Hey, guys, I’m cutting it close on this one (as in I’m still working on part three). I’m going to try my best to post it by midnight, but in case I don’t make the deadline, it’ll go up on my journal tomorrow. And then I’ll go catch up on everyone else’s stuff. *g*
Millions of thanks to itmustbetuesday for organizing this!
ETA: Here’s the link to part 3: http://www.livejournal.com/users/rahirah/173353.html
The bathroom lived up to the rest of the suite. Black marble tile, towels almost as thick as the carpet, and faucets that looked like chubby little cupids peeing. Ok, those? Mildly disturbing.
“Worst comes to worst we can get you a new ring, love,” Spike said, applying the loofah to the itchy spot in the exact center of my back. When confronting the supernatural, grooming counts. As long as there was a sunken whirlpool bath available, we owed it to the world to use it. No one likes a stinky Slayer. “It was a pretty little thing for my pretty little thing, but it’s only jewelry.”
“I don’t want another ring,” I snuffled. “I want that one. It’s not just jewelry. You gave it to me.”
I know, two-year-old much? But Spike got it for me with actual money he worked for. Even though it would be way easier to smash the display case, kill the clerk, and walk out as Lord of the Bling. I’ve had people say it’s not fair that I have to be Spike’s conscience. Big secret: I’m not. Standing around twenty-four seven telling Spike what to do would be simple, and life with Spike? Never simple. Spike’s evil, not stupid. He knows the difference between right and wrong. It’s just that sans soul, he needs a reason to care, and it can’t just be me. My job? Giving him reasons, you say? Sorry, wrong, no cookie for you. It’s showing him how to find his own. It took me awhile to figure that out.
When he bought that ring, Spike cared. It mattered. It mattered a lot.
I sank back into the sea of bubbles and wriggled my toes. It was two in the afternoon, my wedding ring was incommunicado, and zero shopping had been accomplished. Bubble therapy administered by an accomodating vampire was a necessity, dammit. “Could it be her ring?” I asked. “Originally, I mean. Because mine now.”
“Anything’s possible.” Spike ducked underwater and surfaced crowned with bubbles. “Got it at one of those estate jewelry places. But likely? Bit of a coincidence, innit, me buying a ring in California and us checking into the one hotel room in all the Strip frequented by the former owner?”
“If it weren’t for coincidences, nothing would ever happen to us.”
“Point,” Spike admitted. He lifted me bodily across the tub and settled me on his lap, his thumbs digging into my tense shoulders. “The maid tried to warn us off. And that bloke last night said there’d been a cancellation. Odds are our modern-day Marley’s made other visits.”
“And if she’s appeared before, there should be records of sightings and…mmm. Little to the left…” I relaxed against Spike’s warm steamy chest and breathed warm steamy air while he nuzzled my neck, nippy little kisses all the way from collarbone to ear. His left hand abandoned my shoulder to slide around and fondle my soap-slippery breast, as his right hand urged my knees apart, spreading my thighs so that the water jets hit in a happy place. I almost oozed out of his grip and dissolved into the hot water. Bubbles good. Bubbles very good.
I should clear this up. Spike and I are not obsessed with sex. We’ve gone entire days, weeks even, without touching, kissing, snuggles, or thinking impure thoughts. We were in different cities at the time, and I’m lying about the impure thoughts, but the point is no sex was had. Our cell phone bill went through the roof, but that? I invoke the Clinton defense.
Willow claims that there’s tantric energy involved, because of Spike being a vampire and me being a Slayer and this whole magical symbolism thing. Giles says he has no opinion on the matter since even acknowledging to himself that Spike and I have a sex life brings on hysterical blindness. Me? I don’t know. We did manage to fuck a Hellmouth closed once. But it’s not something we control or even think about much. Magical symbolism certainly wasn’t the first thing on my mind when Spike hooked his feet around my ankles, wrapping me up in slick muscular vampire and holding me in position. Oh, God, bubbles.
“Newspaper articles, books on local hauntings,” Spike agreed, shifting for a better angle. “‘Spect we should investigate all avenues.” His fingers were deliciously warm and supple from the hot water. His hands made the Grand Tour of my body, lazing over my breasts and belly and hips, lingering on my nipples and then sliding away to tease some other neglected spot…but never the spot where I really wanted them. Just like a guy, refuses to ask for directions. I started to reach down and he grabbed my wrist. “Naughty girl,” he rasped in my ear. “Mustn’t touch yourself yet. Not allowed.”
