the bunny warren v. Faith

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The Host Man Always Sings Twice

Author: Mikelesq
Concept:A vampire drifter wanders into Sunnydale, and crosses paths with the Slayer. Told from the vampire's point of view. Set between the episodes "Triangle" and "Crush" of Season 5 of BtVS.
Rating: PG-13
Legal disclaimers: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" characters and situations are owned by Joss Whedon and the producers of the show. The story is entirely fiction. Distribute if you like. The title is a variation of the novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice," written by James M. Cain, presumably owned by his estate (and certainly not owned by me), and the story is a homage to his novels ("homage" sounds better than "ripoff," right?).

Prologue


They threw me off the train at about eight-thirty. It could have been worse. The sun had gone down at seven forty-five.

The conductor came by and asked me for my ticket. I didn't have one. I'd been broke for about two months. Most of my victims lately had been short on cash, and using credit cards is too risky. I did my usual routine under the circumstances: I pretended to be drunk. The clothes I was wearing were ragged and dirty, so it fit. Most train conductors won't bother getting the cops involved if they think you're a bum who wandered on the train; they'll just throw you off. Which was fine by me. I wasn't going anywhere in particular, and whatever stop was next suited me fine.

I stumbled off, the conductor's hand clenching the back of my shirt. As the train pulled away, I had a little mental temper tantrum. Rage is a pesky byproduct of losing your soul. I imagined the look on the conductor's face if I'd sported fangs and lifted him off the ground with one arm. I could have crushed his neck in my grasp like a beer can. The sound is more similar than you'd think. Then I'd have leapt aboard, growling as I jumped into the aisle, grabbing whatever victim looked the most appetizing as the rest of the passengers scurried like ants....

I shook it off, and started walking toward the center of whatever town I'd found myself in. It was a stupid fantasy. I mean, I could easily have taken out all of them, but it was just too risky. With all those people, one of them could decide to play hero and get a bunch of them riled up. A mob can slow you down, and there are two many accidents that can happen. Besides, if someone survives to describe your face, you spend the next ten years or so crawling from sewer to sewer so no one gets a good look at you. Humans may be weak, but their numbers create problems.

So I wandered around looking for an abandoned building to use for a hideout while I got a feel for the town. I passed a newspaper box. The town was Sunnydale. Not good. Every vamp knows Sunnydale. Back in the day, it was like Vegas for vamps. There's supposed to be some kind of energy that comes out of the ground that gives spell casters a little extra edge. They came to Sunnydale, and they always needed minions. Lately, though, word was out that a Slayer had grown roots in Sunnydale. There was still good work to be found, but the risk was high. I was never much of a risk taker, so I came up with a plan. Hide out for a couple of days, feed a little, grab some quick cash, and take off.

I came up to a building that looked abandoned. A sign over the front door said that the place was "The Bronze." Whatever. One of the back walls was torn out. A large hole in the ground about six feet around sat smack in the middle of the space the wall once occupied. Orange cones marked it off. I looked down. It seemed bottomless. Before I got vamped back in thirty-two, I'd worked a lot of construction. Back then there was a lot more sweat involved. No big machines to do the heavy lifting. I'd seen a lot of holes like this one. Someone had torn out one of the support columns. They were probably going to replace it with something sturdier. Whenever something shakes the foundations of a building, they always rebuild it with more support. I don't know if it's precaution or penance.

I wandered in. The place was trashed. I know the difference between long term decay and short term destruction, and someone, or something, had given this place a real going over.

I decided to move on. Someone was obviously working on the place, so it wasn't abandoned. Then I heard a voice behind me.

"You're early."

An older guy walked up. He was about fifty, with a ragged work shirt with faded jeans held up by leather suspenders.

"You were supposed to get here at nine-thirty," he continued. "I don't know if the guy's here yet."

"Uh, sorry," I said.

"Oh, wait," he said, "here he is."

A younger kid, about twenty or so, walked up.

"I checked out the stage, Mr. Jorgan," the kid said. "We really can't get the work done there while we're working on the framework. I talked to my boss. He said working on it at night is O.K."

"That's perfect, Harris," the man (who I figured was Jorgan) replied. "This is the guy I was telling you about."

"So you're Braddock," the kid said. "I'm Xander Harris. I'm supervising the subcontractor carpentry for this job. Mr. Jorgan says you called him about the ad in the paper. Are you Union?"

"Well," I said. "Not exactly."

"Alright," Harris said. "That's not a problem, if you work nights. Our union contract lets us hire peripheral night workers for smaller jobs even if they don't have their cards. But you can't work during the day, or the union reps will have a cow. Is that alright?"

"Well, I suppose...."

"Perfect," Harris said. "The stage needs the stairs completely redone, and the stage floor needs a new finish. And we need to be quick about it. We're supposed to have this place ready to open in two weeks. Can you handle that?"

"Uh, sure," I said. And, strangely, I could. Back when I was alive, this sort of thing was right up my alley.

"The tools are in the storage trailer," Harris continued. "Put them back every night. My supervisor will have kittens if anything goes missing."

"Don't worry," Jorgan said. "I'll be by every night to check out the work. I can't come during the day. I've got another business to run. But I'll keep an eye on him."

"Great," Harris said.

Not so great, kid, I thought. Humans can be a little dense. Here's a guy about as pale as a sheet on a clothesline, who says he can't come out during the day. Obviously a vampire, which complicated things. Normally, isolated on a construction site after dark, I'd just kill both of them, feed, then take off. But one of them was a vamp. Even worse, a vamp who was passing for human. If I'd killed the kid, there's no telling how the old man would react. I was pretty sure I could take him. He looked soft from living as a human, and he'd been turned at an older age. But there was no sense taking chances with a creature whose strength was close to my own just to snack on some kid. So I figured I'd just play along for a couple more minutes until I could slip away.

Then I saw her.

You can be pale without looking like death. She pulled it off. Her skin was pure white, and would inspire poetry instead of fear. It contrasted sharply with the dark wave of hair that flowed from her ashen face down to her soft, round shoulders.

"Manny," she said. Her voice was like a harpsichord. Gentle, sweet, and just a little sad. "I waited in the office."

