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A HEALTHY MIND IN A HEALTHY BODY

by Jane A. Leavell

"If they arrest you for gambling," the pert blonde said abruptly, bringing an armload of toadstones and cat hairballs from the back room, "can I run the store?"

Standing near the Magic Shop bookshelves, getting the lay of the land while pretending to be browsing, I almost dropped the book I was flipping through--some nonsensical collection of spells and potions to use on pets in place of flea collars and vet visits. The man I was here to meet didn't seem nearly as startled.

"Certainly, Anya." Rupert Giles carefully removed his glasses and set them on the table. "What sort of gambling am I going to indulge in? Are--are you perhaps intending to send me out for, er, lottery tickets?"

"Don't be silly. That's not gambling. Gambling offers you a chance of winning. The only way to win the lottery is to sell your soul to the Devil or bribe a luck god. Everyone knows that."

"Well, yes, but that doesn't explain why I shall be arrested. Has someone invited me to a--a poker game?"

"Not that I know of." Unconcerned, she began carefully arranging the supplies on the proper shelf.

"Have you, um, been using my name to place bets in a football pool?"

"Why would I do that? If I won, you would get my money."

He seemed to be completely at a loss. "What gambling do you believe I'm about to indulge in, then?"

Apparently satisfied with the display, the woman he called Anya marched back to the cash register. "Tonight. You know, with the health insurance man from the Council."

"He's going to solicit bets from me?" The Brit didn't sound like he found it very believable. Neither did I, being that I was the insurance agent in question. I slid the book back onto the shelf and eased up closer, trying to be unobtrusive.

Anya frowned at the English guy as if he were particularly dense. "How would I know? But Xander explained it to me, how the insurance company is betting that you'll live a long time, and you're betting that you'll die young and make a profit. With Buffy being dead and all, you're depressed, so you probably placed the bet intending to make a pot of money, but who is the beneficiary? I mean, if you kill yourself, you win, but you can't collect the winnings."

"Anya, you--I--that is, you've gotten it bollixed up."

"Unless you let a vampire turn you. Spike would do it for you. Then you could probably get the money, but I'm surprised the Watchers' Council would approve of paying people to turn themselves into vampires." She was still worrying at it, seeming genuinely puzzled. It was enough to make a man believe all those dumb blonde jokes. I sneaked a covert look at my target, wondering how he'd respond.

Rupert Giles, over here on a green card obtained by the Council so he could Watch the new Slayer. Before that, he worked for the British Museum. Over here, he played high school librarian until it got blown up a year or two ago. I'd expected a prissy, snooty, bespectacled old man in tweed, not a guy about my own age and height, maybe six-two, wearing black slacks and a dark green sweater just a few shades darker than his eyes. He didn't seem to have so much as a pot belly, while I had quite a few pounds on him. His hair wasn't white, it was sandy, although it was receding. Other than the accent and the occasional stammer, he didn't fit my expectations at all, except that then, just to prove that I wasn't totally off, he fumbled on the table for a pair of glasses.

"First of all, I've no doubt that Spike would quite enjoy turning me, but it isn't going to happen. And you're not my beneficiary, so don't even think of killing me for the money. And--and in any case, that's life insurance, not health insurance. Furthermore, there are rules against deliberately getting yourself killed--you lose all the money if you do."

"So...you're betting that you will get sick? That makes sense, because you're depressed, and depressed humans get ill. And this way you're alive to enjoy the profit. But gambling is illegal."

"No, it's not. So long as one pays taxes for it, one can bet at racetracks or buy lottery tickets, or--or bet that one will get sick."

"And the Watchers are sending someone to make sure you're not faking?"

"No, they're sending someone to make sure I've completed endless tons of paperwork and...well...all right, to make certain I've filed truthful claims."

"He makes sure you don't cheat. Like an umpire."

"Er...yes."

She nodded slowly, processing this. "While he's here, could he look at my throat? It has a tickle in it."

"Please don't show him your throat. He's an insurance agent, not a doctor."

Her frown returned. "If he isn't a doctor, how will he know whether you're really sick or not?"

Giles closed his eyes. "He'll cast a truth spell on me. If you don't want to accidentally reveal your secrets, it's best you go home early tonight."

"Oh! I'm so glad you warned me." She snatched her purse from beneath the counter, then hesitated. "If I go home now, do I still get paid?"

"I believe I shall pay you a bonus if you leave this instant."

She was out the door almost before the little bell above it finished jingling.

Well, now, that was interesting. Standing behind a chubby pitted stone gargoyle that hunched over a small table and contemplated its pot-belly with a glower--at least somebody in the place other than me had a pot belly--I had to shake my head. Maybe it explained that thick stack of medical bills. Anyone so careless about Watcher secrets was bound to be careless about safety issues, too, right? He didn't even have a clue I was in here, listening in.

"Excuse me." The Brit, holding a mug that said KISS THE LIBRARIAN, peeked around the gargoyle with a diffident smile. "The Magic Box is closing now. Unless you're, um, a part of the game, I'm afraid you'll have to, er, leave now."

"The game?"

He shrugged those broad shoulders, looking embarrassed. "Yes, the, um, role-playing game. My clerk, she's a bit eccentric, and she wants me to help her with game. An offshoot of Vampire: The Masquerade, I believe--we've a copy for sale, if you're interested. It's a bit odd, admittedly, but better than giving her a raise, so I do babble mysterious-sounding jargon back at her."

Not bad. Given the sort of clientele he most likely got here, it would probably be believed, most of the time.

I stuck out my right hand. "Harry Borden."

He accepted it. Good grip. Big hands. No attempt to squeeze too hard in a macho display, but at the same time not a timid, clammy hold, either. "I'm sorry, but...?" He tilted his head to one side, his forehead crinkling.

"Insurance salesman?" I prompted.

"Oh! Yes, of course. I'll need to see some I.D."

Rolling back the cuff on my shirtsleeve, I flashed the blue tattoo on my inner wrist. "And yours?"

"I don't have one, actually. That should be in your records."

"Yeah? I suppose it'd be a liability for an active Watcher with a Slayer. Make you a bit of a target."

One corner of his mouth went up, but there was no smile in the green eyes. It didn't bother me. People generally weren't happy to meet with insurance agents. "I...have a personal aversion to tattoos." He lifted the mug. "Can I get you some tea?"

"Coffee."

"Instant?" It sounded like a plea.

"I wouldn't say no. Caffeine is caffeine."

