Faith, the Disclaimer: BtVS and Angel characters and concepts are owned by Joss, Mutant Enemy, the WB and so on and so forth. Not us. We're only borrowing the characters. We doubt Joss would ever do something like this to them.
Vampire Slayer Exotic Dancer
by Mike Dewar, firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: BtVS and Angel characters and concepts are owned by Joss, Mutant Enemy, the WB and so on and so forth. Not us. We're only borrowing the characters. We doubt Joss would ever do something like this to them.
I stared grimly at my target, limbs tense, feeling the cool hardness of my weapon between my fingers. Then my arm swept up, and the projectile shot forward from my grasp. I heard it strike the target with a thud as I readied my second missile and threw.
I could see from the moment it left my hand that it was a bad throw, and my third and final projectile was already in the air before the second struck home.
“ Ten!” I snarled with disbelief, glaring at the dartboard. The bloody thing was cursed. “Ten lousy points!”
There was no doubting it. My dart-throwing skills were seriously off. I’d always held them in pretty high regard, but after last night it was clear my once-boasted aim was no more.
And of course, Faith had suggested we play for money.
I glared again at my traitorous dartboard, yanking the darts out one by one. It was propped up on top of my desk, tiny little holes riddling its ancient surface. Some of the holes were quite possibly older than I was, but I could recognise the recent ones like they were labelled.
Mine were scattered all around the dartboard with no apparent pattern, and as the whisky had continued to flow, a few of them were in my desk or on the walls.
Wesley’s were all clustered neatly on or around the bulls eye. As I had discovered to my misfortune, behind Wesley’s wire-rimmed spectacles and aristocratic face lurked the mind of a beer-bellied darts addict.
As for Faith, not a single one of her darts had come near the bull. No, they were all in a tiny little line inside the triple 20 instead. From the ragged look of some of the holes, several darts had landed in exactly the same holes repeatedly. Damn Slayer coordination.
In desperation I had passed around my booze as often as possible, hoping to get them sozzled enough as to give me a fighting chance. But no luck there. Wesley drunk lemonade instead and Faith could take more booze than my Aunt Judy, a woman whose party trick was letting people bruise their hands hitting her in the region of her liver.
So, basically, not only was I letting two people live with me rent-free but they were getting paid for doing so.
I’m getting screwed, big time…
I heard Wes clattering around in the kitchen as I dumped my darts point-up on Faith’s favorite spot on my sofa, allowing myself a nasty little grin. Hell, the girl’d probably see them before she sat down, and if she didn’t, well she had Slayer-healing didn’t she?
I rode the elevator up to the office, still sniggering. As I entered the main office, my snigger choked itself into an irritable splutter.
The crosses I had nailed across every single entrance to my home were almost proving to be more trouble then they were worth. The one on top of the door to my private office had lost its top nails and was now hanging upside down.
Great. The landlord was already giving me strange looks, if he saw that he’d close us down for being a Satanist cult or something.
Sighing, I went to try and find my stepladder.
Handyman is really not my desired profession. In fact anything that doesn’t involve lounging around drinking beer and gambling isn’t my desired profession. Teaching used to be, but now the peaceful innocence of those years seemed a century away.
“ Ow!” Melancholy thoughts don’t help when you’re hammering nails, I decided, eyeing my swelling thumb. The stepladder swayed alarmingly as I retrieved my dropped nail and put it back into position.
A hand slid up my leg and pinched my thigh, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. And, of course, the thrice-damned nail leapt from my fingers and clattered on the floor.
“ Faith!” I yelped, with a mixture of irritation, embarrassment and affection.
She smiled impishly up at me, her hands back in her jeans pockets. “How’d you guess it was me?”
“ Well, despite my ample charms, total strangers don’t usually walk in off the street and grope me, and I’m fairly sure Wesley harbours none of those kinda feelin’s for me,” I told her as I carefully made my way down the ladder, keeping a watchful eye on her hands.
“ The great detective,” Faith teased as I touched solid ground once more. “So, you wanna ‘deduce’ what I want to do, right now?” she asked softly, pulling me closer.
Hell, the nails could wait.
“ Uh, pardon me?”
I pulled away from Faith, flushing. “Wesley, don’t sneak up on - you’re not Wesley,” I told the middle-aged guy standing at the office door.
“ No, I’m not,” he said, brow furrowing. “Is that a problem?”
“ Speaking of total strangers walking in off the street…” Faith muttered behind me, sounding put out.
I shushed her. “Can we help you?”
The man looked around at the messy office, at the crucifixes nailed on the walls and at the two of us and smiled uncertainly. “ Um, maybe. Is this Doyle Investigations?” he asked, looking like he really hoped the answer was ‘no’.
“ Yeah, yeah it is. Did the landlord send you? ‘Cause I know we’re a little behind on rent, but if he’ll just give us a couple more days…”
The man blinked, seeming taken aback. “No…what?”
I stared at him. “What?”
I struck out valiantly for higher ground. “So how can we help you?”
The man’s face cleared somewhat. “You were, uh, recommended to me by the LAPD…a Detective Lockley? She said you could help me.”
“ Help you?” Faith asked, confused.
But it was all very clear now. I could hardly believe it, but it was clear. Doyle Investigations had its first, non-vision-related, honest-to-god client in months.
I put on a big shiny grin that would have put a used car salesman to shame. “Come in to my office. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Bagel?”
I studied our new client. He was short and squat, but his face was handsome enough in a round, happy kind of way. He had on a nice suit, but it was rumpled and probably hadn’t been washed for a couple of days.
He folded his hands together, and I noticed a tell-tale trembling of his fingers. One thing I learned as a cop, always watch a man’s hands. People can go on about reading faces and seeing into the soul through the eyes, but that’s crap.
A guy trying to keep himself under control always keeps his face still and makes it show what he wants it to. But generally he forgets about his hands, and from the way this man’s hands were shaking, I guessed he wasn’t hiring us to find a lost cat.
Yeah, like Faith said. The Great Detective.
I leaned forward on my desk. “So, talk to me. What’s on your mind?”
I sounded more like a therapist than a PI, and I could tell from the amused glint in Faith’s eyes that she was thinking the same. Wesley cast a disapproving glance at both of us and tapped the client, who didn’t seem to have heard me, on the shoulder.
“ Are you all right?” he asked.
The man’s eyes refocused on us. “Yes, yes, sorry. M-my name is Dennis Colridge, I own Colridge Investment. I don’t suppose you recognise the name?”
I glanced at Wesley and Faith. No dice. “Sorry, not ringing a bell.”
Colridge smiled weakly. “I’d be surprised if it did. We’re very small, very exclusive, not really seen on the open market. We deal in stocks and bonds for certain wealthy clients, often with business relationships that go back whole generations. My grandfather started the firm quite some time ago -" Faith cleared her throat loudly and impatiently and put her feet on my desk. Colridge glanced nervously at her and continued. “But you probably don’t want to hear about that. I’ll just get to the point. In a pressurised job like mine, you don’t often have time to make friends.” He coughed. “Woman friends.”
I could see where this one was leading.
“ So…a few times, I uh, hired some.”
“ Hookers,” Faith said, flashing a lascivious grin.
“ An escort service,” Wesley quickly substituted, tapping his cane like an elderly schoolmaster calling for attention. The cane was silver-topped and had cost a pretty penny. Wesley claimed it was an heirloom, but I had my doubts.
“ Um…yes.” He stared at my desk, embarrassed.
“ Okay,” I said. “So you had a few callgirls. What’s the bad in that?” Wesley stared at me aghast and Faith snickered. I coughed uncomfortably and shifted in my chair. “I mean, yeah, it is technically illegal and all but I don’t really see the need for a PI, is what I meant.”
“ Well, the problem is with one girl, specifically. Peggie.”
Faith laughed. “A hooker named Peggie?”
“ Faith,” I said warningly. “Please, continue.” More therapist-phrases.
“ Well, Peg works down at a club called Halo. It’s an exclusive nightclub for the elite of LA and it also features some…under-the-counter services. I was one of her regulars, I guess you’d say.”
“ Is this bird blackmailin’ you?” I asked. So far all I’d heard was stuff that would be heard at confession in church.
“ No, no,” Colridge said firmly, seeming quite horrified at the prospect. “You see, Peg and I grew quite attached to each other, outside of just a…business relationship.”
“ You mean like romantically attached?”
“ Yes,” the man said, a quiet joy seeming to flow from him as he said the word.
A joy that Faith quickly snuffed out. “So it wasn’t just about the screwing anymore?”
“ No, I mean, yes, there was sex but it was…” He lapsed into embarrassed silence.
I shot Wesley a meaningful glance and nodded towards Faith. “Would you like some coffee, Dennis?”
“ What? Uh, no thanks…”
“ Well, I know I certainly would,” I said in a loud voice. “Could you go an’ get some, guys?’
“ What are we now, secretaries?” Faith said irritably. Wesley stood up, supporting himself on his cane and took her by the shoulder.
“ Come along now, Faith,” he said firmly. He managed to budge Faith one step with sheer luck and then she just stood still while his arm muscles strained and bulged.
I gave her a stern look. Faith rolled her eyes and let Wes pull her out of my office.
As the door shut, I nodded to Colridge. “You were sayin’?”
“ Well, Peg and I grew closer and she told me she was planning to quit at the end of the month. We were going to run away together, you know, to some place with sunlight and daisies, that kind of idea.” He smiled sadly. “But then, I came to Halo one evening and she had just…disappeared. The owner didn’t want to make a fuss, but I insisted on calling the police, which is how I met Detective Lockley. They checked her apartment out and everything but she’d just vanished. Lockley thought she might have taken off without me, but most of her stuff was still there, so I don’t think so. I pestered her about the case all week and eventually she told me that they just couldn’t spare the manpower to investigate further. She was very…emphatic about it.”
Good ol’ Kate. She lacks subtlety, that’s for sure. I had a brief moment of pity for Colridge’s enduring the verbal lashing that a stressed-out Kate would have unleashed on him.
“ Eventually, she directed me to you. So what can you do?”
The sudden question caught me off-guard. “Well, um, we’ll have to, like, investigate. And do stuff. Detective stuff.”
“ Uh-huh,” Colridge said, seeming profoundly unimpressed. “Perhaps I should go…”
“ No!” I yelped, shooting out of my chair. “Please. We’ll handle it, you can rely on us. We’re very discreet and professional.”
“ Really.” He glanced around meaningfully at my shabby office.
I smiled weakly. “Yeah. We may not look big and shiny like most outfits you deal with, but we’re good at what we do.”
Which is killing demons and vampires, hardly the most relevant skill here. Still, I didn’t think he needed to know that.
He eyed me for a second and then nodded. “I just want to know what happened to her, Mr Doyle. It’s been so long, I’ve lost all hope of getting her back, I just want to find out what happened, I can’t believe she just disappeared.”
I didn’t want to disillusion him. In a city like LA, it’s all too easy for someone to disappear. They just vanish. Some nut cuts their throats and dumps them in the sewers, or they get gunned down for the change in their pockets and end up in a morgue as John or Jane Doe. I’d seen it so many times on the force. Nobody watches over them, nobody cares.
Maybe it was time somebody started.
“ So what do you think of him?”
The car’s steering wheel spun in my grasp as Wesley glanced at me expectantly.
“ I’m reservin’ my judgement ‘till we see this ‘Halo’ joint, Wes,” I responded coolly, waving my middle finger as a car in front cut me off. The driver obviously thought he was very cool, with his flashy jacket and mirrored sunglasses. The fact that he was wearing those sunglasses at 8:00pm on a Thursday evening didn’t seem to bother him at all. I’ll never understand fashion.
Damn American drivers.
I heard a crackling sound behind me, as Faith finished her packet of chips and tossed it casually out of the moving car, ignoring the angry gestures of the drivers around us.
“ Personally, I think he’s married,” she remarked.
“ Say what?”
Faith rolled her eyes, tickling the back of my neck with her foot. Considering she was wearing muddy boots, the effect wasn’t exactly erotic. “Sure. He was screwing this hooker chick and she threatened to tell his wife unless he paid her off. She’s gone to ground, so he needs us to track her down so his hit man can take her out.”
I turned around in the seat. “He’s got a hit man, now?”
“ ‘Course he does,” she said, as if I was questioning the obvious.
“ Right, no more Magnum PI for you,” I said pointedly. “Besides which, we spent the entire day checkin’ this guy out. Even Kate confirms he’s as clean as -"
“ Doyle!” Wesley squealed from beside me.
I turned around just in time to see the truck ploughing towards us. “Shit!”
I spun the steering wheel and yanked on the handbrake, executing a perfect and very illegal U-turn in the road. As drivers around us hammered their hooters, I shot the convertible down a side road, listening for sirens. “See what happens if you distract me?” I told them sharply.
“ Yes,” Wesley said faintly. “Perhaps we should suspend debate until we reach the nightclub.”
“ Quit being such a spoilsport,” Faith groaned. She patted me on the neck. “Do it again, Doyle!”
Ignoring her, I focused on driving very carefully and very legally until I was certain there were no police cars pursuing us.