"And keep waiting," Jorgan snapped at her. I could have snapped his neck.

"Sorry," she replied. "I just ran out of papers to go through."

"They'll be more," Jorgan said. "This is Braddock. Hey, what's your first name?"

"Uh, Jack," I said. "Jack...Braddock."

"Yeah," he said. "Anyway, this is my wife. She'll be around when I am. She's taking care of the paperwork. Making sure I don't get ripped off on the labor."

The kid's face tensed just a little. Easy, kid. Even vamps who are passing have tempers.

"I'll just start prepping for tomorrow," Harris finally said. He walked into building and disappeared.

"Anyway," Jorgan said, "start on those stage stairs. Then refinish the whole thing."

"Right," I said. I turned toward the equipment shed, then turned back, and said:

"Nice meeting you, Mrs. Jorgan."

She glanced down, then looked up and said:

"Call me Marie."

She walked away. I watched her walk. Jorgan followed her. I didn't watch him.

I walked toward the tool shed and walked in. I stood inside. I thought about a million things. Well, one thing, a million different ways.

"Hey?"

The voice came from outside. A silhouette emerged in the doorway. I shouted:

"What do you want?"

"I'm Braddock," he responded. "Randy Braddock. I was supposed to come here about a job. Are you Jorgan?"

"Uh, yeah," I said. "I am. Come on in."

He stepped up into the trailer. "Sorry I'm late. I hope this doesn't mean you gave the job to someone else."

"Well, tardiness does have consequences," I said. I grabbed his head in my hands, and broke his neck with one twist. I quickly gulped down as much of his blood as I thought I safely could, and then threw his body over my shoulder. I peeked out of the trailer to make sure the coast was clear, then walked over to the support column hole. I dropped him in. Based on the amount of time it took for him to hit bottom, I figured it was about forty feet deep. Too deep for the smell to get out.

I walked back to trailer to grab a tape measure and a level. I also grabbed a notebook and a pencil. I figured I'd have enough sketches done by sunup to start work on the stairs the next night.


Part I.


"How those stairs coming?"

"They're coming along fine, Mr. Jorgan," I said. And they were. I hadn't lost my touch. I'd only been at it three nights, and the stairs were pretty much finished. It would only take me about another week to finish the whole stage.

I pulled my notebook out of my back pocket to check my sketches, then put it back. I took a pencil and a level, and started on the last riser.

"Manny?"

I looked up. Marie had walked over. Her pale white dress was backlit from the work lights. You could make out every millimeter of her form.

"There's a receipt missing from the order of lumber we got in today," she continued.

"Damn," Jorgan said. "I told those dolts on the day shift not to take any more deliveries without getting the receipts."

Marie turned to me and asked:

"Are you sure you got all the boards you ordered?"

"Yes, ma'am," I replied. "Um, Mr. Jorgan...."

"For the thousandth time," Jorgan said, "call me Manny. You're making me feel old."

"Uh, yeah," I said. I tried to focus on Manny, but Marie was walking away. She moved like a cat. "Anyway, we'll need to get a couple of gallons of the wood varnish in by the day after tomorrow. These stairs don't have much longer."

"Good," he said. "Perfect. Heh. I got this place for half of what it was worth. That's my specialty. Buying properties from motivated buyers. Apparently some biker guy came in and trashed this place. The owners didn't have the cash to rebuild, and that's when I came in. I told them it would take me at least six months to get open again. They dropped another hundred grand off the price. When I get this place opened next month, I'll be pulling in enough to get my whole investment back within a year. After that, it's pure profit."

"Well, we're on track as far as the stage goes."

"Perfect. Once we're done with that...hey, what are you doing? That top stair is dipping a good half inch!"

"Um, sorry Mr. Jor...I mean, Manny," I said. "It's these lights. Too many shadows cast without natural light."

"Well, tilt the lamps," Manny said. "The last thing I need is some snot-nosed musician falling on those stairs."

"Right, Manny," I said. I started fixing the top stair. It really was crooked. I didn't bother adjusting the lights. The lights had nothing to do with it.

I wanted that woman so bad I couldn't draw a straight line.

"You know, Manny," I said. "That lumber company, the guy who owns it called last night."

"So?"

"So he's probably at his office tonight," I said. "He said he usually works nights at his office to get paperwork done. If you want that receipt, he'll probably be there."

"Hmmm," Manny said. "That's not a bad idea. I'll just call to make sure he's there."

"He won't answer the phone," I said. "He said that he leaves the phone off the hook so he can get work done. Of course, you can always go over there during the day, but...."

Of course, I knew he couldn't.

"Nah, I'll go now," Manny said. "Every time they forget to leave the paperwork. I've complained at least four times now, and still...."

Manny continued talking as he went toward the office. He emerged with his coat, walked over to his truck, and drove off. I knew the address of the lumber company. At least forty-five minutes to get there. And at least forty-five minutes back.

I walked over to the office. I opened the door. Marie was behind the desk, adding numbers from the day's receipts on a tape.

"Hey," I said.

"Hey, back," she replied, never looking up from her calculator.

"I was wondering," I said, "if there was anything else I could do. I mean, the stage won't take much longer, then I'll be out of work."

"We have to be careful about using non-Union people."

"It's O.K. for small stuff," I said. "Anything other than the structure, that is. I mean, like the office. I could put down new carpet, or replace the door."

"There's nothing wrong with the door," she said, keeping her eyes on her work.

"Are you sure? I mean, does the lock work alright?"

"Yes," she said. Then her eyes left her desk and looked at me. Right at me. "The lock on the door works fine. If I...that is, if we...I mean, if I or my husband ever wanted to lock the door, we could."

"That's good," I said. "As long as you can lock it...if you want to."

"I must apologize for my husband," she said. "I know he's difficult to work for. He's a good man. It's just he's...."

"I know what he is."

"You do?"

"I do," I said. "I know what you are, too."

"Do you?"

"I do," I said. I concentrated. I could feel the change: the flesh of my face twisting; the skin on my forehead rising; my teeth growing, sharpening.

She didn't blink. She didn't shudder. She stared straight into my eyes, and then her own face changed. Her eyes turned deep gold. Razor fangs grew in her mouth. Her face became harsh, wicked, beautiful.