He disappeared into the backroom. Kicking my briefcase out from beneath the gargoyle's perch, I hauled it to the table where the Brit had neatly stacked his papers. Looked like I was going to be inundated with paperwork, which is better than the Watchers who show up footloose and fancy free, seeming surprised that I don't have some super computer link to every hospital and doctor's office in the continental U.S. The American ones are most likely to pull that no-paperwork routine. With a librarian and British Museum employee, I'd probably get everything organized chronologically and then alphabetically.

Either way, I hate paperwork. Sales--which is what insurance is--that's fairly common for an ex-football player, but we usually have to have great secretarial help.

No tattoo, eh? How'd he talk them out of the tattoo-and-secret-handshake routine? Until so many Immortals cottoned on to the existence of the secondary branch of Watchers--thanks so much, Joe Dawson, and see if I keep haggling for those bionic legs for you now--we all sported them on one wrist. Now the youngsters were getting it on their elbows or shoulders or other places that were fairly accessible but not likely to be spotted. Rumor was that one sweet young thing wanted hers on her tit, but I'd have to see it to believe it. Boy, would I like to see it. And some of the Watchers were carrying on about invisible tattoos that would only show up in black light, but, hey, when you were in the field and your Immortals started swinging swords, were you gonna find a convenient psychedelic store nearby to pop in and compare ID?

Well, it wasn't my problem. Right now, my problem was excessive hospital bills. Between Seacouver and Sunnydale, the stats were unGodly--no pun intended, considering this was an active Hellmouth.

He came back with the coffee, steaming in a mug that said SPIKE THE VAMPIRE. Shouldn't that be STAKE THE VAMPIRE? Well, my specialty was the general Watchers, so I wasn't up-to-date on kill methods. After all, there are only so many positions for Watchers who want to pair up with Slayers, even with the early death rate the girls have, whereas for awhile there Immortals were popping up like weeds. Giles having somehow turned out a second Slayer for the first time in centuries got a lot of hopes up, though--doubled everybody's chances.

"I'm not sure I understand why you're here," he said, sitting across from me. "I've gone through the paperwork, and I'm quite sure I've submitted all the required--"

"Oh, listen, the paperwork's not the problem."

"Then what is?"

"The money. What else?"

His eyebrow lifted. "You find Sunnydale medical bills excessive?"

"Individually, no, they're fine. It's the sheer number that's making the fiscal software crash."

"This is an active Hellmouth. Sitting in the library at the Council's headquarters, one is unlikely to incur injuries worse than papercuts or the occasional splinter, but with demons, vampires, and sorcerers occasionally outnumbering the local citizenry--"

I took a sip of coffee. "You turned down the chance to Watch an Immortal while waiting for a Slayer--spent years in libraries and museums. That's fine, for gathering data, but maybe it left you...I dunno...unprepared for work as an active Watcher?"

He didn't like that. "I'm in excellent shape."

"For a man your age."

Those hazel eyes narrowed, but his voice was still cool, that British courtesy they use like a weapon. "We have an exercise room in the store, for the Slayer's training. Perhaps you'd like me to demonstrate my ability to defend myself and my Watcher?"

Might be fun at that. But I wasn't here to beat the pants off some pantywaist Brit with delusions of athleticism. "Look, knowing the moves is one thing. Being prepared and cautious--"

"Come with me, Mr. Borden." I trailed him to the backroom, where he unlocked a closet. "These are the supplies we keep on hand in my flat, and here, and now at the Slayer's home."

I had to whistle. Gauze, bandages, moleskin, tape, tourniquets, slings, basic splints, instant cold packs, herbal medications, ointments, hydrogen peroxide and various over-the-counter medications, blood pressure cuff, tweezers, scissors, mirrors, razor blades, a first aid manual....

"That white powder. Is that cocaine? Antibiotic? Some sort of topical anesthetic?"

"Sugar. Studies show that in dire emergencies, pure granular sugar poured into a penetrating wound can decrease bleeding, promote clotting, and discourage bacteria." A sheepish half-grin briefly lit up his face. "It, um, also comes in handy for some of the coffee and tea drinkers when we run out."

"I never heard of that before."

"I try to stay on top of the latest medical discoveries; one never knows when it will be needed. You might say...I'm prepared." Without waiting for a response, he opened another closet. "Weapons. Again, stored at my flat and the Slayer's home, as well."

This one held a lone shotgun and revolver; the other items were more esoteric, including foils, swords, crossbows and bolts, spears, axes, hatchets, knives of all sizes and shapes, stakes, gallon jugs of holy water, and garrotes. At least, I think that's what those nooses were. Handcuffs in various sizes, and various kinds of rope, were hung from the side walls.

"Cautious?" he prompted.

"Okay, so you did some thinking in advance...."

"I've taken a variety of first aid courses, as have the Slayer and her friends. This shop itself was bought not only to provide me with an income, but to provide us with a ready stock of talismans and herbs for obscure magical rituals, should the need arise."

What could I say? "Sounds like a good idea."

"I thought so."

I followed him back to the table. "But how about not being prepared for fieldwork? Sure, you've studied martial arts, but you're not a Slayer. You're an ordinary human being."

He gave me a look that could fry eggs. "Like firemen, say. Or police constables. Or soldiers. Look here, Mr. Borden, I'm not a--a physical education instructor, some sort of demon-knowledgeable exercise trainer. I've studied warfare and martial arts as practical applications, as a soldier would, not as an intellectual study."

"If going out on patrol increases the danger to you, then the Slayer should be doing it. Or you should only do it with the Slayer." I dug through one of his stacks of paperwork. "Here. You got a crossbow bolt in the butt doing a patrol in place of the Slayer, right?"

"And I was smacked in the head with a--an African statuette by Gwendolyn Post whilst sitting safely inside, poring over old texts," he retorted acidly. "And that was the direct fault of the bloody cow."

"Ms. Post?"

"No, the Council of Watchers! They fired her for dabbling in black magicks, and didn't bother to inform me. Far from complaining about the medical costs, they ought to have paid me a compensatory bonus!"

"They didn't tell you?"

He grimaced. "They claimed they sent a memo." He glowered at the piles on the table. "As you can see, I am meticulous about keeping important paperwork. I have no memo about Ms. Post, who very nearly killed the new Slayer, Faith, as well."

Ouch. Word about that one sure hadn't reached the rank and file. I was starting to get a real uneasy feeling about this mission.

"Well, okay, but what about two, three years ago? The broken fingers, the dislocated--"

"That, too, was unavoidable. I wasn't risking my life on patrol, I was standing in the high school library when the vampires attacked. They were looking for me." He met my stare. "Watchers have a reputation for...knowing...useful things. Again, an unavoidable hazard that goes with the career." He shifted position in the chair. "And as I recall, I signed myself out of hospital early. I always sign myself out early. Surely that saves you a not inconsiderable amount of money."

