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Magia Posthuma

Project Paranormal

Season 4

Part 7

Author: Landrews

 

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Summary: Project Paranormal finds themselves in Ashford, courtesy of ghosts both past and present and a car that won't be left behind.

 

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Thanks to the PP Beta Team!

 

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Magia Posthuma

 

 

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, as based on the guidelines John impressed on them the evening before and Giles' internet research.

 

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 back 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's 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.

 

“What?”

 

“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 all ready 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.

 

“Fine.”

 

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 by on the A6, not ready to go home. He'd wandering here following his fight with Derek. His hand had been 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 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.

 

                                                                      ***

 

Angel pushed away the books laid open in an overlapping pile in front of him, leaned back in his chair, and rolled his head from side to side, stretching his neck.

 

Buffy sighed. “I didn't know there were so many haunted cars in the world.” She ruffled the printouts in front of her.

 

“Did you read about the Ford Capri in Sussex?” Giles said from in front of his computer.

 

“Yeah- with the Ark666 license? That's just creepy. I can't believe that guy hires it out.”

 

“It's been blessed and exorcised by both witches and priests to no avail. I'll be curious to see if separating the car from the registration plate works.”

 

“You know, James Dean's Spyder did the same things,” Angel said, crossing his arms over his chest. “A garage burned down around it, but the car was left in perfect condition. It regularly fell off flatbeds  in transport, even its parts caused troubles when they were sold separate, blowing up and causing accidents. At least the Capri hasn't killed anyone. The Spyder killed several people, and then disappeared altogether.”

 

Buffy snorted. “Cars don't just disappear.”

 

“The Spyder did, off a moving truck.”

 

Giles was nodding in agreement.

 

“Okay, then. What are we going to do about our little haunted Peugeot?”

 

“It was purchased through the wholesale auction north of London,” Giles said. “But its last owner lives in Ashford-in-the-Water, near Bakewell in Derbyshire.”

 

“That's an odd name,” Buffy said.

 

“It floods,” Angel said, and then his face did the closing thing, that she'd learned meant he'd spoken without thinking, a rarity for him.

 

Glancing at Giles, Buffy could see he'd noticed, too. “It does,” he agreed. “I'm going to suggest a simple investigation and exorcism first, but then also quote our trip fees in case we need to go to Ashford. Are we agreed?”

 

                                                                   ***

 

His feet spun, it seemed to him, like in a cartoon, before catching and propelling Aaron across the bridge. His heartbeat pounded in his ears louder than his feet on the packed earth. He expected to be caught, for something to leap out from the  old, creepy cottage at the bridge's edge and stop him; for the man to appear, leering, at the Parish Well and block his way to Derek's car. He skidded and slammed into the door, flailing for the handle. He caught it and slid in, closing the door so fast, it caught his untied boot laces. He jerked his foot up, breaking the laces, as Derek landed in the driver's seat beside him, slammed his door, and scrabbled at the keys hanging in the ignition.

 

The car rocked, buffeted by a great, howling wind that bent the willows and ash trees over the bridge and out along the river. Aaron peered into the dark, but the man wasn't anywhere he could see. “Where is he?” he yelled above the thrashing of the trees and scream of the wind as it curled around the car.

 

But Derek didn't answer. The engine cranked over, Derek stomped on the accelerator, and they shot backward so hard, Derek had to lean into the wheel to pull it over, his arms straining. Aaron braced his feet, grabbing for the suicide bar above the window and leaned with him. The tires squealed as they slid until Derek let go of the wheel, letting it spin under his palms, hit the brake with both feet, jammed the gearshift into drive, hit the petrol again, and they rocketed up Fennel Street.

 

                                                                     ***

 

Giles stepped back from the Peugeot, sweat slicking his face in the cold night air. He still held the black spell book, open on the opened Bible beneath it. The pages of the spell book steamed, but nothing was actually on fire, as far as Buffy could tell. His jacket discarded, the back and armpits of Giles' blue oxford were soaked through.

 

Buffy tucked her short sword between her knees, and pulled her hairband out, letting her skewed ponytail fall out to join the strands of hair that had already made their escape. She shook her head,  wiped the sweat from her temples, scraped her hair all back again and replaced the hairband. She stunk of the stinky herbs they had used on their first attempt to exorcise the ghost.

 

Angel's voice drifted from behind the car's far side quarter panel. “I hate ghosts.”

 

The Peugeot  honked and engine revving, drove forward five feet, revealing Angel on his back, his knees bent from snatching his legs out of the way of the rear tires. His eyes were wide as he stared at Buffy. She shrugged. He lay his head down on the pavement of the Oval's back lot with a thump. The car flashed all its lights once and then died completely.

 

Although they had asked to perform their duties without an audience, two of the mechanics most familiar with the car and the Oval's manager, Mr. Long, had stayed back after closing, and were standing at the edge of one of the bays. Buffy turned, to see their reaction. Mr. Long was sitting on the ground, looking pasty-white, but the mechanics were grinning; the blonde one leaning against the door frame, waving his lit cigarette as he talked to the other. The car's battery sat at their feet. They didn't seem in the least surprised that the Peugeot ran without it.

 

“It appears we'll have to find another way,” Giles said.

 

“Great. Grave-hunting,” Buffy grumbled.

 

“Or maybe unfinished business.”

 

“Serious unfinished business,” she agreed.

 

Angel groaned as he rolled up and stood. He walked forward and touched the trunk, but jerked his hand back. “Still hot,” he said.

 

“Interesting,” Giles said.

 

The blonde mechanic joined them, holding the battery. The other was crouched next to Mr. Long, a hand on his arm.

 

“Mr. Long wants you to take it,” he said, lifting his chin towards the car.

 

“Excuse me?” Giles said.

 

“Take it until it's fixed. He wants it off the lot.”

 

“He wants us to drive it,” Buffy said.

 

“It's safe enough; I've driven it lots.”

 

“Define 'lots',” Angel said, with just a hint of sarcasm.

 

“During the day, some. On the days it's parked itself up front in the mornings. It's fond of the 407 Coupes, especially in blue.”

 

Angel's eyebrows went up and then down as he frowned, his gaze returning to the car. “It has good taste,” he said.

 

Giles cleared his throat. “Quite. I'll just go see that Long's all right and work out the details. You'll have to wait awhile to replace the battery, until the car cools.”

 

Angel cautiously touched the trunk again and shook his head. “It's cool, now.”

 

Buffy couldn't resist and lay her hand on the hood at the same time as Giles. “Cold,” she said, amazed. Under their combined touch, the car purred into life once more, but sat still and quiet. When Buffy lifted her hand away, the engine cut off.

 

Giles closed his books, and repacked their field duffles as she and Angel gathered their paraphernalia and handed it to him.

 

While he talked with Mr. Long, now sitting in a chair the second mechanic had dragged out for him, Buffy and Angel stood guard as the blond reinstalled the battery. He closed the hood and stepped back, wiping his hands on a rag he pulled from his pocket.

 

“Kinda fond of it, if you wanta know the truth,” he said.

 

Buffy didn't know what to say. Most of their clients called them about evil spirits, or poltergeists or things that scared the wits out of them.

 

“All souls deserve peace,” Angel said, and Buffy remembered how safe and warm and done she had felt in heaven. Being in Angel's arms was the closest she'd ever come to matching that indescribable feeling.

 

She inched closer to him, aware of the exact second when he turned his attention to her in response.

 

“Well,” the mechanic said, and patted the hood. “In case they solve your puzzle, mate,” he said, addressing the car directly, “Take care and Godspeed.”

 

“Don't play pop,” he offered to Buffy and Angel. “It hates that.”  

