He didn’t really like the bar. It was too loud, the sounds seemed to bounce off the walls in never ending echoes. The place reeked of human misery. A stench so strong that it had taken permanent residence in the fake black leather on the bar stools.
Angel watched as two women tried to move seductively in an attempt to catch his eyes. They were scantily clad in skirts so short he wondered why they even bothered to put anything on. These painted whores were nowhere as sexually enticing as some of the women, covered in big dresses and fancy hats, he’d seen a hundred years ago.
“Another beer?” The bartender asked. He nodded. It wasn’t like another beer, his fifth, would actually make him drunk. He could probably drink every single beer they had and still walk, mostly in a straight line, out of the bar.
Angel turned just enough to look over at one of the tables in the corner of the badly lit bar. Five men were sitting at the table playing poker.
“That’s the third time you’ve lost tonight, Tony!” an overweight man in a grey sweatshirt and worn jeans laughed and slapped one of the other men on the shoulder.
“Fuck you, Pete,” a dark-haired man snarled and pushed the cards away.
The winner, a thin pale man in his late forties, chuckled and scooped up the wrinkled dollar bills on the table and stacked them neatly by his elbow.
A flash of something made Angel tilt his head and focus on the darkness underneath the table. There it was again. A brief movement. A beer coaster slowly rolled out from under the table. It hit the shoes of a woman walking by and stopped its journey. A small hand inched out from under the table, reaching for the coaster. The fingers wriggled but couldn’t get a hold of the piece of cardboard.
Suddenly the man called Tony grabbed on to the wrist of the searching hand and roughly pulled out a scruffy looking little boy. The boy flinched and protectively brought his free hand up over his head as if he expected to be hit.
“What the hell did I tell you, you little bastard?” the man yelled as he tightened his hold on the thin wrist.
“s-s-stay under the table,” a small voice answered.
“Even someone as fucking stupid as you should understand that,” the man pulled the boy closer.
“Come on, Tony,” the thin man said, “Give the kid a break.”
“Keep the hell out of my business, Phil,” Tony said and pushed the little boy away, “Get back where you belong.” The boy scrambled under the table and disappeared in the shadows again.
“Another round of poker?” the overweight guy asked, “Or are you broke, Tony?”
The other men snickered.
“Called Child Services once,” the bartender said as she put the beer in front of Angel, “Told them the kid was being mistreated. He’s here almost every night,” the woman shrugged, “Never heard from them, though.”
Angel turned his attention back to his beer. He didn’t usually go to bars. He tried to keep to himself. Stayed in the alleys and whatever abandoned rundown apartment block or empty warehouse he could find in the darker parts of LA. But sometimes he just needed to know that all this…the humans and the life…still happened, even if he wasn’t there to observe it.
Sometimes he wondered if it was the soul longing for company. Wondered if it could shrivel up from loneliness and isolation, like a plant deprived of sunlight.
“Come on, Tony,” one of the men at the table behind him said, “You’re either in or you’re out. So which is it?”
“I’m in…I’m just,” Tony mumbled, “I’ve got the money, just not with me.”
“How stupid do you actually think we are?” Angel turned his head and watched one of the men, the youngest at the table, stand up.
“I’ll pay you back, Dan,” Tony said and glared at the man.
“Yeah and pigs may fly out of my ass,” the overweight man rumbled with laughter.
“If you don’t have anything of value then don‘t waste our time,” Dan said and sat back down.
Tony looked around at the men at the table and suddenly reached down and pulled the boy back out. The kid made a startled sound as he was pushed in Dan’s direction.
“You can keep him for a week if you win,” Tony said and took a gulp of his beer, “Don’t think I haven’t heard about your sick idea of a fun time, Dan,”
“Hey,” the thin man said and looked alarmed, “That’s…”
“Shut the fuck up, Phil,” Dan said and looked at the kid for a second, “Okay,” he nodded, “But I get to keep him two weeks.”
