"Hurt your eye, lad?" Xander looked around the cheese shop. A genial-looking middle-aged man wearing a bright red sweater was standing on his blind side, like Xander waiting to be served. He had an oddly lumpy look, like someone had made him out of modelling clay, and for a moment Xander wondered if he was entirely human.
"Kinda. Lost it a couple of years ago."
"Oh, you're American, are you?" Xander was getting used to hearing that every time he spoke. Small towns in the North of England didn't see many foreigners. "You'd be one of the people that bought the old school up t'road?"
"Ummm... yeah, that's right. How did you know?"
"Heard someone had bought the place. Americans." He lowered his voice, as though about to impart a dark secret, and said "From America."
"Lot of windows you've got there," he said. Xander wondered if this was the prelude to some sort of shakedown.
"I'm by way of being in the business." He groped into a pocket and pulled out a card.
WALLACE & GROMIT'S
WASH 'N' GO
WINDOW CLEANING SERVICE
62 West Wallaby Street
"I'm Wallace. That's Gromit out there in the sidecar." He pointed outside, where a bright red motorcycle and sidecar was parked. There was a bored-looking dog of unknown breed sitting in it.
"Okay," said Xander, "we're still fitting the place out, but when we're done I'm sure we'll need a lot of cleaning, mister Wallace. I'll make sure Principal Wood gets this."
"Thanks. Your turn, lad," said Wallace, pointing towards the counter. "Don't want to forget your cheese."
"Sure. Any recommendations?"
"They do a passable Cheddar, and the Wensleydale is very more-ish. The Caerphilly isn't bad either."
"Thanks." Xander turned to the shopkeeper and said "Okay, I'll have a pound each of Cheddar, Wensleydale, and Caerphilly. Oh, and half a pound of Brie and that Swiss cheese. Do you have any American cheeses?"
"Sorry," said the shopkeeper, efficiently slicing, weighing, and wrapping the cheese in greaseproof paper, "don't get much call for it."
"You might want to start getting them in," said Xander. "We're gonna have quite a few Americans through here once the school opens, and I know most of them like cheese."
"I'll see what I can do, sir. That'll be nine pounds forty-seven."
"Okay. Got change for a twenty?"
"No problem, sir. Or I can start an account for the school, settling day would be the first Monday of the month."
"Maybe we'd better leave that for the principal," said Xander, handing over the money. "I'm just helping to set the place up, won't be here much after it opens."
"You're a builder?" asked Wallace, eyeing the tool belt revealed as Xander opened his coat to pocket the change.
"Carpenter. Can't do heavy construction since I lost my eye, but there's plenty of detail work needed."
"I've done a bit of carpentry myself," said Wallace. "I'm by way of being an inventor in my spare time."
"Cool!" said Xander, taking the bag of cheese. "Maybe I'll see you around." He went out, and Wallace watched him pause by the sidecar and give Grommit a pat before heading off up the road.
"Usual order?" asked the shopkeeper. Wallace nodded absent-mindedly. That poor lad, losing an eye so young. But maybe something could be done. Wallace had always wanted to try his hands at bionics, and he was sure that he had the technology...
"Are you sure this isn't a Hellmouth?" asked Xander, shrugging off his coat and putting several bags of groceries on the kitchen table.
Giles and Robin Wood looked up from the builder's estimates they were reading, and Giles said "What have you done now?"
"Done? What have I done?"
"It's a question," said Robin. "Did you run into another demon girl wanting a date?"
"Hey, I resemble that remark. And no, I didn't. I just saw someone that looked kinda strange, and it got me wondering."
"We chose this town precisely because it's about as far from any supernaturally significant sites as you can get in Britain," said Giles.
"That and we could afford the building," said Robin. "Disused schools don't come cheap in a country this crowded."
"I know all that," said Xander, "and I know we need somewhere to train the Slayers. But if there are demons in town it could get messy."
"This demon," said Giles, "did it threaten you?"
"He kinda made me an offer."
"He?" said Robin.
"An offer you couldn't refuse?" asked Vi, coming in from the yard.
"Actually," said Xander, "he offered to clean the windows." He gave Wood the card.
"So what makes you think he's a demon?" Giles asked, trying hard not to laugh.
"Two things; he doesn't look quite human, and when I stopped to pat his dog I noticed that it was reading a book on quantum mechanics..."
. . . . .
"Eh lad," said Wallace, "can you think what I did with that copy of 'Neurosurgery for Dummies?'"
Gromit shrugged, then went upstairs to his room and came back with a copy of 'Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition', opened it to the section on DIYtrepanation, and handed it to Wallace. Wallace read a few paragraphs, paled a little, and muttered "Maybe not." Gromit furtively wiped a little sweat from his brow; he really hadn't fancied being the guinea-pig for implants. With any luck Wallace would find something a little safer to occupy his over-active ingenuity.
"First thing," mused Wallace, "is to start off with a really good camera." He looked in a couple of cupboards, eventually pulling out an old Box Brownie, a folding 1960s Polaroid, and a WW2 aerial reconnaisance 8" telephoto lens, about four inches across. "What do you think, lad?"
Gromit stared at him.
"For the prototype, lad. Build a large-scale model!"
Gromit looked at the parts, thought for a moment, then went down to the cellar, rummaged in a small mountain of junk, and came back with an old-fashioned brass ballcock, about the size of a grapefruit. He used a pair of compasses to mark a circle on it, about the same size as the Polaroid camera's lens.
"That's a good start, lad. We'll build the prototype in that, then we'll just need to scale everything down a little for the real thing. Right, that's the lens and the outer shell, we'll cannibalise that old wireless for the electronics, the valves ought to be just the job, after that we'll have to think about the neural interface. Something non-invasive, inductive coupling or something. Then we need to look at miniaturisation. Should be easy enough. But first let's have a nice pot of tea..."
. . . . .
"So this is West Wallaby Street," said Xander, looking out of the window of Giles' Range Rover. "Looks normal enough, I guess. Number 62 is the one over there."
From somewhere inside the house came hammering and the whirring of something that sounded like a circular saw. There was a sudden loud bang and a perfect smoke ring rose from one of the chimney pots, while two slates fell off the roof. The door was flung open and Wallace staggered out, covered in soot, groped his way blindly to the pond, and fell in. Gromit appeared in the doorway, standing on his rear legs, a welding torch in his hand, face covered by a dark visor, and threw Wallace a towel as he was climbing out. He staggered on the edge, then fell back into the water.
"What do you think?" asked Xander. "Demonic?"
"Gets my vote," said Vi.
"Not necessarily evil though," said Giles. "For all you know they might be building something useful."
Wallace climbed out again, toweled himself off, and went back inside. The noise resumed.
"Useful... yeah, like that's going to happen," said Xander.
"I'll admit it does seem unlikely," said Giles, "but we really ought to investigate properly before jumping to conclusions."
"I'll hit the local library tomorrow," said Wood, "see if I can find any stories about this Wallace."
"Or his dog," said Xander. "Anyone else think that he might be the brains of the outfit?"
"Maybe," said Vi. "That guy isn't the sharpest stake in the box."
"I doubt that there's any immediate danger," said Giles, "and it's getting dark, maybe we should head back to the school and aim to get an early start in the morning."
"Works for me," said Xander.
. . . . .
Across town, in a disused factory that had once manufactured meat pies and wool, something stirred in the basement.
"Okay," said a woman's voice, "you sure that there's nothing around here even remotely supernatural?" There was a mumble of confirmation.
"Don't talk with your mouth full, it's disgusting."
"Dump the rat and say that again."
There was a soft 'splat'. "Yes, mistress."
"Oooh, I like the sound of that. Okay, supernatural-free area, so it could be years before a Slayer comes through if we keep a low profile. Meanwhile we'll build up our strength, Understood, minions?"
"Yes mistress," said the same voice.
"Where are the others?"
"They've buggered off, mistress. Said they didn't want to be seen dead in a dump like this, and headed back to London."
"Okay, let's get this place cleaned up a little, then we can get to work on recruitment. Soon this town will learn to fear the name of Harmony Kendall!"
"Holy..." said Robin, then tailed off into silence.
"Find something?" whispered Xander, hoping that the librarian wouldn't point to the "Shhhhh!" sign on her counter again.
"Here. Your guy Wallace was charged with a jewel robbery a few years ago. Eventually released when they discovered that a penguin was the real culprit."
"The Penguin? With the exploding umbrellas and the birds?"
"No, a real penguin. Apparently it was renting a room in his house, framed him for the robbery."
"A penguin rented a room in his house. Riiiight."
Robin handed silently Xander the paper.
"Holy..." said Xander, then tailed off into silence.
"The weird thing," said Robin, "is that nobody seems to have thought that there was anything odd about the idea."
"You sure this isn't a Hellmouth?"
"Giles says not, and he ought to know."
Xander was still reading the article, and said "What the hell is this?"
