Part 2

Pine Crest was a small town. Its coroner and medical examiner happened to be the local mortician. Hancock had rolled his eyes when Buffy told him that. Good forensics could make a case. Bad forensics could break it, or send you in the wrong direction, or just stop you cold.

Fortunately for them, this killer’s criminal signature was simple and unambiguous. The cause of death was easily ascertained, and the killer’s calling card obvious and unmistakable.

Buffy hung back near the door of the old, green and white tiled room with its stainless steel dissecting tables and cold, gleaming tools. Vampires didn’t leave decomposing corpses behind when they died, and demons usually vanished back to wherever they had come from. But Sharon Davis was a human being. Human beings didn’t die so neatly. Buffy had seen human death before. Sunndydale’s vampires and demons had left a swath of despair and violence that was wide and deep. Over time, she’d grown hardened to the grisly horrors they left behind. This was different, though. She wasn’t certain why. Maybe, the older you got, the more difficult it became to accept the death of children, she thought.

Hancock wore a clinical look as he gave the body a cursory examination, speaking dispassionately into his microcassette recorder.

“As per the findings of the Pine Crest Medical Examiner, the victim is a white female, approximately sixteen years of age. Height five foot five, etceteras. The details are all in the report, Donna. Be sure to copy Agents DeVries and Forrest on that. Victim has been positively identified as one Sharon Davis, a student at Pine Crest High School who disappeared eight days ago. Cause of death appears to be in accord with the others in this investigation. The carotid artery has been cut, and ligature marks around the ankles suggest that the victim was suspended inverted in order to more completely drain the body. On the chest is a burn mark exactly six centimeters in diameter depicting the same symbol as we found on the other victims. There is no obvious sign of sexual abuse either pre- or post-mortem, which is also in accordance with the previous incidents. I’m going to try to expedite getting the body to Portland for a more complete and detailed autopsy, hair and fiber analysis, tox screen, the usual tests.”

Buffy was beginning to feel vaguely ill. No, a bit more than vaguely. She left the smell of chemicals and necropsy behind and went outside into the bracing, fresh mountain air. Some Dark Slayer she was.

She felt the Dark Hunter’s ancient anger rise inside her, joining the hard core of her own deep-seated rage at an evil that defied all her best efforts to destroy it.

“You okay?”

It was Willow.

“No,” said Buffy. She sat down on a large boulder overlooking a deep ravine and her friend joined her. Buffy picked up a handful of loose stones and began absently tossing them out into the air.

“Is it the Dark Hunter?” asked Willow.

Buffy shook her head. “I don’t think so. So far, it’s been a perfectly well-behaved guest. I can feel it sometimes, like now. I can feel it coil tighter in my mind when something like this murder gets its attention. But this is about me, not it. It’s about these killings. These girls, Willow, are being killed because of me. I know it. And I haven’t been able to stop it.”

Willow looked at her sharply. “You don’t know that. There’s no way to be sure of that.”

“That symbol burned into each one of them? It’s the same symbol I was having visions of when I was in the psychiatric hospital. That makes it about me. It makes it something I’m supposed to stop. But I haven’t been able to stop it. I’m always a step behind, and there’s always one more innocent girl that gets killed because I’m not up to this. What’s the point in being the Slayer or the Dark Hunter if, with all that power, I can’t even save one sixteen-year-old girl’s life?”

“I think you’re tired, Buffy. You’ve been running too hard and too fast since you came back from Hell and took over the DH Group. You’re burning yourself out, and it’s tearing me up to see it happening,” said Willow.

Buffy nodded. “On paper, everything’s going right. For the first time, I’ve got the manpower and resources to fight this war. I have Angel again. I have you and Giles. In a way, I even have Elisa. But this damn legacy has become so all-consuming that it’s costing me everything human in my life. Angel, Giles, you …”

“Not me, Buffy. And not Giles or Angel, either. I know they still care about you, and you know I’ll always be there for you.”

“Why? It’s not like I’ve been there for you. God knows, I haven’t been much of a friend to anyone,” said Buffy.

“I stopped being angry at you a long time ago,” said Willow. “You’re not an easy person to stay mad at, you know.”

Buffy felt all the old regrets bubble up toward the surface of her emotions. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Will — through everything you’ve been my salvation and my anchor and my conscience, and all I can do is bring you death and horror. I don’t deserve you. I never did. Why the hell do you stick with me?”

