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Visions suck, Doyle thought.
It's not so much the blinding headaches, the Irishman mused as Cordelia pressed a bag of ice to his forehead. Or even the sense of impending doom that always goes with 'em. But flailin' about like I've got a chicken stuffed down my pants, in front of Cordy -- man, that's just not fair.
"So, what is it this time?" Cordelia sighed. "Vampires? Werewolves? People who still like disco?"
"Worse," Doyle said, wincing. "Y'know, for a vampire's office this place has entirely too many reflective surfaces." There were glass panels between the inner office and the outer, and it felt like every one of them was sending sharp little glints of light directly into Doyle's skull. At least the window in Angel's office was bricked over.
He closed his eyes and said, "I don't want t'seem overly melodramatic, but I think I just saw the whole city get destroyed."
"Tell us," Angel said.
Doyle opened his eyes and looked over at his boss. Angel sat behind his desk, polishing the head of a Celtic war ax. He looked like he should be wearing blue body paint and a kilt instead of a black silk shirt and pants, lit by a hillside campfire instead of an office lamp.
"What I could really use," Doyle said, taking the ice bag from Cordelia, "is some whiskey and a glass to go with this ice."
"Make with the four-one-one already," Cordelia said. "I mean, is this like Bruce Willis summer blockbuster bad, or Hulk Hogan direct-to-video bad? You know, in terms of special effects."
Doyle's eyes flickered back to Cordelia. She wore a simple summer dress of pale green, probably a knock-off of a more expensive designer label she'd picked up in athrift store on Melrose. On her, of course, it looked like an original. What Cordy lacked in funds she made up for in attitude.
"Right," Doyle said. "Well, I'd have t'go with door number one. I'm talkin' total city-wide destruction here."
"How?" Angel asked.
"Every L.A. resident's worst nightmare," Doyle answered. "Besides the Olsen twins, o'course. An earthquake. The Big One..."
If there was one thing Angel could change about his job, it would be his relationship with The Powers That Be.
The Powers That Be. You could just hear the capital letters when you said it. Angel wondered if their close friends called them The, or maybe TP.
It wasn't that he resented being their instrument. In the great buffet of existence, Angel's plate held a big heaping serving of guilt, liberally sprinkled with regret and remorse. That was seconds; his first helping had consisted mainly of torture, murder, and the occasional maiming. He had a lot to make up for, and he was happy to do it by acting as an agent for a higher power. Doyle got the visions, and Angel did his best to do something about them.
But did they have to be so damn vague all the time?
"'Angel, here's the address and a recent photo of a demon serial killer. Go get him,'" Angel muttered to himself. "That'd be nice. Or maybe, 'Here's a schedule of ritual sacrifices you have to stop, cross-indexed and alphabetized.' That would be helpful. What do I get instead? A description of a Universal Studios theme ride and the name of an apartment building."
He was standing in the shadows of a hibiscus bush across the street from the aforementioned building. APPLETREE ESTATES read the sign over the front door. It looked like a fairly new structure, a low-rise spread out over the better part of a block, with an eight-foot stone wall around the perimeter of the grounds. Underground parking, security gates, probably an outdoor pool. Nothing unusual for this part of L.A., a residential neighborhood called Silverlake.
He'd been watching the front door since nightfall, watching people come and go. He was pretty sure he hadn't been spotted so far -- "Professional Lurker" was second from the top of Angel's resume, right between "Vampire With a Soul" and "Private Detective Without a License."
And then he saw the demon.
The demon looked normal, for this part of L.A.: thirty-something, handsome, the best hair and teeth money could buy. Custom-tailored suit in a tasteful shade of teal -- going out to a dinner meeting with a few studio execs, maybe. The demon paused in the darkening twilight, taking a few deep breaths of air and obviously savoring them. He smiled.
And a slender, forked tongue darted out between his lips.
