The replacement mailman was staring at him again.
Spike abandoned his daily ogle of Harmony's cleavage to whirl round and catch the bastard in the act.
For a moment, two beady black eyes glared balefully into his from under bushy white eyebrows. Then the bloke turned his shoulder and stomped off, pushing his little cart – or more like waddled off. He was fat – really, really fat.
"What's his problem?" Spike leaned his elbow on the counter. Fat-and-grouchy was familiar, no mistake, but he couldn't quite place him.
Harmony was buffing her already perfect manicure. "Mr Klaus? Oh, that's just his way, Spikey. He looks at everyone like that."
"Yeah? Like he fancies their entrails for breakfast?"
Frowning in puzzlement, Spike thrust his hands in his duster pockets, fingers closing around the comforting shape of his lighter. In his experience, nothing stimulated the old grey cells better than a hit of nicotine; but after the previous incident with the flooding and Angel getting trapped in his office by rising waters along with a bunch of terrified fire demons, lighting up again near the smoke alarms seemed like pushing his luck.
It had been funny, though - especially the way the fire demons had threatened to incinerate Angel unless he produced a life raft asap.
And a fire would do this place a world of good right about now. Spike grimaced as he glanced up at the festive garlands draped across the walls and ceiling and the sprays of holly and bunches of mistletoe hanging from the light-fittings.
Not to mention the enormous Christmas tree standing in one corner, gaudy with glass baubles and tinsel. There was a fairy with little silver wings skewered to the topmost branch – and it wasn’t even a real one. He’d checked.
"I don't get it," he said. "I honestly don't get it."
"Don't get what?" Harmony had put down her nail buffer and was flipping through a glossy magazine. On either side of her computer monitor, unicorns, each with its own miniature tinsel garland, kicked up their china heels.
"This place is supposed to be evil, right?"
"Sure," Harmony said, in a vacant tone, eyes on her magazine.
Then she clutched the magazine tightly to her chest, looking up at him with big, scared eyes. "Was evil. Was. We're totally not evil now, remember? Not since they made Angel boss."
"Yeah, right." Spike smirked at her, while she looked over her shoulder nervously in the direction of Angel's office.
"He didn't tell you to ask me that, did he?"
"What? No!" Spike's smirk turned to a glower. "Angel doesn't tell me what to do. I'd like to see him try."
Harmony looked relieved. "Oh good! Cuz I was worried for a minute there –what with the weekly evilness tests and the purges."
She went back to flipping through her magazine, dismissing him.
Spike scowled at her bowed head. Time was, she couldn't get enough of looking at him. He rapped his knuckles on the counter-top to attract her attention.
"Is that why Angel signed off on this sodding Christmas party tonight, then? Would've thought he'd learned his lesson about parties after what happened at Halloween."
Harmony looked up again. She blinked. "Huh? What do you mean? Is what why he signed off on it?"
Spike rolled his eyes. Didn't she ever listen? "To show how not evil this place is nowadays, o'course. What did you think I meant?"
"Ooh." Harmony put the magazine down. "No. We've always had one." She leaned forward confidentially, displaying even more of her greatest asset, which was never a bad thing in Spike’s opinion.
"Of course, before Angel came along, they were more – traditional? You know –the end of year celebrations, goat-sacrifices, orgy kind of Christmas party, rather than the eggnog and Santa's Grotto kind?"
"Santa's Grotto?" Spike stared at her. "There's gonna be a Santa's Grotto?"
"Sure." Harmony laced her fingers together and rested her chin on them. Her gaze had become unfocussed, and she sighed a nostalgic sigh. "I loved Christmas when I was a kid. It was so fun! Thinking it might snow, though it never did except one time. The presents. The presents were the best.”
Spike rolled his eyes again. "Bet your mum and dad spoiled you rotten."
Her vacant blue gaze came back to him. She pouted slightly. "Sure they did. In fact, I was careful to thank them for it right before I killed them. And don't be mean to me. It is the season of good will."
