“And if I go to Mali and find that Mr. Harris is wholly innocent of these charges, what then?” I asked.
Mr. Wyndham-Pryce relaxed, as if relieved that he would not have to carry out his threat. “I am very confident that you will discover something the Council would find worth delving into.”
In the weeks following my meeting with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, I was irritable and snappish. People who worked with and under me very quickly learned to stay out of my way. When forced to interact with me, they kept their conversations short, to the point, and focused on professional matters.
Jonathan had a full slate of interviews during this time period, and so was not around. I dearly wished for him to be close, so I could confide in him about my meeting and seek his advice. He had a political turn of mind and might see something that I had missed. However, I might’ve put both myself and him at risk had I opened up to him about my situation, as well as the underlying fears that motivated my resistance against going to Africa to sabotage Mr. Harris.
My internal tensions were made all the worse because after leaving Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s residence I heard nothing more from him. Despite being constantly on the lookout for it, I received no secret communication from the man regarding his plans or what he expected me to do. The all-encompassing silence drove me to utter distraction. Even my normal comforts, such as burying myself in my work or burying myself in my books at home, were denied me as my mind raced to concoct scenarios that became more and more outlandish as time passed.
Looking back, however, I was being selfish. During those intervening weeks Mr. Wyndham-Pryce had received news that his son had perished in L.A. He may well have been tied up in personal matters, as well as very private grief. He might not have given our meeting another thought as he wrestled with his loss.
As spring turned over to summer, the seemingly endless wait was finally broken, not by Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, but by a summons to report to Mr. Giles on July 1. Although the request was made during daylight hours and my meeting was on Mr. Giles’s public agenda, my stomach tied itself in knots and it seemed I was incapable of halting the insistent tremors in my hands as I climbed stairs and walked halls to Mr. Giles’s top floor suite at the appointed time.
Despite my foot-dragging across the length and breadth of the Council campus, I still managed to arrive 15 minutes early for my appointment. Mr. Giles’s personal secretary, Mr. Andrew Wells, looked up at my arrival and immediately issued an apology. I was not only early, but Mr. Giles was running slightly behind. He kindly offered me tea and pastries to help pass the time.
As Mr. Wells scurried away on his mission, it occurred to me that this man was one of those who had fought in Sunnydale. Grateful for something to concentrate on that didn’t involve my impending meeting with Mr. Giles, I prepared to engage Mr. Wells in conversation. Although the reports and video interviews of the civilian Sunnydale survivors often left me with a bad taste in my mouth, I was curious to see if there was a notable difference between a survivor who made a stand and those who didn’t.
He returned to the reception area bearing a tray with a mug of tea, cubes of sugar, slices of lemon, milk, and a plate of pastries on it. “Earl Grey, hot,” he announced with a wide grin. “I didn’t know what you wanted in it so I grabbed everything and put it on the side. I forgot to ask what you wanted to eat, so I took one of everything. Is that okay?”
Mr. Wells seemed so unaccountably pleased with his efforts, that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t like Earl Grey. I prefer a more straightforward tea and am more than content with PG Tips and the like. However, I promptly thanked him, and then poured as much milk as I could into the cup.
As he settled behind his desk and busied himself with paperwork, I made a stab at a conversation. “So, you’re Andrew Wells. You’re one of the people who fought in Sunnydale against the First Evil, aren’t you?”
He startled a bit, which caused some of the papers in his hands to crinkle. “Yes! Oh, yes. Sorry. I didn’t expect…I mean, not a lot of people talk to me here, especially after that thing in Rome and…Well, outside of the other Scoobies, who talk to me all the time, but they’re all over the place and not here.”
At this point, Mr. Wells reached out and patted a fishbowl placed in prominent position at the front of his desk.
“Xander sent this to me from Africa. It’s a mbuna fish, which is like a cichlid. He got it from Lake Victoria. Or maybe that’s Lake Malawi. One of those lakes. I’d like to visit him like I visited Buffy in Rome and Spike in Los Angeles which…poor Spike. I didn’t think anyone expected what happened to him was going to happen. Anyway, I’d like to go to Africa to visit Xander, but Mr. Giles doesn’t think it’s a good idea right now, because Xander’s busy, busy, busy and he doesn’t really need me to translate any demon languages for him. Yet.” Mr. Wells then crossed fingers on both hands and lifted them up to show me. “But here’s hoping! I’d really like to see a lion. Or maybe an elephant. Yeah. I’d really like to see zebras, too. But not hyenas because, well, there might be some trauma there and I don’t want to see Xander get upset. Plus, I wouldn’t want to see them anyway because, you know, The Lion King.”