Anyone else might have missed it, but Angel knew what he'd seen. "Gotcha," he whispered. "Couldn't resist getting a little taste of that delicious L.A. smog, could you?..."
A silver Porsche 928 rolled up a moment later and the demon got in. The car drove off.
Angel considered the situation. That tongue had given him an idea; he pulled out his cell phone and made a call.
Twenty-seven minutes later another car pulled up, this one an old white Dodge. Angel walked up to the driver's side.
"Large pepperoni mushrooms?" Angel said, pulling out his wallet.
"You mus' be hungry," the young Latino behind the wheel said. "Mos' people wait 'til I get to the door."
"And I'll give you another twenty for the hat," Angel said.
The driver hesitated, then shrugged and handed over his baseball cap with the pizza chain's logo on it. "Okay by me."
"Uh -- there's no garlic on this, right?"
He breezed through the door, going in at the same moment someone else was going out, and didn't get a second glance. The only thing people noticed -- or remembered -- about someone delivering pizza was the smell.
Apartment buildings were public spaces; as a vampire, Angel had no trouble entering them. For individual dwellings he needed an actual invitation to cross the threshold, but he didn't think that would be a problem. He was only here to do some looking around, get a sense of the place.
So that's what he did. The lobby was undistinguished: a fake fireplace with a plaster mantelpiece, covered with junk mail people hadn't bothered to pick up. A bank of chromed mailboxes, a few potted plants. He roamed up and down the halls, only running into people once or twice and never making eye contact.
He found nothing.
No mysterious sounds from behind locked doors. No pentagrams woven into the carpet. No stench of evil from the laundry room. Just a box full of congealing cheese in one hand and a cap that made him look ridiculous.
"Earthquake," he murmured. "Underground?"
He went down to the parking garage and looked around; nothing but oil stains and vehicles. Maybe he wasn't looking deep enough...
He slid the pizza box under a BMW and stuffed the cap into the pocket of his black trenchcoat, then approached the elevator doors on the parking level. There didn't seem to be anybody around.
Angel forced his fingers into the crack of the doors, then used his considerable strength to pry them open. He stuck his head into the elevator shaft and looked down.
This was supposed to be the bottom floor, but the shaft kept going. He couldn't tell how far.
"Well, well," Angel said softly. "And what are we keeping in the basement?"
There were iron rungs set into the side of the shaft for maintenance access. Angel grabbed hold of the nearest one and started climbing down.
He moved quickly, not wanting to get caught by a descending elevator, and reached the bottom, five stories down, within moments. Hoping there was no one on the other side, he pried the doors open on the lowest level.
The hallway he stepped into was similar to the ones on the upper floors, but Angel could tell at a glance that more money had gone into the furnishings. The lighting sconces were cut crystal, the carpet a deep emerald shag with an intricate Celtic knotwork design, the walls done in an expensive faux finish with teak trim. Oak-paneled doors lined the corridor. Even the elevator doors were covered with ornate antique brass; it gave Angel something to grip as he forced them closed again.
Just in time. He heard another door open down the hallway as he turned around.
The man who walked out could have been a brother to the demon Angel had first seen, or at least a cousin; he had the same kind of generic good looks all too common to L.A. He was dressed in tennis whites, in stark contrast to Angel's black leather trenchcoat.
They looked at each other for a second. The demon smiled with even white teeth.
The perfect cover story came to Angel in a flash. It was so good, so believable, that the grin he gave the demon in return was completely natural. The reason Angel would give for being there would not only be accepted without question, it would probably net him more information than he needed.
And just as he opened his mouth, the earthquake hit.
The demon grabbed the door frame and hung on, terror on his face. Plaster dust sprinkled down from the ceiling. Doors opened up and down the hallway, other frightened people assuming the same protected position in their doorways.
Frightened people with forked tongues flickering nervously between their lips.
The tremor lasted less than a minute. Angel had been through worse -- but he'd been around for a few hundred years. Even so, the prospect of being buried under several tons of rubble was enough to make even a vampire uneasy.
