Part 12

The last day of her life dawned metallic gray under a gauzy sun the color of bleached bone.

Buffy pulled her coat tighter around herself, hesitating before crossing the parking lot to her truck, her gaze lingering on the world around her for longer than it should have. Everything seemed unnaturally distinct to her: the soughing of the wind in the fragrant pines, the mist of her breath in the frozen air, the sweet smell of wood smoke that shrouded the mountains with the aromatic promise of home and hearth at the end of a cold, hard day.

Nothing fixes the mind like hanging, she thought. She didn’t remember where she’d heard that, whether it was something Giles had said, or something she’d heard in a movie, or a memory of a former Dark Hunter. It didn’t matter. None of the little things mattered now. All the petty frustrations and unfulfilled desires and silly irritations receded to unimportance. That was good. It was nice to have a clear head, at the end.

She crossed the lot, stowed her sword in the passenger side of the Cherokee, and moved around to the driver’s door. She produced a field radio from one pocket and depressed the talk switch.

“Dark Angel Team, this is Dark Angel One. Report in, over.”

“Dark Angel Two, in position, over,” a voice crackled over the speaker. It was Aston.

“Dark Angel Three, in position …”

It went like that until all eight members of the squad had reported in. The clipped, professional voices of the Dark Angels were followed a little belatedly by Hancock and Giles.

“Dark Angel Ten, in position,” said Hancock, who after the demon attack at the cabin had suddenly become considerably less concerned about adhering to proper Bureau procedure. He’d even gone out of his way to make certain the police investigation into Iain’s murder didn’t interfere with Buffy’s efforts to save Willow. He didn’t fully comprehend the scope of what was about to happen, but then again only Mick Aston and Giles did. Buffy felt a stab of guilt for keeping the man in the dark, but what choice did she have at the moment? Giles needed trained protection, the commandos were all busy elsewhere, and she didn’t have the time or the energy to convince any more people about why she had to do this.

“Dark Angel Eleven, in position,” said Giles, his voice distant, unhappy and fatigue-laden.

“You sure you can do this without Iain?” she asked.

There was a hesitation, then Giles said, “I think so. I do understand the theory. Given Willow’s mathematical skills, though, I would be considerably more confident with her help.”

“You’ll have it. I promise,” said Buffy. “Okay everyone, I’m moving out. Don’t let me down, boys. This one’s for all the marbles. Dark Angel One, out.”

She slipped behind the wheel of the truck, turned the engine over, and suddenly found herself gripping the steering wheel much too hard. Fear twisted within her like a worm eating through the fragile fabric of her self control.

Buffy closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“You can do this,” she whispered to herself. “Don’t lose it now.”

She felt the calm return, if a little grudgingly, then she headed the Cherokee out onto the little mountain road and toward whatever awaited her at the end of it.

*                              *                              *

“Shit, man. Thank God I got a hold of you,” said a voice from the other side of the continent.

“Chill, Zoot,” said Hud into his cellular as he and Angel walked across the tarmac from the Lear. “We just hit the pavement fifteen minutes ago. We’re heading up to Pine Crest now.”

Johnny “Zoot” Kerschel was the DH Group’s number one brain, a guy so smart that he’d graduated with honors from MIT at fifteen years of age, dual majoring in Physics and Mathematics. He’d earned the Zoot nickname for his predilection for playing old Zoot Simms jazz recordings at deafening volume while doing complex mathematics. He claimed it “got him in the zone”.

“Christ almighty, Hud. This is real shitstorm you’ve gotten yourself into. You ain’t been monitoring the taps?”

“No, man. Weather en route had the sat phone all squirrelly. Modem kept losing the carrier. Besides, that’s what I got DH’s crypto crew for. What the hell you doing, wasting your time on a wire?”

“Crypto assigned the new guy, Lowry, to monitor the feeds. He heard some stuff in Russian, and he was a little shaky on the meaning. Voskovic, our Russian guy, was out of the office, so Lowry comes to me, knowing Russian’s one of my languages. He’s looking like he’s seen a ghost, and he’s looking for me to verify if he heard right. I did, and man, you got a world of hurt coming down on you, my friend.”

“Just tell me what the hell is going on,” said Hud.

“Okay, listen carefully. I got a ten-minute, one-sided conversation here of the Director talking to some guy in Russian over an encrypted line. Thank God for the RF flood, because they weren’t using the office phones. So, these two get going in Russian, and suddenly the Director’s talking yields and fallout footprints with this guy. Shit, Hud — you guys are sitting on a freaking A-bomb out there somewhere.”

“You jacking me, Zoot? ’Cause this ain’t funny if you are. Not one bit.”

“No, man. This is serious. Judging from the yields he was talking, you guys are dealing with a suitcase tactical nuke. Old, dirty, fission thing. I’ve got Research on it. We’re pulling up specs and schematics on these relics right now. We’ll have ’em up on the secure server ASAP. You’ll want Aston to look at them. He’ll be the guy to neutralize one of these things if you find it.”

“Thanks. Any line on our mole yet? That’d help solve our problem real fast.”

“No, sorry,” said Zoot. “Lowry says the Board always just calls him ‘our man’. But Hud, a suitcase nuke isn’t small and inconspicuous, so look for anyone on the team who tries to get assigned away from the main action. Maybe a sniper team or deep recon patrol. Anyone who’s going to be out of contact and direct supervision for an extended period.”

“Shit, Zoot, this is a covert fucking action team. Almost everything we do is out of direct supervision. Could be anyone. I gotta have more to go on.”

“All I got, man. Be one thing if I could get some equipment out there to hunt rads, but sounds to me like we don’t have time. Get on it, Hud. That’s all I can say. I’ll keep on it at this end, but you’re the sharp end of the stick, guy.”

Hudson ended the call and turned to Angel, who was looking at him with a questioning expression.

“Problems, bro. Major, major problems,” he said.

*                              *                              *

A quarter-mile from the Cabal’s encampment, surrounded by the silent and elegant spires of the valley’s tall evergreens, Buffy passed to radio Aston. Tired, and feeling the dull weight of depression at the distant edges of her mind, she abandoned formal radio protocol.

“Mick, it’s me. I’m at point Bravo. Let me know what I’m walking into.”

The radio crackled with static, then came Aston’s British accent. “Dark Angel One, this is Dark Angel Two. I’ve positively identified Will– … Ms. Rosenberg. She’s on an altar of some sort at the center of a large ring of standing stones in the middle of the encampment. Looks a bit like Stonehenge, so I’m guessing I’m looking at your Gehenna Key. Ms. Rosenberg appears to be unconscious …”

Or dead, thought Buffy bleakly.

“… restrained by rope, nylon it looks like, passed through rings at the head and foot of the altar. I can also confirm the presence of Kurtz. He is also within the Key. I make no firearms, but the subject is armed with a sword. He’s also wearing a black greatcoat, so there’s every likelihood he’s concealing some additional weapons. I can see no, repeat no other hostiles or civilians in the vicinity. Do you copy, Dark Angel One, over?”

“Copy that, Dark Angel Two. Anything else?”

“No ,ma’am.”

“Then I’m going silent. Thanks for all the help over these months, Mick.”

For once, even Aston’s operational formality broke down. “Good hunting, ma’am. Elisa and the Hunter couldn’t have picked a better successor. Aston out.”

Buffy smiled to herself at that, and with grim finality turned the radio off and started forward toward her greatest enemy and her best friend.

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