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Backstage 12 - … Than Meets the Eye

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The next couple of days, I quickly learned, were going to give me too little to do and too much time to think.

At Megan’s insistence, I didn’t follow the pair out of the club; in fact, we left before them, and went back to my room to work out a deal. When I got to the door, I stopped and said, “So what is it I’m supposed to do before I invite you in?”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s a motel room.” Which still didn’t make any sense, but she seemed pleased that I remembered. We spent half an hour arguing the rates — she might be sharp on her own turf, but she had something to learn about what a PI could afford to contract out and still show a profit — but finally came to terms, the closer being when I agreed to pay her a fat bonus every time she saved my life. She’d given a lot of ground in the negotiation, but seemed confident that she’d make it all back on that rider, and I figured if I couldn’t prove her wrong then I was getting a bargain.

Then she wanted to see my equipment. She looked over the cameras, pointed to the newest one. “That’ll do: digital, electronic viewfinder, it should work. Anything with mirrors …” She shrugged doubtfully, then said, “But don’t forget the long-range lens, you want to be way back of her when you use this.”

She showed less assurance when it came to the recording equipment, but went straight to what she’d mentioned before, the parabolic mike. I’d only brought a small one, hadn’t expected to need major gear this early in the case, but you never know. She had me show her how it worked, then winced and motioned at me to turn it off. “Wow,” she said, shaking her head as if to clear it. “That’ll be two hundred bucks.”

“What?” I knew what she had to mean, but not why.

“I just saved your life. She’d hear that squeal half a mile off, and you’d be dead two minutes later.”

“That’s impossible.” I gestured at the mike. “Even if there was a leak in the feed, it would be in the ultrasonic range, higher even than a dog could hear.”

Her expression showed she thought she was dealing with someone too dense to understand a simple point. “I told you, Pops, this is a different jungle. Look, can a snake kill you without touching you?”

“No,” I said; then, “Wait, the spitting cobra, if the venom hits your eyes it’ll be absorbed through the capillaries.”

“Right,” she said, nodding. “But I bet the spitting cobra was a myth till somebody brought one back alive. Anywhere else you can talk about what’s impossible, but not here. You don’t believe me, check that thing for yourself.”

I checked it, looking where the problem would be if she was right, and then I used a jeweler’s screwdriver to tighten down two posts. I looked up at her and said, “One hundred. You might have hit something here, but I’m not convinced.”

She grinned. “I’ll take it, but next time I get three ’steada two.”

I agreed. Why not, she’d only collect if she actually did save my life.

Megan gave me a long list of dos and don’ts for operating in Sunnydale — most of it things I already did in my profession, some of it understandable but carried to an extreme, and some totally incomprehensible — but wouldn’t explain exactly what was supposed to be so dangerous about the woman Dagmar. She did promise that she’d spend the next night gathering information about Dagmar’s haunts and habits (“She never goes anywhere during the day,” she assured me with a solemn smirk.), so that when Paul returned the evening after that, we’d be all set. Probably not necessary — ninety per cent chance they’d use the condo Paul’s wife was subsidizing — but it pays to have all bets covered.

And that was it. She left, and I went to bed, and I had two days to myself, at a time I didn’t need it. I didn’t want to make a report to Melanie when I could wrap the whole thing up so quickly; I could have gone back to L.A., but I didn’t have any other cases working just now, and I wanted to be close in case Megan gave me a call. So the next day I spent some time filling in the blanks. I went by the condo and let myself in with a little specialty tool (I had Melanie’s signed authorization in my jacket pocket, it was perfectly legal), and left unobtrusive transmitters in the den and bedroom; you can’t tap a phone without a court order, but bugging a residence is a different matter. I set another one aside to drop in Paul’s car the next time he parked it on the UCSunD campus. I field-stripped and cleaned my .45; I’d gotten really comfortable with the .38 snubby, but these days too many kids were packing Magnums and dosing themselves up with horse tranquilizers before a rumble, and I needed more knockdown power. I went through my workout routine, including a five-mile run (through a park Megan had grudgingly approved as being safe in broad daylight) and some flexibility routines I didn’t need until about five years ago and always made me feel like I was playing Twister without a partner.

And I thought. A lot. I couldn’t make myself stop.

I’ve kept on going, refused to change or give ground, but that didn’t keep the world from changing. Joyce’s death was a hammerblow, but it had been coming for years. I missed Peggy, I missed the guys from my old unit and my friends from the force (dead or retired now, every one of them), I even missed those clowns from InterTect, and who would have thought I’d ever say that? I’d kept my own life to a robust routine, but time had kept chipping away at the edges I couldn’t reach.

Most of all, I missed a woman I hadn’t seen since she was nineteen, someone I hadn’t thought of, or needed to, more than half a dozen times in the last two decades.

