Angel wondered if a man’s place at the mall was solely to sit around and wait for people. He and Cordelia were perched on the low couch in the Management Office’s reception area, waiting for Wesley to come out. The severe-faced woman at the desk said he was ‘being interviewed.’
The room was sterile, cream-on-cream, with recessed lighting, and more of the potted palms that filled the rest of the mall. Prints of famous paintings hung on the walls, set in generic chrome frames that insulted the genius of the work contained within.
A corridor ran off to the left, office doors set at regular intervals between the ceiling-to-floor one-way windows that served as walls. One of them contained Wesley — his smell hung in the air, proving he’d passed this way recently.
With a sigh Angel picked up a magazine, flicking the pages with little interest. Perhaps there was some enchantment placed on waiting rooms which made time move slower there than in other parts of the universe. At least in hell things had rollicked along at a fair old pace…
A sense of release washed over him. The sun was down. Even buried here, encased in the monolith that was the mall, he felt it slip below the horizon. Now, if he wanted to, he could leave. He rose, more out of frustration than actual intent to follow through on his instinct.
“Angel, what are you doing?” Cordelia asked, the tone of her voice clearly transforming the words to ‘leave now, buddy, and I’ll stake you dead.’
He raised a finger to his lips. He could hear voices. She opened her mouth again, but stopped as he cocked his ear closer to the source of the sound.
A woman was talking, her voice raised, which is what had brought it into his hearing range. “He’s just gone, and that’s not like him. He’s usually so reliable. I can’t get hold of him at any of his numbers — it’s like he vanished without a trace. That’s both of them now. We should call the police.”
“I said *no*. We don’t want that sort of publicity,” a man’s voice replied, semi-threatening.
“Well, what do you want me to do, just hire another, pretend nothing happened?” the woman snapped back.
“Yes, that’s what I want you to do. Get another stupid Santa, or get yourself a new job.”
“Do you know how hard it is to find a good Santa at this time of year? And what happens if the next one disappears too?” The woman’s voice held a touch of panic now.
“I don’t care. Just get another one.” The man’s voice grew louder, and the door of the closest office flew open. The owner of the voice stormed out, and down the hallway, where he went into another office and slammed the door behind him. The glass wall rattled.
Angel took his opportunity, and slipped into the room the man had just vacated. The woman — a nicely dressed lady in her late thirties — looked at him with misty eyes. “I’m sorry, sir. The public aren’t allowed in here.”
“What happened to the Santas?” Angel asked.
“Oh, God.” She went very pale, and sank down into the chair behind her desk.
Cordelia came in the doorway behind him. “Angel?”
He motioned for her to enter, and she closed the door before sitting down.
Angel produced a business card from the pocket of his duster, placing it on the desk where the woman could see it. “I know you have a problem, and I think we can help. I’m Angel.” He held out his hand.
“Miriam Saunders.” The woman shook it, business-like, but he could feel the tremor in her fingers. “Have a seat, please.”
“So, what’s going on?” he said, settling into a chair.
Miriam studied the card for a long time, and it was obvious she was debating whether to tell him everything, or throw him and Cordelia out. Finally, she took a deep breath. “I know this sounds crazy, but both of our Santas have disappeared. They went home two days ago, and never showed up for their next shifts. Nobody has heard from, or seen either of them since. It’s like they’ve vanished into thin air. It’s — frightening.”
“Well, boy, have you picked the right team for the job,” Cordelia said, bursting into her less-than-subtle sales pitch. “At Angel Investigations we specialize in unusual cases, for a reasonable fee — or store credit.”
Angel groaned inwardly, but Miriam seemed more than happy to consider what Cordelia was saying. “If you’d like to see the grotto, maybe you could find some clues?” she said.
“We’ll consider taking the case, on one condition,” Angel said, wincing as Cordelia elbowed him in the ribs.
“What?” Miriam rubbed her temples with both forefingers.
“That you release our friend. He was in Victoria’s Secret…”
“Oh, yes, the peeper. I suppose so, as long as nothing like that ever happens again,” Miriam said, frowning at Cordelia’s snort of laughter.
It was Angel’s turn to elbow Cordelia. “I promise, Ms Saunders. He’ll be perfectly well behaved.”
Cordelia watched, rather bored, as Wesley and Angel strode around the periphery of the empty grotto that she’d seen in her vision. As grottos went, it was nothing special. A two-foot high white picket fence surrounded a sugar-pink castle, in the doorway of which stood a large gold and velvet throne.
Leading up to that was a meandering fake brick path, weaving between plastic fur trees covered in artificial snow and red glass baubles. At the entrance to the whole thing was a gate, adorned with a sign that advised the grotto was currently closed. Overall, the effect was pretty tacky.
Miriam Saunders stood to one side, her face displaying an odd mixture of scepticism and expectation.
“Oh, dear, another one gone?” An older man’s voice over Cordelia’s left shoulder made her gasp and wheel around. “Sorry sweetie, didn’t mean to startle ya,” he said, his face crinkling into a warm smile.
