Watchers Council – Hallway – Day
“But,” Lorinda said to a hurrying Vi, “I won!”
“That isn’t the point.”
“Winning isn’t the point?” Lorinda’s voice rose an octave on the last word.
“No.” Vi’s voice dropped one. Her jaw clenched.
“Then I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Yes, you did.”
Rowena saw the pair of them coming and stopped. She waited the three or four seconds it took them to come into range.
“…which was the whole point of the exercise!”
“You never told me that was the point!”
“And that’s why you failed!”
“But I didn’t fail!”
“Excuse me.” Rowena hardly raised her voice, but both Vi and Lorinda stopped. The two slayers had been almost ready to walk by, or through, the watcher. “What seems to be the problem?” She put on her best how-can-I-help smile.
Lorinda and Vi glowered at each other a moment before the latter answered. “I organized a training exercise for the younger slayers,” she said, “and Lorinda insisted on taking part.”
“You asked for volunteers!”
Vi waved that away. “The purpose of the exercise was teamwork. Slayers have to learn to operate as a team, especially against groups of demons.”
“Didn’t used to,” muttered Lorinda under her breath.
“Just a moment,” said Rowena, raising one finger. “Vi, continue.”
“Little Miss My-Way,” continued Vi, “deserted her team to sneak around and score against the target by herself.”
“How did the others do?”
“Fine. Everybody else passed with flying colors! They worked together, like they were supposed to, and scored. No thanks to Lorinda, who left them to fend for themselves!”
Rowena took a deep breath, thinking. “Hm. You know, I’m coming from a different place than you are,” she said. “Up until recently, there was only one slayer, and she had to operate on her own pretty much all the time.”
“See!” Lorinda crowed.
“But!” Rowena raised an eyebrow. “Things are different, now.”
“That’s what I was –” Vi interjected.
“At the same time,” Rowena interrupted, “if a slayer can’t fend for herself, she’s not much better off than if she can’t function as part of a group.” They both glowered at her, Vi simmering, Lorinda pouting. “I’ll have a long talk with Jeff when he gets back. I promise. Meanwhile, it sounds as if the other slayers didn’t need Lorinda, am I right?”
“No,” Vi admitted. “They didn’t.”
As Lorinda began to smile, Rowena looked at her. “Fortunately, you didn’t need them – this time.” She repeated for emphasis. “This time.”
Now Lorinda said nothing for two whole seconds. “When will Jeff be back?” she asked in a low voice.
“Soon as he and Faith are finished. The ‘rogue slayer’ we heard about turned out to be…” She paused. “…more complicated than we thought. Way more.”
“But,” asked Lorinda, “whoever she is, Jeff will still be my watcher, right?”
Now Rowena shared a look with Vi, whose eyebrows were rising in a new configuration in the wake of Lorinda’s question. Rowena herself let her eyes widen a little bit, meeting with Vi’s. Not quite a wink, but with much the same effect.
Willow came down the hall at not-quite-a-run, more of a fast walk. “Quick! Where’s Viago’s Lore of the Demon World? We’ve only got one copy, and you checked it out.”
“My office. Beside the desk.”
“Thanks!” She headed past the trio.
Willow stopped, spun around.
“Is something wrong? Something more than usual?”
Willow barely paused. “If I’m right, Jeff and Faith are in a lot more danger than they think. Gotta go.” She hurried off.
“Danger?” squeaked Lorinda. “What kind?” Willow didn’t stop. Lorinda started to follow. “Willow?”
The two turned a corner and were out of sight in seconds. Lorinda’s voice calling out “Willow?” was still audible, though. Rowena and Vi looked at each other.
“Guess I owe Dawn a nickel,” Vi muttered.
“Huh?” Rowena asked.
“Lovesick teenager with a major crush,” Vi replied.
“Ahh,” Rowena said with a grin.
New York – Staten Island Park – Later
Jeff stared at Hope. More precisely, he stared at the remains of her meal, or the lack thereof. She was wiping her mouth with napkins.
“When I was younger,” Jeff began, “my mom used to call me a human vacuum cleaner. This was after a famous incident where I finished two large pizzas all by myself.”
Hope grinned. “What happened?”