"Yeah, yeah." Spike smirked at her again. I'd say 'bah humbug!' if I thought you'd have the least idea what I meant."
"Hey!" Harmony's pout grew poutier. "I saw that movie. Mini Kermit with the little wooden crutch was totally adorable."
She made to pick up her magazine again, but since he had bugger all else to do, Spike wasn't quite ready to leave her in peace yet.
"Who's bein' Santa, then? Is it Angel? Way he's goin' he'll be the right size for the part soon enough."
Harmony snorted in amusement, before throwing another worried look in the direction of Angel's office. "No, it's not. In fact, I'm not sure Angel will even come. I heard him telling Wes that being around small kids upsets him. Then he kind of glared at him a lot, which I didn't understand, and I don't think Wes did either."
"Small kids?" Spike stared at her. "Since when is Wolfram & Hart employing rugrats?"
"Oh, they're not," Harmony assured him. "It's just that, what with us totally, totally not being evil now, Angel gave the go-ahead for the employees who have kids to bring them along to the party."
She smiled her dazzling, orthodontist's dream of a smile.
"And once they were sure they wouldn't be forced to sacrifice their children to Janus or some other stuffy old hell god, they said they'd love to bring the kiddies along. Isn't that sweet?"
The best use of children in Spike's opinion was as a tasty in-between-meals snack, but now that he'd turned veggie – after a manner of speaking – he'd rather steer well clear of them altogether.
"Think I'll take a leaf out of Angel's book this time," he said. "If anyone wants me, I'll be down the pub for the duration."
Harmony wasn't listening. "Mind you, not many people around here think kids are sweet. They’re all eww! kids! So it's kind of lucky that Mr Klaus turned out to be such a big softy, huh?"
Spike blinked at her. "Mr Klaus?"
It was Harmony's turn to roll her eyes. "You know, the mailman? The guy you said was staring at you? Turns out he loves kids. Volunteered to play Santa the minute he heard they were coming."
And just like that, Spike knew where he'd seen the bloke before.
"That bastard!" he snarled. "When I told him to bugger off to L.A., I didn't mean it literally."
“Huh?” Harmony’s round blue eyes grew even rounder.
“And he’s shaved off his beard. S’pose he thought I wouldn’t recognise him without it – tosser!”
“Who has?” Harmony wailed, but Spike ignored her.
Instead, he peered down the corridor in the direction this so-called Klaus bloke had gone. No sign of the bugger, but he’d have to come back this way to get to the elevators. Then he’d have him. Taking his lighter out of his pocket, Spike began to flick it on and off impatiently, while Harmony pointed in vain at the ‘no smoking' sign.
The minutes ticked past on the clock above the elevators – five – then ten. Just how long did it take to deliver the mail anyway?
After a full fifteen minutes had passed, during which nothing exciting happened except Harmony ignoring some bloke who came up to the reception desk wanting to see Angel and who scarpered again when Spike vamped out and snarled at him, Harmony stood up and put her jacket on.
“Hold the fort for me, would you, Spikey? I have this totally gorgeous dress on layaway in Neiman Marcus. The clerk let me have it for a huge, huge discount if I promised not to kill her? It’s for the party. You’ll just die when you see me in it.”
“Yeah?” Spike half-listened while he looked once more for any sign of the missing mailman coming back. “I’m already dead, Harm, in case you’ve forgotten.”
Harmony pouted at him again. "Just you wait. You'll see."
The next minute, she was out from behind the counter and click-clacking her way across the floor in her ridiculous pink ankle-breakers.
“’Oi!” Spike shouted after her. “I’m not answerin’ the phone or nuthin.’”
Harmony pressed the button and the elevator doors swished open.
“Oh, that’s okay,” she called over her shoulder. “I don’t either.”
