Heart Of The Matter - A Winifred Burkle Mystery by Starlet2367
Summary: Nancy Drew and Stephanie Plum walk into a bar....
Spoilers: Billy, Season Three.
Notes: A Stranger Things Secret Valentine for Marcy, who requested a light, fluffy A/C story in which Fred helps get them together. Lucky Charms and Shiner Bocks to my critique group: Julie Fortune, Laurie Andrews, Ebonbird and Queen Mab. Thanks to my valentine, Michael, for getting me out of demon-trouble and for the tip that kept Angel in character.
helped her settle back against the wall. She was looking a little
green around the
gills. "Maybe you should send Gunn around with the truck," I suggested to Carlos.
"Gunn?" Carlos asked, watching Cordy with a worried frown.
"Charles Gunn," I said. "Tall, bald black man." I waved my hand in the air to indicate height. "Has on a navy sweatshirt and jeans."
He nodded, but lingered, obviously torn.
"Go on, Carlos," I said. "We'll be fine by ourselves for a few minutes."
Finally he nodded. "I'll send Gunn back." He took off for the door, and his footsteps grew softer and disappeared when the door slammed shut.
Cordy closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall. "Well, that was fun." She drew a shaky breath.
"You almost took a header."
"I guess I got hit harder than I realized."
I pulled up a piece of parking lot next to her. The wall at my back was hard and scratchy even through the oversized sweatshirt.
She glanced out toward the dumpster. "I was inside talking to Carlos when I heard a girl scream. We ran back here. She works here at the store and had just clocked out." She pointed toward the small back parking lot where a few older-make cars sat. "Going to her car, I guess. By the time we got outside, the demon had her by the throat. I ran for them and tried get him off of her."
She shook her head. "Gotta get Angel to work with me on the hand-to- hand stuff." There was a pause while she seemed to collect her thoughts. "Anyway, that dude was *big*. And the minute I got my hands on him, he dropped the other girl. Took a swipe at me." Her fingers traced the bruise on her face. "Knocked me down." They moved to the bandages on her chest. "Clawed the heck out of me. Carlos found a crowbar in the warehouse and hit him with it till he ran off."
We sat in silence for a few minutes. I smelled dumpster juice and blood, and realized that they were the two most common odors in my life right now. "Do you ever wonder what happened to perfume and clean clothes?"
"You mean, who stole our normal lives?" Trust Cordy to get it right off the bat.
Her laugh ended on a groan. "Crap, that hurts."
"You sure you don't wanna go to the hospital?"
She shook her head. "Dennis will take care of me."
We're like an Appalachian family. Only if we can't fix it ourselves do we go to town for the doctor.
She tilted her head and looked toward the building. "You hear that? I thought I heard someone yelling."
I tensed and looked around for Big Blue.
The back door burst open and Angel flew through. "Cordy? Cordy!" He ignored the ramp and leapt off the dock, landing gracefully on the ground six feet below.
And then he was there, right in front of her, and the way he looked at her, my heart just melted. I couldn't take my eyes off of him, even though I could have spontaneously combusted and he wouldn't have noticed.
Angel's hands fluttered around her bruised face, traced the bandage on her chest. "I'm gonna kill it," he said.
"I'm all right," Cordy said, soothing him with her voice. She covered his hand and held it over her heart. "I'm not saying don't kill it." She smiled. "But, hey, just a couple of scrapes and a sprained wrist. No biggie."
I pulled the paper from my pocket. "What about your concussion?"
Cordy rolled her eyes. "Thanks a lot, Fred."
Angel swiped the sheet and unfolded it. His lips compressed. "Why didn't you say something?" He shot me a look. "Is she all right?"
Cordy huffed. "I didn't want you to worry, that's why."
"I said I'd help her," I said, trying to make up for my blooper. "You could drop us at her apartment. Dennis would watch out for us."
Angel shook his head. "No way. Cordy, you're coming back to the hotel where I can keep an eye on you."
He scooped her into his arms and stood.
Cordy sighed. "Fine, but at least call Dennis and tell him not to worry, okay?" She leaned her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes.
Angel glanced down at me. "Come on," he said. "We're leaving."
I scrambled up and followed like a puppy who'd peed on the floor, three paces behind, with my head down. We passed Carlos on the sidewalk out front, talking to the cops. Angel swooped by, his coat flaring, and gently slid Cordy onto the front seat of the Plymouth.
"Thanks again, Carlos," I said, stopping long enough to hand him a crumpled A.I. card. "If you think of anything else, give us a call."
He nodded. "Like I said, big and blue," he replied, looking down at the card. "But if it comes back, you'll be the first to know."
"The second," said the cop, asserting his authority.
"Sure thing," Carlos said.
Gunn and I followed Wes's taillight down La Brea. The truck rumbled over cracking macadam and Power 106 hummed through the speakers. It was too quiet to make out the artist, but even if it'd been going full bore, I wouldn't have been able to play name that tune. I'd lost track of urban music--heck, any music--back in Pylea and was just finding my way back into the hypnotic light of pop culture.
"We get a description of this thing?"
The light at the intersection turned yellow. Wes shot through and the scream of the bike's engine split the air. Gunn's truck wasn't nearly so nimble. He hit the brakes and it shuddered to a halt. "Produce guy heard the ruckus. He was in the warehouse unpacking pineapple or something. Ran out back and saw the demon pin the girl to the concrete."
