Summary: Angel and Spike have a hard time adjusting to their new living arrangements in Texas. Can they put their troubles aside long enough to save a missing girl?
Rating: PG-13 (for language)
Author's Note: This is the third episode in my Angel: Afterlife virtual season six series. For series background and prior episodes, see this post.
Aggie had lied when Angel asked if there were any ghosts in her grandmother’s house. Her house, she reminded herself, even though it didn’t feel like hers. But whoever the house belonged to, it was definitely haunted.
That was why she’d fled to L.A. four years ago and why she’d stayed away until now.
It had started with a whisper, the day after her grandmother passed away. So faint Aggie wasn’t even sure she’d really heard it. Until she heard it again.
She heard the voice several more times over the days that followed, whispering her name. Once she swore she felt a puff of air on her face, as though someone were whispering in her ear. Another time she heard the sound of laughter, faint but distinct, and painfully familiar.
When she felt something very much like someone running their fingers through her hair, one night when she was alone in the house, she knew she’d had enough. She packed a bag, bought a bus ticket to Los Angeles, and never looked back. Until now.
She’d really thought four years would be enough time. She’d thought her grandmother’s ghost would have moved on by now, or passed over, or just gotten bored and gone away.
She was wrong.
Now it was perfume. Specifically, Avon’s Unforgettable. It had been her grandmother’s favorite, years ago, before it was discontinued. And it was the first thing Aggie had smelled when she stepped back into the house two days ago—but just for an instant, and then it was gone.
She’d smelled it again yesterday when she was in the kitchen cleaning out the cupboards. Just a whiff, just for a second.
Tonight the smell was was in her bedroom closet. And this time it was more than just a whiff; it was downright overpowering.
She rummaged through the cramped closet, her head aching from the cloying scent, looking for the source of the odor. She peered into shoes, felt around in coat pockets, and checked inside every handbag she’d ever owned. Nothing. She stood on her tiptoes and dragged a stack of old shoe boxes off the shelf.
“Ow!” she muttered as a tiny jewelry box that had been perched on top of the stack tumbled down and bounced off the top of her head.
She set the shoe boxes on the floor and looked to see what had fallen. The little box lay open with a necklace puddled on the floor beside it: a rough-looking chunk of iron suspended on a leather thong.
Aggie drew in a long, unsteady breath.
Her grandmother had given her that necklace for her 18th birthday. It was a piece of meteoric iron from the Canyon Diablo crater in Arizona, said to have magical properties of protection and warding. In other words, the damned thing was supposed to ward off ghosts, witches, and evil spirits. The irony would have been hilarious, if it wasn’t so painful.
The smell of the perfume continued to grow stronger. There was a taste of copper in her mouth and she felt suddenly queasy.
Aggie bolted for the bathroom and threw up the pizza she’d had for dinner. When her stomach finally calmed she washed her face and brushed her teeth before forcing herself to go back into the bedroom. She walked over to the closet and glared at the necklace lying on the floor. The whole room reeked of Unforgettable now.
She stooped and picked up the pendant. As soon as her fingers touched it the smell went away. Just like that.
Fine, then, she’d wear the damn necklace if it was what the old woman wanted. She kicked all the boxes and bags and shoes back into the closet and slammed the door. Then she went downstairs, in serious need of some ice cream.
Angel was sitting at the kitchen table reading a book he’d taken from the study. He glanced up briefly when she walked in, but didn’t say anything. He hardly ever said anything.
She got a pint of Blue Bell out of the freezer ate it over the sink, watching the moths beat themselves against the kitchen window as her grandmother’s wind chimes tinkled atonally in the warm night air. It was only May and hadn’t even begun to get truly hot, but compared to Los Angeles it already felt like a sauna. In another month, Aggie knew, the breeze would be gone altogether and the chimes would hang limp and lifeless in the bruising Texas heat.
She and her new roommates had worked hard to get the old house habitable again. After two full days of cleaning and airing and scrubbing and dusting—and a much-needed visit from the exterminator—the place was nearly back to normal. Or as normal as a house she was sharing with two vampires and the ghost of her dead grandmother could be, anyway.
Even with her back to Angel she could sense his presence behind her, like a storm cloud hanging over the room. He worked so hard to maintain his mask of impassivity, but she could feel the emotions roiling just beneath the surface: grief, guilt, shame, anguish, and at the heart of it all, a malignant rage powerful enough to make her blood run cold. He’d been like this ever since they’d left L.A., ever since Gunn died, and she didn’t know how much more of it she could take.
