1. For prospective new members, a word of warning: don't use common names like Dennis, Simon, or Kenny if you decide to create an account. Spammers have used them all before you and gotten those names flagged in the anti-spam databases. Your account registration will be rejected because of it.
    Dismiss Notice
  2. Since it has happened MULTIPLE times now, I want to be very clear about this. You do not get to abandon an account and create a new one. You do not get to pass an account to someone else and create a new one. If you do so anyway, you will be banned for creating sockpuppets.
    Dismiss Notice
  3. If you wish to change your username, please ask via conversation to tehelgee instead of asking via my profile. I'd like to not clutter it up with such requests.
    Dismiss Notice
  4. Due to the actions of particularly persistent spammers and trolls, we will be banning disposable email addresses from today onward.
    Dismiss Notice
  5. Welcome back to QQ. The search function will be unavailable for some hours until the index has been rebuilt.
    Dismiss Notice

The Burbank Team (Chuck/Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Sequel to 'The Burbank Station')

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Starfox5, Mar 7, 2020.

Loading...
  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: The Spy
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    The Burbank Team

    Summary:
    John Casey was a patriot. He would give his life for his country. He had given his private life, his family, even his identity. All to serve his country as a spy. But now it seemed that he would have to quit the NSA to join a British secret organisation headed by Californians. Oh, and a superpowered girl was after him. Sequel to “The Burbank Station”.

    Disclaimer: I do not own Chuck or any of the characters in the series. I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer or any of the characters in the series.

    Author’s Notes: This story is set in an Alternate Universe. A number of canon events didn’t happen or happened differently in the series.

    Cover:
    [​IMG]

    Chapter 1: The Spy

    California, Burbank, Buy More, March 17th, 2008

    John Casey hated Mondays. It was a recent development - in his line of work, one didn’t have a nine to five, five days a week job. No, for a spy, a mission could start anytime, anywhere, and one was never off duty. At most, one was merely resting and recuperating while waiting for the next mission.

    At least that was how it should be. How it had been for years. Ever since Lt. Alexander Coburn had died in the jungle of Honduras, leaving his fiancée and family, and John Casey had started working for the NSA. His country had needed him, and John, still Alex at the time, had answered the call. Had chosen to abandon his family. Abandon Kathleen. All to serve the USA.

    And served he had. For almost twenty years, he had fought and killed for the NSA. He had made the world and his country a safer place. He had made a difference - something few men could claim. The sacrifices he had made had been worth it.

    But he hadn’t sacrificed everything so he could work in a goddamn mall as a goddamn clerk, dealing with goddamn braindead customers who tended to come in on a Monday morning while everyone else on the staff was hiding in the restroom or the breakroom, bitching about work!

    “Where are your TVs?”

    He rolled his eyes as he heard the whining voice before he turned around, baring his teeth in what no sane man would consider a smile. “Over in the home electronics section, ma’am,” he told the old woman. She wasn’t carrying; the scanner they had hidden in the entrance would have picked up a gun. And she didn’t seem to be a spy in disguise - but you never knew.

    “I mean the TVs, not the computer thingies.”

    “Yes, ma’am. The TVs are just behind the computer section.” How could she have missed them? They covered the entire back wall. She didn’t seem to be blind, and if she were, she wouldn’t need a TV in the first place. A spy wouldn’t act like that - unless they counted on that reaction, of course.

    “No, they aren’t there. I looked everywhere.”

    One of those. It was too damn early for that. He took a deep breath to calm himself. “Please follow me, ma’am, I’ll show you.”

    “I better hope so, yes,” the old woman replied. “This store isn’t really organised, is it? You shouldn’t need help to find what you are looking for, should you?”

    “No, ma’am,” he agreed as they walked into the electronics section. No one else from the pathetic bunch of losers that passed for the staff here was around. The only one present was Bartowski, manning the Nerd Herd booth. No customers, either - which was a good thing. Any customer could be a threat; The Chameleon was still at large. Still out there, waiting for a chance to kill them.

    “Morning, Casey!” Bartowski waved at him, smiling. “How are you doing?”

    John grunted in response.

    “I see you’re busy. We can talk later. Bye!”

    John rolled his eyes again. Chuck - Bartowski - still didn’t get it. The guy was too naive. He shouldn’t be - he had a body count in the double-digits, even if you didn’t count demons and vampires - but Bartowski still didn’t understand spies. Not really.

    Bloody rookie.

    But they had reached the home entertainment section, at last. “Here are the TVs, ma’am,” John said, pointing the biggest in the middle.

    “No.”

    What?

    “I said the TVs, not the computer thingies,” the old woman told him.

    John blinked. Did she...? “Do you want to buy a CRT TV?” he asked.

    “I want a normal TV, like the one I had before. Not a computer thingie.”

    “Sorry, ma’am, but we only sell those modern TVs. Did you try a thrift shop?”

    “You don’t sell TVs?” The old woman looked as if he had told her that they performed satanic rituals in the basement on Sundays. Which wouldn’t have been entirely incorrect, as Brown-Smythe would word it.

    “We don’t sell the TVs you want, ma’am.” Now she understood and would, hopefully, leave.

    “But your ad said that you sold the best TVs at the lowest prices! That’s false advertising! I want to see the manager!”

    Shooting customers would break cover, John reminded himself. And the Agency had ordered them to keep their cover - even though Fulcrum knew about them thanks to the traitor. They were playing bait - something John hated. He much preferred to hunt. Although… he grinned. “The manager isn’t here, yet,” he told the woman. “But I can refer you to the assistant manager.”

    Bartowski could deal with the old woman. He was good at that.

    *****​

    “...and it’s false advertising! I’m going to sue! You don’t have the best TVs in the shop!”

    “Please, ma’am, we do have the best and newest TVs in stock.”

    John ignored Bartowski’s grimace and walked away. The nerd could handle an old woman. And if he couldn’t… well, she wasn’t a threat. A little customer service frustration wouldn’t kill him. Probably.

    Not that John would let the nerd get killed. Not on his watch. Someone had to keep their wits, anyway, what with everyone else in this sorry excuse for a team acting in a very unprofessional manner by getting involved with their teammates or coworkers. Of course, Bane might actually be acting professionally and seducing Grimes as part of her secret orders. Not that that was a good thing, anyway. Just another kind of threat. Another threat he couldn’t deal with as he liked.

    “Excuse me… never mind!”

    Watching the man all but run away from him, John slowly unclenched his teeth. What a wimp. He shook his head and moved past the camping section to the sports section. That was a critical spot. The scanners would alert them if anyone tried to smuggle weapons into the store, but here, any assassin could grab whatever weapon they needed: Knives. Machetes. Axes. Entrenching tools. Even crossbows. The only weapons the store didn’t offer were firearms.

    It was probably some weird Californian policy that demonised guns! John shook his head. He couldn’t dwell on that - he had a mission to accomplish. And he would accomplish it, no matter what obstacles the general, his coworkers or anyone else threw at him.

    “Excuse me! Excuse me!”

    That seemed to be aimed at him. John slowly turned. Another customer. Male, middle-aged, fat. And that t-shirt showed that it wasn’t a fat suit. “Yes?” John growled. Sometimes, that frightened off annoyances.

    Not this time, though. “I am looking for a tent. A comfortable tent. We’re going camping, you know. In Sequoia.”

    John hadn’t known and didn’t care. “The camping section is right here, sir,” he said.

    “Yes, but I need some help picking the right tent.”

    John narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth. “What do you need?”

    “Uh… we’re going camping, as I said. In Sequoia.”

    He rolled his eyes. Some people… “How many are you? How long will you be camping? Are you going to be armed?”

    “Uh, my wife and the kids, so four, and about… armed?”

    “There are bears in the Sequoia National Park,” John informed the moron. “Mountain lions as well. And wolverines.”

    “Uh… but they’re not really dangerous, are they? There are rangers, right?”

    “Any of those animals can kill you, then hunt down your family before a ranger will be notified, much less intervene.” John sneered at the man’s naivety. You couldn’t trust your life to anyone you didn’t know.

    The customer was shaking. “It’s a National Park!”

    “Full of dangerous animals.” And morons underestimating the danger. “Why do you think you have to store everything that smells in metal boxes? That’s so the bears won’t rip your car open while they search for food.”

    “Uh… perhaps I should rethink our vacation plans…”

    “Yes.”

    The man moved away as if he expected a bear to jump him inside the store. John shook his head again. Morons.

    “That wasn’t nice.”

    He didn’t jerk. He slowly turned around and glared at the girl - the young woman - grinning at him. She had managed to sneak up on him. Again.

    “Funny, but not nice,” Caridad said, walking up to him. She was wearing the Wienerlicious uniform, he noticed - it wasn’t as if you could miss it. Not when it showed more leg than most bathing suit competitions. More cleavage, too. And Caridad both knew it and showed it off.

    “I wasn’t aware that the store was already open again,” he said.

    Her grin widened. “Oh, the repairs are going to take a few more days. But until then, we’re opening a stall in the food court. Like for Game Night.”

    “Ah.” It was a smart idea - it would allow Walker, Bane and Caridad to be inside the store without endangering their cover. “Walker’s idea?”

    “Yes.” She frowned for a moment. “Anyway, we’ll be here for at least this week. Free food for you!”

    He grunted a reply. It was fast food, and not good fast food, but better than what he had eaten in the army, and on a number of missions. And it would allow him to connect with Walker and the others without drawing attention. Of course, Fulcrum wouldn’t be fooled, but that didn’t mean they had to act unprofessionally. And it meant they could support each other better.

    “And we can eat together!”

    Unprofessionally, like getting involved with a coworker. John wasn’t like Waker or Bane. And Caridad was a little too young for him, anyway.

    And a little too inhuman.

    He nodded. It would be a decent cover for intel exchanges outside The Castle. Not as safe - but then, the base had been compromised by Shaw, and the team doing the repair work might contain a plant as well - unlikely as it was, it wasn’t impossible. Especially with the brainwashing gear Fulcrum had.

    “Good!” Caridad beamed at him. “See you there.” She sniffed the air. “Looks like we’re clear.”

    John grunted in return as the Slayer left. She was swaying her hips, he noticed. And knew she noticed him noticing. But she was also moving just too damn smoothly. Inhuman. Not even Sensei could move like that after decades of training - and she hadn’t had more than a few years of that.

    He turned back to check the camping section. Slayers. Supernatural predators. Imbued with the essence of some demon or spirit - neither of the nerds had been very specific when they had briefed John. Probably a demon, then. And that granted them superhuman strength, toughness, speed - and grace - and senses. And they got fighting skills on top of it.

    He drew a slow breath. Life wasn’t fair. He knew that very well. Only numbskulls and idiots refused to accept it. And ranting about something you couldn’t change was pointless. He still didn’t like it. He had worked hard. He had earned his skills and experience. He hadn’t one day woken up as a killing machine.

    John passed the home improvement section, glaring at the kid who was eyeing the power tool section - shoplifter; Casey knew the look by now. The kid flinched, which confirmed his guess, and hastily moved away.

    Bartowski was still dealing with the old woman. If you could call getting ranted at by a delusional moron ‘dealing’. But there were no actual threats around that John could see - and while he might not have the nose of a bloodhound, unlike a Slayer, he was good at spotting spies.

    Still no sign of the usual bunch of morons. There was Grimes, trying to talk a young couple into buying a home entertainment set far beyond their means. Anna was at the customer service desk, looking both bored and annoyed - normal for her. But the slime demon and his creep friend were probably still in the break room. John glared at Bartowski. As assistant manager, it was his job to supervise and chastise them. It was just a cover, but that didn’t mean you got to skimp on it.

    Bartowski, for a chance, seemed to have noticed his glare. He looked confused and mouthed ‘what?’ back at John.

    John pointedly looked around the store still bereft of staff, then tapped his watch.

    Bartowski checked his watch, then shook his head. He must have thought John wanted a break. Typical. You could implant a set of spy skills into someone, but you couldn’t make them spies. Being a spy was more than just having the skills. It was the experience that made you a spy. Bartowski might be almost as good at fighting as John, if the Intersect decided to work, but he didn’t have the instincts that came with experience.

    Unlike Slayers.

    Damn. He was thinking about them again. He should be focusing on his mission. Or on the store. Not on superpowered chicks.

    And now he was thinking of Lehane. Faith. One-night stands were supposed to be easy. Just a man and a woman, having some fun for a night. No consequences, unless you were a moron and didn’t use protection. Just the thing to unwind after a bloody mission. No ties, no regrets. No messy relationships.

    Well, he didn’t have the ties or the regrets. And no messy relationship. But he was still dealing with the consequences. And the memories. It was one thing to see a Slayer move and fight with supernatural grace. It was another to sleep with one. And then wonder if that was Faith, or any Slayer. And question whether Caridad pursuing him was just ‘a Slayer thing’, as Faith had called it. John was sure it was like that for Vi. Pretty sure.

    Damn.

    Perhaps things would make more sense if he hadn’t failed Seduction School. Twice. If he could just…

    He narrowed his eyes. The shoplifter was now in the electronics section, going through the video games bin. John kept his eyes on the teenager as he slowly approached him. As he had been taught: Don’t go straight towards your target - use an oblique approach if you haven’t been exposed yet.

    Then the kid slipped a game under his jacket. Hah!

    He tackled the thief as soon as he had left the store and completed the theft. No one robbed a store under John’s watch!

    *****​

    “Great work, Casey! That’s the fifth shoplifter you caught this year! Everyone, give Casey here a big applause!” Big Mike announced.

    John didn’t mind the cheering, half-hearted as it was, but he could’ve done without the meaty hand on his shoulder. The manager meant well, but personal boundaries were there for a reason. There was a very limited number of people John wouldn’t mind being so close to him, and none of them were here - or even in the city.

    “You made ace!”

    He gritted his teeth upin hearing that. Damned civilians, making a mockery of the military. John had learned the names of every ace in the corps, once. Catching a few scumbag criminals wasn’t the same as shooting down enemy planes! He was about to shrug the man’s hand off, but Big Mike released him anyway.

    “Now, I didn’t just call you all here to celebrate Casey bagging shoplifters, but to present a new employee. Everyone, this is Federica Hernàndez. She’s starting today, so give her a warm welcome.”

    The young woman - early twenties in his estimate - who entered the already full break room looked more like a model than a sales clerk. A face fit for a billboard, John’s mother would have described her, and the Buy More uniform couldn’t hide the fact that she had a body to match.

    “Hi!” she said, blushing slightly as the horndogs among the staff - which were the vast majority - cheered her. “I’m happy to be here!”

    Slight accent, John noted. Spanish or Mexican - but it was too faint to tell. Or it was faked.

    “She’ll be starting in your section, Chuck, so keep the rest of you from scaring her away, will you?” Big Mike was joking, but that was entirely possible given the likes of Jeff and Lester.

    Or would, in this case. John was almost certain that Hernàndez was a spy.

    *****​

    “...and this is the Ned Herd desk. If any customer has trouble with their computer, mobile phone or other electronic device, you can refer them to us,” Bartowski said. “One of us will be present here at all times. Or at least in the vicinity.”

    “Ah, I see.” Hernàndez nodded eagerly. “I will. Thank you.”

    “You can come ask us, too,” Lester added with a smile that would get him convicted by any decent jury, in John’s opinion. Jeff, standing next to the creep, nodded so eagerly, John expected slime droplets to hit the floor.

    The woman’s smile grew forced and she glanced at Bartowski as she replied: “Ah… thank you?”

    She was good - Bartowski was eating it up.

    “Jeff! Lester! Back off! You’ve got appointments to keep, so get going! Shoo!” The nerd turned to Hernàndez as soon as the two creeps scurried off. “I’m sorry - they’re a little, uh, special. If they give you any trouble, call me, OK?”

    “Ok!” And the friendly smile was back. “Thank you.” She leaned towards Bartowski, and John would have missed her next words, if he hadn’t bugged the desk long ago. “And what about the scary man behind the aisle there?”

    She had made him, John realised. That confirmed his suspicion.

    “Who? Casey?” Bartowski asked. John met his eyes and glanced pointedly at the spy. “Uh, he’s just looking for more shoplifters. He does that as a hobby, don’t worry.”

    What a moron! John glared at him, but Bartowski didn’t seem to understand what he was doing.

    Goddamn it.

    *****​

    “A spy?” Bartowski asked, apparently surprised.

    “Yes.” Taking a big bite out of his free hot dog, John refrained from adding ‘you moron’. He glared at a customer who approached their table in the food court until the idiot veered off. This was a private discussion.

    “I didn’t flash on her. Of course, that doesn’t mean anything, but… a spy? Are you sure?”

    Of course he wasn’t. Not at this point. He grumbled: “Shy, friendly, pretty girl gets hired, latches on to you, acting as if she has a crush? Spy.”

    Bartowski frowned at him. “Hey! Just because she is friendly and seems to like me doesn’t mean that she’s a spy.”

    “Yeah,” Grimes chimed in. “Chuck’s pretty popular with girls. Like Sarah.”

    John rolled his eyes at the inane comment while Bartowski frowned at his friend. “Sarah is a spy, Morgan.”

    “Oh. Right.”

    “Anyway, we can’ just assume that she’s a spy,” Bartowski went on.

    Of course they could. And they should - spies who weren’t properly suspicious didn’t live long. Something the moron hadn’t learned yet - and something Walker should’ve taught him.

    “He means no killing her,” Grimes added.

    “What? Yes, no killing new hires on the off-chance that they might be spies, Casey!”

    “Of course not,” he said between finishing his meal.

    “Uh, good.”

    John snorted. You didn’t kill a spy you spotted - you used them to feed your enemy fake intel.

    Of course, deciding what kind of disinformation you’d fed to an enemy spy was usually the task of mission command - John would inform the general and wait for instructions. But in this case, it was possible that ‘Hernàndez’ had been sent by the general, which meant that he couldn’t follow standard operating procedure.

    And with Bartowski too naive to handle this, Walker compromised by her relationship to the nerd, and Bane being a possible traitor as well, that left John to make the call. He didn’t like that, but if he had issues with doing something he didn’t like, he would never have become a spy.

    And there came the spy, to make her move. John watched as Hernàndez approached their table. She was carrying a tray with a sandwich on it and a soda. No cutlery that could serve as improvised weapons, but she could be hiding a few blades under her uniform - like John. Though an assassin would probably take a different tack. Isolate a target to strike, or poison the food and drink - there was a reason John was the one stocking up the snacks and drinks in the break room.

    “H-Hi,” the woman said. “Do you mind if I eat with you?”

    John had to give her props - she sold the shy new guy looking to make friends act perfectly. Even with his own warning, Bartowski was falling for it.

    “Of course not! Sit down!”

    “Yes, yes,” Grimes added with a smile almost as stupid as Bartowski’s.

    John grunted, not taking his eyes off the spy.

    “Please excuse Casey; he’s not the most sociable before… well, actually, that’s him being him,” Bartowski said.

    “Oh.”

    John didn’t contest the description, of course - he didn’t want to be social with the staff here. And certainly not with the customers.

    The woman sat down. “Thank you. Oh - are the hot dogs good? I didn’t look around much - I worked up an appetite on your tour, Chuck.” She beamed at the nerd, who ate it up. Pathetic. Bartowski should now better than to fall for the cute girl act. Especially after John had warned him.

    “Oh, yes, they are good,” Grimes replied. “Our girlfriends make them,” he added.

    “Oh?” Hernàndez’s smile faded a little at the information. And a little more as she looked at the Wienerlicious stall, where Walker, Bane and Caridad were busy. Just as a girl with a growing crush on the assistant manager would react to hearing that he was taken. “Ah.”

    She was evaluating the competition, John knew. Trying to decide if she had a shot at seducing the nerd. She would have been briefed in advance, of course, but nothing beat a first-hand impression - files never gave you the complete picture.

    “So… who’s who? I mean, who’s with whom?” she asked, wagging her finger while pointing at the stall.

    “Sarah’s Chuck’s girlfriend,” Grimes obliged her, pointing at Walker. “Kirsten is my girlfriend,” he added, smiling at Bane.

    “And she’s with Casey?” Hernàndez asked, pointing at Caridad.

    John saw the Slayer perk up with a grin and almost groaned. Of course, she would be listening in!

    “Uh…” Grimes trailed off, and John glared at him.

    “It’s complicated,” Bartowski said. “Very complicated.”

    “Oh.”

    Caridad was now frowning at them, John noticed. And Hernàndez was eyeing him. Damn - had he just become her primary target? He had failed Seduction School twice, tangling with a spy like her would be a challenge. Especially with Caridad already glaring at her.

    He clenched his teeth and frowned at Bartowski until the nerd cringed. This was all his fault!

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, March 17th, 2008

    “She’s a spy,” John said, crossing his arms as he leaned against an undamaged part of the wall in the main room of the base.

    “We don’t know that!” Bartowski retorted, frowning at him. The nerd started to cross his arms as well, then realised how stupid that would have made him look, sitting with his leg propped up.

    “That means we’ll have to treat her as an enemy spy until we know,” John told him.

    “We can’t just assume that anyone new is a spy!”

    John snorted and glanced at Walker.

    “We have to, Chuck,” she said after briefly frowning at John. “If she isn’t a spy, then there’s no harm done, but if she is…”

    “She certainly is acting suspiciously,” Caridad added. The Slayer was standing near the door, a deep frown on her face. No surprise there.

    “How so?” Grimes asked. The glare he got in return made him flinch. Wimp.

    “She’s trying to seduce Casey.”

    “That’s not grounds for suspicion,” Bartowski replied. “Perhaps she likes the tall, dark and, uh, grumpy type?”

    John clenched his teeth.

    “She was after Chuck before,” Caridad said. “She only switched to Casey because he wasn’t in a relationship.”

    Or because she knew that John had made her, and wanted to take him out.

    “If Fulcrum or the CIA sent her, she would have known Chuck and Morgan are in relationships,” Bane pointed out. “Obviously switching her interest is a valid tactic, though it might not fit her cover personality. A ‘girl next door’ generally doesn’t act like that.

    “‘Girl next door’?” Bartowski asked.

    “Someone to appeal to Casey’s protective instincts and red, white and blue ideals,” Bane explained. “A ‘vamp’ on the other hand wouldn’t back off just because someone’s in a relationship.”

    “Ah.”

    John rolled his eyes. Bane would be speaking from experience. Very personal experience. “I wouldn’t fall for either,” he said.

    “You fell for Carina,” Walker said.

    He gritted his teeth at the memory of that humiliation, but before he could refute the implication that he would fall for that ploy again, Bane spoke up: “In my briefing for this mission, I was informed about Casey’s weakness for spies. Although it was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to play the innocent girl since you all knew I was a spy, so they never even considered another cover. That wouldn’t be the case for Hernàndez.”

    “If she’s CIA. She might be Fulcrum,” Walker added.

    “Or she’s not a spy at all, just a nice girl trying to make friends at her new job,” Bartowski said.

    Moron. John rolled his eyes. He wasn’t the only one - even Walker gave Bartowski a look.

    “What?” Bartowski tried to defend himself. “I’m just pointing out a very valid possibility. Not every new staff member at the Buy More is a spy!” Yes, the nerd was still too naive. “And if we focus on her, we might miss the actual spy - The Chameleon is still out there, somewhere.”

    That was actually a valid point. John nodded. “You’re right.”

    “I am? I mean, of course.”

    He bared his teeth. “She’s a decoy meant to distract us.”

    Bartowski stared at him, his mouth half-open, but the professionals at the table nodded in agrrement.

    “Alright. I’ll, uh, do some hacking and see if Federica has some skeletons in her closet,” Bartowski said. “Figuratively - you already cleared her for demonic influence, right?”

    “She’s not a vamp or demon, but that doesn’t mean she’s not working for one,” Caridad said.

    John forced himself not to tense up too much. Demons. He hadn’t considered that angle. And he should have. They didn’t just have to deal with enemy spies, but with enemies from hell. Literally. If President Reagan had known about this other realm of evil…

    He shook his head. Most demons, as he understood, knew not just about Caridad, but knew her on sight. At least in Los Angeles. That meant anyone who paid attention would know Grimes and Brown-Smythe, and, by extension, everyone in John’s team. And demons weren’t all dumb monsters who only thought about the next meal. There were also the kind of monsters that had run Wolfram & Hart. If even half of Caridad’s stories were true, they could execute an infiltration mission with the best of them.

    That meant John couldn’t handle this alone. He would have to work with Caridad.

    Goddamn it.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, March 17th, 2008

    “So, uh, I’ll call you if we find something suspicious in Federica’s past, OK?”

    John looked around if anyone was listening in - their homes were known to their enemies, after all, and a parabolic mike had a large range. Bartowski’s declaration that he’d be calling his father for help with the investigation wouldn’t tip off anyone about Orion’s presence, but with a few more such hints? The moron wasn’t as subtle as he should be.

    John glared at him to remind him of that, nodded and entered his home. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. It wasn’t just Bartowski’s lack of proper operational security or his naivety about potential threats - Walker should have taught the moron better - but his father…

    John didn’t like Orion. All things said, the man was a traitor. A deserter, at least. When faced with choosing his family or his country, he had chosen his family - even though the Bartowskis would have been fine if he had toed the line and followed orders. That wasn’t how a patriot acted.

    Not that there were too many patriots around, anyway, he thought with a glance at the autographed picture on his desk. Not like him. John hadn’t met Reagan while he had been president, but it remained one of his most treasured memories.

    Walker wouldn’t choose her country over Bartowski. Bane probably wouldn’t either. Caridad, Grimes and Brown-Smythe weren’t even nominally working for the USA. Hell, even John himself was planning to quit the service - for reasons that weren’t his fault at all.

    It wasn’t deserting. He would still be serving the country. He would just be working for another organisation.

    It didn’t feel right, of course. But it was the best he could do. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

    He took a few deep breaths to centre himself, as Sensei had taught him. Or tried to teach him. But he was calmer, at least. He walked over to the stereo and hit the shuffle.

    ‘Cherry, Cherry’ started.

    Good.

    He grabbed a glass and the bottle from the cabinet and sat down to drink and listen for a while.

    And think.

    Until someone knocking on his window disturbed him. Knock. Knock knock.

    Caridad. He checked the feed on his laptop to confirm her identity and found her grinning directly at the camera. As usual.

    Sighing, he said: “Clear.” She would hear him.

    A moment later, he heard the window opening. Caridad would make a good burglar. Not a good spy, though - she was too flashy.

    “Hi, Casey!”

    And too emotional. He took a sip from his glass. “What did you find out about Hernàndez?”

    She pouted in response. As if he didn’t know she’d go after the spy! “I’ve tailed her to her apartment. Nothing suspicious there, and no signs of anything demony in the neighbourhood,” she said, dropping a note on his table as she headed to the kitchen.

    “Does the apartment fit her story?” John asked, picking up the note. The address fit - lower middle class, roughly.

    “Yeah.” He heard her ransack his fridge and pantry as she replied. “No gold-plated toilets or something. IKEA furniture. Normal food.”

    “Normal for California?”

    “Yes. Healthier than yours.”

    He snorted - she was making a sandwich on the kitchen counter.

    “Hey! I’m a Slayer; junk food won’t clog my arteries.”

    Nor would it clog his; spies like him rarely grew old. And here were far worse ways to go than suffering a heart attack. “Was the furniture new?”

    “Most of it had that new smell.”

    Ah. Perfect for a young woman moving out of her parents’ house for the first time. And for a spy’s cover. “What about her car?”

    “She was using the bus.”

    That made him frown. How unamerican. She probably had a car available in a garage nearby. “No weapons. No car. And a perfect cover story, I bet.” Yes, she was a decoy. Meant to make them focus on her, waste time and resources looking for her angle while the real threat remained unnoticed. Unless it was a double-bluff, and Hernàndez was merely waiting until they started looking for the next spy and relaxed surveillance on her.

    Her response didn’t make it past the five inches of sandwich in her mouth in a form that could be understood. After swallowing a significant part of his food budget, she tried again: “So, what now?”

    “We’ll keep her under surveillance.” And hope the morons didn’t spill more intel.

    “We can do that.” She nodded.

    We can handle her,” he corrected her. She had another job.

    She frowned. “Refusing assistance isn’t very professional.”

    “You’ve got your own mission.”

    “So? I can handle it.” She finished the sandwich, which would have given Big Mike pause, licking her lips. “I can handle a lot,” she added in what might have been a husky voice with a little more training and started walking towards him with that unnatural grace of hers.

    He still felt himself reacting to her and clamped down on that. It was unprofessional. Even though, technically, she was in a different organisation. Like Carina. He shook his head, both at her and at the memories, before she reached him.

    She narrowed her eyes in response, and, for a moment, he felt a chill run down his spine as he saw her turn into something not human. Something dangerous. Exciting. Then she pouted, and the feeling vanished. “I know you want me.”

    He grunted at the words. They weren’t in a teenage movie. Or a Harlequin novel. “I don’t mix business and private life.”

    She scoffed at that. “Chuck and Sarah do. And Morgan and Kirsten.”

    “That doesn’t mean it’s right.” Or smart.

    “And you slept with Faith.” Her voice became more clipped. Angrier. As usual when the topic came up.

    He tensed. “That was a mistake.” One he didn’t intend to repeat.

    She snorted but sat down on the couch instead of pushing on. “You need to relax, Casey. Really. Nothing good comes of suppressing that,” she said, staring at his groin for emphasis. “Really - there was tons of bad stuff happening in Sunnydale because of such hangups.”

    “I’m not a teenager any more. Haven’t been for a long time.”

    She rolled her eyes at that. “And if you had been a bad boy in high school, you could’ve been my dad,” she replied with a snort.

    He hadn’t meant to bring up the age difference. It wasn’t as if either of them cared about it, anyway - not given the lives they led. He shrugged, not really having a response.

    After a moment, she huffed. “You’re too stubborn.”

    He relaxed a little. “Right.”

    “You can’t resist me forever.”

    “Watch me.”

    “Oh, I am.”

    He chuckled, once. They had gone over this before.

    She sighed, and leaned back on the couch, stretching - and arching her back and pushing her chest out in that exaggerated way he knew meant she wasn’t quite as serious any more.

    He watched, taking another sip. This was safe. Frustrating but safe. She was right - he did want her. She was attractive. Very attractive. But she was also inhuman. And dangerous. More dangerous than himself. Probably. Stronger, faster, tougher. Not as experienced, but she was learning.

    He wanted her anyway, but he also...

    He forced that thought away. Hell, sleeping with a coworker was unprofessional, and he was a spy. And she was a Slayer. She just wanted the challenge.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, March 18th, 2008

    “...and Dad didn’t find anything linking her to the CIA or Fulcrum. She really seems to be just a normal girl,” Bartowski whispered, hunched over at the Nerd Herd desk.

    “She’s Fulcrum, then,” John replied in a low voice. Given how deeply the deserter had penetrated the CIA - and the NSA - it was unlikely that they were behind the woman. ”

    “We don’t know that,” Bartowski tried to argue. “I said Dad hasn’t found anything linking her to Fulcrum!”

    John scoffed in response. “He hasn’t found anything linking the spies we captured or killed to other Fulcrum assets, has he?”

    “Well, no, but… that’s a little more difficult than checking out a person.”

    “No, it’s not.” Not for Orion. John caught movement behind Bartowski, and his eyes widened. “Head’s up! Spy behind you!”

    The moron gasped and whirled around - and froze.

    “Hi, guys,” Walker said as she joined them, then frowned. “What’s wrong?”

    “Oh, nothing,” Bartowski complained with what probably should have been a glare at John. “Casey was just trying to be funny.”

    John snorted. “He filled me in about the computer intel update,” he told Walker. “She’s Fulcrum.”

    To her credit, Walker nodded. So, her skills as a spy hadn’t been compromised by her relationship with Bartowski. Yet.

    The moron, of course, didn’t like that. “Oh, no - not you too! Why is it so unbelievable that a girl is just a girl and not a spy or demon in disguise?”

    “Because the world doesn’t work that way,” John told him. “Not our world.”

    Bartowski blinked. “Uh… do you mean world as in the world, or is that a euphemism for, like, the spy world?”

    “What do you think?” John spat, then turned around and walked away. He had a camping section to watch.

    Where, as he realised, Hernàndez was looking at the entrenching tools. Even worse, the way she smiled when she saw him coming her way, she must have been waiting for him.

    Goddamn it.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2020
  2. RedX

    RedX Not too sore, are you?

    Joined:
    Jul 9, 2014
    Messages:
    266
    Likes Received:
    795
    Huh. Wasn't expecting the viewpoint shift to Casey, but it's really working.
     
    Prince Charon and Starfox5 like this.
  3. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    I'm glad to hear that. The first story in the series focused on Sarah, the next on Chuck (although with Sarah as co-POV character), so now's Casey's turn.
     
    Prince Charon likes this.
  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: The Suspect
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 2: The Suspect

    California, Burbank, Buy More, March 18th, 2008

    “Hi, Casey!” Hernàndez beamed at him. “Morgan told me that you were the expert for everything in the camping and home-improvement sections.”

    John made a note to have a talk about this with Grimes. “I’ve spent a lot of time using tools and camping,” he said.

    “Oh? You like the outdoors?”

    “I was in the Corps. The Marine Corps,” he added.

    “Oh.” She was good - she had reacted as if she hadn’t known what he meant until he had explained. She even licked her lips as if she were nervous, but wanted to ask a question.

    “I left the service before we invaded Afghanistan,” he told her. He knew what civilians usually asked when they heard one had been a soldier.

    “Ah.” The woman nodded. “So you haven’t, ah...”

    “No,” he lied. He had been in several wars, and he had killed a lot of people.

    “Ah.” Her smile grew more confident. Definitely acting talent, there. “So… what do I need to know about all this?” She made a vague gesture towards the entire camping section.

    “Everything,” he told her with a grim smile.

    She nodded eagerly in return. Typical.

    *****​

    “...and these are the tents. All but this model are overpriced crap.” He tapped the military surplus tent in the back of the display.

    “Oh. Is that a tent you used in the Military?”

    “No. The Corps had a different model when I was serving.” An older one, not quite as good. But as a Marine, you were used to having to make do with obsolete material while the army got all the new toys. And the Air Force… He stopped before he started to growl.

    “Ah.” She scrunched her nose and looked pensive.

    She was probably trying to calculate his time in the Corps based on this information - although both Fulcrum and the CIA should have that basic information already even if they didn’t have his original identity. Hell, they could have his old identity, too - Alex Coburn had been dead for over twenty-five years and left no family. Just a fiancée who had moved on.

    “So… and we’re supposed to sell the good tents or the expensive tents?”

    “The expensive ones,” he told her, baring his teeth. “If they don’t know a good from a bad tent, they don’t know how to pitch up the good tent, either.”

    She looked confused for a moment. “But… if a tent is too complicated for a customer, it’s not a good tent for them, is it?”

    She sounded like the nerd trying to argue. He let some of his anger seep into his tone. “Anyone could learn to pitch it up, but most are too lazy.” Spoiled. Like the Chair Force. Hm. That was a thought - if they could get some of those tents as surplus, they could sell them at a premium… He blinked. Hell, he had been in Burbank for too long - he was starting to think like an actual clerk! Not even Afghanistan had been that bad.

    “Right! Sorry for asking.”

    She wasn’t sorry, she just acted as if she were. He grunted anyway. “Camping supplies.”

    “Right!” She smiled again. “As before, the good supplies are the military surplus, and the others are overpriced?”

    “No,” he snapped. “Not when it comes to cooking.”

    “Oh.”

    He was lecturing her about the differences between good canned foods and bad ones when he spotted a suspicious man approaching the tools and weapons section. Middle-aged, ragged appearance - he looked like a hobo who hadn’t forgotten how to keep reasonably clean. And he was eyeing the axes. “Wait here,” John spat and started towards the ‘customer’.

    “What? Where are you going? Wait!”

    He took a deep breath. She was like the nerd - he didn’t listen either when he was told to wait in the car. “Wait here. Potential trouble.”

    “Trouble?” She gasped.

    But he was already moving towards the hobo, who had taken an axe up. “Can I help you, Mister?” John asked - loudly - from a few yards away.

    The man gasped, then turned towards John. His eyes were wide and looked wild.

    John narrowed his own eyes. “That’s a good axe. A little expensive.”

    The man gasped again, then whirled and tried to run.

    John hated it when they tried to run. A glance told him that the hobo was running towards the main entrance. John cut him off with a sprint through the home-improvement section. The idiot was looking over his shoulder and didn’t notice him until John tackled him to the ground.

    Or tried to - the guy didn’t go down even though John had hit him perfectly.

    Instead, he lashed out, and John was sent flying.

    The hobo hadn’t much leverage, which was the reason John ended up thrown away, instead of having his chest caved in, and a pyramid of cereal boxes broke his fall, but he still felt his ribs bruise as he rolled over the floor. This was a demon! Or a cyborg!

    He rolled over his shoulder, crushing a few more boxes, and rose in a crouch. He started to draw his pistol from the holster in the small of his back, then glanced at the broom display and reconsidered. Bullets wouldn’t do much to a demon, and the hobo was running towards the exit again.

    He grabbed a broom handle from the special offer bin and ran after the enemy. The hobo was almost at the exit - too far away for an interception. John clenched his teeth and threw the stick.

    It hit the hobo in the legs, tripping him in front of the exit, and the demon or cyborg went down with a growl. The stolen axe slid over the floor, out of reach, as John rushed in.

    But the hobo jumped up as if he were a martial artist - no, it wasn’t graceful enough; just powerful, but slightly jerky - and screamed. Then he charged John. Despite the man’s gangly gait, John barely managed to evade the attack in time - he felt the man’s haymaker displace the air above his head as John ducked and rolled to the side.

    The hobo turned around himself as he stumbled, overextended, and almost crashed into a bunch of morons who hadn’t fled yet. John used the opportunity and picked up the broom handle with another combat roll.

    He came up in a quarterstaff stance, and his opponent obliged him by once again charging straight at him. Having anticipated it, John slid to the side and struck out with a quick combo, smashing his improvised staff into the man’s knee, then hit him in the back of his head as the man passed him.

    Another sweep tripped the hobo again, and John followed up by burying one end of the staff in the man’s gut, sending him sprawling on the ground. He finished with a strike to the temple that broke the handle.

    And the man wasn’t finished. Growling, he stood again, shaking his head like an animal, then pounced - too fast to dodge, John realised too late. He started to raise the broken remains of the staff in a one-handed escrima block but knew he would be too late - and too weak to stop the monster.

    And then the hobo vanished - smashed to the side, into the peanut butter display, by a blur. By a Slayer.

    Caridad had tackled the guy, and was pummeling him with a barrage of punches almost too fast to observe. And her strikes, unlike John’s before, were effective - the man flailed around a few times, landing a glancing blow on her shoulder before he stopped moving.

    She stared at him for a moment, then turned her head towards John. He felt a shiver run down his spine - for an instant, she looked like a predator. Like that jaguar that John had once encountered in the jungle.

    She changed in the blink of an eye, turning into a normal-looking woman. “Are you alright?”

    He nodded. “He never got his hands on me.” A little pain was nothing.

    She narrowed her eyes but nodded, not challenging his claim.

    He looked around - most of the customers had fled, but a few were watching, and what passed for security guards were moving towards them. “What is he? Demon?” he whispered.

    “Possessed I think - he smet a little demony, but only when I was in his face - I would have smelt a real demon from further away,” she replied.

    That explained it - John had been wondering how a demon or cyborg had managed to get past the scanners and her nose.

    “We can’t leave him to the cops, though - he can easily kill them,” she went on. “Grab him and put him in the Castle’s cells! I’ll tell them you’re taking him to a doctor!”

    He glanced at the approaching guards, clenched his teeth, and grabbed the possessed guy. He ignored the calls from the guards and rushed out of the store - he needed to get the hobo locked up before the bastard woke up.

    As much as he loathed admitting it, John wouldn’t be able to stop the man. Not by himself. He might manage to kill the man - but even that was not certain.

    He was still gritting his teeth in frustration when he put cuffs on the man before locking the cell door.

    He hated magic. It was just unfair.

    *****​

    As soon as he returned to the store - after Bane and Grimes had taken over watching the prisoner - he found Hernàndez waiting for him. “Casey! Did you get the man to the hospital?”

    “I handed him over to a pair of paramedics,” John lied. Although both Bane and Grimes had some training in first aid. Or, in Grimes’s case, at least some experience.

    She seemed relieved to hear that. “Was he on drugs? I thought my heart stopped when he screamed with the axe. And then you tackled him!”

    She was good - appealing to his vanity, but in a subtle way. He shrugged. “I think he was on drugs - he didn’t seem to feel pain.”

    She nodded. “I saw you hit him with the broom - he didn’t react at all.”

    A normal man would have gone down, he knew. But magic didn’t play by the rules. “It was a light broom,” he said, nodding, “not a real weapon.”

    “Ah. But then, the waitress tackled him, and he collapsed.”

    “Caridad,” he replied. “She’s a martial artist.”

    “Oh. You know her?”

    “Yes.”

    She looked like she wanted to ask another question but then nodded again. “That was impressive anyway. Both you and her. Like in a movie.”

    He grunted at that. In a movie, it was the sidekick who got saved by the hero. And he wasn’t a sidekick. He was a veteran. An agent. A spy. And he should be able to deal with a single hobo. If not for magic…

    “Do you think anyone can learn to fight like her?” Hernàndez asked with a hopeful smile. “You’ve learned how to fight in the army, right?”

    He pressed his lips together for a moment. “The Marine Corps,” he corrected her. The bulk of his skills had come later, but he started in the Corps. “Anyone can learn martial arts, but it takes a lot of talent and dedication to become a Master.” And all the dedication and talent was useless when fighting demons if you didn’t have magic.

    “Oh.” She looked around. “I was hoping to learn. I would feel a little safer with some of the customers here.”

    “And the staff,” John added. Now it became clearer - she wanted to use this as an excuse to get closer to Caridad, to spy on her. As expected. Before he could tell her that that was up to Caridad, he spotted a man walking towards them. He wore plain clothes, but even without the badge dangling on his belt, John would have known he was a cop - he man had the typical attitude. In spades.

    “Mr Casey,” he said with a nod. “Detective Thomson, LAPD.” He nodded at Hernàndez. “Miss...?”

    “Uh, Hernàndez. Federica Hernàndez,” she replied.

    The man had known his name, John noted. And he’d bet that Thompson had known him before he had heard of the incident. John nodded back and waited.

    “I’ve got a few questions for you. About the altercation in which you were involved.” Thompson made a point of looking around.

    Some of the store staff - the usual suspects - were busy arguing about who should fix all the wrecked displays and aisles. They probably would be half-way done if they had just started working.

    “Oh, Casey was great! He stopped the crazed man with the axe!” Hernàndez blurted out.

    Thompson’s lips twisted into a cynical smile. “So I’ve heard.”

    John narrowed his eyes. As he had thought, Thompson was here for him. The LAPD wouldn’t send a detective for a shoplifter, axe or no axe, unless there were serious injuries. Damn. They would have to have the CIA cover for them again, John realised. Make it appear as if there had been fake paramedics who took the man off him - make the LAPD back off again. The general wouldn’t be pleased. “I just noticed a suspicious man, probably a hobo, eyeing the camping tools,” he told the cop. “I went over to let him know I was watching, and he tried to run. I tackled him before he could flee, and we had a brief fight. Caridad, a waitress from a local food stand, helped.”

    Thompson frowned - did he know the Slayer? The Council had some arrangement with the local cops, John knew, but he wasn’t aware of the details. “I see.” The cop shook his head. “You lead an exciting life, Mr Casey.”

    Hernàndez made a good show of looking confused and curious at the same time.

    “Not as exciting as it was in the Corps,” John replied. He hoped that the cop wouldn’t take him in. Explaining his pistol would ruin his cover. “Just a shoplifter on drugs. Or so I think - he acted pretty crazy.” John shrugged to play down the whole thing.

    Thompson wasn’t buying it, John could tell even though the man slowly nodded. “Where did you take the man?

    “There was an ambulance outside,” John told him. “Someone had already called them, and they took him. I think he had an overdose or something - he was unconscious.”

    “Did they say which hospital they were taking the man to?”

    John shook his head. “No, and I didnt ask. What for?” He shrugged again.

    Thompson frowned some more, then nodded curtly. “Thank you. I’ll contact you if I have more questions.”

    Which he would have, once they found out that the hobo had never reached any hospital in Los Angeles. They would have to get the Agency on that as soon as possible. And lie about this being a possible Fulcrum attack.

    Damn.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, March 18th, 2008

    “A possible Fulcrum attack?”

    The general looked doubtful. John would have felt the same in her place, of course. “We’re investigating.”

    “And you want the Agency to lean on the LAPD to drop the case.”

    “Yes, ma’am.” He nodded.

    “I couldn’t help noticing that your report is quite rudimentary.” She narrowed her eyes at him, and her lips formed a thin line as she frowned.

    “The details are classified, ma’am.”

    “And yet you assume it was an attack by Fulcrum?” Now her eyebrows rose.

    “It cannot be ruled out.” Although if Fulcrum was starting to use possessed people, then they would have to call the Council. Hell, John wished this was just Fulcrum testing combat drugs on hobos.

    She scoffed but, as he had expected, nodded. “We’ll talk to the LAPD. But do try to avoid catching such attention in the future.”

    “Yes, ma’am.” Not that that would be possible, with Fulcrum knowing about them. And the general was aware of that, of course.

    “Dismissed, agents, Mr Bartowski.”

    As the screen faded to black, Bartowski spoke up: “She didn’t ask after the prisoner.”

    Moron. “She knows we won’t tell her, so she didn’t ask.”

    “Oh. Something like ‘never give an order you know won’t be obeyed’?”

    “A little,” Bane replied before John could. “Or she simply doesn’t like to get her face rubbed in the fact that we’re privy to things she doesn’t have the clearance to know.”

    “Ah.” Bartowski nodded and scratched his leg again, smiling like an idiot. “I missed this!”

    “Scratching your leg?” John asked with a sneer.

    “Yes! Do you know how frustrating it is if you can’t scratch an itch?”

    John just stared at him until the moron realised what he had just said and blushed.

    “Uh… I mean the actual scratching, not, you know…”

    “We know, Chuck,” Walker said, patting his shoulder with a smile.

    John could only hope that she wasn’t coddling the moron when it came to rehab - the man would need some serious training to get his leg back into usable shape after wearing a cast for a few weeks.

    He stood and walked towards the interrogation room. Time to check what the Watchers had found out.

    Incoherent screaming greeted him as soon as he opened the door - the hobo was howling and bucking, held in the grips of Caridad and Vi while Grimes and Brown-Smythe were placing some bowls around them. “Are you planning to exorcise him?”

    “Oh, no,” Grimes replied. “Not yet. This is just another detection spell.”

    “The exact nature of what kind of demon is possessing this poor man has remained vexingly obscure so far,” Brown-Smythe added.

    John grunted in acknowledgement. So, they hadn’t found out anything yet. He was about to leave the room again - he didn’t need to see the spell in action - but Bartowski, Bane and Walker had followed him.

    “Uh… that looks painful,” Bartowski commented, pointing at the hobo.

    “I doubt that he’s feeling pain,” Caridad replied. “And it’s better than knocking him out.”

    “Or having him wreck his wrists trying to break out of handcuffs,” Vi added.

    John ground his teeth. He couldn’t have known that the possessed man would do that. Or that he could do that - those had been special restraints.

    The two Watchers finished their preparations, and Brown-Smythe started a quick chant while burning some incense. Or something. It looked more like some New Age crap to John. Until there was a softly glowing light spreading over the hobo’s body.

    John crossed his arms to hide the shiver than ran down his spine as the man’s thrashing and yelling intensified. “Should have gagged him at least.”

    “In some cases, a possessed person’s words will give hints about the demon behind it,” Grimes said. “Like the demon language they use.”

    So, speaking in tongues was an actual thing. John should have expected that. “And did it work?”

    “Uh, no… he just kept screaming and howling.” Grimes grimaced as John scoffed.

    After another minute of listening to increasingly hoarse screaming, Brown-Smythe took a deep breath and rose from where he had been sitting. “Another inconclusive result. I fear we have but one promising avenue left to take.”

    “And that would be?” Bartowski asked.

    “Exorcising the demon in the hope that its victim can give us more information,” the old man replied. “I would have preferred to have more information before attempting this, but that’s the hand we’ve been dealt.”

    “We tried all we could,” Grimes said. “Time to banish a demon.”

    He didn’t sound very eager, which didn’t fill John with confidence, either.

    He didn’t have to stay, of course. He could go out to check on Hernàndez or something. But as much as he loathed magic, he wasn’t about to tuck his tail between his legs and flee his own base. If Bartowski could attend this, then John could do so as well. And first-hand knowledge was always better than being told about something.

    So he leaned against the wall, crossed his arms and scowled as the two Watchers started to prepare the exorcism - which looked like yet another spell or ritual to John.

    And the possessed hobo kept snarling at them and trying to break the Slayers’ grips. Without any chance of success, of course - John could tell that the man didn’t have the training to break free, even if he would have had the strength. Although Vi looked concerned…

    “Hurry up, I almost broke a nail!”

    John closed his eyes. They had no sense of priorities.

    But, after about ten minutes filled with snarling and whining, the Watchers were finally ready for the exorcism. Which, John quickly found out, didn’t involve a bible, just some new age-looking crystals to ‘symbolise purity’ or whatever Grimes babbled as the tied up the hobo to a chair which they placed in the middle of the circle.

    “Can you gag him now?” John asked.

    “That would be inadvisable,” Brown-Smythe replied. “It is often said that a possessing demon is forced out through the victim’s mouth. Gagging the man will make it harder for the ritual to succeed.”

    So John would have to listen to more incoherent screaming. He pulled out his set of earplugs. What worked for the range would work for demons.

    It helped, even if it was only a little. Something about the screaming seemed to bypass the plugs. The same seemed to be the case for the Latin chanting that Brown-Smythe and Grimes had started. Well, the two Watchers might qualify as an old and a young priest - if you squinted and were drunk. Feeling the hairs on the nape of his neck standing up and a chill running down his spine, John wished he’d have a drink or two.

    But whatever they were doing, it was working - the shrieks of the hobo grew even louder until his voice started to fail. And there was foam on his lips now. He looked like a rabid animal. A cornered rabid animal. Damn - was there a thing like magical rabies? None of the others seemed to be concerned about it, though.

    The chanting of the two Watchers grew louder as well. John wished he had taken ear protectors with him. How could the Slayers stand this? The two women were staring at the bound hobo, ready to pounce, without the slightest sign of discomfort.

    Unlike Bartowski, who was flinching and would have probably fled already if he didn’t have to look tough in front of his girlfriend. At least Bane and Walker showed more self-control.

    After a few more minutes, the hobo suddenly stopped thrashing around and trying to break the solid metal chair. John held his breath against his will as the man’s head slowly rose, and he glared at them - at John - with glowing eyes. The hobo had stopped screaming, too, and there was smoke pouring out his mouth when he opened it.

    “Coyolxauhqui will devour you all! Her glory will be restored!”

    The smoke pouring out of the hobo’s mouth grew thicker - and glowed as well - for a few more seconds, rising as it faded. A moment later, the man slumped over, and Caridad was there.

    “Still alive,” she declared, grabbing the man’s throat. “And he doesn’t feel demony any more.”

    “He shouldn’t, but thank you for confirming, my dear,” Brown-Smythe told her as he slowly got up. The Watcher groaned. “That took a little longer than I expected.”

    “You need to do more yoga,” Caridad told him. “Keeps you flexible.”

    John snorted, but the older man turned to look at him. “Yoga, although it is not often acknowledged as such, is actually a quite traditional form of exercise in Britain.”

    John frowned - it was hard to tell with limeys when they were trying to fool you, but the Watcher sounded serious. But then, he had just completed an exorcism. “What was that name he mentioned?” he asked.

    “Coyolxauhqui is the name of an Aztec deity,” Brown-Smythe replied.

    “What? Are we going to fight a hell-god? Like Glory?” Vi exclaimed. “I thought it was just the usual bragging!”

    “I don’t think we’re facing a hell-god - or goddess, in this case,” the Watcher said. “But it would behove us to be careful since I could be mistaken. More research is needed. If it is a threat like Glory, we will certainly have to call London for help.”

    “Great,” Caridad muttered. “More poachers.”

    John didn’t know who Glory was or had been, but once again, he was reminded that the Slayer needed a better sense of priorities.

    “And what do we do with the guy here?” Bartowski asked. “He’s been possessed and he’s now wanted by the LAPD for assault, attempted robbery and drug abuse.”

    “We’ll interrogate him as soon as he wakes up,” John replied. He would likely have information about how he got possessed.

    Bartowski blinked. “Uh… I meant, what do we do to help him?”

    John rolled his eyes at the bleeding heart sentiment - they were talking about a hobo; he had no doubt that the man had been a drug user before the possession - but refrained from voicing that. Everyone else seemed to be agreeing with the moron - or doing a convincing job of faking it, in Bane and Walker’s cases.

    “The LAPD doesn't know his ID. He should be fine with a haircut and new clothes - both of which he needs, anyway,” Bane pointed out.

    “Uh… he probably needs more help than that,” Bartowski said. “Being possessed must have been traumatic. And most homeless people have psychological issues to begin with.”

    Which would make his intel less reliable. And their mission to stop this demon from possessing more people harder. But the moron didn’t care about that.

    “Arranging for therapy shouldn’t be too challenging,” Brown-Smythe said. “Although any recollection of being possessed will be seen as a delusion to be treated. Although we should wait until he can answer questions, since knowing his name would greatly facilitate matters.”

    The Watcher didn’t say that being sent into the loony bin would also mean the man would eventually think his talk about demons had been a delusion. Brown-Smythe was quite practical, after all. “Put him on a cot in the infirmary, but don’t let him see the rest of the base,” John cut in. Even with the base known to Fulcrum, they couldn’t neglect security.

    “To the medbay!” Grimes piped up. Moron.

    John shook his head, then addressed Brown-Smythe: “So, what do you know about this ‘Glory’ you mentioned?”

    *****​

    Fifteen minutes later, John had been filled in. He almost wished he hadn’t, but intelligence such as this was vital. “A Hellgod. Or goddess.”

    “Bimbo,” Caridad cut in. “She was always dressing cheaply and obsessed with shoes.”

    “Don’t let Buffy hear that!” Vi said.

    “She told me that,” Caridad retorted.

    John tried to tune them out. “I would have expected such a thing to have been mentioned before.”

    “It was dealt with,” Brown-Smythe said. “Our records go past thousands of years - we don’t tend to make every recruit read them.”

    “Well, I had to…” Grimes complained.

    “You plan to become a full-fledged Watcher, which requires in-depth knowledge of our history,” the older man retorted. “In any case, Glorificius was a dire threat, but there have been worse.”

    “Like the First Evil,” Grimes said, probably trying to show off what he had learned. “But the Scoobies dealt with both.”

    “We wouldn’t be here should they have failed in their task.”

    The entire world had almost been destroyed several times in the last decade. That wasn’t a comforting thought. On the other hand, it meant that even working for the Council, John would be protecting his country. “So, do you think this Aztec demon is another Glory? And the hobo a cultist?”

    “He’s not homeless,” Bartowski interrupted them.

    “What?” John narrowed his eyes at the moron, but Bartowski stood his ground.

    “I said our guest isn’t homeless.” Bartowski tapped a few keys, and the man’s face appeared on the big screen. “I ran a search for missing persons and got a hit. Robert Black. He went missing A week ago. He is a broker. Or was - they might’ve fired him by now. But he owns a villa in Hollywood, so he’s not homeless. Technically.”

    “He certainly smells like a hobo,” Caridad replied.

    “You could bathe him,” Vi suggested.

    “Ew, no! You bathe him!”

    “Please.” At Brown-Smythe’s remark, both Slayers fell silent. “So, the victim was a man of means. That means it is unlikely that he was kidnapped to serve as a vessel because another homeless person wouldn’t be missed.”

    “I bet he bought some cursed antique!” Caridad said. “It’s always some cursed item with the rich.”

    “Not always. Sometimes, they are cultists - and sometimes, they are only rich because of the young women they sacrifice to a demon,” Vi retorted.

    That sounded oddly specific, in John’s opinion. But they had to focus on the problem at hand. “We can interrogate Black as soon as he wakes up. What about this Aztec Demon?”

    “Coyolxauhqui,” Brown-Smythe replied. “In the Aztec myths, she found out that her mother Cōātlīcue had gotten pregnant again. Thinking that Cōātlīcue had dishonoured her family, Coyolxauhqui tried to kill her with her brothers, but her mother managed to give birth to their youngest sibling, Huitzilopochtli, who was born with weapons in hand and slew them all. Coyolxauhqui was dismembered, and her body parts scattered to the wind - in some myths, her head became the moon.”

    “Ew.” Caridad grimaced.

    “Well, that certainly is a myth,” Brown-Smythe said. “But a demon being dismembered and its parts scattered so they cannot revive happened before.”

    “The Judge,” Grimes said. “Did you read anything about being impervious to weapons?”

    “Our information about Coyolxauhqui is rather scarce - the Conquistadores were quite thorough when they exterminated the Aztec priests and razed their temples. With good reason, mind you - they were practising human sacrifice on a scale unheard of, and were preparing an apocalypse, according to our records. Still, it means finding out more about this threat will be a little difficult.”

    “Great. More sifting through books?” Caridad said.

    “We need to acquire the books first, dear.”

    “Even worse. More mouldy bookshops to…” Caridad trailed off and cocked her head to the side. “The guy just woke up.”

    *****​

    Black was indeed awake, John saw as they entered the infirmary - he was sobbing, his face covered by both hands, and mumbling: “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”

    “Uh… hello, Mr Black,” Bartowski said with a rather forced smile.

    If they were in combat, John would slap the man, but they weren’t under that kind of pressure.

    “Mr Black? Uh, you’re safe. The demon’s gone and won’t be back. Probably.” Bartowski went on when the man didn’t react.

    “Well, he obviously remembers being possessed,” Caridad pointed out.

    She was correct, John realised - this would be a worthwhile interrogation.

    “Oh my God. Oh my God. What have I done?”

    “Mr Black? Please calm down. You’re safe.”

    “Perhaps give him a sedative?” Bane suggested.

    “No! No drugs!” the man suddenly screamed. “No drugs!” He looked at them with wide-open eyes and panted.

    Bartowski held up his hands and took a step back. “No drugs, got it! No problem, really! I don’t like drugs either.”

    Walker tried to get to the man now. “Mr Black, you were possessed. We know that. We freed you. You’re safe now. But we need to know what happened. Can you tell us?”

    Black must have a thing for blondes since he noticeably calmed down in Walkers presence and slowly nodded. “I… I couldn’t do anything. I was doing things, but I didn’t want to - but I couldn’t stop. Oh my God, the blood…”

    Ah. Bartowski winced, as did Grimes, but the others simply nodded. John had expected something like that - the guy had tried to steal an axe, after all.

    “It wasn’t you, Mr Black. It was a demon,” Walker went on.

    “It was like a dream… a nightmare. I didn’t want… didn’t want… I killed him. Oh God, I killed him!” The man sobbed and covered his face again.

    Apparently, Black didn’t like blondes enough to get over his trauma long enough to give them the intel they needed. Pity.

    A few minutes later, Black was in a state to answer questions again. At least he had stopped sobbing.

    “What’s the last thing you remember that you did because you wanted it?” Bartowski asked.

    “I was at Bill’s party. Bill van Vleck. He had just closed a deal with a client - managing their portfolio.- and we were celebrating in his apartment. There were those girls…” The man smiled for the first time.

    John rolled his eyes. Of course.

    “Girls?” Bartowski asked.

    “Call girls,” Black explained. “Bill hadn’t spared any expense.”

    “Oh.” The moron was blushing, or so it seemed.

    Walker gave him a look as well before she turned back to address Black. “So, what happened? When did you lose control of your body?”

    “I don’t remember exactly… we drank a lot. Bill’s got an excellent wine cellar.” Black chuckled, though it sounded more like a sob. “We drank a lot, and… there was something. In his bedroom. Something… I don’t remember. I don’t remember.”

    “What do you remember next?” Walker asked.

    “I was on the street. The next day, I think. I wanted to go home, but I wouldn’t - I went… walking.”

    “Walking?” Caridad asked.

    “Walking around. I didn’t even take my car - I just wandered. For days. Ate what I found on the street. Even though I had money!”

    “That might indicate that the possessing demon wasn’t familiar with human society and couldn’t access its host’s memories,” Brown-Smythe commented.

    “It spoke to us in English, though,” Grimes pointed out.

    “It might have been adjusting to its host,” the old man replied. “Over time, it might have completely assimilated or absorbed its host. He did enter the store to get an axe, after all.”

    “A few more days and the demon might have been able to impersonate Black,” Grimes said. “Or… when did you kill someone?”

    “Last night. A hobo. We were sleeping in the same alley, and… I waited until he was asleep, then killed him. Bashed his head in with a rock. There was so much blood. Then I… I cut his heart out. With a pocket knife!”

    John leaned forward. “You didn’t have blood on your hands or clothes.”

    “I… I… I licked it off. Oh my God!” The man suddenly bet over and vomited all over the sheets. Then the screaming started again.

    *****​

    “I’ve sedated him,” Bane said five minutes later, back in the main room. “He should be out for a few hours.” She shook her head. “I don’t think we’ll get any more intel out of him.”

    “He’s too traumatised to think clearly,” Bartowski said.

    “I guess he could stomach murder and mutilation, but not cannibalism,” John commented. Bartowski grimaced, he noted - and Walker, predictably, glared at him.

    “I think the murder was a sacrifice, one that strengthened the demon’s hold over the host,” Brown-Smythe said. “Although it’s concerning that we weren’t aware of a murder in which someone’s heart was cut out.”

    “They might not have found the body,” Grimes said. “We didn’t ask what he did with it.”

    “That is possible and would fit the theory that the demon gained better access and, therefore, understanding, to the host’s memories after the sacrifice. Enough to hide the body and seek out better tools.” The Watcher shook his head. “We stopped him just in time to prevent a series of murders, I believe. The question is: was he the only one possessed?”

    “He doesn’t remember how he got possessed,” Bartowski said, frowning. “If it happened at this party, there could be others affected.”

    “They would have gone missing as well,” Walker pointed out, “and two or more brokers going missing after the same party? That would have made the news.”

    Probably. But this was L.A. - it might have been business as usual.

    “But if it happened at this party,” Bartowski spoke up again, “what are the odds that the host was already, uh, another kind of host?”

    Damn.

    “Pretty high, I’d say,” Grimes said.

    “We’ll have to investigate this Bill van Vleck,” Brown-Smythe said. “Although we’ll need to be careful not to get possessed ourselves.”

    Great. John nodded, trying not to show his thoughts. Being possessed… turned into a hobo, then a serial killer, trying to bring back some Aztec demon… He’d rather die than suffer that.

    *****​
     
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: The Private Banker
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 3: The Private Banker

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, March 19th, 2008

    William van Vleck obviously made a lot of money at his bank - his apartment was a penthouse with a great view over Downtown Los Angeles. But it was a penthouse, not a villa. They wouldn’t have to deal with armed guards, dogs, and state of the art security systems at the perimeter. Not that it would’ve been much of an obstacle for trained spies, but getting into a high-rise condo complex was even easier - you simply couldn’t secure a place with dozens of tenants as well as you could a private villa.

    John lowered his binocs. “I didn’t see anyone inside,” he told the others over the radio. “It looks like the coast is clear.”

    “Operation Clean Up is a go, then!” Caridad replied far too enthusiastically. John would’ve preferred if the Slayer weren’t on the mission, but they were facing a magical threat, and that meant they needed someone on board who could spot and deal with that.

    And John would take Caridad over Grimes any day of the week.

    “We’re moving in,” Walker added, far more professionally.

    John looked through his binocs again, scanning the apartment. Thanks to the windows reaching from the floor to the ceiling, he could cover almost the entire penthouse from his spot. And if needed, he could shoot any threat with his rifle through the windows.

    Half a minute later, he saw the door opening and Walker and Caridad entered the apartment, dressed as cleaning women and pushing a cart with cleaning supplies. Yeah, that wouldn’t have worked with a villa - those residences tended to have maids living on the grounds.

    “We’re in,” Walker reported.

    “I’ve got you in sight,” John replied. “Nothing else on scope.”

    “Don’t shoot us because you’re bored!” Caridad joked.

    He didn’t deign to respond to that. They were on a mission. “Smell anything magical?”

    Caridad snorted. “Nothing yet. Just old smoke and spilt booze. I pity the regular cleaning crew.” Who had been diverted by a few fake notices from their superior.

    “Nothing suspicious among the artwork,” Walker reported. “Unless the Aztecs were fans of modern art.”

    “And nudes,” the Slayer added. “Since when are playboy centrefolds art?”

    “It’s art as long as someone pays for it.” Bartowski just couldn’t keep quiet, could he?

    “Focus,” John growled. At least Walker was doing her job.

    “I can look for demony stuff and talk at the same time,” Caridad protested. “It’s a required part of being a Slayer according to Buffy. Will you have to take classes in that, by the way? Once you officially join up?”

    John took a deep breath. He could only hope that there were more limeys like Brown-Smythe in the Council than valley girls trying to stay teenagers forever.

    “Ew!” Caridad suddenly exclaimed.

    “What?” he blurted out.

    “The guy had sex in his bed!”

    John rolled his eyes. What did she expect from a private banker?

    “And with multiple women! Doesn’t the guy ever change his sheets?”

    “Anything related to demons?” he reminded her.

    “Nothing. But the guy really needs to do his laundry more often!”

    “I think he pays people to do it for him,” Bartowski pointed out the obvious.

    “Then he should pay them to do it more often. This smells. Worse than the aftermath of a frat party! But nothing demony in the entire apartment. Whatever possessed Black isn’t here.”

    That meant that they would have to track down every guest at the party. “Alright. Start cleaning then,” John told her.

    “What?”

    “You have to maintain your cover,” he explained. “We don’t want van Vleck to realise that someone used the cover of the cleaning crew to search his apartment.”

    “If I’d known that I’d have let Vi do this!” Caridad protested. “I’m here for my Slayer instincts!”

    “You can clean and look for demons at the same time, can’t you?” John bared his teeth in a grin as he turned her claim back on her.

    “That’s… that’s…”

    “We can’t take too long, either,” Walker cut in. “Let’s start.”

    “But… Oh, fine!” Caridad’s sigh was almost loud enough to be heard by John without the radio.

    “Just be glad you didn’t have to dress up as a French maid,” Bartowski tried to help.

    “At least I’d have gotten a Halloween costume out of this that way!”

    John shook his head and focused on covering the two women as they cleaned the apartment. Someone had to act professionally.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, March 19th, 2008

    “Do you have the guest list?” John asked as he entered the main room of their base and saw Bartowski sitting in his usual seat.

    “Hi, Casey! I’m doing fine, yes. I’m happy to hear your mission was accomplished without a problem.”

    John rolled his eyes at the moron’s attempt to be cute. “You heard everything over the radio,” he snapped as he went to the armoury to store his rifle. “Do you have the list of everyone who attended van Vleck’s party?”

    “It’s not as if the man sent out formal invitations,” Bartowski replied.

    “So you don’t.”

    “Well, if he had sent out formal invitations, they would have gone through the mail, not e-mail, so you wouldn’t have been able to hack the list anyway, right?” Grimes had to add.

    “Well… yes. Probably. Perhaps. But we… I’ve been working on the man’s phone communication and the entrance controls,” Bartowski replied.

    “We could ask Black,” Bane suggested.

    “He doesn’t remember the whole evening,” John pointed out. “But it’s a start.”

    “Speaking of the guy,” Bartowski said. “What are we going to do with him?”

    John scoffed. “Send him to the loony bin.”

    The moron shook his head. “He knows about being possessed. They’ll think he’s crazy. And once he mentions the murder…”

    “He isn’t crazy,” Bane said. “And I doubt he’ll implicate himself.”

    “They’ll drug him,” Bartowski retorted. “That happened to Buffy before she came to Sunnydale.”

    “He also knows about us,” Bane pointed out.

    John clenched his teeth. Black knew too much. He couldn’t be allowed to talk, or he’d threaten the mission.

    “What?” Bartowski looked shocked. “You aren’t suggesting…. No! He wouldn’t betray us - we saved his life. His very soul, probably!”

    “He’s a banker,” John replied. “He’s currently shaken - but once he’s recovered?”

    “He’ll probably want to forget everything,” Grimes said. “Most civilians, even outside Sunnydale, will try to ignore everything demony.”

    “Not all of them, though,” Caridad said as she entered the room with Walker. Of course, she would have heard the conversation from the upper floor already. “Some want to start hunting demons. And some go crazy.”

    “That doesn’t mean we can kill him!” Bartowski claimed. “He’s an innocent victim!”

    Black was a banker - those were hardly innocent, in John’s experience.

    “I’m sure there’s an alternative,” Walker said. She was looking at Grimes.

    “Well, we could refer him to a psychiatrist we trust, but if he’s not going to be reasonable…” Grimes shrugged.

    “We won’t kill him,” Bartowski insisted. “And we won’t institutionalise him, either.”

    He was such a bleeding heart liberal.

    “We won’t, Chuck,” Walker said, “but we need to take some precautions.”

    At least, it looked like Walker hadn’t grown completely soft yet.

    *****​

    “Moving out of Los Angeles?” Black sounded as if one had told him that he’d have to become a hobo for real.

    “Temporarily, until this whole mess is dealt with,” Bartowski said.

    “But… my job. My apartment. My car.”

    “You’ll probably lose your job anyway if you haven’t lost it already,” John told the idiot. “You were absent for over a week, without any excuse.”

    “But… it wasn’t my fault! I was… possessed.”

    “And if you tell them that, they’ll have you institutionalised,” Walker pointed out.

    “Speaking of institutionalising,” Grimes cut in. “We know a few specialists to treat traumatic experiences like yours.”

    “Oh?”

    Right - Californians didn’t mind going to therapy, John reminded himself. Probably because most of them were crazy to begin with.

    “Yes. They know how to help people who went through similar experiences,” Bartowski said.

    “And… can they explain it to my employer? Or to a judge?” Black asked.

    “A judge?” Bartowski blinked.

    “Well… if I lose my job, I’ll sue the bank, of course. Compensation, punitive damages… the works.”

    Black sounded as if he was recovering already. He also sounded like he would do well with a bullet in his head, in John’s opinion.

    “I don’t know about that,” Bartowski said after a moment. “You’ll have to ask the specialists. But, in order to deal with whoever did this to you, so you can return without risking another possession…”

    “What? Another possession? Are you saying… this could happen again?”

    Black sounded terrified, John noted. He grunted.

    Caridad nodded. “Some people got possessed several times. I think for some demons, it’s easier to possess someone who has been possessed already. Weakened defences, or some lingering taint, or something.”

    “Lingering taint?” Black was trembling again.

    “The specialists will deal with it, don’t worry,” Walker said with a smile. She had to be lying, in John’s opinion - he doubted that she knew anything about the Council’s pet shrinks. “But we do need to know who else was at that party. Do you remember?”

    “Uh… Well, Bill was there, and Kurt, Kurt Müller. And… Stan Mason...”

    *****​

    “Kurt Müller. Former Deutsche Bank broker. Moved to Lehman Brothers in Los Angeles a year ago.” A picture on the main screen behind Walkers showed a slender, bald man. “Hobbies are paragliding, biking and free climbing.”

    “I’ll have to ask Devon if he knows the guy,” Bartowski commented. He was joking, probably. The last thing they needed was involving more civilians.

    “He doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who’d buy a cursed antique,” Bane said.

    “He could’ve found a cursed relic while climbing or biking.” Caridad shrugged when people looked at her. “It happened before.”

    “It is rare, but not impossible,” Brown-Smythe added. “Some cursed items seem to have far higher odds of being found by a potential victim than mere chance would explain.”

    “Well, isn’t there a saying about there being no coincidences?” Grimes asked. “Something about a third time?”

    John didn’t bother correcting the moron. “Anyone can be a suspect, then.”

    “Effectively, yes,” Brown-Smythe said. “And if Mr Black is any indication, a Slayer cannot simply take a look at them and determine whether or not they are possessed.”

    “We could still give it a try,” Vi said. “No harm done either way, right?” The Slayer sounded eager - probably glad that she wasn’t stuck guarding Bartowski’s family any more, now that Shaw’s former teammates had returned.

    John could imagine plenty of possible trouble - especially if the possessed recognised a Slayer. But the potential results outweighed the risks.

    “We can arrange some deliveries or courier work as a cover,” Bartowski said. “We’ve done it before.”

    “Oh, yes!” Caridad grinned.

    “We should assume, however, that it will not work, and, therefore, plan accordingly,” the old Watcher said. “Which means we have to search the men’s homes.”

    “Uh…” Bartowski was grimacing. That was never a good sign.

    “What?” John spat. Couldn’t the guy just speak up?

    “I just had a thought… it doesn’t have to be one of the guests, I mean, the male guests. There were women as well, I mean… uh…”

    “The escorts,” Walker finished for the moron.

    “Yes.” Bartowski nodded. “One of them could’ve found a cursed piece of jewellery or something, and become possessed. It’s not impossible, right?”

    “It’s possible,” Brown-Smythe admitted. The Brit looked like he would have preferred if it weren’t. Prude.

    “Well, they were hired by van Vleck so we should have a list of them, right?” Bane asked. That was her area of expertise, alright.

    “Yes, actually…” Bartowski tapped a few keys, and a list appeared on the main screen, pushing Müller’s picture away.

    “Five women?” Grimes asked. “That would mean five men, Are we missing someone?”

    “The numbers don’t have to match,” Bane told him. “Some men like having multiple girls.”

    Like brokers and investment bankers, John thought. Or drug lords and other scum.

    “Yeah, the bed smelled like multiple women had been there,” Caridad agreed. “At the same time.”

    “But we can be sure that there aren’t more guys than girls, then, right?” Bartowski said.

    “No,” Bane replied. “Even if van Vleck planned ahead, there could be surprise guests. Or someone brings company.”

    “Ah.” Bartowski blinked. “Perhaps we can ask one of the, uh, escorts, then? About the guest list?”

    John nodded. That wasn’t a bad idea. Witnesses were generally unreliable, but a call girl wouldn’t drink herself into a stupor, unlike her clients.

    “But, first, we should focus on the known guests,” Brown-Smythe cut in. “They seem to be the most likely suspects.”

    As if on cue, Walker placed another picture on the screen. “Stan Mason. Private investment banker, also with Lehman Brothers. Hobbies, according to our research, are collecting and restoring classic cars. He also collects exotic liquor.”

    That was a man who had decent hobbies, at least.

    “He lives in a villa, although it looks more like a garage with an attached apartment.” Walker was joking, though the pictures on the screen did show a rather large garage. A serious collector, then.

    Which meant he would have serious security, too.

    “And the last name Black gave us,” Walker went on. “Kyle Glendorf. Also working for Lehman Brothers, he’s supposed to be a passionate sailor.”

    *****​

    California, Beverly Hills, March 21st, 2008

    “Do you think he drives all his cars? Or does he just let them gather dust in the garage?”

    “You have to move a car regularly, or it suffers damage.” John clenched his teeth. He shouldn’t have replied to Caridad’s question. They were on a mission, and this was just chit-chat. Useless chit-chat.

    “Ah. You’d know that, of course.”

    “I don’t collect cars,” he corrected her as he scanned the west side of Mason’s villa.

    “Well, you might be just starting.”

    He rolled his eyes and didn’t answer.

    “Do you think you could use your Lincoln as a pretext to meet the guy?”

    It was supposed to be a scouting mission, not a chatting mission. “No. According to our intel, he doesn’t buy classic cars in good condition - he buys broken down cars and restores them.”

    “Ah. Well, that must take up a lot of time. There are half a dozen cars there. Oh.”

    He glanced at her. She looked suddenly tense.

    “What if a car’s been possessed?” she asked.

    “I think a car would’ve been a little difficult to take up to van Vleck’s penthouse,” he pointed out.

    “Oh. Right.” She pouted now. Annoyed at herself, he guessed.

    He focused back on the villa. They had a job to do.

    It looked like the man had a dog. There was a doghouse in the back. But there was no kennel, so it probably wasn’t a real guard dog. Just some barking little thing. And probably not kept outside all the time.

    He frowned. That would make it more difficult to disable the dog. On the other hand, the cameras on the walls were standard. Lots of motion detectors in the yard - that would be a pain to navigate unless they could hack the entire system. No building was close enough to shoot a line to the roof, which was sloped anyway. And the sewers weren’t large enough to access the house itself. They’d have to go through the yard or get Mason to invite them inside.

    “So… how are we going to do this?” Caridad asked.

    John didn’t have to take his eyes off the villa to know she was fidgeting next to him - patience and Slayers rarely went together, unless it was about waiting in ambush. Or so Grimes had claimed.

    “I don’t know yet,” he said. “It depends on what the others found as well.” Although… the villa wasn’t that big. Mason must have bought it for the garage, not the number of bedrooms with bathrooms. If they found a pretext to enter, Caridad could probably search it in a few minutes thanks to her ability to sense demons.

    “You don’t know yet?”

    “I have an idea,” he replied.

    “Yes!”

    *****​

    California, Beverly Hills, March 22nd, 2008

    Mason looked quite hungover, especially for a Saturday afternoon, John thought as the man finally opened the door and stood there, blinking at them. John saw his eyes widen a little when he realised Caridad was wearing a police uniform.

    “Mr Mason? Detective Mark Stacy, LAPD,” John told him, flashing a fake badge. “This is officer Martinez. Can we come inside? We’ve got a few questions about a friend of yours.”

    “Uh… sure, sure…” Mason stepped back. “Come to the… uh… living room.”

    They stepped inside. The villa was decently decorated - not as garishly as John had expected, but then, the man probably spent most of his money on cars. And parties with hookers. John didn’t take off his sunglasses, and neither did Caridad. Coupled with his fake beard, it should be enough of a disguise. It wasn’t as if Mason was paying particular attention to their faces, anyway; not with Caridad’s borrowed uniform being a little too tight in a few places.

    “So…” Mason gestured for them to take a seat on the couch while he grabbed a leftover pitcher of orange juice from the bar. “What can I do for you?”

    “Do you know a Mr Robert Black?” John asked.

    “Bob Black? BB? Yes, why?” Mason poured himself a glass.

    “Did you ever notice him doing drugs?”

    “Drugs? Black?” Mason looked shocked - or, rather, tried to appear shocked. John knew the signs - the man was already verbally distancing himself from his so-called friend by not using Black’s first name.

    “He went missing a week ago, as you may have heard,” John told the banker.

    “I’ve heard rumours… we weren’t really close, you know.”

    John narrowed his eyes. “Close enough to attend the same private party thrown by Mr van Vleck.”

    “We’re both friends of Bill.” Mason shrugged. “But we’re not particularly close to each other.”

    “As far as we can tell, Mr Black accidentally ingested some psychotropic substances at that party. He suffered a very bad reaction, and was found a week later, on the streets, having lost his memory.”

    “Oh my God!”

    “So, have you…” John was interrupted, as planned, by Caridad’s cell phone ringing. “Martinez!” he barked.

    “Sorry, Stacy,” she said, “this might be important.” She quickly left the room.

    “I’m sorry,” John told Mason. “My regular partner is on sick leave; stomach surgery.”

    “Ah.” Mason nodded.

    “So, do you remember anyone offering drugs to Black at that party?”

    “I’m sorry, but I don’t. I didn’t pay much attention to him - I was there to congratulate Bill, you know.” Mason smiled weakly.

    So weakly, John was sure that the man was lying.

    *****​

    “I’ve checked the entire house while you grilled him. Nothing demony. But the man partied really hard - his bed smelled worse than van Vleck’s.” Caridad frowned as they drove away from Mason’s villa.

    John nodded. Well, they had already known that from tapping into the man’s phone when he called for some company.

    Caridad sighed and pulled off the officer’s cap, followed by her wig. “So, did he call his friends yet to warn them?”

    “No,” John replied after a glance at his own phone.

    “Too bad. We might’ve found another guest we didn’t know yet that way.”

    He shrugged. That had been a longshot, anyway. Important was that they had successfully checked Mason’s villa for cursed items. They had done their part.

    “Think he’ll order his next call girl to wear a police uniform? He did ogle me quite a lot. Of course, any red-blooded man would, right?” Caridad arched her back for added emphasis.

    John suppressed a sigh. She was just trying to get a rise out of him.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, March 22nd, 2008

    “We’ve searched Müller’s apartment - nothing,” Bartowski said. “Well, apart from a private fitness room that puts a gym to shame. That man takes his workouts seriously.”

    “Yes,” Vi added. “But I had to clean his kitchen - the man only had healthy food in his pantry.”

    Judging by the face the Slayer made, she would have been tempted to help herself to a snack otherwise. John hoped that she was just joking. Or grandstanding.

    “So? I had to clean an apartment smelling of sex,” Caridad retorted. “Cleaning a kitchen is easy.”

    “Not if you’re hungry!” Vi protested. “That’s torture.

    “Should’ve taken some snacks with you!”

    John made a mental note not to send a hungry Slayer into a kitchen on the next mission if he could help it. Or any Slayer.

    “In short, neither Mr Müller nor Mr Mason seems to have been in possession of a cursed artefact,” Brown-Smythe interrupted the inane exchange. “That leaves Mr Glendorf.”

    “Who will be hosting a small party on his yacht next weekend,” Bartowski piped up, as eager as an honour student in high school. “If he’s the culprit then that would be another opportunity to possess a guest.”

    “Which means we’ll have to sneak in!” Caridad announced.

    “It’s a yacht,” Vi retorted, “not a frat party where you can just walk in if you’re wearing booty shorts and a loose top.”

    “We’ve done it before. Well, I have.” Caridad sounded rather smug.

    Vi scoffed in return.

    “We also ended up in a shootout,” Walker added. “I’d prefer to avoid that this time.”

    Vi grinned while Caridad pouted. “It wasn’t my fault,” she grumbled.

    “So… another mission for Charles Carmichael?” Bartowski asked with a silly grin.

    “Can you make contact with the man and become close enough to receive an invitation to his private party in one week?” John asked.

    The other man frowned. “We’ve done it before. We can do it again.”

    “If Glendorf’s throwing the kind of party where clients are acquired. And not the kind of party where bankers unwind,” Bane pointed out.

    “What’s the difference?” the moron asked.

    “The only women at the second kind of party are the ones paid to be there.”

    “Oh. Oh.” Bartowski managed to blush. The moron really was too naive. “Well… how do we find out which kind of party it is?”

    “We see if we can get an invite,” Walker said.

    “Oh.”

    *****​

    “So…”

    John suppressed a sigh and looked up. Caridad was sitting on the edge of the table, smiling widely at him. As expected. “What?” he snapped. He had a report to write about Morris and Flores. The Agency had cleared them of any involvement in Shaw’s plot, but that didn’t mean they were trusted. Just as they would be writing reports about John and the others.

    “Do you think Chuck will get an invitation?” She cocked her head and added: “Don’t worry about being overheard; the others have already gone home. Well, not Vi - her home’s on the East Coast, after all. But she’s not in the building, either.”

    “We’ll see,” John said. Bartowski had surprised him before, as much as it grated to admit it.

    “And what do we do if he doesn’t?”

    “We’ll find another way on to the yacht,” he told her.

    “Oh! Scuba diving and boarding?”

    “No.” He shook his head. At her puzzled expression, he added: “Glendorf usually doesn’t stay in port for his parties. And trying to board a ship underway from the water isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies.”

    She scoffed. “I bet I could do it.”

    She might be able to keep up with a sailing yacht while swimming, but he doubted it. “Do you have any training in scuba diving?”

    “Well… I’m a good swimmer.”

    No real training, then. She might be able to wing it, of course - but then, people had died from diving accidents at a depth of two yards.

    His expression must have given away his thoughts since she pouted. “So, what do you suggest? Sneak on the yacht and hide before it leaves the port?”

    “It’s not a big yacht,” he said.

    “It looks plenty big to me.”

    “Not big enough to easily stowaway. If Bartowski can’t get an invite, then we’ll have to infiltrate in disguise.”

    “Oh! As escorts?” She giggled. “I can’t see you in a little black dress.”

    He rolled his eyes. “Barman and waitresses,” he told her. “According to Bartowski’s research Glendorf usually hires additional crew for his parties. We’ll have to arrange things so we can fill in.”

    “We?”

    “I’m a good bartender,” he said. Better than Grimes or Bartowski. And Walker or Bane would draw too much attention from the guests.

    “And I’m going to be a waitress? I got the experience!” She grinned.

    “Yes.” It wasn’t ideal - some of the guests would get grabby, especially once drunk. But they needed a Slayer on board. He just hoped she could keep a lid on her temper.

    “Great!” She grinned widely. “You make the drinks, I serve them. Easy.”

    “We’re there to check for a cursed artefact,” he reminded her.

    “That’s even easier!” She tapped the side of her nose. “I’ll have that done before the guests arrive.”

    If John were superstitious, he would be sure that Caridad had just jinxed them.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, March 26th, 2008

    “Sorry guys.” Bartowski sighed and theatrically slumped in his seat at the main planning table in The Castle.

    “It wasn’t your fault, Chuck,” Walker, as usual, was quick to comfort the man’s fragile ego. “You did everything you could.”

    “But that’s it - someone else could’ve done more. Better. Whatever.”

    John rolled his eyes. The moron needed a reality check. “Unless he was trying to get into your pants, he wouldn’t have invited you to his private party.” Bartowski had played the role of a rich sucker perfectly. Well, he had a natural talent for the sucker part.

    “Not even then, I think,” Bane added. “You don’t bring a potential new lover to your regular poker game, and from what we can tell, this party is Glendorf’s ‘poker game’.”

    “And he got limited room on his yacht,” Grimes said.

    “Uh… Right?” Bartowski was blinking and looked confused. Was he wondering if he should’ve tried to seduce the banker? The same banker who had been spending more money on hookers than most people earned in the same time? On the other hand, some people were trying too hard to appear straight.

    “So plan bartender and waitress is a go!” Caridad piped up.

    “Sorry,” Bartowksi apologised again.

    “Don’t be sorry. Ensure that we’re getting hired for this,” John told him.

    “Alright. I can do that.” The moron still sounded as if someone had run over his cat, but at least he wasn’t openly moping any more. “Uh… we’re not going to arrange accidents for the regular bartender and waitress, are we? Right?”

    John gritted his teeth. The guy was a real bleeding heart.

    “No, Chuck. A faked rescheduling will suffice,” Walker explained. Apparently, the moron’s attitude was infectious.

    “Ah, good. I can do that.”

