Stiles straightens, removing his hand from the dead woman's empty pocket. Her bag is on his desk. He's rifling through the contents when he hears his father's voice, just outside his office door.
He keeps searching.
"Stiles, I don't want to have to give the order to enter, but I will!"
The order is familiar, the language of it, and he knows his father hates using it. All reasonable force. Those words won't lead to any outcome his father will be able to live with, but Stiles knows that won't prevent him speaking them.
There's silence from the other side of the door, and Stiles can almost hear the grief in his father's voice as he instructs his men.
There's nothing but a ten-dollar bill in the bag.
When they start battering at the door, Stiles goes out his window.
Three Days Earlier
The noon sun is baking the pavement when Stiles steps out of the Jeep. Suzie Cambridge, his last client, had insisted he come to her place of business to deliver his report, and had then insisted on giving him a pedicure while he was delivering it. She hadn't wanted her watchful employer to think she was shirking. When he'd given her the bad news about her cheating girlfriend, she'd thrown one of his shoes at his head and refused to return the other. Stiles values his possessions, so he'd retrieved the shoe she'd thrown at him before leaving.
He gets back into the Jeep to slide it on before hotfooting it into Criminal Cupcakes. The coolness of the tiled floor against his bare foot is a relief.
"Hey, Danny," Stiles says.
"Hey," Danny greets absently, not looking up from his laptop.
The specials haven't changed.
"I'll have a sandwich," Stiles pretends to decide. "Whatever you're having."
"Cupcake store, Stiles," Danny informs him. "We do cupcakes and donuts."
"If you have any of that mayo you bought last week left, that'd be great." Stiles is salivating at the memory.
Danny grumpily gets up from his stool. "There's a deli right down the street, you know."
"Are you suggesting I take my business elsewhere?"
"I would never do that!" Danny protests. "I don't want you to leave. I want you to buy some damn cupcakes."
"Give me one for Scott," Stiles allows. Scott will like it, but he takes the cupcake because he needs to stay on Danny's good side. He started coming into the cupcake place for lunch because he had a thing for Danny, but when they hit the skids he stuck around because Danny is right next door to the office and always has edible lunch-meat, which is more than can be said for the deli down the block. "No frosting."
"Listen," Danny says. He squeezes out a portion of mayo so generous that Stiles knows this is going to be trouble. "I recommended you to a friend."
"No," Stiles says.
"Don't make me regret it."
"I don't accept referrals from personal friends," Stiles tells Danny. "It's actually never come up before, but I'm absolutely certain it never ends well. Tell your friend I'm sorry."
"And this is important to me, too," Danny continues. "So don't screw it up."
"Hard to do that when I'm not working on it."
Danny breaks out the Saran-wrap. Stiles usually eats here, so Danny is letting him know the conversation is over.
"Dollar," Danny says, holding out his hand.
He hasn't forgotten the cupcake, so Stiles is getting a friend-price. Stiles fishes a dollar out of his wallet and heads for the hills.
Accepting a friend-price from Danny doesn't mean anything, because Danny is his friend, so no obligation is implied. Stiles still has a bad feeling about this.
"Why are you wearing one shoe?" Danny calls, as Stiles shoves through the door and steps out onto the burning concrete.
When Stiles makes it up the stairs to the office, he finds Scott asleep under the reception desk. Scott is a tall, dark young man with a snore like a saw through logs. He's also Stiles' best friend, and the ostensible other half of this detective agency.
He wakes with a whine when Stiles drops his lunch on his face.
"'Searly, Stiles," he mumbles.
"It's two in the afternoon."
"Lunch?" Scott asks hopefully, rubbing his eyes and knocking the brown bag containing his cupcake onto the grubby carpet.
"Get it before the mice do."
"There are no mice!" Scott snaps to attention, eyes darting around the room, searching for signs of small rodents in dark corners. "I keep telling you there are no mice. I'm going to call the exterminator again."
"Hold off on that," Stiles says, opening his office door to throw his shoe at the coat-rack and coming back to hop up on the desk beside Scott and make some headway on that sandwich. "Miss Cambridge wasn't such a fan of the idea of paying me for the privilege of being told her other half was playing away."