Joyce, Joyce …

She hadn’t even been part of the case where I met her, but she had made herself a part of it; she was a friend of the young woman being so terribly and obscurely threatened, and Joyce stood by her friends. From the moment she confronted me in the lobby, demanding to know just what I could do, to the moment Prescott was led away in cuffs, still not able to believe he had lost, Joyce dogged my steps and refused to be discouraged, ditched or sidelined. I’ve met action junkies — bit of one myself — but that wasn’t it; Joyce believed in the rightness of things, in the way the world ought to be, and she wouldn’t give ground to something so wrong as what was being done to her friend.

She helped, too. I wasn’t at all happy at having to drag her around with me everywhere, but her recognizing that Florentine frieze saved me what would have been half a day following a dead end, and she was the one who spotted Prescott’s last-ditch ambush, even though it turned out later that her logic on that one was totally wrong. There was more to it than that, though, one of those rare personal affinities that just happens without planning, a deep and immediate connection of personalities that no one could stop, only flee. Which is what I did, at the end. She looked at me, out of those eyes, refusing to cry or beg, and a transcript of our parting conversation would have shown only ordinary words; but we both knew what was being said, the choice that was being made, and when I got downstairs I sat in my car for ten minutes before starting it up and driving away. Not tempted to go back, no, I knew I couldn’t do that, but putting off the final departure for just a little longer.

Thinking like that was going to start me drinking, hard, so I pushed it away and made myself buck up. Maybe I overreacted at the burial, maybe it wasn’t really that bad, maybe I had just caught the family at a tough time. (Okay, file that one under Glaringly Obvious, of course it was a tough time.) For all I knew, the older daughter volunteered at a homeless shelter, and took kickboxing classes to channel her aggressiveness; the younger one had a close bond with her father, or a caring school counselor who could recognize and treat all that misery; the Sapphic pair were just going through an experimental phase, and would pull themselves back to reality and make some responsible decisions. I didn’t manage to convince myself, but I did get through the afternoon, and a pay-per-view fight program covered the evening.

Megan had warned me she would call late, so I slept fully dressed. True to her word, she made the call at 3 A.M., telling me where to meet her and giving a detailed, obsessive-compulsive list of instructions on what route to take and which places to never ever stop, no matter what. She made me repeat it back, then hung up before I could ask why I had to come out at all.

The patronizing treatment was starting to rub me the wrong way, so I decided to make a little point of my own. I stuck to the route she had given me, but by getting off to a quick start and calling on my refreshed familiarity with the city, I was able to reach the appointed place ten minutes before Megan had said she would meet me there. I parked unobtrusively and found a vantage point for myself in the shadows — she’d picked a church for our rendezvous, St. John of the Cross — and set myself to wait for her arrival. I had a little extra with me, more a keepsake than serious equipment these days, but it would still do the job. I left it off while I waited, the thing sucked battery power at an indecent rate, but got everything else set and in place.

I almost missed her, she really was good, but I was picking out lines of approach thirty years before she was born. I caught a flick of movement and that was enough, I settled the goggles in place and hit the switch and swung the invisible beam toward her, and if I couldn’t trail her in the dark without her knowing I was there, my name wasn’t —

“Jesus Christ!” The moment I saw her, she shrieked and jumped out of the ultraviolet beam, and I swiveled my head to follow her; she yelped and jumped again, moving so fast she almost seemed to be leaving smoke behind her in the empty air, and this time when I found her she ducked behind one of the statues out front and began screaming, “Turn it off, turn it off, TURN IT OFF!!!”

Okay, by this time I could see that following her secretly wasn’t about to happen. I turned it off, pulled back the goggles, and walked to her place of refuge. I didn’t have the least idea what had just happened, but I wasn’t about to admit that; cool as if I had planned it that way, I said, “So, still think I’m a babe in the woods?”

Megan stepped out from behind the statue, glowering at me and at the UV viewing assembly. I’ve not often seen anyone that angry and still in control; she clenched and unclenched her fists, three times, and finally through stiff lips she said, “Inside. The fricken. Church.”

The interior lights were down low, but I could still see better than before, and I stopped myself from whistling in surprise. Sometime between last night and now, Megan had picked up a monster sunburn. I kept my expression under control, and said blandly, “So why couldn’t you just come back to my room like before?”

She ignored it, and spoke with a toneless softness that almost had me reaching for my gun. “That was a really, really unfriendly thing to do, Pops. Why’d you want to pull something like that?”

I still couldn’t figure out why she was so angry, so I answered indirectly. “You said to meet here, so we met here. I just wanted to show you that I’m not completely helpless.”

She tensed as if she was about to charge me — I think maybe she was preparing to do just that, and I was ready to teach her a painful lesson in manners — and then she shook her head disgustedly and bent to get a closer look at the gear I was wearing and carrying. “I don’t believe it: that stuff has to be, what, Korean era? Didn’t you know they’ve got units out now weigh a tenth as much and work a dozen times better?”

I patted the battery pack on my hip. “This sweetheart might not be the Cadillac version, but it still delivers. Given me good service, so I keep it handy.”

