… Than Meets the Eye
Copyright May 2003
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
I’ve never liked Sunnydale, and that’s a fact. There’s an unpleasant quality to the place; nothing you can put your finger on, just an overall atmosphere that seeps in under your skin and sets your teeth on edge. I’ve gotten that feeling twice before: at Dachau, when I was stationed in Europe, and last year while passing through that little Missouri town where every living soul simply vanished overnight in 1998. Sunnydale is different from them, and them from each other, the way a mine field is different from a rattlesnake nest or a toxic waste dump, but the basic message is the same in all cases: This is not a good place to be.
There’s also professional pride to be considered. I took five different missing persons cases in or around Sunnydale in the mid-’80s, mostly college students who had dropped out of sight in their freshman year, and I was never able to deliver on any of them; total dead ends on four, and the one I did locate, briefly, tried to kill me. (I put three bullets into him and broke a two-by-four over his head, and he was still coming at me when I kicked him off a sixth-floor fire escape. By the time I made it to the ground, he was gone; somehow he had crawled — or maybe even walked — away from enough damage to kill him five times over. God only knows what he was high on.) I won’t take people’s money without giving value, so eventually I stopped accepting cases in that area. Despite what Peggy always used to say, even my ego can be bruised a bit.
I don’t like divorce cases much better than Sunnydale, but sometimes I’ll make an exception. Melanie Tomlinson was the friend of some people I owed a deep debt; she didn’t want to believe her husband of only three years was cheating on her, but she had inherited a business that grossed $27 million a year average, and when one of its junior vice presidents started behaving oddly, she felt a responsibility to have him investigated even if he was married to her. I listened respectfully while she described the actions that had given her misgivings — he was making a two-hour commute, two days a week and every other weekend, to work on an MBA he could have managed a lot more easily in an L.A. college — and told her my rates. She set her chin and signed a check for a retainer, and that’s when I found out Paul Tomlinson was pursuing his postgraduate work at UC/ Sunnydale.
Well, at least he wasn’t a missing person.
I hadn’t been to this area in close to fifteen years, and the modest rooming house where I’d stayed the last time was boarded up and abandoned when I got there. I took that as a warning, and after checking in at the Ramada, I spent a couple of hours driving around, reacquainting myself with the layout and patterns and rhythms. That was one thing I had learned early while I was with the Headhunters, and never forgotten: reconnoiter when you have the chance, because the unknown can kill you. Maybe I haven’t always followed that since going civilian, but I wasn’t taking any chances in this city.
Most was as I remembered it, though there seemed to be a higher proportion of Catholic churches (without any visible evidence of the substantial Hispanic community such a shift usually indicates), and the natural changes that come to any community within easy driving distance of Los Angeles over the course of fifteen years. The local college had more than doubled in size since being admitted to the University of California system, there was a fairly decent mall already beginning to show its age, and the high school had been razed and new construction was being done on the site. Campaign signs were all over the place, and I didn’t know if city politics were always so intense or if Sunnydale was undergoing one of those periodic shake-ups you sometimes see in small communities. The police uniforms were different from before, too, though that was probably a matter of budgets and changing styles.
Paul Tomlinson was enrolled in evening classes, naturally enough, so I expected to do most of my work after sunset. I had come in much earlier, on a day he always made the drive (and stayed overnight at one of the company’s condos, that being the final factor that had firmed his wife’s decision) to make sure I had time to get solidly set before beginning the job, which turns out to have been a good decision. I finished my scouting tour satisfied that I had all my bearings, and stopped at a little espresso shop for a light lunch before beginning to make the contacts that I expected to need in following, and documenting, Paul’s trail.
That part didn’t last long. I had just picked up a menu when a young woman walked past on the sidewalk outside the front window, and in the moment of seeing her I was moving, too, outside and in her wake with a practiced, professional smoothness that was operating a damn sight better than my conscious mind.
Because it wasn’t her, of course, it couldn’t be, not by close to twenty years. Even if I was wrong about the age, a second glance showed that this one was some inches shorter, and the line of the neck was different, too. The way she walked, though, the easy automatic grace, that was what had grabbed me and that was every bit the same as the motion stored in my memory. I had never known any other woman, or girl, who walked that way, as if she were bound to the earth only by the most rigid decrees of gravity …
She wasn’t alone. It took me almost ten seconds to fully register it — an eternity, in my line of work — but there was an older man at her left and a stick-thin redhead at her right. They touched her with every other step, one or both of them, as if reassuring themselves that she was still there, or maybe reassuring her. There was a leaden quality to their gait, almost like they were having to force themselves to move forward, and a few moments later I was able to recognize something similar beneath the innate free stride of the petite blonde walking between them.