 

                                                                     ***

 

“That was a dead man,” Derek said after they had driven up and hung a left out to Buxton Road and the A6. When they crossed the Wye again, they both looked uselessly down the dark passage of the curving river toward Sheepwash Bridge. They couldn't see further than the moon hitting the current a couple of hundred yards down, let alone around the bend.

 

“No way. No way. Someone was having us on,” Aaron said, though his voice shook.

 

“He reeked. That man was dead and had been for a long time.” He sucked in a breath and blew it out slow.

 

“He talked to me,” Aaron said. And I talked back, he thought, but his throat closed up and he ended up just staring at Derek's hands clenched on the steering wheel. His knuckles were white.

 

“Let's drive for a little before we go home,” Derek said, watching the rearview. “Want to stay at my house tonight?”

 

“Yeah,” Aaron said. He felt for and found Derek's CD case under his seat. “Screaming Banshees?”

 

“Cruxshadows. I need to chill out.” He held his hand out. It was trembling, and all the hairs were standing up on his arm. “Put the CD on, man.”

 

                                                                 ***

 

Buffy drove the Peugeot with Angel riding shotgun and Giles following behind them.

 

Halfway home on the short drive, the radio clicked on. Buffy gasped at the immediate assault on her ears, but Angel was already turning the volume down. The dial rolled through the stations, the numbers flashing by faster than he could follow, before the light flashed down to CD and there was momentary silence.

 

A violin, sweet and clear. He looked at Buffy just as she glanced over and he wondered if he looked as mystified as she. Drums and a bass joined in, and then a man began to sing... “It's eight o'clock in the evening and I'm feeling out of sorts. I've got this itch that needs some scratching, and I think you've got the claws. So won't you show me some affection, I'll curl up next to you. I've got a surefire cure for attention and I'll demonstrate it just for you. This isn't love, this is a fling, this is a special kind of thing. We're crazy cats, just you and me, so let's get dirty...” the violin bumped down the scale and then the radio clicked off again. 

 

“He's not wrong,” Buffy ventured.

 

Angel poked the CD ejection. The player whirred, but didn't eject. Angel leaned over and pushed the flap up to peer inside.

 

Buffy screamed and the car swerved. Angel tipped over, his cheek smacking Buffy's thigh. His head bounced against the steering wheel as she worked the pedals and the car jounced onto the shoulder. The car stopped. The headlights from Giles' car filled up the cab from behind.

 

Heart thundering, Buffy flung her door open. The night air rushed in on them, exhaust and wet grass and singed rubber mixed with Buffy and something else... some scent that made him think of stone, old water, river water, leaf litter and the flash of scales across his palm.

 

Buffy slid out from under Angel's head. His temple glanced off the leather seat as he struggled to untangle himself and sit up while listening to Giles' slam his door and rush loudly along the gravel edge to her.

 

“Did you see him?” he called.

 

“God, yes,” Buffy said. Mixed signals poured off her. The sharp scent of her sudden fright was fast dissipating. She was excited.

 

Angel's own blood surged as he breathed her in. He opened his door and stood, his arm braced on the roof. “Who?”

 

“A man,” Giles told him. “In the back seat.”

 

Angel ducked reflexively and looked into the back of the Peugeot, although he knew no one was there.

Physically.

 

“A boy, Giles, he's just a boy.” Buffy said as Angel straightened up again. “Well, you know, seventeen or eighteen, maybe? Goth. Way Goth.”

 

“Hmm.”

 

“He turned the radio on to some weird music,” she said. “Did you get the CD, Angel?”

 

“The player's empty.”

 

Giles shook his head, and took his glasses off as he dug into his pocket. Another car's headlights backlit him as he wiped his glasses with a lens cloth. It swerved out into the middle of the two lane road to give them room, and swished by, buffeting them in a mini-wind storm.

 

The scent of the road filtered into Angel's senses, reminding him of the odd smell moments before. He said, “He smelled like water- like a river.”

 

Buffy nodded. “Like wet clothes in the hamper,” she agreed.

 

Giles held the glasses up, inspecting them in the moonlight, and then put them back on. “I won't tell you to be careful, but take care, don't hit any trees if he shows up again.”

 

Buffy eyed the car with an unusual look of wariness.

 

“He's expended a massive amount of energy tonight,” Giles reassured her. “I doubt he'll be back. Just... be careful.”

 

Angel debated offering to drive, but instead dropped himself back into the passenger seat and after a second, Buffy resumed her position as well. Giles crunched back to his car. Looking in the rearview, Buffy started the engine. “Behave yourself,” she said, and then bit her lip.

 

Forcibly reminded of Dennis and his life in Los Angeles, Angel countered the swirling churn of mixed emotion in his gut by laying his hand palm-up on Buffy's warm thigh. She took it, wrapping her fingers around his, and smiled at him. He leaned over and kissed her. Thoroughly.

 

“You, too,” she whispered when he released her.

 

The rest of the ride was silent.

 

                                                                            ***

 

The next evening, Buffy dropped her duffel and Angel's into the trunk of Giles' car. After an afternoon spent taking turns combing the internet and researching what categories of phantom their young adult Goth might fit into, the mutual consensus was that they would all be traveling to Ashford-in-the-Water.

 

Giles needed to be back in two days time for a scheduled consult in Bath concerning the activity of what he suspected was a Trenthor demon, but if need be, she and Angel could return to Ashford over the weekend for another go. The idea of extending an invite to the girl who wanted to intern for them

was becoming more appealing with every new complication of time management that arose. Immediately, the image of an African Death Mask stuck to the girl's face, an opened box on the desk in front of her, rose in her mind's eye, followed by another- Angel struggling down the stairs from the slayers' rooms. Bad idea, inviting anyone to join them their danger zone. They would simply make do. 

 

As she turned, the headlights on the Peugeot flashed. Goosebumps crawled up her spine and spread in a cool wave over her scalp. They had worked with helpful spirits before. The young women always got to her, but generally they were spirits who had been dead a long time. To know a contemporary Goth boy was trapped in the Peugeot made her feel helpless and sick to her stomach.

 

She slammed the trunk and trudged back into Summerdown. She was hungry and knew Giles and Angel needed to fuel up before they left, too. While searching for a current address for the previous owner, they discovered that the Peugeot had actually been transferred from a lawyer's estate trust to the wholesale auto auctioneers, BCA. Angel told her the car, six years old, should have been sold for parts, but Oval of Westbury had purchased it instead. A phone call to Mr. Long revealed he had originally purchased it for his son, as a first car, but the boy refused to drive it after his first outing, though he wouldn't explain himself. Of course, after having it on the lot, Mr. Long soon found out the reason for himself. 

 

A ring to the lawyer's office revealed that the previous owner, forty-one year old Marina Martin, died following a short illness, and had no living heirs. And that was that. There were no newspaper accounts in either Ashford, or its larger neighbor, Bakewell, about her death or any others. There were no printed obituaries. Nothing of note beyond the tiny town's annual Well-Dressing Festival, which brought tourists in to see the flower-bedecked village wells, a revived pagan offering that kept Ashford's coffers half-full for another year.

 

When Buffy entered the kitchen, she saw Martha was ahead of her. She was assembling an early dinner while Giles filled the kettle for tea. He set it on the stove and began to lay the table. Buffy gathered their silverware from a drawer and crossed to the table as Angel entered from the hall, still reading a sheet of paper he held.

 

“Did you find anything on that song?” she asked.

 

Angel answered without looking up, “Not with the lyrics, but when I googled Goth, I found the Whitby Goth Weekend. One of the bands lined up to play is Screaming Banshee Aircrew. The song is theirs.”

 

“Oh,” Buffy said. “Is the ghost a banshee?”

 

“I wish it were that easy,” Giles said, as he finished and sat down at his usual place. “Banshees are usually female.”