"Maybe not in the long run. You get--" I checked my notes. "--a spear run through your side, and you don't even spend 24 hours in the hospital? That's gotta lead to infections, other expensive complications."

His right hand involuntarily drifted to his abdomen. "I've been--I've been fine so far. I've been careful."

"Careful? You've been careful? How many times have you been knocked out so far?"

"Only in America," he said defensively.

"What?"

"I didn't have a--a history of being knocked unconscious until I came here. It seems to be a hazard of being an active Watcher. Surely your figures would prove that, statistically speaking--"

The bell above the door tinkled. With an exasperated sigh, the Watcher stood up. "I'm sorry, the shop is--Cecily. Hello."

My, my. The dark-haired woman striding into the shop on three-inch heels was short, but buxom, hiding nothing with the skin-tight jeans and red chenille top. And she was mad. Oh, boy, was she mad.

Rupert," she snapped.

He shied away like a nervous horse. "Um, I didn't miss an appointment, did I? I'm quite sure--almost quite sure--we didn't--"

"Last night."

"We didn't have a date last night." This time he was positive.

"No, we didn't. But you did with someone."

"I beg your pardon?"

"That cute little blonde, remember? Some of the waitresses have been talking, wanted to know if you had a daughter. And you don't. So I dropped by your apartment last night."

"Cecily, I was helping a friend--"

"Helping yourself to a friend, you mean. You had your arms around her. A little moonlight romance. With a teenager." She hauled off and walloped him one on the cheek. He staggered back, threw his arms out, and froze as the shelf of rattles and gourds behind his head swayed. "Bastard."

The shelf quivered, but didn't give way. Cecily spun and stalked out, slamming the door so hard that the bells crashed onto the floor. Hesitantly, the Brit edged away from the shelf, raising one arm in case it decided to crash on his head after all, but everything stayed in place. When he joined me back at the table, his face was pink, and not just from the slap, although for a petite woman she'd had a hell of a swing.

With more dignity than I could have summoned after a scene like that, he said, "Had I, er, had I been knocked unconscious by the shelves, I would've filed for medical treatment."

"Now, you can't use the Watchers to take care of personal problems. If your missus takes a frying pan to your head because you're cheating on her--"

"She's not my 'missus,' she's the owner of the Espresso Pump, where I perform on weekends." He touched his cheek gingerly. "Where I apparently used to perform. As for the young blonde I was with, that was the Buff--the Slayer. She had injured her leg on patrol, and I was helping her inside to take a look at it. I could hardly tell Cecily that, now, could I?"

"No, I guess not."

"And you did tell me I should only patrol with my Slayer, which is exactly what got me into this--this disagreement." He frowned. "Why exactly do you care about the number of times I've been knocked unconscious, given that I never went in hospital for treatment?"

"For one thing, it shows a pattern of careless behavior. For another, repeated concussions and skull fractures might make you more vulnerable to major damage the next time it happens. Head blows are incredibly dangerous. You're lucky that--"

"--I haven't woken up in a coma. Yes, so I've been told."

I consulted my notes again. "Knocked out by the vampires during Homecoming, knocked out by MOO--" I had to wonder if that had anything to do with COW, but figured he wasn't in the mood for humor. "Um, knocked out in a crematory by a vampire, knocked--"

He was really frowning now. "And given that I never filed insurance claims on any of that, how do you even know about it?"

"I was given a list. By my boss."

"Quentin Travers?"

"Sounds British. My boss is a Texan."

"Who takes his orders from someone who takes his orders from someone who takes his orders from Travers." He was smiling, but there wasn't much pleasure in it. "They've done as Buffy asked and let me back into the fold, but this is their petty little revenge, I take it."

I shrugged. "You can't deny that you've run up more medical bills than the average Watcher."

"I'm not an average Watcher. I'm a Watcher with an active Slayer." He shoved his mug aside and ran his hand through his hair. "I could just buy myself a policy along with Anya's...but it's the bloody principle of the thing. I've devoted my life to the Watchers, and they owe me this." Another quick smile. "At least they've sent mosquitoes instead of lions."

"Huh?"

"I'm not annoying enough to qualify for a hit squad yet...just an insurance agent."

Now, I'm used to having people grimace when they see me, because nobody likes an insurance agent, except when we show up with a check to settle a claim. But nobody's ever called me a hitman before. Or even a wannabe junior hitman who only makes it to pesky mosquito status. On the other hand, this was the first time I was ever told to come down hard on piddly-ass charges, and was given a list of dates and events to back it up.

It made me feel more slimy than usual.

Giles pushed his chair back. "Consider me, er, properly reprimanded and chastened for my wasteful ways. I shall, of course, endeavor not to be knocked out, stabbed, tortured, or strung up as a blood sacrifice in the future, no matter how strong the temptation may be." He glanced over his shoulder at the glass storefront. "It's getting dark. You did bring a cross, didn't you? In any case, let me walk you to your--"

"WATCHER!" The door crashed against the wall as it was flung open.

He sighed. "I really ought to've locked that door."

A distinctly less classy English accent hollered, "'Ey, I've just been to Willie's--oh. Who's the transfusion?"

I was wondering if we'd get an eyeful of another of the Watcher's girlfriends, but this was a tall, thin, bleached blond, and his tight black leather pants and tight black cotton tee made it clear he was all male. From the look of him as he strutted to our table, he was also all trouble.

"Watcher's Council," Giles said shortly.

The blond grinned with obvious delight. "In trouble, are you?"

"No, I most certainly am not."

"Sending him out to be sucked dry," he observed, nodding. "Good plan. That'll stop him tattling to the Council. I'd save you the trouble, except for this bloody chip. Told ya ya should've gotten it taken out for me, didn't I?"

The Watcher yanked a silver cross from a drawer and slapped it into my hand. "He's not going to be drained, he's going to go home and tell his boss that my medical bills are reasonable and should be paid."

"Hey!" I objected. "We haven't actually settled this--"

"Take back the cross and shove 'im out the door," the kid in the black leather jacket suggested, looking hopeful.

Elaborately ignoring him, Giles told me, "Send me an itemized list of actual medical bills you question, and I will--at my leisure--write an appropriate explanation for each one. It will come in handy if I decide to press charges at a Watcher conference in the future." To the blond, he said, "Did you need something from the shop, or did you just drop by to annoy me?"

