IV. "The Interrogation"

    Finally deciding that shower torture could be avoided tonight (just to keep her guessing and to give her a false sense of security), Ted shuffled over to the couch and slumped down, brushing a little lint off his khaki pants.

    "You want cookies, Theodore?" cried Amy from the kitchen. She was shouting over the sound of a noisy stereo blaring out Jennifer Lopez proclaiming that her love was free or something.

    "Only if it comes with milk, Ames.  And hello to you too!  My name is Ted, you scurvy wench!"

    "What?" She asked, turning down the stereo.

    "I said you make baking look like a cinch!"

    "Don't thank me.  Thank the Pillsbury Dough Boy," she hollared as she turned up the stereo again.  Smash Mouth had taken its turn on the radio.

    Ted stuck his tongue out at the wall between him and Rachel's even feistier roommate, then reached for the remote and considered powering up the girls' old Super Nintendo, but opted to surf the basic cable that the girls had opted for.  It was one of the few luxuries a college rent could afford.

    After settling on the sci-fi channel and relaxing into an episode of Quantum Leap, a commercial break began.  Hostess cupcakes.  Monstor.com.  An XFL ad.  Then a local ad for a hospital in Irvine.  This drew Ted's attention away from picking at a string on the couch throw-pillow.  It was a basic ad with disclaimers from residents of the hospital who said they were well-treated and recommended the establishment for all medical needs.  A black man in a wheelchair was what really got Ted's attention.  The last time he had seen a black man wheeling himself towards his destiny had to be just a couple of months ago...right before Christmas.
 

***
 

    There was alot of fear and anger going around in the ASG after the Specter incident, but the biggest theme roaming around the area was "revenge."  When the smoke had cleared after the Specter  incident in New Orleans, only five survivors were able to stumble away from the cemetery where the brutal defeat of some of the ASG's finest took place.  Jo Bob, the Slayer-Redneck and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had carried Cabbott out of the battle-zone while the paraplegic Chalice had dragged GAVAL away from impending death at Plague-Sever's hands.

    It was only a couple of days later that Chalice in his anger at Coy's death took matters into his own hands and led a sort of Plague-Sever lynch mob, searching every ally, sewer, and graveyard in New Orleans for any sign of the Spectee.

    "I'm coming with you!" growled GAVAL as he tore confining bandages from his arms and neck and stumbled.

    "You not goin' anywhere little bruthah!" corrected Chalice as he helped GAVAL back to his feet with powerful arms from within his wheelchair.

    "We gotta get back at dat Spectre!  We gotta get our Rush back!  Come on, Cabbott!  Back me up here!"

    Cabbott just stood against the stone wall of the old church where they had gathered to seek medicine and shelter from that cold November rain and looked down at his feet shaking his head.

    "You not goin' anywhere, young blood.  Now I didn't want to say this, but you not actin' rational so I'm gonna say what no one else has the guts to..."

    Buffy and Jo Bob knew what was coming and both looked at each other wishing they could have been anywhere but here to see the pain their friends were going to have to adjust to.

    "You ain't a Slayer NO MORE.  Your days of lifting cars and turning vampires is OVER.  If you keep trying to act like a Slayer, I'm gonna stop you, even if I have to break your legs and put you in a chair like mine!"

    Cabbott bit his lip and knocked his head against the stone wall.  GAVAL just stared at the angry Slayer.

    "I'm saying this because I dont' want you to get hurt!  You're not even in good shape for a normal person!  Look at yourself!  You think that you're honestly gonna make a damn bit of difference being out there limping around that type of darkness?!  You're only gonna slow us down, boy!  If you wanna make a difference, get out of our way.  Get better.  Find a way to use your head instead of your muscle to kill this thing because you ain't got no more muscle when it comes to this weight class.  You hear me boy?  You hear?!"

    GAVAL, dumbstruck by Chalice's words just looked to Jo BoB and Buffy for support.  He only found them staring at him as if to say "we'd rather not repeat what he said, but he's right."

    Hurt and feeling betrayed, but knowing he couldn't argue, GAVAL limped out of the church and into the rain swearing he'd get his Rush back one way or the other.  He couldn't even remember exactly what he said.

    And so GAVAL watched from afar while doing research in the Slayer Archives.  He watched as night after night for three weeks Chalice led larger and larger groups of Slayers in increasingly wide areas to find the Specter and to bring it down.  By the time the Christmas season had arrived, the numbers of interested parties had begun to dwindle.  No trace of the Specter had been found.

    GAVAL had recovered, but had remained behind to avoid another insulting scolding and to further his research into recovering the Rush.  It was there that he found ancient texts scribed in Old English mentioning the race of Specters and the last of their kind often referred to by barbarian tribes throughout Europe as "Plague-Sever" because it seemed to sever the life right out of a man's shell, and struck invisibly like a quick and deadly phage.

    Gathering this information did nothing to bring the Rush back or to help locate the Specter, though GAVAL had formulated a couple of theories.  When winter finally closed its grip on all of North America and tinsel and lights became the theme throughout the land, the case of the Plague-Sever Specter had been transferred to Slayer-Chimneysweep hands.  If they couldn't find the creature, no one could.  The highest ranking leadership in the ASG, in attempts to bring recovery and healing to the frustrated victims of the Halloween incident gave busy work to the surviving Slayers.  Chalice was put on patrol in Chicago.  Buffy was sent back to Sunnydale, CA to patrol the campus areas.  Jo Bob was told to keep an eye on Irvine.  Cabbott got his promotion to head of recruitment.  And GAVAL...he had left without a word, boarding a plane to the Holy Lands of Israel and not telling anyone of his reasons.  Rachel found a small Christmas gift, a $100 credit voucher for Starbuck's products in the mail with a note from GAVAL that read simply, "Merry Christmas. Best Regards, GAVAL."

    That was the last time she would hear him call himself by that name for a long time.

***

    In hindsight, Ted realized that he had been acting rash and that the truly wonderful person he shared his heart with these days deserved far more than a gift certificate for coffee that she didn't even really drink much.  He would have to make it up to her now.  Those days were behind him now.  That was a long time ago, and every minute that he relished with her would put those days even further behind him...behind them...
 

*********
 

    The Deer Head Café-so named because of the large, obviously fake stuffed deer's head mounted on the wall-was located on the corner of 4th and 17th, in what was largely considered to be the wrong side of town.  In this particular neighborhood, Inglewood, there were any number of bars to be found; smoky, dismal, and crowded.  The Deer Head, however, was a place to enjoy a meal.

     It was also, unbeknownst to the general population, a designated Slayer safe house.

