William stirred and woke. He could hear a strange sound. It wasn’t loud enough to have been responsible for waking him but, now that he was awake, it was hard to ignore it. A strange murmur, somewhere between the buzzing of bees and a roar, rising and falling irregularly. He opened one eye. An instant later he opened the other eye and sat up. Where was he? This was not his bedroom.
Memories flooded back. The party, the poetry, the taunts, Cecily’s brutal rejection, his flight into the night, the alley, the beautiful woman, the other alley, the eccentric Mr Angel and the madwoman with blue hair. The fantastic story that they had told. The remarkable machine that had sped past him and alarmed him so greatly. William shook his head. He recollected that he had gone to bed believing that he was merely dreaming and that he would undoubtedly awake in his own familiar bed at home. Alas, such was not the case. He had been away all night. Mother would be worried. At least it was now day-time and he would be able to find his way home.
He became aware that certain bodily functions required attention. He slid his legs out of the bed and stood up. He was naked. There had been no nightshirt and his clothes had been wet. He had had no option but to go to bed unclad. His nakedness made more apparent a manifestation of another bodily urge. William looked down at the unruly appendage with horror. How would he be able to relieve himself in such a state? He would dampen the very ceiling!
His hand went to the offending organ and closed around it. No, that would be sinful, and should be the last resort. Perhaps an application of cold water would serve to tame the disobedient member. He set off towards the room that held the toilet facilities but then changed his mind.
The sound was coming from outside the window. He could not immediately relieve himself, in this state, and so it would do no harm to delay long enough to investigate the sound’s source. He went to the window, put his eye to the dividing line between the curtains, and pulled them open a mere crack so that he did not expose himself to any eyes from outside the building.
His jaw dropped. His eyes became enormous circles. He forgot entirely about his nakedness, and his state of arousal, and he pulled the curtains wider apart. Astounding!
The noise was emanating from horseless carriages travelling along the nearby road. Scores of them. Black ones, white ones, blue, red, silver. Smooth, sleek, shiny. Most were about the size of a Phaeton carriage, with a few the size of a dog cart, and an occasional one vastly larger. Colossal vehicles bigger than any railway wagon, yet travelling upon the open road, with enormous letters upon their huge sides spelling out mysterious words such as ‘FedEx’ and ‘Ralphs’ and ‘Arco’. Something that must have been an omnibus, with half a dozen windows along its side, yet far more akin to a railway carriage than to any vehicle that could have been drawn by a team of horses. It even bore the legend ‘big blue bus’, ungrammatically lacking a capital letter, upon its sides.
There were wide pavements to each side of the macadamised road. It was a sunny day. Yet the street was almost devoid of walkers. Everyone, it seemed, travelled by carriage. William gawped at the clothing of those few people on foot that were within his sight. Such bright colours – and the women wore such short skirts! Surely they could not all be streetwalkers.
One of the people in the street turned a head towards William’s window. He was suddenly conscious of his state of undress and stepped back hastily, releasing his grasp on the curtains and allowing them to close. He pressed a hand to his forehead. “Good Lord,” he muttered. “Such sights! Who could have imagined such things? Surely not even Monsieur Jules Verne at his most ingenious. Is the story that Mr Angel related to me in truth sober fact? Have I fallen down some rabbit hole into a very Wonderland?”
The clothes that William had discarded on the previous night had dried out overnight but were hardly fresh. William shuddered but had no choice but to don them. The ingenious fastenings of the denim trousers intrigued him; he spent a couple of minutes pulling the metal tab up and down and watching the cunningly shaped metal teeth engaging and disengaging. Quite remarkable. Eventually he tired of this and left the room.
William descended the stairs and emerged into the atrium. There was no-one there. This hotel, if such it were, seemed to have no staff. There had to be servants somewhere, stoking the boilers that must be providing the floods of hot water from the taps, but there was no other sign of their presence. It appeared that no-one had dusted the place in months.
He could hear voices from a side room and headed in that direction. In the room he found Mr Angel, Illyria, and a stranger. A woman clad in clothes that were crisp, and elegant, but nonetheless shocking. Why, her skirt descended hardly lower than her knees!
The woman turned as he entered and fixed him with a curiously penetrating gaze. “And this is the Shanshu recipient, I take it,” she remarked. “It could have been you, Angel. How does that make you feel?”
