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Backstage 12 - … Than Meets the Eye

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The next day wasn’t so bad. I’d been out late so I slept in late, and in the downtown area I found a restaurant that served authentic Armenian, which made for a good lunch. I gave spare change to three different mumbling, vacant-eyed men (Sunnydale seemed to have more than its share of schizophrenic street people), and in the daylight I checked over the places Megan had told me Dagmar frequented, so I’d know the layout if I had to tail her to any of them. In my single overture to what I couldn’t forget, I sent a sympathy card to the house where Joyce had lived, with an unsigned note in which I tried to express what a special woman she had been, how much she had meant to the people who knew her. I wasn’t going to take on the job of saving her daughters, didn’t have the heart for it. But if the balance could be tipped by one more testimonial to how extraordinary their mother had been and how much she had affected the world she’d passed through, well, I’d given mine.

Come evening, I was in place at the college when Paul arrived, parked, and headed up to class, this one on international economics. I followed to make sure that was where he went — I didn’t expect otherwise, but you cover the bases — and then went back to plant the bug in his car. If he followed form, this would finish up tonight, and if he was still sticking to his classes, Dagmar probably hadn’t gotten far along in the process of persuading him to take a jump with a load of Melanie’s money, and I suspected he’d find a disadvantageous divorce a lot easier to handle than what would have been his fate otherwise. I don’t like domestic cases, but this one involved a lot more than that, was worth the time even if I hadn’t owed a favor.

Megan gave me a call just after sunset; we had agreed that I would stay with Paul and she’d try to find Dagmar and tail her for the evening, so that we’d wind up in the same place if they met. I’d had brief qualms about leaving the more dangerous part to Megan, but if I was going to accept her account of Dagmar’s deadliness, I should likewise accept Megan’s assurance that she was up to it. The call was to establish contact and confirm that the plan was underway; that done, we hung up and got on with the evening.

I was in the stairwell to watch during the class break, but Paul didn’t try to make an early departure; he went back in with the others to finish out the session, and I went on down to wait in my car. When he came out again, I’d be right behind him. Megan hadn’t called back; either she’d been unable to find Dagmar yet, or had run into some other problem, and I choked off that line of speculation. For all her unsought protectiveness of me, Megan was basically an informant selling out an acquaintance, and you don’t let yourself get too caught up in caring for that type.

(The comment about the “she” who’d been really close before leaving on a scholarship: had she meant anything by that? You never can tell with women these days, and Megan was a typical modern woman, meaning she was as blithely amoral as a cat. God, the way things have changed —!)

Class over, Paul came down with an inauspicious bounce to his step, and drove away from campus with me firmly behind him. I checked the sound quality of the transmission, and it was perfect, I could hear him humming with the radio and that was more than good enough for my purposes. Again it was obvious from the way he drove that he had no worries about being followed; I stayed with him and back, this was going according to routine and that was a good way to keep it.

I had a doubtful moment when he pulled into the parking lot of an upscale apartment complex; if, despite Megan’s insistence, the two of them met at Dagmar’s place, that would make tonight’s schedule difficult if not unworkable. I started sorting through other possible approaches, but then she came out and hopped into his car, laughing, tonight she was in a white sheath with matching shoes and handbag, and I got three good snaps at a hundred feet. I’d have to review the digital record to be sure, but I thought I’d caught the lovers’ greeting kiss. The recorder was running and I let it go without bothering to listen in, if this wasn’t enough I’d get more at the condo.

Which was where they were heading, looked like. Maybe night before last was a break in routine, maybe their normal habit was to go out together after they’d made the happy connection. By this time the details didn’t matter, Paul was cooked and Dagmar’s mark was about to be separated from the cash access that made him so appealing to her, so tonight was likely to be the last good time they had together. Enjoy, kids, the cost of this one has already been tallied.

My cell phone rang just as they reached the building that housed the condo. I ignored it, this was another good setting, I knew where they’d go so I’d gotten well ahead of them and into the parking structure first, and when Paul pulled into the assigned space I was in a nice, distant, secure location and got eight more shots as they headed for the elevator. These weren’t as good as the first meeting, but they’d serve as support. For any other case I’d have found a way to be upstairs and catch them entering the condo, but Megan had ruled that out almost to the level of shouting. Fine, I had photos and tape and I was about to have more tape, it was just a matter of waiting. So now I checked my CALLS RECEIVED — yep, Megan — and hit the button to call her back.

She answered without greeting on the first ring. “No luck here, Pops, either she follows a different schedule when he’s here or I’m just out of phase with her. How’s it look on your end?”