     Nabob had always thought this particular gathering place to be somewhat appropriate.  Little splotches of evil manifested themselves outside in the forms of street thugs, prostitutes, and not nearly enough pastry stores for a community of this size.  The Deer Head Café, however, was an-admittedly small-bastion of light, where downtrodden truckers, panhandlers, and down-on-their-luck pimp daddies could quietly slip into a chair and enjoy a hot, albeit excessively greasy, meal.  The Slayers Redneck of the mid-south California region often frequented the place.  The Deer Head often reminded Nabob of those silly Redneck fellows.  Especially all of the grease.

     "In every single spy movie that I've ever seen," Rae, seated across from him in the booth, complained over a cup of coffee, "agents rendezvous in great marble ballrooms, martinis in their hands, wearing black silk dresses and dashing tuxedos.  They mix, they mingle, they dance, mixing romantic innuendo with an airy hint of danger and mystique..."  She sighed and ran a finger along the wall facing them.  The grease on her finger was visible.  "Reality bites."

     "Well, we could get up and dance if you really wanted," Nabob replied, swallowing a mouthful of the grease-covered battered fish that was one of the specialties here. "Best be warned that I have two left feet, though.  Plus I'm not sure how the management would react to us starting up a tango in the middle of dinner."

     "Definitely not the same.  If you haven't noticed, this place isn't quite a fancy ballroom, and this…" she indicated her mug of lukewarm black coffee, "…is not a martini."  Rae's mouth parted in the hint of a teasing smile. "Though I'm tempted to dance, just to find out whether or not you really do have two left feet."

     "You'd definitely be surprised, then."  The male Slayer said, starting to pick at his pile of fries in gravy, then looking up suddenly. "Fortunately for me, you won't get a chance.  Here comes our man."

     Rae's eyes turned to the Café's front door, following Nabob's gaze.  Indeed, there he was: a wiry-thin man with a sharp complexion and short-cropped black hair.  His clothes were of a dark gray tweed, and his face was covered with smudges of what appeared to be coal soot.  Although he was carrying no chimney-sweeping brush, when one looked at him he gave the distinct impression that he should have been.

     Nabob had to actively fit down the disciplined urge to stand and salute the grubby figure now coming towards them.  They were supposed to be the Ambiguous Slayers Guild, and nothing aroused suspicion or attention than a snappy salute to a fellow who looked like he lived on the street and slept in a discarded furnace.  Even in designated Slayer safe areas one had to be on the alert for evil.  "Van!  You took your time getting here!"

     "Sorry, mates," the Brit replied, immediately sliding into the conspicuously empty seat beside Rae. "Got holed up in some bloke's chimney for half n' hour, I did.  Don't make ‘em nearly as big as they used to these days, what with them fancy heating machines an' all."

     "Get a lead on anything evil for your troubles?" Rae smiled pleasantly.

     "Not a single trace, luv," Van, one of the higher-ranking members of the Slayers-Chimneysweep, said, obviously irritated but still good-natured. "Spent two hours hangin' upside-down in a chimney listenin' to some fellow lay out plans for destroyin' this ‘ere whole country a'fore I realized it was just that new President givin' a speech on TV.  Then I found out I was stuck.  Took a while to get m'self turned rightside up again…coffee, please, four lumps o' sugar."  He nodded at the waitress who scribbled his order on a notepad and hurried off. "Anywoys mates, I didn't call you down here to tell you about a bunch of evil Republicans.  The Guild's got bigger problems for now, as I'm sure you're aware."

     "I can name thirty in this Café alone," Nabob, a staunch conservative, snorted in contempt. "Let's cut to the chase.  You said on the comm-link that something had happened to Dirk?"

     Van sighed audibly. "Yes, somethin' did happen to him.  We know that much.  Not too much else, though."

     "What?"

     "Dirk disappeared two days ago and hasn't reported in.  It's not the most unusual thing in the world fo' a Slayer not to show hisself for a while, but…ah…given the circumstances, the Cajuns are fearin' the worst."

     Rae's normally-perky countenance darkened a touch…which wasn't hard underneath the black makeup she still wore.  She had been good friends with Dirk, and Nabob knew that if something bad had truly happened to him, there would be all Hell to pay.  "What circumstances?"

     "Possibly the darkest wons since the end o' the Great Holy War," said Van, leaning in close to keep his voice from spreading far. "I'll be straight with ya, moytes.  Dirk, he woz part of a Cajun task force.  Top secret assignment.  Didn't wont it spillin' back to the rest of the Guild fo' fear o' general panic in the ranks."

     A cold shiver suddenly ran up Nabob's spine as realization struck him.

     "They sent him after that Specter, didn't they?"

    Van nodded gravely. "That they did, moytes.  That they did."

     Whatever joviality had been present between the Slayers in the Café before abruptly died there.  Even the name, Plague Sever, was enough to kill conversation between all but the drunkest Slayers-Redneck.  Since it had been unleashed back onto the mortal plane on that dark Halloween Night, every member of the Guild had secretly harbored worry and fear where none had ever before been present.  This was an enemy that they could not see nor touch, that could rob them of their very life essence, the Rush.  The question was then posed that without their purity of existence, would the promises to them made by the Divinity still hold true?  Being made suddenly and totally mortal was as frightening a concept for a Slayer as anything else in existence.

     And now their friend had gone missing while searching for this creature.

     Rae cleared her throat, though now she was looking substantially paler under her makeup. "So…when did they last hear from him again?"

     "Loyk I said, two days ago, 1400 hours," their commander said soberly. "That's when he last checked in.  The reason that us here Chimneysweeps is involved now, though, is that in his last message Dirk said that he was on to something.  Some sort of a lead on the Specter…he didn't give many details.  Said that he would report back in at 1600, tell us what he got."  A cup of coffee was put down in front of him by the waitress.  He picked it up and gave it a tentative sip. "Never heard from him again.  Not a word."

     "Poor Dirk…" Rae whispered.

     "I take it that we're here for a reason relating to all of this," Nabob said sharply.  He pitied the hapless Cajun too.  He preferred to let his emotions loose in the form of anger, however, and anger was best dealt out when allowed to built to a rage.

     Van nodded. "The Cajuns are good, not a soul says they aren't, but when it comes to the gatherin' of infowmation, you can't beat the Slayers-Chimneysweep.  So far they've been chasin' the Plague Sever by themselves.  Practically declared war on that damned thing.  But now there may jus' be a real trail to follow, and they've asked us to pick up the slack."  He glanced at both of the younger intelligence agents. "And I want two o' the best Chimneysweeps we've got on the job for this one."

     Neither of them accepted nor denied the praise.  They just traded a worried glance.

     Very worried.

     "The trail ain't exactly what you might call ‘fresh', but I know for a fact that you've both tracked staler," Van continued. "We'll provide you with all the information that we have, and any special equipment that you need we'll try to have flown in.  Within limits."  He glared at Nabob.  "Very strict limits."

