The Case of the Missing Santas. 1

Part 1: Wednesday, December 22, 1999

“What’s this?” Angel’s voice startled Cordelia.

Standing atop his desk, her balance was precarious, at best. Damn vampire, how could he be that big and still move around the place in complete silence?

“Jeez, Angel, stalk much?” She glared at him, wobbling on her heels, and losing her grip on the large piece of tinsel she was trying to attach to the ceiling. It coiled to the floor like a gaudy snake.

Standing, hands in pockets, in the doorway of the shadowy office, he looked more annoyed than when she’d dropped peanut butter in his bed. “What are you doing?”

“Well, duh, putting up the Christmas decorations,” she said, accepting his hand, and descending with as much grace as her skirt would allow. His deepening scowl indicated he could see the little crescent-shaped dents her stilettos had made in the mahogany desktop. Obviously he was unaware how trendy distressed wood was.

She moved to retrieve the tinsel, but Angel planted his boot on it. “Can we not?” he said, pointing towards the main office, where the dusty mid-afternoon sunlight filtered in slanting beams through the windows, causing a myriad of decorations to sparkle and shimmer.

“Angel, just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate. This is my first Christmas in LA and I won’t have you brooding all over it.” Cordelia was pleased how steady her voice was, when her insides felt more like jello in an earthquake. This was going to be harder than she thought.

Last Christmas she was skiing in Aspen, wearing designer everything, getting bundles of money from her parents, and wasting altogether too much energy hating Xander Harris. It may have seemed like the worst Christmas ever, what with the broken heart and the hole in her guts, but this year felt twenty times worse. Fifty, maybe.

This Christmas she had no money, no family, and no friends — well, none that were actually alive.

And there it was again — the grief. Simmering under the false cheer, threatening to burst out at the worst possible moment. Her chest ached and her throat closed up. Damn you Doyle for leaving — and for leaving the visions. An ornament or a piece of jewellery would have been way more appropriate.

Maybe Angel sensed her melancholy, because he let out a long, audible sigh. “Christmas is just another reason for stores to con people into buying things they can’t afford, to give to people they don’t even like.”

Okay, Angel, way to spread the cheer. No, dammit, she would not let this get her down. They were going to have a nice Christmas, even if it killed her. And not even Angel could stand in the way of Cordelia Chase on a mission.

She tugged at the tinsel. “Listen to you, Ebenezer. Christmas is not just about presents. It’s also about eating yourself silly and drinking way too much. Though in your case, that’s the same thing, isn’t it? What do vampires do at Christmas? Drink a turkey? Can the undead get salmonella?”

Angel lifted his foot. That was easier than she thought. Round one to Queen C.

“Hello? Angel? Corde — oh there you are.” Wesley’s head appeared around the office door.

“Wesley.” Angel nodded towards the skinny Englishman.

“Hey, Wesley, how are the rogue demons?” Cordelia smiled, knowing her mockery of his self-imposed title drove him nuts.

“As I explained before, they’re not… Oh, super, Christmas decorations! May I help?”

“Give me strength,” Angel muttered. He took a deep breath, then another, and motioned to the doorway, his mouth setting in a grim line. “You can do what you like out there, but my office is a Christmas-free-zone.”

“Fine, party-pooper. Wesley and I will aaah!” Cordelia threw the piece of tinsel to the floor, one hand flying to her face. Oh, God, here it came. Brain-bender the second. And it was a hell of a lot more painful than brain-bender the first.

“We’ll what?” Wesley frowned. “Smack ourselves in the head?”

“No — she’s having a vision.” Angel’s voice became fuzzy and far away. Screaming pain cracked through her skull, the pressure building and pounding behind her eyes. They were gonna pop out, she was sure of it. Angel’s fingers closed over her shoulders, his touch barely registering in her howling brain as she crumpled to the floor.

Then came the images — fast and blurred, and it was hard to make them out. The place she saw was almost comforting in its familiarity. But something was very, very wrong. Cordelia’s heart hammered in her throat, her hands sweating and shaking, despair wrenching at her gut.

