The wardrobe across the room was the sort you'd expect to lead to Narnia: big, dark, and elaborately carved, with fruit and flowers and fiddly bits along the top. The half-open door, however, revealed not a snowy wood, but a selection of girly fripperies on one side, obviously planning a raid into the territory of the more sober masculine attire on the other.
He blinked sleepily at it for a minute or two. He didn't recognize any of the clothes. He didn't recognize the wardrobe, either. He didn't recognize anything.
He sat up, rubbing his eyes. The sheets were redolent of delightful feminine musk, and half a dozen less assertive scents crowded companionably in his nose. He was lying in a very comfortable four-poster bed, located, unsurprisingly, in somebody's bedroom. Wardrobe, dresser, vanity, bookshelf, a couple of chairs - not new, but well-made, a homey eclecticism of pattern and style. Banks of fat pillar candles clustered on the night stand and the dresser, wax drippings bearing witness that they weren't just decor. The floor was covered in thick Turkish carpet whose lively pattern picked up the reds and golds in the heavy curtains covering the windows. The room had the slight air of dishabille of most lived-in bedrooms: articles of dropped clothing here, a half-finished paperback upside down over there.
Where the hell was he? Come to that, who the hell was he?
He swung his legs out of bed and held his hands up in front of his face, turning them back and forth. Wedding ring on the left. Battered knuckles and expressive fingers. The hands of a poet turned prize-fighter. The word conjured up visions of men in longjohns and handlebar mustaches. His nails were bitten to the quick and yellowed at the tips - nicotine stains, he realized, and was immediately overcome by a ferocious longing for a fag.
A search through the drawer of the nightstand turned up a pack of Marlboro Reds and a cheap plastic lighter. He fumbled a cigarette out of the pack and lit up - his hands and his body remembered this ritual of fire intimately, even if his brain was on the picket lines. Smoke curled into his lungs with a lover's caress, and he relaxed with a sigh of relief and the delicious sense of getting away with something forbidden.
The soothing tingle of nicotine calmed him. No memories. Right. He'd been hit on the head, or something. Post-traumatic whatsit. He rubbed his scalp, probing through thick curls for bruises. Nothing. Not so much as a headache. A spell, then? He had the vague notion that spells wouldn't have occurred to most people, but couldn't for the life of him think why that might be the case. He took a last drag on his cigarette, stubbed it out - there was an ashtray in the drawer, perfectly clean - and stood. He applied the lighter to a couple of the candles, and only when their mellow golden light filled the room did it occur to him that he'd had no trouble seeing without them.
He looked around with a frown. The toes of a pair of scuffed black Doc Martens peeked out from beneath the bedskirt, and there were black denim jeans draped over a nearby chair. Investigation of the dresser unearthed socks and half a dozen black t-shirts, and either they were his or the bloke who owned them wouldn't miss one. He picked up the jeans and measured them against his hips. Thirty-one waist, thirty-two inseam. All right, he wasn't a huge strapping bloke, but what he could see of himself was fit as a butcher's dog. No complaints about the wedding tackle, either - quite respectable. And uncut. Huh.
When he stepped into the jeans, they fit with the worn-in comfort of clothes someone had owned a good long time. There was a posh silver Zippo in the front pocket, a wallet in the back. He pulled the latter out and rifled through it - it contained a few hundred dollars in cash, along with a California driver's licence and a green card in the name of William Summers-Pratt. Poncy name. Was that him? Hopefully not. He squinted at the picture on the license (whoever he was, he needed reading glasses) but between the shittiness of the DMV photo and the farsighted blur of his own vision, it didn't ring any bells. Bloody hell. If it wasn't him, he didn't want to get caught walking around with stolen credit cards.
He bent over the vanity table to compare the driver's license to his reflection. This proved more difficult than anticipated, as he didn't seem to have one. In the mirror, there was nothing. Confused, he glanced downwards; he was still there, all right. He braced both hands against the vanity and stared into the empty mirror. Had to be a trick of some kind. He ran a hand through the hair he couldn't see, and looked down at the bottles of eye shadow, foundation, mascara, and whatnot marching in neat ranks along the tabletop, all of which were reflecting properly. He picked up a lipstick, waved it in front of the mirror. It promptly disappeared.
"Fucking hell!" he exclaimed, dropping it. The shiny gold tube popped into existence the instant it left his hand and bounced off the vanity and onto the floor. He grabbed a can of hairspray and repeated the process. He tapped a hairbrush with a fingertip. After considerable experimentation, he determined that anything he carried or wore went invisible in the mirror. Things he touched without picking up were unaffected, and larger objects, like the sheet or the chair, went into a headache-inducing shimmer if he lifted part of them while the rest was still touching something else.
Neat parlour trick, but it didn't get him any forwarder. Did rather bolster the spell theory, though. Or perhaps he was a ghost? He turned away from the mirror with a shudder. He didn't care for that idea at all.
Further exploration revealed that one of the two doors led to a bathroom (the mirror of which also declined to give him any clue as to whose face he was wearing). He flicked on the light switch, blinking in the sudden electric glare. There were patterned hose flung over the curtain rod, and more girly shite on the sink. He rubbed his jaw - he could use a shave, but aside from a flowery pink plastic contraption, the only razor he could locate was an old-fashioned straight-edged model straight off the set of Sweeney Todd. He didn't fancy trying it out with no reflection. Hopefully he was a chap on whom stubble looked rugged and manly.
At least the plumbing, when he took it out for a spin, seemed to be in perfect working order. A ghost wouldn't wake with morning wood and the urge to shake the dew from the lily, now, would he? Something was right with the world. Or... wait, since when was piss supposed to be that dark reddish colour? Was he sick? Drugged? Didn't feel drugged... aside from the complete lack of memory, of course.
"For fuck's sake, you wanker," he muttered, "you're the sodding Invisible Man. Got worse things than pissing blood to worry about." He buttoned up and strode back into the bedroom. Just to be on the safe side, he extracted the cash and tossed the wallet back on the night stand, stuffing the bills into his pocket and rolling the cigarettes up in one sleeve. He hesitated for a moment over the lighter; he ought to take the plastic one, but... he shoved the silver Zippo back into his pocket. He could return it if he had to, right?
He took a deep breath, nerving himself. Time for more information. He strode over to the curtains, and flung them wide.
"Ahhhh!" Actinic white light poured into the room, blinding him. He staggered backwards, one arm flung over his swimming eyes, and tripped over the chair, landing hard on his arse. He sprawled there on the carpet, squinting through tears and trying to blink the red and black spots from his vision. As his eyes adjusted, he caught a glimpse out the window of a painfully illuminated world, all blazing light and screaming colours. Why was it so sodding bright out there? Nuclear holocaust? Alien invasion?
In a panic, he scrambled backwards across the floor, out of the burning light. His shoulders banged painfully into the open door of the wardrobe, and he yelped. Huddled in the corner, he pushed himself upright against the wall, eyes wide and jaw clenched. The sunlight was still painfully hot on his face and arms, a stinging, itching burn that - bloody hell, it really was a burn. His skin was reddening as he watched.
Footsteps sounded in the hall, and a woman's voice called, "What's going on in there?"
The bedroom door opened. The woman on the threshold was a tiny bit of a thing, perky and blonde and sweetly curved beneath thin cotton pyjamas. She smelled like heaven on earth, warm and spicy and challenging, a scent that made his mouth water and his todger sit up and take notice. Taken one at a time, her features weren't beautiful. Her chin was too small, her mouth too wide. Her nose had a funny quirk to it that he couldn't put into words at all, though he found himself desperately wanting to.
It was her eyes that pulled her whole face together, took you willing captive and dragged you down to drown in agate pools so deep you'd never see sunlight again, nor count it a loss. If this was what the ring on his left hand got him, he'd made a wise investment.
She stared in goggle-eyed shock from him to the sunlight streaming in through the window and back again. Like she'd never seen him before. "Spike!"
Sod it. If she'd called him William, he might have chanced trying to explain himself, but Spike, no doubt, would be the family Rottweiler, slavering to sink its teeth into his already bruised tailbone. Enough was enough. He had to get out of here, away from the burning light. Had to -
He leaped to his feet and snatched the coverlet off the bed, slinging it over his head and shoulders. The woman was blocking the doorway, shouting something he didn't bother listening to. Gritting his teeth, he dove for the window and wrenched the casement open, kicked out the screen and...bloody hell, he was on the first storey. With a muttered prayer, he leaped.
The world slowed around him, minutes caught in treacle, seconds stretching like taffy. A pigeon burst from the eaves overhead and flapped ponderously away, wings plowing the gelatinous air. It wasn't the universe in slow motion, he realized. It was him, moving and perceiving at impossible speed. He had the leisure to study the ground below as he fell, correct his balance, flex his spine and bend his knees. And wonder exactly what kind of brainless tosser's first impulse for escape involved leaping out of first-storey window into a radioactive hell.
He hit the scrubby summer-browned grass with barely a grunt, folding into a squat and bouncing to his feet springy as a cat, as if he'd done this a million times before. He cast wildly around the back yard for shelter, finding only the imperfect shade of trees, toolshed, and a scattering of toys. Neighbor's house, yeh, but that was asking to be set upon by someone else's Rottweiler. If he lasted that long. He could feel the killing heat of the sun even through the coverlet. A wisp of white curled up before his eyes. Sweet holy fuck, was he starting to smoke?
