Morning’s Echo

Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox.

Part II

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The jukebox selection was from the Sixties, but it was a total loss all the same: Top 40s dreck, nothing either to match his mood or to improve it. He went back to the bar, noting with sour interest that no one in the establishment was looking at him directly, but all kept him in the corners of their eyes. Good instincts there: skinny middle-aged ponce walks in wearing deck shoes and a silk shirt, you’d expect him to be eaten alive in a place like this, but they were keeping their distance, more’s the pity. A good electrical fire or an exploding water main would perk him up no end just now, given the least excuse.

“Another,” he said, tapping the empty beer mug, and the bartender sullenly moved to comply. Ethan could understand the resentment, not that he cared. He was an unknown quantity here: too outré to be a copper and not wound tight enough to pose an obvious threat, his presence nonetheless disrupted the normal rhythms while the patrons tried to decide what to make of him.

He threw another glance at the clock over the bar (he seldom wore a watch himself these days, much too methodical for a devotee of chaos), and decided he’d give the lout Cain another half-hour. His bloody choice they meet here, and then late for the appointment. Shocking poor form, and not too smart, either; someone owes you money, it’s generally a good idea to show up on time to collect.

Hold on, though. What if one of the regulars tried to have him on, and he departed after a bit of creative destruction? That would establish that he had in fact been here for the meeting, serve as a lesson to Cain that it was risky to take him for granted, and spice up an otherwise dreary morning. Child’s play to get something started, too, just a little curl to the lip and a disdainful once-over, and some yob with more testosterone than gray matter would leap to oblige him. Hullo, now, this could be promising …

He knew by the change in timbre of background conversation that Cain had arrived, and turned on the stool to watch the big man cross the room. It was almost comical to see how everyone relaxed: rough, dangerous and nasty, Cain was something they could understand, and his nod to Ethan meant this was business, so they could dial down their alarms and drift back to their normal habits. “Rum and tonic for my guest,” Ethan said to the bartender. “But no ice, he’s far too masculine.”

Cain settled onto the next stool, accepted the rum with a grunt. “Rayne.”

“Gib.” Ethan took a long pull from his beer, then said, “Right, then, that’ll do for socializing. You brought it?”

Cain was already signalling to the bartender for a refill. To Ethan he said, “Mind if I collect on the original contract first? Business like mine, man carries a lot of overhead.”

Ethan flashed the charming smile that set wise men to checking their wallets and brake lines. “Come now, old son. Surely you don’t think I’d cheat you?”

Cain snorted, eyeing the other man morosely. “You got more sense than to stiff me solid, but yeah, I think you’d give it a shot just to keep me on my toes. And I ain’t up for games right now, your boy Gluuphthri was a double handful and then some.”

“Precisely why you were able to command such an exorbitant sum for dispatching him, dear fellow.” Ethan laid a locker key in front of the rum glass. “Main bus terminal. You’ll find your money there.”

“Mmnh.” Cain inspected the key, then tucked it into one of the myriad of pockets in that ridiculous safari vest. “And our other little bargain?”

“By all means. You show me yours, as they say, and I’ll show you mine.”

Another grunt, and the big man pulled back the flap of an adjacent pocket and extracted a ziplock bag. He dropped it on the bar, while Ethan passed over a worn brass medallion on a short length of broken chain. The two men inspected the proffered goods, Ethan poking the transparent bag with an expression of mild surprise. “Rather more than I asked for, mate.”

Cain shrugged. “I couldn’t remember which of the thing’s fingers you wanted, so I cut ’em all off.” He raised the medallion. “This better be the real deal.”

“Temperance, my lycanthropocidal colleague.” Ethan favored him with a thin smile. “You’ll have to determine for yourself if it works as advertised, but I guarantee it’s the promised article. Anoint it with wolf’s blood before a hunt, and it should alert you as you draw nearer to your quarry. By vibration, I think, though some sources indicate increasing heat. Either way, useful in your profession.”

“That’s the idea.” Cain tossed down half of the second drink. “I’m gonna be pissed if it don’t live up to its billing.”

