"One Morning In Sunnydale"

by A.E. Berry

DISCLAIMER: Buffy, Giles, Oz, Jenny, Snyder, and Willow belong to Joss Whedon and Warner Bros. Joe Riley and Missy the poodle are my critters. If you wish to archive or link to this fiction, please ask permission first.

"Morning all! It is 6 o'clock A Yam and a brisk 92 degrees out! Welcome to SunnyHell! And on that note, an oldie from the Bee Gees!"

The first notes of "Stayin' Alive" began to pound from the radio. Joe Riley grimaced and turned the radio down. Sun wasn't even up yet and already he was sweating like a virgin in a Moroccan whorehouse. He maneuvered his pickup into the back driveway of the high school and parked it between the cafeteria dumpster and the staff recycling bin. It reeked back here, but that kept the students away. His old Ford was about the only vehicle on the grounds that had never been vandalized.

Joe pulled the keys from the ignition and picked up a baseball bat ("Property of Sunnydale High Athletic Dept.") from the floor. He gave a good rap with the bat to the recycling bin, then to the cafeteria bin. An ugly snarling skirled up from the cafeteria bin. Joe rummaged in the staff recycling bin until he came up with a discarded container of stale danish. Using the end of his baseball bat, he flipped back the lid to the cafeteria bin and simultaneously tossed a danish up and over.

Something with more teeth than head came squealing up out of the bin. GRWLRNSH! the thing screamed as it ravaged the danish. Joe took a good aim with the bat and caught the Thing on its downward tumble. It hit the back of the bin with a splat, and slopped back in.

"Better than Pete Rose," Joe grinned. He prodded the bin again, then cautiously peeked inside. No more disgusting than the usual contents, he decided. He slammed the lid down and slung the bat over his shoulder, whistling.

He let himself in at the back by the loading dock, and stopped by the Maintenance offices for his trolley and for a quick check of his email. With a flip of a switch, he had his old Amiga up and running. Seven messages were waiting, three from the new night janitor, all the rest but one from Principal Snyder. The shop teacher had sent the last one, reporting that something was chewing on the jigsaw extension wires again.

The halls were quiet, except for the bandmaster in his office, obsessively playing through his Sousa discs looking for that one piece that hadn't been done to death for next month's Battle of the Bands. Joe thought, privately, that some modern jazz might be a nice change of pace, but he didn't intrude on the man's job. It wasn't any of his business.

The Oz kid was already in the music room, practising guitar riffs. Joe pulled two Cokes from his trolley, set one down on the bench for the boy, and sat down to listen. The song was coming right along; the kid had real talent.

Oz grimaced as he struggled over a passage, finally came to an ending of sorts. He set the guitar down, and popped the top of the Coke. "Thanks, Joe. . ."

"Sounding good," Joe said.

"I can't pin down the last bit." Oz grimaced and picked up the guitar again, started picking at it. "Two weeks, I've been going at it. . ."

"Sounds a lot better that it did a week ago," Joe said. "I think you're almost there."

"Almost is as good as not," Oz grumbled in frustration.

"Well. . . maybe if you'd try a different key. . ."

The kid looked up. "Like? Give, Joe."

Joe accepted the guitar, settling it comfortably across his knees. Frowning, he played that last troublesome bit, thought a moment, then played it in a different key, different tempo. "Or maybe if you just pick up the beat here." The notes danced from his fingers.

Oz began to grin. Joe grinned back.

A faint chittering sounded from somewhere in the back of the room. "Think we've got something there," Joe remarked, repeating the chord. The chittering got somewhat louder. He rose, handing Oz his guitar, and strolled to the piano at the back of the room. The chittering abruptly stopped.

Joe pulled a spray bottle from his belt, and gingerly eased the back of the piano up. All dusty and quiet inside. The instrument hadn't been tuned in ages. He eased one hand over the keys and began to play that chord, over and over again.

The chittering shrilled up in an almost unbearable crescendo and a powdery explosion of white-and-black winged things shot out of the back of the piano. Joe caught them mid-swirl with several zaps of the spray bottle, sending them into soggy clumps onto the floor. WHAP, WHAP! went the baseball bat, spreading a white-and-black winged thing paste across the floor.

"Whoa," Oz exclaimed, peering over his shoulder. "What was that?"

"Mixture of Windsong and Vanilla Fields," Joe said, reholstering his spray bottle. "Don't touch those things. They've got real nasty stingers." He pulled on some gloves and cleaned up the mess with a thick paper towel, spritzed the inside of the piano again for good measure.

