Chapter 1: Once Upon a Time in America
Sometimes, really bad days can start with birds singing outside the window.
At first, he thought it was the neighbor’s radio, and just buried himself under his pillow, burrowing his cheek against the cool cotton of his sheets in an attempt to drown out the noise.
It took him five minutes to remember the nancy boy neighbor was on vacation.
With a groan, Spike lifted his head, platinum locks tousled into errant curls, and squinted against the California sunshine that streamed in through his open window, scowling at the birds’ nest he could see at the top of the telephone pole not six feet away. One of these days, he thought irritably, I’m goin’ to remember to close that soddin’ window before I go to sleep.
Thinking of it as falling asleep was generous, he knew, but at that exact moment in time, the last thing he needed was to consider the greater ramifications of what his passing out for the third night in a row might mean. Better to just focus on the pounding behind his eyeballs, or the sandpaper that currently comprised his throat lining, or even the fact that he’d slept in his last pair of clean trousers so now looked like something that had been lost at the bottom of a linen basket for the past century. It didn’t help, of course, that the incessant chirping from outside was beginning to sharpen into long, pointed needles that were being driven through his eardrums, pricking his brain into shock with each shrill note, scraping down his spine until it felt like each vertebrae was going to be scraped raw from the tonality.
The gun from the nightstand was in his hand before he could think, its single shot rupturing the morning calm to shatter the upper pane of the window. As he’d intended, the bullet went low, missing the nest to imbed itself in the telephone pole, but the birds reacted exactly as he’d hoped, flying away in a dither that quickly left the room in silence.
Spike collapsed back onto the mattress, the gun dangling from his left hand over the side of the bed, his eyes fluttering closed. He wouldn’t have to worry about the noise getting reported. Just chalk up another advantage to already livin’ in a high-crime neighborhood, he thought grimly. Fuck what Red and Ripper think.
The conclusion that sleep would not be returning, no matter how hard he might try, settled in his awareness like a lead weight, and Spike sighed as he rolled himself up into a sitting position. Shower, he decided. I’ll take a shower and that’ll make me feel human again. Or at least wake me up. Hell, I’d settle for relatively conscious at this point. Maybe a bit of the dog that bit me. Yeah, that’ll take the edge off…
The harsh jangle of the phone was almost as bad as the damn birds, and Spike was up like a shot, the gun dropped to his bed to be replaced by the receiver. “What?” he barked into it.
“Rise and shine, sleepyhead!”
It was unnatural for anyone to be that chirpy at this hour of the morning, he thought, but the gaiety in Willow’s voice was enough to smooth the roughest edges of his temper, pushing his eyes shut as he fell back against the bed. “How do you know I wasn’t already up?” he asked wearily. “I could’ve been entertainin’, or in the shower, or doin’ naughty, naughty things that would make you blush brighter than your hair, Red.”
“Because I was the lucky one stuck on the stinky end of your feet last night when you passed out,” she said. “And seeing as how you would sleep through the entire day if given half a chance, odds were pretty good that you’d still be in bed at ten a.m.” There was the slightest of hesitations, and he heard the faint doubt creep into her voice. “You…weren’t doing anything…bad, right?”
Spike sighed, rubbing his hand over his face as if that would slough the exhaustion from his brain. “Just usin’ my little chickadee for target practice again,” he said.
He could almost see her shocked outrage through the phone line. “Spike! How many times have I told you to leave those poor birds alone? They’re defenseless little creatures, and I think the female is going to be laying eggs some time soon—.”
“Relax, Red. They’re goin’ to live to sing another day. But don’t be surprised if Ma Bell comes a-knockin’, demanding I replace that bloody pole.”
“Oh. Well. That’s all right then.”
“There a reason for this little wake-up call? Or do you just take extreme pleasure in makin’ sure I’m as miserable as possible by waking me out of my stupor?”
“We’ve got a new job. I wanted to give you the heads up so that you’d be presentable when Giles and I showed up on your doorstep. The last time you were that smoked and we came by, you almost blew Giles’ head off.”