 

“Horrible wailing,” Martha said. She opened the oven and, even surprised by the comment, Buffy's mouth watered at the savory odor that wafted into the room. “My grandmother swore she heard one as a child, three nights in a row.”

 

The lights flickered and failed. Martha froze and Giles frowned. Angel was moving already, toward the back of the house and the construction there. Buffy followed. She knew the crew was gone for the day, so it couldn't be a problem with them. Angel opened the door as the lights came on, to the sound of an undulating wail that rose and fell and rose again. They tracked the sound across the rear patio, and over the stone threshold into the newly framed addition. A bandsaw sat on the subfloor, screeching across the metal surface of a screwdriver wedged beneath it. It shut off.

 

Angel reached down into the nest of the band saw's neatly coiled power cord and picked up the plug.

 

“He's not confined to the car,” Giles said.

 

“Why didn't he just stay in Ashford or where ever he came from then?” Buffy asked.

 

“Spirits can be attached to an object...” Angel said. He looked at the plug, seeming lost in his thoughts.

 

Giles rocked back on his heels and stared at the ceiling. “But manifest or manipulate beyond it, limited usually either by distance or the domain of the possessor, similar to cursed items.”

 

“But we asked if there had been any unusual activity at the dealership not directly involving the car,” Buffy said, spreading her hands.

 

“Yes, we did. Angel? Can you think of any instances where “possession” didn't imply ownership?”

 

“No. I was thinking of the Rosenlatt Rabbit's Foot, but every person who suffered the effects of it claimed ownership, even the ones who stole it from one another.”

 

“The entities attached to paintings or mirrors don't usually cause problems except to their owners...” Giles let the sentence hang in the twilight gloom as he thought.

 

“But we don't own it,” Buffy said.

 

“Well,” Martha said from the doorway behind them. “I'd be wondering why he's imitating a banshee, myself. Dinner's ready.” She turned on her heel and left.

 

“Indeed,” Giles said.

 

                                                                     ***

 

After dinner and full dark settled on them, they gathered a few last minute extras- two books Giles thought might enlighten them on the more extensive activity their poltergeist had demonstrated, and a couple of different ingredients for a variation on one of their favorite exorcism spells- and tried to set out for Derbyshire and Ashford-in-the-Water in Giles' car. But the Peugeot threw such a fit, honking and flashing and even making a valiant attempt to follow them before dying in the center of the drive, blocking John's entry as he arrived to collect Martha, that Angel, exasperated, finally took the wheel, and he and Buffy set out ahead of Giles once more.

 

Two and a half hours later, with an hour yet to go, the ghost, maybe re-energized by passing through the buzzing, light-filled city of Birmingham, objected to Buffy's taste of the radio stations and a brief argument over physical control of the radio dial ensued between Buffy's outbursts of “Hey!” and “No!” and “Ew.” Angel confined his amusement to a smirk when they finally compromised on an alt rock station playing a song that had to do with the endless British summer rain, though Buffy gave him an odd look.

 

He did not want to explain how he knew the song from a three am internet search one morning that led from the term 'revenants' to 'poltergeists' to 'ghosts' to 'ghosts, sleeping' to a whole list of 'sleeping with ghosts' entries that led to his listening to all of Placebo's 'Sleeping With Ghosts' in mini-bytes on iTunes. Nope, not going there. The mood in the car lifted considerably, though, and Angel knew without a doubt that their invisible traveling companion was enjoying his inside joke as the radio station went on to play half the album straight through. Apparently, boys didn't change much after death. He should know, he supposed.

 

They had planned on staying in Bakewell, but after crossing the not-a-tree-in-sight border of the Peak District National Forest, as they drove along the A6 onto Buxton Road to pass Ashford-in-the-Water, the Peugeot slowed despite Angel pressing harder on the gas. The right blinker popped on.

 

Angel switched the radio off. It had long since become just annoying noise to him. “What do you think?” he asked.

 

“We're here to de-haunt this car; I think we should go with it.”

 

“What if it's a trap?”

 

Buffy rolled her eyes, dropped her hand to the right side of her seat with a twirling motion and swirled her longish curved dagger up in a vicious circle. He knew she had a stake hidden at her lower back as well. “Give me something to kill.”

 

“That's my girl.”

 

“And Giles has half his library with him,” she said as he made the turn onto Fennel Street.

 

Angel watched the rearview, checking to be sure Giles followed. When the familiar headlights appeared behind him, he relaxed, and focused on the town of stone buildings and walls. It didn't look very much different than it had when he'd been here before. There were power poles and the roads were paved. He'd been in the big L-shaped mansion to his right, which now announced itself as the Riverside House Hotel. Buffy pointed it out. It was after ten o'clock, too late to chase down leads tonight.

 

“Let's see what's down the road,” he said.

 

As they rounded a sharp bend in the road past a well house, helpfully marked 'Parish Well', and another small brown sign that read 'Sheepwash Bridge', the car stalled. Angel turned the ignition off as he hit the brakes and then cranked it again. The engine revved and the Peugeot jumped forward. Buffy's breath huffed out as their seat belts locked. The accelerator dropped under Angel's foot and the car sped forward. Angel stomped on the foot brake and popped the emergency brake. The speedometer passed forty miles per hour.

 

Up ahead, beyond a huge church looming on the left, a sedan rolled out of a cross street and into their path.

 

“Stop,” Buffy barked. 

 

The Peugeot screeched to a standstill. Light exploded into the cab, Giles almost rear ending them as they rocked forward against their locking seat belts. Angel's forehead met the wheel with a solid thowk sound and a burst of pain. He lifted his head. Buffy had both hands on the dash. She turned to gape at him.

 

Are you okay?” he said, unable to process any other thought until he heard the answer.

 

“Yes, your head...”

 

Although he could smell the blood, he still touched the cut, swelling already. Giles knocked on his window, and Angel was aware of someone else, crossing the street, help descending on them. He fumbled for the switch and lowered the window, so Giles could see they were fine. His eyebrows went up as the questions came from across the hood.

 

“A dog,” he said smoothly to the questioner, standing to meet his- and now as someone else trotted over from the closest cottage, the light from their front room spilling into the street- their curious gazes. “A large dog; I saw it, too, it went that way,” he said, pointing away, towards the church. “My friends are fine, we're traveling together...”

 

Angel eased one foot off the brake.

 

“Yes, yes, of course...”

 

And then the other foot. Buffy sat back and brushed her hair off her forehead with the hand not gripped around the handle of her dagger.

 

“Thank you for offering...”

 

The car was still running. The radio switched itself back on. It scanned through the stations.

 

“No, quite all right...”

 

“...ru.. A......a...un...a...run...run...oh,aaron...a...run...” Static. “...oh, aaron.....run...a...oh, aaron, what you gonna do?...run...a...run..” The radio stopped on static and the volume dial spun, blasting the  static out into the night. Angel punched the power button and grunted when the plastic broke.

 

“.... accommodation?” Giles said outside.

 

“We need to find someone named Aaron?” Buffy said.

 

Angel shrugged. He swiped at his left eyebrow, wiping away the tickle of the blood seeping over it.

 

“.... yes... thank you... good night.” Giles returned to Angel's window and leaned down to see them, one hand over the open window. “This road changes to Church Street at the next intersection. I've been assured The Ashford Arms has rooms available at a reasonable cost. Should we leave the car here?”

 

Angel glanced at Buffy. There was no fear in her eyes, only determination. “No, I think it'll be fine now.”

 

Giles looked worried, but he only tapped his fingers twice against the door and then returned to his own car.

 

“We'll get settled and then I'll take a walk.”

 

“I'm coming with,” Buffy said.

 

Angel released the emergency brake, put the car in gear, and they slunk up the street at low speed, both of them anticipating another temper tantrum, but it didn't come before they found the Ashford Arms. Angel pulled in and heaved a sigh of relief.