Blind, terrified instinct woke within him, lashing him round the corner of the house, down the driveway. There, out on the street, a manhole cover. Pulling the quilted fabric tight around his shoulders, he put his head down and ran. Past the herd of cars and motorbikes crowding the driveway, past the rose bushes lining the front porch and the spreading live oaks in the front yard he raced, feet scarcely touching ground. The street was empty, but he wouldn't have cared if the bloody Grand Prix had been roaring past; every fibre of his being screamed for cooldarkquietsafe! He skidded to a halt, bent down and wrenched the manhole cover free, flinging a hundred pounds of cast iron aside as if it were a Frisbee. Without hesitation, he leaped.
He landed harder this time, sun-blind and toppling arse-backwards in the dark. On hands and knees, he scrambled out of range of the sunbeams pouring through the open manhole and plastered himself against the cool damp brick, shivering, breath coming in great ragged gasps, heart... Oh, Christ. It felt like his heart was pounding away double-time, the way it should after a good run, but in point of fact it was molasses-slow, and slowing.
Was he having a heart attack? Had it been like this all along? Who noticed their own heartbeat, unless something was wrong with it? He pressed a hand to his chest. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump, thirty beats a minute, twenty, settling at last around twelve. He listened until he was reassured that it wasn't going to stop altogether, and let out a shaky sigh, only to realize he'd been holding his breath for a good ten minutes and hadn't even noticed.
What the fuck was wrong with him? He felt fine, except for the burns, and they were already starting to heal. He shook himself and sat up. No use panicking. He had to think this out. He wasn't your average bloke with amnesia, that was certain. Stronger and faster than human, but vulnerable, too. Some kind of superhero, maybe? Mutant? Super-soldier? Strange visitor from another planet? Could be he had a secret identity. Could be his memory loss wasn't an accident. Could be he had enemies.
A thrill ran through him at the thought, half dread, half anticipation. He wasn't helpless, he reminded himself, though you wouldn't know it from the way he'd been flapping about just now. There had to be a reason he'd awakened in that room, full of clothes that fit him and smells that whispered home. But if he was this William bloke, why hadn't the woman called him by name? Unless... oh, bloody hell. If he really was some kind of secret agent or superhero, might 'Spike' be his code name?
He glanced up at the pale blue circle of sky overhead. There was a perfectly good ladder leading back up to the street. He could retrace his steps. But the thought of shuffling up to the woman's doorstep like a truant schoolboy and stammering out his feeble excuses was more than his bruised pride could take at the moment. She'd think him a fool, a coward, and she'd not be far wrong.
He clenched his jaw and got to his feet. He wouldn't go back just yet. Might as well scout around. As sewers went, he supposed this one was all right: a narrow, brick-lined tunnel just big enough for a chap of moderate height to stand up in. A trickle of filthy sludge ran beside the narrow walkway he was sitting on. Slime clotted the margin of the bricks; miracle he hadn't careened over the edge and into shite creek. Beneath the stench of sewage he could smell faint traces of rat and... other things.
Wasn't going to think about what it meant that he knew what rat smelled like.
Interesting bit about his tumble, though, was the discovery that someone obviously used this tunnel on a regular basis, and he'd wager it wasn't the local stand-in for Ed Norton. At the foot of the ladder was a bucket filled with sand and a litter of cigarette butts, as though someone customarily stubbed them out here before leaving the sewer. And someone had tacked up a string of electric lights along the lichenous wall, patched into the municipal grid with a crude but effective splice. He played with the switch for a moment, then flicked the lights off. He could see quite well in the gloom.
Standing still wasn't an option, so he lit a fag and started walking. He fell into a loose-limbed, ground-covering stride, eyes and ears straining, nostrils drinking in the damp, fetid air. He passed several side-tunnels, puzzling briefly over the signs fastened to the brickwork beside many of them: Help Wanted - No Vampires Need Apply. Trespassers Will Be Eaten. Kittens For Sale - Reasonable Rates. He could hear things down the corridors, beyond the walls - shufflings, slurpings, the beating of hearts as alien as his own. The smells wafting from the dark openings made his nose twitch.
Some ways down the tunnel, a creature in khaki shorts and an over-sized San Diego Zoo t-shirt was sweeping the front stoop of a doorway emblazoned Clement & Family: Bless This Mess. It favored the world at large with an off-key rendition of "Fernando" as it did so, wielding the broom with such vigor that the sagging folds of skin covering its body flapped. When it saw him, it waved a wrinkled paw and gave him a wide, sunny, and extremely sharp-toothed smile. "Hey there! You're out bright and early!"
This was awkward. Pleased to meet you. By the way, what's my name? "Suppose I am," he replied guardedly.
"Early to bed, early to rise, I always say," the creature burbled. It blinked its mild, piggy little eyes. "Up by noon, that's me! Well, I'll see you at the office - Tina's got a class project, and she didn't tell me till today she needed a dozen egg cartons." It shook its head, basset-hound dewlaps quivering. "Kids. Can't live with 'em, can't devour 'em all before they hatch."
"Uh... yeh. Little rascals." He edged past, and the wrinkly thing swung into the first verse of "Dancing Queen" and went back to sweeping. He was, he realized, grinning wildly. There was a whole bloody underworld down here. Could well be he'd walked this stretch every day of his life, but today he was an adventurer in a brave new world.
His stomach rumbled, and he wondered if there was a subterranean restaurant in the offing. He had the feeling he wasn't used to skipping breakfast. Occupied with visions of toast soldiers and eggs and a nice rare steak dripping warm bloody juices, he nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of approaching voices. Flattening against the bricks, he held his breath and listened hard. Voices, yeh, but no heartbeats to match. The scent of something else was growing stronger, raising his hackles in a way the wrinkly thing hadn't. Could they smell him, too, or hear the way-too-slow rhythm of his heart?
Up ahead he could see a junction, where the tunnel he was following joined up with a much larger main. He couldn't quite tell which direction the voices were coming from, but unless he turned tail and ran, there was no way he could avoid them. If he got to the junction first, he'd have some choice about which way to run. On the other hand, maybe he'd done enough running.
The voices were getting louder. He broke into a jog, and sod irony.
He reached the junction at the same moment they did, bursting out of the tunnel mouth. Four smaller tunnels intersected the larger main, meeting in an intricate mandala of stone archways. Gas lines and colour-coded electrical and fibre-optic cable snaked across the algae-stained brickwork, leaping from arch to arch, and narrow, slanting pencils of sunlight pierced the gloom, lancing through the tiny holes in the manhole covers high overhead.
The interlopers stopped dead at the sight of him. There were three of them, skulking figures bundled in layers of ragged, filthy clothing. The leader was wearing a wool hat pulled down over his ears in defiance of the summer heat. He might have thought, at first glance, that they were human, if his nose hadn't been telling him otherwise for the last five minutes. They reeked of stale blood and the rank, swampy pong of unwashed... something. Their feral yellow eyes and fang-distorted grins put paid to any notion that this was a friendly encounter.
"Well, well, well, that cold-blooded bastard was right, after all. If it isn't our good pal William the Bloody," Wool Hat said, rolling the name on his tongue. "Out for a constitutional all on his lonesome."
So he was definitely William. As good a name as any, he supposed, though the possibility that he'd have to live up to 'the Bloody' as a soubriquet was a trifle worrying. And his speculation had been correct - he did have enemies. Obvious villains, this lot, so odds made him the hero of the piece. Or possibly a rakish anti-hero. In any case, stripped of his memories by some Long-Time Nemesis, the hapless victim of a Nefarious Plot. "And what's that to you?" he asked, throwing his shoulders back and trying for nonchalance.
"A golden opportunity." Wool Hat glanced at his comrades. In an instant they'd encircled him, wary and silent as wolves, and William realized with dismay that they were as fast as he was. Long knives and nail-studded boards materialized from beneath shabby coats - though with those fangs, he could scarcely see why they needed any other weapons.
"The locals may be scared to wipe their asses without your say-so, but you're nothing to me," Wool Hat sneered. "A has-been traitor, that's all."
William swallowed. His heart was racing again, for extremely slow values of 'race,' and adrenaline surged through his limbs. He felt at once elated and terrified. Hapless he might be, but not helpless. After all, he was a superhero. He hoped. He nodded at Wool Hat's lackeys. "For someone going up against nothing, you've brought a lot of backup."
Wool Hat's laugh was little better than a bestial growl - but he didn't, William noted, make a move. "I'm not stupid. Get him, boys!"
All three leaped for him with a yell, and William reacted on pure instinct, ducking a swinging board, rolling, springing up and slamming a fist into Number Three's belly. Three staggered back into a stray sunbeam, and spat out a curse as his hair burst instantly into flame. Number Two was coming straight for him, and William met the monster's charge straight-on, shattering weapon and hand both with a vicious snap-kick and jabbing his fingers into a vulnerable eye. Wool Hat was on him and William smashed his head straight into Wool Hat's nose. Wool Hat bellowed in pain and rage, and the metallic tang of alien blood filled the air.
