Friday, June 22, 2012
Hell Frozen Over
Chapter Three (Part Two)
It seemed as if Friday would never come. Tuesday and Wednesday had crawled along, Thursday went even slower, but Friday morning was worst of all—Buffy was sure this must be what it was like when the vampires in Interview With the Vampire were punished by being buried alive in a small crypt for all eternity. If only all vampires looked like Brad Pitt, she thought to herself, they wouldn’t be so creepy. Angel excluded, of course—he already looked better than Brad Pitt.
But after a morning spent furtively looking at her watch, up at the classroom clock, and back again, the noon bell finally rang and students started filing out to start a long weekend. Buffy swept her unopened textbook into her backpack and rushed out into the hallway. The night before, she had spent almost two hours trying to decide what to pack. It wasn’t as if she had much in the way of winter clothes—living in California ensured that—but she did want to look good while cruising the slopes. The hard part was that she had no idea what people actually wore while skiing—apart from an occasional scene on TV or a movie, she’d never seen skiers in action. Her father hated cold weather, and always balked at any suggestion of skiing when her parents were still together.
After a quick stop home to pick up her bags, she arrived at Cordelia’s house, where everyone was supposed to meet. Cordelia lived in one of Sunnydale’s nicest neighborhoods—it wasn’t an ultra-rich gated community, but it was certainly out of Buffy’s league, at least since the divorce. Although Joyce Summers made good money at the gallery, it was nowhere near what Cordelia’s parents brought home.
Xander and Willow were there already, sitting at the curb alongside their suitcases. They looked glum.
“Hi guys, “ said Buffy as she walked up. “Why the long faces?”
Simultaneously, Xander and Willow waved a thumb towards a brand-new, dark green SUV which was parked nearby. Although designed to carry heavy loads, it sat low on its wheels. Through the back window, Buffy could see it was already packed to the roof with luggage.
Xander stood up. “Cordelia said she’d be out in just a minute. She just had to get a few more things,” he said sarcastically.
“Ah,” said Buffy. “Well maybe I can talk with her. It’s just a short trip, not a stay on Gilligan’s Island.”
“That’s what they thought too,” cracked Xander.
A few minutes later, Cordelia came striding across the immaculate lawn, carrying a large cosmetics case in one hand, and a garment bag in the other. By her own estimate, and those of most other students, she was easily the most attractive and best-dressed student at Sunnydale High. She and Buffy began talking, while Xander walked off a little way down the street. Willow got up and joined him.
“I knew this place looked familiar,” Xander said, pointing to a small brown house across the street. “That’s where Bobby Stuckey used to live. In junior high, we used to play football in his front yard like everyday after school.”
“I remember him,” said Willow. She brushed a dangling strand of red hair out of her eyes. “He got braces one year and everyone started calling him Steeltrap Stuckey.” She remembered especially well, because the fact that he had braces deflected plenty of teasing she would have received when she got them herself. “And you know who else we used to play with?”
“Jesse? Like ‘The-dust-formerly-a-vampire-formerly-known-as-our-friend-Jesse’?”
“Right,” Xander continued without pause. “I mean really, Will, he was one of our best friends. And he's been dead what—just a year now? And have you noticed how no one ever talks about him?”
“Including us,” she offered, unsure where Xander was headed with this.
“It’s just weird is all—how quickly everything changes. I wonder where Bobby Stuckey is now,” said Xander, reflectively.
“Why Xander,” said Willow, impressed. “I didn’t know you could be so . . . philosophical. It’s very sweet.”
“Nah. I was just remembering how he swiped my mint condition Bo Jackson rookie card and never gave it back. If I ever run into him again . . .” He waved a fist in the air, threateningly.
Willow grinned, but she knew that as much as he tried to hide it, there really was more to Xander than slacking and joking. At least most of the time. If only other people—and he himself—would realize it.