 

They pulled their bags out of Giles' car and Buffy cleaned off Angel's forehead with one of the cloths they packed for cleaning their blades. Entering the Arms, they were confronted with a bar. A soccer match was playing silently on the TV mounted high in the corner over an occupied pool table. Music, current and bright, was playing over the surround sound, imploring everyone to just get along and dance.

 

The proprietor, Andy, built thin and balding, was quick to assure them they also had guest rooms, and signed them in with no fuss. He showed them through another bar, darker and quiet, with a large open fireplace. “We serve a full menu, breakfast for our guests is included. Be down before ten.” He looked at his watch. “The kitchen closed for dinner about half an hour ago, but we can still rummage you up some dessert, if you're interested?”

 

“Anything chocolate?” Buffy piped up.

 

God, how Angel loved her.

 

“Flourless Torte or Triple Layer Chocolate Cake.”

 

“Chocolate Cake?”

 

Andy smiled, and led them up the staircase to their rooms.

 

                                                                              ***

 

Buffy popped the last bite of her French Toast in her mouth and savored it, before sipping her coffee and interrupting Giles' reading. “So, what's first?”

 

Across the table, Giles shook the Bakewell daily to straighten it and then folded it neatly. “The lawyer's, I think, and then we can check with the library or the church for the history of the Parish Well and Sheepwash Bridge.”

 

“There's definitely history there, especially the bridge. Even Angel had the creeps.” The dark had wrapped around her like a current on the bridge. Everything seemed muted, except the rush of the water, which in some strange inverse effect, echoed over her head. Angel had frowned and taken her arm and they had swum through the air and off the bridge. 

 

“But no demons.”

 

“No demons. Angel was out most of the night.” And required thawing when he finally crawled into bed with her. It made her appreciate anew the super hot water their shower produced at home. “No vamps anywhere about, nothing else he could find.”

 

They made their way to Giles' car. Buffy watched the Peugeot as they pulled out, but it sat quiescent. The  fifteen minute drive over to Chesterfield was gorgeous. Derbyshire seemed filled with rolling, sheep-dotted fields, ivy covered cottages in little rows, and lots and lots of natural stone. It was much more rural than Wiltshire.

 

The receptionist at Geoff Farmer and Associates looked to Buffy as if she had sprung from the country whole, a square rock of a woman who had never been anything other than fifty years old. “Mr. Farmer's out today,” she answered Giles' query.

 

“I see,” Giles said. “Is one of his associates available?”

 

“No.”

 

“Has he any associates?” Giles asked.

 

Buffy tried to keep her face still, but felt her lips betray her.

 

The woman gave Giles a long look. Giles stared back. And then the woman suddenly smiled, and it was brilliant. She had beautiful teeth and rosebud cheeks and dimples. “Just me,” she admitted.

 

“Maybe you can help us?”

 

She shook her head, but her facade was broken, and she seemed more regretful than stony. “Probably not. I can schedule an appointment for you, though.”

 

“We need information on a car transferred from an estate handled by Mr. Farmer.”

 

She shook her head again.

 

“Marina Martin?” Buffy said.

 

Her breath huffed out like she'd been punched.

 

“The silver Peugeot,” Giles said.

 

“It was Derek's.”

 

“Derek?”

 

“Marina's younger brother. She was raising him.”

 

Buffy distinctly recalled that Marina Martin had no living heirs.

 

“He wasn't named in her will?” Giles asked.

 

The woman's face sagged. Buffy thought maybe she had seen the gamut of her facial expressions all within two minutes.

 

“I'm sorry, Ms...?”

 

“Baker, “ she said sadly. “I'm Joy Baker.”

 

Oh, joy, Buffy thought, but chided herself for it.

 

“We've obviously hit a nerve, I'm sorry. We, ah,...” he glanced at Buffy, but she didn't know why. “We, ah, now own the car in question and, um, have some...”

 

“Interest,” Buffy supplied.

 

Giles cleared his throat. “Interest, yes, we have some interest in its history.”

 

“Marina's mother owned it,” Joy said. Looking down,she opened the central desk drawer and poked along the right edge. “When she passed three years ago, Marina kept it. Derek started driving it when he passed his driving test.” She held up a four by six inch photograph. “This is Anne and I, with Marina as a baby.”

 

“I'm sorry for your loss,” Giles said, and took the photo. He peered at it closely, and then added “Where might we find Derek?”

 

Joy sighed. “Next to his mother and sister. He passed the week before Marina, and Marina's husband passed over three days after him. They're all gone now.”

 

“May I ask...”

 

“Illness. Some illness they had that no one ever figured out.” Tears seeped down her slack cheeks.

 

Uncomfortable, Buffy looked at her feet, but Giles wasn't done.

 

“Do you know...”

 

“Giles,” Buffy hissed.

 

He frowned at her and then leaned forward, placing the photo back in front of Joy's clasped hands, on the smooth surface of her desk in front of her paper calender blotter. He laid his own hands flat and waited for Joy to look up at him. “I'm truly sorry for upsetting you. Do you know someone named Aaron?”

 

She shook her head, and with trembling fingers, reclaimed the photo.

 

Giles stood. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Baker, you've been a great help to us.

 

She nodded again and sniffed. Buffy backed into the office door and held it open for Giles. Or whoever it was who had just reduced a formidable woman to tears for the sake of a ghost.

 

“Good job, Ripper,” she whispered as he passed by her. He only rolled his eyes. And she'd already forgiven him by the time they were settled in his car.

 

They drove back to Ashford and pulled into the shaded car park of Holy Trinity, the big church alongside which the Peugeot had stopped the night before. When they asked about parish records and Marina Martin, the church's receptionist fluttered her hands and went in search of the Reverend. The Reverend Kaunhoven took their business card a little doubtfully.

 

“Marina was a dutiful daughter. She assumed the care of her brother as best she could. You know about Derek?”

 

“It's our understanding he drove...our...car?” Giles said as they sat in the Reverend's cramped office.

 

“It was his. Marina may have needed a stronger hand in dealing with him, but she tried. Her husband...” He took his round wire glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “I knew them, you understand. It's the blessing of a small parish, to know your charges day in and out.”

 

“Can you tell us about their deaths?”

 

“Derek contracted a fever. Nothing much, and then had the flu. And then died. He never even saw a doctor. Michael, Marina's husband, was sick already, and while Marina arranged for Derek's funeral, he  went to Bakewell, to the hospital. Nothing unusual was found at Derek's autopsy, so Michael was given the usual advice, fluids, rest, but he died, too, the day of the funeral. Marina followed. Their house was searched, and then when no one else died, the authorities dropped it.”

 

“Has anything like this ever occurred here before? Unusual deaths, unexplained illness?”

 

The reverend got up. Buffy set down the small wooden cross she'd been turning in her fingers, but the reverend picked it back up and, reaching across his desk, tucked it into her palm. His fingers were warm and strong. “Keep it.”

 

He led them out into the sanctuary.

 

“What are those?” Buffy asked. Wooden frames were suspended above the aisle, white rosette garlands draped over them.

 

“The garlands are called virgin crants. Tourists come to see them. They're made of paper, and ours are very well preserved. We don't use them anymore, but they used to be carried, hung on those wooden frames, in the funeral processions of unmarried girls.”

 

“Why...” 'don't you carry them anymore', she started to say, but then she realized why. She knew he saw it on her face, and Giles gave her what she could only think of as a fatherly look. “Oh.”

 

“Social values change, though I wish that one were more honored,” the reverend said mildly. He unlocked an arched wooden door at the back of the church, in the stone tower under the bells.

 

He left them there, with the parish books and files, and the admonishment to put everything back exactly and to find him before they left.

