Chapter One

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.

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.


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.

Continues in
chapter two...