Title: "Deep in the Heart"
Series: Angel: Afterlife
Summary: The rusty orange Volkswagen van chugged down Interstate 10, trailing a cloud of burning oil and defeat.
Spoilers: Post-NFA, so spoilers for everything.
Author's Note: This is the second episode in my Angel: Afterlife series. Because this is road trip fic, and because when you're on a road trip music tends to be an integral part of the setting, I found myself referencing a lot of songs in the story. So I went a little nuts a made a playlist for the fic. Yeah, I know, weird. Also, the sharp-eyed among you might notice an homage to Good Omens in there somewhere.
2: Another One Bites the Dust // Queen
3: Killing Me Softly With His Song // Fugees
4: Jesus Christ (With Signs Following) // The Gourds
5: Texas River Song // Lyle Lovett
6: Cowboy Take Me Away // Dixie Chicks
7: San Antonio Girl // Lyle Lovett
8: Guitars, Cadillacs // Dwight Yoakam
9: La Grange // ZZ Top
10: Survivor // Destiny's Child
11: Bohemian Rhapsody // Queen
12: Suitcase // Joe Purdy
Episode: 6x01: "Goodbye, Cruel World"
Deep in the Heart
The rusty orange Volkswagen van chugged down Interstate 10, trailing a cloud of burning oil and defeat. Aggie Belfleur pressed her forehead against the glass of the passenger's side window and frowned at her reflection.
Angel was being disturbingly passive about the drugging and kidnapping business she'd just pulled on him. She'd thought there'd be a lot more yelling and maybe even some threats of grievous bodily harm.
But he’d barely said a word about it. And unless her empathy was on the fritz he wasn't even a little bit angry. All she was getting off him was despair--lots of it--with a super-sized order of guilt on the side.
Not all that surprising, she supposed, considering the losses he'd just experienced. But frankly, she'd rather have him angry.
She glanced over at Spike, who was also being uncharacteristically quiet as he steered the van on their exodus from L.A. She could tell he was grieving too, but Spike hadn't been the one who'd led them into the battle that had claimed their lives--that had been Angel's doing, though from what Lorne had told her they’d all gone willingly.
Maybe Angel just needed time. Surely you couldn't live for two-and-a-half centuries without getting pretty used to watching the humans around you die. Could you?
The first strains of "Free Bird" spilled out of the van's tinny radio and Spike irritably twisted the dial.
"Is there nothing on the radio out here but country music?" he complained, scanning the FM dial impatiently and finding half a dozen country stations and yet another broadcast of "Free Bird" on a classic rock station. "And bloody 'Free Bird'!"
"I've got a theory," said Aggie, "that you can drive all the way from Sacramento to Tallahassee and find 'Free Bird' playing somewhere the whole way."
"That's the work of warlocks, you know. Got any CDs in here?"
Aggie pulled a battered shoebox of cassettes out from under the seat and passed it to Spike. He balanced it on his knee, keeping one eye on the road while he flipped through the tapes.
"How much Queen does one girl need to own? Ah, here we go." He pulled out an old tape labeled London Calling and popped it into the cassette player in the dash.
The thrumming beat of "Another One Bites the Dust" washed over them.
"Balls," said Spike.
Aggie stifled a laugh as she opened the road atlas in her lap.
"It's the bloody new millennium," grumbled Spike. "You can't spring for a CD player? Or maybe even a car that didn't see action at Woodstock?"
"Don't badmouth Alice," said Aggie. "She's taken good care of me. And you're gonna be glad I have a car with curtains, come sunrise."
He shot her an amused look. "You named your car Alice?"
She ignored him and peered down at the map. "We should hit Tucson around 4 A.M. Looks like a good place to stop for breakfast before the sun comes up."
"Whatever you say, pet."
"Don't call me pet."
"I was at Woodstock, you know."
Aggie ignored him, curling herself up into a semblance of a comfortable position and drifting off to the dulcet wails of Freddie Mercury.
She awoke a few hours later when the van rolled to a stop. A glance out the window revealed nothing but fast food restaurants and cactus as far as the eye could see.
"IHOP all right?" said Spike.
Aggie nodded sleepily. "Mmmm, pancakes."
Spike pulled the tangerine-colored VW into the nearly-empty lot. Not a lot of people looking for pancakes at four in the morning, apparently.
Aggie looked back at Angel, who was staring blankly out the window. "You coming in or what?" she asked.
"I guess," he said without enthusiasm.
They settled into a large booth in the back corner of the restaurant and a tired-looking waitress brought them three coffee-stained mugs and a plastic thermos that seemed to date from the Mesozoic Era. Aggie ordered the chocolate chip pancakes and a side of bacon. Spike and Angel stuck with coffee.
"So, what's the plan, then?" Spike asked Aggie when the waitress had gone. "You seem to be the acting team leader at the moment." He shot a pointed look at Angel.
"Keep a low profile and put a lot of miles between us and L.A.," said Aggie, grimacing at the acrid, plastic tang of her coffee. "I was thinking we should keep moving during the day--they won't expect that from you two."
"You'll have to do all the driving while the sun's out," said Spike.
Aggie tore open four packets of sugar and dumped them into her coffee. "That's why I made you drive all night while I snoozed."
"And where, exactly, are we going?" asked Spike. "You've never actually said."
"Never really spent much time in Texas," said Spike. "Might be fun. I could get me a pair of cowboys boots, maybe a hat to go with."
"Why Houston?" asked Angel, speaking up for the first time.
"Because it's home," said Aggie. "At least it used to be."
"Do you have family there?"
Aggie examined the array of brightly colored syrups. "No, not anymore."
The waitress dropped off Aggie's pancakes and retreated back to the kitchen.
"There's no Wolfram & Hart branch in Houston," said Angel. "The closest one is in Dallas."
Aggie drenched her pancakes in strawberry syrup. "I knew that town was a bastion of evil"
"So, that's it, then, we're going to Texas," announced Spike, sounding pleased.
"Great," said Angel, sounding somewhat less pleased.
"I figure we should make it as far as San Antonio by nightfall," said Aggie around a mouthful of chocolaty goodness. "Then you can drive again."
"Wasn't Fred from San Antonio?" asked Spike.
Aggie stopped chewing and looked at Angel.
"Yeah," he said, staring into the fathoms of his untouched coffee. "She was."