“Caveat emptor, chum.” Ethan held up the baggie, the taloned digits inside it shifting with the movement. “I don’t know these will give me what I want, either. We’re each taking a chance, and neither will be much the poorer if it doesn’t play out. The contract we made regarding Gluuphthri, now, that’s a different matter: I get a demon persecutor dead, and you get a satchel of cash. This other, it’s just a side bet.”

“True enough.” Cain stood — no offer to cover his own drinks, Ethan noted — and started for the door, then paused to look back. “You never said why our boy had it in for you all of a sudden.”

Ethan let out a noiseless chuckle. “I attempted a major enchantment while deeply intoxicated. Called on Gluuphthri for power, and when he came to collect … Well, call me parsimonious, but his price was a touch beyond my means, I’ve developed rather a fondness for keeping my internal organs where they are.”

Cain weighed the information, and finally said, “I really, truly hope you’re not thinkin’ you can pull that kinda kissoff with me.”

Ethan leaned back against the bar, watching the other with amusement. “Don’t trust my sense of honor? Prudent of you, as I don’t have one. But self-interest will carry the day long after scruples have been given the toss. You see, if I cheated you, I’d have an expert hunter after me, instead of a formidable but rather dimwitted demon. Even if I tried to kill you, you might survive; besides, who’s to say I won’t find myself needing your talents sometime in the future? No, it’s easier all around to just pony up the lolly.”

Cain accepted it with a millimeter’s shrug. “Pleasure doin’ business,” he said, and was gone.

The baggie would have been too tight a fit in his trousers pocket, so Ethan stuffed a few napkins inside to make the severed fingers less obtrusive, and to soak up some of the dark blood that had collected in the bottom corners. He paid for the drinks and finished his own beer, still half-hoping someone would take exception to his continued presence, but there were no takers, and he no longer cared enough to provoke a confrontation.

The exchange with Cain had provided only a few minutes’ diversion. That was the main problem with his avocation, he reflected as he began the walk back to the execrable motel room he had rented for his stay here: no intellectually stimulating company. The hunter was competent but one-dimensional, a source of neither comradeship nor entertainment. (Like that idiot Ucharne: splendid potential source of chaos, but a thoroughly pedestrian personality. Why were would-be Evil Overlords always such crushing bores?) Even the new, neutered Giles was preferable …

Sudden unease prickled at the back of his neck, and he kept his gait steady while questing about for whatever had alerted him. Not any kind of psychic or supernatural sense, he didn’t have any such (though he could do scrying well enough, given time and the proper utensils); no, this was something that had trickled into his subconscious while he was preoccupied with his own thoughts …

There: a light clicking or tapping sound, barely audible in the background of street noises, with the loose regularity that bespoke a living agent.

Bugger, none of the minor magicks he’d prepared for the wait in the bar would avail him here. He walked on, looking for an escape route or a window so angled that its reflection might provide a glimpse of what lay behind him. The tapping continued, even and unhurried, and his mind raced and sorted through tidbits of fact and rumor to draw a shadowy suggestion of what might be trailing him.

The young black woman with the tailored suit and icy demeanor, who had offered to pay for some carefully timed anarchy in Los Angeles; he’d declined as much because he disliked dealing with bloody accountants as because the scenario requested by Trick had seemed more aesthetically pleasing. Talk of demons and other supernatural operators hiring the services of — or sometimes providing services to — some low-profile clearinghouse organization. (Institutionalized diabolism? The very thought was enough to make him retch. Where was the fun in something like that?) Fragmentary stories of assassins on permanent retainer … including some mysterious bint who was said to be blind but who killed as effortlessly as a ninja or a kraken wraith.

That tapping could easily come from the kind of cane a blind person used. How long had he been hearing it before he got around to noticing? Why the bleeding hell would somebody set an assassin on him? Had Gluuphthri contracted for his termination before Cain succeeded in terminating Gluuphthri? Or had the demon perhaps been part of some larger endeavor, with unseen others now brassed off at him for interfering with something he hadn’t even known about?

He saw the cab just as he had decided to take off running as soon as he rounded the corner. His arm went up, and wonder of wonders the vehicle slowed and pulled over. “Cypress Motor Court, Seigen Lane,” he was saying as he slid into the back seat, and the cabbie pulled away from the curb with welcome celerity.