He had me pinned. The water jet foamed between my thighs, tickling, teasing and unrelenting. My hips set up a helpless little jerky dance-step. Spike was breathing fast, way faster than he needed to, hardening against me as I quivered in his arms. “Nnngh,” I panted, clenching my fists. (Translation: “Spike, I agree completely with your assessment of the situation. Perhaps, when we have finished engaging in sexual intercourse, we should attire ourselves decently and venture forth to do precisely this thing. Though perhaps I should inform you that if you don’t let me come soon, I will be forced to do you bodily harm.”)
Spike lifted me one-handed. Like I was weightless, insubstantial as a ghost. Waiting for that one touch doubled every other sensation. The steam from the tub wreathed me like silk scarves. Spike positioned himself and brought me down, inch by inch by inch by—trust me, it’s a lot of inches. When I was positive I couldn’t bear it another second, he started to move, thrusting in time with the pulsing of the jets. I could feel each stroke along the whole length of my body, his belly to my back, one long rocking curl of muscle.
He unhooked his feet from mine and tipped us forward in the water. On my knees now, hands braced against the side of the tub, legs splayed so the bubble jet hit me from the front while Spike took me from behind. And at last, at last, warm slick fingers, exactly where I wanted them.
White steam, white tile, white noise, whiteout. My arms collapsed, my eyes rolled back and I sobbed and shook against the cool tiles while Spike crooned, “Come for me Buffy, come you sweet magnificent cunt, that’s it, once more, oh, there’s juice in you yet, Slayer, let it all out—”
…and the world blinked and fuzzed like a TV on the fritz and I found myself staring straight into Casperetta’s spectacular if slightly damaged cleavage. Talk about a moodkiller. I lunged backwards, knocking Spike over with a splash. Spike doubled up with a howl as certain of his parts bent at angles not included in the design specifications.
The ghost-bride flickered in and out, maggoty tears crawling down her withered cheeks. “I thought you’d changed, Charlie,” she said, “I really thought you’d changed. I thought we could make a go of it.” She covered her face with her skeletal hands and sobbed. Soggy snowflakes of lace drifted to the wet tiles as her shoulders shook.
“Please,” I gasped, with an apologetic look at Spike, who’d curled up clutching his valuables and sunk underwater so no one could hear him scream. My head was still spinning. I felt drunk. “Who are you? What are you looking for? If there’s a light, going towards it? Great career move, believe me. And since you can’t take it with you? You can just leave my ring on the sink.”
She raised her head from her hands, empty sockets staring straight at me. “It’s no use,” she said. “You’ll find out. Men never change. They just change you.” And she winked out, just like a soap bubble.
So Spike and I decided to do what any two self-respecting tourists would do. We complained to the manager.
Anselm’s office did not continue the Sun King theme. Pity, since I was in a guillotine mood. It looked like any other office, a desk and a computer and filing cabinets. One wall was devoted to framed photographs of managers past in one degree of separation with third-rate celebrities. A couple of the frames had fallen off the wall as a result of Spike slamming the door after us, and lay face-down on the carpet, which was industrial blue and a measley quarter-inch thick. Peon. I didn’t see any ashtrays, but the place reeked of cigars.
“You’re certain it hasn’t just been misplaced?” Anselm asked. “The hotel is fully insured for losses, and—” He cast a moderately disparaging glance in Spike’s direction. “—I’m assuming it wasn’t a terribly expensive piece?”
I really, really didn’t like him. “Of course it’s been misplaced,” I snapped, examining my nails. Chipped. I knew it. Now I was really peeved. I could be getting that free manicure right now. “Your ghost misplaced it. And I don’t want an insurance settlement, I want my ring. Is that clear, or do I need to use pointy objects and fewer syllables?”
“The maid knew the place was haunted,” Spike growled, a couple of shades closer to ‘I’d eat you but picking my teeth would be too much trouble.’ He advanced menacingly on Anselm, who backed nervously around the desk. “You sodding well had to know!”
I picked up one of the fallen frames, which showcased a newspaper story headlined DIAMONDS AREN’T FOREVER—VERSAILLES GHOST STRIKES AGAIN! It was dated August 1977. “I’d say that’s a big yes on the malice aforethought.”
Anselm wilted. “All right, yes, there have been incidents!” He pulled a red silk handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his face, which looked waxy enough for an escapee from Madame Tussaud’s. “But she’s never attacked anyone before. At least, not recently. Look, if this gets out it’s the end of this hotel. She almost ruined us in the seventies, taking the guests’ jewelry. No one believed it was a ghost. They thought it was the staff. Tourists like to be scared. Mysterious lights, moving furniture—that’s the stuff publicity campaigns are made of. Look at the Tropicana and Bugsy Siegel. But no one likes to get beaten up and robbed.”
