, drawing the sheath of printed photographs out from the file she'd been carrying. In handfuls she threw them down across the surface of the table in front of him, the piles cascading over to reveal the photos underneath, the faces of the young women depicted on them plain to the view of all the dozen or so of Russell's people there.
If she'd tossed the photos down one at a time, it would have taken her half an hour. There were so many…
She threw down the last of them. Tina's face stared up at me from the top of the pile.
"Oh, we know there're maybe a handful there that might not be yours," I said, crossing the room slowly to stand at Cordelia's side. Russell was staring down incredulously at the pile of faces. "But I think you can safely lay claim to, oh, ninety-five percent."
To the rest of the room, where the range of expressions varied from astonishment to caginess, Cordelia said loudly, "All these women are listed as missing or dead under suspicious circumstances. But Mr. Russell Winters here knows what happened to them." She rounded on him. "Don't you?"
Russell coughed and cast an apologetic, embarrassed look around the people in the room – except for the two lawyer types, who he pinned with a severe 'do something' glare – and said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
The lawyer kid who'd been speaking when we came in stood up and stepped between the two of us and Russell. He handed over a business card; Cordelia kept her arms firmly crossed over her chest so, after a long moment, I took it, glanced at it, and discarded it in a pocket. "I'm with Wolfram and Hart," the guy said pompously. "Mr. Winters never has been accused and never shall be convicted of any crime - ever."
"Well, this should be a fascinating new experience for him," Cordelia said, flashing him a dangerous smile which had the effect of making him step back a pace, leavin' the path clear once again between us and Russell.
Not necessarily a good thing.
Russell's glare settled icily back onto me. I shifted nervously, and tried not to let the fear show on my face. The bite on my neck ached anew at the reminder.
"Mr. Winters is an inhuman monster who preys on young women, using their hopes and dreams to lure them to their deaths." I heard myself speaking but couldn't recall consciously making the decision to do so. It had been agreed that Cordelia would be the one to make the accusation, to hold the floor. But there had been a time in my life when it was second nature for me to get up and speak before many eyes, and it came back to me now easier than I'd have expected. "And I'm not speaking metaphorically when I say monster. Mr. Winters is a long way from human."
The lawyer and his partner looked apprehensive. The expressions on the faces of everyone else in the room just displayed plain disbelief.
I unfastened my tie and the topmost buttons of my shirt; pulled the collar aside to reveal the bite marks. "Mr. Winters isn't human," I repeated, emphasising each word.
"And you are?!" He rose to the bait, slamming his fists down on the table, as he stood up, with a force that sent the photographs scattering everywhere. Tina landed face-up on the floor at his feet.
"You don't deny it, then?"
But I wasn't heard. The rest of the room had recovered their shock and erupted into protest, with the notable exception of the lawyers whose attention was fixed intently on our little confrontation. Somebody was yelling for security.
Cordelia raised her voice, shouting everyone else down. "Russell Winters is a vampire! He bit my friend here! He would have killed him! He was going to kill me! He did kill all of these women… all of them! Look! Look at them!" She was practically screaming the words by this point. She lunged forward to snatch up the pile of those photographs still on the table and flung them at the huddle of business men and women who I could already tell weren't interested, didn't believe, and weren't goin' to listen.
A smirk had crept across Russell's face. His eyes lazily flickered from Cordelia's antics and back to me. "You can't touch me," he said, quietly enough so that nobody else would hear, with all the rest of the noise. "I have the money to protect myself. I don't make waves. You can't connect the deaths or disappearances of any of those women to me. If you try, you'll disappear. And before you start shouting 'demon' to the tabloid press, take a long look at yourself, because if I were you, that isn't a method of attack I'd want to raise."
I smiled back at him, forcing the muscles of my face into place. "So prove it." I pulled my collar down further, revealing the silver chain around my neck. Pulled it off over my head and brought the cross on the end of it close enough to Russell to cause him to flinch back. "At least I can touch one of these."
I was about to step forward, to force him back, to show everyone present the effect the cross had on him - but our time had run out.
A tackle from behind suddenly sent me crashing down onto the floor at Russell's feet. A knee was planted in my back just about dead on target for the bullet wound there, drawin' out of me a shout of pain that was choked off by the additional agony of having my arms seized and twisted behind my back, reawakening the injury to my shoulder.