“I keep telling you, it’s Joe. We’re okay, he picked her up and they’re back at his place.” She already knew the address. “Don’t feel bad, it wasn’t wasted work, you cover all the openings even if you know only one will be used. And I’ll still need those witnesses, so you’ve earned your fee.”

“Yeah, right.” She sighed. “I’m only three blocks from you, I just checked through the last place. So, get a good line on his window with that mike, you’ll be far enough back to be safe and you’ll probably pick up something you can use. I’ll be there in a few minutes, just to be sure.”

“Fine, come on ahead.” I chuckled. “But I won’t be outside, I’m in the parking annex, fourth level.”

There was a long silence. “How can you line up the mike from there?”

“I don’t need to.” I chuckled again. “I planted some transmitters in the condo yesterday. I don’t have to stay as close, and the audio’s better.”

“You what?” Her voice rose, vibrating the phone receiver. “You were there? Son of a bitch, I don’t believe this! She’ll know, she’ll know you were there … she’ll smell you, that after-shave of yours would knock a buzzard off a manure truck! You’ve got to get out of there, get out NOW!”

Basic rule of combat: somebody yells Incoming, you don’t ask questions, you hit the dirt. If he’s wrong there’ll be time to sort it out, and if he’s right there’s no time at all. I had parked nose-forward, you never let yourself get boxed in, and I cranked up and pulled out with Megan’s shout still echoing in the car.

I straightened the wheel and started to gun it for the cutover that would take me down, and she was in front of me, the woman Dagmar, a wild-eyed wraith in body-tight white.

Too close and too fast to go around her, I whipped the wheel and stomped the brake and plowed straight into a pylon. Air bags work, I got banged a bit but I was okay, I fought my way from behind the deflating fabric and she was right outside my window! The door must have been damaged in the crash, because it came off the frame when she yanked it open, and then she was casting it away from her with one hand and jerking me out of the car with the other, and before I could get my feet under me I was flying through the air, turning to crash into someone’s Range Rover with an impact that sent a spear of agony through my back.

It’s a good tactic, bounce a man off enough hard surfaces and it’ll knock the fight right out of him, but I’ve taken worse. From the way I’d hit (and the way I felt) I knew I’d broken part of my shoulder blade, which hurts like hell but won’t stop you from fighting if you’re determined. I kept my feet and met her straight on as she came at me.

From Megan’s warning and what I’d seen I was taking nothing for granted, but even so I underestimated her; she slipped the punch I threw and nailed me three times in three-quarters of a second, I was moving as each one landed and it was still like being caught in a cement mixer. I hate martial arts; I had a black belt myself, way back in the way-back, and I still use a few of the techniques, but at that time the speed and flexibility of boxer’s routines better suited my needs, and by the time I realized that stylized unarmed combat had caught up with modern necessities, it was too late to try and teach new tricks to this cranky old body. Whatever style this woman was using, it worked in spades; her speed was unbelievable, and her strikes were focused in a way that multiplied her strength, the last guy to slam me around like this topped three hundred pounds and had run defensive line with the Rams for a season.

I tried to slip the side and work angles, but she was too quick, she caught me and threw me back into the Rover again, and it was all I could do to keep my legs from buckling. This was more than karate or kung-fu or whatever, she had to be amped to the gills, she’d pound me to bloody meat unless I got it together fast. She moved in, face so distorted with fury as to hardly look human; I broke her timing with a jab, then set my feet and started hooking to her short ribs, left-right left-right, I’d never hit a woman like this but by now I was fighting for my life. She grunted, jerking with each punch but still not wavering, and I piled it on, driving them in as hard as I could, left-right left-right left-right —

And then she … did something, some ninja thing, she must have dropped a flash-bomb or some such because from one moment to the next I lost her in a puff of vapor or dust or smoke or I don’t know what, I could hardly see for pain and exhaustion, but I shook my head and Megan was there, tucking something behind her back and stepping forward to catch me as my knees started to give way. “You okay, Pops? Jeez, I can’t believe you’re still breathin’ …”

It hurt to make the effort, but I did it. “Joe. It’s Joe.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Yeah, whatever. You owe me three hundred bucks.”

*                  *                  *

She got me into my car without damaging me any further, though I wasn’t exactly around for all of that. I came back during the drive: checked to make sure no bone-ends were poking through my lungs (apparently not), and listened to the operation of the car (bad noise from the radiator, and the left front fender chewed the tire whenever Megan turned the wheel too far in that direction). When all that was done, I took a careful breath and croaked, “You must be pretty tough.”