The smile vanished from that angular, high-planed face, and the dark eyebrows lowered over blue eyes. "There's trouble, tonight. Some teeny Satanist wannabes got in a snit over not being invited to a pool party. Word is they've summoned a Seezik Serpent."

Giles fumbled with his pockets. "Use the cell phone. Call Willow. Tell her--"

"There's more."

"There would be, wouldn't there?" He sounded resigned. "Well? Is the new mayor involved somehow? Perhaps there are real Satanists planning to take advantage of these teens and their pathetic attempt at vengeance? Ethan Rayne has returned? Angel has turned and come to join in the fun?"

"Dawnie's at the pool party."

"Oh bloody dear." He sounded disgusted. "What were you thinking of?"

"I told her no! Not after dark, it's too dangerous. She pitched a temper tantrum, then settled down and begged to get an overnight with one of her girlfriends if she couldn't go to the party. I figured I'd hang about the house once it got dark, make sure they didn't leave. But the girlfriend's parents took 'em both to the pool--I saw 'em leave before I could get close enough to stop 'em."

The Watcher lunged from his chair, yanking books from the shelves. "Seezik...Seezik...fire's no good, I seem to remember that, but perhaps...Spike, do you know anything about Seezik Serpents?"

"Y'know, it's a funny thing--they don't seem to hang about the same bars as me. Yer supposed to know all the occult stuff, aren't ya? Otherwise, what use are you?"

"No, I'm just supposed to know where to look for the data...Sasquatch...seal...."

"We don't have time for the Scooby Gang to gather and sort through your books. If you can't find it--"

"No, I've almost...here. Yes. Of course...."

He headed back to the door. "I'll go to the pool, try to haul Niblet out before the kids turn into serpent chum."

"No, wait, grab a #5 kit from the backroom. We'll need it to destroy the serpent."

"We don't have a #5. You'd only gone up to #3, last I heard."

He pushed his glasses up his nose. "I just wrote out the supply list, and...Lovely. I sent Anya home before she could set it up. Listen, there's a list of ingredients on my desk in the loft. Get the gear together, and meet us at the pool. I'll call Willow on the way there."

I opened my coat. "I've got a revolver. Silver bullets."

The blond rolled his eyes. "Oh, that'll come in handy if a werewolf bites the Seezik Serpent and it turns all lycanthropic on us, won't it?"

"You'd best get to your car," the Watcher advised me. "It isn't safe here--this is a public place, and vampires can enter freely. To my infinite dismay."

While the blond guy, making a rude noise, darted up metal stairs to the loft, Giles grabbed a duffel bag and unzipped it. Looking over his shoulder, I spotted such presumably useful items as stakes, a crossbow and bolts, bottles of holy water, and...were those grenades? He hauled what looked like a portable missile-launcher from the closet and stuffed it in the duffel bag.

I said, "Uh-uh. I'm coming with you."

"Don't be absurd."

From the loft, an irritated voice offered, "Let 'im come along, Ripper. Whilst the serpent's munching on him, we can sneak up on it."

"We don't have time for this!"

"It's early days yet. Satanist wannabes won't do anything until the moon's up, I should think," the blond retorted, but he came down those stairs at a run, list in hand.

"I'll be able to report whether you're taking too many risks in the field and too few precautions, if I see you in action," I pointed out, grabbing my briefcase.

He gave it an annoyed look. "I suppose we can count that as a somewhat ineffective weapon. Come on." Heading for the door, he flipped open a cell phone. "Willow? It's Giles. Bring the Buffy--bring Buffy to the pool on Verne Drive. "

I followed him onto the sidewalk, nervously fingering the cross he'd handed to me earlier. Vampires are rare outside of an active Hellmouth, and tend to keep a low profile; I'd never seen one before, unless that blond hood was one. How else to explain his references to draining me? But if he was a vampire, why hadn't the Watcher killed him? Yeah, I know I told him to have his Slayer handle the active work, but surely it went without saying that he could make an exception when a vampire got up close and personal.

"--Seezik Serpent, and it will no doubt be hungry. Quite. Call Xander for me. I suppose it's too much to hope that Dawn would have enough sense to carry a cell phone with her..." To me, he said, "The BMW's 'round the back."

BMW? My respect for him went up a notch again. But something he kept saying nagged at me. "The Buffy?"

"The Slayer." He fumbled with the cell phone. "Um, Buffy is a rather common name in, um, California, and the children have taken to calling her The Buffy or The Buffster to distinguish her from--oof!"

While glancing over his shoulder at me, he had walked face-first into a poor man's version of the blond guy back at the Magic Box. Although the clothes were just as tight, and the attitude just as tough, it just didn't have the same panache. Even the hair, although bleached, was unsuccessful--the black roots were showing, and the hair that should've been white was brassy. At least when he smiled, no fangs showed.

"Pardon me. I'm dreadfully sorry." Sounding embarrassed, Giles tried to slide past him.

Three more guys, these in starter jackets and bandanas, spread out around us.

"What's'a matter? In a hurry?"

The Brit ducked his head, trying out a sheepish little smile. "As a matter of fact, yes. Do you mind...?"

"What if I do?"

"Oh, dear."

Oh, dear? This was the response of a man who studied martial arts as a soldier, not an intellectual? We were in big trouble.

"I'll take that," the leader of the gang told him, slipping the cell phone from his loose grip.

Giles looked dismayed, but didn't object. "If you must. Can we, um, proceed to the parking lot?"

"Sure." He started forward, and the hood shoved him back with a palm to the chest. "Only you gotta pay the toll first."

Giles blinked, drew in a deep breath, and reached into his pocket. "Fine. Mr. Borden, give them your wallet."

I growled, "The hell I will."

Very carefully, he removed his glasses, folded the arms, and slipped them into his pants pocket, where his wallet had been. His voice was soft, but commanding. "Harold, give him your wallet."

There were four of them, and it looked like the Watcher didn't have the spine to be any use, so I reluctantly hauled it out, only to have it slapped out of my hand.

"You ain't got the right attitude," I was told, as all four men moved closer.

"Bloody hell. I don't have time for this!" snapped Rupert Giles, and snapped a speed backfist into the leader's chin, following with a back-leg roundhouse that took him in the belly and hurled him against the Magic Box's wall. If I'd blinked, I would've missed it.

As a matter of fact, right then everybody blinked, the move was so stingingly swift and so completely unexpected. Figuring we were in for it now, I swung the loaded briefcase up, taking another hood on the chin, and slammed it down on the head of the shortest one, before the third guy tackled me.