Wesley, looking distinctly green around the gills, raised a finger. I tensed. I knew that pose. Last time Wes had used the finger was when he discovered that Faith was using some of his herbal potions to give herself a scented bath. It wasn’t pretty. His reaction, that is, not Faith in the bath. That was quite a pleasant sight actually, particularly when she invited me to join her.
“ I must say I do have one small point I would like to raise,” he said hesitantly.
“ Raise away,” I growled, dodging a Corvette whose driver was either drunk, dead or both.
“ This doesn’t exactly seem like our type of job, really.”
“ How so?”
“ Well, it doesn’t appear to involve any demons, vampires or agonizingly painful visions. In fact, nothing supernatural at all.”
I sighed. “Wes, I’m a PI, not a witch-hunter. I am supposed to have regular clients as well. You know, for appearances’ sake. An’ to pay the rent.”
Wesley nodded. “Yes, of course, of course. But still, is it really the best way to apply a Slayer’s talents?”
I resisted the urge to shake him until his teeth rattled. “Wesley, it’s not like she’s got anythin’ else demandin’ her attention. Tell you what, if we hear about a demon, we’ll go do that instead. But until then, I want to earn the money. So I can afford the food.”
Besides which, if someone hadn’t cleaned me out at darts, maybe I would have more cash to spare for bills…
“ Good point. Good point.” Finally, thank God, he shut up. And Faith started talking. I swear, I think those two have some kind of schedule for who gets to annoy me with irrelevant questions me when.
“ So, what are we going to do when we get there?”
“ Um…” All right, maybe not all the questions are so irrelevant. “Look around, I guess,” I said without much certainty.
“ And why exactly did we have to stop off at that liquor store on the way?” Wesley asked, glancing with distaste at the six-packs of booze clunking together by his feet.
“ Patience, children, all will become clear…” I said sardonically.
“ Whatever,” Faith muttered. I heard a glassy sound.
“ Faith, keep your hands away from the bottles,” I said sternly. I heard her sigh and slump back on her seat.
I allowed myself a single peaceful breath, which I then expelled in a barrage of expletives as another car swerved across me.
Damn American drivers.
From the outside, I had to admit Halo looked pretty damn impressive. The sign over the door was rimmed in shining multicoloured lights, mostly purples and reds. The building itself was long and flat, easily about three times the size of the office.
Faith blew an admiring whistle as Wesley stared at the place with disbelief. “Good grief, what a crush of people!” he remarked.
It certainly was. They had one of those classy velvet ropes at the door, complete with a guy next to it who looked like he had been carved out of rock. A huge press of people crowded around the rope in no apparent order.
“ Number 12!” the guy called, and a young couple threaded their way through and past the rope.
Great, you needed a ticket to get inside, and even then you had to wait until the gorilla at the door called you.
Luckily, I had foreseen this.
“Grab the six-packs,” I instructed my companions, sticking two packs of bottles under my arms.
“ What now?” Wesley asked sarcastically. “Get the guard drunk so he lets us by?”
“ Imaginative, but no,” I responded with equal sarcasm.
I led the two of them down a side alley and around to the back. There was only one back door into the club, and a clone of the gorilla at the front stood by it, glowering at us.
“ Whaddya want?” he snarled.
“ Manager ordered more drinks for the bar,” I said cheerfully. “I think they’re nearly out.”
The gorilla frowned. “I checked the inventory list myself earlier tonight. We’ve still got tons left over, pal,” he said mockingly. “Nice try, now clear off!”
Damn. Not only did these guys have lots of muscle, but it was smart muscle.
I backed away, shrugging. “Can’t blame a man for tryin’…”
“ Well, what now?” Wesley inquired dryly as we moved away from the door.
“ Time for plan B,” I told him.
Wesley snorted. “I wouldn’t even have dignified that last attempt by calling it a plan.”
I ignored him, walking towards the guard again and cradling one of the six-packs in my hands like a baby. “Excuse me again, man. Sorry to bother.”
“ What?” Gorilla snarled.
“ I was just wonderin’ if you could help me with somethin’. You see -" I pulled a bottle out of the packet and bopped him over the head. The gorilla’s eyes crossed and he took a slow step towards me, rumbling. Growling, I tightened my grip on the bottle and brought it down again.
The gorilla buckled at the knees and then his chin bounced on the pavement.
“ See, now why didn’t we do that first?” Faith asked grumpily.
“ Shut up an’ give me a hand with Meatloaf,” I ordered, locking my hands under his chest. “Damn, what does this guy eat for breakfast? Cement?” I gasped.
Once we had safely tucked Gorilla away in a dumpster, we headed inside. Making it through the kitchens was a cinch. No one questions you in a place like Halo if you look like you know what you’re doing and you’re carrying booze.
Then we hit the dance floor. And that was something else, all right.
Now I’m not exactly unfamiliar with clubbing and strip joints. I’ve been in places all over Ireland and America, even some where the ‘ladies’ have scales instead of skin. But this place was to them what the Titanic was to a fishing dingy.
First off, it was just bloody huge. It looked like just about everyone who was anyone, at least everyone who thought they were anyone - pretty much the same thing in LA - was crowded in or around the club. Secondly, despite the overcrowding, this place had class.
Now, you think about a nightclub/strip joint, you think what? Shady, dark lights and women with flabby, um, parts. Halo wasn’t like that.
It even had different shades of light and wall colouring for different clientele. In one corner, there was the ‘strictly vanilla’ section with pale white walls and women wearing creamy outfits that were revealing without being slutty. In another, there was lots of furry bikinis and dark red lights. Another corner was practically lightless and the dancers definitely had leather fetishes in an extreme sense. Hell, some of those outfits made Faith’s wardrobe look reserved.
And in the centre, there was the bar. But oh, what a bar! There were enough exotic, classy or just plain strong drinks to reduce a guy to blissful insensibility a hundred times over.
Of course, I probably couldn’t afford a glass of water at this place, but it was nice to dream for a second or two.
“ Well, this is certainly…different,” Wesley muttered. “Hard to imagine Mr Colridge here.”
“ So, what’s the plan, boss?” Faith asked, looking like a kid in a candy store. “Do we mingle?”
“ We mingle,” I confirmed. Faith shot off and Wesley trailed after her, trying hard not to brush up against anyone in particularly skimpy clothing.
I managed to hammer my way through part of the crowd, using my six-pack like a battering ram. Eventually I found a relatively deserted table. ‘Relatively’ being a variable term. In this case, it had one very attractive redhead sitting there. I wasn’t about to complain.
“ Hey there,” I said as suavely as I could manage. “How ya doin’?”
“ Fine,” she said, raising a perfect eyebrow.
“ Mind if I sit?”
“ It’s a free country.”
I felt a twinge of guilt as I slid in next to her. But, hell, I was just mingling. This wasn’t a Bond film; I wasn’t going to have to sleep with every woman in sight just to get information.
Not that it wouldn’t be fun if life was like a Bond film…
“ So, what’s your name?” I asked, proffering a hand.
“ Betsy,” she answered, shaking.
“ Doyle?” she asked, raising that lovely eyebrow again.
“ Just Doyle,” I confirmed. “I was wonderin’ if we could talk?”
She shrugged. “Talk away.”
“ You a regular?” I asked her.
She shrugged again. “When I choose to be.”
“ If I wanted to talk to someone about a missing dancer, who could I contact?”
Wariness entered her eyes. “You a cop?”
“ Former,” I said, smiling. “PI now.”
She began to get up and I caught her hand, noticing the pale mark circling her finger. “Your husband know you’re here, Betsy?” I asked, still smiling.
Betsy stared at me for a second and then sat again. “Probably the manager, Barb. She’s not in tonight; she usually just deals with the dancers, trains them and stuff.”
“ Thanks,” I said politely, glancing around for Wesley and Faith.
I saw them both over by the bar. Faith was chatting with a brawny guy while Wesley appeared to be in the middle of getting rejected by a leggy blonde. Then the guy tucked a roll of green into Faith’s belt.
I tensed. Considering I see her every day, I often forget how provocative Faith’s dress sense really is. Besides which, having seen what’s under it I can safely say the clothes are her least sexy feature.
But to a total stranger…let’s say it wasn’t necessarily an unreasonable assumption. And if I got over there very fast maybe he wouldn’t have his nose broken for making it.
“ It’s been fun,” I told Betsy. “But I have to get to my friends before somebody gets crippled.”
I began to elbow through the crowd, my eyes on Faith. To my surprise, she seemed more amused than annoyed as she pulled the cash out of her belt and leafed through it.
But unfortunately, Wesley had also seen the money and he stepped in front of his Slayer, his chin out and speaking swiftly and angrily. And yes, the finger was raised.
The man swelled with rage, glaring at Wesley. I began to speed up.
“ Excuse me, pardon, people about to die…comin’ through.”
Faith’s expression turned from amusement to fury as she counted the money. “Thirty lousy bucks!” I heard her snarl indignantly. She grabbed the guy by the shirt as I burst through the last of the crowd.
The man’s friends were crowding up behind him, and I saw our friend Gorilla at the back door with another pal, heading in our direction. Things were turning really nasty really fast.
So I did the only thing I could.
The bottles clunked on the counter as I slammed them down.
“ Free beer for everyone!” I yelled, and then I grabbed Faith and Wes and ran like hell for the exit.
The back door, left unlocked for the cleaners' access, led me in through the kitchens again and this time I turned off into a dingy private area a far cry from the glitter of Halo’s public face. At this time of the morning Halo was occupied largely by cleaning staff. From the glance I caught of the main room of the club, I didn’t envy them their task of clearing up after the clientele’s nightly excesses. But hopefully their presence there meant I'd come early enough to avoid contact with any of the people who'd been in the club late last night.
"What do you think you're doing in here?" demanded a large woman with her sleeves rolled up to show off enormous biceps, who looked like she could wrestle a slime demon into submission.
I explained about my investigation, and saw her expression soften a little as I talked about my client's situation. "I don't know anything about what happens in this place outside of my shift," she said, a little too meaningfully. "But the offices are upstairs, and I think the assistant manager's in this morning. I don't know that he'll be too pleased to answer your questions, but I suppose you can try for nothing."
"Thanks," I said, and followed her directions up the stairs and along a dingy corridor to the assistant manager's office.
A young guy in an expensive suit answered my tap on the door, as I moved in closer to the wall to allow one of the cleaning staff past. He didn't invite me inside, instead stepping out to join me in the corridor. Obviously he wasn't prepared to give me more than a few minutes of his time, and even that none too confidential, out here in the corridor with his staff walking back and forth between our conversation.
“You want to ask me a few questions,” he repeated, his tone flat and unimpressed, eyeing me suspiciously.
“You or anyone you can direct me to who can provide a little information about a missing dancer.” I dredged out the paperwork which proved I was legit., which was getting a rare holiday from its usual hangout at the bottom of a drawer in the office. “All I want to do is find this girl. The guy who hired me wants to get in touch with her. He checks out fine, no harm doin'. And you’ve the paperwork there to prove I do too.”
He gave the papers a glance through before handing them back. “I don’t think we can help you, Mr. Doyle,” he said stiffly. “We’ve had the police here about this matter already. They didn’t find anything, and I see no reason why you should either.”
I winced mentally - obviously the low-key approach wasn’t fooling him any. “Now, hang on a minute,” I protested, “I -”
At that point, the impact of my face against the wall, propelled by the smack of a meaty fist into the back of my head, cut off any further attempts to talk him around.
I lost track of the world for a couple of seconds, and when I managed to focus again, it was on the assistant manager’s impeccably polished shoes, an inch from my nose where I lay sprawled on the floor.
“What's this all about?” I dimly heard the guy say to whoever had hit me.
My head hurt, a lot, and I could feel blood on the side of my face. The floor felt curiously comfortable, and I didn’t much want to attempt moving.
A voice I recognised rumbled, “He was downstairs last night. He’s the guy. The one who started all that shit.”
I didn’t need to look to know it was the gorilla standing there. And I supposed my ringing head was fair enough return for last night, at that. The guy had only been doing his job, after all.
I managed to gather my legs under me and used the support of the wall to attempt the climb to my feet. I made it half way before I realised it probably wasn’t too great an idea just yet; the way everything seemed to be whirling in a circle around me was one clue. I stayed crouched against the wall, feeling dizzy and sick. Even so, the gorilla - who had a bandage on his own head and a less-than-forgiving look in his eye - made a move to put me back on the floor. Fortunately, the assistant manager intervened.
“He’s a PI,” he said sharply. He crouched down and waved a hand in front of my face, studying my eyes as he did, to make sure I was tracking - I was, just barely. He grunted, satisfied I could hear him, and pointed a finger at me in a manner that reminded me of Wesley. “You assaulted my employee. He assaulted you. As of now, neither of those events happened. I think we understand each other.” We did. “Now, Cecil here will escort you to the door. Don’t come back. It will not be worth your time. Nobody here is going to answer your questions, not if they value their jobs, because I am going to give them explicit instructions not to. Are we clear?” This time, he waited for an answer.
