Willow was in Hancocks temporary office in the Pine Crest Police Department, thoroughly engrossed in the agents weighty copy of the Crime Classification Manual, when the fax came.
Her eyes still on the page, she reached back and retrieved the sheet, then took a bite of stale cheese Danish and began to peruse the document. It was in Buffys script:
Please initiate a DH Group background check on Iain Leighton. Paperwork found here indicates citizenship in Great Britain, but most likely his primary residence is here. Agent Hancock will handle the FBI check when we get back. Bringing back some goodies for you. Warm up brain!
Whether it was just chance or some strange and deliberate weave of fate that brought Giles into the small office at that moment, Willow never really knew. But however it came about, in retrospect it turned out to be a fine example of chaos theory in action.
Whats that? asked the Watcher.
Oh, hi, Giles. Buffy just faxed this over. Theres someone named Iain Leighton she wants checked out. I think he lives in that cabin she went to.
There was an ominous pause at that point that piqued her interest.
Iain Leighton. Youre sure that was the name? asked Giles.
Willow looked up at him. There was something murderous in his eyes.
Yeah, you know him? Who is it?
Giles regarded her with a coldness that was unusual for him. Its a man I am going to kill, Willow.
* * *
Buffy frowned as they passed the blue Land Rover on the way back to Pine Crest. The predicted snow had begun to fall in earnest, and it was impossible to see inside the other vehicle.
Whats wrong? asked Hancock.
Nothing, probably. That just looked like the other truck weve got on loan from the Pine Crest P.D.
Everybodys got a four-wheel drive up here. There must be fifty blue Land Rovers in Pine Crest alone.
Buffys cellular rang even as Hancock was speaking.
Summers, she announced.
Buffy! Ive been trying to reach you! came Willows agitated voice over the speaker. It was broken up by digital dropouts caused by signal blockages from the high mountains.
Its the mountains. Even the pagers are acting erratically, said Buffy.
Buffy, listen. Its Giles. I think hes heading to the cabin. He took his gun. He said hes going to kill someone.
Who? asked Buffy.
Iain Leighton, the guy you wanted us to run the background check on.
Damn. Okay, I think he just passed us. Im going to turn around and try to stop him. In the meantime, get me whatever you can on Leighton, okay?
She swore as she severed the connection. She brought the Cherokee to a stop in the middle of the road and did a neat one-eighty, heading back the way theyd come. She explained the situation to Hancock.
Well never catch him, said the agent.
Dont bet on it. Giles thinks that the old fifty-five mile an hour speed limit was set excessively high. Besides, you know I can out-drive him once we get on the logging road. Hell be lucky if he doesnt crack an axle.
Just be careful. Weathers really closing in and its a long way down if we go over the edge.
Hey, careful is my middle name, said Buffy, as she slewed the heavy truck around a tight corner and deftly nursed it back under control.
Hancock merely gripped the dashboard and looked rather pale.
* * *
It was a harrowing trip, and in the end Buffy had to admit that Giles was a far better driver than hed ever let on. Shed caught glimpses of the blue Land Rover as they wound their way into the mountains along the logging road, but every time she seemed to be closing the distance, he would either manage to pull away on a clear stretch of trail or shed hit an obstacle wrong and lose time.
She was off her game, distracted, and making it worse the more she berated herself for it. But she couldnt help being preoccupied. She was more convinced than ever that Iain Leighton, the name she and Hancock had found on most of the paperwork in the cabin, was the key to both the serial murders and the Elder Powers mad Gehenna Key scheme.
If Iain had returned to the cabin and Giles found him there first
The jeep hit a rut hard. The wheel jerked under her steering hand and the big vehicle nearly careened into the dense woods before she managed to straighten it out. It did straighten out, just in time to almost miss a sharp turn. Buffy fishtailed them around the corner with inches to spare between the jeep and a rather steep, rocky drop to a stream cut.
It was a white-knuckled pursuit, but they finally broke into the clearing less than two minutes behind Giles.