She walked up to me. Our faces were less than an inch apart. Her eyes never left mine. She said, in a breathy, soft voice:

"Perhaps we should check the lock on that door."


Part II.


"How much longer?"

"At least thirty minutes," I replied. Marie was curled in my arms on the ugly office couch. We both smoked cigarettes. "Round trip will take him at least that long."

"I'm hungry," she said. "Are you hungry?"

I nodded. She got up, grabbed a tupperware bottle from the small fridge in the corner of the office, came back, and reclined in my arms. She opened the bottle, took a sip, and handed it to me. I drank.

"This tastes a little funny," I observed. "What is this, pig's blood?"

"Cow's blood," she corrected. "Manny gets it from a butcher."

"It tastes terrible."

"I know," she said. "We don't get human blood that often. Only when we can be sure it's safe. Manny says that we can't take any chances, that he's worked too hard building up legitimate businesses to risk screwing it all up."

"There's more to life than money."

"Not much more," she replied. "But I do miss human blood. And the kill. I think I've only killed three or four people since I...changed."

"It's overrated," I said. "But the blood's worth the effort."

"We should get dressed," she said. "He can't find us like this."

"Why not? I can handle him."

"Jack, no," she said. "You can't. You have to promise me. Never."

"What hold does he have on you?"

"Nothing like what you think," she said. She took a long drag off her cigarette. "It's just...I owe him."

"Owe him what?"

She sighed.

"My family came to California when I was four," she explained. "There had been a talent search. They said I could be on TV. My folks picked up and moved just for that. I got a series of commercials for a doll company. National spots. Then there was a TV series. I was quite a success story, for a toddler."

"And then?"

"By the time I was ten the work dried up," she explained. "Being buck-toothed wasn't cute anymore. My parents got me braces, acting lessons, everything. But by the time I got past awkward adolescence, everyone had forgotten. I was a has-been before I went to prom."

"So what happened?"

"When I graduated high school, I got the money in my trust fund. Only there wasn't any money in my trust fund. My parents had 'charged' me for 'managing' my career. I was broke. I waited tables. My agent got me a couple of local commercials. I was a spokeswoman for a local auto dealership. After awhile the only thing I got offered were 'adult' movies. I made a few of those movies, Jack."

She waited to see if I would be repulsed. I just kept smoking. It's funny. Vamps can kill and maim and drink the blood out of people, but we still have all the sexual hangups that humans carry around.

"Anyway," she continued, tossing her cigarette into a paper cup on the floor, "that's when I met Manny. One of the bars he owned in L.A. was being used for a shoot. It was about five years ago. He was sweet. I knew he was a vampire. I'd run into a lot of vamps when I was working in porn. A lot of porn actresses will only work with a vampire co-star. They don't carry diseases, they can't get you pregnant, and as long as they get paid, they behave. But Manny was different. He passed as human, full time. He was respectable. He made legitimate money. With him, I could live forever, and I could show my face around."

"So you got what you wanted," I said. "You have nothing to complain about."

"What I thought I wanted," she said. "Jack, he's old. I don't mean in years. I mean, when he became a vampire, he was already fifty. He thinks like an old man. Everything's all business. We never go anywhere. We never do anything. I'm going crazy. I'm young, Jack. I'll always be young. He'll always be old."

"So why don't you leave him?"

"And do what? Go back to living the way I was before? If I wanted to live in sewers from one meal to the next I would have stayed in porn. I can't live with him, I can't live without him...."

"And you can't kill him?"

"What good would it do? He's got money, and plenty of it. But how would I get it? He can't die. Not the way humans die. If I ever killed him, the only thing left would be dust. How would I explain to a court that my husband blew away on the wind, so I should inherit everything he has? It's not fair. If he was a human husband, I could divorce him or wait for him to die. Like this, I'm stuck."

"You're not stuck," I said.

"Of course I am," Marie said.

"No, you're not," I said. "You can get rid of him. And get his money."

"How?"

I took a final drag off my cigarette, and said:

"With my help."

And that's how the damn thing got started. It's difficult to make people understand. They think vampires pretty much just want blood and a roof over their heads at dawn and that's pretty much it. And that's all some vamps want. But we're not all like that. We're as different from each other as people can be.

Me, I've always lived by my wits. I've always enjoyed thinking that I was the smartest vampire in the sewer. I don't mean that I thought of myself as some evil genius. I always thought those guys were suckers. Gathering minions and trying to dominate the world, even though they probably would have no idea what to do with it if they succeeded. No, I just mean that I never really relied on my physical strength to get by.

Take this one time. I was in a seedy little dive in Tucson. Some vamp came in, started chowing down on the patrons. I let him have his way with them. Then I picked up a chair and broke it over his back. When he realized how hard I'd hit him, and that I held one of the splintered chair legs in my hand, he ran. He was in no mood for a fight with someone who could match him, and knew his weaknesses. One guy was O.K., so I told him to go and get the cops. While he was gone, I found a couple of stragglers hiding behind one of the booths. I drank both of them. When the cops came, they were none the wiser. I stood around, gave them a statement, even shook hands with one of the officers as I left. No tracks, no chance someone would get lucky and shove a pencil in my heart. I laughed all the way back to my lair.

Now I had a chance to really pull something off. I always wondered what I could do if I had enough cash to blend into the classy part of town, where the victims had Rolexes and diamonds and big, fat wads of cash in their wallets. With half of Manny's bankroll, I could live in style. Best hotels. Sleeper car on the train. No more sewers.

And her. I wanted her before. But now, I wanted more. I wanted to take care of her. I wanted to be the one that rescued her. I wanted to know that she would have an eternity of everything she ever wanted, and that I was the reason. I won't pretend that it was noble. It wasn't. I'm a vampire. We're not capable of nobility. Sure, we can wrap our own selfish wants around whatever stupid ideals that we carry around with the memories of our humanity, but that's just crap. And even if I kidded myself that whatever I felt for Marie was somehow cleaner or kinder than my own wants, I now know that it wasn't. It was just a dangerous mix of lust and ego and fairy tale bullshit. But it was the closest thing to a dream that I'd ever had, and she was the one I wanted it with.

