… Than Meets the Eye

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

Part II

I’m an old man.

I can bench 340 and slug it out toe-to-toe with brawlers half (hell, a third) of my age, and all Mark Sloan’s warnings that I have to slow down just mean that I do the mile in nine minutes now instead of six and a half. But standing in that store, and walking back to the espresso shop alone, I had to face something that I’d been able to shrug off when it was just wrinkles and morning creakiness and even the extra time it was taking me to come back from the occasional blow to the head: time passes whether you admit it or not, and it carries a weight that can’t be avoided.

More than twenty years ago I had walked away from the sunshine-brightness of Joyce Keenan, telling myself it was for the obvious reason, she was nineteen and I was damn near fifty. The truth, something I’d only let myself look at a couple of times when I went past that fifth drink, was that I knew the kind of life I led — and would never be able to give up — would inevitably leave her a young and not particularly well-off widow. Now she was dead, barely past forty and dead (of natural causes!), and I was still chugging along, held together by gristle and scar tissue and stubbornness.

I was never supposed to outlive her. All those years, I hadn’t seen or spoken to her, and I hadn’t needed to. It was enough to know she was out there, that I belonged to a world that still held Joyce. The world was supposed to have Joyce in it: if not forever, at least longer than it would hold me.

Not any more.

Sometime in the next several minutes I made the decision to charge Melanie Tomlinson an hourly rate for today, because daily wouldn’t be fair to her. It took only a couple of calls to establish the time and place of the funeral (for all its limited circulation, that Sunnydale newspaper has the most efficient obituaries department I’ve ever seen), and my conscience was soothed on learning that I could attend and still have ample time to shadow the movements of the maybe-wayward husband. I arranged for a delivery of flowers, and took the time to get a better (but still off-the-rack) suit for the occasion, and spent the intervening hours wishing I thought it would help any to get stinking drunk when it was all over.

That thought came back more than once during the service itself.

No, not the service; that was held at a modest generic church, and I sat in the back and focused on everything I could remember instead of what was being said. Half a dozen people gave eulogies, and every one of them cried, but I made myself not-hear any of it; they were talking about a woman I’d never been allowed to know, and I couldn’t deal with that, not now. It was at the cemetery, at the actual burial, that I began to look at something outside my own mind, and wished I hadn’t.

Not many of those who’d attended the service showed up for the interment, which in my experience is about how it usually goes. Come to the send-off, sure, but go out and watch dirt being shoveled onto the box, that’s a different matter and I don’t fault anybody who’d rather skip it. I stood off to the side, watching the smaller crowd without joining it, and had no trouble picking out the core who had considered themselves her family.

The girl, of course, her face flat with an emptiness that could conceal any emotion or none at all. Beside her, a younger, dark-haired girl; they didn’t look much alike, but both looked like the young Joyce, the woman who had birthed them. The older man had to be their father, he had the same eyes as the blonde girl: wire-framed eyeglasses and crisp graying hair, standing with a stiffness that should have snapped him, but hardly a moment when he didn’t have a steadying hand on the shoulder of one girl or the other. A gangling dark-haired man, barely past adolescence, his arm around the waist of a snapping-eyed woman with hair the monochrome of someone who changes its color every other week. Two young women, the redhead I’d seen before and a buxom blonde, standing silent with their arms around each other and tears coursing down their faces.

I saw a movie years ago, Sea of Love, and there’s a scene it in that I’ve never forgotten:

Al Pacino is talking to Ellen Barkin in the store where she works. Two young guys come in, laughing and cutting up, wanting to buy something or other, having a good time and not paying attention to anything else. Pacino, the cop, knows them for what they are the instant he sees them: street hoods, petty criminals, maybe just beginning to make a name for themselves in the Mob, but definitely outlaws and enjoying it. And they notice him watching them, and almost as quickly they know him for what he is. None of them need uniforms or IDs, each type spends his life dealing with the other and can identify it at a glance. They might not even be able to say how they know, but they know.

