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

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Starfox5, Aug 22, 2020.

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  1. Threadmarks: Chapter 1: The Hunt
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    The Burbank Wedding

    Summary:
    Caridad Ramirez was a happy Slayer. She had stopped an apocalypse almost by herself, with just a little help from the Council, she had her city under control, and she had a boyfriend who didn’t mind that she was a Slayer. Her biggest problem was ensuring that the upcoming Bartowski wedding didn’t go wrong. Or so she thought. Sequel to “The Burbank Team”.

    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 Hunt

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, May 31st, 2008

    Somewhere in this club was a vampire. Caridad knew it - she could smell its foul stench clearly. But there were too many people to easily spot the demon. Too many on the dance floor, too many sitting in every corner, drinking, flirting and making out. Or doing so on the dance floor, she noticed, passing a couple who was dancing particularly closely.

    A guy moved to dance in front of her, flashing artificially white teeth. She briefly shook her head and walked past him. There were too many trying to hit on her, too, to hunt the vampire in peace. Well, it wasn’t as if they could help it - Caridad knew that she was hot and her clothes hid her weapons but not her figure. Her tight pants showed off her legs and her tube top and laced up boots drew attention away from her jacket, which held most of her weapons. Of course, she had to dress like this to fit in with the clubbing crowd. You couldn’t hunt vampires looking like a hobo.

    Then the song changed, and she had to squint and turn her head when strobe lights lit up, and suddenly, the entire crowd seemed to be moving in slow motion - or going backwards. Damn!

    She clenched her teeth, growling under breath - couldn’t the DJ have kept the slow music going on a little longer? Finding the damn bloodsucker was now much harder than before.

    “Are you alright?” she heard John ask through the bud in her ear - she had forgotten about the throat mic concealed in her choker.

    “Yes,” she whispered. “Just annoyed at the DJ.” She heard him chuckle in return. There was no need to go into details. This was just a temporary setback. No, just a slight annoyance.

    Or - she grinned as she caught the vampire’s scent much more clearly - an opportunity! The strobe lights made it difficult to see what was happening, but that went for everyone. Especially for potential witnesses. And she was close to the bloodsucker - it couldn’t be further away than five yards, tops.

    She closed her eyes for a moment and focused. Or tried to - she had never been a fan of all the mystic shit Chao-Ahn was so fond of. But she could find bloodsuckers with her eyes closed if she had to. Which she had.

    She drew another deep breath. Phil claimed that she didn’t need to actually smell to find the vampire, but it certainly helped. Stale cigarette smoke, cheap perfume and deodorants, alcohol, weed and other drugs… but also blood. Old blood. She slowly turned, her nostrils flaring again. Yes - the twinge and the scent came from that direction.

    She opened her eyes and started walking. There was a man, standing at the wall. Tall, broad-shouldered, wearing a slightly too-tight t-shirt and definitely too-tight jeans. And he was talking to the bloodsucker. Which was a dolled-up valley girl. Tied-off shirt, Daisy-Dukes that tried too hard to be a thong, stiletto heels that doubled as daggers - no class, no fashion, but it certainly attracted horny idiots with no sense of self-preservation.

    But how to separate the idiot from the corpse? The bloodsucker had him hooked line and sinker, or however the saying went.

    Caridad cocked her head. The song had still two minutes left. Two minutes of flashing light that made it all but impossible to follow whatever was happening. And two minutes of loud music that would mask the sounds of battle. She grinned. Damn subtlety!

    She tensed and stalked towards the vampire, gliding past a dancing boy. The demon didn’t notice her until she was almost in melee range, and even then it didn’t realise that Caridad wasn’t just another girl trying to make a move on the boy - it bared its teeth at her in a snarl. “Get Lost! I saw him f…”

    Caridad cut the vampire off with a blow to the stomach that folded it over, following up with a knee to its face, then grabbed the reeling vampire’s head and smashed it several times into the concrete wall behind it. In the strobe light, it looked almost funny - as if the vampire was teleporting into the wall without anyone doing anything.

    By now, the horny idiot had started to move, but a slight tap to the solar plexus stopped him in his tracks, and another tap to the chest sent him into the seat behind him. The vampire was starting to recover, so Caridad smashed its face in a few more times.

    It was young and hadn’t fed in a while - it wasn’t healing as quickly as an older vampire would, much less a master vampire. Good - exactly what they needed.

    Caridad broke the demon’s arms and legs, then heaved it over her shoulder and quickly walked towards the closest emergency exit. “I’ve got it,” she whispered. “Heading to the southern side alley.”

    “Copy,” John replied, and she could hear his car’s engine starting up.

    By the time she stepped out of the club and into the dark side alley next to it, John was already waiting there with the car. And the metal cables that would hold the vampire until they reached a suitable place to interrogate it.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Eastside, May 31st, 2008

    The underground car park had seen better times, just like the small office building above it. Water had seeped in through cracks in the foundation, causing mould to sprout up, and all sorts of waste, human and other, were strewn about.

    Caridad frowned - and not just because the stench assaulted her nostrils. People should know better than using the basements of abandoned buildings for shelter. Not only didn’t they have any barriers that would keep vampires out, but they also kept sunshine out - places like the one they had just entered with their car were practically vampire blood farms.

    Not for the first time, Caridad wished they could just go public with the truth about demons. It would save so many lives. But that would fuel the belief in magic. And because there were a shitload more people around since the last time everyone had believed in magic, that belief would wake up the kind of elder gods or demons no one, not even demons, wanted to wake up.

    Well, they had to stick to the next best thing: Kill as many of the demons as they could! And their captive tonight would help them with that goal!

    She looked around again, smelled the air to check that there were no witnesses, then pulled the vamp out of the car and dropped it in a corner, right into a puddle of cold water mixed with oil and gasoline. The fledgling had recovered during the trip here, but Caridad could still see some bruises on its face.

    She grinned at the glaring monster and checked its bonds. All good. Reaching down, she ripped the gag out of the vampire’s mouth, taking a fang with it.

    “You bitch! I’m gonna kill you, meatbag!”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. That vampire really was too dumb to, well, unlive. Exist. Whatever. Did it honestly think a normal human would have overpowered and kidnapped it? Well, John probably could’ve done it, but he wasn’t exactly normal, either.

    She grinned at the thought, and at the vampire. “Pipe down, bloodsucker.”

    Behind her, she heard John leave the car and walk over towards them.

    “I’ll kill you and your friend - I’ll kill him first and make you watch!”

    John stepped up his pace, and as he reached Caridad’s side, he took another two steps forward and smashed his steel-capped boot into the vamp’s face, slamming its head into the wall behind it. “Amateur.”

    Caridad made an agreeing noise and stepped forward to pull the monster up. “Shut up, bloodsucker, and look what we brought.” She grabbed its hair - fortunately, it was freshly styled; some vamps, especially males had icky greasy hair that hadn’t seen shampoo since they rose - and forced it to look at the bag John had brought.

    John opened it and started to pull out various tools and stuff, lining it up next to it while he commented on his own work. “Holy water. Wooden nails. A lighter. Some gasoline. Pliers.” He held up a set and grinned.

    That, to Caridad’s slight envy, finally made the vamp shut up and stare at them. “Who… who are you?”

    That was her cue. She bared her teeth at the monster and said: “I’m the Slayer. And you’re going to tell us all you know.”

    The gasp from the vampire was very satisfying.

    She crouched down - out of the demon’s reach, of course - and grabbed one of the wooden nails. “What do you know about Nathan?”

    The vampire flinched. “N-nothing! I mean… who’s Nathan?”

    Caridad sighed - then glared and snapped her arm forward, sending the nail into the monster’s biceps. “What do you know about Nathan?” she asked again, once the screaming had died down. This might take a while.

    *****​

    “I really don’t know where he is! Only those who graduate from the training camp do! That’s all! I swear!”

    Caridad sighed, disappointed, as the bound, whimpering vampire shied away, pressing itself into the corner in a doomed attempt to get away from her. She turned her head and looked at John, who was standing to the side, holding a cross.

    He shrugged. “I don’t think it knows anything else.”

    They had the location of the training camp and a few more names. Not the exact addresses of the vampires, though - just a basement room serving as a meeting area. Not really ground-breaking, but it was a solid lead.

    Caridad drew her stake. Time to finish this. Before the monster could react, or even scream, she staked its heart, then jumped back. No need to get all dusty, or lose the stake.

    “If anyone takes samples from the ground, they’ll have a surprise,” John commented.

    She shook her head. “They’ll think someone spilt an urn here - the kind of dust vampires leave behind would require cremation in special facilities if it were a human.”

    “Ah.” He nodded, and she knew he wouldn’t ask again - he rarely forgot anything. And he was a gentleman where it counted.

    She was smiling at his back as she followed him to their car. Technically, they had just finished a hunt...

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Los Feliz, June 1st, 2008

    “There is the block,” John said as they drove past it, “and the entrance the vampire mentioned.”

    Caridad took a look at the building. It looked normal - not abandoned or decrepit. No boarded windows, not many graffiti… and the one broken window was covered with plastic in a professional way. She frowned. “Are you sure the bloodsucker didn’t lie to us?” That wasn’t how vampire lairs looked - she had taken out enough of them.

    “No, I’m not,” he replied as they took the corner. “You can’t be sure unless you can verify the information during the interrogation - or question a prisoner again. But the vampire didn’t seem to be smart enough to consistently repeat a lie and add enough details to make it convincing.”

    She nodded a little reluctantly. “And vampires aren’t loyal. They’ll sell out each other to save themselves.” But lying to spite the Slayer was a possibility as well. On the other hand, it had been a fledgling, not an older vampire, and a pretty dumb one. “I guess we’ll have to check,” she added, holding up and dangling the keys they had taken from the vamp before she staked it.

    “Not right now,” he told her. “If this is a trap we’re unprepared.”

    “I can handle a training camp,” she retorted. She could.

    “Not if they’re expecting you,” he retorted. “Nathan is rebuilding his forces - and he’s bound to have a cadre of experienced vampires by now.”

    Those who had ‘graduated’ from the training camps. Caridad frowned. Competent enemies with a plan were the worst. “It’s unlikely, though, that they’d use a dumb idiot like our skanky vamp as bait. How could they have expected us to run into her?”

    “Misinformation. Tell your troops the lies you want the enemy to hear, then send them out on missions where there’s a decent chance of them being captured. They could’ve also been using this to test the trainees, see who among them is too smart to fall for it.”

    She frowned some more. Sometimes, she forgot that John wasn’t a former soldier turned Watcher like others, but a former spy - or active spy depending on their next few missions, or something. And then he talked like this, showing that he still thought like a spy. “It’s still unlikely,” she said with a slight huff.

    “Yes,” he agreed. Before she could reply, he went on: “But we don’t have to take the risk anyway. It’s almost morning.”

    Which meant the vampires would’ve fed already. She clenched her teeth but nodded. Slowly. “Let’s return here in a few hours, then.” Around noon sounded good. “How are your ribs?”

    It was his turn to scowl at her. “They’re fine.”

    She nodded again, grinning a little. “Good. I was looking forward to trying out a new position.”

    She saw him glaring at her for a moment before he focused on the road again. “I was fine. It just hurt a little. Like a strained muscle. People have such small injuries all the time.”

    But not Slayers. Or Watchers as fit as John. “You didn’t sound fine.” And she’d had quite the scare, suddenly hearing him grunt in pain. Instead of, well… the other reason.

    “I’m fine now.”

    That was good enough. She nodded. Every Slayer, no matter what they said, had some trouble controlling their strength at first. And while few Slayers might admit it, accidentally hurting your partner because you lost control during sex was a common fear among them, in her opinion. It was for her, at least.

    Time to change the subject - his wounds were a sore topic for John. “So, what are you doing at Devon’s bachelor’s party?”

    “I’m not the best man so I don’t know what is planned,” he replied.

    She snorted. “You’re the best spy. You probably know all about Chuck’s plans.”

    John scoffed. “You expect me to spy on Bartowski to find out what he’s planning? For the bachelor’s party he’s supposed to be organising?”

    He sounded honestly puzzled. But he was a spy. And she knew him quite well by now. So she grinned at him.

    He sighed. “We’ve discussed things. I told him the classics are the classics for a reason.”

    “So, booze, poker and strippers?”

    He raised his eyebrows. “Can you see him hiring a stripper?”

    “Honestly…. No.” Not unless lives depended on it. She chuckled. “But Morgan?”

    He groaned. “I’ll talk to him.”

    “Hey, it’s tradition. Big cake, stripper jumping out…”

    That earned her a glare. “It’s a security risk.”

    “You’re going to vet the stripper?” She chuckled again. This was too fun... She blinked, narrowed her eyes and growled. “You’re not going to vet a stripper!”

    “Just a background check by Orion,” he said. And he was grinning.

    She huffed, crossing her arms. And people said John had no sense of humour. He had one, but it appeared at very inconvenient times.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 1st, 2008

    Caridad grabbed another sandwich - you could never have just one - and a soda and went to rejoin the others at the dining table in John’s - their - home.

    “I’ve gone through the resident’s data trails,” Chuck said, “and there are a couple obvious fake ones.”

    “Let me guess: They live in the basement?” Caridad asked before taking another bite.

    “There’s no apartment in the basement,” he told her.

    “Not officially,” she retorted, “but I doubt that they’re happy living just one broken blinder away from fiery death. Not to mention the fire hazard that would cause.”

    John snorted. “I don’t think Nathan cares much about his minions’ lives.”

    “Unlives,” she corrected him with a smirk.

    “Uh…” Chuck cleared his throat.

    Caridad turned to look at him with an innocent expression as she ate the rest of her sandwich. “Hmm?”

    “I’m currently trying to sort the residents who are illegal immigrants from those who are vampires,” he explained. “Since both are missing a proper data trail, it’s a little challenging.”

    She scoffed. “It’s a good neighbourhood. That requires more money than new immigrants usually have. Just look at the more recent fake IDs.”

    “Uh… but what if there are exceptionally affluent arrivals? Or people sponsored by their relatives who have already settled in? We really don’t want to target the wrong people here,” Chuck said. “And Nathan might’ve used an older ID to rent an apartment for multiple vampires.”

    “As long as we don’t kill them by mistake, it’ll be fine,” John said.

    Caridad frowned. “We just need to check the windows - if the blinders are down and sunlight is being blocked, odds are, they’re vampires.”

    “Or their AC isn’t working,” Chuck said. “Or they work nights.”

    “Or it was done deliberately to lure us into a trap,” John said. “If this is a decoy, then such deceptions are to be expected.”

    “That would be a lot of effort for a marginal effect,” Sarah retorted. “I don’t think they would go to that length just on the off-chance that we would catch on and find the location.”

    “But they will be expecting us as soon as they realise that the vampire we caught didn’t come home,” Caridad said. “We need to strike soon. Preferably at noon.” Which left them about two hours of preparation.

    “Then we probably should disguise us as health inspectors, or something, and check all doors,” Chuck said.

    “Checking for rats?” John asked with a grin.

    “That should work,” Chuck said, a little defensively.

    Caridad agreed. It was a good neighbourhood, but not a super-rich one. Then again, you had rats there as well.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Los Feliz, June 1st, 2008

    Caridad heard the resident walk towards the door right after she had rung the bell. Wheezing breath. Short, shuffling steps. Someone mumbling to herself. Unless Nathan had turned an old woman who was also a great actress, this was another bust - few fledglings bothered with faking a breath.

    But they had to maintain their cover. She straightened and brushed a hand over her fake ‘Department of Public Health’ polo shirt moments before the woman reached the door and smiled brightly.

    “Who’s there?” The woman asked.

    “Mrs Smith? Maria Juarez, Ma’am. L.A. Department of Public Health,” Caridad replied. “This is Mr Black. We’ve received reports that this block might have a pest problem, so we were sent to verify that.”

    John just grunted.

    “Oh. Pest problem?”

    “Rats, mainly,” Caridad told her.

    “Oh, really? Yes, I’ve got a problem with rats!” The door rattled, and a face appeared in the gap. “Come in!”

    Caridad winced at the invitation - that would get the woman killed if a vampire tried to visit her - and at the revelation that Mrs Smith actually had a rat problem. It was supposed to be a simple cover. Not actual work! “Thank you, ma’am.”

    The woman had a little trouble with the door chain, but after some fumbling, the door opened all the way, and Caridad could enter the apartment.

    “They keep eating my dears’ food.”

    “Your dears?” She hadn’t smelt any pet. Nor could she smell any other person.

    “Yes. I leave food out on the balcony, but rats eat it!”

    On the balcony? “Are you feeding the birds?”

    “Yes, of course.”

    Oh. She could almost hear John grinding his teeth as the woman led them through a slightly dusty living room to the door to the balcony.

    “Oh, no! There’s one right there! Catch it!”

    Caridad stared. That was a squirrel on the balcony, plundering the bird feeder. “That’s not a rat, Ma’am,” she said.

    “Of course it’s a rat! Do you think I’m blind?”

    Caridad did actually think the woman was nearly blind. How could she miss the big fluffy tail of the squirrel?

    “Now catch it!”

    She wanted to groan.

    *****​

    “Guys, what happened?” Chuck asked, sounding more than a little concerned. “You spent fifteen minutes inside that apartment.”

    “Nothing,” Caridad snapped.

    “Pest control,” John replied.

    “Pest control?” Chuck repeated.

    “Tree rats.”

    “Tree rats?”

    “I had to catch a bunch of squirrels to shut up the old woman,” Caridad ground out. Squirrels who must have found some drug stash somewhere since they had been far too hard to catch for normal animals and hadn’t smelt like possessed. “And if anyone mentions that ever again, especially in a report to the Council, I’ll be very displeased.”

    “Are you quoting Phil?” Chuck asked.

    Bloody smartass… Caridad blinked. That had been a rather British comment. “So?” she replied. “You’d rather have me quote Faith?” She suppressed the urge to clench her teeth at mentioning the older Slayer. Who had slept with John.

    “No, no, Phil’s good.”

    “Of course he is,” Caridad said. She wished he were back in L.A. already, though. And not helping the Council sort out some legal issues in Merry Old England. Well, he’d be back very soon.

    “Can we focus on the mission?” John snapped.

    “Uh, sure, sorry.”

    “Yes.” She nodded. John was always very professional. Sometimes too professional. Like when he resisted starting a relationship with her for the longest time because it would’ve been “unprofessional”. Feh! At least he had finally wised up, and she only had to kill a dragon for it.

    “Next suspicious apartment is number twenty,” Chuck said. “Blinders are down, and we haven’t caught a heat signature yet.”

    “I’ve got the windows in my sights,” Sarah added.

    “Good.” The distance was a little far for a crossbow - unless it was one of the heavy ones only Slayers could really use - but it was almost noon, and any vampire that jumped out the window wouldn’t be able to run very far.

    They made their way to the next apartment, and Caridad checked that the stake hidden in her big notepad was still whole - she’d had to swat the last tree rat out of the air with it. If Vi ever heard of this incident…

    “There it is,” John interrupted her thoughts.

    “Yes.” Caridad took point - a Slayer was always at the front. Between the demon scum and her friends and allies. And lover. She took a deep breath as she raised her hand to ring the bell, and her eyes widened a little. She knew that smell. “Dried blood.”

    “Could’ve been an accident and a sloppy tenant,” John speculated.

    She shook her head. “No, I don’t smell the kind of filth that you usually find in those apartments. Just dried blood.”

    He grunted - he probably hadn’t expected anything else.

    She rang the bell twice, then listened. Footsteps. Two pairs. And the smell of dried blood was growing stronger. Must be a fledgling - more experienced vampires wouldn’t make that mistake. If you never cleaned up, even normal people would smell you.

    Well, those vampires wouldn’t grow old enough to learn, she thought, pressing her lips together so she wouldn’t grin and give the game away.

    The vampire looked through the eye-spy - she could see the light dimming - and then opened the door. “Yes?”

    The vampire was wearing a young body, early twenties, wearing jeans and a black t-shirt so faded, she could spot the dried stains of blood. Ew. It must be a messy eater. She didn’t take a deep breath - the stench was strong already. “Mr…” She glanced at her notepad. “...Stonehill? I’m Maria Juarez, L.A. Department of Public Health. This is Mr Black. We’ve received reports that this block might have a pest problem, so we were sent to verify that.” After a dozen apartments, she knew the spiel.

    The demon blinked. “Oh… pest problem?”

    “Vermin,” John chimed in with that growly voice of his that…

    Not the time, she reminded herself. “Rats, mostly. Can we briefly check your apartment for signs of the little buggers?”

    The vampire blinked a little, and Caridad almost frowned. Perhaps she had picked up a little too much slang from Phil. Then it nodded. “Ah, sure, sure… come in. Don’t mind the mess, though. We had a, uh, party.”

    “We’ve been in a lot of apartments today,” she told it.

    “Some were worse than this,” John added.

    “Ah, good… wait!” The vampire blinked. “What do you mean?”

    She didn’t reply - the second vampire had appeared in the doorway to the bedroom, smiling at them. Caridad knew better than trying to take two vampires prisoner. She grabbed the stake in her notepad, then flung the pad at the vampire in the doorway before staking the vampire next to her.

    She dashed towards the second vampire before the first’s dust hit the floor. It had slapped the pad away, leaving it open to her attack, and her flying kick caught it in the chest, breaking its ribs and sending it flying back.

    It grunted as it hit the wall behind it, falling down on its knees. She was on it before it could recover, her foot slamming into its chin and breaking its jaw. Its head hit the wall again with the sound of breaking bone, and it collapsed. It was regenerating slowly, like the idiot last night, but she took no chances and broke its arms and legs before John arrived with the steel cables to secure it.

    The demon was starting to move again shortly after they had secured it, so she beat it up some more, cracking its head again - carrying a rolled-up carpet that moved and struggled out to the van would attract too much attention. Carrying a rolled-up carpet? Not so much.

    “That apartment was infested by rats,” she told the nosy older woman watching them in the staircase. “We had to remove the carpet, and, well…” She grimaced. “It’s a write-off.”

    The women nodded. “I always thought Mr Stonehill was up to no good - he never was around during the day, he spent all night in clubs… and, well, he never cleaned his part of the stairs. Of course he’d have rats in his apartment.” She looked around. “Where is he, anyway?”

    “Last we saw him, he was leaving,” Caridad replied, and smacked the carpet on her shoulders again for good measure. “With good reason - once we’re done with him, he’ll wish he were dead!”

    That made the old woman smile.

    The others were waiting outside, in the van - which looked quite like a real Department of Public Health vehicle. If they had such vans. They had official vehicles, at least - they had used the official decals for the van.

    Chuck opened the doors for them and smiled at them. “You got your marks.”

    She narrowed her eyes - was he making fun of her for the squirrel hunt? No, this was Chuck. “Oh, it was easy,” she said. “These vamps are idiots. Fledglings.”

    “That’s a tautology,” he replied.

    John grunted. “Can we get on with this and discuss it after we secured the prisoner?”

    “Sure, sure! Sorry!” Chuck blurted out, stepping aside to let them enter.

    “You know, if the cops inspect or car, they’ll arrest all of us,” he commented while Caridad strapped the vampire into the van - without taking it out of the carpet. “It’s a rather obvious kidnapping van.”

    “It’s a moving van,” John told him. “It’s just that properly packaged, people and demons are as easy to transport as furniture.”

    “I’m not sure if that is reassuring or worrying,” Chuck replied. “I’ll never be looking at a moving van or truck the same way again.”

    She snorted at that, though John was just politely chuckling. She could tell. “Well, let’s get the other vampires!” she said, “there should be three more according to our intel.” At least if the idiot that they had caught in the club last night had been able to count to six - Caridad had her doubts.

    Before they returned to the building, she broke the vampire a little more. Better safe than sorry.

    *****​

    The next vampire apartment they found - after two more duds, one with a woman who worked night shifts at a hospital, the other a college student who apparently played video games all night, but no more squirrels - had three of the bloodsuckers in it according to the records. And fresh blood. Very fresh.

    Caridad staked the first halfway into her Public Health spiel, then charged into the apartment through the dust cloud he left. The second vampire managed to get into a fighting stance before she reached him. Karate, Caridad guessed as she ducked under his first strike and deflected the second. Yes, definitely Karate - she recognised that combo.

    But only Karate, nothing else mixed in - and the vampire hadn’t trained to fight before its death. It moved as if it were doing katas, tough with the speed of a vampire.

    I didn’t help the monster, of course. Caridad slid around it as soon as it was launching the next attack and rammed a stake into its heart from behind while the vampire was still going through the motions.

    John had followed her in and was already at the closed bedroom door when a vampire broke through it and slammed into him. Caridad was about to gasp, but John let himself fall on his back and used the vampire’s momentum against it, throwing it into the wall behind him with a modified Judo throw.

    Caridad was on the monster before it could recover, breaking its right knee with a snap kick, then dislocated its right shoulder with a quick lock. The demon screamed, so she shut it up with a kick to the jaw that smashed its teeth together.

    “Shit!”

    That had been John! Caridad smashed her heel into the monster’s head, then staked it and rushed towards the bedroom.

    John was there, rendering first aid to a woman on the blood-soaked bed. Caridad saw the puncture marks on the arms and legs. And the blood bags in the open cooler.

    They had been draining her. Slowly.

    Damn - she should’ve made the monsters suffer before killing them!

    *****​

    “That’s going to be in the evening news,” Caridad commented as she watched the ambulance take the woman away. Probably as some horror story about people stealing blood for transmissions. And organs.

    “And we’re going to be in a police holding cell if we don’t move,” John replied.

    A few calls would solve that - it wasn’t the first time they had to call an ambulance to a demon victim - but with the LAPD still angry about the spy affair, it would be better to avoid them. She nodded. “Let’s go.”

    “I’ve stalled the cops, but they’ll be here soon,” Chuck told them as soon as they entered.

    “Hit it,” John replied. “We’re done here.”

    “Got the last three vamps,” Caridad added. She casually hit the vampire in the carpet again, on its head - better safe than sorry.

    Sarah started the engine and entered traffic just as the first patrol car arrived. Followed by the first news van. Yes, that would make headlines.

    Caridad sighed once they were on the highway. “Nahan will definitely be warned now.” So much for the plan to ambush the master vampire’s courier - or liaison, as John called it - once it arrived for the weekly meeting.

    “If we wanted to avoid that risk, we would have had to let them hunt until their master contacted them,” John replied.

    She glanced at him. He looked, well, as always. Slightly angry, ready to fight at the drop of a hat, determined… but she couldn’t tell if he thought that they should have let the vampires kill a few humans to get to Nathan and save more in the long run, or if he was just pointing out that their original plan had had a few weaknesses.

    “Uh, guys…” Chuck spoke up.

    John grunted in response.

    “I thought… what are the odds that the vampires managed to rent three apartments in the same building, within a few weeks?”

    Caridad grinned - she had been looking for an apartment in Los Angeles in the past, and she knew how difficult that could be. Even with the Council backing her and a cover story to explain why she could afford the rent. As a freshly dead vampire? Probably using a fake identity? No proof of employment? “Nathan must have some influence on the building’s owners.”

    “Or their administration,” John said, baring his teeth.

    “I’ll hack into this,” Chuck said, then pouted when neither Caridad nor John laughed.

    Caridad didn’t care. It was a stupid pun or whatever you called it, and they had another lead on the stupid master vampire that kept evading her.

    And, she reminded herself, they had another vampire to interrogate. Even though it probably wouldn’t know anything useful. But it was one less demon preying on humans.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 1st, 2008

    “...and we do need to schedule the rehearsal for the rehearsal,” Ellie said, putting down her fork.

    Caridad mumbled something while refilling her plate - the roast was great! Ellie’s Sunday dinners were always a treat - then blinked. “Rehearsal for the rehearsal?” What?

    “Yes,” Ellie confirmed, frowning slightly at her. “So the rehearsal goes off without problems.”

    “But… isn’t the point of the wedding rehearsal that the wedding goes off without problems?” Chuck asked. “By letting you spot problems and mistakes before the real deal?”

    “Yes. But in order to spot such problems, it’s best if the actual rehearsal isn’t plagued by problems you could’ve identified beforehand. Hence the rehearsal for the rehearsal,” Ellie explained. She was frowning a little more now, Caridad noticed.

    Devon nodded. “Just for the most important participants,” he said, beaming at them. “Which means us here.”

    “But that’s why you have the rehearsal!” Chuck protested.

    Caridad almost sighed. He was trying, but she knew from experience that once Ellie was set on something, it was all but impossible to change her mind. She was just too stubborn, really.

    But she was also a great cook. And any soldier or Slayer knew that you didn’t annoy the cook. “Sounds logical,” Caridad said as she grabbed another serving. “Will there be food, too?”

    Ellie beamed at her. “Yes, it’s also a good opportunity to try out a few courses for the wedding.”

    “Which could be done without having a rehearsal for a rehearsal. You know, by just eating at restaurants.” Chuck, too, could be stubborn. Turning down free food? That was madness.

    “I don’t mind one more rehearsal,” Chuck’s dad added. “I wouldn’t want to mess up my part.”

    “Dad! Your part is simple. All you have to do is walk Ellie down the aisle and hand her over to Devon!” Chuck shook his head. “A service dog could do that part.”

    “Chuck!” Ellie snapped. “We’re talking about our wedding here, not one of your LAN parties!”

    “I haven’t had a LAN party since the nineties!” Chuck missed the point.

    Sarah touched Chuck’s arm, shaking her head.

    “But…” Chuck sighed. “Alright. We’ll hold a rehearsal for the rehearsal. Even though it’s redundant!”

    “I just want this wedding to go off without a hitch. No demon invasions. No apocalypses,” Ellie said.

    “No Spy vs Spy battles,” Devon added.

    Caridad snorted. “Don’t worry. Apocalypse Season is over.”

    “And we quit the NSA and CIA,” Chuck added. “Don’t worry, Sis - your wedding will be perfect!”

    *****​
     
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  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 2: The Threat
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 2: The Threat

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 2nd, 2008

    Caridad saw his right leg tense up. Just a little, most would’ve missed it, but she was the Slayer - she had noticed his tells a while ago. He’d lead with a feint, then throw a spin kick when she was dodging his strikes.

    There he came! Low blow aimed at her ribs - easily dodged to the side. Palm strike going for her face - she ducked below it and angled herself to step inside his reach and catch his right leg when it… It didn’t come. Instead, he launched himself at her, racing out to grab her. Grapple a Slayer? It was so stupid, she didn’t react in time, and he managed to tackle her. Just when she was shifting her weight.

    She didn’t fall, but it was a near thing, and her throw was a little off, so he hit the ground in a shoulder roll and was back on his feet before she could grapple him in turn.

    She pounced anyway, making him jump to the left. Hah! She turned her landing into a roll over her shoulder, pulled a split when she was halfway through and twisted her move into a Capoeira-style sweep.

    He didn’t manage to jump over it and ended up on the floor, catching himself on his hands, but not quick enough to avoid her next pounce, which ended with him underneath her and her arm around his throat, ready to crush it.

    Both of them were panting. “I was too slow,” John spat through clenched teeth.

    “No, you were too close,” she corrected him. “You need to get more distance when dodging a vampire or you won’t have time to recover.” This wasn’t like fighting another human, where his excellent reaction time would give him the advantage if he stayed close. “Good feint, though.”

    He grinned at that. “If I’d had a weapon…”

    “I’d have focused on your hands, not your leg,” she replied. That was common sense. Slayers could shrug off a kick from almost anything their size, but blades cut them like humans. And Slayer healing was fast, but not fast enough to work during a fight.

    And, though she didn’t say it, she would’ve fought differently, too. Like going for disarming strikes, at the least, before disabling.

    She was still on top of him, though she’d pulled her arm back. “Good spar.”

    He nodded, though it looked a little grudgingly. Perhaps she’d showed off a bit too much? No, he knew what she could do, and he would’ve noticed if she had been really holding back. It was probably just a hurt ego - John was very good at handling the fact that she was much better at fighting than he was, and also much stronger, faster and tougher, but he was still a man, and all men had some trouble with that. Even Chuck had had some when he’d been younger, or so Buffy had told them.

    But at the same time, it also made John who he was. She took a deep breath, her nostrils flaring as she smelled him. And very attractive. She grinned, then bent down to kiss him.

    By the time she pulled back, panting again, his hands were under her top, and she had most of his padding off.

    “We’re in the open,” he whispered - but his hands didn’t stop.

    “It’s already dark, and the only ones who can look into our backyard are Chuck and Sarah,” she told him, then clenched her teeth as she struggled not to simply rip off the uncooperating pad on his lower arm. “And if they want to watch, let them!”

    He snorted in return before they kissed again.

    *****​

    “We should get a jacuzzi,” she said later, when both of them were lying on the grass, clothes and padding strewn around. “We could spar, make out, then clean up in the jacuzzi.” And have more fun in there.

    “Cleaning up in the jacuzzi? That would take a lot of water,” he said as he turned his head to look at her.

    “You’re concerned about the environment?” She smiled at him, half-teasing, half-impressed.

    “I’m concerned about wasting water,” he shot back. “I’ve been in deserts often enough to know you shouldn’t do that.”

    “Ah.” She nodded but she didn’t believe him. He sounded a little too defensive. But she also knew better than to push this.

    Instead, she rolled on top of him and smiled. “Good for another round?”

    “Don’t you have a patrol?”

    “There’s still time.” It wasn’t as if she had a job to go to in the morning. Neither had he - they still needed cover stories so the neighbours wouldn’t start asking questions.

    But that, like her patrol, could wait.

    *****​

    It was almost midnight when she left the house - a bit later than usual. Late, in short. Phil would be disappointed. Though not too much - as long as she got a bloodsucker or two. Which shouldn’t be too hard. Los Angeles was big, and she could only patrol so much during a night. There were entire districts she hadn’t patrolled in a week.

    She stepped out into the backyard, walking past the pool. They really needed a jacuzzi. The pool was nice for swimming and cooling off, but it wasn’t built to relax in. Or make out. And they should have enough money.

    She vaulted over the hedge, landing in Chuck and Sarah’s backyard. A quick sniff told her that no one but the couple had been there in the last few hours. Well, she would’ve heard any intruder anyway, since she had spent most of that time outside in the yard with John, but it was always better to double-check - both Phil and John agreed on that.

    The living room was dark, but the lights upstairs were on. She hesitated a moment, then dashed forward a few steps, gaining speed, before she jumped straight up, landing on the balcony. Yes, Chuck and Sarah were still up. And not ‘busy’, either. She knocked on the door, then waved when both of them turned to look at her. They needed better situational awareness - Chuck was obviously surprised; Sarah less so, but she couldn’t fool Caridad.

    She would have gone on after checking if the two were safe, but Chuck was on the computer - and not playing a game. Which meant he was working.

    Sarah opened the door, and Caridad slid inside. “Hey! Got anything?”

    “Uh… I’m working on it,” Chuck replied. “I’m tracking a connection which I’m pretty sure is Nathan’s back door into the administration’s system, but whoever set it up was good - I’m on the third strawman, so to speak. The good news is that that way, we’re uncovering the vampire’s business network.”

    She suppressed a snort. Knowing the bloodsucker’s business details wasn’t important as long as you staked it. On the other hand, Chuck was working hard to track down the vampire and didn’t deserve to be bitched at. “Good,” she said instead. “I’m sick of its plots and schemes.” It was always a step ahead so far - but the vampire had to make only one mistake, and Caridad would slay it.

    “Nathan’s one of the smarter vampires, yeah,” Chuck said. “We’re lucky that it hasn’t set up on a Hellmouth.”

    “Its tricks only work because Los Angeles is so big. If it tried anything in Cleveland, it would be dusted in a week, tops.” The Council had lots of Slayers there. Enough to cover the entire city in a single night. Most of them were rookies, but still - no vampire would last long there, boost from the Hellmouth or not.

    “Well, we could call for…” Sarah started to say.

    “No!” Caridad cut her off. They didn’t need another Slayer. Not for a single vampire. Single master vampire and a bunch of fledglings. “We can handle this.”

    “Uh… the only problem is finding them. We should be able to handle a nest - once we know where it is,” Chuck said. “And we’ll do recon, of course - if we think we need help, we can call for help then.”

    Caridad nodded. “Yes.” And they wouldn’t need help. “Alright - I’m off to patrol now.”

    “And we’re off to bed,” Sarah replied.

    “I’m just going to hack this…”

    “Chuck....”

    “But…Oh!”

    Caridad snickered as she jumped down into the backyard. They were more than OK, at least.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Glendale, June 3rd, 2008

    It was quite a bit past midnight when Caridad swung by Kirsten’s apartment. And Morgan’s, probably, even if it wasn’t official, yet. The lights were already out - Kirsten was still recovering from her wound, so that was no surprise - but there was nothing amiss, as far as Caridad could tell.

    She did a quick tour through the building anyway, but found no demony traces. Still, it would be better if they rented or bought a house. More private. Safer. Easier to check on a patrol. But they might not have the money - Morgan certainly didn’t. She didn’t know about Kirsten - John was older and had had more time to save up. Though the Council was supposed to provide housing assistance to Watchers as well as Slayers, wasn’t it? She should ask Phil.

    And speaking of Phil… time to do the second leg of her patrol.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 3rd, 2008

    Two hours and another dusted bloodsucker later, Caridad was finished with her patrol. The only thing left was checking on Ellie and Devon. And Gunn’s people - it never hurt to check if the hired help was up to the job.

    She parked her bicycle two houses down the road - reminding herself, again, that without her cover job as a courier, she could actually upgrade to a bike or car - and made her approach on foot. The security system was still the same. At least it looked like it hadn’t been changed or upgraded. Easily avoided if you were a Slayer and familiar with the technology.

    Which Caridad was, of course. She jumped over a neighbour’s hedge, then got up on the roof there, to avoid the motion detector in the yard. The jump to Ellie and Devon’s roof wasn’t much of a challenge, but to land without waking up everyone inside was a little more difficult. Still not impossible at all for her - she had made the jump before. Although… she narrowed her eyes. The chimney looked just a little bit different. Ah! A few bricks had been replaced. So, more sensors to avoid.

    Which meant jumping onto the roof was out. Jumping at the wall, though… She grinned and made two quick steps to the edge of the roof, then pushed off and launched herself towards the house - at an angle. She latched onto the edge of the roof - not the flimsy gutter - with one hand and swung her legs up to bleed the rest of her momentum off, then clung to the wall above the window to the bedroom.

    Upside down, she checked. Both were asleep. No sign or scent of a demon around. Good. That left Gunn’s people. She clung to the wall as she made her way to the other side, avoiding the sensors on the roof and on the ground, then smelt the air as soon as she reached John’s former apartment. Ah. Fresh cigarette smoke. She recognised the brand - Gunn was around.

    She looked around, judged the wind… there. “Smoking is bad for your health,” she said, loud enough to reach the open doorway to the yard.

    She heard a muffled curse before Gunn stepped out. “Slayer.”

    “Not-Slayer.” She dropped from the wall to the ground and walked towards him. “Seriously, smoking is bad for you.”

    He scoffed. “In my business, I will be killed by a demon long before cancer gets me.”

    “Not what I meant,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “I could smell you across the yard.”

    He scoffed again, and she could see his jaw muscles twitch. “Vampires don’t have your sense of smell.”

    “Just because you never met one that did doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And some demons have noses like a bloodhound.” She grinned.

    “Like you.” He bared his teeth and snorted.

    She glared back at him - she knew what he meant. But Slayers weren’t demons. They fought demons. Better than anyone else. “I didn’t sell my soul,” she said, showing her teeth in return.

    “I did what I had to to protect my people.”

    “Some lines should never be crossed. And some plans are too stupid to be attempted.” Like working for Wolfram & Hart to ‘take them down from the inside’. Really, as if the demons hadn’t seen that coming from miles away.

    He twitched again - he knew what she meant. They had gone over this several times. “What do you want?”

    “Just checking up on Ellie, Devon and your folks.” She smiled as sweetly as she managed, to rub it in.

    “We’re doing our job,” he spat.

    “Yeah, yeah.” She nodded. “And I do mine. Got a few more bloodsuckers today.”

    “We’ve been hired as bodyguards, not as hunters,” he replied.

    “Exactly!” She didn’t pat his head - that would have been too much; the man’s fragile ego wouldn’t have handled it. But she drove the point home anyway. He had to understand that this was her city. Her people. Her job. Amateurs like him shouldn’t try to horn in on her turf.

    He tensed for a few seconds, then took a deep breath and finished his cigarette, flicking it away - almost at her. “So, you’ve evaded our security system.”

    “Yes. You need to cover the walls as well. And the motion detector in the yard needs to be a little more sensitive.” This was about Ellie and Devon’s safety, after all.

    “Since when are you an electronics expert?”

    She shrugged. “You pick up stuff if you pay attention.”

    “It’s your new boyfriend, isn’t it? You never were interested in electronics when you were panting after Chuck.” He grinned as if he had just made a huge deduction.

    She snorted. “Repeating second-hand gossip? Wow! What’s next, you gonna ask about my passionate love affair with Vi?” She still didn’t know who had started that particular rumour, but once she did...

    “Your what?” He looked surprised.

    “Another baseless rumour going ‘round,” she told him. Then she turned to look at the sun, which was starting to rise. “Well, I’m off. Keep up the good work.”

    She was over the hedge and in the next yard before he could answer with more than a curse.

    Well, that had been fun!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 3rd, 2008

    She reached Phil’s home shortly after six in the morning - early enough so there was not much traffic or passers-by around, late enough so Phil would be awake already - he might have jetlag, though. And early enough so that the bakery at the corner with the bagels to die for was open already.

    Munching on her fourth - a Slayer had to keep up her strength - she rang the doorbell to Phil’s new apartment, then opened it with her own key. “Phil?”

    “In the kitchen, dear.”

    She smelled the air on the way - the scent of fresh paint still lingered, but she could smell the tea he had just brewed. And brewing coffee. And when she entered, she saw that he had decked the table for both of them. He had been expecting her.

    He also must have noticed her brief frown since his smile widened a little. “There’s no need to eat like a barbarian if you can have breakfast in a civilised fashion.”

    She snorted. “Technically, this is just a snack before bed for me.”

    Instead of answering, he filled her cup with coffee, then sat down.

    Sighing, she put the scones she had purchased for him down on the table. “I can’t surprise you, can I?”

    “Oh, you manage all the time.”

    She frowned - he made it sound like a compliment, but there was some sneaky hidden meaning…

    “Eat up, dear. I trust you had a successful hunt.”

    “Got three bloodsuckers and one hellhound,” she told him before starting on her fifth bagel. She forced herself to eat it in small bites, too.

    “A hellhound? Was it hunting someone or something?” he asked as he buttered his scones. He wasn’t taking notes, so he wasn’t really concerned.

    She shrugged. “I don’t think so - it was hiding behind a dumpster. Probably waiting to ambush a hobo.”

    He frowned a little - probably at her language. “That makes it unlikely that it was summoned by someone - few practitioners would summon a demon like it and then set it free, though the inexperienced dabblers might lose control. Of course, that generally means that they get eaten by their own summons, and, therefore, can’t repeat their mistake. But we shouldn’t assume that we were so fortunate in this case. Where did you find it? Near storm drains?”

    “Yes.”

    “There might be a pack then, and one of them wandered a little too far in search of prey.”

    She groaned. “Sewer patrol tonight?”

    She gave him her best puppy dog eyes, but he nodded. “We can’t risk a pack of Hellhounds going hunting. The panic and the rumours it would start… And Chuck is still working on tracking down Nathan’s hideout, last I heard.”

    “Yeah, it’s a smart vampire. One that knows how to use computers, too.” She finished her sixth and last bagel. He pushed the remaining scones towards her, followed by his home-made jam. Beaming, she grabbed one, cut it apart and started spreading butter and jam on it. “Thanks!”

    “You have to keep up your strength.” He took a bite from his own. “Although this Nathan could also have turned someone with the needed skills.”

    “I guess so.” It didn’t really matter - she’d slay them all anyway.

    “That would mean it could be far older than you expect.” His voice had that slight chiding tone.

    She suppressed a pout. “It can’t be too old, or we’d have heard of it.”

    “It could’ve been subtle enough to avoid our notice. The old Council had certain limitations when it came to gathering information about demons.”

    “There are tons of books about demons and vampires,” she pointed out. “More than anyone could read in their lifetime!”

    “Not quite.” He chuckled. “And I do agree that the odds of Nathan being an older master vampire are rather low, but…” He tilted his head towards her.

    She sighed. “But it’s the unexpected threat that kills a Slayer. I’ll be careful.”

    “Good.”

    “But we don’t need to call in help yet,” she clarified. They could handle this without another Slayer.

    “I wasn’t planning to, dear. Between Mr Casey, Sarah, Chuck and Miss Bane, we should have enough help to deal with this threat.”

    She nodded.

    “And how is Mr Gunn’s group doing?”

    She snorted. “As expected.” He raised his eyebrows, so she went on: “They’re decent bodyguards, as long as they don’t think they can handle dangerous demons on their own instead of ensuring that everyone gets away.”

    “You might be underestimating them,” Phil replied before taking a sip from his cup. “They did hunt vampires with Angel for several years. You shouldn’t hold their lapse in judgement, however fatal it would have proven if not for our intervention, against them. Your friends on the Council have made similar mistakes, have they not?”

    She scowled at that. He was right, but… “They’re not as good as they think they are.”

    “A quite common failing, I assure you.”

    She nodded. Then blinked. “Hey!”

    He was hiding a smile behind his cup, she knew it!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 3rd, 2008

    Caridad slowly opened her eyes, then checked the alarm clock blinking on the sideboard. Almost noon. Almost five hours of sleep, too - that counted as sleeping in. For a Slayer. Yawning, she stretched and got up. If she didn’t dawdle, she’d be ready in time for lunch. And with John busy making said lunch - she could hear him working downstairs, and she could smell the potatoes frying in the pan - there was no reason to take her time in the bathroom.

    By the time she entered the kitchen, John was just taking the last steaks out of the pans. She licked her lips - they were just like she liked them: Raw.

    “Long night?”

    “The usual,” she said. “I checked up on the others. And I got a couple vampires and one hellhound.”

    He nodded and started to serve the potatoes.

    “But the hellhound might be part of a pack, so…” She took a big bite and continued after swallowing: “...I need to check the sewers in the area where I saw it.”

    “Need help?”

    “I don’t need help…” she said between more mouthfuls.

    “You can always use backup.”

    She nodded. “That’s good meat. Where did you get it from?”

    “New butcher in Hollywood.”

    “Ah. We’ll have to check them out, too.”

    He frowned and stared at his steak. “Why?”

    “Just a precaution.” She grinned at him. “We’ll be shopping there more often.” Unless the butcher was a demon, of course.

    He snorted in return and was about to say something when his phone started ringing. In the blink of an eye, he was all serious. “Casey.”

    Caridad cocked her head, listening in.

    “Casey? Are you and Caridad home?”

    That was Chuck. And he sounded… concerned. Caridad checked the knife in the sheath on her back.

    “Yes,” Casey replied.

    “Good. So… could you come over? We’ve got a situation here.”

    Someone was laughing in the background, Caridad noticed. Briefly and not loudly, but her ears picked it up anyway. And it was a woman.

    John looked at her, then at the half-eaten steak on his plate. “Is it urgent?”

    “Uh… kinda? Not urgent-urgent - we’re not about to get attacked any second. I think.”

    John sighed. “We’re on our way.”

    Caridad would have said something, but she was already stuffing her second steak into her mouth and grabbing a bread roll to turn her third into a sandwich. If this wasn’t really urgent, she’d make her displeasure known. Pointedly, as Phil would say.

    Caridad was swallowing the last bite of her sandwich when they entered Chuck and Sarah’s backyard. She could see Sarah through the big glass door in the back - the woman looked tense. Annoyed, too. That didn’t look good. And Chuck, sitting next to her, looked nervous. Both were facing someone Caridad couldn’t yet see.

    John, who had followed her example, was halfway through his improvised sandwich before dropping it on the table in the yard and drawing his pistol.

    “I’ll take point,” she whispered. If there was a fight, she wanted to be as close as possible before it started.

    “Gotcha.”

    Caridad opened the door, and her greeting died on her lips when she saw their visitor. Long legs, short skirt, tight top, gun hidden under her skirt - she knew that woman.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Uh… you remember Carina? From the al-Farsi-mission back in October? Carina? You remember Caridad? You know Casey already, don’t you?”

    Carina. Sarah’s friend. And, apparently, an ex of Casey. Caridad bared her teeth. “Of course I remember - I rarely forget people whose life I had to save.”

    Oh, the spy didn’t like hearing that. Caridad grinned when she saw a brief scowl flash over the woman’s face. But then, it turned into a beaming smile. “Casey! Long time no see!”

    Caridad glanced at John, clenching her teeth, and took a step towards him.

    “Carina.” John nodded, curtly, but she saw that his eyes lingered a little too long on the spy’s legs.

    And, judging by the woman’s wide grin, she had noticed as well.

    “That’s a rather cold greeting after the time we spent together in the past.”

    John grunted, but didn’t contradict the woman. Caridad narrowed her eyes at her, then looked at Chuck. “What’s she doing here?” And how had she found their new address? Scratch that, the woman was a spy.

    “Uh…” Chuck cleared his throat again.

    “I’ve come to want you,” Carina spoke up before anyone could say anything else. “The DEA recently busted a Mexican cartel safe house. Among the data we found, your files popped up. Apparently, someone’s targeting you, and the cartel was gathering information for them.”

    Oh, no! “Who is after us?” she snarled. She’d hunt them down and stomp them flat! Demon or human, no one threatened her friends!

    The spy glanced at her with a smirk. “I just said that I don’t know their identity.”

    “But you mentioned a cartel. Which one?” Chuck asked, grabbing his laptop.

    “You’ve tangled with more than one cartel?”

    “We’ve been busy,” Sarah said.

    “So I’ve heard.” Carina crossed her legs - far too slowly - and nodded. “You’ve quit the CIA and the NSA,” she added with a glance at John.

    “Yes,” he replied.

    “Uh...which cartel was it again?” Chuck looked up from his laptop.

    “Aren’t you going to your new base?” Carina raised her eyebrows.

    “Don’t tell me that this is a ploy so you can find out where our new base is,” Sarah said with a frown.

    Ah - the spy expected them to have a secret base. Like The Castle! Caridad smirked. Carina wasn’t as well-informed as she tried to act like!

    “Of course not!” the spy said, putting a hand on her chest. Caridad knew she was lying. “But is this really the place to discuss a mission?” She made a point of looking around.

    “Uh, we planned the al-Farsi mission in Sarah’s apartment,” Chuck replied.

    “So you haven’t a new base.” The spy shook her head with fake regret. “Who are you working for, anyway? Don’t tell me that you’re going rogue.”

    “That’s classified,” John told her.

    “Really?” The spy was smiling at John as if she was trying to seduce him - well, the slut probably was!

    Caridad took another step towards John until she was touching his side with her biceps as she crossed her arms and glared at the woman.

    All that earned her was another smirk, though, before the spy smiled at John once more. “I can see Sarah quitting and going rogue - especially with the director dead. But you?” She shook her head. “You would never quit the NSA and go private. You’d rather die.” Another glance at Caridad followed. “Not for any price.”

    Caridad frowned. Was the woman hinting at… Oh! She growled. “Are you saying that I seduced him into quitting the NSA?”

    Carina chuckled in return. “No, I’m absolutely sure you didn’t.”

    Caridad blinked. That… That was an even worse insult! She’d teach the slut a lesson! She’d…

    John’s hand on her arm saved the spy from a well-deserved beating. “Carina,” he said in his angry growly voice that Caridad liked to hear, “this is need to know, and you don’t need to know.”

    “I’m sharing intel from a classified DEA mission with you. The least you could do is to return the favour.”

    Was the woman pouting? Really! Caridad scoffed. “You just want to find out who we’re working for!” She blinked. Should she have claimed they were mercenaries? No, Carina already claimed she wouldn’t believe that, not with John in their team. She still hated the way the other woman smirked.

    “Uh… can we return to the fact that we’re being hunted by some cartel killer? Like telling us which cartel was involved?” Chuck said.

    “Carina won’t be telling us what we need until she gets what she wants,” Sarah said with a scowl. “She’s always trying for an angle that benefits her first. And most.”

    Caridad nodded in agreement. Sarah would know - she knew the woman best.

    “I’m hurt!” The spy’s smug smile proved that she was lying. “I’m risking a lot by sharing this intel with you, and that is the thanks I get?”

    “You haven’t actually shared much, yet,” Sarah replied.

    “Uh… you want to know our secret base?” Chuck asked.

    “I already know that you haven’t a new base,” Carina told him. Then she looked at Caridad. “You’re working with her, and she’s working for an organisation so secret, no one I talked to knew anything about it - and I talked to a lot of people. But they have enough clout to make the NSA and CIA let their best spies go.”

    “That’s classified!” Caridad told her again.

    Carina grinned in response. “That’s interesting.”

    “Guys…” Chuck was biting his lower lip, Caridad noticed. And she knew his expression. He was about to ask something stupid.

    “She can’t be trusted,” John said - he must have recognised Chuck’s expression as well.

    “She won’t let it go,” Sarah said. But then she turned to Chuck. “Chuck! You can find out which cartel she was talking about.”

    “But… that might take a while. Even with…” He tapped his temple with his index finger. “And if we have a killer coming at us…”

    “We can deal with a killer,” Caridad said. “We did before.” Unless they were dealing with a sniper, she would spot anyone getting close enough. Although… A cartel killer might be a sniper.

    Damn.

    “You’re not cleared for this,” John repeated himself.

    But Caridad knew it wouldn’t impress Carina. The spy didn’t care about that - Caridad could tell. The way Carina sat, arms and legs crossed, the smirk… she thought she was in control. That she had the upper hand. Well, she didn’t!

    “Carina,” Sarah spoke up again. “We aren’t in the NSA or CIA any more. And our superiors are aware of you.”

    “Then it would be only fair if I were aware of them, wouldn’t it?”

    “No,” Sarah replied. “We aren’t playing these kinds of games any more.”

    “Really.” Carina didn’t believe her, Caridad could tell.

    “Yes, really,” Sarah said through clenched teeth.

    “You’re still spies. That means you’re still in the game.”

    “It’s not a game!” Sarah spat.

    “It, uh, really isn’t,” Chuck added. “But…”

    “Chuck. Carina wouldn’t understand,” Sarah said. “She thinks everything is a game - a contest.”

    “I like to win,” the spy confirmed it. “No matter what it takes.”

    Which was the worst kind of person to recruit as a Watcher, Caridad knew.

    The doorbell rang before anyone else could try to explain things to the stupid spy. Morgan and Kirsten had arrived. Both were still banged up - Kirsten more so than Morgan - but they were walking.”

    “Bane.” Carina’s greeting lacked any warmth. No old friends, Caridad noted.

    “Miller.” Kirsten sniffed. “I should’ve known you’d get into trouble.”

    “I’m not the one targeted by a Cartel Killer.”

    “Morgan,” Morgan said. He smiled, more than a little forced. “In case you didn’t know.”

    “Your file didn’t mention that you’re a spy,” Carina told him.

    “Err… I’m not a spy,” Morgan replied. “I’m… Chuck’s best friend and Kirsten’s boyfriend.”

    “You’re dragging a civilian into this?” Carina raised her eyebrows as she looked at Sarah.

    “The killer won’t care,” Sarah told her.

    “Right,” Morgan said. “Who’s after us this time?”

    “This time?” Carina smiled.

    “Miss Spy won’t tell us until we tell her who we’re working for,” Caridad told him with a glare. He wasn’t supposed to spill information!

    “Why not?”

    “Because she wants something in exchange,” Kirsten said with a scowl.

    “Like everyone,” Carina replied. “Tit for tat, and all that.”

    “We’re not recruiting her,” Caridad said before Morgan could have an even more stupid idea than Chuck. The spy couldn’t be trusted. Not with the truth and not around men.

    “Of course not,” Sarah agreed.

    Kirsten scoffed as well.

    “She’s a loose cannon and more trouble than she’s worth,” John added.

    The spy pouted in return as if she hadn’t known that already. “Is that the thanks I get for warning you?”

    “You haven’t actually given us actionable intel,” Sarah told her. “Just a vague warning.”

    “Well, once we’ve gone through the DEA files, we should have intel,” Chuck said, looking up from his laptop.

    “That intel isn’t in the DEA files,” Carina claimed. “As soon as I saw your names, I swiped the whole hard drive.”

    “Oh.” Chuck blinked.

    “How nice of you,” Sarah said. “That makes the intel more valuable.”

    “Yes.” The spy beamed with fake cheerfulness.

    Caridad wanted to beat her up. Just a little until she spilt the beans. And so she wouldn’t get any ideas about seducing anyone.

    “The identity of our new employer is not on the table,” Sarah told her.

    “Alright.” Carina sighed, then leaned forward. “But then I want in. On this mission.”

    “What?” Chuck blurted out.

    “I need results. Like catching an infamous cartel killer.” The woman beamed at Chuck. “A girl has to look out for herself.”

    “That’s all you do,” Sarah said.

    “Well, we can always use the help. Against a cartel killer, I mean. Right?” Morgan said, totally not helping.

    “Uh…” Chuck trailed off, but he was wavering. Caridad could tell. “It’s a good deal? The only deal we can get?”

    Caridad knew that her own idea - beat the spy until she told them - wouldn’t be received well, so she didn’t suggest it.

    Sarah sighed. “You won’t accept anything else.”

    Carina’s smile was so smug, the answer was clear.

    “Alright,” Sarah said. “Give us the data, and you can arrest the killer.”

    “If they survive,” John added.

    And if Carina survived, of course. Caridad wouldn’t shed a tear if the spy didn’t.

    *****​

    While Chuck went over the data, and Carina tried to convince Sarah to let her sleep in the guest room, Caridad went outside. Before she punched the woman. A quick kata helped. A little. She still wanted to punch Carina. Just not hard enough to take her head off.

    “She’ll try to spy on us,” John said.

    Caridad stopped her kata in the middle of a spin kick. Without lowering her raised leg, she looked over her shoulder. John was leaning against the wall next to the door. “Well, duh,” she replied. “That’s obvious.”

    “She’ll be trouble.”

    That was obvious as well. Caridad scoffed and lowered her leg, then turned and walked over to him. “If we’re lucky, she’ll try to seduce Chuck, and Sarah kills her.” She was only half-joking.

    John snorted. “Walker won’t kill her for that.”

    Well, Caridad would. At the very least, she’d break the woman’s face if Carina went after John. John was hers. Hers alone. Let the spy try! No, don’t even let her try! She realised that she was growling.

    “Don’t let her see that - she’ll take it as a challenge,” John told her.

    “Why is she still alive if she goes after every man she sees?” Caridad asked.

    John hesitated, and she narrowed her eyes. He coughed. “She’s good at getting out of trouble - and her targets usually are the kind of people who can hide their affairs.”

    “Like other spies.” Like John.

    “She seduced me years ago, but I learned my lesson.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth and growled again. First Faith, and now this spy… wait, it was the other way around, wasn’t it? “Let’s go to bed!” she snapped. She had an itch to scratch, worse than after a good patrol.

    He blinked but didn’t object.

    *****​

    Caridad didn’t smirk at the spy when they returned to Chuck and Sarah’s house later. She was above that. But she sat on the armrest of John’s seat. Just in case Carina didn’t get the message.

    Then the spy smirked, and Caridad had to stop herself from growling. Carina had changed her clothes, too - had Sarah actually let her take the guest room?

    “So.” Chuck cleared his throat. “I’ve gone over the intel, uh, Carina delivered to us.” He pushed a button, and a beamer started up, projecting files on the wall behind Chuck. “So, I, uh, analysed the data, and I’ve come up with one suspect.”

    In other words, Chuck had flashed, and the Intersect had told him who was after them. Good. That would make it easy to find and slay - or stop - the killer.

    “That’s a great analysis,” Carina said. “No wonder the CIA wanted to hire you so badly.”

    Caridad frowned. Was she fishing for information, or did she know about the Intersect?

    “Uh, thanks, I guess.” Chuck coughed again. “Anyway - this is our probable killer.” He pushed another button, and a woman’s face appeared on the wall.

    Caridad frowned. She didn’t recognise the woman, but John did - she felt him tense.

    “Jeanne Dubois,” Chuck said.

    *****​
     
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  3. Threadmarks: Chapter 3: The Spy
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 3: The Spy

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 3rd, 2008

    “Jeanne Dubois?” Caridad asked. That was the killer after them?

    “Former spy for the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure - the French intelligence service,” Chuck explained.

    “Ah.” What had they done to the French? But John and Sarah were tense, so there was more to this. And Kirsten was frowning as well, now. “And she’s now a killer working for the cartels?”

    “She’s missing in action, presumed dead,” Chuck said. “According to her file.”

    “She wouldn’t be the first spy gone rogue and becoming an assassin,” Carina added. “Black Ops?”

    “Her assignments on file are a bit… spaced out. And there’s nothing about her last assignment,” Chuck said.

    “And you’ve met her.” Carina grinned.

    Well, Caridad hadn’t, so it must have been a spy mission.

    “I’ve known of her,” John said. “And we’ve tangled with a few cartels recently.”

    “Oh!” Carina’s smile widened. Caridad clenched her teeth - she wanted to wipe it from the spy’s face. “And now the cartels sent their best hitter after you.”

    John grunted.

    He was evasive, Caridad realised - so, Carina was being misled. Good. She still needed to talk to him what this was really about.

    And it looked like Kirsten and Morgan wanted to do the same.

    *****​

    Half an hour later, after some pretty boring planning that boiled down to ‘be careful and don’t expose yourself if you can help it while we search for her electronically’, John and Caridad returned home. Before she could start grilling John, though, her phone vibrated - it was a text from Morgan.

    Coming. C&S keep spy busy.

    Ah. A few minutes later, the security system alerted them to intruders in the backyard - familiar intruders who had some trouble climbing over the fence. Caridad sighed and went outside to help them - it wouldn’t do for them to be seen by Carina, and both were still not healed up fully.

    She jumped over the hedge. “Hey!” Morgan startled. Kirsten did too, but less obvious. “Let me help you,” Caridad told them, then boosted Morgan over the hedge before grabbing Kirsten and jumping back with her - she had taken a more serious wound, after all. Caridad let her down, though, before they all stepped inside.

    “So, err, what’s with the French spy?” Morgan asked, still rubbing his ankle.

    “I don’t remember any encounter with her during our missions,” Kirsten added.

    Caridad merely smiled at John.

    He sighed. “Remember Marco Goncàlez?”

    Caridad frowned. That name rang a bell.

    “No,” Morgan said. “Wait… Ah, yes. She was involved?”

    Kirsten frowned. “You were involved? Of course you were.”

    “I wasn’t. I just knew about it.” He shook his head.

    “And I didn’t?” Caridad felt hurt. Why hadn’t she been told?

    “He was trying to recruit Chuck… or was he?” Kirsten said.

    Morgan grimaced. “Well…” he looked at John.

    “It was a frame job to protect a VIP. Dubois happened to interfere. She was presumed dead,” John said.

    “Council business,” Morgan said.

    “Ah.” Kirsten nodded, although a little slowly. Morgan might be sleeping on the couch tonight.

    Served him right, anyway - he could’ve told Caridad! She frowned at him, then at John.

    “Need to know,” he answered her silent complaint.

    “Well, now we need to know, don’t we?” she told him.

    “And Carina can’t know. Under no circumstances,” Morgan said. He took a deep breath. “This is about Chuck’s dad.”

    “He was the VIP?” Kirsten said. “But… why would he… he was behind the transfers. And he’s a hacker, even better than Chuck. He…” She blinked.

    “He’s Orion,” John said.

    Kirsten’s eyes widened.

    Caridad grinned - she had known that. From the start. Well, practically.

    “He’s Orion? No wonder that the NSA and the CIA couldn’t do anything.” Kirsten shook her head. “A lot makes more sense now. A whole lot.”

    “The NSA and CIA wouldn’t ever let off hunting him if they knew,” Morgan said. “And that would cause a lot of trouble since he’s working for the Council now.”

    “One of the best hackers, someone who has backdoors into probably all government systems, working for the Council.” Kirsten scoffed. “The NSA would go crazy if they knew.”

    “Well… it’s not as if the Council had no other hackers before him,” Morgan said. “Willow learned from the best, so to speak.” He shrugged. “Sorry for not telling you, but…”

    “Need to know.” Kirsten nodded. Well, she was a spy. “And you didn’t even tell the Slayer.”

    Caridad grumbled at that. They should’ve told her!

    “Well, now we did. And we need to make sure that Carina doesn’t find out the truth,” Morgan said.

    “And keep from getting killed by Dubois,” John reminded them.

    “And hope that it’s over before Ellie’s wedding,” Morgan added.

    *****​

    Once Morgan and Bane had left again, Caridad sighed. “I don’t like this.” And she didn’t like Carina, either.

    “I know,” John told her. “Sorry.”

    Well, it hadn’t been his secret to tell her. But Chuck should’ve told her! Or Morgan! Or… “Did Phil know about this?”

    “I don’t think they told him any details.”

    She narrowed her eyes. That sounded… well, it could be evasive. Or the truth. She’d have to ask Phil. But if he knew and hadn’t told her, she’d… well, she’d think of what she’d do when she knew the truth.

    “Keeping secrets is a spy’s business,” he said as he filled a shot glass. “Walker hasn’t told Bartowski everything she’s done. Neither has Bane.”

    And neither had John. “I know,” Caridad snapped, then turned and headed to the fridge. “But Morgan and Chuck aren’t…”

    “Bartowski’s a spy. And Grimes is a Watcher.”

    “Watchers aren’t spies.” She grabbed a few slices of bread and some pastrami.

    “Close enough. They’re the ones gathering intel and directing the Slayers. And keeping secrets.”

    “The new Council isn’t like that,” she retorted, ruining one slice when she pressed the butter knife down a little too hard. Almost ruining the counter, too. And the knife - but a quick twist fixed the bent blade.

    “You can’t run an organisation like this by sharing everything. Need to know is a rule for a reason, or one captured or turned Watcher would betray everyone else.” His glass was empty already.

    “I wouldn’t betray anyone! I’d rather die!” she shot back. “But this isn’t about the Council. This is about Chuck’s dad.” And Chuck was her friend.

    “Do you tell them every detail of your patrols?”

    “Yes.” Apart from the details they didn’t need to know. “To Phil, at least.”

    “Who’s your Watcher.”

    “And my friend!” And family. Best family she had, anyway.

    “But you don’t tell everything you do to your friends, do you?” He refilled his glass.

    “I would if they asked.” A little bragging never hurt anyone and was fun.

    “And if Phil told you to keep a secret?”

    She finished her sandwich and took a big bite out of it so she didn’t have to answer right away. That was an unfair question. Although… “Why exactly didn’t they tell me?”

    He sighed in that grunt-like way of his. “Because it wasn’t a clean mission.” She frowned, and he explained: “Gonzàlez wasn’t after us - we were after him because he made a good scapegoat.”

    Oh.

    “He wasn’t innocent - he was a career criminal.”

    She nodded. “But he wasn’t a threat.”

    “Not to us.”

    Ah. She took a deep breath. “I have to go on patrol. Hellhounds.” Sewer patrol.

    He nodded.

    She left without kissing him goodbye.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, June 4th, 2008

    It was past midnight when she reached the area she had caught the hellhound in. And she still felt angry. Bad. Whatever. So, Chuck’s dad had framed and killed a drug dealer to save himself. And Chuck and the others had helped him. And killed a few bodyguards and a French spy in the process. Or almost killed a French spy. Wait - they killed her partner, didn’t they? The other French spy.

    Chuck’s dad was a killer. Who’d have thought? Well, spies were killers, weren’t they? They had to kill someone to become a spy, didn’t they? Well, all of them had killed enemies on missions. And not just demons. Or witches. Evil witches.

    And Caridad wouldn’t like to tell anyone about such a mission, either. But… couldn’t they have trusted her?

    She shook her head as she parked her bike and jumped down into the concrete canal, taking a deep breath. No scent of demons, hellhounds or other.

    She wouldn’t have thought badly of them if they had told her - she would have understood. Hell, she knew how bad the cartels were, and all those who worked for them. Without them, a cousin of hers would still be alive. Probably. But…

    She sighed and entered the tunnel. No danger of a flood, at least, according to the weather report. Drowning in the sewers would be amongst the most embarrassing deaths for a Slayer. She sniffed the air again. Something… She knelt down and took another sniff. Yes. Demony. But not like a hellhound. Not unlike a hellhound, either, though.

    A bit further in, the scent had grown stronger. A demon, indeed. But what kind? There were bones strewn around - mostly pets, but that ribcage… And the scent… definitely a hellhound. Or more of them.

    She bared her teeth. She could deal with a pack of hellhounds. An average pack, at least. And there were not enough reports about missing persons for a large pack. Really, it was probably just one or two left, after she got the other one. And she really wanted to slay something. Fight something.

    But…

    She scoffed. Phil would be disappointed if she went ahead on her own.

    She turned around and consoled herself with the fact that she needed to talk to Phil anyway.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 4th, 2008

    “...and it’s definitely a pack of hellhounds. I didn’t get their number, so I didn’t deal with it right away,” Caridad finished her report in Phil’s kitchen, munching on a few jaffa cakes he’d had in his cupboard. Emphasis on had - you never put the box back once you had opened it. That was the rule.

    Phil nodded, finishing his notes, and smiled at her. “That was the right decision, dear. As long as we don’t know how many hellhounds are there - and whether or not their summoner, provided there was one, is present as well - it would’ve been reckless to push on. We shall deal with the pack tomorrow, with the help, or so I hope, from our friends.”

    She smiled in return. She wasn’t some rookie Slayer who thought she was invincible and rushed into every battle. She was a veteran Slayer. And Phil knew it. Then she sighed. “We’ve got another problem, though.”

    “Oh?” He frowned a little. “Since I wasn’t already informed, I gather that this is connected to our friends’ previous occupation?”

    “Well, kinda?” She shrugged. “It’s connected to spy stuff, but also to the Council’s recruitment of Chuck’s dad.”

    “Ah.” Phil took a sip from his cup of tea - his third since she had arrived. But then, she usually would’ve swung by in the morning, not this late, and she had called ahead so he wouldn’t go to bed already and she wouldn’t wake him up.

    When he put the cup down without saying anything else, she went on: “They had to deal with a cartel leader or something, and they fought some French spy team as a result. One of the spies wasn’t killed as they assumed, and is back for revenge. Probably,” she added with a shrug. “She’s been asking a cartel about us - she’s been working for them as an assassin. We found that out from some spy friend of Sarah’s, Carina. I’ve met her when I had to save Chuck and the others from a vampire on a mission. She is working for the DEA.”

    He raised his eyebrows. “I think I remember that report, yes.” Of course he would remember - Phil didn’t forget things Caridad had done. Or failed to do. “And you don’t like this spy?” he asked.

    So she hadn’t been able to hide her reaction as well as she had thought she had. Frowning, she nodded. “She’s reckless and only thinks of herself. Sarah said she keeps getting her team into trouble. And she’s a honeypot.”

    “Ah, I see.” He nodded and took another sip from his tea.

    What did he see? “I trust John,” she said, frowning. “And Chuck won’t cheat on Sarah. And Morgan should know better than to cheat on Kirsten.”

    “One should hope so,” Phil agreed. “Morgan certainly has been involved in the spy business, as you put it, long enough to be acquainted with the possible consequences of cheating on a lover who is well-trained in the arts of espionage and assassination.”

    “Yes.”

    “But you think this new spy will cause trouble on that front anyway?” He tilted his head at her.

    Caridad nodded firmly. “She is the type to try it anyway. And that will cause trouble. She won’t accept that she has no chance and take it as a challenge.”

    “Ah.” Phil nodded slowly. “I am familiar with that type.”

    She narrowed her eyes at him in return - had that been a dig at her? She couldn’t tell.

    “However,” he went on, “I think we can trust Chuck and the others to handle her - Sarah knows her well, you said?”

    “Yes. But she also wants to know about the Council, and everything,” Caridad told him. “She tried to trade the information about the French spy for information about the Council.”

    “She didn’t succeed, though.” He tensed up a little.

    “No. She agreed to help us in exchange for getting to arrest the cartel members involved and what information we uncover about the cartels.”

    “Good. That doesn’t make her action any less deplorable, though. Especially if she supposedly is a friend of Sarah’s.”

    “Yes!” Caridad agreed, nodding a few times. “We can’t trust her not to stab us in the back!”

    “Does Mr Casey share your views on her?”

    “Yes.” She frowned. “But he thinks we have to work with her to catch the killer. Not because it’s a good idea, but because if we don’t, she’ll be even more of a problem.”

    “That would, of course, appear to be quite probable, based on my limited information,” Phil replied. “And you don’t expect this Carina to stick to the deal you made?”

    “No.” Caridad sneered. “She’ll break it as soon as she thinks she can get away with it and get more information.”

    “Then it would behove us to ensure that she never assumes she can, as you say, get away with breaking her agreement.”

    “I’ll keep an eye on her. Which is easy since she managed to convince Chuck and Sarah to let her stay in their guest room.” Caridad scowled. They should’ve known better than that.

    “That means that dealing with the hellhound pack might be more difficult than anticipated,” he pointed out.

    “I know.” And that was all Carina’s fault.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 4th, 2008

    Caridad stretched in the late morning sun. John hadn’t woken her when he got up in the morning. It was fair - she hadn’t woken him when she had returned home from Phil.

    But he greeted her in the kitchen when she came down the stairs. “Morning.” And he had been frying bacon.

    “Morning.” She grabbed some bread and started making a bacon sandwich, spreading the scrambled eggs left on a plate on it.

    “It’s a hellhound pack,” she told him between bites.

    He nodded. “We’ll need a distraction for Carina, then.”

    Which meant she would have less support in the sewers. “Chuck and Sarah should be able to keep her busy.”

    He grunted - the kind of grunt he used when he disagreed.

    She finished her sandwich and started making another, without eggs this time. “You think she’ll try to stick with us?” Emphasis on ‘try’, of course.

    “Walker knows her too well to fall for her tricks. Bartowski…” He frowned.

    “He wouldn’t cheat on Sarah!” she protested as she got the mustard.

    “Carina might not know that - or try to use that so he’ll get flustered and let something slip.” He put his own plate in the dishwasher.

    Caridad would have liked to refute that, but that sounded like Chuck. On the other hand… “He didn’t let slip anything about demons with you, did he?”

    He snorted. “I’m not Carina.”

    That was true as well. Though Chuck had been able to resist Caridad’s charms, back when she was interested in him. He shouldn’t have any trouble resisting Carina. “Well, we just need a good cover story for a night out in town.”

    “With a killer after us? Yes, we need a good cover story.” He nodded as if he were agreeing and not correcting her.

    She pouted at him. “You’re the veteran spy.” Hah - the little dig at his age made him frown a little! Not that he was old.

    “I’ll be scouting a safe house,” he said. “Too boring for Carina, but with a killer after us, it is needed.”

    “At night?”

    “It’s a workday,” he replied. “And she’ll know that we won’t be able to use our former safe houses.”

    “Won’t she assume that you’ll have private safe houses?” Caridad asked. After all, John had prepared a private safe house.

    “She should think it was compromised. Which it was.”

    That might work - John was the spy. Still, betting on the enemy being too smart not to fall for your ruse could backfire badly. Plans should be simple. Slayer-proof, as Buffy called it. Which was unfair, of course. Caridad imitated John’s grunt.

    It made him grin. “If she follows me, then Bartowski and Walker will support you.

    “And what if she follows me?”

    “You’ll have to leave early so we’ll know and can react.”

    She grunted again, then grinned. “I could just ambush her and tier her up.”

    “Don’t underestimate her,” he told her.

    She didn’t tell him that she had been joking. Although… It certainly wasn’t the worst plan.

    “So…” he said after a moment. “What did Brown-Smythe say?”

    “He agreed with you,” she said, trying not to scowl too much.

    “Did he know about the mission?”

    She shook her head. But she hadn’t asked him directly about it.

    *****​

    “So… we’re still trying to track Dubois,” Chuck said a few hours later, at a ‘briefing’ in his and Sarah’s home. “Though we haven’t been lucky yet.”

    “She’s an experienced spy - she won’t leave electronic traces when she enters the USA,” Carina said. She was wearing another too-short dress again. “Your best bet is to lure her into the open.”

    “You mean we should use someone as bait,” Sarah said, glaring at her supposed friend.

    Carina smiled in return. “It’s better to be prepared and have her go after a target you know instead of trying to protect everyone. She doesn’t know that you know, after all.”

    “It’s still too dangerous,” Sarah retorted. “She might not care about bystanders, either.”

    “That’s an even better argument to lure her to a place of our choice,” the spy said. “You wouldn’t want her to bomb your wedding rehearsal, would you?”

    Even Chuck glared at her in response, but she seemed to ignore him. And as much as Caridad hated it, the spy was correct - they had to lure the assassin away from innocent bystanders. “I’ll be bait,” she said.

    “She’s not after you,” John snapped.

    “She will, once she finds out that I’m your lover,” Caridad told him with a smile. She knew he hated it - but she was the toughest in their team. She had the best chances to survive whatever Dubois might try. “And if we’re lucky, she’ll try to kidnap me to force you out.”

    And if they were unlucky, Dubois would shoot her from afar. Or plant a bomb to take out an entire house.

    John grudgingly nodded, as did Chuck and Sarah. And Carina beamed at her. Stupid spy!

    Well, time to get things moving! “Anyway, I’m going out for a while,” Caridad said as she grabbed a handful of the chips Chuck had prepared for them. “I’ve got to take care of some business.” Like the hellhounds.

    “Oh?” The spy leaned forward.

    “Private business,” Caridad told her.

    “But what if Dubois attacks you while you’re out alone?”

    Caridad smirked. “She won’t find me if I don’t want to be found.” There were a few ways to travel through the city that normal humans had no idea of. “See you later.”

    She blew a kiss to John and was out of the door before Carina could say anything else. Once outside, she couldn’t help but look around for anyone aiming at her. John had shown her the closest possible sniper nests, but this was Los Angeles - it wasn’t as if Dubois would have to get too close to have a line of fire. There were too many buildings within half a mile or so.

    But the assassin would have to hit her, first. And she wasn’t an easy target. Caridad dashed across the road, between two cars - and tried not to think about car bombs - then jogged, varying her speed, down the street before she took a corner. Dubois would be expecting her to use a car, anyway, wouldn’t she?

    Well, it didn’t matter. There was a manhole in a side alley ahead of her. She easily lifted the cover with one hand and climbed down, closing it up after her. Let’s see the assassin catch her in the sewers, where she didn’t have to hold back!

    She ran at a good pace - for a Slayer - towards Phil’s area, jumping over the worst pieces of mud and worse.

    No sweat! Wait… She was travelling like a vampire!

    Clenching her teeth, she stepped up her pace. This was Dubois’s fault.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 4th, 2008

    Another problem was that she stunk when she reached Phil’s apartment. “I need a shower. And a change of clothes,” she told him.

    In response, he raised his eyebrows. “I don’t smell anything.”

    “Well, your nose isn’t as good as mine,” she replied. “I definitely smell like mouldy sewer.”

    “Storm drains, actually,” he corrected her. “I would notice if you smelled like an actual sewer, I presume.”

    “Whatever - I stink. And John will be here in a bit.”

    “Provided our spy doesn’t follow him.”

    She frowned at that. “She better not!”

    “And, while I would never try to argue against good hygiene, we are about to enter another, albeit a little larger and airier, storm drain later tonight, aren’t we?” He cocked his head at her.

    “So? That just means I need another shower later. And another change of clothes!” She huffed. If she was going on a hunt with John, she needed to look - and smell - her best. Especially with a spy like Miss too-short-dresses around!

    “Very well. I suppose that will, at the least, justify your clothes budget somewhat.” His lips twisted into a smile.

    He was teasing, but she still frowned at him. “Slayers need the budget. Slaying ruins clothes like nothing else. And Los Angeles isn’t some backwater city like Cleveland - I have to keep up with the trends, or I’ll stick out like some country girl when I’m hunting vampires in clubs!” Or, worse - people might mistake her for a vampire stuck in the past.

    “A very compelling argument.”

    She glared at him, but he merely raised his eyebrows again as she passed him on the way to the bathroom. She really needed to shower.

    *****​

    One and a half hours later, they were in Phil’s car, grabbing a bite to eat on the way to the meeting spot - if, by some chance, Carina managed to follow the others, then she wouldn’t find out where Phil lived. Caridad was through her third quarter-pounder with cheese when her phone vibrated. She pushed the rest of the burger into her mouth and checked the display. And hastily swallowed so she could curse. “John’s not coming! The spy’s sticking to him!” Not literally, she hoped, or there’d be hell to pay.

    “That means Chuck and Sarah are joining us, then.”

    “Yes. Apparently, Carina wasn’t interested in their ‘night out’.” Caridad replied with a huff. Stupid spy, going after John - Caridad had dressed up for nothing!

    “Ah.”

    “He can handle her,” she said, grabbing a handful of fries.

    “I’ve no doubt that her attempts to seduce him are futile.”

    “Yes!” She could trust John. But she still wanted to bash Carina’s face in - a little, at least - for ruining the hunt before it even got started.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, June 4th, 2008

    Caridad was still pretty angry when they reached the meeting spot - not a bar or café, as they would have picked before this whole mess with the spy, and the assassin, had started, but a side alley. A side alley where you usually had a free parking spot because cars left here tended to get scratched by hobos, racoons the size of Dobermans - not demony; Caridad had checked, twice - or whatever actual demons hid in the storm drains nearby. Or sewers.

    Well, it wasn’t her car. Phil knew the risks.

    She sighed and stared at the wrapper from her sandwich. “We could’ve had dinner in a nice restaurant.”

    “And endanger the other patrons?” Phil sounded... not angry, but a little bit annoyed. Though that might’ve also been in part because he’d mistakenly ordered a vegan roast beef sandwich and Caridad had categorically refused to trade.

    But he was correct. She sighed. “This sucks. I’ll have to put on a disguise to go out to eat.”

    “It’ll help your infiltration skills, dear.”

    She snorted. “Nothing like the real deal.”

    “I’m certain that Mr Casey will be happy to help you refine your skills.”

    “Not with Carina peeking over the fence,” she replied, sighing again. Stupid spy. Stupid intruder. Stupid assassin, too. Well, it would be nice if the woman would stick to Chuck and Sarah’s yard, but she’d come over. And on to John.

    Caridad caught herself growling and twisting the wrappers with so much force, that, with some toothpaste added, they could’ve been used for a prison shank.

    “You seem rather troubled about this ‘Carina’,” Phil remarked. “I could call London.”

    “No!” she blurted out. She could handle the spy. She couldn’t handle rumours that she had to ask the Council to get rid of a rival. “She wouldn’t listen anyway - she’s a loose cannon.”

    “Ah.”

    She glanced at him with narrowed eyes. That had sounded a little off. And he was smiling. Slightly. Probably a dig at enthusiastic Slayers. She huffed, and his smile grew a little. “She should know better - she’s way older than I am!” At least thirty.

    “Indeed.”

    She counted that as a win. And there were Chuck and Sarah - in disguise and on a motorbike. The red wig didn’t suit Sarah, and Chuck’s wig had a severe case of helmet hair, but they were dressed sensibly - as Faith liked to say: If you’re dressed to bike you’re dressed to hunt. Though if they didn’t go into the storm drains quickly, the two would be sweating heavily.

    “Did you lose her?” Caridad asked as she got out of the car.

    “She didn’t even try to follow us - we checked through the security cameras,” Chuck replied.

    Caridad pressed her lips together. That meant the spy was still with John. She trusted John - to think that this woman thought she could just walk into her home and try to seduce her lover… She was growling again.

    “Uh… should she have followed us?” Chuck asked.

    “No,” Caridad snapped. “Let’s get the gear and get going.”

    Slaying a few hellhounds was just the thing to help with her mood. That way, she wouldn’t slay the spy if she found it in her home.

    They grabbed the two sports bags that Phil had brought - no sense in arming up outside the storm drains - and walked the short distance to the entrance to the tunnels. The sun was just setting as they arrived.

    She sniffed the air. Then the ground. No fresh scent of hellhounds or other demons. “They haven’t left yet.”

    “Good. That should simplify matters,” Phil said, grabbing his crossbow and favourite sword - a cavalry sabre from the Napoleonic wars he never let her use - from the bags. Chuck grabbed a flamethrower; no surprise. Sarah stocked up on several throwing spikes and grabbed a butterfly sword and a shotgun. The spikes wouldn’t be of much use in a fight against hellhounds, but Caridad knew that you could never have too many weapons; only too few.

    She grabbed an axe and a short sword - she already carried several blades and stakes on her. “Alright, let’s go put down some demon dogs!”

    She followed the same route she had taken last night - the scent didn’t grow stronger. That meant they hadn’t passed through this part yet - and wouldn’t have smelt her, either. Good.

    Once she reached the point where she had turned around last time, she held her hand up. “The lair is beyond this point.”

    “We should proceed with caution, then,” Phil said. “And remember that while anyone we encounter inside the lair might very well be the conjurer responsible for the demons’ presence, they could also be lost or a victim of the demons.”

    “No frying people on sight, got it,” Chuck said.

    “But fry them if they try to attack us,” Caridad said. “Unless they are panicking and mistake us for demons,” she added before Phil could say it.

    “Quite.”

    Caridad nodded and entered the smaller side tunnel. The stench of demons quickly grew much stronger. And she smelled decay as well. She clenched her teeth and hoped that the demons hadn’t dragged people down here, but animals.

    Deeper down the tunnel, the dirt covering the tunnel’s floor had grown into small mounds which cast large shadows on the walls in the light from their lamps. This tunnel hadn’t been flooded in a while, Caridad deduced. She tried to remember the last big rain to get a handle on how old the nest could be, tops, but didn’t manage. And asking the others… no. They were committed anyway. And it couldn’t be more than a month or two.

    But the stench… definitely a lot of rotting meat. Or flesh. Damn de… A faint scratching sound made her stop.

    She heard Chuck gasp behind her as he stopped as well while Phil and Sarah didn’t make a sound. “Wait,” she whispered. “I’ll go ahead.” She didn’t want their flashlights to alert the monsters - she could see perfectly fine with minimal light.

    Caridad moved faster now. They were close now. Time to slay! She turned a corner and spotted something moving about ten yards ahead, where the tunnel opened into a bigger room. Cistern or something. The hellhound didn’t notice her until it was too late - it managed to jerk away, so her axe didn’t split his skull, but the blow wrecked its shoulder instead, smashing it to the ground. Before the howling demon could recover, Caridad buried her sword in its mouth.

    But the monster had managed to alert its pack mates. Caridad heard them howl as she ripped her weapons free, splattering the tunnel with demon blood and brains. She yelled back, the sound echoing in the chamber ahead, as she dashed forward.

    Another hellhound pounced on her, but she ducked under its claws and jaws, slashing its belly open with her sword as she tucked herself into a ball, then came up in a crouch in the middle of the chamber - surrounded by half a dozen more beasts.

