I Can Hear the Mermaids Singing


I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

From 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' by T.S. Eliot


'A date,' she'd said, as we sat side by side in the Hyperion's courtyard garden. Then, 'Okay, humour me.'

Remembering the last time I'd seen her -- holding her face under the shower-head while she choked back into consciousness -- humour had suddenly seemed like a good idea. Not to mention the fact that a flat refusal just then would have seemed a little, well, churlish. (The smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world ... had I really come out with that pretentious crap?)

A date, then. One more step in the fragile Kate--Angel truce.

I'd vowed once never to go on another date, but then I'd vowed to stake Darla and burn Wolfram & Hart to the ground. Maybe this epiphany thing of mine means that some vows should be quietly shoved under the carpet?

Thirteen minutes to seven. I couldn't have written the address down wrong, could I? The way she'd talked it had sounded like she was suggesting some kind of restaurant, but...

I scour the quiet back street, anonymous in the gentle twilight. A second-hand bookstore, opposite. Closed. Dingy books heaped up untidily, mainly hardback novels, the kind that public libraries throw out each month when the new stock comes in. Not even Wesley would've been interested in any of these. An antique-cum-junk shop next door. Also closed. That walnut Louis Quinze writing desk framed in the window is reproduction, of course; something too regular, too mechanical about the scrolled decoration on those slender curved legs.

My careful survey confirms what I already knew. No restaurants. No Kate either, but then I'd arrived about twenty minutes early, wanting to give the sewer odour plenty of time to wear off my clothes. I'm not sure it ever really disappears, that and the stale stench of blood that hangs on my breath no matter how often I gargle with Listerine.

The fragile Angel--Cordy truce had extended to her insisting on choosing my clothes for this date. 'No more Mr-Broody-Vampire look,' she'd said, picking out a sea-blue silk shirt from the wreck that had been my wardrobe minutes earlier. I'd steepled my fingers, said 'Okay, Cordelia,' and refrained from telling her that that particular shirt had originated in what she insisted on calling my 'Angelus phase'. (Makes me sound like an artist, for Christ's sake.)

I expect it had also extended to her telling Kate about the curse. Cordy seems to take a perverse pleasure in spilling the intimate details of my sordid unlife to every woman I ever meet. (Especially the blonde ones.)

I turn back to the illuminated noticeboard behind me. Two hundred and forty-seven years of existence had turned me into an insatiable consumer of the written word, however prosaic. Those oh-so-familiar words from my childhood, matins and evensong, feast days and holy days, sacraments and devotions. The proud boast that mass is celebrated at the Church of the Immaculate Conception every hour from seven a.m. to nine p.m., with services in Spanish at eleven a.m., three p.m. and eight p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Meeting times for the Mothers' Union, confirmation classes, choir practices, Sunday school: tots, sevens-to-elevens and teens. (Teens has an entirely unnecessary apostrophe, 'teens.) Telephone numbers for the Father, the two Assistant Fathers, the parish office. The last has e-mail, fax and web address listed, too.

God on the Internet. Cordy would like that idea.

I wonder whether He listens to e-mail. (He's probably got some sort of heavenly autofilter set up to delete messages from the damned.)

Quotation for the week: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.'

Newsflash. Eternal life ain't all it's cracked up to be.

Eight minutes to seven. Sure enough, faint organ music is beginning to emanate from the velvet darkness beyond that half-open door, its imposing expanse of studded oak as fake as the Louis Quinze desk. (Why do churches always feel the need to look ancient? LA has so little real history. Christ, the whole city's younger than I am.) Scent of candle smoke and incense winding out tendrils from the doorway, mingling with the fragrance of black roses out here on the sidewalk. (They're black under the sodium lamps, anyway.) Trickle of quiet people entering; mainly pensioners, couple of student types. All women.

'Come on, Kate,' I murmur. The gold embossed cross after the word 'Conception' on the board above my head is beginning to make my flesh creep. (Hope she's taking me somewhere nice.)