     Nabob rolled his eyes but had to look away.  The fiasco with the Zerg Canadians a year before still hurt.  The ASG inquiry into the incident had only every found him guilty of failing to report a source of EVAAAAAHL to his superiors, but his conscience still implicated him in sending Gaval, Murphy, and a whole platoon of young inexperienced Slayers into the cavernous depths of the Zerg Underground Lair.  Many of them hadn't returned.  Hardly the brightest moment of his life…

     Fortunately, Rae interpreted the uncomfortable silence correctly and chose that moment to break it. "So what kind of a trail do we have so far?"

     "Glad you asked," Van said, snapping back into the mission. "As a matter o' fact, the trail starts right here.  Like I said, we don't know everything ol' Dirk was up to that evenin'.  But we do know that he was here in the safe house, interrogatin' a prisoner we have under lock and key downstairs.  That was just a'fore he went an' disappeared."

     Nabob frowned. "Downstairs?  We actually keep prisoners in this place?"

     "Keep your voice down, moyte!" his superior hissed at him, leaning a little closer. "Just one.  The higher-ups didn't want to put him in one o' the permanent Slayer incarceration areas…thought he was too dangerous to be around others.  They've had him tied up in a maximum security cell they build in this ‘ere safe house for the last few weeks."

     Rae and Nabob traded a slightly bewildered glance. "I didn't realize that we'd taken up the habit of taking prisoners," Nabob said. "The basic Slayer edict is ‘if it's evil, stake it, if it isn't, then don't'.  That doesn't leave much middle ground to stride on."

     Van glared at him. "You're a Chimneysweep, moyte.  You should know better'n anyone that sometimes you've got to make a middle ground.  That's how the spy business works."

 "So who's the prisoner?"

     "Bloke by the name of Lucas Pondexter.  Probably not e'en his real name, that.  Talented man…theft, debauchery, murder…lots o' murder.  Trained assassin, martial arts and the lot.  Also a known associate o' evil.  That's why we picked him up in the first place.  He was keeping company with vampires and other supernatural evils when we found him."  Van twitched at the memory. "Caught ‘em in the middle of some sort of sacrificial ritual.  Grisly, but at least none of the vamps got away that night."

     "Pondexter…he sounds like a prime applicant for a pancreatic staking," Rae interjected. "Why are you keeping him alive?"

     "The very fact that he's still human is what's important," he continued. "The man's got fighting skill to put some lesser vamps to shame, that much I've seen.  If the nosferatu find someone like Pondexter that they want to keep around, they'll Embrace him in jig-time, turn him into one of ‘em.  But they didn't.  And that means that he's got somethin' that makes him worth more to them alive than undead.  We want to find out what."

     "And unless I miss my guess," Nabob said, "he isn't talking."

     "No, moytes, he isn't.  At least not to us.  But apparently he said somethin' of interest to Dirk when he spoke to him two nights ago."

     "Something interesting enough to make Dirk run off on his own somewhere," said Nabob again. "Maybe right into an ambush…but how could this Pondexter guy have executed something like that from inside a cell?  It doesn't make sense."

     "Wait a minute, you say it's maximum security down there?" Rae suddenly asked, and Van nodded silently. "Well, shouldn't you have a bunch of cameras or recorders down there tracking Pondexter's every move?"

     "Yes, moyte, but…"

     "So wouldn't at least one of them have recorded the conversation?"

     Van rubbed his temples as if his head was swelling painfully. "That there's the other problem.  Normally, yes, we would've gotten the whole thing and this little mystery would be solved by now.  But-and here's where it gets spooky-two nights ago, about ten minutes a'fore Dirk went down there to talk with him, every camera and recorder started malfunctioning.  Picked up nothin' but distortions and static for the next hour.  By the time the feed returns to normal, Dirk's gone off again, and Pondexter's sittin' in his cell like always."

     "Bad equipment?"

     He shrugged. "Mebbe, but if so then it's the first time it's happened.  Damned strange, that's all."  Van downed the remainder of his coffee with one titanic gulp. "Anywoys, let's get th' ball rollin', shall we?  Time stands still for no Slayer."

     With that he stood, tossing a crumpled five dollar bill onto the table to pay for his drink, and beckoned for the other two Slayers-Chimneysweep to follow him.  With purposeful strides Van walked through the Deer Head Café, through the booths filled with Slayers-Rednecks (some of whom Nabob actually recognized from the Battle of Mojave) and into the men's bathroom.  Rae followed suit, but Nabob hesitated for a few moments.  Reaching into his back pocket, he slid out a tattered black leather wallet.  It had been well-thumbed despite the fact that it was rarely ever filled with cash.  He flipped through a number of folded photographs he kept tucked inside, and finally reached the one he was looking for.  It was a battered old Polaroid taken over a year ago at the end of the Great Holy War, and although the image was a little fuzzy, Nabob could still make out Dirk and himself, wearied by the conflict yet elated in victory, arms clasped together in camaraderie.

     A tear tried to fight its way to his face, but lost the battle.

     Almost as quickly as he had taken it out, Nabob guiltily tucked the photograph back into his wallet and followed his partner and mentor into the lavatory.  It was not the most appealing facility he had ever set foot in; the place smelled as though inside of it something had died, been resurrected as a Tape Fiend, and then had its adhesive resin bowels splattered across the walls.

     Once inside, he saw that Van headed directly towards the stall which looked the filthiest and had a messy "OUT OF ORDER, SORRY" sign scrawled upon it, with an unattractive brown substance smeared across it as though to emphasize the point.  Inside of that stall, which was in the corner and had plain tiled walls on two sides, the smell grew to be so repugnant that Nabob had to hold his breath to keep from passing out.  He also made a conscious effort not to look down into the toilet bowl, for fear of what-or who-might be staring back up at him.  Rae was likewise repulsed by the place, but if Van was he gave no outwards indication of it.  Instead he stood facing the wall beside the toilet, raising a hand and pushing against a tile on the wall a little over his head, either not noticing or not caring what the wall was covered in.

     Surprisingly, the tile sunk back into the wall in response to his touch.  A second later, a whole section of the wall roughly the size of a door melted away in a similar fashion, revealing a staircase descending down into darkness.

     "Clever..." Rae half-wheezed, trying not to breathe in.

     "Right as rain, luv!" Van said with horribly unjustifiable cheerfulness. "Come on down!"

     The darkness in the descending staircase was quickly broken by strategically-placed overhead lamps fixed into the ceiling.  The smell was also quickly left behind, and Nabob heard the door rumble closed behind them as they plodded downward.  After a few short moments, they arrived in what seemed to have once been a concrete bomb-shelter; cramped, packed messily with crates and boxes, and filled with stale air that had been run through one too many filters.