    “And give them a job with good tips!” Caridad chimed in. When John glanced at her, she added: “I know how work in the service industry is.”

    “You receive a stipend from the Council, dear,” Brown-Smythe pointed out.

    “It’s still money earned!” She suddenly blinked, then beamed. “Oh, I didn’t even consider that I’ll be earning tips on this mission as well!”

    “Just remember that you’re there to find a cursed artefact, not to make tips,” Vi commented - a little snidely, in John’s impression.

    Caridad scoffed. “I can do both. I’ve had my eyes on this great new dress...”

    “You sound like Buffy.”

    “I’ll tell her you said that as if it were a bad thing!”

    John sighed.

    *****​

    California, Marina del Rey, March 28th, 2008

    “It’s really smaller than I thought,” Caridad commented as they approached the pier.

    “We’ve got the deck plans,” John pointed out. Everything matched - so far.

    “It looked bigger on them,” she insisted. Probably just to be stubborn.

    He shrugged. He wasn’t about to chitchat on a mission. “Focus.”

    “I can multitask, you know? Talking and focusing at the same time.”

    That sounded like a contradiction in itself, but pointing that out would make him sound like one of the morons. He grunted instead, which she seemed to take as acknowledgement judging by her smile.

    But they had now reached the yacht. It was a pretty boat, John had to admit - one mast, cabins for eight guests and four crew members, though most people modified that for more guests, or so Bartowski’s research claimed. Which would match the guest list they had: van Vleck, Müller and two new people, Mike Burton and Ricardo Garcia. No Mason, fortunately - he might have recognised them. But the guy must have been spooked by their visit since he had declined Glendorf’s invitation.

    Speaking of… Glendorf was waiting for them on deck. The man was dressed casually, slacks, sneakers and a polo shirt, and waved at them. “Mr Smith and Miss Weston?”

    “That’s us!” Caridad beamed at him. “Mr Glendorf?”

    “In the flesh!” The banker barely glanced at John, looking him over just long enough to check if his fake steward uniform fit or something, but his eyes lingered on her.

    John resisted the sudden urge to crush Glendorf’s hand as they shook. Caridad was a Slayer; she could take care of herself. And she was used to such attention - her Wienerlicious uniform showed as much skin as this ‘sailor suit’, as she had called it, after all.

    “Welcome aboard! Let me show you where you’ll set up!”

    He led them to the aft of the ship, where a bar had been prepared on the backboard side. Permanently installed, John noticed, small but functional. He crouched to check the stock.

    “More beer and liquor can be found in the pantry, but we rarely run out,” Glendorf said. “I’ll leave you to get settled. Now follow me, Miss Weston - can I call you Charlene, by the way? Miss Weston sounds so formal - I’ll show you the pantry with the snacks you’re going to be heating and serving.

    “Sure thing, call me Charlie!”

    “Great!” The man slipped an arm around her waist as he guided her into the ship.

    John clenched his jaw and focused on setting up the bar.

    *****​

    An hour later, they were set to get underway. The only guest still missing was van Vleck, everyone else including the call girls had arrived within a period of fifteen minutes. John had seen recruits with worse timing.

    On the other hand, Müller was already on his second drink, and Burton and Garcia were rapidly finishing their first. Glendorf had stuck with a soda - but probably just because he would have to sail the yacht.

    And despite the call girls wearing dresses that were barely covering more than bathing suits - or a bikini, in one particular case - the men were ogling Caridad at every occasion. It had to be the way she moved - she wasn’t dialling down her supernatural grace as much as she should, and the lechs were too stupid to recognise a killing machine when they saw one.

    Or it was because she was the forbidden fruit. The call girls would put out - that was why they were here, after all. But the waitress? Or the ‘stewardess’, as Glendorf had introduced her? She wasn’t being paid to sleep with anyone. Look sexy as hell and flirt shamelessly with everyone, yes, but nothing more. Of course a bunch of overcompensating bankers would see a challenge. Or something.

    “Another, please! And what do you want, Cherry?” Burton put an empty shot glass on the bar counter and turned to the petite Latina glued to his side.

    “Diet coke, please!” she piped up.

    John handed her a diet coke, then grabbed the bottle of single malt and a fresh shot glass while Caridad served more tiny frilly sandwiches.

    John noticed the cab approaching the pier half a minute before it stopped. Van Vleck climbed out and handed the driver a bill without waiting for the change. Fifteen minutes late - a navy ship would have left already instead of waiting for the fool. But this wasn’t the Corps or even the Navy. More’s the pity, he thought.

    “Bill! Finally got away from the office?” Glendorf exclaimed with a wide - and, in John’s impression, partially fake - smile.

    “You know how it is - work work work.”

    “Come aboard!” Glendorf turned to address the rest of the guests as van Vleck passed him. “Everyone, our missing friend has finally arrived! We’ll be underway in a moment!”

    “About time!” Burton bellowed. “Another five minutes and we’d have left you standing on the pier!”

    “Sure you would’ve!” van Vleck retorted as he took a seat. One of the hookers appeared at his side with almost Slayer-like speed. “Hi! I’m Candy!”

    “I’m Charlie,” Caridad added with, in John’s opinion, unfortunate timing as she offered the banker a plate of more frilly finger food. If he mistook that as an invitation...

    John narrowed his eyes. The Slayer was taking her time serving van Vleck. And she had gone a little stiff. Not that anyone but John himself would notice - the other guests were staring at her butt, and John was sure van Vleck wouldn’t be able to say what colour her eyes were but would be able to shop bras for her.

    Then she straightened and glanced back at John. So, van Vleck was it. Probably.

    The others asked for more food, and she disappeared into the pantry as Glendorf started to pilot the yacht out of the harbour using the yacht’s engine.

    John used the opportunity to study van Vleck. The man behaved like the other bankers present. Talking and laughing too loudly, drinking too much, and if there had been women present who weren’t hired or trying to land a sugar daddy, he would’ve earned himself a slap or two already for his wandering hands.

    Caridad reappeared with more food - sushi, this time - and managed to stop at the bar after serving the guests, under the guise of bringing John more ice. “Van Vleck has something demony,” she whispered.

    “Possessed?”

    “Can’t tell. But something smells off. He must be carrying it. I’ll see if I can get it.”

    “Careful,” he muttered as she walked - stalked - away. “If he’s possessed and it comes to a fight on the yacht, there’ll be collateral damage,” he added in a whisper - the Slayer would hear him.

    He didn’t particularly care for the bankers or the hookers, but that didn’t mean he wanted them killed.

    As soon as they had left the harbour, Glendorf cut the engine and set sails. For all his other faults, the man was a decent sailor, John had to admit.

    “Alright,” the banker announced, “we’re underway! Time to party!” He walked over to John as the rest cheered. “Scotch on the rocks, my good man!”

    John served him a glass, but his attention was on Caridad, who was hovering around van Vleck and trying not to be obvious about it. Was she planning to pick the man’s pockets?

    If she was, she wasn’t having any luck - it seems ‘Candy’ was determined to earn her money including a generous tip. Probably triggered by all the attention Caridad had been getting.

    “Dial it down,” John whispered. “You’re too obvious. Patience.”

    That earned him a frown when Caridad glanced at him, but the Slayer backed off. Good. They couldn’t rush this.

    *****​

    Pacific Ocean, West of California, March 28th, 2008

    An hour later, only John, Caridad and Glendorf were sober any more, and Glendorf had had two more shots. Burton and ‘Cherry’ had disappeared belowdecks some time ago, and the others were telling raunchy stories that sounded as believable as communist propaganda.

    “He’s good,” Caridad muttered next to him, where she was leaning against the bar. “Haven’t been able to grab what he’s hiding.”

    “Patience,” John whispered.

    She scoffed. “I should just rip his jacket off him and push him overboard. Claim an accident. Then we quit and have the others pick us up with their yacht.

    She probably wasn’t serious. He still replied: “Don’t.” They could handle this without breaking their cover and calling in Bartowski and the others.

    “I won’t. But this grates. Everyone’s getting groiny.”

    Groiny? He refrained from rolling his eyes and ignored the way she looked at him. They were on a mission. “That means there’ll be an opportunity soon.”

    She snorted. “If I have to listen - and smell - everyone having sex without being able to do anything myself, you’ll owe me.”

    He blinked at that. That was… what exactly did she mean? And was she serious?

    But before he could check, she went utterly still.

    He looked at van Vleck. The man was reaching into his jacket and pulling out a small box. “Oh, I almost forgot - did any of you ever try this new herb that’s all the rage? Completely natural, but the things it makes you feel… and the best thing, it’s so new, it’s perfectly legal!”

    Demonic drugs? John hadn’t heard of that. But Caridad hissed.

    *****​
     
    Osserumb, RedX and Twilight666 like this.
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: The Powder
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 4: The Powder

    Pacific Ocean, West of California, March 28th, 2008

    “That’s where the stench is coming from,” Caridad whispered. She seemed ready to jump van Vleck and rip the sachet out of his hands.

    But they were in the middle of the ocean - well, still within sight of the coast - and the yacht was full of civilians. “Don’t attack,” John whispered through clenched teeth. Caridad was looking at him as if he had told her to kill a baby, so he added: “We need to be subtle. Too many civilians here, and they can’t run away.”

    “Right. Subtle. I’ve got this.”

    “What…”

    But she was already making a beeline for van Vleck. “Oh! Are those mushrooms? Did you get them checked? They can give you really bad trips if you get the wrong kind!”

    John saw most of the girls recoil slightly, though van Vleck smiled. “Oh, no, those aren’t mushrooms - it’s a dried desert plant. Very rare, and totally safe and legal.”

    If John had dared to butt in like that, Glendorf would already have told him off, but John wasn’t a cute girl in a skimpy ‘sailor suit’.

    “Are you sure it’s legal?” Glendorf asked.

    “Oh, yes. The herb isn’t on the list - the police don’t even know about it. Want to try a dose?”

    Glendrof shook his head. “Oh, no - someone has to pilot the ship back to the harbour, and I don’t trust you guys with my baby. No offence!”

    Judging by their laughter, the men hadn’t taken offence.

    But Caridad was still staring at the bag like a dieting soccer mom stared at a sandwich.

    Garcia looked a little doubtful, but he was so drunk, it was hard to tell. And Müller seemed to be only interested in ‘Mandy’s’ cleavage.

    “Come on!” van Vleck said, “it’s great! Trust me.” He looked at girls, then at Caridad. “Do you want to give it a try, Charlie?”

    “Don’t you have to bake into cookies or so?” Caridad answered.

    “Oh, no!” The banker laughed. “You light on fire and inhale the smoke.”

    “Like smoking?”

    “It’s perfectly healthy. No tobacco. Totally organic.”

    “Really?”

    “Really.” Van Vleck flashed her a wide smile. “Let me show you. Sit down next to me.”

    Dumping the guy into the ocean was starting to look better and better. Perhaps tied to an anchor. Just to be safe.

    After a moment’s hesitation, Caridad sat down next to creep - to the obvious annoyance of the call girl on van Vleck’s other side.

    “Can I try it, too?” the blonde said, leaning into the banker. “I usually don’t do drugs, but if it’s safe and legal…”

    “Of course you can!” the man smiled, showing his teeth. “Push the ashtray over to us, Rick, will you?”

    Garcia grumbled but did as he asked. Van Vleck held it out over the railing and poured the ashes into the ocean, then rinsed it with the rest of his whiskey. What a waste! “Now, it’s really easy - just need to light it up,” he announced as he opened the bag and poured its contents into the ashtray.

    And Caridad lost it. “Powdered human blood?” she blurted out. “You’re sniffing that?”

    For a moment, everyone seemed frozen including the Slayer. Then Van Vleck swung the ashtray towards her head.

    Caridad blocked the blow but caught a faceful of the powder and started coughing and retching. She still managed to deflect the man’s next swing and hit him in return, but van Vleck was tougher than he had appeared - he shrugged the blow off as if it were nothing.

    The call girls were screaming and backing away, climbing over the drunken men where needed, and Glendorf got up. “Stop! Stop! Hold it! No fighting!”

    The fool tried to grab van Vleck’s arm and caught the ashtray instead. With his head. As the man fell, unconscious or dead, John drew and started firing. He put half a dozen bullets into van Vleck’s chest, but the creep didn’t even drop the ashtray. He was bleeding, though, and jerking with each bullet that hit him as he turned to face John, cocking his arm back.

    John ducked behind the bar a moment before the ashtray smashed into it, sending splinters flying. One of them barely missed his face as he came up again - just in time to see Caridad kick the creep in the face with enough force to push him over the railing.

    He didn’t hear a splash with everyone screaming, but after rushing to the railing, he couldn’t spot the man in the water. He turned to Caridad. “Are you…”

    He trailed off - she could barely stand; she was blinking and shivering. Then she gripped her head with both hands and screamed: “Get out! Get out! GET OUT!”

    He took a step towards her, then stopped. If she was possessed… A possessed Slayer? If she wanted to murder everyone on board… He realised that he was already aiming at her and drew a hissing breath.

    “Getoutgetougetout!” Caridad wildly shook her head as she stumbled back, falling into a vacated seat and started thrashing around.

    If he shot her now, while she was vulnerable… Could he? If she ended up possessed, she’d probably kill him. But she was fighting it…

    And hitting her head against the railing. “Getout!”

    He clenched his teeth, then tapped his radio. “Bartender to Backup. We need you - Waitress might be possessed.”

    “What?” he heard Bartowski exclaim. “What happened?”

    “We’re on the way!” Walker was, of course, reacting already. Good.

    “She got a faceful of demon drug,” he muttered, his pistol’s muzzle pointing straight at Caridad’s head. Not even a Slayer could shrug off a bullet to the head. “Seems to be what possesses people.”

    “Oh… did you get a sample?”

    “No,” he spat. “You can take one from her nostrils.”

    “Oh.”

    “Getoutgetout! No…” Her eyes were clenched shut and her teeth bared. He was, once again, reminded of a wild animal, and swallowed. Could he shoot her?

    She shook her head even more, hitting, denting the railing. Jesus Christ. He was too close. If she suddenly rushed him… Bullets wouldn’t stop a druggie in time at this distance. And he couldn’t take a Slayer in melee. Certainly not in the confined space of this boat.

    If he had to shoot her, he had to shoot now.

    Then she threw her head back and screamed so loud, his ears hurt - and something glowing flew out of her mouth before she collapsed.

    He caught her in time to keep her from falling overboard and lowered her to the bench. That had looked like she had expelled the demon… but he wasn’t an expert. He should put her in restraints… but he had no restraints that would hold a Slayer, possessed or not.

    “What…”

    Oh, right - the civilians. Fuck, that was a rookie mistake! He turned to face Glendrof, who was standing on the stairs leading belowdecks.

    “John Smith,” John told him. “DEA. We’re investigating this new drug your friend brought into circulation.” He briefly flashed a fake badge.

    “Bill? I mean, van Vleck?”

    “Yes. At least one person almost died due to this drug. It’s absolutely not harmless and not legal at all.”

    “Oh. I had no idea, officer!” Glendrof shook his head. “Uh… is Charlie OK?”

    What a stupid question. “She needs a hospital.”

    “Oh. I can turn around…”

    “A boat is already on the way to us,” John told him. “But you better return to port anyway.”

    “Of course.”

    “He shot Bill,” John heard someone - it sounded like Garcia - exclaim from belowdecks.

    So the guests were starting to recover from their shock and panic. Great. “Stay below,” he bellowed. “This is a crime scene.”

    “Of course, of course.”

    None of the girls said anything, of course. DEA wasn’t VICE, but they wouldn’t care about the difference.

    He checked Caridad - still unconscious, but shivering - and gathered samples from the dust while waiting for Walker and Bartowski to reach them.

    What a clusterfuck.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Burbank, The Castle, March 29th, 2008

    It was past midnight when the two Watchers finally finished their magical examination or whatever. “She isn’t possessed, as far as we can tell,” Brown-Smythe said.

    John pressed his lips together. He could’ve done without that disclaimer.

    “Yes,” Grimes added, “Slayers generally don’t become possessed often - the Slayer Spirit is a jealous spirit.”

    “‘Generally’?” John asked.

    “There have been cases of possession,” Brown-Smythe said.

    “Yes. Buffy got possessed once by the ghost of a student who shot his teacher,” Grimes said. “The ghost had been killing a couple every year since the 1950s, but she stopped it.”

    A couple killed every year for four decades? Goddamnit, the more John heard about Sunnydale, the more he wondered how Bartowski and Grimes had managed to become such nerds.

    “Did you analyse the powder?” Brown-Smythe asked.

    “Yes,” Walker said. “Caridad was correct - it’s powdered human blood.”

    “Slayers tend to be correct about such things,” the old Watcher said with a thin smile.

    “I shot the bastard half a dozen times,” John said. “He fell into the ocean. Is there a chance that he’ll return?”

    “Unfortunately, yes,” Brown-Smythe said. “To be more precise, there is a chance that Mr van Vleck survived the wounds you inflicted on him. While he might not have been possessed, he was certainly influenced by a demonic entity. Some of them have been, on occasion, able to grant their servitors protection from such hazards. More likely, though, is that the entity will be seeking a new servitor.”

    “Someone new? How do we find them?” Bartowski asked.

    “That is a very good question,” Brown-Smythe replied.

    Goddamn.

    “Uh… that usually means that you don’t know? That we don’t know?” Bartowski grimaced as he stated the obvious.

    “That isn’t entirely correct. Now that we have confirmed that Mr van Vleck was responsible for the possession of Mr Black, we can investigate him much more thoroughly. And, of course, continue our investigation of his patron entity, Coyolxauhqui,” the old man replied. “And Caridad might have, once she recovers, also some insights stemming from the attempted possession.”

    That was remarkably cold-blooded and professional. But then, the mission came first, didn’t it? Especially if it involved some demon goddess in need of blood sacrifices.

    Snapping at the man for that was unprofessional, so John didn’t. “When will she wake up?” he asked instead.

    “In the next few hours, I would estimate, although there’s a dearth of information about this phenomenon.”

    In other words, he didn’t know. John curtly nodded and turned to Bartwoski and Walker. “What do you have on van Vleck?”

    Bartowski stared at him for a moment. “Uh… nothing really new, you know?

    “We need to search his apartment again,” Walker said. “We didn’t find anything the first time, but we were looking for possessed or cursed items.”

    He glared at her - that was no excuse for an experienced spy. They should’ve turned the damn apartment upside down.

    “Uh… since he didn’t have any of the, uh, powder in his apartment, and I doubt that he took it to work, he must have either stashed it somewhere or bought it shortly before the yacht trip,” Bartowski said. “And he came in a cab. And he was late.”

    “Can you track the cab?” John cut the nerd off before he rambled more. Good thinking, though.

    “Yes. I’ve got the data from the cab company…” Bartowski tapped a few keys, and a map appeared on the screen. “He was picked up here!”

    “That’s neither close to his office or apartment,” Walker said

    John studied the location. It was a good part of the city, but a man like van Vleck wouldn’t walk too far. And John doubted that he had taken another cab to hide his movements. That meant he had gotten the demon drugs somewhere within a block or two of the spot. Either from a stash or a dealer.

    They’d have to investigate. But not in the middle of the night. And Caridad might have more intel.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Burbank, Wienerlicious, March 29th, 2008

    Almost becoming possessed hadn’t affected Caridad’s appetite, John noted as he watched the Slayer go through enough hot dogs to feed a small sports team. Walker barely managed to keep up at the grill. The Council’s food budget must be huge.

    “Do you remember anything about the attempted possession, dear?” Brown-Smythe asked. The Watcher didn’t look as well-dressed as usual, but not as rumpled as he should after sleeping in his clothes on a cot in the base. Probably something British.

    Caridad scowled, then swallowed half a hot dog whole before answering. “Not really. I was too busy fighting the demon. And the drug - I could barely think.” She shook her head, her lips forming a thin line. “My whole body was sluggish, too. I didn’t know there were drugs that could do this to us!”

    “Well, there’s…” Grimes, sitting with Bane, trailed off as Caridad glared at him.

    “That particular poison has a different effect,” Brown-Smythe said. “And it isn’t a problem any more.”

    “It better not!” Caridad muttered.

    “Yeah,” Vi added. “A drug that affects Slayers is bad enough. Add possession?” She scoffed. “A possessed Slayer is a nightmare.”

    John could agree with that.

    Caridad nodded as well. “The demon kept screaming about blood and death. If it had won…” She looked at John. “I would have killed you and everyone else. Taken your hearts.”

    Unless he would have shot her before that. John inclined his head without breaking eye contact with her.

    “What did the demon want with the hearts?” Brown-Smythe asked.

    “What?”

    “Did it tell you what to do with the hearts?” the Watcher repeated himself.

    Caridad blinked. “Collect them, and… I saw the desert. There was a hill… no, a pyramid. Something…”

    “A pyramid?” Grimes blinked. “Like an Aztec pyramid? Weren’t they in Mexico?”

    “It was a common style in Central America since the Mayans,” Brown-Smythe corrected him. “But this far north… Oh! There was an article about an excavation of a previously unknown pre-Columbian settlement a few months ago…”

    “Near Los Angeles?”

    “According to Colonial definitions for ‘near’, yes.”

    John didn’t laugh at the limey joke. They would still have to investigate the area where van Vleck got his blood, but they had another clue at least.

    They’d get the demon behind this.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, March 29th, 2008

    The street didn’t look like a drug dealer spot. It was early evening - the time the first party-goers were looking for their fix - and there were no shady figures lurking around corners, or anyone acting suspiciously among the crowd milling on the sidewalks.

    That left the shops. Using a shop as a cover was both risky and profitable. You didn’t stick out as the usual drug dealer, but you lost far more once the cops found you - and all it took was one customer spilling his guts to the police after being caught with drugs. For the drug rings, it was easier and safer to use street rats as dealers.

    But some might consider the risks worth the rewards. The affluent crowd liked to shop in a store; it made them feel safer and less like a criminal. And if people were dealing with exotic herbs which were not yet on the prohibited list, it was arguably safer for the dealer as well - though you could still get stuck with violating FDA rules and regulations.

    He parked the car in the next free spot, cutting off some yuppie in a sports car, and got out, ignoring the cursing idiot.

    Now, where would a banker buy ‘exotic herbs’ to get high?

    “There’s one shop that caters to the new age crowd around here,” he heard Caridad say behind him, “‘The Crystal Emporium’.”

    She hadn’t said much during the ride here, not that he had, either. He turned to look at her.

    “We regularly check them for demony stuff, and the owners know that. I don’t think they’re stupid enough to sell powdered human blood, but…” She shrugged. “Sometimes, people become stupid. Or greedy. Or desperate. Or stumble upon a cursed artefact or something.”

    He grunted in agreement. And the kind of people who catered to hippies were generally barely smarter than their customers. “Let’s check it out.”

    The shop looked like a cliche - overloaded displays in the windows, old wood panelling inside, probably fake, and a hand-painted sign above the door - and smelled just like John had expected: Incense and perfume that would best be used to check gas masks for leaks. A load of CS gas would greatly improve the smell, in his opinion.

    “Welcome to ‘The Emporium’! How can I help you?” the clerk behind the counter greeted them. His fake smile vanished as soon as he saw Caridad. “Oh.”

    John bared his teeth at him and held up a picture of van Vleck. “Have you seen this man?”

    “Err…” The idiot actually squinted at the picture. Were glasses or contacts somehow inorganic? “No, sorry, can’t say I have.”

    “Are you sure?” Caridad put both hands on the counter and leaned forward.

    Most men would have appreciated the view, but the clerk shied away. “Yes, I’m sure! Never seen the guy in my life!”

    The Slayer frowned, then looked around, sniffing the air. “Did you start selling new herbs?”

    “What? No.” The man shook his head almost violently. “Just the same as usual. Never change a winning team, you know?”

    That wasn’t what the quote meant. But if the idiot went out of business because he didn’t keep up with changing demands, then that was no skin off John’s back. Just capitalism in action. Or Darwin. John glanced at Caridad.

    She was frowning but shook her head at him. No demon stench here, or whatever she felt or sensed.

    “If you’re looking for new herbs, you should try out the new shop down the block, ‘Spicy Pick’ or something,” the clerk said. “They offer all sorts of exotic spices, including herbs.”

    It was a transparent attempt to get them out of the store, but it was also a possible clue. John glared at the man for good measure, then turned to leave.

    “Did he tell us the truth?” he asked once they were outside.

    “He wouldn’t dare to lie to me,” she replied. “We once found a Blood Crystal in their shop. They had to renovate afterwards.”

    He nodded. He didn’t feel like asking what a blood crystal was - if it were relevant, she’d explain. Or have the Watchers do.

    After a few minutes walking in silence, they reached the new store. ‘Spicy Pick’ didn’t look like a new age shop at all. Clean, modern, minimalistic displays, and an artsy design for the sign. The kind of proper appearance that attracted Californian soccer moms looking for organic anything.

    The clerk wore a store uniform - polo shirt with a small store logo and slacks which looked good on her - but her smile was as fake as the clerk’s before. “Welcome to the ‘Spicy Pick’! How may we help you?”

    John glanced at Caridad. She looked annoyed already - had she smelled something? And she was glaring at the clerk. That was a bad sign. Was the woman a demon? He took a closer look. She wasn’t a vampire; it was daylight and there were enough reflective surfaces around to check. And she looked entirely human; her tight clothing made that clear. Well, at least with regards to her body shape. She also looked like she should in her job - preppy, sexy but not too much, with subtle makeup and a nice but not extravagant hairstyle.

    At hearing Caridad’s growl, he took a step back - better let her take the lead on this.

    “Miss? Can I help you?” The clerk looked taken aback. Had she recognised the Slayer? She didn’t seem to be afraid, though.

    “Yes,” Caridad spat. “Do you sell exotic herbs? The kind you burn, like incense.”

    “Ah. I’m afraid that we don’t have many such herbs - we’re a spice shop, and spices are generally used for seasoning, not to… burn. Unless, of course, the cook makes a mistake.” The woman giggled at her own joke.

    Caridad seemed even less amused and glanced at John.

    After a moment, John stepped forward and pulled out van Vleck’s picture. “Have you seen this man?”

    The clerk’s eyes widened for a moment. “Oh. No, no. Can’t say I ha-AH!”

    Caridad had grabbed the front of the clerk’s shirt and pulled her across the counter in the blink of an eye. “You’re lying. You know this man,” the Slayer hissed.

    “What? No! Let me go! Help! Hel...”

    Caridad twisted her grip, and the clerk’s yelling was cut off. Together with the airflow to her lungs - she started to cough and struggle for breath.

    John checked if there were security cameras, but couldn’t see any. Then he held up the picture again. “What did you sell to him?” After a moment, he nodded at Caridad, and the Slayer loosened her grip and let the clerk breath again.

    “I just sold him the special order he had! I don’t know anything about it! The boss handles these! Please don’t hurt me!”

    Convincing tears, too - she must have realised who she had been lying to. John nodded. “Where’s your boss?”

    “He only comes in in the evening! Or late afternoon!”

    “What’s his name and address?”

    “John Smith!”

    John Doe must have been too obvious.

    “Where does he live?” Caridad asked, shaking the girl.

    “I don’t know his address! I just have his cell phone number! Please don’t hurt me!”

    John sent the phone number to Bartowski. It probably wasn’t registered, but they could track the cell, at least.

    “Where are those ‘special orders’?” Caridad lifted the girl up a little.

    “In the back! In the safe! Please don’t hurt me!”

    John went to check. There was a safe, but it wasn’t anything special. Commercial model. He could crack in his sleep, but it would still take a little while. “Where’s the key?”

    “I don’t… ack!”

    “Don’t lie, you dumbass!” John heard Caridad snarl. “You just said you sold one special order!”

    “It’s hidden in the drawer, fake bottom!”

    Amateurs. John shook his head and got the key - not without checking for traps, of course. But there weren’t any. Amateurs indeed.

    He opened the safe and hissed. There were half a dozen bags, the same van Vleck had had. And there was an obsidian knife.

    He better let a specialist handle this - John didn’t fancy getting possessed or poisoned. “There’s more of the poison here,” he yelled.

    Caridad appeared in the doorway, dragging the clerk with her, and growled.

    “P-poison?” the clerk stammered.

    “Your customer tried to murder half a dozen people,” the Slayer told her.

    “No!” The woman gasped.

    If she was a demon, she was the most human-looking one John had met so far. Not that he had met too many demons - just too many for his taste. He frowned at her. “Are you claiming you didn’t know?”

    “I didn’t know! I just thought it was some organic drugs or something!”

    Caridad released her, and the clerk dropped to the floor, then scooted back until she hit the wall.

    “Is she clean?” John asked.

    Caridad sneered but nodded.

    “Clean?”

    “Not contaminated,” he told her, baring his teeth. Then he glanced at Caridad.

    She frowned. “Close the shop and go home. Do not contact anyone, understood? And stay away from this stuff in the future.”

    The clerk nodded frantically, then fled.

    “Stupid bimbo,” Caridad growled.

    John nodded. The clerk didn’t seem to have had any problems selling drugs under the counter. Stupid indeed. “Let’s call the others to check this knife.” He wasn’t a Watcher, but an obsidian knife? That screamed ‘Aztec’ to him. And probably cursed.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, March 29th, 2008

    “It’s definitely an Aztec sacrificial knife,” Brow-Smythe announced, pointing at the knife in the middle of the table. “Although whether or not it actually dates back to the Aztec Empire or was crafted later using their style and techniques will only be answered once we receive the results of the radiocarbon dating.”

    John didn’t know if he should be more surprised that the Council actually had people doing radiocarbon dating available, or that the old Watcher had been crazy enough to take a sample out of a potentially cursed knife.

    “And is it cursed?” Bartowski asked, leaning forward in a far too interested way to take a closer look at the thing.

    “Yes.” Brown-Smythe had the dry delivery down pat.

    The moron jerked back so quickly, his chair moved a foot from the impact.

    “Of course it is! I told you that!” Caridad said with a pout.

    “Well… you missed the hobo being possessed, and you didn’t recognise the powdered blood until it literally hit you in the face,” Vi commented.

    “I so did recognise it as cursed before he took it out!” Caridad protested. “And I only got hit because I didn’t want to hurt a possibly possessed guy!”

    “Well, that’s understandable - since you couldn’t tell if the guy was possessed.”

    “I’d like to see you do better!”

    “Thank you for volunteering to take over bodyguard duties!”

    “What? I didn’t say that!”

    Brown-Smythe coughed, which made both Slayers shut up, though they were still glaring at each other.

    “What about the powdered blood?” Walker asked.

    “It’s definitely cursed as well,” the Watcher replied.

    “Blood-cursed,” Grimes added. “That is, it’s not just cursed blood, but blood from a cursed bloodline.”

    “What?” Bartowski blurted out.

    “Our research revealed that the curse on the blood was there before the blood was taken and processed into this,” Brown-Smythe explained.

    “Into some Slayer poison!” Caridad muttered.

    “Not precisely,” the old man corrected her. “That you were affected was most likely merely a side-effect of the way the powder induced and facilitated possession. It was the conflict between the Slayer spirit and the blood demon that, ah, affected your body.”

    “Turned Caridad into a bumbling girl, you mean,” Vi said, though her smile felt a little forced.

    That didn’t keep Caridad from glaring at her. “At least it took cursed blood to make me weaker. You probably wouldn’t notice!”

    “Hey!”

    “Dears…”

    “And what does it mean for us that this is from a ‘cursed bloodline’?” Walker got them back on topic.

    “It means that they can’t just kidnap and drain random people to create these abominations.” Brown-Smythe nodded at the sachets with obvious distaste. “Whoever is doing this has to find people suffering from this ‘blood curse’. And unless I am mistaken, they need to kill them to accomplish this - they cannot keep one victim and drain them regularly.”

    “And who are they?” Bartowski asked.

    “We don’t know. Not yet. And attempts to use a locator spell on the blood haven’t born us any results - we fear the donors of this blood are dead. However, the victims are likely to have suffered from what modern medicine would mistake for a congenital disease. Possibly a heart or blood disease, though that is mere speculation. Although it will most likely be limited to people of Aztec descent and defy modern science as to its cause.”

    The moron blinked. “We can search for that! There’ll be medical databases listing such diseases!”

    “Precisely.”

    “And then we cross-reference the data with missing persons!” Bartowski nodded several times.

    “And then we use the surviving family members as bait to catch the killers,” John added. “We might have to let one of them get kidnapped so we can track the kidnappers to their base.”

    The moron looked at him as if he had just suggested to kill them himself. John glared at him. “We need to stop this, remember? If we don’t, they die anyway.”

    Walker really needed to teach Bartowski how this business worked.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, March 29th, 2008

    John closed his eyes when he heard the knocking on his window. It looked like Caridad had found another way past his security measures. “Come in,” he muttered, draining his glass.

    “There’s a gap in coverage on the roof,” she told him as she approached. “Next to the chimney.”

    He grunted. He’d have to remedy that. Even though it was unlikely that anyone but a Slayer could reach the chimney without being detected. But you had to be prepared for everything.

    “You know, Chuck doesn’t like using civilians as bait.”

    “He doesn’t like civilians getting murdered, either,” John shot back. “And a resurrected blood demon will kill far more people.”

    She slowly shrugged. “The old council used to think like that. Greater good, and all.”

    “It’s not a bad stance,” he replied. “Sometimes, you have to sacrifice a few to save the rest. Any officer knows that. Or should know.” And he had no doubt that the general knew it by heart.

    “The Council’s really not big on the sacrificing of others.”

    She hadn’t gone to his kitchen, he noted.

    “Too bad that the world doesn’t always work like you want,” he snapped back.

    That was the truth.

    “So? Then we make it work.” She bared her teeth at him.

    He had to snort at that, against his will. That wasn’t how it worked. He shook his head. “Some things you can’t kill.” As much as it galled.

    “That just means you didn’t find the right weapon.” She crossed her arms and glared at him.

    “And how would you track the killers…”

    “Cultists.”

    He rolled his eyes. “...the cultists without using their victims as bait?”

    “We can capture them and beat the location of their hideouts out of them.”

    “Unless they’re possessed and don’t remember.”

    “Then we can drive them off and track them.”

    “Assuming they run in the first place, and don’t fight till death.” Some terrorists did, as he knew from experience. And possessed people were probably even worse.

    “Some always run.”

    “And if they don’t? Or if they don’t run back to their base?” Or whatever you’d call a cult’s headquarters.

    “Then we disguise one of our own as the victim!”

    He stared at her. “That won’t work!”

    “Of course it will! Between all of us, we should be able to find at least one who looks similar enough to a victim. The rest we do with wigs and makeup.” She grinned. “They’re not the CIA - they won’t have high-definition images of their targets. If they even have pictures.”

    “They might be able to smell their victims.” Or something. Underestimating your enemy was a bad idea. Not every scumbag had the resources of the Russian FSI, but some came close in their own little countries.

    “That we can work with.” She smiled at him.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, March 30th, 2008

    “Emilio Chavez. Forty years old, descendant from Native Americans, parents moved from Texas to California in the seventies. Has received treatment for a degenerative congenital blood disease for five years, without the doctors being able to figure out what exactly he’s suffering from - two papers have been written about his illness already, and there’s been talk of funding an extended research project. He lives in East Los Angeles, decent area but not too much police presence, works in the back office of a Walmart - no competition to us, of course - and is single.”

    John tried to ignore Bartowski - he had already skimmed the file. The guy on the screen in the main room of their base didn’t look like an Indian or a Mexican. Not at all. The guy looked like his ancestors had come over with the Mayflower. In fact, he looked a little like… Damn.

    “I’m not that old,” John said.

    “You’re closest in age to him, and you look alike. Somewhat,” the moron amended when John glared at him. “Uh… Phil’s too old, Morgan’s not tall enough, and I’m too, uh… lanky?”

    “And we’re too female,” Caridad added. Did she have to grin like this? “You’re it.”

    “And you speak Spanish!” Bartowski added with a forced smile.

    “Just because Chavez has a Hispanic name doesn’t mean that he speaks Spanish,” Caridad pointed out.

    “He does speak Spanish - according to his file, at least,” the nerd retorted. “Anyway, Casey is our best choice for Operation Doppelgänger.”

    John clenched his teeth and glared at Bartowski until the moron winced. The other man stood his ground, though.

    At least until Walker butted in. “I’ve heard worse mission names.”

    “Yes. Let’s talk makeup!” Caridad grinned.

    John suppressed a groan. He was a professional spy. He could do such missions in his sleep.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, April 1st, 2008

    “Nothing out there. No kidnappers, no demons, nothing more dangerous than a stray dog,” Caridad reported for about the tenth time this evening.

    “Stray dogs can be plenty vicious. One almost mauled Chao-Ahn, remember?” Grimes cut in.

    “That was a Hellhound; that doesn’t count.”

    “We’re still not sure whether it was a hellhound or a dog with demon ancestry,” Grimes retorted. “If Chao-Ahn hadn’t burned the body, we could have found out.”

    “You always burn the bodies,” Caridad said. “Otherwise, sooner or later, they’ll be back. And you grind the bones if they look suspiciously tough.”

    “That was the Master, not some random demon.”

    “You never know if your demon is random or not until you find out the hard way.”

    That was a sensible stance. John was still tempted to cut off the channel. He would have preferred if Brown-Smythe had been there instead of Grimes. The old man might not be as quick on his feet, but he didn’ prattle like Grimes.

    But turning off the radio would be stupid on a mission. Unprofessional.

    He sighed, resisted the urge to scratch his makeup-covered face, and switched the channel on the TV. Chavez, at least, had decent cable and good taste in entertainment. None of that European Soccer stuff - good American sports like Football or Baseball. And no telenovelas either.

    He looked around. Chavez could have done with some tips on interior decoration, though. The apartment was overloaded with mismatching furniture. Probably all great deals at garage sales - Chavez seemed to be the type. At least removing him had been easy - the man had jumped on the offer to fly to London for a month to be examined at a private clinic. The Council had organised it - and would probably send some witch of theirs to see if they could break the curse. Bleeding hearts, the lot of them.

    In exchange, they hadn’t needed to reveal the supernatural at all, and intercepting Chavez’s note to his employer and replacing it with a sick note had been child’s play. If the cultists were checking up on the man, they’d realise at once that Chavez was supposed to be at home, alone, and sick for the next couple weeks.

    The perfect victim.

    Of course, who knew how cultists thought? They might have to check if the stars align or something before they struck.

    He looked at the cabinet to the side. Not his favourite selection of liquor, but he wasn’t overly picky. No soldier was once they’d been in the field. A drink would not hurt, he knew his tolerance and had had to drink before on some undercover missions, but to drink when it wasn’t needed for his cover… No. He didn’t need it.

    The game on the screen ended, and he switched channels before the inane post-game-reporting started. He wasn’t some idiot who thought Football players had something important to say. It was all PR anyway.

    Ah. Baseball. It looked like a good game, too. Close match, according to the score. He took another bite out of his sandwich and settled in to watch. Chavez’s couch, at least, was very comfortable, though John had had to clean up a year’s worth of crumbs before sitting down.

    “There’s a van!”

    Caridad’s report startled him. “Anything suspicious about it?”

    “Tinted windows. No firm logo on the side. And it’s white.”

    He snorted. The colour didn’t matter, but the lack of a logo? That looked like an amateur mistake. “What are they doing?”

    “They’ve parked down the street. In view of your apartment, I think,” Caridad replied. “No one got out.”

    Amateurs indeed, then. He checked the time. “Let’s hope they won’t wait until midnight,” he commented.

    There was only so much of TV’s stupidity he could stomach.

    *****​
     
    Prince Charon, RedX and Twilight666 like this.
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: The Kidnapping
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 5: The Kidnapping

    California, Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, April 1st, 2008

    “They’re moving! They’re getting out of the van!”

    Caridad’s excited whisper interrupted another ‘best of’ replay from a Football game John wasn’t really interested in. “All of them?” he asked as he checked the time. Two hours before midnight. He hoped that the cultists had been as bored while waiting as he had been.

    “Unless there’s one staying in the back, yes. Three men got out and are now moving towards the house.”

    That would mean that they planned to subdue him and then have one go back to fetch the van. Either they were amateurs, or they didn’t have the manpower for a dedicated driver. Either way, it was good news - they would be less likely to see through his cover.

    “They’ve passed the house.”

    “They will want to go through the backyard,” he told her. Even amateurs wouldn’t try to break down the front door.

    “Right! They’re circling around. Yes.”

    John almost wished they would have installed a better security system so he could track the kidnappers’ progress. Listening to the Slayer was not as useful as first-hand observation. At least Grimes was mercifully quiet.

    As if the man had heard him, he piped up: “I’m moving in to place a tracker on the van!”

    “Don’t get caught,” John snapped.

    “No worry! Even if there’s someone in the back, they won’t see me!”

    John rolled his eyes. He’d prefer it if Caridad were doing this, but she was tracking the kidnappers now - to prevent, in her words, ‘drive-by-killing’ in case the cultists were possessed and decided to cut out the heart of a late-night jogger.

    He glanced at the window. If he stood, he could probably watch Grimes approach the van. “Just walk past and then kneel down to tie your shoelaces,” he grumbled.

    “Yes, as planned.” Grimes sounded a little too nervous to inspire confidence.

    John got up and stretched as if he were just standing up after hours of sitting, then walked to the window. There was Grimes. He wasn’t sneaking, but a pro would be able to tell that he wasn’t a random passerby - he was looking around too much. Amateur.

    And there he knelt, fumbling with his shoes, then lost his balance and grabbed on to the van to steady himself. If that was planned, then Grimes wasn’t a lost cause. But John didn’t think it had been planned.

    The man got up on unsteady legs and walked on. “Done!” came his excited report on the radio.

    “Good,” John replied.

    “They’re climbing over the fence in your backyard,” Caridad reported.

    He took a deep breath and reminded himself that the goal was to get kidnapped. All he had to do was to act surprised and let them grab him.

    It was harder than it should be. If he had a gun, he could’ve killed the three scumbags easily. Even without a gun, he’d bet on himself. Unless the men were possessed, of course.

    Godamnit. What if they were amateurs and supernaturally strong? If they tried to knock him out, they could crush his skull.

    “They’re at the backdoor now.”

    “I’ve heard them,” he replied. “Going silent.” He pulled the earbud out and threw it in the trash. Just in case they searched him. Never assume the enemy is stupid, as Sensei would have said.

    He heard the backdoor’s lock break - they must have forced it, instead of picking it. “What the hell?” he blurted out and walked towards the kitchen.

    There they came. They weren’t even wearing masks - he could see their faces. But they were fast.

    One tackled him, pulling him down to the floor. No supernatural strength there. John flailed, unable to yell with his breath knocked out of him, and there came the two others, one grabbing his arms and the other holding his mouth closed.

    A rug was forced into his mouth a moment later, the taste almost making him gag, followed by duct tape. Damn - that would hurt getting off. He struggled a little as they bound his ankles and wrists, but mostly for show. They weren’t trained to fight to his standards - he could have broken free, he knew - but this wasn’t their first kidnapping. None of them said anything, and they didn’t get into each other’s way as they subdued him. And as soon as they had him tied up, the one who had gagged him left - again without a word. So, they had a dedicated driver.

    He struggled a little more, but not too much - he didn’t need to provoke them into knocking him out. At least it seemed that they couldn’t smell that he didn’t have cursed blood. Contrary to Caridad’s claims, they hadn’t been able to mask that.

    A few minutes later, the front door was opened. And the third man carried a small crate inside.

    Damn. It looked as if the trip would be even more uncomfortable than John had expected.

    They stuffed him into the crate and quickly carried him outside. Amateurs - what kind of moving or freight service would work at this hour? If a patrol car drove by, the cops would certainly check on the group. The neighbours, though? Unless there was an old woman keeping track of everyone, no one would care.

    At least he had managed to sit down in the crate despite being tied up. It was almost comfortable - better than some trips where they had packed too many recruits into a truck, to be honest.

    Then they tipped the crate over, and he ended up on his side - idiots couldn’t even have loaded the crate correctly into the van!

    Goddamnit.

    He shifted his weight around as the van accelerated. He had a blade hidden in his belt, and one in his shoes, but reaching either was a pain in the cramped position he found himself in. He could deal with pain, though. He clenched his teeth and pulled until he scraped some skin off his wrist, but finally managed to reach the hidden pocket in his belt.

    Then he began to saw at the ties binding his wrists. Slowly, carefully - in the darkness of the crate, judging when to stop so the ties would be easy to snap, but not fall off and alert the kidnappers as soon as they opened the crate was tricky, but he had experience.

    By the time they were, according to his estimate, on the highway, he was done with the wrists and had to shift around again, almost straining something, to reach his ankles.

    A few minutes later, he was ready. And the waiting started. He tried to listen to the three kidnappers talking, but didn’t hear anything - they weren’t talking.

    That wasn’t a good sign.

    *****​

    A sudden jolt, followed by another and then one more, woke him up - he must have dozed off, he realised, despite the uncomfortable position in the crate. Well, a Marine could sleep anywhere.

    They were on a bumpy road, he noticed. No blacktop, but still manageable in a van. The desert, probably - though only parts of it. Which meant that the others would have had to fall back so they wouldn’t get spotted. John hoped Grimes hadn’t messed up sticking the locator beacon to the van.

    Well, he’d find out soon enough, and if Grimes had fucked up, John gave himself better than even odds to take out the three kidnappers with surprise on his side. As long as they had no demon help.

    It took about another hour of being jostled around in the crate until they finally stopped. John would have worse bruises from the trip than from the actual kidnapping. But it would be over soon - one way or the other.

    He heard the men getting out. They still weren’t talking. John had never seen anyone, soldier or criminal, who wouldn't talk during a long, boring trip given the opportunity. Three of them? That was no coincidence. Possessed or brainwashed, probably. Unnatural in any case.

    Then the backdoors were opened, and the crate moved - no! He cursed as he felt it slowly starting to tip over. Those bastards!

    The impact on the ground smashed his head into the wood and added a few more bruises on the rest of his body. He grunted with pain as he felt something trickle down his forehead. Blood.

    The crate was tipped over again, then the lid was removed, and the men grabbed him while he was still blinking, his eyes adjusting to the dim moonlight after the near-total darkness inside the crate.

    He looked around as they pulled him up. They were in the desert, though in a hilly part of it. Lots of rock and scant vegetation around them, and good visibility - the others wouldn’t be able to drive up in a car without being spotted. That would complicate things.

    Two kept ahold of his arms, the third grabbed his legs, and they started walking, still eerily silent, up the closest hill on a beaten path, with John facing backwards.

    The three men didn’t seem armed. No guns he could grab. One had a knife, but a small one. He could break his ties and escape. Probably - the kidnappers weren’t normal. They weren’t supernaturally strong, but if they could shrug off blows, John would have trouble subduing them, and if they had taken the keys from the van… he hadn’t seen any other cars. Still, a decent chance.

    But he wanted to see what was on top of the hill. That was why he was here, after all. The others would already be moving towards him. They would have noticed that the van had stopped.

    Yes.

    They reached the top of the hill, and John craned his neck to look over his shoulder.

    And cursed into his gag. There was a stone altar on top of the hill. And a man wearing feathers and not much else standing next to it.

    John kicked out, sending the kidnapper holding his legs staggering back. While the man stumbled and fell down on the slope, the other two dropped John. He rolled to the side, breaking the damaged ties and grabbed the ankle of the closest man, then yanked.

    He had to roll again to avoid the falling man’s flailing arms and then once more to dodge the third’s kick, but managed to get up in time to block a haymaker and retaliate with a few quick blows to the man’s stomach.

    The kidnapper grunted and fell back a step, but didn’t go down, and the other two were getting up again. None of them had uttered a sound. Freaks. John ripped his gag off and started to circle the one fighting to get all three on the same side - if they encircled him he was done for.

    Instead of waiting for his two comrades, the man attacked again, trying to tackle him. John sidestepped the attempt and hit him in the neck with a chop as the man went past him.

    This time, the guy went down. Good. John turned to face the other two, then noticed the feathered guy coming at him as well. Goddamnit! Three to one odds, again. He had to finish this quickly!

    The two men were still approaching, but he had the high ground for another second or two. He jumped, lashing out with his foot, and kicked the smaller in the face. The man’s head snapped back with the crack of breaking cartilage and he dropped, blood running down his ruined face.

    John managed not to fall down on the slope himself, but the soft, sandy earth made him stumble, and the last kidnapper managed to tackle him to the ground.

    They slid and rolled down the slope, John getting in a few body-blows, until they hit a bush or young tree. He broke the man’s grip on him with a move Sensei had taught him early on, then rolled over his shoulder and stood - this time without stumbling.

    The other man was getting up as well, but more slowly and stumbling, and John managed to catch him with another kick to the thigh that sent the guy down again. Despite the pain the creep had to be feeling, he didn’t make any sound. A kick to the temple took him out for good.

    John whirled but the feathered man was still ten yards away - but carrying something that looked very similar to the obsidian knife they had found in the spice shop. And he was moving more quickly, now.

    Hell!

    John turned and started to run down the slope, towards the van. If they had left the key in the car, he could get away.

    If he made it down the slope in one piece - in the dim light, he kept stumbling and once had to do a roll forward. If he twisted an ankle… But he reached the bottom of the hill and rushed to the van. The door wasn’t locked, so… but there was no key.

    Cursing, John took out his belt-knife and opened the panel under the wheel. He had to hotwire the thing before the feather freak reached him! There were the cables… good. No light, but that didn’t matter - this wasn’t like defusing a bomb. And the last cultist was still twenty yards away.

    He held the cables together and heard the engine whine. Damn amateurs hadn’t done proper maintenance. Another attempt. The engine started rumbling. Yes! John put it into gear and turned the wheel. Now…

    Something hit the van and metal screeched as the entire vehicle rocked to the side. John floored it - the freak had rammed the van! - but half the side was caved in, and one of the wheels must have become stuck. Still, the car was starting to move.

    Then the freak bent down and… Hell, no! He gripped the underside of the van and heaved - and the van rolled over.

    John was thrown around inside a box for the second time this night, acquiring even more bruises, and another cut on his head. But he wasn’t done for. Not by a long shot. He kicked the door open - he was now facing away from the freak - and slid out, his belt knife in hand.

    Where was…

    A dull sound of something hitting metal. What… John snarled. The freak had jumped on top of the van!

    For a moment, they stared at each other. The feathered guy was baring his teeth at John and brandishing his stone knife.

    Then the freak yelled in a language John didn’t know or even recognised, the first sound any of the kidnappers had made tonight, and pounced.

    John dodged to the side, rolling over the sandy ground, rocks digging into his back, and ended in a crouch facing the madman - and had to drop on his back to avoid getting his throat slit as the freak lashed out with his knife. Another roll, to the left, avoided a kick that sent up a small cloud of sand and dust, and John kept rolling, then jumped to his feet.

    But the damned freak was already there, screaming like a banshee. A blow clipped John’s shoulder and sent him stumbling back. The knife flashed once more, towards his belly. John jumped back, recoiling, but he wasn’t quick enough and hissed in pain as the stone blade cut shirt and skin.

    Shallow, fortunately - his guts weren’t spilling out. Hurt like a bitch, though. John snarled and managed to glide-parry the next blow - it was like fighting a Slayer. No, not quite - a Slayer knew how to fight. This freak just was too fast and too strong, but fought like an amateur otherwise.

    He dodged another blow - the dim light made it hard to spot the tells. If the freak weren’t telegraphing his moves, John would already be dead. Goddamnit! He side-stepped a lunge - who’d use a stone knife like a foil - and landed a kick to the side of the man’s knee. No crack, no scream - the freak was supernaturally tough as well. Figured.

    John fell back again and circled to the right, barely keeping ahead of a flurry of wild, uncoordinated blows. Or not - pain shot through his left arm and blood started to flow out of a ragged cut in his lower arm. Damn.

    The freak cackled and shouted something else in his weird language, waving his blade around over his head. John gritted his teeth and lunged, landing a spin kick right in the bastard’s face that sent the madman stumbling back a few steps. Yes!

    John refrained from following up, though - the man was already recovering, shaking his head and baring his teeth. And licking his blade.

    Then the freak’s eyes, already wide, opened even more in an almost comical expression of surprise as he licked the blade again.

    And John launched himself at the creep, a straight kick driving the man’s own blade into his face.

    This time the freak screamed in pain, and John could see that the blade had sliced the man’s mouth and cheek to the bone. But it had missed anything vital.

    The man came at him again, screaming incoherently. He wasn’t even trying to cut or hit John any more, just reaching for him with claw-like hands, completely mad. Good.

    John tripped the freak, sending him sprawling into the ground, headfirst, driven by his own momentum. John’s foot hurt, but probably not as much as getting sand and dirt all over the man’s ruined face would - John’s own arm hurt like a bitch. He grinned anyway. “Don’t like that, huh?”

    The man shook his head and charged him again - and jumped after a few steps. John gasped and dived forward in a roll, under the flying body. A flailing foot hit his shoulder blades, and John’s roll ended up a slide on his belly. That hurt.

    Snarling, he came up again, one hand full of sand - and flung it into the charging freak’s face. It didn’t blind the man, but it made him flinch and cover his eyes, and allowed John to jump to the side and avoid the next few blows.

    He couldn’t keep this up forever, though. He used the next combat roll to both avoid a haymaker and look for an opening. His knife was small, smaller than the man’s stone knife, but it was deadly enough if he could cut the right spot.

    The next exchange left John with another budding bruise on his thigh and his enemy with a gash in his right arm. Despite the blood, the man didn’t seem to be impaired in any way - just even madder than before. Damn. John was tiring and hurting, and the blood loss from the wound in his arm wasn’t helping. Where were the others?

    There the freak came again, snarling and screaming, lashing out with his knife. John ducked and sliced at the man’s thigh. If he could manage to cut the artery there… He didn’t. The skin was too tough for that, and, overextended, the man caught him with a mule kick to the side that spun John around and to the ground. And probably broke a few ribs - the pain was so much, John screamed as he hit the ground.

    He still forced himself to roll, to keep moving, to get up, to face the freak. If the arteries were out, then that left the eyes. John bared his teeth, panting, and waved at the freak. “Come and get me, bastard!”

    The freak obliged him, rushing at him. John swayed to the side, avoiding the stab, and raked his knife over the man’s face, aiming for the eyes.

    A flailing arm hit his shoulder, hard enough to make him fall down again, but John didn’t care.

    The freak was screaming even more loudly than before and holding his face. He had even dropped his damn knife. The knife that could hurt the freak.

    John eyed it, then the flailing limbs of the blinded man. He would have to be careful to avoid getting clipped, but if he went low…

    “Casey!”

    He whirled and spotted a figure running towards him - far too fast to be human. Caridad, he realised a few seconds before she reached him.

    “I knocked out the three kidnappers, but he’s tougher,” he said, pointing at the man. The freak hadn’t reacted to Caridad’s arrival - he probably hadn’t heard them over his own screaming.

    The Slayer gave John a look, then moved. Two steps took her within reach of the man. She ducked under a swipe with his knife and took another step, then he heard the crack of breaking bones, and the screaming changed - then ended abruptly when she hit the man in the head.

    He collapsed, and she quickly put some cuffs on him. Metal ones. Then she turned and stared at John. “You cut his eyes out?”

    “I had to,” he defended himself. “It was the only way to stop him.”

    “Good thing his nose wasn’t enhanced, then.”

    “Yes, a good thing.” He hadn’t considered that. He should’ve - he knew how well the Slayer could smell.

    “What kept you?” the words slipped out before he could reconsider. Damn. He sounded whiny.

    “Morgan drove without lights so we wouldn’t be spotted, but we ended up stuck in some sand ditch or so, so I ran the rest of the way.”

    Ah. That explained it. He nodded.

    “They should’ve let me drive,” she said.

    “Or used night vision goggles,” he pointed out.

    “They did.”

    John closed his eyes. Typical.

    “I’ll fetch the others. Don’t touch the knife.”

    He wasn’t going to. But he wouldn’t mention that he had been thinking about it, either.

    Goddamn magic.

    And there she was again, dragging two unconscious men with her. “Here!” A moment later, she was gone once more.

    He checked the kidnappers. They should be waking up soon, so he had to check that they were secured. At least for them, zip ties would work. And would be a sweet payback for what they had made him experience.

    Stupid amateurs.

    He grinned while he tied them up - perhaps a little tighter than would have been necessary - and then the third Caridad brought.

    By then, he could see the lights of Grimes’s car approaching.

    “That was impressive, you know,” Caridad commented as they waited. “That guy was about as strong and fast as a vamp.”

    He grunted in return - and suppressed the spark of pride he felt.

    *****​

    “A buried pyramid of Aztec design, if the altar here is any indication. Quite a find.” Brown-Smythe sounded more impressed by the archaeological discovery than the fact that John had stopped a blood sacrifice. His own.

    “An altar that saw regular use,” Grimes added, pointing at the dried blood on the stone. “And not enough cleaning.”

    “In my experience, possessed people rarely care about appearances or hygiene - Mr Black lived and looked like a homeless person,” the old man replied.

    “Smelt like one, too,” Caridad added with a scowl.

    “Well, the guy there did care about looking like some Aztec priest,” Bartowski pointed out. “Do you think we could track him through the feathers?”

    John took a closer look at the bound freak. He was still ineffectively struggling against the cuffs that bound him, and the ties to the stakes driven into the ground looked solid. John knelt and grabbed a few feathers from the man’s upper arm. A quick examination later, he shook his head. “Turkey and duck feathers, coloured. Those aren’t exactly rare.” At Bartowski’s surprised look, he added in a growl: “I’ve hunted in the past.”

    “Oh. I didn’t mean that… well… I mean…”

    The moron fortunately trailed off before he became too much of an annoyance. John was hurting - they had dressed his wounds, but they still hurt, as did the bruises all over his body. He couldn’t afford to dull his mind and senses with some painkillers, either.

    “Let’s focus on the matter at hand, shall we?” Brown-Smythe spoke up. “There are bowls set aside to catch the blood, but nothing else - no ingredients, no tools. And there doesn’t seem to be another car around.”

    There wasn’t; John would have spotted it.

    “That means this ‘priest’ must have had quarters here - at least a spot where he could turn the blood into cursed powder,” the limey went on. “And, seeing as we’re on top of a buried pyramid…”

    “Oh, goodie,” Grimes piped up with a grimace. “We’re doing a dungeon run.”

    “But where’s the entrance?” Bartowski asked.

    “Probably hidden; either here or at the base of the pyramid,” Brown-Smythe replied. “We’ll have to search for it.”

    John clenched his teeth. That meant it would take even longer until he could swallow a few painkillers and rest.

    “I didn’t think that the pyramids were hollow,” Bartowski said.

    “They aren’t,” Brown-Smythe replied, “but they can contain secret rooms - even though, in some cases, those are just the remains of older temples that were built over to erect a larger, more impressive temple.”

    “Ah. But wouldn’t that lead to, uh, static problems?”

    John rolled his eyes. “Are we here to get a lecture on architecture, or are we here to find where the bastard made his cursed powder?”

    “Sometimes, the former is needed to find the latter,” the limey replied. “But point taken. Let’s look for a secret entrance - it shouldn’t be too hard to find if it saw regular use, and we...”

    “Here!” Caridad exclaimed, interrupting the Watcher.

    As John turned to look at her, he had to raise his hands to keep from getting blinded by the maglight she was waving around and gritted at the pain the movement caused. He really needed to rest - but this was too important.

    The Slayer kicked at a stone set in the floor, and it flipped over, revealing itself to be a thin stone plate on a wooden plank. “It smells like dried blood and demony stuff below,” she said.

    So that was how she had found so quickly.

    “Excellent work, dear,” the old man praised her, and the Slayer preened.

    “So, I’ll go down and…” she started to say.

    “Wait!” Bartowski interrupted her. “If they made the cursed powder there, what if you breathe in some of it? If you can smell it already...”

    “Oh…”

    “Get a gas mask,” John grumbled.

    “Right.”

    He sat down, leaning against the altar, as Grimes went down to fetch the masks they had brought. Bloody morons.

    “I can carry you down so you can rest in the van,” Caridad offered.

    “I’m fine,” he snapped. Like hell he’d let himself get carried around like an invalid! He wasn’t even bleeding much.

    She frowned in return, then huffed. “If you collapse I won’t carry you.”

    “You can bury me in place if I fall,” he told her, baring his teeth.

    “Please don’t give her ideas, Mr Casey,” Brown-Smythe cut in. “Slayers are notoriously difficult when it comes to properly taking care of their wounds.”

    “We’re not! You’ve just got the wrong standards!” Caridad protested.

    The old man merely smiled, and the Slayer pouted.

    John had to snort at the whole scene.

    Then Grimes returned, out of breath, carrying a bundle of gas masks, and John pushed himself up.

    “Are you going to go down there?” the moron asked.

    “It’s unlikely that there’s enough room below us for all of us,” Brown-Smythe pointed out.

    “Never hurts to be prepared,” John grunted.

    “Well, overpreparation can actually…” Bartowski flinched in a satisfying manner when John glared at him. Pedantic moron.

    “He’s in a bad mood,” he heard Grimes whisper, not quietly enough.

    “Getting kidnapped and beaten up will do that to a man,” Bartowski replied.

    John rolled his eyes again, then focused on Caridad going down the rather narrow stairs she had discovered. “Looks quiet, don’t smell anyone,” she called up. “Ew… he slept in there? In all that blood?”

    “There must be water somewhere,” John said - no need to yell; she’d hear him anyway. “He looked clean before we fought.”

    “Right!” There’s a well!”

    “That would explain how and why they built a temple here,” Brown-Smythe said. “Without a source of water, it would have been very difficult. And an open source of water would have attracted other people, perhaps even lead to the founding of a settlement, which would have led to this temple being discovered sooner.”

    The limey should have been a teacher.

    “Uh…”

    That didn’t sound good.

    “Yes, dear?”

    “There’s a mural here. Painted in blood. And it shows… uh… an apocalypse, I think.”

    Goddamnit.

    *****​

    “I don’t think this can be considered a prophecy,” Brown-Smythe said fifteen minutes later. “It’s clearly not old enough but was painted by our maimed prisoner.”

    “No shit,” John grumbled. “The toppling highrises kind of give that away.”

    “That’s actually not conclusive evidence,” the limey had to correct him. “A seer or prophet could have foreseen this. However, the brushes, bought or stolen at Walmart according to the price tags, as well as the state of the blood mural, indicate it was recently created.”

    John grunted in reply. What did it matter?

    “Well, we stopped them, so we stopped the apocalypse, right?” Caridad asked, but she didn’t sound confident, in John’s opinion.

    “Well… we haven’t found a sealed body part of Coyolxauhqui, which I expected, but the mural depicts two temples and two ‘priests’,” Brown-Smythe pointed out.

    “Two?” Grimes asked. “Oh… the one that looks like a modern building is a temple?”

    “I think it’s more precise to say that it shows an altar inside or on top of a modern building,” the old Watcher replied. “But important is that there’s a second ‘priest’ depicted. We need to find them and stop them.”

    “Right,” Bartowski said. “Because even a half-apocalypse will be an apocalypse for the city. I mean…”

    “We know what you mean,” John told him.

    They had another target.

    “Let’s return to base,” he said.

    “Uh... what do we do about the pyramid?” Bartowski asked. “It’s kind of… well, obvious, isn’t it? We wouldn’t want someone else stumbling upon it, right?”

    “No one did before, did they?” Caridad asked.

    “But they should,” Bartowski insisted. “It should be visible from air, at least the altar. Or the cars.”

    “We’ll take their car with us - we need it anyway, to transport the prisoners,” Walker said.

    John nodded. Another taste of their own medicine for the kidnappers. “They probably camouflaged the altar. Covered it up with some branches or bushes.”

    “There are some at the base of the hill,” Caridad said. “I thought they had done that to clear the altar.”

    “Why did they drag the cut bushes down if they needed them again?” Bartowski asked.

    “Perhaps they thought they wouldn’t need them after tonight?” Grimes shrugged.

    “Or they thought their ‘goddess’ would be angered if they performed a sacrifice in the middle of dead plants,” Brown-Smythe pointed out. “You don’t perform a mass with the cleaning supplies propped up against the side of the altar, do you?”

    That was a decent point, but it was getting late. “Whatever,” John spat. “Let’s cover up and leave a few cameras, in case the other priest comes looking for their partner.” He started walking down the hill, towards the cars.

    The morons could handle the cover-up. Walker would supervise.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 2nd, 2008

    “Do you need help?”

    John didn’t jerk at the sudden question, even though he hadn’t heard the Slayer approach. But he had expected her.

    He slowly turned to face her, closing the cabinet with their medical supplies, and held out a roll of bandages without saying anything.

    She snorted but didn’t comment and grabbed it - and the can of ointment. “Sit down.”

    He did.

    She quickly bandaged his cuts, then started to put the ointment on his bruises. John closed his eyes and grit his teeth - she wasn’t rough, nor did it hurt much, but her hands on his skin… Damn.

    She snorted again, for some reason. “We’ve locked all of them up. If we capture more, we’ll run out of cells.”

    “Are they possessed?”

    “The three stooges are under a spell. Phil should be able to break it, once he has found the right counter-spell. The priest… he’s possessed.”

    “Another exorcism, then.” One he didn’t need to watch.

    “If he’s been possessed for too long, exorcising him could be… dangerous,” she commented after a moment.

    “For us or them?”

    “For the host; I’ll be there to guard Phil and Morgan.”

    He grunted. He didn’t particularly care for someone who had tried to kill him. Possessed or not, that tended to leave an impression. People said ‘just business’, but it was always at least a bit personal.

    “Remove your pants.”

    He tensed. He did have bruises on his legs, but... “I can do my legs myself. Thank you.”

    “You don’t have to,” she retorted. “I’m already here.”

    Which was part of the problem. She was too close - he could feel her breath on his back - and he had taken a painkiller already. Shouldn’t have done that, in hindsight. “I’ll manage,” he said, reaching for the ointment.

    “Oh, don’t be like that! If you insist on being stubborn and make your wounds worse, I’ll carry you to your bed. Like a bride.”

    He hissed and turned his head to glare at her. She grinned in return. She would do it, he knew. Goddamnit.

    He clenched his teeth and started to remove his pants.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, April 2nd, 2008

    “And we’re here!” Bartowski announced as he parked his car. “Home sweet home!”

    Casey grunted as he got out. If not for the painkiller he had taken, he could have driven home himself. As it was, he’d had to endure Bartowski’s attempt to make chit-chat for the entire drive. Perhaps he should’ve let Caridad drive him home in his Lincoln… no, his car wouldn’t have survived her driving.

    “So… I’ll log you as sick tomorrow,” the moron said as he and Walker got out.

    Casey grunted again. He could go to work, if there was a need, but there wasn’t - and he needed the rest.

    “Alright! Good night!”

    As soon as Bartowski and Walker had left for their own apartment. John closed his eyes and sighed. “Good night.”

    “Are you sure you don’t need help any more?” Caridad asked.

    He glanced at her. She was leaning against the car, arms crossed under her breasts, and smiling like she had when she had treated his legs.

    “Yes,” he said. When he saw her tensing a little, he added, without thinking, “I just need sleep and I’ll be fine.”

    He wouldn’t be fine, of course - bruises didn’t fade after a night’s worth of sleep. Not unless you were a Slayer.

    But she smiled again and nodded.

    A moment later, she was gone.

    He blamed the painkillers for it.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 2nd, 2008

    “Aren’t you on sick leave?”

    John rolled his eyes at Bane’s comment. He had slept until the afternoon and he was fit for duty - he could handle the lingering pain from his bruises and cuts. “What did you find out?” he asked.

    “We’re still trying to identify the ‘priest’,” she said. “He’s not listed as missing. Not in the USA, at least. They’re checking Mexican records now.”

    ‘They’? Did she mean Walker and Bartowski, or was that a hint that she suspected or even knew about Orion? He couldn’t tell. But he’d have to keep it in mind. “What about the kidnappers?”

    Bane snorted. “Locals - apparently chosen at random, though we’re still looking into it. Phil broke the spell on them, but they don’t remember anything - apparently, they were under some sort of hypnose effect, or like sleepwalking.” She shrugged. “The only thing they remember of last night’s events is going to bed early.”

    Literal sleeper agents, then. “How did he get them?”

    “They remember him asking them for help when they were working - they work for a moving company.”

    Ah.

    “The others are starting their exorcism,” Bane commented.

    He nodded and took a seat at the table. His presence wouldn’t be needed, then. He could busy himself here. “I’ll go over the data we’ve gathered so far.”

    Bane snorted, once, but didn’t comment. Instead, she pushed a few folders over. “Perhaps you’ll spot something I missed.

    He grunted. A second or third check was always useful.

    An hour later, he heard an alert from the interrogation - and now exorcism - room open. Bane, sitting closer to the door, beat him to the room, but not by much.

    It was all over, anyway - he found Caridad and the others staring at a dessicated corpse on a chair. It looked like a mummy from a cheap horror movie.

    It looked like Caridad had been correct about the exorcism being dangerous.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2020
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: The Search
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 6: The Search

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 2nd, 2008

    “So, as suspected: long-time possession is fatal.” Brown-Smythe seemed to be unfazed by the recent death of the possessed man as he started the briefing - or planning session - in the base’s main room.

    Well, John could respect that. He wouldn’t be losing sleep over the corpse either. “Do we have any news about his ID?” he asked, leaning forward.

    “Uh… we’re working on that. He isn’t on any missing persons list in the USA,” Bartowski said.

    John grunted. Bane had already told him that, of course, but a little pressure never hurt anyone. At least not a spy. If Bartowski couldn’t handle it, he wasn’t cut out to be a spy.

    “We do know, though,” Bartowski went on, “that he wasn’t the mysterious boss of the Spicy Pick. We already suspected that based upon his, uh, state with regards to hygiene and grooming and clothes, but the clerk you terrified verified that he wasn’t her boss.” He was looking at Caridad as he said the last bit, John noticed.

    The Slayer snorted in return but didn’t reply otherwise.

    “Uh, that means that there’s someone else around working with the powder.” Bartowski shrugged. “Of course, he could be our missing second priest.”

    If they were lucky, perhaps. John didn’t think so. A smart enemy would use multiple middlemen. And while the kidnapping team hadn’t impressed him, John knew better than to assume that the bastard behind this was stupid.

    “Since there was no body part of Coyolxauhqui in the pyramid, we think that whatever part was here will likely be at the other altar,” Grimes said.

    “Are you sure that there’s a body part at all?” Bane asked.

    “It’s likely, given the legends we know,” Brown-Smythe said. “Dismembering and sealing or scattering the body parts was a fairly effective method to deal with demons that were hard to kill.”

    “Until someone gathered the parts and revived the demon,” Bartowski said with a frown.

    “Like the Judge!” Grimes added.

    “It might not be the best solution, but often, it was the best that was possible,” Brown-Smythe said. “It’s only recently that there was more than one Slayer available to deal with such threats.” He smiled thinly. “But we shouldn’t be dwelling on the mistakes of the past, but on our current problem. Namely, finding the second ritual site.”

    “Well, there’s always the brute force method: We have Vi and Caridad check all high-rises in Los Angeles,” Grimes said.

    “That sounds like a daunting task,” the old Watcher replied. “But it might be our best course of action if other means do not deliver results.”

    “Most of them won’t open to the public,” Walker said. “You’ll have to sneak in.”

    Caridad scoffed. “Easy.”

    Vi nodded. “If all else fails, we can climb the building and claim it’s a record attempt or something.”

    They seemed serious. John shook his head.

    “There are too many high-rises for that,” Bartowski protested. “Even if we limit us to Skyscrapers over 300 feet, we have several dozens to check.”

    “Well, we have to start somewhere,” Caridad retorted. “And it’s not as if Vi and I have something better to do. Other than patrolling, of course,” she quickly added with a glance at Brown-Smythe.

    “Of course.”

    “Well…” Bartowski cleared his throat. “Does the altar have to be under the open sky? Like on the mural?”

    “We don’t know. It could just be artistic license,” Brown-Smythe said. “Further study is needed to determine that with any degree of plausibility.”

    “Well, until you do, we could start on the high-rises where you could place such an altar under the open sky.”

    “I think sacrificing people on your balcony would attract attention,” Bane commented.

    “In Sunnydale it wouldn’t,” Grimes said, chuckling.

    “We aren’t in Sunnydale,” John snapped. This wasn’t the time to make stupid jokes.

    “They might not have needed to sacrifice anyone so far, not with the pyramid available to produce their cursed powder, and the possessed to murder in Coyolxauhqui’s name,” Brown-Smythe pointed out. “They might have counted on only needing one such public ritual to summon or free their patron.”

    If they had the ritual under the open sky, they would be vulnerable to air attacks. A predator drone could loiter for hours, ready to blow the cultists sky-high. Would. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t get permission for that even if they managed to explain their need without revealing magic and demons. It would be too visible. And there would likely be too much collateral damage as well.

    Pity. John would’ve liked seeing a bunch of possessed bastards getting blown sky-high with a couple of Hellfire missiles.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, April 2nd, 2008

    This time, John’s security system caught Caridad before she managed to reach his window. His improvements were working. “Come in,” he said just as she was reaching for the window.

    He could see her freeze for a second, then pout and roll her eyes - though not directly at the camera. Good.

    “You placed new motion detectors?” she asked as a greeting when she climbed in.

    He grunted in reply.

    She huffed in return. “Alright, don’t tell me.” Then she sighed and flung herself onto his couch, hitting hard enough to make it slide a few inches.

    John winced - if that had left scratches on the hardwood… He blinked. What did he care? This was just a cover.

    “Did you already finish your patrol?” he asked, even though he knew that she hadn’t; they had left the base an hour ago.

    The Slayer snorted. “I’m on my patrol. Checking up on the guards on the way.”

    He nodded in agreement. Morris and Flores were capable and had been cleared, but it was always better to verify yourself. And keep an eye on them - no one was born a traitor, after all.

    She wriggled a little, on her back, and he clenched his jaws when her thin shirt started to stretch over her chest. “Have you picked a first objective?” he asked, checking his security system on his laptop.

    “Objective?”

    He didn’t need to glance at her to know she was smirking but did so anyway. Proper terminology was important. “Did Bartowski finish his list?”

    “Chuck’s still working on it,” she replied.

    The moron should be working faster.

    “Why do you still call him ‘Bartowski’? Everyone calls him ‘Chuck’.”

    Everyone else was Bartowski’s friend. Or pretending to be his friend, in the case of Bane. John scoffed.

    She huffed again. “You trying to keep your ‘professional distance’?”

    She must’ve talked with Walker. Or, perhaps, Bane. “Someone has to,” he replied before he could think of a better argument.

    “Why? You trying to be a Jedi?”

    “What?” He stared at her. A Jedi?

    “You know, no attachments, no possessions - the material kind, I mean.” She looked around. “The apartment would fit a Jedi. Or a monk.”

    He scoffed. You had to be ready to leave at any moment. Too much stuff would only slow him down. And this was a cover, anyway. “I’m no monk.”

    “I know.” She flashed a wide, toothy grin at him.

    Of course she would. Slayer senses. Goddamnit.

    Her grin faded. “But why are you trying to keep your distance? The Council doesn’t have such rules.”

    He knew which kind of rules she meant. “Perhaps they should have,” he retorted.

    “Now you’re talking like a monk.” She scowls. “And no, we shouldn’t.”

    “Personal… drama can ruin a mission,” he said. ‘Drama’ was the word, wasn’t it? Among her generation, at least.

    “Yes, but trying to remain celibate won’t avoid drama - it will just lead to pressure and problems. Abstinence doesn’t work; ask any teenager.”

    “I’m not a teenager any more,” he said, dropping the pretence that they were talking about Bartowski.

    “You’re a man,” she shot back with a grin. “You never really stop being a teenager in that area until you’re dead.”

    That wasn’t true - but she probably thought that it was. John had met most of the Council, after all, and they certainly could do with a few more rules other than ‘don’t die’.

    She sighed, probably at his lack of response. “You know, none of us will live forever.”

    He grunted - he knew that. Sooner or later, the odds caught up with you.

    “And I know it’s not some religious thing with you,” she added with a scowl.

    He didn’t wince, but he flinched. A little. That night with Faith had been a stupid mistake. He was tempted to tell her that it had just been sex, nothing else - which was the truth, anyway - but what if she offered the same? Goddamnit.

    “You know, age is just a number.”

    And that was a meaningless saying. Age mattered. It slowed you down. Experience could only do so much to compensate. He grunted again.

    “Buffy’s among the oldest Slayers ever recorded.”

    Summers wasn’t even 30. He pressed his lips together. “But you used to be alone,” he said after a moment. “You aren’t alone any more.”

    She scoffed. “And we’re spread out all over the world. It’s not always the apocalypses that get you - sometimes, it’s just bad luck. You slip up. Or you literally slip. And some vamp gets lucky and eats you. And you’re alone when dealing with a vamp or two.”

    There were Watchers. And Vi’s ‘brief visit’ was turning into a remarkably long stay. John didn’t mention either. “And if you’re involved with someone, the odds of making a mistake increase.” It was a weakness.

    She glared at him, then huffed and left.

    He needed a shot.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 3rd, 2008

    “But I need detergent!”

    “This is detergent, ma’am.”

    “But not the brand I need!”

    “There’s no difference to speak of between the brands.”

    “That’s not true! I need the special formula!”

    “I can see that, yes.”

    “Are you mocking me?”

    “No, ma’am.”

    “I want to see the manager!”

    “He is currently busy, but the assistant manager is right over there. The guy with the white shirt.”

    John shook his head as the stupid woman marched over towards Bartowski. Another victim of advertising. He shouldn’t have returned to work just yet. His bruises were still hurting. Not in any debilitating way - he could move as he needed, or he wouldn’t be here - but it was a constant annoyance. Like customers.

    Especially like certain customers, he added when he spotted Detective Thompson between the pans and cutlery aisles. The man wasn’t too good at acting as if he were here to shop, even though as an experienced cop, he should be, so this was likely deliberate. Some stupid attempt to make John nervous?

    He snorted. The cop would need to do much better than that. And he should know it, too - Thompson would have, by now, realised that they had government backing. And local cops never won against the government. Perhaps it was some attempt to soothe Thompson’s wounded ego?

    Time to nip that in the bud.

    He went over to the cop and bared his teeth at him. “Can I help you, officer?”

    “Detective,” the man snapped, then pressed his lips together and glared at John.

    “Not for much longer if you keep this up.”

    “What? Are you threatening me?”

    “Yes,” John replied in his best bland sales clerk voice.

    “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

    Goddamnit, one of those. John shook his head. “Don’t try us.”

    The cop met his eyes for a second, then scoffed and turned to leave the store.

    John watched him go.

    “Casey!”

    He rolled his eyes before turning to face Bartowski. “What?”

    “That was the third complaint today from a customer!” Barowski shook his head. “What’s going on? Not even you are usually that bad.”

    “Thompson’s making trouble.”

    “What?”

    “The cop,” John explained. “He doesn’t like the coverup.”

    “Oh. That cop.” Bartowski nodded. “And he’s harassing you?”

    “He tried.” John grinned for a moment. “But he’s digging. Snooping around.”

    “Oh. That could be a problem. Is a problem.” Bartowski looked concerned, then frowned. “But what does that have to do with the customer complaints?”

    “Nothing.”

    Watching Bartowski look at him with his mouth open for a second, before huffing made John’s morning.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 3rd, 2008

    “If the cop’s a problem we can get him fired,” Bane said, shrugging in her seat at the main table.

    “He isn’t the type to stop investigating because of that,” John told the spy. Thompson might probably become a worse problem if he wasn’t any more constrained by being a cop. And eliminating him would make waves - Thompson would have talked to some of his colleagues. A cop, even a recently fired one, dying or disappearing would attract a lot of attention - cops looked after their own.

    “Reassigned, then.” Bane grinned. “To some shitty job.”

    “Uh… wouldn’t that make him even more determined to come after us?” Bartowski asked. “You can’t exactly reassign a member of the LAPD to Alaska or something.”

    “I could have a talk with him,” Caridad proposed with a grin. “Show him the nightlife. That should shut them up.”

    It would be amusing, John could admit that.

    “I think that’s a little extreme,” Bartowski said. And he had that expression that meant he wouldn’t budge. Spoilsport. “But what about having one of our contacts at the LAPD talk to Thompson?”

    Ah. The Council’s contacts. Of course they would have people in the local police department cleaning up after the Slayers.

    “It might get them into trouble,” Caridad retorted. “Remember Lockley?”

    “Lockley?” Walker asked.

    “Former cop,” Caridad replied. “She worked with Angel but got fired when she stepped on too many toes. Or attracted too much attention or something - it was before our time.”

    John looked at Bartowski.

    “Uh… I was at Stanford,” he replied.

    “We weren’t involved back then,” Grimes chimed in. “It was Angel’s town, so to speak.”

    “And he botched it,” Caridad said.

    “That’s a little unfair, Bartowski retorted. “He didn’t have the Council backing him.”

    “So?”

    “Let them handle Thompson,” Walker said. “They have experience with wrangling cops who are looking into things they shouldn’t, right?”

    “Uh… they should. I think.” Bartowski shrugged.

    “Yes,” Grimes agreed. “And if it doesn’t work, Caridad can scare him.”

    “Yes!”

    John wasn’t convinced either attempt would be enough to get Thompson off his back, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.

    There were always more direct alternatives if this didn’t work out.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 3rd, 2008

    “I heard you were sick. Are you all better?”

    He managed to avoid clenching his teeth. Hernandez had backed off after the hobo attack, and she had to attend some mandatory courses at Buy More Corporate, but his absence and cover of having been sick probably gave her the excuse needed to make another attempt to worm her way into their confidences.

    “No. It was just a brief bout of the flu.” He bared his teeth at her, but, of course, that didn’t deter her.

    “Are you sure?”

    “Yes.” He growled a little.

    She flinched. Good acting. “I just thought you might’ve had to return - we don’t get many sick days, do we?”

    As if she didn’t know. He shrugged. “I’m fine.”

    She nodded. Slowly and reluctantly. Just as a concerned co-worker with a slight crush would. “So…”

    “Hm?”

    “Nothing. I just… I haven’t seen Caridad around. Not as much as usual, I mean.”

    Ah. “The Wienerlicious reopened,” he told her.

    “I’ve been there. Did she reduce her hours?”

    “I don’t know,” he lied. Between patrolling and checking high-rises, there was not much time for waitressing - Caridad probably only came to the store to gorge herself on the free food.

    “Oh.” she looked surprised for a moment, then the hint of a smile showed up.

    Goddamnit. He had given her an opening - she thought they had a falling out. Not that there was anything to fall out of, anyway.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, April 3rd, 2008

    “So, Hernandez’s back,” Caridad announced as she raided his fridge.

    “Yes.” He finished his dinner before the Slayer could steal the last of his fries.

    “And she thinks we had a falling out.”

    John narrowed his eyes - he hadn’t told her that.

    She grinned at him over the growing sandwich she was assembling on the counter. “She talked to me at the store, asking after you. She wasn’t subtle enough.”

    “That’s her cover,” he replied. “Naive nice girl.”

    “Chuck thinks she’s genuine. She attended all the lessons at Buy More Corporate.” A spy would, of course. “Apparently, that’s not normal,” the Slayer went on. “Something about the courses being just a way to scam more money out of the franchises.”

    He hadn’t heard about that, only that it was a new thing - John didn’t have to take them, and he doubted that any of the resident morons had ever taken any courses, either. Unless they were ‘fumbling 101’ and ‘advanced messing up paperwork’. It didn’t matter. He shrugged. “It fits her cover. And if she is an exemplary employee, she’ll get away with more should her mission require it.”

    “So she’s a suck-up.” Caridad frowned.

    “She’s a spy playing a suck-up,” he corrected her.

    “A spy so good, Chuck and his father couldn’t crack her cover.”

    “Yes.” The Bartowskis weren’t perfect. They made mistakes or failed at something. No one was perfect.

    But Caridad didn’t look as if she shared his views. “Well, spy or not, she’s annoying.”

    He shrugged again. Dealing with such situations was part of the job if you were a spy.

    “Are you going to go Mata Hari on her?”

    “What?”

    “You know, like Bane.”

    Oh. He shook his head. “That would give her access to the apartment. And cut into mission time.” And it was hard to keep up a cover when you were intimate with someone.

    And he knew his limits - he’d failed Roan Montgomery's course on Infiltration and Inducement of Enemy Personnel twice.

    “Good.”

    He grunted in response. After a moment, he asked: “How did the search go?” He already knew the answer - if Caridad or Vi had found anything, he would have been told.

    She sighed. “Nothing. All the buildings I visited were clean - as expected,” she added with a scowl. “They might be high-rises, but they aren’t, you know, real high-rises.”

    But they were easily accessible for a Slayer. The taller buildings needed more planning. And, perhaps, a spy. “Still need to check them.”

    She pouted at him, then started eating her sandwich - John was reminded of a documentary he had once seen of a shark tearing into a dead whale.

    “You know,” she said, after finishing off half his fridge, “perhaps I should go Mata Hari on her.”

    “What?”

    “Hey, she’s got a crush on me, too. I might play along to see what I can find out.”

    Oh for… He shook his head. “She’s a trained spy. You aren’t.”

    “Right.” She grinned for some reason.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 4th, 2008

    “Thank God it’s Friday!” Grimes announced.

    John rolled his eyes and ignored the moron. The weekend only meant that they’d have to adjust their timetables for investigating certain high-rises to take the tenants’ changed schedules into account. He had to watch out for Fulcrum spies and keep an eye on Hernandez.

    “Thank God it’s Friday!” Grimes repeated himself. “The weekend beckons! Freedom from drudgery awaits us!”

    “It’s nine in the morning,” John spat. “Get to work.”

    “After four days of gruelling work, a mere eight hours until freedom is nothing!”

    “The real work starts then,” John replied, despite knowing he shouldn’t talk to the moron. Or about the mission.

    “That’s not work, that’s a calling!”

    Before he could set the fool straight, he spotted Big Mike leaving the staff area. And at this time of the day, that meant something was up.

    Great.

    “Team meeting, everyone! Breakroom!”

    John suppressed a sigh as he followed the moron and the other idiots into the far too small breakroom.

    “Alright!” Big Mike started, then frowned. “Where’s Jeff?”

    “Install job,” Bartowski told him.

    “Does that mean we can leave whatever this is about to him?” Cody asked.

    Big Mike shook his head. “No. I need responsible people for this. This is important.”

    John could see how most of the morons relaxed at once. They knew as well as he did that there were very few responsible - or sane - people here.

    “So, can we leave and you tell Chuck what to do?” Cody asked again. “I was on my lunch break.”

    “It’s nine am,” someone hissed.

    “Yeah… I mean… I started my morning break.”