Any one of the blows he'd dealt had enough force behind them to break bones and rupture organs (was it disturbing or reassuring that he knew that?) but the creatures only shook their heads and growled, as if pain were a minor inconvenience. Cursing, Three slapped the flames out and dove back into the fray. William twisted free and raised his fists, balancing lightly on his toes - somewhere, somewhen, he'd learned how to box, thought it seemed his first impulse was to strike below the belt. He feinted and struck again, laughing, lashing out with fists and feet, spinning to meet each new attack with deadly, inhuman strength and grace, high on a cocktail of fear and elation.
It wasn't enough. His nose was streaming blood now, and both forearms were half numb from clumsily blocked blows. His body knew what to do, but his brain hadn't a clue, and he couldn't fight on instinct alone, couldn't just keep reacting instead of acting. They were herding him towards the sunbeams. Two advanced, chuckling. William looked upwards, desperate.
Well, then. Showtime.
He gathered himself and leaped, twenty feet and more into the air. His fingers caught hold of a massive conduit running across the ceiling, adjacent to the nearest manhole cover, and he swung himself back and forth like a gymnast, once, twice, thrice, gathering momentum. Below him Two and Three gawped stupidly after him. He only had a moment; if he could make the jump, so could they. Taking a deep breath, he put all his weight into the last swing and kicked upwards, sending the manhole cover flying up and away into the street.
Pencil-thin shafts of sun expanded instantly into a blazing searchlight. Two, caught in the spotlight, burst into flame like a torch. William fell (in a fashion more reminiscent of one of the more dashingly Miltonian versions of Lucifer, he hoped, than a clumsy git who'd lost his grip on the conduit) driving into Two's face feet-first. The screaming monster hit the ground, and William rolled out of the shaft of light before he could catch fire himself. His exposed skin was crackling, and he could smell the burnt-bacon stench of charring flesh. Christ, it hurt, but he was alive - he'd gambled he could endure the light longer than these far-more-flammable creatures, and he'd won. One down.
He scrambled to his feet, wincing as his right leg buckled under him. Fuck, had he sprained an ankle with that stunt? Sensing his weakness, Wool Hat snarled, raising his knife high -
And disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Three flung his board down and took off running. William squelched the surprisingly powerful urge to chase after him and inflict more damage, spinning instead to stare at his rescuer.
The cavalry was a slender, balding man whose lashless olive-green eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses gave him a disconcertingly reptilian air. He was dressed in utterly ordinary suit and tie, and looked like an accountant transported unaccountably into Neverwhere... but he, too, smelled like Something Else.
"Who the bloody hell are you?" William demanded, aware on some level that he was being ungracious, but not really giving a fuck.
The man looked him up and down, spared a disinterested glance for Two, who was in the process of collapsing into a pile of glowing cinders, and murmured, "Very interesting." He extended a hand. "My name is David Farnham. I've worked for you for fifteen years. And you..." He gazed at William thoughtfully. "That's the sixty-four dollar question, isn't it?"
The door loomed impressively in the wall of the sewer tunnel, as though the city fathers had planned it there. Iron-bound and oaken-planked, it towered well over William's head. The gilt-lettered placard above read:
Service Entrance. Employees Only.
"You're the owner." David produced a large, ornate key from a waistcoat pocket. "We supply spell components to half the wizards and magical supply shops in southern California."
William snorted. "Bit pretentious, isn't it?"
"I wanted fiberglass, actually." David turned the key. "But you insisted on something atmospheric." The door swung open with a sonorous creak. Behind it, oil lamps lit a winding earthen corridor. "I assume you've realized that you're not human."
"The clues were accumulating, yeh." William gave the wooden trusses shoring up the tunnel's ceiling a dubious glance before following David inside. The bits of root poking out of the damp earth didn't inspire confidence. He wasn't sorry to leave the reek of the sewers behind, but despite the save, he wasn't entirely certain this chap was trustworthy. Still, he had a chance to learn something, and he'd be daft not to take it. "So what am I, then?"
David glanced back over his shoulder, face distorting around suddenly emergent fangs, ophidian eyes glinting yellow in the lamplight. "You're a vampire. As I am. The majority of your employees are also vampires - vampires who've agreed to forego killing humans in exchange for your protection from the Slayer."
"A vampire?" William scoffed. "Me? What, like those pathetic gits back in the sewer? Pull the other one, mate. I breathe, I piss, I've got a pulse." Not a very active pulse, but he'd heard somewhere that athletes had a lower heart rate than the average bloke, and judging from his performance back in the sewer, he was Paavo bloody Nurmi.
David shook his head impatiently. "We're not just animated corpses. It's more complicated than that. And you..." He pursed his lips. "Are a special case. Some years ago you contracted a... condition. But rest assured, you're a vampire."
What kind of conditions did vampires get? Had he come down with some kind of supernatural clap? William had little opportunity to ponder the question. The tunnel widened abruptly into a mid-size cavern, furnished in junkyard chic. Mountain ranges of guttering candles clustered on every flat surface, and hand-lettered signs pointed to "Front Office," "Warehouse," and "Showers." The whole place whiffed of vampire. Considerably better-washed vampire than that lot from the sewers, but William felt a territorial growl building up nonetheless.
"Hey!" A small dark girl - vampire, William reminded himself - strode in. "Just the guy I wanna see. Spike, Tanker's giving me grief about the security for tonight. How much of her lip do we take before I get to bite it off?"
William gaped at her. "Er..."
"Spike and I are busy at the moment, Evie," David cut in smoothly. "Deal with Tanker as you think best." With a glance at William, he added, "Within reasonable limits, of course. We don't want to drive them off. Oh, and bring a razor and a change of clothes to Spike's office."
The girl frowned, a hint of suspicion in her brown eyes. "Spike?"
"Uh... yeh. What he said." William made a vague, encouraging gesture. "Deal with him."
Evie's dark brows knit in a puzzled scowl, but with a few foot-dragging, backward looks she turned and went back the way she'd come.
David sighed. "Tanker is a woman," he said low-voiced. "Come on. We'll talk in my quarters. We won't be overheard there."
He waved William in the direction of an archway screened by hanging curtains, and down another short tunnel. The room at the end was small and Spartan, containing a cot, a dresser, a mini-fridge and a bookshelf crammed brimful of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and a motley collection of Romans. A small workbench in one corner was overrun with battalions of tiny pewter figures in various stages of completion. William poked at an exquisitely detailed Napoleonic soldier. "You don't strike me as the type to play at toy soldiers."
"They're military wargaming miniatures," David replied stiffly. "Please don't touch the primer."
William took possession of the single chair, rocking it back on two legs. "How many aliases have I got, anyway?"
"Only the two that I know of." David produced a briefcase from beneath the bed and flipped it open. "I received a call letting me know you'd left home this afternoon behaving erratically. I assume from the fact that you don't recognize me that something's happened to your memory."
The call must have come from the woman he'd scarpered from. Bloody embarrassing, that. "Seems like. I've sussed out a bit of it, but - oi, you wouldn't have a bit of provender stashed around here, would you? I'm famished."
A faint smile quirked David's lips. "There are some constants in the world. I might." He rose, procured a plastic bag of red fluid from the mini-fridge, snipped a corner off with the desk scissors, and poured a measure into a coffee mug. "Here you go."
William was about to protest that he was thinking more along the lines of steak and eggs when the blood-scent hit him like a velvet hammer. He was halfway across the room before he realized he was moving. The entire universe narrowed to the mouth of that coffee mug, and he ripped it from David's hands with a snarl and buried his nose in its crimson depths, gulping ravenously. This was it, the right stuff, liquid ecstasy. He swallowed the last drop with a porn-film moan and licked the inside of the mug, almost cutting his tongue on his ?"
"Bloody hell!" He dropped the mug in surprise. "I've got fangth!"
David plucked the mug out of mid-air and returned it to the top of the fridge. "At the risk of being tedious, I told you so. Human food will fill your stomach, but it won't nourish you... well, in your case that's not entirely true, but blood's still what your body needs above all else."
Perhaps there was something to this vampire business. William felt gingerly along the savage new lines of his brow and tested his fang-points with the pad of his thumb. Still, recollecting the filthy, yellow-eyed things in the sewer inspired nothing but disgust. That wasn't him. "All right, I'm a vampire. But I'm a good vampire, yeh? Fighting my own kind ?" sod that, my own nature!" He rather liked the sound of that. Had a ring to it. He sat up straighter, scarcely noticing his fangs recede as he warmed to the topic. "Battling evil to protect the innocents I once preyed on! Striving for redemption 'gainst impossible odds! Like that Nick Knight bloke, but with less whinging!"
David pinched the bridge of his nose as if his sinuses pained him, and heaved a sigh. "No, you are not a good vampire. You're a sentimental vampire, which is infinitely more annoying."
"You certain?" William shifted uneasily in the chair. "I don't feel evil." How did being evil feel, anyhow?
"That's human blood you're drinking," David said. "Do you want more?"
God, yes. William swallowed hard.
"I think you'll find that when you get hungry enough, your true nature will make itself plain, whatever it may be." David studied him from beneath half-closed lids, chin propped on contemplatively laced fingers. "Briefly, your name is William Henry Pratt, better known as William the Bloody - or more recently, Spike. You were born in 1852, turned in 1880. You're the eldest surviving scion of the Clan of Aurelius, begotten of Drusilla, begotten of Angelus, begotten of Darla, begotten of the Master himself. You're one of the greatest warriors of darkness the world has ever known, the Slayer of Slayers." David paused, unblinking. "Or you were. Once upon a time."