They rejoined Buffy and Cordelia, who after long negotiation had reached a mutually agreeable compromise regarding luggage: Xander’s gear would simply have to be strapped to the roof.
As they piled into the car, Buffy noticed a man staring at her from behind the wheel of a sedan parked down the street. He wore a dark suit and sunglasses and looked away as soon as she glanced in his direction.
“I think someone’s watching us,” said Buffy.
“Whatever. Probably just another one of those perv weirdos you’re always attracting,” said Cordelia.
“Hey, I resent that,” said Xander from the back seat.
“This is going to be a long trip,” muttered Cordelia under her breath. She shook her head and put the car in gear.
As they passed the sedan, Buffy saw that the man was simply chatting away on a cell phone. This trip away from Sunnydale will do me good, she thought to herself. I’m becoming even more ultra-paranoid than usual.
Several hundred miles away, another man dressed in a dark, yet elegant suit picked up a telephone and listened. He hated this American, who had the annoying habit of pronouncing each individual letter of his name so that it sounded like Cast-Till-Oh. Still, Wittingstone did his job reasonably well and it was hard to find reliable living help these days.
“Good,” Castillo said calmly into the receiver. “Signal for the others. They’re waiting nearby.”
He listened for another moment.
“No, I’ll supervise that part personally.”
He hung up the receiver and smiled cordially at his visitor who sat across the desk from him.
“Now, as I was saying Colonel, I understand there are some problems with continued development of the Sunrise Project?”
“No, not anymore there aren’t,” answered a slightly overweight man dressed in an olive army dress uniform. He puffed slowly on a cigar before speaking again. “We had to place the project on hold, pending further review. But those . . . obstacles have been removed. The project is back on track. Assuming a successful field test next week, final implementation should be concluded by this time next year. If the Sunrise Project does everything you say it can, I can assure you Electrotech Incorporated will be first in line for additional contracts.”
“Excellent,” said Castillo. He asked a few more questions about the project before standing up and offering his hand. “Always a pleasure, Colonel. The Board will be happy to hear that we can continue cooperating in this little venture.” He smiled as the officer shook his hand, and maintained the expression until the man had left the room—then he dropped it instantly and resumed his normal, guarded features: intense eyes, a hawk like nose, and sunken cheeks. Castillo was not the sort to lower himself to get what he wanted; but at the same time, he saw no need to arouse the military’s suspicions by looking hostile.
He sat back down at the desk and tapped a small button, sitting perfectly still while waiting. Moments later, another man entered the windowless room. It was now nearly pitch black, but the man seemed to be able to see the expensive, oak-panelled walls and the large desk perfectly.
“Yes Mr. Castillo?”
“Get the boys ready. We ride at dusk.”
“You’re coming too, sir?” said the man, seemingly surprised. He looked at Mr. Castillo carefully. Always immaculately dressed, Castillo’s wavy black hair was cut in a professional, yet fashionable manner. A small black mustache followed the line of his upper lip, while his dark eyes and stern chin could be intimidating.
“Yes,” Castillo replied. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a vacation.”
A shout ripped through the run-down motel on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
“Keep it down in there or I’m callin’ the cops!” shouted a booming voice from the next room, followed by the sound of banging on the nearly paper-thin walls. Plaster and pieces of dirty wallpaper fell to the ground, and the single naked lightbulb in the room flickered with each shudder.
“I warned you not to try that,” a cold, dead voice whispered. Its owner pulled out a grungy handkerchief and stuffed it into the mouth of the man strapped to the bed. The figure looming over him walked over to the lone table in the room and opened a large case. He removed a gleaming knife almost eight inches long. He walked back to the foot of the bed and brought it down swiftly twice. Blood splattered on the bare mattress as a muffled scream erupted from the gagged man.
“Now we will try this again,” intoned the figure. “Where is the vampire Angel?” he said, removing the gag.
The man on the bed sweated profusely and was literally shaking with fear and pain. Combined with the sweat, his greasy hair and filthy clothes caused a rank stench to circulate throughout the small room.