    “No, you stay. This is important information. If Chuck needs more people, it’s good to be informed already.

    Lester raised his hand. “Err… and if we’d forget everything you tell us as soon as we leave this room? You know, hypothetically?”

    “Chuck, you’ve got your first volunteer.”

    “Uh… thanks?”

    “Wait, we have to volunteer? First rule in the army: Never volunteer!” Cody said. The man wouldn’t even have been recruited by the Air Force, John thought.

    “You know how volunteering works in the Buy More: I volunteer you,” Big Mike said. “And you just volunteered as well.”

    “Aw, no!”

    So much for picking responsible people.

    “Anyone else want to volunteer? If not, shut up and listen!”

    “...you primitive screwheads,” John heard Grimes mutter under his breath. Moron.

    “We’re expecting a very valuable electronics delivery tonight,” Big Mike went on.

    “Crusader Assassin on PC! Yes!”

    Big Mike rolled his eyes. “Morgan just volunteered as well. But yes, it’s a game. Unfortunately, someone mixed up the orders, and so we’re getting the French version.”

    “What?”

    “I don’t speak French.”

    “How could that happen?”

    “Always the French!”

    “It’s a French game.”

    “What?”

    “Shut up!” Big Mike bellowed. The morons shut up. “Anyway - so, I’ve organised an English manual. All you’ve got to do is to open every case, put the English manual inside, and reseal the case. After you copy the manual, of course.”

    “Uh…” Chuck grimaced. “How many copies do we expect?”

    “A thousand. And we’ll be starting the release tomorrow morning. I’m not going to lose a single customer to the competition! The Beverly Hills Buy More missed out on this - they’re only getting the game next week. This is a scoop, folks!”

    “Oh. That would…”

    “You’ll work through the night, if needed.”

    “Uh… ok.”

    John sighed. Well, even with the morons ‘helping’, it shouldn’t take too long for Bartowski to sort this out.

    “I volunteer as well!”

    He groaned. Hernandez. Of course she would jump at the opportunity. And Bartowski wasn’t alert enough - or suspicious enough - of her to be on his guard. Goddamnit.

    John raised his hand. “I’ll help.”

    He glared at Bartowski - the moron shouldn’t look surprised.

    Then he glanced at Hernandez. She was beaming at him.

    She was a very good actress, as he already knew.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, April 4th, 2008

    “Hernandez is coming too?” Caridad snarled between munching down two hotdogs.

    John nodded as he took a bite out of his own.

    “How dare she!” the Slayer added.

    “Guys! Can we at least consider the possibility that she’s simply a nice girl trying to make friends at work and leaving a good impression with the manager?” Bartowski asked. Moron.

    “Or with the assistant manager,” Walker added - showing so many teeth as she smiled that even Bartowski realised that she wasn’t happy, either.

    “Oh, come on, guys! We’ll be handling video games!” Bartowski protested.

    “A perfect opportunity to catch you off-guard,” Bane pointed out.

    “Don’t worry, we’ll protect you,” Grimes said.

    “Perhaps I should come as well,” Caridad said.

    “We can handle Hernandez,” John said.

    “I could handle her, guys - if she were a spy.” Bartowski frowned.

    John rolled his eyes and finished his hot dog.

    “Really? She’s very good at playing the nice girl next door. What would you do if she made a pass at you, all fluttering eyes and blushing?” Bane asked.

    “Turn her down, of course,” Bartowski replied with a glance at Walker.

    “And then she’s all sad, but tries to be brave, nods - you can see the tears gathering in her eyes - and turns away. Then you see her shoulders tremble, hear the sniffling, and follow her around the corner to comfort her - and walk straight into her trap.” Bane had to be speaking from experience. “Taser to the chest. Or a knife. Perhaps she waits until you hug her - all platonic like - and slips a stiletto through your ribs…”

    “Uh…”

    “Perhaps the delivery is a trap,” Walker said. “If they know about the Buy More, they know Chuck’s usually handling such things.”

    “Deliveries? That’s the first time I have to do this,” Chuck said.

    “Shit jobs Big Mike doesn’t want to do himself,” John explained.

    “Oh.”

    “I’ll be around when the delivery arrives,” Caridad said.

    “What about your patrol?”

    “This is more important.”

    John agreed, of course.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 4th, 2008

    “To spend Friday evening doing overtime while! It’s a crime against humanity!” Cody whined sitting on a crate in the loading dock area.

    John gritted his teeth. One more complaint from the moron, and he’d… No. That would give Hernandez leverage. He focused on the latest Guns & Ammo issue he was reading.

    “And what would you be doing if you hadn’t annoyed Big Mike into volunteering you for this?” Grimes asked with a grin that belied the fact that he had done the same.

    “Eating dinner, of course. Not...” Cody waved a half-eaten sandwich around. “...this!”

    “What’s wrong with the sub? Big Mike bought them for us,” Grimes replied. “Free food! Don’t diss it.”

    “It’s his favourite sub. Not mine.”

    “You’ve still eaten most of it.”

    “I was hungry.”

    “Guys, cut the complaining!” Bartowski arrived, carrying a stack of manuals. John clenched his teeth when he saw that the moron had let Hernandez follow him with another stack. You never left an enemy at your back if you could help it!

    “Yeah!” Lester joined in. The man was struggling with his own stack and as John knew him, would have complained the loudest on the way.

    Hernandez, of course, played the shy but earnest new girl and simply smiled at everyone. Goddamnit. And where was Caridad? John needed some not-fooled backup.

    Cody grumbled, then blinked in a particularly stupid way. That meant he just had a thought. “Say… can we take a copy of the game? Each?”

    “No,” Bartowski replied. “Do we have to go over what ‘employee discount’ means? Again?”

    “I mean buying a copy, of course!”

    “No,” Bartowski replied. “It’s not due to be released today.”

    “I could wait until midnight! No one would know!” Cody protested. “Please!”

    “You’d brag about it on the message boards as soon as you were home,” Grimes chimed in.

    “No one would know that it’s me!”

    “Your handle is ‘CodyBurbankBuyMore’,” Bartowski pointed out.

    “Yeah, and who’d guess that I’d actually work at the Buy More?” The moron smiled. “Hiding in plain sight!”

    “That’s not how it works with morons,” John snapped. “Moron!”

    Cody gasped, but didn’t dare to talk back to him.

    “Why did you pick that nickname?” Hernandez asked after a moment.

    “Big Mike gave me a game for free if I picked an advertising nickname,” Cody told her.

    “From the discount bin,” Grimes added.

    “It’s a free game! You don’t diss that!”

    “Dude, there were only Sims expansions left when Big Mike made the offer.” Grimes shook his head.

    “I like The Sims,” Hernandez piped up, causing another awkward silence.

    Bartowski cleared his throat. “So… everyone knows what to do?”

    “Yes,” Grimes replied at once.

    “Waiting until the delivery arrives?” Lester asked. When everyone gave him the evil eye, even Cody - though Hernandenz pretended to be surprised - he hunched a little. “I mean, yes, of course we know.”

    But Bartowski was going over the procedure again.

    John sighed.

    “We’ll help carry the palettes inside to the repair area, where we’ll split up. Casey will use the cutters to open the boxes, Lester and I will put the manuals inside, Cody will use the shrink wrapper to reseal the boxes and you will put the price tag on it,” Hernandez said with a smile.

    “Exactly,” Bartowski told her, smiling as well. Moron.

    “Why do I have to use the wrapper?” Cody complained, but everyone ignored him. Even Hernandez.

    And where was the damn delivery? It was fifteen minutes past the announced time. There shouldn’t be traffic jams at this time of the night.

    Ah, there. He spotted the cones of lights from the parking lot, growing as the truck drove towards them.

    Finally!

    The truck took the last corner - John shielded his eyes - and then stopped next to the loading ramp. In the wrong position.

    He narrowed his eyes. The driver could just be inexperienced. The new guy, getting the shit jobs. Or this could be something else.

    He watched the driver getting out, stumbling. Or the guy could be drunk or high.

    “Yo! Here’s your manure!”

    Bartowski, who had been walking towards the guy, stopped. “Manure?”

    “Yeah, two palettes full of grade-a organic fertiliser. Prime shit!” The man laughed loudly at his own joke, even slapping his thigh. “Weirdest cargo I’ve ever driven so far.”

    New and stoned. John clenched his jaws.

    “We’re expecting computer games, not manure.”

    “What? I’ve got your order here! Buy More, Gardening, manure!”

    “What? Give me that!” Bartowski grabbed the sheet the stoner was waving around. “That’s the Beverly Hills Buy More! You mixed up the orders!”

    Goddamnit. John just knew this would be trouble.

    “Beverly Hills Buy More?” Cody and Lester all but yelled.

    “Hey!” The driver protested. “They didn’t complain, and they would’ve noticed a mixup!”

    “Of course they didn’t complain,” Bartowski said, sighing. “They can get fertiliser easily. The game is not out yet, and we were the only store in the city to sell them tomorrow. And now, Beverly Hills gets them as an exclusive…”

    “No way!” Lester shook his head. “On our honour as Buy More Burbank employees, we cannot let this travesty of justice stand!”

    The other moron nodded rapidly. “We have to get the games back!”

    “Guys…” Bartowski sighed again. “They won’t give us the games. By the time we’ve sorted this out, they’ll have sold all of them. Sorry, but it seems that Big Mike’s wrangling of our suppliers didn’t pay off this time.”

    “No! If they won’t give us the games back, then we’ll take them!” Lester snapped.

    John drew a hissing breath. The idiots couldn’t be thinking…

    “Yes! Let’s gather the others and storm the place!” Cody joined in.

    “Uh…” Bartowski held his hands up. “Wait guys! Wait! You can’t storm the other store!”

    “Of course we can!” Lester replied. “It’s the middle of the night, so they won’t have enough people present.”

    “Yes,” Cody agreed. “And those who are present won’t be their best - they’ll be the dregs of the store, those who couldn’t get out of punishment duty.” The moron nodded emphatically before he noticed that everyone else was staring at him. “What?”

    Bartowski cleared his throat. “Look, this isn’t war. This is just a mix-up of the delivery company. You can’t storm the other store - that’s illegal. Trust me.”

    “Sometimes, breaking the law is the only way to restore justice!” Lester raised his chin.

    “Yes!” Cody chimed in. “You have my staple gun!”

    “Guys! You can’t do this,” Bartowski said through clenched teeth.

    “We can and we have to! This is about more than games now - this is a matter of honour and pride!” Lester retorted.

    “It’s a team building exercise!” Cody added.

    John wished he could just shoot the idiots. Wait. He cracked his knuckles and bared his teeth at the morons. “You can’t plunder a store if your legs are broken, can you?”

    “Uh…” Cody paled.

    “Err…” Lester swallowed. “Casey, my man… what are you saying? Doesn’t your blood boil at the thought that the fruits of our honest work were stolen by backstabbing lowlives? Could you let this pass?”

    Of course he could.

    “They’ll laugh at us! They’ll sneer and jeer!” Cody said. “We won’t be able to show our faces on the Buy More Net for months if they manage to sell our games!”

    John rolled his eyes as Bartowski blinked. “Wait a minute… you bragged about this, didn’t you?”

    “Well, I had to explain why I couldn’t make our raid!” Cody defended himself.

    Grimes took a step forward, both hands raised. “Look, guys, I completely understand the issue - I hate it as well - but we really can’t just storm the other store. They’ll send us to prison if we do, and the jeering and sneering will be even worse.”

    “No one will know!” Lester protested.

    Even Bartowski rolled his eyes at that. “Really? None of us will post in the Buy More Net about it?”

    “Err…” the other moron grimaced.

    “Prison, Lester,” Grimes added. “Showers. Dropping soaps.”

    Lester blinked, then gasped and shook his head almost violently. “You’re right, we can’t do this! I can’t become a prison bitch!”

    “Good,” Bartowski smiled. “Now, everyone, go home and get some sleep. I’ll lock up here and I’ll explain things to Big Mike tomorrow.”

    “And what about the fertiliser? I can’t take it back!” the driver cut in.

    “Drop it off here,” Grimes said. “It’s evidence.”

    John scoffed at that, but if the idiots wanted to handle shit, they were free to do so.

    Ten minutes later, the stoned driver had finally managed to leave the area. Cody and Lester had vanished as soon as it had become clear that there was heavy lifting to do. John would have words with the two morons tomorrow.

    “Thanks, guys,” Bartowski said, wiping his hands. “And thank you, Morgan, for stopping that. If Lester had actually managed to get the others riled up enough to storm the place…”

    “Sure thing, Chuck.” Grimes grinned. “Can’t let them do that.”

    “Such a shame that the Beverly Hills guys will profit from this, though,” Bartowski said.

    John snorted. The mission took precedence. Even though he understood the sentiment.

    “Oh, they won’t!” Grimes said.

    What? John narrowed his eyes at him.

    “Morgan?”

    The other moron was beaming. “Of course we can’t let them get away with this! But storming the store isn’t the answer. We’ll wait until they’re done with the display and gone home, then sneak in and switch the games with the fertiliser!”

    John opened his mouth to tell the moron off, but someone else spoke up first: “That’s a great idea!”

    That was Caridad. From… John turned and saw the Slayer drop from the roof. “Sorry for being late,” she announced. “Something came up.”

    John grunted. Of course, she would arrive right now.

    “Uh… It’s still breaking and entering,” Bartowski said.

    “Only if you’re caught!” Caridad announced.

    “Breaking and entering?”

    John hissed. That was Hernandez! With all the insanity going on, he had forgotten about her. Goddamnit, that was a rookie mistake!

    “Uh… in a manner of speaking. We’re actually all Buy More employees,” Bartowski was saying, “and it is our goods that they took. Recovering it wouldn’t actually be stealing.”

    John didn’t think a judge would agree as easily, but Hernandez nodded as if she shared Bartowski’s opinion. “Just… you didn’t want the others to do it…”

    “I didn’t want them to storm the store like a plundering horde, beat up the other employees and grab who knows what together with the game boxes.” Bartowski was getting better at bullshitting. “It’s different if we’re just in and out without doing damage or stealing anything.”

    “Yes,” Grimes added. “We’ll even bring their own delivery to them.”

    “We’re nice like that,” Caridad added with a feral grin.

    “Alright then.” Hernandez smiled as if she were convinced but still a little nervous.

    She really should become an actress.

    “Alright!” Bartowski spoke up again. “So… Morgan, get us a delivery truck from the carpool. We’ll load the manure into the back, then drive up to Beverly Hills and check out the scene.”

    “We’ll show them!” Grimes agreed.

    There was no point in trying to stop this stupidity. That would only let Hernandez gather even more intel. John gritted his teeth. And he had to go along so the spy wouldn’t use the opportunity to stab them in the back - even Caridad seemed caught up in this farce.

    Goddamnit.

    *****​
     
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 7: The High-Rise
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 7: The High-Rise

    California, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Buy More, April 5th, 2008

    “How long did those idiots need to set up the display?” Grimes complained. “It’s past midnight already, and they are just leaving! Did they try out the game already?”

    “Important is that they’re leaving now,” Bartowski replied, not lowering the night vision binoculars. They weren’t proper spy gear, but stuff taken from the Buy More hunting section - as if it would fool Hernandez.

    John scoffed, then glanced at the spy in their midst. She, too, was looking at the Buy More, but she was acting as if she didn’t know how to use the binoculars, fiddling with the settings every few seconds. Hah!

    “Yes,” Caridad agreed. “So, what’s the plan?”

    “We check if all of them have left, then enter through the back, grab the games and load them into the van - after unloading the manure, of course,” Grimes told her.

    “Sounds good,” the Slayer said. “I’ll go check on the store, then.” She stood and moved to the rear of the van, easily clearing the two fertiliser crates.

    “How are you doing that?” Hernandez asked before Caridad could open the rear doors. “Checking, I mean.”

    John shook his head as the Slayer froze for a moment. “I’ll climb up and look through the skylights.”

    “Ah. You can climb that well?”

    “Heh! I could climb a high-rise. If I wanted to, which I don’t.”

    “Wow.”

    “She’s very athletic,” Bartowski said.

    “And very fit,” Grimes added.

    “Oh.”

    John tried to ignore the stupid talk and followed Caridad’s approach to the store. She was simply walking up to the store, then past it before turning into the small passage between the Buy More and the next building. Not exactly inconspicuous, he noticed. She was wearing too sensible clothes to be a party-goer on the way home or to another party - and a little too fast and steady on her feet, too. A spy would have noticed her.

    But she was on the roof before John noticed her up there. Probably jumped half the way, he thought, frowning. And he knew she could move through forests without getting spotted, better than any special forces.

    “It’s clear - no lights left inside,” she reported. Over her cell phone, of course - with Hernandez, they couldn’t use the radio; the Buy More walkie-talkies were worthless even for this farce.

    “Alright,” Bartowski replied. “We’ll be moving to the back with the van, then.”

    John had already started the engine. Five minutes later - he took a detour, to make it appear as if they came from the closest highway; no sense in not being professional even though this wasn’t a real mission - they pulled up at the loading ramp in the back. Same layout as at their Buy More.

    Caridad was already there, grinning. “They left the backdoor open,” she said.

    John was sure that she had climbed in through a skylight, but Hernandez might be fooled - civilians made such blunders all the time, especially the kind of employees the spy was now familiar with at the Buy More.

    “Great!” Bartowski commented, along with Grimes’s “Idiots!”.

    John sighed. “Let’s do this,” he spat. “We don’t have all night.”

    “Actually…” Grimes started to say. John glared at him. “...never mind! Let’s do this! Time’s a wastin’, guys!”

    The moron was actually first to grab a pallet lifter for the manure, helped by Hernandez. They almost crushed a stable of small planters, but they managed to get the fertiliser into the store.

    “Drop them there - we’ll get them once we have the boxes in the van!” Bartowski ordered.

    “That wasn’t very nice,” Caridad whispered into John’s ear.

    He shrugged. “I’m not nice.” And he was still recovering from the kidnapping, but he wasn’t a wimp who’d point that out.

    She snorted. He didn’t know what she meant by that. “Not going to help them?”

    “I’m the driver.” He looked at her. “You’re not going to help them?”

    She shrugged. “I don’t want to accidentally show off.”

    Ah.

    “It’s not as if I would, you know - I don’t. But… you never know. Sometimes you slip. If you’re tired, or impatient…”

    “And if you forget that Hernandez is watching,” he said.

    “Yes.”

    “She’s good fading into the background,” he went on.

    “Yes.” She scoffed. “And at playing the nice girl.”

    He grunted in response.

    She suddenly cocked her head, then grinned. “Morgan’s not happy with the way they set up the game display. Apparently, they spread them out instead of forming one big pyramid.” She shook her head. “This will take a little longer than planned.”

    He muttered a curse under his breath.

    “What’s wrong?” she asked, looking around.

    “We still have to pack the English manuals into the boxes,” he told her.

    “Oh.”

    “Yes.” That would be a long night.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 5th, 2008

    “This is cruel and unusual punishment! We worked through the whole night, and this is our thanks?”

    John rolled his eyes - Grimes had been whining for hours. At least the moron was too tired to do it loudly, so it was more of a background noise, and it wasn’t as annoying as to force John to intervene before he went mad.

    “It’s unconstitutional, that’s it!”

    Enough was enough. John clenched his teeth and glared at Grimes as he grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and lifted him off the stack of hoovers that the moron was using as a seat. “Shut up!” he hissed, “or I’ll show you what unconstitutional actally means. Do you understand?”

    The moron had some trouble talking with his collar wrapped in John’s fist but managed to nod. Good enough.

    John let him go and went back to surveillance. The game boxes were disappearing like beer in a field exercise. And that meant he’d have to be on the lookout for thieves. There was always a scumbag who tried some redistribution of property.

    “Hey!”

    John sighed. Shut up one moron, get another. He turned and caught Lester walking towards him.

    “Hey! That’s… those are our games!”

    “No shit, Sherlock,” John replied.

    “But… they were delivered to the Beverly Hills Buy More!”

    “No, they weren’t,” John told him with a glare.

    “Yes, they were! I was there, remember? We just got shit instead. Their shit. How come they are here now?”

    “How come you’re late to work - two hours?” John asked.

    “I had to go to Beverly Hills first to get a game, but they didn’t have a single box!” the idiot told him. “And now I discover that I could’ve saved me all the trouble?”

    “Yes.”

    The idiot gaped at John. “But… how? No, not how - you must have broken into the Beverly Hills Buy More and stole them back. That was my idea!” Lester shook his head. “You can’t just steal all the glory from me like that! My plan, my reward!”

    “The boxes were delivered to our store as ordered,” John told him - slowly and with a glare so the idiot would get it. “No one went and broke into another store to recover a delivery. Understand?”

    “Err…”

    John bared his teeth and stepped closer.

    The idiot started nodding rapidly. “Yes, yes, I understand! We didn’t get shit, we got the games we ordered, and no one broke into anywhere!”

    “Good,” John spat and turned his attention back to the display.

    “But did you put a box aside for me?”

    John took a deep breath and struggled not to accidentally mistake the guy for a shoplifter.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, April 5th, 2008

    Caridad didn’t look tired in the least, John noted as they ate lunch in the Wienerlicious. And she had been up as long as John and the others - probably longer, even. Or she was just better than John himself at hiding the signs.

    Unlike Grimes and Bartowski. And, unless she was faking that as well, Hernandez. Grimes was asleep, his head on the table next to a half-eaten hot dog. Bartowski kept dozing off and waking up with a gasp and an apology to Walker. The whole thing had stopped being funny ten minutes ago. And Hernandez was curled up on the bench, apparently asleep.

    “So, Big Mike must be satisfied. Did you tell him that I helped?” Caridad asked as she sat down at the table with a plate full of sausages and buns.

    “No,” John told her. “You were late, remember? We were already done with the delivery when you arrived.”

    “What that’s… Oh.”

    The pouty frown she gave him was amusing. Until he failed to completely suppress a yawn of his own.

    “You should head home. Take the afternoon off,” she told him. “You’re still healing up.”

    He gave her a glare, then glanced at Hernandez.

    “From when you slipped and fell down in your shower,” Caridad added, not altogether convincingly.

    “I’m fine,” he told her. He could sleep in the evening. Speaking of… He kicked Grimes in the shin.

    “OW! What? Wha?” The moron looked around with wide-open eyes.

    “I thought you could spend the night gaming and would be fine in the morning,” Caridad said between emptying her plate. “Growing old?”

    “I still can play all night,” Grimes said. “But moving fertiliser and game boxes isn’t the same. It’s tiring work!”

    John scoffed. A little manual labour built character. Any recruit knew that.

    He only noticed he was yawning when it was too late.

    Goddamnit.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, April 6th, 2008

    On Sunday, John woke up at 0600. That was as it should be - sleeping in was for wimps and civilians. But he had gone to bed Saturday evening, as soon as he had arrived home after a frustrating afternoon and a shift at The Castle without anything to show for. He had fallen asleep without eating dinner, even.

    Pressing his lips together, he made his way to the kitchen. At least he felt better now - his wounds were healing and the bruises fading.

    Then he noted that the dishwasher was slightly open - he always closed it fully. And he didn’t remember using it last evening, anyway.

    Someone had been in his apartment last night.

    And he had a good idea who it had been. A check of the fridge confirmed his suspicion: It had been raided. Although Caridad apparently had had the decency to leave a sandwich for him inside, already made.

    Unless this was a trap, and someone had observed her visiting in the evening, then had broken in and left a poisoned sandwich for him… No. John had been so out, he hadn’t noticed them, so they could’ve poisoned him directly. Unless they hadn’t realised that. Watch Caridad to find out how to enter, then break in once the Slayer had left, play it safe…

    He scoffed and grabbed his phone. Only one way to find out.

    Did You Leave A Sandwich?

    The reply came in less than a minute.

    Yes. R U up?

    He shook his head, both at the atrocious grammar and the inane question.

    No. I’m texting in my sleep.

    This time, it took a little longer for her to reply

    Ha ha. OTW.

    Oh.

    He looked down. He was wearing boxer shorts from yesterday and an old tank top that had seen better days. And he hadn’t showered since yesterday morning.

    Goddamnit.

    *****​

    She was sitting on the edge of the kitchen counter when he stepped out of the bathroom, one towel around his neck and another around his hips.

    He ignored her wolf whistle and went straight to his bedroom.

    “Should have waited - I could have helped you shower.”

    He ignored that joke as well. But not how she had stared at his body. He was in good shape. Good enough to impress a supernaturally strong and tough woman young enough… well, not young enough to be his daughter. If he had a daughter.

    Dressed in a polo shirt and slacks, he returned to the kitchen, where Caridad was turning a dozen eggs into breakfast. He grabbed the sandwich from the fridge and sat down at the counter.

    “Feeling better?” she asked as she filled a plate with enough eggs to clog the arteries of two people.

    He grunted in response. She had seen him, hadn’t she? Stared, even.

    “Good.” She started devouring the eggs. “Nothing new on the temple hunt, by the way. Neither Vi nor I found anything suspicious - well, nothing demony; there was that concealed telescope aimed at a bathroom across the street.”

    He snorted. “A telescope? Must be a peeping Tom. A private eye would use a camera to take pictures.” As would a spy.

    “Ew.” She scowled as she finished the eggs and started on the toast. “I didn’t think of that. It looked like a surveillance setup.”

    He shrugged. Sometimes, a spy caught people having fun. It was usually good for leverage. Sometimes you arranged it.

    She stared at him, then frowned and grabbed another slice. “So, you gonna be checking high-rises yourself? Now that you’re back?”

    “Today?”

    “Got anything else planned?” she retorted with a slight smirk.

    “No.” And they’d lost enough time - there was an apocalypse to stop, after all.

    “Good. I’ve got Chuck’s list for today.” She stood and stretched.

    He ignored how she managed to draw attention to her body as she did so. Mostly. “Shouldn’t you be in bed by now?” He clenched his teeth at the unintended innuendo - she would have come straight from a patrol.

    “I can sleep later. Or in the car.” Her smile grew a little more. “Although if your bed’s comfortable, perhaps we could delay the mission a little…”

    He snorted. “I’ll get the car.” And his gear.

    “You’re no fun,” she complained.

    Ten minutes later, they were driving towards the first building on the list. Bartowski had done a decent job there - the high-rises were grouped geographically and according to their size. The man was a good analyst. Now if only he had the attitude of a good spy...

    He glanced to his right. Caridad had dozed off already. Either she was more tired than she had let on, or she could sleep whenever she wanted. Well, that would be useful for a Slayer, wouldn’t it? Like a cat.

    Though sleeping, her head leaning against the safety belt, she didn’t look like a Slayer. She looked like just another young woman who had stayed up too long in town. Dressed to party, too, he added with a glance at her thin top.

    Then he focused on driving. He was a spy. A professional.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 6th, 2008

    “I’m in the elevator.” She sounded a little excited. Even though she had done this several times before, as far as he knew.

    “Tell me once it reaches the last public floor.” He stepped up to the circuit board. The uppermost floor was a private penthouse, presumably for the CEO of the firm renting that particular high-rise.

    “Gotcha.”

    There were the breakers. A short interrupt would take out the security system for a few seconds while the generators came on. Enough for Caridad to slip out of the cabin without being noticed by the cameras. A fatal flaw in an otherwise decent security system - the firm having it installed must not have had good consultants. Or they’d decided that a tamper-proof power supply cost too much to justify the added security.

    Fools.

    “The cabin stopped.”

    John hit the breakers. The dim light here in the cellars went out at once, followed by the humming of the generators starting up. At least that worked as advertised.

    “I’m up and opening the lift doors.”

    “Good.”

    The light came back, which meant the cameras would be working again as well. He checked the feed on his laptop wired into the system. Yes - the uppermost public floor was clear, as was the lift.

    “I’m inside,” she whispered. “Uh… someone’s here. I can smell them.”

    There shouldn’t be anyone there - the owner, a banker named Raphael de Marco, was on vacation in Europe. John started to grin. If they had found the bastard trying to revive a blood goddess… “Check the bedroom,” he said. This was a rather low high-rise, none of the skyscrapers, but if the enemy had been trying to play it smart and keep a literally low profile...

    “Ew.”

    “‘Ew’?” What did she mean? Another orgy?

    “Someone partied hard - living room’s got a dozen empty beer cans lined up on the couch table around.”

    “How many?”

    “I only smell one person, though.”

    That was odd. “What kind of beer?” he asked.

    “Bud Light.”

    John wouldn’t have expected someone living in a million-dollar apartment to drink cheap beer, but it wasn’t improbable.

    “I’m at the bedroom. One guy’s in bed, asleep.”

    He could hear the guy snoring. “Is it de Marco?”

    “Not unless he suddenly grew younger and shorter.” Caridad joked. “Also, he smells like a brewery.”

    Ah. “See any ID around?”

    “Ew.”

    “What?”

    “The guy mustn’t have changed jeans since last year. And… Ugh.” Caridad sounded disgusted. It seemed supernatural senses also had drawbacks.

    “According to the driver’s license in his wallet, he’s Enrique Martinez.”

    John quickly checked the data on his laptop. Ah. “Janitor and house services.”

    “Oh. Does his employer know that he’s partying in the penthouse when the owner’s away?”

    Of course not. He sighed. “Nothing demonic?”

    “No. The only evil thing here is the stench of stale beer. And no altar hidden near a skylight or the terrace. Looks like a bust.”

    “Yes.” Another dead end. Too bad. “Exfiltrate and meet up in the garage.”

    “Sir, yes, sir!”

    He rolled his eyes at her flippant tone but couldn’t help smiling for a moment.

    *****​

    Three hours later, they had checked two more high-rises without success. They were starting to run out of the smaller high-rises. And they had run out of snacks.

    “Let’s hit a street vendor,” Caridad said. “I need some calories.”

    John switched lanes. He knew better than to starve a Slayer. He stopped at a hot dog cart at the next corner.

    “We’re supporting the competition now?”

    “Call it market research,” he replied as he got out of the car. It wasn’t as if a stand here was a competition for Wienerlicious in Burbank.

    She laughed and joined him. “For that, you’re paying!” Then she blinked. “That goes on your expense account, right? Saving a city is what spies are supposed to do, isn’t it?”

    “The general would want to know what platoon we’ve recruited if we send her your snack bill.” And she’d have them committed if they’d mention magic, of course.

    “Hey! I need a little more food than you, but not that much!” Caridad had an adorable pout. It only lasted for a moment, though, before her nostrils flared and she turned to look at the hot dog cart with an expression that reminded John of a starving mountain lion. “Oh!”

    Even the teenager behind the cart must have noticed since he stopped looking at her chest. “Uh… how can I help you, Miss?”

    “Half a dozen hot dogs! With everything you have!”

    John paid. A happy Slayer was a better Slayer. Or something.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 6th, 2008

    “Had any luck?” Grimes asked as soon as they entered the base.

    John rolled his eyes. As if they wouldn’t have informed the others immediately - and started surveillance on the location.

    “No,” Caridad said. “But we discovered that we don’t need to fear the hot dog competition.”

    “What?”

    Caridad chuckled. “John took me to a hot dog cart downtown.”

    She didn’t have to make it sound like a cheap date.

    “Ah.” Grimes shook his head. “No dice here either.”

    “Guys! Guys! Come! I think I’ve got it!”

    That was Bartowski. John frowned and moved towards the main room. He reached it just as Bartowski was showing a map of Los Angeles on the main screen.

    “Chuck?” Walker didn’t sound as if she had any idea - it looked as if Bartowski either flashed - and how would he flash on a supernatural subject? - or had had an inspiration.

    “I went over the translated text again, and I noticed that they mention the angles of the sun and moon,” Bartowski started what sounded like a lengthy and unnecessary explanation. “So I ran the data from the pyramid through a simulator.”

    “A simulator?” Grimes interrupted him.

    “Yes. It’s originally being used to simulate the shadows large buildings cast,” Bartowski replied. “So, you can simulate all sorts of weather and sunshine accurately all year round, though I had to adjust the data a little to compensate for some imprecise formulas.”

    “Oh, they got sloppy?”

    “Probably just met the specs and decided it was good enough. But I had to replace the sun with the moon, which required a whole new set of formulas and took me some time.” He slapped his thigh. “But, since I was still a little handicapped…”

    John rolled his eyes and gritted his teeth as the morons derailed the briefing.

    “Chuck?” At least Walker was on the ball. As soon as the moron looked at her, she nodded at the map behind him.

    “Oh, right. Sorry.” He cleared his throat. “So, long story short, I ran a simulation and checked the time when the moon would shine on the altar in the desert while aligned with the temple - and with the altar.”

    “Ah.” Walker nodded. “And then you ran it for all the buildings in Los Angeles?”

    “Well, I started with my list, and correlated it with the data from the pyramid in the desert, and so…”

    “Can you get to the point?” John growled.

    “Uh…” The moron was staring at John as if he had hit him or something. “Right. Long story short,” he repeated himself, “I found the buildings that are perfectly aligned with the pyramid and would be in the moonlight at the same time under the same angle as it is. The pyramid, that is.”

    “That’s great, Chuck!” Walker told him with a sappy smile.

    “Yeah, Chuck!” Grimes added.

    “How many buildings did you find?” Caridad asked, smiling as well.

    “Well, it turns out that the city planners had been really precise when putting down the grid, so…” Bartowski’s proud smile faltered when he met John’s eyes glaring at him. “Uh… these ones!” He quickly added and highlighted half a dozen buildings on the screen.

    John checked them against his own list. All of them were good security high-rises. He grunted. That was good work, even though Bartowski needed to learn how to keep a briefing short and clear.

    “So… tonight, we hunt!” Caridad said, grinning.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 6th, 2008

    “Watson & Sons, huh?” Caridad said while looking up at the building.

    “An old investment firm. Well, it’s an investment firm now. They started as a bank, but they changed focus during the eighties,” Bartowski said. “But it’s an older firm among the investment firms.”

    John grunted. Investment firms were all the same - young greedy bankers making a fortune with other people’s money. Like in a casino, the bank always won in the end.

    “It’s mostly offices - a few of them rented to other firms - but, they have a special VIP lounge on the top floor. According to the invoice from the firm that built it, there’s a fitness centre, a jacuzzi, a wet bar…”

    All you needed to relax after a long hard day of stock market speculation. John snorted.

    “So… how are we gonna do this?” Caridad asked. “If we can get a grappling hook over the railing on top, I could easily climb up.”

    “And you’d be easily seen as well,” John pointed out. And even a Slayer would be an easy target dangling from a building.

    “Well,” Bartowski said, “I originally wanted to use my cover as Charles Carmichael again, but the VIP floor is apparently limited to the management of the firm.” He grinned. “So, we’ll have to break in.”

    John hoped the moron had a plan. Breaking into a normal high-rise wasn’t very difficult, but if the cultists were behind this, and had control of the investment firm, then the security would be much better than usual. And how couldn’t they have control of the firm if they were using the place for their sacrifices? People would notice, after all - John didn’t think for a moment that a bunch of investment bankers and their management would accept being locked out of their VIP lounge for any reason. Although there was probably some magic spell for that…

    Goddamnit.

    “So give me a minute, and I’ll hack the security system,” Bartowski went on.

    It took him more than a minute, of course. John had learned long ago not to trust such estimates.

    “Alright, I’m inside… Oh. The lounge got a separate security system,” the nerd said.

    “Either to hide their sacrifices or their orgies,” John said. Probably both.

    “Ew,” Caridad commented. “That’s not sanitary.”

    “I’m sure they clean up between, uh, orgies and murders,” Bartowski replied. “Wait a minute… unless they clean up themselves, they must have suborned the cleaning staff as well!”

    Investment bankers, cleaning up after themselves? John snorted.

    “Who’s the assigned janitor?” Walker asked.

    Bartowski hit a few keys, and a picture appeared on the screen of his laptop. “Juana Rodriguez.”

    John craned his neck to check the picture. The woman didn’t look pretty enough to be anything other than a cleaning woman for investment bankers.

    “So… we check her instead of breaking in?” Caridad sounded almost disappointed. But it was safer - they didn’t have a Watcher with them to deal with possible curses or whatever.

    “She’s due to arrive soon, so we can check her for demonic possession or control in the garage, can’t we?” Bartowski asked. “I’ve got the codes to enter.”

    “Codes? They use those number pads?” Caridad asked.

    “Well, no, they use badges, but I can spoof the signal,” Bartowski said.

    “Do it,” Walker told him.

    John was already gunning the engine. A few minutes later, they pulled up in a spot in the garage of the building while Bartowski was still explaining that they wouldn’t show up on any records. “And now we just have to wait,” the nerd finished.

    John sighed. The moron should have known better.

    *****​

    “I could’ve been up on the roof and down again in the time we were sitting here,” Caridad complained, not for the first time.

    John rolled his eyes. Slayers apparently didn’t do well when it came to patiently waiting.

    “If we catch Rodriguez, we’ll get her badge and can easily access the lounge,” Walker explained - again.

    “And that’s a good thing since I haven’t been able to hack the lounge’s security,” Bartowski said. John glanced over his shoulder and saw the nerd was looking up from his laptop, for once. Bartowski must have caught his glance since he added: “It’s not connected to the net, so I’d need access to a sensor.”

    John grunted. That was self-evident. And a smart decision on the part of the firm - another sign that they were at the right spot. Usually, investment bankers loved all that online stuff.

    “But it’s boring. And what if the cleaning woman is already up there, mopping up blood and sweat and tears?” Caridad shifted on her seat, tense. Almost coiled. She was licking her lips, too.

    “Uh… her car’s not here?”

    “She could’ve come on foot for a change,” the Slayer retorted.

    “All the way from the South?” Walker asked.

    “Perhaps she had some dinner date or something, drank a little and left the car at the restaurant?” Caridad said. John narrowed his eyes at her, and she pouted. “All I’m saying is that waiting isn’t the best course of action. We should strike.”

    “We need more intel,” Walker countered.

    John grunted in agreement, which made the Slayer frown and pout at him. He met her eyes - did she expect him to side with her against common sense and experience.

    Huffing, she crossed her arms under her chest and pointedly turned away to look at the empty wall to their right.

    Then the garage door opened, and a battered New Beetle drove in. That was either a nostalgic banker with no taste for cars, or Rodriguez. Caridad was trembling with anticipation now, John noticed.

    It was Rodriguez. The woman got out of her car and started walking towards the lifts. Caridad nostrils flared.

    “Caridad?” Bartowski asked.

    “Something… faint, but something.”

    “Take her down!” John said.

    A moment later, Caridad was out of the car and sprinting towards the cleaning woman. Rodriguez was still turning, surprised, when the Slayer reached her. And then the cleaning woman was on the ground, unconscious.

    Caridad sniffed her, then carried her back to their car. “She smells like the guys who kidnapped Casey.”

    “Call the others,” Walker said. “We’ve found the temple.”

    *****​

    “We should storm the place. They might be performing a sacrifice right now.”

    Of course, Caridad was chomping at the bit. Couldn’t wait for the others to arrive. “The plan was to scout until we found the location, then hit it with all our forces,” John told her.

    “We’ve got enough. Last time, you soloed the entire group. I just got to mop up a cripple.”

    Was she jealous? “I was lucky,” he said, gritting his teeth.

    “I can take a priest and a few lackeys.”

    “Uh, what if you get hit with a curse? Or the blood powder?” Bartowski chimed in. “That would be bad.”

    Caridad growled at the moron. “I’m not going to fall for the same trick twice!”

    “Of course not,” Walker cut in, “but the more we are, the safer we are.”

    “And it’s easier to subdue our enemies without hurting them. Much,” Bartowski added.

    “The priest would be a goner anyway,” the Slayer said. “And the others - like her - aren’t tough.” She nodded at Rodriguez, bound and gagged in the back. “They’ll be expecting her, and wondering where she is.”

    “Not many worry about the cleaning lady,” Walker pointed out.

    “And we don’t have to rush in,” Bartowski tried again. “It’s not yet time for their sacrifice. Morgan and Kirsten will be here soon, and Phil and Vi a little later.”

    Caridad scoffed. “We don’t need them.”

    Yes, John thought, definitely jealous. They would have to… He narrowed his eyes as another car entered the garage. “Take cover!” he snapped, ducking down.

    Bartowski made a surprised noise - Walker must have dragged him down.

    “Guys! Guys!”

    Or he’d flashed.

    “What, Chuck?”

    “That was Benito Molina! A Mexican hitman!” Bartowski blurted out. “I, uh, don’t think he’s visiting the empty offices…”

    John didn’t think so, either. Certainly not with three guards. He must be meeting with the cultists. Probably was a cultist.

    Goddamnit.

    “They wouldn’t be coming for nothing, would they?” Caridad asked.

    “Perhaps a meeting, or something.”

    “Or a ritual. A sacrificial ritual!” Caridad said. “We have to go”!

    She was out of the car before John could stop her.

    Cursing, he went after her.

    Attacking a bunch of possessed cultists and cartel killers - this was exactly the kind of situation he hated.

    Caridad was already at the lift. She stared at the raising numbers for a moment, then started up the stairs. “I’ll stop the lift before it reaches the top level,” John heard her yell.

    Bartowski was already panting behind him. His wound must have made the moron stop training. “Stairs,” John snapped, then followed behind Caridad.

    “Really? Stairs?”

    “Come on, Chuck!”

    “I’m still not a hundred per cent fit!”

    “Shut up and run,” John told the moron. He grabbed his headset and put it on as he cleared the first basement floor. “Status?”

    “They’re not stopping!” Caridad complained. “I passed them and pushed the lift button, but the lift didn’t stop!”

    That was to be expected if you went to the top level - wouldn’t want to have a potentially embarrassing meeting in the lift, would you? “Stop on the floor below the top,” he told the Slayer. “Bartowski, make sure that they can’t see us on the cameras. We’ll take the lift as soon as it’s free.”

    “Gotcha!”

    “Uh… sure… wait a minute!”

    John slowed down. There was no point tiring yourself out rushing to the top if you couldn’t catch your enemy.

    They reached the floor below the lounge a few minutes later by lift. Caridad was waiting outside.

    “Do you sense anything?” Bartowski asked.

    “Smells demony.”

    That was to be expected. “I’ll need some more time to break through the security system here,” Bartowksi said.

    “No time!” Caridad said, baring her teeth.

    “We’ll blow the door open,” John added.

    “What? But…”

    “They won’t call the cops,” John said as he went up the stairs. “And the building’s empty - no one but them and us will hear the blast.”

    “Uh, but…”

    John ignored him and placed a small charge at the door’s lock before he rushed down the flight of stairs to take cover. “Plug your ears!”

    Then he triggered the explosives.

    The door was blown open in a cloud of dust and smoke, and Caridad charged up the stairs and dove into it.

    Shots rang out before John reached the top. He couldn’t see through the cloud, but he heard Caridad curse. Followed by more shots. Automatics.

    He dove through the dust cloud before it had settled, rolled over his shoulder and came up next to the wall in the hallway. There was a body on the floor - one of the cartel killers. Knocked out. But where was Caridad?

    In front of him were more doors, all of them open.

    Walker reached him, covering the other side, followed by Bartowski. Both had their pistols drawn. John hoped that the Intersect had kicked in. He didn’t like their odds.

    He didn’t like the chanting he heard from the front even less. But the shooting came from the same direction.

    If anyone was hiding in the side rooms, this would be a perfect ambush. But Caridad must have rushed through already.

    “I’ll take left!” John snapped, then ran forward. As he passed the first open door, he kept his pistol pointed at it. Locker rooms.

    “Right!” Walker replied, doing the same on the other side.

    No one shot at them, though. Nor when they passed the next set of doors. Jacuzzi.

    Then they reached the main part of the lounge - the actual lounge. John peered inside and cursed.

    Someone had dropped a smoke grenade in the room. Probably Caridad - he could hear shooting and fighting noises.

    A burst of autofire - Uzi, he recognised the sound - stitched a line of bullet holes into the wall next to him, and John dropped to the floor. The chanting hadn’t stopped, yet. Someone was about to get killed. Sacrificed.

    And as the Council liked to say, that would be of the double-bad.

    “We need to stop the sacrifice!” Bartowski, crouching behind John, exclaimed.

    “I’m trying!” they heard Cariad over the radio. “But they’re tougher than expected.”

    Another burst of autofire ripped up parts of the wall on the other side.

    “And they don’t care about hitting their own guys!” Caridad went on, followed by a hiss of pain.

    Goddamnit.

    John rushed forward, into the smoke. He kept his head low as he ran, managing to avoid bumping into an overturned seat, then ducked behind a couch.

    More shots. But no one among the enemy seemed to say anything. Other than the ominous chanting. Like the kidnappers.

    He rolled over the couch and pressed himself to the floor. A figure stumbled into his view, and he put two bullets into its leg. The man fell, and John followed up with two to the now visible head.

    No mercy for cartel killer, possessed or not.

    Besides, they were shooting at Caridad.

    He speed-crawled forward - the safest way with still at least two scumbags shooting into the smoke. The thinning smoke, he corrected himself. Good ventilation - he could feel the breeze. No, someone had opened the balcony doors.

    Then the chanting stopped.

    A moment later, the entire building shook.

    *****​
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 8: The Hand
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 8: The Hand

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 6th, 2008

    Fuck.

    John was already on the ground, so he didn’t have to keep his balance. Others, though, did. One man stumbled into his line of fire, and John almost put a round into the guy’s head before he realised that he wasn’t one of the cartel killers but possibly under a spell.

    Well, getting kneecapped wouldn’t kill the guy. John squeezed off two shots, and the man went down screaming. He was tempted to headcap the bastard - the kidnappers hadn’t made any sound while under the spell - but a kick to the head while he crawled past would suffice. It did.

    The smoke was now almost gone. John popped up behind a couch and glanced around. Caridad was fighting in close quarters with Molina. Two cartel killers were down, where was the last one… ah. Walker and Bartowski had taken care of that one, on the other side of the room.

    And the building was still shaking. And something was shining brighter than the sun on the balcony. John moved towards the door to the balcony, shielding his eyes with his hand - if he was blinded, he was an easy target, and there were more enemies around than the cartel killers. That hadn’t been one voice chanting, but several.

    “RAHHHH!”

    And that was the sound of several people screaming as they charged at him. John started shooting at knee-height, dropping two before he had to throw himself to the side to avoid the others trampling their fallen comrades to rush him. But those bastards were fast. John managed to roll over the shoulder and come up in a fighting stance, but two were already pouncing.

    He grabbed the arm of the first and threw him into the wall only for the second to hit him in the back. Once more, he rolled forward, over his shoulder - grunting at the pain that caused - but didn’t stand up. Instead, he dropped and rolled to the side.

    As expected, the man had already been moving and hit the ground where John had been a second before. He kept rolling, managing to reload his pistol, then ended up on his back.

    The guy was charging him, but three more bullets in the legs turned the charge into a fall. John still had to jump up to avoid the flailing fists of the screaming cultist, and that did his hurting back no favour.

    But with a ritual completed and a possible apocalypse starting, he had no time to worry about that. Walker and Bartowski were fighting with the other cultists. Caridad had disarmed Molina and was subduing him. Slayers.

    John pushed himself on and moved towards the door. Was the light dimming, or was John getting used to it? No, it was dimming. And the building had stopped shaking. Good. Dying in a collapsing highrise… no.

    He reached the door and cursed. There was a dead man in a feathery costume on the altar. And there was… “Van Vleck!”

    The banker was holding what looked like a torn hand to… the stump of his own arm? And it was… growing together?

    John raised his pistol and fired. Two shots to the chest, two to the head. All of them hit. None of them did anything as far as he could tell.

    Van Vleck was laughing like a hyena. Had the madman cut off his own hand? John emptied the pistol into the man, aiming for the eyes, as he charged onward. If he managed to push the monster over the railing… A drop from this height should do the monster in.

    Van Vleck was still laughing, bullets dropping from where they were expelled from his skin, blood flowing. But John had almost reached him when his pistol ran dry. The former broker drew his good arm back, telegraphing a haymaker, and John dodged to the side, letting the arm pass over his head, then planted his foot in van Vleck’s stomach.

    The man was thrown back - but not as much as John had hoped. Too tough, and too… whatever. He lashed out with his leg, but John was already rolling further to the side. At least the bastard had stopped laughing.

    And van Vleck hadn’t used his new hand, John realised. And there came Caridad.

    “Hit the left hand!” John yelled.

    Van Vleck turned, but the Slayer was already in his face, knife flashing.

    A hand dropped, and van Vleck screamed.

    The man grabbed his bleeding stump with his good hand and was about to turn when Caridad’s next stroke sliced his throat open, cutting off his shriek and most of his neck. The man stumbled back, gargling, wheezing noises coming from his cut throat, then toppled over the railing.

    No, John realised. The bastard had pushed himself over the railing!

    He rushed forward, Caridad beating him. Van Vleck had hit a car below, or so it seemed. And…

    “He’s still moving!” Caridad spat.

    John saw that she was gripping the railing as if she planned to jump after the guy. There was blood on her leg, but she didn’t limp. He tapped his radio. “Group two, possessed jumped from the roof. Still moving. Stop him.”

    “Cut off his head!” Caridad yelled.

    “Vi here… we’re almost there! Morgan! Can’t this thing go faster? I could run faster!”

    Well, that didn’t sound too promising. John aimed his pistol at van Vleck - the bastard was still alive, but the fall must have hurt him - but reconsidered. Bullets hadn’t done much at point-blank range. At this distance, they wouldn’t do anything the impact hadn’t done already.

    “What happened?” Bartowski asked.

    “The other cultists are down,” Walker reported.

    “Van Vleck. He cut off his hand and replaced it with the demon hand here,” Caridad told them, pointing at the floor. “Then I cut it off, and he jumped down.”

    “Uh.” Bartowski grimaced.

    “He’s still alive,” the Slayer said. “Or as alive as he can be. Didn’t smell like a zombie, but… He’s not human any more.”

    “Existing?” Bartowski said. “And, uh… I think people noticed the light and the fall…”

    “Car alarm went off,” Caridad said. Then she gripped a chair in the corner and moved to the railing.

    “That means the cops will arrive soon… what are you doing?”

    The Slayer threw the chair. “Stopping him from getting away.”

    The chair hit the crawling man but didn’t stop him. If John had a sniper rifle, he might be able to… but they needed to move before the cops arrived. “Should’ve brought rappelling gear,” he muttered.

    “Uh… so, how do we transport the demon hand?” Bartowski asked. “I don’t think we should be touching it.”

    “Really?” Caridad knelt down next to it, then jumped back when the hand suddenly moved towards her. “Hell!” She lashed out with her knife, skewering the hand and staking it to the floor.

    “I suggest a cage or solid box,” Walker said, in a rather dry tone.

    John snorted and went looking for a box. They didn’t have… “Microwave.”

    “Good idea!” Caridad ripped it out of the wall behind the bar and then used the knife to fling the hand inside.

    Bartowski brought duct tape to wrap around the microwave. Soon it looked like a mummified oversized football. That would hold the thing.

    “Let’s go!” John said.

    “What about the cultists?” Bartowski asked. “They’re under a spell.”

    “The police will grab all of them,” Walker said. “Four Mexican cartel killers, shot to death? They won’t let anyone go who was obviously involved.”

    She was correct, of course. The cops would assume this was a cartel meeting attacked by rivals.

    “We still need to break the spell,” Bartowski said.

    “Phil can do that once we’ve dealt with the hand,” Caridad replied, already at the lift. “Hurry!”

    “We’re retreating,” Bartowski informed the others.

    John refrained from correcting the moron - they weren’t retreating! They were returning to base, mission accomplished.

    “We lost the possessed,” Vi said.

    “How?” Caridad all but yelled into the radio. “He was crawling!”

    “Blood trail ends at the street. Must have had a car coming for him,” Grimes said.

    “I hate it when they have minions and escape plans,” Caridad complained. “We should’ve rushed them earlier. We could’ve stopped them! Stopped the sacrifice!”

    “We didn’t know that then,” John retorted. “And they killed one of their own - looked like the counterpart of the guy from the desert.” Who hadn’t survived the exorcism.

    “And we stopped whatever they were planning with the demon body part,” Bartowski added.

    “And we didn’t lose anyone,” John added.

    “Right,” Caridad agreed.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 6th, 2008

    “Fascinating. A part of Coyolxauhqui. So the legends were true.” Brown-Smythe sounded a little too interested for John’s taste as he watched the hand trying to climb the walls of the container in which it had been placed.

    “How do we destroy it?” Caridad asked. “Stabbing doesn’t work.”

    “We’ll have to try fire. And sunlight. If that doesn’t work - and, seeing as the parts weren’t destroyed in ancient times, it’s unlikely these methods would work - we’ll have to research alternatives,” the old Watcher told her. “The Council should be informed - there will be other body parts hidden in the area - and I fear the cultists are busy searching for them.”

    Caridad nodded. She wasn’t complaining about poaching, John noticed.

    That was a bad sign, in his experience.

    “Can’t we, uh, use it to find the other parts?” Grimes asked. “Parts of the same?”

    “In theory, yes,” Brown-Smythe replied. “But meddling with a demon-goddess…” He briefly winced. “I would need to take extensive precautions, I fear. And we might run the risk of the cultists using the same methods to find us. Which is another reason I would prefer to destroy the hand.”

    “We took a lot of time to find this part - and we had information on its location,” Bartowski pointed out. Not entirely wrong, in John’s opinion. “So, should we really destroy the hand?”

    “Usually, entities that were dismembered needed all their parts to be restored,” Brown-Smythe retorted.

    “You said that you don’t expect to be able to destroy it,” Bane said.

    “I said it’s unlikely that fire or sunlight will work,” Brown-Smythe replied. “Although sufficiently hot fire, in a furnace or laboratory, might do it. Or focused sunlight, like used in certain solar energy plants.”

    The Watcher didn’t sound as if he honestly expected it to work, though.

    “So, we have to guard the thing anyway, right?” Bartowski said. “If we have to, we might as well use it, then. To find the others, I mean.”

    “Or we can hand it over to the Council, and have Willow do the spell,” Grimes said.

    “It would be safe in England - provided we can find a way to safely ship it,” the limey, of course, agreed.

    “I could carry it,” Vi spoke up.

    John wasn’t the only one who was surprised at her offer. It was so obvious, the Slayer added: “Hey… free trip to London? And someone has to do it.”

    “And L.A. is my city!” Caridad nodded emphatically. “So I can’t go.”

    “Sure.” Vi’s tone didn’t fit her agreement, and the two Slayers frowned, then glared at each other.

    “‘The Slayer works alone’,” Brown-Smythe sounded he was quoting someone - and the Slayer’s pouting reaction confirmed it. “So - shall we organise this trip? Before the enemy recovers enough to send a curse at the hand or its holder?”

    “Uh, yeah,” Bartowski said, “that would be a good idea.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 7th, 2008

    John wasn’t one of those morons who moaned about Mondays after wasting their weekends, but he still was a little sore from the mission. And he hadn’t slept overly long, either. Well, he had been worse off during missions. Or boot camp. And it wasn’t as if it was mentally or physically taxing to work in the Buy More.

    He spotted Jeff and Lester on his way and frowned. This was early for the morons - usually, they didn’t show up until nine. Oh - they were talking to Hernandez. Probably trying to chat her up but only managing to alienate her.

    He almost grinned. If she was a spy - and she was - then she would have to act as if she were too nice to hurt her co-worker’s feelings. And Bartowski wasn’t around, yet - he had had an even longer night, having to organise Vi’s trip. So, Hernandez couldn’t hope for her white knight to appear.

    On the other hand, he knew very well how damned aggravating those two morons were - and they weren’t hitting on him. If he were a woman, and they had tried this on him… He frowned. If Hernandez decided to improve the working environment by getting rid of the two morons, things might escalate. She had to know that they knew that she was a spy. And that she’d be a suspect if anything happened to a staff member. She’d have to change tactics if she started something.

    Hell, he had to intervene.

    Gritting his teeth, he made a beeline for the group. Hernandez spotted him, and he saw her eyes widen and a smile appear on her face. She was good.

    The morons didn’t notice until he stepped between them and reached out to grab a shoulder of each of them.

    “Morning, morons.”

    Then he squeezed.

    “Ah!”

    “No! Uh! Mercy!”

    Both flinched and whined.

    “Shouldn’t you be doing an instal job or something this morning?” John asked.

    “Actually, no we...AH!”

    “Yes, yes… an urgent install jog. We have to go nowAH! Please!”

    He released them, and they almost collapsed.

    “Go!” he snapped.

    They stumbled away, rubbing their shoulders. “This is… clerk brutality!” Lester complained as soon as they had gained some distance. John glared at him, and the moron ran away, almost crashing into a display.

    “Thank you!” Hernandez said with a beaming smile. “I didn’t want, you know…” She shrugged.

    He grunted in reply. The spy was very good.

    *****​

    Three hours later, she approached him. “Say, Casey… are you eating lunch at Wienerlicious today?”

    John suppressed a frown and nodded at Hernandez’s question. “Yes, why?” He already knew why.

    “Do you mind if I tag along?” She flashed him a friendly smile with a hint of shyness.

    Predictable. “Are the two morons bothering you again?” he asked in return. They weren’t - they knew better. But implying that she only wanted to tag along for protection might put her off.

    “Oh, no - they didn’t bother me all morning!” Her smile didn’t change at all. “But I don’t like eating alone, and I have a craving for hot dogs.”

    Tell her off? Claim he had a lunch date? Neither would work well. If she thought her soft methods wouldn’t work any more, would she switch gears? Could he risk it? He really should just cap her in the evening and make it look like a drive-by shooting gone wrong. But the others, especially Bartowski, would be appalled. The moron didn’t realise the danger. And that would wreck the team, right when they needed to work together to stop an apocalypse.

    So he nodded. “Sure.”

    “Great!”

    He glared at her back as she turned to lead the way to Wienerlicious. Damn. This would be trouble.

    Big trouble, he added to himself as they reached the store and he could see Caridad inside, near the grill. And she had spotted him walking next to Hernandez.

    “Hey, Casey. Hi, Federica!” Bartowski was there as well. No surprise, of course. The nerd and Walker weren’t quite joined at the hip but came close.

    “Hi, Chuck!” If the spy’s smile grew any wider, she would risk a cramp.

    “Casey.” Caridad’s greeting was far more subdued. The Slayer barely nodded at them.

    “Hi, Casey, Federica.” Walker’s greeting was friendly, but John didn’t miss how she looked them over, then met his eyes for a moment.

    He shrugged in return. He wasn’t under duress or in danger. Not any more than usual, anyway.

    Walker nodded and went to sit down with Bartowski. The moron’s eyes lit up as she approached, and he smiled like an idiot.

    John clenched his teeth as he took a seat of his own. Back to the wall, good view of the front and the entrance to The Castle. Hernandez took the seat across from him. Of course she didn’t have to worry about someone attacking her from behind.

    Or, John corrected himself as he saw Caridad approaching, perhaps she did.

    “Casey.” The Slayer’s smile showed far too many teeth for John’s liking.

    “Caridad.” He nodded towards Hernandez. “She had a craving for hot dogs.”

    “Oh, yes!” Hernandez nodded a few times. “I know they’re not the healthiest lunch, but a couple of times won’t hurt, right?”

    “Not at all. I eat them daily,” Caridad said. “If you work out enough, it’s great.” She stretched for emphasis, which didn’t do the already skimpy Wienerlicious uniform any favours.

    And Hernandez’s mask slipped for a moment - John saw her glare at the Slayer. He tensed - she wouldn’t try anything here, but you never knew. Then her smile reappeared. “What do you do?”

    “I do everything. Running, climbing, martial arts.”

    “Team sports?”

    “No.”

    “Ah.”

    The two were glaring at each other for a moment - until Walker sent Caridad back at the grill after taking John and Hernandez’s order.

    Hernandez’s came out a little too well done, John noticed. Almost crispy. His own was perfect. He was halfway through his second hot dog when he saw Detective Thompson walking towards the store.

    The man glared at him and the others as soon as he entered Wienerlicious. “Mr Casey. Mr Bartowski. Fancy meeting you here.”

    “Officer Thompson.” John nodded, then took another bite of his hot dog and started to chew slowly.

    “It’s ‘Detective’,” the cop snapped.

    Casey grunted in reply. If the cop didn’t stop his private investigation - and John didn’t think the man would - he might just get demoted.

    “Hello, Detective,” Bartowski said. “Uh, fancy a hot dog?” The moron’s smile was as convincing as a teenager’s trying to hide a sixpack from his parents.

    “Why else would I enter this fine store?” Thompson retorted.

    “Because you have an axe to grind with the victims of a crime?” Caridad glared at the man, and John suppressed a sigh. This was the wrong moment to let the Slayer act, well, like the Slayer.

    “And who’re you?” The detective turned and walked over to the counter.

    “I’m their friend,” Caridad retorted. She bared her teeth as if she was about to bite the man’s head off.

    “And do you have a name?”

    “It’s on my tag,” she shot back. “Don’t tell me you haven’t stared at my chest.”

    Thompson flushed a little. “What are you implying?”

    “Detective,” Walker cut in. “If you’re not here to order or for an official investigation, please leave. You’re bothering my staff and my guests.”

    The man scoffed at her and left.

    That was probably the first smart thing the man had done today.

    Not that everyone else had been examples of smart behaviour, either.

    And Hernandez… Damn. The spy was watching the cop leave with rapt attention.

    Then she turned to face John and the others. “Why doesn’t he like you?”

    “Uh, when we were threatened by a terrorist, we kind of ran from the police, and they didn’t catch us,” Bartowski said. “I think he feels embarrassed about it.”

    “Oh.” Hernandez faked surprise. “That was the big thing we’re not supposed to talk about?”

    “Uh...huh?” Bartowski blinked.

    “The others said I shouldn’t ask you about it,” Hernandez went on. “Something sensitive.”

    How sensible of the morons, John thought.

    “Uh, yeah. It was traumatising. They shot at us, and all.” Bartowski nodded repeatedly.

    “Oh, no! That must have been terrible!”

    He had just said that - Hernandez was overdoing the naive girl act. John gritted his teeth.

    “Yes, and we really don’t like to talk about it,” Walker cut in.

    “And since we were cleared in the investigation and not doing anything illegal, sooner or later the detective will stop this,” Bartowski added with a forced smile - aimed at John.

    He snorted in return. He wasn’t planning to do anything more ‘direct’ to Thompson. Not yet.

    But if the idiot kept causing trouble? The mission took precedence. If an entire city was at risk, John would kill more than a single stubborn cop violating orders.

    *****​

    “She’s starting to annoy me.”

    John didn’t jump or gasp, even though he was startled by Caridad’s sudden appearance in the vacuum cleaner aisle. He hadn’t noticed her approaching him - and that was annoying him. He shrugged and grunted - he knew she meant Hernandez. “She’s stepping up her game.”

    “Oh, yeah. Bold of her.” Caridad nodded emphatically.

    “She won’t succeed, though. I’m aware of her plans.” It was an old ploy, anyway.

    “You better. I know her type.”

    “Although once she realises that it’s not working, she might change tactics. She might use more direct means. And she might call in help.”

    “Oh, right. More spies, you mean.”

    “Yes.” Who else could Hernandez call? She couldn’t… “She might try to use Thompson.”

    “Really?”

    He nodded. The detective did seem to be obsessed with nailing them, in John’s impression. If Hernandez offered him some ‘inside information’... “If she frames some or more of us… that would render us vulnerable.” Usually, no spy would bother with that. Not after the agency had already told the LAPD to ignore the group. But a man like Thompson… he might go for an arrest if he were deceived into believing it would hold up. Like if a witness would be available.

    “Damn,” Caridad cursed. “We have to nip that in the bud.”

    “Yes.” It seemed that Thompson had become a threat sooner than expected.

    “Err… What are you planning?” She sounded concerned.

    “Nothing, yet.” Assassinating the man would be a bad idea at the moment, but there were other means. This would require some planning.

    “Well, I’ll help once you know what to do.”

    He nodded. He could use some help keeping tabs on Hernandez and Thompson. But if it came down to disposing of either or both of them...

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Fairfax District, April 8th, 2008

    Small apartment, single, not even a pet, cheap furniture and a fridge stocked with cheap beer. John shook his head as he planted a bug in Thompson’s kitchen. No wonder the guy was so obsessed with arresting them - he probably didn’t have a life other than his job. Lots of time to spend on harassing them.

    A few pictures on the wall. Graduation with his parents. Police Academy graduation with his mother. That probably meant the father was dead or out of the picture. No girlfriend. No female touch in the apartment at all.

    John almost felt pity for the man. But he was a threat, and he needed to be dealt with. At least with such lousy security, planting some drugs or stolen loot would be easy. Bartowski or Orion could falsify electronic records, and Thompson’s colleagues would arrest him as a crooked cop. Although most of Thompson’s colleagues would know the CIA was involved, and that he was making trouble. They might not buy the story. And it might not be enough to get him off their case - but enough to get him fired allowing him to fixate on them.

    John planted another bug in the living room, then one in the bedroom.

    Killing him would have to look like an accident even to the cops - or he needed a scapegoat ready. Someone convincing and dead.

    That might be tricky.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 8th, 2008

    “We need to do something about Thompson,” John said as he entered the base’s main room in the evening.

    “The Council’s on it,” Bartowski replied, looking up from his computer.

    “They’ve been on it for days now.” John took a seat. “And now Hernandez might use the detective.”

    “Federica hasn’t done anything in weeks,” the moron retorted.

    “She’s subtle.”

    “Or she’s just a normal girl. Have you considered that?” Bartowski shook his head. “We’ve got her apartment under surveillance, and she’s done nothing.”

    “Of course not. She’s good.” The spy would expect this, and leave the bugs in place to keep her cover. And it was working.

    “Or she’s innocent. Casey! Not everyone’s a spy after us!”

    “That’s what you think.” How naive! John sneered at him.

    “That’s what all evidence points at!” Bartowski retorted. “We’ve investigated her background. I’ve tried to flash on her multiple times!” He blinked. “Uh… that sounds a little weird…”

    Walker grinned. “We know what you meant.”

    He smiled in his stupid way at her. “Uh, good. Anyway - we’ve found nothing that would indicate that Federica is a spy.”

    “That just means her cover is good.” He knew the woman was a spy.

    Bartowski clenched his teeth and huffed. “Sarah! Can you tell Mister Paranoia here that Federica is no threat? Apart from becoming a possible hostage, I mean.”

    “Attacking your own spy is an old trick to make the enemy trust them,” John pointed out. It would be the perfect way to get the morons to lower their guard - Bartowski would eat up saving a hostage.

    The moron gaped at him. “You… That’s…” He threw his hands up. “I give up! Nothing will sway you!”

    John scoffed. He couldn’t afford to be swayed. None of them could.

    “We have her under surveillance,” Walker said.

    “We have her apartment bugged,” John corrected her. They didn’t have surveillance on her, nor did they have anyone following her around. Hernandez wouldn’t conduct any spy business at her apartment.

    “And that’s creepy enough! I hope you didn’t bug her bathroom.” Bartowski shook his head, then blinked as John didn’t reply. “You did, didn’t you? Oh my God! That’s…”

    “The bathroom’s an excellent place to hide weapons and other gear,” John told him. He’d had a gun stored in his own bathroom - just in case someone attacked the place while he was in the shower.

    Bartowski blinked, looking even more stupid than usual. Walker put a hand on his shoulder. “Chuck, we won’t be doing anything without cause. But if something happens, we’ll be prepared. And if someone attacks her in her apartment, we’ll know.”

    John suppressed a snort at that. As if! “Even if Hernandez weren’t a spy, Thompson won’t give up. He’s the kind of loose cannon that will defy his superiors.”

    “Then they’ll do something about him,” Bartowski replied.

    “Suspend him?” John scoffed again. “Then he’ll have more time to come after us.”

    “We can’t just kill a cop for being suspicious of us - we are spies, aren’t we?”

    John caught Walker wince briefly. Of course they could kill a cop if it was necessary. “We could send him to the hospital,” he said. “Break his legs in an accident.” Perhaps the man’s arms, too, for good measure.

    “What?”

    “It’s less harsh than killing him.” And shouldn’t bring down too much heat on them.

    “Can we not maim people when we still have the opportunity to solve our problems without assassinations?”

    “We tried that. It didn’t work,” John told him.

    “Perhaps we didn’t try hard enough.” Bartowski was staring at him, jaw set. The moron had guts, at least.

    John met his eyes, but the guy didn’t flinch. Much. So John nodded. “Hurry up, then. We’re running out of time.”

    He could feel it in his gut.

    Grimes chose this moment to enter the Base. “Hey, guys! Vi’s called. She made it safely to England… am I interrupting something?”

    “No.” “No.” John and Bartowski said at the same time.

    “We were discussing how to handle Detective Thompson,” Walker elaborated.

    “Oh. Break his legs and send him to rehab somewhere?”

    “Morgan!” Bartowski gasped.

    “What? He might be suspicious if he wins a trip to Hawaii without actually taking part in a contest, being a cop and all.”

    John nodded in agreement. It was good to see that at least someone else was practical about the whole mess.

    “And should we break Federica’s legs as well? Because Casey still thinks she’s a spy!” Bartowski said.

    “What?” Grimes gaped, apparently shocked.

    John rolled his eyes and sighed. Grimes was still a hormone-driven moron.

    “She hasn’t given us any reason to suspect such an action would be necessary,” Walker said. Obviously, she didn’t want to alienate Bartowski about this.

    “She’s a sweet girl!” Grimes exclaimed. “I mean, like a kid sister or something,” he quickly added. “Not like, you know…”

    “We know, Morgan,” Bartowski said. “Really, sometimes an innocent girl is innocent, you know?”

    “Until she shanks you in the back,” John said with a sneer. “Remember: Fulcrum thinks you’re the key to controlling the Slayers.”

    “Uh… But she isn’t Fulcrum. She’s been working at the store for weeks now, and hasn’t done anything!”

    “That’s what spies do - they wait until the right time. Or until they get their orders,” John pointed out.

    “It’s not as if she found out anything Fulcrum didn’t already know,” Bartowski retorted. Then he blinked. For a moment, John hoped he’d flash, but it was too short. “Well, apart from Mr Black attacking us and Caridad intervening.”

    John grit his teeth - he still remembered fighting the possessed man and not being able to do anything.

    “She could have misinterpreted that,” Walker said.

    “How? Is Fulcrum looking for a secret community of homeless cyborgs now?” Grimes asked.

    That was… actually not too far-fetched. “Damn,” John muttered.

    “If they do, they might stumble on a few demons or vampires…” Walker trailed off.

    “If Federica is a spy,” Grimes said.

    “It was a public fight.” Bartowski shook his head. “Fulcrum agents observing us would have seen it - or at least heard of it.”

    “Witnesses are unreliable,” John commented.

    “But if they look into the police investigation…” Bartowski winced.

    John sighed. Another problem.

    “If Fulcrum’s observing or infiltrating the LAPD, then we can’t do anything about Thompson or we’ll play into their hands,” Walker said.

    Unfortunately, she was right.

    “Guys! Fulcrum infiltrating the police isn’t the real problem!” Bartowski shook his head. “What if an agent of theirs investigating the nightlife gets turned?”

    The guy was correct. John knew they could handle the LAPD. But vampires and other demons taking over Fulcrum?

    They had to do something. And that with the Aztec blood demon god whatever still around.

    Damn.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 8th, 2008

    “Looking for spy vampires? Vampire spies? Turned spies?” Caridad, riding shotgun in the SUV John was driving, frowned. “Even finding the right name is difficult. Finding them? Here?”

    He was tempted to ask if L.A. was her city or not. But needling a Slayer wasn’t a good idea. And not just because it hurt the team. “We have to try.”

    I have to try. A spy turned vampire is too dangerous. Spy skills and vampire strength…”

    “They’d be too dangerous for you, too,” he retorted. Caridad didn’t have spy skills. And she didn’t have the spy mentality. And if a few vampire spies were working together… “That’s why I’m with you.”

    “Me too!” Grimes piped up from the backbench.

    John rolled his eyes - briefly. He was still driving, and while he wasn’t in Afghanistan or Somalia, they were about to enter a bad neighbourhood. Those people on the corner were barely hiding their guns. Gang members on lookout duty - they were already tracking the car.

    “Err… just checking: This car’s armoured, right? Right?” Grimes asked. So, the moron hadn’t spotted the thugs as well.

    “Yes,” John said as they passed the corner. Now to...

    “Stop!” Caridad snapped.

    He stopped and looked around. What had she seen? It wasn’t dark enough so her Slayer senses would give her an edge.

    “Why did we stop?” Grimes asked, fumbling around for his crossbow.

    “That’s Sean, there,” Caridad said.

    “Sean? Really?”

    “Who’s Sean?”

    “One of Gunn’s guys,” Caridad replied. “One who stayed in L.A.” She nodded at the group of gang members. “He’s the one with the beard.”

    The guy had a moustache and was dressed like a stereotypical drug dealer - too much jewellery and expensive but ill-fitting clothes with brands large enough to double as advertising boards. Which meant he fancied himself a successful gang member. “You think he knows something,” John said.

    Caridad shrugged. “He was with Gunn when they hunted vampires. He’s keeping an eye out for the bloodsuckers, and if he can’t deal with one, he calls me.”

    “Us,” Grimes said, putting the crossbow down, beneath the seat. Where it wouldn’t be seen by a passer-by. Or a cop on patrol.

    “He called you one time. When my phone was broken.”

    “Still counts!”

    John was tempted to tell Grimes to stay in the car, but the moron would probably whine as much as Bartowski used to. Besides, Grimes wasn’t the Intersect - if he wanted to risk his life in a potential shoot-out with a gang, he was free to do so, in John’s view.

    Caridad adjusted her top under her open jacket and got out of the car. John and Grimes followed her.

    The Slayer didn’t stalk over to the group - she sauntered, her hips swaying as if she were on a catwalk. “Hey, Sean.”

    The gang member she’d addressed pushed his chest forward as if he were striking a pose for a picture. “Caridad. Morgan.” Curt nods followed.

    “Hi, Sean!” Grimes piped up.

    Then the punk stared at John. John stared back.

    “That’s Casey,” Caridad said. “Casey - Sean.”

    “New guy?” the punk who had to be ten years younger than John said.

    “Ex-Marine,” Caridad said. That was OK - it was his cover story, after all. “Went toe to toe with a couple demons so far.”

    That seemed to impress the gang member - even in the dim light, John caught the man’s eyebrows twitching over his stupid shades. “And still got all your limbs.”

    John shrugged. “Seen worse.” He had been tortured by insurgents, after all.

    Sean chuckled, then turned back to Caridad. “So, sweetie, what brings you down here?” He asked with a leer and a pointed look down Caridad’s cleavage.

    John felt the sudden urge to hit the idiot. He didn’t, though - this was posturing. Sean knew Caridad. Knew what she was. As did his buddies - otherwise, they’d been catcalling, John was sure. The only reason a bunch of low-lives wanna-machos wouldn’t bother a beautiful girl like Caridad was that they were aware she could wreck the lot of them without breaking a sweat. So, Sean got street cred as the man who was man enough to leer at the Slayer. John still would have taken the idiot down a peg or two, but they were on a mission.

    “We’re on patrol. Seen any rookie hunters snooping around lately?” Caridad asked.

    “Rookie hunters?”

    “You know, people asking after weird stuff like superstrong-hobos,” Grimes cut in.

    The punks glared at Grimes, but not openly, John noticed. And wasn’t that weird?

    “There were a few, asking questions about hobos, actually. But they weren’t hunters.” Sean shook his head, causing a dreadlock to fly in his face. “They were cops.”

    “Cops should know better than that,” Caridad said.

    “They weren’t locals. Feds, maybe?” Sean shrugged. “Haven’t heard anything about them for a few days, so they either gave up or got what they wanted.”

    “Or they got eaten,” one punk added, grinning as if that was funny.

    “Or turned,” Caridad said, glaring at the scumbag. “Undead feds, anyone? Has it been three days already since they were last seen?”

    “Shit,” another muttered under his breath.

    “Do you think they’ll come after us?” Sean asked, much of his bravado gone. He wasn’t panicking, though, John saw. A veteran, then. In the supernatural war, at least - he was no marine.

    “Not particularly,” Caridad said. “Unless you harassed them.”

    “We know better than to tweak the feds,” Sean said. “But we’ll be more careful for a while. Can’t give up the territory, but we shouldn’t be standing out in the open like this.”

    “I’ll tag the block so people know we’re not gone,” Carlos said.

    “And we hunt,” Caridad added with a feral grin. “Do you know where the feds were seen last before they stopped snooping around?”

    The punk did. They had a lead now.

    *****​
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 9: The Attack
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 9: The Attack

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 8th, 2008

    John frowned as he followed the directions of Caridad and took a left turn. The block ahead looked run-down and made the hairs on his neck stand up - he felt like entering a stronghold of Iraqi insurgents. And without air support on call.

    Well, he was with the Slayer. Less collateral damage. Quicker reactions, too. But he couldn’t help feeling that he might miss the ability to have a whole building blown up in minutes.

    “The building has been abandoned for months - that’s bound to attract squatters,” Grimes commented. “And they attract demons.”

    “Free food,” Caridad said. “No one will miss them. I’ve been cleaning out the place once a month for a while, but there’s always some bloodsucker or demon around when I return. You’d think they’d learn…”

    John parked the car at a corner - no need to look for a free spot in this area. The only cars he could see were broken down wrecks.

    “So… three days since Fulcrum’s spies were last seen. That means they’ll rise today,” Grimes explained. “Nothing suspicious in the coroner’s reports, so the bodies weren’t found. The master vamp must have buried them somewhere.”

    “If they’re trying to turn them in the first place,” Caridad said. She turned to look at John. “In Sunnydale, the vamps rose the next evening, but that was a Hellmouth. Here it takes the regular three days. And it might not work at all. Or the vamp just wanted to feed and not breed.”

    John pulled the carbine out from under the seat and quickly checked it. “You don’t think so, though.”

    She sighed. “No. We’re rarely so lucky.”

    “Well, we might be, actually,” Grimes cut in as he fumbled with his crossbow, “and we might never know since the failed attempts to turn someone never appear in any list.”

    Caridad scoffed and opened the door on her side. “Let’s do this.”

    John really felt like he were in Iraq as he got out as well and followed the Slayer. Weapons in the open, no one in sight, no idea where the enemy was holed up or what they would find.

    Although, he added, glancing over his shoulder at Grimes, who was bringing up the rear, crossbow ready, John would’ve had more backup than the moron. And he would’ve been the sniper covering the team.

    Caridad stopped at the door in front of them, sniffing the air. “Smells demony, but nothing fresh or close.” A moment later, she kicked the door open - it had been nailed shut - and strode inside.

    So, it would be a forced entry. No subterfuge. John cocked his head and grinned. Just like he liked it. Sometimes.

    The stairs looked like expected - trash in the corners, but it was clear that people - or other things - used them regularly. Caridad strode past the stairs leading up, heading to the back door.

    “Do you think they buried corpses in the yard?” Grimes asked.

    “Seen weirder,” Caridad replied as she stepped out.

    The yard was a disaster zone. More rusty wrecks, more trash, and what plants John could see were weeds. And not the kind you smoked. He stepped outside and crouched behind a beaten trash can, scanning the windows and roofs overlooking the yard as Caridad quickly moved around. He focused on the lower floors - due to the angles, anyone sniping from the upper floors would have to expose himself. But he couldn’t see anyone.

    Grimes hunkered down behind him, covering their rear, as John checked with a glance. Not entirely useless, then. Well, the moron had experience, even though anyone talking to him wouldn’t suspect that Grimes could hurt anyone other than himself if he were given a weapon.

    Still no marine.

    “Nothing demony in the ground here,” Caridad reported, returning to them. “But I caught a whiff of rotting flesh on the other side.” She nodded towards the building across the yard.

    “Rotting flesh?” Grimes shuddered.

    “Let’s check it out,” John said.

    They crossed the yard at a sprint, John clenching his teeth. If anyone was about to shoot at them, this was the best opportunity. John was good, but no one could spot every ambush. Sometimes, more often than he liked, one had to trust luck.

    But they reached the other side without incident. Caridad pushed the door open - this one wasn’t locked or nailed shut - and slipped inside. “Yes,” she said. “Definitely rotting flesh.”

    “Vulture demons letting their food ripen?” Grimes asked.

    Vulture demons? John didn’t ask.

    “Doesn’t smell like them,” the Slayer replied. “Let’s go downstairs.”

    Once they reached the cellar, John could smell the stench as well. Almost like Iraq except for the missing smell of burned rubber and gas. Behind him, Grimes gagged but didn’t fall back. They passed two rooms full of trash, then reached a room where someone had hacked up and moved out the concrete floor, exposing the dirt beneath.

    And three shallow graves. John knew the sight. Two of them, though, looked like they had collapsed.

    “We’ve got two risen vamps,” Caridad announced. “And one where it didn’t take.” She nudged the third grave with her boot.

    “We’ll have to exhume the corpse,” John said. “We need to know their ID.”

    And he needed a gas mask - the stench would be bad.

    A few minutes later, he had confirmation. The stench was bad. Even breathing through his mouth, he had to fight the urge to retch. And the memories of shallow graves and massacres that the stench brought back. But John was tougher than this.

    “Ugh…” Grimes, of course, retched, but he managed to keep from actually vomiting. One more reason not to retch himself.

    “Yeah, that’s not going to rise,” Caridad said. She didn’t seem to be affected, despite her supernatural senses, though. She pointed at the half-buried corpse. It had already started to bloat, and John could spot some maggots on it. Kneeling down, the Slayer used a stick to turn the head, revealing bite wounds in the neck.

    “Definitely a vamp bite,” Grimes commented unnecessarily.

    “Any ID?” John asked.

    Caridad pulled on a rubber glove and frisked the man’s jacket. “None.”

    That fit an undercover operation. He studied the corpse. Trained, but not too muscled. Cheap but sturdy clothes - not a hobo, but he wouldn’t have looked like a rich boy out slumming. “Any weapons?”

    Caridad pushed the jacket back, and John saw an empty holster. “He probably used it before he was taken.”

    “In another area, this might be a clue. But shots aren’t exactly uncommon here,” Grimes said.

    It was still intel. Anything could turn out to be crucial. Caridad took a few pictures with her phone.

    “No wallet?” John asked.

    “No. Vamp must have taken it - waste not, want not.” She grinned grimly. “But he got a keycard in his pocket. Best Western.”

    Not unique, but they should be able to find his hotel room. But if he had been missing for three days already...

    “We should stake the corpse, just to be sure,” Grimes said. “Or burn it - fewer questions if someone finds it.” The man pulled out a small bottle with a wick. He was walking around with a Molotov cocktail? Well, he had used a flamethrower, too, John reminded himself.

    “Less work for the coroner,” Caridad commented with a nod.

    It took a moment for John to realise that they meant less work for the coroner to hide the vampire traces. He shook his head. “This wasn’t the first time this was used,” he said, nodding at the dust-covered concrete remains. “The floor was broken up some time ago. If we stake or burn the corpse, they’ll know we found it.”

    “Good point,” Caridad admitted with a grin. “Let’s cover the corpse up and leave.”

    At least John wouldn’t have to struggle with flashbacks to burned-out vehicles.

    They swept the building but found no traces of anyone else. “Their sire must have taken them with them,” Grimes said. “Vamps wouldn’t turn someone and then leave them be.”

    “So we’re dealing with a clot of three, at least. Probably more,” Caridad said.

    “Great,” Grimes commented. “Organised vamps, and now with spy skills.”

    “They’ll probably revolt against the sire, so we might get lucky,” Caridad said. “Vamps aren’t very loyal.”

    That was good to know. But it meant that the Fulcrum vampires would sooner or later break free and contact their former allies. “We’ll have to track them down quickly,” John said.

    “We’ll have to identify them for that, first,” Grimes pointed out. “Let’s hope Chuck can help.”

    John nodded. Bartowski would better earn his money. They still had an apocalypse to deal with.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 8th, 2008

    “Elmar Clarke. Former CIA field agent, went missing six months ago. Together with a prototype improved NSA incinerator.” Bartowski shook his head, blinking. “I’ve got nothing on partners of his, sorry.”

    John grunted. It was better than nothing, but not by much.

    “We’ll have to backtrack his movements,” Bartowski went on. “But his hotel room was already cleared by the management. They didn’t find anything suspicious, at least nothing was noted down. But they passed the belongings on to the LAPD.”

    “Those guys again!” Grimes complained.

    “Uh, they are handling missing person cases,” Bartowski pointed out.

    “I know! But it’s still annoying.”

    “So, we’ll have to break into the LAPD?” Caridad asked.

    “We could,” Bartowski replied with a smug grin. “Or I could fake a requisition order for a federal case and have the belongings shipped to us. Well, to a fake address - we can pose as couriers and grab them.”

    “As long as you ensure that Thompson won’t be in the area to accidentally spot you,” John pointed out.

    “He’s working in a completely different precinct,” Bartowski told him with a frown. “But let me check his schedule!” He started to type quickly, and John used the time to check the file on Clarke. Nothing out of the ordinary - a good, experienced agent, turning traitor out of the blue.

    No, not out of the blue - he would have been recruited. The rot went deep in the agency. He clenched his teeth. They had to deal with Fulcrum. For the country, and for everyone.

    “Uh…”

    “What?” Walker asked, turning to Bartowski.

    “Thompson didn’t show up to today’s shift.” The nerd turned to look at them, grimacing. “He’s missing.

    John frowned. Then he noticed that everyone was looking at him. “I didn’t kill him,” he said.

    “Uh… that’s a rather specific denial,” Bartowski said. John glared at him, and the moron winced. “Uh… I mean, not that I want to insinuate that you might have kidnapped or crippled him…”

    But the moron just did.

    “We talked about the problems that killing Thompson would cause,” Walker said.

    Which was one reason John hadn’t dealt with the cop. But, as a glance told him, neither Bartowski nor Grimes seemed to believe that.

    “Thompson seemed to be the type to make enemies,” Bane commented. “Someone might have taken him out for unrelated reasons,”

    John nodded, but he glanced at the other spy. Had Bane done the deed? She hadn’t been particularly outspoken during the discussions about the cop, but that didn’t have to mean anything - she was a good spy, after all.

    “I don’t see when Casey could have done it,” Caridad said. “He would’ve had to skip sleeping at all last night.”

    It wasn’t the best of defences, but she was trying. Yet now the rest was wondering about them. John clenched his teeth. “I didn’t do anything to Thompson.”

    “But you were planning it,” Bartowski said.

    “Of course I was making plans,” John snapped. “I needed to be ready in case we had to deal with him.” Only an idiot wouldn’t plan ahead. He glared at the moron - why would Bartowski pick this moment to show a spine?

    “We don’t even know what happened to Thompson, only that he’s missing,” Walker cut in.