Willow gave her a puzzled look, as if it were the silliest question imaginable. “I stick with you because I like you, Buffy. I mean, out of everyone, you’re always the one who treated me like a person instead of just some sort of zoo display — ‘Oh, look at the nerd exhibit. You don’t see too many of those around these here parts.’ That always meant a lot to me. You always meant a lot to me. You have no idea how lonely those ten years were for me when you went away. I mean, there was Oz, and the students, and Giles. But without you … without you there was always something missing. There was this hole. I don’t really understand it, I guess.”

The Slayer closed her eyes. “I shouldn’t have left — not after Angel and not after Mom. It was selfish and irresponsible, leaving you to fight things it was my job to deal with. It’s always been ‘me’. My needs. My pain. My curse. I forgot that it wasn’t just about me. I forgot about you. I don’t know if you can forgive me for that.”

“I knew you’d be back someday, when you were ready.”

“I wasn’t so sure.”

“Well, I admit that after ten years it was starting to look kind of iffy,” said Willow.

“I wish we had those ten years back.”

Willow smiled. “We’ve got the rest of our lives.”

“I just hope that’s not a real tight deadline,” said Buffy.

She looked long and hard at her friend. Where along the line had Willow Rosenberg, that awkward and self-doubting high school sophomore, become so much stronger than both Slayer and Dark Hunter combined? How could she forgive someone who had so thoughtlessly discarded her friendship and love as if it had all meant nothing? There were a lot of things in the universe Buffy didn’t understand. Willow’s affection for and devotion to one undeserving Slayer was one of the more baffling. She didn’t think she’d ever understand it, or believe herself worthy of it, but it was good to know it was there. Most people would never be lucky enough to have a Willow Rosenberg in their lives. That was a shame.

After awhile, Buffy said, “Well, I’m afraid this is getting just too contemplative for someone as fundamentally shallow as I am. I think I’m going to go flying after Hancock does his little Welcome to the Mind of a Killer presentation for the local police. Want to come along?”

“Flying? You mean in a plane? With you? In the air?”

She said it with that endearing innocence that ran like a silver thread through everything in her life. No matter what horrors the universe had shown her, no matter what nightmares the Slayer brought to her doorstep, Willow had never lost that. And Buffy hated herself for being jealous of it.

Buffy forced herself back to the conversation, and tried to make her tone light. “Yeah, well, in a plane in the air is definitely the general idea. I didn’t get my license for nothing, you know. Thought I’d go up with Hancock, take a look around. Figured if Sharon’s body was dumped in the river, we might get lucky and find a campsite or something along the banks where the killer put her in. Would you like to go?”

“Well, sure!” said Willow eagerly. “What about Giles?”

“Better let him know where we’re going, but I don’t think he’ll want to come play with us. He gets nervous when I drive, no less fly. For a guy who wanted to be a fighter pilot when he was a kid, he sure does get squeamish when you do really crazy things like actually getting more than ten feet off the ground.”

*                              *                              *

The small squad room was packed with well over a dozen murmuring lawmen by the time Buffy arrived to stand near the back. Pine Crest actually had a police force of five, including the sheriff. The rest were representatives from two nearby towns and from state and county law enforcement — anyone whose jurisdictional path the killer might cross.

The room was too hot, and oppressive with the smell of doughnuts and old coffee and dusty baseboard heaters. It made Buffy feel flushed and irritable.

As Hancock approached the podium at the front of the room, the murmur of voices quieted, eyes turned forward, and pens were poised above notebooks. Buffy had heard the lecture before, but paid attention each time, never knowing when something phrased a little differently, or given a subtly altered emphasis, might trigger an association in her own mind or among the memories of the Dark Hunter’s former hosts.

“Now, the first thing I’d like to say is, what I do isn’t what you see on television. I wish it were, because then we could all get this business out of the way in an hour and have the rest of the week off,” Hancock was saying. It always seemed to break any initial tension, and helped lower expectations as well.

“Contrary to popular belief, I don’t solve crimes,” he continued. “You guys do that. All I do is try to help you narrow your search. Profiling isn’t magic. Sometimes we’re wrong. But data amassed for several decades about these types of crimes, and the people who commit them, show a startling level of common personality traits. With that in mind, let me tell you a little about our killer.”

