Monday, December 15, 2003

 

 

The elevator dinged pleasantly, doors sliding back smoothly. Mornings were Angel’s favorite time of day: before all the problems started, before he remembered just how much work was piled onto his desk. When it smelled of coffee and the blood Harmony always had waiting, and people were still sleepy and cheerfully greeting each other ‘hello’.

Angel checked on the tree first, relieved to see not one drop of blood or viscera still clinging to it. He was confident that Wesley, at least, would figure out who had done it, and then he’d happily pound the culprit into a bloody pulp, thereby taking care of the problem entirely. And he’d be able to do it without Lorne knowing.

Sounded like a damned fine Christmas to Angel.

Turning around to greet one of the many people bustling through the main lobby, Angel let the cheerful words die unsaid. Underneath all the beeswax and nutmeg was the smell of fear and distrust. No one would meet his eyes, and when Angel got annoyed and forced a secretary to say hello to him, her scent was nervous and her face was totally blank.

That was unexpected. As he progressed deeper into the office, the stares got more and more hostile, almost daring him to prove. . . something. Attempts at speaking provoked one-word answers and even Harmony seemed curiously subdued as she handed him his morning mug of blood. It was frustrating, and confusing, because Angel had been congratulating himself just recently on starting to win over the employees.

Apparently not. It was way, way too early in the morning to deal with this, which meant his first stop wasn’t his own office.

“Ah,” Wesley said by way of greeting, already hard at work behind his desk. “I take it you’ve noticed?”

“The distrust and suspicion? Hard to miss. Do we have any idea why?”

Wesley smiled and casually mentioned, “I think I’m going to have to give Carol, that’s my secretary, a raise. And before you ask, she’s been completely vetted. I trust her.”

“Oh?”

Gesturing to the sheet resting on the desk, Angel picked it up and read it briefly. Then a second time, much more closely. “Huh. Can I use your phone?”

* * * *

The gauntlet of suspicious stares as he left Wes’s office was just as disturbing as before, but this time, Angel didn’t bother trying to meet anyone’s eyes. He was a man on a mission, so of course the expected distraction appeared ten feet outside his office.

“I did warn you.” Arrogant, self-confident, and with a sing-song ‘I told you so’ underneath the words. Eve. Perfect.

“You need a bell,” Angel grumbled, stalking inside.

Eve followed, settling herself onto the edge of his desk. Her tiny, enigmatic smile told Angel he’d misstepped somewhere. “I told you there was going to be an employee problem, Angel. You chose not to believe me.”

“No, you told me that spreading holiday cheer was going to cause a problem for a firm that traditionally considered this the ‘gloomiest time of the year’, end quote. This doesn’t look like a reaction to Lorne’s good will towards man.”

“But it’s a problem, Angel,” Eve insisted, “one you’ve shown no interest in addressing. You know what they say about forest fires.”

“Get a lot of water and you can put them out?” Angel leaned back in his chair, fingering a message with casual confidence. “This is the first time it’s been a problem, Eve. Kindly wait until I’ve attempted to do something, before tossing around forest-fire metaphors? Especially when I doubt you’ve ever dirtied your hands in something so common as a fire. Ah, Fred, there you are.”

Momentarily startled at the greeting, Fred cut her eyes towards Eve and then plastered on a simpering smile. Closing the door behind her, she handed over a one-page sheet. “I can add the toxicology reports as well, if you think that’ll help. Not that that many people can read a tox report, but in the interest of fairness. . .”

“No, I think this’ll be fine, Fred. Wesley briefed you on the rest?”

Her hair, curlier than ever, bounced as she nodded furiously. “He’ll have the results back this afternoon.”

“Thanks, Fred.”

She waved goodbye, scooting out around Eve’s very palpable presence, again closing the door behind her.

“You know Eve, if you want to take credit for things, you should really understand what is going on, first. This,” he waved the sheet of paper, “is an explanation signed by several people—including your old head of the science department—that the viscera found on the tree was, in fact, pig. Not human—which would be what everyone’s so worried about, in case you missed that particular rumor. The memo’s going to be circulated to all departments, and if anyone has a problem, well, you heard Fred. They’re welcome to look at the toxicology reports.”

Eve didn’t lose  one iota of her arrogance, but Angel could smell a thin undercurrent of nervousness. Better than morning coffee, that.