I followed, caught in memory and uncertainty and the kind of compulsion you can never explain, as they covered half a block and then turned into a small shop. I went on past, then stopped myself and turned back; this wasn’t a tail, I didn’t have to stay below any radar, I had just seen someone on the street and followed out of curiosity. I pushed through the front door and found myself in a women’s clothing store. The three of them were standing with a clerk, the man speaking in tones too faint to carry, and now I could see the blonde girl’s face and there was no denying the truth of it: not her, and yet her, the matched familiarity and variation that has to mean kinship.
I was so struck by it that I missed the words, but the redhead chimed in with what obviously was clarification of a previous statement. Maybe a dress, she said, or maybe a woman’s suit. Tasteful. Black.
For a funeral.
This is how I learned that Joyce was dead.
I’m an old man.
I can bench 340 and slug it out toe-to-toe with brawlers half (hell, a third) of my age, and all Mark Sloan’s warnings that I have to slow down just mean that I do the mile in nine minutes now instead of six and a half. But standing in that store, and walking back to the espresso shop alone, I had to face something that I’d been able to shrug off when it was just wrinkles and morning creakiness and even the extra time it was taking me to come back from the occasional blow to the head: time passes whether you admit it or not, and it carries a weight that can’t be avoided.
More than twenty years ago I had walked away from the sunshine-brightness of Joyce Keenan, telling myself it was for the obvious reason, she was nineteen and I was damn near fifty. The truth, something I’d only let myself look at a couple of times when I went past that fifth drink, was that I knew the kind of life I led — and would never be able to give up — would inevitably leave her a young and not particularly well-off widow. Now she was dead, barely past forty and dead (of natural causes!), and I was still chugging along, held together by gristle and scar tissue and stubbornness.
I was never supposed to outlive her. All those years, I hadn’t seen or spoken to her, and I hadn’t needed to. It was enough to know she was out there, that I belonged to a world that still held Joyce. The world was supposed to have Joyce in it: if not forever, at least longer than it would hold me.
Not any more.
Sometime in the next several minutes I made the decision to charge Melanie Tomlinson an hourly rate for today, because daily wouldn’t be fair to her. It took only a couple of calls to establish the time and place of the funeral (for all its limited circulation, that Sunnydale newspaper has the most efficient obituaries department I’ve ever seen), and my conscience was soothed on learning that I could attend and still have ample time to shadow the movements of the maybe-wayward husband. I arranged for a delivery of flowers, and took the time to get a better (but still off-the-rack) suit for the occasion, and spent the intervening hours wishing I thought it would help any to get stinking drunk when it was all over.
That thought came back more than once during the service itself.
No, not the service; that was held at a modest generic church, and I sat in the back and focused on everything I could remember instead of what was being said. Half a dozen people gave eulogies, and every one of them cried, but I made myself not-hear any of it; they were talking about a woman I’d never been allowed to know, and I couldn’t deal with that, not now. It was at the cemetery, at the actual burial, that I began to look at something outside my own mind, and wished I hadn’t.
Not many of those who’d attended the service showed up for the interment, which in my experience is about how it usually goes. Come to the send-off, sure, but go out and watch dirt being shoveled onto the box, that’s a different matter and I don’t fault anybody who’d rather skip it. I stood off to the side, watching the smaller crowd without joining it, and had no trouble picking out the core who had considered themselves her family.
The girl, of course, her face flat with an emptiness that could conceal any emotion or none at all. Beside her, a younger, dark-haired girl; they didn’t look much alike, but both looked like the young Joyce, the woman who had birthed them. The older man had to be their father, he had the same eyes as the blonde girl: wire-framed eyeglasses and crisp graying hair, standing with a stiffness that should have snapped him, but hardly a moment when he didn’t have a steadying hand on the shoulder of one girl or the other. A gangling dark-haired man, barely past adolescence, his arm around the waist of a snapping-eyed woman with hair the monochrome of someone who changes its color every other week. Two young women, the redhead I’d seen before and a buxom blonde, standing silent with their arms around each other and tears coursing down their faces.