A fresh pall of grief settled over the table and Aggie found herself losing her appetite.
She knew about what had happened to Fred. Late one night in March Lorne had shown up at her house and tearfully related the whole terrible story over a bottle of Stoli Vanil and a box of Kleenex. She was pretty sure Fred's death had a lot to do with his recent disappearing act.
And Spike and Angel were obviously still grieving for Fred, too, on top of everything else. Aggie stared at her pancakes, wishing there was something she could do.
And then she thought of something. She smiled to herself and stabbed another forkful of pancakes.
Walt Whitman had waxed poetic about the freedom of the open road, but the long brown path that stretched out before Angel now felt more like a cage. It was taking all of his considerable willpower not to leap from the van to a fiery, sunlight-induced death.
They'd just crossed Texas border, which meant they were still something like ten hours away from Houston. Ten more excruciating hours trapped in a van with Spike.
He'd tried to sleep away the time, but it was impossible to get comfortable while sharing the back seat of the ancient camper with Spike.
Spike, of course, had no trouble whatsoever falling asleep, just as he had no trouble hogging more than his half of the seat and snoring like an asthmatic warthog. And how, exactly, does someone who doesn't breathe manage to snore, anyway? Why was everything always so much easier for Spike? And why did the two of them always end up stuck together like characters in some insipid buddy comedy?
The van hit a pothole and Spike's bleached-blond head slid down the seat until it found a comfortable perch on Angel's left shoulder. This was intolerable.
He gave Spike an ungentle shove. "Get off."
Spike sat up and looked around. "We there yet?"
"Not even close."
Up in the front seat, Aggie was singing along with the radio--some newfangled cover of "Killing Me Softly" that was making Angel's soul hurt.
"Always hated this song," said Spike, yawning. "Kinda like it now, though."
Angel saw an all-too familiar glint in the way Spike was eying Aggie. Of course, after everything that had happened, Spike had nothing more pressing on his mind than the nearest pretty face.
"What?" said Spike when he caught Angel's look.
"Nothing," mumbled Angel.
"Still pissed about that needle business, are we?"
"You'd be pissed too if it had been your ass." Angel was actually far more embarrassed than pissed, but he'd sooner eat broken glass than admit that to Spike.
Spike shrugged and stretched his legs out in front of him. "Maybe. She was right to do it, though."
"Way I figure it, the world's a better place with you in it. Not for me, o' course, but for all those little humans you're always saving. It's irresponsible of you to to just go and check out on 'em."
"We're not seriously going do the pep talk thing, are we?" groaned Angel. If he had to sit here and listen to a lecture from Spike, he really was going to jump out of the van.
"Maybe it's all part of that business you're always going on about."
Angel sighed wearily. "What?"
"The Powers That Be. Aren’t they meant to send you signs and test your faith or brighten your whites or something? Maybe Aggie's your sign. Or your test. Or your minty fresh white strips."
"She's not a sign, she's just a girl."
"Just a girl who had no trouble getting the better of you. Still makes me smile when I think about you lying there like a lump with that needle sticking outta your bum."
"Spike," said Angel through clenched teeth.
"You're interfering with my ability to sit here and do nothing."
"Oh, lemme get my camera, Angel's gonna brood! How bloody surprising." He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "Wake me when we get there."
Angel spent the next several hours dreaming up new and inventive ways to torture and kill Spike. At least it helped pass the time.
The West Texas landscape spread out in all directions, the barrenness broken only by some bored-looking cows and an occasional pumpjack. If she squinted, Aggie imagined she could still make out the hazy shape of the mountains in the rearview.
Spike seemed to have fallen asleep again, probably bored into a coma by the monotony of the scenery. Which was fine by her, because whenever Spike was awake he and Angel usually ended up bickering.
Angel seemed like he might be a little better, though. A little more there than he had been last night. At least when he was irritated with Spike he wasn't drowning in his own despair. More to the point, he wasn't drowning Aggie in his despair.
She was generating enough negative energy of her own, now that they were getting closer to home. They could easily be there tonight if they drove straight through. She didn't plan to drive straight through, though.
Aggie turned on the radio and twisted the knob. Unfortunately, the only thing she seemed able to pick up was a country station in Ozona. She cringed and flipped over to the AM dial.
--an Amber Alert has been issued for 12-year-old Cynthia Monterrosa after her mother was found dead in their El Paso home. State police have issued an APB for the victim's boyfriend, Duane Nettles, last seen driving a silver Pontiac Sunfire, license plate number P57-VHL. Nettles is believed--
"Switch that off," said Spike. "It's depressing." He'd come forward and crouched between the front seats, just out of reach of the sunlight slanting through the windshield.
Aggie turned off the radio.
"I take it back," said Spike, squinting at the landscape. "It's this sodding state that's depressing."
"Welcome to West Texas," said Aggie.
"Not loving the Lone Star State so far, luv," said Spike.
"You should see the panhandle."
"Bet I'd like it more if you'd let me have a cig."
"Not in my car. We'll stop for gas after dark and you can have your smoke then."
Spike sighed dramatically and retreated into the back of the van.
Eventually the monotonous prairie of the Edwards Plateau gave way to the rolling greenery of the Texas Hill Country. As soon as the sun had dipped safely beneath the horizon behind them Aggie pulled off at a gas station in Boerne, a few miles northwest of San Antonio.
While Spike gassed up the van, Aggie went inside to the pay phone and called information. Then she grabbed a San Antonio map off the rack and scanned the street index.
Spike was leaning against the van enjoying his second cigarette when Aggie finally came back to the car. "Ready for me to take the next shift?" he asked.
"No, I got it," she said. She started up the car and pulled back on the interstate. But a few miles later she turned north onto Highway 1604 instead of staying on I-10 through San Antonio proper.
"Where are we going?" asked Angel.
"There's some people I want to visit while I'm here," she said. "You got a problem I can drop you at the next bus stop."
Aggie assumed from his silence that Angel didn't have that much of a problem with it.
After a couple of wrong turns she finally managed to find the street she was looking for. Two blocks later she pulled up in front of a yellow ranch-style house nestled in the quiet suburban community of Hollywood Park.
It was only 8:45, not yet too late for callers.
"What's this?" asked Spike.