Unfortunately, Buffy was well aware that it didnt take anywhere near two minutes to pull a trigger. They slid to a halt and she and Hancock bolted from the jeep, Buffy nearly spraining her wrist as she tried to retrieve the keys from the ignition and leap out of the vehicle at the same time.
Then she was through the cabin door and seeing Giles pointing his little silver .38 at a man maybe five to ten years older than he, with graying hair and an arrogant face. The man had a small cut above his left eye where Giles had apparently pistol-whipped him, and he was sitting on the floor with his back against a bookcase.
Drop it, Giles, she heard herself say as she reached under her coat for her gun.
Buffy leveled the .45 at Giles head. She thumbed off the safety and rested her forefinger on the smooth, winter-cold metal of the gently curving trigger. She felt the pulse of her blood in her veins, saw the small tremble of the sight picture with every beat of her heart. And she saw Giles in front of her, a gentle trigger squeeze away from dying by her hand.
I said drop it. I mean it.
He never took his eyes from Iain, and his little revolver remained trained on the mans head.
You would kill me to save this this animal? asked Giles, a low growl of savagery in his voice that Buffy had rarely heard in him.
Buffy probably wouldnt. But Im not just Buffy anymore, and this man may be our best chance to save this world. Whatever he did to you, its in the past. Right now, Im concerned about the future, and I cant let you do this. Please, Giles. Dont make me kill you. Dont make me live with that on my conscience, because I dont think I can.
Giles addressed Iain. You hear that? She thinks youre our salvation. But she doesnt know you like I do, you bastard. She doesnt know that its like counting on Satan to spare the innocence of Eden.
Youd best listen to her, Giles. Shes right. I am the only one who can save you in time, said Iain.
Youre a liar, said Giles.
Enough, snapped Buffy. The longer the standoff went on, the more her uncertainty and fear edged past adrenaline and instinct. She couldnt let this go on any longer. Im only going to say it once more, Giles. Drop it or I put you down. Ill try not to kill you, but I cant guarantee it. Please. If you care anything for me, dont make me do this.
Giles seemed to wrestle with something dark and primitive inside him, then he lowered the gun to his side, looking defeated. Hancock moved immediately to remove the weapon from his possession, and Buffy settled the iron sights of her gun on Iain.
Okay. Now, I dont know what this is about, but if it was enough for Giles to want to punch your ticket, Im sure its something I wont like. So Id recommend you dont try anything that might make me react badly to you. Negative reactions from me normally end very violently.
Iain looked at her and studied her eyes for a moment. He nodded.
Good, said Buffy as she moved over to a nearby wooden chair and sat down. She rested the .45 on her leg and said, Now, will somebody please tell me what the hell is going on here?
* * *
The bean counters are gonna have a fit, said Hudson, shaking his head as the satellite modem streamed data from the DH Groups secure web site to his laptop computer.
Angel glanced at him across the narrow cabin of the chartered Learjet. Tough. Im not betting Buffys life on American Airlines keeping to their flight schedule.
Hudson smiled, his flawless teeth looking almost predatory. I just said theyre gonna go ape. Didnt say I wasnt looking forward to seeing it.
Then, more seriously, he added, Im not up to mourning any more Dark Hunters, Angel. Hurts too much, especially when you like them as people as well as your boss. You coulda chartered the Concorde, Id have cosigned for it.
Anybody ever tell you youre a real stand-up guy, Hud? Because you are, said Angel. Thanks for the help. It means a lot to me. Most of the others, they look at me like Im something theyd scrape off their shoe. Youre different.
Well, maybe I know how it feels. Been on the wrong end of small-minded bigots myself often enough to know I dont got a right to do it to anyone else.
The computer beeped and a message from the DH Groups cryptography staff scrolled across the display.
Well, looks like were getting some interesting data off the RF tap in the conference room, said Hudson, returning his attention to the machine. Lean on over. Weve got some pretty pictures to go with the dialogue track.
As Angel leaned across the narrow aisle to get a better look at the display, Hud single-clicked on an icon and suddenly the screen was filled with the faces of the members of the Board.
