Chapter 1: The Client
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.
Chapter 2: Heresy and Sweet Coffee
By lunchtime the rain had drizzled away to a wet trickle. I ate my meat-loaf sandwich and washed it down with a few swallows of whiskey, then walked up the street to the Hall of Records to see what I could find out about Mr. Kaleb Miller. I might ask Cam to run a search through the goa'uld thinking machines if a paper search turned up anything interesting, but frankly, I expected to discover Mr. Miller was exactly who he sounded like: an English student unfortunate enough to be smitten with Rodney McKay's sister.
The marble corridors were cold and drafty after the humid heat of the street. The rooms smelled of dry paper and dust. Gene greeted me at the front desk. Belated sunshine was filtering though the dirty windows on the west side, puddling bright on waxed wooden floors.
"Help you with anything?" Gene asked. He didn't put down his book, which was a big Random House hardcover. Absalom, Absalom.
"Just the usual," I said.
"Asset search?" Gene didn't wait for me to answer before going back to his book. "You know all the tricks."
"Thanks," I muttered. "Religious?"
Gene finally looked up. "What?"
"Never took you for the religious type," I said, indicating the book.
"This?" he grinned. "Actually, not so you would notice."
It wasn't a difficult search, just time-consuming like they always were. Kaleb Miller had no assets. He paid city taxes on a teaching stipend from the university. His parents owned a used bookstore on the beach in Venice, and he still lived at home, a block or two from the bookstore. I knew that part of town. Ramshackle Victorian houses held together with wisteria vines and clapboard. No hosts. I'd eat my hat if there were even Civil Service types living in the neighborhood.
Gene was still engrossed in his book as I checked out, hardly bothering to nod. I was just in time for the five-twelve to Hollywood, so I headed for home. There were no Jaffa on the train.
At ten the next morning I was scanning room numbers in the basement of the English department where Kaleb was pursuing his PhD. I found the door of B13 open. Smoke from French cigarettes and a babble of querulous voices spilled into the hallway. I looked in. Men and women in cardigans and tweed sitting bolt upright on secondhand office furniture, working on saving the world like winning the argument was all it took. I waited a moment or two to see if anyone would acknowledge me. The lights overhead flickered and hummed. Dr. McKay evidently hadn't been around here recently.
When I got tired of waiting I asked, "Kaleb Miller?"
"No," answered a lanky kid with a beard. He stubbed out his cigarette in an overflowing glass ashtray.
"Know where I could find him?"
"He was going to a lecture in the village," said a young man whose beard was even more scruffy. "I think I still have the mimeo." He got up to root through a desk covered in paper. Everyone else went back to arguing about a fisher king in April. "There you go," he said last, pushing a crumpled white and blue sheet into my hands. It was an announcement for an archaeology lecture at a coffee house down on Levenger. The archaeology was Egyptian, not Colonial American.
"Thank you. " I introduced myself and told him, "I appreciate the help."
The student's natural courtesy kicked in again, and he shook my hand. "Jasper Newman. Good luck finding Kaleb."
It was a fifteen-minute walk back through campus, the sky clear and bright blue after yesterday's rainstorm. The Naos coffeehouse was upstairs from a shoe repair place, and I followed the smell of coffee and those ever-present French cigarettes through a pair of swinging saloon doors to find a bar and a dozen or so folding wooden chairs. A skinny fellow with glasses was addressing his rapt audience. I pulled up an empty chair and sat down. Behind the speaker, narrow windows were open to the air. When I got tired of trying to guess who in the small audience might be Kaleb, I watched the glimpse of blue sky beyond the roof line of the apartments across the street.
The lecturer had a theory that goa'uld had been on Earth before the arrival of our Lord. Figures like Ra, Ishtar and Wu weren't just mythology, but gods worshipped in their own times, the way we worshipped God. Or something like that. Typical academic blasphemy. It probably wouldn't get the speaker into too much trouble, unless he wanted a job with the Service.
Someone came in behind me, and I turned to look. A woman, blond, in a student's straight tweed skirt and low heels. She had the McKay blue eyes and the McKay sharp jaw as well. She sat down next to an average-looking fellow on the second row, who reached for her hand and squeezed it. Apparently I had found the not-very-elusive Kaleb Miller.
The lecture wound down. I ordered a cup of bad coffee from the waitress who had been on the front row up until then, and sweetened the overcooked mess in my cup with a couple of sugar cubes from a bowl on the bar. I pretended I wasn't bothered by the proximity of the ashtrays to the sugar bowl and eavesdropped on Jeannie McKay.
"I'm so sorry I was late." I didn't turn my head, but I was fairly certain she was talking to the lecturer. "It's so good to see you! How was your trip?"
"The trip home was fine. The problem was getting out of Cairo in the first place."
"Oh no. Daniel, what happened?"
Someone else answered. I turned my head. Kaleb. "They held Daniel for nearly a week! He was lucky to get out at all."
So, maybe not such low-grade blasphemy after all.
"No, actually they only held me overnight, but the army seized all my film. I couldn't leave without it."
"But they finally gave it back? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Some of the civil authorities remembered my parents, so everything worked out."
Someone interrupted Daniel with a question about his lecture, and Kaleb and Jeannie turned aside. "I really can't stay," Jeannie was saying. She patted the waistband of of her skirt. "These days cigarettes makes me so sick."
"Oh, honey, I wasn't thinking. Of course we'll go."
I stepped up before they could make it to the door. "Excuse me. Kaleb Miller?"
He nodded immediately, no trace of suspicion, although Jeannie looked at me closely. "I'm Kaleb."
"John Sheppard. Jasper Newman up at the department said I might find you down here."
"Sure, of course," Kaleb agreed easily. "What can I do for you?" He finally noticed the concerned expression on Jeannie's face. "Oh. Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine," I told him. "I didn't mean to alarm you. It's just that I'm going to be starting classes in the spring, and I heard you were the person to talk to about American literature professors."
Jeannie's expression softened. "GI bill?" she asked. She must have noticed I was a little old to be an incoming freshman.
I nodded. "Then Kaleb's the person you want to talk to," she agreed. "That department is even crazier than Applied Mathematics."
"I wouldn't go that far," Kaleb disagreed. Then he thought about it for a moment. "But you would probably be smart to avoid some of the old timers your first quarter. Look, Jeannie needs to get out of this smoky room. Could we set up a time to meet later?"
"No, you should stay," Jeannie disagreed, her hand on Kaleb's forearm. "I have a conference starting in half an hour anyway."
"If you're sure," Kaleb said, not happily. "See you at five? It's spaghetti night at Kerkhoff."
"Wouldn't miss it for all the tea in China." Jeannie smiled at him, the two of them so goofy in love it was embarrassing to be in the same room. Kaleb watched her say goodbye to the lecturer, not turning back to me until the sound of her heels on the wooden stairs had faded away.
"You're a lucky man," I told him.
"I know," Kaleb was happy to agree.
"When is she due?"
Kaleb looked startled for a moment. "Oh, the smoke," he realized then. "It’s about to drive her crazy. Her adviser smokes like a chimney."
I let my eyes drop to his hand. There was no ring on his finger. "We got married at Christmas," Kaleb said. "But we're not going to tell our families until we have enough for a down-payment on an apartment. The baby's not due till September, so we've got time."
"Well, congratulations," I told him. "Let's get out of here and I'll buy you a beer."
"No, thank you, but I don't drink in the Village. It might give my students the wrong impression."
Oh well. "Another cup of coffee, then," I said, and bought him and me another cup each of the syrupy glop. "Here's to you and Jeannie."
"Thank you, uh--"
"John, John Sheppard."
"Thank you, John," he said, with painful sincerity. "And here's to your career in English. Who's your favorite author?"
"James Fenimore Cooper." I hoped he wouldn't ask for details. I had fond memories of reading The Last of the Mohicans as a boy, but I suspected that would only get me so far with Kaleb. He smiled at my answer like I had said something cute.
"A Leatherstocking fan," he said, still with that gentle smile. "We'll find you a good nineteenth century survey to introduce you to some of Cooper's contemporaries. I'd suggest taking Colacurcio's class if you can get in next quarter."
"How do you spell that?" I asked, pulling out my little notebook and writing dutifully.
"When was your last English class? If you don't mind my asking."
"1941," I said. "I was a junior."
"Just before Pearl Harbor." He sounded sad for some reason, but he was handing me the opportunity to steer the conversation away from my non-existent academic aspirations.
"So Kaleb, why haven't you and Jeannie told your families? Wouldn't they be willing to help you set up housekeeping?"
He pushed back from the table and laughed a little, shaking his head. "My parents? They adore Jeannie. I think they already suspect, to be honest. But Jeannie's family is another story. Her parents are dead, and her older brother is a lunatic. At least, that's what Jeannie says. I'd kind of like to meet Rodney, but Jeannie's adamant. Not until it's too late for him to do anything."
"'Do anything'? What does Jeannie think he might do? Come after you with a gun? Kaleb, I've got news for you. It's never too late for that." I had trouble picturing the man I had met yesterday resorting to violence, but if there's one thing I've learned in this business, it's not to turn your back on anyone.
Kaleb, however, was laughing out loud. "This is a family of academics, John," he said when he had calmed down and wiped his eyes. "Jeannie is just afraid Rodney would make a stink at my department. Try to get me in trouble with my chair. Heck, Jeannie says he's not above standing outside my classes and yelling insults."
I thought Jeannie was probably right about that. "Why does he hate you so much?"
Kaleb shook his head, smiling. "Jeannie's his little sister," he said. "Would any fellow ever be good enough?"
"I see your point."
"I didn't mean to get sidetracked, " Kaleb said. "We're talking about your next semester. How about a poetry survey?"
"Kaleb, don't let me interrupt." It was Daniel, the lecturer, and he proceeded to interrupt just the same. "I'll be showing my slides at the Santa Monica Public Library Saturday night. I hope you and Jeannie can be there."
"I may still be grading midterms this weekend, but I'm sure Jeannie will come. These are the pictures they tried to confiscate?"
Daniel nodded eagerly. "From inside the King Chamber. The evidence strongly suggests that Khufu wasn't the builder. Howard-Vyse's inscriptions are clearly faked. "
"This is John Sheppard," Kaleb said. "He came to see me about picking American lit professors for next quarter."
Daniel stuck his hand out in a good-natured way. "Daniel Jackson. Pleased to meet you. Is this Kaleb's subtle way of warning me you didn't come down to the village just to hear a lecture on pre-Christian goa'uld?"
"It was interesting," I lied.
"John is coming back to school on the GI bill," Kaleb interrupted, sounding a little desperate.
"Oh?" Jackson said. Then, "Oh! Well, I won't interrupt you any more."
Subtle as a ton of bricks, the two of them. It was no wonder the authorities in Cairo had picked Jackson up.
I offered Kaleb a cigarette since I was lighting one myself. "Oh, no thank you," he waved me off. "I've given then up, since they make Jeannie sick."
It was looking like true love alright, the poor bastard. I took notes dutifully on the foibles of the English department for another fifteen minutes or so, and then I thanked Kaleb for his time and made my escape.
I called Dr. McKay from a phone booth outside the train station. The department secretary wasn't happy about having to go fetch McKay, but I told her I didn't mind waiting. She grumbled, but eventually went. I turned my back on the businessman standing in line for the phone. He had moved from rapping on his watch to drumming his fingers on the side of the booth by the time McKay picked up the line.
"This had better be important. I had to walk out of one of my classes to take this call."
I turned and bared my teeth at the businessman. He backed away, and I smiled. It wasn't that I don't sympathize, but we're all just trying to make a living here. "I won't keep you, McKay. I have news. Can you meet me at my office?"
"What is it? No, don't tell me on the line. I have a break at three, come up to campus."
"Why yes, Dr. McKay. I'm sure I have time to drop everything and take the train to Pasadena."
"Well, I would hope so. You're working for me today aren't you?"
He gave me directions to his office. I stopped at my own office first and wrote out an invoice, using royal purple ink on my diminishing stock of cream laid paper. I have an idea that the touch of professionalism makes clients more pleasant about paying the bill.
I have no clue why I thought that would work on McKay.
Chapter 3: The Baby
It felt ten degrees hotter in Pasadena than it had been downtown. There was no breeze. Blue agapanthus bloomed along the sidewalk, and the small rose garden in front of the Astronomical Sciences building was lined with white gravel glowing in the heat.
Inside was a lot dimmer, but not much cooler. The lights and fans were electric, as if this were a private residence instead of a public building. I guess it made sense if all the professors were as bad as McKay and couldn't keep their hands off the goa'uld tech.
The students were as scruffy as the ones down in Westwood, even if their arms were full of lab books and slide rules instead of poetry collections. A young woman with short, curly hair, her eyes owlish behind horn-rimmed glasses, directed me to McKay's office.
Up four flights of stairs, under a dormer window in the southwest corner of the building. Aluminum shades were drawn against the afternoon sun, but they just split the light into long, golden bands. Dust motes floated like stars. McKay was bent deeply over his desk, writing furiously. He didn't raise his head when I knocked on the panels of the open door. A fan roared in the corner, and I thought maybe he just hadn't heard.
Still nothing. I stepped into the office and pushed the door shut behind me. "McKay."
"Yes, yes, just a goddammed minute," he growled, still without looking up. His pencil scratched on ruled paper.
"You know, most brothers would be more than a little grouchy about this news, but not you, I don't think."
"All right, all right." He flung down his pencil and glared at me, as though I had made the trip out here for the express purpose of annoying him.
I took my time clearing papers off a chair so I could sit down across from him. "I've had an interesting morning," I told McKay, settling back and propping my ankle on the opposite knee.
"I'm so pleased I've been able to fund your day's entertainment," he snapped back. "Now do you have a reason for interrupting my afternoon? Or did you just feel like riding the train out to see the roses?"
"I don't think you need to worry about any conspiracy to recruit Jeannie as a host, McKay," I told him flatly, and McKay stopped grumbling and fidgeting, leaning forward over the desk like I had finally become more interesting than the calculations on his graph paper.
"How can you know that?" he demanded.
"For one thing, all her friends seem to be atheists and blasphemers."
"Just what real conspirators would look like," McKay grumbled, but I didn't think his heart was in it.
"Besides that, Kaleb married her a couple of months back--"
McKay's face turned thunderous. "That sonuva--"
"McKay, she's pregnant. The baby's due in September."
He fell back in his chair, gaping at me. He tried to say something, but nothing came out the first couple of tries. Finally he managed a weak, "Are you sure?"
"Well, I didn't kill a rabbit. They probably did, though."
McKay was shaking his head slowly. "Thank you," he muttered, half under his breath. "Thank you." A shaky laugh. "That bastard knocked up Jeannie. I ought to kill him." He wasn't angry, though. McKay was obviously so relieved and happy, it was almost funny. He really had been afraid his sister was a potential host. But having once been pregnant, of course, no goa'uld would ever choose her now. Fertile hosts are an abomination that make Daniel Jackson's blasphemous nattering about goa'uld on Earth before the Son of Man look like, well, like the unimportant academic trivia it is. After I was passed over by the Jaffa at my high school, my friends tried to cheer me up by reminding me that at least I'd gotten to keep my nuts. And if anyone had been sizing up Jeannie McKay for a host, it's a sure bet she would have been sterilized long before Kaleb had a chance to get his hands on her. Far less the more relevant parts of his anatomy.
"Jeannie's going to have a baby," McKay was saying. He still sounded dazed. "Is she all right? Do they need anything?"
"Kaleb said they're saving up for an apartment, so I suspect money is a concern."
"Right, of course, it would be. I'll have to talk to her."
"Money's a concern for me too," I said, taking my invoice out of an inner pocket and passing it across the desk to McKay. He tore it open, but I don't think he actually read more than my total before taking his checkbook out and writing me a check for the whole amount, not even quibbling about all those cups of coffee at the Naos.
"A pleasure doing business with you," I told him honestly as I pocketed his check.
McKay wasn't finished yet. He poured the dregs from his coffee cup into a sad-looking aspidistra before pulling a bottle of pretty good brandy out of a lower desk drawer. From the same drawer he produced a short water glass that looked like it had been lifted from the school cafeteria, and splashed a generous couple of fingers into both cups, passing the water glass to me. "To Jeannie Miller."
"To Mrs. Miller," I agreed, perfectly amenable. "And to her baby's uncle."
For a smart guy, I had already noticed McKay could be a little stupid sometimes. "That's me," he realized. "I'm going to be an uncle." He finished his cup and slammed it down on the desk. He wasn't used to drinking in the middle of the day, either. His cheeks were already flushing. I poured us both another one.
"What is she thinking, getting pregnant before she's finished her dissertation?" McKay grumbled, though he didn't sound very upset. "And hanging out with atheists? She'll never get a Civil Service position with a background like that."
"Probably not," I agreed.
"Just as well," McKay decided. "She'd never be happy in the Service."
Not if she was anything like her brother, I thought.
McKay got up, and I did, too. I said, "Don't hesitate to call if --"
Dr. McKay was holding the pillow from his office chair in one hand. With his other hand he pushed me back down again, leaned over and kissed my face, his breath smelling of brandy and coffee. "You don't mind, do you?" It didn't sound like a question to me. "I've been wanting to do this since the first time I saw you."
I didn't mind, especially when he put the pillow on the floor to cushion his knees and settled himself comfortably between my legs. Besides, he'd already paid the invoice.
It wasn't the most skilled job, but merely slow and determined aren't anything to complain about, not when another man's got your dick in his mouth. I leaned back and loosened my tie as McKay took his time. His hair felt soft under my hands. I pushed my palm against his forehead when I was ready, but he shook his head and nuzzled down like a hungry calf. My toes curled in my shoes, and the electric light swam overhead.
When McKay sat back, he had his pants open and his cock out, fat and pink. I reached for him, feeling generous, but McKay muttered, "Just let me --" and laid his forehead on my knee while he worked himself. When he got close he rocked back on his heels and looked up at me. I gave him a wink, and he shot off as pretty as a roman candle.
Afterward, the two of us sat there grinning at each other like we'd done something clever. Eventually, McKay fished out a handkerchief and wiped his mouth, his sweaty forehead and his privates before tucking himself away. I'd had a sip from my flask, so I passed it down to him. "Three o'clock in the afternoon and I'm already drunk," McKay groaned, but he didn't turn down another drink. Besides, it was closer to four by now. I gave him a hand as he climbed to his feet.
"Come on," he said. "I want to show you something."
He led me down four flights of stairs, across another hall, then down another flight into the basement. The roar of industrial fans was continuous. The room we finally entered must have covered half the building. An elaborate mess of tubes and machine casing stretched the length of the wall. I looked back at McKay, who was grinning like a proud father. "That doesn't look much like a telescope," I said.
"It's the McKay-Zelenka Experimental Machine," he told me proudly. Then he deflated a little. "Most of us just call it the Baby."
I walked up for a closer look. Tubes. Metal. "Does this have anything to do with astronomy?"
"Does it? With this machine we can chart the movement of planets, satellites, stars, galaxies --"
"Don't the goa'uld already know all that stuff?"
"The goa'uld do," He spat the words out. "Baby is going to make it possible for us to explore the heavens for ourselves. "
"How is it going to do that? You don't even have a window down here." I don't know why I was asking. Unless maybe it was fun to see him sputter.
"It would take a roomful of mathematicians weeks – months! -- to work the differential equations that Baby can perform in a matter of minutes."
All right. I'd had some calculus, and I got an idea what he was talking about. "You mean it's a calculating machine. We heard rumors about something like this in the last months of the war. Machines that could run all possible trajectories for shells on the battlefield. The Germans had to have been using something similar to calculate the flight path of their V2 rockets."
McKay waved his hands around like he was practicing semaphore without the flags. "This is an epoch beyond that. The Baby can actually store a program."
I must have looked underwhelmed. The hand motions grew ever more emphatic. "We don't have to change the physical configuration to give it a new job."
"And that's a good thing?"
McKay's flushed face and red lips were taking me dangerously far afield, even though he looked closer to hauling off and clobbering me one than he did kissing me again.
"It's what the goa' uld thinking machines do." He enunciated like he wasn't real sure I had a working knowledge of English. And maybe I didn't, because I had been in the same room with goa' uld devices a time or two while I was still with the police. Shiny little magic boxes no bigger than a cigarette case. I wasn't having an easy time seeing the connection between them and McKay's room-sized science project.
One thing I did know. If it really was possible to build such a device, Dr. McKay had the brass to do it. Not to mention the lack of an instinct for self-preservation. The Service would never let a project like this go forward.
On the other hand, maybe they were like me, and couldn't see the connection between a jungle of welded tubes and the sleek little goa'uld thinking machines.
"Whatever Rodney has told you," said a little man who came in behind us, "Baby's official name is the Zelenka-McKay Experimental Machine." He spoke with a heavy Eastern European accent and wore a lab coat over his shirt sleeves. He offered me his hand. "Radek Zelenka. What do you think of our little experiment here?"
"John Sheppard. And it's ... interesting."
"Yes, that is a good word for it. The Baby is very, very interesting. Its CRT stores allow fast random access to forty-bit addressable strings." He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. "Furthermore, with the refresh rate we have achieved, long term drifts in the voltage supply do not disrupt the storage operation. The implications are obvious, yes? Among other things, we don't have to power everything down when the five-sixteen to L.A. pulls out of the station."
"I guess I can see where that would be useful."
"Sheppard's a private detective," McKay announced, sounding like he was showing off an exotic pet. Zelenka whirled on him.
"Oh, Rodney," he groaned. "Please tell me you are not still bedeviling your poor sister."
"No, it's going to be all right! She and Kaleb are already married! Radek, she's going to have a baby!"
"Congratulations," Zelenka told him, sincerely. "So no one will take your dear Jeannie as a host after all." I was only mildly surprised by now. Fanatics and blasphemers seemed to swarm around the McKay family like fruit flies around rotten bananas.
Zelenka continued, "And if you weren't such an intolerable bully, you would not have had to pay this fine professional -- what, ten dollars a day? -- to discover this information."
"Fifteen dollars a day," McKay corrected him, scowling. "Plus expenses."
Zelenka waved one hand airily. "The point is, if you had been on speaking terms, Jeannie would have picked up the phone and called you herself with this very good news."
"Well, maybe," McKay conceded weakly. "She's always been headstrong. Sheppard, I'm going to have a late lunch at a little joint across the street. Do you want to join me? Or you can stay here and trade pleasantries with Dr. Zelenka."
What I should have done at that point was go straight to the station and catch the train home to Hollywood. Instead I shook Zelenka's hand and wished him luck on his and Dr. McKay's experiment.
"It has been a pleasure meeting you as well, Mr. Private Investigator," Zelenka returned gravely. "Please do me the favor of not judging all Cal Tech scientists by Rodney McKay."
"Idiot," McKay muttered on the way up the stairs. "We ought to ship him back to Czechoslovakia."
We stopped upstairs at McKay's office so he could get his hat, then walked across the street and down the block to a little hamburger joint. McKay talked the whole way about the next upgrade to their room-sized electrical slide rule. Adding a magnetic drum was going to allow the entire physics department to begin using their machine for computational research. He seemed to view the prospect with mingled elation and regret, like a proud parent sending his first-born out into the world. I couldn't help laughing, but McKay took it pretty well, shaking his head at me and calling me an idiot. I had already figured out that was reasonably high praise from the man.
The sun was still beating down on the roses and agapanthus and the white cement of the streets and sidewalks. The opposite side of the street was in shadow, looking cool and inviting. McKay didn't notice, striding along obliviously under the heat of the late afternoon sun, his hands flying as he discussed the advantages of two-tier stores and the future of the human race, which he seemed pretty certain were intimately connected.
We were the only customers in the diner. McKay took a seat at the counter and asked for his usual. I had a cup of coffee and watched McKay devour two hamburger sandwiches as avidly as he'd swallowed me down an hour before. When the waiter brought him his slice of chocolate cream pie, he finally slowed down a little, taking sips of his own coffee between bites of pie. His expression became contemplative, his attitude thoughtful. "When you think about it, the World Wars may turn out to be God's biggest mistake."
I had heard so much casual blasphemy today I almost let it pass. But I couldn't quite ignore him. "A mistake," I echoed flatly.
McKay didn't hear the warning in my voice, or maybe he just didn't care. "Right," he said, as if I was agreeing with him. "For the past two thousand years, God has encouraged feuding between rival First Primes to control human populations and neutralize threats from lesser goa'uld. It's worked pretty well up to now, but human technology has progressed more than He ever imagined during the last war. Between Baby and the Manhattan Project, we're on the edge of being able to reach heaven ourselves."
I thought the beating sound in my skull was the whirring of the fans overhead. When I realized I had McKay slammed up against the counter with my fists wrapped in his lapels, I knew it was the blood thrumming in my ears. "All that suffering," I ground out, shaking him. "All that destruction and death. You think God was just playing a game?"
McKay's eyes had gone wide, and he was blinking rapidly in fear, both his hands up. I had about a second of satisfaction at the sight of the man finally showing a sensible amount of concern, but then he opened his fat mouth. "I really thought you weren't an idiot," he said, sounding heartbroken.
Then he added, "Please don't hit me."
I belted him one. It wasn't much of a swat. In fact, I'm sure I didn't hurt his jaw as much as I did my own knuckles, but McKay went down like a sack of potatoes. I left some coins on the counter to pay for my cup of coffee, and I told the waiter if he wanted to do something useful, he could stop yelling about the police, and bring Dr. McKay a bag of ice for his face.
I got off the train in downtown L.A. so I could deposit his check at my bank. That night I dreamed about Black Thursday for the first time in months. Mitch and Dex were shot down over the Netherlands before we even got to Schweinfurt. A hundred and twenty eight more members of the 305 never made it back to England. General Arnold told our Jaffa commander that we were wearing down the German defense and our losses were insignificant.
I never shed a tear for any of them. When I woke up with my face wet, I cursed Dr. Rodney McKay before I wiped my cheeks dry with a pillowcase and read a Louis L'Amour cowboy magazine until the sun came up.
Chapter 4: The MacGuffin
I was in no mood to go into work early, and once I decided that was the whole point of being in business for myself, I didn't. I read the paper at the coffeeshop on the corner and worked the crossword puzzle before I even thought about heading downtown. I didn't spend any time thinking about Rodney McKay, but for the first time in quite a while, I didn't add a slug of rye to my morning coffee.
When I walked into the lobby, Nate jumped off his stool outside the elevator like I'd given him an electric shock. "Major Sheppard!"
I made a show of looking behind me. "Slow morning today?"
He practically shoved me onto the elevator. I didn't care for the cattle car treatment, and grumbled, "Easy, friend. There's no fire."
Nate slammed the elevator gate shut. "Don't joke, Major. You've had a client upstairs waiting for you for the last hour and a half. I was starting to worry you would never turn up."
I was glad enough to hear about a possible client, but I didn't understand what had Nate so hot under the collar. "As long as it's not another physicist. I'm swearing them off for good."
"Major," he repeated. "Shep. Your client's a goa'uld."
I looked at him to see if he was joking. The expression on his face straightened me out fast. I banged on the gate with both fists, like it would make the elevator rise any faster. That hurt my bruised knuckles, and I cursed Rodney McKay all over again. Nate gave me a strange look.
"Who is it?" I asked.
"I didn't recognize her. She had the manager open up your office, and as far as I know, she's been in there since a quarter till nine."
In my office where McKay had played with the crystals in the lights, and I hadn't reported him. I was quickly coming to the decision that my one little cuff on the jaw hadn't been close to what he deserved. I should have taken Rodney McKay out with the trash.
The elevator bounced hard at my floor. "Sorry, Major," Nate apologized. He was spooked too, but he managed a smile. "Hey, who knows? Maybe you finally hit the big-time."
"Yeah," I said, and stepped into the corridor with all the enthusiasm of a guy marching to the electric chair. I heard Nate slam the gate behind me. Coward.
Two Jaffa were standing outside my office door. Their double-breasted suits were the color of cream. Only one of them had a staff weapon. He was the one wearing a silk tie like a bottomless pool of port wine and a big platinum tietac in the shape of a larval goa'uld. His friend had cuff links embellished with emerald-cut diamonds the size of sugar cubes.
The only things unusual about them were the tattoos on their foreheads. Four small crosses surrounding a central, more ornate one. A byzantine cross, I thought the sign was called. Regardless of the proper name, it meant their mistress was a long way from home, and that was the detail that finally calmed me down. It seemed pretty unlikely that a goa'uld would travel from the Middle East, or for that matter, through the 'gate itself, just to investigate an irregular light fixture.
"Hello, fellas," I said. "Sorry for being late this morning. Private dicks aren't known for keeping regular hours."
No smile from either. To tell the truth, I would have been more nervous if one of them had cracked a grin, but they were stone-faced professionals. They pushed me hard up against the wall and one of them planted a hand big enough to have twisted my head off on the back of my neck, before frisking me from head to foot. Then they took my necktie, my jacket, my belt, my pocketknife and my shoes. They left me my socks and handed back my flask after unscrewing the cap and sniffing the contents. Maybe they thought I would need a shot after their mistress was through with me.
When I was finally allowed to step away from the wall, Diamond Cuff-links was rifling through my wallet. He counted my twelve dollars and examined my identification.
"You may enter the presence of Jolinar," he announced, dropping my wallet on top of the little pile of my possessions on the floor.
Jolinar. It wasn't a name I had heard before.
I started to tell them I was honored, but they shoved me through my office door and slammed it behind me. The waiting room was empty, and the door to my inner office was open, as Nate had warned me. I walked as far as the threshold, and when I caught a glimpse of a woman sitting behind my desk, I went to my knees and touched my forehead to the floor. From this angle it was suddenly obvious the cleaning service had been skimping on the floor wax.
"You're John Sheppard?" Jolinar asked the question using only the voice of her host.
"Yes, ma'am," I agreed, talking to the floor.
"Get up," she snapped, still in her host's voice but sounding impatient. I got to my feet as she continued, "You can speak freely to me. Do you know a member of the police department named Cameron Mitchell?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said again, standing at parade rest across my own desk from her. "We served together in the 305th."
"Detective Mitchell tells me that in your job, you find items that have gone missing. I've been examining your files, however, and it's my impression that your work consists mostly of spying on unfaithful lovers."
It was obvious as soon as I stood that she had been making herself free with my records. The lock on the top drawer of my file cabinet was broken, and manila folders were stacked in untidy bundles on my desk. I didn't raise my eyes to her face, but I couldn't help protesting, however weakly, "Those files are confidential."
"Really?" She sounded amused. "Even from me?"
This was more or less exactly why I wasn't with the police department any longer: my fatal inability to keep my mouth shut. "Not legally," I told her. "But I promise my clients that I'll guard their secrets to the best of my ability."
"What makes you think I would care anything about these sad, sordid little lives? And look at me. I don't like talking to the top of your head."
So I raised my head. I could already tell from her voice that she wasn't a kid, but when I looked at her full on, it was obvious this was a host that had been chosen for her brains. Although she was a looker in her own right, she had been taken in her mid- twenties, far later than she would have been if chosen only for her beauty.
"I don't imagine you do care," I told her. "I've still broken my word to people who trusted me."
She didn't laugh, and more to the point, she didn't call her Jaffa to pound some sense into me. She just stared like she had been confronted with a slightly vexing puzzle. I looked back. Her nice face was framed by a fedora, and her yellow hair fell in a wave to her shoulders, where it curled under like a silk curtain. She was wearing a mannish suit of gray wool, and her only jewelry was a set of small jet earrings, far plainer than her Jaffa outside, and that was a little unusual, too. Maybe they do it differently in Istanbul, or wherever she was from.
"Cameron Mitchell speaks highly of your loyalty and courage." For the first time Jolinar used her full voice. It boomed in my small office. "However, he also said you were outspoken and could sound disrespectful. I believe he was concerned that you would anger me."
I would have to remember to thank Cam for this. Or maybe kill him. "I hope it doesn't come to that," I told her truthfully. "I have no desire to make you angry."
