Faith gave another glance to the print-out map she had been carrying in her pocket, then folded it back up and checked the time. The Wolf’s next killing was scheduled for 7:15am, so she and Buffy had come early to scope out the location where Willow had advised it would happen. Fortunately, there was no private residence within a thirty-foot radius, which was supposed to be the maximum distance that would work for the ritual. The spot was outdoors, in a patio adjacent to a commercial plaza. Faith had just done a headcount in the one restaurant which had unlocked its doors, and Buffy had disappeared into an indoor shopping center with the same purpose.
Something was going on with Buffy, Faith thought. Angel too, although she hadn’t seen him since the night before last, and Spike’s perspective on it hadn’t been much help. They were probably just stressed out by the mission, but they were supposed to be professionals.
Faith turned to circumnavigate the zone again, and was stopped short by the appearance of a familiar face she hadn’t been expecting here. “Oz,” she greeted him. “Hey. Are you here for...?” There was another man with him, a stranger, and she wasn’t sure about how freely she should speak.
“Yeah,” said Oz, then indicated his companion. “This is John Howell. He knew this was the spot, so we decided to check it out with you.”
“Oh!” Everything clicked into place. “You found him.”
It was Howell who answered. “I found him. Got away from the brainsucker influence before any real damage was done. You’re the Slayer?”
“I’m a Slayer. What do you mean ‘real damage’?” Faith heard a door close, and looked over her shoulder to see Buffy approaching with a wave and a nod.
“Something’s telling me to fly away,” Howell said gravely. “Something else is telling me to wreak havoc, all glory to the Wolf. Another something else just wants to help you guys as much as I can, to save Cleveland. Since the pull is pretty much equal in every direction, I figure I get to choose.”
Buffy had reached them just in time to respond to Howell’s self-analysis. “Smart move. I’m glad to see you’re okay.”
“So the gang’s all here,” said Faith. “Except for the ones who can’t do the sunshine thing. And the ones who, y’know, might be the actual killers.”
Buffy nodded. “We’ll see her coming. The front and side doors are the only ways to get into that restaurant, right?”
“Right,” said Faith. “And she’s not in there right now. What about the stores inside?”
“None are open and only one has anyone in there. It’s a sheet music store and this little old guy who looks like he hasn’t had a customer since cassette tapes were invented.” She paused thoughtfully. “Really makes it kind of inspirational that he’s the first one up and ready in the morning.”
Faith nodded. This was good -- there might not be a fight, but either way, they would want to be out in the open to see Nina coming. If it was even Nina. Maybe it was stupid to still be holding onto the hope that her friend was going to be okay, but at least she was on guard for other possibilities.
Buffy frowned at a car that was zooming by. “This is the first location in the golden spiral that’s in a public space in almost-broad daylight. Is she going to compensate for that somehow, or is she ready to reveal herself to whoever happens to be taking an early morning walk?”
Oz coughed. “Why don’t you ask her?”
Faith, Buffy, and Howell all whirled around. Nina was approaching at a relaxed amble, sunglasses perched on her head and a purse slung over her shoulder. Her gait paused when she saw them, and she held up her hands in mock surprise. “Hello, everyone. What are you doing here?”
“We were going for breakfast,” said Faith, indicating the restaurant and swallowing a nervous laugh. “You?”
It was surreal, trying to fake a normal conversation when every single person here knew exactly what was going on, but Nina sounded so natural that it put doubts in her head all over again. “Shopping. Mr. E wants some songbooks. He’s really serious about this idea of getting a band together.” She smiled, a patronizing expression. “Well, I’ll leave you to your 24-hour diner food. Really hits the spot at 7:17 in the morning, doesn’t it?”
The implication sank in all at once, and Faith saw the color draining from Buffy’s face at the same moment that she felt it in her own. She looked at her watch, too automatically to fight the impulse. Nina was right: it was 7:17am. Two minutes after the death was supposed to take place.
Oz ran into the diner, Buffy and Faith lunged for Nina, and Howell reeled backward, hand to his face, saying, “Oh God, of course. Why do I only know it now?”
“Take it easy,” Nina chided them, not bothering to struggle or even feign surprise as the Slayers each grabbed one of her arms. “Look around you. Is this a crime scene?” She waited until their doubt had loosened their grip, then said, “Now let me go get my boyfriend’s present.”
Oz reemerged, shaking his head in consternation. “What is it?” he asked Howell, who was still distraught.
“Music shop,” the pilot said hoarsely. “We ought to escort her.”
All four of them did, letting Nina lead the way through the building’s main entrance and under a sign reading All Harmony Music. A string of bells on the shop’s narrow wooden door rang out as it swung open, but instead of the peaceful scent of books, an odor of fresh blood hit Faith’s nose.
Nina screamed, as convincingly as if it had been authentic. Everyone pushed their way in and fanned out to see the body on the floor, an aged shopkeeper in an old-fashioned vest, lying in a pool of blood. Buffy rushed over, but there was no hope: his forearms had each been deeply slashed from wrist to elbow with a bloody pocketknife that had fallen by his head.
“A suicide?” said Oz, aghast.
“Sure,” Nina chuckled, all traces of horror gone from her voice. “Let’s go with that.”
Faith saw the pieces come together, and spoke them out loud, facing Nina. “They were all suicides, weren’t they? You just paid them a visit afterward to obscure the evidence.” The full magnitude of it hit her. “You were pinning it on werewolves! Your own pack!”
Nina shrugged. “This one won’t look like werewolves. Unless you’d all like to step outside for a moment so I can change. No? Alright then. Does anyone want to call the cops, or should I?”
“They’re coming,” said Buffy, her phone in her hand and her voice just above a whisper, but full of restrained rage. “And you’re coming with us.”
Footsteps came pounding up to the shop’s entrance, and Nina said, “I don’t think so,” just before it opened. They turned to see, not the police, but Mr. E, his face white and breath rapid.
Nina flung herself into his arms, sobbing. “Oh, Eric. This poor old man. It’s just too horrible.”