After that, it got pretty busy. For a while we were taking on two apiece, but the mild-mannered librarian was so good that one of my guys peeled off to help take him down. If I could have just run and tackled him, my remaining opponent would've been dead meat, but it'd been years since I'd been in a fistfight, and he had youth and experience on me. Even so, I got an occasional glimpse of Rupert demonstrating what seemed to be more than passable kung fu moves.

The most impressive was when the badly bleached hood pulled a knife. Despite the close quarters, it seemed like the Watcher slid his left hand under the knife arm as he took a spinning step, butting against the guy's torso, and as his left arm curved around, the left forearm and shoulder locked the guy's elbow. He screamed and dropped the knife. Unfortunately, that's when the third hood jumped in, and Giles went down.

One thing about being so hefty, you can take a fair number of punches before your insides seem to notice it. Once I got close enough, I tried to butt my little bastard into the wall with my head. It drove the breath out of him, but I sure wished I had my old football helmet on.

The knife was on the ground, and so was the wielder, clutching an apparently broken elbow. My former attacker was spread decoratively across some garbage cans. But the Asian-looking one was straddling Giles's body, with both hands around his throat. Panting, I tried to find the revolver in my shoulder-holster, but my hands were so sweaty that it nearly slipped away. Maybe I couldn't shoot the little guy--my unit never even saw combat during the Gulf War, and insurance agents rarely have to kill their clients--but I could sure bust him upside the head with the butt, given half a chance.

Only I didn't need to. A balding bearded man in a flamboyant peach, mango, and strawberry Hawaiian shirt hauled the Asian off Giles and whispered something in his ear.

Gasping for breath, the Watcher hissed urgently, "The cross! Have you got the cross?"

"Well, no, I dropped it during the ruckus. But we're rescued, aren't we?"

Following his gaze, I felt my stomach do backflips. Still holding the hood by the collar, the bald guy turned to grin at us, blood dripping from bared fangs and down his chin. He hadn't been whispering to the Asian after all. His forehead was swollen and lumpy, his eyes yellow. He dropped the Asian, who puddled in on himself like his bones had turned to grits.

A hand reached over my shoulder to pull Giles to his feet, and I twisted my head around to find myself up close and personal with another bumpy face, this one on a crewcut All-American type in a Sunnydale University sweatshirt.

"Thanks for the service, guys. Not often we get our dinner served up so polite-like."

"Yes, well, suppose we leave you to it?" Giles croaked. "Wouldn't want to intrude."

"Oh, there's always room for more." The All-American vampire smiled, fangs grinning ivory in the moonlight.

"Wow. Hey, I know that dude. He hangs around with this little bitty blonde chick." The bald one joined us, licking his chin. He swiped his arm along his chin to soak up the unreachable drops, and licked his arm. "You're her Watcher, right?"

"No! Absolutely not. I'm...er...more of a stalker."

"Huh?"

"She's younger than she looks, and quite...appealing."

"We're talking about the Slayer, right?"

"Slayer? What's that?" He looked genuinely puzzled. "She's just, um, tasty. I'm a--a pedophile."

The vampires exchanged glances, seeming every bit as confused as him. "Say what?"

"Child molester," he said, irked.

The light dawned. "Oh, you're a perv!"

"Quite. So, really we're--we're all on the same team. Fellow villains, as it were."

The Sunnydale student drew himself up indignantly. "I'm no pervert, I'm a vampire!"

"Have it your way," Giles sighed. In one smooth move, he drew a wooden stake from the back of his slacks and drove it upward under the breastbone.

The college student gaped at him, stared down at his impaled chest, and then crumpled into a cloud of dust that blew across the alley and into the parking lot.

"Hey, dude! You can't do that!"

"Watch me," Giles said through gritted teeth, and kicked like a Chorus Line dancer in the finale.

The bearded vampire flickered from existence in the middle of a snarl.

I stuttered, "Wh-Wh-What the hell--?"

"One nice thing about vampires, they keep down the gang population," he muttered, and picked up the duffel bag and dropped cross, passing the latter to me. "Try not to lose this," he advised.

"How did you...?"

He thrust out his left foot, showing me the thin pointed piece of wood sticking from the toe, then scuffed the shoe on the ground, making the wooden stake retreat as he winced. "Ouch. Xander made this for me. Inspired by a James Bond movie, I believe. It's a clever idea, but it has flaws. In fact, you probably have a question on your list about the bill from the only other time I used it--it tends to leave splinters, and one I couldn't get out became infected." Ruefully, he looked down at his feet. "Frankly, I'd prefer to throw these shoes away, but I don't like to hurt Xander's feelings."

With a shrug, he looked up and passed me my wallet, then took his from the body of the leader of the gang, pocketing it with the cell phone. The limp was barely noticeable as he gestured me toward the passenger side of a gorgeous scarlet BMW, but he was clutching his lower left side, where the spear wound presumably was. So much for being careful.

"Put on your seatbelt, please. I'll need to break the speed limit."

Ohh-kay, maybe he IS James Bond. He's got the accent, the fighting skills, the car....

"Who are all these people? Xander, Willow, Dawn, Scooby--"

The tires squealed as we pulled out of the parking lot. "Immediately after moving to Sunnydale, Buffy made some friends who ended up helping us battle evil. That would be Xander and Willow. Dawn is...the Slayer's younger sister. They call themselves the Scooby Gang, or sometimes the Slayerettes. Something to do with a movie or television show, I think."

"Is that allowed?"

He shrugged. "Rules are written by men on the sidelines. In actual combat, one tends to throw the rule book away."

I like fast cars, but I was battling the urge to shut my eyes as we took intersections like someone in a car chase movie. I expected to hear police sirens at any moment. Speaking of which.... "Back there--shouldn't we call the police?"

"I don't think any of them was too badly injured to get away, now that the vampires are eliminated. Except for the one that was killed, of course." Suddenly angry, he pounded the steering wheel with the palm of one hand. "I should have been able to take that--that kung-fu wannabe. My God, I must be getting old."

"But--"

Getting himself under control again, he flashed me a crooked half-grin before, thank God, returning his gaze to the road. "The last thing one does during an emergency is call the Sunnydale Police. Quite apart from the power of denial, they also were under the control of a corrupt and villainous mayor for many years. Although the mayor is dead, they've continued the policy of looking the other way whenever possible. No one in political office wants to lose the next election as a result of announcing that the city is infested with demons and vampires. It's also quite bad for property values, I'd imagine."

"But--"

"If it's noticed at all, what happened back there will be written off as a gang fight."

"Doesn't the Council send you help? Some sort of battle team?"

