Slow night at the strip club and the lone girl on the catwalk’s got lots of wavy dark hair and slow, languorous moves that rank somewhere between goth queen and sheer sex on the floor. Her eyes are focused somewhere near mine while she gyrates to Portishead and I’m wondering, who lets something this damn slow and depressing on the floor of a strip club? Though there’s something genuinely erotic about the way she’s moving to it, seemingly lost within her own private world of want. It’s sexy and I’m impressed. She’s a good dancer. But still– Portishead. At a strip club. It smells wrong.
It’s only Thursday, I suppose, the day before everything picks up, but I’m no expert in the operation of strip clubs. For example, this one seems remarkably empty for such a posh operation — while the stage/catwalk is rather bare and flashy, the tables are nicely stained dark wood and the seats are rather too upholstered. This is no two-bit operation, or if it is, it’s the best-financed one I’ve seen.
I watch the girl twist her hips and arch her back while I nurse a whiskey sour and wonder when my contact’s going to arrive. I’d gotten the message two days ago that someone was interested in my services and to meet him here at eight-thirty. According to my watch, it’s eight thirty -five and I’m still alone.
If this is Lilah’s idea of amusement, I’m going to be very put out.
The girl’s arm extends and twists, her wrist rotating in a complicated come-on that looks like it’s aimed directly at me, which I suppose it is. There’s no one else in the club except for a pair of bored looking drunks that I take to be management and security. I slowly realize she’s looking for a tip and so I fumble to find a fiver to give her. She’s giving me quite a show, after all.
I hand her the money and she leans forward, giving me an ample view of very nice cleavage. “You’re here to talk to my friend,” she says, taking the money. “He’s over there. Be nice to him or he might blow your head off.”
“Thanks for the tip,” I say, glancing over to where the stripper is looking and there’s my contact, having his own drink.
“No problem,” she replies, taking the five. I walk away, pick up my drink, and shortly find myself seated across from someone I’ve never seen before in my life. I get the distinct sense, however, that he’s seen me. More than once.
“I’ve been told you want to meet,” I say tensely. The man takes a drink of his sidecar and I get a good look at him. He’s about my father’s age or a little younger, grey, civilized — and without a doubt, he could kill me with his bare hands.
“You’re Wyndham-Pryce,” he says, not looking up at me. “I have a job for you.”
“That’s nice,” I reply, trying not to have an expression on your face. “Who are you with? I’ve had poor luck recently with employment offers, so forgive me if I don’t accept right away.”
“Of course not,” the man says, suddenly turning his head to look at the woman onstage with an obscure pain in his eyes. “My name is Jack Bristow. I’m with a small agency very interested in your work.”
I swallow heavily. “I won’t give you information about Angel Investigations,” I say bluntly. Jack blinks, turning back toward me.
“Angel Investiga–oh,” Jack says. “The detective agency where you were formerly employed. No, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce, I’m not interested in information about the agency. I am, however, interested in procuring your skills as a translator and expert on occultism.”
“I see,” I say. “How did you find out about me?”
“Mostly through your interactions with Wolfram and Hart,” Jack replies, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “And Ms. Lilah Morgan.”
This means, of course, that he knows I’m sleeping with her, but who cares? I’d be surprised if he didn’t know.
“You’re not with Wolfram and Hart, are you?” I ask, even though I don’t believe anything of the sort. “I refuse to work with them.”
Jack laughs, if you can call a three-second amused chuckle laughter. “No,” he says. “Not with them, either. Though my agency would also be interested in having you possibly work with them for the purpose of information gathering.”
Information gathering. That’s a fancy phrase for spying on them and I’m still not sure what he’s trying to get me to do. I know only two things for certain: I don’t trust him, and I don’t want to tell him no straight out.
“Mr. Bristow, I’m not sure if I’m interested in your game,” I say slowly. “Who are you working for, precisely? Why would they want me to work for them? Since you seem to know so much about me, you must know that the reason I was sacked from my last job involved a kidnapping and my throat being slit.”
“Yes, Wesley, I am well aware of that,” Jack says slowly, looking me over with professional neutrality that chilled me far more than a sexual look might have. “Come with me and I’ll explain everything.”
I almost say no, but what’s the point of refusing? Besides the fact that I’ll be coming with him whether I want to or not, I’m unemployed and slowly succumbing to the boredom and self-recrimination that solitude and alcohol bring. It’s either follow Mr. Jack Bristow into the unknown or follow Ms. Lilah Morgan into the known and tawdry.
I stand up slowly, trying not to let the uncertainty show. The nagging feeling that I’m being remarkably nave won’t go away; after all, Jack has only offered me a job and refused to tell me who he’s working with. The only thing that makes it worthwhile the possibility of a way out, but that possibility is more than enough to overcome all of my objections.
