by White Queen
Still smiling faintly, the taste of a Hershey's lingering at the corners of his memory, Bill Nelson opened his eyes. He looked around the dim, windowless room, trying to remember where he was. His wandering gaze settled on a dark figure ensconced in a low chair, the lamp beside him shedding the only light in the room. Slowly the past evening's events returned to him, and he found the man's name. "Angel?" he said softly.
Angel looked up from the worn leather book resting in his lap. "Yes," he answered softly, half smiling.
"What time is it?"
"AM or PM?"
"Five hours." It felt more like five years. And what had happened to Melanie in that time? Bill sat up, feeling better than he had in what seemed like forever.
Bill's movements made little noise, but they awakened Gunn, who'd been asleep on his cot across from the couch. He turned his head and smiled at their guest. "Morning."
"So they tell me." Bill returned the smile.
Gunn sat up. "Feel like eating?" He pulled on a dark t-shirt, then walked slowly across the room to the small kitchenette, his bare feet making soft plopping noises on the carpetless concrete floor. Opening the ancient refrigerator, he peered into its glowing interior. "Not much here fit for human consumption." He pushed aside several bulging plastic bags full of a dark red liquid, and emerged with two cans of off-brand cola and three cinnamon-raisin bagels. "Looks like I'm on KP again. Gotta lay in some decent supplies."
"You're not well enough to go out," Angel worried. "You've only been back a day."
"Two days, and it ain't like I'm goin' patrollin'--I'm just suggesting a quick trip to the store down the block. It is still there, right?" Gunn walked to the couch, sat beside Bill, and offered him a cola and a bagel.
Bill accepted the odd breakfast, trying to ignore the probable nature of the fridge's other contents.
"It's still there." Angel closed his book. "If you go out, take Mr. Nelson with you, and Illyria if she's up for it."
Gunn frowned. "Stop mother-hennin' me."
The four sequenced knocks sounded at the door, interrupting the gentle bickering. Bill and Gunn both noted that the door wasn't barred and chained like before, and sent questioning looks toward Angel, who shrugged.
The door swung in, admitting Spike. "What, no barricade?" he asked.
"I was awake," Angel answered.
"Mmm, yes, so I see." Spike nodded at the book. "Doing research?"
"Uh, yeah." Angel tried to put the book down on the floor, out of sight, but Spike snatched it.
"Aha!" he announced smugly. "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. Don't you ever get sick of that one?" He tossed it back at Angel, who caught it protectively.
"It's a classic," Angel retorted.
Spike snorted. "Sure. If you're the type who considers Demolition Man a masterpiece."
"You haven't even read it."
"Don't have to, mate." Spike opened the fridge, nonchalantly pulled out one of the plastic bags, and poured half its contents into a coffee mug. He stuck the mug in the microwave, and put the resealed bag back in the fridge. When the microwave timer 'bing'ed, he pulled out the mug, grabbed a box of Wheatabix from the counter, and turned around to encounter Bill's badly-concealed stare.
"Oh, sorry." Spike grinned. "Forgot about the company." He raised the mug in a salute. "I'll just go drink this in the bathroom, then." He walked away, muttering something about the sensitivities of humans.
Bill turned his attention back to Angel. "So what's the plan for today?"
Angel sighed. "Honestly?"
"You don't have one."
"Not really. I thought maybe you could get back on the computer, see if the police turned up anything. We used to check out the city papers too." He held his hands out, palms up, apologetically. "We just don't have much to go on."
Gunn took a bite of cinnamon-raisin bagel and a swig of cola, then made a face. "First, food. I bet we'll all think better when we're fed." He glanced from Angel to the fridge, then back at Angel. Bill pretended not to notice.
Angel nodded. "Right. Fine. Go shop." He stood up, searched his pockets, and pulled out a crumpled twenty. "Get what you can." He handed the money to Gunn. "If you're not back in an hour, I'll send Illyria after you."
Bill heard Angel bar and chain the door behind them as Gunn led the way topside.
Gunn grinned a little foolishly as he rapped the four times. "Spike's idea," he mumbled.