"Right at the end it describes him as a 'local businessman, inventor, and amateur astronaut.'"
"Someone's joke, I guess. Or they meant astronomer."
. . . . .
"Well, lad," said Wallace, "I think we've a right to be proud of ourselves." He finished screwing the casing onto the third prototype. "Just think, lad... direct inductive coupling to the visual cortex of the brain, no electrodes needed. Solar powered with battery backup. Zoom lens, infra-red vision, and it receives BBC1 and ITV..." Gromit gave him an odd look, and Wallace added, "...which admittedly wasn't really planned. He'll have to be careful about that when he's driving. All we need do now is add the plastic outer coating. Let's get it into the back cellar, we'll spray it on there. Ready, lad?"
Gromit nodded, and began to put a harness of chains around the prototype, attached to an ingenious block and tackle arrangement hanging from a rail in the ceiling. When he was done he pressed a remote control, and a winch lifted the three-foot sphere from the work-bench. Wallace patted it approvingly, listened to the metallic 'boing', and said "When we've got the plastic hardened we can start to think about getting it miniaturised. And registering the patents, of course..."
. . . . .
"Can I help you, love?"
Vi looked at the woman behind the counter of Wendolene's Wools, and wondered if everyone in the town was massively inbred. It seemed that most of the people she saw had the same sort of lumpy look Xander had spotted in Wallace. It was probably just a British trait, like liking warm beer. She got her thoughts together, and said "Um, yeah. I'd like some wool, please, and knitting needles. Those thick wooden ones look about right, and some medium steel ones. Two sets of each, please."
"What colour wool, love?"
"Let's see... I want to make myself a nice warm cap and a scarf. I'm not sure what I'll be wearing them with, so something that doesn't clash with anything."
"Dark's probably best then," said the shopkeeper. "Dark red or maybe blue. Or a mixture of both. Or you could go for white, of course, though it might be difficult to keep it clean."
"Dark sounds better," said Vi, remembering that she might want to hide at night. "I'll have four balls each of the dark red and the dark blue, that ought to be enough. Are they colours you always have in stock if I need more?"
"No problem, love, though I doubt you'll need more. You could make a nice cardigan with that lot."
"I'd rather be on the safe side, I'm not the world's greatest knitter."
"Well, practice makes perfect." She put the balls of wool into a paper bag and added the needles. "Don't see many Canadians in these parts."
"Oh, right. Are you anything to do with the people that bought the old school?"
"That's right," said Vi. "We're reopening it as a martial arts school for girls." She gave Wendolene the half-true cover story they were using. "We've got three schools in the USA, now we're going global."
"Martial arts? Like judo? For girls?"
"It's wonderful fitness training. And it's handy if boys get too fresh."
"I suppose so," Wendolene said dubiously. "You're awfully young to be a teacher, aren't you?"
"I'm going to be one of the students at first, finish my advanced training, then once I've qualified I'll probably be teaching. They've already offered me a job."
"That's nice, love. Let's see, eight balls of wool at one seventy-five a ball, two pairs of thick wooden needles, two pairs of medium steel needles. Comes to eighteen pounds seventeen pence."
Vi reached into her purse and pulled out a handful of unfamiliar notes and coins. "Is this enough? I'm still learning how British money works."
"More than enough, love. Here you go, take those two pound coins back, that leaves eighteen-fifty you've given me, and here's thirty-three pence change."
There was a loud metallic whirr and a machine that looked like a cross between a dog and a vacuum cleaner rolled out from the back room, barking.
"What the..?" said Vi.
"It's only Preston, love," said Wendolene, patting its steel head. "Poor thing gets lonely out t'back." A steel tail wagged sadly.
"But what is it?"
"He's a cyber-dog," she said with the tones of someone stating the obvious. "Daddy built him a few years ago, to keep me company when he was on business trips, but once daddy died poor Preston got a bit out of hand, a little uncontrollable. Then the poor thing had his accident, and it would have been all over for him if Mr. Wallace hadn't fixed him."
"Mr. Wallace?" asked Vi. "Is that the guy with the dog, the window cleaner?"
"That's right, love, d'you know him?"
"Not really, but someone at the school was talking about hiring him to clean the windows. Said he had a very clever dog."
"That's right, love," she repeated. "They're really very good, although I did have to mention that they'd missed a corner of the bedroom window the other day." She sighed deeply.
"Something wrong?" asked Vi.
"Well," said Wendolene, leaning closer, "between you and me," she said in low dramatic tones, "I did rather like mister Wallace, but our friendship was not to be."
"He's very partial to cheese, and it brings me out in a rash. After the problems with Preston were all over I told him that, and it was like he was stricken. He just couldn't understand the though of someone disliking cheese. Things might have been very different if I could stand the nasty stuff."
"I guess," said Vi. "One of the girls at my old school was lactose intolerant, she just couldn't keep it down and never could understand why we liked cheese and ice cream."
"I doubt mister Wallace eats much else," Wendolene said with another sigh.
"That's a shame," said Vi, mentally catalogueing demons and trying to remember any that had a cheese fixation, "but like you said, I guess some things aren't meant to be."
"I'm afraid so," said Wendolene, sighing again. "Was there anything else?"
"No, that's it," said Vi. "I'll see how it goes with what I've got, and get back to you if I need more wool or something. Thanks, see you around."
"Thank you," Wendolene said politely. After Vi had gone, she turned to Preston and said "What a nice polite girl. I hope that they're all like her at the school." Preston barked. "Oh well, no customers, I'd better get on with my own knitting." She reached under the counter and pulled out the jumper she was making. She wasn't quite sure what had put the idea into her head, or who it would fit - it was going to be someone taller and slimmer than her - but the unicorn pattern was coming along nicely.
. . . . .
"Here's an odd story, lad," said Wallace, reading the evening paper. "You remember the old chicken sanctuary on that little island down-river from the town?" Gromit nodded. "Well, apparently all the chickens have gone." Gromit shrugged. "Scientists think that for some reason they're migrating. I wonder how they got across the river. Can't have flown, lad..."
A few miles away a fleet of crude chicken-sized rafts bobbed, abandoned, under the cover of a willow tree. Faint tracks led across country into the woods, where a vast flock of chickens, bearing their eggs and chicks on improvised travoises, were labouring to put as much distance as possible between themselves and their former home. Night fell, and eventually, on the island, the moon rose on a row of chicken-sized graves. Faintly, in the distance, something howled, and an owl screeched in reply. There was a faint whisper, an odd muffled scrabbling sound. Then, with a shower of earth and pebbles, a razor-sharp beak stabbed up into the air...
"I think I've got it," Xander said later that evening, as he and Giles were making a late meal.
"Is it contagious?" asked Giles.
"Har de har. I've figured out something important about that Wallace guy."
"Really?" Giles said sceptically. "Do tell."
"We were warned about him, that time the First Slayer tried to kill us in our dreams."
"Don't you remember? The one weird thing that kept happening that we couldn't explain?"
"He's the cheese guy."
"Good God!' said Giles. "'I wear the cheese, the cheese does not wear me.' Since Sunnydale fell I've assumed that it was a metaphor for the creation of Slayers, possibly a premonition of Willow's spell. The cheese slices, one becoming many."
"I assumed we all dreamed about cheese because Buffy likes cheese," said Xander, slightly boggled, "but maybe it was more important than that."
"Cheese guy?" asked Vi, coming in with a struggling chicken in her hands. "I've dreamed about him too. Everyone does."
"Weird..." said Xander. "Umm... why are you carrying a chicken?"
"Not an ordinary chicken," said Robin, coming in after her and hanging a crossbow on a coat peg. He was bleeding from a dozen deep scratches, and was holding a bloody hankerchief to a wound on his neck. "Hold it up to the mirror, Vi." Vi lifted it to the mirror; reflected, her hands were empty.
"Okay," said Xander. "You can officially count me as creeped out. What the hell is that?"
"It's a vampire chicken, of course," said Giles, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. He got the first aid kit and soaked some cotton wool in hydrogen peroxide, then started to clean Robin's wound.
"How the hell can it be a vampire chicken?" asked Xander.
"The same way you could be a vampire Xander. A vampire drained most of its blood, and somehow it drank some of the vampire's blood. It could happen if an unusually incompetent vampire was pecked by a chicken it was draining, I suppose. Not entirely unprecedented; I've heard of vampire cats and dogs, used in certain voodoo rituals. Making them doesn't involve any special magic, just a cooperative vampire. Usually they die within a few days, but they have been known to infect other animals first."
"We were jumped by five of them," said Robin. "Fortunately the little bastards don't seem to be able to drain much blood. Oh, I think they're a bit smarter than a normal chicken, they pulled off a pretty good ambush. And they can fly a little, must be vampiric strength gives them a high enough power-weight ratio to get airborne."
"That's not good," said Xander. "Remember The Birds? We'll need safety glasses if we run into more of them, they might try to peck at eyes. I'll pick up a few more pairs tomorrow. How do you kill them?".