He turned to write three words in magic marker on a whiteboard.

“Manipulation. Domination. Control. These are the three words I want you to remember. These are the three words that drive the serial predator.”

He turned to the board again and picked up a different colored marker. A fourth word joined the other three.

“Inadequacy. Serial predators are basically inadequate personality types who initially seek to gain control over their environment through fantasies of manipulation, domination and control. This inadequacy often stems from a genuinely abusive family relationship. As children, these individuals will tend to first make their control fantasies real through animal cruelty and possibly pyromania. As an adult, an event called a stressor — a romantic rejection, being fired from a job, marital problems, almost anything that calls into question this person’s sense of worth and control — can precipitate the change from a mentally troubled individual into a serial predator.”

Hancock let the information sink in, then resumed. “Okay, enough of the preliminaries. Let’s talk about our boy — and almost all serial killers are white males, so we’re pretty safe in assuming that in this case. Our profile suggests a white male, mid-twenties to early thirties, of no particularly imposing physical stature. This is an individual who was probably considered a weakling as a child and was picked on by classmates …”

“What do you base that on?” interjected one of the county cops.

“Good question. The first two killings by this subject were what we call ‘blitz attacks’. Forensic analysis shows that the victim was attacked suddenly from behind and subdued quickly with force. Blitz attacks generally indicate one of two things: one, that the perpetrator possesses some physical defect, such as a stutter or deformity, that would make it too conspicuous for him to approach a victim openly; or two, that the killer believes himself physically unable to overpower a victim, even a teenage girl, without the element of surprise.”

“You said the first two killings were marked by this. Does that mean the killer’s style has changed?” asked the Pine Crest sheriff.

“Another very good question, and it brings up one of the most puzzling aspects of this case. With victim number three, the killer stopped using blitz attacks and began openly approaching the victims and using elaborate role playing and deception to maneuver them into situations where they could be killed. For instance, in the case of Melinda Thompson in Colorado, the killer made contact through the victim’s Bible study group. This not only shows a very increased level of self-confidence, but indicates a high degree of planning. If these were crimes of opportunity to start with, they are no longer. Using the Bible study group might also have been a symbolic act of defiance to moral authority. That would certainly demonstrate an evolution in this person’s thinking. All of this may just indicate a growing confidence and sophistication on the part of the killer, but it may also suggest a new external stressor or possibly even the involvement of another party.”

That last sentence was always the one that got Buffy’s mind working: a new stressor or the involvement of another party. The Elder Powers perhaps? Or some new force of evil? It seemed likely to her. She didn’t believe her apocalyptic visions would have included the killer’s strange calling card if his activities weren’t being driven along a course of Armageddon by someone or something larger than himself.

Hancock continued, but despite her resolve to pay attention, Buffy found her thoughts drifting. She wondered what Winfield Hancock would make of her if he knew about her record of death and destruction. Would he label her a serial predator? True, she didn’t kill demons for a sexual thrill, or to exert domination and control, or because she found pleasure in the suffering of others. But she did kill. Endlessly. And on some occasions — more occasions than she wanted to admit — she enjoyed it. She could still remember the hard-edged sense of power and satisfaction when the Master had crumbled to dust. She still felt a surge of visceral gratification whenever a thing of evil fell beneath her sword or stakes.

How wide a line really separated her from the evil she fought? It all seemed so clear to the creature inside her. The Dark Hunter knew without a doubt that killing in the cause of good was a noble crusade. But Buffy Summers wasn’t always so certain. How many vampires had she killed over the years? They were evil things, demons wrapped in human flesh. But Angel had proven that you could kill the demon without sacrificing the person it was before. So was she a murderess? Or was she just a wartime pragmatist, practicing a sort of perverse metaphysical triage that traded the souls that were simply too difficult to save for those she could more easily rescue?

She didn’t know. She did know that she couldn’t send every vampire to Hell, then follow after it to slay its demon. So she made the tradeoff, and she took whatever black marks against her soul that compromise entailed. And she hoped that when her journey came to its inevitable end, whatever good she’d done would balance against those marks.

As Hancock began to entertain questions, she slipped out to find Willow. She had a flight to plan, and maybe in the simple clarity of that task she would find some temporary peace.

Previous Part               Next Part