Aggie twisted around in her seat and looked pointedly at Angel.
"The Burkles' house."
Anguish flared within Angel, so sharply it made Aggie's face hurt. He looked at her like she'd just slid a knife between his ribs--again.
"No," he said. "They don't know--they don't know what happened to Fred."
"Then someone should tell them, don't you think?" said Aggie quietly.
"No," said Angel. He had the look of a cornered animal.
"No," he repeated, and this time it came out like a growl, something low and fierce in the back of his throat. Goosebumps shivered over Aggie's skin.
"Bugger this," said Spike. "I'll do it. She's right, they bloody well ought to be told."
He said it, but he didn't make a move to get out of the car. No one did.
The blue glow of a television shone through the front window of the Burkle house. There were two people in there enjoying a pleasant evening of Must See TV, utterly unaware that their only daughter had been dead for two months.
Angel stared out the window at the house. "Fine," he said at last. His face was stony, but Aggie could feel the pain and resentment pouring off of him in bruising waves.
"We can all go," she said. "You don't have to do it alone."
Angel shook his head. "They know me, they... trusted me to look after Fred." He opened the door and stepped out onto the gravel drive.
Aggie watched him walk slowly to the front door of the house, shoulders slumped in defeat. He raised his hand, hesitated just a moment, and then knocked. After a few seconds the door opened, spilling a pool of warm light onto the porch at Angel's feet. He stepped inside and the door shut behind him.
"You really get your rocks off torturing him, don't you?" said Spike stretching out across the back seat.
Aggie turned around and shot him a look. "You think that's what I'm doing?"
"Don't get me wrong, I love to watch Captain Sincerity squirm."
"I'm trying to help him."
"Are you now? Thought you didn't like us vamps."
"Then why are you so hell-bent on helping us, eh?"
Aggie stared out the window. She was tempted to offer a snide retort, but sitting here in front of Fred's house, awash in the unmistakable pangs of Spike's silent grief, she chose not to.
"Because you're worth saving," she said.
"Funny," said Spike with a sad smile. "Fred once said the exact same thing to me."
A couple of hours later, Angel climbed back into the van wearing the shell-shocked look of a recently-released POW.
Aggie and Spike hadn't found much to talk about and she'd spent most of the time chewing a hangnail and fretting about what was going on inside the house. "How'd it go?" she asked anxiously.
"They were really... nice. They kept trying to give me food."
"That's what people do down here," said Aggie. "How'd they take it?"
He stared at her coldly. "I told them their daughter was dead, how do you think they took it?"
"Did you tell 'em... you know, how?" asked Spike.
"Of course not," said Angel. "They're smart people, they knew enough to know they didn't want to know more." He pulled a photograph out of his jacket pocket. "They gave me this."
Aggie leaned forward for a better look. It was a picture of Fred, Angel, Wesley, Gunn, and a pretty woman that Aggie assumed was Cordelia.
"They're all dead now," said Angel. "Every single one of them." He stared at the photo with a look so intense she half expected it to burst into flame. Then he just let go. It fluttered forlornly onto the floor of the van.
"Don't be daft," said Spike, snatching up the photo. He stared at it a moment before tucking it into his own pocket.
"The important thing," said Aggie, starting the engine, "is that you talked to Fred's parents and you feel better for it."
"No, as a matter of fact I feel worse," said Angel.
"Temporary side effect. Trust me, you'll feel better about it in the long run."
Angel scowled at her and fell into another broody silence.
"I think," said Aggie, driving out of Hollywood Park and back towards the highway, "we could all use a drink."
"Seconded," said Spike.
Aggie seemed to remember passing a bar on their way there. She retraced their route and pulled into the parking lot of a place called the Silver Bullet.
Spike stared at the wagon wheel decorating the front of the building and his lip curled in distaste. "This is a country-western bar."
"They serve drinks just like normal bars," said Aggie.
"Yeah, but they make you listen to country music while you drink it."
The place smelled like sawdust and stale beer, but it was bigger than it looked from the outside. Aggie corralled the two vampires over to the bar and ordered three shots of Maker's Mark. Nothing like a dose of bourbon to chase away the stink of a bad day, her grandmother had always said.
There was a Dixie Chicks song playing on the jukebox and it seemed to make Spike even more morose. "This was Fred's favorite song," he said. "She used to play it over and over when she was working in the lab."
Aggie nodded sympathetically and sipped her bourbon.
"I used to go and watch her," he continued glumly. "Just hang around while she worked. She was the only one who never seemed to mind having me about the place."
"She seemed like a real nice person," offered Aggie.
"She was. Real nice."
"She had this innocence about her," said Angel, piping up unexpectedly. "And a kind of determined optimism, you know? It made you want to live up to her expectations."
Spike nodded. "Yeah, and she was tough, too, tougher than you'd expect for such a little thing."
Aggie signaled the bartender for another round of drinks. The guys were clearly working themselves into a world-class mope, which was exactly what she'd hoped for. Wakes weren't for the dead, after all, they were for the living, and what with being on the lam, Spike and Angel hadn't had a proper chance to make peace with their losses.
It was a good plan, in theory. Get them to spend a few hours wallowing in their grief and raising a glass to their lost friends and they'd be better off for it. Problem was, all the melancholy was starting to seriously affect Aggie.
After the rollercoaster ride of the last few days she was exhausted, which meant her defenses were crumbling. Which meant she was having a tougher time shutting out the constant barrage of emotions radiating from the people around her.
She drained her second drink and caught the bartender's eye. "Another," she said, setting the glass down on the bar.
"Easy, girl," said Spike.
When the bartender refilled her glass, Aggie held it up, grinned at Spike, and knocked it back as quickly as the last one.
The bourbon was doing its work. The sharp edges of emotion that had been grinding into her got a little bit fuzzier and retreated to the back of her mind instead of hogging the spotlight at center stage.
A Lyle Lovett tune started up on the jukebox and Aggie seized Spike's hand and pulled him off the barstool. "Dance with me."
He looked at her suspiciously. "You want to dance with me?"
"I have been cooped up in a car for over 24 hours, and now I want to get my groove on. Are you up for it or should I flag down a passing cowboy?"
Spike shrugged. "Yeah, all right, why not?"