"The Slayer is my battle team. In my case, I'm lucky enough to also have the Scooby Gang. Who should be meeting us shortly at the Wilkins Memorial Pool. Ironic, really, since Mayor Wilkins died when he became a giant serpent during the Slayer's graduation ceremony, but of course he wasn't a Seezik Serpent."

We rocketed around a corner on two wheels as he squinted at the road. Where the hell were his glasses?

"Is it always like this?" I quavered.

"No, not really. Generally the vampires keep the gang membership virtually nonexistent. And except for running the Magic Box and singing at the Espresso Pump--and patrolling with Buffy, of course--I try not to be about the streets after dark, which reduces the danger. Even my dating is largely confined to daylight." He scowled at the road. "Which partially explains my nonexistent social life. At least Cecily worked nights and preferred to...er...visit during the day."

And thanks to his job as Watcher, Cecily was no longer an option. Yeah, he really was having a great day, wasn't he?

He said rather sadly, "I gather the rest of the North American Watchers don't generally have days like this?"

"Hell, no. Mostly it's ordinary health bills--asthma, high blood pressure, heart attacks." Which I thought I might have in a minute if he didn't slow this Beemer down. "Above-average number of sprains and broken bones, of course. Some splinters and rat and spider bites from hiding to watch Immortals duel. They know to keep an eye out for vampires and all, but still...."

"They sit in front of computers, or on the telephone, tracking their Immortal, reading other Watchers' journals." His voice was wistful. "It must be...quite peaceful."

Until this educational visit to Sunnydale, I wouldn't have agreed, but now I could see his point.

"Ah! Here we are. Mr. Borden, perhaps you should remain in the car. It's quite safe, so long as you don't lean out a door or window--unless a vampire has been invited into it, it can't get inside."

"There'll be vampires here, too? Not just this serpent?"

"Depends on whether they've heard about the summoning yet," Giles said vaguely, getting out of the car and reaching back for the duffel bag.

Keeping a firm grip on the cross, I got out of the car. I didn't have any magical powers, and I didn't have any experience dealing with magical creatures, but I was as much a part of the organization as Rupert Giles, and damned if I'd let him tackle this alone. We'd just see if silver bullets had any effect on a Seezik Serpent, lycanthropic or not. Hell, if nothing else, I could flail at the serpent thing with my briefcase.

Given how dangerous the night must be in Sunnydale, I was shocked by how many people were congregated around the Wilkins Memorial Pool, not to mention by the fact that the pool was named after a man who turned into a giant serpent. Didn't these people have any instinct for self-preservation? Granted, the parents at least had sense enough to look depressed, but that might just be because they were chaperoning rowdy teenagers. The kids themselves were shrieking, but with excitement rather than fear. Most of them were wearing swimsuits, although some of the girls were hiding behind towels or nearby shrubs.

If they hadn't all been basically tadpoles, some of the nubile bodies on display might have been appealing. As it was, they were basically congregating by sex, with the girls whispering and giggling in groups, and the boys shouting and belly-flopping and splashing, and everyone involved trying to hide pimples, newly developed body parts, and interested glances at their opposite numbers.

At least the self-sorting by sex made it easier for us to locate the Slayer's sister. She turned out to be a small, skinny, very pretty girl in a black bikini that probably belonged to her older sister. Apparently no longer so confident about exposing so much flesh, she had spread most of her very long brown hair over her chest and stomach, and was conveniently half-hidden by a beach chair. As she spotted the Watcher threading his way through the noisy crowd--politely apologizing to everyone, even the boy who slapped his buttocks with a wet towel--her blue eyes filled with horror. Convinced that there must be some horrific demon behind us, I spun around, but apparently she was simply panicking at being humiliated in front of her friends. Or the boys.

"Dawn--"

"Go away!" she screamed in a whisper.

"Dawn, you must go home. Now. There's--"

"It's just a party! Aren't I allowed to have fun? Just once, can't I be--can't I just be normal?"

He glanced over his shoulder at the pool, which still looked fairly normal, given that it was infested by pre-pubescents and pubescents. "We'll discuss this later, Dawn. Xander! Xander, will you see that Dawn gets home safely?"

"So, like, you brought the Scooby Gang to make me leave?" she demanded. Her lower lip stuck out. "Well, I'm not going. You can't make me." Her voice rose. "I don't have to listen to you. You're not my father, you know!"

He looked stricken, somehow, just for an instant, and then remote and formally British, the way he'd been when with me when this crazy evening started. "I care very much for you, Dawn, regardless of your feelings toward me. In any case, until you move in with Hank Summers, you owe me respect, if nothing else."

The guy he'd summoned, dark-haired, about 5'11, shook his head. "Way to go, Dawnie. You're throwing a temper tantrum because Giles won't let you get eaten by a giant snake?"

"What snake?"

Screams erupted behind us.

"My guess would be that one there in the center of the pool," the young man said, "but that's just my opinion. Your mileage may vary."

Big blue eyes darted from the pool to Giles's face. That lower lip started trembling. "I--I didn't mean it like that, Giles, I just--I'm sorry!"

"Offering an apology is belated civil behavior," he said quietly. "Civil behavior is meant to prevent the hurt feelings that apologies cannot erase."

Now the tears came cascading down; she turned and ran away. Xander followed her.

"It's been...well, quite a terribly stressful summer for all of us," Rupert told me, as if compelled to explain. "Her, uh, her mother died just a few months ago."

"Ripper! Come get your sodding kit!"

He said hastily, "Don't tell Spike that Dawn is safe, or he won't help us."

"Spike...?"

The noise level was about the same, but now everyone was running away from the pool in a mindless flood of hysteria. I was almost flattened by a woman who could've been a star tackle for Notre Dame, but a petite blonde girl put one hand under my arm and lifted me into the air, over the broad's head, and back to the ground.

"Hi!" she chirped, tilting her head to one side. "I'm Buffy, the Vampire Slayer! I'm on patrol!"

"Are you going to kill the Seezik Serpent?"

"I don't know." She turned to the short, slender red-haired woman beside her. "Am I?"

"Yes! Now!"

"This is Willow. She's my best friend. She's gay now," the Slayer informed me cheerfully. "I have to go kill the serpent. Bye!" She vaulted over the picnic table in front of us, and was gone.

The red-haired paused to give me a confused glance. "Who are you?"

"Giles's health insurance agent," I said, and shrugged, knowing the middle of a battle was no time for a more detailed explanation.

"You're early, aren't you? Never mind."

Yanking free the crossbow slung on her back, she darted after the Slayer.

The most notable thing about the Serpent was its silence. After all those horror movies, I expected it to be roaring, sort of dragon-like. But it was silent, except for an occasional hissing sound, like a long deep exhalation of breath--an angry hiss, like an exasperated human letting his breath out in a sigh.

