by Mike Dewar
The large demon looked up at me, his glowing eyes narrowing with displeasure. His companions around the table regarded me with equal hostility, their varying shades of demonic hide mottling with annoyance.
"Whaddya what, Doyle?" he rumbled irritably, gesturing at the stack of chips before him with a fan of cards. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of a game?"
"Nice to see you too, Paullie," I said pointedly, leaning against their table as I glanced around the rest of the bar. The place was jam-packed with various non-human clientele, all there for their different definitions of 'fun'. An unspoken code of conduct, as in most supernatural bars, meant that most demons were safe from violence here, even do-gooders like me. Hopefully, that code would keep me alive tonight.
"You said you knew where he was when I called," I reminded Paullie in a lower tone of voice.
His fiery eyes rolled in their sockets. "Oh, right. That stupid deal. Sure you don't want just pull up a chair and join in instead? I'm on a roll!"
"Temptin', but I've got other plans." Paullie's 'rolls' never last. If I sat down, I could probably win enough to pay the rent for four months. But that wasn't why I was here.
I put my hand on his shoulder and looked directly into his craggy face. "This is important, Paullie."
Paullie's eyes narrowed slightly in response to my intense stare. If he didn't spill his guts in the next few seconds, I'd spill them for him, and the code be damned. And he knew it.
The demon shrugged. "Whatever. He's across the room. Corner table." I followed the line of his clawed hand and spotted the bleached head of my target.
"You're a prince, man," I said sincerely, patting his horny shoulder and bruising my fingertips. "Or at least a frog with prince potential."
Paullie raised a hand to his warty features defensively. "Funny."
"Yeah." I leant closer and murmured into his ear, "By the way, the Ano-movic who's smilin' all the time? He's got a flush."
"Aw, hell," he snarled, tossing his cards down as I slapped his shoulder one last time in gratitude and walked away.
I carefully pushed my way through the crowd, trying not to cause a stir. In the mood I was in, I wanted to cause a stir, to grab one of those demons and pound him until my hands were bloody, but I couldn't afford the luxury of aggression. Not here, not now.
I still looked human to the naked eye, but most demons have a pretty good sense of smell so none of them gave me any hassling. My quarry had his back to me as he nursed a small glass - beer, not blood, I noted - and rocked on his chair.
I took a single calming breath and before my common sense could intervene, sat down in front of him. "Spike."
The vampire looked surprised and amused at the same time. "Doyley! Wouldn't have expected to see you here." His leather duster was as rumpled as always, and he looked like he was wearing exactly the same outfit I'd seen him in last time we'd met. Minus the bullet holes.
I pulled a cigarette from my jacket pocket and lit it. "I'm a social guy."
Spike nodded, playing along. "So, what next? Crutches and your Slayer going to leap out of a secret door and nab me?" He inclined his head in the direction of the demon-populated tables. "Could get hairy."
I smiled easily, keeping up the fašade of friendly conversation. It wouldn't do for anybody else to get too interested in our conversation, particularly if Spike wasn't prepared to be reasonable. "It's not like that."
"Isn't it?" he asked mockingly. "Wait, I know! You just felt like a nice drink so you came out and decided to get boozed up at a bar, surrounded by demons and seated next to your ol' pal Spike. Am I getting warm?"
"You got a problem with that scenario?" I responded coolly, blowing a cloud of blue smoke across the table towards him.
Spike seemed undaunted by my calm demeanour. "Works for me. Any last words?"
"Somethin' will come to me," I said, deadpan.
The vampire chuckled. "Still got guts, haven't you, Irish Avenger?" Spike plucked a pack of smokes from his duster pocket and shoved one between his lips. "Got a light?"
I shoved my lighter across the table. Spike lit his cigarette and took a long drag, savouring the smoke. He sent my lighter flying back to me with a flick of his wrist. I fumbled the catch and nearly dropped it, scratching its side on the hard table. My hands shook slightly as I tucked it away.
Spike snickered. "Graceful. Those reflexes slipping, huh? Must be a pain for someone in your line of work."
I exhaled cigarette smoke slowly, stilling my hands. Suddenly, I was tired of this, tired of baiting Spike and exchanging barbs. I had older fish to fry. "I want some information," I said abruptly, stubbing out the cigarette.