"Warrior of darkness, eh?" William set the mug down and cocked a skeptical eyebrow. "What happened to that?"
"You came to Sunnydale to find a cure for your ailing sire and beloved, Drusilla," David's eyes slid away, as if this part were too painful or embarrassing to relate. "You succeeded - but then you allied with the Slayer to save the world from your grandsire Angelus's plan to plunge it into Hell. Drusilla rejected you, and you were captured by a government agency which installed a behavior-modification chip in your brain that prevented you from killing and feeding on humans. You made another alliance with the Slayer in order to survive, and over the next few years you came to believe that you were in love with her. Even when the chip was eventually removed..." He trailed off with a grimace of distaste.
Rakish anti-hero for certain, then. Couldn't ask for a better origin story than that. William sucked his cheeks in. "What's a Slayer?"
"The Slayer exists to destroy our kind." David rose to his feet. "You're the most powerful vampire in Sunnydale - Master in fact if not name. And she's made you her..." He turned away, lips pressed together in disapproval. "Never mind. If you were in your right mind, you wouldn't appreciate my speaking of her like this."
He wasn't sure he appreciated it now. Epic, wasn't it, the greatest warrior of darkness in yonks falling arse over tit for a warrior of light? Almost poetic. "She's in love with me, then?" He hadn't quite intended it as a question, but it came out that way anyhow.
David gave an uncomfortable shrug. "I'm sure I couldn't say. You've certainly been useful to her in keeping the local vampire population under control."
Not exactly the answer he'd been hoping for. William twisted the wedding ring on his finger. "If we're - "
"That's not important right now," David interrupted. "Tonight, you meet with Anna-Sophia Corvini to discuss the mutual threat to your territories Duke Sebassis poses. Sebassis is the demon Lord of Los Angeles, and you've made him very unhappy. Corvini's a small-time vampire gang leader - no threat to you alone, but if she allies with Sebassis, she'll give the Duke a foothold in Sunnydale. That would be disastrous." David blinked, once, a shutter-click of eyelids down and up again, and William wondered if he ought to mark the event down on a calendar. "Corvini's so far refused your overtures because she's unwilling to abide by the restrictions you impose upon your, er, employees in order to please the Slayer. If you fail to secure her cooperation, Sebassis will crush you."
Looking less and less like an accident, then, losing his memory. Someone wanted to queer the deal. William frowned. "So if I'm under a spell... we deal in blessings and curses and ever-filled purses, yeh? Can't someone here break it?"
"We're suppliers, not practitioners. Without knowing what spell's been used, breaking it will take time. Which we have precious little of." He paused. "Out of curiosity... what precisely makes you assume that you must be a good vampire?"
"I - what?"
David nodded at the empty mug. "Did it occur to you at all that a man may have died to give you your breakfast, and does that bother you in the slightest? Why was your first instinct to get as far away from the Slayer as you could?"
William blinked, nonplused. In truth he hadn't considered the source of that liquid delight at all, nor could he raise more than a scrap of concern about it even now. If the bloke it had come from was already dead, what could he do about it? "I... well, look here! Even a chap who's no good at all can want to be."
"What is it you want, Spike?" David asked, a note of genuine curiosity in his voice. "Goodness, or glory?"
What kind of question was that? "Same thing, innit?"
"You'd best get cleaned up." David's smile was as tight and enigmatic as the rest of him. He reached over and plucked a stray hair from William's shoulder, tucking it into a waistcoat pocket. "I'll inform the Slayer that you're here and she needn't be concerned. I'd avoid saying too much to Evie, if you can. She's worked for you a long time. Longer than I have. But she's not to be trusted."
"And you are?"
"I," David replied shortly, as if William had actually insulted him, "Am loyal to Aurelius. Not to my own comfort." He rose and brushed the knees of his neatly-creased trousers. "Your office is this way."
Spike's - no, his office paired a state of the art computer with a battered walnut desk right out of a Sam Spade movie. Stifling the irrational feeling that he was snooping, William plunked himself down in the comfortable leather chair and rifled through the drawers as soon as David left. He found a collection of bitten pencils, thumb drives, pens that wouldn't write, old stamps, tangled paper clips - and a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses, which was something of a relief.
Settling the glasses on his nose, he turned to the collage of Man U posters, client testimonials, and family photographs papering the walls. From the oldest photos a stranger gazed, all black leather and attitude: insolent blue eyes, razor cheekbones and bleached-blond hair. Not a bad face, all in all. It didn't feel like his own, but the drama of it appealed to him. That was a bloke people would notice.
The most recent photo showed him and the woman from the house, surrounded by children. David hadn't seen fit to mention that bit... or perhaps he had. None of the other vampires he'd run into so far sported a pulse, however sluggish, and according to the date in the corner of the computer screen, the century had turned twice since he had. That mysterious 'condition' he suffered from appeared to be a bad case of life. Going by the photos, he'd aged well, he supposed. Filled out a fair bit since the bleach-and-leather days; he'd been a scrawny little git back then. Deeper lines on his face, a hint of grey in his sandy-brown curls. He wasn't sure if he liked the change or not. A bit... ordinary, really. He didn't look like a superhero. Just a moderately good-looking bloke who hit the weights on a regular basis.
He caught Evie's scent and heard her footsteps long before she knocked. Not that ordinary, he assured himself.
Oh, right, that was him. He tucked the glasses away. "Come in."
Evie slipped in with a bundle of clothing under one arm and a tray of toiletries balanced against her hip. She set the tray down on the desk, handed over the clothes, and sized him up, brown eyes shrewd beneath Frida Kahlo brows. "So what's up? Damn it, Spike, if you're going to change the plans on me again - "
"Lost my memory," William interrupted, suddenly tired of all the subterfuge. David didn't want him mixing with the hoi polloi; best reason, maybe, to do just that. "Are you going to help me get it back, or do I have to kill you?"
Part of him was surprised, a little, at the ease with which the threat left his lips. Evie didn't appear to take it personally. Her jaw dropped for a second and she promptly snapped it shut. "You're shitting me."
"Sadly, no." William examined the razor - an ordinary disposable, thank God - and gave the rest of the supplies a cursory once-over. Did vampires use deodorant? He didn't like the idea; muting all those natural scents would be like going about blindfolded. "So why don't you tell me about the security arrangements for this do whilst I make myself presentable?"
Scrubbing off the stink of the sewer fight over a washbowl filled with chilly water seemed oddly familiar, and shaving gave him time to think. Muscle memory kicked in as he rubbed foam briskly over his jaw, and, scraping it off in even, deliberate strokes, William wondered if he might not have been able to handle the straight-edge after all. Evie was rattling off the details of how many minions Corvini had, and how many Spike had, and how many were to be allowed into the crypt for the negotiations, and what weapons, spells, and extra minions both sides were likely to have concealed in violation of the agreement. Smart girl, but William could tell she was bursting to ask questions instead of answer them.
"That's enough," he said, toweling himself off and running his fingers along the line of his jaw to check for any spots he'd missed. "I've got the gist. Now answer me this: David says Corvini's lot won't wear the Lincoln green because they don't care to give up killing people. What made you decide to throw in?"
Evie's expression turned sullen. She wound a strand of glossy black hair around one finger. "You know I've got that fucking chip in my head," she said. "As soon as I get it out - "
David had mentioned a chip. The only thing the word brought to mind was fried potatoes, but he was afraid that if he asked, she'd be another hour explaining it. "What's keeping you?"
Her jaw jutted. "My employer's crappy insurance plan doesn't cover elective brain surgery."
"Fair enough. What about the others?"
Evie perched on the corner of the desk, one foot swinging, regarding him from beneath dark lashes. "You really don't remember, do you? Most of them? It's just...easier." She bit her lip. "Not everybody's like you, Spike. You were fucking legend. You killed two Slayers, varón, one on one! And then you fell for one, which I gotta tell you is even crazier. Most of us, we just want to get by. Take the easy kills when we can get them, maybe have a little fun breaking heads on the weekends...I mean, shit, deep down we all know we should be out there slaughtering and maiming, but sometimes you just wanna kick back and watch TV."
"So Corvini's... what?" William ran a gel-slick comb through his unruly curls. "Selling herself as the Master with traditional family values?"
"Just about. She's no Angelus, but hell, all she has to do is be eviller than you. Not hard these days."
William tried to decide if he ought to be insulted or not. "You don't think I'm evil, then?"
Evie gave a startled bark of laughter. "Mi chupacabra, I don't think anyone knows what you are any longer."
Including me. William shrugged into the fresh shirt - very posh navy silk; David wanted him dressing to impress, apparently. Where did all this leave him? He couldn't keep wandering through his own life like a baby duckling, following everyone else's lead. Memory or no memory, he had to make a plan. A good plan, well-thought out. He rubbed the back of his skull - the bumps and bruises of flight and fight were already fading, and his ankle felt sturdy enough - and licked his lips. Still a bit peckish, but... hold on. He might have something there. Something absolutely brilliant. "This Slayer's a definite white hat, right? Protect the innocent, smite the ungodly?"