By the time Mr. Wells finished his soliloquy and turned his watery, hopeful eyes to me for a response, I was a bit dizzy trying to figure out how he managed to get all that information on the table without taking a breath. Most of what he said was an utter mystery, yet he spoke as if I should know this information.
However, I was surprised that Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s loss didn’t even merit a mention, yet a souled vampire who burned up on the Hellmouth almost a year before the events in L.A. did. The other thing I gleaned from Mr. Wells long-winded speech was that the “Xander” in question was none other that Mr. Harris. What’s more, Mr. Wells had inadvertently revealed something very important: Mr. Giles was actively preventing at least one of his compatriots from visiting the man, despite Mr. Wells’s obvious enthusiasm for the trip. This singular fact lent more weight to Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s suspicions.
“Mr. Giles must prize your skills if you are here and not traveling willy-nilly to pay your friends a social call,” I carefully said, hoping to pry more information from him.
Mr. Wells puffed up his chest. “Mr. Giles is training me to be a Watcher par excellence, which is why he wants me close, so I can watch and learn. You know, Watcher-in-training watching the best Watcher of his generation in action. Mr. Giles says I have the right stuff to take over from him someday.”
It took everything I had not to snort in my tea. First off, I suspected that there weren’t many in the Council who would agree that Mr. Giles was the best, although they would concede that he was perhaps the luckiest. As for those who wouldn’t disregard Mr. Wells’s hyperbolic statement out-of-hand, even they would say the jury was out on just how superior Mr. Giles actually was as a Watcher.
The second reason for my amusement at Mr. Wells’s declaration was more mean-spirited. The position of personal secretary tended to be reserved for those scions of Old Watcher families who’d be a disaster in any other job. The men and women who fulfilled the role were competent enough at directing traffic, juggling appointments, and flattering the right people, but were generally of little use otherwise. Getting appointed to the position of personal secretary, even as personal secretary to the First Watcher, was a bit of a joke and a bit of an insult.
It appeared that Mr. Giles, for all his vaunted statements about changing the basic culture of the Council, had kept one shopworn tradition very much alive. Rather than chucking the useless buggers that clogged the Council’s hallways, he opted to give them jobs where they would do the least harm, provided they or their families were considered part of the Council’s ruling class. For whatever reason, Mr. Wells was now part of that ruling class, despite the fact he lacked the requisite bloodline and education.
Mr. Wells continued to rattle on, waxing philosophic about his plan to become “more British” so he could be a good Watcher and make Mr. Giles proud, despite a distressing allergy to his tweed suits that he had recently developed. I answered politely as I could, and spent a lot of time sipping at my tea to prevent an insulting giggle from escaping my lips.
I was surprised by my first impression of Mr. Wells. Here was a Sunnydale survivor, one that had allegedly fought on the Hellmouth, yet he was full of the nervous tics and twitches that I had witnessed in his civilian counterparts. He seemed to combine every defensive mechanism I had seen over the course of almost 10 months in one compact body. He was both self-aggrandizing, and self-pitying. He was irritatingly ingratiating, while being utterly clueless about the fact that his audience didn’t want to be his friend. He seemed so meticulously focused on some sort of personal narrative, that he was blind to the fact that not everyone around him cared to be just another supporting character in any story where he was the hero.
In short, Mr. Wells seemed just like all those helpless civilian Sunnydale survivors who spent most of their miserable lives as nothing more than prey. The only difference was that his refusal to know or understand this fact was undermined by his knowledge of what Sunnydale truly was. It made him seem even more unbalanced than his fellow townsfolk.
I confess that in those opening moments when I was subjected to the full-force of Mr. Wells’ apparent delusion, an awful thought dawned. What if there was something subtly and sinisterly off with all the Sunnydale survivors, including the ones who stood against the darkness? If it was the case, than the Reformed Council was gambling its future by allowing a madman and his equally mad inner circle to lead it.
Finally, Mr. Wells stopped prattling long enough to ask what I did for the Council. When I told him that I was the Head Archivist and Statistician for the Sunnydale Project, the most extraordinary thing happened. Mr. Wells seemingly transformed in front of my very eyes. Gone was the fluttery creature with the stream of distracting words. In his place was a somber, serious young man with eyes so bright that they betrayed something fundamental about the inner workings of the mind behind them. They were the eyes of someone who had caught a glimpse of what truly lives in the darkness and wished he hadn’t.
He leaned back and regarded me with his suddenly attentive gaze. I was so taken aback by the physical transformation that I was at a loss for words.