Tony ran a hand over his forehead, “Okay…“ he said reluctantly, “Two weeks…”
“I’m not playing this round,” Phil said and stood up, his pale skin looked ashen in the light from the lamps in the ceiling, “This is fucked up. Come on, Pete…let’s go drink somewhere else.”
“I wanna see this,” Pete said and leant back in his seat.
“I’m outta here,” Phil left the table and stormed out of the bar.
Angel looked at the people sitting around at the other tables. No one had noticed what was going on. At least no one who actually cared. He turned back to the bar. The woman who had talked to him earlier was gone. A large man was taking orders now and serving drinks with a few grunts and mumbled words.
No one gave a damn.
He stared down at his beer. Watched the foam slowly dissolve. He could just walk out. He could walk out and never return. It wasn’t any of his business.
They had messy lives. They had short messy lives. Lives he tried to stay out of.
He pulled a few bills from his pocket and threw them on the bar top. He walked straight to the door and out of the bar. Out into the cold air and didn’t look back once.
He blamed the soul. That damn voice going on and on in his head. About doing the right thing, the thing that would bring him redemption.
So here he was. Standing in the dark alley next to the bar. He had a perfect view of the small parking lot. Angel closed his eyes. How could they waste everything so easily, so effortlessly, as if nothing they did had consequences. As if they were small isolated islands. Their mortal lives wasting away as time chipped at their souls, made them callus and indifferent. Until they could watch one tragedy after another evolve and come to its violent end as if it was simple entertainment.
He opened his eyes and watched as Tony, mumbling under his breath, stumbled over to a dark blue car, more rust than anything else, and unlocked it. He got in and fumbled around for a few seconds, then finally the car started and Tony drove out of the parking lot and down the street.
The door to the bar opened and Dan walked out on the dirty sidewalk. His hand was clenched around the skinny wrist of the little boy, dragging him along behind him.
“Stop shuffling you fucking feet,” the young man hissed and pull so hard on the boy’s arm that the kid lost his balance and scraped his knees on the curb.
Limping slightly the boy was dragged across the dimly lit street and over to a red car parked on the edge of the parking lot. Dan shoved the child against the car and started to dig through his coat pocket for the car keys. The boy hunched his shoulders and wrapped his arms around himself trying to keep warm in his ratty t-shirt and jeans.
“Get in the fucking car, kid,” the man said and turned just enough to open the door to the backseat and grab on to the collar of the kid’s t-shirt.
“i wanna go h-home,” the boy quietly begged.
“You’re getting in the car,” Dan said and backhanded the child. The boy’s head hit the side of the car.
“No he’s not.”
Dan turn his attention on the tall man standing a few feet away. The little boy was holding his pale hand against the bleeding gash in his forehead.
“Fuck off,” Dan pushed the kid through the open car door and slammed it, “It’s none of your business, pal.”
“You know…” the stranger said and sighed, “Once upon a time I wouldn’t have lifted a finger to stop you. I might even have enjoyed watching you use him,” the man moved like a predator, smooth and almost soundless. Dan took a step back and felt the cold metal of the car against his back.
“I-I…” Dan tried as the man moved closer, close enough for him to see that the stranger’s eyes were a weird yellowish color, “Uh…I don’t mind sharing,” Dan said and licked his lips.
“See,” the man stopped right in front of Dan and tilted his head, staring into the car where the blood smeared kid was watching them, “I don’t really think that’ll work for me.”
“W-what would work for you?” Dan asked and instantly knew he wouldn’t like the answer.
“I think…” the man said and smiled, “I think what would work best for me…would be if you weren’t,” he ended cryptically.
“Weren’t?” Dan gulped.
“Here,” the man clarified.
Dan squeaked as the bigger man grabbed him by the lapels of his grey coat and dragged him across the street and into the dark alley.
Angel dried his hands off in the torn piece of grey cloth he had ripped off the bastard's coat. The blood was a little sticky and the dirty rag was almost useless. He threw it in the cutter and looked across the street. The car was still there. The kid, big brown eyes wide and blood smeared across his forehead, still stared through the foggy side window of the car.
Angel walked over to the car door and opened it. The kid didn’t move an inch.