    Perfect! “Chuck! Incoming!” she yelled, somersaulting back. She landed with both feet on the back of the disembowelled hound behind her, and jumped off again, aiming for the tunnel from which she had come.

    The howling from the beasts almost deafened her. They trampled the wounded monster as they charged her, pushing each other out of the way to get to her. She met the first with an axe to the face that slammed it on the ground and ducked under the second. Damn - that monster ended up behind her. Not good. She kicked the wounded demon in front of her into the path of the next two, then whirled, sword and axe flashing.

    But the hellhound retreated, opening the distance. Trying to keep her surrounded. And she could see the others coming - the cones from their flashlights lit up the tunnel. Time was running out.

    She jumped to the side, then dashed forward, running up the walls as two more hellhounds crashed to the ground where she had been a moment before. The beast in front tried to track her, but she pushed off, and jumped to the other wall, then jumped off again - flying over its head. Her blades slashed down as she cleared the demon’s head, and the thing howled again as her axe clipped its flank.

    She hit the ground and rolled forward, then jumped up and rushed forward, towards the others. “Incoming! Behind me!” she yelled as the cones of the flashlights turned on her.

    There was Chuck, flamethrower ready. She grinned, flashing her teeth, as she passed him. “Light them up!”

    A moment later, the tunnel behind her filled with fire and the howls turned into frantic screeching as the demons charging after her burned.

    Then the smoke and stench filled the rest of the tunnel, and she started coughing.

    *****​

    “As effective as flamethrowers are, I think their drawbacks, especially underground, justify some restraint in their use,” Phil commented a few minutes later, when the smoke had cleared enough for them to advance into the room ahead.

    “We only brought the one; that is restraint,” Caridad retorted as she took point again.

    “And they are very effective. Though next time, we should bring breathers,” Chuck added.

    “Unless you are fighting demons immune to fire. At that point, they become a liability,” Phil replied.

    Caridad counted the burned demon husks. Three, four, five, six… missing one. She entered the chamber and looked around. No sign of the demon, but… there! The dirt was covered with ashes and other burned things. “We’ve got a runner!” she yelled, then gave chase.

    The wounded beast hadn’t made it far - she caught up to it after a few dozen yards and two turns. The demon was trying to open a grate above them, but with just one working forelimb, it didn’t manage to get enough leverage on the small ladder. Caridad cut it down with a few swings, then split its head.

    “That should be all,” she told them after returning to the chamber.

    “And we might have found the conjurer,” Phil replied, pointing at a skeleton with a split skull, then at a curved dagger next to it and more bones. “Although unless we manage to identify the person, it’s merely an assumption even though the odds of anyone using a Scythian sacrificial dagger for self-defence are rather slim.”

    “We can take the skull and compare it to the dental records of missing persons,” Sarah said.

    “And track the dagger!” Chuck added.

    “Very well. Let’s hope that we can solve this mystery and close the case. As quickly as we cleared this infestation, Hellhound packs are a serious threat to the population.”

    “Well, this pack won’t be a threat to anyone ever again,” Caridad said, grinning as she kicked another carcass.

    “As long as we destroy the remains so they won’t be found by someone else,” Phil told her. “That would trigger questions we don’t want to be asked.”

    Ugh. Caridad knew what that meant - more dirty work. “I’ll gather the remains.”

    “And I shall prepare the pyre.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 4th, 2008

    John was still awake, watching tv, when she finally returned home shortly before midnight. Even better - there was no sign of Carina.

    “Need a shower?” he asked as she entered from the backyard.

    “I took one at Phil’s,” she replied. As if she had wanted to arrive covered with ash and demon blood and stuff when Carina might be around! That would have endangered their secret, too.

    “Ah.”

    She flopped down on the couch next to him. “We got them.”

    “Good.”

    “How was Carina?”

    “Annoying.”

    She twisted let her legs hang over the armrest so she could place her head in his lap. Then she raised her eyebrows.

    “She didn’t try to kiss me,” he went on.

    “But she flirted.” Caridad didn’t think the spy knew how not to flirt.

    “She tried to.”

    She clenched her teeth. That was still going too far. And in her own home! She pushed herself up and slid into his lap with a growl.

    John was hers. Not anyone else’s. And certainly not Carina’s.

    He was growling himself when she started kissing him.

    *****​
     
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  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 4: The Plan
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 4: The Plan

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 5th, 2008

    This time, when Caridad woke up, John was still sleeping. Well, she had kept him up for quite some time, hadn’t she? Grinning, she stretched and slipped out of bed. Eight o’clock - not late yet, but not early any more, either. She had slept in, at least according to Slayer standards.

    And she was hungry according to anyone’s standards.

    She showered and dressed quickly, as usual, then reconsidered. She knew that she was hot - any Slayer was. And she didn’t need to spend hours primping herself to look good. But… She looked at herself in the mirror over the dresser and frowned. She looked good - damn good - and she really didn’t need to, but perhaps, today, she could make a little effort to look even better. Oh, yes.

    Smirking, she went back to the bathroom. That would show the spy!

    *****​

    Enough makeup to look like she only used a little, clothes that were just short of ‘clubbing wear’ - she was looking stunning when she went downstairs to finally grab breakfast. First breakfast, anyway; she’d eat her second breakfast with John when he woke up.

    After half a dozen eggs and bacon and sausages to match - John hadn’t black pudding in the fridge, yet, but she’d wear him down one of those days - she dumped the empty toast wrapper in the trash and stepped out into the backyard for her morning exercise. A light kata to start, followed by some cardio with weights…

    She stopped and stared for a moment. The spy was in the neighbouring backyard, on a lounger, in a bikini. A bikini obviously not meant for swimming because, without some double-sided industrial-strength duct tape, it would be swept away by the slightest wave.

    “Good morning, Caridad,” Carina greeted her with a lazy wave and a smirk under her oversized sunglasses. Hell, the things covered more than her bikini!

    “Morning,” Carina spat out. She would have to change her planned workout. Swimming was now mandatory. It would ruin her makeup, but she should shower before using the pool anyway, especially after a workout.

    “How was your evening?”

    “Successful, thank you,” Caridad replied, grabbing some weights. Some of the Slayer weights, which looked normal but weighed more - the perfect tool to work out without showing off too much.

    “Oh?” What did you do? I didn’t hear about any explosions or fires in the city. Or murders.”

    Was the spy trying to bait her? She snorted - she had seen better. Far better. She started her workout with some light exercises - she’d do the kata later. “It’s classified.”

    “You’re no fun. We’re working together, aren’t we?”

    “Not on this.” She clenched her teeth - replying to the woman’s comments was a mistake. But not replying would make her look like a pouting teenager. A young teenager.

    Carina pouted. “But we should know more about each other so we can work together on our shared mission. If we don’t know what both of us can do, we’re bound to make mistakes.”

    Caridad flashed her teeth at the spy. “Just assume I can do it - whatever it is.”

    “Oh? You’re a hacker, too?”

    “No, but I can get a hacker if Chuck is too busy.” There was Chuck’s dad. And if everything failed, there was always Willow. It would cost her pretty much every favour and then some, but it would be worth it if only to show up Carina.

    “Ah. Your mysterious friends. ‘London’.”

    Caridad grunted in response and doubled the speed of her repetitions. A little showing off never hurt anyone, and the spy had to learn that she was outclassed in every way that counted. “Need to know,” she replied.

    “But I do need to know.”

    Caridad didn’t have to actually take a glance to know Carina was smirking widely. She did it anyway - you didn’t turn your back to a spy and potential enemy. “You want to know. You don’t need to know. That’s a difference you might yet learn.” She resisted the urge to imitate Phil’s accent, but she hit his tone.

    And, she noticed with glee, Carina frowned. Briefly, but clearly. Then the spy smiled again. “But I do need to know - or I might stumble upon information I shouldn’t know. Completely by accident, of course.”

    “Then you’ll have an accident, of course.” Caridad bared her teeth as she dropped the weights and started a kata to stress her point. She didn’t show off too much here, either - but enough to make the spy frown once more.

    Good.

    *****​

    Two hours later, Caridad heard John wake up. She smiled. Finally! After her workout and a shower, she had been sunbathing for almost an hour by now. “Morning!” she yelled from the yard as soon as he came down the stairs.

    “Morning.” He detoured from his way to the kitchen and stepped out into the garden - and she saw his eyes widen when he spotted her on the lounger. As they should - she was wearing her sexiest bikini.

    “Morning, John.” Carina had to butt in, of course.

    He merely glanced into her direction - and the hedge kept the spy and her tiny bikini out of sight from that angle - but Caridad caught a little smirk before he schooled his features. She frowned in return. This wasn’t amusing. “You slept in,” she told him. “I already had my workout, and with the weather being nice…”

    He snorted and nodded, then began his own workout. Which was nice to see, of course, but also attracted unwanted attention from the other yard.

    “Oh, Casey. Looking good.”

    He grunted in return. Caridad’s glare was ignored by the woman.

    “Mind a sparring session? I might need a little refresher.” The spy flashed a fake smile at him.

    “I’d love to spar with you!” Caridad blurted out before John could say anything. She all but jumped up and bared her teeth at Carina. “Full contact, OK?”

    The spy, though, backed off faster than a fledgling went for an easy meal. She turned her head towards the other house. “Perhaps another time - I think Chuck is preparing lunch.”

    “Sure, sure, anytime you want to spar, just give me the word,” Caridad told her.

    Behind her, John snorted, softly.

    “Damn coward,” she swore after Carina had vanished into Chuck and Sarah’s house.

    “She’s smart enough not to underestimate you.”

    Caridad scoffed. “If she were dumb she’d have been killed long ago.”

    And now John was frowning. Caridad pursed her lips - she hadn’t meant to remind him of his own age. Only of Carina’s.

    Ah, well. “Let’s have lunch, too,” she said with a smile.

    She didn’t change out of the bikini until they had finished their meal.

    *****​

    “So… we’ve been tracking the money of some of the cartel, trying to find their contacts in Los Angeles,” Chuck explained. “In case Dubois is using them.”

    “Low odds on that,” John commented. “She’s likely not trusting the cartel assets.”

    “Yes, but… it’s the best we can do.” Chuck grimaced. “We’ve also been checking the airport surveillance cameras, but…”

    “She won’t be arriving by air,” John said. “Or if she does, you won’t recognise her.”

    “Told you - my plan is the best,” Caridad said.

    “Out of a bunch of bad options,” Morgan added.

    “I wish we could do more. We’ve increased security here - we’ve hacked into all the surrounding security cameras,” Chuck said. “But…”

    Sarah patted his shoulder. “We’re doing what we can, Chuck.”

    But it might not be enough. Caridad knew it, though she wouldn’t say it.

    Chuck sighed. “Anyway… No news on our other mission.” He looked at Caridad.

    She nodded. That meant he hadn’t found Nathan yet - no surprise; finding a killer after them was more urgent.

    “And, there’s the rehearsal for the wedding rehearsal coming up.”

    “The what?” Carina stared at Chuck as if he had told her they were going on tour with the Polka Brothers.

    “The rehearsal for the wedding rehearsal,” Sarah repeated Chuck’s word with a sweet smile. “Chuck’s sister is getting married, and she wants to make sure everything goes perfectly.”

    “Of course, we can’t have a wedding rehearsal while Dubois is gunning for us. That would endanger far too many civilians,” Chuck said.

    “No problem then,” John said. “We won’t be doing it.”

    Caridad nodded. Ellie would understand. She wouldn’t like it, but she’d understand.

    “A rehearsal…” Carina shook her head. “As a cover, that’s really bad.”

    “It’s not a cover,” Sarah told her. “It’s the truth.”

    “Yeah, right.” The spy scoffed. “Next, you’ll be planning your own wedding, huh?”

    Carina’s smug smile flattered a little when Sarah didn’t dismiss the possibility right away. “Who knows? As I told you repeatedly, things changed.”

    “People like us don’t change, Sarah. We’re not the picket fence, two point five kids suburban family people.”

    “Of course not,” Morgan said. “Picket fences don’t give enough privacy. Hedges, on the other hand, are great. And very environmentally friendly.”

    Carina still didn’t look like she believed them. Well, her loss.

    “But I don’t like using Caridad as bait. A single sniper shot…” John trailed off. “You aren’t bulletproof.”

    But she was the most likely to survive an attack. Anyone else would be in greater danger. And none of Caridad’s friends was expendable. So, there was no choice.

    She blinked, then grinned. There actually was a choice.

    But she couldn’t talk about that with Carina present.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 5th, 2008

    “So… I have to be, like, bait again?”

    Harmony had gotten it the first time - Caridad was almost impressed as she checked if anyone near them in the café was listening in.

    “Ah, yes,” Chuck told the vampire. “Although you’ll be perfectly safe.”

    From the assassin. If she took one step out of line, Caridad would slay her.

    The vampire blinked. “But… if it’s safe, why do you need me?”

    “It’s safe for you. Anyone else wouldn’t be as safe,” Chuck explained - again. It seemed the vampire wasn’t any quicker on the uptake than expected. Which was kind of reassuring - the thought of a smarter Harmony would have been worrying.

    The vampire blinked again, her mouth twisting into a pout as she seemed to think this through. Or at least try to think it through. “How does that work?”

    “You, ah, might get shot. With a gun,” Chuck hastily added when the vampire gasped.

    “Oh.” She blinked. “Guns don’t hurt me.”

    Which was why Harmony would be bait, duh.

    “But they will hurt my clothes!”

    “You’ll be reimbursed.” At the look of total incomprehension on Harmony’s face, Chuck added: “We’ll pay you new clothes.”

    “Oh!” The vampire nodded. “Goodie! There’s that new dress I so wanted!”

    Which would get holed if she bought it now and wore it. But that was no skin off Caridad’s butt. As long as Harmony played the high school friend of Chuck and drew Dubois out of hiding, all would be well.

    “Uh, yes. Anyway - you might also get kidnapped.”

    “Kidnapped?” Once more, the vampire gasped. “Like… the Initiative?”

    “No. Just as a hostage,” Chuck said.

    “A hostage?”

    “Against us.” Chuck smiled. “But since they don’t know you’re a vampire, you’ll be able to easily escape - if they even manage to kidnap you in the first place.”

    “Oh.” The vampire tried to think again, which took a while. “And who’s after you?”

    “A cartel killer named Dubois,” Chuck said.

    Caridad frowned. Harmony didn’t need to know that. The stupid vampire was likely to blurt it out, which could warn Dubois that they knew about her plans.

    “Dubois?”

    “It’s a French name.”

    “Oh.” Harmony blinked. “The French have cartels as well?”

    Caridad sighed. This would take longer than she had expected.

    *****​

    “So… the French cartel killer doesn’t know about vampires. And Sarah’s friend isn’t allowed to know about vampires.” Harmony nodded to her own words.

    “Yes.” Even Chuck sounded more than a little tired by now.

    “But she’s working with you.”

    “She forced that on us,” Caridad snapped.

    The vampire flinched a little - which was good; bloodsuckers needed to fear Slayers - then frowned again. “That sounds complicated.”

    For her, perhaps.

    “Just don’t let her find out that you’re a vampire, Harmony. She only knows that we’re friends from school.”

    “Oh.” Harmony nodded, “I can do that. But what if she finds out that’s not true?”

    “How?”

    “She’s a spy, right? She could find out that we weren’t friends in school! I mean… I’d have, like, died if people had thought we were friends with nerds!” She blinked again. “Wait… I kind of died when we were kind of friends.”

    “I doubt that she will find out that we moved in different circles back in high school,” Chuck replied. “And even if she does, it won’t change anything since we’re friends now.”

    Speak for yourself!

    “Oh!” The vampire beamed at Chuck. “That’s true!”

    “Just… if Carina asks about you, I mean, asks you about you, tell her you’re a freelance operative.” Chuck smiled.

    “A free lance operator? Is that a sex thing?”

    Caridad rolled her eyes.

    “Uh, no. Just tell her that you’re a freelance spy,” Chuck explained. “And that you can’t tell her more.”

    “Ok!” Harmony nodded several times.

    Caridad snorted. Carina would get the totally wrong impression about the Council if the spy thought Harmony was one of them. On the other hand, Carina would probably think it was all an act…

    *****​

    Back in Chuck and Sarah’s house, Carina did look properly paranoid, as John would call it. “You’re Harmony.”

    “Yes!” The vampire nodded with a vapid smile. “Harmony Kendall. Though I don’t use my last name often any more. It’s against tradition or something.”

    “And you’re a friend of Chuck.”

    “Oh, yes! We went to high school together. In Sunnydale.”

    “And she’ll help us catch Dubois,” Chuck cut in. “She might not look it, but she’s perfect for the job.”

    Carina narrowed her eyes. “You’re a spy?”

    “What? Oh, I’m a freelance spy.” Harmony nodded with a smile that made her look even more stupid than she was.

    And Carina’s smile told Caridad that the spy didn’t believe a single word from the vampire.

    Good.

    *****​

    “So, I was, like, ‘this looks cute’, and she was all, like, ‘Oh, no, Harmony, you can’t wear it with your shoes’. But, she, like, gets to wear it with her shoes? Yeah, right! I couldn’t let that stand!” Harmony nodded several times.

    “I see,” Carina lied. “And that’s where Chuck comes in?”

    “Huh? Chuck? No. Why would Chuck know anything about fashion? No offence, Chuck, right?” the vampire quickly added with a forced smile.

    “None taken,” Chuck replied without looking up from his laptop.

    “Thank you!”

    “But… we were talking about your time with Chuck in high school!” the spy protested.

    “Yes.” Once more, Harmony nodded. “We were in the same year! Same classes, even - at least a few. I think.”

    “And you are friends,” Caridad prodded, hiding a smirk.

    “Oh, yes, we are!” Harmony dutifully repeated. “Sunnydalers stick together. Those who survived graduation, at least.”

    “Ah. Sunnydale High must have been a tough school.” Carina tried again.

    “Oh, yes! Hell on earth - kinda. Like, I didn’t know it at the time, until Xander told us, but it literally was on top of hell. Or something.”

    “Hell?” Carina was leaning forward now. Caridad knew she should stop the exchange, but it was too amusing to watch.

    “You know, the big fiery place where bad guys who don’t call after a date go? Hell!” Harmony nodded, firmly this time with an expression of satisfaction as if she had just given a lesson in theology.

    And Carina was trying to puzzle out what the braindead vampire had actually meant. “I see,” she lied again. “It must have come as a shock to you when the whole town vanished in a sinkhole.”

    “Oh, not really. I was, like, living - kind of - in Los Angeles by the time. And our group had, like, broken up years ago. After graduation.” Harmony frowned. “I, like, died.”

    “Ah. And then you reconnected with Chuck.”

    “Well, I reconnected with my ex, first. Who then reconnected with his ex. Who then reconnected with Chuck. I think. Right, Chuck?” Harmony turned to him.

    “It was about like that, yes.”

    Caridad couldn’t tell if Carina took that as confirmation or a misleading lie, but either way, it would, or so she hoped, keep the spy busy trying to figure it out. And keep her from bothering Caridad or John.

    “And Angel was so pissed when his big plan failed, but it was, like, dumb. But I got to work as a secretary for a while!”

    “His big plan?”

    “Classified,” Caridad said with a frown.

    “It sounds like old news.”

    “Not as old as Angel!” Harmony’s laugh was nerve-grating. It was almost enough to slay her on the spot.

    “Really?”

    “Oh, yes.” Harmony nodded again, but a glance from Caridad kept her from spilling more about the vampire. “So, anyway, I thought I was gonna get slain, but I didn’t, and everything worked out in the end, but, like, I had to quit as a secretary. No more benefits!” She sighed in a very theatrical way. “It’s been hard since then.”

    “Have you considered seeking other employment?”

    “Oh, yes! But most jobs I can only work nights, and that would, like, cut into my party time. And jobs are so demanding, you know?”

    “Yes.”

    “Anyway - how about we go out? Clubbing?” Caridad spoke up. It was late, but not too late to start working on Mission: Bait.

    “Oh, goodie!” Harmony beamed at her. Then she blinked. “Do you mean, like, clubbing-clubbing, or is this a mission?”

    “Clubbing-clubbing.”

    “Goodie!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 6th, 2008

    “...and I think Carina’s really nice. She hasn’t gotten mad at me, like, ever!” Harmony had a rather sappy smile on her face.

    “That’s because she wants to find out your secrets. And then probably sell them to the highest bidder,” Caridad told her. “She’s a spy.”

    “Well, I’m supposed to be a spy too!” The vampire frowned. “Actually, I was a spy with Angel, wasn’t I? Working undercover - the other kind of undercover.”

    The way Caridad had heard it, Harmony hadn’t exactly started working for Wolfram & Hart with infiltration and sabotage in mind. Or anything in mind. But she knew it would be pointless to point this out. Nodding and going along with the vampire’s babble was much easier. And didn’t make her want to stake the vampire as much.

    “So… think she has a job for me?”

    “Do you want to work for the government? The same government that had the Initiative?”

    “Uh… But isn’t the Initiative like, gone?”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. “And you think they won’t restart it if they get a vampire?”

    “You think so?”

    “Yes.”

    “But would they know?”

    “Yes. And the Scoobies would also know. And Willow doesn’t like the government very much.” The witch didn’t like Harmony very much, either.

    “Oh.” The vampire winced. “So… no cushy government job for me.”

    “No.” Caridad nodded firmly at her.

    One problem managed - so far.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 6th, 2008

    “I could almost feel my brain leaking out of my ears,” Caridad said the next morning as she sat down on the couch in their living room. “Harmony’s just… braindead. I’m surprised she can actually remember her name and address.”

    “Well, technically, she is brain dead. Or brain undead,” Chuck said. “At least temporary. No brain activity when she ‘sleeps’.”

    “No brain activity at all,” Caridad retorted. “She was wondering if she could work for the government.”

    John snorted as he sat down himself, then nodded at Chuck. “What do you have?”

    Chuck coughed, “Uh… I kind of spent the time making Harmony more visible. Electronically, not literally. Just so anyone investigating us would find her.” Anyone meaning Dubois, of course. “And, uh…” he looked over his shoulder.

    “Carina’s not nearby,” Caridad assured him. “I can hear her talking to Sarah in your living room.”

    “Uh, thanks.” Chuck winced. “She’s been quite… persistent. She kept badgering us all night about Harmony. Trying to find out whether Harmony was a spy playing dumb or if we were actually planning to use a dumb civilian as bait.”

    Caridad snorted. Anyone who knew Chuck would know he’d never allow that. Carina wasn’t as smart as she thought she was.

    John, though, nodded, which made her frown.

    “Anyway, I did manage some work after we retreated into the bedroom, and Sarah threatened to shoot her if she bothered us.” Chuck shook his head. “But I mainly asked Dad for help.”

    “It’s his fault, anyway,” Caridad said. Chuck’s dad had caused the whole mess.

    “Well, he didn’t expect the French to be involved…” Chuck winced a little at her glare - and John’s. “Moving on! Dad’s been busy adjusting Harmony’s cover.”

    “What did he do?” Harmony was a bloodsucker and a stupid, vapid girl, but she was helping them, and it would be kind of unfair to ruin her un-life in exchange.

    “Hid her death a little better.”

    “Oh?”

    “It’ll look like a cover story for a spy instead of a paperwork oversight,” John said. “Right?”

    “Uh, yes, exactly.” Chuck nodded. “He said none was investigating her yet, though.”

    “Or he didn’t notice,” John said. “He’s not perfect.”

    “But…” Chuck sighed. “OK. So, we’re going to assume Dubois already found our address - or will soon - and Harmony will be visiting often.”

    Caridad groaned.

    “Uh, she has to, to sell the cover story,” Chuck said.

    “I know.” That didn’t mean she’d have to like it. Caridad sighed again. She just hoped Dubois would strike before he lost her temper and slayed someone. Between Carina and Harmony, this would be a real challenge. She frowned. Speak of the devil… “Carina’s coming.”

    John muttered a curse while Chuck blinked and quickly started closing windows on his laptop. “Uh… so… that’s about it.”

    A minute later, Carina entered from the backyard. “Did I mention that you really need a gate there, or something - climbing over the fence gets tiresome.”

    “We’ve ordered one,” John said in a flat tone.

    “But, uh, usually, we can just take the front route,” Chuck said. “And it’s kind of nice to have a private backyard where the neighbours can’t stumble in… I mean, not that you’d actually stumble, but…”

    Caridad snorted. “As long as you’re not too loud.” She grinned when he blushed - he would know she could hear him and Sarah anytime they were in their yard.

    Carina laughed. “I’ll have to tease Sarah about this later.” Well, her funeral. “Anyway - what were you planning?”

    “We were going over Harmony’s cover story,” Caridad told her. It was the truth, even.

    “Ah.” And it would make Carina think there was more to the blonde vampire. “And what did you do?”

    “Just some minor adjustments to her records,” Chuck said with a bright smile. “Nothing major. But it should suffice to get Dubois on her case.”

    The spy looked taken aback. “And how are you going to protect her once Dubois strikes?”

    “She can take care of herself,” Caridad said with a shrug. Vampires were hard to kill - at least for amateurs.

    “You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you considered her expendable,” Carina replied with a glance at Chuck.

    “What? No!” he protested.

    Caridad forced herself to nod in agreement. “She’s not as easy to kill as she appears.”

    Carina looked at her, frowning. “She’s good then. Very good.”

    It took all of Caridad’s self-control not to tell Carina that Harmony was actually bad. Very bad.

    *****​

    “Hello!”

    After checking through the peephole, Caridad blinked. Why was Harmony standing outside their door with two suitcases? She opened the door - a gap; just in case someone was aiming at them. “Harmony?”

    “Ah, goodie!” The vampire smiled at her. “I wasn’t sure you were at home. Chuck said you were, but… like, you never know, do you?”

    “What are you doing here?” Caridad asked.

    “Just dropping off a few things before I’m going clubbing.”

    “A few things?”

    “You know, like, clothes, cosmetics, accessoires, shoes - like, the essentials.” Harmony nodded as if she had just dispensed some ancient wisdom.

    Caridad cocked her head. “And why are you dropping them off here? Did something happen to your apartment?”

    “What? Oh, no, nothing. But if I’m to live here, I, like, need my stuff, you know?”

    Live here? “What?”

    “I said that if I live here, I need my stuff, like, you know?”

    “Why would you live here?” If vampires could even be said to live.

    “Because Carina’s in Chuck’s guest room, and she’s not sharing,” Harmony said as if that explained it. “And if we shared, she’d probably find out I’m a vampire, what with the mirror in the guest bathroom not working for me, you know?”

    “No, that makes sense.” Sort of. “But why would you need to live here?”

    “So the assassin will go after me when I go clubbing, duh!” Harmony shook her head. “That was the plan, right?”

    Caridad didn’t remember any plan that would have forced her to let a vampire into her home. She wasn’t Buffy - there was no need for a vampire to stay with her! “No, it wasn’t. The goal is to use you as bait so the assassin doesn’t hit our homes.”

    “But Chuck sent me to you! Besides, that way, I have some spare clothes if I, like, have an accident and need to change. Your home is much more convenient than my own for that, what with the best clubs being, like, five minutes from here!”

    The best clubs weren’t so close unless you liked flash-in-pan tourist traps. “You want to turn my home into a wardrobe for you?” She should just stake the bloodsucker!

    “Only an emergency wardrobe. Besides, if I stay here, I can protect your lover.”

    “John doesn’t need protection,” she told the vampire. “He’s an experienced spy.”

    “But I thought you needed me because of the assassin…” Harmony looked honestly confused.

    “Caridad?”

    And John had returned to the living room from the yard.

    “Hi, Casey!” Harmony all but yelled. “I’m here to drop off my suitcases in your guest room!”

    “Which I hadn’t agreed to,” Caridad added as John joined them.

    “Ah.”

    She sent him a glare. He better backed her up here!

    “You probably should stay with Bartowski; he needs more protection,” John said.

    “No, he told me I should come here.” Harmony nodded. “Plus, their guest room is occupied, Yours isn’t! Unless you have a guest and didn’t tell me. You don’t, do you?”

    “No, we don’t have a guest,” Caridad said.

    “Goodie!”

    Caridad wasn’t going to invite a vampire into her home. She was about to tell the bloodsucker that, in no uncertain terms, when she spotted Carina watching them. Damn! If the spy found out about this… “Give me the suitcases.”

    “Thanks!” Harmony handed them over. “I’ll be back later - before the sunrise, of course!”

    And she disappeared.

    Caridad mumbled: “Spy’s watching us.” Then she carried the suitcases upstairs and threw them in the guest room. One hit the bed and bounced off, landing on the floor, the other hit the dresser and got stuck half-way under the bed.

    She barely managed not to slam the door.

    “So, we’ve got a vampire house guest now?” John asked when she entered the living room again.

    Caridad sighed. “We can’t let Carina grow suspicious. More suspicious.”

    John nodded - though slowly. “Her invitation can be revoked later, right?”

    “Yes. But we’ll need a witch for that.”

    “Good.”

    But it wasn’t good. Not at all.

    And the worst part was that getting Harmony involved had been Caridad’s idea. She couldn’t even blame anyone else for that.

    *****​

    “So…” Standing in the backyard, Chuck looked over his shoulder.

    “Carina’s in the bathroom showering,” Caridad told her.

    Chuck blinked, then glared at John. “Did you bug our house?”

    “No, I can hear her,” Caridad said. “She left the window open.”

    “Ah.” Chuck looked relieved, then froze. “Uh…”

    “Yes,” Caridad told him.

    “Uh, I think we’ll have to, uh, get better air conditioning,” Chuck said, blushing.

    “Why are you here?” John asked.

    “Uh… I found out more about Dubois.”

    “Oh?” Caridad grinned. If they had the assassin’s location…

    Chuck nodded. “Yes. Apparently, she killed several cartel members in Mexico before she started looking for us. I’ve confirmed that she was responsible for four murders. High-ranking cartel members with ties to Lopez. The real cartel killer we had to deal with during our mission.”

    “Ah. So…?”

    “She must have thought we were working with Lopez,” John explained. “So… how did she learn about our involvement?”

    “And our identities,” Chuck added.

    “A Fulcrum contact would be the most obvious explanation,” John said. “Unless we messed up with our cover.”

    “Well… we were quite involved in Mexico,” Chuck said. He tapped his temple. “So far, I got nothing about that.”

    “So, and how does that help us find her?” Caridad asked. That was what was important, after all. Who cared what Dubois had done before attacking them - all that mattered was stopping her.

    “Uh… We can deduce some things by studying the murders?” Chuck’s smile looked forced. “She didn’t, uh, use bombs or sniper rifles for them. She did it up close and personal.”

    “She probably needed information,” John said.

    Chuck nodded. “Three showed signs of torture,” he said.

    “And the fourth?” Caridad asked after a moment.

    “Body hasn’t been found so far.”

    “Ah.” So the assassin wanted to torture them before killing them. She was unlikely to use bombs on them, or snipe them from afar.

    That was good news. Kind of. Except for the bit about torture.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 7th, 2008

    “...so, like, I said: ‘No, I don’t go out to eat’, and he said I must be a good cook. Like, why would he think that?” Harmony shook her head. “Guy, like, hadn’t ever heard of delivery, you know? So, like, I told him no, and he laughed as if I had made a joke, So rude!” She noisily sucked the last of the blood from her bag.

    Caridad really wanted to stake the vampire. That was her breakfast with John that the bloodsucker was ruining. Chuck so owed her for hosting her. Caridad wasn’t exactly Willow, no one was, but so much stupidity hurt her brain anyway. “He probably wanted to hook up with you,” she said, before chomping down on more sausages. Still no black pudding.

    “Like, duh, of course he wanted.” Harmony shook her head. “Who wouldn’t? But I’ve got standards!”

    Caridad managed not to snort - even though the vampire probably would have thought she was laughing at the unknown man so desperate, he had hit on a vampire.

    “Any sign of Dubois?” John asked.

    “Uh…” Harmony scrunched up her face so much, straining her brain, Caridad almost though she was going game face. “No, I don’t think so,” she finally said after a few seconds. I wasn’t, like, shot at - I think; it was kinda loud in some clubs. And no one tried to kidnap me. Unless they tried to be subtle and disguise themselves, like, as men hitting on me.” Her eyes widened, and she gasped - even though she didn’t need air at all. “OMG! Perhaps that was her! Or.. a minion! Trying to seduce me so they can kidnap me!”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. Now Harmony was becoming paranoid. On the other hand, if she suspected everyone hitting on her to be a kidnapper… That would put a strain on her love life. And keep civilians from getting dragged into this. “It can’t be ruled out,” she said.

    John frowned and glanced at her, raising his eyebrows. She glanced back and nodded. She was going somewhere with this. “Best don’t get involved,” she said.

    “Like, duh - I wasn’t born yesterday!” Harmony nodded with a serious expression. “Do spies get minions, anyway?”

    “Sometimes, we have local support,” John said.

    “Gunn and his people probably count,” Caridad added with a grin.

    Harmony giggled at that. “Oh, yeah - they’re still at it, aren’t they?” Then she frowned. “But do they count?”

    “We hired them to protect Ellie and Devon,” Caridad reminded her.

    “Oh, right.” Harmony nodded again. “Better you than me - Gunn, like, always made me feel really dumb. That wasn’t nice.”

    Caridad once more had to struggle not to blurt out what she really wanted to say.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 7th, 2008

    “I don’t think a tracker is good enough security,” Carina commented in the evening, in Chuck and Sarah’s living room. “We need bodies nearby, or we can’t react quickly enough.”

    “Anyone we place near Harmony is at risk of getting recognised and attacked,” Sarah replied.

    Or to lose their self-control and stake the vampire, Caridad silently added.

    “And Harmony will be fine,” Chuck added, looking up from his laptop. “She’s got experience with kidnapping.”

    Mostly, as far as Harmony knew, by doing the kidnapping with Spike, back when Spike was evil. “And we’ll be in the area,” she said, nodding at John. “In an unmarked car.”

    “Somewhere ‘in the area’.” Carina shook her head. “I can’t believe you. What if Dubois manages to escape because you’re too far away when she strikes?”

    Ah. Caridad had been wondering why Carina seemed to care so much about Harmony.

    “That’s what the tracker is for,” Chuck said.

    The spy looked at them. “I can’t believe you… this isn’t right!”

    “Uh… Harmony volunteered. And she knows the risks,” Chuck said.

    “Save it!” Carina snapped. “This isn’t how things are done. This isn’t how we used to do things, Sarah. You’re hiding something!” She glared at Sarah. “You’d never send one of your own out to die. And if you wanted her dead, you’d kill her yourself. We have a deal - what is going on?”

    “Uh. Harmony can handle Dubois. She really can.” Chuck tried again.

    “No matter how good she is, no one is perfect.” Carina scowled. “Dubois is a good spy - she can get the drop on Harmony. And she’ll expect trackers.” The spy narrowed her eyes. “No, you’ve got another plan.”

    “Uh… no,” Chuck said.

    “That is our plan. Harmony is bait. Once Dubois takes the bait, we go after her,” Sarah said.

    Caridad nodded.

    “I don’t believe you.” Carina snorted. “Casey, I’d believe. Sarah - if Harmony had hurt you in the past.” She looked at Caridad and scoffed. “But you, Chuck?” She shook her head. “You wouldn’t risk someone like that. That’s not you.”

    “Uh…” Chuck grimaced. “The risk is really not that great, trust me. Dubois will likely try to kidnap her, to get intel on us. Or, uh, leverage. Or to make an example. But she won’t just kill her.”

    “She’ll torture her instead.” The spy narrowed her eyes at him.

    “Uh… we’ll intervene before that.”

    “Dubois will expect backup. And you know that.”

    Caridad frowned. Of course they did - that’s why they used Harmony: to lure the spy out in the open. But Carina wasn’t buying it. Caridad was about to comment when she heard the backdoor to her home open. Harmony was done in the bathroom.

    A moment later, the vampire appeared in the backyard, waving at her. She was wearing a dress far too short - which, apparently, had been normal at Sunnydale High, according to Chuck - and heels far too high. “Hi, there!” she chirped as she entered the room. “I used up your conditioner, Caridad. You need to buy more.”

    “The conditioner I told you not to use?” Caridad asked. That was expensive. And needed, with all the times vampire dust or demon goop got into one’s hair.

    “Uh… you did? I mean… yes?” Harmony smiled weakly. “Anyway, I’m totally ready for today’s mission!”

    “Really.” Carina pointedly looked at her.

    “Yes!”

    “And what do you do if something goes wrong and you get kidnapped?”

    “Duh! I’ll escape, of course. And catch the kidnapper. Without killing them.” Harmony nodded, obviously proud to have remembered her instructions. “Then I’ll call you if you haven’t followed me.”

    Carina looked at her, then at the rest of them. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ll find out.”

    Harmony beamed at her. “Oh, did you forget? That happens to me all the time, but this time, I paid attention. So, it’s like this…”

    Caridad smirked openly at Carina’s expression.

    *****​
     
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 5: The Ambush
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 5: The Ambush

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 7th, 2008

    Caridad took another sip from the far too expensive coke and sighed. Aggressively. ‘We’re going to all the best clubs’, Harmony had said. The ‘Lilac Leopard’ was many things - overpriced, far too loud, garishly decorated, and trying way too hard to be hip to actually be hip - but one thing it wasn’t, and that was ‘best’ in anything. Worst, on the other hand… The name alone was a deal-breaker. Someone thought they were clever, what with the not-quite-Pink-Panther-ripoff.

    Of course, Harmony and her mental peers would love it. Caridad glanced at the vampire on the dance floor. Amidst all the valley girls, Harmony didn’t stick out. Even her outfit, dated since a few years ago, was now old enough to be retro-hip.

    For a moment, she wondered how Buffy was managing that - she had insisted that you could spot vampires by their outdated fashion style. With the retro waves, that was a little difficult these days.

    Well, Caridad had other means to spot a vamp, and the more Harmony looked like a normal girl, the better, now that a French assassin was hunting them. Bait had to look convincing. Harmony’s apparent age was already a slight source of concern - Harmony had just said that she had experience in looking older than she was.

    Well, the vampire had fooled Carina, so she was probably right.

    Caridad took another sip, and now her glass was empty. She wanted to scratch her scalp - the wig itched - but that might give her away. And she might smear the makeup that served as part of her disguise. And that would give her away, even in this crowd, with half the girls looking as if they were wearing enough makeup to deflect a throwing spike.

    If only Dubois was a vampire! Caridad would be able to sense her, which would make this whole thing so much easier!

    She sighed once more and glanced at the bar. Perhaps she should get another coke? With the air conditioning not working - or not good enough to deal with the crowd - she was certainly thirsty enough for another overpriced soft drink. And she could probably bill the Council for this - after all, she was working undercover.

    Yes, she would…

    The music ending in mid-song and all the lights going on interrupted her. What was going on? She looked around. Everyone seemed frozen, some blinking and squinting at the sudden light. And with the lighting, the entire club looked uglier than before.

    A voice came over the sound system. “We’ve got a technical problem which forces us to close the club for the rest of the night. Please use the exit and emergency exits to leave right away and in an orderly fashion.”

    That sounded…

    “Fire! Fire!” someone yelled. “We’re all gonna die! I smell smoke!”

    “No!”

    “Ahhhh!”

    And there went anything resembling order. And fashion. In one moment, the crowd turned into a mob.

    Someone tried to push her from behind, but Caridad bared her teeth and stood her ground. Unfortunately, the idiot - some college-age boy - stumbled as a result and fell down.

    Which meant she had to step in to keep him from being trampled, which sent two more idiots to the floor.

    “The exits are blocked!”

    “We’re all gonna die!”

    “No!”

    Caridad gasped. Exits blocked? Was that Dubois? Did she plan to lock them inside and burn the entire building down? Had they misjudged the assassin?

    She hissed and ran towards the closest emergency exit. No matter how it was blocked, she could punch through the door - or go through the wall if she got a decent hammer.

    The emergency exits were locked, as she found out, but ripping the doors off their hinges worked. Someone had wrapped a chain around the handles outside. Which shouldn’t have been present anyway, or so Caridad thought - wasn’t that illegal for emergency exits?

    No matter. If the exits were blocked, then Dubois had to be around. Caridad dashed down the side alley, towards the street. Dubois might be…

    Oh.

    The main entrance wasn’t blocked - not with chains. But the mob left of the guests of the club had filled the street, and more pushed into them from behind.

    There were even ambulances present already. And cops. But no fire - she couldn’t smell any smoke. So, this was a diversion… where was Harmony?

    Caridad quickly focused. Bloodsucker. In the crowd. That would be Harmony - or a walking dust pile. Grinning, she pushed into the crowd herself, moving gawkers and morons aside - with force, if needed. There… oh, it was Harmony.

    And she had a dart stuck in her neck. Which the vampire didn’t seem to have noticed. “There you are! We almost, like, burned to death! Fire - can you imagine? That’s… oh my God! Fire!”

    “Don’t look at me,” Caridad hissed as she looked around. “There was no fire - it was a trap.” And Dubois would be in the vicinity. She must have been in the club, to be able to sneak up on Harmony and nail her with a dart - unless you were a Slayer, those things hadn’t much range, and hitting anything in a crowd of people was pure chance.

    But where was the assassin?

    “A trap? What?”

    “Someone shot you with a dart,” Caridad mumbled. She couldn’t spot anyone suspicious nearby. But that didn’t mean anything. Dubois could be in disguise - probably was in disguise. The assassin could be anyone. Well, almost anyone.

    “Oh my God! I was shot! With a dart! Imagine if it had been a wooden dart!”

    And the vampire was panicking.

    “You weren’t shot in the heart,” Caridad replied.

    “But I could have been! Like, the neck isn’t really far from the heart!”

    “Panic later - we need to leave before she strikes again.” Caridad shouldn’t have made contact with Harmony. Damn. That was a rookie mistake. “We’re going to split up.”

    “What? But what if she uses a bigger dart? Like a stake?”

    “She won’t. She wants you alive.” For torture. “Move it!”

    “But…”

    Caridad was already moving away from Harmony. Through the crowd, back towards the side alley. If Dubois was in the crowd… this was worse than the special training ideas Xander sometimes came up with.

    She had to shove a man to the side who wasn’t moving fast enough, but she reached the side alley without getting shot at. A quick glance back - no pursuit. And no one ahead.

    She crouched down and jumped straight up, easily grabbing hold of the fire escape. One chin up, then she slid over the railing and quickly rushed up to the roof, keeping an eye on the street alley below.

    A man entered just as she reached the roof. Hand under his jacket - too hot for Los Angeles in summer - and he was looking around, looking for someone. For her. So… Dubois had help.

    She could jump on the man from above… well, not straight onto him; from her current height, that would kill him. But if she either landed next to him, or jumped from below her, she could take him down without hurting him too much.

    Unless he wasn’t alone.

    While the man moved deeper into the alley, she checked the entrance. There wasn’t anyone suspicious. An old man leaning against the wall, watching the police and fire brigade arriving. No press, not as far down as here.

    She bared her teeth and rushed down the fire escape again. She didn’t make much noise, but the man below was good - he picked her up anyway. But by the time he looked up and drew his gun, she was already dropping down on him.

    Her right foot broke his arm with a loud crack, sending his pistol flying. He managed to raise his other arm in defence, but she was a Slayer - her blow slammed his arm into his face and sent him into the pavement, face first, cutting off his scream before he could get going.

    She landed in a crouch and looked around. She still couldn’t see anyone else - but Dubois had to be nearby. The spy on the ground was still moving, so she kicked his head, knocking him out. Now to transport him… Screw it. She slung him over his shoulder and sprinted down the alley, towards the street on the back of the club, texting the others with one hand.

    Got a prsner. Moving.

    She really needed a car for herself. Even if she could outrun most cars in the city. Unless they cheated and hacked the traffic lights.

    She reached the exit of the alley. Almost home free. She just had to…

    Something flashed across the street, and she threw herself down to the ground without thinking. Then something struck the wall behind her - someone was shooting at her.

    Damn. She rolled on the pavement, behind a parked car. That would give her some…

    Another shot punched straight through the car and missed her head by inches. Damn cheap economical euro car! She jumped up and sped down the street, keeping her head low. Forget subtlety - she wasn’t going to get shot for this. The window on the next car exploded as another bullet struck it, but she was already past that. The next side alley was coming up. Just a few more yards

    Then something hit her leg, and she was sent sprawling on the ground.

    She screamed, letting go of her captive - who was starting to stir - and rolled across the pavement. Had to keep moving. Forget the pain. Keep moving. Into cover. Into the alley. Had to get up…

    She screamed once more as her wounded leg buckled under her, and she fell down again. She scrambled onward, though, the next shots missing her - the assassin wouldn’t have expected Slayer speed crawling.

    Clenching her teeth, she pushed on. Another car’s window blew out, and more bullets sent splinters from the stone wall next to her flying around. But that gave her the angle - as soon as she was around the corner, she should be safe.

    Too bad for her captive, though. Who was starting to stir, anyway. She threw a throwing knife, hitting him hilt-first in the head, and he stopped moving again. But she couldn’t take him with her.

    She managed to get her good leg underneath her, then kicked out and jumped forward, landing at the corner. One more shot missed her, striking the ground at her feet as she grabbed the gutter pipe and swung around the corner, into safety.

    Provided she didn’t bleed out. Damn.

    But she had no time to treat her wounds right now - if the sniper followed her… well, then she’d kill them. They would have to get into range of a throwing spike if they entered the alley. Once she was further in.

    She pushed herself up and steadied herself against the wall, then limped onward. There was a dumpster ahead. Not cover, but it would hide her long enough to do something about her wound.

    She dragged herself behind it, then pulled out the bandage pack from her jacket. Another pair of pants wrecked, she thought with a snort as she ripped the fabric off her thigh. Didn’t look too bad - no artery nicked; she was still alive. No bone shattered. But it bled and hurt like hell.

    She wrapped the bandage around it, which helped with the former. And she could handle pain. Any Slayer could.

    Caridad leaned to the side and glanced around the corner of the dumpster. No one had appeared in the entrance of the alley. She hadn’t heard anything, either.

    Time to go before they cornered her. Hell, the enemy might’ve another man covering the alley exit already.

    Once more, she looked up.

    And grinned.

    Even with a wounded leg, she could climb a fire escape. Easily. Mostly. Five minutes later, she was on the roof, hidden behind a small forest of AC machinery and satellite dishes. And texting the others for help. And to warn them.

    This was a trap, after all, and a wounded Slayer would serve as well to draw out John and the others for Dubois as would a kidnapped vampire.

    She craned her neck, peeking up over the box behind her, looking for a sniper on the roofs across the street. She didn’t see anyone. And she didn’t hear the police - not close enough, at least. The shots had been silenced - suppressed, as John would say - so the cops probably didn’t notice, not with the ‘fire’ going a block down the street.,

    Typical! On the other hand, they would have driven off Dubois, and that would have let the assassin escape. And that would...

    Caridad growled. ..have been good. She didn’t know how many enemies were out there, and, fluke or not - it had to be a fluke; the sniper had missed her with every shot but one - she had been shot already. Still… this was Dubois; Caridad knew it. And she would escape now, what with Harmony off and Caridad wounded.

    And that grated. She could’ve ended this, tonight. John would’ve been so impressed, and Carna green with envy.

    She gasped. The spy! If Carina came with the others to help her, Caridad would never live this down! She had to get down. And away. Not the fire escape - using the same trick twice was pushing it. Three times? They’d expect that. Jumping to the next roof? Normally easy. She could make it even now… But if she got spotted, she would give her position away. And they would have a better idea of what she could do.

    Sighing, she crawled towards the roof entrance. It was locked - no surprise, of course - but not Slayer-proof; She ripped it off with one hand. No alert. Good.

    Slipping inside, she went down the stairs. But should she leave the building? If they were waiting for her...

    She grabbed her phone again. She needed an inconspicuous pickup. The enemy would be looking for a hot, wounded Slayer. They would’ve seen her crawl and spotted the blood. As long as she walked normally and was dressed differently, she should be fine.

    All she needed was another disguise. And she was in an apartment building. There would be a suitable dress somewhere here.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 7th, 2008

    “So, you lost your captive. And you got wounded. Too bad. I told you that we should have more people in the area.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. She really wanted to hit Carina. Hard enough to shut the spy up. That her leg hurt - John had bandaged it, but she had refused to take pain killers, not that they would’ve worked for long without taking enough to knock herself out - didn’t help. She didn’t need her legs to knock out Carina. She could do it with a thrown knife. Like she had done to her captive. WHose escape totally hadn’t been her fault.

    “If we had more people in the area, we might not have extracted all of them without losing anyone,” Sarah said.

    Carina shrugged as if she wanted to say that those were acceptable losses, as long as she wasn’t among them. Which she probably did want, in Caridad’s opinion. But the spy didn’t say so - she said: “If two people manage to escape, even with one wounded, we could’ve bagged the enemy team if all of us had been there. We could extract Caridad, after all, and Harmony escaped by herself.”

    “Oh, yes,” Harmony chimed in. “I walked away, and no one, like, stopped me. At least I didn’t notice anyone trying to stop me.” The vampire smiled widely.

    Carina laughed once - she must think the vampire was joking. The spy didn’t know that Harmony had missed getting stuck with a poisoned dart until Caridad had pointed it out!

    Caridad snorted herself - the spy’s ignorance was amusing. As was the slightly suspicious look Carina aimed at her in return. The woman might act all smugly and ‘told you so’, but she didn’t know what was really going on.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Anyway, we now know that Dubois - or at least her team - are in Los Angeles, and they have taken the bait.”

    “Wait… I wasn’t taken!” Harmony protested. “I would’ve noticed that!”

    “I meant that they went after you to get to us,” Chuck explained.

    “Oh.” The vampire nodded. “Yes, they did.”

    Once more, Carina looked puzzled before levelling a suspicious glance at the bloodsucker. “But now they also are aware that we are ready for them,” she retorted. “The bait won’t work again.”

    Which wasn’t Caridad’s fault, either.

    “We need a new plan,” the spy went on.

    “I could disguise myself and try again?” Harmony suggested. “As long as they don’t try to set the building on fire for real. That wasn’t part of the deal!”

    Chuck grimaced. “I, uh, don’t think that’s the best idea.”

    “Oh. OK.” The vampire even looked disappointed. Caridad clenched her teeth again.

    “Anyway, I’ve got an idea,” Chuck said. “It’s not very original, but it worked before.”

    “Oh?” Caridad perked up. A new plan? And from Chuck, who was one of the smarties people she knew, when he wasn’t being dumb? Finally, some good news!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 8th, 2008

    Chuck was an idiot. Caridad frowned and silently repeated herself. His plan was stupid. And boring. “No. No. Nope.” She said, rolling her eyes as she flipped through the next batch of pictures on the laptop. Cartel members, spies, mercenaries… Just how many faces were on Chuck’s computers? They had been at it for what felt like hours! The only saving grace was that Carina had gone to bed already and wasn’t trying to needle Caridad with so not helpful suggestions and criticism.

    “Oh, alright. “So, did any of them look like him? A little, perhaps?”

    And now the ‘fun’ part started. Again. “The eyebrows on that one.” She marked one of the faces.

    “Eyebrows, got it… give me a sec. Yes. Anyone else?”

    She rolled her eyes again - the quality of the picture varied from ‘police mugshot’ to ‘grainy surveillance camera’, so most of the pictures looked a little alike. Still… “That one.” She marked another one. “The chin was a little like his.”

    “Chin… was it longer or shorter?”

    “The spy’s was a little wider.” Or so she thought. She didn’t have a photographic memory.

    “OK. Lemme add that as well…” Chuck typed on his laptop. “And… how does that look?”

    The composite picture, as he called it, that appeared on Caridad’s screen, did look very much like the guy she had knocked out twice a few hours ago.

    “That’s him,” she said.

    “That’s a picture. But if I run it through our database, we should…” Chuck trailed off, smiling expectantly. After a few seconds, his face fell.

    “We should wait?” Caridad asked with a grin, cocking her head.

    “Well… there are a lot of faces to compare it to…” he said.

    Then his computer beeped, and the spy Caridad had almost caught appeared on her screen.

    “That’s him!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 8th, 2008

    “Jean Berger aka Hans Schäfer.” Chuck looked tired. Then again, he had pulled an all-nighter, as far as Caridad knew. While she had gone to bed - late, or early, depending on your point of view - he apparently had continued to work on gathering intel about Dubois’s minion.

    “Former Légionnaire, received a new name and French citizenship after his service in the Légion,” Chuck went on. “Then became a mercenary.”

    “Cover story?” John asked.

    “Yes.” Chuck pouted a little. Probably annoyed that he couldn’t have revealed this himself. “He was working as a deniable asset for the French, mostly in Africa. More importantly, though, he was a friend of Kurt Besson.”

    “Dubois’s partner in the Los Angeles mission. Killed in action,” Sarah said. By them, which she didn’t say.

    Chuck nodded, beaming at her. “Exactly. Berger vanished two months ago - the French have no idea where he’s gone.”

    “So, it’s personal,” John said, frowning.

    “Probably,” Chuck replied.

    “She might have just known him because of the personal connection to her former partner,” Carina pointed out. “It could be just business, nothing personal.”

    Caridad stared at the spy. Had she just made a joke? It had to be deliberate - you couldn’t say that seriously, could you?

    Chuck laughed, briefly, at which point the spy grinned. So, it had been a joke.

    “Do you want to try to turn him?” Sarah asked with raised eyebrows.

    “The thought crossed my mind,” Carina replied, smiling and crossing her legs in that attention-drawing manner of hers. Caridad would have done the same, if not for the bandages currently covering her thigh. “But after the events last night, I think he’ll be too paranoid for that. And he might be wounded as well,” the spy went on.

    Caridad scoffed. Using her as an excuse? Yeah, right. Carina wasn’t hot enough to turn everyone’s head.

    “And we’d have to find out where he’s staying in Los Angeles for that, first - you can’t exactly seduce someone under fire,” Sarah retorted.

    “Speaking of that,” Chuck said with a smile, “I might have a lead on their location.”

    Caridad leaned forward, baring her teeth. He had? The hunt was on, then! The French wouldn’t escape her a second time!

    Then the pain in her leg reminded her that she wasn’t quite fit for combat, yet.

    *****​

    “That’s a very expensive safe house,” Caridad commented as she studied the pictures Chuck, who had finally gone to sleep, had provided. “It’s as big as our two houses together.” And it had a much bigger yard and pool. And a hot tub!

    “You heard Chuck: It belongs, or belonged, to a cartel contact,” Carina said.

    “Yes, I heard him. It’s still an expensive villa,” Caridad told the spy. As if she hadn’t paid attention at Chuck’s briefing!

    Carina made a scoffing sound under her breath that most would have missed. Caridad was a Slayer, though, and heard it clearly. And clenched her teeth.

    “The cartels have to invest the money from the drug trade somewhere,” Sarah pointed out.

    “Not enough gold chains and gold-plated AK-47s?” John scoffed. “It’s an expensive villa, but it’s not the safest building. Nor the most secure location. And it needs staff. That means it’s very vulnerable to an assault.”

    “If Dubois is staying there - and if she hasn’t left already. There isn’t much evidence,” Carina said.

    “Chuck said Berger is staying there,” Sarah said, frowning at her supposed friend.

    Carina shrugged. “And I’m not quite convinced that his deductions are correct. It’s just conjecture.”

    “It’s solid evidence,” Caridad retorted. The Intersect wasn’t wrong about those things. “Just because you’re not as good at analysing data as Chuck is doesn’t make his intel invalid!”

    “Perhaps.” Carina was smiling that stupid smile again. “You certainly trust his work without question.” She looked at Sarah and John. “That’s a lot of trust in him.”

    “There’s a reason the CIA recruited him,” Sarah told her with narrowed eyes.

    “Oh, I’m sure. They wouldn’t assign you two as his bodyguards without a good reason, would they?”

    Oh, that… Caridad bared her teeth. Even when they were dealing with Dubois, the spy was trying to find out more about Chuck!

    “Really, Carina?” Sarah looked angry. “You’re playing games while we are planning an assault?”

    The spy shrugged with a smirk. “You know me - I like to multitask.”

    “Can we focus on the assassins?” John asked. “We need a plan.”

    “Sneak in, shoot the guards, shoot Berger, arrest Dubois,” Carina said. “Easy!”

    Caridad scoffed again, It would be easy for a Slayer, but she was currently wounded. And they might not have the time to wait for her to heal up. Fortunately, Carina hadn’t seen the wound, so they would be able to claim it was just a scratch without giving away how fast Slayers healed. But she needed a few more days to be ready for combat. And they might not have those days.

    Caridad really hated it when others went to fight in her place.

    *****​

    “So… we, like, found the bad guys?”

    “Chuck found them,” Caridad corrected the vampire.

    “But he found them because of us - because they attacked us, right?”

    “Because I could identify one of them,” she told Harmony, clenching her teeth. And because I was shot and lost the captive, she silently added.

    “Right! But you got him because they attacked me, right?” Harmony made slurping noises as she tried to get the last drop of blood from her bag.

    It would be so easy to stake her. She would just have to pick up the pencil on the kitchen counter and lean over. Or take one of the toothpicks stuck in the sandwiches Carina had made and throw it - Caridad was sure she could get it to go into Harmony’s heart at this distance. She certainly was angry enough to throw it with all her strength. “Yes,” she ground out between bites from her second dinner, “The plan to use you as bait worked.”

    “Yay me!”

    It had been Caridad’s plan. She finished another sandwich and crushed the toothpick before she gave in to her urge. Her plan, and it had worked - after a fashion, as Phil would say. And now she was stuck here, waiting for news from the others assaulting Dubois’s safe house. And she was alone with the vampire - Morgan and Kirsten were with Phil, helping him catalogue some books or something.

    “So… how long do you think the others will take?”

    Stuck with an annoying vampire while her friends risked their lives and she couldn’t do anything! And Phil was too busy researching something, with Morgan and Kirsten’s help, to come by later to check on her wound and keep her company. “I don’t know,” she spat before she rubbed her leg - not for the first time. It hurt. She could walk, she might even be able to run - until she ripped out the stitches. Not fit for combat, as John had called it.

    Harmony nodded, apparently oblivious to her mood. “Yeah, I got that. You can, like, never predict traffic in the city. But how long do you think they will take?”

    “I don’t think traffic is the problem here,” Caridad pressed out.

    “Really? Because I think it is. Like, every time I drive, I get into trouble because of traffic. People, like, just can’t drive safely.” Harmony nodded with a pseudo-sage expression, then dropped the blood bag in the trash can under the sink.

    Where Caridad would smell it every time she was in the kitchen. Or nearby. She clenched her teeth. This was torture. Double torture. The others would launch their attack soon - she glanced at the laptop on the kitchen counter next to the sauce bottles. Still no change.

    She resisted the urge to call them again. This was a mission. They didn’t need the distraction. They didn’t need the wounded, useless Slayer asking for news like a teenager asking or gossip. They’d call her as soon as they went in.

    “Oh, don’t worry! They’ll be, like, fine!” Harmony piped up. “If they needed help they’d have asked me to come along - it’s dark outside so I could easily join them.”

    Caridad closed her eyes for a moment. A vampire trying to console you. If Vi ever heard of this… “You couldn’t have joined them,” she told Harmony. “You’re not trained to work alongside them.”

    “Huh? I’m so trained! I was, like, an executive secretary for Wolfram & Hart!” the vampire protested. “I would’ve gotten a great recommendation, if not for Willow killing the entire management. Except for Angel, though I’m not sure he counts.”

    “Not that kind of training,” Caidad managed to say through clenched teeth. She could feel her brain cells dying under Harmony’s verbal assault. “Combat training.”

    “Oh. Like, karate? Or boxing? Spikey loved that! Boxing. He loves to fight, did you know? Though I dunno if he still does. Like, after he got a soul, you know?”

    “Yes. I’ve sparred with him, you know?” She bared her teeth at the stupid vampire.

    “Oh, you did? Nice!” Harmony completely missed her tone. “He never sparred with me. But he wanted to show me some tricks, like, punching, you know? But that’s easy - you just strike.”

    Easy... Caridad made another sandwich. She wasn’t really hungry, but cutting up the remaining roast beef, then thoroughly shredding some iceberg salad sounded quite tempting right now.

    “So… how long do you think they will take? It’s one house, so it shouldn’t take long, right?”

    “The enemy usually has a say in that, too,” she quoted John to the vampire.

    “They do? You didn’t, like, ask them? I mean, that would, like, totally ruin the surprise, wouldn’t it?”

    Caridad sighed again. “It’s a figure of speech,” she explained before Harmony could ramble on and come to an even more stupid conclusion. “It means the enemy will do all they can to ruin your plans.”

    “Ah.”

    Before Caridad could say anything else, she heard CHuck over the laptop’s speakers: “Home base? We’re about to go in!”

    “Good luck,” she replied.

    “Thanks!”

    She didn’t hold her breath. Not for long.

    “They’re over the wall. Approaching the villa. No sign of the enemy, yet,” John reported. He was overwatch with a sniper rifle. And a light machine gun, just in case.

    “No contact yet,” Sarah said.

    “Amateurs!” Carina commented.

    “Carina! Wait!” Sarah suddenly hissed.

    “I’ll have this open in a second, no worry!” The spy sounded far too confident.

    Caridad clenched her teeth again. Stupid spy - you didn’t change the plan without a damn good reason.

    “Carina! Don’t!”

    “It looks like Carna didn’t train with them, either,” Harmony commented.

    Caridad nodded in agreement before she realised what she was doing. “She’s a loose cannon,” she added.

    “Isn’t that a little mean? Just because she dresses nicely and has a nice figure doesn’t make her a loose woman.”

    “I said cannon,” Caridad told the idiot.

    “Oh. That didn’t mean busty girl?”

    She really wanted to stake the vampire.

    “Carina! Wait!”

    “I’m just checking the living room. It looks deserted.”

    “Guys! Guys! I just flashed! It’s a trap!”

    “Abort! Abort!”

    Caridad gasped.

    “What’s happening?” Harmony asked.

    Caridad ignored her. Her friends didn’t need a distraction. She checked the camera feed from John’s position. She couldn’t see anything from there, though… Wait! There were flashes inside the villa. Shots! Machine gun fire! It was an ambush!

    “It’s a trap!” Chuck yelled. “Automated guns! Retreat!”

    “Abort!” John ordered again.

    Caridad growled. She should’ve been there! Wounded or not! This was…

    A message flashed on the screen. Orion!

    They just called the police. I’m stalling, but it won’t last long.

    Damn!

    “The cops are coming!”

    “Carina!”

    “I’m OK!”

    “Carina’s cut off!” Sarah yelled.

    Caridad heard more machine gun fire. Bursts.

    “Though,” John snapped. “Abort. Retreat.”

    Caridad nodded in agreement. This was all the spy’s fault! Let her suffer the consequences. It’d serve her right!

    “No! We won’t leave her behind!”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. Chuck was being stupid again! If only… A crack made her blink - she had gripped the laptop’s frame too hard.

    She scoffed. It didn’t matter - it was still running. Her friends mattered. And they were in danger! Without her. And she couldn’t even see what was happening!

    “Guys! I’ve got an idea!”

    “Chuck!”

    “Let him, Sarah - I’m open to anything right now!”

    “I need to hack the controls of the sentry guns. There has to be a server nearby - in the house. Keep them busy while I hack the air conditioning for increased usage!”

    Caridad heard John curse under his breath, but he started shooting the windows on the upper floor - triggering more shooting from the inside.

    “Wow. That sounds like in the movies,” Harmony commented.

    Caridad turned towards her with a snarl. “Our friends are in danger!” she snapped. “This was a trap!”

    “Oh.” The vampire blinked. “Sorry.”

    Caridad huffed, her attention back on the laptop’s screen.

    “Alright… I’ve got the server room! It’s in the basement!” Chuck announced.

    “Small problem with that plan. The stairs leading to the basement are covered by a gun!” Carina told them. “I can see them from here.”

    “Uh… where is it?”

    “I’ve got a grenade.”

    “No, Sarah!” Carina yelled.

    “No! Carina’s too close,” Chuck chimed in. “We need… we need… I’ve got it! Give me a minute!”

    “How?” Sarah asked.

    “I may not have a minute.” Carina sounded stressed. “The two guns pinning me down are chewing through my cover.”

    Stupid spy, Caridad thought. This is all your fault!

    “I’m working as hard as I can,” Chuck replied.

    Another message appeared on the screen: Police know. SWAT alerted.

    “SWAT’s on the way,” John reported. “Expect patrol cars before that. We’re running out of time.”

    Caridad hissed. John was right - they had to retreat before the cops arrived. The LAPD already didn’t like them. They might just shoot them on sight. And if John shot them, then things would get even worse.

    “Wow! Spies, robot guns, police… where are the bad guys? Did I miss them?” Harmony asked, sounding as if she were watching TV.

    Caridad turned to give the stupid bloodsucker a piece of her mind, then stopped. Harmony was right - where was Dubois with her team? This was the best opportunity to ambush the team from the outside. But… She gasped again. “This is a trap. A diversion!” she yelled.

    “A diversion?” Harmony asked.

    John was already cursing. “They want us to be pinned down there,” he said. “And there are only two targets for them to go after.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. Two targets. Phil and the others were safe .- Phil had a new house, Dubois wouldn’t know the address. But Ellie and Devon were one target.

    And the other was Caridad herself. And Harmony, she supposed.

    She switched the laptop to the security cameras from her own home.

    “Hey! What happened to them?” Harmony protested.

    “Shut up,” Caridad spat in return, cycling through the feeds. “They might be coming or us.” She texted Gunn, too.

    Possible attack by assassins inc. Be on guard.

    Her phone vibrated a few seconds later, but she ignored it. There was a suspicious van a block away, at the outer edge of their coverage - and only John’s secondary camera circuit covered it.

    “Caridad? Your phone keeps vibrating.”

    “OK, guys - I’m ready,” She heard Chuck again.

    “Good, because I’m about to be done for,” Carina replied. “This better work!”

    “I sure hope so,” Chuck told her. “This should distract the guns. Long enough for me to reach the basement.”

    Damn. Damn. Damn. Caridad couldn’t let herself get distracted.

    “Shouldn’t you, like, check? It could be important.”

    Caridad glanced at the screen. Just questions, no alerts. Unimportant right now. Then the sentry guns suddenly fired all at once, or so it sounded to her.

    “Ah!”

    “Chuck!”

    “I made it! Just slipped and fell down the stairs!” Chuck replied.

    “A toy car? Really?” Carina complained.

    “It worked, didn’t it?” Chuck retorted. “Now I’ll get the server controlling the guns… Uh.”

    “‘Uh’? I don’t like that sound.” The spy sounded nervous.

    “There’s a bomb here. A big one,” Chuck reported.

    “It could be a decoy to keep us in the house,” John said. “I see the first patrol car.”

    “It’s not a decoy. Trust me,” Chuck replied. That meant the Intersect had confirmed it.

    Cariad hoped that the Intersect would also let him disarm it. The van hadn’t moved. Was it harmless? Or a distraction? She hated those mind games.

    “Chuck…” Sarah sounded…

    Caridad pressed her lips together. If this were John down there, and she were up there...

    She cycled through the feeds again, leaving one window focused on the van.

    “Alright… I think I know how to disarm it.”

    “You think?”

    “Shut up, Carina!” Sarah growled. “Be careful, Chuck.” After a heartbeat. “I love you.”

    “I love you too,” Chuck replied.

    Caridad held her breath. Even Carina was quiet, despite the shooting in the background.

    “I’m OK,” Chuck reported. “It’s done.”

    “Congratulations. Now get the server before I get turned into Swiss cheese!” Carina snapped.

    Ungrateful b… Caridad froze for a moment.

    The van was moving. Towards the house.

    Then the power went out.

    “Oh, hell - a blackout? Now? Didn’t you, like pay your bills?”

    John’s generator came on, and the laptop had a battery anyway, but most of the area was now dark.

    Dubois was coming.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Sep 20, 2020
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 6: The Trap
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 6: The Trap

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 8th, 2008

    Damn. Damn! Dubois was coming for them. And Caridad was wounded, and the only ally she had was a braindead vampire.

    “What’s happening?”

    Caridad ignored Harmony and focused on the laptop. “We’re under attack. Dubois is attacking our home!” she snapped.

    “What?” Harmony shrieked.

    “Caridad, get out and away!” John told her over the radio.

    Leave her home to those… intruders? Caridad clenched her teeth.

    “Alright!” Harmony piped up. “Let’s go!”

    “No! They’ll expect that!” Caridad shook her head and cycled through a few more feeds. “They’ll have a sniper covering the back.” No one would prepare such a distraction, and then just barge in without a plan.

    “But… what do we do then?”

    “Stand and fight,” Caridad told her.

    “But…”

    “They carry guns, not stakes.”

    “Oh. Right.” Harmony beamed. “Like, no sweat then!”

    Had the idiot really forgotten that she was impervious to bullets? Caridad clenched her teeth.

    “Wait, no!”

    What now? She glanced at the screen. The van had pulled up at the corner, and four people were jumping out the back. Plus driver and shotgun. All carrying rifles or SMGs. All masked.

    “If they shoot me, they’ll, like, ruin my clothes!”

    “Well, doh!”

    “Those are my favourites!” Harmony started stripping.

    Caridad stared. “What are you doing?”

    “Saving my clothes! I’ll grab some of yours!”

    Caridad blinked. She couldn’t be serious! But Harmony was already dashing up the stairs. Half-naked.

    “Leave my clothes alone!” Caridad had never been as tempted to slay the idiot as right then. But half a dozen spies were about to attack her home, and dealing with them took priority. She clenched her teeth and checked the back - pressed against the wall, of course. She couldn’t see anyone outside there.

    But the spies were fanning out. Pincer attack. That was… good and bad news. If they moved quickly, they could defeat them in detail, as John called it. If they were too slow, they’d end up in a crossfire. And then the camera feeds cut off.

    Caridad headed upstairs. She needed more weapons for this.

    “I only took your worst jeans and t-shirt!” Harmony yelled as Caridad entered the bedroom.

    She ignored the vampire and dropped down next to the bed. John always kept a carbine taped under the bed. Her leg hurt a little - she couldn’t strain it too much, she reminded herself. The wound was bandaged but not healed.

    “Wow, you’ve got guns in your bed? You’re kinky!”

    But Caridad was already at the door again, ignoring the twinges in her thigh. The attackers would be covering the balcony. Oh! “Harmony, check the balcony!”

    “Alright!”

    Caridad was at the window in the hallway when she heard the shots. And the scream. “They’re shooting at me!”

    “Good! Keep them distracted!”

    She kicked off with her good leg and hit the window with her good foot, in the middle, breaking the wooden frame and pushing the entire window outside - with her following behind the remains. Twisting in the air, she brought her carbine to bear, catching two assassins on the ground, pressed to the wall. As expected.

    She fired while she was still in the air, putting a burst into the first man’s arm and hand. He went down screaming, his gun flying. The other whirled and raised his rifle, but she was already hitting the ground on her good leg. As he swung his rifle back down, Caridad rushed him. She grabbed the muzzle before he could react, pointing it at the back of the yard. He managed to pull the trigger a moment before she rammed the stock of John’s carbine into his face.

    She released the muzzle before it could burn her hand and dropped to a knee. Her thigh protested again, but it wasn’t bleeding. A kick took out the other man.

    Two down. And at least two were still firing at Harmony, who was hiding on the balcony or so.

    “Hey! Stop that! Are stupid, or what? Whatever did I ever do to you, anyway?”

    Well, Caridad would be firing at the vampire herself if she weren’t busy. She jumped up and dashed towards the front corner. At least two would be there.

    She dropped down again, then quickly peered around the corner - and jerked back right before bullets riddled the corner, sending bits of stone and plaster flying as she scrambled back. Right. They were expecting her.

    But they weren’t expecting the Slayer. Even with just one good leg, she was ahead of them. Caridad crouched, then jumped straight up, grabbing the gutter of the roof, then pulled herself up with one hand. She dashed across the roof to the front. A roof tile next to her foot exploded - sniper, as she had expected.

    But she was too fast. She kept going, then jumped off the roof in the front. One assassin covering the corner, crouched behind a planter. Too bad John hadn’t gotten around to placing explosives there. A long burst into the man’s leg took care of him - he thrashed around, holding his bleeding legs.

    Then Caridad landed on the ground - and felt her wound breaking open.

    Damn! Blood was already soaking her jeans. And she was out in the open. Clenching her teeth, she threw herself forward into a shoulder roll. Someone started shooting at her, from behind - automatic fire. Bullets kicked up dirt next to her as she rolled over the lawn, partially concealed by the hedge.

    She jumped up, dashing towards the garage - she could run with a bleeding leg; she was the Slayer. She could dash despite the pain.

    But she could also bleed out.

    She reached the garage. More bullets chewed up the yard behind - and around her. Growling, she speed-crawled forward, then gripped the door and forced it up, before rolled into it.

    No bullets slammed through the garage door. Had the shooter missed her move? Or… Damn! She snapped her head to the side, her gun following, and looked under the car to the back of the garage. Someone was moving there!

    She fired two bursts into the feet she saw. Screams and a body dropping to the floor followed. She rose, slid over the car, and silenced the assassin with a kick to the head. Then she sat down - she needed to treat her wound; she had been leaving a veritable blood trail.

    She grabbed her shirt, pulled it over her head, then ripped it and bandaged her wound. She really should’ve taken a bandage pack with her, just in case. Live and learn. If she lived through this.

    But she wasn’t feeling lightheaded or wobbly or anything. She was pissed. Four enemies down. At least two and the sniper left. Probably more. Well, she was just starting.

    She reloaded her carbine and crawled towards the door to the house. Just as she reached it, the enemy outside started shooting through the garage door. Probably realised their friend was out.

    Caridad cursed and went back to grab the unconscious assassin before the man was shot by his own side.

    Then she opened the door and entered the house. She didn’t hear shots from outside any more - had they given up on shooting Harmony, or…

    Someone was moving through the living room! Caridad dropped the wounded and moved forward, staying low. Figured that Harmony wouldn’t be able to keep the attackers busy enough. She crawled behind the couch and listened for the footsteps. Yes - they would turn the corner about… Now!

    She rose and slid around the corner, the butt of her carbine already flashing forward…

    …and broke Harmony’s nose, sending the vampire sprawling on the floor.

    “Hey!”

    Caridad winced. “Sorry.”

    “You’re trying to kill me?”

    “No, or I would have staked you,” she spat. “I thought you were an assassin.”

    “But… I don’t look like them at all!”

    “Where are they?”

    “Oh… outside? I think? They, like, stopped shooting at me, so I thought I’d go down. Oh - your top and bed are like, uh, ruined.”

    Great. “I can see that,” she replied, moving to the corner of the couch and peering outside.

    “You can? But… Oh, you meant the top. What happened to yours?”

    She ignored the question. There had to be two enemies in the backyard. And she couldn’t see anyone. Where were they? Oh. Of course. “Can you see if someone’s in the pool?”

    “You think they’d go for a swim?”

    “Just check it!”

    “Alright, alright…” Harmony, her nose healed already, rose and peered over the couch. I can’t see anyone, but…

    A shot cut her off. Caridad saw the window shatter and heard the impact and Harmony’s fall. She didn’t look behind her - the vampire would be fine. Or she wouldn’t. Caridad was looking at the yard. Unless that was the sniper… and the angle was too low… there! She caught wisps of smoke from one of the bushes.

    “They shot me! They must be in the pool. And my hairstyle’s ruined. And my makeup!”

    “Spotted one in the bush,” Caridad replied.

    “What?”

    But she was already moving forward. “Look at the big one in the corner!”

    “Which corner?”

    Another shot rang out, and Harmony screamed. “Not again! Do you know that hurts?”

    Same spot, Caridad noted. She rose and snapped two shots off, aiming low, before ducking behind the couch again. Through the glass door, she saw a man rolling out of the bush, holding his stomach.

    Well, she had tried to hit the legs.

    “There he is! The one who shot me! Twice!” Harmony was standing again - and pointing.

    Or, as Caridad liked to think of it, looking for a sniper.

    But no one was shooting at the vampire, even though there were at least one sniper and one attacker not yet accounted for, probably more.

    Had Dubois abandoned her attack? Or, Caridad thought, had Dubois realised that shooting Harmony wouldn’t do anything? Harmony hadn’t been too obvious about her undead-ness - at least Caridad hoped so - but after getting shot half a dozen times or so without staying down, anyone would start to suspect something was up. And Dubois was a spy - trained to ferret things out. Would she come to the conclusion that Harmony wasn’t human?

    Caridad scoffed at herself. The middle of a fight wasn’t the time to worry about that. Even though she wasn’ sure if the fight was still going on.

    “Uh… so, should we do something about the guy there?” Harmony asked. “He, like, seems to be dying. I mean, he’s, like, bleeding a lot. I’m no expert - well, I kinda am, actually - but… like, people die when they bleed out.”

    Caridad didn’t really care about the man’s life - he had come to kill her and her friends. Or help torture them. And he had shot Harmony, but that was excusable. But he’d make a good source of intel.

    Or not - the guy had just fainted. Or died. Which meant he wouldn’t be able to talk until he was treated in a hospital, anyway. Best case, at least.

    But there were a few wounded assassins around - and she had dragged one of them inside, knocked out. Right. “Keep an eye on the outside!” she snapped, then hurried back.

    The guy she had shot and kicked in the garage was stirring, but in no shape to do anything. She quickly tied him up, then dragged him towards the living room - and listened for movement in the garage.

    Nothing. Not even groaning from the guy she had shot in the leg out front.

    “Watch the guy!” she told Harmony and speed-crawled behind the couch, then dashed across the living room. She needed to check the other side.

    “Don’t I need to watch the yard?”

    “Do both.” And shut up.

    Crouching in the bathroom on the ground floor, she listened again. No whimpering or groaning here, either.

    Unless everyone outside had died or had been killed, they had retreated. Or they were in hiding. But they wouldn’t press the attack, not with so many taken out, would they? Well, Caridad would - but she was a Slayer. Still, the police would be arriving soon - their homes had pretty good privacy, but a full-blown assault with sniper cover and automatics would get a police response. Especially in this neighbourhood.

    Which meant they needed to get out, or they’d have to deal with the police. And Caridad didn’t want to explain Harmony to the LAPD. Or call the Council to bail out the vampire.

    “Grab the prisoner! We need to go!” She grabbed the laptop - it had survived the shooting, though the frame was a little cracked.

    “Go? Where? Won’t they, like, shoot us? They shot me every time I got out!” Harmony protested. But she had also grabbed the guy, so that was a wash.

    Caridad was already back at the garage. And winced.

    John’s car had stopped a few shots. The Ford Crown Victoria was solidly built, but it wasn’t armoured. He wouldn’t like that.

    On the other hand, Caridad wouldn’t be wrecking a perfectly fine car, so that was a good thing, Kinda.

    “Get in the car!”

    “In the car? Like, driving?”

    “I’ll drive!” she told the vampire with a glare. John would be livid if she let the dizz drive his car. And they probably wouldn’t make it out of the garage in that case, anyway.

    She slid over the car’s trunk - wincing when her bandage caught on something before she dropped to the ground on the other side - and moved to the driver’s door. No one had shot at her yet. Good.

    She climbed into the car and grabbed the keys from the hidden compartment. “Let’s hope it works,” she muttered.

    “What?”

    But the engine rumbled to life. Good car.

    “Do you want me to open the door?”

    Caridad didn’t reply. She just leaned back and slid down, putting as much of the engine between herself and the enemy as possible while still being able to see the road… somewhat, at least. Then she put her foot down on the accelerator, and the car shot forward, crashing through the garage door. She had to fight it to keep it going without the crumpled remains of the door stopping it, but she was a Slayer - no car would beat her. They razed a bush and kind of bumped a planter to the side, but within moments, they were racing down the drive.

    And then the windshield exploded, and she felt something pass over her head. Sniper.

    Dubois was really, really stubborn. And a sore loser.

    Another shot hit the car in the side. Then they took the corner and were clear.

    For now.

    But the others! “Check with the others!” she snapped as she took another turn.

    “Uh…”

    “Use the computer,” Caridad added.

    “Right!”

    She overtook a far too slow BMW and rushed down the main road. She would have to slow down soon so she wouldn’t be made by the police, but for now, she wanted as much distance as possible from that bloody sniper.

    “Uh… it’s, like, asking for a password. And password doesn’t work.”

    “The password doesn’t work?” Damn. Was the thing broken?

    “No, ‘Password’ doesn’t work. It usually does for my stuff.”

    Caridad would have closed her eyes if she hadn’t been driving through still noticeable traffic and high speed. She told the vampire the actual password, making a mental note to tell Chuck to change it as soon as possible. And another not to trust Harmony with any computer security, ever.

    “That doesn’t work, either!”

    “Try it again.” The idiot probably had made a mistake.

    “Uh… don’t you, like, know what they say about doing the same thing?”

    That idiot, giving her lip? Caridad bared her teeth and growled at the bloodsucker. “Do it again!”

    Harmony eeped. “Please don’t stake me!”

    “Do it!”

    Half a minute later, she finally heard John again. “Team to base, reply. Over.”

    She smiled as she took the next lane up to the highway - she had to lose any possible pursuit. “We’re alright, but we had to leave the house. Got a prisoner, and took out half a dozen of them. Mostly wounded. Prisoner’s wounded too, but secured.”

    “But there will be, like, a lot of cops at the house, and they’ll search through my stuff and, like, probably leave it all over the floor,” Harmony added. “And they shot me. A lot.”

    “We’ve extracted from the target area without casualties,” John told them,

    “Are you OK?” Chuck asked.

    “No. My clothes are ruined - well, Caridad’s, she loaned me some. But, still! That’s like, so unkind, you know?”

    “We’re fine,” Caridad cut in.

    “No one hurt?” John asked.

    Damn. She didn’t want to lie, but she didn’t want to… “My old wound opened,” she said.

    “Your old wound? What old wound? Did you mean the gunshot wound in your leg?”

    So, Carina had survived as well. “It’s just a scratch,” Caridad replied.

    “Head to Brown-Smythe and get it treated. And treat the prisoner. We’ll be there soon,” John said. “Team Out.”

    And that was it. Time to head to Phil. After checking the car for bugs and trackers, of course - Caridad had been listening to John about his tricks, after all.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 8th, 2008

    “This might hurt a little.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. That was Phil speak - or British - for ‘this will hurt a lot’. And it did. She hissed through her teeth while he disinfected her wound. “I’m sure there are disinfectants that don’t hurt as much,” she muttered.

    “Oh, there are.” Phil gave the wound another swipe, making her tense and fight the urge to push him away. “But they are more expensive and might not properly motivate you to avoid getting hurt in the future, dear.”

    “I had no choice - I was attacked at home,” she retorted. Her new home. She had barely stayed there long enough to get familiar with every nook and cranny, and now it was all full of holes, and the police would be poking around. Speaking of… “Did you call the Council?”

    “They’ve already contacted the local police,” he replied. “Although the officers in charge might be a little slow to follow orders.”

    She snorted. ‘A little slow’. She’d bet that the LAPD was doing all they could to find anything on them. The joke was on them, though - they hadn’t set up any secret spy base stuff. Not even a decent armoury. Most of the stuff left behind was perfectly legal.

    “It does mean that the authorities are aware of your new lodgings,” he went on.

    “That would’ve happened anyway.” Unless they had been using fake IDs for everything, the LAPD would have found them sooner rather than later.

    “But sooner than anticipated.”

    “Still doesn’t matter.” She scoffed. “It’s not as if the cops would’ve changed their view of us anytime soon.”

    “You’re not planning to change lodgings again, then.”

    “No.” She had a home, and she wouldn’t leave it just because a few dinky cops had issues with the Slayer keeping the city safe. “Unless John wants to move.”

    “Ah.”

    She narrowed her eyes at him. He was smiling that little sly dry smile of his. But then he started bandaging her wound, and she had to clench her teeth again. She really had to avoid getting shot in the future.

    She blinked. That was exactly what Phil wanted.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 9th, 2008

    By the time John and the others made it to Phil’s apartment, it was past midnight. And things were starting to look more than a little crowded. Phil’s new digs weren’t a shoebox, but his apartment wasn’t meant to house nine people. Ten if you counted the prisoner, which they had sedated and stuffed into the closet.

    “Oh, this is the best tea I’ve had in quite a while.”

    Or eight people and a stupid spy. Caridad glared at Carina as the woman tried to charm Phil, but the woman ignored her. As if the spy had any idea about decent tea - her attempts to flatter Phil were pathetically transparent.

    “Thank you, Miss.” Phil nodded, holding his own cup. “It’s been hard to get a decent supply in the Colonies, but I do try.”

    “Well, California isn’t Boston.”

    Caridad blinked. Had Carina just made a Boston Tea Party joke? Dear Lord, that was… That joke was so old, it made Phil look young! She chuckled, then frowned - the spy would think she laughed at her joke, not at her!

    “Indeed, it isn’t, but most tea shops cater to those who prefer herbal tea. Organic herbal tea.” Phil managed to make the simple statement sound like he was talking about a war crime.

    Carina, of course, laughed before taking a sip from her own cup. She had put so much milk and sugar into it, she could probably barely taste the actual tea.

    Caridad looked at Phil, then rolled her eyes.

    He smiled but didn’t show any other reaction.

    “And thank you again for offering us shelter,” Carina went on. “We were tapped out on safe houses.”

    “Think nothing of it,” Phil told her. “It’s the least I could do.”

    “No, no, hosting so many people - so many wounded,” the spy added with a glance at Caridad, “ must put a strain on you.”

    “It’s only temporary,” Phil replied. “And I’ve been through worse.”

    Caridad frowned. Worse? She couldn’t recall a story of Phil’s that would fit that description. Had he been holding out on her? Or was this a red herring for Carina to chase?

    “Of course,” Phil added with a glance towards the living room, where Harmony was still whining about not getting to watch her favourite soap reruns, “some impositions are harder to bear than others.”

    Caridad huffed under her breath. As if that was her fault! She couldn’t kick out the vampire after she had helped them, could she?

    “Well, we’ll try not to impose on you too much, I hope,” Carina went on. “Though accommodations for the night are bound to be cramped. Even with the couples sharing a single bed or couch.”

    Caridad scoffed. “We’ve got enough air mattresses and bedding for everyone,” she told the spy.

    “And medical supplies,” Carina added with a nod to Phil. “It must not be the first time this happens, then.”

    “I believe in being well-prepared for anything,” Phil replied.

    “I love a man who thinks ahead and knows what he’s doing.” Carina crossed her legs - she had somehow changed into a miniskirt between the mission and their arrival at Phil’s - and made bedroom eyes at him.

    Carina growled. Phil was her Watcher!

    “I’ve had a lot of experience with these sorts of things,” Phil retorted, taking another sip from his cup. And acting as if he hadn’t heard Caridad!

    “Oh? Working for MI6?” Carina leaned forward a little, and her eager impression changed a little, Caridad noticed.

    Phil laughed. “The Secret Service? Hardly. My father would have had a fit.”

    “Oh?” Carina looked confused.