“Good heavens, it looks rather dramatic,” Wesley’s voice grew louder in her ears as the vision began to fade.

Cordelia opened her eyes gingerly. Angel was kneeling over her, his face contorted with about as much concern as she’d ever seen him express. She sucked in a deep breath. “Please tell me I’m not drooling.”

“No, no drool.” He reached up to his desk and caught a tissue between his fingers. “But, there’s — a thing…” He pointed to his nostril.

Oh, yay, now she was shooting stuff out her nose. She felt a pang of nostalgia for the drooling as she accepted the tissue, noting with gratitude that Angel and Wesley were both pretending to be interested in other parts of the room.

After a few moments of blowing and wiping, she felt strong enough to sit up.

Angel sat back on his heels. “Could you make anything out?”

She knew where it was now — the place she’d seen. “The mall”.

“Demons are attacking the mall?” Wesley sounded excited.

“I don’t know,” she said, vaguely annoyed that the source of her pain seemed to be making him so darn cheerful. “All I saw was the mall and Santa’s grotto. It was empty.”

“The mall?” Angel helped her to stand.

She shot him an irritated glance before pulling her arm away. “No dumbass, the grotto. We have to go and check it out. Someone was really, really scared. Oh, God, I felt it, Angel. I felt someone’s feelings…” Now she was shaking. Doyle had never mentioned anything about feel-o-vision. It truly, monumentally sucked.

“It’s okay, we’ll sort it out. Coming, Wesley?” Angel grabbed for his car keys.

***

The thought of the mall terrified Angel. Everything he despised under one roof — crowds, commercialism, mirrored walls — and Muzak. Plus, his last mall visit had contained just a little too much rocket launcher for his liking. A shudder jolted down his back as he huddled under the blanket in the back seat of the Plymouth. If it hadn’t been for the anguish in Cordelia’s voice, he would have been tempted to send Wesley alone. And he wouldn’t have caved when she insisted on driving.

The tires squealed as they took a corner too fast. “Cordelia, please be careful,” he moaned, his stomach lurching along with the car.

“Would you rather drive? Oh, that’s right, you can’t, what with the setting sun shining in the windows,” she snapped. “I’m doing the best I can. This thing handles like a tank.”

Angel made a mental note to limit Cordelia’s use of his car to emergencies. They screeched around another corner. Make that life or death emergencies.

“Look at that. Why does everyone leave their shopping to the last minute?” Wesley said. “I always have my Christmas shopping done by Aug-argh!”

Angel could only guess that Wesley’s head had collided with the raised roof of the convertible, as they bounced over a speed hump. “Cordy,” he grunted.

“Keep your fangs on,” she said. “I’m used to driving cars that actually have shock absorbers.”

Mental note number two. Avoid arguing with post-vision Cordelia.

“You’ll be driving one missing half its transmission in a minute,” Wesley said. “Okay, Angel, we’re in.”

“Thank God.” Angel discarded the blanket and sat up. “I’m driving home.”

Wesley turned around in his seat. “Sunset’s over an hour away.”

Angel took a deep breath to calm his churning stomach. “Then we’ll kill time.”

***

Angel emerged from the elevator into his own private hell.

The mall consisted of five levels. The center of the building was an atrium, through which something charitably described as a sculpture thrust its way towards the domed glass roof. Stores ringed each level, and the pedestrian areas were decorated with mirrored pillars and potted shrubbery. Every available surface and window was festooned with wreaths, tinsel, glass baubles and lights that flashed in a multitude of colours and patterns.

And it was *busy*. Shoppers moved as one huge, amorphous blob, ebbing and flowing from store to store. Angel figured it was probably normal, being three days before Christmas. Or maybe it was always this crowded. He tended to avoid anywhere that teemed with this much humanity.

Being here was causing him more discomfort than the Wrentarth talon that Cordelia and Doyle had dug out of from between his shoulder blades last month.