It was doable. I could do it. At that moment, I knew I really was the smartest vampire in the sewer.


Part III.


"Alright," Manny shouted, "let's get that scrap lumber outside."

I picked up an armload of the wood. Manny had been a little short with me over the last three days. I think he was still ticked at me because the lumber guy hadn't been at his office that night. I'd pretty much convinced him that the guy was probably hiding out in his office, but that didn't make Manny any less grumpy.

"Hey, Manny," I said. "Grab that plank. It's right behind you."

Manny looked behind him, saw a two-by-four lying on the ground, and bent over to get it. I sprang. I dropped the all the wood in my hand except for one good size board. By the time Manny heard anything I was on top of him. I hit him across the back of the head, hard. I felt bone give way. Manny collapsed. He was out cold.

I looked down at him. There was a large dent in the back of his head which would have certainly killed a human. I was counting on that.

I reached into my jacket. I grabbed the hypodermic and vials I'd bought off a junkie down on the docks. I filled the needle and shot it into Manny. Then I filled the needle again, and shot that dose into Manny.

Marie ran up. She asked:

"Did you do it?"

"It's done," I replied.

"How long will he be out?"

"I just shot him with enough heroin to keep a junkie high for about two weeks," I said. "It should keep him out for at least three days. Help me drag him."

Marie grabbed one arm. I grabbed the other. We dragged him out to the wood pile behind the building. I ran around to the other side and gave the pile a good shove. It came tumbling down all over Manny's body. Marie and I ran inside. Marie went to the office as I grabbed the board I'd hit Manny with, went back outside, and placed the board by Manny's head. Then I returned to Marie.

"Make the call," I instructed Marie.

Marie picked up the phone, dialed 911, and when an operator came on, she started the rant:

"Oh, God. Thank you. You have to send an ambulance. My husband had an accident. Wood fell on him. What...no, we can't wake him up. Yes, that's our address. Look, you have to hurry, we can't wake him up. One of our workers is outside with him but he can't wake him up. You've got to send someone. I think he's coming. Please send someone. Hurry!"

She hung up. I asked her:

"Alright," I said, "let's go over this again."

"We've been over it ten times a night, every night for the past two days," she protested.

"Yeah," I said, "and we're going to go over it again one more time to be sure we've got it right. We're going to end up running the sewers between here and Tijuana if we screw this up. Have you ever been in a Mexican sewer? I have. So we're going over it again."

She bit her bottom lip, but she was listening.

"Now," I said, "What do you tell the cops?"

"My husband was getting wood...."

"No," I interrupted. "He SAID he was getting wood. You didn't actually see him getting it."

"Sorry," she said. "He said he was going out to see if there were any good wood planks in the scrap pile we could use on the stage."

"Who was here?"

"Just me," she said. "And Jack Braddock, our night carpenter."

"Where was he?"

"He came into the office," she said, "and we both heard the wood pile fall down. We ran outside, and Manny was buried under the wood. I went in to call an ambulance, and Jack tried to wake up Manny."

"Why did you hang up with 911?"

"I don't know," she said. "It was stupid. But I heard someone coming, and all I could think about was whether it was Manny, or maybe Jack had gotten Manny to wake up, and I just hung up."

"And then?"

"Jack came running inside," she continued. "He wanted to make sure I'd gotten through to someone. He was going to run back out to try and help Manny, but I went hysterical, and he couldn't leave me."

"And what do you keep asking?"

"Is Manny going to be alright? Is Manny alive? What are they doing for Manny?"

"Perfect," I said.

"How long until the cops get here?"

"Two minutes, tops."

Her eyes never left mine. Without saying a word, she sat on the couch. She reclined, and gathered her skirt up around her waist.

"We don't have time," I said.

She didn't say anything. She just kept staring at me, with those eyes.

As it turned out, we did have time. Barely. It was stupid. It was worth it.


Part IV.


"I got no pulse," the paramedic said. "Nothing. This guy's head is all caved in and he's cold as ice. He's dead."

His partner sighed, closed his medical kit, and said:

"Alright, I'm calling it. Time of death, eleven-oh-three."

One of the cops stood over the two paramedics like a god on Olympus. He turned to me and asked:

"Do you want to tell the lady, or should I?"

I thought about that. Marie was in the office with the policeman's partner. If I went in, we'd have to pull off the act simultaneously, in front of a cop. Not good.

"Maybe you'd better do it," I said. "I mean, I don't know her that well, and...you know."

"Don't worry, sir," the cop said. "This is part of my job." He walked into the building.

"Jesus, Jack," I heard a voice behind me say. I turned around. It was the Harris kid.

"Xander," I said. "What are you doing here?"

"I got the call from the cops," he said. "My boss said I should come and check it out. We'll have to fill out a report for the insurance company. They're real strict about work site stuff."

"Well, it's not your company's fault," I replied. "You know Manny. I mean, I hate to say it, but you know how cheap Manny is...I mean, was. He was out here trying to get some wood scraps for me to use on the stairs. He shouldn't have been poking around the scrap pile."

"Yeah, it is weird," Xander said. "Especially since I put aside some scrap wood for him this morning."

"What?"

"Yeah," Xander said, pointing toward the supply shed. "That pile of wood over there. It's the scrap from the framework. Manny asked if he could have some for the stage, and I told him it was O.K. I had some guys put it aside for him. Heck, he called the site this afternoon, and I even told him where it was stacked. There's more than enough over there to finish the stage work three times over. Why would he be poking around the scrap pile?"

Damn. Think fast, Jack.

"Well, you know Manny," I said. "Why take something for nothing when you can take everything for nothing?"

"I suppose," Xander said. I caught the look in his eye. He didn't suppose. He didn't suppose one damn bit. And the place was crawling with cops. I mentally started practicing my Spanish.

"Oh, God, nooooooooooooo!"

Xander and I both turned as we heard the shriek echo through the empty building. The cops had told Marie. It was convincing.

Maybe too convincing. I didn't know why, but somehow, Marie seemed just a little too...convincing.


Part V.