    “He was a firm believer in the private sector, so to speak,” Phil said. He was smiling, but with that hint of a smirk that Caridad knew meant he was pulling your leg.

    But he must have been a little too obvious, since the spy frowned a little. “I see.”

    Caridad bet she didn’t - the spy had no clue, as far as she could tell.

    “In any case, you have been a most gracious and thoughtful host. I’ve seen trouble handled far worse in actual bases,” Carina said.

    “It’s all about making the best of what you have,” Phil said. “Sometimes, I feel that the younger crowd has trouble improvising since they’re used to the system working as intended.”

    Caridad glared at him. That was a dig at her, she was sure! And the spy was smirking.

    “A man who knows how to improvise is also very attractive.”

    And Carina was still flirting with all the subtlety of a hungry Polgara Demon. Caridad growled again.

    If only John would finish cleaning their weapons already! Watching the underdressed spy trying to put the moves on her Watcher right in front of her made her want to stake Carina.

    And for some reason, Phil still hadn’t shot her down. Was he enjoying this? Caridad almost gasped. He wouldn’t actually take her up on it, would he? He couldn’t!

    He was her Watcher!

    Then she perked up - she heard John walking towards them. “John!” she greeted him as soon as he reached the door.

    He stepped inside and nodded towards her, which made her frown in turn. “I’ve stashed the weapons,” he told Phil.

    “Wouldn’t want to have any visitor realise what this apartment hides,” Carian butted in.

    “Oh, that’s generally not a problem,” Phil replied.

    The spy cocked her head to the side. “Don’t tell me that you rarely have visitors!” she exclaimed. “I know all about maintaining your cover, but having a healthy social life is part of that cover. An attractive British gentleman, living alone?” She raised her eyebrows in a rather overly pretentious way.

    “I do live alone,” Phil told her. “And in my humble opinion, my social life is quite satisfactory. However, I was commenting on the fact that, so far, no visitor has found anything suspicious in my flat.”

    Caridad narrowed her eyes. ‘No visitor’? She wasn’t aware of any other visitors except for her and her friends - and she would have smelled them.

    Carina didn’t frown, but she looked like she wanted to for a moment, before she pasted her obviously fake smile on her face again and beamed at Phil. “Does that mean you’re single?”

    “Happily single, Miss,” Phil replied. “Now, I believe it’s time to sort out sleeping arrangements.” Before the spy could use the opportunity to suggest some blatant ploy like sharing the bed, he went on: “I believe the wounded should take the beds.” He looked at Caridad. “That includes you, dear.”

    At his glance, she swallowed her protest that she wasn’t wounded, not really, and nodded instead. If he was being all serious like that, arguing was pointless. “John and I can take my usual bed.”

    “Your usual bed?” Carina’s eyebrows shot up - but this time it looked like a natural reaction.

    “It’s not the first time I had to treat her wounds,” Phil told her.

    “I don’t get hurt that often,” Caridad spat with a scowl. And this was a new apartment - she hadn’t actually slept here before! Most wounds didn’t even need treatment. Phil was just a little worrywart. Slayers were tough, everyone knew that.

    “Ah.” The spy looked smug again - and glanced at John as if… What? With Phil? Caridad clenched her teeth. Phil would never do that! And she would never cheat on John!

    “I’ve distributed the air mattresses,” John said. “We can bunk in the living room.”

    “And Harmony can get into the other closet,” Caridad added. They could lock it, too!

    “Pardon?” Carina looked, well, not shocked. But closer to it than before.

    “It’s a quirk of hers. She doesn’t like sunlight ruining her skin tone,” she told the spy. It was the honest truth.

    Carina looked from her to Phil, who was nodding in agreement, then to John’s expressionless face, before she tried again to hit on Phil. She just couldn’t take him not falling for her, could she?

    “Alright!” Caridad stood - gingerly; no need to annoy Phil by putting stress on her wounded leg - and stretched her arms over her head. “John and I can hit the sack then - the bed’s big enough for two,” she added with a glance at the others. No need to have him take the air mattress. “Morgan and Kirsten can take yours.”

    “They’re already asleep, I believe.”

    Unless Harmony’s whining had kept them up, of course.

    “I do feel a bit tired myself,” Carina said. “Would you show me to my mattress?” Once more, she made eyes at Phil with all the subtlety of a charging dragon.

    “Certainly.”

    And once more, Phil didn’t set the spy straight!

    *****​

    In the morning, Caridad made her way through the living room. Chuck and Sarah were still asleep, cuddling on a single mattress. Harmony was dead in the closet - Caridad could sense her. And smell her perfume. Morgan and Kirsten were still asleep as well, she heard them breathe and snore through the door to Phil’s bedroom.

    As was Carina - the spy was sprawled out on a mattress, and wearing only lingerie. And far too close to Phil’s mattress, even though Caridad’s Watcher was already up and in the kitchen.

    Caridad sneaked over to his mattress, then bent down. She smelled him. And Carina! She almost started to growl - but she didn’t smell sex.

    She still scowled at him when she entered the kitchen.

    He raised his eyebrows in return. And smiled. “Our guest decided to make another attempt to seduce me. She was most disappointed when I didn’t return her interest.”

    Her scowl deepened. “She just wants to seduce you to find out more about you.”

    “That much is apparent,” he replied. “I’m familiar with this ploy, my dear. Although I have to admit that it is quite flattering.”

    “You didn’t have to flirt back!”

    “I was merely being polite, dear.”

    She huffed and started to eat. British breakfast! “I can’t wait for her to leave,” she mumbled after her first sausage.

    “Our situation could do with some improvement, I agree. While I certainly wouldn’t even think of turning you out, I do hope things will change soon.”

    “You could turn her out,” Caridad replied. That wouldn’t be a big loss!

    “I would be a poor host if I did that,” he replied. “And she is amusing.”

    She huffed again. Men!

    *****​

    “We need to break this habit of getting attacked at home,” Chuck said as they gathered around Phil’s dinner table. “We had just moved in, and now we’re on the run again.”

    “Again?” Carina asked, far too eagerly.

    “Need to know,” Sarah told her.

    Caridad smirked at the scowl that caused.

    “We’re not on the run,” Morgan said. “Are we? I mean… they fled from Caridad. And Harmony.”

    Caridad pressed her lips together. The vampire had been a distraction at best. She had driven the assassins away - while wounded.

    “Oh, yeah! And we, like, even got a prisoner!” Harmony said. “Who, by the way, is still in the other closet, is he? I can smell the blood.”

    “He’s sedated, and his wounds were treated,” Sarah informed the bloodsucker. Who should’ve been aware of that, having been present.

    “Oh, right. So… what are we doing with him? Are we, like, killing him later?”

    “We’ll interrogate him,” John told her.

    “Oh! Is that, like, the police thing? Or like the torture thing?”

    “The spy thing,” he replied.

    “And what is the spy thing?”

    “Whatever works.” John’s toothy smile seemed to impress her - she finally shut up.

    “Anyway,” Chuck apparently tried to get the briefing back on track, “we temporarily lost our homes anyway - the police have found a body there, and they’ve recovered like a zillion spent cartridges.” He pushed a key, and a police report or something appeared on the screen of his laptop.

    “The news is calling it the “Hollywood Massacre,” Morgan added. “Even though it wasn’t in Hollywood and there’s only one dead.”

    “There might be more,” Phil pointed out. “Without proper medical care, a number of their wounded might yet die.”

    “They can find a surgeon easily,” Carina said. “Plenty of doctors in the city who won’t inform the police if you pay extra.”

    “Enough to make tracking them through medical help implausible,” Sarah agreed. “Which leaves us with the prisoner as our only source of intel.”

    “And Dubois knows we got him - she’ll take steps to make sure he can’t tell us anything useful,” Carina didn’t quite scoff, but she glared at Caridad. As if this was her fault!

    “He will know what they did so far, which is useful intel,” Chuck pointed out. “We can model her plans using that information. To some degree, at least.”

    This time, Carina did scoff. “She’s an experienced spy; she won’t make a rookie mistake.”

    Chuck looked almost cocky as he retorted: “We’ll see. We’ve got pretty sophisticated modelling software.”

    The Intersect, of course, Caridad reminded herself. Which Carina didn’t know about - though Chuck’s bragging wasn’t helping there.

    “Yes, we’ll see. But let’s assume that we don’t get better intel. What do we do?” The spy frowned - she had probably taken Phil’s rejection quite badly. “Dubois managed to lure us into a trap and attack your homes without getting caught.”

    “You were the one who jumped into her trap,” Sarah told her.

    “We all were attacking her supposed hideout; I was merely on point,” Carina replied.

    “You didn’t wait for us to scout things out. You were reckless. As usual.” Sarah didn’t look very happy with her friend. Well, Caridad wasn’t happy with Carina, either - and she hadn’t been in the villa when the spy had triggered the trap.

    “Sometimes, you have to take a little risk,” Carina defended herself.

    That was, obviously, true, even if the spy was the one to say it. Caridad still didn’t like agreeing with her.

    “You always do this!” Sarah scoffed. “You never stick to the plan.”

    “I always get results! Danger is part of the game.”

    “It’s no game, Carina!” Sarah glared at her supposed friend. “That’s your problem!”

    The spy stared at her, then slowly shook her head. “You’ve really changed, Sarah. A while ago, you wouldn’t have minded a little risk.” She looked at Chuck with narrowed eyes. “You aren’t fun any more.”

    “Fun?” Sarah spat. “You call this fun?”

    “Uh… can we get back to what we’re doing now?” Chuck cut in. “We can blame each other later.”

    That, of course, didn’t endear him to either Sarah or Carina.

    “Yes,” John said. “We’ve got to find Dubois and her remaining men. And we need to LAPD off our backs.”

    “I’ve made some calls,” Phil spoke up. “The official investigation should be handled. Although that might not deter private investigations by individual police officers.”

    “You’ve managed to make the LAPD drop the investigation?” Carina looked impressed. And even more interested, Caridad noticed.

    Great.

    Phil shrugged. “We’ve got friends with some influence.”

    The spy snorted. “A lot of influence. The cops won’t like dropping an investigation that attracted so much attention.”

    “Oh, yes!” Harmony nodded sagely. “The news will call them stupid and corrupt.”

    Caridad scoffed. “And they’ll be right.”

    “I wouldn’t go so far,” Phil interjected. “Although, without a doubt, there are a number of crooked officers in the corps, we cannot, and should not, assume that the entirety of the police force is corrupt.”

    “They’re out of their depth, though,” Caridad replied. “And they don’t want to admit it.”

    “They lack the information needed to draw the correct conclusion, dear,” Phil told her.

    “Which would be?” Carina asked.

    “Classified,” Cariad told her with a grin.

    “We also need to step up the protection of Bartowski’s family,” John said. “They’re exposed and vulnerable.”

    “Yes, we do,” Chuck agreed, nodding sharply.

    “She lost most of her team attacking your homes; she won’t risk losing more attacking civilians,” Carina objected.

    “We don’t know that!” Chuck protested. “And we can’t risk being wrong.”

    Carina must have realised how serious she was since she didn’t repeat her line about some risk-taking being necessary.

    “So… what do we do about Ellie and Devon?” Morgan asked. “You know Ellie - she won’t like to go to ground.”

    “Oh, yeah - she’s, like, very stubborn,” Harmony agreed. “Almost staked me, once.”

    “‘Staked’?” Carina asked.

    Caridad clenched her teeth. The stupid bloodsucker had just...

    “Yes,” Harmony replied. “That was scary.”

    “Staked?”

    “Yes,” Harmony nodded, frowning. “You know, when you push a stake in someone?”

    Carina looked like she was reevaluating Chuck’s sister. And Chuck himself.

    Caridad wished she knew what the spy was thinking. Had Carina drawn the correct conclusions? Or was she still thinking this was all just spy business?

    But asking would give the game away. Probably.

    Great. Caridad really hated having a spy on the team that wasn’t part of her team.

    *****​
     
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 7: The Oversight
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 7: The Oversight

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 9th, 2008

    Caridad caught the spy nosing around in Phil’s library after lunch. “Don’t touch that!” she snapped.

    Carina didn’t even jerk, much less remove her hand from the spine of ‘Lampreys and Leviathans’, one of the best works when you were dealing with aquatic demons. She simply turned and smiled, as if she hadn’t been violating Phil’s privacy. “I was just admiring Phil’s collection,” she lied. “I wasn’t aware he was such a fan of fantasy.”

    That should’ve been ‘Mr Brown-Smythe’, Caridad thought with a scowl. And the books weren’t fantasy. Out loud, she said. “They’re very old and valuable - grease from uncovered skin could damage them.”

    “Oh? Speaking from experience?” Those damned eyebrows rose as the spy’s smile turned into a smirk.

    “I’ve never damaged one of Phil’s books,” Caridad retorted. It had been a borrowed book, after all. She crossed her arms and glared at the woman.

    “Neither did I,” Carina replied. “I’m quite familiar with valuable antiques.”

    Probably stole them on her missions. Caridad snorted. “That’s what everyone says - and then they ruin a priceless tome.”

    “I wouldn’t have taken you for such a passionate defender of literature.”

    Caridad wanted to smash the spy’s face in. Just a little. A few broken teeth and a flattened nose would greatly improve Carina’s looks. But Slayers were supposed to be better than that. They weren’t supposed to use their powers to beat up annoying spies - no matter how much a particular spy might deserve it.

    So she shook her head and said in her best condescending tone: “There’s a lot you don’t know.” She had to suppress a grin when she saw Carina twitch in response. Hah!

    “You’re very confident about your information security, aren’t you?” Carina said with a very forced smile

    Caridad shrugged. “I haven’t had cause to doubt it,” she said.

    “Overconfidence has doomed more spies than intel fuckups,” Carina replied.

    Well, Caridad wasn’t a spy. But saying so wouldn’t be smart. “We’ll see,” she said instead. “But for now - don’t touch the books.”

    “Indeed,” Phil added - he had managed to sneak up on Caridad again! “Some need special handling, lest they hurt you.”

    Carina blinked. “Like in ‘The Name of the Rose’? They really did poison the pages?”

    “Oh, you’ve read the book?” Phil beamed - genuinely delighted; Caridad could tell.

    “I’ve seen the movie. With Sean Connery,” Carina told him. “Another very attractive older man from England.”

    “He’s Scottish, actually,” Phil corrected her, with a more neutral tone.

    Two mistakes! Caridad could’ve beamed with glee.

    “In any case, yes, some books will literally poison you if handled without appropriate precautions.”

    “You wouldn’t leave such dangerous books out in the open like that, would you?” Carina sounded dubious.

    “I obviously know about the danger, and I haven’t had any guests yet who weren’t aware of them, either. With all the excitement last night, it slipped my mind that you weren’t among them. I apologise for putting you at risk.”

    “That’s alright. I wasn’t about to read them - I was just watching the books,” the spy lied. “It’s a very impressive collection. It must have cost a fortune.”

    Caridad had seen more subtle questions about Phil’s wealth.

    “Oh, I would expect so - but the library was collected over generations, and my ancestors didn’t exactly keep receipts.” Phil chuckled. “Some of the volumes might’ve even been acquired through less than honourable means - although in those days, looting a defeated enemy was perfectly acceptable.”

    “Just how old is your family?”

    “We can trace our line back to the Hundred Years’ War with sufficient certainty. Mother always claimed our ancestors came over with William the Conqueror, but there’s really no base for that claim other than some unreliable family legends.” Phil chuckled again. “Father always told her that we should be above this sort of pretension.”

    “The Hundred Years’ War? That’s very impressive,” Carina told him, nodding as if she were impressed and not planning to use it to research Phil’s family tree.

    Which she totally could, of course, if Willow hadn’t put up some obstacles. Perhaps they needed to inform Willow about her, if only to avoid some misunderstandings.

    Phil shrugged. “Everyone’s got ancestors dating back even further, only many don’t know them. All it means is that some of my ancestors were a little more famous - or infamous - than most. Or simply managed not to lose their documentation.”

    “Still, with such a legacy, aren’t you expected to provide an heir?”

    “Ah, the family line is taken care of, rest assured, Miss,” Phil replied - considerably cooler, now, Caridad noted.

    And with justification. Some subjects one didn’t talk about, and Phil’s family fell under that.

    At least, this time, Carina got the hint and stopped flirting.

    But she wouldn’t stop spying, Caridad knew it.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 9th, 2008

    “Reschedule the wedding? Leave the city?”

    Caridad flinched at Ellie’s tone - and she was in the kitchen, not in the living room where Chuck had broken the latest news to his family.

    “It’s just a worst-case scenario…” Chuck started to say.

    “A ‘worst-case scenario’?” she interrupted him. “I thought that we were under protection - we’ve got Gunn’s people living in Casey’s old apartment! And now there’s another threat? What is it? A dragon about to hatch? A portal to hell?”

    “Don’t worry about dragons; I’ll kill any that show their snout!” Caridad yelled as she finished making a sandwich.

    “Thanks!” Devon yelled back.

    “No problem!”

    “Chuck? What’s going on?”

    “Uh… it’s like this…” Chuck took a deep breath. “There’s this French spy who is after us for killing her partner during a mission.”

    “You killed a French spy? Aren’t they our allies?” Ellie sounded confused.

    “Technically, they were undercover - and so were we. They were posing as members of a Cartel, and we were posing as friends of another Cartel.”

    Chuck was stretching the truth more than a little there, Caridad knew. She took a bite from her sandwich and walked back to the living room.

    “Chuck! You can’t keep doing this!” Ellie stood up. “First, the bodyguards because there’s some vampire in the city Caridad hasn’t yet staked. Then I see your new house in the news - surrounded by the police! After someone waged a whole war there!”

    “Technically, they attacked Casey’s house, not ours,” Chuck protested, but his weak smile died under Ellie’s glare.

    “‘Technically’ didn’t work when you were a teenager trying to lie to me about another LAN party. It doesn’t work now, either!”

    “No way! Did you try the “I slept half an hour before breakfast, so technically, it wasn’t an all-nighter’ excuse?” Devon chuckled, but quickly fell silent when Ellie shifted her glare to her fiancé.

    Caridad took care not to cross her line of sight.

    “And all I get, when I’m worried that some killer army attacked my little brother, is one text that you’re OK.” Ellie put her fists on her hips. “An hour after the news broke! After the news talked about bodies left behind!”

    “I tried to wound them, but…” Caridad shrugged.

    “Look, Ellie - we had to get away from the ambush in the villa, first. And we couldn’t be sure that your phone was secure,” Chuck explained.

    “Ambush in the villa…” Ellie blinked. “The Hollywood shooting? That was you as well?”

    “Well… yes?” Chuck’s smile wouldn’t have fooled a blind demon, Caridad thought as she finished her sandwich.

    “Chuck!”

    “Sis! I can’t tell you about secret spy missions!”

    “You’re not a spy any more - you’re working for the Council,” Ellie replied.

    “The principles are the same,” he protested.

    “Ellie…” Sarah spoke up. “We can’t tell you everything about our work - Council or CIA. Some things have to stay secret. If people - or demons - think you know what we’re doing, then you’d become a target.”

    “I thought we already were a target,” Ellie shot back. “That’s why we have the bodyguards around.”

    “More of a target,” Chuck tried again.

    Ellie crossed her arms and set her jaw. She was obviously not in a mood to appreciate such fine but crucial differences. “And I’m supposed to just go along with whatever you say? Without having a say myself?”

    “Uh…” Even Chuck knew better than to honestly answer that question.

    Caridad finished off her soda and cleared her throat. “Ellie, look… usually, things work out, right? This is just an exception. We’ve got an assassin after us, and there’s a smart vampire out there. But we’ll kill both, and then things will go back to normal. Promise.” She nodded emphatically. “Oh. And we’ll do it before the wedding,” she added.

    Ellie stared at her for a moment, then slowly nodded. “You better,” she said. Then she sat down and sighed, slumping over before Devon wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “I can’t take much more of this. I can’t live like this for the rest of my life!”

    Caridad winced. And went to the kitchen to get another sandwich. And a soda. Ellie was Chuck’s sister.

    “Uh, sis - we’ll get through this, I promise you.”

    “Yes. We just had a setback. But we’re working on that,” Sarah added.

    “And you’ll risk another ambush,” Ellie replied. She was still staring at the floor, Caridad noted.

    “We’ll be prepared for a trap,” Chuck said.

    “You thought you were prepared before, weren’t you?”

    “They were,” Caridad cut in. “But another spy nominally on our side jumped the gun. And that triggered the trap.”

    “What?” Ellie looked up. “Who?”

    “And old, uh…” Chuck looked at Sarah.

    “An old friend of mine,” she replied. “She works for the DEA, and she’s very… impulsive.”

    “She’s a loose cannon with no self-control. She jumps into any fight,” Caridad added.

    Then she frowned at the looks the others exchanged. It was true, wasn’t it?

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 9th, 2008

    “...and that’s about how it went,” Caridad finished her - well, it wasn’t a real report. More like gossip, though Phil, even though he was listening with interest, wouldn’t call it that, ever. “Ellie took it well, all things considered,” she added. Chuck’s sister hadn’t cried, at least. Not until they had left, in any case.

    Phil nodded. “Our circumstances aren’t ideal, and not entirely through our own fault,” he said.

    “It’s Chuck’s and his dad’s fault,” Caridad cut in. They should’ve, at least, made sure that Dubois was dead.

    “There’s also the matter of Nathan, dear,” Phil replied.

    She pressed her lips together. That was unfair - they were doing what they could to track down that stupid bloodsucker.

    “Nevertheless, Dr Bartowski, for all her formidable strength of character, is neither a spy nor a Watcher...”

    “...and not a Slayer either.” That had to be said.

    “Quite.” He sent her a glance. “Coming under such a double threat, and in the middle of the preparations for her wedding, which already would put her under a great deal of stress, must be extremely unnerving.”

    “Yes.” That was obvious. Hell, Caridad knew a few Slayers who’d have weathered the ‘circumstances’ with less grace. Mostly because of the wedding stress, though - enemies and fights any Slayer knew how to handle. Usually, she amended her thoughts, There were exceptions.

    “We can but hope that the situation improves, I fear.”

    They could do more than hope - they could do something. Hunt the bastards down, for one. As soon as they knew where they were. Which was Chuck’s job. And his dad’s. But they were already on it, and Phil knew that. “So… how are things here?” she asked. “Carina giving you any trouble?” Caridad hadn’t seen the spy when she returned with the others.

    “She’s been talking with our other guest,” Phil told her - and he left no doubt how he felt about Harmony staying in his closet.

    She winced a little. “Is that a good or a bad thing?”

    “Carina seemed a tad upset when she went outside for a stroll,” Phil replied.

    “And Harmony?”

    “Confused, although that is her natural state when confronted with anything more challenging than picking a dress for a night in town.”

    Now that was unfair. But funny anyway. Caridad chuckled before growing serious again. “Carina went out?”

    Phil tilted his head to the side. “She seemed rather determined, and so I took a page out of the Watcher’s Handbook.”

    She blanked what did…? Oh. “Never give an order you know won’t be followed?” She was quite familiar with that quote, after all.

    “Precisely. I could hardly stop her, anyway, could I?”

    Caridad could think of a few ways to stop the spy from going out and endangering them all, but most of them were rather permanent. So she sighed and nodded. “I guess not.”

    “Of course not. Contrary to our guest’s apparent expectations, I am not a slightly older than average version of James Bond.”

    She grinned in return. “Too bad.” That had teasing potential.

    But Phil was smiling, with a definite hint of a smirk. “You do know, dear, how Commander Bond would have solved the problem our guest presents, don’t you?”

    What did…? Oh! She glared at him. “She’s the one trying to seduce you!” she pointed out.

    “Indeed. And if I were the most famous fictional member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, I certainly wouldn’t have turned her down. Mr Bond is quite the cad, actually.”

    “And he’s hot.” That wasn’t a good comeback, but it was true.

    “Which says a lot about prevailing gender stereotyping, to quote Miss Rosenberg,” Phil replied.

    Both laughed at that.

    “I guess I’ll check with Harmony and find out what she said to drive Carina away.” That could be useful, after all.

    *****​

    “...and I was, like, telling her about all the best clubs, but she didn’t seem happy, even though she, like, asked about what I’m doing. She, like, even asked for tips, but when I told her that her makeup could be a little less subtle - I mean, she isn’t getting any younger, is she? - she didn’t like it either. I don’t get it!”

    Harmony looked genuinely confused, Caridad noted.

    “So, she said she’d be going out, and I, like, asked which club, and she glared at me, only not really, and said she didn’t know yet, and left.”

    At least it was clear what had happened: Carina had interrogated Harmony but hadn’t realised that the bloodsucker was answering her subtle probes honestly. Which was all kinds of funny - the big bad spy, unable to figure out the truth. Well, part of it.

    “You didn’t say anything about your diet?”

    “My diet? I didn’t have to go on a diet since graduation, did you, like, forget? I don’t get fat anymore!”

    “I didn’t mean that kind of diet,” Caridad explained.

    “There’s another kind? Oh, you mean the blood bags?”

    “Yes.”

    “Nope. She, like, thinks those are medical supplies, I think.”

    Caridad smiled. That was good. As long as the spy didn’t find out about the supernatural, they were good.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Central Los Angeles, June 10th, 2008

    It was obvious to Caridad that they really needed to find a new safehouse. They couldn’t keep camping in Phil’s apartment. They needed more privacy - and not just because of Carina. A Slayer had needs, after all. And the walls here weren’t thick enough for her taste.

    Which was why they had moved the prisoner into the basement of an abandoned house for the interrogation. It wouldn’t do to have Phil’s neighbours call the cops if they heard the screams.

    As if on cue, she heard the prisoner scream below her. The assassin who wanted to kidnap her and her friends so a spy could torture them to death, she reminded herself. And the assassin who was the key to finding the rest of Dubois’s team to end the danger to her friends and their families once and for all.

    She still clenched her teeth and took a few steps away. Slayer hearing could be a pain sometimes. If it were a vampire or other demon, Caridad wouldn’t care - who’d care about a corpse getting hurt? Or a monster getting its just desserts? And if she were needed, she’d be down there anyway.

    But she wasn’t needed. John and the others could handle it. And she was a better fit as a guard, anyway. Just in case that the assassins somehow found them. Or some stupid demon heard the screams and thought there was an easy meal to be had.

    That would actually be great - Caidad could really use a fight to relieve some stress and frustration.

    But, as expected from evil monsters, no demon had the decency to show up. Wait. There! Someone or something was moving in the shadows of the entrance across the street!

    She tensed. Was that a demon? Or an assassin? Or…

    … a hobo. She sighed. Not even a half-demon or something - she would’ve smelt it at this distance. Which meant she would have to disguise herself to scare the guy off.

    By the time the hobo reached the entrance to the building, Caridad had pulled on a wig and wrapped a scarf around the lower half of her face. Together with her battered leather jacket, it should make her look like a druggie. Not a very good disguise, but it would keep the hobo from leading the cops straight to her and her friends.

    She hid in the shadows and waited until they stepped inside. Then she spoke: “Leave!”

    The man jerked, almost dropping his backpack. “Jesus Christ!”

    “Leave,” she repeated herself. “This building is taken.”

    “What?” The hobo looked around. “This is big enough for both of us!”

    The booze she could smell on his breath must make him braver than usual. Or more stupid. She took a step towards him, out of the shadows. “No, it’s not.” She cocked her head.

    Instead of being frightened, he smiled. Or leered. “Oh.”

    She clenched her teeth. Sometimes, ‘Slayer hotness’, as Buffy called it, was a pain as well. Time to get serious. She dashed forward, fast enough to surprise a vampire, and grabbed the man by the front of his smelly coat. He was dangling from her fist before he realised what had happened.

    Then he gasped. “Oh my God! Please, no! I didn’t know! Please!”

    As expected, he knew - at least to some degree - about the things that went bump in the night. Enough to think she was about to eat him. “Leave!” she snapped, then threw him back a yard or so.

    He fell, then scrambled back on all fours. She hissed at him, and he finally jumped up and fled the building.

    She wiped her hand and sighed. At least he hadn’t pissed himself. That would’ve been awful with her sense of smell.

    Then she heard footsteps behind her - from the stairs. The others must be done with the interrogation.

    “We’re done!” Chuck announced. Then he saw her disguise. “Uh…?”

    “I had to scare away a hobo,” she explained.

    Carina took the time to make a point of looking her over before nodding. “I guess that works.”

    Caridad knew exactly what she meant with that and growled in return. She would’ve liked to see the spy trying to scare away the hobo. She blinked. No, she wouldn’t have liked that. “So…?” She looked at John, who had the prisoner slung over his shoulder. Bleeding a little more, but still alive, Caridad noted.

    “We’ve got another address.,” he told her.

    “The assassins won’t be there, but it’ll help us track down their finances - and use more data for pattern recognition,” Chuck explained.

    “Dubois is good, but she can’t erase all traces of her money,” Sarah added.

    “And this time, we won’t let her get away!” Carina announced.

    “And what do we do about him?” Caridad asked. Since he wasn’t dead already, they wouldn’t be killing him.

    “Stash him until I get Dubois. Then I’ll arrest him officially,” Carina replied with a smile. “My bosses like arrests.”

    “He hasn’t noticed anything classified,” John added.

    Which meant supernatural. Good.

    Caridad wouldn’t have liked seeing the man killed just for knowing too much.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 10th, 2008

    Caridad was in a better mood when she returned to Phil’s apartment in the morning. Two bloodsuckers and one Fyarl demon wouldn’t bother anyone ever again. Neither of the vampires had known anything about Nathan, though it wasn’t as if she had properly interrogated them.

    Right now, she didn’t care anyway, she just enjoyed a successful patrol. And finishing the breakfast burrito she had bought on the way. It would tide her over nicely until breakfast at Phil’s.

    After checking, once more, for tails - unlikely, since she had taken a detour underground - she entered Phil’s home. Well, the apartment building. One of Phil’s neighbours greeted her on the stairs, apparently on her way to work an early shift. “Good morning.”

    “Morning,” Caridad returned the greeting. The woman didn’t seem to care what the Slayer had been up to, which was exactly how Caridad liked it. Nothing worse than a nosy neighbour.

    Actually, she corrected herself when she entered Phil’s apartment, there was something worse: a nosy spy in your home. Carina was up already - she didn’t look tired so she must have slept since the interrogation - and was bothering Phil again while he was preparing breakfast. Caridad’s breakfast. The woman was wearing a bathrobe - silk - and apparently nothing else underneath it.

    “Good morning, dear,” Phil greeted her.

    “Good morning,” the spy added. “Been out clubbing all night?”

    “Yes,” Caridad lied.

    “Without John?” Carina raised her eyebrows.

    “Yes.” Caridad grabbed a bread roll and speared a sausage with her fork before sitting down at the kitchen counter. She smirked when she caught the spy frowning for a moment.

    “With Harmony?”

    “No.” Caridad rolled her eyes at the suggestion.

    That caused another frown. “You know, going off by yourself isn’t the smartest thing to do with Dubois still at large. Especially if you’re hurt,” Carina pointed out.

    Right. She was supposed to be hurt still. She took a bite out of the bread and then bit the sausage in half while thinking of a suitable answer.

    “Caridad didn’t go off by herself,” Phil said as he poured tea in his cup. “Certainly not without telling anyone where she was going.”

    “Really.” Carina narrowed her eyes but didn’t react to the implied criticism of her own actions yesterday.

    “Yes,” Caridad confirmed after swallowing.

    “And what did you do?”

    “Clubbing.” She didn’t add: ‘I told you. Did you forget already?’, but she wanted to.

    “Hiding things isn’t a good idea when we’re all in the same boat,” the spy complained.

    “It’s classified,” Phil cut in. “And unrelated to our current difficulties with Miss Dubois. Just routine work.”

    “Really. ‘Routine work’?”

    “Yes.” Caridad swallowed the second half of the sausage and shovelled some scrambled egg on her plate. “Boring.”

    “Which is a good thing,” Phil added. “I think we had enough excitement for a while.”

    “Not until we get Dubois,” Carina objected. “She won’t stop coming after us.”

    “Well get her,” Caridad said. “As soon as we find her.”

    “The address we got was a bust,” the spy retorted.

    “Of course it was.” That was the reason Caridad hadn’t gone there with the others. “Dubois isn’t a rookie.”

    “Everyone makes mistakes sooner or later,” Carina replied. Her expression when she looked at
    Caridad left no doubt what she was implying.

    The Slayer bared her teeth. “Yes. Some more than others.” Caridad hadn’t been the one to jump the gun and almost get the team killed.

    Carina glared at her with a forced smirk on her face. Good.

    Then the spy stood. “Well, I’ll be in the shower.” She glanced at Phil, but Caridad’s Watcher simply smiled and nodded at her.

    “Please don’t use up too much warm water,” he told her as she walked - with swaying hips, as if anyone were interested - out of the kitchen.

    Caridad scoffed as soon as the door closed behind the spy. “She doesn’t know when to quit.”

    “She’s quite stubborn - not an uncommon trait amongst the people of my acquaintance,” Phil said.

    Caridad started to nod, then frowned. “I’m nothing like her.”

    “Quite.” Phil nodded. “So, how was your patrol?”

    “Two vamps and one Fyarl.” She flashed her teeth.

    He looked impressed - at least for Phil. “A Fyarl?”

    “Looked like a lone wolf,” Caridad went on. “It wasn’t roaming blindly, but lying in wait and had a lair nearby.”

    “Ah.” Phil nodded again. “You might want to sweep the area again, though.”

    “I’m planning to,” she agreed. Where one demon was, there could be more.

    “And the two vampires?”

    “Tried to eat a drunk in the side alley next to a 7-11,” she said. Seemed to be new arrivals, not locals - accents and clothes fit.” She pulled a battered wallet out of her pocket. “Picture on the license matched, too.”

    “Nevada? I’ll ask Chuck to check if it matches missing or dead persons.”

    Caridad nodded. Someone might even check for the relatives of the dead - just in case the couple she had slain hadn’t been the only vampires in the area.

    “Is there anything else?”

    She shook her head. “I’ll write up the record later. Now I need some sleep.” She stretched, craning her head.

    “How’s your leg, dear?”

    “As good as new,” she replied. “Look!” She dropped into a crouch, then balanced on her healed leg.

    And blinked. There was something stuck to the underside of the counter.

    A bug. An electronic bug. A surveillance device. Caridad blinked. Someone had bugged Phil’s kitchen? Carina! She snarled, turning to go and rip the spy’s head off, then froze.

    “Dear?”

    “Sorry, bit on a pepper,” she told Phil, pointing at the counter and gesturing at him to come take a look.

    “Ah.” He nodded. “I thought they were a little spicy, but usually, you like them.”

    She saw his eyes widen when he spotted the bug. ‘Carina’ she mouthed.

    “In any case,” he continued, pointing at the door, “we’ve received new orders.”

    “Oh?” She nodded and moved towards the door, then listened. If Carina had placed the bug - and who else could’ve done it? - then she would be listening right now to Phil’s fake intel.

    “Yes. You remember Operation Bullfrog? It’s a continuation. We’ll work with Team Zombie to deal with more of the Aztecs’ efforts.”

    She slowly, carefully opened the door a gap. Phil’s apartment wasn’t big, and Carna wouldn’t be listening in where others could observe her. That left…

    “Headquarters is concerned about the demons gathering there, so…”

    She sneaked out and quickly approached the bathroom while Phil indulged, as he’d call it, his more creative sides. Then she ripped the door open, breaking the lock and part of the frame.

    And caught Carina staring at her, one hand holding a bud to her ear.

    “Hah!”

    *****​

    “You bugged us?” Chuck sounded as if he couldn’t believe it.

    Caridad shook her head. Carina was a spy - of course she’d do this.

    “Carina! That’s…” Sarah glared at her friend. “How could you do this?”

    “Easily,” Carina replied with a sneering smile.

    “You don’t bug your team!” Sarah replied.

    “Not bugging your team when they’re hiding something is how you get traitors stabbing you in the back!” the spy retorted.

    “Traitors like you,” Caridad snarled - though Sarah seemed taken aback for a moment before scowling at her friend again.

    “I’m not the one working for a foreign organisation!” Carina had the gall to tell Caridad.

    “You’re working for yourself,” John said.

    “Everyone is working for themselves, no matter what they say,” Carina replied.

    “Some of us have a higher calling.” Phil calmly sipped from his tea.

    “A higher calling?” The spy sneered. “Are you telling me you’re a priest?”

    Phil chuckled - once. “Hardly. But not everyone is beholden to themselves first, and then some country second.”

    “Working for another country’s spy agency is the definition of treason,” Carina told him.

    “And that has any relevance in this discussion exactly how?” Phil raised his cup to take another sip.

    “Guys! Can we focus on the fact that she spied on us?” Chuck said.

    “Oh, please! You knew that I would do this - all of you did!” Carina scoffed.

    “But not with bugs!” Chuck protested. “That’s…”

    “...breaking the rules?” Morgan suggested.

    Carina rolled her eyes in return.

    Kirsten spoke up: “We know what she did. Now we need to focus on what we do.”

    John nodded in apparent agreement, as did Sarah.

    Chuck didn’t. “But… for that we need to know why she did it.”

    “Because she doesn’t respect our privacy - or friendship,” Sarah said.

    “Oh, please! Who warned you of Dubois?” Carina shook her head. “And instead of thanking me, you try to blindside me, running a foreign spy mission on US soil!”

    “It’s not a spy mission,” Chuck blurted out.

    “Whatever we do, we do with the full permission of the US government,” Phil cut in.

    “Really.” Carina scoffed again. “And that’s why you’re hiding what you’re doing from the CIA and NSA?”

    “They’re not cleared for the information,” John said.

    “And neither is the DEA,” Caridad added. Just to cover that.

    “Of course you’d say that!” Carina replied. “But they don’t agree.”

    “Are you working for them?” Chuck asked.

    “She’s not working for anyone but herself.” Sarah sounded bitter. “But whatever she uncovers she can sell to them - or trade for favours.”

    Carina’s silence confirmed that. The spy had crossed her arms over her chest and sneered at them. The effect was weakened by the fact that she still wasn’t wearing more than a thin robe.

    “What exactly did she hear, anyway?” Chuck asked.

    “Enough,” Carina cut in.

    “Nothing actionable,” Phil told him.

    “But enough to figure things out on her own?” Sarah didn’t leave her friend - or was that former friend? - out of her sight as she spoke.

    “Possibly.” Phil shrugged. “As usual, it’s hard to tell how people will react.”

    Carina didn’t reply, but Caridad could tell she was tenser than before. Probably realised that she knew too much.

    “So, what do we do about it?” Morgan asked.

    A question for which they still hadn’t found an answer.

    Well, Caridad had an answer, but Chuck would never agree to kill Carina. Nor, probably, would Sarah. Morgan would be appalled. Probably - Kirsten would be in favour, but Morgan wouldn’t go against his best friend, Caridad thought. As would John and Phil. Though Phil wouldn’t say so, since he wouldn’t want to antagonise Chuck. Chuck’s dad was in the same boat, so to speak.

    It all hinged on Chuck. Rats.

    “So, you’re going to kill me for knowing too much?” Carina, of course, had to push things.

    “If the alternative is to endanger the whole world?” Phil gave her a flat stare.

    “‘The whole world’?” The spy scoffed and turned to Sarah. “Did you go all-in on the patriotic kool-aid? Not even ‘the free world’?”

    “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sarah replied with a glare.

    “Hmm?” Carina wrinkled her nose. “And yet I know too much?”

    “We could call London,” Caridad suggested. Willow could wipe the woman’s mind. Or… “What about the machine?” The brainwashing machine had worked for Morgan and Kirsten, hadn’t it? Not quite the same situation, and it was probably taken apart by now - Willow had a thing about such things - but…

    “Uh…” Chuck looked… not happy. Really not happy. “Guys, we went through this before, right? The, uh, machine, is bad news.” Morgan and Kirsten nodded without saying a word.

    “And I doubt that our superiors would condone using it - they weren’t very happy about its very existence,” Phil reminded them that the machine was likely broken down or something.

    “What machine?” Carina asked. She was putting up a good front, but Caridad could tell that she was increasingly nervous.

    “A machine to solve problems like the one you represent,” John said. He hadn’t pushed for killing her, yet. Not openly. “There aren’t many other options.” And there he went.

    “Guys! We’re not doing this again!” Chuck protested.

    “‘Again’?” Now Carina was visibly nervous.

    John shrugged. “What’s the alternative? We can’t trust her.”

    Chuck looked to Sarah with a pleading expression.

    “Carina’s not very loyal to anyone but herself,” Sarah said - without looking at the spy.

    Caridad, tough, was, and Carina looked as if she had been struck.

    “Guys, we’re not doing this again,” Chuck repeated himself. “The, uh, other case was one thing, but this is different. She isn’t, uh, trying to kill us.”

    “She almost got us killed in the ambush,” John told him.

    “But that was, uh… Chuck trailed off. “An accident?”

    “The kind of accident she keeps causing,” John said.

    “But still an accident!” Chuck shook his head.

    “The question seems to be: Can we trust her to change her ways? At least with regards to our mission?” Phil tilted his head as he looked at Carina. “Or do we have to expect her to disregard everyone’s safety for her own selfish impulses again?”

    Seeing Carina swallow drily was quite satisfying. She wasn’t looking so smug now, was she?

    “What are you talking about? What secret are you hiding?” Carina spoke up. “I only got code-names, so what is the big deal?”

    “Do you think she’ll figure out the truth?” Caridad turned Sarah’s earlier question back on her.

    “She’s smart and curious. But…” Sarah shrugged.

    “The risk is there,” John said.

    Everyone looked at Carina. The spy was pressing her lips together and staring back, eyes moving from one of them to the other.

    “Can you keep it down a little? I’m trying to rest here.”

    Oh, no!

    The closet door was opened from the inside and Harmony peered out. “What’s the big deal? You’ve been, like, talking for hours!”

    “Uh… Carina bugged us,” Chuck told her.

    “So tell her to bugger off. Spikey always said that when I annoyed him.” Harmony nodded.

    Hadn’t she overheard them?

    “Not bugging like that, bugging as in… placing bugs. Electronic surveillance devices,” Chuck explained.

    “Oh.” Harmony blinked again. “And now she, like, knows too much?”

    “I don’t!” Carina protested. “I don’t know what’s going on - I only heard code-names. Like ‘Vamp’ and ‘Fyarl’.”

    “The assassin woman got a Fyarl demon?” Harmony asked. “Also, it’s ‘vampire’, not ‘vamp’. ‘Vamp’ is rude.” She nodded.

    Caridad wanted to groan. “Shut up, Harmony!” she snapped.

    “I was resting! You were the ones not shutting up! You know how hard it is to rest when there are people talking?” Harmony frowned. “So, what’s the problem, like, anyway?”

    “You,” Chuck said with a sigh.

    “What, me? I, like, didn’t do anything!”

    Carina looked now both scared and confused. “What are you talking about? How is she…” The spy blinked, then shook her head. “This is a distraction - or a sick game.”

    “A game?” Harmony joined Carina in being confused. “You were playing a game without me? That’s rude! Unless it’s, like, daytime sports.”

    “It’s not that sort of game,” Chuck said, “We aren’t playing games like that.”

    “I, like, don’t get it. What’s the problem, then?” Harmony yawned.

    “They’re discussing whether or not they’ll kill me to keep their secrets,” Carina said.

    Harmony blinked. “Kill you? Whoa! What for?”

    Carina stared at her. It seemed the spy still hadn’t figured out that Harmony was not putting on an act - the vampire really was that stupid.

    “Knowing about our purpose,” Phil said. Before Harmony could blurt out something else, he continued: “Which you know not to spread, either.”

    Harmony nodded. “Totally!” Then she blinked. “So, why don’t you, like, recruit her?”

    “We can’t trust her not to get us killed,” Morgan said.

    “Oh.”

    “I wouldn’t get you killed!” Carina protested.

    “You almost did,” John shot back.

    “That was the normal risk on a mission!”

    “And in our business, the stakes are a little higher than in yours,” Phil pointed out. “I wasn’t using hyperbole when I said the fate of the world hinged on some missions.”

    “You’re acting like you’re…” Carina trailed off and looked at Harmony. Her eyes widened.

    Caridad frowned. What… then she gasped. Phil had removed all mirrors in the apartment, outside the bathroom. But the door to the bathroom was open, and Harmony had stepped in front of it.

    And she wasn’t visible in the mirror behind her. While everyone else was.

    Great.

    *****​
     
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 8: The Explanation
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 8: The Explanation

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 10th, 2008

    Carina was staring at the mirror. In which she could see herself, but not Harmony - who was standing between the spy and the mirror. “What the…? Why aren’t you showing up in the mirror?”

    Caridad sighed through clenched teeth. The stupid bloodsucker had blown it!

    “Uh…” Chuck looked as if he was at a loss. Which he probably was.

    “It’s actually a high-end screen with an integrated camera, and due to a glitch, Harmony doesn’t show up.” Morgan grimaced. “We’re still working on fixing it.”

    Well, he had tried.

    “A screen…” Carina narrowed her eyes at the junior Watcher, then at the mirror. “That’s no screen. I would’ve noticed it.”

    Of course the spy would spend so much time in front of the only mirror in the apartment to notice.

    “You don’t show in the mirror.” Carina turned to Harmony. “How?”

    “Uh… my skin is, like, so sensitive to light, it doesn’t reflect it?” Harmony beamed at the woman. “No?”

    “That’s not how light and reflections work, Harmony!” Chuck blurted out.

    “What? I got a ‘D’ in high school for that!”

    “You got a D because the teacher didn’t fail anyone,” Morgan pointed out.

    “No!”

    “Yes!”

    “Stop it!” Carina all but yelled. “Why can’t I see you in the mirror?” She walked into the bathroom and eyed the mirror. “It’s not a screen!” Then her head snapped to the side. “Ah!” She grabbed her makeup kit. Which had a mirror in it, of course.

    Caridad tensed. Should she stop the spy?

    But it was too late. “You don’t show up in my mirror, either!” Carina exclaimed. “This is impossible!” She waved her makeup mirror around. “This is not a screen!”

    Phil shook his head. “I believe the cat is out of the bag.”

    “We can still kill her,” John said.

    “Kill me? For seeing something that’s impossible?”

    “Hey! I’m, like, not impossible! And I’m not something!” Harmony complained. “I’m just special!”

    “That’s not…” Carina trailed off. “You don’t show up in the mirror. You sleep in the closet. You…” She looked at the windows. With the shades drawn down. “You don’t like sunlight, do you?”

    “Of course not! I burn easily!” Harmony replied in a serious tone.

    Carina looked around, then gasped. “Oh my God - you’re vampires!”

    Killing her sounded very good to Caridad right then.

    “What? No! We aren’t vampires!” Chuck told her. “Look, we’re visible in the mirror!”

    “And you saw us in the sun,” Sarah added, rolling her eyes.

    “But… she’s a vampire!” Carina pointed at Harmony. And rapidly paled.

    “Well, duh!” Harmony sniffed. “What gave it away? I’m asking so I, like, won’t do the same thing again. People don’t like that.”

    For a moment, everyone stared at the bloodsucker. Then Chuck sighed. “You were standing in front of the bathroom mirror, Harmony.”

    “Oh, right!” Harmony nodded. Then she frowned. “But that, like, wasn’t my fault - someone left the door open!”

    “And you walked in front of it,” Caridad added.

    “But I, like, didn’t realise it!”

    “Yes,” Chuck said.

    Harmony nodded. “See? I told you. Not my fault.”

    “She’s a vampire.” Carina was still pale. “I’ve been talking to a vampire!”

    “Yes?”

    “Oh my god! Vampires are real.” The spy grabbed her own throat.

    “Are you checking for bite marks among your hickeys?” Kirsten asked.

    “I didn’t bite you.” Harmony pouted. “If I had, Caridad would’ve staked me!”

    “This is crazy! I’m crazy!” Carina shook her head. “This can’t be true! Vampires aren’t real!” She grabbed her makeup mirror and started to pry it apart. “There has to be some explanation! An explanation that makes sense!”

    “Wow, you’re, like, freaking out!” Harmony commented. “I wasn’t that bad - and I died finding out about vampires!”

    “New rule,” Morgan said. “Harmony doesn’t get to tell people about magic.”

    “Hey! It’s not my fault she’s having a breakdown!”

    Carina gasped again. “Magic is real?”

    “Indeed.” Phil stepped forward. “Magic is real. Vampires are real. Demons of all kinds are real.”

    “Hell’s real,” Caridad added, baring her teeth. “I’ve fought in hell.”

    “This is impossible.”

    “I think you need a demonstration,” Phil said.

    “You’re not, like, going to shoot me, are you?” Harmony asked.

    “Of course not,” Phil said. “We wouldn’t want to frighten the neighbours,” he added after a moment, just when the vampire had started to smile with relief.

    “But…”

    “Please check Harmony for a pulse.”

    Phil had to repeat himself until Carina managed to touch Harmony’s wrist. She quickly started to check the other wrist, then the throat. And almost stripped the vampire in an attempt to uncover a trick device or something.

    “This can’t… this is impossible!”

    Phil chuckled. “I’m afraid it’s true. The world is older than you know…”

    *****​

    “...and that’s what the Council’s fighting,” Phil finished.

    “What the Slayers are fighting,” Caridad added with a small frown.

    “Quite, my dear.”

    She eyed the spy. Carina hadn’t said anything during Phil’s tale. But she had been shaking her head.

    “So, now you know our secret,” Phil said.

    “Your secret? That’s ridiculous! A fairy tale! Demons, and magic, and a world-spanning conspiracy hiding everything! And… and magical girls fighting vampires?”

    What? Caridad jumped up. “We aren’t magical girls!” she snarled at the spy. “We’re Slayers!”

    “Well, technically…”

    A glare from her shut Chuck up in mid-sentence. “We aren’t magical girls!”

    “Got it!”

    “I don’t get it,” Kirsten said.

    “I’ll explain it to you later,” Morgan told her in a low voice.

    “It’s ridiculous!” Carina repeated herself.

    “It’s the truth,” Phil told her. “And we can prove it.”

    “Not it!” Harmony blurted out.

    “What?” Chuck asked.

    “I’ve heard about this! I’m not going to be the vampire doused with holy water or pushed into the sunlight! Go get another!”

    “We’re not going to torture you,” Chuck told her. “But you can demonstrate vampiric traits.”

    “‘Traits’? Like, literature stuff?” Harmony looked as dumb as she was.

    “I think you mean ‘tracts’,” Phil said.

    “Yes. Don’t you have, like, tons of those things?”

    “They’re called books,” Caridad said.

    Unfortunately, her subtle barb went over the bloodsucker’s head. “Yes, exactly!” Harmony nodded with a smile. Then she blinked. “So… what did you mean?”

    “Traits - qualities unique to vampires for which magic is the only explanation,” Phil explained.

    “Oh.” Harmony frowned. “I have those?”

    “Can you drop the act?” Carian suddenly hissed. “It’s not funny - it’s stupid! Do you see me laughing? Do you see anyone laughing?”

    “What act?” Harmony looked confused.

    “It’s not an act,” Sarah said. “And it’s not a joke - we are fighting demons.”

    “And sometimes criminals and enemy spies. But usually, it’s demons. Or evil practitioners of the dark arts,” Morgan added. “Which are pretty much like the Dark Arts in Harry Potter, but Willow doesn’t like it if we compare them… Uh, well, yeah.”

    That hadn’t helped Carina accept the truth, Caridad could tell easily. Well, time to show off!

    She stood, then walked over to the couch that Sarah and Chuck were occupying, bent down and lifted it up.

    Carina stared.

    “Feel free to check for wires, magnets and whatever you can think of,” Caridad told her with a grin.

    “You’re a cyborg!”

    Caridad almost dropped the couch. “No, I’m a Slayer!”

    “Please check Harmony’s reflection again,” Phil said.

    “That’s a trick!”

    Caridad was leaning more and more towards just killing the spy.

    “And how would we be able to do this? Replace your mirror with a sophisticated screen and camera? And then arrange all of this just to fool you?” Phil’s sarcasm was starting to shine through.

    “Yes!”

    “With such an implausible story?” Both eyebrows went up, Caridad noted.

    “Double-bluff,” the spy replied. “It’s so impossible, you think I’ll assume it has to be true because I think you wouldn’t try something so absurd.”

    “We should get Willow to turn her into a rat,” Morgan said.

    “She’d blame psychedelic drugs,” Chuck told him. “I think we have to demonstrate that this is not a trick. Harmony, turn your game face on and hold her up.”

    “Really? But it’ll, like, ruin my makeup. Do you know how much of a pain it is to put it on?”

    “But you have a phone with a camera now, don’t you?” Chuck replied, blinking.

    “Yes, but I’d like to see you do that one-handed in a closet.”

    “How about you do it in the bathroom?”

    “I don’t trust the shades there!”

    “Right. Anyway - game face?”

    “Alright.”

    Harmony turned to smile at Carina and vamped out.

    The spy gasped. Then shrieked when the vampire grabbed her with one hand and lifted her up.

    And shrieked even more when her thin short robe tore and she dropped to the floor in her panties.

    “Oh, I’m like, so sorry - I didn’t, like, think your robe would rip. And it was silk! Must have been expensive, though I don’t recognise the brand.”

    Carina scuttled back on all fours, retreating into the bathroom while Harmony followed her, trying to apologise.

    “This must have been the worst reveal of magic in the Council’s history,” Chuck said.

    “At least since the incident with the Inquisition in Madrid,” Phil said.

    “No one, ever, tell anyone else about this!” Caridad glared at everyone. They would never live this down if Vi heard about it. Or the Scoobies.

    *****​

    It took a few more hands-on demonstrations of vampire physiology, as Phil called it, as well as an actual magic spell - two, actually, a scrying spell and a ritual to purge Harmony’s invitation - for Carina to accept that there were more things between heaven and earth than she had known before. Or something.

    Although Caridad was still not sure whether the spy had actually been convinced, or whether she was still trying to come up with alternative explanations for supernatural effects. As long as she wasn’t calling the Slayer a cyborg or Terminator any more, Caridad didn’t really care. Even if it triggered a discussion between Chuck and Morgan about movies and TV series.

    What she was concerned about was whether or not Carina would keep their secret. And, in her opinion, the jury was still out in that regard. “I don’t like it,” she mumbled after checking the counter in Phil’s kitchen for bugs.

    “Me neither,” John replied as he cut a few slices of cold roast beef.

    “I don’t trust her,” Caridad added, reaching out to grab one.

    “Those are for sandwiches.” He grabbed her wrist before she could reach the plate.

    “Sandwiches I’ll eat!” she protested.

    “Once they’re done.” He grinned at her.

    She could’ve pulled her hand free. She probably could grab the plate before he could react, too. But that would’ve been… She sighed, and he released her wrist. “I don’t think the threat of the Old Ones waking up is enough to keep her silent.” Someone who would rather believe in time-travelling cyborgs than magic wouldn’t be impressed by such tales.

    “Then the scrying demonstration should be enough,” John replied, starting to cut bread - Phil’s gotten them some German-style dark bread for some reason while out grocery shopping.

    She scoffed. Carina was the type to think she wouldn’t get caught. Or that, if she got caught, she would be able to deal with it. Like a new Slayer who had dusted a fledgling or two and thought she was the hottest thing in town - and needed to be beaten around the training room a few times by older Slayers until she was ready to listen to people with more experience.

    She blinked. “Damn! I’m thinking like a Watcher!”

    John cocked his head. “You’re thinking about arranging an accident?”

    “What? No!” She shook her head. “I was thinking… Wait! Are you?”

    “It’s one option,” he said.

    “Chuck would hate you,” she told him.

    “He would hate having some spies kidnap or kill his family trying to get leverage on him more,” John said.

    That was true, of course. But…

    “I’m not planning it,” he went on. “But the option’s on the table.”

    After a moment, she nodded.

    While he finished the first sandwich, she sighed. “It’s too bad that we can’t just go hit Caritas. That would set her straight.” Unless the spy would blame Hollywood tricks. But going out in force, with Dubois unaccounted for and the LAPD still looking for them - word from their superiors to drop the case or not - that would’ve been a bad idea. Even a demon could call the cops anonymously, after all. And disguises wouldn’t help - they were too well known in the place. Well, Caridad was.

    John grunted in reply, ten slid the plate over to her.

    “Thanks!” She beamed at him, then started to eat.

    Of course, Carina had to ruin the meal, as Caridad’s ears picked up her talk with Harmony.

    “You don’t have a soul?”

    “Well, no. At least not as far as I know, Vampires don’t have souls. Except for two, but they, like, don’t count.”

    “And you don’t age.”

    “No! And I don’t get fat, either. No matter what I eat.”

    “And you’re impervious to bullets and super-strong.”

    “Yes!”

    “But you can’t get out into the sun any more.”

    “No. And let me tell you, that’s a huge thing! Like, no beach parties anymore - unless after sundown. And shopping is harder, too - there is this great boutique I can, like, only visit when it’s dark outside. Otherwise, it’s like instant death. Well, it takes a few seconds - we saw one vampire burn in school, once.”

    “Ah.”

    Caridad could tell that Carina didn’t believe that, even if it was true according to Buffy and Willow. But that didn’t matter much. What mattered was that Carina sounded as if she was considering getting turned.

    She sighed. If she could just stake the spy, then things would be much simpler. But deliberately letting someone get turned? No. That went against everything a Slayer stood for.

    Someone had to inform Carina that vampires weren’t people with special dietary requirements and an allergy to sunlight, but corpses animated by a demon.

    Someone who could make the spy believe.

    Because all other matters aside, the last thing Caridad wanted was another spy turned vampire out there. One with a grudge against her and her friends.

    *****​

    “...so, you see, vampires, lacking the soul of the human who was killed, are demons possessing a corpse. They have the human’s memories, but none of their morals. Or restraints.” Phil nodded towards the spy. “The human soul is in the afterlife.”

    “Heaven - or hell,” Caridad added.

    Carina nodded in return, but she didn’t look convinced. At least Caridad thought so. “So, the Buddhists are wrong about reincarnation?” That hint of a smirk confirmed it - she wasn’t taking this seriously.

    “We don’t know that,” Phil replied. “Our knowledge of the afterlife is still quite limited.”

    “So, how would you know what happens after death?” Carina slightly narrowed her eyes.

    “There’s a vampire who had its human soul ripped from the afterlife and stuck into it,” Caridad told her. “And the demon is still in its body as well.”

    “The result of a dark curse,” Phil added. “But it did confirm our lore. It also gave us new insights into vampires. Having a vampire turn you isn’t a way to gain power - it’s simply suicide and letting a bloodthirsty demon take over your body.”

    “So Harmony is a bloodthirsty demon?”

    “Yes,” Caridad replied.

    Phil nodded as well.

    Carina frowned and Caridad caught her glancing towards the closet, where the vampire was ‘sleeping’.

    “She wasn’t always like this,” Phil said. “In the past, she would have killed you and drunk your blood without hesitation. She wouldn’t have spared Harmony’s own family, either - many vampires make a point of hunting down their host’s friends and family.”

    Provided they had friends and family, of course. Caridad doubted that Carina cared for anyone other than herself. Although… “And there’s the slavery, of course.”

    “Slavery?”

    “The one who turns you becomes your master,” Caridad explained. It was a little more complicated, but best not give the spy the idea that she could game the system. “So, your body is forced to serve other vampires. Like a slave.”

    “And other vampires, being soulless demons, tend to be a little careless about their minions, to say the least,” Phil added. “They’d think nothing of sending a minion out to die - or a rival.”

    “Ah.” Judging by how Carina’s lips slightly twisted and formed a thin line, that had struck home.

    “And then there’s the whole half-blood thing,” Caridad said. “Vampires are considered the lowest of the demons.” Which wasn’t entirely correct, of course - an experienced vampire could wreck most demons in a fight - but she’d use whatever angle she could to convince the stupid spy that getting turned wasn’t a free powerup, as Morgan worded it.

    “You’ve made your point,” Carina said.

    Caridad still doubted that the spy had completely abandoned her idea.

    *****​

    “The LAPD just visited Ellie and Devon,” Chuck blurted out as he joined the dinner table. “She just called me. Which is why I’m a little late, sorry.”

    “I thought they were ordered to drop the investigation. Are they ignoring it so openly?” Morgan asked.

    “The directions given to the authorities in charge were quite clear,” Phil said. “However, that doesn’t mean that they will be followed to the letter.”

    “Or they are followed to the letter, but not in the spirit,” Chuck said, then blinked. “Something like that. Anyway, they were asking questions about Gunn’s people - under the pretext that some ‘neighbours’ were ‘concerned about their presence’.”

    “Do you think that this was a pretext?” Phil asked Chuck.

    “Uh… yes?”

    Caridad scoffed. “A bunch of tough, black people in your old neighbourhood? If someone had spotted that they were armed, the LAPD would have sent in SWAT.” Sometimes Chuck was a little too naive.

    “Uh… so, this might not be related to us? They really wanted to know if Ellie and Devon had seen something suspicious?”

    “Probably a bit of both,” Sarah said. “They would’ve jumped at the chance to continue their investigation.”

    “Of course they would - the longer they fail to arrest the ‘terrorists’, the more the press is tearing into them,” Carina said.

    “And Gunn’s people fit the bill,” Kirsten added.

    “Anyone who’s not white fits the bill,” Caridad said, scoffing again.

    “What did Gunn say about it?” John asked.

    “Uh… I haven’t called him yet, what with dinner waiting and all…” Chuck blushed a little. “He would’ve called already if something was up, wouldn’t he?”

    “Are his phones secure?” Carina asked.

    “Not to Willow-level, but the cops shouldn’t be able to tap into them,” Chuck said.

    “‘Willow-level’?” Carina raised both eyebrows.

    “Oh, right, you wouldn’t know her,” Chuck said, “Willow. Most powerful witch on the planet. She was in some of my classes. Let me tell you...”

    Well, Caridad thought as Chuck told Carina about Willow, this should scare her into not letting herself get turned.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 11th, 2008

    It was past midnight, though not too late - for a Slayer - when Caridad returned to Phil’s apartment. She felt better - less on edge. Being coped-up for the entire day was excruciating or something - Slayers needed to move, to hunt, to fight.

    Staking a dumb vampire and scaring the hell out of a supposedly harmless loose-skin demon hadn’t been much of a hunt or fight, but it had been better than nothing. Running all-out for a while had also helped.

    She didn’t feel the urge to stake Carina on sight any more. Hurt, maybe, but nothing serious.

    Unless, she mentally added with a growl, the spy was making moves on John or Phil again.

    After a last check to see if she was followed - unlikely, she had taken a few detours underground again, and she would’ve noticed anyone following her down there - she entered the building. Perhaps John was still up, and she could take care of another urge…

    Everyone was still up, she noticed, as soon as she entered. “What happened?” she asked as she closed the door.

    “Hi, Caridad. How was your hunt?” Morgan asked from where he was sitting on the couch with Kirsten - who was studying something on a laptop. The rest of the group was standing and sitting around the dinner table, looking at pacers and more laptop screens. Even Carina, though Harmony was missing.

    “It was fine. What happened?” She didn’t quite growl, but she showed her teeth.

    “Uh…”

    “Bartowski’s program found a trace of Nathan,” John told her.

    She smiled in return and went to hug him. “So, where is it, and when do we go and stake it?”

    “We’re working on that,” he replied before she kissed him.

    She broke the kiss after Phil cleared his throat. “I’ll expect your report later, dear. But, indeed, we may have found our elusive prey’s hideout - or, at the least, a lead to it,” he told her.

    “Where is it?” She looked at the table, scanning the maps and pictures. “An office tower?”

    “Uh, it’s not much of a tower,” Chuck told her. “Actually, it doesn’t qualify as a highrise. But it’s been recently constructed - and by a contractor that also did work for Wolfram & Hart, back, you know, when they were still around.”

    “Wolfram & Hart? I’ve been hearing rumours about them being a terrorist front,” Carina asked. “Don’t tell me that they were vampires!”

    “Well, they weren’t vampires - but they had some on staff,” Chuck said. “Harmony worked for them for a while.”

    The spy didn’t like hearing that. “We were supposed to investigate a client of theirs, but then the operation was cancelled.”

    Caridad snorted. ‘We’ probably meant ‘I’ and not ‘the DEA’ here.

    “Uh, yes, that probably was one of the corrupt politicians who had sold their souls to Wolfram & Hart influencing the DEA,” Chuck said.

    “That’s a…” Carina blinked, then groaned. “Don’t tell me that you mean that literally.”

    “Uh…”

    “Hell’s a real place. Souls are real. Demons are real,” Caridad reminded her with a grin.

    “This is…” Carina shook her head.

    “Too much for you?” Sarah asked, raising her eyebrows.

    The spy glared at her. “No.”

    Caridad rolled her eyes at the bravado. Carina wasn’t handling the real world very well. “Where’s Harmony?” she asked.

    “She’s visiting friends,” Phil said.

    The vampire had friends? Actual friends?

    “Don’t look at me,” Carina said. “I was against it - Dubois is still out there, and the LAPD is looking for you.”

    “Harmony, for all her quirks, is an experienced vampire,” Phil said. “She shouldn’t have any trouble with either.”

    And if she did, then it wasn’t a big loss, in Caridad’s opinion.

    “And she’s got a tracker and a burner phone,” Chuck added. “But I don’t think Dubois will risk another fight. Not with the police looking for them and us.”

    “Unless she thinks she has an opportunity to kill or kidnap Harmony without anyone else noticing or being able to interfere,” John told him.

    “She’ll probably assume it’s a trap and leave her be,” Sarah pointed out.

    “And Harmony knows to go underground before coming back,” Chuck added, nodding.

    “What was the deal with Wolfram & Hart?” Carina asked. “And don’t look at me like that - we’ve been looking at the office building for hours, now, without making progress.”

    Judging by the lack of denial, the spy was right. “They were controlled by elder demons,” Caridad said. “And they wanted to end the world - on their terms, or something. Mostly, they helped demons and evil humans, collected souls, corrupted people...” She shrugged. “You know, the usual evil lawyer stuff.”

    “It is a little more complicated, but that is the gist of it,” Phil agreed. “The Council took care of them, though it took a considerable effort to do so, and some of their allies escaped.”

    Carina looked like she just realised just how much influence the Council had - she would’ve known the scope of the official operation against the ‘terrorist front’.

    Good. That should show the spy that this was way bigger than her and her stupid agency. “So… what’s the plan for Nathan?” she asked, leaning over the table.

    “Uh, we actually don’t know yet,” Chuck replied. “We’ve hacked into the system of Real Estate Los Angeles, that’s the firm, but it’s a dead-end. So, it’s either Nathan - though none of the management on record fit a vampire’s profile - or they have a second computer system not connected to the first to handle communication with Natan.”

    “Or it’s handled in-person,” John added with a slight glare.

    “I was getting to that,” Chuck replied, frowning. “The firm did change ownership a year ago - the founder had an accident, and his heirs sold he shares.”

    “An accident, or an ‘accident’?” Caridad asked.

    “Assume the later - the timing would fit,” John told her.

    “Whether it was an accident or murder doesn’t matter,” Phil said. “The medical records are clear proof that the owner wasn’t turned.”

    That was true. Still, Caridad liked to know just how ruthless and evil the enemy was. And knowing that a vampire could fake an accident was valuable intel.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Anyway, we’re currently discussing how to proceed. We can’t afford to lose this lead - or to tipp off Nathan about our investigation. So, we need to proceed very carefully.”

    Caridad nodded. That made sense. As long as it didn’t take too long.

    Cuck went on: “So, our best plan involves sneaking in and bugging the place so we can observe the management. It’s just how to sneak in that’s the issue - break in, or pose as interested customers. Charles Carmichael, semi-returned software mogul, could be looking to invest in real estate,” he added with a smile.

    “Breaking in leaves no trace in their system. No financial records to look up. No address to check,” John said.

    “Only if you don’t leave any trace,” Sarah replied.

    “If we break in, we can bug any room we want - not just an office or two,” John pointed out.

    That was true as well. But just a little bad luck during the break-in could ruin the plan - and Caridad had seen too many plans encounter bad luck. There was even a proverb about it. So… Oh! She grinned. “I have an idea! Let me check something!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 16th, 2008

    “Welcome to Real Estate Los Angeles, Miss Garcia!”

    “Han you! I’ll do my best!” Caridad smiled brightly at Mr Jones even though she would have preferred to slap the man - he had been staring at her legs instead of her eyes for most of the interview. And he was wearing a wedding ring!

    “We expect nothing less. Your predecessor leaving so suddenly…” Jones shook his head. “In my time, interns stuck around. I wouldn’t even have dreamed of leaving a job, whether I won a cruise in the Caribbean or not. Not that I would have entered a contest in the first place, mind you!” He stood up.

    She nodded sagely as she stood as well, smoothing her skirt - it was a little too short, in hindsight. Even though Buffy would’ve approved. The former intern hadn’t entered a contest, either - but the woman either hadn’t remembered or hadn’t cared when the tickets they had purchased had arrived in her mailbox.

    Though, Caridad added as she quickly bent down to adjust her shoe or something in order to avoid the arm Jones wanted to sip around her waist, if Miss Garibaldi had been working with the man, perhaps she would have jumped at a paid trip to Oklahoma as an excuse to leave the job.

    “Now let me show you around.”

    “Thank you, sir!” She kept her fake smile up as she left the man’s office. She could almost feel his eyes on her legs. Then again, they had been counting on that to get the position, so maybe she shouldn’t complain.

    “James! This is Miss Ramirez, our new intern. She’s replacing Miss Garcia. Miss Garcia, this is James Buckwalter, our head of accounting.”

    “Hello!” The man looked like a stereotypical Hollywood movie accountant, alright. Or, perhaps, a tv series accountant: almost bald, ill-fitting suit, pocket protector with more pens than a class could use in a week. And he was staring at her chest.

    “Hi!” she replied, shaking hands.

    “Pleased to meet you.” At least he had a decent handshake, and he was now looking at her face. Not for long, though.

    “She’ll be officially starting tomorrow, but I’m showing her around today already,” Jones said. He once again tried to slip his arm around her waist, but Caridad side-stepped it, peering at a painting on the wall.

    “Sorry!” She beamed at them. “This is a fascinating painting.”

    Buckwalter returned her smile. “It is, isn’t it? Jeremiah Walker, a rarely-known artist from the 19th century who went on the Oregon Trail. Most of his work deals with this experience - he died young, alas, shot to death at Gettysburg, but he also…”

    “I’m sorry, James, but we need to visit human resources,” Jones cut in. “Please follow me, Miss Garcia.”

    “Of course! Sorry, Mr Buckwalter!”

    Great. Jones was already acting jealous. Maybe she should’ve sent Carina for this.

    No. Caridad was the Slayer. If this was a vampire front, then the spy would be an easy meal - and, if they turned her, Nathan would know far too much about the group. And, Caridad added to herself as she followed Jones down the hall, nodding at office workers the man obviously didn’t think important enough to merit an introduction, odds were Nathan’s minions would be smart enough to turn a spy they caught.

    Or a pretty woman.

    “And here’s the employee lounge. Well, for the staff. There’s also a VIP lounge reserved for management and their guests,” Jones said as he opened the door to what looked like a typical office break room: Furniture that had been a little too cheap to keep looking fine for long, stacked plastic cups next to a pot of apparently free coffee on a heater, fridge covered with the remains of stickers and notes, and two employees who hastily stood up. “Mr Jones!”

    “At ease!” Jones chuckled at his own joke, then gestured at Caridad. This is Miss Garcia, our new intern. I’m showing her around.”

    “Good morning. I’m Frank Dawson.”

    “Lily Juarez.”

    “Good morning.”

    “And now let me show you your office,” Jones said, already moving towards the lifts.

    Caridad’s office was a cubicle among half a dozen more, on the “main secretary floor, sorry, our ‘personal assistants,” as Jones put it, looking at her as he stressed ‘personal’.

    She nodded, acting as if she had been focused entirely on her new desk. “This is great, Mr Jones!”

    “I know! And now let me show you your main tasks!”

    Which, as Caridad quickly found out, consisted of searching the archives, taking notes and making as well as serving coffee.

    The furniture in the VIP lounge looked expensive in the obvious way that was meant to impress visitors, and the coffee maker could have been stolen from the latest hip coffee shop selling Starbucks menu for five bucks a cup. Though there was no carpet, Caridad noted - hardwood floor was a little odd.

    Then she noticed the hint of a tint to the windows. The same windows Wolfram & Hart had used - the sort that filtered sunlight so vampires wouldn’t get burned.

    “...and here are the different coffee brands. I like cappuccinos,” Jones continued.

    “I’ll remember that, sir! Caridad chirped with a wide smile. Vampire friendly windows - this was a front indeed. One vampires were meant to visit during the day. That meant… cars with tinted windows dropping off visitors underground.

    “Good! Now I’ll show you…”

    “Showing our new intern around, Parker?”

    Caridad noticed Jones freezing for a moment before he pasted a fake smile on his face. “Cyril! Yes, we just hired her. This is Miss Garcia. Miss Garcia - Cyril Lewis, our CEO.”

    Lewis wore his suit well. Tailored, Caridad thought, and probably worth more than most of his staff made in a month. He also was tall, quite fit, and his hair looked perfectly styled.

    “Charmed!” he said, shaking her hand.

    “Likewise!” Strong grip, she added to her estimation and resisted the urge to crush his hand - his aftershave couldn’t hide the demony scent.

    Their eyes met - Lewis didn’t stare down her top - and Caridad did her best to channel a harmless, eager intern, excited and nervous about her new job and meeting the big boss. If this escalated… she wasn’t armed, but she could easily improvise a club and stake from the closest seat in the lounge.

    The demon kept the handshake up just a little longer than normal, then released her hand, flashing pearly white perfect teeth as he smiled. “Let me welcome you to our firm as well.”

    “Thank you, sir! It’s an honour.”

    He nodded. “We expect the best from our employees, but we also offer the best rewards.” His smile turned a little… sharper, Caridad decided fit best. And amused.

    She nodded, “I’ll do my best, sir!”

    “Good. I’m keeping an eye on you.” He nodded at Jones with slightly raised eyebrows and then left the VIP lounge.

    Jones’s smile looked very forced. He cleared his throat. “So, that was our, uh, CEO. I’ll show you his office, well, the hallway and reception, later - Mr Lewis doesn’t like to be bothered without an appointment.”

    Jones didn’t try to touch her during the rest of the tour, but Caidad couldn’t tell whether the man knew about Lewis’s true nature or was simply scared of earning his boss’s displeasure.

    Nor could she tell whether Lewis had warned off Jones of hitting on interns - or staked a claim.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 16th, 2008

    “Cyril Lewis. Canadian immigrant. Joined the firm after the change of ownership and was promoted to CEO soon afterwards, after his predecessor resigned,” Chuck said, pointing at a picture on his computer screen.

    He looked normal in the picture - and less impressive than in the flesh, Caridad noted.

    “Fake ID?” John asked.

    “We’re looking into it,” Chuck told him. “His records are a little… skimpy. He’s got everything he needs, but nothing else.”

    “Looks like a fake - and a bad fake,” John concluded.

    “He definitely is a demon?” Carina asked.

    “Yes,” Caridad replied. “I felt and smelled it.”

    “But not a vampire?”

    Caridad had told them that already. “No, not a bloodsucker.” Any Slayer could identify a vampire on sight. Unless you were Buffy on a Hellmouth, of course. And blinded by your hormones.

    “He looks rather attractive for a monster. Does he change shape or what?”

    “He could be a possessed human - or a shapechanging demon,” Phil said. “There are several possibilities. Wolfram & Hart’s demise left a void that others have been trying to fill.”

    “A void?” Carina frowned.

    Phil nodded. “Many demons live outside society, dwelling - or squatting - in abandoned warehouses or the sewers. Or the wilderness. But there is a sizable number of demons who are living amongst humans - passing for human. Some grew up in society - and some have been living amongst humans for generations. And many of them need help navigating modern society without sticking out and being detected by the government - or the Council. Wolfram & Hart filled this niche - and others have been trying to replace them for years.”

    “And you let them?”

    “The Council deals with those who help and support dangerous demons. Many demons are relatively harmless.”

    Caridad snorted. Some were practically helpless. But they were still demons.

    “Lewis doesn’t look harmless,” Carina commented with a grin. “He looks dangerous.”

    The spy wasn’t just talking about one kind of danger, Caridad knew. It was a very good thing Carina hadn’t been the one posing as an intern - the dumb woman would probably try to seduce Lewis, and end up dead - or turned.

    Sarah spoke up: “The question is: Is Lewis Nathan’s minion, business partner - or boss?”

    “Good question,” Caridad told her. Most demons wouldn’t work for a vampire - at least not the kind of demons smart enough to run a company. Except for certain very powerful vampires. But as far as they knew, Nathan wasn’t in that league.

    Then again, they had been wrong before.

    *****​
     
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 9: The Undercover Mission
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 9: The Undercover Mission

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 16th, 2008

    “Well, I need to get to the apartment ‘Miss Garcia’ is living in,” Caridad said after dinner. It wouldn’t do to have the vampire - or Lewis, depending on their exact relationships - send someone to check on the new intern and find the apartment empty. Even though it meant sleeping alone. And no more patrolling.

    John nodded. He didn’t look happy about it, either. Well, he better not look happy. And Carina better not try anything in Caridad’s absence.

    “What if they come for you at night?” the spy asked.

    Caridad scoffed. “Then they die.” She wasn’t about to let herself get kidnapped by vampires or their minions.

    “That would endanger your cover.”

    Was Carina trying to get her killed? Caridad glared at her. “Getting kidnapped and turned would endanger me as well.”

    “What about…” The spy glanced to the side, where Harmony’s empty closet was.

    “At this point, we have to assume that Nathan is aware of her. Harmony has a certain reputation in the supernatural world - at least in its corner in Los Angeles,” Phil explained.

    “A reputation?”

    “She survived Wolfram & Hart’s fall,” Morgan piped up. “Not everyone will know her on sight - few, actually, I think - but she’s not exactly, err, subtle.”

    Caridad snorted. The vampire was about as subtle as she was smart. Hell, she made most fledglings look smart - and those generally were about as smart as your average brick.

    “But she’s working with you.” It seemed that Carina didn’t want to let this go. “And she was bait for Dubois.”

    “We’re working with her but we’re completely aware of her limitations,” Phil told her. “And while she was perfectly adequate bait for Dubois, an infiltration mission involving demons and vampires is a little beyond her capability.”

    Just a little, Caridad thought. She stood. “Well, I have to go - and I need some money for takeout.” She beamed at Phil. “I better have the receipts and empty containers in my trash to show why I’m not cooking at home.”

    Her Watcher smiled and opened his wallet. “Of course dear.”

    She frowned a little at him as she grabbed the bills. It was a valid justification! A valid expense, even!

    John joined her on the way to the door, and they stopped in the hallway. Caridad cocked her head - she couldn’t hear anyone in the staircase. “It’ll be OK,” she said.

    He grunted in return. Then he said. “Don’t underestimate this ‘Lewis’.”

    “I won’t,” she replied. Unknown demons - especially demons able to not just fit in with humans, but to run their own business - were always a serious threat.

    He nodded. “Good.”

    He wouldn’t complain about the mission, she knew that. It would make him a hypocrite since such undercover missions were spy work, and he was a spy. And a Watcher now. Still… She leaned forward and kissed him. For some time.

    Both of them were panting when she broke the kiss. “So…” she licked her lips. “This shouldn’t take too long. I just have to get to their computers, and place some bugs.”

    “Don’t rush it.”

    “I won’t.” She didn’t roll her eyes - even though Slayers could be perfectly patient if a mission required it. It was just that most people, even Watchers, were a little too cautious. “Don’t worry.”

    He nodded again.

    He would worry, of course. They always did. But he was a spy - he was used to this. Unlike others who knew the truth about Slayers.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 17th, 2008

    Jones hadn’t made any move on her. He had been perfectly professional - even distant - when he greeted her. And he had quickly retreated into his office. Without even ordering coffee. And the others on the floor - mostly secretaries - were giving Caridad strange looks.

    That wasn’t a good thing. Then again, she was the Slayer. Not some helpless intern trying to get a better job and unwilling to stand up to the CEO.

    Whom she hadn’t seen so far, either. Nor had she received any orders, other than to be ready to assist him. Great.

    And she couldn’t even take a nap. New interns didn’t do that. Nor did they plunder the snacks in the VIP lounge. Even though no one would miss a handful or two. Probably.

    Nor could she indulge on coffee, except for the cheap free stuff. She sighed, not for the first time, as she fidgeted on her chair.

    Waiting was the worst.

    *****​

    Halfway to noon - she had already snacked on a few energy bars when no one was looking, and on a doughnut (with jelly filling) in the staff break - her desk phone rang. She took the call. “Garcia?”

    “Miss Garcia, this is Lewis. I need you in my office.”

    “On my way, sir!” Caridad picked up her notepad and suppressed the urge to grab a weapon as she stood. She was here undercover. Slaying Lewis wouldn’t help the mission - Nathan would be warned that they had a trace to it. But once they had what they needed… She managed not to bare her teeth, but it took a little effort.

    “Hey! Consuela!”

    Caridad turned her head. That was one of the secretaries from the pool. Bradbury something. “Yes?”

    “Just be calm and polite, and you’ll do fine,” the woman told her with a smile. “Mr Lewis knows it’s your first day. He won’t eat you.”

    Caridad forced herself to smile at the secretary. The woman meant well - even though the Slayer was sure that Lewis would absolutely eat her given a chance. Demons were like that - especially those working with vampires. “Thanks.”

    Bradbury gave her thumb’s up, Cardad nodded in return, and continued towards Lewis’ office.

    “Go straight in,” the executive secretary told her with a slight sneer, “he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

    If the demon wanted her to be quicker, he should’ve given her an office closer to his. Not that she’d mention that. She knocked and opened the door.

    Lewis’s office looked like the typical CEO office in a TV series: Expensive designer furniture including an oversized desk and a black leather chair, latest computer - you couldn’t be friends with Chuck and Morgan without being told about the state of the art in computers every few weeks, at least, so she could tell - and some modern art on the walls. What she didn’t see, though, were family pictures or anything like a personal touch - except for an old dagger apparently serving as a letter opener. “Mr Lewis? You called for me?”

    “Yes, I did. A minute ago.” He flashed his teeth at her.

    She nodded, not sure how to interpret that, and raised her notepad, pen at the ready.

    “No need for notes,” Lewis told her. “I just need a coffee - black, no sugar.”

    “What brand of coffee?”

    “Pick one.” Another toothy smile followed.

    Was that a flaw in his human disguise, or a test? Most people had a favourite type. She nodded anyway. “Yes, sir!”

    She wasn’t a barista, but she knew how to operate a fancy coffee-maker. Picking a brand was a little more difficult - but then, she wasn’t actually an intern anxious to impress the boss, so she picked the most expensive one and made coffee.

    A few minutes later, she presented the cup - a real cup, not a disposable one - to the demon. He sniffed the cup, then sighed. “Ah… good choice.”

    Once more, she nodded. “Do you need anything else, sir?”

    “Ah, yes. Fetch me the Lilander file.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Caridad had to ask the secretary - who was still sneering at her as if the Slayer was angling for her job or something - which file that was, and then spent ten minutes in the archives since the directions she had been given were ‘somewhat less than helpful’, as Phil would have put it.

    But Lewis didn’t even comment on the delay when she returned, motioning to her to wait while the demon studied the file.

    Which took some time. Caridad was soon fidgeting - standing so close to an evil demon, unable to slay it, and nothing to occupy her mind was torture. Slayers weren’t meant for this!

    That the demon made some humming noises every few seconds didn’t help either. Caridad was biting her lower lip to keep from snapping at Lewis when the demon finally put the file down. “Ah.” Again, that toothy smile appeared. “As I thought.”

    She cocked her head. “Yes, sir?”

    “Just an idle thought.” The demon leaned back, tilting its head back as it stretched, and it was all Caridad could do not to growl at the provocative way the demon exposed its throat.

    “Are you nervous?”

    She stood straighter. “A little, sir.”

    “Don’t be. You’re doing well.” Lewis stood. “Quick, eager - I like that in an intern. Or a staff member.”

    She forced herself to smile as he walked around the desk towards her. “Thank you, sir.”

    “Respectful, too.” Lewis sighed and shook his head. “You couldn’t imagine the kind of spoiled brats who sometimes make it past our human resources. Although since Parker took over the department, we’ve had fewer trouble cases. He has a talent for picking interns who fit into our company.”

    Ugh. Caridad kept a smile on her face. She knew what kind of type Jones preferred. And Lewis shared the man’s taste?

    And was he merely interested in impressionable and vulnerable young women as playthings - or did he have other plans? Chuck’s research hadn’t found a string of missing interns, but if the demon was smart - and Lewis was; she knew that - then he could’ve covered his tracks.

    It took an effort, but she kept her bright smile and nodded. “Thank you, sir! I won’t let you down!”

    “I know you won’t. Now fetch me another coffee.”

    “Yes, sir.” She turned and left his office, suppressing the urge to scowl - or sigh - as soon as the door closed behind her. “Mr Lewis wants another coffee,” she told his secretary.

    The woman’s reply was just this side of being rude. Was the woman actually jealous? Or did she know something? Was she implicated? Caridad would have to set Chuck and his Dad on that.

    After fetching coffee for the man.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 17th, 2008

    “...and then he kept me busy fetching coffee and files, and I don’t think he wanted either,” Caridad told the others between munching on a sandwich John had prepared for her. She shrugged. “Don’t know what he wanted to achieve.”

    “Ordering you around is a demonstration of power,” Carina said. “And praising you each time you do something simple is mental manipulation.”

    “Yes,” Kirsten added. “It’s like textbook sexual harassment.”

    “He hasn’t said anything sexual to me,” Caridad retorted. “Nor did he ogle me.”

    “That just means he’s smart about it,” Kirsten replied.

    “Or that he has other, even worse, aims in mind regarding you,” Phil said.

    “Yes! He might want to sacrifice me!” Caridad said, looking for another snack. A Slayer needed food.

    “I haven’t found any missing interns, though…” Chuck trailed off.

    “Yes?” Caridad looked at him.

    “Few interns have stayed at the firm since the takeover,” he said.

    “That would fit a pattern of sexual abuse,” Sarah pointed out. “Any lawsuits?”

    “None.”

    “He could’ve scared them into not saying anything. Or paid them off,” Kirsten said.

    “We haven’t found any payments that would fit that pattern,” Chuck said, “but we haven’t managed to get into all their systems.”

    Caridad frowned. “I’m working on that. I couldn’t do anything today - he kept me too busy.” And the secretary kept her eyes on her.

    “Good.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 17th, 2008

    Caridad could smell the vampire from a dozen yards away. Lurking in the shadows. Looking for prey. Probably hoping for some drunk, or a hobo - or just some stupid guy who was stupid enough or late enough to take a shortcut through a dark alley.

    Well, too bad for the demon, but she was neither. She could fake it, though - just an office worker who had gone out for dinner right after work and was now walking home - or to a bus station. If she’d had headphones, she could’ve made it even more convincing.

