… 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 V

I couldn’t see what was so special about the place, but Megan had been quite specific, and was waiting out in my car right now. It was one of those joints done up like a Fifties malt shop, and might even have been from that era, the chrome was tarnished enough, formica scarred enough, seats split and patched enough to make that plausible. For all its deterioration it was brighter and more cheerful than the club where I had met Megan, and I had to wonder what was supposed to be so off about it that this would be an eye-opener for me.

Go to the man behind the counter, she had said. Give him a twenty and ask for a lucky dime. Don’t expect any change, and don’t let go of the dime. Go over to the jukebox, pick out a song that means something to you — there’ll be one — and put in the dime. Yeah, the machine’s that old. Play the song. Once it’s over, we can talk.

I followed the instructions carefully but without understanding. The man at the counter wasn’t the least bit remarkable, and traded a dime for the Jackson without seeming to think it was in any way meaningful. The dime was a Mercury-head, actual silver, and I was a little surprised to see that it was minted the year I was born. The jukebox was as ordinary as everything else in the place, and yes, the price of a song was ten cents. A rack of vinyl 45s was visible beneath the encasing glass, and off to the side a list of song labels on that stylized printed paper. I studied the selections, pondering my choice …

I saw it, and a little shiver of something slid down my spine. It was there, I’d never forget that song, I’d heard it four times on the radio in the three days Joyce had dogged my footsteps, I don’t think that was the year it came out but deejays have their favorites, and sometimes former hits come back. I’d never heard it since without thinking of her, and those were the times the memory was tinged with regret.

I put the dime in the slot and pushed the proper buttons. The mechanism slid along the row, picked up a platter, returned, and rotated to drop it on the spindle. The needle arm swung over the spinning disk, paused, then slowly lowered. There were the inevitable crackles and hisses … and then the music surged out, strong and pure and unblemished, followed by the first haunting plaintive words:

     White bird
          in a golden cage
          on a winter’s day, in the rain;
     white bird
          in a golden cage,
               alone …

The place had changed. Not a detail was different, but it was all different, the very air I drew into my lungs was charged with power and meaning. I turned slowly, my scalp prickling, and there she was, where a little table made an island bordered by leatherette booths: not the girl I had known, but the woman grown, mature and complete and resplendent. Her hair was sunshine, her eyes were summer, and her smile broke my heart all over again.

I didn’t understand, and I didn’t care. If I died from this, I wouldn’t care. I knew it was only for now, maybe (probably) for only as long as the song lasted, but that just meant I couldn’t let myself waste a moment of it.

I went to the table, and sat down across from her. That welcoming smile brightened — I would have thought it was impossible — and she held out her hands. “Joseph,” she said, and the whole world was in the single word.

How could I see her through these tears? But the vision before me never faltered, and I took her hands in my own. “How many times do I have to tell you?” I said to her, hurt and gladness and wonder cracking my voice. “It’s just Joe.”

*                *               *

Megan didn’t stir when I got into the front seat. I sat for maybe half a minute, neither of us speaking, and then I cranked the car and started down the street. When I was fairly sure my throat would work, I said, “What happened in there. That was magic.”

“Yep.” One syllable, no inflection. Still waiting to see how I’d take it.

“There’s magic in the world. Real magic.” It didn’t sound any more real now that I’d said it aloud. “Sunnydale’s shot through with it, but it’s other places, too. Including L.A., you say.”

“You got it.”

I spent a few more minutes digesting that. “I’ve been a private eye for thirty-five years, give or take, and I’ve never run across anything like this. But according to you, I’ll be seeing more of it if you’re around.”

She snickered, and for the first time it occurred to me that I couldn’t see any evidence of the sunburn she had been wearing last night. “You’ll see stuff now that you know about it. You’ll be able to spot patterns you didn’t know were there before. But there’s more to it than that.” She shifted in her seat to face me. “I’m thinking, if I’m gonna do the biz, why not specialize? The things I know, the things I can do, they’d fit better with that kinda stuff than with your standard cases. Hell, I wouldn’t even be the first, there’s rumors that Buffy’s ex has his own agency goin’ in La-La Land. Me and him already have one thing in common — I think — so why not that, too?” She stopped, and what I heard in her voice almost shocked me: for Megan, it sounded very close to gentle. “Main question is the same one we started with: can you handle it?”

“Start taking in … supernatural clients?”

“Not necessarily. Way I hear it, most of Angel’s customers are ordinary stiffs who had bad mojo come knockin’ on their doors. People like that don’t have many places they can turn to. We’d be offerin’ one more.”

“Good deeds,” I said, remembering. “So you can keep up with how much of you is still you.”

“Well, that, too, I guess.” She flashed me that shark’s grin. “But mostly for the money, and the kicks.”

At some point I had taken the on-ramp for the highway pointing to Los Angeles. She was still in the car and we were still talking. That wasn’t actually a decision, but it was close to firming into one …

Without turning my head (I had to watch the highway, and the motion would have twisted a hot poker in my shoulder) I said, “You’re not exactly entirely normal, are you?”

“Yeah, that was the next thing we needed to talk about.” Megan swiveled back in her seat, satisfied even though I wasn’t aware of having made up my mind. “You got a lot to learn about me, but your heart sounds like it’s strong enough. So listen up, don’t get your shorts twisted, and keep rememberin’ I coulda taken you any time I wanted, if I wanted …” She stopped, glowered for a second, and said, “Y’know, you being Mr. Upright Law-and-Order, you’re probably gonna want me to change my diet. Actually, operatin’ on Angel’s turf, that may not be a bad idea, anyway. Hey, they have riding stables in L.A., right?”

As usual, I really didn’t have any idea what she was talking about. But I had a powerful hunch that I was going to find out.


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