Spike leaned back in his chair, appearing truly interested for the first time in our conversation. "I hear that right? Doyley, whatever you've been drinking, you've got to tell me where to get some."
I glared at him. "I'm sober. And serious. I need information."
Spike laughed. "Oh, please. What do you think I am, some weasely little snitch you can beat up until he squeals?" He actually sounded offended at the thought.
"Works for me," I riposted.
He tucked his hands behind his head, not intimidated in the slightest. Not that I'd been expecting him to be. "I think our fellow customers might take that the wrong way, mate. I'd hate to have to queue to kill you."
Spike had a point. I had come looking for him with only the vaguest idea of what I was going to do when I found him. Spike was still my best lead on Darla, bar Wesley's research. And Wesley and Faith had been taking far too long for my taste. 'Sides, I didn't need them. I'd been killing the undead for more years than either of them. I didn't allow myself to dwell on the fact that Darla had been killing humans for more years than I had been alive.
Still, I had to find some way to convince Spike to tell me where she was hiding, and I guessed appeals to his better nature were out.
And thanks to the demonic crowd around us, there was little chance of me using violence to convince him. Not to mention that Spike would simply respond in kind and probably smack me across the room. I would sooner break my own arm than bribe him, and so most of the usual fact-obtaining methods were out. Luckily, I had another option.
"Speakin' of things the customers might take the wrong way," I said casually, "do you remember Phil?"
"What, that shopkeeper I killed?" Spike asked, smiling. "Oh, I never forget a face. Or its last expression."
I found my hand fingering the stake tucked beneath my jacket as he spoke. Phil had been a friend, and here I was, chatting calmly to his murderer with the power to avenge him in my hand. But the stake stayed under my jacket. It had somebody else's name on it, so Spike would just have to wait in the queue.
"Yeah. I'd guess about half the demons here visited his shop on a weekly basis. He was liked, for a human. His services were well appreciated. Now, what do you think would happen if I walked over to Lucius over there an' told him that you're the reason he now has to trek to the other side of town to buy his sheep's brains. He might 'take that the wrong way', doncha think?"
Spike eyed the huge Gorshk demon by the bar who I was indicating. "You wouldn't risk it," he said slowly, but his voice lacked the brash relaxation of a few seconds before.
"Wouldn't I?" The fact was, I wouldn't, since I owed Lucius four hundred bucks for a dice game that had got a little bit out of hand. Snake eyes can be a very sobering sight, even after eight tequila slammers. But hopefully Lucius wouldn't notice me until my business with Spike was concluded. And then, well, I could run faster than either of them. I hoped.
Spike chewed his lip, his eyes flicking to the demon and then back to my poker-face. "I could kill you in the five seconds it would take him to get here."
I smiled sardonically. "Quit the crap, Spike. We both know you couldn't."
"All right then, I would take ten seconds," he allowed. That was probably the nearest I would ever get to a compliment from him.
"An' then Lucius would be very displeased. I've seen him displeased, Spike. People get damaged."
"I could take him," Spike said harshly, cracking his knuckles.
I glanced at him quizzically. " Really? An' me? An' Lucius's brother Danner over there in the corner? An' the bartender? An' the bouncers? Amazin' how quickly the odds change...Spikey."
"What do you want?" he bit out, glaring at me.
"See, that wasn't so hard, was it?" Spike's ensuing growl convinced me to keep the discussion moving. Even though I was pretty sure he wouldn't risk the exposure of a serious brawl, I wasn't a hundred percent sure, and taunting him wasn't so much fun that I'd risk my neck for it. "Got any family, Spike?" I asked. "Of the vampiric sort, I mean."
"Some," he said guardedly.
I leaned closer, resting my elbows on the table as my eyes bored into his. "Well, I'm lookin' for one of your relatives. Name of Darla. You know where I could find her?"
"Darla?" Spike asked, his brow furrowing in confusion. "What do you want with her?"
"My business, Spike," I told him grimly. "Your business is to see if you can tell me where she is before I yell for Lucius. I know you vamps stick together, an' I'm enough of a gamblin' man to bet that you know where to find her."
Spike stared at me intently for a few seconds, as if weighing his options, and then gave one of his quick, off-hand shrugs. "Why not? She's at the old West Empire Mental Care Asylum. You can find it on any road map. You do know how to read maps, don't you Doyley?"