"Looks like the usual. Stake, crossbow bolt, slice and dice."
"Poor little thing," said Vi. "Bet it didn't ask to be a vampire." It made another savage attempt to peck her fingers, its eyes suddenly yellow and beak elongated. Vi hastily twisted its neck, forgetting her strength for a moment. Instantly its severed head was in her hand, and blood spurted from between her fingers, then it crumbled to dust. She paled and ran for the door leading to the nearest lavatory.
"No way am I eating that," said Robin, watching the cloud of dust swirl towards the cooker and the pots of spaghetti and bolognese sauce Xander had been stirring when they came in.
"Me neither," said Xander. "Pizza everyone? Vi's paying."
"I really think that we have other priorities," said Giles, "such as finding out if there are more of them. But..
"They stop taking orders at ten thirty," Xander interrupted, "we'd better phone first. I'll get the usual mix," he said, turning off the cooker and moving to the telephone, "except I think we'll leave out the chicken tikka topping tonight."
"Definitely," said Robin. "Make it pepperoni instead."
"Cod and chips for me," said Giles, "and make sure they put some salt and vinegar on the chips."
"We've got some in the cupboard," said Xander.
"It isn't the same. The vinegar needs to go on the second they're fried, when they're still almost too hot to touch."
"I bow to your gourmet knowlede."
"And a couple of pickled onions and a gherkin."
"Looks like the town isn't as dead as we thought," said Vi, coming back into the kitchen, dabbing her lips with a tissue. "First your cheese guy, then vampire chickens. Must mean that there's a real vamp somewhere in the neighbourhood."
"What kinda vampire would want to live here?" asked Xander. Nobody had a good reply.
. . . . .
"Hold still you idiot," said Harmony, dabbing at her henchman's cuts with a tissue soaked in antiseptic. "I said 'go out and get me some animal blood', not 'go out and vanish for three days and come back pecked to pieces.'"
"I'm sorry, mistress," said the unhappy vampire. "They ganged up on me."
"They ganged up on you. Riiiight..." She prodded viciously at one of the cuts until he howled with anguish. "Other vampires get smart henchmen. I end up with the village idiot."
"But they were organised, mistress," said the henchman.
"Sure they were. Okay, you're fixed. Now go out and get me some real blood. A dog or something."
. . . . .
"What's up, lad?" asked Wallace, as Grommit came into the house at high speed and bolted the door behind him. "You're back from your walkies early."
Grommit mimed a mouth with fangs, and Wallace said "Toothache lad?"
Grommit shook his head. "Oh dear," said Wallace. "Maybe it's time the vet scaled them again."
Grommit tried to mime a vampire rising from the grave, and Wallace said "Rabbits?"
Grommit tried once more, this time imitating a stake through the heart, and Wallace looked at him blankly then said "Is it heartburn, lad?"
Grommit sighed, flopped into his chair, and opened the evening paper. Sometimes explaining things really wasn't worth the effort...
. . . . .
"Hello, Wallace and Gromit's Wash 'N' Go, Wallace speaking."
"This is Robin Wood at the Old School. One of my colleagues gave me your business card."
"The lad with the eye patch?"
"That's right. I was hoping that you might be able to give me an estimate for cleaning our windows."
"Hmmm... I used to clean it in the old days. Have you made many changes to the place? Any new windows added?"
"No, all the changes are internal."
"Let's see, the school's been closed four years now... must be a fair amount of grime on the windows... say ninety pounds for an extra thorough clean to begin with, after that fifty-five pounds for a quarterly clean, thirty-five if we do it every two months, twenty-five if we do it monthly."
"Which would you recommend?"
"Well... we don't get quite as much smoke as we used to when the school was last open, what with the wool factory closing, but there's still a fair bit of pollution. Go for the two month service if you're not too bothered about the look of things, but monthly will give you windows you can be proud of."
"Hmm..." said Wood. It was a surprisingly low estimate.
"Tell you what," said Wallace, "we'd have to start with the thorough clean anyway, and I've no bookings on Thursday afternoon, what with it being early closing. I could come over and take care of it then, then once you've seen the quality of our work we can talk about a long-term contract."
"You think that you can do the whole school in an afternoon?"
"I'll guarantee it if you can give us a clear run. Make sure that the window-sills are clear, and that there's nothing too big in front of the windows, nothing slows us down more than having to shift cupboards and flower pots and stuff. But we've the latest technology," said Wallace, pride in his voice. "Innovative. There's patents applied for."
"Okay," said Wood, "What time should we expect you?"
"Okay, see you then."
Robin put down the 'phone and said "Thursday afternoon. Remember that we need to get everything under cover before he gets here. Swords, crossbows, that sort of thing."
"No problem," said Vi, "I don't go leaving swords and axes around the place like some people I could mention."
"You leave one axe where someone stubs their toe..." began Xander.
"Okay... so who's gonna play burglar?" asked Vi.
"I'm probably the best with lock picks," said Giles, "and he'll be expecting to see Xander and Robin. It'd better be us."
"You know," said Robin, "we really don't have anything against this guy except he likes cheese and looks a little strange, and there's a vampire out there somewhere. Is this really a good idea?"
"When did a bad idea ever stop us?" asked Xander.
"We might as well take a look," said Vi, "After all, there won't be any vampires around in the afternoon, then if he's clean we can concentrate on the vamps in the evening."
"It's a plan," said Robin. "I guess..." he added doubtfully.
Wallace and Gromit drove into the central courtyard of the school and immediately set to work, Wallace setting up the ladders while Gromit ran a hose from the water cannon mounted on the sidecar to a tap near the kitchen entrance. "It's a big job, lad," said Wallace, looking around the red-brick building with anticipation, "but we're the ones to do it."
"Good morning," said Robin, coming into the yard. "Mister Wallace? I'm Robin Wood, the principal of the school. Would you like anything before you start? Tea, or maybe coffee?"
"We wouldn't say no to tea once we're done," said Wallace, "but the sooner we start, the sooner you'll be able to judge the quality of our service."
"Okay," said Robin. "We've tried to clear everything for you, and Xander or I should be around to lend a hand if you need to move anything."
"Is that the lad with the eye patch?" asked Wallace.
"Good. I was hoping to have a word."
"A confidential word," said Wallace, propping his ladder against the wall.
"Oh. Okay, he's around somewhere."
"So long as I see him before I go," said Wallace. "It may be to his advantage."
"It looks quiet enough," whispered Vi. "But I get kinda nervous breaking into places in broad daylight."
"Nonsense," Giles said quietly, busying himself with lockpicks. "Broad daylight is the best time for it. If you sneak around at night someone's sure to call the police." There was a click and the door swung open, and the picks vanished into Giles' pocket. "Mister Wallace," Giles called loudly, "are you in?"
"What if he is? Or someone else?" hissed Vi.
"Then I say the door's been left open," said Giles, "and ask if he can recommend a glazier to fix the broken window at the school."
"What broken window?"
"The one I cracked this morning to give myself an alibi, of course," said Giles, then more loudly "Looks like there's nobody in. We'd better go in and leave a note."
They walked into the hall and looked around, and Giles pulled on thin leather gloves. "Doesn't look very sinister so far," said Vi.
"Not really," said Giles, peering at a potted plant, "unless you count the bite marks on this cheese plant."
"Not exactly demonic," Vi said dismissively.
"It's been nibbled by something with big pointy teeth," said Giles. "Could be a rabbit, I suppose, but it'd have to be one hell of a large one to get that high." He called "Mister Wallace?" again, then said "Let's try through here," and led her into a comfortable but rather old-fashioned looking dining room. The table was piled high with books, one of them open at a labelled diagram of the human brain. At one end of the table was a control console with several buttons, at the other a complicated-looking device resembling a small up-ended cement mixer with lots of extra flanges and gears, with cables and hoses disappearing into a hole in the floor.
"I'll check the books," said Giles. "See if you can work out what that machine does."
"Okay," Vi said uncertainly, inspecting the control panel. There were several unlabelled buttons. On a hunch she pressed the top one with the tip of her fingernail, taking care not to leave fingerprints on the button. There was a whirring noise, and the upper part of the machine began to rotate rapidly. "Ummm... Giles."
"Mmm..." said Giles, leafing through Wallace's copy of 'Cyborgs For Beginners,' by Dr. Margaret Walsh, and noting an illustration that bore a striking resemblance to the Initiative's Adam.
"It's doing something, Giles."
"Well stop it," said Giles, with most of his attention still on the book, "we don't want to leave traces."
"Okay." Vi pressed the button again. There was a loud rumbling noise and the rotating upper cylinder of the machine began to tip down towards Vi. She hastily ducked to one side, knocking over a chair, but nothing else happened. "Giles?"
"Hmmm?" He looked up, saw at the cylinder was pointed down the length of the table, and said "back away from the table very slowly, get out of the line of fire, I think it might be some sort of weapon." He followed his own advice, and Vi hastily retreated. There was a "sproing!" noise from the machine, a cogwheel fell off, and it slowly whirred to a halt.