“That’s okay — Jack,” she said, reading his name badge, which also proclaimed that he was store security. He looked way too old and frail to be able to secure anything, but to say so would be rude. Not that it usually stopped her, but he had such a pleasant, grandfatherly quality about him, she decided to hold her tongue on this occasion.
“Such a darn shame. The little kiddies will be so disappointed if there’s no Santa,” Jack said, his blue eyes peering at her through thick, wire-rimmed spectacles.
“Did you see what happened to them?” she asked. Surely a security guard would need to be perceptive as part of his job.
He shrugged. “Well, Missy, yes and no. I seen ‘em all right, but nothing funny happened while they were here. They just went home and never came back, both of ‘em. Breaks my heart to see the little’uns disappointed. I’d volunteer myself if I wasn’t so old and skinny.”
Cordelia nodded and sighed. A five-year-old would probably crush him. She wondered why he was still working, instead of enjoying a nice retirement with his wife and family. Maybe he didn’t have anyone. Like her.
Jack glanced at Miriam, and then smiled at Cordelia. “Better be on my way, don’t want to get in trouble for loitering. Nice to meet you.” He tipped his cap and ambled off.
Wesley approached her, looking puzzled. “It doesn’t appear to be in any of the more common mystical formations.” He glanced up at the turret of the fake castle.
Cordelia couldn’t help herself. “Peeper, Wesley?”
“You had to bring it up.” He crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at her.
“I’m sorry, it’s just — what on earth were you doing?” She tried to suppress a grin.
“I was so sure she was a vampire,” he said, bewildered. “Very pale, you see. I ran in after her and she started screaming. I can assure you I had only your safety in mind.”
“Well that’s a relief.” Cordelia attempted to remain straight-faced. “I don’t think I could bring myself to shop for your present at ‘Dirty-Old-Men-R-Us’s House of Trenchcoats’.”
To her surprise, Wesley’s face lit up. “You’re buying me a Christmas present? I’m so touched.”
She smiled and nodded, regretting her runaway mouth for one of the few times in her life. Not only did she not have enough money for new underwear, now she didn’t have enough money for Wesley’s present either. What did stuffy English guys like, anyway? Bowler Hats? Umbrellas?
Angel’s voice broke her train of thought, as he stopped beside them. “I can’t find anything unusual.”
“Nor I. It would really help if we could interview one of the Santas — see if they’d noticed anything out of the ordinary,” Wesley said.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. “If the Santas were around to be interviewed, then Miriam over there wouldn’t need us in the first place.”
At the mention of her name, Miriam Saunders began to approach, her expression now a mixture of scepticism, expectation and hope.
“Perhaps we could hang around the next Santa, watch for — something,” Angel said with a marked lack of enthusiasm, like the last thing he wanted to do was return to the mall.
Miriam sighed; obviously realising they’d come up with nothing. “Finding a decent Santa at this time of year is going to be difficult, maybe impossible.”
“What about the last two, do you have their addresses?” Wesley asked.
She nodded. “We keep comprehensive records on all our Santas. You can’t be too careful these days, considering they have close contact with children. There’s a lot of weirdos about.” Her eyes narrowed at Wesley, who turned a vivid shade of pink again.
Cordelia wondered how she could ever have seen such a 007 quality in someone who turned out to be, well, just a 0 really.
Angel looked eager at the prospect of moving their investigation elsewhere. “If we could have their details, please, we’ll investigate their homes. Look for signs of foul play.”
“We’re not supposed to give that information out…” Miriam hesitated, perhaps still wary of revealing everything to three strangers, and then shrugged. “One can’t hurt, I guess. They’re back in the office.”
Angel turned so fast that his coat flew out in a wide arc behind him. For a split second Cordelia smiled as she remembered Doyle’s comment about how hot it made the vampire look. What did you call something that made you sad and happy all at once? Bittersweet?
Then she realized Angel was covering ground at significant pace, and took off at a jog to keep up.
Cordelia screwed up her nose in distaste as they drove along the dingy street. She studied the square of memo paper that Miriam had scrawled the name and address on. Bob Kowalczyk. Just another faceless victim in the procession of people who lost themselves in LA every day.
Shit, she’d spent too much time hanging around with Angel — now she was starting to think like him.
“Here, stop!” she shouted, snapping out of her reverie just in time to realize they were about to sail past Bob Kowalczyk’s apartment building. Cursing under his breath, Angel braked hard, sliding the back end of the Plymouth around and fishtailing slightly as he managed to make the driveway — just.
“Jeez, and you complain about my driving,” Cordelia muttered, climbing out into the parking area. Angel looked like he was about to protest, but just shook his head instead.
“Which one is it?” Wesley said, trying to extricate himself from the back seat and straighten his glasses at the same time.
She peered at the address again. “Apartment 10.”
“Over there,” Angel pointed to a ground floor dwelling. The lights were all on, and the door stood wide open.
They all gathered in the little covered porch, looking inside. Wesley took a small axe out of his jacket.
“Wesley, you took that to the mall?” Cordelia gasped.