As the doors closed behind her, Spike scowled to himself. Then he shrugged. Knowing Harm, she’d left herself logged in so he could always surf the ‘net for porn in her absence.
Spike lurched as his feet were unceremoniously swept off the counter, almost tipping him out of Harmony's swivel chair.
“Watch it!” Spike glared at Angel, while Angel glared back. From over his hulking shoulder, Fred smiled and Lorne gave Spike a cheery wave.
“Hey, Spike." -"Spikester!"
“Where’s Harmony?” Angel’s baleful glare spread to encompass the whole reception area, like a searchlight sweeping the prison camp perimeter.
Spike glanced up at the clock again. Silly bint had been gone some while – long enough for even the porn to begin to pall.
“Lunch, of course. Where d’you bloody think? What are you? Some kind of slave driver? Up the workers, that's what I say.”
Angel folded his arms, looking more broody and anal than ever.
“Okay, so she's at lunch. Still doesn’t explain what you’re doing here. And didn't you leave L.A. twice already, yet here you are back again. What's up, Spike? Scared of a world where you can't freeload?”
Spike scowled. Trust Angel to kick a bloke when he was down by reminding him of the current pointlessness of his existence. He contemplated telling the ponce that he was waiting for Santa, but it sounded too stupid. Then he contemplated telling him to get stuffed. In the end, he leaned back in the chair, folded his arms behind his head and sneered.
"Freeload my arse! I'm workin' here -coverin' for Harmony. S'a piece of piss, this reception lark. All you have to do is tell people to sod off, and they do."
"Christ!" Angel's teeth were clenched so tight it was a wonder they didn’t shatter. "So that's what happened to my twelve-thirty appointment. Harmony's gone too far this time."
Spike heaved a put-upon sigh. Harmony might be a silly cow but he didn't want her to get the sack.
“All right, all right. I lied. Dunno what happened to your twelve-thirty, an' I didn't tell anyone to piss off." – well, not in so many words, he thought -"If you must know, I’m waitin’ for the sodding mailman.” He indicated the corridor. “He went that way an hour ago – no sign of him coming back yet.”
Fred blinked. “Mr Klaus, you mean?”
Spike sat up in his chair a little. “Yeah. Fat bloke, no beard. You seen him?”
“Give that man a medal!” Lorne cut in. “He’s being Santa for the kids at the party tonight." He darted Angel a reproachful look. "After Mr Broodypants here stuck me with the organisation – again - I've had trouble like you wouldn't believe finding anyone!"
"Yeah?" Spike smirked at Angel – or should that be Mr Broodypants? – while Angel looked uncomfortable.
"Oh boy yes!" Lorne went on. "For some weird reason, when I said where the party was, not a single Santa in the phone book wanted the job."
"Still-" Lorne brightened again - "Then Mr Klaus stepped up to the plate. Said he had a real surprise planned – that he'd make it an evening the kiddies would never forget. Fredikins thinks he must’ve gotten himself a pretend Santa's sleigh –
"Maybe even pretend reindeer,” Fred cut in.
“Pretend, my arse!” Spike muttered. He should have known that wherever the fat git went his reindeer couldn't be far behind. "So have you seen him around or what?"
“Sure.” Fred smiled brightly. “He passed us going towards the service elevators. Guess he had to go get his surprise ready.”
“Bugger!” Spike leapt to his feet so suddenly, the chair rebounded smack into the wall behind him, leaving a nasty dent in the plaster. “How long ago?”
Fred looked startled. “Not that long.”
Spike had heard enough. He was off and running.
He slid the metal grille aside, then the exterior doors, and stood staring into the semi-darkness.
The basement hadn't improved much since Pavayne's day -still with the flickering overhead lighting and the dust and the eerie silence. The rest of the building might have got the memo about not being evil now, but this place was staying true to its roots.
Spike inhaled, and very faintly to his nostrils came the musky smell of animals. He heard a jingling too, at the very edge of hearing. Klaus – or Claus, as it should rightly be –must have stabled the brutes down here.
