Buffy dragged her heels, looking at the shiny cars in their neat short rows again as she walked behind Giles and Brad, the Oval of Westbury salesman who had just spent the last forty minutes alternately unlocking new and used Peugeots and scanning his wrinkled sales sheet for a car that would mesh Buffy's need for “new”, which translated to “reliable”, with Project Paranormal's need for “four-door” and “within budget”. Nothing quite worked. Everything seemed either too high in mileage or price.
Starting with the local car auction, Giles and Angel had spent hours winnowing down their choices. Peugeots were reliable and common, and best of all, they could support the local economy by buying right here in Westbury. But Oval didn't seem to have anything for them today, except maybe a recent trade-in, an older Rover that looked pretty hardy. It was both old and had high mileage, but had the advantage of four-wheel drive and low price.
“New vehicles come in everyday,” she could hear Brad saying to Giles, now. “We take trades, and we purchase used ones at the BCA wholesale auctions. New cars come in twice a month from Peugeot or by custom order, of course.”
“Of course,” Giles murmured.
“Let's look around back and see what's waiting to be cleaned, shall we?”
Giles glanced over his shoulder and Buffy shrugged. There were no immediate cases pending, Angel was probably sleeping, and the April weather was unusually mild and bright. “Please,” Giles said.
They strolled past the main show room and skirted the edge of the big blue and white building. They would check in with Abbey Garage, where the Mini was, and Elkins Ford on the way back to Summerdown. They could peek at the Fords and see if either place had used Peugeots. Otherwise, there was Bath and Trowbridge to troll when they had time.
They stood just outside the garage bays and watched the Oval staff work. They were efficient and focused. Brad shook his head. “Those two over there are all I see,” he said, pointing at two cars parked nose to nose just outside the last bay. Two men shared a cart with spray bottles and rags. One rubbed at the larger car's tires, making them dark and wet looking, and the other lay half-in and half-out of the rear passenger door, swiping at the windows.
Beyond them, a silver Peugeot was backed into the farthest rear corner of the dealership's security fence. A tree hung over the fence, just budding, but the bare limbs threw a crazy quilt of shadows over the lone vehicle. “What about that one,” Buffy asked, pointing, expecting to be told it was an employee's personal vehicle.
“Oh, no,” Brad said, “That one's not for sale anymore.”
“Anymore?” Giles said. His hands were in his pockets and he had a thoughtful expression on his face.
“It was here when I got here.” He leaned forward conspiratorially.
Buffy leaned in, too, before she could stop herself.
“They say it's haunted. Or cursed, maybe,” he confided in a stage whisper.
“Who says,” she said.
“The other salesmen, er, people. And the blokes in the shop, here. Mr. Long, the manager, keeps the keys in his personal lockbox in his office. I've never seen the inside of it, but it gets regular service.” He straightened and glanced around before continuing. “The shop guys drive it out on lunch runs sometimes, but it has a mind of its own with buyers. It's been returned three times. One man died of fright. So I'm told.”
Buffy looked at Giles.
He slid his gaze to her under lowered lids. And then took a quick breath, and raised his head to look Brad in the eyes. “May I speak with Mr. Long?”
The salesman looked a bit taken aback, but recovered quickly. “Yes! Yes, of course, Mr. Giles. I hope I said nothing to...” His eyes darted down, looking at his tie as he smoothed it. “To offend you.”
“Aaron! Why'd you have to go and wind the old bird up?”
Aaron swung his arm out, catching Derek in the belly as they walked past Trinity's graveyard. Mr. Henson, who had escorted them from the Ram's Head, was a wanker who hated anyone different. His taunt echoed in Aaron's head; 'let off your mama's make-up, son, your eyes are made of river mud, and your blood is made of crud'.
“He good as called me bastard, Derek!”
“So? You are a bastard, Aaron, everyone knows it.”
Aaron stopped, his hands fisted at his side. Ashford-in-the-Water was half the size of his own hand. His Mum was the village never-do-well, but Aaron tried hard, really hard. He'd won a Merit Award for Literature through his school, a hundred pounds, but all anyone cared to call him was bastard.
Four strides past him, Derek slowed and turned, looking at him before stopping as well. He held his arms out, his fair eyebrows raised, his bright blue eyes emphasized under the streetlights by the heavy mascara and white eyeshadow he wore. “What?”
Aaron shook his head. His lips curved down, twitching, but he was damned if he'd cry.
“It's an insult, is what it is, and he deserved that punch.”
“It's not an insult, Aaron, when it's true.”
“But it's not.”
