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Paracelsus’ Sword

 

Project Paranormal

Author: Jo

Season 2

Part 17

 

**

 

Summary : Someone is stealing bodies.  Is it a job for the paranormal detectives?  Or for the ordinary lot?  And why is the date important?

 

**

 

Paracelsus’ Sword

 

It was one of those shops.  It was tucked into a side street, almost invisible to the passing world.  You can find them in any large town, and a lot of small towns, too.  The entrance is always deeply recessed, with a small door that jingles a bell when it’s opened.  It isn’t always clear from the window display what the shop is selling.  Sometimes you find that it’s antiques, sometimes it seems more like musty old junk.  Sometimes the place is filled with speciality items such as musical instruments, or military memorabilia.  Or things for railway enthusiasts.  Occasionally it’s an old fashioned herbalist with cabinets full of tiny drawers, the wooden fronts glowing from the constant polishing of use and of beeswax, scented with the herbs and spices and strange vegetable matter of years gone by.  Of centuries gone by.  Sometimes it’s all of these things.

 

The proprietor of these different incarnations of The Shop might change, but if you look closely, there’s always a similarity, as if they were struck from the same mould, and then decorated to look different, just like the shop.

 

Currently, this shop was dealing in antiques.  It had done all of the above, though, and more.  Anyone who had patronised its various personas would have realised that the owner looked familiar.  Differently dressed, perhaps; a different hairstyle and shaving habits, certainly; but similar, nonetheless, although the man himself would have denied all knowledge of The Shop before now.

 

In this current now, the man was reading a missive that had been pushed through his letterbox in the hours of darkness.  The handwriting was crude, but its message was simple.

 

If you want to see the boy again, bring it now.  You know where to come.

 

He pushed the note into the pocket of his trousers and reached underneath the small counter to press a hidden button there.  As he did so, there was a low click from the wall to his side, and a long narrow panel opened, the wooden front sliding silently up.  He lifted out a long, thin, cloth-wrapped bundle.  Tucking the bundle beneath his arm, he walked out of the shop, turned the sign to read Closed, locked the door and then stepped out into the street, and into the early morning haze.

 

++++++

 

Joshua was frightened.  He was only eight years old, and he badly wanted to go home.  He wanted his mother and his father, and the comforting embrace of his grandfather, even if he did always smell of snuff and cloves and brandy.

 

Joshua knew that he had been a bad boy.  Because it was summer, and because there were no busy roads to cross on his way home from school, his mother had said that, on Fridays, he could walk home with a couple of his friends who lived nearby.  It had made him feel very grown up.

 

Yesterday, though, he’d been in the school library, talking to his history teacher, and he hadn’t realised that John and Peter had already set off without him.  He’d had to walk home alone.

 

Never, ever talk to strangers.  Never, ever get into a strange car.  Never, ever take sweets from a stranger.  His mother had been very clear about those things.  And he never did.  Except that, as he’d walked home alone, feeling very grown-up and strangely nervous, hitching his back pack a little because his chest seemed tight, a man had called him by name.  The man had told him that his grandfather was worried about him, about why he was late home from school, and he’d been so relieved to know that he’d been missed that he didn’t question why his mother or his grandfather hadn’t come for him.  Didn’t ask why they had sent this strange man.

 

Instead, he had got into the big, black car, and had accepted the toffee that the man had offered him.  The crinkly, shiny paper that it was wrapped in had seemed so normal, just like the man.  He’d started sucking the toffee, and then he’d known nothing else, until he’d woken up here.

 

He had no idea where here was, just that it was dark and cold.  A single bare but dim light bulb hung from the ceiling, and caused the pale walls around him to glimmer a little.  An iron chain was fastened to a ring around his ankle at one end, and to the wall at the other, and he’d pulled and pulled, but he’d only made his hands and his ankle bleed.

 

So, he’d knelt on the cold, damp floor, and he’d prayed as his mother had taught him, making the sign of the cross and asking Our Lady for help.  Then, just to be on the safe side, he’d prayed as his grandfather had taught him.  He’d placed his hands, bloodied palms flat down, on to the floor, and asked the Great Mother Earth to show her magic in this place, and to help him.  To send someone to take him home.  He’d stayed on his knees for a long time, like that.  Then he’d curled up against the wall and cried himself to sleep.

 

++++++

 

The shopkeeper stood at the threshold.  Once he crossed over it, he would be committing himself to things that he abhorred.  But what choice did he have?  The child was here, his grandson, for want of a better word.  The boy was blood of his blood, and now hostage for the bundle that was tucked beneath his arm.  He’d sent the only plea for help that he’d dared, and he had no idea whether it would be understood.  He squared his shoulders and strode forward.

 

He found them where he expected to.  A large circle containing a pentagram had already been drawn, with perfect proportions.  Care had clearly been taken to get it absolutely right.  There were half a dozen of them – there would be more soon, some human, some less so.  A tall, commanding figure dressed in dark clothes stood with his back to the shopkeeper, but seemed to be aware of the man’s approach.  In the act of turning, before he could even have seen the newcomer, he spoke in greeting.

 

“Hello, Philip.”

 

“Francis.”

 

Now the two were facing each other.  Philip, the shopkeeper, stared into the other man’s face, a pallid face, eyes a washed-out colour that was neither green nor grey nor blue, but none the less intense for their lack of definitive pigment.  Francis, for his part, saw an elderly, stocky man, grey-haired, dressed in an old-fashioned woollen cardigan over a white cotton shirt, a tweed jacket and brown corduroy trousers that had seen better days.

 

“You brought it, I see.”

 

Philip took the few steps that separated them, unwrapped the cloth bindings, and removed the plain leather scabbard, uncovering a sword that gleamed softly in the dim light.

 

“Take it.  Just give the boy back to me.”

 

Francis looked shocked.

 

“Good Lord, no.  You fail to understand, Philip.  You will wield the sword.  You will be part of this great enterprise.  Then you can have the boy back.”

 

Philip swallowed down the bitter taste that had flooded his mouth. 

 

“Let me see that he’s still alive.”

 

“But of course.  As soon as the trial run is successfully completed, I’ll take you to see him personally.  We’re just waiting for everyone else to arrive, and for the rest of the, ah, requisites, shall we say?  Then we can get on with it.”

 

It was the best he was going to get.  He wrapped the sword back up again and went to sit down quietly, out of the way.  Those gathered continued with their preparations.

 

++++++

 

There are many names for her.  Some call her Mother Earth.  Some call her Gaia.  Some speak of a genius locus.  There are many names, and many ways of thinking about the living planet.

 

She may have a heartbeat measured in centuries, and the patience of millennia, but whatever she is, she is a mother.  And she has senses.  She hears with a trillion ears.  They may be furry or fleshy, they may be no more than pits in the side of a snake’s head, or lines on the side of a fish, yet they all hear.  She sees with a trillion eyes.  They may be compound, or faceted, simple, camera or mirrored, yet they all see.  And she feels, with the nerve pulses of a trillion organisms, large and small, animal or vegetable or something in between.

 

Now, she senses… What can she sense?  A gathering storm?  A confluence of events that causes a ripple through the network of energies that overlies her skin?  And although she has not the consciousness of a human, does not react in the way that a human reacts, cannot be seen to move in the way that humans move, nevertheless she turns her full attention to the thing that has so disturbed her.

 

Something watches through every jewelled insect eye, feels through every beating protozoan cilium, hears through every twitching ear.  Something reaches out, through the nerves of every spreading fungal mycelium and every forest root run; stretches with bones of granite and sandstone, of basalt and chalk, sinewed by seams of quartz and gold, of silver and lead.  Then something sends out messages, carried by air and fire, by earth and water.

 

++++++

 

He’s walking through the rustling forest, the trees on either side of the broad woodland ride seeming to bend over, their new leaves whispering to him, too low and too many for him to catch their meaning.  Small, scuttling things go about their business in the undergrowth on either side of the path, the remnants of last year’s dead leaves crackling beneath their tiny feet in a susurration of grace notes that seem to him to have replaced the essential melody, so that he cannot understand.  Whenever he draws alongside these smallest of forest dwellers, they seem to stop and stare at him, intent on imparting some message that he cannot fathom.

 

Somewhere, in some broader glade, he stops and presses his ear to the bole of a mighty beech, and thinks he hears the pounding of its heart.  He’s missed the great systolic thump of early spring, and now it’s the steady flow of rivers of sap just beneath the smooth grey bark that murmurs to him.  There is a pattern, but he cannot grasp it.

 

Further down the path, he has to push his way through ferns that have overhung the path, the intricate architecture of their green lace suddenly as meaningful as any demonic text, if only he could read it.

 

When he reaches the stream that babbles alongside the ride for a hundred yards or more before turning back into the forest, he sees tiny fish, and even tinier insect larvae that have built for themselves houses of stone, glued together with spit, and all of them seem to turn to him, to look at him with accusatory eyes, condemning the slowness of his comprehension.  And then something rises up towards him from the glass-clear water.  There is no accusation here.  There is love, and a plea for him to understand, in those moss-green eyes, those eyes as green as the cat’s, and there’s a weight on his chest that he hasn’t felt for months and he seems to be wrapped around with thorns, and he thinks that he may never be able to breathe again if he doesn’t understand what these eyes are trying to tell him…

 

Breathing hard, Giles woke from his dream to find Zillah on his chest, staring intently at him with Ella-green eyes.  The cat was kneading gently, just the very tips of her claws brushing against his naked skin as her paws pressed down, and she was purring softly.  Shaking his head in an effort to free himself from the lingering threads of the dream, he reached out to stroke her.  She gave him one last stare before blinking, then she butted her head against his hand, and became just a cat again, a darker shadow in the dark greyness leading up to dawn.  She leapt lightly from the bed with a loud miaow.

 

The cat.  It had just been the cat.  The cat that had once been Ella’s.

 

Giles looked at the bedside clock.  Four o’clock.  The sun wouldn’t rise for three-quarters of an hour.  He huddled back down, but every movement brought the rustle of clean bed linen, carrying words that he couldn’t quite hear.  As he tossed and turned, the birds outside started to rouse themselves into the dawn chorus, every trill and whistle meaningful if only he could understand.  The house added its own dawn chorus, with slight creaks and less identifiable noises as the old building continued to cool down after the heat of the day.  Every last one of those noises seemed to be a call to him.

 

Just before dawn, he gave up, and went downstairs to make a cup of tea.  He wished that Buffy and Angel were here, perhaps to talk to, or more likely just to be company, but they were at the flat in Bath, enjoying some time together.  He didn’t begrudge them that.  But he felt alone, amongst his ghosts.

 

++++++

 

Giles spent the best part of the day in his book-lined study, vacillating between matters spiritual and matters temporal, and periods of brown study, although for an hour, just after lunch, he walked the grounds by the house.  John was with him, and the time was spent in animated conversation.  From time to time, John would make notes on a crumpled sheet of paper.  The day was fresh and clear, with the westerly wind bringing the scents of may blossom and fresh green growing things.  He missed those when he went back inside, and so he threw open the windows downstairs, and brought the spring day into the house. 

