DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. The chapter title comes from The Doors’ song, “People Are Strange.”
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy is off to get Spike back, Spike has run into a few “fans” and recruited them for a job, while Ethan thinks that Spike is making deals with Wolfram and Hart…
The story begins here.
The day wasn’t shaping out too badly. While the issue of the missing Slayer was unfortunate, Holland believed he’d lit enough of a fire under Lindsey to get the girl found in time to be of real use. His meeting with the vampires had confirmed that Holland still had a few days before those circumstances were too dire. As long as they had the Slayer before the arrival, he was certain that the rest of it would fall into place. It had to. His plans never failed.
A knock at the door took him by surprise. Frowning, he looked at his watch, tapping at the elegant dial as if that would change the time. It was too soon to be Lindsey’s return, but there was nobody else who knew this was Holland’s residence while he was in town. The demon gangs only knew how to contact him by telephone or through the office.
Cautiously, he answered the door. When he saw the young vampires on the other side, he almost sagged in relief.
“Gentlemen,” he said, stepping back to allow them entrance. It was pointless to try and keep them out; that was one disadvantage he had in staying in a public place. “I must say this is unexpected.”
Gazzer and his crew loped inside, dispersing throughout the room as if they owned the place. It took all of Holland’s self-control not to snap at Gazzer’s first when he helped himself at the wet bar.
“Just had an interesting chat with a little birdie,” Gazzer said, dropping to the corner of the couch. He propped his feet up on the glass coffee table, spilling some of the paperwork Holland had been working on to the floor, and shook a warning finger at him. “You’ve been holding out on us, Dutch.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He didn’t sit. Holland had a distinct feeling that would weaken his position even further. When one of the young vampires began rifling through his desk, however, he stiffened and took a step toward him. “Don’t do that.”
“Afraid of what he’s going to find?” Gazzer scolded. “And here I thought we were all such good mates.”
“Friends do not go snooping where they’re not invited,” Holland said. “If you could tell me what it is you think I’ve been holding back--.”
“A ring. About so big.” He held his fingers apart a scant half-inch. “Got a black stone in it. You might even have it on a chain, from what I hear.”
A hard knot settled in Holland’s stomach at the too-accurate description of the Slayer’s ring, but his features remained neutral. “And who would tell you that I had such a thing?”
“One of your boys, actually. The one you’ve sent off to take care of our little Slayer problem?”
Holland’s attention snapped to the desk where the young vamp had pulled the ring out of the small drawer in which he’d stowed it. It dangled from the chain, catching the light and refracting it around the room, but all Holland could see was Lindsey’s final betrayal hanging like a ghost in front of him.
“You can’t take that,” he said, with more confidence than he felt. “We need it in order to bring the Slayer in.”
“Yeah.” Gazzer rose to his feet and sauntered to stand before Holland, fangs distending as a malicious grin split his features. “That’s what he said, too.”
Neither man moved for a long minute, each attempt to stare the other down. Holland felt a bead of sweat begin to drip down the back of his collar.
When Gazzer suddenly lunged forward, teeth bared, Holland flinched on instinct.
The vampires burst into laughter as Gazzer strolled away from him and toward the door. “Don’t fuck with us again,” he warned. “Next time, I won’t be nearly so nice.”
The door slammed shut behind them.
He moved as soon as he was alone in the room. Crossing to the desk, Holland picked up the phone and punched in the number for his special security team. “I need our guests followed,” he instructed. “They’ve just left my suite with something that belongs to me.”
“Do you want it retrieved?”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary.” He paused. While he couldn’t risk anything happening before her arrival, he did want the ring back. “Unless he passes it along to somebody else. I have reason to believe they might be working with Lindsey McDonald. If that’s the case, get it back.”
“What authority level do we have for the retrieval?” the guard asked after Holland gave him a description of the ring.
“Once it’s out of our guests’ hands, use any means necessary. In fact…” It was pointless to prolong the inevitable. “…once you have the ring, kill Lindsey.”
He already knew her work was going to be a bust, but Lindsey went there first anyway. Even if he didn’t find her, somebody might be able to point her in the direction of Buffy’s home. He doubted they’d have accurate records, but there were enough women in the casino for there to be gossip. It was inconceivable to think everybody would be in the dark.