"So that's where that smell comes from. We always thought it was Mrs. Brindlemeier's perfume." Oz sat down on the piano bench. "But those things were fairly creepsome in a sort of but not quite insectile way."

"I don't know what they were, and I'm not going to ask." Joe wadded up the paper towel and put it into his Toxic Wastes bag. "If they're a rare and endangered species, some other school can worry about providing a safe habitat for them." He patted Oz on the shoulder. "You just worry about your music, man. Leave the mopping up to the expert."

Joe moved on to the Computer Lab. Several of the terminals were still on. Tsking, Joe moved to turn them off. Ms. Calendar was getting awfully absent-minded as of late. She hadn't been looking too well either. Chewing on his lower lip, considering, he finally decided to do an little extra cleansing here today. He took a bowl from his trolley, filled it with rice, and placed a piece of charcoal in it. A flick of the Bic ignited the charcoal. He lit a cigarette and sat on her desk, puffing while the charcoal heated up. Halfway through the cigarette, he stubbed it out, pulled a baggie of dried juniper from this trolley and sprinkled it on top of the charcoal. Juniper smoke began to waft from the bowl.

Chanting, Joe carried the bowl about the room, waving it under the desk, inside the closets, about the windows, taking care to let it settle about the rows of paperback books with the Windows95 logo on them. Something hissed at him from behind the books, but all he saw was a faint shadow rushing into the window light whereupon it promptly dissolved.

He locked the door behind him, to give the smoke a chance to settle in. Cafeteria next, where no amount of cleansing ever seemed to be enough to counteract the bad energy. Huffing in annoyance, Joe slapped up a couple of bounty and abundance charms up over the doorways. He wasn't having much success with the bounty, although the abundance was working okay.

Several wizened, knee-high creatures were in the back, chowing down on the meatloaf "surprise" that was shelved in the freezers waiting for today's lunch. Joe drove them out the door with the fire extinguisher, throwing the meat loaf after them for good measure. He checked the fruit bins, rid them of about half a dozen long hairy things with scarlet hooked mandibles. Pink squishy toad-things out of the milk trays. Wheezing purple moss out of the biscuits. Some sort of hanging gloopy vine that he'd never seen before had to be hooked out of the overheads. The drains had to be unstopped of the usual hairy mushrooms.

That done, he moved down the hall to check the Administrative offices. Snyder's office was filled with locked compartments -- files, drawers, closets, boxes, bookcases -- so he merely mopped away the damp sticky webbed prints that tracked up the walls and ceiling, dumped the accumulation of thin cigar butts from the wastebasket, and threw open a window to help clear the smell of sulphur from the air.

The school secretary had left a Harlequin romance on her desk last night. Something had been reading it after her, and had left a fishy green drool all over the book and her desk and chair. Joe picked the sodden paperback up between two gloved fingers, dumped it into his Toxics bag. Darn woman couldn't be bothered to take her recreational reading home with her. She, of course, wouldn't notice the missing paperback, would only crack open the next one within five minutes of arriving this morning.

Joe stopped by the utility closet, pulled on his heaviest gloves and boots, strapped on his shin guards. He exchanged his baseball bat for a golf club, spun the keys in his hand, unlocked the door with a flick of his wrist, and spun-kicked the door open.

They were waiting for him this morning, must have been pressed against the door with their nasty little forked tongues hanging out. A mess of them squished into the wall as the door slammed into them, but a whole mess more surged out, squealing in anticipation.

Joe swung the club back and took out the foreguard with one clean slice. Demon rat parts spattered across the floor. The bulk of the critters veered off, swarming around and surrounding him, smacking their lips, red eyes aglitter. Joe pulled the club back over his shoulder and slowly turned as they circled him in a show of chittering teeth.

Back straight, legs apart, arms loose. . . Joe hummed a single note under his breath. . .

A wave of them poured towards him from behind. Joe spun low on his heel, sweeping through the ranks with one stroke of his club, continuing his spin to take out an attack from the other side. Straightening out of his spin, he sent several of them whacking off in tiny mad teeth thrashing golf-balled splats. SMACK! WHAP! CRUNCH! took out about twenty more. He spun the club, dodged, leapt over their heads, and came crashing down in combat-boot mode. They were squealing in terror now, darting every which way for the nearest recesses in sight. Joe hurled the spinning golf club, clearing the main group of them, grabbed his baseball bat to masticate the last group, then dropped to his knees with a bone-rattling crunch to eradicate the screaming survivors that clung to his shin guards.