 

The postman, too, brought something to brighten the day, an invitation from the Westbury Cidermen for a competitive evening with their archrivals, the Trowbridge Cider Tankers.  The invitation was for all three of them.  The Cidermen were completely free of gender bias, despite their name.  He wondered briefly whether they’d be free of species bias, too, especially knowing how much Angel could drink.  No, not drink.  A competitive cider evening would be very little to do with drinking and all to do with quaffing.  You spill a lot more.  He looked more closely at the invitation.  Oh, there was preliminary work to do first.  The Cidermen had arranged several tastings, for the best cold cider cup. No doubt the Tankers had done the same.  When they were done, each society would field one full barrel of their preferred recipe, on Midsummer’s Eve.  Recipe suggestions to be sent to the Cidermen’s President, Mrs Lillian Groom.

 

He smiled a little mischievously as he thought of what Buffy might make of the rather roistering atmosphere in the cider barn – Angel, he was sure, would make himself right at home – and Lisa would be there, of course.  Perhaps Buffy and Angel could have a little fun researching some really hard-hitting cider recipes, so that they could all contribute to the mayhem of the Cidermen’s preliminary tastings.

 

But his mind couldn’t hold on to any of the day’s happenings, as the dream wound itself through every other thought.

 

Towards evening, he lifted a strange little book down from one of the top shelves – Reaching Across the Veil, not one he made much use of – and everything around him seemed to fade into the background as he ran his hand over the cover.  It was heavy black silk, faded now to a rusty brown, stuck onto stiff card.  The binding was homemade, the pages and covers handstitched together, with no spine, the folds in the sheets of paper left bare.  Neither was there a title on the outside, just careful old-fashioned writing on the title page.  The whole book was handwritten, the penmanship thick and heavy and in obscure lettering, the ink a black that was almost as faded as the cover. 

 

This had been a volume loaned to him from the Watchers’ Library just before the acolytes of the First had blown the Council Headquarters to hell.  He’d had a boxful of obscure books sent over in the hope that there might somewhere be a clue to defeating the First, or at least stopping it from impersonating dead people.  In those days, Buffy had never been stronger, had never been more fragile, and he’d been terrified that if the First started to impersonate Angel, it would have been more than she could stand.  He’d wanted to stop that, if it happened.  It was the last boxful of books that he’d had from the Council, and this volume had held unexpected secrets…

 

It also held dangers.  The author of this book had died in an asylum, or as much of an asylum as they had had in those days.  It seemed that he hadn’t quite made it back across the veil.   Not all the way.  With a mental wrench, Giles put the book down onto a small side table, but he didn’t put it away.

 

That night, he made a cup of cocoa for himself – always good for a sound night’s sleep – and read a few pages of some instantly forgettable best selling thriller before being claimed by soft arms that trailed the starlit clouds of Night.

 

++++++

 

He is here in the forest, quite alone.  Alone and without human company, that is, yet there is other life in this place.  He stands in the sunlit ride, and through the silver-grey boles, he sees a red deer hart, poised and attentive.  The deer’s every muscle seems to shiver, as if flies troubled it.  The head, lacking all sign of antlers at this season, is turned a little in his direction, and he can see the red membrane inside one nostril as it flares wide, trying to catch a scent perhaps.  A tiny trickle of blood runs over the hart’s brow, as if its weapons have been taken by force, leaving it emasculated.  He sees one large, liquid black eye, gazing straight at him, with an entreaty and a plea.  Of the other eye, all that he can see is the sweep of long, dusky lashes.  The hart’s ears are twitching, frantically testing all directions, trying to find whatever it is that has alarmed it.

 

There is no sound at all, and so it surprises him as much as the deer when he sees the arrow standing proud of the russet ribs, just behind the deer’s shoulder.  It has caught the animal in the heart, and he sees the blood from broken lungs dripping from that one flared, red nostril, all the brighter against the black muzzle.  The hart collapses, almost gracefully, falling first to its knees as its strength fails.  Then its hindquarters give out, and it collapses to the ground, still upright, as if it were about to sedately chew the cud.  Inappropriately, he wonders whether deer do chew the cud, and then the animal falls over onto its side.  It raises its head as it makes one doomed attempt to rise, its legs flailing in an effort to find the ground, and then it is dead.  He doesn’t need to go closer to the body to know.

 

Now, he is aware of real silence.  He had thought that there was no sound in this place, but the only sound missing had been the hiss of the arrow, and the thud as it hit flesh.  It is as if the hart had stabbed itself.  The ear of memory brings back to him the sound of birdsong, and the whisper of the breeze through the new leaves and the new grasses, the rustle and scuttle of the smallest occupants of the forest floor, the music of the brook at his feet.  Memory’s inner eye reminds him of the trembling movement of the leaves, the small flurries as birds delved among the foliage, the sheer colour of butterfly wings in sunlight, and the shimmer and dart of tiny fish in the water.  All that has stopped, with the death of the deer, and now there truly is nothing, nothing at all. 

 

Yet, as he stands, an alien noise breaks the silence.  As if they had appeared from nowhere, the body of the deer is now covered with a new skin, a moving, buzzing, black, bristly pelt.  Flies.  Millions of flies.  There is a sudden explosion of movement in all directions as the flies leave the body, and he sees that all that is left of the hart is a glistening, heaving mass of corruption and maggots.  The flies are everywhere.  And then sound returns to the forest.  It is the sound of death as leaves and birds and insects fall from the trees, tumbling against each other to lie in an unmoving carpet amongst the mulch of last year’s finery.  Every sound, the rustle of leaves, the tiny rasp of insect carapaces on feathers, is an unheard message, each one standing as his accuser.  In the brook, the tiny fish still shimmer, but they will never dart again, lying with their silvery sides reflecting whatever light remains in this place, their mouths open in that final gasp, as if they had given up trying to tell him anything at all.

 

He is rooted to the spot, and he now sees that this is true in every sense of the word, as brambles push up through the carpet of death, their tips circling, like dead men’s fingers, looking for something to clutch.  They have found him, just as they have found every tree in the forest.  The pliant stems have scrambled up his feet and legs, then frozen into thick, immovable ropy canes, while the greener tips still search out thornholds around his body.  He raises his arms to fend them off, but the thorns catch him from the rear, and he cannot stop them.  The sound of the flies is like a rasp, rising and falling, always louder.  As the brambles gain a stranglehold on the trees, he sees the smooth grey bark split, and sap oozes out like golden blood.

 

Held fast, he casts one last despairing glance at the stagnant stream that used to run past his feet.  Something is rising from the depths, something that is as trapped by rank corruption as he is, as the deer was.  Bubbles of fetid gas and rotted vegetation rise from the streambed and the stench clogs his nostrils.  He wonders what it is doing to the creature that is trying to free itself from the foulness of the water, whether it can survive this; and then it reaches the surface. 

 

All that he can see is a pair of emerald green eyes.  Cat’s eyes.  Ella’s eyes.  The look in them is one of expectation.  Then, the light in those eyes starts to dim, as the brambles tighten their hold on him.  Slowly, the light is extinguished, and the eyes glaze over, and, unseeing, are given over to death.  His shout rings out over the forest, over even the buzzing of the flies.

 

“NO!”

 

++++++

 

Giles sat up in bed with the echo of that shout ringing in his ears, his throat hoarse, and sweat running down his back.  The buzzing was still there, though, and the brambles.  It was a few seconds before he was able to collect himself sufficiently to understand that Zillah lay on his legs, her claws sunk deep into the flesh of his thighs, purring in a loud, harsh voice that was unlike her normal, gentle sounds of contentment.  Her green eyes, Ella eyes, were fixed on him.  He remembered that cats also purr when they are hurt, and he wondered if she was injured.

 

Shaking off the remnants of the dream, he put a hand out to her, to disengage her claws, and to feel for injuries.  She blinked, and her eyes were just Zillah eyes, and then she leapt lightly off the bed and trotted from the room.

 

Giles ran a hand over his face, and sat with his head resting on his bended knees for a while, before he tried to sleep again.  When he did, he tossed and turned for a little time, but the pillow was hot and void of all comfort, and the dream refused to fade, simply replaying itself over and over again in his head.   So, he got up and made tea.  It was 2 a.m.  He went into his study, wrapping his dressing gown tightly around him in the chill of the spring night.

 

Reaching Across the Veil still lay on the little table.  He pulled another book down from the top shelf.  This one was almost as old, but was properly bound, in dark brown calfskin, much scuffed.  It was called The Keys of Enoch and, like the other book, it contained magic.

 

What he needed to do seemed best done outside, open to the elements, to the sky and the earth.  Still in his dressing gown, he drew the figures of power in flour on the ground.  Flour for the staff of life.  Then he burned the proper candles, arranged just so, and he cast the proper herbs, and he said the carefully constructed words of summoning.  After that, there was nothing to do but wait.  The wind, more mournful now than it had been in the light of day, soughed around the corners of the house and through the branches of the trees, rustling the new foliage.  A bird, perhaps startled from its sleep, sang a few plaintive notes from the nearby hedgerow.  A scudding cloud cast its shadow over the moon.  Somewhere, a fox barked in alarm.  There was nothing else.

 

He should have expected it.  Still, he went back into his study and sat with eyes red-rimmed, until the first rays of the sun lightened the eastern sky.

 

++++++

 

It wasn’t very much past dawn when Giles arrived at Lisa’s stables.  No one else was about as he saddled up Windsor, so he left a note on the door, in case anyone thought that thieves had been there.

 

He spent all day hacking around, pursuing a course across the downs to the southwest of Westbury, and pursued in turn by memories of the dream.  He was starting to think of it as The Dream, and that had to stop.  He missed Ella, but after her death he’d never been haunted by her, not as he’d been haunted by Jenny.  As he rode, though, the whisper of Windsor’s hooves in the grass, the sighing of the wind around him, the high and plaintive notes of the larks, all seemed to carry codes and messages that he was supposed to understand.

 

He stopped for lunch at a free house in the tiny village of Codford St Peter, nestling into the banks of the Wylye valley.  St Peter was now part of the larger village of Codford St Mary, but he always liked this hamlet better, and gave it the historical identity that he preferred.  There were plenty of people at the pub, eating, drinking and laughing around the benches in the beer garden, and a waitress brought him a ploughman’s lunch and a pint of bitter while he held Windsor.  He loosened the girth and took the bit from the horse’s mouth so that he could graze, while Giles sat on an out-of-the-way tree stump by the riverbank and ate with one hand, keeping hold of the horse’s reins with the other.  Windsor was especially well-mannered, demanding only the whole of Giles’ bread and most of his salad.  It didn’t matter, because he wasn’t that hungry, so he made do with the cheese and the beer.