Illyria opened the door, her wide pale eyes glittering. "I maintain that this patterned knocking--"
Gunn finished for her. "--is absurd, yeah, we know." He pushed his way past her, carrying two grocery bags in each hand. Bill Nelson followed, also laden with plastic bags.
Angel looked at the number of bags with surprise. "I didn't think twenty dollars still went that far."
Setting down the bags near the fridge, Gunn shook his head. "It doesn't. Bill here insisted on chipping in. Said if he was gonna eat it, he should help buy it."
Bill nodded. "You're helping me look for Melanie. I can't pay you much of a fee, but I can at least do something." He set his bags next to Gunn's, and headed for the computer. "I liked your idea of checking the city papers. Do you know their addresses?"
"I think they're downtown," Angel replied, puzzled.
Bill rolled his eyes. "Website addresses. Never mind, I'll just Google for them." He clicked the mouse a couple times, and listened to the high whine of the modem.
"Google?" Illyria asked, her head tilted to one side as she moved closer to Bill.
"It's a search engine. I'll show you." Bill typed busily, Illyria now leaning over his shoulder.
Gunn had started putting away the groceries, but when he bent down to put a big tub of yogurt on the bottom shelf of the fridge, he let out a stifled gasp. Angel leapt from his chair and reached Gunn's side so quickly, Bill would have been amazed, if he'd been watching. But the computer held his attention until Angel spoke.
"Gunn, you okay? I told you you were overdoing it." He put an arm around Gunn's shoulders and helped him stand.
Gunn nodded weakly. "Guess you were right." He allowed Angel to help him across the room to his cot. Once seated, he pulled off his dark t-shirt and stared in dismay at the redness seeping through the massive bandages around his abdomen. "Musta pulled open a couple stitches."
"Let's hope that's all you did," Angel said worriedly. "Spike!" he called. "Get in here!"
Spike's white-blond head appeared around the side of the bathroom door. "Now what?" he complained peevishly, then his eyes zeroed in on the spreading red stain on Gunn's bandages. "Bloody 'ell!" he cried, ducking back into the bathroom. Moments later he crossed the room to the cot, his hands full of rolls of white gauze bandages and adhesives.
"Anything I can do to help?" Bill asked.
Angel shook his head, not looking up. "No, keep searching. We'll have this under control in a moment." He dropped his voice and spoke soothingly to Gunn, who lay limply on the cot, his eyes closed and his dark skin paling.
Bill found it hard to concentrate on searching the newspaper sites now, and kept looking over his shoulder to see how things were going over by the cot. Finally Angel and Spike stepped back, a fresh layer of bandages added to Gunn's collection. "Better?" Angel asked quietly.
Gunn nodded, but didn't open his eyes. "Sorry," he said weakly.
"No, I'm sorry. For letting you go." Angel managed to sound angry, sad, and tired all at the same time. "Can I get you anything?"
"Right." Angel filled a glass at the sink and brought it back. Spike took the extra bandaging supplies back into the bathroom, then flopped on the couch, where he could keep an eye on Gunn.
After helping Gunn drink his water, Angel moved toward the computer. "Any luck?" he asked.
Bill shrugged. "I've found stories about dozens of missing people."
Spike looked at them over the back of the couch. "Big waste of time, if you ask me."
"You got any better ideas?" Angel spat back.
"No." Spike glared at him sullenly.
Bill rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"What?" Angel challenged him.
"I don't get you people. One minute you work side by side to help your friend, getting along perfectly well. The next, you act like you're each others' worst enemies."
"Old habits die hard," Angel replied, his tone tinged with bitterness.
Illyria made a derisive noise in her throat. She continued reading over Bill's shoulder for a few more minutes, then straightened up. "I have tired of the zoo," she announced. She walked to her room and closed the door.
Bill frowned, puzzled.
Spike noticed the frown. "Hey, she doesn't make much sense to me either, and I've known her for weeks. Months, maybe."
Bill turned around, ignoring Spike's comment. "I've found one pattern. But I don't know if it means anything."
"What?" asked Angel, who'd been standing so quietly still that Bill'd forgotten he was so near.