Someone bumped him as they bustled past, barely glancing up to apologize. The tense atmosphere was aggravating his already anxious state. He could smell the frustration. It oozed off people as they hurried about, struggling to move through the crowds.

The carols blaring from tinny speakers proclaimed this was a time for peace and goodwill. A time to celebrate with family and friends. A time to be full and happy and generous. Yet all he saw was people too stressed to smile at each other.

He *had* liked Christmas, a long time ago. The memory of sweet little Kathy was still vivid. She would help their mother re-set the table, on Christmas Eve, after their evening meal had been cleared away. Together, they would place the traditional loaf of caraway seed and raisin bread on it, alongside a pitcher of milk and a candle. He always tried to sneak a bit of the bread. His mother always caught him.

He and Darla had made their own traditions. They’d dressed in fine clothes; sauntered about whichever town they were in, finding gifts for each other. Some were purchased, some were stolen, some were killed. They had enjoyed themselves, in their own way.

Drusilla had loved it best of all. Her favourite game was to sneak up on a group of carollers — see if she could snatch someone away, unnoticed, and drain them before the song had ended. The strains of something pseudo-traditional caught his ear, dragging him back to the dark, lamp-lit streets, laughing as he watched her pick out victims like candy from a shop window. He could almost smell the blood, and his stomach twisted and yawned with familiar need.

And then came the nausea and self-abhorrence that had filled so many Christmases since — the ones spent laying in gutters, filthy and awash with despair — and the sharp memory of standing on the ridge in Sunnydale, waiting for the sun to take him.

Coming here was a bad idea.

“Oh my God!” Cordelia squealed, startling him.

Wesley tensed, his eyes lighting with anticipation. “What is it? Do you see something from your vision?”

“Victoria’s Secret. We *have* to go in!” she clapped her hands and dashed into a shop.

“Cordelia, this is no time for shopping,” Wesley called. She didn’t turn around, disappearing into the sea of undergarments. He sighed. “I guess we should go in and wait for her.”

Angel nodded. The last thing he wanted was for them all to split up. He didn’t trust his reactions, alone in this place. Plus, they had about an hour up their sleeves. How long could this small diversion possibly take?

***

Angel glanced over at Wesley, his impatience growing. “Time?”

“Two minutes after you last asked.” Wesley sounded more than a little irritated. He was also quite pink in the face, apparently embarrassed by their proximity to women’s intimate apparel.

Angel shifted in his seat, and felt his anxiety crank up another notch. Thank goodness he didn’t have any blood pressure, or it would have been going through the roof now. “That makes twenty minutes. Do you think she’s all right? Maybe she had a vision, and fell, or something attacked her in there…”

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Wesley said, through gritted teeth.

Another bored-looking man, seated at the far side of the waiting area, smiled at them. “Women, huh?”

“Quite.” Wesley nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on his feet.

This, then, was obviously normal. Angel breathed a sigh of relief. Of course — that man had been there at least as long as him and Wesley. Angel felt an unusual sense of solidarity with him, and managed a smile and a nod in the man’s direction.

Another few minutes passed. Angel’s normal ability to sit and contemplate the universe seemed to have deserted him. The whole vibe of the mall made him too tense. Perhaps a quick circuit of the store was in order, just to make sure nothing demonic was going on. He stood up, and then sat down, and then stood up again. “I’m going to look around a bit. Wesley?”

“Er, no, thank you, I’ll just wait here until one of you returns,” Wesley replied, still staring with immense interest at the floor.

Angel wandered about the store, relieved to be doing *something*, and marvelling at how women’s corsetry had changed over the years. He’d seen his fair share of it. Gone were the bones and cruel, pinching corsets that Darla had laced herself into, and he had frequently torn off her. This stuff was light, lacy, and he guessed much more comfortable — and easier to remove. He reached out to feel a floral-patterned bra, and his fingers pressed against the underwire. Okay, so maybe not that much more comfortable…

“Can I help you sir?” A woman’s voice startled him.

