Chapter 1: Care and feeding
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 gutter 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.”
Chapter 4: An apple a day
Matt grabbed his messenger bag and slung it over his shoulder. He was still wearing his bright green scrubs but he didn’t really care. After three 24 hour shifts in the past week, he didn’t have the strength to shower and change clothes at the hospital. He just wanted to go home, slumber while standing up under the warm spray of the shower and then pass out for at least twelve hours in his bed... or on the couch, whichever he reached first.
He waved goodbye to the receptionist in the foyer and pushed the doors open to the parking lot.
His car was an old and dented Fiat but at least it was always easy to spot its bright orange roof.
He fumbled a minute with his car keys, feeling how the tiredness had even made its way into his normally nimble fingers.
“Hey,” a voice called from somewhere behind him.
Matt turned and squinted in the bad light from the street lamps lining the parking lot. A man was standing two cars or so away from him.
“Buddy,” Matt sighed, “If you need medical help you need to go inside and register and the ER doc will be with you in no time,” he unlocked his car and threw his messenger bag on the passenger seat.
“You a doctor?” the man asked and this time he sounded a lot closer.
“Yeah,” Matt nodded and turned around; he gasped when he saw how close the man was standing. If Matt had wanted, he could easily have extended his arm and tapped the guy on his broad shoulder, “But,” Matt continued, “I’m off work right now so…”
“But you are a doctor,” the man persisted.
“Like I said,” Matt couldn’t help but feel threatened by the bigger man, “I’m off work so…”
The man moved like lightning and the last thing Matt saw, before he lost consciousness, was a pair of golden eyes hovering over him.
Flashes of light forced Matt to squeeze his eyes tightly shut, trying to keep the stabbing pain to a minimum. He slowly sat up and immediately saw that he was in the back seat of his own car.
The car was moving at a pace that wouldn’t alarm any patrolling police officers and yet fast enough to be just above the speed limit.
The man was driving the car, his fingers clenched around the steering wheel. Matt tried to get a look at him in the rear-view mirror but for some reason he couldn’t see anything apart from himself and the old ratty fabric on the front seat headrest. He probably had a concussion. He wasn’t seeing double but something was clearly wrong with his eyesight. He rubbed a pair of cold and clammy fingers against his brow trying to get rid of the pain in his head.
“You okay,” the man rumbled from the front seat.
“You knocked me out,” Matt growled at him through clenched teeth and then scooted back in his seat, suddenly afraid he had crossed the line.
“Sorry about that,” the man turned right and then looked briefly over his shoulder, “I need your help.”
“I told you,” Matt’s fear slowly dissipated and was replaced with anger, “You could have found a whole hospital full of doctors. In. The. Hospital.”
“Hmmm,” was the only response.
The apartment block was either condemned or certainly should be. The entire building looked one autumn storm away from toppling over. The man had Matt by the upper arm and was dragging him up the stairs. Matt’s messenger bag was over the man’s shoulder. Matt wondered what the guy wanted with the extra set of clothes he had in the bag.
They walked up the rickety stairs to the building and then down a long hallway. He was surprised when the man led him down another set of stairs and into the basement.
Matt could already see the headlines in the newspapers:
Young doctor strangled to death in basement.
Maniac kills and dismembers promising young doctor.
“Look,” he could hear the tremble in his own voice, “Just… if you let me go now I won’t tell anyone.”
The man didn’t even look at him, he just held on to Matt’s arm tighter and found a key in the inside pocket of his black coat. He unlocked the badly painted door.
The basement apartment looked alright. The living room and the small kitchen both seemed clean or at least nowhere as dirty as Matt had imagined an apartment in the old building might look.
Thankfully it didn’t look anything like the kind of apartment Matt would expect a serial killer to live in.
“He’s in here,” the man said and opened the door to a dark bedroom.
Okay, so he hadn’t anticipated this at all. He looked up at the man standing by the bed Matt was sitting on. The kid in the bed was sweating profusely, the sheets were damp and the dark bangs were sticking to the kid’s pale forehead.
“Fix him,” the man commanded and pointed at the child as if Matt was uncertain who he might be talking about.
“Look,” Matt started to rise from the bed but a large hand on his shoulder pushed him deeper into the old mattress.
“He’s sick,” the man said, “And if you don’t fix him…” the threat wasn’t finished but Matt caught another glimpse of the abnormal golden eyes.
“Okay,” he placatingly held up his hands and just nodded, “I’ll fix him,” he turned back to the kid and prayed that he could do as he’d just promised, “How long has he had this fever?”
“This bad? All day,” the man answered, “Before that he kept coughing,” he removed his heavy hand from Matt’s shoulder, “I bought some cough syrup but it didn’t help.”