The lobby was nearly empty, as was the main floor. Only the diehards littered the slot machines, empty eyes glued to tumblers that would never yield the promises they offered. Lindsey didn’t recognize the pit boss on duty, but that was to be expected. He never came around during the day. Instead, he steered toward the low stakes poker tables in the back and selected a tall black woman as his first target.
Her coffee-colored gaze flickered over him as he approached. “If you’re looking for a game,” she said, “you’re going to have to wait for more players. The crowd’s a little slow this afternoon.”
He adopted his best “aw shucks” smile. “Actually, I’m looking for a girl. A dealer here. Anne Pratt?”
“She doesn’t work days. Come back tonight.” She turned back to her cards. “You can find her then, unless she gets another private party.”
Lindsey had already started walking away when what the dealer said sank in. “Did you say…another private party?” he asked. “Anne’s usually on the floor.”
“She wasn’t last night. She was working a private on special request until I got sent in to replace her.”
Though he knew that Buffy had left work early in order to fight the Fyarl, she hadn’t said a word about her shift. Lindsey had assumed it had been a normal night. “How do you know it was a special request?”
The woman—a swift glance at her nametag told him she was named Nancy—rolled her eyes. “Because I had to listen to the guys bitch the rest of the night,” she said in annoyance. “Anne had been specifically recommended to them, though I have no idea why. The girl’s good, but nothing special. But these guys wouldn’t let it go. They even stiffed me a tip because of it.”
Lindsey knew enough about Buffy’s work to know she didn’t get a lot of exposure. A specific recommendation was a big deal, and while it might not lead him directly to her, it could be a friend of hers that he hadn’t known about. Someone who would have an idea about where she could be. Or someone who would be willing to help her hide if she asked for it.
“I don’t suppose these guys mentioned who gave them the recommendation,” he said nonchalantly.
“Some cabaret singer at the Tropicana. He goes by the name ‘Velvet Fog,’ or something like that.”
Lindsey thanked her with a smile, but it was frozen as he hurried back out to the street. He. Another guy.
Between that and her clandestine slaying, he had a feeling Holland had been right. He had never really known Buffy Summers after all.
She didn’t have an elaborate plan. Get in, get Spike, get out. Try not to get dead in the process.
Kevin tried talking to her when they left the apartment, but Buffy’s monosyllabic answers finally proved effective in shutting him up. She knew what he wanted to hear, but there was no way in hell she was in any place to be giving it to him. She didn’t know the answers herself.
He tried again as they neared the hotel.
“So what do you want me to do?” In spite of his reluctance back at Spike’s, Kevin seemed almost puppy dog eager now, eyes bright as he looked at her in expectation.
“Going back to the apartment sounds like a good idea,” she said with just as much chirpiness.
The look he gave her told her exactly what he thought of that notion. Leaning forward, Kevin said to the taxi driver, “Drop us off in the parking structure.”
Buffy frowned, staring out the window as the driver did as he was told. “Care to fill me in on why we can’t use the front door?” she asked.
“Spike’s going to be parked under cover,” he explained. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll be in his car.”
She knew he didn’t really believe that, but finding the car first was a smart idea. It meant a quicker getaway, just in case Spike wasn’t in any condition to help them.
“I’m sure he’s fine.” There was nothing deceitful in Kevin’s face as he spoke, but Buffy was beginning to think that was part of his defense mechanism. Her confusion must have shown, though, because he added, “You’re worried about him. I get that. You should’ve seen some of his moods when he thought he got a bead on you. And I’m not even going to touch what finding out about Wolfram and Hart did to him this morning. He did enough touching of that hall outside his apartment. Well, kicking, really.”
“I’m not worried about him. Spike can take care of himself.”
“Which is why we’re riding in to rescue him from the big bad lawyers. Uh huh. Try selling that one to someone who doesn’t know you as well as I do.”
Now he was just pissing her off. “Newsflash, Rollerboy.” It didn’t even register with her that she’d adopted Spike’s nickname for Kevin. “You don’t know me.”