Megan shot me a glance, then back to the road ahead. “Betcher ass. But why d’you say so?”

I coughed (no blood, good sign) and said, “She was every bit as bad as you said, but she took off as soon as you showed up.” I wasn’t going to flatter myself that it was me that Dagmar had run from. “If you worry her that much, you must be pretty tough.”

Megan laughed, a quick snort that she cut off as soon as it started. “Yeah, well, let’s just say we both had better sense than to cross each other, till you came along.” She was silent for ten seconds or so, and then she said, “Didn’t you try to use the UV? I told you to keep it close.”

I was too beat-up to keep playing wise, so I just lay back with a groan. “Use it for what? I didn’t have any problem seeing her, it was fighting her that was killing me.”

She braked for a light, and turned to stare at me. “You still don’t know what we … You didn’t know what she was?” I had no ready answer for that, and she shook her head and started laughing. “You’re a trick, Pops, you are really some kind of trick.”

I opened my mouth to say it again, and then just let it go. She’d change when she felt like it, not before.

The light went green and she started forward again. After a minute she said, “I’d rather not, but I’ll take you to a hospital if you want me to.”

It was tempting, but, “No. Take me back to the motel.” I’d see a doctor, all right — I already knew which one — but I wasn’t about to stay in Sunnydale any longer than I had to. “We can check what I got on tape, see if it’ll be enough for my client.” My shoulder gave me another hellish twinge, and I could hear it in my voice as I added, “If it’s not, I’ll just keep the retainer and call it even, I’m not about to risk butting heads with that woman again.”

“Don’t worry about Dagmar,” Megan said. “She won’t be hanging around.” There was something more there, but I was tired and chose not to ask.

She wasn’t a skillful driver, but she was alert and purposeful. We got to the Ramada without further incident, and she helped me get out on the passenger’s side. “I’m all right,” I told her. “Just get the camera and recorder and that other bag in the back, we’ll review up in the room …”

She wasn’t listening to me. I felt it through the arm that had been supporting me, a sudden absolute stillness. I looked over to see her staring out across the parking lot, and I followed her gaze, knowing with total despairing conviction that the woman had trailed us here and we were in for it, we were sunk …

It wasn’t Dagmar. I was so disoriented by seeing someone else that it took another second for my brain to process the image: it was Joyce’s daughter, the one with eyes like murder, and in a light, brittle voice she said, “Hey, don’t let me interrupt. Oh, no, wait, that’s exactly what I wanted.”

I felt Megan relax, but it was a conscious move rather than natural. She gave an airy little laugh and said, “Oh, are you with the staff here? We’re okay, I just need to get my granddad upstairs.”

The lethal little blonde tilted her head, and her laugh was as musically menacing as a rotary saw. “Nice try. Now, there are three or four different ways this can go, and I’m just trying to decide which one will hurt the most —” She started for us with the unhurried, ominous grace of a lioness.

I might not understand Sunnydale, I was beginning to accept that, but I knew danger when I saw it. Putting a little quaver in my voice, I looked to Megan and said, “What’s she saying, sweetheart? I need my pills, can we take the elevator this time? My knees are starting to hurt.”

The girl stopped, eyes moving from one of us to the other, and when she spoke again the chill in her voice was awful. “Look, is this one of those suck-whore things? Because I have to tell you, that does not improve my mood one little bit.”

Megan shook off my arm and faced her squarely. “Look, blondie, can you chill a little? I’m not in your orbit, and Pops here really does need some help.”

The predator in front of me (Joyce’s flesh and blood, I reminded myself, heartsick) gaped for a second, and then laughed again. “Sheila? All this time I thought you’d had enough brains to keep on running till you hit an ocean.”

Megan — Sheila? — shrugged and replied, “Yeah, well, what can I say? Turned out I was a homebody after all.” She stepped away from me. “If we’re gonna mix, blondie, let’s go. I don’t want to, ’cause I know how it’ll turn out and ’cause it’s stupid, but if that’s how it has to be, we might as well get to it.” She glanced back to me. “Looks like you’ll have to get your stuff upstairs on your own, Pops, or leave it in the car till you’re ready to head home. You kinda need to not be here for this.”

I sagged a little, and turned away from the two of them, hurt and hesitant and feeble … and when I turned back, the .45 was in my hand. Hanging at my side, not pointing at anything, but in sight and impossible not to recognize. “Miss,” I said to Joyce’s daughter, “I don’t know what your grudge is against this young lady, but I’d appreciate it if you could save it for some other time.”