“How long has he been coughing? And could you turn on some more light?” Matt tried to take the boy’s pulse the old fashioned way, with his fingers pressed against the skinny wrist, but his own heart was still galloping away making it hard to concentrate, “I’m having a hard time seeing in this light.”
“Sure,” the man walked out of the room and returned with a lamp that looked like it had been rescued from the rattiest of dumpsters.
He plugged the lamp in and turned it on. He removed the lampshade allowing the piss yellow light to fill the room, “He’s been coughing for a long time. He seemed to be doing better but then he just got worse.”
“Describe the cough,” if he was going to do this he might as well do it right.
“He’ll cough until he turns reddish blue in the face,” the man said and sat down on the opposite side of the bed, He reached out and touched the boy’s cheek.
“And the syrup had no effect at all?” Matt gently opened the boy’s eyes and checked his pupils as well as he could.
“None, I figured he had a cold. He was snotty and kept sneezing. But I don’t have a lot of experience with humans being sick.”
Matt looked uncertainly at the man and was surprised when he got up from the bed and grabbed the messenger bag by the door, “Here,” the man said and carefully sat it down on the floor by Matt’s feet.
“Ummm, what am I supposed to do with that?” Matt asked.
“Fix him,” the man repeated his earlier command and Matt felt dread fill his every fiber when he had to admit the truth.
“There’s only my clothes in that and my phone,” Matt said, his voice hoarse.
“But,” the man looked confused, “You’re a doctor and that’s your bag.”
“You thought I’d have everything I’d need in my bag?” Matt asked incredulously.
“It’s your bag,” the man repeated. He was starting to look desperate.
“Sure, but I don’t carry a bag around with everything a good doctor needs,” Matt felt like he was talking to a child.
“Doctors used to,” the man grumbled.
“Way back in the 1800 perhaps,” Matt conceded.
“What do you need?” the man asked.
“He,” Matt emphasized the word and pointed to the boy, “needs to go to the hospital.”
“You can fix him here,” the man crossed his arms but his eyes drifted to the sleeping boy.
“Not unless he needs a change of socks,” Matt said and stood up. He was starting to feel really pissed off, “Cause that’s all I have in my bag. I guess next time you better knock out someone with a bag full of medical supplies.”
“I can’t take him to the hospital,” the man finally admitted and pushed Matt out of the way as he bent down and started lifting the boy out of the bed. The kid hung limply in his arms.
“What are you going to do?” Matt asked.
“I’ll cool him down in the shower,” the man shoved past Matt, “I’ll freeze the fever out.”
“Are you nuts?” Matt asked and followed the crazy guy into the bathroom, “That could kill him!”
“That’s not your problem,” Matt saw a ripple go through the man’s face.
“You know what?” Matt said, his voice trembling. What the hell had he just seen? Matt gently touched the lump on the top of his head. He must have hit his head really badly. He moved out of the bathroom and into the living room, “You’re right. Fuck this mess,” he mumbled as he made his way to the front door of the apartment.
Just as his fingers touched the door handle he heard a whimper from the bathroom and then quiet crying.
“Just walk out,” Matt mumbled to himself, “Just walk right out and get the cops. Let them deal with it.” The crying grew louder and was now interrupted by wheezing coughs. He didn’t owe this maniac anything. The asshole had kidnapped him. Matt opened the door and was about to walk right out when he heard the man speak.
“You’ll be alright, Xander, we just need to get the fever down.”
The door seemed to close all on its own as Matt’s fingers let go of the door handle and turned around to walk back into the bathroom.
“Weren’t you off for the day?” Carl asked as he walked into the medication supply room.
“Oh,” Matt whirled around, “um…”
“You forgot to lock the door behind you and I noticed the green lights on the panel,” Carl pointed a finger over his shoulder, “Dude, you know how anal the boss is about security after those supplies disappeared last month.”
“Yeah,” Matt grinned, “Just,” he slapped his own forehead and winced when his fingers touched the lump hidden by his hair, “Totally forgot… long shift.” He’d hoped no one would notice him.
His mouth felt as dry as a litter box and apparently, just like a litter box, he was full of shit. “I just wanted to double check the prescriptions for one of my patients.”
“You don’t make mistakes, Matt,” Carl said; “You the man!” he laughed.
“Yeah,” Matt nodded and giggled like an idiot, “But I let one of the interns lead on that case and … I honestly just wanted to cover my ass in case the baby doctor fucked anything up.”
“You ended up with one of the stupid ones?” Carl snorted and slapped Matt so hard on the shoulder that Matt was sure he’d have bruises.
He felt like a complete bastard. A lot could be said about his new intern but stupid wasn’t one of them. “Yeah,” he sighed and rolled his eyes, “Wouldn’t know his dick from his nose.”
