Under Pressure - 2
~Espresso Pump, Wednesday 6:55 p.m.~
“Hey, Giles, do you want anything?” Buffy asked, as the trio got into the line at the front counter.
“No, really, that will be alright.” Giles knew that Buffy and Riley had both scoped out the coffee shop and decided that it was all clear, but he couldn’t help but take a nervous glance around. “Buffy, I don’t mean to alarm you, but…”
“You mean our friend sitting at the table by the restrooms?”
“This isn’t really a social visit, but if you want to go over and say hi, more power to you.”
“You mean, you don’t think…”
“Nah, just coincidence.”
“Is there a problem?” Riley finally turned from the menu board to observe the staring match going on between the watcher and slayer.
“No.” They both answered.
“Are you sure? Because if you think this is going to go south…”
“No, there’s no problem.” Giles insisted.
“We just saw a friend that Giles hasn’t talked to in a long time, and he wants to go say hi.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Very well, I think I need to pay my regards to … my friend.” Giles stepped up to the counter. “One Earl Grey.”
“Are you sure there isn’t a problem?” Riley glanced around the coffee shop, but nothing seemed out of place.
“So, I don’t see your friend here yet.” Buffy decided she should distract Riley for a few minutes.
“He always runs a bit late.” Riley shrugged.
“You’re up.” Buffy nudged Riley to the counter.
“Okay, I’ll have a medium hot cocoa. Buffy what do you want?” Riley said, pulling out his wallet.
“Oh you don’t have to…”
“It’s the least I can do considering …”
“Oh, well in that case, I’ll have a caramel macchiato, skim milk, ooh, and extra whip.”
As soon as Riley had paid, Buffy led him to an empty table near the back that had a clear view of the front door but not the table Giles had settled at. “Here, why don’t you hold our table, and I’ll get the drinks when they’re ready.” Buffy carefully arranged the chairs so that Graham’s chair would have its back to the door.
“You know, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought you’d seen the Godfather recently.” Riley teased, seeing through her nervous arrangements.
“Or maybe I just like moving chairs around? Oh look, coffee’s ready.” Buffy sprinted for the counter as soon as their order was called. She returned and set the cups down on the table.
“You know, you don’t have to be so worried. Graham wouldn’t do anything bad.”
“Thanks, but I’ll believe it when I see it.” Buffy patted Riley’s hand. “Your fingers are way cold. Are you sure you shouldn’t be back in bed?”
“I’ll be fine. Besides it’s too late to back out now.” Riley nodded at the door, where Graham was coming in.
The soldier looked around the room quickly, before joining the pair at the back table. “Hey, Lilac…or should I say, Daisy?”
“Yeah, sorry about that; I didn’t want to make it too obvious. Glad to see you got the message.” Riley shook hands briefly with his second in command. “Did you have any problem getting leave?”
“I told Forrest that I was stepping out to the bookstore for some psych cliff notes, and that he had command until I got back. I don’t suppose you have any cliff notes with you?”
“They’re back at the House, on the shelf above my computer.” Riley offered.
“You mean there are cliff notes for Walsh’s class and no one told me? Bummer.” Buffy teased. From her voice, no one would guess just how aware she was of everyone moving around here. So far she hadn’t spotted anyone even slightly military, and Giles was currently dealing with the only problem she had spotted.
“It really is better for you to read the book.” Riley gently teased Buffy back. “So, Agent Miller, what’s the situation back at base?”
“Where do I even begin? I know things with the H.S.T.s have been weird before, but things lately seem to be taking weird to a whole new level. Walsh has been acting strange. Since you left, she’s been issuing contradictory commands- first we have to stay on base, and then she says we should take leave; she orders us to be conservative with our patrols, and then gets in a mood because we’ve stepped down how much area we’re covering. She yells at us for taking up too much room in the halls. She’s been spending more time in room 314, and Sanchez reported that she was talking to herself in there. If it was just Walsh, I’d chalk it up to her being under pressure; McNamara is doing a review soon. But, there’s been a lot of weird stuff going around.”
