Rupert looked at himself, trying not to cringe at what he could only view as a mockery of his former youthful self. The hoop in his ear, the leather jacket, the torn jeans. This was the band candy all over again, but worse— he was in control of this, and didn’t have the added bonus of his inhibitions being removed.
“Are we even sure this is a case for us?” he asked. “Seems the police might be better equipped.”
“It looks fishy, Giles,” Buffy said. “Or werewolfy. Or demony. I think it’s our kind of job.” She was giving him those pleading eyes, ones he’d never been able to say no to.
“Fine. But I’m going to be grumpy about it.”
“I know it’s weird. Believe me, I don’t love seeing you like this either. But now that Spike is...gone, someone has to do these kinds of things. They don’t trust anyone in a uniform. Or anyone like us.”
He knew she was right. Every supernatural entity and morally questionable human gave the Slayers a wide berth, even the new ones. Xander would stick out like a sore thumb and be largely defenseless if something went wrong. Willow...well, they were all still worried about sending Willow into potential dens of dark magic, considering everything. It had to be him.
“So where is it I’m going?”
He took a glance around the dark alley before pushing open the door to the dingy shop. Buffy had given him very specific directions, or else he would have passed right by the entrance. As soon as he was inside, a prickling sensation appeared on his skin that always suggested the remnants of magic. It reminded him a bit of The Magic Box, but darker, less welcoming. Items were laid out on shelves without labels or prices, as if anyone seeking them out would know their purpose and be willing to pay. A few of the items looked vaguely familiar, but the majority were unknown to him, which made him uneasy.
A tall woman, her golden skin wrapped in an assortment of shimmering shawls, emerged from a back room behind the counter. “Hello. Can I help you?”
He couldn’t place her accent. His extensive knowledge of languages made that in itself another tick in the “eerie” column. She wasn’t a Londoner, certainly. Something in her demeanour made Rupert shift uneasily in his jacket, hoping he looked more competent than he felt.
“Good evening. I’m looking for a Mr. Edgar Hale, I was told I could find him here.”
She pursed her lips, her eyes surveying him. “Mr. Hale is a busy man. What does this concern?”
He stood up straighter. “Two nights ago, a man’s body was found nearby under what you might call unusual circumstances. No wallet, no identification. The only thing on his person was a slip of paper in his pocket with Mr. Hale’s name and the address of this shop.”
She came around the counter, dropping her voice as she drew closer. “I don’t want any trouble.”
Rupert narrowed his eyes. “Who says I’m trouble?”
Her eyes glanced uneasily at the doorway she’d emerged from. Rupert moved around her and approached it, ignoring her protests as he drew a red curtain back and peered into the back room.
A man had his back to Rupert, seated in an ornate high-backed armchair at a large desk with an assortment of odd objects on it, some of which were certainly historical artifacts that Rupert suspected were very misplaced. An elbow rested on the chair’s edge, a slender arm leading to folded hands.
Rupert cleared his throat. “Mr. Hale, I presume?”
The man turned, and his recognisable profile turned Rupert’s apprehension into a maelstrom of confusion and fury. Ethan Rayne stood quickly from his chair and held his hands in front of his chest, but no use: Rupert crossed the room and slammed him against the nearest wall before he could react further, holding his arm across Ethan’s collarbone.
“How are you here?” Rupert asked him from between clenched teeth.
Despite the circumstances, Ethan gave him a wry smile. “Why, some years ago Mr. and Mrs. Rayne were feeling frisky…”
Rupert slammed his other fist into the wall, centimeters from Ethan’s head. “The Initiative facility. How did you escape?”
“Those monkeys in camouflage? How little you think of me.”
“I’m sorry, sir, he just barged in!” The woman from the front of the shop had joined them, looking very put-out. “Shall I call someone to remove him?”
“That won’t be necessary, Siobhan,” Ethan called back to her, not breaking eye contact with Rupert. “Despite his manners, Ripper is an old friend. Be a dear, mind the front for a few minutes while we catch up with each other.”
She did as he asked, leaving them alone again.
“Do let me go, Ripper. We can chat like civilised people, can’t we?”
Their faces inches apart, he stared into Ethan’s eyes, trying to detect the double-cross that was undoubtedly being planned behind them. Rupert slowly lowered his arms and backed away, letting Ethan smooth out his silk shirt and move back toward his desk, where he reclaimed his seat and gestured for Rupert to take the one opposite.
Ethan folded his hands and rested his chin on them. “Now then. What’s this about?”
“A man is dead.”
He sighed dramatically. “Yes, I had heard something about that. Dreadful business. Heart ripped out and all.”
