My mind went out of autopilot as I heard the scream. Adrenalin rushed through me in response, but I forced myself to remain calm. The dumpster’s surface felt cold against my face as I cautiously peered around it, carefully checking that my shadow didn’t fall before me and give away my hiding place. The streetlights were dim, but there was no sense in telegraphing my position. Not yet.
There she was, a hundred meters ahead and closing, bleeding from the one shoulder, her face twisted into a grimace of fear and pain. Behind her two black silhouettes pursued, one loping smoothly after her while the other lagged behind, obviously tired. But the first silhouette was definitely gaining on the woman, judging from the panicked looks she tossed over her shoulder every few seconds.
I studied her face in between her turns. Yup, she was the one from the vision, and she was nearly upon me. Time to do my job.
I stepped out from behind the dumpster and she gave a little half-shriek, stopping abruptly.
Her panicked eyes met my own. "Please…please…help me…these people…they’re…"
I raised my hands comfortingly. "I know, darlin’. I know."
"Oh, thank God." She glanced nervously over her shoulder. The figures were closing. "Who are you? Shouldn’t we run?" The questions tumbled after each other.
"No," I said firmly. "It’ll be all right. I’m a friend."
Relief leapt across her face, and her mouth parted to say something.
The stake I shoved into her chest interrupted her.
Her expression jolted from relief to shock and was twisting towards rage as she melted into dust. "Just not your friend," I remarked casually.
Faith skidded to a halt in front of me, Wesley gasping for breath as he leaned against a wall just behind her. "Job well done," she said, not even winded as she folded her arms and tucked her stake away.
"Piece of cake."
Wesley pushed himself away from the wall, swayed once or twice, and lurched over to us. "Yes, indeed," he said breathless but cheerful. "A centuries-old vampire preying off the kindness of people offering charity, now reduced to a pile of powder. Bravo."
"Yeah," I noted dryly. "Immoral and predictable."
"It does make you think, though, doesn’t it?" Wesley asked, gazing speculatively at the aforementioned-pile. "Hundreds of years of unlife, reduced to…this." He gestured at the dust.
"No, Wes, it doesn’t," I said bluntly. "In fact, even if she was around since the Crucifixion, I don’t give a rat’s -" A siren cut me off. In the distance, I could see familiar blue-red lights approaching our position.
"Oh, er, yes," Wesley said awkwardly, following my gaze. "In our pursuit, we did, um, chase her through a clothing store." The sirens grew louder. "Several clothing stores and one supermarket, actually."
"I thought we were goin’ to wait until after she left the mall before we moved in. That was the plan," I said pointedly.
Faith shrugged and tried futilely to look innocent. "I revised the plan. Went off Lone Ranger style. Not unlike some other people have been doing recently."
I ignored the none-too-subtle jab and pushed both her and Wesley into the alley, but Wesley’s mumbled explanation had delayed us, and one of the cruisers was practically in front of the alley before we could find cover. I strained to identity the person behind the flashing blue-red glare. I couldn’t pick out if it was Kate or not, but the lights flicked off abruptly and the car moved on while I was still blinking away the spots across my vision.
"Whoa," Faith breathed by my shoulder. "That was a little hairy. Thought we were jailbirds for sure."
"Old friend?" Wesley inquired.
"Couldn’t say," I returned. "But whoever it was, they’ve just given us a grand opportunity to go home an’ not get arrested for stormin’ through shopping malls, so let’s take it."
"I couldn’t agree more," Wes said firmly. "And while we’re on the topic, Faith, a Slayer is supposed to fight evil in secret. Not in the Wal-Mart."
Faith shrugged again and grinned unrepentantly. "I took the initiative."
As we walked towards the car, my mind was only half on Wes’s stern rebukes and Faith’s casual ignoring of them. The other half was voicing an unspoken answer to Wes’s question. With one exception, I had no friends in the LAPD. Just those who, if a demon got lucky one day, would pause before they started drawing a chalk outline around my broken form.
And those who wouldn’t.
I knew I didn’t have a chance. My only hope was to try and slow my opponent down, to get in one crippling strike to slow the devilish attacks that were sure to defeat me otherwise. And I didn’t think much of my chances for getting any strikes against this enemy, much less crippling ones.
Faith and I locked gazes, our fists raised. Her eyes narrowed with lethal intention.
I judged I had about half a second before she moved. Half a second to plan my attack.
I judged wrong.
Her left hook thudded into my ribs, and then her right smashed my jaw. I managed to catch her lightning-fast kick on crossed forearms and launched a counterattack. She swatted my strike away and drove another blow into my ribs. I twisted away, sweeping my foot around in a defensive arc. Faith ducked under my leg and threw her full weight into my belly.
