LAND OF THE BLIND
E-mail: notmanos at yahoo dot com
Disclaimer: The characters of Angel are owned by 20th Century Fox and Mutant Enemy; the character of Wolverine is also owned by 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics. No copyright infringement is intended. I'm not making any money off of this, but if you'd like to be a patron of the arts, I won't object. ;-) Oh, and Bob and his bunch are all mine - keep your hands off!-------------------------------------------
Summary: Angel is back in L.A., just as a wave of violence following a strangely familiar pattern sweeps the city. He and Logan struggle to get to the root of the problem before things get any worse, but they're rapidly running out of time.
Notes: Takes place shortly after "X2" and immediately after "Vanishing Point".
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. - Irish Proverb
Los Angeles, California
When they first started talking to him, he thought it was a special effect.
Of course, the point of Tara Reid breaking out of her usual cinematic crapfest to say in her raspy, whiskey soaked voice “Tony, we need your help” seemed elusive, but he assumed the filmmakers must have known how truly dreadful the film was, and tried to inject a little unpredictability into it.
But when it happened again - this time it was Ben Stiller who turned away from his straight man role to tell him “If you don’t help us, Tony, we’re all gonna die” - he wondered if Phil the evening projectionist was playing a joke on him. Of course he had no idea how he could, but it made more sense than anything else.
Then he was up in the projectionist’s booth, covering for Jesus while he ran to the crapper, and he heard from the dialogue feed, “Please, Tony, you’re our only hope.” He didn’t recognize the actor’s voice, but he suspected it was Jude Law.
What the hell was going on? He considered the possibility he was nuts, but then he watched some of those weirdoes who sometimes wandered down Sunset pushing grocery carts, and figured that wasn’t it. He didn’t talk to himself, he never heard voices -except from the movie screen - and he didn’t think bread bags were a legitimate style of footwear.
He’d been working as part of the cleaning crew at the Grand Royal Cinema for the past six months now, always seeing this as a stop gap until he could get a better job, but the economy was in the toilet, and he was lucky to have this one. He lived in a small two bedroom apartment on the east side of town, where he paid too much for the privilege of a constantly leaky faucet, a downstairs neighbor who loved mariachi music, and silverfish. He tried to spend as much time at the theater as possible, because it was air conditioned and relatively clean; the movies were beside the point, and most of the time he paid no attention to them at all. Lately all movies seemed like shit to him anyways, as if Hollywood had finally run out of what few ideas it had, and now had a computer program churning out scripts. Even most of the actors had stopped acting as a kind of silent protest.
Maybe he was spending too much time here; maybe he was eating too much rubbery popcorn and drinking too much sugary soda. He took a weekend off, spent most of it sleeping, and didn’t feel any better. In fact, a slow, creeping dread was starting to bother him every waking moment, making him feel like he had a lead ball in his stomach. Late Thursday night, when he was half asleep in front of the television, not completely sure what he was watching, he heard the television speaking to him. “See what’s happening, Tony? The world can’t wait any longer!”
He opened his eyes and sat up, accidentally knocking the nachos off his lap, as a horror show unfolded upon the tiny screen.
A tsunami of blood red water - or was it actually blood? - filled and overflowed the Los Angeles “river”, the sad concrete sluices featured in a hundred different movies, and the torrent of blood swept through downtown L.A., where crumbling buildings burned and the shredded ruins of people (some he vaguely recognized) lay in an anonymous, gory tangle of limbs and organs beside cars balled up like discarded beer cans. Something had come through here before this, before the ocean had become blood; something had killed everything that moved, and now it was simply cleaning up the detritus, the chewy bits of gristle it couldn’t eat.
He hit himself in the leg to make sure he was awake, and was he ever. He’d forgot about the fork he’d been using to eat the microwave burrito (the tortilla was too flimsy to allow eating by hand), and he drove it right into his leg. He yelped in pain and jumped to his feet, the silverware and his Corona bottle hitting the dirty brown carpet, and Tom Hanks was still staring at him from within the television, looking out as if from the bottom of the well. “You have to act fast, Tony. It’s only going to get worse. You know it; you can feel it. Free us, and we can save the world.”