“Uh, no, I’m — just looking.” He snatched his hand away, wondering if he looked as guilty as he felt — a pervert fondling the underwear.

“Something for your girlfriend?” she said, persistent. “We have a lovely range of camisoles, if you’re not sure of her cup size.”

“Cup size?” Angel looked around for a means of escape, his stomach knotting. Racks of coloured silk and lace loomed around him like a maze. He was out of his depth. He didn’t belong here, amongst these people, and this new-fangled corsetry that he didn’t understand.

The woman looked at him with undisguised pity. “Okay, maybe we’d better try nightwear. I can show you something in a nice mauve satin.”

“No!” he barked, and then held up his hands when she jumped and pressed her fingers to her mouth, shocked. “I’m sorry, I — I’m just waiting for a friend.”

She backed away. “Well, why don’t you go sit in the waiting area, sir?”

“Of course, sorry.” He nodded, relieved to be off the hook. Turning his back on the startled woman, he hurried back to the safety of the changing rooms.

As Angel neared the place where he’d left Wesley, the sound of a commotion caught his attention.

“I can assure you that’s not what I was doing.” Wesley’s voice grew louder as he appeared around the corner, flanked by two security guards. “Angel, help me!” he said, at their eyes met.

“What happened?” Angel asked, holding out a hand to stall the men.

“We caught your friend here trying to get into the women’s changing rooms,” one of them said.

Wesley frowned. “I was just trying to see if Cordelia was all right,” and then he mouthed ‘vampire’, motioning towards the changing rooms with his eyes.

Angel inhaled, taking in the scents around him. Humans, perfume, a little sweat. No vampire. He shook his head.

“Ah, well, there you go,” Wesley muttered, drooping a little.

“Where are you taking him?” Angel addressed his query to the other guard.

“Manager’s office. C’mon pal,” the man said, pulling on Wesley’s elbow.

***

Cordelia checked she was buttoned up correctly, and gathered the assortment of bras and panties she’d tried on. Once, she would have considered wearing Victoria’s Secret as a lowering of her standards. These days, her budget was too tight even for these prices. Her old stuff would just have to hold together a little longer, because she sure as hell wasn’t going to stoop to cheap and nasty.

When she entered the store, she’d been consumed with the thought that just trying on new stuff would make her feel better. But all it had done was depress her more. Window-shopping was a soul-destroying experience — one she figured she’d never get used to. She missed the dainty little bags and things wrapped in tissue paper. Coming away from a shop empty-handed defied the natural order of the universe.

She emerged from the changing rooms to find Angel, standing awkwardly, hands deep in the pockets of his duster. His expression changed from near-panic to relief when he spotted her.

“Hey, Angel,” she said, glancing around. “Where’s Wesley?”

“Store security took him away,” he said, looking miserable again.

Her eyes widened with surprise. “Oh, is that what the commotion was? Boy, you can’t take him anywhere. I didn’t pick Wesley as a pervert.”

“He thought there was a vampire in the changing rooms.”

She stiffened, and he must have noticed, because he added, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing here. I’d sense it if there was.”

She began to chuckle, despite herself. This could only happen to *her* in a mall. “I guess we should go rescue him.”

“Guess we should.”

Cordelia approached the changing-room assistant and handed over the things she’d tried on. “Thanks, I’ll leave these for today.” She held back one bra, a gorgeous azure floral pattern. Just one thing. It would make all the difference if she could only have this. But that would leave her without enough money for next week’s food. Sighing, she added it to the pile.

“You’re not buying anything?” Angel asked, looking confused.

She put on her biggest fake smile. “No, didn’t really like any of it.”

“And it took you thirty minutes to come to that conclusion?” he muttered, falling in behind her as she headed for the doors.

“Hey, you wanted to kill time,” she said, wanting to put as much distance between her and the blue satin as possible, before her resolve crumbled.

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