    Not that she needed to - she could’ve just rushed in and taken the vamp down. But after a day spent catering to a demon, she needed more than a quick kill. She needed a fight. A brutal, bloody fight.

    So she walked, hips swaying, eyes on her phone while she fake-texted. Half a dozen yards. It was moving now. Changing its stance. Getting ready.

    Would it just pounce? Or would it try to scare and chase her? Or even try to bluff and appear as a homeless beggar? Caridad had seen all three, but in this spot, in the middle of downtown, when it wasn’t yet past midnight… probably pounce straight away - it wouldn’t want its prey to run into the next street.

    Another yard… Ah. It would come from behind. That was a cautious vampire. Good. This might be satisfying, then.

    She heard the air moving as it rushed at her back and whirled, dodging the grasping arms and burying her knee in the monster’s stomach. It made a gurgling noise as it was propelled back, smacking into the wall where it had been hiding.

    Caridad shifted into a basic kickboxing stance. Nothing fancy - her heels were handicap enough. The vampire shook its head - full game face, she noticed - and snarled. “You!”

    “Me!” she replied, flashing her teeth.

    It was smart - she could see how it glanced left and right, looking for an escape route. Not a fledgling, then; those always thought they were unbeatable. But she would be able to intercept it whatever route it took.

    She wriggled her fingers. Come at me, bloodsucker.

    It came at her, snarling and hissing. But it had no combat training - and no experience fighting a Slayer. Caridad dodged two wild swings, jumped over a telegraphed kick and laughed at a tackle attempt. The next time it attacked, she trapped and broke its arm, followed by a kick that shattered its knee.

    And that was it. She could let it drag it out. Let the vampire recover, then beat it down again. No. She was better than that.

    She staked it with a pencil before it knew what happened.

    Then she sighed. Not quite as satisfying as she had hoped, but it had helped vent her frustration.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 17th, 2008

    Caridad was in a better mood when she finally approached ‘Garcia’s’ home - or, rather, the apartment building in which her cover identity had rented a small flat, as Phil would say - backdated a year thanks to Chuck’s hacking. It had been a short fight, but a dead bloodsucker was a dead bloodsucker - one less demon preying on humans. She was even swinging her purse as she crossed the streets, humming a little.

    Then she felt another demony presence. Close. She almost froze but managed to keep going. First rule for a Slayer - well, second, first rule was ‘don’t die’ - was to play the harmless meal when facing vampires and other demons to gain the element of surprise in a battle.

    The demon - a vampire; she could smell the blood as she closed in - was hiding at the corner of the building. A good but not perfect ambush spot; it would have to grab her and drag her into the side alley, and she would show up on the camera covering the building’s entrance.

    The bloodsucker was alone, too - Caridad smiled without showing her teeth. Wasn’t it nice when the vampires came to you? She put a little more spring in her step as she neared the corner. A few more steps and it would pounce.

    It didn’t. From behind? No. She kept going and reached the building entrance, and the demon hadn’t moved at all. What did that mean? Since when didn’t vampires jump helpless victims in dark side alleys? Had the vampire recognised her?

    Or… was this one of Nathan’s? Checking up on the new intern? Damn. That meant she couldn’t climb out of the window and drop on the demon’s head from above.

    Clenching her teeth, she entered the lift, pushing the button to her floor with more force than needed.

    Another demon she couldn’t slay but would have to tolerate - at least until she knew more.

    At least a vampire couldn’t sneak into her apartment - cover identity or not, she was sleeping here and treating it as her home, so any bloodsucker would need an invitation. But… they might be spying on her. And a naive intern wouldn’t expect spies.

    Great. She kept smiling as she left the lift and entered her apartment, kicking her shoes off and grabbing a snack from the fridge before she sat down on her bed. Sleeping while a vampire spied on you...

    This mission couldn’t be over fast enough!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 18th, 2008

    “...and another coffee.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    It was getting harder to stay in-character. And not because Lewis was a demon, its stench filling the office. She could handle that - it had stayed the same since Caridad had started here. But Lewis constantly ordering her around, and her having to smile and bear it, playing the obedient intern, eager to please… it grated. She longed to smash her fists in that smiling face, breaking those gleaming teeth, showing the bastard that she wasn’t some dumb prey but the Slayer.

    But she was on a mission. She could do this.

    Smiling, she walked past the sneering secretary and into the lounge. By now, she could operate the coffee-maker in her sleep and recognise the different brands by touch - well, not quite. But almost. Lewis drank more coffee than a Navy bridge crew, as John would call it.

    She blinked as the cup started to fill. Were there demons that needed caffeine? She’d have to ask Phil. It might be a clue about Lewis’s nature. And it would make slaying it even more satisfying if she could prepare the most painful and effective way to do so.

    Once she had finished her mission, of course. Which she hadn’t. Lewis had been ordering her around all morning, and she had barely had time to grab a snack on the way, much less time to find out where they kept their main servers and the hidden servers Chuck was sure they had.

    The cup was full now. She grabbed it, cleared the machine, took a deep breath, and…

    ...blinked. That was another demon scent. Faint, but it was there. There was another demon in the building - on this floor.

    Forcing herself to smile, she left the lounge. The scent grew stronger. And there was a hint of blood. Old blood - a vampire? Wait… she knew this scent! That was the vampire who had spied on her last night!

    And, judging by how its scent grew stronger the closer she got to Lewis’s office, it was waiting for her with the demon.

    Great.

    She knocked, then opened the door, as she had been told to, and entered smiling. Yes, there was the vampire, in a good suit, standing at the window. Was it unused to the special glass? Relishing in the novelty of actually being able to stand in the sun without burning to ashes? She couldn’t pay too much attention, though.

    “Here’s your coffee, sir,” she said, placing the cup on Lewis’s desk.

    “Thank you.” Lewis took a sip, probably just for show - unless the demon really liked the stuff - and sighed, eyes closed for a moment.

    Caridad suppressed the urge to strike at the apparent opening - she was used to that from frequent visits to Caritas. She kept standing, hands behind her back - ready to throw the pen in her hand at the vampire, should the bloodsucker make a move.

    “Ah, this is Carlos. Carlos Smith,” Lewis said. “Carlos, this is Miss Garcia, my new intern.”

    Not ‘our new intern’? A slip of the tongue, or a claim? Lewis certainly hadn’t let her work for anyone else so far. Which, as Caridad had found out during lunch break with the non-sneering secretaries, wasn’t unusual, but not really common, either.

    “Call me Carlos,” the vampire said, flashing its teeth at her in a smile.

    Caridad managed not to shudder at the stench of old, rotten blood that waved out of the demon’s mouth as she nodded in return. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” she lied. Carlos. Not Nathan - unless it was lying. But she doubted Nathan, even if he were a minion of Lewis, would go on stakeouts. Vampires in its position had fledglings for that.

    The vampire’s smile deepened. “Polite.”

    “Very,” Lewis said.

    “Thank you, sir.” Caridad hoped her strained smile would be taken as nervousness, and not disgust. Talking about her like she wasn’t standing in front of them? She longed to slay both demons and end their stupid power games. Especially since Carlos’s presence indicated that Lewis’s treatment of interns was worse than she had imagined - and she hadn’t been optimistic.

    “Will that be all, sir?” she asked.

    In response, Lewis merely raised his hand without looking at her.

    Caridad settled into waiting, looking out of the window behind Lewis - and tracking Carlos as the vampire started to walk around in the office. The demon was acting as if it was looking at the art on the walls, but Caridad caught him staring at her - which caused it to smile.

    She clenched her teeth and tensed when the demon walked behind her, quickly hiding the pen in her palm. A vampire at her back, stepping closer. Close enough to pounce. Close enough, now, to strike so she wouldn’t be able to react in time… Every fibre of her wanted to whirl and stake the beast.

    But she forced herself to stay still. Trembling a little, but not moving. Not fighting. The demons wouldn’t strike at her in the office. Too many - too many humans - had seen her fetch coffee, knew she was working for Lewis. If she disappeared, there would be an investigation. That wasn’t Lewis’s style, or Chuck would’ve found traces and clues.

    They wouldn’t attack her here, now.

    But if they had recognised her… if they knew that she was the Slayer, that the Council knew about the firm… then they wouldn’t have anything to lose and everything to gain by killing her, would they?

    But she was in disguise. In a good disguise. She didn’t look like the Slayer - she looked, she acted like a nervous, impressionable young intern.

    Carlos walked into her field of vision again, and she tracked it in the corner of her eyes, relaxing slightly. Judging by its grin, it thought she had been nervous, even afraid of it - and not straining against the urge to slay both of the demons in the office.

    “Carlos is an associate of mine. Treat his needs as mine.”

    “Yes, sir.” ‘Needs’? More word games. The demons thought they were being very clever. But they were very predictable. Sort of - Caridad still had no idea about their endgame. But she had a feeling. And it wasn’t a good feeling. Chuck needed to check those former interns again.

    “Good.” Lewis smiled again. “Now fetch us the Kramer building files and return those files.”

    “Yes, sir.” She had fetched the Kramer files twice so far - it was now clear Lewis just wanted to order her around. But for what purpose? Some sick game? He never said ‘please’ or asked for anything - he ordered her around.

    At least she had been able to explore the archives at her pleasure and place one of Chuck’s prepared USB sticks in the server there to upload whatever he had programmed.

    Thinking of that little victory made it easier to smile when she returned with the Kramer files to the office. Carlos was once more staring at the sun outside. Definitely not used to such perks - and Nathan would be, according to all they knew about the vampire. “The Kramer files, sir.”

    “Thank you.” Lewis didn’t even look at her and gestured at the desk.

    Caridad placed the files on it, then took a step back to wait again. The stench of old blood had worsened - no air filtering. “Will that be all, sir?”

    Again, the hand rose. After about a minute, Lewis reached for the files without looking - and ‘accidentally’ pushed them off the desk. Sheets went flying, covering half the carpet in front of the desk - and beneath it.

    And the demon looked at her with raised eyebrows as if this was her fault.

    Flushing - with anger, not embarrassment, as the demon probably thought - Caridad knelt down and started to gather the files. Another stupid power game. And the vampire was staring at her butt.

    She had to take care not to crumple the sheets in her anger, and despite how humiliating it looked, she was glad that she had to crawl under the desk to get the last sheets - she could snarl and sneer there without the demons seeing her face. And she could verify that there was no computer hidden in the man’s desk; she would’ve smelled the electronics and heard the fans.

    She was back to smiling when she pulled back and got up. “I’ve got all of them, but I’ll need to sort them - they got all mixed up, sir.”

    “Use the carpet to spread them out.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    The demon - the demons - must really like to see her on her knees. Was that another hint to the demon’s nature? The only demon-type Caridad knew that got off on such was an incubus, but they… well, they generally weren’t the patient type. Or the managing type. And they tended to dress and act much more…

    Carlos was at her back again. Damn. And Lewis was watching. Her smile felt even more forced as she focused sorting the paper sheets without letting her guard down.

    Then the demon smiled. Widely.

    She froze for a moment. Was he about to attack her?

    But Lewis didn’t move, and Carlos didn’t pounce, either.

    Looking a little flushed, she finally got up and placed the restored file on the desk again. “Here, sir.”

    “Good girl.”

    “Thank you, sir.” ‘Good girl’? She really wanted to smash its face in - she was no dog. “Will that be all, sir?”

    Lewis frowned but looked more amused than actually annoyed. “Are you uncomfortable? Do you need to use the bathroom? You can just say so.”

    “No, sir. I’m fine,” she replied. “I just wanted to check if I was assigned more work from the pool.”

    “No, you weren’t,” the demon told her. “I’ve assigned you to my personal service.”

    “Ah. I mean, thank you, sir,” she lied.

    That complicated matters. Well, she could stay late - or arrive earlier. Perhaps. Her badge would be tracked, but if she had a good excuse…

    “Now fetch me the Miller file.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    She could almost feel the demons’ eyes on her back as she finally left the office. And the secretary was positively seething - what was her major malfunction?

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 18th, 2008

    “Power games. Sick power games,” Chuck said, nodding.

    “Exactly! Like in ‘9 ½ Weeks’,” Morgan added.

    “What?” Caridad stared at him.

    “You know, the movie with Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke?” Morgan cocked his head. “With all the, uh, sex games?”

    “That sounds like a porn movie,” Caridad pointed out.

    “No, no… it was an erotic movie.” But the guy was blushing. Definitely porn. “So, there’s this affair, and the two play erotic games of domination and such, and then he has her crawl over the floor, gathering bills.”

    “Bills?”

    “Money. Anyway… she doesn’t like it, and they break up.”

    “That’s the plot?” She shook her head. “It sounds like porn movies have more plot.”

    “It’s not like that!” Morgan protested. “But… well, that, err, doesn’t matter. It’s a dominance play.”

    “I already knew that,” she told him.

    “Oh.” Morgan coughed. “Anyway - it’s definitely sexual harassment.”

    “I already knew that as well. I need to know if the former interns were turned.”

    Chuck frowned. “Turned? They weren’t reported dead or missing… Oh.” He winced. “If they turned them without anyone noticing…. I need to check their employment and working hours!”

    Caridad had a feeling she already knew what Chuck would find. While he typed away on his laptop with Sarah looking over his shoulder, Caridad went to the kitchen for more food. As she had hoped, John followed her.

    “I don’t like this,” he said.

    “I don’t like it, either,” she replied. “They’re up to something, and I hate waiting for the shoe to drop.” Waiting until she could finally slay the demons - both of them. Caridad could take them both together, anyway. The vamp would be easy to surprise - she could’ve jumped it back on the street in a moment, and it would’ve been dusted before realising she had moved. It wouldn’t be any different in the office, either. Hell - if needed, she could break the windows with the furniture and let the sun fry the bloodsucker. But Lewis… she still had no idea what kind of demon was hiding behind the human facade. Or as human as a CEO could be, at least, she thought with a snort.

    Oh. John was frowning. “Sorry, thought of a joke,” she said.

    He nodded and grabbed a slice of ham and a piece of toast for himself. “They seem to have locked you down as their gopher.”

    “I’ll head in earlier tomorrow, look around,” she told him. “With a little luck, I’ll find Chuck’s hidden server.”

    “Good.” He bit into his sandwich, chewing rapidly. “I don’t like this.”

    She made an agreeing noise as she kept building her own sandwich. More ham, sliced eggs, mustard… more ham… bacon left from breakfast…

    “What if they jump the gun before you find the computer systems?”

    “Then I slay them,” she replied at once. That was a no-brainer.

    He grunted and finished his sandwich. “We should have backup for you ready. Just in case.”

    Her first instinct was to claim she didn’t need any help - she was the Slayer, after all. But by the time she had swallowed the bite she had taken out of her finished sandwich, she had reconsidered. “That would be good.” Just in case Lewis was a stranger demon than expected.

    And knowing John was close would also help with keeping her temper in check.

    They remained in comfortable silence while she finished her sandwich.

    *****​

    “Phil? Do you have any idea about demons needing coffee? Or being into such power games?”

    “I’m afraid I don’t recall either as a characteristic for a specific demon species,” her Watcher replied. “I do remember reading about a few individuals with such proclivities and cravings - although for tea in most cases - but all of them were, to my knowledge, slain before their antics were recorded. Most of them were vampires, too.”

    “Well, Lewis isn’t a vampire. I would’ve smelled that,” she said. No amount of perfume could hide the stench of dead blood from her if she spent hours close by. Which she had.

    “The other case I remember was a Brachen Demon named Cearney. Apparently, the demon led a small cult in Ireland in the waning years of the Roman occupation of England. They had very peculiar customs and rites. Interestingly, Cearney wasn’t killed by the Slayer, or a member of the Council, but by a posse of local Irishmen for seducing their wives and daughters - or so the story goes.” Phil smiled. “It was most certainly exaggerated since the tale wasn’t recorded by an eyewitness.”

    “Well, I don’t think Lewis’s a Brachen Demon,” Caridad told him. “Just too… slick?”

    “I’ll see what I can dig up.” Phil’s smile widened “This is a good example of how good research is still more valid than a digitalised database with a search algorithm. I hardly think the parameter ‘slick’ would produce anything usable other than a list of slime demons.”

    “Willow called about her plans for the archive reorganisation again, didn’t she?” Caridad asked with a grin.

    “She did. As if I would stab Rupert in the back about this. It’s one thing to save copies for posterity, in case we should suffer a repeat of the unfortunate incident a few years ago, but it’s another to trust a computer tool over our own wits. The mind is like a muscle - if it’s not exercised regularly, it’ll grow weak. Sooner or later, we would only look for answers amongst the results of the first search - potentially blinding us to the key needed to save the world!”

    “Well, I think Chuck disagrees,” she pointed out.

    “He isn’t exactly objective,” Phil retorted. “And neither is Miss Rosenberg, given her background.”

    Caridad grinned. “In any case, please look into it. It would be very helpful if it turned out Lewis were vulnerable to say a high heel stuck in his forehead.”

    “Of course. Though, given the general age of demons, I doubt a relatively modern garment could turn out to be an ideal weapon - which is a good thing; I shudder to think what our budget would look like if Miss Summers could claim shoes as weapons.”

    Caridad was still giggling when she left his apartment.

    *****​

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

    As planned, Caridad arrived early at work. The security guard in the lobby was half-asleep but still got up to check her badge - though he was yawning. “Early today, Miss Garcia?”

    “Yes. Late for you?” she replied with a polite smile.

    He nodded. “Just fifteen more minutes, and I can go home.”

    He was already dozing off when the lift arrived in the lobby. Caridad went straight up to her floor - the cameras would be tracking her, so she had to head to her desk as if she were starting work. Not that she actually had had real work so far - just busywork assigned by Lewis to keep her busy and, presumably, in sight of the demon for whatever reasons she wasn’t exactly going into right now. Creep.

    But being kept in the CEO’s office the whole day also gave her a nice excuse to explore before the demon arrived at eight. She logged on, then checked the e-mail she’d had Chuck send through the hacked part of the company’s system. It had set back his search for the fates of her predecessors as interns a little, but it was needed. It would look like an easy mistake, should anyone investigate: A request for a number of files from the archives. And, being early, she could take her time.

    The cameras in the archives weren’t as well-placed as the ones in the lobby and executive floor; for a Slayer, it was easy to dodge them by jumping over the shelves instead of using the passage in the centre.

    Unfortunately, there was no hidden computer here, as she already knew. But that was just the first part of the plan, anyway.

    For the second, she carried the files down to accounting. Thanks to a glitch, she was supposed to bring the files to the IT manager. Who didn’t have any need for them, even if he were present - which he wouldn’t be until eight. But his office was next to the main server room, and a faked stumble had her fall into the door to the server room, pushing it open and spilling the files all over the floor.

    It meant more time spent on her knees, this time with a camera watching her back, but it also let her compare the setup of the present computers to the servers Chuck had found electronically.

    They didn’t quite match.

    Caridad grinned as she slowly, paper by paper, closed in on the one server without a presence in the official computer system of the firm. Now all she needed was to slot Chuck’s USB stick into it, and her mission would be done! And with the camera at her back, she was perfectly placed to do that without anyone being the wiser!

    But she was still half a file and two yards from her target when she heard the door to the floor open and someone mumble: “Damn, it’s too early for this!” under his breath.

    Damn. She could rush this - just grab the papers and slot the stick, damn the cover. But that might warn Nathan - and they couldn’t afford to have the vampire slip through their fingers. Besides, with a little luck…

    “Oh, my God! What happened here?”

    She clenched her teeth for a moment before smiling and turning to address the IT manager staring at her. “Sorry, sir,” she chirped. “I was bringing the files you requested, and stumbled - I’m not used to the heels, yet, I think.”

    “Ah.” It took the man a few seconds to realise what she had said. “The files I requested?”

    “Yes, sir. I got the e-mail this morning.”

    “I didn’t request any files, I don’t think so…”

    Perfect! “Perhaps you could check while I gather the rest of the sheets?” She beamed at him. Just go to your desk and start the computer. All she needed was a minute or two!

    “Oh, but let me help you here, first!” He beamed at her and quickly started gathering up the sheets closest to the mystery server, working towards her.

    Damn.

    *****​
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 10: The CEO
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 10: The CEO

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

    By the time Caridad returned to her desk, she was seething. The IT manager - Albert ‘Al’ Stanson, as he had told her about four times - had kept her at his computer the entire time, trying to ‘clear up’ the glitch. And he hadn’t wanted to accept that it might’ve been a human error. Now, Caridad wasn’t a computer expert or geek, but Chuck was both, and ‘human error’ was by far the most common problem he’d had to solve working at Nerf Herders.

    She would’ve chalked the whole thing up to Stanson wanting to keep a cute girl near him - but the guy hadn’t stared at her nearly enough for that. Just enough to make it impossible for her to sneak away.

    She sighed as she sat down and clicked the button on the compromised mail program, informing John that there had been complications. He wouldn’t like that she had to stay the day now, instead of faking a family emergency to leave. Hell, she didn’t like it, either. Another day with Lewis… She shuddered.

    “You can quit, you know?”

    Caridad looked at the secretary - Mabel - who had said that to her in a low voice. “Hmm?”

    “You don’t have to stick it out no matter what people tell you,” the secretary told her, glancing at the CEO’s office. “Most of our interns quit after a time. At least the ones the boss picked.”

    Ah. So, they did know that Lewis was skeevy. Creepy. Caridad shook her head. “I can do this. It’s easy work, but that’s normal at the start.”

    Mabel shook her head. “That’s what the others said. And they all quit.”

    “They told me that my predecessor won a cruise in the lottery.”

    The secretary snorted. “Yeah, right. The girl was talking about quitting for a week before she did. The management just doesn’t want to admit it to new employees. Or interns.” She leaned over towards Caridad. “Look, you’re better than this. You don’t have to play fetch for the boss - you’re an intern, not a… a pet.”

    “A pet?”

    “You’re fetching coffee and files for him, don’t you?”

    Caridad frowned. “That’s intern work.”

    Mabel shook her head. “You’ll understand soon enough what I mean.”

    Caridad already did. But she had to keep her cover - at least for one more day.

    *****​

    Night had fallen, finally. More importantly, ‘Miss Garcia’s’ workday was officially over. She sat down at her desk, which she had barely seen today, other than when passing it on an errand, and rubbed her calves.

    “You shouldn’t wear such high heels,” Mabel told her.

    “I like high heels,” she replied. It wasn’t as if she was tired - a Slayer could handle far worse. But she had to act the part. “And Mr Lewis said I had to look stylish in case a business partner or client came by.”

    The secretary frowned deeply at that. “You don’t need heels quite so high for that. This is an office, after all. Especially if you’re always fetching things for the boss. You must have walked miles today.”

    She had. Probably. If she had done it without breaks, it would’ve almost been a good Slayer workout, actually. But Lewis liked to have her standing around, waiting for the next order, so Caridad got a lot of breaks. “I can handle it,” she told the woman.

    “If you think so.” Mabel sighed. “Anyway - if anything happens that makes you uncomfortable, talk to me, OK?”

    Caridad nodded. It was good to see someone cared about ‘Miss Garcia’. Most secretaries on the floor ignored her, and Lewis’s secretary still glared and sneered at her whenever she could. “I will.”

    “Good. Until tomorrow, I guess.”

    “Yes. I just need to find a missing sheet before I can go home,” Caridad told her. A sheet she had taken out of the files herself before returning them.”

    “You can do that tomorrow, honey.”

    “No, I can’t - Mr Lewis will have me working around the clock tomorrow again, I bet. And I need to get this sheet today.”

    “If he needs it then he’ll understand that you need to take some time searching for it.”

    Caridad shook her head. “Oh, no, it’s not for him. I mistakenly got a files request this morning from the IT Manager, Mr Stanson. Only he never sent a request. So, I need to find the missing sheet now.”

    “Oh.” For a moment, Caridad feared the woman would offer to help her. That would be the worst. But Mabel looked at her watch, grimaced and sighed again. “Sorry, I would help you search for it, but I need to get my daughter from training.”

    “Don’t worry!” Caridad told her as the woman left the office. “This won’t take long!”

    She just needed to get in, slot the stick in, and get out again with her ‘found’ sheet. Easy. As soon as Stanson finally logged out and left - Caridad absolutely didn’t want to have to deal with him again.

    There! His icon just faded on the list. Good. Give him ten minutes to leave the building… She sent a quick mail to John; he should have the garage exit under surveillance. Better be certain before discovering that he was held up telling the janitor all about his new optimised server O/S.

    She faked reading more mails while the last secretaries left the floor - including Ms Chief Sneerer. Lewis was still logged in, but he had left for dinner, which took him, according to the records Chuck had provided, at least an hour. Plenty of time for Caridad to finish the mission.

    A beep announced that she had mail - advertising spam about a new detergent. Which was the agreed-upon code for ‘clear’. Finally!

    She sighed just for the cameras and walked over to the lift. “Let’s see if we missed anything this morning,” she mumbled as she entered the cabin.

    The way down to the IT floor was excruciatingly slow. Slower than before, in her impression. But she finally arrived. A quick halt to listen. She couldn’t hear anyone breathing much less typing - the coast was clear.

    Grinning, she walked past the empty desk of Stanson the nuisance and entered the server room. Time to crawl again. Sighing, she knelt down and started faking a diligent search under every rig. Lewis would love watching her, the damn creep. Snorting, she made her way towards the target server. Almost there…

    Kneeling with her back to the camera, she licked her lips, then pulled the sheet she had carried under her top out and flipped it under the server. Excuse planted. The USB stick she kept in her palm, then lay down and reached under the server - and around it where the ports were.

    As expected, she held the stick with the wrong side up when she tried it for the first time. That was apparently a law of nature - or computers - according to Chuck. The second attempt worked, though. And she could hear the hard drives starting to spin up as the program on the stick began to work its magic or whatever. It would take a minute, Chuck had said - well, less, actually, but if they wanted to be sure…

    So Caridad played stupid, weak intern trying to get a sheet of paper out from underneath a server for a minute before she went to Stanson’s desk and grabbed a ruler to push the paper out.

    That also served as cover to recover the stick, which she palmed before grabbing the sheet. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “Got it!”

    Mission accomplished!

    “What did you get, Miss Gracia?”

    She froze, gasping. Lewis! The demon was standing at the entrance to the server room! And she hadn’t heard him - how was that possible? She slipped the stick into her top and turned around. “Mr Lewis!” She started to straighten her skirt and top. “I was, ah… there was this glitch in the system, and I got a mistaken files request! It was settled, but I found out that I was missing a page of the file, so I came down to see if we - Mr Stanson helped - had overlooked it this morning. And I found it!” She smiled and held up the sheet. “The missing sheet.”

    “Ah.” Lewis stepped into the server room. “I didn’t hear about it.”

    “Should I have reported it?” She gave the demon her best confused expression. “Mr Stanson said he’d handle it.”

    “Oh? He said that? I guess he would. But I like to keep a close eye on my staff. If you don’t, they tend to get sloppy.”

    He grabbed the sheet and looked it over, walking past her.

    Caridad resisted the urge to turn and keep facing the demon. She was just a nervous, harmless, innocent intern. And she only needed five more minutes to get out of the building with no one the wiser. Then she could call in sick the next day while they hunted down Nathan.

    But hearing, feeling, smelling the demon at her back… she tensed, clenching her teeth. She wanted to slay Lewis so badly…

    “Interesting. And you stayed late for this?” He was standing right behind her.

    She nodded. “Yes, sir! I wanted to have it finished today so I could focus on my work for you tomorrow.”

    “Laudable, indeed. Such dedication is what we’re looking for amongst our staff. Have you eaten yet?”

    “No, sir.”

    “Me neither. I’ll invite you to dinner then - delivery in the office OK?”

    She could claim she had a dinner date. But that would make the demon suspicious - who would stay late when they had a date?

    “I don’t want to impose, sir, you must have plans already,” she said.

    “Oh, no - I actually don’t have any plans. Well, I didn’t have any. Now I have plans for dinner with you.”

    Damn.

    *****​

    “Ah, there you are,” Lewis said when Caridad entered the demon’s office a few minutes later. A menu had been placed on the desk with some Chinese character printed above a picture of a bowl of noodles. “Chinese OK?”

    Caridad nodded. She had been eating Chinese takeout over lunch, so denying it would be suspicious - though was that a lucky guess by Lewis or had he checked surveillance of her? Or was this just another power game and he didn’t care nor knew, and was just dictating the food?

    She couldn’t tell as she dragged a chair to the desk and sat down. Don’t show your strength, she reminded herself. She was a weak, shy intern having a takeout-dinner with the CEO, not a Slayer straining not to rip the demon’s head off.

    A quick glance told her that the selection was rather generic. The house special was about as special as Pizza Margherita in a Pizza delivery service. She didn’t know the restaurant, though, so it wasn’t a big franchise. Which meant it might not be safe…

    She glanced at the window while she faked being torn between ‘Sweet and Sour Pork’ and ‘Chicken Kung Pao’. John was out there. Caridad managed - under the pretext of logging out so she wasn’t eating on company time - to inform him about the change in plans. The spam email about a new TV meant he would be watching - not that she would have expected anything else.

    It was still a comforting thought, somehow.

    “I’ll take Chicken Kung Pao,” she said after a few more seconds.

    “Good choice,” Lewis told her. “I’ll take the Sweet and Sour Pork.” The demon pushed the phone over to her.

    “Yes, sir,” she replied, making the call. The operator on the other end sounded normal, and even with her ears, she didn’t pick up screaming or demony languages or curses. They didn’t check the address, either - they already had Lewis on file, apparently. All in all, the call went as expected.

    “Done, sir.” She pushed the phone back to its usual spot on the desk. “The food should arrive in twenty minutes, according to the restaurant.” Which was very fast for such an order, in her experience - and she not only had a lot of experience ordering takeout in the evening; a Slayer had to eat, after all, but she also had worked as a courier in the city. Lewis was getting really good service.

    “They usually are good at keeping their delivery times - at least when I order,” the demon said, showing white teeth in a wide grin.

    She forced herself to chuckle nervously.

    Lewis nodded with a pleased expression - as if she hadn’t just been polite - and leaned back. “While we wait, tell me about yourself.”

    Caridad almost rolled her eyes. Even Morgan was smoother than this. But Miss Garcia wouldn’t scoff at such a blunt attempt to make conversation. “Well… I was born in a small town down the coast…”

    *****​

    “...and after finishing my degree, I started to look for a job to gain experience, and, well - you know the rest.” Caridad smiled at the demon as she finished reciting her fake life history.

    “Indeed, I know the rest - but this was pretty much your curriculum vitae. What about your private life? What are your plans, your hobbies, your secret desires?”

    Was that supposed to be flirting? Or innuendo? “Uh…” She faked embarrassment. They had kept her backstory simple so she wouldn’t mix things up, but that meant she lacked details. Well, she could fill them in from her own life - edited, of course. She had grown up in a small Californian town, after all. “There’s not much. Get a good job. Get a good apartment. Get a good boyfriend?” She forced herself to laugh at the last part. She had a good boyfriend already, thank you very much.

    “You’re currently single? A cute girl like yourself?” The demon’s eyebrows rose again.

    “Uh… I was focusing on studying and now work.”

    “No torrid affairs with fellow students?”

    She shook her head.

    “No attempts of matchmaking by your best friend?”

    “Uh, no - my best friend didn’t go to college.”

    “You live alone in the city?” Another toothy smile.

    “I was thinking of getting a pet.”

    The smile grew even more. “That’s a good idea - I like pets myself. They demand a lot of time, but it’s so rewarding when you train them well.”

    She had to struggle not to gag at the implication. Or to rip the demon’s head off. “I was thinking of getting a cat. They don’t get trained,” she replied. “They train you.”

    Lewis apparently found that very funny - the demon laughed loudly. But before the demon could expand on that, the phone on his desk rang. Lewis looked at it, then at Caridad. “I believe that’s our food.”

    She answered the call - it was indeed the delivery boy, calling from the entrance. “I’ll be right down,” she told the demon.

    As she stood up, Lewis flicked a number of bills towards her. Most stayed on the desk, but a few ended up on the floor. “Oops.” The demon grinned. “Sorry.”

    She forced herself to smile as she quickly gathered up the money, then left the office. She should’ve mentioned having a relative in the city - that way, she would be able to fake a family emergency to leave right now without arousing suspicion. But she hadn’t and was now stuck eating dinner with a demon.

    The delivery boy was waiting outside and smiled at her. “Hello. Chinese Chow order?”

    “Yes,” she told him, managing not to cringe at the name. He was human - no scent of demon - and wearing a rather ill-fitting uniform. Of course, delivery boys rarely got tailor-made uniforms, so that didn’t have to mean anything. It could be laundry day, or he was filling in for a sick co-worker… and she was thinking like a spy.

    Snorting, she took the food from him and paid him.

    “Is this a new change?” he asked. “Usually, I’m going up to the office floor myself, but this time the guard didn’t let me in.”

    Oh for… She shrugged. “I wouldn’t know,” she told him. “I just started here.”

    “Oh. Well, if it means meeting a cute girl like you, I don’t mind waiting here.”

    She smiled politely - very obviously politely - at him. She wasn’t in any mood for another clumsy attempt at hitting on her.

    He got the message, grimacing slightly. “A, good evening, and thank you for picking Chinese Chow!”

    Caridad nodded in return, then went back inside. At least the food smelled good - but then, as hungry as she was, pretty much any food smelled good.

    *****​

    “Ah, good work,” Lewis greeted her as she returned to the office.

    “Thank you, sir,” she replied. Yes, she was a good dog, fetching food, files and coffee. If all interns were treated like that… She dropped the bag on the table and quickly sorted out the two meals - she really needed food before she ripped off Lewis’s head out of sheer frustration.

    “Mhhh.” The demon made a show of sniffing the dish. “I love the smell of a fresh meal.”

    She forced herself to smile, even though all she wanted was to start eating already - her chopsticks were hovering over her own meal already. “It smells really good.” Not that she’d call it fresh, anyway - it was barely hot enough any more.

    “Indeed.” Another sniff, with closed eyes, followed. She could throw both her chopsticks and pierce the demon’s eyes. If she wanted. Which she did. Very much.

    “It reminds me of my time in Hong Kong.”

    “Oh?” No, not a bloody story. Not now.

    “Oh, yes. It was a few years ago - right after the colony was handed back to China, and everything was in flux.”

    She gripped the chopsticks so hard, she heard them starting to cack. “Oh.”

    “I was starting as a human resource manager at a local investment firm there,” the demon went on. “Not a very challenging job, under the circumstances - so many people were entering the city from the mainland, anyone could be easily replaced.”

    She frowned - was Lewis talking about literal human resources? “Oh,” she repeated herself. “Why did you quit?”

    “I wanted a challenge. And there was a misunderstanding with a local politician’s daughter - she thought that her father’s position earned her preferential treatment.

    “Oh, no.” The food was growing cold in front of her eyes.

    “Oh, I’m sure she learned her lesson. But I had made too many waves, so I left for the West Coast.”

    “And became the CEO here,” she finished for the demon. The End. Now we can eat.

    “Not right away. First, I hired on with...”

    *****​

    “I’m sorry, I got caught up in my sordid past and completely forgot about the food.” Lewis didn’t sound sorry or sincere.

    “It’s OK, sir,” Caridad lied. “It’s still good.” It wasn’t - cold greasy food was yucky - but it was food, and she could finally eat.

    “Good, then.”

    The demon didn’t seem to mind eating cold food at all - but neither did Lewis look as if he enjoyed it. Could the demon even taste food? But according to the delivery boy, Lewis ordered food regularly. Not even a demon would do that for no reason at all.

    “You must have been very hungry.”

    Oops, she was eating a little too fast. She smiled. “I guess so - it’s a little later than I usually eat,” she told Lewis.

    The demon nodded. “Ah. Most of my friends eat later in the evening - or even at night.”

    Caridad bet they did - it was hard to eat early if you have to dodge the sun! “My family used to eat late, too.”

    Lewis nodded. “But you don’t?”

    She shrugged. “I adapted in college.” Slayers ate almost all the time, after all.

    “Adaption. A very useful talent. Adapt or die, as some people say.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Lewis stood and went over to the cabinet on the side, pulling out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. “I like to finish a meal with a little drink.” The demon poured two glasses without asking her if she wanted a shot.

    Caridad could smell the poison inside it before Lewis pushed the glass over to her. Or something, at least - she didn’t recognise it. But she could smell it over the scent of the whiskey. It wasn’t a drug, either - she was quite familiar with those from her patrols in clubs. Probably something demony - it was hard to tell with the demon so close.

    Her first impulse was to throw the glass in Lewis’s face and then slay him. But she was undercover - a spy. She had to think like a spy. So she shook her head and smiled weakly at the demon. “I’m sorry, I don’t drink. Not hard liquor, I mean.”

    “It’s just one shot,” Lewis replied, nudging the glass a little. “You won’t even get tipsy from it.” The demon’s smile was supposed to be friendly, but the teeth ruined it.

    Caridad shook her head again. “Sorry, but I tried it in college, and… it didn’t really agree with me.”

    “The stuff they drink at a college kegger doesn’t compare to this. This is a single malt Scottish whiskey. Smooth as silk, I assure you. It settles the stomach.”

    Was the demon growing a little angry? Was the facade slipping already? Caridad kept shaking her head and pushed the glass back towards Lewis. “Thank you, but no.”

    “I’ve already poured it - it would be such a waste to throw it away. Do you know how expensive it is?”

    “No, sir. But I do know that hard liquor and myself don’t get along with each other.”

    “You haven’t even tried it,” Lewis retorted. “Give it a chance.”

    The demon was getting pushy. Pushier.”I did try whiskey in college.”

    “Cheap booze doesn’t compare to this. Try it!”

    Lewis sounded a little too... intense. The demon was usually smoother. What was…? Caridad tensed up as she heard the lift open on the floor. Someone had arrived. No - there were too many steps. Not just one - two, no three people. Or demons.

    She stood. “I think I better go home, sir,” she said. “It’s getting a little late.”

    The demon’s eyes flashed for a moment. Then Lewis smiled rather cruelly. “You really should have tried the whiskey.”

    That was… Caridad was moving before she could finish her own thought. She put her left hand on the table and jumped, flipping her legs over the desk - and her feet into Lewis’s face before the demon could react. Her heels tore into the demon’s skin as the force of the kick sent Lewis rolling back in its chair.

    She landed where the demon had been sitting and kept turning, her left leg lifting in a spin kick - but Lewis backed off in time to dodge. Getting up from the chair, the demon wiped its face, sneering at the green blood that showed. “You’re not an intern!”

    “What gave it away?” she spat back, baring her teeth as she drew the knife hidden in the small of her back.

    “Your attitude.”

    The three arrivals would reach the office at any moment. Too late to block the door. Caridad grabbed the phone from the desk and threw it at the demon as hard as she could.

    Lewis ducked, but she had expected that. The phone went through the window behind the demon, instead. That would alert John.

    “Do you know how expensive those windows were?” The demon glared at her. “You’ll pay for that!”

    Caridad couldn’t tell if the demon meant it literally. It didn’t matter - she lunged at it, leading with her knife. Lewis laughed, making a grab for it, then screamed when it pierced its hand. Caridad followed up with a kick to the demon’s chest that sent it sprawling, but once again, Lewis backed off too quickly, dodging her next attack by rolling over its shoulder and jumping up into a fighting stance.

    But its hand was smoking - either the silver or cold iron inlays in the blade were hurting it. Caridad grinned and started circling the demon - she needed to put Lewis between her and the door.

    “Cold iron? What are you?”

    “Not ‘what’. Who,” she corrected it as she moved forward again, slashing at the demon with her knife. Lewis jumped to the side and grabbed the chair, holding it up as a shield. It didn’t look smug any more - it was afraid. “Carlos! Help me!” it suddenly yelled.

    Caridad heard the steps outside speed up before the door was kicked open and two figures charged into the room. Vampires, in game face. They seemed surprised at the sight, freezing for a second. Long enough for a bullet to smash into the head of one of them, splattering the wall behind it with blood and bones fragments.

    “What the hell!”

    While the second vampire was staring, Caridad moved. She jumped to the floor, rolling over her shoulder, and came up next to the desk - where she had left her chopsticks. Two quick throws later, both vampires were dusted. That left Lewis and...

    “Slayer!”

    ...Carlos.

    Caridad grinned at the bloodsucker - finally, she could slay it! Both of them!

    “Slayer? That’s a Slayer?” Lewis sounded shocked.

    “The Slayer!” she corrected the demon - she was the Slayer for Los Angeles. She faked an attack with her knife, and, as expected, Lewis backed off. She whirled, turning towards Carlos.

    At the same moment, another shot punched a hole through the window, but missed Carlos - the coward was already fleeing! Damn! They couldn’t leave the vampire to escape and warn Nathan!

    Caridad jumped over the desk, rolled over her shoulder and sprinted after the bloodsucker. As long as she blocked the exit, Lewis wouldn’t escape either.

    Carlos had already reached the lift, but the doors weren’t opening. The vampire looked at her with a snarl, then rushed towards the door to the stairs.

    Caridad grabbed the screen from the secretary’s desk and threw it as she charged ahead. The thing caught Carlos in the back, sending the vampire stumbling, but the bloodsucker managed to catch itself and continue running.

    The vase Caridad sent after it next missed as the vampire ducked, but it slowed the demon down some more - just what she needed! She bared her teeth as Carlos reached the door to the staircase and grabbed the handle. Perfect!

    Caridad jumped over the corner desk - Mabel’s - and grabbed the clothes rack at the wall on the way. Then she threw it, catching the vampire just as it was opening the door. The rack hit its back and smashed it into the door, which fell closed again.

    Caridad was upon it before Carlos could recover and gripped a splinter from the shattered rack. The vampire’s eyes widened a moment before she plunged the stake into its heart. Its mouth moved, but no sound came out in the second it took to turn to dust. One down!

    “Not so smug anymore, are you?” she spat, then turned. She had a creepy demon to slay, still. And she was blocking its escape route!

    An inhuman roar sounded from the CEO’s office, followed by the sound of more windows getting shattered. What the…?

    Caridad clenched her teeth and rushed back through the hallway. What was going on? She reached the doorway and gasped - Lewis had turned into a huge red demon with horns and wings and a tail! And it was about to escape through the window!

    Not on her watch! Caridad jumped on the desk, then pounced, reaching the demon just as it was about to push off. She rammed her knife into its calf, but the demon didn’t stop - roaring with pain, it jumped. Caridad reached for the thing’s tail - and was dragged behind it, out through the shattered window!

    She was hanging from a demon’s tail, up high in the night sky!

    “Slayer!” Lewis roared, and she saw glowing red eyes staring at her.

    “Yes!” she spat back, holding on to the tail with one arm and slashing at the demon’s leg with the other.

    It roared again and took a dive - it was trying to throw her off! Or smash her on the building below while pulling up in the last second!

    Caridad cursed and reeled herself in, using her knife to stab the demon’s backside for more leverage. Lewis couldn’t scrape her off a roof or wall if she was clinging to its back.

    The demon realised it as well since it started trying to hit her with its claws. It didn’t work - Craridad parried the blows easily - the thing couldn’t reach its back with enough force to bother her.

    It could fly erratically, though, and its first loop almost dislodged Caridad. Cursing, she grabbed for its wings. “Get off!” the demon screamed.

    “Not likely!” she retorted - and plunged her knife into its back.

    The roars turned to howls, and the demon started to roll and loop like crazy, frantically trying to make her lose her grip on its wings. But Caridad was the Slayer - she held on with an iron grip and stabbed the thing some more.

    More howling followed. “You’ll kill us both!” Lewis yelled after narrowly missing a crane on a construction site.

    “As long as I’ll kill you!” she screamed back. The demon had been asking for this for days. Oh! Baring her teeth, she twisted on its back, reached around and stabbed its groin.

    Screaming like a banshee, the demon’s wings folded and it plummeted like a rock - and its hands had gone to its wounded groin, pinning her arm in place. Before she could react, the demon hit the concrete roof of the half-built house below.

    *****​

    She came around blinking and confused. What had… Oh! The crash. She had crashed the demon into the roof below but hadn’t managed to get clear in time. Gasping, she got up - and stumbled when she tried to move her right arm. Broken. Definitely broken. As was her phone. Damn.

    And her left leg hurt. As did most of her body - she was covered in concrete dust and hurt all over.

    Snarling, she managed to walk - her leg wasn’t broken. Just bruised. She couldn’t see her knife. But she could see the demon, impaled on some mangled construction machine, twitching and groaning in the middle of the roof.

    Chuckling - once, her ribs hurt too much - she staggered towards it, grabbing a loose piece of rebar on the way.

    “Slayer…” Lewis groaned weakly as she reached it.

    “Yes,” she replied.

    And started to bash its head in.

    Unfortunately, the rebar wasn’t cold iron, just plain steel, and so while a few blows did cave in the monster’s skull and spread its brains over the concrete roof, the demon didn’t die. Caridad could see it regenerating. Not instantly, like some really annoying demons, but faster than a vampire would have taken. Which wasn’t just gross, but also a problem. The only cold iron weapon she had with her was her knife - which she currently didn’t have any more.

    Caridad glanced around but couldn’t see any sign of the blade. She whacked the monster again, this time letting the rebar stuck in its skull, and started searching the area around them. She’d been holding it - stuck in the demon’s groin - when they had hit the roof, so it couldn’t have been thrown too far, could it?

    But there was no knife near or under the demon. Which was groaning again. She ripped the rebar out and smashed its skull to bits once more. Annoying indeed.

    There was rubble around as well, and a mangled construction machine. A small knife could be hidden beneath either easily. Or even crushed. Not that that would matter - with the demon’s brains being spread across the roof every other minute or so, Caridad didn’t really need a working blade to kill it, just cold iron. Or silver, if the demon had been smart enough to lie about which metal hurt it.

    Once more, the demon groaned. And twitched. Was it regenerating more quickly? Caridad took a little longer to pulp its head this time, before looking for the knife again.

    Yes, the monster definitely was regenerating more quickly. Damn. That meant she was running out of time. Would be running out of time sooner or later. She really needed that stupid knife!

    But it wasn’t under the rubble. And it wasn’t under the remains of the construction machine. What if it had been thrown off the roof? That would be… Caridad wouldn’t be able to descend, grab the knife if she spotted it at once and return to the roof before the demon fully recovered. Certainly not wounded as she was.

    Perhaps she could drive a few more pieces of rebar through the demon, pin it in place? It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was better than nothing. It wasn’t as if she had many alternatives. Not with her phone broken. She couldn’t even…

    She froze. Someone was on the stairs, coming up to the roof. Towards her. And she was standing next to a demon the size of a grizzly bear. Without a camera around to provide an excuse.

    Damn. Damn. Damn. This would… wait. “Who’s there?” she called out.

    “It’s me.”

    She sighed with relief. John! He must have tracked their - fortunately - short flight. “Hurry! I need a cold iron weapon!” she yelled.

    He started sprinting; she could hear him running before she bashed the demon’s head in again. Good.

    “What the hell!”

    “John! Do you have a cold iron knife? Or something?” He should have one, but you never knew.

    He stopped staring at the demon, shook his head and came over, drawing a dagger from a sheath at the small of his back.

    She all but ripped it out of his hands and started slicing the thing’s head off.

    “You’re hurt!”

    “Not much,” she retorted, grinding her teeth - the demon’s throat was tougher than she had expected.

    “You can’t use your arm.”

    “I don’t need both arms to kill this thing!” She didn’t - she was almost through its spine. “There!” She grinned as she cut through the last part of the demon’s skin, and the head separated from its body. She buried the knife in the demon’s brain for good measure.

    “It looks like the devil himself,” John said.

    “That species was probably behind some of the legends,” she said. The thing certainly fit the descriptions. And Lewis’s behaviour, now that she thought of it, fit the stories as well. Though it also matched the behaviour of a number of CEOs abusing their power…

    “It’s turning grey,” John said.

    “Oh, good!” That was a good sign. Not quite as convenient as a vampire turning to dust, but if the demon started to decay rapidly, that would help with covering up the whole incident.

    She winced. Phil wouldn’t be happy.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 19th, 2008

    “...and then it turned grey, then started to rot. We gathered the bones and the remains. They’re in the bag there,” Caridad finished her report.

    “Stay still. I still need to check your arm.” Phil wasn’t happy, indeed.

    “John splinted it,” she told her Watcher.

    “And I’ll check it,” he retorted, narrowing his eyes at her.

    “OK!” she replied, wincing. There was no arguing when he was in that mood. Even John didn’t speak up to defend his handwork.

    Then she winced again when Phil started poking her broken arm. To distract herself, she asked: “Did Chuck find Nathan’s hideout yet?” They were on a timer now, after all. She didn’t know when Carlos would’ve been expected to return to wherever Nathan had its lair, but odds were that if the vampire didn’t return by dawn, Nathan would suspect something and bail - the damned bloodsucker was like that.

    “He’s working on it,” Phil told her, then pulled on her arm.

    “Work faster, Chuck!” she yelled instead of yelping at the sudden pain.

    “It looks like a clean break. But we’ll have a proper examination done tomorrow, at the clinic,” Phil finally said.

    “Tomorrow?” John asked. He wasn’t hovering, which was good because Caridad was fine, but he was close.

    “I expect we might have to move on Nathan before that - provided Chuck finds the vampire’s location.”

    Yes, Phil definitely wasn’t happy. Neither was John.

    But it wasn’t Caridad’s fault! Not this time!

    *****​
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 11: The Vampire’s Villa
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 11: The Vampire’s Villa

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 20th, 2008

    “I’ve got it!”

    Caridad opened her eyes. That was Chuck! He must have found Nathan!

    She rolled off the bed - carefully without jostling her broken arm - and walked towards the living room. It was already past midnight, she noticed - Chuck must have taken longer than she had expected.

    “You did?” she asked.

    He turned towards, leaning forward a little so he could look past Sarah, who was sitting next to him at the table. “Uh, I found records for a villa sold to a client that doesn’t show up in any official records - and which had the same enchanted windows installed that Lewis had.”

    The ones that protected vampires against the sun. Only bloodsuckers would want them. Or friends of vampires who had them over for visits.

    “Could be another demon,” John said - he had stayed up, Caridad noted. Probably hadn’t slept at all.

    “Theoretically, yes, but…” Chuck spun the laptop around to show the screen to the others. “...the timing of the purchase fits our estimates for Nathan’s arrival. And the financial ties between Lewis and his client are very close. But most importantly, the mobile phone ‘Carlos’ was using was located in that villa almost constantly for the last several months.”

    “Carlos had had a phone?” Caridad didn’t remember seeing any before she staked the vampire.

    “Yes - I tracked it through the records of the closest cell tower; it went offline by the time you dusted the vampire,” Chuck explained. “And the records matched his earlier visit.”

    “Ah.”

    “Good enough,” John commented.

    “Impressive deduction,” Phil added with a smile. “Although the villa could belong to Carlos instead.”

    “Theoretically,” Chuck admitted.

    Caridad shook her head. “No. That’s too big for a flunkie’s lair. He could be a straw man, but I bet Nathan lives there. Unlives there.”

    “Uh, yes. At the very least, it’s a hotspot for phones, so to speak - lots of phones connect there, and they’re mostly active at night,” Chuck went on. “And they are either burner phones or use fake IDs.”

    “What if it was Carlo’s villa, and Nathan is the strawman?” Sarah asked.

    “That’s also a possibility, however remote,” Phil admitted. “Which would mean the master vampire was already slain.”

    Caridad shook her head again. “Carlos didn’t strike me as the top vampire of such an organisation. Not strong or smooth enough.” Too easy to slay, actually. “And I don’t think Nathan would go on stakeouts, like Carlos did. Who does it officially belong to?”

    “Neil Graham,” Chuck told her. A picture appeared on the screen. A driver’s license. A man, pale, about 40. Was that Nathan? Caridad clenched her teeth. The man - the vampire - looked smug enough to be a master vampire, at least.

    “In any case, it’s our best bet - and we need to strike quickly, lest Nathan realises that Carlos and Lewis have been slain,” Phil told them.

    “He might already know,” Caridad said, frowning. “The fight wasn’t exactly discreet.” Which totally hadn’t been her fault.

    “It didn’t make the news,” Sarah told her. “Except for a brief piece about illegal fireworks being set off in the city, and a warning about the risk of fires being started by such behaviour.”

    “Ah.” That was good. That meant they would be able to catch the vampire unaware - if they struck quickly.

    “Nathan won’t be an easy mark,” Chuck said. “There’ll be traps and other surprises.”

    “A vampire like him will have at least two escape plans,” Morgan added. “One through the sewers, and one topside.”

    “If we strike at night the demon can flee on foot without worrying about the sun, which greatly increases the difficulty of catching the demon,” Phil said.

    “We can’t wait until dawn,” Caridad protested. “Carlos will be expected to return before that.”

    “Uh, yes - the past movement pattern of his phone would indicate that as well,” Chuck confirmed.

    “So we’ll have to fight vampires at night?” Carina spoke up for the first time.

    “Goodie!” Harmony chimed in with a smile. “I won’t, like, risk getting dusted by the sun!”

    Only by whatever defences Nathan would have prepared, Caridad thought, suppressing a snort. “So, what’s the plan?” she asked. With her missing the use of one arm - even Slayer healing wasn’t enough to knit bones together in a few hours, at least not with that kind of break - they needed a decent plan going up against a lair like this.

    “Well, we’ve got a few ideas…” Chuck grinned. As did Morgan.

    Caridad wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. She glanced at John, who was pressing his lips together but not berating the two. So, he wasn’t sure himself, either.

    But Phil nodded. “Indeed. I believe we can compensate for the limits imposed by your wounds.”

    Caridad frowned. She had a broken arm; that was all. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t fight at all. She could still mow down any number of vampires.

    But Morgan’s grin widened. “Oh, yes! We’ve worked it all out.” He spread a map over the table, pushing a fortunately empty cup off it without noticing. “These are the main points of entry - and exit - which we will have to cover. And this is how we can do it. We need…”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Bel Air, June 20th, 2008

    “This is, like, so weird. I mean, I’m, like, a vampire, and I’m going to fight the other vampires with the Slayer. Or is that a Slayer? It’s kinda confusing, what with all the Slayers. Or should that be all Slayers? Is that, like, a word?”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. If the stupid bloodsucker didn’t shut up any time soon… “Be quiet,” she whispered. “We’re close to the target area.”

    “Oh, we are? I, like, didn’t realise - all those sewers look the same. Did you, like, smell them? I am so glad I don’t have to breathe, you know?”

    “No, I didn’t smell them - I can read a map,” Caridad retorted.

    “You’ve got a map? But I, like, didn’t see any… oh! Is this like a heads-up map? Only you can see it?”

    “No, I memorised the map.” And she had it in her pocket, in case they did get lost - not that this was likely since the sewers here were laid out pretty straight-forward. Totally unlike the maze under the Buy More.

    “Wow! I, like, never managed that - I always got lost when I didn’t have a map.” The vampire paused. “I always got lost with a map, too, though.”

    Caridad wished the stupid vampire would get lost right now. “Just follow my lead,” she spat. “And be quiet now!”

    “Yes! Quiet as a grave - though, like the occupied graves aren’t, like, really quiet, you know? Spikey had a crypt, and it was, like, pretty loud when he threw a party. We’ve had some real fun, you know?”

    “Shut up before they hear us!” Caridad hissed. “Or I’ll gag you - with a stake.”

    Harmony gasped. “You wouldn’t do that! Would you?”

    Caridad flashed her teeth at the bloodsucker, and the idiot finally fell silent.

    She should have never agreed to this plan. ‘We’ll cut off any escape on top, and you ambush the fleeing vampires underground’ - yeah, right. Caridad didn’t miss that she was the one stuck with Harmony the braindead bloodsucker while everyone else was above ground. She should’ve taken John and a flamethrower with her…

    But they had reached the border of the area Nathan’s villa occupied, and now they had to find the secret escape tunnel the vampire would have dug. It couldn’t be too difficult to find - Chuck had analysed the underground, and there were only a few ways to dig such a tunnel in the time the villa had been in the vampire’s possession. And only one now conveniently defunct construction firm involved in renovating the villa with experience in tunnelling.

    All Caridad had to do was to find the tunnel. And she would find it. No matter how clever the vampire was - you couldn’t hide an entire escape tunnel from a Slayer.

    She held up her hand. “Stay here and be quiet.” Then she knelt down and looked around. If Nathan used the closest route to the sewers, he’d hit this spot. She started knocking on the walls, listening to the sound. Solid. No sign of a hollow space behind it. No hint of a breeze or a scent that didn’t smell like a sewer.

    Then again, she hadn’t expected Nathan to take the most direct route - the vampire was clever and would try something more underhanded. Something more complicated - and yet more convenient, too, probably.

    She moved ahead. The next potential location was closer to a t-junction - three ways to flee, which would throw off pursuit - especially if the vampire sent some fledglings or other minions down the tunnels he didn’t use to flee.

    And there was a breeze just above the ground. And a hollow space behind the wall. But this wouldn’t be the escape tunnel - too obvious.

    “Is that it?” Harmony whispered.

    “Yes,” Caridad replied in a low voice. “One of the tunnels, at least.” Vampires needed a way to come and go underground during the day. “This is the main entrance for them; Nathan will have an escape tunnel ready as well.”

    “Oh. Two tunnels? That’s, like, clever!”

    And they had discussed this at the briefing. Not that the vampire would remember. “Yes,” Caridad said. But it wouldn’t save the bloodsucker. “Let’s trap this one. Hand me the C-4.”

    “That’s, like, the plastic blocks? Like playdoh!”

    If John were here, he’d stake Harmony himself, Caridad was sure.

    The third location was more remote, yet still close enough to this junction. There was no breeze - Nathan would likely keep this one sealed and secret until it was needed. But the hollow space behind the wall was obvious - if you had a Slayer’s ears.

    Now they just had to figure out how to open it. They could blow it open, in a pinch, but that would warn Nathan. And while Caridad trusted the others, vampires were dangerous - especially at night. It would be better if she faced the bloodsucker down here.

    And she really wanted to slay the bastard herself, too. He had fooled her for too long - this was a matter of personal pride.

    “What if, like, it can only be opened from the inside? Like the emergency exits in a club?”

    That was likely, Caridad had to admit. And there wasn’t much they could do about it - blowing it open it was. Though they would have to wait until the clothes were ready. Caridad quickly placed some wall-blowing charges John had prepared in advance for her on the location.

    And now she’d have to wait some more. Communications didn’t work well in the sewers - Chuck had talked installing a ‘cell tower lite’, but all he had managed to put together was a series of wifi-repeaters - and the connections were barely enough for texting.

    Caridad sent her text anyway.

    in position.

    The reply was quick.

    check, in position.

    Good. The villa was locked down, then - Nathan wouldn’t escape. All they had to do was…

    She froze for a moment. Someone was coming - she could hear footsteps in the sewers! Cursing under her breath, she put a finger to her lips and glared at Harmony, then started moving. Back towards the underground entrance she had trapped. It looked like some of the stupid bloodsuckers were returning late.

    Two of them, she saw as soon as she rounded the last corner. A thrown stake dusted the first one while it was about to reach for the lever which opened the hidden door. The second vampire shrieked and turned to run - which only made nailing its heart with another stake from behind easier.

    Two down, mission… no! A third set of steps - running away. Caridad cursed again, louder this time, and started sprinting. This wasn’t going well. With one arm in a sling, taped up, she couldn’t run as fast as she usually was.

    Even worse, the bloodsucker had a head start - if she didn’t catch up quickly, she would lose its tracks. No time for subtlety. She pushed herself as fast as she could go, jumping over the canal in the middle until she arrived at another t-junction. Holding her breath, she listened. Left.

    Snarling, she sped after the monster again. Another demon would’ve been panting by now - she was breathing more heavily - but undead demons didn’t need to breathe to run. Over time, a vampire could outrun anything - but the bloodsucker didn’t have the time.

    As she turned the next corner, she caught a glimpse of a long coat. Baring her teeth, she pushed on. Two more corners brought her even closer - and then they were in a long tunnel without any cover.

    Her throwing spike nailed the vampire’s foot, causing it to stumble - and fall into the dirty water in the middle of the tunnel. Was it trying to escape underwater?

    Not on her watch! Caridad dashed forward, then jumped, coming down on the vampires back with both boots. The water slowed her down enough so she didn’t break the monster’s spine, but it was pinned in place.

    Before it could recover, Caridad bent down and slashed at the demon’s neck with her short sword. It took two tries, but the head came off, disappearing in the water. Hah!

    Then the corpse dusted under her feet, and she stumbled when she suddenly lost her footing.

    *****​

    “There you are! Did you get the...? Oh my God! Was it a swamp monster? You look like you fell… Oh.” Harmony fell silent.

    “I didn’t fall into the water,” Caridad spat. It was true - she had lost her footing, but she had recovered. “But the vampire tried to hide underwater.” Which was also true. In a way.

    “Oh, and you had, like, to jump in to catch them? Ew!”

    Caridad narrowed her eyes at Harmony. “Yes. Now be quiet.”

    At least her cell phone was still working - Slayer phones were made, or enchanted, to last. She texted the others again:

    Caught 3 l8tcmers.

    Then the answer arrived:

    Be ready.

    She was ready!

    She just didn’t want to wait any longer. More vampires might arrive - which, actually, was a good thing; the more bloodsuckers they could catch in one place, the better. But the real objective was Nathan. That slippery vampire had to be dusted today - Caridad could deal with the minions later.

    Dawn was half an hour away - would a vampire cut it so close? Fledglings might - they were stupid. But Nathan wouldn’t have stupid fledglings coming to this place - that would endanger the entire lair. No, those vampires would play it safe.

    Probably.

    Her phone vibrated.

    Go.

    Yes! “It’s go-time,” she told Harmony. The others would now start with the firebombing. And the firewalls. They hadn’t stolen a tanker for this, but they had enough fuel with them to burn down two villas this size. And no vampire would escape this time. “Stay back.”

    “Can’t we just, like, wait here until they try to flee?”

    “There might be captives in the villa.”

    “Oh.”

    Caridad triggered the charges, and the wall vanished in a cloud of smoke and concrete dust, revealing a rough tunnel behind it. Perfect!

    Caridad grinned and dashed inside, sword drawn. Nathan wouldn’t escape again. She’d cut off the vampire’s head herself. Just as she had taken Lewis’s.

    The cloud of dust and smoke was thinning, but it had billowed back into the tunnel quite a way, obscuring the ground as it settled. Caridad sprinted forward - she didn’t care to inhale more dust and smoke; the air was bad rough in the city, Slayer healing or not.

    Behind her, she heard Harmony yelp, followed by the sound of a dumb bloodsucker hitting the ground. Caridad smirked - not everyone could run in heels as well as a Slayer, especially on uneven ground like this. Payback for the mud crack.

    She didn’t stop or slow down, of course - Nathan wouldn’t escape. Not again. Harmony would just have to catch up on her own. She could already see the other end of the tunnel. A solid metal door. That would probably...

    In the dim light, she almost missed the tripwire on the ground. At the last moment, she managed to jump, awkwardly, over it, landing on the ground in a roll over her good shoulder that almost made her lose her sword and jostled her broken arm.

    She clenched her teeth, ignoring the pain, and whirled around, checking. Yes, there was a tripwire. What kind of bastard trapped their escape tunnel? Nathan, of course. But… she quickly looked around, What kind of trap was it? No pit. And she doubted that the vampire would’ve installed some spear traps or something out of a game.

    That left explosives. The packed earth forming much of the tunnel could easily hide a bomb. And if the escape tunnel was invaded, it was useless anyway, so blowing it up wouldn’t hurt Nathan… She gasped. If Nathan had heard her own charges going off, would he assume it was his own bomb? Of course he would!

    “There you are!”

    And Harmony had arrived. “Watch out - there’s a trap here!” Caridad told the vampire

    “A trap? Like, a trap?”

    “Tripwire and bomb. Don’t step on it.” Caridad turned and started running again. Nathan wouldn’t try to use the tunnel - either tunnel - now. That meant he’d flee up top.

    “But…”

    Caridad didn’t listen. She was running again - though not quite as fast; who knew if there were more traps ahead?

    But she reached the door without spotting - or triggering - another trap. The door itself wasn’t trapped either, as far as she could tell - but it was locked. And, as Caridad had expected now, like an emergency door, it couldn’t be opened from this side.

    More door charges, then. It was a good thing John had insisted on packing a number of them. She quickly placed them, then withdrew.

    “Hah! Caught up to… ack!”

    Caridad dragged the stupid vampire with her, then forced her on the ground before she triggered the door charges.

    The explosion cut off Harmony’s complaints, and Caridad was moving before the vampire could change tack. Nathan was in the building, trying to get out. Probably trying to escape by car - what with the sun rising soon. And Caridad knew where the garage was. The others had rocket launchers at the read to stop a breakout in a car, but that had failed in the past. And Caridad really wanted to dust Nathan herself.

    She jumped through the smoking hole left by her explosives and found herself in the basement of the villa - in a wine cellar. How cliche! She dashed to the door - not locked. She kicked it open, then stepped through, slashing with her sword to get anyone trying to ambush her - but her blade only met air; the hallway was empty.

    But she could hear screaming. People - no, bloodsuckers - panicking. From further ahead - past the stairs leading up to the ground floor. Then she heard a faint explosion, and the ground shook - that must have been the first tunnel she had trapped.

    “We’re trapped! They’ve collapsed the tunnel!”

    “There’s another! Follow me!”

    Caridad bared her teeth. She had no time for minions - but she didn’t want to let them escape, either.

    “Why are you, like, always running ahead?”

    Instead of answering Harmony, Caridad moved ahead. She could hear two vampires running towards her.

    “What are you doing?”

    “Shh!”

    But it was too late - the others stopped running.

    “Someone’s there!”

    “It’s a trap!”

    Snarling, Caridad kicked the door open. “Cover the stairs!” she yelled at the idiot and went inside.

    Two vampires faced her in what looked like a party room - lots of cushions, small tables, and couches. It would’ve looked cosy if not for the bloodstains on the floor, and the smell… Baring her teeth, Caridad lunged.

    The first vampire backpedalled, but wasn’t fast enough - her lunge nailed its foot to the floor, making it fall down, and Caridad ripped the sword out and cut off its head before it could recover.

    The other tried to dash past her, out of the room. It almost made it - but she caught up to it at the door, skewering its spine from behind. The bloodsucker collapsed, and she lopped off its head as well.

    She glanced at the stairs, then clenched her teeth. If more vampires were down here… Cursing, she dashed forward, to the other door in the room. She had to hurry.

    Empty hallway - stairs to one side, open door on the other side. That would be the entrance to the other tunnel. She took a quick look - the tunnel was empty up to the collapsed part - then ran up the stairs.

    On the ground floor, she could spot - and smell - the fires outside. And her radio worked here. “I’m inside. Basement clear. No prisoners.”

    “Two tried to run; didn’t make it past the fire,” John replied.

    Nathan wouldn’t have made such a mistake; must have been expendable minions.

    “The fire brigade is five minutes out, guys! We need to hurry!” Chuck informed her.

    “Nathan must be trying to get out with a car,” she said, moving through the vampire’s living room.

    “We’ve got the roads covered with caltrops!” Morgan’s voice sounded through the radio.

    That would slow the bastard down, but wouldn’t stop an armoured car. “Headed to the garage,” she snapped. The vampire had to be there!

    “Something’s moving on the balcony. It looks like...” Sarah told them.

    “The garage door is opening!” Morgan interrupted her. “Get the rocket launcher ready!”

    “Moving to intercept!” Caridad wouldn’t let the bastard escape. Not after all she had gone through. She sped through the hallway, then the mudroom, as Phil had called it, and kicked the door leading into the garage open - only to see two SUVs leaving. No!

    “Cars are out, headed for the gate!” John reported. “Gate’s opening. Taking the shot.”

    Caridad cursed but jumped back into the house. A moment later, she heard an explosion outside.

    “Missed. Evasive driver.”

    “NO!” Caridad yelled, sprinting outside. This couldn’t be happening!

    She saw the SUV in front driving straight at the burning car blocking the gate as the second SUV swerved around the smoking crater left by the missile.

    The car loaded with explosives.

    Caridad threw herself behind a heavy planter. “Blow them up!”

    The explosives went off just as the SUV rammed into the burning junker, and both cars, as well as the gate, vanished in a fireball.

    But the second SUV didn’t even slow down - the car drove straight through the inferno.

    “They’re in the caltrops!”

    “They’re still going!”

    “Firing!” John spat.

    This time, Caridad saw the missile streak down from John’s position. But the wall and smoke hid the explosion from her view.

    “Hit!”

    “Yes!” Morgan yelled. But a moment later - Caridad was running towards the gate and couldn’t see through the smoke left from the bomb - he added: “No! They’re still moving - how can they still be moving?”

    Caridad rushed to the gate, jumping over the wall, past the smoke. Yes, the SUV was still moving - battered, with one wheel wrecked, but still moving. “What the hell?”

    “They’re, like, people on the balcony!”

    Caridad ignored the stupid bloodsucker and sprinted after the SUV. She couldn’t outrun a speeding car - but a damaged one? Weighing tons? Caltrops didn’t slow her down!

    “Changing position!” John snapped. That meant he’d move to the other side of the roof, trying to get another shot off. Too slow, though. And the rifles and flamethrowers the others had wouldn’t stop the tank posing as an SUV.

    It was up to her.

    Clenching her teeth, she cut across the street. The SUV had to take the turn around the villa there - but a Slayer could dash across it, cutting the car off.

    “Guys! They’re, like, trying to climb down!”

    “Shoot them!” John’s voice rang out.

    Caridad cursed under her breath and jumped over the wall. She landed on the lawn behind it and kept going, running past the house, and past the pool in the back. Lights went on - the security system belatedly reacting to her movement - but she was already charging the wall in the back. A short sprint and she jumped over this one as well, landing in a crouch on the road behind it - where the SUV was turning the corner.

    Baring her teeth, she stepped in the middle of the road, sword in hand. If only she had two working arms! But she’d manage.

    As the SUV accelerated, coming straight at her, she threw the sword in the air, then quick-drew her pistol and started firing.

    One second.

    Her shots started hitting the armoured glass in front of the driver.

    Two seconds.

    Her gun ran dry. She dropped it and caught the sword coming down.

    Three seconds.

    She threw the sword, straight ahead, and jumped to the side.

    The blade went through the weakened windshield and into the driver, and the SUV swerved, then crashed into a parked car as Caridad rolled over her good shoulder and came up again. Hah!

    She drew her long knife and ran towards the SUV. Time to end this!

    Before she reached the car, the door in the back was kicked open from the inside, and a figure crawled out. No, a vampire - it bared its fangs at her. And it wore a battered suit.

    She recognised the face from the fake ID Chuck had dug up.

    “Nathan!” She grinned at the bloodsucker and charged it. Nathan was shifting into an amateurish stance - like a 19th-century British boxer in a comedy. She would slide beneath its haymaker and cut the tendons in its legs, then finish it off on the ground with a stake to the…

    The vampire was suddenly jostled to the side, stumbling a few steps, and Caridad’s eyes widened. There was nothing, but she felt something… She threw herself to the side, going low, and felt a brush of air as something barely missed her head, then a tug as her radio headset was torn off.

    An invisible demon! She rolled to the side, grunting at the pain it caused in her broken arm, and came up in a crouch, blade held out in front of her.

    This was bad. She could feel where the monster was, but that wouldn’t tell her what it was doing - no way to block a strike like that. She had to keep her distance. And keep moving.

    And Nathan was trying to escape!

    Snarling, she ran to the side, away from the invisible monster, and resheathed her knife before pulling out throwing spikes. Her first spike missed, but the next hit the vampire’s knee and sent it to the ground. Now a spike into its throat, and…

    A blow - a kick - hit her thigh and she tumbled to the side, almost crashing into the wrecked car. Caridad threw a throwing spike towards the invisible demon to keep it from following up on the attack, then backflipped over the car’s hood. Nathan was getting up - the vampire had ripped out her throwing spike.

    That couldn’t be allowed. She dashed towards the bloodsucker, raising her knife to slash at its head… and heard gravel getting crushed behind her.

    Once more, she dived to the side, rolling over the asphalt and hurting her arm, but the invisible demon missed her by inches or something. She rolled over her shoulder, got her feet under her, and pushed off like a sprinter at the start of a race. Nathan was just turning to flee across the street when she struck the vampire from behind, her knife ripping through its shoulder as the bloodsucker managed to dodge to the side at the last moment.

    Caridad kept going - the invisible demon would be coming for her and ran across the street - there was a hydrant there! She kicked it as hard as she could - and the thing broke! A fountain of water erupted from it, quickly forming a growing puddle on the road.

    Nathan was still on the ground, holding its wrecked shoulder and hissing at her. A throwing spike to the forehead shut it up. The real threat was the invisible demon. And with the water on the street, she would be able to spot it moving.

    But the monster didn’t enter the puddle - damn! It would try to escape with Nathan! As predicted, Nathan was suddenly being carried by what looked like empty air. Snarling, Caridad dashed towards the two - if the demon was carrying Nathan, it wouldn’t be able to fight well.

    But before she was halfway across the road, several shots rang out, and Nathan dropped to the ground - covered in green blood. John must have set up another shooting position!

    She couldn’t talk to him - she had to trust him to keep shooting the invisible demon. But would he? Or would he go for the vampire, the mission’s objective?

    No, he knew what she was after. Clenching her teeth, she dashed towards the groaning vampire.

    More shots rang out. More green blood splattered the road. Perfect. Nathan was turning to face her, the throwing spike dropping to the ground, but the bloodsucker was too slow. She faked a dodge, then jumped, kicking out with both feet.

    Her boots - one ruined by the hydrant - hit its face and slammed it back, almost flipping it over before it hit the ground. She landed on her feet, slid a yard as she turned, then was on the groaning monster in a heartbeat. Her next blow cut off the hand it raised to block her, followed by a kick that broke its other arm - and spun it around.

    She dropped to a knee, reached around its neck - and drew the blade along its throat in a wide arc. The leverage and angle were not enough to decapitate it, but with its throat opened, it collapsed - and Caridad rammed her knife into its back, severing its spine, before it could recover.

    She let the knife stuck in there and drew a stake - and noticed that John had stopped firing. He must be reloading, she realised as her stake came down, straight through Nathan’s heart. And that meant…

    Something hit her side, and she found herself flying through the air, then crashing on the street, rolling over the asphalt before coming to a stop in a puddle of water.

    Then the pain hit.

    Several broken ribs - her chest felt on fire every time she took a breath. And her ears were ringing. Nevertheless, she got up. Her knife was still stuck - no! It was gone; dusted with the vampire!

    Snarling - if she hadn’t been hit, she would’ve pulled out the knife in time - she looked around. If the monster attacked her, she would notice the footsteps in the water. Short notice, but it would have to do.

    And it was wounded - or was it healing already? She couldn’t see any fresh blood trails. And the demon wouldn’t leave; if it wanted to, it would have done so instead of attacking her. She bared her teeth - this was personal. For both of them.

    Good.

    She drew more throwing spikes - three, all she had left. Better than nothing, but she needed a real weapon. Oh! The sword! It was still stuck in the driver’s seat of the car - it must have dusted the driver by beheading it.

    But to reach the car she would have to leave the puddle - or wait until the water spread to the car, and that would take too long; the cops would be here soon. She needed to find the invisible monster - and quickly.

    Spread something else on the ground? She didn’t have anything she could sue for that. Diverting the water spewing from the hydrant? While she did that, she wouldn’t be able to pay attention to the puddles - and disturb them anyway. Easy prey. Play bait? Against an invisible enemy? Bad idea.

    But she needed to do something. Anything. She clenched her teeth in frustration - and against the pain of breathing. Where was the demon? Why hadn’t it attacked yet?

    She couldn’t even communicate with John without her radio - well, she could yell, but he was a good way away.

    Caridad blinked. There was one thing she could do. But she had to trust John. More than ever.

    Could she…? She scoffed. She had no choice, anyway. She had to do something.

    She raised her arm, waving for a few seconds. Then she started signing, pointing at the car. She grinned - John would be cursing. But he’d do what was needed.

    Then she started running, dashing towards the wrecked SUV. She didn’t go in a straight line, even though she wanted to - she forced herself to randomly dodge to the side, change directions, even jump ahead and back. Anything to throw of an invisible attacker. Anything to lure it out.

    Ducking her head, bracing for another devastating blow, she ran. Any moment, she would be hit…

    But she wasn’t. She reached the car - and dropped to the ground. Best ambush spot, right here - and glancing at the ground, she saw the outlines of two clawed feet in the fuel puddle on the other side. Waiting for her to reach for the sword.

    Hidden behind the car, she signed again.

    A moment later, John started firing. Green blood splattered the ground, mixing with the fuel.

    Snarling, Caridad lit her zippo, then threw it in the puddle. The gasoline went up at once.

    And the screaming started.

    Before her eyes, the flames outlined a monstrous form thrashing on the ground. She hissed through clenched teeth and got up, reaching into the car to grab her sword.

    Then she slid over the hood, landing next to the burning demon, and brought the blade down.

    Again and again and again.

    Until she managed to hack off the demon’s head, and it suddenly turned visible. She rammed the blade into the body - you never knew where the vital parts of an unknown demon were, and some didn’t need their head to survive - but had to withdraw from the growing heat of the fire spreading to the car.

    Feh. Shot, beheaded, stabbed and burning - if a demon survived that, she wouldn’t be able to kill it right now anyway.

    She took a few steps back and tried to take shallow breaths shallowly, so her ribs didn’t hurt too much. It didn’t work well. And she could hear sirens approaching - the LAPD was finally arriving. Not even Chuck’s dad had managed to stall them any longer, it seemed. Not in this neighbourhood.

    But another car was closer - and she recognised the sound of its engine. John. And the others. Chuck and Sarah.

    She staggered towards them as the car stopped in the street. “Hey!”

    John glared at her, jaws clenched. She laughed, then groaned - that hurt. That hurt a lot.

    “Get in!”

    She did so - carefully. It still hurt.

    “You need a hospital!” Chuck blurted out.

    “No, I don’t!” Caridad objected. “Phil can patch me up - it’s just a few broken ribs.” And other stuff. She was blinking. Her head hurt as well - had the demon clipped it during the fighting?

    “Hospital,” John growled and accelerated.

    Caridad wanted to protest, but she was really hurting. Not that she’d admit it, anyway.

    “Where are the others?” she asked.

    “Harmony withdrew through the sewers once the vampires on the balcony were dusted,” Chuck told her. “Are you bleeding?”

    Who cared about the bloodsucker? “No.” Not externally, at least.

    “Morgan, Kirsten and Carina are already on the way to Phil’s,” Sarah added.

    “Good.”

    Caridad smiled, carefully took a breath, and closed her eyes.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, June 21st, 2008

    “Please rest, Miss. Your broken ribs need you to stay stationary. You wouldn’t want to risk making your injuries worse, would you?”

    Nurses were the worst. Every Slayer knew it. They never listened when you told them you were fine and were always worrywarts. And they didn’t understand Slayers.

    Nurses who had no idea about the supernatural - like the one resting Caridad - were the best example for that, in her completely objective view.

    “My ribs are healing fine,” she repeated herself. “I’m just going to the cafeteria for a coffee.” And some snacks. Phil had brought food for her - discreetly - but there was always room for more. Especially if you were a healing Slayer.

    “You also suffered a concussion; you shouldn’t be moving on your own.”

    She clenched her teeth. She was fine - a concussion was nothing; a Slayer got worse in training - hell, if Faith overdid it a little, you were generally knocked out. Unless you were Buffy. “I’m fine!” she repeated herself.

    “No, you aren’t.” That sigh must have been practised. “I’ll fetch you a coffee. Stay in bed, Miss.”

    “No decaf!” Caridad yelled after the woman.

    Then she sighed herself - which only hurt a little and leaned back into the pillow.

    This sucked.

    The door opened sooner than she had expected - the nurses usually took longer to… “John!”

    He nodded at her. “Caridad.”

    She wanted to jump out of bed and into his arms but restrained herself. He would be angry at her. And probably tell Phil, who would scold her. So she merely smiled while he sat down at her side.

    And grabbed his hand.

    “Thanks for visiting.”

    He nodded and squeezed her hand.

    “I’m fine,” she told him.

    That triggered a familiar grunt, which made her smile.

    And want to leave the stupid bed even more.

    *****​
     
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 12: The Demon Intern Part 1
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 12: The Demon Intern Part 1

    California, Los Angeles, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, June 22nd, 2008

    Free! She was finally free! No longer in prison! No longer on starvation rations that tasted like garbage or not at all! Caridad could finally escape the hospital!

    She would have stormed out of the clinic in a heartbeat, if that wouldn’t have raised questions - Slayer healing might deal with a broken (and rebroken, apparently) arm easy enough, and bruises disappeared overnight, but normal people, like Caridad was posing as, thanks to her fake ID, didn’t magically heal up as well as she did.

    Which was why John, who was in disguise, was currently pushing her wheelchair and she had used makeup to fake bruises. And she was struggling not to tap her feet and fingers in impatience.

    “We’re almost clear,” John whispered.

    Struggling and failing, apparently. She sighed. “I know,” she whispered back. “I can’t wait.” To eat real food again - as much as she wanted. Not just energy bars and rations John had smuggled in. And she couldn’t wait to get rid of the cast around her arm, either. But most of all - she glanced at John with a grin - she really really wanted to…

    She gasped. There was a police car out in front.

    John had spotted it as well - he stopped pushing the chair. “Trouble?”

    “Shh,” she replied, then cocked her head, listening. She could barely hear the receptionist in the lobby ahead, talking to… talking about… Her eyes widened. “Someone’s asking after me - my fake name,” she hissed.

    You didn’t need the Intersect to make the connection. The cops were checking up on her - probably because she was using a fake name, but not a disguise. Or not much of a disguise; it was kind of hard to hide a wig and inserts when you were getting examined in a hospital. They might jsut be here because she looked like the victim of a crime, of course - but that was a risk they couldn’t take, either. And she had no wish to be questioned by the LAPD anyway.

    John turned the chair around and quickly pushed it back around the corner.

    As soon as they were out of sight - and out of sight of the security camera checking the main hallway - Caridad stood up and started to remove her cast. The plaster didn’t stand up to the nice knife John had brought her.

    “Bartowski,” she heard John speak into his phone, “we need the cameras looped, and the police distracted.”

    “On it! Uh - what happened?” Chuck replied.

    “They’re checking up on us,” John replied as Caridad finished freeing her arm. “You can’t fight with it.”

    “I’m not planning to,” she lied. “But they’re looking for a woman with a cast.”

    “Ah.” He handed her a blonde wig. Not much of a disguise, but it would have to do.

    “Cameras are clear!” Chuck reported - he must have hacked them beforehand, she realised. Probably before she arrived at the hospital yesterday.

    The hustled down the hallway, away from her room. Even with her cast off, she wouldn’t want to walk out in front - the receptionist might recognise her. But the back…

    They passed a junction, dodging an older man with a walker, and walked past a hurried-looking nurse. There was a door ahead leading outside, but it was locked. Caridad stood guard at the corner while John worked on the lock.

    Uh-oh. “Hurry up,” she whispered. “I can hear someone coming.” Someone walking at a brisk step, and their shoes didn’t sound like they were part of the staff - most nurses and doctors wore sneakers with thicker soles.

    John didn’t reply. The steps came closer. Caridad took a deep breath. She could take out a single man or woman without hurting them. Even with one arm. Just slip behind them and apply a chokehold before they could cry out. Then wait until they were knocked out. But she didn’t like doing that in a hospital. That would only make the cops search harder for them.

    “Done!” John whispered.

    The steps were close, too close, but… Caridad snarled and dashed towards the door, all but pushing John through and closing it behind them. “Go!”

    He nodded, and they quickly walked over to the parking area. The police wouldn’t be able to watch the cars - and they didn’t have a description of John’s new and temporary car. But if they suspected Caridad, then they might have backup.

    “Guys! Guys! I’ve sent the cops down the wrong wing with a fake alarm! That should make the rest of them move as well. You’ve got a window of opportunity now!” Chuck reported.

    They were already moving - slowly. With her wig and John’s disguise, an outside observer shouldn’t notice anything suspicious.

    Five minutes later, they were driving down the road, towards the highway.

    And Caridad was eating the second of the sandwiches left on the passenger seat.

    Finally free!

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 22nd, 2008

    “...and then the vampires on the balcony saw me, and were, like, coming after me, and no one else was inside, and there were fires outside, so I turned and ran back down into the basement. I mean, I don’t want to, like, run into fire. That’s a good way to, like getting burned.”

    Caridad bit more forcefully into her sandwich, stuffing her mouth while Harmony rambled. If her mouth was full, she wasn’t expected to answer and wouldn’t have to keep herself from yelling at the vampire.

    “So, I remembered that there was a trap in the tunnel - like, the trap Nathan had set, not the one we had set, which, like, had gone off already, right?”

    Caridad grunted, which was enough to keep the bloodsucker going.

    “But they didn’t know about it, so I jumped over the wire, but they, like, ran straight through - and boom!” The vampire made a blow-up gesture.

    It was a miracle that Harmony had remembered that there was a trap. And that she hadn’t triggered it herself anyway. Someone had been using up all their luck and then some. All their dumb luck. Caridad swallowed and nodded. “And that killed them all?”

    “I think so? I didn’t, like, see anyone coming after me afterwards, so they should be dead.”

    ‘Should be’ didn’t mean they were actually dust. Caridad clenched her teeth. Hadn’t anyone confirmed the deaths? “What did the others say?”

    “The others?” Harmony blinked. “Oh, you mean Chuck and the others?”

    “Yes.”

    “They said the police found no one in the building when they came to investigate.”

    That didn’t mean that no one escaped. “Did the tunnel collapse?”

    “Uh…” Harmony frowned and pouted. “I don’t know? I didn’t look. But, like, no one came after me!”

    Great. Caridad took one trip to the hospital, and this was the result!

    “The tunnel collapsed - it’s in the police report.” Phil entered the kitchen and grabbed the teapot. “Theoretically, it would be possible that a vampire waited until Harmony was gone, then sneaked out and collapsed the tunnel after them, but I think that’s very unlikely.”

    Caridad grudgingly agreed.

    “In any case, I don’t think that vampires who flee first on the balcony and only go down the basement following Harmony would be smart enough to pose a significant danger,” the Watcher continued.

    “Oh, yes. That was really dumb,” Harmony agreed.

    “What did they want on the balcony anyway?” Caridad asked.

    “They had, like ropes with them,” the vampire unhelpfully told them.

    “It was only one floor - any vampire could’ve easily jumped down.” Caridad shook her head and grabbed a soda. Had they planned to throw a rope to the neighbour’s house? Or the wall?

    “A mystery we might never solve, with all the ones in the know now destroyed.” Phil didn’t sound as if he cared overly much.

    Thinking about it, Caridad didn’t really, either. Nathan was dead. Lewis was dead. Most of the minions of the vampire were dead as well. Whatever demon might have survived wouldn’t dare to stay in her city.

    She grinned. “So… we just need to find Dubois now?”