“Guess you’re coming with me then,” Angel said and held out his hand.
The kid nodded numbly, sniffed once and took his hand.
Chapter 2: Food
Angel walked down the street, aware of the stares he was getting from the three women standing on the sidewalk. He could faintly hear small scuttling steps behind him and he deliberately slowed down.
“Hey, baby,” one of the women grinned at Angel, “You got a puppy?” she pointed a red long nailed finger at the child following him.
“Mind your own business, Mandy,” he said just as the boy caught up with him and uncertainly stood a few feet away staring at the dirty sidewalk.
“He’s hurt,” another one of the scantily clad women said and glared at Angel. She stalked over to the boy and crouched down, oddly elegant despite her high heels and skimpy skirt. “You okay, kiddo?” she asked.
The boy looked over at Angel, then stared hard at a scrap of paper on the dirty sidewalk and nodded his head.
“You sure, Sweety?” Mandy said and didn’t take her eyes of Angel.
“Uh huh,” came the faint reply from the child.
“Where’s your mommy?” the youngest of the three women asked and popped her pink bubble gum.
The boy shrugged and looked down at his hands.
“Let’s go,” Angel said and held out his hand. Mandy’s eyes narrowed when she saw the dried blood on the back of his hand. She looked over at the child. The small cut on the boy’s forehead had stopped bleeding but it was still obvious that he had been hurt.
“If you…” she started but immediately stopped talking when Angel turned his head and looked at her.
“Trust me, Mandy,” he said quietly, “He won’t get hurt…not anymore.” The child reached out for Angel’s hand and tentatively took it. He flinched when Angel put his other hand on the boy’s narrow shoulder.
“He’s looking,” the youngest of the women said and nodded at someone standing on the other side of the street.
A tall muscular man stood next to a big red convertible. His arm was in a cast. The white dressing stood out against the blood red shirt he was wearing. The man glared menacingly at Angel.
“We told him,” Mandy moved closer to Angel and rubbed her slim hand up and down his upper arm, “that you’re our new man.”
Angel started and pulled away from Mandy.
The bubblegum chewing girl stroked her fingers over the big bruise on her cheek, “He hasn’t tried anything since you broke his arm,” she whispered and nervously looked from Angel to the man on the other side of the street.
“Here,” Mandy pushed a small roll of bills into Angel’s hand and he moved away as if her touch burned him.
“I don’t want your money,” Angel held out his hand, offering the money back to Mandy, “I’m not your…” he searched for the word, “I’m not your pimp.”
“Take the money,” she took a step back, “All he has to think is that you’re our new pimp,” she licked her lips and Angel could see where the lipstick didn’t quite cover her split lower lip, “Please.”
Angel unlocked the door to his small apartment and stepped back. The little boy stood further down the hall, one hand on the grey concrete wall.
“You coming?” Angel asked and tilted his head at the door. The boy didn’t move so Angel simply walked in, put the small roll of bills on the old hallway table and took his coat off. He was draping it over one of the wooden chairs in the small living room when he heard the front door creak and close.
Angel pretended not to notice the boy as he turned on the lamp on the floor by the door. The lampshade was missing and the naked bulb lit up most of the room with its glaring white beam.
“What’s your name?” he turned and looked down at the kid. The boy was once again staring at the floor. “Look at me,” Angel said and the kid’s head snapped up so fast it startled the vampire, “What’s your name?” he repeated in a softer voice.
“X-x-xander,” the stuttering voice finally managed.
“Well, Xander,” Angel said as he sat down on the edge of the brown couch, “Looks like we’ll be spending some time together so…” he looked around the apartment. Truth was that he had no idea what to do now.
“I,” the boy started.
“Yes?” Angel leant forward and looked into the boy’s brown eyes.
“Need to pee,” was said almost as if it was a question. Angel abruptly stood up and didn’t notice the boy hunch his shoulders.
“Okay…pee…yes,” the vampire looked around the room, “There’s a toilet right in there,” he pointed at the dark hallway leading further into the apartment, “I’ll show you. It flushes and everything.”