No, I take it back, that wasn't the most notable thing. It wasn't the size, either, although it was as tall as a building when it reared its thin, writhing body out of the water in search of someone to eat. No, the most notable thing had to be its stench. It smelled like a bad cold, all phlegm and infection, and its greenish-yellow skin glistened as if coated with muck. If I had to give it a name, I'd likely call it a Booger Beast, not a Seezik Serpent.

How exactly was a little bitty thing like the Slayer supposed to tackle that? She was meant to stake vampires. A stake would be less than a splinter to a monster that size.

Although I doubted it would do any good, I leveled my pistol and snapped off every shot I had. At the same time, a crossbow twanged, and the Slayer leaped forward, stake in hand. The bullets didn't even make it twitch. The crossbow bolt slid down the outside of its slimy throat and vanished in the pool's depths. And the serpent's head darted forward, its long forked tongue wrapping around the Slayer and whipping her into its gaping maw.

"Spike! Empty the salt into the pool!" Rupert stood up, the bazooka balanced on his shoulder, and fired as he shouted. The missile thundered across the pool and slammed into the serpent's body, driving it back, and it dropped beneath the water again. "NOW!"

Cursing, the bleached-blond ripped a giant sack of salt from a duffel bag, tore it in half, and hurled the contents over the surface of the pool.

For a moment, it looked like the bazooka had done the trick, and I breathed a prayer of thanks. But, Christ, how was he going to react to losing his Slayer like that? Everyone connected with the Watchers knew that this was the tightest-bonded Watcher/Slayer pair of the last century, and Buffy Summers had just been eaten right in front of his eyes. If he'd fired that baby sooner--

But no. The water roiled up again, the serpent's head burst out of it, and it sneezed. I swear to God. The scum-green eyes closed, the head reared back, and it sprayed us with thick, ropy mucus...and the Slayer tumbled out of its open mouth and rolled across the concrete.

"Oops!" she said, bouncing back to her feet. There wasn't a fleck of blood anywhere in sight.

Almost as if it knew who had poisoned the pool, the serpent swung toward Spike, and if it hadn't sneezed again, it would have bitten him in two. When its dinner-plate-sized eyes closed in the middle of the sneeze, he leaped forward to the one place the serpent couldn't reach him--its own head. Finished with the sneeze, it snuffled around the pool edge, looking for him.

"Kill the bloody thing, you bastards!" he howled, slipping inexorably down the slimy length of the monster. A few more feet, and it would be able to crane its head around and eat him.

Still clutching the bazooka, Rupert fumbled in Spike's abandoned bag, yanking out a book. Distracted, the eel-like thing made a grab at him, and he promptly fired. The missile rocketed down its throat. It disappeared under the water again, taking Spike with it.

"Willow, toss this to Spike when he comes back up."

She dropped the useless crossbow and caught the duffel bag. "Can I help you do the spell?"

"Just get this to Spike. He has to draw--"

We were all splashed with a salty tidal wave as the serpent re-emerged, followed by slick phlegm as it sneezed again. Although I managed to stay upright, Giles was washed up against the picnic table, losing the bazooka but still gripping the book for dear life. When I hauled him to his feet, he had trouble straightening up; he was shielding his belly with his elbow again.

"Spike, catch!" Willow cried.

"This is no time to play ball, dammit, get me off of here! In one piece!"

"Chalk," Giles gasped. He scraped mucus from the book and held it up so the petite redhead could see a picture. "On its head."

She nodded grimly. "Spike, if you don't draw this on its head with chalk, we can't kill it, and it'll eat you up, so CATCH!"

This time when the head snaked out, aiming for the redhead, the Slayer hurled herself feet-first at its snout, knocking its aim off. Spike leaned sideways, holding out one arm, and the redhead slung the bag at him, somehow slinging the handle over his arm.

Rupert turned a page in the book. "Schmoon, Freberg, et Daws...." he intoned in some weird language. Magic, I guess.

Maybe my vision was blurred by the gobs of mucus, but it seemed like the blond guy's fingernails grew two inches, and the serpent undulated in pain as he sunk those claws into its hide, anchoring him in place. "I'm a writer, not a bleedin' artist...draw what? A pentagram?"

"...kricfalusi...squeet...."

"It's the top half of a closed half-circle, under sort of a star, only not. Not angles, just straight--oh, no!"

The forked tongue wrapped around her, cutting off her terrified squeak. Rupert dropped the book, breaking off in mid-spell, but before he could make some sort of suicidal rush--only, as battered as he was, it would be a suicidal crawl--the Slayer darted in. Gripping the yellow-green tongue in both hands as it tried to retract, she ripped it in two and yanked hard, spinning the redhead free of its clammy hold.

Even while she was staggering to a dizzy halt, the nearly-consumed girl was holding up crossed forefingers in an X. "Like this, only with more lines!"

Beside me, Rupert was squinting at the fallen book, trying to read it, apparently unable to bend over enough to grab it. I picked it up and held it for him, even though I know from nothing about magic and my basic inclination was to run like hell. Every time he said one of those strange-sounding words, the hairs on my arms stood at attention.

"...as drawn by the creator, in the name of the most-righteous Three-Headed Threep...." he rasped.

In agony, the mutilated serpent thrashed about the pool, soaking us again, and I learned that Seezik Serpent blood is a yellowish brown. At least the blood didn't add to the already revolting stench; nothing could make that worse than it already was.

Spike rode out its throes like it was a bucking bronco, the duffel bag slapping repeatedly against its body. When the flurry of convulsions finally slowed, he stuck a cardboard box in his mouth with his free hand so he could open it, pull out a piece of chalk, and make a rough sketch, still clutching the serpent with the other hand. Could chalk even leave a mark on that slimy surface? Maybe it was only the act of drawing that mattered, not the mark that was left? I didn't know a damned thing about magic.

"Cease ill intent!" Rupert chanted. He drew a sigil in the air with his left hand. "Cease all, thou Seezik Serpent!"

Everyone stopped, holding their breath.

The serpent kept on writhing.

"Something's--this isn't right," he muttered anxiously, frowning.

"Spike, didn't you draw it like I said? Did you leave something out?"

Spike gasped, "You come up and do it, bint!"

"Blue?" Rupert squinted at the Seezik's head, then yelled, "Why did you draw it in blue?"

Swaying with the serpent's jerks, he pulled out another piece of chalk. "You want pink? Green?"

"Chalk! I said to use chalk!"

"This is sodding chalk!"

