Thursday, November 1, 2012
CHAPTER SIX: THE PRESENT
The air was thick with dust, causing Anya to cough frequently as she surveyed the scene. Xander had pulled some strings and had the major structural damage shored up already, but the Magic Box was still in shambles. Although the ceiling was no longer touching the floor, there were still books and arcane implements scattered haphazardly all over the place. The floors, counters, and remnants of bookshelves were filthy with dust and bits of broken plaster. When Willow, filled almost to bursting with dark magic, had challenged Giles to a magickal duel, the others were lucky the Magic Box was left standing at all.
Anya sighed as she picked up books from the floor and stacked them randomly on the shelves. In many ways, the place was even dirtier than before. Although the repair crews had been fast, they weren’t exactly great at picking up after themselves.
Separating minor spell components such as jars of bats’ blood and murkaweed into separate piles, she wondered how they were going to pay for all of the damage. They had insurance, but Anya didn’t think they could make a claim for “Evil Witch Coverage.” Maybe a tornado. Does California get tornadoes? Or an earthquake. Definitely an earthquake. But a really small one. She resolved to ask one of her friends, concluding that they might know more about such mundane things than her.
She hadn’t seen much of the others lately, however. She and Xander were hardly speaking after he left her at the altar and she and Spike hooked up that one time. Buffy was always so busy working at the restaurant that she rarely had spare time to stop by the store, while Willow hadn’t been back since the night she had wrecked the place. And Tara, of course, was gone--Anya wasn’t very close with Tara, but she always enjoyed having someone else around who hadn’t known the others forever. Buffy, Xander, and Willow had such a history that sometimes Anya felt like an outsider in their presence. If only Giles were here—he’d get the place in order. But the Watcher had to leave Sunnydale just hours after Willow had been stopped, citing unfinished business in England. He had promised to return, but no one had heard from his since. Nope, once again it’s all up to me—Vengeance Demons always get the grunt work, she reflected idly.
Anya was pulled out of her reverie by the ringing of the little bells that hung over the front door. I’m surprised they still work, she thought, as she called out “Sorry, we’re still closed. We’ve had an . . . um . . . natural disaster. Maybe in a couple of months or something.”
She looked up to see that a man in a dark suit had entered. He walked with a slight limp and she could tell that his face was lined by faint scars. “I need information on wards and spells of opening,” he said in a quiet but assertive voice.
Anya flashed a sympathetic smile. “Like I said, we’re closed. Everything’s a mess. I’m not sure if we’ll even get the money to open again. Call back later this summer though and you’ll know one way or the other.”
“That doesn’t concern me,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “It won’t take long and I’ll make it worth your while.” He pulled out a thick wad of folded bills from his pocket and laid several on the counter.
Anya counted them quickly. Deciding that the Magic Box was going to need all the help it could get if it really was going to reopen someday, she pried open the drawer of the damaged cash register and stuffed the money inside. “Okay,” she said with a shrug. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Anya spent most of the weekend at the Magic Box. A couple of times a wronged woman somewhere called out for vengeance, and Anya did her duty—but her heart wasn’t really in it. She simply wasn’t feeling very vengeful of late. More and more, she was simply feeling sorry for everyone involved in the dysfunctional relationships she found herself getting involved in.
Early on Monday evening, just as she was going to call it a night, Buffy walked into the store. The Slayer was still dressed in her Double Meat Palace uniform and looked tired. She looked around before walking over to the counter where Anya waited expectantly, a copy of The Decryer’s Camerone in her hands.
“The place looks better,” Buffy observed off-hand. “At least better than when Willow was sending us flying against the walls and stuff.”
“Well, there’s still a lot to do—but it’s getting there.” Anya looked at Buffy carefully. The Vengeance Demon was often still naive about mortal ways, but she was starting to pick up on things. “What brings you here Buffy?” she asked, sure that it wasn’t just to chat.