Then, as suddenly as it had began, the TV was back to showing the Weather Channel’s documentary on hurricanes. He would have thought he was dreaming if the fact that his thigh was now bleeding wasn’t a testimony to his consciousness.
It was while he was in the bathroom, seeing how bad it was (not too bad; only one tine had honestly broken the surface of his skin), he wondered what it was he was supposed to do … and then it came to him, a torrent of thought on a wave of warmth, like the alcohol was kicking in. yes, of course, it made perfect sense. In a sort of distant way, he recognized that he would never do such a thing in a million years … and yet, yes, he would. This was for the betterment of everyone, and sometimes sacrifices had to be made.
He had lived a dead end life, and it was highly unlikely things would ever change. He was plain old Anthony Johnson - even his name was a spectacularly bland dead end - a single man going into his late thirties, having never fallen in love with any woman, with no future prospects or hopes that he might any time in the future, stuck as a janitor in a theater, cleaning up other people’s abandoned cups and spilled Milk Duds. He was an anonymous man living an anonymous life, not even passionate enough to be called desperate, plodding on day after day because he didn’t know what else to do. Was this all life was? Was he going to die unremarked and unremembered, as if he’d never lived at all? He could have sworn he deserved better than this,
And now he was going to get it. Even if he had to die for a purpose, at least his death would have a purpose where his life never did.
He got up early the next day - well, relatively, for having stayed up so late - and drove out to Fresno, where his Uncle Byrne lived. He always went to Vegas on the weekends, and even though it was only Friday, he was already gone. He had a double wide trailer in a loose park, the kind where they were spread out decently and few people even pretended to have yards - they lived in fucking trailers, so who was shitting whom exactly?
It was possible Byrne could have afforded better at one point. He was injured on his job as a ship fitter (lost three fingers on his left hand), and got a generous cash settlement along with worker’s comp, so he retired early. But Byrne, being the compulsive sort, took to gambling and never looked back, emptying his bank account within three months. His money still ebbed and flowed based on when his social security check came in, and how well he was doing at the blackjack table. Family rumors said he was currently eight thousand dollars in debt.
Tony knew where Byrne kept his spare key, and let himself in. The small trailer was depressing, with its general uncleanly state and the reek of dirty laundry the only signs that someone lived here. It was haphazardly furnished, and Byrne hadn’t left his air conditioner on, so it was already about a hundred degrees inside the little tin box, making the smell worse. The good part, though, was there just weren’t that many places to hide weapons.<>He found what he wanted wedged beneath his bed, oiled and loaded and ready to go, even though it had a small coating of dust on it. Was it an Uzi? It was some kind of automatic weapon; he really didn’t know his guns that well. But he knew Byrne had stashed a few around his house and in his beaten old Cadillac, claiming he needed protection from “mobsters” and others who might be after his gambling winnings … whenever he won, which wasn’t often. The metal was warm from simply being inside the trailer. >
He locked up and left the godforsaken blast zone called Fresno, sure that Byrne would’ve never noticed it missing, even if he had been there. As it was, he’d probably be in Vegas until Sunday night, and miss everything. Still, maybe it was better that way.
By the time he got back to his place, it was almost time to leave for work. But he had a leisurely dinner, eschewing the frozen dinner in his ice encrusted freezer for a coconut cream pie he picked up at a local bakery. It was way too expensive, but really good, and very much worth it, the creamy whipped topping almost soothing, and virtually weightless as it slid down his throat. He finished up with a Corona for courage, and a couple of Prozac he'd gotten when he still had his office temp job and the health insurance that came with it. They diagnosed his sleeping problem as "depression" about a month before the agency closed down, and threw Prozac at him, but it had never helped. Sometimes he took it, and sometimes he didn't, but there seemed to be no difference either way. He took it today to fuck with his autopsy results.