"Remember I said about ten missing persons turned up dead a day or two after their abduction?"
"Yeah. Think there's a connection?"
"There is a connection, but that's what's odd."
"What is it?" Angel's eyes gleamed a little, yet seemed at the same time to grow darker.
"They were all out walking dogs when they got abducted."
"And so was your granddaughter!" Spike sat up, interested now.
Bill nodded. "But the coroners' reports for the dead abductees place their deaths anywhere from twelve to twenty-four hours after they disappeared." He looked at his wristwatch. "Melanie's been gone nearly twelve."
Angel put a hand on Bill's shoulder. "We've got a pattern now--we can figure out these guys. We'll find her."
"Did they take the dogs too?" Gunn asked, sounding weak but alert. "Or did they run off, like your granddaughter's dog?"
"A couple found their way home. The others are unaccounted for," Bill replied.
Illyria walked out of her room. "Animal shelters."
"Great idea!" Spike agreed enthusiastically. "We'll check the shelters to see if they've found the dogs."
Illyria looked at him blankly. "I'm going to visit animal shelters. I must learn about this world's life forms, and the zoo holds no more information for me."
"Wait," Angel commanded her.
She halted and slowly turned. "You speak to me as if I was one of the cringing scum that surrounded you at Wolfram and Hart." Her eyes glittered. "I am not your minion."
"I think we're going to need you." Angel tried to soften his tone. "Mr. Nelson's granddaughter is in danger..."
"You think there may be violence?"
Illyria nodded. "I will stay." She looked Bill in the eyes. "For you." Then she turned and went back into her room.
"I still like the idea of checkin' out the shelters," Spike grumbled.
Bill nodded. "I'll try to find any reports of the dogs." He turned back to the computer.
While Bill typed and clicked, Angel once again slowly paced the small room, arms folded and head down.
After a few minutes, Bill sighed and shook his head.
"Nothing?" Angel asked, looking up.
"No reports on the missing dogs. Only interesting thing I find about LA-area animals in the last week is a note from some wacko group to one of the newspapers."
"What kind of note?" Angel asked, just as Spike asked, "Which wacko group?"
"Bunch of nuts calling themselves the 'Animal Liberation Army'. They demanded that all the pet owners, animal shelters, pet shops, zoos, and farmers release their animals at once, 'to roam free as they once did and reclaim this earth from the filth that infects it'."
"Demanded?" Angel stopped pacing.
"Yeah, or else 'a wave of retribution will sweep the city'." Bill shook his head again. "There sure are some messed-up people out there."
"A wave of retribution?" Angel raised his eyebrows. "Like pet owners getting abducted while walking their dogs, and then winding up dead?"
Bill's eyes widened, and he could feel his heart skip a beat or two.
Spike hopped up from the couch. "Well, what're we waiting for? Where's this animal army's HQ? Let's go get 'em!"
"The note had no return address."
"Do you have the addresses of the places where all these people disappeared?" Angel pulled out a map of the city from a stack of papers and books by the lamp. "And where their bodies turned up?"
"I can get them."
For the next few minutes, Bill read addresses to Angel, who marked them on the map he'd spread on the floor, since they had no tables except the one holding the computer.
Finally, Angel marked the last spot and stepped back. He smiled ever-so-slightly. "You're right, Bill, the points of abduction seem pretty random." He motioned for Bill to come look at the map.
Bill got up slowly and moved to the side of the broad-shouldered vampire.
"See? I marked the sites of abduction in green." Angel pointed at the map. "Very scattered. But look at the red marks--those are the dump sites."
Bill looked down. "All within a few miles of each other."
Angel nodded. "I'm guessing whoever's doing this didn't want to lug the dead bodies too far. My guess is, they're hiding out somewhere in the center of those red marks."
Spike joined them by the map. "That's still a pretty big area to cover. Not to mention it's daylight outside."
"I'm guessing we can narrow down our search. These are animal rights extremists, right?" Angel tapped the map with his foot. "We just need to find all the animal shelters, pet stores, and veterinary clinics in that area. Chances are, our guys won't be far away."