“Puberty. But even then, twelve hot dogs with everything would have been a bit much.” He gestured at the wrappers to Hope’s side on the bench.
She just laughed. “Gotta admit, my appetite went ballistic after I became a slayer.”
“You believe you’re a slayer?”
“Makes sense. Some force or whatever chooses girls to be demon fighters. They get superpowers. Here I am. Guess I’m more like Faith than she wants to admit.”
“That’s okay with you?”
“Yeah. I’m good. Five by five.”
“Oh, I was just thinking about all the siblings I know. My best friend has a sister, and they’re a lot alike. More alike than they want to be, truthfully.”
“There ya go.”
“But they hate admitting that. I mean, they really hate it.”
“Faith and me, we’re different.”
They both grinned at that, then each saw two figures approaching from the street. “Speak of the devil,” said Hope.
“I was going to say that.”
As the two figures neared, Faith remained silent, but her companion raised his hand and waved. Mr. Wiggins wore a different suit than last night, but it was cut from the same mold. Conservative and expensive. “Very glad to have found you,” he said once in earshot.
“Hey there,” was Hope’s reply.
“Mr. Wiggins,” Jeff nodded politely.
“Miss Lehane, Mr. Lindquist,” Wiggins gave a perfectly polite bow. “Were I a superstitious man, I would count it good luck to have all three of you here at the same time. Under the circumstances, that is an ironic statement, I suppose?”
“A little,” Jeff agreed.
“We’ve got ourselves a demon nest,” Faith said.
“Yes,” Wiggins nodded. “That is why I looked Miss Lehane – excuse me, Miss Faith Lehane – up at her hotel. My hope was to appeal to all three of you.”
“Details?” asked Hope.
“There’s an abandoned house a few blocks from my home. A very nice place that has, however, seen better days. Our local neighborhood association has been much concerned about unwholesome elements starting to use it. Homeless, runaways, drug addicts, the like. Well, as of today we’ve confirmed squatters, but nothing so mundane.”
“Some species of demon, I take it?”
“From the description of our witnesses, I don’t see how they could be anything else. Certainly not human. At least a dozen of the creatures.”
Hope laughed. “Looks like me and big sis are gonna get to work together.”
Faith did not look happy at these words, but Wiggins said, “That was my hope. And you too, Mr. Lindquist – that is, if you are the type to actually operate in the field? Or are your duties primarily administrative? My ignorance in such matters is, I’m afraid, all too pervasive.”
“I can handle myself, Mr. Wiggins, thank you.”
“Jeff’s quite the Harry Potter,” offered Faith.
Wiggins looked at her. “Excuse me?”
Faith blinked. “How could you not know who –”
“Never mind,” said Jeff. “What Faith means is, I’m skilled with magic. But I’ll need to go get some supplies back at the hotel.”
“Oh,” said Wiggins. “Well, if I’d known, I’d’ve brought them to you.”
“So where’s the nest?” said Hope, rising with a smile on her face. “I’m all revved up and ready to kick ass.”
Faith rolled her eyes.
“You two go ahead,” suggested Jeff. “I’ll get my gear and meet you.”
“Here is the address,” Wiggins said. He handed him a card.
“Thank you.” Jeff accepted the card. “Faith, you don’t mind helping Hope out, do you?”
“I don’t need –”
“Hey,” Faith said, cutting off her sister, “I’ve been killing demons years longer than you.”
“Faith does have more experience,” offered Jeff.
“Okay,” said Hope with a sigh.
Watchers Council – Computer Lab – Same Time
“Surely it can’t be that easy,” Grace said, sounding unconvinced as she typed Bureau Nine into the Google search box.
“Well, it is the information superhighway,” Rowena replied, tapping the business card on the table. “‘Sides, Will and the Scoobies used the net for research all the time back in the day.”
“Yeah, back when demonsdemonsdemons.com was actually a demon anthology website, and not a 404 page that redirects you to bigjugs.com. Pop-up cycles about how to increase your girth are never pleasant.” Grace turned up her nose and shook her head. “That’s why I heart Firefox.” And with that she hit the return key. “No girth ads.”
The browser refreshed as the string query compiled all the listings with the criteria. Both Rowena and Grace blinked, shocked, as the very first listing was in fact Bureau Nine’s website.