 

“Reverend Kaunhoven,” Giles said, when the reverend turned to leave. “Do you know an Aaron?”

 

“Aaron Handler? He was Derek's best friend. They wore their youth like armor and Aaron's had a difficult time dealing with Derek's death. He was always a bit of an outcast, but now he's nothing more than a shadow sitting on the back pew on Sundays.”

 

“Thank you, Reverend.”

 

“Come find me later,” he said again, and strode away. 

 

Giles started on the oldest stuff and Buffy sorted backwards, wishing they had Angel along. She found the pattern first. In October, various residents of Ashford-in-the Water died every year. She was only four years back when she began to see it. She flipped pages to the years she'd already scanned, checking Octobers again, and then started backwards again at a faster pace. October 2002, 2001, 2000...  

 

                                                                     ***

 

“Sixteen years, Angel, of bad Octobers. Families, groups of friends, and one time, a sick bachelor, the   chemist he went to, and the cashier who checked him out. All three days apart. Starting on the fourth,” Buffy said. It was two in the afternoon, and they were sitting downstairs in the Ashford Arms, having a late lunch.

 

“Always three people?”

 

“No,” Giles said. “Once it was seven and in 1998, it was only one, a widow.”

 

“The Reverend's tried a couple of times to get a medical investigation going, but everyone says it's coincidence.”

 

“Three days.”

 

Giles nodded. “That's a number that comes up again and again in the literature. I keep thinking of the term, magia posthuma.”

 

Angel tilted his head back, thinking of the original Romanian legends of the restless dead. Revenants. Not necessarily bloodsuckers, but often corpses, and sometimes ghosts. When they appeared the people they attacked, or even simply talked to, fell ill for three days before dying. But three was a good fairy tale number, too. The magic number. He shook his head. “That's pretty thin.”

 

“We couldn't find much of a history of Sheepwash Bridge, beyond the regular blah-blah.”

 

Angel grinned. “Blah-blah?”

 

“You know, regular history stuff- packed earth, horse drawn malt wagons, used for washing sheep in the river- but surely people have died there.”

 

Angel caught his lips before they twisted. Since he had helped more than one soul into the underworld by way of that particular bridge, he was certain of that.

 

Giles looked up from the notes he was scanning as he ate, and met Angel's eyes, as Angel looked away from Buffy. More than once, Angel had pondered the depth of Giles' sixth sense. Lifting his coffee, he ducked his head and sipped.

 

“I'm sure,” Giles said, turning his attention to Buffy. “Whatever happened here in Ashford, it happened sixteen years ago. And not necessarily at the Bridge or the parish well. The ghost...”

 

“Derek,” Buffy interjected.

 

“The ghost,” Giles said again. “Who may or may not be Derek, may or may not have meant anything by its actions in that particular spot.”

 

“We need to talk to Aaron,” Angel said. 

 

“Aaron?” Andy, the innkeeper said. “I'm sorry, I was just...” He waved his hand over the tray of drinks he was ferrying over to the bar's only other patrons, sitting at the far side of the room, near the wide, six-panel windows. “I thought I heard you say Derek, and then Aaron's name caught my...” He looked flustered.

 

“Do you know Aaron Handler?”

 

“He works for me, washing dishes. He'll be in at four.”

 

“Ah. May we speak with him when he arrives?”

 

Andy shifted his weight and checked the impatience of his customers. They were laughing, and hadn't noticed his progress towards them yet. “In regards to?” he said. “I only ask because he's a minor, y'know. I kind of watch out for him?”

 

“Of course,” Giles said. “We have possession of his friend Derek's car. We, uh, have been requested by the current owner to trace its background. We're private investigators.”

 

Andy nodded, but he seemed dubious at best. “I'll call his mum, check with her.”

 

“Thank you, we'd appreciate that,” Giles said.

 

Angel tipped his chin in agreement and Buffy went back to eating her  Chicken Goujons.

 

                                                                              ***

 

Aaron was tall for his age, and gawky. His fair hair was cut short and spiky on top and buzzed on the sides. He was wearing a plain white tee and baggy black shorts laced with silver chains that jingled as he jiggled his knee up and down while he sat on the very edge of his chair. His brown eyes were flaked with black specks, which oddly reminded Buffy of turned earth or maybe autumn leaves. He had  tanned skin, three little silver rings in his lower lip, and  a spread of freckles over his nose and cheeks which made him seem younger than sixteen.

 

He was Derek's mirror image if Derek had looked the way he appeared to her in the Peugeot, except that he was light where Derek was dark, and vice-versa. Derek's eyes had blazed blue and his skin had been ghostly pale. But then he was a ghost, so that made sense. She just managed to stop herself from rolling her eyes at her own thoughts, as Giles finished introducing them.

 

“So,” Aaron said. “You bought Derek's car? Is there something wrong with it?”

 

“No,” Giles said. “Andy told you we're investigators?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Our client is eccentric. When he learned the previous owner was deceased, he wanted to learn the circumstances.”

 

“Oh.” Aaron shifted, his gaze darting to the kitchen door and back. “Derek, um, he died first. It didn't have anything to do with his car though. He was sick.”

 

“Did you visit him while he was sick?” Angel asked. His voice was low and had a mellow, soothing tone Buffy didn't hear from him often.

 

Aaron leaned forward slightly, as if drawn towards Angel. “No.”

 

“When did you see him last?”

 

“Three days before he died.”

 

“Three days?” Giles said, interest sharpening his tone.

 

“Yeah. We just drove around, y'know, listening to CDs.”

 

“Screaming Banshees?” Buffy said.

 

Aaron stared at her like he'd forgotten she was there. “Uh, no, Cruxshadows, actually, and some Love Like Blood. You like the Banshees?”

 

Giles slid his pad over where she and Angel could see it. He'd written 'banshees wail for three days = death'. Buffy recalled Derek's reaction to talk of banshees at Summerdown. Angel glanced down and back up at Aaron.

 

“Were you down by Sheepwash Bridge?”

 

His gaze swung to Angel, and then Giles and back to Angel. He licked his lips. “Look. I don't know how you...”

 

“Did you see something down there?” Angel said. “Somebody, maybe? Did anyone speak to you?”

 

Aaron kicked back in his chair. Buffy thought he would launch himself to his feet and run, but he only slouched down, his hand over his mouth, his lips moving.

 

“Aaron,” Angel said.

 

A group of four or five people swept in, surveyed the near empty bar and  then turned back, apparently to settle in the sports bar, instead. Buffy craned her neck, looking back over her shoulder to peer through the doorway. It was brighter in there, and beginning to fill up with people coming in from their workday.

 

“He was dead,” Aaron said. “There I said it. He was dead. The man who spoke to us.”

 

“What happened there? In detail,” Angel said.

 

Aaron blew his breath out hard and then said, “You believe me?”

 

“I believe that's what you think you saw, is that okay?”

 

Passing his shaking hand through his hair and onto the bare nape of his neck, Aaron nodded.

 

Buffy saw Giles pick up his pen, ready to capture the story.

 

                                                                          ***

 

 

In the quarter-moon dark just after midnight, Buffy shivered in her wool coat as Angel stripped. They were on the far side of Sheepwash Bridge. Across the bridge, Giles loitered in the shadows of the trees, watching for passer by or local law enforcement, and keeping an eye on the Parish Well, just in case. Angel hesitated, but then tugged his boxers off as well. No sense having wet underwear. They had discussed the possibility of Giles or Buffy making a daylight inspection, but had decided there was too much traffic on Fennel Street. They would attract attention.

 

Buffy held up the tiny, waterproof flashlight Giles had taken to carrying everywhere. It had become one of their most valuable tools. Angel triggered the dagger sheath on his forearm to make sure it was working, and then carefully reseated the sharp blade before taking the light. He wrapped his arm around Buffy's waist and drew her in, snug against him, and gave her a lingering kiss.

