Father Goose and the Black Knight
Chapter 4: All Roads Lead to Cleveland
Faith showered off the blood and the demon goo, cleaned out the slash on her right arm and the claw marks that wound their way around her left leg. She ripped up a towel and bound her wounds. It had been a good fight.
She opened her hard-earned bottle of Cuban rum, took a swig and savored the sweet warmth. Damn, that was good stuff. She took another long slow draught, felt the warmth spread to her belly, back up her spine. She set the bottle on the beside table, got a cigar, lit it and flopped down on the bed, clicked the remote, flipped through the channels til she found an old movie with whatshisface, Clark Gable, who reminded her a little of her dancing vamp. She was hungry, a little, but not enough to do anything about it. Horny, too, just a little, but same story. She drank some more rum.
Now what, she wondered. She had five grand. She had a passport, three actually, safe and dry in their watertight container. All brand new, fresh and clean ID, thanks to Wesley. Because Wesley thought he was funny she could be Charity Wigglesworth or Hope Chesterfield. Or Faith OConnell, that was the real one. Well, they were all real but she was Faith. She had a couple of credits cards, one of her own, thank you Wes, one of the Councils, thank you Giles.
She was young, hot, footloose and fancy free, she could go anywhere. She had some more rum. Whattehell. Why not? Cuba. Jamaica. All that voodoo shit, had to be some cool demons down there.
Her cell buzzed and she reluctantly dug in her jacket for it. Shit, another detail, she was going to have to get a new charger. She checked the caller ID, Giles. Shit, shed missed her check-in call. She could hear him now, all gentle and calm, like someone trying to talk down a jumper:
Sorry to be a bother, Faith, dont mean to nag, Faith, but we get all nervous if you dont call, Faith, Id really care about you Faith if I just had the time
She thought for a moment of blowing him off, but then a wave of loneliness overcame her automatic defenses and she felt the need for a familiar voice and she answered.
They exchanged pleasantries, Faith fought back the urge to tell him about her watery bike. Finally Giles came to the point.
Harris was in some kind of trouble.
No, hed been back in the States for about eight months now.
And nobody told me because
Umm, er, um, well, didnt think youd care. But if you wouldnt mind ?
She said shed think about it.
She drank some more rum, she thought about warm breezes, cool drinks, hot sweaty nights fighting and fucking, dancing to a little calypso. What to do, where to go, Ohio, Caribbean, Caribbean, Ohio.
She reached over to use the room phone to save her cell battery, and bought a first class ticket, San Francisco to Cleveland.
Xander lifted a cup and took a sip of demon piss. AKA instant coffee. He shuddered. But he needed the caffeine.
Marybeths father sat across the table, sipping his own cup.
Xander watched Renee, all bright and bushy-tailed from her morning run, peer into the kitchen, see him and assume her pseudo-penitent face before slinking over to the table, sitting, giving him the lip tremble and the big wide eyes. God, it was hard to keep a straight face.
Am I in big, big trouble, Daddy? Renee said in her littlest little girl voice.
Xander stared at her, wondering for just a moment if she was really, really playing with him No. No. She really had no clue, did she? Such a quick smart girl, with dead vamps and demons under her belt, but she couldnt see the evil right there in the room. Couldnt even imagine it.
She was just playing. Shed been disobedient but shed been clever, shed killed two vamps, she wanted her attagirls without throwing Xanders total lack of control in his face. Xander thought he heard Giles laughing somewhere. But this was neither the time nor the place for this game.
Go, help Marybeth pack. Go, he said with the I-mean-it tone, and she went.
Xander looked over at the older man, sitting there looking perfectly normal, a little tired, a little angry maybe, but normal. Xanders rage had cooled, if only because, as he had learned in Africa, you could only stay so mad for so long before it killed you. You had to let the anger go, had to save the energy for thinking.
Earlier he had taken the man aside, made him sign three sets of the standard guardianship papers, read him the riot act, basically: Fuck with us and Ill kill you. Hed meant it.
If he had been a vamp Xander would have staked him without a second thought.
Xander lived in a sea of hormones, in a house full of beautiful, body-proud girls, all ripe, budding, blossoming, etc. and so on. At any one time at least five or six girls would, for lack of an alternative no doubt, be crushing on him. If he had wanted, really wanted, he could have had them lined up in the hall.
He had thoughts. Dreams. God. No man could live in that house and not have thoughts.
But you just Didnt. Not with children, even if some of them werent that much younger, even if their bodies, and yeah, their minds were ready. They were in his care and you just didnt.