“Oh…it was that…easy,” Grace mumbled with a confused frown.
Rowena took control of the mouse and clicked the link. The window maximized to full-size, and the rather minimalist yet sleek and stylish Bureau Nine logo, cast in silver and a corporate block font, faded in from the black background. The logo zoomed to the top of the page and resized itself with a links tab flickering into view below it. A panel of white text faded into the center of the page with the sub-heading titled “About Us.”
“This all looks a little professional for them to be an evil organization,” Grace commented. “I mean they’re even being demure about how much Flash content they use. They’re being considerate to the 56k user. That’s pleasantly odd.”
“No one said they were evil, Grace,” Rowena flashed her a quick look.
“No, but you gotta admit there was a distinct odor du fish, and it seemed a bit cloak and dagger from what little Marissa told Willow.”
“She wouldn’t say much anyway. Marissa and Willow aren’t the best of friends,” Rowena muttered. She leaned in closer to the monitor. Her eyes moved from left, to right and back to left again with almost the same mechanical movement as a typewriter.
“They’re…a security firm,” Rowena said, surprised, sitting back in her chair.
“An evil security firm?” Grace said with a cock of her eyebrow.
Rowena lightly shook her head. “A legit security firm, from what I see,” she pouted as she read on. “Looks like they even have corporate advertisers. I don’t know how I feel about that. Perhaps it would have been easier to find out that Bureau Nine is evil, and then we could have shut them down. But on the other hand, I’m kinda relieved that they’re not.”
“Well, we don’t know that. It could all be a front.”
“Hence the research,” Rowena chipped in, with a glance to her assistant and a small smile.
“Hence the research,” Grace repeated, with a firm nod and a slight salute.
“They’re doing security. They’re licensed, from what it says, and they’re just doing what we do, but for a charge.” Rowena folded her arms.
“But if they’re rounding up slayers…?”
“They didn’t break any laws by approaching Marissa. Sure, she’s a slayer, but she’s a human too, and she can choose what she does for a living.”
“But how did they know to contact her?” Grace asked. Rowena gave her a knowing grin. “Hence the research,” she added before Rowena could answer.
Rowena grinned at first, but then looked serious again. “The fact is we don’t have laws that state that every single slayer in the world must fall under Council control. We don’t want people to work for us who don’t want to be here.”
Grace fidgeted in her seat. “Even if their calling dictates that they should be a slayer or a watcher?”
“It’s all about personal choice…You didn’t want to be a watcher, did you?”
Grace shifted awkwardly and just stared at the monitor. “Yes, no and yes. In that order,” she sighed. Rowena looked to her for an explanation. “My mother was a watcher high up in the ranks of the Old Guard London Council.”
“I know,” Rowena replied. Grace looked surprised, so Rowena went on. “I read your file. Did you think the only reason you got this job is because I’m sleeping with Xander’s best friend?”
Grace looked bashful for a moment and shrugged.
“I know her family before her were watchers, too,” Rowena went on, “but they gave their children a choice once they had finished their education as to whether to become watchers. But I take it the tradition continued to your generation, and you passed on the offer at first?”
Grace nodded. “My mother groomed me to be a watcher from as early as I can remember. I wanted to be her, at one point.”
“I grew up,” Grace said with a grin. “I wanted to be my own person, and I made a choice not to be a watcher. Then last May happened, my dad’s house was singled out by demons, and they came after me.”
“That’s when you changed your mind?” Rowena asked.
Grace nodded. “Yeah. Because of my calling, it put my Dad’s life in danger, and if it hadn’t’ve been for what my mother had taught me, I wouldn’t be sitting here today, and my dad wouldn’t be in Portland writing his novel. I knew I couldn’t deny my calling then. It wasn’t just about what I wanted, but what other people needed.”
Rowena smiled. “Well, not to sound like an Army recruitment poster, but it’ll be the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
Grace turned back to the monitor. “Hey! I thought you were teasing. They really do have corporate sponsors.” She grabbed the mouse and clicked on the link.
“Yep. So not only do they do what we do, but for a price, but they also have investments by some of the world’s leading security and IT firms. Something we don’t currently have, save for the automakers and food endorsements, and the subsidies we get from the advertisements in Watchers Monthly,” Rowena said. She was still scrolling down the page when she arched a brow. “Okay, assistant of mine.”