Bill returned to the computer. "Right." Hope surged within him as he typed. If only Melanie was still alive, they just might find her after all! He prayed silently and steadily as he searched.
Moments later, he actually smiled. "What about an abandoned animal hospital?"
Angel nodded. "Perfect." He leaned over Bill's shoulder and noted the address of the hospital. "Spike and I'll take the sewers."
"Oh goody," Spike muttered.
Angel ignored him. "You and Illyria find a cab and get there as quickly as you can. When you get there, wait for our signal."
Gunn tried to sit up. Angel saw the movement, and turned toward the cot. "Gunn, stay put. Guard this place."
"I should go with you."
Gunn frowned, but didn't continue arguing. In fact, he almost looked relieved as he leaned back and absently fingered his bandages.
Illyria reentered the central room, a large sword in her hand. "I am ready."
"Uh, good luck getting a cab carrying that thing," Bill said, nodding at the sword.
"Good point," Angel agreed. "Illyria, you really need that?" He was careful to keep from sounding too commanding.
Illyria shrugged. "It is doubtful these humans we seek will do much damage." She leaned the sword against a wall.
"Right." Angel slipped into his room, and reappeared holding a heavy double-edged battle axe. "Sewer rats don't ask questions though." He looked at Spike. "You bringing anything?"
"Nah, the Blue Devil's probably right. Probably won't be much of a fight." He eyed Angel's axe. "But if you think you need that..."
"Doesn't hurt to be prepared," Angel answered defensively.
"You don't happen to have any extra pistols, do you?" Bill asked, eyeing the sword and axe.
Gunn picked up the one on the chair beside his cot. "Take mine. I'm better with a crossbow anyway."
"Thanks." Bill stuffed the small handgun into the waistband of his trousers. "Let's go."
"Glad to help." Gunn smiled a little, watching wistfully as they headed to the door.
Bill and Illyria stood across the street from their objective, on the fringe of the quake's damage. The buildings around them were generally intact, although most had lost a little roofing, siding, what-have-you. Here and there a cracked window waited to be replaced.
Bill scrutinized the one-story edifice facing them. A faded sign reading "Metro Pet Hospital" hung at a crazy angle, partially obscuring the boarded-up front door. The windows had slats nailed across them too, but much of the wood had come loose and lay scattered on the sidewalk.
Illyria stood unbelievably still beside him, arms folded, eyes fixed on the building.
"We're supposed to wait for Angel's signal, huh?" Bill said, just to break the silence. "Any idea what it'll be?"
"I doubt it will be subtle."
Bill sighed. "Right." With the hope growing that Melanie might be inside and still alive, he had a hard time convincing himself to just stand there, leaning on the black cane and waiting.
Just when Bill had about made up his mind to stop waiting and go try to break in himself, a terrific crash came from somewhere to the rear of the pet hospital.
"Angel's signal." Illyria strode purposefully across the street, Bill struggling to keep up. When they reached the door, Illyria casually ripped off the boards and tossed them behind her as if they were cardboard instead of sturdy planks. Bill had little time to be amazed as he followed her into the dark interior.
The musty odor of dust and filth greeted them, and when Bill's eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could see that as they walked, they left footprints on the grimy linoleum. Clean footprints on a dirty floor, instead of the more typical opposite. Blank doorways opened on either side of them, leading to more blackness. Bill pulled the pistol from his waistband and held it pointing downward, just as he'd been trained to do so long ago. "Can you see anything?" he whispered.
"There is nothing here." Illyria's eyes gleamed a little in the dark, like a Siamese cat caught in a beam of light.
Another crash echoed through the hallway. "This way." Illyria trotted off, leaving Bill to limp along behind.
Bill cursed his slowness, cursed the long-ago bullet from an escaping burglar that had robbed him of full mobility. He gripped the round top of the cane tightly and tried to speed up. As adrenaline poured through him, he traveled faster, but still couldn't catch up to Illyria, who eventually moved so far ahead he couldn't sense her through the dark.