Then it was over, and everyone was asking everyone else if they were okay. Angel's presence wasn't questioned, for which he was thankful but slightly annoyed. It had been such a good cover story....
"Everyone all right? Nobody hurt?" asked a tall man striding down the hall. He was dressed in casual clothes, tan slacks and a yellow cotton shirt, but had an air of authority that didn't require a uniform to confirm it. He appeared to be around sixty, with silver hair and the kind of weathered good looks that old movie stars develop.
"We're all right, Galvin," a young woman in shorts and a halter-top said. "A few of the kids are shaken up."
"I think it's time we had a meeting, don't you?" Galvin said. He had the faintest trace of an Irish accent; if Angel hadn't been born on the Emerald Isle himself he wouldn't have noticed.
"Everyone," Galvin said. "In the common room, in ten minutes."
It wasn't hard to tag along and find a seat at the back. The room itself was able to seat around a hundred people, and it was filled to capacity. All the faces were young and handsome; Galvin seemed to be the only senior citizen there. Rows of chairs faced an elaborately carved antique podium at the front -- Sotheby's would have listed a starting bid for it at a minimum of ten thousand.
Galvin stood behind the podium. He rapped an equally ancient gavel three times, bringing the meeting to order.
"Well now," he said. His voice was a deep, rich tenor that didn't need a microphone to carry. "This is the third tremor in three days, ever since the original incident. Each one has been stronger than the last. If this continues, they'll bring our house down around our ears."
A man in the second row held up his hand. From where Angel sat, all he could see was the back of an expensive haircut and the Rolex on his wrist. "Can't we negotiate with them?"
Galvin smiled and gave a rueful little chuckle. "Well, if anybody could, you'd think we could, right?" Nervous laughter from the crowd. "But this isn't a negotiation. It's a siege. We're in their way, and they plan to be rid of us."
A young woman in a Versace suit spoke up. "Can't we make them an offer? Surely we have something they want."
"We do," Galvin said. "Unfortunately, what we have they've decided to simply take. We're very adept at finding leverage, but all the leverage in the world does us no good without the muscle to move the lever. We're wheelers and dealers, not fighters."
Angel got to his feet. "Excuse me," he said. People turned to look at him.
"If you're not fighters," Angel said, "maybe you should think about hiring some."
"Angel," Galvin said. "The vampire with a soul..."
Galvin had invited Angel back to his office to talk. The office was as elegant and refined as royalty: polished mahogany paneling, Persian rug over a hardwood floor, a writing desk that had probably come from a French court. The two paintings that hung on the wall could have paid Angel's rent for a century.
"So you've heard of me," Angel said. "I'm afraid I can't say the same about you."
"That's understandable," Galvin said. "We're rather secretive. We like to keep to ourselves -- but we're not evil. Brandy?"
"No, thanks. If I'm going to be working for you -- "
" -- you're going to need to know a little about us, of course. Well." Galvin poured a shot of brandy from an ornate decanter into a snifter. He swirled the liquor around a few times, then let his forked tongue flick out over the top of the glass. "Ah. Sure you won't try some? It's the very best, I assure you."
"I believe you," Angel said. "But that's not what I'm interested in."
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry -- it's just that a lifetime of hiding in the shadows makes it hard to reveal our secrets to an outsider. But we do need your help...
"We're called the Serpentene. Just as vampires are demons that have taken over a human body, we're demons that originally took over the bodies of snakes. Over time, we've transformed -- shed our skin, so to speak -- as a matter of survival. Humanity has an inbred aversion to snakes -- not to mention demons -- so we've learned to hide our true nature from them."
"You seem to have done pretty well for a group of outcasts."
"Financially, you mean? Oh, yes. The Serpentene are natural deal-makers; we dabble in everything from stock trading to car dealerships. The only thing that limits us is the same problem you have."
"A liquid diet?"