She got to her feet, putting a little distance between herself and Angel. “Nice work. Your team moves fast.”

No, Wesley’s secretary was going to get those bonuses she wanted, but Eve could find that out herself. “Thanks. You know, that means a lot coming from you.”

“I’m sure. Now, about who’s done this. . .”

“Oh, not to worry. I’ve got my best detectives working on that right now,” Angel boasted, careful not to mention that Spike was one of those ‘best detectives’. Hopefully, he’d never hear about the blatant exaggeration. He’d probably believe it, and Spike channeling Philip Marlow was too horrible to contemplate. Then with a winning smile, Angel administered the killing blow, “If you want, I’ll cc you onto the reports?”

Who knew that office lingo could be so very humiliating? The smell of burnt tires trailed after Eve as she left, but Angel didn’t call for Harmony to open the door and let in a little air. Right then, it was better than the smell of morning coffee mixed with blood.

* * *

When, after their lunch break, Wesley and Gunn returned to their respective offices, Spike was already behind Wesley’s desk, going through a stack of files.

“Those are mine, thank you very much,” Wesley said, allowing his irritation to filter through. Resolving to lock his office next time, he reclaimed his files and shooed Spike out of the chair.

“Just checking if there’s anything from the lab yet,” the vampire explained.

“This is the one,” Wesley said and handed him the report. “It’s not much,” he summed up the science team’s finding. “The business card is one of Angel’s, bearing his finger prints, yours, and those of a third person, presumably your Mr. Sanchez. The envelope yields no new prints either. We use the same envelopes here for internal messages and for paychecks. In fact, according to this,” Wes tapped the file Spike was scanning while listening, “it actually came out of this building.”

“What about the handwriting?” Gunn said, leaning against the door frame.

“There’s a preliminary graphologist’s report attached to the file. The usual disclaimers about how they don’t have a lot to work with, because the letters are blockletters, and because the writer of that address may have consciously tried to conceal his normal hand. Hmmm, male, in his forties or fifties, educated. Possibly European.”

Spike snorted, disgusted. “Well, that was useful. Means you and me both are suspects, don’t it?”

Wesley raised an eyebrow, staring steadily at Spike.

“Oh, come off it! I didn’t do it and you bloody know it.” Spike didn’t bother to add anything in his defense, just stared right back at Wesley, arms folded and jaw thrust out. “Should be me giving you the damned eye, shouldn’t it?”

Snickering, Gunn waved a hand between the contest of wills. “Relax. We know you didn’t do anything, Spike. You aren’t a good enough actor to pull that kind of surprise off.”

“Hey!”

* * *

The forensics office was quiet, almost everyone still at lunch or discussing the memo the CEO had issued. Gossip seemed to be leaning towards trusting the information, since the new boss hadn’t lied to his employees, yet, and no one was missing from work, now that the reindeer had been turned back into people.

A lone figure sat at his desk in the back, adding the finishing touches to a report he was going to deliver to his boss in a few moments. Harold was a fairly new employee, and while he wasn’t too certain about the current CEO and his staff, he had a good idea what his direct superiors were like and wanted to make sure everything was perfect. He liked his job, and the glowing praise he’d received for analyzing a simple handwritten note meant he had a chance to really prove to his superiors that he could go far.

“Excuse me?”

Glancing up, Harold smiled a politely. “Yes? Can I help you?”

“Yes, please. Just hold still a moment.”

Light flashed in a green-and-red swirl, the sharp scent of peppermint overpowering the smell of ink that always hung over the whole room. A few seconds later a low siren sounded over the intercom, a female voice saying, “Unauthorized spell-casting on level fourteen. Unauthorized spell-casting on level fourteen.”

“Oh, bugger. Did they have to be quite so fast?” Hastily penning a note, the spellcaster picked up the  papers on Harold’s desk and hurried out of the room.

Within ten minutes, the entire forensics department was being waved away while Wesley and Spike both peered at a small, fake Santa Claus, dressed in a fur-trimmed red suit, arms and head moving mechanically as it boomed out a cheery ‘ho, ho, ho’.

“That’s just sick,” Spike said.

“Yes, they are rather annoying.” Wesley carefully removed the note, sealing it in a clear plastic bag before reading it. “‘Ho, ho, ho’? The handwriting is the same as before,” he added, handing it over to Spike.

No one noticed the glassy blue eyes of the Santa doll moving.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

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