He began pacing, hands clasped behind his back. “She quieted down when we started…the flowers, the champagne, the…trappings. They keep her happy. Most of the time. But every year, when the anniversary of the…event…rolls around, she gets…restive.” He shook his head. “And some of the newer staff don’t realize how dangerous she can be when she’s upset. I hoped…I thought that you two having some experience in this line, maybe you could do something about her.”
Normally I let Spike play bad cop, because he likes the hitting so much, but taking a turn with the punching and threatening was more and more appealing. “Excuse me? You set us up?”
“Well, it’s not like you’re inexperienced. You’ve got a business, right?” Anselm said nervously. “I recognized the name when you made the reservations and looked it up in the California BBB database. Very good record, by the way.”
Spike squinched his eyes, and the muscle in his jaw did that sexy little twitchy thing. He held up a hand, ticking off points on his fingers. “One, Bloody Vengeance Inc. hunts demons, not ghosts. Two, the operative word in ‘business’ is ‘business,’ not ‘I think I’ll help every clot-brained git who tries to rook me out of a fee for the fun of it,’ and three, we’re bloody well on vacation!”
The finger left standing was not family friendly. I was kind of with Spike on the clot-brained git part, but I don’t get to play the look-Ma-no-empathy card. “Look,” I said to Anslem, “I called it quits with the Council over a year ago. Now? There is a magic word that makes Buffy slay. You,” I shook a finger at his nose, “didn’t use the magic word. If you want an official Slayer, with an official Watcher who eats his Ghost Toasties, call 1-800-TRAVERS-SUCKS and get one. I want my ring back. Maybe your ghost will get busted in the process and maybe it won’t. Take it or leave it.”
Anselm’s shoulders slumped, wafting stale cigar smoke our way. “Whatever you say.”
“As long as that’s settled,” I said briskly. “The thing with ghosts? They always want something. Vengeance, justice, murder will out, whatever. Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a lead pipe. I’ll take a wild guess and say this one didn’t die peacefully in her sleep. And does she have a name other than she? Because I can see pronoun trouble looming.”
Anselm sighed and sat back in his chair, staring at his disaster area of a desk. Even the nameplate was tipped over. “Her name was Vera. Vera Bustamonte.”
“Figures,” I muttered.
“She was a dancer at Caesar’s,” Anselm went on. “A little spitfire. This was about thirty years ago. She fell for a guy. Up-and-coming businessman, but he had some connections that weren’t entirely on the up-and-up, if you know what I mean. He fell for her, too. They were all over each other, either fighting or making up. She wanted him to go legit, you know?”
I looked at Spike. Spike looked at me. Um. Yeah. We knew.
“So for her, he tries. And they get married. The manager here at the time was, um, a friend of theirs, so he gives them a deal on the honeymoon suite. On their wedding night, she finds out he’s still doing jobs for his old associates, and they have a fight, see? He goes storming off to the casino, where she hears that he loses a bundle, and this doesn’t make her any happier with him. When she wakes up the next morning, her wedding ring’s gone, and so is her husband. She figures her louse of a husband’s gone and pawned it to pay off his losses—which are not to people he can afford to piss off, if you know what I mean.
“So she calls the guy’s best friend, who was the best man at their wedding, and who’s always been a bit soft on her. She tells him her husband’s gone missing and she’s worried. So he comes up and she cries on his shoulder, and that leads to tea and a hell of a lot more than sympathy. And right in the middle of it, the husband walks in on ’em… and broken-hearted, he guns his wife down right then and there.”
“Love for the ages, that is,” Spike said admiringly. The vampire ideal of romance involves as many dead bodies as possible. He hitched a hip up on the desk and began poking through Anselm’s papers, found a fountain pen he liked the looks of and stuck it in his pocket. “So she’s brassed off at the bloke who blew a hole in her corsage. Easy enough. We find him and bring him here so she can give him a good postmortem bitchslapping.”
Anselm slumped in the chair, grey and defeated-looking. “It’s not that easy. The best man wrestled the gun away and killed the husband. Ever since then, Vera’s ghost has haunted the suite, looking for her missing ring. If a newlywed couple takes the room, especially around the anniversary of her death, she’ll appear. Sometimes it’s just wailing and throwing things. But if the couple reminds her of her and her husband…”
“I think I’m insulted,” I muttered. “Scratch that, I know I’m insulted. OK. Find the real wedding ring, and Vera rests in peace.”
“Sixty-four dollar question is, where?” Spike sucked in his cheeks and frowned at Anselm. “You’ve searched the room, right?”
“It’s not there,” Anselm said grimly.