The movie was standard Hollywood, but that one scene was dead on target. You see the same things often enough, recognition is effortless, almost instinct. And I was seeing it now.

It was just wrong, all of it. The dark-haired man and the girl’s father both radiated guilt, unexplained and different types but no mistaking it. The two women holding each other, I had thought they must be sisters, too, but it wasn’t that, sisters would have been more self-conscious. The youngest girl was sunk into the kind of tortured self-focus that leads in three easy steps to suicide unless someone has sense enough to see it and head it off. Of the whole bunch, the young woman with the often-dyed hair was the only one remotely normal, looking distressed and lost and uncomfortable and ashamed at feeling that way.

The blonde, the older daughter, was the worst.

Everything about her was violence. I can’t explain it, she never moved or spoke or changed expression, but it hung around her like the charged air begging for a lightning strike. I’ve seen it before, but seldom this strong. Last year I watched a savage-eyed brunette with a stylized tattoo on one arm cripple three or four people in an L.A. night spot, and then disappear in the crowd before I could reach her; by the end of the week, her photo was in the paper with a little tagline, arraigned for murder. She carried the same aura of pent-up mayhem, more overt but no more powerful than what I was seeing now. I’m no gambler, but I’d bet solid cash that, right at this moment, the fragile-looking blonde at the open grave wanted very badly to kill someone.

I’d been there long enough, and I turned away, sick. Joyce, my beautiful golden little Joyce, her life had been a waste: gone forever, and this all she had left for a legacy. I wouldn’t have thought I could feel any worse right then, but I was wrong. As I started for my car something nagged at me, something out of place, and I slowed and let myself notice what was around me, and then I saw it. In one of the crypts, maybe a hundred feet from the graveside, the door wasn’t fully closed, and in the shadows behind it I saw a red spark brighten, fade, and vanish.

In my whole life I’ve never been more angry at something so small. Someone was hiding out for a smoke within sight of where Joyce lay cold, some bum or teenaged slacker ducking into the unlocked crypt (or breaking in, nothing is sacred to such people) to puff a butt or toke some weed, unmindful that he was defiling someone else’s space and moment and grief. I don’t know what stopped me from kicking in the door and beating the unseen junkie to within an inch of his life: that I might not stop at that last inch, or that it wouldn’t really make any difference.

So I left. I still had a job to do, and I’d seen enough, more than enough, more than I ever wanted to see.

*                *               *

I had a piece of luck, something that could have gone bad but worked out just fine. When I found the room where Paul Tomlinson’s class was supposed to meet in thirty minutes (for a three-hour block on business statistics), there was a notice on the door that tonight’s session had been unexpectedly canceled, with a list of readings and assignments to complete for the next session. The wording of the note made it sound like there hadn’t been time to call anyone — though a commuter like Paul might get the extra attention — so I took a position halfway up a flight of stairs at the end of the hall, where I could see the door without being directly in view, and waited.

Paul was the fourth person to come to the door, stop, and read the note, and like most of the others his first reaction was annoyance at driving so far for no reason. Then he got what might have been a thoughtful look — I couldn’t see all of his face, but his body language was thoughtful — and extracted a cell phone from a clip at his belt. A couple of buttons (speed dial) and he was already walking away as the call began to go through.

Mixed scores for the husband on this one. He’d been where he was supposed to be, at the proper time, so the MBA program might be a pretext but he was taking it seriously enough to attend. (And I had reassured his wife that there was nothing unusual about a young executive wanting to expand his credentials for a position some might say he had achieved by marriage.) His exasperation hadn’t lasted long, though, within seconds he had different — or accelerated — plans for the evening. And if he was playing around, using a cell phone was a big mistake, it’s kid stuff to get a calls printout on those things. The good news was that I wouldn’t have to wait three hours to see what Paul did when class was over.