‘Weird stuff?” Buffy raised a brow. She doubted the Initiative had any idea how weird stuff really got around there.
“Lots of little weird stuff, but it’s adding up to something bad. The walls are getting cold spots. Clocks plugged into the wall are suddenly running faster than our digital watches. Iota team reports that any security photos taken today have been blurry at best. One of pipes going into the labs has developed a leak, and we can’t find it. There are just weird bulges in the paint. We nearly had a collapse of one of the bathroom ceilings; although, my guess is that you caused that when you guys broke out.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny any allegations…”
“Save it, Iowa.” Graham rolled his eyes. “I’m not wearing a wire or anything. I’m just saying things are weird. It’s like the building is ready to collapse. I just hope the security systems hold. We’ll be in for a major mess if level three gets out.”
“That’s not good. You guys need help.” Buffy observed.
“Ya think?” Graham shot the blonde a scathing look before turning back to his commander. “So what do we do, captain? Please say you have good news.”
“I wouldn’t call it that.” Riley set the papers he had taken from Willow on the table.
“I’m guessing those aren’t the psychology notes.”
“Well, you could say it’s a psychology experiment. Just read it.”
Graham pulled the report to his side of the table. “You don’t have clearance to have this.”
“I know.” Riley blushed.
“You could be court-martialed for this. I could get court-martialed for this.”
“If you don’t want to read it, I can’t make you, but if you don’t read it, I can’t help you.” Riley answered.
“It’s really worth risking your career over?”
“It’s your life.” Riley answered, deadly serious. Graham raised his brows at that. “How about I put it this way? I think it’s sufficient to get Walsh court-martialed if not worse.” Graham flipped over the cover page and began skimming.
“Damn.” He finally muttered, reaching the fourth page. “These days it doesn’t rain; it pours around here. How’d you get this?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You’ve got to tell me something. You can’t just drop this on my lap and leave.”
“We’re trying to figure out what to do, but this never came up in basic training.”
“You can say that again.”
“We need to get Walsh stopped.”
“Are you nuts? How exactly are you supposed to get Walsh when she’s the head of the Initiative? The only one higher than her is McNamara.”
“What’s McNamara like?” The guys just looked at Buffy. “I mean, is he someone we can talk to? Will he listen? Maybe he doesn’t know what’s going on?”
“It’s possible.” Graham pondered.
“His name is on the report so he has clearance.” Riley pointed out. “He should already know about this project.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s read it. Honestly, the abstract is so convoluted I didn’t even know what was going on until I got to the second page.”
“McNamara’s thorough. He reads reports cover to cover.” Riley insisted.
“McNamara is also not entirely pleased with Walsh. I think he could keep her from continuing this experiment.” Graham reasoned. If he could speak freely with McNamara when Walsh wasn’t around, it could be possible to convince him to look into Walsh’s experimenting with the troops. After all, that was a liability for patrols.
“It’s not just this experiment. Do you remember Adam from Delta unit?”
“How can I forget?” Graham swallowed nervously. The Delta unit was the first to suffer from a casualty when on patrol. Adam had survived the trek back to base only to die in the med units.
“He’s not completely dead. Walsh has grafted H.S.T. parts to him and is keeping him alive behind door 314.” Riley cradled his hot cocoa as he repeated what he had read from Willow’s print outs.
“That’s impossible.” Graham insisted. Riley shrugged. “That would mean…”
“General McNamara has signed off on that study as well.”
“So what do we do? I can’t jump over McNamara’s head.”
“I know.” Riley bit his lip in thought and frowned at the ache spreading across his shoulders. “I don’t know what to tell you. Until Walsh tells me not to follow Buffy, I’m still following orders.”
“Yeah, talk about lucking out. I don’t think she thought you’d take her so literally.”
Riley blushed. “I’ll do my best to come up with some strategy for stalling the experiments, and maybe we’ll be able to figure out what’s going wrong with the building. In the mean time, I don’t suppose you could take some of the heat off from looking for us?”