Stepping out of the elevator, Spike trod silently down the dank, concrete corridor, trying not to think about how much he hated basements in general and this one in particular.
Here was the open space with the old deal table, where the ghost with no eyes had sat and cut off its own fingers – stupid tosser! No one here now, but the animal smell was definitely stronger.
He followed his nose, down one corridor, then another, until the smell permeated the air and the jingling grew louder and louder, making his ears ring. Weirdly, in spite of knowing its sinister origins, the noise was still festive, and when Claus spoke, right around the next corner, the bloke sounded closer to jolly than Spike had yet heard him.
"Okay, boys and girls, this is it. Nearly show time. Now – Donner, Blitzen, Cupid, Prancer, Dasher, Dancer, Comet and Vixen – you all know what you gotta do, right?"
For answer, the jingling noise grew louder still.
"Okay, okay!" Claus growled. "I get the message. Sure I'll share the night's takings with you. There's gonna be at least a dozen kids at this party. Plenty to go around."
He laughed, not sounding at all like Santa, but mean and nasty and– well, downright evil. "Smash and grab – my favourite! Lure the brats onto the sleigh, then blow this Popsicle stand. We'll be half way to Lapland before their asshole parents know what's hit them."
So that was it! Not a bad plan really, Spike thought. After all, if you couldn't trust Santa with your spoilt little brats, who could you trust, and no one would expect a real flying sleigh with real flying reindeer.
He readied himself to jump out and confront the bastard. He'd fought him to a standstill once, and he could do it again, disembowelling claws or no.
"Caught you bang to rights, fatso!"
Spike leapt round the corner into a large open space. The floor was covered in bits of straw and reindeer droppings, and there was the sleigh, big and gold and glittery, with a mound of gaily-wrapped presents piled up behind the seat. And there were the eight reindeer, already harnessed, and all glaring balefully at him while steam erupted from their nostrils. But there was no sign of Claus.
Suddenly, a hand tapped Spike on the shoulder. He turned to find himself staring into Claus's fat, malevolent face, half-concealed now under a white cotton candy false beard.
"Looking for me?" Claus snarled. At the same time, a huge fist impacted with Spike's jaw and everything went black.
"Back in the land of the living, huh?" It was Claus's voice, and coming from nearby. "Or maybe I should say, un-living?"
Spike blinked teary eyes open, to find himself staring at the bloke's boots, which were right in front of his nose. He was in the sleigh, stuffed under the seat like unwanted baggage, and Claus's fat arse was just inches above him.
"Sod you!" he tried to shout, but the words came out all muffled.
Claus laughed. "Walked right into my trap, didn't you. Dumb vamp. I've been waiting for this day for years– ever since you ran me out of Sunnydale."
He bent down suddenly to glare at Spike, round face far from cherubic. The gimlet eyes were like chips of black glass. Even so, Spike thought, he looked a right twat with that stupid false beard, bits of which kept getting in his mouth.
"Just you wait till I get you home!" Claus snarled, spitting beard strands. "I'll teach you to mess with me, punk. These claws ain't just for show." He flexed his hand. "Always wanted to gut a vamp – real slow, like an inch a minute –watch its face when its entrails spill out on the floor."
Spike stared at the unsheathed claws, their impressive curves glinting yellow in the dim light. He didn't like the sound of that at all.
"Sod you!" he yelled again, though it came out more like, "'Od 'oo!"
Claus only laughed once more. "Oh, he doesn't like that idea, boys and girls! Good. That'll teach him to mess with Santa Claus."
A sprightly jingling greeted these words and Claus's face disappeared. The next moment, there was the sound of a whip cracking and the sleigh began to move. The runners scraped and skidded over concrete and Spike smelt sparks, while the jingling noise was louder than ever.
He struggled, but he couldn't free his hands.