I had no trouble tailing him, his wife had given me the description and plate number of his car (blue, a confident color, but it being a convertible added a little something to the “maybe” column on a possible philanderer), and I’d left my own car within spotting distance of all the places he was most likely to park; the citation I got from the campus cops, for lacking the sticker saying it was allowed to be there, would go under Expenses. Also, during my earlier sweep of the city I’d confirmed that their traffic system was on standard timing, so I knew just how far I could hang back and still catch a light. Most of it was that Paul seemed to have no worry about being followed, which said nothing about his guilt or innocence either way: most adulterers seem to feel that operating in a different city gives them all the protection they need.

Things got a bit knottier when he arrived at his destination. The days are long past when I can blend in at these little dance clubs, and some of them won’t even let me in any more. I dealt with the problem by getting myself a laminated, official-looking card that implied without actually (legally) stating that I was with the state alcohol control board. A quick flash of that, a breezy assurance that this was just a routine lookover while I took care of other business, and I was inside. As far as blending in, the next best thing to not being noticed is to be seen and dismissed as unremarkable; I took a small table near the back, took off my jacket and put on my reading glasses, and started making nonsense notes on some pages from a manila folder I had brought with me. I was just a guy who had ducked into not-really-his-kind-of-place to have a drink while he got some work done, which in this kind of joint meant I was as unimportant (and invisible, nearly) as a janitor.

I could see over the tops of the reading glasses, of course (fifteen years ago they were clear glass, just for appearance), and Paul was at the bar, drinking something with lots of ice and looking around impatiently every forty seconds. Sorry, Melanie, I was hoping I could give you good news, but the odds just took a dive …

It took long enough that I ordered a small plate of wings to carry me through the evening, but at last Paul’s appointment arrived. She was almost as out of place as I was: right age, wrong style, she wore a slinky red number that would have looked perfectly natural on Rita Hayworth but not in a Southern California dance spot in the 21st century. Her hair was long and loose, except for a little clip at the back that must have been an heirloom, though it worked for her; her eyebrows were plucked and arched, and her lips painted in a bold bright red that few women use these days. Her figure was lushly female, her complexion was pale and flawless, and her eyes, well, I started totaling up my bill to the wronged wife when I saw those eyes. They smoldered, a constant intoxicating hunger that I could feel clear across the room, and Paul’s face had gone happy and eager and witless long before she finished crossing to where he stood at the bar.

Game over, final score Temptation 1, Matrimony 0. I might need another day to get the conclusive proof Melanie would demand, but no longer than that, Paul and his paramour weren’t taking even the simplest precautions. In fact, I might even be able to wrap it up tonight …

“Don’t let ’em roll outta your head, Pops. Crowd in here, you’d never find ’em before they got stepped on.”

I’d have jumped if there had been anything at all threatening about the voice; it was that close, and I can’t remember the last time I let someone come up on me like that without noticing. I turned in my chair, blinking to make myself look confused, and pitched my voice up an octave. “I’m sorry, Miss?”

The girl who had spoken gave me a broad, knowing grin, and hooked her thumb at the happy couple. “Dagmar. Wouldn’t get my hopes up there; she’s way past your speed, and looks like she’s already got one on the line.”

I looked where she had indicated, as if I had just noticed, and then back to the speaker. “The, um, the striking young woman in the —?”

“In the spray-on outfit, right.” She sat down uninvited at the open chair across from me. “Dagmar’s still pining for the Forties, won’t stay with the times. Does know how to play up to the fellas, though.”

I kept my smile nervous, but congratulated myself on how my luck was running. This could save some time, which would mean getting out of Sunnydale that much faster. “Then you’re acquainted with the, the lady in question?”

She widened the grin, and propped her chin on her hands. “Keep the drinks coming, Pops, and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know about her. Stuff you wouldn’t believe, even.”