“I’m in charge of mapping out for next week. I can try to focus around the old high school; that will be easy to justify after last night.”
“Sorry about that.” Buffy muttered, slurping through her straw.
“Don’t worry about it. You’re not the first woman who hasn’t warmed up to Forrest.”
“Thanks. We’ll stay away from the school.”
“Can I reach you at the email you sent me? I think Walsh will start watching your accounts.”
“Yeah. That should work out.” Riley nodded, his voice sounding a bit distant.
“Riley, we should probably get going, and you know, let Willow try her thing.” Buffy wrapped an arm around Riley’s shoulder.
“Is everything alright?” Graham finally asked. He had thought Riley had looked a little green around the gills, but had chalked it up to Riley, the original boy scout, being caught in a Catch-22 where he had to break protocols to follow orders. Now Graham was beginning to suspect it was something else.
“Whatever drugs they’re spiking us with… don’t go off them until I tell you to. They’re addictive, and I think the withdrawal may… well, it’s not good.” Riley was going to say it felt like the withdrawal would kill him, but he hadn’t trained so hard just to up and die from a little flu. “We’ll try to find a cure before taking the rest of you guys off it.”
“Whatever you say, sir.” Graham watched as Buffy helped Riley up.
“Don’t look so serious, Miller. I’ll be back with Alpha unit soon.” Riley tried to tease, but it came out as a hacking cough.
~Angel’s Mansion, Wednesday, 6:57 p.m.~
“Well, this just isn’t right.” Willow glared at the computer screen.
“What’s wrong?” Clem peeked in from the kitchen.
“I can’t get in the way I did before. It’s like their computer can’t remember the password.”
“Maybe they changed the passwords? Hey, do you want something to drink since I’m up? I think Angel has…” he checked the fridge, “…water?”
“Um, sure, a glass of water would be good.” Willow answered as she typed another attempt. “Doh, it’s not working.”
Clem brought Willow a glass of water and then settled in the chair to her right that had been Spike’s position the night before. He watched her type for a few minutes, before feeling the need to fill the silence. “Did that work?”
“Well, if they did change the password it’s not making sense. I mean, I can get through the first level, and then when they ask me for the password for the second level, it says correct, but sends me back to the first level. It’s like it’s stuck in a memory loop.”
“That’s odd.” Clem answered, guessing that was what she expected to hear.
“Yes, that’s very odd.” Willow stared at the machine and tried a few more variations that should have worked when all else failed. “Grr! This is so frustrating.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t worry about it? Easy for you to say. You don’t have three vampires breathing down your neck for you to figure this out. Not to mention my friends. I mean, they always expect me to be some sort of genius, like I’m this massive brain. Well guess what folks; this program is kickin’ my brains around the floor! I can’t get it.”
“So don’t.” Clem shrugged. Willow stared at him. “Oh, I don’t mean give up entirely. I just mean, quit trying to go that route. Maybe the same information you’re looking for is stored somewhere else.”
“I suppose I could hack into the Pentagon. The joint chiefs might have something about the Initiative in their files. But that really takes a lot of effort, and it would be much harder not to get caught.” Willow frowned.
“Hmm, that is a problem.” Clem agreed.
“Ugh, this is hopeless.” Willow frowned as she tried to sketch out what she would need to get through the Pentagon’s firewalls.
“Maybe you just need to try something else for awhile, or, hey, I know. Maybe the problem is that you’re hungry.”
“I doubt it. Of course, I haven’t had anything since the leftover pizza this morning…”
“I have a friend who works at a Chinese restaurant at the edge of town. I bet if we called him he could deliver out here.”
“The Sleeping Dragon.”
“Oh, that’s the new one, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, most of the people working there used to work for the mayor. My friend used to be one of those people on the street crews that cleaned up every morning. Of course with the mayor dead…”
“The mayor… of course, town hall records! They have to have maps at least of where all the sewer and waterlines are. We can probably figure out all the entrances that way. Oh, and the planner’s office might even have blue prints of the base. This is great, thanks!”