Angel stared glumly into his whiskey and desperately wished he could get drunk--really drunk, not the half-hearted buzz his vampire metabolism allowed him. He dearly missed getting well and truly pissed sometimes.
Facing the Burkles had been awful. Worse than awful. Horrific. Telling them about Fred, seeing their faces as they took it all in, it was like having someone rip your heart out and show it to you. Here, this is the cause of your pain. See?
And then they hadn't even had the decency to be angry with him. In fact, they'd been profuse in their gratitude that he'd come to break the news in person. And then they'd gone on and on about how lucky Fred had been to have Angel in her life, which was really too much.
It had torn open the wound left by Fred's death. A wound he'd foolishly thought had healed. And that, of course, had opened the floodgates and let in all the things he'd been desperately trying not to think about over the last 48 hours. Wes. Gunn. Even Illyria, who had been such a constant and disturbing reminder of Fred.
On the other hand, he had to admit that on some level talking to the Burkles had felt almost... cathartic. He hated the way that Aggie had maneuvered him into it, but he was pretty sure she'd been right. Again. He hated that.
Two nights ago in L.A., Aggie had reached out and caught him, just as he was about to fall, and stubbornly refused to let go. He wasn't used to being saved. And he still wasn't sure that he wanted to be saved.
"Well, aren't you just a big, hunky piece of chocolate cake," said a woman standing at the bar beside him.
He looked up and was startled to realize she was addressing him. "Excuse me?"
"I'd sure like to cut me off a slice of you." She was wearing jeans that were several sizes too small for her ample figure and a cowboy hat that looked to be several sizes too large for her head.
"Hey, Darlene!" she called to another woman whose peroxided hair was teased at least four inches above the crown of her head. "Look what I found."
The other woman turned around and looked Angel shamelessly up and down. "Hellllo, handsome!"
"I'm sorry," said Angel, flustered. "I don't... I mean, I'm not..."
"Sweetie, he's with me," said Aggie, who seemed to swoop in out of nowhere, interposing herself between Angel and the scary woman in the cowboy hat. "Also, you have split ends."
The woman huffed indignantly.
"You don't have to be a bitch about it," said her big-haired friend.
Aggie smiled sweetly. "I know, but it's fun." She slipped an arm around Angel's waist with a familiarity that was somewhat startling and pulled him away from the women.
"What are you doing?" he asked, alarmed.
"Saving you from predatory redneck women. Say thank you."
"Thank you." Then he realized she'd led him onto the dance floor. "Hang on," he said, stopping. "I don't dance."
Aggie didn't let go. "A guy your age? Don't even try to tell me you haven't done your share of quadrilles and sarabandes. Maybe even a tarantella or two."
"That was different."
"I'm not asking you to disco, old man. A two-step's not so different from a waltz." She cocked her head towards the bar. "Unless you'd rather go back to the Judds over there."
Angel decided maybe one dance wouldn't kill him after all.
There had been a time, years ago, when he had been a great dancer. But he wasn't that person anymore. He hadn't danced with a woman since Buffy's prom, which felt like a million years ago, even from his lengthened temporal perspective.
This was different, though. Formal and old-fashioned. He hadn't realized people still danced like this. Chastely holding hands, elbows locked, feet perfectly in step, the man leading the woman. It was almost... nice.
"You seem to do this a lot," he said.
"What? Dancing?" asked Aggie.
"Oh that," she said dismissively.
"I should probably say thank you more."
"Well, you usually end up pissed off at me." She smiled. "I think that's part of why I keep doing it."
When the song came to an end he followed Aggie back over to the bar. The two women from before seemed to have found someone else to terrify and Spike had already ordered another round for all of them. Aggie downed her shot and then reached for Angel's when he didn't immediately claim it.
Then she and Spike proceeded to get into a heated discussion about some soap opera that apparently they both watched. She was talking loudly, louder than was strictly necessary, even in the noisy bar, and her face was flushed, Angel noticed.
When she leaned over the bar to snag a bowl of peanuts he caught Spike's eye. "She's drunk."
"Am not," said Aggie. She giggled. "Well, maybe just a little." She held up her thumb and index finger to illustrate how little.
Angel glared at Spike. "Nice work, she's our ride."
"It's not my fault!" said Spike. "You're the one gave her your drink."
"I didn't give it to her, she took it."
"I'm fine," said Aggie, digging her keys out of her pocket. They slipped out of her hand and Angel reflexively snatched them out of the air before they hit the floor.
"Cool!" said Aggie, grabbing the keys out of his hand. "Do it again!" She threw the keys into the air.
Angel grabbed them again, but this time he didn't let go when she reached for them.
"Give 'em," whined Aggie, trying ineffectually to pry his fingers open.
"Okay, luv, time to go," said Spike.
"Where are we going?" asked Aggie.
"Good question." He raised his eyebrows questioningly at Angel.
"I saw a motel back on the highway. We can stop there for the night, let her sleep it off." He slid some money across the bar.
Aggie hopped off her barstool, lost her balance and teetered precariously. Angel grabbed her by the arm and steered her toward the door.
"Ya'll," she said, stumbling over her own feet, "I think I have too many limbs."
Spike took her other arm and between the two of them they managed to get her out to the van.
Angel fumbled with the keys, trying to find the right one. The task wasn't made any easier when Aggie grabbed him and Spike and pulled them into an awkward three-way embrace.
"I love you guys," she said. "You know that right?"
"Sure we do," said Spike, rolling his eyes.
Angel slipped out of her grasp and managed to unlock the car. "Get in," he said. "I'll drive."
"Goody!" said Aggie. "Spike gets to ride in the back with me!" She threw her arms around him in a way that Angel did not like one bit.
"On second thought," said Angel, thrusting the keys at Spike, "you drive."
"Oh, I get it. Don't trust me with the girl, do you?"
"No," said Angel, maneuvering Aggie into the back seat.
"That's nice! Like I'd ever! I've got a soul now, you know!"
"Shut up and drive." Angel slammed the sliding door.
Spike climbed into the front seat and started the car, still grumbling to himself.
Aggie, meanwhile, was attempting to snuggle up to Angel, which was making it very difficult for him to get her seatbelt fastened. "You're nice," she said. "Do you think I'm nice?"
"Yes," said Angel patiently. "You're very nice."
"I'm not," she said. "I'm not nice at all. Like Spike, he's not nice either."