“If this turns out to be a set-up,” I say as we leave the strip club, the air outside dry and redolent with traffic fumes, “I’m going to be very disappointed.”
This time the laugh lasts for a good fifteen seconds and has some real humor in it.
“You’re going to be very interesting to work with,” Jack says. “It’s been a while since someone has actually been this paranoid about a job offer with my people.”
“I’ve discovered that a default attitude of distrust is the easiest way to stay alive,” I reply. “Where did you find that stripper, by the way?”
Jack’s eyes suddenly flash with unrepressed emotion, a crack in the all-business mask. “She’s a friend of my daughter’s,” he says and I know something’s gone terribly, horribly wrong with Jack’s daughter and that the stripper is not normally a stripper. Everything about this business is as wrong as it’s felt from the beginning.
“She’s a good dancer,” I say clinically. “I was completely fooled.”
He nods. “Get in the car, Wesley,” he says, pointing to a nondescript silver-black sedan and I know, suddenly, exactly what Jack’s agency does. The sedan is a little too government-issue for it to be coincidence.
I get in the car. Jack locks the doors and looks at me.
“You’re in intelligence,” I say, almost babble, before he can get a word in edgewise. “Who are you with? FBI? CIA? NSA? And why would you need me as a spy?”
“I work for a small section of the CIA known as SD-6,” Jack explains. “We’ve come into the possession of documents written by a man known as Rambaldi and I’d like you to do some work with them, translate, cross-reference, give us everything you’ve got. If you find the assignment to your liking, there might be a long-term contract involved.”
“Involving working with Wolfram and Hart?” I ask.
“Involving a takedown of Wolfram and Hart,” Jack corrects me. “As you noticed, I know a lot about you, Wesley. I know why you’d like to see the whole firm gone. You help me out, and I think we can arrange it. Or anything else that you want.”
The last sentence disarms me. Jack wants something more than just a little help with the Rambaldi documents from me. It’s not sex, it’s not information, it’s not murder. But he hasn’t pulled me into a black sedan for the standard SD-6 recruiting spiel. He wants something from me and he’s willing to hand me Wolfram and Hart to get it.
“I think it can be arranged,” I say, choosing my words carefully. “What do you want from me, Mr. Bristow? I’m a good translator, but surely Rambaldi is in Latin or Italian — and I’m hardly the only person in Los Angeles who can translate those languages. I’d like to help you, but I want to know what I’m setting myself up for if I do.”
He nods, retreating into himself to find the right way to phrase the answer. I can tell that it’s something personal, something that he’d really rather not talk about. It’s got to be related to the daughter, but how am I supposed to help Miss Bristow, if it is Miss Bristow?
“You do prophecies, Mr. Wyndham-Pryce,” Jack says, dropping back into formality. “You may or may not know it, but you’re well-known for it in powerful circles. Rambaldi’s prophecies involve my family. I want you to translate the entire prophecy and tell me what I can do to make it not happen.”
It’s my turn to laugh. Prophecies! All the world wants me to tell them the future — Angel, Holtz, Lilah, now Jack — and the voice in my head tells me that knowing the future makes the present impossible, turns living into hell, and that I cannot, I must not tell the future. Telling the future will kill me.
“You can’t avoid the future, Mr. Bristow,” I say. “I do prophecies, as you say, but the prophecies have a disturbing tendencies to do me right back.”
“What are you saying?” Jack asks after a pause with the softest hint of threat in his voice.
“I’ll help you,” I say wearily. “If only for the chance to escape working for Wolfram and Hart in actuality. I’m just trying to warn you against trying to stop the future, Jack.”
He looks at me, back in his secret agent emotionless man state, but I know that it’s only a façade now and I can negotiate accordingly. If nothing else, the past few months have taught me the use of exploiting raw emotion, except it’s my time to do the exploiting.
“I understand that,” he says flatly. “But this is something I have to do. For my daughter.”
I bite down on my tongue literally, wanting to explain to him that it’s better for his daughter if he doesn’t. How do I know? All I have to dissuade him is my own ridiculous experience, naivete rewarded by violence. Jack Bristow doesn’t seem naïve. He might be a little sentimental, but there is no doubt in my mind he knows what he’s doing.
“All right, then,” I say, the fear of one sort of enslavement replaced by another. “I won’t just join your little agency, though. I prefer to be a free agent.”
He starts the car, laughs again. I’ve decided I don’t like his laugh. There’s something broken in it, something I relate to with too much ease. I’ve been — or I will be — just like this man in some ways, if I’m not careful.
“Don’t we all,” he says as we drive away, not sarcastically or ironically, but matter-of-factly, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Don’t we all.”