“Hm? Oh, just a sec, I’m, uh, I’m just---“
“Why don’t I go in?” She said. “You can, you know, find what you were looking for in the glove compartment. And, then, you know, you could---“
“It’s not that. I, um, I have to do this thing, here, before I can lock the car and---“
“I know.” Buffy crossed around the front of the dusty car, and leaned over his open door. He had one foot outside the door, and his hands dangled limply on his thighs. “What are friends for?”
Xander blinked up at her, then laid one hand near hers on the window frame. She moved hers to cover his, and he turned away and licked his lips. “Thanks.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Xander.” She waited for him to meet her eyes, but he was staring downward again, and she tactfully turned away.
The empty lobby could have been mistaken for a doctor’s office except for the bullet-proof glass window. Something was wrong about the office, wrong in a good way, and it took her a moment to pinpoint it. Nobody was waiting. Nobody except her, and the friend she’d left in the parking lot. She stepped up to the glass, and tapped on it. A head popped up behind a counter in the back of the office, and a slender young black woman strode briskly up to the air holes and smiled encouragingly at her. There was something kind about the woman’s face, and Buffy found herself relaxing. “Can I help you?”
“Yes. I’m here to identify---“
“Oh, yes. Which one?”
So much for optimism, Buffy thought. How many more are there? “A friend of mine. I think she would have been at the school?”
“Friend. Her ex is, ah, waiting---“
The young woman looked at her steadily for a moment, and Buffy dropped her eyes to the nametag on her blouse. CORA, it said. “That was very kind of you,” the other woman said, and then waited a minute, as if to let the sentiment sink in. A buzzer sounded, and Buffy jumped. “Come on in.”
It was a perfectly ordinary office, except for the metal door at the far end of the cubicles. This, too, required a buzzer, and Cora stepped aside and let Buffy go through first. She found herself in a wide cool hallway with fluorescent lights and scarred green linoleum. Empty mental gurneys lined the right side of the hallway, and the smell of antiseptic was strong. A double-width exit door with a lighted sign over it stood at one end of the hallway, and an elevator at the other end. It was to this that Cora led her, guiding her inside and pushing the buttons. When they stepped out, the change in temperature from the stuff office was enough to make her shiver. Cora gently laid a hand on her back. “Have you ever done this before?”
“No,” Buffy whispered.
“Well, what did your friend look like?”
The question struck Buffy and she turned to look at her curiously. “How many people were there?”
“You said she would have been at the school? The high school, right?”
“We’ve found four dead girls there so far, and one survivor. I’m sorry.”
“Four,” Buffy said softly. “I might know them, too.”
“Why were they at the school?”
Ordinarily, Buffy would have been uncomfortable lying, but this time, the untruth sprang easily to her lips. “We also had a plan that we would get together at the school, in case of an emergency.” She licked her lips nervously. “Were they---?”
Cora seemed to read her thought. “They’re not in bad shape. I’m sorry---what’s your name?”
“I’ll have to get some information from you. There’s an investigation going on, you realize?”
“All of the girls had defensive wounds, and one of them was stabbed to death. It looks sort of suspicious.”
“I’ll let the police fill you in. If they’re your friends, you can really help us out by filling in the blanks.”
Cora gave her a compassionate smile. “I’ll give them a call, okay? That way you can get all this stuff over with.” She licked her lips. “Are you ready?”
“No.” Cora squeezed her arm comfortingly, but Buffy didn’t smile.
“There’s a waiting room with a video monitor in it. They’ve been cleaned up and you’ll only see their faces. Can you handle that?”
Buffy nodded slowly. The expression on Angel’s face after she’d stabbed him, and this woman was asking her if she could handle the sight of---? She shook it off and nodded again. Cora guided her down the hallway and through a door labeled Viewing Room. Couches lined three of the walls, and a TV monitor sat in the center of the fourth. She stepped right up to it, but Cora hung back, and whispered instructions into an intercom. Then she switched it on, and Buffy held her breath as the image appeared.
Anya’s hair had been washed, and a sheet covered her from the neck down. She could have been sleeping, except for her pallor. “That’s Anya,” She said quietly. Cora stepped back and issued more instructions through the intercom. Anya was moved out of the way, and another sheet-shrouded form was wheeled into sight. Hands pulled the sheet back from the head. “Yes, that’s Rona,” Buffy said in the same numb voice. The process was repeated until she had identified Molly, and Chao-Ahn as well.