"I bloody well heard that!" said Spike.
Aggie smiled. "But I like him anyway."
"I don't like Spike," said Angel.
"No," said Aggie. "But you trust him. It's me you don't trust."
Angel didn't really know what to say to that. Aggie didn't seem to need an answer, though, as she just curled up on the seat with her head resting on his leg.
"You're not feeling sick are you?" said Angel. "Because I'd prefer it if you didn't vomit in my lap."
"Just sleepy," she said.
Aggie was dozing by the time they pulled up in front of the Super 8 Motel. Spike fished some cash out of Aggie's purse and a few minutes later they woke her up and led her into the room he'd gotten for them. It wasn't much of a room, but they were fugitives on a budget, after all.
Aggie flopped down on the bed and kicked her shoes off. "Comfy."
Angel filled a glass with water and helped her sit up. "Drink this," he said.
"See," she said. "Nice." She drained the glass, then curled up on the bed and closed her eyes.
"I'll arm-wrestle you for the other half of the bed," said Spike.
Angel glared at him.
"Right. Guess it's the floor for us, then," said Spike, grabbing the other pillow off the bed. "I bleeding hate motel floors, you never know what's been on them."
Angel chose to spend the night in the room's uncomfortable armchair for that very reason. Not that the chair seemed excessively clean, either, but it had to be better than the floor.
He closed his eyes and tried to block out the lifeless, accusing faces of all his lost friends waiting for him in the darkness.
They got a late start the next morning. Aggie slept in, and when she finally got up she dragged her feet getting ready. Spike and Angel were reasonably tolerant of her slowness, but she could sense their edginess as the sun crawled higher into the sky.
She didn't say anything about the night before and, blessedly, neither did they. She couldn't remember much after her fourth shot of bourbon, but she had a vague and appalling impression that at some point her head had been in Angel's lap.
When they finally left the motel the vampires had to make a run for the VW under cover of a stolen bedspread. It was not exactly dignified. Aggie was too busy fighting off a headache to care much.
Houston was only four hours away--they were nearly to the end of their journey. Aggie poured all her concentration into driving and tried not to think about where she was going.
Somewhere outside of Sealy Aggie's hands began to shake. Not a lot, but enough. She was only 50 fifty miles from home now.
She fumbled in the shoe box on the floor and randomly fished out a cassette. She shoved it into the tape player in the dash, hoping a little music would distract her--
--just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here, sang Freddie Mercury shrilly.
Aggie hit the eject button and took the next exit off the interstate. There was a truck stop on the feeder, in the shadow of an old grain silo, and she pulled into the parking lot.
"We're stopping again?" asked Spike from the back.
Aggie parked the van near the front lobby doors. "I'll be right back."
"But we're nearly there, aren't we?"
Aggie ignored him and got out of the van, knowing the vampires couldn't follow her into the daylight.
The ladies room was a horror--hardly a soothing environment to calm the nerves--but she splashed some cold water on her face and felt a little better for it. On the way out she bought herself a bag of Oreos and a Coke.
"Feeling a bit hungover, are we?" asked Spike when she got back in the van.
"Something like that," mumbled Aggie.
Ready or not, there was no putting it off any longer. She took a deep breath, started the engine, and put the van in gear.
"That car," said Angel abruptly.
"What car?" asked Aggie.
"That car," he said, pointing at a silver sedan that was pulling out of the gas station, onto a side road leading away from the interstate. "We have to follow it."
Aggie stared at him in disbelief. "What? Why?"
"It's the one the police are looking for."
He seemed to be dead serious. She looked at Spike for help, but he clearly had no idea what was going on either. "What are you talking about?" she asked.
"The missing girl on the radio yesterday, that's the car they're looking for."
She vaguely recalled hearing something about an Amber Alert. "How do you know?"
"Silver Pontiac Sunfire license P57-VHL," recited Angel by rote.
"Wow," she said, genuinely impressed.
"He's getting away!"
"You're serious? You really want me to follow him?"
"Yes!" Angel was becoming increasingly agitated.
"Okay, fine," she said, starting the engine and pulling out onto the road. "But shouldn't we call the police or something?"
"If we stop to do that he'll be long gone."
About a quarter of a mile ahead they could see the Pontiac stopped at a red light.
"Don't get too close," warned Angel. "But don't stay too far back, either." He was crouched beside her, between the two front seats, and the way he was suddenly barking orders was making her distinctly nervous.
"I've watched television," said Aggie testily. "I think I know what to do."
The light changed and Pontiac drove on. Aggie followed a discrete distance behind.
"I know, keep your britches on." She gave Angel a sidelong glance. "What are we supposed to do when he finally stops?"
"Depends where he's going and what he does when he gets there," said Angel.
They were driving alongside an old, closed down shopping mall, a remnant of the booming Texas economy of the early eighties. It had probably been an upscale mall in its day, but then someone had come along and built a newer, shinier mall closer to the interstate, and one by one the shops had either gone out of business or relocated. According to the signs posted around the property, it was scheduled for demolition later in the year.
The Pontiac turned into the mall parking lot, driving over a spot where the hurricane fence that surrounded it had fallen over.
Aggie slowed down even more and they watched as the Pontiac drove into the mall parking garage and disappeared from sight.
"Follow it," said Angel.
Aggie entered the garage apprehensively, trying to suppress the irrational fear that the Pontiac was lurking behind every corner, about to come charging out at them like something in a horror movie.
"There it is," said Angel, pointing.
The silver Sunfire had stopped in front of a covered walkway leading into the old mall. Angel and Spike leaped out of the van before Aggie had even come to a full stop.
She cut the engine and got out, keeping a cautious distance.
"Must have gone inside the mall," said Spike, peering into the apparently empty Pontiac.
Aggie stared at the sedan warily. She was getting a very bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.
She took a single, cautious step toward the car and it hit her like a baseball bat to the skull. Fear. Terror. Panic. So strong it choked her. And all of it radiating from the trunk of the car.
She was going to vomit if she didn't get away from it. She backed away, stumbled, started to fall--
But Angel was there, right beside her. She felt him grab hold of her.
"What's the matter?" asked Spike. His gaze moved from Aggie to the trunk of the Pontiac. "Is the girl still in there?"