     Wires and pipes ran all across the ceiling, and even between just the three of them it was one of the most claustrophobic places that Nabob had ever had the displeasure of being in.  And this was from the Slayer who had braved the Canuckalisk tunnels up north...

     Finally the labyrinth of wooden crates and concrete seemed to end, and ahead of them was a much darker corner of the room.  A steel gate barred further progress, but Van produced a key, and with a creak it swung open for them.  Beyond the gate was a more open area where a young black man sat behind a desk, reading a newspaper, his eyes flickering from one headline to the next.  Upon hearing the Slayers enter, he glanced up.  Nabob didn't recognize him.

     "'Evenin', Missah Van," the young man said in a somewhat slurred Congaree accent. "In to see de prisn'ah?"

     "Yes we are, Scipio," the Brit replied. "Go ahead and unlock the doors.  And do make sure the cameras are working this time, royt?"

     "Yessah."

     The next fence-this one looked as though it could be electrified, and probably had been until that Scipio fellow pulled the switch-swung open before them easily as well.  Then they were there.  The short corridor ended with the only cell in the place, fenced in with heavy steel bars.  The lighting was dim and the air even staler back in this little corner of the shelter.  As his eyes adjusted, Nabob could make out a small cot and a toilet in the corner of the cell, and precious little else.  And there, seated upon the cot and staring directly at them, was the man named Lucas Pondexter.

     He was surprisingly well-built Caucasian…not a large man, but clearly very muscular despite his last few weeks inside this place.  The fatigues he wore were rather non-descript, although Pondexter looked strangely at ease in them.  His hair was short-clearly buzzed at one point-and was a sharp blonde almost to the point of being yellow.  Upon his face he wore a perpetual, knowing smile, one that almost reminded Nabob of a vampire stalking its prey.  No Rush, though, so at least he was a human being.  They were generally easier-if less straightforward-to deal with that the undead.

     "Pondexter, we're here to ask s'more questions," Van said, scowling. "Are you willin' tew cooperate this toyme?"

     "No."  Pondexter replied flatly.  His voice was rather cold and unappealing.  "It's good to know that you've made it a hobby now, though."

     "Talkin' to you is no hobby."

     "A hobby is defined as being a pursuit of interest engaged in for recreation," the prisoner snapped. "You're in here enough for me to believe that you almost enjoy it."  He let out a sharp bark of a laugh. "Not that you're very good at asking questions, Van, but that's what hobbies are for, aren't they?  Improving those dulled little character flaws by doing something you enjoy to hone them."

     Van turned to his two companions and lowered his voice. "He'll probably pay more attention if I'm not here, moytes.  I'll just step outside.  Try to get somethin' out of ‘im."

     "Through what means?" Nabob asked.

     "Anything this side of torture, I suppose."

     "What about torture?"

     "Can't do that," Van said with mock earnest. "It'd be evil now, wouldn't it?"

     Nabob raised an eyebrow. "Then I guess we'll just have to make that middle ground you were talking about, won't we?"

     His superior nodded and winked, and then stepped back out to have a little chat with the young black fellow.  That left Nabob and Rae alone with the killer, separated only by the steel bars and a few meters of dead air.

     "New faces."  Pondexter observed, obviously amused. "Don't see many down here in this hole.  Don't see that much at all, ‘side from the limey and that pet nigger they've got outside ready to electrocute my ass."  He made no effort to conceal his leering glance over at Rae. "Especially don't get many honeys like you down here.  Not too many Slayer chicks, are there?  Or do you just keep them all stashed away for yourselves to bang up during the day when the vampires all go crawling back to their coffins?"

     "Shut the hell up," Nabob growled, a chord of something inside of him taking deeper offense at that then he thought it should have. "On second thought, don't.  Keep talking…and start talking about what you and a fellow named Dirk were discussing two days ago."

     Pondexter's eyebrows lifted in mock surprise. "Aaahh, a change of subject.  Most of the questions asked down here are regarding which Kindred ass I was kissing to stay alive."  He nodded towards Rae. "Keep the variety coming and you may end up being more interesting than fantasizing about your girlfriend over there is."

     "Answer the question."

     "You haven't asked one.  Besides, I don't talk to strangers.  It's the only thing I learned from my mother."

     "She obviously didn't teach you how to treat women," Rae snorted with contempt. "I'm Rae and this is Nabob…"

     "Nabob?  Like the coffee?"

     "…And the question is, what was said between you and Dirk two nights ago?  We know he was down here talking to you.  It's urgent that we find out what it was about."

     Nabob silently cursed.  If this son of a bitch knew that it was really that important, he might be more likely to clam up and not say anything at all…

     "You mean to say that your precious surveillance cameras," Pondexter raised a sweeping arm to encompass the numerous recording devices outside the cell, "failed to get the conversation on tape?"  He grinned, a most unpleasant sight. "What a shame.  I never trust technology myself.  It almost seems to design itself for failure, doesn't it?"

     "Right now technology is what's letting us keep you locked up like an animal," Rae said sweetly, pursing her lips a little. "And if you don't want to talk, then we can arrange for you to stay this way for a nice, long time."

     Pondexter shrugged, utterly nonchalant. "I'm going to die in this damned cage anyway.  Your limey captain back there will never let me back onto the streets, not without a stake sticking out of my forehead.  I've been watching you Slayers for a long time, and I know how you work.  The rest of my life, short or long, will be spent in this cage."  He folded his arms and leaned back against the cold concrete wall. "I'm quite resolved to it."  Nabob shook his head and was on the verge of turning to leave when the man spoke up again. "However…"

     "What?"

     "I'm always one who can cut a deal."

     Rae's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What kind of deal?"

     The prisoner's fingers drummed against the wall. "You want to know about my conversation with your friend Dirk.  Why he came to me…what was said…and where he went afterwards.  Right?"

     "Nothing gets by you, does it?" snorted Nabob disdainfully.

     "Very little, actually," Pondexter said, taking it in stride. "I doubt that it will surprise you greatly to know that our conversation seemed to be centered around a mutual acquaintance of ours.  You would know it as the Plague Sever, I think…"

     Nabob approached the cell and grasped the steel bars.  Progress.  "You know about the Plague Sever Specter?"

     "No, fool, I just made the name up off the top of my head."

     "How did scum like you find out about it?"

     "One just has to run in the proper circles." Pondexter said, maintaining his poker face smile, revealing nothing. "The circles in which I run are fairly familiar with this new problem you Slayers have found for yourselves."

    Stalemate.  Time to back up.  "So Dirk came to you looking for information on the Specter.  Do you have any?"