The satisfied note in her voice sounded a warning, and I gave her an inspection that went closer than the once-over I’d flashed when I first spoke to her. She could have been in her teens, but her assurance (and the fact that she’d gotten past the doorman) meant early twenties. Her hair was a reddish-blonde that looked reasonable enough in itself, but didn’t quite match her skin tone; she wore it pulled back, with little feathery strands artfully escaping at the sides. Bold eye makeup, dark lipstick, cream-colored blouse over a burgundy skirt with a matching light shawl, and fingerless lace gloves as the final touch. She looked slim and fit, and had moved lightly enough, but her bone structure was sturdier than that, and a glance at her wrists confirmed it: this was a woman who’d go beefy if she wasn’t careful, and had probably fought her way down from there at least once.

Those were cataloguing details, but the part that mattered was in her eyes. I took off the reading glasses, and in my normal voice I said, “So how did you know?”

She lifted an eyebrow and glanced meaningfully at my drink, and I raised my hand to signal the waitress. The girl across from me ordered a B-52, double, and then said, “You hit all the right notes in the accountant act, Pops, but there’s just so much you can do with the material at hand. Your nose has been broken too many times for a bean-counter, and the calluses on those knuckles didn’t come from punching a calculator.” She lounged back, still holding that opening grin. “You’re not local, they either know better or don’t care, and I gotta think a Fed would be stiffer, never mind retired by now. So, private, right?”

I allowed a grin of my own to come out. “You’re a very perceptive young lady. And it looks like you’ve had a little experience with the law.”

“Off and on.” She shrugged it away. “Look, Pops —”

I kept it pleasant. “Joe will do.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” She leaned forward. “What I’m saying is, you want to be careful with Dagmar. I mean radioactive careful. Telephoto lenses, parabolic microphones, never let yourself get within a city block unless there’s a crowd around.” She glanced at the woman at the bar, and her mouth went grim. “No, strike that; after you leave here, never that close no matter what.”

I wasn’t dismissing what she said: along the line I’ve met some very sharp female agents, some very accomplished hit-women, and a few very talented psychopaths, I know a woman isn’t a pushover just from being a woman. But I don’t like being babied, either, and liking it less every year now. In the same jovial tone as before, I said, “And your name is …?”

“Huh? Oh.” She gave me a dark look, and I could see her make the decision not to tell me where to go jump. “Call me Megan.”

I gave her a smile. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? But I used my real name.”

“Yeah, well, you’re a visitor.” She tapped the rim of her glass, which had been delivered (excellent service) during our conversation, and said, “Refill time.” I obligingly signaled for another, and she went on, “You’re outta your territory here, Pops. You may be the top lion in your own patch of jungle, but this is a whole different playing field. Even worse is if you don’t know it.”

“I told you, Joe will do.” I pulled out one of my cards, held it out to her. “This might help you remember.”

She took it with a quick gesture, gave it a glance, and said, “I’m really trying to be nice here —” Then she stopped, looked closer at the card, and then up at me with markedly more interest. “Hey, I think I’ve heard of you. Weren’t the Guinness people lookin’ at you in the Eighties, some kinda record for most times declared dead?

“They had to pass,” I said amiably. “Not enough of those declarations were official. But you can see I’ve dealt with different patches of jungle before.”

“Not this kind.” She stopped again. “Unless … Okay. Somebody rings your doorbell at three in the morning, you open up, and it’s me. I ask if I can come in. What do you do before you invite me inside?”

I could see she was serious, but I had no idea what she meant. “I’d offer you a drink, but that would be after I let you in.”

“That’s what I thought.” The grin came back, with a nasty edge. “And I might take you up on the offer, but not right now. Trust me on this, Pops, this is one jungle where you’re gonna need a guide.”

I had gotten so caught up in the byplay between us, I had let myself lose sight of the target, but a fast check showed them still at the bar, talking intensely. I looked back to ‘Megan’, and said, “You, I assume? And why would you do that for me?”

She snorted. “For money. Why else?”

|    Next Part     |    Previous Part    |    Chapter Index     |