I ignored his mocking tone. "Asylum?"
"Yeah. Nuthouse. Loony bin. Place for people who have a vacancy in the penthouse apartment. You get it?"
I felt like a coiled spring that had just been wound a little tighter. I knew where she was. And she wouldn't be expecting me. For the second time in days, I had a chance to avenge Harry's death. And this time, I wasn't going to dive out of a damn window.
"You know, it's almost a shame," Spike said philosophically. "I'd been looking forward to killing you, and now Darla's going to beat me to it. Oh well, at least we're keeping it in the family."
"Not goin' to happen, Spike," I told him as I stood up. Darla had murdered the old me along with Harry. But the new me wasn't going to follow in his predecessor's footsteps.
Spike looked at me dubiously. "Listen, Doyle," he said frankly. "You're a dead man. You can go after Darla and get yourself killed, or you can wait a few weeks until I get around to doing you in. Your call."
"Then I'm makin' that call." I turned my back on him and walked away.
"Before she kills you, tell her I send my regards," Spike called after me.
I kept walking and lit another cigarette.
An abandoned mental hospital. The cop in me, or maybe the demon, had to admire the twisted logic of it. Places like those close down regularly, at least compared to regular hospitals. Some other facility is built, with better treatment, and then all the crazies get pulled out by the relatives and dumped into the new one. It's like a game of musical chairs, except that the people sitting on the chairs could at any moment pick them up and beat each other to death with them, because 'God' or 'voices' told them to.
Oh, sure I know not all the patients are violent, but I heard bad things about West Empire's brand of client on the force. They specialised in the serious sickos, real Hannibal Lecter types. Kate and I had sent some people there who I really wouldn't like to meet in a dark alley, demon or no demon. The kind of guys who would hack up their own wives and kids because their pets said so.
Every now and again, I wonder what would happen if someone with medical training saw me have a vision. Would they try and send me to the nuthouse?
'Kinda losin' the plot, aren't we?' I asked myself as I entered the facility, walking along the smooth, cream-coloured passageways. Well, mostly cream-coloured. Several of the more artistic patients had apparently taken it upon themselves to carve pictures on the walls. A few seemed to have used somebody's blood as paint.
Apart from the artwork, the place was in pretty good shape.
Yup, few windows, no visitors... perfect vampire territory, I mused. And a few toys. Or more correctly, sets of electro-therapy equipment, just the kind of thing a vampire would get a kick out of. I passed by the menacing metal boxes with a shiver.
I picked up the murmur of voices from a side corridor and pulled on the demon. Vampire scent. And engraved on my mind, Darla's own distinct scent, like a thin, lifeless perfume.
Half-following the voices and half the scent, I quickened my pace, shaking away the demon.
"...damn...half-breed." I heard Jesse say. Nice to know they were thinking about me.
"We should kill him," Luke's louder voice said firmly.
"Hush, both of you." There was the voice I had been listening for. Darla's languid tones continued, "My baby won't be any trouble. I can handle him if he tries to disrupt the business again."
The corridor ended in a plain white door. I slipped to the side and listened.
"The Master will be displeased if our operation fails," Luke noted.
"He'll gut us," Jesse said more literally and probably more accurately, judging from what I'd heard about the Master.
Darla's voice was sharper. "I know that! But we won't fail. He'll have many more tourists to feed on and turn before we close, and that'll satisfy him, no matter what...inconveniences we incur along the way."
The topic of conversation changed, as they began to discuss how to load the most passengers onto the next bus. The calm, cheerful way in which they discussed packing people off to a vampire-run slaughterhouse was sickening.
It looked like they weren't going to get anymore detailed about the Master's plans, I rationalised, so best to strike now, before Darla could pick up my scent.
Luke said dourly, "I don't like this. The half-breed is inconvenient. We should just kill him."
"Luke..." Darla sighed. "I expect such idiocy from Jesse - "
"- but surely such a one as you can see the potential here? This half-breed wants to kill us, so let him try. When he makes his move, we'll take him and use the facility's equipment to... extract information from him. He'll be able to get us connected to LA's demons and vampires, and give us valuable allies for the Master's expansion or tell us what we need to know to eliminate those who might choose to stand in his way. And of course, we serve the Master in all things, don't we, Luke dear?"