Gradually light appeared ahead, and sounds of a struggle reached him. When he reached the doorway at the end of the lengthy hallway, he saw a wide room, brightly lit and probably at one time painted white. Streaks of grime and what looked sickeningly like blood now marked the walls. The room contained many metal cages set into the floor in three orderly rows, with room to walk between them. A small battle raged throughout the room, and Bill could see that the loud crashes had come from tables and cages being knocked over and smashed into the walls.
To Bill's left, Spike had one arm locked around a man's neck and was using his feet and free hand to fend off two others--the first two that had attacked Bill and Melanie the previous night. In the back of the room, Illyria leisurely pummeled two other men. Their third attacker lay on the floor near Illyria's feet, not moving.
And to Bill's right, Angel was locked in combat with a... thing. It was obviously not human, having greenish skin and large horns curving back from just above its ears. Angel swung blow after blow at the creature, who parried the heavy axe with a long metal pipe. Although the others fought mostly silently, these two talked as they wielded their weapons.
The green creature snidely remarked, "I wondered how long it would take you to find me," as it swung the pipe toward Angel's head.
Angel ducked. "Find you? Was I supposed to be looking?"
"I'd hoped so." The thing stepped aside just in time to prevent Angel from chopping its foot off.
"Why? So I could do this?" Angel rushed in close and punched the creature hard in the face.
It barely flinched. "Oh no. Rather, so I could do this." With a sweep of its arm, it threw Angel across the room.
Angel hit the wall with a sickening thud, and Bill expected to see him slump to the floor. But he landed on his feet, and closed on his enemy once more. "Let me guess--you were a follower of the Archpuke."
"The name of Archduke Sebassis is defiled in your foul mouth." It struck Angel in the chest with the metal pipe. "You dared to obliterate his existence."
Angel staggered back a little, but stayed upright. "So I killed your boss. Why take it out on innocent people?" He aimed a blow at the green monstrosity, and severed one of its horns.
The creature ignored the loss. "I thought it would attract your attention, eventually. As you see, it did." It dodged Angel's next blow, and once again threw him against a wall.
"Why didn't you just send me a note?" Angel seemed a little winded as he regained his feet and once again approached his enemy. He shook his head as if to clear it, and made a sort of shrugging, flexing motion with his shoulders.
"You'd disappeared." It grabbed Angel's throat in one of its scaly green hands, claw-like fingernails digging into his pale flesh.
"Well, guess what..." Angel's face twisted and contorted. His nose wrinkled and the nostrils widened. His eyebrows swept sharply upward, forming inverted 'v'-shaped wrinkles above his blazing yellow eyes. As his lips pulled back, his teeth elongated and sharpened. "...I've reappeared." With a throaty growl, he ripped the green hand from his neck and flung the monster across the room and over the cages, toward Spike.
Bill felt useless, just standing there watching the chaos. His gun seemed pointless, since Spike and Illyria were too close to their opponents for him to aim safely, and Angel didn't seem to need help. As he tucked the pistol back into his waistband, a movement in one of the cages caught his attention. "Melanie!" he cried, and limped quickly across the floor, oblivious now to the violent struggles around him.
"Grandpa!" Melanie reached her fingers through the thin bars of the cage, as if trying to draw Bill nearer. "Help me!"
He slowly knelt in front of her, lowering himself one knee at a time. "Are you okay?" He could barely believe he'd found her, and still alive! Tears of relief stung his eyes, but he ignored them.
"I think so." Her left eye was swollen shut, and a great purple bruise spread from the eye down across her cheek. "They stopped hitting me when I stopped struggling." She looked past Bill at the green monster, which had dragged itself to its feet and once again closed with Angel. "Are you okay? I thought they'd killed you when I saw you fall."
Bill tried to smile, and placed one hand over the fingers she'd stuck through the bars. "Takes more than some hood with a sap to kill me." With his other hand, he fingered the heavy padlock that secured the cage.
"Are you gonna get me out of here?" Melanie's right eye was wide and frightened. Her gaze darted around erratically, now landing on Bill's face, now shifting to one of her captors, now focusing on the metal bars of her cage.
"Yes." Bill rubbed her fingers soothingly. "Don't worry, you'll be fine." He stared at the cramped cage that contained only Melanie and a small bucket. An empty water bottle hung on the side. "I can't believe they kept you locked up like an... animal."