“No problem.” Clem leaned back in his chair. “So does that mean you want me to order some egg rolls or not?”
“Sure, knock yourself out.”
~ College Street, Wednesday, 6:58 p.m. ~
“I can’t believe you talked me into this.” Angel muttered as he stood on the doorstop of the doctor’s house.
“Just act like that little tin soldier. He won’t be able to tell the difference.” Spike ordered from his hiding place in the bushes.
Angel snarled a smile back in that general direction before turning back to the door and snapping to attention. He rang the doorbell.
A pudgy man answered the door, his glasses tilted as though he just put them on. “Yes?”
“Dr. Angleman, sir? There’s been a problem at the base.”
“What kind of problem?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, sir. I was just told to escort you, stat.”
“Oh, oh my. Just let me grab my shoes…” The doctor ran upstairs, returning a minute later short of breath with a pair of loafers in his hand. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“Sir, don’t you need to lock your door first?”
“Right, keys.” The doctor grabbed a set of keys from the table by the door and locked up, following Angel off the porch. “Soldier, where’s the jeep?” He finally asked as they reached the curb.
“That’s the thing, you see, we’re not taking the jeep, and I’m not really a soldier.” The doctor
turned to stare at Angel. “But there really is a problem at the base, and I was told to escort you. That’s the funny thing about telling the truth. It’s not always what you think it is.”
“Who are you?”
“I don’t suppose it matters who we are.” Spike said, stepping out from the bushes. “You just assign us all a number anyway.”
“Hostile 17.” The doctor gasped.
“Idiot number 2, we meet again.” Spike said, lighting up a cigarette. Asher and Zoltan stepped out of the shadows, surrounding the doctor. “Now, how about we take a little walk? I know this lovely little spot to visit, perfect for a spot of corrective surgery.”
“You can’t hurt me, you have a chip!” Dr. Angleman stuttered.
“Yeah, but I don’t.” Angel transformed into his vampire face. Granted, he was going to do anything in his power to make sure no permanent harm came to the doctor, but the easiest way to do that was to make sure the doctor was afraid, very afraid.
“I’ll scream.” The doctor threatened.
“You tire me.” Asher sighed. He grabbed the doctor by the arm, and began levitating. “Zoltan, if you would be so kind as to bring the others?”
“But of course, you know I can’t refuse you, Blondie.” Zoltan winked at the older vampire. The demon grabbed Angel and Spike and blinked out of the dimension, only to reappear in an operating room at the teaching hospital down the road.
Asher pulled the doctor closer to his body and then took off in the air. “You can fly? They never said your kind could fly.” The doctor muttered as he suddenly found himself high above his house.
“Your heart beats fast. Is it because you’re afraid I might drop you?” Asher decided to play with the doctor a bit on their way to the operating room.
“No… yes… maybe?”
“Relax, doctor.” Asher purred in that voice that made most humans relax all muscles. “I will not drop you while we still need you.”
“Need … me?” The doctor gulped.
“You have your uses.” Asher spotted the hospital and sped up his flight. “Of course, with your heart beating so fast, I might get distracted.”
“Oh, no, don’t be distracted. Please don’t get distracted.” The doctor clung to Asher’s shirt as he peeked down.
Asher laughed his spine tickling laugh. “You are so frightened of flying?”
“You could say that.”
“It is a terror, knowing what this world is about, no? Of course, you also fear that your terror for the night is just beginning. Fear has an interesting smell.”
The doctor wisely stayed silent. Asher landed them on the roof of the teaching hospital and dragged the doctor down to the operating room Zoltan had scoped out earlier in the evening.
“What did you do to him? He looks a bit spooked.” Spike said circling the doctor as a shark would circle its prey.
“He is afraid of flying.” Asher shrugged.
“Well, he better get over it fast. It wouldn’t do to have twitchy fingers.”
“What do you mean?” Dr. Angleman stuttered. He had never interacted with H.S.T.s who weren’t properly sedated beforehand. Dr. Walsh had always described them as barely above beasts. It disturbed him to see four of them seemingly working together to trap him.