Marie and I stood side by side in front of the coffin. She wore a black dress with a wide-brimmed black bonnet. I wore a black suit I'd bought from the Salvation Army. It had been awhile since I'd bought clothes. Normally, as a vamp, you just take whatever you need off a victim. But until the whole deal was done, it was too dicey to risk stealing, let alone feeding.

The funeral director came up to us. He looked somber, but then I suppose that's an occupational requirement. He asked Marie:

"Are you sure you wouldn't like to have a minister come? I'm sure we can arrange...."

"No," Marie interrupted. "My husband never was religious, and we don't know anyone in town. He always said that this was the way he would want things if...if...."

At that point, Marie's face contorted. I was a little scared. I was worried she'd gone nuts and was ready to vamp out on this guy. But she didn't. Instead, she burst into tears, and buried her head on my shoulder.

Damn, she was way too good.

The director bowed his head, and then turned to a technician, who started flipping switches. A recording of "Amazing Grace" started playing, and Manny's coffin started moving down a belt, and through an opening in the wall. When it was all the way through, the opening closed. The technician flipped another switch. While I'm sure they went to great pains to make the machinery sound proof, my hearing could pick up the woosh of the burners in the crematorium.

I held my breath (figuratively). We'd been lucky so far. The coroner had decided that, because it was clearly an accident, and the cause of death was obvious from the head trauma, no autopsy was necessary. I had counted on that. There was no amount of dope I could have shot into Manny to make him sleep through dissection. We'd convinced the funeral director that Manny wouldn't have wanted a wake, or even a ceremony. Now it was just a matter of whether the flames would take Manny before....

I loud whistle sounded through the room, and you didn't need vamp hearing to catch it. An all too familiar whistle. To a human, it probably sounds like a cat hissing at a mouse. To a vampire, the sound is unique: another vampire, trapped, burning, dying.

Marie's eyes widened. I stared straight ahead. If our eyes met....

The hissing stopped. There was no sound. The funeral director asked:

"Did you hear that? That 'woosh' sound?"

"Uh, yeah," I replied. "You should check the pipes. You may have a gas leak."

"Oh, God," he exclaimed. "There could have been an explosion! Mrs. Jorgan, I'm so sorry. We never allow...."

"Please, think nothing of it," Marie responded. "If you could just arrange...."

"Of course, Mrs. Jorgan," he said, and scurried off.

I waited until the little weasel was out of earshot, then whispered:

"Are you nuts?"

"What? What did I do?"

"Your husband's getting cremated," I explained. "You hear a gas leak, you don't say it's no big deal. It is a big deal. These are your last moments on this earth to say goodbye to your soulmate. It's a real big goddam deal. You cry. You shout. You make a big...."

"Jack?"

"What?"

"It's over."

"What are you talking about?"

"It's over, Jack," she said. "Manny's dust. The cops don't have any reason to believe he should be anything but dust. We did it. I'm meeting with the lawyer tomorrow, and the insurance agent on Tuesday. We're rich. We got away with it."

She was right. Manny's insurance was worth a half million by itself. We could dump his other stuff in about a week, and blow Sunnydale forever. We'd won.

We took Manny's ashes down to the beach that night. We scattered them into the ocean. The dust floated, then spread, then finally sank into nothing.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.


Part VI.


"What the Hell are you doing?"

The guy on the stage looked up at me. He had a bunch of nails in one hand and a hammer in the other.

"I'm finishing the stage," the guy replied. "Just like she told me."

"Who told you?"

"The broad in the office," he explained. "She told me to get the stage finished, then work on the bar."

It had been a couple of days since we'd dumped Manny's ashes. Marie had gone to the construction site to get some papers. After a couple of hours had passed I had gone to check on her. I looked around. The stage wasn't the only thing that had been worked on. New dry wall had gone up, someone had delivered new tables, and a section of the roof had been torn away so the new support column could be installed.

Marie had continued the construction on the new building.

I stormed into the office. Marie was sitting behind the desk. Paperwork was everywhere. I screamed:

"What the Hell?!?"

"You're upset," Marie said, rather matter-of-factly.

"Damn right," I said. "Why are they still working on the building? We're supposed to be selling it back to the original owners, then blowing town."

"I talked to the lawyer," she replied. "He said the bank loan on the property went through before Manny died. If we don't continue with the construction, the bank could take title before we could even find a buyer, and with the unrealized gains on the property, we'd take a real bath on the foreclosure."

"Who gives a damn? It'll take another two weeks for this place to get done. We can't hang around that long, and then wait to find someone to buy this place."

"I'm not sure I want to look for a buyer," she said. "I did some checking. This place is a hot property. It's the only real nightclub in Sunnydale. Once it reopens, it could pay for itself in a year."

"A year?!?"

"Uh, Jack," I heard coming from behind me. I turned around. It was the Harris kid.

"Yeah," I said. "What's up, Xander?"

"Um, I talked with my boss," Harris continued. "He said we could get the main support column put in by Monday. He wants to know if we should start tomorrow."

"Yes," Marie chimed in. "You can tell your boss that I'm in charge now. Tell him I want the support column in by Friday. That's what he promised, and that's what I expect."

"Um, sure thing, Mrs. Jorgan," Harris said. He turned and walked out.

"Great," I said. "Just great. Now you're Donald Trump. I thought the whole point of this was to get Manny's money, so you wouldn't have to live like a...."

"Jack, I have the money now," she said. "That was the point. I dreamed of this for a long time. Now that it's come true, I see things differently. Maybe Manny wasn't so crazy. I could live a good life if I...."

"We," I interrupted.

"What?"

"We could live a good life," I continued. "That's what you meant, right? You and me. Partners. You're not thinking of cutting me out, are you?"

"Jack, don't be stupid," Marie sighed. "Of course you're cut in. I need someone to help me. I can't run this club alone. And I'll need someone to help with Manny's other businesses. You're smart. You know a lot that I don't. We're partners. Fifty-fifty. But while the property is all in my name, I'm calling the shots. I'm sitting on a goldmine, and I'm not going to give it away for less than it's worth."