Derek blew his breath out in a huff. “He didn't marry her. He ran off and no one even knows his name. Ergo, you are a bastard. Get over it already or we'll never have any fun before our lives are over!”
“He did marry her.”
Derek threw his open arms up. The chains attaching his cuff bracelets to his baggy black jeans rattled and caught the light. He looked like an avenging spirit. “Whatever! I'm going to Eric's!”
“Fine,” Aaron said, still standing in the street.
He watched Derek's back until he disappeared over the hill onto Church Street.
“Fine,” he whispered again.
Mr. Long sat back in his chair, his fingers steepled, and looked very British to Buffy, who hadn't had that thought about anyone in a very long time. The differences between 'here' and 'there' that use to loom over every interaction in her adopted home, she barely noticed anymore. Mr. Long made her feel just off the boat.
“I had heard rumors,” he said slowly. “But it didn't occur to me to seek your services.”
“We try to keep a low profile, for obvious reasons,” Giles said.
“Very understandable. I'm already out a pretty penny on that auto. If your rates are reasonable, I suppose I should be happy to move it.”
“If I could have the transfer papers, my associates,” Giles said, tipping his head at Buffy. “And I will do a little preliminary research and provide you with an estimate for our services.”
“Done,” Mr. Long said as he stood, offering his hand.
Standing, Giles took it and gave it a firm shake. “We'll do our best to unravel your mystery.”
They loitered in the showroom. Buffy got in and out of five cars, breathing deeply each time of the rich leather interiors and new car smell, until Giles looked fit to burst. A busty, chestnut haired girl finally bustled out, Brad on her heels, and handed Giles a manila folder.
“Brad,” Giles said.
“I'll ring you when a car which suits your requirements comes available,” he said, hope coloring his voice bright.
“Yes,” Giles said, “Please do. You have Buffy's number?”
“Yes. It was nice to meet you, Miss Summers, I hope we can do business together,” he said to Buffy.
She held out her hand and was only faintly surprised when he took it and brought it to his lips, which were soft and dry, before meeting her eyes. He covered her hand with his, trapping Angel's ring between them.
“It was nice to meet you, too,” she said.
“Here you, young fellow, come help an old man out!”
In the dark, nearing midnight, the voice seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Aaron spun, looking behind him, but Sheepwash Bridge, hanging low over the placid River Wye, was empty. He was loitering near the far end, watching the occasional car pass on the nearby A6, not ready to go home. He'd wandering here following his fight with Derek. His hand was curled around the cell phone in his pocket, his thumb caressing the volume buttons on the side like worry stones.
Now he held it out in front of him, as if he could ward off trouble by brandishing a connection to more crowded places than this deserted one.
“Down here! Under the bridge,” the voice called again. “I caught my hook after supper and I've tangled myself all up trying to free it.”
Aaron lay his belly on the cold stone of the bridge walls and leaned over, trying to see where the man was trapped.
“Here,” the voice said, rising up around him.
It seemed right under him, but the dark was impenetrable under the bridge and he could see nothing.
“I don't want to be drowning, boy,” the voice called, “ just because you're a coward. Come 'round to the steps.”
Stung, Aaron found his voice. “I just can't see you is all,” he said. “Are you under the arch?”
“Wouldn't be worried if I weren't now, would I?” The man sounded peeved.
Aaron wiggled forward until his torso hung off the wall, his hair tickling his face. Blood rushed into his cheeks and the river filled his nose with must and damp. The skin of his palms tore as he hung on tight to the rough stone, staring into the black. Nothing. But something stunk down there. “Hang on,” he said. “I'll get help from Riverhouse...”
Air wafted past his face just as lights slashed over him. Startled, he jerked upward, and see-sawed back onto his feet.
A car had slung itself into the Fennel Street parking spots at the Parish Well, which sat under a hexagonal roof at the end of the bridge. A tall figure hurtled itself around the bonnet and onto the bridge. “Stop! Stop it,” it yelled.
“Derek,” Aaron yelled back, although Derek was now close to him.
The boy slid to a halt, panting. “Oh my god, all I saw was legs- I thought someone was throwing himself over.”
“Derek. It's like eight feet down- and four feet deep.”
Derek put a hand over his heart. “Yeah, well... I was looking for you.”
“My Missus should be looking for me,” the voice said drily from below.
Leaping back, Derek screamed, a little squeak of a scream.
Aaron laughed at him. “There's a bloke stuck down there. Tangled in his fishing line or sumthin'.”
“There's been all sorts of people walking on both Fennel and Church, why didn't he yell earlier?”
“Because then I'd lose my catch, Derek,” the voice said from behind them, as a great stench rolled over them in a wave.