"Man. I keep telling you: cash up front!"
"I got my per diem!"
Scott attempts to raise an eyebrow. Both go up, but he adequately conveys his scepticism nevertheless. "Which was?"
"Twenty bucks," Stiles admits, deflating like a popped balloon.
"Twenty bucks." There's pink icing all over Scott's hand. Danny never did like to give Stiles what he asked for. "What are we going to do with twenty bucks? I bet you spent more than that on gas."
"Gotta spend some dough to make some cake."
Scott's face is deadpan in a way Stiles recognises all too well from childhood exploits where Scott, somehow, had become the voice of reason. "Suck it up and go see your dad," Scott says.
"I'm not asking my dad for help," Stiles says firmly, in a probably futile attempt to avoid rehashing an old argument for the nth time.
"Or we're going to get evicted."
"Well, when you say such sweet things."
"He left a message asking you to go over for lunch." Scott picks up the post-it he'd written the note on, displaying it for Stiles on the end of a fingertip. "And you have lunch! It's like you wanted to become nepotistic today."
"It's lunchtime," Stiles says dryly. "And I'm hungry." Still, he takes the post-it. "You realise you aren't actually my secretary."
"I bill plenty of hours!" Scott says, defensiveness turning him pink. "I had that thing last week. And if you don't want me knowing exactly how much nothing you have going on these days, you should hire an actual secretary to take care of our correspondence."
Stiles waves a vague hand around the room, sparsely populated with the empty desk, the chair behind it and one off in the corner for potential clients, a silent telephone, and a yucca Stiles had stolen from his dad's house when they first opened. "Because we're drowning in unanswered pleas for assistance," he says. "Plus, we're going to get evicted next month, and we don't need another mouth to feed."
"We're not going to get evicted!" Scott says hotly, and glares at Stiles until he takes the remainder of his sandwich and departs on an unwilling visit to his father.
Well, not exactly unwilling. Stiles had chosen this location for their small private detective agency because of its proximity to the Sheriff's office. There wasn't much else to recommend it. He'd hoped they might catch some overflow, hoped people disillusioned with the system might spill through their door as a last resort, but things hadn't exactly turned out that way. Not that many people are disillusioned with his father's way of doing things, and those people aren't likely to turn from prosecution to smalltime sleuths like the Stall outfit. And the people who do seek out their services--the duped, the betrayed, the ones with secrets they don't want exposed to the harsh light of justice--don't particularly want to walk past all those black and whites on their way to the bottom of Stiles' stairway.
But the other side of that coin is one of the few advantages the place does have: the fact that certain other people don't like walking past all those squad cars, namely discarded targets of investigations searching for revenge. Another positive is that it provides Stiles with the chance to dine with his father pretty frequently.
But usually when he brings his dad lunch he doesn't have ulterior motives, so when he walks into the busy Sheriff's office he can't say he's exactly surprised that his determined lack of embarrassment and steadily fixed eyes lead him to take a tumble over a fine pair of outstretched legs.
Stiles retains some of the skills he developed in high school, so he tucks his shoulder and rolls, then hits the reception desk, rebounds into a messy sprawl, and bounces to his feet.
"Hey, Isaac," he says.
He means to ask after his father, but Isaac is an old acquaintance, and Stiles is nothing if not friendly. "I'd apologise," Stiles says, "but that wasn't my fault. If you didn't want people tripping over your legs you wouldn't have made them so long and noteworthy. Worth the fall, too."
Stiles rubs his bruised shoulder as Isaac looks down at his own legs, puzzled and shyly pleased. He's a pale, vulnerable-looking boy, still with shadows under his eyes though his brute of a father has been dead for almost three years now. He'd died in an animal attack; it had been a fitting end.
"I haven't seen you in a while," Isaac says, plainly deciding to ignore Stiles' words. It's a shame; he's attractive in an interesting way, all uncertainty and stuttering hesitation and unspoken need, all waiting to draw a guy in and cling like a limpet. But he's never responded to Stiles' attempts at flirtation. He barely even responded to Stiles' attempts at friendship, back when they'd been at school together and Stiles had thought they'd had enough in common to build on. "How are you?"