“That’s it,” Cora said quietly.
“I, uh, promised, her ex-fiancée that I’d check, and then he could—“
“Okay,” Cora said. “Let’s go back to the office. There’s some paperwork we have to do.”
“I’ll go get him, then.”
“Do you have phone numbers for the next of kin for the others?”
That stopped Buffy in her tracks. “Uh---uh---you know, I might have to make some phone calls.”
“Okay, that’s okay.” Cora said. “That’s okay. At least their families will know what happened to them now. At least they can bury them.”
Try catching dust, Buffy thought. Try finding it and burying it. Cora buzzed her out into the lobby, and she stood in the air conditioning for a moment, bewildered. “I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll be here,” Cora assured her.
Outside, the bright sunlight made her blink, and she couldn’t remember for a moment where she was. The sight of Xander’s car restored her bearings, and she took a deep breath. Better get it over with, she thought. Start now. She watched her shoes kick dust as they found their way to the driver’s side of his car. “You can go in now, Xander.”
He looked up at her blankly for a moment, and she wondered if they both had the same look on their faces. “Was---?”
“It wasn’t bad,” She said quietly. “Except for, you know---“
“Okay.” The springs squeaked as he stood up stiffly, and the seat was warm with his body heat when she slid into it. She rested her forehead on the steering wheel for a moment, trying to recapture the feeling of the dream she’d had the previous night, but the conversation with Angel seemed to have obliterated it. The sun was very hot on the parts of her that it could reach. She maneuvered into the back seat, which didn’t have the sun beating into it, at least.
Watcher Buffy Summers, she thought. Miss Summers. Away from California? Away from memories? Away from all her moorings, which now lay in the bottom of a pit called Sunnydale. Part of her loved the sunshine, but part of her knew that from now on she would associate it with this sickening hot parking lot, this slow tick of minutes. She couldn’t do anything for Xander, not without a time machine to take him years away from his loss. She laid her head back on the head rest, and laid her arm on the open window frame.
She might have dozed a little in the heat, jerking awake as car doors opened close by. Blearily, she lifted her head and tried to focus. All she could see was a dark vehicle parked several spaces away, and the torsos of the two men who’d gotten out of it. She watched them move to the sidewalk in front of the building steps without changing her position, and knew they were cops even before they got to the first step. Cops, she thought wearily, and dozed off again. Cicadas buzzed all around her, a sound that was almost soothing in its familiarity.
“Gah!” she exclaimed. She stared at the roof of the car. With some effort, she lifted her head and looked around with blurry eyes. There were men standing beside the car, and neither one of them looked like Xander, although all she could really see was their belt buckles. Well, that’s not Xander’s belt buckle, she thought, looking at a metal representation of a bucking bronco. “Who’s there?” She pulled herself stiffly over to the window and looked up. Both men took a step back, and then crouched so she could see their faces. “Who are you?”
“I’m Harry Jordon from the Lawrencia PD, and this is Leo Tate from the Sunnydale force. We’re investigating what happened at Sunnydale High.”
She was instantly, sharply awake. “What did happen at Sunnydale High?”
“We were hoping you could tell us that.” Jordon said. “Here we’ve got a natural disaster, and we wind up with what looks like four murder victims, and some guy in a coma. You knew them, evidently.”
Buffy stared at him, then turned to look at the other one. “Murder victims? What?”
“Cora said you’d identified all four women---or girls, really. We’ve already run their prints, and nothing. And we’ve got this guy in the same area, but he’s naked, got no priors, and he’s out for the count.” Some guy? Buffy thought. Tate held up a Poloroid, and she slapped it out of his hand in her eagerness to grab at it. All she accomplished was knocking it to the ground. She scrabbled for the door handle, and practically fell out of the car, while the two detectives exchanged looks and backed away a couple of steps.
The photo lay face down in the dust, and her hands shook as she picked it up. Her own heartbeat resonated in her ears, and if the detectives said anything to her, she didn’t hear it.
It could have been a morgue photograph---the body was covered to the shoulders with a sheet, the eyes were closed, and what was visible of the surroundings indicated sterility. There was one big difference, though. Death blanched the skin of its victims. This man, in this photograph, had pale skin, but it was flushed with life, even though his face was slack in unconsciousness.
Buffy raised huge eyes to the two men in front of her, holding the photograph up as if they weren’t familiar with it. “What? Is? What?”
“We were hoping you could tell us that, Ma’am.”