"I think you broke it," said Giles. There was a sudden "Ftoooop!" and a huge blob of grey goop fired out of the barrel, along the length of the table, and into the wall with a loud "Splatt!". It stuck, then slowly oozed down the wall towards the floor.
"What the hell is that?" asked Vi.
"Some sort of demonic slime, I'd imagine. Whatever you do, don't let any of it touch you." There was a second eruption, and another blob of goop followed the first, followed by several more in rapid succession. The mound on the floor seemed to pulsate and grow as more of the goop ran down the wall and into it.
"I don't like the look of that," said Giles, backing towards the door.
"What do you make of that thing?" said Xander, gesturing across the yard.
"It's obviously some sort of supercharged pogo stick," said Robin, watching Wallace bounce up and down on a machine that looked like a pneumatic drill on steroids, with a huge sponge on a long spring attached to his oversized crash helmet, spreading lather across several windows with every bounce. Gromit was firing the lather from the bike's water cannon.
"What I can't figure out is how he's gonna clean off the detergent."
Wallace reached the end of the wall and flicked a switch on his helmet. The sponge somehow retracted, and a rotating polishing mop took its place. He started bouncing back the way he'd came, removing the suds as efficiently as he'd left them.
"You know," said Xander. "Some people would pay good money to see something like that."
At that second the end of Wallace's mop caught on a protruding overflow spout and tangled around it. The pogo stick went down, and Wallace dangled helplessly as the mop whipped around the spout. Suddenly Wallace was spinning around the mop. There was a loud "crack" as the helmet strap broke and he was flung across the courtyard. Fortunately a holly bush broke his fall. The pogo stick bounced and juddered to a halt. The helmet continued to spin around the spout.
"Are you okay?" shouted Xander, running across the yard towards him.
Wallace sat up groggily and said "Still a few minor teething problems, but nothing to worry about."
"I think you'd better rest for a minute," said Robin, "that looked like a nasty fall."
"I'll be fine," said Wallace. "Don't want to let a little thing like that delay us." He staggered back to the nearest ladder, moved it to the wall to one side of the spout, and climbed up towards the spinning helmet.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea..." began Xander, but it was too late. Wallace grabbed for the helmet, and began to spin around, his body flailing like the blade of a propellor. Gromit covered his eyes as the mop shaft broke and Wallace was flung up and across the courtyard again. This time he landed head-first in a large cistern, originally intended for use if the school was on fire, and still full of rain-water. The splash drenched Robin. Wallace emerged from the water, triumpantly raising the helmet, and said "oh dear" as he noticed Robin's dripping form. A toad sitting on his head went "grkkk!" and jumped back into the cistern.
"Good thing we've got showers," said Xander. "I think you're both gonna need them. And maybe something hot to drink?"
"Well," said Wallace. "It's not very professional to stop before I've finished, but I wouldn't say no to a nice cup of tea."
"Coffee for me," said Robin, squelching off. "The showers are this way."
"Right-ho!" said Wallace. "Gromit, see if you can clear up a bit, I won't be long." The long-suffering dog shrugged his shoulders and began to mop up the mess. Xander watched him for a second, shrugged, and went inside to put on the kettle.
"It doesn't seem to be doing much," said Vi, peering cautiously into the dining room from the hall. The amorphous grey blob made a "gloop" noise but didn't move.
"Probably trying to lull us into a false sense of security," said Giles. "Did you notice the trap door in the ceiling above that chair? My guess would be that somehow he lures people into the room above and drops them through the trap, ready to be bombarded with ooze."
"I guess," said Vi, "but why have the control panel there? Wouldn't you want it well out of the target area?"
"Demonic reasoning doesn't always make perfect sense."
"I'll take a look upstairs," said Vi. "You keep an eye on the blob, and listen out for anyone coming in."
"Be careful," said Giles. "There could be traps."
"I know." Vi went upstairs, and called down "Looks like there's a bedroom above. I'll see if I can find the trap door." Before Giles could comment there was a loud "Twangg!" and a series of clanking mechanical noises.
"Vi?" said Giles. "Are you all right."
Behind him the front door opened and Vi came in, looking dazed. Somehow she'd acquired a baggy jumper, oversized rubber boots, and a crash helmet. "I think so."
"Good lord, what on earth happened to you?"
"It's kinda blurry, but I think I found the trap door..."
"Nice tea," said Wallace, sipping from his mug in the kitchen.
"I guess," said Xander, "I'm more of a coffee kinda guy, but I've learned how to make the stuff."
Gromit came in from the courtyard, sat on one of the chairs, and poured himself a cup. Xander and Robin exchanged glances, but neither said anything.
"Finished clearing up the mess, lad?" asked Wallace. Gromit nodded. Wallace patted him, and gave him a slightly soggy dog biscuit. Gromit looked at it, sniffed, and tossed it into the pedal bin near the sink. Xander offered him a plate of Jaffa cakes instead, and Gromit helped himself to a couple.
"Clever dog," said Xander.
"I suppose," said Wallace.
"You were saying," said Robin, "that you wanted to talk to Xander about something."
"Talk to... oh yes." said Wallace. "It's a little confidential..."
"That's okay," said Xander. "I don't mind Robin knowing my business."
"Well... if you're quite sure," said Wallace. "Confidentially... I've been working on an invention."
"Like the helmet?"
"Oh no... this one's quite different. A new era in biotechnology."
"And you're looking for investors?" asked Robin.
"Eventually, I suppose," said Wallace, "but first I need a volunteer to try it."
"And you wanted to ask me?" said Xander, raising his eyebrows.
"Well yes," said Wallace. "You're the obvious choice. In fact you gave me the idea."
"For the eye, lad."
"Eye?" said Robin.
"Didn't I say? There's still the size problem to tackle, but I'm ready to make a few preliminary tests."
"What about my eye?" asked Xander, confused.
"That's what I've been saying. It's bionic."
"You've built an artificial eye?" said Xander.
"Direct inductive coupling to the visual cortex of the brain, no electrodes needed. Solar powered with battery backup. Zoom lens, infra-red vision. I've got the technology, and I'm nearly ready to apply for patents..."
"So that's what he said," Xander said a couple of hours later. "He wants me to go round there tonight and try it."
"I think you need to be very cautious," said Giles. "That house is riddled with strange machinery and booby-traps, and one of the reference books he was using was written by Maggie Walsh."
"He wants to turn me into Adam?"
"He seemed reasonably sincere," said Robin, "and I didn't really see any evidence that he wasn't human, even in the shower. Just rather... um... lumpy-looking."
"Well, he's met you so he shouldn't complain if you come along with me as backup."
"And your girlfriend could come too," said Vi. "He couldn't object to that."
"Dawn's still in... oh, I see what you mean. Kinda young for me, aren't you?"
"I'm older than Dawn..." said Vi. Xander looked uncomfortable, then nodded.
"Better not," said Giles, "we still need to investigate the vampire chickens."
"We could do that later," said Vi. "I'm not letting the guys go in there without some real muscle to back them up."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," said Robin.
"That slime creature could still be there," said Vi, "just waiting to pounce."
"And exactly how were you planning to deal with it if it does?" asked Giles.
"That's something we need to work out between now and this evening..."
"I'm bored," said Harmony. "Isn't there any night life in this town?"
"It's only three PM," said her minion.
"Not now, you moron. Tonight, after dark."
The minion thumbed through the local paper and said "There's a disco in the church hall..."
"Too many crosses."
"A Darby and Joan Club dance..."
"Isn't that, like, really old people? Anything else?"
"karaoke at the King's Head..."
"A pub? Too many mirrors and smokers."
"You don't need to breathe, mistress."
"I guess... and there might be guys there." The minion looked at her reproachfully. "Guys with blood, dumb-ass. A song, some flirtation, out to the back alley for some hot love and it's chow time. I'm not feeling much in the way of fear in this town, maybe it's time to step things up a little."
"What about me, mistress?"
"You can try to score someone for yourself. If not, I guess you'll just have to stick with rats."
"As you wish, mistress."
Harmony briefly considered offering him a share of her prey, if she got lucky, but decided against it. Minions needed to be kept in their place.
"Nothing seems to have been stolen, lad," said Wallace, clearing the last of the porridge from the dining room floor. "Are you sure that someone was here?"
Gromit tapped his nose..
"Oh, you can smell them?" asked Wallace. Gromit nodded.
"And I'm sure I didn't leave those boots and the crash helmet in the hall, or that jumper on your bed. Hmmm... could be industrial spies, after my inventions."
"Well," said Wallace, "there's no time to do anything about it now. We've a lot of work to do if we're going to be ready for that lad Xander."
"Okay," said Xander, as they drove towards West Wallaby Street in the Range Rover, "Vi and Robin and I will will go in together. We've all got our phones. Giles, you stay out of it, ready to come in as our backup."