“Shoppers can be brutal,” he replied in a hushed voice, stepping into the apartment with care, weapon at the ready. “I once got a black eye at the Harrods sale. Who knew that half-priced cashmere sweaters could turn people into complete maniacs?”
“Thank God the mall guards didn’t search you, or you’d been in jail by now,” she muttered, following close behind him.
Angel waved a hand in the doorway, and then slipped inside. “He’s dead.”
Cordelia’s skin prickled. “How can you tell?”
“I wouldn’t have been able to come in otherwise.”
She scanned the small, shabby room. It was a dump. Perhaps that was why, even with the front door wide open, it hadn’t been robbed. Nothing worth stealing.
The dining table was covered in what looked like bills. A Santa hat sat in forlorn solitude in the middle of the pile of envelopes and paper. The sofa looked like an over-cuddled teddy bear; you knew it used to have a pile to the fabric, but it had long since been worn away — yuck, by people’s butts — and now it was only visible in any great quantity on the cushion corners and along the top of the backrest.
An empty bottle of scotch lay on the floor in front of it. There were no signs of a struggle, no blood, no nothing.
“It looks like Bob owed quite a few people money,” Wesley said, leafing through some of the correspondence. “Perhaps someone came to collect on a debt.”
Cordelia took a wad from the table, and surveyed them with growing scepticism. “Somehow I don’t think the power company is in the habit of murdering their customers. Or California Bank & Trust. Or Visa. Or American Express. Or MasterCard…” she said, tossing each bill back on the pile as she went. “Boy, he owed a lot. Maybe he killed himself. Bills this big would make me pretty suicidal.”
“Not out of the question I guess,” Angel said, shrugging, his eyes scanning the room.
A cockroach scuttled across the floor. Since the plague in Cordelia’s old apartment, they freaked her out even more than usual.
She screamed, loud and long, bounding onto the couch, and making Wesley throw his handful of final demand notices in the air.
“Good Lord, Cordelia, it’s just an insect,” he chastised, as the bills fluttered to the floor around his feet — poor man’s confetti.
“I think I’ve got Post Dramatic Stress Disorder.” She slumped into a sitting position, then thought better of it, and stood up again, the old springs creaking in protest.
Wesley rolled his eyes. “That’s Post *Traumatic* Stress Disorder, and I very much doubt you have it.”
“Yeah, well you’re not the one having the big bug flashbacks,” she snapped, flapping her hands and looking around the floor to see where the disgusting thing had gone.
“I cannot believe that after all your years living on the Hellmouth, you place the common cockroach at the top of your list of scary things,” he said, shaking his head.
God, Wesley could be a pain in the ass. She took a deep, patient breath. “One: I happen to have had a very bad cockroach experience recently,” she said, “and two: they’re not *top* of the list. Roman sandals are. Especially worn over socks.”
“Guys, in here.” Angel popped his head out of the bathroom door. Cordelia shot Wesley her best aggrieved look, and went first, keeping an eye out for the cockroach.
As soon as she got in there, she wished she’d let him go ahead of her. The room reeked of mildew, and there was a nasty ring around the tub. She didn’t even want to look at the toilet.
“Yech. I don’t think anything demonic killed Bob. I think his own lack of personal hygiene did him in.” She wrinkled her nose.
“I can smell it,” Angel said, his nose twitching.
She rolled her eyes. “You and everyone for six blocks. Someone really should have introduced the guy to bleach.”
“Not the mildew. Fear,” Angel replied. “It’s stale, but still quite strong. He was terrified.”
“And now I’m so pleased I didn’t have time for dinner,” Cordelia said, turning and pushing her way back out, past Wesley.
She hesitated in the middle of the living room, wondering if she was safer in there with the cockroach, or outside with people from the lower socio-economic bracket.
Wait a second, she *was* the lower socio-economic bracket. Okay, now she was in serious danger of feeling sorry for herself again, and she’d decided against that. Suck it up, Cor, find some clues.
The front door still stood ajar, and she automatically went to close it. It had a bunch of locks on the back, all unbolted. She stared at them for a moment. There was no damage to the door — so the guy had let himself out, and left the door open. Must have been in a hurry. Angel said he smelled fear. Something had scared Bob Kowalczyk enough for him to bolt from his apartment and leave it wide open. Maybe it was the cockroach.
“I seem to have come up with more of nothing than usual,” Wesley said, as he and Angel emerged from the bathroom-from-the-black-lagoon.
“He ran out of here, scared out of his wits, and never came back,” Cordelia said, pointing to the door.
Angel appeared to take a deep breath. “No demons have been in here.”
“Ugh, enough with the bloodhound act,” she said, an involuntary shudder dancing down her back. “I just want to go home and take a shower.”
“I’ll call Miriam in the morning and tell her that Santa is dead,” Wesley said.
Santa is dead. God, it sounded so morbid. Cordelia sighed — what else could she have expected from spending Christmas with a tortured vampire and the world’s worst Watcher?
“Great, excellent, that’s settled then. Now can we go?” She headed for the door.
If anything else squicked her out tonight, this was going to gown down in history as the Christmas of Barfing.