They hadn't gone far before the sleigh jerked and rocked as Claus hauled back on the reins, the reindeer snorting their disapproval. Some tortuous manoeuvring ensued while Claus negotiated the sleigh round a corner. Spike was rolled this way and that, but Claus's big, black boots kept him firmly in place under the seat.
He had to think of something – and quick, before Claus nabbed himself a lot of tasty kiddy-sized snacks to precede the main course of devilled vampire kidneys.
Then something cold and smooth touched his bound hand and Spike closed his fingers around it instinctively. As the sleigh inched its way around another corner, he realised he was holding his lighter. The thing must have fallen out of his pocket, with all the rocking and rolling.
He grinned to himself. Bingo! Now came the tricky bit. How to get free without setting himself on fire and ending up a pile of ash.
Peering over his shoulder to try and see in the semi-darkness, he manoeuvred the lighter around in his hand and flicked it to life. The tiny flame burned steadily and if he held it in the very tips of his fingers he could just about apply it to his bonds.
"Okay, boys and girls, this is it." The sleigh screeched to a halt. Then Spike was aware of a weight being lifted – literally- off his shoulders, as Claus got out of his seat. Then came the sound of the service elevator doors opening.
"Gonna be a tight squeeze," Claus gloated, "but it'll be worth it to hear all those nasty little brats screaming for their mommies when I disembowel 'em."
Up to now, Spike had been more concerned with his own plight, but the viciousness in Claus's tone set the hairs on his nape bristling. The bastard must really, really hate kids – and so what if Spike had snacked on a few rugrats in his time. That was then. He was a white hat now – or off-white. Maybe light grey. Charcoal?
As the reindeers' hooves clip-clopped into the metal cage of the elevator, Spike felt one strand of rope give way. There was a faint smell of scorched leather, and he scowled. There was no way Claus was walking away from this if Spike's precious duster was singed.
"Okay, we're in." The elevator stuttered to life and began to rise jerkily through the building. Spike flexed his wrists and pulled, feeling his bonds parting strand by strand.
As the cage juddered to a halt again, he tore his hands free and pulled the greasy object – a bit of old reindeer harness - from his mouth.
No time to do anything, though, as the seat bowed above him again and the whip cracked loudly.
"Ho-ho-ho!" Claus bellowed, sounding falsely jovial now, as the sleigh exited the elevator and swished its way down the carpeted corridors.
Up ahead, Spike could hear the sound of music – some inane Christmas pop song – and children shouting, "It's Santa! Santa's coming!" while Lorne's voice rose above the hubbub in a despairing wail.
"Kids – please! Form a line – and no kicking, biting or stamping. Santa only gives presents to good children. I saw that, Timmy! Put that ancient mystical weapon down at once! Britney doesn't want to be a ritual sacrifice!"
It sounded like the little darlings were already all sugared-up, and following in their evil lawyer parents' footsteps.
From his place under the seat, Spike heard the sleigh's metal finials with their fancy scrollwork gouging parallel scores in the plaster, as it swished up the corridor, round the corner into the reception area, and skidded to a halt in front of the Christmas tree.
The jingling continued, as the reindeer shook their heads and snorted, but otherwise, there was sudden awestruck silence, broken by Fred's wondering voice.
"Wow! Those are real reindeer."
Claus stood up, his shifting bulk making the whole sleigh jolt and lurch.
"Ho-ho-ho!" he roared, again. "They're real all right, little lady. Mer-ry Christmas to you all! Now – who wants a present?"
"Me! Me!" At once, there was a stampede – the thunder of dozens of small feet all pounding in the sleigh's direction.
"That's it," Claus muttered, "come to Santa Claus." Aloud, he laughed again. "Ho-ho-ho! Don't all grab at once, kiddies. There's plenty for everyone."
It was now or never – before the sleigh was overrun with greedy little rugrats, all in the line of fire.