I staggered under her charge, crashing up against a wall, barely maintaining my balance. Faith’s forearm slammed across my throat like an iron bar as she pinned me up against the wall.
"Nice try, lover," she sneered. "But you’re out of your league."
"Faith…" I gurgled weakly
Wesley watched complacently from the shadows as his Slayer increased the pressure. I managed to hook my fingers under her rigid arm and pushed her away, freeing my neck as she tumbled back, rolling to her feet easily.
Wesley regarded this change in the battle without the faintest sign of concern one way or the other. He sipped his tea and smiled.
Faith shifted her stance slightly, drawing my attention back to her. She looked content to wait until I made a move, confident she could flatten me when I did so. She was probably right. Hell, she was definitely right. There was only one way to equalize this battle.
I pulled the demon free and struck quickly, using speed and strength she wasn’t expecting.
Not enough speed and strength, as it turned out.
She grabbed my fist, arresting the blow with a grunt of effort. Her other hand slammed open-palmed into my chest as her foot hooked my heel.
Propelled by Slayer strength and skill, as well as my own body weight, I tumbled backwards into the wall. Faith took a step towards me as I lay sprawled, helpless, on the floor before her.
"All right, Faith, that’s enough," Wesley said finally, placing his cup of tea down on a saucer and stepping between us. "An excellent fight all round, I feel."
Faith smirked at me. "The opposition was kinda lacking, ya know?"
I decided to wait until after my inner ear stopped its own private Tsunami before responding.
Wes glanced down at his notepad. "One small detail, Faith. I couldn’t help but notice that your left hook was lagging a bit. You’re not using your wrist enough." He waved his hand in a vaguely aggressive way, as I struggled slowly to my feet. "Like so."
Faith chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Let me see if I’ve got it right." She lashed out and caught me on the jaw as I straightened. My teeth throbbing, I went down again, the floor swaying in interesting ways.
"Excellent," he said with, for Wes, unusual warmth. "Well done." Wes and Faith had actually been getting on pretty good over the past few days, which was a nice change. Unfortunately, the major common ground they had found with each other was disapproval of my little vendetta-based Darla hunt. They were mostly subtle about it, at least Wesley was, but there was always that pointed reminder.
You thought you could handle her without us. You were wrong and she’ll kill again because of it.
Their criticism combined with my own frustration had caused a peak in my liquor consumption unmatched by anything since the weeks after Harry’s death.
"How was I, Wes?" I asked sarcastically from the floor. "My groans of pain convincin’ enough for you?"
"Yes, yes," he said breezily. "Good show. I think we should probably move on to weapons now, Faith."
Faith smiled eagerly, rubbing her hands together in a way that promised pain for me as soon as I stood up again. I shuddered the demon away.
"Uh-huh," I announced firmly. "The punchin’ bag vetoes that decision, Watcher-man. I need a rest break before my next session of catharsis."
Faith glanced at me challengingly. "What’s wrong, lover? Haven’t you got the stamina?"
"More to the point, I don’t have unbreakable bones and iron skin," I told her. "I gotta take a breather if you expect me to continue bein’ your violence test dummy. Unless Wes can do it?"
The Watcher looked considerably alarmed at that. "A five minute break, perhaps?"
"Thank you," I said with feeling, limping towards the elevator.
"Remember, just five minutes…" Wesley’s braying voice called after me. I grunted once and punched the button for the office before he could change his mind.
The office was nearly bare of paper. We had pretty much zero active cases, vision-related or otherwise, and it showed. Particularly in our letters from the bank manager, which were getting longer and more irate by the day. Rubbing a hand across my sweat-sticky forehead, I walked over to the water cooler and hunted for a cup.
The cooler was Wes’s brainchild, installed when the builders were in fixing the damage from Spike’s little visit. He said he wanted at least one cold non-alcoholic beverage freely available in the office, and water seemed like the cheapest option. Both Faith and I stubbornly stuck to drinking beer, but I’d seen her sneak a cup or two down when she thought Wes wasn’t looking. I had admit, there was something refreshing about crisp, icy water every now and again, as opposed to the lukewarm soup that I got out of the taps.
Not that it was any kind of health thing, mind you.
I abandoned the search for a cup and stuck my head under the nozzle, letting cold water drizzle into my mouth as I savoured the growing numbness of my tongue. I flicked the handle to the closed position, hearing something wooden clatter near my feet as I did so. It was a long wooden staff, worn in many places and sharpened at one end.