I saw a movie years ago, Sea of Love, and there’s a scene it in that I’ve never forgotten:
Al Pacino is talking to Ellen Barkin in the store where she works. Two young guys come in, laughing and cutting up, wanting to buy something or other, having a good time and not paying attention to anything else. Pacino, the cop, knows them for what they are the instant he sees them: street hoods, petty criminals, maybe just beginning to make a name for themselves in the Mob, but definitely outlaws and enjoying it. And they notice him watching them, and almost as quickly they know him for what he is. None of them need uniforms or IDs, each type spends his life dealing with the other and can identify it at a glance. They might not even be able to say how they know, but they know.
The movie was standard Hollywood, but that one scene was dead on target. You see the same things often enough, recognition is effortless, almost instinct. And I was seeing it now.
It was just wrong, all of it. The dark-haired man and the girl’s father both radiated guilt, unexplained and different types but no mistaking it. The two women holding each other, I had thought they must be sisters, too, but it wasn’t that, sisters would have been more self-conscious. The youngest girl was sunk into the kind of tortured self-focus that leads in three easy steps to suicide unless someone has sense enough to see it and head it off. Of the whole bunch, the young woman with the often-dyed hair was the only one remotely normal, looking distressed and lost and uncomfortable and ashamed at feeling that way.
The blonde, the older daughter, was the worst.
Everything about her was violence. I can’t explain it, she never moved or spoke or changed expression, but it hung around her like the charged air begging for a lightning strike. I’ve seen it before, but seldom this strong. Last year I watched a savage-eyed brunette with a stylized tattoo on one arm cripple three or four people in an L.A. night spot, and then disappear in the crowd before I could reach her; by the end of the week, her photo was in the paper with a little tagline, arraigned for murder. She carried the same aura of pent-up mayhem, more overt but no more powerful than what I was seeing now. I’m no gambler, but I’d bet solid cash that, right at this moment, the fragile-looking blonde at the open grave wanted very badly to kill someone.
I’d been there long enough, and I turned away, sick. Joyce, my beautiful golden little Joyce, her life had been a waste: gone forever, and this all she had left for a legacy. I wouldn’t have thought I could feel any worse right then, but I was wrong. As I started for my car something nagged at me, something out of place, and I slowed and let myself notice what was around me, and then I saw it. In one of the crypts, maybe a hundred feet from the graveside, the door wasn’t fully closed, and in the shadows behind it I saw a red spark brighten, fade, and vanish.
In my whole life I’ve never been more angry at something so small. Someone was hiding out for a smoke within sight of where Joyce lay cold, some bum or teenaged slacker ducking into the unlocked crypt (or breaking in, nothing is sacred to such people) to puff a butt or toke some weed, unmindful that he was defiling someone else’s space and moment and grief. I don’t know what stopped me from kicking in the door and beating the unseen junkie to within an inch of his life: that I might not stop at that last inch, or that it wouldn’t really make any difference.
So I left. I still had a job to do, and I’d seen enough, more than enough, more than I ever wanted to see.
* * *
I had a piece of luck, something that could have gone bad but worked out just fine. When I found the room where Paul Tomlinson’s class was supposed to meet in thirty minutes (for a three-hour block on business statistics), there was a notice on the door that tonight’s session had been unexpectedly canceled, with a list of readings and assignments to complete for the next session. The wording of the note made it sound like there hadn’t been time to call anyone — though a commuter like Paul might get the extra attention — so I took a position halfway up a flight of stairs at the end of the hall, where I could see the door without being directly in view, and waited.
Paul was the fourth person to come to the door, stop, and read the note, and like most of the others his first reaction was annoyance at driving so far for no reason. Then he got what might have been a thoughtful look — I couldn’t see all of his face, but his body language was thoughtful — and extracted a cell phone from a clip at his belt. A couple of buttons (speed dial) and he was already walking away as the call began to go through.
Mixed scores for the husband on this one. He’d been where he was supposed to be, at the proper time, so the MBA program might be a pretext but he was taking it seriously enough to attend. (And I had reassured his wife that there was nothing unusual about a young executive wanting to expand his credentials for a position some might say he had achieved by marriage.) His exasperation hadn’t lasted long, though, within seconds he had different — or accelerated — plans for the evening. And if he was playing around, using a cell phone was a big mistake, it’s kid stuff to get a calls printout on those things. The good news was that I wouldn’t have to wait three hours to see what Paul did when class was over.