Of course it wasn’t. “Sooooo…if it didn’t just get lost, maybe her husband did take it and pawn it.” Without any personal items to anchor it even a location spell might not work—the ring could be anywhere by now. I bit my lip in frustration. I really prefer problems I can solve by hitting them. “This best man guy…what happened to him?”
Anselm shook his head. “Paguso. His name is Tony Paguso. He went to trial and was acquitted. Self-defense. He’s still alive.”
It was a long shot. But have clue will travel. “Come on, Spike. Let’s fire up the Mystery Machine.”
According to that compendium of mystic knowledge, Dex Online, Tony Paguso lived in Boulder City, half an hour out of Vegas in the mountains north of the Hoover Dam. Beyond Spike’s blacked-out windows (Spike says necro-tempered glass is for sissies. I’m working on it) the flat, sunbaked desert stretched away to the barest, stoniest mountains in existence. Majestic, if scenery is your thing, but otherwise? World’s biggest litterbox.
“…can’t believe you ditched us!”
Willow was spazzing. Why had I not realized Willow would spaz? She gets jittery if a new stop sign goes up. “There was no ditching!” I shouted into my cell. Coverage out here was le suck. “It was a seize the day thing! I called Dawn last night and told her!”
“You told Dawn before you told me?”
Only Willow can re-create puppy eyes in stereophonic sound. “She’s kind of my sister, Will, she gets dibs! Look, I’ll tell you all about it when we get home. What can you tell me about exorcising ghosts?”
“Ghosts can be malignant, but they’re not usually evil.” She sounded doubtful, thought that might have been the static. “You need to find the object or event that’s tying them to this plane, and—do you need me to fly out there to help? Because—”
“Spike and I have both have our merit badges in mojo,” I interrupted. Maybe it would be useful to have her here, but not on honeymoon time; Willow has sire issues. “Just fax whatever you’ve got to the hotel, OK? You’re the best, Willow.”
“I’ll see what I can put together—does Xander know about—?”
“Not yet. Go ahead and tell everyone el—oh, God, I broke the relatives-first rule! I have to tell Dad! Later, bye!”
I snapped the phone shut and scrunched back against the seat. Spike and my father go together like peanut butter and trout. “On the bright side, maybe Dad will be in Uzbekistan and won’t get the message till August.”
Spike cocked an eyebrow. “Second thoughts, pet?”
That got him a punch in the arm. “You don’t get rid of me that easily, buster.” I pressed my nose to the cloudy glass and watched the desert scroll by. I didn’t have any second thoughts. Maybe that should scare me. “Spike…you think we’re like them?”
He didn’t answer right away, just shook out a cigarette, lit it, and rolled down the window a crack to let the smoke out. “Cared about each other, didn’t they? Buggered it up, but they cared. Rather that than measure out my life in coffee spoons.” He looked at me sidelong. “‘Specially now it is a life.”
When it comes to life, I don’t want a choice between short and glorious or long and boring. I want long and just glorious enough to make the boring parts relaxing. “Would it bring your vampy heart joy to know that if I caught you with anyone else I’d hunt them down like a dog and stake them from behind?”
Spike sucked in smoke and blew it out the window. “Well…yeh, it would.” There was serious behind the smirk. “Not that I plan on being with anyone else any time this century. But I make allowances.”
“Thanks. I think.” It’s a squidgy feeling, being reminded that Spike makes way more compromises for me than I do for him. “Did it make you feel better, going after that fungus demon Drusilla was schtupping?”
“For a bit. Did dusting those pathetic bints making an hors d’oeuvres of Finn warm your cockles?”
For a bit. But they hadn’t been the real problem, had they? Moral of the story: If you’re going to go ballistic, aim at the right person. “If you expect me to try and cut your head off if we break up, you’re in for a big disappointment.”
He chuckled. “Ah, well, serves me right for putting down that shotgun. I’ll try to live with the pain. Or lack thereof.”
We pulled up outside the sundrenched steps Paguso’s condo, and there was a brief altercation over whether I should go up and knock or whether Spike should come with me and burst into flames. He pointed out that he burst into flames a lot more slowly now, which? Not terribly reassuring. We compromised on the blanket trick. Mr. Paguso, when he shot the deadbolt and peered suspiciously through the door, didn’t look like the face that sank a thousand ships. He was stocky and sixtyish, with thinning grey hair and a leathery desert tan, wearing shorts and a University of Nevada tee.
“Hi!” I said, as smoke started to curl from Spike’s scalp. “I’m Buffy, and this is Spike. We’re here about the murder. Can we come in?”
The creepy thing? He didn’t look the least bit surprised. “Sure,” he said. “You want a beer?”
