Chapter 1 – On the Case
“California?” Myka asked, perusing the file Artie had handed her.
“Sweet!” Pete high-fived Claudia as they both looked at his file. “Hopefully it’s an easy bag. Then we can ride some waves and catch some rays.” He made absurd surfing motions with his hands as Claudia laughed and started singing the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA.
“Enough, enough,” Artie said and the two quieted down as Myka stared at them and shook her head in disbelief. “There will be no surfing or sunbathing on this trip because we are all going.” He held a hand up to prevent both an excited outburst from Claudia and a bombardment of questions from Myka. The young redhead settled for bouncing in her seat while the older woman watched Artie with a confused frown.
“Why?” Pete asked and threw his hands up in surrender when Artie scowled at him.
“Because,” Artie said, pulling another file out of his bag and handing it to Claudia, suppressing a grin as she all but ripped it from his hand in her excitement. “Because,” he repeated, “we won’t be looking for one Artifact, but two.” He pointed to a picture they each had in their file of a Harlequin-style mask and scepter. “This is a bifurcated Artifact. That means that these two items, when separate, are pretty much harmless, but get them together--”
“Mad wackiness ensues?” Claudia guessed, having managed to contain most of her excitement, but still in a good mood.
“Oh, no,” Artie said in a deadly serious tone, stopping Pete mid-laugh. “There is nothing ‘wacky’ about these Artifacts. Together, they cause horror and terror beyond the comprehension of most sane people.” He made eye contact with each of the three around the table to ensure he had their undivided attention. Satisfied that they grasped the seriousness of the situation, he continued with the briefing. “This mask and scepter once belonged to the Marquis de Sade. I trust everyone has heard of him,” he said, looking pointedly at Pete. When the agent sheepishly nodded his head, Artie continued. “Somehow, the artifacts became imbued with the Marquis’ unbalanced psyche, most notably the violence and sadism that shows up regularly in his literary works. We have to bag it quickly before this town,” he glanced down at his file, “Sunnydale, becomes hell on Earth.” He looked around the table once more. “This is probably one of the most dangerous retrievals we’ve had to date, which is why you,” he pointed at Claudia, “will be at my side, 24/7. Understand?” She nodded her head in wide-eyed seriousness. “Good,” he barked with satisfaction. “Here are your tickets. Our plane leaves in two hours. Go. Pack.”
The three scampered upstairs and he sat down at the table with a sigh, reaching for a doughnut Pete must have somehow missed. He looked up and froze, the sweet treat halfway to his mouth when he saw Leena standing in the doorway and giving him a disapproving look. He set the doughnut back on the plate with another, rather wistful, sigh.
“Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” Leena asked.
Artie’s eyes darted from her to the doughnut and back again, brow furrowed in confusion.
“Claudia,” Leena said rather impatiently, and Artie’s eyes lit with comprehension. “Do you really think you should take her on such a dangerous mission?”
Artie rubbed his eyes under his glasses. “Probably not,” he admitted, “but after the fiasco at the Warehouse last week, I don’t feel any more comfortable leaving her here unsupervised.” He looked up in to Leena’s concerned gaze. “It’s not that I don’t trust her. I do. But things tend to go a little… screwy around her and I’ll feel much better if I’m there to take care of it.” He looked up the stairs where the three had disappeared, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth. “And it’s not like she needs the Warehouse computers. She can do everything she does here from that laptop of hers.” Looking back at Leena, he found her staring at him with a calculating look and felt the heat rising up his neck. He cleared his throat and stood abruptly. “I should probably go pack, too,” the senior agent mumbled as he tried to skirt past her and up the stairs.
“Artie,” she called and he flinched, waiting for the lecture. “Be careful,” was all she said. He looked back to see her still watching him with concern, but there was also a small smile softening her features.
With a smile of his own he answered, “I always try to be,” and escaped to his room.
Leena continued to look up the stairs after he had disappeared from view, lost in thought. “Isn’t that interesting,” she said softly to herself as she shook her head and went to clear the breakfast dishes.
“We’ve got trouble,” Buffy announced as she blew through the double doors of the library with Xander hot on her heels. Her sudden and dramatic entrance drew a surprised ‘eep’ from Willow, who was parked in front of the library computer.
Giles entered from his office, open book in one hand and glasses dangling from the other. “Trouble?” he asked with a frown, slipping his glasses back into place. “What kind of trouble?”
“Weird, freaky clown trouble!” Xander supplied emphatically.
“Clowns?” the Watcher asked, turning back to Buffy, confusion written plainly on his face.
“Well they did kinda look like clowns,” she affirmed. “But not exactly. More like those clowns kings used to have sit on their feet.”