"Well, then," William said with a triumphant nod, "it's bloody obvious, isn't it?" And it really was, when you thought about it. He couldn't imagine why a bloke as clever as he was reputed to be hadn't come up with it before. "We'll tell Corvini's lot they can keep killing, so long as they only kill criminals - murderers and jaywalkers and such. Slayer can't object to us doing her work for her, can she?"
"I dunno, Spike." Evie's brows scrunched. "It sounds good, but the Slayer can be pretty fucking unreasonable."
"I'll just head home and have a chat with her, then." It was past time for that anyway. William tugged his shirt straight, ran a hand through his hair, and beamed at Evie. Felt good to be doing something at last. Obviously he'd have to sweet-talk the Slayer a bit, so she wouldn't get huffy about them muscling in on her territory, and he'd have to look sharp when he was talking the plan up to this Corvini bird, but just deciding upon a course of action lifted a weight from his shoulders. "I'll pick up some suitable evildoer on the way back, offer 'em up to Corvini as earnest money, and everyone's happy. Tell David I'll be back an hour past sundown, and not to get his knickers in a bunch."
William laid the razor neatly beside the wash basin and strode for the door. "One thing, though. Strikes me that whoever cast this spell on me's someone who doesn't want this deal to close. You give some thought to whom that might be, yeh? Have a feeling I'll want to have a chat with them."
Evie grinned, teeth lengthening. "You got it. Hey... could we start killing criminals too? Only fair, right?"
"Don't see why not," he said breezily. "I'll look into it." As he strode down the corridor, William decided that he rather liked Evie. He hoped she wasn't the traitor herself. It'd be a pity to have to kill her after all.
The sewers were a livelier thoroughfare on the journey home - a veritable Goblin Fair of vampires and demons, shuffling, hopping and slithering along beside the gurgling runnels of human filth. William did his best not to stare like a tourist, which wasn't bloody easy considering what was on parade to stare at: vampires in full game face, creatures with scales, creatures with horns, creatures that were nothing but shambling mounds of teeth and fur. He made it a point to saunter confidently through the throng, dispensing the occasional "How d'you do" or lordly nod of acknowledgment. In return he got cheerful waves, disdainful snarls, and the occasional muttered threat - all of which seemed to translate to "Top of the evening!" in demon parlance.
Someone had replaced the manhole cover over his exit, for which he was grateful, although the sun was probably low enough by now that it wouldn't shine directly on him as he climbed up. The scorched coverlet was gone, but knowing what was in store, he thought he could make it back to the house relatively unscathed. He placed a foot on the lowest rung of the access ladder. Glanced up. Stepped back. Rummaged around for his lighter.
One cigarette smouldered into two, and his pacing bid fair to wear a trench in the cement at the bottom of the ladder. William tossed his third butt into the effluvium with a growl, consigning the reputed calming effects of nicotine to the lowest depths of whatever hell happened to have a "Vacancy" sign blinking at the moment. This was ridiculous. He'd thrown himself into a fight against three armed opponents without a second thought; why should he quail at the prospect of confronting a chit of a girl he'd apparently spent the last dozen years in wedded bliss with? Even if she was just possibly playing him for a fool in order to control the rest of the vampires in town?
He felt fangs prick his lip unbidden. Stupid berk. Of all things to take David's word for, why that? He took a deep breath, calling up the memory of the room where he'd awakened, the sights and sounds and textures, the warm homey scents. Didn't make sense - a bird who just wanted to use him might fuck him, but would she marry him? Bear his children?
Before his resolve could falter again, William lunged for the ladder, hauling himself up hand over hand as fast as he could go. He burst out of the manhole into the street, squinting into the blinding light. The front door of the house got the full brunt of the westering sun, but the spreading live oaks provided at least a modicum of shade. With a deep breath, he raced for the shelter of the biggest of the two. He vaulted the rose-hedge onto the porch, shoulder blades crawling with anticipation of the burn, and pressed his nose to the glass of the big picture window in a vain attempt to see inside.
No luck - heavy blackout curtains blocked the view. Fuck. He was starting to smoke again, little wisps of white curling up from his shoulders. With a frustrated glance at the sundrenched front door, William retreated to the bole of the oak tree and considered his options. Knock, and hope he didn't burn to a crisp while waiting for the lady of the house to answer, or...
Two minutes later he was stepping gingerly from the gnarled branches of the oak onto the leaf-covered shingles. A first-storey pair of gable windows overlooked the sloping roof, protected from the sun by the canopy of prickly leaves. In a few silent strides he was kneeling beside the nearest window.
Beyond the glass a curly-headed boy sprawled on the toy-strewn floor, poring over an old pre-WWI atlas, one grubby finger tracing the outline of nations long since dust. A smaller girl made soft "Vrrrrm vrrrrm!" noises as she skimmed a fleet of candy-coloured Hot Wheels across the floorboards.
The boy, William realized, had a heartbeat as slow as his own. He swallowed, throat choked with an unnameable yearning that dwarfed bloodlust to insignificance. His hand trembled on the windowsill. He had no idea why.
The door to the room opened, and William stopped breathing altogether.
She'd traded in the pyjamas for khaki shorts and a pink tank top. She had a crossbow slung over one shoulder and a sleepy-eyed boy of three or so balanced against the opposite hip, and she carried both with the same brisk confidence. She was a few years younger than he seemed to be - mid-thirties, he guessed, and she moved with the smooth power of an athlete, as graceful and deadly as... as he was. She could crack walnuts with those thighs, he'd wager. Might be her tits weren't quite so high, nor her belly quite so flat, as they'd been before popping out three kids, but a bit of softness to temper all that steel wasn't a bad thing, not at all.
She laid the toddler down in his crib, displaying a truly spectacular arse, and William dug his fangs into his lip. Her body spoke of experience, and his britches were getting uncomfortably tight imagining what kind. This was the Slayer. His wife. He didn't even know her name.
The boy looked up from his atlas. He had her eyes. "Mom? When's Dad coming home?"
"I don't know, honey." The Slayer sighed, a note of very unromantic irritation in her voice. David said - "
"Daddy!" the toddler caroled, bolting upright and rattling the crib slats lustily.
The Slayer stopped mid-sentence, pivoting to face the window. She couldn't possibly see him through the leaves, not at this angle. A lock of tawny-gold hair slipped free of the artfully untidy bun piled atop her head, and she shook it back, frowning. "Spike?" She took a step forwards and flung open the window, bringing the crossbow up at ready. "Spike, I know you're out there. David's being all weird and avoidy, and you're being even weirder and avoidier. What's going on?"
The bolt was pointing straight at his heart. Incipient boner to raging hard-on in zero to sixty. Apparently he had a bit of a thing for dangerous women. He wanted her. Wanted to fight her, fuck her, bury his nose in her hair, his fangs in her neck and his cock in her pussy with a lust so primal he thought his balls were going to explode.
"Slayer," he croaked.
The Slayer frowned. "Spike? What is wrong with you?"
He'd hoped for a bit more, "Oh, William, I'm so glad to see you!" from a loving spouse. Not a question he could answer in twenty-five words or less, in any case. Before he could make the attempt, a jangle of music erupted - now really, would he marry someone with a Faith Hill ringtone? Without taking her eyes off him or her finger off the crossbow's trigger, the Slayer fished her cell phone out of her shorts pocket and flipped it open one-handed. "Hello? Yeah, he's here. I don't know, David, why don't you ask him?" She thrust the phone through the window. "Your creepy and increasingly annoying minion."
William took it and tried to think chaste thoughts. Didn't work very well. "Yeh?" he growled.
David's voice sounded a hair less cool and collected than usual. "Spike, what are you doing? It's almost sundown. You should be here, preparing!"
"Had a few preparations of my own to see to. Bloke's got a right to talk to his own wife, hasn't he?"
"The Slayer won't thank you if these negotiations fall through." David was starting to sound distinctly harried. "Evie told me about your idea. It's an excellent one, but I promise you, it'll take more than two hours to convince the Slayer of its merits. This is vampire business, and we simply haven't time for you to beg her permission." David hesitated. "There's an establishment called Bite Club on Seventh and Elm. Meet me there. I don't believe it'll be difficult to find someone who's... suitable for our purposes."
Beg her permission? He didn't like the sound of that. He reminded himself that David most likely had an axe to grind. "Yeh, fine, I'll be there in a bit." He flipped the phone closed and tossed it at the Slayer, who caught it and pocketed it without missing a beat. With the challenging note that had served him well thus far, William gestured to the crossbow. "What's with the ironmongery, Slayer? Don't trust me?"
She cocked her head. "What's my middle name?"
William gaped. He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately. "Uh..."
The Slayer heaved a sigh. "Thought so. So, spill. Are you ensorceled, mind-controlled, an evil twin, from an alternate dimension, or just acting really freaking strange for no reason?"
The girl looked up from her Hot Wheels and asked with great seriousness, "Daddy, are you a zombie now?"
"None of the bloody above," William replied crossly. "I'm a perfectly ordinary vampire, or so I'm told. And I've lost my memory, so pardon me if I find it a bit unnerving to return to the bosom and be met with death threats - " Something in her expression made him narrow his eyes. "You really don't trust me, do you? Think I'm going to go off on a killing spree, or suchlike."