Those golf lessons were really paying off.

Whistling the theme from "The Bridge Over the River Kwai", Joe pulled a broom from his trolley and swept up.

Library next. He unlocked the doors, pulled the trolley inside, and shut the doors behind him. It seemed kind of a sacred place, he always felt compelled to give it his best attention. The kids didn't spend much time in it, so he rarely needed to do more than dust up. When the place needed attention, though, it usually needed it with a vengeance.

Not bad today, although the library was showing the somewhat disheveled look that came of harboring people burning some serious midnight oil. He surveyed the doors with approval. Mr. Giles had finally done some warding here, and it was about time with the kind of vandals this place had been attracting lately. Wardings always worked best when they were undertaken by the person in charge of the room, something he wished that he could get across to the other faculty and staff.

The symbols and passages (in Old Latin) that had been drawn in a very light-handed white chalk about the doors were marvelously and elegantly wrought. A lot of it was beyond him, of course -- Joe always regretted that he'd never finished even a high school education -- but he did spot a simple typo that he hurried to correct with the stick of chalk he habitually carried with him.

He stepped back to admire his small contribution. Mr. Giles must be feeling as exhausted as he looked lately, or he wouldn't have missed such an obvious mistake. Joe wished he could do a proper cleansing ceremony in here, but there was just too much stuff and too many odd vibes bouncing about. When (and if) the librarian ever took a vacation, he could come in some night when he wasn't likely to be disturbed and dedicate several hours to the task. In the meantime, he supposed he'd have to hope that a few sprigs of rue here and there would suffice.

Joe hurriedly finished sweeping up. Mr. Giles' office was, as usual, an extremely well-ordered mess. Joe emptied the wastebasket and swept a bloated transparent football-sized spider out of the heating duct. He (guiltily) secreted a volume of Spinoza under his dusting rags before wheeling the trolley out and locking up again.

A glance at his watch told him it was almost time to open up. Joe made a rush security sweep into the boiler room, used a flame thrower to clear out another infestation of those watermelon-sized leathery eggs that had been deposited under the stairs. He'd cleared out so many of the things by now that the walls down here were pitch black. Snyder had written him a memo just last week, reaming him out for letting the staff smoke down here.

One look into the boys' bathroom and he slapped an "Out of Order" sign on it. A man just shouldn't have to face some things this early in the day. The girls' bathroom was deceptively squeaky clean and bright. Joe peered around suspiciously, then to be on the safe side slapped an "Out of Order" sign on it as well.

He wheeled his trolley to the front doors. Somebody had thrown something at one of them, turning the glass into a glimmering spider-webbed piece of art. Joe sighed and pulled a Damage Report form from the folders at the front of his trolley. A football trophy lay on the floor in front of the door. Joe turned to survey the trophy case behind him. Trophies were tilted and scattered amid the still locked shattered remains of the trophy case. Pieces of glass glinted like tiny diamond teeth across the floor.

"Just great," he muttered, and grabbed a 'Request for Exterminator Services' form. Snyder had never called him to the carpet over the fact that most of the Exterminator Requests were eventually farmed out to a certain Father Bryan Murphy of the St Frederik's Sacred Heart Church, but Joe didn't want to press his luck. Unfortunately, Father Murphy was about the only exorcist in town who seemed to have any luck at all with poltergeists.

Joe swept the floor, taped and locked down the broken door, put up his "Please Use the Other Door - This Door is Baroque" sign with the picture of Johann Sebastian Bach. Finally, with a feeling of ceremony, he unlocked the good door and threw the school open to the day.

The sun was glowering up over the horizon, already in full swelter for the upcoming day.

Stepping outside, he pulled his cap from his back pocket and wiped at the breaking sweat on his balding head before putting it on.

He'd turned sixty-five this year; really too old for this kind of heat wave, this work. He thought of his fantasies of moving to Alaska to live off the land, of starting up a jazz band in Siberia, of whale watching on the Tierra del Fuego, of slinging hash for a mountaineer's hostel in the Indian Himalayas.