Xander stood with his shoulders hunched up around his ears. Angel watched the boy for a second. The child just stood there in front of the toilet, his small hands clutching at the hem of his t-shirt.
“Um…Don’t you need to pee?” Angel asked.
The little boy very slowly unzipped his pants and fumbled with them and it suddenly hit Angel that Xander was shy, “I’ll just wait out there,” he said and hooked a thumb over his shoulder, “In the living room, okay?” no answer was forthcoming so he just turned and walked out of the grey tiled room.
A few minutes later Xander appeared again. He had a small wet spot on the front of his pants and he kept pulling his t-shirt down as if trying to hide it.
Angel pointed at the couch, “Why don’t you sit down? I’ll…I need to go…” he stared around the room desperately searching for something to do, “I’ll be in the bathroom…if you need anything.”
Sometimes having a reflection would be very helpful.
Like right now as he poured water on his face and then stared at the empty mirror. He could feel the water drops sliding down his face, dripping onto his white undershirt, but he couldn’t see it. And for some reason he really needed to see his own face. Needed to look into his own eyes and ask if he had completely lost it. Had he gone completely mad? What the hell was he supposed to do with a little kid?
Drying off his hands in the towel hanging on the back of the door, he ran a damp hand through his hair.
The living room was cast in shadows when he returned.
The boy still sat, like a statue, on the edge of the couch. Angel studied him for a second taking in his thin frame and the pale skin. He didn’t meet a lot of children and couldn’t tell if Xander was of average size for his age or not. Still, he did seem awfully small as he sat there staring at the tips of his worn out shoes barely touching the sickly yellow carpet. If it wasn’t for the fact that Angel could hear him breathing he’d swear the child was a mannequin. The boy sat completely frozen, his breaths quiet but his heartbeat was hammering away.
Then a quiet growl came from the boy’s stomach.
“You’re hungry,” Angel exclaimed, happy that there was at least something simple he could take care of.
The head lifted a tiny bit and brown eyes looked at him from behind dark bangs.
“You better answer me or…” Angel stopped talking when the boy’s face went impossibly white and the small head started nodding up and down.
“Or I won’t…” Angel continued, “know if you need food.”
The boy stopped moving and returned to staring at his shoes.
Looking through the kitchen cupboards revealed that Angel didn’t actually own anything edible. He might not have eaten anything himself in decades but he was fairly sure a can of tomato soup, 12 years past its sell by date, wasn’t proper food for a child.
He tossed the can of soup in the trash bag by the sink.
There was so much of it. All of it in bright colored bags and boxes with words like “New flavor” or “Best Price” screaming out at him from yellow stickers. Humans needed to eat. He remembered that much. He just had no idea if tiny humans with pale faces and an inclination to study their own shoes needed to eat something special.
Sighing deeply, he just started taking boxes of the shelves and filling his cart.
The boy was not sitting on the couch when he returned from his trip to the supermarket. The couch was empty and the living room silent. He quietly put the grocery bags down on the floor by the front door.
Someone was in the apartment, breathing in the bedroom.
He walked past the couch and down the small hallway. The people in the pictures on the walls blankly stared out at him as he passed them.
He didn’t know any of them. The previous owner had left them behind. Not that Angel had actually given him a chance to pack up his belongings. It would have been pretty hard for the poor excuse of a man to do so. Two broken arms and four missing fingers didn’t combine very well with carefully packing up ones belongings.
The bedroom was dark and almost completely silent.
“I know you’re in here,” Angel said quietly.
A shuffling from under the bed made Angel kneel down next to it and look under the wooden bedframe. A pair of big frightened brown eyes looked back at him.
“I…” Angel noticed how the boy flinched when he spoke and backed a little away from where he was kneeling, “I bought you some food. Lots of…uh…colors.”
The boy just kept staring. His eyes following Angel’s every move.
Angel had just put the last of the food in the fridge when he heard Xander walk into the kitchen. The sound of the old ratty sneakers stopped just as Angel closed the fridge. He reached out for a big green and yellow box on the counter and shook it, his back still turned to the boy. The footsteps came closer.
