The man moves the blade down with one swift motion. It scrapes the back of Angel’s neck, without nicking the skin.
Angel does not move. His body feels petrified and numb. An hour along in this ordeal and he is still unsure how exactly he ever got into this mess. He should have never agreed to come here in the first place. Between New York and Los Angeles he should have said ‘no’ a hundred times. But something drew him to the city against all reservations – a siren call, a magnetic pull. Moth meet flame.
The man makes another cut. Short hairs fall onto the checkered tiles. They land on a small heap with the other strands that have already hit the ground. At this hour, they are the only patrons here. Next to their seats the row of brown leather chairs is empty; the shop is in stasis except for the barber, the churning ceiling fan and the flickering bulbs of the ‘Open’ window sign.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Angel says wringing his hands, his gaze is fixed on his lap, “I shouldn’t be doing this. You need to find someone else.” He has thought about it. As a matter of fact, he has done little else these last few days.
Whistler does not look up. He sits in the chair next to Angel, feet propped up on the narrow shelf under the mirror, completely engulfed in the car magazine he is reading. He purses his lips as he compares different stats. Then he folds the magazine in half, turns it upside down and points to a black vehicle. “How do you feel about this one?” he asks.
Angel glances at the page, “It’s nice. But—”
“It’s a Pontiac GTO. I’m thinking about getting one. Or do you think I’m more of a Plymouth guy?”
“I know the difference. And no, you’re not a—are you even listening to me?”
Whistler takes the magazine back and flips to the next spread. From the look on his face, the choice he is trying to make has just gotten harder. “Not listening. Should I?”
Angel turns in his seat to face the demon.
Behind him, the barber harrumphs, “Don’t move like that! Undead or not, your ear won’t grow back, if I chop it off!” He is a short and sturdy man, who has barely exchanged a word with them so far, but now he seems personally insulted by the disregard Angel is showing to his craft.
“Sorry,” Angel murmurs and moves back.
The barber glares at him through the mirror and resumes his work. Angel shrinks. He doesn’t know what bothers him more, the ferocity of the stare or the fact that the man is not in the least disturbed by the absence of a mirror-image Angel looking back. Either way a man’s cut shouldn't take this long, not as far as he remembers at least. This barber, however, is precise to a point that borders pathological. Cutting hair as if the fate of the world depended on where each strand falls. Angel follows the monotonous movements in the mirror, then he closes his eyes. He can hear every sound in the room – the hissing of the razor, the crinkle crunch of Whistler’s page turning, the low murmur of the barber’s voice as he hums along to jazzy tunes that reverberate from somewhere behind. And right in between I Love You For Sentimental Reasons and Nature Boy Angel has made up his mind.
“So,” he tries to get Whistler’s attention again, “I know, I said I wanted to help the girl, but I'm not the right guy.” His message gets through at last.
Whistler closes the magazine and sits up straight. He is quiet for another beat. “Yeah, well. There is no one else, boyo. You’ve been around. Who else should I go to?” Whistler gives him a look that makes Angel’s skin prickle. It feels like the demon can see through to what is inside. “Who can slay a vampire, but won’t slay the slayer? Tell me, and I’ll ask them to help her. I’ll ask them tomorrow.”
Angel says nothing. He has thought about that, too. He has no answer.
The barber, undeterred by the exchange, puts his hand on Angel’s head and motions him to lean to the side. He pulls a pair of small shears from his belt, and with several quick snips, he puts last fixes to the hairline around Angel’s ear.
“There’s no one,” Whistler says with more emphasis. “You’re it. You’re all she’s got.”
The words drop like a block of concrete between them. Nothing in Angel’s present has ever felt so heavy. Usually it is only the past that weighs him down.
The barber lifts Angel's head back up, checks the hairline at the back of his neck once more and leaves to fetch a different razor.
Angel sags forward and buries his face in his palms. The chair swings slightly from side to side. “I don’t even know her, but she deserves something else. She deserves better.” He is appealing to Whistler’s sense of judgement now. He has to see reason. “I’m not a good man.”
The corner of Whistler’s mouth lifts up in a small bow. “I know, ” he says. Angel is prepared for that kind of affirmation, but part of him still recoils. Whistler takes a breath before he continues, “but she doesn’t need a good man right now. She needs a man who can do the job.”
Another block of concrete drops. This time it lands right on Angel’s chest. It's so heavy he thinks his ribs might crack. But before they do, before he's completely crushed, he jumps up and makes his way through the shop and towards the exit. He grabs the plastic cape around his neck with one hand, ready to rip it off, and takes hold of the brass door handle with the other. A bell chimes as he pulls the door open.
“I can't do this. I really—”
“She’s going to die.” Whistler’s voice shoots through the room. It ricochets from mirrors and porcelain sinks. True to aim, it hits.
Angel winces as if the words have pierced his back. People outside must have heard the threat, but none of the late night passers-by pay them any mind. Everything has become quiet. Even the music seems to have stopped. The fluorescent light is suddenly very bright.