Galvin laughed. "No. Unlike ordinary snakes, our demon heritage makes us nocturnal; we don't like the sun any more than you do."
"Which is why you live underground."
"More or less. We don't burst into flames at the touch of daylight, but we do get sluggish and sleepy. Not very good for business -- and we like to spend money."
"I can see that."
"As we've become more human in appearance, we've become more human in nature. We've developed human tastes, especially for the finer things in life. Clothes, cars, furnishings, food and drink; we seek out the best available... and that's why we want to hire you."
"To protect you," Angel said. "From whom?"
"Perhaps I should show you," Galvin said, getting up. "Please, come with me."
He led Angel out of the office and down the hall. He stopped in front of a door marked 245 and knocked gently. "Maureen? It's Galvin."
A pretty young redhead with a spray of freckles across her nose opened the door; Angel guessed that Cordelia would have gladly traded her left arm for the woman's dress. "Yes, Galvin?"
"This is Angel. He's going to help us with our problem."
"Oh, yes. I saw you at the meeting."
"I hope I can help," Angel said.
"Maureen, I was wondering if we could see Suzy," said Galvin. "If you think she's up to it."
"She's the same as before," Maureen sighed. "Come on in."
She led them through a living room decorated in black and white -- black leather couch and chairs, black metal coffee table, white rug and walls -- and down a hall to the bedroom suite.
The large canopy bed was empty -- but then Angel heard something move in the corner. He went to investigate the bathroom, by the sunken marble bathtub.
Actually, the noise came from within the tub. From the thing resting inside.
It had once been a woman, or at least female. What it was now was a human-shaped puddle of flesh, like a blow-up doll half-filled with Jell-O. Only the eyes and lips, floating on the surface of the face like lost Mr. Potato-Head accessories, gave any indication the creature was a living thing. It blinked at him slowly, then tried to form words with its toothless mouth. "Hhhhh -- ohhhh..."
"Suzy, this is Angel," Galvin said softly. "He's going to protect us from what attacked you."
Angel drew back. "What happened to her?" he whispered.
"A demon assaulted her, last week. She fought back. Even though she was no match for her attacker, I think she managed to anger it. Witnesses said it grabbed both of her wrists, and then she started to...shake. Violently. It passed some kind of shockwave through her, one that shattered every bone in her body. Her teeth and fingernails actually exploded."
"Why isn't she -- "
"Dead? A human would be. But snakes have always been blessed with a certain...flexibility. It allowed her to survive."
"Well," said Angel, unable to meet the eyes of the thing in the tub. "Isn't she lucky..."
"This is where the attack took place," Galvin said. It was a large office space, irregular rows of desks scattered throughout, each with its own computer and a well-dressed Serpentene behind it. All the office workers wore telephone headsets, and every one seemed to be in the middle of an animated conversation.
"Our sales force, working late as usual," Galvin said. "Since we prefer to stay inside during business hours, we rely heavily on telemarketing."
"I thought you said you weren't evil..."
Galvin grinned but didn't reply. He led Angel through the maze of desks to the far wall, his salespeople nodding or waving as they strolled past.
The wall had a sheet of plywood nailed to it, and several planks over the top of that. Angel guessed it was covering up a large hole.
"This is where it came through, last week."
"And what, exactly, was it?"
"A Quake demon."
"Don't think I'm familiar with that breed."
"I'm not surprised. They're completely subterranean, never show their faces aboveground," Galvin said, shaking his head. "Nasty buggers, though. Short, muscular, skin that looks like chunks of raw coal."
"So why are they bothering you?"
"We're not sure. It may be territorial, or have something to do with their religious beliefs. All that's clear is they want us gone -- and if they can't terrorize us into moving, they'll turn our home into ruins."
"And maybe the rest of L.A. with it," Angel mused. "All right. Here's what I'm going to do." He pulled a business card out of his pocket and handed it to Galvin. "That's the number of my associates. If I'm not back or you don't hear from me in three hours, call them and let them know the situation." Angel grabbed hold of one of the planks blocking the opening and ripped it off.