“This address was in his pocket.” Rupert glared at the other man. “What did you do?”
“Me?” Ethan asked incredulously. “I haven’t done anything. I’ve been a very good lad. Kept my head down. Wouldn’t want you or your ilk turning up on my doorstep. Though apparently that happens anyway.”
“This place has known plenty of magic, Ethan. I can feel it. And you know better than I the power a human heart can hold for dark rituals.”
“I’ve stayed out of your way, you can’t begrudge me using magic to make a living. Magic is all I know.”
“That was your choice,” Rupert told him. “I got out, you could have too.”
“You got out nearly thirty years ago,” Ethan sneered. “And I know you’ve dabbled since then.”
“When it was necessary.”
Ethan raised his eyebrows. “Though by your outfit, you haven’t exactly abandoned the Ripper I knew and loved, have you?”
Rupert’s face grew warm, and his embarrassment over that only made it worse. “This wasn’t exactly my idea, but it’s irrelevant. Your pseudonym and address are the only leads I have on this case.”
Ethan folded his arms and contemplated him. “So you’re saying you need my help.”
Rupert closed his eyes and tried to keep his irritation in check. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly through his nostrils.
“I suppose I am.”
Ethan’s face shifted into a satisfied grin. “Excellent.”
In Rupert’s experience, that kind of look meant very little good.
“His name was Daniel, or at least that’s the name he gave me,” Ethan said, leaning back in his chair. “Posh bloke. He’d left my shop not long before he was killed, I’d wager.” He poured himself a scotch from a bottle on his desk. “But what I don’t understand is why your people found the shop address on his person but not what he’d purchased.”
Rupert’s brow furrowed. “What should we have found?”
“Yesterday, our dear Daniel came into the shop, looking far too much like a rabbit on the run from a fox. He was asking for protection.”
“Protection from what?”
Ethan looked away. “Afraid I don’t know, mate.”
“I’m not your mate,” Rupert snapped, as Ethan rolled his eyes. “You gave him something for protection, but you don’t know what he needed protecting from?”
“He wasn’t exactly forthcoming,” Ethan drawled, then took a sip of his drink. “The man sounded out of his head, talking about being hunted… I thought he was just a paranoid idiot, so I gave him a generic talisman and sent him on his way.”
“And then he was killed.”
“So I was wrong.” Ethan shrugged. “I have no issue admitting it— I was never the one with an obsession for accuracy.”
Rupert sighed. “Let’s go over what we know. Mr. Buckingham was found in an alley near your shop, without the talisman—”
Just then, his mobile began to buzz in his pocket. He saw Willow’s name on the display and flipped it open. “Hello?”
“Hey, Giles, how’s it going?”
He wasn’t exactly sure how to answer that. He glanced at Ethan, hesitant to tell the others what—
he’d found, at least for now. “Erm, we—about the same here. Is there something new on your end?”
“Yeah, we got an ID. Daniel Buckingham, mid 40s. One of the girls has an account at the bank where he works— well, worked— and recognised him.”
So Ethan had been right about the name, at least. “Did the autopsy turn out anything of note?”
“Besides the missing heart?” Willow let out a nervous giggle that Rupert met with silence. “Okay, sorry, inappropriate. Our team was undressing the corpse and found some kind of mucus on what was left of his shirt collar.”
“Yeah. Once slimy, now crusty. You know, mucus. Not sure exactly what it’s from yet, so we’ll keep digging, but we thought we’d let you know in case it was helpful.”
“Thanks, Willow,” Rupert said. “I’ll keep in touch.”
“Oh! And one more thing we found out about the victim— he was married.”
He perked up. “Oh?”
“Wife’s name is Charlotte. Did some digging, and apparently she has a weekly spa day every Saturday. Tomorrow. I’ll text you the address, can you check it out?”
“Willow, her husband has just died, I hardly think she’ll be doing...whatever it is people do at spas.”
“I dunno, Giles. I have a hunch about her. Besides, she’s the only lead we have. Can you do it?”
He sighed. “Sure. I’ll call you after.”
“Mucus?” Ethan asked when Rupert hung up.
“Mm. But the only thing that makes me think of is a Fyarl demon.”
“You’re kidding.” Ethan grimaced, standing up and taking a step back as if Rupert would hit him for the mere mention of what happened the last time they’d crossed paths.
“Relax,” Rupert scoffed, though he had to admit the momentary fear in Ethan’s eyes brought a smirk he didn’t try terribly hard to hide. “I don’t think it is a Fyarl. Those things leave chaos in their wake, and nothing at the scene showed signs of damage, besides Daniel himself.”
Ethan slid back into his chair. “Chaos always was my style.”