 

When they were both ready to travel on, he cut roughly northwards across the downs towards home, taking a wide, looping course to avoid the village of Imber and the huge tract of land surrounding it that was the dangerous Army firing ground.  That way eventually took him up the steep and narrow lanes that led to the Westbury white horse.  A perfect representation of an eighteenth century horse, and still shining white after its recent clean-up, he found time to wonder about the original figure that had been cut into the chalk here.  That had been a much more primitive thing, until a long-dead steward of the equally deceased Lord Abingdon had ‘improved’ it.  He liked the idea that the original had celebrated Alfred’s victory over the Vikings over twelve hundred years before, but it could never be known if that was true.  He glanced up at the present-day figure, all grey cement and white paint, and suddenly, the original sprawling figure, as he remembered Gough’s drawing, seemed to overlie the later tamed beauty, and he thought that he could hear the neighing of horses, and perhaps the clash of swords, and he could almost make out the sound of human voices, shouting words to him that he couldn’t quite distinguish.  Then it was gone, and only the stately figure remained on the steep chalk slope.

 

He pottered around that evening, but the long ride had left him stiff and a little sore, and he went for a soak in the bath.  He didn’t want to listen to the sounds that might be contained in the running water, and so he stood on the landing outside his bedroom, and watched the last, long rays of the dying sun as they bloodied the landscape, before he climbed into the hot water.  Then, surrounded by welcome silence and the ashwagandha-fragranced steam, he dozed a little.

 

++++++

 

He’s back in the forest, and it is unharmed.  He trails his hand through the rippling stream, listening to the chuckling of the waters.  The tiny fish that he’d seen before come and nibble at his fingers, tickling them.  Somewhere, a bigger fish splashes as it takes a mayfly, perhaps the last one before darkness settles itself over the forest.

 

Abnormally sensitive hearing picks out the slither and munch of the tiniest denizens of the earth.

 

Everything here is a language, and he doesn’t have the key.  He cannot understand.  In frustration, he slams his hand into the streambed.  All the tiny fish dart away, but even their leaving seems to have a pattern to it, like the letters of an unrecognised script, and then everything is gone.

 

++++++

 

Giles jerked awake to find that the bathwater was now cooling, and it was full dark outside.  He towelled off roughly, pulling on his pyjamas over still-damp skin, and would have gone straight to bed except…  Except, he heard soft voices.  Were they real, or were they more incomprehensible sounds in his head?

 

Wrapping his dressing gown around him, he padded downstairs.  As he did so, the voices, still pitched low, became more distinguishable, and he smiled in relief.  There was also a very welcome aroma drifting up the stairs.  He found Buffy and Angel sitting in the kitchen, drinking freshly brewed coffee.  They returned his smile as he helped himself to a mug.

 

“Just visiting?”

 

It was Buffy who answered.

 

“Giles, we’ve both had some really weird dreams, and we thought you might do the Joseph thing.”

 

++++++

 

It was early afternoon when Angel woke up.  Buffy had already left the flat, and it wasn’t long before he was ready to follow her.  John had built an ornamental covered pergola, a walkway that ran from the garage flat, along the shady north side of the utility wing and to the courtyard door into the house.  Giles had found, from somewhere, a series of deep cisterns, some stone, some lead, all decorated, and all old.  Angel suspected that some of them might be old Roman coffins, but he’d said nothing.  These were placed against the uprights of this arbour, and already there were climbing plants in them, ready to start cladding the structure.  Thick trellis had been used overhead, with loose wooden slats temporarily laid over it in a solid sheet.  These slats would be taken away when the evergreen ivies and winter flowering clematis had made a solid enough roofing to keep out the sun.  It was decorative as well as useful, and Angel was grateful that it allowed him to come and go at any hour.  He’d already thanked John, who’d carefully constructed it, with a bottle of fine Irish whiskey.

 

Buffy and Giles were in the study, with Giles checking over his notes.  They’d exchanged experiences last night, and now was the time to try and make sense of it all.  Angel took a seat a little away from the others, next to a small table beneath one of the windows – this one faced north, and the other faced east, so he was safe in this room for the rest of the day.

 

He’d been surprised that he’d had dreams that seemed to have something in common with Buffy’s, and even more surprised that Giles had had a similar experience.  The details for all three of them were different, but the tenor remained the same: there was something they needed to hear and understand.  His had been the most frightening of the three.  There had been the pattern of sounds as his flesh sizzled under holy water, the crackling language of fire as it tried to consume him, the voices hidden in the minute whisperings of soil-dwelling creatures as he’d waited to rise, and the literal language of the heart as he listened to it pounding, then fluttering and faltering while he drank his victims down.  Nightmare snapshots such as these weren’t unusual for him, but the difference lay in the conviction that, this time, in all of these, something was trying to speak to him.

 

Buffy, lying alongside him, had had slayerdreams.  Now, it seemed that Giles had had watcherdreams, if there were such a thing.

 

As he waited patiently for the other two to finish their reprise, he moved aside some papers to find the coaster for his coffee mug.  One sheet fell to the floor, leaving behind it a small pile of brochures for stable buildings.  Angel smiled.  The wreckage of the old stable had been cleared from the front paddock, on the other side of the ha-ha, the grass was coming through nicely now, and Giles had been able to acquire the field just behind the house.  It was laid down to rapeseed at the moment, but when that was harvested, the whole thing would be ploughed and harrowed and laid to pasture.  With a new stable, and an extra field, Giles’ horses could come home.

 

He bent down to pick up the fallen sheet, and that was a surprise.  It was lined out in John’s brusque hand, and it showed rough plans for flower gardens around the house.  Angel knew that there had once been flower gardens, but as Giles’ parents grew more infirm, they’d had them levelled and laid to lawn, leaving only some mature shrubberies and some trees.  Since Giles’ return from California, there had been neither time nor mental space for him to reconsider the external layout of the house.  Now, apparently, he was ready to do that.

 

As he looked at the plans, Angel became aware that the other two had fallen silent, and were looking at him.

 

“Nice idea, Giles.  Be good to see some colour out there.  I can take the night shift on the digging if you like.”

 

He passed the plan to Buffy.

 

“I can help, too.  Hey, do you think that this house stands on some of those Roman remains that you seem to get around here?  You know, some ancient villa?”

 

Giles grinned.

 

“I doubt it very much, Buffy, but I’ll take all the help John can get…”

 

The afternoon was spent in looking up dreams and portents.

 

“Forest.  That means natural forces.  Social activities of a happy nature. Ready to explore.”

 

“Deer.  Everything related to a deer is favourable.  A long-lasting friendship, good business affairs and fortune in love.  I like that one.”

 

“It didn’t feel like that, Buffy.  It felt more like a warning.”

 

“Flies.  You are feeling annoyed by friends and maybe thinking of doing something foolish. There is a postponement of success.  Angel, you aren’t going to be annoying, are you?  I mean, that dress was a real bargain…”

 

Angel looked up, his frown deepening.

 

“Dress?  Annoying?  When am I ever annoying?  Did I buy you a new dress?”

 

Giles smiled, appreciating the fact that there was another helpless, clueless male in the room.

 

“Perhaps this is more the thing.  Insects.  Overall, a dream of insects denotes financial gains, abundant means, and also a mystery will be solved.  Now that would be a good thing.”

 

They bantered on, trying to find a pattern, something recognisable, delving into ever-darker books, until Giles tossed an ancient book down onto his desk.  It was Slayer Dreams vol xviii 1547-1622, a thick volume, its red leather binding crumbling to the touch. 

 

“None of this makes any sense.”

 

Knowing that he hadn’t finished his thought yet, Buffy and Angel remained silent.

 

“None of it has the right feel to it.  However we interpret what we’ve found about dreams and portents, the overall tenor is wrong.  It’s as if whatever caused these dreams is using a different language.  What do you think?”

 

They both nodded.  There was nothing here that seemed in any way to fit how they had felt in those dreams.  They were in the process of discussing other approaches when a car crunched over the gravel in the courtyard.  Giles went to the door, and Angel recognised the visitor’s voice as Detective Chief Inspector Collins.  He was shown into the safety of the drawing room – a very normal room this, with no esoterica, no ancient books, no scrolls, and definitely no weapons of any sort.  Ever.  That was the safe room for visitors.

 

A moment later Giles put his head around the study door.

 

“DCI Collins.  He wants to see all of us.”

 

That Collins was a tall man wasn’t hidden by the fact that he was lounging at ease on the settee.  His long legs stretched out in front of him, casually crossed at the ankles.  He’d come in a suit, but he’d discarded the jacket, which now lay next to him.  Angel saw a man in early middle age, still fit, dark hair just starting to grey at the temples, and a pair of candid grey eyes.

 

As they seated themselves, Collins reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope.  He addressed Angel.

 

“I came to say thank you for all the help you’ve given us with the murders at Corbett’s farm.  I’ve managed to get you some fees as our expert witness.  Standard rates, but this might say thank you a bit more loudly than I can.”

 

He held out the envelope.

 

“I had it made out in the company name.  I hope that was all right?  I thought that Accounts could probably cope better with that than just a cheque for Angel, although it might have been a near run thing.”

 

Angel looked inside the envelope and then passed it to Giles.

 

“Thank you.  That was thoughtful, although not necessary.”

 

Giles coughed a little at that, and passed the envelope to Buffy, who was signalling her impatience.  When she looked at the cheque, she saw shoes and a new summer wardrobe.

 

“And I came to ask you something else.”

 

It was Giles who answered.

 

“Ask away.”

 

Collins sat up and folded his hands together, suddenly uncomfortable.

 

“Bodies are being stolen.  We’ve looked into the possibility that people are taking them for their parts, so to speak, with some sort of medical scam, but that seems unlikely.  I know that harvesting body parts illegally might be big business elsewhere, but in this country, there isn’t yet an active black market, thank goodness, and in any event, I gather they usually only take bits and pieces, and leave most of the body.

 

“I’m aware that there are lots of other strange things that people can get up to with corpses, so I just wondered if you’d heard of anything more… paranormal… happening.”

 

Collins ground to a halt.  He was essentially an old-fashioned man, and didn’t like to detail some of the things that he’d recently read about, especially in mixed company.  And especially when the sole woman present was blushing rosy red with embarrassment.  Giles had bent his entire attention on Collins, and it was Angel who answered.

 

“Yes,” he said, his voice low and grave.  “I do hear that people can get up to all sorts of things with corpses.”

 

Buffy gave a soft, choking cough and hurried out of the room.  Collins started after her, a worried frown on his face.

 

“Is she okay?  I didn’t mean to upset her…”

 

“No, no,” Angel reassured.  “She’s fine.  She… she’s had one of those summer coughs.  It’s almost gone now, but I expect she’s gone for a glass of water.”

 

It seemed that he was right, because Buffy returned just then, wiping her eyes with a piece of kitchen towel.  She smiled sweetly at Collins as she sat down.

 

“I’m sorry, you were saying?”

 

“Yes, start at the beginning,” Giles added.