Her eyes flashed golden white for an instant, but then she smiled. It was a big, wide grin, startlingly brilliant and happy. My grandmother used to say that if you ever hear a goa'uld laughing or crying you should look fast, because you'll see the face of the host looking back at you. Well, I was looking right at Jolinar, and for an instant her smile was so open, it nearly knocked me off my feet.
Then it was gone so completely, I wondered if I had really seen it at all. I swallowed. "I do find missing items, ma'am. Missing husbands and wives, mostly, runaway children on occasion. More rarely pieces of jewelry or items of sentimental value, lost or stolen or sold by mistake. Things are more difficult than people, though. They don't give into the temptation to draw attention to themselves. Even a dead person eventually cries out to be found. A missing thing, well, in my experience, you stick it in a drawer, and it can just stay missing until the end of time."
"The object for which I am searching, Mr. Sheppard, seems unlikely to remain hidden in a drawer." She opened her gray velvet clutch and pulled out a thinking machine. A wave of her fingers -- manicured, but her red nails were short and rounded, like she used her hands for more than applying makeup and ruling the world -- and the little screen flickered into life. I thought of McKay's basement-sized collection of vacuum tubes, and nearly laughed out loud. It was obvious why the Civil Service wasn't very concerned about him or his projects.
"Something amuses you?" Jolinar asked, her eyes flickering up to mine.
I shook my head and she turned the thinking device around so I could see the picture on the screen. The object appeared to be an amber crystal, artificially constructed, six or eight sided, bigger than a breadbox.
"What is it?"
"The technical name would not mean anything to you. Suffice it to say, this is an energy device of enormous power. Properly utilized, it could supply the power requirements of your entire planet."
"That's a lot of power," I agreed. "And you just laid it down somewhere? Left it in a waiting room at the train station? I'm guessing you didn't pawn it with the rest of your family heirlooms during the war."
Her eyes flashed again, not in amusement this time. I really ought to stay on my knees when I talk to a goa'uld. Something about the pressure of linoleum against my face reminds me to keep a civil tongue in my head. "I apologize, ma'am," I started, but she waved me off.
"The device was stolen while being transported to my laboratory in Cairo."
"I'm sorry to hear that, but, ma'am, you may have noticed by virtue of the fact that you're sitting in an office in downtown Los Angeles, Egypt is a little outside of my beat." I felt a twinge even as I said it, though, thinking of Jeannie's and Kaleb's atheist friend. Hadn't Daniel Jackson just gotten back from Egypt? "So I am not sure how I can help you, as honored as I would be to try."
"I have reason to believe the device is currently in Los Angeles, and that it was brought here by this individual." The picture changed on the thinking machine to show a dark-haired woman in a red suit. "Her name is Dr. Elizabeth Weir. An accomplished diplomat and polyglot, she has held positions in America's diplomatic corps throughout Europe and Central Asia. During the war she was responsible for the OSS operations in Turkey."
I whistled through my teeth. The Istanbul OSS was famous for its intelligence operations.
"She chose not to return to the diplomatic corps after the war, and until recently, she had been teaching at Harvard. Neither the university nor the State Department has any explanation for her recent travels to the Middle East, and she has now been been reported in Los Angeles." Jolinar folded her hands together and looked up at me seriously. "I would like for you to find this woman for me, Mr. Sheppard. I believe when you do, you will find my device as well."
And there it was, as neat and tidy a story as anyone could ask for. The hairs on the backs of my arms were standing up. I swallowed and tried very hard to sound respectful. "Please don't take this to mean I'm questioning your judgment, but wouldn't the LAPD be more suited to a job like this?"
"Not in this case," Jolinar said. "In order to have secured this device, Dr. Weir must have had the assistance of Jaffa, or even another goa'uld. I will not make the same mistake twice."
"Excuse me, but what mistake was that?"
"That would be the mistake of trusting anyone but my own agents."
Now the last thing I had wanted to do when I got up this morning, even less than have another rendezvous with Rodney McKay, was to find myself the paid agent of an independent goa'uld from the other side of the planet. Unfortunately, I just didn't see any way to decline the honor. Jolinar had already produced a file folder with neat edges and clipped papers, a striking contrast to my own bundled case files.
"I have compiled all the information I have for you," she said. "You'll find a more detailed biography of Elizabeth Weir here, as well as specifications for the missing device."
I opened the folder. Clipped on top of a glossy black and white eight-by-ten photograph of Dr. Weir was a check for a thousand dollars.
I was already feeling weak at the knees. Seeing the check didn't help. I may have swayed a little before Jolinar snapped, "I've included your retainer, of course. You will contact me as soon as you have any news, or in the event you require a further advance."
I nodded because there was nothing else I could do. "Where can I get in touch with you?"
It was no surprise to learn she was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I stepped back as she got up and walked around the desk, noticing her long legs, but mostly her sensible, square-heeled pumps. They were of a piece with her short fingernails and modest jewelry.
Only then did I see that she had taken her Come-to-Jesus out of her clutch and was fitting it into her palm.
I froze, too aghast even to fall belatedly to my knees. Jolinar had paid me the singular honor of removing her weapon while she interviewed me, and I hadn't even noticed. Instead, I had been too busy scrutinizing her appearance, looking at her as though she were just a client instead of a goa'uld, to even remember to kneel as she left. It was going to serve me right when she burned my brains out through my forehead.
When she finally looked up and saw me, though, she did nothing but raise her eyebrows as she tucked her purse back under her arm. "Was there something else you require from me to do your job, John Sheppard?"
My knees finally unlocked, and I hit the floor hard. "No, ma'am." Lowering my forehead to the linoleum, I promised, "I'll contact you as soon as I have any information."
I stayed there and listened to her heels tapping away across the floor. When I thought she and her Jaffa were gone, I rolled over onto my back and looked up at the ceiling. Old water damage from a leaky toilet upstairs had painted coffee-colored stains on the ceiling tiles. I was still lying on the floor when Nate came in, his arms full of the clothes that Jolinar's Jaffa had been considerate enough to leave out in the hall.
"Oh, geez, Major," he said when he saw me. "Are you all right?"
"Does that stain look like the old wino who hangs out in front of the Station House to you?" I asked, pointing up.
Nate swore to himself and dropped my clothes as he got down beside me. "Don't try to get up," he told me worriedly. "I'll get a doctor." He put his hand on my forehead. "There's no burn showing yet, so maybe --"
I pushed him away. "Knock it off. She didn't punish me."
"Criminy, Major. Don't scare me like that." He leaned forward again, this time to give me a hand. I let him pull me to a sitting position, then I fished my tie out of the pile of clothing and knotted it back under my collar. Nate watched me like he was still expecting me to keel over.
"In fact, you should congratulate me," I told him, putting on my shoes and tying the laces. "You're talking to a goa'uld's private investigator now."
"I don't believe it! Geez! That's incredible. Who is she? She didn't give me a name when she showed up this morning."
"Sorry, Nate. I can't give you a name either. Client confidentiality, you know that."
He frowned. I got up, pulled on my belt, shook out my coat and put my wallet away, before settling my hat on my head. "Cheer up. She'll be in the evening paper if she wasn't in the early edition." I pushed him out of the office in front of me. "In the meantime, you want to call a locksmith to fix my filing cabinet?"
When I finally got outside again, the sun was shining and the birds were singing, neither of which helped my headache. I needed to talk to Cam before I went haring off after an ex-OSS bureau chief, but this wasn't a conversation I wanted to have with him while he was on duty. I got about halfway to the train station, but then saw the theater on the corner was playing Riders of the Western Pines. Maybe that was just what I needed to stop my head from spinning like a circus merry-go-round.
I bought a ticket for the matinee. The cartoon had already started when I went in. Pluto was playing baseball with a gumball machine, and the whole thing made no damn sense, but maybe it wasn't supposed to. I didn't laugh, and neither did the handful of other people sitting in the dark with me. The newsreels were next, and they were worse than Pluto.
The big story was the fall of Peking, and Movietone had footage of some loudmouth in Congress arguing for armed intervention. "If the line of the Yangtze falls," he yelled, "We shall let in upon ourselves a sea of troubles in comparison with which our present problems in the Far East will seem a mere unpleasant puddle!"
The camera caught Teal'c and General O'Neill in the corner of the shot. The First Prime was expressionless; General O'Neill seemed to be rolling his eyes. The General's detractors say he would have been executed for insubordination years ago if he hadn't been Teal'c's consort. They're probably right, so it's a good thing for the Armed Forces that our First Prime has a taste for prematurely gray, smart-mouthed Air Force officers. The Far East Air Force would have been destroyed on the ground ten hours after Pearl Harbor if it hadn't been for the actions of then-Colonel Jack O'Neill. If there's a single voice still steady enough to resist the drumbeat to invade China, it's probably O'Neill's.
And then I heard the voice of Rodney McKay in my ear, saying it was all a game, God playing the entire human race for suckers. It was too crazy even to laugh about, but sitting there in the dark, I felt my hands curling into fists. It didn't help that I had a check for a cool one grand in my wallet from a goa'uld who thought another goa'uld had been conspiring against her.
Now, minor goa'uld scheming against one another is nothing to write home about. Just keep your head down and stay the hell out of their way.
But McKay seemed to believe it was no different with God. Both World Wars, the Red Scare at home, Mao's advances, the Soviet thermonuclear program, in short, every monster here and abroad. McKay really thought it was all just political brinkmanship? How could the man get up in the morning?
I was already on the train heading to Bay City before I realized I hadn't been able to stay and watch the movie.
I got off at the end of the line, just a block from the ocean. The sky had been blue downtown, but here the cloud cover made everything look gray. I'd thought I would go down to the pier and ride the ferris wheel, but instead I walked to Ye Olde King's Head and ordered a bourbon while I waited for Cam Mitchell to show up after his shift. He's no more British than I am -- he just acquired a taste for fried potatoes with his fried fish while we were stationed in Essex.
The bartender eventually forgave me for drinking American whiskey in his pub, and we spent the afternoon arguing about what sort of a team Notre Dame was going to put together this year. We had just moved on to Army's chances of making it to the bowl games when I saw Cam's reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He must have still been sun blind, because he didn't see me before he'd sat down at the bar beside me, just a couple of stools down.
"Nice joint," I said. "Not too many cops."
Cam started like he'd seen a ghost. For a moment I thought he was going to get up and walk out, but then his shoulders sagged. "Hell, Shep. Give a guy some warning."
"Yeah," I chuckled, but not because it was funny. "About that warning, old friend."
Cam raised his hands defensively. "Don't blame your choice of clients on me, friend."
"It's a funny thing about goa'uld. Personal choice doesn't really enter into their business dealings as much as you might think."
The bartender set a pint down in front of Cam, the beer as black as pitch and a head like steamed milk. He took a gulp and wiped his upper lip. "Like I had a lot of choice when I taked to Jolinar about you."
"Don't get me wrong. I might have taken her on anyway. Her banknote is as good as anybody else's, better than most. I just would have liked being asked before you gave my name to a strange goa'uld from halfway across the planet."
"You think I sent Jolinar to you? Come on, give me a little credit. She had your name before she walked into the station. By the time she talked to me, she was just looking for a character reference."
I stared at him. "She knew me?"
Cam hunched over his pint and wouldn't meet my eyes. "I don't know what kind of business you're in these days, Shep, when a goa'uld steps off a plane from fucking Constantinople and already knows your name."
"I've got no idea how she --"
"But whatever it is, I hope to Christ you know what you're doing."
Chapter 5: The Service
The evening edition was in the stands by the time I left Cam's pub. On the cover was a picture of Jolinar getting out of a limousine in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel, so I shelled out a nickel and read it on the train back to Hollywood. Most of the story was breathless speculation about whether her Jaffa would be more likely to show up at the Brown Derby or the Café Trocadero, but the article did contain one interesting tidbit. Jolinar's current host was the daughter of none other than General Jacob Carter, famous for ending the French Vichy resistance in Morocco. It made me wonder if Carter's family had come to Jolinar's attention during the West African campaign.
The Times had nothing to say about that, of course.
That night I slept with Jolinar's check under my pillow, hoping it would send me sweet dreams. Maybe it worked, because I didn't remember any nightmares. Still, when I got dressed that morning, I pulled out my service Colt and wore a shoulder holster. The revolver messes up the line of my coat, but given my new client, I didn't care too much what the Friday morning commuters thought about my fashion sense.
I got off the train at the Times building and went downstairs to the morgue. Autry was manning the front desk, her red hair teased into curls like a row of razor wire. She blinked at me over her glasses. "I hear you've been keeping interesting company, Shep."
"All in a day's work." I shouldn't have been surprised that the news about Jolinar hiring me had gotten around so fast, but it gave me a funny, crawling sensation between my shoulder blades that even the weight in my holster didn't help. It didn't make me feel any more comfortable to be settling down with old papers to review the African campaigns. I told myself that Jolinar wouldn't have hired me if she didn't like the way I worked my cases. It felt damned disrespectful all the same.
As it turned out, there was no evidence at all of Jolinar being in North Africa between '42 and '43, or at least, no evidence noticed by American war correspondents. I was impressed all over again by General Carter's work in Morocco, though. By all accounts, he convinced the Vichy to stand down their forces with a stone-faced bluff.
I had to go to the clipping files to find any information about Jolinar's current host. General Carter's daughter, Samantha, was credited in a three-sentence article from 1945 for her assistance in the development of the betatron at the University of Illinois. There were no further mentions of her, and that was where my investigation of Jolinar came to an end as well. I couldn't even find notice of her arrival on Earth. Presumably it had been some time during the last two millenia.
I spent the rest of my morning reading through a much fatter collection of clippings about Elizabeth Weir. Most of them dated from before the United States' involvement in the war, and her career was a grim litany of unsigned treaties and failed conferences. After Pearl Harbor her name all but vanished from the newspapers. There was a brief article about her acceptance of a professorship at Harvard the summer of last year, and from then on, nothing.
The sun was blinding when I finally emerged from the Times' basement morgue. I adjusted the brim of my hat and walked the next three blocks to my building. Something made me look up just before I entered the lobby, and across the street was Dr. Rodney McKay, the side of his face as colorful as a Malibu sunset from my love tap the other day. When he saw me, he lifted his hat off his head and waved it at me in greeting.
I just stared back at him, trying to imagine what in the world he was doing here. Then a delivery truck full of grapefruit rumbled past, and when I could see the other side of the street again, half a dozen Civil Servants were bearing down on him.
Dr. McKay hadn't noticed. There was nothing I could do to help, but I waved my arms over my head like a fool and screamed, "McKay! Watch it!" which was worse than useless, because McKay looked at me, of course, not at the danger approaching from behind.
Something finally made him glance back. Maybe it was the glint of sun on the Service medals, or the distinctive baby blue of the uniforms. When he finally saw them, I thought he was going to rabbit right into oncoming traffic. He hesitated at the curb, though, and with that, they had him. They grabbed his coat and hauled him back, where a crowd was already gathering. I ran across the street myself, dodging taxicabs and delivery vans, but when I got to the other side, my path was blocked by an unmoving beat cop. Officer Aiden Ford.
"Just back away slow," he told me.
"They've got it all wrong," I argued, as useless as it was. Then I proceeded to lie outrageously, too. "McKay hasn't violated the Service Code. He wouldn't do that."
"Please, Major." Ford's an ex-marine, as honest as the day is long, and right now, he had no question where his duty lay. "You've really got to step back, and you need to do it right now.
Over Ford's shoulder, I saw McKay being wrestled to his knees.
"I'm telling you, Aiden, this is all a mistake."
He was unhappy, but he wasn't about to budge. "Major, that's not your decision to make, nor mine, neither. Now please, step back before I have to arrest you for interfering with discipline."
"But dammit, Ford --
"John, you're armed. If I have to arrest you, it's going to mean your license."
One of the Service men was powering up a glory stick. Sparks bounced on the sidewalk, and I could smell ozone over the automobile exhaust. McKay was fighting like a madman, right up until the moment he saw me watching him. I shook my head a little, and he stopped, just like that. He lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut. I would have liked to close my eyes, too, but that wouldn't stop what was happening.
The little mob of people following the Service had begun to chant like they were watching a football game. There was a single Jaffa with the Service, wearing a baby blue suit like the men themselves, but with the traditional metal sash covering his midriff. He was armed with a staff weapon, holding it easily as he surveyed the crowd. I tried to take some comfort from his presence. McKay's discipline was unlikely to degenerate into an extra-judicial lynching with the Jaffa here. Ford was a good cop, but there was no guarantee he could control downtown folks on their lunch break.
Then the prongs of the glory stick's trident touched the nape of McKay's neck, and it got a lot more difficult to take comfort in anything. McKay's head snapped back and his mouth dropped open. Ugly white light gushed from his eyes and his mouth, so harsh that McKay and everyone around him looked for an instant like figures in a black and white movie. The crowd hushed in awe, and McKay screamed.
He was still screaming when they lifted the trident away and the light vanished. The gawkers crowded around while Officer Ford stolidly kept me from getting any closer. I couldn't see McKay at all anymore, but I saw light burst skyward again. McKay's voice broke, then rose in a sobbing scream as the light winked out. I waited for the third one, hoping it wouldn't come. Men could die from shock during the lightest discipline. After three jabs from a glory stick, all bets were off.
But the Jaffa turned away. It was over. I grabbed Ford's shoulders, and before he could protest I told him, "Stop a cab for me."
"Major--" he started to complain, but I was pushing my way forward through the crowd. Someone had already stolen McKay's coat, and I yanked it back. The thief turned on me ready to fight, and I saw it was Kimmie from the diner downstairs. He backed down, but not without protest. "Aw, Shep--"
"Beat it," I growled at Kimmie. "He's got nothing worth stealing."
McKay was on the ground, curled up weakly and trying to protect his head and his privates. Someone had taken his shoes, and his shirt had been ripped down the back. I grabbed the chubby fellow in the nice pinstripe who was just about to kick Dr. McKay again, and I shoved him away. "Show's over," I said, giving him a chance.
He swung at me anyway, and I punched him harder than necessary to make my point. That seemed to take the fun out of it, because the other good citizens grumbled, but nobody stopped me when I got down next to McKay. "Come on, doctor," I said. "You're a long way from home this morning."
I saw the booted foot in time to block the next kick with my forearm, but I felt the shock clear up to my shoulder, and this fellow was evidently a determined sort. He drew back his boot for another try, and I grabbed the cuff on his dungarees and pulled him off his feet. It didn't buy me a lot of time, just enough to get me and McKay up from the sidewalk. McKay was practically a deadweight, trembling and barely conscious. The fellows in business suits had backed away, but now we were surrounded by half a dozen toughs in working clothes. Nobody was smiling.
I tried all the same. "Look, friends. This poor sonuvabitch has already had a hard enough day."
"He's a 'service cheat," someone snarled at me. Someone else said, "You just leave him to us, and maybe your day won't get any harder, friend."
"I wish I could," I agreed, and tightened my grip on McKay's forearm, slung around my neck. "But I just can't see my way to doing that. That's probably too bad for all of us, isn't it?"
"You said it," a tough on my left replied. A balled-up fist came from the other side to smash fair and square into my right temple. McKay and me went to our knees together, my head ringing like the bell tower of Our Lady of the Angels. I was still trying to decide whether it made more sense to struggle up again or just stay down when Officer Ford finally stepped in.
"All right, fellas," he said. "This is a city street, not a boxing ring. I want you folks to move along." I heard some grumbling, but no outright dissent. Apparently I hadn't needed to worry about Officer Ford's ability to handle a street crowd after all.
McKay was still conscious because he chose that moment to whisper, "Please don't leave me."
"We're in this together," I told him, because it seemed to be the truth. Ford turned on us next and helped haul Dr. McKay roughly to his feet. I wasn't in much better shape, reeling as Ford raised his voice to snap, "Get this cheat out of my face. I don't wanna see his kind on my beat again."
"No sir, Officer," I agreed. Ford had to turn me in the direction of the street, and I stumbled off, hanging on to McKay and hoping like hell Ford had managed to stop a taxi for us. He had, but I nearly fell over the hood before I saw it. The cabbie looked dubious, catching my arm as I tried to push McKay in the back.
"Hey, pal. I don't want nobody getting sick in my cab."
"He's not drunk," I argued. "He just looked at the wrong fella's girl back there."
The cab driver glanced over his shoulder as I got McKay inside and fell in after him.
"Wait a minute," the cabbie demanded. "Is that the Civil Service back there? Did somebody get disciplined?"
Apparently I'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to slip anything past this doubledome. "I don't think so," I told him. "Now if you're finished rubbernecking, you think you could drive us to Fountain and King's Road sometime this week?"
He peered in the back at us. McKay was huddled up sideways on the seat, shudders running down his body in waves. "Is he the 'service cheat? 'Cause I don't need that kind of trouble."
"He's not a cheat. Would twenty bucks ease your conscience?"
The cabbie hesitated.
"Twenty-five if you make it in ten minutes."
That seemed to be enough for his tender feeling. He slammed the door and we roared away from the curb. I let McKay stay where he was for the trip. The cabbie spent so much time watching the two of us in his rear view mirror I was surprised he got us to Hollywood without sideswiping anybody.
"It's the stucco apartments on the other side," I told him as we turned on North King's Road from Santa Monica."Help me get my friend upstairs and I'll give you your money."
"That wasn't part of the deal."
"It is if the deal includes me paying you." I eased McKay upright and swung his legs out. McKay whimpered and tried to turn away, his eyes swimming with tears. "The worst part is over now," I told him. The cabbie finally stopped complaining, and reached in to help me get McKay out of the back seat. It woulda been nice to think it was the sight of his fellow man in pain that caused the change in attitude. More likely, he had finally noticed the shoulder holster under my coat.
That reminded me of McKay's coat that I'd rescued from Kimmie. I reached back and picked it up from the seat, and we got Dr. McKay across the courtyard, then up the staircase to the first landing, no doubt to the great entertainment of my neighbors. The cabbie was grumbling, huffing and puffing. I wasn't sure McKay was still conscious at all, the way his toes dragged over the edge of every step. "Almost there," I said, mostly to the cab driver. Both of us adjusted McKay's arms over our shoulders, and with his deadweight hanging between us, we lifted him up the final flight of stairs. The clump of banana trees growing in the courtyard shields my landing, so I didn't feel quite so much on display as I one-handedly unlocked the door and pushed it open with my foot.
The gray tomcat who mooches cans of tuna from half the tenants in the building skittered in the open door just in front of us, making the cabbie curse and me stumble. "Go on, get out of here," I yelled uselessly at him as we carried McKay over the threshold.
The tom ignored all three of us and strolled in like he owned the place, while the cabdriver and me dumped McKay into my easy chair. I got the cash I'd promised my new friend out of my desk. He grabbed the handful of flins from me as soon as I turned back. It was more money than he was likely to see in one place for the rest of the week, but for some reason he didn't thank me -- just backed out of my apartment, keeping one eye on me the whole time like he was escaping a rabid dog. That's gratitude for you.
I heard him running down the front steps as I turned back to McKay, who was about to slide out of the chair. I propped him up with my elbow across his chest while I pulled out my flask and unscrewed the cap. The smell of whiskey didn't do anything to rouse him, so I pushed his head back with my elbow under his chin and poured a few drops into his mouth.
That worked. He came awake sputtering and gagging. "Easy, McKay. You're safe." He stared up at me, those big blue eyes of his bleary and uncomprehending. His face was dead white, except for that pretty bruise I'd given him the last time we'd met. It was safe to say I wasn't feeling so good about that right now.
"Let's get you cleaned up before you pass out again. Can you get to the bathroom with me? Five steps. Well, maybe ten."
He just kept looking up at me. His lower lip trembled.
"Right. We'll go slow." I pulled him forward and he came without protest, clinging to me as I helped him stand. I reminded myself that it was probably too early to know about brain damage as we made it step by step to the bath. I dropped the lid on the toilet and sat him down, then reached over him to start the water running. "Let's get these clothes off," I said. His shirt couldn't be saved, but I thought everything else would be wearable again once it was laundered.
I slipped his tie off his neck and the tattered dress shirt from his shoulders. I couldn't get McKay to raise his arms to get his undershirt off. Sitting upright on the toilet was all he could manage on his own right now, so I eased his shirt over his head before I could pull it down his arms. He whimpered when the cotton was over his face. I stilled him by gripping his biceps and said, "I'm just trying to salvage what's left of your wardrobe."
I didn't know how much he understood, but he let me take the shirt. I knelt awkwardly in my little bathroom to get his socks off, then unbuckled his belt. "This was more fun the last time," I joked. When I looked up to see if he was following me, McKay reached down to cup the side of my face where it was still throbbing from that sucker punch on the street.
"You're hurt," he whispered.
"I'm all right. Slide forward a little bit for me." I got his trousers and underwear down to his ankles, then spent another minute working them off over his feet while McKay shivered above me. "All right. Into the tub. Can you stand up?" I didn't give him time to think about it, simply getting up and pulling him with me. "One foot over."
He managed to step into the tub, but lowering him into the water was a struggle. His legs trembled violently. Water sloshed over the sides, and McKay groaned. His skin turned red where he was in contact with the bath water, remaining icy white everywhere else. He was a helluva mess, so I ignored his shivering and drained the tub before filling it again with clean, hot water. I didn't relax until beads of sweat appeared on his forehead and his whole body began to flush pink.
Finally less worried that he was going to die of shock in my bathtub, I handed down a sponge and a bar of soap. McKay took them numbly, his other arm wrapped around his knees. I bundled up the soiled clothes to stuff in a laundry bag. "Let me know when you're ready to get out. I'm going to call a sawbones friend of mine to come around and take a look at you."
McKay raised his eyes, seeming worried about that, or possibly just too addled to understand what I was saying.
Another reason I wanted to get Dr. Beckett out here. Cam and I knew him from Essex, a Scot who relocated to America after the war. He's a good doctor and a good man, even if these days he's got a reputation as an abortionist and someone who doesn't mind treating Civil Service cheats or gunshot victims without telling the authorities.
In other words, just the sort of non-judgmental doctor my clients seem to need.
My bathtub was too small for McKay to drown himself in, so I left him while I made the call. Beckett wasn't at home, but I reached Cadman at Beckett's office in Glendale and explained my situation. Cadman's the ex-WAVE Beckett followed to Los Angeles, and she had the nerve to laugh at me and tell me I was still a soft touch. It's an old joke of hers that nobody else thinks is very damned funny. I watched the gray tom cat curl up on top of McKay's coat where I had tossed it on an armchair.
"So has Beckett had made an honest woman of you yet?" I asked Cadman.
"What makes you think I have any desire to make an honest man out of him?" she returned, and told me to keep McKay warm and comfortable, check his pulse periodically, and ask him if he knew his own name and who the First Prime was. Dr. Beckett would drive over the hill to look in on us after he finished with his afternoon patients. I thanked her and went in to check on McKay. His head was against the back wall, eyes closed.
"Hey, doc," I said softly, and his eyes flew open. "Don't panic. I just was wondering if you could tell me your name."
"Why?" he managed in a hoarse, cracked whisper. "Is this some sort of trick question?"
"OK. Who is Teal'c?"
He blinked at me, and drew his knees more tightly up against his chest. "What is the matter with you?" he demanded, his strained voice breaking. "You'd better have that doctor of yours take a look at your noggin when he gets here if you're wondering about Teal'c."
I touched my temple, still throbbing from earlier, and agreed that it might not be a bad idea. "You ready to get out of the bath?"
He nodded, not trying to speak anymore. I helped him up, supporting him through the shudders, and once he was out of the tub, I handed him a towel. He just stood there kneading it in his hands until I got tired of waiting, took the towel back and started drying him myself.
He flinched and pushed me away with a wordless sound of complaint, acting as though his skin itself was hurting. When I finally realized it probably was after the glory stick, I tried to be more gentle. He whimpered, but allowed me to pat him dry.
Then I walked McKay to my bedroom, pulled back the covers and put him to bed. He rolled onto his side with a groan while I dug a clean nightshirt out of my chest of drawers. I asked him if he wanted help putting the shirt on, and when he didn't respond, I just pulled the covers up and left the nightshirt folded at the foot of the bed. Back in the living room, I sank down into my easy chair. The gray tom opened one eye to look at me. "Don't ask me," I said, toasting him with my flask.
I may have slept for a while, because the next thing I noticed, the gray tom was circling my feet and yelling at me. I told him to beat it as I pushed myself up. My head throbbed, but the pain had subsided to a low, ordinary ache. I looked in on McKay, who didn't seem like he had moved a muscle. Suddenly worried he might have checked out on me, I sat down on the bed and fished his arm out from under the blankets. His pulse was a little fast, but that was a lot better than no pulse at all. I tucked his limp hand back under the blankets and told him to rest.
McKay just lay there.
The tom was still complaining when I went back to the living room, so I opened a tin of sardines, dumped most of them on a plate with a little stack of saltine crackers for me, and put the leftovers on the floor for the cat. When we were both finished, the tom sat by the front door washing his face and his front paws, and I looked in on McKay again. His pulse rate was about the same. "I'm going to run your clothes down to the laundry across the street," I told him. "I should be back in five minutes."
McKay continued to lie there.
The cat dashed out the door with me and preceded me down the stairs to disappear into a thicket of bird-of-paradise. A Civil Service crew was working on the streetlight at the other end of the block. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have given them a second glance. This afternoon, I was glad I was still wearing my Colt as I walked past.
Not that it had done McKay much good earlier.
I got back in time to meet Carson Beckett on his way up my front stairs. He shook my hand and asked how I had been, telling me that he and Cadman were well. He waited until we were in the front door before asking me about the bruise on the side of my face.
"The crowd got a little rowdy after McKay was disciplined," I admitted. "The Jaffa didn't do very much to hold them back."
"Ach, man, I'm surprised you're standing here at all."
"A friend of mine was on patrol. Officer Aiden Ford. He made sure we got off the street."
"Then I owe a debt of gratitude to that officer." Carson clasped my shoulder briefly. "I've seen what a Civil Service mob leaves behind. How's your friend there in the bedroom doing?"
"McKay's not a friend. Just a former client. I don't even know why he was downtown today."
Beckett raised an eyebrow. "Oh, aye? Did you lose consciousness for any amount of time after you were struck?"
"What? No. It was just a tap from someone's knuckles. I'm fine. McKay lives and works in Pasadena. Just his bad luck that the Service caught him while he was in downtown L.A.."
"Or his good luck, since you took care of him. How many times did they use the glory stick on him?"
"Twice." I showed Beckett into the bedroom. "I got him cleaned up, and he's been sleeping since then."
"Has he been able to communicate at all?"
"He was talking a little bit earlier, and he was as lucid as he ever is, I guess."
Beckett gave me another of those skeptical looks as he sat on the bed next to McKay. "What's this poor bugger's name?"
"Rodney McKay. He's an astronomy professor at Cal Tech."
Beckett laid his fingers under McKay's throat, then checked the pulse in his wrist. Finally he shook his shoulder gently. "Dr. McKay. Rodney. Would you mind waking up for a wee chat?"
To my surprise, McKay's eyes opened.
"There you are," Beckett said cheerfully. "How are you feeling?"
McKay mumbled something I couldn't understand, but Beckett said, "Carson Beckett. I'm a medical doctor and a friend of John's here."
"Oh, my head," McKay moaned, and reached up to clutch at his forehead.
"That headache will last for a few days, I'm afraid. Aspirin may help some. Can you tell me your name?"
"You already know it."
"Aye, but I'd like to hear it from you, if you don't mind."
"I'm lying here on my deathbed and you want me to repeat information everyone already knows? Sheppard's a detective! Couldn't he find a better doctor than you? Oh." It hit McKay all at once, and he pushed himself up on the bed, trembling and groaning with the effort. "You think it's my brains. Oh, no. Oh, no no no. I'm fine. I've got to be fine."
Beckett laid a gentle hand on him. "In all likelihood, you are, but there's no denying a glory stick can sometimes cause significant neurological trauma. If you'll let me check you over, I may be able to help with any problems we do find."