 

She broke it after a minute, and laughed, low in her throat. “Okay, wild boy, into the drink.”

 

He nuzzled into her neck and whispered into her ear, “As you wish, Madam Slayer.”

 

His blood surged as she tightened her arms around him and slid her hands down. She scraped her fingernails along his sides. His mind went blank. She gripped his hips and stepped back, letting the breeze have him. A wicked grin formed on her lips. “I like the sound of that,” she said.

 

He grinned back. “I thought you might.”

 

“Be careful.”

 

“As you wish,” he said, with honey in his tone, and turned his body and his focus to the river.

 

The water was colder than the air, but his skin adjusted fast and by the time he had waded in to his waist, he couldn't tell the difference anymore. He edged over the slippery rock bottom, his feet sinking here and there into pockets of squishy silt, which made his nose wrinkle. 

 

He worked his way to the second arch of the bridge, the water sliding up his chest, and felt along the old stone, slimy with algae. All the way under the arch, he turned the flashlight on and let the beam play along the underside. There was nothing unusual. No deposits, no odd odors, no markings.

 

Up high, as his light left it, he saw something that didn't quite fit, a bug, maybe- maybe a spider- feathery and fine. He moved the beam back and saw it wasn't lichen or moss. He crouched and leapt. His fingers came away bloodied. A cut on his middle finger. He tried again, and slipped as he landed. The river closed over his head and the current swept him sideways. He lunged up, water spraying. Buffy hissed at him. Headlights glanced off the trees and left them in the dark again.

 

He aimed himself back at the arch and plodded forward again against the current. Just before he entered again, he glanced over, finding Buffy crouched in the lee of the bridge, above the built in steps, watching him intently. The moonlight found only the edge of the short sword she was holding. You wouldn't see it if you didn't know she had it. Satisfied, he concentrated again on his own task. Find anything that might be associated to the supernatural.

 

Feet braced again, he looked up, but didn't bother with the light. He thought about what Aaron had told them about his conversation with the dead man. He was a fisherman, tangled in his line. That thing up there was a lure; Angel was nearly certain of it. He deciphered the feel of it across his fingers. There was still line attached, maybe an inch. It was a lure, caught on the rough mortar, cemented on now with algae and years.

 

What would happen to a man? A working class man, maybe, who valued his few belongings. Would he try to recover that lure? Preternatural athleticism hadn't stopped Angel from taking a downstream dunk. Angel used his strength and speed to duck into the current and hold close to the bottom. He duck-walked, feeling with both his feet and his hands for anything that wasn't river bottom. He found a coke can and a misshapen plastic bottle. Not having to breathe was a boon, as was his strength against the onslaught of the river. he hit the far wall and swept back, searching. A tangle of fishing line.

 

Wrenching upwards, he expected to pull it loose, but it didn't come. Lodging his feet securely, he used his thighs and pulled, popping up out of the current. He shook his head viciously, blinking the water from his eyes. He was turned around under the arch. Over the spill of the water, he could just make out Buffy's thudding beat, scent the early stirring of her worry.  

 

Twisting his fingers into the tangled nest of line, he let go of his footing and dove, pulling himself hand over hand into the shallow depth beneath the bridge. His feet bobbed in the air. He worked at the larger rocks, turning them over with one hand while keeping his grip on the line with the other. And then he was slammed sideways, carried away in a swirl. He held on and thrashed upright. Reaching out, he snatched at the bottom until he found a crevice and clung and curled and brought his feet down and finally stood. The river punched and pulled at him as he staggered for the bank.

 

Buffy's hand was there then, extended down in front of his face. He took it and let her pull him up as he held onto his prize. Her eyes were wide. He gasped in a breath, to speak, and was instantly rewarded with her smile. He took another breath and showed her his find. The tangle of line held a thigh bone. And something else.

 

                                                                          ***

 

“A revenant?” Reverend Kaunhoven exclaimed. His cheeks flushed, but Buffy wasn't sure if he was excited or disturbed. They were once more crammed in the Reverend's tiny office in Holy Trinity.

 

“Well, maybe,” Giles said. “I guess we won't really know until October seventh comes and goes without a death. Will you allow it?”

 

“Yes,” the Reverend said. “Of course. Anything that may be of service to my congregants.”

 

The revenant may or may not have been a congregant, but yay, for Reverend Kaunhoven's generosity in blessing the bone and providing sacred ground for its final resting spot. Now all they needed was a note of forgiveness from someone the revenant had known, to place in the grave. Or that was Angel and Giles' theory anyway.  

 

“We also found this, it's engraved.” Buffy dropped the ring that had been entangled in the line into the Reverend's outstretched hand. It was suffering very small dents, but wasn't tarnished, a fact Buffy had trouble believing.

 

The reverend turned the simple silver claddagh ring, peering closely at the inscription. “Mary a geleafsum Daire. What's that mark over the a's? Primes?”

 

“Yes, they are,” Giles said, sounding surprised. “I believe it's Old English. Maybe 'always faithful'?”

 

The Reverend nodded. “Yes, I'd agree.”

 

“Do you know who...” Buffy let her words hang, not sure how to ask who Mary and Daire might be. Mary was a common name. Daire, not so much.

 

“We have reason to believe that this is Daire's ring,” Giles said into the silence. “It would have been at least sixteen years since he might have been here in Ashford.”

 

“I don't remember a Daire,” the Reverend said slowly. “We have several Marys, though. My secretary could make a couple of calls, say we'd found the ring, I suppose- it's not a falsehood per se...” He turned the ring again, deep in thought. “Mary Handler.”

 

“Mary Handler?” Giles said after a long moment of silence.

 

He tilted his head in an either or fashion and said, “Aaron's mother. It wouldn't hurt to ask her first, considering.” He leaned forward and raising his voice, called out, “Mary? Mary? Could you join us please?”

 

Giles' eyebrows went up. Buffy was surprised, too.

 

The church's receptionist scuttled in through the open door, ducking her head in their direction. “Yes, Reverend?”

 

She was verging on her sixties and was as pudgy as Aaron was tall, with high apples in her cheeks and eyes that were nearly translucent, they were so blue. Buffy couldn't see a resemblance in any way.

 

“Mary... oh,” he said and held up the ring for her to see. “Have you ever known someone named Daire?”

 

“There was Rebecca Dare, who moved a good ten years ago. And old George Dare.”

 

“No, D-a-i-r-e. A first name, maybe?”

 

Mary shook her head. “That'd be different, wouldn't it? Memorable.” Her eyes ticked to the side and then up.

 

Buffy followed her gaze. The ceiling was planked in tongue-in-groove. There were several scenes painted on it. Toward the door, larger than the rest, stood a priest in full robes, wielding a fishing rod that cast multiple lines, each hooking onto one of the smaller scenes.

 

“One would think so, but I can't recall ever meeting anyone of that name,” the Reverend mused.

 

Buffy laid her hand on Giles arm, and when he turned his attention to her, she pointed up.

 

Giles cranked himself around to take it all in. “A Fisher of Men,” he remarked.

 

“The stations of my office,” the Reverend said, the smile evident in his voice. “The duties and services we perform for our communities are our bait. The saving of their souls our reward.”

 

One panel clearly showed a cassocked priest attacking a vampire with one hand, while protecting the populace, which were swept back in a crowd behind the protection of his arm. “Staking vampires is a priest's duty?” Buffy asked. She tried to inject a tone of disbelief, but failed. Her words sounded rehearsed.

 

Mary gasped.

 

Reverend Kunhoven chuckled. He tapped the ring on his desktop. “Somehow, I doubt you find that surprising, Miss Summers.” He looked at Mary. “Mary, could you find Mary Handler's number so we can call her? And then compile a list our members named Mary? We're trying to find the owner of this ring, it's very important.”

