Comments please, won't be posting to archives for a few days but feedback appreciated.
"I'm sorry," Billie lied, "I've heard nothing of Holtz since the night he appeared in my house."
"You're quite sure of that?" asked the homicide detective who'd called in at her office. "We had an anonymous tip-off you'd seen him again."
"I'm afraid not. Surely I'm not your only lead to him?"
"We're looking at some other possibilities. I think you said that Holtz claimed that a detective called Angel killed his wife and children."
"That's right. Have you asked him about it?"
"He's not co-operating, and he's not answering his phone."
"Well, my niece is renting office space from them, if I see mister Angel I'll mention that you're trying to contact him."
"Word is nobody's seen him in five days or so."
"I saw him last Saturday, if that helps."
"Not really. That's what everyone says."
"What about the men who attacked me?" asked Billie, "I'm rather more worried about that. Holtz saved my life, after all."
"We're still working on it. Trouble is that Holtz killed all of them so there's nobody to question."
"And their links to Wolfram and Hart?"
"Nothing more than we knew two weeks ago. Lindsay MacDonald seems to have been working alone, the way we put it together he heard that your niece was looking for you, somehow found out about her patent deal, and decided to slip in a ringer."
"And the rest of Wolfram and Hart is completely clean?"
"We can't prove otherwise."
"And you think?"
"This for you or the paper?"
"I think they're covering something; maybe MacDonald had help from someone else in the company. But we can't prove anything."
"Thank you. If I hear anything I'll let you know. Unless there's something else...?" There wasn't. Billie showed him out of her office and went back to work on the editorial for the next issue. She'd been typing for nearly five minutes when the phone rang.
"Yes?" There was a slight snarl in her voice
"Your niece is on four."
"Okay, put her through." There were a couple of clicks, then Billie said "Willow? I'm a little behind schedule, unless it's very quick I'll have to call you back."
"No problem, just wanted to let you know that Tara and I will be at the Hyperion tomorrow through to Sunday evening, got some business meetings."
"Okay, I'll try to drop by if I can. Or come round to my place tomorrow night."
"Can't, I'm afraid, we're baby-sitting for Angel."
"Oh. Okay, I'll probably call in at the Hyperion then. Give me a call if you change your plans. Now, I'm sorry, I'm going to have to dash."
"Okay, see you tomorrow night. 'Bye." Willow hung off, and Billie spent a moment wondering what the call had really been about. Willow thought that Wolfram and Hart were bugging the phones, so she could be trying to reinforce the idea that Angel was away for a few days. But sooner or later someone would surely realise he wasn't coming back... She resolutely pushed it to the back of her mind and set to work on the editorial again, wondering what Willow had in mind. She was nearly finished when the phone rang again.
"Miss Newman?" Billie was about to say something rude, but recognised the caller's voice in the nick of time. David Nabbit, the owner of the paper, at least for the time being.
"Mister Nabbitt? What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to let you know that I've received a very interesting offer for the Tribune. I can't go into details right now, but so far it's looking very promising." He sounded as enthusiastic as he'd been after Willow's blessing spell for Connor.
"Are they prepared to guarantee continued publication?"
"The initial offer included a five year committment to continued publication, and a three year no layoff guarantee."
"What about our other publications? The Sunday Trib,, the books, and the web business?"
"The five year commitment covers them, so does the guarantee."
"It sounds good, unless they're planning to asset-strip us a few years down the line."
"I'm still working on that side of things, all I can really say is that it looks promising, in fact it's a better offer than I made when I bought the Tribune, and the FCC shouldn't raise any objections."
"Can I say anything to the other staff?"
"I'd rather you didn't right now," said Nabbit. "I just wanted to let you know that things are in motion, and that there ought to be an announcement within the next few days. You'll be informed first, of course."
"What about a management buyout?" It was something she and the other editors had been considering, though the costs looked prohibitive.
"I doubt that you'll want to go ahead with that when you see what's on offer."
"I see. Okay, if you can keep me posted, I'd better get back to work."
"Sure. I really shouldn't be bothering you with this yet, it's just so promising that I thought I'd let you know. I'll talk to you again next week." He hung off. Billie looked at her computer screen, got her thoughts back into gear, and finished the editorial.