"Mom!" The older boy scrambled to his feet, his eyes reproachful. "Dad wouldn't - "
The Slayer flinched as if he'd struck her. "That's not fair, and you know it. Or - you would know it, if - " She broke off with a huff, which did lovely things to her cleavage under the pink cotton. "It's not about trust," she went on, low-voiced and earnest. "If you don't remember who Spike is..."
Disappointment and wounded pride overtook him - in her eyes, then, he wasn't the rakish anti-hero at all, only the villain duped into virtue by her charms. David had been right, after all. "Remains to be seen," William snapped. "But I've heard a thing or two about who Spike was."
He spun around, blurry-fast, and leaped for the oak. He heard her shout "Spike! Wait!" behind him, but he wasn't about to loiter about here. He needed.... he needed another fight, was what he needed. Someone's face to punch in, someone's throat to -
Bite Club. Seventh and Elm. David would be waiting.
By the time William navigated the maze of the sewers to Seventh and Elm, the sun was hiding behind the downtown skyline, and he was able to emerge onto the street and stroll the few remaining blocks to his destination. Downtown... where the hell was he, anyhow? He hadn't thought to ask. Wherever it was, the streets were as crowded as the sewers below, and his nose told him that not all of the above-ground denizens were as human as they made themselves out to be. Still, most of the jostling multitude were real boys and girls. And every single one of them smelled delicious.
It wasn't all bad, being a moderately good-looking bloke who hit the weights on a regular basis. He got looks. Admiring ones, even. Some of the women in this burg might appreciate having a demon lover who'd forsworn his evil nature. Which he obviously had. Whatever the bloody Slayer might think. William strolled down Elm in the lingering dusk, while ice cream parlors and trendy boutiques gave way to tattoo parlors and bike shops, plans wheeling through his head. He'd find a wrongdoer, preferably a nice vicious trunk murderer. Catch 'em in the act and kill 'em in a suitably dramatic fashion. Then he could present the Slayer with a fait accompli: Corvini as their ally, and the vile Duke Sebassis's plans for world domination thwarted yet again.
"Like to see the bitch call me evil then," he muttered. The thought cheered him - returning as conquering hero, rather than crawling ignominiously in at the window because he couldn't brave the bleeding front door.
Bite Club was located on the second floor of a ramshackle building dating back to the sixties. From the outside, it looked like any other seedy bar. A red-lipped mouth with giant neon fangs blinked and hummed overhead, and a hulking vamp in full game face and biker tattoos played bouncer outside the door, admitting hopeful patrons on the basis of cool, or perhaps tastiness.
David was waiting on the corner, neon reflecting off his bald spot, an unprepossessing figure amidst the spiked hair and pierced eyebrows affected by the lineup of prospective clubgoers. William jerked a thumb at the sign. "This what it looks like?"
"A place where vampires gather to feed without killing? Yes. Though there are occasionally... accidents." David pronounced the last word with quiet relish. He glanced at his watch. "If you don't mind, I've got something to pick up at Rack's before we head inside. It's just over there."
Aside from the wrought-iron staircase leading up to Bite Club's front entrance, there were no obvious doorways to be seen. "It is?"
Disappointment flashed in David's eyes, and was just as swiftly gone. "The entrance is cloaked. Only those with a certain... I thought you'd be able - never mind, it's not that important. I can take care of it later." He waved towards the staircase. "After you."
The bouncer grinned as the two of them approached. He crossed bulging arms across his massive chest, not precisely blocking their way, but making no effort to let them pass, either. "Slumming it again tonight, Spike? S'matter, Slayer cut off your drinks as well as your - "
Without much having to think about it, William's left hand shot out, stiffened fingers ramming into Biker-Vamp's larynx. Biker-Vamp's eyes bugged out and he collapsed to his knees, clutching his throat. That was more like it. "Take a note," William advised, brushing past. "I'm in a bad mood."
The club's interior was surprisingly low-key. No Transylvanian decor or Dracula posters; perhaps you didn't need them when you had the real thing. He and David pushed their way inside amidst a blare of trendy music and vampire-friendly lighting. A waitress breezed up, pulse throbbing delectably beneath a black velvet choker. Her name tag read "Violet" in blood-red rhinestones. "Hey, Spike! Long time no see! If you're here to break heads, give me a tip-off so I can sneak out the back, won't you? I got classes tomorrow. What'll you have?"
"The usual?" William hazarded, as David shepherded him towards a table in the back.
It didn't take long to suss out that most of the patrons tarted up in black leather and studs were human. They stuck to the bar for the most part, while the vampires kept to the candlelit tables and booths on the far side of the room. The two species met to gyrate on the dance floor: coming together, breaking apart, drifting away in ones or twos or occasional threes. William watched in fascination as a dubiously-legal boy with goth eyeshadow and multiple piercings shimmied up to a tall lean woman in dreads and a Bob Marley t-shirt. The pounding music made it difficult for even his ears to pick up their whispered colloquy, no doubt a major reason why it was pounding in the first place. The woman laughed, her fangs gleaming ivory against her dark skin. A wad of crumpled bills passed from hand to discreet hand, and the boy was tugging the woman towards one of the shadowy alcoves in the rear of the club.
"That's how it goes here, then?" William asked. "We pay them to let us bite 'em?"
"At first," David slipped into his chair with a disapproving glance at the dancers. "After awhile, they pay us. It wasn't always like this," he added, voice tinged with disgust. "Before the Slayer came we ruled Sunnydale, and the humans were our cattle. Now vampires are merely a... a commodity. It's an abomination. A mockery of everything we are."
Violet returned with a club soda for David and a bottle of Guinness and a wink for William. William slouched down in his chair and drummed his fingers on the table. He had to admit that the club's arrangement made sense, but something in him revolted nonetheless. The whole business seemed... cheap. Cheap and sordid. And yet Violet knew him by name and favorite beer. "Did I... come here often, before?"
"I'm not privy to the details of your private life." David toyed with the swizzle stick in his club soda, and then took... well, mercy would be the wrong word for it. "Several of your employees frequent this establishment - that was Elyse who just left. You enforced the Slayer's law here. And your own, of course."
There had been no bite scars on the Slayer's neck. The thought of putting one there simultaneously aroused and horrified him. William shifted to ease the pressure in his trousers and changed the subject. "Can't say as I'm noticing villainy thick upon the ground hereabouts."
"Prostitution is illegal in California," replied David, with an almost prissy sniff. "And these humans derive a sexual thrill from being bitten. Everyone here is breaking the law, in spirit if not in fact. That's why I suggested it. Much more efficient than trying to catch a wandering crackhead in the act of stealing Ipods."
William took a swig of his beer and frowned. "Really hoped for something more impressive than some damp little vampire fetishist who fancies an after-hours suck job."
David made an impatient tching noise. "We don't have much time, Spike. We don't need to impress Corvini, just feed her."
It wasn't Corvini he wanted to impress. William studied the patrons with what he hoped was a calculating, predatory eye. Surely in a barrel this large, there had to be one or two apples gone off. He skimmed the line-up at the bar, the huddled couples at the tables, the writhing bodies on the dance floor -
A thrill ran through him, at once familiar and new. The woman was human, young, pretty, but not dressed to show it off - big bulky sweater-dress over black tights. She bobbed her way through the other dancers, stepping on toes here, bumping hips there, slurred apologies lost in the driving beat. Two sheets and a pillowcase to the wind. But her eyes were a little too sharp, her stumbles a hair too calculated.
"That one?" David followed his gaze, shrugged. "Not my first choice, but I suppose she'll do."
"Look again," William settled back and grinned as another wallet disappeared into the voluminous folds of the sweater-dress, so neatly only vampire eyes could have caught it. "Best bloody pickpocket I've seen in..." Well, in twenty-four hours. But who picked pockets in the age of phishing scams and identity theft? No one used cash anymore... except at places like Bite Club, where the patrons might favor transactions that wouldn't show up on their next credit report. A lost art, that was, and the bint had balls of steel anyway, nicking blunt from the very vampires she'd just paid to suck her off. "Strikes me that if we just take her down here, no explanation given, we could leave the fangy set with the impression they're free to take liberties."
"Heaven forbid," said David, martini-dry. "We'll just have to convince her to leave the premises, and do this somewhere less public." He leaned forward, serpentine eyes unwavering. "Or rather, you will."
William blinked. "I?"
"It will make a statement to Corvini if you do it yourself. And besides..." David made a self-deprecating gesture. "My hunting technique is adapted to other environments. Believe me, Spike. You can do this."
Could he? William clenched his left hand into a fist, the gold band on his ring finger digging cold and uncompromising into the flesh. "Right, then," he muttered, rising to his feet. "Once more into the breach."
Let's see - didn't have his wallet on him, but the fistful of dollars he'd liberated from himself this morning was still burning a hole in his back pocket. William adjusted his jeans a little lower on his hips and made sure that Ben Franklin was peeping out of the pocket as he stepped out onto the dance floor.
He'd done this before. Maybe not of late, and maybe not in this club, but his body remembered these moves as surely as it remembered the punches and kicks of the earlier fight. It was a bit of luck, he thought, that he apparently did know how to dance. Bloody disaster if he'd turned out to have two left feet. Or two right feet, seeing as he was left-handed.