“To be honest, I’m not so sure that I missed out,” Mr Angel told her. “I don’t think I’d want it. Not that way.” He smiled at William. “Good morning, Spike, uh, William. Are you feeling okay? Got to grips with what I told you last night yet?”
“I have seen such wonders,” William replied. “I am forced to accept that there may indeed be some validity in your incredible tale. I am in a state of some confusion and bewilderment as yet. In truth I know not what to believe. For the present I can only allow my mind to dwell upon such mundane necessities as my need for clean clothing. And for food, if you can spare any. Although I must confess that I know not how I will be able to repay you.”
“Don’t worry about it, William,” Mr Angel said. “We’ll sort something out. There’ll be clean clothes over at Spike’s apartment, I guess.”
“I can take him,” Illyria volunteered. “There is Crash Bandicoot there also.”
“I’ll find you something to eat in a little while,” Mr Angel offered.
“That would be most kind,” William said. He looked at the newly arrived woman. “Good morning. Am I addressing Miss, or Mrs, Harmony?”
Mr Angel burst into laughter. Illyria smiled for the first time since William had met her in the alley. The woman, on the other hand, was obviously not amused.
“Lilah Morgan,” she introduced herself. “I represent Wolfram and Hart.”
William’s eyebrows shot up and it was with difficulty that he restrained himself from taking a step backwards. Wolfram and Hart, if he recalled correctly, were enemies of Mr Angel and Illyria. Perhaps his own enemies, if he accepted the validity of Mr Angel’s tale. However this was a meeting rather than an attack, and there seemed to be no reason for him to feel alarm. He scrutinised her fingers and saw no rings. “How do you do, Miss Morgan? I am William Pratt.”
“I know,” Miss Morgan replied. “The White Knight who has just become a pawn. That’s not something you see all that often. Kinda amusing. Enjoy the twenty-first century, William. Or not; I don’t care one way or the other. Spike never signed any contract with Wolfram and Hart so you’re no concern of mine.” She turned away from him, her cold smile switching off as abruptly as one of the incandescent lamps, and her obvious dismissal of him as unimportant reminded William unpleasantly of Cecily’s ‘you’re beneath me’.
“I think that our business is just about concluded,” Miss Morgan said to Mr Angel. “You’re a back number now. Just another warrior. No prophecies, no destiny, no reason for us to avoid killing you. No reason why we should go out of our way to finish you off either. You’re not a major player any more. Small time. You can go back to helping the helpless or the hopeless or whatever. All two and a half of you.”
“We stopped the Apocalypse,” Mr Angel said. “That’s something.”
“You stopped an Apocalypse. There’ll always be another one around the corner.” Miss Morgan’s tone changed. “For what it’s worth, Angel – I hated you, but I always respected you. You did alright. And I’m sorry about Wesley.”
“Do not profane his name with your unworthy lips,” Illyria snapped.
“It’s okay, Illyria. She means it.” Mr Angel nodded at Miss Morgan. “Thanks. I guess I respected you as well.”
“And hated me. I know. I don’t suppose we’ll meet again, other than in Hell. I could say that it’s been nice knowing you but we both know I’d be lying. Goodbye, Angel.”
Breakfast was made up of coffee and the last of Mr Angel’s store of sandwiches. It was accompanied by a marvel that eclipsed everything that William had yet seen.
A mysterious box with a glass front on which were displayed the most incredible moving images and from which came the sounds of speech and music. Infinitely superior to a camera obscura. “I should have thought of this last night,” Mr Angel remarked. “I wasn’t exactly thinking all that straight. If this doesn’t convince you that this is two thousand and four then I guess nothing will.”
“Remarkable,” William said. “Are those scenes of reality?”
“Some are, some are plays.” Mr Angel lifted a metallic object set with numerous buttons and pressed one with his thumb. The picture changed. “That’s a play.” Another change. “A talk show. Real people, but not the kind of people you’re used to.” He changed the picture again. Brightly coloured drawings moved upon the glass as if they were alive. “Cartoons. Mainly for kids.” Another change. “That’s the local news.”
“Stop,” Illyria commanded. “I desire to see this.”
Mr Angel’s eyebrows ascended. “You want to watch the news? I thought the doings of humans were beneath you.”