"Are you quite sure?" said Giles. "I still haven't been able to identify that demonic slime, for all you know it could be waiting to pounce."
"It didn't look very mobile," said Vi. "If we stay out of the line of fire we ought to be okay."
"But nothing," said Vi. "You don't think I can hack it with two scoobies to help me?"
"Of course you can. But I might be more alert to any... ah... mystical attack."
"I really don't think we need worry," said Xander. "I get the impression he's more into weird science than magic."
"All right," said Giles. "But don't say I didn't warn you. And be on your guard, we know that there's a vampire somewhere in the area."
"We're nearly there," said Vi. "Better drop us before we reach the house, if you stop outside he'll wonder why you didn't come in with us."
"Good point... I know, there's a car park at the pub at the end of the road, I'll wait there for you."
"Well spotted," said Xander.
"The neon sign gives it away," Robin said drily. Giles reversed into one of the parking spaces and said "You'd better hurry or you'll be late. And be careful!"
As they walked off Giles thought for a moment, then locked the Range Rover and went into the pub. The parking was for customers only, and according to their sign the pub sold a reasonable range of real ales. There was nothing like arguing with a stubborn Slayer to make him thirsty, and he was prepared to brave the horrors of karaoke if there was a chance of a good drink.
"You already know Robin Wood, of course," said Xander. "And this is my girlfriend Vi." He crossed his fingers behind his back, and hoped that Dawn would never find out. She had a tendency to throw things when she was upset. Behind him Gromit noticed the fingers and made a mental note. He'd already recognized Vi's scent as one of the intruders, now he just had to work out a way of telling Wallace without the visitors noticing.
"Pleased to meet you, lass," said Wallace, offering a handful of thick fingers for shaking. Vi gently squeezed them, trying to keep the force down to normal human levels. "My word, that's a strong grip you have."
"I work out," said Vi. "Sorry, hope I didn't hurt you."
"It's quite all right." said Wallace, rubbing his fingers. "No harm done. Would you like some tea before we get down to business?"
"That'd be nice," said Xander. Wallace led them into the parlour.
"That's an interesting style of painting," said Robin, looking at the pictures on the wall and wondering why they all had round glass eyes.
"It's one of my other businesses," said Wallace. "Humane pest control. The portraits show our customers, the eyes light up if any pests are detected on their premises. Rabbits, moles, that sort of thing. Not much happening right now, but in the spring it's non-stop calls." There was a soft whistle from the kitchen. "Kettle's boiling, Gromit lad. Let's have a nice pot of tea and some cheese and crackers. And biscuits if we've got them."
Gromit went out, and Xander said "He's pretty smart, isn't he?"
"Gromit? I suppose so, yes."
"I was wondering what breed he is," said Robin.
"I really couldn't say. He's.. well, a bit of a mixture, I think."
Xander tried to remember if there were any demons that liked to breed with dogs. He could only think of Hell Hounds, and Gromit wasn't really like that. More like Snoopy. He'd have to ask Giles.
Gromit came back in with the tray, 'accidentally' knocking Vi's big shoulder bag over as he passed her chair. The contents spilled onto the floor; some cosmetics and a cross, three sharp wooden stakes, a bottle of holy water and a compact crossbow.
"Terribly sorry," Wallace said as Vi stuffed them back into her bag, "he isn't usually this clumsy. Was that a crossbow?"
"Uh... um, yeah, I'm going to target practice after I finish here. It's part of my martial arts training."
"Oh... Won't that be a bit difficult in the dark?"
"It's an indoor range."
"Right-ho. Shall I be mother?" As they looked at him, a little puzzled, he added "Oh... right, Americans. I meant, shall I pour the tea?"
"Yes please," said Vi.
"Right-ho." He poured the tea and added milk - Vi preferred lemon, but there didn't seem to be one around so she didn't stop him - and handed cups to everyone, including Gromit. Gromit sipped at his cup, remembering what he'd seen in Vi's bag. Could she know that Wallace had once been a were-rabbit?
"Busy tonight," said Giles, sipping a passable pint of Old Peculiar.
"Aye," said the barman. "It's t'karaoke. Get singers from miles around."
"You don't sound too keen."
"Happen I'm a music lover. Gets the customers in but..."
"When does it start?"
"Seven," the barman said unenthusiastically. "You going to sing?"
"Not karaoke. I'm more a guitar man."
"Electric or acoustic?"
"Blues, folk, or rock?"
"A little of everything."
"Well, why don't you come to our talent night, first Monday of the month? There's a prize for t'best player."
"I'll bear it in mind."
There was a small howl of feedback, and an amplified voice said "Welcome to karaoke night at t' Queen's Head." Giles looked around the crowded bar, and noticed a skinny youth in a sequinned jacket standing on a small stage in a corner of the bar, next to a karaoke machine. "Now then, now then, who's going to be the first to sing? We've got a yard of ale for the best performance."
There was a pause, then a pink-sleeved hand appeared from the crowd and a somehow familiar voice said "Me! Pick me!" The accent sounded American.
"Come on up, love," said the compere. "And you would be...?"
"Hi everyone!" shrieked the girl, hopping onto the stage. She was a curvaceous but vapid-looking blonde, wearing a pink dress and a cardigan with a unicorn pattern. "I'm..." There was another screech of feedback, drowning her voice, and the compere hastily adjusted the controls of the sound system.
"Right, love," said the compere, "What did you want to sing?"
"Stand By Me."
"Right then, love." He pressed the button to start the tune playing, and in a moment the girl began to butcher the song.
Giles winced, and tried to remember why the girl looked so familiar. Someone he'd met in California? It'd come to him eventually.
"...So you see," said Wallace, "the only problem now is miniaturisation. I had to build the prototype big to get all the components in, but at that size it's obviously not going to be much good for everyday use." His voice echoed through the cavernous cellar under the house.
Xander turned his head, moving carefully because a pad of electrodes was pasted to his forehead. Behind him the giant model eye moved left and right in its gimbals. "This is awesome. Just seeing with two eyes again is weird, but this... It's kinda like having extra extra powerful 3D glasses. But I've gotta agree, it's kinda bulky. How long do you think it'd take to get a small one made?"
"Oh, I can get the size down easily," said Wallace, "it's keeping it small that's the problem."
"With my miniaturising ray," said Wallace, gesturing towards a device that looked like a crystalline spotlight. "A couple of minutes at mark seven ought to get it down to the right size, but the trouble is that things don't stay small..."
"Wait a minute," said Xander. "You've got a miniaturising ray? Like Fantastic Voyage?"
"Film with Raquel Welch. They miniaturise a submarine and go inside someone's brain to operate from the inside."
"Now there's an idea." He stroked his chin and looked thoughtful. "Hmmm... we could fit a periscope to t'rocket, maybe add some propellers. D'you think we have the power, Gromit lad?" Gromit shook his head. "I'd really love to try it," said Wallace, "but we'll just have to settle for miniaturising the eye for now."
Gromit moved around to the ray machine and pulled on dark goggles, tossing more pairs to the Americans and Wallace, who said "You'd better disconnect the eye while we're shrinking it, we can attach the electrodes again afterwards."
Gromit pulled levers and twisted knobs on an elaborate console that looked like something out of a 1950s B-movie. Out of the corner of his eye Robin noticed something moving on a shelf, and glanced round to see several mice, all apparently watching in fascination. Wallace said "Glasses everyone!" A moment later the ray machine began to glow with green light. Robin watched for a second, then glanced back at the shelf. The mice were still there, but now they were wearing dark glasses. He shrugged, and turned back to watch the eye.
Sparkling with green light, the eye was slowly getting smaller. From beach ball down to football... to grapefruit... baseball... After a couple of minutes it was about the same size as the artificial eye Xander sometimes used, and Gromit flicked more switches to turn the ray off.
"Give it a try," said Wallace. "You'll have to use it externally for now, much too risky putting it in."
"How come?" asked Xander, picking up the eye from its miniaturised cradle and fixing the tiny electrodes back on his forehead.
"It isn't stable," said Wallace, "might stay that size for hours, but sometimes it's only a couple of minutes, then it snaps back pretty quickly."
"And I really don't want it splitting my head open when it grows... hey, it still works." Xander held the eye on its now-short cable, and turned it around until it was looking backwards over his shoulder. "That's weird." The lens of the eye zoomed out then back again. "Really weird."
"But is it good?" asked Vi.
"It's beautiful," said Xander.
"That's remarkable," said Robin. "Do you think that developing a more permanent effect would be difficult?"
"Might be a little expensive. It needs lots of power, and I'm running a little short of that Kansas meteor rock... I could probably get it stable for a day or so for a couple of hundred pounds. Keeping it that size for good would be a lot more difficult. What do you think, Gromit lad?" Gromit shrugged.
"How about five thousand?"
"Five... thousand?" Wallace sat down hard.