I took a good look at her. All of her. God, I was an idiot. Getting suckered in by those doe eyes. She'd planned this from the moment we'd met. Hell, she'd probably planned it from the moment she met Manny. And I'd bought it. Yep, me. Mr. Smartest Vampire in the Sewers. Yeah, right.

"Hey," I heard. Christ, doesn't anyone knock?

I turned to see the guy who had been working on the stage.

"What do you want?"

"Look," he said. "When I signed on for this, I thought there would be no trouble. If you're making enemies here, we're going to have to renegotiate."

"What are you talking...?"

"The Slayer," he said. "I was hired to make some quick cash doing woodwork. I never signed on to take on the Slayer."

I took my first real look at the guy. Pale as a ghost.

I stormed past him and walked out toward the stage. Harris was walking along the back wall. Beside him was a blond girl. Petite thing. She was looking around. At everything. Closely.

I turned and went back to the office. When I got there, Marie was handing the carpenter a stack of twenty dollar bills. He grabbed them and left. I asked Marie:

"What was that for?"

"He's got the idea that there's some kind of bogeyman out there," she explained. "I had to pay him a little extra to stay on. It's worth it, though. It's still cheaper than paying a union guy."

"Are you crazy, hiring a vamp?"

"I told you, it's cheaper."

"It's no bogeyman," I said. "It's the Slayer. That Harris kid is walking around with some blonde girl. That woodpile thing must have made him suspicious. If this vamp is local, then he knows what the Slayer looks like. Everyone knows that Sunnydale...."

"Jack, don't be silly," Marie sighed. "Manny told me that the Slayer is just some dumb myth that superstitious vampires think...."

"Manny was full of it," I interrupted. "He was a damned fool, running around like he was human, and not knowing what he was. I know. I was feeding at a TVA camp in thirty-nine. A Slayer came in and cleaned the place out. I saw her dust four vamps without even breaking a sweat. She's real, and that's her outside. We've got to get out of here."

"We can't go," Marie argued. "I'm headed up to Tarzana tomorrow to pick up the insurance check and settle some accounts with our suppliers. After that, I'll be able to finish the work on the club, and...."

"It's the SLAYER," I said, pounding my fist on the desk for emphasis. "You're not hearing me. Do you know how many thousands of vamps there are in this world? Well, the great cosmic scale of the universe puts ONE of her up against all of us. And you know what? It balances out. And that's not the half of it. I've heard about this Slayer. She's different. She's...."

"She's not going to get in the way," Marie said. "Look, she doesn't know anything."

"Yet," I said.

"And she won't," Marie said. "Look, I'll be in Tarzana a couple of days with the lawyer. Once I get back, I'll put the rest of the money into Manny's old accounts to cover the costs of finishing the club. They'll be about fifty thousand left over. If you want to leave Sunnydale, fine. Fifty thousand's a lot more than what you came to town with. You want your piece of the real money, you can stay."

I was crazy, and I'm sure my eyes showed it as I stared into her. She asked:

"You thinking about how to kill me, Jack?"

And damned if I wasn't. I'd risked so much for her, I'd have killed for her, there was a time I would have died if it meant she could have had the happiness she wanted. Now....

"Don't be stupid," I finally said. "We're partners, straight through."

"Fine," she said. "I'll be back Tuesday. We'll meet here Tuesday night."

She got up, grabbed her purse, and started to walk out. Then she turned, and said:

"Look, Jack, I don't want it to be this way. What we had...what we have...it's real. More real than anything I've ever known. I just can't be poor again. I had it all once, and I lost it. I can't go through that again. I can't have another run of the good life just to watch it all slip away like it did before. I love you. I really do. But I can't risk everything just because you're scared of staying put. I know you. I was you, once. It's no good. You can't wander forever. A century's too long to live without growing up, Jack."

She turned and walked out the door.

Half of my brain was still thinking of how to kill her. The other half was thinking of how it wouldn't be so bad. Settling down. Growing some roots. Living respectably on bar profits and cow's blood. She was right. If I blew town with fifty thousand, or even ten times that much, I'd still be broke in about a year. Even for a vampire, I was just no good.

Of course, being a vampire, I wasn't sure I wanted to be good.

Then there was her. She'd come across like a trapped fawn. She'd played me like a fox. Now I didn't know what she was. I couldn't stop loving her. I couldn't stop hating her. All I knew was that I could blow town, with her fifty grand or without, and I'd never get her out of my mind.

I needed answers. And I only knew one place to get them. She'd be out of town for the next two days. So would I. I checked the nickel plated pocket watch I'd stolen off a sailor I'd killed a couple of weeks after Pearl Harbor. It was ten-thirty. If I hurried, I could still catch the red-eye train to L.A.


Part VII.


"Thank you, thank you."

I put the microphone back on the stand and climbed down off the stage. I wonder if the guy who invented the phonograph realized that karaoke would be the ultimate result? It's a shame, really. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Then again, so is the road to Los Angeles.

I'd been to this place once about six months prior. I was passing through L.A. on my way to...well, nowhere. Anyway, I'd heard there was a place demons could grab a drink without worrying about getting hurt. It was supposed to be some sort of sanctuary. Once I got there I found out some green guy read your aura if you sang. My aura seemed fine at the time, so I just had a shot of blood and a beer (vamps call it a "bloodboiler"). Since then my aura had changed, for the worse, and I needed an aura tuneup, awful damn quickly.

Mr. Green (I don't know his real name; people just call him 'The Host') climbed on the stage and said:

"Alright! Everyone give it up for Jack. He's a vampire with a lady on his mind and a song in his heart. Put your hands together for Jack! Alright, alright. Settle down. I'm going to have a little chat with our new friend Jack. Meanwhile, Gargorlak is going to sing a little tune. He's a Methussian worm demon who's can't decide whether to burrow into the ground and feed off rotting corpses, or go back to school for his MBA. Everyone, a big hand for Jack, who's Takin' that Midnight Train to Georgia!"

The crowd clapped and some slimy guy came on stage and started into the Gladys Knight tune. Mr. Green walked off stage, pulled me aside, and said:

"Liked the choice of tunes, pal. I've always been a sucker for Sinatra. Why did you pick 'Lady is a Tramp,' if you don't mind my asking?"

"Because she is," I replied. "Look, I don't know...."