    Phil cleared his throat. “Actually, there’s another issue. Two, if you count the renewed attention of the local police department.”

    The cops wouldn’t get another shot at her or her friends. But the rest… “Another issue?” She narrowed her eyes.

    “Oh, yes. The interns!” Harmony piped up.

    “The interns?”

    “Your cover identity’s predecessors, to be exact,” Phil explained. “We did a preliminary check on them, which resulted in a low probability of them having been turned. They have regular jobs, and neither their apartments nor their cell phones’ movements fit the usual vampire profile.”

    “They go out in daylight?”

    “Yes,” he confirmed. “However, in light of the true nature of Lewis, and after a little research, I don’t think we can safely assume that they are harmless.”

    Caridad leaned forward, clenching her teeth and ignoring how Harmony took a step back. “What did you find out?” This wasn’t looking good. Not at all.

    “Sarah and Carina investigated Mr Lewis’s apartment - the police sealed it but didn’t leave a guard. They found a few hints at rather unsavoury practices. Summoning materials, ritual texts, occult paraphernalia…” He shook his head. “I fear we might be dealing with a case of either possession or replacement.”

    Damn. “You think we’ve got, what, half a dozen demons masquerading as humans, just as Lewis had done?”

    “Four actually - fortunately, Mr Lewis hadn’t been active very long. But the Council is looking into his past to see if there are hints and clues to be found.”

    “Ah, right. He told me about that - though it could’ve been lies, of course,” Caridad said.

    “Quite. We’re checking it, of course. But the events at Lewis’s firm made the news - it’s hard to cover up the disappearance of the CEO even without a prominent hole in the windows of their office - so I fear the interns, whatever they are now, might be about to disappear.”

    “Of course.” She suppressed a sigh. That looked like another troublesome hunt.

    “And Ellie really wants her rehearsal for the rehearsal dinner,” Harmony added with a stupid smile.

    *****​

    Standing in front of a wall in Phil’s living room, Chuck cleared his throat. “Uh, so… We’ve looked at those interns again. I think we can rule out Juana Ramirez, Caridad’s direct predecessor, straight away.” A familiar picture appeared on the wall - Chuck had procured a projector, Caridad noted, while she had been in the hospital. That meant Phil now had a home cinema!

    “Why?” John asked.

    “Compared to the other three, uh, suspects, she’s been there only a few weeks. That seems too short for whatever the demon was doing, and I don’t think, I mean, it’s unlikely that she would’ve gone on the cruise we offered her if she was already under Lewis’s control,” Chuck replied.

    “He was trying to drug me after less than a week,” Caridad pointed out.

    “Uh, yes. But that might’ve been for, uh, other reasons than possession or something similar.” Chuck pressed his lips together.

    “It was probably meant to be the first step in corrupting you,” Phil cut in with a deep frown. “Based on what you reported about the firm’s hiring practices, it is safe to assume that Lewis’s interest in pretty young women went beyond their use as a vessel for possession or corruption.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth as she nodded in agreement. The creepy demon certainly hadn’t hidden that part of his. But she had paid him back. With interest.

    “Uh, anyway - we’ve informed the Council, and they’ll have a Slayer check her out at the next opportunity,” Chuck went on. “Now, this is Jenny Dyson.” A picture of a pretty blonde appeared on the wall. “Finished her education at UCLA, then started her internship at Real Estate Los Angeles. Stayed for four months, then found a job at a local savings and loans bank in Malcolm’s Ridge.”

    “Malcolm’s Ridge?” The name didn’t ring a bell.

    “A small town north of Los Angeles.”

    “Did she grow up there?” Sarah asked.

    “No,” Chuck replied. “She grew up in Los Angeles.”

    “And she went living in some dinky small town?” Caridad scoffed. “After doing an internship here? And with a Master’s degree?”

    “So speaks the Los Angeles native,” Carina commented. She snorted. “But yes, that looks suspicious.”

    “Yes. The other two interns also went to work in small towns,” Chuck went on. “It’s a distinct pattern.”

    “Small towns with no Slayer presence,” Phil noted. “If they’re discreet, it could take years or even decades for anyone to notice anything amiss.”

    “Like the Mayor,” Caridad said.

    Her Watcher shook his head. “Sunnydale was on an active Hellmouth; even without the prophecies, such places would’ve been patrolled regularly. The Mayor was quite skilled at evading detection, of course, but he couldn’t count on the town being remote or unimportant - at least amongst those familiar with the supernatural.”

    “Unlike Malcolm’s Ridge,” Caridad replied.

    “Quite.”

    Chuck cleared his throat again. “Anyway, the pattern holds - the interns stay for four months, about three months of those apparently in a relationship with the CEO, then leave Los Angeles for a small town. No family ties, no friends that we can tell based on their communication, and no particularly promising or prestigious job.”

    “That would fit with an intern exploited by a CEO, leaving the city to start anew,” Carina pointed out. “Could be a coincidence.”

    “It’s a good cover,” John added. “No or little contact with old friends and family can be explained that way.”

    The two spies looked at each other.

    “Uh, anyway, we’ve hacked into Dyson’s phone provider, and while she arrived without any local friends, she made a lot of friends - or acquaintances - in the two months she had been there.” Chuck pointed at a very impressive list of contacts on the wall. “Based on the texts we managed to copy, a significant part of her contacts are, uh, intimate friends.”

    That was even more suspicious. That didn’t fit the scorned woman cover. It fit something else, though. Caridad scowled. “Is she some succubus?”

    “It’s an obvious possibility,” Phil agreed. “But that would have led to several deaths - a Succubus’s attention or favour is usually fatal.”

    “There aren’t any suspicious deaths among her contacts,” Chuck told them.

    “Does she target the rich and influential? For a small town, at least,” Carina asked.

    “Pretty much, though there are some exceptions,” Chuck confirmed. “And, uh, she seems to be sticking to people her age. Her apparent age.”

    “She could be playing the long game,” Kirsten commented. “Turn the kids, then bump off the parents.”

    “The demon masquerading as Lewis struck me as the kind of long-term planner fond of such a scheme,” Phil said. “Or it fancied itself as one.”

    “It sounds like a scheme Natan would have loved,” Caridad said.

    Hell, the damned vampire had probably given the idea to the demon - or had rigged up a scheme of its own.

    “In any case,” Chuck spoke up again, “I think we need to investigate in Malcolm’s Ridge.”

    Meaning, Caridad would have to go there. Well, it would be a nice change of pace after her undercover job.

    “Uh… you don’t, like, need me for that, right? Cause it’s a hick town; I’d, like, die if I were seen there,” Harmony piped up.

    “No, Harmony, we weren’t planning on asking you to go there,” Chuck told her. “Protecting you from sunlight would be a challenge.”

    “Oh, yeah, that too.” Harmony nodded as if she hadn’t even thought of that. She probably hadn’t, anyway.

    “So, what’s the plan?” Caridad asked.

    “We need to ascertain the exact nature of Miss Dyson,” Phil said, “and what she’s been doing there. And we need to track down any potential allies or pawns of hers.”

    Not that there was much of a difference, in most cases, between an ally of a demon and a minion - no matter what the fools dealing with them thought.

    “What’s our cover?” John asked. “There’s not much to attract tourists.”

    “Road trip and a broken-down car?” Chuck suggested. “It worked for Xander.”

    “That works for Caridad, but she needs backup,” John said.

    Caridad pressed her lips together to keep from blurting out that she didn’t need backup - she was the Slayer. Backup would be nice, after all.

    “I believe we could pass as geologists or archaeologists surveying the area,” Phil said, “though that would put us outside the town most of the day. And I don’t believe that Miss Dyson or whatever is wearing her form is focused on the countryside.”

    “We can still go out in the evening,” Chuck said, “can’t we? That’s normal for such jobs.”

    “Indeed. But it limits our coverage during the day,” Phil replied.

    “Well, I’m not going to hike through the countryside and get a sunstroke,” Carina declared. “And I would be a little too remarkable mixing it up with the locals in a small town.”

    Caridad rolled her eyes at the spy’s ego. “It’s not like all of us are going, anyway,” she said. “Someone has to hold down the fort here.”

    “Quite,” Phil said. “I think I could pass easily as an archaeologist - I have no actual degree, but I have spoken to archaeologists often enough to fool anyone. I would need an assistant.” He looked at John, who grunted in agreement.

    “And the rest of us stay in Los Angeles?” Chuck asked.

    “I trust you not to wreck my flat or have wild parties in it,” Phil told him with a smile.

    Harmony made a disappointed noise, but everyone ignored her.

    *****​

    California, Malcolm’s Ridge, June 24th, 2008

    “I’m sorry, Miss, but the transmission is wrecked,” the mechanic told Caridad. He didn’t sound sorry at all - just bored - as he wiped his hands with a dirty rag. As if hot college girls with broken cars dropped by every day.

    “Oh, no!” Caridad replied, faking surprise - they had picked a car with a worn-down transmission, after all, and she hadn’t had any trouble wrecking it as soon as she entered the town - Slayers were good at destroying stuff. Just ask any Watcher. “Can you repair it?”

    “I’d have to order the parts - and that can take a while.” He shrugged. “That’s what you get for buying an old car.”

    “But I have a warranty!” Caridad protested. “The vendor assured me it was a good car!”

    “A warranty? For a used car?” The man blinked.

    “Yes! Daddy negotiated!” Caridad nodded several times.

    “Well, it’ll be a few days for the part to arrive, if they have it in Los Angeles. You didn’t exactly buy a bug.”

    “A few days?” Caridad gasped. “But… L.A. is just, like, a few hours away!”

    “They still have to process the order, find someone to deliver it, send it - and I have to put it in,” the mechanic explained. “And that’s only if they have the parts in stock.” He glanced at the two pickups for sale which were parked outside the garage.

    The parts would arrive exactly when they wanted them to arrive, thanks to Chuck controlling the supplier’s computer system. But the college girl on a road trip that was Caridad’s cover wouldn’t know that. So she shook her head. “I guess I can stay a few days - I’ve got the whole summer, after all.”

    That wasn’t what the mechanic wanted to hear. “You could buy a new car,” he said. “I’d take the old one in trade - give you a good discount.”

    Once more, she shook her head. “No, that won’t work. Daddy wants the car once I’m done with it. He had the same model when he was in college, you know?”

    “Ah.” The mechanic snorted. Cariad expected him to make another sales pitch, but he didn’t. “Then you’ll have to wait, then.”

    “I guess so.” She sighed. “Is there a good hotel in town?”

    “Mal’s Motel is the best we have,” he told her.

    Probably the only one, too. She sighed again. “It’ll have to do.”

    The mechanic shrugged once more. “Your call.”

    She grabbed her luggage, signed the paperwork for the repairs, then started walking towards the motel he had indicated, reminding herself to struggle a little with her suitcase.

    *****​

    As a Slayer, carrying her luggage was easy - Caridad could’ve carried double the weight without breaking a sweat. But it was a hot day, and it was early afternoon, so despite wearing daisy dukes and a tank top, she sighed with honest relief when she entered the Mal’s Motel and let the air conditioning hit her.

    The clerk behind the reception desk was about her age, lanky, and had an ill-fitting suit on. He also stared at her, then at the parking lot outside, looking confused.

    She rolled her eyes. “My car broke down. I walked from the garage.”

    “Oh.” He nodded. “That’s bad. You’re looking for a room?”

    “Yes.” Why else would she enter a motel?

    He smiled at her. “You’re lucky; we’ve got a free room.”

    She made a point of looking at the parking lot herself, which was mostly empty, but he didn’t even notice - he was staring at her legs.

    “So, uh, is that all your luggage?” His attempt to cover up his leering would’ve been more convincing if he hadn’t been blushing.

    “Yes.” She didn’t quite tap her feet, but she cocked her head sideways.

    “So, uh… cash or card?”

    “Card.” She presented the credit card for her fake ID. Cash would’ve been safer, but girls like her cover identity didn’t travel with lots of cash.

    “Thank you, Miss…” He glanced at the card. “...Smith.” His smile returned as he ran the card and handed her the key to her room. “It’s Number Four. The parking space is also numbered four and directly in front of the door.”

    She made a point of sighing deeply - and noted how his eyes travelled down to her chest for a moment. “Not that I’ll be needing it, anyway. My car is still in the garage.”

    “Oh. What broke?”

    “Transmission. The mechanic said it’ll take a few days to fix it! Can you imagine that?” She let a little of Harmony’s whining seep into her tone.

    “Joe’s a good mechanic; if he says it’ll take a few days, it won’t get done any faster.”

    That wasn’t her definition of a good mechanic, but the clerk sounded defensive. She shrugged. “I’m no mechanic. But this throws a wrench in my travel plans, and I had it all figured out!”

    He shrugged with obviously fake sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

    She huffed, then sighed again. “Anyway, is there a good restaurant? I’m starving!” She was, actually.

    “Oh, you can go to our Denny’s.”

    She nodded - according to Chuck’s research, this was the best restaurant in the town - though, with the other being ‘Mike’s Bar & Grill’, with a heavy emphasis on ‘Bar’, that was no surprise. “Thank you.”

    “It’s my pleasure.”

    She didn’t doubt that - as she stepped out again to get to her room, she could see in the glass door’s reflection that he was staring at her butt.

    Well, she’d been planning on that. If Dyson was a succubus or something similar, then having a rival in town might draw her out. At least that was her story, and she was sticking to it. A Slayer couldn’t let a demon beat her in hotness; they had a reputation to defend according to Faith.

    She dragged her suitcase to room number four, which was as small and dinky as she had expected. The bed was clean, though, and large enough for two. Not that John would be rooming with her. Not unless they needed a one-night-stand as a cover or something. Which could happen, of course.

    She grinned as she opened her suitcase, grabbing a few energy bars to take the edge off her hunger - she couldn’t eat as much as she needed in public without endangering her cover. She let her hands trail over the hidden compartments for her weapons. Unfortunately, she’d have to do with a small knife and a disguised stake in her purse for now, but in the evening, a jacket could hide a lot more.

    First, though, she needed a shower. But before that… She grabbed her phone.

    Mom, found a motel. all ok. don’t tell dad.

    She didn’t think Dyson would be monitoring cell phones in the area, but as John had told her, you never knew. And if someone stole her phone, they wouldn’t find anything amiss, either. She had her Willow-made phone, but if someone saw her texting and there was no text in the system… it sounded far-fetched, but Chuck had been worried about it.

    She dropped the phone on the bed and stepped into the bathroom. The shower was clean. Cleanish - she couldn’t see any dirt, but the fixtures had some lime coating them. Well, she’d seen worse.

    The soap and shampoo provided was useless, though - the cheapest stuff you could find. Well, she brought her own.

    *****​

    There was an answer to her text on her phone when she stepped out of the bathroom.

    Good. Everything’s OK here. Your dad doesn’t know. Be safe. Love, Mom.

    So, John and Phil had arrived and didn’t think anyone had grown suspicious of their cover story. She looked out the window and snorted - there was their Land Rover.

    She put on a fresh top and shorts, munched another energy bar and left her room. Time for lunch - and check out another part of the town.

    But as she stepped out on the hot pavement, another door opened two rooms down, and John appeared. He was wearing a polo shirt and cargo pants, which fit him well and hid a few weapons. She watched him head towards the Land Rover with a smile - her cover identity enjoyed eye candy, didn’t she?

    She saw him grab a suitcase from the car, then act as if he had just noticed her. A surveyor spotting a hot girl watching him - nothing suspicious there.

    Her smile widened as he looked her over in return while walking back to his room. Another meeting, perhaps in the evening, and it would be perfectly natural to spend some time together, too.

    Even though she wanted to jump his bones right now. Well, after lunch - she was hungry. Time to head to the local Denny’s.

    She walked down the main street - pretty much everything was on the main street here, or one street away. No need for complicated directions - not that she couldn’t spot the restaurant already, anyway. And smell it from a block away.

    The diner was old, not just old-styled, and decently packed. And, as if she were in a cheap movie, everyone looked at her when she entered. She ignored the stares, greeted the closest waitress, a thirty-something woman in a uniform straight from the fifties, and picked a booth at the window - with her back to the wall. You never knew, after all.

    Another waitress, this one a teenager, probably a summer job, approached her, and Caridad ordered the biggest menu they had. “My car broke down. I need some food therapy,” she told the girl when she handed the menu back.

    “Ah, sorry to hear that.” The girl nodded and left. If she was anything like the girls Caridad had known in high school, half the town would know about her car by evening. And about her supposed character - she could hear the waitress complain about her boyfriend staring to the cook.

    As if Caridad were interested in teenagers! She snorted at the thought and looked around while waiting for her drink.

    There was a group of teenage boys staring at her - at her body. They were far more open about it than she would have expected - back in Los Angeles, she knew gang members and rappers who would be more discreet. And not because they knew she was a Slayer and could break them in half without trying.

    Most of the other patrons of the diner had returned their attention to whatever they had been doing before, but a middle-aged man in an old business suit was still looking at her as well - and even flashed her a smile when she looked back.

    She kept her answering smile pointedly polite and suppressed a shudder when his own didn’t waver. Was that another Lewis-style creep? Although she hadn’t felt anything demony from him or anyone else here when she had passed by his table on the way.

    Probably just a small town thing, then.

    The waitress arrived with her drink, a soda, and Caridad sighed with apparent relief to cover up her sniffing it before taking a sip. “Ah! I needed that!” She beamed at the waitress. “I had to walk all the way to the Motel and then to here.”

    “Ah.” The waitress didn’t quite manage to hide her glee at hearing that. Caridad pretended not to notice and went on a little longer about how hot it was outside.

    The creep was still staring at her when the waitress left again. She ignored him and focused on the street outside. Malcolm’s Ridge seemed to be making an effort to hit every cliche: Most cars she saw driving up and down the road were pickups. A few seemed brand-new, or souped-up, but most were pretty average. The only bicycles she saw belonged to kids.

    Her eyes narrowed. There was a middle-aged woman walking her dog, a big German Shepherd, and the dog was growling at the building in front of them. The woman had some trouble tying its leash to the lamp post and wasn’t happy about it at all. The Dog clearly didn’t want to be there.

    Caridad looked at the sign above the door as the woman entered. ‘Malcolm’s Ridge Savings and Loans’ - the bank Dyson was working for.

    *****​

    The salad was about as good as one could expect from a Denny’s - which didn’t mean much. At least the sauce was reasonably fresh. The main dish, though, was tasty - though Caridad was quite hungry again, which helped with the taste.

    As she ate the last fries, she kept studying the bank building. She could claim that she needed more money to get inside during business hours. See if she could spot Dyson and find out what was wrong with her. If she had to break in, though…. The building wasn’t Fort Knox, but it had thick bars across the windows and solid walls. Unless the roof was a weakness, Caridad would have to get a key from someone if she didn’t want to leave traces.

    She ordered dessert - and ignored the envious glare from the waitress - and leaned back, stretching a little. With a little luck, she could be out of here the next day.

    She paid - and tipped, even though the waitress had been bitching about her to the rest of the staff non-stop - then left the diner, ignoring the table full of leering boys. She had a bank to visit.

    She texted the others while she crossed the street - traffic was very light.

    Getting more cash.

    Not that the ruse and cover seemed necessary - if anyone were hacking the local cell towers, Chuck and his dad would’ve noticed. But the spies had insisted on not taking the risk.

    She stopped briefly in front of the entrance, giving the building a closer look. Just a tourist studying one of the older buildings in town. Up close, it didn’t look any better or easier to break in. Sighing, she entered.

    She saw a guard in the small lobby, sitting - sleeping - on a chair in a corner. And there was one teller - a young woman. Not Dyson. She looked preppy and friendly as she greeted Caridad. “Hello! Welcome to Malcolm’s Ridge Savings and Loans! How may I help you?”

    Caridad couldn’t detect anything demony. “Hello.” She sighed. “My car broke down, and I need to make a withdrawal.”

    The woman didn’t question why she needed cash instead of paying with her credit card. Perhaps the kids in town didn’t have cards with high limits. Or the customer was still king here. Her fake ID passed easily - not that she had expected differently - and Caridad glanced around while the clerk started filling out the forms.

    She couldn’t see anything suspicious; the whole room looked like it should - a boring bank’s lobby. Although… She narrowed her eyes slightly. The teller was dressed for business - a deux-piece with a white blouse - but she showed a little too much cleavage for a bank. And the skirt was a little too short and the heels a little too high as well Caridad noted when the woman stood and went to the back.

    That didn’t have to mean anything, of course. This was California, not the Bible Belt. But banks were banks, weren’t they? And Caridad couldn’t help feeling that this was exactly how Lewis had liked interns to dress.

    When the clerk vanished in the back office, Caridad took a deep breath. There was the faintest hint of something demony, now. She leaned forward, focusing on the door. She could just make out some words…

    “...Miss Dyson.”

    “Yes.”

    “...cash…”

    Hmm. Caridad narrowed her eyes. It sounded as if her target was to her left. She rolled her shoulders and craned her neck, then took a few steps to the side. Just a bored customer stretching her legs a little - not literally in this case - until she had a better view of the door to the back office. She fiddled with the strap of her purse there, leaning against the counter, while she waited.

    The door opened a few minutes later, and Caridad looked up. There was the clerk, stepping back into the lobby. And behind her, in the back office… Caridad’s eyes widened. That was Dyson. But she was very different from the woman in the files Chuck had compiled. That woman had been a shy intern. Pretty, eager, subdued makeup. The woman Caridad saw through the open door, though, was dressed to kill. Blazer over a very low-cut, very tight blouse, miniskirt and heels a stripper might have trouble with. And makeup to match.

    And she was smiling at Caridad just like Lewis had, licking her bright red lips a moment before the door closed.

    Damn.

    Caridad pretended that she hadn’t noticed and moved back to the clerk’s desk. The demony stench was stronger now, too. But not like Lewis’s. Something else. “Sorry,” she said to the teller.

    “Oh, no problem. Sorry for taking so long - but we need to be extra careful with withdrawals. Company policy.”

    “No problem,” Caridad replied as she took the cash and stashed it in her purse. “Have a nice day.”

    “Thank you for choosing the Malcolm’s Ridge Savings and Loans!”

    Caridad left the bank and started walking back towards the motel, texting the others again.

    Got the mny, mom. Small bills.

    Chuck would reroute the message to John and Phil, informing them that she had seen Dyson - and that the woman wasn’t the same as Lewis. That didn’t rule out other or similar demons, of course - or just a female member of whatever demon species Lewis had been.

    Well, Caridad ould find out.

    Good. I’m jogging. Be safe. Love, mom.

    So the two were out of town, working on their cover. And she wasn’t supposed to do anything until they were back.

    She scoffed. She was the Slayer; she could handle a demon - she had handled Lewis. But, she added to herself as she looked around, storming into the bank and slaying a demon wouldn’t be a good idea, even without the possibility that Dyson was possessed instead of having been replaced. There were too many people around. Too many witnesses. Too many potential minions Demon-Dyson might’ve recruited or charmed.

    Hell, Dyson probably didn’t have to charm anyone. Tourist attacking a local? Caridad knew how the cops and everyone else would react. Even counting Dyson’s new style and attitude.

    No, better to wait until the evening and see what Miss Demon Banker was up to then.

    Caridad would bet her favourite knife that it wasn’t anything good.

    *****​

    Malcolms Ridge didn’t look any better in the evening, Caridad noted when she went to the Denny’s for dinner. You couldn’t see some of the more pathetic parts of the town, but the lack of a decent nightlife - the clubbing kind, not the bloodsucking kind - was also apparent. Few people were out, either. At least compared to L.A.

    Still, Caridad could now wear her leather jacket without looking like she was crazy, which meant she was finally decently armed. Loaded for Demon-skank.

    She blinked. She sounded like Buffy talking about Glory. Well, it wasn’t far off, was it? Just that Demon-Dyson had more style than the Demon-God had had - provided you could trust Buffy about that. The woman tended to be a little biased about such things.

    She shrugged and entered the diner. She needed food before her hunt. Just in case Demon-Dyson ended up being as big a pain in the butt to kill as Lewis had been.

    *****​
     
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 13: The Demon Intern Part 2
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 13: The Demon Intern Part 2

    California, Malcolm’s Ridge, June 24th, 2008

    The diner wasn’t full, yet, but Caridad noticed additional chairs at the counter and two more waitresses. They were expecting a bigger crowd. That only made sense, of course, with so few alternatives. The next town was a while away - just about close enough for pizza deliveries, according to Chuck’s briefing.

    Whatever. It meant Caridad could get a decent meal before she went and hunted down the demon skank. And, even better, the jealous teenager wasn’t among the waitresses. She flashed a smile at the closest and picked one of the free tables.

    The waitress, a younger woman - though older than Caridad - was at her table with a glass of water and a basket of bread a moment after she’d sat down. “Did you already decide on an order, Honey?”

    She picked the biggest meal and a regular coke, then watched the crowd inside and outside while the waitress went back. They were older people, mostly. Middle-aged. At least that explained the lack of teenagers - who would want to hang out where their parents and their friends hung out? But where were they - and the demon-skank - hanging out? At the local bar or in another town?

    She ate her meal quickly, though not with actual Slayer speed, paid and headed out. ‘Mike’s Bar & Grill’ wasn’t too far away. Less than a block, actually - on foot. She could smell the grill halfway there, too. Perhaps she should’ve eaten there...

    The bar was surrounded by a parking lot and quite busy. But the crowd was mostly thirty-something and older people. And the music was mostly country and old rock. Which wasn’t bad, actually - John liked it, and Caridad had gotten used to it - but it wouldn’t attract the teenagers or the college-aged people. So, where were they?

    She texted Chuck. He could track the cell phones, couldn’t he?

    Boring town. No one my age around.

    Five minutes and a block later, she got her answer - an address at the edge of the town.

    She jogged there - she’d been walking around with nothing to show for long enough, but she slowed down before she turned the last corner. It looked like a warehouse - which was very suspicious. Demons loved warehouses. But she heard music. And laughter. And there was a sign - ‘Youth Center’.

    That hadn’t been in the briefing. And Caridad was sure such a thing would’ve made the local news. Which was even more suspicious.

    A bunch of teenagers, about a dozen, were hanging out in front of the warehouse. They looked normal at first glance, though… something was off. Oh. Caridad wasn’t a fashionista like Buffy, but the teenagers and twenty-somethings were wearing more daring clothes than she would have expected. Two girls wore net shirts over sports bras and matching miniskirts. It wouldn’t have been out of place in some of Los Angeles’s clubs, but here, in a small town in the middle of nowhere?

    It wasn’t just the girls, either. Some of the boys were wearing clothes more suited to gay clubs. Of course, they might be gay. And the town might either be far more tolerant than Caridad expected - or too ignorant to realise it.

    But with a demon-skank having been working here for months? Caridad would bet her favourite stake that this was Dyson’s work. Somehow.

    She walked closer. Close enough to overhear them. Some smoked, some drank - soda. No drugs, no booze it seemed. And wasn’t that even weirder? They were flirting heavily, but it felt off as well. Too… Smooth. Too practised. Teenagers didn’t flirt like that. They were awkward. They embarrassed themselves. They huddled with their friends and whispered and sent glances around. Caridad knew that from experience.

    These people? They mingled and touched. Easy smiles, teasing expressions. They were far too confident. Far too experienced, Caridad realised.

    And now she was smelling something demony. Faint, but it was there. And it was coming from the teenagers.

    She walked on, and they noticed her. Smiles greeted her - from the whole crowd. “Hey! Are you new here?” A boy in a leather jacket asked.

    “Oh, you’re the girl whose car broke down!” the girl next to him exclaimed. “Mary told me about you!”

    Now that was what Caridad had expected of a small town. “Yes,” she replied. “It’ll take a few days to get it repaired, so I thought to check out the town.”

    “Oh, you’ve come to the right place! This is the best spot in Malcolm’s Ridge!” the girl told her. “The other spots are full of boring old people.” She stepped up to Caridad, still smiling widely. “Much too old and lame for you!”

    Caridad was used to people checking her out. Especially if she dressed up. But the way the teens here were staring at her…

    She felt a shiver run down her spine. This was very creepy. But she was the Slayer. She flashed a grin at the leering teens and nodded towards the warehouse behind them. “So, that’s the bar and club in town?” She could hear some hip hop playing that had been popular in Los Angeles a month ago.

    The first boy nodded. “Yes. And they don’t hassle you if you left your ID at home.” He grinned. “But every drink is good. Even the beer - it’s an open tap!”

    Caridad nodded and forced herself to keep smiling. The demony stench was growing stronger, too. “So, who runs the club?”

    “Oh… it’s run by the school. I think.” The boy looked confused.

    “It’s a youth centre,” the girl added.

    Useless. The only school in town was a small elementary school. Someone had to be in charge. Nominally, at least - while Caridad had no doubts that Dyson was behind this, she didn’t think even such a small town would have let a bank clerk run a youth centre with a liquor license. Or no license.

    But if the teenagers here didn’t know anything, perhaps the crowd inside knew more. The staff at least should know who paid them. Caridad nodded at the group and walked past them towards the entrance.

    She entered the warehouse before they could make up their minds whether to follow her or not. Then she stopped. The warehouse reeked of demon. And sweat. And smoke. And spilt booze and cheap perfume.

    But for the demon stench, it smelled like a packed club in Los Angeles early Sunday morning. Only it was early evening and Tuesday. And the club - if you could call a barely remodelled warehouse that - wasn’t packed. About a dozen people were sprawled on battered and mismatching furniture lining the dance floor. Two dozen people were grinding on the dance floor. Literally grinding, and no one seemed to mind.

    She suppressed a shudder at the smell and walked towards the bar. It looked like a repurposed reception counter with a couple salvaged fridges. But very sophisticated-looking taps. No mirror, of course. The bartender was a very attractive young man. Young enough so he would have to card himself at his own bar, Caridad thought. And a shirt that revealed almost his whole chest, down to his navel.

    “Hey, honey!” He flashed pearly-white teeth at her.

    “Hi!” she replied. “I’d like a coke.”

    He didn’t ask if she wanted a diet or a regular one - he just turned and poured her one from the tap behind him. “Here you go! That’s one buck!”

    Her eyes widened at the price - that was far too cheap for a club - and then she caught a whiff of the coke and finally recognised the smell that filled the room. Lewis had tried to make her drink the same poison!

    Or, she amended her thoughts, leaning against the bar and looking the whole cub over, the same aphrodisiac. If everyone was hopped up on drinks and soda spiked with this stuff, then that would explain the whole scene. And with those prices and a ‘liberal’ carding policy, everyone would be hopped up on the stuff.

    She walked over to a free couch and sent a quick text off.

    Jackpot. Club’s packed.

    That would tell John and Phil where she was - and that she had found what the demon was doing. And that there were a lot of civilians. Civilians under the influence of a demon.

    Perhaps she should’ve waited for her backup before entering… No. She was the Slayer. She could handle this. She could handle it better than anyone else. John was great, Phil was Phil, but both didn’t have her advantages. Unless she drank demon beer, she’d be fine.

    No wonder they served tap and mixed drinks only. It was harder to spike bottles of beer or soda. Her phone vibrated. An answering text.

    We’re headed out to eat.

    Good.

    She pretended to sip from the coke, then leaned back. The music switched to a new song, but the rhythm didn’t change. It was fast, frantic - she could feel the beat. And her eyes had no trouble making out the couples forming in the shadows. Or on the dance floor, she noticed with a wince.

    But what was the goal of this? What was Dyson getting out of this? Lewis had been trying to seduce and corrupt the firm’s interns. Was Dyson trying the same, just on a larger scale? If so, she was doing far better than Lewis had ever done. Was she trying to form a cult? Was she…

    Caridad’s eyes widened. There was Dyson. Coming towards her.

    She suppressed the urge to slay the demon. Dyson might be possessed, and killing a possessed person was bad. Not always avoidable, but bad. Not something that should be done on sight. No matter how much Caridad might want to slay the bitch walking towards her.

    Dyson’s clothes fit the club, too - a backless black cocktail dress that barely reached her thighs and looked as if it were in a competition with the bartender’s shirt about how not to cover a chest down to the navel. It had to be glued on to avoid exposing the woman. High heels a stripper would envy, too - but Caridad didn’t miss how easily Dyson moved in them.

    “Hi there,” the woman said, beaming at her. “Weren’t you at the bank today?” Her voice was just a little bit husky.

    Play your role, Caridad reminded herself. You’re a stranded college girl, not a Slayer about to kill a demon. “Oh, yes,” She nodded. “I needed more cash - I wasn’t planning to stay here, but my car broke down.” She frowned, pretending to have trouble remembering. “Were you the woman in the back office? I only caught a glimpse of you, I think.”

    Dyson’s smile widened. “Oh, yes, I work there.” She sat down in an older armchair next to the couch, leaned back and sipped from a glass. Close enough Caridad could kick her in the knee without getting up. Close enough so the demon stench grew stronger.

    “Ah. Well, I would’ve remembered you right away if you had been dressed like this.” Caridad clenched her teeth. Her cover identity would fill the silence with stupid chatter, but it grated on her nerves. Especially the way Dyson’s smile grew a little more smug in return. She really wanted to slay the bitch.

    “I would love to dress like this all day, but the bank has a strict dress code.” Dyson ran a hand down the middle of her chest and shrugged.

    Yeah, right. As strict as a stoned hippy acting as a chaperone at Mardi Gras! “Well, I doubt anyone would be able to work around you.” She forced herself to laugh.

    Dyson laughed as well. It was a surprisingly normal laugh. Not stilted or overdone. Nor husky. But then the woman leaned forward and gave her a half-lidded look. “You among them?” Her tongue quickly wet her red lips. Her hand holding the drink almost brushed against Caridad’s knee - without spilling her drink.

    Caridad didn’t lean back. She was the Slayer. It took a lot more to intimidate her than some skank putting the moves on her. “I would be wondering how the dress stayed on.”

    She blinked, surprised at herself. She hadn’t meant to say that.

    Dyson laughed again, more throatily this time. “That’s a secret best revealed in more intimate circumstances.”

    That sounded stilted. More fitting to a flirting Phil than to a young Californian woman. Caridad frowned and pulled back a little. The air stank of demon. And it wasn’t as if anyone was paying attention to them - most of the crowd was too busy or too drunk or high.

    Dyson smirked for a moment, then smiled more gently and put a hand on her knee. “I didn’t scare you, did I? You’re a very attractive woman, and I feel attracted.”

    “Ah, I don’t scare easily,” Caridad retorted, crossing her legs to get the hand off her knees. “I don’t get easily distracted, either.” She was the Slayer. And Dyson was a demon. Or possessed by a demon. Either way, the woman was Caridad’s prey. And Caridad didn’t swing that way, anyway.

    Dyson didn’t seem to get the message, though. “I can be very distracting.” The woman breathed, and the room seemed to grow a little hotter. That wasn’t normal. Caridad had been hit on by women before - who wouldn’t hit on a Slayer? - and with better lines and much better personalities. And more alcohol. This was… something demony. And since she hadn’t actually drunk from her coke, it couldn’t be the drink. The air? A kind of gas? Or some demon aura?

    And was the woman just going after an attractive tourist or did she suspect Caridad was more than a simple college girl? “So it seems,” she told Dyson. “I came to drink and dance, and haven’t done much of either.”

    And now she sounded like a character in one of the cheesy B-movies Chuck and Morgan liked to watch.

    Dyson beamed at her. “Oh, let’s dance!” She grabbed Caidad’s hand, pulling her to her feet. “I love dancing!”

    Caridad usually did as well. Just not with some demon. Or in the middle of people who really should get a room. And touching the demon? She wanted to rip her hand out of the demon’s grip - and smash it into Dyson’s face. She managed to pull it back and even smile when the woman turned towards her with a mock-hurt expression that quickly turned into a smirk.

    “Sorry! I’m sometimes a little overly enthusiastic. I just love dancing.”

    Keep your cover! Caridad reminded herself. There were two dozen civilians around them And more outside. “It’s OK. I was just surprised.”

    They were on the dancefloor - not that it was an actual dancefloor; just an area where people danced. The crowd had parted for Dyson without a word - but everyone was looking at her. And at Caridad. Just as the song ended.

    Great.

    “Greg! Something sexy!” Dyson yelled, waving at the DJ.

    “I know I may be young, but I’ve got feelings too…”

    Greg had picked Britney Spears. And the crowd loved it.

    “All you people look at me like I’m a little girl…”

    The crowd was definitely not looking at Dyson and Caridad as if they were little girls. It felt more as if they were a BBQ spread surrounded by hungry lions. Well, Caridad wasn’t some piece of meat - she was the Slayer. And she could take a room full of teenagers if they tried something.

    Dyson started dancing, still wearing that damn smirk. And moving as if she needed a stripper pole, and had decided that Caridad would do as a replacement.

    Challenge accepted. She raised her chin and met Dyson’s eyes, and started to dance herself.

    They circled each other as they moved around the dance floor. Dyson was good - very good. Smooth, sexy, seductive. Her body seemed to flow as she weaved, shaking her hips and chest. And kept that smug smile up.

    But Caridad was the Slayer. She had supernatural grace and strength. And the training to use it. She wouldn’t be outdone by a demon. She smiled back, flashing her teeth, and moved closer. She could kill the demon any time she wanted. She was the most dangerous, most graceful person in the room.

    They were touching now as they moved. Legs. Thighs. Chests. Fleeting touches as they turned at first. But soon, they were dancing so close, they were always touching each other somewhere. Rubbing against each other.

    Then Dyson was leaning into her, pressing her back into Caridad’s front, throwing her head back to rest on Caridad’s shoulder, Dyson’s hair tickling her face for a moment. Hands running through her own hair, caressing her head...

    Caridad shuddered. The demon stench filled her nose. This was wrong. What was she doing? She was the Slayer. Not some… whatever.

    Dyson laughed and turned around, hands on her back, chest pressed against Caridad’s. Licking her lips. Then she leaned forward, arms wrapping around Caridad, lips closing in…

    Caridad put a hand on Dyson’s face, stopping her. As if she’d let anyone kiss her - least of all a sex demon who might control or kill her with a kiss.

    Dyson drew back, but her smug smile didn’t waver. She kept dancing, and they were circling each other again. Playing games.

    She wasn’t here to play games. She was here to hunt a demon. And she had found the demon. Now she just had to figure out how to slay it. Well, slay it without hurting a possessed human. Not too much, at least.

    As the current song - when had they switched? - ended, she curtly nodded at the demon and turned to leave the dance floor. She needed a drink. A drink without some demon poison in it. Perhaps a quick trip to the local gas station was in order… no, that would look like she was fleeing from the demon. Slayers didn’t flee. Certainly not from some demon skank.

    But… She blinked. John was there, standing in a corner near the bar. When had he entered? And where was Phil? Dumb question - her Watcher was far too old for this club. John probably had to sneak in, too.

    She pulled her phone out. Several texts - yes, John had sneaked in. Phil was outside. They weren’t bothering with veiled texts any more. Good. She texted Phil.

    Some demon poison or drug in drinks. Whole room stinks.

    He would know what that was - and how to counter it.

    Should she approach John? He was attractive, and it would spite Dyson. She glanced back over her shoulder. The demon skank was still dancing - but staring at John.

    Clenching her teeth, Caridad stalked over to John. He was hers. If Dyson made a move, she’d slay her on the spot!

    John was staring at the skank, she noticed. That was to be expected - eyes on the threat! - but… his eyes weren’t as focused as they usually were. Damn.

    Though when she reached him, his attention switched to her. Caridad’s relief was short-lived, though - John was looking at her like he had been looking at Dyson: not quite focused and with a leer on his face. But he hadn’t drunk anything, had he?

    “Hey…” He took a step closer, his arms wrapping around her.

    For a moment, she relaxed despite herself. Then she felt his hands move down her back. She clenched her teeth and pushed him away. “That’s not you - that’s the drug!” she hissed.

    “Huh?” He looked confused.

    “You’ve been drugged!” she repeated herself. “Snap out of it!”

    He blinked. Then he frowned, and she drew a sharp breath. It was working!

    But he kept frowning at her - and staring at her chest. No, it wasn’t working.

    “Hey!”

    She gasped. Whirling, she found herself facing Dyson far too close for comfort. Almost sword range. How had the woman sneaked up on her?

    “Hey!” John smiled again - at Dyson!

    Caridad grabbed his arm. He was hers. It earned her another frown, but she ignored it as she ignored his attempts to pull his arm out of her grip. “He’s taken,” she spat.

    “Really?” Dyson’s smug smile widened as her eyebrows rose. “That’s not how it works here, honey.” Once more, she licked her lips. “Everyone here is free to do as they please - and choose their partners.”

    Caridad growled in return. John was hers! She glared at the skank, then grabbed John and kissed him.

    He quickly got it into it, and his hands started roaming again. She didn’t care for the moment. It felt good. Very good. She glanced at the demon - Dyson was still smirking. Didn’t she care? Or… Caridad broke the kiss and pulled back. Was this part of the demon’s plan? She glanced around for a moment. Was the demon just interested in people having sex and not particularly in with whom they did it?

    John was trying to pull her into his arms again. To hell with this. She glared at the demon and grabbed John’s hand. “Come!” She started to pull him towards the closest dark corner, not breaking eye contact with the demon skank until Dyson turned back towards the dance floor.

    Caridad sighed. That could’ve gone better. Hell, why had she kissed John? She should’ve slain Dyson! Was she drugged as well?

    John used her brief distraction and grabbed her again, kissing her again. She moaned a little - even drugged, he was good at this. Damn… She blinked. No. She was drugged. This wasn’t a post-slaying thing. This was whatever Dyson was doing to everyone in here.

    Cursing, she broke the kiss again and dragged John, who was protesting in a confused manner, towards the back door. Warehouses always had a back door. And if there wasn’t, she’d make one.

    But there was a back door - with a broken ‘emergency exit’ sign above it. Someone had cut the chain that had secured it - probably John. Caridad didn’t really care. She pulled it open and dragged John outside.

    He tried to grab her again, but she wouldn’t have it. They were both drugged. This was wrong. She kept him at bay with one hand against his chest and texted Phil with the other.

    We’ve been drugged. Out back.

    Phil arrived a minute later - she heard him coming. And she heard him sigh with relief when he saw her and John before he addressed her. “What happened?”

    “The demon’s drugging everyone with some aphrodisiac. It’s in the drinks, but it’s also in the air. I didn’t drink anything, and I don’t think John did either - but…

    She looked at John, who was still trying to hug and kiss her.

    Phil nodded. “I see.” He glanced around. “I think we should remove ourselves from the premises; the drug - or whatever causes this effect - might allow the demon to control the affected.”

    Which meant she might find dozens of horny teenagers and college-age people attacking her at Dyson’s command. As much as she wanted to slay the skank, this wasn’t a good time to attack the demon.

    Clenching her teeth, she nodded. “Let’s head back to the motel.”

    “I concur.”

    They gave the warehouse’s entrance a wide berth; better to avoid getting spotted by the teenagers there. Damn - until they knew more about Dyson’s nature, they had to assume any young man or woman in Malcolm’s Ridge was a thrall of hers.

    This was rapidly turning into a clusterfuck, as Faith would call it.

    *****​

    By the time they reached the parking lot of the motel - through various deserted side-roads - John had started to get back to normal. Somewhat.

    “What the…?” He shook his head, blinking and looking around as if he had no idea where he was.

    “You were drugged,” she told him.

    “I didn’t drink anything… gas?”

    “Something like it,” she agreed.

    “It could’ve been an aura as well,” Phil said. “At least we now can assume it’s short-lived and being removed from the source allows people to overcome its effects.

    John grunted in agreement through clenched teeth. He was angry - very angry - Caridad knew.

    “She won’t get away with this,” she said.

    “No, she won’t.” He showed his teeth with a fierce expression.

    *****​

    “I didn’t find anyone watching us,” Caridad reported as she climbed into Phil and John’s room through the window.

    “And the room’s clear,” John added. He was sitting on the bed, but he was still tense. Angry.

    Phil nodded. “The demon might be overconfident, although we shouldn’t underestimate her.”

    “Her minions are teenagers and college-age kids,” Caridad said, grabbing an energy bar and plopping down on the bed next to John. “Not exactly the ones running the town.”

    “She must have significant influence among the older generation as well,” Phil retorted, “or she wouldn’t have received permission to open such a… ‘youth centre’.”

    The way her Watcher pursed his lips when talking about the club would’ve been funny if Caridad and John hadn’t experienced what was going on there. She nodded. “She could be fooling them into thinking this is some harmless teenage club.”

    John shook his head. “No. Not the way everyone dressed. And I doubt they’re all back in time for curfew.”

    “Quite. I cannot imagine that the parents of those kids would ignore such behaviour,” Phil agreed.

    “Or the local law enforcement,” John added. “She must have undermined the entire town.”

    “That’s a tall order for a single demon,” Phil said. “And in a few months at most? Even if we assume it is a succubus, that’s hard to imagine.”

    “A succubus?” John asked.

    “Demon that drains people of their life through sex,” Caridad told him.

    John glanced at her. “I’m familiar with the myth.”

    Then why did he ask? She pouted a little.

    “But succubi drain people, ah, personally. It’s not unheard of that hedonistic cults form around one such demon, though not on this scale.” Phil coughed.

    “She didn’t seem to mind that I dragged John off,” Caridad said. “That could’ve been a trick, of course.”

    “There are reports of demons corrupting people before feeding on them, although what consists of ‘corruption’ tends to vary according to the various scholars who penned the report,” Phil explained.

    “Free love isn’t corruption according to Willow,” Caridad pointed out.

    Phil cleared his throat. “I don’t think Miss Rosenberg meant demon-induced orgies between mind-controlled people.”

    No, Willow wouldn’t have meant that. Caridad grimaced at the witch’s likely reaction to this.

    “She better not,” John growled.

    “But we digress. Dyson must be controlling more than just the youth of the town.” Phil shook his head slightly. “And her ‘aura’, as well as a possible cloud of pheromones or other aerosols, can only spread so far.” He coughed again. “For all that it works quite rapidly.”

    Caridad frowned. “Were you affected as well?” She leaned forward, hands on her knees. If the demon had tried to get her hands on Caridad’s Watcher…

    Phil actually blushed a little. “I’ve felt some, ah, stirrings. Nothing that would even come close to a compulsion, though.”

    Her eyes widened. ‘Stirrings’? Oh. She grinned for a moment, which earned her a frown. Schooling her features, she said: “But you weren’t inside.”

    “It started before the evening, actually,” Phil said. Then he blinked and cursed under his breath, looking at the water heater on the table in the corner. “Bloody hell! It started after tea!”

    “The water!” John blurted out.

    But how had the demon found out about… Oh. Oh, no. “She’s poisoned the town’s water supply?”

    Phil nodded. “Probably with some magical substance that makes people more pliable - and more, ah…”

    “...horny,” she finished for him and grinned at his frown. But only for a moment - this was a serious situation. “If she can control the entire town…”

    “I would hope she cannot mentally control them, but even if we assume a best-case scenario, she would be able to easily plant some suggestions amongst law enforcement and other authorities,” Phil said.

    “Or whip up a lynch mob,” John added.

    “Quite. It behoves us to resolve this situation posthaste.” Phil shook his head. “And we need to secure a safe water supply.”

    “I can go buy some bottled water,” Caridad offered. “Unless that would look suspicious.”

    “It wouldn’t look odd for your cover identity to buy overpriced mineral water,” Phil replied, “But the amount of water we need might be suspicious.”

    “I can filter water from the river nearby,” John said.

    “We might have to resort to such measures,” Phil said. “Although sabotaging whatever means the demon uses to tamper with the water supply should be our first priority.”

    “Yes,” Caridad agreed.

    “If we manage this without being noticed, we might even catch the demon by surprise when her control starts to slip,” Phil added.

    John looked pensive. Caridad poked him. He jerked, then glanced at her. “If it’s the water, then why didn’t you smell it?”

    “Not all magical compounds are of demonic origin,” Phil replied for her. “And Slayers, probably by design as the Shadowmen, who created the First Slayer, were without a doubt practitioners of magic, cannot sense every kind of magic.Although the concentration might’ve been too low to be noticeable in any case.”

    “Yes.” Cariad pressed her lips together. That was a weakness of the Slayers. “We can sense demony stuff. But other magic?” She shrugged. “Hit or miss.” The Scoobies had told her and the others a number of stories where that blind spot had caused a lot of trouble.

    “In any case, we need to prepare to inspect the town’s water supply,” Phil told them.

    “I’ll text Chuck and the others,” Caridad said. They should have blueprints and other intel soon. “If we hurry, we can do it tonight.” The evening was still young, after all - it wasn’t even midnight yet.

    “Please do it, dear.” Phil smiled. “I shall work on defences against such influences.”

    “I’ll get us clean water.” John stood.

    Caridad stood as well. “I’ll come with you.” She could text on the way. John, all alone out there… in a town controlled by a demon. A demon who had enthralled him before… She didn’t want to let him go without her. “I can carry more water,” she said.

    He probably knew why she was coming with him but he agreed. “Alright.”

    They slipped out of the window in the back - the lack of light there made it easy - and started walking towards the river. John was carrying the water purification gear including the empty container while Caridad finished texting Chuck about their results - on her Slayer phone this time. “Willow really needs to make a spy phone,” she commented as she put the phone away.

    She saw him glance at her in return before he climbed down a ravine.

    “A phone that sends out a harmless looking text message on the cellphone network every time you send out an untraceable Slayer text,” she explained. “Using a normal phone on the off-chance that someone is observing you and notices that no text shows up in the network is a pain.”

    He grunted. “As a spy, you can’t be too careful about your cover. Especially when operating in areas under the complete control of the enemy.”

    “Like Cuba?”

    “Yes.”

    “Wouldn’t they already suspect you if they’re watching you so closely that they’d notice you texting without texting?” she asked, looking around for trouble as they approached the river.

    “Yes.”

    “Isn’t the cat out of the bag by then?”

    “Suspicion isn’t enough to make a move. Usually.” He knelt down to set up the filter. “That’s why they observe you - to find proof. And your contacts.”

    She’d heard that before. It wasn’t wrong - certainly not in a town which might be mind-controlled by a demon - but she didn’t have to like it. This was the second undercover mission in a row where a demon was sexually harassing her and she couldn’t just slay it. Was it too much to ask for a nice, simple fight? She huffed as John finished setting up.

    “It won’t take long,” he said, sitting down on a rock at the riverbank.

    “Yes.” She wasn’t concerned about the filtering taking too long. “It’s up to Chuck and his dad, anyway,” she said.

    “They shouldn’t have any trouble getting us the information,” John said.

    She glanced at him. He wasn’t looking at her or at the water container. He was looking at the river. And he had pushed his night-vision goggles up. So he couldn’t really see anything in the darkness. Unlike her.

    Ah. She sat down next to him. “We’ll get the demon.”

    He nodded a little jerkily.

    After a moment, she said: “It got me too.”

    “Not like me,” he replied. His jaw muscles twitched. “I was completely…” He trailed off.

    “It even affected Phil.” And wasn’t that a terrifying thought? Well, sort of terrifying. Phil getting down with the people in the club… Ew. She grimaced. Even if it was a little amusing.

    “Not like it affected me. I had no control anymore.” John still wasn’t looking at her. “I just wanted to fuck.”

    She leaned into him and wrapped her arm around his waist. “We’ll take her out.”

    “I’ll wear a respirator next time. If it’s something in the air, it should help.”

    “Good idea. I’ll take one as well.” It’d be a bitch to wear in a fight, but if it kept the succubus from turning her into some sex-crazed bimbo, it was worth it. Not that this was likely - the demon had already taken its best shot on the dance floor, hadn’t it? - but better safe than sorry.

    “Good.” He took a deep breath - she could feel his chest move. “I’m still affected.”

    She hesitated a moment. How to answer that? She chuckled. “That’s just me being all over you. I’d be concerned if you weren’t turned on.”

    He chuckled in return. But he still hesitated a second longer before he put his arm around her shoulders.

    She closed her eyes, letting her cheek rest on his shoulder. Inhaling his scent. No demon stench here. She was still tempted to slide into his lap and kiss him. Push him down on the rock and...

    She snorted. Perhaps she was still affected as well. Or just frustrated. But as tempting as it was, this wasn’t the time for it. John was still a little shaky from the whole thing.

    Her cell phone vibrated. She straightened and checked the display. And grinned.

    “Chuck got us the blueprint and guard schedules.”

    “Good.”

    *****​

    Caridad took a sip from the water bottle and grimaced. The water might be clean, but it tasted far too chemical. Or something. John needed better water purification tabs. Or better filters.

    But that could wait for the debriefing. In Los Angeles. Now they had to break into the local waterworks.

    She stashed the bottle in her belt pouch and studied the area in front of her again. Chain link fence, barely seven feet tall - she could clear that in a standing leap. Solid concrete buildings, few windows, all of them barred - but according to the data from Chuck, the locks weren’t exactly meant to keep out spies. John could pick them easily. There were cameras, but they had bigger blind spots than a road train.

    And the guards - two deputies from the local police - meant to patrol it were driving off. They hadn’t even gotten out of their car for their ‘patrol’. “Coast’s clear,” she whispered.

    John grunted in return.

    “Indeed,” Phil commented. “Let’s go.”

    Caridad nodded and slid down into the dry gulch they were hiding on, then started to make her way to the side of the building, the part the cameras didn’t cover. She could easily reach the fence there. A last check - she couldn’t see anything dangerous or suspicious - and she stood, then jumped, easily clearing the fence and landing in the yard of the waterworks.

    Half a minute later, she was hanging from the roof of the main building, fiddling with the cables of the camera covering the gate. It would be easy to just cut them, but that might be noticed. Much better to loop it - or have Chuck loop it as soon as she managed to connect the wifi thingie that he needed to remote-hack it.

    And that took far longer than she liked. Couldn’t they make those things easier to use?

    *****​
     
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  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 14: The Demon Intern Part 3
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 14: The Demon Intern Part 3

    California, Malcolm’s Ridge, June 24th, 2008

    Finally! The thingie Chuck had given Caridad was working - at least if the display wasn’t lying to her. She texted him.

    Connected.

    His reply came at once.

    Hacking.

    Good. She turned to look at the ravine where John was hiding. He knew his business - if she hadn’t known where he was, she probably wouldn’t have spotted him. Probably - she was the Slayer, after all. And she cold spot Phil. Who would be watching out for anyone coming their way.

    Her phone vibrated again.

    Done. Cameras looped.

    She turned back towards John and tapped the button of her radio. “Cameras looped.”

    He was already moving, though - Chuck must have sent the text to everyone. There he was, on the road - at the gate.

    Less than a minute later, he pushed the gate open and slipped inside.

    Caridad left the thingie connected - she would collect it afterwards - and jumped down to meet him at the building’s entrance.

    That door didn’t slow them down much, either - John’s tools made short work of it.

    Caridad pushed past him, entering first. And grimaced. “Ugh. Smells like demon skank.”

    “Respirators up!” John replied. He was already pulling his on.

    Caridad didn’t hesitate, either. She didn’t want to have a quickie in the middle of a break-in. The teasing she’d go through when it came out… And it would be unprofessional. Even though she might be able to blame the demon gas for it…

    Damn, was she already affected by a short whiff to check for the gas? Probably.

    She nodded to herself and moved ahead. The entrance didn’t look impressive - a big, spartan room with several doors and a single desk that looked so old, it might’ve been taken from a garage sale in the forties. And the computer was straight from the 90s. The chair behind it was newer - but also looked battered.

    Whoever worked here wasn’t a priority for funding. That would’ve made it easy for the demon to infiltrate the plant. On the other hand, those who got plush offices were usually easy to corrupt as well.

    She shook her head. This wasn’t the time to get distracted. They were on a mission. She checked the desk. Usually, there would be… yes! A master key! Labelled as such! Thank God for lazy bureaucrats!

    She held the key up to John, smiling under her mask.

    He nodded in return and went to check the doors on the right side - which led to the locker and break room of the staff according to the floorplans Chuck had gotten them. She joined him. Just in case - with a demon involved, you couldn’t know what might be lurking in any room.

    The locker room was empty, as was the break room. But… “The bed is new,” she commented. New but well-used. She was glad she had a respirator - she was sure the room would smell like, well, like a honeymoon suite before cleaning and airing without one. Probably even with a gas mask.

    John grunted in response. “Nothing here.”

    “Then let’s check the rest of the building.”

    That took some time - but, as a quick check of her watch assured Caridad, the next patrol was still an hour away. If it actually came - she had her doubts about that. And even if it came, odds were the cops would just drive up to the gate, turn and drive away, as they had done before.

    Unless the graveyard shift patrol was done by the rookie of the team who actually took their duties seriously, of course.

    They passed rooms without anything demony inside, one room with a fishtank - to check the water quality, supposedly. Caridad hoped that they didn’t let the water the fish used back into the pipes.

    Then they arrived at the main room. Where the main water pipeline was. And Caridad smelled the demons tench through the door and despite her respirator.

    Damn.

    “The room must be full of the gas,” she whispered. “Even the respirator might not be enough.” She looked at John. Despite his respirator, she could see he was clenching his teeth. “Best get back to the entrance,” she said, tilting her head. She could resist the demony influence better than he could.

    He stiffened, then nodded and turned away.

    She waited until he had closed the door to the next hallway behind him, then opened the door. And held her breath. If she was quick, she wouldn’t have to actually inhale the gas.

    Looking around, she couldn’t see anything suspicious. And the whole room must reek of demon skank, so abandoning all caution and trying to sniff out the origin wouldn’t work well, either. Although… she took out her phone and checked the pictures Chuck had sent them. The old picture.

    Then she looked around again.

    Jackpot.

    There was a box near the main valve that wasn’t on the year-old picture.

    And it looked newer - and different - than the rest of the machinery and pipes here. The way it was connected to the valve also looked… not quite solid. More… jury-rigged, Chuck would call it.

    She kept holding her breath as she approached it. A quick jump later, she was on the pipe and could lift the lid on top of the box. Ew. That was some… aquarium? A glass tank filled with green water. And she could smell the demon stench even without taking a breath and wearing a respirator.

    This was some seriously nasty stuff. She closed the lid and quickly used duck type to seal the gaps.

    Now how to get the thing away?

    She bit her lower lip. Holding her breath was starting to get difficult, too. She could retreat to the door… no. The hallway was filled with this stuff anyway. She was the Slayer.

    Gritting her teeth, she checked the valve. There was a small transparent pipe running from the tank into the main pipe. She could see a single drop flow down and vanish in the main valve. She could just rip the box off and stop this!

    No. The workers would notice. Probably. Swap out the demony water with food coloured water? Or green Gatorade? Hell, why bother? She grabbed a zip tie from her jacket’s pocket and squeezed the pipe shut, then tied it off.

    No more demony skank horny poison in the water!

    But she really needed to breathe now. She jumped off and rushed towards the hallway. Door. Open Through. Close it. Close it. Keep going. Down the hallway. Next door. Her lungs felt like burning. She pulled it open, dashed through and pulled it close behind her as she passed it.

    Then she took a deep breath. Ah…

    And gagged. The stench was so strong - much stronger than before! She blinked. Had they flooded the entire building? No, that wouldn’t…

    “Your clothes are contaminated by the stuff,” John told her. “Don’t remove your respirator until they’re aired out.”

    She hadn’t been planning to remove it, but if she could smell the stuff, then it wasn’t working. Not perfectly, at least. It might also seep in through her pores. She probably shouldn’t have used that lotion to clean them.

    “I found a tank, aquarium-sized, full of demony water - green. I pinched the pipe leading into the main valve shut, but we need to replace it to make sure no one is going to fix it,” she told him, suppressing the urge to cough.

    “Green coloured water?”

    “Like, lime green.” Damn - she might not be able to drink some sodas for a while.

    “We need food colouring then. Or some neutral dye that won’t show up in filters.”

    “Yes.” It was getting hot here - or the sprint while holding her breath had taken more effort than she had thought. Or… Damn. The skank gas was affecting her. “There’s a 7/11 in town,” she said. If they drove back, she could air her head and clothes. Keep calm.

    John touched the radio button. “Phil, do you have something?”

    Right. Phil had listened over the radio, she reminded herself.

    “As a matter of fact, I believe we could create a reasonable facsimile of the contaminated water with green tea as a base.” Phil sounded cool and collected. Reassuring, as usual.

    “Good. We’ll come fetch it.” John nodded at her. “Let’s go!”

    Caridad dashed to the entrance and out of the building. She barely remembered not to remove her respirator right away - she could feel the cool, fresh air on her skin. And she felt hot. And bothered. Like after a really good hunt. No, better than that. Or worse, actually. Damn.

    She closed her eyes as she waited for John to catch up and tried to breathe shallowly. That should keep the poison from filling her lungs.

    John appeared faster than she had hoped and they made their way through the gate to the road, where Phil was just coming out from the underbrush. He held up a small can.

    “Why do you have green tea with you, anyway?” Caridad asked, more to distract herself from her poison problem than out of actual curiosity.

    “I was told that taking my preferred tea with us would endanger our cover. Although opinions on the level of said danger vary, it felt prudent to take some tea with us that I’m not very fond of,” he explained.

    Ah.

    “A fortunate coincidence, I would say.”

    John grunted and grabbed the small can. “We’ll manage. Stay here - the building is full of the agent.”

    “I see.” Phil nodded and glanced at her.

    “We’ve been wearing respirators for the whole insertion,” she said.

    Her watcher frowned but nodded. “Be careful anyway.”

    “No worry!” She smiled even though he wouldn’t be able to see it under her mask, then turned and went back towards the waterworks.

    “Stay here,” she told John. “I’ll grab the electric kettle from the break room and a couple extension cables.” She wasn’t about to make a few gallons of tea inside that building.

    “I’ll get clean water.”

    She nodded. It wouldn’t really help to use the contaminated water, after all, and she’d rather not try to tap water from before the valve - odds were, she’d wreck the whole system. Then she went inside, once again holding her breath.

    Kettle, kettle - there! She grabbed it and took it outside, then went inside again to grab the extension cables.

    Plugging them in didn’t take long. Then she had to wait for John to arrive with the water.

    He was taking his time, but she didn’t mind. It helped clear her head. Somewhat. And without John nearby, she didn’t feel so… tempted. Her clothes might even air out enough to breathe fresh air - who knew what demony gas did to fabric, anyway?

    Willow probably would know, but Caridad didn’t feel like sending a text to ask. It wasn’t as if she could do anything about it, anyway. She just had to ride this out. Ugh. That was a bad image. She just had to tough this out.

    John arrived, carrying two cans of presumably river water. Perhaps she should’ve gone with him to help carry the load… but they might’ve done something else, too.

    Then it was time to fill the kettle and boil the water. Over and over again. And waste all of Phil’s green tea leaves with a streamer not quite up to the task. With John nearby. So close… so handsome.

    But she had to get the contaminated tank out first, so they had a container to put the clean-ish water inside - Caridad wasn’t entirely sure green tea counted as clean, and briefly boiled river water might not be the cleanest water, either. On the other hand, it would be so diluted, she doubted anyone would notice.

    “I’ll fetch the tank,” she whispered.

    “Careful.”

    She snorted, took a deep breath before putting her respirator on and dashing inside.

    Reaching the tank was no problem. Getting it off the pipe was a little tricky, but she figured out how to unplug it. Eventually. She tipped it over and let it flow down the drain in the room. It might not be the best idea - but where else should they put it? Outside in the sand, for anyone to stumble over? Into the river? Wait. It probably went into the river anyway… Damn.

    It must be the damn demon skank agent. Caridad was feeling really hot and bothered already. Clenching her teeth, she grabbed the tank and ran outside. “I’m washing it out!” she snapped to John as she ran past him and kept going, not waiting for an answer. If she stopped, she might… She buried the thought and jumped over the fence to save time. The river was close, and she really needed to wash out the tank. And take a cold shower. Or a cold dip in the river.

    *****​

    Boiling all the water and wasting all of Phil’s green tea leaves took a felt eternity. Or about an hour. An hour spent in wet clothes, watching John pour water from one container into the next and use a tiny streamer meant for one.

    “That doesn’t look lime green,” John said.

    “It’s close enough,” Caridad retorted. She wasn’t looking at him, bent over the tank. That would only fire up her imagination again, just when she was pretty much OK. Mostly.

    Phil’s voice rang out over the radio. “I can see a car approaching.”

    The patrol! Damn. “It’ll have to do!” Caridad snapped, grabbing the tank. “Don’t wait for me!” They had a few minutes until the cops were there. Barely enough. She ran - as fast as she could carrying a full tank - to the main valve while John stashed the heater and extension cables.

    She reached the room without having to breathe but ran out of time trying to put the stupid tank back. At least the air should be a little better, what with the tank having been removed an hour ago.

    It wasn’t. She could feel the effects even as she finally wrangled the tank on top of the valve. She really wanted… needed...

    No! She needed to finish this, then get out before the stupid cops arrived! Finish the mission! No nookie now!

    In her haste, she almost ripped the small pipe off. Then she was sprinting back to the entrance. “Situation?” she asked as soon as she was close enough for the radio to work.

    “They’ve parked in front of the gate.”

    Damn. Caridad would have to wait inside. Probably hide, if the damn cops actually did their job and got out. Well, that wouldn’t be too hard - plenty of nooks and crannies to hide from half-blind and tired normal people. She could probably fuck John here without them noticing…

    Bad image. Bad gas. Damn demon skank.

    “They’re driving off.”

    Finally! She clenched her teeth so hard, they almost broke, waiting for the all-clear from Phil, then dashed out, jumped over the fence again and went straight into the river.

    *****​

    On the drive back, neither John nor Phil said anything about her soaking in the river and having to go back to get Chuck’s thingie off the roof.

    Caridad wasn’t saying anything either. The cold water had helped, but she was still… more worked up than after a great blood-raising hunt.

    The demon skank would pay for this!

    They stopped a little short of the town, and Caridad all but jumped out of the car - while it was still rolling to a stop. “I’ll make a sweep for spies,” she snapped, then dashed forward.

    Cool air. Fresh air. And a task.

    She ran. Pumping her legs, jumping over large rocks and bushes instead of going around them, sprinting rather than jogging.

    Getting tired, getting exhausted was the point. A good workout that would leave her satisfied. Or at least too tired to give in to the skank gas or whatever it was. If she was lucky, she might even find a vampire to stake in the town.

    She dashed past the houses on the outskirts, past an empty parking lot, before she reached the main street. At this time of the night, it was deserted. The Denny’s had closed, only the gas station was still open - but the attendant was asleep behind his counter.

    She avoided the security cameras covering the street and quickly checked the area around the motel. No one was observing it - not from up close, in any case. She did a wider sweep, climbing up a few houses to check for spies watching through the windows.

    Nothing. That left the motel itself.

    “Status?”

    That was John. “Perimeter safe, checking motel,” she whispered into her radio before approaching the building. The lobby was empty - no graveyard shift for the clerk. Most of the rooms were empty according to the register, but she checked them anyway.

    One tourist who had arrived late. Asleep with the faint smell of alcohol in the room. If he was lucky, he’d leave before drinking the local water still left in the pipes.

    One woman who didn’t look like a tourist - her baggage was hastily packed. Someone moving out of her home? Leaving her partner? Caridad couldn’t tell. No sign that she was a spy, though.

    “Status?”

    John again. Mother hen. “Motel’s clear,” she replied. “Heading to bed. Wait a moment before you drive up to the motel.” That would make it look less suspicious.

    “Copy.”

    And she would hopefully be asleep before they arrived, and not have to think about John being just two rooms away.

    *****​

    California, Malcolm’s Ridge, June 25th, 2008

    Caridad woke up in a bed that reeked of sweat and faint traces of demon skank. Damn. She must have inhaled more of the stuff than she had thought. And, she noticed as she opened her eyes, she had torn her sheets to shreds in her sleep. That hadn’t happened in years! And she hadn’t had such vivid, lurid dreams in years, either!

    Of course, she hadn’t been dosed with some demony lust gas before.

    Kicking the remains of the sheet off the bed, she got up and went into the bathroom. She opened the taps on the sink and in the shower, then leaned against the wall and waited. How long would it take until the water was clear of the demon taint? Until she smelled green tea? But the dose was so diluted, even her nose might not catch it.

    Best just wait a few minutes and waste water. Ellie would hate it. Well, not if she knew what was in the water.

    At least Caridad wasn’t feeling the urge to go and jump John’s bones any more. Well, not more strongly than normal if they were separated for some time. Taking a deep breath, she smiled. She could handle this easily.

    The ice cold-shower helped, though.

    *****​

    After a few energy bars - Denny’s had just opened, but a college girl on vacation getting up so early after a long night would look suspicious - she sneaked into John and Phil’s rooms. Phil was asleep, but John was awake, one hand under his pillow where he kept a gun, when she closed the window. “Morning,” she said.

    “Morning,” he growled. He didn’t look well-rested, she noted.

    “Phil?” She had to repeat herself twice to wake him up.

    Her Watcher blinked, then yawned. “Good morning, dear.” After checking his watch on the sideboard, he added: “Good early morning.”

    She snorted. “I already had breakfast.” She held up an energy bar.

    “But not yet second breakfast.”

    She chuckled at the reference, but John scoffed. “What’s up?”

    He sounded a little harsher than usual. But he was staring at her. And he was carefully keeping his lower half covered by the sheets, she noticed. Oh.

    “Nothing much. I wanted to talk to you before you go and maintain your cover in the wilderness. Plan the attack on demony skank,” she added.

    “Ah.”

    “We need to wait and see how long it takes for the effects of the tainted water to end,” Phil said.

    “I’m already back to normal,” Caridad told him.

    “Indeed. But you are the Slayer, my dear. And you - like us - were only exposed for a day. I fear that the villagers might have been exposed for months.”

    “Oh.”

    Damn. “Dyson will refill the tank before it runs out, in that case,” Caridad said.

    “Indeed. We might need to be a little more proactively, I think,” Phil said.

    Caridad perked up. “Oh?”

    *****​

    According to the floorplans, Dyson’s apartment was rather small, Caridad thought as she approached the house from behind. One bedroom which doubled as a living room with an open kitchen, and a tiny bathroom - shower, no bathtub. One of four identical ones, forming the largest apartment building in town. Hell, it was barely twice the size of the motel room Caridad was staying in.

    But it had a balcony in the back, above the porch. And bad security. She could see the security camera covering the backyard - a sorry excuse for a lawn with a swing that probably hadn’t been used since the fifties - and the blind spots to the side. Easy to get around - especially if you were the Slayer and able to jump high enough to grab the roof’s edge and pull yourself up.

    “I’m at the apartment,” she whispered into her headset.

    “Copy,” John replied. “The target is confirmed to be at the bank.”

    Caridad frowned. It would’ve been perfect if the skank were at home. They could always prepare an ambush, but she hated waiting. Though unless Dyson went straight to her ‘club’ from work, she’d have to go home first.

    “Going in,” she whispered, then crawled along the fence until she was in the blind spot of the camera. A few seconds later, she was on the roof, prone to avoid getting spotted from the street.

    A few old folding chairs stood next to a rusted table - it didn’t seem as if any resident were using the roof. Good.

    She slipped her gas mask on and crawled forward until she reached the spot above Dyson’s balcony. A quick glance around didn’ reveal any witnesses nor security on the balcony, and she slid over the edge and dropped down on the balcony, crouching down behind the railing.

    Thick curtains prevented her from looking into the apartment - which would only be natural, of course, seeing as what Dyson was up to.

    The lock on the balcony door was so simple, she had it picked in less than a minute. She sniffed the air before opening the door, of course - clean. Good. She didn’t want to get a lungful of skank gas and end up too horny to do this.

    Inside, the apartment looked deceptively normal. The bed was made, not some mess of crumpled sheets and stained toys. The sink was clear, not full of used glasses with lipstick marks and the remains of liquor. No racy underwear littering the floor.

    She frowned, checking the trash can under the sink. Either Dyson had taken the trash out this morning, or she had eaten out. Which was a possibility, of course, but…

    The apartment wasn’t covered in dust; but clean. But something was off.

    Caridad checked the bathroom. Clean. Neat. But boring. The small cabinet didn’t contain anything that would’ve caused eyebrows to rise in a catholic boarding school.

    And neither did the armoire. The outfits were a little too revealing, but that was it. No racy lingerie. No toys. No occult tomes.

    She narrowed her eyes and looked around. Perhaps Dyson had a hidden compartment? Though that would make taking anyone home awkward. What person would go and pull off a floorboard to reveal their sex toy collection? Well, someone would love it, Caridad had no doubt. But it seemed… unlike Dyson.

    And there was no hidden compartment, as she quickly found out by knocking and listening. In fact, the whole apartment fit an average boring bank clerk, but not a demon skank.

    Perhaps… She clenched her teeth and lifted her mask up for a moment, taking a quick sniff.

    Clean air. Only the faintest hint of demon. And nothing of the lingering smells she had expected.

    She shook her head. “This is a decoy,” she told the others. “Dyson doesn’t actually live here.”

    “Are you sure?” John asked.

    “I don’t think anyone had sex in this bed in months,” she told him.

    “Ah.”

    “That would seem to be rather unusual for the type of demon - and person - we’re hunting,” Phil chimed in.

    “Can you find any documentation?” John asked. “Bills and such?”

    “Lemme see…” She rifled through a stack of letters on the table, next to a cheap laptop. “Only the bills you would expect here.”

    “She’s good,” John commented. “We’ll have to get Chuck to hack the bank records and see if she used her position to buy a house. If that doesn’t pay out, you’ll have to shadow her in the evening.”

    “She might still come here first thing after work. I could slay her,” Caridad pointed out.

    “If she has a second home - or a lair - there might be people in need of help. Victims,” Phil pointed out. “We need to ensure we won’t doom anyone by slaying the demon. And we need to determine whether Miss Dyson is possessed or was replaced by a demon.”

    Caridad sighed. He was right, of course. But it grated. She really wanted to slay the skank.

    *****​

    “Any change?” Caridad whispered into her headset as the sun started to set.

    “No change since your last check,” John replied. “Half an hour ago.”

    She frowned at the implied rebuke. She wasn’t impatient. Just… curious. And with good reason - anyone would be interested in knowing if removing the contaminated tank from the waterworks had had results already.

    And waiting for Dyson to leave her office so Caridad could shadow her was boring. Very boring. The damned demon hadn’t even left the office over lunch to go to her lair. Or go to a restaurant - she’d sent the clerk out to buy sandwiches from the gas station.

    Caridad sighed. At least she had managed to find a hiding spot in the shade, across the bank building. Unfortunately, it was close to the Denny’s, and so she had been tormented by the smell of fresh food all day. With only energy bars to tide her over until she could have lunch and later dinner at the restaurant.

    Speaking of food… She grabbed her last energy bar and started munching. It had been an hour since dinner, after all. Almost eighteen hours since they had sabotaged the demon scheme. And people weren’t back to normal, yet. Phil said it was likely that it was a gradual process - some people might not even realise that they had been acting weird. But they didn’t know. If it was permanent…

    She clenched her teeth. They needed a witch here, to check. But that could wait until they had dealt with the demon skank. Witches were in demand, and Cariad could handle a demon.

    If only the demon would show herself! It was past six - wasn’t the skank hungry? On the other hand, the bank clerk hadn’t left yet, either. If the demon was feeding...

    “Target logged out of her computer,” John reported. He was monitoring the cameras they had placed. And the feed from Chuck.

    Caridad grinned. The skank was finally leaving!

    And there she was, stepping out of the bank - followed by the clerk. Both were laughing. The clerk waved, then walked towards the parking lot while Dyson turned and walked past the Denny’s.

    “She’s walking towards her apartment,” Caridad reported, then started to move herself. In Los Angeles, she’d blend in with a crowd to tail someone, but in this town, there were no crowds. It was all about not being seen by anyone.

    Fortunately, Slayers were very good at stalking prey. Caridad dashed through the side alley - behind the Denny’s - and then quickly climbed the building next to it. Few people or demons ever looked up. And the side alleys were narrow enough to roof-hop.

    She kept up with Dyson all the way down to the apartment building. It wasn’t hard - the demon wasn’t walking fast. She was strutting. And stopping multiple times to flirt with someone.

    It seemed that whatever the demon had been pouring into the water didn’t stop working quickly - although John and Phil were back to normal, so it probably was related to how much and for how long you took the stuff. At least Phil had speculated about that.

    It didn’t matter now. She was going to shadow the demon to the lair, then start breaking things. And demons, Caridad thought as Dyson entered the building.

    “Target’s in the apartment,” John told her half a minute later. “Changing clothes.”

    “Copy.” Caridad stayed on the roof and watched the building across the street. She could spot some movement behind the curtains, but nothing more. But John, sitting with Phil in their landrover, could watch through the cameras they had placed. And cover the back.

    “She’s going out… in jogging clothes.”

    So that was her cover. Although ‘cover’ was probably not the right word, Caridad added to herself when she spotted the skimpy exercise outfit the demon had picked. It certainly didn’t cover much.

    The demon took off at a decent pace, but nothing Caridad couldn’t handle. She kept pace on the roofs until the end of the street, then jumped down and followed Dyson through the wilderness - if you could call it that.

    “She’s headed to a ranch,” She told the others after ten minutes of following the skank.

    “That’s supposedly uninhabited according to our records,” John replied. “But maintenance is being done.”

    “Our records need updating,” Caridad said as the demon passed through a gate. The fence looked new - and was high enough to stop more than cattle. The question was: Did it serve to keep people out or in?

    Then Dyson entered the main building. Caridad couldn’t see anyone inside before the door closed again.

    “She’s inside.”

    ”Stay put. We’re on the way.”

    “Copy.”

    Caridad sighed. More waiting.

    *****​

    “So?” Caridad wasn’t impatient. Not really. Just… focused on their goal. Which was slaying the demon in the ranch in front of her, with only a stupid fence and an old building keeping her from doing exactly that.

    “Looks like a standard security system,” John said without taking his night vision gear off. Cameras covering all angles. No motion detectors - any wildlife would set it off.”

    “They could be calibrated for human-sized targets,” Chuck pointed out over John’s phone, “by linking them with other sensors, but that’s not as reliable as you want it in a security system, and requires rather intensive maintenance. Nerd Herd had a client with such a system once, and he regularly had glitches until he ditched the entire system.”

    Caridad didn’t have to see John’s eyes to know that he was rolling them. Chuck meant well, but sometimes, you didn’t need the explanation, just the facts. And the middle of a mission was such a time.

    “So, we only have to deal with the cameras,” she said. Which was annoying enough.

    “Yes,” John confirmed. “But they don’t have many blind spots.”

    “We could just rush the place,” Caridad suggested. Who cared about a security system if you could just crush any response?

    “We don’t know what’s inside,” John retorted.

    “Indeed,” Phil added. “If this isn’t Dyson’s lair, but the lair of another, possibly more powerful demon, we would be in a rather sticky situation. It would behove us to proceed in a more subtle manner and reconnoitre the place before attacking anyone.”

    She clenched her teeth. “Fine. And how do we do that?” The cameras covered all approaches, as far as she could tell.

    “Bartowski?” John grunted.

    “Uh, yes… I looked for local firms that might’ve been hired to install the system - I don’t think Dyson had the skills to do it, and the cameras do look professionally set up - since such contracts often include a maintenance contract as well, and…”

    “Can you hack the cameras or not?” John interrupted him.

    “Uh, yes. Just give me a minute to finish hacking the maintenance firm so I can remote-access the cameras…”

    Caridad grinned when she heard John mutter a curse under his breath. Even though it meant more waiting.

    “Done! I can loop the cameras… oh. There’s no security camera in the interior.”

    She snorted. As if the skank wanted records of whatever went down in the ranch. Wait - the demon would probably like that. She certainly hadn’t had any trouble doing anything in her ‘club’. “Let’s hope that’s just her being cheap,” she said.

    But she didn’t think it was.

    In any case, if the cameras were looped, then Caridad could easily get over the fence. And then… the roof? Or a backdoor?”

    “Door’s opening.” John snapped.

    She looked at the front door. Dyson stepped out, still dressed in her skimpy exercise clothes. And she had a backpack this time. A stylish, small and likely overpriced backpack that wouldn’t last long on a hike or trip. “Should we track her?”

    “No,” Phil said. “We can find her easily in town. We need to investigate her lair first.”

    John grunted his agreement, and they waited and watched while Dyson closed the door, then locked the gate and started jogging back to town.

    Once she was out of sight, Caridad stood. “Let’s go.”

    “Bartowski, cut the cameras! I’ll pick the lock,” John said.

    “Uh… done!”

    Caridad suppressed the urge to just jump the fence and rush towards the main building whale John worked on the lock. It took him longer to pick it than at the waterworks. No surprise there - Dyson had set up this recently, and probably bought the best locks she could get.

    Which weren’t good enough. John pushed the gate open, and Caridad slipped in, looking around. “Looks clear.”

    “Animals would make any ground-based sensors problematic,” John said. “Let’s stay on the drive anyway.”

    If you could call the sorry road a drive, anyway. Not that there seemed to be any cars around.

    They approached the building, and Caridad made a quick detour to check the barn. It turned out to be as derelict as it looked. Filled with broken-down machinery and trash, it couldn’t even serve as a garage. And it didn’t smell demony at all.

    “Dyson’s not fond of rolls in the hay,” Caridad announced as she joined John and Phil at the door of the main building.

    “I take that to mean that you haven’t found any sign of a demonic presence in the barn,” Phil said.

    She pouted - he didn’t even laugh at her comment. “Only rubbish,” she told him.

    That term made him grin. A little. Typical!

    “It’s open,” John told them.

    She drew her sword and pushed the door open, revealing a small entry hall. She sniffed the air. “Smells like her. But not like her skank gas.”

    “That is both a relief and worrying, Phil said. “If she isn’t using the ranch for her, ah, carnal activities, then it must have another, possibly more nefarious, purpose.”

    “I don’t smell any old blood, either,” Caridad reported as she quickly checked the living room for threats. It didn’t look as if anyone used the living room, either. Nor the master bedroom - though that served as Dyson’s wardrobe; the armoire was new and full of skimpy and fetish clothes. But it looked like Dyson preferred to sleep with her victims in their homes. Or anywhere. But…

    She sniffed the air again. “Something… demony.” She could feel it. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

    “Where?” Phil asked.

    “Kitchen.” She looked around. The floor was clean. No dust. Unlike the countertop. Sighing, she pointed at the door to the basement next to the pantry.

    “It’s always the basement,” she complained. “Never the nice, airy top floor.”

    “The Cartel Cultists were on top of a high-rise,” John said.

    She rolled her eyes. That was an exception to the rule.

    They checked the door. No trap. No security. But… “Now it smells like skank,” Caridad said.

    “Mask up!” John snapped.

    Well, duh - she was already pulling her gas mask on. The last thing she wanted to do was getting horny here.

    Then she pulled the door open and studied the stairs behind it. No tripwires or raps that she could see. But there was a greenish glow below. The same colour as the water from the waterworks. And green glowy things were never a good sign.

    Clenching her teeth, she descended into the basement.

    And cursed as soon as she reached the bottom.

    There was a tub standing in the middle of the basement, full of greenish water. And a glowing crystal as large as her torso stood in the middle of it.

    She didn’t know what it was, but she knew that this was bad. Very bad. Double-plus ungood, as Buffy would say.

    *****​
     
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  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 15: The Demon Intern Part 4
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 15: The Demon Intern Part 4

    California, Malcolm’s Ridge, June 25th, 2008

    Green glowy crystals. Damn. That was like a sure sign of evilness. Or, at least, badness. And her Slayer-senses agreed. Demony evil.

    Caridad tapped her radio. “Phil? There’s something down here you need to see.”

    “I’m on my way,” he replied.

    John arrived first, and she heard him mutter a curse under his breath. Then he took out a small device. “It’s not radioactive.”

    “But it’s evil, isn’t it, dear?” Phil said.

    “Yes,” she replied.

    The rest of the basement was empty. Mostly. Some broken pots and the remains of a shelf or something were spread around in one corner. In another, there was a staple of old books - paperbacks, not the bound tome-y books. Too dusty to read their titles. But there was but nothing suspicious or anything.

    “What is this?” John asked.

    “That is a good question,” Phil replied, not taking his eyes off the crystal even as he reached into his bag and took out a few supplies - spell components, as Xander and Andrew called them. “The arrangement is unfamiliar, but the setup is intriguing. The water seems to be saturated with the same substance that has such a particular effect on people.”

    ‘Particular effect’? Caridad looked at her Watcher. He really was a little too fussy sometimes.

    John grunted. “Is the crystal soaking it up?”

    “No.” Phil shook his head. “I had the same hypothesis, but I can safely deny this; the contaminated water isn’t used to corrupt a crystal; the crystal itself is, according to my analysis so far, of demonic origin and, therefore, already what we call corrupt. Or corrupting.”

    “‘Corrupting’?” Caridad gasped. “Is this thing, like, affecting us?” With some horny radiation?

    She took a step back.

    “No, it’s not affecting us - it’s actually affecting the water. This is what is producing the substance the demon uses on others.”

    “Oh.” That made more sense. “But… we’ve got water in our bodies.” She didn’t want to find out if her blood could become actually ‘passionate’ like in some of the novels of Willow she hadn’t read. “Is it sending its corrupting energy at us?”

    “Oh, it’s not like that. Look at the tub,” Phil said, pointing at it. “There are markings on the inside which focus the, ah, ‘corrupting energy’ of the crystal like a lens.”

    Caridad couldn’t see Phil’s face through his mask, but she knew he was pursing his lips at the term ‘corrupting energy’. Well, it fit, in her opinion.

    “So if we destroy this, she won’t have any way to replenish her stash,” John said.

    “We don’t know that,” Phil replied. “However, she might notice, if the crystals are tied to her somehow.”

    “Like the source of her evil powers?” Caridad frowned at the crystal. If she had a hammer, she could smash it. Though she would have to get it out of the tub, first - she didn’t want to get splashed with that soup of evil horniness. She didn’t have a hammer, but there was probably something suitable in the barn outside. Ranches needed lots of tools to fix fences and machines and stuff.

    “That is a possibility. However, it could also be that the crystal serves as a focus for her - it might be collecting whatever ‘energy’ she gets from her, ah, carnal activities.”

    “Oh. Like a battery being charged.”

    “It’s possible. And part of the, ah, energy is used to produce more of the contaminated water,” Phil went on. “This is just speculation, though - I haven’t actually identified any spell or curse or other magic on the crystal. Not yet.”

    “You mean we can’t smash it?” Caridad asked.

    “Not without risking unforeseen consequences,” he confirmed.

    “Damn.” She perked up. “But we can slay her! There aren’t any victims here!”

    Phil nodded at her. “Indeed. And there’s no sign of any sacrifices, either.”

    “Not the bloody kind, at least,” Caridad agreed. “Or the bedroom-kind, either.” The beds had been far too dusty for it. “But why did she pick this location? She could’ve set this up in any basement.”

    “It’s remote yet close enough so she can visit under the cover of jogging. Neither her activities nor the ranch is likely to attract attention,” John said.

    “Indeed. Although there might also be some metaphysical reasons for the location,” Phil said. “Some locations are more suited to certain rituals than others.”