Faith stood in the doorway, another staff cradled easily in arms that weren’t even as thick as the weapon they were holding. "Time’s up, boss. On with the work-out," she said with a smirk.
I kept my hands free and loose by my sides, sizing her up. She looked relaxed, but the slight tenseness in her muscles told me that if I made a move for the weapon, I’d get a skull fracture for my trouble.
"Can I just finish my drink?" I asked plaintively.
Faith shrugged wordlessly, and I bent over the tap again. "Nice butt," she murmured teasingly and I felt my ears heat up. I cupped my hand beneath the tap and flicked the handle on and off quickly, filling it with water. I raised it towards my mouth and then shoved it out to the side, spraying it at Faith and snatching for the staff with my other hand.
The surprise chill of the water didn’t delay her more than a second, and her staff was whipping across towards my back as my fingers closed around my own weapon. I tucked myself in and rolled over my staff, hearing hers whistle over my hunched body. I continued the easy forwards roll like a kid in gym class, coming to my feet low and directly in front of her, the blunt end of my staff thrusting hard into her belly.
Faith grunted in surprise, winded, and I brought the weapon up and around into her side. She spun away from the strike and I moved to pursue, the staff slipping in my sweaty hands.
I was never that happy sparring with Faith, and not just because of the regular ass-kickings I received. I’d been raised not to fight with girls, particularly not girls who I was sleeping with, and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt every time one of my attacks struck home.
Faith on the other hand, evidently had no such reservations, as she readied an overhand stroke that would have me seeing stars for weeks. I freed my left hand from the staff and sent it flashing up, grabbing the staff before she could strike. Faith’s brown eyes stared mischievously into my own as we struggled, momentarily face to face. The corners of her lips turned up slightly as she deftly shifted the angle of her grip, running the wooden shaft into my stomach. I gasped for air, losing my grip on her weapon.
A second later, I lost my own weapon as well, her powerful follow-up blow smashing it aside. Just for good measure, she slipped the staff behind my heel and yanked my feet out from under me.
I lay flat on my back as she smiled triumphantly and pointed the sharpened tip of the staff at my throat. "Gotcha, slowpoke."
I held my hands up, fingers spread, preparing to take my defeat with dignity and quietly praying that Wes had run out of fun training exercises, but the sound of metal on metal distracted me.
It took me a second to identify it, since it was such an unfamiliar sound in my new life. But when I recognised it, a rush of cold came with the recognition.
The sound of a gun being cocked.
"Hold it right there," a strident female voice warned, and the cold of fear melted into the heat of embarrassment.
I twisted around, hands still raised. "Kate? Hold your fire, if you don’t mind?"
Kate Lockley stood in the doorway to my office, legs apart, her pistol held firmly in both hands, and a singularly humourless expression on her face. She slowly lowered the weapon, her blonde eyebrows coming together.
"Kate," Faith said slowly, toying with her staff. "So this is Constable Katey, your good ol’ buddy from the pigs."
"Detective," Kate said coolly. Amazing. In less than two seconds, the two most hard-headed women I knew were already deep in mutual loathing.
"Kate," I said, dumbly parroting Faith. "Ah…good to see you."
Faith helped me to my feet, taking the opportunity to slip her hand possessively inside my shirt. I winced, and not just from Faith’s none-too-gentle caresses on my bruised flesh. Kate’s deliberate stare radiated disapproval as I carefully fended away Faith’s questing fingers
"You must be Faith," she said.
Faith seemed surprised. "You heard of me?"
Kate shrugged. "Your name got mentioned in passing."
"Oh." Faith’s eyes were a fraction less antagonistic, and I began to hold out hope for a peaceful resolution.
Kate turned to me. "You actually let this kid fight vampires?" she asked bluntly.
Faith’s stroking fingers suddenly jabbed sharp nails into my flesh and I yelped slightly. "Not exactly let…as such," I said, squirming with combined pain and guilt.
"Damn straight, he does," Faith said aggressively. "Some kind of problem with that?"
I could see trouble on the horizon and frantically planned to head it off. If nothing else, after a few more minutes my chest would be in ribbons. "So, Kate, social call?"
"No," she said irritably. "There’s this little matter of the file I lent you on the Halo case, and how I need to write this little thing called a report, which is very overdue."
"Sorry," I apologised guiltily. "Completely slipped my mind. It’s probably around here somewhere." I waved my hand at the office as a whole. "Tell you what, we can go and chat in my office. Reminisce. Faith, you go see how Wes is doin’. Practise eye-gougin’ or something."