We followed Mr. Paguso inside and played eyebrow tag while he shuffled off to the kitchen. He returned a minute or so later bearing foamy goodness, and handed off a pair of sweating cans of Bud Lite to the two of us. Spike, after sufficient ankle-kicking, heroically forbore to make the usual comments about watered-down horse piss in a can.
“I haven’t thought about Vera and Charlie for twenty years,” Paguso said. “Even the Enquirer got bored after awhile.” He waved us at the couch, which wasn’t covered in plastic, but looked like it should have been, and lowered himself into a well-worn La-Z-Boy positioned for premium TV viewage. “Well, no, that’s a lie. Fifteen years. You shilling for Unsolved Mysteries or something?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “We just found out about all this the hard way last night. Mr. Anselm at the hotel told us that you were a witness, and—”
Paguso gave me a strange look. “Anselm? You’re bullshitting me.”
I nodded. “Mr. Anselm thinks that…well, that the room where Vera was shot is a teensy bit haunted, and—” I exchanged looks with Spike. “We saw some strange things there ourselves. We’re looking for the missing wedding ring. We were hoping you might remember if this Charlie guy said anything about it—where he pawned it, or anything? We think if we can find it, it could help us deghostify the place.”
“Haunted, huh?” Paguso balanced his beer on one knee and stared into space, or maybe at the 1970s abstract starburst wall clock. “Vera never did know when to give up.” He rubbed his stubbly chin. “I’m gonna tell you something I never told anyone in thirty years.” He set his beer down on the coffee table and braced both hands against his boney knees. “Charlie never pawned that ring.”
Spike sipped his beer with that narrow-eyed tilt of the head that meant he was listening to Paguso’s heartbeat, checking for fibs. Paguso looked like he expected gasps of shock and horror. I managed a “Really?”
“Couldn’t have,” Paguso said. “It was a fake. Gold plate and cubic zirconium. Couldn’t get twenty bucks for it. I was with Charlie when he bought it—he was skint. Couldn’t afford the real thing, but Vera, she had champagne tastes. So he bought her a phony ring, and planned to switch it out for the real thing when he had the dough.”
“That’s why he started doing jobs for the mob again,” I whispered. “So he could afford–” I covered my mouth with my hand and looked at Spike. That was so exactly what he would do.
Spike was having his own comes-the-dawn moment. “He didn’t take it to pawn at all, did he? He was going to switch it out that night. Get back in good with his girl.” He snorted. “Stupid berk. Should’ve known any bird worth having’s not bought so cheap.”
Or maybe it wasn’t. Spike tipped an eyebrow at me, as if to say I make bloody stupid mistakes, love, but grant I only make the same bloody stupid mistake once.
Sometimes I think my heart will explode with how proud I am of him. Spike and me falling in love? That’s frosting. That pride is the cake. “You must have known,” I said. “When she called you. You knew he hadn’t stolen her ring.”
Paguso nodded, slow, like his neck hurt. “I never knew when to let go, either.” A little smile curved his lips. “It was almost worth it.”
I rubbed my left hand. The ring finger felt lonely and bare. Funny what you could get used to in a few hours. “Mr. Anselm needs her gone. If you have any idea—”
“I’ll bet he does,” Paguso muttered. “I got no love for that sonofabitch. Let her haunt him, for all I care.”
“You know what?” I hopped off the couch, fed up. “The three of you together weren’t as bright as a dead flashlight! Charlie loved her and shot her, and you loved her and got her shot. You owe her an easy grave, and wouldn’t she be interested to hear your tale of woe? In fact—” I started for the door. “Let’s go tell her. Maybe she’d be happier haunting you for a change. ”
“You can’t scare me that way,” Paguso sneered, but he paled under his George Hamilton tan. “Ah, fuck,” he said after a minute. “It’s been thirty years. The bastard’s suffered enough.”
He levered himself out of the armchair and disappeared into the bedroom. After a minute he returned with a little black box. “Here it is,” he said. “The fake, and the real one Charlie got to replace it. I was going to pawn it myself, but…” He shrugged helplessly, looking as defeated as Anselm had. “It was Vera’s.”
It didn’t look much like my ring. Bigger diamonds. Spike looked worried as I studied it. “Flashy,” I said, closing the box with a snap, and he grinned. “One thing,” I said to Paguso. “Why would you think we were lying about talking to Anselm?”
Paguso’s lips twisted in a wry smile. “Nothing much,” he said. “Except the fact that I shot Charles Vincent Anselm dead thirty years ago.”
Originally posted at http://rahirah.livejournal.com/173353.html