Aggie shook her head, fighting a wave of nausea. "No, but she was." It was better, farther away from the car. She could almost think clearly again. "She saw him kill her mother."
"You can get that from the car?" said Angel.
"Really strong emotions can sometimes cling to objects if they're closely connected."
She closed her eyes, trying to make sense of the jumbled sensations she was picking up. "She was locked in the trunk for a long time. He had her tied her up and there was duct tape over her mouth. She felt like she couldn't breathe, like she was drowning, all alone in the dark."
"But she was alive," said Angel.
"She was. I don't know how long ago, though."
"Then what?" Angel still had a firm hold on her and the reassuring strength of his grip grounded her, made it easier to deal with all the emotions forcing their way into her head.
"He opened the trunk... it was so bright outside it hurt her eyes. He grabbed her and pulled her out of the car. I don't know what happened after that."
"Wanna bet he took her in there?" said Spike, gesturing toward the mall entrance. Someone had snipped the heavy chain on the doors and taken a crowbar to the lock.
"Lot of places to hide in an empty mall," said Angel.
"Hey," said Aggie, "wouldn't this be a great time to call the police?"
"Good idea," said Angel. "You go find a phone."
"And what are you two going to be doing?"
Angel looked at Spike.
Spike met his look and grinned. "Saving the girl, of course."
They disappeared inside the mall before Aggie could say anything else.
Great, she thought. Find a phone. Okay, fine. Where was there likely to be a phone around here? She wandered around the garage for a few minutes but found no phones anywhere. And the nearest building likely to have a phone was at least a fifteen minute walk. She could drive, but that would mean leaving Spike and Angel behind and somehow that didn't seem like such a good idea.
She looked at the door into the mall. There were always phones inside a mall, weren't there?
"I hate malls," said Angel as he and Spike passed a revoltingly pink and flowery storefront that had formerly been either a lingerie store or a Victorian-era bordello. The cloying scent of perfume still lingered around the place.
"Kinda like 'em myself," said Spike, peering into the empty husk of a Lady Foot Locker. "All those people rushing around in pursuit of the American Dream."
"If, by American Dream, you mean faux-vintage jeans, overpriced basketball shoes and soft pretzels." Angel ducked under a silk potted palm that loomed out of the darkness.
"They do kinda gives me the creeps when they're all empty like this," admitted Spike. "And this is coming from someone who's lived in crypts."
And then they heard it. The sound of a girl crying. Followed by an angry male voice. Angel could smell the fear in the air ahead of them. No blood, though, which was something.
He looked over at Spike. Spike nodded wordlessly.
They both slipped silently into the shadows.
There was no sign of Angel or Spike when Aggie entered the mall. It was dark inside, lit only by shafts of sunlight coming in through a few grimy skylights. And though Aggie's footsteps seemed to echo through the empty building like gunshots, the rest of the mall was as silent as the grave.
Okay, she was alone in a creepy abandoned mall with a homicidal child abductor, a girl or who may or may not still be alive, and two extremely stealthy vampires. Swell.
So, where was the nearest phone likely to be, and how quickly could she find it and get the hell out of here? Fortunately, a sign helpfully indicated that restrooms and a public telephone could be found down an extremely dark and scary hallway just ahead.
Aggie switched on the flashlight she'd dug out of the glove compartment of the van and shined it down the hall, feeling eerily like she'd stepped into an episode of "The X-Files".
Fortunately, there was a pay phone on the wall about halfway down the hall. She grabbed the receiver and pressed 9-1-1.
Nothing happened. The phone was completely dead.
Of course. They'd probably cut off the pay phones when the mall had closed.
Now what, Nancy Drew?
At the end of the hall was a door labeled "Security Office." Maybe there was a working phone in there? She tried the knob, but of course it was locked. Fortunately, it wasn't a particularly solid door. One swift and disturbingly loud kick and the door splintered and swung open.
Angel could see the girl--according to the radio report her name was Cynthia. And beside her was Duane Nettles, the man who'd abducted her and driven her from El Paso to Houston tied up in the trunk of her dead mother's car.
Cynthia had long black hair pulled back with pink barrettes, and she was lying on the floor of the mall, bound with duct tape. Nettles had taken the tape off of her mouth, though. Probably so that he could hear her cry. Angel knew a thing or two about that.
The grimy trucker's hat on Nettles' head advertised a place called The Happy Shack, but under the brim his eyes were red-rimmed and wild-looking. He was pacing back and forth, ranting loudly, and tapping the flat of a large hunting knife against his palm for emphasis.
Angel edged slowly closer, vying for a better look. He could see Spike doing the same thing on the other side of the guy, flanking him.
"I offered you love, but you... you spit in my face," raged Nettles at the nearly-hysterical girl. "You humiliated me, day after day after day. You brought me to this, you forced me into this corner. The blood is on your hands!"
The man was very obviously unhinged and on the verge of violence. And there wasn't a damn thing Angel could do about it.
By sheer dumb luck, Nettles and the girl happened to be smack in the middle of a large rectangular pool of sunlight that was pouring in from the skylight above. Angel glanced at Spike and saw his own helplessness reflected at him.
And then, from somewhere on the other side of the mall there was an echoing crash, like the sound of a door slamming.
Aggie, thought Angel. What the hell's she up to?
Nettles froze, then looked around wildly, his paranoia suddenly kicking into super turbo overdrive.
Aggie had found another phone in the security office, beneath a row of dark video monitors. Unfortunately, it, too, was dead.
On the wall, however, was a large lighted panel belonging to the Safewatch Pro Security Manager 6000. So the security system still had power, at least.
Aggie studied it. The digital display calmly announced that it was set for 24 HR SILENT. The rest of the panel was a mystery, however. There were dozens of buttons and lights which all seemed to have something to do with zones and report codes, whatever those were. None of it made any sense.
And then she spied a button she could understand--it was red and it had a little picture of a flame on it. She pushed it eagerly. The display immediately changed to **FIRE EMERGENCY RESPONSE INITIATED** and a number of red lights on the panel started flashing excitedly.
Aggie cast a nervous glance at the sprinklers in the ceiling, but they gave no indication of going off. There were no audible alarms, either, which was good. Hopefully help was now on the way and any homicidal kidnappers who might be hanging around were none the wiser.
She walked back out into the mall and was immediately met by the sound of a scream.