 

“Yes, Father,” Mary said and backed out, still staring at Buffy, her mouth a little 'o'.

 

“Our little town is nestled in a gorgeous, god-given setting. It draws tourists of all ilk, not all of them human,” the Reverend said, when she was gone.

 

“Very understandable,” Giles said. He dug in his jacket pocket and came up with several business cards, which he knocked neatly together and set on the desk. “In case you, or one of your membership, need our services in future.”

 

And then Mary came back in with Mary Handler's number, but no one was home.

 

                                                                       ***

 

Buffy listened to another Mary declare she knew nothing of a ring, but had once known a Thomas Daire, in London, and carefully tamped her impatience until she could ring off with a semblance of politeness.

 

“Any luck?” Angel asked, dropping a cool hand on her nape.

 

“No,” she said, and turned her face up for a quick kiss.

 

“We have three more to contact, and then we're bust,” Giles said as Angel went round the table and dropped into the chair closest to the Ashford Arm's fireplace, which had a small flame going.

 

“Maybe when Aaron comes in, we can locate his mother,” Giles continued. “I've also discovered no official missing persons here, or in any of the surrounding counties, with Daire as either a first or last name in the last twenty years.”

 

“So you've given the grapevine a good shake.”  Angel said and then yawned. “I've been sifting through lore.”

 

Buffy nudged her still hot tea over. He took it, and sipped, closing his eyes for just a second as the warmth stole down his throat. The expression satisfied her in some way she couldn't understand, but her body did. Her shoulders dropped an inch, as she relaxed.

 

“I think we should set a little spell, after we bury him.” Angel said. “I have everything we need already.”

 

Behind a couple just entering the room from the crowded sports room beyond, Buffy spotted a familiar face and there was someone with him. “And we have a grape,” she announced, but Giles and Angel both looked at her with identical confused frowns, instead of at the entering grape. “Shaken off the vine...” she said, and then, lifting her chin at them,  “Aaron, and his mom, coming in.”

 

“Oh,” Giles said, even as he stood in greeting, holding out his hand as Aaron ushered his mother over, a hand at the small of her back.

 

Dressed in jeans and a dull orange polo, she was a lot shorter than Aaron, but built slim like him. She had the same plump mouth and wide forehead. Her eyes were darker than Aaron's, and they were red; her cheeks were moist. She'd been crying. She swiped a loose strand of her mousy brown hair aside.

 

Giles grabbed the one remaining vacant chair at their table and gestured Mary Handler to sit. Aaron swiped another from a table near them.

 

“The ring?” she said. She cleared her throat, and added, “Please?”

 

Buffy plucked it from her pocket and dropped it in Mary's cupped hand.

 

She took a deep breath, and then inspected it, turning it to read the inscription. “It's his,” she breathed. “I threw mine in the river a long time ago, I thought maybe...”

 

“How do you know it's not yours?” Giles said.

 

“My name was first on his.”

 

“And his first on yours?”

 

“Yes. This is his ring. Where did you find it?”

 

“In the river,” Buffy said.

 

Giles said, “Who is Daire?”

 

“My dad,” Aaron said.

 

Mary nodded, staring at the bit of shiny, battered silver. It shone, the flickering light of the fire gave it a shadowy life.

 

Buffy shivered, wondering if Daire lived there in it. Like a genie in a bottle. “Giles...” she said, uneasy. 

 

Angel reached out and closed his hand over the ring. Mary's mouth opened in protest.

 

“Mom,” Aaron said, “Let him have it.”

 

After a moment, she withdrew her hand. “I don't... I don't understand.”

 

“Ms. Handler,” Giles started, but then he stopped, removing his glasses. He polished them carefully, gathering himself, while everyone waited.

 

Mary watched Angel's fist where it rested on the table in front of him.

 

“We spoke to your son two days ago, regarding his friendship with Derek Mills, in pursuit of an investigation into the provenance of a car our client purchased. We found the ring in the course of our fieldwork, following a lead your son provided,” Giles said.

 

“It's okay, she's cool with it,” Aaron interjected.

 

“Excuse me? “ Giles said.

 

“I told her, the other night, and then when Mrs. Hendry called asking her about the ring, she knew it was true. She says that's my Dad down there at the river.”

 

Mary nodded. Tears overflowed her eyes and slipped down her cheeks. “He didn't... he didn't just throw that in the river, like I did mine after I thought he'd left me without a word, did he? Was he down there? Did he get tangled in his line like he told Derek?”

 

“He said his 'missus' should be looking for him,” Aaron said. “Did he mean my Mum?”

 

Giles' brows dipped, as he obviously tried not to scowl. He frowned at the table top for a second, thinking. “This is a very small town, yet no one we've contacted seems to remember a man named Daire. I'm sorry if I'm prying... but were you married?”

 

Mary wiped her tears away, sniffed hard, and sat up straighter, her face resolved. “We were young. When I met Daire over in Hope Valley, we connected. It was easy. My parents had just died, and I was there just to get a breath, a couple of days away from here, where everyone knew me. He was on vacation, over from the coast, and unattached. We were all alone in the world. When I came home, he came with me. We kept to ourselves, mostly. A few people  remember- they left messages.” She smiled and sniffed again. She reached out and took Aaron's hand to hold. “We fancied ourselves modernists, over the whole organized-religion and do-it-by-the-law mentality, so when we realized I was pregnant, we handfasted, instead.”

 

Giles snorted- softly- but Mary caught it. She laughed, a small sound. “I know, modernists do the most old-fashioned things,” she said.

 

“You didn't jump over a broom,” Giles pointed out.

 

She laughed again, louder, and color came back into her face.

 

Angel stirred beside Buffy, and she noticed him turn his hand, the one holding the ring. He had a funny look on his face, like he was listening to something else in the room besides Mary.

 

“We did that, too,” Mary said. “Just to be sure.”

 

“But you didn't make it legal.”

 

“No. I think we might have. But, we'd only known each other three months then, and when he disappeared three months later...”

 

“You thought he'd left you,” Angel said.

 

“The baby made it all a little bit harder. We had to... decide things. Make plans. We discovered we had different ideas about how to do that. He didn't think he could make a living here, not one that would meet the needs of a family. We'd both been black sheep- the ones who never met their potential... the ones who lived in the clouds and made bad decisions...”

 

Angel opened his hand. Two rings sat on his palm. Steam rose from them and Angel's skin beneath them was red.

 

Mary gasped a strangled scream and lifted both her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide. Aaron stood. His chair fell back with a loud thud. Buffy's heart re-started with a thump. She sucked in a breath and dragged her gaze to Angel's face. He was watching Giles, who merely looked intrigued.

 

“He didn't leave you,” Angel said. “He got tangled in his line and drowned.”

 

“He tried to get someone to help him, someone who was too scared-” Aaron said. “He asked me, said not to be a coward, just come down...” Wild-eyed, he turned and left the room, headed outside.

 

Buffy reached down and righted his chair. “Should I-

 

“No, best leave him be,” Mary said, and to Angel, “Go on.”

 

“Unfortunately, he's become an entity, someone he wasn't, beyond logic and reason, wanting.”

 

“Wanting what?” Mary said when it became apparent Angel was finished. 

 

He shrugged.

 

“These kind of restless dead aren't well documented,” Giles said. “The cases are ancient, handed down  by word of mouth, the basic tale built upon with exaggeration and dramatic elements added. He's not a revenant per se, he has no corpse to animate, but he acts like one. Mary, we believe Daire has a hand in the October deaths that occur in Ashford every year.”

 

“October deaths?”

 

“Like Derek Mills' family? We've tracked similar deaths every year for the last sixteen years.”

