Agnes Belfleur was awake and she was annoyed about it. A bleary glance at the bedside clock told her it was just after 3:00 a.m.
Who could possibly be knocking on her front door at three o'clock in the morning? She lay still and waited, hoping whomever it was would lose interest and go away.
After a few minutes the knocking blessedly ceased. Aggie breathed a sigh of relief and rolled back over.
Knock knock knock knock KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK...
With a groan, Aggie tossed back the covers and wandered sleepily into the living room. On her way to the door she stubbed her toe on the coffee table and paused to issue a few choice curses.
"Somebody better be dead," she grumbled as she fumbled with the multiple deadbolts and threw the door open.
"Aggie!" cried the green-skinned demon standing before her in a burgundy leisure suit.
"Lorne," said Aggie, somewhat less warmly. She hadn't seen horn nor tail of him in over a year--not since he'd left the nightclub business and joined that evil law firm.
And now here he was, standing on her doorstep with an aura that positively screamed needy.
"I know, it's tres gauche to drop in like this," he said, "but I need just the eensiest of favors."
Aggie's gaze drifted to the people standing just behind him. She'd been right--someone was dead. Two someones, in fact.
"I'm sorry, I didn't order any vampires," she said.
Lorne laughed nervously. "I know what you're thinking, but these are friends of mine, the ones you sent on that illuminating little sojourn to home crap home with me. This is Fred, and Gunn, and that's Wesley, and this--" he gestured to the dark-haired vampire "--is Angel, the guy--"
"I know who he is," said Aggie. Who hadn't heard of the vampire with a soul? The other one was a bit of a surprise, though. She hadn't known there were two of them.
"Right, of course you do," said Lorne. "And our over-peroxided friend there is Spike."
Aggie pursed her lips impatiently. "Why did you bring them here, Lorne?"
"We need your help," said the woman Lorne had introduced as Fred. "Angel's sick."
"Vampires don't get sick," said Aggie. "Not even the ones with souls."
"Which is why we think it must be something magical," piped up Wesley in a prim British accent. "Some kind of curse."
"Then get one of the evil geniuses at your new place of employment to help the big boss man and let me get back to my beauty sleep."
"Great idea," said Lorne. "And we would, except there's just the smallest chance they're the ones behind this."
Aggie shrugged. "Hey, you lie down with dogs..."
Lorne's red eyes flashed angrily. "Swell, lambchop, lesson well learned. In the meantime, my friend Angel needs help."
"Please," added Fred.
Aggie was tempted to say no. The last thing she wanted to do was get mixed up with this circus, especially if Wolfram & Hart was involved. And she didn't want anything to do with vampires--ensouled or not, she didn't want them anywhere near her, much less inside her house.
But Lorne was a good guy, and her empathy wasn't picking up anything untrustworthy about any of them. All she was sensing was how scared they were, and how much they all seemed to care about this sick vampire they'd brought to her house. Except Spike, who mostly just seemed to want a cigarette.
Angel's eyes met Aggie's unflinchingly. His aura told her he was scared as hell and in a dozen kinds of pain, but outwardly he betrayed none of it. "Angel can come in," she said finally.
Wesley and Gunn helped Angel, who seemed to be having difficulty walking. Fred and Lorne followed, leaving only Spike. "You stay outside," Aggie said.
"Bloody nice to meet you, too," he said.
She smiled sweetly and closed the door on him.
Gunn and Wesley helped Angel onto the couch, where he settled back weakly.
"What exactly do you want me to do?" said Aggie.
"Are you getting anything off of Angel?" asked Lorne. "Can you tell what's wrong with him?"
Aggie gave Angel a quick psychic once-over. "Well, for starters, he's got some serious intimacy issues and a raging martyr complex."
"Hey," Angel protested weakly.
"Yes, of course, but has he been cursed?" asked Wesley.
Aggie cocked an eyebrow. "He didn't come by that soul at a rummage sale."
"We were looking for something slightly more recently acquired," Lorne prompted. "Whatever's making him sick, for instance."
Aggie studied Angel's aura a little more closely. It was messy, to say the least. "There's definitely something ugly going on in there. Some kind of magical mojo, but whatever it is it's way out of my league."
"Hmmm," said Wesley. "If we knew precisely what was afflicting him we might be able to counter it."
"How about you take a closer look and try to identify it for us?" said Lorne.
Aggie shook her head. "No. Also? Hell no."
"Yes," said Lorne.
"You're not seriously asking me to read a vampire?"
"I am seriously standing here asking you to do exactly that." Lorne wore a no-nonsense expression that gave Aggie the sinking feeling she wasn't going to win this one.
"You're the devil," she said.
"You know this is way more up your alley than mine," he said. "And you also know I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important."
"I'm changing my address book right now--scratching out Lorne and writing Beelzebub."