“I . . . I don’t know no Angel. I swear!” he said.
“I’ve come a long way, and that’s not good enough,” said the man looming over him, as he picked up the gag and held the knife aloft. The knife started shaking in his hand, and his voice was no longer impassive now it had an edge to it. “Tell me!” he shouted through clenched teeth, as he raised the knife far over his head and thrust it down savagely. The man on the bed screamed again and tried to roll up in a fetal position—but his hands and what was left of his feet were bound too securely. Sirens wailed in the distance, as the pounding on the wall started up again.
“Wait! Wait! I’ve heard of a guy called Ange—Angle--Angelus. Real bad sort.”
“I’m sure he has many names,” said the figure. “Where is he?”
“I—I’m not sure.” The greasy-haired vampire groaned again and—for the first time since his transformation—prayed. Prayed that his torture would soon end.
“Well you better remember. Living forever is not quite as much fun without any limbs.”
Several minutes later, the figure left the room, carrying the large case. After months of searching, he had the information he needed, finally.
In the room behind him, more than one body part littered the floor as a thick pool of blood, mixed with ashes, stained the once-tan carpet a deep crimson.
Jenny Calendar watched as Giles wrapped the pasta around his fork, released it, and then did the same thing again. He had been staring off into space and toying with his food like this for the last few minutes and it was starting to irk her.
“Rupert, is there something on your plate that you find more interesting than me?” she said. Around them, waiters and waitresses in white shirts and black vests were carefully carrying large trays of food. This wasn’t Sunnydale’s finest restaurant, but Vincenzo’s was still one of its nicer ones, and Jenny had been excited about coming here with Giles on a Friday night—at least until he started acting like a space-case.
Giles looked up at the sound of her voice. “Ah—I’m sorry Jenny. I’ve just been a bit . . . distracted tonight, haven’t I?”
“Like talking to a brick wall. Rupert, what is it? Maybe I can help.” She sipped from her glass of wine and then set it down, ready for conversation. It wasn’t often that the pair had a chance to simply be alone together and talk—during the school day, things were always so hectic, and it always seemed that some crisis or another was popping up to keep them apart.
Giles looked around reluctantly and then lowered his voice so that only he and Jenny could hear. “It’s about Buffy leaving. I’m still worried about what might happen. I mean Angel may help but—“
“Angel?” Jenny said, interrupting him.
“Yes. As I was saying, he will be filling in for Buffy this weekend.”
Jenny considered this carefully, but her face showed no particular emotion. She knew what Giles and the others did not—that she was a Gypsy, descendant of the band that had placed a curse on Angel to make him have a soul, thus ensuring that he suffered eternally for what he had done to her people. And more, the entire reason she had come to Sunnydale was to make sure that Angel continued to suffer—and his romance with Buffy was getting in the way of that. It wasn’t that she hated either Angel or Buffy—they had even saved her life before—but she couldn’t simply abandon a solemn duty given to her by her elders either.
“You know, Rupert, it may actually be a good thing that Buffy is getting some time away from things here. She faces an awful lot of pressure. And to tell you the truth, I’ve always been a bit . . . uneasy about her relationship with Angel. I mean, Buffy is only sixteen and I remember when I was her age . . . . Dating a vampire may not be the best her for at this time in her life—or ever, really.”
Giles nodded and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve actually thought the same thing on many occasions, but it is her life and—“
“But Rupert, you’re supposed to be looking out for her. And with everything that’s happened, you’re somewhat of a father figure to her. Maybe you should have a talk with her about it,” she said, her face showing evident concern for Buffy’s well-being.
“Well . . . I suppose I could . . . think about it,” Giles said, still indecisive. As her Watcher, I am responsible for Buffy’s emotional as well as physical safety. He was forced to change the subject when a waiter arrived with dessert, but he continued pondering it all through dinner. Jenny didn’t seem to mind his distracted state nearly as much as before.