Luke laughed. "Don't try to convince me, Darla. You're the one who almost left him when your soul boy - "
"Don't mention his name." Darla's voice went cold. "I've been serving the Master since long before you were born into this world as a puny, whining human."
"Funny, you seem to have taken a special interest in this particular puny, whining human."
"Half-human, and don't worry. I created him. I can destroy him."
"Looking to replace your lover?" Luke taunted.
I had heard enough. Feeling eerily calm, I kicked the door open. "Hello, mommy."
Their room looked as if it had once been used as a nurses' rest station. There was a coffee machine in the corner and the entrances to several padded cells at the far wall. Jesse was seated in front of a laptop at what looked like a nurse's work desk, with Luke beside him and Darla beyond her two companions. Their faces all reflected the same surprise.
"Well, what kinda welcome is that for a son come home?" I asked, my voice bitterly sarcastic. "No hug? No flowers?"
Darla slowly smiled, studying my movements. "Very brave. Stupid, but brave."
I couldn't reply. The calm of before had vanished the second I saw Darla's face, and now my throat was too dry and tight for words. Jesse growled, going vamp as he stood up, his chair clattering against the floor. "Screw this," he said venomously and strode towards me, his hands wide.
I pulled my pistol out from under my coat and fired. Jesse jerked as the shots hit him, the crack of the gun shattering the quiet of the hospital. I kept on pulling the trigger as blood rolled down his chest and he twitched and spasmed. As he slumped to his knees, I lowered the gun.
"You think you can kill me that easily?" he hissed slowly, rising to his feet again and stepping forward, his yellow eyes berserk with fury.
I let him get a step closer, and then I plucked the stake out from under my jacket with my free hand and shoved it into his chest. "Yes," I told the dissipating dust cloud.
My eyes returned to Darla. Luke's enraged rumbling distracted me, as the large vampire stormed through the cloud that had been Jesse. I brought up the gun a second time and yanked on the trigger, but the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Luke flashed me a fang-filled smile.
I dropped the gun and hit him right in the centre of the smile. Luke didn't even try to block what he thought was a flimsy human punch, which is why he was considerably startled when my suddenly spike-encrusted fist slammed into his teeth. The rest of the change rippled through my body as I snarled, feeling the demon growl with me.
Darla smirked from a safe distance. "Baby's all grown up," she murmured.
Luke was considerably less amused. He took a single step back and shot a right cross for my nose. I smacked the punch aside and hammered my own fist into his jaw. Luke grunted as I brought my other arm whirling across and under the angle of the first punch, slamming his gut. I caught his clumsy responding blow on the palms of my hands and stepped in close, pummelling his meaty torso. Luke shook off the punches and raised a huge hand. With my fists too low for an adequate defence, Luke easily drove the blow home.
I felt my teeth crunch together as I lurched backwards. Luke stepped up to me and his hands went around my head.
The wrench tore through my neck with searing pain and I dropped like a rag doll, my head flopping to one side.
I heard Luke laugh as he stepped back from me to survey his handiwork. Darla's softer laughter rose beyond his.
Damn it, I swore, Even if they do kill me, they won't be laughin' at the end. I owed Harry that much.
A choked snarl escaped my throat as I wrenched my head back into position and rose with the full force of my outrage, my arm curving around in an uppercut that threw Luke back into Jesse's desk, flattening the laptop.
The vampires had thought they were fighting the same man they had beaten so easily before.
But things had changed. I had changed, and now I could fight them on their own level. It was time they learnt that.
Luke pulled himself from the wreckage of the table, shaking away splinters. "I'll break you in half for that!"
"Show me!" I growled furiously.
The vampire's charge hit me full force, lifting me up and slamming me hard against the wall. My back crunched against the plaster as my fists slammed his face and shoulders again and again, but Luke refused to quit. He grabbed me by the shirt and slammed me up against the wall a second time. This time, with the full force of his arms behind it, it felt like my spine had shattered.
Gasping for breath, I tried to push him away, but he just knocked my weakened strikes aside and threw me against the wall again. A burst of agony shot through my neck muscles, and I could feel that my neck was about to snap again as Luke scooped me up for a fourth throw. As he hefted me, I grabbed his shoulders and pushed down with every inch of force I could muster. I rose above him, suspended by my aching arms, and drove my knee hard into his nose. He groaned in pain and grabbed for my feet.