I had no trouble tailing him, his wife had given me the description and plate number of his car (blue, a confident color, but it being a convertible added a little something to the “maybe” column on a possible philanderer), and I’d left my own car within spotting distance of all the places he was most likely to park; the citation I got from the campus cops, for lacking the sticker saying it was allowed to be there, would go under Expenses. Also, during my earlier sweep of the city I’d confirmed that their traffic system was on standard timing, so I knew just how far I could hang back and still catch a light. Most of it was that Paul seemed to have no worry about being followed, which said nothing about his guilt or innocence either way: most adulterers seem to feel that operating in a different city gives them all the protection they need.
Things got a bit knottier when he arrived at his destination. The days are long past when I can blend in at these little dance clubs, and some of them won’t even let me in any more. I dealt with the problem by getting myself a laminated, official-looking card that implied without actually (legally) stating that I was with the state alcohol control board. A quick flash of that, a breezy assurance that this was just a routine lookover while I took care of other business, and I was inside. As far as blending in, the next best thing to not being noticed is to be seen and dismissed as unremarkable; I took a small table near the back, took off my jacket and put on my reading glasses, and started making nonsense notes on some pages from a manila folder I had brought with me. I was just a guy who had ducked into not-really-his-kind-of-place to have a drink while he got some work done, which in this kind of joint meant I was as unimportant (and invisible, nearly) as a janitor.
I could see over the tops of the reading glasses, of course (fifteen years ago they were clear glass, just for appearance), and Paul was at the bar, drinking something with lots of ice and looking around impatiently every forty seconds. Sorry, Melanie, I was hoping I could give you good news, but the odds just took a dive …
It took long enough that I ordered a small plate of wings to carry me through the evening, but at last Paul’s appointment arrived. She was almost as out of place as I was: right age, wrong style, she wore a slinky red number that would have looked perfectly natural on Rita Hayworth but not in a Southern California dance spot in the 21st century. Her hair was long and loose, except for a little clip at the back that must have been an heirloom, though it worked for her; her eyebrows were plucked and arched, and her lips painted in a bold bright red that few women use these days. Her figure was lushly female, her complexion was pale and flawless, and her eyes, well, I started totaling up my bill to the wronged wife when I saw those eyes. They smoldered, a constant intoxicating hunger that I could feel clear across the room, and Paul’s face had gone happy and eager and witless long before she finished crossing to where he stood at the bar.
Game over, final score Temptation 1, Matrimony 0. I might need another day to get the conclusive proof Melanie would demand, but no longer than that, Paul and his paramour weren’t taking even the simplest precautions. In fact, I might even be able to wrap it up tonight …
“Don’t let ’em roll outta your head, Pops. Crowd in here, you’d never find ’em before they got stepped on.”
I’d have jumped if there had been anything at all threatening about the voice; it was that close, and I can’t remember the last time I let someone come up on me like that without noticing. I turned in my chair, blinking to make myself look confused, and pitched my voice up an octave. “I’m sorry, Miss?”
The girl who had spoken gave me a broad, knowing grin, and hooked her thumb at the happy couple. “Dagmar. Wouldn’t get my hopes up there; she’s way past your speed, and looks like she’s already got one on the line.”
I looked where she had indicated, as if I had just noticed, and then back to the speaker. “The, um, the striking young woman in the —?”
“In the spray-on outfit, right.” She sat down uninvited at the open chair across from me. “Dagmar’s still pining for the Forties, won’t stay with the times. Does know how to play up to the fellas, though.”
I kept my smile nervous, but congratulated myself on how my luck was running. This could save some time, which would mean getting out of Sunnydale that much faster. “Then you’re acquainted with the, the lady in question?”
She widened the grin, and propped her chin on her hands. “Keep the drinks coming, Pops, and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know about her. Stuff you wouldn’t believe, even.”
The satisfied note in her voice sounded a warning, and I gave her an inspection that went closer than the once-over I’d flashed when I first spoke to her. She could have been in her teens, but her assurance (and the fact that she’d gotten past the doorman) meant early twenties. Her hair was a reddish-blonde that looked reasonable enough in itself, but didn’t quite match her skin tone; she wore it pulled back, with little feathery strands artfully escaping at the sides. Bold eye makeup, dark lipstick, cream-colored blouse over a burgundy skirt with a matching light shawl, and fingerless lace gloves as the final touch. She looked slim and fit, and had moved lightly enough, but her bone structure was sturdier than that, and a glance at her wrists confirmed it: this was a woman who’d go beefy if she wasn’t careful, and had probably fought her way down from there at least once.