She took her ice cream over to the table and sat down across from him. “Feel like going out tonight?” she asked.
He didn’t bother looking up. “No.”
As far as she knew he’d left the house exactly no times since he’d gotten here. “Planning to stay cooped up in here forever, then?” He didn’t answer. “I’m not bequeathing you the house in my will, you know, so you’ll have to leave eventually.”
She knew she should just let it go, but she was in a foul mood and his constant silence was getting on her nerves. She’d rather have him shouting at her than battering her with this horrible, oppressive silence. And while she was utterly powerless to stop her grandmother from haunting her, she at least had a fighting chance of kicking Angel out this funk. “Did you know Spike went out patrolling tonight?” she asked.
“Good for him,” said Angel, without taking his eyes from his book.
“That’s all you’ve got to say?”
Angel shut the book with a sharp snap and looked up at her. “Let’s get it over with,” he said.
“The part where you lecture me about getting on with my life. Let me guess, you think I should be out there with Spike, keeping the streets safe for the little people.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Since when are we little people to you?”
Irritation flashed across his face. “You know what I meant.”
“Yeah, I do,” she said. “And that’s what worries me.”
Angel needed to be out in the world again, she was certain of that. It was dangerous for someone with so much potential for malevolence to cut himself off from humanity. He needed a cause to fight for, or something in his life to care about. If he allowed himself to become too detached, Aggie was afraid he might just forget why he was supposed to be fighting that demon inside him in the first place. It’s not like having a soul automatically prevented you from doing evil. Humanity was proof enough of that.
“Maybe if you were helping people again it’d snap you out of this pity party,” she said.
“I did the champion thing already. All it got me was a lot of dead friends.”
“I’m not talking about waging some mythic quest for redemption. There is no redemption, as far as I’m concerned, no one keeping tabs on your balance sheet except you. We are who we are and we do what we do and things happen, good and bad, regardless of the purity of our precious souls.”
“Yeah, I got that message already,” he said. “Loud and clear.” He stared at her with eyes as black as the tar that washed up on the beach in Galveston. The same black color as his aura.
“Why’d you do it?” she asked, meeting his stare. “Your big showdown with Wolfram & Hart. Why now?”
“I wanted it to be over.”
“You mean you wanted to die.” It wasn’t a question. She already knew the answer.
He looked away and shook his head.
“But you didn’t die,” she said.
“Because of you,” he said bitterly.
“That was Lorne’s doing,” she said. “I was just the messenger.” She got up and poured herself a glass of water from the tap. A little spotted gecko was clinging to the outside of the kitchen window, stalking the moths drawn there by the kitchen light. The gecko’s skin was so pale he was almost transparent. He held himself perfectly still, waiting for a moth to flutter into range. Aggie turned around and looked at Angel.
“My mother killed herself when I was eight,” she said. “She dropped me off at school one day, drove down to Galveston and just ... walked into the surf.” Angel looked up at her but didn’t say anything. “A shrimp boat fished her body out of the Gulf off the Boliver Peninsula. I hated her for it, because it was just so goddamned selfish. I don’t care how bad things are, there’s no excuse for doing that, not when there are people counting on you. So what if your life’s hard? Everybody’s life is hard sometimes. You suffer through it. That’s what the rest of us are doing. This isn’t a storybook, there’s no happily ever after, there’s just more life.”
“I’m sorry,” Angel said. She didn’t know if he was apologizing because her mother had given up or because he had. Maybe both.
“You survived,” she said. “Despite your best efforts. But you’re still walking around like a corpse. Whatever this thing is you’re doing now, it’s not living. You used to be someone who helped people. And you can talk about higher powers and redemption all you want, but the truth is you chose to help people because that’s who you were. So what are you choosing now, Angel? Who are you now?”
“I don’t know,” he said quietly. “That’s the problem.”
He was like this bottomless black hole of despair, sucking in everything around it. But there was one tiny spark of light in the midst of all that darkness. It was so faint it almost wasn’t there, but she could sense it, like a glimmer of silver moonlight at the bottom of a well.
“Who’s Connor?” she asked, knowing as she said it that she was probably begging for trouble.
