IMITATION OF LIFE
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 and his crew face a burgeoning gang war between different demon factions, which only gets worse when they discover
that gods have joined the fray, and the most devastating one has a grudge against Bob that can only be paid in blood.
Notes: Takes place shortly after "X2" and immediately after "Alter".
Malls weren’t doing as well as they used to. Even in their spiritual home, California.
The internet was blamed, although it was uncertain if that was the actual cause. Whatever the reason, malls were hurting across the country, even the Galleria, where closed shops, shuttered behind protective metal screens, sat side by side with brightly lit shops such as Victoria’s Secret and Hallmark.
Security cameras would later reveal that it happened in a closed down shop between the Barnes and Noble and the Hot Topic. Although there was a burst of obscuring static for exactly two seconds, when they came back on, the door to the closed shop was still seen to be rattling, vibrating in its frame as if made of gelatin. There probably was some kind of noise, but the sound of chatter from the near by food court and the music from a couple of stores probably drowned it out.
In spite of several different camera angles, what happened afterwards never made too much sense. The metal security door that had rattled opened from the inside, the outer padlock snapped like ice and dropped to the floor (still no one noticed), and the man that had opened the door seemed to blur around the edges, as if he was just a camera trick. He seemed to be a reasonably well built man, on the taller side of average, dressed in a long black coat that appeared to be a slick of oilskin, or perhaps some unknown synthetic leather. It seemed to increase the blur around him, making his face a ghostly smear.
He simply walked out of the shop; as far as anyone could tell, he wasn’t holding a weapon, or even moving much beyond simply walking. And yet, as he moved, everyone in his path turned into ash.
It was inexplicable, baffling, and no matter how many times the tapes were viewed, none of the investigators could make sense of it. He was just walking. And yet, all around him, people’s clothes would flash burn suddenly, and their skin wouldn’t so much burn as instantly char, flesh becoming charcoal, hair disappearing in a puff of smoke. People noticed this, and began to run in general panic, but when he saw that, he raised his hand, as if motioning for someone to turn up the light, and everyone within range of the camera was flash fried, becoming piles of black ash as they watched, eroding in the forced air of the air conditioner. Black ash began swirling around his feet as he walked out of camera range, but he didn’t notice. Plants both real and artificial curled up before spontaneously combusting, burning at impossible heat in record swiftness. But the tables in the food court didn’t even get singed; whatever he had, it only seemed to affect living tissue and any typ! e of cloth.
The amount of fatalities was difficult to ascertain, as the air circulation reduced most piles of ash to a thin coating of dust on the floor. The heat was so intense, their bones had been ashed as well, even though that was nearly impossible. Identifying everyone was turning out to be unfeasible, and that included the assailant as well. Only one feature seemed to stand out.
His eyes seemed to be glowing a molten cobalt blue.
Rupert reminded himself everyone had to start somewhere. He tried to ignore the little nagging voice in his head that insisted he was too old to “start anywhere” all over again.
Angel had said he initially started in an office building, so this wasn’t a huge leap for him. They’d gotten the entire second floor of four story office building all to themselves, and there really weren’t that much in the way of building tenants besides them, save for a shyster lawyer on the ground floor. And since he was actually a Gnor demon, he wasn’t going to be bothered by anything they did. (The day they “moved in”, he showed up to give them his card, in case they ever needed “legal help” - “And with your reputation, you’re gonna need it,” he said confidentially, tossing a sly wink at Angel. Only Bren instantly placing himself in front of Angel and laughing weakly before hustling the Gnor out of there saved him from Angel tossing him out the window. Rupert would have held the curtain open for him.)
Although he’d seen the card - before Angel wadded it up and threw it away - he couldn’t remember for the life of him what the Gnor’s name was. Bren called him “Lionel Hutz”, which was apparently some kind of Simpsons reference, but the name had stuck, and no matter what his real name was, everyone now called him Lionel Hutz. It actually seemed appropriate.