“The shell was to have been there,” Illyria said. “I wish to see why. Silence!”
“Huh?” Mr Angel’s brow furrowed. His mouth opened to speak again but he was then in receipt of a ferocious glare from the blue-haired woman and he closed it with the words unsaid.
Illyria cocked her head to one side and stared at the box of moving pictures. She listened intently as a man spoke. William understood little of what was said. The words ‘Los Angeles Convention Centre’ were clear, but most of the rest was gibberish. Something was said about games, scenes appeared of people dressed in costumes that were outlandish beyond belief, and he heard many words that he did not understand at all. He did not dare to enquire as to their meaning, as he did not wish Illyria to direct upon him a look of such ferocity as she had turned upon Mr Angel, and so he concentrated upon his sandwiches and coffee until the pictures on the glass screen changed and the man began to talk of other matters.
“I shall attend,” Illyria announced in tones that brooked no contradiction. “I understand the shell’s desire. There are games that are more violent than Crash Bandicoot. I would examine them.”
“Uh, you could just go to a game store,” Mr Angel suggested. “But, okay, I don’t suppose that it would do any harm. It’s probably the one place in town where you won’t raise a single eyebrow. In fact, for the next few days, everyone will just assume that you’re an attendee regardless of where they meet you.” His eyes widened suddenly. “And the same applies to all sorts of demons. If any of them are smart enough to take advantage of that opportunity, well, there could be some chaos going on and people in danger.”
“A chance to do more violence,” Illyria said, with apparent satisfaction. “Good.”
“You won’t do any violence without my say-so,” Mr Angel said sharply. “I don’t want you jumping some nerd dressed up as Lieutenant Worf or whatever.”
“As you wish.” Illyria’s head rotated to point at William. “The human has consumed his nourishment. I shall escort him to Spike’s dwelling to obtain fresh clothing. Afterwards I shall seek out the Los Angeles Convention Centre and view this ‘E3’.”
“Yeah, okay. And then come back here.” Mr Angel put a hand inside his jacket and drew out a wallet. “You’ll need money.” He extracted several banknotes and handed them to the woman.
The sight reminded William that he had a wallet of his own inside the leather coat. He pulled it out and opened it. There were banknotes within, bearing the legend ‘The United States of America’. He added up their values and was astonished. Three hundred and eighty dollars. Why, that was more than seventy-five pounds!
There were no calling cards. In their place were peculiar items of similar size and shape but made of a thin rigid material. One bore a picture of his own face, of such clarity that it must have been a photograph, yet in lifelike colours. The words ‘California driver license’ was printed upon it, together with other words and letters the meaning of which was not clear. There was a name upon it but it was not his own. ‘William Neville’. The same name was upon another mysterious ‘card’ that bore the legends ‘Union Bank of California’ and ‘VISA’, together with many numbers. William frowned, perplexed. He could not imagine what purpose it might serve. Two other similar items occupied other slots within the wallet.
“I wouldn’t bother with those for now,” Mr Angel advised him. “Just use cash if you want to buy anything.” He handed William several more banknotes each to the value of a hundred dollars. An enormous sum!
Use cash? Were these devices some strange form of money? William could not conceive of how they might be used. Mr Angel’s suggestion, that he use only the banknotes, was eminently sensible. It would take time to adjust to this strange environment. There was no point in trying to learn everything all at once.
“I thank you,” William said. “I know not how I can ever repay you.”
Mr Angel smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’s my job to help the helpless, and right now you fall into that category.”
“If I might ask, what is your profession?”
“I’m a private investigator. A consulting detective, you could say, like Sherlock Holmes.” Mr Angel made the announcement as if it were an adequate answer to William’s question.
“Sherlock Holmes?” William repeated blankly.
“Oh, yeah, that was later. Uh, Auguste Dupin?”
William nodded. “Ah, yes, I believe I understand.”
“Not that I can match the feats of deduction,” Mr Angel went on. “Mainly I protect people from demons and vampires. The police don’t believe in them so they don’t help. If someone has a problem with a ghost or a demon they come to me.”