The surprising silence stretched for some minutes before Mr. Wells quietly said, “Sunnydale was…” his voice trailed off as he took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “It was not a good place. A lot of people didn’t see it. Some people fought it. Other people,” he helplessly shrugged, “other people got lost in it, sometimes forever.”
This statement was so full of quiet dignity, so full of regret that I was left breathless. It was nearly impossible to believe that this Mr. Wells would ever tolerate playing the ineffectual bumbling creature that greeted me when I first entered Mr. Giles’s private reception area.
He nodded, but now his gaze was turned inward. “A lot of good people died. A lot of good people. People who shouldn’t have died did. A lot of good people lost a lot. Some of them lost everything.”
“Including you?” I sympathetically asked.
His expression was unreadable. “No. I gained everything. I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve to be here and I don’t deserve this desk, but I’m here and I’m going to do the best I can.” He looked at me then. “Don’t feel bad for me. I’d rather have my job than yours, that’s for sure.”
I almost dropped my cup and saucer at the revelation. He knew. He knew his position was a joke. If he knew, could it be possible he was playing an expected role? It was incomprehensible to me that anyone would do such a thing. It was one thing to hide a dangerous secret like mine as I moved along a career path that would eventually earn me respect for the skills that truly mattered to me. It was something else entirely to knowingly and willingly allow yourself to be thought a fool for no discernable reason.
I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, that the fact that Mr. Wells did it without complaint or without giving himself away was both extraordinary and admirable. He sacrificed much, I would say too much. In the end, he may have been the deciding factor that set the Reformed Council on its present course. He does not get nearly enough credit from certain quarters for that. Let me state categorically that Mr. Wells was a fine man and that everything you think you know of him is wrong. I hope the real picture will emerge as more secret documents from this time period become public. I hope that before the end of my memoirs, I do justice to his memory by placing a down payment on the debt we all owe to Mr. Wells and his ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.
Forgive my defensiveness on behalf of the late Mr. Wells. I will now continue with my current story.
“Some people call what happened to Sunnydale a tragedy,” Mr. Wells said with a trace of venom. “Not me. Good riddance. The world’s better off.” He winced. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s going to come back and bite us. I just know it.”
“You have an odd view of karmic payback,” I remarked.
“No,” he said slowly. “I just know Sunnydale. Plus, I’ve read some of your reports.”
I sat up, shocked to realize that eyes other than those belonging to Mr. Giles were reading my confidential communications. “What?”
Right at that moment, the intercom buzzed on Mr. Wells’s phone. He startled a bit, before picking up the handset and listening to the voice on the other end. “I’ll send her in,” he responded. As he hung up the phone, he indicated the door behind him with a jerk of his head and said, “Mr. Giles said to just walk in. He’s ready to see you now.”
As I got up from my chair, I was disconcerted to notice that Mr. Wells was watching me very closely, as if he were waiting for me to say or do something that I had failed to say or do. As I opened the door to Mr. Giles’s office, I swore I heard him mumble, “Interesting.”
Although it was still light outside, Mr. Giles’s office was cast into deep shadow. The drapes had been drawn. A single standing lamp in a corner to the right of Mr. Giles was on, as was a desk lamp. The man himself was shuffling paperwork, seemingly oblivious to my entrance.
I stood uncertainly on the deep, plush carpeting and waited for him to acknowledge my presence.
He finally looked up. Intellectually I knew his face was cast in shadow, but my sensitive eyes could clearly see his carefully guarded expression. “Miss Swithin?”
The question was cool and polite. He didn’t even make an attempt at a show of warmth or vague friendly feeling. The knots in my stomach tightened as it occurred to me that he might be aware of my secret meeting with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce and that he had summoned me to discuss its contents.
I nervously cleared my throat and forced my body still, before any telltale tremble betrayed my guilt. “Yes, sir. You wished to see me, sir?”
Without a word, he indicated a chair situated directly in front of his desk. His eyes didn’t leave me at all.
I was halfway to my assigned seat when I became aware of a second subtle presence in the room. It’s hard to say what tipped me off. Perhaps a displacement of air, indicating that there was something solid where there should have been nothing. Perhaps I picked up on the sound of quiet breathing. My eyes were drawn to a heavily shadowed corner to the left of Mr. Giles and I was startled to see a young, redheaded woman sitting there. The shadows seemed to coalesce around her, as if they were both cloak and shield against the light in the room.
“Miss Swithin? Are you quite all right?” Mr. Giles’s voice intruded.
My head quickly turned to him. “Sorry, sir. I was under the impression I was to meet alone with you.”
The young woman raised both her eyebrows, and gave Mr. Giles a meaningful look.