He’d been doing his best to set the office up according to some loose feng shui rules, but it was difficult to do with the odd layout of the place, and within the budget they were working in. The office they were using as the main one used to be a dentist’s office, and the connecting ones belonged to a diverse array of businesses, including an insurance agent’s, a travel office, and a pet groomer. Previous to their moving in, someone had knocked out walls and plastered over doors, so their "office" was actually a warren of internal offices once you got past the front office and cut down a hallway. Angel had his own office, Rupert had one of his own, and Naomi turned one down, because - as she said - "What the hell would I do with an office?"
One of these "offices" had been converted to a break room, another to a weapons storage facility, and a third to a kind of "overnight room", set up with a cot in case anyone was overcome by the need to get some sleep. It had yet to be used.
He wasn't the only one trying to make the place livable. Bren - he didn't want to be called Brendan because it was "too formal" - was more than eager to paint the "logo" on the window on the office door, and the window of the front office, looking out on to a rare quiet street in downtown Los Angeles. The reason it was quiet was because it was only a couple of blocks West from the Hyperion, the old hotel that Angel used to work out of, and now had been demolished to make way for a strip mall. After his fight with the Senior Partners, there had been a "big snake demon" (most likely a Skrader) loose, and before Logan had killed it, it was estimated to have eaten at least a dozen people.
Funny how that had ruined a neighborhood's reputation.
Anyways, Bren wanted to go nuts with the logo, which included flowing wings and devil horns, and got a death stare from Angel. When he spoke, it was just an unyielding "No", and then he stalked off and left the room.
Bren just grimaced, and looked to him for help. "Too arty?"
"A tad," Rupert allowed, mastering the understatement.
He wasn't crazy about a young boy being involved in this - okay, he was eighteen, but he was still young - but it was hard not to be charmed by Brendan. He was insanely enthusiastic about the "vanquishing evil biz", and he had no lack of skill either. He needed more knowledge, but his eidetic memory mutation made that an easy prospect. He also knew an awful lot of people in the demon underground, most due to his connections with the Church of the Stone Temple, which threw their pool of contacts wide open. Demons who would rather die than talk to Angel or a former Watcher would gladly talk to Bren or one of his slightly disreputable friends. Everybody, it seemed, was charmed by Bren.
So Rupert was a little surprised to show up at the office - passing a smoking Lionel Hutz at the front of the building (it seemed that his secretary wouldn't let him smoke in the office) - and find that Bren hadn't been there yet. He had appointed himself "receptionist", and the desk in the front office even had a little plaque on it that read "Bren's Desk" (if he couldn't have an office, he wanted a desk), but it was unoccupied. The blinds covering the front window hadn't even been opened yet.It was a small office, but rather cozy, with an attractive mahogany desk, parallel to a brown leather sofa against the opposite wall, with a matching chair off to the side. There was a low slung table with copies of local newspapers, and a fake but attractive palm was tucked in one corner, opposite an oval mirror that reflected the silk greenery. He would have preferred a real plant, but the room didn't get enough light for a plant - for a vampire yes, but nothing living.
"Is anyone here, or are they fumigating and no one told me?" He asked the empty room, opening the blinds just enough to let a little yellowed light in. The air conditioner was in the connecting hall, the one leading to the maze of offices, and he could hear it chugging away like a distant moped. That probably wasn't a good sound for an air conditioner to make, but it was still working, so there was no point in worrying about it.
"I figured you'd know first," Angel said, appearing in the archway of the hall entrance. He didn't come any closer, as the sunny front office was a bit unhealthy for him.
He would get used to this at some point, or at least that's what he told himself. He liked Naomi, even though he didn't know her well, and it was hard not to like Bren, but there was this oddity about his relationship with Angel. He was a good guy now, yes, he had been fighting evil for a very long time. But there was no forgetting he was still Angelus, the king evil bastard amongst vampires for a very long time, who also tortured him several years ago. He liked to think he was over that, but every now and again he wasn't so sure. Perhaps that was why he always carried a vial of holy water with him nowadays.