Carl just nodded, “So everything okay,” he pointed down at the papers on the desk behind Matt.
“What?” Matt asked and tried to shift his position so the prescription drugs he’d stuffed into his pockets didn’t poke him in the thigh. He thanked God that he’d put his lab coat on the second he’d entered the hospital. It covered his bulging pockets nicely.
Carl frowned, “Man, you need to get some sleep. The intern,” he drawled out the last word, “He won’t be getting you in trouble?”
“Oh, yeah,” he was sure Carl could smell the guilt, “He got it 100% right.”
“Well, I’ll be damned!” Carl grinned.
“Yeah, guess even a broken clock can be right twice a day, right?” Matt heard his own voice breaking and grimaced. He laughed trying to hide it but it just came out a little too high pitched.
“Shit,” Carl looked at the clock hanging on the wall, “I’ve got a meeting with my surgery team in two minutes. I bet Frank will hold one of his god damn there’s-no-I-in-team speeches. I swear to god I will punch him in the balls if he…”
“Then you better hurry up,” Matt said feeling desperate.
“Yeah,” Carl nodded and started to leave. Matt let out a deep sigh of relief just as Carl turned around. “But seriously, buddy, you need to go home and get some sleep.”
“Yeah,” Matt nodded and picked up the papers on the table, “I’ll just get all this back in order then I’m going home and passing out for the next twelve hours.”
Once the door closes behind Carl, he turns back to stare at his messenger bag on the floor. It was stuffed to the limit. His clothes lay on the top of the medication and equipment he was going to steal. Matt turned back to the papers he’d have to falsify in order to make the supplies disappear “legally”. He walked over to the door and locked it by punching in his code on the inside panel. He wanted no more interruptions.
“You can do this,” he mumbled to himself before he opened the door to the basement apartment and walked inside.
The man was sitting on the ratty old couch in the dimly lit living room.
“How,” Matt coughed a little uncertainly, “How’s he doing?” he nodded at the child slumped limply against the man’s chest.
“I think… he’s sleeping,” the man said, “I can hear his heart beat.”
“Ooookay,” Matt said and looked back at the front door of the apartment. He could probably make it outside if he ran. He made a very unmanly sound when he turned back and the man was standing right in front of him, the passed out little boy in his arms. “H-h-how’d you…” Matt stuttered.
“I can’t wake him up,” the desperation in his voice made Matt spring into action. He walked over to the coffee table and started emptying his pockets and swung the messenger bag off his shoulder and onto the floor. Matt put all the mediation in to little groups on the table and even pulled a few IV bags out of the bag.
“It’ll be easier if you put him on his back…” his eyes searched the room, “On the couch would be best and…” he paused as the man ever so gently put the boy on the couch and placed a pillow under the boy’s head. The boy’s moist dark hair clung to the man’s big hands.
Matt returned his attention to the bag and pulled out his stethoscope.
A small stuffed toy was picked up from the floor and the man placed it between the boy’s right arm and the couch cushions. It could be a dog but the fur was worn off, its face and the head squished so thoroughly that it was hard to determine.
“Help me turn him on his side,” Matt said and they both gently turned the boy on his side with the man holding him in place. Matt grabbed his stethoscope so he could listen to the boy’s congested lungs.
“So?” the man asked.
“Look,” Matt sat back down on the coffee table and looked on as the man pull the blanket up to the boy’s shoulders, “If we took him to the hospital I could be sure…”
“No,” the answer came quick and certain.
“If I could do some blood tests or a chest x-ray…” Matt tried.
“I said no,” the man looked more and more agitated, “You can help him here.”
“Alright,” Matt said placatingly, “I think he has whooping cough. A bad case of it too.”
“But,” the man stared from the boy to the doctor, “You can fix him.” It wasn’t a question.
“I think I got all we’ll need,” Matt pointed at the supplies he’d stolen from the hospital, “I’ll start right away.”
“And me?” the man asked standing uncertainly next to the couch.
“You?” Matt asked.
“What can I do to help?” the taller man clarified.
Matt looked down at the supplies on the table, picked up an IV bag and asked, “Can you find a vein?”
“A vein?” the man looked like he was about to start laughing, “Yeah, I think I can manage that.”
Matt got up from his position on the edge of the coffee table and stretched. It sounded like every bone in his body popped and he rubbed at his tired red eyes.
The boy had been awake a few times during the night and the IV was still attached to the small hand. The stuffed toy stared up at the ceiling, one eye missing and its floppy ears resting against the boy’s cheek.
Matt could hardly believe what he was about to say, “I’ll be back tomorrow before my next shift,” he heard himself saying. “We’ve gotten him started on the treatment and gotten his fever down.”
