Year of the Spectre, Episode 1:
"The Spectral Menace"


Chapter I
"Town and Country"

late spring...

     The sound of cash registers printing out endless dot matrix receipts and lame Muzak versions of Back Street Boys top 40 hits filled the air.   Free enterprise trudged onward in that perpetual fountain of transactions known as the East Irvine Mall.  The massive sprawling structure had recovered quickly from it's most recent run-ins with Operation CWAL and the various other demolition men around the area who had flattened businesses in seconds.  Structures had almost been rebuilt and put back into operation as quickly.  Malls in America were like cockroaches.  Cultures and people would rise and fall, but the species was invincible.

     A wry smile rose on GAVAL's face as he peered from behind his blue-tinted sunglasses and fedora hat at the perfect garment.  He had been gearing up for a couple of weeks now to get back into the slaying business.  Stakes and shotguns came easy around CWAL, but the perfect jacket was a little harder to find and required a bit of special attention.  He was wearing a slightly tight black t-shirt and khaki cargo pants.  An old felt fedora hat was on his head, as familiar as an arm or a leg to the Acadian.  Under them, though, was a new addition.  A pair of thick black plastic shades with reflective blue polarized lenses that he rarely removed, partially because he found himself sensitive to sunlight lately, and partially because he wanted to hide his eyes from any suspecting onlookers.  He had a few secrets these days.  Being in the ASG always led to a life of secrecy and he was used to it...he just had a few more secrets than usual.  Secrets that could tear his fragile so-called life apart.

     Reaching for the garment he slid it off of its coat hanger and pushed his arms into it, first the left, then the right.  He pulled the lapels tight around him and straightened out the collar, then looked across the isle of strung up cattle skin and into a Wilson's mirror.  What he saw, he hadn't seen in the mirror in months.  It was GAVAL, Evil Slayer of the Ambiguous Slayer's Guild...no...it was GAVAL, Slayer.  No way the ASG would understand or accept what he had been through; what he had done.  Better to keep things hush-hush from the ASG for now.  Maybe he could find a way to get them to understand later, but man did it feel good to look at the guy in the mirror.

     "Ah'll take it, chause!" he said to the young, impatient salesperson who had been helping him.  It was a black leather waistcoat with lots of pockets, longer than a jacket but not long enough to be a trench coat.  It had all-weather resistance to cold and water, and a nice dull finish to help him blend with the shadows at night.  Plus it just looked cool.  Well worth cleaning out the last of his school money.  I won't be needing anything for school until I take out that phantom anyway, he thought. Shame I blew all that money on a semester I won't finish.  Mamma and dad would be pissed....heh....Rachel will be VERY pissed.  Uh-oh...Rachel...god...I haven't called her since--

     "Cash or credit, sir?  SIR?"

     "Cash, chause..."  Frowning at being called something he didn't understand, the pimply sales representative rang up the jacket and checked his watch to see how much longer until his shift ended.

     Suddenly he spotted something in the distance that made his blood run cold. Them?  HERE?!  Craters...  "Look I gotta go...here's $400....keep it!"  With that he grabbed the jacket, elbowed his way into it and ran towards the shop exit.  There was only one way in or out without using the employee exit.  Gotta calm down.  Two Slayers had just stopped and were talking right outside the main entrance to Wilson's inside the Mall hallway.  He knew one of them.  It was Buffy; Buffy the vampire slayer and a guy he didn't recognize, but knew unmistakably that he was a Slayer-Chimneysweep...an intelligence specialist.  He knew these were allies of his, but he just wasn't ready to confront them yet...to explain or lie about his condition or why he was back into the evil-slaying game.

     As he reached the entrance he noticed they were facing the entrance to the shop near a column but weren't paying particular attention to the leather shop.  Are they here for me?  Following me?  There's no way to lose a Chimneysweep if he's following you...  Then he saw his moment.  A group of tall kids met up with a group of underage girls between the Cajun and the Slayers, blocking their view of him.  He slide out of the shop and behind a column breathing shallowly as if he were afraid they'd hear him.  GAVAL wiped his brow with his new jacket sleeve and noticed the price tag was still on it.  He frowned, ripped off the tag, then dug into his pocket for a stick of spearmint gum.  It always calmed him down and he was craving sugar right now.








     Dropping the tag and a gum wrapper onto the floor for some janitor to sweep up he glanced back towards the column and noticed Buffy still talking to the stranger Slayer.  I wonder if he's my replacement?, thought GAVAL as he jumped back to cover.  He had been out of touch so long with the ASG he felt he had no idea what to expect in the way of organization.  Using the cover of a row of columns he headed away from them and straight for the exit.  Mission accomplished.  They must have just been on patrol or something.  I'll talk to them later when I come up with a good story.


 "DRACULA"

     Sliding into the comfort of the BiB, his Black Z-71 4x4 Blazer, he chomped on his gum and sighed.  Catastrophe averted.  He slammed the door and stomped on the clutch, firing up her Vortec engine and the radio jumped to life cranking out Rob Zombie's "Dracula."  Feeling the power of his SUV begging to be unleashed he threw it in reverse and stomped on the gas, letting the engine rev up a bit before releasing the clutch hastily causing a loud screech on the cracking blacktop of the parking lot.  He threw his fedora onto the seat aside because he knew he'd get so into the song that the hat would wind up flying off anyway.

     It was a perfect sunny day in Irvine with temperatures just shy of eighty degrees and not a cloud in the sky.  A cool breeze blew in from the west and kept the sweat off one's forehead while the humidity was comfortably low.  Chomping on his gum and messing up the words to the angry song he roared out onto the highway zooming under a yellow light, then checked his rear-view mirror behind the black blazer for followers.  None were to be seen.  He smiled a cocky smile and banged his head to the song just as it ended abruptly.

     "Craters," he muttered as a dreary Oasis tune took over the airwaves.  "Not on my watch, Brits."  Fiddling with his CD's he looked for something to satisfy his mood.  Past the Ben Fold's Five, past the No Doubt, Past a few Ska albums, past the Smash Mouth.  All CD's he loved, but nothing seemed to be what he needed to hear now.  Past the Fiona Apple, past the 311, past the Radiohead, past the Van Halen.  None of it was ANGRY enough.  Note to self.  Buy more Pantera and White Zombie CD's, he thought while frowning.  He turned to the radio.  SURELY there would be a song to satisfy his unusual bloodlust with all the channels out there.  Past a spiritual channel, past a news report, past commercials, past Green Day's "Time of your Life." Finally the radio settled on a Jennifer Lopez song filled with synthesizers and artificial percussion.  It left him enraged.

     "DAMMIT!" he cried.  "WHAT THE FUCK?!"  In a fit of rage he pounded the CD player/stereo with his fist.  The face went flying into the dashboard with buttons showering his lap and the passenger seat.  Pain shot through his body but it wasn't his fist that was hurting.  He felt a burning sensation in his chest and eye sockets.  "Ahhhh!"  The BiB veered off of the highway and onto the shoulder of the road, slamming to a hault.  GAVAL pulled off his shades and rubbed his eyes hard, squinting at the bright sunlight of the afternoon.  The pain was starting to subside.  He looked into his blinder mirror and saw something he had completely been unprepared for.  His eyes were glowing a dark, almost royal purple color.  They remained that way for about four seconds, then slowly returned to a normal, slightly bloodshot look.  "Did I just..."  Rush? He thought.  He knew the answer but not the cause...or did he.  Glancing up at the gaping hole of bent metal and cracked plastic he remembered how quickly he had lost his temper just because he couldn't find a song to suit his mood.  Anger quickly turned to fear.

**********

    The oar sliced through the water with practiced ease, flashing with incandescent silver in the moonlight as it rose once more.  The river was gentle, a quiet, winding journey through the heart of the Montana woodlands, hardly a difficult jaunt for even a novice at kayaking.  Many had found peace along these banks, where silence reigned heavy and became almost a palpable substance.  The eerie background mantra of nature served as a catalyst to peaceful thoughts, particularly in the middle of the night, as it was.  Nature was a continual force, not pausing in its dance even after the sun had slipped away behind the horizon.

     The darkness was almost consuming but for its inconsistency beneath the vivid full moon.

     The kayak slipped across the gentle river at a brisk pace, carried by the mesmerizing, rhythmic stroke of the paddle.  Its sole occupant was buried in vigilance, keeping as watchful an eye for danger on the riverbank as on the river itself.  For now, though, there was nothing to fear.

     The man piloting the kayak did not need any light to find his way down this river.  He knew it well, even though he had never ridden it before.  For three days he had been consumed in satellite-scanned topographical maps while he waited for the full moon to light his path.  Every curve, every bend of the river had been systematically studied and crafted into his memory to the point where he could now see himself as a tiny dot, making his way slowly down the length of a map.  While his memory was something short of photographic, the raw determination that had brought him out into the heart of the Montana forest in the first place secured it firmly in his mind.

     Nabob, member of the elite Slayer Chimneysweep intelligence branch, expertly maneuvered the kayak towards a sandy outcropping along the shore.  The lightweight craft shuddered slightly as it beached itself, and Nabob quickly unfastened himself from the boat and climbed out, pulling it the rest of the way onto the shore.  It was a sturdy vessel, and had managed to transport him down the river with an admirable stealth that other forms of insertion would have lacked.  From this point on, though, it was a liability, and would have to be disposed of.  No trace could be found.  He hid it amongst the dense foliage of the nearby forest.  Some forest hikers or rangers would likely find it someday.

    By then, though, the mission would be long over, and they were welcome to whatever spoils they were able to find.

     Heaving a deep breath and wiping the sweat from his brow, Nabob leaned against a tree, taking a sip of water from his canteen.  He would rest here, five minutes at the most, before the next leg of the journey had to commence.

     In the palace of his mind, the topographical map was laid out upon a dazzling marble table, and he quickly found and confirmed his current location.  The information was as up-to-date as possible, brought in less than a week ago by Canadian Dominion spy satellites.  They had been sweeping the central Montana area thoroughly, probing for potential hidden missile silos, and as a favor to the Ambiguous Slayers Guild had allowed them access to a select few maps.  The ASG was accumulating a substantial debt to the Dominion, and was apparently looking for even more aid.  That wasn't Nabob's concern, though.

     His only concern was the task at hand.

     Another long sip from his canteen, and Nabob's gaze glanced up towards the sky.  Out here, there were no streetlights to diminish the view, nor urban pollution to contend with.  The sky was perfectly clear, a black tapestry upon which a hundred thousand stars were painted.  The arm of the Milky Way galaxy stretched high above him, spiraling into the heavens, so far away that it defied imagination.  Beyond it lay uncountable worlds, countless beings, countless dreams flung up into the sky every night.  And beyond even the heavens themselves, somewhere out there in the vast expanse of existence…

     "Watch over me, Rae," he whispered, throwing his own hope into the sky. "Be with me while I take this final step for you."

     Then he was off again, moving through the forest depths, blending as a shadow into the underbrush.  His clothing, pitch black, cloaked him with the same imperfect consistency of the forest around him.  The wild calls of the nocturnal animals hid his movements as they had his journey down the river.  Already the insertion into the area - done by helicopter only a few hours previous - seemed like it was part of a different, a fragmented, foreign memory in his mind that could easily have belonged to somebody else.  Nabob's only focus was preparing for the sweet moment of revenge that he would be able to call his own.

     It took an hour and a half to penetrate the Montana forest.  Stealthily hustling through the trees, across small streams, even scaling a small cliff in almost inhuman time, all left Nabob tired and sweaty.  The goal was near, though, and he forced himself to push past the limitations of the body.  There would be no Rush forthcoming.  He would have to operate without it for now.  Quickly yet carefully…

     Vigilance eventually paid off.  Nabob had been half expecting this forest area to be littered with all variety of deadly traps and snares, possibly enough to hold off a small army with.  That was why he had gone in alone; no need to endanger the lives of others when one man stood a better chance of slipping in through a crack in the defenses than fifty did in charging headlong into them.  All that he found, though, was a single trip wire, expertly hidden amongst the foliage, connected to some sort of alarm system.  He would never have been able to spot it in this moonlight if he hadn't been looking for it, but something about it seemed almost…wrong.  As though it was perhaps a little too overgrown and hidden.  A quick check confirmed this for him.  The alarm system to which the wire had been rigged was decrepit and wouldn't have been able to alert anybody to his presence even if he had gone out of his way to set it off.

     Doubt crept into Nabob's mind, but only for a moment.  No, he told himself.  He'll be here.  He has to be here.  Too much has gone into this for him not to be.

     Another five minutes through the woodlands brought him to the edge of a clearing.  Peering into it from behind a clasp of trees, Nabob squinted, easily making out the looming shape of the wooden cabin.  Just where the map in his mind said that it was.  He allowed a small smile to appear on his face.  There was definitely something to be said for old memory techniques.

     He crept around the perimeter, every sense honed and wary for potential traps.  There was no movement apart from his own.  The wind had died down, the animals had fled the area, and the world itself seemed to hold its breath in anticipation.

     More unusual signs.  A smoking rack had been set out, and some meat was hanging on it.  Or had been hanging on it.  The shriveled remains of several unidentifiable strips of carrion had been picked away at for several months, leaving them ragged and tough.  There were no signs that anyone had been in or out of this plain log cabin for many months: the ground held the prints of nothing larger than a coyote, and the foundations were in disrepair from the spring runoff.  It gave the distinct impression of being an abandoned lair.

     Despair struck him like a chord on a harp from hell.  There were no signs of life from within the cabin, no movement or even the suggestion of a whisper.  It was simply cold and unforgiving, suddenly a monument to mock his failure.  So much had gone into this operation in the past few weeks, so much endless investigation and tumbling through paperwork…all for nothing.  The Chimneysweeps had been forced to reach into resources that they had scarcely known existed before now to navigate their way through the labyrinth of hidden identities.  This location, this cabin, was the culmination of their efforts, and now it appeared to have all been a waste.  A very large part of Nabob wanted to simply turn around and get out of these blasted woods so that he could return home to lick his wounds and shattered hopes.

     Another part of him, however, convinced him to stay, to have a short look inside.  There might be something useful in there, after all.

     With the utmost caution, continually scanning for anything that could even be thought of in the same sentence as the word ‘trap', Nabob made his way up to the cabin wall and carefully slid open a window.  The glass had been well-placed and firm, and when it jerked upwards a horrible smell rose to greet and welcome the trespasser.  The Slayer knew it all too well.  It was the stench of death.

     Something's died in there, he reflected, carefully flipping his Beretta handgun out of its holster and fingering it gently.  The cabin was of good make, and had apparently done a remarkable job of containing the smell, which was probably why there weren't a dozen bears or wolves prowling around outside.  Judging from the smell, whatever had died in there had done so quite a while ago.

     Swinging his legs in through the open window, Nabob crouched in the darkness, hiding in the shadows while his eyes adjusted to the darkness, the barrel of his gun probing the room, ready for anything.  There wasn't enough moonlight in here to allow him to make much out, but he could see that right now he was in a bedroom.  Fairly utilitarian, although there was a large, stuffed bear's head mounted on a plaque on the wall above the bed itself.  Also, in the corner, as though to remind Nabob of just who lived here, there were piled a number of assault weapons, easily within arm's reach of the bed.  They were all still loaded, and a fine layer of dust now covered them as well.

     Nabob slipped into the main connecting hallway outside, edging along carefully, feeling out each step before he took it so as not to step on any hidden floorboard traps.  Fear seemed to be growing in him, the fear that he was being watched.  He stopped, listening carefully.  Not a sound, not even a whisper of wind.  Total silence, apart from the beating of his own heart.

     He forced himself forward, into the kitchen area.

     The smell was stronger here, and was actually a combination of foul smells.  Food was set out, or, again, had been set out, ready to eat.  Beans, by the looks of it, or what had been beans.  Half-eaten, half-decomposed.  The spoon was still dug in, as though the meal had never been finished.  Nabob's eyes narrowed.  There was something else in the air.  He sniffed gingerly, not wanting to overwhelm his senses with the smell of decay.

     Gunpowder.

     Just a hint, of course, but there had been shooting done in this enclosed area.  He took another quick look around.  Sure enough, the wall connecting the kitchen to what appeared to be a living room was riddled with bullet holes.  Thirty torn holes.  Somebody had unloaded an entire clip into the wall.  The modified Soviet AK-47 that had been responsible lay on the wooden floor, discarded and empty.  Something else caught his eye.  Burn marks, over by the wall.  Definitely hadn't been caused by the bullets.  The burn was almost completely circular, scorched permanently into the floorboards.  This just keeps getting stranger.

     Beretta still stretched out before him, he then advanced into the last room in the cabin, which appeared to be some kind of living room area.  The smell in here was almost overpowering.  It was considerably more decorative than the other two, with hunting trophies sharing the same wall space as automatic weapons and a large variety of other lethal-looking devices.  Decked out on one of the tables was what appeared to be a half-assembled bomb, the explosives still in place but not yet connected.  There were more bullet holes in here, sprinkled liberally about the room as though someone had taken to shooting at complete random.

     Then Nabob saw the source of the hideous smell.

     The body lay near a cobbled fireplace, cold and stiff, clutching at yet another rifle in vain.  It had obviously been there for many months, as the flesh was in a state of advanced decay, filling the cabin with the horrible odor.  The dry forest air had mummified what was left of the body over the course of several months, leaving it hollow and desiccated on the ground.  The carpet, which had once been thick and luxurious, was now covered with hardened, dried blood.  It didn't take a forensics expert to determine the cause of death, either, or what had caused the immense bleeding.

     Right in the middle of the chest there was a vicious stab wound, which had apparently run the victim entirely through.

     Nabob staggered backwards.  It was the exact same way that Rae had died.

     He stared for an instant, then fumbled at his belt compartments, eventually drawing out a thin flashlight.  With a moment of hesitation, he flicked the light on and shone it upon the corpse.

     Nabob once more found himself staring at the dry, hollowed features of Lucas Pondexter.

     Several moments passed before he could bring himself to breathe again.  Lying here in the middle of the cabin's living room floor was the decayed body of the man whom Nabob had sworn to kill or die trying.  He wasn't sure whether it was relief or fury that washed over him.

     After a number of silent minutes, he reached down to his handy belt compartments again and withdrew his Slayer standard-issue communication card.  He keyed it open and spoke into it slowly.

     "Mister Clean, this is Scrub Brush, over."

     "We read you, Scrub Brush.  Find anything?"

     "Yes sir," he sighed. "I've found Pondexter.  He's dead."

     "What?  Really?"

     "Something isn't making sense, though.  The body I'm looking at here has been dead for six months, at least."

     "That's impossible, Scrub Brush.  It's hardly been a month since he escaped from our custody.  Maybe the darkness is playing games with your eyes."

     Nabob pulled the communication card close to his face. "That's a negative, Mister Clean.  I know what I see."  He hesitated a moment. "Requesting extraction."

     "Copy that, Scrub Brush, we're on our way, ETA twenty minutes.  Hold tight until we get there."

     Nabob flipped the communicator back into his belt compartment and took another long, hard look at the body.  He had seen bodies before, old and new, and this one bore all of the signs of extended decomposition.  What frightened him more than anything else was what it meant.  If this really was Lucas Pondexter, then he couldn't have escaped from Slayer custody - from his custody - a month ago.  He couldn't have killed Rae a day later.  This meant that whoever or whatever had been responsible for that was not the real Lucas Pondexter, and had probably killed him too.

     And that meant that it was back to square one.

**********

     For another being who lurked in the woods that night, though, the scene was played out in a considerably different light.

     A pair of coldly inhuman eyes watched as the Slayer helicopter - an old Sikorsky that had seen better days - descended from the sky, its landing lights briefly illuminating the rickety log cabin as clear as day.  They watched with keen awareness, seeing perfectly despite the darkness, as a group of Slayers leapt out of the landed craft and sprinted over towards the house, keeping their heads down to avoid the helicopter blades still spinning above them.  They watched with even more interest as the sullen, dark figure of Nabob emerged from the hutch to meet them, weary and disheveled.  He was covered in sweat, from both his expeditious infiltration of the area and the nervous energy spent scouting out the inside of the cabin.  Even from a distance, Nabob looked tired well beyond his years, now tortured by the efforts of a futile mission.

     The man - or at least he looked like a man for the moment - took in a deep lung-full of smoke from his cigarette.  He let it out again slowly, deliberately, watching the Slayers scurry about, trying to remove "evidence" from the scene for further analysis later.  The wind was in his favor, so he didn't need to worry about alerting them as to his presence.  Even if they did see him, he wouldn't be the one to regret it.  Not for long, anyway.

     He watched as they brought the decayed body of Lucas Pondexter out of the house to place aboard the Sikorsky, and reflected on how amusing it was to see the dead body of a man whom you woke up each morning with the face of.

     All the same, he hadn't been expecting them to catch onto the trail.  Not this quickly.

     Another long pull on the cigarette, and then with the flick of the finger the bud was smoldering on the forest floor.

     Fortunately, the trap had already been set, and forces had been placed in motion beyond the Slayers' comprehension and control.  Any progress that they made on the sloppy trail that he had been forced to leave would very soon be coming to an abrupt halt.

     The Slayers were preparing to lift off again.  The chopper blades were spinning, and the Sikorsky was ready to rise above the forest tree line and disappear off again into the heavens.  The man's eyes focused once more on Nabob.  The Chimneysweep had stopped, and was surveying the dark forest one last time, searching in vain for anything to give him a spark of hope.  Not finding it, he turned in frustration and leapt into the helicopter, just as it began to rise off of the ground in a great flurry of blades and whirling air.  The door slid into a closed, locked position, and within a minute the Slayers had disappeared once more into the velvet sky.

     A cruel smile tugged at his face.  Time to clean up.

     The forest fire that began in the cabin that night consumed several acres of the lush Montana wilds before it was extinguished in the rain.  The only thing that remained of Lucas Pondexter's hideaway was a pile of scorched, smoldering floorboards.
 
 

Chapter II
"Derailed"

"BEETLEJUICE"
 

     Knocking at the door of CWAL HQ was met by the usual silence as though nobody was home. "These guys have got to get a butler or something," she mumbled as she let herself in.  At this point Rachel only bothered to knock on the inches thick metal door as a matter of principle and to maintain some state of protocol for when she visited normal households.  As she muscled the heavy portal closed behind her she was greeted by the disturbing image of a 4-foot beaver in a Speedo holding a container of Cool Whip and a can of motor oil.

     "Hey sweet thing, how about I give you the personal tour of our fine upstairs accommodations?  I got a great stereo up there...we can do a little dance, make a little lo-"

     "Shut up Kazz.  I'm looking for Ted.  He's been a bad little monkey and hasn't called me in a few days."

     "GAVAL?!  What's he got that I haven't got?!  He doesn't even LIKE Cool Whip!"

     "How about human chromosomes?"

     "FINE!  Be that way!  I don't date racists!  I have my standards, you know!"

     "I've never been accused of being racist, but when it comes to dating I suppose I am a bit of a species-ist.  Call me picky.   Besides, Ted likes ANYTHING sweet.  Now where's my man?"

     "He said he needed to pick up a new jacket before the rai-"

     The Infamous Beaver's remarks were cut short by a blue bolt of antimatter that left him pancaked against a wall near a poster of the original Diablo game by Blizzard Entertainment.  Shortly behind the bolt trotted an unusually alert alien alcoholic named Exile who ran up to Rachel and escorted her away from Kazz with unusual haste.

     "What Kazz MEANT to say was GAVAL didn't want to get rained on so he picked himself up a little something he could wear in any weather...heheh..."

     Suspiciously staring up at the Protoss pilot who towered at almost seven feet (quite short for a Protoss, actually), Rachel squinted in confusion and questioned, "but it's crystal clear out and he's already got a rain coat!"

     "He wanted something more stylish to impress his girlfriend!" cried Lothos who ran out from behind a side room and slammed the door as if to prevent Rachel from seeing what was going on inside.  He quickly joined Exile in getting her away from Kazz who was just starting to peel off of the wall slowly, fur smoking.  The two quickly ushered her towards the kitchen and away from the east wing of the converted Starbuck's Cafe.

     "So can we get you anything since you drove all the way out here completely unannounced and in a surprising manner that completely caught us with our pants down?" asked Lothos, suddenly realizing he was thinking out loud, then biting his own tongue.

     "Yes, I've got all kinds of refreshing beverages here," cried Exile as he blocked the door to the kitchen and started removing flasks from his flight suit.  "Here's vodka, and I have here some rum...and some bourbon...and some of that yummy 190 proof stuff...what's it called again?"

     "190," scowled Rachel as she struggled to remain calm at the obvious attempts to keep her out of the living area.  From behind the kitchen door several CWALers could be heard scrambling heavy equipment to and fro as they whispered, and she could almost swear she smelled the meaty rank stench of ...Spam?

     "Yes! 190!  There's something to be said for the direct marketing strategies, isn't there?"  Exile took a huge swallow into his ear of the nearly toxic alcohol only to be stopped by a nervous and sweating Lothos who yanked the bottle from Exile's less stable three-fingered grasp and took a long swing himself.

     "I got your direct approach!  Look, you two, I know you're hiding something and I just want you to know that I respect your rights to privacy and if you want me to leave, I won't be pissed."

     Exile's glowing blue eyes showed a sign of relief as Lothos' eyes began to tear from the flammable liquid he had just attempted to swallow before it dissolved most of his digestive system.   "Really?" asked the Protoss.

     "Really.  You guys are a covert squad of mercenaries and warriors.  You have to have your secrets, don't you?"  She turned to Lothos and nodded at him.

     "Yes!  You're completely right!" cried the hairy New Zealander pointing his finger in the air as the chains on his leather jacket jingled.  "This is CWAL and CWAL must protect her secrets in order to protect its girlfriends!  It's for your own bloody good, Rachel!  Best you leave RIGHT away!  We'll tell GAVAL you're on the make for `im as soon as he gets back from the uh..the er..."

     "The Mall!" finished Exile as he started to work on a flask of Jim Beam.

     "The mall!" cried Lothos jubilantly.

     "One more thing though," said Rachel.  Lothos and Exile's look of triumph suddenly turned to one of submission and failure as they were sure they had blown GAVAL's new secret.  "Why is it suddenly GAVAL instead of Ted these days?  What's with the reverse name change?"

     The two looked at one another, then each took a quick swallow from the tequila flask.

     "Well, you know these CWALers," came a soft and feminine voice of rescue from the other kitchen entrance.  "Once a code name always a code name!"

     "Hiya Shade," said Rachel happy to have gotten a normal and confident response from someone finally.  Visits to CWAL HQ never really went smoothly, but she trusted Shade as they has shared a few sensitive moments with the other ladies of CWAL through the hard times of the past.  Shade walked up and gave Rachel a welcoming hug after whapping Lothos and Exile across the head a couple of times.  The rest of Rachel's visit was spent over a quick cup of coffee and some increasingly relaxed and inebriated company.  Though slightly worried that she hadn't spoken to the man in her life aside from a few short phone calls for over a week, she knew she would see him soon and that there was nothing to worry about.  After all, it was finals week at UC Irvine, right?
 

***********
 

    "God damn it, Van, you can't do this to me!"

     The office space was small, sterile, and rented.  Or it had been.  The Chimneysweep command staff that rented it had transformed it overnight into a base of operations capable of coordinating Slayer movements throughout the lower California area.  The entire office was now full of electronic life as computers worked side by side with robust Chimneysweeps and Cajuns, speedy microprocessors alongside dull pencils and scratch pads, all working towards a single goal.   A mobile command center would have been preferable, but due to budget cutbacks and time constraints it was impossible at this time.

     Besides, this way there was somewhere for the pizza to be delivered to.

     "Look mayte, I feel for you - I really do! - but I just don't have toyme for this royt now," Van, one of the highest ranking Slayers-Chimneysweep, said as he pushed papers about his desk, evidently searching for something.

     Nabob, standing in front of the desk and feeling as angry as he ever had been in the past few weeks, slammed his fist down in front of his superior. "Then you'd better damn well make the time, Van!  I am not accepting reassignment!  Not now!"

     Van glared up at him. "'Bob, if you've not noticed yet, we're in the middle of a blimey crisis right now.  Plague-Sever is loose and killin' almost at random, and we need all avoylable Slayers to deal with it!  We jus' don't `ave the manpower to spare our best agents on cases that have been closed already!"

     "Then you shouldn't have closed it!  I told you when I got back not to close it!"

     "Whaddamoy s'posed to do, ‘Bob?  Lucas Pondexter is dead.  We've got his body on oyce in one of our safe houses.  You found him and saw him yo'r self!"

     "Yes, I found him," Nabob glowered, "and yes, I saw him dead.  And I saw his body stinking with six months of decomposition!"

     "An' oi suppose you're now some kinda f'rensic psychologist on top of being the Divinity's royt-hand-man, hm?"

     "I know the difference between the dead body of a man killed a week ago and a man killed six months ago, Van.  It comes from working out there in the field, without the benefit of cushy armed chairs and air conditioning.  Maybe you should give it a try again, then maybe you'd…"

     Van pointed a narrow, bony finger directly at him. "That's enough outta you, bloke.  You're a damn good agent, but if you don't learn how ta get by without steppin' on toes-"

     "Van, you are not hearing me!" Nabob protested. "I don't care whose toes I step on, whether they belong to you or anyone else in the ASG!  The only thing I care about is that there is still a dangerous man, being, whatever out there, at large, that is responsible for the death of the woman I love."  He tried to calm himself down slightly, leaning forward on the desk to face his boss. "I saw Pondexter's body in that cabin, Van, but it had been dead since before we captured him.  That means the person in the cell wasn't really Pondexter to begin with, but someone or something else, which could potentially be even more dangerous!  And the stab mark in the body, it was the same as…"

     "Nabob."

     "Listen to me!  It was the same as what ran Rae through!  We're getting closer, but…"

     "Nabob!" Van roared, anger suddenly bursting forward.  Nabob flinched backwards slightly, surprised.  He didn't think that he had ever seen his superior quite like this. "There ain't no room for argument royt now!  I'll keep the case open if it means that much to you, but the reassignment stands.  We need you somewhere else."

     Nabob gritted his teeth. "Where?"

     "Europe."

     A puzzled look spread over the younger Chimneysweep's face. "What?  You were just going on about how badly we needed agents to hunt down the Plague Sever again, and you're going to send me all the way to Europe instead?"

     "It's part of our hunt, ‘Bob, jus' an off-beat part.  The last archival evidence of a Spectre in the world was during the Dark Ages.  Description makes it sound real sim'lar to Plague-Sever, even down to them rattlin' teeth its got.  This thing was cornered and destroyed by some o' the earlier Slayers in a tomb down in Austria."

     "Good for them.  I'll ask again, why am I going to Europe?"

     "You should know better'n I that we don't know how to fight this new Spectre thing off proper," Van said.  Nabob had to bite his lip to keep his angry comment to himself. "We lost good people because of it, an' we don't want that to `appen again, not with the manpower shortages the ASG's got right now.  If we can find out exactly `ow the Slayers managed to destroy their Spectre, it might do us some good in off'in this one."

     "Aren't there some scholars or archaeologists or-"

     "Yes, there are," replied Van.  Was that a hint of nervousness in his voice suddenly?  "But we're of the moynd that we want a full-fledged Chimneysweep in there to look around, see if there's anything useful.  Documents, markings, etchings, anything.  This tomb's been sealed for centuries, location kept a secret from the world by the ASG.  We think it's toyme ta uncover it again."

     Nabob folded his arms across his chest.  Something was wrong.  There were more Chimneysweeps now than there had ever been before, but there weren't that many, and they certainly shouldn't be squandered on operations that even one of the ASG's normal human ‘agents' could carry out.  And even if poking about an old tomb looking for nine-hundred year old evidence was a productive use of time, there were many Chimneysweeps already stationed in Europe who were a lot closer.

     Van had continued talking while Nabob was thinking. "…Leaves tomorrow at seven in the mornin' sharp.  You can sleep on the plane, so-"

     "Cut the zombie drool, Van.  What's this really about?"

     "What?"

     "This is a back-burner assignment.  The odds of my finding anything in Austria are totally remote."

     "There's still a chance, mayte."

     "And there's a chance that I'll give birth to the next Pope out of my ass, so let's talk about things realistically.  Am I being shoved aside or something?"  Silence met his question.  "What, the ASG is just tossing me away?"

     "It isn't like that, Nabob," he said slowly, meticulously. "Everyone in the Guild knows you're one of the best we've got, if not the best.  But…well…there's politics involved here that you're going to have to learn.  There's a lot of concern going around about the incident with Pondexter.  Some questions being raised."

     "I'm being blamed for his escape."

     "You said you would take responsibility for him, Nabob, you told me that yo'self.  Now, I ain't blamin' you for it, but that on top of the little fiasco with them Zerg-things up in Canada…"

     "That one wasn't my fault."

     "But can't you see how it looks, mayte?  `Ere we go again with the entire thing ‘bout stepping on toes.  You've stepped on a few, ‘Bob, I ain't afraid to say it, and this assignment is a good way for you to get away from it for awoyle.  Get yourself outta this crisis for a bit, ‘cuz the eyes o' every bigwig Slayer in the world are focused on the Spectre royt now, and you don't wanna be steppin' into that spotlight."

     "I can't believe this.  We're Slayers for Christ's sake!  We're supposed to be defending the world from evil!  We don't have time for these games!"

     "Fine, let me put it to you straight then, mayte," Van growled, his patience obviously at an end. "There's serious questions popping up regardin' whether or not you're capable as an agent.  You're getting' a reputation as a loose cannon, which is the absolute last thing the Guild feels we need in this battle against the Spectre."

     Nabob just stared, words suddenly failing him.

     Van stood and came around the desk, putting a comradely arm around Nabob's shoulders and briskly leading him away from the Slayer command center. "Take my advice, mayte.  Just go with this.  It ain't a hard assignment, an' if you hit the jackpot by some lucky chance, then you're good as gold with the higher-ups again, y'see?  If not, then you can take yourself a little vacation in Vienna, you can.  See some sights.  God knows you could use a break.  By the time you get back, we'll have found some way to off that Spectre, an' everything'll be royt as rain again!"

     Eyes full of anger, Nabob broke away from his grasp and swung about to face him. "No…no, this isn't right, and maybe when you've lost somebody that you loved you'll understand that.  I don't care what the ASG thinks of my competence as an agent.  I don't care what they think of me because of what happened with Rae.  What happened that night burns on my conscience, Van, and next to that the opinion of the entire Guild is less than meaningless."

     Van sighed wearily. "Think about the future, kid.  You got the stuff ta go far in this ‘ere organization, maybe even take over me job once some vampire or other gets lucky enough.  Don't be a fool throwin' it all away just so you can foyt the system.  Remember, the Guild cares about you, just like we always have.  This is for your own good, it is.  Now, like I said, the plane leaves tomorrow at seven."  He handed Nabob a ticket package. "Be on it."

     There really wasn't anything else to say.

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