 

“Well, we wouldn’t actually have been anywhere near knowing what was happening if it hadn’t been for a smart constable, and a lucky break.  One of the Wessex uniform boys, with some aspirations to be a detective, was off duty and using this instant messenger thing to a friend of his in the Thames Valley force.  The friend mentioned that he was trying to track down a corpse that went missing yesterday from Oxford, and that rang a bell with young Ronnie.  One was lost in Bristol the day before.  He ferreted around and he’s found four missing bodies in total, all within the last week.  All young men, all comparatively complete and healthy corpses – if you know what I mean.”

 

Here, he threw an apologetic glance at Buffy for speaking of such things, but she nodded him on.

 

“I get it.  No big auto crashes, no major injuries, nothing to spoil the bodies.”

 

“That’s right.  They’ve all vanished without a trace, and before any sort of autopsy could be performed, so they really are complete.”

 

She frowned, and they all waited for her to voice whatever it was that was troubling her.

 

“Did they have any wounds?  Any… animal bites?  Severe blood loss?”

 

“No, nothing at all like that, on preliminary inspection.  I wonder, can you think of any reason?  Any weird festivals that I don’t know about, any strange occult rituals?”

 

Giles looked at Angel and Buffy in turn.  They both shook their heads.  Well, they could think of lots of reasons, but none that seemed appropriate here.  None, at least, that they felt able to talk about without talking among themselves first.

 

“Off the top,” he said to Collins, “no, nothing comes to mind.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t something, so we’ll get on it right away.  If we find something, we’ll give you a call.  We’ve still got your number, I think?”

 

Angel nodded an affirmative.

 

“Thank you.  I hope you can come up with something.  They seem to have struck in one place or another most nights.  I’ve got a few men watching mortuaries that haven’t yet been hit, but that’s blind guesswork.  I’d prefer to be a bit more effective.”

 

With that, he took his leave, and the Project Paranormal team prepared to hit the books and the internet.

 

Angel was thoughtful.

 

“Giles, there is the possibility that these are vampires, but I’d expect them to be much closer together, not scattered at random like this.  The bodies have none of the typical signs, and there are no reports of associated clusters of deaths.  I don’t think the answer is going to be so simple.  Apart from that, there are lots of reasons why bodies might be taken.  Scavengers of one sort or another, although there’s no reason for them to want complete bodies unless they’re making sure they get all their vitamins and minerals… Then there’s necromancy, or necrophilia, or anything else beginning with necro-.  Zombies, of course, and some other forms of the undead.  Some black magic rituals, although mostly they prefer their victims to still be alive.  Where do you want to start?  And how much do we want to tell Collins?”

 

“Why don’t we start with a general trawl through, see whether there’s anything odd going on, and whether there are any other portents we need to take account of.  With a bit of luck, it really will be just body part harvesting, despite Collins’ doubts, and the remaining cadavers will turn up minus skin, corneas, chunks of bone, and whatever else they want.  Distressing for the bereaved, but much better than the alternatives.”

 

And so they settled down to research, Angel on ceremonies and practices that required fresh cadavers, Buffy on demonic feasts and festivals that fell at this time of the year, and Giles on dreams and portents.  Every so often, Giles would make some telephone calls to contacts who might know whether zombies were back in fashion.  He found nothing but ignorance.  When she’d exhausted the merrymaking possibilities, Buffy moved on to surfing the net to check for other clues to disappearing corpses.

 

They came up with the Feast of Maiduif, thought to be held every two hundred and fifty years, on 17 May.  It had been speculated that human corpses were involved in that, although there were no surviving human spectators to confirm this.

 

Then Angel found the Feast of Joan of Arc, celebrated by a few rare demonic sects claiming to be the source of the voices in her head that had so inconvenienced the English.  They held their festival on 30 May, and charred bodies sometimes turned up afterwards.  They’d all been female up to now, though.  Buffy countered that with the Waccaran Mysteries, celebrated by Waccar demons on 5 June, about which very little was known, hence the appellation ‘Mysteries’, but associated with the disappearance of a number of humans.

 

Giles offered the Agonies of Nilammon, on 6 June, in which captive humans were treated as the sect’s founder had been – tortured to death over a long period.  His next find was a ritual involving the patron saint, Dymphna, an Irish girl who protected against possession by demons.  Her feast day was 15 May, and had been known to provoke a backlash from young demons suffering an excess of demonic testosterone, and looking for any excuse for some action.

 

None of these were satisfactory, but they were the best that they had come up with.  The only way of improving their chances of solving the problem was to be able to get out in the field and ask questions, probably using Angel’s patented burst of violence.  They had nowhere to start, though, and so they started here, with more research.  Buffy became more and more impatient as the day wore on, and even Angel could be heard tutting under his breath.

 

Much later, as Buffy and Angel were crossing the courtyard to their own bedroom, she felt his arm snake around her waist.

 

“So, you think there are all sorts of strange things that you can do with a corpse?”

 

She punched him in the ribs hard enough to make him grunt.

 

“That’s what you said, not me!”

 

“You seemed to find it funny – or was that really a cough you developed?”

 

She couldn’t help but laugh.

 

“Stop winding me up!”

 

“Why?  I thought we might go and explore some of those strange things… And if you’re already wound up…”

 

“Ah, if you mean that sort of winding up…”

 

They’d reached the foot of the external staircase, and he unhanded her, but only long enough to turn her towards him and to wrap both arms around her, pulling her in for a long and satisfying kiss.  Then they went upstairs to explore.

 

++++++

 

He was back in Hell, or so it seemed.  He was bound, and in the dark, and something was trailing across his skin in large, looping, fiery scrawls.  There seemed to be a pattern, a shape that he should understand, and he thought he might, if only he could see.  With that thought, the darkness lifted, until it was no more than a misty greyness.  His naked skin was clear and unblemished, but in front of him sat a large scorpion.  Its tail was held high and forward, as if it were ready to sting, but the sting itself, a small drop of venom clinging to the very tip, was curled backwards.

 

At a distance, it’s hard to see the head of a scorpion, sitting deep beneath the thick, protective, carapace, and yet he was certain that the scorpion was staring at him.  He couldn’t move his body, but if he moved his head, the scorpion skittered around until it was once more face to face with him.  He wondered whether he was back in hell – ‘My father chastised you with whips…’ Been there, done that… ‘But I will chastise you with scorpions.’  Was that what this was?  When he spoke, his throat was dry and voice was cracked and hoarse.

 

“What do you want?”

 

Foolishness.  As if the scorpion could want something.  Yet, it gave an answer, of sorts.  Its tiny, clawed feet clicking on what could only be a stone floor, it darted forward onto his thigh.  There it paused and, raising itself high on its legs, it leaned forward, its stare now intense.  As he watched, it raised the sting, and slowly, slowly brought it forward and down until it rested against his flesh.  He could feel the coolness of the liquid seeping from the tip.  Then, there was a smarting prick and a flash of fire as the sting was thrust into his flesh.  The scorpion continued, again and again, deliberately positioning the sting and then stabbing it sharply in.  With each sting, it repositioned itself, until the red, raised marks on his thigh formed a large, coiling pattern.  It matched the way in which the arachnid now held its tail high over its back.  It was the number 6. 

 

++++++

 

She lay in the sunshine on a grassy hillside.  The grass was short, close-cropped, and very fine-leaved.  It felt springy, and although she didn’t remember coming, she knew that when she had walked here, her feet had bounced on the turf at every step.  She should be getting back.  There were things to do, urgent things, although she couldn’t quite recall what they might be.  And so she lay, enjoying the heat, and the sun on her face, and the sound of birdsong, the singer too high for even slayer eyes to pick out in the clear cerulean sky.

 

And then the bird fell silent, and a huge bank of cloud loomed into the east, filling the horizon.  It wasn’t the stately white cloud of an English summer downpour.  Rather, it roiled and seethed, a greasy purple colour, shot through with red and black and orange, as if it were unaccountably on fire.  It boiled over the sky, blanketing completely everywhere it went.  As she watched, a ragged edge of the cloud, cleaner in colour than the rest, broke away and sped in front of the heaving mass.  As that ragged edge passed over her, snowflakes as large as her palm fell all around.  They lay, pristine in their lacy beauty for a heartbeat, and then melted away.

 

A solid shadow fell to her left, and when she looked, Kendra was by her side.  She wore a red choker around her neck.  No, not a choker.  The thin line, with delicate drops suspended from it, was the gift of Drusilla’s fingernails.  She was studying a snowflake.

 

“They’re beautiful.  We never get these at home.”

 

“Kendra, you’ve lost your accent?”

 

“Some things you lose, some things you gain.  I’m still me.  I’m me in you.  I exist in you now.  I am what you want to remember, nothing else.”

 

The red line around her throat disappeared.

 

“Why are you here?”

 

Kendra shrugged as she held out her palm for another snowflake.

 

“It’s your dream.  You tell me.  It’s all here, you know.  You don’t need me here to see it.”

 

She took Buffy’s hand in hers and held it out for a snowflake.

 

“They’re all different and they’re all the same.  Look at them.  Let them speak to you.”

 

She traced her finger around the hexagon, counting the sides.

 

“One, two, three, four, five, s…”

 

And then Kendra was gone, and with her the grass and the sky and the snow.  All that was left was the fire.

 

++++++

 

He was back in the forest.  The new beech leaves, still the colour of young peas rather than the deeper, older green that they would become, sighed and whispered in the breeze.  Then the breeze stiffened, and a blast of heat gusted through the forest.  In its wake the leaves, shrivelled and seared around the edges, fell onto the path around him. 

 

The grey-barked trees were stripped of their new greenery, the young twigs browned and withered, yet still they leaned towards him and murmured.  The breeze sprang up again, eddying around his feet is if it were confused, dazed by the violence they had just witnessed.  As it brushed past, uncertain, now stronger, now fading, it whipped the leaves into small piles, caught against the low undergrowth at each side of the path.  The few that were left in front of his feet had fallen into curving figures, a script scrawled along the woodland ride, a never-ending repetition of the figure 6.

 

++++++

 

Giles was the first one to wake the next morning, ready to start work on both dreams and corpses.  Almost ready.  Angel and Buffy arrived as he was yawning over his coffee in the breakfast room.  Angel shushed his love into silence until hot, buttered croissants were ready for the two humans, and more coffee made for all of them, with a glass of blood for him.  Then she could be contained no longer.

 

“It’s something to do with 6.  We both had weird dreams again.  They both were about sixes...”

 

“So was mine.”

 

Angel took a deep drink of his blood – strange how he no longer felt uncomfortable about that in this company – and asked, “So, what do we know about the number 6?”

 

They moved into the dining room.  With its west-facing windows, there was no need to draw the curtains yet, and none of them felt like excluding the bright sunny day outside.  Books and papers were spread around, and the new bluetooth-enabled laptop brought in from the study.  To the mystery of the disappearing bodies, and the enigma of their dreams, was added the riddle of the numbers.  They started with numbers.

 

“Hey, you guys?  Did you know that as at now the average UK home has 4.7 television sets?  So who’s got 3.7 of ours, and what do they do with them all?”