     "Perhaps."  The criminal's eyes flared. "I'm not going to share it with you quite yet, though.  That's where the deal comes in."

     "Then start talking," Rae interjected. "We don't have all night, and there are other people we can talk to instead."

     Pondexter looked up at her lustfully. "No there aren't.  Nobody can give you what you need except for me, sweetcheeks."

     She folded her arms, trying her best to ignore the insinuation. "What do you have in mind?"

     "I know more than you think, Slayer.  Far more.  You want to know what happened to your comrade and you want to know how you can find the Plague Sever.  I can tell you where Dirk went-where I sent him.  As for the Plague Sever…" he ran a finger across the wall, "…I can't tell you where it is at this moment, but I can show you the man who can."

     "Go on.  We're listening."

     "My condition is that I must come along when you decide to drop in on this place…the place that Dirk went and the place that my contact can be found."

     Nabob almost burst out laughing. "No way in hell are we letting you out."

     "Feel free to keep me under lock and guard while we're out," he continued, unfazed. "In fact, I would recommend it.  All I want is some fresh air.  Try staying down here a few weeks and what your limey friend tries to pass off as air will start to really taste like plastic."  He thought for a moment. "I want a smoke, too.  I miss my smokes."

     "And what if we say no, tough guy?"

     The smile on Pondexter's face widened visibly. "Then you, friend, get to find out the hard way, just like all the rest of your Slayer buddies will, when and where the Plague Sever will strike next.  And you'll spend the rest of your life with the blood of your friends on your hands.  Maybe the Specter will kill your cute-ass little girlfriend over there.  Be a shame to have her blood on your hands, wouldn't it?  Probably have a hard time living with yourself after that."  His powerful blue eyes seemed to penetrate Nabob, and a chilled wave swept over the Slayer. "Yeah…a really hard time.  Maybe you wouldn't even bother trying to live anymore."  He glanced back at Rae. "Kind of a high price for not letting me up for a few breaths of fresh air, isn't it?"

     Nabob wearily looked back at his partner, who seemed slightly unnerved in Pondexter's presence.  He leaned close to her dyed black hair and whispered as he spoke. "So what do you think?"

     "I've got a bad feeling about this, ‘Bob," she answered, voice equally shushed. "Are you really thinking about letting him out of here?"

     "For the evening…if we keep him in our sights…"

     She laid her hands on his shoulders. "Van won't like it one bit.  He'll think that this is just some ploy of his to escape.  And right now I sort of agree…"

     "Rae, he's our only way of finding Dirk."  She glanced up into his eyes, saw them filled with hot determination. "And I've got to find him.  Me and Dirk, we're friends, and I know that he would do the same thing for me.  If this trash manages to escape, I'll hunt him down and kill him myself."

     Rae sighed in uneasy resignation. "This is your call, Nabob.  I just hope it's the right one."

     Nabob nodded and looked back at the prisoner. "If we bring you out of the can, Pondexter, you're going to have a gun to your head the whole time.  You'll be cuffed, too, just to make sure."

     "I already said that I should be."

     "I want to know where we're going first, though."

     Pondexter took a moment to consider this. "Very well.  It won't do you any good, since I won't tell you who my contact is until we're there.  If you send in an army of Slayers to storm the place, you'll only scare him off."  He cleared his throat melodramatically. "The name of the place is the Witchery By The Castle.  It's an old bar on the other side of town.  Nice place.  Very cheery décor."

     Nabob frowned.  He'd never heard of…

     "I know that place," Rae said, an edge of worry in her voice. "I…went once with some of my old friends.  Before I became a Slayer."

     "Ah, Goth girls," Pondexter sneered. "They're supposed to be rather loose, you know."

     She ignored him, instead turning to Nabob. "It's a breeding ground for all sorts of low-level evil.  A lot of rebellious teenagers and a few wanna-be vampires, too.  Mostly a mess of various subcultures and suspicious characters."

     "Great.  Just another statistic on the list of places we haven't had the manpower to hit since the Great Holy War," Nabob scowled. "I guess that it's time to pay it a visit.  Just remember, Pondexter…you try to escape, or move around too much, or even breathe in a way I don't like and you're in for a closed-casket funeral this weekend."

     "I wouldn't dream of it."  His poker face remained firmly in place, but his tone carried a defiantly malicious breadth to it.

     Nabob didn't expect Van to be pleased with the plan.  As he and his partner stepped back outside the electrified second fence, however, they weren't quite expecting the amount of stubbornness that he showed.

     "No.  Never.  Absolutely not."  The British Intelligence Slayer folded his arms and glared at the two of them. "I felt I wos takin' a risk, I wos, just by letting you two down here to see ‘im!  Now you're here suggessin' to me that we toss him back up onto the street?  Blimey, moytes, I think you're off your rockers this time, I really do."

     Nabob clenched his teeth. "Van, listen…this may be the only…"

     "'Bob, you're a great agent, but sometimes I don't think you've got yo' head screwed on just right!  Lucas Pondexter is a convicted murderer.  All the records say he's got killin' the innocent down to an art form.  He ain't leavin' this place with anythin' less than three dozen stakes protrudin' from no less than five orifices."

     "I'll take full responsibility for him," Nabob snapped. "If this bastard gets out, I'll hunt him down."

     "May I remind you that you've already got somethin' big to hunt down?"

     "Which is precisely why we need him to come with us, sir!" Rae said, unexpectedly leaping to Nabob's defense.  He shot her a confused glance that she didn't return. "He knows how to find both Dirk and the Plague Sever…he identified it without our even mentioning the name.  He's never going to tell us anything from in here.  The only way I can see to continue with our assignment is to allow him to lead us to it."

     Van sighed and rubbed his temples with one hand and glared at Rae.  He had obviously been hoping that her cheerful pragmatism would help to rout Nabob's scheme.  She, however, appeared to be firmly on his side for this one.  "Moytes, you've gotta understand…if Pondexter manages to get free, he will kill again…"

     "I understand the repercussions," Nabob said. "And I will take fully responsibility for him.  Besides, I can't see that we have much of a choice."

     Van looked between Nabob and Rae, defeat in his eyes and resignation in his manner. "This is your assignment, moytes.  If you really want to take responsibility for ‘im, you can take him out on a stroll.  Keep ‘im on a tight chain, though, and make sure it's a short stroll.  Don't hesitate to shoot him if he so much as breathes funny, either; the ASG won't hold it against you."

     Rae's face hardened. "Don't worry.  I won't."

     He sighed dejectedly.  "All right then, moytes.  Let's go back and find some nice tight cuffs for this'n."

     As the other two  Slayers headed back out to find some appropriate shackles, Nabob re-entered the electrified barrier surrounding the cell.  Not surprisingly, the prisoner was staring straight at him.