“I do apologize.” In truth, Mr. Giles sounded not at all apologetic. “This is Miss Rosenberg. I make it habit to consult with her on certain matters and felt it best that she be present for our meeting. I had assumed you wouldn’t mind.”
The revelation of the unexpected third party’s identity caused my heart to pound in my chest out of fear. I suddenly knew that the purpose of this meeting was not to discuss Mr. Wyndham-Pryce or secret meetings. I could be here to discuss my work on the Sunnydale Project, or I could have been finally unmasked. Discussing Sunnydale, while not a pleasant way to pass the time, was infinitely preferable.
“No, sir. Not at all, sir,” I quickly answered as I took my seat.
Miss Rosenberg remained silent as the shadows seemed to drift away from her. While not fully in the light, she no longer seemed as hidden as she once was, now that I had detected her presence. Her eyes remained fixed on me, as if she wasn’t entirely sure what to make of my existence.
Looking back, it’s interesting to see how first impressions can affect one. Over the years, I have grown to rather like Miss Rosenberg and appreciate her quick mind and her gentler attributes. However, as a result of our first meeting and the events that happened after, it took some time before I was entirely comfortable being in the same building as her, let alone in the same room.
The most disconcerting thing about seeing Miss Rosenberg for the first time was her eyes. If I had thought Mr. Wells’s eyes were bright once he removed his mask, Miss Rosenberg’s eyes positively glittered with secret knowledge that any sane person would fear to know, let alone understand.
And yes, there were times long after I had become more accustomed to her that I would occasionally catch a glimpse of this secret knowledge in her eyes. When I did, I always found that some part of myself had never left Mr. Giles’s office. It’s akin to having a moment of your life unexpectedly encased in amber. You may often forget it exists, but the subtle reminder that it’s an indelible cobblestone on the path of your life always takes you by surprise.
Once I had taken my seat, Mr. Giles asked, “And how are you doing this afternoon?”
The question sounded polite, but I had the sense that it was leading to something. Where, I feared to guess.
“A little nervous, sir,” I confessed as I pointedly concentrated on Mr. Giles’s face and ignored the unsettling presence of Miss Rosenberg.
Mr. Giles raised an eyebrow and spared Miss Rosenberg a glance. She merely shrugged at him in response. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I had given the wrong answer. As it turned out I had, but I had no idea just how wrong until long after the fact.
“I express concern because you’ve been working very hard on the Sunnydale Project. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate your diligence and attention to detail. Your reports are thorough, informative, and very fact-based. You are clearly not prone to flights of fancy, which, I cannot stress enough, is perhaps the most important quality for one in your position,” Mr. Giles said.
I lost the battle against frowning at him in confusion. The words sounded right, but they also sounded rehearsed. Again, it was hard to explain what quality tipped me off, yet I couldn’t deny it was there. As Mr. Giles pointed out, I was not prone to flights of fancy.
“Is there a problem with the Sunnydale Project?” I carefully enquired.
Mr. Giles leaned back, throwing his face even more in shadow. My eyesight immediately compensated so that his carefully schooled expression remained in focus.
“In a sense,” he allowed. “You are being removed from the project.”
“Miss Swithin, please do sit down,” Mr. Giles calmly said.
I looked down and realized that in my shock, I had jumped to my feet without thinking. As I retook my seat, I realized that Miss Rosenberg had also gotten to her feet. Unlike me, she remained standing, but her body language was tense as if she expected me to turn violent.
“This is not a reflection of your competency,” Mr. Giles continued. “As I have indicated, you have done an outstanding job and I could not ask for a more conscientious person.”
“Then why am I being removed?” I asked.
“I was rather under the impression that everyone involved with the Sunnydale Project hopes to move on to bigger and better things,” he dryly said.
I really had nothing to say to that. Denying it would’ve been an egregious lie.
“Not that I entirely blame any of you,” he said. “I find some of the patterns you’ve uncovered to be rather disconcerting. And I am speaking as someone who lived there for several years. Heaven knows that the town and the people who resided there have often confounded me. I cannot imagine what it must be like watching interview after interview with the survivors, knowing what you know. I, too, would be seeking an expedited transfer to something less unpleasant.”
Mr. Giles’s show of sympathy was perhaps the first heartfelt thing he’d said since I walked into the room. While the change in tenor did not put me entirely at ease, it appeared that I was not about to be disgraced. In fact, I suspected that I was up for a promotion in recognition of my hard work on a most trying task.
“Thank you, sir, for your understanding,” I said. “You’ve given voice to my thoughts.”
Mr. Giles cracked a smile, although I noticed that Miss Rosenberg’s expression had turned to stone.