"Did he call?" he finally asked, putting his hands in his pockets. He was pretty sure this unspoken strain in their relationship was never so prevalent as when they were alone with each other. Luckily that didn't happen often.
Angel shifted uncomfortably, glancing down at the grey industrial carpeting before squinting at him. Oh, he was standing in a shaft of sunlight, wasn't he? Freud would have been pleased. "No. I'm not sure we should worry yet; he may have just overslept."
"Perhaps." But Bren was always so punctual, it was worrisome. Still, maybe he had finally wondered why he was being punctual. They’d been open an entire week, and no one had called, knocked them up, or even vandalized their place, which you’d think any decent demon would have done. They might as well have not been here, which was depressing. They still went out at night, looking for trouble, but save for scaring and dusting a few vampires, they hadn’t found much.
All of which was in odd contrast to a few facts that they had gathered. Namely that the Senior Partners were interested in regaining their lost territory, that there was a demon gang war brewing in the power vacuum left in the wake of recent violence, and that Spike was back, and he was evil again, changed in some fashion by the previously named Senior Partners. But Logan could only tell them that his “smell” had changed marginally, and he had a bit of “Senior Partner in him”, whatever that actually meant. Yet he was still a vampire, and presumably still vulnerable to the same old things. Logan said he stabbed him in the gut, and it hurt him pretty bad; he also didn’t heal any faster than usual.
Did Spike know how lucky he was not to have been sliced completely in half? Presumably - perhaps that’s why he hadn’t been seen since he confronted Logan in Chinatown. Of all the people to confront, it didn’t make sense that he’d meet up with Logan, the one man who could kill him without bothering to get up. No, Spike was not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he had an unerring knack for self-preservation. There was clearly something that Logan hadn’t told them, but then again, Angel was convinced someone tried to “get to Logan” on the pier when they destroyed the Erebus stone. His theory was it was the Senior Partners, and that while Logan didn’t bite - did they honestly think he would? - it had shaken him. Angel figured Spike showed up at their behest, just to twist the knife, and guarantee that he’d want to get the hell out of town. Having seen Logan actually chop a sorcerer in half, on top of fight dozens upon dozens of homicidal demons in a pit, he couldn’! t believe anything would actually scare that man away, but Angel insisted it wasn’t that simple. “You can unnerve him, but not with physical violence. That he can understand, that he can handle. You go for his emotions - he’s one big raw nerve there. And if I know that, I’m sure they do too,” Angel had claimed, with the kind of weariness of a man who knew he was right but wished he wasn’t. The thing was, all Angel would tell them was his “weakness” related to both his memory loss and his other “losses”, which he didn’t specify.
Of course, he was just a Human - a blade enhanced, rather hardy Human, to be sure - so why would the Senior Partners be interested in scaring him off? As a Human, he was extremely vulnerable to them, no matter the circumstances. Angel seemed uncertain about that, but then conceded it might be because of his close association with Bob, a man they loathed but couldn’t actually deal with. The Senior Partners had no desire to enrage a Power, no matter his status. Which made more sense.
But why hadn’t the Senior Partners made a move against them? Angel had killed at least one of them, and several of their lackeys. They had to have a personal grudge. The more they bided their time, the more nervous he got - when they did show up (and they would; that was a given), it would be all the worse.
As the awkward silence stretched out, and he felt compelled to say something, anything, the door flew open, and Bren came in, a welcome bustle of energy. “Sorry I’m late guys,” he said, going immediately to his desk and dropping his bag of lunch (brunch?) burritos on it as he began frantically typing on his computer keyboard. “I went by the Galleria to see if I could have a better look at what was going on, but they’ve cordoned the place off well past the parking lot, and the media crush there is nuts. Guys in HazMat suits were on that place like flies on shit. Even this did me no good.” He pulled out a necklace from under his Pansy Division tour t-shirt, showing the pendant, which was just a small snake shape carved from stone. It was a special necklace from the Stone Temple, one presumably “blessed” by the Gorgons themselves. They didn’t hand those out to just anyone, those were special religious artifacts, but Rags probably gave it to Bren because he was fond of him, o! r perhaps because he thought he needed all the protection he could possibly get.