The crypto group runs this stuff through a top-of-the-line digital signal processing box, a big massively parallel computer originally designed for the National Security Agency. What it means is, we get real-time voice signature analysis. No guessing games about whos talking, except when everyones talking at once, which happens a lot, Hudson explained.
Hud fiddled with the volume control on the PC and Angel could hear a voice.
Is our man in the Dark Angels in position? said one of the Board members. The real-time voice analysis highlighted one of the photographs. It was a fastidiously attired man that Angel remembered from the DH Groups dossiers.
Hes on site now. Part of the quick response team, said another man. This time, the Directors picture was highlighted.
Ms. Einstadts voice broke in. What about the package? How soon can it be delivered?
We can have it there in twenty-four hours, said the Director.
And our man knows that Protocol 17 is a zero-odds scenario? asked Ms. Einstadt.
Of course. That wont stop him.
Youd better be sure about that.
There are always variables, said the Director. You dont have to look any farther than the current debacle to see that. But this asset is reliable and he understands what is at stake. I have every confidence that he will properly execute the Protocol.
Hudson turned to Angel. Man, these suits talk in code even when theyre alone. Talk about your paranoid personality types. Probably line their apartments with tinfoil to keep the government from reading their minds.
The fastidiously attired man was speaking again. must be completely sanitary. Were we to be implicated even indirectly
Even if we were to be implicated, the gains would be worth the sacrifice, said the Director. Never forget why we are here, why we exist. And never forget what will happen to this world if either the Elder Powers or Avatar are allowed to proceed to the conclusion of their respective agendas.
Angel and Hudson exchanged a glance at the mention of Avatar. It sounded to Angel like they were referring to an actual person or creature.
I concur, said another man, this one an emphysemic-looking creature with dark eyes sunk deeply into his bald head . You are certain that Protocol 17 will be sufficient to stop Avatar?
Given our current data, yes. And there is the added bonus we discussed, if the situation develops as expected. The combination of this renegade Slayer and an entity as dangerously unpredictable as the Dark Hunter is an unprecedented threat to us that absolutely must be addressed. Fortunately, the simulations indicate a high probability that Protocol 17 will take care of that matter as well. Isnt that correct, Mr. Keith?
The simulations have been persuasive, said a new man. He was a very slight, narrow-shouldered man with thick, round glasses and a prominent, beak-like nose. All the models indicate a better than seventy percent probability that Avatar will attempt to employ the same strategy as it did the last time, which should result in the desired personnel convergence.
The same strategy. You mean the expanded Gehenna Matrix? asked Miss Einstadt.
The Moore Variant, technically, said Mr. Keith. The break-even energies for that are astronomical. The logical choice would be for Avatar to try to utilize the Dark Hunter to address that. It would be the most efficient option given the principal players at Pine Crest.
Good, said the Director. Unless there are further questions, there is a great deal of preparation that must be attended to. I suggest we adjourn at this point.
For a few moments, everyone spoke at once as the meeting broke up, then silence descended on the conference room. When Hudson was convinced there was nothing more to come from that particular audio feed for now, he looked over to Angel.
Whatever that was about, I didnt like the sound of it. Sounds like your buddy Zabuto might have been onto something, he said.
Angel had a dangerous look in his eyes as he said, I swear, Hud, these assholes hurt Buffy, Im going to take each one of them apart piece by piece.
Gonna have to line up, man. Lot of us are gonna want a shot at these guys, that happens. But we aint gonna let it, are we?
Not without a hell of a fight, Hud.
Hudson shuddered despite himself. For just a second, he was certain that he saw in the ex-vampires eyes the same soulless demon that for over two centuries had been the last sight of so many. But he knew that this demon was not the thing Summers had killed in Hell. No, this was the primitive, savage impulse that lived inside everyone, that Darwinian relic that had allowed a weak and vulnerable species to kill its way to the top of a very violent food chain.
And the thing was, Hudson didnt know which demon was the more lethal.
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