"Come on, peaches. For old times sake and all that sentimental hooey. For bad Mexican food and one too many whiskey sours. For me."
He was really fighting dirty, now. "Fine," she said grudgingly. "But I want to make it clear that I hate you."
She looked down at Angel. "Hold out your hands. And try to relax, okay?" She knelt on the floor in front of him and tried to take her own advice about relaxing. She'd never touched a vampire before, much less tried to read one.
Aggie grasped Angel's wrists firmly and suppressed the urge to shudder at the odd coolness of his skin and the notable absence of a pulse where a pulse should have been.
It wasn't quite as bad as she'd expected, though. She'd thought it would be like touching a corpse, but it wasn't quite like that. It wasn't quite like touching a human, either, though.
She closed her eyes and concentrated, felt Angel's body tense in response. These kind of readings were no picnic--not for the subject and not for her. She needed to be careful, especially if someone had already been mucking around with Angel's subconscious. Wouldn't do to go stumbling into some kind of psychic booby trap.
It took her a moment to get her bearings. A couple hundred years of stored-up vampire angst was not a pretty thing to navigate. But after a little effort she finally found the traces of corruption she was looking for and followed them until she had identified the source.
She released Angel and he slumped back on the couch, weak and drained.
"What did you do to him?" asked Fred.
Wesley leaned over. "Angel, are you all right?"
Angel nodded weakly. "Fine."
"You keep saying that," said Gunn, "as if that's gonna make it true."
Lorne helped Aggie to her feet. She was still reeling a bit--it was definitely not the easiest reading she'd ever done. If she never saw the inside of a vampire's mind again it'd be way too soon.
She spared a sympathetic look at Angel. "Sorry 'bout that."
"Well?" asked Wesley. "Did you learn anything?"
She went to the bookcase and pulled down an old leather-bound volume. She knew what the curse was doing, and she knew it was... not Greek, but those other guys. Etruscan, that was it. She handed the book to Wesley and pointed to the appropriate passage.
"The Kiss of Ancaru," he read aloud.
"That doesn't sound so bad," said Fred.
"Ancaru was the Etruscan goddess of death," said Wesley.
"Oh. That's probably not good, then," said Fred.
"The afflicted shall be eaten from the inside out," read Wesley. "The result is a gradual, exquisitely torturous death."
"A death curse won't kill a vampire," said Fred.
"No, it can't," said Wesley, frowning. "Ah! Here we are. This particular curse preys on the victim's soul, which explains why it's affecting Angel."
"You mean he's gonna turn into Angelus if we don't fix him soon?" said Gunn.
"I don't believe there's any danger of that," said Wesley. "It doesn't remove the soul, just sort of poisons it."
"But it won't kill him," said Aggie.
"No, it won't," said Wesley. "Most likely it will merely cause the eventual and painful loss of all motor and possibly cognitive function. But he'll still be alive, in a manner of speaking."
"Kind of like an immortal vegetable," said Gunn.
"I really wish people would stop cursing me," said Angel.
"Maybe you should stop pissing them off," Aggie suggested.
Angel gave her a baleful look.
"Could you tell who cast the curse on Angel, or anything about them that might be helpful to us?" asked Wesley.
"It's a magus with some heavyweight spells in his arsenal," said Aggie. "Male, definitely human. I might recognize the magical energies if I ran into them again, but other than that I've got nothing."
"It's not Eve, then," said Fred.
"She could have outsourced," suggested Gunn.
"Who's Eve?" asked Aggie.
"Someone who tried to kill Angel recently," said Fred. "And then Angel got her boyfriend in big trouble and she swore vengeance on him. It's kind of a long story, really."
"He get that a lot?" asked Aggie. "People trying to kill him?"
Fred smiled. "Oh, just about all the time."
"Can you undo it, Wes?" asked Angel.
Wesley's nose was buried in the text. "Probably," he said.
"Oh, thank god," said Angel.
"But it's not going to be easy," Wesley added.
"Of course not, because where's all the fun if it's easy?" said Angel.
Wesley looked at Aggie. "How much time do we have?"
"It's pretty advanced. A few more hours--six at most--before he starts to turn into a vampire pumpkin."
Wesley nodded. "We're going to need to gather some ingredients for the counter-spell. Some of it's pretty basic: dove blood, Dead Sea salt, hand of glory."
"Ah, the sweet smell of irony in the morning," said Gunn.
"Do ya'll hear that?" asked Fred abruptly.
"What?" said Wesley.
"Listen," said Fred.
They listened. There was a sound like the roaring of a distant waterfall, or maybe far off thunder. It was getting louder by the second. In fact, it was not so much distant, actually, but more like right outside. The hair on Aggie's arms stood up as if the air around them was charged with static electricity... or magic.
I knew I shouldn't have invited them in, Aggie thought wearily, just before something crashed into the roof with a tremendous THUD.
[Go on to Chapter Four]