"What are you planning?"
Angel pulled another board free. "Oh, you know -- go for a stroll, see the sights, do a little spelunking. I'm a big tunnel fan, myself..."
The tunnel was bare, packed earth, just tall enough for Angel to stand without stooping. It led downward at a steep angle, and Angel had been following it for half a mile.
"Great," he muttered under his breath. "I've been hired by demon yuppies to fight the Mole Men..."
The Mag-lite he was using showed him a branch in the tunnel ahead. "Decisions, decisions..."
He took the one on the right and kept going. Since coming to L.A., Angel had spent a lot of time underground; the extensive tunnel system under the city was how he got around during the day. Fortunately, he had a well-developed sense of direction and rarely got lost.
At least not in the physical sense. But being all alone in the dark, the smell of raw earth in his nose, had a way of bringing back memories. Memories of being lost in a different, much deeper way.
Lost in bloodlust, and insanity.
It was 1755, two years after Darla had turned him. Two years of random slaughter across the face of Europe, cutting a swath of blood-drenched decadence. It was the same year a great earthquake rocked Portugal, mocking the efforts of Angelus and his sire with a death toll of thirty thousand. They had been in Madrid, close enough to feel the edge of the shockwave, and when they heard the extent of the disaster they decided to investigate the devastation firsthand as a sort of holiday.
They hired a barge at Aranjuez and floated down the Tagus River, the dark bulk of mountains blotting out the stars on either side of them as they drifted through the Mediterranean night. In two days they reached Lisbon, on the Atlantic coast; once the jewel of the Iberian Peninsula, it was now a vision of Hell. Flames raged unchecked for the fifth day in a row, streets choked with rubble making firefighting impossible. The downtown area, from St. Paul's quarter to St. Roch, was gutted. The Royal Palace and the Opera House were burned-out husks. The rats had already begun to feast on the dead.
The barge crew, hardened men all, were stunned into silence by the destruction. Angelus and Darla raised champagne glasses to toast the spectacle -- then ripped out the throats of the crew to fill them.
They'd played in the ruins like children, making up games as they went: a head popped off a crushed corpse made a fine ball to kick; a pair of disembodied arms became improvised, floppy swords. Darla had chased him through the remains of a church, shrieking with delight as she held the skirts of her dress with one hand and tried to spank him with the severed limb of a nun.
And then they'd heard it, from beneath them. A faint cry for help.
"What have we here?" Angelus said. "Buried treasure, mayhaps?"
Darla giggled. "Do you think they'd want to play with us?"
"'Oh, I'm sure of it," Angelus replied with a grin. "They're already playing hide-and-seek, now, aren't they?"
He took off his black frock coat and began clearing debris, throwing aside chunks of rubble and oaken beams it would take three normal men to move. In no time at all he had a section of floorboards exposed.
He knelt and put his mouth close to the floor. "Compose yourselves!" he called down. "I've got a team of five men working like mad!" Darla laughed out loud, and he shushed her with a grin on his face.
"Please," came the faint reply. A woman's voice."...we've been trapped down here for five days, with no food or water..."
"How many are you?"
"And how'd you get down there, anyway?"
"...there's a trap-door, in the west corner...it leads to the cellar..."
"What? All this work, and you mean we've been doing it in the wrong place? Well, I suppose we'll just have start all over -- after lunch, of course."
"Yes, a nice big meal of roast chicken and fresh baked bread and some nice cold water to wash it down -- just the thing, don't you think?"
"...yes, please, just hurry..."
"Oh, we won't be long," Angelus said with a chuckle. "An hour or two at the most."
Angelus stood up and dusted off his hands. "All that talking about food has me famished. Shall we go sample the local cuisine?"
"What, you're giving up now? All that work and no reward?"