Ironic really. Warrior for the Lord, and all, whose skin burns at the touch of the universal symbol of Christianity. (No matter how good a boy you are, God doesn't want you.) Catch myself absently scratching my right hand; that burn had never quite healed. Shove my hands deep into my coat pockets. The Virgin Mary looks down on me from the stained glass beside the door, her robe the exact same shade of blue as my shirt. (I wonder if she can see the blood on my hands.)

And it isn't until Kate is walking towards me -- long skirt flapping round her knees, fingering the cross around her neck in that nervous gesture which has become a habit of hers around me -- that I finally realise.

'Coming in?' she says.

I could swear she's smiling at me. The Virgin I mean, not Kate. Though she's smiling too, as I grit my teeth and bow my head and follow her through that wannabe Chartres archway.

After all, it won't be the first meal with friends I haven't been able to share.


Inside, the aura of that huge bronze crucifix above the altar hits me like Lindsey's sledgehammer. I look down at the terracotta tiles of the floor and follow Kate's tan leather boots as they pause by the stoup of holy water, then click click click to the right.

'Here okay?' she whispers, and I shuffle after her into a pew near the wall, behind a huge stone pillar.

'Fine,' I say. Better now I'm sitting down, anyway, and I'm partially shielded from the altar. The air is solid with smoke, but that isn't what's making my eyes water, my skin itch and my head throb. Darla told me once that the Master used to keep a big wooden crucifix hanging in the anteroom to his bedchamber, and look on it every morning and evening, so that he would become habituated to the pain, cease to feel that instinctive fear that we all suffer. (She didn't say whether or not it had worked.)

Strange. The Master was almost certainly old enough to have been there at the original.

'There,' Kate says, rapidly swapping over the hassocks at our feet so that she gets the one with the embroidered cross and I get a Tudor rose. I realise that she must have checked the details out in advance, and thank something that most definitely isn't God for her anally-retentive police procedural habits.

She picks up the maroon cardboard-bound prayer book, opens it and holds it up between us. I fail to suppress a laugh: it's at her chest height and only just above my navel.

'Never mind,' I say, 'I couldn't read from it anyway.'

I remember the gold-tooled, black calf leather prayer book that my grandfather gave me for my first communion, the marbled flyleaf dated the twelfth of March, year of Our Lord seventeen hundred and thirty-six, in his large angular hand. I used to stick the leather cover under my nose and breathe deep like some glue-sniffer, it felt like Heaven. Remember getting cuffed for 'showing disrespect' when my grandfather caught me at it. Remember our family Bible, its flyleaf crammed with the dates of my grandparents' and parents' marriages, the births of my parents, and of Liam Fergus and Katherine Jane, and the only remnants of that other little sister who had died of scarlet fever before she reached two years, and then, in my father's smaller handwriting, the dates of my grandparents' deaths.

I guess that Liam Fergus was the last family death to be recorded on that flyleaf, though I never thought to check at the time. It's perhaps appropriate, then, that that Bible is the last his flesh has touched without pain.

I remember too those other deaths, Katherine Jane and her mother and her father, and Anna, their maidservant.

I only realise that I'm compulsively scratching at my right hand to the point of drawing blood when Kate pulls my fingers away, encloses my large cold hand in her small warm one. I surreptitiously replace the bloodied hand in my coat pocket. The service hasn't even started yet.

'What's wrong with your hand?' she whispers.


And then the choir start to sing the Gloria. 'Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.' I can feel the pure sweet notes like a dentist's drill in my teeth, my jaw, my skull.

'Are you okay?' Kate whispers, squeezing my hand. 'What's wrong?' But I can't tell her that what I'm really afraid of is not the growing headache nor the itching burning of my skin, but the telltale tightness in my forehead, around my eyes, that tickly trembly ache in my gums, the swirly redness at the very periphery of my vision, the increased sensitivity to her heartbeat, to the rushing eddying schwooshing noise that is the blood in her veins. Can't even say a word when I don't trust my voice not to snarl or growl.

I stare down at the terracotta tiles beneath my shiny black boots, count them furiously, add up rows and columns, divide by three. How can I explain to her that once the painful stimulus goes beyond a certain threshold, the transformation is no longer under any kind of conscious control? It's like an erection -- train yourself all you like, sooner or later it's just going to pop out. (Except of course she doesn't get those either.)