Angel watched his prey through narrowed eyes, sizing him up, making a series of mental calculations about the man's strength, reaction-time, and intentions.
Nettles was becoming increasingly agitated. "They're coming," he muttered. "They're always coming, they won't stop, no. But I won't run anymore."
Then something about the man's body language changed, as if he'd come to a decision. He stared down at Cynthia, his eyes cold and hard. "Do you know what it feels like to bleed to death?" he said. And smiled.
Cynthia screamed in terror.
"Quiet," hissed Nettles. He bent down and backhanded her across the face. Angel heard her head bounce off the linoleum with a dull thud. She didn't make any more noise as Nettles seized her limp form and hauled her upright.
Angel made a decision of his own.
"Hey there," he said genially as he stepped out into the open. "Don't suppose you know where the food court is?"
Aggie froze. Her instincts told her that under no circumstances should she go towards the source of a scream like that. On the other hand she wasn't completely heartless, so she couldn't just run away from it, either. No matter how much she wanted to.
She moved back out into the mall, in the direction the scream had come from. The mall was L-shaped, and as she turned the corner at the vertex she saw them: a man in a baseball cap clutching a girl with long dark hair.
Aggie ducked behind the information booth and peered out at them. The man's back was to her, all his attention focused on Angel and Spike, who stood menacingly a few yards off. The girl seemed to be unconscious, but she was definitely still alive.
Angel and Spike stared at the man with calculating malice, like a couple of leopards eying a particularly weak-looking wildebeest. But for all their superhuman speed and strength, they were powerless to intervene. The guy was standing in a pool of sunlight Aggie knew there was no way either of the vampires could reach him.
"Don't come any closer," the man warned, pressing a knife to the limp girl's throat.
"You really don't want to do this," said Angel calmly. "Let her go right now and you'll be able to walk out of here."
"Yeah, right, like you're just gonna let me go," said the man.
"I didn't say that," Angel replied. "I just meant you'd still have the use of your legs when the police come to get you."
"Is that right?" said the man in the baseball cap. And then he laughed.
His laughter washed over Aggie like a wave of ice. She'd touched a lot of minds in her life, and seen a lot of evil. His wasn't the worst, but it was in the top ten: twisted and broken and full of hatred. It made her skin crawl to be this close to him.
"If that's my only options," he said, "then maybe I'll just go ahead and kill her. Not really lookin' to go to jail, you know?"
Aggie could tell he wasn't bluffing. He was desperate and cornered and more than a little crazy and he was going to stand there and slit the girl's throat right in front of them for the sheer pleasure of watching them watch him do it. And he really didn't care what happened to him after that.
She could sense Angel and Spike's frustration, felt their minds racing to think of something, anything they could do to stop him.
And then she saw a look of resignation and determination pass across Angel's face and she knew exactly what stupid, suicidal thing he was about to do.
Before Angel could turn himself into a flaming pile of dust, Aggie made her own stupid and possibly suicidal decision and launched herself at the man from behind. He was concentrating so hard on Angel and Spike that he didn't even hear her coming until it was too late.
Aggie's shoulder hit him in the small of the back with a bone-jarring crunch that sent the girl flying one direction and Aggie and the kidnapper tumbling in another. The knife flew out of his hand and clattered across the floor.
Arrrgh, thought Aggie as she slammed into the hard linoleum floor. Somehow it looked cooler and way less painful when people did stuff like this on TV.
She'd managed to knock the man out of the sunlight, though, and Angel was already on top of him. Not in a sexy, man-on-man kind of way, but in a vicious, Rottweiler at your throat kind of way.
For one sickening moment Aggie was afraid that Angel was going to tear out the guy's throat right in front of her. Instead, he hauled back and punched him in the face.
Spike, meanwhile, had rushed over to check on the girl. "She's alive," he said. "She's got a hell of a lump on her head, but she's alive."
"I'm okay, too," muttered Aggie, pushing herself painfully to her feet. "No one worry about me or anything."
Angel continued to rain blows on the man. Again and again he hit him, taking out all his anger and frustration on this one creep, who had long since gone unconscious.
"Angel," said Aggie. "Angel, stop it!"
But he didn't seem to hear her. He'd lost control of something and all he was aware of was his need to do violence, to exact retribution, for the girl, for himself, for everything that had happened to him in the past few days and weeks and months.
Aggie started to approach him, but Spike grabbed her arm and shook his head. "Uh uh," he said. "Fragile little thing like you doesn't want to get in the way of that."
He was probably right, but Aggie wasn't necessarily known for her caution and good sense. Especially, it seemed, when it came to Angel. She pulled away from Spike and approached the deranged vampire.
"Angel, that's enough." Cautiously, she reached out and laid her hand on his arm.
She winced as he reared back for another blow, but then he stopped and then let his arm fall limply to his side. As he gazed down at the bloody mess he'd made of the man's face she could feel all the ferocity inside him drain away.
Spike came over to survey the damage. "Coulda left some for me, you know."
"He's not..." Aggie trailed off, unwilling to finish the thought aloud.
"Dead?" supplied Spike. "Nah, the bastard's still breathing."
"Is the girl okay?" asked Angel.
"Seems to be," said Spike. "Got a bit of a bump on her head, but she'll probably be fine, now that she's out of this psycho's clutches."
There was a sound of approaching sirens.
"We'd better take off," said Spike. "Cops get a mite suspicious when we try to explain why we can't follow 'em out into the sunlight."
"Yeah, all right," said Aggie. "I guess they'll find her in a few minutes. And him." She was reluctant to leave the girl, but Spike was right. Sticking around to explain things to the police wasn't an option.
"This is so not what I meant by keeping our heads down," said Aggie as they walked back to the garage.
"Yeah, but we saved that little girl," said Spike proudly.
"That was nice work back there," said Angel quietly.
"You mean the part where I nearly broke my shoulder or the part where I stopped you from beating that psychopath to death?"
He smiled, for the first time she could remember. "Both."
They made it back to the van undetected and climbed in. As luck would have it, the fire engines seemed to be gathering on the far side of the mall, so they were able to pull out of the garage and back onto the road without drawing any unwanted notice.
"Make a block," said Spike.
"I don't think that's such a--"
"I want to make sure they find her before we just go off and leave, right?"