And Stiles means to say he's fine, but instead he speaks the truth. "Hanging on. Scott sent me over to see if my dad'd throw us a bone. We need something to gnaw on."
"You know how it is."
"Yeah." Stiles knows he does, which is the reason he said anything in the first place.
"But things'll turn around. They always do."
"Yeah." Isaac sounds firm about that. "Always."
Stiles is about to ask after Isaac's partner Boyd when his dad calls. "Stiles! Get in here and stop bothering my deputies!"
"No need to yell."
His dad's office is the mirror-image of Stiles', with piles of paper sliding over the surface of his desk, lights flashing on his phone, computer chirping to indicate the arrival of an email.
"Bill," Myrna's voice says from the intercom, "you got five for Vernon?"
His dad hits the button, saying, "Give me a couple after I've eaten before you let him in." When he turns to take the sandwich Stiles is holding out he explains, "Vernon's been giving me indigestion lately. It's difficult to get an idea out of that kid's head, but once he gives it to you, he doesn't want you to let it go."
"What's in Boyd's head?"
"I'll just ask him."
That annoys his dad, which is not what Stiles had wanted to do. He's still in two minds about asking for help. "It's just this Penny Blake thing, nothing to it."
"Who's Penny Blake?"
"Girl we found in the woods last week. Finally got an ID. Vernon thinks it's connected to the Argent case."
Stiles is about to enquire further when his dad adds, irritably, "You're friends with Vernon and Isaac, aren't you? You went to school together." Stiles warily admits that to be the truth. "I wish you'd talk to 'em about the job. It isn't too late for you and Scott to get into the business for real."
"We're in it," Stiles says tightly. This is another old argument, and another one that isn't going away.
"Legitimately. So you wouldn't have to follow around cheating husbands and sit on teenage junkies all the time. You could do a decent day's work instead."
"I think I do."
"Yeah," his dad says. "I know it. I know you think it."
That seems to put paid to Scott's dream of getting a helping hand here. "Enjoy the sandwich," Stiles says, though it's almost gone, and heads back out the door.
"Hey, you still coming for Sunday lunch?" his dad calls after him.
"I got a shoulder of ham. Ask Scott and Melissa."
Stiles agrees to this and walks back through the pen on his way to the door. Isaac is on the phone, but he flags Stiles down. Stiles clears some space for himself on a corner of Isaac's desk and steals a sip from the fresh cup of coffee Boyd deposits on Isaac's notebook.
"I'm not going back to the machine," Boyd says, but Isaac just waves it off. "You done with your dad already?"
"He's done with me," Stiles says gloomily, though it isn't true, exactly. He's pretty sure his dad would grudgingly help them out if he asked; he just doesn't want to ask, not when he knows how much his dad hates what he's doing.
"He doesn't think there's anything wrong with you," Boyd tells him. "He may think most private operatives are lowlife scumbags trying to trade on our good name, but he doesn't apply that to you."
"Good to know."
Stiles takes a gulp of the coffee. It's still hot enough that it scalds the roof of his mouth. Isaac is speaking into the phone, offering meaningless reassurances to the person on the other end of the line, but he isn't paying much attention to his conversation. When Stiles puts the coffee cup back down on the notebook, Isaac hands it back to him, grabs a pen, and starts scribbling. He finally finishes his conversation, hangs up, and says, "Missing Pomeranian."
"I could find a dog," Stiles says hopefully.
"No, you couldn't." Isaac tears off the sheet of paper he's been writing on and holds it out to Stiles. "Lisa Lane. Runaway. She's eighteen, so we aren't into it, but her parents really want her back. She's in the Horseshoe Motel, and there'd be something in it if you could persuade her back to San Francisco."
"All right," Stiles says, pocketing the lead. "Thanks."
Isaac nods as Boyd asks, "He in a good mood?"
"Dad? Thinks you've got a bee in your bonnet. What's the buzz?"
"Nothing," Boyd says, and makes his way over to the Sheriff's office.
Stiles raises an eyebrow at Isaac. "He thinks there's a connection between Kate Argent's murder and that body we found in the woods last week," Isaac explains. "I don't see it, but he's convinced." He gets wearily to his feet. "I better get in on that before tempers start fraying."