     "All right, Pondexter, it's official.  Let's get ready to move."

 "Be a shame to lose your girl back there, wouldn't it?" Pondexter said, ignoring him entirely but continuing to stare at him with dark intent. "That'd be a real Greek tragedy.  Might even let loose all of that darkness I can see in your eyes."

 My eyes?  "She isn't my girl.  And there's nothing for shit like you to see in any part of me, Pondexter."

 The man laughed. "Then you don't know yourself, Slayer, and we all know what Sun-Tzu said about that.  I can see the darkness inside of you.  Maybe you should try embracing it rather than hiding it, because you don't hide it very well.  The darkness can make for a very powerful ally.  I should know.  I enjoy it."  He smiled cruelly. "After all, everybody needs a hobby, don't they?"

 Nabob's features darkened. "If you happen to wind up dead tonight, don't be complaining to your buddies in Hell that it was a great surprise to you."

 "Many have tried.  Only one will succeed.  And I promise that it won't be you.  Oh…and Nabob?"

 He turned again, looking back with mixed hatred and irritation.  There were a dozen things off the top of his head that he didn't like about this Pondexter, but there was also something inside of the man that seemed to frighten him a little…

 "Don't forget my smokes."
 

*********

V. "Desperation A-E"

    "Oh my God!  Are you watching soap operas, Mr. Tough Guy in a Leather Jacket?!"

    Ted snapped to attention and looked up at Amy who was about to throw cookies at him to get attention.

    "Not on the shirt!  Chocolate stains!" cried Ted as he realized he DID have the TV on what had turned into a Soap Opera while he was daydreaming.

    "I guess it's `Ted's a wuss' day today. Remind me to put on my party hat.  Here, little missy, have something sweet."  She tossed a couple of warm chocolate chip cookies his way and put a glass of milk down on the table.

    "Thanks, waitress, but if you're gonna be a hooters girl you could at least wear the orange short shorts."

    "Wouldn't you like that, Cookie Monstor?" she queried as she dropped down on the chair next to him.

    "Well, it's not like you have the chest to fill out that tank top, so shorts it is!" Ted tried not to smirk as he gulped down his milk, but when she beat him over the head with a throw pillow he nearly choked on the white liquid in glee.

    "SO HOW'S CLASSES!" cried Ted as Amy broke off into a tirade about how she was not as flat chested as he thought she was and how at least they were real.  It worked.  He had managed to change the subject just before it got ugly and Rachel had to come out of the shower and break the two of them up before Amy could kick his ass.

    She pouted for a minute, raised an eyebrow, adjusted her v-neck knit shirt almost as to hide her figure, then sighed and began ranting about her microbiology professor's insanity.  Ted knew how to pick his subjects!

    The conversation was a pleasant and informative exchange.  They traded stories on the insane price of textbooks, how bad campus always flooded when it so much as drizzled, the success of the basketball team in making it to the sweet sixteen, and how hung over they had gotten after Amy's birthday party a couple of weeks earlier.  Ted still wasn't used to these "normal" conversations.  Not once did a walking corpse or a dilithium cell or an energy shield or a holy relic come up.  There were no game plans on how to save the lives of innocents.  Coffee was not the motivation of this conversation, no sir!  Rather it was chit chat and small talk around which NOTHING in the world revolved!  Ted relished it.

    What really struck him as odd was how much he had kicked and screamed all those years to fight to avoid this kind of simple life.  All that traveling.  All that research.  All those arguments and scoldings he received from people who simply didn't want to see him get hurt by trying to be the Slayer he could no longer be.

    What was his motivation?  Did he love being a Slayer that much?  Was he frightened by normalcy?  Or was it the mundane that worried him?  Was his enemy boredom?  Or was it about revenge?  Was it that normalcy had taken him before he was ready to take normalcy at his own pace?  Would he have ever left the Guild to live a normal life?  To be with Rachel but to keep her out of harm's way?

    For a while he had been so stupid as to take her with him on patrols;  Patrols to preventively destroy evil before it could destroy good.  She may have been insistent, but what horrible harm might have become of her!  How close she came to being snuffed out at the whim of some of the most wretched beings God had ever allowed to coexist with everything worth living for.  How could he have allowed her to come anywhere near any of that?

    As Amy talked about how she thought she had captured the eye of a cute Hispanic guy at some bar the night before Ted's mind went back to those weeks struggling to retain his Slayerhood.

***

    His first desperate act after learning the nature of the Specter was to go to the heart of the Holy Land; that place revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, and turn to prayer.  The voyage had not been a safe one.  Since September the Palestinians and Israelites had been at each others throats doing what they always did...fight over land that belonged to no one but God himself.

    Things were no better by December when GAVAL flew in to a dusty airstrip a few miles from the Gaza strip with plans to visit the alleged site of Christ's birth and ask his God directly for assistance in this matter.  How could it have come to that?  He supposed that he thought he might have favor with the Divinity because he had once nearly touched God himself...picked up from the liberty that a cruel death at Sephroth's hands had brought him and drafted into the God's service once again; once upon a time; across the threshold of time itself.  Maybe, just maybe God could intervene once again.  After all, GAVAL wasn't asking to be brought back from the dead again!  He wasn't even asking for a miracle!  He just wanted was it was that the wicked specter had turned off in him to be turned back on!  He just wanted his natural Rush and with it his life would return to...normalcy?

    Again Ted found himself wondering why it was that he found so hard to return to the Guild as a servant of the Pureblood Evil Slayers.

    His stay in Israel didn't last very long.  The fighting was much too dangerous and his recent scolding from Chalice a few days before kept running threw his head as he nursed a sore arm struck by a rubber bullet fired by an Isreali soldier who had mistaken him for a muslim when he had attempted praying at a holy Christian site for the third day in a row with no food or water.  Didn't those Jews know a Christian holy site from a muslim one?!  Shooting people in the arm while in prayer just wasn't Kosher, dammit!

    Again, Chalice's words...You're only gonna slow us down, boy!  If you wanna make a difference, get out of our way.  You hear me boy?  You hear?!  The words stung more than any bruise a rubber bullet or even a real one could cause.  It didn't matter.  God wasn't going to answer GAVAL's prayers.  By Christmas day he had given up and turned to plan B.

    Plan B took GAVAL back to Rome.  He hadn't been there since the Great Holy War a year prior.  Down in the deepest ASG catacombs GAVAL committed the next 2 weeks into contacting the Divinity's herald to the Ambiguous Slayer's Guild.  A herald that hadn't been heard from in a long time.  But angels didn't die, did they?  Azrealla had always been there when the Slayers needed her most and certainly she would be there this time for GAVAL as he had been there for her.  And she did show up for GAVAL, perhaps out of pity, and perhaps out of a feeling of comradery, but as GAVAL stood there in the catacomb near the body of long dead original Slayer Guhval, candles lit and incense burning, the wind suddenly blew and bright light filled the air.  Her message, the message of God's herald to the Purebloods came in one simple phrase.