What, he expected me to string words together? Aside from the current state of my brain, I could hardly feel my jaw. Nodding would be unwise.
I managed to choke out a hiss that sounded vaguely like a ‘yes’, trying to collect my scattered senses.
I struggled to stand once again and after a few seconds, the gorilla got tired of whatever entertainment he was getting out of watching me and hauled me up with a painfully rough grip under my arms. I stood unsteadily, and his continued hold on my shoulder was probably all that kept me upright.
The gleeful expression on ‘Cecil’s’ grinning face concerned me somewhat. The assistant manager saw it too and frowned. “Cecil - play nice,” he said sternly. “Just escort him out of the door and see he leaves.”
'As if,' I thought, watching the gorilla‘s moves very carefully as his handler retreated back inside his office and shut the door firmly after him. I wasn’t in much condition to fight, and turning demon was definitely out. This was strictly human territory here.
“Come on, you,” he said, sounding only slightly tamed by his employer’s instructions. His hand on my shoulder propelled me along the corridor, down the stairs and out the back door into the deserted alley.
That was the part I hadn’t been looking forward to. But I’d been gathering my strength, though I hadn’t been about to let him know that. So when he shoved me against the brick wall of the club and raised his fist preparatory to using me as a punch-bag, I hooked a foot round his ankles and gave him a shove, tripping him in a very schoolyard manner. The heavy landing drew a pained grunt from his bulk.
I stopped only to kick him vindictively in the ribs, then staggered off down the alley.
His furious shouts chasing after me, I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.
‘Well,' I thought, wincing at the pounding in my head which protested every running step, and trying desperately not to pass out. 'That was in no way humiliating...’
As I staggered into the office, two pairs of eyes looked up from papers and computer screen to stare at me.
“It, ah, didn’t go well?” Wesley ventured.
“No, it did not go well,” I snapped, slamming the door and heading to dig out my supply of aspirin. And my supply of scotch. Given that I might well be concussed, probably neither were a great idea. I swallowed the one with the other, and turned back to my associates to see Faith purposefully getting to her feet, a grim expression on her face. “Stop right there.”
“Why? I’m going to go back to that club and kick someone’s butt for this.”
“The butt’s already kicked, darlin’. Not that that’ll help our case in the slightest.” I sighed and collapsed into a chair, keeping the whisky close to hand. “These guys have already had the police in crawlin’ around their not-entirely-legal business, and they‘re not in the mood to answer questions from independent investigators who don‘t have the strong arm of the law to back them up. Not to mention ones who caused a riot in their club last night.”
She rocked on the balls of her feet, still debating, her hands curled up into tight fists, nails digging into her palms in anger. I added, “Besides, I’m the one with the license - if you went, even if it wasn’t in a head-breakin' capacity, they’d be entirely within their rights to call the cops on you. Leave it.”
She sighed and reluctantly relaxed her fists. “Hell, you’re the one with the bruises,” she said.
“Too right.” Another generous swig from the bottle and a few more of them faded a notch.
Wincing at the recollection of my earlier insistence upon going on my own this time to make polite and businesslike enquiries, I explained what had happened. I caught myself on about the fifth time I used the phrase, ‘Took me by surprise’. Yeah, right. It wasn’t fooling even me. I’d screwed up. There had to have been about twenty better ways to handle the situation.
“It all sounds guilty as hell to me,” Faith said, when I‘d finished. “We found a few other things about that club, researching all this crap you left us with - and by the way, thanks so much for that, Mr I've-got-a-PI-license-and-you-haven't - and this girl isn't the first one to go missing from the place. I bet they did something with her.”
It did sound that way, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. “They run an illegal prostitution business, of course they’re not going to want people crawlin’ around. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re up to more sinister doings, or that her disappearance has to be connected to the club. We should keep our options open. I'm gonna go take a look at the gal's apartment this afternoon. Maybe I'll get lucky and find somethin' the police didn't.”
“Yeah, but the club's still the best lead we've got. Someone there has to know something, whether it‘s a girl friend or another client.”
“Look, this is all beside the point,” Wesley interrupted. “Why don’t I call Colridge now and put the whole thing behind us? After all, there seems to be nothing we can do. You can hardly go back to Halo, if they‘re going to resort to this kind of physical violence when you ask a few questions. And they know you now. I imagine the bouncers have the strictest instructions to be on the lookout for short, Irish ruffians.”
“Hands off that phone,” I growled, not exactly thrilled by his description of me. “We’ll think of somethin'.”
Faith smirked suddenly. “Maybe we already have.”
Wesley and I both stared at her.
She shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot under the astonished scrutiny. “What? So I can’t get plans?”
“Not in a million years would I ever condone such -”
“Not a snowball’s chance in -”
“The Council would -”
“Undercover? Not under very much bloody cover, given what those girls were -”
"Will you both just shut the hell up!" We stopped talking over each other and fell into silence. Faith glanced between us. “Guys... this may be a shot in the dark here, but I’m guessing you don’t like my plan?”
Wesley opened his mouth again and I glowered him into silence. I already knew what he was going to say, and another argument about the Council and what was appropriate Slayer behaviour and what was not was exactly what my aching head didn't need right now.
“Faith, you don’t know what you’re suggestin'. Those girls... I...” I spluttered to a halt, unsure of quite where to go and what to admit. Thinking of the times I’d frequented strip clubs and bars... thinking of multitudes of guys looking at Faith the same way I’d looked at those other girls... it actually made me feel physically ill. Unless that was just the concussion.
“Yeah...?” She waved her hand, gesturing for me to go on, her grin telling me she was loving every minute of my discomfort.
I sighed, and chickened out. “We can find another way,” I said desperately.
“Like what? You go in and get worked over a few more times by their goons? I‘m not buying that, Doyle. You can‘t use your demon to fight these people. And what if you had to, and they saw...”
I winced at the fairly unpleasant possibilities for my future which that threw up, and was touched by her concern. But still...
“The phone, Wesley,” I said resignedly. I supposed we'd just have to tell Colridge we couldn't do it after all. Somehow, I didn't imagine he'd be too surprised. Wesley smiled smugly as he snatched for the receiver, and Faith moved like lightning to slam her hand down on top of it. Wes yelped and shook his squashed fingers, giving her an aggrieved look.
“No,” she said. “This is my plan, guys. It’s a good plan. Hey, I can do this! Dancing, smutty threads, loadsa guys oogling... where’s the danger?”
I sighed, realising that if we didn’t do this, she was going to be impossible. “Fine. Then we’re goin’ in with you,” I snapped.
“And how are you going to manage that?” Wesley inquired. “Somehow I can’t see you dancing around a pole wearing a pink thong.”
Faith choked and spent the next several seconds having a rather fake-sounding coughing fit, which I took to mean that she could. I shot her a glare. “We’ll get Colridge to introduce us to some of his buddies under a fancy cover identity.”
He remained sceptical. “Well, aside from the fact they’re probably passing descriptions of you around their neanderthal staff, you don’t exactly convince as one of their type of, uh, clientele...”
“Rich and successful, you mean,” Faith put in mockingly, as Wesley faltered on the edge of politeness, not saying it.
He shot me an apologetic glance of confirmation.
I seethed for a moment, but I supposed they were right; I was bound to be recognised. I looked at Wes. “Okay, then you’ll have to go in with her. But I’m gonna be on hand as back-up.”
Faith smiled broadly at that. I studied her suspiciously. “What’re you thinkin’?”
She just shook her head, appearing to be enjoying herself immensely. “You’ll see. I guess I better go apply for a job now, huh?”
"I can't believe we actually let her talk us into that," Wesley grumbled as we headed for the car. While Faith was getting a foot in the door, so to speak, we were going to Peg's apartment - in the desperate hope we'd find something to give us an area other than the club to concentrate our investigations on. Our progress was somewhat slow, thanks to my headache and his leg. "I am of the firm belief that our current inane 'plan' is nothing more than an excuse for Faith to indulge in even more flirtation than usual and get paid for it."
"Wes, if you want nothin' to do with this case, why don't you just stay at home?" I suggested irritably. "Research Spike some more. I mean, we need to be ready, he could still show up again any time. There's something useful you could be doin'. With the extra advantage that it doesn't involve addin' to my already mind-numbingly painful headache."
"Yes. Well. I, ah, think I'd better tag along," he said. "Not good to be stuck in an office all day, eh?"
After a few seconds trying to figure out the odd catch to his voice, I realised he was concerned about me... And wasn't that exactly what my bruised ego needed to complete the perfect day?
"Anyway," he continued, "I think we're overindulging that girl obscenely. She's seventeen. She needs guidance... discipline... I'm her Watcher, not her sidekick."
"We're both her bloody sidekicks," I muttered. We reached the car and I leaned against the side of it. My balance felt off. I took deep breaths. "I don't know how she manages to twist me around her little finger like she does."
"Really? I had a notion that the night-time acrobatics played a rather significant role, myself."
I glared at him and he reddened.
He stammered a hasty recovery, "Well, yes, she does seem to have a knack for getting her own way. A useful enough skill for a Slayer, I suppose." He sighed and prodded the ground with his stick, like he was trying to kill some ferocious pavement demons or somethin'. "At least she listens to you!" he burst out petulantly. "You can talk her around. She never listens to me."
I snorted. "Yeah, she listens to me 'cause I'm the handy supplier of food, board, TV, beer and sex. Everythin' the girl needs to live in comfort." I climbed into the car and waited for Wesley to get in.
The red of his face had intensified so much he could've lit the way for Santa Claus, and I thought he was gonna have a coronary then and there. "Quite," he bit off. Avoiding looking at me, he awkwardly arranged himself in the front seat so that his injured leg was relatively comfortable.
I started up the car and then his eyes shot up quickly enough in alarm and abrupt realisation. "Um, Doyle... are you quite sure you should be driving?" he asked in quavering tones.
By the time we pulled up outside Peg’s apartment building, Wesley was at least as pale and shaky as I was.
Colridge had given us his spare key, and Wes unlocked the apartment door while I leaned against the wall fighting off another dizzy spell.
"I'm driving us back," he said pointedly.
"You don't have a valid license. Not to mention the dodgy leg there."
"I don't care. It's still safer. Besides, after that whisky you drank, you wouldn't pass a drink/drugs test right now if we were pulled over anyway."
"Yeah. Right. What is this, national Beat Up on Doyle Day or somethin'?"
Our banter died as we crossed the threshold.
According to Colridge, the police had already searched Peg's apartment thoroughly and if she didn’t turn up within the next few days the landlord was going to shift her stuff to rent the place out again. But right now, everything was still there as she must have left it. Echoes of a life, staring back at me from every direction.
There was just the weirdest feeling in there, you know? Like the place knew its occupant wasn't coming back. It was nothing tangible, but all the same I knew we were both of us caught up in it. For the first few minutes that we walked around in there, the only sound but our breathing was the 'click, click' of Wesley's cane on the floor.
It was a neat little apartment. Peg obviously hadn't gone without from what she earned dancing and whoring for Halo. She'd lived comfortably enough, in this place. The rooms were sunny and airy, the feminine decor and accoutrements betraying no sign of how she'd made her living.
Everything was almost supernaturally tidy, and it wasn't from anything the police or Colridge had done, it was how she lived. I could tell. Harry had been like that, and always giving me earache over having to clean up after me.
I sighed. Poor old Colridge. I wished I could believe we were gonna bring her back to him alive.
Wesley was morosely studying the framed photographs on Peg's shelves. They showed a smiling young woman not much older than Faith, very pretty, with blond hair like sunshine. In the photographs, she was generally wearing bright-coloured, cheery, surprisingly modest clothing. A small tattoo in the shape of a crescent moon was visible on the side of her neck in several of the snaps.
There was a slight edge in her eyes, despite her smile, and no innocence in that porcelain face. Halo's employ had not been so lightly worn.
"I apologise," Wesley said slowly, carefully setting down one of the pictures which he'd picked up for closer study. "It occurs to me I may have been less than sensitive, where this case is concerned. It... isn't just about the money."
"No," I sighed. "It isn't. But that's not to say we don't need it. 'Cause we do, Wes. We really could use this one."
He regarded me silently, taking that in.
I returned to the search. In a desk, I found a neatly written letter and called Wesley's attention over to it.
I knew what it was the instant I saw who it was addressed to, but read it through anyway... affirming that Peg hadn't lied when she'd told Colridge she was going to quit Halo to start a new life together with him. I was holding her resignation.
"She didn't run away," Wesley remarked in a hushed voice, skimming through the same simple, quietly emotional sentences I'd just read, as the missing girl explained her reasons to club owner Mr. Harper.
Though we continued to search, we didn't find anything else that seemed of immediate importance - beyond Wesley's conscience. It looked depressingly like all the signs still pointed towards Halo.
When we left, locking up again carefully after us, I took with me the resignation letter, and also a bundle of other letters which I would return to Colridge - I didn't think he'd want them left for the landlord to dismissively throw out when he cleared the apartment. I'd found them beside Peg's bed. Had only glanced at them sufficiently to confirm they were written by Colridge, for her, and from the look of it this really had been an eternal love kind of deal.