With a grunt of effort, I lifted them up and kicked out against the wall, propelling myself right over him.
As I flipped over him, my hands shifted position and gave a sharp twist, accompanied by the sound of snapping bone.
I hit the ground awkwardly, dizzy and confused, and nearly leapt out of my green-coloured skin when I turned and found myself eye to eye with Luke.
But the yellow eyes that met my own were glazed and in pain, and they were staring directly over his shoulder, like one of those owls that can rotate its head around 360 degrees. From the way his neck was bent, there was obviously something seriously wrong inside.
"See how you like it," I snapped as he collapsed, moaning like a child in his crippling pain.
I turned slowly to face Darla once more. Her amused smile was gone. I was too tired, too angry and in too much pain to be witty. "You're dust, lady."
As I strode towards her, she grabbed a hospital trolley and shoved it at me, the wheels screaming. I flung myself out of the way, hearing with grim satisfaction how Luke groaned as the wheels of the trolley jolted over his prone form.
Darla was on me in a flash, her punches thudding into my face I tried to defend myself. And despite her apparent slenderness, her punches hurt a lot more than Luke's. Reeling, I staggered back against what felt like a counter of some kind. Shooting a quick glance over my shoulder in between Darla's strikes, I saw that I had fallen against some kind of prescription counter, probably where the nurses had given out medication.
My hands found the rim of the counter and I pulled myself up and over, my feet catapulting into Darla's delicate face. By the time the blonde vampire was ready to fight again, the counter was between the two of us.
"I'm beginning to think you need some disciplining, my boy," she said dangerously.
I smiled bitterly. "Harry used to tell me that all the time."
As Darla leapt for the counter, I scooped up a box of old medicine bottles and hurled it straight into her face. She snarled in rage and pain, smashing the box aside with an arm, her suddenly-hideous face pale with fury. I threw myself across the counter and into her.
We hit the ground hard and kept on rolling, but it was evident the second we landed that I had made a mistake. Darla was smaller and more agile than I was, and I didn't have a hope in hell of pinning her. A flip of her long legs slammed me flat on my back, and then she straddled me and smashed both fists into my jaw.
My head lolled about as I tried desperately to retain consciousness. I felt Darla's cold hands go tight around my neck and her breath touched my cheeks. "Immune to neck-breaking, are you?" she asked. "Let's see what happens if your head gets ripped clean off, shall we? Call it research." I tried to keep my eyes open, but my entire body seemed very numb and far away.
She yanked hard at my head, and the pain of my neck injury rose again, pulling me from my semi-conscious daze. I shoved a hand up at her face, and she sunk her fangs into my palm, then spat my own blood back at me. "Disgusting, filthy little half-breed!"
I shifted my hand to her throat and squeezed. "Now, I admit my bathing habits aren't world-class, but there's no need to be unpleasant." Tugging hard to one side, I threw her off and rose to my feet.
Darla was already standing by the time I was capable of looking for her. There was a row of marks along her neck from my fingers, but she seemed unconcerned. I, on the other hand, felt as if I was slowly strangling in a noose of fire.
The sudden flare of triumph in her eyes, combined with a feral growl from behind, warned me that Luke had recovered at last. Both vampires moved at the same time.
But I still had one trick left to play. Both my arms struck out in open-palmed punches, one before me and one behind. The admittedly pathetic blows fell far short, but a twist of my wrists lengthened my reach by a good few inches as the spring-loaded stakes in my sleeves lunged out.
Darla's eyes went wide with horror as she tried to halt her charge. Desperately, she whipped a hand up, the stake sinking deep into her palm and halting in front of her chest. I felt Luke's bulk slam into my other arm and then suddenly the weight vanished, as dust covered my shoulders.
I ripped the stake out of Darla's hand and my back arm came across and around, pounding her face. I spun with the blow and thrust a kick hard into her belly, launching her into one of the padded cells.
Before she could rise to her feet, I slammed the door shut and heard the lock click into place.
Peering through the grille at her, I allowed myself a grim smile. "Oh, yeah," I told her. "Almost forgot."
"Spike sends his regards."