And yet, people did. The girl called Shad, hed purchased her from her mother, with the tacit Tacit hell, explicit understanding, that Xander would be sleeping with the then fourteen year-old girl. It was easier than explaining the truth. The girl had come to his bed the next night in the shabby hotel and it had taken several hours, well, days actually, of pidgin and pantomime to get the message across that he wanted a warrior, not a slave. But then, finally, when the idea took hold maybe it was just the Slayer in her but hed seen such joy cross her face. It was one the things that made all the other crap worthwhile.
Shad was short for Shadow, cause shed followed him around like one for six months after that.
But hed left Shads mother untouched, left her sisters behind.
A man who molested his own daughters, youd think that would be as bad as it gets. But it wasnt. Xander had seen worse and passed by. You could save the world. You couldnt change it.
He couldnt let Marybeth kill her father. No girl should have to carry that, certainly no Slayer.
He could take them away, surely that was enough?
Had he really come to the point where he felt bad about NOT killing a man, a human?
Bad wiring, some synapses gone wrong, a little bit of DNA miscoded, a natural urge twisted, become an unnatural compulsion. Did you kill a man for that?
Marybeth had a compulsion to sneak out at night and kill vamps. Suppose she had a compulsion to sneak out and kill chartered accountants. Or Republicans. Or left-handed redheads. If it came to it, he would put her down, if he had to, what made her father any different?
Its not like there was reasonable doubt. There was no doubt. Hed seen the girls faces, heard Marybeth talk.
He knew what Anya would have suggested. Something involving evisceration. But did he really want to take moral guidance from a former vengeance demon? If Anyanka would have been all faster, pussycat, kill kill kill, does that mean that he should or that he shouldnt?
Marybeths mom came out and sat down at the table, her eyes were red and her face puffy, but the crying was over. She seemed, calm, serene.
She sat quietly at her husbands side as Marybeth and Renee took first a load of suitcases and then the two little girls out to their fathers car.
Xander stood and took Mom by the hand, led her out to the front room, said, Do you want to come with us? Youll be safe, I promise.
She hesitated, then shook her head. No, she said. Im all he has now.
* * *
Xander made Marybeths father drive them to the bus station, made him buy the tickets, made him pose, while Renee took a picture, with everyones hands waving, clearly free of weapons or restraints. With a security officer visible in the background.
Hed given up his original idea of making it look like Marybeth had left on her own, but he wanted to do what he could to forestall any possible kidnapping charges, the last thing anyone needed was cops sniffing around the Cleveland house.
Hed felt like shit for awhile on the bus, trying but unable to sleep, his mind full of images of Marybeths father cruising a playground, hanging out at the toy store. But as he watched the two little girls growing slowly but steadily more animated with each passing mile, giggling, playing some card game with Renee, he let the tension slowly ease out of his shoulders. He had a new Slayer and hed saved two little girls. It would do. His exhaustion slowly overtook him and his head lolled.
Later, when Jinny and Michelle tired of cards Renee introduced them to a new game, called Draw the mustache on Xander.
Thats interesting, Stabler said as he and Detective Benson left behind the miasma of incense and toodle music of yet another Magic and/or New Age, Occult Metaphysical Psychic Wiccan Spiritual healing shoppe. Stabler had always thought of Cleveland, on those rare occasions when he did, as a staid, working class middle class town. Who would have thought there were so many fruitcakes living there. Might as well be in California, at least youd get the sun.
Whats interesting? Benson asked.
The owner of that place was on the phone before we were even out the door. Im pretty sure the owner of that other place, what was it, the Wicked Toad
The Wiccan Road, Benson corrected
did the same thing. Got an idea. He called in to the squadroom, got Munch. Reading out of his notebook, he gave Munch the names of the stores theyd visited so far and the approximate time of each visit.
Get with the phone company, find out how many of these places made outgoing calls right after the time we were there
Gotchya, Munch said. Gimme half an hour.
Stabler was trying to decide whether he regretted the first pierogie or wanted another when Munch called back.
Five places made outgoing calls in the time frame, three of them called the same number.
Wait for it. Its an unlisted number, but we traced it to the Cleveland Home for Gifted Girls. So I think they just went from long shot to top of the list, dont you?
* * *
Benson was navigating, the street map unfolded in her lap, claiming her attention as Stabler drove. They had moved out of the downtown into a more open area when Stabler suddenly exclaimed. Whatthehell?
What? Benson said, marking her place on the map with a finger before looking up.
We just got passed by two girls on bicycles, Stabler said.
Im going forty-five miles an hour. Uphill.