    “Cops don’t just go missing,” Bane commented. “The other cops will be investigating. And they’ll suspect us.”

    That would make finding the cultists and the vampire spies harder. Exactly what they didn’t need. And the others honestly believed John would make such a mistake? He scoffed. “We should worry about what the killer’s next move will be.”

    “We should worry about who the killer is, first,” Bartowski retorted. “If you didn’t do anything to him, and it wasn’t any one of us, then who went after him?”

    There was an obvious answer to this question.

    Bartowski gasped. “You can’t think it was Federica?”

    Killing Thompson would serve the spy’s goals. It would cause the police to investigate the group, adding pressure and hindering their own efforts. And it’d make dealing with Hernandez more difficult as well - if the spy disappeared or got killed, the cops already investigating Thompson’s fate would jump on it.

    “No killing Federica!” Grimes blurted out as if he were talking to a child. Although...

    John glanced at Bane, The woman was frowning. Was that an act, or was she jealous of the other spy? “Killing Hernandez would look far too suspicious now with the cops looking into things,” he pointed out.

    Bartowski looked confused for a moment, then frowned. “That’s not the reason you shouldn’t kill her. Well, not the most important reason!”

    “I’ll take any reason not to kill her,” Grimes added. Which wouldn’t help at all if Bane was actually jealous.

    “No one is killing anyone,” Walker said. Bartowski beamed at her.

    John rolled his eyes. Sometimes, it seemed as if he was the only sane spy in the group.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, April 8th, 2008

    “Well, I believe you,” Caridad said as they entered his apartment. For once, she had come with him after the meeting in the base instead of visiting afterwards during her patrol.

    John grunted in response. He appreciated her support, but it would make the others trust her judgement a little less.

    “Phil will believe you as well,” she added as she made a beeline for the kitchen.

    John didn’t share her optimism. Besides, Brown-Smythe was busy working on tracking down the cultists and other demon parts, supposedly soon in close collaboration with the Council. Using magic, of course.

    “Hey… you’re out of food!”

    What? He frowned and joined her in the kitchen, where she was staring at the open fridge.

    He snorted. “There’s enough food.”

    “But not the good kind of food!”

    “Organic soymilk and homoeopathic spices?” Californians had some really warped tastes.

    She giggled at his joke, “No, you’re missing pastrami and cold beef.”

    “You ate the last of either,” he pointed out.

    “Which should’ve been a sign to restock!”

    He raised his eyebrows at her. “I would’ve had to know that someone ate everything.”

    She nodded. “Situational awareness.”

    He chuckled at that and made a note.

    They ate some simple ham and cheese sandwiches - he had half of one, and she devoured five and a half. She also grabbed his last bread and remaining cheese for a “snack for the road”, but he didn’t mind.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 9th, 2008

    “Morning, Casey!” Hernandez smiled at John. She was acting innocently - as always.

    He grunted in return. The spy wouldn’t fool him - he wasn’t as naive as Bartowski or Grimes.

    “I don’t know what you did to Jeff and Lester, but they’ve been behaving perfectly,” she said, falling into step next to him as he made his way over to the kitchen implements aisle.

    He grunted again. Was that a hint? Some oblique reference? To what, though? Thompson’s disappearance? No. That would be too subtle. On the other hand, she had to know that he suspected her. That her naive facade wasn’t fooling him.

    “Are you feeling better?”

    He looked at her, frowning, and she shied away, her smile growing forced. “Sorry… I just meant… your accident.”

    Ah. He shook his head. “I’m fine.”

    “Ah, good!” She beamed at him. “I guess compared to being a soldier, this is nothing, hm?”

    Fishing for information? Fulcrum had his file. Another hint? He bared his teeth. “I was under less stress in Iraq and Afghanistan. I could shoot the enemy there.” Take that hint!

    She laughed, though it sounded a little forced. Had she gotten the message? “Oh, I can imagine! Some customers are…” She shook her head.

    “Yes.” He nodded curtly, then pointedly looked at the stack of new discounted pans to put on the shelves.

    “Let me help you!” she said.

    Damn.

    She was already bending down, and he used the opportunity to check her back for concealed weapons. He didn’t spot any - but she wouldn’t be as obvious, of course, as to bend over if that would reveal weapons.

    “Casey!”

    John glanced over his shoulder. That was Bartowski, waving at him from the Nerd Herd booth. And there was Grimes as well.

    “Excuse me,” John muttered, “It seems they need my help.”

    “No problem!”

    He grunted again and walked over to the two morons.

    “Were you ogling her butt?” Grimes blurted out. “Dude! That’s not OK!”

    Had they called him over for that? He glared at them. “I was checking for concealed weapons,” he explained through clenched teeth.

    “Uh, did you find any?” Bartowski asked.

    “No. That would’ve been stupid of her,” John replied. A good spy still checked, of course. “Did you call me over for that?”

    “Uh, no, no, actually,” Bartowski said, leaning forward. “We’ve got news,” he added in a lower voice.

    John clenched his teeth. Couldn’t he have led with that? “Yes?”

    “Uh, Thompson is still missing,” the nerd continued. John glared at him. That wasn’t news. “Uh, and they - his colleagues, fellow police officers - looked through his things and found his file on us.”

    Damn.

    “They’ll be coming for us!” Grimes cut in.

    Bartowski shook his head. “No, Morgan, they’re not - their boss stopped them.”

    “That won’t stop them!” Grimes retorted. “You know how it is - they’ll investigate on their own.”

    “Like Thompson did,” John said with a sneer. As Hernandez had planned. The cops would ask her, and she’d act all innocent and tell them how Thompson was last seen in Wienerlicious…

    “Uh.”

    The two morons were staring at him. He glared back. “I didn’t do anything to Thompson. That’s exactly what Fulcrum wants.”

    Grimes looked away, but Bartowski met his eyes. “Uh, I didn’t mean that. I just wondered… whoever took out Thompson might try to frame us?”

    That was basic spy stuff. John nodded. “Exactly.” He pointedly glanced at Hernandez.

    “Are you sure that this isn’t just an excuse to spy on her?” Grimes asked.

    John rolled his eyes at the stupidity.

    “We’re already spying on her,” Bartowski said.

    “We are?”

    The nerd nodded. “For her own safety. If she’s innocent, then she might be in danger.”

    “Ah!”

    And not just from Fulcrum, John thought.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Wienerlicious, April 9th, 2008

    “I’ve got good news,” Walker announced as they sat down for their break in Wienerlicious. Hernandez was, due to a fortunate encounter with a difficult customer, not with them.

    “Yes?” Bartowski perked up like a puppy.

    “Phil called. Vi reached London without trouble, and the Council’s already started researching Coyolxauhqui.”

    “Good!” Bartowski nodded. “Willow’s on the job?”

    “So he said.”

    “Good!” Grimes smiled widely. “They’ll deal with it.”

    John didn’t share the moron’s optimism. You could never count on headquarters solving your problem for you. He didn’t say anything, of course - that would’ve been pointless. Instead, he looked around. Bane was at the grill, but he couldn’t see Caridad.

    “She’s not coming this morning,” Walker told him.

    “With Vi gone, she’s back to her regular patrols, and she’s doing overtime lately,” Grimes added with a wink.

    John glared at him. He didn’t care for the insinuation. He was a professional.

    The man held his hands up. “Whoa! No need to glare! I’m just… I mean, we didn’t even bet on when you’d hook up!”

    John really wanted to hit Grimes. “We haven’t ‘hooked up’,” he told the moron. “And we have more important things to deal with.”

    Grimes shrank back and nodded. “Sure, sure. Just…”

    Walker cleared her throat and nodded towards the entrance. John looked up and spotted Hernandez approaching. So much for a planning session. “Get us pictures of the cops involved,” he told Bartowski. It wouldn’t do to mistake a cop snooping around for an enemy spy and kill them by mistake.

    “Right!” Bartowski replied.

    Then Hernandez entered, and everyone posed as harmless sales clerks and waitresses again.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 9th, 2008

    Standing in the furniture section, John couldn’t help feeling a little stressed. In theory, not much had changed - ever since Bartowski’s cover had been blown, they had been on the lookout for enemy spies in the Buy More. A few cops trying to investigate them on their own shouldn’t make a difference.

    But it did. Cops and spies worked differently. A spy would attempt to kill a member of their team if the opportunity to do so without ruining their cover presented itself. A cop wouldn’t. Well, unless this wasn’t a private investigation, but a vigilante operation. Or a group of crooked cops.

    He frowned - and noticed an obnoxious teenager flinching away from him - at the thought. What if Fulcrum was using the cops in a more direct manner? What if they hadn’t just sent them after the group as a distraction and stalking horse, but had hired one or more of them to kill them? Or merely encouraged taking revenge? John was very familiar with the temptation to disobey orders and get some payback against an enemy who was supposed to be off-limits.

    He caught movement behind him in the bathroom mirror on the wall in front of him and turned around. Hernandez.

    “Hey, Casey!”

    “Hm?”

    “I was wondering whether you guys are planning to eat lunch in Wienerlicious again today.”

    “Yes.”

    “Ah. Because there’s this Vietnamese restaurant that delivers…” She beamed at him. “It’s really great!”

    Was this an attempt to poison them? Or to lure them away from the store and their base? Either way, it wouldn’t work - he wasn’t a fan of Vietnamese cooking. But he still made a mental note to stop ordering takeout until he was sure that his preferred restaurant wasn’t compromised. “Ah.” He nodded. “Which one is that?”

    “Sai Gon.”

    How unoriginal. He nodded once more anyway. Bartowski could check the restaurant’s records. It was unlikely that Hernandez would give away an actual asset of Fulcrum, but they still had to investigate.

    “Casey!”

    That was Caridad. The Slayer was grinning at him from far too close - she had snuck up on him - and on Hernandez. She wasn’t wearing the Wienerlicious uniform, he noted as he nodded at her.

    “Sorry I missed your break,” she said with a grin, “but I overslept. Stayed up way too late.”

    He made an agreeing noise.

    “Oh, hi, Federica,” Caridad added as if it was an afterthought.

    “Hi, Caridad.”

    Both women smiled at each other. They looked as honest as a used car salesman. Then Caridad turned back to him. “So, I was thinking we could have lunch together. There’s this nice Chinese stall…”

    That would only fuel Grimes’ delusions and put more strain on the team. Especially with the morons already thinking John had done something to Thompson. And they really needed to get the cop pictures Bartowski should have by now. Further, if he accepted, Hernandez might stop bothering him and go after an easier target. Like Bartowski or Grimes. That would be a good thing, though, wouldn’t it? It certainly would make at least Walker or Bane support him about the spy. And Caridad’s expression was a little too intense for John’s taste, too.

    He nodded. “Sure. 12 o’clock?”

    “Sounds good! I can start my shift afterwards! See you, Casey. And you, Federica.” The Slayer waved and left the store.

    Was that a frown on Hernandez’s face? Was she angry about her plan failing?

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, Beijing Rose, April 9th, 2008

    The ‘food stall’ was actually a restaurant. With an all-you-can-eat buffet. “I should’ve expected that,” John commented as he entered with Caridad.

    “Expected what?” the Slayer asked.

    “That you would go for a buffet.”

    She snorted. “I was merely misleading the enemy. That I can eat my fill here without bankrupting you is just a bonus.”

    Which implied he would be paying. Well, he had an expenses account, and with the buffet, the bill shouldn’t be too extravagant.

    “So, do you think Hernandez killed Thompson?” the Slayer asked once they had filled their plates and picked a table near a corner.

    “Probably,” John told her.

    “Then why haven’t they found a body yet?”

    “She’ll have it planted somewhere to make us look more suspicious.” And she couldn’t be too obvious or the cops investigating this would smell a rat.

    “Hm.” Caridad wrinkled her nose as she shovelled dumplings in her mouth. “I should check the sewers near the Buy More, then.”

    “If she did stash his corpse, it would be somewhere a little more public, so it’ll be found,” he retorted. An anonymous tip about a hidden body would make any cop suspicious. On the other hand, it would also increase the credibility of the source for subsequent tips… He took another bite from his spring rolls. “It’s good,” he commented.

    “Yeah.” She grinned. “I’ll have to eat as much as I can before they ban me.”

    “You could just visit less often. Spread the damage out over a longer time.”

    She scoffed. “Phil said the same.”

    “He’s the Watcher.”

    She scoffed again and frowned at him.

    He shrugged and finished his spring rolls before starting on his noodles.

    After a second, she sighed and started to eat even faster, emptying her plate and getting up for seconds.

    When she returned, he was still on his noodles. “I thought you trusted Phil.”

    “I do.” She bit a spring roll in half.

    He waited.

    “But I’d like it if he were wrong at least one time,” she added after swallowing the roll.

    “Ah.” Wishing that your commander was wrong was a bad idea. As John had learned, the soldiers paid for the mistakes of the officers. Sometimes, the officers too. And sometimes the officers got fragged.

    She sighed. “I don’t mean when it’s about something serious, you know. Just… something.”

    “I thought food was serious.” He didn’t smile as he looked at her. Not until she scowled again and huffed. “I know,” he told her. “But he’s right about the buffet. And the food is great.”

    She sighed once more. “Alright, I’ll hold back.” Then she perked up. “But that means that we’ll get dessert somewhere else!”

    He didn’t wince. But he wanted to - Caridad wasn’t the typical Californian woman who’d either skip dessert or the meal. And John didn’t think that there was an all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet in Los Angeles.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 9th, 2008

    John’s wallet had taken a beating when he returned to the Buy More, but he could manage. It wasn’t as if he had expensive hobbies, and he was receiving hazard pay since for months, he had been on an undercover mission.

    Not that he didn’t earn the bonus, of course - he was risking his sanity every time he had to work with the morons in the store. Like Jeff and Lester, who were fooling around with a remote-controlled car and what looked like a webcam.

    He scoffed. A home-made spy drone. Cute.

    John took care to accidentally kick the camera off the toy when it drove to close.

    “Hey! What the…” “Uh…”

    He glared at them, and the two idiots shrank away. “Sorry!” Lester piped up. “We were testing two new products.”

    Two products which were on sale, John knew. He snorted and continued towards the sports section while the two morons tried to fix their toy. Predictable.

    He shook his head as he took up a position near the hockey sticks. They were Bartowski’s problem - John had other duties. He looked around. Hernandez wasn’t in sight, though that didn’t mean anything. She could be in another part of the store, in the backrooms, or still on her lunch break. No - she was posing as the eager newbie; she’d already be back to work.

    Apart from that, he couldn’t spot anything out of the ordinary. Which, of course, didn’t mean anything. Anyone in the crowd could be a Fulcrum agent. Man or woman. Even the teenagers couldn’t be dismissed - John knew what the right kind of clothes and makeup could do, especially for shorter women. Although… He blinked. That guy walking towards the store…

    His eyes widened. That was Thompson! The cop didn’t look like he had had a good time - pale, unshaven, and unsteady. But he was armed - John could spot the shoulder holster.

    And the cop was making a beeline for him.

    Goddamnit.

    “Casey! You’ll pay for what you did to me!” Thompson screeched, drawing his gun.

    What? John didn’t let his surprise stop him from diving behind the next aisle as the cop started firing, and the crowd started screaming.

    The aisle was full of kitchenware, and John heard bullets ricochet off iron pans - and saw them punch through cardboard boxes in front of him.

    “Casey!”

    More shots rang out. John threw himself forward. If he managed to reach the sports section, with the steel-backed display stands for the bikes… He rolled over his shoulder and glanced back. Thompson was straight behind him, gun rising.

    Casey hooked his foot into the aisle next to him and flipped - toppling the entire shelf into the aisle and onto the cop, spoiling the man’s shot. John scrambled up and sprinted across another two aisles, then ducked behind the steel divider.

    He drew his backup gun from his ankle holster before he realised that shooting the cop would be a bad idea. Not as bad as letting the cop shoot him, of course. Where was Thompson, anyway? He wouldn’t take so long to get free of the pans, and… he had to come from the other side!

    “Stop and drop your weapon!”

    Mall cops? The damn mall cops had arrived?

    “I’m a cop! Don’t interfere!” Casey heard Thompson yell. “Here’s my badge!”

    An opportunity to scamper, then. John dashed away, towards the doors to the back rooms, bent over so he wouldn’t be visible from Thompson’s position.

    “Casey!”

    Damn. The cop was too fast. John glanced over his shoulder as he crossed into the consumer electronics section - Thompson was two aisles behind him. And shooting!

    John ducked as a bullet flew past him. At least he couldn’t aim well. He changed direction as a video console blew up next to him, followed by a bargain DVD stand. How many rounds did Thompson carry for his pistol? He had to have reloaded once already.

    Really - John should just ambush the cop and drop him at the first opportunity. But that would confirm Thompson’s accusations. If he managed to subdue the man, the other cops would realise that Thompson had gone crazy.

    “You think you could kidnap a cop?” Thompson yelled. “Torture me? I’ll get you!”

    So he was still behind John. Where was Bartowski? John hadn’t seen him when he had returned, but… how long was the moron’s lunch break? Even in Wienerlicious, they must have noticed the fleeing crowd by now.

    He reached the TV display area. No more cover or concealment from here on. Just a dash across open ground, and… Damn! Thompson was flanking him. John moved back behind the stereo aisle as another few shots rang out and missed him. He still had his gun. Perhaps a bullet to the leg would stop the madman…

    “You can’t run, Casey! I’ll get you!”

    Casey gritted his teeth. At least he knew where the cop was - still to the side.

    Something moved in front of him - the door to the home entertainment display room opened. John almost shot the figure appearing there before he realised it was Grimes. With his crossbow. No!

    Grimes spotted him and nodded with a grim expression. John shook his head in response. They couldn’t have the cops investigate Grimes. And they would if Thompson ended up with a bolt in his butt. Casey’s cover stated that he was an ex-marine. Grimes didn’t have such a background.

    The moron stared at him with his mouth open. John pointed back towards the door. He had to repeat it three times until Grimes finally got it and withdrew. Whew. The last thing John wanted was a Watcher meddling with this. Or a Slayer.

    But Thompson had been quiet again for a while. He must be moving! John had to move also, then. And quickly. He inched forward - Thompson would be moving through the aisles. But that meant that the way to the staff area in the back was free!

    Unless this was a trap…

    John inched back, then quickly dashed down the aisle, away from Thompson’s last position, and back to the corner. Panting a little, he slowly moved forward until he could peer through the gaps in the CD display. Where was the bastard? He couldn’t be far. Not really. Perhaps… Oh. Oh. There, stuck under the stereo aisle, was the morons’ toy car. And the remote control.

    John grabbed it and pulled it towards him. The car didn’t look broken, and they had fixed the camera. Shame about that - John didn’t need it. All he needed was a car driving towards Thompson’s last position.

    He reholstered his gun, lined the toy up and let it drive. It reached halfway to the other end of the aisles when Thompson appeared there and shot at it. John was already moving away from the back wall, towards the front entrance. The stereos hid him until he crossed into the open area. The two mall cops were there, taser guns drawn, hiding behind a large flower pot.

    “Hey!” one of them yelled.

    “Crazy shooter in the electronic sections!” Casey yelled back. “Save yourself!” He made a beeline for the door, but before he reached it, more shots followed, and he threw himself to the floor, rolling to the side, behind the next flower pot. And to think he had hated the things when they had been put up two weeks ago! Now the thick earth provided perfect cover against a crazy cop.

    But it also meant he was fixed in place. And the mall cops were aiming at him! He scowled at them. “Stop him!” he yelled.

    “You’re under arrest, Casey!” Thompson screamed, followed by two more shots. The cop had to run out of bullets any moment now!

    “I’m unarmed! He’s trying to kill me!” Casey yelled back.

    “He’s a murderer and kidnapper!”

    Movement to the side, at the front entrance, drew his attention. Walker was there, with Bane. Good. They should be able to… He heard the sirens. More cops were coming.

    John grimaced at the two spies and gestured towards Wienerlicious. They had to disappear - they couldn’t be caught by the cops. And he had to escape now. If he could. At least Walker and Bane fell back. But Thompson… John carefully raised his head to peer through the plants - and barely managed to drop down before a bullet passed overhead. Thompson was advancing.

    “No way out, Casey! You’re finished!”

    No choice now. Casey drew his ankle gun again.

    “He’s got a weapon!” the first mall cop yelled, fumbling with his taser. The second actually fired, but they were too far away - apart from a thin cloud of confetti and two wires ending up on the floor, nothing happened.

    Then Thompson jumped over the pot, gun firing. John rolled to the side, raised his gun - and Thompson jerked, then crashed into the floor like a puppet with his strings cut. John saw him open his mouth, then another bullet hit him in the head.

    One bullet to the chest, one to the head - and it hadn’t been John.

    “Oh my god! He shot him!” the mall cop yelled.

    Just when the patrol cars stopped in front of the entrance.

    *****​
     
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 10: The Escape
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 10: The Escape

    California, Burbank, Buy More, April 9th, 2008

    Sniper! From behind!

    John threw himself over the flower pot, into cover.

    “He’s got a gun!”

    “He shot the cop!”

    The mall cops were still screaming but they didn’t matter. Where was the damn sniper? John peered over the edge of the flower pot again but couldn’t see anyone. They would’ve been… upstairs. No, no one was there.

    And the cops were coming. If they caught him, with the mall cops screaming and Thompson’s earlier ranting… John would be an easy target, sitting in a cell. If they could turn Thompson, they could turn another cop as well. Or just sneak inside and shoot him in his cell - it wasn’t as if precincts were high-security locations. Not for spies.

    He jumped up and dashed across the hallway, into the electronics section, teeth clenched. If the sniper was still there…

    But no shot was fired until he was too far into the store to be hit from the upper floor.

    “Police! Stop!”

    Damn!

    John ducked and kept running.

    “Stop, or I’ll shoot!”

    Must be new not to have shot already. Next aisle. Don’t provide them with a clear target.

    Another dash across the free space in front of the TV displays and he was in the home entertainment display room. He kept going, into the back rooms. If he reached the basement, he could disappear in the tunnels below.

    “Casey?”

    Jeff and Lester stared at him, but he rushed past without a word.

    “Where are you going?”

    “Police! Stop!”

    Just his luck to be chased by a fit cop, and not some overweight doughnut-addict. John ground his teeth and closed the next door behind him. Another hallway, a flight of stairs, then he was in the basement.

    He slid more than he climbed down into the tunnels and took a moment to orient himself. He hadn’t revisited the place often since the slime apocalypse, but he still knew the way out. More or less. But he didn’t have night vision gear - just the mini-Maglite from his belt.

    No choice. It would have to do.

    He started running again. At least the cops wouldn’t follow him down here.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, April 9th, 2008

    An hour and two slight detours later, he finally reached the storm drains. Alright. Now he just had to avoid any cops that were watching the storm drains. John grinned. Compared to sneaking out of Costa Gravas, this would be child’s play. It had rained recently, so there would be some water. He just had to reach the main drain, where it’d be deep enough to swim - or drift.

    Ten minutes later, he had reached his destination. The water in the middle of the drain was hip-deep. And there was enough dirt around to muddy the water. Grinning, he started collecting the dirt. This was just like the mission in Nicaragua.

    It didn’t take too long to cover himself in mud. Once he was ready, he kicked the mounds of dirt into the water, muddying it, then followed. As soon as he approached the opening, he dived, holding his breath, and swam just above the floor of the drains.

    He had to hold back, of course. If he swam too fast, he’d outpace the spot of muddy water hiding him. Not that that would last long anyway. And he didn’t exactly know how far out the cops were. His best bet was to swim underwater as long as possible. Hold his breath as long as he could.

    He did. Swam until his lungs felt like burning, then turned on his back and ascended, just enough to get some air without being exposed. Then back down again.

    But the mud was already almost gone. Time to roll the dice.

    He rolled again, then resurfaced and looked around. Bridge ahead. That would provide cover.

    But he didn’t see any cops around anyway. Would they have gone into hiding? Parked the car somewhere and took up positions on foot?

    Or had they failed to send men to every exit?

    If he had gone to all that trouble for nothing…

    He clenched his teeth and, once under the bridge, climbed out of the water. He was drenched and dirty, but his gun would be fine - it was rated for such missions. Now all he had to do was to get clean, dry clothes without drawing attention.

    Child’s play for a spy.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 9th, 2008

    The bus station was a little too decrepit for the area. Someone was skimping on maintenance, but John didn’t care. He wasn’t here for the bus, but for the locker he had rented months ago to use as an emergency cache. Clothes, weapons and a burner phone. The IDs were hidden somewhere else - it wouldn’t do for some druggie to break into the locker and get his hands NSA-issued IDs. But the locker was still standing, and a minute later, he had his gear.

    Now he had to convince Walker, Bane and the two morons that he hadn’t killed or kidnapped Thompson. That might be a little difficult. He called the base.

    “Yes?” That was Walker. Good.

    “It’s me.”

    “Where are you?”

    “I made it out of the tunnels,” he replied. He wouldn’t give her his location - though Orion and Bartowski would be able to pinpoint the cell his phone was connected to. “Someone shot Thompson. The shooter was inside the store, on the upper floor.”

    “The police are looking for you.”

    He frowned. “Once they do the post-mortem, they’ll know I didn’t shoot the guy. No powder residue on him from that distance.”

    “Witnesses heard Thompson accuse you of kidnapping him,” Walker said.

    “I didn’t,” he replied. If he had kidnapped the man, Thompson wouldn’t have escaped.

    “Running didn’t help to make you look innocent,” she pointed out.

    “If they had arrested me, I’d have been killed.” Probably.

    “Possibly,” she admitted. “But they’re searching for you now.”

    He almost scoffed. He’d evaded far better men than the LAPD could send after him. “The Agency can handle that, especially once the cops get the report from forensics. It’s more important to identify the shooter.” He had a suspicion, of course.

    “We’ve checked the surveillance - it was spoofed in the area you indicated.”

    “Fulcrum,” he spat. Few would be able to spoof their surveillance.

    “Yes.”

    “Thompson vanishes, then returns, screaming about me kidnapping him,” he said.

    “Chuck speculated that Fulcrum could’ve brainwashed him,” Walker told him.

    She didn’t say that Bartowski thought that this was true, John noted. It should be enough to keep the rest of the team from turning on him, though. “I’ll return to base.”

    “Copy.”

    She didn’t tell him to be careful or claimed that it would be too dangerous. Walker was an expert spy - she wouldn’t underestimate him. But that would be bad should she turn on him.

    He had to take the risk, though. Too much was at risk.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 9th, 2008

    It was evening when John entered the base. Walker was there, Bartowski - on a computer, of course - Grimes and Bane. No Caridad, though. They were staring at him, but not with the kind of suspicion John had expected from Bartowski and Grimes - so, Walker probably had explained things to the morons.

    “Uh, ah, you made it,” Bartowski blurted out after a moment.

    John rolled his eyes. Of course he made it. “Did you find any footage of the shooter?”

    “Uh, no. The whole system was compromised.”

    Of course it was - a spy wouldn’t have done this if it would have broken their cover. Not that this would have mattered. “Where was Hernandez at the time of the shooting?” he asked.

    “What? You think she shot the cop?” Grimes looked shocked. “Why would she do that?”

    “To frame me, of course,” John told the moron. “And to set the cops on me.”

    “But… you said the forensic report would clear you,” Grimes said.

    John snorted. “Of having shot Thompson. But they’ll assume he was shot by an accomplice.”

    “And with Thompson screaming his accusations in the middle of the Buy More,” Walker added, “your cover is in danger even if the Agency steps on the accusations.”

    John nodded. “They want the cops on our case.”

    “But why would they - whoever they are - kill Thompson?” Bartowski asked. “If they had really brainwashed him, he would have kept accusing you.”

    ‘Really brainwashed’? John bit back on his response. “They had at most a day to brainwash him. His story wouldn’t have held up. The other cops would have thought he was a lunatic. Dead, though…”

    “...he’s a hero. A tragic hero,” Bane finished for him. “And we can’t poke holes into his story.”

    “It’s still a huge effort just to frame Casey,” Bartowski said. “They could’ve just paid someone to accuse him if they were killing them anyway.”

    “That wouldn’t have been as convincing as using Thompson,” Bane told him. “He was a cop investigating Casey and the rest of us. One of them. Not some druggie doing anything for money.”

    “And what will they be doing now?” Bartowski asked. “Won’t the CIA bury this anyway?”

    “Or the Council,” Grimes added.

    “It won’t do much. Not after a cop was killed,” Walker said.

    “Yes. His friends will keep investigating. That will make our mission - all our missions - much harder,” Bane said.

    “And much more dangerous,” Grimes added with a grimace. “If they start to shadow us… and if Fulcrum tries to frame more of us…”

    “Or kill us,” John told him. “We need to deal with Hernandez. As soon as possible.”

    “We don’t know if she’s a spy!” Bartowski protested.

    “We’ll find out,” John told him as he bared his teeth.

    For once, no one else disagreed with him.

    “Where is she?” he asked.

    “We haven’t seen her since the shooting, and she hasn’t yet returned to her apartment,” Bane told him. “We’ve seen her evacuate the store with the rest of the staff.”

    John nodded. So, Bane at least had already been tracking Hernandez.

    “Not through the back, though,” Grimes piped up. “That was just me, Jeff and Lester.”

    Those two morons hadn’t evacuated the store, but there was no need to mention that. John grunted instead. The spy had escaped and gone to ground.

    “She’s probably shocked about the shooting,” Bartowski said. “For civilians, this kind of incident is a terrible experience.”

    But the woman wasn’t a civilian. John was certain. “Or she’s fled because she knew that her cover was broken.” If Fulcrum deemed her original mission a failure, then using the spy for this instead of pulling her out would make sense.

    “We can’t just assume that!” Bartowski shook his head.

    “We won’t,” Walker placated him. “But we need to find her - and to check whether or not she’s a spy.”

    “We haven’t found anything! Background checks, the Intersect, surveillance…. Nothing resulted in anything that would have implicated her!”

    “That only means she’s good,” John told the moron.

    “Fulcrum’s got moles in the Agency,” Bane pointed out. “They know how the CIA operates and had or still have access to the databases.”

    “That wouldn’t help against the Intersect, remember?” Bartowski protested.

    “The Intersect still needs a database, Chuck,” Walker said. “If Hernandez never raised a flag, the Intersect wouldn’t be able to find her.”

    And neither would Orion. John looked at Bartowski.

    “The odds of someone being completely off the grid…” Bartowski shook his head again. “Let’s find her and clear her!” He started typing on his computer as Walker moved to stand next to him, hand on his shoulder. The CIA spy had gone soft.

    John frowned, then pushed the thought away. As long as Walker could handle her job and Bartowski… He looked at Grimes. “Where’s Caridad?”

    “Err, she’s on patrol.”

    Ah. John should’ve expected that. He still felt a little disappointed. At least Bartowski hadn’t tried to claim that John had gone after Thompson.

    *****​

    Caridad entered the base after everyone else had already gone home. “Hey!” She stepped into the main room, where he was going through the files on Hernandez.

    He nodded at her.

    “Chuck’s and your home are under surveillance. As is the Buy More,” the Slayer said.

    He’d expected that. “Wienerlicious?”

    “Nothing specific, but the guys covering the Buy More’s front entrance have the store in view as well.” She shrugged.

    He nodded. If the police suspected that there was a base under the store, they would pay more attention - and raid it. So, the base was secure - for now at least.

    “You’re going to stay here?” she asked, leaning forward to peer at the files in front of him, twisting her head to read.

    He grunted in reply. Staying here, he could take over monitoring duty while the LAPD wasted time looking for him. That way, the rest of the team would be free to continue the mission. Somewhat, at least - the cops would try to shadow them.

    “Good.” Caridad smiled. “Visiting you in some hole in the wall or under a bridge would’ve been a pain in the butt.”

    He chuckled. And he didn’t miss the implication that she still would visit.

    “I’ve been to Hernandez’s apartment,” she went on. “The woman wasn’t near it recently.”

    “Ah.” He nodded - that would fit a spy pulling out.

    “And you already knew that.”

    “Expected it.”

    She huffed and went to the fridge of the base. “So, the brainwashing machine is back. I hate those things. And they still think I’m a terminator listening to Chuck.”

    “You’ve encountered the technology before?”

    “No. But magic that works more or less the same.”

    He frowned. Magic. Of course.

    “Dracula took control of Xander once. Made him eat bugs.”

    He stared at her. That sounded incredibly petty - and gross.

    “Well, he also made him help with trapping Buffy and the others.” She shrugged. “I only heard the stories; it was before my time.” She started building a sandwich. Not a sub, an aircraft carrier, at least according to its size. “But mind-control magic is bad juju. Dark. Corrupting. And creepy. You can’t trust anyone any more.”

    He nodded, even though he knew that a spy couldn’t trust anyone anyway. That was how the business worked. That was how a spy stayed alive.

    And John was a very good spy.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 10th, 2008

    John’s back hurt a little when he woke up. He probably had sprained something in the fighting yesterday - he hadn’t managed to stretch properly afterwards. Or sleeping on a cot instead of in a bed was a bit of a problem.

    He gritted his teeth and forced the treacherous thought away. He wasn’t twenty any more, but he wasn’t old. He could still rough it with the best of them. A little pain meant nothing.

    He got up and went to quickly shower and shave, starting the coffee maker on the way. By the time he was finished, he had a steaming cup waiting for him. Almost like home - almost like in his temporary apartment. Which the cops had searched. He hoped - for them - that they hadn’t harmed his bonsai.

    He took a sip, sighing as the coffee almost burned his throat, and checked the records from surveillance. A quick fast-forward showed Hernandez hadn’t shown up in her apartment. One more hint that she had been withdrawn after shooting Thompson. Good riddance. He scoffed and took another sip. It wasn’t navy coffee, but it wasn’t some stupid caramel-flavoured milky liquid with sprinkles either. Good Italian coffee.

    He flipped through the close surveillance next. The cops keeping an eye on the Buy More and Wienerlicious hadn’t changed position during the night. Or done anything other than wait - and probably bitch about it. People always bitched on the night shift.

    Though he wondered if the cops were aware that they were under surveillance themselves. They had to know, hadn’t they? They should suspect that John and the others were connected to the NSA. Was this a double-bluff? John started looking for a second team but didn’t find anything. Well, the LAPD didn’t have the best reputation…. Although this might be a cover for Fulcrum.

    He finished his coffee - who had grown lukewarm by now; barely drinkable - and watched the screens. Staff parking was getting crowded as the various employees arrived. No customers yet - apart from that one old woman who was always the first in after spending half an hour waiting in her car.

    And there were Bartowski and Walker. He frowned as they got out of the stupid Nerd Herd car, kissed and split, the moron heading into the Buy More while Walker approached Wienerlicious carrying a paper bag with a bagel shop logo on it. The cops were watching them, but they wouldn’t see anything suspicious. Not that they needed to.

    Walker, as expected, entered the base shortly afterwards. “Good morning.”

    “Morning.” He nodded at her as he refilled his cup.

    “I brought some breakfast,” she said, holding up the bag. “We’ll get some better food down here later.”

    “Thanks.” If he was to live here for the immediate future, having decent food would be nice. Not that he needed it - he could live off rations for months. But if there was no need for it… He took the bag and peered inside. Pastrami. Good enough. He started eating as he returned to keeping an eye on the Buy More and their surroundings. “Nothing out of the ordinary so far.”

    “We’ve recovered your gear before the police searched your apartment.”

    He nodded again. They had spares aplenty, but they couldn’t let the LAPD get a close look at cutting-edge spy tools - Fulcrum and others would easily get intel otherwise. “What’s Bartowski thinking?”

    Walker glanced at him before answering: “Chuck doesn’t think that you kidnapped Thompson.”

    He snorted. The moron better not.

    “But he also doesn’t think that Hernandez is a spy.”

    They already knew that. John shrugged. “Her plan failed, and she was pulled out.”

    Walker made a noncommittal noise.

    “Or she’s switched to assassination,” John continued.

    “If she shot Thompson she had a shot at you as well,” Walker pointed out.

    “Right.” So the spy probably had an ulterior motive. He shrugged - if she showed her face again, they’d catch her. And they’d find out what she knew. He returned to watching the surveillance feed. More staff was arriving - the slackers and those who always came right before their shift started so they wouldn’t be roped into helping with the shelves and displays. Jeff and Lester were already at the Nerd Herd desk, checking schedules. Bartowski was in the home entertainment display room with Grimes.

    Big Mike wasn’t on-site, yet. Not that John would have expected him to - he rarely arrived before nine.

    “I’ll go and open the store,” Walker said.

    He grunted a response. They had to keep up appearances. Now more than ever with the LAPD watching them. Perhaps that was part of Fulcrum’s plan as… “Hernandez!”

    “What?” Walker whirled.

    He pointed at the screen where the woman was approaching the back entrance of the Buy More. She was wearing her store uniform, but she looked more than a little off - and not too steady. The uniform was wrinkled, too. But…

    “We need to get her!” Walker blurted out.

    John hesitated a moment. The cops were watching. But Bartowski was alone in the store - except for Grimes - and Hernandez wouldn’t be doing this alone. Cursing, he grabbed a carbine and followed Walker to the back exit of the base. If they sprinted, they could reach the back of the store in time. Without being seen by the cops.

    Unless they were better than he had expected and hidden a second team there without anyone noticing. Then things would get a little dicey.

    Walker texted Bartowski on the way, then ran all-out as soon as they reached the exit. She dashed across the street, then scrambled up the bluff that led to the back area of the Buy More. He passed her before she reached the top, though - but Hernandez wasn’t there any more. She must have entered already.

    “I’ve warned Chuck,” Walker said, drawing her pistol and glancing at him.

    John nodded, hefting the carbine. They flanked the loading ramp, then entered the store, one covering the other. If Hernandez expected them and laid an ambush, she’d be disappointed.

    But there was no ambush - they rushed through the back area of the store. In the break area, Jeff and Lester took one look at them and disappeared.

    “Chuck isn’t answering his phone!” Walker said.

    Damn. That wasn’t a good sign - a nerd and his phone were seldom apart. They reached the office area, almost to the store, but there was the home entertainment display room - and Hernandez was there, aiming a pistol at Bartowski’s head.

    John had his carbine aimed at her head at once. One shot would be all he needed. But she might be able to shoot - and Bartowski was right in front of her. Impossible to miss. Could he risk it? Could he not risk it?

    “No! Casey! Sarah! Don’t shoot!” Bartowski yelled, flailing his arms - at them, not at the spy!

    What the…?

    John had her dead to rights. As did Walker. He just had to pull the trigger, and the spy would be gone. Headshot.

    “Chuck!” Walker spat, aiming at Hernandez as well.

    “She’s being mind-controlled!” Bartowski blurted out.

    The spy was trembling and panting, John saw. But she was also about a second from death - not many would be calm in her situation.

    “Have to… they said…” Hernandez gasped, slowly twisting her head back and forth - but her pistol remained aimed at Bartowski.

    “Federica! This isn’t you,” Bartowski said. “You don’t want to kill me. You don’t want to kill anyone. You don’t have to kill anyone!”

    John clenched his teeth. Bartowski had a gun to his head and was trying to talk the spy out of killing him.

    “But… they… I have to…”

    Where was the damned Intersect? Why hadn’t Bartowski taken the spy out as soon as she showed up? Had the moron let her get the drop on him? If so, John would kill him himself.

    “No, you don’t. You’re not a murderer. You’re not a spy.” Bartowski slowly shook his head. “You’re our friend. Someone messed with your mind, but you’re still you. Deep down, you know it.” The nerd’s forehead was slick with sweat.

    Hernandez slowly started to nod. But her pistol - Beretta 92, John noted - didn’t waver. That meant he and Walker couldn’t take a shot. Damn.

    “But… they said… you are a spy. A criminal.”

    “We’re the good guys,” Bartowski said. “They did the same to Thompson. Mind-controlled him. We’re not criminals. We’re the CIA.” He wet his lips. “Please.”

    “But…” Hernandez was crying now. Sobbing. “I don’t want to.”

    Then don’t! John thought.

    “Then don’t. Put the gun away,” Bartowski said, smiling weakly. “Remember, you’re still you. You’re not a murderer. You’re our friend.”

    And she was dead as soon as John had a clear shot. He saw her glance at him.

    Bartowski did so too. “Lower the weapons,” he hissed at them. “No one’s going to shoot anyone here.”

    Like hell he would! John bared his teeth at the moron. As soon as he lowered the carbine, Hernandez would be free to kill Bartowski.

    “Casey! Please!”

    “Casey,” Walker chimed in.

    Hernandez sobbed again.

    Goddamnit.

    John glared at the moron, but Bartowski nodded.

    “Your funeral,” John hissed and lowered the carbine. He could still kill the spy - but not before she killed the nerd.

    “See? No one’s going to die here, Federica. Just put the gun down, and all will be OK.”

    The spy was trembling so much now, it was affecting her gun. Damn. If she squeezed the trigger just a little…

    “Federica. Please.”

    With another sob, she dropped the pistol on the floor and collapsed.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 10th, 2008

    “They brainwashed her,” Bartowski repeated himself as he looked at the unconscious form of Hernandez on the cot in the base. “Like Thompson.”

    John grunted. That was the only good thing coming from this - the moron didn’t doubt that John hadn’t done anything to Thompson any more. “Should’ve strapped her down,” he muttered. Bartowski stared at him as if John had suggested that they executed the woman, and John added: “She’s still mind-controlled.”

    “She’s fighting it, and she has no weapon. She’s just a civilian,” Bartowski replied. “Fulcrum doesn’t have the capability to implant spy skills.”

    John snorted. Never assume your enemy couldn’t do something you could. “She knew how to use a gun.”

    “She just pointed it at me; she didn’t fire,” the moron retorted.

    “Her aim never wavered,” John pointed out.

    “So she might’ve learned how to shoot as a teenager - plenty of people do.” Bartowski shook his head. “She’s a victim, not a threat.”

    “The same could’ve been said for Thompson,” John told him. “And someone shot him - from the Buy More.”

    “You think Federica did it?” This time, the moron gasped at him. “You saw how she couldn’t shoot me!”

    “Thompson was shot with a 9mm,” Walker told them as she joined them.

    John frowned - that was the same calibre as the Beretta Hernandez had.

    “You’ve got the forensic report?” Bartowski asked.

    “Yes. They deduced that Casey didn’t shoot Thompson.”

    “Good!” Bartowski smiled. Moron.

    “You’re still a suspect,” Walker told John.

    He nodded - he hadn’t expected anything else. He’d been carrying a gun, after all. And one that used the same calibre.

    “But…” Bartowski shook his head.

    “They’re cops, Chuck,” Walker told him. “They won’t dismiss a suspect because of one report.”

    “We’ve got other problems, anyway,” John added. “One in particular.” He nodded at Hernandez.

    “Right.” Bartowski sighed. “We need to find a way to undo her conditioning.”

    “And we need to keep her from harming herself or anyone else until we do,” Walker added.

    “And we need a cover for her absence, so the cops don’t start looking for her,” John said. Bartowski was staring at him again, so he glared at the moron. “What?”

    “Nothing.” Bartowski sighed again. “It’s so unfair. She’s got nothing to do with this. She’s no spy. She was just a convenient target for Fulcrum.”

    A convenient target with a convenient talent for using a gun, John silently added. “And how are you going to unfuck her brain?”

    “Uh…” The moron grimaced, then looked around. “Dad’s the expert…” he said.

    “No!” John snapped. If Fulcrum learned Orion’s identity…

    “That’s not a good idea, Chuck,” Walker said. “We can’t risk others finding out about him.”

    “No one would know.”

    “Hernandez would,” John said. “And Bane.” They couldn’t get Orion into the base without Bane finding out. And if they tried to distract or divert Bane, she’d know something was up. Grimes would probably crack if she asked directly and pressed him.

    “But he’s the only one who knows how the Intersect works!” Bartowski protested.

    “Well,” John replied, “time you learned, then.” There was always the alternative.

    “We need a brain scan of hers anyway. Dad can check her out that way - without being seen by anyone,” Chuck said after a moment. “Setting it up might take some time, though…”

    John pressed his lips together. The moron was right.

    *****​

    “Come on, eat - it’s good. Well, decent,” Bartowski said.

    John frowned at the moron. His spaghetti with meatballs wasn’t perfectly fine. If they didn’t like it, they could eat MREs.

    Hernandez picked at her food - with plastic silverware, of course; John wasn’t about to hand her a weapon when she was sitting within striking distance. You could kill someone easily with a steel fork. John had done so, once.

    “You need to eat.”

    “I know.” The woman sighed. “But… when I think of what I almost did…” She shook her head and grimaced.

    “It wasn’t your fault,” Bartowski told her.

    “But everyone will be thinking it was!” she retorted.

    “No!” The moron shook his head. “People think you’ve caught the flu and are staying home. Since you, uh, were abducted.”

    That should keep the cops from bothering her until they had investigated the rest of the staff. Though they couldn’t be certain.

    The woman started eating, though without any sign that she tasted the food. Well, if someone had brainwashed him, he wouldn’t care about food, either. But he wouldn’t mope around like her. He’d be furious and planning his revenge.

    “So… what will happen to me?” she suddenly asked. “I’ve still got those… those urges.” She flinched. “I won’t act on them, but…”

    “We’ll fix you,” Bartowski told her with a smile.

    “How?” She sniffled. “They had a machine, and…”

    “We’ll find a way. I mean, we’re working on it.”

    Hernandez didn’t look as if she thought this would work out. John didn’t think so, either.

    *****​

    “She’s not possessed or something.” Caridad’s expression while looking at the sleeping Hernandez through the window in the cell’s door seemed to indicate that the Slayer would’ve preferred the alternative.

    “Good. So we now have confirmation that Fulcrum has their brainwashing machine somewhere in the area,” Bartowski said.

    “Or that’s what they want us to think,” John muttered,

    Bartowski frowned briefly at him, then continued: “The police are still hunting Casey, but the CIA is increasing the pressure on them.”

    “That should take care of the official investigation,” Walker said.

    Which left the unofficial one.

    “What’s the excuse for Casey running from the cops?” Caridad asked. “Usually, the cops think that means you’re guilty.”

    “Not trusting the LAPD after one of their officers tried to kill him,” Bartowski replied. “I mean, it’s the LAPD.”

    John snorted. It wasn’t just the LAPD - cops didn’t like to take chances with suspected cop killers. Which usually wasn’t a bad policy, of course.

    “Anyway,” Bartowski went on with a frown, “we need to find the new Fulcrum base and take their brainwashing machine. If we have it, we should be able to undo what was done to Hernandez.”

    “We also have two Fulcrum vampires to deal with,” Caridad pointed out. “That’s a more urgent threat. And there’s the Aztec apocalypse, but the Council’s working on that problem.”

    Bartowski didn’t like the implied priorities. “But Fulcrum’s started brainwashing people we know. If we don’t stop them, we won’t be able to trust anyone, and they might attack us at the worst possible moment.”

    “We also have to assume that the spies turned vampires will contact the other Fulcrum agents in the area,” Walker said.

    “They will want to take over. Vamps don’t like working with or under humans,” Caridad said. “Spike says it’s like taking orders from a sandwich.”

    Despite the disturbing implications, John had to chuckle at that.

    “Uh… anyway, if we can find the new base, we might also find the vampires, then,” Bartowski said.

    “Or we can find the base if we find the vamps,” Caridad replied.

    “Finding either will be very difficult,” Walker pointed out. “We don’t have leads.”

    “Well, using the latest serial killer prediction software Willow adapted to track vampires, we’ve been able to narrow down the area. Somewhat, at least,” Bartowski said. At John’s sceptical look - the area was still too big - he added: “It has to be a rather organised nest who turned them, and we know roughly where they were, so...”

    John scoffed, which prompted Walker to frown at him.

    “We can narrow down the area further by assuming that their sire won’t want them to hunt in the more public areas until they can, uh, control themselves better,” Bartowski went on. “As trained spies, that probably won’t take them too long, but we have a window of opportunity.”

    “It’s still a huge area,” John pointed out. “We can’t exactly search door to door there.”

    “I could go and shake down Lorne,” Caridad suggested. “He’s an idiot, but even he won’t want to deal with vampires trained as spies by an evil organisation.”

    “He might not want to,” Grimes chimed in, “but other demons will.”

    That sounded as if Lorne was a leak in need of being plugged.

    “That is a risk, but Lorne should know better than to spread such information,” Bartowski said. “And he knows a lot about the, uh, darker parts of the demon side of the city. It’s not as if we can go undercover as demons to infiltrate the vampire spies.”

    “Err… we might not be able to, but there’s one who might.” Grimes’s smile didn’t look very confident, though.

    “What?” Who do you mean?” Caridad said, frowning.

    “Harmony.”

    “Harmony? She’s too stupid for that!” Bartowski retorted. “She would forget her cover story right away.”

    “Or she’d forget that it is a cover story,” Caridad added.

    “We only need to find the other vampires. She doesn’t have to infiltrate them. And since she’s a vampire, the new vampires might trust her enough to contact her,” Grimes said.

    “You want to use her as bait.” That was quite ruthless for the guy, in John’s opinion.

    “Err… kinda?” Grimes shrugged. “It’s better than walking around and hoping that the vampires attack you.”

    “Don’t knock that,” Caridad told him. “You know how many vamps I stake by playing the drunk party girl?”

    “Yes, actually,” Grimes retorted with a grin. “I read your reports, remember?”

    “I guess we could ask her,” Bartowski said. “It’s not as if we have better options.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 10th, 2008

    “You want me to play bait?”

    John looked around in the club, but it didn’t seem as if anyone had heard the vampire’s outburst. No surprise, of course, given the loud music.

    “Yes,” Bartowski said.

    “Together?” Harmony asked.

    “No. Split up,” Grimes said. “We’re hunting a new group of vampires.”

    “Vampires?” Harmony blinked with a very stupid expression. “Hey! I’m a vampire, too!”

    “But you don’t hunt humans,” Bartowski pointed out.

    “Of course not! I’m not stupid! I like living - well, unliving - and if I ate humans, you’d stake me! But if the other vampires start thinking that I help hunting them, they’ll stake me too!”

    That was a possibility. No one liked snitches or traitors. Not that John cared much whether Harmony got staked.

    “Uh… they’re not normal vampires.” Bartowski glanced around. “They’re like the Initiative.”

    “The Initiative? But you destroyed them!” Harmony gasped again.

    “I said like them,” Bartowski replied. “They’re a secret government organisation that has gone rogue. Out of control,” he added at Harmony’s blank look.

    “Oh.”

    “Look, all you need to do is to walk around and see if someone - a vampire - contacts you. Then we swoop in and check if it’s them.”

    Harmony blinked again. “And if they’re not them? If they’re normal vampires?”

    “Then we stake them and continue,” Caridad said, baring her teeth at Harmony.

    “Uh… but they’re not the Initiative.”

    “They’re still vampires who hunt humans.”

    “Oh, right. I forgot about that.”

    Yes, John could see why Harmony wouldn’t make a good spy.

    *****​

    “This sucks. And I mean, in the sucking way, not the bloodsucking way. No blood at all. Just suck-ing. I could be dancing in a club right now.”

    Sitting behind the wheel of the limousine, John sighed. Harmony hadn’t stopped complaining on the radio about the mission since it had started an hour ago.

    “I’m tempted to stake her myself if she doesn’t shut up,” Caridad mumbled next to him.

    He grunted in agreement.

    “I’m switching blocks now,” Harmony announced. “Now I’m on… uh… hold on a moment…”

    “Is she trying to read a road sign?” John asked, not bothering to hide his surprise when he spotted the vampire climbing a wall to brush dust away from a sign mounted above her.

    “Apparently. But that’s no road sign,” Caridad said.

    “Do you think this will work?” John asked.

    She shrugged. “Chuck and Morgan have been right before with their computer predictions. And if Willow made the base algorithm, it can’t harm. It’s not as if we have better options. Well, I could play bait, of course.”

    “You’re our reserve,” he corrected her.

    She leaned back in the passenger seat and stretched her arms over her head. “That’s boring, though. I could be out there, stalking the vamps.”

    “And leave us high and dry should they go after us. Or Harmony.”

    “Hmph. That’s very...” She snapped forward, suddenly tense, and stared at Harmony.

    John raised his low-light binoculars. There was a figure approaching the vampire. Pale, tall… He glanced at Caridad.

    Her sneer told him all he needed to know.

    “Vampire!” she hissed.

    *****​
     
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 11: The Trace
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 11: The Trace

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 10th, 2008

    “Wait!” John reached out and put his hand on her thigh to keep her from storming out. “Let’s listen in first.”

    For a moment, she remained tense. Then he felt her muscles relax - a little, at least. She didn’t say anything, though.

    John turned the radio’s volume up a notch.

    “Hey there… are you lost? Can I help you?” That had to be the vampire.

    “What? Oh, no, no. I ‘m just passing through,” Harmony replied.

    “Really? Where are you going?”

    “That way, of course. Where do you think I was going?” Harmony sounded as if it was the most stupid question she’d ever heard.

    “Hey!”

    “What?”

    John raised his binocs. The vampire was now reaching out to grab Harmony, but she moved back.

    “Watch your hands! That jacket was expensive! I don’t want a tear in it - well, not where it’s not fashionable.”

    “I’ll do much more than tear your jacket to shreds!”

    “What? Hey! Hands off!”

    The vampire tried to grab her again, but she evaded him again.

    “Watch it!”

    Something rippled on the vampire’s face just before he circled around, putting his back to John. The vampire must have changed his face.

    “I’m going in,” Caridad hissed.

    Before he could reply, she was out of the car and halfway across the street.

    “Hah!”

    The vampire had managed to grab her this time.

    “Hey!”

    “I’ll eat you!”

    “What? Ew!”

    “I’ll… wait! Why aren’t you screaming? Why aren’t you afraid?”

    The vampire suddenly got a clue.

    “Because she was bait!”

    And then he got a boot to the head courtesy of the Slayer. Caridad pushed off him, hitting him in the face again, then did a backflip and landed on her feet.

    “He almost ruined my jacket!”

    “Who’re you?”

    “I’m the Slayer.”

    “The what?”

    “Wow, you’re really dumb if you don’t know about the Vampire Slayer.”

    “I’m the Slayer - I kill your kind.”

    “A Slayer, actually. There are a lot of them around, now. That didn’t used to be the case. Spikey told me about the old days, when there was just one Slayer. But Buffy messed it all up. And then came Willow and made it worse.”

    John was almost sure that the vampire was glad that Caridad knocked him out before Harmony could further torment him with inane chatter. He drove the car over, and Caridad put the vampire - bound with steel cables - in the trunk. “Good work.”

    “Thank you!” Harmony replied.

    John hadn’t been talking to her. He looked at Caridad, who nodded back with a tight grin.

    “So… was that it? The guy didn’t look like an Initiative guy. Much too dumb. Well, the soldiers weren’t too bright, either - Spikey always said they were dumb, especially Riley. But they knew about the Slayer. This guy didn’t. Even I know about the Slayer. Slayers.”

    “We’ll interrogate him,” John said. “Find out what he knows.”

    “It might be part of the nest,” Caridad said. “They would have more members than those we seek - they had a pretty decent setup.”

    “Yes.” That guy wouldn’t have made it as a spy. He wouldn’t have made it as a marine, either. Probably Army material - they took everyone.

    “Oh. Interrogate? You’re gonna beat him up? Or… are you gonna drip holy water on him?” Harmony looked rather queasy.

    “You don’t have to stay,” Caridad said. “We’ll call you if we need more help.”

    “Ah, good! I’ll go back to clubbing, then!” Harmony waved and walked away. In the wrong direction, as far as John could tell.

    But if Caridad wasn’t offering the vampire a ride back to the first club, John certainly wouldn’t either. “Dripping holy water on him?” he asked as he drove away from the alley. That sounded like acid torture.

    “If that’s what it takes.” Caridad shrugged. “They’re demons wearing corpses.”

    John nodded in agreement. Anything was justified when dealing with such monsters.

    *****​

    “...and they just told me to hunt somewhere else! Really! I don’t know more than that!”

    “Really?” Caridad asked. John saw her shake the vial with holy water a little.

    “Really! I wasn’t in the inner circle. They said I had to prove myself, first!” The vampire, pinned to the floor with steel stakes Caridad had driven through his limbs and into the concrete floor, shook his head frantically. “Please!”

    John leaned against the wall in the basement of the abandoned building they had picked for the interrogation. That sounded, well, halfway smart. Weed out the stupid and only take those who managed to survive.

    “And they didn’t tell you about the Slayer? About me?” Caridad frowned.

    “No! No! They just said I had to be careful not to be seen! Really!”

    “Looks like you were right,” John said. “They do have more vampires.” And they were gathering the new ones - the fledges - in a separate location from their main base.

    “Yes.” Caridad grinned, then glared at the vampire. “And your sire is called Nathan?”

    “Yes. Nathan. No other name.”

    She sighed. “Typical for a vampire. As soon as they rise, it’s always one name.” She looked back at John. “Do you have more questions?”

    John shook his head. They had everything the vampire knew.

    “Me neither.”

    She staked the monster before the vampire realised what was happening.

    *****​

    California, Burbanks, The Castle, April 11th, 2008

    “We’ve had Federica call a few people and explain that she’s sick,” Bartowski told them when they entered the base after midnight. “So, she won’t be missed.”

    “You got that right,” John heard Caridad muttering behind him. He had to suppress a snort at that.

    “She’s also sleeping in the, uh, cell,” Bartowski went on. “And she was never in the main room,” he added with a small pout.

    “Good,” John replied - and pulled out a bug scanner. Trust, but verify. “We’re clear.”

    Bartowski rolled his eyes, but Walker and Bane nodded.

    Caridad sniffed. “No lingering scent of her in the room.”

    That was reassuring. And concerning - John made a mental note to remember to look into hiding his scent, should he go up against demons with a keen sense of smell. Or Slayers.

    “So, what did you find out?” Walker asked.

    “Other than that Harmony still has an IQ matching her body temperature?” Caridad snorted. “We got the location of a vampire nest where the fledges are kept until they ‘prove themselves’.”

    Grimes frowned. “And they obey without the master vampire keeping them in line?”

    She shrugged. “We don’t know. The vamp we caught seemed to obey their orders - but those boiled down to ‘don’t hunt near the nest’.”

    “Spies turned vampires won’t take long to ‘prove their worth’,” Bane said.

    “Unless they get drunk on their new power,” Bartowski retorted.

    “They haven’t, so far, have they?” John asked.

    “They might still be laying low, trying to get a handle on the whole undead demon thing,” Bartowski said. “But Fulcrum’s agents don’t strike me as being prone to be overly disturbed by murderous urges and a total lack of conscience.”

    John reluctantly nodded. The nerd was correct about this - such traitors would thrive as vampires.

    “So,” Walker cut in, “if we move quickly, we might catch them still in the training nest.”

    “Sorting nest,” Grimes said. “Looks like they don’t get much, if any, training there.”

    “Evaluation camp?” Bartowski cocked his head.

    “The fledge nest?” Caridad got into it as well.

    John clenched his teeth. The name didn’t matter. Just slap a code name on the site and done.

    “If we’re striking at the nest, we should do it tomorrow. During the day,” Grimes said. “They won’t be able to easily flee, and we can retreat into sunlight.”

    Bartowski shook his head. “They’ll have tunnels. And the spy vampires will probably have guns.”

    “Err.” Grimes looked concerned but slowly nodded. “Flamethrower time, then.”

    “We’re not on a Hellmouth,” Caridad said. “They’ll be weak - for vampires. Ruled by their instincts, too. We can lure them into the sunlight and watch them burn.”

    “Don’t underestimate them,” John said. “The spies will be trained shooters and martial artists.”

    “Vampires that know Kung Fu?” Bartowski grimaced as if this were new to him. “Perhaps nuke the site from orbit?” He chuckled weakly at his own suggestion.

    “I don’t think that the general would be amused if we called for a drone strike on Los Angeles,” Walker commented.

    John agreed with a snort. It was a nice fantasy, though.

    “Arson, then?” Grimes proposed.

    Bartowski nodded. “That should work. If we steal a fuel truck, we’ll have a good cover, too. Thieves crashed it into the corner since they couldn’t drive it, sliding along the building’s front, ripping the tank open, gas leaking everywhere, then a spark set all off… boom! Or, foosh!” He grinned as he spread his hands in a pantomimed explosion. “After we used a spy drone to check for human captives, of course,” he added with a grimace.

    “Shouldn’t we scout the place out to see if the spy vampires are present?” Bane asked.

    “That would be a little dangerous,” Grimes told her. “We don’t know how big the nest is.”

    “I can do it,” Caridad claimed. “No sweat. And I can get away before you arrive with the truck. Or while you arrive.”

    “Too dangerous,” John said. She shot him a glare, but he met her eyes. “If the spies have firearms - especially automatic weapons - you’d be in danger. And they will have recovered some of their cached gear.” Every decent spy had some backup gear hidden away, after all. Both on a mission and at home.

    “But they might notice a spy drone as well and fade. Or flee from a fire,” Caridad retorted. “And if we get them in a big fire, we’ll never know since one vampire’s ashes look like another.”

    “And we don’t know their faces, either,” Grimes said.

    “I’m sure we’ll be able to tell the spies from the other vampires,” John said. They would be the most dangerous ones - and the most likely to use firearms.

    “That still means we’d have to, uh, get close to them,” Bartowski pointed out.

    “Technically,” John said, grinning, “we’ll herd them towards us.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 11th, 2008

    The house looked normal - for a decayed, abandoned building - John thought as he studied it through his binocs from the roof of a neighbouring house. The kind of area most people would give a berth, but not because it looked particularly dangerous, but to avoid people begging them for some money. It had been an office building with an adjacent warehouse for a long-defunct shipping company. Most windows on the ground floor were nailed shut, from what he could see.

    “A warehouse. Of course.” Caridad, who was lying next to him, scoffed.

    “Hm?”

    “Nine out of ten times, vampires gather in a warehouse,” she explained. “Never in some nice picket fence house.”

    “They would stick out in a nice neighbourhood,” he pointed out. And the master vampire behind this might like to use the promise of better lodgings to motivate the new vampires.

    She huffed. “At least that makes it easier to avoid setting the next buildings on fire.”

    She was correct. Not that it would be a big loss, in his opinion - the whole area could do with some remodelling. But there was enough space between the buildings that there were no shadows that would allow a vampire to cross the street without going up in flames. At least around noon. “We’ll need to check the sewers and storm drains next,” he said.

    “I know,” Caridad replied. “At least Los Angeles doesn’t have as many tunnels as Sunnydale had.”

    The more he heard about that town, the crazier it sounded. And the more he was glad that it was now located at the bottom of a bay.

    He pushed the button on his radio. “Recon One. We’ve finished the ground surveillance, moving to subterranean.”

    “Copy, gong into the sewers,” Bartowski’s hushed voice replied - Bane was in the base keeping an eye on Hernandez, so they were running this through the Nerd Herd desk. “Uh, the drone flight revealed nothing above room temperature inside.”

    “Copy, no humans inside.” Good. One less hassle to deal with.

    *****​

    The stench inside the sewers didn’t bother him - this time, he had taken a gas mask with him. Caridad scowled at him, of course, but it wasn’t his fault that he lacked a superhuman sense of smell and couldn’t make out a demon by scent alone. And, therefore, didn’t have to keep smelling the sewer stench.

    “According to the plans for the sewer system, back when there was a slaughterhouse here, the building had a larger than normal access,” he said, quoting Bartowski’s report. Large enough to climb up and down it.

    “Let’s hope they demolished it when they turned the area into a warehouse,” Caridad said. “Ew. This smells like a slaughterhouse.”

    He grunted in reply as they approached the target area.

    It didn’t take long to spot the access shaft next to the main pipe. It wasn’t walled close - on the contrary. Someone had fixed the steel rungs set in the shaft - they weren’t rusted at all. And the bottom had been cleared of filth and debris.

    “I think we can cross off the ‘check for sewer escape route’ box,” Caridad commented.

    But an escape route also meant an access route. If they sneaked inside, they might catch the vampires asleep… No. Too dangerous. Better stick with the plan, he told himself. “Let’s check the storm drain,” he said.

    The plans didn’t show any access, but John knew better than to trust them. Even without deliberate action, people made mistakes and forgot or missed changes.

    “At least that won’t stink as much.”

    *****​

    Halfway into the drains, Caridad suddenly stopped and sniffed the air. “Something’s decomposing.”

    “A corpse?” He reflexively checked his carbine.

    “Not sure…” she trailed off, then raised her chin and set out at a brisk pace.

    John followed. If there were bodies down there… that meant the vampires would be using the storm drain to dispose of them. But even the LAPD would quickly find them, should bodies start washing out to the sea every time it rained a lot. And if the master vampire had forbidden the fledges to hunt in the area, then dragging their food there was certainly not allowed either.

    “It’s a dog’s carcass,” Caridad said.

    It was. It didn’t look like it had died violently, either. John wasn’t a coroner or a vet, but he was quite familiar with violence.

    “Poor thing,” Caridad commented. “Probably got lost here.”

    And was weakened by some sickness or old injury. John had seen enough stray dogs in war zones to be able to tell that.

    At least it didn’t look like the vampires had access to the storm drains. That meant they only needed to block the sewer route.

    That wouldn’t be too hard with the right mix of explosives and oil.

    *****​

    Noon. Usually, the worst time John would want to run a mission unless the target was exposing themselves at that precise time. Too many witnesses, too much exposure. But when hunting vampires, it was the best time. The sun would serve as an area denial tool - and without any risk of collateral damage. The perfect air support, actually, he thought with a chuckle as he studied the two sides of the target area he could see from his position on the roof of a neighbouring building at the corner. Clear lines of fire - if any demon tried to flee here, covered with blankets or whatever, he’d get them before they cleared the street.

    “Sniper ready,” he informed the team over the radio.

    “Slayer ready.” Caridad, at the other corner on the back of the area, sounded eager. Like a damn rookie who hadn’t seen combat yet - but she was a veteran; Slayers were just that gung-ho.

    “Flamer ready!” Grimes chimed in. He, on the other hand, sounded a little nervous. Good. The wanna-be Watcher was the weakest member of the team for this mission. He didn’t have the training of a spy, nor did he have the Intersect, and he certainly wasn’t a Slayer. Facing vampire spies was outside his area of experience. Good thing he was in the middle between John and Caridad - that should keep him safe enough. He was just backup, anyway.

    “Truck team, uh, ready,” Bartowski reported. “We had a slight issue with our cover, but that was solved.”

    John rolled his eyes. Unless it could still affect the mission, solved problems were irrelevant. Besides, Barowski’s cover for his absence was a fake Nerd Herd install job - that couldn’t have been much of an issue to begin with.

    “Truck team, starting mission,” Walker said.

    John took a deep breath and aimed his rifle at the corner of the warehouse, looking over the scope to keep both sides in his sight. It wouldn’t take long, now.

    It didn’t. A few minutes afterwards, the fuel truck appeared on the closest street, passing below his position and accelerating before it swerved and turned the corner. John couldn’t see how it scraped alongside the front of the building, but he could hear it.

    “Starting to inject fuel!”

    Bartowski was such a nerd. John wet his lips and focused on the two sides of the building and area he had to cover. Nothing was moving so far. The vampires would’ve noticed the ‘crash’, but they wouldn’t be fleeing yet. Not until they’d see the fuel Bartowski and Walker were pouring into the building. Then one idiot or the other would run to the escape tunnel.

    Still no movement to be seen. Just how slow to react were those bloodsuckers?

    He heard a beep from his belt. “Sewer charge went off,” he told the team.

    “Uh. Retreating!” Bartowski replied.

    “Ignited,” Walker added.

    Soon, smoke billowed up from the front of the building, and John could see flames licking against the walls - from the inside. And… movement!

    A figure dashed out of the side door of the warehouse, sprinting towards the fence. Fast - too fast for a human. John gritted his teeth as he aimed the rifle, trying to adjust for the vampire’s speed, but the demon burst into flames before they reached the fence.

    “One barbecued himself on the east side,” John reported.

    “Another tried it on the west side,” Caridad chimed in. “They’re panicking.”

    Most would, in their situation. Woken from sleep, the house on fire, their escape route on fire? John didn’t know many who wouldn’t panic under those circumstances.

    Another figure appeared. This one was covered in a blanket. They reached the fence without bursting into flames, but John nailed them with a short burst in the legs. And when they stumbled and fell, the blanket was torn off.

    A moment later, they were on fire. Then they were ashes.

    “Shot one in a blanket. Ashes,” John reported.

    “The smarter ones are starting to get out,” Caridad commented. “Hah! Crossbow bolt to the heart, through the blanket!”

    “Nothing on my front, yet,” Grimes said.

    Another vampire in a blanket. This one wasn’t running in a straight line, but zigzagging like a rabbit - and with a vampire’s speed. No army training, though. They stopped for a moment when they reached the fence, and John put three bullets into the vampire, followed by three more.

    It wasn’t enough to knock the demon down, but they stumbled back - and started to smoke. As they frantically patted themselves down, John fired another burst. The vampire fell against the fence, and as they slid down, the blanket was caught on it. Exposed, the demon quickly burned to ashes.

    “One more down.”

    “Same here.”

    Most of the front was now burning brightly, more smoke rising. The fire brigade would be notified any moment now - if they hadn’t already - but they wouldn’t arrive in time to save the building or the vampires.

    That meant time was running out for the two turned spies.

    Then smoke suddenly appeared in the back, on the street. Thick smoke that quickly covered the road and the fenced area. “They’re using smoke grenades!” John snapped. He should’ve expected that.

    Goddamnit.

    They were dealing with vampires - a thermographic scope would be useless even without the blazing fire licking at the warehouse. But… the smoke wouldn’t cover everything perfectly.

    “Laying down fire!” Grimes’s yelling voice sounded over the radio. A moment later, flames shot out from the Watcher’s position, forming an arc on the street. The wall of fire wouldn’t last long, but it would channel the vampires. And Grimes was laying down more fire - but on John’s side. That would funnel the bloodsuckers towards Caridad.

    John was tempted to blindly shoot into the smoke. If he had a machine gun…

    Then shots rang out from the smoke. Automatic fire - aimed at Grimes’s position. John heard the man shriek, and the firewall he was laying down was cut short.

    “Morgan!” Caridad yelled.

    “I’m OK… I think.” And after a heartbeat, Grimes added: “Or not…”

    John snarled. Covering fire - they would charge the front building then. Damn.

    “I’m coming!” Caridad was moving - John caught her vaulting over a car and dashing across the street.

    And then she stumbled, caught in a burst of automatic fire. “Ah!”

    John gasped, then snarled and started shooting into the edge of the smoke cloud facing Caridad as the Slayer fell, rolled, and then scrambled forward, into cover, on all fours, then limping.

    His rifle ran dry, and John swapped the magazine, continuing to fire as Caridad dragged herself into the building where Grimes was still groaning. “Morgan and Caridad wounded,” John belatedly snapped into the radio. “Vampire spies breaking out.”

    “We’re coming!” Walker replied.

    But so were the vampires. John caught movement in the thinning smoke cloud - too fast to switch his aim - and then more smoke grenades went off, covering the entire street on the building’s side.

    “They’re in the building,” John snapped, grabbing his rifle and rushing towards the stairs. He couldn’t do anything from the roof any more.

    As he rushed down the stairs, he heard Grimes groan again but nothing from Caridad. Goddamnit.

    He reached the ground floor and the door to the street just in time to watch a sedan with tinted windows accelerate out the entrance to the underground garage across the street. He snapped off three shots, two of them hitting the body of the vehicle, the third blowing a window out, but the car got away - and he didn’t see flames erupting inside, either.

    “Vampires fleeing in a black sedan, tinted windows,” he reported as he sprinted across the street, towards Caridad. And Grimes.

    He heard Walker mutter a curse on the radio channel. “We can’t pursue them.”

    “We need to get Morgan and Caridad to the hospital!” Bartowski added.

    “I’m OK,” Caridad protested. “It’s just a flesh wound. Get the spies!”

    John clenched his teeth and dashed through the hallway towards the front of the building. There they were! Grimes was sitting on the floor, Bartowski pressing a bandage to the man’s side. And Caridad…

    John saw bloodstains on her jeans - one leg had been hit - and more on her jacket. Shoulder and one to the side. He scoffed. “That one isn’t a flesh wound,” he spat.

    She glared at him. “One or three, doesn’t matter - I’ll be fine with some bed rest.”

    “I wouldn’t mind a doctor, actually,” Grimes said with a weak chuckle. “I’m not feeling so well.”

    John looked at Bartowski.

    “I’ve stopped the bleeding, but… he needs surgery, I think.”

    “Let’s get out of here. The police will be here soon,” Walker said.

    Caridad was about to stand up despite her wounds and hissed at the pain. John glared at the fool and stepped in, grabbing her in a bridal carry. She was lighter than he had expected, and he felt her stiffen before she relaxed and closed her eyes.

    “Let’s go.”

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 11th, 2008

    “I’ll be fine,” Caridad repeated herself. “The bullets went right through - you saw that yourself.”

    John scoffed. Wounds were no joke.

    “I’m not even bleeding,” she added - but she didn’t try to hop off the examination table.

    “Not any more,” John told her as he bandaged the leg. He glanced at the door to Hernandez’s room. She shouldn’t be able to listen to them, but… he still hated discussing anything with the spy nearby.

    “How’s Morgan?” Caridad asked.

    “In surgery,” he replied. As she knew.

    He finished bandaging her calf and stood, still frowning. She should see a doctor. John was familiar with wounds, but if he had missed something…

    “This sucked,” she said as she wriggled her toes, then winced. “We should’ve caught them.”

    “They were better prepared than we expected,” John said. He should’ve checked the garage for possible getaway cars. He could’ve trapped the sedan - although the vampires might’ve just been lucky that there was a suitable car in the garage.

    “And now they know we’re hunting them.” Caridad slumped, then winced again - her shoulder would be hurting, too.

    “Yes.” John nodded.

    “This sucks.”

    “It’s a setback.” He didn’t shrug; she was correct, after all. But they had to look forward. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

    “And they will go into hiding. Or hook up with the other Fulcrum agents - and turn them.”

    That was a possible, maybe even a likely, consequence. “We’ll be prepared for them next time.” They’d take more and heavier weapons. More explosives, especially. In hindsight, he should have brought a rocket launcher at the least - he could have blown up the vampire’s car. And a machine gun to lay down covering fire. Although that wouldn’t stop vampires. Not even with tracers.

    “They’ll be prepared as well,” she retorted.

    “We’ll beat them.” He did his best to sound confident. They couldn’t afford to despair. As Napoleon said, ‘the moral was to the physical as three is to one’.

    She stared at him, then clenched her teeth. “I need body armour. And better weapons.”

    Well, that he could provide. But could she use them?

    Before he could ask, he saw her tense up, her head snapping towards the ‘guest quarters’. Ah.

    The door to Hernandez’s room opened, and the spy peered out. “Kirsten? Oh.” Her eyes widened when she saw them, and she gasped. “What happened? You’re hurt?”

    “It’s nothing,” Caridad replied at once. “Just a few scratches.”

    John refrained from rolling his eyes.

    “But how did you get hurt?” Hernandez walked towards them. “Oh, no - was this another attack?”

    “Possibly related,” John said.

    She winced hunching over and looking round. “Here? In Wienerlicious? Or the store?”

    “We were tracking some of the people who kidnapped you,” he told her. “It came to a fight.” She would be able to find out through the news, but she wouldn’t know about the vampire nest. And, so he hoped, she’d worry what was going on.

    Although he was almost sure that even if they caught Hernandez contacting Fulcrum, Bartowski and the others would assume it was the result of her brainwashing. They really needed to get access to a scanner as soon as possible. On the other hand, he wouldn’t put it past Fulcrum to actually leave some mind conditioning in a spy - if the spy let them, of course.

    “Oh.” Hernandez sat down on the closest free chair. “Was it because of me?”

    “We were going after them anyway,” Caridad said.

    “They’re traitors,” John added.

    Hernandez didn’t flinch at that. “How… how did you get hurt?” she asked after a moment, looking at Caridad with her shoulders still hunched over.

    “I got shot,” the Slayer replied in a flat voice.

    “Oh.”

    Hernandez was tallying the wounds, John was sure. And she would dismiss the idea that all three were just grazing shots. One more ‘proof’ that Caridad was a cyborg.

    “And they got away? All of them?”

    “Temporarily,” Caridad replied, rather grumpily.

    “We’ll get them,” John added.

    Hernandez slowly nodded. “Good.”

    For a moment, no one said anything. Then Caridad hopped off the table before John could react, followed by a wince and hiss - Slayer healing hadn’t fixed her leg. Not yet.

    “Sit down,” John told her.

    Of course, she didn’t listen and walked over to the fridge of the base - a scowl failing to hide how she hurt with each step.

    “Shouldn’t you, uh, see a doctor?” Hernandez asked.

    “I’m fine!”

    Hernandez glanced at him, and John shrugged. “You should lie down and rest for a few hours.”

    “I’m hungry.”

    “I can make you something,” Hernandez offered at once, then flinched a little when Caridad glared at her. “Sorry.”

    “I’m fine.”

    John sighed, which earned him a scowl, and walked over to join the Slayer. “I haven’t eaten lunch yet,” he told her.

    “I could fetch hot dogs from Wienerlicious,” Hernandez suggested.

    “The police will be watching the store,” he told her. Grimes having been shot would ensure that. And they would connect the shooting to the fire - they hadn’t had time to collect the spent cartridges.

    “Why?”

    “Morgan got hurt as well,” Caridad said. “He’ll be fine, though.”

    “What? Where is he?”

    “Hospital.” John glanced at her with narrowed eyes. “You can’t visit.”

    “But…”

    Another glare shut her up, and John started on making his own sandwich.

    Caridad was already devouring her first - if you could call a loaf of bread with a salami stuffed into it a sandwich. By the time John’s BLT was finished, Caridad wasn’t even bothering with that any more; she was just taking alternate bites out of sausage and bread.

    But her mood had improved, and she was favouring her wounded leg.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Northeast Los Angeles, April 11th, 2008

    “That’s the first time you’re visiting my apartment,” Caridad said as they drew up in front of an older looking apartment building.

    He grunted at the implied expectation that he would go up with her. “It could be under surveillance.”

    “As far as my official address is concerned, I’m still living with my parents,” Caridad said and got out of the car.

    “Ah.” Her expression prevented him from asking about her parents - that clearly wasn’t a subject for small talk. Though it couldn’t be that simple to fool the police or throw them off.

    “Chuck set it up when I came back to Los Angeles.”

    Not the Council? Interesting.

    She was still favouring her right leg - hell, a normal human wouldn’t be able to put weight on it - so he offered her his arm without saying anything or even looking at her.

    After a moment, she hooked hers into his, then leaned on him as they made their way to the building’s front entrance. She quickly unlocked it, and they stepped inside.

    The interior smelt and looked as he expected. Fifteen apartments, spread over three floors. It wasn’t derelict or filthy, but it was obvious that the janitor wasn’t working overtime.

    “I usually use the windows to come and go for patrols, but…” She shrugged. “I’m currently a little handicapped, and you can’t jump up that high.”

    He nodded with another grunt. He could climb the damn building if he had to. It wouldn’t take much to get a line to the roof, either.

    Her apartment was on the top floor. Right below the roof. In the hallway, they encountered an older woman who greeted them in Spanish. They replied in kind, but she still gave John the evil eye when she thought he wasn’t looking.

    “Mrs Garcia. She’s nosy,” Caridad said as she opened the door to her apartment. “One of the reasons I like to use the window to come and go.”

    “Ah,” he replied as he looked round inside. One room with a kitchenette, small bedroom to the side. The furniture wasn’t new, but it was clean. Not too tidy, though - a few pieces of clothing were spread over the couch. She brushed them away before sitting down, then looked at him.

    After a moment’s hesitation, he sat down as well. It was an opportunity to talk without Hernandez overhearing. But he didn’t have anything to say.

    “You can crash here.”

    “I have to relieve Walker later.” They couldn’t leave Hernandez unsupervised in the base.

    She grumbled something uncomplimentary, then sighed. “Better catch some sleep then, if you’re standing guard later. You can use my bed.”

    “You’re wounded.”

    “It’s big enough for two.”

    He turned his head to look at her. Her expression was… not teasing. Quite serious. And she wasn’t in shape for sex, anyway, was she? Not even a Slayer would want sex with three gunshot wounds still healing. At least he hoped so as he nodded.

    She got up, and he saw her wince again when she put weight on her leg. Slayer healing wasn’t a miracle, then.

    She leaned on him again as they walked over to her bedroom. Which was more spartan than he had expected. Just a bed, a big, old armoire, and a rack with various bladed weapons. And a chair she apparently used to drop clothes on.

    She hopped on her bed, then shifted and started to pull off her jeans. He was tempted to help, but didn’t - she was scowling already. But she managed and threw the jeans on the chair, followed by her top, leaving her in a sports bra and panties. And three bandages. None of them bloody, fortunately. And looking at him with an unreadable expression.

    He nodded, grunted and kicked off his shoes. Then he laid down next to her and stared at the ceiling. He could hear her lay down as well, felt her leg briefly touch his, and was suddenly tempted to reach out and wrap an arm around her. Or jump up and go and sleep on the couch.

    He did neither. He simply lay there, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Northeast Los Angeles, April 12th, 2008

    His watch woke him up after midnight. It also woke up Caridad; he could hear her shift next to him. That was, if the Slayer had actually gone to sleep. But the idea of her just lying next to him, staring at the ceiling, or at him, for a few hours, wasn’t very comforting.

    “Time to go?” she asked.

    He grunted in agreement.

    “We should just send her away to some ‘safe location’.”

    Lock her up somewhere else? That sounded like a good solution. But the rest of the group wouldn’t go for it. Bartowski wanted to fix her mind. And Walker wouldn’t cross him. Hell, even Bane might not want to go behind Grimes’s back. “I don’t think the others will agree,” he said.

    “Phil would,” she said.

    But he was the only one. John shrugged. “We’ll deal.” They had to.

    He slipped out of bed, and Caridad suddenly snorted.

    He turned his head to glance at her.

    “I just thought that if Mrs Garcia saw you leave the apartment, she’d be convinced we did it.”

    He chuckled at that and tried not to dwell on it.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 12th, 2008

    For a supposedly ordinary civilian, Hernandez was quite cool and composed under pressure, John thought the next evening as he watched the woman read what newspapers and magazines the others had brought to the base. Spending days confined to The Castle wasn’t easy - even a trained spy such as himself liked going out and getting a bit of fresh air. Yet Hernandez hadn’t complained so far. That was more than a little suspicious, in his opinion. On the other hand, a good spy would be aware of that and would complain for appearance’s sake. And to garner pity from the bleeding hearts in the team, of course. So… was this a double-bluff? Did she expect them to notice, and then assume she wouldn’t act like this if she were a spy? A daring, dangerous ploy, but it would fit the entire mission. Perhaps…

    “Guys! Guys!” Bartowski yelled, interrupting John’s thoughts. “I’ve got it!”

    “You’ve got what?” John asked, frowning.

    The other man pointed at the screen of his laptop. “They ditched the getaway car! And the police found it, and identified it. It was a rental, and I just cracked the front Fulcrum was using to pay for it!”

    Oh. John’s eyes widened before he grinned. That meant they had a link to Fulcrum’s operations in the city. And that was…

    “Is that a good thing?” Hernandez asked.

    Goddamnit.

    *****​
     
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 12: The Desert Trap
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 12: The Desert Trap

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 12th, 2008

    Of course Bartowski had to blurt out his results when Hernandez could hear everything!

    “Uh… yes, it’s a good thing,” the idiot told her. “We should be able to find the men who messed with your mind now.”

    At least the moron’s grimace showed that he knew he had blundered. There was nothing to it - they would have to keep Hernandez under constant observation. Otherwise, the risk of her warning Fulcrum was too great. That meant at the very least two people from their team would be stuck watching her. Preferably team members who didn’t trust the woman, which meant Bane, Walker, Caridad, Brown-Smythe or John himself.

    Damn.

    “Oh! Does that mean you can fix me?” Hernandez asked with wide eyes and a slight tremble in her voice.

    And Bartowski ate it up. “Uh… we will have to find them first. And then we’ll have to get the machine and learn how to use it. But, yes, we should be able to help you.”

    “Good!” She went and hugged the moron as John clenched his teeth and watched to ensure that she didn’t slip him a bug or something worse.

    “Uh…” Bartowski awkwardly patted her back. “So… I should start on tracking them, right?”

    “Ah, yes, yes!” Hernandez blushed as she released the moron.

    Good - that should motivate Walker to keep a close eye on her. For now, John would have to ensure that the woman didn’t warn Fulcrum.

    Four hours later, Bartowski was still busy on the computer. Next to him, empty soda bottles littered the floor - they would have to restock the fridges upstairs. Hm… if Fulcrum didn’t yet know about The Castle, that would be a potential vulnerability. John made a mental note to check that - it would be embarrassing if they lost a base due to a soda-trail.

    Hernandez had spent the time reading newspapers and magazines. They had taken her cell phone under the pretext of keeping the enemy spies from tracking her through it, so that was one less threat. Still, you couldn’t trust her.

    Which was why Walker was now watching her. And John could take a nap - he would have to take over again in four hours, after all.

    But before he could get to his cot, Caridad entered the base. She was looking better than in the morning - she wasn’t limping any more. But it was a conscious effort, he realised when he saw how tense she was.

    “Hi!” she said.

    He nodded in return.

    “Hi,” Walker joined in, followed by Hernandez’s more lively “Hello!”

    “Hi, Caridad,” Bartowski mumbled without taking his eyes off his screen.

    “He’s tracking Fulcrum’s finances,” John told the Slayer.

    “Ah.” She glanced over at Walker and Hernandez, then back to him.

    John shrugged then nodded at Bartowski.

    “How’s Morgan?”

    “He’s recovering,” Walker said. “He should be out of the hospital in a week or so. We could get him released into private care if we need to.”

    John almost snorted. He’d push for that if the moron were suspicious enough of Hernandez. But as things were, it was better to let Grimes heal up in the hospital.

    Caridad took a seat next to him, then leaned over and whispered. “You’re going to watch her, then?”

    He grunted in response and nodded curtly.

    “Ah.”

    She sounded disappointed. It couldn’t be helped, though - they needed all hands on deck now. He looked back at Bartowski, still typing away. John had no clue how long it would take him to crack whatever Fulcrum was using to hide their operations. Him and Orion, of course. They hadn’t yet found out who was really behind the ‘Spicy Pick’, but that was probably due to someone using magic to hide a connection.

    “So, we’re waiting?” Caridad asked after a moment.

    “Yes.”

    Another moment passed, then she said: “That sounds boring.”