A shiver walked up my spine. I knew exactly what it felt like to have something big and deadly sitting on your chest. "What happened?"
"We'd gotten a lead from one of the survivors. Said the demon had attacked in that area before. Figured it was worth checking out. Best I can tell, Cordy heard her scream and ran back there to fight him off."
The light changed and the truck bucked forward. "What about you?"
He shrugged. "I was checking out a lead down the block." He cut his eyes at me. "You're thinking it, too."
"That if I'd been with her--"
"Not true," I said, before he could finish. The words felt funny in my mouth but I kept on going. "Cordy knew the risks. And she's a good fighter--or at least she's getting better."
The cab of the truck went quiet while Gunn merged onto the I-10. "To answer your question, yeah. I think we got a better description. 'Course, anything is better than 'big' and 'blue'."
"You've got a point." I leaned my head against the cracked vinyl headrest and watched the dark scrub scroll by.
The next thing I knew, Gunn was poking me in the side. "Yo, Fred. Wake up."
I blinked. "Oh. Sorry." I pushed my hair out of my eyes. "Musta gone to sleep." I was still tired but felt a little better than I had earlier.
"Hated to wake you up, but it's a little chilly to spend the night in the truck. Plus, Big Blue?"
"Right." We were parked off of Wilshire on one of the residential streets just around the corner from the hotel. I hauled myself through the courtyard and into the lobby. All the lights were on and it took my eyes a minute to adjust.
Cordy lay on one of the red couches, her injured arm propped up on a pillow.
"Hey, Fred. You look awful."
This from the woman who looked like she just went nine rounds with the champ.
"Just tired," I said. I plopped down on the coffee table in front of the couch and my knees bumped the cushions.
Gunn leaned his axe against the weapons cabinet. "Angel and Wes?"
"In the office," Cordy said. She sounded as tired as I felt.
"Why aren't you in bed?" I asked.
"I guess I wasn't ready to leave all the fun."
The guys had sequestered themselves in the office. We sat alone in the silent lobby. I arched a brow at her.
She made a face. "Okay, so it was mostly because I was scared to go to sleep."
I patted her hand. "I know exactly what you mean. I haven't had a decent night's sleep in five years."
The line between her eyebrows deepened. "Really? Fred, that's awful."
I shrugged. "I wasn't looking for the sympathy vote. Just commiserating." She yawned, a real jaw-breaker. "Hey, want me to help you upstairs? Sit with you till you fall asleep?"
"That'd be nice." She sat up slowly and I helped her to her feet.
"Which room?" I asked as we navigated the stairs.
Angel's room is his sanctuary; I never go in without an invitation. But Cordy just walked right in and started shuffling through his closet. She came up with a white dress shirt I didn't even know Angel owned.
With one arm in the sling, she was having a hard time getting undressed. "You gonna need some help with that?"
"I hate feeling helpless," she said, as she sat down on the edge of the bed, the shirt clutched in her left hand.
"I know what you mean." We took the sling off and I helped her out of her clothes and into Angel's shirt. I had to cuff the sleeves four times before I found her wrists. "I'd rather have friends than be helpless by myself, though."
"Good point." She smiled at me as she crawled into bed.
I sat with her until she went to sleep and then stayed an extra few minutes in case she woke up afraid. Her breathing stayed regular, though, so I went back downstairs.
"You guys figure anything out?"
"The description given to us by Cordelia and the employees matches that of a demon called Lunae," Wes said. He sat at the desk, glasses perched on his nose, scanning one of the hundreds of dusty books from our library.
Angel crowded him on one side and Gunn on the other. They'd wanted to find the demon before, but going after Cordy had upped the stakes. No pun intended, of course.
"That's good. You narrowed it to the family. That'll help us understand its feeding and nesting patterns. Maybe we can even figure out a way to take it out." I sounded so professional I couldn't help but grin.
Gunn grinned back. Angel leaned over Wes's shoulder and pointed at something. "This says the Lunae only attacks on full moons. We have about 6 days until then."
Wes blinked, obviously disappointed. "Oh. Well. I thought we'd found it." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
Gunn patted Wes's shoulder. "It's okay, man. We'll keep looking."
"Why don't we take a break?" I suggested. "It's nearly dawn."
Angel looked up like he'd just realized I was there. "Where's Cordy?"
"She's asleep in your room."
His mouth softened. "Good."
I felt a tingle in my belly and I couldn't stop looking at Angel's mouth.
It was Gunn.
I yanked myself out of a warm little fantasy. "Yeah." My voice squeaked.
"Can I get by here?"
I scooted out of the doorway, feeling like a fool. "Oh, sure. See you tomorrow?"
Angel slipped out behind him. The back door slammed behind Gunn. I didn't hear Angel's footsteps but I assumed he went up to check on Cordy.
That left me and Wes. He was flipping through the book, a worn look on his face.
"You look tired."
He shrugged. "Maybe a little."
"You gonna rest?"
Instead of answering, he put his glasses back on and picked up another book. I felt guilty for so many things, not the least of which was putting Wes in an uncomfortable situation. So I pulled a book off the shelf and started turning pages.