    Caridad snorted. It didn’t matter. What matter was that she could slay the demon! She didn’t have to hold back anymore. Didn’t have to suffer that smug evil grin and smirk.

    Next time she met the demon, she could slay her!

    But, as if Phil had read her thoughts, he said: “We need to capture Miss Dyson, of course.”

    “What?”

    “She might be possessed.”

    Oh, right.

    Damn.

    “So I have to capture her. We have to capture her. Or at least find out that she’s a demon so I can slay her,” Caridad said. She looked at John. “Do you have a tranquilliser? If Dyson resists it, she’s a demon!”

    “That’s not entirely accurate, dear,” Phil cut in. “Many possessed are immune or resistant to such poison - they can fight like berserkers until their wounds overwhelm them.”

    Of course it couldn’t be that easy! She growled. “So it’s gonna be plan B. As in ‘beat her down’.” Either the woman was possessed and would succumb to some kinetic sedative, or she was a demon and… “And if she bleeds green or such, it’s Slaying time.”

    “That is a crude but workable plan,” Phil said. “Although I have to caution you against taking this enemy lightly; she’s taken control of a significant part of this town in a rather short time without making any waves; I am certain that she has at least one contingency to becoming exposed.”

    The damn skank was another Nathan? Well, running away would fit her. “Yes, I’ll make sure she won’t escape.”

    Phil looked at her. “Please focus on ensuring you won’t get hurt, first.”

    “Alright,” Caridad lied. The rule was ‘don’t die’. Not ‘don’t get hurt’.

    “We can ambush her when she returns,” John said. “No collateral damage out here.”

    “We don’t know how often she visits this place,” Caridad retorted. “If she does it once a week, we’d be screwed - odds are, she’d realise we’re onto her, and that we sabotaged the waterworks.”

    “Chuck should be able to track her cell phone,” Phil said.

    “I’ll call Bartowski,” John said.

    Caridad sighed. More waiting. She kicked some of the debris, then blinked. “I’ll go get some tools from the barn. In case we have to smash the crystal.”

    *****​

    “Bartowski said that Dyson turned off her cell phone when she visited,” John reported half an hour later. “That happens about once per week.”

    Caridad grinned. She didn’t rub it in, of course. But she had been correct. No ambush in the countryside - she’d go in and slay the demon in town. She looked at the hammer in her hand, tossing it in the air and catching it again. No, that was fine for the crystal, but she wanted to use a blade on Dyson.

    “This complicates matters,” Phil said. “I haven’t been able to sort out the exact nature of the crystal so far - though what I managed to deduce supports the theory that it is collecting energy and that the contaminated water is involved in a crucial role.”

    “The skank gathers sex energy from everyone drinking the poisoned water,” Caridad said. “I knew it.”

    “That is one possible explanation,” Phil said. “One that I have brought up before.”

    “Details,” Caridad said. What mattered was that she had to go and hunt down a demon skank.

    She stood. “I’ll head back. We can’t leave the demon out of our sight - who knows what she’ll do.”

    “I will stay here and examine the crystal,” Phil said.

    “No,” John said. “Never split the party.”

    “That’s what Morgan always says!” Caridad blurted out.

    John glared at her, but she couldn’t help laughing.

    *****​

    It didn’t take them long to return to Malcolm’s Ridge, even with John insisting on wiping their tracks on the road to the ranch.

    But back in town they were, and Caridad had a good idea where she could find Dyson. She cracked her knuckles as she stared at the ‘youth center’. “Alright,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Here’s the plan: I go in, and you pull the fire alarm. While everyone flees, I take the demon skank down and then we ‘transport her to the hospital’. No one enters and gets horny-gassed.” It was a good plan. Simple. Easy. Straight forward. Just the thing to deal with the demon skank.

    “That presumes that there is a fire alarm and that the affected youth will flee,” Phil pointed out from inside their car. “If the demon can control them, even if only to some degree, this might not be the case.”

    “And fighting inside? That’s a bad idea,” John said, leaning against the driver’s side, arms crossed. “You’ll be affected by the gas.”

    “I can handle it,” Caridad told them. “I won’t take long to take down the demon.”

    “In there, Dyson is surrounded by dozens of potential minions,” Phil replied. “And she might’ve prepared for such a confrontation in there - there’s almost certainly a spell on the club linked to the crystal. And if there are more spells or traps…”

    Caridad growled. She didn’t want to wait hours until the skank left. “I can lure her out!” she said.

    “She wants to seduce me - she tried it yesterday. I can use this to get her out of the building.” Or at least into a dark corner where she could take the demon out.

    “According to your report, the demon didn’t seem to have any need for privacy,” Phil pointed out.

    “But I do!” Caridad retorted. “And if she wants me, she’ll have to compromise. And then I can knock her out.”

    “You’ll have to expose yourself for a long time to the gas,” John said.

    “I can handle it.” She was the Slayer.

    “It is considerably more dangerous than merely waiting until she leaves the building in the presumably late hours of the night.” Phil obviously wasn’t sold on the idea. “I understand the desire for rapid action, but in this case, we should wait instead.”

    She clenched her teeth. She really didn’t want to wait. The damn demon had to pay!

    “Yes, we should wait.” John looked at her as if he didn’t think she could do it.

    “I can try to lure her out, and if it doesn’t work, we can wait,” she told them.

    “You’d be compromised by the gas.” John frowned as he shook his head.

    “But we can’t let the demon hold an orgy with mind-controlled people!” Caridad tried again. “We have to do something.”

    “Indeed, my dear. But our options are limited. If there was a sprinkler system, we could set it off, but there isn’t,” Phil said. “And, as callous as it sounds, this evening is nothing special for the demon’s victims. I don’t think that they would be served best by being endangered without need.
    As much as I, too, would like for this to be finished as soon as possible, in this situation the best course of action is waiting.”

    She clenched her teeth again. She was sick of waiting, waiting, waiting! “And what if whatever energy gathering scheme she uses is close to finished? Can we risk letting Dyson do another night of whatever ritual she does?”

    “It’s unlikely that one more night would tip the scales, so to speak,” Phil told her. “Compared to the danger for bystanders should we move into the building now, the risk is minimal. And it doesn’t expose you to the demon’s gas.”

    Phil had a point there. She wouldn’t be able to wear a respirator or gas mask if she entered the club openly. And that would mean she’d be affected again. And that was… Caridad sighed, turned to look at the building and huffed.

    To their credit, neither of the two men rubbed it in.

    It still sucked.

    *****​

    “Oh, Kyle!”

    “Oh, Jenny!”

    “Oh, my God!” Caridad muttered, rolling her eyes as she gave the slightly rocking car on the parking lot a wide berth. Running a quick patrol had been such a mistake. Weren’t the townsfolk supposed to be less affected by the skank’s poison now that they had sabotaged the setup in the waterworks? But this was the third couple Caridad had found ‘parking’ in as many minutes.

    Sometimes, she hated her Slayer senses. She didn’t need to hear - or smell - all that!

    Growling under her breath, she finished checking the parking lot for anything demony, then entered the side alley - if you could call a road with only a few houses scattered along both sides that - and started jogging. At least it wasn’t as bad as the club. The demon really didn’t care about privacy, and neither did her fans.

    Staying there, hearing - and seeing, in the case of the crowd outside - everything would’ve been torture. At least out here, she could do something.

    She reached the end of the road and turned right, jumping over the fence of the house there. Nothing demony here. Just picket fences and older houses.

    “Returning to the main street,” she told the others through the radio. “Nothing suspicious.”

    “No change here, either,” John replied.

    Good. Or bad - if there was a change, if something happened, she would have an excuse to crash the demon’s party.

    She jumped the next fence - this time a hedge - and landed in a spacious backyard littered with broken furniture. And a dog house. The dog - a big black mutt, started to bark at her, but a glare and growl from Caridad shut the animal up and made it hide inside the dog house.

    She snorted as she cleared the fence out in front. At least the stupid mutt knew its place.

    A quick dash later, she was on the main street again. Perhaps she should swing by Mike’s Bar and Grill…

    “The guests are leaving.”

    John’s voice made her stop her run. “What?”

    “They’re leaving the building. Dyson is leading them,” John told her.

    “Coming!” she hissed and started to sprint towards the others.

    A minute later, she reached their car, parked across the street from the warehouse. And muttered a curse - several dozen people were walking down the main street, away from the warehouse. She could barely make out Dyson in front of them. Half of the crowd chanted “Party! Party!”

    “What happened?” she snapped to the two men in the car.

    “We do not know, yet,” Phil replied. “This is unprecedented.”

    “Chuck’s cell phone data shows that this didn’t happen before,” John added. He was loading a shotgun with rock salt or something.

    “So, she just decided to pull a pied piper for shit and giggles?” Caridad didn’t think so.

    “Something must have caused this deviation from the norm, but we don’t know yet what,” Phil told her. “As far as we can tell, no one noticed our little subterfuge in the waterworks.”

    “Well, something changed,” Caridad said. “But whatever the reason, we need to stop them!” No more waiting - the demon couldn’t be allowed to continue with whatever she was planning!

    Which was a problem. How did you disperse a mob? She could start knocking them out, but… there were three dozens of them. And they were in the middle of the town. The cops wouldn’t take well to someone attacking people - their people - in the street.

    “I’ve got a tear gas grenade, but only the one,” John said. “It won’t last long, though.” He held up a can.

    Caridad pressed her lips together. That stuff was nasty. Especially if you had Slayer senses. On the other hand, she had a gas mask. “Give it to me. I’ll cut ahead of them, then throw it, and then take down Dyson while everyone is puking their guts out. You pick us up and we high-tail it out of here.”

    “Good plan,” John agreed.

    After a moment, Phil nodded. “I concur. I think we need to err on the side of caution now before the demon surprises us again.”

    Caridad grabbed the gas grenade and dashed back into the side alley, then went left, running all-out.

    She overtook the slow mob easily and reached the main street in front of them. Between them and the Denny’s, actually.

    And Dyson, wearing another mini-minidress and stripper heels, was grinning at her. The demon stopped, though the crowd was spreading out. “Ah, the interloper! I wondered when you’d show up.”

    So much for her cover. She kept the gas grenade hidden under her jacket. “What gave me away?” If she could avoid making the same mistake next time...

    “You were too possessive of a man you only met, and briefly, because your car broke down.” The demon laughed. A throaty laugh. Seductive, if you were a demon-drug addled drunk, probably. It grated on Caridad’s nerves. Dyson continued: “It was obvious that you were involved - and that meant you were hiding something.”

    Ah. The demon must have checked up on her, then. Or had someone do it. Damn. Caridad snorted. “Elementary, Miss Holmes.”

    “It’s ‘elementary, Dr Watson’,” the demon corrected her. “Not that it matters now, does it? You’ve fallen into my trap!”

    The mob was now surrounding them. She had about three yards to either side. Plenty of room. And she had the crowd exactly where she wanted them.

    “Wrong!” Caridad yelled, dropping the grenade and pulling her mask out. She had it on her face before the first wisps of gas reached her. The mob rushing in recoiled, coughing and crying, as the area quickly filled with tear gas.

    And Dyson gasped, surprised - which was exactly the wrong thing to do. As she started to cough and the gas began to obscure her from view, Caridad lunged, ramming her fist into the demon’s stomach. Dyson folded over, and Caridad turned, bringing her elbow down on the back of the demon’s head.

    Dyson smashed into the street face-first with a satisfying crack. Caridad followed up with a kick into her ribs that flipped her over, then jumped on her stomach, straddling her, and smashed her fist into the demon’s bleeding face. Once. Twice, Three times.

    Each time, the back of the demon’s head hit the pavement, bouncing off. Caridad stopped her fourth strike. Dyson’s eyes had rolled up, and she wasn’t struggling any more. Knocked out cold.

    Time to truss her up, then. She grabbed for the zip ties in her jacket as she slid off the demon and flipped her over again. This had been easy. The skank wasn’t a fighter - who’d have suspected, huh?

    Then two red wings sprouted from Dyson’s back, followed by a tail, and Caridad cursed - they were the same kind of wings and tail Lewis’s true form had sported! But that meant Dyson was a demon - and Caridad knew the vulnerabilities of that kind of demon! No more Miss Nice Slayer!

    She drew her knife with cold iron inlays and jumped on the back of the demon - but one of the wings hit her and threw her to the side. She almost lost sight of the demon in the thick tear gas cloud, but managed to get up and dash forward in time to catch the demon before it could lift off.

    Screaming, she stuck her knife into the closest wing and rent it. She caught the flailing wing with her face in exchange and was thrown back again, but the demon veered to the side and rolled over the ground. And she had lost her knife!

    “Not again!” she hissed, hand going for her second knife. Then her eyes and nose and throat and skin burned. The blow had dislocated her gas mask! She clenched her teeth, screaming with pain, and put the mask back. Damn. Damn. Damn. And she had lost her headset, too. Double-damn.

    She blinked, barely able to see anything through the tears and the fogged up mask. Where was the demon? She held her second knife out in front of her.

    Something moved in front of her, and she dived to the side. Red? Dyson! She rolled over her shoulder, got up and launched a jump kick. It connected, but not with any satisfying breaking sound. . Everything was still blurry.

    The demon grunted with pain, anyway, and Caridad pivoted on one foot, driving the other into the demon’s belly. Or side.

    Another grunt followed. And a curse. “You meddling pest!” And a blow that she barely managed to take on her shoulder rather than her head by twisting away.

    Caridad kept turning, grabbing the arm of the monster, and pulled, pushing her hip out and into the demon. It screamed as it was flipped over and slammed into the pavement, wings first. Caridad went down with it, not letting go of the arm. While the demon reeled, wheezing, from the impact, she raised the arm, then brought it down across her leg.

    It broke with a loud crack, and the demon howled. Another blow glanced off Caridad’s shoulder, and the demon’s body bucked - driven up by the flailing wings, she realised. But she held on to the arm, trapping it between her legs, and drove her knife into the monster’s ribs. Once. Twice, Three times.

    Another blow caught her in the back, almost dislodging her, but it lacked power - Caridad rolled with it, sliding over the trapped limb and smashed her knee into the side of the demon’s head in return.

    The howling stopped for a moment, and she used the opportunity to stab the demon again - in the head this time. Or throat. She just kept stabbing until the red blur stopped moving. Then she stabbed it again.

    Tyres screeched behind her. She turned, raising her knife - but it was John and Phil’s Land Rover. The colour matched, at least. And what she could see of its blurry form.

    “Got some tear gas in the face,” she spat as someone, John, got out.

    He cursed in return. “We need to wash it off.”

    “Demon first!” she spat. The tear gas cloud was gone - but it had obscured the transformation of the demon, at least. And witnesses would have been hit by the gas as well.

    She bent down and lifted the demon corpse - it was already turning grey like Lewis’s had - then stuffed it into the backseat of the car, climbing in after it. And stabbing the thing again for good measure. At least this meant that she hadn’t killed a possessed human but a demon, or she’d have had a human corpse on her hands. Which would’ve been… bad. Kind of. It wasn’t as if she’d had much of a choice in the fight.

    “I think we can write the deposit off,” Phil commented, looking at the decaying corpse. “This won’t come out of the seats.”

    Caridad would’ve laughed if breathing didn’t hurt as much as it did. She still snorted as they high-tailed it out of the town.

    *****​

    The liquid felt great. Soothing. Her eyes didn’t burn anymore. And her nose wasn’t leaking like a broken faucet anymore. Still full of snot, but… She was the Slayer. She could take it. And breathing didn’t hurt any more.

    “Thanks,” she said, smiling at John who was kneeling next to her, holding the bottle with the liquid.

    He nodded in return, getting up. “We need to move.”

    She sighed and stood as well. “To the ranch?”

    “Yes,” Phil replied from the driver’s seat as she and John got back into the car. “Although only briefly. We need to either destroy or take the crystal with us and get rid of the demon’s remains. And the car, I believe.”

    Caridad nodded. The backseat looked… well, as if a demon had decayed all over it. Only bones left. Which it had, of course. “I say we smash it!”

    “That might release whatever energy it gathered - with unpredictable effects;” Phil told her.

    Which meant she might get blown up. Or hit with some super-powered lust energy and turned into Cave-Caridad. Ew. Still… “Taking it with us might cause it to leak,” she said.

    “That is a risk. But I think we should be fine for a short period and we can stash the crystal in a safe location while calling for assistance.

    Which meant Willow. Well, Caridad could live with that. She had killed the demon skank, foiled a plot to take over a town and saved the day. The town’s population would probably be affected by the whole lust poison for some time until it was all out of their system, but that was acceptable.

    She curled up in John’s lap - there was no way she would sit in demon rot in the back - and closed her still slightly hurting eyes.

    *****​

    California, East of Los Angeles, June 25th, 2008

    “I still say we should smash it. Or blow it up,” Caridad said, looking down the abandoned well where they had stashed the crystal. After an hour in the car with it, she could almost feel its evil even from up here. “We could drop a bomb down there, too. Easy and safe.”

    “That might deprive us of an opportunity to track down crystals that the other interns might’ve hidden,” Phil said.

    “And it might contaminate the groundwater,” John added. “This is pretty close to Los Angeles.”

    “The well’s dried up,” she pointed out. “That’s why the farm was abandoned.”

    “It might’ve recovered,” Phil retorted. “And the explosion might drive parts of the crystal deeper into the ground. Or rain might wash them down into the groundwater.”

    John nodded. “Might also attract attention. Lots of seismic detectors in the area.”

    “I think we can leave it until Miss Rosenberg arrives to examine it,” Phil told her.

    She pressed her lips together. They didn’t understand how evil it was. They couldn’t feel it. Oily, evil… evilness. But she didn’t want crystal parts or crystal dust in the water, either. And so close, odds are it might end in Los Angeles’s water pipes somehow. Or on someone’s lawn, and that might create demon grass or something. Still, she hated it. “Alright,” she spat. “Let’s get home now! I need a long, long shower!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 25th, 2008

    “...and then we returned home.”

    Caridad shook her head with a smile as she stepped out of the bathroom. She had taken a long, hot shower, and Phil was just wrapping up his report? Her Watcher loved talking.

    “Wow. That sounds like a nasty adventure,” she heard Chuck say. “I didn’t realise it was that bad.”

    “Can others create such a… poison?” Sarah asked.

    “It’s possible. There are various ways to, ah, affect someone’s emotions in that particular manner.”

    “Yeah,” Caridad cut in as she entered the living room and sat down on the armrest of the chair John was occupying. “Love spells and love potions are quite popular among young witches and warlocks. Or so I heard.” This wasn’t the time to tell the story about Xander’s experiences with a love spell that backfired and almost got him killed by a crazy mob.

    “And how can we protect us against such things?” Sarah asked. She was sitting next to Chuck on the couch.

    “Most such influences are subtle. Often insidiously so, but not they are a temptation rather than a compulsion,” Phil explained. “You can resist temptation.”

    “And the ‘influences’ that aren’t subtle?” Sarah narrowed her eyes.

    “There are some protective amulets, but…” Phil tilted his head with a frown, “...they might not work against more exotic attacks.”

    “And I thought worrying about date rape was bad enough,” Carina complained.

    “Well, if you suddenly - like, from one moment to another - feel as if you were in love, it’s probably a love potion or spell,” Morgan told her.

    Caridad snorted. She doubted that the spy knew what love felt like.

    “But would we even realise that?” Sarah asked. Chuck was squeezing her hand in an awkward but sweet way, Caridad noted.

    She put her hand on John’s shoulder herself, squeezing once.

    “Again, it depends on the exact magical influence used against you,” Phil said. “There is a reason that the Council is especially concerned about mind-altering magic.”

    And intimate experience with it, Caridad added to herself.

    “A stance that has, thanks to a handful of quite impressive examples that were made, a deterring effect on the smarter practitioners of the art,” Phil continued.

    “That’s not really reassuring,” Carina replied. “Criminals rarely think that they’re going to get caught.”

    “It does keep some of the smarter - and, therefore, potentially more dangerous - witches from using such means,” Phil told her.

    “Well, I still want the full range of protections,” the spy said, beaming at Caridad’s Watcher.

    Caridad rolled her eyes. So predictable. “Anyway,” she spoke up, “that particular aphrodisiac is off the market now.”

    “Once we find and deal with the other two interns,” Morgan said.

    She shot him a glare, but he ignored it. “We know where they are, and Willow’s arriving tomorrow. We’ll be able to hunt them down easily.”

    “If we even have to.” Morgan grinned. “Willow might want to hunt them down herself - you know how she is.”

    Caridad frowned. That almost felt like kill stealing. That would be unfair.

    *****​

    Thirty minutes later, the debriefing and planning session had finally ended. Not that they had found out anything new or made any plans beyond ‘wait for Willow and ignore Carina’s transparent but futile efforts to seduce Phil in order to gain access to protection against mind-controlling magic'. The spy really was predictable.

    Well, it was over. At last. And now…

    Caridad sighed as she let herself fall on the bed, limbs outstretched. “Ah. I’ve missed this!”

    “The bed?” John asked while changing.

    “The privacy,” she replied, grinning at him.

    “Ah.” He nodded.

    She frowned. Had the whole affair affected him too much? They hadn’t done anything during the mission, or on the way back, because there was decaying demon gunk on the backseat and Phil was at the wheel, but… “Is everything OK?”

    He grunted. After a moment, he said: “Just wondering how many small towns are suffering from such demons.”

    Ah. She shrugged. “We’ve got roaming teams for that, and the Council has some witches checking with spells for problems. Divination stuff, you know.” She hadn’t really cared to know the details.

    “Like… scrying?” He sat down on the bed.

    “Something like it - showing trouble spots, I think. I’m no witch,” she added with a grin.

    “Good.”

    “So…” She sat up and leaned against his back, wrapping her arms around him from behind.

    She felt him tense up and grunt again. In the good way.

    *****​

    California, East of Los Angeles, June 26th, 2008

    Just as she hadn’t bothered with resting after her flight - ‘I slept on the plane’ and had insisted on recovering the crystal straight away after arriving in Los Angeles, Willow didn’t bother with letting Caridad climb down the well and pick up the crystal. She held out her hand above it, and the thing flew up.

    It wasn’t glowing any more, Caridad noted. Which was a good thing since it was already late at night, and green light might have attracted attention. More attention than wandering around at night on an abandoned farm, in any case - though they could claim they were looking for a purse they lost yesterday when they visited it on a whim, should anyone happen to check on them. A believable cover story. Though it wouldn’t cover floating crystals, glowing or not.

    Caridad didn’t flinch when Willow’s hair started floating while the witch chanted incomprehensible words under her breath. She was the Slayer. She had seen worse - far worse. From the witch and from others. But she better gave Willow some space to work her magic. Wouldn’t want to crowd or distract her.

    She walked over to Phil, who was watching the whole thing intently. “So… what’s she doing?” she whispered.

    “Casting divination spells on the crystal, I believe,” Phil answered in a whisper, “Some I’ve never seen cast before, so I cannot say with any certainty.”

    Willow doing Willow things, then. It didn’t look like she’d finish anytime soon, either.

    “Don’t distract her.”

    No one but a Slayer could’ve heard the comment. Caridad frowned as she turned to stare at Kennedy, who was ten yards away, leaning against their SUV. Not a Land Rover, but a Porsche, of course - the other Slayer had insisted.

    “I’m not distracting her,” Caridad replied as she walked towards the other Slayer. And Kennedy had no right to nag her - this was Caridad’s turf. Her city. Her suburbs. Her desert. A glorified bodyguard for Willow - as if the witch needed a bodyguard; everyone knew why Kennedy followed her around - shouldn’t try to tell her anything.

    Kennedy stood straight and faced her when Caridad reached the SUV. “You could still be affected,” she said. “Wouldn’t be the first time someone lapsed.”

    What? Caridad glared at her. “I’m clean.” She wanted the thing destroyed, after all.

    “People thought that before,” the other Slayer retorted.

    Caridad scoffed. “I didn’t lose control even when I was affected.”

    “You weren’t so close to the crystal then.”

    She rolled her eyes again. “Shouldn’t you be worried more about Willow?”

    “Willow’s prepared for this.”

    “And Willow’s getting a little distracted by you two arguing.”

    Caridad stiffened and couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder at the witch. Willow hadn’t turned to face them, hadn’t even looked at them and was already muttering spells again, but the comment had been clear. How had she…

    “Supersensory charm,” Kennedy whispered. “Don’t talk. You’ll distract here.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. She was the Slayer of Los Angeles! She wasn’t the problem here. If Kennedy hadn’t butted in, she wouldn’t even have said anything!

    But she could be the bigger Slayer. She didn’t need to argue with a Slayer who was so insecure, she had to cheat and hide behind a witch! “I’ll do a perimeter check,” she whispered, then turned and started to walk away.

    “You do that.”

    She tensed, then forced herself to continue. Kennedy just couldn’t let things lie, could she? Always had to have the last word!

    *****​

    “So… it’s definitely an energy collector,” Willow said after she had finally finished. “And it collects carnal energies, as you suspected.”

    Caridad nodded. They already knew that.

    “But it’s also ready to transfer them - not just collect them,” the witch went on.

    “Where does it transfer the energy?” Phil asked.

    “To another dimension. I haven’t narrowed it down further than that, but odds are, it’s a hell dimension.”

    “Are there any other dimensions?” Kennedy laughed. “It’s never paradise, is it?”

    “This was used by a demon,” Phil pointed out.

    “Yes, it was.” Willow nodded. “Anyway, I tracked down the other two crystals. They are linked. And the energy is transferred with a ritual. Not automatically.”

    “The weekly visits, no doubt,” Phil exclaimed. “Her regular visits - the master of the demon may have noticed the absence of the next delivery.”

    “We have to assume that,” Willow agreed. “Which means we’ll have to hurry and collect the other two crystals. Demon energy collection is bad. Really bad. It can be used for all sorts of evil things, but usually, it serves as a replacement sacrifice.”

    Caridad nodded with a grim expression. Everyone knew that sacrificial magic was bad news for everyone. This was serious.

    “So…” Willow smiled. “I’m sorry, but we’ll be sending other teams to take care of the remaining two demon interns. They’re closer to the target areas.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. Kill stealers! She had - and her Watchers - had found out about this conspiracy! She had killed Lewis and Dyson. Well, the demons who had replaced them. It should be her who finished this!

    “Good,” Phil said, nodding. “We’re in need of some rest.”

    What? No! Caridad was perfectly fine! She was the Slayer; she could go for days or weeks if needed!

    But John nodded as well. And Morgan.

    She clenched her teeth and ignored Kennedy’s smirk. “So, what about the crystal?” The thing was still floating behind Willow.

    “I’ll collect the energy myself in one of my receptacles, then destroy it. Safely - we don’t want to contaminate the area with demonic shards,” Willow said.

    That was good news. Caridad was really sick of the whole thing. “So, we’re done here, then.”

    “Yes. Ah…” The witch beamed at them. “Send Ellie my regards, will you? I wanted to visit her, but this is a little urgent. So I guess I’ll see her at the wedding at the latest.”

    The wedding. Caridad had almost forgotten about it Or repressed it. Now she didn’t have any excuse to avoid the preparations any more.

    Damn.

    *****​
     
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2020
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 16: The Surveillance
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 16: The Surveillance

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 28th, 2008

    Caridad woke up to the now very familiar sight of the ceiling in Phil’s flat. There was a little spot of sunlight on it that was reflected from the shiny metal alarm clock on the nightstand at the window, which meant she could tell without looking at the clock that it was closer to noon than to morning. Not exactly an uncommon time to wake up for a Slayer on Saturday. Or on any day, actually. Slayers weren’t morning people.

    And there was no John in the bed with her - he was already up. Had been up for a time; there was no warmth left from his body heat, either.

    And she hadn’t even noticed him slipping out of bed. Some Slayer she was. She snorted. But more annoying was that Phil had been correct - she had needed the rest. Too many missions back to back. Too many wounds, too - she stretched and noticed the absence of some lingering twinges and pain. But a good night’s sleep could heal a lot. Even more if you added half a day. At least if you were a Slayer.

    Sighing, she sat up and stretched, yawning for good measure. Then she sniffed the air. There was John’s scent. And hers. And the scent of what they had done last night. And some cheap perfume that meant Harmony had visited sometime during the night. Something Caridad had missed as well.

    Great. Phil would never let her live this down - no Watcher would. They took some serious pleasure from proving their Slayers wrong.

    Wait! She sniffed the air again. Bacon! And Eggs! And sausages! And hashed browns! Someone was cooking breakfast! For her! She could feel her stomach growl in response - when was the last time she had eaten? Far too long ago!

    She jumped out of bed, almost to the door, then stopped. No, she couldn’t eat like this - if Carina saw her, in a crop top and shorts, hair not done, not showered… No, Caridad wouldn’t, ever, let that happen.

    She entered the bathroom instead. Even as hungry as she was, she had time to shower and fix her hair.

    *****​

    John had her breakfast ready when she entered the kitchen dressed in a fresh tank top and shorts. “Thank you! You’re an angel!” She beamed at him, kissed him - quickly; there was food waiting to save her from imminent starvation, as Phil would say - then sat down to eat.

    “You needed the rest,” John said as he took a seat across the counter from her.

    She frowned at him without slowing down. He didn’t have to rub it in. “Any news?” she asked while grabbing a cup of coffee.

    “Rosenberg took out the second intern. We’re waiting for news from the other team.”

    “Ah.” She wondered if Kennedy had managed to slay anything, or if she had just let Willow handle everything. And she also wondered what would be more humiliating - watching your girlfriend do everything while standing around useless, or slaying a demon while knowing your girlfriend could’ve killed it much faster but didn’t want you to feel useless.

    Not that she’d ask Kennedy, of course. That would be cruel. And stupid - even if Kennedy didn’t tattle to Willow, the witch would find out when Kennedy was sulking.

    She finished the last of her scrambled eggs and bacon and started on the sausages. “Feels weird not doing anything about it.”

    “We did our part. We found out about the whole thing, and you killed their leader.”

    She smiled. That was true. They only left the clean-up to the Council. “True,” she said after swallowing half a toast. “That only leaves Dubois.” She tilted her head at him for a moment, then returned to spearing sausages.

    “No news on that front,” John told her. “Bartowski didn’t find any trace of her yet.”

    Damn. How far had the assassin run? All the way back to Europe? “If only we had some hair or blood sample of her. Willow could’ve found her in a heartbeat.”

    John shrugged. “We don’t, though. We should start collecting such samples.”

    Caridad nodded. Phil could track someone with a sample as well. Or Morgan, in a pinch. “And follow the Evil Overlord List,” she said.

    “The what?” He narrowed his eyes at her.

    “It’s something Chuck and Morgan told me,” she explained. “You know, all the stupid mistakes the villains make on TV. Leaving someone for dead without putting a bullet in their head and such.”

    “Ah.” He frowned. “We had no opportunity to do that - Dubois fell down an elevator shaft and was supposedly buried when the building collapsed.”

    “I know.” She had heard the story before, after all. She pushed the empty plate back and stretched again. “Well, I’m all good now. Feeling fine!”

    “Good. We have a rehearsal to attend.”

    Oh, damn, right. Ellie’s rehearsal dinner for the rehearsal dinner or something.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 28th, 2008

    “So… this is the seating arrangement. This is the bride’s side - that’s me,” Ellie said, pointing at the picture beamed on the wall.

    “All of us are going to be seated together? At the dinner, too?” Caridad asked.

    “Yes,” Ellie replied, sending her a glance short of a glare. “You can mingle at the reception, of course, but I think for dinner, we shouldn’t mix Devon’s family and our family. Right, Chuck?”

    It wasn’t a question. Chuck nodded - with a rather forced smile - and agreed. “Yes. Nothing against your family and your friends, Devon, but I think it would be a little awkward if we were split up.”

    “They’re our friends,” Devon corrected him and Ellie.

    “Yes, but they’re not aware of what everyone does for a living,” Ellie said. “And we don’t have to learn cover stories to keep things straight and avoid embarrassing questions.”

    “Good idea,” John said, nodding.

    “That was one time,” Chuck protested.

    “Because you ran from every party we threw,” Ellie shot back.

    “I didn’t run!” Chuck pouted. “I merely… went home early.”

    “You went home early when the party was in your own home.” Ellie narrowed her eyes.

    Chuck ducked his head. “That was also just one time.”

    His sister sniffed. “Anyway, while I love being able to tell the Woodcombs that Chuck isn’t working for the Buy More any more, I would rather keep questions as to what you’re doing now to a minimum. Our friends and Devon’s family already think we’re weird.”

    ‘We’ meaning everyone else in the room other than Ellie and Devon, of course.

    “Oh, my parents thought Chuck was charmingly boyish,” Devon said.

    “The word they used was ‘immature’,” Ellie corrected him.

    “I know what they meant.”

    Chuck sighed. “We can tell them that I’m working as an analyst for a private company from London.”

    “And I’m working with you,” Sarah said. “After my restaurant was destroyed in a gas explosion, I decided not to rebuild it.”

    “And I’m a historian! Working for a British NGO!” Morgan piped up. “With Kirsten!”

    “Two couples who work together in the same group will look suspicious,” John cut in.

    “I can claim I’m working part-time as a waitress while studying,” Kirsten said.

    “Good.” Ellie made a note. “Caridad.”

    Caridad blinked. “Courier?”

    “Courier. John?”

    “Chauffeur.”

    “That’s not exactly original,” Chuck pointed out. John glared at him, and he ducked his head again. “But perfectly fine and easy to remember!”

    “What about me?” Carina spoke up.

    “You’re not invited,” Ellie said. “I’m not even sure why you’re here.”

    “We didn’t want to let her alone at Phil’s flat,” Morgan said while the spy pouted.

    ”Ah. Speaking of Phil…”

    “Retired,” Caridad’s Watcher said. “I’m here to mentor Morgan.”

    “And me?” Harmony asked. “Fashion designer? Model?”

    Caridad bit down on her tongue to avoid saying ‘escort’.

    “Living off daddy’s trust fund,” Chuck said.

    “That’s not true. I’d love to, but they, like, insist that I’m dead!” the vampire complained.

    “Waitressing while hoping for your big break in Hollywood,” Ellie said.

    “Oh, like Cordy! I mean, before she, like, started at Angel’s.” Harmony nodded.

    “Yes,” Ellie nodded after a momentary hesitation. She cleared her throat, just like Chuck would’ve done in the same situation. “Dad finally decided to return from his ‘trip’,” she went on. “And he works as a freelance IT supporter.”

    Mr Bartowski winced but nodded. Ellie obviously still hadn’t completely forgiven him for leaving them.

    “People will ask you to fix their phones and laptops at the reception,” Chuck said. “What?” he added when Ellie glared at him. “That’s what your friends always did when we chatted at parties.”

    “Even if they ask, no one will be fixing phones or computers at my wedding,” Ellie stated. “This will be a perfectly normal perfect wedding.”

    “Gunn’s people will provide security,” Devon added.

    “That won’t be enough,” John said. “We’ll need better security. They won’t be able to stop a spy.”

    “The council will send a Slayer team,” Caridad told them. That was standard procedure for ‘Slayer-adjacent’ weddings.

    Ellie sighed. “We’ll need to tell catering to increase the number of servings.”

    “The scoobies are coming anyway,” Chuck said. “Two more Slayers won’t make a difference.”

    “In my experience, they will,” Ellie replied with a frown. A deep frown. And a glance at Caridad.

    “Hey!” Caridad didn’t eat that much. Not really. Not for a Slayer, at least. And she needed the calories. Slaying was hungry work.

    “We still need spies as security,” John insisted. “Some of us could do it.”

    “No. You’ll be guests.” Ellie shook her head. “We’ll find someone else.”

    Carina raised her hand with the smuggest smile Caridad had seen in a while.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, June 28th, 2008

    They had managed to leave before Ellie was going over the flower arrangements again. Well, they had - Chuck had been stuck. Which meant Sarah had been stuck as well. Though Caridad wasn’t sure whether or not Sarah actually minded - she might be planning her own wedding soon. On the other hand, this might put her or Chuck off marriage for good.

    “We should have Ellie and Devon elope,” Cariad muttered as she made a quick pre-dinner snack - or tea, as her watcher called it - in Phil’s kitchen. With Mr Bartowski also staying at Ellie’s, Carina ‘shopping’, Morgan and Kirsten busy looking for another apartment and Harmony doing whatever, they had the flat to themselves.

    “Impossible at this point, my dear, I’m afraid,” Phil told her, setting the timer for his tea.

    “You should be afraid. Ellie’s going overboard with this,” she replied.

    “It’s a very important event in her life,” Phil told her. “It’s only natural that she would want it to be perfect. Please don’t eat before we start serving, dear.”

    Caridad froze with the small sandwich in front of her mouth. Damn. Just a little bite… But Phil was looking at her with that disappointed expression.

    She rolled her eyes and put the sandwich down on the tray in front of her, then picked up the whole tray to carry it into the living room.”

    “No snacking on the way, either.”

    She was scowling when she put the tray down on the table. As if she’d eat a sandwich between the kitchen and living room! Well, perhaps a small one…

    John was grinning and ignored her glare.

    She sat down and crossed her arms. “And whose idea was it to let Carina of all people handle spy security?”

    “Ellie’s.”

    That was technically true. “She doesn’t even know her.”

    “But she knows that Carina is an old friend of Sarah’s and both a spy and Aware of the supernatural world. And since we’re working with her, it’s only natural for Ellie to trust her as well,” Phil said as he arrived with the teapot. “I’ll be mother.”

    Even after years with him being her Watcher, hearing him say it - and why would anyone call ‘serving tea’ ‘being mother’? - was still weird. “We don’t trust her,” she spat.

    “Not completely,” Phil replied. “But no one objected earlier today.”

    Well, it would’ve made Caridad look bad. But Sarah should’ve said something. Or Chuck. Or John. She glanced at him with narrowed eyes while Phil filled their cups.

    He ignored it. “At least she’ll be busy as security.”

    Caridad huffed. “She’ll probably spend the time flirting with some rich guest.” Or seducing them.

    “I think she’ll be too busy for that - the Slayers on security duty will ensure that. Not to mention that I doubt that Carina will risk incurring the wrath of the Council.” Phil took a sip from his cup and let out a small sigh.

    Caridad took a sip from her own and nodded. Phil had used the really good tea for this. She followed it with a sandwich.

    “Our real problem is still Dubois,” John said. “She’ll know about the wedding. And she’ll try something.”

    “Attacking a wedding Willow’s attending?” Caridad scoffed. “That would solve our problem easily.”

    “Indeed. I doubt that we’ll have anything to fear at the actual ceremony or dinner. But I think Miss Dubois will attempt to take her revenge before that date. And she might try to take hostages.” Phil refilled his cup and grabbed a small sandwich. Not one of hers, fortunately.

    “We should move the whole thing to a private island. The Council has a private island, right?” Caridad said, munching on another sandwich.

    “Technically, yes. But it’s a cursed island the Council took over in the sixteenth century and, therefore, unsuitable for a wedding. Its position close to the Faroe Islands also makes it hard to reach,” Phil explained with a sly smile.

    Cariad pouted. “You really need to buy a nice tropical island. We can claim it’s for jungle combat training.”

    “The Council is rich, but I doubt that their budget covers buying a resort, Dear.”

    “At least having the wedding on an island would make it harder for Dubois to sneak in,” Caridad defended her idea.

    “But easier to attack,” John told her. “You can hide a lot of people on a ship.”

    That was the point - let them attack with a ship, all nice and tidy bunched up for Willow to deal with. Or a Slayer to blow them away with a missile.

    Although Ellie would probably be angry if they used her wedding as bait for Dubois. “Perhaps Chuck’s dad will find her before the wedding.”

    And before Ellie drove everyone crazy with her rehearsals for rehearsals.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, June 30th, 2008

    The bridesmaid dress wasn’t as bad as Caridad had feared, but it wasn’t as stylish as she would have liked, either. Nor as sexy. Pretty standard bridesmaid fare, in other words - you weren’t allowed to outshine the bride on her wedding day, after all. At least that was what Phil had said.

    So, Caridad could be content with the white dress she was currently being fitted into. Although… did that mean she wasn’t considered hot enough to deserve one of the ugly bridesmaid dresses so she wouldn’t outshine Ellie?

    “Is this too tight?”

    She blinked and looked at the tailor making adjustments. “No, no. It’s alright.”

    “Ah. You were frowning.”

    “Just a stray thought.” She couldn’t ask for an ugly dress - and not just because Ellie had picked the dresses. Wearing an ugly dress would mean pictures of her in an ugly dress would show up at every Council meeting or after-apocalypse party. Or on her laptop.

    “I can’t wait for the wedding. It’ll be so grand!” Mel - Melissa Francescini - gushed. The woman was an old friend from Ellie’s time at Uni, a fellow doctor, and talked as if ‘grand’ had been the word of the day on her calendar.

    Caridad made a vaguely agreeing noise. As she had quickly found out, actually talking to the woman tended to make her focus on you, and that would turn a boring fitting session into an annoying one.

    “Lift your arms, please.”

    She did so. Carefully, of course - she didn’t want to rip the dress by accident if the tailor had made a mistake. That picture of Rona had made the rounds among the Slayer. The girl should’ve known that you always test if you could move in your outfits before actually wearing them in public.

    Well, as long as it was an outfit meant to be worn while you were moving. Unlike this dress, which was obviously meant to stand around in while looking pretty but not too pretty.

    She sighed. Just a little.

    “We’re almost done,” the tailor said with a polite smile. “Just a few more adjustments.”

    “Good.”

    “And then it’s my turn!” Mel said. “It’s so grand!”

    And after Mel’s turn, it would finally be dinner time! Caridad was starving!

    “And I think that’s it,” the tailor announced. “You can now go change.”

    “Yes!”

    Everyone in the fitting room laughed - politely in the case of the tailor, surprised but honestly in Mel’s case, and not quite amused in Ellie’s case - she had just arrived and was standing in the door, wearing what looked like half a wedding dress.

    Caridad smiled innocently at her as she climbed - not jumped - down from the small pedestal and walked to the changing area where her normal clothes had been put.

    Ellie shook her head. “Everything alright here?”

    “Yes, it’s now my turn!” Mel told her. “I love the dress!”

    Caridad tuned the woman out while she took off the dress - without getting pierced by the many needles in it - and slipped into her minidress. After checking that her purse and jacket hadn’t been tampered with and still held all her weapons. Which they did.

    She didn’t sigh with relief - who would dare to steal from a Slayer? - but knowing that you had a stake and a blade at hand was quite relaxing. You never knew when you might encounter a demon.

    Or, she amended when she saw a car parked across the street, a creep. That car had been parked at the café where Caridad had met Ellie, Mel and the other bridesmaids.

    Someone was stalking them!

    She clenched her teeth and texted John and Chuck.

    Black Ford following us.

    She took a picture with her phone and sent it as well. She couldn’t spot the plates from her angle, though. But if this was someone working for Dubois, they would be fake or stolen anyway. And from out of town so the cops wouldn’t have them in their system.

    Her phone vibrated.

    Coming.

    That was from John.

    Checking.

    And that was Chuck.

    She grinned at the unintended match, then grew serious again. If this was Dubois, then Ellie was in danger. And Mel and the others. Caridad wouldn’t put it past the assassin to use a bomb or missile to kill her - Dubois wouldn’t care about bystanders.

    That meant she couldn’t wait for John or Chuck. “I’m getting some fresh air,” she announced, already walking towards the door.

    Mel nodded without any sign of suspicion, but Ellie frowned for a moment. “Alright. Don’t be too long, we have a reservation for seven at Kelly’s.”

    So Ellie knew something was up. Caridad hoped Ellie assumed it was just a vampire - she would become nervous if she knew it was a spy. Or someone spy-related.

    Caridad sneaked out the back, where people went to have a smoke - there was an overflowing ashtray near the back door - and then quickly ran around the block until she reached the corner behind the parked car.

    Which meant she could see the plates. She took a picture and sent it to Chuck. Local plates, not out of state, she noted.

    Now how to sneak up on the car? Tinted windows meant she couldn’t see how many were hiding in the car, or where they were looking. And passers-by would see her - she was currently acting as if she was texting as a cover, but sneaking up to a car would draw more attention. Perhaps if there was a distraction…

    A new message arrived.

    Plates belong to LAPD.

    Damn.

    The cops were shadowing Ellie. And they must have spotted Caridad earlier. And now they knew that there was a wedding being prepared. Well, they probably knew that already if they were investigating Ellie - Chuck’s sister wasn’t exactly subtle with her preparations.

    She was tempted to walk up to the car and let the stalkers know that they had been made, but John always said that if you made a spy, you could use them.

    So she sneaked back into the tailor shop, checking for more tails on the way, and just caught the end of Mel’s fitting. Which had taken far less time than her own, for some reason.

    “Alright! Dinner time!” Mel announced as she changed.

    Ellie looked at Caridad.

    “Cops,” she mouthed back.

    The other woman frowned, so Caridad stepped closer and repeated herself a little more audible. “Cops.”

    “Ah.” The frown deepened. “Someone should be doing something about this harassment.”

    “Chuck should’ve informed the Council already,” Caridad replied. Probably - she’d have to check. But she didn’t know how much good that would do. Not after Dubois’s attack. The LAPD would probably run the investigation anyway - or, worse, leak it to the public so they wouldn’t get blamed for the lack of success in catching the ‘terrorists’.

    But that wasn’t something to be discussed in a tailor shop. Or with Ellies’s friends present.

    Mel finished changing and joined them. “Done!” she announced unnecessarily.

    “Good. The others will be at the restaurant already,” Ellie said. “Let’s go.”

    *****​

    Lily Hawkins, Ellie’s best woman, and Sofia Mendez, the third bridesmaid, were already seated and chatting animatedly as Caridad entered the restaurant behind Ellie and Mel. A quick glance in the mirror at the entrance didn’t show any cops, but she knew from Chuck that they were following them, so it wouldn’t take long for them to show up.

    Unless they had already bugged the restaurant - the reservation had been made days ago. Spies like John would’ve done it. Or inserted a spy in the staff or among the other guests. But cops? Even undercover cops?

    Caridad looked around while pretending to study the menu - she had read it when Ellie had suggested the restaurant and she already knew what she wanted to order - but couldn’t spot an obvious undercover cop or spy. Nor had she spotted the car nearby so far.

    Which meant either the cops were skilled or stupid. The LAPD had both kinds of cops, but would they send the stupid for such an important job? Probably not. On the other hand, if they expected that this might blow up in their faces - and they would, after all the pressure from the CIA and the Council - then the stupid would make better sacrifices.

    “...know what you want?”

    “Hm?” Caridad looked at Lily. “My order?”

    “Yes.” Lily frowned a little. Probably hungry from not eating anything for lunch so she could pig out at dinner without putting on weight, Caridad thought.

    Caridad nodded and pointed at the biggest steak, but the woman was already signalling the waiter. Definitely hungry. Well, Caridad could sympathise. She would like two of the steaks, but that would make her look odd. Or bulimic - with most of Ellie’s friends being doctors like Chuck’s sister, they would quickly assume Caridad had an eating disorder if she tried to eat like a Slayer - it had happened before, after all.

    “So… everything ready for the rehearsal dinner?” Sofia asked while the salad was being served.

    “Oh, not by a lot! There’s so much still to decide!” Ellie replied. “For example, we still haven’t…”

    Caridad tuned Ellie out as the woman started to detail the table decorations she wanted to pick. She couldn’t force herself to care or show interest in whether they should go with more flowers or more paper-maché. Unless you could eat the decorations or use them as weapons, a Slayer didn’t care about such stuff.

    What she did care about were threats. And the cops definitely qualified, even if they didn’t mean to endanger them. They would make protecting Ellie’s wedding harder. Fortunately, it was out of the LAPD’s jurisdiction, but that wouldn’t stop their undercover cops. And if the actual security picked them up, that would cause another problem. And goddess help them, as Willow would say, if there was an actual attack by Dubois while the LAPD was watching.

    What a mess! Caridad thought as she finished her salad. And there was still no sign of any cop observing them. Nor had she seen any bugs near their table, but that didn’t mean anything. She really needed a spy scanner or something.

    “...what do you think, Caridad?”

    And she needed to pay more attention to the others at the table, Caridad realised when everyone was looking at her, and she had no idea what she had been asked.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, June 30th, 2008

    “Chuck, we can’t have the police stalking our friends and us!” Ellie huffed and crossed her arms over her chest as she glared at Chuck over their dining table. It was an impressive glare, but Caridad had seen worse.

    Chuck, though, winced. “Sis… The Council already put pressure on them to leave us - and you - alone.”

    “Not enough, apparently.” Ellie shook her head. “I don’t want all my friends and all the guests ending up on some terrorist watchlist!”

    “That we can do something about,” Chuck said. “Dad can hack the watchlist.” He blinked. “He probably has already done that to put some people on it to hinder their movements.”

    That would certainly help with evading the CIA. But that wouldn’t do anything to the LAPD. Other than annoying them, which they deserved, of course. Though that wouldn’t help with making them leave Caridad and her friends alone.

    She scoffed at her thoughts and grabbed another apple from the bowl on the table. Not her preferred snack, but Ellie had made it clear that she couldn’t raid the fridge after having been invited to dinner at a restaurant.

    “And their unofficial watchlist? It’s obvious that they won’t stop!” Ellie shook her head. “This can’t continue. They’ll end up shooting us if they think we’re terrorists!”

    That was actually not that implausible. Caridad clenched her teeth at the thought. If the cops dared…

    “They know that we’re working for the CIA,” Chuck replied. “Well, we were working, but they don’t know that we quit. So, they shouldn’t mistake us for terrorists.”

    Caridad frowned. “Could the CIA have framed us? Let it leak that you’re no longer working for them?”

    She heard Sarah drew a deep breath, which was a bad sign. “That would be going against orders.”

    “But not impossible?” Caridad asked.

    John snorted. “The CIA was never really fond of following orders they didn’t like.”

    “Neither was the NSA,” Sarah shot back.

    “I don’t think Beckman would do that,” John retorted. “She’s not the type to be so petty. Or stupid.” He shook his head. “But there are spies who might do this.”

    “Fulcrum remnants?” Chuck asked.

    “Or just jealous spies,” Sarah said. “Some of our former colleagues would do it out of spite.”

    “No one likes traitors or deserters,” John added. “And we’re both in their eyes.”

    “Idiots,” Caridad snapped.

    “Idiots or not, what can you do about this? I don’t want my wedding to be interrupted by some cop with a grudge!” Ellie was now glaring at everyone. Including Caridad, which was patently unfair - this wasn’t her fault at all!

    “Well, we could ask the general to check for leaks,” Chuck suggested. John snorted, and Chuck winced, then pouted.

    “Can’t you use your…” Caridad made a gesture towards Chuck’s head.

    “I need some data for that,” Chuck said. “And since this would’ve happened after I got it, it’s harder to do. Not impossible, but the algorithms aren’t working as well with old data as they do with new data.”

    “We could break into the LAPD headquarters and check their data!” Caridad grinned. That would help Chuck, and she could do something about those damned cops.

    “That… Well, it might help us find out who is behind this,” Chuck said.

    Sarah nodded. “And then we can do something about them to end this farce.”

    Ellie nodded, though Chuck winced again.

    “I don’t mean killing them,” Sarah explained.

    “Unless they are dirty,” John added.

    Ellie’s surprised gasp turned into a grimace. She probably hadn’t expected that. Caridad didn’t gasp, but she didn’t like the thought of killing cops, either. “If they’re dirty, we can get them arrested,” she said. “Chuck can get proof of their crimes, and we can take them out.” Hell, she could do it herself. A couple of bad cops vs the Slayer? No contest at all! Buffy had taken out an entire ranger platoon as a teenager! Caridad was much more experienced than Buffy had been at the time!

    “Well, let’s just focus on finding out who’s after us,” Chuck said. “For now, at least. They might just be honest but misguided cops.”

    Caridad snorted.

    “Not every cop is bad,” Chuck insisted.

    “Just most,” Caridad shot back. She had experience with cops. Before she became a Slayer, at least. Afterwards, they hadn’t been able to catch or even harass her.

    “Not even most.” Chuck frowned - he was stubborn about such things.

    “We’ll deal with those who are a problem,” John said.

    “But without killing!” Chuck replied. “Just… information gathering.”

    “You’re going to break into Parker Center?” Ellie asked.

    “We’re spies, Sis. That’s what we do,” Chuck told her with a smile. Then he frowned. “Well, we don’t break into many police headquarters. But we could. Because we know how to break into places. For spy business. You know.” He cleared his throat as Sarah patted his shoulder with a smile.

    Caridad was grinning herself, and John snorted.

    “Anyway,” Chuck went on. “We will have to hack into their systems, first. That’ll take some time.”

    “Call your dad for help,” John said.

    Chuck glared at him. “I will, but it’ll still take some time. They’ve improved security since our, ah, last encounter with them.”

    Caridad nodded. It figured that the cops would’ve realised someone had hacked them. They weren’t complete idiots, after all.

    “Well, get to it,” John said. “We need to deal with this as soon as possible. We can’t have some idiot cops trying to mess with us when Dubois returns.”

    And that set off Ellie again.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, Parker Center, July 1st, 2008

    The LAPD headquarters looked rather ugly, in Caridad’s opinion. A square block built on stilts - pillars, lots of glass and lots of cops. At least it didn’t have great security - not against a Slayer or a spy. Or a group of spies. She could see various ways how she could get to the roof without being seen on the security cameras - provided that anyone was actually watching their feeds, of course, at this time of the night. In her experience, cops weren’t very active during the graveyard shift. John and the others weren’t counting on that, though.

    She touched the button for her headset. “Slayer here. I’ve got eyes on the building.”

    “Good. We’re ready here. Do you see the camera you need to reach?” Chuck asked.

    She rolled her eyes. “Yes.” Chuck had only pointed it out twice during the briefing.

    “Good. It’s one of the older models and imperfectly placed. Should’ve been replaced, but since the LAPD is moving to a new headquarters next year, they’ve cut down their maintenance budget.”

    That wouldn’t help the next tenant. But Caridad wasn’t about to complain when it made her own task easier. “I’m going in.” They didn’t have the whole night for this, and she was sick of waiting.

    “Careful.” That was John.

    “Always.” She grinned, baring her teeth, as she slid down from her vantage point, checked for witnesses and dashed across the street in a blind spot.

    She crouched down behind a parked car between the various buildings and checked the next leg of her route. The camera there covered the lot, but the angle meant she could use the cars as cover without exposing herself - though it would require her to crawl under a police van for the last bit.

    A police van which was leaking oil, she discovered when she was underneath it. Gritting her teeth, she avoided the small puddle as well as she could, then rolled out and dashed towards the wall next to it. A quick jump, and her hands gripped a windowsill.

    She took a deep breath, then pulled her legs up and pushed off from the wall, swinging upwards to land on the roof in a crouch. No cameras covered this area, but she could be seen from the main building’s higher floors, so she quickly took cover behind some machine or other - she was no expert on such things - and then crawled towards the security camera mounted on the edge of the roof.

    “I’m at the camera,” she told the others.

    “Alright. Now connect the stick and switch the transmitter on so we can…”

    She tuned out Chuck’s technical babble. All she needed to know was what to do - she didn’t need a lesson about hacking. She was the Slayer, not a nerd. And she didn’t need a computer degree to slot in a USB stick.

    “Done,” she told the others.

    “Alright. Now this will take a little time - it would really be much easier if they had an integrated security and computer system, but they went with the Battlestar Galactica Defence,” Chuck replied.

    Caridad knew better than to ask for details. “Just do it.”

    “Yes, yes.”

    He sounded distracted, so he was already working. Caridad sighed and leaned against the closest air conditioning unit. She hoped he wouldn’t take too long.

    To think that she could be on patrol, hunting demons, right now, instead of sitting on top of a police building! And she couldn’t even patrol this area because she had to keep out of sight of the cameras!

    Really, this was so…

    “Alright, we control the cameras. I’m looping the cameras on your side, Caridad. We’ll meet at the main building in the designated area.”

    Oh. That had been quick. “Copy,” she replied.

    “Done. You’ve got five minutes to reach the location,” Chuck told her.

    She snorted. Five minutes? She slid over the edge of the roof and jumped down, then dashed across the parking lot. “I’m in position,” she reported. Not even a minute!

    “We’re on our way,” John replied.

    John, Chuck and Sarah took five minutes to reach her, of course. And Chuck sounded a little winded. He must have cut back on his cardio. Then again, he was carrying a backpack full of gear.

    By the time John had picked the lock of the door next to them, Chuck had recovered, though - and he took the lead as they sneaked towards the main server room.

    Not that they needed to sneak, what with the cameras looped and only the graveyard shift present in the building. And half of them were probably napping. Hell, compared to her own undercover mission, this was downright easy! Anyone could do it - even Morgan. Or Phil - though he would probably have trouble handling the computers.

    She shook her head, smiling softly, as she leaned against the wall at the door, listening both for any cop walking their way as well as to her friends working on the computers.

    “Alright… lemme see how this works… I’ve got the main server here.”

    “They won’t have black ops data on the main server, Bartowski.”

    “That’s what they want us to think! They’ve got pretty decent IT guys.”

    “I’ve finished downloading the case files, Chuck.”

    Sarah was good with computers, too, Caridad reminded herself. As was John. Chuck was just so much better - and nerdier - that he tended to stick out. She was the odd one out here.

    Then again, none of them could match her skills when it came to fighting. Or tracking. Or climbing and sneaking.

    She was the Slayer, after all.

    “Jackpot!” She could hear Chuck smiling. “Uh-oh.”

    “‘Uh-oh’, Bartowski?” John snapped.

    “I just flashed.” Chuck took a deep breath. “I know who’s behind the LAPD stalking us.”

    “Chuck?” Sarah asked.

    “It’s Dubois.”

    *****​
     
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 17: The Dirty Cop
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 17: The Dirty Cop

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, Parker Center, July 1st, 2008

    Dubois. The French assassin was using the LAPD against them? Caridad growled, which made Chuck wince. “I’m going to kill her!”

    “Once we find her,” John said. “Did you flash on her location?”

    “Uh…” Chuck grimaced. “No, no. Sorry.” He perked up. “But I flashed on her contact - the cop she’s working with. Or through. Manuel Rodriguez. He’s a corrupt one, bought by the cartels.”

    “Cartels? Multiple?” John asked.

    “Uh… yes?”

    John snorted. “Fool. One or the other will kill him for working for the competition.”

    “Not if we get him first,” Caridad said through clenched teeth. Now she had a name. Rodriguez. And Dubois. They were threatening her family. Her friends.

    “We can discuss this somewhere else,” Sarah said. The spy was making a point of looking at their surroundings - the server room of the LAPD headquarters.

    “Right!” Chuck nodded and started packing up his laptop. “So, uh, let’s go!”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. Yes. They had to sneak out again. And then they could hunt. Then she could hunt.

    Sneaking out was as easy as sneaking in had been, though having to slow down for the others was even more annoying than it usually was. She could’ve been back home in the time it took the others to reach the ground floor - well, the entrance; the actual ground floor was a parking lot.

    But they managed to, and everyone left without triggering an alarm. Or Caridad having to carry someone.

    Good. Now she just needed to get them to let her drive them back so they didn’t waste any more time.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, July 1st, 2008

    “...and she’s working through this man: Detective Manuel Rodriguez,” Chuck said, pointing at the picture of a moustached thirty-something man projected on the wall in Phil’s living room. Which was feeling very crowded right now. Caridad couldn’t help remembering the time she and the other potentials had spent in Buffy’s home in Sunnydale.

    “A corrupt cop?” Morgan, sitting at the dining table, leaned forward. “I’m shocked. Not really.”

    “He might’ve been placed there as a mole from the start,” Sarah said. “The stronger cartels play the long game.”

    “It’s possible,” Chuck said, “I didn’t flash on that - only on his dealings in the last few years. And on his dealing with Dubois.”

    “Did you get anything on her?” Kirsten asked.

    Chuck winced as if that was his fault. “No. The Intersect didn’t flash on that. But I know how she’s paying him. Dad’s working on tracking the money.”

    “She’s paying him?” Phil frowned. “So she isn’t blackmailing him into helping her by threatening to expose his past crimes?”

    “She’s posing as a Cartel liaison, actually,” Chuck said.

    “That means we can’t use that angle to turn him.” Carina sighed. “Too bad.”

    “There are other angles we can use,” Sarah replied. “We can threaten to expose him, instead,” she added just as Carina started to smirk.

    While the spy pouted, John shook his head. “If he’s working for more than one cartel, he’s used to playing both sides. We can’t trust him to stay turned. Or he might do a runner.”

    Caridad nodded. That sounded logical. You couldn’t trust such scum.

    “We don’t need to turn him. Dubois’s communicating with him. If we put him under surveillance, we can get to her,” Chuck said, smiling faintly. “The money link and the communication link - we have two chances to find her.”

    “Let’s hope we do before she kills the cops and frames us for it,” John said.

    Chuck blinked. “Right. We don’t know if the cops who actually are stalking us are in it or not. She could easily kill them to hurt us.”

    “Even if they are also working for her, I don’t think she’d hesitate to sacrifice them to get to us,” Sarah said. “And the LAPD will remember how Fulcrum framed Casey.”

    Everyone winced at that. John growled.

    “Indeed. They were never told the truth, and will consider another suspicious killing proof that the first attempt was our fault as well,” Phil said. “Although I doubt that framing us as murderers is Dubois’s first plan or she would’ve already executed such a ploy. It’s probably more of a backup plan.”

    “She might want to kill us personally,” Sarah agreed. “But only as long as she thinks she can do it.”

    “Great. We’ve got a killer after us who can set the whole LAPD on us. Ellie’s going to kill us,” Chuck said. Then he blinked. “Not literally, I mean.”

    Caridad chuckled at that, despite their problems. Not for long, though. “Dubois knows about Ellie’s wedding. She’ll try to use that.”

    “Yes.” Chuck looked murderous. If Caridad hadn’t seen Willow in a bad mood, she would’ve been impressed.

    “So, what do we do? Apart from shadowing Rodriguez, I mean,” Caridad asked.

    “If Dubois plans to kill the other cops and frame us, we need to prevent that,” Chuck said.

    “We need to find out if any other cop investigating us is dirty,” John said.

    “Yes. If they are involved, they might serve as communication channels for Rodriguez and Dubois,” Phil said.

    “I doubt that Rodriguez would trust anyone with that; if he’s playing two cartels against each other, he can’t afford to let anyone else know his contacts,” Sarah pointed out.

    Caridad nodded in agreement - big bad evil guys - or not so big bad evil bad guys - never trusted their minions or contacts. Mostly because they were always ready to stab them in the back and expected the same. Which was, actually, quite common, of course - that was why they were evil.

    “So… investigate the other cops. Which, according to our data, are actually not investigating us,” Chuck said. “They’re supposed to be on vacation.” More pictures appeared on the wall. One of them right over the nail from which usually a picture hung, so the cop there looked like someone had driven a nail into his eye.

    “Marcus Fawley, Glen Custer and Liam Sanchez,” Chuck pointed at each face. Sanchez was the nail face. “They’re all detectives, but of various seniority. And they’ve been working on the ‘Cartel cases’ for two years.”

    “And internal affairs missed it, of course.” Carina shook her head with a deep and totally fake sigh that only served to make her chest heave. “There’s a reason the DEA doesn’t trust the local police.”

    “You mean you don’t want to work with them,” Sarah told her. “Or with anyone who might stop you from breaking the law.”

    The spy grinned in return. “They cramp my style. But as Chuck showed us, there are other reasons than inefficiency to keep the cops out of the loop.”

    “Well, Internal Affairs doesn’t have the resources,” Chuck cut in. “And neither does the DEA.”

    “We could really use them, though,” Carina said, beaming at Chuck.

    “Forget it, Carina,” Sarah said, and Caridad saw her face muscles twitch.

    “Aw, Sarah - don’t be so possessive. We can share. Chuck’s computer skills, of course.”

    Carina smiled so smugly, Caridad wanted to punch her.

    Chuck cleared his throat. “Uh, anyway, here are their addresses. We’re still looking into their electronic records, but checking their apartments could reveal more intel. Say, if they have expensive hobbies or cars or something.”

    “That’s something Internal Affairs is looking for, so they won’t have a Bentley in the garage and a Picasso in the living room,” Carina said.

    “The LAPD’s Internal Affairs guys might have dropped the ball,” Caridad pointed out. If they were as bad as the beat cops she had met on patrol, that was quite likely, even.

    “If they have, then they are really incompetent,” the spy retorted. “Everyone knows that those investigating drug dealers and other organised crime businesses are targeted by the cartels. Plata o plomo.”

    Silver or lead, yes. They were aware of that. But Los Angeles wasn’t the border in Mexico. This was Caridad’s town. “We can still take a look. They might have gotten sloppy.”

    “Or they might’ve paid off Internal Affairs,” Chuck suggested. “That would certainly make it easier to pay off the detectives. Right?”

    “But they’d also have more corrupted cops who could be caught and rat out the rest,” John said.

    “Well, we don’t need to discover Rodriguez’ entire network, I think,” Phil said. “As long as we can deal with him and Dubois. And I think we can deal with a handful of possibly corrupt cops.”

    “And if the rest aren’t corrupt, they’ll turn on Rodriguez once we have some proof of his crimes,” Chuck said.

    “Or we manufacture proof,” Carina added with a sly grin. “If you can hack his systems, you can create a fake data trail, right?”

    Well, Chuck’s dad certainly could. That had started this whole mess, after all.

    “Uh… I could,” Chuck said, “but I think we should stick to the truth here. That reduces the chances that something goes wrong. Especially since they already think we’re criminals.”

    It was clear that Carina disagreed - Caridad knew the spy preferred the quick and easy solution because she wouldn’t hang around long enough to suffer the consequences - but with everyone else nodding, even Carina didn’t protest.

    Caridad stood and stretched. “So, let’s go and do some spying on cops!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Eastside, July 2nd, 2008

    Sanchez’s apartment didn’t look like the home of a cop on the take. It was small and located in a rather worn-down building in a rather worn-down area. At least that was Caridad’s impression when looking at it from the street.

    Appearances could be deceiving, of course. The nice old lady around the corner could be a wendigo in disguise, as Rona had once found out the hard way. She had kicked the monster’s butt anyway, of course, but the point stood - Sanchez could be hiding all sorts of secrets in his dinky apartment, and Caridad would ferret them out!

    She glanced at her phone one last time - it wouldn’t do to miss a text telling her that Sanchez was headed home instead of to a doughnut stand for his morning break - and crossed the street into the side alley. The fire escape was directly overhead - a standing jump had her easily grabbing the railing and flip over.

    She sneaked up the stairs, ducking when she crossed the window of an apartment in which a particularly loud child was refusing breakfast, until she reached Sanchez’s apartment. The cop didn’t have good security there - she couldn’t see a camera and the locks on the window were standard fare. And they knew already that he didn’t have a webcam watching the apartment thanks to Chuck. Unlike Custer.

    She thumbed her radio. “Going in.”

    “Copy,” Chuck replied. “Be careful.”

    She snorted - with her radio off, of course. She was the Slayer! This was a milk run. Hell, she had had food runs that had been more difficult!

    “Copy.”

    It took her only a minute to open the window. John would probably have been able to do it in ten seconds.

    She slipped inside and glanced around. The apartment looked as dinky as from the outside. No expensive home entertainment system, no antique furniture - just old and cheap stuff - and no Picassos on the walls. Just pictures of a younger Sanchez with a family: Wife and two small children. And none of them was currently living in the apartment. Nor was there a guest room set up for regular visits from the kids. According to the files Chuck had found, the divorce had been amicable, but it didn’t look like the man had kept in contact with his family.

    Caridad frowned - that hit a little too close to home. She pushed the thought away and started searching the apartment. If this was, as they had speculated, just a cover, there should be some signs of fraud or something.

    But the apartment looked lived-in. The fridge was full - although mostly convenience food and beer, with the milk having gone bad as he nose told her - as was the laundry bag. No dirty plates in the sink, but the trash was overflowing with empty delivery containers - Sanchez liked Chinese. And… She peered at the letters half-buried under leftover noodles and grimaced.

    Slayers shouldn’t have to dig around in the trash. But it might be important information. She clenched her teeth and reached inside.

    Ew. Double-Ew. Some cold Chinese noodles clung to the stack of letters, and she almost sent them flying through the kitchen when she shook them off. And the sauce had smudged the letter on top.

    Bill. Bill. Ad. Ad. More ads. Nothing interesting or compromising at all… wait. A lot of the ads were about yachts and boats. And they weren’t some flyers, but addressed to the guy.

    She stuffed the letters back, grimacing - she needed to change her gloves, at least - and went to check the living room again.

    Yachting Magazine. Sailing. And more issues on the shelf. They looked well-read. Some even had notes. And there were clips cut from ads on the table.

    Sanchez had a dream. Or he had a yacht bought under a fake name using dirty money.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, July 2nd, 2008

    “...and Sanchez stopped renting boats two years ago,” Chuck said.

    “He kept the subscription going, though,” Caridad said.

    “Indeed, he did.” Sarah nodded.

    “Which means he didn’t lose the interest - just the need to rent a boat,” Carina said. “I bet he’s been using his own yacht under a fake name! Or going ‘with a friend on their boat’.”

    “There were no pictures with any such friend in his apartment,” Caridad pointed out. “And there were pictures with a rental and his kids.”

    “This does paint a suspicious picture,” Phil commented. “I think a closer investigation of his finances is warranted.”

    “We’re working on that,” Chuck said. “But it’s slowly going - he’s a clever one.”

    Caridad nodded. Living in a dinky apartment while owning a yacht was a clever move. But not clever enough.

    “Now regarding Fawley and Custer,” Chuck went on, “We didn’t find anything suspicious about Fawley’s finances. Suburb home, high mortgage, one teenage kid, spouse works in a security firm. No signs of anyone exerting pressure, either.”

    “He could still be dirty,” John said.

    “We’re also looking into his finances, but, so far, we haven’t found anything,” Chuck said. “Though if he is dirty and just keeps his money in an offshore account, finding it will be difficult.”

    “He has to access the money somehow,” Carina said, “if only to check that it was deposited in his account. He wouldn’t trust criminals.”

    “He could have the reports mailed to a fake address - or a lawyer working for him,” Sarah pointed out. “He would have several ways to contact such a middleman without showing up in electronic records.”

    “And putting him under surveillance and hoping there’s a contact is a little…” Chuck shrugged. “Well, optimistic.” He cleared his throat “Uh, anyway, Custer’s living a little too well for his salary. Not his home - he’s single - but he eats out a lot - and at expensive restaurants. And he’s got a wine collection that’s worth a lot.”

    The man did look like someone who enjoyed good meals and expensive wine. He wouldn’t catch a lot of runners. Not fat, but… stocky, and not just in the muscled way.

    “So, we have to shadow all four?” Morgan asked. “That’s a tall order.”

    “We’ll focus on Rodriguez,” Sarah said. “We know he’s dirty, and that he’s Dubois’s contact. The others aren’t as important.”

    “They could be the key to cracking this case, though,” Carina retorted. But probably only to be contrarian.

    “And if they aren’t dirty, they’re at risk,” Chuck added.

    “And we don’t have enough manpower to cover all four 24/7,” John cut in. “We need to focus on Rodriguez and Dubois.”

    “I concur,” Phil agreed. “While it would be tragic to see a good police officer killed in the line of duty, we cannot spread ourselves too thin to be able to do anything.”

    “Uh, electronic surveillance will help,” Chuck said. “We can bug their apartments and cars, and we can track them through their phones.”

    “They’ll be checking for bugs every day,” John told him.

    Chuck frowned for a moment. “Uh… then we need to use bugs that they can’t detect. If we use something like a stethoscope, that wouldn’t show up on a scan.”

    “But setting up something like this would be very difficult,” Carina said.

    Caridad grinned. “Well, I’ve got good ears. I can always listen in.”

    “Not always, unfortunately,” Phil cut in. “As important as this mission is, you cannot neglect your other duties, lest the numbers of dangerous demons start growing.”

    “I know.” Caridad didn’t roll her eyes. Nor did she pout. But she could handle patrolling and spying. She was the Slayer.

    Phil nodded with that expression of his that told her that he knew what she was thinking.

    She pouted in return.

    “Uh, so… focus on Rodriguez?” Chuck looked at everyone. “How do we do that?”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, July 3rd, 2008

    “They must have caught on, Manny. We haven’t seen any of the suspects hang out near Bartowski.” The cop, Sanchez, didn’t sound too concerned, in Caridad’s opinion.

    “They are often absent for longer periods,” Rodriguez replied. “That’s nothing unusual.”

    Caridad, prone on the roof of the building behind the cops’ car, smirked. I’m much closer to you than you think, she thought.

    “And IT is dragging their feet about tracking their phones,” Sanchez went on.

    “They claim that they can’t find the suspects’ phones.” Rodriguez sounded almost bored.

    Sanchez scoffed. “Hah! That’s just their excuse. They’ve gotten cold feet after the brass talked about unsanctioned investigations, I’m telling you, Manny.”

    “You certainly are, Liam. Telling me, that is. Repeatedly.”

    The other cop chuckled. “What else is there to do while we observe a boring couple?”

    “A couple protected by a private security firm with ties to gangs.”

    “Yes, but they haven’t cottoned up to us,” Sanchez replied. “Typical posers - they think a big gun means they’re tough.”

    Caridad chuckled - silently. Gunn wouldn’t like to hear that, even if it fit. In some cases, at least.

    “But Bartowski and the others aren’t posers,” Rodriguez said. “They’re killers. Killers with connections to the government. We can’t make a mistake, Liam.”

    “You’ve said that before. Several times. We won’t mess up, don’t worry.”

    “Don’t underestimate them. They’re pros. They might even be government agents gone bad.”

    “Come on! Even if they are, we’re not tailing James Bond here.” Sanchez chuckled. “And if they were pros they wouldn’t have let family stay in town. Posers.”

    Posers! Caridad clenched her teeth. She could jump down, land on the car’s roof, and knock both of the cops out before they realised what was happening.

    Posers!

    She was looking forward to kicking their butts!

    She wasn’t looking forward to the next part, though.

    “We’re going in,” Chuck said over the radio.

    She really didn’t like Chuck and Sarah playing bait. It should’ve been her. She was the Slayer - she was the toughest, fastest and strongest among the group. And while Chuck was Ellie’s brother, she was one of her bridesmaids - that was a good enough cover for visiting.

    But Chuck had insisted.

    “Copy,” she replied. “I’ve got eyes and ears on the cops.”

    A few minutes later, Chuck arrived. And the cops noticed.

    “Mannie! There’s a car pulling up! Visitors!”

    “Two visitors. Bartowski!” Rodriguez sounded excited. Would he contact Dubois right away? Chuck’s dad was monitoring their communications, so that would be a good thing. Unless Dubois was in the neighbourhood and decided to strike. That would put everyone there at risk.

    “And Walker. Look at those legs!”

    “Unless you’re looking for concealed weapons, watch her hands, not her legs.”

    “Those legs are deadly weapons! But they aren’t concealed at all.”

    “Liam.”

    “OK, OK. Lighten up - we’re spending hours watching a house. No harm in watching an ass.”

    That didn’t sound like they were planning to move against Chuck and the others. “Any communication from the cops?” she asked. “They didn’t call anyone from what I could overhear.”

    “Nothing,” John answered - he’d be in contact with Mr Bartowski.

    Good news. But it also meant this would be a boring night. Again.

    “They’ve entered the house,” Sanchez said, sighing loudly.

    “As expected,” Rodriguez replied.

    “We should’ve bugged the house.” Sanchez was a complainer.

    “They would’ve found it. We can’t underestimate them.”

    “Overestimating them is as bad as underestimating them.” And an idiot.

    Caridad scoffed. Outside some overly-complicated plans, overestimating an enemy didn’t hurt anyone but the enemy. There was no kill like overkill, after all - Slayers knew that perfectly well. Fair fights were for suckers.

    “Liam. Focus on our job.” Rodriguez sounded annoyed.

    “Technically, it’s not even our job - this is off the books. And not the kind of off the books where we get paid off the books.”

    Oh! Caridad perked up. Was that…?

    “Shut up, Liam. You don’t talk about that.”

    “Lighten up, Mannie.” But after a heartbeat, Sanchez continued in a much less flippant tone: “Alright.”

    It was! “Sanchez just confirmed that he’s dirty,” she reported as the two cops fell silent.

    “Good work,” John replied.

    “And Sanchez’s so annoying, Rodriguez might want to sacrifice him,” she added with a smile.

    John grunted in response.

    And Caridad settled in for a long, boring night. Fortunately, she had brought plenty of food, so she wouldn’t go hungry at least.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, July 4th, 2008

    “...and that’s all we found out so far.” Chuck moved a laser pointer over a long column of numbers.

    Fourth of July, and they had to work. Caridad sighed - not for the first nor the last time - as Chuck went over boring financial numbers that only confirmed what she already knew: The cops were dirty, though they had no proof in Fawley’s case. But he was working with three corrupt cops in an unsanctioned investigation, so how could he not be dirty, too?

    But Chuck was stubborn that way. Part of his charm. Usually. “Rodriguez hasn’t contacted anyone, yet,” he went on.

    “Nothing much to pass on, yet. Unless Dubois wants to know the colour of the wedding table decorations,” John said.

    Chuck flushed a little. “Ellie takes colours seriously.”

    Too seriously, in Caridad’s opinion. She stifled a yawn - after surveillance and patrol, she hadn’t slept a lot, even for a Slayer. They couldn’t leave Ellie and Devon unguarded. Not with Dubois out there and in contact with Rodriguez. And she didn’t trust Gunn’s people to stop Dubois.

    Although the odds of Dubois trying anything right now, when most people were out in their yard preparing a barbecue or already celebrating, were slim to none. Which was why they only had Morgan and Kirsten watching the house.

    “So… we’re just going to wait until Rodriguez slips,” she summed up before Chuck could waste more time.

    “Uh… yes. About that.” He nodded. “But there are a few points we should get over, I think.”

    She suppressed a groan. “Can we do that while eating?” Phil had claimed that holding a barbecue in his yard would be suspicious since he never did have one before, but he had compromised by having a feast inside the flat.

    “The roast beef isn’t yet ready, dear,” Phil told her.

    She knew that - she could smell it. But there were the side dishes and appetisers to eat. She was so grabbing all of the salmon sandwiches and the…

    An explosion interrupted her thoughts. An attack? Here? But the others hadn’t moved much.

    “Bloody colonials,” Phil muttered.

    Ah. Fireworks. Illegal fireworks, in this case. She smirked. “It’s a fine tradition,” she said.

    Then Chuck gasped. “Fireworks! The great firework in the evening - Dubois could use it as a cover for an attack!”

    Oh. Caridad clenched her teeth. Damn, he was right. If Dubis had recruited more minions - and big bad evil guys or girls always had more minions - she could strike tonight.

    It looked like she’d be working the night as well.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, July 4th, 2008

    Ellie and Devon had a barbecue. A proper barbecue. With hot dogs and spareribs and… well, not pulled pork, but burgers and steak. And there were vegetables on the grill as well. And a green salad as a side dish - but also potato salad. And fries.

    The smells alone made her mouth water. And the fact that she had to stay hidden and couldn’t sample all the dishes made her want to drop down and beat up the cops - Fawley and Custer.

    “Seeing that makes me hungry,” Custer commented.

    Me too, Caridad thought.

    “Eat another sandwich. We’ve got plenty,” Fawley told him.

    “It’s not the same. Why are we working on July 4th?” Custer was the whiniest of the bunch, Caridad had found out.

    “Officially, we’re on vacation.” Fawley sounded professional. And boring.

    “That’s even worse. We’re not even getting paid for this.”

    “We’re on a paid vacation, so, technically, we’re getting paid.”

    Custer chuckled. “We’re still working when we wouldn’t have to.”

    “We have to. We can’t let the scum get away with this. They can’t turn the city into a war zone without suffering the consequences,” Fawley told him. “If we don’t take them down, the gangs will emulate them.”

    “You sound like Rodriguez.”

    “He’s right. And if you disagree, why aren’t you celebrating and eating burned meat instead of sitting here with me?” Fawley snorted.

    “Technically, I’m eating burned meat. Just cold burned meat in a sandwich, instead of hot burned meat fresh from the grill.” Custer’s laugh sounded slightly forced. “But then, I don’t have a family who could be celebrating with me, so I don’t lose as much as someone else.”

    “Edith and the kids understand,” Fawley said, though he sounded a little stiff.

    “Well, they’re saints for understanding that we don’t even get paid extra for this.”

    “We’re not hurting for money.”

    Oh. Caridad blinked. Was all the talk about money not just complaining, but an attempt to sound out Fawley for recruitment by the others? Did that mean that Fawley wasn’t corrupt? Not yet? She tapped her radio and relayed the thought while the two cops started to talk about past national holidays.

    “Possible,” John replied.

    Well, that didn’t tell her anything.

    “We still haven’t found any proof of Fawley being on the take,” Chuck added.

    She knew that.

    “He’s a smart one,” John said.

    But not smart enough if he was going after their group. They weren’t a gang. And they had been the ones attacked by Dubois, not the other way around.

    She scowled as she sat back on the roof and grabbed a sandwich of her own. Not some store-bought stuff like the cops, but made with the leftovers of Phil’s roast beef. It wasn’t proper holiday food, but it was tasty. Caridad might not be able to attend Ellie and Devon’s barbecue, but at least she wouldn’t starve on this stakeout.

    *****​

    Caridad was starving. She should’ve brought more sandwiches. Half a dozen wasn’t enough when you were surrounded by the smell of multiple barbecues. How could anyone expect a Slayer not to eat when faced with such temptation? Eat more than expected, at least. It was a biological urge. But if she complained, Phil would point out just how much food she had eaten, and how it should’ve lasted her for the entire night. Which had just begun.

    She sighed. This was unfair.

    And Fawley and Custer had just been replaced with Rodriguez and Sanchez, so she couldn’t even listen to Custer possibly attempting to turn Fawley. Which had at least been interesting.

    Sanchez commenting on the female guests of Ellie and Devon - and of one of Gunn’s employees posing as a guest - wasn’t interesting. Just disgusting.

    “Stop harping about the chicks’ legs,” Rodriguez said after a particular lecherous and delusional comment. “Bartowski and Walker haven’t shown up.”

    “Should they have?”

    “Bartowski doesn’t have any other family left than his sister.” Rodriguez scoffed. “And he visited her yesterday. Why wouldn’t he visit her party, hm?”

    “Oh.” She could almost see Sanchez blink. “Because he’s busy elsewhere?”

    “Exactly. Busy doing something.”

    “He could be attending another party. A pool party where bikinis are optional,” Sanchez speculated.

    “He isn’t the type.”

    “Walker might be.”

    That made Rodriguez chuckle. “Whatever the reason, they aren’t here. And I doubt that they’re having their private barbecue party somewhere. We know they’ll be attending the wedding together.”

    “Maybe.” Sanchez sounded unconvinced. “Sometimes, you want a little private party, you know, Mannie?”

    “Not on the Fourth of July.” Rodriguez sounded convinced.

    “Well, if they aren’t coming, we can pay more attention to the guests at the party. The chick at the grill looks like a gang member.”

    “One of the guards,” Rodriguez replied. “Is she packing?”

    That would be Gunn’s employee.

    “Now you want me to look at her body?” Sanchez laughed.

    “Yes.” Rodriguez didn’t laugh.

    “Mannie…” She heard Sanchez sigh. “She’s wearing a little too much for the party. Looks like she’s got at least one piece.”

    “Anyone else?”

    “Not in the open. But the rest of the gang’s inside.”

    “And not at the party.” Rodriguez scoffed. “Amateurs. That gives them away as guards.”

    He might have a point, Caridad had to admit. She might have to bring that up with Gunn next time she was visiting Ellie and Devon.

    “Guys!” Chuck’s excited voice interrupted her thoughts. “Rodriguez texted an unknown number. Told them ‘Targets not there’. We’re tracking the recipient… Oh. It’s in Downtown. Los Angeles.”

    “Dubois’s in my city?” Caridad growled.

    “A phone of hers is. Could be one of her men acting as a middleman.”

    “We need to capture them!” Caridad wouldn’t let the assassins get away with this.

    “We need a plan,” John said. “Find out where the phone is.”

    “Hacking it!” Chuck replied.

    Good. Watching two dirty cops watching Ellie and Devon’s barbecue was too boring. Caridad needed some action.

    *****​

    “Got it!” Chuck announced over the radio five minutes later. “I triangulated the cell phone’s location using the different cells it connected to, and…”

    “Give us the location without the background!” John interrupted him.

    “Uh… The cell phone’s in the Hilton Downtown. I’m working on hacking it so I can turn on Bluetooth and wireless and find its positions, but…”

    “...that’s going to take some time, yes, yes.” John sounded as happy with their current surveillance as Caridad felt. “Work on it while we’re moving towards the site.”

    “Alright!” Caridad said. “I’ll meet you at the…”

    “No,” John told her. “You’ll have to keep an eye on the barbecue and the cops.”

    “This is just a surveillance mission,” Sarah added as Caridad could hear their car’s engine start in the background. “We won’t capture anyone.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. Yes, someone had to guard Ellie and Devon, but did it have to be her? Slayers weren’t meant to wait in hiding. Unless they were ambushing someone. But they didn’t have anyone else to spare right now, and you couldn’t trust Gunn’s people to stop Dubois.

    Damn.

    “Caridad?”

    “Alright.” She wasn’t pouting. And no one could see it, anyway, if she were.

    Sighing - with her radio microphone off - she settled down again. More hours listening to two dirty cops while others had fun.

    And she was still starving.

    *****​

    When the fireworks were starting, Caridad was one more bag of chips being noisily devoured in the car below her from jumping down and mugging the damn cops for their junk food. Or raiding Ellie’s fridge, surveillance be damned.

    But even with an empty, growling stomach, she was the Slayer, and she had a job. If Dubois attacked the party, it would be now, with everyone looking at the sky and dismissing grenades and shots being fired as illegal fireworks.

    Her eyes had no trouble seeing in the darkness, and the fireworks lighting up the sky were annoying, but nothing she couldn’t handle.

    She scanned the area. They had sensors and cameras covering the house and its surroundings, but nothing beat eyes on the target. Especially Slayer eyes. But she couldn’t see anything or anyone. No van pulling up to the drive, no sniper moving into position to take a shot - and John had pointed out all possible sniper positions in the area with a line of sight into Ellie and Devon’s yard.

    She thumbed her mic. “How’s it going?”

    “It’s going,” Sarah replied. “We’ve isolated the floor on which the cell phone is, but we have to check all rooms manually.”

    “Bartowski hasn’t managed to hack the thing.”

    “Not yet,” Chuck protested. “It’s a spy phone. Has to be. No civilian phone has that kind of encryption. But once we find the phone, I can bypass most of that by manually going for the memory inside it.”

    “Only if we can secure it without alerting its owner that they’ve been compromised.” John pointed out.

    “Of course.” Chuck sounded a little pissed. Dismissing his skills at hacking would do that, Caridad knew. Or he was pissed at his supposed failure. Which was probably more likely.