Grace looked concerned. “What?”
“How do you fancy spending the rest of the day with the yellow pages and a phone?” Before Grace could protest, Rowena said, “Great! We need corporate sponsors. Big corporate sponsors to put on our site.” She pointed to the monitor. “And we need to know they’re legit.”
“So, what? My true calling is to be a PR gal? A phone book lady?” Grace wore a look of perplexed disgust.
“Today? Yeah. But first check out these people’s licensing,” Rowena said, standing and taking her notepad. “I’d better report up to the ranks what we’ve got so far.”
Grace pointed at Rowena as she left the computer lab. “Fine, I’ll do this. But I draw the line at posing for the next magazine cover!”
Rowena grinned and walked backward to face Grace as she spoke. “Too late. They already snared yours truly for next month. Call if you find anything.”
“Watcher and a cover girl too, huh?”
“It’s a living,” Rowena said with a grin as she slipped outside.
Watchers Council – Library – Later
Willow had a book open, with a legal pad next to it. She had plenty of notes scribbled across that pad and was making more when her cell phone chimed. Instantly, she picked up.
“You called?” said Jeff’s voice.
“Hey! Why didn’t you pick up? I’ve been calling for over an hour!”
“I didn’t think getting interrupted would be a good idea. Do you have some news for me?”
“Yeah. Ever heard of an Auflexian demon?”
“Well, neither had I. But there was a confirmed sighting about a decade ago in the town of Luckville. A whole family died.”
“Let me guess. In a house with two gables and a fireplace?”
“Two gables, yes. A fireplace, maybe. I’m working from newspaper clippings, mostly, and notes compiled by the old Council, and they didn’t go much into interior décor. They didn’t even mention the two gables! I got that from a photo that was part of an old clipping. At least, I think it shows two gables. Technically, I’m not totally sure what precisely defines a gable, so maybe…”
“Right. Okay. Auflexian demons are incorporeal, needing hosts in order to do anything more than just…well, float. But they don’t just take over. When they possess someone, they start to turn that person into whatever their dream image of themselves might be. Even if they notice anything wrong, they don’t resist because it’s like a dream come true. Meanwhile, the demon slowly takes total control.”
“That sounds like an awfully elaborate method of possession.”
“Yeah, but it has to be. Up until the victim’s mind is absorbed, he or she can banish the demon by an effort of will. But that’s the point – the victim doesn’t want to.”
“From what you described…”
“The demon is turning her into Faith.”
“Pretty much. And Jeff…at full power, or anywhere near it, an Auflexian is much stronger than a slayer. And commands more magic than you do. A lot more.”
“How much more?”
“Maybe more than me,” Willow answered.
Silence. Then… “Damn.”
“Just try to hold things down as long as you can, and I’ll get there ASAP,” Willow told him.
“Willow, you can’t teleport here. I can try to set up a junction point like you did for Ro and Ken, with Al’s help, but if I goof it up then –”
“I know,” Willow said, stopping him short. “I’ll end up as part of someone’s chair or end table.” She paused in thought for a moment. “I’ll fly. It’s only about an hour away, two at the most. Just hold them as long as you can, ‘kay?”
“All right. Just get here.”
“On my way,” Willow said as she hung up.
New York – Staten Island House – Later
The house was two stories, yellow with white trim and a neatly manicured lawn. In front was a sign reading “FOR SALE,” but with another sign slipped over it, reading “SOLD.”
Faith and Hope looked at the nice house with nearly identical expressions: puzzlement.
“Squatters?” they said in unison. They each did a little take, then shrugged.
“Okay, well, this place doesn’t exactly look like a snake pit,” said Faith.
“Still, Wiggins said…”
“I know, I know.”
“You’re not ready to go in. Remember, I didn’t ask for you…”
“We both know that.” Faith sighed. “Let’s go in, then.”
“Five by five.”
Both of them headed for the front door. Neither seemed to notice that they were moving in perfect unison, with identical sway to each hip and swinging precisely the same arms in the same rhythm.
A thick, three-fingered hand, with claws at the end, lifted one curtain on the ground floor of the house towards which they were headed.
End of Act Three