 

Giles looked confused and Angel simply smirked at Buffy’s non-sequitur.  Google had its limitations when given broad search criteria.  Then it was Angel’s turn to look puzzled, as a thought struck him.

 

“Giles, are you sure that we weren’t seeing a 9 upside down?  Easily mistaken?”

 

“I… I don’t think so.  I had no doubts when I was dreaming.  What about you two?”

 

Both of them shook their heads, but the seeds of doubt had been sown.

 

“Let’s continue with 6 for the moment, and then move onto 9.”

 

Buffy took the laptop after their second cup of tea.

 

“Wow, look at this.  December 5th, 1664, a ship sank in the Menai Strait, with just one survivor, a Hugh Williams.  Same place, December 5th 1785, ship sinks, one survivor, a Hugh Williams.  Same thing, 1860, and again a Hugh Williams hits the only jackpot on the Menai Straits.  You don’t think…”

 

Buffy looked up at two confused expressions.

 

“Well, we’re looking for odd things.  Maybe Hugh lived a very long time!  Is the Menai Straits anywhere near here?  Or the Malverns?  Look here…  Are you interested in a mansion for sale with fifty-five thousand books?  Sounds as though that would suit you, Giles.  Sorry, not a mansion.  A monastery.  Or an abbey.  Or something.  Stanbrook Abbey.  It’s got too few nuns to keep going.  They’re selling up and moving to Yorkshire.”

 

Giles’ face showed a little-boy longing at the prospect of fifty-five thousand books, but he sighed and continued with his work.  An hour later, it was his turn.

 

“My goodness, Angel, I see that a whole batch of the ancient laws imposed on Ireland to keep the natives at bay are to be repealed.”

 

Angel quirked an eyebrow.  Buffy moved to look over Giles’ shoulder and started reading.

 

“They’re losing an Act of 1360 which makes provisions against people associating with the Irish, using their language, or sending children to be nursed among them.  Aww, honey, we aren’t illegal anymore.  After six hundred and forty six years…”

 

Giles laughed and Angel looked puzzled.

 

“I’ll do this one, Buffy.  Also a 1366 Act which forbids intermarriage between the English and the Irish.  You’re American, Buffy, doesn’t say anything about Americans.”

 

“Me, me, me, Giles… The 1181 Assize of Arms Act, which forbids Jews to wear armour.  That one’s been around a long time.”

 

“You’ll like this one, Angel.  The 1310 Act that only those of the English nation are to be received into Religious orders.”

 

Angel had started to chuckle, and now broke into a full laugh.

 

“Are you two serious?”

 

They both nodded vigorously.

 

“I’ll say we’re serious.  It said so in a newspaper about... um… oh, yes, two months ago, so it must be true.  I imagine these laws must have been a great burden to you as a young man…”

 

Giles’ eyes were twinkling as he said it, and it was Angel who put on the mock stare.

 

“Work.  Remember?  Oh, and the one about associating certainly was a great burden, more observed in the breach, if you know what I mean.  The one about Religious orders, well, what can I say?  But, if we’d known the one about armour, we’d have found some poor unfortunate Jew and dressed him up in a stolen suit of armour.  High spirits, you know…  Still, good to see that armour can now be the costume of choice.”

 

It was lunchtime before they’d all accumulated enough to start comparing notes.  By that time, half of Giles’ library seemed to be spread over the table and over the floor.  Buffy pushed the laptop away with a sigh.

 

“Six means equilibrium, harmony, balance.  That’s a good thing, right?”

 

“Union of polarity, the hermaphrodite represented by the two interlaced triangles.  The upward-pointing one is male, fire, the heavens.  The downward facing one is female, the water, and the earth.”

 

“Are you reading the Da Vinci Code by mistake?”

 

“NO!  I’m reading Beneath Mathematics, by Arnold Spinker, and a very turgid volume it is, too! ”

 

“Oh.  Well, this says that six is the symbol of luck, love, health, beauty, chance.  That’s another good thing, right?”

 

“In Hebrew it’s meditation and intelligence.  There were six days of Creation.”

 

“In Chinese, it represents the Universe – four cardinal points plus above and below.”

 

Angel put his book down.  “There are three of us, dreaming about sixes. 666.  That’s the number of the beast, isn’t it?”

 

Giles gave a snort of derision.

“ ‘Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.’ Rev:13:18.  That the one?

 

“It’s more the number of sensationalism and a lack of scholarship!  It started with the study of gematria, in which each letter in an alphabet is assigned a number.  The majority of people seem to think that the number 666 gives you the Latin name of Nero, which it doesn’t unless you add another letter in, but you can also get 666 from Bill Gates’ name, and from www.  Actually, I have some sympathy for that viewpoint, come to think of it…”

 

He shook his head a little regretfully. 

 

“But, a lot of other people believe it means the Papacy.  No, the man who wrote Revelations lived when Nero was dead and cremated.  He thought in Hebrew and wrote in Latin.  He was writing about the frailty of man, warning about greed and the lust for power.  Six, in biblical terms, is the number of imperfection.  666 represents a tripling of imperfection, in matters religious, political and social.  It’s the number of Man.  I don’t think it’s any more than that… Mind you, Nero died on 9th June; perhaps there’s something significant about that date.  It’s only about a week away… Perhaps it should be 9 that we’re looking at after all.”

 

There was something like an awed silence for a second or two.

 

“So, forget the Devil.  Imperfect man is going to be recreated into something perfect and beautiful and intelligent.  Sounds like the sales pitch for becoming a vampire.” 

 

Angel’s smile as he said it was impish, and Buffy wanted to hug him.  He was showing his dry wit more often nowadays, but it still wasn’t often enough for her.  She gave her voice a tone of mock resignation.

 

“Oh, well, I suppose it’s the time of year for another apocalypse.”

 

Giles looked in mock disapprobation over the top of his glasses.  “Not one more apocalypse.  I simply won’t allow it.”

 

He stared off into space for a few moments.

 

“Mind you, I’ve just remembered that the 9th of June is the start of the World Cup.  That could be pretty apocalyptic.”

 

Buffy wrinkled her nose.

 

“World Cup?”

 

“Football.  Or soccer to you, I suppose.  Takes place every four years.  Perhaps there’s some sort of esoteric link between the death date of Nero, who used to like to play for the masses if you recall, and the 2006 World Cup?  Hm?”

 

“Giles, you’d be amazed at how important things like the World Cup can be to demons.  The rivalry, the passions… the gambling.”

 

“Yes, Angel, but it happens every four years.  Why should this one be special?”

 

Giles paused, then, and said more seriously, “Do we think that these dreams are in any way related to the disappearing corpses?  Have we found anything at all useful on that?  I haven’t…”

 

He trailed off as a car drew up in the courtyard with a crunch of gravel.  It was DCI Collins, and his sergeant, Gavin Lincoln.

 

They took the policemen into the breakfast room and offered coffee. Collins looked harried, to say the least, and Lincoln looked grim.  The sergeant ostensibly moved his notebook into his inside pocket.  Collins pushed his mug to one side a little and asked the question uppermost in his mind.

 

“I hope you’ve got some news for me?”

 

“Well, unless you want to hear about zombies, vampires or Frankenstein monsters, not much, I’m afraid.  Or Bill Gates, I suppose.  Or even the World Cup.  What about you?”

 

Giles smiled to try and lighten the disappointment, and the policemen looked puzzled.   The moment passed, and Collins scrubbed his hand through his hair before answering.

 

“We’ve got one corpse back, and gained another.”

 

He took several sips from the hot coffee before continuing.

 

“A couple of days ago, a man walking his dog found a body buried in a shallow grave in some woodland in the West Midlands.  This morning, the identity was confirmed as the very first corpse to go missing last week.”

 

“Someone went to the trouble of stealing it and then just buried it?”

 

As she asked the question, Buffy could feel her palm itching for a stake.

 

“No.”  Collins seemed reluctant to continue, but the others kept silent until he did.  “No, they didn’t just bury him.  He was badly burned over almost all of his body.  The pathologist says that he curled up into a ball to escape the flames, and he put his hands over his face to protect himself.”

 

“You mean the man that was already dead?”

 

Giles took his glasses off and gave them a polish, as he waited for the answer to his question.

 

“Apparently so.”

 

“And the body was… normal… otherwise?”

 

“So I’m told.”

 

“Any chance that this was a natural occurrence, the result of the fire?”

 

“About as much chance as England winning the Ashes twice running.”

 

Buffy didn’t follow cricket.

 

“That would be a no, then?”

 

“A definite no.”

 

“What about the other body?”

 

“Well, that was found washed up on the coast, south of Bristol.  He was a middle-aged man who’d been beaten to death, but not until after he’d been tortured almost to death.  Coastguard thinks the current might have brought him from any point east of Ilfracombe.  Or he might have gone in where he was found.”

 

“And you think the body is linked to this case?”

 

“I think it’s possible.  In any event, he’s got your name and address in his address book.  He was French. Ever heard of a man called Michel Benoit?”

 

“You think we’re involved in this?” 

 

Buffy’s question was more of a challenge.

 

Collins’ smile was thin.  He looked at the three of them, such a strange assortment as they were.  A middle-aged librarian who had found time to be a world expert on some ancient artefacts; a young woman who looked as though she belonged on a California beach; and a cultured young man who could sense bodies in the ground.  He’d checked them all out, of course.  He’d got a lot of background.  A history of teenage violence for the girl; a woman dead in Giles’ bed; a lot more that he’d still got to look at in detail.  And Angel?  He’d found him at Angel Investigations in Los Angeles, and that was all.  No record of entry into the UK.  No other information.  Apart from the business in Hollywood, it was as if the man had never existed.  There would be other names, he supposed, and he would find those out.  But, at the end of the day, although they all seemed to be involved in things that Collins would almost prefer never to find out about, these were not people who would top his Most Wanted list.

 

“I’m not that desperate.  Yet.  So, do you know Michel Benoit?”

 

The last question was directed at Giles, who looked down in thought.

 

“Yes, I think I do remember that name…  But it’s a long time ago…  yes, I was at a conference with him, ten or fifteen years ago.  We corresponded on professional matters occasionally for the next couple of years.”

 

“What sort of professional matters?”

 

“Ancient artefacts, but just for the moment, I can’t recall which ones.  It will come to me.  If you give me a few hours, I’ll check my records.”

 

“Good.  Please do that.  Meantime, I’ll get back to sticking pins in maps to put people on watch at mortuaries…”

 

“Why don’t you look at the obits?”

 

Buffy was familiar with obituaries – she’d used them often enough as a shortcut to checking out new vampires due to rise.  Gavin Lincoln was slower to understand than Collins.

 

“Why check those?”

 

“They seem to be after fresh young bodies without much in the way of injury.  Check the obits and see who fits the bill.”

 

Collins shook his head.

 

“Very often the obituaries won’t get into the paper until a few days after the death.  That’s too late.  They seem to want fresh bodies, and they take them pretty well on the first night, before even an autopsy can be done.  Thanks for the suggestion, though.”