He and Angel shared a quizzical glance, and then Rupert asked, “What happened at the Galleria?”
Bren looked at him sharply, red eyes wide and startled. “What? Haven’t you guys watched the news?”
They both glanced at each other again, perhaps for solidarity, before shaking their heads. Angel had probably just gotten up, and Rupert only watched the BBC news, which wasn’t on yet.
Bren rolled is eyes and turned his attention back to his keyboard. “Some major bad shit happened at the Galleria. Nobody knows exactly what yet, because as some official people turned up at the place, it was shut down tight. The main theory now is a terrorist attack of some kind, maybe a mutant attack, but they’ve released bupkis to the media. It’s all speculation at this point.” He turned his flat screen monitor towards them, showing a small video feed of a blandly handsome Hispanic reporter talking in front of some kind of barricade, with the Galleria just barely visible behind him. Part of it was blocked off by huge trucks with official state seals on them, and indeed there was a man in a white HazMat suit partially in the frame.
“Do you have any idea what happened at all? Was it an explosion, a fire..?” Rupert asked, wondering why anyone would launch an attack on a mall. Seemed like an odd place to make some sort of political statement. Oh, you destroyed a Cinnabon - you were hard core, weren’t you?
“How many people were killed?” Angel wondered morbidly. But it was still a relevant question.
Bren gave them both hard looks, lips reduced to a thin line. “No - information - released. What part of that did you guys not get?”
“But I’m sure you’ve heard lots of rumors,” Angel countered smoothly. “Any sound even remotely plausible to you?”
He thought about that a moment, then shrugged as he turned back towards his computer. “I dunno. I’m not really sure. I just hope it wasn’t a mutant, ‘cause, well, you know, that whole island massacre off of Denmark and all.”
“That wasn’t caused by a mutant.” Angel said that so confidently he instantly wondered what he knew. Obviously he knew more about it than any of them.
Bren shrugged a single shoulder, clearing searching the web for something. More coherent news? “Doesn’t really matter. The court of public opinion seems to think it was mutants, and they’re all that count. Hating the dirty muties is a popular past time.”
The thought “Bitter much?” occurred to him, but he not only didn’t say it, but he was quietly appalled. He had been in Sunnydale far, far too long.
“I guess … I think I smelled something funny, but it was hard to say with all the exhaust and hair product on the site.”
“Smelled funny how?” That hesitant statement seemed to intrigue Angel.
“I’m not really sure; I’m not Logan, I don’t know how he can recognize things by scent. It was just something like … overheated asphalt. A kinda burned smell, but not smoke.” He shook his head dismissively at his own inability to explain it. “It was just weird. It coulda been coming from one of the news vans for all I know.”
Suddenly Angel looked startled, and reached out to grab the wall, as if afraid he might fall over. “Did you guys feel that?”
Now it was his turned to share a curious glance with Bren. “Feel what?” Rupert wondered, not doubting him, just at a loss.
“Are we gonna have an earthquake?” Bren asked. “Can you guys sense those things?”
Angel scowled at him, not appreciating the joke. “I’m a vampire, not a werewolf.”
Bren’s cell phone sounded, playing the now almost ubiquitous Red Dwarf theme, and he pulled it out of his pants pocket and flipped it open with the smooth movements of someone who did it all the time. “Yeah?” He paused, clearly listening, and Rupert wondered when “Yeah” had become an acceptable way to answer the phone.
Although neither of them could hear who Bren was speaking to, the alarmed look on the boy’s face said it all. “Say what? Yeah, send me a pic if you can.” He then held the phone slightly away from his face, and asked, “Any of you guys know if there are any big spider demons?”
Rupert rifled through his memory, while Angel replied, “Big spider demon? Where? How big?”