'I knew I shoulda' stayed at home,' I thought.
Security had arrived. Which meant it was over, and we were headed for the police station at best, and Russell was going to get away with it after all.
The guy who held me took some of his weight off my back in the face of my obvious pain, but it still felt pretty bad. I struggled to get my face out of the carpet and twist my head around to see what was goin' on. Cordelia had spun to confront the two guys in security uniforms who'd burst into the room. I saw her appalled expression as she discovered that they already had me and that she was on her own.
"You can't do that!" she shrieked angrily. "Let him go! He's hurt!"
I saw her head dart around to Russell, and his indifferent business associates, and the lawyers, and the security guy who was heading towards her. I saw the determination in her as she bent down and lifted one of the chairs placed around the table. People backed away from her. "All right!" she yelled. "If you won't believe it from us – believe this!"
She flung the chair at the coated windows of the meeting room, at the spot right next to where Russell stood. The security guy lunged forward to take her down an instant after the chair had already left her hands.
The whole room seemed to watch, entranced, as the chair hit the window and broke the glass into a cascade of splinters, and noise, and sunlight.
The sunlight flooded in through the jagged hole, pinning Russell Winters in its beam as under a spotlight. He screamed, his vamp face appearing in the instant before he burst into flames. He tried to stagger away from the light, his burning hands raised in a futile effort to protect his burning face, but his feet skidded on the photographs littering the floor and he fell…
…But all that ever reached the floor were ashes, floating down gently on the air.
He was dust.
Silence seized the room. The grip of the guy who held me slackened, but even so I didn't have the energy left to escape it.
Apart from the two lawyers, who had begun to pack their paperwork away into briefcases, Cordelia was the only person who moved. She struggled to her feet holding her hand over a bruise on her face and glaring daggers at the guy who'd hit her. She pushed unresisting people aside to get to me.
Without a word, she bent down and pried apart the fingers of the guy who held me down. Then she helped me to stand. The shell-shocked security guard just let her.
I could feel the blood on my back from the reopened bullet wound, and my shoulder hurt too. But it was all drowned out by a kind of dizzy elation that sang through my brain. Russell was dead, Tina avenged, and I… was done. For now, at least.
The pair of lawyers had packed away their stuff. They breezed casually out of the room as though nothin' out of the ordinary had happened.
Cordelia and I trailed after them, catching the door before it swung back, and we made our escape through the corridors of Russell's office building in hurried silence.
I can't help but wonder how long it took the people left in that room to recover from the shock of what they had seen; what stories they must have thought up to explain what had happened.
We hadn't gone in there meanin' to kill him... well, not precisely. It had been a possibility, if we had the chance. We'd gone in there to expose him for what he was, intending to play it by ear after that, dependin' on what happened.
Thing was, as the lovely 'Delia had pointed out, Russell had to hide what he was from society as much as I did. He might not be vulnerable legally or physically... but socially, that was a different story.
So we'd gone in to face him when he was surrounded by others, when he might think himself strongest, but really he was at his most vulnerable. And we'd destroyed him amid a host of witnesses.
One thing for sure, nobody would be gettin' in touch with Cordelia and I about Russell's demise.
There was nothing left of Russell Winters except a scatter of ashes and dust. No body, no proof but the word of a dozen people who probably thought they were mad themselves, a diagnosis with which the rest of the world would certainly agree.
The rest of that day felt pretty peculiar in the aftermath of all that had happened, I can tell you.
Cordelia drove us back to my apartment. She chewed her lower lip nervously throughout the journey, seeming deep in thought, and I wondered if she was feelin' anything like the strange hollowness that had gripped me.
The ghost of Tina haunted my thoughts. Her death still felt like my fault, and the fact I'd saved Cordelia, and brought about Russell's demise, didn't make up for it.
She'd given me strength when my own ran out. And now I couldn't help but wonder whether I'd ever been meant to succeed in the task of saving her. Would Angel have saved her in my place? Or had she been doomed from the start, always beyond rescue in whatever plans the Powers That Be had devised?
Her death had been the catalyst which ultimately destroyed Russell. It had made me care enough to overcome the threads of my past and the old fear.
She had been the kind of person it was very easy to care about.
Man, I'd give anything to be able to re-tread the path of the last few days, knowin' what I now knew. To go back and save her, and write out that last big failure from my life.