She was probably right, but the problem was, he couldn’t remember that particular incident. Just would have to take her word for it. Not like Red ever lied or anything. Well, not to him, anyway. “And this couldn’t wait until tonight?”
“It’s kind of an important one—.”
“They’re all important to the one doin’ the hiring, pet. Aren’t you the one who keeps nattering on about the client, and the client’s rights, and keepin’ the client happy? No reason this one can’t wait until I pull myself together—.”
“Spike, they’re willing to pay us fifty large if we drop everything else we’re doing to take this. Half now. Half when the job is over.”
He’d been leaning over, scanning the floor for the cigarettes he had a funny feeling he’d knocked off the nightstand when he’d gone for his gun, and froze, head between his knees, as soon as she mentioned the money. Fifty thousand dollars. That was a lot of dosh. He hadn’t seen money like that since he’d gotten out of the game, and there was no way Red had ever seen it. Ripper probably had, but not since they’d hooked up, so it would certainly explain their eagerness to get started on it as soon as possible.
Slowly, Spike straightened, and did his best to keep his voice as even as possible. “Gimme time to get slicked up, Red. I’m feelin’ like something the cat coughed up at the moment. Be here in an hour?”
“With bells on.”
As he set the phone back onto its cradle, his blue eyes were pensive as he stared at the peeling wallpaper opposite him. Twenty-five now. Twenty-five later. That would clear a lot of debts. Hell, that would clear all his debts, as well as settle him up with Red and Ripper. They deserved more than what they got by working with him, but bugger if he knew why they stuck around like they did. He didn’t want to argue with it, though. The three of them made a good team, and he wasn’t about to muck up the best professional arrangement he’d ever had by letting a bout of self-loathing take control of his head. Wasn’t worth the trouble it would cause.
Fifty thousand dollars.
A man could do a lot of damage with that kind of money.
Her forehead fell to the hard wood with a muffled thud, her red hair tumbling across her cheeks. “He said, be there in an hour,” Willow said, her voice muted by the closeness of her mouth to the desk.
“Did he seem all right with it? No…questions?”
She shook her head, not even bothering to lift it to see Giles gazing worriedly down at her. “Nope. Heard about the money and jumped on it, just like you said he would.”
Absently, his hand dropped to her shoulder, patting it in reassurance. “Good job, Willow. Nicely done. We may get out of this yet without having to tell him.”
His words made her head jerk up, green eyes wide. “Are you kidding me?” she demanded. “Spike’s going to know as soon as I open my mouth that I lied to him. The only face that works on him is my resolve face, and somehow, I don’t think that one’s too appropriate for this particular situation.”
He was pacing around the small office, circumventing the desk, studiously avoiding looking at the files that sat in front of his partner. “You didn’t lie. You merely…didn’t tell him the whole story.”
“Oh, and that’s just jake because Spike is soooo good at discerning the finer points of that argument.” Willow sighed, and shook her head. “I hate this. He’s our friend. He deserves to know everything about this job, not just the bottom line.”
“You think I don’t know that?” His blue eyes were livid behind his spectacles and the young woman shrank back in the creaky chair as he thrust his hands into his deep trousers pockets. The man Spike called Ripper could be just as dangerous as the bleached blond; she just sometimes forgot that in the face of his more intellectual demeanor.
“I like this even less than you do,” he continued, “but I’ll be damned if I’m going to abuse our friendship by divulging that type of information if I don’t need to. It will only serve to make him feel guilty, and you know it.” At the darting of her eyes, he consciously exhaled, releasing the tension that had wound throughout his chest. “If it makes you feel better, I promise to be on the square with him if he asks anything further. I dislike lying to him as much as you do.”
Her smile was brilliant as she straightened in her chair. “Thanks, Giles. And, who knows? Maybe you’re right. Maybe the money will be enough for him to take it, no questions asked.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” Spike was prowling around the main living area of his apartment, limbs fraught with anger as his hands balled into useless fists at his sides. Twin spots of color were high on his pale cheeks, his nostrils flaring from the vehement exhalations coming from his lungs. Needless to say, he was pissed. “It’s in New York? You expect me to take a job in the Big bloody Apple when you know I haven’t been there since that whole mess with Nikki Wood?”