Giles tilted his head slightly, at a complete loss.
“You mean jesters?” Willow asked, standing up to come join the other three.
“Yeah, Jesters,” the Slayer pointed at her with a smile. “Jesters in like black and white diamond checked shirts with poofy sleeves and tights and curly toed shoes with masks and those dorky hats with the bells on them. “ The tirade was accompanied by enthusiastic hand waving and nodding from Xander.
“How many jesters?” Giles asked.
“Two,” Buffy answered. “They were circling around this guy and girl and the guy and girl were acting like they didn’t know whether to fight or make out or what. We went in to break it up and the jester dudes went poof and the guy and girl collapsed all confused. It was all kinda wiggy.”
Her mentor listened, deep in thought.
“Well?” Buffy asked impatiently.
“Hmm,” Giles snapped back into focus on her. “Oh, I have no idea,” he said and turned to Willow. “Would you get on your contraption and see if you can find any similar occurrences having happened recently? I’ve a couple of books I want to pull and check a few things.” Turning back to Buffy and Xander, he asked, “Will you be staying to help with the research?” They both whined a token protest as they made their way to the table where Willow was already furiously typing away. Giles smiled at their antics and smiled even more at Willow’s lack of antics. The girl…no, young woman, he corrected himself, they had all celebrated her eighteenth birthday last week…was so clever and intelligent, and so eager to help. He would be lost without her, he thought as he took the steps to the stacks in order to retrieve the books.
Artie sighed as Claudia squirmed in her seat next to his yet again. She was absolutely bored out of her mind since the flight attendant had caught her surfing the net and confiscated her laptop until the flight landed. And her boredom was driving him bonkers.
“Here!” he said, pulling a book from his bag at random and thrusting it in her face. “Read!”
“What?” Claudia asked, taking the book reflexively. “Artie, I really don’t feel like…” she whined, stopping as she read the title of the book he had handed her.
Artie looked back at her as she went quiet. He quickly went through a mental list of the books he had thrown in his bag and came to a conclusion just as she read the title aloud. “Sabrina Fair, a Woman of the World. A play by Samuel A. Taylor.” She shot him an inquisitive look. “Sabrina? Like that old Bogart movie? You trying to tell me something, Old Man?” she grinned at him. He lunged for the book but she held it out of his reach. “No, no, no!” the redhead laughed. “I wanna read it. You gave it to me, so I’m gonna read it!”
“Claudia, please,” he groaned, absolutely horrified.
She saw how embarrassed he was and relented, a little. “It’s cool, Geezer. I liked the movie. Bogart was pretty hot for an old dude. It’ll kill some time. Thanks.”
Artie looked at her, debating whether or not to demand the book back anyway, but she seemed sincere. And it might keep her quiet.
“Fine,” he huffed, settling back in to his seat. “Just, be still, for a while.”
She graced him with a dazzling smile and settled in to read.
He sat in mortified contemplation. Why did he even bring that infernal book? He had completely forgotten about it. He had just grabbed a couple random paperbacks off his bookshelf to help him get to sleep in the hotel rooms. What kind of screwed up coincidence was it that he would grab that book and it would be the one he gave to her? He groaned again but missed the small smile from his neighbor as she became completely absorbed in the book.
“Got it!” Willow crowed triumphantly, startling Buffy from a daydream and causing Xander to jolt upright, surreptitiously wiping drool from his chin.
“Harlequin demons,” Giles read over Willow’s shoulder, bracing one hand on the table and the other on the back of her chair so he could lean in to read the fine print of her book. “First noted durring the late 18th century in France. Observed to cause panic and hysteria, inducing mass occurrences of brutality and sadism. Known as ‘tricksters,’ they have been known to single out a victim, playing vicious pranks and often stealing from him everything he holds dear.”
Willow looked up at him as he straightened, both obviously thinking hard.
“Ok. So how do I kill them?” Buffy asked in her normal blunt manner. If she could slay the demons fast enough, she might be able to salvage some Bronze time out of the night.
Giles shook his head. “The book doesn’t reference a way to kill them,” he said with a frown. “But now that we know what we are dealing with, we can narrow our search and try to find other references. “
Willow nodded and opened another tome. Xander and Buffy groaned in unison and unenthusiastically reached for books of their own. Giles frowned as he watched the two. They were not researchers, they were doers, and the inactivity was grating on them. Almost as much as Xander’s drooling on his books was grating on him.
Making a show of looking at his watch, the librarian announced, “It’s late. Buffy, why don’t you and Xander do a quick patrol and then get some sleep? Hopefully, I will know more and we can tackle the problem anew tomorrow after you’ve rested.”