Isaac's probably had a lot of practice trying to keep the peace, Stiles thinks, though not much success. It seems a shame he has to do the same here.
"Good luck," is all he says. He means it.
"You too," Isaac throws over his shoulder.
There's a room number written on Isaac's notebook paper, so Stiles heads out to the Horseshoe Motel, hoping to make a start on his runaway case. He calls her parents on the way, and he doesn't get out of his Jeep until they've arrived at a figure that makes it worth his while. But he doesn't get an answer when he knocks, and there's no sign of life behind the yellowing net curtains, so he gives it up as a wasted trip and drives back to the office.
Scott is standing behind the desk when Stiles opens the door. He looks like a stuffed penguin, staring off into the corner with bright, glassy eyes. He doesn't look at Stiles. "It would only take me two minutes to run down and get you some cupcakes," he says desperately. "Are you sure you don't want some?"
"Quite sure," a light, feminine voice says. "Is this Mr. Stilinski?"
"Oh. It is. Stiles, this is--"
Stiles comes into the room, shutting the door behind himself. "Hello," he says, looking at the women in the corner.
Scott has dragged over the desk chair so they could both have somewhere to sit, but they rise to greet him. They're standing close together, but are quite divergent in looks. The one in the desk chair is tall and dark and willowy, movements suggesting a strength her slight frame belies. The other is smaller, with pale skin and delicious curves all topped with hair of a wild, Titian red, like the cherry on top of a sundae.
"This is Allison Argent," Scott informs him, in such a tone as to leave Stiles in no doubt as to the lady's affect on his sensibilities.
The woman comes towards him, hand outstretched, not for a shake, but to be held. He takes it, though he feels badly about it until, she says, "Lydia Martin. I believe you were expecting me."
Her hand is soft, so Stiles lets it go. He prides himself on being businesslike, or at least preserving the appearance.
"But Danny sent me! He told me he would explain."
"Oh, Danny's friend. He didn't do more than mention you." Lydia looks vexed, so Stiles hastens to add, "You're very welcome, but I'm afraid you'll have to do your own explaining."
She throws a look at Scott and then at the door to his office, so Stiles leads the way.
"Will you wait here?" she asks her friend. "This shouldn't take long."
Her friend makes vague noises about coming along as a support, but Lydia stands firm on wishing for a private interview. Stiles thinks Miss Argent's concern is misplaced: Miss Martin appears capable enough of looking after herself. Stiles admires her for it.
As Stiles closes the door behind them, Scott's voice is offering, "Tea, Allison? I have hot water right here..."
"I have plenty of that myself," Allison says quietly, and then Stiles turns into the room to find Lydia regarding him somewhat sceptically.
"You don't look much like a private detective," she says flatly.
"You don't look much like a lady who would require one."
She preens a little at that, and takes the chair set in front of the desk for clients without waiting for an invitation.
"Danny said you were well connected," Lydia says doubtfully, "but you don't look much like that, either."
"My father is the Sheriff," Stiles admits. "So I'm certainly connected, though whether for well or ill I couldn't say." Her face falters, which is a common reaction. It's why Stiles doesn't usually mention his father to clients. "He has no involvement with my work."
Lydia leans forwards, which causes a shift in the gravity of her body and draws the eye to the necklace nestled between her breasts. Stiles believes that was the purpose of its positioning, so he doesn't feel badly about it, but instead sizes up the stone. If it's real, and he thinks it is, it must have cost someone a pretty penny, though not nearly as much as the sparkler flashing on the ring finger of her left hand.
"I was given to understand that you would be discreet," she says, voice annoyed and eyes flashing. It adds some pleasant colour to her face. "You must realise the necessity of discretion."
"My dad doesn't know anything about what I do," Stiles tells her. "He wouldn't want to, even if I were willing to tell him."
She settles back, her subsidence discontented. She twists the ring around and around, pads of her fingers rubbing over the surface of the rock restlessly, seeking reassurance. "I suppose that's all right. And even if it weren't, it isn't as if there's anything wrong. Nothing criminal, you understand."