The glasses hid his eyes again, but I could feel him looking at me. He didn't say anything, though, and after a moment, the only sounds in the room were of our breathing and the shuffling hiss of parchment pages turning.
I felt like I did that time I pulled an all-nighter before my Chem 313 exam.
My eyes were sandpapered into my head. All I could do was nod.
Wes pressed a mug into my hand.
It was so much better than Cordy's brew that I drank half of it in one swallow. The caffeine hit my stomach and propped my eyelids open. "Thanks." I stretched. "What time is it?"
Wes glanced at his watch. "About 3:30."
I hauled myself out of the chair and put Stephenson's Demon Dictionary back onto the shelf. Next was Foucault's Compendium, but it was nearly as heavy as me, so I left it sitting there and went for the Complete List of Daemons, A-Zed.
The book flopped open to the M's, and I turned pages, drank coffee, and consulted my notes. Yes, it was still big and blue. It was also nearly seven feet tall and, between Jeremy's report and the location of Cordy's claw marks, seemed to have a penchant for ripping the hearts out of women's chests.
"It's all about hurting women," I murmured.
"I'm sorry?" Wes glanced up from his book.
"The demon. It only goes after women."
Our eyes locked. A chill ran up my back.
Wes didn't say anything. Instead he got up and hightailed it out of the room and I heard the bathroom door close down the hall.
I stared at the wall listening to the water run. Then I gazed at the book while waiting for my mind to engage. The words blurred; my nose ran. I wiped my face with my sleeve and took a deep, trembling breath.
Just as I turned back to the A's, the toilet flushed and Wes came out, hair damp at the temples. He looked anything but refreshed.
"I don't think we're going to find anything tonight." He shuffled to the desk and leaned on the edge, staring down at the books, papers, half-empty coffee cups and the small hurling axe he used as a paperweight.
"We might want to consider consulting with Lorne." He relieved the coat rack of his jacket. "I think I'll head home now and get some sleep. Thank you for your help."
I nodded and moved my feet out of the way so he could get by. The feeling that I'd done something terrible washed over me. He hated me; I could tell. And if there was one thing in the world I couldn't stand, it was having someone not like me.
It was like being in Pylea all over again. Feeling like the outsider. Being attacked by people you should be able to trust. Not being able to take care of yourself.
A few minutes of sitting in the eerie quiet of the office had me feeling itchy. I decided to head up to my bedroom and lie down. I did some of my best studying in bed—it was amazing what cat naps could do to keep your brain refreshed.
Once I got my shoes off and situated myself under the covers, I opened the book and started at the beginning. I cruised through the A's, the B's and the C's, rearranged the pillows, and went on to the D's. Nothing, nothing and more nothing. The discouraged feeling I'd had all evening grew in direct proportion to my drooping eyelids. I decided to do one more letter then take it up again in the morning.
I flipped haphazardly through the Es, pretty much convinced we were never gonna find this thing—and there it was. Startled, I looked at my notes, looked at the book, and felt excitement start to bubble in my chest.
Not at all tired now, I picked up the phone to call Wes. I immediately dropped it back into the cradle. The last thing Wes wanted to do was to talk to me. Besides, he was probably face-down in the bed by now. Next I considered going to Angel, but hated to risk waking Cordy when she so desperately needed rest.
It would hardly hurt to wait a few more hours and then we could all approach it with a fresh eye. Plus, this would give me more time to research so I could have a complete report.
A warm coal of excitement started to burn in my stomach. I could just see it now--the entire crew, huddled around the desk as I ticked off physical characteristics, feeding grounds, ways to kill the beast.
I could prove to them that I as useful for something besides building Rube Goldberg contraptions and being the Princess Leia of Angel Investigations. (Of course, I mean New Hope Leia, not Empire Strikes Back Leia, because she totally kicked butt in that one.) And maybe Wes would stop looking at me like I was something he'd smushed on the bottom of his shoe.
I went back to the book. Elcsüggedt, I sounded out. Hungarian for "downhearted." I skimmed the description, "This demon, first discovered in Hungary in the 16th century, earned the name 'down- hearted' due to the fact that it eats the hearts of its victims. It wasn't until the 20th century, when one was captured and studied," I wrinkled my nose and tried not to think about what that meant, "that scientists discovered that the Elcsüggedt has an energetic deficiency in its heart chakra and must compensate by consuming the hearts of other beings."
I ran my finger down the page, skimming physical characteristics, and squinted at the picture. The line drawing showed a monster, all right. He looked like Sasquatch on steroids. But what interested me most was this: "By nature, the Elcsüggedt is a peaceful demon, cohabitating easily with members of many different species (including humans). Only when the level of energy drops to a certain point does it attempt to feed, thus becoming violent."
Oh, that poor thing! Here I'd been thinking he was some kind of misogynist monster, when he was really just hungry. I knew all about hungry.
But why focus on young women? I kept reading and found the answer. "Diet evolved over time to include only the hearts of young women experiencing the first stages of romantic love. It was determined by researchers that the powerful, refined energetic vibrations experienced by females in this state offered the Elcsüggedt the best nutritive value."
"Young women in love?" I slapped my forehead. "Of *course*!" How had we missed it? Jeremy and Katy were newly engaged and he was obviously head over heels for her. I'd bet my Grandmama Carter's mad money that all the other victims were in new relationships, too.