"Might as well do it right," said Robin. "Five thousand to begin with, to get Xander taken care of, then we'll talk about mass production."
"Can we afford it?" asked Xander.
"We won't have to pay for it," said Robin, "there's that computer guy in Los Angeles, Angel's friend, he'll fund it as a charity project."
"Nabbit," said Xander. "Right. He's loaded."
There was a loud "ping" and the eye grew a little.
"Better get it back in the cradle," said Wallace, "before it's too heavy to lift."
There was an odd mouldy smell, but the singing from the stage was so bad that Giles barely noticed it. The blonde was on her third song, and didn't show any signs of stopping - or improving. He decided to finish his drink and get out fast, before his ears were permanently damaged.
A ragged-looking man in a bulky overcoat pushed through the crowd and asked for a half-pint of guinness, then sat next to Giles watching the singer. He said "That's beautiful..."
"The beer?" asked Giles.
"Oh. Right." Giles looked around, wondering if the man was on drugs, then realised something. The stranger wasn't reflected in the mirrors behind the bar.
"Beer's no good any more, but that voice..."
"Excuse me," said Giles. "I've just remembered I need to make a phone call." He drained the last of his pint and went outside, pulling out his cell phone and speed-dialing Vi's number.
Gromit looked around the room. For the moment all three of the visitors were standing around the eye, watching it grow, while Wallace was at his drawing board writing equations. Right then... He cracked his knuckles, turned back to the control panel, set everything to maximum, and turned on the power. The ray glowed again, much brighter, and Xander, Robin, and Vi began to shrink.
"I can't move," said Xander, "feels like I'm paralyzed." His voice was high-pitched.
"Me neither," said Vi, her voice barely audible.
There was a shrill cheep from Robin.
"What are you doing, Gromit lad?" said Wallace, covering his eyes.
When they were a couple of inches tall Gromit snapped off the power. Before anyone could move he sprung forward with a wire-mesh cheese dish cover, clapped it down over the visitors, and put a heavy book on top.
"Gromit lad, what have you done?"
On the floor, outside the area affected by the ray, the phone in Vi's bag began to ring.
"Where is that blasted girl?" muttered Giles, speed-dialling Vi for the third time. Still no reply. He rummaged in the Range-Rover's glove box and found a stake and a cross, slipped a squeeze bottle of holy water into his pocket, and hurried back across the car park towards the pub, just in time to see the ragged vampire come out with the blonde who'd been singing. Anxious to prevent a tragedy, he shouted "You! Leave the girl alone!"
"What?" said the girl. The vampire turned towards Giles, slipping into game face, and snarled as it leaped at Giles, who held up the crucifix and hit the vampire in the face, then staked it while it was screaming. Dust swirled down onto the damp asphalt.
"Are you all right?" asked Giles.
"That... that..." began the girl.
"No need for thanks," said Giles, "just doing my job."
"That was my minion, you... oh crap." The girl backed away from Giles.
"Your... oh balls!" The penny finally dropped, and he suddenly recognized her. "Harmony?"
"Giles?" Harmony said incredulously.
"Good lord, I haven't seen you since Spike found the Gem of Amara."
"I miss Blondie Bear," said Harmony, edging towards the door.
"I must say you're looking well," said Giles, holding the cross in her path and hoping that she'd give him an opening to stake her. "Working for Angel must have suited you." Harmony backed away again, Giles followed her.
"Well yeah, until he decided to wreck the place," said Harmony. "Then everything went to hell. Why didn't you watcher guys help him?"
"Sorry," said Giles, feeling in his pocket for the holy water, "he had us convinced he was evil."
"Nope," said Harmony. "And you let him down when he needed your help."
"I'm terribly sorry," said Giles, squirting the holy water at her. Harmony growled and dodged, slipped into game face, and leapt high into the air. Giles looked around and couldn't see her; listened, and heard something crash on the roof of the pub.
"You can't get in there," shouted Giles, "that's where the landlord lives. It's a private residence." A slate shattered on the tarmac a few feet away, another a little closer. "Bugger," Giles muttered, and ran for the Range-Rover, hoping that she'd still be there when he came back with Vi.
"What do we do now," said Xander, prodding the wire mesh cover of their prison with his pocket knife. To the shrunken trio the strands of wire looked an inch or so thick, impossible to cut with the small tools on his belt.
"Got any wire cutters?" asked Robin.
"Get real," said Xander, "I'd need hydraulic bolt cutters to get through this stuff at our scale."
Vi strained at the mesh, trying to force an opening, but the strands were too tightly packed.
"What are they up to out there," asked Vi, staring across the now-vast floor at Wallace and Gromit.
"It looks like the dog is miming a... a kangaroo, maybe," said Robin. "Something that hops, anyway. With a stake in its heart."
"Must be his true demonic form," said Vi
"Any chance of moving this whole thing?" asked Xander, pushing at the cover again.
"What for?" asked Vi.
"Just over there," said Xander, pointing across the concrete floor. "There's a splinter of wood, kinda wedge shaped. If we can push the rim of this thing over it and up there might just be room for someone to squeeze through underneath.
"Looks like ten feet or so," said Robin. "About four inches if we were full-sized
"It's gonna be hard work," said Xander, "but I think it's our best way out."
"Okay," said Vi, putting her shoulder to the mesh. "Start pushing on the count of three... one.. two.. three.."
"But I'm cured, lad," said Wallace. "There's no need for anyone to want to hurt me."
Gromit tried to mime "you know that, and I know that, but do they know that?" but soon decided to give it up as an impossible job. He tipped out the contents of Vi's bag again, ignoring the bleeping phone, waved the crossbow and stakes at Wallace, and again mimed a rabbit being staked. Something finally seemed to click in Wallace's mind.
"Oh 'eck, lad. What are we going to do?"
Gromit shrugged, then seemed to have an idea. He began to mime something else.
"You're praying? You want to take them upstairs?" guessed Wallace.
Gromit groaned, and tried again.
There was a loud thump as Giles drove out of the car park, and for a second the Range Rover lurched heavily to one side.
"Bloody pothole," said Giles, looking back in the mirror. The asphalt seemed smooth enough. He cursed as he realised he'd turned the wrong way from the pub, and was heading away from Wallace's house. There wasn't room to turn quickly in the narrow street, so he decided to drive around the block. Inevitably the first traffic light on the route was red; he thought about driving through it, but a few seconds wouldn't make much difference, and he didn't want to attract too much attention.
There was a bright street light to the right, and Giles looked away from it before his night vision was destroyed. To the left the Range Rover was silhouetted on a whitewashed fence. The Range Rover, and something hunched on top of it, a lumpy object on the roof rack. The lights changed, and Giles stamped down on the accelerator, built up some speed until he hit a wider section of the road, then slammed on the brakes. There was a shriek and the object - Harmony - hurtled forward and off the roof towards a shop window. She crashed through, broken glass showering around her, and disappeared from view. Giles swore, and reached under the seat for a heavy crossbow. He was still groping for it when she came out again, and he suddenly realised that the shop was a gunsmiths. The 12-bore shotgun she was carrying made recognition easier, of course. He slammed the gears into reverse and backed away. The windscreen on the passenger side shattered as she fired.
"Looks like another three feet," said Xander. "Maybe an inch in real distance. A couple more heaves should do it."
"Hold on," said Robin. "The dog-demon's looking this way." Wallace and Gromit were busy at the far end of the cellar, doing something to a bulky object, at least twenty foot tall, covered with a loose tarpaulin. They couldn't see it clearly from under the dome.
"Act innocent," said Vi. "Pretend we're just talking."
"Right," said Xander. "When we get to the wood you'd better get out first. I can see some big nails near the work-bench, if you can get to one of them you might be able to use it as a weapon."
"What about you?"
"We'll try to find cover," said Robin, "there isn't much we can do to help you when we're this size."
"Wait a minute," said Xander, "there's some wood shavings there too." He reached into one of the belt pouches and pulled out a box of matches. "Fire's always good for a diversion."
"We'll have to be careful," said Vi. "It'd be easy to get trapped."
"Okay... maybe not such a good plan."
"It's looking away again," said Robin.
"Another couple of heaves should do it," said Xander.
"Then let's get on with it," said Vi. "On the count of three..."
As Harmony fired another shot, taking out the window of a butcher's shop but missing the Range-Rover completely, Giles slammed it into second gear and accelerated toward her. She leaped aside before he could run her down. Giles glanced in the mirror, saw nothing, then cursed himself for a fool and risked a quick look over his shoulder. Harmony was running after the Range-Rover, and starting to gain on it. He took the next corner in a sliding drift and collision that took off the mirror of a parked van, and accelerated again toward the next turn. Harmony was still on his tail.
At the next corner he looked back. Harmony was still on his trail, though she seemed to have lost the shotgun and her shoes somewhere on the way. He'd gained a little ground. He accelerated again, took the corner into West Wallaby Street as fast as he could, and slammed on the brakes outside Wallace's house. He grabbed the crossbow and ran towards the house, hurdling a plastic gnome, and rang the doorbell.