“Dr. Angleman, it seems you’ve been practicing some surgery on my friends here. All we ask is that you undo your previous work. All you must do is remove the chips.”
“And if I don’t?”
“We can go for another trip, I could get distracted…”
“You really would drop me? Then you’d never get the chips out.” The doctor bluffed.
Asher glanced towards Angel, who was standing guard in the darkened doorway. The ensouled vampire was clearly having second thoughts about joining them. If Angel was incapable of ruling ruthlessly, it would be impossible to position him as Master of a City, especially a city as large as Los Angeles. If Angel was not capable of holding a city, then it would be difficult to justify a prolonged stay in the area. That simply would not do. “Perhaps you are correct. Mon ange, do you have any suggestions?” Asher decided to force the vampire to take a stand.
Angel tried to keep his face blank. He really didn’t want to be part of this; the idea of torturing a human to get something out of him was so tempting for his demon. He hated that part of him really wanted to experiment with the nice sterilized scalpel set on the table. His soul felt guilty for the sins he had yet to commit. He met Spike’s gaze. Clearly the younger vampire was expecting Angel to turn on him at any moment, and part of Angel felt guilty about the history of betrayal between them. “I have a question.” Angel began and could almost hear the groan coming from Spike.
“By all means ask. We have all the time in the world.” Asher replied masking his sarcasm in his thick French accent.
Angel turned to face the doctor. “Can you do surgery sitting down?”
It was such an absurd question that the doctor replied immediately without thinking about it. “As long as the table’s low enough, I would imagine so.”
Angel turned to Spike. “He doesn’t really need both legs. That gives you two chances to convince him to do the surgery.” The doctor gulped nervously.
“We could start at the toes. It’s more fun that way.” Spike said through gritted teeth. Just as he was just teasing with the notion of breaking bones, the chip was just teasing with the notion of a full scale shock.
“If I do it, will you let me go?” The doctor nervously tried to bargain.
“I will personally bring you back to your house.” Angel promised. As much as the doctor probably deserved some torture for his experimenting, Angel was not going to let it happen on his watch.
“Alright, I’ll do it.”
“Fabulous! Let’s get started.” Zoltan jumped onto the operating table.
~Espresso Pump, Wednesday, 7:00 p.m.~
Willy sipped his coffee, hoping it would take care of that headache before he’d have to head back to work. Of course, given the new military threat combined with the slayer’s reappearance, he doubted he would be missing much traffic if he kept the bar closed another hour.
“Is this seat taken?” A genteel voice interrupted Willy’s train of thought. Willy glanced up to see the watcher hovering over his table, blocking his view of the rest of the café.
“Um,” was all Willy could reply before Giles took the seat across from him.
“So how are things with you?” Giles smiled warmly as though he was good friends with the barkeep, not longstanding enemies.
“Same old, same old. You?” Willy asked. This conversation was a bit on the surreal side for Willy, but having tended bar in Sunnydale for as long as he had, he could handle surreal.
“I’ve had better days.” The watcher shrugged. “I must admit, I’m surprised to see you over here during business hours.”
“Business has been kinda slow, what with you folk, and you know, the other folk... No point opening too early.” Willy glanced around nervously, annoyed that the watcher would be sitting right in front of his view of the opposite side of the room, but too paranoid to mention it to the man, lest he draw the watcher’s attention to the table in his blind spot.
“The other folk?”
“Don’t even try it. I know you know what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Yes, they are a nuisance, aren’t they?” Giles shook his head.
“You’re telling me. If they bust my joint one more time, I’m out of business.” Willy admitted before realizing who he was talking to, “Not that I think they would do such a thing, considering what an upstanding legal establishment I run.”
Giles snorted. “Save it for someone who cares. Although I admit I’m a bit surprised they would be considered a greater threat than Buffy.”