“Excellent,” he said. “I’m glad I’ve put your fears at rest. As it so happens, I have a most important mission for you. Aside from your stellar work on the Sunnydale Project, you were highly, some might say forcefully, recommended as the right person for this task.”
“I’m ready to serve, sir,” I said proudly.
Mr. Giles paused. Miss Rosenberg’s eyes widened in anticipation. My momentary feeling of reprieve vanished.
“I want you to go to Africa,” Mr. Giles announced.
I immediately clasped my hands together in my lap. Had I grabbed the arms of the chair like I wanted, I would have crushed the wooden frame cushioned in its leather-covered interior with my bare hands. “Africa?” I repeated weakly.
“Yes. We are starting to conduct field reviews of all our people,” Mr. Giles said. “Your primary job will be to assess resources, in this case, the resources available to Xand—excuse me, Mr. Harris. In addition, you are to review his wishlist for additional resources. I want you to determine his real needs, and separate them from mere wants.”
“But Africa?” I asked again. “I don’t know anything about—”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Mr. Giles said with a wave of his hand. “It’s not exactly Cleveland, which is another spot that desperately needs a resources review. However, Mr. Harris has been very persistent in his assertion that he doesn’t have enough support from the Council to do his job. Since his position is slightly more precarious than those working in the States, his complaints must take priority.”
I found myself reduced to making the same arguments that I did with Mr. Wyndham-Pryce. “I have no desire to serve in the field. I would much rather—”
“Yes, I’m well aware of your preferences,” Mr. Giles interrupted. “Unfortunately, we are rather short-handed, as I don’t have to tell you, and there is a dearth of individuals who are qualified to conduct these reviews.”
“I’m qualified?” I asked with disbelief.
“Not entirely, no,” Mr. Giles easily agreed. “But you have the basic skill set that such a job would require. I’ve seen it quite clearly in your monthly reports.”
I tried again. “I’ve only taken basic field training. I have not acquired the necessary—”
“True, but you came highly recommended. Mr. Wyndham-Pryce was quite enthusiastic when he proposed you for the position,” Mr. Giles mildly interrupted.
I wilted upon realizing just who had engineered this. At the mention of Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s name, I knew I had lost the fight.
“I admit, I was quite dubious at first, but upon review of your personnel file and your reports, I realized just how right he was,” Mr. Giles blithely continued.
There was no point in arguing. The best I could do was capitulate, go to Africa, slaughter Mr. Harris’s reputation, scamper back to London as quickly as possible, and place myself under the protection of Mr. Wyndham-Pryce because I knew that once my mission was accomplished I was going to find myself with a number of very powerful enemies. “Yes, sir. I’ll do my best, sir,” I said.
“Love the enthusiasm,” Miss Rosenberg unexpectedly commented. “Are you sure about this, Giles?”
I wasn’t sure what shocked me more: that Miss Rosenberg dared to question Mr. Giles’s judgment, or that she spoke at all.
Rather than being insulted by Miss Rosenberg’s faux pas, he mildly asked, “What do you think?”
Miss Rosenberg turned her inscrutable eyes to me. A vague, not entirely pleasant smile graced her lips. “It’s necessary. Wish it wasn’t, but it is.”
“Agreed.” The look Mr. Giles turned to me wasn’t less friendly than it had been. In order for it to be so, he would’ve had look at me in a friendly manner to begin with. Let’s just say that his expression was grim, and leave it at that. “Miss Swithin, my office will arrange for you to get all the necessary inoculations for your travels to Africa, so you’ll have two months to get your work in order and bring your successor up-to-date.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Mr. Harris has established a base of operations roughly an hour north of Djenné in the Mali Sahel. It’s a rather hot and dry existence for the most part, but you will be arriving at the end of the rainy season, so it probably won’t be as unpleasant as is usual. Please be advised that during the day it will be rather warm, but you may find yourself shivering when the sun sets, so pack accordingly.” Mr. Giles rattled off these instructions quickly, as if now that the matter was settled he couldn’t be rid of me fast enough.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “How long will I be there?”
“As long as it takes, Miss Swithin. As long as it takes.” Mr. Giles paused for effect before adding, “However, if I were you, I’d pack lightly despite the indeterminate length of your stay. Djenné is making a bid to improve its tourist trade and a steamer trunk is sure to make you a target for unsavory characters who prey on innocents abroad
“Thank you for the advice, sir,” I said. “I’d much rather avoid trouble, if I can.”
“I wouldn’t say that too loudly,” Mr. Giles said. “Whenever you do, trouble has a disconcerting habit of finding you.”