    “You still need some rest,” he pointed out. And boring wasn’t always bad.

    “So do you,” she retorted.

    “We can take a nap,” he suggested.

    “Good idea.”

    They got up and walked over to the ‘guest rooms’. And ignored the glances from Bartowski and Walker. It wasn’t as if anything would happen. It was just safer to sleep together if you couldn’t trust everyone in the base.

    *****​

    “I’ve got it!”

    John opened his eyes, almost jerking. That had been Bartowski!

    “What?”

    And that was Caridad. Who, apparently, had shifted from sleeping on the cot next to him to sleeping on his cot.

    Damn.

    She got up at once - rolling off him and off the cot. John glared at her.

    “My cot is broken. Too uncomfortable,” she told him on the way to the main room.

    Yeah, right. He scoffed. As if. But there was no time to sort this out.

    “I’ve got a list of rented apartments and houses,” Bartowski announced before they even reached the table. “And a list of rented vehicles!” He was smiling, but he looked quite tired - rumpled shirt, and the number of soda bottles had grown further. Had he worked nonstop for hours?

    Well, as long as it got them results… John took a look at the list on the screen. Half a dozen locations.

    “We can dismiss the three apartments - not big enough for the brainwashing machine,” Bartowski said, followed by a yawn. “But the three houses would be big enough. For the machine. And the guards, I think. Probably.”

    “The apartments would serve our missing spies, though,” John said, glancing over his shoulder at Hernandez’s room.

    “They would need an invitation if the apartment is being used,” Caridad remarked. “But if it’s empty, there wouldn’t be a threshold.”

    “Great.” John sighed and checked the time. Past midnight - not the best time to hunt armed vampires. But they didn’t have the time to spare. And the traffic was much better now than in the morning. “We can check the apartments,” he said.

    “We?” Bartowski asked. “I mean…”

    “Not you. Caridad and I,” John told him. “Reconnaissance only,” he added for the Slayer’s benefit.

    “I’m not going to charge machine-gun wielding vampires,” she replied with a scowl.

    He nodded - though he had some doubts. Sometimes, she seemed to get tunnel vision. Or bloodlust. But they had a mission. “Let’s go, then.”

    “Wait, guys! You shouldn’t go out alone!” Bartowski protested.

    “You’re exhausted, Bane is with her boyfriend in the hospital, Walker is needed here to keep an eye on the base,” John told him.

    “Uh…”

    “It’s OK, Chuck.” Walker must have overheard them - she was standing in the doorway to the ‘guest rooms’.

    “We’re only taking a look. No slaying,” Caridad said.

    “But…”

    “Get some sleep,” John snapped and turned to leave the base.

    They left through the back door after checking the cameras for cops or other surveillance and grabbed one of the armoured SUVs - if they were running into the vampire spies, John wanted the best protection he could get.

    And the best weapons, he mentally added as he dropped two sports bags on the backbench.

    “Whatcha got?” Caridad asked, adding a bag of her own.

    “Shotgun, carbine, machine gun, rocket launcher, flamethrower,” he told her as he got into the car. The spies wouldn’t escape by car next time he saw them.

    She whistled. “Which model? For the rocket launcher.”

    He raised his eyebrows. “Are you qualified?” He reached below the seat and pulled out a bulletproof vest.

    “I know how they work,” she told him with a frown.

    Which meant she wasn’t qualified. He shook his head. “Don’t touch it unless it’s an emergency.” He started the engine, then entered traffic. What traffic there was at this hour.

    “Xander showed everyone how to use a LAW,” she complained.

    “It’s not a LAW,” he replied. “It’s an AT-4.”

    “Same principle.”

    He didn’t roll his eyes - he was driving. But he wanted to. Slayers. “Emergency only,” he said.

    “Alright,” she replied, sounding as if she were talking through clenched teeth. “I guess you’re safer behind me anyway.”

    Now that was a cheap shot, even if it was true - probably. “Get a vest as well,” he told her.

    She frowned some more, but bent down and grabbed one. “Like life jackets in a plane,” she commented.

    He shrugged. It was a good spot to stash them.

    She loosened her seatbelt and started to slip into the vest - though she seemed to contort herself a little more than necessary to put the vest on, in his opinion. “Why did you slip into my bed?”

    “It’s a cot, not a bed.”

    He didn’t bother replying to that.

    “It was more comfortable,” she said after a moment. “Safer, too, with Hernandez in the same base,” she added.

    Safer? It wasn’t as if sleeping on his cot would’ve made a difference with regards to noticing someone sneaking up on them. Not a positive one, at least. Unless this was some Slayer thing, like marking her territory. John wasn’t an expert, far from it, but the Slayers he knew tended to be territorial - Faith had dismissed Caridad’s jealousy as merely being territorial as well.

    He didn’t want to think about Faith. Or remember that night. Not now. And, in a way, it was safer, he guessed.

    Probably.

    He nodded, and Caridad grinned as they drove onto the highway.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 13th, 2008

    “That’s quite an expensive-looking location,” Caridad commented once John had parked the SUV and they were approaching the building.

    He nodded - she was correct; this was an upper-class area. “Must have been meant to be a safe house,” he said.

    “With all the surveillance?” She pointed at the cameras covering almost all angles of the building.

    He shrugged. “Additional security if you control them.” Which a spy would.

    “I guess the cops wouldn’t bother a rich guy living here, either.”

    He grunted. That might’ve played a role - or someone was using their expense account to live the good life.

    “And how do we get inside?” she asked. “Garage? Back Door? Front?”

    All of the access points were covered with cameras, and the lobby had a guard. With a little work, they’d be able to sneak in anyway, but that would take some time and, possibly, Bartowski’s help. Fortunately, there was an obvious alternative. “Roof,” he told her.

    That made her smile again.

    The neighbouring building had better locks but far fewer cameras, and John was good with locks. Ten minutes later - it would’ve been five minutes if not for some idiot tenant having to walk their dog in the middle of the night - they were on the roof and John was getting ready to shoot a grapnel over to the other house while Caridad slipped into a climbing harness.

    “Third floor from the top, right?” she asked as she joined him at the edge of the roof.

    He grunted in agreement, aimed and fired. Then he smiled when the padded hook landed almost exactly where he had wanted it to. A tug, a pull to test it, and the line was secure - and far above the cameras’ coverage.

    “I’ll be right back,” Caridad whispered, then seemed to freeze for a moment before grabbing the line and hooking her legs around it.

    John was glad she wasn’t tightrope-walking. That would’ve been rubbing it in. He should’ve followed her, but this was just reconnaissance, and he’d be more useful as backup here.

    Caridad reached the roof and slid over the railing. She moved a little to the side, peering down, before she fixed another line to the metal bars. And then she was rappelling down to the target apartment’s floor. He clenched his teeth and aimed his rifle at the closest window. Curtains blocked his line of sight into the apartment, but it was obviously dark inside - not that that would hinder vampires very much.

    Caridad reached the balcony, spending a few seconds looking it over before climbing on it, then crouched down. “Doesn’t feel demony,” he heard her whisper over the radio. “Don’t hear anything, either.”

    Vampires had no heartbeat and didn’t need to breathe, so that didn’t mean much. But the apartment wasn’t big enough to be out of her sensing range, as far as John knew. “Good. Return,” he told her.

    “Copy.”

    One down, two to go.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 13th, 2008

    “Any luck?” Walker asked when they returned to base.

    She must be tired, John knew - otherwise, she wouldn’t ask a pointless question. If they had discovered the vampire spies, they would’ve reported it at once.

    “Nothing. We didn’t even get a normal vampire,” Caridad said.

    “The apartments aren’t currently occupied,” John clarified. “They’re safe houses.”

    “Well, as Chuck said, Fulcrum will likely be using the actual houses for their operation,” Walker commented, then stifled a yawn. “Sorry.”

    “I’ll take over,” Caridad announced.

    John swallowed his retort. Slayers didn’t need as much sleep as normal humans, and if they were to check out the three other locations tomorrow, he’d do better if he was well-rested.

    It still galled.

    Walker, though, merely nodded. “Good. I’ll head home then. Just need to wake up Chuck and change.”

    “Change?” Caridad asked.

    “Something that will explain why she was out so late,” John told her as Walker entered the locker area.

    “But the cops already know you’re CIA.”

    He frowned - he was NSA, not CIA. But that didn’t matter. “You never know who’s watching.” A good spy wasn’t slacking off when it came to their cover.

    “Ah.” She nodded in apparent understanding. “Does she have to dress up Chuck then?”

    He snorted “She just has to remove his badge and pocket protectors.”

    Both of them laughed at that, and even more so when Bartowski, looking half-asleep, appeared in the doorway, and his Nerd Herd badge was missing.

    “What’s so funny?” the moron asked.

    “Nothing,” Caridad replied.

    “Come, Chuck,” Walker cut in before Bartowski could protest. “Let’s go home.”

    “Alright.”

    They left. Which meant it was just John and Caridad now - and Hernandez sleeping, or faking sleep, in her room. “I guess I’ll head to bed myself,” he said after a moment.

    “Yeah.”

    *****​

    California, Glendale, April 13th, 2008

    “So, it’s true: The suburbs are the heart of evil.”

    John didn’t bother reacting to Caridad’s comment as he studied the house in front of them. Two floors, five rooms, two bathrooms, garage for two cars, moderate porch, small yard and backyard… down to the picket fence, it was a perfectly average suburban home. Not even the most anal home owner’s association would find fault with it.

    Well, but for the broken window in the back. Broken from the inside, judging by the number of glass shards on the ground outside and the half-locked garage-door. He radioed to Bartowski. “Is there a police report about the Glendale safe house?”

    “Uh… gimme a second…”

    He snorted as he heard the nerd yelp - probably burned his lip on too-hot coffee. It was a little too early for him, or so it seemed.

    “There… uh… no, no police report.”

    “Copy.”

    “You think the vampires broke in?” Caridad asked.

    “Perhaps.” They wouldn’t have to break into an empty safe house - they would’ve known where to get the keys.

    “All three apartments were busts, and this time, the first house that we check is a hit?”

    “The apartments were mostly meant for emergencies,” he explained. “They aren’t large enough for an operation. This house is in the ideal range of our base and can house a small team.”

    “‘Ideal range’?”

    “Close enough to be convenient, far enough to avoid our standard security sweeps.”

    “Ah. Unless it got a huge basement, it’s not large enough for a brainwashing machine, though.”

    “Yes.” But they might find clues about the location of that machine. Hernandez conveniently didn’t remember anything about its location, of course. “Let’s go in through the back.”

    “Wouldn’t want the nosy neighbours to wonder, hm?”

    He grunted in agreement. It was a Sunday morning - the house-wives would be watching the street like hawks, waiting for anything out of the ordinary that would be good fuel for their gossipping. Fortunately, the back of the Fulcrum safe house had an empty lot behind it, which would make approaching the house undetected easier. They probably chose the home for that feature.

    “Watch out for alarm systems and traps,” he told her once they reached the lot. There were enough bushes to conceal them, which meant the enemy spies would have planted some counter-measures.

    “Traps? In Suburbia?”

    “Nothing obvious - but a few pit traps could look natural,” he explained. A broken or sprained ankle would ruin your day, after all, if you were in the middle of an infiltration mission. “Or a nest of bees or something.” He remembered the fire ants in Nicaragua. That had been satisfying.

    She snorted, though it sounded a little surprised. “Speaking from personal experience?”

    “Not on the receiving end,” he replied.

    “Ah.”

    He didn’t need to look at her to know she was smirking.

    They crawled through the bushes, finding no traps other than some literal tripwires. There was a motion detector at the edge of the backyard, though, which was a little tricky to disable. Fortunately, the things couldn’t be too sensitive - not in a spot like this, at least - or any small animal would set it off, so John didn’t have too much trouble.

    Then they were in the backyard, approaching the house. The fence was higher here, apparently because of the jacuzzi, so the neighbours wouldn’t spot them unless they went up on their roofs.

    The backdoor had an alarm system, but it wasn’t active. Someone had turned it off or disabled it. That didn’t have to mean anything, not if the house wasn’t in use, but coupled with the broken window and the garage?

    They entered, Caridad taking the lead, long knife in hand and sniffing the air. “Blood.”

    He nodded, swallowing the curse on his lips. He had expected that.

    There was a pot of cold coffee on the counter in the kitchen, untouched. A pack of sliced bread next to it. The house had been used.

    The living room was wrecked. Chairs and couch upturned, table broken, with bloodstains on the carpet next to it. Caridad sniffed once more, then moved around until she stood at the door and looked at the rest of the room. “They struck from here. They must have invited the vamps inside, and they attacked them right away.”

    “They wouldn’t have expected vampires,” John replied. If not for having met Bartowski and the others, he’d be still ignorant about them as well. “Let’s check the bedrooms - we need to know how many spies were here.”

    And how many new vampire spies they might be facing soon.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 13th, 2008

    “...and we checked the other two houses - no dice. No one there, demony or otherwise. Well, one had a stray cat in the shed in the yard…” Caridad shrugged and bit into her sixth hot dog.

    “Uh… so we have, what, three more vampire spies?” Bartowski asked with a grimace, his lunch apparently forgotten as he had dropped his sub onto his plate.

    “In three days, and only if they manage to turn them,” the Slayer said. “They’re new vampires, so that might not work out. Even the master vamp that was behind the first turning failed at least once, and it had a turning assembly line and training camp going.”

    “More like an assessment camp.” Bartowski just had to nitpick, didn’t he?

    “We need to deal with the Fulcrum vampires first; they are the bigger threat,” Walker said.

    “Until we get a lead on the Aztec apocalypse,” Bartowski pointed out, grimacing. “In any case, you’re right - they won’t have a turning manual. And Los Angeles isn’t a Hellmouth.”

    “Despite the city’s best efforts,” Caridad interrupted him with a toothy grin of her own.

    “Err, yes. Anyway - we can expect them to have some trouble turning people at first,” the moron went on. “That should give us some time to find them.”

    “We haven’t been lucky like that lately,” Caridad pointed out.

    “Well…” Bartowski smiled in his moronic way. “We might’ve been, but never knew it?”

    John rolled his eyes. He wasn’t the only one, either - Walker spoke up: “This doesn’t help us. We need to find out where the spies buried the others.”

    “Uh, that’s, uh, hard,” Bartowski said. “They probably won’t use a cemetery - not when they were raised in the basement of a building.”

    John agreed - spies, vampire or not, would usually pick the more covert option. It made sense to hide if you were hunted.

    “We’ll never find the right basement,” Caridad said, scowling even more. “We were lucky to find them once, and that was because the other fledglings messed up.”

    “And because of Harmony,” Bartowski added, which earned him a glare from the Slayer.

    “Anyone could’ve played bait,” Caridad retorted.

    “But they’d have been in danger if we’d hung back as far as we did.” Of course the moron would care about that..“But we need to focus, people. If you were a Fulcrum spy, where would you hide a body? Or three?”

    John wanted to tell the moron to ask Hernandez, but excluding the spy from this meeting had been hard enough, even with Bane backing him - and now watching the woman in her cell. “Not in a basement,” he said instead. “Sooner or later, someone will notice.” A squatter or bored teenager stumbling over it, or workers remodelling the place. You didn’t hide bodies in a basement. Unless it was under the concrete foundations of a new building.

    “They only need the grave to stay hidden for three days,” Bartowski said.

    John shrugged. “It’s still a stupid risk.”

    “And that we wiped out the training camp will make them doubt the method even further,” Caridad added.

    “Shallow grave in the desert, then,” John said. He’d drop a body in the Pacific, but that wouldn’t work for vampires. Not if you wanted them to rise.

    Bartowski slumped. “Great. Even if we limit the area so they can drive there and back easily during the night, there’s a lot of desert for that.”

    “They’ll want to have some shelter nearby,” Caridad said. “So the fledglings can hide from the sun. And the vamps themselves, in case their car breaks down.”

    “Oh!” Bartowski perked up. “Their car!”

    “Can you track it?” Walker asked.

    He shook his head. “No - I checked all the rentals they got with the money I tracked. But,” he added, smiling grimly, “they’re new vamps. They will still be acting half on instinct. And now that they’re out from under the thumb of the master vamp who kept them in line…”

    “...they’ll hunt,” Caridad finished for him.

    “Yes. It’s hard to track a hunting vamp in Los Angeles by looking for missing or dead people. Too many of them for mundane reasons. But in the desert? With isolated gas stations?” Bartowski was already turning towards the computer. “We’ll have to check the police reports, possibly tweak Willow’s algorithm a little…”

    John shook his head, glanced at Walker, then looked at the sandwich the moron had forgotten.

    The other spy sighed and nodded. “Chuck, your lunch.”

    “What? Oh. Uh… sorry. Thank you.” Bartowski started to eat while typing one-handedly. “Oh… no… what about…. Probably a runaway… Oh! There’s a gas station employee who went missing today - graveyard shift. Supposed to be really dependable. And the police found some bloodstains in the gas station.”

    John grinned.

    *****​

    California, East of Los Angeles, April 13th, 2008

    The local police surely hadn’t cared overly much about the missing person case. The gas station was open, and a bored-looking teen was sitting behind the counter, doing his best to ignore them as he read a book. John couldn’t see any sign of a serious investigation. At least they had cordoned off the bloodstains - though the scraps of plastic surrounding them was a half-assed effort at best.

    “I wonder if the local cops were hired from Sunnydale,” Caridad commented as she looked around, barely bothering to hide her interest in the bloodstains by picking up a magazine.

    “They weren’t,” Bartowski told them over the radio. “At least they don’t match any names from the Sunnydale Police Department’s roster.”

    “Ah.”

    John had considered the comment a rhetorical question. Judging by the way Caridad grinned, she had done so as well.

    “The man’s car’s still in the parking lot,” Walker added over the radio.

    John spotted the surveillance camera. “What about the records of the security camera?”

    “Nothing.”

    No surprise there - any spy would’ve been able to avoid it since it didn’t cover the part of the station where they found the bloodstains. John moved over to the cordoned-off area and crouched down to study the stains. “No one bled out here,” he said. The stains were a few drops - a scratch, but not a serious wound.

    “Doesn’t look like a spillover from a feeding.” Caridad leaned over his shoulder, and he heard her sniffing the air. “Faint demony smell.”

    Confirmation, then. “Their blood?”

    “No.”

    “They probably knocked the attendant out here, spilling some blood,” John speculated. There was enough space for a grown man to hit the floor without breaking anything nearby. And if the vampires hadn’t bothered with looping the security cameras, they hadn’t used the front door. That left the back.

    He stood and went around the bloodstained area. Once again, the teenager didn’t say anything. The clerk didn’t even ogle Caridad as she followed John - that book must be really good. Or the guy was gay.

    Caridad sniffed the air again. “Yeah, vampire.”

    John didn’t ask how a vampire smelled. He looked at the back door instead. It had been tampered with - the hinges had been oiled very recently. So recently, there was little dust on the leaked oil. The lock was lubricated as well. He didn’t think the bored attendant had done this. “Spywork.”

    “Our vampires, then.” Caridad grinned, baring her teeth.

    John tapped his radio. “Do you have the station’s records?

    “Uh… almost,” Bartowski replied. “This is a very old pump.”

    John clenched his teeth. Actual ‘very old pumps’ didn’t have electronics for a moron to hack, as Bartowski was doing.

    “There! Got the records!”

    “Good. Let’s get back to the car,” John said.

    “Wait! We need snacks!” Caridad exclaimed as they returned to the front of the store.

    Which meant she was hungry. John tried not to sigh as the Slayer started emptying a shelf.

    Well, the Council should pay for that. John dropped some cash at the counter, and they left the store and rejoined Bartowski and Walker in their SUV.

    “When was the last payment, and did anyone draw gas without paying?” John asked.

    Bartowski blinked. “Uh… let me cross-correlate the records from the register and the pumps… Ah! Yes - after the last payment registered, someone used the pump without paying.”

    “When?” John looked around. All the pumps should’ve been covered by cameras. That meant that the spies had a disposable car they didn’t mind the cops finding.

    “Uh… half an hour before sunrise.”

    “They have a base in the area, then,” Caridad said, after swallowing a mouthful of beef jerky. “No way they make it back to Los Angeles from here before it’s frying time.”

    “Or they have an underground garage in the city,” Walker pointed out.

    John shook his head. “I doubt they’d let their car be seen in that case. They were on the run after our attack. They didn’t go to any of their hideouts, other than to recruit more spies. Then they came out here.”

    “They’re relocating?” Walker sounded grim. With good reason - if the vampire spies went to ground and left the state or even the USA, they would have all the time they needed to build up an organisation. If they didn’t take over more Fulcrum cells, of course.

    “They’re recruiting,” Caridad said. “Stay a few days in the area - long enough to raise the spies they took - then move on.”

    “Yes,” Bartowski agreed. “And they’re still fledglings. They could take over a house, kill the tenants, use their car to go around since it won’t look out of place, kill anyone who bothers them… it would work for a few days.”

    “The kind of cops they have here won’t be a threat,” Caridad added. “Even if they track down the car, the vamps can kill them and relocate.”

    “We need the car’s plates, then,” Walker said.

    “On it!” Bartowski sounded like an eager child as he started typing. “Just give me a minute!”

    John grabbed a snack from Caridad, ignoring her growling, and smiled. Things were finally looking up. Of course, that often meant that something would go wrong. But they’d deal with that as well.

    *****​

    “All the windows covered? Dark curtains? No one on the porch at this time of the day? Yeah, that’s a vampire nest.”

    Looking down at the building in question, John felt inclined to agree with Caridad’s assessment. Everything fit. The lone house was a former ranch, with the barn having been converted into a garage. A few agricultural tools had been left to rust in the yard, probably to ‘add atmosphere’ for the city couple who bought it and fancied themselves rural folks now. Well, if they hadn’t been killed by two spies turned vampires. “Do you think they turned the owners?” he asked.

    “I don’t know. Fledglings are usually as much of a hindrance as they are a help for a new master vampire. They have no self-control and no clue about surviving, other than what they knew before getting killed. They mostly act on impulse and instinct - and those drive them to hunt and eat people,” Caridad replied.

    That didn’t sound like the kind of help a decent spy would want, unless they needed a distraction. But out here? A pair of stumbling new vampires would draw attention to the entire area. Although would the spies be aware of that? Yes, John decided. They would have heard about the Slayer by now. And they would be smart enough to realise that drawing attention was bad.

    “Uh, they could’ve used them to learn how to better turn people,” Bartowski said. “So they won’t make mistakes with the vampires they want to keep. But they already ate the other spies.”

    “Did they? They might’ve taken them prisoners instead,” Walker speculated.

    “Young vamps usually don’t plan ahead like that,” Caridad objected. “I don’t think these guys are that good. They’re better than normal fledglings, but they’re still, uh, fledglings.”

    Never underestimate your enemy. Although assuming they had prisoners would be optimistic.

    “And they, uh, get hungry often,” Bartowski said. “Or thirsty?”

    “All the self-control of a kid on Halloween,” Caridad said. “So, we could blow up the house. If the rocket launcher isn’t enough, we can use explosives. I bet I could hit the house with a bundle of explosives from here…”

    “No, we need to find the dead spies who will raise in three days first,” Bartowski told her. “Or we have to repeat it all over again.”

    Caridad frowned, but John knew that Bartowski was correct - they had to wait until the vampires led them to wherever they had buried the other Fulcrum spies.

    Then they could blow them up from afar.

    “That’s two days away - we can’t let them eat more people tonight and tomorrow,” The Slayer objected.

    Bartowski’s gasp told John that the moron hadn’t thought of that. And John knew Bartowski wouldn’t sacrifice any civilian for the mission. He suppressed a sigh. “We need to capture one of them, then, to interrogate.” Capturing armed vampire spies - he’d had more dangerous missions, but not too many.

    “And how do we do that?” Bartowski asked.

    “I could dress up as a deputy. Tight uniform, a blonde wig, and I bet they would invite me inside,” Caridad said with a grin.

    “Or they’ll shoot you before you get to the door,” Walker told her. “They know our faces, and even if your disguise fools them, they might not take the risk.”

    Not to mention that those vampires might be fledglings, but they were still super-strong and had combat training and years of experience as spies. John shook his head. “We’ll have to ambush them once they come out to hunt.” And hope that the local sheriff didn’t send his people to check with the car’s owners if they saw anything at the gas station.

    *****​

    Hours later, the sun was finally setting. At least no cops had shown up to question the residents - that would have been messy. But it seemed that a missing gas station attendant wasn’t a priority for the local authorities.

    “Now let’s hope they’re hungry and come out quickly,” Caridad commented. The Slayer was staring down at the house with a far too eager expression, in John’s opinion. She wouldn’t make a good sniper.

    “Yes,” he said. That would facilitate matters. And it wouldn’t make people wonder if the vampires did have some prisoners they were eating instead of going out to hunt - John just knew that Bartowski would want to storm the place in that case, and rushed assaults were never a good idea. Sometimes they were the only option, but still not a good idea.

    John didn’t leave the house out of his sight. If the spies had spotted them… Their position was camouflaged well, but you never knew if something gave you away.

    “I should’ve accepted Dad’s offer of hacking a drone and sending it over,” Bartowski said from where he was resting behind a large rock with Walker. “For surveillance,” he added. “Just in case we lose them.”

    John grunted in response. Orion might’ve promised to keep the Air Force from realising what was happening, but that sounded a little too optimistic, in his opinion. Air Force drones weren’t exactly small, after all - to evade all detection would need more than hacking, and neither Orion nor Bartowski had the kind of training necessary to slip a plane under the radar.

    A smaller surveillance drone, though… they would have to look into requisitioning one.

    “Door’s opening!” Cariad hissed.

    Showtime.

    As Walker took up a position next to him, John wet his lips and took aim. One man - one vampire - stepped out in the open, laughing at something. He didn’t match the pictures of the house owners Bartowski had found in the records. And neither did the man who followed them outside. They did match what the group knew of the Fulcrum vampires, though. Good enough for John. “Positive ID,” he muttered. “I’m taking the first.”

    “Second,” Walker said.

    Caridad drew a short, sharp breath next to him.

    “Hold your fire,” he said. The vampires were too close to the house - they needed to catch them in the open. A few more yards… almost… “Fire!” he hissed and started shooting.

    His long burst hit the vampire in the front, hollow points tearing into him and shredding his torso and legs. The demon collapsed, screaming loudly, as did the one behind him, shot by Walker.

    But the vampires were already getting up - and drawing their own guns. John snarled and fired a longer burst at his target, once more sending it sprawling, then a third burst on the gun the vampire held.

    Next to him, Bartowski started shooting as well. And Caridad took off, rushing down the slope towards the house. John muttered a curse under his breath as she came a little too close to his line of fire before she veered off again; she was wearing a vest now, but even so, bullets would hurt her - and then he cursed once more when his target managed to get up and start running while John changed magazines.

    His next burst missed, the vampire being too fast, but he caught the demon with a few bullets in the back before it reached the cover of the barn. The vampire fell down again - probably hurt his spine. Lucky.

    John kept firing, switching to semi-auto himself now, putting a few rounds into the vampire’s knees, but it wasn’t enough - the monster got up, standing on shredded, bleeding legs, and glared at John.

    Then a stake appeared in the vampire’s chest. Through his scope, John saw the monster’s mouth open in surprise, blinking with a stupid expression - and turned to dust. “Hold your fire!” John snapped - though Walker and Bartowski had already stopped shooting.

    And Caridad jumped the mangled but still moving second vampire. But with his limbs shot up and without a weapon of his own, the vampire was no match for the Slayer, and Caridad soon had it pinned to the ground by stakes driven through its limbs.

    John got up, replacing his half-spent magazine with a fresh one, and started to walk down the slope while Walker and Bartowski went back to the SUV.

    Time to interrogate the bloodsucker and find out where they had buried the other spies.

    *****​
     
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 13: The Investigation
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 13: The Investigation

    California, East of Los Angeles, April 13th, 2008

    John kept an eye on the house until the SUV with Walker and Bartowski reached Caridad. The vampires could’ve recruited some help, after all - even though it was unlikely. But nothing moved inside while Caridad secured the prisoner with several bands of steel.

    John keyed his radio. “Check the house.”

    Caridad snorted - probably indicating that she had planned to do so anyway, but better safe than sorry - and took off. John kept the rifle trained on the house to catch anyone fleeing, but a few minutes later, Caridad came out again, shaking her head. “Two people inside,” she reported. “Both eaten.”

    “Uh.” Bartowski reacted as if he hadn’t expected that.

    John sighed and got up. Time to get out of dodge.

    Once he reached the SUV, he took a glance at the vampire in the trunk. The prisoner was struggling, but he wouldn’t get out.

    “So… what about the dead?” Bartowski asked. “If a coroner who isn’t in the know examines them…”

    “We could set them on fire, but that would probably attract attention if we need to return here,” Walker said. “In case the vampires buried the others nearby.”

    John didn’t think that that was the case, but a double-murder and arson would make the locals, not just the cops, look for the murderer. And any stranger would be suspect. They could do without another police department trying to arrest them. “We can put them in their car and arrange an accident,” he said.

    Bartowski winced, but Walker nodded.

    And the Slayer sighed. “I’ll get them.”

    *****

    Arranging an accident was child’s play. The hardest part was finding a ravine that was close to the road and deep enough for a decent drop. Cutting the throats of the two dead bodies? That was easy. John had cut enough throats of living people, after all.

    “That won’t really fool the coroner,” Bartowski commented as they took a step back from the car.

    “By the time he notices the knife wounds in the throats, we’ll be gone from the area,” Walker replied. “They’ll just add it to the murder of the gas station attendant.”

    “Which would be correct,” the nerd pointed out. “They did kill all of them.”

    “They’ll just assume they were cut to death. Not eaten,” Caridad added. “Lack of blood will be an issue, but…” She shrugged. “Not everything has to add up for a coverup.”

    Bartowski sighed but stayed quiet while the Slayer lit a rag and threw it on the bench soaked in gasoline, then pushed the car over the side of the road as if it weighed nothing.

    Then they were off to find a good spot to interrogate the vampire. It would be messy, John was sure of it. The vampire was a Fulcrum spy - he’d know they wouldn’t let him live, or exist. He had nothing to lose and only an easy death to gain.

    And few spies would opt for an easy death if they could attempt to deny the enemy information instead.

    *****​

    “I can smell dead bodies,” Caridad announced as soon as she got out of the car.

    “So, the bloodsucker told us the truth,” John said as he joined her. Finally. The interrogation had been as messy as he had expected. At least they had been torturing a dead body, not a human. Omelet and eggs, anyway.

    “Well, we’ll have to check it,” Bartowski cut in. “He could’ve buried the gas station attendant here.”

    Caridad sighed. “I could start a career as a grave robber, what with how often I need to dig up bodies.” But she went back to the SUV and grabbed a shovel.

    John suppressed the brief urge to offer his help. She was the Slayer - she wouldn’t even break a sweat uncovering a shallow grave.

    He studied the area as she started to dig. The graves were located at the end of a path that a car could navigate, but with enough difficulties that tourists wouldn’t bother and locals would know better. Steep, rocky hills on two sides - not quite cliffs - which would provide shadow in the morning and afternoon, in case something happened. And sandy ground that would have been easy to dig up.

    “Got one!” Caridad announced as if to prove his point.

    Bartowski stepped up and peered at the body, then shook his head, blinking. “Ralph Moser. CIA. Defected to Fulcrum two years ago, remained a mole until he faked his death six months ago.”

    One dead traitor.

    “And here’s the other one!”

    Once more, the nerd flashed. “Cyril Brown. Also CIA. Missing in action for a year. Good career before that.”

    A traitor - or a victim of brainwashing? Dead was dead.

    “And the third!”

    Which turned out to be Max Meadows. Yet again: CIA. John glanced at Walker and raised his eyebrows, but she ignored him. “Are those all they got?” she asked Bartowski instead.

    “According to our data, yes,” the moron replied. “And it was, uh, confirmed by the interrogation.” He smiled, though it looked more like a grimace. “We’ve stopped the Fulcrum vampires.”

    John nodded. That was one problem solved. “Let’s stake the bodies here, then the vampire, and get the hell out of here.”

    Caridad beamed. “Alright!”

    That only left the normal Fulcrum. And the Aztec Apocalypse. And that ‘Nathan’ vampire who had started the camp.

    No sweat, he thought with a snort.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Base, April 13th, 2008

    With all the detours needed to check for tails, and the careful evading of the police surveillance near the Buy More, the sun had gone down by the time they returned to base. Bane greeted them with a smile and a glance towards Hernandez’s current room.

    “We got them,” Bartowski said, also glancing towards the cells.

    “All of them?”

    “We’re pretty sure, yes,” the nerd explained.

    “We captured one and interrogated him,” Walker added. “He led us to the missing spies.”

    “It should be in the news soon,” John said as he used his bug scanner on the main room.

    “A few civilians were at the wrong place at the wrong time, so to speak,” Bartowski explained.

    Bane nodded - she would know what he meant.

    “But this cell didn’t know about the cell with the brainwashing machine.” The nerd sighed as he sat down. “So… we didn’t make any progress there.”

    “We still dealt with one threat,” Walker consoled him as if Bartowski shouldn’t already know that some casualties came with the job. You couldn’t save everyone - and trying to save everyone was a good way to meet a bad end. Or, in this case, an apocalypse.

    “That leaves three more to deal with,” John said. “The one London’s working on, Fulcrum, and the group that turned Fulcrum’s spies.” Nathan the vampire, according to what they knew.

    “Nothing new from London, yet,” Bartowski said. “They’re still working on tracking the, uh, pieces down.”

    “Great,” John grumbled. “So, let’s get working on our local problem.” At least they knew how to track enemy spies - not that it would be easy.

    “Well, I think we need Federica’s help for that,” Bartowski said.

    “What?” John glared at the moron, but despite wincing, Bartowski held his ground. “She was in their base. She might not have been able to see where she was going when she was transported there and back, but she might’ve seen something that helps us track down their location. Fulcrum isn’t perfect, is it? They might’ve made a mistake.”

    “Yeah,” John growled. “Like trusting an enemy spy.”

    That made Bartowski frown. “We don’t have any proof that she’s a spy. And we’ve been keeping her under surveillance for months.”

    John scoffed - a good spy could keep their cover for years if necessary. A few months was nothing.

    “I don’t trust her,” Caridad said with a scowl.

    Bane nodded in agreement. “Unless we’ve got proof that she’s innocent, we can’t trust her.”

    “How can you prove a negative?” Bartowski replied, shaking his head. “Guys, I know as a spy - and I’m a spy as well - you have to be suspicious of most people, but… you can’t just assume that everyone’s an enemy!”

    The moron was wrong - you couldn’t trust anyone. Especially not with Fulcrum being able to brainwash people, and demons possessing corpses. “She knows too much to trust her,” John told him.

    “And she’s too perfect,” Bane added. “No one’s as nice as she acts.”

    Caridad nodded. “Yes!”

    “But even if she’s an enemy spy, we should still try this,” Walker said. “If she tries to lure us into a trap, we’ll notice.”

    “And where’s the harm?” Bartowski said, nodding eagerly. “Either we get some intel, or we don’t - but we won’t be easily fooled.”

    John had his doubts about that - the spy had already fooled at least Bartowski thoroughly. But even Bane seemed to agree with the plan now, and Walker would back her partner. He scoffed again. “Well, if you can’t track their finances, then we might as well try this. But we need a brain scan of Hernandez.”

    “Uh, we’re, uh, working on setting that up,” Bartowski told him. At least the moron wasn’t glancing at Bane as he spoke, or the spy might get a hint that they were hiding something from her. Well, she’d assume that anyway, but Bartowski would look like an obvious weak link.

    John hoped that if that happened, the moron would care more about his family than Bane.

    *****​

    Caridad was still scowling even after the others had left - Bartowski and Walker to go home and fool the police officers who hadn’t stopped observing the house, Bane to visit Grimes.

    She leaned over the table and peered at the screen showing Hernandez already asleep on the cot in her cell. “I hope she can’t loop that.”

    “Not without leaving her cell,” John told her. And no spy would miss that. Not to mention that he had placed a laser sensor outside that told him when her door was opened.

    “Good.” She sighed, though it sounded almost like a huff. “We really should send her off to some Council ‘safe house’.”

    John shrugged. The others wouldn’t go for it - that hadn’t changed. “Perhaps she’ll make a mistake.”

    “Do you think so?”

    He didn’t. Hernandez was too good. “She’ll claim she didn’t see anything outside the room with the brainwashing machine.”

    “So, we’re stuck?”

    He shrugged. “After losing an entire cell, Fulcrum’s bound to make another move. We just need to catch them when they do.”

    “That’s easier said than done.” The Slayer scowled again.

    “No one said this was an easy job.”

    She snorted in return.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Base, April 14th, 2008

    “...the room was square. Well, mostly. I think one side was a little longer than the other.”

    “Were there any windows?”

    “I couldn’t see outside.”

    “Yes, but were there any windows? Covered or shuttered?”

    “Oh. No. No, there weren’t.”

    John suppressed the urge to snort. Hernandez was good. So far, she hadn’t said anything that contradicted her first story.

    “And whom did you see?”

    “Only that woman. The woman I described to you already.”

    “No guards?”

    “No. They were masked when they… when they took me.” Hernandez sobbed once, the picture of a traumatised victim toughening it out, and went on: “They put a bag on my head right away.” Another sob.

    A likely story. Of course, Fulcrum had good spies - if they were idiots, the Agency would’ve destroyed the traitors already - so it stood to reason that the spies wouldn’t make mistakes. But it was a little too perfect. Missions rarely went off without a hitch. Picking up Hernandez without anyone noticing, brainwashing her without her noticing anything, and sending her back, armed, without leaving traces? Such things happened. But usually, there was some friction.

    Or a lot of friction if you were dealing with magic and demons. But this wasn’t the case here - or so John hoped. One bunch of vampiric Fulcrum spies had been enough for his taste. More than enough.

    “No windows. Masked guards. One woman.”

    “Yes. She was… scary.” Hernandez nodded slowly, wincing. “She said… she said I would be a loyal spy.”

    He grunted at that.

    “She was wrong,” Bartowski cut in with a smile. “You’re not. A spy for them, that is.”

    The woman beamed at the moron, and John rolled his eyes. So much for a professional interrogation. Well, an unenhanced one. But he had been grilling the woman for half an hour without catching her in a lie or uncovering actionable intel. As expected. Time to end this farce. “That’s all, then.”

    “So… can I go outside now?”

    Of course she would want to go out so she could contact Fulcrum!

    “Uh....” Bartowski grimaced. “That would be a bad idea. I’m really sorry,” he added when her face fell, “but if you’re outside, you might get approached by an enemy spy. It’s possible that you’ve got some, uh, hypnotic triggers that Fulcrum can activate with a code phrase. That’s why you can’t go outside or surf the web.”

    She gasped at that. “Really?”

    Bartowski nodded. “I’m really sorry, but it’s a risk we can’t ignore.”

    John had to hand it to the moron - that was a nice excuse to keep the woman isolated. And the spy wouldn’t be able to say anything about it. Because it could be true.

    If only they had access to a brain scanner already. John really wanted to have Orion looking into the spy’s brain.

    *****​

    “So, that was a bust,” Bartowski complained once Hernandez was back in her cell. “Sorry, guys.”

    John grunted - as if the plan had had a chance of working.

    “It was worth a try,” Walker said. “We’ll have to find another way to track Fulcrum.”

    “I’m trying, but… they, uh, covered their tracks well.”

    John barely rolled his eyes at the comment. Bartowski wasn’t as witty as he thought he was. Not as bad as Grimes, at least. Who was set to be released from the hospital tomorrow, as Bane had informed them. Provided he didn’t catch some bug in the clinic.

    “But I’ve got a lead on the real owner of the Spicy Pick!” Bartowski added with a bright expression. “You know, the…”

    “I’ve been there,” John reminded him. “What lead?”

    “Uh.” The moron’s grimace told John that he wouldn’t like the answer.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 15th, 2008

    “Mr Smith! Welcome to Barnaby and Sons!””

    “Glad to be here, Mr Kinsey.” John had to struggle a bit not to scowl as he shook the man’s hand. This was a mission tailor-made for Bartowski and Walker. Play a couple for a meeting with a private banker, distract him so you can hack his records and get his client list? Right down the moron’s alley. And Walker was good at playing the arm candy.

    “Oh, yes! So glad!” Caridad nodded and smiled, baring her teeth.

    instead, John and Caridad were playing the happy couple. And Caridad was very attractive, but she couldn’t pull off ‘trophy wife’. Even an idiot like Mr Kinsey had to notice that.

    Well, he would, if he weren’t staring at the Slayer’s barely-covered legs whenever he got the chance.

    “So, you were looking to invest?” The man tilted his head a little, turning to John with a forced smile.

    “Some spare cash, yes,” John lied. “A couple hundred thousand for starters.”

    Caridad leaned over, hooking her arm into John’s and pressing her side into his. And her chest against his arm. “Yes. We’ve got some money left over since we bought the house.”

    John ground his teeth. Kinsey was the one who should be distracted, not John. But he couldn’t shake her off - that would ruin their cover.

    This should’ve been a job for Bartowski and Walker. But they had to be in Burbank since the police were still resisting the Agency’s pressure. And Bane was taking Grimes from the hospital.

    Now Caridad’s legs were pressing against his. Why had the idiot put a couch in his office, instead of two chairs for visitors?

    “That sounds like a good decision,” Kinsey’s eyes were straying again.

    John wanted to hit him. But he would have to be content with placing the wiretap so Bartowski could hack into the man’s computer.

    Once Caridad remembered that she wasn’t there to raise John’s blood pressure, and something else, and drew Kinsey’s attention so John could reach his desk without being noticed.

    *****​

    Once they were out of the building and inside the rented sports car (with fake plates), John called it in. “Mission accomplished. Wiretap set,” he reported over the radio as he guided the car into traffic.

    “Uh, I know - I mean, copy,” Bartowski replied. “We’re already on it. Hacking that is.”

    John couldn’t hear the clicking noise of the moron’s keyboard, but he could tell from Bartowski’s slightly distracted manner that the man was indeed already hacking. Unless Walker had decided to distract him for some reason. Which the spy wouldn’t. Not during a mission.

    Unlike others. At the next red light, he turned his head to openly glare at Caridad.

    “He bought it, didn’t he?” She flashed her teeth in a smile. “And his eyes were stuck to my legs.”

    “You know what I mean.”

    She shrugged in return. “I know what you want.” She grinned again.

    He clenched his teeth and took a deep breath. The light switched to green, and he accelerated a little faster than advisable.

    Caridad laughed as they shot through the crossing, scaring a slow pedestrian who hadn’t made it all the way to the sidewalk.

    “It’s unprofessional.” He focused on the road. Not on her.

    “Chuck and Sarah don’t think so. Neither do Kirsten and Morgan.”

    “They think it’s unprofessional as well - they just don’t care,” he retorted. Another red light. What was with the damn red wave? His eyes strayed over her legs - had her miniskirt slid up another inch? - before he could help himself. Goddamnit.

    He didn’t have to look at her face to know she was now smirking. He did it anyway.

    But she grew serious. “And why do you care?”

    “Being unprofessional gets people killed,” he snapped back. A correct answer. The safe answer.

    “Being professional gets you killed,” she shot back. “We’re facing a secret organisation made up of evil spies and assassins, a master vampire with an actually decent plan, and an Aztec death cult. And once we’re done with them, we’ll be fighting more of the same.” She leaned towards him, and he tensed, not wanting to pull away, but not wanting to have her so close, either. Smelling her scent. “Do you know how most experienced Slayers died in the past?” she asked in a low, almost growling voice. “They died because they stopped caring. Stopped wanting to live. Stopped giving a damn since all they had was the war. Because they were being professional their whole life. Because they had no life.”

    He took a deep breath - inhaling more of her scent - and opened his mouth to retort when the asshole behind him started honking. He jerked - the light was green. Damn. How had he missed that?

    He gunned the engine and drove on.

    “So, is that what you want? Just working, fighting until you die?”

    John drew another deep breath. “No.” Not really.

    “And what do you want?”

    He pressed his lips together. To protect his country. To make a difference. That was why he had made his choice, back then. Had decided to have Alex Coburn die and become John Casey. Do what had to be done so others could sleep peacefully.

    “The picket fence, housewife and two kids?” She snorted.

    That was the American dream. Not the joke she was trying to make it sound like. He glared at her for a moment before focusing on the road again.

    “And how would you explain your work? Being away for weeks or months at the drop of a hat? Getting hurt?”

    He growled. He knew that. Knew that the only chance he’d have to have a family would have to be after he retired. And people like him didn’t retire.

    “And what do you want?” he spat.

    “I want you,” she replied after a moment.

    “As a boy toy? To take the edge off? Some casual sex buddy?”

    She growled. “I’m not Faith.”

    “And who are you? What do you want from me?” He took a corner, then drove on the highway.

    “You haven’t answered my question yet,” she shot back.

    He glanced at her. Just for a moment. In the right lane. She was glaring at him. He gripped the wheel so hard, his knuckles went wide. Neither of them said anything for half a minute.

    After about a minute, she spoke up again. “Odds are I’ll be dead before I hit thirty. Or forty.”

    It was the same for spies. Real spies. The kind of people who put their lives on the line with each mission. He had been beating the odds for years, now.

    And he couldn’t tell her what he wanted.

    They spent the rest of the drive back to the base in silence.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 15th, 2008

    “Good news, guys!” Bartowski greeted them with a wide smile as they entered the base. “We’ve got a trace to the real owner of the Spicy Pick!”

    John nodded with a grunt as he walked towards his temporary quarters to change out of the suit. He didn’t look at Caridad as she walked towards the fridge.

    “Uh… I thought that was kind of important news,” the moron said, and John didn’t have to glance over his shoulder to know Bartowski would look like a kicked puppy. “I mean… it’s what we did this mission for, isn’t it?”

    John rolled his eyes as he slipped off his jacket. “Who owns it?”

    “Uh… I’m still investigating, but I tracked the ownership to a small investment firm, West Coast Opportunities, which is run by this guy, Trevor Livington.”

    John peered out of his room for a moment. The picture on the main screen of the base looked like it had been taken from the man’s first driving licence. He looked barely old enough to enlist. And he didn’t match the description they had of the owner of the spice shop. “How old is that picture?”

    “Twenty-one years. Livington is now forty.”

    John nodded and didn’t dwell on his own age. “You found no other pictures?” he asked as he went back to changing.

    “No… The man lives a very private life.”

    “Or unlife,” Caridad commented. “No pictures in twenty years? Probably a vampire.”

    “Or someone stole his identity,” John pointed out.

    “Technically, that’s what a vampire does,” Bartowski said. “It’s just that they also steal the body of the identity’s holder.”

    John scoffed. He wasn’t in the mood for the nerd’s pointless technicalities.

    “Do you have his address?”

    “I’ve got his office,” Bartowski replied. “I’m working on his private address, but…that’s going to take a little longer.”

    John grunted again. Anyone could be behind an office - or claim to be.

    “We could break in and go through their files,” Caridad said.

    That was the obvious course of action. John didn’t comment as he pulled on khaki pants.

    “That sounds like… a good idea, I think,” Bartowski replied after a moment. “Uh… did something happen?”

    “No,” John told him.

    “No,” Caridad said.

    “Ah. Good, then. I just had a feeling… never mind.”

    John clenched his teeth. This wasn’t any of Bartowski’s business. Or anyone else’s.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 16th, 2008

    “This is quite a change.”

    John grunted as he got out of the van. She hadn’t said much on the way to the office building.

    “I liked the other cover better,” Caridad went on as she stepped around the vehicle, to the rear.

    He pressed his lips together for a moment. “What matters is what works,” he said. Not how ‘fashionable’ it was.

    “Don’t let Buffy hear that,” she replied. “She wouldn’t be caught dead in dingy overalls.”

    Bartowski, struggling with a cart of cleaning supplies, snorted. “She wouldn’t wear them anywhere she could be seen.”

    “No one looks at the cleaning crew,” John said before he could help himself. That was the point. And cleaning women weren’t supposed to dress sexily, either.

    “And with good reason.” She pulled at her brown, drab clothes. “It’s also not good for a fight. Too much loose fabric that the enemy can get a grip on.”

    He grunted again. She had a point there, but only a minor one. A very minor one. “If the disguise works, there won’t be a fight.”

    “And we all hope it will work!” Bartowski said, nodding firmly. “Right, guys?”

    “Unless Mr Vampire gets a little peckish and wants to snack on the cleaning crew.”

    John rolled his eyes. “Do you really think it’s a vampire?” They hadn’t met any vampires working for the Aztec cult yet.

    She shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing I’ve seen. Vampire running a front for other baddies? I can see it.”

    That was possible. The cult might have used such a front - might be using it, still - while building up their network. And use it as a safety line. Something to fall back on to recover. He grunted once more and ignored her smile. They were on a mission.

    A mission that was, as it turned out, almost suspiciously easy - posing as the regular cleaning crew’s replacements, they could enter the offices of ‘West Coast Opportunities’ without any problem.

    “Doesn’t seem like ‘West Coast Opportunities’ has many opportunities,” Caridad said, looking around the office space.

    There wasn’t much, to be honest. Desks for half a dozen clerks, one for the secretary, and a separate office for the boss. The hardware was old, but not ancient - what one would expect from a small business that wouldn’t and couldn’t afford to dazzle prospective clients with designer furniture and fancy computers.

    It was a good facade.

    “Alright… give me a minute to deal with the security cameras!” Bartowski announced. “Just start, uh, cleaning.”

    Caridad groaned, but John nodded. Maintaining your cover was vital on a mission. Even if it looked like a milk run.

    Overconfidence made you sloppy, and sloppiness killed you.

    Not today, though, John amended a few minutes later, as Bartowski announced that he had looped the camera covering the boss’s office. The way was clear now.

    “Alright. Go in and get the data. We’ll keep cleaning,” John told the nerd.

    Caridad groaned, but he ignored that. As long as Bartowski didn’t screw this up, they could keep cleaning, and if they stayed out of sight of the looped camera, no one would suspect a thing even if they checked the records. Well, they’d have to clean the boss’s office as well - but that was an easy task.

    “Alright!” Bartowski said, then sneaked along the wall to the office door. Well, he didn’t look too awkward, either, so the Intersect must have kicked in.

    “Wait… do you mean we have to actually clean the entire office?” Caridad suddenly blurted out.

    “Yes,” John replied without looking at her. She had figured it out - decent instincts. “Just as we actually worked as waitress and bartender, remember?”

    “Next time, we’ll pick a better cover!” the Slayer retorted. “That worked well before!”

    “We have to pick a cover that fits the mission,” John told her as he cleaned a desk - had the clerk emptied a Cheetos bag over it? If he got his hands on the jerk...

    “I’m sure there are alternatives to posing as the cleaning crew. That we have to wear those ugly coveralls is bad enough, but to actually clean the office...”

    He didn’t have to look at her to know she was shuddering in an exaggerated manner. He did it anyway. “I’ve been working as a sales clerk in the Buy More.”

    She didn’t have an answer to that.

    “Alright, I’ve got the data,” Bartowski announced. He was standing in the doorway and grinning.

    “Good. Deloop the camera and start cleaning.”

    “What?”

    John sighed.

    *****​

    California, Burbank, The Castle, April 17th, 2008

    “We’re not going to sneak into that villa disguised as cleaning crew,” Caridad said as she craned her neck next to him, looking at the screen while sitting on the table. She had changed out of the coveralls before they had left the garage of the target building and was now wearing a hunting outfit, as she called it. It looked like a clubbing outfit. Then again, many vampires were hunting in the club scene, apparently.

    “Livington has his own staff anyway,” John told her as he studied the satellite pictures while Bartowski vectored a recon drone near the target area.

    “Probably demons,” the Slayer commented with a scoff.

    John glanced at the door to Hernandez’s cell out of reflex, checking if it was closed. The spy was supposedly asleep already, but only a fool would trust that.

    “She’s asleep; her breathing is too regular,” Caridad said with a grin.

    “She could be faking it.” Good spies could fool even lie detectors.

    “In any case, she can’t hear us.” Caridad stretched. “So, no cleaning crew disguises. Wearing those ugly coveralls… if anyone had taken a picture, I’d never hear the end of it from the other Slayers. Vi would never let me forget it.”

    “She’s got plenty of pictures of you in the Wienerlicious uniform,” John pointed out. And that was a ridiculous uniform. Especially if one had been to Bavaria and seen the original Oktoberfest. Like John had during one mission.

    “She wore it as well. And that’s a sexy uniform.” Caridad grinned at him. “Coveralls aren’t sexy. They’re ugly.”

    “But practical,” John retorted. “If you’re dressing to draw attention, that’s a bad thing for spies.”

    “Really?” She hopped off the table and stretched. Rather provocatively. “Then what about the missions where we dress as eye candy?”

    “Those are special cases,” he replied. “Not every mission requires such a distraction.”

    She snorted and moved behind him, leaning against his back and resting her chin on his shoulder. “But a lot do,” she said.

    He tensed, then forced himself to relax. She would have noticed, of course, but still. “You take the best cover - the safest cover.”

    “And you?”

    “I do the same,” he lied. The best cover wasn’t always the safest.

    He heard her sniff. He smelt her, as well. And he felt her, of course. And Bartowski was glancing at them more than at the screen with the feed from the drone. Goddamn it.

    “You’re distracting him,” he said in a low voice.

    We are. The real question is: am I distracting you?”

    “No.” He could focus on planning an intrusion whenever he wanted. It was just that they needed the drone pictures to actually start planning.

    “Liar,” she whispered, then pulled back.

    He focused on the computer screen.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, April 18th, 2008

    “I think Big Mike is suspecting something,” Bartowski commented as they reached their destination. “He was asking if I had health problems when I called in sick today.”

    “Chuck, if you keep working through the night, you will end up with health problems,” Walker replied.

    “I can’t exactly take a day off as long as we’re dealing with multiple crises.”

    “You aren’t of any use if you lack sleep,” John told the moron.

    “I slept for the whole day! I can stay up all night for this mission. Hell, when I was younger, I used to play through the night and went to school just fine!” he protested.

    “That explains a lot,” John muttered.

    Caridad snickered. “You’re not a teenager any more, Chuck.”

    “Says the Slayer,” Bartowski shot back.

    “What do you mean?” She was not quite in his face, but she wasn’t smiling any more.

    “You aren’t a teenager any more either.” Bartowski must have thought that the mission wasn’t dangerous enough. Or he was just still tired.

    “And what do you mean with that?” Caridad wasn’t letting it go, it seemed.

    “We’re on a mission,” John snapped.

    “Chuck…” Walker put her hand on the moron’s shoulder.

    “Alright…” Bartowski sighed. “Sorry. It’s just a lot of… stuff.”

    Caridad grumbled, but let it go.

    “Alright,” John spoke up again as he got out of the car. “The delivery will arrive shortly. Get into position.”

    He didn’t wait for them to acknowledge it but stepped on the overpass.

    “I’ve got the traffic lights!” Bartowski announced - unnecessarily; they knew he had hacked them already before they had set off from the base.

    “I’ve got eyes on the road,” Caridad added - she was already crouching behind the railing, watching the road.

    John started to set up the rappelling lines. According to the GPS tracking data Bartowski had acquired, the delivery van took the same route every Friday.

    Walker arrived a minute later. “Both stairs are cordoned off,” she said.

    Good. That would prevent passers-by from stumbling upon them. Well, some teenagers might defy the tape and sign telling them it was unsafe, but in that case, they would find out that the overpass was actually unsafe - for the few seconds before they would get knocked out. If they were lucky, they’d learn to obey orders.

    But no rebellious teenager arrived on the overpass before Caridad spoke up on the radio “I see the truck!”

    “Yes, that’s the GPS signal,” Bartowski added. “Turning the lights on red!”

    The delivery truck stopped in front of the red light - and directly below the overpass. John grinned as he climbed over the railing and slid down the line. As planned.

    He landed lightly on the roof of the trailer and lay down flat on his stomach. The others followed suit. In Downtown, that wouldn’t have been a good idea. Too many taller buildings. One or the other tenant would look out of the window and spot four people on top of a truck. But out here? The rich built their houses for privacy, and the odds of getting spotted on the short leg around the corner were slim.

    Of course, while the weekly delivery to Livington’s villa was very convenient as a means to penetrate the villa’s perimeter, the fact that Livington received enough frozen meat per week to make the truck taking a detour profitable had implications John didn’t like.

    There weren’t any habitats on the grounds that housed the kind of big cats or other animals that needed so much meat. Which meant something - or someone - else was eating enough meat for a pack of lions.

    “Alright,” Bartowski whispered. “Setting to green.”

    A moment later, the truck’s engine started rumbling, and they were off. On e turn, then it was straight ahead, right up to the gate of Livington’s villa. The truck stopped, but the gates were already opening.

    “Wireless badge,” Bartoski said. “I’ll see if I can get the frequency and decode it…”

    “Later,” Walker hissed.

    Just in time - the truck drew up to the side of the garage. Again, as planned.

    And while the delivery men met with what sounded like a butler, John and the rest of the team slid down the other side of the truck and hid in the bushes nearby.

    John looked at Caridad, who was next to him. She met his eyes and shook her head. “No demon. But there’s something demony in the area,” she whispered, her nostrils flaring.

    Well, they had expected that. John just hoped that they were ready for whatever demon Livington turned out to be.

    Unloading an entire cow didn’t take long - it was obvious that everyone involved had a lot of practice.

    A minute later, the truck left, and John watched what looked like a butler - with the classic uniform, even - push a cart with the meat through the side entrance.

    Now, to enter… windows were a possibility. The walls looked easy to climb, and the security cameras had blind spots up close. Or they could crack the side entrance.

    “Hah! I got the frequency and code for the garage!” Bartowski announced.

    Or they could just stroll in through the garage.

    First the truck delivery, now the garage - things were going almost too well.

    *****​
     
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 14: The Hunt
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 14: The Hunt

    California, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, April 18th, 2008

    Yes, it might be going a little too well, John thought. Of course, that didn’t stop the others. Caridad was at the garage entrance in the blink of an eye, peering inside. “Another camera up here,” she whispered.

    “On it!” Bartowski replied, also dashing forward.

    John suppressed a sigh and followed - sometimes, you had to go with the flow. Take a risk and hope for the best. Because the enemy wasn’t perfect and mistakes happened.

    He crouched down at the corner, peering at the main part of the manor. Nothing. He still felt exposed and wished the moron would work faster.

    “Done! We can enter now!”

    Finally! John brought up the rear, giving the yard on this side, especially the bushes, a last glance before slipping into the garage and closing the door.

    “A Ferrari. Man’s got taste,” Bartowski mumbled.

    John snorted. Classic muscle cars beat overengineered European sports cars any day of the week. At least the second car was a more sensible SUV.

    “Uh… should we, like, sabotage them?” Bartowski made a waving gesture. “So Livington can’t flee should we miss him?”

    “No,” John said. “If he manages to reach the garage, we’ll have already failed. And we might want to use the cars to get away ourselves.”

    “Right.” Bartowski nodded. “Should I crack them?”

    “No. Let’s move on.” In a pinch, John could crack and hotwire the cars in less than a minute.

    The garage was linked to the main building through a covered hallway with large windows towards the back. Not ideal, but the backyard was empty right now.

    They sprinted, covering the distance to the next door in a few seconds. More waiting followed as Walker cracked the lock and pushed the door open until the gap was wide enough to let Bartowski reach the camera on the other side. Again, John itched to do it himself instead of waiting, but the nerd was better with electronics, as much as John didn’t like to admit it. Not even to himself. And John was a better shot than Walker.

    Once more, almost a minute passed until Bartowski was done. “Alright, I’ve looped the camera.”

    Walker pushed the door open at once, and they were inside the manor, in a wide hallway. And Caridad was flaring her nostrils.

    “Demon!” she hissed before her head cocked to the side and she stared at the wall to the right. “That direction.”

    “Great,” Bartowski mumbled. “We’ll need to capture a demon.”

    Well, he should’ve expected that as soon as he found out the meat delivery schedule.

    But the Slayer was already moving, like a missile with a lock. So much for stealth. On the other hand, the demon might have smelled her as well.

    John followed her, his carbine pointed at the floor as he moved. To the entrance hall - overdone with expensive artwork and other ornaments - and through another, unlocked, door, around a corner…

    A roar, louder than a lion’s, sounded from the kitchen ahead of them, followed by the noise from plates, pans and pots hitting the ground. John stopped at the doorway and glanced inside the kitchen, then jerked back when Caridad flew towards him.

    The Slayer hit the wall opposite the doorway with her feet first and propelled herself back into the kitchen like a swimmer changing direction. John slid around the doorframe in her wake, raising his carbine, but Caridad and whatever she was fighting - it looked like seven to eight feet tall, but roughly human-looking - were rolling over the floor, sending more plates and dishes falling and crushing a few cups. “Check the rest of the house!” he told the others over the radio.

    “Already on it!” Bartowski replied. “Bedroom clear!”

    “Living room clear,” Walker added.

    “Bathroom… clear. But not clean.”

    Caridad caught another kick, but managed to hold on to the arm of the monster - it broke with a loud crack, and the demon howled, throwing his head back. John raised his rifle, but Caridad was in the thing’s face before he could take a shot, kicking and striking at the other limbs.

    More howling, followed by a wild haymaker that Caridad evaded by ducking into a split which she turned into a sweeping attack.

    Caught off-balance, the demon crashed into the stove before it hit the ground. It shook its head, getting up on all fours, and John smashed the butt of his carbine into its head.

    It went down again, and Caridad jumped on its back a moment later, breaking ribs - or whatever the monster had in the chest - followed by limbs.

    They had to take the monster alive, after all, to interrogate it.

    The Slayer was brutal but efficient, breaking the monster’s limb faster than it could heal. “Give me the cables!” she snapped as she hit the demon’s head again.

    John cursed under his breath and pulled the steel cables out of his backpack. He held the bundle out to her, but before she could grab it, she had to dodge a blow from the demon’s already healed right arm.

    “What kind of demon is it?” John spat as he smashed the butt of his carbine into the monster’s head once more - though since he did it one-handed, the creature shrugged it off.

    It didn’t shrug off Caridad’s blow, though, which broke the demon’s face and smashed the back of its head into the stone floor, cracking both. That seemed to stun the monster long enough for Caridad to jump up, flip it over with a kick that broke more bones, and start wrapping it in steel cables with Jon’s help.

    They managed to secure it enough in the time before it regained consciousness that Caridad only had to break each limb once more before it was rendered immobile.

    “I don’t know,” Caridad replied belatedly. “It’s got super-regeneration, but it’s not one of the known trick-demons.”

    “Trick-demons?”

    “The demons that you need to kill in a special way to, ah, kill them. Like the Mohra Demons. Unless you destroy the jewel in their forehead, they won’t die no matter what you do.”

    The demon tried to bite her, and Caridad smacked, then used another steel cable to muzzle it.

    John hoped the monster wouldn’t bite through it.

    “So.” The Slayer smiled at him. “Now we need to interrogate it.”

    “That’ll be difficult with the muzzle,” John pointed out.

    “Oh, we can secure it in other ways,” she replied as she got up, kicking the demon in the side for good measure. “Perhaps bury it to the neck in cement or something.”

    “Guys! Guys! We’ve got Livington’s computer!” Bartowski interrupted them over the radio. “But he’s climbing down the front! Intercept him!”

    Damn. That meant the demon was a minion. John clenched his teeth and started running to the entrance hall. He reached the front door just as Caridad overtook him. She pulled the door open and he saw that Livington was halfway to the gate.

    A cracking sound made him glance to the side. Caridad had ripped off the coat rack next to the door and was swinging it back.

    Then she let it fly, and Livington went down in the middle of the drive as the wooden projectile smashed into his legs.

    “Good shot,” John said. “I’ll grab him, Caridad grab the demon, meet at the garage.”

    “Do we need the demon?” Bartowski asked over the radio as John left the manor.

    “You never know who’s the brain behind an operation,” John told him. Livington was screaming bloody murder, which would draw attention, but if they were quick enough, they would be gone without anyone being the wiser before the cops arrived - especially with Orion controlling the emergency dispatch systems of the LAPD.

    A knock to the head shut the man up, and John started dragging him back to the garage, where Caridad was already waiting with the thrashing demon.

    Bartowski and Walker arrived as well, the nerd trying to help John carrying Livington while Walker boosted the SUV open.

    “That thing will damage the car,” Bartowski said. “I mean, our car. And it might hurt Livington if we stuff both into the trunk.”

    The nerd had a point. John dropped Livington on the backbench in the back, then pushed him down to the floor before climbing in himself. Then he put his boots on the man’s back, fixing him in place. Caridad threw the demon into the trunk. Walker finished hotwiring the car, and they were off.

    Bartowski managed to get the gate open by remote before they had to smash through it, and less than a minute later, they reached their own car.

    This time, Caridad climbed into the trunk after depositing the demon there. “I’ll keep it subdued so it won’t break free,” she told them.

    John nodded and stashed Livington in the same spot he had been before, after gagging and tying him up - he didn’t think the guy would dare to try escaping, but better safe than sorry.

    They gave the all-clear signal to Orion a minute later, and by the time the first patrol cars reached Livington’s villa on television - some paparazzi must have gotten lucky - they were already on the highway. Now all that was left was to interrogate the two prisoners. And deal with them afterwards.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown, April 18th 2008

    “...and that’s all I know. All I do - I only pass on the money to an off-shore account! I don’t know who owns it, or the business!!” Livington did a good impression of a scared rat spilling his guts to save his skin. If not for the chair he had been tied to, he probably would have been shaking like a leaf, too. The way he kept glancing at the demon they had captured every time Caridad broke another limb with a loud crack was a nice touch as well.

    He was lying, though. John’s gut told him so, his experience told him so, and the financial data they had supported it confirmed it.

    Even Bartowski caught on. “Are you trying to tell us that you handle money for a business without knowing who is behind it?”

    “Yes!”

    “You have a demon bodyguard. You know about the supernatural;” Walker added in a flat tone. She didn’t even flinch when Caridad broke an arm again.

    “Yes?”

    “Most of your clients aren’t entirely human, are they?” Bartowski shook his head. “You wouldn’t have your bodyguard otherwise.”

    “I don’t want to know who I’m working for! That’s safer for me and for everyone!”

    “Not for the public,” Caridad snapped. “You’re helping demons!”

    “I’m just handling money! I don’t deliver virgins to demons!” Livington flinched when the Slayer smashed the demon’s head into the floor again, knocking the monster out for a few seconds.

    John could see Bartowski tensing up. “But you are aware of these practices. You know what demons do. You know most of them prey on humans.” The nerd sounded like a spy right now.

    “I only handle the money!” Livington repeated, shaking his head. “Garfield is just for security. He eats beef, not humans.”

    “We know about the deliveries,” John said, flipping a knife in his hands as soon as the scumbag glanced at him.

    Livington nodded rapidly. “See? I’m no murderer! I just handle the money.”

    “Handling the money for demons means they can operate more easily,” Bartowski pointed out. “No pesky government paperwork to deal with. No police checking up on how someone’s got the money to buy a house.”

    “I don’t touch the other stuff! Just the money!”

    “And where does the money come from? Humans who were eaten? People who were possessed?” Bartowski asked.

    Livington twitched at the last comment, John noted. “Blood money,” he said.

    “I’m not even laundering money! I’m just the middleman for some transactions!”

    “You’re laundering the money,” Walker told him. “You let demons invest it. Real estate. Businesses…” She shrugged.

    “We don’t like that,” Bartowski added with a scowl that looked out of place on his face.

    “And we don’t think that you really don’t know who your clients are.” John pushed the point of his knife into the chair about two inches from the man’s crotch.

    Livington stared at it. And at the plastic sheets spread out on the ground.

    “I know your type,” John told him. “You’re a clever one. You want to know whose money you handle - just in case an opportunity opens up. And to know when you need to cover up and cut your ties.”

    The man shook his head and whimpered.

    “We want the list,” John said, yanking the knife out and burying it in the chair again - this time closer to the scumbag’s crotch. Not too close, though - Livington looked like he might piss himself.

    “The client list,” Bartowski added, ruining the effect a little in John’s opinion.

    But Livington started talking anyway.

    *****​

    “...and that’s all I know. I don’t know if he’s a warlock or demon - just that he’s involved. He’s always buying, uh, artwork.”

    “Fernando Chavez?” John repeated the name. Probably not related, but you never knew.

    “Yes! He has a house in West Los Angeles!” Livington replied.

    “Got the address,” Bartowski announced, looking up from his laptop. He wasn’t smiling.

    “Does the paper trail check out?” Walker asked.

    “Yes,” Bartowski nodded. “The transactions match the shop’s books.”

    “I keep my records up to date,” Livington cut in. “It would be bad if the IRS came after me.”

    John scoffed, then looked at the others. “So, we’ve got what we need?”

    “And then some,” Bartowski replied, closing the laptop. “There’s a surprising number of demons owning land and buildings in Los Angeles.”

    “We’ll have to check them all out,” Caridad said with a feral-looking grin. “See what monsters we can find.”

    “Some of them might be harmless,” the nerd told her.

    She shrugged in response. “We can sort that out later.” Turning to the still struggling demon, she kicked its ribs. “But what about that? And him?” she added with a nod towards Livington.

    “There’s quite a number of vampires on that list. And other demons we know aren’t, uh, harmless,” Bartowski said.

    Walker nodded.

    The Slayer broke the demon’s neck.

    And John drew a silenced .22. That would make it look like a mob hit on Livington.

    *****​

    California, Burbanks, The Castle, April 18th, 2008

    “You left Livington there?” Bane asked after they had filled her in.

    John nodded. “He was in a dangerous business. The cops won’t think twice about an obvious murder by a rival or unsatisfied client.” And the demons might not suspect that the group knew about them.

    “What about the demon?” Grimes asked. The moron should have been resting already, in John’s opinion. He looked pale and was obviously favouring his wounded side. Hell, Bane was hovering over him.

    “Burned it,” Caridad replied as she returned from the kitchen. “Hernandez is asleep, by the way.”

    “I already told you that.” Bane frowned a little.

    “And I just confirmed it.” The Slayer grinned, then dug into the monster-sub she had made from the fridge’s contents. “We should look into finding a way to cremate demons more efficiently. Those that don’t turn to slime or dust can be a pain to get rid of.”

    Bartowski shook his head. “That would draw attention.”

    John nodded in agreement. If the cops found an oven built to cremate humans, in some abandoned building… He could see the headlines about a murder factory.

    “I wasn’t thinking of building one. But what about using a crematorium? They already burn bodies daily, don’t they?” Caridad asked. “And some at least know about the supernatural.”

    “Someone might notice unscheduled cremations,” Bartowski told her. “And burning demons with humans? Mixing the ashes?” He grimaced. “People deserve better.”

    John was pretty sure that some funeral businesses didn’t really check what ashes they handed over to the mourning relatives, but this wasn’t his problem either way.

    “What about pet cremation services?” Caridad apparently wasn’t easily giving up on her idea. Well, she usually was the one handling demon corpses, wasn’t she? What with being strong enough to haul the larger demons. “It would be better for the environment, too,” she added, “if we wouldn’t release unfiltered smoke and stuff into the air. Pollution’s bad enough in Los Angeles.”

    “I don’t think a pet crematorium can handle demon-sized loads,” Grimes said. “Never checked, though.”

    “What about the bigger pets? If you can cremate a horse, you can cremate most demons,” Caridad retorted.

    “Glue factory?” Grimes shrugged, then grimaced, and Bane was at his side in a moment, checking the moron’s wounds.

    Enough was enough. “We’ve got more important things to worry about,” John said. “Chavez.”

    “We’re going to Venezuela? We aren’t going to assassinate ‘El Presidente, are we?” Grimes blurted out.

    “Not that Chavez,” John told the idiot. “Fernando Chavez. Local.”

    “Oh, right.” Grimes nodded. The moron really needed to rest if he had already forgotten the briefing.

    “Well, we’ve got his address,” Bartowski cut in. “Go and get him? He’ll soon know about Livington being missing if he doesn’t already.”

    “The police will take a little time to identify the corpse,” Walker pointed out. “And Livington had concealed his residency, so even the attack on his home won’t alert his clients unless he used to receive them there.”

    “It’s actually called a robbery turned kidnapping in the news,” Bartowski said.

    John grunted. Who cared?

    “I can go and check it out,” Caridad offered after swallowing the last bite of her sandwich.

    “Not alone,” John told her. “His sort will be prepared. He probably has ties to the cartels.” Those killers hadn’t shown up by chance at the ceremony the team had crashed.

    “And we know he’s got ties to the supernatural,” Bartowski added.

    “Then he might already know about Livington and is preparing to flee!” Caridad wasn’t quite pacing, but she clearly wanted to go and hunt Chavez down.

    “Rushing in won’t help,” Walker told her. “We need to observe the place first.”

    “I can do recon,” the Slayer insisted.

    Probably reconnaissance in force, Slayer style. Not the best method for a spy.

    Waker shook her head before he could say anything. “We need some sleep,” she said. “All of us.”

    “Not me!” Caridad protested.

    “You can’t go alone,” John told her. “And the rest of us need rest.”

    Grimes chuckled at John’s unintended wordplay until a glare shut him up.

    “Yes,” Bartowski added, yawning, “let’s rest. We can check out Chavez’s home tomorrow.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, West Los Angeles, April 19th, 2008

    “I bet he bolted,” Caridad said, leaning back in her seat and stretching her arms over her head.

    John grunted in response and ignored how she arched her back to push out her chest, focusing on the security of the villa below them. It wasn’t bad, but nothing unusual - most movie stars would have better security. Chavez should have better security. More guards, for one.

    That meant that he had magical security. Probably some demon guard. Or traps and curses or whatever cultists used to secure their homes.

    “Guys!” Bartowski’s excited voice interrupted his study of the garage. “I just found out that Chavez has a yacht, and it’s not in its berth in the harbour!”

    Or, John amended his thoughts, Chavez is travelling and has taken most of his guards with him.

    Goddamnit.

    “When did the yacht leave port?” John asked.

    “Uh… last payment for harbour fees… no, he had a permanent berth… lemme check the security cameras… uh… they only save the last 48 hours? What? OK, OK, there are other options… crew! If he has a hired crew, they would… no records?”

    It seemed this would take Bartowski a little while.

    “Told you that he bolted.”

    “If he had left after we caught Livington, the marina’s records would show that,” John pointed out.

    Caridad huffed in response.

    “Alright… let’s check the traffic records…” Bartowski mumbled. John tuned him out.

    “So… we go back?” Caridad asked.

    He scoffed. “No, we continue. If Bartowski can’t find the yacht through hacking, we will need more intel.”

    “Which we’ll find in the house!”

    John nodded. Like in the army, for some missions, you needed boots on the ground - all the fancy electronics could only do so much from afar.

    “So… how do we do this?”

    “Physical security is easy to get through,” he said. “Perhaps too easy.” He could get over the wall and through the yard in his sleep.

    “Demony trap inside?”

    John slowly nodded. “Unless he took all useful assets with him.”

    She mulled that over. “I don’t think so. Things like hellhounds don’t do well when travelling.”

    “Hellhounds.” That didn’t sound good.

    “Mutant demon dogs. They like brains,” Caridad explained.

    “Definitely not ‘devil dogs’, then,” he said, snorting.

    Then he had to explain the joke.

    *****​

    They went over the wall without any trouble. John disabled the sensors, then climbed over it, and Caridad jumped. The motion detector in the yard was easy to circumvent as well - they couldn’t be too sensitive, or every stray cat would set it off, and the neighbours wouldn’t appreciate floodlights going off all the time at night. Not that any guard would appreciate constant false alerts, either.

    The back door, though, was far sturdier than expected. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in an ammunition depot. He glanced at Caridad, who shook her head at his unspoken questions. “No demony stench.”

    He nodded. That wasn’t good news, of course - he would have preferred to have advance warning of whatever was waiting inside. But they should be able to handle it, anyway.

    He picked the lock and pushed the door open - just enough for a small gap.

    He heard her inhale. “Something’s in there. Something unpleasant, but it’s faint.”

    ‘Unpleasant’? Probably Brown-Smythe’s influence. He nodded and pushed the door completely open, covering her with his carbine while she took point.

    They were in a small hallway, and Caridad was already moving forward, past some planters with… was that cat grass?

    Chavez must have a pet. No cat flap, though. The hallway led them past the kitchen and pantry, past another corridor crossing it and into the entrance hall. Chavez must really like plants, John deduced - there were more planters in the hall, lining the walls, with all sorts of flowers and other plants. No bonsai trees, though. The planters in the kitchen probably held spices, and… He blinked. Something wasn’t right.

    “Still a faint demony smell… a stench. But it hasn’t gotten stronger.”

    “Can you smell a cat?”

    “No. Trust me, I would.”

    Weird. All those exotic plants here - many of them expensive - and then cat grass in the hallway? And no cat. Did Chavez have a demon pet that ate grass? But why wouldn’t the stench be stronger there, then? And John didn’t recall any signs that an animal had eaten part of the grass…

    Now that he thought about it, there were two planters with cat grass in the entrance hall as well. Below the windows. Hell.

    John went back and peered into the trance hall - and hissed. The back door was covered on vines. Vines stretching back to the planters. Vines moving towards him!

    “It’s a demon plant!” Caridad yelled.

    He glanced over his shoulder as he backed away. The vines were sprouting from the planters in the entrance hall as well.

    Goddamnit!

    The Slayer moved, two short swords appearing in her hands, and she cut the closest vines. John backed further away - the hallway was filling up with the demon plant - slung his carbine over his shoulder and drew his sabre.

    It took him two slashes to cut the tip of the vine coming after him - those things were tough. And… was that blood?

    “Vampire vines!” Caridad yelled. “They capture their victims, then slowly drain them of blood!”

    “How do you kill them?” he yelled back, dropping to dodge a lunging green tentacle.

    “Cut their roots or set them on fire!”

    There was no way he’d reach the roots of the plant. He would have to hack his way through a solid mass of green by now.

    So, fire it was.

    But how to set the things on fire without getting burned yourself? And how to get out? Both windows and the door were already covered with grown tentacles.

    “Go upstairs!” Caridad yelled.

    He slashed another tip off the closest tentacle, then dashed towards the stairs. More tentacles moved in his direction from the planters below the windows. He swung his blade, and the things drew back, allowing him to reach the stairs.

    But that left Caridad cut off in the middle of the entrance hall! The vines that had chased him were now forming a wall! “Caridad!” he yelled, drawing a grenade - a real one, not the flashbang. Perhaps it would be enough to blow a hole into the plants...

    She cut two more vines in half, then jumped back, dodged under a third vine, turned and jumped over the wall. Her blades flashed as she crossed it, decapitating a few tentacles reaching out to her. She landed on her feet and kept running. “Upstairs!”

    “There’ll be vines as well on top,” he snapped - but he was rushing up the stairs anyway. It wasn’t as if staying downstairs would be a good idea, either.

    As expected, green tentacles were already waiting for them at the top of the stairs. But they weren’t yet dense enough to form a wall. Perhaps…

    Caridad dove past him, her swords whirling, and green plant pieces started hitting the floor.

    John turned and threw the grenade down at the door, between the two planters. “Fire in the hole!” he yelled as he hit the ground. A second later, the grenade went off - and he had already grabbed an M34. He lobbed it over the railing into the entrance hall. “Stay down!”

    “Hard to!” Caridad yelled back. “Capoeira isn’t…”

    The white phosphorous grenade went off and cut off what the Slayer had been about to say. Thick smoke was rapidly filling the hall - and raising.

    “Are you crazy?” she yelled.

    “You said fire,” he yelled back as he rolled to his right and jumped up. “At least our back is covered.”

    “Yes, and we’re about to suffocate!”

    That was what the masks were for. But they wouldn’t protect them forever. He moved to Caridad, slashing frantically at the vines trying to cut off and surround them. Against all reason, the Slayer was making progress - she was pushing back the tentacles in front of her. Like a hedge cutter.

    And she was clearing the way to a room - Chavez’s office. John opened it and stepped inside - no plants growing in there? “Damn!” It had to be a trap.

    But Caridad had already followed him and slammed the door closed. “We need to block it!”

    “This has to be trapped!”

    Something - a lot of somethings - were hitting the door. Fortunately, Chavez had picked a security door for his office. It would take even demon plants some time to break through it.

    And the windows were… armoured glass. John moved towards them and pulled on one - locked. What paranoid criminal locked their windows?

    “Let me smash them!” Caridad said.

    “No! It’s armoured!” he snapped, pulling out his lockpicks. If she warped the frame, they would be stuck here. “Check for traps!”

    “Traps?”

    “There aren’t any plants here. And this is his office,” he explained, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of demonic battering rams hitting the door. Damn. Modern locks, too - this would take a bit. Would almost be faster to blow a hole into it...

    “Right,” Caridad replied. “Oh… his laptop!”

    “That’s a decoy,” John said. It always was. “His real computer will be hidden.”

    He tried not to let the sound of the Slayer tearing up the furniture distract him from picking the damn lock. He could see smoke outside already - and flickering light from the flames spreading below. The fire brigade would be here before long. Goddamnit.

    “Found it!” he heard Caridad cheer. “It’s insiAAGH!”

    Something hit the wall next to him hard. Someone - Caridad had been thrown into it. He whirled and cursed - there was nothing.

    “Invisible!” Caridad yelled. “Get down!”

    He dropped to the ground, and the glass above him almost broke as something hit it. He gritted his teeth and rolled to the side, slashing blindly with his sabre.

    He hated it when he was right about a trap, and it still went off.

    He didn’t hit the thing, but Caridad had recovered and tackled it - he still couldn’t see it, but the way the carpet was torn off as Caridad rolled over it was proof that she was grappling with something large. And with claws.

    “Get the window open!” Caridad yelled. “I’ve got this!”

    The way she flew against the next wall proved her wrong. John jumped to the right - he couldn’t dodge an invisible attacker - and kept moving. Towards the other window. Caridad could handle this. She was the Slayer, wasn’t she? And he could open the damn window before they all suffocated. Or burned to death.

    He had to.

    More crashing noises behind him. He glanced over his shoulder out of reflex; wouldn’t want to get blindsided from behind. Caridad and the demon were wrecking the antique-looking armchair in the corner. As far from John as possible - if Caridad was risking herself to give him room to work…

    He muttered a curse and crouched down at the window. There was thick smoke outside now, and he could see the flames flickering now, even from this angle - soon they’d reach the roof. And who knew how solid the floor below him was? If it was mostly wood… No time for his lockpicks; he had to blow it open and damn the consequences.

    He pulled out a small pack of C-4. A moment’s hesitation, then he ripped a third of it off and started to place the charge. That was always a little guesswork - which was why doing it inside a room wasn’t recommended.

    But they didn’t have a choice. Caridad wasn’t doing well - she was bleeding from an arm and a leg. Still fighting, of course. He placed the radio detonator, then scrambled away. “Take cover!” he yelled as he dove behind the remains of the desk, finger on the trigger.

    Caridad didn’t join him, though. What was she doing? “Take cover!” he repeated himself. If he detonated the explosives now, the Slayer would be caught in the blast.

    She didn’t reply. Instead, she went all out, swinging wildly, driving the invisible monster back a step, another… She slid back a step, jumping up, and her feet struck the demon, propelling her back - and the demon away from her. Towards the window rigged to blow.

    He triggered the charge and pressed himself against the floor, hands on his ears. The shockwave still felt like a blow to the chest as the flames seemed to fill the room.

    And the screaming… Like a stuck pig.

    He forced himself up, gripping his blade. Where was the demon? There!

    It was an ugly creature, with tentacles instead of a mouth, and some kind of fur. Which was burning. Now, how to…

    Caridad suddenly was there, her swords stabbing down, crossed. A moment later, the head of the thing rolled over the floor. “Yes!” she yelled.

    But she looked terrible. Singed, bleeding, her jacket ripped in half, showing her broken vest.

    “We need to leave. Now,” John snapped, moving to the hole where the window had been. Smoke was pouring in now - the wind must have shifted.

    “Wait! The computer!” She dashed to the corner as he cursed. He could see the tip of the flames now, through the hole. No climbing down - they’d have to jump. Fortunately, the lawn was below them. If they were on the side facing the pool, with the concrete floor around it…

    “Got it!” She was there again. “We need to jump.”

    “Yes.” if he backed off a little, he could make a running jump. Anything to clear the flames as quickly as possible.

    Then she grabbed him. “Hold on!”

    “What?” He grabbed onto her out of reflex and surprise a moment before she leapt.

    He clenched his teeth as they flew through the air - and the flames - and landed on the lawn below. He heard her groan, too - she hadn’t rolled with the impact but stood the landing while carrying him.

    “Damn,” he spat.

    “I’m fine,” she retorted. “And we got the computer.”

    Idiot. He turned, pulling another M34 from his webbing. “Bind your wounds; can’t leave blood traces.”

    *****​

    California, Burbanks, The Castle, April 19th, 2008

    “You used phosphorus on the lawn?” Barrowski sounded appalled.

    “We couldn’t leave traces,” John told the moron.

    “But that’s toxic.”

    John shrugged Who cared? The whole house had burned down anyway, which probably had set free far more toxic stuff than a grenade or two. “Crack the computer,” he said.

    “But…”

    John ignored him and walked towards the med bay, where Bane and Grimes were treating Caridad.

    “I’m fine,” the Slayer told him before he reached the door.

    He grunted as he stepped inside. She didn’t look fine. Cuts on upper arm and thigh, now properly bandaged. One eye was turning black and blue. More bruises on her chest - what he could see of it, in any case. Singed her hair, too.

    “It’s just some bruises and two cuts.” She stared at him.

    “Well, a little more… but as long as they don’t get infected,” Grimes said.

    “I still say she should get stitches,” Bane added.

    “I heal too fast for that,” Caridad protested.

    Bane didn’t look happy, but she didn’t push the issue. John hoped that meant the wounds really weren’t grave.

    “What kind of demon was it?” Grimes asked.

    “Dunno.” Caridad shrugged, then winced. John shook his head as the Slayer tried to touch her shoulder without making it obvious. “Tentacle head and fur, but it was on fire when it became visible.”

    “What kind of tentacles? More like a mind flayer, or more like, well… an inverted squid?”

    “It had tentacles instead of a mouth,” Caridad replied.

    “Oh. Like a squid? Did it have a beak?”

    “I didn’t check - I was busy not getting burned to death!”

    “Oh.” Grimes looked disappointed. “That’s too bad. If this is a new species of demon, we could’ve really used a proper description.”

    Caridad growled at him, but it didn’t seem to faze the moron. Or perhaps that was a Watcher thing.

    *****​

    “Baja California!” Bartowski announced around midnight.