“Of all the things that you have told me that is the hardest for me to believe,” William told him. “It is evident that I am not in the world with which I am familiar, true, but the explanation that you have given me is frankly incredible. Vampires are the stuff of fiction, extravagant works such as ‘Varney the Vampire’ or ‘Carmilla’, and it is quite impossible that I could have been transformed into such a creature. I may have slept in some miraculous fashion for a great period of time, as if I was Rip Van Winkle, but that is all.”
“I guess I’ll just have to show you,” Mr Angel said. “Look, William, don’t get alarmed, okay? This is just a demonstration. I don’t mean you any harm.”
“Very well, show me,” William challenged.
Mr Angel’s forehead rippled. Ridges appeared. His nose seemed to shrink and move upwards. His eyes turned yellow. He opened his mouth and revealed fangs like those of a wild beast.
“Good Lord!” William exclaimed. He felt his jaw drop. For a moment he was struck completely speechless. Then Mr Angel shook his head and his face resumed the appearance of a normal man. William breathed in deeply. “Good Lord!” he repeated. “I, ah, is there, would you perhaps have such a thing as a glass of brandy?”
The dwelling that had belonged to ‘Spike’ was a basement flat. Small, gloomy, and with little in the way of furniture. It did contain a glass-fronted box that resembled the one in Mr Angel’s hotel cum house cum office. Illyria sat down immediately upon a worn sofa and faced the box. She occupied herself with a peculiar device with hand-grips and buttons. Pictures appeared upon the screen; drawings that moved. It appeared that Illyria was controlling their motion in some way.
William did not attempt to divine the purpose behind her actions. He contented himself with a search for clothing. In a wardrobe he discovered several leather coats identical to the one that he wore. There were no other jackets and he grimaced in displeasure. The coat had proved to be hot and uncomfortable as he walked in the bright sunshine.
In a chest of drawers he found several more pairs of black denim trousers. More of the collarless shirts, all in black or charcoal grey. One proper shirt with long sleeves and a collar, but it was red; a most inappropriate colour for a gentleman, William felt. This ‘Spike’ had clearly not been a man of taste. He seized upon the red shirt nonetheless.
There were undergarments and socks. He gathered them up eagerly. He looked for a place where he could change his clothes but, other than a tiny toilet room that was barely more than a cupboard, there was only the one room. He cleared his throat.
“Ah, Miss?” he addressed Illyria. She did not react. “Illyria? Would you be so good as to wait outside for a short time? I wish to change my clothing.”
“Then do so,” Illyria replied. “I shall continue to play Crash Bandicoot.”
“It would not be fitting to undress in the presence of a lady,” William said.
Illyria did something with the device she held that caused the pictures upon the screen to freeze in place. Her head rotated to face him. “I have no interest in your naked form, William,” she told him. “Were I a human female it might give me pleasure to gaze upon it. But I am not. Although your form is not unattractive.” Her head tilted to one side. “Perhaps there would be a certain aesthetic satisfaction,” she conceded. “It seems that the shell has had some influence upon my reaction to visual stimuli. Remove your clothing.”
“Certainly not!” William spluttered. He could feel a hot blush spreading over his face.
“Then you must continue to wear your existing garments,” Illyria said. She turned back to the glass screen and caused the pictures to resume their motion. “Gather up what you wish to wear. We shall return to the Hyperion and you may change there. I shall take the Xbox.” She did something that caused the screen to go dark and swung to face William once more. “Your interruptions have caused me to lose a life. You delay my visit to E3. You refuse to show me your unclad form. Spike would not have refused my request. You are a poor substitute for my pet.”
William winced. It seemed that even in the far future he was doomed to be a disappointment to women. He was also struck by a feeling that he was a liability to Mr Angel. The consulting detective had been the very model of politeness, and his solicitude towards William was undoubted, but how could William repay him? He could not join the vampire in fighting against demons. His lack of knowledge of this world made it impossible for William to contribute in other, less physical, ways to the business. His fortune, such as it was, had no doubt been disposed of many years before. He was merely a drain upon Mr Angel’s time and resources, whereas ‘Spike’ had been a comrade and fellow warrior.
A warrior whose great deeds had earned him the reward of being returned to life, or so Mr Angel had said, but William frowned as he realised that there was a paradox implicit in the way that events had transpired. Spike was gone. It was William who had received the reward and yet he had done nothing to deserve it. Was that justice?
Illyria was growing impatient. William put aside the philosophical question, gathered up his chosen clothing, and they departed.