“Uh, West Hollywood. It’s bigger than Arnold’s Humvee. Hold on a sec.” Bren looked at his phone, as if it might tell him something.
“Kumos,” Rupert finally said, settling on the name of demons shaped like large spiders. “But they’re only native to Japan, and they’re extinct thanks to a Slayer who took out the home nest of them.”
“Yeah, well, I think you guys slapped the extinct label on them too soon,” he replied, holding out his phone towards him. Rupert had forgotten that he had one of those insanely useless videophones, one that seemed excessively high tech and needlessly expensive. On the tiny screen - which was hopelessly small, and not the best for resolution - he could clearly see what looked like a giant spider walking down the center of a crowded street, walking on the cars themselves and collapsing the hoods and roofs with the sheer weight of its legs. His best guess was it was eleven to twelve feet in height, and at least fourteen feet in length to the tips of its hairy legs. It was pure glossy black, save for what looked like rings of blue on its upper legs, and it had an odd mouth for a regular spider, a black gash filled with large yellow fangs, maybe a row of thirty or forty. Its segmented eyes, as large as dinner plates, glowed red.
Bren swung the phone around so Angel could see it too. “Rags’ says it just came out of nowhere, but it seems really pissed off by all the light. He and Thrak are gonna try and chase it into a sewer, or maybe that abandoned cannery down near Sex Bomb.”
“Sex Bomb?” Rupert repeated. He almost didn’t want know.
“It’s a nightclub,” Angel told him, grimacing at the picture on the screen. “Tell Rags not to get to close. I’m on my way.”
Bren scoffed. “Rags get close? Yeah, right. They’re gonna turn hair spray canisters into blow torches and try and scare it off that way. Since Shelob here doesn’t like bright light, they figure it’ll hate flames even worse.”
“A good bet,” Rupert agreed. “If it’s a Kumo, fire is one of the few things that it is afraid of. Speaking of which, Angel, I’m not sure you can kill it. Magic is the only thing that can absolutely kill a Kumo.”
Angel glanced at him rather placidly, clearly not concerned. “Are you saying our weapon of mass destruction won’t work on it?”
‘Weapon of mass destruction’ was the rather sarcastic name Bren had given the sword of Weyland, the one forged from the liquid metal blood of the demon god Dolonn, the one toxic to almost every living - or undead, or divine - thing you could name. Rupert had cast a cloaking spell on it so no one who caught wind of its existence could find it, but they all knew it was just a matter of time before someone bigger and nastier than them came after it. He had been investigating ways to destroy it, but doing so harmlessly was nearly impossible. Fatal in life, and fatal in death. “No, that should kill it quite adequately.”
“Good.” Angel turned and disappeared down the hall, headed towards where they had hidden the sword and the emergency exit that lead down to a hidden sewer access on the ground floor. It was just behind Lionel Hutz’s office, in fact, which seemed kind of ironic.
“I’d best go with you.”
“No, stay here, find out where that thing came from. I think we need to know who brought it here and why, and where the hell it came from. If there’s one, there’s probably more.”
Sad but true. So he watched Angel go, although he was considering waiting five minutes and then going after him. What if Rags and his slimy friend couldn’t chase it into a dark area? Angel wouldn’t be able to do a hell of a lot.
“Whoa,” Bren exclaimed. “This is one fucking weird day.”
Something about the tone of his voice indicated surprise. He turned back towards him, a sick feeling in his gut. Things had just gotten worse, hadn’t they? “What is it?”
“Somebody vandalized the Hollywood sign. And I’m not sure how either. I mean, where did they get the question mark from?” Bren pointed to his computer screen, showing another live news feed, and paused on a still frame, showing the large letters of the “Hollywood” sign. Only now it spelled out: “Hi Dad Miss Me?”
Rupert just stared at it, hoping it would make sense. Was there a connection between this and what was going on?
The funny thing was, he actually thought so. But he couldn’t fathom for the life of him exactly how.