    But he was doing good while she was stuck here… oh. There was a van driving down the road.

    Caridad tensed. “Van approaching the house,” she reported.

    “What?” Chuck gasped.

    “It’s just a van.”

    “Casey! It could be Dubois!”

    “Or just some delivery.”

    “On the fourth of July? In the evening?”

    That was a good point. Caridad clenched her teeth. She had an assault rifle with her - she could shoot anyone in or near the van from here. But it would give her position away to the cops.

    The van drove past the house, taking the next turn. She kept following it through the laptop next to her, where she could see the cameras’ feeds. It seemed the driver was looking for an address. Or that was just a cover.

    “That’s a kidnapping van if I ever saw one,” Sanchez commented below Caridad.

    “Run the plates.” Rodriguez sounded bored.

    “I was joking.”

    “Run them anyway.”

    “Alright.” Sanchez sighed loudly.

    A few minutes later - the van had left the area under surveillance - Sanchez said: “It’s a rental.”

    “It wasn’t marked as one,” Rodriguez said. “Someone must have done some work.”

    “You mean…”

    “Could be Bartowski, checking if the house is under surveillance before he approaches,” Rodriguez explained.

    It wasn’t Chuck. But Dubois? Would the assassin do that? She would. But a single van? Where were the other assassins?

    Caridad couldn’t spot anyone else.

    “Did the van return yet?” Chuck asked - not for the first time.

    “No,” Caridad replied.

    “I’ve found the phone,” Sarah reported. “It’s in room number twenty-five.”

    “Can you get in?”

    “It’s marked ‘do not disturb,” Sarah replied. “But I can pick the lock and take a look.”

    “Room number twenty-five… James Smith,” Chuck said. “A fake ID I bet…” He trailed off. Then Caridad heard him gasp. “Sarah! That room belongs to Seamus Kelly. Former IRA bomber.”

    “I’m in…Shit!” Sarah cursed.

    “Sarah?” Chuck asked.

    “Kelly’s not here But there’s a bomb. Connected to a phone. A huge bomb.”

    Damn. Caridad turned her head, looking towards downtown. A bomb? A trap! And she was stuck here, doing nothing… But why would Dubois place a bomb in the hotel? Did she expect them to track the phone? They only found out about it because they found Rodriguez.

    “We need to disarm it. This thing could take out the entire hotel.” John said.

    “I’m coming!” Chuck announced. “Don’t touch it!”

    “We’ve handled bombs before, Bartowski.”

    “But this is a special bomb. Let me flash on it!”

    Caridad clenched her teeth. Her friends were in lethal danger, and she couldn’t do anything. It should’ve been her, there. Not stuck here, with…

    She drew a hissing breath.

    The van had returned.

    *****​
     
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 18: The Attack
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 18: The Attack

    California, Los Angeles, Echo Park, July 4th, 2008

    The suspicious van was approaching from the other side of Ellie and Devon’s home. If it stopped there, Caridad would have to dash across the street to intercept any attack. She texted Gunn’s people.

    Suspcs van out back.

    They hadn’t noticed it yet - she could see the woman at the party pull out her phone, then tense and look around. And there was movement in Casey’s old apartment, where the rest of Gunn’s people must be scrambling. Finally!

    The cops, though, hadn’t noticed yet. They were totally focused on Ellie and Devon, not on the area beyond their home. Idiots.

    And the van stopped. Damn. Not in her line of fire.

    She thought of telling the others, but they were disarming a bomb. She couldn’t distract them. So she grabbed the rifle and jumped off the roof. Halfway to the ground, she kicked at the wall, propelling herself forward and to the side. Flipping over, she landed behind the fence at which the cops had parked.

    “What was that?” Sanchez gasped.

    “Nothing,” Rodriguez replied.

    Was the man deaf? Caridad’s landing hadn’t been that quiet. But she was already sprinting, under cover behind the fence, towards Ellie and Devon’s home. If she cut across the street at an angle, the cops wouldn’t notice her from their spot. Not with just the streetlights on. She would be slower, though.

    She did it anyway, pushing herself, then jumped over the hedgerow lining the neighbours’ yard, landing in a combat roll. And kept running, racing through the yard - the Hendersons’ weren’t home - and towards Casey’s old flat.

    Gunn’s people were out now, she noticed. And Ellie and Devon were herding the guests inside ‘to check out the wedding invitations’.

    Good. Fewer people to protect outside. Caridad might even pull off this without alerting anyone.

    She reached the hedge at the back of the Hendersons’ yard and rose to peer over it. Four men, one woman, all carrying automatic weapons and wearing tac vests, moving towards Ellie and Devon’s home. Damn. No choice.

    She jumped over the hedge, shooting as she flipped over. Her first burst caught the closest attacker in the chest, knocking him down. Her second burst, fired as she touched down on the pavement, caught the next in the leg.

    She crouched, then jumped to the side, rolling over the asphalt behind a parked car. From her position, she could see the feet of the third moving and fired again. The man went down screaming, holding his shattered ankle. That left three, including the driver. She moved forward, using the car’s engine block as cover, then came up. The man she had shot first was getting up - bulletproof vest, then. He was still hurting. She shot him in the chest again, then slid over the car’s hood and rushed forward. The man was getting up again, but a swing with the rifle’s muzzle broke his jaw and knocked him out. A kick silenced the man holding his thigh, and that left…

    Bullets kicked up dust and pavement parts at her feet - the remaining two assassins weren’t used to a Slayer’s speed. She charged to the side, kicking the man whose feet she had shot into the next car, and jumped over it. Dropping down to the ground, she narrowly avoided the fire from the assassin across the road and returned a burst into her chest, followed by a second into her legs. The woman dropped, grabbing both bleeding legs. Twenty-one rounds. Nine left.

    The last one was shooting up the car - broken glass rained down on her as the car windows shattered. She shook her head to get the stuff out of her hair and moved behind the engine block again. A quick tactical reload, as John called it, later, she rose - where was the bastard?

    There! He was running back to the van - and turned the corner before she could shoot.

    Caridad snarled and gave chase. She reached the corner, stopped and slid around on her knees, rifle ready. A long burst passed over her head, missing her by inches. Her own burst didn’t miss, knocking the man back. Before he could recover, she put more rounds into his legs. That left…

    The van exploded.

    Caridad’s eyes widened, and she threw herself back, back behind the corner. The shockwave caught her in mid-air, and she was thrown further, landing hard on the road and rolling several yards before she came to a stop.

    Then the whole street went up.

    She pressed herself to the ground as explosions went off all around her. Something hit her in the side, cutting through her jacket and skin, and she clenched her teeth in pain. Shockwaves hit her in close succession, pushing her back and forth over the asphalt with enough force to shred her jeans over her knees. She had trouble breathing because of the battering she endured - and then the dust and smoke cloud covered everything.

    She pushed herself up, coughing. She was bleeding from the cut in her side - but it wasn’t deep. Her leg hurt as well, but there was no blood. Good. She shook her head - her ears were ringing; she could barely hear anything - and looked around. The smoke looked… She blinked. That, over there… She hissed as she realised that she was looking at the head of the female assassin.

    The detonations… the assassins had blown themselves up? To escape capture? Where had Dubois found such fanatics?

    Then she gasped. What if she hadn’t found fanatics - but had them carry explosives with a hidden radio detonator? As insurance against them betraying her? Or a last-ditch attempt to kill Chuck’s family? Or… was that planned from the start?

    As the fireworks kept going off in the background, Caridad stood, coughing again - she had to breathe shallowly - and started to move towards Ellie and Devon’s house. She almost stumbled on the first few steps, then started to run. A quick jump took her over the fence, and she landed in the yard. She couldn’t hear any screaming. And she couldn’t see any damage to the house. Had the guests even noticed? Or had they mistaken the explosions for illegal fireworks?

    She moved to John’s old apartment. One of Gunn’s people was standing guard at the door. “I took the attackers out, but they blew themselves up,” she told the man. “Any trouble here?”

    “No,” he replied.

    “Good. Check with Ellie and Devon.” She moved around the house. No need to stay here - and she needed to check the drive. And the cops.

    She rounded the corner and hid in the bushes there, then speed-crawled to the drive. Clear. That left… She looked at the alley in which Sanchez and Rodriguez were. Damn.

    Rodriguez was kneeling next to a body on the ground. Sanchez. And he was… placing a gun next to the man? What the…?

    Her eyes widened as she realised what was happening. Rodriguez had killed Sanchez. And was now framing Caridad - and her friends - for it!

    Not on her watch! She moved back, out of his field of view, then dashed across the road. She could get the drop on the dirty cop. Capture him and make him talk.

    Then she heard the sirens. And Chuck’s voice. “We’ve disarmed the bomb, but there’s an officer down alert at Ellie’s!”

    She tapped the microphone. “Rodriguez killed Sanchez and is framing us. I’ll get him!”

    But a patrol car was already on the street - had they been waiting? Of course they had been! This had been a trap!

    “Police arrived,” she reported.

    “Get out!” John snapped.

    She didn’t want to. The Slayer, running from a dirty cop? Letting the bastard escape?

    But more cops were on the way, and she had to escape before the cops cordoned off the entire area. She turned and jumped on the roof of the neighbour’s garage. Two jumps later, she was on the other side, running away.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood, July 4th, 2008

    Caridad grimaced as she looked at the laptop on Phil’s table. The casing was cracked in multiple places. And it didn’t work any more. “That was from the explosions,” she said. “I didn’t jump around that much.”

    “It stopped a few splinters,” Chuck said, holding up a broken part with a stone embedded in it. “Straight in the motherboard.” He sighed. “We’ll have to replace it.”

    “We’ve got other problems,” John said, entering the room. “The LAPD has warrants out for our arrest. Rodriguez ‘recognised’ the killers of Sanchez as Bartowski and Walker. And they’re blaming us for the explosions.”

    They hadn’t even framed her? Caridad growled. Not only was Rodriguez dirty and a traitor, but he didn’t even know that Caridad was the most dangerous member of their group!

    “I presume that they are searching for all of us, then,” Phil said.

    “According to their computer system, yes,” Chuck confirmed. “Dad’s copied everything. They have no trace, though.” He looked up with a grim expression. “But they want to arrest Ellie and Devon!” He blinked. “They have already arrested them, actually. Oh my God, Ellie will be livid!”

    “We need to protect them!” Caridad blurted out. They couldn’t let dirty cops arrest Ellie and Devon!

    “I’ll call the Council,” Phil said. “However, I fear that even if we can keep them out of the clutches of the local police, they will need protection from whatever else Dubois has planned.”

    “And the LAPD will drag their feet before they release them,” Sarah added. “They think we killed Sanchez.”

    And the cops really hated cop killers. No ‘innocent until proven guilty’ there, Caridad knew.

    “We’ll have to send Ellie and Devon into hiding!” Chuck shook his head with a grimace. “Ellie will kill me.”

    “I have no doubt that she will understand the necessity for this course of action - eventually,” Phil told him. “I will make the call to London.” He stood and left the room.

    “Good.” Sarah nodded. “But we need to move as well - as long as Ellie and Devon are stuck in holding cells, Dubois can get to them through Rodriguez.”

    “But would he trust her?” Chuck asked. “He has to realise that she sacrificed her own team. How can he trust her not to do the same to him, once he has, uh, outlived his usefulness?”

    “He might not have a choice,” John pointed out. “She probably has leverage on him. Proof of his work for the cartels.”

    “So do we!” Chuck said. He suddenly grinned. “We could talk to him. Make him a better offer that he can’t refuse!”

    “We still need to ensure that nothing happens to Ellie and Devon while they are in police custody,” Sarah reminded them.

    “Back to Parker Center?” Caridad asked.

    “That might be what Dubois wants us to do,” John said. “She probably has a trap prepared and wants to lure us there with hostages.”

    “But she already knew we’d attend the wedding. Why would she jump the gun?” Chuck shook his head. “We would’ve been hard-pressed to protect the guests, too, in case of an attack.”

    Caridad saw Sarah wince. “She might have thought that we won’t attend the wedding. Or that we don’t care about the guests.”

    “But…” Chuck frowned. “Why would she assume that?”

    “Because that’s what spies do,” John told him.

    “Oh.”

    Phil returned to the living room. “I have informed the council about the current development, They will be putting pressure on the US government. Unfortunately, seeing as it’s already late here, the people they need to talk to in Washington are currently asleep.”

    “And Dubois isn’t,” Chuck said with a grim expression.

    “She might be - she has the advantage that she can pick when she strikes, and we need to be ready at all times,” Sarah said.

    “One more reason,” Caridad cut in, “to move now.” They had to protect Ellie and Devon.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, Parker Center, July 4th, 2008

    It might be late at night on the East Coast - and morning in London - but it was only eleven PM in Los Angeles, and the LAPD’s headquarters was busy. Very busy. From her vantage point on a high-rise nearby, Caridad could see patrol cars and other vehicles coming and going. And several news vans were parked close by as well. “I guess news of the bombs got out,” she commented.

    John grunted in agreement. “Can’t keep that quiet,” he added. “See anyone suspicious?”

    “Apart from the cops?” Caridad snorted. “No. I need to get into the cell tract.”

    “You can’t sneak in as we did before,” John said. “It’s too busy.”

    She could! If she managed to get to the roof, maybe from a helicopter…

    “We’ll disguise you as the assistant of the lawyer the Council’s sending for Ellie and Devon,” John said.

    Caridad blinked. “A lawyer?” Then she frowned at her own surprise. Of course the two needed a lawyer. “Alright. Wait… does that mean I have to play the role of intern again?”

    John briefly grinned in return.

    *****​

    “This is quite unorthodox,” Jerry Miller commented. “While we’ve been working with your organisation for years, it was always in our capacity as lawyers. Not as, uh, ‘operatives’.”

    The middle-aged man was looking everywhere but at Caridad, she noticed. Well, she was changing right next to his limousine. He probably couldn’t handle the sight. He certainly couldn’t handle her.

    “We’ve got reason to believe that Miss Bartowski and Mr Woodcomb are in danger,” she told him as she buttoned up her blouse.

    “In the holding cells?” Miller shook his head. “That’s…”

    “...very likely,” John growled. He was changing into a suit himself. “We’re talking professional assassins here. And they won’t spare you, either, if you’re in the way.”

    “Think of us as your bodyguards,” Caridad told him with a smile.

    Weirdly, the man didn’t seem to be reassured. Quite the contrary. Even though he should be used to them - he’d been handling Los Angeles’ legal problems for the Council ever since they had taken the city over from Angel’s crew. Well, as long as he got them into the police headquarters…

    Caridad checked her appearance. Her clothes looked a little rumpled, but since they were supposed to have been alerted in the middle of the night, it should fit. She picked up her wig and makeup kit and started on disguising herself with the help of the mirror in the car.

    A few minutes later, she had bottle-blond straight hair, enough makeup to make Harmony jealous, and a business outfit that allowed her to fight in without attracting as much attention as the one she had worn as an undercover intern.

    “Do you have any legal training?” Miller asked.

    “Enough to pass muster,” John said.

    Caridad grinned at him. “I know to ask for a lawyer and shut up when I’m asked any questions.”

    The man groaned. “Great. Just act like an intern - a gopher. Now let’s go - we’re already late.”

    It took them five minutes to reach Parker Center, and Caridad noticed several cameras trained on their car when they parked - the news crews present were covering everything. Miller ignored it - or hadn’t noticed - and went straight for the entrance, Cariad and John following in the man’s wake.

    “Jerry Miller. I’ve been mandated by Dr Ellie Bartowski. My colleague, John Smith, is Dr Devon Woodcomb’s lawyer. This is Jenny Shackleton, my intern,” the lawyer said before the receptionist could say anything.

    “We weren’t informed about any lawyers coming. I need to check that.”

    “You didn’t inform my client of her right to have a lawyer represent her?” Miller frowned at the hapless cop.

    “No, no… I just started my shift and wasn’t informed.” The cop picked up a phone. Caridad listened in, but he was only passing on that two lawyers for the Bartowski case had arrived.

    “Of course, Miss Bartowki called us - as instructed, I take it - so she wasn’t deprived of her right to a lawyer,” Miller explained in a low voice as they waited. Probably to get over his nervousness.

    John grunted in reply. Caridad didn’t think he sounded very lawyer-ish, but he looked the part. And his slightly rumpled suit fit perfectly.

    “Mr Miller? Mr Smith?” A female plain-clothes cop had arrived. Pretty, but looking a little tired. And about thirty. “I’m Detective Juarez. You’re here for Miss Bartowski and Mr Woodcomb?”

    “Yes, as you should’ve been informed of already,” Miller replied. “And it’s Dr Bartowski and Dr Woodcomb.”

    John nodded. Caridad noticed that Juarez’s eyes lingered over him noticeably longer than on Miller, and she had to suppress the urge to grab his arm and glare at the cop. John was hers!

    “Shackleton,” she told the cop, flashing her teeth at the woman.

    “My intern,” Miller added. “Now can we speak to our clients?”

    “Of course.” Juarez’s eyes narrowed a little, followed by a smirk. The cop had just dismissed Caridad as a threat!

    She clenched her teeth and almost growled before she reminded herself that this was what her disguise was about. But even if the cop didn’t realise that Caridad could break her in half without trying, Caridad also was much hotter than her. And younger.

    Fuming, she followed the others into the lift. And stood close to John. Closer than Juarez did.

    “Are you treating my client as a person of interest?” Miller asked as the lift started moving.

    “For the time being, yes. We’ve just started the investigation,” Juarez replied.

    “Really? I was of the impression that you had put her under surveillance for some time.” Miller shook his head. “I want to see the warrant.”

    “I’ll pass it on. I wasn’t handling that.”

    Caridad grinned at Juarez’s stony expression. There was no warrant for Rodriguez’s private investigation.

    “You do that. And I’ll talk to my client.”

    Ellie wasn’t in a holding cell, but an interrogation room. And she was angry. Scared too, but mostly angry. Caridad could tell easily.

    “Mr Miller!” Ellie blurted out as soon as the lawyer entered the room. “Finally!” Then she narrowed her eyes at the sight of Caridad.

    “Jenny Shackleton. I’m Mr Miller’s intern,” Caridad told her.

    “Ah.” Ellie turned back to Miller. “So, when can I leave? They didn’t tell me anything.”

    As Miller started to explain, Caridad tuned the legal jargon out and focused on their surroundings. She hadn’t seen Rodriguez on the way, but a faint trace of his scent had lingered. He was or had been around. Well, he would have been interrogated by the detective in charge of the investigation. Or, at least, he would have made a report. And the cops would be worrying about how to cover up that Sanchez had been killed on an unauthorised stakeout.

    Which meant Rodriguez probably wouldn’t be able to do anything at the moment. But later on…

    “...so I request that my client and her fiancé are released from police custody at once,” Miller said.

    “We still need to interrogate them,” Juarez replied.

    “My client has chosen to exercise her right to be silent. I assume that her fiancé has made the same decision.”

    “There’s also the fact that they are in danger. We found the remains of another group of attackers behind their home.”

    Miller scoffed. “Attackers that the police, despite observing the house in question, missed until after the fact? Such a failure throws doubt on the police’s ability to protect my client.”

    “We are still at the start of the investigation.” Juarez’s jaw muscles were twitching, Cardad noticed. The detective wasn’t happy - and Caridad was sure that it wasn’t just because of the dead cop.

    She frowned - she heard footsteps from the direction of the lift. Someone was coming. Two people. The two turned the corner, and Caridad tensed. Fawley and Custer.

    Juarez looked even less happy as she turned to face them. “Marcus? Glen? What are you doing here? Aren’t you on vacation?”

    Caridad could almost hear the ‘supposed to be’ in the sentence.

    Fawley scoffed. “Liam’s been killed. What do you expect.”

    “I didn’t expect you to visit at night and burst into an interrogation,” Juarez replied.

    “There won’t be any interrogation,” Miller cut in. “My client is exercising her right to be silent.”

    The sneers on the two cops’ faces showed what they thought about that. “Really?” Custer asked.

    “Glen.” Juarez took a step towards the two cops. “Why don’t you track down Manuel? He saw it happen and could use some company.”

    Fawley nodded, but Custer frowned. Neither of the two cops had given her a second glance, but Fawley was looking at Ellie while Custer was glancing around, Caridad noticed. That felt suspicious. Was he scooping out the area for a later attack? He would be familiar with the layout already, wouldn’t he?

    “Yes,” Fawley said. “Let’s go.”

    Custer shook his head and scoffed. “You’re letting them go, aren’t you?”

    “There’s no legal reason to hold my client,” Miller said. Caridad had no idea if that was true, but he sounded convinced. And convincing.

    Custer sneered again. “Typical. Let’s go,” Marcus.

    The two left, and Juarez and Miller started bickering again until John joined them and basically repeated what Miller had said.

    Bo-ring.

    *****​

    It took the cops another hour to ‘finish the paperwork’, after repeated attempts to scare Ellie and Devon into staying in police custody ‘for their own safety’. Even Miller’s suit looked a little rumpled at the end. John looked ready to shoot the clerk handling the last forms.

    And Caridad felt like smashing her way through the walls of the Parker Center. And through the LAPD. She had been forced to sit and wait for hours! Even fetching coffee for Miller had been a relief - but very short-lived. She should’ve been out hunting. Or capturing Rodriguez. Or doing anything.

    But they were finally done! Ellie and Devon were free to go! The couple looked much more rumpled than Miller’s suit. They were holding each other, and Caridad had the impression that Ellie might be crying if she weren’t so angry at the cops.

    “...and you’re free to go, though I have to caution you again. Someone sent over half a dozen attackers after you and killed a cop. It’s really...”

    Miller interrupted Juarez with a scoff. “Yes, yes, we’re aware of that, and there have been steps taken to ensure their safety. Good day - or good morning, Detective.”

    Steps Ellie and Devon wouldn’t like, of course. But there was no way around that.

    Caridad went ahead, to check their car and the area. She couldn’t smell anyone on or near the car, and the area looked clean. At least the area with a line of fire to them - the police headquarters blocked most of the possible sniper positions.

    “Clear,” she reported.

    “Copy,” John replied. A moment later, the rest of her group stepped out of the building and walked towards the car.

    “I’ll drive,” John said. “Miller, shotgun.”

    The lawyer didn’t argue. Caridad climbed into the back - after Ellie and Devon had taken their seats. Or their seat - they were holding each other. And Ellie was now crying.

    Damn.

    Caridad busied herself looking out the tinted windows. She didn’t want to see that. If only she’d been a little faster. Stopped the assassins before they came so close. Or knocked out Sanchez and Rodriguez before the murder.

    “We were almost killed,” Ellie mumbled. “With bombs. And all our friends, too.”

    “Only almost,” Devon replied in a whisper.

    Ellie chuckled, though it sounded more like a sob. “And the wedding’s going to have to be delayed! We can’t risk that!”

    Caridad winced. That would hurt her the most. “Not if we can catch Dubois and Rodriguez.” Rodriguez to catch Dubois, actually. But first, they had to get Ellie and Devon to safety.

    She looked outside again. They’d have to get a safe house for the couple. Chuck’s dad was working on it already. At least it would be easier to find a safe house for two people, instead of over half a dozen…

    She narrowed her eyes as she noticed the SUV driving behind them.

    Tinted windows, so she couldn’t make out the driver. But it was keeping pace with them, even though, at this time of the night, it could easily pass them. “We have a tail,” she said.

    “Noticed,” John replied. “Let’s see if we can shake it.”

    Their car took the next turn instead of heading to the highway, and John accelerated. The SUV gave chase.

    “Definitely not a tired driver playing it safe,” Caridad heard John mutter.

    “Nope,” she replied. “Get down!” she snapped at Ellie and Devon as she grabbed the suitcase at the bottom. Behind them, someone was leaning out of the SUV and holding an assault rifle.

    She bent down and pulled the SMG out of the suitcase. A moment later, the rear window shattered from the first burst.

    Miller, Ellie and Devon screamed, but John kept his cool and started driving evasively. “Return fire! Bartowski, we’re under fire by an SUV!”

    Caridad rose, twisted and returned fire. She aimed at the shooter - he was the biggest threat, seeing as Miller’s car wasn’t armoured. Her first burst missed. The next went into the SUV’s windshield, but only left a series of small marks.

    “Armoured car!” she reported, ducking when the assassin fired at her, blowing out the side window this time.

    “Shoot the tyres!” John said.

    Well, duh! Caridad popped up again - the shooter was changing magazines - and fired a long burst at the front tyre on the driver’s side. She was sure she hit, but the tyre didn’t blow up. Someone had spent a lot of money on that car.

    But that also meant it was far heavier than their own car - and not as fast. They were pulling away.

    Caridad fired again, once more hitting the tyre to no avail. Damn!

    And the shooter was now aiming for their tyres! Fortunately, John’s wild swerving threw off the guy’s aim, and the bullets stitched a line into the pavement. And then they took the next turn, breaking their line of sight. A little more, and they would be able to lose the pursuit…

    A second dark SUV cut across the street in front of them, two shooters leaning out of the side windows.

    John took a tight turn to the left, entering a narrow side alley, and forced Cariad to fire at the SUV over the heads of Ellie and Devon, and through the window on their side. She didn’t hit anything, but she made the other shooters duck and spoiled their aim. Probably.

    Then they were racing through the side alley, ploughing through trash bags and scattering debris. “Where does she get all those assassins?” Caridad yelled as she changed magazines on her SMG.

    “Mercenaries,” John replied. “Though we should’ve heard something if she were going to the open market. Probably a cartel.”

    Great.

    “Got you!” she heard Chuck’s voice over the radio. “Take the next left - we’re coming with reinforcements.”

    They shot out of the side alley and across the next street, passing over the sidewalks as John took another tight left turn - now heading back towards where they came from. But she trusted Chuck.

    Even though a moment later, one SUV was behind them again. “Must have taken the other side alley,” she muttered as she fired again. This time, she hit the shooter, and he dropped the rifle as he ducked back into the car. Probably body armour, too. She really needed a rifle, not some piddly SMG.

    “Where’s the other SUV?” John asked as they once again gained some distance.

    “Trying to overtake you on the next street,” Chuck replied. You should be able to make the highway, though - they’re too slow for... Uh-oh.”

    “‘Uh-oh’?” John snarled.

    “Two bikes just appeared. The passengers seem armed.” Chuck sounded as if that was his fault.

    Caridad cursed again and grabbed the next magazine.

    She heard the bikes’ engines a moment before she saw them appear behind them. The drivers and the passengers wore black leather suits and helmets with tinted faceplates. Both probably armoured.

    But the bikes weren’t armoured. Caridad put a burst into the front tyre of the bike in front, and it blew up. The bike crashed immediately, sending the driver and passenger flying and sliding across the street in a shower of sparks.

    The other bike managed to avoid the wreck with some impressive driving, but Caridad had their number now. And despite frantic swerving, she hit its front tyre next.

    That one made a beautiful attempt at a somersault but botched the landing. One of the men on it managed to get up - but then was hit by the speeding SUV from behind.

    Even Caridad winced at the sight. Those crazies didn’t care about their own people. Well, they already knew that.

    “Take the next right! Hurry!” Chuck sounded frantic.

    John grunted in response, but almost made the car roll over - Caridad felt the tyres leave the ground as they took the next turn.

    And now both SUVs were behind them. How were they keeping up? Nitro-booster or something? Caridad fired several bursts at them, but other than spoiling the aim of the shooters in the cars, she didn’t achieve much.

    And the SUVs were gaining. Caridad’s next burst - with her second to last magazine - hit an assassin in the head, taking the bastard out, but more bullets hit their own car. Sooner or later, something would…

    “Take the next right! We’re in position!”

    John took the turn. At the last moment, one of the assassins managed to hit their rear tyre on the left, and the car slid around the corner as John struggled to control it. He managed to avoid crashing, but with a blown tyre, they wouldn’t outrace anyone, much less tuned SUVs.

    Cursing, he tried anyway, flooring it. Caridad clenched her teeth and aimed the SMG at the road behind them. Any moment…

    The first SUV turned the corner. She held her fire. They had to be closer than that.

    Then something flashed past her, and the SUV blew up in a giant fireball.

    “Target hit,” Sarah reported over the radio, all cool and controlled.

    The second SUV had just turned the corner, and the driver tried to do a u-turn to escape. He lost control over the car, though, and Caridad saw it roll over in mid-turn, then slide a few yards on the street.

    With two guys leaning out of the windows.

    “Stop!” she yelled. “We can take a prisoner!”

    John hit the brakes, then put the car into reverse and sped back, coming to a stop a few yards in front of the burning remains of the first SUV. No chance of anyone having survived that. But the second SUV was intact.

    Caridad jumped out of the car and winced - there was a bloody trail a yard long behind the overturned car; at least one of the guys hadn’t managed to pull back into the car.

    She closed with the car and ripped the driver’s door open. The driver was hanging from his seatbelt, groaning and reaching for something in his belt. She knocked him out, then released the seatbelt.

    The others in the car hadn’t had their seatbelts on. The two on the passenger side were dead. Deader than dead - their upper bodies had been pulped and smeared across the street. The one on the driver’s side was unconscious, bleeding heavily from a head wound. She grabbed him as well, dragging him and the driver out of the car and back towards her own.

    John had the trunk unlocked before she even reached it, but a bullet must have damaged it, so she had to pull it open herself. And had to push quite strongly to get it to close after searching the two assassins for weapons and stuffing them inside.

    “They need medical attention!” Ellie said when Caridad got back into the car.

    “As soon as we are at the safe house,” John said, already driving away.

    “We have a safe house?” Caridad asked.

    “Bartowski found a house for sale and faked the records,” John told her. “It’ll hold up until we find a better one.”

    Miller was gibbering something about ‘demons, not the military’. Poor guy wasn’t used to this spy business, it seemed - but he really should’ve expected that from his briefing.

    Caridad couldn’t help snorting - usually, people could handle gun violence, but being shown that vampires and other demons were real shocked them.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 5th, 2008

    Their ‘safehouse’ didn’t look like much. Cheap standard suburban house for a family with two kids and a dog. A small dog, judging by the size of the yard. Mostly wooden construction, too - that wouldn’t hold up to any serious attack.

    But it had a large garage, so they could unload their two prisoners without any witnesses. Their prisoner, Caridad corrected herself - the second guy had died in the trunk.

    Ellie gasped when she saw the corpse.

    “Head wound. Probably nothing we could’ve done, without our kit.” Devon sounded as if he was trying to convince her as much as himself. But he was probably right.

    “Didn’t wear his seatbelt,” Caridad commented. The guy had been trying to kill them, so she wasn’t very sorry, if at all, to see him dead. And they still had the driver, who was conscious but faking it.

    He tried to make a move when Caridad grabbed him, but she was ready for him. A broken arm should teach him not to try anything else. “Does the house have a basement?”

    “According to Bartowski, no - but a laundry room,” John said, opening the door to the house.

    “Good enough.” She carried the moaning cartel killer inside.

    “When’s Chuck going to be here?” Ellie asked as she, Devon and Miller followed Caridad and John.

    “Soon,” John told her while Caridad secured and gagged their prisoner in the laundry room. The rest went into the living room, where Miller sat down at the wall, holding his head.

    “Tell them to bring sleeping bags and air mattresses!” Devon said.

    John grunted something about blankets in the car.

    “They bled all over those,” Caridad told him.

    “That would be unsanitary,” Devon said.

    “You can say ‘icky’,” Caridad replied.

    He smiled at that, but Ellie looked like she was holding on by a thread.

    “Can you check on the prisoner?” John asked her.

    She nodded, a little shakily at first, but went off with Devon. Caridad kept an eye on them, but it seemed that having to check a patient helped Ellie to get over her shock.

    She still cried when Chuck arrived.

    *****​

    Caridad finished blowing up the air mattresses - Chuck and Sarah had apparently made a detour to fetch them and more camping gear - while John and Chuck started the interrogation of their prisoner. The laundry room wasn’t really sound-proofed, but John kept the guy from screaming. Caridad could still follow the entire interrogation from anywhere in the house, but the others wouldn’t.

    They knew what was happening, though. They weren’t stupid. But they also knew that the prisoner had tried to kill them - or to kidnap them to torture and kill them later; which was more likely. Dubois wanted leverage, after all.

    By the time John and Chuck had finished, Ellie, Devon and Miller were sleeping, or trying to fall asleep, upstairs. Chuck was looking a little green - he still wasn’t used to such interrogations, Caridad knew. But they needed the Intersect.

    “You already know what we found out?” John asked.

    Caridad nodded.

    “I don’t,” Sarah said, with a glance at Caridad.

    She shrugged in return. “I didn’t want to upset the others.”

    “Anyway,” Chuck said. “The guy didn’t know where Dubois is. But we know that he thinks they’re here on Cartel business.”

    “She lied to a group of Cartel killers,” John added. “Which meant she didn’t plan on them surviving.”

    Sarah nodded with a grim expression. “That means she has enough trusted people to kill at least eight Cartel members.”

    “Yes.” Chuck agreed. “But the guy knew some of them. And I flashed on one name. Marco Aguirre.” He smiled, although a little weakly. “I can find him. And I bet he’s with Dubois.”

    *****​
     
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 19: The Argument
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 19: The Argument

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 5th, 2008

    “Marco Aguirre,” Chuck said, pointing at the picture of a rather bland looking young man in his twenties or early thirties. He looked more like an accountant, or some clerk, than a hardened killer, but Caridad knew looks could be deceiving - who would ever expect a hot chick like her to be a demon-killing machine? “He started working as a freelance killer at age fifteen, made a name for himself and joined a smaller gang in Vera Cruz at twenty. After two years, he was their leader - his predecessor having been killed by ‘the gang’s enemies’.”

    John snorted. “He killed them.”

    “Yes. The Intersect agrees. Not the police, though.”

    John scoffed at that. Caridad nodded - the Mexican police wouldn’t get involved in such a case. Not if they valued their lives. And even the honest cops would think twice before risking their lives trying to get justice for a cartel leader.

    “In any case, one of the greater Cartels swallowed his gang five years ago - without killing him, obviously, so they struck a deal. He took over one of the Cartel’s hit squads,” Chuck went on.

    More pictures appeared. A dozen, exactly. Caridad recognised some of them. “Pretty big squad,” she commented.

    “Not any more,” Sarah said. “He lost eight of them in the attack on you.”

    “The ones blown up attacking Ellie and Devon weren’t among them,” John pointed out.

    “I doubt Aguirre’s men would’ve let Dubois blow them up like that,” Sara said. “They were probably another gang or mercenaries.”

    “Dubois must have gone crazy. Wouldn’t Aguirre realise that she’ll kill him and his men as well?” Chuck asked.

    “If she managed to fool him into thinking this was a Cartel-sanctioned action, then he might not think she’d dare to betray him. Or he’s planning to stab her in the back already,” Carina said. “After he lost two-thirds of his squad, he might get a little antsy.”

    “Why would he think the Cartel wants to see us dead?” Chuck shook his head.

    “She could easily have framed us as working for a rival cartel. Or DEA.” Sarah pointedly looked at Carina.

    “That’s not my fault. She’s after you,” the spy protested at once.

    “She’s after us all,” Chuck cut in. “And we need to take her out.” He looked ready to charge down a Hellmouth - Caridad knew that expression. Dubois had made a fatal mistake, going after Ellie and Devon. Well, she had made a fatal mistake going after any friend of Caridad’s, so it wasn’t as if the assassin had anything to lose. But to see Chuck that angry… Caridad shook her head. That took work.

    “We need to find her for that,” John grunted.

    “Yes. And Aguirre is the key to finding her,” Chuck replied.

    “Dubois will keep an eye on him. She knows better than to let him betray her, willingly or accidentally,” Sara retorted. “She kept her disposable assets at arm’s length before.”

    “Aguirre took over a gang and survived the gang getting absorbed by a Cartel,” Chuck told her. “He’s very familiar with plots. I bet he will keep tabs on her. At the very least, we’ll have another link to chase down, in addition to Rodriguez.” He grinned. “And Dubois doesn’t have our resources when it comes to hacking.”

    Right. Mr Bartowski was angry as well, Caridad reminded herself. And Chuck’s dad was rather ruthless when he had to be.

    Dubois really shouldn’t have decided to come after them.

    “So, we’ll be waiting - resting - while you scour the internet?” She asked with a grin.

    “Not exactly,” Chuck said. “We’ll need to bug Rodriguez, at least.”

    “Ah.” Caridad’s grin widened. “And you need a Slayer for this.”

    And she saw Carina scowl in the corner of her eyes. This was shaping up to be a great day!

    *****​

    “...and shortly after they were released from police custody, another attack happened, which led to a car chase and shootout involving heavy weapons in the streets of Los Angeles. While the police still refuse to identify the targets of the two attacks, investigations by this channel have revealed that…”

    Caridad winced as the pictures on the tv screen - courtesy of Carina, alas - changed and a shot of Chuck’s old home appeared. They had expected that, of course - there was no way that the site of the attack could be kept a secret. Not with so many bombs going off. Not when it had happened on the Fourth of July. But Ellie and Devon would be devastated. Once they were awake.

    Ugh. An interview with one of their neighbours followed. Complaining about ‘suspicious elements’ - which meant Gunn’s people. Who, unfortunately, had some shady past more often than not.

    She turned the TV off. She couldn’t do anything about this. All she could do was to bug Rodriguez, once Chuck had the gear ready.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, July 5th, 2008

    Going hunting in disguise wasn’t a new thing for Caridad. As the Slayer of Los Angeles, she had earned a reputation, so most of the smarter demons tended to know how she looked. Which meant she had to disguise herself if she wanted to play bait.

    But disguising yourself so the cops wouldn’t arrest you - try to arrest you; they would fail of course - was different. It felt like hiding. A Slayer shouldn’t be hiding from anyone in her town! Especially not if she had been framed!

    She clenched her teeth as she made her way through downtown in a blonde wig and with blue contacts. And some inserts in her mouth that made her look like she’d eaten a few too many doughnuts and had kept some inside her cheeks.

    It was all Dubois’s fault. The Council had intervened, but all they had managed was that officially, they weren’t being wanted. Unofficially? Half the LAPD was hunting the ‘cop-killers who got away’.

    That was what those idiots were calling them - thanks to Chuck, they were listening in to the cops’ communication. Too stupid to realise that they were duped - then again, they hadn’t even realised that Rodriguez was a dirty cop and a cop killer. They thought he was a hero!

    Idiots.

    She spotted a patrol car ahead of her, waiting behind a red light. Sniffing, she kept walking. She wasn’t afraid of the cops. And if she slowed down or changed course, they would notice. Well, if they were paying attention instead of drinking the coffee she was smelling.

    Speaking of, a coffee wouldn’t go amiss, either. But not the cheap stuff the cops had bought. There should be a coffee shop near, catering to the clubbing crowd on a Saturday evening.

    She passed the patrol car. Yes, they were drinking coffee. If she startled them, they might even spill… No, she had a mission, and causing unnecessary trouble was the sort of mistake rookies made, not veteran Slayers like her.

    Even if it was tempting.

    On the other hand, seeing them stare at her butt and completely failing to recognise her was also satisfying.

    Idiots.

    The light switched to green, and the patrol car drove away while Caridad crossed the street. Two more blocks and she would be at the apartment building where Rodriguez lived. At least sneaking into his apartment would be a slight challenge - the cops had placed guards there.

    Only a slight challenge, though - they never accounted for a Slayer. They had covered both entrances, but not the roof.

    Caridad smirked as she entered a side alley, then jumped over a fence and moved through the backyard of the block next to Rodriguez’s. The fire escape was easy to reach for a Slayer, and a minute later, she was on the roof, looking down at the street. There was the guard. They hadn’t even bothered to hide, other than picking a civilian car. For a moment, she wondered if it was a trap. A car to attract the cop-killer, who would find it empty.

    But she couldn’t spot any cops nearby. So, it was just sloppiness. Well, she wasn’t complaining.

    Taking a deep breath, she took a few steps back, gauging the distance, then dashed forward, running as fast as she could. Three steps, two, one… She launched herself from the roof, across the side alley, and landed on the other roof, rolling to soften her fall. She could’ve stood the landing, of course, but that would have made more noise.

    As it was, no one should’ve heard her.

    She moved to the edge of the roof here - yes, the cops hadn’t noticed anything. “I’m on the roof,” she whispered into her radio.

    “Copy. Nothing on the police channels.”

    That confirmed it - they had missed her jump. Grinning, she quickly scaled down the fire escape, then jumped on the balcony above Rodrigez’s apartment. As if she’d try to enter through the window facing the fire escape - that was a rookie mistake as well.

    But the balcony? Easy.

    She swung over the side of the railing, pushed off, gripped the floor’s edge and swung on to the dirty cop’s balcony. Nothing to it.

    Then she frowned. She could hear someone breathing inside. Was Rodriguez home? He wasn’t supposed to be home, but in a safe house of the LAPD until they decided that he wasn’t a target any more. So… that was the trap!

    But one single cop? She frowned. That sounded… Not even the LAPD would be so inept. They knew they were dealing with professionals. They knew Caridad had gone through half a dozen attackers. Well, they knew someone had gone through half a dozen attackers - they probably thought there had been several people fighting them. The bombs didn’t leave much forensic evidence, after all. So why would…

    She stiffened. Dubois. This had to be a trap by Dubois.

    “I think it’s a trap,” she whispered into her radio. “There’s someone in the apartment - just one.”

    “Rodriguez is still in police custody,” Chuck confirmed.

    “It’s a trap,” John said.

    “Admiral… never mind.”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. Sometimes, Chuck was weird. “Yes. I’ll take a closer look.”

    “Caridad!” Chuck protested.

    “I’m already on the balcony,” she told them.

    “That doesn’t mean anything,” John replied.

    But she was already taking a peek through the door. Living room. Nothing here. But… she sniffed the air. Something… familiar. Oh, damn.

    “It’s a bomb,” she whispered. “I can smell the explosives.”

    “A bomb? Oh, no! Get out there!” Chuck said.

    “There’s someone in there,” she replied. And who would stay next to a bomb? If they knew about the bomb? Would Dubois do it? Maybe. But would she expect the whole group to enter the apartment of Rodriguez? No. “I have to get them out,” she said.

    “But…” Chuck trailed off.

    “Can you see the bomb?” John was more helpful.

    “No.” She licked her lips. Would Dubois have placed the bomb so it went off when someone tried to enter the apartment? Place someone as bait in there so the group would think it was Rodriguez? But the assassin knew they weren’t amateurs.

    “Can you see a wire?”

    She took another look. The scent of explosives was strong enough to smell it through the closed door - that had to be quite a bomb. Enough to wreck the building, probably. More than enough to blow up the balcony as well. And she couldn’t see a wire. Not at the balcony door, not in the room, not at the door to the hallway outside… “The trigger must be in the bedroom,” she said.

    “Lure them in, then blow them up once they are inside? But they might spot the bomb before entering the bedroom,” John replied.

    “Sensors!” Chuck blurted out. “Take a picture and mail it to me!”

    Caridad did so. This was taking too long. What if the bomb had a timer?

    “Oh…” She heard Chuck gasp. That was a bad thing - and the moment of silence that followed meant that he’d just flashed.

    “That lamp there isn’t a lamp but a remote-controlled infrared sensor. French brand. Someone enters, and it triggers.” Chuck explained.

    “Probably with a delay,” John added. “See anything connected to the lamp?”

    Now that she was taking a closer look… “There are two cables behind it.”

    “One for the power, one for the bomb. It’s probably in the cabinet below the lamp,” Chuck said. “Guys! You can’t sneak up on that - we’d need something to freeze it, and even that might trigger the bomb if Dubois was smart enough about it.

    “But she can’t have such a sensor in the bedroom,” Caridad said. “The guy in there would trigger it.”

    “Unless she calibrated it to go off once it detects a second person,” Chuck pointed out.

    Caridad ground her teeth. They couldn’t leave whoever was in there to die. “Can we inform the police?”

    “They would suspect us,” John replied at once.

    “And I don’t think the bomb squad could do much,” Chuck added. “We could…”

    Voices drew her attention. She peered through the gap between the balcony floor and the railing. Two cops had left the car and were running towards the building. “Cops rushing in!” she snapped.

    “Someone must have tipped them off,” John said. “Or the hostage missed a call-in. Get out!”

    She couldn’t. She couldn’t let whoever was in the bedroom die like that - or the cops rushing in. They were idiots, but they thought they were doing the right thing - trying to save someone.

    “Get out!” John repeated himself. “Abort the mission!”

    “Sorry,” she replied in a soft voice. She couldn’t just go. Then she rose, bent over the railing and fired a shot into the leading cop’s leg. He went down screaming and holding his bleeding leg. His partner returned fire, but unaimed and with a handgun. She heard him scream into his radio: “Officer down!”

    No time left. She grabbed her grappling hook and rose. She hit the edge of the roof on the first try, right where she wanted it. Another shot hit the wall near her.

    She ignored it and jumped, swinging towards the bedroom’s window. She hit the window sill and grabbed on. Yes, through the blinders, she saw a figure on the bed. Tied up. Not moving. And something near the door.

    She hesitated a moment. Another shot hit the window frame next to her head. Damn. She twisted and put a round into the idiot’s arm. Then she put both feet against the wall next to the window and pushed off.

    She swung out, then back, and braced for impact. Both her feet hit the window’s frame, smashing it and with it the whole window into the bedroom, showering the room with glass and wood splinters.

    She followed it inside, landing on broken glass, rolling - and coming up next to the hostage. He was staring at her, trying to talk through his gag. And there was a bomb taped to him.

    Couldn’t be a hair-trigger - the guy was trying to speak and moving a little. And the bomb hadn’t blown up when she entered. So… could she move him? There was something on the door, and the frame - probably to trigger the bomb when the door opened - but could she cut the tape away without detonating the bomb? Would Dubois use several triggers?

    Of course she would.

    “Bomb taped to the guy,” she told the others.

    “Hurry up - the second team’s already inside the building.”

    The cops watching the courtyard. Damn. Time was running out.

    “Can I cut the tape?” she asked, pointing a camera at it.

    “Uh…”

    “Check for wires inside the tape!” John snapped.

    Damn. She wasn’t good at the fiddly bits. But the tape didn’t feel as if it had wires inside. “Don’t see any,” she said.

    The cop was still mumbling into his gag. But he had stopped shaking. He was frozen, actually.

    “Uh… take a closer look at the bomb,” Chuck told her.

    She moved the camera closer.

    “That’s… a Bluetooth sensor there,” Chuck said. “Limited range - five to ten yards, tops. You move the bomb more than that, and…”

    “...boom,” she finished for him. And no way to tell where the other Bluetooth thingie was. Perhaps the door thingie? But time was running out. “How fast does it react?”

    “Uh… there’s probably a minimal delay. Fraction of a second. Those sensors are getting better.”

    “But there’s a delay.” Holding her breath, she cut through the tape.

    The bomb didn’t go off. Sighing with relief, she grabbed it and took a deep breath. The cop was, again, mumbling frantically but she ignored him. She whirled to throw the bomb out of the smashed window and kept turning, grabbing the bed frame and jumping over it. She pulled the frame with her, flipping it over and using it as a cover for herself and the cop, who had been thrown off the bed.

    The bomb went off before she reached the floor, and she was smashed into the wall by the bed when the shockwave hit them - the bomb had gone up in the air above the street!

    Shaking her head, she yelled: “I’m OK!”

    She barely heard John’s grunt over the radio - her ears were ringing - and bent down to check on the cop. He was coughing and groaning. She ripped his gag away. “Who did this?” she asked.

    But the guy looked disoriented. “Guh?” he stammered, his eyes not focusing.

    “Whose plan was this?” she asked.

    It was no use. And she could hear steps in the hallway outside - the other cops were rushing in.

    Time to leave. But she couldn’t let them charge to their deaths, either. “Another bomb!” she yelled. “At the door!”

    They stopped running. Good. She ran to the window and checked her grapple line. Still there. Smiling, she grabbed it and quickly rappelled down.

    “Stop! Police!”

    A throwing spike hit the gun out of the idiot’s hands, and she disappeared around the corner before he could recover it. There was a manhole, too.

    By the time more patrol cars arrived, she was safely travelling underground.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 6th, 2008

    “The captured cop - Juan Reyes, by the way - didn’t see who had knocked him out,” Chuck said as they gathered for a debriefing past midnight. “That’s what the latest report says. He’s got a concussion, so they can’t really interrogate him yet.”

    Caridad nodded. “Must have hit his head when the bomb smashed us into the wall.”

    “Or when you threw him into the wall,” Carina said. “Should’ve interrogated him first.”

    “And wait for the cops to storm in and trigger the bomb?” Caridad scoffed.

    “If you are fast enough…”

    “Enough,” John snapped. “What about Rodriguez? Is he still in police custody?”

    “According to the LAPD’s system, yes,” Chuck replied. “Do you think they’ll realise that they have a mole leaking their plans?”

    Caridad snorted.

    “It’s obvious that someone knew what they were planning,” Sarah said. “But that could’ve been the result of surveillance of Rodriguez’s apartment.”

    The cops certainly hadn’t been subtle enough to evade notice by Dubois’s people.

    “But would they know that?” Chuck asked. “Or would they assume it has to be a spy? I mean, not a spy-spy, just a mole.”

    “We know what you mean,” John grunted. “They have to know they’ve got moles in the force. But we can’t count on them drawing the right conclusions.”

    “So, we’re still wanted people,” Caridad summed up. Great! All that work to save the cop, and they were still under suspicion!

    “Yes,” Sarah said. “But it should’ve garnered us some goodwill. And the LAPD must realise that there are two factions now - one that kills cops, and one that prevents it.”

    “I bet they still blame us for everything,” Caridad grumbled.

    “Well, you were framed twice,” Carina said, nodding at John and Caridad.

    “I wasn’t framed! No one saw me!” Caridad protested. “That was a general frame-up!”

    “It doesn’t matter;” John said. “Despite the risk you took, we haven’t really gained anything.”

    “We aren’t wanted for blowing up a building with cops and civilians inside,” she told him.

    He clenched his jaw muscles in response. As expected, he was mad at her. Damn.

    *****​

    “I couldn’t leave the cop to die,” Caridad said as she heard John enter their bedroom. He had spent almost half an hour ‘checking weapons’ after the debriefing had ended.

    He didn’t answer. And he didn’t turn on the lights, either. Not that that changed anything - she could see him clearly, anyway.

    “And it worked out well enough,” she added, frowning.

    “You were lucky,” he finally replied as he started to change into his sleepwear.

    She didn’t answer that. It was obvious, anyway. And, sometimes, you needed to be lucky.

    “And sooner or later, luck runs out,” he said. He wasn’t looking into her direction.

    “Sooner or later, everyone dies,” she replied - and regretted it at once when she saw him tense.

    She could see him taking a deep breath, then releasing it before saying: “You didn’t know the bomb wouldn’t explode. You didn’t know there was no one observing the room through a camera. You didn’t know if the delay would be enough to throw the bomb out of the window.”

    She clenched her teeth. “I couldn’t leave the guy to die. And there was no time to check for all of that.” Sometimes - a lot of times, actually - you needed to act right now, not overthink things. And that was what Slayers were good at.

    “Sometimes, you have to leave people to die.”

    He should’ve turned on the lights. It was a little unnerving, how he wasn’t quite looking at her eyes. “That wasn’t one of those times,” she retorted. “He was tied up and left to die - a victim.” Not a fighter sacrificing themselves for others. “And he wasn’t beyond help.”

    “You didn’t know that.”

    “That doesn’t matter. I couldn’t leave him to die like that!” Especially not when it was their fault. Sort of.

    She could see him clench his teeth and bare them.

    “I’m sorry,” she added in a softer voice. “But I just... couldn’t.”

    He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. She saw his bare chest move. He didn’t say anything, just climbed into bed.

    He didn’t hug her. She didn’t touch him, either.

    *****​

    “So… we’re tracking Rodriguez,” Chuck told them during breakfast. “It’s not clear whether he knew about the trap - both traps - but the LAPD won’t let him go any time soon.”

    “Can they keep him in custody?” Caridad asked while finishing her second plate. “Against his will, I mean.”

    “Legally, he’s a cop, and so he has to follow orders,” Sarah explained. “Practically?” She grimaced. “I doubt they are prepared to stop him if he decides to cut and run.”

    “And he might decide to do that - the LAPD’s investigation of the bombing might discover his own illegal arrangements,” Chuck said, grinning. “He might even discover that he wasn’t as careful with his electronic records as he thought he was.”

    “You framed him?” Caridad asked.

    “No. I just… moved his records around a bit. And tampered with his security.” Chuck’s grin grew. “The investigation shouldn’t have any trouble finding proof of his crimes.”

    “Will they clear us, then?”

    “No.” John spoke up from where he had been staring at his coffee. “They’ll probably think we’re working for a rival of the cartel Rodriguez is working for.”

    He was glancing at her. Still mad.

    She pressed her lips together. She couldn’t have left the guy to die. No matter how dangerous. She was the Slayer.

    “Well, they might think we’re working for an agency involved in shady things,” Chuck said. “What with the government pressure on them.”

    “That’s the CIA for you,” Carina added as she entered the kitchen. The spy was wearing a men’s shirt and probably nothing else, Caridad noted.

    No one commented on Carina’s choice of clothes, though Sarah frowned at her. John, on the other hand, didn’t even glance at her.

    Small mercies - but Caridad was still smiling at that. And at the spy.

    “So, more waiting?” she asked. “Until Rodriguez breaks? What about Aguirre?”

    Chuck frowned. “I know a few of his old cell phone records - the DEA had him under surveillance for a time - and while he and his contacts change phones repeatedly, they still need to stay in contact. If I can get a lead on one of his regular contacts, I can track his current cell phone.”

    “That sounds easy,” Caridad commented.

    “It’s not easy,” Chuck replied. “It only works because their encryption and other cybersecurity isn’t quite up to ours - between the CIA and Willow, we’re outclassing them.”

    “But you still need the phone of one of his contacts,” Sarah said.

    “Uh, yes.” Chuck smiled. “Fortunately, I think the DEA has records that will allow me to find them.” He smiled at Carina, who suddenly looked uncomfortable, Caridad noted.

    “You want me to get you the DEA records,” the spy said.

    “Yes.” Chuck nodded with a smile.”

    Carina didn’t smile in return. “Don’t you have access to them already? You’ve got access to the CIA and NSA files.”

    “Yes, but that doesn’t include the more recent DEA files,” Chuck said. “But you can just get them.”

    “You can’t, can you?” Sarah asked. She sounded a little… hm… both annoyed and amused at the same time, Caridad would say.

    And Carina hesitated just a moment too long before answering: “Of course I can.”

    Caridad wasn’t the only one narrowing her eyes at the spy.

    Sighing, Carina rolled her eyes. “Look, I’m currently… in a sort of work dispute with my superiors at the DEA.”

    “That’s why you need this arrest,” Sarah said. “To save your career. You’re on the outs.”

    Carina glared at her. “A temporary misunderstanding. Though this affair doesn’t help matters.”

    Caridad barely refrained from laughing at the spy.

    “You can’t access their files because you’ve gone rogue,” John said.

    “I can access the files. Just not officially,” Carina replied.

    “Uh… so we need to break into a DEA facility to access their files?” Chuck asked.

    “Yes,” Sarah told him.

    At the same time, Carina said: “No. I can get access to the files.” She shook her head. “Look, I can set things right once I get Dubois - or her information on the cartels. But bringing in outsiders to give them classified intel? The DEA doesn’t like that any better than the CIA does.”

    “Don’t worry, Carina,” Sarah said with a wide, toothy smile. “No one will ever know we were in there.”

    John grunted in agreement.

    Caridad nodded - they wouldn’t let the spy do this on her own. For various reasons.

    *****​

    “The DEA has sweet digs,” Chuck said, pointing at the picture on the wall showing a modern high-rise. “Even for their unofficial secret bases.”

    “Unlike others, we don’t think that a hot dog stall is a good cover,” Carina replied, glancing at Sarah. “We’re a bit more classy like that.”

    “A private investment firm?” Sara scoffed. “Just the paperwork necessary to keep the IRS from investigating would be too much to keep the base running. Unless, of course,” she added with a nasty smile, “you use the cover to launder money taken from drug dealers.”

    Carina glared back. “That’s how the game is played, Sarah. You know that. Results are what matters. No one cares about a few perks of the job, as long as you deliver.”

    “So, this is a black ops rogue DEA operation?” Chuck asked. “And they think you betrayed them?”

    “No! They don’t think I betrayed them,” Carina replied.

    “But they think you’re a liability who might try to blackmail them to save your career,” Sarah said, shaking her head.

    Carina didn’t reply, which was answer enough.

    Great.

    Well, they’d faced worse. “So, how do we do this?” Caridad asked.

    “I’ve got a plan,” Carina said.

    “If it involves seducing a DEA agent on-site, we’re not doing it,” Sarah told her.

    Carina rolled her eyes in return. “No seducing. That would be too obvious. But a little flirting will distract their security - the base isn’t as secure as it should be so it doesn’t draw attention. Sneaking in won’t be too difficult.”

    “Do you have the floor plans for the offices?” Chuck asked.

    “In here,” Carina replied, tapping a finger against her temple.

    Caridad wasn’t the only one frowning at that.

    *****​

    “Alright. Between the blueprints from construction and Carina’s contributions, this is what the DEA base looks like,” Chuck said, pointing at the screen of his laptop. “The windows are armoured - I guess that’s not visible from the outside - and the doors are reinforced, but the walls are standard construction.”

    “We’re going through the walls?” Caridad asked.

    “No,” Chuck told her. “I just mentioned it for completion’s sake. We’re doing this differently. Their security system is good, but they used standard components.” The Intersect had come through again, it seemed. “And I’ve got an exploit in the OS for their hardware.”

    Well, his dad got it for him. Probably introduced the exploit himself, back in the day.

    “Anyway,” Chuck went on. “I’ve got a virus to take over the system. All I need is someone to enter it into their computers.”

    “Oh! Charles Carmichael visits to invest some of his retirement funds?” Caridad asked. If the DEA wanted their cover to hold up, they needed some legitimate clients, too, didn’t they?”

    “That’s our backup plan,” Chuck said. “Well try something a little easier, first.”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, July 7th, 2008

    “I didn’t think spies were that stupid,” Caridad told the others through her radio as she got out of the lift.

    “Men are that stupid,” Carina replied. “And Wright in particular. Which is why my plan would’ve worked perfectly.”

    “He knows you,” Sarah cut in. “He doesn’t know Caridad.”

    “And I’m not trying to seduce him,” Caridad added.

    “You are. You just won’t be going all the way,” Carina retorted.

    Caridad rolled her eyes. The spy wouldn’t shut up about this. “Is Wright on the way?” She stalled for time by steadying herself with one hand on the wall and adjusting her heels with the other.

    “He’s driving up… now!” Chuck replied,

    Caridad saw the man’s car arrive, headed towards Wright’s private parking spot. Just as planned.

    She started walking, clutch in hand. As she passed his car, the phone in her clutch started ringing. She opened her clutch - and fumbled pulling her phone out, spilling the contents all over the ground. “Oh, no!”

    “Oh! I’m sorry!” Wright said, stepping up to her.

    “No, no, it was my fault. I’m a little clumsy,” she replied as she crouched down and started gathering her things - and discreetly pushed the USB stick further away, towards the lift, when he was busy staring down her cleavage.

    “Here!” the man replied, handing her her lipstick.

    “Thank you!” She smiled at him as she stuffed the contents back in her clutch. “I was in a hurry, and the phone rang…”

    He offered his hand to help her up, holding on to hers just a moment too long.

    She kept smiling until her phone rang again. “Oh, no! I’m sorry!” Her own car was parked right nearby. She pulled her phone out. “I’m already late… oh no. I’m sorry.”

    She climbed into her car and started to drive away. He looked amused until she reached the ramp.

    “He’s turning away… and he’s found the stick!” Chuck told her over the radio. “And he’s pocketing it!”

    Good. Now Wright just needed to be stupid enough to stick it into his computer to find her address.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 7th, 2008

    “He used the stick!” Chuck announced, looking up from his laptop. “We’re in!”

    “I told you he would do it,” Carina said. “Wright’s a horndog.”

    “You said you could seduce him,” Sarah corrected her.

    “And that’s true,” the spy retorted, glaring at her.

    “Guys! Guys!” Chuck intervened before the two could start another row. “We’re in, and that’s all that matters. We have access to their latest files. Now let me check the cell phone numbers they recorded… Shouldn’t take too long…” he trailed off, mumbling while he was already typing frantically.

    “Well, obviously he was so impressed by me, he lost all his common sense,” Caridad told the others with a grin.

    Sarah smiled, Carina scoffed, as expected, but John didn’t even react. Well, his jaw muscles tensed a little more.

    Damn.

    Caridad suppressed a sigh. Why couldn’t he see reason? She was the Slayer. Saving others was her thing And slaying demons. But slaying demons didn’t bring their victims back. Well, unless it was some kidnapping or absorbing thing, but that was neither here nor there.

    And John was being stupid, checking his weapons for the umpteenth time. Anyone could see that he was just doing it to avoid her.

    She clenched her teeth. If he wanted to play games… Well, she wouldn’t! She stood, quickly finishing her sandwich, and walked over to him. “John. We need to talk.”

    “Trouble in paradise,” Caridad heard Carina whisper to Sarah, who shushed her. Chuck pretended to be completely absorbed by his hacking or whatever he was doing on the computer.

    “Not here,” Caridad added, nodding towards their bedroom. It wouldn’t be much privacy, but as long as they didn’t yell…

    John looked at her with narrowed eyes. He was grinding his teeth. “No, we don’t,” he spat.

    Oh, no - she wouldn’t accept that. “Yes, we do.”

    “I’ve got weapons to clean. We need to be ready to strike at a moment’s notice as soon as Bartowski finds Dubois.”

    “Rushing a mission?” She pressed her lips together as soon as the words had slipped out.

    “Shouldn’t be a problem for you!” he snapped.

    “What?” She glared at him, How could he compare that to… “I had to act fast. There was no time to wait.”

    “You went against orders!” he retorted.

    His orders, of course. As if he could give her orders. And he should’ve known better than to give that order. “I took a decision as the operative in the field!”

    “And it was wrong!”

    “It turned out fine!” She cocked her head to the side, baring her teeth. “I foiled Dubois’s plan to frame us for another murder.”

    “You almost died!” he yelled at her. “You only survived because Dubois hadn’t used a better setup!”

    “Uh, guys…”

    She ignored Chuck. “So? You risk your life every time we go up against demons!” And he wasn’t a Slayer. “As do I,” she added after a moment.

    “I don’t go against orders from experts!”

    “Guys? This is a little…”

    She scoffed again. “You just told me to leave the cop to die - you didn’t check the situation!”

    “That’s what you do when bombs are involved - you don’t rush in in such a situation like some fool!”

    “I’m no fool!” she yelled.

    “You acted like one!” He was standing now, snarling at her.

    “It worked!” she defended herself.

    “You were just lucky! And what if it doesn’t work next time?”

    “We don’t even know if there’ll be a next time!” You had to handle every situation as it developed.

    “GUYS!”

    She jerked, then glared at Chuck. “What?” she snapped at the same time as John grunted.

    “I can’t work when you’re making a scene here!” Chuck told them, frowning.

    “I wanted to talk in the bedroom!” Caridad retorted. She heard Carina snort at that. Stupid spy.

    “Well, then go and talk there!” Chuck looked actually annoyed. Wow.

    Caridad glanced at John. He let a breath out through his clenched teeth. “Fine,” he spat, then turned and walked towards their bedroom.

    She followed him.

    “Aw, I was about to make popcorn!” Carina complained.

    “Carina!”

    “What? You were watching as well!”

    “Guys! I’m working here!”

    “Sorry, Chuck.”

    Caridad managed not to slam the door behind her. She could still hear the others, of course. But she focused on John. “This isn’t about disobeying or whatever,” she told him.

    He didn’t answer. Instead, he drew a hissing breath.

    Damn. She had screwed this up. “I’m a Slayer. We do risk our lives to save others. That’s what we do.”

    “Until you die.”

    “Yes.” That was a fact for any Slayer. They wouldn’t die in bed. “Same as spies.”

    “Spies don’t rush in like that.”

    She rolled her eyes. “Carina did worse.”

    She heard a muffled protest through the door.

    “She’s not…” John shook his head.

    “I couldn’t leave the guy to die, John. I just couldn’t.” Why couldn’t he see it? Understand it? She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then stared at him again.

    He sighed and looked away. “I know.” And he didn’t like it. “But you did rush in. Without checking out the setup, first.”

    “There was no time. The other cops were already coming.” And they would’ve triggered the bomb.

    “You could’ve stopped them. Gained more time.”

    She could’ve. “Hindsight,” she replied.

    For a moment, neither of them said anything. She sighed. “Sorry,” she whispered. And she was. About this. Not about her decision to save the cop.

    He let his breath out, but he was still clenching his jaw. Then he closed his eyes and turned away, looking - or not looking - at the window. “Alright.”

    He didn’t add ‘don’t do it again’, but she could hear it anyway. Just as he knew she wouldn’t let anyone die.

    She moved closer, wrapping her arms around him from behind.

    She felt him relax. A little. And his right hand covered hers.

    Then the door was pushed open, “Guys! Guys! I found Aguirre! Oh...”

    “Chuck!”

    “Bartowski!”

    *****​
     
  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 20: The Clue
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 20: The Clue

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 7th, 2008

    “Uh, anyway…” Chuck cleared his throat and didn’t look at either Caridad or John. They had told him exactly what they thought about barging in on them in their bedroom. “I found Aguirre. Using the updated cell phone numbers of his closest contacts, and extrapolating from past observed behaviour and patterns, and cross-checking that with the Intersect, I managed to identify his current cell phone. After that, it was easy to hack through his attempts to spoof traces - I doubt anyone with the means to actually tap a phone would be fooled, you know?”

    “Skip the details. Where is the bastard?” John growled.

    Caridad nodded. She didn’t need a lecture on hacking. Slayers didn’t hack computers unless it was with an axe.

    “Uh, yes, sorry… Anyway, I tracked his cell phone, and using the records from various cell towers, I managed to narrow his location down to this!” Chuck hit a key, and a map of Los Angeles with a red circle appeared on the laptop.

    “That’s a block,” John commented. “An apartment building.”

    “Uh, yes - I couldn’t narrow it down more than this,” Chuck said. “But! It’s just a block, and we’ll be able to find them by casing the joint.”

    “It’s called recon,” John snapped.

    Chuck ducked his head.

    “Anyway,” Sarah cut in. “We’ll need to be very careful. If they notice us, they’ll abandon their current location.”

    “And they’ll try to kill us,” Chuck added.

    “That goes without saying,” Sarah replied with a frown.

    “And we’ll have to hurry,” Carina said. “They won’t stay too long in one location. Nor will they keep their phones for long.”

    “Well, now that I’ve penetrated their network, even changing their phones won’t help. As soon as Aguirre contacts his, uh, contacts, I’ll have him again,” Chuck said.

    “It could be a trap,” John shook his head. “Dubois might expect us to track down Aguirre.”

    “We’ll just have to be careful,” Chuck retorted. “Very careful. But this is our best shot at finding Dubois. If we can track Aguirre, he’ll lead us to her.”

    “Or into a trap,” John said.

    “Then we spring the trap,” Caridad said.

    John glared at her, then sighed and slowly nodded. Yes!

    “Can you check the list of tenants?” Sarah asked.

    “Uh, I did, but…” Chuck tapped another key. “This building here is leased by a firm which specialises in providing furnished flats for expats and new arrivals.” A tall building appeared on the screen - a picture cropped from a website, Caridad thought. “So, most of their clients are other firms. I’m checking them, but… it’s going slowly.” Chuck smiled weakly. “Sorry.”

    “We can set up surveillance,” Sarah said. “Track who’s coming and going.

    “Or we can infiltrate the block - rent an apartment and meet the neighbours,” Carina suggested.

    “Uh… they will definitely expect that,” Chuck said. “If they are in that building, they’ll keep any new tenants under close surveillance.”

    Carina frowned. “You used that trick before.”

    “Someone did,” Sarah said. “Anyway, no close surveillance for this one. Not yet.”

    “Works for me,” Caridad said. It would be hard to restrain herself if she met Dubois face to face. “So, we place some bugs and cameras around the block?”

    “We won’t have to place many - I can hack into the security cameras of the building and its neighbours,” Chuck said.

    “We’ll need a few more to cover the approaches,” John said.

    “We can do that disguised as repairmen,” Chuck told him.

    “You keep hacking. I’ll place the cameras.”

    “And I’ll… do a patrol,” Caridad said. “Have to keep the demons in check before they get any ideas.”

    “Right,” Chuck said. “So, let’s go! Or hack!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 7th, 2008

    It had been a boring patrol. Three vamps, which was good - well, it was bad that there were vamps, but good that Caridad had killed three of them - but none of them had put up a fight. Two had tried to run, the third had begged for its, well, existence. So, Caridad was still keyed up, sort of, when she returned to the new safe house.

    Well, there were other options to work off some energy if you couldn’t fight. Sparring, for example, though that tended to be hard on non-slayers. And, of course, there was sex.

    “Caridad! Here you are!” Chuck told her as she entered.

    He was still up? Everyone was still up, she noticed, even though it was past midnight. And someone had brought in more laptops - she counted half a dozen in the living room. And all the others were working with them.

    “I realised that the company doing the security doesn’t delete footage every twenty-four hours,” Chuck explained, beaming. “So, we’ve got a month’s worth of footage to go through and identify Aguirre - or Dubois!”

    Caridad stared at the laptop apparently left for her.

    She shouldn’t have returned early.

    *****​

    Fast forward. Fast forward. Stop. Back. A figure entering the house.

    Caridad squinted. The size was… within deviations, as Chuck called it. Could be Dubois. Too fat, but then, that could be faked. “Possible hit,” she said. “Thursday, 3rd, eight pm. Camera Three.”

    Chuck stifled a yawn. “Alright. I’ll make a note to correlate this with the other data we have.”

    Caridad heard his fingers fly over the keyboard. “Nope, the cellphone data and supermarket camera tags this one as Mrs Jones.”

    “OK.” Caridad hit the fast forward again. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Stop! Another possible… No, that was Mr Gomez from the third floor.

    Damn, this was boring. She’s been at it for an hour with no success. And the others had been at it even longer.

    Fast forward. Fast forward.

    She kept the finger on the key this time. She was the Slayer - she had the reflexes for that. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Well, it was midnight now according to the clock at the bottom of the recording. One AM. Two Am. And… Stop.

    “Possible hit,” she said. “Unknown man with his face hidden enters. Camera Three.”

    “Checking.” Chuck sounded bored as well. “I should have spent the time writing a routine,” she heard him mumble under his breath.

    She fast-forwarded. Stray dog. Cat. Rat.

    “We’ve got him!” Chuck sounded excited. “The cell phone of the man on the records there matches Aguirre’s! I’ve checked all other records - no one entered at the same time. And the cell phone was connected to the neighbouring cell before this - so it wasn’t started up inside the block.”

    “We got him!”

    “Only if we find out where he’s staying,” John said. “And if we can confirm that he’s still staying there.”

    “Right.” Chuck agreed. “But his cell phone keeps connecting to the cells covering the block. Irregularly - he must be switching it off and on - but someone’s staying there with his phone.”

    “And where?”

    “Uh… that needs further scouting?”

    “Spying,” Carina said.

    “Tomorrow, though,” Sarah cut in. “You’re in no shape to do much more, Chuck.”

    “I can keep going!” he protested. “That’s no worse than an all-nighter LAN party!”

    “You’re not a teenager any more, and you’ve been missing sleep,” Sarah retorted. “Bed. Now.”

    Caridad chuckled as the spy all but dragged Chuck off to bed. She stretched. “Well… she’s got a point.”

    John grunted in what she knew was agreement.

    Carina frowned, but who cared?

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown, July 7th, 2008

    The apartment building looked like any other new-ish expensive building where the owners were not paying enough for maintenance to keep the building pristine. The facade was still bright and freshly painted, the entrances clean, the lights working, but the AC units on the roof looked less pristine - through the binoculars, Caridad could spot makeshift repairs. Plastic covers taped to the frame. A bundle of wires poking out from the bottom. And the roof itself was collecting bird shit. Unfortunately, the security system wasn’t in a similar state of semi-repair.

    Fortunately, the security system was no problem for trained spies.

    “We’re going in,” she heard Kirsten on the radio.

    “Just a couple repairmen doing… repairs,” Morgan added.

    Caridad shifted a little and caught the disguised delivery van pulling up in front of the entrance. Morgan and Kirsten were in disguise, of course - but more importantly, Dubois shouldn’t have much if any intel on either. At least they hoped that both were classified as ‘family(friend’ and not ‘spy’ in the enemy files.

    Not that Morgan was a spy. He was a Watcher. Which, Caridad hoped, would help with this mission. As should that he had the skills of a repairman.

    But if anything went wrong… Caridad put the binoculars into her pocket and stepped back from the window. John was on overwatch on another building, with his sniper rifle. Caridad was the cavalry. And she had to get ready.

    She left the empty apartment and entered the lift. A minute later, she was kneeling at a racing bike in the underground garage of the building, pretending to repair something. If anyone gave the signal, she’d be mounted and out on the street, racing towards Morgan and Kirsten in a hot second.

    “We’re in the basement,” Kirsten reported in a whisper.

    “Wow!” Caridad heard Morgan exclaim, “That violates about… I don’t actually know. But it’s not code!”

    So the state of the building was even worse than Caridad had expected. And wasn’t that a fitting picture? Glitzy face, rotten interior? Kind of like a vampire.

    While Morgan and Kirsten went to work, Caridad kept fiddling with a screwdriver, hoping that at this time of the day, no one would come offering their help - anyone who knew anything about bikes would quickly realise that nothing actually was broken.

    But no one disturbed her, and Morgan and Kirsten left the building with the controls of the central heating repaired, and the security system compromised.

    Now it was up to Chuck.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 7th, 2008

    “We’ve got Aguirre’s apartment,” Chuck announced.

    “Finally!” Caridad muttered under her breath. No one but John seemed to have heard her, though, since he snorted softly while the others didn’t react.

    “He and his team, or what I think is his team, are staying in these two apartments on the second floor,” Chuck went on, highlighting two apartments next to each other on the floor plans.

    “Two apartments?” Caridad asked. “Do they have a door linking them or something?”

    “Not to our knowledge,” Chuck said. “The cameras show them using the hallway, though they rarely mix - Aguirre visited once since we started monitoring the situation.”

    Since they had hacked the security system.

    “That’s not enough data to make a firm deduction,” Carina said. “He could just have an off-day.”

    “He wouldn’t want to advertise the connection,” Sarah retorted.

    “Any sign of Dubois?” Caridad asked.

    “Uh… we haven’t found Dubois, yet. But Aguirre has to be in contact with her - the rest of the data we collected shows that it probably was his team that laid the bomb trap in Rodriguez’s apartment. They left during the time window for that operation.”

    “And since they failed, Dubois might consider them expendable,” Carina said.

    “She considers everyone expendable,” John told them.

    “Right. But the question is: Does Aguirre realise that? And does that mean she won’t contact them anymore and cut ties? Two questions, then,” Chuck said. He blinked. “And a third: Does she have a plan for the expendables ready to be implemented, like using them as a trap?”

    “As long as she isn’t aware that we found Aguirre, she’ll hold back on traps,” Carina said. “The risk of Aguirre finding out is too high.”

    “Unless she has already placed bombs in the apartments,” Sarah retorted.

    That would fit the bitch, Caridad thought. “But they will be looking for bombs, right? After placing one themselves, they’d be fools not to.”

    “Scum often are fools,” John said.

    “But Aguirre is not a fool - he’s familiar with plots and backstabbing, Uh, literal backstabbing, too,” Chuck said. “Anyway - we need to get ahold of his cell phones. The ones he uses to contact Dubois, not the ones already known to us.”

    “I can sneak in while he’s asleep and nab it!” Caridad offered. She could climb up or down to the balcony and break into the apartment. Easily. Well, with some support in case the killer had some fancy electronic security.

    “We don’t have to. All we need to do is to install a few cell phone scanners so we can pinpoint any phones or other communication devices using cell phone connections in Aguirre’s apartment,” Chuck said. “That’ll allow us to track his calls until we find Dubois.”

    “Unless she’s using a new burner phone for every call,” Carina pointed out. “From a moving vehicle.”

    “That’ll still allow us to get a fix on her current location. If we are close enough, we can track her by other means,” Chuck said.

    “Magic?” Carina asked.

    “Not exactly,” Chuck replied. “For that, we’d need a sample of her blood or other body part, or something that belonged to her - something she was at least a little attached to. But I was thinking of aerial reconnaissance.”

    “You’ve got access to the CIA drones?” Carina asked.

    “Well… not officially,” Chuck said. He was smiling as if he were embarrassed, which probably meant it was the work of his dad.

    “Hard to track anyone in the middle of a highway,” John said.

    “Not impossible, though, if we get just a little bit lucky,” Chuck defended his plan. “She would have to get a new car every time she called Aguirre. If it’s a rental, she’d have to use a fake credit card every time. If it’s stolen - well, we got the LAPD’s system to check for stolen cars.” He shook his head. “She isn’t perfect - she has to make a mistake sooner or later.”

    Caridad hoped that he was right. She was really, really sick of the French assassin.

    “So we’ll have drones circling over L.A.?” Carina asked. “People will notice.”

    “Not if we use magic on them,” Chuck retorted. “We’ll have to ensure they won’t fly high enough to be a risk to planes, of course. Or Helicopters.”

    Caridad winced. Pilots wouldn’t notice a magically hidden drone. Not until they crashed into it. “How big are the drones?”

    “Well, we’re not using the Predators or Reapers,” Chuck replied. “So…”

    “About half a yard long,” John said. “Won’t show up on radar as long as it stays close to the ground, especially in a city. And it’ll pass as a toy RC plane.”

    “Yes. It actually looks like the toy plane that sold best in the Buy More,” Chuck said. “Almost as if… Oh. They did use it as a base? Of course they did!”

    And now Caridad was wondering what other deadly toys the CIA was working on. My Little Pony bombs? Toy tanks that fired real bullets? Toy guns that were real?

    Damn, those were some frightening possibilities.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 8th, 2008

    The worst part of the spy business was all the waiting. A Slayer wasn’t meant to wait. They were meant to move, to stalk, to slay. Play bait. Patrol. Check out suspicious basements and warehouses. And shop, if you asked Buffy.

    It wouldn’t be that bad if Caridad could convince herself that she was lying in ambush, just waiting for the perfect moment to strike at her enemy. But she was lying on a couch, waiting for Chuck’s drone to find Dubois. She couldn’t even stalk Aguirre because everyone was afraid of her being spotted. As if she’d let the killer spot her!

    She resisted the urge to kick out against the couch’s armrest. They’d just gotten it into the safe house, and the others would be annoyed if she broke it. And Phil would ask if she needed remedial training in controlling her strength - or her temper.

    Caridad sighed. It wasn’t fair. And John wasn’t around to spar with her, or exercise, or have some fun - he was setting up another drone.

    A beeping sound caught her attention. An alert! From Chuck’s laptop! “Chuck!” She jumped up and was at the laptop in a second, staring over his shoulder. “What happened? Did you find Dubois?”

    “What? Uh, no… that’s an alert I set to watch the LAPD’s system for keywords, and… Oh. Rodriguez escaped police custody.”

    “What?” she snarled.

    “It seems that my hints about his dirty business were picked up by Internal Affairs, but he got wind of it and escaped before they could arrest him,” Chuck said, reading from the screen. “They took Fawley and Custer into custody, though.”

    Caridad rolled her eyes. “So much for the LAPD. Did they at least realise that we’re the victims here?”

    Chuck clicked a few boxes. “Uh… no. We’re still wanted.”

    “Idiots.”

    “Well, there are procedures…” Chuck trailed off. “Anyway, Rodriguez might also have fled because he feared that Dubois might be trying to silence him. In either case, he’ll be trying to escape Los Angeles, probably the country.”

    “Can we stop him?” Sarah asked.

    Caridad nodded. She’d rather not let another criminal escape to come back to attack them later.

    “Well… he will need money. I sent the data about his bank accounts - the ones I found - to the LAPD, well, I let them find it so it wouldn’t look suspicious. But he might not know that.”

    Sarah shook her head. “He will suspect that his accounts are compromised, and he won’t trust his Cartel contacts. He probably has some cash hidden somewhere just for such an emergency.”

    “So we can’t find him?” Caridad hissed. To let someone who had hurt her friends escape…

    “Well, we’ve got means he isn’t aware of,” Chuck said, grinning “The LAPD secured his belongings after the bomb wrecked his apartment, and he didn’t bother trying to recover his stuff before he fled.”

    Cariad matched his grin. “We’ll get a sample for a spell!”

    “Exactly!”

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, Parker Center, July 9th, 2008

    Breaking into the police headquarters was starting to get boring, Caridad thought as she hid behind a police van in the parking lot. It hadn’t been much of a challenge before, but now that Chuck had compromised their security, it was so easy, even a noobie Slayer could do it blindfolded.

    “In position,” she whispered into her radio.

    “Looping the cameras in three… two… one… go!” Chuck replied.

    She shot out of her hiding spot and dashed over the mostly empty lot, towards the entrance. At this time of the night, the streets were deserted, and all the windows with a good view of her route were dark.

    A moment later, she was inside. “Stairs,” she whispered.

    “Looped.”

    Another dash, towards the floor where evidence was stored. At the door, she crouched down and listened. She couldn’t hear steps or breathing. Pushing the door open and listening at the gap confirmed it - no one in the vicinity. “Looks like they aren’t working through the night,” she whispered.

    “No one is logged in on that floor,” Chuck confirmed.

    “Good.”

    “The evidence is in the room to your left, after entering the section.”

    “Got it.” She knew that already - she had studied the floorplans. A last check if the lift was stopping on the floor… no, it passed it.

    Time to move.

    Inside the room, she quickly looked for hairbrushes and combs. Hair was much easier to find than a treasured item or whatever. According to the files Chuck had gotten, the toiletries were stored in box 5.

    “Four… two... six… Five!”

    She grabbed the comb - yes, it had some greased hair on it! She plucked the hair and stored it in a clear plastic bag, then put the comb back into the box.

    Time to leave.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 9th, 2008

    And they were back to waiting again. Caridad paced through the living room - which now sported a bean bag chair someone - Chuck wasn’t admitting anything - had acquired somehow during the time she had been out getting the hair sample. The same hair sample Phil was now using for his spell.

    Which was taking time.

    She clenched her teeth. She wanted to hunt that scumbag down right now. At least it wouldn’t be long. Phil was good. Better than Morgan. Not as good as Willow, of course. No one was.

    “Relax. Phil’s got this.”

    She frowned at Chuck. “I’m relaxed.”

    “Uh…” he trailed off. “Sure you are. Relaxed. That’s you.”

    She rolled her eyes. “I just don’t like waiting.”

    And she wasn’t the only one. John had been checking gear since before she had returned. And Sarah was flipping a throwing knife in her hand while pretending to read a magazine. And Carina… who cared what the spy did? As long as she wasn’t trying to seduce anyone. Anyone Caridad cared about.

    “So, once we know where Rodriguez is, we’ll hit him,” Caridad said. Easy plan.

    “We’ll find him, first, then decide the best course of action,” Sarah retorted.

    “Yes,” Chuck chimed in. “If he’s hiding in a crowd, we can’t just attack him.”

    She scoffed. “If he’s endangering innocents, then we need to take him out at once.”

    “What if he has a bomb with him? Going ‘you’ll never take me alive, coppers!’?” Chuck asked.

    “We’re not cops,” she told him.

    “Caridad,” Chuck grimaced for a moment. “We can’t rush this. I know it’s been hard, letting Dubois have the initiative, losing our home - homes - but…”

    “I know,” she spat. “I’m not going to rush in without thinking. But I’m not letting Rodriguez get away.”

    “Alright.” Chuck glance at Sarah.

    Caridad rolled her eyes again. Really. They could trust her a little more. Wait! Phil had stopped chanting!

    A moment later, the door to the bedroom he had been working his magic in was opened.

    “I have determined Mr Rodriguez’s location.”

    Phil didn’t seem to be as happy as that announcement deserved.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, San Pedro, July 9th, 2008

    Caridad stifled a yawn as she looked at the hotel. The sun was going up, and she was a little tired. “Why is he staying in a hotel?”

    “So he can rest,” Sarah said. “He’s got a fake ID and a disguise, most likely. He’ll be much safer in the hotel than on the street - the cops are looking for him.”

    “And he won’t be tired when he’s going on the ship to leave L.A.,” Chuck added. He didn’t stifle a yawn. In fact, it looked like he deliberately yawned into Caridad’s direction.

    She huffed. If they had waited till the morning, as Chuck had wanted, with the spell, they would’ve been too late - Rodrigeuz might be planning to leave in the morning. At least none of the men whose description and picture taken by the hotel’s security cameras matched the dirty cop’s build was planning to stay longer. That could be a ruse, of course.

    “So, if he’s resting, it’s easy - I’ll break into his room, knock him out before he wakes up, tie him up and get him out,” Caridad said.

    “We just need to find his room first,” Chuck said.

    “Yes.” She looked at him. That was his job.

    He sighed in return. “We have four possible hits. Four rooms to check. And they don’t have cameras in the rooms.”

    “Ah.” Caridad shrugged. “I’ll check them myself, then.” Still an easy plan. “You’ve got the security system hacked.”

    “Yes. But I think you should be in disguise, anyway.”

    “Disguise?”

    *****​

    “I’m in,” Caridad said into her radio.

    “Alright. The coast is clear to the first room. Just act, uh, naturally.”

    She snorted. All she had to do was push a cart with cleaning supplies and look alert at five in the morning. Not many paid attention to the help. Of course, some might - she was hot, after all, and wearing a slightly too tight uniform. But at this time of the day, they would be too tired to care, or in a hurry to get their plane or ship or whatever.

    The only potential problem was meeting an actual maid who would know she wasn’t supposed to be here. But they weren’t supposed to be in the hallways at this time of the day, either.

    She reached the first room. The keycard Chuck had inserted into the system opened the door easily. The man on the bed was snoring, and she smelt more than a trace of alcohol. But he wasn’t Rodriguez - different face, different scent.

    Well, one down, three to go. Easy.

    The next was one floor up. She wrinkled her nose - the lift stank of a mix of disinfectant and vomit, at least to her nose. The guests and staff probably only smelt the disinfectant. She tapped her fingers against the handle of the cart as the lift moved. She would’ve been faster on the stairs, even carrying the cart. But that would’ve been hard to explain if anyone saw her.

    The doors opened, and she stepped out, pulling the cart behind her. The next room was five doors down, on the right. One. Two. Three. Then door number four opened and a man appeared.

    Caridad moved to the side to let him pass to the lift, but he raised his hand. “Hey! Miss!” He leaned forward to peer at her fake name tag. “Miss Garcia! I made a mess in the bathroom!”