Buffy thought about prevaricating but decided not to. She sighed and rested her elbows on the counter, holding her chin in the palms of her hands. “Dawn’s made home catfight-of-the-month-club, Willow’s place is depressing as hell, pun not intended, and Xander’s not home. So I thought I’d check out how the store is doing.”
How is Xander? Anya wanted to ask, but instead said “And so I’m the last person you’d go see?”
Buffy looked apologetic. “No, Spike is.” She instantly put a hand to her forehead—it was supposed to be a joke, a flippant comment, but Buffy had forgotten the whole mess with Xander, Spike, and Anya. “I mean—“
“Never mind. Don’t worry about it,” she said, although her face showed that the comment had bothered her. “What’s wrong with Dawn?” she asked to change the subject.
Buffy sighed. “I’m not sure. Things were different after Willow went nuts—it was like Dawn and I had finally become friends instead of just sisters. But all of a sudden she’s been yelling at me for no reason, leaving without telling me where she’s going. A couple of days ago she even made a really stupid comment about the new family across the street.”
“She was a little like that when I saw her too,” Anya said.
Buffy raised her eyebrows.
Anya continued. “She came in a couple of days ago and asked if I’d do her a favor—go to some meeting at Weatherly Park with her.”
“First Principles?” Buffy interjected.
“That’s right. So we went, and there were activities and speeches, and everyone else seemed really excited but it just seemed boring to me.”
“What sort of speeches?
“About community, and security, and knowing who’s a member and who’s not and things like that. I stayed for a while and then told Dawn I didn’t find it very interesting and had to get back to work, and she went nuts on me. Said that everyone liked First Principles and that if I didn’t want to be a member of the community, then I was an enemy or something.”
“I’m not surprised,” Buffy said, shaking her head. “That’s the sort of thing she’s been saying to me too. Her head’s been filled with all this garbage, and I know it’s been a tough time for her but . . . I think I better check this place out. Dawn’s just not like that.”
Buffy turned to go, but Anya had something on her mind. She tried to sound casual. “So how has everyone else been? Like--“
“Xander? He’s doing okay, Anya. He’s working hard and trying to spend time with Willow. But you know, it might help if you two actually talked to each other.”
“That’s harder than it sounds,” Anya replied carefully.
“Yeah. Well I can’t stay to play Dear Buffy. Dawn’s going all Branch Davidian on me, so I better get to Waco before it’s too late.”
Dawn leaped, higher than she ever thought she could, and barely caught the frisbee with the tips of her fingers. She came down off-balance, stumbled, and fell into a sommersault. She laughed freely as she picked herself off the ground and wiped leaves and grass from the jean jacket she never left home without.
“Nice catch!” Timothy said, looking at her admiringly.
Dawn did a mock bow and threw the frisbee back. He caught it easily and then jerked his head as if to say “Look over there.” Dawn followed his eyes and saw Jamie and Brian had abandoned the frisbee and were instead exploring each other’s tonsils.
“Don’t you two need a license for that?” Timothy called out.
Brian raised a hand and waved them away without even looking up. They were near the center of Weatherly Park. It was rapidly filling up, as hundreds and hundreds of Sunnydale’s residents arrived early for the First Principles rally that would be starting soon. The park was large, covering several city blocks, with large groves of trees and winding paths. It was also a prime spot for dog walking, a fact Dawn was reminded of when a dark, chocolate-colored labrador trotted out of some nearby bushes and came towards her. She flinched slightly but remained calm and within seconds the dog was nuzzling her, demanding to be petted.
“Isn’t he adorable?” Dawn asked. Timothy came over and patted the dog on the rump. Brian and Jamie were still oblivious to their, or anyone else’s, presence. “I wonder who he belongs to?”
“I think I know,” Timothy said slowly, his eyes narrowing and his lips taut. He pushed the dog away and stood up, walking towards the trees. Dawn stood up as well and followed him. A moment later she noticed what Timothy had seen: a dark-skinned boy holding a dog leash, walking around and whistling for his companion to come back.