Angel tipped the multicolored cereal rings into a bowl next to the sink and then opened the fridge again. He took the milk out and then poured the cool milk over the red, yellow, green and blue rings. The milk started slowly changing color. He looked through the drawer he’d only opened once before and found a dusty spoon. Rubbing it on his shirt he caught the reflection of the boy standing behind him, eyes fixed on the bowl of cereal, in the spoons curved metal.
“Well,” Angel said and heard the sound of small feet scurrying out of the kitchen, “I’ll just,” he continued a bit louder, “leave it here for you.”
He returned to the kitchen rubbing a towel against his dripping hair. The bowl was empty and there was no sign of the kid.
He opened one of the cupboards and took out a box of cookies. As he moved through the small apartment he could hear the boy move around in the bedroom. He made sure to make a lot of noise as he walked over to the bedroom door.
As he opened it he saw a foot disappear under the bed. The box of cookies contained two separately packaged bags and he ripped one open, put the box on the floor by the bed and lay down on the creaking mattress.
He heard the box slide over the dusty floor just as he fell asleep.
Chapter 3: Next to godliness
The woman whimpered and tried to push the man away from her . Her fingers skittered uselessly over his leather jacket. He kept pushing her skirt up over her hips. The rough wall of the alley scratched against the skin on the back of her thighs.
“Please stop, Nick,” she begged.
“Just…” the man grunted and fumbled one-handed with his belt.
“I think,” a voice came from somewhere near the broken street lamp, “she told you to stop.”
“Is he…” she started but Angel just patted her shoulder.
“He’ll be fine,” he answered her unasked question, “I only knocked him out.”
“Are you sure?” the brunette looked over her shoulder at the alley, “He… might…I mean he knows where I live.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” Angel reassured her and nodded at the taxi as is arrived, “Just go home. My brother is a police officer,” he helped her into the car, “We’ll talk some sense into him.”
“Thanks,” she said, “Thank you,” she grabbed his hand and looked him in the eyes.
“We going or what?” the driver asked and Angel forced his eyes away from the girl’s neck and stepped back.
He nodded as she closed the car door and watched the taxi drive down the street.
“Now,” Angel walked back into the alley. He stopped in front of the unsteady man. He was fumbling around for his phone. It had landed a few steps away in a dirty puddle. Angel very deliberately stepped on it, twisting his heel on the fragile screen.
“Ups,” the vampire grinned, “Sorry, man. My bad.”
“…kick your ass,” Nick managed to slur through the blood running from his nose.
Angel hunkered down in front of him and dragged his index finger over the bloody upper lip. He examined the blood for a second and then popped the finger into his mouth.
“Mmmmm,” he tapped the finger against the man’s nose, “Tasty.”
“What the fu…” was all Nick managed to say before Angel grabbed him by the collar of the dark jacket and buried his fangs in the mortal’s neck.
He unlocked the door and walked into the dark apartment. He wrinkled his nose when the stench of sour milk hit him.
Some days he didn’t see Xander at all.
The boy, a ghost appearing for split seconds at a time, ferreting boxes of cereal and cookies away under the bed, seemed to be doing okay. At times the only proof of Xander’s existence was the empty milk cartons that would appear under the couch or on the kitchen counter. They would start smelling and the vampire would pick them up and throw them in the trash, his nose wrinkled in disgust.
Walking into the living room Angel stepped on a crinkling bag of chocolate cookies. The vampire sighed and bent down to pick up the torn bag. Crumbs of chocolaty goodness, it said so on the bag, fell to the floor.
The small boy was sleeping under the coffee table, a dirty yellow blanket covering his feet. Angel crouched down and touched the boy’s shoulder.
Xander yelped and groggily stumbled out from under the table and away from Angel. A carton of juice fell of the wobbly coffee table; a slow flow of orange juice started spreading on the floor and slowly soaked the blanket.
Angel took a deep unnecessary breath and almost gagged.
“You stink,” he said and glared at the boy. How something so small could smell that bad went far beyond Angel’s imagination.