* * *
There was a short gravel driveway that circled in front of the buildings main entrance, an offshoot curled around the building on the western end. An elderly white van and an even older pick-up truck were parked there.
The grounds were neat, grass trimmed and evenly green. The house itself was very large but unremarkable. A verandah that looked to be a recent addition ran the southern length of the building facing the street, and curled around the corner on the eastern end.
Not exactly ominous, Benson said.
Yeah well, appearances, Stabler said and shrugged, and strode up the steps, ignored the doorbell and banged heavily on the door, yelled, Police. He heard movement, voices, then the door swung open to reveal a tall black girl, taller than Stabler, thin yet well-muscled with strong features that reminded Stabler of that girl in the Bond flick with the fishhook butterflies.
Her voice was soft, deep and musical. May I help you?
Cleveland PD, we want to talk to whoevers in charge here. A Mr. Alexander Harris?
Im sorry, Mr. Alex is not at home.
Well, whoevers in charge then.
One moment, and Stabler found the door slowly, politely, but firmly closed in his face. He heard running feet, the brief cacophony of female voices of which the only part he could make out was. Is he cute? and then the door opened and a petite Hispanic girl stood in the doorway, looking up at him. I am Caridad, how may I help you?
Caridad Benson said, inviting her to fill in her last name.
That is correct.
What is your full name, Caridad?
I am Caridad, it is enough.
Like Cher? Benson said.
More like Car-i-dad, the girl said, enunciating carefully. Stabler heard laughter down the hall. He looked past the girl and saw what looked like an office doorway down the hall. And thought, the hell with this, and stepped forward to do the standard brush-by, well Im in, you must have invited me pass.
It was like running into a lamppost. He bounced backwards. The girl looked up at him, her eyebrows lifted quizzically.
Im sorry, Mr. Harris has instructed me not to let anyone in until he returns. Can I take a message?
What is your position here, Caridad? Benson asks.
I am the person who takes messages for Mr. Harris when he is not here, she answered.
Benson looked over at Stabler to see he had any ideas but he was still just staring at the girl, open-mouthed.
When do you expect Mr. Harris to return? Benson filled the silence.
What the hell? Benson started when they were back at the car but Stabler held up his hand for silence. Turn around, he told her, just bear with me a moment. She felt his hands reach under her armpits and lift her, he held her up, held her in the air a moment, then set her down.
Sorry, just checking, he said. I thought maybe Id suddenly turned into a ninety-pound weakling or something.
Yeah, what was that?
I dont know. It was like walking into a wall. Maybe some kind of martial arts trick that I never believed in, like the one-inch punch. I know the vics said that the girls were strong, but that was ridiculous. Shes what, maybe a hundred pounds, soaking wet. What in the hell is going on here?
I dont know. Why were they so calm? I mean, we get crap from teenagers all the time but you can see the fear in their eyes, see them psych themselves up. Those girls were just
Laughing at us, Stabler said. I dont know if it has anything to do with our killer, but something strange is going on and I think we need to get some surveillance out here.
* * *
Caridad took a deep breath and returned to the din of the dining room. She understood the safety in numbers concept, how good it was for the baby Slayers to live with older Slayers, to have someone else take care of petty details like rent and phone bills, but what she wouldnt give for just one days privacy. Maybe in a couple of days, when they got the new Slayer settled she would hit Xander with her idea again, a safe house not too far away, a little house or even an apartment the older Slayers could share in turns, a place to take a boyfriend, to take a long hot bath uninterrupted, to just watch a little TV alone and in peace
She took her (temporary) place at the head the table and banged a glass until she got nearly half the rooms attention and said. That was Xander on the phone, and waited for the rest of the room to quiet
Hey, I wanted at least three voices started.
For godsakes, Caridad snapped back, you just talked to him yesterday Anyway, hes coming in on the midnight bus, so we need to make arrangements to meet him. Hey. Hey HEY! Vi and I will sort that out later. The main thing is, this means after dinner we need to really clean things up cause first, we do have a new Slayer, and second, Xander said if he sees dirty dishes and pizza boxes like last time theres no cable for a month Hey, his words, Im just the messenger. Now, Vi, Xander said to tell you Renee is fine and hell talk to you later
She waited for he chorus of uh-ohs, and Youre in trouble nows, to die down.
You had something to tell us about the new Slayer?
Vi spoke briefly, then Caridad took advantage of the girls subdued mood to assign tasks and get the work started. She was on her way downstairs to check that the spells on Clems Room were stable when Shad pulled her aside.
What did Mr. Alex say about the policemen? she asked.
Oh, crap, said Caridad, I forgot Ill tell him when he gets home, Im sure its no big deal.
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