"Even if there's nothing shifty about it, there's still something wrong. Suppose you tell me what that is."
Her eyes flash him a glare brighter and harder than her diamond, then she relaxes deliberately, smile sweet and alluring.
"I met Jackson when we were both young children," she begins confidingly. "In kindergarten."
That's a shorter time ago than she'd wish him to believe, Stiles thinks. He estimates she's about his age, still in the early twenties. She'll want to appear worldly until she begins to fear looking haggard, with less than the blink of an eye in between the two.
"And you've been love's young dream ever since?"
Her eyes drop and her hands smooth out the material of her skirt as much as possible, which isn't much. It's a flattering skirt. She laughs lightly. "We became so eventually," she claims. "You know how these things go. We were on and off and off and on like a lightswitch until one day the bulb blew and I left for college in New York."
"And here you are."
"Well we can't live without light," Lydia says, "So after a while he came to get me. And I didn't come back." Stiles gestures at her presence. "I had a life there, and I wasn't going to come back just so Jackson could screw me over again." All her candles are burning. She means what she's saying. Then she realises what she's saying. "Not that he ever did. I mean, he wasn't capable. Nothing he did ever mattered that much to me."
"But I came back here to do my PhD, because--" The line of her mouth goes vulnerable. "Well, you know. You know how it is." Stiles nods, though he doesn't, really. "And he'd meant it. He'd missed me, and things were different when I came back. I didn't even--I didn't even come back to him, not really, but he was so definite, and there was only so much I could stand."
"So he kept after you until you caved."
Her chin juts, but she swallows the insult down and forces good-humour. "I don't cave, Mr Stilinski. I just wait for the world to remake itself."
"And it did."
She shrugs, and waves her hand through the air, stone glittering in the light. "He proposed at Christmas. We're getting married in nine days."
Stiles' eyebrow rises of its own accord. "My felicitations. And the reason you're here?"
Her eyes flinch away from the question, but the blandness of her face is not disturbed. "Jackson hasn't had the easiest life," she starts, fingers plucking nervously at the tassels on the side of the chair's armrest.
"Drugs," Stiles suggests bluntly.
"Closet," Stiles says.
"No, his apartment is quite large," she says defiantly.
He lets it go. "I'd ask if he'd a weakness for the dogs, but you're still wearing that ring."
"Jackson has more money than anyone could gamble away," Lydia says easily, as Stiles tries not to vomit. "His parents died when he was a baby, and he received a substantial settlement. He's very well taken care of."
"I suppose I can't begrudge him that." It's about the only thing so far.
"He was never all that close to his parents--his adoptive parents--and there was some breach while I was away. He wouldn't tell me what, but they're well-off in their own right, so I can't imagine it was the money."
"You need a better imagination."
She lifts a shoulder in acknowledgement of the hit. "They're as worried about him as I am."
"You haven't told me why."
Her eyes drift to the corner of the room, to the ceiling, and then back to his face, blank and resolute. "While I was away, I believe Jackson got mixed up with a cult."
Stiles should be taking notes. This might be a real case. He belatedly scribbles on the notebook open on the desk, but nothing that means anything, nothing he won't remember anyway.
She shrugs again. "I know he got mixed up, but I only think it's a cult. I haven't seen enough of it to be sure. I haven't been allowed."
"Tell me about it."
She shakes herself like she's dislodging an unwelcome hand. "It's silly, really, it's just that--it's just that I'm allowed everywhere, and he won't stop."
"Where is it you aren't allowed?"
"Peter Hale's place. Well, it's his girlfriend's place, really, and there are a lot of other people living there, but he's the one running it."
Stiles makes a note of the name. It chimes some kind of bell in the back of his mind, but he's pretty sure he hasn't heard it before.
"And where's the finish line?"
"I don't know, that's the awkward thing. Jackson took up with them in February, and I'm not sure where he met them or how it happened. He wouldn't tell me anything about it at first, but he kept spending such a lot of time with them, staying the whole night sometimes, and I got, you know--" Stiles knows. "--and then Jackson told me it was grief-counselling, but nobody could see Peter Hale as any kind of counsellor, unless it was sex, and even then he'd want to be having it with you. And anyway, it isn't grief-counselling Jackson needs, it's psychoanalysis."