 

Angel had been deep in thought, and then he turned to Buffy, giving her a long look.  He hoped she’d go along with what he was going to suggest.

 

“If the obits are too late, you need to give them some actual news.  They seem to have a source of information about where there’s a body that meets their specification.  Give them what they want – a newly-deceased, undamaged body.  One whose whereabouts you know.  And make sure the press know about it.”

 

Collins looked sceptical.

 

“You mean I should do a bit of police brutality in the cells?”

 

“No.  You can give them me.”

 

“What?”

 

“WHAT?”

 

“!”

 

++++++

 

When it was over, Philip had a strong enough stomach not to vomit, but it had been a close call. 

 

Francis had brought over to him the large black tome that he’d been leafing through, and had seated himself on the bench by Philip’s side, for all the world as if they were comfortable companions.  The book definitely spoke against the comfortable companions thesis.  It was called The Book of Nativities, which might sound innocuous enough, but it had a subtitle. Of the Earth’s Cycles of Death and Rebirth, and Mastery Thereof.  Francis had run his hand over the skin that formed the book’s cover, and that simple act had made Philip shudder a little.  Legend had it that one of the most powerful demons in Hell had given the skin from his thigh to make this cover, and that one day, he would claim it back.  Personally.

 

“You know what you need to do, Philip?”

 

Philip had nodded miserably, and wondered whether Michel Benoit had received his note.  He hated to think that he’d put the mild-mannered archivist in harm’s way, but of the few people he could trust, he’d been the nearest to the artefact that was his best hope of giving a warning, and the man would surely understand the cryptic message that was all he’d dared send. 

 

Francis had seemed satisfied that Philip would play his part, and watched silently as the preparations were completed – the perfect drawing of a pentacle inside a circle, the dark light provided by an outer circle of black candles, interspersed with sprigs of yew and lilac, and bowls holding smouldering chrysanthemum leaves, all plants associated with death and the Underworld.  Philip found it all a little melodramatic, and unnecessary, particularly since he didn’t think they’d got the fundamentals right.  He wasn’t about to tell Francis that, though.

 

They had laid the body inside the circle, taking off the gris-gris as they did so, a small cloth bag he’d hung around the man’s neck to keep the body fresh until it was wanted.  Philip knew that it worked better than refrigeration in the short term.  It should do.  After all, he’d made them up himself, at Francis’s… request.  He normally didn’t like to associate his work with voodoun, but he didn’t want to associate at all with what was happening here, and so he thought of it as a gris-gris, as if that could assuage his conscience.  He’d do anything, though, to get the boy back unharmed.

 

When the body was in position, and the ritual ready, Philip had been called on to do what he’d been brought here to do: the thing that he would have to do several times more before this was over.  Other than Francis, the important people hadn’t been here today, of course, since this was an experiment, a trial run, to make sure that everything worked smoothly ahead of the big day.  There had just been half a dozen of the Initiates.

 

The spirit – a small and insignificant one in comparative terms, although powerful enough to act as a good test subject – had been summoned.  Then it had all gone wrong.  The book’s author surely hadn’t written of the flame and heat that had accompanied the demon, burning the dead man beyond any hope of use.  Nor had Francis anticipated the reaction of the body, curling away from the fire, trying unsuccessfully to defend himself.  The movements of the corpse, the greasy smell of burning flesh, and the sound as it sizzled – these things would live with Philip for years to come.  If there were any years to come.

 

++++++

 

They’d argued for what seemed like long hours, but were only long minutes.  ‘They’ did not include Angel, in the sense that Angel allowed all the arguments to sweep over him, with no visible effect.

 

Giles, however, understood.

 

“No, no.  Angel’s right.  You can give them him.  It will work.  I think…”

 

“Have you two run mad?”

 

It wasn’t a Buffy expression.  It was one she’d picked up from Giles.  She’d liked it because it gave her a good visual, and it was doing that now.  She couldn’t imagine what was going through their skulls – were they going to share with two strangers, two policemen, just what Angel was?  She needn’t have worried.  In the face of the men’s patent disbelief, Angel’s explanation was smooth.

 

“I’ve studied some of the deeper meditation techniques, where you can bring your body’s functions almost to a halt.  I’ve been taught by masters… By Eastern masters.  I can carry this off.  They’ll never know the difference.”

 

He hoped.  If it was human business, he’d almost certainly get away undetected.  Probably.  If it was demon business, that might be different, but he’d face that problem when he had to.

 

Collins stood up abruptly.

 

“No.  I can’t endanger civilians like that.”

 

His eyes, though, said that he’d liked the notion.  Buffy, for her part, breathed a sigh of relief.

 

++++++

 

During the rest of that day, they followed dead end after dead end, as they threw themselves back into research with a new sense of urgency.  Now, the creation of zombies was back in the mix, with a vengeance.  They had amassed a depressingly large amount of material but nothing that stood out.  None of Giles’ contacts had professed any knowledge of stolen bodies, other than the media reports, nor of any zombie activity.  There was definitely no noticeable clustering of vampire activity.  They began to wonder whether bodies were being stolen here to use in another country, but what would be the point of that?  Bodies were always freely available everywhere.  It was a law of nature.

 

Buffy dearly wanted to go and hit something, to make the object of her attention tell her the answers under penalty of extreme violence, and even the normally imperturbable Angel was becoming impatient with their lack of progress. Yet still they were in the maze, without even a thread.  Not for the first time, Giles silently cursed the loss of many of his old circle of contacts, and the dearth of new ones.

 

They worked on into the not-so-small hours, before it was impossible to ignore the fatigue.  Giles was the first to capitulate, tossing down a priceless incunabulum as though it were the evening paper, which also lay on the table.

 

“I’ve read this page a dozen times in the last hour, and I haven’t taken in a word of it.  I need to get some sleep.”

 

Angel put down the 18th century anthology of demonic festivals rather more carefully, and Buffy pushed the laptop away from her.

 

“Yeah, just a few hours…”

 

She trailed off as she thought of what might await her in those few hours.  What might await all of them.  Angel smiled, amused.  Not at the prospect of dreams, or, rather, Dreams, but at the way he could read Buffy’s fears like a book.  He wished that he’d got as much from the real books.  He made his voice a question.

 

“ ‘To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub…’?”

 

She simply nodded, and Angel started to sort through the mounds of books and papers, stacking them neatly.  He didn’t want to remember the rest of the quotation.  Giles shook his head.

 

“Don’t worry about clearing up, Angel.  We’ll do that in…”

 

He was interrupted by the telephone.  They were accustomed to phone calls at odd hours, but somehow the shrilling ring held ominous overtones.  Giles answered.  It was Collins.  He sounded weary and angry at the same time.  Another body had disappeared, the loss noticed only fifteen minutes ago, but no trace could be found.  Was Angel still offering, and could he really do it?

 

Buffy wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her ribs, looking down at the mass of yellowing pages on the table.  She didn’t say a word.  Angel looked at her for a long moment, testing her scent, reading her body language, and then he nodded to Giles.  The assurance was given.  Collins would come before lunch.

 

If any of them had dreams that night, they were the normal everyday dreams, the processes used by the mind to rationalise and store what it had learned during the day.  They slept in late, while their minds processed.  Martha, when she arrived the next morning, saw the jumble of books, the laptop still running, the sinkful of coffee-rimed mugs, and went about her chores as silently as she could, so as not to wake anyone who might be sleeping in the house.

 

+++++

 

Francis wasn’t stupid, by any means.  Far from it.  Philip watched in silence as the old circle was carefully erased, and something new drawn.  A double circle.  Or, rather, two circles that intersected in the pointed oval of the Vesica Pisces, one of the most potent figures in sacred geometry.  Francis had learned.

 

The Vesica Pisces.  Symbol of the joining of deities to produce offspring, and that thought was too dreadful for Philip to contemplate.  Vesica Pisces.  A source of immense power and energy, and exactly what Francis ought to have had in the first place.  Perhaps the most powerful figure in the Age of Pisces, and one that might have a desperate life of its own in bringing that Age to a close.

 

The dark lights were lit, supported by the bowls of sacred plants, and the Initiates made ready.

 

A new body was brought to the chamber, and the gris-gris removed from around its neck.  It was placed in one of the circles, and Francis gestured to Philip.  For the sake of his grandson, the older man hid the reluctance that he felt, and did what he’d been brought here to do.  When he’d finished, the body spasmed, and opened its eyes, fear and confusion contorting its expression before it smoothed into blankness.  The Initiates recommenced their chanting.

 

A new spirit was summoned in billowing smoke and flame, but the heat of its passage was confined to the far circle.  The other circle, together with the Vesica Pisces and the rest of the cavern, were all protected by walls of power, walls of magic.  The living body remained undamaged.  As the portal receded, the summoned spirit, a dark, featureless, humanoid shape, approached the lines of the vesica, but dare not go further.  It looked hungrily at the body.

 

“Move it into the vesica, Philip.”

 

Obedient to Francis’ command, he held his hand out to the living dead and pulled it to its feet, grateful that, although it had life, the creature’s soul was long gone.  The Initiates took up their chanting again, a new spell this time.  As he pushed it forward into the oval space, the creature stumbled and fell into the far circle.  With a howl of triumph, buoyed up on the words resonating around the chamber, the spirit wrapped itself around the body and sank into the flesh.  Then it was gone from sight.

 

Abruptly, the chant terminated, and all those gathered in that chalk-cut cavern held their collective breath.

 

The man in the circle stood up and inspected himself closely.

 

“Very nice.”

 

As he spoke, he looked at Philip, still standing in the other circle.  Philip turned his back to hide his despair.

 

++++++

 

They all slept well that night, without dreams, or at least without the sort of dreams that you remember the next morning.  Collins and Lincoln were there half an hour before noon.  As Martha let them in, they could see that the sergeant’s face was set in a frown of disapproval.  There were no preambles.

 

“Angel, are you absolutely sure that you want to do this?”

 

Angel nodded, without even looking at Buffy.  Her scent radiated her dislike of the idea, hidden to human eyes behind a bland exterior, but he knew that she was resigned to it.

 

“I’m grateful.  But if I had someone who could do what you claim to do, I wouldn’t entertain using you for a minute.  This could be dangerous and, if we go ahead, you’re going to have to do exactly as I tell you.  Understood?”

 

Angel nodded again.  There was no point arguing the toss.  He’d just do as he felt necessary when the time came.  Collins held his hand out to Lincoln.

 

“Pass it over, Gavin.”

 

The sergeant passed over a capsule.

 

“This is a tracking device, and a very expensive piece of kit,” Collins explained.  “It’s got a radius of two miles.  We’ll be parked up close to the mortuary where your ‘body’ will be kept, and as soon as we see the signal start to move, we’ll be following.  When we’re sure we’ve ID’d the vehicle you’re in, there are three unmarked cars around the town ready to trade places with us so they don’t spot us too easily.”

 

He held out the capsule.

 

“You need to swallow it.  We’ll get it back in the… natural… course of events, but it’ll stay in place for three days.  We’ll have you back by tomorrow morning, though.”