    "All our fates are woven in mystery, young Slayer, for God pounds his nails as he sees fit."

    GAVAL shielded his eyes from the dust and ancient grit that flew about in the air and called out to the herald.

    "But why?!  What must I do to end this torment and to best serve the Divinity?!  Please, just tell me how?!"

    But he knew Azrealla had already come and gone and her voice still echoed in his head, God pounds his nails...

    "WHAT A FREAKING COPOUT!"  GAVAL cried, looking around, his voice echoing in the silent darkness of the catacomb.  "Why didn't you just say you don't know the answer Miss bright and shiny know it all!"

    He doubted she was there to hear his complaints any longer.   "Craters." He complained as he pulled out his flashlight. Heralds of god pissed him off sometimes. Plan C.

    Now I must be getting desperate, He thought to himself as he scanned his surroundings a week later on a cold January night in east Germany.  GAVAL found himself tied to a large stake watching red eyes flash in the darkness around him as they studied and tried to figure out why any human, even a stupid one, would tie himself to a completely immobile object in the hotbed of European vampire activity and wait for them to attack him.

    The plan had seemed simple enough to GAVAL.  If being surrounded by a few dozen VERY powerful and ancient 5th generation vampires couldn't bring the Rush out in him, then NOTHING could.  Furthermore it would prove that there really was no Rush left in him at all.

    They watched him for almost 20 minutes, the undead monsters, trying to figure out what the catch was.  Was this human trying to trap them?  Trying to lure them out into the open?  He had the smell of Slayer on him...just a tiny bit...but his blood was normal.  It was sweet and warm and flowed through him like a pure spring of human nectar that beckoned the nosferatu to his jugular.  Finally they got brave and approached the chained GAVAL silently and stalking.  He was easy prey, this one.  They were cunning predators, those ones.

    GAVAL payed particular attention to his gut, his groin area.  Any second it should give him a burst of pain, then a longed-for sensation of strength.   Enough strength to break the chains that held him fast.  Enough strength to send these evil beasts back to hell and wish they had never laid eyes on this prey.  They were really close now.  He could smell them even with mortal senses.  Any second now...right?!  No pain yet.

    One of the uglier ones, with a nose that looked half like a bat and half like some kind of hideous baboon's ass stepped up first.  A bold and thirsty creature, it grabbed GAVAL by the chin and pushed his head up to expose his neck.

    Touched me!  It TOUCHED me!  An unstoppable walking corpse is holding my face!  What the hell was I thinking?!  Vampires had only touched this Slayer if it were in a striking fashion, yet here was one with filthy hands that wreaked of the grime in his day coffin and of weeks old gore from previous prey, and it was holding his face with the unbreakable grip of a vise!

    God pounds his nails...

    Right, and this nail is about to get the living shit pounded out of him!

    "Crucifus!  Stand down!"  Rasped a voice ancient and demanding.  It sounded almost like tearing paper with the gift of enunciation.  "First blood is mine tonight.  This one is special."

    "I don't suppose you guys take bribes?" asked the Cajun as he struggled against the chain.  RUSH, dammit!  NOW!  "I got a couple C notes in my backpack!"

    A caped figure walked out of the icy European fog, its feet crunching on the this layer of snow blanketing the thick valley forest the Slayers often referred to as Shadow Hollow. No matter how many Slayers had attempted to clean this nest of vampires, they always seemed to keep the upper hand here.  Here the vampire blood was purest.  Here the oldest of them ruled the night with their clans and the day with their herds of ghouls, but they kept to themselves, rarely venturing out of the Hollow, so their existence wasn't yet a priority for the ASG.  Balance dictated that some evil had to remain.

    "You stink of Pureblood, mortal."  Ripping paper, by god! "Yet Kurdle here thinks you taste sweet and warm."

    Taste?  GAVAL looked down to see a tiny and hideous nosferatu dressed in burlap and wool slurping at his wrist gently and quietly from behind the stake and chains.  "WHOA!  Back off there, Tattoo!  That may work with the chicks at the disco, but not with me!"  He struggled to keep his wrist away from the vile creature, now feeling the tiny needle marks the little vampire had pricked into his skin.

    "RHHAAR!" hissed the lead vampire as its claws swiped at GAVAL's temple, knocking off his fedora and cutting the side of his face.  "I asked you a question, meat!"

    "Meat?!  How'd you know I was well hu-" This time the vampire back fisted the Slayer in the jaw.  It felt like he had been hit in the head with an anvil.  The world went spinning and that familiar warmth of shock he had felt so many times in previous battles after hours of painful fighting came to him after only two blows in the here and now.  Yes, things had changed.  RUSH, DAMMIT!  NOW OR NEVER!

    The creature turned to little Kurdle and tore more paper.  "And you, I said I get first blood!"  The dark leader among vampires kicked the cowering creature in the head and it scurried off into the night to lick GAVAL's blood off its chops.

    Why the hell are German vampires speaking english?! GAVAL wondered as the unnamed dark lord turned its attention to him and spoke again in that ridiculously raspy voice.

     "Now tell me what it is you are doing here?  I like for my meat to entertain me before I consume it."

    It was hard for GAVAL to not laugh at this statement but the tingling in his throbbing jaw helped him keep a strait face.  GOT to RUSH, NOW, God pound it!  "I vas lookeenk for an old friend but I don't sink she's gonna show up, yah?" he said in a feigned German accent.  Are you crazy?! He asked himself.  Sarcasm?  Is that the way you want to go?!  Famous last words pal!

    Then he noticed the vampires neck, a long scar stretching practically from ear to ear.  The cut must have been deep. REALLY deep, as though someone had nearly cut off this thing's head but never finished the job.  GAVAL's eyes widened as he had an epiphany.  He had read something when he was researching the Specter.  Something about one of the all time great Slayers, Farris the Scot who's flawless record had been only once tainted by a young vampire called Nikoli Brosni who escaped home to Prussia some 700 years ago.  Nikoli was the only bounty to ever escape Farris' claim.  The vampire had escaped after failing to protect his Sire vampire, a 4th generation powerhouse of undead society who fad pillaged Austrian villages until Farris' gang of Evil Slayers brought and end to their terror and struck a major blow against the Vampire Community.  Nikoli was the only creature to escape from the massacre, but after nearly losing his head to Farris' silver claymore.  After that incident, Nikoli Brosni waited in his homelands for Farris the Scot's mortality to catch up with him so he could return to finish his Sire's work in Austria and Switzerland.  Nikoli had gone down in Slayer history as the vampire nuisance of Eastern Europe, "Brosni the Gash."