“Don’t get me wrong, the slayer’s not exactly winning any popularity contests down at my place, but she knows where to draw the line. She goes after the big players but doesn’t sweat the small stuff. These guys, it’s like they can’t tell the difference between a vampire and a vicuna.”
“They can’t.” Giles agreed, trying to blink away the mental picture of a llama with fangs.
“They’ve got everyone worried about this 314. Say, you’re a man of the world; I don’t suppose you would happen to know what 314 means?” Willy asked the question that had been the topic of the bar for almost a week. People on the street were whispering that 314 was the beginning of the end, but nobody could tell him what it was, just that it was very, very bad, even by Hellmouth standards.
“Oh really?” Willy really shouldn’t have been surprised that the watcher would know.
“Yes, it depends on what you know about the master vampires currently in town.”
“We’ve got a threat that even has the demons scared, and you’re worried about master vampires? You watchers have no sense of perspective.” Willy gulped his coffee.
“Humor me.” Giles let his face slide into that ominous blank expression that he had practiced during his Oxford years.
“Who do you want to know about?” Willy asked, ignoring the dead eyes for another sip of coffee. “Spike’s back in town.”
“Yes, and he’s already paid a visit to those people, I know. I asked about master vampires, true masters.” Giles asked impatiently. He needed to know what the word on the street was about Asher before he’d trust Willow in the vampire’s arms again.
“Ah. And here I thought you lot couldn’t tell the difference.” Willy glanced around, before leaning forward. “Now, I’m not saying I know this for sure, but I might have heard some people on the street mention El Lobo was in town. They say he was sniffing around the high school the night before last, probably on a mission from his master.”
“It’s a rumor. Take it or leave it.” Willy answered. “Now, what do you know about 314?”
“Are you sure that’s the only master is town?”
“The only one you need to worry about. You better hope El Lobo is out of here before the next full moon. Things might get kinda hairy around here, if you catch my drift.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of El Lobo.” Giles shook his head. That information wouldn’t help at all. El Lobo wasn’t even from the same pedigree as Asher, according to council records. Of course, the idea that there were two full masters in the city made the night just slightly more terrifying than usual.
“Great, so time for you to spill. What’s with 314?”
“It’s a room number painted on a door.” Giles answered, knowing it was the simplest, least helpful explanation from that large stack of papers Willow had accrued.
“Thank you so much. That’s helpful.” Willy snorted sarcastically. “The door to where? What’s behind it? Come on, give me something to work with.”
“We’re working on that.” Giles glanced behind him to see Buffy and Riley rise from the table they had been sitting at. “Well, I would say it’s been a pleasure…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Go see to your slayer and let her know that I’m not around so she shouldn’t pay a visit any time soon.”
“I’ll make sure she gets the message.” Giles left the café, meeting up with Riley and Buffy at the corner. “Willy sends his greetings.”
“Isn’t that sweet of him.” Buffy shook her head with an amused grin. “So how about some good old fashioned patrolling?”
“On one hand, it would be a good idea to let the demon community know that you’re in control, but on the other hand, we don’t want to run into any of Riley’s friends.”
“I hate to say it, but I agree with Mr. Giles. It would be too dangerous to patrol the cemeteries, Buffy. Even on stand down, Walsh will probably send patrols around the cemeteries.”
“I wasn’t talking about cemetery patrol.” Buffy rolled her eyes. “I just want to do a quick swing by Mom’s and make sure she’s doing okay.”
“They’ll probably have your house staked.” Riley frowned.
“Don’t worry, so much. I’m sure we can get around some creepy stakeout.” Buffy turned on her pouty look, “Besides, mom’s probably worried sick about me since I haven’t called in, like, days. The least I can do is make sure there are no lurky vamps around.”
“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make sure that Joyce is safe, from a distance.” Giles capitulated to his slayer.
“Faboo!” Buffy skipped ahead of the two men, on her way down the street.
“You know, I get the feeling she was just looking for an excuse not to be cooped up in the mansion.” Riley commented.
“You just now figured that out?” Giles answered, quickening his step to keep up with the slayer.