On the worn-out couch, Willow crossed her ankles nervously, using the files in her lap both as a shield and as something for her shaking hands to hold on to. She liked Spike, but he still managed to scare the crap out of her sometimes. “We thought…you know…with the money and all, that maybe that might be one eensy weensy detail you’d be willing to overlook this time.” She bit her lip as she tried to smile, tugging her skirt down over her knees, only to feel it fade from her face when the blond stopped right in front of her, sapphire eyes glittering dangerously as he looked down at her.
“One detail?” he said, his voice deceptively low.
She felt her skin crawl. She hated that tone of his voice. Especially when it was directed at her.
“One detail?” Spike repeated. His head tilted as he surveyed the stress rippling across the redhead’s face. “There is just so much wrong about this job that I can’t even believe you’ve got the moxie to sit there and tell me I should take it.”
“It’s fifty thousand—.”
“And if you remind me how much they’re willin’ to pay one more time, I swear I’m gonna go through and set fire to each and every one of your precious little files, Red, and then tie you down just so that you have to watch them go up in smoke.” He began pacing before her. “New York’s just a piece of it. Since when do I take jobs that require me to blow a complete stranger down? That’s why I got out of the family business in the first place, or have you forgotten that little part of my history?”
“No, I haven’t forgotten.”
From his perch at the room’s lone window, Giles cleared his throat, readying to speak for the first time since arriving a half hour earlier. “Spike—,” he started, only to be cut off when the blond whirled on him, his long finger pointing dangerously at the older man’s chest.
“And you!” he exploded. “You of all people should know better than to be trusting a bunch of lawyers in this. Who’s been spouting the anti-establishment line for as long as I’ve known him? Or, should I start thinkin’ that tryin’ to go legit means you’re more Rupert than Ripper these days? I’d lay good money that these Wolfram and Hart blokes would make Dru and her family look like Our Gang, so why on earth would you think I’d ever be willin’ to risk everything I’ve spent the last five years building here by takin’ them up on this job offer?”
With barely constrained frustration, Giles leapt from his seat and stalked past Spike, grabbing the uppermost file from Willow’s unsuspecting hands. “That’s why,” he barked in response, shoving it at the blond.
Spike’s angry frown as he flipped the file open quickly graduated to bewilderment as his blue eyes scanned the print, paging through the innards with increasing slowness, occasionally going back to re-read something. He couldn’t even look up when he’d reached the last page. “They’ve got my whole life in here,” he muttered. “Me and Dru…Prague…every job I ever did…” When he finally lifted his eyes, the azure had paled, his face bleak. “They even know about fuckin’ Chinatown. How the hell is that possible? Nobody knows about that, but me and that little bitch the family sent after me.”
The file dropped from his fingers, landing with a soft whisper on the edge of the couch, and Willow surreptitiously leaned over to pick it up. She watched as he fell into his favorite chair, slumping into the broken springs, his untucked shirt riding up to reveal a thin line of his pale abdomen. He had looked like hell when they’d arrived, freshly showered but in clothes that obviously hadn’t seen an iron in a month, and she’d felt that familiar pang of worry settle between her eyes as she drank in the shadows lingering in his aspect. He was working too hard, taking on clients even when they couldn’t pay, pushing himself to limits further than she ever thought he could manage, and now to be hit with this…
“These shysters know their stuff,” she said, and had to fight to keep the admiration out of her voice. “All cross-referenced, and color-coded…” She ducked her head under Giles’ withering gaze. “…and not really the point here,” she finished quietly.
“So I’ll just lay low for a bit,” Spike said, suddenly fascinated by the torn cuticles on his right hand. “Not like I haven’t gone underground before. They’ll find someone else to do their job—.”