But that left Cordy. As far as I knew she wasn't in love with anyone...except maybe Angel. I laughed. No way she was in love with Angel. For one thing, they'd known each other too long. For another, they fought way too much. Sure, I could see him lusting after her, but she treated him like an annoying older brother. She'd probably just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That meant that the chances of it attacking her again were pretty slim. And now that I knew it wasn't evil, there was no way I was killing it. I suddenly remembered what Wes said about consulting Lorne.
I stared at the demon's picture, letting my mind connect the dots. What if I went to Lorne for a love spell? I could cast the spell on myself, and then use myself as bait.
My heart started thumping. We could trap the Elcsüggedt, maybe even heal it, and then turn it loose. We'd be like that Crocodile Hunter guy!
The vision of the crew smiling at me turned into them throwing me a huge bash, complete with "Fred solved the case!" banners and chocolate cake. Since it was my fantasy, I added the footnote that, after I captured and dispatched the Elcsüggedt, I slept soundly through the night for the first time in five years.
Hey, a girl could dream, right? Maybe even literally.
I hid the book under my bed, covering it with fast food wrappers and old clothes. The urge to clean must not have been handed down from my mom, who was a neat freak. I was perfectly content to live in a pig sty; always had been. Maybe that's why I was so comfortable in that cave.
As I snuck past Angel's bedroom, I tucked my ear to the wood to listen for sounds of life. All I could hear was the occasional drip of the faucet and somebody's light snores.
I thought about taking the bus, but it'd be way faster to drive. The problem was, the only car here was Angel's. On the other hand, now that I knew what I was up against, time was of the essence. I stared at the second hand, ticking its way around the watch dial.
What the heck, I decided. I'd already caused so much trouble, why not cause a little more?
The keys to the Plymouth lived in the top drawer of Cordy's desk and I lifted them with a trembling hand. I'd never stolen a car before, and though I didn't think this could qualify as grand theft auto, I decided I'd better be safe than sorry, so I scrawled a note saying I was going out to do some research and stuck it to her computer screen.
The Plymouth's big V-8 engine growled like a grizzly as I pulled into nearly nonexistent traffic. I couldn't remember the last time I drove. Los Angeles has extensive public transpo, and even before I got sucked into the portal, I took the bus or cabs.
I spread my fingers wide, sat up tall in the seat. I felt like my horse Jenny must have when I turned her loose in the field.
I'd only been to Caritas once, and the street it sits on is packed with bars, liquor stores, dry cleaners and restaurants. Most were closed for the night, though the lights from the gas station on the corner flared like a Roman candle.
It was the backside of night when I finally found a parking space and knocked on Lorne's door. I was beginning to think he didn't live there any more--until I heard the security door unlatch and saw his red eyes peer out.
I nodded. "Sorry to disturb you at such an ungodly hour. It's just-- Cordy got attacked by a demon last night, and I--"
The door swung open to show Lorne in a black satin robe and bunny slippers. "Is she okay?" He motioned me in then latched the door behind us.
I followed him down the hall. "Yeah. She's banged up. Angel's taking care of her."
We emerged into the bar, still busted up from our last trip. My feet quit working and I stumbled to a halt. "God, Lorne," I said, taking in the damage. "I'm so sorry."
The bar, itself, was still intact and he already stood behind it mixing drinks. He slid something down to me and I caught it on instinct. Bloody Mary. I'm more a beer or daiquiri girl, myself.
"Breakfast of champions," Lorne said, raising his glass to me.
I sipped and grimaced. "Good stuff."
He knocked his back in about three gulps and reached for mine. "I know you're not gonna drink that."
I hiked myself up onto a singed barstool. "I need your help."
"Sorry. Karaoke machine's broken." His mouth pulled down at the corners. "I think it got shot."
I dropped my eyes to the napkin in front of me. "Yeah. That night sucked." I'd been singing Crazy, which seemed appropriate at the time. Still did, actually, which was part of the reason I was here. "I don't need to sing," I said, looking up at him. "I was hoping you could put me in touch with someone who does spells."
That got his attention. "What kind of spells?"
"In this case, a love spell."
He put his hand over mine. "Those things always backfire, sweetie. Besides, I don't know why you think you need a love spell. Anyone who isn't falling in love with you in a heartbeat is a damn fool."
"You're the only Pylean I've ever met who didn't try to kill me," I said, all choked up.
"That's why I left. Just don't have that killer instinct." His gaze traveled over the burnt out room. "Well, except for those guys who torched my shop. I might kill them."
I laughed. "I know what you mean."
We shared a moment.
He walked around the bar and sat down next to me. "Why do you really want a love spell?"
"A demon. An Elcsüggedt."
eyes widened. "I've heard of those. Don't they go after young
"Who are in love." I nodded. "Yeah."
I'm not sure how it was possible, but his eyes got wider. He looked like a green Al Jolsen. "And it attacked Cordy?" His cackle rang through the empty bar. "Hot damn, I thought it'd never happen!"
I leaned forward. "What? What did you think would never happen?"
"Cordy and Angel." He cackled some more and slapped his thigh.
