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… Than Meets the Eye
by Aadler
Copyright May 2003

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

Part I

I’ve never liked Sunnydale, and that’s a fact. There’s an unpleasant quality to the place; nothing you can put your finger on, just an overall atmosphere that seeps in under your skin and sets your teeth on edge. I’ve gotten that feeling twice before: at Dachau, when I was stationed in Europe, and last year while passing through that little Missouri town where every living soul simply vanished overnight in 1998. Sunnydale is different from them, and them from each other, the way a mine field is different from a rattlesnake nest or a toxic waste dump, but the basic message is the same in all cases: This is not a good place to be.

There’s also professional pride to be considered. I took five different missing persons cases in or around Sunnydale in the mid-’80s, mostly college students who had dropped out of sight in their freshman year, and I was never able to deliver on any of them; total dead ends on four, and the one I did locate, briefly, tried to kill me. (I put three bullets into him and broke a two-by-four over his head, and he was still coming at me when I kicked him off a sixth-floor fire escape. By the time I made it to the ground, he was gone; somehow he had crawled — or maybe even walked — away from enough damage to kill him five times over. God only knows what he was high on.) I won’t take people’s money without giving value, so eventually I stopped accepting cases in that area. Despite what Peggy always used to say, even my ego can be bruised a bit.

I don’t like divorce cases much better than Sunnydale, but sometimes I’ll make an exception. Melanie Tomlinson was the friend of some people I owed a deep debt; she didn’t want to believe her husband of only three years was cheating on her, but she had inherited a business that grossed $27 million a year average, and when one of its junior vice presidents started behaving oddly, she felt a responsibility to have him investigated even if he was married to her. I listened respectfully while she described the actions that had given her misgivings — he was making a two-hour commute, two days a week and every other weekend, to work on an MBA he could have managed a lot more easily in an L.A. college — and told her my rates. She set her chin and signed a check for a retainer, and that’s when I found out Paul Tomlinson was pursuing his postgraduate work at UC/Sunnydale.

Well, at least he wasn’t a missing person.

I hadn’t been to this area in close to fifteen years, and the modest rooming house where I’d stayed the last time was boarded up and abandoned when I got there. I took that as a warning, and after checking in at the Ramada, I spent a couple of hours driving around, reacquainting myself with the layout and patterns and rhythms. That was one thing I had learned early while I was with the Headhunters, and never forgotten: reconnoiter when you have the chance, because the unknown can kill you. Maybe I haven’t always followed that since going civilian, but I wasn’t taking any chances in this city.

Most was as I remembered it, though there seemed to be a higher proportion of Catholic churches (without any visible evidence of the substantial Hispanic community such a shift usually indicates), and the natural changes that come to any community within easy driving distance of Los Angeles over the course of fifteen years. The local college had more than doubled in size since being admitted to the University of California system, there was a fairly decent mall already beginning to show its age, and the high school had been razed and new construction was being done on the site. Campaign signs were all over the place, and I didn’t know if city politics were always so intense or if Sunnydale was undergoing one of those periodic shake-ups you sometimes see in small communities. The police uniforms were different from before, too, though that was probably a matter of budgets and changing styles.

Paul Tomlinson was enrolled in evening classes, naturally enough, so I expected to do most of my work after sunset. I had come in much earlier, on a day he always made the drive (and stayed overnight at one of the company’s condos, that being the final factor that had firmed his wife’s decision) to make sure I had time to get solidly set before beginning the job, which turns out to have been a good decision. I finished my scouting tour satisfied that I had all my bearings, and stopped at a little espresso shop for a light lunch before beginning to make the contacts that I expected to need in following, and documenting, Paul’s trail.

That part didn’t last long. I had just picked up a menu when a young woman walked past on the sidewalk outside the front window, and in the moment of seeing her I was moving, too, outside and in her wake with a practiced, professional smoothness that was operating a damn sight better than my conscious mind.

Because it wasn’t her, of course, it couldn’t be, not by close to twenty years. Even if I was wrong about the age, a second glance showed that this one was some inches shorter, and the line of the neck was different, too. The way she walked, though, the easy automatic grace, that was what had grabbed me and that was every bit the same as the motion stored in my memory. I had never known any other woman, or girl, who walked that way, as if she were bound to the earth only by the most rigid decrees of gravity …

She wasn’t alone. It took me almost ten seconds to fully register it — an eternity, in my line of work — but there was an older man at her left and a stick-thin redhead at her right. They touched her with every other step, one or both of them, as if reassuring themselves that she was still there, or maybe reassuring her. There was a leaden quality to their gait, almost like they were having to force themselves to move forward, and a few moments later I was able to recognize something similar beneath the innate free stride of the petite blonde walking between them.

I followed, caught in memory and uncertainty and the kind of compulsion you can never explain, as they covered half a block and then turned into a small shop. I went on past, then stopped myself and turned back; this wasn’t a tail, I didn’t have to stay below any radar, I had just seen someone on the street and followed out of curiosity. I pushed through the front door and found myself in a women’s clothing store. The three of them were standing with a clerk, the man speaking in tones too faint to carry, and now I could see the blonde girl’s face and there was no denying the truth of it: not her, and yet her, the matched familiarity and variation that has to mean kinship.

I was so struck by it that I missed the words, but the redhead chimed in with what obviously was clarification of a previous statement. Maybe a dress, she said, or maybe a woman’s suit. Tasteful. Black.

For a funeral.

This is how I learned that Joyce was dead.

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