My companion was not pleased. “What the hell are you at, Pops? This is not your deal.”

The blonde girl studied us both, paying no attention to the gun, and to Megan she said, “He doesn’t know?”

“He doesn’t know anything,” Megan said irritably. “I been nursemaiding him for three nights now. Pops, c’mon, take off, will ya? This is the big kids’ table.”

Joyce’s daughter looked back to me, a furrow in her brow. “Is that true? You’ve been with her that long, and she hasn’t tried anything?”

It was like feeling my way through a mine field, I couldn’t know what would set off an explosion. “I’m here on business, private investigator. She’s been very helpful as a guide and assistant, and not thirty minutes ago she saved my life.” I took a careful breath. “She keeps telling me I’m out of my depth in this town, and I’m starting to believe it, but I know this much: she stood by me, I won’t run out on her.”

She considered it, then looked back to Megan as if the .45 were inconsequential and I didn’t even exist. “Okay, I don’t get it. You can’t be helping him out of the goodness of your heart, ’cause, hey, you don’t have one. Not one that beats, anyway. So what gives?”

Megan was tense in a way I couldn’t understand. “I start explaining, it’s gonna sound a lot like begging. I don’t do begging.”

“You’d rather do dying?” Joyce’s daughter said, with a horrible breezy indifference.

I was aching, and baffled, and starting to get a little impatient myself. To Megan I said, “Look, if you have an explanation, will you just tell her? The longer I stand here, the more it hurts.”

She gave me a look full of exasperation. “Damn it, it’d be a hell of a lot simpler if I had just wanted to drink and run.” She turned back to the other girl. “Okay, Buff, this might speed things up —” (Buff, what kind of name was that? short for Elizabeth, or just some arcane nickname?) “— d’you happen to know somebody called Sandy?”

‘Buff’ folded her arms. “Should I?”

Megan sighed. “Nah, that’d make things way too easy. Well, if you don’t know her, then what I’m sayin’ is just gonna be air, but a coupla years ago she told me I still had —” She shot me a glance, and her voice changed subtly. “Uh, had that thing your broody boyfriend was supposed to have. That’s if that gypsy curse stuff I heard was on the straight-up.”

“Oh, give me a break.” Joyce’s daughter took a step forward. “You’re trying to tell me somebody cursed you? This has to be the lamest —”

“Look, I don’t get it myself, okay?” Megan sounded hostile, but there was also an undertone of embarrassment there. “Sandy said she didn’t know how, and I’ve got no ideas, either, but that’s what she told me.” She pulled a mouth. “And I guess it must be true, ’cause I don’t … I just don’t act like the rest of the cold crowd.”

“Really? How?” Buff — might as well get used to calling her that — put a hand on her hip and lifted an ironic eyebrow. “Regular church attendance? Frequent trips to the tanning salon? Oh, wait, I know, you’re on the waiting list for baggies from the butcher shop.”

“No way.” Megan showed teeth in a mirthless grin. “I drink, I just don’t leave any dead soldiers lyin’ around.” A different expression came across her face, something sly. “You remember Tana? Asian girl, used to hang with the Cordettes, and sometimes they’d rank on her about wearing a little scarf around her neck, once or twice a week, even though it wasn’t in style?”

Buff looked puzzled, and then slightly ill. “You can’t be serious. You and —?”

“For two years.” Megan smirked at the other girl’s discomfort. “So, see, I got my own routine, and I’ve made sure it doesn’t set me against you.” Her tone sharpened. “What’s the big deal, anyway? Everybody knows about Angel, now you got Spike hangin’ around, and I even heard somethin’ about you givin’ that airhead cheerleader a head start. Would it be so hard to let me have the benefit of the doubt?”

I swayed a little, and not all of it was act. “Uh, ladies …?”

Buff looked from one of us to the other, oscillating between anger and uncertainty, and finally said, “Oh, forget it, the two of you make my head hurt.” To Megan she said, “Don’t get any ideas, okay? Next time I might not be feeling so generous.”

“Your call, chica.” Megan turned to me, deliberately putting her back to the other girl. “Let’s get your gear and hustle you upstairs, Pops. You look like you already passed out and just won’t fall down.”

I followed her example, and the blonde girl was gone by the time we started for the side entrance. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding, and said, “That is one seriously disturbed young woman. You were afraid of her, weren’t you?”

“Only in the not wanting to die way.” Megan seemed calm enough, but she was talking just a bit slower than usual. “And yeah, she’s got issues, no joke.”

“She really would have killed you.” Not a question.