"It's best to go into these things with your eyes wide open," Stiles says knowledgeably.
Her eyes widen like she thinks he's in some kind of doubt. "Don't you think? I understand Jackson so well, so I realised right away when things started going wrong."
"When was that?"
Her fingers twist the ring again. "After Laura Hale vanished."
"When did the lady vanish?"
"Six days ago. Jackson had been speaking to her a lot lately. There wasn't anything going on between them, because look at me--" Stiles does, with pleasure. "--and also she wasn't really that kind of woman, but Jackson had been calling her, and he wouldn't let me hear what they were talking about."
"And you would stand for that?"
Lydia twirls a curl around a slender finger. "Men can be so difficult about that kind of thing. So I called up Laura myself, and she said it was House business, and she was taking care of it herself and Jackson should back off. Jackson can be like that."
"Rivenden House. That big place out by the woods. Peter Hale's girlfriend bought it a couple months ago, though nobody knows where she got the money. She used to be a nurse."
"Hale," Stiles says vaguely. "That sounds familiar."
"Everybody knows the Hales," Lydia says, condescending. "Though you probably only know them from the fire."
Stiles does know of the family, though he doesn't know them. The children had gone to Meadowbank High School, the private establishment Lydia and Jackson had undoubtedly attended, and they'd never really run in the same circles.
"Right, the fire," she agrees, somewhat dismissively. "So tragic."
It had been: Three generations and change of the family had been wiped out in a night as their homestead blazed. Stiles makes a note to look into it. It's on his list, right at the bottom.
"So nobody saw much of them after the fire," Lydia continues. "Laura and her brother stuck around for a while, but they went out east, and then one day the uncle shows up out of the blue and they come tearing back into town after him."
"Not a comfortable relationship?"
"When's family comfortable?" she asks. "But I don't know much about it."
"And what does this have to do with the price of pizza?" Stiles asks, putting down his pen.
"Well, Laura vanished," Lydia tells him. "And Peter didn't care, according to Jackson, so Jackson went looking and didn't come back. And we're getting married next Saturday!"
"That's a very long time away," Stiles opines. "Plenty of time to find a man." Or a body. "And that's too close for comfort. Plenty close enough to panic." The flash of Lydia's eyes is much less attractive when her hands are curling like she's about to leap across the desk and scratch his eyes out. "But who'd panic at the thought of marrying you?" That settles her enough to get on with, though she still doesn't look pleased. "I can find him."
"Would you?" Everything about her beseeches. Stiles will find him, though he'd rather Lydia's Jackson were out of the picture. "I'd be so grateful."
Stiles tells her there won't be any need, negotiates rates, and presses her for some particulars. She leaves behind five hundred bucks and a waft of musky perfume. Stiles pushes through the scent to the reception area, walking her to the door. Scott follows Allison like a panting puppy.
"Everything okay?" Allison asks, slipping her hand through Lydia's arm. Stiles remembers her surname, Argent, and considers bringing up the body, but doesn't see the need to make things awkward. If it's important, he can get the information elsewhere.
"It will be," Lydia tells her cheerfully.
Allison turns to Scott, evidently continuing an earlier conversation. "And Stiles quite understands the need for secrecy?"
"We do," Scott reassures her, though she hadn't included him.
"Lydia really doesn't need people thinking Jackson's run out on her."
Lydia's eyes go flinty. "He would never. Mr Stilinski understands." She pulls Allison out the door, calling, "Check in tomorrow!"
Stiles shuts the door behind them, ignoring the stretch of Scott's neck, craned for another glimpse of the dark head disappearing down the stairs. "What kind of a name is Jackson?"
"Presidential," Scott says.
"Not as a Christian name."
This starts Scott off on a nomenclature tangent, so Stiles stops listening. In the first pause for breath, Stiles interjects, "Seem to you there's been a lot of bodies lately?"
"Two," Scott says. "That's not so many. Hey, do you think that was Allison's sister?"
"Aunt," Stiles says, "Kate Argent had a brother. And you're assuming an awful lot."
"That everybody we're looking for is still alive."