“If you’re not there, Buffy is going to die sooner than she needs to.”
Angel lets go of the handle. The door falls back into the lock. The bell chimes.
“Buffy?” Her name comes out breathless and confused. “What kind of name is Buffy? Shouldn’t it at least be Joan? Or Boudicca?”
Up until now they haven’t talked of her as anything but ‘the slayer.’ The name makes her all the more real, makes it as if she was standing right outside.
Whistler shrugs. “Who puts the fate of the world into the hands of teenage girls, who still live with their parents? Beats me. But here we are. And what is is. This world is strange and these times are even stranger.”
Angel's shoulders slump.
“If you two are done discussing girl trouble, can we get on with the haircutting? I have another customer in 20 minutes.” The barber, electric razor in hand, gives Angel and Whistler another stern look and gestures at the abandoned chair.
Angel slouches back through the room and sits down again.
With a low buzz, the razor springs to life behind him and makes quick work of the last stray hairs on his neck.
“Alright, got it all,” the barber finally says. He moves Angel’s head back into a straight position and cleans off his shoulders with a small brush. Then he unhooks the cape and pulls the garment off.
Angel looks straight ahead. The reflection of an empty chair and the teal-green wall behind him are all he sees. He is not the man anyone needs. He is not a man at all.
Then the stocky shape of the barber steps back into the frame. He holds a small round mirror in his hand.
Angel lets out a groan, “Seriously?”
“Sorry. It’s a habit.” The barber grabs the headrest of the chair and turns Angel towards Whistler.
“How do I look?”
Whistler eyes him up. “I think you know how you look. The last two centuries should have taught you that much.”
Angel ignores the comment and carefully touches his hair. “I hope this is easy to manage. Maybe we should have gone for a buzz cut after all.”
“Hold on.” The barber unscrews a small aluminum cup, takes out a sticky odourless paste and streaks it through Angel’s hair.
“Woah... what are you doing?” Angel pats the strands with concern, “It’s standing up?!”
The barber shrugs. “That’s how they’re all wearing it now...guys your age...well guys who look your age.”
Angel’s expression is pained. “The 90s are really strange.”
He gets up to leave. “So I’ll just get something to eat and then we head out for another round?”
“Right. I’ll pick you up... ” Whistler trails off. He is looking at Angel in the inside-out way again. Taking off layer after layer after layer, searching for something underneath all the isolation, searching for something underneath all that time.
Angel shudders as he tries to shake the feeling off. As he tries to shake Whistler off. He turns to the barber. “Thanks for the cut,” he says and gives the man a curt nod.
The barber huffs a reply that Angel doesn't understand and begins to put his tools away.
“There's something else I want you to know.” Whistler takes off his fedora and inspects the brim for specks of dust. Then he looks back up at Angel, his expression solemn. “Before you do this, I want you to know that you’ll probably get hurt.” The words come out choppy.
Angel frowns. “We’re going demon hunting. That’s always a risk.”
Whistler shakes his head. “No. What I’m trying to say is, you’re going to get really hurt. Not this year. Maybe not next, but down the line, you might wish you’d stayed underground.”
Angel’s mouth forms into a silent ‘O.’ “Well, that’s nothing new.” He looks down at his barely-worn shoes. Looks at the tiles as if the reflection of the ceiling lights in them can tell him what to do. “I’m not a fool. What do you think I think will happen? I'm a vampire. You’re asking me to help a slayer. There is only one way this will go.” Angel curls his hand into a fist and hits his chest. The two men exchange weak smiles that do not want to grow into anything more hopeful. They say ‘We are old. We have seen how these kind of stories play out’.
The bell chimes. Whistler remains motionless, staring at the door as it falls shut. His frozen smile slowly thaws. Whatever he thought of Angel in the beginning, by the Powers, he knows now they were…
Something hits his foot. The barber circles around him, bumping against his shoe with a broom. He finishes sweeping up the hair, then moves on to wiping off the chairs with a damp towel, still humming a jazzy tune. “You’ve seen it, right?” he asks.
“His aura? Course I have.” Whistler puts on his coat and starts digging through the pockets. “That’s why we chose him. To be honest, I didn’t think we’d ever find someone like that,” Whistler looks to the door again, as if the ghost of Angel was still in the room, “but I still wanted to double check with you.”
The man lets out a small whistle. “He’s a champion alright. Boy is the real deal. He’ll just need some time to figure it out. But that's about all I can tell you right now. At the moment there's just too much in motion. I do see the hurt, though. That’s like a burning red thread running through.” He throws the towel over his shoulder and leans down with his arms on the backrest of a chair. “That girl. That love is gonna cost him.”
Whistler exhales heavily. He hands the man several notes, pats him on the back and thanks him for his time.
The barber skims through the dollar bills and puts them in his breast pocket. “Don’t look so sullen, Whis. It could be worse.” In the background, the record plays its last verse. “Could be unrequited.”