"Seven," McKay said. "One hundred and twenty-seven. Two billion, one hundred forty-seven million, four hundred eight-three thousand, six hundred and forty-"
"I think the brains are still there, doc." I interrupted.
Beckett shot a look at me. "Well, the verbal skills are certainly intact," he said.
"He's sequencing double Mersenne numbers. I think the important parts of his brains are probably OK." McKay was still reeling out numbers, but he'd gone past my ability to follow.
"All right then." Beckett shook his head but was looking more cheerful. He brushed his fingers over the bruise on McKay's face. "That didn't happen this morning."
McKay stopped muttering numbers. "No, it didn't."
"If you'll swing your legs over the edge of the bed for me, I'd like to check your reflexes." Carson put his hand out to help, but McKay flinched back furiously.
"Do you mind? I'm naked under here."
I said, "It's about a week too late for modesty, McKay."
I meant it as a joke, but he looked up at me with an expression so open and hurt that I stepped back and then turned away. "There's a nightshirt at the foot of the bed," I mumbled. Then I left the room. I didn't want to know what Beckett had thought of that exchange. I didn't know what I thought about it, except that it had been a long day, and showed no signs of ending any time soon.
Twenty minutes later, Beckett came out of the bedroom carrying his medical bag, and sat down heavily on the armchair opposite me. "Did you know this isn't the first time Dr. McKay has been disciplined by the 'service?"
I leaned forward slowly and buried my head in my hands.
I didn't answer. I was afraid of what was likely to come out of my mouth if I did.
"John? Are you all right?"
I scrubbed my hands over my face and sat up at last. "I appreciate your coming out, doc. Can I offer you a shot of whiskey for the road?"
Chapter 6: The Eternal Question
So Beckett had told me to get a good night's sleep, but he hadn't indicated how he expected that to happen, not with McKay in my bedroom hogging the bed. I retrieved my Western magazine from the bedside table and settled down in my easy chair. For some reason, Buckskin Run didn't hold my attention tonight. I finally threw the magazine aside, opened my desk and pulled out my old puzzle notebook from Essex. I sharpened a pencil with my pocketknife and tried to get to work. It had been a while, and I was pretty rusty. As I struggled through the equations, though, it started to come back, like stretching out muscles that weren't used to work.
McKay grumbled when the clock struck, and I looked up to see it was already midnight. I got up and walked into the bedroom. His leg was twitching under the blankets, so I put my hand on his ankle. "Easy," I said. "You're safe."
His eyes blinked open. "Sheppard?"
"Do you need anything?"
He stared at me without answering. I wondered about brain damage and tried again. "A glass of water?"
"Got anything stronger?" he finally asked.
I was pretty sure Beckett wouldn't approve, but I told him, "Hold on," filled a glass mostly with water, added a splash of rye and brought it back to him. He struggled to sit up. I gave him a hand.
"My poor head," he moaned, his voice cracking, and clutched at his forehead. I waited. Eventually he reached for the water glass I was holding, took a sip and collapsed into a fit of coughing. I rescued the glass before it spilled. When the coughing finally stilled, he reached for the glass again, drinking more slowly this time. "Better?" I asked.
He looked at me like I was crazy.
Right. Well, he probably had a point there. "Do you need anything else?"
He sighed and lay back down in bed. I figured he was done for the night and turned off the bedside lamp, preparing to go, but he surprised me. "Where are you sleeping?"
"Don't be an idiot," he snapped. He rolled to his side, groping for something. "Only one pillow?" he said at last.
"I thought you were a lonely son of a bitch," he said unreasonably.
I didn't answer that, but I fetched myself a folded blanket to use as a makeshift pillow and stretched out next to him. McKay muttered approvingly and then was still. I was awake for a long time, not used to sharing a bed or maybe just a little wound up still from the day. I was finally beginning to settle down enough to get some shut-eye, when McKay said out of the blue, "What did you need to talk to me about anyway?"
I thought he was mumbling in his sleep, but when I rolled over to look, one bright blue eye was watching me in the light from a streetlamp.
"The message said it was important," he insisted.
"What message?" I asked.
"The one you left with the department secretary. Terribly urgent and whatnot."
"That's what you were doing downtown this morning?" I sat bolt upright in bed. "McKay, I didn't leave any message for you."
"You mean Mrs. Beasley got it wrong?" he grumbled, sounding a whole lot less concerned about this than I was. "Always knew that woman's towering incompetence would do me in someday. Of course, I thought it would be a heart attack caused by sheer frustration after so many botched--"
"This isn't a goddamned joke!"
"Not laughing," he murmured. His breathing got slow and regular. He was asleep. I was awake for a while longer. It was no surprise that McKay had made someone so mad they reported him to the Service. The disturbing thing was they had used me to get McKay downtown so he would be alone, instead of surrounded by his colleagues on campus. Whoever had reported McKay hadn't wanted him to survive his encounter with the Service, and they had used our professional relationship to make sure he didn't.
That annoyed me. It annoyed me a lot. McKay and I would have to talk in the morning about who he had blabbed to. I remembered the way he had introduced me to his Czech colleague, and I guessed he had told everyone in the building about hiring a private detective.
The next morning McKay woke me up with his groaning. A slab of Los Angeles sunshine lay across my mattress like a two by four. I turned my head and squinted at him. "How are you feeling?"
"How do you think?" he rasped. "Like a squad of Jaffa has been using my head as a hockey puck."
Well, that wasn't far so from the truth. McKay sat up, still moaning theatrically, and tugged aside his nightshirt to look at his torso. Dark red bruises were shading to blue down his ribs and across his back like storm clouds in a Turner painting. I whistled. "Did Dr. Beckett get a look at those?"
McKay rolled his eyes and covered himself up. "You don't have a whole lot of faith in that quack, do you? He didn't wrap my ribs because he said it would be more painful than helpful. And he told me to give him a call if I was still pissing blood by tomorrow. What happened to my clothes?"
I gave him his coat, and told him the things that hadn't been destroyed or lost were at the laundry. In the meantime, I dug around in the wardrobe and found him some pants and a shirt I thought might fit. I excused myself to shave and clean up, and when I got out of the bathroom, I found McKay standing over my desk and paging through my puzzle book. My shirt looked a little tight across his shoulders, and the hem of my pants touched the floorboards behind his bare heels. "Oh," I realized. "What shoe size do you wear? I'll see if you can fit into a pair of mine."
He pointed to a page in my notebook instead of answering. "Sophie Germain? Her theorem is interesting for an amateur, I suppose, but it's a dead end. You'll never get to odd prime exponents greater than a hundred."
I took the notebook out of his hands. "Well, being an amateur, it should be right up my alley, then."
"Where did you study mathematics?" he demanded irritably.
"I didn't." I put the notebook away and shut the roll-top desk, but when I turned back, McKay's mouth was slanting down unhappily, his empty hands clenching and unclenching at his sides and his bare toes curling on the floorboards.
I went to the bedroom to see if I still had that old pair of dress shoes with the soles that needed replacing as I told him, "I was stationed in England for most of the war. Got to know an RAF officer who had been a mathematician at Cambridge." I handed the shoes over to McKay along with a pair of black socks. "It was just something to pass the time."
McKay nodded, sitting down in a chair and hunching over to pull on the socks. He grunted and straightened up, putting his hand to his side. "Cambridge," he said, still moving very slowly. "Newton was a notable alumnus, I suppose."
We went to the sandwich counter at the drugstore across the street for coffee. His wallet was still in his coat pocket, which pleased him enough that he paid for my cup. He was still looking a little wobbly, and I didn't much like the idea of putting him on the train to send him home.
"Does your sister have a car? How about Kaleb? Someone who can give you a ride?"
The question upset McKay so much he nearly spilled his coffee. "What? Are you nuts? We can't tell Jeannie."
I had to look away from him so I wouldn't belt him one. "You mean you don't want your little sister to know you make a habit of being punished by the Service?"
"What are you talking about? I can't let Jeannie know I hired a shamus to spy on her. She'd kill me!"
McKay used the phone booth at the back of the drugstore to call his Czech friend Zelenka to drive him home. The man pulled up in front of the apartment half an hour later, sitting behind the wheel of a Studebaker Phaeton that had probably been painted black when it rolled off the assembly line three decades ago. Now it had faded to the gray of the water past the Santa Monica pier before dawn. The folded canopy was lumpy with patches, but the engine was humming as calmly as a mother crooning a lullaby.
There was nothing serene about McKay's friend himself. He climbed furiously out of the driver's seat, shaggy hair spilling out from under the black felt hat he'd jammed down on his head. He was in his shirt sleeves, and he hadn't shaved this morning. He was wearing a bright green tie, and nothing he said was in English. He patted McKay's shoulders, then looked at me. Exasperated, terrified, simply exhausted, I couldn't tell.
McKay grumbled to him, "It was just bad luck," and that took the cake, for me and for the little Czech scientist both. Zelenka exploded, mostly in English this time, but his accent was so thick I couldn't understand one word in five. Not that I was listening all that hard. I was too busy giving McKay a piece of my mind, too.
"Listen to me, pal," I snarled, out of patience at last, "The only accident yesterday is that you accidentally managed to survive a Discipline that was supposed to kill you. And this wasn't even the first time! From now on, you want to go fiddling around with goa'uld tech, you do it on your side of town and stay nice and far away from me."
McKay blinked at me and, astonishingly, actually shut up. In the momentary lull, Dr. Zelenka took my hand and pumped it vigorously. "For saving Rodney's life, thank you. He would be the first to tell you this, but I am afraid it is true all the same: his loss would be a terrible blow to the advance of human sciences."
McKay muttered something in agreement, looking both pleasantly surprised and a little overwhelmed, while I wondered when I had fallen down the rabbit hole and wound up in a world where everyone I met was an unabashed heretic. Then the little Czech bundled McKay into the passenger side of the Studebaker, and they were gone, out of my life for good.
In the meantime, I had a real case I was supposed to be pursuing. I hailed a taxi for myself and gave the cabbie an address in one of the new neighborhoods in the Palisades. When I climbed out of the taxi after a sweeping ride west on Sunset Boulevard, I was in front of a home that was a bit smaller than a palace, roses blooming behind a white picket fence as though to insist there was no such thing as American royalty, and that we were all equal under the goa'uld.
It was a nice story, because Caldwell Investigations was the largest detective agency south of San Francisco, and it was an open secret that Colonel Stephen Caldwell had the ear of every police department from Tijuana to Monterey Bay. That was all right, though. For once I had a client who allowed me to come to his castle gates as a worthy supplicant.
The front door was opened by a maid in a uniform that wouldn't have been out of place in a British costume drama. When I explained what I was there for, she asked me to wait, and carefully shut the front door in my face. The butler appeared not more than ten minutes later, a dapper fellow also in a uniform. I gave him my name and told him I was here to see the Colonel on business. He was only slightly more unwelcoming than the maid, but at least he let me in the front door before leaving me to cool my heels in the foyer for another ten minutes or so. While I waited, I admired the paintings on the walls, red-coated goa'uld and Jaffa on horseback, riding hell for leather after a pack of little brown and white dogs. Seemed to me like the sort of activity that would be awfully hard on the rose bushes and white picket fences.
The butler finally returned and told me that the Colonel was at breakfast, but as a special favor to a fellow veteran, would I accept his invitation to share a cup of coffee? I pretended to think about it before condescending to accept, and followed the butler down a long, paneled corridor. Oriental carpets muffled our footsteps; somber paintings were dark on the walls. The last painting above the door at the end of the hall showed a tel'tak breaking through the clouds above a first rate sailing ship flying a British flag on a stormy sea.
The butler pushed open the door to a dining room that was as long as the house. A line of windows looked out on the valley that cut steeply through the cliffs all the way down to the Pacific Ocean. At a guess, the dining table would seat sixteen or more, although at the moment, Colonel Caldwell was alone in a gray dressing gown, a plate with two pieces of dry toast in front of him. His silver coffee pot was so finely polished you could all but see the reflected waves crashing along the rocky shoreline, far far away.
"Major Sheppard," he said, getting up to offer me his hand. "What an unexpected pleasure."
It wasn't much of a pleasure. He hadn't liked me when we served together; it was a little too much to expect absence had truly made the heart grow fonder. His smile for me was as thin as always. "How long has it been? Two, three years, at least. Sit down. Can I have Cook fix you a plate of eggs?"
I shook my head and thanked him for his hospitality, though I did accept a cup of coffee.
"I need more manpower than a one-man agency can provide," I told him bluntly, cutting straight to the chase after a swallow of his very good coffee. I pulled out a photostat of the picture Jolinar had given me and handed it over. "Her name is Elizabeth Weir. She had a distinguished career in espionage during the war, and my client is interested in finding her as soon as possible."
Caldwell took the picture and studied it. While I waited for him, I looked at the paintings on the inner dining room walls. A regular national gallery, his little palace here. These paintings were portraits of goa'uld in historical fancy dress, mailed armor and flowing robes, belted and crowned with gemstones.
"And that's the only information you can give me about this woman?" Caldwell said at last.
"She could be in almost any hotel or boarding house between here and San Diego," I volunteered.
Caldwell laughed mirthlessly. "Finding her is going to be an expansive, expensive proposition."
"That's why I came to you, Colonel."
"A very wealthy client," he commented. "You must be doing all right for yourself, Shep." His eyes didn't flicker towards the goa'uld on the walls. Mine did, but the identity of my client was probably no secret to Caldwell. His smile stayed thin as we finished our business. I polished off the cup of coffee in the fancy cup with a rim as shiny yellow as a goa'uld's eyes, and the butler showed me down the long dark corridor with the sea battles on the walls, through the foyer with the hunting scenes, and there I was back on the front walk with the booming roses on either side. It was too early to say whether Colonel Caldwell's army of flatfoots had a chance of finding Weir, but my only lead was as thin as Caldwell's smile, so I might as well put Jolinar's advance to good use.
I had the waiting taxi take me back to Hollywood.
There wasn't much to do until evening. I thought about going downtown to the office, but in the end I stayed home, sharing a tin of smoked herring with the apartment tom who came in the front door with me. I got out my puzzle book and spent a few hours working on Sophie Germain's theorem, despite hearing McKay's dismissal in my head the whole time. I changed the linens on my bed, wadding up the sheets McKay had slept on with the nightshirt of mine he had worn. I drank more whiskey than I needed, and I made sure my flask was full before I put on my coat and hat to go out again. I was planning to take the train down to Bay City, but at the last minute I called a cab instead. Jolinar had advanced me enough money to take an entire fleet of taxis to check out my lead if I wanted.
I had the cabbie let me off at Fourth Street, two blocks past the Bay City Public Library, since I didn't want to be seen getting out of a taxi. The sidewalks were crowded with tourists heading towards the beach hotels, those pink and white palaces on the sand. The gambling boats anchored past the twelve-mile limit were dark, floating bulks before the sunset, their blocky outlines just beginning to twinkle with lights. Goa'uld technology, clean and white, despite the fact that the boats were registered in Mexico and owned by mobsters.
I turned away from the ocean and pushed my way against the tide of the evening crowd. I found a small group of people milling around the library entrance, mostly dressed like academics and students, although there was one couple who seemed to have taken a wrong turn on their way to a dinner club on the beach. The gent was as big as a Jaffa, wearing a flawlessly-tailored tuxedo with a white tie. His date was in a backless dinner gown of shimmering cream taffeta, and she had muscles in her shoulders like a featherweight champ.
I expected them to turn aside, but they entered the lobby with all the scholarly types in tweed and corduroy and took the stairs down. Outside the basement auditorium, a sign advertised a travelogue by the noted Egyptologist, Dr. Daniel Jackson, admission ten cents. I gave my dime to the smiling woman sitting at the folding table. Rodney McKay's sister, Jeannie. She recognized me as well.
“You were in Westwood the other day, weren’t you? Talking to Kaleb about literature classes. I didn’t realize you were interested in Egyptology, too.”
“Dr. Jackson makes it a compelling subject.”
Jeannie cocked her head at me, looking a lot like her brother. She also looked like she didn’t particularly believe me. She said, “Jeannie McKay. I don’t remember your name.”
“John Sheppard. Are you an Egyptologist, too?”
“Mathematician. But Daniel’s an old friend. I was interested in the Rhind Papyrus as an undergraduate -- that’s a Middle Kingdom document--”
“Egyptian fractions?” I ventured.
She raised an eyebrow at me, but nodded. “I needed a better translation. Daniel was working on one, but he knew about as much about algebraic identities as I did about Egyptian hieroglyphs. So --” She spread her hands. “Together, we were able to do some pretty good work. Mer thought I was wasting my time, of course.”
I didn’t respond to that, although if she was talking about Meredith Rodney McKay, I wasn’t surprised. Jeannie smiled faintly. “That’s my big brother. We don’t always see eye to eye. Anyway, just find yourself a seat. There aren’t any ushers.”
I thanked her and went in, pausing a moment to let my eyes adjust to the dim lighting. Two or three dozen people were scattered through an auditorium that would have seated several hundred. Frankly, I was surprised Dr. Jackson had an audience this big. I had no particular reason to think Elizabeth Weir might be one of the odd eggs who were interested in Egyptian travelogues, but it didn’t seem entirely unlikely that a Middle Eastern diplomat might have friends who were. I took a seat near the back.
I saw Jackson himself standing in front of the auditorium’s small stage, talking to a couple in the front row. The steady hum of conversation rose and fell in waves in the oversized space. I heard the big man in the tuxedo laugh once, a gruff bark of sound. Then Jackson waved to someone at the back the auditorium, and the already-dim overhead lights blinked twice before going out altogether. A bright, fuzzy-sided rectangle of white covered the projection screen behind the stage. Jackson walked across, making a bright target of himself in the light of the projector, and took up a position behind a podium on the far side, arranging papers by the light of a small, shaded banker’s lamp.
A blurred picture splashed across the white screen, slowly sharpening as the projector operator worked on the focus. Eventually the screen was covered by the crisp image of stone animals with curved horns like big sheep lying in front of columns. It was difficult to judge scale, but everything felt almost unimaginably immense. Jackson didn’t speak at first, giving us time to absorb the weight of history in sand-colored blocks, sloping walls with incised illustrations, stylized human figures as tall as the structures themselves.
Or maybe he was still just organizing his notes. “This is the avenue of ram-headed sphinxes leading to the precinct of Amun-Re,” he announced at last, raising his voice to carry across the auditorium.
He went on for the next hour. Photographs of the Nile, ancient structures, people and animals painted on walls and on tombs, and tying everything together, Jackson’s stories of the Egyptian gods and pharaohs. After hearing his unembarrassed heresies in the upstairs bar in Westwood, this all felt like pretty tame stuff, like any tourist introduction to Ancient Egyptian history and myth. Not even a whisper of pre-Christian goa’uld.
I still felt a little uneasy. Was I the only one in the audience hearing echoes of the petty goa’uld squabbles during the war years in Berlin and Moscow, Tokyo and Washington, in Dr. Jackson’s tales of the sunset struggles of Ra and Apophis? And if it was just me, I had to wonder if I had been imagining the intimations of heresy everywhere since McKay hired me.
I took a few nips from my flask under the cover of darkness in the auditorium, but all things considered, it wasn’t a worse way to spend a Saturday night than sitting at home reading the cowboy pulps. Besides, I liked the pictures of camels.
The lights came up. Jackson gulped a glass of water at the podium. He had been getting hoarse by the end there. You know, military surplus is probably all but giving away button microphones these days. Someone ought to donate one to the library to spare the larynx of speakers like Jackson. A little group of people were gathering around him. I settled back in my seat and fiddled with a cigarette as I watched the people who left. I recognized a few folks from Westwood. No one looked like Elizabeth Weir.
Eventually, the auditorium lights dimmed. Jackson gathered his papers to his chest and picked up the case of slides the projection manager had brought down to him. He trailed up the aisle, still talking to a little group of acolytes. I put my unlit cigarette in my pocket and met them as they passed my row.
"Dr. Jackson." I stuck out my hand to get him to stop. “Dandy picture show.”
A fleeting, distracted smile crossed his face, but he didn’t recognize me. He shifted his case and papers, trying to find a spare hand to shake mine with. Eventually he settled for nodding his chin at me. “Thank you. I’m glad you -- thank you for coming. I was just telling Miss Emmagen here that the more we understand about Ancient Egyptian religious and funerary practice, the closer we’ll be to answering the eternal question.”
Miss Emmagen was evidently the muscular woman in the cream-colored evening gown. “It is a tantalizing possibility,” she agreed carefully.
"That one blew right past me, doc." I let myself into the aisle, into the middle of Jackson's little group of followers.
Jackson turned his head to blink at me. "What?" he asked, and nearly walked into the door. The big guy in the tuxedo caught him by the shoulders.
"Careful, Jackson. Come on, let me help you with that." Smoothly irresistable, he pulled the case of slides out of Dr. Jackson's hands.
Jeannie was part of the inner circle, too. "This is John Sheppard," she told Dr. Jackson. "He was in the village to talk to Kaleb and saw your lecture. Apparently he was very interested."
"The eternal question," I tried for a second time. "Which one would that be again?"
"Oh," Jackson said. "Sorry about that. With a goa'uld in town, Jeannie was afraid the Civil Service would be out in force." Jackson didn't look particularly concerned himself.
"That's right," a weedy looking kid on the other side of Jackson said. "There's a story going around campus today that the Service Disciplined a Caltech professor in downtown LA. I heard it happened right there on the street."
Jeannie' s head snapped up. We were outside on the sidewalk by now, the library staff locking up behind us. "Who was it?" she demanded.
"I've got no idea. Nobody I talked to had any names."
"Do you know what department he was in? Anything?"
"Jeannie's brother is at Caltech," Daniel explained. The kid shook his head.
"I'm sorry. That's all I heard. There was nothing in the papers."
"I've got to get home and make a phone call."
"Teyla and I have a car," said the big guy in the tuxedo. "We'll drive you. So when did it happen?" he asked the kid. "This morning?"
"Had to have been at least yesterday, I think. They were talking about it in grad student housing last night."
"There," Jackson said, patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. "If it was Rodney you would have heard something by now."
"I suppose so," Jeannie said, visibly trying to calm herself. "I tell Mer to be careful, but he can be so stubborn--"
Teyla Emmagen took her arm gently. "Ronon and I will take you home. You can ease your fears by talking to him yourself."
Jeannie nodded. "Thank you."
"How about you, Jackson?" the big guy -- Ronon -- said. "Give you a ride home?"
"Thanks, no, I'm in the opposite direction. I can just take the train.”
"If you're sure," Ronon said. "Let me at least take your pictures with me so you don't have to carry them on the train. I can drop them off for you later."
"No, that's all right. I've got them." Jackson took back the bulky case of slides possessively, balancing them with his notebooks.
"I'm going to the station, too," I said, a few steps further along. "Can I help you carry some of that?"
We were at the corner of Third Street by now. The evening was cool and overcast, the way it usually was near the beach.
"Oh. Well, yes, actually. Thank you."
I took the notebooks, leaving him to handle the case.
"I hope that wasn't Jeannie's brother they were talking about," Jackson mused as we waited for the light to change. "I hope it didn't happen to anybody. It always seems to start an entire round of academic punishments once they get started, doesn’t it? But I’m sure it's not Rodney. Jeannie would have heard." The light changed, and the evening crowd and tourists started across the street, but Jackson didn't notice, and I let him talk.
"Jeannie always says he's not as careful as he should be, but you could say that about any of us, couldn't you? The Service showed up a week after I defended my dissertation--" he broke off, finally noticing the light, and took off across the street in long strides.
I was only a step behind him when a big, dark bulk of a car suddenly pulled out. Jackson froze for a fatal instant when he realized the car was heading straight for us. I dove at him, shoving as hard as I could. Both of us rolled against the curb as the tires spun past our heads. The next car stopped with Jackson and me in its headlights.
"Golly!" a woman's voice exclaimed. "Are you all right?"
Jackson was still clutching his case of slides to his chest, but I had dropped the notebooks, and stray sheets of paper were scattered across the intersection and fluttering down under the streetlights as frantic as mourning doves.
Chapter 7: Cold Blood
I got Jackson onto the sidewalk, where he stood clutching his case of slides along with the one notebook that hadn't been burst open and scattered to the winds. I gathered as many stray pages as I could find, dodging traffic up and down both sides of the boulevard. A few members of the crowd on their way to the beach helped out when they saw what I was doing. Most ignored us, stepping around Jackson like he was a mess somebody's dog had left on the sidewalk.
When I couldn't find any more papers, I brought the last of them to Jackson, squaring the loose pages and clipping them down. "I think that's it."
"Thank you," he said carefully. He had taken a pretty good knock on the head when I pushed him down, and his broken glasses were in a vest pocket.
I shook my head and stepped to the corner to flag down a cab. I got Jackson into the back seat of the first one that stopped and piled his slides and notebooks beside him. I asked him where he wanted to go and he gave me an address off Laurel Canyon, which was a little surprising for a guy giving ten-cent travelogues at a public library. "You have enough money on you to get home?" I asked.
He blinked. "Probably not?" He had skinned both hands when he fell, and he had blots of dried blood on his face as well as all over the case of slides and both notebooks.
"All right," I said. Apparently, taking care of hapless academics was my new lot in life. I signaled to the driver to wait for me, and I walked around the cab to climb in the other side. I offered Jackson my flask as we pulled away from the curb. He sniffed at the top, but made a little frown of distaste before handing it back. I swallowed enough for both of us. "How does your head feel?" I asked him. "Do we need to stop at a hospital?"
"I'm fine," he said, without a whole lot of conviction.
"I can see that. Here's another question. What did you do to make someone so mad they would try to run you down on a public street?"
His head came up. His eyes had looked a little unfocused without his glasses, but they sharpened now. "You think that was deliberate?"
"Whoever was behind the wheel would have smashed us both flatter than cream laid paper if they hadn't veered at the last second."
"So it was an accident."
"More like cold feet. Someone found it harder to run down a man in cold blood than they had expected."
"That's-- You can't possibly know that for sure."
"It’s just a nasty suspicion. Did you break any hearts recently?"
Jackson just raised his eyebrows incredulously.
"It doesn’t work that way. The people who disagree with my work don't hire me or publish my papers. Nobody needs to run me down on the street."
"Not even someone who might find some of your theories a little outside religious orthodoxy?"
Jackson sighed and bowed his head. "If that were really the case, they would send the Service after me. You've got to understand, though, archeology isn’t like engineering or one of the hard sciences. No one is all that worried I’m going to hare off and start doing unauthorized things with goa’uld technology."
The address I had given the cabbie was so far up Laurel Canyon that the LA lights were just a steady glow through the haze by the time we arrived. The house itself was several steps below street level and hidden beyond an eight-foot bamboo fence. Jackson didn't thank me for paying the cab driver, but he also didn't question me when I got out with him.
The interior courtyard was paved with widely-set flagstones, thick moss growing in between. A fountain bubbled in the light of goa'uld lanterns. Dr Jackson fit his key into a front door with cross beams and iron fittings like a castle gate. I followed him in, still carrying his notebooks.
The long front room had a row of windows facing the canyon, glowing with the city lights. When Jackson flipped on the inside lights, the windows reflected back the line of display cases covering the back wall. The shelves were filled with the sort of bric-a-brac that must be interesting to an archaeologist: bits of pottery, small statuary, little things the color of mud. The walls that didn’t have display cases were decorated with photographs of Egypt that looked like they could have come from Dr. Jackson's slide lecture. The furniture consisted of cold, minimalist pieces of steel and leather and glass which must have been imported from Europe before the war.
Jackson put down his case and seemed to notice the blood on his hands for the first time. "Excuse me," he said, extending his palms towards me like a child. "I'm just going to--"
"Sure," I said, and he wandered off down the hallway, leaving me to look at dirt-colored artifacts. More interesting to me was the small, built-in bar under a photograph of pyramids. Jackson hadn't impressed me as much of a drinker, but the soda siphon was full, a bottle of nice bourbon beside it. I mixed Jackson and me both a drink before he came back, his hands pink from washing, surgical gauze and Mercurochrome cradled in his arms.
"Need some help?" I asked.
He nodded. "Thank you. I was having trouble figuring out how to wrap up my own hands."
I sat him down on the steel and leather sofa and painted the heels of his hands with the orange Mercurochrome. He scowled but didn't complain out loud. When I finished cocooning his hands in gauze and medical tape, I handed him one of the drinks I had poured. "That will take the sting off."
He looked at the glass. "Thank you," he said, and put it down without tasting it. "Are you all right?" he asked suddenly. "You have -- the side of your head looks like you hit the pavement pretty hard." He touched his own temple to demonstrate.
I felt the side of my head and winced a little at the bruise. I’d forgotten the haymaker I had taken yesterday while trying to get McKay off the street. "I'm fine."
"Can I get you an aspirin, at least?"
"I'm all right. It didn't happen tonight."
Jackson looked worried. "You make a habit of this sort of thing?"
Apparently I did. What I said was, "Not intentionally."
"I think I could use a cup of coffee," Jackson announced, standing up.
I followed him down the hallway. There were alcoves in the walls, adorned with statuary and urns, on pedestals or not, depending on the size of the piece. "Did you bring all this back from Egypt?"
"What?" Jackson asked, startled. "Oh, they're not mine. They're not even Egyptian. Well, there is a tablet depicting Khnum in one of the display cases, so that's technically Egyptian, but these are much later and from a different region altogether. Very different regions," he repeated, almost smiling. "The collector has traveled extensively."
I wasn't surprised. Probably the same person who kept the siphon filled. "Is he home tonight?"
Jackson's eyebrows went up.
"Or her," I asked, caution to the winds.
"Who?" Jackson asked, sounding bewildered.
"The collector? Your housemate?"
"Was there something you wanted?" Jackson asked, apparently noticing for the first time that he had brought a complete stranger home with him.
"A cup of coffee if you're making it," I tried, but apparently that wasn't going to work anymore, because Jackson frowned at me, backing away down the hall. "And you never told me what the eternal question was."
"Oh! You asked me that back at the library. You really didn't know what I meant."
"I really didn't. Still don't."
Following someone home to Laurel Canyon just to get a question answered apparently made perfect sense to Jackson, because he led the way to the kitchen without any more concern. Pulling out a vacuum carafe for coffee, he said, "It's sort of an inside joke for archaeologists. But it’s deadly serious, too, just like most things that are actually important in the cosmic sense."
I took the carafe from him and filled it at the sink so he wouldn't get the new bandages wet. I flicked a match with my thumbnail to light the stove as Daniel talked. He still had a splotch of dried blood on his forehead. "It's what every serious scholar of human culture would like to know, except the ones who are looking for tenure won't admit it. It's the inevitable subtext of all religious studies. It has to be, don't you think?"
I said "Um," and spooned ground coffee into the upper carafe.
"How many of our religious beliefs were originally given to us by the goa'uld, and how many are native to mankind, and only adopted by the goa'uld much later?"
"So, how many?" It was a measure of how much time I had been spending with heretics that I wasn't even particularly surprised.
"Yes, exactly!" Jackson said eagerly. "Did the Dharma really come from a human Siddhartha Gautama sitting under a Bodhi tree? Did you know there are early versions of the Mahabharata that claim a hunter named Jaru mortally wounded Krishna as he sat in meditation, and his body was cremated, instead of being taken up to heaven in transporter rings? Were the gospels of Christ originally the teachings of a man, and the resurrection from the sarcophagus just a later goa'uld addition?"
I was staring at the flames under the coffee maker, all my attention focused on waiting for the water to boil.
"Obviously, there's a strong bias for believing the goa'uld molded themselves on preexisting human religious figures," Jackson prattled on. "But flattering beliefs aren't proof."
I heard myself asking, "And what would proof accomplish?"
"It's the only way we'll ever understand who we are as a species. Who the goa'uld are, as well," Jackson said, as if there had been any doubt about where this conversation was going.
"That's why you study ancient Egypt?" I asked. "You want to know whether Ra and Apophis were humans before they were goa'uld?" My eyes were still firmly fixed on the tiny bubbles rising along the edge of the carafe.