Cordelia, in the driver's seat at my side, bulldozing her way through the traffic with one hand seeming permanently on the horn… hers was a different kind of strength to Tina's. A strength that could fight, that struck out rather than just absorbed what the world threw at it and survived. I'd needed her strength. I'd needed her. I'd have been sunk several times over without her.
Of course, now, with Russell gone and all that business over and done with, Cordelia Chase had no reason at all to stick around with somebody like me.
But… I still needed her. I'd somehow known when I first saw her at the party – a long time ago, or so it felt now; two days ago when I'd been a different person. I'd seen something in her then, and the past day had only increased and solidified what I felt.
And, sometime soon, she was going to walk away out of my life – and I was going to let her, because there was no way I could justify dragging her into the sort of life I suspected I was going to be leading from now on.
When we got back to my apartment, Cordelia, still unusually quiet, sprawled in the armchair while I sorted out a celebratory cocktail – toastin' Russell's demise with a happy combination of whisky and painkillers.
When I walked out of the kitchen clutching the newly opened bottle, Cordelia turned a serious look upon me.
"I was thinking," she said, her voice hesitant at first but gathering enthusiasm with each word, "That what we need to do is get ourselves an office."
"What?" I was confused, to say the least.
She sighed irritably, in that way she had which let me know I was missing something she considered totally obvious. "An office. A business premises. You know. This mission of yours. If you're going to have to help people, might as well make it official. Maybe throw in a small charge… something to pay the rent. Not to mention our salary."
"What? Salary… you… you think I oughta charge people for helpin' them?" I choked. "I can't imagine what the Powers That Be would think of that."
She huffed in exasperation. "The Powers That Be don't dish out wage cheques," she said. "And they know we've also got to eat. Besides, I don't mean charge everyone. Just… those who can afford it. We have to help some rich people sometime!"
"We don't even know for sure if I'll have any more visions!" I protested weakly, half laughing at her logic. I fell silent as I did a sudden double-take. "Hang on. Did you say 'we'?"
She grinned, sort of nervously. "Well, yes. I mean, we did okay here, didn't we? As partners. Business partners, that is. So…what do you think?"
God, she actually wanted to do this. Really wanted to – maybe even needed to. I could see it in her eyes. That enthusiasm which had puzzled me so much when I'd talked about my visions, my mission…
I guess we all need some sorta direction.
I found myself grinnin' back at her. I laughed, suddenly, with amazed relief that this brilliant, brave girl wouldn't be leavin' me any time soon after all. "Sure thing," I said. "You and me. I think it could really work, y'know."
She frowned at the innuendo. "Of course," she added swiftly. "This is only temporary. Until my inevitable stardom takes effect."
She said it with confidence, but there was a spark of something else in there. The awareness of the millions of similar hopefuls who populated this city; of the likelihood that 'temporary' could turn into a long time indeed.
"And you got the free rental on this place how?" Cordelia snapped, and I could just tell she was building up a real temper. Her annoyance was interrupted by the roach that crawled across her shoe, causin' her to shriek piercingly and jump around until she was apparently satisfied it was gone. Visibly fuming, she turned her attention back to me. "Doyle...!"
"It was a bet," I said meekly. "We owe our new business premises entirely to the heroic efforts of the Vikings last week."
She glowered around the gloomy - but very spacious - room. "So couldn't you get any money out of your drinking buddy? Or... don't tell me you didn't even look at this place first..."
I waved a hand weakly in a negating gesture, not telling her, but she obviously hadn't meant what she said because she continued to glower at me until I did. "He said he had a property... I said I needed one."
"This place should be condemned!"
I stayed silent, but evidently she found my silence suspicious. She shook her head and took a threatening step towards me. I backed away and tripped over a pile of plaster which must've fallen from the ceiling recently. "It's got two years," I babbled. "Which is two years of free rental for us! And maybe we'll get to keep it if the plans for the hotel don't go through..." She said nothin'; just glared. "It's roomy, and handily located, and the structure's sound enough... It needs a little cosmetic work, is all."
"Only you, Doyle..." She threw her hands up in disgust. "Well, since we have a lot of work to do here, you can start by calling an exterminator - and a sign painter." She stopped looking annoyed and started to examine the place more enthusiastically, beginning to pick out the good from all its faults - like, for example, the fact that it had pretty much been a case of this place or nothin'.