The two were up and out the door before he could change his mind, a quick, “Great idea! See you tomorrow!” from Buffy hanging in the air behind them. Giles shook his head and chuckled in amusement, turning back to the table to see Willow more sedately packing her things to leave. He felt a strange pang of disappointment. “Oh,” he said and she turned her large, inquisitive eyes to him. “I thought…that is, I had rather hoped…I mean, I didn’t mean…” he stuttered, whipping his glasses off to polish the lenses. He took a deep breath to collect himself and looked back up to see her watching him patiently and – hopefully? No, that was just his imagination. He shook his head, ‘Pull yourself together, old man,’ he mentally chastised.
Clearing his throat, he tried again. “That is to say, I had rather hoped you would stay and help me finish, Willow. The others were obviously bored and would have been a hindrance. I thought we could finish more quickly without the distraction.” He silently congratulated himself on getting it out without making it seem like more than it was.
Willow graced him with a dazzling smile that made his heart beat a little faster. He ducked his head again as he felt the heat start to climb his neck.
“That’s great,” Willow said with a relieved sigh. “I really want to get the bottom of this, but I didn’t want to impose myself on you if you would rather be alone.”
He took an involuntary step toward her, gently grasping her upper arm. “You are never an imposition, Willow,” he said earnestly. “You’re a delight.”
It was the redhead’s turn to blush and duck her head. Noticing his hand still on her arm, Giles snatched it back to his chest as if burned. Feeling the blush rise to the roots of his hair, he pointed vaguely in the direction of the stacks.
“I’ll just, um…” he mumbled.
“Yeah. Okay,” Willow nodded as he retreated to the relative safety of the stacks.
“So, Obi Wan, where is the Force leading us?” Claudia almost skipped along beside Artie in the early morning California sunshine. It was a beautiful day and she was on her first field assignment with Artie. She was in a good mood.
Her good mood was apparently infectious because Artie laughed, causing her to grin even wider. “Well,” he said, “Myka and Pete are checking with the local police, so I thought we could walk around, get a feel for the town and see what we come up with.”
“Ooh,” she spun around, grabbing his arm, “we really are using the Force!” She laughed and skipped away to look in one of the shop windows. Artie just watched her with a slightly bemused grin. She was so vivacious, so full of joie de vive. After years of working at the Warehouse, either alone or with other agents, she was a breath of fresh air. She certainly made his life more interesting, and he found he liked that more than he would ever admit.
“Hey!” she called, pulling him from his thoughts. “This is a magic shop! Let’s go in and see what kind of vibes we can pick up.”
“Is the President in town?” the desk sergeant looked at the two Secret Service agents in confusion.
Pete glanced at Myka. “You know, that question’s really starting to get annoying.”
“No, he’s not,” Myka replied to the sergeant, choosing to ignore Pete. “We’re here on an unrelated matter. We were just wondering if anyone had reported anything unusual lately.”
“Anyone claiming they smelled fudge?” Pete quipped. “Ow.” He rubbed his ribs where Myka had just elbowed him.
“Ignore him. Jet lag.”
The sergeant looked from one to the other in bewilderment. “Nothing more unusual than… usual,” she finally said. “You got your drug gangs attacking people on an almost nightly basis and your grave robberies. We did have a young couple come in last night saying they were attacked by clowns.”
Myka and Pete stared at the woman. “That’s normal?” Myka asked.
“Welcome to Sunnydale,” the woman drawled, turning back to her work.
“Nothing really unusual that I can think of,” the young woman behind the counter said. “We have our regular customers and the occasional tourists who like to look around, maybe buy a pretty trinket.”
Artie nodded as Claudia browsed the items on the shelves. “Have you seen these items?” Artie asked, showing the woman behind the counter the picture of the mask and scepter.
“No, sorry,” she said with a rueful shake of her head. “But maybe I can interest you in a nice protection charm for you daughter,” she said, pulling out a pretty, turquoise amulet carved in the shape of a howling wolf head and attached to a simple silver chain.
“So not his daughter,” Claudia drawled, coming up behind Artie. “Ooh, but that’s pretty.”
She reached over his shoulder to take the charm so she could get a better look at it. His breath hitched slightly as her movement brought her front flush with his back for a moment and he spun around in hopes that the store clerk wouldn’t notice.
“What do you think?” Claudia asked as she held the charm up around her throat. It was intricately carved and very pretty. The light green of the turquoise complemented the red of her hair and brought out a green hint in her rich brown eyes. She looked at Artie and smiled. He sighed, rolled his eyes, and reached for his wallet.