Spike tensed. Then he exploded out from under the seat, catching Claus in the back of the legs and toppling them both out of the sleigh. Claus hit the floor hard, but Spike could have sworn the bastard bounced, like an enormous fleshy balloon.
There were shrieks from the onlookers, and Lorne's horrified voice. "Spikester – what are you doing? If you wanted this gig you only had to say." But Spike took no notice. He was too busy trying not to get rolled on and crushed, or trampled by reindeer hooves.
In the end, he managed to scramble to his feet, while the reindeer nudged Claus upright with their antlers. This was the first time Spike had got a good look at them, and they seemed just as pissed off as they had back in Sunnydale, if not more so, especially Donner, the lead reindeer, from whose nostrils blue sparks erupted.
"Come on now!" Claus affected a tone of injured innocence. "There's no call for this behaviour. Where's your Christmas spirit?"
Spike dropped to a fighting crouch, facing Claus across the expanse of the reception area. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the assembled rugrats and their parents, Lorne and Fred, all staring at him in horror.
He went into game face and leapt, and at once, Claus unsheathed the notorious disembowelling claws and the battle was joined in earnest, accompanied by shrieks and screams from the onlookers. One small boy was trying to pull his dad closer to the action.
"Is Santa gonna gut him?" he asked. "That is so cool!"
Spike ducked, feeling the swish of air mere inches above his head, as Claus's claws attempted to rake him a new parting. He came in low and delivered a volley of punches to the bastard's sagging gut – which hurt, like punching a full sack of flour, but sent Claus staggering back, only for the reindeer to prod him forward again. For ruminants, they were pretty keen on violence.
The battle went up and down the room, while shrieking rugrats ran this way and that and their parents yelled encouragement at the combatants and took bets on the winner, ignoring Lorne's attempts to shepherd them to safety.
Spike heard one bloke say to his missus, "This is great! Just like old times! When's the goat sacrifice?"
He dodged another swipe of the claws, landed another punch, but he wasn't making much headway. Claus might be fat, but he was tough, and he bounced back every time like a big rubber ball.
Spike narrowed his eyes. If violence on its own wouldn't do the trick, time for some good, old-fashioned low cunning. He began to retreat in the direction of the Christmas tree.
"Come on, lardarse!" he sneered. "'Less you're too sodding fat to catch me."
Claus was sweating and the glue on his false beard was coming unstuck, but his black eyes were vicious as ever.
"Asshole!" he snarled. "You asked for it."
Putting his head down, he barrelled towards Spike, like a giant, red express train. Spike gave ground. Then at the last minute, he leapt aside and Claus went smashing straight into the Christmas tree.
The Christmas tree swayed alarmingly. Glass baubles dropped from its branches to shatter tinnily on the floor. Then it began to topple.
At the same time, Spike heard the sound of Angel's office door opening.
"What the hell is going on out here?"
Angel entered the reception area, Percy and Charlie right behind him, just as the tree began a slow, magisterial descent to the ground.
"Look out!" Spike leapt clear, taking Angel's lackeys with him, but the tree landed square on Angel, burying him in pine needles.
"Spike, what on earth –" Percy spluttered, but Spike ignored him, on the look out for any signs of life from Claus.
Soon enough, the fallen branches were erupting here and there, as those trapped beneath them tried to fight their way free. Leaving Angel to Percy and Charlie, Spike clambered over the fallen tree to jump on Claus's back and pin him to the ground.
"Gotcha!" he shouted, in triumph.
It was only then he realised that an awful silence had fallen. From all sides, people were staring at him – evil lawyers and their kids, Lorne and Fred – even the eight reindeer were all looking in his direction. Charlie, meanwhile, was brushing pine needles from his immaculate charcoal-grey suit, while Percy tried to haul Angel out from under a branch.
When Angel finally emerged, Spike had to stifle a snigger. He looked like a right prat, with the piece of tinsel caught in his hair– a grouchy version of a real life angel whose halo had all gone askew.