I squeaked. "You're kidding, right? I mean, he's kinda got a crush on her--"
"Oy vey, he's way beyond crushed. That boy's got the big love and has since he got back this summer. Cordy, on the other hand, has been her loveably clueless self. But if what you say is true--" Until now, I'd never actually seen someone rub their hands together with glee.
"If that's the case, then maybe I don't need the spell."
The smile flashed away. "You thinking of using Cordy as bait?"
When he put it like that.... "No, I was actually thinking of using me as bait."
He leaned so far back I had to grab his arm to keep him on the barstool. "Nope. Sorry. Shop's closed. No dice."
"Lorne-- Just listen, okay? It's not a stupid plan--I promise."
"Sweetikins, anything that uses you as bait is a stupid plan."
I shook my head. "No, no. Listen. See, here's the deal. This thing doesn't kill people because it's evil. It does it because it has an energetic deficiency in its heart chakra."
He burst out laughing. "Say again, swami?"
I pulled my folded-up notes out of my jacket pocket and put them on the bar in front of him. He skimmed them, then looked at me. "So?"
"So if I can lure it out, maybe I can cure it."
"Now you want to be a demon social worker?"
"It doesn't seem right to kill it just because it's trying to make up for a deficit."
His eyebrow arched and he got that funny look in his eye. "Hum something."
"What you just said-- Hum something."
The best I could come up with was Row, Row, Row Your Boat. After three bars, he held up his hand. "Not bad, sweetie. I just have one question. Who's trying to make up for a deficit?"
I swallowed hard. Busted. "I just wanted to--" I sighed. I couldn't look at him so I stared at the bar, instead. I ran my fingers over a heart someone had carved in it with the letters "MK/KW 4eva."
"I'm tired of not fitting in," I finally admitted. "Tired of everyone overlooking me or being mad at me. " My eyes welled with tears and I wiped them on my sleeve. "And maybe if I'd been able to take care of myself before, I wouldn't have gotten sucked through the portal."
He patted my arm then leaned across the bar and grabbed a pen. The napkin was damp from the glass, so he wrote around the edges.
I slid the napkin down the bar and turned it in a circle, reading as I went. "Anita Reddick, Melbourne Ave., Los Feliz."
He nodded. "Her phone number's on there too. She only takes referrals, so you'll need to call in advance and tell her I sent you."
He reached across the bar again and handed me another napkin. "Dry your eyes," he said. "You take on too much, Fred. Always have." He patted my hand and stood. "What happened to you in Pylea--with Wes-- those things weren't your fault." He led me up the stairs and opened the door. "But that's something no one can tell you, but you."
Sunlight pushed its fingers into my eyes. "Thanks," I said, squinting at him in the peach and aqua light.
"Just be careful." He waved and latched the door closed behind him.
I pointed the Plymouth toward the hotel, too tired now to enjoy anything but the idea of going home. The cool, morning air reached in through the window and wrapped its hand around my neck. I shivered and notched up the heater. Then I thought of how crazy this idea was and how likely I was to get dead. But the alternative--living like half a person--well, that held even less appeal.
The car nosed into its spot behind the hotel like Jenny coming back to the barn. I hopped out, locked the door, and found Angel standing on the dock, arms folded, a frown line between his eyes.
"You find anything?"
I shook my head. "I thought I'd talk to Lorne. He wasn't much help." I handed him the car keys as I slunk past. "I'm sorry about the car."
He glanced down at the key ring. "I wasn't worried about the car."
My heart warmed. "Really?"
For the first time in ages, he smiled at me. "Yeah. Really." He slung his arm across my shoulders and guided me into the hotel. "Cordy woke up hungry so I cooked breakfast. You want some?"
We ate at the big, stainless table in the hotel kitchen. Despite the huge room, I felt cozy and warm as I shoveled in eggs and hash browns.
Angel topped off Cordy's coffee, sipped some blood, and laughed at something she said. For the first time I saw it in his eyes--how much he loved her. And maybe it was the sun arching through the little windows near the ceiling, but she nearly glowed.
As accepted as I felt right then, I realized that there was no way I could use her as bait. She actually had something to lose. I, on the other hand, had everything to gain.
I snuck out to buy the spell that afternoon before Wes and Gunn returned. Cordy had gone home to check on Dennis. Angel was sleeping.
When I got back, the hotel was still quiet. I took the ingredients for the spell to my room, went inside, and closed the door behind me. The book still hid under the bed with the fast food wrappers, and I stuffed the bag under there with them.
Next was a shower, a luxury I hadn't allowed myself until I felt like things were moving down the right path. One thing I loved about the hotel was its never-ending supply of hot water. I lathered, rinsed and repeated, then just stood there, letting the hot spray pound my head and shoulders.
By the time I got out, I was pruney, but substantially more relaxed. One pair of jeans and a sweater later and I felt ready to face the world--or my little corner of it.
I went downstairs to grab a sandwich and make sure the coast was clear. On the way back, I lifted a couple of books from the library.
I ate my PB and J while I read the recipe for the spell. Basically you just mixed a couple of ingredients together, waved a rose quartz over them, and uttered some fancy words. Then, over the course of a few days, you and your beloved fell in love.
Something uncomfortable coiled in my belly and it wasn't the mango preserves. Love had always been something I revered and waited anxiously for, and it felt like cheating to bring it on with a spell, even if the spell was being done for a good purpose.