“No, they won’t,” Giles said. He hated doing this; in the past five years of working with Spike—as he insisted on being called these days—life had been good. Maybe there were some lean times, but he admired the other Englishman’s determination to make a clean breast of it, abandoning his lethal work with the crime family that had raised him in favor of more mundane and less remunerative detective work. It didn’t seem quite right that this would come back now to burn him. “They want you, Spike. And they say that if you don’t take the job, they’ll make sure you get in dutch with the police for each and every thing in that file.”
“There’s more.” She refused to look at Giles when his spectacled gaze burned into her, surprised at herself for speaking up in spite of his earlier warnings. Even when Spike leaned forward, pressing his forearms into his knees, lowering his head to look at her through his lashes in that don’t-mess-with-me look he’d probably patented as soon as he’d passed into puberty, Willow lifted her chin to stare him down.
“What kind of more?” he asked.
“What she means is…” Giles sighed as he sat down on the arm of the couch. So much for trying to keep the more sordid details away from him. “…yours is not the only history they’ve dredged up. They’ve…found out about my involvement with Ethan Rayne. They’re threatening me with extradition if you don’t do this.”
“But we ran that wanker out of town after he double-crossed you on that smuggling scheme! Didn’t we fix it up so that Rayne was the only one linked to it?”
“We did. That doesn’t change the fact that these lawyers know about it now.”
“I thought you didn’t have to worry about gettin’ the gate anymore.”
“We also thought your history, as colorful as it is, was fairly safely guarded.”
Long fingers ran through his hair, pulling at the closely cropped curls. Five years. It had been five, very long, very stressful, years since he’d walked away from the murder for hire that had been his entire life, leaving Dru to the new man in her bed, taking with him the guarantees he needed to make sure that old man Conti never came after him. Going straight had seemed insurmountable at first, but then he’d met Ripper when he took a job in Los Angeles, and felt an instant affinity for his fellow Englishman. Their backgrounds were as dissimilar as they could get—Giles’ Oxford education was the natural extension of his upper-class upbringing, while Spike had done his book learning in between target practice sessions with Dru’s old man—but their kindred spirits, the intellectual housed within a rebel framework, had bonded them right away. The last thing Spike ever wanted was for Ripper to suffer as a result of his own past.
“I know some people,” the blond finally said, staring at the threadbare carpet as if the answers were etched into its fibers. “We can work it out so that they can’t touch you—.”
“They’ve got the scoop on me, too.” Her voice was soft, and held no recriminations, merely stating a fact she’d been anxious to share since they’d first made the call.
Spike’s surprised gaze lifted, watching as Ripper’s eyes closed, his hands wearily pulling his glasses from his nose. “Willow…” the older Englishman murmured in resignation.
“No,” she argued. “You told me we’d tell if it came to this. He knows about you. He needs to know about all of it.”
“What could they possibly have on you, Red?”
She had joined their small team at Giles’ request. Brilliant, able to adapt to any situation, Willow Rosenberg was the heart behind their operation, the one who sought to find the good in even the dirtiest jobs, the one who kept them grounded when it looked like things were flying out of their control. Both men were fiercely protective of her, and the last thing Spike would’ve ever thought was that she had something dark in her history.
“What?” she bristled. “You two are the only ones allowed to have a shady past?”
“You and shady?” Spike’s scarred eyebrow lifted. “Not two words I would’ve normally associated together.” His mouth was grim. “What is it?”
“Do you remember Oz?”
Spike frowned. “He was that musician you were dating when I met you, right?”
She nodded. “We didn’t exactly…break up. He kind of had to…leave the country. There was this singer, Veruca—a real chippy, let me tell you—who started following him around, and sending him stuff. He tried telling her to buzz off, but she wouldn’t listen, and they got into this fight.” She chewed at her bottom lip. “It was an accident. He didn’t mean to kill her, and I…I…made sure it all…went away.”
“If it went away, why’d he blow town?”
“He didn’t want me to get into trouble in case it came out what happened. And somehow, these Wolfram and Hart people found it out. I can go to jail for a whole bunch of crimes if they go to the cops.”