I fell out of the door onto the street and turned left, heading back to where I'd parked the car.
"Uh, Doyle..." Wesley said, catching my shoulder.
"The car's this way."
"It is?" I glanced around the familiar landmarks. "You're sure?"
"Very. Look, I think you're concussed. You probably need medical attention."
"Wes, I'm half a bloody demon. It's not gonna kill me. Although a blood test or a sneeze at the wrong moment might, if you get my drift. I'm fine. Demon healin' an' all that."
"Your demon healing," he repeated, switching to academic mode. "You know, that's a very interesting point. You see, I've noticed that when you're human you seem to be, well, human..."
"Oh, shut up." I stamped off in the direction he'd indicated.
I wondered if Faith was having any more luck than we were.
We'd been back for a few hours, drinking cups of tea and fretting - me over Faith, and Wesley, I glumly suspected, over me - by the time she finally returned. The door swung back on its hinges with a crash, powered by Slayer enthusiasm, and Faith strode through carrying a bundle in her hands.
"No luck?" she asked. Rhetorically, since apparently the expressions on our faces were answer enough and she forged straight on without waiting for any other reply. She thrust the bundle into my hands. "Present for you. Help you keep up the low-profile surveillance without drawing the attention of the muscle... Come on guys, time to get ready! I'm on in less than two hours."
"I'm guessin' the audition went well, then."
"Are you kidding? Slayer flexibility, and all that. Their eyes nearly popped out of their skulls. And wait'll you see what I'm wearing tonight..." She threw her arms up in the air and twisted athletically in a little move which, aside from looking quite physically impossible, sent Wesley into a coughing fit... and I couldn't begin to guess what my own expression must've looked like.
"Faith...!" Wesley choked out, aghast, in between coughs.
"Yeah, yeah. Don't let me turn you on, Wes. 'Cause that'd never do for your precious Watcher/Slayer relations," she snickered.
I unfolded the bundle of cloth. Squinted at it, confused, and after a few seconds realised what I was seeing. "If you think I'm wearin' -"
"Aw, don't be such a spoilsport, Doyle. You know a girl always loves a man in uniform. Oh, hey, here's your little hat too." She flung it to me. I didn't bother to catch it out of the air.
The outfit looked a size too big. It was also rumpled from wear and smelt of somebody else's aftershave. I decided I really didn't want to know how she'd got it.
Wesley saw what it was and blanched. "Oh, bloody marvellous. Faith, he's concussed, he can't -"
"For the last time, Wesley, I'm fine!" I snapped, before I realised that effectively constituted an agreement with Faith's plans.
"Then I guess we're ready to rock. I better get changed." She held up the bundle in her other hand, which I hadn't noticed before. Probably because it was almost small enough to fit in her closed fist. I gulped.
"Wait," I said, as she made for the door. I crossed to the desk and hunted in the bottom drawer. Found what I was looking for and held it out to her. "You'll need to hide this on you somewhere. If possible," I added, eyeing the small bundle sourly.
She took the tiny device from my hand and peered at it. After a moment, comprehension dawned and her grin widened all the more. She leaned over the desk to examine the other contents of the drawer. "Way cool! Hey, where'd you get all this Mission Impossible shit, Doyle?"
"I am a PI," I said, somewhat aggrieved by the surprise in her voice.
"And you've used all this how many times?" Wesley inquired, tapping the side of the drawer illustratively with his cane. It did look a bit dusty, I supposed.
"One or two, actually... but that's beside the point. Here, you'll be needin' one as well."
He took it with a long-suffering look. "Working with you," he said distastefully, "Is certainly... an experience."
"Have I mentioned how much I don't want to do this?" Wesley said nervously as we pulled up outside Halo - having dropped off Faith several streets back so as to avoid arousing suspicions of any connection between us.
"You don't wanna do this," I muttered sourly. "At least you get to go in there and mingle with the rich and unethical. Sippin' expensive drinks, gazin' at semi-clad girls..." Gazing at semi-clad Faith. In my distraction, the car lurched forward a few extra feet and the front wheel bumped onto the edge of the kerb and then skidded off again with a crunch of stressed metal.
"Doyle -" Wesley began snappishly.
"Look, just because I'm wearing this bloody stupid uniform, don't think you can start using that tone with me -" I snapped back.
But there were more important things to focus our attention upon. Through the window, I could see five or six of them heading our way. I jerked my head to indicate them to Wesley. "They're here. Remember, only Colridge knows who we really are."
"I know that." His tone was waspish. He was nervous.
"Okay, okay," I sighed. "Look, just relax, Wes, you'll do fine. Just picture everybody naked - helps with stage fright."
Wesley shuddered. "Doyle, most of them are nearly naked already!"
"Fine. So you won't need much imagination, then." I patted him on the shoulder in what I hoped was a reassuring way, then noticed one of Colridge's buddies staring somewhat oddly at us through the window and hastily raised my voice. "There ya go, sir, the mark is totally gone." I swatted at Wesley's shoulder in a dusting motion. "Good luck," I added, under my breath.
I expected him to get out of the car to meet them, but he stayed seated.
"Aren't you going to hold the door for me?" he asked plaintively.
With Colridge's buddies so close by, I didn't dare express my reaction to that as I'd have liked. Besides, he was right, it would look more authentic. I got out of the car, stomped around to the passenger door, and held it open while Wesley manoeuvred himself and his cane out.
Colridge's crowd, dressed up to the nines, collected in a little clump around the open door, watching while Wesley's form unfolded and stood up straight. He looked tall and dignified, and that fancy, black, silver-edged cane he'd been sporting the past few days didn't do any harm to the image. He seemed to make the right impression on Colridge's friends, anyway. Me, they ignored as though I was a piece of furniture... except for Colridge himself, who gave me a brief, amused sideways appraisal as he introduced Wesley.
"Mr. Wyndham-Pryce," he said, grandly. "Of Pryce Holdings International."
"Mr. Pryce," a guy in a fancy silver suit which matched his grey hair acknowledged snobbishly. "Trouble with the car there?"
Wesley straightened impossibly further, becoming his most arrogant. "No trouble. Except that my chauffeur can't drive."
"You just can't get the help these days," the older guy tutted, squinting at me. "Your man there looks as though he's been in a bit of a fight, too. Nothing but ruffians."
I ignored them and got back into the car. Wesley tapped on the window after I'd slammed the door, and I rolled down the glass.
"Be sure to return sharp now, as instructed," he said, waving his finger at me. "I don't pay you to be falling asleep on duty and making me late."
"Right," I said, through clenched teeth, although I suspected there might actually have been a veiled warning about my head injury hidden in there. He waited, flashing a displeased look around his new pals, then pointedly concentrating it on me. "...Sir," I muttered.
Wesley smirked, and nodded, then turned his back to me. I rolled the window up again and just watched, for a few seconds, as Wesley conversed with Colridge and the others as though he'd been born to socialise in their sort of circles.
I should've known Wesley would be good at this.
Dragging my eyes away from the performance, I concentrated on coaxing the car down the street and into what would have to pass for a parking space. From there, I could just see the glitter of Halo's front entrance, a bright Oasis of sin about a hundred yards along the street and about a million miles out of reach so far as the likes of me were concerned. I couldn't see Wesley and his companions among the crowds outside, even through the compact spyglasses I'd brought. Evidently they'd already gone in. I hadn't thought they were the sort the bouncers kept waiting for long.
I dug out the companion device to the bugs Faith and Wesley were wearing and switched it on.
I had to be within a few hundred feet to receive, and I was only just close enough. I wouldn't get any closer, on that busy street. But there was reception and, slowly, I was able to pick out the individual voices from the background music and the static.
"...The name's Faith. You?"
"Been working here long? I guess you see a few assholes like that, in this job. How about giving a newbie the lowdown, huh?"
A crackle, and the next voice I was able to pick out, after a few seconds of static, was one I didn't recognise, but with the arrogant tones which marked him out as one of Colridge's pals.
"You should come here more often, Pryce, old man. Are you having a drink?"
"Certainly. I'm sure this establishment has some fine vintages."
"I thought you were on medication for your leg," Colridge's voice prompted sourly - sounding none too happy, there, at the idea of his hired help getting drunk on the job at his expense.
I shut my ears to Wesley's conversations, since nothing really seemed to be happening there, and tried to pick out Faith once again. Wesley was only really there as a failsafe. I didn't expect that he'd find anything himself, and in fact had strongly suggested he concentrate on maintaining his cover and not getting kicked out.
Nothing much more interesting seemed to be happening with Faith either, though. She was caught up in a conversation with this Sandy, one of the other dancers employed by the club, a girl with a tiny, shy squeak of a voice I could barely pick out. From what I could gather, Faith had 'helped' her deal with an overenthusiastic customer and was now comforting her. Moments ago, I wouldn't have believed Faith could comfort anything, but I'd never heard her use such understanding, sugary tones before. I guess she was a better actress than I'd expected.
"I mean, not all of us are involved in... that side of the business," Sandy continued. "But a lot of them don't see that as the case, often enough."
Faith cautiously attempted a few questions, trying to dig for information, but her new little friend was too wrapped up in her own problems to be much help and the questions largely went unanswered.
My attention drifted, and for a few minutes I listened to Wesley getting complimented on his neat accent instead.
Things continued like that for about half an hour, as I tried to listen to two sets of inconsequential conversations at once without falling asleep
I always did hate surveillance.
A tap on the driver's window diverted my attention. I snorted wide awake and saw through the windscreen that a squad car had pulled up in front of me. Then I turned and saw the face peering in at me through the window, and my spirits sank that little bit lower.
Her expression went through a variety of surprised contortions as she recognised me. Suppressing a groan of dismay, I rolled the window down.
"Now I really have seen everything," Kate remarked. "Love the hat, Doyle. Very fetching. Is PI work just not paying enough anymore?"
Her gaze slid past me and fell upon the surveillance equipment. "Ah. Mr. Colridge," she remarked.
"Yeah. Well, you should know, since you sent him to me."
"Poor guy. Not that I approve of the whole hiring prostitutes thing but..." She shrugged. "I wanted to follow it up, but the department shut me down. The club's owner wields a fair amount of influence - watch out for that old bastard, by the way. And the Assistant Manager's almost as bad. That's his son, and not someone you'd want to cross."
"Thanks for the warning," I said wryly.
"Uh-huh. I didn't think those bruises were a fashion statement. Anyway, I'm glad you took on the case. Colridge is a persistent guy, and I figured you could use the business." She hesitated. "Things just haven't been the same since you left, you know, in the department."
"They had to find a new whipping boy?" I saw her hard look which said that wasn't what she meant, and shrugged. "What are you doing here, anyway, if they took you off the case?"
She sighed, and for a minute she looked worn out and worn down. I supposed it must be getting difficult for her, working alone. At least back then there were two of us who really understood what was out there. I hadn't seen her looking so grim in... a long time.
"Homeless deaths," she said. "Bodies just left dumped around. No apparent cause. Too many for it to be a coincidence."
"I take it 'no apparent cause' does include bite marks?" I cut in, fairly rhetorically.
She nodded. "Nothing remotely suspicious, except that they're dead. I guess this is something new."
"I'll keep my eyes open."
"Thanks. This city's turning into a real demon zoo," she remarked, sounding un-thrilled. "Of course, the theory of the moment is that someone's poisoning these people with a substance hard to trace in an autopsy. It's been a few months since the last one, but it's funny how the case handily resurfaces when the guys upstairs want me transferred away from missing dancing girls."
"Ah... how many missing dancing girls?" I asked. "Faith turned up a couple from the old news reports but I figured there might well be more."
She nodded slowly. "It goes back about a decade, a handful every year. None of them have turned up again yet, dead or alive. Something's happening to them. It's too easy an explanation to say they're running off."
"'Faith'?" she queried. "I thought your new co-worker was that goofy Pryce guy?"
"Uh... they sort of came as a package." I tried to remember if Kate knew about Watchers and Slayers and decided it was an explanation for another time.
"Okay. I'll send all I have on the missing dancing girls over to you, first thing tomorrow. See you around." She sketched half a wave and straightened up. "Oh, and by the way..." She leaned back down to the window. "You're blocking off that exit. Move your car back two feet or I'll have it impounded."
I moved the car and turned the volume back up on the receiver. While I'd been talking to Kate, Faith's turn to dance had come around and interesting noises now emanated from the listening device.
It wasn't much of a surprise to discover where she'd hidden the bug. I listened to her dancing from the perspective of her cleavage, the noises of flesh and spandex in motion interspersed with occasional cheers and wolf-whistles. I alternatively seethed quietly and wished I was there to watch.
Never mind. I could always request a private performance later.
The moaning noises which started to accompany her dancing once she'd got into the swing of it were somewhat distracting, to say the least, and I had to re-evaluate my initial assumption that listening to Faith was nowhere near as interesting as watching her when my imagination kicked into gear unbidden and started to fill in the blanks.