He also looked even more pissed off than he had after the fire demon incident, which Spike hadn't thought was possible.
"Spike, what the hell is going on here?" Angel yelled. "Why are you beating up Santa?"
Spike could feel Claus gearing himself up to speak, so he hurried to get in first.
He puffed out his chest. "I saved all these kids from a horrible death, is what's going on here."
"What're you talking about - idiot?" Angel spat pine needles out of his mouth. He shook off Percy's helping hand and hauled himself to his feet.
Spike indicated Claus. "Bastard was gonna kidnap all the kids – disembowel 'em and have their entrails for breakfast. Mine too, but I saw through his plan – saved the bloody lot of 'em, I did."
See, you grumpy old twat, he thought. Not so bloody pointless after all.
A horrified murmur went through the watching parents at these words. Everyone looked dubiously at Angel, and Spike realised they were wondering whether he'd planned the whole thing. But then, being formerly – yeah, right! -evil lawyers, they would.
Angel shook himself, shedding pine needles and tinsel everywhere. "And you know this how exactly?"
Spike indicated Claus again. "Met the bastard in Sunnydale, didn’t I? Kicked his arse then an' all. He's not Mr Klaus the kindly, kid-friendly replacement mailman. He's the real, genuine Santa Claus – you know, the one with the actual claws?"
When Angel looked blank, Spike rolled his eyes. Didn't the old git know anything?
Percy cleared his throat. "If I might –" He turned to Spike. "Are you saying this is the Santa Claus from the Demonomicon Chronicles– the one who was given the right to disembowel badly-behaved children every 24th of December by the Treaty of Gl'garg –"
"- ratified in 1506 at the Demonic Congress of Worms between the Lower Beings and the Monks of St Nicholas the Bloody-minded," Charlie cut in, while from underneath Spike, Claus yelled, "Got that right."
Suddenly, Claus's whole body bucked, throwing Spike off him, like a water drop off a whale's back. The next moment, he'd lumbered to his feet, while Spike scrambled clear, readying himself for round two.
At sight of their master on his feet again, the reindeer stamped the ground with their hooves, harnesses jingling, but when Spike glanced in their direction, it was to see Fred holding Donner's harness and stroking a velvety nose. A moment later, all eight reindeer were gazing up at her adoringly.
"Aww!" she said, "Aren't they cute? Just like Bambi, only evil. Anyone have any sugar cubes?"
Claus looked momentarily disgusted at his allies' defection. Then he spat false beard out of his mouth. Craning round Spike, he addressed Percy. "And you can't tell me the kids of a bunch of evil lawyers don't deserve what's comin' to 'em. I'm just going about my lawful business here."
"Hmm," Percy said. He looked thoughtful. "That's all true, of course. However –"
"- the Monks of St Nicholas were excommunicated after the Congress and the treaty declared null and void," Charlie interrupted.
"He knows that," Spike growled. "Can I just kill him now?"
Percy blinked, looking taken aback. "Er –"
Some of the kids were crying now and Angel turned to Lorne. "Get these people out of here."
"Sure thing, Angelcakes." Lorne had gone a horrible shade of pale green. He looked only too glad to get away.
"Let's take this party someplace else, folks," he shouted, and he began to herd the crowd of onlookers towards the elevators, not without complaints from the parents, who wanted to stay and watch the bloodletting, and whinging from the kids that they hadn't had their presents yet.
When the elevator doors swished shut behind the last of them, Angel turned back to Percy.
"Seems weird to be talking about slaying Santa, Wes. I mean – he's a myth. You can't kill a myth, can you?"
"That's what I thought back in Sunnydale," Spike interrupted again. "Was wrong."
But Angel took no notice of him – the twat!- looking expectantly at Percy for an answer, like Spike hadn't even spoken.
Percy frowned, considering.