"Well, that really oversimplifies an entire -- but I suppose yes, it is, in a sense."
"There are people who would say you're challenging God."
That only seemed to puzzle him. "Well, they would be wrong. How can you challenge God until you know who he is?"
We drank his coffee while sitting on the imported furniture, surrounded by the not-Egyptian artifacts. I confined my questions to what he had been doing during the war years. Earning degrees in linguistics and archeology at the University of Chicago, apparently, and if he knew anything about Elizabeth Weir, or intelligence work in Tunisia, he didn't volunteer it to me. I told him to be careful crossing the street before I left in time to catch the last trolley out of the Canyon.
I got off on Sunset, close enough to walk home. The clubs hadn't closed yet, so the streets were quiet. I thought about my day spent with self-destructive academics and wondered who Daniel Jackson's housemate was, and whether Caldwell's detectives were having more luck than me finding the elusive Elizabeth Weir.
The gray tom was sitting at the foot of the stairs to my apartment. When he saw me, he flicked his tail and bounded away across the courtyard instead of preceding me up to mooch a late dinner. I watched him go, then looked up the stairs. The balcony beside my front door was mostly in darkness, as it had been for months waiting for the Service to get around to fixing the apartment building's outside lights. I walked up, but before I put the key in the lock, I went to the end of the building and looked around the corner. The streetlight threw stark shadows, slanting sideways across the balcony and the single apartment door on the south side of the building. I looked behind me and down across the courtyard again, then pulled out my keys and unlocked my own front door.
The attack came after I had the door open, while I was still wriggling the key free from the lock. Either I heard movement, or just felt the whistle of air past my ear. I jerked my head aside, and something smacked the point of my shoulder with enough force to send me to my knees. The fingers in my left hand instantly went numb.
Curling my head down, I hunched my shoulders and sprang. Another blow rattled across the knobs of my spine like a hammer on the keys of a xylophone, but by then I was driving my shoulder into the other man's gut. He wasn't big, and he went down hard. His head hit the balcony with a crack, his tire iron ringing as it bounced once beside him. I lurched to my feet, groaning more than I meant to. I felt my shoulder gingerly. Nothing broken. The guy with the tire iron was groaning louder, twitching a little. I bent down and picked up his weapon even though he didn't look like he would be using it again any time soon, before I stepped into my apartment and switched on a light. I looked at my attacker for a moment, wondering if anything could surprise me anymore. Then I leaned the tire iron against the door and reached down to help Dr. Zelenka get up.
He didn't take my hand. Flinging one arm over his face he muttered, "Leave me alone or call the police or kill me. I cannot stop you."
I opened and closed my left fist, trying to get the feeling back in my fingers. The white hot pain in my shoulder was slowly damping down into a more specific, more intolerable ache. I gritted my teeth against it before I managed to tell Zelenka, "You nearly took my arm off. I think I deserve an explanation before I choose any of those options."
He closed his eyes and drew his knees up. "Do not be stupid," he muttered. "Did you think because Rodney is rude and socially inept that he has no friends? That no one would notice what you did, or that they would not care?"
"Right. Get up."
Zelenka still refused to take my hand, so I wrapped mine around his wrist and dragged him bodily to his feet. He didn't fight, but when he was upright, glaring at me like he was still prepared to use that tire iron, his furious eyes suddenly rolled up in his head and his knees buckled. I caught him because that was easier than scraping his skinny bones back up from the balcony would have been, carried him into the living room and dumped him in a chair. I felt the back of his head and found the rising lump without any trouble. It was no wonder he had passed out. I got him a glass of water from the sink and splashed half of it in his face.
He came awake sputtering, then groaned and clutched at his head. I handed him a handkerchief to mop his face dry, and then gave him the rest of the glass of water. Pain was cascading down my left arm like an avalanche building up steam, and I wasn't interested in standing up any longer, so I sat down on the couch. It didn't help. I would have taken a slug from my flask, but frankly, the way I was feeling, I wasn't sure I would be able to keep it down.
"That was you earlier," I said at last. "When you tried to run me and Dr. Jackson down in Bay City. I would have recognized your Studebaker if I'd gotten a better look at it."
"I did not try to run down your companion," Zelenka said. "I veered away when you lunged for him."
"My mistake." I got out a cigarette, but I was too nauseated to light that either. I said, "Regardless, premeditated murder is a one-way ticket to a line of Jaffa with staff weapons in their Sunday best."
"Only if I get caught."
"You may be a genius when it comes to thinking machines, Dr. Zelenka, but to judge by this evening, you're still a rank amateur at murder."
He didn't disagree. He sipped unhappily from his glass of water and felt the bump on the back of his head. When it became clear he wasn't going to volunteer anything else, I finally asked. "So are you going to tell me what I did to McKay that was so heinous you're willing to risk a murder rap? Because as far as I know, all I did was rescue him from a street mob that was ready to tear him limb from limb."
Zelenka snorted. "That is the story poor Rodney tells. He is so besotted he will not hear a word against you. You fought off a mob! You took him into your home and paid for a doctor for him! You put him to sleep in your own bed! Hosts of heavenly Jaffa strew rose petals wherever you go!"
"If he really said that last one, I hope you called another doctor for him."
"Rodney can be foolish and very naïve when it comes to other people, but he is a good man, and a brilliant scientist. I do not say such lightly. He is one man in a generation. Whoever has hired you, whatever they are paying you, please. We need Rodney, not only as a fellow scientist, but as an advocate for the human species."
I blinked at the earnest little Czech. "The only person who hired me to do anything for McKay was Rodney himself."
"Then why did you report him to the Civil Service?" Zelenka was so angry he was almost shouting. He started to come up out of his chair, but had to sink back with a groan.
"Would you calm down? I didn't report McKay to anybody. I think he's an idiot for messing with goa'uld tech, but that's his own business."
"I know you are lying! The very day I met you, Rodney came back from dinner with a bruise on his jaw, and he told me you had punched him in the face."
Well, that was true enough. "Just because I disagree with a man's politics, which I do, doesn't mean I would report him to the Service."
Zelenka rolled his eyes. “You left a message for Rodney to meet you downtown where the Service was waiting for him. Rodney did not even question! He caught the first train into town--"
"For the last time, I didn't call McKay."
Zelenka made an angry, dismissive gesture. "Who else would have any reason to?"
"That's what you're going to have to figure out if you really want to protect him."
Dr. Zelenka took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, saying more things that weren't in English. "It is impossible. Rodney himself believes the department secretary simply made a mistake."
"It wasn't me, Dr. Zelenka." I turned my head so he could see the same bruise at my temple Daniel Jackson had noticed earlier. "If I really wanted to hurt McKay, I’m pretty sure I could figure out a way that didn’t involve me getting punched out, too. Twice by this point," I continued, my arm still throbbing. "And nearly run down in the street. Come to think of it, my life would be a lot simpler and certainly less painful if I had just let the mob have him."
Zelenka didn’t stop glaring at me right away, but eventually, some of the fury faded. Maybe it was just too exhausting to keep up, what with that bump he had on the back of his head. With a sigh he finally admitted, “If I was wrong, I am sorry.”
I tried to shrug, but my shoulder hurt too much. “We all make mistakes.”
His expression sharpened, suspecting that I was making fun of him.
“And lucky for me, you were a very bad assassin. I couldn’t have fought off a bomb, for instance.”
“That was my first idea,” he admitted with frankly chilling nonchalance. “But there are far too many variables with an explosive device. Enough to make the differential equations Baby solves look like child’s play! I could not risk hurting anyone else.”
I rubbed my left shoulder gingerly with my right hand. “Where were you hiding? Wait. Did you break into my neighbor’s apartment? There’s nowhere else you could have been.”
Zelenka looked slyly pleased with himself. “Fortunately, your neighbor was not at home this evening.”
“Why didn’t you just break into my rooms?”
“I am no locksmith, to go picking locks willy-nilly! But your neighbor had a goa’uld-designed dead bolt on his door, so --” Zelenka shrugged.
Right. So the only difference between Zelenka and McKay when it came to illegal tinkering with goa’uld tech was that Zelenka made reasonably sure he didn’t have an audience first.
“Mr. Sheppard, my problem remains. How can I protect Rodney?”
“What you’re really asking is how do you protect McKay from himself.” I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. “Good luck with that.”
“You are a private detective. I would like to pay you for your services.”
“To do what? Protect McKay? No, sorry. You would need a full-time bodyguard, like the studios hire to protect their big stars. Not my line of work.”
“Could you find out who reported him to the Service?”
“Possibly, but what does that gain you? Whoever reported McKay had every legal right to do so. Dr. Zelenka, you seem like a good friend to McKay, and I suspect he doesn’t have too many. Go home, talk to him about taking sensible precautions. Make him listen to you. That’s the best thing you can do for him right now.”
I heard Zelenka getting up, and I opened my eyes.
“Thank you for not calling the police,” he said rather stiffly.
“Do you need a cab?”
“My car is a few blocks away.”
Of course it was. I watched him let himself out, and then I got up and turned the key in my plain human door lock and went to bed.
The sun was shining through the blinds like a busy old fool when I woke to the ringing of my telephone. I started to sit up, and found that my left arm wouldn't move at all. Cursing and groaning, I slithered to the end of the bed and mostly rolled off. The phone kept ringing, mindless and maddening as I finally got my feet under me and yanked up the receiver.
"Major Sheppard?" asked the voice on the line.
"You're talking to him," I said, not mollified.
"Evan Lorne, sir. You probably don't remember, but we served together for a few months in Essex."
"I remember," I said, sinking down onto the bed. He was a good man, sober and dependable. I was still trying to curl the numb fingers of my left hand into a fist. "What can I do for you?"
Lorne explained that he did occasional work for Colonel Caldwell's detective agency.
And then he told me he had found Elizabeth Weir.
Chapter 8: Bogie
Evan Lorne didn’t actually mention Elizabeth Weir’s name on the phone. He only said he had located the individual I had hired Caldwell’s agency to find, and that he wanted to give me the specifics in person.
I supposed that was prudent.
He proposed meeting me in a couple of hours in a restaurant on the corner of King and Melrose. I probably should have been more eager to hear his information, but instead I was just grateful to have two more hours to try to get my arm working again. I limped around the apartment, drank a cup of coffee and sat in the bathtub for a while smoking a cigarette. I was feeling every knob on my spine where Dr. Zelenka’s tire iron had rattled down my back last night, and I was wondering why I hadn’t called the police on that dangerous little Czech after all.
I was still in a black humor when I walked down to the restaurant. The Hollywood Hills were muffled in an airless haze. Not much of a view for Dr. Jackson this morning. The sun was dim and hot through dust-colored clouds, and I was sweating by the time I reached the restaurant. Inside it was dark and not very cool, despite the fans spinning in the ceiling. The slow-moving air smelled like the stale atmosphere outside, spiked with hot cooking grease from the kitchen. I didn’t see Lorne in the dining room, so I escaped through the curtains at the back into the bar. The air was no cooler back there, but the bartender poured me a gimlet that made my arm and back feel better.
When I checked the dining room again, I saw a man who looked familiar sitting by the front window. His head came up when he saw me, and he got to his feet. “Sheppard.” He was wearing a carefully maintained brown suit that wasn't very new, and the Los Angeles sun had bleached his hair lighter than it had been in England.
I walked over and shook his hand. “Major Lorne. How is civilian life treating you?”
We sat down together and Lorne ordered lunch as he told me. The work he did for Caldwell’s agency wasn’t his first choice, but it paid the bills. What he really enjoyed was advertising, but the field was so crowded right now he couldn’t find regular employment.
“Advertising?” I asked. “Writing copy?”
He might have blushed a little. It was hard to tell in the bad light. “Uh, the pictures, actually. You know those wasp-waisted women in improbable house dresses? Waxing the floor or dusting the venetian blinds? Someone has to do the drawings. I'm pretty good, and I enjoy it. But this is what you came down here for." He pulled a long, folded piece of paper out of an inside pocket and handed it over. I unfolded it to find a neatly printed room number and an address on Summer Avenue.
"Summer. Where is that? Van Nuys?"
Lorne shook his head. "Avalon. Catalina Island."
I may have blinked. "And you found Weir this fast?"
"Luck of the draw. Caldwell told me to rule out Catalina first, then come in to Long Beach and up to Bay City. As it turned out, I didn't have to."
"Have you actually laid eyes on Weir?"
"No. I gave a few bucks to the guy at the reception desk. He let me look at the register.”
"She was signed in under her own name?"
Lorne shrugged. "Maybe she doesn't expect anyone to be looking for her. I spent a couple of hours strolling around and keeping the hotel in sight, thinking she might put in an appearance. She didn’t, so I decided it was more important to get back to the mainland and let you and the Colonel know.”
“What kind of a place is she in?”
“Middle class hotel. Maybe a little nicer than that, but not so nice the concierge couldn’t be bribed.” He spread his hands. “You won’t get past the front desk without being announced, if that’s what you’re asking.”
It was. I thanked him and picked up the tab for his New York strip when he was done. I invited him to join me for another gimlet. Lorne hesitated, but finally agreed, and we spent another half hour catching up on the world. He asked if I had seen Cameron Mitchell lately.
I told him Cam was doing all right.
“Is he still waiting for a go in a sarcophagus to fix that bum leg of his?”
“He’ll still be waiting for that when he’s old and gray,” I said.
Lorne smiled a little sadly. “Well, by then it’ll do him even more good. Is he still in the Department?”
I nodded. “Moving right on up the ladder. Always thought his smooth talking was good for more than just meeting girls.”
I wished Lorne good luck with his career in advertising, and then there was no reason for me not to catch a train down to the Long Beach shipyards. I didn’t like it. The whole thing was far too smooth and easy for me, but I didn’t see that I had much of a choice. I found myself smoking a cigarette on the pier outside passenger loading, waiting for the Catalina ferry and pondering who was being fooled with here, and why. A hot dog seller was yelling about his red hots nearby, and a kid was moving through the waiting passengers shilling peanuts. It was about ten degrees cooler than it had been up in Hollywood, a stiff breeze blowing off the water, and I was thinking that Lorne was a straight-up guy. Still, what I had read about Elizabeth Weir didn’t make her sound like the type who would hide from Jolinar by signing in under her own name at a tourist destination.
Maybe Lorne was right. Maybe she didn’t figure the goa’uld she had robbed would be looking for her.
Put like that, Lorne’s tip seemed more unlikely than ever. I would have been happier armed, but I didn’t think I would be allowed on the ferry carrying a gun. Sure enough, as the ferry backed into its berth at last, one hired Jaffa appeared and took up a stand next to the fellow punching tickets at the beginning of the gangplank. Good business practice to keep things conspicuously safe and tidy-looking for the tourists. The Jaffa patted me down as I handed over my ticket, and I found a seat on the bench at the stern and lit another cigarette. Minutes ticked past. The ferry was loaded, no more passengers coming up the gangplank. I heard grumbling around me as time continued to pass, and there was still no sign that we were getting ready to cast off.
I was lighting a third cigarette when I saw who we had been waiting for.
A line of Jaffa were marching across the pier, at least a dozen or more. Unlike the single Jaffa playing security guard next to the ticket taker, these were wearing tailored suits with metal sashes, and they were all carrying staff weapons. The grumbling from the ferry passengers turned into exclamations of dismay. There was no escape -- the gangplank was the only way on or off, short of jumping overboard. The other passengers surged away as the Jaffa reached the deck. I found myself shoved up against the railings by the panicky press of the crowd, and I lost my cigarette to the lapping waves below. My own pulse was beating hard in my throat. Hemmed in by the other passengers, all I could see were the ends of the staff weapons moving towards the prow and then disappearing into one of the private cabins.
A palpable sense of relief swept over the ferry as soon as the Jaffa were out of sight. A few people scuttled down the gangplank before we cast off. I didn’t blame them. If I had been close enough to get off the boat, I might have left, too. Three hours trapped on board with a contingent of Jaffa who might become cranky or bored or claustrophobic or worse wasn’t anybody’s idea of a good time. Probably not even a Jaffa’s.
There had been talk before the war of making Avalon a major destination for Jaffa, installing ring transporters to the island, a landing ground for tel'taks and the rest of it, but nothing had ever come of those plans. I'd never been sorry until now, when it meant sharing accommodations all the way across the bay on a ferry that didn't even have goa'uld engines.
Most of the passengers didn’t move, even as the ferry finally shifted away from the dock and out into the open sea. The landing became indistinguishable from the grid of piers on either side of it, all made identical by the increasing distance, and finally the shipyards themselves were just a blocky interruption of the long, sandy beach. Only then did the press of people who had remained crowded together like scared sheep finally begin to relax. I never got my seat on the bench back, but I was finally able to flex my elbows.
The ocean was calm and azure blue, and the wind smelled sweet after the airless haze over Hollywood, but it was still a long, miserable ride. The captain of the ferry had evidently made preparations to ensure the Jaffa remained entertained, since they didn't reappear after vanishing into the forward cabin. Still, the human passengers never really relaxed, me included.
I didn’t know we had arrived until the sound of the engines changed. As the ferry pulled into port at last, the human passengers once again crowded to the stern, though there was less panic now. It was probably clear to everyone the Jaffa would only be interested in disembarking now. They appeared on deck with their suit coats still looking crisp, and marched away down the gangplank, well on their way across the boardwalk before the rest of us lined up to leave the ferry.
Avalon is set in a natural cove, its streets laid out with all the care that gambling and drinking interests usually lavish on urban design. The casino on the northern end of the cove is a circular white palace that juts out into the water, looking a little like a cross between a Greek temple and that tel’tak landing bay that was never actually built on the island. The island had been closed to tourists during the war, but the place seemed to be making up for lost time now. The beach was crowded with cabanas and steamer chairs, filled with chubby white shoulders and thighs. The line of Jaffa had caused a momentary stir, but as they marched on towards the casino, the swimmers and sunbathers settled back in their wake.
I asked directions from a man with a lemonade stand just off the boardwalk, and I walked up into town. The first block across from the beach was filled with restaurants, outside tables sheltered by large umbrellas and open-front bars facing the water. These were interspersed with shops selling bathing suits and sea shells and commemorative plates with pictures of the casino.
A few blocks further in were private homes and bars without an ocean view for the serious drinkers. I saw a grocery store and gas station. The hotels and apartment buildings here were smaller and looked as though they had been built before the war. The address Lorne had given me on Summer Avenue was a half-hearted attempt at a villa, stucco walls and a green tile roof, with wrought iron railings in front of the second and third story balconies. Two palm trees in desperate need of pruning, dead fronds hanging down their trunks, stood at front corners of the building.
I walked the rest of the way down the block, turned right, then turned right again to see the alley behind. From the back, the hotel on Summer was plain brick, without stucco or balconies or fancy ironwork except for fire escape ladders zig-zagging between the windows, ending ten feet above the street. There was a small back door that led to a patio with trashcans. I tried the door and wasn't terribly surprised to find it locked.
I walked back around to the front. The entryway was tiled with blue and white ceramic bricks that were sadly cracked from a couple of decades of footsteps and sunshine. Inside, yellowish light filtered through colored glass windows. The fretted ceiling of the lobby was two stories high, with lanterns draped in dusty silk fringe and spiderwebs hanging from looped chains. Overgrown rubber trees muffled the corners. A marble staircase swooped ponderously up behind the front desk into the shadows beyond. There was no elevator.
A pretty kid selling cigarettes sat behind a small counter next to another rubber tree plant that was aspiring to redwood heights. I walked over and smiled. He rolled his bored green eyes up at me and sold me a pack of cigarettes without a word. His red silk uniform had gold trim. I smiled harder and tipped him two bucks. He left the bills untouched on the counter while he eyed me suspiciously. I was glad I hadn’t tried to give him three.
"Nice weather we're having today."
He blinked, which might have counted as progress.
"There was a regiment of Jaffa with staff weapons on the ferry over from Long Beach. Does that happen a lot? Seems like it would put a real crimp in the tourist trade."
"They've been on the L.A. trains lately, too. Showing up during rush hour, scaring off the commuters. Makes you wonder what's going on, doesn't it?"
Not the cigarette seller, apparently. I didn't even get a shrug this time. “Worked here long?” I asked.
I was still smiling, a conscious effort by this point. “The thing is, I’m here to see one of your guests, a Dr. Elizabeth Weir, and I want to make a good first impression. Do you know what kind of cigarettes she smokes?”
I persevered. “Because, you know, I’d like to be able to give her a box of her brand.”
He crossed his slender arms over his chest and didn’t say anything.
“Do you know Dr. Weir? Has she ever bought cigarettes from you?”
“Sell a lot of cigarettes, do you?”
“You need to speak to the manager, Mr. Villeneuve.” He pointed at the enormous marble reception desk across the shadowy lobby.
“Right,” I said. “Thanks for all the help.”
There was no one behind the desk until I started walking over. Then a door opened under the staircase and a man came out who looked about as friendly and forthcoming as the cigarette boy.
My smile hadn’t done me much good so far, but I kept it pasted across my face all the same. “Elizabeth Weir, please,” I said. “Would you let her know John Sheppard is here to see her?”
His expression didn’t change. “Dr. Weir left no message about expecting a visitor.”
“It’s a surprise.”
The manager narrowed his eyes, and I could hardly blame him. Right about now I was wondering why I had even gone into the private detective business in the first place. Had the ferry ride with a regiment of Jaffa rattled me that badly? Or maybe I was still a little scrambled from Dr. Zelenka’s lovetaps with a tire iron last night. “If you would let her know that I’m here,” I said again. “I’m sure she’ll want to see me,” I continued, though I didn’t know any such thing.
The manager looked at me. I looked back.
“It seems a little late in the day to become overly particular about the information you’ll share about your guests,” I observed mildly.
Mr. Villeneuve’s expression hadn’t been exactly warm to begin with, but it turned to frost at that. “I’m not even asking to see the registration log,” I said politely. “Just an announcement and a room number, if you don’t mind.”
He scowled furiously, but finally opened a book on his desk and dialed a number. “Dr. Weir, please,” he said. His eyes were carefully trained somewhere over my left shoulder. “You have a visitor. He identifies himself as John Sheppard.” He put the phone down after another moment and met my eyes without joy. “Room 303.”
“Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.”
Mr. Villeneuve didn’t say anything, only watched me up the marble staircase with a dark expression. The marble underfoot became carpeted wood at the second floor, and by the third floor the management dispensed with carpet on the staircase altogether.
The hallway on the third floor was lit only by the sunlight coming through the open transoms above doors on the west side of the building. Apparently it had been a while since the Civil Service had been around to look at the light fixtures. Dr. Weir’s room was behind one of the west-facing doors. I knocked and waited for an answer. When none came, I put my ear against the door panel. Nothing. The knob turned when I tried it, so I pushed the door open.
The blinds on the windows at the far side of the room were wide open, and the afternoon sunlight came pouring into the long, narrow space. There was a single door to my left, which was closed. A fold-away bed was down, although it had been made up neatly, and a woman was sitting on the side of it, her face to the window. She didn’t turn around as I entered the room. With the bright light behind her, I couldn't see much, but she was slender, not tall, wearing her hair pinned up, dressed in what looked in silhouette like a tailored, mannish coat and trousers.
"Dr. Weir," I said. "John Sheppard. Thank you for seeing me."
There was no response. I stepped closer slowly, feeling uneasy. There was still no movement from Weir. I looked over my shoulder at the room's one closed door, and when I looked back, the woman who had been on the bed was standing right in front of me. I hadn't heard even a whisper of movement.
I had time to think that she wasn't Elizabeth Weir before she grabbed the cuff of my shirt, lowered her head and yanked me completely over her shoulder. I flailed and tumbled, landing hard on my back. She adjusted her grip on my sleeve to grasp my wrist, and planted her foot on my shoulder.
I groaned a little.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I think there's been a mistake," I said, once I was able to speak.
"I do not believe so," she countered sternly, and dug her heel into the bruise Radek Zelenka had given me last night. "Who are you, and why are you looking for Dr. Weir?"
"I thought this was her room,” I managed. “The manager must have given me the wrong number."
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the closed door beginning to open. I stretched out the arm that wasn't pinioned, grabbed the woman's pants leg, and tried to pull her off her feet.
I didn't stand a chance. She regained her balance before she had ever really lost it and as I rolled over and got to my knees, she kicked me smartly in the sternum. I collapsed, wheezing. I was aware of someone else in the room, moving towards us, and tried again to get up. This time the blow fell across the small of my back, probably clipping a kidney. I went down hard, and this time I stayed down.
“Hey, Teyla,” said a male voice. “I think I recognize this guy.”
A hand fell on my shoulder and rolled me over onto my back.
“I believe you are correct,” Teyla Emmagen said. “He was at Dr. Jackson’s lecture last night.”
“John Sheppard,” Ronon Dex said thoughtfully. “I didn’t recognize the name at first. Jeannie said you were one of Kaleb’s students or something like that, didn’t she?” And abruptly Dex was sighting down at me along the barrel of a weapon that didn’t look like any gun I had ever seen before. It wasn’t goa’uld. It didn’t look like anything except a movie prop. Maybe for a Buck Rogers serial. “You’re not really here to study poetry, are you, Sheppard?”
I couldn’t concentrate with that ridiculous gun pointed between my eyes, so I reached up and pushed the barrel aside. The surface was cool and smooth, like a lightweight ceramic, not metal. “Do you mind?”
The big guy grinned. “No. I don’t mind,” and fired.
There was a wooden bench under the dressing table. Dex’s shot took out two of the bench’s legs. I might have yelped a little. The bench tilted to the side and fell over with a muffled smack on the thin carpet.
I propped my arms under myself and scooted backwards until I hit the wall. “What the hell is that?” His gun had the sheer destructive power of a staff weapon in a device that could be carried in one hand. It was nothing like a zat’nik’tel or any other device restricted to goa’uld and Jaffa. And it certainly wasn’t of human manufacture. Not of any humans here on earth.
"Jackson said you helped him get home last night,” Dex observed.
“You saved him from being hit by a car,” Emmagen agreed. “You bandaged his hands and talked to him about his studies, I understand. He said he enjoyed your company.”
No one seemed very interested in answering my question about the weapon. Dex put in, “Jackson may not be as careful around strangers as he should be, but he’s not actually stupid. Not entirely, anyway. So tell me, John Sheppard, who are you?” He went back to pointing the gun at my head.
I took a deep breath, gauging how much I hurt. Then I said, “I’m a private investigator.”
Dex grinned again. “Like in the movies? Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling all at once kind of sorry for myself. “Just like Bogart.”
Emmagen looked down at me, seeming a lot less impressed by my line of work than her companion was. “Do you require permission from the authorities to engage in this business of private spying and detective work?”
“I have a license in my wallet. Don’t shoot me while I get it out.”
“No promises,” Dex said cheerfully, and I kept one eye on him as I pulled my wallet out of my coat and handed it up to his companion. She opened it and pulled out my license, examining it critically before passing it to Dex. He gave it a far more perfunctory glance before tossing the wallet and my license into my lap.
“Now you know who I am,” I said. “Why don’t you put that gun away and tell me what you’re doing here?”
Dex raised an eyebrow, but he evidently didn’t feel I was too much of a threat, because with a shrug, he tucked his weapon away into the shoulder holster under his coat. I couldn't figure these two out. They certainly didn’t sound like underworld muscle. I could only guess they were compatriots of Weir from the war years in Istanbul, in which case I was fortunate not to be dead already.
Of course, the day wasn't over yet.
"You still haven't told us why you're looking for Weir," Dex said.
"This license you carry," Emmagen said. "Does it mean someone is paying you money to find her?"
"I do have a client who would very much like to meet Dr. Weir,” I said carefully.
"That so?" Dex said. “Who is it?"
“Sorry. Protecting the confidentiality of my clients is one of the reasons they give me this licence. Listen, you are obviously good friends of Dr. Weir. If you would just take a message to her--"
"You won't say who hired you?"
Dex produced a six-inch knife like a magician producing colored scarves from thin air and waved it in my face just as theatrically. "Would you tell me if I started cutting pieces off?"
"Eventually,” I answered honestly. “Especially if you could keep me alive long enough."
"I could." He seemed pretty confident on that point.
"But it would be a waste of your time and effort. You'd get blood everywhere, and at any rate, I have reason to believe Elizabeth Weir already knows exactly who is looking for her, as well as why. It's obvious Dr. Weir has loyal friends, but my client has access to vast resources. Do away with me, and someone else will take my place. On the other hand, I may be able to make Dr Weir's...misunderstanding with my client go away. Perhaps arrange fair remuneration for the return of the disputed object. That would be more valuable to Dr. Weir than my bloody corpse left in a tourist hotel."
Dex's knife sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. He shared a look with Emmagen, and then the knife went away. "Get out of here," he said, rather gently. "We'll talk about it."
I lurched to my feet and gathered up my hat and the shreds of my dignity, thanked both of them for their time, and I left.
Out on the street, the sun was too bright for my eyes. My muscles were still trembling, and I was covered in a cold sweat that was drying quickly in the ocean breeze, making me feel sticky with salt. I made my way to the beach and sat down in the sand in the shadow of a striped cabana. Everything hurt. The long draught I took from my flask didn’t do much to help, but when I stretched out flat and put my hat over my face, the warmth of the hot sand through the back of my coat soothed some of the aches.
When I got up again, I had missed the last ferry back to Long Beach, so I walked into the lobby of the biggest hotel on the beach and asked for a room. At the sight of Jolinar’s money, the desk clerk didn’t quibble about my lack of luggage or the bourbon on my breath or the sand in the seams of my coat. One of the bellhops brought up a clean glass, a lime, and a bucket of ice, and I sat on the edge of the bed watching the ocean turn red and gold as the sun set behind Catalina. “Just like Bogie,” I said out loud, and toasted the sky with the dregs of my flask.
Chapter 9: The Apricot Grove
I didn't catch the first or even the second ferry out of Avalon on Monday morning, but I was still back in Hollywood by noon. Before going to my apartment I stopped at the cleaners and picked up McKay's clothes. Billy at the counter apologized because the shirt had been ripped beyond repair, but the trousers were fine. I thanked him and took the clothes in their tidy brown paper wrapping straight to the post office and mailed them to Dr. Rodney McKay in care of the CalTech Physics Department.
That allowed me to feel I had completed one job successfully, suspecting it was going to be the last time I would be able to congratulate myself on anything for the foreseeable future. Then I stopped by my apartment to change into a suit that didn't have quite so much sand in the pockets.
The train downtown was almost empty this time of day. I was planning to go to the Hall of Records to see if I could dig up any information on Emmagen and Dex, but I decided to drop by my office first. Nate was in a cheerful mood, doffing a hat he wasn't actually wearing when I climbed on the elevator and then regarding me critically to announce I wasn't looking so hot.
"Rough weekend," I said.
"Major, I'm not telling you to take it easy, believe me. But maybe this next Sunday, you ought to sleep in."
"Not a bad idea. I'll let the world know." The elevator bounced at my floor. I rapped on the gate when Nate didn't roll it back for me.
"I never know when you're joking, Major," Nate said, by way of apology, and finally let me out of the elevator.
The mail was sparse. I carried the little pile of envelopes into my office and slit them open one by one. Bills and advertisements, nothing worth staying sober for, not even the personal letter from the graphologist who assured me she could discern criminal intent in a signature, or the professional bounty hunter's advertisement claiming he had access to goa'uld thinking machines to track his targets.
Actually, that last was sort of interesting. I didn't believe it for a minute, but it did make me think. I picked up the phone and called Cam's desk at the downtown police station.
He answered. I told him I was glad to catch him in the office.
There was a long pause. Then Cam said, "It's not raining outside, Shep, so I'm not giving you a lift anywhere."
"Thanks for the offer. Actually, I was calling to see if you would check on a couple of names for me."
"I don't know," he said, sounding unhappy. "They're cracking down on that sort of thing. With the newspapers full of nothing but the fall of Peking and now the Soviets blockading Berlin, the whole department's as jumpy as a hoppy toad in a frying pan about red spies getting a look at our files."