"No, Mister, you don't," he replied. "Look, Jack-o-lantern, I'm a sucker for the oldies myself. You remember 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,' that old song from back in your day?"

"Yeah," I replied.

"Do you like it?"

"Not really."

"Neither do I," he said. "In fact, I hate it. I mean, the premise is just ridiculous. Some Army guy blows reveille with a swingin' rhythm? Yeah, that's just what a bunch of guys waking up to a trumpet at five in the morning want to hear. After he got the stuffing kicked out of him a couple of times, trust me, that bugle boy would keep it short and sweet. But whenever I hear that darned old song, my toes start a tappin', and I just can't help but belt it out. What can I say? I'm weak. We've got a World War Two crowd of vamps who come in every second Tuesday of the month, and they just go nuts for that old Andrews Sisters garbage. I always start out with that song, figuring I can get it out of my system. But when the night's winding down, I always go up and do an encore."

I paused, waiting. Then I asked:

"And the point of that story is...?"

"That it's stupid to fight what isn't going to change," he replied. "I mean, something inside me just wants to sing that song. It's not something I can get rid of. Life becomes easier if you accept the things about yourself that you can't leave behind. Now lets take you, for example. I could tell you that this woman is just no good for you, or anyone for that matter. That she's never going to be any good for you. That no matter how hard you try, you're never going to see any kind of happily ever after with her. But you know what? It won't do any good. You've got this woman in your blood. Well, in whoever's blood you've got in you at any given time. You're going to have to play it out with her, and take the consequences. You killed for this woman. You killed WITH this woman. Do you really think you can just walk away?"

"I guess not," I admitted.

"Well, that's the thing," he said. "The fact is, you can. But you won't."

I let this sink in.

"Well," I finally said, "I guess I'm headed back to Sunnydale."

I grabbed my jacket and started to leave. On my way out, I turned back to the Host and asked:

"Look, is there any chance of things ending well with this? Any chance at all?"

The Host's eyes dropped, then looked up at me, and he said:

"Sorry, pal."

I turned, walked out, and went back to the motel room I'd rented for the night. I'd never get back to Sunnydale before sunup. I spent the daylight hours waiting for the nine p.m. train to Sunnydale, and planning my next move. The Host had confirmed what I'd suspected: there was no way I was going to be Prince Charming in this fairy tale. I figured I could be Red Riding Hood, or the Big Bad Wolf. Funny thing is, when I was a kid, I heard a couple of different versions of that fairy tale. In one, Red got eaten. In another, the wolf got his head chopped off.

I broke apart one of the flimsy wooden chairs in the room, and sharpened one of the legs against the cement window sill. If I was going to be the wolf, I'd need at least one sharp tooth.


Part VIII.


I snuck into the club after sundown with my homemade stake in my back pocket. I walked around the hole in the ground where the wall had been torn out. They'd torn away more of the wall to make enough room to install the support column, including a section that opened into the storage room. I went into the storage room figuring I could sneak in easier through the hallway, rather than exposing myself in the open area of the club. Manny's old truck was parked outside, so I knew Marie was already there. I was a half hour early. Apparently Marie had arrived even earlier than that.

I snuck back toward the office. The door was partially opened, and light spilled out across the floor. I heard Marie's voice, so I figured that Marie was talking on the telephone. Then I heard another voice.

"Don't worry, Mrs. Jorgan," a female voice said. "I've dealt with this sort of thing a lot. When he gets here, just stay in the office. Does the lock on the door work?"

"Um...yes," Marie replied.

"I'll go out and hide backstage," the girl continued. "I'll jump him when he gets here. I won't let anything happen to you. Trust me, he'll pay for what he did to your husband."

"This is all just so hard to accept," Marie said. "I mean, when that wood pile fell on Manny, I knew that something didn't sound right. But I couldn't think of any reason Mr. Braddock would have to hurt Manny. Then, a couple of days ago, I came in wearing a cross around my neck. My mother gave it to me. Mr. Braddock got this look, like he was in pain. Then his face...changed. God, it was horrible. I didn't know what to make of it. I'm glad I told that nice Mr. Harris about what I'd seen. I was lucky he knew what to do."

That's it, Marie. Do your 'damsel in distress' routine. If it works, stick with it. I guess Marie had figured things the same way I had. Well, I've got to hand it to her, at least she worked it out on her own, and spared herself the humiliation of karaoke.

I needed a Plan B, and quick. I came up with one. I snuck out to the toolshed. I picked up three pieces of scrap wood. Two of them were stubby and of about the same length. The third was longer than the other two. When I got to the toolshed, I grabbed a cleaning rag, and a bottle of the quick drying glue we use to temporarily hold wood together until we can get in screws. I glued one of the stubby pieces to the side of the longer piece, only a little off center. Then I wrapped one hand with the rag. I applied some of the glue to the side of the longer piece of wood just opposite the stubby piece. I slid the final piece into place with the hand I'd wrapped in the rag. As they came together, I could feel my hand start to burn. I drew my hand away as soon as the glue bonded. I looked at my hand. I had a couple of blisters. But I also had a makeshift crucifix.

I re-wrapped my hand, bit my bottom lip in preparation for the pain, and grabbed the crucifix. Even through the rag, the cross seared my hand. I'd have to move quickly.

I moved as quickly as I could back to the office. I could smell the smoke from my burning flesh in my nostrils. I paused outside the door. When I heard both Marie's voice and the Slayer's, I kicked the door open, and stuck the crucifix in Marie's face.

Marie hissed and recoiled. Instinctively, she flashed her vamp face. I'll give this Slayer credit. She caught on as quickly as I'd hoped she would. She saw Marie change, saw the smoke coming off of my hand, and exclaimed:

"Both of you?!?"

I dropped the crucifix, enjoying a moment of relief from the pain, then bolted.

I could hear the sounds of fighting behind me. I'd hoped that the Slayer would deal with Marie first, either out of a sense of betrayal or simply because Marie was closer. I was right. Unfortunately, in my haste to get out, I tripped on a piece of exposed wiring on the floor. Jesus, don't these union guys know that a safety inspector would go nuts over that sort of thing?