Angel didn’t move. Not a muscle. But the surge of his anger hit her like a physical blow. “Don’t.” The word came out in a brittle hiss of sound like it’d been scraped from the bottom of his soul. “You stay out my head.”
“You’re projecting at me,” she shot back. “You’re like this tsunami of misery crashing against my brain. It’s a little hard to ignore.”
His eyes bored into her with barely-suppressed animosity. “Try.”
They stared at one another in cold silence. You could have flash frozen a 20-pound turkey in the cold of that silence. It seemed to stretch on forever, like this living, breathing thing that would just keep growing until it filled up the room and then the house and eventually the whole world.
It was broken by a loud knock at the back door. Angel went from Ragey Hulk to Protective Hulk in the blink of an eye. All he did was stand up, but his whole posture was tensed and alert, ready to put himself between Aggie and any potential danger. It would have been sweet if it wasn’t so goddamned terrifying.
She seriously doubted that anything half as dangerous as the pissed-off vampire in her kitchen could be at the door. And she was right, because when she opened it she found a skinny, hollow-eyed young woman standing on the back stoop.
“You’re Antoinette’s girl?” said the woman anxiously.
“Yes,” replied Aggie warily.
“I need a charm for my boyfriend. He’s in trouble with the police and—”
“I can’t help you,” interrupted Aggie.
“Antoinette’s dead.” The words came out more harshly then she intended.
The woman drew back a little, but she didn’t give up. “They said you had her gifts, that you knew the ways.”
“He told you wrong. I can’t help you.” She shut the door in the woman’s face and turned to find Angel giving her an infuriatingly smug look.
“What?” she said.
“Not feeling the least bit hypocritical, are you?”
“Helping that woman’s criminal boyfriend avoid the cops will help me sleep at night how, exactly?”
“He could be innocent. You didn’t even listen long enough to find out.”
“I didn’t need to listen, I could see it in her aura plain as day.”
“Whatever you say.”
She didn’t know why she felt the need to explain herself, why she even cared what Angel thought, but she did. “I grew up in this house,” she said. “I know what it’s like to have people coming to the door at all hours begging you to get their no-good relatives out of trouble or put the fix on anyone who’s ever done them wrong. I don’t want any part of it.”
She shoved the ice cream back in the freezer and went into the front hall to grab her purse.
“Where are you going?” asked Angel, following her.
“To kick somebody’s ass.”
As she stepped out into the humid Texas night she felt the sweat form on her skin like water beading on a cold glass. She was surprised to find Angel right behind her. “You’re not actually coming?” she said. “Like, outside of the house?”
He shrugged. “I guess I am.”
Elysium was a dingy neighborhood bar that had earned a rep as a goth hangout thanks to the name and to the crudely-drawn skull on the sign above the door. The interior was perfectly generic, though, like any other neighborhood bar around town. No red velvet, no fog machines, no Dead Can Dance on the jukebox.
“So, what, is this like the local underworld bar?” asked Angel skeptically when they walked inside.
“Something like that.” Aggie scanned the dark room for familiar faces.
“Looks pretty lame.”
“Remind me again why you’re here?”
“Someone told me I should get out more.”
“Uh huh. You wouldn’t be trying to protect me or anything, would you?”
“From what?” he asked, casting a disdainful eye around the bar. “Goth posers?”
Aggie ignored him, because she’d spied the person she was looking for behind the bar.
“Agnes Belfleur, it’s about time you came to see me,” said the lanky bartender, flashing a mouthful of cheap silver grills.
“Monkey Shoes, I am gonna beat your sorry ass!” she snapped.
“Damn, woman, what’s your problem?”
“You’ve been sending people to my door!”
“Just the one!”
“I don’t do that work and you damn well know it.”
“Yeah, but Eva was desperate, on account of Luis got himself—”
“I don’t care,” growled Aggie. “I don’t lay down fixes.”
“All right, fine.” He held up his hands in a gesture of capitulation. “I won’t do it no more.”
“And take those fool things out of your mouth,” she said. “You look like an idiot.”
“Now that’s just cold. I was gonna buy you a drink as a peace offering, but now I don’t think I will.” He cocked his head at Angel. “Who’s your friend?”
“That’s Angel,” she said, giving the vampire an icy glare. “And he’s not my friend.”
“In that case I’m gonna buy him a drink,” said Monkey Shoes. “What’ll you have, man?”
“A beer’s fine,” said Angel.
“One beer coming up, for my new friend Angel.”