"Whoever can that be at this time of night?" said Wallace.
Gromit shrugged and pulled on the handles of a metal cylinder that hung down from the ceiling in a corner of the cellar, a WW2-surplus U-boat periscope. On the surface a gnome rose a few inches on a steel tube. Gromit looked through the lenses and his ears rose in surprise.
"Someone we know, lad?" said Wallace, coming over to take a look. He saw Giles, recognized him, and said "Oh 'eck, lad. What are we going to tell him?"
"Anyone else think this thing is shrinking?" asked Xander
"Maybe," said Vi. "Or maybe we're starting to grow again." There was definitely less room under the wire dome, and Xander and Robin were having to stoop a little.
"Try pushing it again," said Robin, "if we've grown our strength should be growing too."
Vi gave the dome another push and it skidded towards the wedge-shaped piece of wood. "All of us," said Xander. "We need to get it onto the wedge without dropping off the other end."
"Can't we just wait to grow again?" asked Robin.
"If he notices us growing," said Xander, pointing at Wallace, "he'll zap us with the shrink ray again. We need to get clear before it's too obvious."
Giles couldn't hear anyone coming to the door, and got out his lock picks. If Xander and Vi weren't in the house he wanted to know what had happened to them, and he'd be safe from Harmony inside someone's home. As the penultimate tumbler clicked Harmony came into view, stalking down the path towards him. She looked incredibly annoyed. Behind Giles the door swung open and Wallace said "Ummm... you'd better come in."
"Thanks," said Harmony, running down the path towards them. Giles fired his crossbow; she caught the bolt without stopping and slammed into him, knocking him down as she crossed the threshold.
"Oo-er," said Wallace. "Can I help you, miss?"
Harmony grabbed his arm and said "Oh yeah, baby" as she slipped into game face.
"Oh 'eck!" said Wallace. Harmony pushed him into the house, keeping hold of his arm, and grabbed Giles by the hair and pulled him after her.
"Bloody hell, woman!" shouted Giles, trying to scramble to his feet. "That bloody hurts!"
"Good," said Harmony, kicking the door shut.
Downstairs Gromit listened, and gave the group trapped under the cheese cover a worried look. Was it his imagination, or were they getting bigger? He looked at the stairs, looked at the reducing ray, and hesitated.
From upstairs came a cry of "Help, lad!"
Gromit gave the ray a last look, then turned and ran up the stairs.
"Where's he going?" said Xander, watching Gromit leave.
"Damned if I know," said Robin, "I heard a kinda low roar, must have been Wallace shouting from upstairs. I guess if a normal-sized person heard us talk we'd be squeaking like bats. Whatever, it couldn't come at a better time. One more heave and we'll get this thing onto the wedge."
Vi leaned into the mesh and shoved again, and the men hastened to help. With a last effort the cover slid onto the wedge-shaped wood chip and lifted from the floor. In the end Vi had to pull on the mesh to keep it from sliding off the end.
"There isn't much room underneath," said Robin. "You could get out, but I think Xander and I are trapped here."
"You're right," said Vi, sliding underneath with difficulty. She heaved upwards, but even with Slayer strength the weight of the mesh dome and the books on top of it were too much for her.
"See if you can get the books off," said Xander. "They're only balanced there, a good shove might tip them off,"
Vi climbed up the mesh and pushed up with all her strength. The books wobbled, rocked away from her, then rocked back and hit her on the head.
"You all right?" asked Xander.
"Should stop seeing stars in a minute," said Vi. "I need more leverage, the top of this thing is flat, it's stopping them from rocking off."
There was another roar from above.
"Get one of those big nails, that ought to do it."
Vi ran off across the floor, hurdling wood shavings and other obstacles, reached the work-bench, and trotted back with a huge nail on her shoulder. It looked like a solid steel bar about eight feet long.
"You okay?" Xander shouted as she came back.
"I'm fine," Vi replied, "but they left my phone on the floor, Giles tried to reach me four times. He must think we're in trouble."
"I've got news for you," said Robin. "We are in trouble. With any luck he's upstairs, that's what all the shouting's about."
Vi pried at the books again, using the nail as a lever. With a thud they fell off. Vi pushed the nail under the rim of the dome and pulled up; with the extra leverage, and without the weight of the books to hold it down, she easily held it high enough for Xander and Robin to scramble out.
Gromit peeked round the corner of the cellar stairs to see Harmony, in full game face, dragging Wallace and Giles into the parlour. He thought for a second, then ran downstairs again, grabbed Vi's cross and a stake, and ran up again. He didn't spare a thought for the prisoners, who were ducked down behind the cheese cover.
As he disappeared from view Vi said "Whew... I thought he was gonna spot us."
"I think he's got other problems," said Robin. "That was your cross he just grabbed."
"My cross? It didn't burn him?"
"He's not a vampire," said Xander. "Or a vamp-dog. We've seen him in daylight."
"So what's the cross about?" asked Vi, as they trekked across the floor towards the work-bench.
"We know there's a vampire in town," said Robin. "Maybe demon-dog and cheese guy need a cross to control it."
"And we're still stuck at the size of an action figure," said Xander.
"I don't know," said Vi, hefting the nail again and comparing it to her own height. Without them really noticing it seemed to have shrunk, and now looked about three feet long. Or rather, they'd grown in proportion to it. "Make that Barbie sized."
"Or GI Joe," said Xander.
"What good is that?" asked Robin.
"Means we're getting bigger," said Xander. "Even if we don't grow much more for a while, a Barbie with Slayer strength ought to be able to do some damage. And with the right tools so should we."
"And now," said Harmony, sinking her fangs into Wallace's neck, with one foot on Giles' chest to stop him moving, "it's time for... ewwwwwww!" She spat out his blood and grabbed a white lace anti-macassar from one of the armchairs and used it to wipe her lips. "Yuck! Cheese and... and carrots! What are you, some sort of demon?"
"Demon?" Wallace said incredulously. "Me?"
"Yes, you," Harmony and Giles said in chorus, then glared at each other.
"I'm no demon," said Wallace. "Admittedly I was a were-rabbit for a while, but..."
"Good lord," said Giles. "A were-rabbit? Really?"
"I got better," Wallace said defensively.
"Okay," said Harmony, "I'm not eating that, I might turn into a rabbit. It'll have to be you." She reached down and hauled Giles to his feet with demonic strength, as Gromit rushed in, wearing a heavy green waistcoat with an odd steel box in the middle of the chest and clutching a cross in one paw, and thrust the cross at Harmony's face. She recoiled from him, letting go of Giles and Wallace and backing towards the door to the dining room.
"Steady, lad," said Wallace. "Don't get too close."
Giles dived for his crossbow, as Gromit steadily backed Harmony into the dining room. She picked up a chair and threw it at him; Gromit ducked, but Wallace was caught a glancing blow and stood clutching his arm saying "Ow! Ow! OW!"
Giles rushed back in, fitting another bolt to the bow, and tried to get a clear shot as Gromit backed her towards the end of the table. "Push t'button," said Wallace, gesturing at the panel of controls at the other end of the table. Giles hesitated.
"T'button, push it," Wallace said again.
Giles hesitantly pushed the button. The machine on the table began to spin then lowered, facing towards the far end, and began to spurt blobs of grey ooze. But Harmony wasn't in its line of fire - as the first globule flew down the table she ducked to the side, grabbed a candlestick from the sideboard, and threw it at Gromit. He dodged, then pressed a paw to the mechanism on his chest. With a loud 'Sproiinnnnggg!' a boxing glove on a long spring came out, hitting Harmony between the eyes. She staggered back, apparently dazed for a second, and the next blob of goo hit her in the chest. She slumped in the chair, and another grey blob covered her face.
"Well done, lad," said Wallace. "The Bully-Proof Vest works a treat!"
"What will that stuff do to her?" asked Giles, trying to work out where Harmony's heart was under the grey goop as the barrage of ooze finally stopped.
"The porridge? Might slow her down a bit..."
"Porridge? Bloody hell..."
"Now there's no call for that sort of..." Wallace never finished his sentence. With demonic strength Harmony lurched from the chair and launched herself down the table at Giles. He fired the crossbow, hitting her in the shoulder, then pushed Wallace to one side, and himself the other way, as she slid past, lubricated by the pervasive grey grunge, and shot off the end of the table and out of the room, across the hall, and into the kitchen.
"Now that's something you don't see every day," said Wallace.
"Did you just hear a loud crash?" said Xander, as he and Robin sharpened the end of long dowel rods. They were still about six inches tall, and seemed to have stopped growing for a while.
Vi said "There's a fight going on upstairs. I think I heard Giles shout something."
"By the time we get up there it'll all be over," said Xander, looking at the cliff-like stairs.
"Then we need to be ready for them when they come back down," said Robin. "If Giles doesn't get things under control they'll come for us sooner or later."