"So if anyone asks, just say you're investigating communists."
"Are you hunting communists? I thought you were still working for Jolinar."
"Well, they could be communists. I won't know until you check."
"All right," he said reluctantly. "Who have you got?"
"Teyla Emmagen. Ronon Dex. I don't have the spelling or the permanent address for either of them, but the last I knew, they were in a hotel on Catalina Island."
Another long silence passed. I thought he was writing down the names. When I decided he had had enough time to write everything down and drink a cup of coffee, too, I asked, "Are you still on the line?"
"I'm here," he said, in the voice of a man who would rather be anywhere else on the planet. "These two names," he continued slowly. "They have anything to do with the work you're doing for Jolinar?"
"Do you recognize them?"
"I didn't say that."
"You sent Jolinar to me in the first place, Cam. Anything that might help me make it through this job alive--"
He didn't let me finish. "Jolinar already knew who you were. I told you that. If you're getting mixed up in goa'uld politics, that's your lookout, not mine."
Then he hung up on me. I looked down at the receiver in my hand, but then the buzzer in my outer office went off. I put the phone down, got up and opened the door. Standing behind the secretary's desk was a slight young man in a midnight blue suit. He wore his hat low on his brow, and his suit coat was a little too broad for his shoulders. He started to take his hat off, but then hesitated, as if he didn't know whether he would be staying long. "John Sheppard?" he asked softly.
"I'm Sheppard. Come in. My secretary -- won't be back for a while." I held open the door, and he ducked his head and came in. I gestured to a chair and walked around my desk, while my visitor settled down gingerly, finally taking his hat off and laying it on my desk. He had very short, very dark hair that looked like it had never made the acquaintance of brylcreem. His features were girlishly delicate, with a sharp nose and high cheekbones, but what I recognized first were his green eyes. Yesterday afternoon he had been dressed in red and gold and selling cigarettes in the lobby of the hotel on Summer Avenue.
"Did you finally decide to tell me what brand of cigarette Elizabeth Weir smokes?" I asked.
In the bright Hollywood sunlight pouring through my office windows, I could see that his white skin had fine lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth. He was older than he first appeared, even though his mustache was so faint it might have been penciled on.
And he had no adam's apple.
I sat up straight in my chair. Nothing unusual about pretty eunuchs working in a tourist destination. But that wasn't the situation here.
"Actually," Elizabeth Weir said, "I don't smoke."
I nodded slowly. "Do you mind if I do?"
"I would prefer if you didn't," she said mildly.
"That's fine." I put my case away, feeling a bit like I was moving underwater. "Mind if I drink?"
"Not at all."
I pulled down a bottle of rye from the bookshelf beside the window. "Like a glass?"
"I'd love one."
I got out two glasses from my desk drawer, then splashed more than a sip into both. I pushed one across the desk. Dr. Weir picked up the glass, tipped the edge towards me in a silent toast, and neatly swallowed the whole thing. I did the same.
She spoke first. "Is it true that Jolinar has authorized you to work out a deal with me?"
"I think Jolinar would be probably be amenable to an arrangement that involved the return of that orange crystal battery. She seems to believe you stole it from her."
Weir raised a delicate eyebrow. "So you don't really have any idea if Jolinar would let me go if I gave it back."
"Well, if you wanted to reduce the probability of being hunted to the ends of the earth by an angry goa'uld, then returning her possession would probably be a good place to start."
"I was just curious how much information Jolinar had actually shared with you," Weir said, settling back and crossing her legs. "Very little, apparently."
That was true enough.
"It's a moot point at any rate. The ‘battery,' as you call it, was made by the progenitors of mankind. The creature squatting in poor Samantha Carter's body has no right to it."
I was so used to outrageous heresies by now that I barely flinched. "So you're not inclined to return the battery."
Weir smiled very faintly. "That's one way of putting it."
"What do you have to offer Jolinar?"
"Nothing at all, I'm afraid."
I spread my hands across the desktop. "Then you've come forward at considerable personal risk to tell me nothing I can actually relay to Jolinar. She would torch everything under my brainpan if I gave her even the Hays Code version what you've said to me so far."
"I suppose that's true."
"Dr. Weir, why shouldn't I call the police and have you arrested right now?"
"Because I have a more important matter to discuss with you."
I put my hand on the telephone. "More important than the job I've contracted with a goa'uld to fulfill?"
"I need you to talk to Rodney McKay for us."
And here I hadn't thought anything could surprise me anymore. I looked back at her steadily, my hand still on the phone, and said, "I don't know anyone named McKay."
Weir's faint, fine smile hardly wavered. "You actually know two people named McKay, but the individual I'm referring to is Meredith Rodney McKay, Ph.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Astronomical Physics at the California Institute of Technology. You saved him from a mob Friday afternoon after he was punished by the Civil Service. Before that, he hired you to investigate the man who wants to marry his sister."
"Oh," I said. "That Rodney McKay." For some reason I let go of the phone. "Incidentally, Kaleb and Jeannie are already married. Who exactly do you represent, Dr. Weir?"
"Only myself, Major. But I'm talking to you with the blessings of several interested government parties."
I leaned too far back in the chair and propped my ankles on my desk, mostly to keep myself from pouring another drink. "You know, my day hasn't been quite as entertaining as it could have been so far. Why don't you go ahead and tell me what you and your interested parties want me to say to Rodney McKay."
She said seriously, "Please ask Rodney to reconsider joining Operation Highjump."
"And what's that?"
"A United States Naval operation to map Antarctica."
"You've already asked him yourself," I said slowly. "He turned you down." I was sort of proud of McKay, as well as not very surprised. "So you couldn't persuade the man to leave the work he loves doing in sunny Pasadena in order to tour the coldest place on the planet. Dare I ask why you think I might be able to change his mind?"
"Because by all accounts, Rodney adores you."
That surprised a short, bitter laugh from me. "Even if I believed that was true, why would I try to coerce an astronomer and physicist to take off for the South Pole? Is the view of the night sky from Little America really that much better than it is from Los Angeles?"
"You might be surprised," Weir murmured. She continued, "You're a good man, John Sheppard. Loyal and fearless and incorruptible--"
"Don't forget Christmas. That's when I bring toys to all the good little girls and boys."
"And you have a notorious soft spot for heretics."
"I guess you haven't heard how I flattened McKay up against a lunch counter for mouthing off about God and the war."
Weir smiled so gently that I was tempted to give her a taste of the same. "Then you saved his life. You did the same for Daniel Jackson. You didn't turn Radek Zelenka in to the police. When you needed a doctor for Rodney, you called Carson Beckett, a man well known for treating the survivors of Civil Service punishments."
"It seemed a good choice," I muttered in my defence, "Given that McKay had just been punished."
"Major, it's true that we need Rodney, but to my great regret, I suspect that by approaching him at all, we may have placed his life in danger."
"You're the reason someone sent him downtown with that phony call." I didn't feel much out of my depth anymore. Now I was just mad. Probably because, for the first time, I actually believed Weir. "You take a heterodox genius who can't keep his mouth shut or his hands off the goa'uld tech, you involve him in a scheme that makes the Red Scare sound like a rigged roulette wheel, and you're surprised when someone seizes the opportunity to get rid of McKay for good?"
"Our enemies are moving faster than we believed possible, and we still have not identified them--"
"Let me give you a tip. It's Jolinar. Walking around in a pretty blond host. Her Jaffa have byzantine crosses on their foreheads, and when she discovers I've been sitting here passing the time of day with you, she'll feed me to the manta rays off the Malibu pier one internal organ at a time."
Weir just shook her head. "I had hoped you would be able to tell us if Jolinar has the West Coast connections our enemies have been able to use."
"If she had any connections, she wouldn't have come to me. "
"Please talk to Rodney. Make him see that there isn't much time. He's running the risk of winding up like Dr. Carter, or worse."
"Assuming I believe any of this, do you have any reason for me to endanger myself and violate my professional ethics for you and McKay and your nebulous government backers? Something more substantial than the satisfaction of a shady job well done?"
"We need good pilots. We could offer you a job if you wanted to re-enlist."
"I don't. Besides, I don't have any experience flying in those conditions. I don't know what they've told you, but Greenland is nothing like the South Pole."
Weir smiled again.
I didn't like her smiles.
The phone on my desk rang. I played it cool and didn't jump out of my skin. Picking up the phone, I barked, "Sheppard here."
The voice that answered wasn't speaking English. That didn't keep me from understanding it. "Zelenka. Slow down. What happened?"
"Rodney," he managed to gasp. He sounded like he was talking with pebbles in his mouth. "They are looking for Rodney."
"Who's looking for McKay?" I shot a glance at Weir, who was leaning forward over the desk, her expression intent.
"The police! They came to my classroom. They were not gentle. In front of my students-- They were asking for Rodney, calling him a heretic and Service cheat."
"Are you sure it was the police? Not the Civil Service?"
"Yes, yes, it was the police. They were patrolmen in uniform."
"Where is McKay now? Do they have him?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. " Zelenka made a wet sound, spitting, and muttered something in Czech. It was too easy to picture his mouth full of blood. "Rodney was taking the train this afternoon to see his sister and her husband."
"In Westwood? Or Venice, where Kaleb's family lives?"
"At the beach. Venice. But I told the police he was going to Westwood. Mr Sheppard, please, they were very violent. I am afraid--"
"It's all right. I have friends on the force. How badly are you hurt?"
"No more than I deserve for trying to harm you."
We didn't have time for this. "Dr. Zelenka, is anyone there with you?"
"Some of my students."
"Alright, stay with them. Have them take you to some place safe. Student housing, whatever they suggest. Then call this number." I gave him Carson Beckett's office number. "He's a good doctor. He'll take care of you and won't ask any questions."
"But what about Rodney?"
"I'll find him. Don't worry." I put down the telephone and glared at Dr. Weir across the desk. "Good job," I gritted out. "Somebody with a lot of pull has the police involved. They beat up Zelenka and now they're going after McKay. Is this your people?"
"Oh no," Weir said. "No. I don't know anything about this. What can we do?"
"I was hoping you could tell me. It's just what I should have expected though," I growled. "You come in here talking about Naval expeditions to the damn South Pole, but when it comes to something as elementary as calling off the local dogs you're helpless. Fortunately, I'm not." I picked up the phone, intending to call Cameron Mitchell. Then I hesitated. Our last conversation was making me uneasy. He had recognized the names Dex and Emmagen, I was almost certain. And he had not wanted to help. I put the phone down slowly. "Can your people do anything?" I asked Weir.
"Possibly," she said. "We will do our best. Tell me what's going on, and let me use your telephone."
I went to my filing cabinet with the new lock on it and pulled out McKay's file. "This is the address for his brother-in-law's parents. If you can get help there, you might save McKay's life. Do you have a car? "
She nodded. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to try to beat the police down there. Give me your keys."
To her credit she did, with remarkably little fuss. Her battered prewar Packard was on the street. I might have hoped for a little more evidence of the political power and resources she claimed to be associated with, but maybe she was trying not to attract undue attention.
Traffic was light for Monday afternoon, but it still took me too long to get to Venice. I found parking on Main Street in the vicinity of the Millers' house, relieved to see no patrol cars. I had been right about the neighborhood. The Millers lived in one of those crumbling Victorians with no street access, just a narrow sidewalk between a double row of houses slowly being washed gray and threadbare by the ocean breezes. The Millers' house had red geraniums blooming in a broken cement flowerpot on the front porch. I bounded up the stairs and knocked on the front door. When I didn't get an answer, I stood on tip toe and peered through the little door panes. The entrance hall was dark and quiet. I moved to the other windows. Living room. Dining room. The lights were off. Nothing seemed to have been disturbed. There was nothing to tell me whether I was too late or too early. On a hunch, I followed the little sidewalk down to the boardwalk, where I found an elderly woman sitting in a steamer chair in a front yard of sand, behind a white picket fence. "Excuse me," I said. "Which way is the Millers' bookstore?"
She looked up at me suspiciously but said, "It's a block that direction. You can't miss it. There's a coffee shop right next door." I followed her directions. The sky was gray, as was the ocean, and the wet sand. The beach was dotted with bright umbrellas. Tourists along the boardwalk were showing too much thigh. Music drifted from the arcade and sounded lonely over the crash of the waves. Carnival tunes after the children have all grown up and left home.
I headed down the boardwalk, moving fast. At the coffee shop, half a dozen tables were arranged behind a rickety fence, and a bar with stools was by a storefront painted bright green. I recognized McKay's broad shoulders at the bar. When I got closer I saw he was drinking coffee.
"McKay," I said, slipping onto a stool beside him. "Pay for your coffee and let's go. We need to get out of here."
He started a little when I spoke to him, but then he took a long moment to turn and look at me. His eyes were very wide, but they looked grey under the heavy skies. Then he drew his fist back and tried to punch me in the face.
So much for that story about how much McKay adored me. I had been finding it a little hard to swallow anyway. I caught his wrist before his hand could connect. "Take it easy," I said. "This is important."
"Now it's important?" He was so angry he was spitting. "You sold me out, you son of a bitch."
"I don't know who you've been talking to, McKay, but I haven't told anybody anything. Now you need to come with me. You're not safe here."
He drew himself back furiously. "And I'm supposed to think I would be any safer with you?"
"Listen to me, you pig-headed idiot. They already got to Dr. Zelenka, and you're next."
That finally stopped him. "Radek? What happened to Radek?"
"A couple of policeman roughed him up looking for you."
McKay's expression was so stricken I put my hand on his shoulder to steady him. "He's going to be alright," I assured McKay, hoping that was the truth. "But you need to come with me right now."
Finally, finally, he dropped a coin on the bar and followed me back up the boardwalk. "I don't understand," he said plaintively. "What's going on?"
"I'm going to get you some place safe until we can figure that out. But if you think I had something to do with Dr. Weir's group contacting you, that wasn't me. I only met Dr. Weir today."
"You know Elizabeth?" he said, clearly surprised. "What does she have to do with anything? I was talking about Jeannie. You told her I hired a detective to spy on her and Kaleb."
That reminded McKay how mad he was at me, and he tried to dig in his heels again. I wrapped my arm around him and dragged him along. "I didn't tell Jeannie a word about you."
"She knew about the Civil Service discipline!"
"She knew about that because someone at Dr. Jackson's lecture mentioned the attack on a teacher. She seems to know you pretty well, and jumped to the conclusion it must have been you."
I dragged McKay down the little cracked sidewalk, past the Millers' house.
"Oh," he said. "When she called I assumed you had told her everything."
"So you proceeded to tell her everything," I said. "You can't blame that on me. Where are Jeannie and the Millers now?"
"The woman running the bookstore for them told me," McKay said. "They're up in Santa Barbara for the week. And here I had thought if I could just talk to Jeannie one more time I could make her understand how I had to- –"
"No, this is good. We don't have to worry about the police getting to them." Dr. Weir's Packard was in sight, and I allowed myself to feel a foolish instant of hope. That was the moment the black and white police car pulled up with a screech of brakes, and two uniformed officers spilled out. I took McKay by the shoulders and spun him around so he faced the way we had just come. "Start running," I said. "And whatever happens, don't look back."
I turned and strolled towards the two policemen. I recognized these guys. Smitty and Jones had been patrolmen while I was still on the force. An English teacher like Kaleb Miller might have described them as indifferently honest. I reached hard for a smile. "What seems to be the problem, officers?"
They recognized me too. "Don't get in our way, Shep," Smitty said. He was a tall, tow-headed guy with a lantern jaw. "This isn't a pretty business." He raised his voice. "Rodney McKay," he yelled. "Stop in the name of the law."
I was pretty sure Rodney would keep running, but I didn't look to see. Instead, I tackled Smitty hard. We both hit the street. I had the easier fall, but I was still too dazed to avoid Jones. Something connected with the back of my head. Lights went off behind my eyes. I never passed out exactly, but by the time I realized what was happening, I was face first against the trunk of the patrol car with my hands being cuffed behind my back. The muzzle of a gun was pressed against the hinge of my jaw.
"Nice and easy, Dr. McKay," Jones shouted in his foghorn voice. "It would be tragic for an ex-cop like Sheppard to die while resisting arrest."
"Don't believe it, McKay," I tried to shout. It came out as a horse groan. "They won't kill me. It's not worth the paperwork." Whoever was behind me gave me another tap on the head. I sank to my knees, my cheek against the fender.
When I was able to force my eyes open again, I saw McKay crossing the street. His hands were raised awkwardly to shoulder level. Jones and Smitty grabbed him and pulled him to the car, slamming him up against the trunk beside me. They frisked him and cuffed him and then shoved us both in the backseat. Rodney's chin was stuck out in defiance but sitting this close to him, I could see he was trembling. "Dammit, McKay," I said. "I told you to run."
"That was before they put a gun in your face." He raised his voice. "Excuse me, officers. John Shepherd is a good, upstanding citizen, and I'm sure he doesn't have anything to do with this."
"If he's such an upstanding citizen, what is he doing hanging out with a Service cheat like you?" Smitty said.
"Since when are you so concerned about Service cheats, Smitty?" I asked. "Are you washing laundry for the Civil Service too? It must be hell getting the bloodstains out of that silk-blend baby blue."
Jones growled, "Quiet, Shep."
"Somebody is pulling your strings," I said. "Who is it? Cam Mitchell?" My heart twisted a little in my chest. I didn't have too long to feel bad about it. The police car pulled to the curb with a squeal of rubber. Smitty jumped out and yanked open the back door to drag me out. While I was still trying to get my footing, he swung his bony fist at my gut. I was still pretty tender from my encounter with Teyla Emmagen yesterday. It would've hurt anyway. I dropped to my knees. Smitty let me stay there until I finished retching. I could hear McKay shouting, frightened and angry, in the car behind me.
Finally, Smitty wrapped his fists in the shoulders of my jacket, hauled me up and threw me back into the car. He patted the side of my face and said, "Now do us all a favor and keep your trap shut." I curled forward over my aching midsection and found I didn't have anything to say. McKay fretted and shifted beside me and finally gathered up his courage to announce, "There was no need to do that."
Smitty said, "I would suggest, doctor, that you shut up, too, unless you want a piece of the same."
That kept McKay quiet for a little while. We kept going south, the ocean on our right. We turned inland eventually, driving into farm country. "Where are we going?" McKay finally asked when he couldn't stand it anymore. "The LAPD doesn't have any stations out here, do they?"
"It's none of your business, doctor," Jones said mildly.
"None of my business? Perhaps it's escaped your notice, but I'm the one sitting in the back of a squad car in handcuffs being driven off to heaven knows where –"
"They're taking us somewhere where they won't be interrupted," I told McKay.
"Won't be interrupted? Won't be interrupted doing what?"
The patrol car turned again. Now we were bouncing along a one-lane road through a grove of young trees, plums or apricots. The sun was high through the dusty haze.
"A lot of the time, it's convenient to soften up a suspect before he reaches the station," I said. "It's one of the reasons I'm not a policeman anymore."
McKay looked terrified. "I'm a suspect?"
"Sheppard generally knows what he's talking about," Smitty said. "But in this case, Dr. McKay, we're just taking you to see someone who's wanted to meet you for a long time."
"And they couldn't come by during office hours?" McKay squeaked.
The patrol car pulled up in front of a dusty yellow shack of a building. One ramshackle wooden step led to a front porch made up mostly of broken boards. A chair with three legs lay on its side. The pane in the single window was smashed, and the shredded remains of curtains swung in a desolate breeze. "End of the road, Dr. McKay," Smitty said cheerfully.
McKay sank back in the seat as far as he could, despite the hands cuffed in the small of his back, and looked at me with huge, frightened eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just a figure of speech," Smitty said. He and Jones pulled McKay out of the backseat and supported him firmly between them.
"Wait a minute," I protested. "What about me?"
Jones winked at me and slammed the door in my face. I could only watch as they walked McKay across the front porch and through a front door that swayed unevenly on a crooked hinge.
Chapter 10: The Painted Orchid
I pulled my knees up and rolled onto my handcuffed arms. My hands immediately went numb as I tried to kick out a back seat window. The shock of impact trembled up my spine. I might as well have tried to kick over a brick wall. I wiggled around to kick at the other window. My arms weren't numb anymore. Now they were burning. Finally I planted my feet against the iron grid between the front and back seats. My back twanged like an over-strung banjo, but the grid didn't budge.
The window was rolled down an inch or two on the driver's side of the squad car, but there was no shade anywhere. My suit was drenched in sweat, and it was only getting hotter. I leaned my head against the back of the seat and cursed the rainy Thursday morning Rodney McKay had first walked into my office.
I watched the front of the little shack for a while. Nothing stirred. The air inside the car was solid, steaming, heavy with old sweat. The heat was making me drowsy and a little sick.
Then the rickety front door of the little house swung open, and Smitty and Jones came out. I sat up and watched. They were too far away for me to hear what they were saying, but Jones was shaking his head back and forth. His hands jittered as he pulled out a shiny silver cigarette case. He flipped it open, the lid catching the sun. Smitty pulled out his own cigarette from a crumpled paper pack. While Jones paced back and forth, angry hands shifting the cigarette like it was a lit fuse, Smitty planted one foot on the railing and leaned over his bent knee.
Jones was talking. By the look of it, he had a lot to say. Smitty didn't answer. He just leaned over the railing and sucked hard on his cigarette with the attitude of a man who has already made up his mind. About what, I didn't have a clue. He finished his cigarette first because Jones was too busy making his one-sided argument to smoke. Smitty threw the butt down on the porch and ground it out with his heel. Then he lit another and strolled back inside. Left with nobody to argue with, Jones puffed morosely, and didn't seem to be looking at much of anything.
I went back to trying to knock out the squad car's windows, with about as much success as I'd had before. Then the back door swung open, and my feet kicked at nothing so hard I nearly put my back out. I groaned a little, my legs hanging half out of the squad car, as Jones said, "What the hell do you think you're doing, Shep?"
I rolled over on my belly and squirmed backwards out of the car. On the first try my legs wouldn't support me, and I wound up on my back in the dirt. Jones didn't try to stop me as I rolled over and tried to get up, just continued a mild running monologue about what a damn fool I was.
I finally managed to get to my feet and turned to face Jones. "What's going on in there?" I jerked my head towards the shack.
"Nothing that matters to you," Jones said.
I thought I would see for myself and started walking towards the front porch. Jones grabbed a fistful of my coat and dragged me back around to face him. Then he socked me in the face. It wasn't hard enough to hurt his knuckles, but with my hands cuffed, I couldn't keep my balance, and I sat down hard on the ground.
"It's nothing against you, Shep," Jones said. "Do yourself a favor and just stay down."
"What are you doing to McKay?" I demanded when I got back wind enough to speak.
Jones snorted. "I ain't doing nothing to that service cheat. I'm standing out here in the hot sun watching you wallow in the dirt, is what I'm doing."
So I started all over again. I flopped around until I got my knees under myself. Then I planted one foot on the ground and started to lever myself upright. Jones waited until I was almost standing. Then he kicked me in the back side and I went sprawling into the dirt again. It would've made a hell of a gag for Buster Keaton. I didn't laugh so much. I curled onto my side and tried to breathe.
"Why do you care about a damn service cheat?" Jones asked curiously. "You didn't use to be such a soft touch, Shep."
"You're wrong about that," I said, spitting dirt out of my mouth. "I've always been a cream puff."
It was getting harder to stand. Jones seemed to be entertained by the show. This time he let me lurch all the way up to my feet before he wrapped his fist in my shirt collar and gave me a sharp rap on the chin. I felt something bad happen to my left wrist and shoulder as I landed hard on my back. I didn't try to get up again. At least not all the way. I shuffled on my knees towards the front porch as Jones laughed and called me a god damned pig headed son of a bitch, and informed me it was no wonder I had washed out of the police. I was inclined to agree with him.
I managed to sit up on the bottom step. Jones watched me with lazy interest. I couldn't hear anything from inside the shack. When I was able to get up again I climbed the next two rickety stairs. Boards creaked underfoot. Jones didn't do anything to stop me. I crossed the front porch. As I put my shoulder to the door he said, "Smitty is going to blow your fool head off."
I hoped he was wrong about that, and I pushed open the door.
Inside, the streaks of sunlight filtered through dirty, broken windows. Dust motes drifted in the still air, rank with sweat and cigarette smoke. There had been wallpaper once upon a time, and a few strips were left, long-ago roses faded to brown.
McKay's hat and coat were piled together in a heap on the bare wood floor. The man himself was sitting in a kitchen chair with his back to me. His hands were still cuffed, but the cuffs had been wound through the rungs at the back of the chair. His shirtsleeves were bunched down around his elbows, and his broad shoulders were white in his undershirt, which had been shoved up under his arms to bare his chest. His necktie was all wrong, the ends hanging down his half-naked back. Either my time in the hot squad car or Jones' love taps had done a number on me, because it took me a long time to figure out McKay had been gagged with his own tie, the ends knotted hard just below the curve of his skull.
Smitty was standing in front of McKay. He was sweating a little, but his hat was still on his head. He was wearing a pigskin leather glove with brass buttons on his right hand. His left hand held a cigarette stub between his lips. When I finally realized Smitty's eyes were on me, he gave me a sardonic little smile, and ground his cigarette into McKay's chest.
McKay jerked. His handcuffs rattled. I lurched forward without thinking about what I was doing, and nearly wound up on the floor. Smitty waited until I'd found my balance before he commented mildly, "Get tired of waiting in the car, Shep?"
My first attempt to talk didn't come out as much of anything. I swallowed and tried again. "Thought you were bringing Dr. McKay here to meet somebody."
"Yeah," Smitty shrugged. "That party hasn't shown up yet."
"And you don't think he'll mind that you've been having a good time while you wait?"
Smitty lit a match on the bottom of his shoe, and puffed a new cigarette into life. He waved the flaming end of the match in front of McKay's face while he watched me. When I didn't react, he shook out the match and dropped it. "Not really too worried about that, no." He balled up his right fist, the one in the pigskin glove, and hit McKay in the gut. The handcuffs rattled again. McKay shuddered, then sagged forward as far as his cuffed hands would allow. I was sagging a little, too.
"There used to be stories about you around the station, Smitty."
He wasn't too concerned. "People have always called me a mean son of a bitch."
"No. I was thinking about how they call you a eunuch who works over prisoners because you can't get a hard-on."
His smile got a little thin, but he didn't move away from Dr. McKay. "Right, Shep." There was only a hint of strain in his voice. "I guess we can't all be war heroes. How did you earn that medal? Grabbing your ankles for every Jaffa who came through the barracks?"
I shuffled closer. "Can you blame me? At least they had balls."
Now the edges of his smile had begun to tremble. He covered by twisting his fingers in McKay's hair and yanking his head up. "I don't get why you're working so hard for this service cheat. Is he really that sweet on his knees?"
"Not nearly as good as me," I said. I sounded a little frantic in my own ears. Smitty certainly heard it, because his smile relaxed. "Come around to this side, Shep." He puffed the cigarette in his mouth red hot and knocked off the ashes. "Let's see if I can burn a hole through his eyelid."
The door banged open behind me. "They're not gonna show," Jones burst out. "We need to get out of here."
Smitty didn't move for a long moment, eyes flicking between me and Jones. At long last he sighed and put his cigarette back in his mouth. "Been fun, doc," he said, releasing McKay's head. He came around and unlocked the cuffs on his wrists. McKay's arms dropped forward. For the first time sound escaped the gag in his mouth, a deep, low groan that seemed to vibrate straight through the walls of his chest, enough misery to rattle the building.
Smitty and Jones didn't notice. "Wait a minute," Smitty said. "Let me get my gun on Shep before you cut him loose." He pointed the barrel of his service revolver at my head, the muzzle only an inch from my forehead. I stood nice and still while Jones unhooked the cuffs. McKay was sliding with glacial slowness out of his chair. I watched him crumple as Smitty and Jones left. Their footsteps crossed the rickety front porch as I went to McKay.
He was balled up on the floor, and he flinched when I touched the side of his face. "Easy," I said. "I'm just going to take off the gag." Outside, I heard the engine in the squad car turn over. It took me a long time to unknot the neck tie. My hands were clumsy, the fingers on my left hand thick and swollen from one of my falls. McKay was breathing loudly through his nose. Finally I was able to pull the navy silk out from between his teeth. He had nearly bitten it through.
"I don't think Smitty realizes it," I said. "But he did you a favor. Without this, you probably would have bitten off your tongue."
McKay blinked his eyes open to look at me. His face was wet with sweat and tears.
"Where does it hurt?"
McKay blinked again, apparently incredulous.
"Right," I said. I put my hand on his shoulder to roll him onto his back and he screamed, hoarse and broken and barely above a whisper. A chill went through me, even though I wasn't surprised. "Okay." I made a point of raising my hands up and away from him. "I'm not touching you. You need to stay calm."
"We have to get out of here." McKay's words came out in jagged wisps and cracks.
"Smitty punched you in the throat," I said. I'd heard plenty of whispered confessions after Smitty brought in a suspect, back when I was still with the Department. "Listen to me, McKay. Are you having trouble breathing? Do you feel any obstruction in your throat?"
"Like I swallowed--" he wheezed, "--like I swallowed a concrete baseball." He kicked out, trying to straighten his legs. "We've got to go."
"Sorry, McKay, but for once in your life, you're going to listen to somebody besides yourself. Your larynx is busted up. If you don't calm down, you're going to suffocate." It might happen anyway, but it wouldn't help to tell him that.
He stilled, but only for a moment. "It doesn't matter," he whispered, fighting to get the words out. "That lunatic said he could do anything he wanted because a snake was coming for me. John, help me." It was painful just hearing him talk. It got worse when McKay yanked at his arms, still entangled in his shirt sleeves, and screamed again. Or tried to scream. It came out as a whimpering squeak, and his head dropped as he sucked in ragged gasps of breath.
"All right, we're going," I lied to calm him down. Abandoned here in the middle of an apricot orchard, we had no place to run from Jolinar. Our only hope was that Smitty and Jones were right, and for some reason she had called off the rendezvous. I wondered if Jolinar had known about Weir's government connections all along, and how long she would spend killing me once she caught up with us, but my more immediate problem was convincing McKay to keep breathing. "First I need to get a look at your right arm."
He opened his mouth to protest, but I said first, "The sooner you let me see, the sooner we'll be out of here." McKay remained half-curled on his stomach, his lips trembling as I worked. A tear whelmed up in the one eye turned towards me, spilled over the bridge of his nose, and left a small, dark splat on the wood floor. When I finally got his shirt off, I could see his right arm had a funny sort of twist to it, the elbow swollen and already bruised almost black.
"OK," I said. "It's looking good, here." I was lying pretty cheerfully by this point. "I'm just going to put your arm in a sling before we go running around anywhere." As I talked, I was knotting the sleeves of McKay's shirt together. "Sit up."
McKay whispered, "Are you out of your mind?" but he levered himself up grimly, pushing with his good arm. I settled the loop of the shirt over his neck. McKay looked at me miserably as I reached for his broken arm. "Please don't," he said.
"Be done in just a second," I lied to him again, and I settled the broken elbow into the makeshift sling as carefully as I could.
He whimpered miserably, "I hate you so much."
"I feel the same," I assured him. Out of nowhere, a rush of vertigo muddled me. I bent forward fast, putting my head between my knees as I sat on the floor.
The world went away for a moment or two. It came back in spits and drabs. McKay was patting at me, saying, "John? John!" in frantic, broken whispers.
"Just a touch of sun," I mumbled at him. I wondered when McKay had started calling me John.
McKay pushed harder. "There's a police car coming," he insisted. "We've got to--" His voice failed completely. He wheezed as I finally got my eyes open again. He was right. I could hear the wail of a siren.
"Can you walk?" I asked.
McKay started scrambling awkwardly to his feet. I would have helped him, but I was having to work too hard to get my own feet under me. Together, we lurched and stumbled to the back door. Two cinderblock steps led to a backyard of dead grass. The young apricot trees, tied to stakes like vegetable crucifixions, stretched for acres in neat rows. There was no other cover for miles. "Wait," I said, stopping McKay. I fumbled my Colt out from my shoulder holster. Smitty and Jones had never even bothered to frisk me.