I set the recipe aside and turned to the books I'd picked up. I hoped they'd lead me to a cure for the Elcsüggedt. It was like solving a proof in geometry, I thought, as I worked steadily to fit the pieces together. Start here, end there, and figure out all the steps in between.
In a couple of hours I had a pretty solid theorem. The Elcsüggedt's heart chakra was like a dry well back home. The only way to fill it was to hook it into a flowing stream.
As I turned pages and slipped into the rhythm of research, I must have lost track of time. A door slammed downstairs and I jumped and looked at my watch. Seven o'clock already?
I went over my notes again. It looked like all I'd need to do was perform an energetic bypass on the thing's heart. The question was-- how?
Someone thumped up the stairs--most likely Cordy, since I never heard Angel's footsteps anywhere. The hotel was filling up for the evening, and I knew we'd be researching and tracking the Elcsüggedt down. I felt sure I was close to figuring out the theory. The question was whether I was close enough that I should perform the spell.
Then I heard Cordy laugh and remembered the claw marks on her chest; the engagement ring Jeremy wore on his pinkie after Katy's death. There was no way I was risking the loss of another life.
I drew the ingredients for the spell out from under the bed. Now or never, I thought, reading over the recipe one last time.
I cast the circle and lit the candles. The powders drifted into the marble mortar. While I chanted, I poured the glass vial of rose-and- honey nectar onto the powders. With the other hand I waved the crystal.
A pink mist rose and formed a cloud over the circle, growing denser as I chanted. I read the words carefully, hoping I was pronouncing it all correctly, and got to the last sentence. The mist grew a pointed tip and aimed itself at my heart. I took a deep breath, spoke the last word...and my bedroom door opened.
"Hey, Fred, you want some dinner?"
I watched in a mouth-open daze as the mist trembled, shifted, and turned its point toward Cordy. Before I could break the circle, it flew at her like a demented bird and shot straight into her chest.
She stumbled back, blinked, and shook her head like someone waking from sleep. "Wow," she said, rubbing her breastbone. "That was...what was that?"
I leapt to my feet and ran to her side. "Oh, my God. Are you okay? I was-- It was--" Oh, crap. How did I explain what was obviously a spell gone wrong?
Before I could answer, Angel appeared at the end of the hall. Our heads swiveled toward him as he bee-lined toward Cordy.
Her smile lit the universe. "Angel, hey," she said. When he got to us, she twined her arms around his neck and leaned into him.
Over her shoulder I could see his look of surprise, then warmth, then heat as he hugged her back. A soft, pink glow engulfed them. Oh, crap. Crappity-crap-crap!
I watched, horrified, as she drew his head to hers and planted a kiss on his lips. Before I knew it, she had him pinned to the wall. He moaned, long and deep, as she whispered something in his ear.
This was turning into a live-action porn show and it was all my fault.
"Uh, guys?" I said, tapping Cordy on the shoulder.
"Go `way," she said, waving her hand. "We're busy."
Crap. I was gonna have to call in the big guns. As I hauled butt downstairs, I remembered what Lorne had said about backfiring spells. He wasn't kidding. Why did they never give you the fine print on these things?
Wes sat in his office, scouring another book. I stopped at the door, red-faced, and folded my hands behind my back. I felt like I did that time I got caught smoking dope in the bathroom at school and had to go to the principal's office.
"Fred," he said distractedly. "What's up?"
Like ripping off a Band-Aid, I decided it was best to get it done fast. "I found the demon while I was researching this morning.
He glanced up, obviously surprised. "Why didn't you say--"
I held up my hand. "It's an Elcsüggedt. It eats the hearts of young women in love."
The surprise faded to comprehension. He slapped the desk. "Of course!" A line appeared between his eyebrows. "But why would it go after Cordy?"
Somewhere upstairs, Cordy cried out, obviously in the throes of passion. I swallowed hard and looked toward the staircase.
I don't think Wes understood quite what he was hearing. "I went to a lady in Los Feliz and got a love spell. I was gonna cast it on myself, then lure the demon out and cure it."
Wes's mouth fell open.
"While I was casting the spell, Cordy came into the room and it went into her. Then Angel walked in and--"
She cried out again and this time Wes got it. He flushed a dull red and looked down at his desk. "Oh, crap."
We listened while Cordy keened Angel's name.
"I don't think it would have happened quite so fast if they weren't already headed in that direction," I said apologetically.
Wes threw the chair back, grabbed a crossbow, and ran for the stairs. "Angelus!" he yelled.
By the time we made it to Angel's bedroom, Cordy's moans were hotter and throatier. I tried to be a professional but I was afraid to open the door and find Angelus getting her off just in time to rip her throat out. On the other hand, I'd often wondered what Angel looked like naked.
Wes leaned against the wall, crossbow pointed up like a gunslinger at a shootout. "Angel? Angel!"
"Not now, Wes," came the muffled response.
"Angel. You have to stop what you're doing. You and Cordy are under a spell."
Cordy cried out again and the sound drowned out Wes's warning. He caught my eye. "We have to go in."
I swallowed hard. "Let's do it."
He counted three off on his fingers and opened the door. We crossed the threshold and my foot hit something soft. I looked down and found myself tangled in Cordy's skirt.