The priest is speaking now, and even in this state I can recognise cosmic jokes when I hear them as he announces the reading from chapter fifteen of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke, and starts:

'There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of property that falls to me." And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.'

And now Kate's stifling laughter too, and I can concentrate on her laugh, on the pressure and warmth of her hand on mine, and not on the siren call of those rushing eddying schwooshing sounds.

'Seems kind of appropriate, somehow,' she whispers close to my ear, her soft hair lightly brushing at my cheek. (The monster that is me could snap her neck in a fraction of a second.)

'I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.'

For a minute -- the words echoing round in my head, the memory of Kate's hair against my cheek -- I feel almost like I felt that Christmas day when it snowed in Sunnydale and took all the pain and fear and failure away. (Though it came back, of course.)

Even after the minute's over, it's better somehow: not so difficult to control the tightness and the ache in my gums, and the headache and the itching burning sensations aren't getting any worse. I can survive this, I think.

Even when the priest is saying, 'Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you,' and the little bells are ringing and I'm cowering in the pew, remembering the rumours that eating those little white wafers is the most excruciatingly painful death possible for my kind; even then I can survive my fear.

Even when we reach, 'Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant,' and Kate is rubbing at my mark on the side of her neck and I know that we're both thinking of the same moment, months ago now; even then somehow it's still okay.


Outside in the street, Kate touches my arm. 'There's this great little espresso place I found a couple of blocks from here ... Let me buy you a coffee. You do ... um ... drink coffee, don't you?'

'Yeah, coffee's certainly on this Not-So-Evil Evil Thing's menu,' I say, simultaneously wondering why on Earth Cordelia's little chats seem to tackle the more embarrassing bits of my unlife head on, whilst entirely omitting the relatively salubrious aspects. The brisk walk in the cooler evening air starts to clear my headache, soothe the itching sensation.

The coffee bar is the type sporting small round wicker-topped tables and home-baked chocolate cakes that's still owned by a little Italian family, though the traditional dusty potted plants have been replaced by brand-new PCs and the sign announces 'Internet Café'. It comes complete with a grey-haired father who looks like an operatic tenor and greets Kate by name, and a dark beauty of a daughter who reminds me uncannily of a plumper, pinker version of Drusilla, an illusion fostered by the sleek black cat lounging proprietarily behind the counter. It's warm and dark and smoky and the entire clientele, apart from us, seems to be under twenty-one and, moreover, to be conversing volubly in a variety of languages among which English is prominent by its absence. I'm not really convinced that it's any closer to Kate's natural environment than D'Oblique's, but she's heading for a secluded corner spot by the window, and I follow her.

'I had you figured as an espresso guy,' she says, stirring in the foam on her own small dark coffee. 'Kind of goes with your usual black-on-black look.'

'I must admit, I didn't have you figured as a Catholic gal, Katie,' I say, flashing her my best Liam smile.

'Lapsed Catholic gal,' she says. 'I thought I'd give it another try.' She pauses and looks a bit embarrassed. 'To be honest, at the complimentary Employment Reassessment Session included in my LAPD "fuck-off" package, one of the saner things that the computer came up with for an ex-cop with a sociology degree, leanings towards mental instability and no life whatsoever was charity co-ordination. The guy suggested that a "religious background" might be an asset on my resumé.'

I don't for a minute believe that's the only reason, but I don't get a chance to respond. With conversational gears audibly clunking, reminding me that her small-talk skills are not much more developed than my own, she says, as calmly as if she's asking me to name my favourite movie: 'How many people have you killed, Angel?'

There's a clattering noise, and I realise that I've dropped the spoon into my saucer. She's still stirring her espresso, but her face shows none of that prurient curiosity I've seen in others asking such questions. She's a cop, remember. She's attended murder scenes, comforted rape victims while the semen's still trickling down the inside of their leg.

Perhaps this is part of what 'friends' means? Suddenly I'm slightly hurt that I've known Cordy for, oh, four and a half years now, and she's never asked anything of the sort. (Wes, I guess, already knows the answer, near enough.)

'Lots,' I say, looking down at the large hands nursing my cappuccino.