"Chalk-colored chalk! If I wanted decorator colors, I'd've asked for them!"

A rainbow of colored chalk sprayed into what little water remained in the pool.

We were all so focused on Spike and the serpent's head that I still don't have any idea how Rupert knew I was about to be splattered against the pavement. There was an instant when I realized there was a dark shadow falling over me, blotting out the sky, and then he was tackling me, hurling me out of the way. The tail flopped on the pavement, cracking the concrete, then swiped sideways, slamming into Rupert. His body surfed along the salt water and phlegm, only stopping when it hit a low stone wall.

"Giles!"

"Hey! You can't do that! He's my Watcher!"

Outraged, the Slayer jumped onto the tail, ineffectually pummeling it with both fists. More practically, Willow snatched up the bazooka and fired another rocket into the serpent's arching body. With a flourish, Spike completed yet another star-shaped drawing...and the serpent shrank to the size of an eel, vanishing beneath the water with a last miserable sneeze. Spike and the Slayer stood up; the remaining water only came to their knees.

"Catch that!" he told the little blonde. "I fancy a bit of grilled eel for old time's sake."

"Eewww," Willow said faintly, and flung the bazooka aside. "Giles?"

With admirable timing, sirens began to wail. Now that the danger was past, the authorities were on their way.

Rupert was sprawled limply in a puddle of water, unconscious, sopping wet, his green sweater torn, one shoulder at a funny angle. There was a long jagged cut running down the right side of his head, and beneath it his face was scraped raw.

"Help me get him to his car," Willow told me urgently.

I grabbed her arm. "I don't think we should move him. The way he hit that wall...there might be broken bones."

"But he's bleeding!"

"Head wounds always bleed like an oil well gushing," I reassured her, and it was true, but this looked like a bad one. Stitches for sure.

The Slayer and Spike crawled out of the pool, making squishing liquid noises with every move. She was clutching the shrunken eel-thing in one hand. Spike sniffed once, and his face transformed into the same horrible shape as the alley vampires had: bumpy forehead and nose, golden eyes, and sharp gleaming fangs. Dropping to his knees across from Willow, he licked his lips, smiled ferally, and bent over, running his tongue along Rupert's bloody cheek.

"Jesus Christ!"

Utterly sickened, I tried to jerk him away, but the little redhead threw her arms out, blocking me. "N-no, don't. It's okay."

"Okay? That's--that's a vampire, Godammit! It's evil!"

"Willow, I don't think Giles would like this," the Slayer said dubiously.

The vampire pulled Rupert into his lap, cradling him close, mouth closing on the jagged head wound. I could hear faint sucking noises.

"We--we won't tell him, okay? Nobody tells him when he wakes up!" Willow glanced up at me, green eyes begging for my approval. "Okay, so Spike's a vampire, and, yeah, he's kinda evil, too, sometimes, but he can't hurt anyone. Not anyone human, I mean." She broke off to snap, "Spike! No teeth!"

The vampire half-shrugged, not lifting its head. It was making a soft sound of pleasure, like someone finishing dessert after a good Thanksgiving dinner.

"Of--of course, if someone else hurts you, he can drink the spilled blood, like now...and I know it would probably really freak Giles out, but--see? Spike's using a sort of sealant in his saliva, instead of making the blood come fast, so he'll stop the bleeding, which is a good thing, right? 'Cause Giles is losing a lot of blood there."

"Mostly to that bloodsucker!"

"No, see, the wound's...it's closing. You can stop now, Spike, all right?"

"You couldn't settle for sugar? A pressure bandage?"

"Sugar?" she said blankly, then her eyes widened in alarm. "Spike!" She hauled off and walloped him across the face. "Spike, that's enough!"

Reluctantly, he drew back, still holding the unconscious body close. Blood was dripping from one corner of his mouth, and he licked it up, eyelids half-closing. I wanted to stake the S.O.B., but the girl was right--the cut had closed, looking almost healed. On the other hand, I could swear Rupert looked paler than before.

"God, that was good. Tastes like tea and adrenaline."

"Spike, shut up!" Willow dragged Rupert from the vampire's lap to her own, stroking his wet hair back from his forehead, examining the closed wound.

The Slayer seemed puzzled. "So...it's okay for vampires to drink Giles's blood?"

"No!"

"Okay. But it's okay for Spike to drink Giles's blood?"

"No! If he ever tries, you stop him."

"But--"

"We'll talk about it later, Buffy."

Buffy shrugged, apparently deciding not to worry about it, and thrust the wriggling eel thing at the vampire. "Here, Spike, a present from me, 'cause you're my honey-bun."

"He's your WHAT?"

Spike's forehead and fangs receded. "Look, I told you not to call me that anymore--"

I for damn sure would've probed into that little revelation--the vamp not only works with Giles and drinks his blood at will, he also dates the Slayer whose sole purpose is killing vampires?--but cops and paramedics were swarming all over the place.

"I'll go check on the Niblet, be sure she's okay," Spike muttered, and slouched away, leather squeaking damply as he left.

Willow said nervously, "He's...he's kinda hard to stop when the bloodlust hits. One time when he was living in Giles's apartment, and Giles cut his face while shaving--"

"That vampire LIVED WITH THE WATCHER?"

"Um, guys, we need help here, our friend is hurt!" she said loudly.

I made sure I was the one riding in the ambulance with Rupert. He'd saved my life, both from the vampires outside the shop and from the tail of the Seezik Serpent; the least I could do was make sure none of his 'friends' finished him off before he made it to the hospital.

How did the poor guy survive this crap, anyway? Away from his home, no social life to speak of, raising a Slayer who was a few bricks shy of a load right through the teen years and keeping her alive on an active Hellmouth--for over five years--while being disrespected by her disobedient little sister, with vampires who wanted to drink his blood and helpers willing to let them, and with the organization his family had supported for generations not only maliciously harassing him but--from what he'd said about the Post problem--actively sabotaging him.

Once we reached the ER, I was going to make a few phone calls, starting with Dawson in Seacouver. It was time the secondary branch of Watchers paid a little attention to how the Slayer's Watcher was treated. The Council went through a big revamping--you should pardon the expression--a few years back...but maybe it hadn't been quite big enough.

I snagged a paramedic's wrist. "Hey. You guys call ahead. He gets a private room, and he's staying overnight."

"Wait and see what the doctor says. It's a hospital, not a hotel."

"Not the way this guy uses it," I told him. A thought struck me. Maybe I could still cut some corners on the bills here. "Hey. By any chance, do you give frequent user discounts...?"

--copyright Jane A. Leavell 10/30/01


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