A breadcrumb trail of clothes led to the bed where Angel and Cordy writhed, oblivious to our presence. Angel's pants were unbuttoned and halfway unzipped. His shirt lay on the sheet like a black shadow under Cordy's lacy, maroon bra.
The bedroom is arranged so that the bed sits perpendicular to the door, giving us a great view of the action. They rolled once, twice, and Cordy came out on top. She straddled him, and we got an eyeful of her amazing breasts and maroon thong.
Wes and I watched slack-jawed as Angel freed his hands and looped his thumbs under the slim edge of her panties. She shimmied against him like a lap dancer, flicking her hips back and forth to work the material down.
He moaned. "Don't stop."
She arched against him, and from throat to belly became one long, aching line. "God, you either," she rasped.
Angel tore one hand free and fisted it in her hair. Even from this angle and distance I could see that his eyes were dark, feral, his mouth pulled back in a snarl. "You don't know--" he said, and he yanked her down. "How long--" He kissed her so hard I heard their teeth click.
"Jeez," I whispered. "They're better than the Red Shoe Diaries."
Wes jolted out of his reverie. "Y-yes, um...er.... All right, then!" He widened his stance and pointed the crossbow at Angel. "Stop what you're doing right now!"
Angel turned his head toward the door. "What the hell?"
Cordy stared blankly at us. She was flushed, panting, sweating--jeez, they'd only been at it ten minutes. How many orgasms could she have had?
"I'm sorry," Wes said, trying hard not to look at Cordelia's breasts. "You must stop. You're under a love spell."
"What?" Angel looked as befuddled as Cordy and more than a little pissed.
I stepped forward. "I'm sorry. It's all my fault. I was trying to catch the demon and--" I looked at my shoes.
"A love spell?" I looked up just in time to see her pull his hand to her heart. "That's crazy. Angel and I don't need a spell to know we're in love."
"Right, Angel?" She kissed his fingers one by one, obviously still lost in whatever wonderland the spell had sent them to.
"Oh, my God," Angel said. "We're under a--?" He shoved her off of him and lurched to his feet. "This is a *spell*?" A look of horror flashed across his face.
"I don't think the spell could have taken her over if she wasn't falling in love with you, Angel," I said, looking to Wes for reassurance, trying to make this awful situation better.
"It's true," Wes said. "The feelings would already have to be there--"
He thrust out his hand to ward us off.
"What's wrong?" Cordy pouted up at him. She grabbed for his hand. "Why don't you come back to bed?"
He jerked away from her. The war going on inside Angel played out on his face. Shock, fear, betrayal, anger, and a hurt so raw it lanced my heart. Then he turned his back on us and wrapped his arms around his waist. "Get out. All of you."
Cordy sat up as comprehension slowly dawned. "Angel?"
He flinched. "Get out, Cordelia. Now."
Wes collected Cordelia, carefully wrapping the sheet around her. Then he picked up her clothes and guided her to the door. "Come on," he said quietly.
The door closed behind us with a final click. Cordy looked over her shoulder. Her eyes were wide huge and dark. "We nearly--" She paled. "Angel and I almost--"
Wes patted her bare shoulder awkwardly. "Why don't you get dressed. We'll talk about this after you've had a minute to collect yourself."
Half an hour later, we all crowded into Wes's office. Angel sat alone in the shadowed corner. Cordy curled into a chair across the room, as far away from him as she could get. She hadn't looked at Angel since she came in, but the look she shot me should have cut me in half.
Wes had updated Gunn on the situation before Angel came down, and Gunn had obviously decided to go the "discretion is the better part of valor" route. Instead of focusing on the spell, he was staring at the stun gun in his hand. "Let me get this straight," he said to me. "You were gonna lure the demon out and cure it--" he waved the stun gun in the air, "with *this*?"
I swallowed hard. "Yeah," I said, and my voice felt sticky and weak.
He shook his head and looked at Wes. "That work?"
Wes folded his hands. "The premise seems to be correct," he said. "The problem is that a stun gun doesn't offer enough volts to fill the demon's heart for any longer than the gun discharges."
"I say we kill it," Angel said.
Cordy glanced up at him, flushed, then looked back down at her hands.
"Cordy, you have a vote?" Wes asked.
I didn't want to go against Angel, but that soft spot in my heart wouldn't let me stay quiet. "Can't we figure out some other way? It's not evil—it's just trying to make up for something it's missing." I looked at each of them, sure that they'd understand that feeling. Even after what happened today, they were still Champions— and isn't a Champion just an outcast with cooler weapons?
Wes stood and put his hands on the desk. "I think Angel is right. Unfortunately, we don't have time to do any more research. The thing is hungry and it's likely to kill again." He tapped the desk with his fingertips. "We have no idea where it will strike next, so I suggest we go to the known points of attack to begin tracking it from there."
"I'll check out the grocery store," Angel said, pushing to his feet.
Gunn cut him a glance. "Why don't I go with you?" he asked.
"Gunn, you go with Cordy. She's still under the spell, and she'll need your protection." Wes turned to Angel, leveling his eyes at him. "You too, Angel."
"Impossible," Angel said, tight-lipped.
"The Elcsüggedt will go wherever Cordelia is. We'll need you there."