 

Angel stared dubiously at the capsule.  If he swallowed it, they wouldn’t ever get it back, but more importantly, he was pretty sure that demons and new technology would fail to co-exist.  He was also pretty sure which one would win.  That wouldn’t help the tracking system…

 

Not unnaturally, Collins misunderstood his hesitation.

 

“It looks quite large, but it’s shaped to go down easily.”

 

“Okay.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

 

As Angel stood, Buffy rose with him, but he shook his head and she sank back into her seat.  Once outside the drawing room, he stepped across the hall and into the toilet next to the study.  Bolting the door, he took out a pocket knife, then pulled off his shoes and dropped his jeans.  He braced his right foot on the toilet seat as he opened the knife.  It was a red Swiss Army knife, given to him by John and Martha last Christmas.  He’d been amazed that anyone would want to give him a Christmas gift, amazed and oddly touched, and he always had this with him.  It had proved surprisingly useful, although no more surprisingly than now.  So far he hadn’t needed to use the implement for getting Boy Scouts out of horses’ hooves, but this sharp little blade would be perfect.

 

Grabbing a handful of toilet tissue, he made a deep cut on the outside of his thigh, wincing with the sharp flash of pain, and pushed the capsule in.  He pressed down hard with the wad of tissue.  With his sluggish circulation, he bled more slowly than humans, but he did still bleed.  The cut was deep, and before he felt it close over, he’d thrown the first blood-soaked wad into the toilet bowl, and was on his second.  The skin was slightly lumpy over the capsule, but it would stay there, unharmed, until he cut it out again.  Or until his body pushed it out, but that would be a while yet.

 

Flushing the bloody tissue away, he dressed, then rejoined the others.  It was Giles who told him what they had agreed – the plan that the three of them had devised before the arrival of the policemen.

 

“Angel.  We’re going to play it all for real.  You’re going to die of unknown causes, here.  We will be out on some errand while you enter your state of… erm… deep meditation.  The ambulance crew will be summoned.  We grieving relatives – you don’t mind us being relatives, do you? - will refuse a post-mortem on the grounds of strongly-held religious belief.  There will be mutterings from police sources about a judicial application for a post-mortem in case of suspicious circumstances. 

 

“The local newspaper will find all this out, and it should be sufficiently interesting to be syndicated at least across the South.  The truth won’t be known to anyone who doesn’t need to know.  The Chief Inspector and the Sergeant will leave in a few minutes, but will stay close so that they are the first to respond.  Buffy and I will take Martha to the shops for something while you decide where to make yourself comfortable – the hall, I suggest, or they’ll take chunks out of the door jambs with the trolley – and we shall be suitably overcome when we arrive back and find you suddenly and inexplicably deceased.  How does that sound?”

 

Angel grinned.

 

“Sounds very mysterious to me.  Perfect.”

 

And so it was.

 

When Giles and Buffy brought Martha and two rabbits back from the expedition to the butcher’s, entering by the courtyard door, Angel stood in the kitchen doorway, waiting for them.  He moved forward and sat down in his chosen spot.  Buffy, seeing the warmth glowing from his skin, bent over and whispered in his ear.

 

“Have you fed?”

 

“A couple of pints at body heat.  I’m good for a while now.”

 

Then she amused him with a girly shriek, dropped her own shopping of magazines and fruit in a dramatic arc across the floor, 999 was duly dialled, and Angel lay back and arranged his long limbs artistically across the tiles.  The ambulance crew arrived with some speed, Collins and Lincoln hot on their heels, and the paramedics pronounced life to be extinct.  Giles saw Collins momentarily close his eyes in sheer relief. 

 

The crew, with some help from Lincoln, and a great deal of interference from a sobbing Buffy and a few loose oranges, managed to lift the body onto the collapsed trolley.  Angel was swathed head to toe in thick white blankets, strapped firmly onto the trolley, and taken out to the waiting ambulance without so much as a telltale wisp of smoke, although Giles thanked Providence for an overcast day and a sudden summer thunder shower as the trolley was wheeled out of the door.

 

The policemen remained behind, and when they judged the ambulance to be halfway to the mortuary, Lincoln used the radio in the car to instruct a police constable to meet it there and alert the pathologist that the family had instructed that no post mortem be held.  The pathologist’s advice was requested on whether it was appropriate to make a judicial application for an autopsy.  He rejoined the others in the house with a grim smile of satisfaction on his face.

 

“If someone is scanning police radios, or getting information from people in the chain, everyone now knows that there’s a young, unautopsied body on its way to the Trowbridge mortuary.”

 

Sure enough, within half an hour, a reporter from the local press had arrived, and the bandwagon was rolling.  Buffy felt afterwards that she made such a good grieving lover because she’d had so much practice, but she only shared that thought with Giles and Angel.

 

++++++

 

It was past nine o’clock and dusk had fallen.  One street away from the mortuary, a large, dark blue van was parked in the brightening glow of a streetlight, apparently where the owner thought that car thieves would be reluctant to risk being seen. 

 

Inside, a sotto voce argument was taking place.  Gavin Lincoln and a technician were huddled around a computer screen, concentrating on the flashing point that was Angel’s tracer.  Collins was arguing under his breath with Giles and Buffy, who had arrived ten minutes before, as the last rays of the setting sun had bloodied the rooftops.

 

“This is no place for civilians.  You should leave the job to us.”

 

He’d varied the words, and tried to make different sentences with the same meaning, but this one had no more effect on Buffy than the others had.

 

“I want to know what’s happening to my boyfriend,” she repeated stubbornly.

 

Collins sighed, and Giles smiled at him with something approaching sympathy.  He’d argued with Buffy before they came here, although for different reasons, but she’d worn him down, too.  And in truth, he felt that the operation would be safer with her here.  He couldn’t tell Collins that, though.

 

“It’s dark now, and there’s no way to tell who’s watching.  You’d better stay, then, in case someone sees you leave and it blows the whole thing.”

 

They found a place to sit in the crowded van and, from somewhere, Lincoln produced cups of coffee for them.  Then everyone settled down to wait.

 

++++++

 

Angel lay in the dark chill of the reception room for the deceased, simply waiting.  Hours ago, he’d lost the body heat gained with the hot pig’s blood, and even through his jeans and sweater, the metal trolley was cold on his back.  If he stayed here much longer, he’d have no need to feign rigor mortis: he’d be stiff as a board anyway.  He was covered by a dark green sheet, but he knew that there were two other bodies in the room with him.  They were both freshly received, ready for work to begin on them in the morning.  He hoped that wouldn’t include him.  He’d had one scare already.  The pathologist had instructed the technicians to prep him moments before the constable had appeared and stopped proceedings.

 

Apart from the bodies, he was alone with the odours of disinfectant and death.  The staff had all left for the day – in a place as small as Trowbridge, there was no need for a night shift.  For perhaps the dozenth time, he wondered whether their ruse had succeeded.  It would be a waste of a perfectly good evening if it hadn’t.

 

When he heard the snick of a door latch, he reckoned that it was about two in the morning.  It was highly unlikely that the residents of Trowbridge were still abroad this late, even on a Saturday night.

 

There were three men.  They took a look at the other two bodies first, both closer to the door than he was, and both elderly women.  When they lifted the sheet from his face, he heard one whisper, “That’s the one.”  He was lifted from the trolley onto a stretcher, and the green sheet laid back over him.  The men at each end staggered a little under his weight, but he soon felt the fresher air around him.  He heard the doors of a van as they were pulled open, and his stretcher was quickly pushed inside, grating on the metal floor.  Something smelling of strong herbs, and other things, was put around his neck, and then he was left alone.

 

The sound of the engine told him that it was new and powerful and carefully driven to avoid unnecessary attention.  He thought they were going westward, and hoped that Collins’ trinket worked, more for Buffy’s sake than for his own.  He’d been sure all along that he would have to live on his wits as this unfolded.  He could feel the pocket knife – the only weapon he had other than those given to him by the demon – and then he cleared his mind to listen for any clues that would reveal their destination.

 

++++++

 

Buffy put down the evening newspaper that she’d been reading. It was the late edition, and it carried a small paragraph that read, ‘A young man was found dead in mysterious circumstances today at a house in a remote part of Westbury.  Both police and relatives have made no comment, but it is understood that the family are refusing to permit an autopsy that would determine cause of death.’  A chill ran up her spine, and she hoped that she hadn’t been foolish to allow this.  She was almost sure that Angel would have backed down if she’d made an issue of it.  Almost sure.

 

The technician grabbed everyone’s attention, then, calling out softly to Collins.

 

“He’s on the move, sir.”

 

Then, it all happened at once, and afterwards no one was able to agree on the exact sequence of events.  The best that they could manage was that there seemed to be a soft implosion of air, everything around seemed to glitter for a brief moment of time, as if there had been some sort of summer lightning, and then the lights went out.  All of them.  The technician swore that someone jogged his arm, his coffee sprayed all over the computer and the keyboard, and there was the lively sound of frying electronics.

 

Collins barked out savagely, “Get the bloody tracking system up and running now,” and then let loose an even more savage expletive as Buffy wrenched open the van doors and ran down the street.

 

“Lincoln!  Get after her!”

 

Giles was outside the van by now, and saw Buffy disappearing into the darkness, her black leather trousers and jacket melding into the night.  He knew that it was useless to try and catch her, but he watched Lincoln make a valiant attempt.  The sergeant, running as fast as he could, was left standing.

 

She reached the mortuary door to find it locked and secured, and she paused briefly, uncertain.  But she couldn’t feel Angel.  She should be near enough now to be able to feel that tingling she got when he was close at hand but unseen.   There was nothing.  In one swift movement she broke the lock and then pounded down the corridor, to the room where Angel had been left.  There were two sheeted bodies and an empty trolley.  She ran back out, almost colliding with Lincoln as he panted in her wake, but the street was as utterly empty as it had been when she first ran into it.  Lincoln’s voice behind her said it all.

 

“Bugger.”

 

Back at the van there was a strained atmosphere and frantic activity.  The technician succeeded in booting up a laptop, and started searching for the signal.  Collins was on his mobile, issuing orders to the remote units.  Look for any suspicious vehicle large enough to hold a body, he told them, but he knew it was clutching at straws.  The technician gave him more bad news.

 

“There’s no trace of the signal, sir.  It must be out of range already.”

 

Giles put his arm around Buffy’s slim shoulders.

 

“He’ll be fine.  He can take care of himself.”

 

“Yes, but he was relying on us…”

 

Collins turned to them with a stricken expression.

 

“I… I’ve let you down.  I’m sorry…”

 

Buffy held up a hand, refusing to listen to more.

 

“Don’t be sorry.  Find him!”

 

++++++

 

They drove around Trowbridge for hours, but Buffy could get no sense of Angel, and they could see nothing out of the ordinary, no one acting suspiciously, except themselves.  In the end, with the sun halfway over the horizon, they had no choice but to go home. 