Events on Wesley's side snapped my attention back to more serious business again. He'd been very quiet while Faith was on. I didn't know if it was disapproval. Maybe he'd been elsewhere, hiding in a corner, and hadn't even seen her performance. It had better not have been an appreciative silence, I thought, and then had to wonder why it would annoy me so much if it were.
"No, no, I couldn't possibly..." Wesley was saying.
"Why not? Come on, you can't turn down one of Alexei's parties. Nobody turns down one of Alexei's parties."
Wesley continued to stammer, but the astonishment in that tone trampled all possibilities of disagreement. People came to Halo for a good time. If a better time could famously be had elsewhere, refusal would arouse suspicion.
"I'd be delighted," I heard him answer weakly. "I'll, ah, meet you out at the front shortly. I just have to... visit the bathroom..."
"It's only two minutes' drive, you can visit the bathroom when we get there."
"I, uh, have to let my chauffeur know..."
"Irish? Why? Let him wait, the insolent little upstart. Alexei's people will put you up or take you home."
"Crap," I muttered. Wesley, I imagined, would be thinking much the same thing.
I listened as his new pals dragged him off to this private soiree.
They were right about it being close. It was close enough that I still kept receiving the occasional snippet from the bug. And what I did receive sounded interesting, to say the least.
"Oh, my." Wesley's voice, shocked and scandalised. "Excuse me, I thought the term you used was 'party' not 'orgy'. My word... I wouldn't have thought it was physically possible for a woman to do that... My word... You wouldn't have anything stronger to drink?"
The voices sadly faded into static while I was creased over with laughter, and although I spent several minutes desperately trying to coax the reception back, it was to no avail.
My brain kicked in again then, and it guiltily occurred to me I was now Faith's only back-up.
The dancing was over and from the sounds, she was in the dressing rooms again, talking with Sandy. The girl seemed a bit more coherent now and was actually answering her questions.
"Peg? Yes, I know her. I'm surprised you do, she never talked like she had much of a life beyond this place. A nice girl, though."
"I only know her a little. She suggested I try for a job here, a few weeks ago. I haven't seen her in a while, though. I was hoping she might be here tonight."
"Oh, she won't be coming back. She resigned, you know. The manager was furious. She was one of the best dancers working here. He wouldn't accept it, told her she better be back. She told him she'd send it in writing. After that, nobody's seen her at all. We even had the police here about it."
"Imagine that. I guess she'll turn up sometime, yeah? She'll just be lying low for a while."
"I hope so." Sandy's mouse-like voice sounded doubtful. I couldn't blame her. Faith was laying on the cheery innocent act a bit too thick, I felt.
"Get a move on in there!" hollered a loud, abrasive voice which even filtered through the listening device made me jump. I guessed that would have to be Barb. Sounded like a charming woman. "I don't pay you to stand around chatting."
It put a stop to Faith's information-gathering exercise, at any rate. "I better finish getting ready," Sandy said, even quieter than usual. "I'm on again soon. See you tomorrow, I guess."
"Yeah," Faith said. "Tomorrow."
I listened as Faith headed out through the corridors of the club, presumably heading towards the back door I'd used for access that morning. I heard heavy footsteps approach her along the corridor, and falter as they drew close.
"Say, you're new here... no, wait, have I seen you somewhere before?" said a voice which I recognised with a mounting feeling of dread. My hands clenched involuntarily into fists.
"Don't think so," Faith said chirpily. Only someone who knew her would sense the undercurrent of danger in that innocent reply. I groaned and prayed she wouldn't be recognised.
And that she wouldn't tear Cecil into soggy little pieces with her bare hands.
"No, I think... I know I'd not forget seeing you before..." he hesitated. There was a note of impressed appraisal in his voice now. My opinions abruptly did a U-turn as I started hoping Faith would take him apart. Slowly. And nastily. "You wouldn't want to go out for a drink somewhere? Somewhere else, I mean - not here." There was a slight laugh in his voice at that.
"I have a date," she said, meaningfully. The dark edge to the words convinced me she was gonna thump him any minute.
"Oh," he said, sounding disappointed. "Well, if it doesn't work out - I'm here most nights."
"I'll keep it in mind." I bet she would. And if she took him up on that offer, she'd bring lots of fun sharp implements to liven up the party.
She extricated herself from the conversation without Cecil ending up maimed - a minor miracle, in my opinion - and continued, her footsteps sounding hollow on the polished floor, echoing slightly off the smooth surfaces of the empty corridor. I heard the exterior door open and then slam behind her.
I stayed where I was, wary of bringing the car any closer to pick her up. Even if I was unlikely to be recognised in my current garb, I didn't think many people would buy the concept of a dancing girl having her own chauffeur.
Assorted scufflings and footsteps and static came to my ears, all normal background noise I'd grown accustomed to in the last few hours. The occasional word or grunt floated through from Wesley's bug, and what wouldn't I give to know what was going on there...
I allowed myself to speculate amusedly on a few possibilities, enjoying my revenge on the uptight Watcher for his too-enthusiastic embracing of our role-playing earlier. The evening's work was almost over, and I could feel my tiredness after the day's events starting to announce its presence. I was leaning back in the seat and stretching my aching muscles when Faith's yell rang out.
For a moment I sat there, frozen, as an ominous crunch followed the sound. Then I heard nothing but blank static.
"Faith!" I yelled into the receiver, hearing the panic in my voice, before I realised she wouldn't hear me even if the bug had been working.
I kicked myself into action and within seconds, finding an energy I wouldn't have imagined I could muster only moments before, I'd grabbed the flashlight from the seat beside me and was sprinting across the street towards Halo.
My heart was hammering in my ears as I made it to the mouth of the alley behind Halo.
“ Faith,” I called softly, leaning against a wall and trying to recover my scrambled wits. My eyes strained as I peered into the ill-lit alley, my blood congealing. No answer.
I flicked the flashlight on and the white circle of light fell on a crumpled form lying near a dumpster.
I swallowed. “Oh, god, Faith…”
I don’t recall covering the distance between us, but suddenly I was on my knees, feeling for a pulse in the hollow of her neck. She stirred beneath my hand and I began to breathe regularly again. Shining the flashlight more fully on her, I could see a deep cut on her brow. Her brown curls were already matted with blood and dirt. I gently prodded the wound, checking for a fracture, and she hissed in pain, her eyes opening slightly.
“ Sorry,” I said quickly, reassured by the firm feel of her skull.
“ Doyle…” she muttered, trying to sit up. I quickly pushed her down again.
“ Don’t move. Just lie still.” I’m not sure if my words convinced her, or if the pain was just too much to stand, but she obediently remained still and closed her eyes. “Stay here,” I ordered. “I’m going to go take a look around.”
I rose to my feet and took a cautious step forward. There was a metallic sound, just ahead of me. I took a quick step back again. Whatever was there was probably seriously mean, to have brought down Faith with a single strike, and I didn’t fancy the thought of sauntering ahead, my flashlight giving away whatever advantage of surprise I might have.
The flashlight was a really old and worn one and I didn’t trust it to come on if I switched it off again, so I pressed it against my chest, hiding the light, and slipped forward into the blackness. It was pretty damn petrifying as I crept onwards in the darkness, but I preferred the advantage of stealth to getting my head caved in.
I heard a scraping sound directly ahead of me and desperately squinted, trying to pick out any shapes. I couldn’t see anything, but damn it, I knew the thing was there!
I twisted the flashlight away from my body, hoping to blind it with the light. But there wasn’t any light. I swore silently as I realised the ancient batteries had finally given up the ghost.
The thing rumbled what sounded like a malignant chuckle and then something struck my chest with the force of a hammer. As I fell, I caught a glimpse of a greyish-green lumpy head and broad muscled shoulders. I hit the ground with a soft groan and heard the beast take a step forward. Again, that rumbling laugh. Now I could make out more features…long, surprisingly slender arms…a large, hulking body, hunched over like an ape…and a blank, featureless face. No nose, just a tiny slit of a mouth and slanted, inhuman eyes. It reached for me with its long arms, chuckling again, and I grabbed the flashlight in both hands and smashed it up into that low-hanging face, just above the slit-mouth.
Laugh that one off, you son of a bitch…
The creature roared and its arms scooped me up and smashed me down onto the pavement again. The demon rose to the fore, absorbing most of the impact, and I was up again faster than the monster had expected. I swept the flashlight up, clubbing its misshapen head a second time. It hissed and long arms dove past my guard with frightening speed, its hands closing on the lapels of my uniform.
With no visible effort, it picked me up, spun me around twice and let me go. I experienced a brief and exhilarating flight, which ended in a considerably less enjoyable collision with a wall. Groaning, I slumped down against the wall. My head was throbbing again, and the ground seemed to be more… fluid than usual.
Faith. Got to get up. Get up, Doyle. Faith’s helpless. Get up!
In retrospect, it’s amazing what fear can make you overcome.
I rose to my feet with a growl of pain and rage, bringing the flashlight around to strike against…nothing? The beast was gone, vanished as if it had never been. I concentrated, but even my sharper demon-senses couldn’t pick up its presence.
With a sigh of relief, I let go of the demon and staggered over to Faith again, rubbing my aching head.
“ How’s it goin’ down there?” I asked quietly, looking down at her prone form.
Faith’s eyes opened and blinked once. “Doyle. You look like crap,” she said weakly.
I glanced down at my torn uniform and smiled painfully. “Got news for you, darlin’. You look worse.”
“ I’m not arguing,” she moaned, rubbing her head. “What did that jerk hit me with?”
I looked to the side and my eyes widened a little. “Looks like a trashcan.” I decided not to mention the sizable dent in its side. Faith sat up and swayed slightly. “Are you sure you should be tryin’ to get -" Faith slumped down again. “- up,” I finished.
“ I’m fine,” Faith said unconvincingly.
I eyed the dented trashcan. “Sure you are.”
” Where’s the demon?”
“ It ran off, I guess,” I told her. At least, I hoped it had. I really didn’t feel like a fight to the death with a demon half-again as large as I was. At least, not until I’d caught my breath.
“ We gotta get after it…gotta chase it,” Faith said thickly.
“ Sure we do,” I said comfortingly
“ Stop it.”
“ Stop what?”
“ Stop…patronising me, just ‘cause I got hit in the head.”
“ I’m not patronisin’ you,” I protested.
“ You are so.”
I shrugged, reached down and scooped her up in my arms, not without some difficultly, I might add. “Okay, maybe a little.” I waited for the little flashing lights to disappear from my vision and then trudged towards the car.
“ Hey! Put me down,” she said fuzzily, pushing at my chest. “I can walk.”
“ No. You can’t,” I told her matter-of-factly. “Now quit squirmin’.”
She prodded me ineffectually a few times, and then gave up and lay back. “You know, this is kinda romantic…” she mused in the erratic way of the concussed.
“ Really?” I asked her. “One beat-up person carrying another beat-up person along the streets of LA at night, an’ you call it romantic.”
“ I said kinda.”
I carefully laid Faith down on the back seat of the car. “Okay. Now don’t fall asleep,” I warned her. “Not with that bang on the head you just had.”
“ Okay,” she murmured, already drifting off. Sterner measures were needed.
I switched on the radio and tuned it to the loudest rock band I could find and then cranked the volume way up.
Faith groaned, covering her ears. “Ow….”
“ Sorry, hon,” I offered, grabbing a penlight from the glove compartment. “Sit tight.”
This flashlight seemed in fine working order as I made my way back to the alley. I wasn’t really expecting to find anything, but at least if I could pick up the demon’s scent, I could judge if it had just been passing through, if it had been hanging around by Halo to pick off customers.
After checking to make sure no interested pedestrians were entering the alley, I brought my demon side forth again. The second the change was complete, I felt better. Maybe there was something to Wes’s theories about my healing.
I took a deep sniff of the air, and tried not to retch. As classy as Halo was, this alley smelt like any other in LA, a revolting mix of rotting garbage, urine and dirt. Eau de Los Angeles.
I sniffed the air again, trying to inhale as little of it as possible. My chances of tracking anything through this crap were less than zero. But there was one scent that was unfamiliar.
Well, it was familiar to me, but it wasn’t a regular feature on LA streets. The smell of rotting flesh. Human. A week or so past due, I guessed. Grimly, I followed the sickly scent to its source, the dumpster Faith had been lying near. Steeling myself, I flung the lid back on the dumpster.
The smell hit me with more force than the demon’s punches had, as rats squeaked and crawled away from the light. An old woman lay face-up on a bed of garbage. She wore a long grey coat and her skin was wrinkled and as grey as the coat.
Her face…well, the rats had been busy. I looked away, breathing hard. Short, sharp gulps of air.
I propped a cigarette between my lips, but didn’t light it, my mind working furiously. The feel of the white tube in my mouth calmed me, even unlit.
Stay focused. Don’t look at her face. This isn’t a person; it’s a puzzle. Use logic, analyse the scene…keep perspective. Stay rational, don’t let emotions get in the way.