McKay's eyes got wide at the sight of my revolver, but I thought he was more aggravated that I hadn't gotten it earlier than he was impressed by the fact that I had it now.
I flattened him against the back of the house as the siren suddenly went silent.
"Wait," I said again to McKay, mouthing the word without speaking out loud. I made my way to the corner of the house, weapon in hand, wondering how many police officers I was prepared to shoot to save McKay from Jolinar.
The battered wooden siding on the little yellow house was hot through the back of my suit coat. McKay was breathing in rough, noisy pants. I heard one engine die, then a second, and then the click of car doors opening. I leaned my head against the heat of the wall. That was the moment a man exploded around the side of the house. I leveled the revolver, but by then he had already knocked my arm aside, and my gun fell in the dust.
"Calm down, Bogart," Ronon Dex said. "I'm not your enemy."
"Oh my god," McKay gasped weakly. His legs went out from under him. Teyla Emmagen was coming around the other side of the house, but she wasn't fast enough to keep him from falling. Neither was I. The two of us dropped beside McKay as he curled weakly on the ground.
Emmagen laid her hand on McKay's chest and said, "Be calm, Rodney. You are safe now." I put my head on the ground beside him and just lay there, because that was about all I was good for.
Dex shouted, "We got them! We need help!" He rolled me over on my back without asking permission, put the safety back on my gun and tucked it away in my shoulder harness. "Don't shoot anybody," he said with a quick, brilliant grin, his fedora cocked over his right eye. His suit was a navy blue pinstipe with wide lapels, and his yellow silk tie had a white orchid painted on it.
The next person around the house was Elizabeth Weir, still lost in that over-sized man's suit. With her was a fellow I didn't know, and behind him was Cam Mitchell. I suddenly found I was able to get up after all. I staggered to my feet while Dr. Weir exclaimed, "Oh, Rodney, what have they done to you?"
I shrugged away Dex's offer of help and made for Cam. "You son of a bitch," said a furiously angry man with my voice.
Cam blinked like he had never seen me before. "Did you get knocked on the head, Shep?"
"You send a rabid dog like Bernie Smitty after McKay? The man's a physicist, an astronomer, for the love of mike, and your goon Smitty nearly killed him."
"You need to take it easy," Cam said. "I didn't send anybody after you or Dr. McKay. You know me better than that."
I talked over him. "Did Jolinar promise you a spin in a sarcophagus? You ought to have made sure she was in a position to deliver before you sold us out."
"This is crazy," Cam protested. "Shep, if you'll just calm down and listen--"
I pulled back my fist to deck him, but someone caught my arm and pulled me around. It was the man I didn't know who had arrived with Weir.
"Major, It might be better if you listened to Mitchell," he said. His voice was calm, but the fingers around my arm gripped like steel. "We wouldn't have found you at all without his help. Now what about Jolinar?"
I yanked my arm free and wondered how he knew me. "That's what they told McKay," I said. "Smitty said a goa'uld was coming for him." There was something familiar about the man's face, but I couldn't seem to place him.
"McKay needs a doctor," Dex announced. He rolled McKay into his arms and lifted him up like a man-sized rag doll, McKay's head cradled carefully against his chest. He strode past us, not even breathing hard.
I followed, staggering. "Your man is right," I said, as I brushed past Cam, not meeting his eye. "McKay's in a bad way."
"Where's the nearest hospital?" Dr. Weir asked. I shook my head at the same time her friend said, "A hospital's no good. Not if the city cops are being used by a snakehead."
"Carson Beckett's clinic," I said, barely registering the obscenity. Mitchell's sedan was parked in front, and behind it was a midnight blue convertible the size of a yacht. Emmagen opened a back door and gestured for me to get in. Once I was settled, Dex laid McKay down across the cream leather of the back seat, arranging him so his head lay in my lap.
"Let's go home instead," the stranger said. He ducked into the back seat of Cam's car. "We'll have Beckett meet us there." He slammed the door as I realized who he was.
"That's General O'Neill," I said out loud.
Dr. McKay's eyes fluttered partway open. "Who did you think it would be?" he rasped.
"That's General Jack O'Neill," I repeated idiotically.
Dex looked over his shoulder at me as he put the convertible in gear. "Nobody tells you much of anything, do they?"
McKay groaned as the car bounced along the rough road through the grove. He reached for his throat, but I caught his hand, tangling my fingers with his to stop him. "Just try to relax," I told him uselessly.
Emmagen turned in the seat to look back at us. "How is Dr. McKay?"
"One of Cam's uniformed thugs beat him to a pulp," I said. "How do you think he's doing?"
She met my eyes. "I don't understand. How can it be to anyone's advantage to hurt Dr. McKay?"
"The Service did it because McKay's a heretic who doesn't follow the rules. An animal like Smitty doesn't need even that much of an excuse. He just thought he could get away with it."
"And what of you, Major Sheppard? Are you a heretic as well?"
I wasn't, but I had to admit, it was getting harder and harder to tell the difference. As we left the orchards, Cam pulled off in front of the first gas station and went in to use the phone. McKay shifted uncomfortably on the seat as Dex pulled in behind. I put my hand on his forehead, and he stilled. The sun was bright and hot through a high, white haze. I missed my hat and tried to remember where I had left it. Probably in the back of Smitty and Jones' squad car.
Cam emerged from the service station office and came jogging back to Dex's car. "I talked to Beckett's nurse. She says the doc will meet us at the general's place." He was standing by the driver's side, but his eyes were on me. "She said to keep McKay calm in the meantime, and to watch for shock." With that, he took off his treasured houndstooth checked coat and handed it back to me.
I may have blinked at him.
"For McKay," he said.
I helped settle the coat over McKay's chest. He didn't respond, and though his breathing was fast and shallow, it seemed unobstructed. Maybe he would live long enough for Beckett to take care of him after all.
Cam nodded and jogged back to his car. Dex and Emmagen didn't make idle conversation as the convertible pulled back on the road, following Cam's Buick.
I didn't think I had always been so slow to accept reality, but I was still struggling to believe that the Chief of Air Force Combat Command and Consort to the First Prime of the United States was driving around L.A. in the back seat of Cam Mitchell's car. Two hours ago Elizabeth Weir had told me elements of the government wanted Dr. McKay's cooperation. She hadn't told me the government itself wanted him. My head was throbbing, as well as my gut, and my wrist and shoulder. I leaned my head against the seat back, remembering taking McKay home in a cab last Friday after the service discipline. How had the man survived as long as he had? Little thanks to me, less to Weir and her people who had painted a target on him. Well, an even bigger target. McKay on his own was already pretty damned difficult to overlook.
I was nauseated and too exhausted to keep my eyes open, despite the wind blowing in my face.The next time I opened my eyes, we were traveling west on Santa Monica Boulevard. It wasn't until we turned on Crescent Heights that I knew. I covered my eyes with one hand, and Emmagen asked, "Are you all right, Major Sheppard?"
I looked up. "Fine." It shouldn't have been a surprise, I thought. Since the morning Rodney McKay had walked into my office, Los Angeles had been contracting until it was a single dimension, a mathematical point encompassing the entirety of the known universe.
Dex slowed as he maneuvered the big convertible onto Laurel Canyon, and I asked, "So is Dr. Jackson at home?"
"Should be," Dex said over his shoulder. "He was when we left."
Chapter 11: The House on Laurel Canyon Boulevard
Daniel Jackson met us at the gate. His eyes were wide behind his glasses as Dex and I tried to coax McKay out of the car, but he didn't waste time with useless questions. He just held the gate open as Dex finally muttered, "Let's do it this way," and hoisted McKay into his arms to carry him bodily across the garden and into the house.
"The master bedroom?" General O'Neill asked. "Wouldn't that be better than hauling McKay up and down stairs?"
Jackson answered, "Yes, I think so," and led Dex through the room with the display cases and the photographs of Egypt on the walls. I was following until Emmagen took my arm and pulled me down onto the sofa. She didn't have to pull very hard. The snares were rolling nonstop between my ears by this point, and my hands were shaking so badly that when I tried to pull out my flask, I dropped it on the floor. Emmagen picked it up and wouldn't give it back to me.
"I'll bring you water in a moment. First tell me how severely you are injured."
I shook my head, and the floor show started in earnest, tap shoes rattling like artillery fire. I groaned and pitched forward, the room swooping with me. Strong arms caught me. Emmagen, someone else. "Come on, Shep." Mitchell's voice. "See if you can hold it to powder room." He supported me through louvered doors, across a green and white tiled floor, and helped me kneel in front of the commode while I lost my breakfast. I didn't feel much better afterwards. Mitchell touched the knot on the back of my head while I curled up on the floor.
"That hurts," I said, trying to knock his hand away. The green tile was cool under my cheek.
"How many times did you get conked on the noggin?"
"Lost track," I muttered. "Thought it was fourth and ten against Valley, and I'd forgotten to wear my helmet."
"You sure as hell forgot your common sense. Why didn't you call me first? How could you think I would send Jones and Smitty after McKay?"
I lay on the bathroom floor and thought about that, startling when Mitchell touched my shoulder. "Can you stand up?"
"Don't get Dex," I muttered. "I can manage."
"I was actually thinking of asking Teyla to help. She could handle half a dozen lightweights like you."
He was probably right about that. I pushed myself up and sat very still until I was relatively sure I wasn't going to be sick again. "About those two," I said. "Dex and Emmagen. Who are they? How long have you folks been best friends?"
Cam had been supporting me with one arm over my shoulder. At my question, he released me to spread his open hands. "Not my story to tell, Shep. You may have noticed, there's been a lot going on while you hound-dogged around the edges of things you didn't begin to understand."
I nodded. Carefully, because of the way my head was pounding. Cam helped me to my feet. "Come on. We'll get you some ice for your head."
"I'd rather have it in a glass."
"Right," Cam agreed. "With a shot of rye. Well, you've earned it." He led me to a chair in the room with the display cases and the view of Hollywood, except the wooden blinds had been pulled against the late afternoon sun.
"I've got some news I can tell you," Cam went on. "Probably not as interesting as it would have been a few hours ago, but the downtown wing of the Civil Service's enforcement division has been broken up. Their Jaffa has been shipped off-planet, and the human workers busted down to maintenance and reassigned as far north as San Francisco."
My head was still a little fuzzy, because it took me a bit to process that. "That group who disciplined McKay?"
"Doesn't exist as that group anymore."
"Are you the one who got them broken up?"
Cam snorted indelicately. "I wish I had that kind of power. I can't even get a pair of low lifes like Smitty and Jones off the force. I sure as hell don't have my finger in any Civil Service pies."
"You think it has something to do with McKay anyway?"
"Not that I know of. The general and Dr. Weir were as surprised as I was, and a little spooked, too. Nobody around here credits too much to coincidence."
With good reason. "The Service meant for McKay to die," I said. "If Aiden Ford hadn't been around to help me get McKay off the street, the mob would have killed him. Did the downtown enforcement division get broken up because Dr. McKay is still alive?"
"Like I told you, Shep, not even General O'Neill knows what's going on with the Service. I'll tell you something else, though. Remember a few days ago, you were asking me why there were so many Jaffa on the trains?”
And on the ferries, I thought, remembering that unhappy trip out to Avalon.
”Well, the word is the Holy Ghost is in town. They’re trying to track him down."
"Right, him and the ghost of Christmas Past," I said. I felt very, very tired all of a sudden. "Are you sure you didn't get knocked on the head a time or two yourself?"
"I'm just telling you what I hear," Cam sounded put out. "You know, you might try listening to your friends every once in a while, Shep."
"I might if I had any,'" I snapped back.
"I brought a glass of water and some ice for your head," Elizabeth Weir interrupted, suddenly at my side with the advertised glass, as well as a hot water bottle full of ice.
"Jolinar won't stop looking for you," I told Dr. Weir, although I took the glass of water. "Oh, I forgot. You'll be at the South Pole with the U.S Navy. That just leaves Dr. McKay."
"And you," Weir pointed out rather ruthlessly for a diplomat.
"She won't have to look for me," I said. "As soon as she sends word, I'll be meeting her poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel."
"Really?" Weir said. "You've gone to considerable personal risk to help Rodney. And now you're going to hand him over to a goa'uld?"
"Jolinar didn't hire me to find McKay. She hired me to track down you and that orange battery."
"Splitting hairs with a goa'uld," drawled General O'Neill. I hadn't noticed him come into the room. "You'll have to let me know how that works out for you, Major. If you survive your poolside chat, that is."
"I'll be fine, sir," I said. "How's Dr. McKay?"
O'Neill sat down next to me and stopped me from getting up to see for myself. "Ronon's with him, and the man has some medical training. At any rate, he's the best we've got until Carson Beckett arrives. Maybe you can answer a question for me in the meantime."
"If I can, sir."
"Calm down. It's not complicated. Those uniformed thugs who worked over McKay? I understand Jolinar was on her way to meet them."
"That's right. Smitty told McKay a goa'uld was coming for him."
"And then he proceeded to beat the holy hell out of McKay. Does that make any sense to you?"
"Officer Smitty’s only about as sharp as a broken red brick, but he's a stone cold sadist. All he was thinking was that Jolinar could repair any damage, so he didn't even have to worry about the D.A. complaining about visible bruises."
"But if Jolinar wants McKay, presumably she wants him whole. Or if she wants to break him, surely she was looking forward to doing that herself. Either way she wasn't going to be very happy finding McKay had already been the victim of a patrolman's fun."
"You're right, sir. Jolinar probably would have killed Jones and Smitty on the spot for taking liberties. I think I saw Jones trying to talk Smitty out of it beforehand."
"Unsuccessfully, I take it. Put that ice pack on your head."
He was a general. I put the ice on the back of my skull. It stung like the dickens before a dull, thudding ache began to overwhelm everything. "What's at the South Pole anyway?" I asked. I really wished Cam would bring me that glass of rye he said I'd earned. "Why are you so eager to get down there with McKay?"
"If Daniel's right, and believe me, we're betting the rent on that egghead's science homework, there's a stargate buried under the ice."
I blinked my eyes open to stare at him.
"That's right," he confirmed mildly. "Giza may not have a monopoly on the chappa'ai."
After a long silence, I finally asked, "You don't think God will mind the U.S. Navy steaming down there to lay claim to the other one?"
"Well," General O'Neill answered, "we weren't actually planning on telling Him."
The silence in the room after that remark was heavier than the pain in my skull. Since Rodney McKay had first stomped into my life, I had gotten used to casual blasphemies from everyone I met, but this was a whole new degree of obscenity altogether.
Cam's story about the Holy Ghost being in Los Angeles seemed suddenly a lot less absurd, and even downright alarming. Still, I didn't get up and leave, even though another hour passed before Beckett showed up. I spent it sitting on the general's couch with a bag of melting ice held to the back of my skull, having half-waking nightmares about the faceless Holy Ghost. The Son of Man is as well known as Rudolph Valentino or Santa Claus, sitting on the right hand of the Almighty. But the Holy Ghost? In canon he's just a tongue of flame. In legend, he moves from host to host like the wind, never identified until he’s already moved on.
I'd never thought of Cam Mitchell as the sort to take any stock in Ghost stories. Until now, I'd never thought I was either. That was before I found out the Armed Forces were planning an end run around God Himself. I cracked my eyes open. General O'Neill and Dr. Jackson were standing close by one of the shuttered windows, conversing quietly. I decided I didn't want to know what they were talking about, and let my eyes close again.
The first I knew of Beckett's arrival was when he snapped his fingers in front of my nose and told me to wake up.
"Not sleeping," I mumbled.
He held his index finger up. "Watch my finger," he directed.
"You watch it," I said. "Better yet, go tend to McKay. Cam's goons nearly killed him."
"I've already looked in on Dr. McKay. Now I'd like for you to convince me your brain isn't swelling under that hard head of yours, Major. Follow my finger."
My eyeballs rolled creakily in their sockets. Beckett hmm'd to himself and felt the knot on the back of my scalp.
"Dr. McKay is asking for you," he pronounced at length. "We'll be performing a reduction on his fractured elbow. Do you feel strong enough to help?"
I didn't, not by a long shot. I said, "I'm fine," and started to get up. I had to stop when I couldn't push myself up off the couch.
"That wrist doesn't look good." Beckett took my hand and arm and manipulated both until tears came to my eyes.
"It's certainly not any better now," I snarled at him.
"Nothing. I took a fall. I was handcuffed at the time."
Beckett clucked unhappily. "These are the same patrolmen who hurt Dr. Zelenka?"
Beckett shook his head. "You may have a hairline fracture here, but until we can safely get you to a hospital, we'll wrap it up and treat it as a sprain."
"Yes, Major," Beckett said. "I'll tend to him first. Just be careful until we can get that immobilized."
He helped me stand, and I followed him to a bedroom with modern furniture and a picture window looking out on the hillside, which was green and blooming after the February rains. McKay was laid out on a blond maplewood fourposter, bare to the waist, white-faced and bruised, with big, slow tears spilling from the corners of his eyes. After brutality, kindness can be just too damned much to bear. I bent over and touched my lips briefly to his forehead.
McKay blinked quickly in astonishment, more tears spilling from his eyes. "Ask Carson for the expensive drugs," I advised. "The government will pick up the tab as long as they think you're going to the South Pole with them."
McKay blinked again, his bruised mouth twisting into a grimace. "Your quack doctor wants to set my elbow using only local anesthetic," he whispered harshly.
So my little joke wasn't very funny. I sank into the chair next to the bed and took McKay's good hand with mine. "Oh, that. Well, you don't need general anesthesia just to splint an elbow."
"No!" He protested, his ruined voice cracking. "I want to be unconscious before these ghouls start yanking on the bones in my arm."
I looked up at Beckett, who was shaking his head. "Not when we're dealing with a possible laryngeal fracture, Dr. McKay. We've already been through this. The anesthesia could further compromise your airway."
"Then I'll wait until you can take me to a hospital. You're not doing this here."
"McKay, there's a damned goa'uld looking for you." Dex came forward from the corner of the room where he'd been leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. "There's no telling when it'll be safe to take you to a hospital. Besides, the way you're fussing, you must be feeling stronger. Let's just get this done."
"He's right, lad," Beckett gestured to Dex, who swung a dressing table stool around and took a seat next to the bed. "Your muscles are tightenin' and pulling the humerus further out of alignment the longer we wait."
"Christ, I hate you all," McKay snapped miserably. He turned his head away and closed his eyes. At Beckett's direction, Dex started an easy traction on McKay's busted arm, one big hand on McKay's shoulder, the other around his wrist. Beckett positioned his hands above and below the elbow as McKay breathed in gasps, wheezing when he exhaled. The cigarette burns were livid on his chest, ugly dots of blackened flesh across the aureole of his right nipple, and I thought about what I was going to do to Bernie Smitty the next time I saw him. L.A. was a big town, but not big enough for him to hide from me forever.
"So what's going to happen to the McKay-Zelenka Experimental Machine if you go swanning off to Antarctica with the Navy?" I asked McKay conversationally.
He tried to answer, but his teeth chattered with pain as Dex kept up the pressure on his arm and Beckett tested the tension in his muscles.
"Because I figure once you're out of the picture, it'll just become the Radek Zelenka Experimental Machine--"
"Never happen!" McKay managed in an explosive gasp. "If I go, Radek's coming with me."
"You'd leave the Baby behind?"
"With the magnetic drum and the second tier stores--" he panted, "--the Baby's stable enough to run differential equations for the physics department." He broke off, breathing hard. "Time to let their graduate students do something to earn their keep," he finished, his voice cracking and breaking. It hurt just listening to him. I adjusted my grip around his good hand.
"So you've been planning to go to the South Pole all along? You play it closer to the vest than I thought, McKay."
"Not all along." McKay's right leg started kicking restlessly.
Daniel Jackson appeared at the foot of the bed, and as Beckett said, "Easy there, we've nearly got it," Jackson put his hands on McKay's ankles to keep him pinned to the bed.
"You bastards," McKay spat, his body arching weakly in pain.
"When did you change your mind about going?" Jackson asked, ignoring the curses. He sounded like he was sitting across a conference table from McKay, not holding him down while Carson Beckett set a broken bone.
"Once Sheppard told me Jeannie was safe-- oh, I can feel that," McKay groaned, trying to writhe away from his pain. "You're enjoying this, aren't you? You sadistic, snake-fucking---"
"You're already through the worst." Beckett talked calmly over McKay's stuttering imprecations. "You're not going to let the men who did this win now, are you?" He bore down firmly on McKay's arm, both hands tight at the elbow. McKay squealed, the remnants of his voice shattering. Jackson looked ready to burst into tears himself, but he stayed in position. Dex was as calm as I expected, but I was feeling a little sick to my stomach again. It must have been the concussion.
"You can let go now," Beckett told Dex. To McKay he said, "And that's got it. Your muscles will hold the ends of the bone in place until we get the splint on."
McKay couldn't speak at all. He was breathing hard, nostrils flaring with every breath. His forehead dripped with sweat that mingled with the new tears he'd shed. I picked up a folded towel from the bedside table with my weak hand and clumsily patted his face dry. McKay closed his eyes, his breathing still ragged, and his grip on my hand started to loosen. Beckett checked the pulse in his neck, and McKay whispered without opening his eyes, "This has been such a bad day."
I laid my head down on the bed next to his shoulder. There was still no sign of anyone bringing me a drink. I was awake enough to smell the vaseline they coated on McKay's broken arm before making the cast, and I heard his sleepy whimpering, though I didn't think he actually woke up any more than I did. The warm, chemical smell of plaster-of-Paris reminded me drowsily of my summer job in high school, working at my uncle's construction business. Back in the days when my family, my teachers, even the pastor of our church were all telling me I was bright enough and handsome enough to be chosen as a host myself one day.
I couldn't decide whether that made the last week of my life funny or just pathetic.
Eventually Dex woke me up and walked me back to the kitchen. The blinds had been raised in the room with the display cases, and the lights of Hollywood twinkled in the valley below. Dex sat me down at a kitchen table laid out with paté and saltine crackers, canned fruit cocktail and a cup of coffee.
"Before Dr. Beckett left, he said he didn't want you drinking any whiskey," he said. I raised an eyebrow at him. Dex was leaning back in the kitchen chair across from me, only the back two legs on the floor, slurping a cup of coffee of his own. "He also said you'd drink it anyway, and to make sure you had some dinner first."
I ate canned peaches and grapes, chewing very carefully so I wouldn't aggravate my headache.
"You and Miss Emmagen aren't from around here," I said, swallowing.
"Nope," Dex agreed.
"You're not Jaffa, are you?"
Dex patted his stomach with the hand that wasn't holding a coffee cup. "No snakes."
"At first I thought you must have come from Istanbul with Dr. Weir, but now I think you're probably from a lot further away than that."
"Teyla and I came through the stargate in November of 1942," Dex said. "We're researchers. Travelers. Lucky for us the Brits held onto Giza, since the Nazis would have executed us on the spot. It was still a close call. We didn't even know enough to pretend to worship the goa'uld."
"You come from an entire world of atheists?"
"There aren't any in our galaxy."
"No goa'uld. Plenty of religion. On lots of worlds they even venerate the Ancestors. Teyla's from Athos, and those folks are completely besotted with 'em." Dex leaned forward, the front legs of his chair hitting the kitchen floor with a smack. "Like I can talk. I came through the gate with her."
I spread some paté on a cracker. My hands weren't trembling very much.
"We were looking for the Ancestors," Dex said patiently, as though that were an explanation. "Research indicated your gate address might have been the Ancestors' destination when they left Atlantis ten thousand years ago."
I latched onto that word he kept repeating. "Who are your Ancestors?"
"Same as yours, cousin." Dex showed his teeth. "The Ancients."
Daniel Jackson poured himself a cup of coffee as he sat down at the kitchen table between us. "Teyla's and Ronon's colleagues back in Pegasus think the Ancients built the stargate," he explained, and then promptly spilled coffee across the table with his excited gesturing. "We don't have access to anything like their historical data, of course, but it fits the archaeological evidence on earth."
Dex found a dish towel and mopped up the spilled coffee while I asked, weakly, "Someone built the stargate?"
"The Ancients, that's right," Jackson chattered happily. "And seeded humanity throughout the Milky Way and the Pegasus Galaxy. That's our best guess, anyway, for where Teyla and Ronon came from, where Atlantis is now." He poured himself another cup of coffee and managed not to spill this one. "Well, actually Dr. McKay is the one who thinks they're from the galaxy we call Pegasus. He's the astronomer."
"Right. Of course." All at once, I'd had plenty of supper. I stood up too quickly and the snare drums in my head started pounding again, but I managed not to fall over. I found the little built-in bar I remembered from the last time I had visited Daniel Jackson's surprising home. The seltzer bottle was empty, but I was more interested in the decanter of whiskey. I poured myself a glass, neat, and drained half of it before Dex caught up with me carrying medical gauze.
"Let's get your bad wrist wrapped up." He glanced at my drink without saying anything, but his eyes were amused.
"Fine." I finished the glass and poured myself another before sitting down and holding out my arm. The swelling was pretty bad, and it ached, but nothing like my head. Dex passed the roll of gauze over and under my left wrist, drawing the bandage tight in neat, precise movements. "Something else you may not know," he announced, producing a knife from his sleeve to cut the bandage from the roll.
Apparently there was no limit to my ignorance. The whiskey was as good as I remembered, and I drank deep. "What would that be?"
Dex put his bright little knife away and tied off the ends of the bandage. "That crystal Jolinar hired you to find? Teyla and me brought it through the gate in the first place.”
”It’s yours,” I said flatly.
Dex nodded. ”We needed it to be sure whatever we found on the other side, we would have enough power to get us back home again. Jolinar was in Giza with a bunch of Allied scientists, and she took it from us. If Elizabeth Weir hadn’t stolen it back, Teyla and I would no chance of getting home, even if Operation Highjump does find a second stargate."
"And what are you going to do about me?" I said.
"Dunno. What should I do?"
"Do you think I can lie to Jolinar about this? To a goa’uld ?"
"I don't know. Can you?"
I polished off the rest of the whiskey. "What kind of a question is that?"
"Got another one for you," Ronon said, unperturbed. "What's gonna happen to those cops who hurt McKay?" he glanced down at the arm he had just bandaged. "Who hurt you and McKay both."
"Probably nothing." I didn't mention my plans for Smitty. "Cam doesn't think he can touch them."
"Huh," Dex said thoughtfully. "I ever meet them, I'll cut their hearts out."
"Ronon." Jackson had followed us, and he sounded worried. "Dr. Weir has talked to you about--"
"You saying they don't deserve it?" Dex demanded calmly.
I didn't disagree, but as things turned out, neither Dex nor I ever got the chance to do anything about Bernie Smitty.
I had been sleeping on the loveseat in the bedroom where McKay was, my legs propped on the dressing-table bench, but I woke up fast when Emmagen touched my face.
"What?" I blundered to my feet. "What happened?"
Emmagen put her finger to my lips. "Do not awaken Rodney," she told me unhelpfully. An incandescent wedge of yellow light fell across the bedroom carpet from the hallway, and the bedroom windows glowed with the reflection of street lights down in Hollywood. McKay was a lump under the bedclothes. I stepped near enough to hear the rasp of his breath before I followed Emmagen out. Jackson was waiting for us in the hall, looking disheveled and sleepy in striped pajamas and robe.
"What's going on?" I asked again.
"It is our hope that you may be able to tell us," she said, which shed precisely no light whatsoever on the situation. I guessed she had been sleeping as well, not because she was sleepy-eyed or disheveled, but because her hair was down around her shoulders and she was wearing a red silk dressing gown.
"Someone should keep an eye on McKay," I said.
"That's what I'm here for," Jackson said, disappearing into the darkness of the bedroom. Emmagen led me past the kitchen and into a part of the house I hadn't seen before, where an iron staircase spiraled down to the basement. Emmagen lifted the hem of her robe and started down lightly, hesitating only when she saw I wasn't so eager to follow.
"Who's down there?" I said.
"Only those people who are coming to consider you their friend."
"Haven't you figured that out by now, Miss Emmagen? I don't have any friends."
She raised an eyebrow like she thought that schtick was wearing a little thin by now.
And then the house began to tremble with a low, deep thrumming that shook its very foundations. I slammed my good hand against the wall to brace myself. Not because the vibrations were strong enough to knock me down, but because I was so surprised I was afraid my knees would give out. It was no earthquake, not with the accompanying sound like muffled, tumbling weights. "There's a ring transport in the basement?" I said.
Emmagen merely raised an eyebrow at me again before disappearing around the next bend of the staircase. This time I followed her down.
The basement was a large, open room with parquet flooring. There were clusters of furniture in a couple of corners, a cocktail bar, modern sofas and a low coffee table. Ronon Dex stood with Cam Mitchell at the bar, and I had an instant to wonder when Cam had come back, and whether he had gotten any sleep at all in the meantime. Elizabeth Weir was sitting on one of the sofas, finally wearing what I presumed were her own clothes, a tailored navy-blue coat, tightly belted, with a matching skirt. There was a highball glass in her hand, and the fine white skin of her face was lined with tension
The picture windows on two sides reflected the transport in the center of the room, where light was gushing from the collapsing rings like water through a rapids. Then the rings disappeared. Nobody moved. Well, almost nobody. Me, I was the one who dropped hard and fast to kneel with my head bowed, and in that room full of atheists and blasphemers, I began to recite the First Prime's Salute. I got as far as the prayer that his will be done before General O'Neill stopped me with a gentle, "At ease, Major."
I kept my face down as I rose awkwardly to my feet, my bandaged wrist dangling. My head had never really stopped hurting -- now it was pounding in time with my heartbeat. Emmagen touched my shoulder. Her fingers were cool through the plain cotton of my shirt, and I wished I had the coat and tie I had left upstairs in McKay's room.
"This is First Prime Teal'c," Emmagen said, as if maybe I hadn’t recognized him. "Teal'c, this is John Sheppard."
"Major John Sheppard," O'Neill elaborated. "Formerly of the 305th."
"Your Unit was a credit to the Eight Airborne," said the First Prime. His basso profundo voice was even deeper than it sounded on the newsreels.
"Sheppard is Doc McKay's own private Bogart," Dex announced cheerfully.
"We're all very fortunate that John has befriended Rodney," Weir said. "He saved his life for the second time today."
I finally lifted my head. The First Prime was still in the center of the room where he had transported in. His suit was fine light wool, his tie, striped silk that matched the gold ichthys on his forehead, and he was holding his cream felt fedora in his hands. His two-tone wingtips were made of calfskin and linen, with tassels at the end of the laces.
"You have my thanks, Major John Sheppard," he said in a voice like rolling thunder. "Indeed, the time will come when you have the thanks of a grateful nation. Even all mankind."
"Sir." I lowered my eyes to the tassels on the First Prime's very nice shoes. "Sir. I say this with the greatest possible respect, but if Rodney McKay is such a national treasure, shouldn't your people have been taking better care of him?"
"Believe me, Shep," Cam made his way fast to my side, "that's what we're trying to do. Something's happened." He steered me to the nearest chair with one hand heavy on my shoulder and shoved a drink at me.
I looked at the glass in my hand. Scotch or bourbon, with a half-melted ice cube. He'd given me his own drink to shut me up. I took a slug. Bourbon after all, good quality, which wasn't surprising. "All right, friend,” I said. ”What's the news?"
Across the room, General O'Neill was taking the First Prime's hat and coat. Teal'c loosened his tie as he sat down on the sofa next to Dr. Weir.
"As some of you already know," Cam said, "About an hour ago, the Bay City Station got a report of a burning vehicle on the back side of Topanga Canyon. By the time the fire trucks arrived, the car had been almost completely consumed, but it's been tentatively identified as Officer Bernie Smitty's patrol car."
I set down Cam's bourbon.