He changed into his work gear, and shoved his spare clothes - and Uncle Byrne's "insurance" - in a battered Sierra Club backpack he picked up for fifty cents at the Goodwill. He took one last look at his cramped apartment, and realized for the first time how anonymous it was - just like Byrne's trailer home really. Sad forgotten men in sad forgotten lives; the ones who slip through the cracks. But not tonight; tonight he was finally going to matter.
By the time he hit work he felt good, although that lightheaded feeling he had acquired the night before, after listening to Tom Hank's warning, still lingered. It briefly occurred to him that maybe he was sick, but he quickly dismissed the thought. Pie, beer, and Prozac was probably a more potent combination than he ever imagined.
He went through his evening shift with little thought, a white noise like an air conditioner humming through his head. It was almost pleasant not to have any thoughts, to have a single minded purpose; it was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, one he hadn't realized he had.
They wanted him to wait, so he did. Finally, after it was midnight, he felt like he could act.
The theater was down to a skeleton crew. After the three films currently showing ended, the theater would close, and the final cleaning would be done, preparing it for the next days' group of slobs. Aisles would be vacuumed, trash collected, popcorn machines wiped down, the projector booth locked up. He knew everyone who was working tonight, and while he didn't hate any of them, he didn't particularly like any of them either. Mostly they were kids who made him feel his age, save for Phil in the projection booth, who was older than him but not by much.
Of the films showing, one was a really bad horror movie (with a minimal crowd, mostly stoned teenagers or those on dates), the other a really bad action film (even fewer people in there), and the latest really bad gross out romantic comedy, which had the most people of all, and seemed like a natural. He'd sat through it once, wondering at what point the humor of repeated groin injuries seemed less amusing; he stopped thinking it was funny after the second to last Farrelly brothers movie. But damn if other producers and screenwriters didn't milk it for all it was worth.
He went into the theater and locked the doors, wedge broom handles inside the doors so even when they did unlock it from the outside, they'd have a hard time getting in. He walked up the entry aisle with his backpack slung over his shoulder as the sparse crowd laughed as the hero of the movie gaped at a woman's huge breasts and ran face first into a glass door. Oh yeah, that was fucking hilarious. How did they ever come up with this shit?
The seats were tiered, working up a sloped inclined, with the working theory being that that way, no one's view of the screen could ever be blocked by someone taller sitting in front of them. It was a good theory, but - from what he had seen - fundamentally untrue. The slope needed to me much greater for that to actually work. But the bottom seven rows were empty, so no one noticed him as he stood beneath the screen, and took the Uzi out of his backpack.
Eyes adjusted to the dimness and the backwash of moving light from the screen, he could see them now. This was what they were trying to warn him about.
They weren't human.
In the jittering, uncertain light, he could see the people had glowing red eyes that pierced the gloom like lasers, and unhinged, razor filled jaws large enough to swallow a cantaloupe. They fed on degradation and misery, picking their teeth with bones as they laughed over steaming cartons of slimy entrails. They were killing humanity and replacing them, and no one ever noticed.
Except him, right now. He knew what he had to do, and he had to do it fast. There would be more - there would always be more - but he had to strike the first blow for humanity, and start the war to end them all. They might not know it now, but soon humanity would know that Anthony Johnson was a hero.
And with that final thought, he raised the gun, and opened fire.
He woke up in an alley beside a Dumpster, recently emptied but still reeking of fermented garbage and alcohol infused puke. It was a smell that briefly reminded him of hell, but with less brimstone.
But, as soon as he sat up and opened his eyes, he knew he was back in Los Angeles. Shit.
Or maybe not. He really didn't know. He was extremely disoriented, and not sure what he was doing last. What had he been doing ..?
It took a moment, but he finally got it. There was some big fight, and he was ... elsewhere? Taken elsewhere. And then ... Peter Cook tried to kill him? No, no - it was a Senior Partner who looked unfortunately like Peter Cook, and he felt a sudden pain in his chest, the remembrance of him punching through his chest and ripping his heart out with his bare hand.
Angel reflexively reached for his chest, pulled open his shirt and looked, but there was no hole, no scar, nothing. He still had his heart? If it was beating he'd know for sure, but it wasn't. Still, the skin and muscle felt solid and didn't hurt, so he had to assume he had every organ he started with.
The memories had a very vague quality to them, like a fever dream. Bob was there, wasn't he? Yes, he was. He told him ... something; for some reason, he could hear his voice but not the words he said, and then everything faded out to blue ...
And here he was. Weird. It felt like there was a missing piece, a gap, but then there always was after you were in one dimension, and then another. It was like your mind tried to adjust to the rhythm of a new place, and it took it a couple of false starts before it could synch up.
He used the wall behind him to help him stand up, and he looked around to see if he could recognize the place. Sadly it was just an alley, one like a half million within the Los Angeles area. Was this the one he started out in? Was he dropped off?
He felt perfectly fine, just a little out of sorts. Still, Angel felt like he staggered to the mouth of the alley, and leaned against the wall as he looked around and tried to orient himself. He was roughly certain he was about two blocks West of the Wolfram and Hart building, and decided to head there to see if they were back.
As he walked down the nighttime streets, the sky above too polluted with light to show him any stars, he felt like he didn't belong even more strongly than the first time. He wasn't supposed to be here, but he wasn't sure where he was supposed to be. It was like a rhetorical question that could never have a satisfying answer.
Where was Spike and Illyria? Were they back too, just in separate places? Or were they still there, still in that hell dimension? Dead? Maybe Bob would know. He'd have to know, wouldn't he? Wesley had said something about the rumor of a “fallen" Power, one exiled to Earth for some kind of crime, and figured Bob was it. Of course they all suspected him of being a god, but he couldn’t quite believe it. He supposed this was proof he couldn’t deny anymore. Damn it - he really wanted to deny it.
He figured he’d head towards the Way Station, but take the long way - which, from here, was actually a long way away - so he could see if Wolfram and hart had moved back in. How long had he been gone? He wondered if there was any way to tell.
It was a warm night, stuffy, and familiar enough to him now that it gave him a pang of homesickness. He really hadn’t expected to ever walk these streets again, see the same buildings or sky. It was a strangely bittersweet experience, and he almost lost track of where he was. It was oddly quiet, at least for downtown L.A., and that made him instantly suspicious.
The Wolfram and Hart location was now a scorched patch of lawn with a big “For sale” sign on it, where the Wolfram and Hart sign used to be. It was gratifying to see, but he also knew it just meant they relocated to somewhere else in California. He kicked over one of their many sand castles, but it was an extremely hollow victory; they’d been at this for a very long time, and they knew never to consolidate all their forces in a single area (or dimension). They could already be running the town again, from Santa Monica or Modesto. (Okay, maybe not Modesto…) All his friends died just so they could relocate?
He wanted to believe it was for much more than that. He had to, or he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.
He started to hear traffic noises, screeching tires, car horns, angry epithets in at least three different languages, and the sheer normalcy of it made him relax before he even realized he had been tense. It seemed to be an unwritten law that cities shouldn’t be quiet, and if they ever were, something horrible had happened.
Angel wandered back to the Hyperion, mainly out of curiosity, and the desire to ground himself, to make sure this was indeed the Los Angeles of his reality. The Hyperion was there, all right, but there was something wrong.
The outer fence was knocked down on one side, and there was a huge, gaping hole in the side of the front lobby. Surely those were there before the “condemned by the city” signs went up, a lurid yellow now marred by the blue and red spray paint splashes of graffiti.
He stepped carefully over the fallen fence, the rubble, and went inside the hotel, which now had the intangible chill of a place long forgotten and abandoned. Even the squatters, the homeless and the runaways that clogged Los Angeles bus stations, hadn’t settled in here, which seemed to indicate how bad the “vibes” were.
Or maybe it was this huge rut in the floor. It started from outside, by the broken fence, and came in, ending only where most of the first level staircase had collapsed. It was huge, about a foot and half deep and at least six feet across in width, and it had a slight but tangible acrid smell, like lye soaked leather.
It was vaguely familiar, a scent of demon blood, but he couldn’t quite place it. What the hell had happened here?