"Hmm," she said, presently, studying the glass window in the door of the reception. She ran a finger over the patch where the name would go, and wrinkled up her nose at the layer of dirt it collected. "Which do you think sounds better - 'Chase and Doyle' or 'Doyle and Chase'? Personally, I think we should do it alphabetically, to be fair."
"You would say that, considerin'," I protested. "I'm the one who gets the headaches, not to mention the bullets. I think it's only fair my name goes first."
She stared me down. "Don't be childish. People always do these things alphabetically. That's how it's done. You wouldn't want to be unprofessional."
"Aw, c'mon princess..."
"Right." She nodded, satisfied. "'Chase and Doyle' it is, then."
I sighed, and glanced at my watch. "Let's go get some lunch," I said. "And come back to this fresh after. I saw a nice lookin' little pub a few blocks away."
"You just want some beer."
I didn't deny it. "While we're on the subject," I ventured hesitantly, as we walked out into the street, and I closed and locked up the place behind us. "D'you wanna go out for dinner sometime? Proper like, I mean?"
"Oh, please," she said scathingly, falling into step with me as we walked down the sun-baked street. "Unlike some people I could mention, I don't do demon-dating. Euww! Besides which, you're too short for me. And you drink way too much. And I'm saving myself for a millionaire."
I didn't lose heart, though; I'd have the time to win her over yet.
I was a bundle of nerves as I spoke the words of the ritual outside that post office. I hadn't been to see the Oracles before. As a lowly messenger, I'd had no cause or invitation to do so.
I suspected that situation had changed, but I needed to know for sure.
They let me in. And... well, that pretty much confirmed things right then and there. Sad to say, I hadn't really thought much beyond that.
"Gift?" I stammered. I turned out my pockets, finding nothin' any Oracles might want unless they had a real thing for empty wrappers and old receipts. After a moment of panic, I took off my wrist watch and handed it over. The gold gal seemed pretty taken with it, so that was all right.
"Why do you come to us?" the guy asked. From his belligerant tone I could tell they had some kinda 'good Oracle, bad Oracle' game goin' on there.
"I... I just wanted to know..." I stumbled over the words, stopped, took a deep breath, collected my thoughts and tried again. "What am I now? What am I supposed to do?"
"What do you think you are?" the female Oracle asked serenely, a hint of amusement bubbling in her voice.
"Well, I know I'm no warrior. Nor any kind of hero. I mean, I'm game to give it a try and all, but..."
"You're wrong," she interrupted. "You possess more capacity for heroism than you know. And in any case, not all situations require a warrior. You are enough of one for those which will. The girl will help."
"Yeah, that was somethin' else I wanted to talk to you about. Tina..."
"You waste enough of our time," the male Oracle interrupted irritably. "If you were not capable you would not be here. Do not come to us again with trivia such as these."
And just like that, they threw me out. Well, not bodily. Some kinda flash of light hit me, and I found myself staggerin' against a brick wall, back in the alley outside the post office.
I picked myself up unsteadily, feeling the twinges from the bullet wounds which hadn't yet entirely healed.
So... now I knew.
My life isn't my own any more. But then, that's nothin' new. I threw it away myself, years ago. I've been livin' in a kind of limbo since then, if you could call it livin' at all. At least this way I can be making a difference in the world.
Cordelia, now, she doesn't have any big past to make up for, and it took me some time to figure out what she's doin' with me, but I got it eventually. See, though she would never admit it, the 'reality' of LA which she experienced in those months between leavin' home and meetin' me was far more frightening for her than the terrors of the city's supernatural underbelly. At least you can fight monsters - something which she was used to, by all accounts, from Sunnydale. And she's a fighter; she needs somethin' to strike back at. It's all a matter of what you know, I suppose. After months of bein' just another faceless hopeful in this city, it must feel like another kind of redemption to once again be given a chance to make a difference in the world.
As for me, I've found my redemption. And it's the fact of bein' able to help people, and bein' able to give somethin' back to the world, after all the things I've done... or not done.
Maybe now I can even put that demon heritage, which has always been such a curse to me, to some good use.
I owe it to Tina to try, and to the Brachens from four years back, and to all the others I've failed.
I don't kid myself that there's any glittering prize waitin' at the end of it. But that's okay. I know redemption's the work, not the payout. I'm just grateful to have the chance at all.