“Can I see him?”
“You know him?”
“I think so,” Buffy whispered. “I think I do.”
Once again, the two exchanged looks. “Yeah, let’s go,” Tate said. “You stay here with the guy.” He turned to her and casually held out his hand for the photograph. Buffy jerked it back out of his reach, and crossed her arms on her chest, with it still in one hand. Her lips were so tight they looked as if somebody had pulled them shut with a drawstring. “Okay----boyfriend of yours?”
“Not exactly,” Buffy snapped.
“Can you identify him?”
Another look passed between the two men. “So you know this guy and the girls,” Jordon said. “You can identify the girls, but not the guy.”
“It’s sort of complicated.”
“I’ll say,” Tate said. “Well, let’s get going, okay?” He eyed her sardonically. “Oh, by the way? You can keep the picture.”
The hospital in Lawrencia was surprisingly calm, but most of the residents of Sunnydale had fled before the collapse, so there hadn’t been a lot of casualties. This ought to have registered more on Buffy than it did, but four of those casualties had been people she knew. Tate talked tentatively about the search and rescue operation, but it only gradually dawned on Buffy that there was something off about his choice of topics. The third time he mentioned something that sounded like ‘defensive wounds’ she turned around and stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
“Your friends,” Tate said. There was a certain edge to his tone that made her look closely at him. “They were killed by falling debris, but all of them had defensive wounds. Your friend Anya was stabbed in the back, and so was at least one of the others. We find this guy there naked. He’s got some bad burns on one hand. This is one of the worst natural disasters we’ve ever had here, and, frankly, it looks like someone took it as an opportunity to even some scores. What are we supposed to think?” He pulled into the hospital parking lot, turned off the car, and gave her his undivided attention. “I’ll be frank with you, Miss Summers. I don’t know what to think, really. But those girls died fighting for their lives.”
They both got out the car, and Buffy took the opportunity to look at him over the roof for a moment. It got his attention. “I don’t care what you think, Detective. Just so long as it’s thinking, and not jumping to conclusions.” She ducked ahead of him and hit the entrance first, then stopped in her tracks, flustered. Where on earth was he? She couldn’t very well ask for him by name, unless the cops had christened him like a ship. A mental image of the cops swinging a bottle of champagne at Spike’s head popped into her head, but it made her jaw drop. Bad, very bad, she thought. Losing it bad. The detective came up behind her and pointed down the hallway. “John Doe’s down here.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to snap at him that he wasn’t dealing with some John Doe, but she thought better of it. She didn’t know what happened, and she didn’t know what she was dealing with. Her pace slowed as she realized something else: if it was Spike, she didn’t even know what to call him.
At the end of the hallway, a bored-looking cop sat slumped in a hard plastic chair, chin in his palms. At the sight of Tate he leaped to his feet, but Tate waved him off and straight-armed through the door. Buffy, one step behind him, slammed into his back as he came to an abrupt stop three steps into the room. Cautiously, she peered around his side, and let out her breath. The detective might as well have evaporated into air molecules for all the notice she gave him. The photograph fluttered from her hand as she tiptoed forward.
She stood at the side of the bed for several minutes, staring, then reached out a hand. It hovered over his chest for a moment, while behind her the detective hissed in a sharp breath between his teeth. “Relax,” she muttered. And then she laid her hand on his chest.
It was warm, and his heart beat within. His arms lay motionless on the sheet, and his right hand was bandaged to the wrist. She looked at the knuckles of his other hand, but they were undamaged. At least he didn’t have to dig his way out of his own coffin, she thought. Slowly her hand relaxed against his skin, and she exhaled the breath she’d been holding. Without looking up, she tossed over her shoulder, “Go away.”
“Go away. I’m not going any where. I’ll give you my phone number, my address, my ATM password. Just leave me alone.” She paused. “Leave us alone.”
There was a snort behind her, and a long enough hesitation to indicate to anyone watching that no detective was going to be pushed around by a slip of a girl who didn’t even look at him. Then he left, and he might as well have never existed.
She pulled up a chair next to the bed, and folded her arms on the mattress next to him, laying her chin on top of them. She knew she had to plot and strategize. She just didn’t care. Was this how it had felt for him, when she’d come back? She winced at the thought. What if he was as screwed up as she’d been? What if he’d been pulled from heaven, too? A vampire in heaven? She thought. I’ll never be able to explain that to Angel.
And I don’t especially care, either.
Continued in Chapter 5