    Caridad tensed. The man smelt of stale smoke and alcohol. No vomit, though. And he wasn’t too steady on his feet. “A mess?”

    “Yeah.” The man nodded, a little too slowly. He wasn’t slurring his words, but he was blinking a little too much. Probably some drugs as well. “I was about to head down to the reception, but since you’re here…”

    “I’m sorry, sir,” she replied, “But I’ve already got orders. Urgent orders.”

    “What? But I need help now! It’s a mess in the bathroom! The toilet’s overflowing!”

    Ugh. “I’ll inform the management, and they’ll send a plumber.” She had a mission.

    “You don’t understand! It’s still overflowing. Water’s running! It’s leaking all over the floor!”

    Double-ugh. “I’m not a plumber, sir - there’s nothing I can do,” she replied with a little edge.

    “But you have to... to do something!” the man’s voice was rising - if he started yelling, he might wake up Rodriguez. If the cop was in the room down the hall, of course.

    Clenching her teeth, she told the idiot: “I’ll take a look then.”

    “Good!” The man let out a breath he probably had been holding for a yell, and Caridad grimaced. Ew.

    But the idiot hadn’t been lying - there was a wet spot forming at the door to the bathroom, as she saw when she stepped into the hotel room.

    “I closed the door to hold the water back,” the man explained.

    Caridad blinked. “The door’s holding back the water? How much water are we talking about?” How much water was it holding back? The door opened towards the bathroom, and she could hear the toilet running. And what sounded like a small waterfall.

    “I don’t know. Something broke, and the toilet kept running. I tried to plug it with a towel, but…” He shrugged. “That made it worse, somehow.”

    Caridad closed her eyes for a second. Damn it! If she pushed the door open, she’d probably get the room flooded. And that would attract attention. If she left, the idiot would raise a ruckus. Either would probably alert Rodriguez.

    She smiled. The solution was clear. “Is that your phone on the bed?”

    He blinked, then turned. “My phone?”

    She hit his head from behind, a tiny little bit harder than needed, and he flopped down on the bed, stunned. She had him hogtied and gagged before he recovered. “Stay the fuck quiet or I’ll drown you in the bathtub!” she hissed, then left the room - locking the door with her keycard.

    “What happened?” Chuck’s voice rang out in her earbud.

    “Idiot flooded the bathroom,” she replied.

    “Oh.”

    “Yes. Proceeding with the mission,” she snapped. Finally! “Also, send someone to untie the idiot, once we’re done,” she added as an afterthought. Before the moron rolled off the bed and drowned on a wet carpet.

    To top it off, the man sleeping in the next room wasn’t Rodriguez, either.

    Damn.

    A minute later, though, she was on the next floor, headed to the third room to check. Fifty/fifty chance that this would be it. Good odds. And no annoying drunk guest trying to make her repair a broken toilet.

    There was a ‘do not disturb’ sign hanging from the knob. Well, she didn’t care about that. Once again, she listened at the door. No snoring. But some buzzing sound… An electric razor. Whoever was in the room was up already. But they were in the bathroom, which meant…

    She slid her card through the lock and pushed the door open.

    A moment later, an alarm clock went off in the room. What the hell? The guy had an alarm at the door!

    She rushed inside, throwing herself to the floor in a combat roll as the man - Rodriguez! - appeared in the door to the bathroom, gun in hand. Before he could aim at her, her throwing knife pierced his hand, forcing it away.

    She rushed him, grabbing his wrist and breaking it before he could bring the gun to bear. He lashed out at her with his free hand, but she ducked under his swing and crushed his wrist in response.

    He screamed, but a blow to the stomach shut him up, and he collapsed, wheezing and whimpering. She stepped on his other hand, hard, and broke a few more bones, then stunned him with a blow to the head and tied him up.

    But she could hear raised voices outside - the scream had alerted at least some guests.

    Clenching her teeth, she gagged Rodriguez and stuffed him into the trash bag on her cart, knocking him out beforehand so he wouldn’t draw attention. She grabbed his baggage, too.

    Then she pushed the cart into the hallway, closing the door behind her. An older man was staring at her with wide eyes.

    She gasped and pointed at the door. “Bad man! Drunk!” she exclaimed in her worst Spanish accent

    While he tried to understand what she might be meaning, she pushed the cart past him, into the lift and hit the button to close the doors.

    “Got the package,” she reported. “On the way to the garage.”

    “Copy.”

    John was already waiting there with the van.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, July 9th, 2008

    “Alright! Let’s see what secrets Rodriguez was taking with him!” Chuck said. His wide smile turned into a yawn, though.

    Well, Caridad wasn’t about to tell him to go sleep; that was his decision. And she hadn’t taken a nap, either, anyway. Although she was the Slayer and not quite as tired as Chuck just because she had stayed up all night as well. Guarding him while he was trying to crack Rodriguez’s laptop - and serving as a lookout for the others while they interrogated the captive.

    Even though she didn’t expect much from either. Dubois was too smart to let Rodriguez know anything of value. And they already had the lists of contacts Rodriguez had called so far. “You cracked it?”

    “Yes! It was quite well encrypted, but I had a few old passwords of Rodriguez to work with - thanks to the Intersect data - and he was using a system for his passwords. Not a good idea in his line of business.”

    All she cared about was that Chuck had cracked the laptop. “So, what’s he been hiding?”

    “Coming up… right now!” He hit a few keys, and the screen was filled with windows. “Oh!”

    “Hmm?” She narrowed her eyes.

    “That’s financial data. Looks like… yes. That’s the money he has hidden in the Bahamas.” Chuck scoffed. “And the passwords to access the accounts.”

    “He set up accounts anyone with the right codes can access?” That sounded foolish to Caridad, though she wasn’t an expert. And Rodriguez probably wasn’t aware of what Chuck and his dad could do.

    “It’s easier to shift the money around if you can do it by e-banking instead of showing up in person.”

    “Ah.” That made sense. “Anything else?”

    “Some dirt on other cartel members,” Chuck said. “Carina will be interested in that.”

    Caridad scoffed. Of course the spy would be all over that. “Can we get the money before she gets her hands on it?”

    “Uh… theoretically, yes. But there’s a slight risk that someone during the investigation would try to track it down, and that could lead them to us.”

    “Really?” She grinned at him. “Even if your dad hides the traces?” Chuck’s dad framing a cartel member by hacking his records had started all of this.

    “Uh… I’d have to ask him.” Chuck grimaced, then yawned again.

    “Good.” More money never hurt. A Slayer had needs, and good food was expensive. “Or you can ask Willow.”

    “Good idea,” Chuck agreed.

    “But ask her for a cut for us! We discovered this money!” Caridad added.

    Chuck frowned at her. “You sound rather… mercenary.”

    “We’re a private organisation. With a conservative budget.” She grinned. “We loot demons, too, don’t we?”

    “I thought that was discouraged,” Chuck told her.

    “Oh, no - looting while there’s still fighting is discouraged,” she corrected him.

    “That actually happened?” He blinked, shaking his head.

    “Once or twice. Some Slayers like to beat up vampires so they can loot them easily before staking them. Buffy said that was stupid unless they were wearing expensive clothes.” She grinned. “Giles couldn’t decide whether he should be annoyed at her, or grateful that she was trying to save money.”

    He chuckled at that, then typed a few sentences. “I mailed the information to Willow.” After a moment, he added: “And she’s thanked us.”

    Right. It was afternoon in England. Everyone in the Council would be up, even Slayers who had done night shifts.

    “So, that settled - anything else?”

    “Apart from his blackmail folder, it doesn’t seem so.”

    “Ah.” Disappointing. Well, the money would be nice.

    “Anyway, it seems…”

    Caridad raised her hand and Chuck fell silent. “I can hear the others on the stairs.”

    “They’ve, uh, finished, then?”

    Caridad shrugged. She smelt some faint trace of blood, but that didn’t have to mean that Rodriguez was already dead. Though she knew that the criminal wouldn’t leave the abandoned house they were hiding in alive.

    The door to the basement opened, and John walked in, followed by Sarah and Carina.

    “What did you find out?” Chuck asked, looking a little queasy.

    “Not much,” John replied. “He’s never met Dubois face to face, but she used the right codes to contact him. He’s a tough bastard.”

    “But,” Sarah added, “he knows a few locations the cartel for which she was claiming to work might’ve used as safehouses. If she used them, we can find her. But the odds aren’t good.”

    “Dubois wouldn’t make such a mistake - nor would she trust cartel members,” Carina told them.

    “We still need to check them, though,” Chuck said.

    John grunted. “Carefully. Might be traps.”

    “Well, I wasn’t planning to just knock on the door,” Chuck replied, sounding a little bit annoyed. And tired.

    “Coulda fooled me,” John snapped.

    Caridad cleared her throat. “I can check the locations while you sleep. Once Rodriguez has been taken care of.”

    “We need to disappear the body, too,” John said. “The cops won’t take kindly to someone killing him.”

    “Unless they did it,” Caridad added.

    “Can’t you feed it to some demon?” Carina asked.

    “We, uh, discourage such diets,” Chuck said.

    “Vehemently.” Caridad nodded. Demons shouldn’t dare to eat humans, no matter if they had killed them or found a body. It breeds bad habits, as Phil would say.

    “Right,” Chuck said. “We’ll need to make arrangements, then.”

    “Arrangements?” Carina narrowed her eyes.

    “Yes. We best drop it in the ocean, weighed down. Way out there, where it’s too deep for divers,” Chuck explained. “Although we need to be careful about renting a yacht right now, with the investigations running, I am sure…” he trailed off as his laptop beeped. He took a glance at it, then gasped.

    “I’ve got a probable hit on Dubois!” He blinked. “I mean, a possible location, not a hit on her, you know?”

    *****​
     
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  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 21: The Conclusion
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 21: The Conclusion

    California, Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, July 9th, 2008

    They had a probable location for Dubois! Caridad bared her teeth. Yes! Yes! “Let’s go!” she said. “Before she moves!”

    John stood, matching her expression.

    But Sarah shook her head. “All of us are tired. It’s already dawn.”

    Chuck stifled another yawn but didn’t say anything. His expression told Caridad enough, though.

    Carina looked torn. Tired, but also eager.

    “We can’t rush this,” Sarah went on. “We’ve already made too many mistakes with Dubois.”

    “And we still need to take care of Rodriguez,” John pointed out.

    “But if we don’t act, she’ll escape!” Caridad blurted out. “I know it - she won’t stay in that location!”

    “Then you can go and observe the place,” Sarah said.

    “I’ll go with you,” John added.

    “Then you’ll be too tired to join the mission later,” Chuck said. John snarled at him, and he ducked his head. “Just saying…”

    But Chuck was right, damn it! Caridad didn’t need much sleep - she could do an all-nighter without being overly tired. Or two. But John… She looked at him.

    He glared at her.

    “I’m just observing,” she said.

    “I can use the drones,” Chuck suggested. “Then no one has to go.”

    “You need eyes on the ground,” John spat. “Drones can’t replace a spy.”

    “But they’ll help!”

    “They will, Chuck,” Sarah chimed in. “But Casey’s right - we need someone on the ground there - but not too close.”

    And that would be her. Caridad had the best eyes - and ears - in the entire city. “Where is she?” she asked.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Downtown Los Angeles, July 9th, 2008

    An apartment building with a pool on the roof. In Downtown. Dubois liked being comfortable even on a vengeance mission. Or so it seemed; Caridad doubted that the assassin was using the pool - it was too exposed. At least if your enemies had snipers and drones. Which the group had.

    But the roof was a possible way into the house. No building was close enough to rappel down from it, but you could shoot a line up and climb. Or drop from a helicopter, but Dubois probably was keeping an eye out for such - and a chopper hovering over the building would alert her. Climbing it was, then, unless they found a way to sneak in through the front or back door.

    Caridad shook her head, put down the binoculars and installed a small camera on the edge of the roof in front of her, covering the top of Dubois’s current location.

    “I installed it,” she whispered into her microphone. “Test it.”

    “Right!” Chuck replied. A sound like a yawning followed, then the camera started to move, twisting left and right. “It works. Zooming as well.”

    “Good.” That meant Caridad could leave this roof and focus on the building’s ground floor and basement. From a safe-ish distance, at least.

    Five minutes later, she was out of the building and walking across the street. The apartment building had a coffee shop on the ground floor. But it wasn’t connected to the rest of the building according to Chuck, so posing as a customer was pointless. And the main entrance led to a lobby with a concierge whose desk was staffed 24/7. That wasn’t ideal, either - they’d check if someone was expected.

    That left the back door and the garage. The back door was more of a side entrance for staff and deliveries. A security camera covered it, and the locks seemed decent, but they wouldn’t stop a spy. Unfortunately, the entrance was in the open, on a busy street, so anyone cracking the security would have to find a way to hide.

    And the garage… basic radio-operated entrance, but very responsive - Chuck could spoof that in his sleep, she assumed. On the other hand, Dubois would be aware of that. She would at least have some cameras in the garage.

    The roof it was. Climbing. Fortunately, everyone was fit and could do it. Otherwise, Caridad would have to carry them. Now she just needed to find a spot from which she could keep all three entrances under surveillance, and she was set.

    And she had the right spot in mind already. Not the café at the corner - how many coffee shops did Los Angeles need, anyway? This wasn’t Seattle! No, the small building next to it had a lot of balconies - and a fire escape. All she had to do was find an empty apartment and set up on the balcony for a few hours.

    And keep the rocket launcher ready, in case Dubois tried to run.

    *****​

    Four hours later, John turned up. He didn’t climb up to the balcony, of course - he picked the lock to the empty apartment. She heard him walk through it, up to the balcony door - curtains hid him from view.

    “Not coming out?” she asked.

    “Safer inside,” he replied. “Come in.”

    She frowned, but he was correct. The door was already open, and she slid inside, then closed it again.

    He was staring out of the window through a set of binoculars, next to an expensive-looking camera, both trained at Dubois’s apartment building.

    “Dubois didn’t show her face,” she said.

    He nodded. “She’s holed up in there. Bartowski is working on narrowing the possible choices down. We’ve got half a dozen left.”

    “Really?” That was a lot.

    “There’s lots of fluctuation among the tenants,” he explained. “And if Dubois is using Cartel connections, then it would’ve been set up months or years ago.”

    “But that would leave traces, wouldn’t it?” Caridad pointed out. They could track the money.

    “The DEA has nothing on file.”

    And neither did the NSA or CIA, or Chuck would’ve known through the Intersect. Damn.

    She clenched her teeth. More waiting and scouting, and not enough Slaying. “How do we do this?”

    “We aren’t doing anything until you’ve rested a few hours. We strike in the night,” he replied, pointing at the backpack he brought with them. “Sleeping bag and air mattress.”

    She wanted to argue, but… that would be pointless and only cause friction. But she couldn’t resist hugging him from behind and whispering in his ear: “And when will your relief arrive?”

    She felt him tense quite nicely and went to sleep with a smile on her face.

    Even though she knew she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep for a while. Not with her prey so close.

    *****​

    Caridad was woken by the sound of Carina complaining in the hallway. The spy didn’t like carrying her share of the gear, it seemed - even if it was only from the car to the lift and then to the apartment’s door.

    She yawned as she slid out of the sleeping bag and popped a breath mint before checking her appearance in the mirror that the last tenant must have left hanging in the empty room. She still looked hot, in a ‘fresh out of bed’ way. Which was only hot to people who had spent the night in your bed with you - but then, that fit John, and that was all that mattered.

    “Hello!” Chuck blurted out as he entered the apartment. “We’ve got the gear.”

    “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” John grunted.

    “Hi, Chuck,” Caridad smiled at him. “Hi, Sarah. Carina.”

    Sarah nodded at her as she set down the two bags she was carrying. Chuck was already putting up a folding table and folding chair.

    “This will be our headquarters for this?” Caridad asked.

    Chuck nodded. “It has a good view of two exits. In case we need to, ah, blow them up while they are running.”

    Caridad looked to the side, where Sarah was pulling out two rocket launchers from one bag. “Ah. You’re going to stay here, then?”

    “Well…” Chuck hesitated. “Someone has to, and…”

    “We voted on it,” Carina said. “He lost.”

    Well, it made sense. Chuck was their best hacker, and while he was good in combat thanks to the Intersect, so was everyone else without the Intersect. And Chuck was too emotionally involved after the attack on Ellie and Devon.

    Though that meant they would be entering with Carina. Caridad would have to be ready to keep the spy from going off the reservation. They couldn’t afford a loose cannon against Dubois.

    “So… we go through the roof?” she asked.

    “Best bet we have, but we’ll need you for it,” Chuck told her.

    Of course they needed her! She was the Slayer!

    *****​

    Caridad looked at the facade. It was easy to climb - lots of hand- and footholds thanks to the balconies overlooking the next building, on which she was standing, hidden behind an AC exhaust or whatever. “I don’t need a rope for this,” she whispered into the radio.

    “You’re the expert,” Chuck replied.

    “Right. Cameras?”

    “Spoofed for the next thirty seconds… now!”

    “Going in.” She took a deep breath, then dashed out from behind the AC unit, accelerating as she ran towards the railing. One step. Two. Jump!

    She flew across the gap between the buildings, grabbing a balcony’s railing on the other side. The landing’s impact made her grit her teeth, but she managed to bleed off momentum by swinging her feet up.

    Five seconds.

    She quickly started jumping from balcony to balcony until she was below the roof’s edge.

    Fifteen seconds.

    She pulled herself up to balance on the railing, then jumped up again, grabbing the net that was meant to prevent suicides. Now it served like an overhang obstacle. On easy mode. Even Morgan would have managed to climb that - probably.

    A Slayer? No contest.

    Three seconds later, she was on the roof, ducking behind the lifeguard station installed here. And pulling out the rope from her backpack.

    “Ready?” she asked.

    “We’re coming out,” Sarah replied. From her vantage point, peeking over the railing, Caridad could see John, Sarah and Carina move across the roof down below.

    Good. She checked the weight on the end of the rope, then swung it twice and let it fly.

    It landed right on target, as John would say, and Sarah grabbed it. “Ready,” she said after securing it to her harness.

    “Jump!” Caridad replied. And started pulling as soon as the other woman cleared the roof. By the time Sarah hit the facade feet-first, she was already quite a way up, and then she was practically sprinting up the wall as Caridad reeled her in.

    Sarah slid over the railing, taking cover behind it, and Caridad threw the rope down again. A minute later, both Carina and John were on the roof as well.

    Of course the spy had to comment. “You’d have a great future as a crane.”

    “Can’t say the same about your future as a comedian,” Caridad shot back, baring her teeth.

    “Stop it! We’re on a mission,” Sarah snapped. “Chuck?”

    “Nothing on the other side,” he replied. “And nothing on the security cameras of the building.”

    “Any sign of tampering?” Carina asked.

    “No,” Chuck told them. “No change to my last check. If Dubois has tapped into the security cameras, it might be a passive observation only feed.”

    Well, they already assumed that she’d have placed her own cameras. And other surprises.

    But even Caridad couldn’t spot them here. Again that didn’t mean much - she knew how small spy cameras could be, and how easily they could be hidden. But they also needed a good field of vision, and that meant at least some exposure.

    Yet she couldn’t spot anything suspicious in the planters or above the door.

    “Let’s go,” Sarah said.

    They made their way across the roof, past the pool. John picked the lock on the door leading inside while Caridad checked again for cameras.

    “Nothing.”

    “She might be relying on the existing cameras for the perimeter,” Carina suggested in a whisper. “Or she doesn’t have the manpower to keep a guard up 24/7.”

    That was possible, given the way the assassin had sacrificed her minions. But Xander always said never to underestimate the enemy.

    “Done.” John drew his silenced pistol and pushed the door open, revealing a rather plain corridor.

    Caridad sniffed. “Nothing.” No fresh scent.

    They sneaked inside, Caridad in the lead. She hadn’t drawn her own pistol. If some civilian stumbled upon them, she wanted both hands free to take them out. Without shooting them.

    They skipped the lift; if Dubois had someone watching security, they’d pay extra attention to the lift moving. And Caridad didn’t like to be trapped in a cabin hanging from a steel cable.

    “The first possible hideout is on the floor below you,” Chuck told them over the radio.

    “We know,” John snapped.

    They were using the same plan as with Rodriguez: Check apartment after apartment. Not the most sophisticated, but trying for some clever recon or spy work might have gotten them spotted. And would have delayed the mission at least a day - two if they needed a better cover set up. Or so Sarah had explained, and Chuck had it confirmed.

    Caridad didn’t mind, anyway. It was a straightforward plan; she liked that. And no one would mistake her for a maid this time.

    They reached the floor, and Caridad opened the door just a gap wide, checking left and right with a small mirror. Two planters stood in the corridor. She could see some humidity sensor stuck in the soil, but nothing… She froze, then sniffed the air.

    She couldn’t smell the plants. Their scent should be all over the corridor. And they looked a little, well, too good to be real. Plastic. The plants were plastic.

    Which meant the humidity sensor was fake. “Cameras in the pots,” she reported with a whisper.

    “Probably some explosives or grenades as well,” John replied. “It’s what I would do,” he added with a toothy grin.

    “So, that would mean we found her on the first try!” Carina was excited rather than concerned about getting past potential booby traps. Typical.

    “It could be a decoy - or Dubois covered all corridors like that,” Sarah pointed out.

    “Easy to check,” Caridad replied. “I’ll take a look at the floor below us.”

    “Careful,” Sarah told her, but Caridad was already on the way.

    Downstairs, the corridor looked exactly the same - but for the lack of those concealed cameras. “No thingies here,” she reported as she went back to the others.

    It could still be a decoy, of course. But Caridad didn’t think so.

    All they had to do now was to get inside that apartment!

    “How do we deal with them?” she asked.

    “The cameras cover each other and the whole corridor,” John said without looking up from where he was studying them with the help of a small mirror.

    “We could rush it,” Carina suggested. “If we’re fast enough, we’ll be inside the apartment before they can react.”

    Caridad would be fast enough. The door wouldn’t stop a slayer going at it full-tilt.

    “And if that’s a decoy, we’d rush into a trap,” Sarah retorted. “What if they have bombs in those planters? Or in the apartment.” She didn’t quite scoff at Carina.

    Right. That would totally be like Dubois, planting those thingies to make people think that she was hiding in the apartment, then plant bombs to blow up anyone who broke in. Although that would also be a nasty surprise for any burglar. Of course, breaking into the safehouse of an assassin would be a nasty surprise for a burglar, too.

    “Guys! Guys! Whoever those sensors belong to, they use wireless to control them!” Chuck sounded excited. “I just found the network. Now, let’s see if I can worm my way into it - they’re using standard protocols, but the encryption… oh…”

    “Can you loop and disarm them?” Carina asked.

    “I need to hack the network, first.”

    “How long will that take?” John sounded as impatient as Caridad felt.

    “Oh…” Caridad heard frantic typing. “That depends on whether or not their encryption has a backdoor. And if they used commercially available… Ah, yes! I’m in! Three cheers for the CIA violating the privacy of every American user of CrazyCode by installing backdoors in the encryption!”

    “Didn’t you plant those codes?” Carina asked, looking at Sarah.

    Sarah didn’t reply - she just glared at the spy. Whether that was because you didn’t talk about past missions, or didn’t talk on missions, or because the accusation was a joke that Sarah didn’t find funny, Caridad couldn’t tell.

    Not that it mattered. “Can you loop the cameras?” she asked, baring her teeth in anticipation.

    “Uh… Yes, but… Guys! There are bombs!” Chuck blurted out. “On two floors!”

    “Same setup?” John asked.

    “Well, at least in the network. Same network. And triggers. But…”

    “...that doesn’t tell us if either or both are decoys,” Sarah said.

    “Uh, yes, exactly.”

    “That leaves, what, four possible apartments not covered by bombs?” Carina asked.

    “Uh… one, actually. Two are on the same floors as the bombs,” Chuck said. “And I just eliminated one of the remaining two - the tenants check out. I mean, their background checks out, not that they are leaving.”

    “Let’s check the location on the floor that isn’t covered by bombs,” Sarah said.

    John grunted in agreement.

    It was between the two floors which were trapped, separated by one respectively two floors. So anyone starting to check apartments from top or bottom would encounter the bombs before reaching this floor.

    Caridad grinned. Dubois was clever, but not clever enough. Not compared to Caridad’s team here.

    They made their way down to the floor in question. Caridad checked extensively - no sensors here. Though, as Chuck - with Sarah’s help - found out, there was a connection to the network he had hacked in that apartment.

    “She’ll have a camera in the eye spy of the door,” John said.

    “We can rush that,” Carina repeated her suggestion.

    “And if she’s got a claymore mine pointed at the door?” John asked with a sneer.

    “I could shoot a rocket at the door,” Caridad offered. “I can duck behind cover faster than the bomb could go off. If it goes off.”

    “Good plan!” Carina quickly agreed. “Minimal risk for the rest of us.”

    Caridad glared at her.

    “Whether there’s a bomb or not,” Sarah said, “firing a rocket at the door will wake up everyone in the building.”

    “And the police. I can, uh, block some calls, but all of them? And there are the neighbours as well.”

    “We can be in and out before the police arrive,” Carina insisted.

    “Only if everything goes according to plan,” Sarah objected.

    “Go through the balcony?” Chuck asked. “There’s an empty apartment above you, could drop down from there.”

    “She’ll have defences there,” John pointed out.

    “But we can get to them more easily than in this corridor,” Chuck retorted. “And Caridad can check if there’s someone in the apartment in the first place.”

    That was a good point. What if this was just another trap? “I’ll do it,” Caridad said.

    John clenched his teeth but nodded. As did Sarah and, as expected, Carina.

    So they went back up a floor, broke into an empty apartment, and went out on the balcony. No cameras covering this floor, at least - but there was one covering the balcony below, hidden above the door.

    Easy to disable, though, since it had a blind spot above from which Sarah could reach it.

    And then Caridad was able to drop on the balcony below and listen. Breathing. Even breathing. Someone was in the apartment. Just one person. But…

    There was something else. Something… Something that made her snarl before she realised what she was doing. “There’s something demony in there!” she whispered.

    “A demon?”

    Close enough. “Yes.”

    “Come back,” Chuck told her.

    Cariad clenched her teeth. She couldn’t. She had waited for so long! To leave Dubois, let her escape again… and to leave whatever demony threat was in there…

    “Come back. We need a new plan,” Sarah said.

    “We can’t plan anything until we know what we’re facing,” she whispered in return. “And I only hear one person - Dubois.”

    “We need to get Phil and Morgan,” Chuck replied. “Come back, Caridad!”

    They wouldn’t be much use in a battle. “Call them and patch them in.” She tried to look into the apartment, but the curtains had been drawn. She could only catch glimpses of the walls on both sides.

    She heard a muttered curse - John - over the radio before Phil’s voice. “Yes?”

    “Something demony is in there with Dubois,” Caridad said.

    “Something you haven’t felt before?”

    “Yes.”

    “Facing an unknown demon, on top of facing a dangerous assassin…” Phil trailed off, and she knew he was pursing his lips.

    “I’ve got all the weapons,” she replied. Silver, cold iron, steel, wooden stakes...something should work on any demon.

    “We need to call this off and reassess the mission,” Sarah said.

    “It’s an unknown demon. We can’t ‘reassess’ it without knowing anything about it,” Caridad retorted. She wasn’t retreating. Not now. Not so close to finally getting Dubois.

    “That is correct. However, we should look into alternatives to reconnaissance by force,” Phil said.

    “The longer we stay, the more likely we’ll get spotted,” Carina chimed in. “And Dubois has bombs on two floors - if she detects us, she might detonate them, endangering the civilians in the building.”

    “Yes.” The spy probably didn’t give a damn about other people, but Caridad agreed anyway. She wasn’t going to go back without slaying the demon And probably Dubois.

    “It could be a demon who made a deal with Dubois,” Morgan suggested.

    That didn’t narrow it down.

    “Can’t be a vengeance demon,” Caridad replied.

    “I concur. I dare say we wouldn’t be here if Miss Dubois had managed to make a deal with a vengeance demon,” Phil said. “Can you tell if the presence is moving?”

    “No.” Caridad focused. No - the feeling didn’t grow stronger or weaker. “It feels the same.”

    “A cursed item, maybe?” Morgan speculated.

    “We should just blow up the entire apartment,” John snapped.

    “That would endanger the neighbouring apartments!” Chuck protested.

    “I can sneak in. Check it out. You’re on standby to back me up,” Caridad said.

    “Can you pick the lock without alerting Dubois?” John asked.

    She growled. He knew the answer - she could pick a normal lock, but Dubois was a spy. “Get down here and do it,” she hissed.

    “Wait! We haven’t agreed on a plan, yet!” Chuck blurted out.

    “Casey!” Sarah whispered.

    But Caridad could already hear John moving above her, preparing to climb down.

    “Phil!” Chuck tried again.

    “Sometimes, swift action is the best course of action.”

    Caridad smiled. Her Watcher understood.

    “Especially if Slayers won’t listen to anything else, anyway,” Morgan added.

    She clenched her teeth and growled.

    “What? It’s true. It says so in the Watcher’s Handbook!”

    John dropped on the balcony next to her. She could hear Sarah and Carina move as well, but there wasn’t room for them on the balcony here.

    “Stubborn Slayer,” he whispered, low enough only she would hear it. He didn’t sound too mad, though.

    She didn’t reply. She stared at the glass door while he worked on the lock, mentally going through her weapons. If her blades didn’t work, there was always fire.

    The door unlocked with a faint click. Finally!

    Caridad bared her teeth and pushed it open. Slowly, so it didn’t snag on the curtains, just pushed them back as…

    Chimes sounded as the curtains moved. Damn.

    Caridad growled and slammed the door open, rushing towards the bedroom. The demon was there!

    “Quoi?”

    Dubois was awake!

    Caridad ripped the door to the bedroom off its hinges as she rammed into it, leading with her shoulder, then dropped and rolled to the side.

    A bullet passed overhead - silenced pistol, she realised. Not good. She drew a throwing spike as she rolled over her shoulder, coming up next to the bed.

    Dubois was turning to shoot her, but Caridad was quicker - her throwing spike hit the assassin’s hand, throwing off her aim. Dubois didn’t cry out, though. And she didn’t drop the weapon.

    Caridad threw herself across the bed, hitting the woman in the stomach, and grabbed her wrist, forcing the gun’s muzzle away. Before Dubois could react, she hit her in the face with a right hook, snapping the spy’s head back and knocking her out before taking the gun away. Where was the demon?

    Then Caridad was flying back across the bed, crashing into the wall. Dubois was standing there, eyes glowing, teeth bared.

    Oh. There was the demon.

    She shook her head, still blinking, when the woman - demon - pounced with a shriek. Caridad threw herself to the side, rolling over her shoulder, barely dodging the attack. She hissed with pain - the crash against the wall must have pulled or broken something - and came up in a crouch.

    Dubois didn’t have such problems, she noted - the woman was pulling her fists out of the wall. And that wasn’t some shitty drywall but a solid one - Caridad knew that from painful experience.

    “Vengeance!” the demon - definitely a demon - screamed. “Vengeance!” She bared her teeth at Caridad, flexing her fingers.

    Shots rang out, and Dubois’s head jerked to the side. Double-tap to the head - John was there, in the door. The demon turned and hissed. “You!”

    “Me!” John replied, shooting her again. In the eyes.

    Dubois recoiled, howling, as she slapped her hands over her face, blood dripping down.

    An opening!

    Caridad drew a pair of combat knives and charged in, ducking and sliding over the hardwood floor to slice with both knives at the demon’s belly. Her blades cut through Dubois’s pyjama top into the flesh, and the monster screeched. Caridad couldn’t follow-up, though - she barely managed to deflect a kick from the demon by rolling under the bed.

    She kept rolling - which saved her life when the demon smashed the bed to pieces; she came out on the other side before the bed’s supports broke completely and trapped - and crushed - her beneath it.

    John was shooting again, joined by Sarah and Carina, but Caridad caught a glimpse of the demon’s face before it shielded it with her arms, and the eyes had regrown. Which meant steel and lead bullets didn’t cut it. “Use silver bullets!” she yelled, drawing a blade with cold iron inlets herself.

    John changed magazines, as did Sarah, while Carina kept firing. Caridad started to circle around the smashed bed, trying to flank the demon.

    “You!” Dubois hissed again - and charged at Sarah.

    Caridad slipped on the hardwood, but recovered, and managed to tackle the monster before it reached the spy. They crashed to the floor, Caridad burying her knee in the monster’s stomach before stabbing down with her knife. The demon caught the blade in its forearm, though, instead of its neck, and lashed out with her other arm.

    Caridad evaded it, mostly - but the demon hit her shoulder and sent her sprawling to the side. She rolled with it, though lost her knife in the process. No matter. Plenty more blades where that came from.

    John, Sarah and Carina had started shooting again as soon as Caridad had gotten clear of the monster, and the demon shielded its face again even though Caridad could see the wounds in the head and arm closing as it got up.

    “Watch out!” Caridad yelled, but Dubois was already moving again. John jumped to the side, as did Sarah - but Carina was clipped in the side and thrown away as Dubois went after Sarah. The demon smashed the door frame in the process.

    Sarah jumped over the couch, firing as she retreated - but Dubois was unaffected.

    “Keep away!” Caridad yelled again, rushing towards the demon. She grabbed an overturned chair on the way - Sarah ducked behind the dinner table, making the demon turn away - and smashed it over Dubois’s head. The demon ducked, then struck back - and Caridad dodged, dropping to the ground and sweeping Dubois’s legs.

    “Phil!” she heard Sarah yell. “Dubois’s bulletproof!”

    “And silver and cold iron do nothing!” Caridad added, throwing the remains of the chair at Dubois’s face.

    The demons swatted them away, almost hitting the groaning Carina, hissed again and charged her.

    Caridad turned, ran up the wall, pushed off and spun around in a kick that caught the demon in the face. She heard Dubois’s nose break and managed to flip, catching the demon’s neck between her shoes, as the monster went down.

    Caridad rode her down, then dropped and hit her in the face with her fist while drawing two throwing knives with her free hand. Dubois blinked, hissing again, stunned for a moment - long enough for Caridad to bury both throwing knives to the hilt in the demon’s glowing eyes.

    Dubois howled inhumanely, and Caridad had to jump away when the demon started thrashing, flailing limbs leaving dents and cracks in the hardwood floor.

    “Try fire!” Morgan’s voice called over the radio.

    “Easier said than done!” Caridad snapped back.

    “Keep it busy!” John snapped, headed to the kitchen.

    That was easy. Caridad wasn’t about to let up. She kicked Dubois as the demon rolled over, then kicked it again, sending it rolling. Her next kick was blocked, though, and Dubois managed to get up. Her face had healed, but the eyes were still glowing. “Vengeance!”

    “Is it a Vengeance Demon?” Morgan asked on the radio.

    “No,” Chuck replied. “Unless one that was banished and forbidden to use their powers.”

    “I don’t believe that D'Hoffryn would dare that after his last encounter with Miss Rosenberg,” Phil said as Caridad traded blows with the demon. She managed to dodge most and get in some good hits, but she still caught a couple, and when she jumped over the dinner table to get some distance, blood was running down her face from a cut on her scalp. She was getting tired, too.

    But the demon stood there, shaking its head - was it growing exhausted as well?

    “Vengeance! No! This isn’t working!”

    Caridad blinked. That had sounded… like two people!

    And Dubois grinned at her - with normal eyes - before rushing towards the bedroom. That…

    “She’s possessed!” Caridad yelled as she ran after the woman.

    She reached the bedroom just in time to catch the assassin reaching into a drawer in the sideboard. Caridad jumped, kicking the drawer - and smashing it to pieces - before the assassin could pull out the pistol hidden there. And the woman was cradling her broken hand. Hah! She was vulnerable!

    Caridad grinned, crouched, and launched a kicking at the assassin. Dubois blocked it, though - and her counter-attack almost hit Caridad in the throat. Still stronger and tougher than normal - if not as much as before - but more skilled. Damn. That was so unfair!

    Dubois laughed. “I’ll kill you all!” She glanced to the side - there was an armoire in the room. More weapons, Caridad was sure. She quickly jumped over the shattered bed to block the way to the armoire - and Dubois grinned, reaching for the dresser in the other corner.

    Caridad’s eyes widened - she had been played - and she rushed, launching herself over the bed to tackle the demon.

    Dubois, though, whirled, her foot catching Caridad in the stomach and throwing her back. Caridad rolled over her shoulder and came up with two throwing spikes in her hand - and Dubois was halfway to the armoire. One spike missed her, the other struck the armoire, burying itself in the lock.

    Dubois planted her fist through the door with a howl of rage, but Caridad was already moving again, drawing her last throwing knives as she vaulted over the broken bed, then stabbed both of them into Dubois’s back.

    This time, the howls sputtered, and when the assassin turned, throwing Caridad off, blood was running down her chin, and red foam covered her lips. She hissed again, ripping a gun through the broken door of the armoire. Before she could aim at Caridad, though, more shots ripped into her, and she fell, leaving a trace of blood on the wall.

    John had returned with Sarah, both shooting at the assassin. While Sarah changed magazines and kept firing, John threw a bottle at the shaking woman. It broke, and oil drenched her as she started to get up.

    Caridad threw her lighter at the woman, igniting the oil. Dubois’s wheezy panting turned into screams as she was instantly covered in flames.

    “Probably need to cut off her head,” Caridad hissed as she got up. “But I think…” She trailed off as the screaming cut off and the woman, still on fire, stood.

    “Vengeance!”

    “Oh, no, she’s possessed again!” Caridad blurted out, quickly backpedalling. Fighting a burning enemy? That was going to hurt even if you won! And she was already hurting from all the blows, glancing and not so glancing, she had taken.

    “What the hell is she?” John spat as the burning demon advanced on them.

    “She’s possessed by a spirit of vengeance, I think,” Phil said. “It greatly enhances her physical body.” Well, they could see that. “They are very rare, but attracted to dying people.”

    “So that’s how she survived!”

    “Chuck! That’s not important right now!” Sarah snapped.

    “Sorry!”

    The demon - or spirit-possessed assassin - had driven Sarah and John back into the living room. It wasn’t as fast as before - but probably because it couldn’t see very well with its face and hair on fire.

    Caridad followed it, then ducked to the side. If she could smother the flames with the curtains...

    “Spirit? Try to lure it into a circle of salt!” Morgan yelled. “That will repel some spirits!”

    “Indeed, although it’s not clear if it works on Vengeance Spirits,” Phil said over the radio. “It hasn’t yet been tried on them according to our records.”

    Well, it wasn’t as if they had a better plan. Caridad dashed into the kitchen. Salt… salt… there!

    She grabbed the box and returned to the living room. Circle of salt. Needed an even floor - and nothing to break it. And the floor was covered with debris from broken furniture. Broken and smouldering furniture.

    Snarling, she gripped the carpet’s edge and heaved, upending the dinner table. She threw the carpet and table to the side, then knelt. Tracing a circle with the salt. She almost messed up when she heard John yell - he had caught a blow and got thrown through the balcony door. But he was moving, and the heavy curtains kept the glass from slicing him up.

    Caridad finished the circle. Now she just needed to get the demon into it.

    Easier said than done. But it was a vengeance spirit. “Sarah! To me!” she yelled.

    The spy looked at her, then at the smouldering demon coming after her, and jumped over the upturned table. Her foot caught on the edge, but she managed to roll with it and end up next to Caridad.

    “Hey! You ugly spirit! Come and get some!” Caridad yelled.

    The demon advanced on her, snarling. Spirit must have completely taken over. But it didn’t step into the circle - it scuffed it with its feet. Damn.

    “Change of plan,” Caridad whispered. “I’ll hold it, you trace a circle around us. Phil, tell her what to do!”

    She didn’t wait for an answer - she tackled the demon, wrestling for a moment until she straddled it, then started punching it. She had to keep it in place no matter what it took.

    And it took a lot. Her head rang from a blow, another caught her in the shoulder, then her ribs...

    She caught Sarah moving around them, carrying the box of salt, Phil was saying something, but Caridad’s ears were ringing. More blood ran down her face as she kept battering the demon. Another blow drove the wind out of her, and she was almost thrown off - but she managed to stay on top.

    What was Sarah doing? Chanting? Something Latin? Caridad shook her head. She had caught another blow, to the temple, and everything was…

    Light suddenly filled the room. A circle of light. Sarah had done it!

    And the demon screeched, no longer punching her, but shaking. Light poured from both eyes and it’s mouth, followed by smoke. The screaming grew louder and louder. Suddenly, it broke off, and the body beneath Caridad went limp.

    She stared at it, panting, blinking. Was Dubois…? No. She was still breathing. Caridad blinked again. Oh. That meant…

    Blood splattered her before she could raise her fist. And again. She looked up. John was there, leaning against the wall, smoking pistol pointed at Dubois’s head.

    “Gotcha, bitch,” he whispered.

    Caridad laughed, then groaned. Definitely got some ribs broken.

    But Dubois was dead.

    *****​
     
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 22: The Aftermath
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 22: The Aftermath

    California, Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, July 9th, 2008

    Caridad hurt. Her chest hurt with every breath - and she was panting; the fight had taken a lot out of her. Broken ribs - at least cracked or bruised. Bruises all over her upper body - the possessed assassin had pummeled her while she kept it inside the circle of salt. And probably a concussion - she had caught a few blows to the head, and thinking was a little hard.

    But they needed to go. And they needed to take the body with them. Or destroy it. But setting it afire would endanger the other residents - and might not be enough, not with the police already on the way.

    She stood, then crouched, grabbing the body and slinging it over her shoulder. She almost lost her balance - definitely a concussion. Damn. “Let’s go,” she said.

    “Guys! Guys! I’ve diverted some of the police, but…” Chuck said over the radio.

    “We need to destroy the traces,” Sarah said. “Carina?”

    “I’m OK, thanks for asking,” the spy said.

    “You’re rifling through Dubois’s things,” Sarah retorted. “I would think you’re OK.”

    Caridad chuckled, then hissed. Broken rib, yes - she knew that pain.

    “Give me the body,” John told her.

    “No.” She shook her head and winced some more. “We need to go.”

    “Is the lift clear?” John asked.

    “It’s clear, yes,” Chuck replied.

    “We’ll steal a car in the garage, then,” John decided. “Let’s go.”

    “Just a second!” Carina protested, gathering anything electronic that had survived the battle.

    “Almost done,” Sarah replied, splashing detergent all over the place.

    “Just burn it,” John snapped. “The police will put it out.”

    But that would endanger the others, wouldn’t it? Or would it? Caridad suppressed the urge to shake her head again. It wouldn’t clear it, it would only make it worse.

    She reached the lift. If anyone saw her like this… John joined her and hit the button for the garage.

    “But Sarah and…”

    “They’ll follow once all traces are destroyed. We’ll jack a car.”

    “Good.” She hadn’t jacked a car in a while. Or ever.

    The doors opened to the garage. They left the lift and looked around. Many expensive cars, not many pickups…

    “That one,” John said, pointing at a new SUV. He hurried over, and when Caridad reached him, he was already opening the doors.

    She threw the body into the trunk, splattering blood over the place. And over herself. Well, she was already covered in blood, anyway.

    “Sit down,” John told her.

    “In a second.”

    She closed her eyes, taking a few deep breaths. Nothing in the air. And she could hear anything, either.

    She slid onto the backbench and closed her eyes again. Just a little rest until the clothes arrived. Just a little…

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 10th, 2008

    “Hold still.”

    Caridad hissed but did so. Phil knew what he was doing when it came to first aid. Most Watchers did. Most old school Watchers, as Xander called them, didn’t care much about how much their aid hurt, though. Well, a Slayer could take it, and then some.

    She told herself that when she clenched her teeth while Phil poked her ribs.

    “Does that hurt?”

    “Yes.” Of course it hurt!

    “Cracked, I think.”

    “Felt like broken.”

    “It’s not dislocated. No danger in puncturing your lung,” he explained.

    “I’ve had cracked ribs before.”

    “But you were hit multiple times. And those bruises…”

    She knew it. She was covered in bruises even with Slayer healing. “They’ll be gone in a day or two.”

    He made a humming noise in return. “And your concussion will be gone as well.”

    “My head’s fine,” she retorted.

    “There’s no need to take a risk with your head, dear,” he said, rather firmly. “Head injuries are tricky- even for a Slayer. No matter what Miss Summers might joke about.

    She snorted. “We’re hard-headed.”

    “You are stubborn, I’ll grant you that,” he replied. “But your head isn’t as hard as you’d like.”

    She huffed at that. She had taken the best Dubois had managed to throw at her and had come out on top. A concussion was a small price to pay for beating an assassin possessed by a Vengeance Spirit. “At least we now know how to handle a Vengeance Spirit,” she said. “Thank you,” she added in a lower voice.

    “I merely advised Sarah about how to complete a basic spell. Morgan had the idea for the circle, and Sarah completed it in the midst of a fight.”

    She nodded. That was true, but he had still been instrumental.

    “Now rest, dear.”

    She nodded again, leaned back and tried to sleep.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 11th, 2008

    It was still daylight when Caridad woke up. She blinked. She would’ve expected to sleep longer than… wait. The sun wasn’t… “I’ve slept a whole day?” she blurted out.

    “Your wounds were worse than you thought.”

    She turned her head. Phil was sitting in the armchair next to her bed. And he wasn’t happy - she could tell from the way he twisted his lips a little. Downwards.

    “Ah.” There wasn’t much she could say. Not after having slept about twenty-four hours.

    “You shouldn’t trade blows with a demon that possesses superior strength and resilience.”

    “Someone had to keep it in the circle,” she replied. And who else could’ve done it?

    “I’m aware of the circumstances, but, in general, my point stands.” Yes, still angry.

    “At least Dubois’s gone for good. And now we know how she survived the first time.” Always a silver lining. Then she frowned. “But we still have Aguirre and the cops to deal with. And… did you take care of Rodriguez?”

    “Yes. That particular criminal won’t be found any time soon - or at all,” he replied with a frown.

    “Sleeping with the fishes?” she asked.

    Phil’s frown deepened. “His ashes were dropped by a drone into the pacific.”

    “A burial at sea.” She grinned at her own joke.

    He didn’t react to that. “I took care of the preparations. Which kept me from assisting with the attack on Dubois.”

    “No one expected her to be possessed,” she told him. It wasn’t his fault.

    “I should have been prepared, though. This wasn’t the first time we encountered criminals with ties to the supernatural.”

    She shrugged - which didn’t hurt! “Can’t expect every criminal to be a demon in disguise. And what could you have done differently?”

    “I could’ve been prepared for a demon instead of talking Sarah through a spell in the middle of a fight,” he replied.

    “And you wouldn’t have been with us, but waiting outside,” she pointed out. He wasn’t James Bond.

    “That would have allowed me to rush to your assistance.”

    “Not fast enough.” She sighed. “Phil - we beat her. Don’t beat yourself up over it.” Then she blinked. “And shouldn’t you be telling me that?”

    He laughed - honestly - laughed at that. “You did well, dear.” With a sigh, he added: “I guess I’m just… not comfortable with this reminder of your mortality.”

    So, her wounds had been even worse than she had thought. That was a chilling thought. But she had survived. Had beaten the demon-assassin. “So, Rodriguez is ashes in the sea. We still need to deal with Aguirre and the others.” Aguirre knew too much - he knew about Dubois’s targets.

    “Mr Aguirre was taken care of, as Mr Casey would say.”

    “What?” She gasped. “How? What did you do?”

    “Using the data recovered from Dubois’s apartment, Aguirre and his men were lured into an ambush last night,” he explained.

    “That worked? He must have seen the news about the fight in Dubois’s apartment!”

    “Chuck managed to fool him into believing that Ms Dubois had survived and triumphed in that fight.”

    Caridad blinked. “How? Did he fake her voice?”

    “As I understand, yes, he did.”

    “Wow. But he had a whole team with him.”

    “He did. But our friends are extremely competent spies.”

    “And Aguirre wasn’t.”

    Phil nodded. “As I heard, he had two snipers positioned as backup, but Mr Casey acting as a counter-sniper, killed both, and Sarah used another missile launcher to destroy Aguirre’s vehicle. After Chuck verified his presence,” he added.

    “Ah.” She nodded. “What about Fawley and Custer?”

    “They were left to the local police’s Internal Affairs. After Chuck planted evidence implicating them in the murder of their colleague Mr Sanchez in their phones.”

    “The bombs?” She’d completely forgotten about the bombs!

    “Disarmed by the police. Chuck informed them.”

    “So what’s left to do?” she asked. In a measured and totally not complaining tone. She was the Slayer; she didn’t pout.

    “For you? Resting until you are healed up. Completely healed up.” Phil stood and patted her shoulder. “If I catch you leaving this bed before I am satisfied that you are whole again, I shall be very cross. And so shall be the Council.”

    She gasped. “You wouldn’t narc on me!”

    “I would most certainly inform the Council about a reckless Slayer who didn’t take care of herself.”

    That was… that was… She pouted and crossed her arms. “That’s unfair.”

    “All’s fair in love and war, my dear. And we most certainly are fighting a war - even if it’s not the kind of gang war the local press assumes after the latest events.”

    Right. The press. Another problem. One she couldn’t do much about.

    Sighing, she leaned back and closed her eyes while Phil left the room.

    *****​

    She heard John approach the room before he opened the door. She knew how he walked. With and without a limp. “Heard you were busy,” she said as soon as the door opened. “And that you’re hurt.”

    “Not as much as you are,” he shot back after stepping into the room.

    “I was hurt. Now I’m healed. Mostly,” she added - Phil still hadn’t given her the OK.

    He grunted in response and sat down in the same armchair.

    “You took care of Aguirre.” She sat up and moved the pillow to use it as a backrest.

    He nodded.

    “And the other cops?”

    “Fawley was arrested today. Custer is trying to run.”

    “‘Trying to run’?”

    “Bartowski’s feeding his location and getaway arrangements to the cops.”

    She huffed. “Let’s hope they show a little more competence this time. Are we still wanted people?”

    “The Council’s working on that,” John replied. “And Bartowski is working on framing them for framing us to cover up their own crimes.”

    She had to think about that for a second. Perhaps she really wasn’t completely over her concussion. “That’s… warped.”

    He shrugged. “That’s how things work in the spy business. Why waste a good scapegoat?”

    Well, it wasn’t as if the dirty cops didn’t deserve it. “And they picked us as scapegoats because…?”

    “Because we were already on the cops’ radar after the Buy More shooting and the chase through most of Los Angeles.” He tensed at that. Still not happy with having such records, she bet.

    But it made sense. “Let’s hope they won’t come after us again,” she said.

    “As long as we don’t get framed by cartel hitmen or terrorists again.” He didn’t look like he was very optimistic about that.

    Neither was she if she was honest. The cops wouldn’t forget what had happened. “We could make them think we’re spies, now that we aren’t any more.”

    John didn’t like that - she saw him clench his teeth.

    “That’s…” He trailed off. “It could work.”

    She grinned. “Chuck’s idea actually. I heard him brainstorming with Sarah in the living room.”

    He liked that even less. But it was a decent idea.

    “The CIA won’t like it.

    “Tough,” she replied. “They owe us. This whole thing started because of the Intersect and Fulcrum.” Which they had solved for the CIA and NSA. Well, not the Intersect. But removing traitors who had infiltrated the CIA should count for something, at least. Certainly enough to get some help dealing with the cops.

    He nodded. “It might work. But it will also piss them off.”

    She shrugged, noting that her shoulder neither hurt nor twinged. “That’s their problem. So, anything else happened?”

    “Didn’t you overhear the others?”

    She pouted at that. “I didn’t spend the morning listening to everyone else, you know. I did sleep as well.”

    “Ah.”

    And now he thought she was still hurt. Damn. “So…?”

    “Carina’s gone. She left yesterday with all the data we found in Dubois’ apartment and what we recovered from Aguirre.”

    She didn’t say ‘typical’ or ‘good riddance’. But he knew what she was thinking. “And how’s your leg?” she asked.

    “It’s fine,” he lied.

    “I heard you limping from across the apartment,” she told him.

    He frowned at her. Did he really think she’d miss that?

    “It’s just a bruise.” He pressed his lips together.

    She suppressed a sigh. “You need to rest as well. The others probably too.”

    “Bartowski wasn’t hurt.”

    “But I bet he worked too much.”

    He grunted again.

    “So, is there anything urgent left that can’t wait a few hours?” she asked. He better not try to lie.

    He shook his head. “As far as we can tell, we got all of Aguirre’s men, and Dubois didn’t have any other assets left.”

    “No deadman’s switches?” Or would that be ‘deaddemon’s switches’?

    “Bartowski managed to defuse an info dump.” John shrugged. “She didn’t know as much about us as she thought.”

    “She didn’t know I’m the Slayer.” Or the dumb demon wouldn’t have tried this. Probably. At least she would’ve been prepared for Caridad.

    “No.”

    “Good. Ignorant demons are easy targets.”

    “She wasn’t easy.” He was frowning at her again.

    “Easier than she could’ve been,” Cariad corrected herself. “If she had gone for her gun straight away… She was banking on being bulletproof. Probably enjoyed killing people with her bare hands, too.”

    He nodded, although she could tell he didn’t like it.

    “We won, she lost.” She blinked. “Uh… the French aren’t mad, are they?”

    “They pretend not to know her.”

    “Ah.” It figured. That was how the spy business worked. “And will they do something?”

    “I don’t think so.”

    “Good.” She grinned, patting the side of her bed. “Now come and rest some. I want to cuddle.”

    He got up with a faint smile. But he joined her in the bed.

    *****​

    Caridad was finally allowed out of bed in time for dinner. Phil was still keeping an eye on her, but he was a worrywart - she was fine. And hungry enough to eat a horse. Fortunately, Phil had prepared enough food for a healing Slayer. And a couple of guests. A huge roast, too, not some vegetable stuff.

    “So, Carina split already?” Caridad asked after her first few servings.

    “Yes,” Sarah said in a rather flat tone.

    “As soon as her wounds were treated, she left,” Chuck added. “She must have been very eager to return to the DEA with the data we recovered.”

    “As long as she keeps quiet about the supernatural, I don’t think there’ll be an issue,” Phil commented. “The less she says about us, the more credit she can claim herself.”

    “She’s too impulsive,” Sarah retorted. “If she could stick with a plan, she wouldn’t have come to us in the first place.”

    “Her warning was quite advantageous, though,” Phil pointed out. “And her information was helpful.”

    Caridad clenched her teeth for a moment. He didn’t have to defend the spy. Carina had helped them - but she wasn’t a trusted friend. Or a trusted anything.

    “We were lucky that her interests aligned with our own,” Sarah told him.

    “Uh… is there a danger that she’ll try to, uh, rat us out?” Chuck asked.

    “If she does, she’s dead,” John said.

    “I doubt that she will resort to such a course of action,” Phil said. “She should be quite aware of the reach and influence of the Council. And she was most impressed with my minor skill at tracking people.”

    Meaning, the spy wouldn’t want to risk making Willow angry. Probably. Ah, well - it would’ve been nice to see her off, rub the fact that she didn’t manage to seduce John or Phil in a little, but Caridad could settle for Carina being gone from her city. And all her friends had survived. A little battered in Sarah and John’s cases, but nothing crippling.

    She finished her serving and briefly considered asking for another. But she was pleasantly full already, and there was dessert left. So she leaned back and asked instead: “Say, how are Ellie and Devon doing?”

    Chuck grimaced. “Uh, Ellie’s still angry. Apparently, her friends are very concerned about the attack, and there are rumours about them being arrested going round at their workplace. The police keep bothering them, despite their lawyer threatening to sue, and the neighbours blame them for the attack and the bombs.”

    Caridad winced.

    Phil frowned. “Unfortunately, our ability to influence such matters is limited. Although I believe a word to the press about how a group of corrupt police officers tried to frame Ellie and Devon to cover their own tracks wouldn’t go amiss.” With a thin smile, he added: “It would also teach the local police not to harass us.”

    “Shift the focus from them to the police.” Sarah nodded.

    “I think I can arrange that, and mask it as a disgruntled police officer leaking internal information to the press,” Chuck said.

    “Couldn’t hurt to have the LAPD run another internal investigation. They might uncover more dirty cops,” John said.

    That wasn’t as satisfying as beating up some crooked cops but probably more effective. Even if Caridad didn’t like doing nothing to help Ellie and Devon. Well, she could do something else. “So… I think I’ll do a patrol in Downtown,” she said. Check if some vampires had moved in while she had been busy with Dubois. Perhaps visit Caritas to show the flag.

    “Not tonight, dear. You’ve healed, but you’re still hurt,” Phil said.

    She opened her mouth to protest - she was fine. If she could beat a demon who was stronger and tougher than her while she was hurt, she could patrol with a few aches and bruises left. But Phil’s expression...

    Caridad pouted. This was so unfair.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 12th, 2008

    LAPD Harasses Couple to Cover for Crooked Cops?

    Caridad blinked at the headline running at the bottom of the TV screen. “That was fast,” she commented. “They couldn’t have already checked the information Chuck sent.”

    “That’s why it’s framed as a question,” Sarah told her. “Every paper or tv channel wants to be the one who broke the story about a police scandal.”

    “Someone liked alliteration, too,” Chuck added.

    John grunted something about artsy journalists.

    Caridad sighed and focused on the actual news - something about a shark attack. It looked like a genuine shark attack, not some demony attack, but it paid to make sure.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Hollywood Hills, July 14th, 2008

    Arrests Made in LAPD Scandal! Corruption Rampant!

    The press had really jumped on the whole affair. Caridad shook her head as she skimmed the article. Someone had come up with ‘The LAPD Four’ for Rodriguez, Fawley, Custer and Sanchez, and Sanchez’s murder was now touted as an internal power struggle of a cabal of corrupt police officers. The article also called for the resignation of the Chief of the LAPD. That wasn’t a surprise, of course.

    And across all media, Ellie and Devon were presented as poor victims of a plot. That was the good news. The not so good news was that the press was trying to dig up anything they could about Chuck since someone leaked information about his role in Sarah’s kidnapping.

    Well, there was nothing Caridad could do about that. Phil had been very clear about not beating up journalists.

    She folded the newspaper and dropped it back on the car seat from which she had taken it, then leaned against the hood and sighed as she looked around. The house was nice. It had a big empty yard with lots of space for barbecues or whatever. A pool in the back. Hedges to keep nosy passers-by from peeping. The house was pretty new, too - wouldn’t need much work done.

    But it wasn’t very defensible. Too many houses overlooking it - too many possible sniper locations. And while the yard was big, it wasn’t big enough to provide decent fields of fire to stop an attacker from reaching the house. Not unless you had half a dozen people with machine guns covering all approaches. And too many nooks and crannies for demons to take cover in.

    In short, it wasn’t a good house for a Slayer or spy. Nor would it be a good house for Ellie and Devon, in Caridad’s opinion. They would need more bodyguards to be safe. And Ellie was… not fond of bodyguards at the moment.

    Caridad cocked her head and focused. The realtor inside was showing the kitchen to the couple.

    “...and the fridge is very economical, conforming to the latest ecological standards. The stove and microwave are brand new.”

    “What about the plumbing?” she heard Devon ask.

    “Ah, it’s in great shape.”

    “For its age, you mean.” Ellie wasn’t convinced. Caridad knew her well enough to tell.

    Good. She didn’t like the neighbourhood. Gunn’s people would stand out even worse here. As would Caridad - she had noticed the looks from the elderly couple across the street.

    *****​

    “That was a waste of time!” Ellie complained as they drove away. “The house is completely unsuited for us.”

    “Well,” Devon replied, “it was in decent shape. And the lease was quite reasonable. For the neighbourhood.”

    “Don’t get me started on the neighbourhood. Have you read up on the local homeowner association? I stipulated no homeowner association, and the realtor tried to tell me this was merely a formality. A formality! The ‘guidelines’ for the lawn alone are two pages!”

    Caridad chuckled as Ellie vented and Devon made the appropriate noises. “So, what’s next?” she asked.

    “We’ve got a location in Hollywood,” Devon said. “Smaller house, but with more modern appliances.”

    “Does it have a homeowner association?” Caridad asked.

    “Not according to the realtor,” he told her.

    “Which, as we’ve found out, doesn’t mean anything.” Ellie scoffed.

    “We’ll find a house, don’t worry,” Devon said.

    “I don’t want to move!” Ellie complained. “I like our current home. It’s close to our work, we’ve furnished just as we like it, and… it’s home.”

    Caridad focused on the street as Devon wrapped his arm around Ellie’s shoulder on the backbench. This was her fault, sort of. Partially, at least. If she had been a little quicker, if she had stopped Dubois’s attack… Although it would’ve been very hard to prevent the demon from blowing up the attackers. Who would’ve expected that?

    At least Dubois was dead. Really dead this time. Houses could be replaced. Homes could be rebuilt. But the dead couldn’t be revived. Not unless you dipped into very, very dark and evil magic, which was a big no-no.

    “So,” she said, to change the subject - the silence on the backbench was becoming awkward, “how are the wedding preparations coming along?”

    “Don’t remind me! I’m still trying to explain to some of our friends that we’re not some front of a drug cartel and they don’t have to fear getting gunned down during the reception! And now even the church has voiced some concerns!”

    Well, Ellie wasn’t half-crying any more. But this, too, was obviously a subject to avoid today.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 14th, 2008

    “Really, Sis, I don’t think it’s a good idea to rush this. I mean… buying a house is a big decision. And in the current climate - which isn’t your fault. And not our fault, either - it seems a little hasty…” Chuck trailed off at Ellie’s glare and seemed to shrink a little into the couch.

    Caridad suppressed a sigh. He should’ve known better than to try and talk sense into Ellie. She shook her head and put more mustard on her sandwich.

    “I can’t stay in my home,” Ellie replied. She was pacing in the living room. “There are journalists camping on the lawn!”

    “Well, not literally,” Devon said. He wasn’t fazed by Ellie’s glare. “But yes, there are news vans, photographers, some gawkers - is that word? - around. And the neighbours glare at us.”

    “They’re putting pressure on the landlord to kick us out,” Ellie said. “The sooner we can move out, the better!”

    “Still…” Chuck winced a little, then glanced at Sarah.

    She sighed but nodded. “Chuck’s right, Ellie. You shouldn’t just buy the first house that you can.”

    “You shouldn’t buy a house at all,” John added from where he was leaning against the kitchen counter. “You should have a middleman buy it and rent it to you, so your address isn’t revealed.”

    “That is a good idea,” Phil agreed. “The Council can handle matters.” he lifted his cup and took a sip as if this was a five o’clock tea party in Merry Old England.

    Ellie pressed her lips together instead of answering. She seemed torn, Caridad noted while she finished her sandwich and picked up the plate.

    “That’s a good idea!” Devon beamed. “We could use a bit more time to find the perfect home, right?”

    Ellie remained silent for a few moments. Then she sighed. “Maybe. But I don’t want to depend on the Council. We can afford a house.”

    “Of course, Sis!” Chuck piped up. “But you don’t need to spend money on dealing with our problems. It wasn’t your fault.”

    It was, in a way, their dad’s fault. And their own fault, for not checking that Dubois was dead. On the other hand, that would have meant descending into the basement of a burning building that was about to collapse… Caridad sighed as she sat down across from Phil and bit into her snack. Ah, that hit the spot! Cold turkey roast, mustard, some lettuce, tomatoes, scrambled eggs… She closed her eyes.

    “Of course it wasn’t my fault! I didn’t go and almost kill a French assassin, did I?”

    “Uh… We didn’t plan to - she attacked us. Sort of,” Chuck replied.

    “And If that vengeance spirit hadn’t possessed her, she wouldn’t have come after us,” Caridad added. Because Dubois would’ve been dead.

    Ellie scoffed. “Assassins or demons. Or demon assassins.” She sat down in Phil’s favourite armchair and crossed her arms.

    Devon stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders. “Yes. But we should look forward. The demon assassin is dead. We’re going to get a new house - a home. And our wedding won’t be in danger.”

    “No more than usual,” Chuck said.

    “‘No more than usual’?” Ellie narrowed her eyes.

    “Well… what with the Council attending and all…” He trailed off again. “It’s just standard procedure, really.”

    “Yes,” John said.

    Ellie sighed again. “And we’re famous now. The couple who was almost killed by corrupt cops and their cartel friends.”

    “Probably more infamous,” Chuck said, nodding, “but yes.”

    “Another reason not to buy a house in your name,” John said.

    “It’ll spread anyway - we can’t cut off our friends!” Ellie exclaimed.

    “Well, a few of them have cut us off,” Devon pointed out.

    Caridad sneered. Then they weren’t real friends to begin with. You didn’t give up on your friends just because they were in danger - that was the moment you stuck together!

    “Thank you for pointing out another consequence of this whole thing, dear.” Ellie didn’t sound like she was thankful.

    Devon, though, rallied. “Say… since we’ve been put on leave for the time being anyway… how about we go hiking for a week or two? Let the whole thing calm down, enjoy a vacation far from all this - and give you time to sort things out?”

    “Hiking?” Ellie was still frowning but seemed to be less angry.

    “I was thinking Sequoia or Yosemite,” Devon told her. “We can rent a car, go camping. Just you and me.”

    Ellie was smiling.

    “And the security detail,” John said.

    Ellie stopped smiling. “That sounds very romantic - just you, me and half a dozen guys with guns.” Ellie’s words were dripping with sarcasm.

    But John just shrugged. “It’s a safety measure.”

    “Dubois is dead. You said so,” she retorted.

    “She is!” Chuck chimed in. “We personally verified it.”

    “And she doesn’t have any more goons to send after us,” Ellie went on.

    “She shouldn’t have any - we’ve analysed her communication patterns, and didn’t find any hints that would point towards more contacts,” Chuck replied. “It’s not a hundred per cent certain, but she can’t have unlimited resources - especially not since she was using Cartel people by pretending to be on Cartel business.”

    “But we can’t be sure,” John insisted. “And there’s the supernatural threat.”

    “What supernatural threat? Bigfoot?” Ellie scoffed.

    “There shouldn’t be a Wendigo in California - we’re keeping track of missing hikers and signs of cannibal cults,” Phil cut in. He was talking in that casual way of his that made it sound as if he was talking about the weather.

    But Ellie was taken aback. “Bigfoot eats people?”

    “Wendigos eat people,” Phil corrected her. “We don’t have much information about Sasquatches - they could be merely a variant of Wendigos, or a different species with different habits. But either way, that shouldn’t be a threat in California.”

    Caridad nodded. “Yes. If any show up, we’ll slay them.” She rolled her shoulder and made a show of cracking her knuckles.

    “They’re usually taken care of by other Slayers,” Phil said.

    “It’s my turn soon!” she protested. Other Slayers shouldn’t get to hog all the fun!

    “Does that mean you want to serve as security detail?” John asked.

    “I thought you said there wasn’t a Bigfoot around,” Devon said.

    Caridad ignored the question. On the one hand, hiking through the National Park sounded fun. On the other hand, she had a city to patrol. And this whole Cartel assassin business had cut into her patrols something fierce. Not to mention the time spent healing up. She shook her head. “I’ve got patrols to do. Can’t let the demons think I’m slacking - they’ll get cocky.” A visit to Caritas was also needed, she reminded herself.

    “I think we can call in Vi to take over your duties for a week or two,” Phil said.

    What? “I can handle it,” Caridad snapped. She didn’t need help in her city!

    “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, dear. Besides, you said you wanted to patrol for Bigfoots,” Phil replied, putting down his teacup.

    She clenched her teeth. “I said I wanted to slay Bigfoots once we hear about the next.”

    “Wendigos,” Chuck pointed out. “You mean Wendigos.”

    She glared at him, and he winced.

    “Making yourself familiar with the area is always a good idea,” Phil said.

    “Not when it means neglecting your city!” Or sharing it with another Slayer!

    “The city isn’t neglected, dear. For a few weeks, you might not have patrolled as much as you usually do, but I’m certain that you can make up the difference until this trip that was proposed. And I gather that Mr Casey would also like a vacation after all of this.” Phil nodded at John.

    “Oh, yes,” Chuck said. “That’s a great idea!” Once more, he fell silent, this time after Phil looked at him. “For you, I mean. Not for us.”

    “We can take a trip once they’re back,” Sarah told him. “Just you and me.”

    “Oh!”

    “Is everyone deciding our vacation plans for us?” Ellie asked.

    “That was my idea,” Devon corrected her. “They’re merely handling the details. “And two couples going on a trip wouldn’t be the same as having a security detail.”

    John grunted in agreement.

    Ellie slowly nodded.

    Caridad sighed. It seemed she would be going camping. At least Phil had relented about calling in Vi. Unless he had been planning to do that from the start so she’d agree to a vacation.

    *****​

    California, Sequoia National Park, July 19th, 2008

    “And keep all your food in the metal boxes here. Also, anything that might smell - like toothpaste or deodorant. Don’t keep your food in the car - bears will scratch it trying to get to it. And don’t keep anything that might attract them in your tents.”

    Caridad refrained from rolling her eyes. The ranger was just doing her job. But no bear would disturb their campsite. No with a Slayer on the job.

    John nodded. “We’ve been camping here before.”

    “Ah.”

    “But we appreciate the information,” Ellie added. “It’s been a while.”

    “Better safe than sorry, right?” Devon smiled.

    “How long will you be staying?”

    “A week at least,” Devon replied. “Then we might look for another campsite.”

    “Good. I won’t send any other tourists to this site, then. But some might check it out anyway,” the ranger replied. “I’ll come by every day, but if anything comes up, call the hotline, please.”

    “Like bear and wolf sightings?” Ellie asked.

    “They’ll be mostly harmless, but feel free to tell us - we like to keep track of our regulars.”

    Well, no animal would be harming anyone under Caridad’s watch. But the ranger didn’t know that.

    “Alright!” Devon said. “Thank you again.”

    “Have a nice day.”

    “Thank you.”

    Caridad sighed when the ranger’s SUV finally disappeared up the trail and scratched her scalp - it was itching under her cap. “Finally.”

    “She was just helping,” Ellie said.

    “She was also keeping us from setting up the camp,” Caridad replied. “Anyway, let’s get settled in!” She clapped her hands together. “It’ll soon be time for dinner!”

    “Let’s hope we brought enough food,” Ellie muttered.

    “I heard that!” Caridad told her.

    “I know.”

    She pouted. It wasn’t her fault that she needed a lot of food. Especially when hiking.

    *****​

    An hour later, the camp was set up. It consisted of two tents - not too close together, but not too far apart. Enough to give the illusion of some privacy. As long as you weren’t too loud and pretended that a Slayer was deaf once they were inside a tent. The grill and the gas cooker were set up as well, and dinner was coming along. Grilled sausages and some rice.

    Well, it would fill her belly. They had two bags of snacks, too. And in a pinch, they could go and restock from the closest store.

    She looked around. John was just getting out of the tent. He looked good in khakis and a t-shirt. Although… “Missing camouflage?” she asked, grinning.

    He grinned back. “This is camouflage,” he said, patting his shirt. “We’re posing as tourists.”

    “We are tourists!” Devon told them from the grill. “Two couples in the woods, enjoying a well-deserved vacation.”

    “Sounds like the start of a horror movie,” John replied.

    “Don’t jinx it!” the other man told him, frowning. “This is a vacation, not a mission.”

    “We’re here to protect you,” John retorted.

    “Which you can - and will - do while having a vacation,” Elie cut in. “You’re not going to put up a watch or sniper nest; Caridad will be able to hear anyone coming anyway.”

    Caridad nodded in agreement.

    “And no one knows that we’re here, anyway!” Devon said, beaming.

    Unless Chuck and his dad screwed up the cover, of course. Which was very, very unlikely. But best not mention that. This was supposed to be a vacation. And Cafidad was going to enjoy it. Even if it meant not patrolling her city, not slaying her vampires...

    “Trouble?” Jon asked, suddenly tense.

    He must have noticed. She shook her head. “No. I was just thinking of something unpleasant,” she told him.

    He nodded and she saw him relax a little. A slight tension remained, of course - that was normal for him. Always ready. Like a Slayer. “I’ve set up the showers,” he told her.

    “Good!” Well, black bags full of water hanging from a tree were technically a shower. She blinked. “Uh… how long will it take for the sun to warm the water tomorrow?”

    “Depends on how cold it gets at night,” he told her.

    That wasn’t very helpful. Well, she’d let someone else test it tomorrow. She smiled when the smell of grilled meat reached her nose.

    “Any sign of animals? I didn’t see any tracks when I went to the creek.”

    “No,” she replied. Nothing big, at least.” And no demony scent, either.

    This might be a boring vacation.

    On the other hand, that meant more time for each other. And it was more private than a safehouse overflowing with people.

    She walked the few steps to John and hugged him. He hugged her back.

    Yes, she could use a vacation.

    As long as Phil didn’t call in Vi to patrol Caridad’s city.

    *****​
     
  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 23: The University
    Starfox5

    Starfox5 Experienced.

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    Chapter 23: The University

    California, Sequoia National Park, July 25th, 2008

    Caridad smelt the intruder before she heard it. Her nostrils flared as the unmistakable scent hit her nose. It was trying to approach from the water - like the one last night. She scoffed. As if that would help - not against a Slayer!

    It was a week after the full moon, so she could see perfectly well at night. Hell, she could see perfectly well at night under the new moon! She got up from the trunk near the fire - or what was left of it - and stalked towards the woods. With the wind blowing from the side, it wouldn’t smell her. Not until it was too late.

    Licking her lips in anticipation, she jumped, grabbing the lowest branch of the closest tree. She swung forth, then back, gathering momentum, and then jumped to the next branch, swinging up and setting down on the branch, one hand on the trunk.

    She could hear it now, making its way through the underbrush. It probably thought it was being sneaky - but it was facing a Slayer in her territory. Temporary territory, but as long as Caridd was here, it was hers.

    A few jumps brought her to the tallest tree in the area, staring down at the bushes below. She caught a glimpse of the intruder when the bush was rustled. Brown fur through green leaves. Yes.

    She bared her teeth, leaning forward, tensing. Just a little bit more… a few more… yes!

    She pushed off the branch and jumped down five yards, landing next to it just as it left the bush. It was startled, jumping to the side and turning around - but she was already too close. Snarling, she kicked its front paw away, then the hind paw, jumping back as the bear fell on its side. Before the animal could react, she was on him, one arm closing around its neck like a vice, the other batting away the flailing paws as she fought for a solid footing.

    Once she had planted both feet, she heaved - and the bear flew through the air to land in the bush it had just vacated.

    Caridad turned, baring her teeth. Daring the animal to come at her. But the bear was already fleeing.

    She watched it go with a mixture of triumph and disappointment. She had beaten it. Defended her territory, her friends and her food. But it hadn’t been a real fight. She was victorious, but still keyed up. Like when she chased a vampire over five blocks, and then the demon just rolled over and let her stake it.

    She stood there, tense, until she couldn’t hear the bear any more, then turned to walk back to the campsite. She took a few deep breaths as she made her way through the forest, checking if there were other predators trying anything. But she didn’t smell or hear any - news of her presence must have spread after she had sent the wolves and bears packing in the first night.

    It was peaceful, out here in the wilderness. She was alone with her friends and nature. No demons. Just animals and the forest. Perfect for relaxing.

    But she had relaxed enough. She needed some action. And without demons to slay, that left the next best thing.

    The others were asleep already - they needed more sleep than a Slayer - but she was sure John wouldn’t mind being woken up for half an hour or so.

    He hadn’t minded before, after all.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Sun Valley, July 27th, 2008

    “So, what do you think, Sis?”

    The house looked fine, in Caridad’s opinion. Three bedrooms, living room, two bathrooms, kitchen/dining room combo, a garage large enough for two SUVs and a few bikes, and a backyard large enough to do some katas, with decent fences to protect your privacy.

    But Chuck wasn’t asking her; he was asking Ellie. And Ellie was still frowning.

    “The neighbourhood is alright - no homeowner association; I checked,” Chuck added.

    “It looks good,” Devon said. “The Council bought it?”

    “Yes. If you don’t want to stay here, at least for a while, it’ll be turned into a safe house. Or we’ll use it for the time being.” Chuck frowned. “Casey said the area was too liberal for him.”

    Well, there were a lot of Obama posters in the yards.

    “California is too liberal for him,” Ellie muttered.

    “We’ve got a Republican governor,” Devon told her.

    “We’ve got an actor as governor,” she replied.

    “Well, like Reagan - Casey should feel at home here!”

    Caridad snorted. John liked Schwarzenegger, but he thought the man was too liberal as well. But that was a touchy subject best avoided. “I like it,” she added her opinion.

    Ellie frowned some more but nodded. “I guess as a temporary solution, it’s alright. At least until the wedding.”

    Right. The wedding. Which was in three weeks.

    Caridad clenched her teeth. She should’ve stayed longer in the National Park. The next few weeks would be hell on earth.

    *****​

    California, Los Angeles, Carson, July 27th, 2008

    “So, with Ellie and Devon taken care of… what’s our new home going to be?” Caridad asked, letting herself fall on the couch on the safehouse.

    “We’re still working on that,” Chuck told her. “The requirements for our homes are a little more strict, not to mention that we’re still wanted people. Well, ‘persons of interest’, to be precise, but that’s only a theoretical difference - the cops still think we’re dirty.” He sighed as she sat down at the table and put up his laptop. “Something Ellie was angry about, too.”

    Ellie was angry about a lot of things. Not without justification, of course - Dubois hadn’t managed to kill any of the group, or even hurt them much, but she had come quite close to ruining their lives. Especially Ellie and Devon’s. But… “What are the requirements?”

    “Defensible location, several access routes, at least one of them hidden from any surveillance, sturdy construction,” John said, stepping out of the kitchen with a pot of coffee.

    “And modern appliances as well as internet connections,” Chuck added. “Good insulation and soundproofing, too.”

    “That can be added after purchase,” John retorted. “But you can’t just level a neighbour’s house to provide you with an adequate field of fire.”

    “Well, you could - if you bought it,” Chuck replied. “But I guess that wouldn’t be very good for our cover.”

    “Not unless our cover would be ‘eccentric rich family’ and we level both buildings and build a villa on the entire area.” Sarah brought sandwiches. Yes!

    “Yours are in the kitchen,” the spy told Caridad. “Those are for us mere mortals.”

    Caridad grumbled - Slayers were mortal as everyone else; they just took more to actually be killed. Sarah probably was jealous about Caridad being able to eat as much as she wanted without gaining weight. Which wasn’t Caridad’s fault! Although she would be lying if she claimed it wasn’t a great perk.

    She reached the kitchen and smiled - two long subs with everything she liked! “Thank you, John!”

    He grunted in return.

    She quickly ate one sub on the way back to the living room and sat down to enjoy the other. “Can’t be too difficult to find something like that, can it? Most of the Hollywood stars will have similar requirements.” Or should, in any case, if only to avoid the paparazzi.

    “That’s the reason we’re having slight trouble, dear,” Phil said, looking up from his newspaper. “The market for suitable houses is a little tight - especially after the events of the past weeks. Apparently, a significant number of so-called celebrities as well as other affluent people have become more security-conscious - and are looking for more defensible houses as well.”

    “So?” Caridad swallowed the last bite of her second sub and turned, letting her feet dangle over the armrest and putting her head down in John’s lap.

    “It means most suitable buildings are too expensive for our budget,” Chuck said.

    “What?” Caridad sat up, almost causing John to spill his coffee. “This is an emergency! We’re homeless!”

    “As the Council pointed out, we aren’t exactly homeless - we have this flat, after all,” Phil told her. His expression showed that he disagreed - his lips were a tiny bit twisted downwards, and his upper lip was a little stiffer than usual.

    “Damn. Dubois is still making our life difficult!” Caridad exclaimed.

    “Patience, my dear. Sooner or later, the whole affair will be replaced by the latest scandal, and prices for houses will return to more sensible - although still far too high - levels.”

    “We can’t exactly move into a hotel, after all,” Chuck said. Then he blinked. “Oh. I think I have an idea!”

    “Great,” John mumbled, but Caridad shushed him.

    “Yes, Chuck?”

    “It would only be temporary,” he went on, but… “It would allow us to leave this slightly packed apartment and have more privacy. And mobility. And it would fit our cover! Well, mine!”

    *****​

    California, Marina del Rey, July 28th, 2008

    “Ain’t she a beauty, huh? Hatteras M60 convertible! A great yacht at a great price!” Mr Cortes, a heavyset man wearing a ghastly Hawaiian shirt, beamed at them. “She’s as good as new - her previous owner encountered some financial difficulties and decided to forego his yacht rather than his wife. You won’t find a better bargain, Mr Carmichael!”

    “She looks great, yes,” Chuck, playing the ‘semi-retired’ Charles Carmichael, as he had explained, nodded. “Although if I would buy anything without testing it, I wouldn’t be able to afford such a beauty, you know?”

    “Of course, of course! I can see you’re experienced.” Cortes grinned. “Let me show you around. She’s got three staterooms and three heads - and the latest home entertainment system! You could live on her, better than in many houses!”

    Well, that was exactly what they were planning.

    Though ‘staterooms’ was a fancy name for bedrooms that were actually smaller than the ones in their safe house. Much smaller. And the walls were even thinner than in their current apartment. However, the other accommodations made up for it, to a degree. And it would be fun to be able to swim every morning - or whenever you wanted.

    And Caridad didn’t need a fancy kitchen, either. It had two double bedrooms and a single one, perfect for John, Chuck, Sarah, Phil and herself. Though she doubted that Phil would join them - he was looking for a hotel to stay in; he wasn’t a wanted man, after all.

    Well, it meant more space for them.

    Cortes was still talking, hyping up the yacht. Chuck wouldn’t budge, though - he wouldn’t buy the yacht before testing it. Not that he’d buy the yacht anyway - the Council’s budget didn’t cover that.

    But it would cover renting it for a few weeks or so.

    Too bad the boat wasn’t armed. Well, like with the yacht used for their trip to Sunnydale Bay, they could bring rocket launchers and other weapons.

    Finally, Cortes stopped trying to sell the yacht, let Chuck sign the contract, and left.

    “I still can’t believe you got the Council to pay our vacation,” Caridad said, sitting on the couch.

    Cuck actually blushed. “Well, it improves our security, stays within the budget, doesn’t need as many fake documents as acquiring a safe house…”

    “I think the Council is very much aware,” Sarah cut in. “We do need a vacation after everything.”

    “Could’ve come camping,” Caridad pointed out.

    “We had to settle things in Los Angeles,” Chuck said. Probably didn’t want to admit that he wanted to have some distance to Ellie until she calmed down.

    “And this will be a great vacation!” Sarah said, beaming at him.

    “Yes,” Caridad agreed. “Though I’ll need a zodiac to go back and forth for patrols - unless you want to make landfall all the time.”

    “I think we can handle that,” Chuck said after a moment. “We can stash it on the foredeck, I believe.”

    “Or just tie it up at the stern,” John told them. “You’ll need to use it as well for the wedding preparations.”

    Everyone grimaced at that.

    *****​

    Caridad had been correct - the foredeck was perfect for sunbathing. With an air mattress to cushion yourself a little, she could enjoy the sun rays in the late afternoon as Chuck steered the yacht out of the harbour. ‘Testing the ship’, he’d called it - as if that would fool anyone.

    Well, she wouldn’t complain. She’d patrol later in the evening; now she wanted to enjoy the moment. If only John would finish checking the diving gear and weapons and join her here.

    A few minutes later, she heard him climb on deck. Her smile slipped a little when she saw him carrying a fishing rod, though. “You planning to catch dinner?” she half-joked.

    “Depends on how much I can catch,” he replied.

    He was serious, she realised. Part of her felt annoyed at that - he should be paying attention to her, not to some fish. And fishing was the worst form of hunting your dinner: All you did was sitting there and waiting for prey too dumb to smell a trap.

    On the other hand, this was - no matter what Chuck claimed - supposed to be a vacation. And John liked fishing.

    She still did her best to distract him, of course, until Sarah joined them, and both of them started to chat about men indulging in their hobbies.

    And John still caught enough fish so they could actually have a decent dinner. No leftovers, though.

    *****​

    California, Marina del Rey, July 29th, 2008

    Caridad grinned as she climbed into the sports car in the parking lot of the marina. This was another convenient part of Chuck’s ‘Carmichael cover’ - a man looking to buy a yacht wouldn’t drive a cheap car. No more riding a bike for her, at least for the next few weeks! Even Phil had agreed that driving the car was less conspicuous than going a few miles too fast on a bike.

    Though he had also lectured her about traffic tickets. As if she’d be as careless as getting caught. Well, more than once.

    She let the engine roar, once, then drove out of the parking lot. First thing, check with Phil. Phones were great, but nothing beat a personal visit. And briefing.

    The car handled like a dream, too. Finally a car that could keep up with her reflexes. And since she was alone, no one was complaining about her perfectly fine driving.

    Well, no one in her car. Some easily-scared idiot was honking as if she had just rammed him, instead of overtaking him with room to spare.

    Really, some people shouldn’t be allowed to drive!

    *****​

    A short trip later, she reached downtown, where Phil was staying. She checked her wig and put on her sunglasses before she stopped in front of his hotel. It wouldn’t do to be recognised by anyone. Well, the valet wouldn’t be a threat; the young man was staring at her legs and chest, not her face - the cocktail dress she had picked was working as intended.

    She walked into the lobby, checking it for threats. Nothing demony. Nothing suspicious, either, as far as she could tell. No whiff of gunpowder. The concierge at the reception desk was eyeing her dress as well, she noticed - but he was checking the price tag, so to speak, not the goods.

    “Hello!” she greeted him. “I’m here to see my uncle, Philipp Heathcliff. Can you call him? Room 205.”

    “Of course, Miss…”

    “Oh, sorry. Cara Heathcliff!”

    A few minutes later, Phil met her in the lobby.

    “Uncle Philipp!” She hugged him, grinning at his slight discomfort.

    “Cara,” he replied. “How nice to see you.”

    “Did you have a good trip?” she asked.

    “Passable, passable,” he replied. “Let’s sit down.”

    They sat down on two leather seats near a corner of the lobby - too far away from casual observers. Not quite private, but no one should suspect ‘Philipp Heathcliff’ or his niece; the Council had done good work on the fake IDs according to John.

    “How have the others settled in?” he asked in a lower voice.

    “Oh, we’ve already been out at sea. You need to visit as well; it’s great!” Especially when you weren’t travelling to Sunnydale Bay to fight an ancient demon.

    He smiled in return. “Good, good.” But his tone told her that he wouldn’t do it.

    She frowned slightly. “You need a vacation as well.”

    “I am on vacation,” he replied, his lips twisting in a more honest smile as he made a point of looking around the lobby.

    “You’re still working.”

    “So are you, dear.”

    “Patrolling isn’t work; it’s a calling.” She grinned as she quoted the Slayer’s Handbook - the old one.

    He shook his head in return. “Judging by your attire, I assume you’re planning to patrol the club scene.”

    “Yes.” She nodded. “And they probably wouldn’t have let me inside if I hadn’t dressed up. Or thought I was an escort.”

    He didn’t react to the joke, nodding in agreement without being flustered at all.

    She didn’t pout; you won some and lost some. And it had been a lo