It took every inch of the self-control I had learnt at the LAPD to get me to lean into that dumpster and inspect the body. I kept my eyes low, away from her face. Neat hands, gaudy rings on the fingers. A thick coat, even though it had been pretty warm these past few nights. I gritted my teeth as I unbuttoned the coat, each button at a time. Eight buttons.
The coat fell open. The old woman was wearing a slinky little leather number and her sagging frame filled it like jelly fills a mould. So, another one of Kate’s homeless deaths, but dressed very strangely for a homeless person. Stolen clothes?
I slowly forced my gaze to rise, covering every inch of her body, bit by bit. No wounds, just like Kate had said. The only damage had obviously taken place after death. An all-you-can-eat buffet for the rats.
Her neck was unmarked too, so it obviously wasn’t vampires. No, not unmarked. My skin chilled. There was an old, faded tattoo of a moon on it.
I had done what Dennis Colridge had hired me to do. I had found Peg.
I turned away from the dumpster and doubled over.
The taste of vomit was acidic on my tongue as I walked back to the car, hands jammed in my pockets.
Faith seemed more alert as I got into the car and slammed the driver’s door shut. I silenced the noisy radio with a brutal click. I could see her concerned reflection in the rear-view mirror as I stared ahead, unseeing, at the silent road in front of me.
“ Doyle? You okay?” She touched my shoulder gently.
“ Fine,” I rasped. “I’m fine.”
Faith sighed. “Okay, I was saying that a few minutes ago, and you’re even less convincing than I was. What gives, boss?”
I opened my mouth to reply and felt the words freeze in my throat as I stared at her reflection. Faith had clumsily tried to clean away some of the crusted blood from her hair, and among all the matted dark hair, there was a single strand of grey.
I shifted the mirror so it was angled towards my face.
“ Youth-stealing demons,” Faith said, as I paged slowly through the thick book before me. “I don’t know, Doyle. I don’t feel any older or anything, you know?”
I rubbed my burning eyes and took a sip from my half-empty mug of coffee. I’d refilled that mug three times already. We hadn’t dared go to sleep with our respective head wounds, so the entire night and most of the day had been spent in research. Research which, without Wesley, was fairly futile. Annoyingly, Faith appeared almost totally recovered from her injuries. I, on the other hand, felt like someone had hit me repeatedly with a sledgehammer and then driven over me with a forklift truck. Or maybe a bus.
“ It only touched you for a second or two. Could be it needs longer to do some serious agin’,” I suggested.
Faith yawned. “A bit of a stretch, doncha think?”
I slammed the book down and glared at her with annoyance. “All right then, Faith, you explain to me how a woman could age eighty or so years in a few weeks.”
She raised her hands defensively. “Just saying, just saying. Why are we doing this book stuff anyway?”
“ You know why.” I glanced meaningfully in the direction of my bedroom. A low groan of pain came from the open door.
“ Sounds like he’s awake,” Faith said, smiling nastily. Okay, I was fairly amused by Wesley’s plight too, but she seemed to be taking a positively vindictive glee in it. Of course, my own intense pain was probably dampening my sense of humor a bit.
Wesley staggered groggily from my bedroom, his cane beating out an unsteady rhythm across the floor as he vanished into the kitchen.
“ Why good afternoon, Wesley!” Faith said winsomely. “And how are you this glorious day?”
The footsteps stopped. “Go to hell, Faith,” Wesley said weakly. “You’ll probably fit right in.”
Faith’s smile widened. “Why how rude, Wesley! What would the Council say?”
“ They’d probably agree with me that this comes under the category of ‘cruel and unusual torture’,” I broke in. “Leave the poor guy be, Faith. Go read a book about murderous demons or somethin’.”
I pushed a tome towards her. She pushed it back. “No way, bud. Now Wesley the Wonder Watcher is finally awake, he can do the book-reading.”
Wesley dragged himself out of the kitchen, clutching a mug of coffee. He really did look like hell, pale and slightly greenish, and with red rims around his eyes. “Faith, at the moment, I am barely capable of speaking English. You expect me to read Latin now?”
“ Well, you’re the only one who can,” I said calmly. “An’ most of your damn books are in it.”
Wesley closed his eyes and slumped into a chair. “Dear god.” He took a swig of coffee. His cheeks bulged and he sprayed it across my desk in a brown deluge.
“ Sugar might be a good idea,” I advised, pushing the bowl across to him.
“ Yes. Thank you,” he said faintly, tipping half the contents into his coffee and stirring it hastily with his finger. He flung his head back and drained the mug in one go.
I raised an eyebrow. “Impressive.”
He gave me a sickly smile. “I assure you, Doyle, after the things that have passed my lips these past few hours, a cup of hot coffee presents no challenge at all.”
“ Why’d you drink so much anyway?” I asked, smiling slightly. Hell, I said I wasn’t as amused as Faith. I was still pretty damn amused, though.
“ It was either that or…or…well, let us just say that Alexei and his friends have some rather…disturbing habits. By remaining inebriated I was able to avoid participating in anything.” I was impressed. Oh, not by Wes’s plan. I was impressed he could still use a word like ‘inebriated’ while hung over.
Faith laughed loudly. Both Wesley and I clutched at our heads. “Typical. Wes gets invited to an orgy, practically the only chance he has had in his entire life to get some, and what does he do? Get whacked instead.”
Wesley sniffed. “That’s because I view sexual relations as something that should only occur between people who love each other, rather than, as you seem to, some kind of hobby.”
I cleared my throat, and Wesley winced, looking guiltily in my direction as he realised what he’d said. “I think we’re kind of losin’ focus here. Our focus is: demons. Big, lumpy ones who age people. Not Wesley’s night-time exploits or lack of them. Or Faith’s hobbies.”
“ Demons. Right,” Wesley squinted at me. “What are you reading there?”
I glanced at the spine. “Uh…Baucher’s Guide to the Occult.”
Wesley shook his head. “A waste of time. Baucher was quite fond of opium and it’s rather doubted that he ever actually saw any of the demons he wrote about. When he started talking about blood-sucking pink elephants with talons the size of knives, he rapidly lost credibility.”
“ How quickly drug abuse can ruin careers,” I said dryly.
Wesley closed his eyes, as if reading a catalogue off the inside of his eyelids. “Try…um, the Toraskian Scripts. Chapter 8.”
I floundered through the pile of old books, found the appropriate one, and flipped it open. Thankfully, it was in English. “Okay…chapter 8. Life-draining beasties an’ demons. Check.”
Wesley put down his cup, then picked up mine and took a sip. “Read the heading of each of the entries.”
“ Okay. Let’s see…Dethgarian Puff Snake.”
“ No. Too small.”
“ Uh…Letorian Pit Spawn.”
“ Too big.”
“ Quorian Lasher.”
Wesley blinked. “What? That doesn’t drain life, it feeds on the lower intestines of its victims!” He gulped down more of my coffee. “That’s the problem with these medieval scholars. Never proof-read their work.”
I turned another page. “Yeah. An’ if they’d heard of indexes, that would be helpful too. Sithgar Beast.”
“ Only lairs in extinct volcanoes.”
“ Which LA is famous for its lack of. Okay…bingo!”
Wesley frowned. “Bingo? What’s a Bingo Demon?”
I studied the entry carefully. “No, I think I’ve found our guy. Faith, come check this fella out. He seem familiar to you?”
She peered over my shoulder. “That’s our boy. Cutie, isn’t he?”
I ran my eyes over the illustration. Sure enough, it was a perfect match on our late-night, life-draining pal. Right down to its ugly slanted eyes. “Here we go. An Umbrosh spirit-stealer. It…”
“…walks around in mortal form during the day, but changes form to hunt at night. It steals the youth of its victims, and requires a handful per year to sustain itself. Properly sustained, it can remain ageless indefinitely,” Wesley quoted.
I nodded. “Yeah. Know-it-all.”
Wesley smiled slightly. “Everyone has their field of expertise. Pass me the book, please.” He carefully ran his eyes over the entry. “I can’t read this,” he announced, squinting. “The words are all blurring together.”
“ Field of expertise, huh?” I asked pointedly.
“ Perhaps I’m not up to full operating potential yet,” Wesley admitted sheepishly, passing the book back.
“ Uh-huh. Let’s see…solitary hunter, ages with its touch, mates once every fifty years…”
“ More often than Wesley,” Faith said.
Wesley rolled his eyes. “Yes. Ha, ha. I’ll have you know, I have a lovely girlfriend.”
“ You do?” she asked.
I looked up from the book. “You do?”
“ I do,” Wesley said, flushing slightly. “Unfortunately, she’s back in England and has stopped returning my long-distance phone calls.”
“ Wait a minute,” I said sharply. “Long distance phone calls. On my phone?”
Wesley flushed even more. “Well, they were quick ones.”
“ Wesley...” I growled.
“ This last couple, she hung up as soon as she heard my voice,” he said quickly.
“ Guys!” Faith interrupted. “Argue over phone bills later. How do I kill this Umbrosh guy?”
Wesley shrugged. “The usual methods. Bludgeoning, neck-breaking, stabbing, decapitation…all or any of the above.”
Anywhere else, decapitation would not be considered a regular part of conversation.
I rubbed my chin. “Okay, so if the disappearances an’ ‘homeless deaths’ are all around Halo, then our guy’s gotta be on the inside. It makes no sense that he’d just keep on huntin’ there if he wasn’t.”
“ That’s logical,” Wesley agreed. “Considering the amount of, ah, physical energy a place like Halo would give off, the demon would be drawn there.”
“ All right. So what else do we know? How does this thing think? What are its habits?”
Wesley frowned. “Hmm. Umbroshes absorb some of the intellect of their victims, along with their life energy, causing an effect not unlike magical senility before death. If an Umbrosh has killed enough, it could be frighteningly intelligent.”
“ And if this thing is pulling off an undercover job at Halo, it’s gotta be pretty bright or someone would’ve noticed,” Faith said grimly.
“ Yeah, ‘cause security’s sooo tight there. Real hard to fool them.” I remarked sarcastically, tapping my little hat for emphasis.
“ Aw, you know what I mean,” Faith said, squirming. “Any more info, Wonder Watcher?”
Wesley closed his eyes for a second or two. “Um…they follow very distinct life cycles, changing locations every decade and mating every five. Habitual.”
“ The bodies only started piling up ten years ago,” Faith remarked.
I pushed Wesley’s books off the table, ignoring his squeak of protest, and scooped up the manila folder beneath them. I flipped through the white, typewritten pages. “I saw something about ten years in this file Kate brought us, just can’t place it…”
“ Kate? Who is this ‘Kate’ person, anyway?” Faith asked.
“ Oh, Detective Lockley was here?” Wesley inquired, perking up a little.
“ ‘Detective Lockley’? How come even Wesley knows who this woman is and I don’t?” Faith protested.
"She's just an old friend," I said absently, picking through the file.
“ An…old…friend,” she said slowly.
“ Uh-huh. All right, here we are. Halo changed ownership almost exactly ten years ago, it was bought by Jacob Harper and his son, Perry Harper.” I smiled. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a demon.”
“ Correction,” Wesley said. “We have two suspects. Only one of them is a demon.”
Faith shrugged. “Why don’t we just stab both of them and see which one gets up again?”
“ Faith!” Wesley said aghast. I flashed her a disturbed glance, too.
Faith rolled her eyes. “Jeez, it was a joke! What do you think I am, a goddamn psycho?”
“ It wasn’t very funny,” Wesley said, his words clipped. “Slayers are supposed to save life, not take it and -"
“ Blah, blah, blah, you’re a naughty girl, Faith,” I interrupted quickly. “Was that what you were about to say, Wes?”
“ Um…the gist, yes.”
“ Good. Now if we can get back to the demon. Since killin’ both of them is not an option, we’re goin’ to need to go back into Halo, see if we can figure out which Harper is the demon.”
I really hoped it was the younger. I’d like any excuse to beat the crap out of the smug bastard.
“ Which means we’re back undercover,” Faith said, grinning eagerly.
“ No,” Wesley said firmly. “Absolutely not. I categorically refuse to - “
“ If you don’t, I’ll tell Kate all about your girlfriend in England,” I said.
“ - when do we leave?” he asked.
“ Soon. We just have one problem to deal with.” I gathered up my torn uniform in one hand. “Wesley, can you sew?”
Wesley still looked much the worse for wear after I dropped him off at Halo, but that didn’t seem to deter the crowd of nouveax-riches who surrounded him the second he opened the car door.
“ Price, old man, good to see you! Quite a party last night, what?”
“ Hey Wes-ster! How yo doin’!”
“ Ah, Wesley, wonderful to see you again! You look simply adorable in that outfit!”
The voices nattered away in my ears as I guided the car to a parking space, the receiver crackling merrily. As much as it galled me to admit it, despite all my cop training, Wesley was better at this whole mingling with-the-rich-thing than I would have been. It was probably something to do with breeding. And the accent. A lot of it was the accent.
“ Wes, you old stud you!” I heard as the car’s engine spluttered into silence and I settled back in my seat.
“ Hey, honey, shake that booty!”
I really hoped that was said to Faith.