"There were two people in the back seat. They'd been handcuffed, and we're pretty certain they were Officers Bernie Smitty and Martin Jones, though a positive identification may never be possible, given the condition of the bodies."
Weir drew her breath in sharply. Dex muttered, "Good riddance." Then, "Who killed 'em?"
"Yes, well you see, that would be the problem we're facing here." General O'Neill drew out his words. "Nobody is going to be shedding many tears for those two specimens, but it would settle my mind to know who has the power to dispatch a couple of LAPD officers so quickly, and with such apparent impunity."
"We're proceeding under the assumption it was Jolinar," Cam said. "We believe she was the one who commissioned Smitty and Jones to deliver McKay, and we have no reason to think she would be tolerate failure. I've submitted a formal request for permission to question her."
"I am surprised to learn that your police have the ability to investigate a goa'uld at all," Emmagen said.
"Only after obtaining express permission," Cam said. "And of course we have no right to detain a goa'uld or Jaffa, far less charge them. It's just a courtesy, to allow a police department to clear its books, so a human isn't charged with a crime."
"Unless it's more convenient to charge a human being anyway," I said. "You don't really think it's Jolinar, do you?
General O'Neill looked at me. "You don't?"
"When have you ever heard of a goa'uld sneaking around to perform an execution? This happened in the middle of the night, in the suburbs, with no witnesses. You don't even have a positive ID on the bodies. Now if Smitty and Jones had been dispatched with staff weapons in the middle of Sunset Boulevard at high noon, then I might suspect Jolinar. But this just sounds like Smitty and Jones upset one of their gangland pals."
"Quite a coincidence how that seems to keep happening to the folks who hurt Dr. McKay," Cam said, looking at me in a funny way. "First the downtown Civil Service team being disbanded, then Smitty and Jones burned to death in their own cruiser."
"Helluva coincidence," General O'Neill agreed calmly. He was looking at me, too.
"Indeed," the First Prime rumbled, and the hairs rose on the back of my neck.
"Did you folks all huff the same reefer last night? I've been right here since you picked up me and McKay yesterday afternoon. How did I manage to sneak off and dispose of Smitty and Jones while I was sleeping upstairs? Much less influence troop movements in the Civil Service!"
"Well, frankly, we can't explain that, either," O'Nell drawled, still calm. "But somebody has their eye on McKay, and if it's not you, well, then, that's complicated. Frankly, we were really hoping it was you."
I stood up. "Not only does your right hand not know what the left is doing, but they've forgotten they're even connected to the same body. Please excuse me, General, First Prime. I have my own concerns I need to attend to."
I didn't know if I would be allowed to leave, but no one stopped me as I went upstairs and began rummaging in McKay's dark bedroom for my coat and tie. I heard a wet, gasping sound from the direction of the bed, and Daniel Jackson flipped on the bedside lamp with an exclamation of concern. In the sudden light, McKay gurgled miserably, flailing and blinking. "Rodney," Jackson said urgently, "Are you all right?"
I went to his other side. "Easy," I said, getting my arm behind McKay’s shoulders to raise his head. "You're safe. Calm down."
He turned his head, and I managed to pull a towel close before he vomited up a thin quantity of bloody mucus. I cleaned his face, and he settled slowly, his frantic gasping settling into a regular, ugly wheezing.
"Carson told you how important it was that you stay calm."
McKay looked at me balefully. His two blacked eyes were coming up like a raccoon's mask. Purple stains had darkened the swelling around his Adam's apple. I thought about that torched patrol car in Topanga Canyon, and I wasn't sorry at all.
"Got some news for you," I said. "Somebody killed Jones and Smitty."
McKay blinked. "Who are Jones and Smitty?” he whispered.
"Officer Martin Jones and his partner Bernie Smitty, the son of a bitch who tied you to a chair and nearly beat you to death. Somebody took care of them for you. Don't suppose you know who that was, do you? Because the brain trust downstairs doesn't seem to have a clue."
"Took care of--?" He seemed completely bewildered.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Somebody killed them both a few hours ago.”
"I don't-- I don’t know what I'm supposed to think about that," McKay said helplessly.
"Don't think anything about it if you don't want to," Jackson hastened to assure him.
McKay didn't say anything else. After a moment or two, his eyes slid shut again. His breath whistled a little. I asked Jackson, "What time is Carson Beckett supposed to be back?"
"He said this morning around nine," Jackson said.
"Maybe we shouldn't wait that long."
Jackson hesitated for only a moment, looking down at the bed. Then he nodded quickly and left the room.
I touched my fingers to McKay's cheek. He startled and his eyes opened. "So you got a lot of enemies," I said. "But you’ve got a lot of friends, too. Including the First Prime of the United States, who's sitting in the basement fretting about you as we speak."
McKay blinked. He didn't seem to be doing very well, and I wasn't sure how much he understood. I told him what I had to say all the same. "It seems you've also got friends that nobody know anything about, and that's scaring the folks downstairs. Truth to tell, it's scaring me, too. I know, it doesn't make sense. You ever heard of having too many friends?" I patted the back of his hand where it protruded from a plaster-of-Paris cast. "But do me a favor anyway. Stick close to these people. They haven't done such a great job so far, but I think they can take care of you if you'll let them."
"John," McKay whispered thickly. "Where are you going?"
"And try not to give Carson such a hard time. He can take it, but he's not a bad doctor and you need somebody like him right now." I pulled my coat on and draped my tie around my neck. The first light of dawn was beginning to illuminate the hillside out the bedroom window. The Laurel Canyon trolley would begin running in a little while, and I could get a ride down to Hollywood.
I still expected to be stopped before I left the house, but only Daniel Jackson accompanied me to the front door. He unlocked it for me, saying, "You don't have to go, John."
"It may surprise you to hear that I have a life that doesn't involved babysitting a headstrong astrophysicist, savior of the universe or not."
Daniel unlocked the garden gate without saying anything else. As it turned out, I was halfway down the canyon before the trolley caught up with me.
Chapter 12: Ghost
The conductor of the Laurel Canyon trolley looked at me skeptically. I was bare-headed, my coat had popped a shoulder seam, and I suspected the ripped lining was hanging out in back. I held up my bandaged wrist and did my best to look non-threatening, if not actually sober, and he took my nickel at last. Hollywood was just waking up when I disembarked a few blocks from my apartment. The streets smelled like coffee, fried bacon and eggs, clean laundry and fresh aftershave. No one gave me a second glance. Bad nights weren't such a rarity in this part of town. The big gray tom was waiting for me when I reached my front door, giving me a look of disdain as I fumbled with the lock before he slipped past my legs to get into my apartment first. I hung up my jacket and examined the stains and ripped seams, and wondered whether it was worth having it repaired. Then I wondered if I could send Jolinar the cleaning bill, and I laughed out loud. It was a harsh sound in the morning apartment The tom circled my ankles, complaining as I slid my holster off my shoulder and locked my revolver in my desk. I sat down heavily in the easy chair and turned my pockets out looking for my cigarette case. When I didn't find it, I stood up and checked my coat pockets. My flask was missing, too. That, Emmagen had never given back to me. I couldn't say when I had lost my cigarette case, but I expected both of them were gone for good. I took off my tie as I walked to the kitchen and left it draped around my neck. I was intending to make myself a pot of coffee, but the cat followed, twining around my ankles until it was all I could do to avoid tripping over him. I swore, but instead of starting coffee I rummaged in the cabinet until I found my last tin of sardines, rolled back the lid and set it on the floor. The cat lapped at the oil the sardines were packed in, then dragged out the silvery fish one at a time, shaking them and biting them in half before gulping them down, leaving a widening circle of oil stains on the linoleum. "I should call you Rodney McKay," I said. "You make as much of a goddamned mess as he does." The tom cocked one eye at me, then turned his full attention back to his breakfast, swallowing sardines with sloppy enthusiasm. "And you've got his table manners, too." A pot of coffee suddenly seemed like too much work. Instead I found the aspirin bottle in the medicine cabinet, swallowing a couple dry as I filled the bathtub. I lowered myself carefully into the hot water, hissing as every inch down made me aware of new scrapes and bruises. I let my wrist hang out of the tub to avoid getting the bandages wet. I got out before I actually fell asleep, toweled myself dry and painted some mercurochrome on the angriest-looking cuts. Then I collapsed on top of the covers and slept like the dead until the gray tom woke me up by patting at my face with his paw. I swore at him and tried to knock him off the bed, but he avoided me and raced into the other room. I was groggy with sleep, and my heavy eyelids shut. The cat was back an hour later, or maybe it had only been a few seconds, walking across my chest, purring loudly and laying his outstretched claws very carefully under my right eye. Once again I came awake thick and slow, swearing at the cat and flailing. This time I dragged myself out of bed after him, knotting a housecoat around myself as I stumbled into the living room. That bastard cat was sitting expectantly by the front door, so serenely confident I wouldn't kick him down the stairs that he barely moved as I fumbled with the deadbolt. The sun in the courtyard glared white-hot. I must have slept longer than I realized. The cat slipped past my ankles. On an impulse, I stepped outside to see where he went. He ghosted down the stairs, gray against stained white concrete, and scratched purposefully at the first door to the right. It opened after a moment, and Mrs. W., a spare, angular woman of indeterminate age, bent down and scooped the tom into her long arms, petting him and no doubt cooing endearments I was thankfully too far away to hear. Before the door closed, I thought I saw the tom shoot me a smug look over his shoulder. Fine. I shut my own door. Maybe I should go fly planes in Antarctica. It wasn't like anyone would miss me here. Feeling like an arthritic old man, I slowly pulled on boxers and an undershirt. My head was hurting so much I felt nauseated, and I took a couple more aspirin before I tried to shave my face. I looked like I'd gone a couple of rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson. At least I was still on my feet. I figured that had to be good advertising for a private detective in itself, so I finished getting dressed in my best brown suit and headed to the office. By the time I got downtown I was missing coffee badly enough that I stopped downstairs at Merle's. I was carefully not thinking about what I was going to say to Jolinar when I made my first report. I slid onto a barstool at the counter, so busy trying not to worry about whether I would find an inquiry from Jolinar upstairs in my office, that it took me a couple of minutes to realize no one was bringing me any coffee. I looked up. Kimmie was behind the counter, arms crossed over his thin chest, a ferocious scowl on his face made even more impressive by today's false eyelashes and kohl. "So," I tried, friendly-like. "Any hope of getting a cup of jo?" If anything, Kimmie's expression only got darker. "I don't think I'm interested in serving your kind in here." I looked over my shoulder, half-expecting to see a crowd of undesirables had bumbled into the diner behind me. There was no one but a businessman reading his newspaper at a window booth. I couldn't help noticing that he had coffee. I turned back to Kimmie, freshly aware of my pounding head. "Whatever's going on, I'm really not in the mood. Am I going to have to pour my own cup?" "You brought that service cheat in here! I served him breakfast! How do you think that makes me feel?" "And then you tried to steal the poor bastard's coat off his shoulders," I said, feeling very tired. I got up and walked around the counter. Kimmie backed away nervously as I got down a cup and saucer and poured my own damned cup of coffee. "Come on, Kimmie. It wouldn't even have fit -- McKay is twice as broad across the shoulders as you." "You know his name!" Kimmie protested, like that was the final straw. I swallowed a gulp of coffee. It was stale from the burner, but the caffeine began to pierce the fog in my skull. "You really need to start a fresh pot," I said, though I wasn't holding my breath for that. "And of course I know his name. He was a client." "And you're a vet, a war hero!" Kimmie sounded like he might cry. "Why would you do something like that?" "Why would I take on a paying client? Kimmie, I would expect you of all people to understand how business works." "I wouldn't serve a 'cheat!" he protested shrilly. "No," I said slowly. I put down the coffee cup. "No, you wouldn't, would you?" I dropped a coin on the counter to pay for the coffee I'd served myself, and jogged to the phone booth in the back corner of the diner. I asked the operator for the Sunset exchange and dialed Dr. Jackson's house. The phone rang three times, six times, a dozen. The operator interrupted helpfully let me know that no one was answering. I told her to let it ring, but after two dozen it was obvious even to me that no one was going to pick up. I told the operator to keep my nickel, and I had her dial the downtown police station. Cam wasn't in. I slammed the flat of my hand against the back of the wooden booth. Fortunately, the paneling was pretty sturdy. I left a message with the desk sergeant for Cam to meet me at Dr. Jackson's house, even though I had the sickening suspicion that he had never left. Then I ran out into the street to hail a cab. I didn't know whose car that was parked on the street in front of Dr. Jackson's home. It was a Crown Imperial, one of this year's models, a car with a wheelbase so wide it required a custom-built garage just to park it at home. The paint job was a shade of forest green that looked black under the shade of the jacaranda trees. I paid off the cabbie and unholstered my gun as he drove away. The tall bamboo gate in front of Dr. Jackson's home was standing wide open. I was right about Cam. He'd never left, and I found him by the koi pond, his bad leg crumpled beneath him on the smooth gray stepping stones. I couldn't tell whether he was alive or dead. I took a step towards him, but then I saw Emmagen, and I went to her first because at least her eyes were open. Still in her red dressing gown, she was half-sitting against the house as if someone had smashed her hard against the wall and just let her drop. "Teyla." I crouched at her side. Blood was running from her nose, and the cant of her right shoulder looked like a dislocation. When her eyes rolled in the direction of my voice, I saw her pupils were different sizes. "John--" she slurred. "Don't try to move. I just need to know who's inside the house." "Goa'uld," she spat, grimacing. "Jaffa." I had already guessed that part. "What about Rodney?" "Yes. And Daniel. Ronon will protect them with his life, but I fear -- " Yeah. I feared, too. "What about the general and the first prime? Dr. Weir?" "They returned to Washington this morning." "Good timing on their part," I said, not particularly caring whether I was being fair or not. "Wait here." Nothing was broken in the room with the display cabinets, which I supposed would make Dr. Jackson happy if any of us got out of here alive, but Ronon Dex was sprawled on his back on the modern steel coffee table, one of his wrists handcuffed to a leg of the table. He was shifting restlessly, not quite struggling, and he had a red blotch in the middle of his forehead like a nasty burn, smeared blisters rising across his brows. His eyes widened when he saw me, but I put my finger over my lips, and he didn't speak. He jerked his head in what I thought was the direction of McKay's bedroom. The bedroom door was closed. I put my ear against it. Nothing. Straightening up, I tried to listen to the sounds of the house. A window was open somewhere, and I could hear cars downshifting on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. I opened the bedroom door, quietly and slowly. Sunlight poured across the crumpled bed linens. There was no sign of Rodney or Dr. Jackson. I checked the wardrobe, then under the bed, and as I straightened up, I heard a staff weapon discharge. The basement. I ran, light-footed as I could manage, and got to the head of the stairs in time to hear Rodney McKay saying something in his broken voice about putting a bullet in his head, so then I clattered down the spiral staircase making as much noise as I could. The metal steps rang. All eyes turned towards me. Almost all. I didn't think Dr. Jackson's eyes were going to be looking at anything ever again. He was on his back on the parquet floor. A staff weapon had burned away his shirt and the skin on his chest, gouged out a channel of lung tissue and then blasted a hole in the wall behind the cocktail bar. His blood was spreading as quickly as one of his spilled cups of coffee. McKay crouched in a corner of the room behind a coffee table that didn't provide very much cover. As advertised, he was holding the muzzle of a Colt revolver under his chin with one hand. I wondered who had given it to him. His broken arm lay uselessly in his lap, the plaster of his cast still gleaming white. Across the room was a Jaffa I didn't recognize. The stylized dove on his forehead might have belonged to any one of a dozen different Orders. His brown suit was a lot nicer than mine. Standing next to him, looking no more than mildly exasperated, was Colonel Steven Caldwell. His right hand was raised, his ribbon device fitted in his palm and aimed at Rodney. "Put down your weapon, Major. I'm here to help Dr. McKay." I raised the revolver until I had Rodney in my sights. Rodney kept his eyes on me, his naked gratitude clear on his bruised face. It made me feel a little reckless. "It seems to me," I said conversationally, "And I admit, I haven't been here for the whole conversation. But it still seems that Dr. McKay isn't particularly interested in accepting any help from you." The Jaffa pointed his staff weapon at the center of my chest. There was every reason to believe I was going to wind up on the floor right next to Dr. Jackson some time in the next thirty seconds or so, so I just kept talking. "In fact, it looks like he would rather die than accept your help." "Your blasphemy surprises even my host," said Caldwell's voice. "But perhaps you don't recognize me. Put away your gun, John Sheppard, for whosoever speaks a word against the son of man, it shall be forgiven him, but whosoever speaks against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come." My aim wasn't great one-handed, and now I was trembling violently, but neither Caldwell nor his Jaffa were taking any chances as long as I kept the muzzle pointed in the general direction of McKay's precious brains. I took another step. "Looks like you almost had it right, Rodney. Except it wasn't your little sister they were after. It was you all along. I guess one member of the Holy Trinity at least realized the Baby wasn't such a far stretch from goa'uld thinking machines after all. Like you told me, with the technological advances of the war, mankind really is in reach of heaven." "There's a new realm coming, Major Sheppard," said a memory of Caldwell's voice. "There could be a place in it for godly men like you." "So are you sure about this, Rodney?" I was close enough now that I probably wouldn't miss, even though my hand was still shaking. "Sounds to me like you're being offered the world, and no one would ever hurt you for touching goa'uld tech again." Rodney met my eyes straight on. The muzzle of his revolver was digging into the flesh under his chin. It had to hurt, given all the bruising, but I guess that really wasn't the first thing on his mind just then. "You know I'd rather die, John," he whispered. "You could have decided the goa'uld toys weren't all that important before you got us both beaten to a pulp," I complained mildly. "That was the mistake the Colonel here kept making." I couldn't bring myself to refer to him by his true name. "He was trying so hard to keep it a secret that he wanted a human genius at computing machines as host. Why was that, I wonder. Were you right about that, too, McKay? The gods plotting against each other in heaven?” “There will be no mercy for you,” Caldwell threatened. That was only what I expected by this point. “So in his zeal to keep his secret, he told the folks he sent after you that you were just a service cheat. No wonder they nearly killed you. Smitty and Jones, the Civil Service. They literally couldn't understand wanting a service cheat alive." I risked turning my head to look into Caldwell's glowing eyes. "That's why he finally had to come for you himself. He may have created the prejudice, but he didn't understand it. For a member of the Trinity, he's kind of stupid that way." Caldwell finally turned his palm from Rodney to me. I saw a flare of red like sunspots in the desert, and my scalp began to burn. The heat shimmered through my skull and bumped hard up against my brain, poking and prodding, grasping fleeting tendrils of thought and igniting them like strike-anywhere matches. I felt the hard parquet floor under my knees, and I knew the Holy Ghost was sending me to hell, which was no more than I deserved. Then I heard a gunshot and the sound of a staff weapon discharging. The room smelled like gunpowder and blood. Caldwell screamed in rage. My eyes seemed to be closed, and I kept them that way as I felt for my revolver. As soon as my fingers closed around the grip, I slowly opened my eyes, trying not to move another muscle. The first thing I saw was the Jaffa on his knees. Caldwell was killing him. This wasn't the slow torture he had used on me just now, or upstairs on Dex. The Jaffa's entire face was distorted by heat and light. I had to look away when his eyes spilled down his cheeks. I didn't want to see the results of Rodney having saved himself from possession by the Holy Ghost, but I owed it to him to know for sure. I turned my head reluctantly, dreading the sight of those brilliant, aggravating brains splashed across the picture windows and parquet floors. The coffee table he'd been sheltering behind was smashed in two. McKay himself had been thrown backwards against the window. His good hand was around his throat, and he was gasping like he couldn't catch his breath, but his skull was obviously intact. The lovesick idiot. When Caldwell had turned the force of ribbon device on me, Rodney must have lowered his gun and tried to shoot him. Caldwell's Jaffa had reacted instinctively, turning his staff weapon on Rodney, either forgetting or not caring that he was damaging Caldwell's would-be host. Caldwell wasn't in a forgiving mood. I heard his Jaffa hit the floor with a thud. Then Caldwell stalked across the floor towards Rodney. Rodney saw him coming, and his bare feet skittered against the slick floor. He threw his hand back against the window behind him. I saw Rodney's gun on the floor, uselessly out of reach as Caldwell knelt and pulled him up into his arms. Rodney struggled, but he was helpless against the goa'uld's strength. Caldwell bent him backwards over his forearm like Clark Gable about to ravish Vivian Leigh. If Caldwell had raised his eyes for an instant he would have seen my reflection in the window, but he was too intent on his prey. He lowered his mouth to cover Rodney's, and I brought the butt of my revolver down on the back of his head. Caldwell dropped like a stone, taking Rodney with him. I pushed Caldwell away and lifted Rodney's shoulders. "Easy," I said. "Just calm down and breathe." He looked at me, wide-eyed, his hand over his bruised throat. Then his eyes closed and he sagged in my arms. I laid him down on the floor, my hand on his forehead, then on his cheek, and behind me I heard a wet, soft sound like tearing flesh. I turned. The Holy Ghost was emerging from Caldwell's prised-open mouth. Behind its toothy jaws, its fins spread iridescent in the sunlight. The goa'uld would be able to save Rodney, who was suffocating around his fractured larynx as I watched. This lying, murdering, stupid snake could save him. It coiled, a deity I had been taught was consubstantial with God the Father and God the Son, and as it leaped forward, I fired. The gunshot was drowned out by the sound of the ring transport activating. Too damned late, as usual. I put my revolver down on the floor and bowed my head over Rodney. "Oh, no," Weir breathed in horror. "Who has done this?" thundered the first prime while O'Neill snapped, "Are they still here?" and then, softly, "Oh, Danny." "Call an ambulance," I said. "The folks upstairs may still be alive." I didn't have the strength to explain anything more, and besides, the dead goa'uld beside me, the dead Jaffa across the basement, told their own story. I heard Weir's heels on the stairs, the first prime's heavy footsteps as he crossed the room. "This Jaffa was a Theodotian." The name meant nothing to me. Probably meant nothing to O'Neill, either, because Teal'c explained for him, "The heresy is an ancient one, in which the Holy Ghost claims the place of Christ." "He won't be claiming anything anymore," I heard myself saying. There was a silence. I heard a body being moved and looked up to see the General had knelt beside Jackson and was cradling his head in his hands. Teal'c rolled Caldwell over onto his back. "Who was the host?" "Colonel Steven Caldwell," I answered, and O'Neill broke in quietly, "Caldwell? Oh, that poor bastard." Teal'c stood up. "Does Rodney McKay still live?" I tried to say, "Not for much longer," but the words wouldn't come. I ducked my head, swallowing hard, and I heard Dr. Weir's urgent voice. "Teal'c, she's willing to help. Please let her." I thought I was too numb for anything to surprise me anymore, but I still blinked hard when I looked up to see Jolinar preceding Dr. Weir down the stairs. "Come no closer!" Teal'c grabbed the dead Jaffa's staff weapon and aimed it at Jolinar. "Do not take another step or raise your hand. We worship no goa'uld in this house." "Yes, I can see that," Jolinar said calmly, but she did stop halfway down the stairs. "Jack, Teal'c, you've got to listen to her," Weir insisted. "Cam was lying outside in the garden with a broken back and Teyla was almost as bad. She healed them both. She saved Ronon's life. She's not our enemy." "I have no weapon," she said. Teal'c didn't look convinced, but O'Neill said decisively, "Help Danny. Then we'll talk." "O'Neill--" "I don't want to hear it, Teal'c." O'Neill was still on the floor, the knees of his uniform deeply soaked in Daniel Jackson's blood. "We can negotiate anything you want later. Bust me down to airman, station me in Guam peeling potatoes for the rest of my life, send me to a firing squad at dawn, I don't give a damn, but Daniel's not dying right here if she can do anything to help it." Teal'c lowered the staff weapon. Jolinar approached without hesitation, and knelt on the other side of Jackson. She extended her crossed hands, and a stream of light seemed to pour across Jackson. His body arched, and he cried out weakly. The general fumbled for his hand and grasped it tightly with both of his own. "Just hold on, Daniel. Just a little bit longer." The light faded. Jackson's body settled back to the floor. Where the entire left side of his chest had been gore and exposed tissue, it was now covered with pink, hairless new flesh. O'Neill dropped his head and scrubbed his sleeve roughly across his eyes. Teal'c moved to Jolinar's side, and he extended his hand to help her to her feet. The hem of her checked herringbone skirt was soaked in Daniel's blood, as were the knees of her silk stockings. "He'll need medical care," Jolinar said. She spoke using only the voice of her host, Samantha Carter. "But I think he's going to be all right." "Dr. McKay also needs your help," Dr. Weir said, pointing to me and Rodney. "Please, you've done so much already, but all our plans will mean nothing if he doesn't survive, too." I picked up my Colt and pointed it at Jolinar. "No." She cocked her head at me. "I think I'm going to need a stricter accounting of your advance monies," she said, almost smiling. I was in no mood for goa'uld humor, but I smiled back, showing my teeth. I laid my bandaged hand over McKay's chest. "I'll return your dough with interest when this is all over, but for now, just stay back." "Major Sheppard, what are you doing?" Weir protested. "Rodney could be dying." General O'Neill, still on his knees next to Jackson, said softly and intently, "For Dr. McKay's sake, you need to stand down, Major," but the first prime said, "Explain yourself," so he was the one I answered, my eyes and my gun still locked on Jolinar. "Rodney McKay would rather die than become a host." "I am not seeking a new host." "So you say. But I just murdered my god in cold blood--" I heard my voice climbing, and I wrestled it back under control, "and I'm not in a particularly trusting mood right now. The Holy Ghost itself wanted McKay. Why should I think that you don't?" "I want only to heal your comrade." "I've let Rodney down time after time, and the poor sentimental fool never stopped believing in me. I'm sure as hell not going to let him down now because I believed in a minor goa'uld playing games with a healing device." "I am not goa'uld!" Jolinar roared in a voice like thunder. Her eyes flashed gold under her little black beret. It was an impressive display, but not one particularly calculated to make me change my mind. Under my bandaged hand, Rodney's chest rose and fell weakly. I was afraid to blink, for fear tears would blur my vision if I did. "Do you claim to be Tok'ra?" Teal'c said. "Your kind ceased to exist more than three millennia ago." "The evidence of your own eyes tells you otherwise." "Teal'c?" General O'Neill asked. "What are you talking about?" "I was told the legend of the Tok'ra by Master Bra'tac. They were said to live in voluntary symbiotic relationships with their hosts. They opposed the dominion of the goa'uld, and when mankind banished Ra from Earth three thousand years ago, the Tok'ra seized that moment of weakness to attack. They destroyed him, but Ra's army destroyed them in turn." "We were not destroyed. The Tok'ra and their cause live on." "So you claim," Teal'c said. "But when the second wave of goa'uld arrived on Earth, the Tok'ra did nothing to assist. You left the Tauri to suffer under the boot of the goa'uld for two thousand years." "It has taken millennia for us to replenish our numbers," Jolinar said. "I am here now because we learned an Ancient source of tremendous power has been brought through the earth gate. It must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the goa'uld." "Yeah, well, we've got that under control, thanks," O'Neill announced. His voice was just a little shaky. "Still, saving our people counts for a lot. Dr. Weir is a diplomat. Maybe she can talk Major Sheppard here into allowing you to save Dr. McKay's life, and then, who knows? The galaxy's the limit." Dr. Weir crouched down beside me and Rodney. "John, you may not have much reason to trust any of us right now, and I don't blame you, but I have never seen a goa'uld act unselfishly, as Jolinar has done.” Teal'c said, "Although the Tok'ra have left the Tauri of Earth in the hands of their oppressors for thousands of years, I believe it is true that they would not claim an unwilling host." That was the moment Caldwell opened his eyes, and, groaning, pushed himself up. He put his hand on the back of his head and looked around the strange tableau in which he found himself. His face crumpled. "Oh my God," he whispered hoarsely. "Oh, God." Under my hand, Rodney's chest was still. Dr. Weir looked at Caldwell briefly, but then turned her attention back to me and McKay. "Major," she said firmly. "You have the rest of your life to figure out how you feel about having killed a goa'uld. But Dr. McKay needs Jolinar's help right now. Don't let him die to assuage your own guilt." "I'm not guilty," I said. I was shaking so hard I had to lay my gun down on the floor. "I'm not guilty." Jolinar approached. "My host has taught me much about what happens to a people ruled for so many generations by the goa'uld. Neither of us expected to find resistance to this degree -- from heads of state down to the lowliest private detective." "Hey," I protested weakly. I fumbled for Rodney's hand as she knelt beside us. The light from her healing device spread across him, and I heard myself saying, "Rodney, I'm sorry." I saw his head turning fitfully from side to side out of the corner of my eye, but I watched Jolinar the whole time, even though I didn't know how I would stop her if she really wanted McKay. Dr. Weir was right. I wasn't strong enough to let him die. "I'm sorry," I repeated. I didn't seem to be able stop saying the words, even as I felt the warmth from the device spreading up my own hand, a feeling like sunlight through a windowpane. Rodney made an ugly, gagging sound, and his hand tightened around mine. I was aware of Caldwell weeping, harsh and broken nearby, and of the General saying, "Steve, it's Jack. You're safe, it's over." I was still apologizing, even around a helpless desire to smile and a sudden sense of well-being like the first shot of very smooth bourbon. Jolinar's face was calm but intent, watching Rodney as she worked. Then the light from her device vanished, and Rodney drew in a great, gasping breath. His eyes snapped open and stared straight up into my mine. "Oh lord, John." His voice was quiet, but clear as a bell. "Would you please shut the hell up?" Epilogue I woke up feeling no particular sense of urgency and lay looking at the dark pine beams that crossed the ceiling overhead. The breeze blowing in through the screens was hot, but at least it was moving air. I turned my head. Sunlight danced through the small, shiny leaves of a mature pepper tree. I rolled my head the other way, and looked through a doorway framed in the same dark pine as the ceiling. The door itself was standing open. Its upper panel had a stained glass inset depicting grapes on the vine, or perhaps flowers on a branch -- there was too much dust to say for sure. Through the open doorway I could see the corner of a bed with the bedclothes kicked down to the foot. Also visible was an open wardrobe. One of the small drawers inside was pulled halfway out, and socks were crammed together within, in no visible sense of order. Most of the shoes on the floor of the wardrobe were upside down, or tossed on their sides, and an unknotted bow-tie lay on the floor between the dresser and the bed. I sat up slowly. I'd been dozing on the cushions of a wicker chaise longue on the sleeping porch outside Rodney McKay's bedroom. I was in his Pasadena home. And wasn't that a kick in the head? I reached for my cigarette case before remembering it had been missing for days now. Then I just sat for a while and watched the sun on the leaves. When I decided I was hungry, I stood up and made my way through the disheveled bedroom to the upstairs hall. Both sides were lined with built-in bookcases. The notebooks and lab books didn't lend themselves to neat rows, and were tumbled together like a child's discarded playthings. Voices floated up the stairwell. Rodney's was one of them. The other had a strong Czech accent. I ran my hand along the banister on my way down the stairs. The steps and the banister were made of the same dark pine as the floorboards and the paneling on the walls and the beams across the ceiling. The whole house felt a bit like the inside of a smooth, dry cave. The Persian rugs on the ground level were threadbare, and the leather on the furniture was cracked and stained, the cushions permanently indented. The house smelled like old paper, eucalyptus and fresh coffee. I followed the smell of coffee and the sound of voices into the kitchen where McKay and Zelenka were sitting at either end of the kitchen table. It was covered with graph paper and lab notebooks, yellow pencils, five coffee cups, plates of crumbs, and Kaleb Miller's cat, a small gray tabby inexplicably named Jonathan Edwards. The cat opened his green eyes and blinked at me, then reached forward luxuriously to slap his paw down on the very piece of paper Rodney was scribbling numbers across. "Stop it, you pest," Rodney complained mildly, laying down his pencil to scratch the cat between the ears. Zelenka glanced up and saw me first. "Hello, John. It is good to see you looking so well." Dr. Zelenka himself still was looking a little battered. His lower lip was split, the left side of his jaw still swollen with purple bruises just beginning to fade to yellow. I pointed to him. "You ought to pay a visit to Jolinar," I said. "She's on her way to putting Dr. Beckett out of business." Zelenka cupped his bruised jaw in his hand. "Thank you, no. I am grateful to her for helping Rodney, but I have no desire even to be in the same room with her." I understood. I had been in the same room, and I had turned down the chance for her quick-healing, too. Rodney was watching me, with that strange little smile on his face he'd been wearing for days now. "Have a good nap?" he asked. "Think so. How long was I asleep?" I looked around for a clock. "About six hours. Lazybones." I spotted the carafe of coffee on the stove. I grabbed one of the coffee cups from the table and rinsed it in the sink and poured myself a cup. "There's cream in the icebox," Rodney said. "And a baked ham. You must be hungry." "Rodney. You cooked?" Zelenka snorted. Rodney scowled at him, but admitted, "It was Kaleb's mother. She's apparently so damn grateful those two won't be moving in with her that she sent it up with Kaleb and Jeannie this morning." I put cream in my coffee and drained it in a swallow. "Have anything stronger?" "No, you lush, I don't," Rodney said affectionately. "And before you ask, there's no tobacco in the house either. Not with Jeannie around. The smell makes her sick." "How many months is it until the destroyers leave San Diego for Tierra del Fuego?" I pulled the ham in its molded glass casserole dish out of the refrigerator. "I think I'm moving back to Hollywood in the meantime." "There are dinner rolls in the bread box," Rodney said, ignoring my threat. I checked the enameled blue-and-white box on the counter and rescued a couple of Parker House rolls that smelled wonderfully of butter and yeast. "Also from Kaleb's mother?" Rodney harrumphed and nodded. He was already drifting back to his calculations, pencil scratching across graph paper, so I scrounged up a plate and a knife and took a seat at the table. Jonathan Edwards roused himself to sniff at the ham. Zelenka made a sudden, sharp exclamation and pulled McKay's lab book over to his side of the table and began to write frantically in the margin. "Oh, no, I don't think so," Rodney snapped, leaning over to see what he had written, and then said, "Well, wait, you may have a point." I constructed a pair of fat, square sandwiches for myself out of the ham and Parker House rolls as Rodney exploded, "No, this is ridiculous. We've got to get Jackson out here to check his translation. I don't believe these figures for a minute. Although--" He pulled the notebook back to his side of the table. I ate my first sandwich, enjoying it, then fixed myself another cup of coffee. I poured a saucer of cream for Jonathan Edwards, who was being a nuisance, trying to steal bites of ham. Then I finished my second sandwich and finally leaned back in my chair, well satisfied. And why shouldn't I be? The world as I had known it was gone forever, but it was a very good ham.