He focused on the girl, losing himself in her scent and her movements as the other dancers lost themselves in the beat. The toss of her hair, the sway of her body. He maneuvered closer, cutting her out of the herd. They were dancing together long before she realized it, and once she did, she probably thought she'd picked him out of the crowd. Might or might not have fingered him for a vamp. Might or might not have cared if she had. There were bite marks on her neck, scabbed over but not yet healed - not tidy Hollywood punctures, but a painful-looking half-moon of torn flesh. That could be the reason she needed the dosh, but there didn't have to be a reason, did there? Sometimes you did things just because you could.
William let his fangs descend, reveling in the pleasure-pain of the change. He shadowed her movements, snake-hipped and sinuous, stalking in rhythm, hunting in sound. Making sure she caught a flash of the green in his back pocket as they circled one another. The girl laughed, miming exaggerated terror as he drew closer. His hands air-traced the contours of breast and hip, fangs a hairsbreadth away from the moist heat of her skin. He could smell her arousal through the funk of sweat and adrenaline; he was half-hard himself, and he let her feel it. Her hands slid down his sides, cupped his arse -
If he hadn't been expecting it, he might not have noticed, she was that good. But he was expecting it, and reflexes which had seemed merely adequate when matched against other vampires were mind-blowingly fast next to a human's. His fingers clamped around her wrist before hers had a chance to tug the bills free of his pocket. William yanked her close to his chest, her little cry of pain sweeter music to his ears than the industrial shite thumping away on the sound system.
The girl glared up at him, jaw clenched. Sweat beaded on her brow, smelling for the first time of real fear. "I'll scream for security."
William grinned. "And I'll summon the gendarmes." He pressed closer, his free hand caressing the lumpy outline of the wallets she'd already stowed away. "Or we can take this somewhere more private and come to a civilized agreement."
She held his eyes for the longest minute of his new life, and then, with a short, choppy nod, spun around and headed for the rear entrance. William followed her, barely aware of David leaving his seat and trailing after. He felt as jittery as a boy on his first date. Out the exit, past the restrooms, down the back stairs. Distorted echoes of the music from the club vibrated the bannisters and pounded in his bones. There was the door into the alley behind the club, and what exactly was he going to do when they got out there? It seemed a bit of a waste to kill her, somehow. She really was a bloody brilliant pickpocket.
The girl seemed to have her own ideas. She broke into a sprint the moment she hit the cracked and grimy pavement, leaving a trail of stolen wallets behind her like breadcrumbs. She might as well have been standing still. William cut her off in an eyeblink. She zigged, he zagged. She doubled back, but he was already waiting for her. Cat and mouse, all up and down the alley, till he laughed out loud from the sheer joy of toying with her. At last she made a stand in front of the Dumpster. In the glare of the security lights she wasn't so pretty any longer: hair disheveled, chest heaving, pale as he was and a lot less healthy-looking.
Defeated, she stuck out one arm and rolled up her sleeve, revealing a skinny, pallid wrist tattooed in a mosaic of ragged crescent scars. "Fine. You caught me. You get a free shot. Let's get it over with," she said. The defiance in her stance almost hid the slight wobble in her voice.
Now what? William deflected a stab of panic. "It's not going to be like that."
Her fingers brushed the half-healed wound on her neck. "What, you think it's too soon? I know how much I can give before - hey. You're that Spike guy, aren't you?" Suspicion laced her voice. "You don't bite people. Everyone knows that."
William scowled. "Do they?"
Her eyes were shrewd. "If it's not my blood you want - "
"Stop that!" William snarled, slapping her hands aside before she could hike her skirt up more than an inch or two. "I'm a happily married man. I think. Paragon of virtue." He trapped her wrists in his left hand, slammed her up against the Dumpster, right hand clamped over her mouth. She squirmed and struggled against the rusting, graffiti'd metal, a bundle of twigs beneath his weight. Her terror perfumed the squalid alley. More than half-hard, now. He pressed his lips close to her ear and breathed, "You, on the other hand, you've been very naughty."
"Excellent," said David's dry, cool voice in the doorway behind him. "But a little exposed. Take her behind the Dumpster, and finish it."
Beneath the heel of his hand the girl was chanting, "No, no, no, please, no, please..." and William growled, a deep rumble of anticipation. The siren beat of her pulse combined with her muffled whimpers went straight to his crotch. All David's bitching and moaning about Bite Club being a travesty made sense now. He got it. He understood. What went on inside was a sad, pathetic game, a parody of something true and vital. This was real. His fangs were aching, his cock straining for release. And yet... there was something... something he was forgetting.
William scrunched his eyes shut, shook his head hard. Something important... oh! Of course! "This one's already down a few pints," he said, hoarse. "We hand her over to Corvini, odds are there won't be enough of her to go around. Not hardly hospitable."
David made a lemon-sucking face. "There's no time to find someone else, Spike. Just kill her and let's get home. My car's parked just down the alley."
The girl sobbed. Suddenly furious, William backhanded her, hard. Her head banged the metal side of the Dumpster. "Shut it, you cowering slag! This is what you wanted, innit? To be bitten by vampires? What the fuck have you got to complain about?" He turned on David. "Wouldn't this Corvini bird rather make the kill herself?"
David vamped out. "Spike," he hissed, "Stop making excuses."
"I'm not making - "
William heard the hiss of a crossbow bolt in flight a fraction of a second before it hit home - time enough, if he'd been on guard and knew exactly where it was coming from, to snatch the bolt in mid-air. But he wasn't and he didn't and he staggered with the impact as the agony of a broken scapula exploded through his left shoulder. His left arm fell limply to his side. He spun around with a snarl and caught a brief glimpse of dark figures on the rooftop overhead, limned in the sanguine glow of neon, and then the Slayer came down like the proverbial Assyrian on the equally proverbial fold, with Evie right behind her.
Why didn't their Artful Dodger take advantage, throw him off and run? He couldn't have stopped her; she could have gotten away clean. But no, she was too paralyzed by fear... or perhaps he'd knocked her silly against the Dumpster. Bloody buggering fuck.
The Slayer planted both fists on her hips and looked William straight in the eye. "Now," she said conversationally. "About that killing spree you weren't going on?"
Something in him curled up and died of shame right on the spot. Wasn't his hard-on, worse luck; Little William seemed inclined to regard the excitement of the last ten minutes as mere pre-show, and was now raring to get to the main act. Right. So he was the sort of bloke who was more turned on by the thought of a girl killing him than by the thought of killing a girl. Brilliant. Everything was going completely pear-shaped. He really should have held out for an axe murderer.
"Now wait just a minute," William protested. He hauled the sobbing pickpocket to her feet and made a feeble, one-handed attempt to dust her off. "You don't understand. Let me explain."
Neither the Slayer's gaze nor her crossbow wavered. "You can explain after you let her go."
"Wait." David's voice was low and intense. "Think carefully. Why should you listen to her?"
Fantastic. No better time for David to go completely barmy. "For one thing, mate, she's the one with the crossbow."
"So order us to jump her," David said with an imperturbable look at Evie, who didn't look altogether pleased at the suggestion. "She can only shoot one of us before she has to reload, and the other one gets her. Let your victim go, and you'll be making an enormous mistake."
The Slayer regarded David with a thoughtful head-tilt, as if he were a bug she wasn't quite decided upon squashing yet. "You're making a bigger one," she said. "Truce? Officially over."
David ignored her. His eyes were cobra's eyes, mesmerizing. "You know what you are now. What you were made for. You've tasted what it means to be a vampire - the blood and the power and the poetry of it. Everything she's kept you from, all these years. All you have to do is reach out and take it."
William's mouth went suddenly dry, and the girl's fevered pulse was a drumbeat pounding in his ears. "Spike, don't," the Slayer said tightly. "We can get your memory back. Evie, show him what you found."
"Evie, you're not the Slayer's minion," David snapped.
Evie looked from David to the Slayer and back to William. "Shit. I shoulda brought popcorn." She hitched one hip up on a bale of compressed cardboard and nodded at David. "OK, you know what? I'm not gonna piss off the Slayer by siding with you. And I'm not gonna piss you off by siding with the Slayer, either. There's only one guy in this alley signs my paychecks." She grinned at Spike. "How's it hanging, El Jefe?"
"Long and low," William growled. "What's the Slayer on about?"
"I did me some thinking after you left." Evie fished around in her jacket pocket. "No brujo with any brains is gonna stop you on the street and wave his arms and chant, 'cause that's just asking for a knife in the eye. So whoever put the whammy on you probably used a talisman. Which means they had to hide it someplace nearby. If it was a vamp, they wouldn't have an invite to your house. So I did some snooping around your office first." She held up a grungy little cloth doll. "Found this buried under your desk."
The doll was dressed in a crudely stitched black tunic - the fabric was stiff with dried blood, and looked very similar to the damaged t-shirt he'd left in his office. Half a dozen curly hairs were glued to the thing's head, and a dirty wad of cotton wound around its lumpy, oversized skull, affixed with an old-fashioned hatpin driven straight between the blue-worsted eyes. It stank of magic. William repressed a shudder.
"I've got a call in to Willow," said the Slayer, as if that was supposed to mean something. "As soon as she tells us how to destroy it without destroying you, you're yourself again."