Her sharp retort confirmed it, and a few seconds later, the thud of fist on flesh stopped another salacious comment before it even got started.
“ You shouldn’t have done that!” Sandy gasped, her voice sounding about equal parts shocked and amused.
“ Hell, he was a jerk. Now he’s a concussed jerk. No biggie,” Faith said easily.
“ I wish I could do that…” Sandy said wistfully. “Some of the guys, they get drunk and make trouble, you know. It would be nice to have something more on my side than a can of mace.”
“ Relax. Any guy comes along with his brain between his legs and I’ll lobotomise him.” Faith laughed and I heard Sandy’s hesitant giggle under the boisterous sound.
Faith and Sandy seemed to be really hitting it off, and I was kinda glad about that. Faith didn’t really have much contact with anyone besides me and Wes, in a non-Slaying capacity, that is. It was nice that she had found someone to talk to. Not that they were about to start braiding each other’s hair or anything, but it was nice.
As the two young women continued to banter, I tucked a pretty wicked-looking machete under my jacket and slapped my moronic hat on. I carefully rubbed the rear-view mirror with my sleeve and checked out the smudged image. Yup, I looked just like any other respectable servant boy of the rich and famous. Of course, my lack of sleep and lingering bruises made me look like a respectable zombie servant boy, but I figured it was the best I was going to get.
I shoved the receiver into my pocket and checked the machete one more time.
I’d tried guile, I’d tried directness, now I was just going for plain old-fashioned sneaky. And if anyone spotted me, I’d chop their bloody heads off.
Maybe I was still feeling a little bit testy about the hat.
The same unlocked door I had used in the daytime proved to be equally insecure at night. I crept down Halo’s back passages, carefully avoiding contact with passing employees. When there was nowhere to duck and hide, I just brazened it out and strode along openly.
“ Hey, how’d you do that little hip move?” Faith asked curiously from the vicinity of my trousers. From the numerous distinctly feminine sounds around her, I guessed she was back in the dressing rooms.
“ It’s easy,” Sandy responded modestly. “You just shimmy a little, like this.”
“ Like this?” Several interesting wobbly noises came from the receiver. I clapped a hand over it and kept walking, ignoring the stares of those passing by.
I should have known Faith and Sandy would have more interesting bonding activities than braiding hair. I turned down a deserted passageway that I recognised from earlier and carefully began to count the doors.
A loud explosion of laughter made me jump half a foot in the air.
“ And so she said, “I’ve never seen one of those before!”" my trousers commented loudly, chuckling to themselves.
“ Yes. Very…amusing,” Wesley said weakly. “Especially the bit about the cross-dressing nun.”
I went back to the beginning of the passage and began counting doors again.
“ Come on Price, you’ve got room for another one in there, old chap!” my trousers bawled.
Faith said casually, “Yeah, I’ve got a boyfriend. He’s a cutie, but he can be so…stiff sometimes.” I heard someone murmur something. “No, not that kind of stiff!” she laughed.
I flushed. On second thought, why couldn’t she have stuck to hair-braiding?
“ Oh yeah, Doyle does have endurance, I’ll give him that, and he’s quite the nummy-treat, but he’s just so boring!”
Boring? Boring? If the noises Faith made in our bed were the sounds of boredom, then I doubted I could survive if she ever got worked up! Boring! What was that supposed to mean?
“ What do you mean?” Sandy asked. I could have kissed her.
“ Oh, just pure vanilla, all the time. It would be nice if the boy had some kinks or something, ya know? Some dirty little fantasy or two. But no, he’s just into the good wholesome old-fashioned stuff. He doesn’t even use any toys.” Toys? I’d never considered Faith a vestigial virgin, but this was starting to get disturbing. I pressed the receiver to my ear, and was rewarded by a burst of static.
Once I finished massaging my aching eardrum, I heard Faith say, “Damn, all this yakking is making me hungry! Anybody want to treat us to something greasy and fattening?”
“ I’ll get it,” Sandy said helpfully. “Just don’t tell anymore stories until I get back!” she added hastily.
“ Sure thing, girlfriend,” Faith said cheerfully.
Eventually, distractions aside, I was able to count the correct number of doors and turn into the passage I was looking for. I inspected the small brass plaque on the door before me.
Perry Harper, Assistant Manager
It looked pretty fancy for a place like this, more like something from a law firm or big corporation. Then again, some of the lawyers I’d met would probably fit right in at Halo.
I tried the handle and it rattled in an unsatisfactory way. I allowed myself a secret smile as I pulled a small black case from my jacket pocket and flipped it open.
A neat set of lockpicks glistened in the electric lights. Kate had shown me how to pick locks during a few slightly less-than-kosher searches of felons’ houses. Not the most respectable skill for a cop, I know, but it came in damn handy.
I selected a lockpick and rolled it between my fingers, studying the lock speculatively. Then I inserted it like Kate had shown me and twisted slowly.
There was a sharp snap as the tip of the pick broke off and jammed the lock.
Screw it, I decided and shifted to demon. With a nerve-achingly loud crack, I forced the lock and then glanced around, convinced someone had heard and was about to leap out and grab this spiky intruder.
Nothing. No one.
I breathed out and let the demon go with the air, pushing the door open and flicking the light on. The office was clean and tidy, obsessively so. The pencils on his desk were even ordered by length, for God’s sake! Disturbing as that was, it wasn’t necessarily demonic, though. I closed the office door and took the thrice-damned hat off. It landed with a soft thump on Harper’s desk, as I crossed the room to check out the filing cabinet in the corner. It was locked too.
I didn’t even bother with the picks this time. The cabinet screeched as I yanked it open, my green fingers leaving indentations on the metal handle. I pushed the demon away again, and began to poke through the files.
Yadda, yadda, expenses…yadda, yadda, gross profit…
Half-jokingly, I checked under ‘D’ for demon. Unsurprisingly, no joy there. What the hell had I thought I could look for? A hand-written confession: ‘I am a demon. I feel very bad about it’? What?
What I found was a very concise and accurate copy of the post-mortem results on Peg, last name Durbane. How the hell had Harper got this? The body had only been found yesterday, so the detectives had probably only received the PM results themselves a few hours ago. Kate was right; the Harpers did have connections.
The file didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. The subject’s approximate age was well over 100, and she appeared to have died from a shock-induced heart attack. Mind you, at that age sneezing can cause a heart attack.
The sound of footsteps outside the door abruptly ended my musings. The door swung open and I leapt across the desk, clearing it easily and crashing into the newcomer. I slammed him up against the wall as I kicked the door shut with my foot.
“ Hi, ‘Perry’,” I purred, tightening my grip on his designer jacket lapels. “Whatcha doin’ here?” I glanced down at his hands. “With a crowbar, no less.”
“ I work here,” he rasped, his eyes moving to the door.
“ You’d never make it,” I told him easily. “I’m faster than I look. And why exactly are you visitin’ your own office late at night with a large crowbar, 'Perry'?”
“ My father locked me out,” he said sullenly. “Said I was stirring up trouble, poking my nose where it didn’t belong.”
I was pretty confident he wasn’t the demon by now. Shock always drove my demon to the surface, and if my surprise attack hadn’t made him change, my guess was he didn’t have another form to change to. Of course, he was still a creep, but I wasn’t in machete territory. Bit of a shame, really.
“ You were investigatin’ the disappearances,” I said, lowering my hands
“ Yes,” he said, adjusting his tie. Recognition flickered in his eyes. “Hey, you’re that PI from yesterday!”
“ The very same,” I admitted.
He smirked. “New look for you.” I flushed inwardly. PI’s on TV are always very cool and dramatic, with slick leather clothes on the opposite end of the fashion scale from my current outfit. Real life is annoying like that
I shrugged, hiding my embarrassment. “Part of the whole 007 deal. Now, you wanna explain to me how you could let girls go missin’ from this joint for ten years and not come up with some kind of plan to stop the disappearances? Better security, for one thing.”
Harper had the good grace to look slightly ashamed. “Pop ran the club mostly. He sent me off to business school in Europe, pretty soon after he bought the place. I graduated a year ago and came back, but it took six months before a vacancy opened.” That hadn’t been in Kate’s file. Okay, maybe the guy wasn’t as heartless as I’d thought. I still didn’t like him much though.
I eyed him in sudden understanding. “An’ when you tried to play detective, Daddy shut you down.”
“ Uh-huh,” he said. “After you showed up yesterday, he got convinced I had tipped you off. He practically flayed my skin off in his office and then took away my keys.”
“ Grounded, huh?” I commented ironically. “But what’s with the whole secrecy deal? I would’ve thought the old man would be glad if someone could solve the murders.”
Harper sighed. “ Pop isn’t always a very moral guy. He’s just in it for the money and cops are bad for business. Besides,” he added defensively, “ it wasn’t murders, until you found that body with the same tattoo as Peggie. He could have really believed that they had just run away.” I could tell from his tone that he didn’t believe that crap any more than I did, but I let it go. It’s hard for someone to condemn their own father. Of course, in my case, it had been a lot easier.
“ So what’s your theory on the disappearances?” I asked casually, scooping up my hat and brushing it off.
He folded his hands. “Simple. Time travel.”
I nearly dropped the hat. “Time travel?”
“ Of course. The government has developed it and they’re using the girls as test subjects. They abduct them, carry them to the future and do experiments and then take them back when they’re too old to be useful.” I guess that explained the large stack of Conspiracy X magazines I had found at the back of the filing cabinet.
I couldn’t hold back a chuckle as I patted him on the shoulder. “Listen, pal, I’ve got news for you. Time travel has nothin’ to do with it -" I chuckled again and caught a noseful of his strong cologne as I did so. I tried to hold it back, but I sneezed.
Harper stared at me in horror as the spikes raced across my skin. “Hang on, man, just stay…” he turned and lunged for the door, yanking it open. I grabbed for him, tearing his jacket, but he got away. “…calm,” I finished belatedly, staring at the scrap of jacket in my hand.
I waited tensely for the shouting to start, for the bouncers to come running. I could probably take down three or four quite easily, but by then someone would have called the LAPD and then the shit would really hit the fan. I had enough enemies left in the department to make it very certain that I’d be hammered with every inch of legal force the cops could bring to bear. And that would be the end of me, of the firm. Faith and Wes would go on their way, and probably send a postcard or two to my jail cell every now and again.
But no one shouted. No one raised the alarm. Bouncers didn’t charge into the office armed with iron bars.
My demonically-sharp hearing picked a muted groan from just down the passage. I went human again and stepped out of the office. I heard a creaking sound around the corner, but as I stepped towards it, something bumped against my foot.
An old man lay barely meters from the office door, his hair a thick mix of brown and white. As I watched, a clump fell out. His rheumy eyes met mine and he reached out hesitantly, bird-frail bones snapping beneath his skin. I didn’t need to look at the torn trendy jacket he wore to recognise him.
“ Daddy…” he moaned.
His breath rattled in his throat as I clasped his outstretched hand. Then his eyes went blank and his fingers stiffened.
Swallowing tightly, I reached out and closed his eyes. The Umbrosh must have been getting pretty desperate to have risked such an attack, and judging from Harper’s body, I had disturbed it in mid-meal. That meant it would have to feed again, and soon.
With one suspect dead, I now knew exactly which human disguise it was hiding behind.
I still wasn’t that keen about just taking the Umbrosh on solo, so I went looking for back-up. Unfortunately, Faith was in the dressing rooms chatting to her new girlfriends, which were guarded by burly bouncers. Which left me with…
“ Wesley, Wesley Wyndham-Price,” I heard him say smugly over the receiver. “A pleasure to meet you, Clarice. That is a lovely dress you’re wearing, by the way.”
I scanned the crowd, wishing the bugs had some kind of tracking function on them. I’d already been standing at the door to the main dance floor for five minutes, just trying to pick Wesley’s figure out of the mass. Unfortunately, more than a few men were carrying canes and all of them were wearing elegant suits. A slender arm slipped around my waist.
“ Can I help you with anything... sir?” a breathy voice whispered in my ear. I tried to keep from dissolving into a little puddle of frustrated lust as I turned to the gorgeous blonde and explained that I was just looking for a friend. She shrugged in a business-like fashion, something I found riveting thanks to her skimpy top, and walked off. Inwardly I groaned as I watched her firm buttocks sway as she sauntered up to another potential ‘client’. This was worse than torture.
Of course, Faith would probably go in for some serious torturing herself if I laid more than my eyes on any of these beauties, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t temporarily regret my lack of availability and of a ten-page bank statement.
I finally spotted Wes, off talking to ‘Clarice’ at a booth and sipping brandy. Judging from her relatively-modest clothing, I guessed she wasn’t an employee. She definitely wasn’t a nun either, though.
Wesley appeared to be letting her do most of the talking, a skill I wasn’t aware he possessed. Every now and again, he would smile pleasantly or chuckle in response to one of her comments. Not exactly Casanova, but he was doing pretty well, it seemed. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to see if Wes could revive his asphyxiated love life. Unfortunately for him, that is.
“ Sir!” I said loudly as I hurried towards him.