"Whereas I might concur with you in the normal way of things, Angel, in this case, I must disagree. The myth of Santa Claus is potent enough to withstand the demise of its originator. In fact –" and he gave Claus a cool look from behind his glasses –"one might say that it will become stronger, since there won't be an actual demon around to contradict it any more."
Charlie cleared his throat. "If I may, Wes – if it's legal precedent you want, Angel, there's always the case of Anyanka the Vengeance Demon and the Easter Bunny. Turns out the Bunny had what was coming to him too, and though it's been a thousand years since Anyanka killed him, no one has even noticed. Here." And he held out an axe towards Angel.
Angel twirled the axe in his hand, regarding Claus balefully. "Stand aside," he said, to Spike.
"Sod that. Get your own sodding nemesis."
Spike closed the distance between them, snatched the axe from Angel's hand and turned on Claus, who was already lumbering towards him, red-faced and snarling, and with curved claws at the ready. A moment later, the axe came hurtling through the air to bury itself in his head.
The thud as Claus hit the ground was so loud, the whole building shook.
"Yes – well," Angel said. "That'll do it."
There was a short silence, during which Claus's reindeer continued to butt their heads devotedly against Fred and look completely unconcerned by their erstwhile master's sudden demise.
At last, Angel turned away. Then he stopped and Spike saw his big shoulders hunch. "Good job, Spike," he said, through gritted teeth. "Thanks."
Spike blinked, astonished. "Yeah well –" he floundered. "Someone has to help the hopeless, don't they, now you lot've sold out."
Angel turned round again, brows drawn down in a thunderous scowl. Then he sighed. "Point." Thrusting his hands in his pockets and clenching his big fists, he muttered, "Why don't you stay for the party? Drinks are on the house."
Spike's jaw dropped. "Er – thanks. Don't mind if I do."
"Good. Great." Angel looked embarrassed. "Merry Christmas," he ground out, turning away again before Spike could respond.
But then Angel paused again, and when he turned back this time, his eyes had a definite Angelus-like glint in them that made Spike's blood run cold.
"One thing, though –the party's not over yet and if those kids don't get their presents from Santa there'll be a riot. Thanks to you, Spike, we don't have a Santa. Whose gonna take Claus's place, huh?"
Spike looked over his shoulder, wondering who Angel was staring at.
For the hundredth time, he asked himself how he'd let Angel strong-arm him into accepting this gig. Could have been the grudging promise of free booze afterwards. Couldn't turn your nose up at free booze, could you, even if the booze in question was eggnog.
Could've been the way Fred had opened her big brown eyes wide and said, "Oh come on, Spike. There's no one else and the kids'll be soo disappointed if you won't do it."
God, he was a soft touch these days! Literally. Spike glared down at his huge fake belly and scowled.
Mind you, the evening hadn't been all bad. The kids were just as horrible as he'd expected, but he'd vamped out at the worst of them – the same kid who'd thought the fight was cool - and scared the little brat witless. No way he'd be sacrificing his little sister's pet rabbit to some tosser of a hell god again any time soon. And at least they were gone now, and the reindeer had been taken away to their new home in the mythical animals petting zoo- and good riddance to all of them.
Harmony's face appeared round the grotto door.
Spike glared at her, wiping sweat from his face. "Yeah? What?"
"Can I have a turn?"
A moment later, Harmony was inside the grotto, and at the sight of her, Spike's jaw dropped. Her new dress – what there was of it – was indeed pretty special. He might be dead, he thought, but just now parts of him felt very alive indeed.
He waggled his eyebrows. "Of course you can, little girl."
Harmony giggled and waved a sprig of mistletoe at him, and there were more giggles from just outside the grotto. In fact, it sounded like the whole steno pool was out there, all waiting for a turn on Santa's lap.
Spike patted his spread knees. Maybe this gig had its good points after all?
"Ho!Ho!Ho!" he said.