"Okay," said Xander, looking around the clutter of the cellar. "Now here's my plan..."
A mechanical voice said "More tea, vicar?" and Harmony dodged the jet of scalding brown liquid. A rotund machine built to look like a chef followed her, fired another jet of tea at her face, then flipped its top open to reveal a frying pan on a hotplate. With a loud 'Twang!' the pan catapulted the eggs towards her. Harmony dodged again, shrieking, grabbed a rolling pin, and hit it. The autochef said "Knickers" and exploded. Harmony staggered towards Giles and Wallace, covered in soot and porridge, her clothing in tatters.
"It does that sometimes," said Wallace, as Giles tried to find another crossbow bolt. Dazed, Harmony lurched between them and back into the dining room, where Gromit stood by another bank of switches and levers, with the boxing glove and spring dangling down to the floor. As Harmony focused on him he snarled, and pushed one of the levers. Above her head a trap-door slid open. She looked up. As she did so the circular metal plate she was standing on catapulted her into the air, through the trap-door, and into Wallace's bedroom. As Wallace, Giles and Gromit listened there was a loud "Twangg!" and a series of clanking mechanical noises.
"That sounds familiar..." thought Giles.
Behind him the front door opened and Harmony came in, looking dazed. Somehow she'd acquired a baggy jumper, oversized rubber boots, and a crash helmet. She shook her head, flicking to game face and back to human two or three times, saw them staring up at the ceiling, and leapt at them. Gromit saw her coming out of the corner of his eye and spun round, with the boxing glove rising to meet her. She collided with it as she flew through the air, compressing the spring as she flew toward Gromit. When she was about a foot from him she jerked to a halt, the spring fully compressed, then flew backwards out of the dining room, across the hall, and into the kitchen again. There was another loud 'Boing!' followed by a cracking noise and a series of thuds, gradually getting quieter.
"Quick," shouted Wallace, "she's gone down the cellar steps!"
"Quick, lock the door," said Giles.
"You don't understand," said Wallace. "Your friends are down there!"
"What have you done to them?" snarled Giles, grabbing Wallace by the shoulders and shaking him.
"Gromit.. thought they... wanted to kill me... used the... shrink ray!"
"You shrank them?" shouted Giles.
"It was just temporary," said Wallace. "Until we worked out what to do."
There was a loud crash from below. Giles let go of Wallace and ran for the stairs.
There was a loud 'Boing' from above, and a pink-clad form dripping grey ooze pinwheeled down the stairs, thudding her head several times, and lay dazedly at the bottom.
"What the hell is that?" whispered Robin, crouched down with the others behind a mop bucket. "Some sort of chaos demon?"
"It looks like..." began Xander. The figure sat up, shaking off grey gunge, and took off her crash helmet, revealing blonde hair covered in more of the grey ooze. She vamped out then resumed her normal appearance, shedding more of the ooze. "...Harmony?" Xander finished incredulously.
"You know that vamp?" said Vi.
"Sure," whispered Xander. "Harmony Kendall, Sunnydale High class of ninety-nine."
"Figures," said Robin.
Giles came down the stairs, holding the cross in front of him again, followed by Wallace and Gromit. Harmony scrambled to her feet, tried to back away from them, and started to slide helplessly as she stepped into the oil Xander and Robin had spread at the bottom of the stairs. Vi stepped into the open with one of the dowel rods and threw it like a javelin, but there hadn't been time to balance it properly; it spun round as it flew through the air and hit Harmony blunt end first at waist level. She flinched back again, sliding some more, but it did her no harm.
"Quick," said a booming roar which the miniaturised trio could barely understand. "Launch Shopper Eighteen!"
Gromit jumped across the patch of oil and grabbed a complicated-looking remote control from a hook on the wall. There was a spluttering noise, like a lawnmower, and a three-wheeled shopping trolley lurched across the floor towards Harmony. She looked over her shoulder, saw it coming, and leapt up towards the ceiling, clinging onto one of the roof beams. The trolley stopped underneath her, side panels blew off, and two mechanical arms rose towards her ankles.
"Holy crap!" said Xander. "A vamp-eating trolley!"
"I think the arms are too short," said Robin.
Vi ran across the floor with her nail, jumped onto the trolley, then climbed one of the arms. Seeing her, Gromit stopped it moving. Vi shouted "Alley-oop!" and Gromit pushed one of the switches. The arm flicked her into the air and she grabbed for Harmony's foot, stabbing her in the ankle with the nail, and hanging on as Harmony tried to shake her off. Xander and Robin ran underneath the trolley, their own dowel rods extended, hoping that if she fell they could stake her before they were crushed.
Giles finally had a clear shot, but recognized their danger and hesitated. Harmony kicked out again, finally throwing Vi clear, and lost her grip on the rafters, spinning in the air as she fell towards the trolley, thudding into the canvas shopping bag head-first. Gromit hit the controls, and the arms grabbed her ankles and pushed her in.
Wallace ran across the floor, sliding in the oil and narrowly missing Robin and Xander, and pulled the tarpaulin from the shrouded shape at the end of the cellar, revealing a gleaming red rocket, about twenty feet high, with a sloping ramp up to a small cabin. Gromit steered Shopper Eighteen towards it and up the ramp, the motors protesting at the excess load and steep climb. For a second it teetered on the edge of the hatch, then fell into the cabin. Wallace slammed the door closed, spun a locking wheel and sprinted down the ramp, as Gromit dropped the remote control and ran towards the rocket, pulling a box of matches from one of the waistcoat pockets.
"Run for it," shouted Wallace, sliding back towards the stairs, with Xander, Robin and Vi not far behind. Harmony appeared at one of the portholes, banging on the glass, as Gromit finally managed to strike a match and get the fuse lit, then ran after them towards the stairs.
"Amateur astronaut?" shouted Xander.
"Guess it wasn't a misprint," said Robin, puffing for breath.
"Oh 'eck," said Wallace, abruptly changing course (and narrowly missing Vi) and pulling down on a switch. With a rumbling noise the ceiling over the rocket began to open, as smoke and sparks began to pour from the base. Gromit scrambled clear and back to the stairs. On the shelf, unnoticed, a solitary mouse pulled on dark glasses and waved a handkerchief at the rocket. There were more thuds and the noise of something breaking inside the cabin, then with a deafening roar it rose into the air and vanished ino the night sky.
"Well," said Wallace, "that all came out quite well." Gromit looked at Giles, holding a crossbow aimed at Wallace's head, and the diminutive trio who stood with sharpened dowel rods aimed at his ankles, and wasn't so sure.
"Well, I suppose nobody was really hurt," said Vi, finally restored to full size and sipping a cup of tea. "And we've got rid of Harmony and her minion."
"There's still the vampire chickens," Giles said gloomily. "After that little chapter of accidents they'll probably run us out of town."
"Vampire chickens?" said Wallace, munching on a cheese cracker. "You'll have to find out where they roost."
"I guess," said Xander. "Any idea how?"
"Dare say Gromit could sniff them out." Gromit shook his head, not at all keen on the idea, took a Bourbon cream, and dunked it in his cup.
"And the eye?"
"I think Harmony trod on it," said Robin, who was still only four feet tall and rather annoyed about it. "It was only grapefruit-sized when we were fighting her."
"Easy build another," said Wallace. "Give me a month and a few more pounds of that meteor rock, and I'll get another one ready for you. I've thought of a few improvements..."
"Great," Xander said insincerely. "Talk to Robin about funding."
"Where exactly will Harmony end up?" asked Robin. "Wouldn't want to dump her somewhere they weren't ready for a vampire."
"We never had time to change t' settings of t' autopilot," said Wallace, peering out of the window, "so unless she breaks something..." He gestured towards the window, where the full moon was starting to rise over one of the neighbouring houses. "Mind you, might be a bit short of fuel to get back..."
Harmony stared out through the net curtains that covered the porthole. She glared at the sun-drenched Lunar landscape, taking care to stay back from the harmful rays. Outside Shopper Eighteen was slowly spinning round hand-in-hand with a curious machine that looked like a gas cooker with wheels on the end of spindly legs. She gloomily chewed on a piece of the cheese her mechanical minions had brought in for her; for some reason it seemed to be keeping her alive, though it was nowhere near as good as blood.
"Well," she said eventually, watching the mechanical dance, "I'm glad someone's happy."
Below decks, in the engine compartment, a dozen mice wearing hard hats and sunglasses were staring at a battered paperback entitled 'Wormhole Travel for Beginners'. Maybe something could be done. They'd always wanted to try their hands at multi-dimensional physics, and the Moon was positively littered with useful components, debris from several decades of space travel. They were pretty sure that with a little work they could develop the right technology...
Authors note: The full set of Cracking Contraptions short films is available on DVD. Brief descriptions of them and the other Wallace and Gromit films can be found on the Aardman Animation web site, with downloadable images, film clips, etc.