"Oh, they'll keep," Angelus said cheerfully. "It's like having a fully stocked larder now, isn't it? We can come back and have a nibble whenever we want..."
The right-hand branch of the tunnel had angled upward again, though Angel wasn't sure how close he was to the surface. He wondered if maybe he'd chosen the wrong path to follow.
The attack came without warning.
The Quake demon had molded itself into the dirt of the tunnel wall, where it was almost invisible -- until one of its fists lashed out and connected with Angel's face.
He dropped the Mag-lite and staggered back as the demon pulled itself out of the wall. The creature's skin was armored in rock that looked like chunks of black glass, sharp-edged crags jutting from every inch of its short, muscular body. Black stalactites hung from its heavy brow and jaw like oily icicles, and when it opened its mouth to snarl at him, Angel saw the same black spikes within.
"Should have brought a pickax," Angel muttered as he reached into his trenchcoat. "Guess this'll have to do..."
He drew the double-bladed battle-ax from its special sheath in one smooth motion, swinging it one-handed as the Quake demon lunged forward. He caught the thing across the chest, raising a flash of sparks as steel screeched against stone.
It grabbed for him with a massive hand sporting black claws bigger than a grizzly's. He evaded its clutch, got a two-handed grip on the ax and swung at the thing's skull.
It bounced off, the impact nearly jarring the weapon from Angel's hands. It also knocked the demon back a step -- but that was about it.
"Right," Angel said. "No problem."
It rushed at him again. He turned its own momentum against it, dropping his ax at the last second and hip-tossing it to the ground. It was like flipping a Buick; Angel thought he'd come close to breaking his own leg with the maneuver.
But it was facedown in the dirt in front of him -- and an instant later, Angel had his ax back in hand.
He chopped down with all his strength, nailing it right between the shoulder blades as it began to get up. The impact drove it down again, but didn't seem to do any other damage.
He hit it again.
It kept rising, slowly. On the fifth blow, he broke the head off the ax. All he'd done was to chip a few shards from his opponent's armor.
He leapt on the demon's back as it made it to its feet. Maybe he could break the thing's neck. He seized its head in both hands and wrenched it to the side as hard as he could. It was like trying to turn the steering wheel on a bus encased in cement.
Something whacked Angel in the back of the head hard enough to make his vision blur. He stubbornly kept his grip on the demon's head.
The next blow caught him on the shoulder, making his left arm go numb. He spun to face his new attacker -- at first, he thought it was a giant snake.
It wasn't. Somehow, he had failed to notice the Quake demon had a tail.
It was about six feet long, as thick around as a telephone pole. Its tip looked very much like the business end of an oversized garden spade, if garden spades were made out of glossy black rock and doubled as killing weapons.
The tail swung at Angel again, knocking him to his knees. A rocky claw locked around his left wrist. Another gripped his right shoulder.
A shockwave rippled between the two points, slamming up his arm and across his chest. It felt like grabbing a high-voltage line while having a heart attack -- though that was just an educated guess on Angel's part, his two-hundred-and-forty-odd years of existence being woefully deficient in both electric and cardiac phenomena.
And it got worse. He could feel his bones begin to hum as his muscles convulsed. In another moment his teeth would explode like firecrackers....
His right arm was still free. He reached up and grabbed the demon's wrist, wrenching its claw loose from its grip on Angel's shoulder. Now he had it by one wrist and it had him by the other.
Angel put every ounce of his strength into a lunge to the side. He took the Quake demon with him -- and both its rocky paws plunged into the soft earth of the tunnel.
Angel's body stopped shaking itself apart, and the ground began to shudder instead. Something Angel had learned over the years was that it was generally a lot harder to turn off a mystic source of energy than it was to turn it on...and whatever force the demon was generating probably had a much greater affinity for rock and earth than undead flesh.
He was still congratulating himself on his ingenuity when the tunnel collapsed.
and Copyright © 2000 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation