Jaffa were on the train again this morning. I could see them from the platform, looking like giants in their double breasted brown suits, the ends of their staff weapons nearly reaching the top of the front car. Nobody would get on board with them despite the early morning crush, so the crowd was spilling backwards down the stairs in muddled unhappiness. I thought about it for about as long as it took me to grab the railing, jump over, and make my way back down to street level. It wasn't a very nice day for a walk, but I didn't guess I was sweet enough to melt in the rain.
Down on the street I ran into Cam Mitchell. He was leaning on his cane, his attention divided between the crowd seething back out of the station and the black clouds roiling overhead. He saw me and showed his teeth. "Shep."
"Lemme guess," I said. "Another hot tip? Communists trying to recruit during rush hour again?"
"You must be a mind reader," Cam said. "Why are you still hanging around this losers' town when you could be making your fortune on the carny circuit?"
"You know I would miss your ugly mug too much to ever leave L.A."
"Uh huh." My protestations of love didn't make him look any happier. His big gray Packard was parked on the curb, though, so I nudged him for a favor all the same.
"Want to give a pal a lift downtown?"
"If I had any pals, I might consider it," he grumbled, but with one last look at the mess at the station, he swung around and walked to his car. As soon as we were underway the heavens opened up in one of those February storms that are supposed to rain hard enough to make up for the rest of the year. This one was certainly doing its best. Rain sluiced over the windshield like the incoming tide while Cam swore and slowed the car to a crawl. I spared a half a thought for those poor bastards outside the train station, mostly being glad I wasn't one of them.
"Got a cigarette on you?" Cam asked. I lit one and handed it to him, lighting one for myself while I was at it. A few puffs from both of us, and smoke roiled along the dashboard and swirled up the windshield.
"So tell me, who do the brass think they're gonna catch riding the trains at rush hour?" I said. "Has the fifth column taken to wearing hammer-and-sickle lapel pins on their business suits?"
"I just work for them. Doesn't mean the higher ups share what they're thinking with me," Cam said flatly.
Yeah. Not a whole lot of love lost there. Cam and me both beat the odds flying bombing runs over Germany, and then in one of those funny twists of fate that aren't really very damned funny, six months after the war was over, Cam was rear-ended on Wilshire Boulevard by a Jaffa commissioner driving a brand spanking new Lincoln Capri. Cam walked away from the accident, but not from the commissioner. He swatted Cam up against his dented Lincoln hard enough to smash his left leg in several interesting ways. It never has healed right. Cam's on the waiting list for a trip to a sarcophagus, but he's too smart a guy to be holding his breath for that.
"Was just curious," I said. "Seems like the Guard has been especially visible the last couple of weeks."
"You don't get to be curious, Shep. It's not in your job description anymore."
Like hell it wasn't, but the man was obviously having a bad day, so I let it go. Smoke filled the car from our cigarettes and the rain smashed down in buckets. The headlights of other cars flashed through the murk. Streets were already starting to flood. By the time we hit Central, the tires were churning through half a foot of water. It poured across the sidewalk as Cam pulled to the curb in front of my building.
"Thanks for the lift," I said because it would have been a helluva walk. Cam shrugged one shoulder and told me to stay out of trouble. I lurched out into the rain, my own shoulders hunched against the deluge. By the time I got to the lobby my shoes were full of water, my pants soaked halfway to my knees. The elevator doors were open, Nate sitting on his bar stool in front of the controls.
"Raining cats and dogs out there, isn't it, Major Sheppard?" he said cheerfully as I got on. He swung the metal doors shut, locked the grate behind them and took us up.
"It's not what you would call dry," I grumbled, but Nate just laughed. The pleats and cuffs on his uniform were crisp as a new dollar bill. Obviously he had gotten in before the rain started this morning. The elevator bounced a little at the twelfth floor. Nate folded back the grate and cranked open the doors for me, only then mentioning, "I brought somebody up about twenty minutes ago, Major. He had a suit on. Might be a paying client, you think?"
"Well, that would be a good thing," I told Nate honestly. My shoes squelched on the granite tiles. I looked at the open transom above my office door before I went in. There were funny shadows moving against the ceiling. I shook my head, but couldn't make any sense of them. I've always been a student of the empirical approach, so instead of standing out in the cold, open corridor and wondering any longer, I let myself into my own waiting room.
It's been about six months since I could afford a secretary, but the desk is still there. I like to think the suggestion of a clerical staff soothes the nerves of a prospective client, even in the absence of any such staff. Or maybe it just never seemed worth the trouble of getting rid of the desk.
This morning's prospective client, if that's who he was, apparently hadn't been pinning his hopes on a secretary. His concern was the desk itself, which he had dragged to the center of the room and was standing on so he could reach the light strip. That was the source of the shadows I had seen through the transom. He had the control box partially disassembled and was holding three or four crystals in his free hand, despite the fact that if he was a licensed civil servant, then I was the First Prime of Russia. He was in his shirt sleeves, no sign of a uniform. His jacket was thrown over the back of one of the waiting room chairs. I picked it up just to be sure there was no identification tag. Gray wool gabardine, mid-width lapel, two buttons. No I.D. tag.
Since he still hadn't looked over his shoulder to see who I was, I fished his wallet out of his interior vest pocket to see who he was. An employment card from Cal Tech and a couple of bucks were all he was carrying. I folded his wallet and put it back in his coat. Meanwhile Dr. Rodney McKay, associate professor of astronomical physics, shuffled the crystals in his hands like they were a deck of cards and then slotted them handily one by one back into the control panel. The light came back on like a charm. No buzzing, no flickering.
"Dr. McKay," I said, calm and civil, as though I hadn't just been present at the commission of a felony that could cost me my P.I. licence. "Do you make a habit of repairing goa'uld tech?"
"Only when it's broken," he answered, cool as a cucumber. He crawled down off the desk and shrugged his way into his coat when I handed it to him before asking me, "How long had you been waiting for the Civil Service to fix that?"
I honestly couldn't remember when the light had started to buzz and flicker like a sooty candle. Weeks? Had it really been months by now? "A day or two," I said.
He snorted. "More like a year or two. Are you John Sheppard?"
I nodded. It seemed a little late to bother with shaking hands by then, so I unlocked the door to my office and invited him in. My window has a view of the Hollywood Hills, or it would, except for the rain and the office building right across the street. "You're late," McKay announced, sitting down across the desk and regarding me with sharp blue eyes. "Your advertisement says your office hours are eight to five."
"I got caught in the rain."
He lost interest in the story of my life with that. "What are your rates?"
"Depends on what you need me to do."
He scowled. "I want to see some references from former clients."
"My work is confidential. As someone who goes around jacking goa'uld tech yourself, you can probably appreciate that."
Dr. McKay threw up his hands. "If it upsets you so much, I could break your light again on the way out."
I don't know why I was needling him. It's not like I can afford to turn paying clients away. Maybe it was because I hadn't seen much evidence that he actually could pay. Academics working outside the Civil Service aren't rich men.
It was more likely, though, that seeing him messing with the light had spooked me worse than I wanted to admit.
I leaned forward over the desk and tried to start over. "We might make more progress if you explain your problem to me."
McKay just scowled Then he snapped, "This is ridiculous," and stood up like he was getting ready to walk out. Even while I was thinking that it would probably save me a lot of trouble in the long run if I just let him go, I opened my fat mouth and said, "It's still pouring down rain out there."
McKay stopped, those big blue eyes darting to the window over my shoulder. "Any place to get a cup of coffee around here?" he asked.
"There's a coffee shop in the basement."
"All right. That will work," he finally conceded with the air of doing me a favor. Still against my better judgment, I locked up and accompanied McKay back down the hall to the elevator. Nate was on his best behavior. No goofing around, serious and professional. To be honest, I was more worried that McKay might start to take the elevator controls apart right in front of Nate, but we rode down together quietly. McKay clasped his hands behind his back and stared at some point over my left shoulder, making a show of being involved in contemplations far too abstruse for a mere private investigator. That was fine with me.
It was late for the breakfast crowd, so we had Merle's to ourselves. I steered McKay to the furthest booth, where he ordered a plate of corned beef hash, scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. When Kimmie walked away after taking his order, McKay must have seen something in my expression because he bristled like an alleycat guarding a can of tuna. "I was too upset to eat a proper breakfast this morning."
"But you're not upset anymore?"
He stopped just short of actually rolling his eyes at me. "Do you really think you've done anything to convince me you can solve all my problems?"
Kimmie returned with the coffee, serving McKay first, then me, making sure I saw his expression. He was wearing false eyelashes today that looked like a couple of woolly caterpillars glued on his lids. It made his scowl especially impressive.
Fine, so Kimmie didn't like my choice of clientele. Next time I'd take McKay to the donut shop across the street.
I dropped a couple of sugar cubes into my cup, thought wistfully about adding a slug from my flask, but didn't, and said, "You still haven't told me what any of your problems may be. Are you in the mood to share? Might help you get your appetite back."
"Do you make a point of mocking all your new customers?" McKay glowered, his expression as dark as his own cup of coffee
"Just the ones I like."
He snorted, put down his drained cup, and for the first time since I had called him on messing with goa'uld tech, finally seemed to relax a little. "It's family trouble," he said at last.
It usually was. I nodded in what I liked to flatter myself was an encouraging manner.
"My little sister Jeannie." He twisted his hands together on the table. "She's going to finish her degree in speculative mathematics this year."
"Is she at CalTech with you?"
McKay shook his head and named the university in Westwood. Famous as a Civil Service feeder school, the place attracted the brightest young hopefuls from all over the country. "Your sister must be a pretty smart kid."
"She is," McKay agreed. "Not as smart as me, but she's done pretty well for herself. Don't tell her I said so."
"Right. And what seems to be the problem?"
"Two days ago she told me she' s getting married."
"And you don't feel congratulations are in order?" I hazarded.
McKay looked at me like I was an idiot. I was sort of getting used to it by now
"The problem is, I don't know a thing about this turkey. He shows up out of nowhere, planning to marry one of the great mathematical minds of this generation, and I'm not supposed to ask any questions?"
"He' s marrying your sister," l said calmly. "You get to ask questions. Did you?"
"Why do you think I came downtown on a day like today to hire a dubious professional like you in the first place? Jeannie says I can't even meet this scheming bastard unless I promise to be polite."
I could see his problem. "So what is prince charming' s name?"
"Kaleb Miller. With a 'k.'"
"Do you know how he met your sister?"
"Stalking her, probably."
"I mean, do they they ride the same train line? Does he work at the university?"
"Oh, that. Yes, he's supposedly an English major. Writing a dissertation on seventeenth century American devotionals. Have you ever heard such a sad excuse?"
"Excuse for what?"
"To get close to Jeannie! Have you been listening to anything I've said?"
Mercifully, Kimmie returned then with McKay's food, which cut off the rising tirade. McKay dug in enthusiastically. I watched because it was hard not to be enthralled by someone who took his breakfast so dammed seriously. McKay became noticeably calmer as he put away the hash and bacon and eggs in big, fast bites, not a single wasted motion. When he slowed down enough to wash down his eggs with the last of his second cup of coffee, I asked the obvious question.
"Have you considered the possibility that's Mr. Miller asked your sister to marry him because he likes her? It's been known to happen."
"I'm not hiring you to listen to you spin cockamamie theories," McKay said, but without rancor. Eating had done wonders for his temper. "In order to help Jeannie, I need you to find out what Miller is really up to."
"If you don't want to hear my theories, then I probably need to hear yours, because frankly, two college kids getting engaged sounds a little modern at worst. Our parents might not approve, but I don't see anything particularly sinister going on."
McKay' s scowl blackened. "This is not just stupid young love. I think Kaleb's part of a scheme to recruit her."
I blinked. "You're making the Service sound like the Communist party, McKay."
"I'm not talking about the Civil Service," McKay snarled. "Did you pay attention to me telling you she's one of the great minds of the age? They don't want her fixing light bulbs or building rocket ships. They want Jeannie to be a host."
My jaw dropped.Then I picked up my empty coffee cup, trying to hide my expression behind the brim, but I needn't have bothered. He didn't recognize my incredulity. In McKay's world, it was perfectly reasonable to asume that his little sister was just that brilliant.
Of course, he had also told me that he was even smarter, and true or not -- "Dr. McKay, are you jealous of your sister?"
He flushed redder than the strawberry jam on his toast. "You -- you don't even --" He stumbled to his feet, knocking the chair down behind him. It looked like I had finally succeeded in going too far after all. I was almost sorry.
But instead of storming away, he leaned forward over the table to his hands on either side of the jam-and-butter carousel. The knuckles on his spread fingers were white. "When I was ten years old, the Canadian government tried to enroll me in their host program." He spit the words in a fury. "My parents couldn't even agree on whether the sky was blue, but when that order came through, they sold everything they owned and bought train tickets across the continent and two countries before fetching up in Los Angeles, and if you think I'm going to sit back and let Jeannie be snaked now --"
"Hey, hey, come on, pal." I got up fast and came around the table, up-righting the chair and putting my hand on McKay's shoulder to ease him down into it. "No need for that kind of language." I wasn't sure I wasn't about to get a fist in the snoot for my trouble, but McKay let me sit him down just as Kimmie came out from behind from the counter. "We're all right," I told him. Kimmie looked frankly skeptical. "If you could bring us each another cup of coffee?" Kimmie narrowed his eyes at me, and I knew I was going to hear about this later.
McKay was sitting still and quiet, and he didn't move when Kimmie returned with a fresh pot, though he reached for his cup automatically once it was filled. I let him drink his coffee and calm down.
I'd heard about people like the McKay family, but I don't think I had met any before. If you believe what you read in the papers, people opposed to becoming hosts are religious zealots who believe hosting a goa'uld is a blasphemous attempt to emulate the Lord. It's a question of sinful pride or something like that. I don't follow theology so much, but McKay hadn't struck me as particularly pious.
On the other hand, there's no accounting for family histories.
"Why don't you just answer a couple more questions for me?" I ventured when I thought McKay was calm enough not to get both of us thrown out. McKay grimaced, but waved his hand in what I interpreted as permission to continue.
"Is Kaleb Miller a host?"
McKay mumbled something I couldn't quite catch. I tried again. "Is he carrying a goa'uld? I've heard of stranger matches, especially if Miller happens to look like Gary Cooper, for instance.
"I heard you the first time," McKay muttered, his voice a little louder. "I don't know if Miller's a host. When I asked Jeannie, she slapped me."
I pressed my lips together to be sure I didn't laugh. It didn't matter. McKay was already on the offensive, raising his voice to complain, "and if a pretty face were all it took, I would expect you to be a host, too. Mr. Sheppard."
I recoiled, surprised, and truth to tell, a little stung. There was a funny story there. Another of those funny things no one actually laughs at. My father had been convinced I was host material, too. But the afternoon before the Guard came to my high school, I broke my nose at football practice. When the Jaffa lined us up out on the track the next morning, I had two black eyes and a nose swollen up like a big red balloon.
Dad told me he didn't blame me, but he never forgave anyone else: not my coach, not the school or the kid who accidentally shoved his elbow in my face, my mother for letting me play, (although Dad had been happy for me to play football, too), or the Guard for only getting around to a small northern California high school once every five years or so. So much anger there was no room for me to regret that I would never have the opportunity to see the stars from an al'kesh. Which was just as well, really. Dad's fury seemed to mean it had been his dream more than mine all along. I enlisted after Pearl Harbor and never looked back.
"One more question, Dr. McKay. How long do you want me to continue the investigation?"
"What do you mean? As long as it takes to convince Jeannie this is a terrible mistake."
"So you want me to keep working until the wedding is canceled? I can do that. Fifteen dollars a day plus expenses."
That knocked him back a bit. He set to his coffee cup aside and blustered, "What do you mean by expenses? What kind of expenses?"
"Rail fare, telephone calls, cup of coffee for a witness. Generally small potatoes."
"Can't you take that out of your fifteen dollars a day?"
"Consult with your sister, the mathematician. It I do that, it's not fifteen dollars anymore."
McKay snorted, but he didn't seem mad. "In that case, why don't you see what you can find out in just a coupla of days," he said.