"Yeah, okay." Aggie drove the van nonchalantly around the perimeter of the mall. As they came around the far side they saw two fire trucks and an ambulance parked by the front entrance. "Good enough?" she said.
Spike attempted to peer out of the curtains in the back without getting burned by the sunlight. "Slow down," he said.
"Yes, let's act all suspicious and draw attention to ourselves," she said.
"It's actually more suspicious if you don't slow down to look at the fire trucks," said Angel.
"Fair point." Aggie downshifted to rubbernecking speed as they cruised past the emergency vehicles. Two paramedics were wheeling a gurney out of the building and Aggie caught a glimpse of blue-black hair shining in the sunlight. "They found her," she said. "She's gonna be okay now."
"Yeah, all right," said Spike, letting the curtain fall shut.
Aggie drove back to the interstate in silence. They were on the outskirts of the Houston metro area; if it weren't for the industrial haze that perpetually clung to the city they would have been able to see the skyline.
"It's quite green here, isn't it?" said Spike, peering out the window. "And flat. Really flat, like Kansas flat."
"Have you ever been to Kansas?" asked Angel.
"No, but I hear it's quite flat," said Spike.
Both the vampires seemed more cheerful after their little bout of superheroing. Aggie wished she could share their enthusiasm.
It took nearly an hour to creep their way through the chronic rush-hour traffic along I-10. Eventually, though, the downtown skyline loomed up over the freeway, so close you could see the buildings shimmer and smoke in the hazy heat.
Aggie exited the freeway, knuckles white on the steering wheel as she drove south, over the railroad tracks, and then turned east, cruising past the vine-covered gates of Glenwood Cemetery, final resting place of Howard Hughes and the rest of the Houston elite. A few blocks later she pulled into the Old Sixth Ward, turned up Decatur Street, and they were there.
Spike peered out the window at the aged two-story Victorian rising out of a canopy of pecan trees. "You live here?"
Aggie cut the engine. "I did."
The place looked exactly the same, with the addition of four year's worth of overgrown vegetation. One entire side of the house was draped with a thick blanket of Confederate jasmine and the once modest-sized oleander in the front had turned into a sprawling hedge of truly gigantic proportions.
As Aggie climbed out of the van, her fingers nervously squeezed the old house key, which she'd kept on her keyring the whole time she'd lived in L.A. She pushed through the decrepit gate, stepped up onto the large wraparound porch and slid the key into the lock.
A tidal wave of memories crashed over her when she opened the front door--memories she'd spent the last four years trying to suppress.
Angel and Spike made a dash for the shade of the porch, huddled together under the stolen motel bedspread.
"You scuffed my boots, you lumbering blighter!" said Spike.
"You were hogging the blanket!" said Angel.
Spike looked impatiently at Aggie, who still hadn't moved from the porch. "Are you going inside or is today's tour confined to the veranda?"
"I'm going in," said Aggie. She didn't move.
"Go on, then." Spike gave her a not-so-gentle push over the threshold.
Aggie stepped into the entryway and looked around. The place was covered in a two-inch layer of dust and had developed a seriously funky smell. At some point someone had come through and covered all the furniture with dust cloths--probably Mrs. Ramirez next door--but otherwise it was exactly as she had left it.
"An invite would be nice," called Spike from outside. "Assuming you want to invite us in, o' course. We could just sit out here and wait for the sun to sink low enough to add us to your lovely dust collection."
Aggie looked back at the two vampires huddled in the limited shade of the porch and couldn't help but smile. "Come in," she said, with hardly any hesitation at all. It seemed she was getting used to having them around.
"It's bloody huge," said Spike as he stepped into the marbled entry hall.
"My grandmother used to run a boarding house here," said Aggie, moving into the front parlor. "And before that it was a whorehouse."
"Your grandmother who was a voodoo priestess?" said Angel.
"She was a conjure woman." Aggie walked over to the hulking walnut chifferobe in the corner. Despite the dust that had settled over every other object in the room, her grandmother's fetishes were miraculously dust-free. They stared down at her disapprovingly.
"A whorehouse, eh?" said Spike, sounding impressed.
"The whorehouse part was before she came into it. It's still got some secret passages they used to hustle the johns out when the place was raided, though."
"Sorta reminds me of me mum's house," said Spike.
Angel and Aggie looked at him, eyebrows raised in identical expressions of amusement.
"Not because of the whorehouse bit, because it's Victorian," said Spike quickly.
Angel eyed an impressive collection of cobwebs decorating the chandelier in the hall. "It doesn't have any ghosts or anything, does it?"
"Only the kind that live in my head." Aggie pulled the sheet off one of the sofas in the parlor, sending up a cloud of dust and causing several spiders to scurry for cover.
"I think something may have died in here," said Angel, sniffing distastefully. "Or several somethings."
"Nice taste in, er, decor, your grandmother had," said Spike. He was staring at the enormous, bloody, crucified Jesus hanging on the wall, his expression conveying equal parts bemusement and revulsion.
Aggie tried to imagine what her grandmother would have said if she'd lived to see her invite two vampires into the house. The thought made her smile again.
She looked around her at the things she'd left behind and thought about the night she'd left this place, the night of her grandmother's wake. How she'd slept at the bus station--sitting up in a plastic chair next to a homeless man--rather than spend another night alone in this house.
And now she was back. But she didn’t necessarily have to be alone.
"Trash days are Wednesdays and Saturdays," she found herself saying. "If you use a dish, you wash a dish. And no smoking in the house."
"Hang on," said Spike. "You're inviting us to stay?"
Apparently, she was. She'd planned to release the vampires into the wild, so to speak, as soon as they got to town, but now that they were here she couldn't quite bring herself to do it. The truth was, reluctant fascination had turned into reluctant sympathy, and then finally into a sort of reluctant affection.
"The two front bedrooms are off limits," she said. "But you can take your pick of the others."
Hell, it might even be handy having a couple of vampires around the place. You know, for opening stuck jars, lifting heavy boxes, and scaring away those annoying guys who were always trying to sell you magazines.
"For how long?" asked Spike suspiciously.
"Until you piss me off and I disinvite you."
"You're a real peach, you know that, pet."
"Don't call me pet."
Angel didn't say anything, but he'd already starting moving around, opening windows to air the place out, which Aggie assumed meant he was staying, too.