"And what makes you think I'm not myself now?" William snarled. He reached over his shoulder and yanked the crossbow bolt free, and shook the bloodstained shaft at David's nose. "You must think I'm thick as two short planks, mate, if you think I don't notice when a chap's egging me on." He rounded on the Slayer. "And you - you're no better! Thinking I'm going to run off and kill the first - all right, I was going to kill her, but..."
An unaccountable sadness welled up within him. They'd all known him so much better than he knew himself. "I really am evil, aren't I?"
The Slayer's eyes brimmed with emotion he couldn't read. "Yes," she said.
William glanced down at the girl, still cradled one-armed to his chest, gulping, hopeless sobs wracking her thin frame. The tantalizing scent of her fear permeated the air, and his fangs ached in their sockets. "You really don't trust me."
Those remarkable eyes squeezed shut for a second, then flashed open. Wide. Vulnerable. Daring him to take her beating heart, and rip it asunder. The Slayer lowered her crossbow.
And William fell in love.
Features shifting back into human shape, he gave the pickpocket a shake. "All right, Modesty Blaise. What's your name?"
"S-su-susie," she squeaked.
"Susie. Christ." He spun her around and shoved her towards the mouth of the alley. "Off you go, Susie, and take this little interlude as a lesson. Sodding well don't get caught next time."
The girl stared at him as if he'd grown a second head. She stumbled a few steps down the alley, then wheeled and screamed at the Slayer, "Why don't you kill him?"
The Slayer gave an irritated sigh. "Because he didn't kill you. This is the part where I'm supposed to give you an inspirational speech and turn your life around, but I'm paying the babysitter time and a half, so here's the Reader's Digest version: you're being incredibly stupid. Stop it."
Susie's mouth worked. Then she whirled and was gone, the rapid-fire tattoo of her footsteps fading in the distance.
David made an inarticulate noise. "You can't - "
"Just did." William rubbed his jaw. "Suppose we'll have to stop for appetizers on the way back to the crypt. They have a Fortnum & Mason's around here?"
"Look me in the eye and tell me," said David with clipped fury, "That you've ever felt more alive than you did when that girl's neck was beneath your fangs."
William pursed his lips, recalling his first scent of Slayer. "Matter of fact, yes, I have." Another recent memory returned to him: David, carefully removing the stray hair from his shoulder, and just as carefully tucking it away. For use in making more repulsive little poppets, no doubt. Talk about the power behind the throne. He supposed he ought to feel betrayed, but he just didn't know any of them that well. "Here's what I don't get, mate. Stands to reason that whoever did this to me wants to bugger up the deal with Corvini, and give this Sebassis wanker his in. But I'd lay any odds you're keen for the deal to go through." He vamped out, baring his fangs. "So tell me: what was the sodding point of all this?"
David raised his chin. "Weren't you listening? I am loyal to Aurelius. And you were the last of the great Aurelians. For fifteen years I've been waiting for you to see reason, to lift our line from the ashes and set the world afire once more. I'd have waited fifteen, fifty, a hundred years more, until she died and you came to your senses, but no - you had to make a grand, romantic, stupid gesture with that Mohra blood, and make yourself mortal." He took a deep, pained breath. "I had to show you, don't you see? Before it was too late. Before you got old. I took your memory away so you'd remember who you really are." His voice was icy with a conviction no less passionate for its chill. "And you did. You would have killed her if the Slayer hadn't stopped you. And enjoyed it."
William rocked back and forth on his heels, contemplating the other vampire. "You're right," he said at last. "That's what I am." With one swift motion, plunged the crossbow bolt, still glistening with his own dark blood, straight into David's heart. The betrayal in David's eyes, he guessed, was enough for both of them. "But it's not what I want to be." As the ashes drifted down to the dirty pavement, he whispered, "I want to be the hero."
Evie eyed the pile of dust. "Well, fuck. Now we need another accountant. He was the only one who knew the code to the safe. Can I have his office?"
The Slayer slumped against the stair rails to Bite Club's back entrance and adjusted the earpiece of her cell. "Xander? It's OK. You can stand down."
William looked up, startled, just in time to see a third, bulkier figure slip down below the roofline, carrying something suspiciously rifle-shaped. "You had backup?" he squeaked, half an octave higher than the hero of the piece ideally ought.
The Slayer sauntered over with a blinding smile, stood on tiptoe, and planted a kiss on the tip of his nose. "Honey? I love you. But I'm not stupid."
Late morning sunlight hammered at the bedroom window. The light couldn't penetrate the curtains, but its warmth suffused the room, easing the maddening deep-down itch of knitting bone in Spike's shoulder. Buffy rode his cock like an Amazon queen, flushed and triumphant - You're mine, buster, and don't forget it again. The bed creaked in lazy rhythm beneath them as her hips rocked against his. Words might come later. Here and now they conversed in their native tongue, the language of flesh and blood.
Buffy came with a sharp, startled cry, as if it still took her by surprise, after all these years, how good he could make her feel. She clapped a hand to her mouth, half guilty, half laughing ?" Bill and Connie were off to school, but Alex was napping in his bedroom. Spike followed her in short order, but that was all right; they'd both had their fair share by now, and this was just both of them being greedy. He settled back against the pillows with a contented rumble - she would call it purring, no matter how often he insisted otherwise - as his Slayer collapsed across his chest with a happy little moan.
The room was no different. Buffy was no different. Her body was the map of their lives: the fine lines at the corners of her eyes that she moisturized so religiously, the ghostly striations of stretch marks across the small soft pillow of her belly, the near-invisible fretwork of scars, legacy of twenty years of slaying. But somehow home seemed fresh and new for his having lost it, however briefly. If his penance for forgetting her was to memorize her all over again, then let the punishment fit the crime.
"You're sure Corvini won't back out of the deal?" Buffy murmured at last.
Time for the words, then. Spike gave a one-shouldered shrug. His belly was full, his balls were drained, and at the moment he didn't give a tinker's damn about vampire politics. "Who knows? Evil and all. But it's to her advantage. She'll be a bigger fish in this little pond as my second in command than as Sebassis's lackey." He chuckled, hooking his good arm behind his head. "Suppose I ought to thank David for opening up the position."
Buffy lay quiet for a moment, toying with the little whorl of hair around his navel. Her eyes were on the nightstand where the doll lay. Harmless, now, though Willow'd given him quite the lecture on practicing safe hex once she'd told them how to disarm it. "You weren't exactly what any of us expected, I guess."
"Christ, don't remind me. What a git." He reached across and picked up the doll. One strand of stolen hair glinted silver in the diffuse light. "S' just...strange. I was so sure I was a good man. A hero." Recalling that certainty was... disconcerting. "But I went off the rails anyway.""
"For a guy who can't tell where the rails are, you did okay." Buffy nuzzled his uninjured shoulder until he dropped the doll and wrapped his arm around her. "Maybe I can't trust you to be good. But I can always trust you to be you. Even when you don't remember who you is." She gave his chest a little pat. "And I need you to be you even more than I need you to be good." Her eyes narrowed. "Not that I'm letting you off the 'be good' hook any time soon. As close to good as you can get, anyway."
He could've smirked and said something like, "Lying next to you's as close to good as I'm ever likely to get, love." But he hadn't been able to find the entrance to Rack's place in fifteen years, and that took a bit of the swagger out of a bloke. Not good enough to feel a twinge for Susie's potential sad demise, nor bad enough to see through Rack's cloaking spell... he'd thought 'okay' was good enough, once upon a time. He wasn't so sure any longer. "Funny thing is, it's easier to stay on the straight and narrow when I know I'm evil."
"You really do miss it, don't you?" Buffy asked. She sounded... sad? Wistful? So hard to tell, sometimes, with the souled. "Killing people."
"Course I do. Sometimes. But..."
"Mommy? Daddy?" Alex was standing in the bedroom doorway, drowsy and obdurate. "I want juice."
"'s nap time, little man. Your Mum and I are fair knackered."
Dark brows knit and rosy little-boy lips shaped a pout. "Want juice now."
"All right, then. Give us a moment." Spike tossed the doll into the wastebasket and fumbled for his jeans.
Buffy caught his wrist as he pulled the jeans on and rolled out of bed. "I'll get it," she said. "Your arm - "
Spike slid his left arm out of the sling and flexed his fingers experimentally. Could do with a few more days of mending, but... "It'll do." A trifle sheepishly, he added, "Might need some help with the can opener." He bent and scooped Alex up. "What was it you wanted again? Greasy grimy gopher guts?"
Alex giggled, clinging to his neck. "Juice!"
"Mutilated monkey meat?"
"All-purpose porpoise pus?"
"Ah, juice. Got it." Wasn't just a matter of souls or the lack thereof. He'd crossed some kind of Rubicon when his heart began to beat again, when his investment in the future became embodied in someone other than himself, but there was no single choice that had led him to this house, to this room, to her bed. David had never understood that the man who'd made the first of those choices wasn't the same one who'd made the last.
He met Buffy's eyes over the top of their son's head. "Trust me on this one, love. Taking life's not a patch on making it."
Buffy laughed. "I'll remind you of that the next time some of the life we've made leaves an ice cream cone in the back seat of your car."
They went downstairs together, the Slayer's small hand warm on his shoulder. He might never be able to bear the full light of the sun, but Christ, it felt good to stand close.