As I got up, the Slayer was tossing Marie in my direction. Poor Marie. She'd never learned enough about fighting to stand a chance. The Slayer was tossing her around like a rag doll. I guess the Slayer really was bright, because she was forcing Marie to retreat in my direction. Smart girl. Keeping both of us in sight.

The Slayer landed a beautify roundhouse kick to Marie's head, and Marie was down, and out. She was dazed, barely conscious. The Slayer drew a stake from her jacket pocket. She was going to do just what I'd set out to do. And while she was staking Marie, it would have been the one opportunity I'd get to make a break for it.

And then, wouldn't you know it, I stopped. I kid you not, I actually heard 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' in my head. God, I'm pathetic.

I sprang on the Slayer, pushing her away just in time to keep her from staking Marie. I hoped (I don't know why) that Marie would get up and bolt, but she was still flat on her back, fighting to get her senses back.

Like I've said, I've never been one for fighting, but I can hold my own. The Slayer landed a few punches on me, but I blocked most of them, and even planted a few on her myself. She kept advancing, which is what I wanted. We were backing up toward the open wall of the building, which meant, if I could hold her off, I'd still get my chance to rabbit out of there.

Just as we were getting toward the back wall, the Slayer leapt into the air and landed what I must admit was a perfectly executed kick to my chest. I felt myself falling backward. I figured I'd roll to my feet when I hit the ground and get out of there. The thing is, though, it was taking me way too long to hit the ground. Then I noticed that there was no light around me. The only light I could see was a shrinking circle of moonlight above me. At first I thought she'd knocked me out. Then I hit bottom, literally. I felt the bones in my legs snap. The fall was hard, much to hard to be a simple fall to the ground. I reached out to pull myself up. My hands hit solid rock. That's when I realized she'd knocked me backwards into the support column hole.

I looked up into the moonlight. I heard the Slayer's footsteps fading away. She was running back to finish off Marie.

I did an inventory of my injuries. There was a spot behind my ear that didn't hurt. Actually, I was surprised at first that I wasn't hurt worse. Even with vampire strength, a forty foot fall should have broken every bone in my body. Then I noticed the smell. I felt underneath me, and stuck my fingers into a mass of rotting flesh. Braddock, the real Braddock, had broken my fall. I couldn't figure out if that was tragic, ironic, or just disgusting.

I checked my pockets. I don't know why. It's not like I was going to find any rock climbing gear. But I wasn't thinking that clearly. I could feel the notebook of stage sketches in one back pocket. I'd forgotten all about it. In one front pocket I had my pocket watch. It was smashed. In my shirt pocket I had a pen I'd taken from the motel. Finally, in my other back pocket, I could feel the stake. I pulled it out of my pocket to defend myself against...oh, I don't know what. Again, my head was really messed up.

Above me, I heard the sounds of a fight. I guess Marie had come to. I heard loud smacking sounds, that were followed by grunts I recognized as Marie. Then I heard Marie scream. The moonlight was suddenly blocked out. I could feel air and earth falling on me, then a sudden crushing weight sent spider webs of pain shooting through my already aching body.

After a moment, the weight started wiggling and moaning.

"It's looking like tomorrow's going to be a beautiful day," I heard the Slayer's voice shout from above. "I think I'll just wait up here and soak up some rays."

Crap, I thought. This girl really is something.

"Jack?"

The weight on my chest had Marie's voice. I replied:

"Yeah, it's me."

"I'm hurt, Jack," she said. "I can't feel my legs."

"I can feel mine," I responded. "Trust me. You're not missing anything."

"The Slayer, she's so strong."

"That pretty much comes with the job description." I resisted the urge to add 'I told you so.' No sense being petty.

"Jack, she's still up there," Marie said. "Is she going to come down after us?"

"She doesn't have to," I explained. "That crack about tomorrow being a beautiful day? She's talking about the sun. When it gets to be noon, the sunlight is going to shine right down on us."

"Oh, God, Jack," Marie exclaimed. "I don't want to burn!"

Neither did I. There are only a few ways for a vamp to die. Most of them are quick. But not burning. If you're going to die, that's not how you want to do it.

"Jack, listen," Marie said. "Maybe we can climb up and...."

"And run right into the Slayer," I interrupted. "She's waiting up there for us. My legs are broken. You can't even feel yours. Even if we could climb out, we're no match for her."

Marie sighed. "I guess we burn."

"For quite a long time."

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I guess that's true."

She lay silently on top of me. Dammit all if I actually didn't have an urge to put an arm around her. God, I'm a sap.

"Look, Jack," she said. "I want you to know something. What I said, before I went to Tarzana. I just want you to know I meant it. I know that sounds stupid, after all that's happened, but you really were my dream. I made bad choices. I know that. I guess neither one of us is any good. But it's important for me that you know that what we had was real. It's the one thing I ever had that really meant something to me. I want you to know it that. I'm sorry. I know that if I'd handled things better, maybe we wouldn't be here. Oh, God, Jack, I don't want to burn, but if I'm going to I need you to know that I really am sorry."

I slowly put my arms around her. She nestled as best she could in my arms. Of course, it was too dark for her to see that I had a stake in one hand. I buried it between her shoulder blades. She gasped, then her dust covered me, like rain on a roof.

"Apology accepted," I said, to no one in particular.

Revenge, or mercy? Damned if I know.


Epilogue


If you're reading this, it means someone found my sketch notebook. I spent the last few hours writing down the whole story. I'm not sure why. I'm not going to do something stupid like ask for your hopes or your prayers. What good would it do? I'm a demon. I'm damned, by mechanics even if not by merit. Maybe I'm just trying to make sense of all this. Or maybe having squandered one immortality I'm trying to put together another one.

The sunlight is creeping down into the pit, slowly pouring down the walls like honey. There isn't much time left. I'm going to try to bury the notebook under Braddock's body so the pages won't burn up with me. I better wrap this up.

I just keep wondering what it's going to be like. Will there really be fire? Or is that just a metaphor for some other, more abstract torment? I don't know. The ironic thing is, after all this, what I'm really wondering is if I'll see Marie again. Well, I'm going to Hell. I figure that makes the odds pretty good.

THE END


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