He lit another cigarette and puffed at it meditatively. Joe supposed everyone would like to think of themselves as irreplaceable in their jobs. But when you came right down to it, any man was as good a cog in the machine as another. Snyder would quite happily accept his resignation and hire the next drop-out off the street at half the pay. The School Board had presented him with a 46 Years of Faithful Service Award (a paper certificate and a free dinner at the local Burger Hut) several months ago -- a not-so-subtle hint. He had no real family in California anymore, and many of his really close friends had left, fleeing recession and the spiraling crime rate.

Curiosity always stopped him, however. Joe wanted to see if Oz and his band could land that recording contract that they were angling for; had to find out if the school's most popular girl, Cordelia Chase, would discover that she was -- beneath all that attitude -- an admirable and remarkably self-possessed young woman. And he was just perverse enough to get a kick out of watching the heretofore academic bachelor Mr. Giles who had yet, apparently, to realize that he was walking a rather precarious line of attraction, with the beguiling yet vacillating brunette computer teacher on one side and that one beautiful little blond student who was a curious mixture of fiery adult and uncertain child on the other.

Several cars had pulled into the Staff Parking Lot by now. The Home Economics teacher with two laden paper bags (and Joe knew where to head for lunch today), the German teacher who looked as if she hadn't slept last night (she'd been dating a man 20 years her junior), and the school librarian. Joe opened the door for each of them in turn, greeting them cheerfully.

Only Mr. Giles bothered to reply, a somewhat distracted "good morning" that sounded more than a little zoned out. Mr. Giles wasn't really a morning person. On the occasions when Joe came in nights to finish up some bit of a more involved repair job, he'd often see the man in his den in the later hours, pouring over his books. The custodian envied that kind of academic dedication, and he liked the librarian, who seemed to be one of the few people here, like himself, who took his job seriously.

Besides, Mr. Giles was the only one on staff who drove a vehicle that was uglier than Joe's battered pickup truck.

Joe shut the door and sat down on the steps to complete his two reports. Granted, he mused as he wrote, some of the most spectacular damage to school property had occurred inside the library. But really none of the library messes compared with some of the stuff he'd had to clean out of the boys' gym locker room. And he didn't want to speculate on what was causing the disgusting stuff he had to keep cleaning out of the padlocked tool shed out back.

Joe signed the reports and looked back at the parking lot. More of the staff were arriving, and there were a couple of cars in the student parking lot. The sun was up in full torture phase now, almost blindingly bright off the front sidewalks. He fished his sunglasses from his jumpsuit and placed them on his nose.

He noticed, for the first time, that there was a big dog sitting out on the front walk. He studied her for a moment, then got up and walked towards her, holding the back of his hand out for her to sniff. She looked at the hand, then up at his face, and her tail began to wag. He bent down to scratch behind her ears, and the tail beat faster.

"Where'd you come from, Missy?" He'd thought at first that she was a smallish Irish Wolfhound, but close up he realized that she was just about the whopping biggest poodle he'd ever laid eyes on. He'd seen big poodles before, all right, but this was the Lucy Lawless of poodles. She was pretty shaggy for a poodle too, although he could tell from the cut of her that somebody had troubled to trim her up once.

Nice dog, Joe thought regretfully. He wished he could take her home, but his landlord wouldn't even let him keep a hamster. He'd best send her on her way. If Principal Snyder caught her on school grounds, he'd call animal control. Given that last scandal involving the pound and its still incumbent director, Joe didn't want to think about that.

"Go on, Missy," Joe tried to give the dog a gentle shove towards the park across the street. She whined, turned around and licked his face.

"Oooh, she's beautiful. Is she yours?" One of the incoming students, a pretty, mousey little redhead, had paused to admire the poodle.

Joe smiled up at her and shook his head. "No, she's just sitting here. Waiting for someone, I expect. Though I've never seen her around here before."

The girl, one Willow Rosenberg, rubbed at the dog's ears. The dog leaned into her, eyes glassing over in pleasure. They looked pretty together, the poodle's golden curls complementing the girl's gleaming red hair. "Maybe you can look out for her for a while," he said. "I've got to get back to work now, but if you stay with her until her owner returns, she'll be okay."

"Well, I --"

"Good girl." Joe hurried off before she could think of more. He was confident that she would take her charge seriously. It would be nice if she took the dog home with her -- they looked right together. If not, he'd sound out some friends, get a home lined up for the pup.

Joe enjoyed playing matchmaker. He was generally pretty good at it, and it allowed him to exercise his avocation of people watching.

He couldn't keep his grin to himself now; he really couldn't wait to see if this particular hunch played out. At the least, the prospect would liven up an otherwise fairly standard day.


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