Those were cataloguing details, but the part that mattered was in her eyes. I took off the reading glasses, and in my normal voice I said, “So how did you know?”
She lifted an eyebrow and glanced meaningfully at my drink, and I raised my hand to signal the waitress. The girl across from me ordered a B-52, double, and then said, “You hit all the right notes in the accountant act, Pops, but there’s just so much you can do with the material at hand. Your nose has been broken too many times for a bean-counter, and the calluses on those knuckles didn’t come from punching a calculator.” She lounged back, still holding that opening grin. “You’re not local, they either know better or don’t care, and I gotta think a Fed would be stiffer, never mind retired by now. So, private, right?”
I allowed a grin of my own to come out. “You’re a very perceptive young lady. And it looks like you’ve had a little experience with the law.”
“Off and on.” She shrugged it away. “Look, Pops —”
I kept it pleasant. “Joe will do.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” She leaned forward. “What I’m saying is, you want to be careful with Dagmar. I mean radioactive careful. Telephoto lenses, parabolic microphones, never let yourself get within a city block unless there’s a crowd around.” She glanced at the woman at the bar, and her mouth went grim. “No, strike that; after you leave here, never that close no matter what.”
I wasn’t dismissing what she said: along the line I’ve met some very sharp female agents, some very accomplished hit-women, and a few very talented psychopaths, I know a woman isn’t a pushover just from being a woman. But I don’t like being babied, either, and liking it less every year now. In the same jovial tone as before, I said, “And your name is …?”
“Huh? Oh.” She gave me a dark look, and I could see her make the decision not to tell me where to go jump. “Call me Megan.”
I gave her a smile. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? But I used my real name.”
“Yeah, well, you’re a visitor.” She tapped the rim of her glass, which had been delivered (excellent service) during our conversation, and said, “Refill time.” I obligingly signaled for another, and she went on, “You’re outta your territory here, Pops. You may be the top lion in your own patch of jungle, but this is a whole different playing field. Even worse is if you don’t know it.”
“I told you, Joe will do.” I pulled out one of my cards, held it out to her. “This might help you remember.”
She took it with a quick gesture, gave it a glance, and said, “I’m really trying to be nice here —” Then she stopped, looked closer at the card, and then up at me with markedly more interest. “Hey, I think I’ve heard of you. Weren’t the Guinness people lookin’ at you in the Eighties, some kinda record for most times declared dead?”
“They had to pass,” I said amiably. “Not enough of those declarations were official. But you can see I’ve dealt with different patches of jungle before.”
“Not this kind.” She stopped again. “Unless … Okay. Somebody rings your doorbell at three in the morning, you open up, and it’s me. I ask if I can come in. What do you do before you invite me inside?”
I could see she was serious, but I had no idea what she meant. “I’d offer you a drink, but that would be after I let you in.”
“That’s what I thought.” The grin came back, with a nasty edge. “And I might take you up on the offer, but not right now. Trust me on this, Pops, this is one jungle where you’re gonna need a guide.”
I had gotten so caught up in the byplay between us, I had let myself lose sight of the target, but a fast check showed them still at the bar, talking intensely. I looked back to ‘Megan’, and said, “You, I assume? And why would you do that for me?”
She snorted. “For money. Why else?”
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 I 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.
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 …”
I couldn’t see what was so special about the place, but Megan had been quite specific, and was waiting out in my car right now. It was one of those joints done up like a Fifties malt shop, and might even have been from that era, the chrome was tarnished enough, formica scarred enough, seats split and patched enough to make that plausible. For all its deterioration it was brighter and more cheerful than the club where I had met Megan, and I had to wonder what was supposed to be so off about it that this would be an eye-opener for me.
Go to the man behind the counter, she had said. Give him a twenty and ask for a lucky dime. Don’t expect any change, and don’t let go of the dime. Go over to the jukebox, pick out a song that means something to you — there’ll be one — and put in the dime. Yeah, the machine’s that old. Play the song. Once it’s over, we can talk.
I followed the instructions carefully but without understanding. The man at the counter wasn’t the least bit remarkable, and traded a dime for the Jackson without seeming to think it was in any way meaningful. The dime was a Mercury-head, actual silver, and I was a little surprised to see that it was minted the year I was born. The jukebox was as ordinary as everything else in the place, and yes, the price of a song was ten cents. A rack of vinyl 45s was visible beneath the encasing glass, and off to the side a list of song labels on that stylized printed paper. I studied the selections, pondering my choice …
I saw it, and a little shiver of something slid down my spine. It was there, I’d never forget that song, I’d heard it four times on the radio in the three days Joyce had dogged my footsteps, I don’t think that was the year it came out but deejays have their favorites, and sometimes former hits come back. I’d never heard it since without thinking of her, and those were the times the memory was tinged with regret.
I put the dime in the slot and pushed the proper buttons. The mechanism slid along the row, picked up a platter, returned, and rotated to drop it on the spindle. The needle arm swung over the spinning disk, paused, then slowly lowered. There were the inevitable crackles and hisses … and then the music surged out, strong and pure and unblemished, followed by the first haunting plaintive words:
in a golden cage
on a winter’s day, in the rain;
in a golden cage,
The place had changed. Not a detail was different, but it was all different, the very air I drew into my lungs was charged with power and meaning. I turned slowly, my scalp prickling, and there she was, where a little table made an island bordered by leatherette booths: not the girl I had known, but the woman grown, mature and complete and resplendent. Her hair was sunshine, her eyes were summer, and her smile broke my heart all over again.
I didn’t understand, and I didn’t care. If I died from this, I wouldn’t care. I knew it was only for now, maybe (probably) for only as long as the song lasted, but that just meant I couldn’t let myself waste a moment of it.
I went to the table, and sat down across from her. That welcoming smile brightened — I would have thought it was impossible — and she held out her hands. “Joseph,” she said, and the whole world was in the single word.
How could I see her through these tears? But the vision before me never faltered, and I took her hands in my own. “How many times do I have to tell you?” I said to her, hurt and gladness and wonder cracking my voice. “It’s just Joe.”
* * *
Megan didn’t stir when I got into the front seat. I sat for maybe half a minute, neither of us speaking, and then I cranked the car and started down the street. When I was fairly sure my throat would work, I said, “What happened in there. That was magic.”
“Yep.” One syllable, no inflection. Still waiting to see how I’d take it.
“There’s magic in the world. Real magic.” It didn’t sound any more real now that I’d said it aloud. “Sunnydale’s shot through with it, but it’s other places, too. Including L.A., you say.”
“You got it.”
I spent a few more minutes digesting that. “I’ve been a private eye for thirty-five years, give or take, and I’ve never run across anything like this. But according to you, I’ll be seeing more of it if you’re around.”
She snickered, and for the first time it occurred to me that I couldn’t see any evidence of the sunburn she had been wearing last night. “You’ll see stuff now that you know about it. You’ll be able to spot patterns you didn’t know were there before. But there’s more to it than that.” She shifted in her seat to face me. “I’m thinking, if I’m gonna do the biz, why not specialize? The things I know, the things I can do, they’d fit better with that kinda stuff than with your standard cases. Hell, I wouldn’t even be the first, there’s rumors that Buffy’s ex has his own agency goin’ in Tinseltown. Me and him already have one thing in common — I think — so why not that, too?” She stopped, and what I heard in her voice almost shocked me: for Megan, it sounded very close to gentle. “Main question is the same one we started with: can you handle it?”
“Start taking in … supernatural clients?”
“Not necessarily. Way I hear it, most of Angel’s customers are ordinary stiffs who had bad mojo come knockin’ on their doors. People like that don’t have many places they can turn to. We’d be offerin’ one more.”
“Good deeds,” I said, remembering. “So you can keep up with how much of you is still you.”
“Well, that, too, I guess.” She flashed me that shark’s grin. “But mostly for the money, and the kicks.”
At some point I had taken the on-ramp for the highway pointing to Los Angeles. She was still in the car and we were still talking. That wasn’t actually a decision, but it was close to firming into one …
Without turning my head (I had to watch the highway, and the motion would have twisted a hot poker in my shoulder) I said, “You’re not exactly entirely normal, are you?”
“Yeah, that was the next thing we needed to talk about.” Megan swiveled back in her seat, satisfied even though I wasn’t aware of having made up my mind. “You got a lot to learn about me, but your heart sounds like it’s strong enough. So listen up, don’t get your shorts twisted, and keep rememberin’ I coulda taken you any time I wanted, if I wanted …” She stopped, glowered for a second, and said, “Y’know, you being Mr. Upright Law-and-Order, you’re probably gonna want me to change my diet. Actually, operatin’ on Angel’s turf, that may not be a bad idea, anyway. Hey, they have riding stables in L.A., right?”
As usual, I really didn’t have any idea what she was talking about. But I had a powerful hunch that I was going to find out.