Buffy drove along the highway, humming to herself. It was a beautiful fall day, and she even saw a deer nibbling grass on the shoulder. The air was cool and crisp, and carried with it maybe just a hint of rain. This is the way it should always be, she thought to herself.
Suddenly a fist shattered through the windshield and grabbed Buffy by the throat. A head peered over from the roof, its features contorted into a vampire’s face. Buffy struggled to free herself, and then realized that the car was headed straight for a tree--she screamed!
“Will someone please shut her up?” shouted Cordelia, from the driver’s seat. “Major freak-out. I’m trying to drive here, okay!”
Buffy woke up with a start, panicked. Willow leaned over from the backseat and put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s okay, Buffy. You just had a bit of a bad dream,” she said.
Buffy looked around, shamefaced. “Sorry, guys. The baggage of being a Slayer, I guess.” She hadn’t even realized she had dozed off. Can’t I ever relax—even on vacation? I’m becoming such a mental-case.
“Did you dream that Cordelia had set you up for a double-date again?” joked Xander.
“I can’t drive under this pressure, with her freaking out all the time,” Cordelia announced loudly. She took the next Interstate exit and pulled into a fast food restaurant.
“Well, I was getting hungry anyway,” said Xander. Other than Buffy’s dream, the drive had been uneventful and even somewhat boring. He had been crowded with Willow in the backseat, which was partially taken up by luggage. She had spent the drive so far paging through a heavy book, while he had traded barbs with Cordelia. The Interstate wasn’t very busy--they had only passed a few cars, though there were a surprising number of motorcyclists headed towards them from the east.
Once seated inside the restaurant, Buffy stared distractedly out the window, oblivious to the conversation. The others worked their way through typical teenage fare—french fries and hamburgers. Cordelia swore that such “garbage” was bad for her figure, and ordered a salad instead—but she kept picking at Xander’s fries until he gave up and dumped half of them on the table in front of her.
“Let’s promise,” said Buffy suddenly, interrupting one of Xander’s (in)famous anecdotes.
“What?” the others said, almost unanimously.
“We’ve finally made it,” she replied. “Out of the Hellmouth, I mean. Let’s promise not to talk about vampires, werewolves, demons, or any thing else creepy, and not to bring up the Hellmouth at all. For the rest of the trip,” she said, decisively.
“It’s not the Hellmouth,” said Cordelia, as if she were addressing someone who didn’t realize orange pants and a plaid blazer didn’t go together. “It’s you. You’re the reason everything happens. Sunnydale was fine for like 500 years, and then you show up, and guess what happens? You’re like a weirdness magnet or something.”
Buffy glared at her. She wanted to argue, but deep down she suspected that Cordelia was actually right for once.
“I don’t care,” she said, looking at everyone. “Promise me.”
“Well, okay,” said Willow. “Is there a problem Buffy? We can talk about it.”
“Nope, no problem,” she said, and added a smile. “Let’s just do it, okay?”
“What, like a solemn vow?” said Xander.
“Or whatever,” replied Buffy.
“Well, in that case there’s only one thing to do,” he stated, and held his hand over the table, pinky extended. “Pinky swear.”
“Xander!” interjected Willow. “Nobody’s done that since, like, the third grade.”
“Exactly,” said Xander. “And look what’s happened as a result—Human Hyenas, Praying Mantis Teacher, Evil Aztec Princess, etcetera, etcetera.”
Willow shrugged and held out her pinky, gripping Xander’s. Buffy looked at each of them. They were her buds, and she couldn’t leave them hanging. She reached out and awkwardly encircled the others’ pinkies with her own.
“Cordelia?” said Buffy.
Cordelia looked up from her salad and rolled her eyes when she saw what they were doing. She sighed. “Fine. I don’t want to talk about Sunnydale either. But if you tell anyone I did this, I swear!”
She reached out and tentatively touched the others’ pinkies with her own.