Melanie's bottom lip trembled. "They said it's what humans deserve for locking up their pets. And Grandpa?"
"Do you think that big green one is just a guy in a costume?"
"I don't know." Bill tugged on the lock. "We need to get you out of here." He looked from the black cane to the cage door. Could he use the cane to jimmy the door open? "Where's the key?"
"The green one hid it." Melanie pointed toward where Angel had been slugging it out a moment or two before, just in time for them to see him decapitate his adversary. "Oh no!" she wailed. "Now we'll never find it!"
"Shhh, it's okay." Bill suddenly realized the room was quiet, with no sounds of slugging or thwacking. He looked around. Illyria stood triumphantly behind him, hands on her hips as she surveyed three bodies on the floor beside her.
"Good lord, did you kill them?" Bill exclaimed.
"Of course," she blandly replied. "They sought to kill your granddaughter, did they not?"
Spike swaggered over, hauling along a body by the back of its shirt collar. "Think this one's still alive." He dumped it next to Bill. "If you want to interrogate him or something."
It was the blond that had originally accosted them on the sidewalk. Spike spoke the truth--he was alive, but barely. His black shirt soaked with his own blood, the blond lay groaning where Spike dropped him.
Angel appeared quietly near them, his face looking human again. His gory battle axe hung motionless at his side.
"Go on," Spike encouraged Bill. "He can still talk, I think."
Bill kept his hand over Melanie's as he stared at their erstwhile attacker, trying to decide which he felt more strongly: revulsion or hatred. Or simply relief that it was over. Finally, he asked, "Why?"
The blond groaned.
"Why? Why did you do this to us? And to so many others?"
The blond groaned again. He didn't seem to have many teeth left.
"Is it what you told Melanie? You think humans deserve to be locked in cages, to be killed, just because they have a pet dog? A pet cat?"
The blond parted his bleeding lips, and a whisper escaped them.
Bill leaned closer, trying to hear.
"Yes. The animals should be free. People don't see it." He took a couple shallow breaths, something fluid in his lungs making a gurgley rattle. "Got to teach them a lesson." He tried breathing again, and grimaced.
Bill shook his head. "Next time you want to teach someone a lesson..."
Angel motioned toward the green creature he'd just beheaded. "He was using them, probably brainwashed--" Sirens sounded in the distance, and quickly moved closer.
"Bloody 'ell!" Spike exclaimed. "Who called the coppers?" He glared at Bill. "Did you?"
Spike turned on her. "Did you?"
"It is my conjecture that Gunn may have. His way of helping."
"Well that's just great!" Spike threw his hands in the air in mock surrender. "Cops get here, we're surrounded by dead people, they're gonna want to arrest us... won't it be a laugh when they haul Angel an' me out to the squad car and find nothin' in their handcuffs but dust!"
Bill scowled. "You only think about yourself, don't you. What about Melanie? She's still stuck in this cage, and Angel killed the only one who knew where the key is."
Spike snorted. "Big deal." He grabbed the padlock and gave it a yank. The metal parted with a quick crack. Spike tossed the lock aside.
"I wish to flee." Illyria tossed her head impatiently as the sirens grew persistently louder. "This wailing is worse than a chorus of howling demons."
"The Blue Meanie's right, time for us to split, take to the sewer." Spike stepped away from the blond, who had passed out.
Angel nodded. "You be all right?" he asked Bill.
Bill nodded. "I think so." He smiled. "I doubt the police will think Melanie and I killed all these."
"We'll take the headless one to the sewers with us." Angel walked toward the green monster. "Just so you won't have to answer even more questions."
"Thanks!" Bill called after him.
Angel turned around and nearly smiled. "It's my job." Unexpectedly, he grinned. "Thank you." He picked up the severed head, and walked out of the room following Illyria, who nonchalantly carried the giant green body. Spike trailed along in their wake.
Melanie stared after them. "Who was that?" she asked, pushing open the door of her cage and slowly crawling out.
Bill Nelson watched Spike's long black coat swish around the corner and out of sight. "Batman." He smiled.