    “What?” Even Walker seemed to be taken aback.

    “Uh… Chavez went down south, to Baja California,” the moron explained. John quickly checked that Hernandez was still asleep in her cell. She was. Good.

    “You hacked his computer?” Grimes asked.

    “Uh… yes. A while ago - it wasn’t too hard, not when I could extract the hard drives to physically bypass some of the security, and I had to extract them anyway since the casing was cracked and the motherboard - well, the control board of the net drive part, but close enough - didn’t work since its power supply wasn’t connected any more, so…”

    “Breathe, Chuck,” Walker tried to stop the babbling - Bartowski was obviously in need of sleep.

    “Uh, sorry. Anyway - I got the data one, two hours ago, or something. But I had to analyse it. There was a lot of garbage. And a lot of porn, too, incidentally.”

    “Really?” Grimes leaned forward. “I mean… what a surprise.”

    John rolled his eyes, and he heard Caridad growl from her cot - the Slayer had woken up, of course. “Get on with it,” he snapped.

    “Uh, so I went through the logs and found which documents were used most recently before the yacht left. And they all pointed at Baja California. Baja California Sur, to be exact. And they focused on an old hacienda dating back to the time of the Spanish Empire. Which he had apparently found by searching for images - I found a ton of those in his search history.”

    “Searching for images?” Bane asked.

    “Probably a vision,” Grimes explained. “He knew how it looked, but didn’t know where it was.”

    “Ah.”

    John clenched his teeth. Visions that led to intel. Typical for this business.

    “Anyway,” Bartowski spoke up again, smiling like an idiot. “Road trip?”

    *****​
     
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: The Hacienda
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 15: The Hacienda

    California, Burbanks, The Castle, April 19th, 2008

    “Road trip?” John shook his head. “That would take too long. Chavez already has a lead on us.” Even with the slower yacht, the man - the cultist - would have reached Mexico a day ago. “We’ll take a plane.”

    Bartowski blinked. “Ah.” He blinked again. “So… let me check where’s the closest airport to the target. Uh, we’re going to land, right? We’re not going to parachute in?”

    That would be the quickest way to arrive at the target location, but not everyone was qualified for it. John had no doubt that Caridad would have no trouble, but Bartowski would have to hope that the Intersect kicked in. Not to mention that an airdrop would significantly limit their mobility once on the ground, and the amount of gear they could carry. “We’ll land at the closest private airport. Walker and I will handle it.”

    “Ah, OK.”

    “Get some rest, Chuck,” Walker told him with a sappy smile. Which the moron returned in full.

    John shook his head as he moved to the computer to requisition one of the Agency’s private planes.

    *****​

    Vizcaino Desert, Baja California Sur, April 20th, 2008

    John checked his weapons - all of them - before the plane started the final approach. Better safe than sorry.

    “Uh… I know the plane’s rated for grass and dirt runways,” Bartowski said, “and I trust the pilot, of course, even if it’s night, but… can the, uh, ‘ground crew’ be trusted?”

    John snorted. “You can’t trust anyone in the spy business.”

    Walker frowned at him, then turned to Bartowski. “The CIA has been working with them for some time.”

    “So the rumours about the CIA working with drug cartels were true.”

    “Yes,” John said. “As long as they don’t ship their stuff into the USA.”

    “What about Mexico?” Caridad asked.

    Mexico wasn’t the USA. The Agency didn’t care about other countries unless American interests were affected. John knew it, Walker knew it, and Bartowski and Caridad should know it as well.

    Judging by her expression, Caridad did. “If they try anything, we’ll end them.”

    “Of course,” John said, reholstering his pistol.

    “I feel so reassured in our government’s policies,” Bartowski commented.

    John glared at him. “No one has clean hands in this business.” And that included the Council, from what John could tell.

    “But… drug cartels? Those are the guys who kill people by the dozen!”

    “So do we.”

    “But…”

    “Chuck,” Walker cut in. “We can talk about that later.” She nodded towards the cockpit. “We’re about to land in the middle of such people.”

    Bartowski settled down, but John knew he would bring up the matter again. Damn idealist.

    John hated drug dealers and other criminals, but sometimes, you had to work with them for a mission. That was what a spy did. Bartowski would have to accept it.

    The CIA pilot landed their plane on the dirt strip with the expected skill - not the smoothest landing John had ever experienced, but far from the worst - and taxied straight up to the half a dozen cars and a dozen armed people waiting to the side.

    “That’s Ramirez,” Walker said after a glance out of the window. With the full moon up, they didn’t need night vision gear.

    John nodded.

    Bartowski craned his neck to peer out of the window, then pulled back, blinking. The moron had flashed, John realised a moment before he started blurting out information. “Jorge Ramirez. Mexican drug cartel leader. Ties to the Mexican government. Involved in kidnapping, protection rackets, and smuggling drugs - into the USA. He’s working with syndicates in San Diego.”

    Goddamnit.

    “So… he is smuggling drugs into the USA,” Bartowski repeated himself. “The Intersect proves it - well, it wouldn’t be admissible in a court of law, what with its top-secret nature and such, but…”

    John glared at him, baring his teeth. “We can deal with them after we’ve stopped Chavez.”

    “They’ve got a dozen people - I could knock out half of them before they know what happens,” Caridad commented.

    “They’ll have more people in the area. Ramirez isn’t stupid,” Walker retorted. “He’ll have a sniper or two ready, probably heavier weapons as well.”

    John grunted in agreement. The Mexican cartels waged war against each other with a ferocity and on a scale that would impress some warlords in Africa. “Play nice. We can settle accounts later.”

    Bartowski looked mulish but nodded. For a liberal moron, the guy could be quite bloodthirsty.

    As the plane came to a stop, John looked at the cartel goons outside as well. Assault rifles and SMGs, mostly Russian and Chinese models. Ramirez carried a pistol - probably one of those gold-plated bling pieces, the frame seemed to sparkle even in the dim light outside.

    John checked his own weapon again before opening the door.

    “Good evening, Mr Smith.” Ramirez was smiling widely, a gold tooth catching the light from the plane’s interior as John left the plane. “Welcome to Mexico!”

    The man spoke English without an accent, John noticed. That hadn’t been in his file. A recent development? A hint of the business ties Bartowski had mentioned? He nodded at the man. “Good evening - and thank you.”

    “Anything for a trusted partner.”

    Was that a hint? A veiled threat? John nodded again. “You’ve got the car?”

    “Of course. One of the best models for the desert.” Ramirez turned and gestured at a Range Rover. “A comfortable and dependable ride for four people and their equipment.”

    John had seen more subtle attempts to gather intel. “Good. We’ll be on our way in a moment.” Chavez had a lead, after all - there was no time to waste.

    One of Ramirez’s bodyguards whistled softly. Either Walker or Caridad had just left the plane, John knew, suppressing a sigh. That’s why he hated working with criminals - they couldn’t stay professional. Well, it could’ve been worse.

    Then he saw Ramirez’s smile change - it lost some of the fake warmth and gained a lecherous trait. “Buena noches, Señorita.”

    “Good evening,” the Slayer replied - with a British accent. And the snotty attitude that went with it.

    It didn’t seem to dissuade Ramirez, though - quite the contrary. The man wouldn’t let a woman shoot him down in front of his men. The tight grey turtleneck and matching pants Caridad was wearing didn’t help, of course.

    Best nip this in the bud. “Mr Ramirez - my partner, Cathrine,” John said, meeting Ramirez’s eyes. “Honey - Mr Ramirez.”

    Caridad understood what he was doing and wrapped an arm around his waist as she nodded at the drug dealer.

    “Ah.” Ramirez’s smile changed again - it was one thing to hit on a beautiful woman, that was practically expected in certain circles. But to hit on another man’s woman? That was asking for a fight. “You’re a lucky man, Mr Smith.”

    John nodded in response and waved at Bartowski and Walker. “Mr and Mrs Carmichael.”

    “Welcome to Mexico!” No hitting on a married woman. Not even when their husband didn’t look like a CIA spy. Then again, Ramirez would know that appearances could be deceiving in this business.

    “Uh, thanks,” Bartowski replied. “Good to be here.” He sounded like a tourist.

    Walker, sensibly, merely nodded.

    “So… it’s none of my business, of course, and I don’t want to know what you’re doing here, but… is there an area my men should avoid for the near future? So we don’t have any misunderstandings?” Ramirez asked as he led them to the Range Rover.

    “Just don’t investigate any shootings you might hear,” John said.

    “Or any screaming,” Caridad added, and John didn’t have to glance at her to know she was baring her teeth in that feral grin of hers.

    Unfortunately, that made one of the burly bodyguards snort and mutter something John didn’t catch - but Caridad did. A moment later, the big man was on the ground, the Slayer on top of him with one blade at his throat and the other at his groin.

    “Don’t kill him, please,” John said in a bored voice. “Don’t maim him either.” He turned to Ramirez and pointedly ignored the raised guns of the other guards. “Keys?”

    The drug lord blinked, then laughed. “You’re a very brave man, Mr Smith,” he said with a glance at the Slayer, who got up and sheathed her blades again.

    That defused the situation. The guards were still staring at Caridad, of course - but this time, because they had realised just how dangerous she was. Well, that shouldn’t…

    “Vampira...” one of the guards muttered, fingering a golden cross dangling from his necklace.

    Goddamnit.

    Some of the other guards chuckled - though a few looked even more wary. Afraid, actually. Hat was understandable after Caridad’s demonstration. And Ramirez… was frowning. And grabbing a cross of his own.

    “Don’t insult her,” John said sharply. “She’s a good catholic girl.”

    Once again, Caridad understood his meaning and pulled out her own cross.

    “Ah,” Ramirez said, laughing briefly. He turned back to John. “Now, you know the area? One can easily get lost, even with a GPS.”

    “I’ve been here before,” John told him with a toothy smile. Not in this particular area, but Ramirez didn’t need to know that. And if the drug lord didn’t stop fishing for information…

    But Ramirez nodded and handed over the keys for the Range Rover. “You’ve got my contact number for the, ah, extraction, as you call it, right?”

    “Yes,” John told him. “We’ll call you once we’re done.”

    Ramirez nodded again. “Good. Although if you are, ah, on the run from others, we would appreciate a warning.”

    “Of course,” John lied.

    They could deal with him after the mission.

    *****​

    “What a bunch of idiots! And creeps!” Caridad complained a few minutes later, as John drove the Range Rover away from the airfield at the highest speed he could safely manage.

    “And drug-dealing murderers,” Bartowski added.

    “We’ll deal with them after we get Chavez,” Walker said. “Or the agency will deal with them.”

    John suppressed a grunt. The CIA might deal with Ramirez - but only to send a message to other criminals they were dealing with. Or to keep Mr Intersect from quitting. “Focus on the mission,” he spat. “Apocalypse now, cartel later.”

    “Was that a joke?” the moron asked. “That was a joke, wasn’t it?”

    John rolled his eyes as Caridad giggled. “Focus.”

    “Uh, right… this is weird. Focus, I got it. On what?”

    “Let’s check the satellite map.” Walker, at least, was professional. “It should be updated any minute.”

    “Uh, right. Lemme log on my laptop..”

    John switched from one dirt track to another, driving towards the hacienda they had found while the nerd pulled out his computer. He kept the lights off - no need to announce their presence, and it was the night of the full moon, so he could see well enough without night vision gear. Of course, it meant anyone else wouldn’t need it either, so that put some constraints on the available routes. Nothing he couldn’t handle, though.

    As long as the others did their job.

    “So… looks like nothing changed… oh! There are two cars here, in the middle of the desert - so to speak; it’s actually not the middle, but close to the target site - just behind a hill near the hacienda. Anyway, unless they are lost tourists, that’s probably Chavez’s group.”

    Using the hill as cover - that meant they were trying to be subtle. Not a direct assault. On the other hand, the hacienda was old, but not listed as a historical site - it was still a ranch. Nominally. This wasn’t good ranching country, and they hadn’t seen any livestock on the earlier satellite pictures anyway. Either the vacation home of the Garcias, the family who owned it - or a base for a cartel. “Any guards?” John asked.

    “Uh… lemme switch to thermographic… nope. No guards outside,” Bartowski replied.

    “No dogs, either,” Walker added.

    “Sensors and cameras, then,” John said. It made sense - standing guard was tiresome, and standing guard at night in the desert? Close to punishment detail. At least during training.

    “Uh… or, you know…” Bartowski trailed off and cleared his throat. “I just had a thought. That’s the suspected location of a piece of Coyolxauhqui, right? And the Garcias have been living there for generations…”

    John clenched his teeth. They would have to deal with demons again. Well, they had expected that. Perhaps Chavez and the Garcias would whittle each other’s numbers down a bit.

    “At least we can assume that the Garcias aren’t friendly towards Chavez or he’d driven up to the hacienda,” Walker pointed out.

    That was a sound thought. And a welcome one. Nothing better than two enemies fighting each other while you waited to kill the victor.

    “I hope they’re not some Mexican versions of the Order of Dagon or the Knights of Byzantium,” Caridad said.

    “Let’s hope not,” Bartowski chimed in.

    “Order of Dagon?” Walker asked before John had to.

    “A monk’s order guarding the key to, well, a hell dimension. Glory, a banished hell god, needed the key to return - which would have destroyed the world,” Caridad explained. “They, ah, didn’t have the best security, and the key fell into the wrong hands.”

    Hell gods… goddammit. “And the knights?” John asked against his better judgment.

    “A knightly order who wanted to destroy the key,” Caridad replied. “They were zealots, though, and completely crazy. They fought with swords and bows and arrows, wore chainmail and rode horses.”

    “You use swords and crossbows,” John pointed out.

    “Because that works against demons!” the Slayer retorted. “But we use modern weapons when they work. And we don’t dress as if we were rejects from the last crusade!” She shook her head. “Anyway, they were fanatics and died to a man fighting Glory. But they also attacked Buffy for some reason.”

    “Probably thought she was a demon,” Bartowski added.

    That made sense. Well, John wouldn’t mind fighting stupid fanatics using medieval weapons instead of demons or witches. At least his light machine gun would make short work of them - chainmail wouldn’t stop full metal jackets. “Is the route clear?”

    “Uh, yes… it should be. But we’ll need to park a little further away, I think,” Bartowski replied.

    That meant more walking. “Or we drive straight into the hacienda if Chavez managed to get there already,” Caridad said.

    That was reckless - but it would be the fastest way to reach the hacienda, and they were still behind Chavez.

    John sped up a little more. It was a little risky on this dirt track, but not too dangerous - the car Ramirez had provided to them was a good one. John hadn’t discovered any problems with it. Not so far, at least - it was a British car, after all, and so there were bound to be some. And time was of the essence. If Chavez got another demon goddess body part and managed to complete a ritual…

    They hit a bump, and the Range Rover jumped a little. “Whoa! Careful!” he heard Bartowski complain.

    “Hold on,” John replied with a slight grin.

    “I can’t hold on and hold on to the laptop!”

    “Then learn how to do it.” Really, even the army taught their soldiers how to use computers in vehicles these days. The moron would cope.

    “I’ll steady the computer, Chuck.”

    Or Walker would help him.

    “Any updates on the situation?”

    “Uh… nothing so far. Nothing is good, isn’t it? Nothing is burning, in any case. Or blown to rubble.”

    That didn’t mean it couldn’t happen - they were an hour out. Forty-five minutes, if John took greater risks. Could the people in the hacienda hold out that long? This wasn’t the battle of Camarón, but they had had decades, possibly centuries to prepare for an attack. He snorted. With their luck? The Garcias probably had forgotten to lock the gates.

    He pressed down on the accelerator a little more but had to slow down again when he started to lose control of the car in the softer ground. Damn. Hopefully, Chavez would take his time attacking the hacienda.

    And pigs would fly.

    Ten minutes later, Bartowski gasped. “Guys! Guys! There’s… uh… flashes. Gunfire? It looks like gunfire…”

    And they were still thirty-five minutes out.

    John floored it.

    *****​

    “Status?” John snapped, struggling with the steering wheel to keep the car from toppling on its side as he ran it up a slope.

    “They’ve taken the walls - well, breached them - and are advancing on the hacienda itself,” Bartowski reported. “But the gunfire from inside is slacking off.”

    “Where are the demons?” Caridad asked. “We know Chavez has demons on the payroll. And who would be as stupid as to guard a demon god’s body part with guns?”

    John clenched his teeth. It was a good question, but guns were useful. Better than chainmail and bows and arrows.

    “Nothing on the satellite’s scope,” Bartowski replied. “Though that doesn’t mean much; vampires wouldn’t show up at all. They’re room temperature. Or ambient temperature, to be exact.”

    “We don’t need to be that exact,” John snapped as they crested the ridge and went down the slope on the other side, the Range Rover jumping a few yards before hitting the ground again.

    “Whoa! Watch it!”

    A quick glance at the mirror told John that both Bartowski and Walker were fine. And they were still five minutes out. Unless John crashed the car. Which he wouldn’t do.

    “Uh… the gunfire just ended. Completely. And the people outside - Chavez’s men - are moving to the hacienda. Either they shot everyone, or...” Bartowski trailed off.

    “...or the attack was a distraction, and some demons snuck in and killed the defenders from behind,” John finished for him.

    “Uh, yeah, exactly.”

    Caridad snorted. “Typical. Let’s hurry.”

    They were already going as fast as possible. John nodded anyway. Another two hills to clear.

    Suddenly, the Range Rover’s heck swerved, and the car almost rolled over before John could compensate. “What the…?”

    “Watch it!”

    “Hey!”

    The car still didn’t react as it should, fighting John every way. What was going on? He blinked. “Earthquake! Hold on!” He slowed down - by necessity - as the earth kept shaking.

    “Oh, no! No!” Bartowski suddenly yelled.

    John snarled. What was his problem? John had the situation in hand. As long as he kept the car from rolling over, they were fine - there was nothing that could collapse over them. Unless the earth suddenly split beneath them…

    “Chuck?” Walker asked.

    “This isn’t a normal earthquake,” the moron answered.

    He was right, John realised. The earth was shaking far too long.

    “Oh, no!” Caridad repeated Bartowski’s words. “That’s double plus ungood.”

    “What is going on?” Walker asked. Rather sharply.

    “Shaking the earth like this? Localised? That’s usually something breaking free or unsealing or…” Bartowski replied. “And the hacienda is collapsing. Has collapsed. Thermographic camera… Oh my God! That’s huge!”

    “Huge?” Caridad twisted in her seat as if she was about to climb over it and grab the moron’s laptop. “What is it?”

    They reached the top of the hill in front of them, and John could see a dust cloud rising behind the next hill.

    Bartowski finally answered the Slayer’s question. “It’s a snake. A giant snake. With wings.”

    A snake with wings? What the hell was that?

    “Quetzalcoatl?” Walker asked - had she studied that stuff?

    “Uh… I hope it’s not the Aztec god,” Bartowski replied. “That would be bad. Very bad. And also very improbable.”

    “How big is the ‘giant’ snake?” Caridad asked as they sped towards the last hill between them and the hacienda - or its ruins.

    “Uh, well, that’s hard to say exactly…” the moron dithered.

    “I don’t need exact measurements!” the Slayer snapped. “As big as an Anaconda? Saltwater Crocodile? Elephant? Dinosaur?”

    “Uh… dragon?”

    “Dragon?” John snarled. “Get the rocket launcher!” If he had known they could be facing a dragon-sized snake-demon, he’d have packed a Stinger or three.

    “Dibs!” Caridad threw herself over the backrest, and John heard yelps of protest from Walker and the moron.

    A moment later, the Slayer was back in the passenger seat, holding the two AT-4s they had brought with them.

    “You’ve never fired one of them,” he told her.

    “I’ve fired other launchers. I’ll be fine.”

    He clenched his teeth again. Untrained soldiers who thought they could handle a weapon were the worst - they were the greater threat against their own than against the enemy.

    “Uh… the feathered snake - or feathered serpent, actually - might not be hostile,” Bartowski cut in. “Just saying - they might be working for the good guys.”

    They reached the foot of the hill, and John swapped gears for the climb. The soil was softer, so they had to go slower, too.

    “It’s a demon,” Caridad retorted.

    “That doesn’t mean that it is bad,” the moron said. “And it’s fighting Chavez’s men! The cultists!”

    “That doesn’t make it one of the good guys. Spike fought against Angelus, too. Before he had a soul,” Caridad said as she armed the AT-4 - how did she know how to? Did her Slayer powers cover rocket launchers?

    John forced himself to focus on driving again. They were almost on top of the hill now. What was the light flaring up?

    “Even if it’s not a good guy doesn’t mean that we have to fight it,” Bartowski said. “Just… Oh my God!”

    They reached the top, and John hit the brakes. In front of them, a huge snake with feathered wings was breathing fire at screaming people running on the ground.

    “I really hope we don’t have to fight it,” Bartowski said after a moment.

    Even Caridad seemed shocked. Then John heard her mutter: “Buffy never killed a feathered serpent!”

    Goddammit.

    The thing was about… well, the size of a dinosaur. Length-wise. Brontosaurus. And it was breathing fire. John saw the flames engulf two of Chavez’s men. One stumbled out of it covered in fire and fell, the other… wasn’t there anymore.

    “Vampire,” Caridad snapped. “I knew it!”

    Ah. John looked around. “Where are the remaining attackers?” He didn’t see anyone, but they would be taking cover and hiding if they were smart - there was no way to outrun that monster. Not on foot.

    “Uh… lemme check… thermo is a little off with all the fire… I can’t find any?”

    That was…

    “Guys!” Caridad yelled. “It’s coming straight at us!”

    John gasped and floored it. The Range Rover shot forward, then raced down the slope, towards the ruins of the hacienda.

    “Wrong direction! Wrong direction!” Bartowski yelled.

    John ignored him. There was no time to turn and drive away. Not with the way the fire spread. The only chance was to get closer. And pick the right moment.

    The car bucked as it hit a rock, and, for a long moment, John feared that it would topple over. But it didn’t and kept going. The snake drew its head back, opened it’s maw - and John pulled the steering wheel to the right, sliding through a patch of soft sand as fire consumed the area behind it. He felt the wheels on the right side lose contact with the ground, and the car started to tip

    Then Caridad threw herself against him, smashing him into the driver’s door, and the car tipped back.

    And sped away. Towards a gap between a rock on the right side and a ruined wall on the left. “Get ready to jump out!” he snapped, grabbing his knife. He didn’t wait to see if the others reacted - he bent down and jammed the knife into the floor, at an angle to hold the gas pedal down.

    Then he kicked the door open as they cleared the rock and jumped out as the car kept going. He hit the ground hard, rolling twice over rocks and into a bush, but ignored the pain. He had to get into cover behind the rock.

    Bartowski had made it out as well, and both of them jumped behind the rock, then hugged the ground.

    A moment later, the snake swept in, and fire rained down.

    John covered his head with his hands and pressed his face into the ground, holding his breath. A wave of heat washed over him. That was it - he was dead. No. He wasn’t. There was no pain. No pain like being burnt, at least. He looked up. The serpent’s fire had scorched the area between the rock and the ruins but had missed him. And Bartowski.

    The Range Rover was toast, though. And so would they be if they didn’t get a move on. “Run!” John yelled, jumping up and rushing towards the ruins.

    Bartowski followed, then overtook him - the Intersect must have kicked in. Walker and Caridad were there, pressed against a crumbling wall, none the worse for wear.

    “We need to take cover underground!” Bartowski yelled.

    “Run! I’ll cover you!” the Slayer yelled back, hefting the AT-4.

    “Like hell!” He wouldn’t let her do this. “Give me the launcher!”

    Bartowski and Walker were running. Towards the ruins of the hacienda.

    She glared at him, brain her teeth as she shook her head. “I can dodge its fire. You can’t!”

    The serpent had finished its run and was now climbing up again. Time was running out. He saw that the second launcher was lying at her feet.

    He clenched his teeth so hard, he thought they’d break. “I’ll set up a crossfire!” he snapped and bent down to grab it.

    She let him. He saw her smile at him. Knew what it meant. What she was planning. And he hated her for it. Hated himself for letting her do it. But he ran.

    The flying snake had reached the right altitude and was turning. It would enter its next dive any moment.

    John ran through the ruins, jumping over a broken wall, a broken body.

    “Hey! You ugly newt! I’m here! Come get some!”

    And the Slayer was calling out the snake. Standing between the rock and wall, playing bait. Sacrificing herself.

    John jumped behind the remains of a staircase and armed the AT-4. It was an AST round - it would do.

    When he got up, the serpent had almost reached Caridad. He lifted the launcher as the monster drew up, its jaws opening. It would whip forward, and fly along… about there.

    He aimed and fired at the same moment the flying serpent spat fire and torched the entire area as it flew forward. He should duck into cover, as he had trained to, but he couldn’t. He watched the rocket fly, watched the serpent dive, both marked by flames in the night.

    The monster was faster than he had expected. His rocket missed its head. Would miss its body. Caridad had…

    The rocket exploded against the wing of the snake, the shaped charge blowing into and through it, the wider cone hitting the body. The monster was thrown to the side, screeching loud enough to hurt John’s ears as it crashed into the ground near the rock.

    But it wasn’t dead - John could still see the coils move, thrashing around, one wing beating, the head raising as it screeched loud enough to hurt his ears. He hadn’t killed the beast. Caridad had sacrificed herself for nothing. But the monster was grounded. Vulnerable.

    He drew his blade and started to run towards it. He’d kill it if it was the last thing he did.

    The serpent’s head snapped around, glowing eyes fixating on him.

    Goddammit. He changed course, dashing towards a broken wall nearby, the only cover in reach, knowing he would be too late as the monster opened its maw…

    ...and a rocket hit it in the jaw, the explosion blowing through its skull.

    Who… Caridad must be alive!

    He ignored the spasming, silent monster and rushed forward. Where was she? He hadn’t seen the AT-4 firing… there!

    A figure was rising near the rock, dropping a spent launcher on the ground, moving towards the dying serpent.

    “Caridad!”

    She stopped and turned. He saw her teeth flash as she smiled.

    Then he reached her, panting. She was hurt - singed. The back of her jacket was smouldering, half-melted kevlar visible through the burned patches. Part of her hair was missing as well.

    But she was alive.

    “Casey.” She grinned again. “Good shot.”

    “Goddammit.” He shook his head. “What…” What were you thinking? What were you doing? But he knew what she had been thinking. And doing. She was the Slayer.

    “‘What’?” She cocked her head in that familiar manner, looking at him. Still grinning, but there was a hint of doubt. Of something.

    He reached out, grabbing her shoulder. Pulling her close. Kissing her.

    She was kissing him. Grabbing him. Pressing herself against him. He could feel her body in his arms as he broke the kiss, panting again. He tried to pull back, but her arms were wrapped around him like a vice. No give at all.

    And she kissed him again. Mashed her lips against his.

    He kissed back again.

    *****​

    “Guys! Guys! Guy… Uh.” He heard someone coughing. “Guys?”

    John blinked and almost gasped. They were on a mission! He had completely lost it! He pulled his head back and looked at the moron and Walker. Fortunately, Caridad released him. “Sitrep!” he snapped as he turned to face the others.

    Bartowski gaped at him, his mouth moving without a sound coming out. “Uh…”

    “Did you find the body part?” John asked.

    “Uh... no… we came running as soon as the serpent went down…”

    “Let’s go get it, then.”

    He strode past the still gaping moron, towards the ruins of the hacienda. And clenched his teeth at his own unprofessional conduct. In the middle of a mission! In the middle of a battle!

    “Uh… Caridad?”

    Caridad appeared at John’s side. He didn’t glance at her, but he could feel her eyes on him. Godammit.

    “Sarah? Did you see that?”

    “Come on, Chuck. We’ve got a mission to finish.”

    “But… they were… wait for me!”

    The ruins weren’t as bad as John had thought at first glance. The interior of the hacienda looked to be in decent shape, at least on the ground floor, except for the huge hole that the serpent had come out of. “Lemme guess,” he growled, “we have to go underground.”

    “Yes,” Caridad answered.

    “The important relics are usually in vaults underground, and since the feathered serpent was probably its guardian, odds are the body part was in or at its lair, and since it came out of here…” Bartowski had caught up to them.

    John looked around for stairs that hadn’t been buried under rubble, but this close, the hacienda had suffered.

    “I’ll climb down,” Caridad announced, stepping up to the edge of the hole.

    “We all can climb down,” Bartowski blurted out. “We have the… oh. It was in the car.”

    Which had been burned to a crisp.

    “Let’s see if we can find ropes,” Walker said. “And we need to check for survivors.”

    She was correct. But the Slayer was already crouching down at the hole. “No need!” she yelled. “I can easily climb down here. And up again.”

    “Yes, but we can’t,” John muttered. Well, they could, probably - but it would be dangerous.

    She shot him a look with what seemed to be an apologetic smile but shook her head. “There could be more demons trying to get it.”

    Then she jumped down.

    John gasped, then rushed forward. He reached the edge in time to see Caridad push off the hole’s wall, and jump across it, bouncing off the other side, lower down. Like a ping pong ball. “That’s not climbing,” he mumbled, then clenched his teeth again. She was still hurt. Too eager, too. And they didn’t know what was waiting down there.

    Godammit.

    He checked the walls. Even where they hadn’t been broken or damaged, they were roughly made, offering decent hand- and footholds. But if he slipped, or if a brick or stone turned out to have been loose...

    He scoffed and went to the narrowest corner of the hole, where he could support himself with two walls, and started to climb down. A broken stone offered a foothold, an uneven brick another. One floor down. A brick crumbled under his foot, but he had been testing it and didn’t slip. A broken stone suddenly gave way, making him lose a handhold and almost dragging him down with it. But he managed to keep his grip on another broken stone, dangling from one hand for a moment, as he scrambled to find footholds. After a few long seconds, he found one, then another.

    Taking a deep breath, he waited a few seconds to steady himself, then continued to climb down. Ten yards left. Five. Three - and now the walls were dug, not bricked. He jumped the rest, rolling on the ground. His shoulder hurt, but he was in the basement - facing five tunnels, two of them collapsed. All of them looked like caves, actually. Now where was Caridad?

    “Caridad?”

    No answer. Damn.

    “Caridad?”

    “Here… ugh!”

    Damn again. He sprinted towards her voice, picking the closest tunnel, drawing his blade. She couldn’t be too far.

    Sounds of fighting. He pushed himself to run faster, turning a corner - there she was, fighting a butt-ugly monster, like a mutated albino grizzly bear with tentacles around its snout. Similar to the one they had fought in Chavez’s villa, actually - but it wasn’t invisible. Yet it was driving Caridad back against the wall - only for her to twist, turn, and run up the wall, then push off it and jump over the monster.

    While it roared and turned, John drew his pistol and put two rounds into the thing’s face. No effect - it didn’t even glare at him.

    “Bullet-proof!” Caridad yelled, ducking under a swipe that would have taken her head off. “You need to hit the eyes!”

    Another difference to the other monster. John sheathed his blade and took his pistol in a two-handed grip. If he was a little closer…

    “Don’t come closer!” Caridad yelled, rolling to the side as the tentacles suddenly shot toward her, pulverising the stone ground near her.

    Damn.

    He took a step back, then moved to the side - he couldn’t hit the creature’s eyes from behind. Caridad noticed and circled towards him.

    Damn, the monster stank. Like fetid, rotting meat. John fought the sudden urge to retch and took aim as it faced them both.

    Then he fired. Missed. Kept firing. The monster charged. At Caridad. At him. He kept firing. The tentacles shot out. He flinched. And the monster reared its head, roaring, the tentacles snapping up, one of them hitting him in the shoulder and throwing him back.

    He hit the wall with his back and head, then fell, catching himself with his hands on the ground, shaking his head. That was… he looked up. The demon was down.

    “You idiot!” Caridad yelled.

    He blinked. What did she mean? The thing was down.

    “You almost got killed! What were you thinking?”

    He blinked again. And started to laugh.

    “It’s not funny!”

    But it was. He laughed again, shaking his head. Then he winced at the pain that that caused. Touching the back of his head, he felt a damp spot. He was bleeding. Not too badly, though - head wounds usually bled like a stuck pig.

    She stared at him, blinked, then pouted. Then she gasped. “You’re hurt.”

    “I’m fine,” he retorted. “Just a scratch.” If it weren’t, he wouldn’t be conscious.

    She didn’t agree and grabbed him, checking for herself.

    Right when Walker and Bartowski arrived.

    “Casey!”

    “Just a scratch,” he replied.

    Caridad growled but didn’t contradict him. “And a concussion, I bet.” Not much of one, at least.

    “Let’s find the damn body part,” he said, slowly getting up. Caridad helped.

    “Uh, yes. Wow, what is that demon? Never seen it before. It looks like a mind flayer crossed with a polar bear. Wait! Is that the same type as the one you killed in Chavez’s home?”

    “No.” The moron should focus on their mission, not on dead enemies, in John’s opinion.

    They went down the tunnel - apparently, there was something demony down there according to Caridad. Probably another demon, judging by their luck.

    It wasn’t. At the end of the tunnel, they found an honest-to-God safe. Old-fashioned - probably older than a century - but in good condition. And large enough to hold a body.

    “Uh. How do we crack it? Is anyone a safecracker?” Bartowski asked.

    John scoffed. They could probably crack it - those old safe’s were no match for modern gear. But they didn’t have their gear - the serpent had melted it down. But they had some C-4. And John knew how to use it.

    Five minutes later, half of it spent telling a fretting moron to let him work and that he didn’t have a concussion, and hiding around the corner, John triggered the detonator. Once the dust had literally settled, he took a look.

    The safe’s door had been blown away as planned - although a little farther than he had intended. But the safe was open, and there was a box inside it. An ornate thing.

    Caridad dashed forward and grabbed it before anyone else could move. She pulled it out, then opened it. “Ew.”

    “What is it?” Walker asked.

    “It’s the other hand.”

    John grinned. Mission accomplished. Now they just needed to get out of the hole and then get back to the airfield. With the gear lost and their car destroyed.

    Damn.

    *****​
     
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: The Trip Back
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 16: The Trip Back

    Vizcaino Desert, Baja California Sur, April 20th, 2008

    “So, let’s get out of here!” Bartowski said - far too cheerfully in John’s opinion. They weren’t in the best position. Alone, out in the desert, their transport lost, and at the bottom of a big hole.

    “Did you find ropes?” John asked as Caridad created a carrying sling for the box out of her turtleneck.

    “We did,” Walker confirmed.

    “Then let’s hurry back before someone prepares an ambush topside.” John started towards the big shaft. His shoulder was hurting like hell but didn’t seem broken. Climbing one-handed would still be… something.

    They passed the dead demon - one of Chavez’s? Or another guard? John didn’t know and didn’t really care, either - and returned to the bottom of the shaft the serpent had used. Or created. Two ropes were hanging from the top, in the corner John had used to climb down. The best climbing spot in the shaft. And yet…

    John rubbed his shoulder, then winced at the pain. It didn’t look good, but he’d have to do it.

    “I’ll pull you up.”

    He turned to glare at the Slayer, gritting his teeth. She was right, though - it was the fastest option. “You can pull all of us up,” he said.

    “Alright.” She nodded, then grabbed one rope and went up the wall almost as fast as she had gone down.

    Supernatural, magical strength. He shouldn’t compare himself to the Slayer. He did it anyway.

    Cariad had reached the top and grabbed the rope. “Hold on to it!”

    John stepped forward and wrapped the rope around his good arm. “Ready!”

    He didn’t have to help her - he only had to use his legs to keep from bumping into the walls of the shaft as she rapidly hoisted him up. Half a minute later, he was up top, amidst the ruins, and Caridad was pulling up Bartowski, reeling him in like a fish and dropping the man on the ground next to her.

    “Oof.”

    Walker followed quickly - she had to have been climbing the other rope already.

    “So…” Bartowski looked around. “Anyone alive other than us?”

    “I didn’t notice anyone else,” Caridad said.

    That didn’t mean too much; not in the middle of a ruined hacienda, parts still burning.

    “Should we look for Chavez’s body?” Bartowski asked.

    “Let’s look for the cars they came with,” John said. They needed to leave the place; the Mexicans might have been bribed to look the other way, but he didn’t trust the cartels in the area, and the ‘clean-up team’ Bartowski was calling wouldn’t arrive for several hours at least. Probably more like a day or two.

    Walker nodded in agreement. “This way.”

    They set out, moving through the ruins at a brisk pace, Caridad circling the group and looking for threats. She was acting like an escort for a convoy. John pressed his lips together. He was wounded, and if the roles were reversed, he’d do the same.

    A few minutes of walking up a steep, sandy slope, they crested the hill and saw the cars below. One was missing.

    “Someone escaped,” Bartowski stated the obvious.

    “We’ll have to assume that it was Chavez,” Walker added.

    John grunted in agreement. The cultist didn’t strike him as the type to lead from the front.

    “Let’s get a car, then!” Caridad started down the slope.

    “Watch out for traps!” John yelled after her.

    “Of course.”

    Her tone didn’t make him think that his advice had been as unneeded as she tried to make it appear. Ah, well, as long as she checked for traps.

    By the time John and the others reached the foot of the hill, Caridad was staring at the SUVs. “I didn’t see or smell anything suspicious,” she said.

    John nodded, but knelt next to the newest looking SUV anyway, to check the underside. Demon cultists might be unlikely to know how to prepare bombs, but better safe than sorry. He didn’t find anything, though, and neither did Walker.

    “Told you so,” Caridad complained.

    He rolled his eyes and started picking the car’s lock. A few minutes later, Walker was driving them away, back to the cartel airfield. This time, John and Caridad were on the backbench.

    “Hah! A feathered serpent! That’s like a dragon kill,” Caridad said as they left the burning ruins behind. “Vi will be so jealous!”

    “So, was that a servant of an Aztec god?” Walker asked.

    “I don’t know,” Bartowski said. “Mythology isn’t exactly a precise science. It wasn’t a god, though. I don’t think so, at least.”

    “It counts as a dragon,” Caridad repeated herself. Then she suddenly gasped. “Oh, no!”

    “What?” John turned his head, hand going to his gun.

    “I forgot to take a picture of the serpent!”

    “We’re not turning around,” he said.

    “The Council clean-up team will take pictures,” Bartowski said.

    “But they won’t be showing me!”

    John sighed and closed his eyes.

    *****​

    When Caridad woke him up, his shoulder was still hurting, and they were closing in on the airfield. Still out of the usual range of any sentry posted by Ramirez, though.

    “We’ve called ahead - the plane should arrive soon. Soonish,” Bartowski said.

    Good. John nodded, then suppressed a wince when the movement caused his shoulder to hurt again.

    “Uh… what about the drug dealers?” Bartowski looked over his shoulder at them. “I mean… the mission’s done…”

    “We’re still on the mission,” Walker reminded him. “We need to get this to the Council.”

    “Or to Phil,” Caridad added. “But I could probably get them all before they can react.”

    “They’ll be prepared for you,” John pointed out. “They know you’re faster and stronger than them.”

    “But if we don’t do anything, who will deal with them?” Bartowski asked. “The CIA?”

    “They’ll investigate,” John told him. And probably ignore the whole issue until it became advantageous to do something about Ramirez.

    “And then they’ll do something about Ramirez?” The moron wasn’t dropping the subject.

    “They’ll tell him to stop smuggling drugs to the US,” Walker said.

    “That doesn’t sound very, uh, firm.”

    “Do you want to kill them?” John asked.

    “Uh…” Bartowski was looking down at his phone. John doubted that he was calling anyone or checking important information. “I thought we’d leave them to the Mexican police.”

    “The local police are corrupt. Ramirez will either go free or get killed by his rivals,” John told him.

    “Or by the police paid off by his rivals,” Walker added.

    “And he’ll rat us out,” John added. “Including Caridad.” He heard the Slayer growl at that. “We’d have to kill everyone who saw us.”

    “Uh…” Bartowski didn’t like that. He was still too soft. You couldn’t keep your hands clean as a spy. Not in this business. Then the man sighed, and John saw his shoulder slumping. Walker reached over and squeezed his thigh.

    John was tempted, briefly, to comment, but didn’t. Then he caught Caridad staring at him.

    “Won’t he rat us out anyway?” she asked.

    “Not as long as he thinks that we’ll keep doing business with him,” John replied.

    “What about a dead man’s switch?”

    That was not as common as civilians thought. John almost shrugged. “We could make him talk.” If they were going to kill him. Which they hadn’t decided, yet.

    “Ah.”

    He nodded.

    “How’s your shoulder.”

    He was about to say ‘fine’ but reconsidered at seeing her expression. “It hurts, but I’ll manage. Nothing broken.”

    “You were lucky.”

    He slowly inclined his head. “We were lucky that it wasn’t an invisible demon.”

    She snorted. “It would have been easy. Trick demons are harder.”

    “How did you know to aim for the eyes?” he asked.

    “It was the next thing left.”

    He almost gasped. “You didn’t know?” he hissed.

    “It was an educated guess - we have a list.” She did flinch a little. “And I noticed that it protected its face when I went for its head. It didn’t do that with its body. It wasn’t the tentacles, and the mouth is rarely vulnerable - not when they bite with it.”

    He pressed his lips together. That was a little better than he had thought, but…

    “Hey - that’s why you don’t make a sacrifice play; you might have to try something else.”

    He scoffed at that. “Next time, tell me.”

    She opened her mouth, then closed it and nodded with a sigh. “Sorry.”

    He grunted.

    “You should tape your arm up. Less strain on your shoulder.”

    “I might need it if Ramirez is trying something,” he replied.

    “Do you think he might? Even if we don’t try anything?”

    “You never know with people like him. We might have killed some contacts. Or Chavez had, and he’s blaming us.”

    “Or Chavez is one of his contacts,” Bartowski cut in. “The other cultists had cartel contacts, right?”

    “They weren’t from the same cartel,” John told him. The Intersect would’ve known.

    “Still…”

    “We’ll be prepared for a trap,” Walker said as she stopped the car.

    “Uh…” Bartowski spoke up. “Ah. The plane’s still a bit away, right?”

    “Yes,” Walker confirmed.

    Good. No need to spend more time with Ramirez than needed.

    Caridad, which John should have expected, sighed. She didn’t do waiting well. Then she perked up. “So… how do we play it with Ramirez if we think he might try to stab us in the back? I can do a perimeter check while we wait. See if he’s got snipers waiting or something.”

    “He will have a sniper or two,” John said. “That’s just good procedure.”

    “And if you take them out, he might consider it an attack,” Walker added.

    “But if he wants to kill us, we can’t let them be,” Caridad objected.

    “Listen to them. A sniper team is two people. They’ll be chatting,” John said.

    “Right!” She perked up again. “I’ll be back!”

    Before he could react, she bent towards him, pressing a kiss on his lips with her hand holding his head.

    Then she was out of the car and disappeared in the night.

    John glared at Walker and Bartowski, and they didn’t comment. He was sure they were grinning, though.

    Fifteen minutes later, Caridad reported over the radio: “Found one sniper and spotter. Going closer.”

    And that meant more waiting. John didn’t like waiting. Not when he was the one waiting, and others were acting. He gritted his teeth.

    “So… how long until the plane arrives? Bartowski sounded bored rather than anxious.

    “Fifteen minutes,” Walker replied. She didn’t sound concerned either. She was an experienced spy, though, and could be faking it.

    “We’ll be late, then,” the moron stated the obvious.

    John rolled his eyes.

    Minutes passed in silence - if you ignored Bartowski tapping his phone. At least with Slayer senses, Caridad wouldn’t have to be too close to listen in to the sniper team.

    Suddenly, Caridad spoke up again. “One told the other not to shoot unless Ramirez gives the signal.”

    ‘Unless’. Not ‘until’.

    “Well, they don’t seem to want to betray us, then,” Bartowski said.

    “Or they don’t know - Ramirez can still betray us,” Walker pointed out.

    And the man would certainly have a plan for it. They could only hope that he would be smart enough not go against them.

    “Should I take them out anyway?” Caridad asked.

    “They’ll have check-ins over the radio,” Walker said. “We’d be the main suspects.”

    Not that making a cartel leader suspect an attack or betrayal while you’re doing business with him was a good idea anyway. On the other hand, meeting under his guns didn’t sit right with John, either.

    “MAD.”

    “What?” John turned to Bartowski.

    “Mutually assured destruction,” the moron explained. Or didn’t. “If Ramirez knows he dies if we die, he won’t do anything.”

    “Training a gun on him won’t be a good idea,” John told him.

    “I wasn’t thinking of a gun…” Bartowski had that stupid grin which meant he had a really dumb or really good idea.

    Goddammit.

    *****​

    They arrived fifteen minutes after the plane had landed. Ramirez was there, of course, with a dozen of his men this time.

    “I see you’ve changed cars,” he said as John stepped out of the SUV. “Are you wounded?”

    John stared at him. “Nothing serious.”

    “I’m glad to hear it. There were concerning reports,” Ramirez said, with a sly smile. “I feared…” he trailed off, gasping, as Caridad stepped out of the car.

    “Just a precaution,” John told him, nodding towards the obvious bomb the Slayer was carrying together with the box and an equally obvious dead man’s switch. “What is in the box cannot, under any circumstances, be allowed to spread.”

    Even in the dim light, he could see Ramirez paling. “Oh…”

    John nodded at him and walked towards the plane with Caridad. Walker and Bartowski followed.

    “The keys are in the car,” Bartowski threw over his shoulder. “Sorry about the Range Rover.”

    “Take off,” John told the crew as soon as they were inside the plane.

    They were professionals - they didn’t bat an eye at the order or the bomb.

    “Worked like a charm!” Bartowski said as they started to roll. “One fake bomb and they’re playing nicely.

    “Yes, it did.” Walker, of course, agreed.

    “Good thing none of Ramirez’s underlings tried to use the opportunity to replace him,” John muttered as he strapped himself in.

    “He wouldn’t place people he didn’t trust in such a position,” Walker retorted.

    “It’s always the people you trust whose betrayal is the worst,” John said, leaning back. And the most effective.

    “Well, that’s kind of self-evident.”

    Bartowski just had to have the last word.

    John sighed as the plane took off.

    *****​

    “So…”

    John glanced to the side. Caridad had put the fake bomb on the seat behind her, and the box under her seat. She’d shed her ruined jacket - not that it had covered much after the fight - and her vest as well. The thin tank top looked more like a sports bra than a sensible top. He focused on her face.

    “How’s the shoulder?” she asked.

    “Getting better,” he said. It wasn’t, but it would, as soon as he could rest in a decent bed instead of a seat in a plane.

    She frowned - he could see her lips pressing together, too - but nodded. Then she smirked. Smirked. “You kissed me.”

    Now it was his turn to press his lips together. “You almost died.” He cut himself off from adding ‘you fool’.

    “So did you,” she replied, growing serious for a moment, before grinning. “I’m a Slayer - I almost die very often.”

    “Not as often as you used to,” he snapped. That’s what everyone had told him. Even the rookie Slayers were now living far longer - on average - than the most experienced Slayers of the past.

    “Every night is a risk,” she said, cocking her head. “Not the greatest, of course. But you never know when, suddenly, you have to fight a feathered serpent.”

    “That was a rare exception,” he said. “No Slayer fought one before, right?”

    “Yes.” She frowned again. “Well, I think so - I didn’t recall any tale about feathered serpents. I’ll have to ask Phil.” She brightened. “But I’m sure no living Slayer has ever killed one!”

    He scoffed. Taking trophies got you killed, your cover blown, or, worse, your mission exposed.

    “You’re risking your life as well on every mission,” she said.

    He grunted again but didn’t look away even though he knew what was coming. Besides, he didn’t want to see Walker and Bartowski listening in. The moron would be grinning, John knew it.

    “And you kissed me. In the middle of a mission. Was that unprofessional?”

    “Yes,” he spat. “It was unprofessional.”

    She smiled widely. “Yet you did it.”

    “Yes.” Not that he could deny it.

    “And we pulled off the mission. Almost perfectly.” She was leaning forward.

    Just because it hadn’t ruined the mission wasn’t a guarantee that it wouldn’t happen next time. He wanted to say it but only managed a grunt.

    “It’s time to stop making excuses,” she said.

    He realised that he had been leaning towards her, too - despite his hurting shoulder. The plane was small, and the aisle between their seats quite narrow. If he leaned forward a little more, their lips would touch… He wet his lips. This was stupid. This was against all regulations. Against common sense. This was… what he wanted, godammit. He took a deep breath and glanced towards Walker and Bartowski, which were sitting upfront.

    They were asleep?

    His eyes widened. “Gas!” he snapped, reaching for his mask. His arms felt clumsy.

    Caridad was already out of the seat and rushing towards the cockpit, where the crew was. He heard her pound against it as he pulled his mask on. If it was nerve gas it wouldn’t do anything. But it was the best he could do.

    He stood up with some effort. His legs were unstable, and he had to grab the next seat to keep himself from falling. But he didn’t. He grabbed a second mask and made his way towards Caridad. Towards the cockpit.

    She was kicking the armoured door. It seemed the whole plane shook from her blows - or that was the gas affecting John. He threw the mask to her and drew his pistol. Once she broke down the door, the spies in the cockpit would shoot.

    His legs felt wobbly. He wouldn’t be able to shoot like this. But sitting down… He pulled Bartowski to the side and leaned against the guy’s seat, his elbows on the backrest. Stable enough. It would have to do. Wait… wrong magazine. He managed to swap it for a Glaser one. Those wouldn’t go through the plane’s windows.

    Caridad moved back, nodded at him, then rushed forward and jumped. Her boot struck the door and ripped it out of its frame, propelling it into the cockpit.

    John fired as soon as he saw the enemy spy, and the Glaser round turned the man’s throat into a bloody mess. Another shot went off as he moved to the aisle to get an angle on the second pilot, but Caridad had already taken out the bastard.

    John stumbled after her.

    “Can you fly the plane?” she asked.

    “We need to stop the gas,” he said. “And we need to recycle the air.” He looked around. There would be a hidden switch… but where? Bartowski would know, thanks to the Intersect. But John had already trouble thinking clearly. Damn gas.

    Suddenly, Caridad kicked part of the interior wall in the cockpit, ripping a panel away and revealing a pressured cylinder. “Heard it hissing,” she said as she grabbed a lever and shut it off.

    “Good. Now we need to filter the air…” He looked around. Shouldn’t something be blinking? Or… the pilots would be able to turn the gas off and filter the air. So… there! He flipped it. “That should do it.”

    “Can you fly the plane?”

    He shook his head. “No. Bartowski can. Gotta wake him up.” He blinked as the plane suddenly shook again. No, that was him.

    He felt Caridad grab him. Then everything went dark.

    *****​

    John blinked. What… where... Oh! He gasped. The gas! The plane! He looked around, the quick movement causing a headache. He was on one of the seats in front of the passenger cabin. Walker and Bartowski were still out. Where was Caridad?

    “Caridad?”

    “You’re awake!”

    She was in the back, heading towards him and the others, carrying… parachutes?

    “Chuck’s not waking up,” she said as she dropped the parachutes on the ground. “I didn’t try the radio, in case it would alert Fulcrum.”

    Good thinking. He might call the base, but… Fulcrum might pick up the transmission. Too much of a risk. He glanced at the pilot she had knocked out.

    “He’s not waking up, either.” She grimaced. “I pulled his mask off, and he must have breathed some of the gas himself, I think.”

    Probably. It had taken a few minutes to clear the air. No choice then. “We’ll have to jump. Are we above land?”

    “Uh…” he caught her glancing out the window. “Yes,” she replied with a forced smile.

    “I’ll take Bartowski. You take Walker.” He reached for the closest parachute.

    “Uh… shouldn’t I take Chuck and you Sarah? So the weight is more evenly distributed?”

    He shook his head and winced again. “I’ve got more experience with this, I can handle it,” he said as he started to put the harness on.

    “OK.”

    And women and children first was a rule.

    It took them five minutes to put the parachutes on and put harnesses on the two unconscious spies. Another minute to move to the back, where the concealed door served as a cargo and drop ramp. They were still above land, fortunately.

    “What about the pilot I knocked out?” she asked.

    “The chute can’t handle three.” And the chutes didn’t have ripcords that went off automatically. And even if they did, the chance that the traitor would escape was too high, even weighed against the chance of interrogating him for information. If he hadn’t suffered brain damage by Caridad, anyway.

    She nodded, though more slowly. “Uh… did you check the parachutes?”

    He almost shook his head. “Yes.” As much as he could, in the plane. If someone with experience had tampered with the chute, they would only find out when it failed to deploy.

    “Alright.” She licked her lips. “So…”

    “Yes.”

    She bent over and kissed him.

    When they broke the kiss, he was breathing heavily. “Let’s go.”

    “Right.”

    He hitched Bartowki’s harness to his own, checked that Walker was fixed to Caridad, then opened the door in the back. He couldn’t tell if they were still in Mexican airspace. It didn’t matter. They had to get off the plane before the traitors failed some check, and Fulcrum decided to get rid of the plane - by bomb or framing them as terrorists.

    They weren’t particularly high, but high enough. “Remember: Wait ten seconds, then pull the cord!” he yelled to be heard over the noise from the engines and wind.

    “Gotcha!”

    “Good.” He swung Bartowski’s limp form over the edge and jumped.

    Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three…

    The ground looked like desert, but that didn’t mean anything. No coastline, but no big city lights visible either. The plane had been heading straight north when he checked, but what course had it taken before?

    ...twenty-nine. Thirty.

    He pulled the cord and held his breath. After a long moment, he was pulled up sharply and hissed at the pain in his shoulder.

    But the chute had deployed. Now to survive the landing. They were going down quite fast, and Bartowski was unconscious. Should he cut him free right before they hit the ground? No. Too dangerous for him. John would have to manage.

    He looked up but didn’t see Caridad. “Caridad?” he asked over the radio.

    “I’m OK.”

    “Can you see me?”

    “Yes.”

    “Try to keep close. Pull on the lines, gently, to steer.”

    “I’ve done parachuting before,” she replied. After a moment, she added: “Once.”

    He snorted.

    Then a gust of wind made him turn, and he had a hell of a time to stabilise their descent - and look for a decent landing spot. Which was hard despite the moonlight. A sandy area could turn out to be hard rock with some dust on it. Perhaps there? It looked like a dune, of sorts.

    Good. He steered towards it, circling twice before entering the final approach. Ten yards. Five. Four. Three. Two.

    He gripped Bartowski and held his breath a moment before they hit the ground. Roll. Roll, forget the pain! He hissed as he and the moron rolled down the sand, and his shoulder felt as if someone had stuck a hot knife into it.

    They came to a stop at the bottom of the dune. Panting, he released the chute and checked on Bartowski. He looked unhurt. Breathing evenly. The moron had slept through the whole jump.

    Looking up, he spotted Caridad’s chute before it disappeared on the other side of the dune. He counted to ten and used the radio. “Caridad?”

    “We’re alive. Not hurt.”

    “Same. We’re on the other side of the dune.”

    “I know.”

    And there she was, on top of the dune, carrying Walker on her shoulder as if the spy weighed only five pounds. And she went down the slope as if she were sprinting on even ground.

    “Where are we?”

    He pulled out his GPS. “We’re in the Sonoran Desert.”

    “How close to the next town are we?”

    “We’re about five miles from the next highway,” he replied. “Ten more miles to the next town.”

    Caridad nodded. “I can carry both of them that far. And the box.”

    “They should wake up before that,” John said. At least he hoped they would.

    “They can start walking then,” she stated before bending down and grabbing Bartowski and Walker and hoisting them on one shoulder each, with the box dangling from its sling in front of her.

    He wanted to protest, but they had a long trek ahead of them. And he was still feeling a little off himself.

    “Let’s go - it’s this way.” He pointed ahead. Fifteen miles, some of it through rough terrain, and the sun would be up in a few hours… He suppressed a sigh; it had been a while since he had done such a march.

    *****​

    The sun was up by the time they reached the highway. They hadn’t made good time, and it had been John’s fault; the Slayer could’ve been faster even loaded down with two unconscious spies. And his shoulder was hurting.

    “Let’s take a break,” Caridad said.

    “No. Let’s keep going while it’s still cool.” The temperature would be rising quickly.

    “You need to rest.”

    “I don’t,” he spat. “We need to get a car and return to base.”

    “We won’t make it if you collapse on the way.”

    “I won’t.” He wouldn’t. He’d die on his feet.

    “How much water do you have left?” she asked.

    “I can go for a few more hours.”

    “Well, I need to rest.”

    He stared at her, but she was already sitting down in the questionable and shirt-lived shade of a rock, next to the highway. He couldn’t tell if she really needed a breather - but he certainly couldn’t carry her. He scoffed and joined her. “Stubborn idiot.”

    She found that funny, apparently, since she giggled.

    He sighed and leaned against the rock - and against her - and closed his eyes. “You’ll hear a car in time to stop it, right?”

    “Of course.”

    “Good.” Maybe a little nap wouldn’t hurt. His shoulder still gave him trouble. Just a little...

    A groan interrupted his thoughts. Walker was waking up. “What? Chuck!”

    “You were knocked out by gas in the plane,” John told her. “We had to jump.”

    “We’re still in Mexico, a few miles from the next town,” Caridad added. “Chuck’s OK.”

    Then the moron started to stir, and they had to go over it again.

    *****​

    Santa Maria Industrial Park, Baja California, April 21st, 2008

    “That’s an industrial park?” Bartowski sounded incredulous. He also sounded exhausted - a few miles along the highway had, apparently, been too much for him. “It makes CRD look like the Manhattan project!”

    John wasn’t going to ask what CRD was. But Bartowski was right - three small buildings weren’t an industrial park. He snorted. “It’s what the map says it is.” Mexicans. It didn’t matter anyway - all that mattered were the four cars and one truck parked next to the buildings.

    “So… are we going to steal a car there?”

    “That’s the plan,” John replied.

    “Couldn’t we just ask for one? Or call a cab?”

    Bartowski didn’t get it. “We can’t leave a trace of us,” John told him. “Fulcrum compromised the mission - we cannot trust any of our communication channels.” They had to make it back on their own.

    “But stealing a car will get us noticed - well, it’ll get a police report written.”

    “Which will be buried in the Mexican Police backlog,” John told him. They were hopelessly corrupt anyway, at least in this area. He looked the cars over. “The SUV there.” That was the best choice of all cars; it even had some off-road capability which they might need to cross the border.

    “Isn’t that a little typecast?” Bartowski said, taking John’s binoculars. “I mean… we always seem to take SUVs, and it’s…”

    Uh oh. John clenched his teeth as he saw Bartowski freeze for a second. That was the Intersect.

    “Guys! Guys! That’s a drug lab!”

    Goddammit.

    John sighed. That complicated things.

    “Isn’t that a good thing?” Bartowski asked. “They won’t report a stolen car to the police, will they?”

    “They’ll report it to their accomplices, though,” Walker pointed out.

    “And the cartels are much more dangerous than the police here,” John added.

    “So, we go on and steal a car from someone else?” Caridad cocked her head.

    “We’d have to sneak past them - we’re a little too noticeable,” John replied. And they had run out of water two hours ago. In addition to that, Ramirez might have informed his allies. There was also always the possibility of other cartels having spies in his organisation. And there was another point to consider, of course.

    “They might know about Chavez,” Walker said, echoing John’s thoughts.

    “Oh.” Bartowski blinked. “The Intersect wouldn’t know that - according to the Intersect, the lab belongs to the Mar-19. That’s a smaller gang, not quite a cartel, and it is expected to be swallowed by a larger gang or cartel in the next few months.”

    “If they haven’t been absorbed already,” Walker pointed out.

    “Right. The Intersect’s data isn’t the most up to date on that.” Bartowski looked at the ‘industrial park’ again. “So… what’s the plan?”

    “There won’t be more than a dozen people,” John said. “Probably fewer than that.” They wouldn’t have more people than the cars parked there could transport. Six to eight was his guess. Not enough for a decent guard rotation even if they didn’t cook up drugs, but criminals rarely were up to professional standards.

    “That sounds like you plan to take them all out,” Bartowski said, sounding apprehensive.

    “Yes!” Caridad, of course, was eager.

    “They’re drug dealers and potential sources of intel,” John said.

    “But, uh, do we kill them?”

    “We can’t interrogate dead people,” John said. He hoped he was correct, and that there was no magic to allow it.

    “Not without a powerful witch,” Caridad said.

    Goddammit.

    “I mean afterwards. Call the police?”

    “Once we’re safe,” John said. He glanced at Walker, who pressed her lips together but nodded.

    They understood each other then.

    “Alright, let’s approach from the road,” John said. There was a guard, but the man was watching for vehicles, and they could get pretty close before they would have to break cover and cross the street. More than close enough to take the guard out with a silenced pistol. “Walker and Bartowski take the building there. Caridad takes the building on the left. I’ll cover the third building.” He wasn’t up to storming it by himself. Not with better intel - and they didn’t have enough time to scout the area sufficiently. They needed water, and quickly.

    “Alright.” Walker nodded. That meant Bartowski agreed as well. Caridad’s agreement was a given.

    “Let’s go.”

    Crawling didn’t help his shoulder any, but he could manage the pain until he reached the ditch at the road. “I’ll take out the guard,” he said, “and cover you.”

    “Uh…” Bartowski trailed off. “OK.”

    Must have been Walker’s influence. “Ready?” John asked.

    They confirmed, and he pushed himself up a little until he had a clear line of sight, covered by a shrub, to the guard at the corner. The distance was about thirty yards - not ideal for a handgun, but far from impossible. He aimed with one hand, steadied by the ground, at the man’s head, slowly breathed out and squeezed the trigger.

    Caridad was across the street before the cartel goon touched the ground. Walker and Bartowski were right behind her. John pushed himself up - not much pain - and dashed across the road himself, keeping the corners of the buildings in sight. Then he veered off to the right, sprinting towards the corner.

    Walker and Bartowski were already inside the building - he heard shots and ducked. The thin walls wouldn’t stop rifle rounds. He spotted someone through the window, but the figure dropped before he could move his aim, so he kept going.

    At the corner, he crouched and pressed himself against the wall before sliding around it, leading with his pistol. He was just in time to catch a man with an assault rifle - Kalashnikov - rush out of the third building.

    The truck provided cover for the guy, but his head was visible. John fired twice, dropping the man.

    Something - someone - moved inside the building. Away from the open door and dead man. They were trying to escape.

    John clenched his teeth and dashed across the open space, towards the third building. Enter through the door? No. They’d expect that. He went past the building, to the next corner, so he could cover the back.

    A man was just climbing out of the window. John waited, aiming, and when the man jumped down, John put a round into his leg. The thug didn’t drop his rifle, so John shot him in the arm. That did the job, and the man collapsed, screaming.

    And bleeding. John must have nicked an artery. Cursing, he rushed forward. The stubborn bastard tried to pull a knife, and John kicked him in the face, knocking a few teeth out and stunning him. Another kick sent the rifle away, followed by the knife, before John knelt down and ripped the guy’s belt off. He had to tie off the thigh, or the thug would bleed to death.

    He managed it, barely - and his shoulder hurt more - by the time Caridad rounded the corner.

    “We’ve secured the buildings,” she told him.

    “Good. Prisoners?” John asked as he stood.

    She grabbed the wounded man by his good arm and pulled him up. “I got two.”

    They met up with Walker and Bartowski in the main building. The two had captured another one. Four captives, four dead in total.

    Not a bad result.

    John closed the door while Caridad dragged the two corpses outside into the third building and turned towards the prisoners. They didn’t have a lot of time, but with four prisoners, they could crosscheck their information easily.

    It would be quick and dirty, but it would work.

    Half an hour later, they were done. The thugs didn’t know Chavez, but they were working for a bigger gang who had suddenly been shifting their attention into Baja California Sur a few days ago. That was suspicious - although it could’ve just been a cartel reacting to all the other activity there triggered by Chavez. More useful were the routes over the border that the men knew. That would make sneaking over the border easier.

    Provided the thugs didn’t warn their accomplices. The guy John had shot had died during the interrogation, but the other three were still alive. And while the team had been hiding their faces, they would have been recognised as Americans anyway. Two men and two women - it wouldn’t take much for anyone connected to the mission to figure it out. And that meant Fulcrum would know as well.

    John looked through the open door where Bartowski and Caridad were loading the water and food they had found into the older Mercedes. Then he looked at Walker, standing next to the door. “Get into the car,” he said. He didn’t draw his gun, but he moved his hand to his holster.

    She glanced at him, then at Bartowski for a moment before she nodded and walked over.

    He drew his gun as he walked over to the prisoners.

    *****​

    South-Eastern California, April 21st, 2008

    “I can’t reach them,” Bartowski said, for the second time since they had crossed the border and he had bought a new phone. “Morgan’s not answering the calls or the messages.” He looked over his shoulder at John. “We need to call them over our comms.”

    “They could be compromised,” John replied. Fulcrum had managed to get traitors on the plane, after all.

    “But…”

    Walker interrupted him. “Chuck. Morgan hasn’t called us, either. Neither he nor Bane had made any attempt to contact us since we reported back on the plane.” She shook her head. “Trying to call them through the base would only endanger us.”

    “But…”

    John could see Bartowski clench the armrest on his side so tightly, the man’s knuckles were white. “We’ll be there soon.”

    He didn’t have to say that the odds of finding the others were slim.

    *****​
     
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: The Trap
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 17: The Trap

    Los Angeles, Burbanks, outside Buy More, April 21st, 2008

    “Elie and Devon are alright,” Bartowski said, twisting in his seat as he stashed his mobile phone.

    “You called them hours ago already,” John pointed out as he studied the area around Wienerlicious through his binoculars. Their vantage point wasn’t the best - they had parked quite a distance away - but it was good enough.

    “Things could’ve changed.”

    John grunted.

    “I’ve called Phil. He’s on the way,” Caridad reported. “He wasn’t attacked.”

    “That indicates that this is Fulcrum’s work,” Walker said.

    “Hernandez,” John hissed.

    “We don’t know that!” the moron protested. “She was under guard, and she was brainwashed!”

    “Even if she was compelled, we still have to consider her an enemy.” Even Walker wasn’t as gullible as the moron.

    “But she could be another prisoner.”

    John doubted that. If Hernandez had been a victim, Fulcrum wouldn’t have any more use for her now - she was only a liability. He wasn’t even sure that Grimes and Bane were still alive. But if they were… “Fulcrum will try to brainwash them,” he said. “We need to find them as soon as possible.”

    “Phil can find them,” Caridad said, placing her hand on his shoulder. The good one. “And he’ll be here soon.”

    “If Phil had samples from Morgan and Kristen, he could’ve already done the spell,” Bartowski said.

    “And if he had been captured, our enemies would have the samples,” Caridad retorted. “There’s a reason we don’t have blood samples everywhere.”

    “I know,” the moron said, sighing loudly. “Just…” He shrugged.

    Walker hugged him. John managed not to roll his eyes. The enemy had struck. That meant you struck back. Twice as hard.

    And they could do it.

    But first… “Let’s check the base,” he said.

    It would be a trap, but Fulcrum might still have left some clues. And if Bane had managed to wound an attacker, and there was some blood left… Phil could cast more than one spell, could he?

    He looked the area over again. “I don’t see anyone on guard.”

    “They’ll have trapped the base,” Walker stated the obvious.

    “If they had enough time,” Bartowski said.

    “They knew we were in Mexico, hours away.” John scoffed. He could’ve turned the base into a death trap with half the time and a box of matches.

    “Uh… so… why are we going back, again?”

    “To look for clues,” John said.

    “And to possibly disarm a bomb that might hurt or kill bystanders,” Walker added.

    “Ah. But they will have expected that.”

    “But they don’t know about me,” Caridad retorted. She tapped her nose. “I can smell explosives.”

    “They think you’re a combat cyborg straight from Terminator,” Bartowski said. “They might have placed traps taking that into account.”

    “Like EMP and giant magnets?” The Slayer snorted.

    She wasn’t taking this serious enough, John realised. “Hermetically sealed explosives,” he said. “Triggers hooked to all entrances. Fake explosives to hide the actual ones. Pressure plates and vibration triggers.” Fulcrum would have planned to capture them in Mexico, so they wouldn’t have any need to place non-lethal traps in the base but traps to kill whoever the General sent to clean up.

    “Vibration triggers? In California? A single, small, not-worth-the-news quake would trigger it!” Bartowski blurted out. “We have tiny tremors every three minutes!”

    John rolled his eyes. “No vibration triggers, then.” He was in no mood to get into a discussion about properly calibrating them to filter out small tremors. Or trucks driving past the building.

    “But still,” the moron went on, “that sounds like a job for the bomb squad? Does the CIA have a bomb squad?”

    “None that we could trust,” Walker replied.

    “So… shouldn’t we wait for Phil and do a scrying spell, then?” Bartowski said. “Because I don’t think we should risk our lives for potential clues if we already can find Morgan and Kirsten with a spell.”

    John clenched his teeth. The moron was right. He grunted in agreement and lifted the binoculars again. At least he could pass the time until the old Watcher arrived looking for enemies.

    *****​

    Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, April 21st, 2008

    Breathe deeply and focus on the bowl.

    Sitting in what was apparently one of the Council’s safe houses, John forced himself to follow the old man’s instructions. Magic. This was worse than sensei’s futile attempts to make him find his centre through meditation. He wanted to act, to track down the bloody traitors and kill them!

    He forced himself to stare at the water in the bowl. And ignore the stench of burning herbs in his nose and the chanting of Brown-Smythe. All he saw was the bowl itself. Magic…

    He blinked. The water had turned grey. Silver. And now… That was the base. The stairs from Wienerlicious, the lockers, the main room...

    ...and a massive bomb.

    Goddammit.

    John quickly counted, then guessed the amount of C-4 on display. Unless Fulcrum decided to bluff - and there was no reason for them to do so - the bomb contained enough explosives to level the base, the building above, and parts of the Buy More.

    “Whoa, whoa… that’s… a very big bomb!” Bartowski exclaimed. “How do we defuse it?”

    “Focus,” Brown-Smythe mumbled.

    “Show us the doors,” John said.

    The image shifted a little, and John suppressed a curse. Motion detectors at the stairs. Two of them, connected to the bomb. Those would be a bitch to disable even under the best circumstances. Inside the base? “Back door, please,” he muttered.

    There was the same setup there: Another two motion detectors. And John had no doubt that they were sensitive enough to trigger as soon as the door as much as twitched.

    “We’ll have to drill through the ceiling,” Walker said in a low voice. “Unless…”

    The image shifted again. Yes, the bastards had stuck another detector on the ceiling. The cable connecting it to the bomb ran down a wall.

    “Uh… so… how do we disarm it?” Bartowski asked.

    “We don’t,” John told him after a second. “We can’t.”

    “We’d have to tunnel in, and the vibrations would probably set off the bomb anyway,” Walker explained.

    “What if we cut the lines at the same time?” Caridad asked.

    “If they know their business, that’ll trigger the detonation.” John scoffed. Fulcrum knew their business.

    “But… we can’t let the bomb there! It could go off!”

    “It will go off,” John corrected Bartowski. “They’ll have a timer as well.”

    “Or they’ll just wait until the batteries on the detectors run out, and the bomb goes off,” Walker added.

    “But… that will destroy the base! And Wienerlicious! And the Buy More!”

    Yeah, no shit. John scoffed again. That was how things worked when things went wrong.

    “We’ll have to evacuate the area and trigger it,” Walker said.

    “What? No! There has to be a way to disarm it! No system is perfect - there has to be a weakness!” Bartowski sounded desperate.

    “We don’t have the time to find a weakness,” John snapped. “We need to find Bane and Grimes.” And Hernandez.

    “And we can’t leave the bomb be. What if it goes off in the middle of the day?” Walker asked. “With people around?”

    “But…” Bartowski fell silent. “Show us the rest of the base, Phil!”

    The image started moving around. There were some signs of combat - bullet holes, a wrecked desk, toppled chairs - but no pools of dried blood. There was spilt fuel, though, which would be set off by the bomb - Fulcrum had picked a twisted way of cleaning the site.

    “Anything, Chuck?” Walker asked as if she didn’t know the answer already.

    “No,” Bartowski pressed out.

    “Then we’re done here,” Brown-Smythe said, and the image vanished.

    John looked up and saw that the Watcher had his eyes closed and was breathing deeply. Was that sweat on his brow, too? The old man looked weary - though he had looked weary even before the spell.

    “Phil? What happened?” Caridad asked. “Are you alright?”

    “I’m quite fine, my dear,” the Watcher replied. “Researching an Apocalypse is a mite tiring, that is all.”

    “Can… can you do the locator spell?” Caridad sounded hesitant. Unsure. John had rarely seen her like this.

    He didn’t like it.

    “Don’t worry, I can handle another spell.”

    The smile Brown-Smythe showed wasn’t very convincing, but he did sound determined. And they did not have time to wait for him to rest and recover. He could do that after locating Bane and Grimes.

    While Walker informed the General through another burner phone, the old Watcher emptied out the bowl - was that necessary? - and put up a few candles and smaller bowls before refilling the larger bowl. Then he sat down again and started the next spell.

    John had seen the spell cast before, but he still clenched his teeth when he felt a wind from nowhere tug at his clothes and hair and almost heard whispers around him.

    Then, finally, Brown-Smythe stopped chanting, and the water in the bowl started to fog over.

    John leaned forward and stared as the fog cleared and Grimes appeared. The guy was on the ground, concrete cell, and looked hurt. John could see a reddish bandage, and one eye had swollen shut.

    He heard Caridad hiss next to him and Bartowski mutter a curse as the image fell back and they were looking at a house from above. Apartment house? No. Offices. There was a delivery ramp next to it.

    Brown-Smythe zoomed out some more, and it was clear that the house stood in a city. A bit more, and John recognised the area.

    The bastards were in Los Angeles.

    He bared his teeth. Good.

    “Alright. Let’s hit another cache for more gear,” John said. “Then we hit Fulcrum.” He stood - time to leave.

    “Yes!” Caridad agreed, already at the door, but turned to wait for the rest of them. John caught her glancing at the Watcher with obvious concern.

    “Hey! We could call Willow! She might be able to… magically make the whole bomb go away. Teleport it into the ocean - no, the desert, or something!” Bartowski suddenly piped up and stopped packing up his computers.

    “Willow’s in England, busy with preventing the apocalypse,” Brown-Smythe said. “By the time she’d reach Los Angeles, it would probably be too late.”

    “But…” Bartowski shut up, for once. John could see him press his lips together.

    He looked at Caridad and raised his eyebrows.

    “Teleporting over such a distance is dangerous,” the Slayer explained.

    “Quite,” Brown-Smythe agreed.

    As annoying as it was right now, it was also comforting.

    “We’ll be losing the base,” Bartowski lamented. “And the computers…”

    “You can replace them,” Caridad said. “It’s just money. And the CIA has lots of money.”

    This time, John pressed his lips together.

    Walker spelt it out. “The CIA won’t rebuild a secret base for a cover that was already blown.”

    “What? But...” the moron trailed off.

    “They’ll relocate us to another base,” Walker went on. “One Fulcrum doesn’t know about.”

    “But… what about our cover? The Buy More? Devon and Ellie?”

    “We’ll have to get another cover identity, Chuck.”

    The moron shook his head. “But that would… What if we take out Fulcrum? Wipe out every piece of intel about us? If we take their brainwashing machine, we could wipe out their memories!”

    John rolled his eyes behind the moron’s back. Even now, he couldn’t come out and say that they could kill all of Fulcrum. “If we can take out all of Fulcrum, we’re done with the CIA.” And the NSA.

    “Oh.”

    “Indeed,” the old Watcher chimed in. “With the enemy spies trying to capture you gone, there is no reason any more to delay your official - so to speak - employment by the Council.”

    “Oh,” Bartowski repeated himself. “I didn’t think of that.”

    Did the moron want to keep working in the Buy More? John shook his head. Why anyone would want to work there was beyond him. Even posing as a communist reporter for three months to get close to a Cuban spy hadn’t been as bad as a week there.

    “I guess that means I’ll go back to being a courier,” Caridad said. “As a cover identity.” She sighed rather theatrically. “Goodbye, free food! Goodbye, stocked fridge! Goodbye, federal money!”

    “I’m sure that the Council’s budget will keenly feel your appetite again, my dear,” Brown-Smythe said. “One can but hope that they wisely invested the money they saved.”

    “Hey!”

    John chuckled. As if an organisation that could push the CIA around would be poor. He looked at Bartowski. The moron was still looking sad, even with Walker all but frenching him to console him.

    “But… what if Ellie and Devon have to change identities as well? Abandoning all their friends?”

    “That’s why we’ll have to take out Fulcrum,” John told him.

    “And rescue Morgan and Kirsten,” Caridad added.

    “Oh, yes!” And now Bartowski was all but running to the lift. “Let’s go!”

    John sighed.

    *****​

    Los Angeles, North Hollywood, April 22nd, 2008

    There was the house that they had seen in the spell. A small office building, with several firms renting space. Probably all fronts for Fulcrum. Easy to overlook - but, due to its location and small size, not very easy to defend.

    Fulcrum had been forced to compromise, and it was now coming to bite them in the back. Mostly thanks to magic, of course - neither Bartowski nor Orion had found the base, after all. Fulcrum wouldn’t have been able to plan for that.

    Which was a very good thing, of course. There was no such thing as an unfair advantage in war or the spy business.

    “So… how do we get in there?” Caridad asked. “Looks like they have a guard at the loading dock, but I don’t see anyone else.”

    “They have wireless cameras set up,” Bartowski said without looking up from his laptop. “Probably some wired ones as backup, like the normal security the building had before they moved in.”

    “We could shoot a line to the roof,” Caridad suggested.

    “No,” John said. “They’re in the basement. We’ll need to hit them there fast before they can do anything to the hostages or their machine.”

    “I don’t like where that is going,” Caridad said. “Sewers?”

    “The sewers below the building aren’t large enough for humans to pass through,” Bartowski said.

    “Trojan horse,” John said,

    Walker nodded - she understood at once.

    Bartowski and Caridad looked lost. Brown-Smythe smiled.

    *****​

    Los Angeles, North Hollywood, April 23rd, 2008

    “I still think this will be a little suspicious. Just saying. I mean, we do have special deliveries at the Buy More after business hours, but they are usually expected. As in, they were expected during the day, but got delayed for some reason, but not delayed enough to arrive at the next day, yet important enough to be delivered without waiting, you know what I mean? We didn’t exactly have just-in-time-but-late delivery.”

    Bartowski is in rare form, John thought as he finished preparing the crates in the truck. Even Rosenberg hadn’t talked so much when she got going.

    “We just need to get a foot inside the door,” Walker said.

    “And you hacked the cover firm’s records, so they do expect this,” Caridad added.

    “But they’re Fulcrum - they’ll suspect something’s wrong.”

    John snorted. A good spy - and the traitors, unfortunately, were good spies - always suspect something wasn’t as it seemed.

    “And isn’t the Trojan Horse one of the best-known stories? Myths?”

    “Yes. That doesn’t mean it won’t work,” Walker replied.

    Caridad nodded. “They don’t have Star Trek scanners, and they don’t have dogs, either.”

    “And we do know that they have regular deliveries if only to keep up appearances,” Walker went on.

    Bartowski sighed. “But will we be fast enough? From the loading ramp to the basement?”

    “Chuck,” she put her hand on his shoulder. “We’ll get Morgan and Kirsten back. Safe and sound.”

    Ah. The moron was simply nervous. John nodded anyway and even refrained from adding that Grimes would probably not even notice any brain damage from brainwashing attempts.

    Another deep sigh. But Bartowski was smiling. Like a sap. John scoffed. “Come on, get into the crate.” The fake bottom would fool most inspections.

    “Alright, alright!” Bartowski exchanged another kiss with Walker, then climbed into the first crate.

    John was tempted to push the man down into it, but his shoulder was still aching. He did drop the fake bottom’s lid on him, though, and turned to Caridad. “Fill it up.”

    While the Slayer started shovelling styrofoam into it, John prepared Walker’s crate, then his own and Caridad’s.

    She helped him into it - not that he needed it, but it was faster - and used the opportunity to kiss him. Then the lid went down, and he was alone in the dark.

    A few minutes later - Brown-Smythe took a little longer to fill a crate with styrofoam than Caridad - he felt the truck starting to move.

    Now all they needed was for Brown-Smythe’s disguise and his ‘trust me’ spell to hold up to Fulcrum’s scrutiny.

    John had taken worse gambles.

    *****​

    John checked his watch. Ten minutes. They would be arriving soon. A few minutes later, the truck stopped. Now it was up to the old Watcher. John had his gun ready anyway - if Brown-Smythe pushed the panic button, he’d have enough time to get out of the crate and start shooting.

    He didn’t hear the alert, though - what he heard was the truck’s doors opening. And voices. Grumbling voices. It seemed as if the plan was working. Brown-Smythe’s spell supposedly could only nudge people along a little, but if that was what made the difference between a couple crates left in a truck or being unloaded…

    He felt his crate moving and tensed. They wouldn’t be gentle. And they weren’t. John clenched his teeth and pressed his lips together to avoid making a sound as the crate was none-too-gently pushed out of the truck and onto something - a forklift, probably.

    More moving, another, smaller drop, and the crate was still. More waiting. More voices - he heard the top of his crate being removed. If they noticed the fake bottom… It wasn’t that well hidden, if anyone measured the inside, or just looked more closely… Well, then the infiltration would become a little noisy. And bloody. He had his pistol ready.

    But the night shift guards didn’t go to such length. A little rummaging, probably stealing some of the samples, and then the lid was replaced.

    He suppressed a sigh of relief.

    Finally, he felt his communicator vibrate twice. The signal from the Watcher that they were inside the building. Time to get out. And hope that the traitors hadn’t stacked the crates on top of each other.

    They hadn’t - he managed to push the fake bottom off, to the side, ignoring the styrofoam covering him, and pushed the crate’s lid open from the inside to peer around.

    They were in the building’s storage area.

    Just as planned.

    Then he spotted the camera covering the area and cursed. A quick shot with his silenced pistol took out the camera. “Move it!” he snapped. “We’ve been made.” It had been too much to hope that Fulcrum would be sloppy.

    Caridad broke out of her crate and rushed to the door, cocking her head. “Guards. Four people. Running.”

    Walker got out of her crate, SMG in hand. Bartowski…

    “Uh, guys? I’m kinda, uh, stuck…”

    He was in the crate below Walker’s. It was almost funny.

    “Caridad,” John whispered, moving towards her. They had to hold the door. Walker joined him as Caridad kicked the crate off, then pulled the lid of Bartowski’s crate off before pulling the moron out as if he were a rabbit in a tophat.

    “Uh, thanks… could’ve made it out myself.”

    “Chuck! Get into the security system!” Walker hissed.

    “Uh, copy!”

    John ignored the byplay and aimed his pistol down the corridor. Now he could hear the guards approaching as well. Any moment now they would appear.

    “Uh, can you boost me up, Caridad? So I can reach the camera? Or what’s left of it?”

    “Sure!”

    “Thank youAHHH.”

    “Hold on!”

    John heard crates being moved just as the first guard appeared in the corridor outside. His first shot hit the man in the head before he saw John.

    Yells followed as the dead guard collapsed on the floor. Then a muzzle appeared - trying to lay down covering fire? To fix them in place or to charge?

    Walker’s SMG spat, the armour-piercing bullets ripping through the corner, and another body dropped to the floor.

    “There! Start hacking!”

    “I’m starting, I’m starting!”

    John clenched his teeth and rushed forward, gun trained on the corner. He reached into a pouch for a grenade with his bad arm, doing his best to ignore the pain in his shoulder. Then he jumped and slid the last few yards, pulling the pin out and letting the grenade fly. His shoulder flared with pain, but the grenade bounced off of the wall and went around the corner.

    “Grenade!”

    It went off, and John slid around the corner, putting two rounds into the two stunned guards on the floor and a third into the camera here.

    Walker arrived behind him, covering the staircase and lifts in this corridor.

    John touched his radio button. “Bartowski. How much longer?” Trying to assault the basement while the enemy could watch you over the cameras was close to suicide against a competent enemy. And Fulcrum definitely was competent.

    “I’m close… kind of. Sort of.”

    “Get it done!” John snapped and advanced towards the staircase.

    “I’m doing my best!”

    “Lift shaft?”

    When had Caridad arrived? John shook his head. “Not yet. Bartowski needs to control the cameras, first.” To set up a diversion. But he had to hurry. “Phil?”

    Brown-Smythe replied: “No movements outside the building.””

    That meant that the spies weren’t evacuating, yet. Unless they had managed to dig a tunnel in the time they had this base - which was unlikely.

    “The police have been alerted, but will not interfere,” the Watcher went on. So, the Council had come through. They should - Grimes was a Watcher, after all.

    “Done!” Bartowski yelled. “Uh - should I start blacking out the cameras in the staircase?”

    “Yes.” John nodded at Caridad, then at the lift doors. “We’re going down the lift shaft.”

    “Uh, right.”

    The Slayer ripped the doors open, then looked down. “Clear - cabin’s above us.”

    “Go!”

    Caridad jumped down. John looked at Walker, She had two whole shoulders. He nodded at the lift shaft, and she entered, then slid down along the cables.

    He took a deep breath, holstered his pistol, and clipped a line to his webbing, then secured it to the destroyed doors. He didn’t need two shoulders to rappel down.

    As he started to go down, shots rang out below. By the time he reached the bottom, Caridad had ripped open the lift doors there as well, and the Slayer and Walker were standing in the corridor there, over two dead spies. No, one dead and one unconscious spy.

    John put a round in the knocked-out enemy as he left the lift shaft.

    “The, uh, cell tract should be right ahead. I’ve blanked out all cameras, but… oh. The cells aren’t covered by cameras!” Bartowski reported. “Where are they? Let me check…”

    “To the right?” Caridad asked.

    “Uh… give me a second… Yes...”

    Caridad was moving before Bartowski finished.

    “...but there are no cameras there. None that I can access, in any case - they surely have cameras covering the cells,” the moron prattled on.

    Yes, they had cameras - John took out another as they turned the corner.

    “The cells!” Caridad tried to open the first door.

    “We’re at the cells,” Walker said.

    “Let me see if I can access the controls remotely…” Bartowski said.

    Caridad didn’t bother waiting and ripped the damn steel door off its hinges. The cell was empty, though.

    As was the next one. Where were the prisoners? And where were the rest of the guards and spies?

    “Uh, guys… I’m coming down as well. I can’t do anything any more from here.”

    Caridad raised her hand. “Someone’s coming.” John saw her eyes widen. “It’s Morgan!” She smiled and rushed around the next corner.

    Before John could warn her, she jumped back, rolling over the floor as flames filled the corridor behind her.

    “It’s Morgan and Kirsten!” she gasped as she rose. “They’ve been mind-controlled!”