 

Giles made Buffy snatch a few hours’ sleep, the better to carry out the rest of their own search.  He didn’t bother going to bed.  He simply stretched out on the couch.  Sleep was a long time coming, as the night’s events replayed themselves in his memory.  He knew there was something that he was missing, but every time he thought he might come near to remembering, his mind seemed to shy away, like a frightened horse.  When at last he fell into an uneasy sleep, he dreamt of faceless body snatchers, of dead demons and of magic.

 

When they woke, neither of them was refreshed.  Martha said nothing.  She simply produced coffee and a late brunch, and stood over them until they had eaten and drunk.  She took the remains back to the kitchen, then went to the fridge to get more milk.  Angel’s blood filled up one corner, shocking and accusing.  She shut the door quickly, and blew her nose.  No need for tears just yet.

 

“Buffy, I’m going for a walk.  I shan’t be far.”

 

“Giles!  Now isn’t the time for walking!”

 

He reached over and patted her hand.

 

“I’ve got something in my head, Buffy, and I can’t quite grasp it.  Every time I think it’s within reach, it shimmers away, like a mirage.  Everything else is wrapped in cotton wool, anyway.  I just need some fresh air.”

 

Buffy nodded disconsolately. 

 

He wasn’t out for long.  The day was overcast again, threatening rain.  The clouds were the huge Atlantic confections that promised summer storms, rising up like great white chalky cliffs and grottoes, boiling out of the blue sky-sea.  As he walked out onto the downland, he could hear the rabbits thumping the alarm as they raced back to their warrens, and some predator high in the sky sounding its lonely, whistling pee-oo.  A buzzard, he thought, absently.  I remembered that.  Why can’t I remember the rest?

 

When he got back, he’d made one decision.  Aristotle and Zillah were sitting in the hall outside the study door, one each side, absolutely motionless, in their best Egyptian cat god pose.  As he opened the door, though, they made a rush to get into the room.  Giles, with the ease of long practice, stuck his leg out and caught them both.  He closed the door firmly behind him.  They were back in their guardian poses when he came out, and he felt their eyes on his back as he went to find Buffy.

 

She was in the family room, poring over some maps.  When she looked at him, her expression was fierce, as fierce as Angel’s demon ever was, but he could tell that she’d been crying.

 

“I thought I might get a sense of him, somehow…”

 

“Here’s something that might help.”

 

He held out to her the object retrieved from the study.  It was a polished crystal, a long piece of clear quartz, on a leather thong.

 

“It’s for scrying…”

 

She took it, dubiously.

 

“Willow was the one for magical finding.  Tell me what I’m supposed to do again.”

 

“Hold it over the map, and concentrate hard on Angel.”

 

“Aren’t I supposed to hold something of his?”

 

Giles’ smile was small and wry, and made him look young and vulnerable.

 

“Tell me that you aren’t something of his, body and soul.”

 

The smile she gave him back was dazzling, and she settled down to concentrate.

 

++++++

 

Collins was in a towering rage.  So far as he was concerned, there were no other cases on anyone’s desk today.  Last night, he’d widened the search to neighbouring forces, and technicians within a fifty-mile radius hunted for the missing tracer.  There was nothing.  By midday, he had widened that to a one hundred-mile radius.  There was still nothing.

 

Lincoln had wisely refrained from saying ‘I told you so’ and was busy co-ordinating the work of the technicians.  Privately, though, he thought there was going to be hell to pay for this particular piece of insanity.  Collins was the best detective he’d ever come across, but he was a rule breaker.  Oh, nothing to do with planted evidence or forced confessions – he’d have nothing to do with perverting the course of justice.  He was just…unconventional.  Using a civilian in this operation was just about par for the course.  Now, it seemed as if that civilian might turn up dead.  And then there really would be hell to pay.

 

++++++

 

The scrying hadn’t worked.  It seemed as if the crystal had tried to swing but the motion was immediately damped down.  Giles’ temper snapped an instant after Buffy’s.  She threw the crystal hard at the wall, just as he snatched the maps up from the table.

 

“Come along, Buffy, let’s try something else.

 

++++++

 

Wherever they were going, they got there before sunrise, but not by much.  Angel was carried on his stretcher into somewhere with the unmistakeable scent of underground.  It wasn’t dank, like a badly drained cellar, or foetid like the sewers.  It was simply earthy and cool.  The further he was carried, the less air circulation he could detect, even under his sheet, and the more the place seemed to weigh on him, as if there were vast tons of hillside above him.  The journey seemed to take forever.  At one point, he heard the rapid breathing of fear, coming from a few feet away, and thought he could smell tears.

 

When at last it was over, he’d seen nothing of whatever he’d been carried through, but then he was lifted from his stretcher and placed on a cool but lumpy floor.  The sheet was removed, and he almost blinked.  After a moment, his captors left.  When he was satisfied that he could hear their footsteps receding into the distance, he opened his eyes.  He was surprised to find that he could only do that with some difficulty.  He was in a large, white-walled chamber – a man-made cavern hacked into pure chalk. There were bodies in here, several, although he couldn’t yet untangle their individual scents to do a head count.  They were fresh bodies, though, with no more than a few hours of decay in them.

 

He could smell more of whatever had been hung around his neck, and began to wonder if this was something magical, to keep the bodies so fresh.  At last, he was sure that his only company here were the dead and he decided that he could risk movement.  That was when he discovered that movement was beyond him.  As he struggled, he was unable to raise so much as a finger.  For the first time that night, he felt real fear.

 

++++++

 

 

END OF PART ONE

 

(To be continued…)

 

 

**

 

 

 

Author’s notes

 

I’m not Dan Brown, and while I’ve put in a lot of factual information about real places, the only connection between any of them is admittedly only in my imagination.  I think.  Here’s some more information on this half of the story, if you’re interested.

 

1        Gaia

James Lovelock hypothesized that the living matter of the planet functions like a single organism and named this self-regulating living system after the Greek goddess Gaia.  But you knew that.  More at Wikipedia:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis

 

2        Houses of stone glued together with spit

Some insects have this endearing habit.  Caddis fly larva are very good at it.

 

3        Ella

Ella was Giles’ girlfriend in season 1.  She was a witch, and she gave her life, together with the rest of the Coven, to save the world in ‘Slayer’.  And it wasn’t just her life.  Her very essence became part of the organism we call the Earth.

 

4        Westbury Cidermen

The West Country is famous for producing cider and perry (perry is cider made from pears).  The cider that we are talking about here is not the stuff you buy from the supermarket.  This has the ability to crinkle paint, and the roughest of it is called Scrumpy.  You can’t drink very much of it before getting legless.  The best of it is excellent stuff indeed.

 

5        Hart

There has been confusion, so I’ve put in a clarification.  This hart is nothing to do with Wolfram and.  This is a red deer stag during the part of the year when it has shed its antlers, and when it is properly called a hart.  The term is also usually reserved for a male over 5 years old.

 

6        Codford St Peter

The village of Codford St Peter has been merged with the village of Codford St Mary, but I couldn’t resist using the name.  It’s exactly where I said it is, but I’ve no idea whether it has a pub on the river.  Here’s information and pictures.

 

http://southernlife.org.uk/wiltshire/codford.htm

 

http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=10536

 

7        Free House

Licensed public houses are, roughly speaking, either tied houses or free houses.  Tied houses belong to a brewery chain, and sell that brewer’s beer and spirits.  Free houses are just that, and sell whatever they like.

 

8        Imber/Army Firing Ground

Very, very large chunks of Salisbury Plain have been given to the army, in several discrete areas, and they use these for training exercises.  The village of Imber is in the centre of one such area, and is deserted, which is a good thing, since it’s regularly used as target practice.  Interestingly, the 700 year old church in Imber is the church of St Giles.  It’s a Grade II* listed building, and decorated with 15th century murals.  You’d think someone would try to do something about that, wouldn’t you?  The Army say they are doing a very good job of preserving wildlife in their areas, and who would disagree?  Here’s information and pictures of Imber.

 

http://www.explorationstation.co.uk/imber.html

 

9        Westbury white horse

There are a lot of white horses on the extensive chalk downlands in southern England, as well as other chalk-cut figures.  The one at Westbury is real, and what I said about it is real.  From something primitive that might be about the spirit of horse, or might commemorate a great victory by Alfred the Great over the Viking invaders, it was re-cut by the steward of the then local landowner to be a rather pretty 18th century drawing of a real horse, and is now concreted over to save the trouble of re-cutting it regularly.

 

http://wiltshirewhitehorses.org.uk/westbury.html

 

http://wiltshirewhitehorses.org.uk/oldwes.html

 

10      Ashwagandha

This is used in Indian herbal medicine – Ayurveda – for its ability to increase vitality, energy, endurance and stamina, promote longevity and strengthen the immune system without stimulating the body’s reserves. It also has the ability to nurture the nervous system, counteract anxiety and stress to promote a calm state of mind, and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, being a specific for treating arthritic and rheumatic conditions. It is also supposed to be the most potent aphrodisiac in the entire botanical kingdom. It’s properly called Withania somnifera.  Clearly, every garden should have one.

 

http://www.planetherbs.com/articles/ashwagandha.htm

 

11      Scorpions and whips

‘My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions’

1 Kings 12:14

 

12      Number of TVs in the UK

Apparently, at the time of writing, the average UK home currently has 4.7 TVs.  I want to know who has my other 3.7, and can I have one back…

 

13      Hugh Williams

This really appears to be true, according to Sandi Toksvig’s column for the Sunday telegraph on 12 March 2006.  Weird.

 

14      The Statute Law Revision (Pre-Union) Bill is intended to repeal Acts of the English-run Parliament sitting in Ireland between the Norman Invasion and the 1800 Act of Union, as reported in the Daily Telegraph on March 13 2006.  This is the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland.  Takes them a while to get around to this sort of housekeeping.  Makes me feel better about the cobwebs.

 

15      Numerology

There’s masses written on Numerology.  Here’s just one site:

 

http://www.crystalinks.com/numerology2.html

 

16      666 – The number of the Beast

Here’s where I got my details.  Make of it what you will.

 

http://www.aloha.net/~mikesch/666.htm

 

17      The World Cup and 9th June

Yes, the soccer World Cup starts on 9 June.  I bet demons love it.

 

18      England and The Ashes

A series of cricket matches held every two years between England and Australia, playing for a trophy that holds the ashes of what is variously said to be a set of cricket stumps or a lady’s veil.  In 2005, England won for the first time in 18 years.

 

19      Michel Benoit

When I was at school, I had a French penfriend called Michelle Benoit.  I’ve used the masculine form of her name here – I hope she doesn’t mind.

 

20      To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub…

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

 

This is part of the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, and the bit that Angel doesn’t want to think about goes on:

 

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause.

 

21      Vesica Pisces

One of the most important figures in sacred geometry.  There’s a lot written about it – here are three addresses to get you started.

 

http://www.halexandria.org/dward097.htm

 

http://altreligion.about.com/library/glossary/symbols/bldefsvesica.htm

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesica_piscis

 



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