“It’s an antique, like you are.” She shook her head again. “Ultraviolet, just my luck. Not polarized, not starlight scope, but somethin’ that has to be the same wavelength as sunlight.” She looked to me with resentment and exasperation and what might have been a little more respect, and said, “Okay, Pops, maybe you’re not as clueless as I thought. But don’t think that thing is a magic cure-all, it won’t stop one of us that wants you bad enough.”

There was nothing I could say to that without giving away how much I didn’t know or understand, so I followed her to the nearest pew and took a seat. “You still didn’t tell me why we had to meet here.”

“ ’Cause I didn’t want to lead anybody to where you’re staying, in case I slipped up or had bad luck.” She swept her arm to indicate the interior of the church. “This place is safer than your room. Not total, or wouldn’t be in here —” That with a mirthless twist of the lips. “— but still an improvement, at least here you’d have somethin’ to work with, and even if we can come in we usually don’t, too many bad vibes. So, you wanna hear what I got?”

She laid out the information she had acquired, and I had to admit it was worth the price we had agreed on. Not only did she have an accounting of Dagmar’s movements tonight, she had with casual chat found two people who had seen the woman with Paul, and Megan assured me they were the type to happily testify for payment. (Melanie would want that. If she divorced Paul, he’d be out of the company, too, and he’d definitely sue. She had to be able to establish grounds.) The only thing missing was Dagmar’s home address.

“That won’t really matter,” Megan said when I commented on it. “She wouldn’t be taking him back to where she rests — lives, I mean — anyway, not for a fling. We’re kinda funny about stuff like that.”

“Maybe it’s not just a fling,” I said. “Maybe she’s serious about this.”

It was a cautious exploratory cast, and Megan bit. “Serious? Get real. Dagmar loves to live high, but like most of us she’s got no regular income. She may not like hu–” She stopped, coughed, and started over. “Doesn’t like men, but she does know how to work ’em. When her funds start running low, she’ll cozy up to some guy with access to heavy money, get him all worked up, and convince him to grab the cash and run away with her. Then when the money runs out, she finds another guy.”

And from what Megan had said before, I doubted that the men lasted as long as the money. The Black Widow routine, being run in a California suburb? “How do you know all this?” I asked her.

She gave me a speculative look. “Seems like you’ve figured out just a little about how things operate in Sunnyhell, so I’ll just say I belong to a kinda subculture here; they like to talk, and I’ve learned to listen.”

“Okay. But why are you helping me at all?” I held up my hand. “I know, money. But if this Dagmar’s as dangerous as you say, there must be easier ways to earn money.”

“You’d be surprised.” She lounged back in the pew as if it were an armchair. “I don’t need much upkeep, but for some things you gotta have cash, and there aren’t many sources I care to use. Another nightwalker sees you flipping pressed sludge at the Doublemeat, you’d get eaten alive, they’re pretty snobby for people livin’ on the fringe. So, I’ll take what I can, where I can.”

About a third of that made sense, and again I let it pass, this girl talked more freely when she thought I understood whatever it was that was going on here. “Maybe. But I’ve dealt with plenty of street hustlers, and they always have an angle going. You haven’t tried to pull anything on me, not that I can tell, and you’re working hard to see that I stay alive. Why is that? And don’t say it’s because I can’t pay you if I go down.”

She had opened her mouth, and now she closed it, so I’d read her intentions right. She mulled on that for a minute, and then she said, “All right. So maybe there’s a little more to it than I said. Why should I spill it to you?”

I shrugged. “I’m safe. Day after tomorrow, I’m back in the big city, so who would I tell?”

She let out a breath and said, “Ah, what the hell. Coupla years ago, I found out a little something about myself; there’s, you’d say another side, to me.” She looked to see how I was taking it; the polite interest I was trying to show must have been enough, because she went on. “Didn’t matter much to me at the time, but after awhile I started to wonder how much of me is Me and how much is Other? So I test things out every now and then. If I do a good deed, that’s gotta be me, because it damn sure isn’t the Other.”

That told me next to nothing, but I nodded as if I understood, and said, “You talk like you’re taking on the world by yourself. Is there anybody else in your life?”

I saw her start to make a jeering comment about was I trying to volunteer for the role?, but then she let it go by. “Not these days. There used to be somebody, we were really close, but she lived through graduation and got a scholarship out of state. Drama, if you can believe it.”

There wasn’t anywhere I really wanted to go with that, I was just trying to get a feel for the woman. “Well, you’ve brought me some good data.” I peeled off enough twenties to cover her efforts for the past day. “We’ll get our evidence tomorrow night, when he comes back, and once you have your final payment we can part company.”

She nodded, stood. “Pretty close to my bedtime. I’ll catch you tomorrow.” She indicated the UV gear and said, “That actually wasn’t a bad idea, you might even have a chance of stayin’ alive around here. But keep it close, and don’t point it unless you mean business. Later, Pops.”

“I told you, it’s Joe —” But she was gone, leaving me trying to decide what exactly we’d been talking about through maybe half the conversation.