    "Never made it back to Austria, Gash?  Shadow Hollow working out for you comrade?" asked GAVAL as the vampire's sickening breath released cold stench back at the Cajun.  No warm steam rose from his nostrils.  He was undead.  It made the smell even worse.

    The Gash tore more paper as he wheezed at the Ex-Slayer, tightening his crip on GAVAL's throat "WHO ARE YOU, MEAT?!"  Then all hell broke loose.

    Night seemed to become day as bright globes of daylight appeared out of the west.  The sky lit up so bright even the half full moon couldn't be discerned.  GAVAL was blinded and could only hear the chaos that ensued.  Gash's claws scratched at his throat as his hand left the Cajun's neck and went to meet the chaos.  Dozen's of vampires hissed and screamed at whatever it was had disturbed their supper.  GAVAL tried to force his eyes open to see what was happening but the blinding light turned quickly to stars as something pounded him on the crown of his skull.

    The next thing he remembered was waking up outside of Berlin with the worst headache of his life.  GAVAL never did figure out what had happened that night.  He had come up with a few theories.  Theory A: Chalice and Cabbott, not trusting GAVAL to stay behind the safety of a normal life, had send Slayers-Chimneysweep to follow him just in case he got into trouble.  Maybe they bailed him out, but that still wouldn't explain the Globes of Daylight that had sprung up around Shadow Hollow that night.  Learyn and Crystal back at Operation CWAL had often used such magic when extra light was needed or for the element of surprise.  Theory B: Someone in CWAL tailed GAVAL and bailed him out.  But stealth wasn't CWAL's style for the most part, and even if it WAS Laeryn or even DarkLight, why would they just leave him in a field in Berlin to catch pneumonia without an explanation?  Theory C: Other.  GAVAL cringed to think of what "other" might be.  Life was complicated enough without some new faction of magic users going on a vendetta against vampire central and leaving ex-Slayers to freeze to death.

    Four pots of warm tea and a plane ticket later, GAVAL was defrosted and back in Irvine California with his last option of ever regaining the Rush. Plan D.  He didn't like plan E at all.  At the time it sounded even worse to him than plan C had been so plan D had to work.  Plan D was to prove once and for all that there was no Rush left in him.  Yes, the vampires had touched him.  Yes he had been surrounded by rare huge levels of evil and undead and Yes he had failed to Rush, bu there were other manual ways of inciting the Rush.  The Great War which few people besides MAGGOTT, Lothos, Mu,  and Sephroth even KNEW about produced a secret weapon that had gotten GAVAL and his friends out of more than one pinch when the Rush was needed but wouldn't come because the conditions weren't right.

    Undead Corn.  And though the recent Great Holy War has used up the last supplies of undead vegetables, the ASG had kept the last bits of undead corn and carrot Sephroth produced in another dimension; those strange sickly vegetable which rotted and writhed but continued to grow and wilt in a pitiful existence of neither life nor death.

    GAVAL needed that last bit of undead vegetation for Plan D.  He would eat the undead corn.  He would force a rush from the inside.  This HAD to work.  He had tried God.  He had tried angels.  He had tried putting his life on the line in the most evil of places.  It all came down to this.  If this didn't work, it would be Plan E.

    He carried out Plan D in style.  A moderately priced bottle of champagne, a bit of candlelight, a few slices of his favorite pie, which the Cajun had not been able to eat with nearly the zeal he used to be able to eat it with when he was a Slayer, and on a nice piece of China his mother had given him, a filthy piece of undead corn.

    And so he ate the pie.  He drank a toast to a life of goodness and the difference he had been able to make.  He looked at the candle as it slowly melted, a symbol that nothing lasts forever.  Was this really why he had struggled so hard these last few weeks to get the Rush back?  Is making a difference that important to me?  He had asked himself.  Or am I really afraid of a normal life with a normal girl and with the struggles that Plan E will bring?  GAVAL nodded, picked up the writhing kernal of corn from his fine China plate, and he consumed the horrible thing, swallowing it whole like a pill.  For a moment he waited, half expecting for his world to turn upside down like when Neo took the blue pill...

    Five minutes later the pain came.  He was both excited and disgusted by the possibilities that came about and the agony he was feeling.  The pain came from deep down in his gut and be doubled over in sweet excruciation.  Grabbing the shiny China plate from the table in his room at CWAL HQ and looked into it like a mirror, expecting to see a cobalt blue glow in his eyes.  What he saw brought horror.  His face was pale and dull.  Even in a white China plate he could see this.  Sweat poured from his forehead and upper lip.  His hair was wet and stuck to his face.  Then the pain got REALLY bad.

    As GAVAL reached for the phone to call for help he realized that this was not the pain of the Rush.  No sir, this was the pain of a man who had just consumed something poisonous to people like himself and 6 billion other people in the world.  Normal people with normal lives.  As he passed out on the floor his last thoughts were that if he lived through this experience at all that Plan E was all he had left to turn to.

    What he was told later was that a knock would come at the door.  Kazz, the most infamous of beavers would kick in the door complaining that he smelled pie and that GAVAL had alot of nerve to not share it with the rest of CWAL.  Of coarse, the beaver would see a passed out Cajun with cuts on his face on the floor unconscious, and eventually that beaver would do the right thing and call an ambulance....after humping the lampshade and finishing GAVAL's pie of course.

    And so after waking up in the hospital later that early January night to the beautiful face of Rachel Hollis and the not so beautiful face of Lothos who was making skull shapes from the flowers that CWAL had sent him GAVAL decided that he would be GAVAL no more.  He asked Rachel if it was too late to enroll in UC Irvine for the Spring 2001 semester and he asked her out on a date for the first time.  Maybe normalcy wouldn't be so bad?  He thought.  Look how beautiful this girl's face is.  That alone is enough to keep me content with my life if I can hang onto it.  And so Ted Van Helsing Benoit finally accepted what he had known all along, that he would pursue Plan E to it's fullest extent.  The "E" was for Education.

***

    "...and he was TOTALLY cute in that tight black DKNY shirt with the Brooks Brothers Slacks and the silver chain!"

    Amy had just finished her story about her night with the Latino guy at the bar the previous night.

    Ted realized she hadn't noticed his thoughts wondering off YET and quickly chimed in, "So you think you're ever gonna see him again?"

    "Gave him my number.  If he wants somma this, he's gonna have to work for it." Amy quipped as she finished her last cookie.

    Ted realized he had only eaten one of his.  He used to be able to put down sweets like no one else, but since he'd lost the Rush, he just didn't crave them the same.
 

*********

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