    Damn! And Grimes had a flamethrower. That was deadly in close quarters - there was no way to open the distance.

    John grabbed another grenade. A flash-bang. “Caridad!” He held it up.

    She gasped, then nodded and moved forward. Trusting him with her life.

    John threw the grenade. It bounced on the wall and flew around the corner - though a steep angle. A moment later, it went off.

    And Caridad blew forward. She didn’t turn the corner - she ran up the other side of the corridor, then turned around the corner. Shots followed her - Bane was still up, then,

    John rushed forward as well. If needed, he could shoot the spy in the leg.

    And he almost shot Caridad as she barrelled around the corner, followed by bullets. She crashed into him and dragged him down. Then flames filled the corridor again.

    “Fall back!” Caridad yelled. “I can’t get close enough to knock them out without getting burned!” She dragged him up and pushed him back.

    Damn. And he didn’t have any stun grenades left. But he had others. Fragmentation. That would take out Grimes before he could set them on fire.

    “How do we stop them without killing them?” Walker asked - she was moving back already.

    We don’t, John thought. We kill them or die. He took a deep breath. If he timed it right, the explosion would fill the entire corridor Grimes and Bane were in with deadly splinters.

    But he didn’t throw the grenade as he fell back to the lift.

    Grimes was a moron. And Bane’s loyalty was still in question. Acceptable losses. Anyone would understand. It was self-defence. They would understand as well - no one wanted to kill their allies while mind-controlled. John would rather die than kill his team on the orders of his enemies.

    Yet he couldn’t make himself throw the grenade.

    “Hold tight!” Caridad snapped as they reached the lift.

    Before he could react, she grabbed him around the waist and jumped. His breath was driven out of him when she grabbed on to the lift cable with her free hand and pushed off the wall for another leap. Two jumps and a few bruised ribs later, they reached the ground floor again.

    “Guys! Guys! What’s going on? Did they…?” And there was Bartowski.

    “They brainwashed them!” Caridad blurted out. “And they have a flamethrower!”

    The moron gasped. “I thought I noticed one missing from the armoury!”

    “Good work, moron,” John growled.

    “I didn’t think that it mattered!”

    “Incoming!” Walker snapped, already firing her SMG.

    John dropped to the ground, rolled to the side - his good one - and shot at the guards coming down the stairs as well.

    Two dropped between him and Walker, the rest withdrew upstairs. John bared his teeth and threw his grenade - they didn’t have to take those traitors alive. It went off, and he heard screams from the staircase.

    “Watch out!”

    He rolled again, away from the lift shaft, grunting at the pain in his shoulder, as flames shot up the shaft behind him - and burning fuel splattered on the ground where he had been a moment before.

    “Morgan’s a bit too good with the flamethrower,” Bartowski said, panting from where he was pressed against the wall on the other side. “How much fuel did he use so far?”

    “He fired it three times,” Caridad replied.

    “Uh. That’s not enough… he’ll have plenty left.”

    That was obvious.

    “Uh… I’ll do something about the fire,” the moron went on, pulling out his computer.

    “Sarah! Do you have a stun grenade?” Caridad whispered.

    Walker shook her head. An oversight, obvious in hindsight.

    “Almost… there!”

    John clenched his teeth as water started to rain down from the ceiling, extinguishing the flames on the ground - and drenching them all. It wasn’t as if the sprinklers would save them from a flamethrower. Hell, not even a fire extinguisher might be enough to… Oh. “We need a fire extinguisher!” he snapped.

    “Is it still burning?” Bartowski asked. Then he gasped. “Oh, yes! A pressured one!”

    Right. Bartowski had used the same trick, hadn’t he?

    “Let me see where there is one…”

    “They’re coming up the stairs!” Caridad snapped.

    Walker whirled and fired a short burst into the staircase. That wouldn’t stop Grimes and Bane for long, though.

    But, perhaps, long enough.

    “Lobby, behind the reception desk!” Bartowski snapped.

    “On it!”

    And Caridad took off like a heat-seeking missile.

    Walker fired again, then had to swap her magazine. No flames shot up the staircase - they wanted to use them themselves, then.

    John kept his pistol aimed at the stairs leading up. There were still guards there. In their place, he would be getting out through a window and climbing down. “Phil? Any movement?”

    “Not on my side,” the old Watcher replied. That didn’t mean much - but it did mean that they had a little more time. Hopefully enough to pull this off.

    “Here!” Caridad arrived with a fire extinguisher. “How do we do it? Blow it up?”

    “No!” Bartowski hissed. “That would kill them. Just get ready to puncture it and throw it down the stairs! Then knock them out!”

    That would put Caridad in danger. If the brainwashed Grimes didn’t get hit by the extinguisher, Caridad would charge headlong into a flamethrower - and no way to dodge it.

    But the Slayer just nodded. “Got it!”

    Just as she was turning towards the stairs leading down to the basement, John reached out. “Hey.”

    She stopped, cocked her head and smiled.

    Then she took a few steps down the stairs, ripped the valve off and threw the extinguisher down to the basement before following it into a growing cloud of powder.

    And John held his breath - not because he feared inhaling powder, though.

    Shots rang out - but no flames reached through the cloud. No Slayer screamed as she burned to death. John took a deep breath, then charged into the settling dust cloud. He almost stumbled on the first flight but caught himself. At the bottom of the second, he found Grimes and Bane knocked out - and Caridad trying to bandage a bleeding thigh.

    He cursed and knelt next to her, grabbing a bandage from his pouch.

    “It’s just a flesh wound,” she said through clenched teeth.

    It had narrowly missed the artery in her thigh, but technically, it was just a flesh wound. He scoffed anyway, ripped her pants away from her wound and started bandaging it.

    “Tie them up,” he snapped as he heard Walker arrive.

    “Caridad!”

    And Bartowski.

    “I’m fine,” the Slayer replied. “Kirsten got me right before I got her.”

    Almost killed you, John added to himself.

    “Ok, ok… now we need the brainwashing machine so we can, uh, unwash them. Deprogram them.”

    “And find out what they told Fulcrum,” Walker added.

    “Oh.” Bartowski gasped.

    “What?” John asked as he tired off the bandage. It would hold.

    “Those marks on their heads… they’re fresh.”

    “I had to hit them!” Caridad protested. “They were trying to kill me!”

    “Not those!” Bartowski pointed at Grimes’ temples. “Those marks.”

    “Oh, those.” Caridad nodded. “That wasn’t me, either!”

    “They are from the machine,” Bartowski explained. “Recently. They weren’t on Hernandez when she attacked us.”

    “And they came from the direction of the brainwashing machine room,” Walker added.

    “They must have just finished programming them!” Bartowski blinked. “Uh… I mean, brainwashing them.”

    At least that proved Grimes had a brain.

    “But we didn’t find a way in the basement other than those stairs.” Caridad bared her teeth in a feral grin. “That means they are still down here. We can get them!”

    “Exactly!”

    Even with a shot leg, Caridad was in the corridor before John finished getting up, though he caught her wincing. She was their strongest fighter, but… “You need to carry them,” he said, nodding at Grimes and Bane.

    “But…”

    “We’ll deal with the rest,” Walker said.

    “Yes,” Bartowski added. “If they were any good at fighting, they’d have been with Morgan and Kirsten.”

    “Alright.”

    John nodded, even though he didn’t agree. But it got Caridad out of the line of fire. He pressed his lips together and took point. First corner - clear. Second corner - clear.

    Walker and Bartowksi were behind him. The Intersect must have kicked in since Bartowski was moving like a veteran spy.

    There was the entrance to the central room. Brainwashing central, John thought with a silent snort. A solid metal door. Thick enough. From the looks of it, to withstand sustained small arms fire.

    “How do we do this?” Bartowski asked.

    John pulled out a pack of C-4.

    “Ah, that’s how!”

    Yes, John thought as he quickly created a door-busting charge and slapped it on the metal. Then he moved back several yards, crouched down, and pushed the trigger.

    The plastic explosives went off, and he weathered the shockwave despite more pain in his shoulder. Walker and Bartowski were already past him, running through the smoke cloud.

    Someone was shooting - semi-automatic. Pistol. Enemy fire. John reached the door and slid around the frame. On the floor, knocked out, was a woman he recognised: Professor Irina Petrova. The scientist who had tried to brainwash Bartowski. And in the seat of one of the machines was another woman. Hernandez.

    Walker and Bartowski were covering the Fulcrum spy. John glanced at Hernandez. She seemed unconscious and was strapped in. But the skin around the electrodes wasn’t marked.

    They hadn’t been brainwashing her. Even though there had been enough time to start since Grimes and Bane had been sent out.

    “Hernandez is out,” he loudly announced, looking at the mirror on the side. “We’ll have to carry her out.”

    “Alright,” Bartowski said. “But we need to make the professor here reprogram our friends.”

    “Once she stops playing unconscious,” Walker added.

    A string of courses answered her, but Petrova opened her eyes. “You won’t get away with this!”

    “Says the traitor,” John snapped. He kept an eye on the mirror. Hernandez wasn’t moving.

    Caridad arrived, huffing, and laid down Grimes and Bane.

    “Who is the traitor? Fulcrum, or someone working for foreigners?” Petrova retorted. “Even the CIA knows you can’t be trusted. Traitor!” she spat.

    “That the quack who did this to our friends?” Caridad asked.

    “Uh, yes, I think so,” Bartowski replied. “I mean - no one else is here, and she was trying to re-brainwash Federica when we interrupted her.”

    But she hadn’t been. John studied the woman on the chair through the mirror. She still wasn’t moving. He glanced back at Caridad and nodded towards Hernandez.

    Caridad nodded back, then sighed. “Well, does she need working legs to undo what she did?” she said as she walked past the machine.

    John heard a grunt, followed by the Slayer’s chuckle as she held up the suddenly no longer tied up Hernandez by her neck.

    “Caridad!” Bartowski exclaimed. “She was mind-controlled!”

    “She wasn’t,” John said. “No marks on her.”

    “Oh.”

    Petrova snarled at them, but John could see her fear. Knelt down next to her and smiled.

    “The police won’t come - London intervened. The CIA doesn’t know about you. And we’ve got people watching for reinforcements.” Which wouldn’t come, or they’d already be here. “Game over, traitor.”

    “Casey!”

    Bartowski’s delighted exclamation made John regret his quip at once. He really had been hanging out with the morons far too long already.

    *****​

    Los Angeles, Burbanks, outside Buy More, April 23rd, 2008

    “A gas leak?” John asked, sitting on the backbench of their latest car, looking at the Buy More, where the police were stopping the dumbasses who still tried to enter the mall despite the signs and barricades.

    “It’s a good cover,” Bartowski said. “A classic. They used it all the time in Sunnydale.”

    That didn’t mean that it was a good cover. From what John had heard, the average cop in Sunnydale had been half as bright as a very dense rock, and the rest of the population hadn’t been much smarter.

    Sort of like the average staff member of the Buy More. The idiots had gathered in the parking lot. Jeff and Lester were talking to them. Even odds whether they were trying to whip them up into storming the place or going off to celebrate a day off.

    “As long as they are staying away from Wienerlicious...” Walker shrugged.

    “It’s kind of sad. After all it went through…” Bartowski sighed,

    “Everything ends, Chuck.”

    “But like this?”

    John rolled his eyes. The Buy More was a cesspit filled with idiots.

    “All the free food going to waste,” Caridad added. Was she sniffling? John hoped that she was joking.

    He sighed. Was he the only professional here? Granted, he didn’t want to miss this, but he wasn’t sentimental. Shit happened, after all.

    Yet he couldn’t help smiling as he pulled out the radio detonator for the small charge he had placed on the backdoor of The Castle. “A man should be allied to shoot their dog,” he said, handing it over to Bartowski.

    Of course, the moron took him at face value. “Thank you, Casey.” He sighed, took a deep breath, then held it up. “Good-Bye.”

    Then he pushed the button.

    A second later, Wienerlicious and parts of the Buy More blew up.

    *****​
     
  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: The Decision
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 18: The Decision

    Los Angeles, Burbanks, Outside Buy More, April 23rd, 2008

    John watched as the dust started to settle. Of Wienerlicious and The Castle, there was nothing left but a crater in the ground. The Agency would have to take steps to keep the LAPD’s Forensics section from discovering the remains of weapons and explosives in the rubble, but the general public would never know that there had been a spy base under the restaurant.

    The Buy More, though, was still standing. Mostly - the front had been caved in and part of it had fallen into the crater. Home entertainment was half-gone, and the dust covering everything wouldn’t do much good to the computers that hadn’t been destroyed. Big Mike could probably sell them for half-off with a limited warranty, a few of the customers would buy anything as long it was reduced...

    He shook his head. He had been working undercover at the cursed store for far too long - he was starting to think like a clerk. Like one of them.

    He glared at the small crowd of Buy More staff in the parking lot. They looked shocked, frozen to the spot as they stared at the destruction.

    Then they rushed forward, pushing past the police and swarming over the remaining parts of the store. And...

    “What are they doing?” Walker asked.

    “Looting,” he told her.

    “Uh, no! They are securing the exposed goods,” Bartowski retorted.

    “In their cars?” Caridad cocked her head.

    “Uh…” The moron sighed. “Alright, they’re looting.”

    John snorted. What else could you expect from those misfits? “We need to inform the general that the demolition went according to plan.”

    “I’m on it,” Walker replied.

    “Well it looks like they’ll be able to repair the store,” Bartowski said. “And the insurance should cover it.”

    John scoffed. “They’ll have to tear most of it down.” That much damage ruined a building’s structural integrity. And it wasn’t as if the store had been built half-way solid.

    “But...” Bartowski sighed again.

    “Hey, numbskull - we’re not going to return to the Buy More even if it were perfectly fine,” John told him. “That cover has outlived its usefulness.” And good riddance!

    “We could open a restaurant!” Caridad butted in. “As a cover!”

    “You just want free food,” John replied.

    “Food is very important. Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics!”

    John shook his head at the Slayer. That wasn’t what the saying meant.

    “The Council’s going to pay anyway, so it wouldn’t be free,” Bartowski pointed out. “And money spent on our cover means less money spent on food.”

    “Oh.”

    John chuckled before growing serious. “Any news from the Council?”

    “They’ll help with interrogating the prisoners if it’s needed,” Caridad replied. “And they want to examine Morgan.”

    “Good,” Bartowski said. “We need help to restore them to normal.”

    John wasn’t as naive - the Council would also want to look into Fulcrum’s technology for their own benefits. But everyone was doing that. “The Agency wants the same,” he said.

    “Yes,” Walker confirmed. “They are sending a transport for the prisoners and… everything and everyone.”

    “Uh…” Even Bartowski could see the first problem with that. “What if the transport’s compromised? Like our plane?”

    “Do they want us to escort the transport?” John asked. If they didn’t, then this was an attempt to secure leverage. If they did, it might be an attempt to capture them.

    “They didn’t say that,” Walker said. Her expression told him she shared his suspicions.

    “Guys?” Bartowski apparently didn’t, though. “Do you think they want to kidnap them?”

    “They’ll probably take their time to deprogram them,” John said. “After all, this is an unknown technology, and they’ll claim they want to be sure they won’t harm them further.”

    “They’ll experiment on them,” Caridad growled.

    “What?” Bartowski gasped. “We can’t let them!”

    “Then we need the Council to step in,” John said.

    Walker nodded. “Yes. They can keep the CIA away from the captured technology.”

    “But…” Bartowski bit his lip. “Wouldn’t that drag the Council into the Spy business?”

    “They attacked Morgan!” Caridad snapped.

    “But he was in a spy base, and he’s dating a spy,” Bartowski retorted. “Uh, that’s not the same.”

    “Doesn’t matter.” The Slayer crossed her arms. “They mess with one of us, they mess with all of us!”

    John nodded in agreement. “And they can make Petrova and Hernandez talk with magic, can’t they?”

    “Uh… probably,” Bartowski said.

    Caridad added, after pressing her lips together for a moment: “They can. It’s not easy and not perfectly safe, but they can. Well, for brainwashing machines, they probably will.”

    And that would keep Petrova and her technology out of the CIA’s clutches as well.

    John blinked when he realised that he counted this as a good thing.

    *****​

    Los Angeles, Silver Lake, April 23rd, 2008

    “So, this is your private safe house?” Caridad asked as she walked around the living room. Her thigh was still bandaged, but she didn’t show any pain or even a hint of a limp.

    “Yes,” John confirmed.

    “And the CIA doesn’t know about it.”

    “No.” That would have missed the point of having a safe house in case he needed to bug out.

    “I’d say you’re paranoid, but…” She grinned and shrugged.

    He grunted in return.

    “How can you afford it?” The Slayer made a point of looking around. “Two stories, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, basement, stocked fridge and cleaning services… Being a spy must pay well.”

    It was his turn to shrug. “It’s rented, not bought.” Spies like him didn’t make enough to be able to buy safe houses. Not after laundering the money so the agency couldn’t track it down. Not that he spent a lot of money on anything, anyway, but that was neither here nor there.

    By the looks of her - she cocked her head and narrowed her eyes a little - she didn’t quite believe him, but she didn’t push the issue. “Alright!” she said, flopping down on the couch. “Now we wait for the Council.”

    He nodded, restraining from rubbing his shoulder. A break - resting - would do him good. He picked the armchair next to the couch and sat down himself. But before he could really relax, Bartowski and Walker returned from the basement.

    “OK, guys! We’ve set up Morgan, Kirsten and the others in the basement. And can I say that I’ll never look at a basement with the same eyes again? It’s really creepy how you can turn a spare storage room into a spy-proof cell!” the man commented.

    John rolled his eyes. Of course a spy would know how to hide in plain sight.

    Walker, fortunately, was more professional. “We’ve secured and sedated them. They should be OK for another day.”

    “Infusions and everything,” Bartowski added, unnecessarily. “And we treated their wounds.”

    “Hey!” Caridad protested. “I knocked them out as gently as I could - they were trying to kill me! Kill us!”

    “No one is blaming you,” Walker cut in. “It was Fulcrum’s fault.”

    “But I’m not comfortable with leaving the van with the brainwashing machine in the garage,” Bartowski went on. “Also, we really need a better name for it. Mind Wiping machine? Mind Control Centre? Remote Control Device? Memory Modification machine?”

    John sighed. Bartowski needed a better sense of priorities. “The garage is as safe as this house,” he said. There was no need to fret about it. At least the moron didn’t talk about Hernandez.

    “I think we should rest, now,” Walker said. “Fulcrum lost two bases recently - they won’t have many resources to spend on finding us.”

    “And Dad’s checking our electronic trail,” Bartowski added, then yawned. “What’s the news saying?”

    Caridad turned the TV on and switched to a local news channel. The ‘gas explosion’ dominated the news. A few experts were describing how much worse it could’ve been, and a few politicians wanted more money spent on maintaining the gas lines in a transparent attempt to capitalise on the accident.

    In other words, everything was going as they had expected.

    “The general won’t take well to us dropping off the grid,” Walker said as the news switched to a celebrity missing their pet.

    She was right, of course - cutting contact after the orders to hand over their captives was as good as sending in their resignations. Which they should do, actually.

    “The Council should set them straight,” Caridad replied.

    “That might not stop the CIA,” John pointed out. It certainly hadn’t stopped Fulcrum. This might even give Fulcrum another opportunity to spread their influence inside the agency.

    “Between my dad and the Scoobies, we should be covered,” Bartowski said.

    ‘Should be’ wasn’t enough. But for the moment, the danger of getting attacked wasn’t too high, in John’s estimate. And he really needed to rest before his shoulder gave out on him.

    So he nodded and stood. “I’m going to lie down a little.”

    Caridad jumped up. “I’ll help you with your shoulder!”

    She ignored his frown, and he was a little too tired - and a little too hurting - to make an issue out of it. “Alright,” he said and walked towards the stairs.

    He didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know that Caridad was grinning and Bartowski would be staring at them.

    Once he was inside the bedroom he had picked, he sighed and rubbed his shoulder. Caridad went into the adjacent bathroom and emerged a moment later with the bag with medical supplies he had stashed there. Was he becoming predictable, or had she scouted the whole house already?

    He asked, and she replied: “I smelled the medicine.”

    Ah. Slayer senses.

    “Now sit down and let me tape you up.”

    She didn’t wait for his agreement, pushing him on the bed and pulling off his turtleneck before he could say anything.

    “That doesn’t look good,” she commented with a wince.

    “It doesn’t feel good, either,” he replied.

    She snorted in return, then shook her head. “And you didn’t do anything about it for over a day?”

    “I took a few pills.” And it hadn’t been too bad - he had been able to function, after all.

    “Stubborn idiot.” She started smearing some unfamiliar ointment on him that had a cooling effect.

    “That wasn’t in the bag.”

    “It’s from my stash.”

    “Magic?” He tensed against his will. He wasn’t afraid of magic. Just reasonably wary.

    “Herbal. With probably some alchemy,” she told him. “Phil swears by it. Says it makes training a Slayer in melee combat bearable.”

    So, magic. But he did feel better if a little numb in the shoulder. “There’s padding,” he remarked. Sensei hadn’t used it, but he hadn’t needed to, but their Marine instructor had sworn by it.

    “There’s Slayer strength,” she retorted. “New Slayers don’t always know their strength.”

    “Ah.” He had a brief, slightly disturbing image of various training accidents with Slayers going through his head while she taped up his shoulder and arm until he couldn’t move either.

    “And done,” she declared, grinning. “Now you need to rest until it’s better.”

    Both of them knew he wouldn’t have the time. But resting would help. “Did the others get any news from the Council?” She would have heard them talking below - his safe house hadn’t been rendered Slayer hearing proof. Not even the cells.

    “No. Now rest.”

    He grunted, but pulled off his boots and laid down on the bed without taking her eyes off her. She was wearing a tank top - she hadn’t replaced the turtleneck and jacket that the serpent had burned - and a sports bra. If he didn’t have a busted shoulder… and if it weren’t unprofessional, he added, belatedly.

    She grinned, then started to pull off her boots. Then her cargo pants. He stared. And not at the bandage on her leg.

    “I’m not about to ravish you,” she said.

    He nodded with another grunt.

    After about a second of silence, she crawled on the bed until she was next to him. Then she slipped her arms around him. He tensed for a moment - he knew how strong she was - then relaxed when she rested her head on his good shoulder and made a sound between a growl and a moan.

    “If your shoulder were OK…” she whispered.

    He hadn’t felt his wound as keenly until now.

    *****​

    When John woke up, it was dark outside. Not quite night - late evening. His stomach agreed. Caridad wasn’t in bed with him. He hadn’t expected her to - Slayers needed less rest, and she wasn’t wounded either. He was a little disappointed anyway.

    He took a deep breath and was tempted to just lie there for a little while, but got up despite that. Busted shoulder or not, he could still do a guard shift. And get a bite to eat.

    He opened the door to find Caridad standing there. “Need help dressing?” she asked, looking at his feet with a smirk. She had changed clothes, he noticed.

    He scoffed - tying boot laces one-handed was a pain. But he let her help.

    Brown-Smythe was sitting in the living room downstairs, reading a British newspaper. The Watcher was looking at John with slight disapproval but greeted him politely. “The Council team is supposed to arrive at the airport in an hour. I assumed that fetching them there wouldn’t be advisable.”

    No, it wouldn’t have been. Not with the CIA and NSA both looking for them by now. The agency might not move against them, at least John didn’t expect them to, but they would want to find them. And Fulcrum might find them through their moles.

    “I’ve texted them the address,” Caridad added. “On my Slayer phone.”

    Which was their most secure means of communication. John didn’t frown, but he wanted to as he grunted in agreement.

    “There are sandwiches in the fridge,” the old man commented. “At least there should be.”

    Caridad pouted. “I didn’t eat more than one or two.”

    “Then there should be one or two left.”

    John snorted at that and went to the kitchen. He found one large sandwich on the fridge. Pastrami. And not from a takeaway - someone had gone shopping. There were fresh vegetables as well.

    “I had to stock up if we’re going to stay here for a while,” Caridad remarked behind him. “And I made the sandwich.”

    “Thank you.” He took a bite - he could eat it one-handed, which was probably why she had made a sandwich - and smiled. “It’s good.”

    She beamed at him. “Chuck and Sarah are sleeping. Resting,” she clarified. “Morgan, Kirsten and the others are still unconscious.”

    He nodded. Things were quiet then. He hoped that they’d stay that way.

    *****​

    John noticed the car approaching the driveway before it turned and looked towards Caridad as he drew his gun. She quickly grabbed her phone, then nodded. “It’s them.”

    They were a little later than he had expected. He hoped that that meant they had taken the necessary steps to lose any tails they might have acquired at the airport. “Good.” Then he noticed her frown and tensed up. “Trouble?”

    “What?” She quickly shook her head. “No, no. Not trouble. Well, not real trouble. I just didn’t expect, well… them.”

    And wasn’t that ominous? John opened the door with a little apprehension.

    “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Rosenberg, dressed like a rich hippie, beamed at him. “Hi! Sorry, I couldn’t resist when Kennedy overheard Caridad. This is Kennedy, by the way.”

    The other woman was dressed stylishly. Business casual, a little too sexy actually - a Slayer, obviously. The woman gave him a short nod and a long stare as he stepped aside to let them enter.

    “Hi, Caridad!”

    “Yo.”

    “Willow! Ken.”

    Was there more between the two Slayers than the usual rivalry they had seen with Vi? It looked that way, but John wasn’t sure.

    “We didn’t expect you,” Caridad went on, smiling at Willow.

    “Oh, well, I am the Council’s foremost computer expert - not that that is a huge bar to clear, mind you, although they are making progress - even Giles is using a computer these days. Sometimes. And he still prints out every mail and most documents. But the younger crowd of Watchers is pretty computer-literate, though not quite up to hacking. Which is kinda my thing, only not my only thing, but still!” Willow nodded several times. “Oh! And I also know Morgan, and I have experience with mind control spells, which might be of use in this situation - it’s not magic, of course, but technology, but the principle is generally the same for some effects, though I’m not really a psychologist, but I read up on the subject when Buffy had that course in college so I could help her study, only that was derailed by Walsh being an evil mad scientist…” She trailed off with an embarrassed smile. “Sorry, I got rambling, but this is really fascinating. Technological memory modification! Who would have thought it was possible? Well, apart from most science fiction authors.”

    John didn’t remember the Council’s most powerful witch being that much of a nerd. But Caridad didn’t look surprised or uncomfortable, so he probably had repressed it. He nodded and said. “I’ll go wake up Bartowski, Walker and Brown-Smythe.”

    “Oh. Are they already sleeping?”

    “Resting. They had an earlier guard shift,” Caridad explained.

    John was already halfway up the stairs when he heard Kennedy ask, a little too loudly to be a coincidence: “So, are you banging him now?”

    “That’s none of your business!”

    “So, you aren’t. Sheesh, there goes my stake in the pool.”

    They were betting on… them? John clenched his teeth. He apparently had repressed the immature banter as well.

    *****​

    “Willow! Wow! I didn’t expect you to come!” Bartowski beamed at the witch before he hugged her.

    “Of course I came! When I heard what they did to Morgan - and to Kirsten, too, of course - I immediately called a cab.”

    “She was so worked up, she would’ve travelled without luggage if I hadn’t reminded her,” Kennedy added.

    “Morgan is one of my oldest friends!” Rosenberg pouted. “We went to school together! And Sunnydale being Sunnydale, there aren’t many of us around.”

    So John had heard. To think such a hellhole - literally a hellhole - had existed on US soil… And there was another in Cleveland.

    “So, let’s take a look at the, uh, patients and prisoners, to make sure they are OK? And that they aren’t under a spell. I know you already checked, Phil, but...”

    “By all means, Miss Rosenberg. You cannot be too cautious where such curses are concerned.”

    “OK, Willow. We put them in the basement.”

    “In the basement? Oh, of course you put them in the basement. Where else would you put them? In the attic?”

    “We’ve got cells there - this is a spy safe house,” Bartowski explained.

    “So you’ve installed a dungeon?” Kennedy seemed amused.

    “Uh…” Bartowski floundered. “Casey did that!”

    “Holding cells,” John said. “Exactly for such an occasion.”

    The Slayer smirked anyway, and Caridad looked annoyed. Or angry.

    Rosenberg either ignored the byplay or missed it - the witch made a beeline for the basement, and then went straight to the cells, where she spent a few minutes each casting spells. At least that’s what she was supposed to be doing - she didn’t do any of the preparations Grimes and Brown-Smythe usually did. She just moved her hands and mumbled some words John didn’t quite catch.

    Finally, she took a deep breath and announced: “They’re not under any spell, and physically healthy. And I couldn’t detect any differences in their brains with magic, either.”

    Which meant no easy way to expose Henandez as a traitor.

    “Fascinating,” Kennedy commented.

    “Your Spock impression needs work,” Caridad said, showing a little too much teeth.

    “Really?” The other Slayer matched her attitude.

    “So! Let’s take a look at the brainwashing machine, shall we?” Rosenberg interrupted them.

    Bartowski all but jumped on the distraction. “Yes! I mean - We stored it in the garage. Well, in the van which we parked there.”

    To be fair to the moron, seeing two Slayers about to knocking heads was something best observed from a distance. And Kennedy was dangerous; the Council wouldn’t have assigned a rookie Slayer as Rosenberg’s bodyguard.

    “Oh? You didn’t take it out, yet?” The latter piped up as they went to the garage.

    “No. We weren’t sure if we had to move quickly,” Walker explained.

    “Oh! Good thinking!”

    John looked back over his shoulder. Caridad and Kennedy were still glaring at each other, but following them. He shook his head. Slayers.

    In the garage, Bartowski opened the van’s backdoor and gestured inside. “We marked where each cable goes - Fulcrum was really sloppy in that area. Or Petrova didn’t want anyone else to have an easy time with it.”

    “We can find out later. Now let’s take it out!” Rosenberg said with obvious enthusiasm. “This looks very interesting!”

    Kennedy coughed.

    The witch blushed. “I mean, it’s a very bad machine, ethically it’s completely wrong and despicable, but it’s very interesting in an academic sense.”

    John revised his estimate of Kennedy’s position - she wasn’t a mere bodyguard, but Rosenberg’s handler. Then he caught the smile the two exchanged and revised his opinion again. How unprofessional. Not that he had much ground to stand on, of course.

    With his arm and shoulder still wrapped in tape, he wasn’t able to help with unloading the van, so he watched with Walker and Brown-Smythe as the two Slayers, under the direction of Rosenberg and Bartowski, quickly carried all parts into the basement.

    “I know it’s a cliche, to put the machine up in the basement, but it’s the best place - least chance of interference. Every other room has a window, after all,” the witch commented as they started to put it together.

    “An entirely rational view, Miss Rosenberg.”

    “You just want to feel like a mad scientist,” Kennedy commented with a grin as she put down the seat.

    “No! That would be totally irresponsible in this situation!” Rosenberg protested. “We can play Frankenstein once we’ve solved this and saved our friends!”

    “Uh… play Frankenstein?” Bartowski looked rather concerned. He wasn’t the only one.

    “Oh!” Rosenberg blushed again. “Not like creating monsters!”

    “Just playing,” Kennedy added with a grin that left no doubt in John’s mind about the kind of play they were talking about.

    Judging by Bartowski’s deep blush and Brown-Smythe’s cough, they had it figured out as well.

    Kennedy’s smirk, though, was aimed at Caridad, who looked annoyed and took a step closer to Jon before making a point of ignoring the other Slayer.

    “Relationships aren’t a contest, dear,” Brown-Smythe commented, which caused Caridad to smile and Kennedy to scowl at the Watcher.

    And John to wonder how the Council managed to ride herd on more than a handful of Slayers.

    *****​

    An hour later, the machine had been assembled, and Rosenberg and Bartowski were running tests on the systems.

    “It seems that everything works as it should,” the guy commented, eyes glued to a screen.

    “As far as we know,” Rosenberg agreed. “But we don’t know if we know. If you know what I mean.”

    “Yes.”

    “We now need to interrogate Petrova to check,” the witch went on.

    “Without revealing magic,” Bartowski quickly said.

    Bartowski would know the obvious solution to that problem. Or should. John glanced at Walker, who was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed, not quite looking at the man. She wouldn’t bring it up, then.

    And neither would, apparently, Brown-Smythe.

    John scoffed. “A bullet to the head will solve that - and prevent anyone from using her to duplicate her work.”

    Bartowski flinched at that. “We don’t need to kill her.”

    John scoffed. “What’s the alternative? Prison? Do you think the CIA won’t use her as soon as they get their hands on her?”

    “The Council doesn’t have a prison of their own, but in the past, we had arrangements with the Crown to take care of certain people,” Brown-Smythe said. “And with a few clinics. But I fear Dr Petrova is a little too dangerous for that.”

    “But…” Bartowski pressed his lips together.

    “Chuck.” Walker stepped in. “If Caridad hadn’t been able to take Morgan and Kirsten out, we might have been forced to kill them.”

    “I know!” he snapped. “But…” He sighed. “She’s not the only one with dangerous knowledge, you know?”

    Ah. “But she’s an enemy. You aren’t,” John told him.

    And that was what it came down to, as a spy. Or as a Watcher, John supposed.

    *****​

    Los Angeles, Silver Lake, April 24th, 2008

    Waking up the sedated prisoner without harming her - Bartowski insisted on that - took some time, so it was past midnight when Petrova woke up. The traitor blinked for a few seconds, looking around, but recovered her wits quite rapidly. “Is this where you offer me to cooperate or be tortured? Predictable.”

    She was too confident for a captive traitor tied to a chair in a basement, in John’s opinion. Then again, she probably expected to be ‘turned’ for her unique skills and knowledge.

    “Although I must say the standards of the agency aren’t exactly what I expected,” she added, looking pointedly around the small cell. “I’ve seen better interrogation setups in Siberia.”

    “We had to improvise after you blew up our base,” Walker told her.

    As expected, the woman’s eyes narrowed upon hearing this. “I don’t think that the CIA has only one secret base in the area. So, what’s your game? Are you suspicious of your superiors? Or…” She grinned. “Are you planning to make a move of your own? Form your own rogue group? Or take over the agency? I’m sure we can make a deal.”

    “We’re not like Fulcrum,” John told her. And they didn’t need to take over the CIA with the Council exerting its influence on their behalf. Probably couldn’t, either.

    “You have no idea about Fulcrum,” Petrova retorted.

    “We know quite a lot,” Walker said.

    “You might know what we do, but not why.” The woman smirked.

    “It’s probably some boring power grab,” Rosenberg spoke up. “Some ‘for your own good’ spiel about hard people making hard choices that the rest of us peons wouldn’t dare to make and wouldn’t even understand. Right?” She snorted, then sighed as she stepped in front of Petrova. “And it’ll be all a cover for greed and naked lust for power. It always is. Even the worst of the true believers are just lying to themselves.”

    The Fulcrum spy glared at her, not bothering to hide her distaste as she looked the witch up and down, sneering at the long skirt and simple blouse. “Did you spend too much time infiltrating a New Age community?”

    “It’s Wicca, actually, not New Age,” Rosenberg replied with a wide but fake smile. “You know, the magic tradition that actually is a tradition.”

    “Only fools believe in such superstition. Are you going to put a spell on me? Or pray for my soul?”

    “We’re going to ask you a few questions,” Walker cut in. “And you’ll be answering them.”

    “Torture or chemical solutions?” Petrova scoffed, a little too loudly for her scorn to be genuine. “I’ve resisted worse from the KGB.” She grinned. “You’re far too young to hold a candle to them.”

    “We don’t have to,” Rosenberg said as she started to put down a few bowls and cups on the ground. “Not that we would stoop to torturing, mind you. Well, not humans.”

    “You’d torture a dog to influence their master?” Petrova looked almost disgusted.

    “What?” The witch stopped laying out the spell ingredients and stood, shaking her head. “Torturing poor animals? Of course not!” She smiled. “We’re going to use magic on you!”

    “Magic? You actually believe that?” Petrova laughed. “I knew the CIA was gullible, but this? This is better than the goat experiments!”

    Oh, those. John shook his head. That had been foolish in the extreme of the CIA.

    “They were actually working,” Rosenberg explained almost casually as she went back to preparing her spell.

    His eyes widened.

    “Of course, the story you probably heard was the cover story. Completely nonsensical experiments trying to find paranormal powers,” the witch went on. “They even wrote a book about it.” She stood and faced the prisoner. “All to hide what had really happened.” She held her hand out, and a pencil floated in front of her. “They succeeded.”

    Petrova stared at the pencil twisting in the air in front of her, and John could see her grow pale. “But…”

    “It wasn’t actually psychic powers, but magic that they found,” the witch told her. “And, as expected from amateurs, they made a fatal mistake. Cleaning up that mistake cost a number of good - or semi-good, at least - people their lives.”

    “But… this is impossible. This is a trick!”

    Rosenberg laughed, this time, and Petrova shuddered.

    Then the witch started casting her spell.

    *****​

    With magic forcing their captive to answer, and truthfully at that, the interrogation didn’t take long. Less than an hour later, they knew what had been done to Grimes and Bane. And how to reverse it.

    And they knew what hadn’t been done to Hernandez.

    John didn’t gloat, but he exchanged a tight smile with Caridad when that little gem was revealed.

    “But…” Bartowski shook his head. “I can’t believe it.”

    “You should,” Rosenberg said quickly. “The spell worked.”

    “But… she was playing us, all this time? Why didn’t she act sooner?”

    “She’s a good spy,” John told the moron. “That’s what we do.”

    “Chuck...” Walker said, grabbing his hand.

    He sighed and turned to look at her. “Did you know?”

    “No one knew,” she replied.

    Of course not - if they had known, Hernandez would’ve been dead.

    “But did you suspect?”

    “I didn’t trust her,” Walker said.

    “Oh.” Bartowski looked like a kicked puppy.

    “I’m a spy, Chuck,” Walker went on with a smile. “I trust very few people. But I trust you.”

    “Oh.” And now he looked like a moron.

    John cleared his throat before the two started making out. “We’re in the middle of a mission,” he reminded her.

    Bartowski glared at him. “Like in the hacienda?”

    Rosenberg perked up. “Did something happen? What happened?”

    “They kissed.”

    “Oh!”

    “After we killed a feathered serpent!” Caridad told her. John didn’t have to look at her to know she was smiling widely.

    “A feathered serpent?”

    “It was huge! Like a dragon!”

    “And you killed it? It might have been the last of its kind!”

    “It was trying to kill us!”

    John blinked. How had they gone from dealing with an enemy spy to talking about endangered demons? It was past time to change the subject. “What’s the status of the search for more demon goddess body parts?” he asked.

    “Oh! Good question!” Rosenberg perked up. “We’re close to finishing a ritual that should find all body parts. We haven’t made equal progress in finding a way to destroy them - the volcano experiment was a bust - But if we can secure all body parts, the cultists won’t be able to summon her, and we’ll have enough time to destroy her in detail.”

    “Alternatively, we could wipe out the cultists. No cultists, no summoning,” Kennedy pointed out.

    Caridad nodded in agreement.

    Rosenberg, though, didn’t. “That won’t stop them forever. The kind of demons to have cults usually find ways to create more cultists. Dreams, tomes, legends, even…”

    “As long as we’re not planning to store the body parts in a vault forever, instead of destroying them, it won’t matter because they won’t have a cult up and running in time,” Kennedy retorted. “But a cult working with Cartels?” She shook her head. “The last thing we want is magical criminals.”

    “Well, apocalypses are worse than that,” Bartowski argued. “But I get your point,” he quickly added when the Slayer glared at him.

    Which, of course, made Caridad glare at Kennedy.

    John cleared his throat. “So, once you have all the locations, do we strike at one after another, or at every location at once?”

    “We want to strike at every location at once,” Kennedy replied. “That minimises enemy interference. And it should be good training for the newbie Strike Teams.”

    John frowned. “Rookies?”

    “New to strike teams,” Kennedy replied. “Not new to slaying. And we’ve got experienced Slayers leading them.”

    “Ah.” So, special forces after training, then. Acceptable.

    “What about us?” Caridad asked. “We started this, didn’t we?”

    “You’ll be assigned a target as well,” Rosenberg said. “Probably. It depends on the number of body parts out there.”

    That seemed to mollify Caridad. John wasn’t surprised - and approved. After all they had gone through so far with the Aztec cultists, he wanted a piece of taking them down for good himself.

    “So! Let’s get our first, uh, patient?” Rosenberg asked with an eager smile. John felt more than a little concerned.

    “Willow! It’s already very late - or very early - and you’ve been travelling for half a day,” Kennedy interjected. “I don’t think Morgan would want you to mess around with his mind while you’re suffering from jetlag and a sugar rush.”

    “But I wouldn’t!” the witch protested. “I’m perfectly fine, still. I slept on the plane!”

    “That doesn’t count! We weren’t even flying First Class!”

    “It so does count!”

    “Uh, Willow,” Bartowski chimed in, “My dad’s coming, and he’s kind of an expert on neurotechnology. I think we should wait for him. And it is very late.” John couldn’t tell if the way Bartowski failed to stifle a yawn was genuine or an act, but it served nicely to underline his argument.

    “Oh…” Rosenberg glanced around. “Sorry, I just…”

    “We know,” Kennedy said with a smile, wrapping an arm around the witch’s shoulder. “Let’s go to bed.” Then she whispered something into Rosenberg’s ear that had her blushing, and they left for what had been dubbed the guest room.

    Caridad huffed as soon as the pair had left the basement.

    “So… we’ll go to bed as well,” Bartowski said. “I mean, to sleep.” He blinked. “You know what I mean. Because we need to be well-rested tomorrow - I mean, today, later today - when we fix Morgan and Kirsten. I mean, restore their minds… you know what I mean.”

    Walker chuckled. “Yes, Chuck.”

    The two left as well.

    John busied himself checking up on Petrova. The prisoner was sedated and secured in her cell. As was Hernandez. And Grimes and Bane as well.

    “Everything OK?” Caridad asked.

    “Yes:”

    “Then let’s go to bed as well.”

    “Someone has to stand guard,” he pointed out.

    She grinned. “I didn’t say I’d be sleeping, did I?”

    “You’d be distracted,” he shot back. And his shoulder would probably not survive having sex with a Slayer. Not if Faith was an example. He touched it with his good hand.

    She nodded, though pouting. “Rest and heal up, then.”

    *****​

    He woke up with something - someone - hugging him. With unnatural strength. He opened his eyes. Yes, he knew that hair. And those legs. “Caridad?”

    The hair moved, and she looked at him. “Yes?”

    He glanced at the alarm clock on the sideboard. Mid-morning.

    “Phil’s on guard,” she said. “So I decided to get some rest as well. You make for a good pillow.”

    He snorted almost against his will.

    “How’s your shoulder?”

    “I need a free arm to check,” he said.

    “Oh.” Giggling, she released his arm but didn’t roll off of him. She was wearing a shirt and panties, he noticed. And the bandage on her thigh was gone. As was the wound.

    Looking away, he gingerly touched his shoulder. “Better,” he said. He barely felt the pain.

    “But not yet good?”

    He tilted his head at her. “Almost.” He could handle the pain. Especially with adrenalin.

    “Mh.” She slid her bare leg over his thigh until her knee rested on his groin.

    He tensed. Which she noticed at once, of course - he saw her smile widen a little as her arm moved and she slid her hand over his stomach, staying below his taped arm. He took a deep breath in response but didn’t look away.

    She started to caress his skin without breaking eye contact. Challenging him. Daring him to look away. To flinch. To make up an excuse.

    He didn’t. He lifted his good arm and touched her face, cupping her cheek. Ran his thumb over her lips.

    She nipped at it and made a sound that was more growl than moan.

    Then she moved her leg again - her whole body. Straddling him. Pulled off her shirt.

    He bared his teeth at her, growling himself, and stopped holding back.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2020
  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 19: The New Employment
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 19: The New Employment

    Los Angeles, Silver Lake, April 24th, 2008

    Looking at the ceiling, John took a deep breath. His shoulder hurt, as he had known it would. And his ribs hurt as well, if not quite as bad as he had feared - Caridad knew her strength even when she was excited. Mostly. And his hips could take some squeezing. All in all, his body didn’t feel any worse than after a sparring match that got a little serious.

    A small price to pay for… He sighed as he looked at Caridad, who was sprawled out on top of him, cheek pressed against his chest. Well, they had done it. He had done it. And in the middle of a mission, not even after a mission, as a celebration.

    And he felt strangely unconcerned. After quitting the NSA - even if it wasn’t official yet - depriving them of intel, prisoners and recovered gear and all but formally joining a British secret organisation, having sex with a co-worker simply didn’t matter any more. He snorted - it shouldn’t have mattered before, not with everyone else on the team breaking that rule.

    “Hm?” Caridad was looking at him through half-lidded eyes.

    “I just thought that I was a fool for not doing this before.”

    She grinned at him. “Yes, you were. A stubborn fool.” She reached out and ran a finger over his lips, down his throat, over his chest. “But a handsome fool.”

    He grunted in agreement. Should he compliment her? Faith hadn’t wanted any ‘mushy talk’, but Caridad wasn’t her. On the other hand, she was also a Slayer.

    Before he could make up his mind, she added: “And my fool.” Her fingernails dug into his skin, lightly but noticeably. Possessively.

    Part of him wanted to protest out of reflex. Part of him liked it. He hadn’t felt like he belonged to anyone for a long time.

    “Slayer,” he said with a grin, cupping her cheek again.

    She leaned into his hand.

    Suddenly, she tensed, then frowned.

    “What’s wrong?” he asked, moving his hand towards his pillow, where he had stashed a gun.

    “Chuck’s calling for us.”

    “Oh.” So, the others knew. Well, they hadn’t exactly been discreet. Or silent. Or, he added as he looked at the room, especially at the clothes and parts of the furniture strewn around, very careful. “I guess we should get up, then.”

    She pouted.

    “I could use something to eat,” he said. “I’ve worked up an appetite.”

    That made her laugh, and she rolled off of him, then stretched, uncaring of her lack of clothes, yawning loudly. “Yes, food sounds good.” Sniffing the air, she frowned. “But we should shower first.”

    That took longer than expected, of course, but when they finally went down to the kitchen, no one seemed surprised at them being late, and the coffee was just finishing brewing. Real coffee, not some fancy yuppie stuff with more sugar than a Cuban plantation.

    While he grabbed a cup for himself, he noticed that Rosenberg was sullenly staring into her cup of tea. As if on cue, she sighed. “You know, tea is almost as bad as coffee. If you think caffeine is bad for you, of course.”

    “The keyword is ‘almost’,” Kennedy told her.

    Caridad frowned and stopped piling up more bacon on her sandwich. “No strong coffee for Willow, that’s the rule. No energy drinks, either.”

    “Unless it’s an emergency,” the witch protested.

    “Which this is not,” Kennedy said.

    “We can’t leave Morgan and Kirsten sedated much longer.”

    “They’re fine so far. We just checked,” Bartowski said. “And we’ll start, uh, fixing them in the afternoon.”

    That perked the witch up. “Yes!”

    “And then we can deal with Hernandez and Petrova,” John said.

    “We still don’t have proof that Federica is a spy,” Bartowski protested. “Petrova could’ve lied.”

    “We’ll find out,” John retorted. Between the brainwashing machine and magic, the spy would be revealed. He grabbed two pieces of toast and the few slices of bacon Caridad had left, and started eating. “And we need to decide what to do about Petrova.” And Hernandez, once she was proven to be a member of Fulcrum.

    “Uh…” Bartowski grimaced.

    “She’s too dangerous to be set free, and we can’t just imprison her forever,” Caridad said after swallowing a huge bite.

    “Uh, but we can… I don’t know, fix her?” Bartowski asked.

    “Fix her?” John raised his eyebrows. “With the brainwashing machine?” That was an option, of course.

    “No!” Rosenberg snapped. “That’s a slippery slope. You start doing a little fixing here and there, harmless stuff, just smoothing things over and avoiding arguments, and soon you can’t stop and start doing it to everyone. That’s how you get corrupted witches. Well, one of the ways. No fixing people by brainwashing them!”

    And that was it for that idea - John could see that no one would challenge Rosenberg over it.

    *****​

    “He said he’s half an hour out,” Bartowski announced, tapping on his phone. “But he said that fifteen minutes ago.”

    “Traffic in Los Angeles,” Caridad commented. “Not even super hacking skills will help against it.”

    “Actually, they would - you could simply… Oh.” And now the moron was pouting, even though it was his fault for not realising that the Slayer had been joking.

    John scoffed and checked his weapons again. One-handed - it was good training. And it would let his shoulder rest some more. He didn’t fancy getting medicaled out of the Council before he could officially join them.

    “Chuck, we’re still on schedule,” Walker told him.

    “As much as you can schedule a delicate operation you’ve never done before with equipment stolen from your enemies and the instructions taken from an uncooperative captive,” Rosenberg added. She was smiling brightly, but John didn’t think it improved Bartowski’s mood at all.

    “I know!” the guy spat. “I just want Morgan and Kirsten fixed. And Federica, too.”

    “If she needs fixing,” Walker added, and, for a moment, the two spies stared at each other.

    Then Bartowski sighed and sat down on a chair. Walker patted his shoulder, then went to the kitchen. Probably too busy herself until Bartowski accepted that sometimes, enemy spies were enemy spies. And had to be dealt with.

    John went back to his gun.

    *****​

    Almost exactly half an hour later, John saw Caridad, who had been lazying around with a magazine on the couch, freeze for a moment, turning her head towards the front door.

    And Kennedy, cuddling with Rosenberg in an armchair too small for the pair, showed a similar reaction.

    A little later, a car drove past the house, then set back and turned into the drive. John grabbed his assembled pistol, just in case, but Caridad gave the all-clear sign. “It’s Mr Bartowski.”

    And there was Orion, smiling in a restrained fashion. “Hello, everyone.” He nodded at them as he stepped inside. “Sorry for being late - traffic was hell. Not literally,” he added. “Chuck!”

    “Dad!”

    The two men hugged. Then Walker got hugged by Orion.

    “Willow, good to see you again!” The witch got a hug as well.

    John remained seated and merely nodded, Kennedy shook hands, and Caridad waved from the couch.

    “I’ve heard you’ve got some trouble involving a neurological interface.”

    “Yes! Not quite the Intersect’s system,” Bartowski replied, “but it affects the memory as well, so - sort of like the Intersect.”

    “That would be interesting. Dangerous but interesting.” Orion inclined his head.

    “I know, right?” Rosenberg said, nodding several times. “It’s not quite like magic, but there are similarities as well.”

    “Then let’s take a look at the machine, shall we?”

    “Yes, Dad.” Bartowski led his father down into the basement, already babbling with Rosenberg.

    John shook his head once the three had left. Nerds.

    That left him with Walker, Caridad and Kennedy. Brown-Smythe was resting upstairs.

    “So… once Morgan and Bane are fixed, what do we do about the spies?” Kennedy asked.

    “We don’t know yet whether Hernandez is a spy or a victim.” Walker, apparently, had decided to represent Bartowski’s views.

    “Assume that they are,” the Slayer added.

    “Make Petrova disappear and have Hernandez suffer an accident,” John said. Both knew too much, and Petrova’s knowledge and skills were too dangerous in the wrong hands.

    Kennedy nodded. “That’s what Giles thought. Can’t have anyone start mind-controlling people.”

    Someone in charge had a working brain then, John noted.

    Caridad nodded in agreement, and Walker didn’t contradict them.

    Good enough to seal the spies’ fates, in John’s estimate.

    *****​

    “So! We’ve checked and rechecked everything!” Rosenberg announced. “It all checked out. We didn’t run a test, though, since we lack an acceptable test subject. Not that running such machines on anyone - other than to reverse what was done to them - is morally acceptable, so that’s more a theoretical position. But,” she beamed, “we are ready to restore the mind of Morgan and Kirsten!”

    “As ready as we can be,” Bartowski added. “We’re treating Morgan first. He, uh, would’ve wanted it like that.”

    John suppressed the urge to call the moron names. Bane was still a potential leak or threat while Grimes was vetted, so they should’ve used her first. But pointing out the obvious wouldn’t change anyone’s mind - quite the contrary.

    “Let’s do it, then,” he said.

    “Yes. He should be waking up soon. Or he might be awake already,” Bartowski said.

    He was awake, as John found as Caridad opened the cell.

    “Hey, guys! What’s up? Did I get mind-whammied? I remember trying to fry you all.”

    “Yes, Morgan, you did,” Bartowski said.

    “Well, I’m feeling much better now. It’s all… like a haze that was lifted.” Grimes smiled weakly at them. “I’m so sorry.”

    “No worry, it wasn’t your fault. We’ll fix it?”

    “‘Fix it’? I’m fine, Chuck. Really!”

    Caridad picked the man up without taking the restraints off his wrists and ankles.

    The man gasped when he saw the machine waiting in the main room. “Guys, this isn’t necessary! I’m fine, really! Please!”

    Rosenberg grimaced and wasn’t looking at Grimes. Neither was Caridad or Walker, John noticed. And Bartowski was grimacing.

    But none moved to stop Caridad as she placed Grimes in the seat of the machine.

    This had to be done.

    Grimes kept begging even after his head was immobilised and the contacts placed on his temples.

    Then Rosenberg and the Bartowskis turned the machine on, and Grimes started screaming. The man struggled, trying to free himself, but Fulcrum had designed the machine with such attempts in mind. They probably had planned to use it on Slayers judging by the thickness of the restraints, though John didn’t think that the frame itself would keep if a Slayer really pulled on it.

    Speaking of Slayers… Caridad was pressing her lips together and looking at the wall behind Grimes. Perhaps he should offer her some support…

    He decided against it. He wasn’t Walker, and she wasn’t Bartowski. She didn’t need such gestures out of the blue. Instead, he kept looking at Grimes - as the only one in the room - until the man stopped screaming, met his eyes, and then closed them, apparently falling unconscious.

    “Chuck?” Walker asked.

    “It’s OK,” Rosenberg said. “That’s an expected side-effect of the treatment.”

    The witch didn’t sound as if she was completely convinced, though. But it was too late to stop anything. And, John knew, the alternative would be worse. You couldn’t leave Grimes a potential traitor - the risk was too great.

    “Alright,” he heard Bartowski mumble, “we’re starting now to undo the, uh, programming.”

    What had they done until then? John wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. At least it was a quiet affair now. Very quiet.

    And he couldn’t help feeling that it had been a good thing he hadn’t thought to offer Caridad his hand as he saw the Slayer trying to straighten out the railing of the staircase she had accidentally mangled.

    *****​

    After about an hour and a half, the mumbled chatter coming from the computers connected to the machine stopped, and Bartowski spoke up again: “Uh, I think, this is it.”

    “We should be done, yes,” Rosenberg agreed.

    “I don’t think there’s anything else that we can do any more.” Orion sounded a little too fatalistic, in John’s opinion.

    “So… let’s wake him up?” Caridad asked in a rather small voice.

    “He should be waking up automatically as the machine adjusts his brain activity back to normal, conscious levels,” Orion explained. “It’s a very user-friendly system, actually. Much different from the Intersect project, and obviously planned to be ultimately used by field agents.”

    “And it’s a very bad machine for facilitating such an abhorrent abuse of a person’s mental privacy!” Rosenberg added with a deep frown.

    “That goes without saying,” the old man replied.

    “I think it should be said,” the witch retorted.

    Bartowski interrupted the brewing argument by loudly clearing his throat. “So… Morgan?”

    Grimes was stirring and groaning. John saw him blinking, though it didn’t seem as if he was focusing on anything. “Chuck?”

    “Morgan! How do you feel?”

    “As if someone took my head and rammed it against a locker a few dozen times.”

    “Oh. Uh, do you remember the date?”

    “April… 22nd?”

    “Oh, no… something must have not… wait. Are you guessing? This isn’t a test, Morgan, we need to know what you remember!”

    “I remember spies attacking the base… and they kidnapped us. And I remember this chair, but you weren’t there, and… Holy Shit! Did they mindwipe me? Chuck, did they wipe my memories?”

    “Uh…” Bartowski grimaced. “Technically, we did that. They, uh, turned you. In a non-vampire way. So, we, uh, had to wipe everything after that, to get you back to normal.”

    John’s eyes widened. That was a logical solution in hindsight, but they hadn’t mentioned that before. That would be a shock for people who had been brainwashed months ago.

    “Oh.” Grimes blinked. “So, I’m… OK?”

    “Yes.”

    “You should be,” Rosenberg added.

    “Willow?”

    “Hi, Morgan!” She waved with a rather sheepish expression. “I’m so sorry for doing this, but it was the only way to save you!”

    “Uh… thanks?”

    “You shouldn’t suffer serious after-effects,” Orion told him.

    “Mr Bartowski? You didn’t implant the Intersect in my brain, did you?” Grimes sounded both horrified and excited at the same time, John noted.

    “No, no - we really just wiped your short-term memory,” Orion replied.

    “Uh… thanks. So… Can I get out of this now? Before it accidentally wipes more of my brain?”

    “Oh! Oh, of course!”

    John tensed as Bartowski hurried to release his friend. If this had just been an act… But they had a Slayer here, and another listening in a floor above them. Of course, Grimes would be aware of that, at least he’d know about Cariad’s capabilities, so even if he were still brainwashed, he’d not act rashly. Then again, this was Grimes...

    But the man didn’t try anything other than standing on wobbly legs with Bartowski’s help. “So… everything’s fine now…” He looked around, and his eyes widened. “Oh my God! Where’s Kirsten? Is she OK? Did something happen to her?”

    “Ah… we tried this on you, first. She’s next,” Bartowski explained.

    “Oh…” The man smiled with such obvious relief, John had to look away for the first time since this started.

    *****​

    Bane was a trained spy, so they took no chances with her - two Slayers grabbed and dragged her to the chair. As a trained spy in the know about the supernatural, she didn’t try anything, of course - it would’ve been futile. She didn’t say anything, either - just kept her mouth shut until the three nerds started the machine.

    At which point she started screaming.

    “Should’ve gagged her,” John mumbled.

    “I think Petrova liked the screams,” Caridad replied - of course, she had overheard him. “And, well…” she winced, then shrugged as Bane fell silent, dropping unconscious, “it feels wrong to gag your friends.”

    It also felt wrong to hear them scream, though. But another one and a half hour later, Bane was - supposedly - restored to normal. Or memory-wiped, depending on how you called it. She probably was leaning towards the latter, in John’s opinion, since she was hugging Grimes as if he was a life preserver during a landing operation gone south. It would have been a very moving sight if John were a bleeding heart liberal and they didn’t have an apocalypse to stop and a traitorous organisation to hunt down.

    And if it weren’t time for dinner. He cleared his throat. “We should grab a bite to eat before interrogating Hernandez.”

    “Before examining Federica,” Bartowski was quick to protest.

    John smiled at him. “Whatever. I’m hungry, and Caridad probably ran out of snacks already.”

    “Almost!” the Slayer confirmed with a grin. “I could do with more food, though.”

    “Me too!” Rosenberg chimed in. “And Ken must be starving.”

    The other Slayer had probably raided the kitchen and pantry. Not that Joh cared much - he had it stocked mostly with cheap food that kept. No big loss.

    “And we need to bake cookies, for everyone!”

    John didn’t stare at the witch, but he was tempted. Baking cookies?

    “Baking cookies?” Orion asked.

    “Yes. For everyone,” Rosenberg explained. She glanced at Grimes and Bane. “After all we went through - I mean, it was far worse for Morgan and Kirsten, but I think observing it, and, even worse, causing it, albeit indirectly since we were fixing what was done to you, but it was still quite the ordeal - I think we could all do with some fresh, yummy cookies.”

    And that was the most powerful witch in the Council? John suppressed a sigh. It was a very naive and transparent attempt to cheer up people.

    “Oh, yes! Chocolate cookies!” Morgan smiled.

    And, apparently, working.

    *****​

    Fortunately, even though Rosenberg insisted on cooking a ‘decent dinner’ instead of heating up some frozen food, she had chosen to cook spaghetti, so by the time dinner was done, the Slayers weren’t famished and ready to hold up a food truck. Although judging by the way their nostrils kept flaring whenever Rosenberg checked the pot with the sauce, John wouldn’t dream of trying to get between them and the food until they had their first serving. Possible their second serving as well.

    The actual meal wasn’t bad, though he’d have preferred meat in the sauce. Not that he’d tell Rosenberg that, of course.

    “And now: Cookies!” the witch announced as soon as the remains of the meal had been cleared off the table - Caridad was eating the last pasta directly out of the bowl while she carried it to the kitchen.

    The cookies she presented were good. Really good. But once they were gone - which hadn’t taken long at all - it was time to get back to business. Spy business.

    “How do you want to do this?” John asked.

    That apparently ruined the mood at the table, but he didn’t care much. This had to be done.

    “Uh… check her for mental modification?” Bartowski said, as if it were obvious.

    “And if there’s no trace?” John looked at him.

    “Uh… absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence…”

    “Unless there should be evidence,” Orion pointed out, “And in this case, I think we will be able to find evidence. If there is any to find, of course.”

    Bartowski shot a look at his father as if he had been stabbed in the back.

    “And what if she was mentally manipulated?” Walker asked. “Do we wipe her memory?”

    “Err. It was just a few days for us, and most of that we slept,” Grimes said. “But it would be weeks for her.”

    “It’d be better for her than being a programmed killer.” Bane’s shrug looked a little forced.

    “And it would be better for us if we didn’t have to deal with a killer programmed to go after us,” John reminded the rest of the actual stakes. “Or after our friends and families.”

    That sobered the group up, as far as he could tell. Brown-Smythe nodded in agreement. “If Miss Hernandez was put under mind control, then removing her memory seems to be the most gentle course of action. And it will protect our secrets as well.”

    No one seemed to have a retort to that. Well, Bartowski mumbled something about the morality of wiping out what might have become a personality in her own right, but not even Grimes cared about that.

    Half an hour later, the point was moot anyway - the nerds hadn’t found any traces of mental manipulation in Hernandez’s brain. And Bartowski had tried his hardest, from what John could tell.

    John didn’t smile upon being proven right. Not until he met the spy’s eyes glaring at him.

    Gotcha.

    “So you are a Fulcrum spy!” Caridad spat, glaring back at Hernandez.

    “We don’t know that. Not yet,” Rosenberg objected. “Although all evidence - or lack thereof - so far points to that conclusion, mainly since she was helping Fulcrum several times without being forced to through brainwashing. In theory, she could be working as a double agent infiltrating Fulcrum.” John wasn’t the only one looking at the witch as if she had lost her mind, and she blushed. “I’m just mentioning the possibilities, here!”

    John glanced at Bartowski. The moron was shaking his head, with Walker trying to comfort him. John hoped that the guy would finally learn that you couldn’t trust anyone as a spy.

    “The implications are pretty clear,” Orion said. “And we’re not a jury.”

    Hernandez was still glaring at them. As John had suspected, she was a very good spy. Probably one of Fulcrum’s best, to be picked for this assignment. Although she could’ve just been the best match for Bartowski’s likely type and age range.

    “How many people did you fool and then kill with the innocent girl act?” he wondered aloud.

    Bartowski jerked, finally staring at the spy with wide eyes.

    And Hernandez snorted. “Enough.”

    “But…”

    “She’s a veteran spy, Chuck,” Walker cut in. “Probably older than she looks.”

    Another snort. Was Hernandez breaking down, knowing she had nothing to lose any more? Or did she have an angle? She didn’t know about magic, so she might think she was merely facing an enhanced interrogation. Would she try to make a deal?

    “You think this is funny?” Caridad snarled.

    “I had almost all of you fooled,” Hernandez shot back. “You’d have been fooled as well if you hadn’t had the hots for the old man.”

    “What? I don’t have the hots for Phil!”

    John had to smirk. A cheap shot that had missed. “What matters,” he said, baring his teeth, “is that we caught you. And you’ll be telling us everything you know about Fulcrum.”

    “You’re going to brainwash me.”

    “Of course not!” Rosenberg gasped. “We wouldn’t do such a thing - that would be a terrible violation of, well, your mind! Not to mention the trauma that it would cause to Morgan and Kirsten!”

    Who were upstairs. Probably in a bedroom hugging each other.

    Hernandez frowned at the witch, as much as she managed with her head immobilised, then looked at John again. “Is she trying to play good cop?” she asked, voice dripping with scorn.

    “No, she’s a good witch,” Bartowski spoke up.

    “And you don’t want to meet bad witches. That would be very bad,” Rosenberg went on.

    “Witches.”

    “Yes, witches.” Now Rosenberg was frowning. “You shouldn’t be so derisive of other people’s faith.”

    “A witch? Scraping the bottom of the barrel, Agent Casey?” Hernandez scoffed. “Couldn’t find any sane specialists you could trust, hm?”

    “I’m not a specialist,” Rosenberg pouted. “Just because I’m a skilled witch doesn’t mean I can’t do anything else.”

    “Specialisation is for insects,” Bartowski added.

    “That’s not exactly true. Modern civilisation does require specialisation - although only to a certain degree. And many research groups focus on interdisciplinary exchanges,” Rosenberg explained. “It also depends on individual talents, of course - not everyone is suited for every career.”

    Hernandez laughed. Was she trying to provoke them into killing her? Why would she be doing this? Did Fulcrum have true believers who’d rather die than betray the organisation, or did Hernandez’s superiors have enough leverage on her to force such loyalty?

    Rosenberg pouted again, then held out her hand, and, once more, a pen started to float in front of her, quickly moving over to Hernandez.

    “Magic exists, Miss Spy,” Rosenberg told her. “And witches such as myself can wield it.”

    “And we’ll use it to find out everything you know,” John added.

    Looking at the suddenly gaping enemy spy, he smiled. As much as magic made him wary - which was a completely rational stance - Hernandez’s reaction was fun to watch.

    *****​

    “...and do you know any other Fulcrum members except those you already mentioned?”

    “No.”

    “Any other Fulcrum bases that you haven’t mentioned yet?”

    “No.”

    John stifled a yawn. It was past midnight already - time flew if you were interrogating an enemy spy with the help of magic. But he was wrapping it up. They had names and locations. Hernandez’s accomplices and superiors. The bases she knew. And her operational history with Fulcrum - which had been as bloody and ruthless as John had expected. Bartowski hadn’t liked hearing that at all. But hearing her plans for him and his family had been worse.

    There was one thing left.

    “Do you know Fulcrum’s goals?”

    “No.”

    “Do you care about their goals?”

    “No.”

    “Why are you working for them?”

    “For the money and the power.”

    Like all other Fulcrum operatives they had been able to interrogate so far. John shook his head. He would have almost preferred some true believers no matter their actual beliefs. Selling out your country for profit? How low could you sink?

    *****​

    After sedating Hernandez again and locking her up, they met up in the living room, which was now pretty crowded. John leaned against the wall next to the door, arms crossed, as he studied the others. Bartowski was sitting at the table, typing rapidly on a laptop. Across from him, Orion did the same.

    John suppressed the urge to shake his head. Like that, it was impossible to miss the resemblance of the two men. He glanced at Bane, who was on the couch with Grimes. She was looking, no, staring at the two Bartowskis - the spy hadn’t missed that, despite still being rattled from her ordeal. Grimes leaned over, and the two started whispering. Orion had been presented as a member of the Watchers Council and Chuck’s dad, but Bane looked as if she suspected that there was something hidden from her. Well, they would have to settle this sooner or later anyway.

    He looked at the kitchen, where Caridad and Kennedy were scarfing down a ‘late-night snack’ that would have fed a marine fireteam for a day. Once the Slayers were fed, then. Tempers were already a little frayed from the interrogations.

    The only one who seemed perfectly at ease was Brown-Smythe, and the limey had one of the best poker faces John had ever seen - he couldn’t tell at all what the other man was really feeling. Then again, if you were regularly dealing with apocalypses, uncovering a spy ring bent on subverting the CIA and NSA probably didn’t rattle you much.

    And he already knew that the old Watcher didn’t baulk at doing what was needed. Nor did Orion. He was tempted to start the discussion but refrained from doing so. It was better to leave that to others.

    After about five minutes, Bartowski looked up. “I’ve checked the information we got, and it looks legit. The Intersect confirmed a few items, too.” He took a deep breath. “I think we got the leader of Fulcrum identified.”

    John drew a sharp breath. Hernandez hadn’t known Fulcrum’s leader, but with the Intersect… “How reliable is this?” he asked.

    “I flashed.” Bartowski shrugged. “So… pretty reliable?” He tapped a key on his computer. “Bart Spencer. Retired analyst for the CIA.”

    Walker’s gasp made everyone look at her. “I know him. He taught a course in data analysis.”

    And didn’t try to recruit her? He probably knew that she was fiercely loyal to the Director.

    “He was in a great position to build Fulcrum,” Walker went on. “As a veteran data analyst, he would have access to all the data he wanted, and he knew a lot of people. And he wasn’t on anyone’s radar - just a man good at his job, unlikely to rise further.”

    That might have been what made him start his own organisation, of course. People who were denied what they saw as their due - like a promotion - were more easily turned. Or corrupted.

    “Fulcrum has a lot of field agents from the agency. Not so many data analysts,” Bane pointed out.

    “I think they have more data analysts than we thought,” Bartowski said. “And Spencer would’ve been able to manipulate data as well - foster resentment by playing up some rifts and such. Portray someone’s achievements in a worse light…”

    John scoffed. “Enough about the methods. We need to get him and find out what he knows.” If the analyst really was Fulcrum’s leader, then John doubted that he’d have shown good spy skills and kept the organisation fragmented without anyone, not even himself, knowing all other members. No, he probably had some central data archive that he used personally. Both to keep the traitors from turning against him and to plan his next steps

    “Well, I’ve got his official address - he lives in Langley,” Bartowski said.

    Of course he’d live next to the CIA Headquarters - he had worked there for decades, after all.

    “So we go and get him!” Caridad blurted out with an eager grin.

    “That’s his official address. I’m sure he’s got other houses,” Bartowski said.

    “He’s frequently travelling according to his credit card history,” Orion added.

    A good cover for absences, and not suspicious for a retired analyst who might have dreamed of exotic countries and of visiting all the locations he only ever read about.

    “Where is he then?”

    “We’ll find out,” Bartowski said.

    “We need to be quick, though - once the base we raided doesn’t report in…” Walker had a grim expression.

    “We’re doing what we can,” Bartowski replied - a little peeved.

    “I’m quite optimistic about our chances to find Spencer’s whereabouts,” Orion said with a faint smile. “I’m aware of his tricks now.”

    Bane stiffened. “I didn’t know that you worked for the CIA.”

    “I did some work as a consultant,” Orion replied, raising his eyebrows. “Top-Secret, I believe.”

    “So secret that it wasn’t in his file,” Bane replied. She looked at Brown-Smythe and back to Orion. “And you aren’t a Watcher. You’re a computer specialist.”

    “We have computer specialists in the Council!” Rosenberg protested.

    Bane ignored her. “You were responsible for building the Intersect, weren’t you? That’s why Chuck’s got it.”

    It really didn’t pay to underestimate a spy, John reminded himself.

    “Uh…” Bartowski blinked. He might as well have confirmed Bane’s accusation.

    “You called him in to help with the… with Fulcrum’s machine,” Bane went on. “He’s not just a computer tech, but also knows about brain interfaces.”

    They could explain that by claiming he had come with Rosenberg as part of the Council. But the damage was already done. John looked at Walker. She knew it as well. As did Orion.

    The older man smiled wryly. “Indeed. I only recently joined the Council. I created the Intersect, but left before it was completed when I became aware of plans to use my family as leverage against me.”

    “And you killed your entire team!” Bane stared at him.

    “They killed themselves when they decided to use the Intersect without really understanding it,” Orion retorted. “Frankly, they should have known better than to experiment with their own brains, but…” He sighed and shrugged. “We were all a little crazy.”

    “You also decided to experiment with your own brain,” Bartowski blurted out.

    Orion nodded at him “I did. I just said that all of us were a little crazy, didn’t I?”

    More than a little, in John’s opinion.

    “And you hid from the CIA…”

    “From everyone. I only met Chuck and Ellie a few months ago.” He looked straight at Bane. “The CIA cannot be allowed to get ahold of my work. If anything, Fulcrum’s suborning of so many spies has proven that.”

    “If Fulcrum had both their brainwashing machine and the Intersect, they could turn anyone, any civilian, into a sleeper agent with superb spy skills,” Walker said.

    “And we already know that the CIA trusted the wrong people, so if they had the Intersect, we’d have Fulcrum spies with it,” Rosenberg added.

    “And the Council can be trusted?” Bane retorted. Grimes was just sitting next to her, probably feeling too guilty to say anything, John noted.

    “The Watchers have had traitors and corrupted members in the past,” Brown-Smythe said. “But the current Council has, so far, held up admirably.”

    Rosenberg blushed. “Well, it helps that we, uh, don’t need the Intersect. Not really need, I mean. It would be nice to use it to implant combat skills into Watchers - well, theoretically, since messing with people’s minds is never a good thing, even if they volunteer, because that way lies a slippery slope which leads to badness - but the Intersect doesn’t really cover fighting demons, so it wouldn’t really help that much. Well, the basic skills would help, but you’d still need training applying them to demons, and firearms don’t work as well as melee weapons, and there are so many Slayers around, we don’t really need lots of Watchers to fight where the Slayer couldn’t go, and trying to modify the database so it covers demons, while a very interesting and totally theoretical concept, has its own risk since some of the books used to study demons are kinda dangerous, and if they were part of a computer program directly implanted onto the brains of people, that could end up with a viral possession or even spawning multiple demons.”

    John blinked. Not even Bartowski and Grimes going on about video games had managed to babble so much.

    “Uh…” Bane looked lost. Not that John felt like he had followed everything Rosenberg had spewed forth.

    “Long story short: We’re aware that the Intersect could be useful, but it wouldn’t be worth the added trouble it could bring,” Kennedy said. “I wouldn’t rule out using it in a pinch to save the world, but it’s not going to be standard procedure.”

    “Exactly,” Orion said. “My work with the Intersect will focus on Chuck, but I’ll be pursuing other areas of research most of the time.” He smiled. “There are fascinating fields to cover.”

    Rosenberg nodded like an enthusiastic puppy. “Oh, yes! With the Internet extending its coverage all over the world, I think it’s only a matter of time until demons take advantage of that. Both as a tool, but, ultimately, also as a way to spread.”

    “We wouldn’t want to prove the religious fanatics claiming that the internet is the devil right.” Orion chuckled.

    John didn’t think that literal computer demons were amusing, and, judging by their expressions, neither did most of the others present in the room, but this wasn’t the time or place to discuss it. What matters was Bane’s reaction. Finding out that she hadn’t been trusted with Orion’s secret, while everyone else was…

    The spy was still looking at Orion. “So, you met them all before I was sent here?”

    “I’d say before you became family,” the older man corrected her.

    “Ah. “ Bane looked like she didn’t know if she should be mad or pleased about that. Or that’s what she wanted them to think she was an excellent infiltrator, after all.

    But she hadn’ let them down so far, either. And she’d had multiple occasions.

    “We were planning to tell you before, ah, changing employers,” Morgan said. “But there never seemed to be a good time, and Mr Bartwoski was rarely around, so…” He shrugged. “Sorry.”

    Bane nodded, though a little hesitantly. There would be trouble in paradise for a while, or so it seemed.

    “So!” Rosenberg spoke up with a wide smile after a moment, “Welcome to the Council? Formally, I mean. I think we can do that, I mean, I can do that.”

    Bane snorted, then smiled. A little. “I guess so.”

    John nodded. It wasn’t as if they had many choices left.

    *****​
     
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 20: The Traitor Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 20: The Traitor Part 1

    Los Angeles, Silver Lake, April 24th, 2008

    “You’re joining up officially? Great!” Rosenberg exclaimed, beaming at them. “We’ll have to celebrate that! Once I’ve got the paperwork done!”

    John refrained from rolling his eyes. “We still have to catch Spencer,” he reminded the witch. “And we need to decide what we do with Petrova and Hernandez.”

    That killed the mood - everyone stopped smiling. Well, someone had to be the bad guy here.

    “Uh…” Bartowski apparently lost the guts to say what he wanted to say after he had already opened his mouth.

    “They know too much to hand them over to the CIA,” Walker said. Bartowski shot her a betrayed look, but the spy didn’t acknowledge it.

    “I agree,” Orion said. Of course he’d say that. “We can’t let this technology get out.”

    “But you can’t stop such things!” Bartowski protested. “Sooner or later, knowledge does leak!”

    Not always, John thought. In some of his missions, he had ensured that some knowledge remained buried for all time.

    “You can’t live forever, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying to survive as long as possible,” Caridad retorted. Quite a morbid example, but that was probably a Slayer thing.

    “Within reason,” Rosenberg remarked. “There are means to prolong your life that are über-bad and shouldn’t be used at all.”

    “I wasn’t talking about magic, but about fighting,” Caridad told her.

    “Well, magic can be used to fight as well…” the witch started to reply.

    Kennedy cut her off. “We know what you mean, and we agree,” she said. “Releasing this technology is not acceptable.”

    “But killing them is?” Bartowski asked.

    “They’ve committed enough capital crimes to have earned it,” Bane cut in. She wrapped her arms around herself. “And the things they could do if they escaped…”

    “And we can’t keep them imprisoned,” Kennedy said. “We can’t spare the people, and it’s not cheap either.”

    “Killing them to save money doesn’t seem, uh…” Bartowski trailed off under the Slayer’s glare, but he had made his point.

    “Money saved saves more people,” Brown-Smythe said, “but it shouldn’t be the decisive factor. However, I do not believe that Profesor Petrova is worth saving, so to speak. She has murdered dozens of people out of the selfish desire to perfect an inherently immoral technology. A technology, nota bene, which she has kept at least partially proprietary - no doubt to protect her position within Fulcrum. If she dies, she will take crucial knowledge about her mind control technology into the grave.”

    “And we’ll take steps so she won’t end up as a ghost so bad guys can’t summon her to pick her ghostly brain,” Rosenberg said.

    John glanced around. Pretty much everyone was nodding.

    “But Federica - Hernandez - isn’t a mad scientist,” Bartowski went on. “She knows about magic, but…”

    “She’s an assassin who almost killed me,” John said. He glared at the moron.

    “Yes, but… is that a reason to kill her? When we’ve already beaten her?” Bartowski’s weak smile flattered completely while he realised that many people would answer that question with ‘yes’.

    “Can’t we, uh… delete her memory until she’s, like… a teenager again? Sort of give her a second chance at life? Fake an accident to explain the loss of memory?”

    “And have Fulcrum’s remnants pick her up? Or the CIA? They’d realise what was done to her,” John retorted.

    “Uh…” Bartowski grimaced. “We could give her a new identity?”

    “That costs money and favours,” Kennedy said.

    Grimes spoke up. “Also, the memory wouldn’t be deleted - it’d just be, like, there, but not accessible. Not easily. But it’d still be there.” He cleared his throat. “I’ve experienced this, remember?”

    “You mean she’d be aware of having her memories deleted?” Rosenberg asked. “But unable to do anything about it? Like a locked-in syndrome? Just with possession?” She sounded appalled.

    “I’m not certain,” Grimes replied. “But…” He shrugged. “Something was there.”

    “It would be damn cruel to do that,” Caridad said.

    “And,” Grimes went on, “can we, I mean, should we, create life like that?”

    “Create life?” Bartowski asked.

    “Well, she’d be a different person. Not really the Federica we knew - although that was just an act, anyway.”

    The moron had a point. A weak one, though.

    “So… can we destroy one life and replace it with one of our choosing?”

    “Can we let her potentially suffer, without any way to escape?” Caridad added.

    “Guys, you’re arguing that we should kill her out of mercy?” Bartowski looked shocked.

    “I’m saying: Kill her to save ourselves,” John corrected him.

    “Oh.”

    “All in favour of killing, for whatever reason, raise your hand?” Rosenberg looked around, her one hand raised. “Not that this is, technically, a democracy, but we’re living in one.”

    John raised his hand. As did Caridad. And Bane, Walker, Caridad, Orion, Brown-Smythe, Kennedy, and Grimes.

    Bartowski stared, shaking his head. But the verdict was clear.

    John nodded and pushed off the wall. Best get it done so they could focus on catching Spencer.

    “Casey…”

    He stopped and looked over his shoulder at Bartowski.

    The other man stared at him, grimaced, then slumped and looked away.

    John scoffed and left the room, then continued towards the stairs to the basement. The moron was still too soft. Sometimes, you had to spill blood. As a spy - or, as was apparent, as a Watcher.

    In the basement, he grabbed a roll of plastic sheets from the corner. Before he could move to Petrova’s cell, though, he heard steps on the stairs. It wasn’t Bartowski, and it was too loud for a Slayer. Walker wouldn’t leave Bartowski right now. A glance confirmed that it was Bane.

    She took a look at the plastic sheets. “You gonna shoot them?”

    “No.” That would be unprofessional. You didn’t leave potential traces such as a bullet or blood if you could help it. And you didn’t leave body bags in a safe house. Plastic sheets had other uses, after all.

    She nodded.

    “You want to do it?” he asked.

    She shook her head. “I just want to… watch. I’ll fetch Rosenberg to do whatever she needs to do to prevent ghosts.”

    He nodded in return as he pulled on plastic gloves. He could understand that, though in her place, he’d want to do the killing himself. And he probably picked a more violent method than suffocation.

    Twenty minutes later, the bodies were starting to dissolve in the acid bath in the other part of the basement.

    *****​

    Bartowski wasn’t in the living room when John returned. Neither was Walker, but that was to be expected. Grimes had been waiting for Bane, and the two quickly left for their room. Rosenberg and Kennedy were in a video conference with London at the table, with Brown-Smythe hovering behind them. And Caridad...

    “Done?” she asked.

    “Yes. The bodies will take some time to dissolve, though.” Someone else would have to deal with the remains since they needed to get to Langley quickly.

    “Ah.” She nodded curtly. Then she grinned. “Let’s go to bed.”

    He nodded in return. She didn’t seem to be bothered about him killing the two spies.

    There were definite advantages to dating a Slayer.

    *****​

    Langley, Virginia, April 25th, 2008

    Spencer’s house looked exactly what one would expect of a retired data analyst’s home: It was perfectly average compared to the neighbours, with a neatly mowed lawn and a well-kept fence. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Even the flagpole at the drive was neither too small nor too big.

    It was a little too perfect. John shook his head as he lowered the binoculars.

    “It doesn’t look like he’s home,” Caridad commented from the backseat.

    “He isn’t. According to the postal office’s records, his mail is being held back for this and the next month. And his voice mail claims that he’s vacationing in Florida,” Bartowski added, not looking up from his computer.

    John nodded. “Good.” That would make breaking into the house easier.

    “He’s got good security,” Walker said. “That’s not a civilian camera. CIA issue, although not the latest model.”

    Again, as would be expected of a retired CIA analyst.

    “He probably has a top of the line system as well,” Bartowski said.

    In Spencer’s place, John wouldn’t have installed such a system. He’d have kept the house completely unremarkable, apart from one or two eccentricities, and would have built an actual home and base somewhere else. But he was betting that Spencer loved ‘hiding under the CIA’s nose’. “Nothing we can’t handle,” he said.

    “Yes. I’m more concerned about the other retired CIA employees living in this street,” Walker said. “Miller is among them.”

    John closed his eyes. Paranoia-Pat Miller. That man would have wired the entire street just so no one could sneak up on him.

    “Miller?” Bartowski asked.

    “He’s a former CIA field agent. After the KGB tried to off him on a vacation, he got really paranoid. In his last years with the agency, they pretty much just gave him assignments to keep him busy because he couldn’t work with anyone any more,” Walker explained.

    “Oh! Do you think he has useful data on Spencer?”

    That was just such a Bartowski thing to ask. John shook his head. “He wouldn’t trust us,” he told the moron.

    “Really? But if we explained things to him...”

    “Yes, Chuck. I’ve met the man,” Walker said. “He doesn’t trust anyone.”

    “Oh.”

    “We’ll have to be extra careful then,” Caridad said. “Nothing new. And we’ve got Willow. And Kennedy, I guess. Not that we need her.”

    Slayers.

    *****​

    A few hours later, they were ready. Usually, John would have favoured a daylight operation, but with Spencer living in a community mostly populated by retirees, who would be at home during the day and go to bed early - on average - this was safer.

    Not safe, of course, not with a number of those retired people having worked for the CIA. Like Miller. The paranoid old coot could be a major problem - or an unwitting asset. They’d see which one would be true soon.

    John switched his headset on. “Point one. Moving to the target.”

    “Uh, Surveillance One. Copy, Point One.” Bartowski was back to normal - at least he sounded like it.

    “Reserve One. Copy Point One.” Kennedy sounded still angry about her not taking part in the actual entry, but she wasn’t needed, and John could do without the friction of having two Slayers on the same team.

    He restrained from scoffing with the microphone open. Slayer hearing would pick it up, and Kennedy would draw the correct conclusions.

    He quickly moved through the backyards of two retired insurance managers. The many ugly oversized statues in their backyards provided ample cover for him and Caridad - according to Bartowski, the two old men continued their rivalry after retirement and had settled on lawn art collections as their battlefield of choice.

    Whatever. Now came the hard part: the direct neighbour of Spencer was a retired bank manager, and Spencer had upgraded his security system as a welcome gift - no doubt installing his own access into it as he had it upgraded.

    Well, John had dealt with worse. “Motion detector ahead,” he whispered. Supposedly deactivated - no one wanted to wake up the neighbourhood every time a racoon felt like checking the trash - but it was linked to other sensors cleverly set up with overlapping fields of coverage. The security system designer knew their job.

    But they didn’t know Slayers, and what they could do.

    “Going in!” Caridad replied, a little too eagerly, and a second later, she dashed past him and jumped.

    None of the sensors and cameras covered the air above them, and Caridad easily cleared them, landing in a blind spot right outside Spencer’s backyard. A little work with wires later, Bartowski had access to the system.

    The nerd took a bit longer than planned, but after ten minutes, the security system wouldn’t register a tank driving through the backyard, much less a spy, and John joined Caridad. She sniffed the air. “Some fresh plastic smell. Wires.”

    Updated or additional sensors? It probably didn’t really matter. John took out a periscope and stuck it through the hedgerow to check Spencer’s backyard. This one sported the same integrated security as his neighbour’s. Once again, clever, but not clever enough. Given time, John could work his way through it easily.

    But they didn’t need time. Not with a good plan. “Point One. Start the diversion.”

    “Diversion One. Copy.” Bane sounded calm and professional, but John could hear Grimes in the background, gleefully saying ‘yes!’.

    “Diversion Two. Painting the target now!” Grimes announced over the radio.