'How many?'

I consider saying 'I don't remember' or 'I lost count,' but neither is true. Anyway, they almost sound worse than the truth. Almost.

I swallow. I know Kate's already done her homework.

'Forty-five thousand,' I say quickly, looking up into her face, hearing the words out of my mouth solidify, like a black granite headstone. I catch the widening of those grey eyes, the rapid intake of breath and acceleration of pulse, but she recovers her composure quickly -- at least on the surface.

It's actually forty-four thousand six hundred and two, give or take a few (sometimes I didn't hang around to work out whether they lived or died), but I don't think the precise total will help. (About twenty percent of the number who died in Hiroshima after the sixth of August, 1945. Less than five percent of those who starved in Ireland during the potato famines in the 1840s. A tenth of a percent of those who perished in the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1919.)

I can't help but wonder how many hours in the confessional it would take to go through the complete list. Hours? The priest would probably die of old age -- if he hadn't already died of shock.

'I've killed six people; seven counting your friend,' she says. 'All in self-defence, of course.'

'And how many did you enjoy killing?'

For a moment her face flashes with anger, the old Kate back. Then she says slowly, 'I see what you mean.'

'The one thing I've learned in the past few months is that this isn't a numbers game.'

'Do you...' She stops. 'Do you remember...?'

'Not all the names, but... yes, I remember the faces.'

Every single one. Sometimes when I can't sleep they parade past me, one by one. They never say anything, they don't scream or cry or beg or plead, they just walk past and look at me. I've never got to the end of the line. I'm not sure that I ever will.

'There was one guy, maybe two, two and a half years ago now. A drug dealer who pulled a gun when we tried to talk to him. His wife was nineteen.' She pauses, looks up at me. 'And twenty-eight weeks' pregnant. She got hold of my address somehow, followed me round in the mall one Saturday morning, screaming "murderer", and "racist pig". Saying I'd orphaned her son before he was even born. She sent me a picture of the baby from the maternity ward. My boss advised me to file for harassment.'

Her eyes are wet with tears, and she downs her coffee in one gulp. I don't know what to say, so I get up and order another double for her and a cappuccino for me and get a plate of little Italian iced biscuits, cremini they're called, a mixture of chocolate and vanilla ones, and when I sit down again Kate's wiped her eyes and stopped sniffling.

'Thanks,' she says. Starts nibbling at one of the biscuits. 'How did you know that I just love these biscuits?'

I pick one from the plate, a chocolate one, take a bite. It tastes like ashes. I put it down in my saucer.

We sit in silence for a while.

'Forty-five thousand,' she says eventually. 'Christ. Forty-five thousand. That's a heck of a lot of atonement.'

'Sometimes I think nothing can ever be enough.'

'And other times?'

'The other times are worse.'

The other times, the really black times, those are when I really don't give a fuck anymore. But I don't say that to Kate, and she's much too shrewd an ex-cop to ask a question that she really doesn't want to know the answer to.

'So you can't buy your way out of it,' she says instead. 'But I'm not sure that's the deal.'

'God doesn't deal with vampires.' But even as the words are leaving my mouth I think, but what about the visions? Sunnydale's first-ever snow at Christmas? (There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.)

'I thought you were always a Special Case?' she says, her emphasis making the capital letters clear.

I shake my head, but she's looking at her watch. 'Sorry. No time to argue with the most stubborn vampire in LA,' she says. 'Gotta go and pick up my dry-cleaning -- interview tomorrow morning.' She's already standing up, putting on her jacket.

'You could try Anne Steele, runs a teen shelter out on Crenshaw.' I realise my words are more an attempt to keep her here than anything else. 'Cordy should have her details in the office database. I hear she's looking for someone to help set up a new drop-in advice centre. Just ... well, don't mention that it was me that sent you.'

'Another of your fans, Angel?' she says with a smile and a half-wave, then disappears through the door, melts into the endless stream of people in this city that never really sleeps.

An endless parade of people that I haven't killed. Some of whom I've probably helped, saved even.

And I'm left alone with a lingering headache, half a mug of cooling cappuccino and a plate of biscuits that I still can't eat.

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