His eyes were unreadable as he gazed at the pair of them. His entire life had been spent between a rock and a hard place; now, all of a sudden, the rock was bloody Gibraltar and the hard place, the Great Wall of China. He didn’t care so much about his own past. Somehow, he’d always known his day of reckoning would come. And Giles, well…Giles was a grown man, with resources that still managed to surprise Spike, and he could take care of himself if it came down to it.
But Willow. Not his Red. In spite of her bravado and stiff upper lip, this would ruin her life for good, strip her of all her choices, and there was no way in hell he would be responsible for that. Mucking up his life was one thing; mucking up hers was entirely different.
Collapsing back into the chair, Spike dropped his head against the cushion, closing his eyes. “Give me the dope on the job again,” he said quietly, all fight gone from his voice.
The look she exchanged with Giles, though relieved, was guilt-ridden as Willow opened one of the files on her lap. “The mark was born Riccardo Scavuzzo, but when he came to America in fifteen, he changed it to Richard Wilkins, supposedly because it sounded less foreign. He’s only actually half-Italian. His mother was English, and Wilkins was her maiden name—.”
“Stick to the necessary facts, Red.”
“Oh. Right.” She fumbled with her notes. “He started out small, but it didn’t take him long to become one of the leading crime figures in New York. They call him the Mayor, because basically, he runs the city. He’s widowed, with one son, Angelo, twenty-eight, but they call him Angel. Supposed to be quite the ladies’ man. Father and son use a string of nightclubs to front their illegal operations.”
“And now someone thinks the Mayor’s gettin’ just a tad too big for his britches and wants him out of the picture.” It was a statement of fact. She’d already told him it was a hit.
“And he brassed off these lawyers?”
“No. Someone else has ordered the hit.”
Willow shrugged. “We don’t know. Wolfram and Hart are just the middle men. They haven’t given us that information. They said it wasn’t important for us to know.”
He didn’t like it. Everything about it was screaming danger to him, but with Ripper and Red’s lives in the balance as well, Spike knew he didn’t have a choice about the matter. In his path to going straight, he’d still killed people, but only in the line of the job, and never someone who could land him in the pen or come back to haunt him later. This was an out-and-out murder, of the head of a major crime family, on stomping grounds where Spike had left a lot of enemies scattered about when he’d left. It was not going to be pretty.
“I’m goin’ to need Harris,” he finally said. Time to get down to business. “If I want any shot in coming out of this still breathing, we need a boatload more information than what those hired hacks have given us. And for that, I’m goin’ to bring Harris in.”
Willow’s eyes went wide. “We haven’t worked with Xander since he and Anya got hitched,” she said. “There’s no way she’s going to let him do this. She hates that he worked for us when he did.”
“Then she’s goin’ to have to deal with it ‘cause there’s no way in hell I’m goin’ into this blind. Harris sees everything. And he’ll agree if I ask him. I know he will.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Giles said quietly. “I’ll take care of getting Xander. You…have enough to do.”
Spike sighed. “That I do, mate,” he murmured. “That I do.”
For better or for worse—most likely, for worse—William Rook, currently known as Spike to his friends, was on his way back to New York City.
“It’s done.” There was a long pause from the other end of the phone line, and Lindsay McDonald frowned, wondering if perhaps he’d lost the connection. “Did you hear me?” he repeated. “I said, he took the job.”
“And it’s William Rook? The dropper from the Conti family?”
“The one and the same.”
A long exhalation from the other end. “Good.”
Scribbling distractedly on his notepad, Lindsay said, “Now, you’re sure you want to use this guy? He’s gone legit, you know. Well, mostly legit. Not that he isn’t good, but I’m sure we can locate someone more local to you—.”
“No. It has to be done by someone out of town. If you’ve got him, then that’s all that matters.”
“Whatever you say.” A few more words, and he set the receiver back in its cradle, eyes shaded as he contemplated the files on his desk. It had taken more background work than they usually handled for this type of job, but these were very powerful men who had hired his law firm. Whatever they wanted, they got.
And they wanted this Spike.