“Like dusting off her hands.” She let out a breath of her own. “Me against Dagmar, that woulda been straight odds. Me and Dagmar together against Buffy, well, throw in a couple more just like us and she’d call that a brisk workout.”

Buffy, then, not Buff. “So she’d be one of the things you wanted to keep me safe from.”

“Her? Nah. She’d’a killed me, sure, but she’s got reasons, even if they’re wrong — or may be — where I’m concerned.” We’d reached the elevators by now, and Megan or Sheila or whatever set down the bag and gave me a sidelong look full of amusement. “Don’t worry any about her, Pops. She’s saved your life a lot more times than I have.”

Which made as much sense as anything else since I came to this insane city. On the other hand, it seemed to imply that Joyce’s daughter wasn’t actually a serial killer waiting to be discovered. I decided to read it that way and take what reassurance I could.

In my room I opened the bag and pulled a bottle of pills from the bottom: hydrocodone, potent enough to hold me till I could get back to L.A. Megan watched as I swallowed two, and then she said, “Okay, I got you here, put me on a pedestal next to Mother Teresa. We still had a bargain, though, me and you, and I’d say I delivered. And don’t forget the three hundred.”

She was right, and I counted out the entire amount. At the end I looked to her with a little smile and observed, “If the bonus was for saving my life, wouldn’t I get a discount for helping you with Buffy?”

It was meant as a joke, but Megan actually thought about it. “You got a point. But I still get two hundred, ’cause I was right about the squeal on your mike.”

I couldn’t help myself. “But I didn’t use it.”

“No, which is why I had to save your life the second time.” Her grin had regained its earlier careless gaiety. “One or the other, Pops, you can’t have ’em both.”

I wasn’t entirely following her logic, but I hadn’t really been serious anyhow. I counted out the extra two hundred, and then I asked Megan, “What do you plan to do now?”

She sat down on the other bed and said, “Tell the truth, I was thinkin’ of asking if I could ride to L.A. with you.” I must have looked like I wasn’t expecting that, because she went on, “I never planned on kickin’ around Sunnydale forever anyhow, and now the Slayer knows about me … well, she really might be in a different mood next time, and there’s other things happenin’ make me think this might be a nice time to relocate. L.A.’s as good a place as any.”

“Sure, you can come along. I was planning to leave tonight, in fact, as soon as I checked the tapes.” On second thought, never mind the tapes, I’d listen to them later. “Actually …” I stopped, surprised by the idea, although I suppose in some form it had been incubating in the back of my mind for some time. “What would you think of going into the PI field?”

“Huh?” She hadn’t seen that one coming. “Is that, like, some kinda joke?”

Now that I’d said it aloud, I felt like I had to keep going. “As you’ve so charmingly pointed out in every other sentence, I’m not as young as I used to be. It seems to me that it might be a good idea to take on an associate. Someone to do legwork, serve as backup, fill in whenever a second person might be useful, while I teach her what she’d need to know to get a license.”

She seemed more amused than intrigued. “Me. Workin’ for the law.”

“Not for, exactly. More alongside, which I can see would be a switch for you. But I could use the help, and I think you might be good at it … and, what you’d probably consider more important, I think you’d enjoy it.” I leaned forward. “Wouldn’t it be worth a tryout? You said yourself that it helps to have a little cash coming in, and you’re already set to make some changes. Why not give it a test run?”

She considered it, head cocked to one side, while I wondered why exactly I was doing this. She had some talents, but she wasn’t that good, or even particularly likeable. But I was tired of being alone while the world I had known crumbled away bit by bit. She had some rough edges, sure, but Tasker and her psychotic sidekick were doing fine in the PI biz; Megan couldn’t be anything near that extreme. A partner, someone who could carry on after me … there are worse things to leave behind.

Megan lay back on the bed and crossed her arms behind her head. “Those pills you just chugged, how strong are they?”

“Well, they won’t stop the shoulder from hurting, but once they kick in I won’t care so much. Why?”

“See, Pops, it’s like this: Sunnydale may be the world capital of weird, but it’s not the only place things happen. In fact, I’ve heard stories comin’ outta L.A., one of the reasons I didn’t mind headin’ that way. Thing is, if you’ve got me around, you’re gonna be bangin’ up against more of the stuff I keep tellin’ you you don’t know about.” She sat up again, her eyes holding mine with sudden unnerving intensity. “I might be willing to give your little proposal a shot, but first I gotta know if you could deal with the kinda thing I’m talkin’ about, or if you’d want to once you knew the truth. So here’s what we’re gonna do …”