    John had no idea where Miller had acquired a laser warning system that should have been installed on an armoured fighting vehicle. Nor did he know how the man had wired it to a Soviet-era chaff launcher he had apparently picked up on one of his missions.

    But he knew that it had gone off six months ago when a neighbour had played around with a slightly too powerful laser rangefinder. Miller had been forced to reduce the system’s sensitivity, but Grimes was using an actual laser target designator - exactly the thing the system had been designed to defeat.

    John grinned when clouds of chaff and flares started to arc through the sky, landing on the street and in yards. “Now!” he whispered. A moment later, Caridad drew her arm back and two small objects flew into Spencer’s backyard. One filled the entire area in smoke, the other lit it up.

    With the house’s sensors blinded by what would be seen as Miller’s out of control chaff launcher, it was child’s play to cross the yard and break into the house. The security sensors at the door actually made it even easier - as soon as John had cracked them, Bartowski took over the entire system, and Caridad and John slipped through the kitchen door into Spencer’s home.

    Or not home - it didn’t look like he lived here for any length of time. Spencer had left the right touches, of course. Magazines on the couch. A glass in the sink. A spice rack with a few cans in need of replenishing.

    But it looked, it felt, artificial. Like the pictures in a catalogue. No, Spencer didn’t really live here.

    But that didn’t matter. They weren’t here for him, but for his hair. More precisely, the hair he would have left in his brush to show that this was his home - he wouldn’t bother with fake hair since the CIA had his DNA on file already. And if anyone wanted to frame him for something and broke into his house, they could easily plant something right here.

    But a little hair was all Rosenberg would need to find his actual home. Or base.

    *****​

    Langley, Virginia, April 26th, 2008

    “Florida? Spencer is in Florida?” Bartowski sounded scandalised. But then, he had just woken up to the news that Rosenberg had finished her magical tracking. “Just as he told the postal office?”

    “That makes a lot of sense - it has a lot of retirement communities,” Walker said. “Another man his age wouldn’t draw attention.”

    “But… there is a thing such as being too average,” Bartowski complained. “And telling the postal office?”

    “It worked for him, didn’t it?” John said.

    “He’s certainly not living in a retirement home,” Rosenberg said. “Look at this!” She pointed at the laptop in front of her, then turned it around with a sheepish grin. “He’s got his own island!”

    And it looked like a decently sized one, John saw when he compared the size of the golf cars on the picture with the rest of the island. Not enough room for a golf course, but you wouldn’t fall into the sea as soon as you stepped off the porch. Enough trees and underbrush to provide privacy for Spencer - or concealment for infiltrators.

    “Is this his villa, or could he just be a guest there?” Bane asked.

    “Oh, it’s his.” Rosenberg perked up. “After tracking him with a spell using the hair you recovered and finding this island - and I had to sift through a lot of pictures before I found it, mind you; the key was the treeline at the northern edge, that has a distinctive form - Mr Bartowski and I ran checks on the owner. There were a lot of strawmen, of course, and it was cleverly disguised as a tax-avoidance scheme - which makes it doubly-evil, I guess - but we managed - well, mostly Mr Bartowski; I looked into a Bahamas connection that, ultimately, turned out to be a simple off-shore account that must be where he hides his profits - that he controls the whole chain.”

    “Breathe, Willow,” Kennedy said with a smile.

    “Sorry! But this is really exciting! Spencer really knows how to avoid his tracks - we would have never found him starting from his official records. Fortunately, he didn’t count for magic. And fortunately, he was on his island when I cast the spell.”

    “You could’ve cast the spell a few more times, couldn’t you?” Grimes asked. “Track all his holdings?”

    “Uh… we kind of used a little more hair than we planned to,” Rosenberg said, looking embarrassed. “But I said fortunately since we got called back to London for the big anti-Aztec-apocalypse spell. Sorry.”

    “Oh.” Bartowski blinked. “Uh, I guess that’s… good news? Because that means we’ll be able to stop the apocalypse without more bad things happening?”

    “That’s the plan, yes.” Rosenberg nodded emphatically. “But it means I need to go back to merry old England and can’t help you with the big bad spy. Further help you, I mean. And that is bad. I feel like I’m letting you down, even though I knew this could happen.”

    “We can handle Spencer,” Caridad said. “You did enough already!”

    “Yes,” Bartowski added. “We can handle him. He’s just a retired guy in a villa.”

    “About that…” Rosenberg looked sheepish again. “I also tracked the amount of construction materials used when the villa was remodelled a few years ago.”

    Bartowski groaned. “Too much concrete?”

    “Way too much,” the witch confirmed.

    “What’s with spies and underground bunkers?” the moron complained. “Hiding in a bunker never works out.”

    “They work when you’ve got help coming,” John told him. As long as the enemy didn’t use laser-guided bunker busters dropped by a stealth bomber, but that was another subject.

    “Uh. Right. So, how do we crack that bunker?”

    “Preferably, we catch him before he can hole up there,” Walker said. “Getting onto the island shouldn’t be too difficult.”

    John nodded. It was notoriously difficult to install security in the water. Once you were on the island, though... every inch would be wired, John was sure of it. And since they were on a private island, Spencer’s people didn’t have to worry about accidentally shooting neighbours. Or pets. On the other hand, John and his team didn’t have to worry about collateral damage, either. Other than making sure to take Spencer alive.

    “But the security will be tight,” Bartowski said.

    “If we get discovered, then this might be worse than the D-Day mission,” Grimes added.

    John rolled his eyes. Bloody nerd. “No security is perfect. We can do this.” They had to, anyway.

    “It’s not as if he has trained killer alligators,” Bartowski joked. Badly.

    “He has several dogs, though,” Rosenberg said. “Large ones. At least according to the bills for food.”

    John scoffed. They could handle dogs.

    *****​

    Florida, North of Miami, April 27th, 2008

    John frowned as he put on the wetsuit, his shoulder hurting a little - it wasn’t fully healed, yet. But it would do. Changing clothes in the open door of an SUV wasn’t helping, of course - but Spencer would be keeping an eye out for boats and yachts. Even the zodiac they had bought might have raised a lag, had they done so in Florida.

    “You alright?” Caridad whispered next to him.

    He bit down on the irritation. “Yes.” He was the most qualified underwater infiltrator, anyway. Bartowski had the Intersect’s skills, but not much practical experience. Walker and Bane had the training but usually used alternative methods to infiltrate islands. Methods involving bikinis, not wetsuits. Caridad was a supernatural athlete, but not a trained spy. And Grimes would guard the car.

    She nodded, making a noise that was neither agreement nor disagreement.

    “Aren’t we rushing this a little?” he heard Grimes ask next to the other car. “I mean… usually, you study the target a little longer, right?”

    “The longer we wait, the greater the danger that Spencer will realise that we’re coming for him after having captured Hernandez,” Bane replied.

    John nodded. They had taken a few measures to explain Hernandez’s failure to report in - making it appear that she was with them still, having fooled them after the attack on the Fulcrum base - but the deception wouldn’t last too long. Spencer was the mastermind behind Fulcrum, after all.

    “But…” Grimes trailed off. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

    He was a Watcher, not a spy. And a damn nerd. John scoffed as he put the diving belt on. “We have satellite surveillance, pictures, blueprints, and maps.” All of them studied at length during the trip down south. “We’ve done more with less.”

    “At greater risk,” Walker cut in.

    “There’s always a risk on every mission,” John retorted. “And the danger of Spencer escaping is worth the risk.” Especially with Rosenberg back in London, unable to redo the spell.

    “If we encounter trained guard sharks, I’ll refrain the right to say I told you so,” Bartowski said. He was already in his wetsuit, holding the diving flippers in one hand and a waterproof backpack in the other. Walker must have helped him.

    “Let’s go,” John said. If they struck out now, they’d reach the island around one in the morning - a good time to hit a base. Most would already be sleeping.

    *****​

    John hadn’t used this particular model of an underwater sledge before - they had had to buy civilian ones - but after a brief time spent familiarising himself with it, he had no trouble steering the thing. The compass worked, as did the gyroscope navigation system. No wonder - both of them were CIA gear. So he had no trouble compensating for the currents that tried to push them off course as they made their way underwater towards the island. Contrary to Bartowksi’s fears, they didn’t encounter any sharks - trained or not - until they were close enough to the island to ditch the sledges on the seabed. It wouldn’t do to leave them on the beach, after all.

    He stopped the sledge and let it settle on the seabed after switching to his own oxygen tank, looking round for his team. Caridad was right next to him, giving him an OK signal. Bartowski and Walker were a little behind, but the nerd was already steering their sledge towards them. Bane…

    He narrowed his eyes behind the diving mask. Had she gotten lost? No, there she was, behind the other two. Even less experience with underwater infiltrations than John had expected, then. Not that it mattered now.

    John waited until the third sledge was safely on the seabed, half-buried in the sand, and everyone had recovered their gear bags, then made a sweeping motion and started swimming towards the shore.

    The current was stronger than expected - Spencer would have to be careful when swimming at his private beach - but John’s shoulder gave him no trouble, and he easily made it. Water therapy, he thought with a snort as he peered at the small beach ahead of him, head in the surf.

    It looked clear - he couldn’t spot any sensors or cameras. That didn’t mean there weren’t any, of course, but the odds were decent. And they were on a tight schedule.

    He grabbed his gear bag and rose out of the water, dashing across the beach into the palm forest behind it. Caridad beat him to it, of course.

    Not that it mattered. He unslung his gear bag and quickly swapped his flippers for shoes, pulled on the webbing and the ballistic vest - the wetsuits were made for civilians and lacked ballistic lining - and put his night vision goggles on. By the time Bartowski was checking if his laptop had survived the trip, John was already at the other edge of the small strip of palm trees, studying the villa across the lawn.

    At his side, Caridad sniffed the air. “It smells like dog.”

    “We already knew that Spencer owns several dogs,” he whispered. Though since the villa lacked a kennel, he had to keep them inside - which meant they probably weren’t guard dogs but some overbed trophy dogs. Not exactly harmless, and dealing with them inside the villa would be a pain, but John would rather deal with three spoiled poodles than one trained doberman.

    “Yes, but the stench is really strong,” Caridad said.

    He nodded. Perhaps there were more than a few, then. Well, the drugged meat Caridad was carrying should still work. “Let’s find a route to the villa.”

    As soon as Bartoski and Walker joined them, they made their way to the edge of the palm tree forest closest to the villa. He fiddled with his goggles and looked the area over. There! “Cameras on the pillar,” he whispered, indicating the decorative stone column marking the corner of the terrace.

    “I see them,” Walker replied.

    “Let me check… no, not a wireless model,” Bartowski said. As if Spencer would use wireless surveillance. “No exposed wire, either… but that means they ran the fibre optics and powerlines through the ground… which means… there! It has to run under those decorative stone slabs there - they wouldn’t drag up the concrete every time they needed to replace the wiring.”

    Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have helped them much - the stone slabs were covered by the camera. But with Caridad’s supernatural strength, it was easy for the Slayer to use a small pole to lift the slab closest to the column just enough so Bartowski could slip in a probe of his.

    “Ah… yes… there’s where the cables connect… let’s splice them!” the nerd mumbled as he got to work. Ten minutes later, he was hacking the security system.

    John grinned. Spencer was a good data analyst, one of the best, probably, but whoever he had hired for computer security was no match for Bartowski. Either Bartowski.

    “Got it! The cameras are under control! Even inside the villa… Uh.”

    John’s grin vanished. “What?” he snapped.

    “I found the dogs.”

    “Yes?” He rolled his eyes. They expected dogs.

    “They’re corgis.”

    “Corgis? Harmless furballs. And Bartowski made such a fuss? Wait. How much did Spencer spend on pet food again?

    “There’s an army of them inside! A horde! Must be over three dozen - it seems an entire wing of the villa is theirs!”

    Corgis. A horde of corgis. Too many to drug them with the meat they brought. “Are they locked up?”

    “Uh… lemme check… door’s closed, so..probably?”

    “And where’s Spencer?” If the man slept surrounded by dogs…

    “The master bedroom is not covered by cameras, but it’s in the other wing,” Bartowski whispered.

    “We’ll avoid the dog wing, then.” Eyes on the prize.

    Bartowski seemed to find that funny.

    John ignored the stupid snickering. “Where are the guards?”

    “Uh… two are in the security room and the rest… asleep in their rooms. Which are on the second floor. Dog wing. Half a dozen guards.”

    Fewer than John had expected. Well, he wouldn’t complain. “Let’s go, then.”

    With the cameras looped, reaching the villa was easy, and the terrace door was no real obstacle, either. A few minutes later, they were inside the living room - which was a far cry from the one in Langley.

    “It looks like Spencer likes the ‘early nouveau riche’ style,” Bartowski commented as they sneaked past ugly but expensive furniture that might even have caused a rapper to have second thoughts.

    “Can it,” John snapped. This was a mission. The security room was connected to the entrance hall - not too far away. He took point and led them to the entrance hall. There was the door. He slowly approached it, looking around. The door to the dog wing was closed, and the stairs leading up to the upper floor were clear. Good.

    He could hear the guards inside the security room chat with each other. Typical for the graveyard shift, but unprofessional. They hadn’t even closed the door - he could see the back of one guard through the gap.

    Easy. He signalled to Caridad, who grinned in response, then moved to the door. Another grin, then she kicked it open and rushed the room.

    John followed, but both guards were out before he moved into the room. While she was gagging and tying them up, John quickly checked the security camera feeds on the big screens in the room. Everything seemed clear. No movement, guards upstairs asleep, stupid little dogs… He blinked. They were up. And one of them was staring at the door. Had it heard them?

    More dogs were gathering there. John suddenly felt uneasy.

    Then the lead dog jumped, paws landing on the door handle - and the door opened.

    And the dog horde started to pour into the entrance hall. Yipping, barking, bouncing, the little pests came on. John didn’t even have to look at the camera feeds from the guard quarters to know that any hope of keeping this quiet had just died. “Incoming guards,” he snapped, rushing to the door. If the dogs were attacking...

    Fortunately, they weren’t, but they were bad enough just trying to play or whatever small dogs did. “Whoa! Hey!” Bartowski was struggling to keep standing with half a dozen corgis pushing against him. A few of the pests even tried to bite into his wetsuit.

    A sudden howl made John whirl around just in time to catch a corgi flying through the air and Caridad kicking the next one.

    The Slayer had the right idea, John realised - they couldn’t fight guards with a horde of dogs running into their legs. He kicked out at the closest dog, catching it in the side, as he moved towards the stairs the guards would be taking. “Check the security cameras!” he yelled at Bartowski over the frantic barking and howling that assaulted their ears.

    “But…” Another corgi flying past the moron to crash against the wall shut him up, and he retreated into the security room.

    But now the corgis had started growling instead of yapping. They were keeping their distance, trying to circle them. Like a damned pint-sized wolf pack. And while their teeth wouldn’t get through the wetsuit, much less the vests, if they managed to reach a hand or a throat… crouching behind a railing would be a bad idea until the dogs were dealt with.

    He kicked another dog away when it got too close, which prompted two more to lunge at him. One ineffectively tried to bite his shin, but the other jumped up to latch onto his webbing. John rammed the butt of his rifle into its skull, and it fell off.

    But the whole attack had delayed him, and so he was still on the stairs when the guards appeared in the door on the floor above him. John shot the first one with a short burst but couldn’t stop the other three from dropping to the ground out of his sight. And if they were even marginally competent, they’d be spreading out until they could catch the team in a crossfire - from above.

    Charging up the stairs would be suicide, though. John reached into a pouch for a grenade. That would…

    Another corgi suddenly hung from John’s rifle, teeth dug into the sling, unbalancing him. He smashed it against the stairs, but he had to bend down for it, and two more jumped him. “Kill the dogs!” he yelled as he tried to shake them off and get up again. “Guards on top!” The grenade went flying, but, fortunately, he hadn’t pulled the pin yet.

    Then he was pushed to the side by a blow to the chest. Bullet, caught by his vest, he realised. Another shot ricocheted off the stone stair and a third hit one of the corgis. Where…? There! John dropped to a knee and brought the rifle up. Even with a stupid little dog hanging onto it. He managed to place a bullet into the head of the guard who had shot him. Two down, two to go.

    And Bane and Walker were shooting from the security room’s door, presumably keeping the remaining guards down. That left…

    Caridad roared, blades slicing dogs left and right, blood splattering all over the entrance hall, as she ploughed through the corgis, mowing them down before they could retreat. That was… a great distraction.

    John rushed up the stairs, kicking a fleeing corgi to the side, then rolled over the floor at the top, bringing his rifle to bear. One of the guards was lying on the floor across from him, trying to get a bead on Cariad. John emptied a magazine into him. Bullets hit the floor and railing next to him in response, but John rolled behind a sturdier pillar before the guard hit him.

    A quick magazine change later, he rolled out again and returned fire. Caught between him and Walker and Bane, the guard didn’t last long.

    John jumped up again. “To the bedroom!” he yelled, rushing down the stairs.

    “I don’t have eyes, I mean cameras, on that part of the house,” Bartowski announced.

    That didn’t matter. Spencer was their objective, and he was there.

    John reached the bottom of the stairs just in time for Caridad to finish off the last dog that hadn’t fled. She glared at him. “If anyone asks, they were hellhounds!”

    He nodded at her, which seemed to satisfy the Slayer, and moved towards the door leading to Spencer’s wing of the house. That one had a security lock. Just how paranoid was the man?

    John started picking it before Walker and Bane reached them. “Chuck’s checking the rest of the house,” Walker reported.

    “Uh… there are two women and a man who have locked themselves into their room;” John heard Bartowski over the radio.

    “Probably the staff. Maid, cook and butler,” Bane speculated.

    But it made sense. Civilians. No threat, no problem.

    Unlike the security door. Spencer must have swiped some CIA state of the art equipment. “Time for the plastic door knocker,” John said, reaching into his backpack.

    It took him half a minute to place the C-4, and as long to reach cover behind the stairs, next to the bloody remains of a corgi Caridad had sliced in half.

    He triggered the explosives and rushed forward before the dust cloud had started settling. Spencer would’ve been alerted, but they still had a chance. At the remains of the door, he pressed himself against the wall, then peered around the torn door frame.

    Something moved, and he jerked back a fraction of a second before automatic started up. Machine gun, general purpose. Was that spencer? He pulled out his periscope and checked.

    And cursed. I was a sentry gun. “Did Spencer raid the entire CIA armoury and no one noticed?” he muttered.

    “That, or he stole enough money to buy whatever it is,” Caridad commented next to him.

    “Sentry gun,” he replied.

    “Those robot guns?”

    “Yes.”

    “Armoured?” she asked.

    “To withstand grenades,” he replied.

    “Can we shoot it?”

    “If we’re really fast.” He wanted to take the words back as soon as he said it.

    “I’m fast.” She grinned, then held out her hand for his gun.

    It was too dangerous - the gun could react faster than most people. But she was the Slayer. “Shoot the sensors and ammo feed,” he told her as he handed her the rifle.

    “Sensors and feed, got it!”

    Then she stepped back a little before running forward - and launched herself into the air, flying past the open door. She twisted and fired, landing on the other side, safely behind the wall. “Got it!” she announced, then held her right upper arm with her left hand. “But it got me too.”

    Blood was already running down her arm. But she hadn’t dropped the rifle - which meant she would be fine. Fine enough to fight on, at least. John used the periscope again to check on the sentry gun - both the ammunition feed and the cameras guiding it were destroyed.

    “Rifle!” he snapped.

    Caridad handed it to him as Walker and Bane charged past them, towards the master bedroom.

    That one had another security lock, which John blew up again.

    But the bedroom was empty. John rushed forward, checking the unmade bed. Still warm. “He was here. And he didn’t leave through the front door.”

    “And he didn’t leave through the window,” Bartowski chimed in through the radio.

    Caridad started sniffing the air, then bent down. “His scent is strongest here…” she said, following it to the walk-in closet. “Secret escape tunnel leading to the bunker?”

    John groaned.

    *****​
     
  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 21: The Traitor Part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 21: The Traitor Part 2

    Florida, North of Miami, April 27th, 2008

    A secret escape tunnel - or lift - in Spencer’s bedroom!

    John shook his head as he clenched his teeth. This complicated things.

    “Let me see if I can find it in the system!” Bartowski said over the radio. “It shouldn’t… there has to be some way to connect…”

    John tuned the nerd’s mumbling out as he looked around in the closet. “Lift or passage?”

    Caridad dropped to the ground and sniffed, then shook her head. “He went out the same way he came in.”

    “Lift then,” John concluded.

    “I’m coming!” Bartowski announced. “If it’s a lift, I can - probably - take control of it once I can access its systems. It seems to be completely separated from the security system here,” he added.

    “He must have a second security system,” Walker said.

    “We didn’t detect anything,” Bartowaski protested.

    “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t one - it means we failed,” John told him. And failure as a spy was often fatal. He looked around but couldn’t spot any camera or other sensor. That didn’t mean anything, of course.

    Bane looked around as well, and Walker studied the bedroom.

    “He has to have cameras here,” John muttered,

    “Unless he doesn’t trust his own people,” Bane retorted. “He had no cameras in his bedroom for the security on this floor.”

    John nodded. And that meant no remote-controlled traps here, either. Perhaps not even traps in the lift. The sentry gun wouldn’t have been able to reach the bedroom, after all.

    Bartowski arrived, breathing a little heavy - had he skimped on working out lately? “Alright, guys… let me see if I can pick up a signal. If it’s remote-controlled, perhaps...”

    While the nerd went to work, John looked around again. A bunker as a last refuge only made sense if there was a way to escape or if you expected relief to arrive.

    “If he has a submarine, we’re screwed,” Caridad said.

    “I doubt he has a submarine. Even building an underwater exit is no small challenge,” John told her. “At least secretly.” Not impossible by any means, but there was a limit to what Spencer could have done. “But he’ll have called for help.” And he would expect other forces to secure the island, so he wouldn’t just bolt.

    “Which means we’re on a timer,” the Slayer replied.

    “I’ve got no signal. For a remote control, I mean, not for my phone,” Bartowski announced.

    Caridad went sniffing again. “If it wasn’t a remote, he’ll have touched something. But the whole closet smells like him. Or stinks.”

    John saw her reach around, almost touching shelves and hangers. Then she stared at a strip. “That…” She ran her hand over it, pressing down - and they heard a click.

    A moment later, the closet started to go down.

    John threw himself out of it, followed by Caridad, who tackled Bartowski on the way out, almost bowling Walker and Bane over.

    “Hey!”

    “Spencer might not have trapped the closet - but he’ll have something waiting for unwanted guests dropping by when he is present,” John said.

    A moment later, they heard machine gun fire.

    “Another sentry gun?” Caridad asked, head cocked to the side. “It sounds like one.”

    “Would fit him,” John said. He peered down the shaft. “Cabin’s still down there. About two floors.”

    Caridad grinned. “I can handle it.”

    “You’re wounded,” John retorted. Next time, she might not get lucky.

    “I’ve got its number now.” Her grin widened. “Rifle?”

    “Use a grenade,” he told her.

    “A rocket launcher would be nice,” Bartowski commented.

    “The backblast would be deadly in the shaft,” Bane pointed out.

    “Let’s get down!” Caridad grabbed an axe from her belt and started hitting the cables of the secret lift. After a few strikes, it snapped and fell down.

    Then she jumped on the cabin’s roof and began to hack her way through. More gunfire erupted, and she quickly jumped back and up as bullets tore through the cabin’s roof. Hissing, she landed back in the bedroom, holding her stomach. “Vest stopped them,” she said before John reached her. “Hurt like a bitch, though.”

    “The cabin’s roof saved you,” he told her. The bullets would have gone through the vest, otherwise.

    “What do we do now?” Bartowski asked. “How much ammo does this thing have.” He blinked. “Oh. So much.”

    “We’ll have to use more explosives,” John said. He peered down again. “One charge to blow a hole into the roof, the other to blow up the sentry gun.”

    He pulled out a little more C-4 - not too much for the cabin, or he might collapse the shaft - and prepared two charges. “Cover your ears.”

    Caridad slapped both hands over her ears and opened her mouth. For supernatural hearing, this must be torture.

    John dropped the charge anyway, then triggered it five seconds later. A column of fire shot up the shaft. As soon as it collapsed, he dropped the next charge.

    Caridad was down the shaft an instant after the next explosion shook the house. John saw her disappear in the smoke and dust thrown up the shaft and cursed under his breath. Always charging ahead.

    He ran after her, almost shouldering Walker out of the way as the other spy tried to cut ahead of him. On the way, he slipped his mask on - the dust would be murder on anyone’s lungs - before he peered down. Still too dusty, but…

    “The door’s jammed on the machine gun!”

    Good. John hadn’t been looking forward to trying to bust into a bunker with explosives. “Coming down,” he replied and tied a line to the remains of the closet’s door.

    The dust was settling when he reached the bottom. The closet had been torn apart by the two explosions, and Caridad was trying to push the heavy door - a vault’s door - open by herself.

    She groaned, gripping the doorframe’s edge with both hands and using both feet to push against the vault door - so far to no avail. It would’ve been funny on another occasion. Now? They needed to get the damn door open.

    He quickly jammed another part of the sentry gun that had been blown into the closet into the gap, then pulled out his periscope and checked the other side, ducking beneath Caridad to do so. There were the door hinges - massive, but not particularly armoured. And there was the mechanism that tried to close the door.

    Alright. He pulled out another pack of C-4 and a small cord. Using a broken metal part from the closet as a weight, he leaned in and jammed his arm through the gap, holding the cord. He tried not to think about what would happen if the door suddenly closed.

    Then he swung the weighted cord, back and forth, before letting it fly. His first attempt to have it wrap itself around the bar pushing the door failed, but his second worked. Then he pulled the cord he still held through a small plastic bag containing the C-4 charge and lifted one end of the cord until the bag started to slide towards the bar.

    “On three, let go and pull back,” he told Caridad.

    “Uh… another explosion? Won’t that endanger the entire house?” Bartowski asked from above.

    “It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” John told him with a grin. “One. Two. Three.”

    The Slayer let go, and John pushed the trigger. Another explosion sent dust and smoke into the narrow room, blinding him for a moment. But it looked like…

    Something - someone hit him and pushed him back, against the wall, Before he could react, the closet’s floor shook again, and he stared, through thinning dust, at the upper half of the vault door, which had crushed the floor in front of him. Where he had been standing a moment ago.

    Caridad pushed away from him with a tight smile. “Close.”

    “Close,” he agreed.

    Then they were off again, charging into the bunker. Caridad passed him halfway through the remains of the door - no airlock, he noticed, just a normal hallway; sloppy. And there was a t-junction. No alcoves to fire from, either. This wasn’t a bunker meant to be defended against an assault.

    Which meant the odds of Spencer having an escape route just went up.

    “Left or right?” he asked.

    Caridad cocked her head then sniffed the air, sneezing right afterwards. “Ugh… damn dust. And my hearing is still wonky from the explosions.”

    Ah. Right led to the centre of the island. Left led towards the sea. “Time to split up,” he told the others. “You go right, we go left.”

    “Gotcha!” Bartowski said, nodding. Walker, Bane and Caridad were already moving.

    John rushed after Caridad. Two doors - metal, but not very thick - lined the hallway there, corner up ahead. She kicked in the first door. Storage room. Supplies.

    Next door. More supplies. Food and water.

    Corner. Caridad froze. Then she gasped.

    “I hear him!”

    And she was off.

    He ran after her. “Wait!”

    “I hear an engine starting! I have to stop him!”

    An engine? But… Spencer would have had ample time to use a getaway vehicle - they had lost a lot of time dealing with the door and sentry gun. Why would he start it up now? And why would a getaway vehicle not be ready to go at a moment’s notice?

    His eyes widened. “It’s a trap!” he yelled into the radio. “The vehicle is a trap!”

    Another explosion shook the bunker.

    Caridad! He pushed himself further, running faster, almost slipping as he took the next corner - there she was. Caridad was on the floor, in front of a door out of which smoke billowed, but she was moving, shaking her head as if dazed. “Caridad!”

    She turned and looked at him. Blinked. “John.”

    He knelt down, glancing around. The coast was clear. But through the wrecked door, he could see flames in the room.

    “It was a trap,” she said.

    “Yes.”

    “There was no vehicle. It was a generator.”

    “Ah.” She didn’t look seriously hurt, but she was banged up - she had been thrown into the wall - and shockwaves could cause internal injuries. And the bandage covering her gunshot wound was soaked.

    Before he could check further, she gripped his shoulder hard enough to make him wince and pulled herself up. “Bastard almost got me.”

    “We’ll get him,” he replied without thinking.

    The Slayer bared her teeth at him. “Oh, yes!” She stood, bracing herself against the wall for a moment, then turned to look down the hallway, which was leading towards the centre of the island. “Let’s go!”

    This time, she ran more slowly, which allowed him to keep up easily. She also moved with less grace than usual - she was hurt more than she let on. But she did move and wasn’t impaired as far as he could tell.

    The smoke from the trapped room was overtaking them, though. “How much fuel was in the room?” he asked, adjusting his mask.

    “Didn’t see it. I’m guessing: lots,” she replied.

    Damn. They needed a door they could lock behind them to contain the smoke - Spencer really hadn’t thought when he planned his bunker.

    More rooms lined this part. Small rooms, some barely more than closets. Many of them empty. “This isn’t a finished bunker,” he commented, then used his radio. “Bartowski?”

    No answer. The reinforced concrete must be blocking the radio waves.

    “Doesn’t look like it’ll ever be finished,” Caridad replied. Then they reached a door barring their way. Not a bulwark or vault-style door, but sturdy enough so a Slayer wouldn’t be able to kick it off its hinges.

    Which Caridad promptly proved by kicking it several times, only stopping after a running jump kick failed to budge it.

    The metal was dented, though, John noted while he checked the lock. It was another security lock - it would take too long to pick. He placed another charge. “I’m about to run out of explosives,” he muttered. That had been bad planning on his part. He should have given more explosives to Caridad - a Slayer could carry far more supplies than a marine.

    Still, this wasn’t the time to dwell on that. They moved back behind the corner, then John triggered the charge.

    And Caridad was rushing forward again. He was about to curse as he rounded the corner when he saw her stopping at the blown door. “Movement!” she muttered.

    He tensed and aimed his rifle into the fading smoke.

    “Wheels,” Caridad added. “Small wheels. Lots of them.”

    His eyes widened. “Drones!” he snapped.

    They fell back, almost reaching the corner when the first drone rolled out of the smoke. It looked like a toy - a miniature pickup truck - but there was a camera mounted on its front and a grenade strapped to its back.

    John shot it and the one following it. Then Caridad pulled him around the corner just as more explosions followed.

    “Saw the grenades getting released,” she explained as both of them got up again.

    He nodded, then shook his head - he had felt the shockwave from those. Spencer must really love his toys, he realised. Not surprising coming from a data analyst who never worked in the field.

    They moved forward again. Back to the door. More cautious, though - by the time they reached it, the smoke from the burning generator was mixing with the smoke left by the grenades. And breathing was getting a little difficult. Perhaps they should’ve put the fire out. He coughed. Definitely should’ve put the fire out. Another mistake.

    But they were in the central area of the bunker now. And it showed - the lighting was better. And John saw the remains of a poster on the wall. Some movie or other.

    “Casey? Caridad?”

    He gasped - as did Caridad. “Bartowski?” The radio was working again. They had to be close.

    “Yes. We’ve got a problem,” the nerd said.

    More than one - John doubted that the man was talking about the fire slowly filling the entire bunker with smoke. But they moved forward anyway. Another corner - hadn’t Spencer heard of straight lines - and there was Bartowski. And Walker. Both looked banged up, Bartowski had blood running down his face. And they were pointing their guns at…

    ...Spencer holding a pistol to an unconscious Bane’s temple.

    Goddamnit! They needed Spencer alive to question him and ferret out the entire structure of Fulcrum.

    “Casey!” Bartowski blurted out, announcing their arrival.

    “Ah, the famous John Casey. Or should that be infamous?” Spencer tried to sound amused but didn’t quite pull it off - another sign that the guy hadn’t been in the field. Holding down your own in budget meetings didn’t prepare you for a Mexican standoff. Or a home invasion..

    Instead of answering, John looked around. They were in what obviously was meant to be Spencer’s quarters in the bunker. Bed, desk, dresser, armoire - and all IKEA, from what John could tell. All but the big chair and the computer screens on the wall. Those looked like custom work. Same model they had found in his home in Langley - and topside here. And an air filtration system that kept the smoke out of the room with a constant breeze.

    “Mr Spencer, you are trapped,” Bartowski said. “You can’t escape.”

    John saw Spencer’s eyes darting to the wall opposite the computer screens. Another secret passage? Or a ruse? Underestimating Spencer would be a mistake, but so would be overestimating him.

    “I have a hostage, Mr Bartowski. And I know you’re not the kind of man to sacrifice a friend to catch an enemy,” Spencer replied. “Unlike others,” he added with a sneer at John.

    That was his cue. “If we let you escape with Bane, we might as well shoot her ourselves,” John told the scumbag. “She’d prefer that to becoming mind-controlled.” Again.

    Spencer’s lips twisted into a smirk. “But she’d prefer living to dying. As do I.” He suddenly tensed. “If the cyborg moves any closer, I shoot Bane.”

    John heard Caridad draw a hissing breath next to him. She must not be certain to be able to take the traitor out before he could kill Bane, or she’d have acted already. Damn.

    “I’m no cyborg, you idiot,” she spat.

    Spencer scoffed. “I saw you move. I analysed your body with the best computers available. Your reaction speed, power and resilience break every human limit.”

    “Uh… I think your analysis is suffering from a critical flaw,” Bartowski piped up.

    “Really?” Spencer grinned at the nerd. “Would you care to enlighten me?” He spoke in a mocking tone. Baiting Bartowski. Sure of his own superiority.

    The traitor loved this, John realised. Loved showing off. Talking down to others. Hm…

    “Gladly!” Bartowski replied. “You see, while you might have good computers - I’ve seen better, but I guess you couldn’t acquire them without drawing attention, at least not for your house here - the key to any data analysis depends on your data. And I think your data isn’t good enough to, uh, analyse Caridad.”

    “Really? You think the Intersect is superior?” Spencer sneered again. “The Intersect is a tool. An algorithm. It cannot replace proper, smart analysis.”

    Oh. That hit a nerve. Spencer was focusing on Bartowski. John glanced at Caridad. She must have noticed as well - she was slowly shifting to the side. Away from Bartowski and Spencer’s field of vision.

    “Exactly!” Bartowski agreed, apparently surprising the traitor. “The Intersect can filter out data and correlate it, but without the correct database, it won’t give you useful results. Garbage in, garbage out.”

    “Garbage, Mr Bartowski?”

    “It’s an IT term. It means…”

    “I know what it means,” Spencer snapped.

    “Sorry! Anyway - you lack crucial data to properly analyse Caridad. It’s like an out of context problem.”

    “I know about the Initiative. I know about the experiments. I know about Sunnydale’s secret.”

    John tensed. If Spencer knew about magic and demons… no. He would’ve had much better defences in that case.

    “I don’t think you do, sorry,” Bartowski replied, shaking his head with that pitying smile of his that put you on edge.

    Spencer really didn’t like that smile. “Everything adds up, Mr Bartowski. Your feeble attempts to hide the truth are pointless. When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

    “Sherlock Holmes!” Bartowski nodded.

    Caridad was almost out of the man’s sight now.

    “Yes. Cybernetic augmentation might seem improbable, but every other explanation has been eliminated. Drugs wouldn’t be able to make people do what cyborgs can do. Nor would training. And the human limits are well-documented. But I’ve also found hard evidence. Experimental parts ordered but never delivered. Obviously incomplete - crucially incomplete - but there was enough to confirm the intel we had. And the medical records of the survivors… some of them had implants, you know?”

    Bartowski nodded again. “That’s all nice and well, but you’re still missing a crucial piece of data. Without it, you won’t ever find the truth.”

    “I have found the truth, Mr Bartowski.”

    Then Caridad moved. One moment, she was there, at the edge of John’s field of vision. The next, there was a loud crack and Spencer flew through the air, crashing against the bed. And Caridad was standing above Bane holding Spencer’s pistol in her hand. She dropped it on the floor and leapt on Spencer, kicking out.

    The man screamed, falling to the ground as something flew through the air to hit the armoire on the side. Something small and beeping. Bomb? No. John froze for a moment. A remote control. Remote detonator.

    “You fool! You fucking idiots!” Spencer yelled. “We’ll all die!”

    Bartowski gasped. John turned his head to catch the nerd blinking. “He triggered a self-destruct!” He blinked again. “Why does he have a self-destruct?”

    Who cared about the reason? “Save it! We need to stop it! Now”

    “You can’t!” Spencer laughed like a madman as he struggled to stand with two mangled arms. “It’s too late!”

    “I can try to hack the remote!” Bartowski yelled.

    “No, Chuck!” Walker grabbed his hand. “We need to leave!”

    “Too late! Too late!”

    Running back would take too long - and they would have to run through the smoke. Probably the fire as well. And Caridad would have to carry Bane… But why weren’t they dead already? Why would Spencer have a delay in his self-destruct, unless...

    ...he had planned to escape. The wall!

    John rushed to the wall Spencer had glanced at earlier. “There’s another secret passage!” he yelled. “We need to find it!” He started patting the wall. There had to be...

    “Shsh!” Caridad pulled him away. She pressed her ear to the wall and hit it with her fist.

    “Too late! We’re gonna die! We’re gonnUrk…”

    Walker had knocked the traitor out. Good.

    “Here! This sounds hollow!” Caridad announced, pointing at the wall.

    “But the mechanism to open it… it could be anything!” Bartowski shook his head.

    “We’ll blow it open!” John announced. Too late to run. Too late to search the room. They had to risk it. He pulled out his last pack of C-4 and started putting it against the wall. No time to check how thick it was - and how solid. It wouldn’t be a vault door. Spencer used off-the-shelf stuff, mostly. So, a metal door like the others in the bunker. And some plaster to cover it.

    John ran some calculations, then placed the charge. “Take cover!”

    The others scrambled to the door, where the smoke was barely held at bay by the air conditioning. John ducked behind the bed and triggered the charge.

    He felt the explosion like a blow to the chest and grunted, but he was up in a second. The airflow was clearing the smoke and dust, and revealed… yes! He had done it! A jagged hole revealed an escape shaft with a ladder. “Go! Go! Go!” he yelled, pushing the stumbling Bartowski into the shaft.

    The nerd started scrambling up the ladder like a pro - the Intersect at work again. Walker followed. That left…

    Caridad and him. And Bane and Spencer to be carried out. They needed Spencer to root out Fulcrum. But only Caridad would be quick enough to climb with a body weighing her down.

    “Go!” she snapped, dragging both Bane and Spencer towards the shaft.

    He clenched his teeth and nodded, then rushed after Walker. Shouldn’t the shaft be open already? Halfway up, right behind Walker, he suddenly felt air rush form below. And Walker kept climbing. Out of the shaft.

    John reached the top himself, pulling himself out, and rolled over the lawn. They were at the forest’s edge. At the other end of the island. ”Caridad?”

    There she was, all but jumping out of the shaft, Bane slung over her shoulder.

    But before Bane hat stopped rolling on the ground, the Slayer turned back to the shaft. John opened his mouth to yell at her - she couldn’t do this! It wasn’t worth it! Then he saw her pulling on a line, and smiled.

    Clever girl.

    Caridad heaved reeling the line in as fast as she could. And Spencer did fly out of the shaft like a cork popping from a bottle.

    Then a column of fire followed, and the entire island trembled. Spencer hit the ground, his legs on fire. John rushed to the traitor and started smothering the flames. The expensive suit was obviously not flame-retardant. But Spencer would live - provided the knocks to the head he had suffered from Caridad, Walker and his express escape up a shaft hadn’t turned his brain to mush.

    A groan and a muttered ‘bastard’ announced Bane waking up. “What?”

    “We got Spencer and escaped. He blew up his bunker,” Walker told her.

    “And we need to go,” John added. “He must have called reinforcements.”

    “He’ll have an escape vehicle ready around here,” Walker replied. “It’s probably faster using it than going back for our gear.”

    Probably safer, too. John nodded. “Let’s find it.”

    *****​

    There weren’t many places to hide a getaway vehicle. It had to be close to the water, close to the escape tunnel, and quick to be retrieved. John looked around. Spencer wouldn’t have taken the shortest route to the shore; that would’ve been too obvious. So, a little east or west from that point. East was mostly palm trees and beach. West were some rocks. Some quite large rocks.

    He started towards them.

    “Why wouldn’t he have dug a tunnel straight to the sea?” Bartowski asked.

    “He did,” Walker replied. “On the other side. This was his ace in the hole.”

    “And he probably didn’t want to worry about people using it to enter the bunker straight away,” Caridad replied. “Escape tunnels go both ways, as Xander likes to say.”

    “Or he was out of money or time, or a little too clever for his own good,” John said as he peered at the first rock. Which looked quite real. The one behind it, though…

    Caridad started hitting it with her fist, head cocked, then nodded. “It’s hollow. Any idea how to open it?”

    “C-4?” John chuckled - that would likely destroy whatever vehicle was inside, but they were running out of time.

    “Let’s look for a mechanism… probably underwater, to keep it out of sight,” Bartowski said.

    Caridad started digging in the sand and actually found a hidden lever. Some heaving later - “stupid idiot let it rust”, the Slayer pressed out while struggling - the rock opened up, revealing a powerboat.

    “Let’s hope it’s in better shape than the door was,” Caridad muttered as they boarded it.

    It was, though it took half a dozen tries to start the engines. They quickly loaded Spencer, now bound and gagged, into it, then piled on and sped away.

    And not a moment too soon - there was a helicopter approaching. Fortunately, it wasn’t an attack helicopter, but a civilian model. No armour to speak of - but there were people leaning out of the open doors with guns.

    “Take over!” John snapped, pushing Bartowski towards the controls. Then he grabbed his rifle. The helicopter had about double their speed - triple, now that the nerd was slowing down - but whoever Spencer had called weren’t the best marksmen.

    Bursts of automatic fire missed the boat as Bartowski started to weave. John’s own answering bursts didn’t miss after the first ranging shots. One of the door gunners slumped over and stopped firing, and the helicopter started flying evasively - which ruined any chance of the remaining shooters to hit anything.

    “We need a stinger!” Caridad yelled.

    “We don’t need a stinger,” he snapped back. “Just aim for the engines!”

    Walker and Bane were - John saw the tracers of their rifles reach out to the helicopter. A few landed near the engine section. His own fire was more precise, but not by much. Caridad’s was in between.

    But if you put up enough lead into the air, something was bound to be hit. After a few minutes of this, the helicopter peeled off, smoke pouring out of one engine.

    They were safe.

    *****​

    Florida, North of Miami, April 28th, 2008

    “So… what do we do with Spencer?” Grimes asked as they drove away from the small cove where they had made landfall. “Willow’s too busy to interrogate the guy. And, ah…” he trailed off.

    “We can interrogate him,” Bane said. “We can confirm at least some of the intel with the Intersect.” She sounded rather eager. Well, John felt the same.

    “What about handing him over to the general?” Bartowski asked.

    “As a sort of goodbye gift?” John snorted.

    “Uh, I guess so? She could handle his interrogation and investigation.”

    “Waiting until Willow’s free would probably be more effective,” Walker pointed out. “The agency has a lot of traitors in it, and if the general trusts the wrong people…”

    “Right.” Bartowski sighed. “I just thought it would have, uh, smoothed things a little over. You know, explain why we dropped off the grid, so to speak.”

    “I think the risk is too great. Better interrogate him ourselves. At least first,” Bane said.

    Grimes, as expected, agreed with her.

    “What about calling the general to us?” Bartowski asked.

    “I don’t think she’ll come,” Walker replied. “Not alone. And if she picks the wrong guards…”

    “She’ll think it’ll be a trap,” John added.

    “But, still, torture…”

    “Enhanced interrogation,” John corrected him. “It’s all legal.”

    “But…”

    “Using magic isn’t exactly legal, either,” Grimes unexpectedly pointed out.

    “But less painful,” Caridad said. “But we already know he’s guilty.”

    Bartowski sighed.

    “You don’t have to watch, Chuck,” Walker said.

    “But I do - we need the Intersect’s confirmation.”

    Tough shit, John thought.

    *****​

    Florida, North of Miami, April 28th, 2008

    “...and Marcus Emery. Accounting.”

    Spencer had broken really quickly. John had suspected that - the traitor was smart and ruthless, but he hadn’t gone through the training a field agent took. Hell, he hadn’t even gone through anything like the SERE training. It still had taken him far less effort to make the man talk than he had expected. A little waterboarding, and Spencer started spilling his guts. Sure, he tried to lie at first, but… With Bartowski ready to verify most statements, and Orion checking the data, that hadn’t lasted long, either.

    He looked at Bartowski, who blinked, then nodded. True, then. Walker marked the name down as verified.

    “Anyone else?”

    “N-no. I don’t think so…” Spencer stammered.

    “Better be sure,” John told him. “If you forgot anyone, they’ll try to get you killed in your cell before you expose them.”

    “I… I’m aware of that.”

    John smiled without any humour at the scumbag. “Break time. Try to remember more.”

    He left the room and went up the stairs to the living room of the safe house Orion had organised for them. Grimes and Bane were keeping guard - or resting on the couch, as it turned out. John swallowed his first comment. It was late, after all.

    “Are you done?” Grimes asked.

    “For the moment,” John replied. Spencer would have to be interrogated much more thoroughly, over a period of time, to get every scrap of information out of him. But they had verified that he didn’t have a mole too close to the general. “We can hand him over.”

    Bane nodded, but Grimes smiled, obviously relieved. The man didn’t have the stomach for the uglier side of the spy business. Yet John knew he wouldn’t baulk at torturing vampires or other demons. Weird.

    Bartowski chose that moment to enter the living room, shaking his head. Walker would be guarding Spencer, then.

    “Chuck? You OK?” Grimes asked, then glanced at John.

    “He got all the workers who installed the bunker for him killed, by the way,” Bartowski said as John went to the kitchen.

    “What?” Grimes gasped. “But… wouldn’t that… wouldn’t the Intersect have detected it?”

    “He hired Illegal immigrants for it - and had them smuggled into the country for that. There was no paper trail at all!” Bartowski shook his head even though he had known for half an hour about that.

    Bane’s expression was grim but not surprised. “He wouldn’t have risked someone spilling the secret.”

    And Spencer wouldn’t have done the work himself.

    “What a monster!” Grimes blurted out.

    John shrugged and pulled a soda out of the fridge. No alcohol. Not on a mission. He looked around again.

    “Caridad went ‘patrolling’, Bane said.

    “Hunting,” Grimes added. “This is a little out of the Miami Slayer’s area, so there might be some vampires or other demons around.”

    “Ah.” That made sense.

    Bartowski sat down at the dining table, sighed and leaned forward, resting his head on his crossed arms.

    “Err… did you ask why he did all that?”

    John snorted, which earned him a glare from Bartowski. “He claims he wanted to run the CIA,” the nerd said. “Better than anyone.”

    “Probably still angry that he wasn’t promoted above Analyst,” John said. “But all he really wanted was power.” Like most people, in his experience. He traitor might even have believed his own lies.

    “Pointless. All this… just because of his ego?” Bartowski shook his head.

    “Demons act like that all the time,” Grimes said. “Would be bad if they didn’t, too.”

    “True.”

    “So, we’ll be handing him over to the Agency? Where and when?” Bane asked.

    “We haven’t contacted the general yet,” John told her. That would require some finesse.

    Or a call to London, probably, to speed things along and keep her honest.

    *****​

    NSA Safe House, Atlanta, Georgia, April 30th, 2008

    General Beckman wasn’t happy. And she wasn’t bothering to hide it, either. “The reason you disappeared and didn’t react to any attempts to contact you was that you were hunting down the leader of Fulcrum,” she said as two guards manhandled Spencer out of the room.

    “Leader and founder, ma’am,” Bartowski said with a forced smile that quickly died at her glare.

    “And that is why I got a call from the White House informing me of all of this?” The ‘instead of from you’ remained unsaid but clearly understood.

    “We couldn’t risk complications and misunderstandings, ma’am,” John said, standing at parade rest.

    “Complications?”

    John met her eyes. “Some of the moles in the agency might have tried to prevent our meeting.” And she might’ve been tempted to arrest them anyway.

    “We’ve got all the preliminary data here,” Bartowski spoke up after a moment of tense silence. “Names, accounts, bases… Spencer kept a tight ship, uh, so to speak. He didn’t actually have a ship unless you count his powerboat.”

    “Which we stole!” Caridad added with a wide grin.

    The general looked at the Slayer with a deep frown, before turning to John again. “And you have verified his identity.”

    “Yes. The Intersect was used to corroborate the interrogation’s results.” He nodded. “We’ve got Fulcrum’s head.”

    “And body. Uh, so to speak,” Bartowski said. “Sorry! It’s all on the stick. Sticks - in case you lose one. Not that you would, you know.” He ducked his head.

    The general wasn’t amused. She shook her head. “That would conclude your primary mission, then, wouldn’t it?” After a moment, she added: “And your employment, I suppose.”

    Ah. Put on the spot - but then, the general could be quite direct, if the situation didn’t call for subtlety. John nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

    “You’re going to work for the British.”

    “Technically, it’s an international organisation with its headquarters in Britain,” Bartowski piped up, “Uh, ma’am.”

    The general sent him a withering glare, which made the nerd flinch a little, but he held his ground.

    With a scoff, the general turned back to John. “I wouldn’t have expected this from you.”

    John didn’t shrug. That would have been disrespectful. “I didn’t expect it myself, but under the circumstances, it’s the best course of action.” He caught her glancing at Caridad, who hadn’t been as discreet as she might’ve been, but refrained from adding that he had made his decision before starting a relationship with the Slayer.

    The general was unlikely to believe him, anyway. Her eyebrows went up. “I see.”

    John caught Caridad’s frown and glanced at her. She didn’t take the hint and glared at the general. “You should be grateful that we solved your problem for you!”

    “Three of our best spies, quitting? And the Intersect?” The general shook her head. “If that is not a problem, then what would be?”

    Four of your best spies,” Walker said, with some heat in her voice and a glance at Bartowski, who smiled in obvious gratitude back at her.

    Beckman looked like she had bitten into a lemon, lips pressed together, forming a thin line. “Four,” she said.

    “Yes!” Caridad said.

    “And we’re doing crucial work,” Bartowski said. “You don’t think that the government would put pressure on you if it weren’t important, do you?”

    John clenched his teeth when the general looked at him. Of course Beckman would expect exactly that - anyone in her position knew how things worked. But explaining that would be pointless. At least here - Walker could fill in Bartowski later. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here’s my resignation.”

    Walker and Bane followed suit. Bartowski cleared his throat. “And mine - although I’m available if you need some data analysis. With the Intersect. When I’m available, I mean - that might not always be the case. Also, we’re going to take over my families’ protection. With Fulcrum, gone, or gone soon, hopefully, things should calm down so we won’t need spies as bodyguards.”

    Beckman’s thin smile let John know that she thought Bartowski was being clever. But John knew better - the nerd wasn’t thinking of the leverage having bodyguards protecting Ellie and Devon would grant the agency.

    No need to tell that to the general, though. It was better if she thought him less naive than he was.

    “Is there anything else?” the general asked.

    “No, ma’am,” John replied, a fraction of a second before everyone else chimed in.

    Since he wasn’t in uniform, he didn’t salute before they left the safe house. And the Agency.

    *****​
     
  24. Threadmarks: Chapter 22: The Sunnydale Mission Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 22: The Sunnydale Mission Part 1

    Los Angeles, Silver Lake, May 1st, 2008

    John looked around. Back in his safe house. They should’ve picked a new one, but he didn’t have another prepared in Los Angeles. Not one large enough to house everyone. And with Spencer captured, the odds of Fulcrum managing to discover this safe house were slim. Slim didn’t mean nonexistent, of course. But at least John was getting his money’s worth.

    “So… do I call you Watcher Casey now?”

    He glanced over his shoulder. Caridad was sprawled on the bed, on her side, looking at him as she kicked off her shoes. Unlike his bruised ribs, the actual gunshot wound she had taken didn’t bother her any more. He turned to face her. “We’re not Watchers,” he told her. They didn’t have the training for that. John hadn’t studied tons of books about demons. He hadn’t trained to fight demons, either. He could fight demons, of course. And he drank coffee, not tea.

    “What are you, then?”

    “Spies.” You didn’t stop being a spy just because you changed employers.

    “Spy Casey?” She frowned, though exaggeratedly. “That doesn’t sound nice.”

    He snorted and sat down on the bed. “How long until the Council’s got a fix on the last locations for the body parts?”

    “I don’t know,” she replied. “Probably not long - Willow’s good at that.”

    The woman was one of the most powerful witches, as far as John knew. And wasn’t that a scary thought? Knowing that you were backed by the strongest military in the world was supposed to be comforting, but knowing how often those very same soldiers missed their mark with heavy ordnance put things into perspective. At least for those on the frontline calling for close air support and artillery fire. Of course, Rosenberg hadn’t messed up as far as he knew - though there had been some hints about her past…

    “We’ll be called when they’ve got something.” She rolled over in a smooth motion, raising to sit behind him with her head on his shoulder.

    “There’s still the vampire behind the training camp. Nathan,” he reminded her.

    “Yes. And we’ll get him. But not tonight.”

    He felt her nip at his ear and stiffened. “I’ve got a guard shift in an hour.”

    “Plenty of time.”

    He had been planning to nap until then, but… he had dozed off on the plane for a bit. He nodded, but she was already pulling his shirt off.

    *****​

    Los Angeles, Silver Lake, May 2nd, 2008

    “Where are the others?” Caridad asked as she entered the kitchen. She was wearing an oversized unbuttoned shirt - his shirt - over the top and shorts she used as sleepwear. And she was barefoot.

    John, dressed a little more appropriate - polo shirt and slacks as well as shoes - flipped the eggs in the pan. “You didn’t hear them leave?”

    “I wouldn’t ask if I had, would I?”

    He pushed the plate with pancakes towards her. The Slayer obviously needed breakfast to improve her mood. “Bartowski, Walker, Bane and Grimes went to tell his family about the changes.”

    “Ah!” Caridad managed to reply despite her mouth stuffed with pancakes. After swallowing what looked like the volume of a guinea pig in one gulp, she went on: “Store-bought?”

    “I’m not going to mix up pancake batter from scratch,” he replied. He was a spy, not a cook.

    She pouted. “Do you buy your marinade for barbecues as well?”

    “Of course not!” That was different. “Phil’s still asleep.”

    “I know. I heard him snore.” She pushed the empty plate back and eyed the eggs.

    “Those are mine. Make your own,” he told her as he let them slide on his plate.

    She pouted, but he knew not to fall for that. “You could already be eating eggs if you’d started cooking instead of whining,” he said as he started eating.

    Sighing, she went over to the fridge and pulled out a carton of eggs. Then proceeded to scramble all eggs in the carton.

    Bartowski and Grimes would have made a comment about arteries and cholesterol. John didn’t. Odds were, neither she nor himself would live long enough to suffer from such complications. If Slayers even suffered from such - he had his doubts.

    “Is the Council’s protection team on their way?” he asked as he finished his second egg and Caridad started on her second serving.

    “They’re hiring locals for that. People who know about demons and stuff.”

    “Ah. Vetted?” They would have to be, to be trusted with the safety of Bartowski’s family.

    “Yes. Old friends, sort of. Those of Angel’s gang who weren’t pissed off at getting saved by us when they got into too much trouble on their own.”

    He nodded. He knew the type - some people literally would rather die than accept help. Or, more often, would rather let their spies die than ask for help. He didn’t care for either. “So, what are the plans for today? And tonight?” She grinned like the cat that had caught the canary, and he snorted. “Apart from that.”

    She stuck out her tongue in response. “I thought about doing a patrol in daylight. Check out some haunts - we have been away for some time, so some of the scum probably got cocky. They could do with a small reminder that…” She trailed off, then pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Oh.”

    He narrowed his eyes. She had grown tense.

    “They found the other body parts.”

    That was fast. On the other hand, Rosenberg had gone back to London a few days ago. And when it came to preventing an apocalypse, speed was of the essence. “Where?”

    “A few locations. But we got one assigned to us,” she replied. “The closest one.”

    He tilted his head.

    “It’s in Sunnydale.”

    “Oh.” He frowned. “Sunnydale is underwater.” He had been there when they met Orion, after all.

    “Yes. I guess that’s another reason we were assigned the body part there.” Caridad grinned. “They think we’ll have to dive.”

    Unlike the Slayer, John wasn’t happy to hear that. Diving was dangerous even under the best circumstances. People had drowned in water that was only two yards deep while diving. Swimming, or, rather, getting dragged by underwater sledges, to get close to a target was one thing, but actually searching a cursed demon god body part underwater? Even without any interference by an enemy, that would be a lethal danger. If you had to expect fanatic cultists coming after you? He grimaced.

    “Oh?” Caridad looked surprised. “Don’t worry, Sunnydale’s Hellmouth is closed. It’s no longer a demon magnet.”

    He sighed. This would take a while to explain.

    *****​

    “Hi, guys! We’ve survived Ellie’s wrath, and things are alright - for the time being, at least,” Bartowski called out as he entered the living room. “So… what’s wrong?” he stared at them. No, at Caridad.

    “We’re all going to die,” the Slayer told him.

    “What?”

    “We’re not going to die,” John corrected her. “But we’re going to something extremely dangerous.”

    “We’re going to dive for demons in Sunnydale,” Caridad said.

    “What?” Bartowski looked from John to Caridad and back, before turning to Walker, who entered behind him.

    “London called. They found the rest of the body parts. And we’ve got the mission to get the one in Sunnydale.”

    “Oh.” Bartowski blinked, then sighed. “Of course there would be one in Sunnydale. Where else?”

    Walker, fortunately, was focused on the mission. “And it’s underwater?”

    “According to the coordinates we’ve been sent, yes,” John told her. He turned the laptop around and pointed at the marker on the satellite map. “In the middle of Sunnydale Bay.”

    “In the middle?” Bartowski leaned forward. “That would be Sunnydale High.”

    “Not the exact centre,” John corrected himself. “A little off.”

    “Oh. That’s…” Bartowski craned his neck. “I actually don’t know what’s there. Can you overlay the old map?”

    Instead of doing so, John pushed the laptop towards the nerd.

    “Thanks!”

    Bartowski hit a few keys, then leaned back. “Oh. No wonder I didn’t recognise the place. That was a private manor.”

    “Can we actually do anything without heavy excavation equipment?” Walker asked. “That’s all rubble, isn’t it?”

    “Most likely,” John agreed.

    “But if it had magic protections - and it would have them - then it could’ve survived the sinkhole. And such cursed things tend to be found no matter what,” Bartowski said. “I don’t think that we can assume it’s safely buried without, uh, actually checking.”

    “Diving for a cursed body part. Probably with magic protections.” John shook his head.

    “Uh, yes. Sorry, but…”

    “Yes, yes. I’ll do it.” John was the best-trained diver in the group. He would have to go down.

    “And I’ll be your diving buddy!” Caridad said.

    “You’re not trained,” he retorted.

    “I learn fast. And no one else has much experience, either.” She grinned. “But I’m the only one who can sense the cursed thing, so I have to go down. With you.”

    He wanted to argue that she was needed on top, to deal with cultists. But she was right - she was the only one who could actually find the body part. John sighed. “We’ll need to get you more training.” Preferably not in the Sunnydale Bay.

    “Yes!”

    That was a remarkably quick change from her earlier mood, he noticed. Probably the Slayer competitive spirit at work.

    *****​

    Pacific Ocean, West of Los Angeles, May 3rd, 2008

    John looked around. At this depth, the expected depth of their target, he didn’t need additional light to see everything. Not with the sun shining. There was Caridad, swimming towards him, trailing a string of bubbles from her respirator.

    She was moving gracefully - better than he could, even with his shoulder finally healed. Not that he had ever been worried about her swimming skills. Nor did he fear that she would be panicking and losing her directions while diving. Diving was more than swimming underwater. Even with the support of modern diving watches and computers, a diver had to know what they were doing, how long they could stay underwater at any given depth - and, most importantly, how long they had to stay at any given depth to avoid the bends.

    He raised his arm and made a few gestures. She looked confused for a moment, then nodded and flashed the appropriate signs back. Good. Communication was vital. They wouldn’t be skimming five yards below the surface this time, but dive down to ten, fifteen yards. And search the seabed. Sure, they were supposed to have a communication system rigged up by Bartowski, but… John didn’t trust such systems. Not with his life. If something went wrong, you needed alternatives.

    Caridad swam so close up to him, their masks touched. She was smiling behind hers, he knew. And she pointed up, at the surface.

    After a moment, he agreed. They had done all the training they could afford - they need to get to Sunnydale Bay now, to keep their timetable.

    After all, they were working with several other teams who would all be striking at the same time.

    Tomorrow.

    *****​

    They returned to the surface, after the required decompression stops, and climbed aboard the yacht they had rented. Grimes was sitting at the table in the back, a stack of folded towels on the seat next to him.

    “Thanks, Morgan!” Caridad beamed at him as she began to peel off her wetsuit.

    John nodded at the Watcher; the towels were pointless before they had showered, but it was a nice thought.

    “How was the dive?”

    “No problems,” John replied as he shimmied out of his own suit.

    Caridad was more vocal, but there wasn’t much to talk about. It was a routine training dive, nothing more. No problems meant it had fulfilled its function.

    “We should save water,” Caridad said with a smirk as they went belowdecks.

    “I don’t think that would actually save water,” he replied, raising his eyebrows. “And it might wreck the shower,” he added. The thing was cramped, as expected on a small yacht.

    She pouted, then sighed. “I guess you’re right.”

    He nodded, then hesitated. Caridad wasn’t usually that frisky, and she had seen the shower before. So… Right. He reached out to hug her.

    Caridad grabbed him and held him - not quite crushing, but he had trouble breathing for a second before she relaxed and leaned against him.

    He didn’t ask if she was nervous or afraid of the upcoming mission. He knew better than that. He simply held her.

    And tried to ignore the reaction holding her while both were in bathing clothes caused.

    *****​

    Pacific Ocean, Sunnydale Bay, May 4th, 2008

    John checked his GPS. They were exactly over the position Rosenberg’s coordinates marked. He guided the yacht away a little, then yelled: “Drop anchor!”. He’d rather not park the ship straight above a potential threat like a cursed demon god body part.

    Not that they had a fix on the part’s exact location, anyway. Magic apparently wasn’t that precise, and the scrying spells Brown-Smythe had tried in Los Angeles - the Watcher was holding down the fort there - had failed. Which indicated that at least some of the magical protections were still intact.

    Not that John was worried - he had gone on more dangerous missions. He sighed as he cut the engines and checked the rest of the systems before leaving the bridge. He was worried, of course. But you didn’t show that before a mission. Not if your team members were nervous as well.

    “Everything’s set up,” Bartowski told him as he entered the tiny dining room, which the nerd had taken over for his electronics. “Dad’s hacking into the drone base, too, so we have air support if we need it. Of course, he can’t exactly have the drone loiter above us - the Air Force would shoot it down - but if we have a little warning, we can send the cultists to hell with a Hellfire missile or two!”

    “Good.” John nodded curtly. Of course, odds were that such a drone would arrive too late, and hacking one would draw a lot of attention, more than they could afford. He didn’t fancy resurfacing and staring down the barrel of a navy ship’s turret. But as a last resort, you could do worse than calling in a drone strike.

    Bartowski smiled in return. “Too bad we don’t have underwater drones. Those would be really helpful.”

    “We might not recognise the body part on a video screen,” John said. Hell, he might stare straight at it and miss it, if the right spell was active or something - the tales Brown-Smythe had told, and the stories Bartowski and Grimes had shared from Sunnydale…

    “That’s a good point.”

    John nodded again and headed to his and Caridad’s cabin to grab his gear.

    Sunnydale. They were right above the town’s ruins. There shouldn’t be anything left intact. Not after falling into a sinkhole which then had been buried under the sea. Tunnels would have collapsed, buildings crushed, things swept away.

    And yet… he could almost envision finding a haunted house under the sea, populated by ghosts and sea monsters. Some magic trap or ambush, just waiting for them.

    He shuddered as he grabbed his sports bag, then cursed and tried to push the stupid idea out of his mind. It was time to focus on the mission.

    On deck, Caridad was slipping into her suit already. Or trying to - he stepped up and helped her. No need to have her wreck another suit because the neoprene wasn’t rated for her strength.

    “Thanks.”

    “No problem,” he replied, patting her back as she zipped up.

    Bane appeared, wearing a bikini, followed by Grimes in ugly shorts. “You’re going down already? The other teams aren’t supposed to start until evening,” the man said.

    “The other teams don’t have to go underwater to find their target,” John replied. Even with several hours worth of diving before the evening, they might not even find it in time for the mission’s official start.

    “Ah.”

    Bane simply nodded and grabbed a bag of her own. “We’ll be sunbathing on the foredeck,” she said.

    John nodded as he slipped into his own suit. They’d keep up the ‘tourists on a pleasure cruise’ cover. There weren’t many tourists, even now, to Sunnydale, but that was no reason to grow sloppy. It only took one nosy old woman to ruin a mission, as the Mossad had found out in Switzerland, after all.

    *****​

    Twenty minutes later, John and Caridad were ready for the first dive. Suits, weapons, respirator, oxygen tanks, flippers, masks - he had double-checked everything. Bane and Grimes were on the foredeck, keeping an eye on the sea and sky under the guise of sunbathing. Walker would be joining them once she finished getting the Stinger and AT-4 ready and stashed close at hand. And Bartowski was on the bridge, monitoring radio and electronic communications.

    “Let’s do this,” John said.

    “Yes!” Caridad smiled, the picture of an eager Slayer.

    He didn’t call her out on this. Everyone knew how dangerous this was. Even Grimes - he had grown up here, after all.

    He nodded and let himself fall overboard, into the sea.

    As always, the sudden quietness struck him. Everything was muted, which made the sounds he did hear stand out even more. Next to him, Caridad plunged into the water, trailing air bubbles as she reoriented herself. He made eye contact, then pointed down.

    And they were off. The water was clear - there was no river carrying mud with it into the bay, and it was a sort of natural harbour if there were anything left to dock to, which helped. He could see the field of rubble forming the seabed below as he swam down. The remains of a wall stuck out, broken concrete riddled with pieces of rebar. I didn’t match the blueprints of the manor they were looking for - far too modern. But on the other side, the area there looked like someone had scattered a giant bucket of bricks and tiles all over the ground. He checked where Caridad was, then pointed at it.

    She took the lead, quickly descending to the seabed - he noted the depth and marked the time - and picked up a brick, holding it in front of her face. Was she studying it, or sensing something? She couldn’t smell anything underwater, but magic wasn’t physical. Or not just physical.

    Then she dropped it and shook her head. He looked around while she swam above the rubble. Probably randomly - it wasn’t any pattern he recognised. Certainly not a search pattern. But then, she was the Slayer. He was just her dive buddy. Overwatch.

    He checked his harpoon gun, strapped to his oxygen tank. It would take care of a shark, or any other aquatic predator that might bother them. But he didn’t know how well it’s fare against an underwater demon. The explosive charge might not affect those things at all. And he didn’t fancy fighting anything with just his knife.

    Caridad swam up towards him, then stopped, shaking her head. Nothing here, then. Well, there were plenty of areas to search. He dropped a buoy to mark the area and pointed at the next.

    *****​

    “Nothing!” Caridad blurted out as soon as she’d spat out the respirator. “I didn’t feel anything,” she added as she pulled herself onto the yacht.

    He followed her, with a little more effort - diving was tiring work. Walker, dressed in a bikini as well now, held out her hand but he managed by himself. “We started searching the immediate area, but with the way the town collapsed, the manor could’ve ended up further away,” he told her.

    She nodded.

    “That will greatly enlarge the area you have to search, though,” Bartowski, in shorts and an ugly Hawaii shirt, commented.

    “Yes,” John replied, looking at him, and the nerd blushed a little for stating the obvious just to say something.

    “Uh… radio traffic is normal, nothing in the ‘net either. Chavez might not even know about this location, of course, but, on the other hand, it is Sunnydale, and any, uh, practitioner would know about it.”

    Caridad finished peeling herself out of her suit - John hadn’t yet started - and ran her hands through her hair. “And even if he knew, he probably would go for a location where he doesn’t have to dive.”

    “He seems the type who hires others for such work,” Bartowski replied.

    John nodded in agreement. “Keep an eye out.” He had a bad feeling about this.

    “After we’ve eaten!” Caridad declared. “I’m starving!”

    “We’ve got lunch ready,” Bartowski said. “Mostly sandwiches, but we’ve got some pasta too…”

    By the time John had finished stripping off his suit, Caridad had already gone through two sandwiches and was on her third bowl of pasta. Well, everyone had expected this.

    “I’m monitoring the sea traffic,” Bartowski said while John started on a roast beef sandwich of his own. “So far, there’s been no sign of Chavez’s yacht, but he could’ve easily altered the registration.”

    “Cartel members don’t use their real name and address for their yachts,” Walker added. “He can use their contacts.”

    “Or trade his yacht for something else,” Bane said.

    “Like a plane? Or another yacht?” Grimes asked.

    “Why are the bad guys always rich?” Caridad complained. “Why can’t they be on a shoestring budget? I’d like to fight a bad guy who has to take the bus to go places! Or a bad guy who doesn’t have hordes of minions at his…” She trailed off and narrowed her eyes, then grabbed the binoculars from the bench next to her. “Zodiacs!” she announced after a glance. “Four of them, headed towards us.”

    Goddamnit. Rockets and missiles would be almost useless against zodiacs. Hell, even with guns they’d be hard to hit if they kept their distance and went evasive. Unlike a stationary yacht. “Get us moving!” John yelled, grabbing an M249 from the bag at their feet.

    “Uh… alright!”

    As John set up the SAW, the first shots rang out - bursts. The enemy had light machine guns as well. Perfect. Bane was already returning fire, as was Walker, but the distance was a little too long still. Not for the enemy, though - John noticed several shots hitting and punching through the railing near the bridge, followed by a yelp from Bartowski.

    “Chuck!” Walker yelled. Predictable.

    “I’m OK! Just startled!”

    “Start the engine!” John yelled back as he opened fire himself.

    His first and second burst went wide, but his third was on target, but he saw no one fall before all zodiacs started weaving through the water - John’s tracers must have unnerved them. “Get us closer!”

    “Closer?”

    “Yes! We need to take them out!” He fired again and again, short bursts, all on target, but to no effect. None that he could see, at least. Other than forcing the enemy to evade and throwing off their aim that way.

    “Anchor’s up!” Caridad yelled, jumping and landing next to him, then reaching into the weapon bag.

    “Use tracers!” he yelled to her over the noise from shooting and the engines springing to life.

    As Bartowski swung the yacht around, the enemy spread out. That meant John could only target two of them from his position on the afterdeck. Good enough for now. “Shoot the closer one!” he told Caridad, focusing on the other himself.

    The Slayer started shooting, tracers flying out - she used long bursts, too long for anyone who couldn’t keep a rocking assault rifle steady as a vice. The leading zodiac swerved away. Good. John kept up his short bursts. If he could make the enemy piloting the boat blink…

    His next burst was completely on target, and he saw the pilot slump over, then fall. The zodiac suddenly veered off to port, a far too tight turn… there! It flipped over after hitting a wave. John switched to the next zodiac on his side as the distance closed.

    More bullets hit the yacht - one of the bridge windows splintered and the railing next to John sprouted more holes. He changed magazines on the M249, then continued firing. Cariad was going through magazines like an addict through a medicine cabinet.

    Despite the zodiac’s wild manoeuvring, the volume of fire began to tell. One of their gunners fell into the water, then another, and as the pilot held course a little too long, turning away, John’s next burst caught him in the back. That left...

    A scream, followed by Grimes’ panicked yelling. “Kirsten! Kirsten’s hit!”

    John cursed again and grabbed the SAW, moving it to the other side. “Help them!”

    And Caridad was off. He set the gun up and checked the enemy. Both zodiacs were still attacking - circling them - but both had lost at least one gunner. Walker was firing on the closer one, so John picked the one farther away.

    It took him another box magazine, but he managed to take out both the pilot and remaining shooter, leaving the boat going in a circle on the sea, the engine stuck at an angle. Walker had killed the last gunner on her zodiac, and the boat was trying to escape. This pilot, though, kept weaving, taking short, random turns, which made hitting him damned difficult.

    But not impossible. The man’s luck ran out before he managed to get out of the range of their guns, and John saw him jerk, then slide to the side, into the water. “How’s Bane?” he yelled before putting a few more bursts into both zodiacs - no sense in letting survivors in the water recover them; best if they had to swim to the shore.

    “She’ll live!” Caridad yelled back.

    Good. He quickly took stock of their situation. The yacht was running, Holed like swiss cheese in places, but nothing vital seemed to have been hit. Nothing serious - the pumps could handle any bullet holes below the waterline. Bane was out, but she wasn’t essential for the mission. But… John hadn’t seen any diving gear in the enemy boats. And he doubted that Chavez had been in any zodiac, either. So… “It’s a distraction!” he yelled. “Take us back!”

    Bartowski got it at once. “Oh, no! They’re making their move underwater!”

    John nodded. “Yes. We need to dive.”

    “Just the two of you?” Bartowski asked. “We don’t know how many enemies are down below. Or what they are.”

    “We can improvise depth charges.” Some C-4, with the right detonator… that would mess up anyone underwater.

    “That won’t faze some water-based demons. Demons made out of cursed water,” Grimes chimed in.

    Bartowski nodded. “Yes. They should be pretty immune to explosions. Unless they’ve got other parts.”

    “It’ll kill any humans though - like cartel killers or mercenaries,” Walker said.

    “So, let’s drop a depth charge, then go diving to mop up what’s left!” Caridad said.

    John couldn’t tell if she was eager or just putting up a brave front. It was even odds, what with the recent fight winding her up. “Get me the spare depth gauge,” he said as he went to grab the C-4 and a waterproof detonator.

    “Can’t we just use a timer?” Bane asked from where she was sitting, bandaged but still able to at least shoot.

    He shook his head. “No. I don’t want to blow up the seabed and unearth whatever might be buried there. Or have some demon throw the charge back at us.”

    Bane paled a little more. “Good point.”

    “Yes, very good point. But let me do it!” Bartowski cut in. “You get ready to dive.” John looked at him. “I’ll just link the detonator and the gauge. I won’t touch the explosives! Promise!”

    John grunted in agreement and went to the afterdeck, where Caridad was already suiting up. “Check the gear,” he told her. “Some stray bullet might’ve hit something.” Not the pressure tanks, of course - they’d have noticed one of those blowing up.

    “But we don’t have much time left!”

    “We won’t have any time left if something breaks underwater,” he retorted as the ship started to turn around - Walker had the conn.

    She frowned but started to look at the diving gear. And she found a torn air tube. “We’d have noticed that right away,” she commented.

    He grunted in return.

    “We’re above the site,” Walker reported. “Something’s on the sonar. No idea what.”

    He went to take a look. The yacht’s sonar was meant to help with fishing, but it was more for show - the kind of gimmick people with too much money and not enough common sense bought. But even so, something was moving beneath them. Good enough for John. “Got the detonator ready?” he yelled.

    “Almost, just connecting the last... Done!” Bartowski replied.

    Good. John went to grab the C-4. He licked his lips as he calculated the amount he needed - well, the amount that wouldn’t blow the yacht up as well. Better safe than sorry, but the mission came first. On the other hand, if he managed to blow up his own team, the mission would be scrapped anyway. And the others would be dead.

    He erred on the side of caution.

    Bartowski handed him the improvised detonator. “It should be waterproof for, well… a minute or two.” He smiled weakly. “It doesn’t need to last longer, right?”

    “No. Walker, as soon as I throw this, take us away as fast as possible!” John said.

    “Ready,” she replied.

    He switched the detonator on and launched the charge. The engines started to roar before it hit the water, and the yacht sped away. “Everyone, down!” John yelled.

    “Sarah!”

    “I’m driving!”

    “Set it on autopilot!” Bartowski yelled.

    “It won’t go at that speed!” she yelled back.

    John glanced up. Walker was crouching behind the steering wheel. That would have to do.

    A few seconds later, a water column shot up behind them as the charge blew up. And then the shock wave reached them, lifting the stern of the yacht out of the water. John held on to the bench next to which he was crouching, but Grimes was thrown forward, crashing into the stairs leading belowdecks.

    Then the yacht crashed back down. John managed to hold on again, but not everyone did. He heard Bartowski yelling and saw the man crashing into the railing at the stern. Damn. “Everyone alright?” he asked as he got up. “Bring us about, Walker!”

    The yacht started turning, so Walker was alright.

    Bartowski groaned and started to get up. But Grimes…

    “I think dislocated my shoulder,” the man said from the stairs.

    “I’m OK,” Caridad said. John hadn't expected anything else. It took more than that to hurt a Slayer.

    “Uh. I’m… OK. I think,” Bartowski said.

    “Sit down,” John snapped. “And don’t get in the way.”

    He finished suiting up as they returned to the position of the former manor.

    “No bodies in the water,” Caridad said. “Just fish.”

    “Bodies wouldn’t float,” John said. They would’ve been trimmed to stay below.

    “The sonar is not working,” Walker reported.

    Perfect. “Let’s go down,” John said, grabbing the respirator.

    Time to hunt underwater. Or be hunted. He checked his gear one last time - cursory, though, just out of reflexes - then let himself fall backwards into the water. A twist and he was swimming downwards. Unfortunately, the explosion had thrown up silt and sand over a large area, turning the formerly clear water muddy. They would do better to wait until the currents had diluted the whole thing, but that wasn’t an option.

    Underwater and practically blind past a few yards - there were worse conditions, but John couldn’t remember having fought in any.

    A shape appeared next to him - Caridad, waving at him, then pointing to the side before swimming into that direction.

    She must be sensing a demon. Great. He followed her, feeling both relieved to be with her and angry at hiding behind her as he drew his harpoon gun and checked the harpoon. The tip sported all the different materials the nerds had managed to scrounge up, so it should hurt pretty much every demon that was vulnerable to something. Given that some demons weren’t vulnerable to specific stuff, it wasn’t particularly comforting.

    He almost lost Caridad in the murky water but managed to catch up when she stopped a few yards above the seabed. There was a body floating down there, trailing blood in the current. Diver, standard scuba gear, human. Or human-looking. And he had a spear gun on a strap tied to his wrist.

    But Caridad wasn’t looking at the body. She was looking at the water. Damn. He swam a little closer to her. If they got separated… something moved! He lined up his harpoon gun, but Caridad was faster, shooting towards the thing with two long knives out. He saw her twist out of the way of something, striking at it as it passed. And he heard a scream. Inhuman. Screeching.

    The water was moving, rippling - like something invisible. Gritting his teeth, he aimed and fired. The harpoon flew, trailing bubbles - and then stuck in water. Invisible water demons. Damn.

    The thing turned, presumably to face him, but there was Caridad again, hacking at it with her knives, close to where his harpoon was stuck. And the thing screeched again, loud enough to make John’s head and ears hurt before the screaming cut off.

    Caridad made cutting motions, then kicked off and withdrew. John floated closer, reaching out to recover his harpoon. Something brushed over his hand and arm, and he jerked it back. It had felt like leather. Or sharkskin. He grabbed his harpoon on the second try and pulled. Then he finally saw it. A torn, almost transparent skin as large as himself, partially wrapped around his harpoon, twisting in the currents like a giant jellyfish. A demon that had been filled with water?

    And there could be more of them around. Would be - Caridad was still tense, looking into one direction in particular. He swam towards her until he entered her field of vision, then pointed in the same direction.

    She looked at him, nodded, then started swimming. He followed. Visibility was improving, which was a mixed blessing with invisible demons around. At least all the sand and silt made it easier to spot the things when they were close to gutting you, or whatever they did to kill people. Probably drowned them - they didn’t seem to have teeth.

    Caridad swam at a fast clip now, and he had once again trouble keeping up. She was headed straight towards the seabed. Then he saw a broken ornamental turret appear in front of them - jutting out of the field of rubble. One of the few landmarks here. Now he knew where they are - for all the good it did to him.

    Caridad jerked again, kicking her legs to propel herself back towards him, blades out and flashing in a complicated pattern. John caught the hint of movement, but not quick enough to shoot. Caridad kept swimming back towards him, head turning - tracking another of those things. He followed her gaze with the harpoon gun. All he needed to do was to hit it again. That would let Caridad track it better. And slow it down.

    He squinted - the water was clearing up slowly, but there were still particles reducing visibility, especially when they caught the light, and… there! He saw movement again, coming towards them, but at an angle. No matter, it was almost close enough to hit it easily with his gun…

    Caridad suddenly whirled, turning away from the monster - and looking straight at John. No, at something behind him!

    He kicked out and felt his feet hit something solid but not hard. Like a water bed. Then something hit his side, and he was pushed towards the seabed, ribs cracking. He clenched his teeth to avoid screaming and losing his respirator, and kicked out again, twisting to bring his harpoon gun to bear, but the thing was gone already. Caridad arrived, turning towards him - he signalled that he was OK, but before she could reply, she was hit as well, from the other side. She managed to twist and slash at the monster, but it didn’t look as if she’d hit it.

    Two near-invisible demons, doing hit and run attacks on them. He swam close to Caridad, putting his back to hers. They had to cover each other or they were dead. They might be dead anyway. How did you deal with this?

    They had to get some cover, at least one direction. He grabbed Caridad’s arm. A blade shot towards him but stopped before it cut his head off. He ignored it as much as he could and pointed downwards. Towards the turret’s remains.

    She nodded, then grabbed his belt and dragged him down. He kept the harpoon gun trained on the water behind them as they descended. Movement! He fired, but the harpoon missed and disappeared in the murky water. He frantically grabbed another to reload, kicking out with his feet. The demons would be attacking him now!

    And it did. His feet hit something, then he felt it slide past, along his legs. He struck with the harpoon gun, hitting something, then stabbed with the harpoon in his hand. Another screech. Yes!

    Then a blow hit his stomach, and he folded like a jackknife, the air driven out of his lungs and the respirator from his mouth.

    He grabbed for it, dropping the harpoon, then the gun, but something was quicker - it was pulled out of his reach. And with a Slayer dragging him towards the seabed, and a demon tugging at his air tube, the rubber would soon snap.

    Then it would be even odds if the demon killed him before he drowned.

    *****​
     
  25. Threadmarks: Chapter 23: The Sunnydale Mission Part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2015
    Messages:
    2,723
    Likes Received:
    17,541
    Chapter 23: The Sunnydale Mission Part 2

    Pacific Ocean, Sunnydale Bay, May 4th, 2008

    John pressed his lips together and clenched his teeth as the air tube went taut. He wasn’t going to be able to hold his breath for long; not after that blow to the chest. And Caridad was still pulling at his belt.

    Both of them had buddy respirators - but that would be useless in the middle of a fight. No choice. The rubber tube wouldn’t resist the tug of war for long, not even with Caridad not having too much leverage in the water. He fumbled with his belt buckle for a second that seemed to stretch even more than his air tube before he triggered the quick release - and shot up, towards the water demon.

    The tube went slack again as he drew his knife, and then he hit the demon, the shark-like skin scraping over his suit as he slid along it. He raised his knife and drove it down with both hands, as fast and as hard as he could.

    He felt the tip slide over the skin before it caught on something and he felt himself being pushed away by his own blow. No. Not now. He wrapped his arm around the air tube to anchor himself and pushed back.

    The demon hit his side, which once more sent pain flaring up in his ribs, but he had no more air to lose - and he stabbed at it again. And again. And again. He felt the blade penetrate for the first time and pulled down, cutting the damned thing wide open.

    He was hit in turn, hard enough to make his vision black out for a moment, but he kept pulling until his knife ripped free, and then a cloud of warm liquid enveloped him. His head was still ringing - his vision blacking... No, that was lack of air!

    Desperately, he groped for the respirator. It was at the end of the air tube. Which was wrapped around… his… left… There!

    He smashed it into his mouth, hurting his teeth, and drew a deep breath. Air! Sweet air! And blood. Foul, rotting blood - the respirator must have been covered in the demon’s blood. Or liquid corpse.

    He took another breath, kicking his legs to get out of the invisible cloud of demon blood, then spit out the respirator and filled his mouth with seawater to wash the filthy taste away.

    Another breath. Yes. But he was raising towards the surface - damn, without his belt, he was too buoyant. And his ears were already protesting, and if he rose much higher...

    He dived towards the seabed, hoping he hadn’t caught the bends. Dying to the bends after killing a water demon underwater? He wanted to laugh as he entered the murky water above the rubble field once more.

    Where was Caridad? And where was the other demon? Was that the last? He looked around, knife in hand, legs kicking to keep him diving, keep him from rising to the surface.

    Where was the landmark?

    Something moved towards him, and he raised the knife. Then he relaxed. It was Caridad swimming towards him. And waving his belt.

    He gripped his air tube and mimicked pulling on it. Wait. He spat the respirator out and mimicked getting dragged away.

    In response, she shot towards him. He had barely time to put the respirator back into his mouth before she started patting him down - looking for injuries, he guessed. One hand touched his side, and he jerked. Damn. That was worse than a bruise.

    She pointed up, towards the surface.

    He shook his head in response. They had a mission to do. There might be more of those demons around. And they hadn’t secured the body part, yet. Nor had they ensured that it couldn’t be recovered.

    She looked at the belt she was still holding, then handed it over. He grinned for a moment with the respirator in his mouth.

    They’d finish the mission. They still had… Damn. During the fight, his diving computer had been broken. And he hadn’t noticed until now. Sloppy of him. Very sloppy. This was the kind of mistake that got divers killed. And their inexperienced buddies depending on them.

    But his diving watch was working fine. He quickly checked their depth and diving time. Yes, they could search for a while longer and still have enough air to resurface safely.

    He pointed at the ground, and Caridad turned and dived. She was still annoyed, though - she was swimming just a touch too fast for him to easily keep up.

    Well, he could handle that.

    They reached the seabed, and with the current spreading the muddy waters out, John could see a few more bodies on the ground. Half a dozen human divers? That was a lot. But how had they been planning to recover the body part? He couldn’t spot a sledge or other heavy equipment.

    Perhaps… he swam to the closest corpse. If they planned to blast their way to the body part… No. No explosives on that diver. He swam to the next, but Caridad intercepted him, signing a question.

    He pointed at the corpse, then mimicked an explosion with his hands. Her eyes widened behind her mask, and then she was off. He was just checking the second body when she returned, shaking her head. No explosives.

    So what had been the enemy’s plan? And how had they planned to find the thi