“No?” His gaze was placid, in spite of her rising temper, and that only annoyed her more. “I know the ring you wanted me to take care of was how your Watcher kept control of you. I know…that you have a tendency to drop your right shoulder when you fight. I know that you keep journals because you’re afraid of forgetting where you’ve been. I know you like ice cubes on the back of your neck.” He smiled, though it was a gentle smile, born from appreciation rather than mirth. “And I know you dreamed about becoming the next Dorothy Hamill when you were a little girl. You still have a videotape with her gold-medal skate on it. I always thought that one was cute.”
She could only stare at him in disbelief. “How?”
“Spike. What do you think he’s spent the last three months talking about?”
Wrapping her arms around her body, Buffy turned in her seat so that she was looking out the window, watching the world go from light to dark as the taxi slipped down the ramp into the underground parking structure. “Spike’s obsessed with me.”
“No, he’s in love with you. There’s a big difference.”
He said it with such conviction, she didn’t have the heart to argue.
The driver parked near the underground entrance to the hotel and helped Kevin into his chair, giving them a broad smile and an offer to return later when Kevin gave him a twenty dollar tip. Buffy turned it down, but took his tire iron when his back was turned. Spike had been woefully short of weapons, and she figured Kevin had paid for it with his tip. At least, that was the justification she gave herself.
“So how’s that extra sensory demon perception?” Buffy asked when it was just the two of them again.
Kevin shook his head. “I’m buzzing already. There’s way too many demons in this place for me to single just one of them out.”
“I guess we do this the old-fashioned way then,” she muttered.
She led the way inside the hotel, stopping at the periphery of the lobby to get a lay of the land. It was one of the more posh places on the Strip, one that she’d only seen from the outside to this point, but that only meant the décor was more luxuriant and tastefully done. It still had slots positioned strategically in various crannies, and there was still the requisite money counter for guests to cash in their winnings. What she wanted was tucked away next to the registration desk.
“Where are we going?” Kevin asked as he wheeled along after her.
“The one place I can be sure Spike will always hit.”
He nodded knowingly. “Oh, yeah. The bar.”
They stood just outside the entrance, scanning what they could see of the interior. It was nearly deserted, with only an elderly couple occupying one of the far tables. The bartender was inventorying his alcohol, while in the corner, two waitresses were perched on stools and chatting.
“Wait here,” Buffy said. After tucking the tire iron into the side of his chair, she strode toward the pair of women.
They stopped talking as she approached, weary eyes assessing her customer probability. Both found her lacking and didn’t move from their seats. Buffy smiled at them anyway.
“I’m wondering if you can help me,” she said brightly. “I’m supposed to meet a friend, and I could’ve sworn that he said it was here, but I don’t see him anyplace. Has a British guy been in here today? Bleached blond, thinks he’s God’s gift? He probably ordered a whiskey.”
The redhead perked up as soon as she said “British.” “Are you one of his students?” she asked. “Because there’s no way you’re old enough to work with him, too.”
Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Huh?”
“You know. ’Cause that other professor was asking around for him.” She snapped her fingers as if in sudden understanding. “That must be who those other kids were. I didn’t think about them being students because of them meeting with the lawyers.” She poked her friend and laughed. “Hell, if I’d known I’d get to meet up with hottie professors in hotel bars, I would’ve gone to college, too.”
She was talking so fast that it made Buffy’s head swim. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Are you saying he was here?”
The redhead looked annoyed. “That’s what I said, didn’t I?”
“And someone else was looking for him, too.”
“Yeah.” She pointed over Buffy’s shoulder toward a table hidden in the far corner. “His friend.”
Buffy turned around, already steeling herself for seeing one of Wolfram and Hart’s lackeys. The last thing she expected was the shock in those familiar eyes.
He didn’t say a word as he rose to his feet. She wanted to run, could feel the nerves crawling along her skin to energize her in doing so, but her body refused to obey her mind’s screaming commands. Buffy remained rooted in her spot, her heart thundering inside her chest, until he stood in front of her.
A single hand came up to caress her cheek. The charge from his touch made her flinch.
“Are you real?” Ethan whispered.
She didn’t reply.
Suddenly, Buffy wasn’t so sure of that answer herself.
To be continued in Chapter 11: Bruised with Numb Surprise…