The conductor of the Laurel Canyon trolley looked at me skeptically. I was bare-headed, my coat had popped a shoulder seam, and I suspected the ripped lining was hanging out in back. I held up my bandaged wrist and did my best to look non-threatening, if not actually sober, and he took my nickel at last. Hollywood was just waking up when I disembarked a few blocks from my apartment. The streets smelled like coffee, fried bacon and eggs, clean laundry and fresh aftershave. No one gave me a second glance. Bad nights weren't such a rarity in this part of town.
The big gray tom was waiting for me when I reached my front door, giving me a look of disdain as I fumbled with the lock before he slipped past my legs to get into my apartment first. I hung up my jacket and examined the stains and ripped seams, and wondered whether it was worth having it repaired. Then I wondered if I could send Jolinar the cleaning bill, and I laughed out loud. It was a harsh sound in the morning apartment
The tom circled my ankles, complaining as I slid my holster off my shoulder and locked my revolver in my desk. I sat down heavily in the easy chair and turned my pockets out looking for my cigarette case. When I didn't find it, I stood up and checked my coat pockets. My flask was missing, too. That, Emmagen had never given back to me. I couldn't say when I had lost my cigarette case, but I expected both of them were gone for good.
I took off my tie as I walked to the kitchen and left it draped around my neck. I was intending to make myself a pot of coffee, but the cat followed, twining around my ankles until it was all I could do to avoid tripping over him. I swore, but instead of starting coffee I rummaged in the cabinet until I found my last tin of sardines, rolled back the lid and set it on the floor. The cat lapped at the oil the sardines were packed in, then dragged out the silvery fish one at a time, shaking them and biting them in half before gulping them down, leaving a widening circle of oil stains on the linoleum.
"I should call you Rodney McKay," I said. "You make as much of a goddamned mess as he does."
The tom cocked one eye at me, then turned his full attention back to his breakfast, swallowing sardines with sloppy enthusiasm. "And you've got his table manners, too."
A pot of coffee suddenly seemed like too much work. Instead I found the aspirin bottle in the medicine cabinet, swallowing a couple dry as I filled the bathtub. I lowered myself carefully into the hot water, hissing as every inch down made me aware of new scrapes and bruises. I let my wrist hang out of the tub to avoid getting the bandages wet.
I got out before I actually fell asleep, toweled myself dry and painted some mercurochrome on the angriest-looking cuts. Then I collapsed on top of the covers and slept like the dead until the gray tom woke me up by patting at my face with his paw. I swore at him and tried to knock him off the bed, but he avoided me and raced into the other room. I was groggy with sleep, and my heavy eyelids shut. The cat was back an hour later, or maybe it had only been a few seconds, walking across my chest, purring loudly and laying his outstretched claws very carefully under my right eye. Once again I came awake thick and slow, swearing at the cat and flailing. This time I dragged myself out of bed after him, knotting a housecoat around myself as I stumbled into the living room. That bastard cat was sitting expectantly by the front door, so serenely confident I wouldn't kick him down the stairs that he barely moved as I fumbled with the deadbolt.
The sun in the courtyard glared white-hot. I must have slept longer than I realized. The cat slipped past my ankles. On an impulse, I stepped outside to see where he went. He ghosted down the stairs, gray against stained white concrete, and scratched purposefully at the first door to the right. It opened after a moment, and Mrs. W., a spare, angular woman of indeterminate age, bent down and scooped the tom into her long arms, petting him and no doubt cooing endearments I was thankfully too far away to hear. Before the door closed, I thought I saw the tom shoot me a smug look over his shoulder.
Fine. I shut my own door. Maybe I should go fly planes in Antarctica. It wasn't like anyone would miss me here.
Feeling like an arthritic old man, I slowly pulled on boxers and an undershirt. My head was hurting so much I felt nauseated, and I took a couple more aspirin before I tried to shave my face. I looked like I'd gone a couple of rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson. At least I was still on my feet. I figured that had to be good advertising for a private detective in itself, so I finished getting dressed in my best brown suit and headed to the office.
By the time I got downtown I was missing coffee badly enough that I stopped downstairs at Merle's. I was carefully not thinking about what I was going to say to Jolinar when I made my first report. I slid onto a barstool at the counter, so busy trying not to worry about whether I would find an inquiry from Jolinar upstairs in my office, that it took me a couple of minutes to realize no one was bringing me any coffee.
I looked up. Kimmie was behind the counter, arms crossed over his thin chest, a ferocious scowl on his face made even more impressive by today's false eyelashes and kohl.
"So," I tried, friendly-like. "Any hope of getting a cup of jo?"
If anything, Kimmie's expression only got darker. "I don't think I'm interested in serving your kind in here."
I looked over my shoulder, half-expecting to see a crowd of undesirables had bumbled into the diner behind me. There was no one but a businessman reading his newspaper at a window booth. I couldn't help noticing that he had coffee. I turned back to Kimmie, freshly aware of my pounding head. "Whatever's going on, I'm really not in the mood. Am I going to have to pour my own cup?"
"You brought that service cheat in here! I served him breakfast! How do you think that makes me feel?"
"And then you tried to steal the poor bastard's coat off his shoulders," I said, feeling very tired. I got up and walked around the counter. Kimmie backed away nervously as I got down a cup and saucer and poured my own damned cup of coffee. "Come on, Kimmie. It wouldn't even have fit -- McKay is twice as broad across the shoulders as you."
"You know his name!" Kimmie protested, like that was the final straw.
I swallowed a gulp of coffee. It was stale from the burner, but the caffeine began to pierce the fog in my skull. "You really need to start a fresh pot," I said, though I wasn't holding my breath for that. "And of course I know his name. He was a client."
"And you're a vet, a war hero!" Kimmie sounded like he might cry. "Why would you do something like that?"
"Why would I take on a paying client? Kimmie, I would expect you of all people to understand how business works."
"I wouldn't serve a 'cheat!" he protested shrilly.
"No," I said slowly. I put down the coffee cup. "No, you wouldn't, would you?" I dropped a coin on the counter to pay for the coffee I'd served myself, and jogged to the phone booth in the back corner of the diner. I asked the operator for the Sunset exchange and dialed Dr. Jackson's house. The phone rang three times, six times, a dozen. The operator interrupted helpfully let me know that no one was answering. I told her to let it ring, but after two dozen it was obvious even to me that no one was going to pick up. I told the operator to keep my nickel, and I had her dial the downtown police station. Cam wasn't in. I slammed the flat of my hand against the back of the wooden booth. Fortunately, the paneling was pretty sturdy. I left a message with the desk sergeant for Cam to meet me at Dr. Jackson's house, even though I had the sickening suspicion that he had never left.
Then I ran out into the street to hail a cab.
I didn't know whose car that was parked on the street in front of Dr. Jackson's home. It was a Crown Imperial, one of this year's models, a car with a wheelbase so wide it required a custom-built garage just to park it at home. The paint job was a shade of forest green that looked black under the shade of the jacaranda trees. I paid off the cabbie and unholstered my gun as he drove away. The tall bamboo gate in front of Dr. Jackson's home was standing wide open.
I was right about Cam. He'd never left, and I found him by the koi pond, his bad leg crumpled beneath him on the smooth gray stepping stones. I couldn't tell whether he was alive or dead. I took a step towards him, but then I saw Emmagen, and I went to her first because at least her eyes were open. Still in her red dressing gown, she was half-sitting against the house as if someone had smashed her hard against the wall and just let her drop.
"Teyla." I crouched at her side. Blood was running from her nose, and the cant of her right shoulder looked like a dislocation. When her eyes rolled in the direction of my voice, I saw her pupils were different sizes.
"John--" she slurred.
"Don't try to move. I just need to know who's inside the house."
"Goa'uld," she spat, grimacing. "Jaffa."
I had already guessed that part. "What about Rodney?"
"Yes. And Daniel. Ronon will protect them with his life, but I fear -- "
Yeah. I feared, too. "What about the general and the first prime? Dr. Weir?"
"They returned to Washington this morning."
"Good timing on their part," I said, not particularly caring whether I was being fair or not. "Wait here."
Nothing was broken in the room with the display cabinets, which I supposed would make Dr. Jackson happy if any of us got out of here alive, but Ronon Dex was sprawled on his back on the modern steel coffee table, one of his wrists handcuffed to a leg of the table. He was shifting restlessly, not quite struggling, and he had a red blotch in the middle of his forehead like a nasty burn, smeared blisters rising across his brows. His eyes widened when he saw me, but I put my finger over my lips, and he didn't speak. He jerked his head in what I thought was the direction of McKay's bedroom.
The bedroom door was closed. I put my ear against it. Nothing. Straightening up, I tried to listen to the sounds of the house. A window was open somewhere, and I could hear cars downshifting on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. I opened the bedroom door, quietly and slowly. Sunlight poured across the crumpled bed linens. There was no sign of Rodney or Dr. Jackson. I checked the wardrobe, then under the bed, and as I straightened up, I heard a staff weapon discharge.
The basement. I ran, light-footed as I could manage, and got to the head of the stairs in time to hear Rodney McKay saying something in his broken voice about putting a bullet in his head, so then I clattered down the spiral staircase making as much noise as I could. The metal steps rang. All eyes turned towards me. Almost all. I didn't think Dr. Jackson's eyes were going to be looking at anything ever again. He was on his back on the parquet floor. A staff weapon had burned away his shirt and the skin on his chest, gouged out a channel of lung tissue and then blasted a hole in the wall behind the cocktail bar. His blood was spreading as quickly as one of his spilled cups of coffee.
McKay crouched in a corner of the room behind a coffee table that didn't provide very much cover. As advertised, he was holding the muzzle of a Colt revolver under his chin with one hand. I wondered who had given it to him. His broken arm lay uselessly in his lap, the plaster of his cast still gleaming white. Across the room was a Jaffa I didn't recognize. The stylized dove on his forehead might have belonged to any one of a dozen different Orders.
His brown suit was a lot nicer than mine.
Standing next to him, looking no more than mildly exasperated, was Colonel Steven Caldwell. His right hand was raised, his ribbon device fitted in his palm and aimed at Rodney. "Put down your weapon, Major. I'm here to help Dr. McKay."
I raised the revolver until I had Rodney in my sights. Rodney kept his eyes on me, his naked gratitude clear on his bruised face. It made me feel a little reckless.
"It seems to me," I said conversationally, "And I admit, I haven't been here for the whole conversation. But it still seems that Dr. McKay isn't particularly interested in accepting any help from you." The Jaffa pointed his staff weapon at the center of my chest. There was every reason to believe I was going to wind up on the floor right next to Dr. Jackson some time in the next thirty seconds or so, so I just kept talking. "In fact, it looks like he would rather die than accept your help."
"Your blasphemy surprises even my host," said Caldwell's voice. "But perhaps you don't recognize me. Put away your gun, John Sheppard, for whosoever speaks a word against the son of man, it shall be forgiven him, but whosoever speaks against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come."
My aim wasn't great one-handed, and now I was trembling violently, but neither Caldwell nor his Jaffa were taking any chances as long as I kept the muzzle pointed in the general direction of McKay's precious brains. I took another step. "Looks like you almost had it right, Rodney. Except it wasn't your little sister they were after. It was you all along. I guess one member of the Holy Trinity at least realized the Baby wasn't such a far stretch from goa'uld thinking machines after all. Like you told me, with the technological advances of the war, mankind really is in reach of heaven."
"There's a new realm coming, Major Sheppard," said a memory of Caldwell's voice. "There could be a place in it for godly men like you."
"So are you sure about this, Rodney?" I was close enough now that I probably wouldn't miss, even though my hand was still shaking. "Sounds to me like you're being offered the world, and no one would ever hurt you for touching goa'uld tech again."
Rodney met my eyes straight on. The muzzle of his revolver was digging into the flesh under his chin. It had to hurt, given all the bruising, but I guess that really wasn't the first thing on his mind just then. "You know I'd rather die, John," he whispered.
"You could have decided the goa'uld toys weren't all that important before you got us both beaten to a pulp," I complained mildly. "That was the mistake the Colonel here kept making." I couldn't bring myself to refer to him by his true name. "He was trying so hard to keep it a secret that he wanted a human genius at computing machines as host. Why was that, I wonder. Were you right about that, too, McKay? The gods plotting against each other in heaven?”
“There will be no mercy for you,” Caldwell threatened.
That was only what I expected by this point. “So in his zeal to keep his secret, he told the folks he sent after you that you were just a service cheat. No wonder they nearly killed you. Smitty and Jones, the Civil Service. They literally couldn't understand wanting a service cheat alive."
I risked turning my head to look into Caldwell's glowing eyes. "That's why he finally had to come for you himself. He may have created the prejudice, but he didn't understand it. For a member of the Trinity, he's kind of stupid that way."
Caldwell finally turned his palm from Rodney to me. I saw a flare of red like sunspots in the desert, and my scalp began to burn. The heat shimmered through my skull and bumped hard up against my brain, poking and prodding, grasping fleeting tendrils of thought and igniting them like strike-anywhere matches. I felt the hard parquet floor under my knees, and I knew the Holy Ghost was sending me to hell, which was no more than I deserved.
Then I heard a gunshot and the sound of a staff weapon discharging. The room smelled like gunpowder and blood. Caldwell screamed in rage. My eyes seemed to be closed, and I kept them that way as I felt for my revolver. As soon as my fingers closed around the grip, I slowly opened my eyes, trying not to move another muscle.
The first thing I saw was the Jaffa on his knees. Caldwell was killing him. This wasn't the slow torture he had used on me just now, or upstairs on Dex. The Jaffa's entire face was distorted by heat and light. I had to look away when his eyes spilled down his cheeks.
I didn't want to see the results of Rodney having saved himself from possession by the Holy Ghost, but I owed it to him to know for sure. I turned my head reluctantly, dreading the sight of those brilliant, aggravating brains splashed across the picture windows and parquet floors.
The coffee table he'd been sheltering behind was smashed in two. McKay himself had been thrown backwards against the window. His good hand was around his throat, and he was gasping like he couldn't catch his breath, but his skull was obviously intact.
The lovesick idiot.
When Caldwell had turned the force of ribbon device on me, Rodney must have lowered his gun and tried to shoot him. Caldwell's Jaffa had reacted instinctively, turning his staff weapon on Rodney, either forgetting or not caring that he was damaging Caldwell's would-be host.
Caldwell wasn't in a forgiving mood. I heard his Jaffa hit the floor with a thud.
Then Caldwell stalked across the floor towards Rodney. Rodney saw him coming, and his bare feet skittered against the slick floor. He threw his hand back against the window behind him. I saw Rodney's gun on the floor, uselessly out of reach as Caldwell knelt and pulled him up into his arms. Rodney struggled, but he was helpless against the goa'uld's strength. Caldwell bent him backwards over his forearm like Clark Gable about to ravish Vivian Leigh. If Caldwell had raised his eyes for an instant he would have seen my reflection in the window, but he was too intent on his prey. He lowered his mouth to cover Rodney's, and I brought the butt of my revolver down on the back of his head.
Caldwell dropped like a stone, taking Rodney with him. I pushed Caldwell away and lifted Rodney's shoulders. "Easy," I said. "Just calm down and breathe."
He looked at me, wide-eyed, his hand over his bruised throat. Then his eyes closed and he sagged in my arms. I laid him down on the floor, my hand on his forehead, then on his cheek, and behind me I heard a wet, soft sound like tearing flesh.
I turned. The Holy Ghost was emerging from Caldwell's prised-open mouth. Behind its toothy jaws, its fins spread iridescent in the sunlight. The goa'uld would be able to save Rodney, who was suffocating around his fractured larynx as I watched. This lying, murdering, stupid snake could save him.
It coiled, a deity I had been taught was consubstantial with God the Father and God the Son, and as it leaped forward, I fired.
The gunshot was drowned out by the sound of the ring transport activating. Too damned late, as usual. I put my revolver down on the floor and bowed my head over Rodney.
"Oh, no," Weir breathed in horror.
"Who has done this?" thundered the first prime while O'Neill snapped, "Are they still here?" and then, softly, "Oh, Danny."
"Call an ambulance," I said. "The folks upstairs may still be alive." I didn't have the strength to explain anything more, and besides, the dead goa'uld beside me, the dead Jaffa across the basement, told their own story. I heard Weir's heels on the stairs, the first prime's heavy footsteps as he crossed the room.
"This Jaffa was a Theodotian." The name meant nothing to me. Probably meant nothing to O'Neill, either, because Teal'c explained for him, "The heresy is an ancient one, in which the Holy Ghost claims the place of Christ."
"He won't be claiming anything anymore," I heard myself saying.
There was a silence. I heard a body being moved and looked up to see the General had knelt beside Jackson and was cradling his head in his hands. Teal'c rolled Caldwell over onto his back. "Who was the host?"
"Colonel Steven Caldwell," I answered, and O'Neill broke in quietly, "Caldwell? Oh, that poor bastard."
Teal'c stood up. "Does Rodney McKay still live?"
I tried to say, "Not for much longer," but the words wouldn't come. I ducked my head, swallowing hard, and I heard Dr. Weir's urgent voice.
"Teal'c, she's willing to help. Please let her."
I thought I was too numb for anything to surprise me anymore, but I still blinked hard when I looked up to see Jolinar preceding Dr. Weir down the stairs.
"Come no closer!" Teal'c grabbed the dead Jaffa's staff weapon and aimed it at Jolinar. "Do not take another step or raise your hand. We worship no goa'uld in this house."
"Yes, I can see that," Jolinar said calmly, but she did stop halfway down the stairs.
"Jack, Teal'c, you've got to listen to her," Weir insisted. "Cam was lying outside in the garden with a broken back and Teyla was almost as bad. She healed them both. She saved Ronon's life. She's not our enemy."
"I have no weapon," she said.
Teal'c didn't look convinced, but O'Neill said decisively, "Help Danny. Then we'll talk."
"I don't want to hear it, Teal'c." O'Neill was still on the floor, the knees of his uniform deeply soaked in Daniel Jackson's blood. "We can negotiate anything you want later. Bust me down to airman, station me in Guam peeling potatoes for the rest of my life, send me to a firing squad at dawn, I don't give a damn, but Daniel's not dying right here if she can do anything to help it."
Teal'c lowered the staff weapon. Jolinar approached without hesitation, and knelt on the other side of Jackson. She extended her crossed hands, and a stream of light seemed to pour across Jackson. His body arched, and he cried out weakly. The general fumbled for his hand and grasped it tightly with both of his own. "Just hold on, Daniel. Just a little bit longer."
The light faded. Jackson's body settled back to the floor. Where the entire left side of his chest had been gore and exposed tissue, it was now covered with pink, hairless new flesh. O'Neill dropped his head and scrubbed his sleeve roughly across his eyes. Teal'c moved to Jolinar's side, and he extended his hand to help her to her feet. The hem of her checked herringbone skirt was soaked in Daniel's blood, as were the knees of her silk stockings.
"He'll need medical care," Jolinar said. She spoke using only the voice of her host, Samantha Carter. "But I think he's going to be all right."
"Dr. McKay also needs your help," Dr. Weir said, pointing to me and Rodney. "Please, you've done so much already, but all our plans will mean nothing if he doesn't survive, too."
I picked up my Colt and pointed it at Jolinar. "No."
She cocked her head at me. "I think I'm going to need a stricter accounting of your advance monies," she said, almost smiling.
I was in no mood for goa'uld humor, but I smiled back, showing my teeth. I laid my bandaged hand over McKay's chest. "I'll return your dough with interest when this is all over, but for now, just stay back."
"Major Sheppard, what are you doing?" Weir protested. "Rodney could be dying."
General O'Neill, still on his knees next to Jackson, said softly and intently, "For Dr. McKay's sake, you need to stand down, Major," but the first prime said, "Explain yourself," so he was the one I answered, my eyes and my gun still locked on Jolinar.
"Rodney McKay would rather die than become a host."
"I am not seeking a new host."
"So you say. But I just murdered my god in cold blood--" I heard my voice climbing, and I wrestled it back under control, "and I'm not in a particularly trusting mood right now. The Holy Ghost itself wanted McKay. Why should I think that you don't?"
"I want only to heal your comrade."
"I've let Rodney down time after time, and the poor sentimental fool never stopped believing in me. I'm sure as hell not going to let him down now because I believed in a minor goa'uld playing games with a healing device."
"I am not goa'uld!" Jolinar roared in a voice like thunder. Her eyes flashed gold under her little black beret. It was an impressive display, but not one particularly calculated to make me change my mind. Under my bandaged hand, Rodney's chest rose and fell weakly. I was afraid to blink, for fear tears would blur my vision if I did.
"Do you claim to be Tok'ra?" Teal'c said. "Your kind ceased to exist more than three millennia ago."
"The evidence of your own eyes tells you otherwise."
"Teal'c?" General O'Neill asked. "What are you talking about?"
"I was told the legend of the Tok'ra by Master Bra'tac. They were said to live in voluntary symbiotic relationships with their hosts. They opposed the dominion of the goa'uld, and when mankind banished Ra from Earth three thousand years ago, the Tok'ra seized that moment of weakness to attack. They destroyed him, but Ra's army destroyed them in turn."
"We were not destroyed. The Tok'ra and their cause live on."
"So you claim," Teal'c said. "But when the second wave of goa'uld arrived on Earth, the Tok'ra did nothing to assist. You left the Tauri to suffer under the boot of the goa'uld for two thousand years."
"It has taken millennia for us to replenish our numbers," Jolinar said. "I am here now because we learned an Ancient source of tremendous power has been brought through the earth gate. It must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the goa'uld."
"Yeah, well, we've got that under control, thanks," O'Neill announced. His voice was just a little shaky. "Still, saving our people counts for a lot. Dr. Weir is a diplomat. Maybe she can talk Major Sheppard here into allowing you to save Dr. McKay's life, and then, who knows? The galaxy's the limit."
Dr. Weir crouched down beside me and Rodney. "John, you may not have much reason to trust any of us right now, and I don't blame you, but I have never seen a goa'uld act unselfishly, as Jolinar has done.”
Teal'c said, "Although the Tok'ra have left the Tauri of Earth in the hands of their oppressors for thousands of years, I believe it is true that they would not claim an unwilling host."
That was the moment Caldwell opened his eyes, and, groaning, pushed himself up. He put his hand on the back of his head and looked around the strange tableau in which he found himself. His face crumpled. "Oh my God," he whispered hoarsely. "Oh, God."
Under my hand, Rodney's chest was still.
Dr. Weir looked at Caldwell briefly, but then turned her attention back to me and McKay. "Major," she said firmly. "You have the rest of your life to figure out how you feel about having killed a goa'uld. But Dr. McKay needs Jolinar's help right now. Don't let him die to assuage your own guilt."
"I'm not guilty," I said. I was shaking so hard I had to lay my gun down on the floor. "I'm not guilty."
Jolinar approached. "My host has taught me much about what happens to a people ruled for so many generations by the goa'uld. Neither of us expected to find resistance to this degree -- from heads of state down to the lowliest private detective."
"Hey," I protested weakly. I fumbled for Rodney's hand as she knelt beside us. The light from her healing device spread across him, and I heard myself saying, "Rodney, I'm sorry." I saw his head turning fitfully from side to side out of the corner of my eye, but I watched Jolinar the whole time, even though I didn't know how I would stop her if she really wanted McKay. Dr. Weir was right. I wasn't strong enough to let him die. "I'm sorry," I repeated. I didn't seem to be able stop saying the words, even as I felt the warmth from the device spreading up my own hand, a feeling like sunlight through a windowpane.
Rodney made an ugly, gagging sound, and his hand tightened around mine. I was aware of Caldwell weeping, harsh and broken nearby, and of the General saying, "Steve, it's Jack. You're safe, it's over." I was still apologizing, even around a helpless desire to smile and a sudden sense of well-being like the first shot of very smooth bourbon. Jolinar's face was calm but intent, watching Rodney as she worked. Then the light from her device vanished, and Rodney drew in a great, gasping breath. His eyes snapped open and stared straight up into my mine.
"Oh lord, John." His voice was quiet, but clear as a bell. "Would you please shut the hell up?"
I woke up feeling no particular sense of urgency and lay looking at the dark pine beams that crossed the ceiling overhead. The breeze blowing in through the screens was hot, but at least it was moving air. I turned my head. Sunlight danced through the small, shiny leaves of a mature pepper tree. I rolled my head the other way, and looked through a doorway framed in the same dark pine as the ceiling. The door itself was standing open. Its upper panel had a stained glass inset depicting grapes on the vine, or perhaps flowers on a branch -- there was too much dust to say for sure. Through the open doorway I could see the corner of a bed with the bedclothes kicked down to the foot. Also visible was an open wardrobe. One of the small drawers inside was pulled halfway out, and socks were crammed together within, in no visible sense of order. Most of the shoes on the floor of the wardrobe were upside down, or tossed on their sides, and an unknotted bow-tie lay on the floor between the dresser and the bed.
I sat up slowly. I'd been dozing on the cushions of a wicker chaise longue on the sleeping porch outside Rodney McKay's bedroom. I was in his Pasadena home. And wasn't that a kick in the head?
I reached for my cigarette case before remembering it had been missing for days now. Then I just sat for a while and watched the sun on the leaves. When I decided I was hungry, I stood up and made my way through the disheveled bedroom to the upstairs hall. Both sides were lined with built-in bookcases. The notebooks and lab books didn't lend themselves to neat rows, and were tumbled together like a child's discarded playthings. Voices floated up the stairwell. Rodney's was one of them. The other had a strong Czech accent.
I ran my hand along the banister on my way down the stairs. The steps and the banister were made of the same dark pine as the floorboards and the paneling on the walls and the beams across the ceiling. The whole house felt a bit like the inside of a smooth, dry cave.
The Persian rugs on the ground level were threadbare, and the leather on the furniture was cracked and stained, the cushions permanently indented. The house smelled like old paper, eucalyptus and fresh coffee. I followed the smell of coffee and the sound of voices into the kitchen where McKay and Zelenka were sitting at either end of the kitchen table. It was covered with graph paper and lab notebooks, yellow pencils, five coffee cups, plates of crumbs, and Kaleb Miller's cat, a small gray tabby inexplicably named Jonathan Edwards. The cat opened his green eyes and blinked at me, then reached forward luxuriously to slap his paw down on the very piece of paper Rodney was scribbling numbers across.
"Stop it, you pest," Rodney complained mildly, laying down his pencil to scratch the cat between the ears. Zelenka glanced up and saw me first.
"Hello, John. It is good to see you looking so well." Dr. Zelenka himself still was looking a little battered. His lower lip was split, the left side of his jaw still swollen with purple bruises just beginning to fade to yellow. I pointed to him.
"You ought to pay a visit to Jolinar," I said. "She's on her way to putting Dr. Beckett out of business."
Zelenka cupped his bruised jaw in his hand. "Thank you, no. I am grateful to her for helping Rodney, but I have no desire even to be in the same room with her."
I understood. I had been in the same room, and I had turned down the chance for her quick-healing, too.
Rodney was watching me, with that strange little smile on his face he'd been wearing for days now. "Have a good nap?" he asked.
"Think so. How long was I asleep?" I looked around for a clock.
"About six hours. Lazybones."
I spotted the carafe of coffee on the stove. I grabbed one of the coffee cups from the table and rinsed it in the sink and poured myself a cup. "There's cream in the icebox," Rodney said. "And a baked ham. You must be hungry."
"Rodney. You cooked?"
Zelenka snorted. Rodney scowled at him, but admitted, "It was Kaleb's mother. She's apparently so damn grateful those two won't be moving in with her that she sent it up with Kaleb and Jeannie this morning."
I put cream in my coffee and drained it in a swallow. "Have anything stronger?"
"No, you lush, I don't," Rodney said affectionately. "And before you ask, there's no tobacco in the house either. Not with Jeannie around. The smell makes her sick."
"How many months is it until the destroyers leave San Diego for Tierra del Fuego?" I pulled the ham in its molded glass casserole dish out of the refrigerator. "I think I'm moving back to Hollywood in the meantime."
"There are dinner rolls in the bread box," Rodney said, ignoring my threat. I checked the enameled blue-and-white box on the counter and rescued a couple of Parker House rolls that smelled wonderfully of butter and yeast.
"Also from Kaleb's mother?"
Rodney harrumphed and nodded. He was already drifting back to his calculations, pencil scratching across graph paper, so I scrounged up a plate and a knife and took a seat at the table. Jonathan Edwards roused himself to sniff at the ham. Zelenka made a sudden, sharp exclamation and pulled McKay's lab book over to his side of the table and began to write frantically in the margin. "Oh, no, I don't think so," Rodney snapped, leaning over to see what he had written, and then said, "Well, wait, you may have a point."
I constructed a pair of fat, square sandwiches for myself out of the ham and Parker House rolls as Rodney exploded, "No, this is ridiculous. We've got to get Jackson out here to check his translation. I don't believe these figures for a minute. Although--"
He pulled the notebook back to his side of the table. I ate my first sandwich, enjoying it, then fixed myself another cup of coffee. I poured a saucer of cream for Jonathan Edwards, who was being a nuisance, trying to steal bites of ham. Then I finished my second sandwich and finally leaned back in my chair, well satisfied.
And why shouldn't I be? The world as I had known it was gone forever, but it was a very good ham.