"Okay," said Billie. "Main lead is the crime figures, secondary leads the Iraq censorship story and the school construction bond issue, then our page three spreads are the Hubble pictures and the charity rock concert, what's her name...."
"Celeste," said Animal.
"Yes, the picture of her and the bass guitarist, ahhh..."
"Yes, them. The picture of them with the giant cheque."
"It's corny," said Joe Rossi.
"Our readers donated the money," said Billie, "they'll want to see it given to the relief fund."
"It's a slow news day, if you've got something better to suggest tell me now, otherwise we need to move on."
"Okay. Let's move on."
After the meeting Tommy Fowler stopped Billie and said "Spare a few minutes?"
"Sure. What have you got for me?"
"Just an odd little fact," said the crime reporter, "about your favourite lawyers."
"Wolfram and Hart?"
"Them. More specifically, about Linsday MacDonald."
"Three days before he turned up dead in LA someone with the same name and appearance was in Reno, Nevada, working in a hardware store. Left work one evening, never came back. If it was him he'd been there for at least the last six months."
"Are you sure?"
"Not yet, it could be someone else with the same name. But I really don't think so, and neither do the Nevada police. For some reason they're having trouble convincing the LAPD."
"This is dynamite."
"I guess." He didn't sound happy about it. "I suppose he might just have organised everything from Nevada, but I really don't think it's likely, do you? But even if it's true, I'm willing to bet that another scapegoat will turn up before Wolfram and Hart have to answer too many awkward questions."
"I wonder...." said Billie.
"Wonder what?" asked Tommy.
"I wonder if we can spot the scapegoat before it happens, and persuade him to talk."
"Who did you have in mind?"
"I looked at the record on MacDonald," said Billie. "He worked in their Special Projects department. So do the lawyers who visited me in hospital, Gavin Park and Lilah Morgan."
"Do you think it'll be one of them?"
"I think I'd love to know more about their Special Projects department, what it does and who else works for it. But I'd rather not go to Wolfram and Hart and ask, and I'd rather you didn't either. Do we have any sources inside the company?"
"I'll ask around, see if anyone knows anyone."
"Keep it low profile and very very quiet," said Billie.
"Count on it."
As Billie entered the Hyperion the following evening she heard Willow's voice from one of the rooms off the lobby. "Okay, that's pretty good, but you need to brood more." Intrigued, she followed the sound into an office where she found Willow and Cordelia talking to... talking to Angel. She felt faint, and he moved to support her before she fell. His hands were cool.
"It's okay," said Willow, "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you. It's Tom. You know, Zap."
"Zap?" said Billie.
"I got a customization kit for him, changed his appearance to match Angel."
"Oh..." Billie tried to think of something to say, settled for "It's very convincing."
"Trouble is the reflection," said Cordelia. "Angel didn't have one, Zap does."
"You don't look very enthusiastic, Miss Newman," said Zap. He even sounded like Angel.
"I was thinking about the earlier idea Willow had, to have Cordelia's friend take his place," said Billie, "and I thought of an objection to that. I think it applies to this idea too."
"What's that?" asked Willow.
"What do you do when he's unmasked? Sooner or later he will be, then Wolfram and Hart will know that you're hiding something. They'll soon work out what it must be."
"It's a good point," said Cordelia. "It might work once or twice, but what do we do in the long term?"
"We replaced Buffy with the Buffybot for more than three months," Willow said defensively.
"But the demons got wise to it eventually," said Cordelia. "And didn't she get torn to pieces?"
"Not my favourite scenario," said Zap, reverting to his normal voice. "I kinda like this body."
"We just wanted something to keep things under control as long as possible," Willow admitted unhappily. "But I guess that doesn't apply here. You need things stable, keep Wolfram and Hart off your backs until Connor's grown."
"And Connor's another problem," said Billie. "Who's going to look after him in the long term?"
"Me," said Cordelia. "Looks like I won't be having any kids of my own, at least until we figure out what to do about the demonic side of things."
"Won't your friend have something to say about that?"
"Groo? We're kinda not talking. It turns out that while I wanted to jump his bones, he was thinking more about founding a dynasty then returning to Pylea to conquer the place. And I am so not ready for another demonic pregnancy."
"Another?" asked Billie.