“I think I know that guy,” Dawn said, recognizing the face from the window. “His family just moved into
our neighborhood, a few houses away from us.”
“They’re not from around here,” Timothy remarked. “Hey!” he shouted, to get the boy’s attention. “Come
get your mutt and get the hell out of here. You don’t belong here!”
The boy looked surprised and confused. He looked around and then back at them. “But I thought this was
a public park,” he said, putting the collar back on his dog.
“Not the park,” Timothy shot back, angrily. “The whole town. You don’t belong in Sunnydale. This is an American town, for American citizens. You’re not part of the community, and we don’t need your kind around here.”
“I don’t think he gets it,” Brian said, suddenly appearing besides them. “Maybe we should make sure he remembers.” Dawn looked behind him and saw a sizable number of First Principles members had gathered, watching the confrontation. She felt . . . something . . . in the back of her mind but brushed it aside. One had to keep in mind the First Principles. Members of a community had to look out for themselves. And that meant dealing with outsiders in the way they deserved.
“I don’t want any trouble,” the boy said, obviously shaken. “I’ll just go.”
“It’s too late for that!” Jamie yelled excitedly. She seemed anxious to see a fight.
Brian and Timothy took a menacing step towards him, but froze in place when the labrador growled at them. The boy saw his chance to escape and ran towards the edge of the park with his dog in tow.
“And don’t come back!” Dawn shouted after him, her lips curled in anger. She couldn’t believe the kid’s gall. He was trying to provoke us, she thought. But members of a community stick up for their own.
“He was probably a terrorist,” observed Jamie
“Or a communist,” Brian offered seriously. “They still have communists, right? This guy on T.V. said that
most terrorists are also communists, because communists are un-American and terrorists hate America.”
“Well, either way, we should do something about people like guy,” Timothy said.
“Yeah,” agreed Brian. “Maybe we should talk to Wittingstone. See what he has to say. People like that need to learn their lesson—this place is for us, for our community.”
Wittingstone stepped up to the microphone reluctantly, rolling his eyes at yet one another of Michelle’s overly-enthusiastic introductions. In front of him, the largest audience he had yet faced stood assembled almost five-hundred people, large enough that First Principles had been forced to secure a parade permit and organize a clean-up crew after each meeting. Look at them—sheep, each and every one. Lemmings, really. I could tell them the universe is going to implode tomorrow and they would believe me—and still eagerly agree to “help out their community” by volunteering for latrine-cleaning duty. Wittingstone wiped his brow with a handkerchief—the days were getting longer and hotter as spring gave way to true summer. Wittingstone sighed as the upturned faces of the crowd showed utter adoration. Just like last time, except the new bit at the end. I hope he’s happy! Me, Elias Wittingstone, turned from go-to-man and skilled operative to stand-up hatemonger!
“Ladies and gentleman, today we stand stronger than ever before!” He tried to force some excitement into the words, but they were just too banal. Still, the audience applauded wildly. “Our community is remembering its First Principles, and together we are making it better and better everyday. But our work is not yet complete. There are many dangers facing us in Sunnydale, dangers that we can face only if we stand strong together as a community."
“And what makes a community?” he continued. “A community is made up of shared traditions, shared values, a common view of what makes the world great. But there are always those outsiders who would threaten these great things we share by wanting to manipulate them, or stretch them, or even experiment with them. We mustn’t let that happen. Our community must remain vigilant against the threat of these degenerates who would destroy our values and traditions, who would undermine the very essence of who we are as a people."
“I must remind each of you to be watchful of those who are not members of the community. Those who are different are dangerous because they don’t share our way of life—and thus they have nothing invested in our communities. And, remember, just because someone may look like members of the community does not mean they are truly our allies—outsiders are always hoping to disrupt what makes us great because they are envious of the security and happiness we share."
“First Principles is on the verge of great things. But we need each and every one of you to be proactive. Identify the dangers that threaten our community and do not be afraid to confront them. By working together, we can make America the best it can possibly be.”