 

“But that's illness, not... what... being scared to death by a ghost!”

 

Angel spilled the cooling rings onto the table. “That's what makes him a revenant. He probably simply spoke their names, like he did Derek's, and they died three days later, taking those whose name they spoke as they died along with them. It's a curse. We can break it.”

 

“Aaron was born in October. He's sixteen.” She reached out and picked up one of the rings. She read the inscription, set it down and picked up the other.

 

“What's his birth date?” Buffy asked.

 

“October fourth,” Mary said, and read the second ring's engraving. “It's mine, the one I threw into the Wye.” She held it up for Buffy to see. “This scratch? It's mine. All those people. Because of me. I should have looked harder for him. I didn't even report him missing, just... just...” She started crying again, without trying to stop her tears or hide her distress. She took shallow, whining breaths. “What do I have to do?”

 

“Mary, Mary,” Andy said, rushing from the kitchen. “Are you okay?”

 

Without thought, Buffy was on her feet, braced in a fighter's stance, blocking Mary from him. Andy skidded to avoid her.

 

“Here, here, you can't upset her like this, stop whatever it is you're doing.”

 

Buffy was aware of movement behind her and Angel's shift of posture as the men who'd been sitting by the window apparently took notice. One of them called, “Andy? Everything all right?”

 

“Everything all right?” he asked Buffy, his brows raised, his hands fisted on his hips.

 

“Sit down, Andy, you're making a scene,” Mary squeaked through her tight throat.

 

Buffy stepped aside. They re-settled themselves. Calming again, Mary wiped her cheeks, and then Giles said, “Angel?”

 

“If you're in agreement that we don't need law enforcement involved, Reverend Kaunhoven has agreed to bury the thigh bone we found on sacred ground. Generally, a written acknowledgement of forgiveness is buried with it, from loved ones. That seems to do the trick. And we'll seal the grave with a blessing as well.”

 

“Why should I forgive him? It's my fault.”

 

Giles shook his head. “You didn't know. And as Angel said, these entities are confused and unreasoning. He may feel guilty for missing his son's birth or for leaving you, even through no fault of his own. Revenge may have played a role in his origination after death, but after that, the larger worries and self-doubts carried over from life tend to persist longer.”

 

“Who are we talking about burying?” Andy said.

 

                                                                   

                                                                          ***

 

Aaron escaped out the front bar door , into the setting sun, and ran half a block before he slowed. Another half a block, and he knew where he was going, Sheepwash Bridge. He swiped at his wet face. He ducked around a rotund couple pointing a camera at Holy Trinity's Bell Tower. To his right, the cemetery's headstones floated past. How many times had he and Derek hidden in there, stolen from stone to stone, playing hide-and-seek or war, or simply hanging, talking cars and concerts and girls. He  didn't want to see where Derek rested now, he turned his head to the left.

 

Derek looked back at him in the falling dusk, through the side window of his car. Aaron slowed and stopped. He glanced back at the corner. The couple was strolling away from him. The woman's camera swung from her shoulder. Lightheaded, Aaron looked back at Derek. His friend raised his hand. Aaron returned the greeting. He could hear the familiar bass beat to one of their favorite Banshees songs. He was dreaming. Must be.

 

Two cars passed going the opposite direction. Mr. Simmons waved as he passed in his truck. Derek pulled his Peugeot up, tucked it against the curb, and turned it off. Aaron walked forward, uncertain. Derek got out. He slammed his door, stood regarding the car for a second, looking along its roof and flanks. He stroked it as he walked around the bonnet and stepped up onto the sidewalk. Aaron reached his hand out. Derek took it. His hand was solid and warm and when he tugged, Aaron fell into the hug with a cry of desperation. Derek's arms closed around him and Aaron buried his hot face in his old friend's shoulder; inhaled the leather of his jacket, and the sharp, sweet scent of him and cried.

 

They embraced harder than Aaron had ever held or been held. Derek whispered into his ear, “My friend, shhh, my friend.”

 

When they drew back from one another, Derek held Aaron's shoulder until Aaron pulled himself together and looked up into his eyes. The right corner of Derek's mouth quirked with his standard half-grin.

 

“Are you really here?” Aaron said.

 

“Yeah,” Derek breathed. “Everything's all right now.”

 

 

                                                                     ***

 

“His voice faded fast, it was almost just the breeze, y'know? And then he kinda broke up, and blew away, but I could still feel him for a moment, all around me.” The boy's voice broke, on the last word. He looked away, back toward the Parish Well, and kicked the bridge with one foot.

 

Braced on his elbows, Angel watched the River Wye's slow current spill away from Sheepwash Bridge and listened to the kid's heartbeat slow. Finally, he said, “I've lost friends, Aaron, the kind of friends Derek was to you, the kind that are closer than family. That experience? It becomes a part of you. You don't have to try and break it down, or try to forget it. You don't even have to convince anyone it happened. All you have to remember is how much you love him. And how much he loved you.”

 

“My dad loved me.”

 

There was a question in his voice. Angel had already explained the ceremony they'd be performing just before sunrise at Holy Trinity. Buffy had taken the Peugeot back to the Ashford Arms when they found Aaron huddled next to it in a teary ball, while Angel took the boy for a walk. Angel thought of the terror and grief Daire must have suffered as he went under, the regrets.

 

“Yes, he did.”

 

The boy nodded, leaning forward to watch the water swirl. The moonlight caressed his blonde hair. The shadows thrown by the slight sway of the trees on the banks stroked the earth of the bridge. Angel listened to a bird that was calling restlessly downstream and let the night ease him.

 

                                                                     ***

 

Two days later, certain Derek had vacated his silver Peugeot after the very quiet drive home to Westbury, and with Giles' Bath consult squared away, Buffy and Giles once more stood in the Oval's forecourt. Mr. Long was standing ten feet back from the car, a look of distaste on his face. Brad stood in Buffy's personal space, his clipboard of sales sheets pressed against his chest in his folded arms.

 

“You can't be serious,” he said. Again.

 

“I am,” Buffy said. She edged sideways, towards him, and felt triumph when she made Brad move his feet. She stepped back again to her original spot, putting more space between them.

 

“She is,” Giles said.

 

“I certainly don't want it,” Mr. Long said.

 

“But... it's a 2001, it's got mileage on it, and a history. It should go to auction. I've got a 2004 for you-”

 

“I want this one,” Buffy said firmly. And she knew Angel wanted it, too.

 

“Brad, deduct Mr. Giles' bill from our cost of the vehicle and arrange whatever financing they need.”

 

“Our cost, Mr. Long?”

 

“Yes,” Mr. Long confirmed, already backing away, retreating, Buffy was sure, to his office. “Bring me the final paperwork for signature.” And he spun and strode away fast.

 

Brad rocked back on his heels, looking down his nose at her.

 

“Your cost, Brad,” she said, gleefully. “Minus our bill.”

 

“Which I have right here,” Giles said, and drawing it from the leather notebook he was carrying, he presented it with a flourish. 

 

 

 

End

 

 

Interesting links to follow!!

 

 

There really is an Andy at the Arms- but everything I wrote is supposition and fictional license=

 

http://www.pub-explorer.com/derbyshire/pub/ashfordarmsbakewell.htm

 

It's a lot more crowded than I let on- a great tourist destination- and the rolling fields are for real- there's not much forest to the forest-

 

http://www.derbyshire-peakdistrict.co.uk/ashford-in-the-water.htm

 

Evil car for real!

 

http://www.ark666y.com/

 

Yep, real... 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Dean#The_curse_of_.22Little_Bastard.22

 

Interesting reading-

 

http://magiaposthuma.blogspot.com/2007/05/welcome-to-magia-posthuma.html

 

 

 

 



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