"Whatever. You legal eagles have fun," she said sullenly. The nails jabbed one last time, and then she slunk away down the stairs. Kate and I watched her go in silence.
"Nice girl," Kate said dryly.
"She has her moments," I said diplomatically. "So, can I get you anythin’? Coffee machine’s broken and we’re nearly out of the hard stuff, but we’ve got water."
"You sure about that?" she asked. I followed her gaze and groaned inwardly. The cooler had a large staff-shaped dent in it and the tap was a mangled mess. I made a mental note to clear away the office furniture before Faith’s next training session. I gingerly rubbed my chest. And to get her to trim her nails if possible.
"Well, I’ve got an office," I said wryly. "Pretty sure that still works."
Kate smiled slightly.
Under the brighter light of my desk lamp, I got my first good look at Kate. Her face was drawn and there were black rings under her eyes. Her clothes were rumpled and stained too, and had obviously been slept in.
"You look like hell," I told her.
Kate chuckled tiredly. "You really know how to make a girl feel special, don’t you, Doyle?"
I grinned in response. "My mother always told me the best way to court a lady was with honesty. Though gettin’ her to have sip or two of whiskey helps."
"That work for all age-groups?" Kate asked pointedly.
I raised my hands in surrender. "It’s a long story. But it’s actually quite reasonable when you hear the full thing."
"Somehow I doubt that," Kate said with amusement. "Two words: Statutory. Rape."
"Two more words: Long. Story."
She nodded in surrender. "Don’t suppose I can blame you. She seems like a nice girl."
I snorted. "You’re tryin’ to be tactful, darlin’. It isn’t workin’."
Kate smiled with real warmth for the first time. " It never was my field. ‘Sides, not my business anyway. So, how about those files?"
"Uh…yeah. Files. That could take some doin’. I never did get the hang of the department filin’ system."
Kate rolled her eyes. "It was alphabetical."
"Uh-huh. The alphabet of which language, exactly? ‘Cause I’m damn sure it wasn’t English."
"So you’ve lost it," Kate said frankly, folding her arms.
"Yes. But not forever. I’ll get it back to you, as soon as I can root around a bit," I said quickly, praying that I could. With my luck, Wesley had scrawled Latin incantations all over it or Faith had used it as a primitive firelighter.
Kate sighed. "That was about what I expected." She yawned and blinked her eyes irritably, as if trying to wake herself up.
"Tough case?" I asked sympathetically.
She smiled wryly. "Oh, yeah. All-nighter fun."
"D.B.E. or regular?" I asked, slipping back into cop-talk with surprising ease. Somehow, whenever Kate and I talk shop, it’s just like we still share a patrol car. I sometimes get surprised when her radio crackles and I realise I’m not carrying one.
"Looks like a lone vamp," she answered. "Stalking the streets, feeding off homeless, that kind of deal."
"Need any help?"
Kate straightened in her chair. "You serious? I mean, what about the business? You got time for this stuff?"
"Kate, the business is this stuff, remember? An’ I’m sure I can turn away a few of the queues of Hollywood stars desperately seekin’ my services to help an old friend," I told her as dryly as I could manage.
"The PI business not entirely what it’s cracked up to be?" she asked curiously, but with a hint of sympathy there too.
I shrugged. "Well, it’s good that I’m my own boss, you know, master of all I survey…though if I actually try to give my employees any direct orders, it could get hazardous for my health…it’s all right."
She smiled wearily. "That’s good."
"So, details, details, details," I ordered. "Spill your guts."
She ran her hands through her hair, obviously trying to concentrate. From the look of things, she really was on her last legs. I was surprised she hadn’t called me for help earlier. "Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all we’ve got. I can show the scene photo and bagged evidence and the rest of it when you drop off the file, but we’re drawing a blank. Can’t even find the bastard to stake him."
On second thoughts, I wasn’t surprised. Kate isn’t the kind of person to ask for help, even when she should. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure if we could shed any light on the case if the LAPD couldn’t, but maybe we’d strike lucky. Maybe I’d get a vision. Maybe the Powers would hang a neon sign outside the killer’s house, saying, "Murdering Vampire Here." Whatever.
"I’ll talk to the guys, see if we can dig anythin’ up," I told her.
She nodded, rising to her feet. "I’ll keep you posted."
I walked Kate to the door, half-expecting her to fall asleep before she got there. A brief goodbye later, I shook her hand and she walked out. I turned back into the office, nudging the door shut with my foot.
Faith was standing by the elevator, leaning against the dented water cooler. "So that was the famous Kate."
I nodded. "That was Kate."