“And I’ll have a bourbon,” said Aggie.
“I’m gonna need to see your money in advance,” said Monkey Shoes, twisting the cap off a bottle of Shiner Bock.
“Why do they call you Monkey Shoes?” asked Angel.
Monkey Shoes grinned, giving them another view of his ghastly grills. “When I was a kid I had these shoes with a picture of a monkey on ’em. Wore them things all the damn time.”
He set a glass of bourbon in front of Aggie and took the ten she’d laid on the bar. “Enjoy your drinks,” he said. She thought about asking for her change but decided it wasn’t worth it.
“I was sort of hoping for a more interesting story,” said Angel when Monkey Shoes had moved down the bar to take care of another customer.
“Aren’t we all,” muttered Aggie, sipping her whiskey.
Elysium didn’t seem to have changed much in the four years she’d been gone. The place had always attracted a weird mix of clientele: some locals from the neighborhood, a heavy dose of the black fingernail polish and trench coat crowd, a few Rice students slumming it, and—keeping a very low profile—a smattering of actual practicing witches, rootworkers, warlocks, santeros, and magi. She didn’t recognize anyone here tonight, but she’d been away from the community for a while. Then she caught a glimpse of white-blond hair and realized she did recognize somebody, after all.
Aggie picked up her drink and wandered down to the other end of the bar where Spike was chatting up a tall woman in skin-tight black vinyl. “Hey,” she said, tapping the vampire on the shoulder.
“Aggie,” said Spike, turning around. “And look, it’s Angel, too. Taking the shut-in out for some air, are we?”
Angel had followed her over, and he greeted Spike with a half-hearted scowl.
“I’m going to go powder my nose,” said Spike’s companion demurely.
“So how’s the patrolling?” asked Aggie. “Find a lot of damsels in distress in bars, do you?”
“Some,” said Spike indignantly. “Look, it’s not my fault this town is deader than Keith Moon. Not a sodding demon to be found. What am I supposed to do? Wander round running off gang taggers?”
“Of course not,” said Aggie. “So you figured you’d stop off for a drink, pick up a dude ...”
Spike did a satisfying double take. “Sorry?”
Aggie leaned in conspiratorially. “Your lady friend in there? She’s a he.”
“She’s not. I can tell these things, you know. Vamp senses and all.” He looked to Angel for support. “Back me up, mate.”
“Adam’s apple,” said Angel.
“Bugger,” said Spike, downing the rest of his beer. “Come on, let’s get out of here before she comes back from the loo.”
“It’s this damn humidity, I’m telling you,” said Spike when they were back at home. “Mucks with my sense of smell.” They were sitting around the kitchen table. Aggie was nursing a beer; Angel and Spike were drinking mugs of the pig’s blood she’d gotten from the local Vietnamese butcher.
Aggie rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say.” Her mood had improved a bit since the excursion to the bar. Maybe it was the change of scenery, or maybe it was Spike’s lady friend. Either way it was all for the good.
“So there aren’t any demons around?” said Angel. “Really?”
“None that I could bloody find,” said Spike.
“They’re around,” said Aggie. “You just have to know where to look. This isn’t L.A., they’re not going to walk up and introduce themselves.”
There was a knock on the kitchen door.
“Or maybe they will,” said Spike.
“Oh, hell no.” Aggie shoved back her chair and threw open the door.
A woman stood on the stoop, eyes red-rimmed from crying, clutching a dog-eared photograph in her hands. Her aura was twisted with grief, so strongly that Aggie took an instinctive step back. “Are you Antoinette?” asked the woman in a shaky voice.
Aggie shook her head. “No.”
“This is the hoodoo woman’s house, though?”
“I’m sorry,” said Aggie. “She passed.”
“But my daughter ... my baby girl is missing.” The woman held out the photo in a shaking hand.
Aggie didn’t move. Angel had followed her over to the door and he reached out to take the picture. Aggie didn’t want to look at it, but she couldn’t help it. The photo was of a smiling, gap-toothed girl of six or seven. It was one of those generic school pictures with the fuzzy gray backdrop.
Angel gazed at the picture for a moment and then looked up at Aggie.
“You can help me can’t you?” pleaded the woman. “Please.”
Aggie didn’t say anything. She wasn’t the one who’d made a career out of helping the hopeless.
“Of course we can,” said Angel. “Why don’t you come in and tell us what happened?”
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER THREE ...