Angel stared at him with cold eyes. Wes, to his credit, didn't back down. If anything, he stood taller, straighter, like the Wes I first met in Pylea. The silence stretched and I started to get restless. Finally, Angel nodded, breaking the tension.
"How about we start here at the hotel and work our way out to the known hot spots," Wes continued, as if the stare-down hadn't happened. "Gunn's team, you take the area around Albertson's. Fred, come with me. We'll go check out The Derby, where Katy was attacked."
We suited up and prepared for action. Angel stayed well away from Cordy, who looked bruised around the edges. She'd taken off her sling, but she carried her injured hand close to her body. The bandages peeked out the gauzy ruffle of her collar, in pale relief next to her skin.
"Should Cordy be doing this?" I whispered to Wes as they collected their weapons.
"We don't have a choice," he said.
Wes and I pulled together a gym bag full of weapons in strained silence. I slung the bag over my shoulder just as the back door slammed behind Gunn, Angel and Cordy. We went out the front door and I straddled the bike behind Wes. We hauled down Wilshire, hung a left on Vermont, and turned onto Los Feliz Boulevard.
The Derby had just opened its doors and we made our way up the stairs where the bouncer sat, collecting cover fees. "Ten bucks each," he said.
Wes popped him a twenty before I could even get my cash out of my pocket.
"I can get it," I said.
He shook his head and led me into the domed front room. It was too early for the band, but they were serving drinks at the bar, and the patrons—dressed for the swing dancing later on—drank Cosmos, Martinis and expensive beers.
We wandered through the bar, checked the bathrooms, and showed the bartender the picture of the Elcsüggedt. After she finished laughing and told us to lay off the crack, we went back down to the parking lot.
"Guess he's not coming back here tonight," I said. I stuck my hands in the pockets of my jeans and rocked back and forth on my clogs.
A valet climbed into a black SUV and nosed it through the driveway. Out of curiosity we followed it around to the back parking lot. Dumpsters, an almost-full lot, another valet smoking a joint. Your normal behind-the-bar visual.
"What next?" I asked.
"I guess we check in with the others and—"
The burglar alarm wailed. Someone in the Derby screamed. We looked at each other and took off for the stairs.
Sure enough, the Elcsüggedt stood on the stage, holding a young woman by the front of her shirt and drooling on her. A fire escape door bobbed open behind it, on the opposite side of the building from where we'd been standing.
The bartender scrabbled for the phone and an instant later, Wes's rang. He didn't bother to answer—just waved at her as we plowed by.
"Hey!" I yelled at the demon. "Drop her!"
The Elcsüggedt turned his big, furry head, and let out a roar that had people backed up 10-deep in the doorway. The guy next to me blubbered and a wet stain appeared on his thigh. Luckily I'd had the pee scared out of me enough in Pylea to have built up a resistance.
Wes pulled the crossbow and lit a bolt. "Get down!" Everyone stared at him like he was speaking Swahili. "On the floor!" he yelled. They fell like bowling pins and Wes took aim and fired.
The ball of flame shot through the air and caught the Elcsüggedt in the shoulder. It shook its victim like a rag doll. She screamed and fainted, going limp in his paws.
Wes shot another bolt that hit the Elcsüggedt in the leg. It spun wildly and dropped the girl. I rounded the bar, hopscotching the bodies on the floor, and grabbed her by the feet. Her petticoats flared out as I dragged her across the stage. I left her in a pile of pink and white lace and went back to grab the bartender by the arm. She yelped.
She stared at me, blank-eyed with terror.
I slapped her. "Get with it!" I shouted, trying not to be distracted by the fact that Wes was running out of bolts. "Pick up the phone and dial nine-one-one. Tell them there's a hostage situation."
I left her dialing the cops and went back to help Wes. Unfortunately, the flood of people going for the exits blocked my path.
At my hip, my cell phone buzzed. I ignored it and did the only thing I could: I tried to get people to their feet and away from the demon. Should have taken Traffic Cop 101, I thought, as I shoved people out the door and directed them to the fire escapes.
Sirens started to wail outside, which only added to the screaming, the deafening klaxon of the burglar alarm, and the roaring of the demon. The smell of burning fur hit the air, and when I looked back, I saw that the Elcsüggedt, hair completely burned off its right arm, was running full-speed toward Wes.
My phone buzzed me again and I yanked it free. Cordy's number flashed on screen. I flipped the mouthpiece down. "HELP! We're at the Derby!"
"We'll be right there!"
I dodged the crowd and ran for Wes, who was being pummeled by the Elcsüggedt. I kicked and screamed and lunged for the sword handle sticking out of the gym bag. I really, really didn't want to kill this thing, but since I'd pretty much gotten us into this mess, I figured it was my responsibility to clean it up.
Wes struggled and I caught a flash of his blue eyes as I raised the sword.
I stopped on the downswing, just in time to see Cordy rush through the door. The Elcsüggedt's blows slowed and then stopped as he caught her scent. She gave him a little wave and disappeared. The thing rolled up on his hind legs and chased her like a cat after a catnip ball.
I dropped the sword. "Wes, are you okay?" I pulled him up and brushed him off. His glasses were cracked and hung off of one ear; blood dripped down his cheek, and his jacket was ripped.
He grabbed the bag, stuffed the sword in it and made for the door. "Come on! We've got to find Cordy!"