A chill swept away his heartfelt relief: had he just let himself be steered into a trap? “On second thought, just head for the airport,” he said. The driver, a plump Asian woman with her hair in a spiky ponytail, lifted a hand in acknowledgment, and hung an appropriate left at the next intersection. Gradually Ethan felt his heart rate ebb back toward normal.

Fear gave way to an indignant wrath. Set a frigging assassin on his heels? He’d root out those corporate wankjobs and bring their sodding offices down around their heads. He could do it, too; chaos magic always worked better on larger populations, individuals being more adaptable than groups. That was why he usually preferred to aim his spells at suburban communities … and a city was a bleeding paragon of flexibility compared to an organizational hierarchy. Give him a week to work out the right combinations, and he’d have those white-collar bastards eating their own junior associates …

The tension drained out of his muscles, and Ethan settled back into his seat and began to laugh softly. Maggie’s corset, he’d been about to declare one-man war on some bunch of pinstripe drones in Los Angeles, just because of random tapping sounds on the street. Worse, he had relished the thought, all but panting for blood and devastation. Had his life really become so humdrum?

Gods, but he missed Ripper! Seeing the old fire leap up again in his former friend’s eyes had been well worth the beating he’d taken in return. He’d had rich plans for the next round, before Eyghon had bollixed it all with his putrid pursuit; he knew he’d little chance of further games, after trying to offer up Rupert’s pet Slayer as a substitute for his own much-valued flesh. Then the contract with Trick had taken him back to Sunnydale, and sure enough Ripper wound up right in the middle of it. A paler version, to be sure, the doctored candy had diminished concentration as well as inhibitions; but still, it was almost like old times.

Of course, the bloody Slayer had to take all the fun out of that one, too. The physical roughing-up hadn’t really been especially severe, he’d got worse from Ripper in his old costume shop; what mattered was that she wouldn’t stay out of it! Disrupting his own plans, reining in Ripper, turning one of the world’s great hellrousers into a bloody stammering lap dog … The morning after fleeing Sunnydale with Trick’s payment, he had worked himself into a towering rage, fueled by loneliness and frustration and copious infusions of Black Frost, and attempted the curse that had left him so perilously indebted to Gluuphthri.

And the worst of it was, he couldn’t even remember what the sodding spell had been supposed to accomplish.

He hefted the baggie. He had intended to use Gluuphthri’s runing finger to augment some entropy inversions — why waste good ingredients just because the former owner had been a personal acquaintance? — but nothing said he couldn’t apply the thing to other purposes. The power for the curse had come from Gluuphthri; with the demon’s relic and the proper retrospective incantations, he might be able to rediscover the original intent, possibly even determine what had gone wrong with it. He was almost positive it had been directed at the Slayer, though it might have been a jab at Rupert … and, considering the penalty Gluuphthri had been intent on collecting, he must have spun up a real corker. You could obliterate someone with sorcery at that level, wipe them from reality so completely that they not only no-longer-were but never-had-been.

No wonder he hadn’t been able to carry it off, the state he’d been in. All the same, even a failed spell of that potency should have had some effect; but from all reports the Slayer was still do-gooding merrily on, and poor Ripper as thoroughly whipped as ever. Nauseating, the waste of it.

No question, he had let himself go slack; even discord needed a firm purpose to guide it. Time to get to the bottom of all this, or have a hell of a good shake at it anyhow. And perhaps he should think of returning to Sunnydale, come what might. There had to be some way to bring the old Ripper out of the conscientious clown now wearing his face, it was just a matter of finding the right approach …

In the front of the cab, Wei-ben Tiew kept her eyes straight ahead and wished fervently that the company would spring for a bulletproof glass partition. She hadn’t gotten any bad vibes from this character when she first picked him up, he’d just seemed rushed and a bit jittery, but surreptitious surveillance in the rear-view mirror had shown an alarming chain of mood swings. Agitation to fear to anger to amusement to some really spooky pondering; and the low chuckles he let out now and again just made her skin crawl. She probably would have been more cautious on the graveyard shift, but who expected such weirdness this early in the day?

Ethan was oblivious to the apprehension he had engendered; he was still musing on delicious possibilities. Him and Ripper, together again … Gehenna, if only he could pull it off! The chaos they could create!

He laughed again. Ahead of him, Wei-ben hunched her shoulders and drove on.

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