Xander shook his head slowly and looked over at the door to the bedroom.
“Trust me,” Angel said and the boy eyed him suspiciously, “You need a bath.”
The screaming made his sensitive ears hurt and he clamped his hand over the wriggling boy’s mouth. With his other hand he pulled the dirty pants off.
It was like trying to keep hold of a snake covered in olive oil. The small body twisted in all directions at once and it seemed as if the child had grown a few extra sets of arms and legs.
“God damn it,” Angel growled and tried to straighten the boy’s legs enough to get Xander’s dirty underpants off.
“Just stop fighting,” Angel huffed and finally just pressed the still mostly dressed boy into the half-filled bathtub. Xander immediately stopped struggling and looked down at his soaked t-shirt and underpants. His socked feet peeked up through the bubbles covering the surface of the water.
Xander tentatively let the bubbles cover his fingers, “oh,” he mumbled and then looked up at Angel.
Angel sat down on the closed toilet lid, the front of his shirt wet and clinging to his chest, “You… uh,” Angel pointed at the boy’s t-shirt, “Here let me,” he reached down and stiffened when Xander pulled away from him.
Small fingers, dirt caked under too long nails, fumbled the remaining clothes off and it splattered against the tiled floor when he let it fall from the edge of the tub.
Xander was sleeping in Angel’s bed, the child nothing more than a small lump under the more or less clean covers. Angel moved his foot restlessly and it bumped against an empty milk carton. A sour smell wafted up from it. The vampire bent down to pick it up. He spotted more empty boxes and plastic bags under the bed and as quietly as he could he started picking up the trash.
He ended up in the kitchen, one full garbage bag leaning against the table. A small sock caught his attention. It was pressed between one of the chair legs and the table.
It had probably been white once. It certainly wasn’t any more. Angel picked it up and felt the grimy sock almost stick to his fingers.
He could have gotten rid of the boy so many times. Could have dumped him outside a police station or have turned his back in the parking lot and simply left the kid to his fate.
A soft gurgling made him press his shoe harder against the struggling man’s neck.
“Drugs,” Angel said and emptied the small bags of white powder onto the sun-dried grass. The white mixed artfully with the yellow under the streetlight. “I’ve taken my share of drugs. My boy, William, used to get so high he’d forget to stay out of the sunlight.”
It wasn’t that his soul demanded he take care of the kid. Hell, these days his soul simply kept him from feasting on innocent humans. Not that any of them were perfectly innocent.
The man was trying to push Angel’s foot away from his throat. His blood smeared fingers leaving streaks of blood on the black leather.
“I just bought those shoes,” Angel growled and the man’s fingers stopped their motion. The pusher looked up at him, his blue eyes bugging out of their sockets.
“Now there’re two ways we can do this,” Angel started and then stopped and snorted, “What am I saying?” he slapped his palm against his forehead, “That isn’t true,” he increased the pressure on the man’s neck, “There’s really only one way we can do this,” he heard the man’s larynx crush under his shoe and the pusher gurgled in pain.
“Better hurry now,” Angel pulled the man up in a standing position. The pusher’s hands tried to cover his bruised neck but the vampire, holding him upright by his shoulders, hauled him closer and whispered in the panicked man’s ear, “Blood tastes best when the heart is still beating.”
Xander was sitting stiffly at the kitchen table. His feet didn’t reach the floor and his new, and clean, clothes felt strange against his skin.
“Eat,” Angel said and pointed at the bowl of cornflakes standing in front of the boy.
Xander picked up the bowl and started drinking from it. A few drops of milk hit the tabletop and Angel sighed.
“Oh, sweet mother of Christ,” he groaned, “use a spoon,” he got up and pulled out a few drawers before he finally found the one with the dusty spoons. He handed the pale boy one and watched as Xander slowly pushed the spoon into the cereal, his eyes never leaving Angel, “Things are going to change around here,” Angel said and wiped the milk off the tabletop with a dirty rag.
“Rule number one,” Angel held up his index finger, “We eat at the table in this house…” Angel frowned, “Well, you do at least.”