Wittingstone stepped away from the microphone to thunderous applause. Damn. Was that “identify the dangers that threaten” or “identify the threats that endanger”? Ah well, same effect. First Principles staff members ushered him to a waiting car, an expensive black sedan. Wittingstone loosened his tie and wiped his brow again as he instructed the driver to take him home. He sighed when his cell phone rang, but flipped it open and listened carefully.
“Mr. Castillo!” he said, surprised but careful to pronounce it exactly as he had been instructed--the lingering pain on the tips of his fingers was a constant reminder. “Yes, sir,” he spoke into the receiver. “Yes. . . . Yes. . . . No, sir. . . . Yes, all is going as planned. In fact I was surprised how quickly they took to it. The creature is certainly fulfilling its end of the deal . . . Move the schedule up? Certainly, sir. . . . Hopefully by the end of the week. . . . Of course I can’t guarantee that but—yes sir, I‘ll try. . . . There’s something else that will please you. The Slayer’s sister has become involved. . . . No, it’s not a trick. She’s as caught as the rest of them. In fact, they’re ready to begin being ‘proactive.’ . . . Yes sir, I spoke to her and her friends myself just before the speech. . . . Yes, I’ll watch carefully. . . .”
Wittingstone flipped the cell phone shut and put it back into his pocket. I can’t believe he actually found it. If he manages to get it open and it does what the legends say it will . . . I’ll just have to make sure I’m gone by then. I sure wouldn’t want to be in Buffy Summers’ place right now.
Tintsman dodged to the side, barely avoiding the gauntlet-enclosed fist that hit the wall instead, leaving a large hole in the plaster. He brought the butt of his rifle down hard on his attacker’s jaw, but the helmet turned what should have been a staggering strike into a mere glancing blow. His attacker reacted instantly, launching a solid kick into Tintsman’s midriff. The sheer force of the attack knocked him to the ground. The padding kept him from being hurt, but before he could recover he found three rifles pointed at his head.
He grinned and removed his helmet. “Well done,” he said, taking hold of a proffered hand and getting to his feet. “I think you’re finally ready.”
“Do you really think so, sir?” said one of the figures, her voice muffled by the helmet she wore. All of the figures wore suits of dark green armor—the material looked and felt like plastic to the touch, but was much harder. The joints were covered by a flexible black rubber-like substance. Each also wore a helmet and carried a variety of weaponry. The Pittsburgh warehouse they had been training in for the past several months had quickly become riddled with cracks, holes, and deep gouges from testing the equipment.
Tintsman eyed them carefully and then nodded. “Yes, I do, Rita. All of you have been through what I’ve been through—and although we never get over it, we can at least ensure it doesn’t happen again. It’s taken me almost four years now to build these suits and train you, and I wouldn’t throw it all away if you weren’t ready.” He spoke confidently and with a measure of pride, like a father telling his son he was ready to play Little League baseball.
The three armored figures had been holding their breath as he answered the question. They relaxed and removed their helmets. Rita was the youngest of them, in her early twenties—her fiancee had been killed by vampires just over two years ago.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Tintsman continued. “But I know we can do it. I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I went to Sunnydale last time—how bad it would be. Going there by myself almost got me killed. But I know what we’re up against now—how tricky they are.”
“I still don’t see how we’re going to tell them apart from the normals,” Joshua, the younger of the men, said. He had been an investment broker before losing his parents to the blood-drinkers, and was easily the most timid of the group.
“They’ll find us,” Tintsman answered. “They always do. But if they try to hide, I know what to do.”
“Do you think . . . he’ll be there?” Otis, the last soldier, asked.
Tintsman’s face grew darker. “I don’t know,” he said simply. “He may have fled long ago. But Sunnydale’s the place to start—we may be able to pick up his trail from there. And this time I’m not leaving until they’re all dead, including the humans who helped them.”