The man was standing by the front door, his eyes narrowed and his stance defensive, “How’ll you get home?”
“I was hoping you’d give me a ride,” Matt said, “You still have the keys to my car.”
The man looked down at his wristwatch and then up at the ceiling, “I don’t think so, the sun’s risen by now.”
“The sun,” Matt frowned, “Yeah… it does that in the morning… usually…” he suddenly swallowed, his throat feeling dry, “But… you don’t… go out… much,” the man just looked at him, “in the sun…” Matt continued.
“No,” he agreed.
“And…” Matt thought back to the man’s eyes and the odd rippling on his face in those split seconds when...
“You’re smart,” the man said, “You can figure it out.”
“Ha,” Matt snorted and then shook his head, “Come on… pull the other one it’s…” he swallowed audibly, “It’s got… bells on it,” he finished lamely.
“You did praise me on how good I was at finding a vein,” the man smiled and his entire face changed. His eyes turned golden, his teeth sharpened and his forehead became more prominent with ridges over his nose.
“Oh, God,” Matt whispered. He looked over his shoulder at the sleeping boy.
Even if he could make it out of the apartment there was no way he’d be able to get the kid out with him. Matt grabbed the used syringe off the table and held it in trembling hands.
“You…” he waved the syringe back and forth, “you keep away from us or I’ll…”
“Us…” the man said and his face turned back to normal. He looked from the boy to Matt and nodded, “Do you want a beer?”
“What?!” Matt almost shrieked.
They were sitting on the floor next to the couch. Matt took a big gulp of beer and choked on it. The man slapped him on the back and Matt almost went face first onto the floor.
“Sorry,” the man said and Matt just looked at him, “I don’t spend much time with humans,” he looked over at the sleeping boy, “other humans,” he corrected himself, “Sometimes I forget how fragile you can be.”
“oh, god,” Matt whispered under his breath and took another huge gulp of beer.
“Angel,” the man said.
“Where?” Matt asked and stared frantically around the room. The way his evening had gone he wouldn’t be surprised to see an angel waltz into the room and do the macarena.
“Me,” the man said, “That’s my name… Angel.”
“Seriously,” Matt said and started giggling. Yeah, he was pretty drunk. The lack of sleep and the strong beer, not to mention the fear, was definitely getting to him.
“You have a problem with that?” the man, Angel, asked.
“No,” Matt said and could feel a giggle fight its way up his throat, “No… nope, no problem at all,” he smirked and drank the last of his beer, “I don’t have a problem. I’m just drinking a beer with my good buddy, a vampire called Angel.”
Then he started laughing. He just couldn’t stop.
“Shhhh,” the vampire smiled, “you’ll wake the boy.”
“If he doesn’t get better by tonight or if he doesn’t wake up,” Matt said and picked up his messenger bag, “you have to call me.” He handed Angel a piece of paper with his number on it.
“I will,” Angel promised.
“I’ll be back tomorrow morning,” Matt walked over to the coffee table, “I seriously need to sleep and shower… I stink.”
“I wasn’t going to mention it,” Angel began but then just looked at the floor, “You’ll be back?”
“I said I would. And when I do I expect you to tell me what the hell is going on.” Matt pressed a small blister pack into the vampire’s hand, “Give him another one of these in two hours and then just follow the instructions in the box on the table.” Angel’s cool fingers touched his as he withdrew his hand. “And keep him dry. He might sweat through his pjs and the covers. Just change them and make sure he doesn’t get cold.”
Angel followed the doctor through the room. Matt stopped beside a door that had a big old worm-eaten dresser in front of it. Two boards were hammered across the door making it impossible to get through it.
“What’s in there?” Matt asked.
“A small walk in closet,” Angel said and shuffled his feet.
“Well, uh, why is it boarded up?” he looked at the vampire standing next to him.
“We don’t use that room any more.”
“I sort of gathered that but why?” Matt suddenly had an image of dead bodies being shoved into the small room and Angel boarding it up and wished he hadn’t asked.
“There was,” the vampire coughed, “a spider in there.”
“A what?” Matt asked incredulously.
“A spider,” Angel repeated defensively, “We don’t use that room anymore.”
Matt just stared for a second and then he started laughing. He laughed until tears were streaming down his cheeks and the vampire couldn’t help but smile. The human’s face turned an unattractive shade of pink.
Matt reached out and grabbed Angel around the wrist and wheezed out, “A s-s-spider.”
Angel stared down in surprise at the hand circling his wrist and nodded. Maybe, Matt thought, he wasn’t use to being touched by someone who wasn’t afraid… at least Matt wasn’t afraid in that moment, disarmed by the ridiculous situation.
“Xander is afraid of spiders,” Angel chuckled, “What was I supposed to do.”