“Uh, yeah, sorry about the redecoratin’,” a voice said behind him, making him jump. He spun around quickly on his heels, ready to fight, wondering how anyone could sneak up on him.
But as soon as he saw who it was, he knew. Logan was standing in the big gaping hole in the outside wall, sheepishly pushing some rubble with the toe of his boot, hands in the pocket of his denim jacket. “Had a bit of a fight with a big snake thing. I guess it liked to play with its food.”
Just seeing a familiar and friendly (more or less) face was so cheering Angel was suddenly possessed by a sudden urge to hug him, which he quickly let pass. “What kind of demon was it?” he finally asked, as if he hadn’t been away at all, just off on holiday.
Logan shrugged. “Big snake thing. I didn’t ask, and it didn’t tell.” He gave him a curious look. “You were gonna hug me, weren’t you?”
He scoffed, remaining nonchalant. “I’m not a huggy person.”
Logan raised an eyebrow skeptically at that, but after a moment, he went on. “So how’re you doin’?”
Wasn’t this fun? A couple of undemonstrative men trying to pretend they didn’t care when they did. But how old were they collectively, maybe four hundred years old? Old men just didn’t change their ways. “I’m … confused. How long have I been gone?”
He had to think about that for a moment. “A few months. Not much has changed.”
“It rarely does.” Angel took one last look around the destroyed lobby, and sighed. He had some good times here, and some very bad ones. It was probably appropriate to let this place finally die, to let the memories fade away into nothingness, to let it all get paved over and replaced by a strip mall. Of course, where was he going to live now? He could worry about that later, before the sun came up. “So what are you doing in L.A.? Bored with New York?”
Logan didn’t quite shrug, but he moved his head to the side like an aborted nod. “Naw. Bob told me you might need some help, so here I am.”
“What kind of help?”
Now here was a shrug. “He didn’t say. He was being his usual cryptic, assholic self.”
Damn it. But the fact that he pushed Logan here wasn’t good. It was indicative that something bad was going to happen, or was happening now, he just didn’t know it yet. So the Powers That Be brought him back at this time for an ulterior motive? What an absolute shock. He’d have to remember to pencil in a heart attack later. “Where is Bob? At the bar?”
He shook his head, grimacing at the name. “He said he had something he had to take care of elsewhere. I bet he’s just slacking or going to a wedding or something.”
“Oh god. He’s not getting married again, is he?” Actually, Bob was probably just avoiding him. Which figured: when he needed to talk to him, he was nowhere to be found. When he didn’t want to talk to him, he was forever in his face.
“Not that I know of.” Logan suddenly got a slightly panicky look on his face. “Holy shit, I didn’t even think of that.”
Before any further wild speculation about what Bob was really doing could commence, there was a huge crash on the neighboring street. It was metal slamming into metal, glass shattering concussively, followed in due course by a shorted car horn that just kept going off, one long, annoying sound that was the urban equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard.
Logan winced, reminding Angel that while it was offensive enough to his ears, Logan had even better than vampire hearing, but still he just shook his head and went back outside to see what the hell happened. Angel followed, driven by the same morbid curiosity.
They had to go up to the intersection to see it, but once you were there it was hard to miss. An SUV had been t-boned and turned over, laying crumpled on its side in the middle of the street, broken glass making a sparkling outline as the punctured radiator hissed, shooting steam out into the night like a geyser. Angel thought he smelled blood, but it was hard to judge among the competing pungent smells of antifreeze and gasoline.
Angel started out into the street, to see if there were any survivors inside (unlikely, but still possible), when Logan grabbed his arm to stop him. “What?” he wondered, slightly annoyed. While it was good to see at least one person he used to know, one friend he hadn’t killed, he wasn’t crazy about him getting in his way.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” Logan prompted, nodding at the mangled wreck.
He was in no mood for games, but he indulged him by looking at it once more, and just as he yanked his arm out of his grasp, he suddenly realized what Logan was getting at. “The thing that hit him - where is it?” This was a serious high speed collision; it was highly unlikely someone could drive away from this unscathed. Assuming it was a car.
Oh shit.And that’s when they heard the noise behind them.