"Long story," said Cordelia. "Anyway, the point is that Groo and me won't be happening, and he's sulking about it. He'll get over it."
"But are you really ready to take on that sort of responsibility?"
"You mean, do I want to be a single mom?"
"Putting it bluntly," said Billie, "yes."
"It would have been better if Angel was around to be his dad, but yeah, I want it."
"And money won't be a problem," said Willow. "The way Angel set things up, there'll be more than enough money for his bills, college fees, that kinda thing. And he's gonna have a rich aunt to spoil him rotten."
"That," said Wesley, coming in behind Billie, "would imply that you were Cordelia's sister. Something else we should be worrying about?"
"God," said Willow, "I hope not. It's bad enough that the whole time travel thing made me my own mom and dad..."
"Definitely. Perhaps you should write a Country and Western song about it. Now then, how's our imitation Angel coming along?"
"Not so good," said Cordelia. "Billie just pointed out that we're not gonna get away with it for long enough to keep Connor safe."
"How so?" asked Wesley.
"You might get away with it once or twice," said Billie, "but Zap told me that body isn't much stronger or faster than an ordinary human. How are you going to make them think he's a vampire. Won't they notice he has a reflection, or detect the machinery somehow?"
"It's a good point," said Zap. "Can I go and change my skin now? This feels weird."
"Hold it right there, mister," said Willow. "Okay, is there any way around this? Zap, can that body be upgraded?"
"No. Baltian body suits are designed to imitate humans, not superhumans. It's not supposed to be much stronger or faster, and there's no room for modifications."
"I must admit that there are a few practical problems," said Wesley. "For example, I doubt that he's nearly as damage-resistant as a real vampire. And what would happen if someone touched him with a cross, or threw holy water at him?"
"Nothing," said Willow. "There's no way to fake that sort of thing convincingly. Damn!"
"Wait a minute," said Cordelia. "We're missing something here. We want an excuse to take Angel out of the game without killing him. What if he Feng Shui'd then vanished somewhere."
"Feng Shui?" asked Wesley, confused. "Rearranged his environment to attract auspicious spirits?"
"Don't be a... a Watcher, Wes. That thing Angel was supposed to do eventually. Become human."
"I think that the word you're looking for is Shanshu, Cordelia."
"If we do that," said Wesley, "it would leave us wide open here. Without Angel around they just aren't scared of us. Besides, if he's supposed to be human wouldn't he want to take you and Connor with him?"
"There must be something that would do the trick," said Billie. "What are Wolfram and Hart afraid of?"
"Angel, I guess," said Cordelia, "and champions like him. The Powers That Be, maybe. Apart from that, who knows?"
"You know," Wesley said slowly , "there is someone they're afraid of, I think. Miss Newman, I'd like you to arrange a couple of meetings."
"Let me see if I understand you fully," said Holtz. "You want me to take the place of Angelus?"
"Not exactly," said Wesley. "We're conscious of the differences in our philosophies, and I doubt that they can ever be completely reconciled. And I'm afraid that while we respect you, none of us actually like you very much, which would make a working relationship rather difficult. In the long term I'd suggest that you consider joining the Watcher's Council; they'd welcome you with open arms, and I suspect would have good use for your talents. I'd be delighted to make introductions. But first we'd greatly appreciate your help with a more immediate matter."
"Sooner or later our enemies are going to realise that Angel is dead. Once that happens there'll be a feeding frenzy. Wolfram and Hart and several different demonic groups will attempt to kill us all, try to capture Connor for whatever foul rites they feel appropriate, and so forth."
"We could go to the police," said Billie, "but they don't seem to be equipped to handle situations like this, and there isn't really any proof of anything."
"And you think that I can?" asked Holtz.
"Not exactly," Wesley repeated. "We simply wish to give them pause for thought, convey the idea that we are a rather difficult target, even without Angel, and are best left alone."
"And how did you plan to do that? By logic?"
"Well actually," said Wesley, "we were considering a practical demonstration."
"Exactly what did you have in mind?"
"Basically, we were thinking in terms of using a ridiculously excessive amount of violence."
"On whom, precisely?"
"Oh, on everyone, naturally. Why play favourites?"
Holtz slowly smiled. "Tell me more."