Wesley looked up and blanched. “Yes…um, Higgins?” Inwardly, I seethed. Next time, Faith would not be allowed to pick my cover name.
“ The test results are back from the hospital, sir,” I said in my best well-meaning voice. “Dr Abrahams called me fifteen minutes ago.”
“ Hospital?” he bleated.
“ Hospital?” Clarice said dubiously, glancing at Wesley.
“ Yes,” I said gravely. “I’m terribly sorry to tell you this, sir, but he says the rash is contagious.”
“ Rash?” Clarice asked sharply.
Wesley smiled pathetically at her. “Um, well, I, we -"
“ Goodbye, Wesley,” she said bluntly, standing up and walking away.
Wesley sighed deeply and took a swig of his drink. “That was really unnecessary, Doyle.”
I shrugged. “I found the demon. Sorry to interrupt the socialisin’, but that is why we’re here, after all.”
He straightened in his chair. “Yes, you’re quite right,” he admitted grudgingly, but made no move to get out of his chair. He reached for his glass and I put my hand over it.
“ I’d like you to stay sober tonight, if you don’t mind, Wes,” I told him firmly.
“ Hilarious,” he responded, his cane clicking on the floor as he rose to his feet. “You’re sure about the Umbrosh?”
“ Well, of a list of two suspects, one of whom is dead, I’d say I can hazard a guess,” I snapped.
“ Just asking,” he said defensively, starting his slow progress towards the exit.
I lingered by the table, Harper’s heavily lined face rising up in my thoughts unpleasantly as I did so. Screw the changing rooms and bouncers, I wanted Faith with me against this demon. But odds were it was already looking for another meal, and every second I wasted waiting in the vain hope she might suddenly appear was another second the Umbrosh could use to stalk its next victim.
I gulped down Wesley’s brandy and walked away from the table, the liquor scorching my insides.
“ Couldn’t you at least have let me get her phone number?” Wesley whined as we left the heat and music behind us.
“ Oh, shut up,” I rasped, my throat still stinging from the brandy.
“ But couldn’t you have said that I was needed outside, or that the car had a flat tire, or something less…less infectious?” he complained as we rounded the corner of the passage.
My scathing reply turned to garbled nonsense on my tongue as I found myself eye to chest with Cecil’s huge, bandaged form. The big man looked down at me and his eyes popped with surprise. “You…”
I smiled sheepishly and then sunk my fist into his gut. As he doubled up, smelly breath gushing from his mouth, I grabbed his already-descending head and smashed it into my knee. Cecil grunted in pain and I brought his face up with both hands and slammed my forehead into it. My ears rung, but Cecil flopped down limply, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
“ You were sayin’?” I asked Wes as we carefully stepped over his unconscious form.
“ Uh…nothing significant.” Prudent of him.
Thanks to my various travels through the back passages of the club, it took very little effort to find Harper Senior’s office while still avoiding the main areas of traffic. Cecil’s nose had left rather a large dent in my hat, so passing people without comment was no longer a possibility.
The elder’s office door differed little from the younger’s, except that the handle was perhaps slightly more worn. And, unlike the other one, it turned under my hand. At first, I thought the dark room was deserted, but then I noticed some small red lights hanging in the darkness across the desk. My imagination immediately conjured images of lurking red-eyed monsters and fiends, but I ignored it and flicked the light on.
Wesley and I squinted through the sudden glare and it took me a second or two to figure out what I was looking at. Instead of a normal chair behind the desk like in Junior’s office, a large metal wheeled nightmare gleamed and shone there. Red LED’s on the armrest - the demonic eyes of my imagining - blinked in a distinct pattern, over and over.
And lying, encased in the steel wheelchair like a withered mummy in a metal sarcophagus, was an old man. His tiny frame was so still I was sure he was dead, but the steady flickering of the lights on the chair contradicted me. I noticed other extensions off the wheelchair, an oxygen mask, a yellow-stained catheter, but his face was what held my attention. The features were small and wrinkled, but the dark eyes hidden within the folds of his skin were sharp and aware. And they were looking at us.
“ I see my…appearance…startles you,” he said, in a voice like rasping paper. He smirked as if he was enjoying our shock. “ Can I help you?”
Wesley glanced at me, obviously expecting a response. I wasn’t sure what mine would be. This guy was the total inverse of the creature we were hunting, but then again, it was a perfect disguise…if he was the demon. And if he wasn’t, I was just sitting here staring at an old man while the Umbrosh surveyed Halo like a glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“ Well?” The paper voice was sharper now.
“ Um…Mr Jacob Harper?” Wesley inquired hoarsely.
“ That’s what it said on the door. You can read, I hope?” the old man sneered. “Something to say, or are you just going to stand their and gawk?”
“ Our apologies,” Wesley said awkwardly, “but your appearance is somewhat…startling.”
“ World War II,” the elder Harper said sardonically. “A mortar shell. Haven’t walked since.” I noticed that his legs were even more twisted and wrecked than the rest of his aged shell, barely even the size of a child’s. “That was a war where men were made,” he continued. “Strong men. Not like that gutless, layabout son of mine.”
“ Your son is dead,” I snapped, more harshly than I intended.
Harper didn’t even twitch an eyelid. “I know.”
With a sick feeling in my stomach, I recalled how the dying young man had called for his daddy. I had thought he meant that his father was the demon, but I suddenly realised that the truth was much worse.
“ You watched him die, didn’t you?” I asked, his throat tight with horror and disgust.
“ And the others,” Harper answered blandly. “Part of the deal.”
“ Deal? You made a deal with a creature like that?” Wesley snarled with an anger that seemed utterly out of place on his bookish face. “What kind of foul, depraved…monster are you?”
Harper regarded him with palpable contempt. “You can make a deal with just about anyone, I’ve always believed. Or anything.”
“ Why?” I asked disbelievingly.
“ Oh, I found out that the creature was hiding in my club quite easily, barely a month after it slipped in,” Harper said derisively. “I decided to employ it. It helped enforce some of my…less than legal transactions, and in return, I gave it a place to stay.”
“ And to feed,” Wes said grimly. “You let it brutally drain the life from innocent girls in your employ just to sustain your own craven criminal acts.”
“ Innocent?” Harper chuckled. “None of those girls was ever ‘innocent’. They were nothing, nobody. It slaughtered them and no one noticed, no one cared. I kept the police off its back, and we were both happy. Besides, it was fun to watch.”
“ Fun?” I asked, feeling my mouth twist with revulsion.
“ I found it…stimulating,” he said with a disturbing casualness that was far worse than any wicked glee could be. “They all walked around, more free than me, able to move and sway and dance while I was stuck in this damned contraption. But in end, they ended up just like me. Dried-up husks, barely twitching.”
I glared at the evil little man, wanting to leap across the desk and strangle him before he could speak another twisted word. I had thought he was the inverse of the demon. But now it seemed they were more alike than I had believed.
“ Her?” Wesley asked suddenly. Harper’s jeering smile slipped. “It’s one of the dancers?”
But the smile resurfaced quickly. “You can’t make me tell.” He chuckled again.
And I heard another chuckle, as if in response to his, from the receiver tuned to Faith’s microphone in my pocket. A familiar, rumbling chuckle.
"Faith!" I yelped.
We were out the door and running in seconds, Wesley lurching awkwardly on his bad leg and cane.
If Faith was going up against that creature again I wanted to be on hand. Last night, the demon had creamed her - although admittedly it had caught her by surprise. But it had seemed pretty tough to me in a straight fight, all the same. I didn't know how a Slayer would stand up to it under similar circumstances, and wasn't about to risk the possibility she might not.
Turning a corner of the corridor, I bounced off the chest of Cecil, who was coming the other way. While I was still recovering my balance, he was already lunging forward, and I groaned inwardly in expectation of another bash.
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Wesley muttered. The next instant, a black cane swished through the air and connected with a loud Crack! Then, Cecil was back on the floor again in a large, softly moaning heap. "Can we go?" Wesley snapped impatiently, speeding up again, and half dragging me behind him for the next few steps, as I stared in disbelief over my shoulder to where the thug had now subsided in a motionless sprawl, arms and legs splayed-out untidily.
"That's a new look for you." Faith's sarcastic quip, emerging surreally from my pocket, contained surprise and a trace of very real disappointment.
Damn it, I thought. So much for Faith making friends outside of the slayin' business.
"Your energy should last me a long time." I'd been expecting that demonic rumble, but the voice which replied was the shy, girlish Sandy I'd listened to Faith conversing with for much of the past two nights. And the tone - there was none of Harper's malicious, villainous satisfaction. It was matter-of-fact and level, if also lacking in any remorse.
I exchanged concerned glances with Wes. As we descended the stairs, he cursed at one point when his bad leg gave way under him, but then caught his balance and forged on. Which was fortunate, because I wasn't going to wait around to help him. Right now, Faith needed me more. We reached the ground floor and turned on to the corridor leading through to the dressing rooms.
"Yeah? I reckon it could be a whole lot shorter that you think," Faith was responding, hot anger and betrayal blazing in her voice. "That was you, last night? You tried to kill me - me and Doyle - "
"Doyle? That would be the boyfriend you're so sweet on?" When she laughed, the rumble was back. "Your descriptions left out the part about his being a demon..." A momentary crackle of static drowned out the rest of what she said, but whatever it was, it pissed off Faith considerably, because after the static finished I heard a growl of fury and the smack of flesh hitting flesh with Slayer-powered force.
"You don't know anything about it!" Faith snapped, meaty thuds and occasional crashes punctuating. I wondered what exactly she'd said, and whether Faith would even repeat it to me later if I asked. Probably not.
"About what it's like to hide what you really are from a world that won't understand?" the soft voice qualified gently. "I think we've all had some experience with that, Faith. You, too - I knew the first time we met that you were no more a normal girl than I."
The demon did something that made Faith yell out in pain. I ran faster, listening to still more punches and crashes. Wesley, slowed by his limp, was several paces behind me now.
A particularly loud crash, and the microphone cut out again.
I skidded around a slight kink in the corridor. The dressing rooms were on the other side of it. A guy who could've been Cecil's larger brother was standing outside them. I didn't even try to explain, or even slow down - I just hit him as hard as I could, with all my running momentum behind me. He obligingly collapsed.
Wesley caught up as I drew the machete from my jacket and lunged for the door handle.
"Uh, Doyle," he began, his face reddening and his eyes fixed on the sign that said 'Women Only'. "Are you sure we -"
I shoved open the door. No feminine protests sounded as I barged inside, Wesley following nervously at my back.
I didn't think that any semi-clad dancing girls that were inside would object to our intrusion, not while a demon and a Slayer were duking it out in there already.
The scent of sweat, mingled with cloying, sweet-scented deodorants and perfumes assaulted my nostrils. I could see rows of rails and lockers, stacked with garments and towels. A few of the dancing girls were huddled in the far corner, fear in their eyes. A crash sounded from behind the row to my left even as one of the girls raised a shaking hand to point over that way, and I swung around the edge of the rail.
Only to find a demon hurtling towards me at speed.
"Doyle!" Faith's yell sounded, filled with exasperation and too-late warning. The demon's uncontrolled lunge had apparently been propelled by Faith, and it was unfortunately spared the brunt of the impact. Crushed between the demon and the rail at my back, I choked as the air was forced from my lungs, and collapsed bonelessly to the floor in a breathless, gasping huddle as the demon's weight bounced away again.
The machete, knocked from my grasp, skidded across the floor - I didn't see where it went, but I thought the blade had nicked the creature as it crashed against me.
I managed to raise my head in time to see the demon's bulky form diminish into its fragile human one as it picked itself up. Standing in its place there was now a pale, skinny, extremely top-heavy blonde girl, who wore nothing except what seemed to me to be two strategically-placed black ribbons. A gash in her arm oozed blood.
Wesley, having moved to block the path of a demon, spluttered as he found his hands full of apparently very human, very naked, very female flesh. He leaped back like her touch burned him and made no further effort to restrain the demon as it barged past him and out of the door.
"Way to go, lover," Faith snarled over her shoulder at me as she disappeared after Sandy.
I would've found some suitable reply, if I wasn't so preoccupied trying to breathe.
Wesley sighed as he bent down and hauled me to my feet, using his cane as a lever to push our combined weight up from the floor. "It's just not our week, is it?"
Following after Faith, we emerged into the public area of the club at the back of a slightly raised area. I wouldn't have called it a stage exactly, since the clientele lingered on it - but so did quite a large proportion of the dancers and it was the focus of more than a little attention. Wes and I attracted a few odd looks, picking our way across the platform, dodging naked flesh. I hoped they weren't expecting me to spring into a strip tease, what with the bloody stupid uniform I was wearing.
The music pounding away and the strobe lighting joined forces to assault my still-aching head.
Even in that lighting, which flickered first bright white and then blue as I tried to focus, it wasn't difficult to pick out the objects of our pursuit from the crowds. The deceptively delicate Sandy was shoving Halo's outraged clientele aside left and right, and just as they caught their balance or started to pick themselves up, Faith came charging after her and knocked them flying again.
Fortunately for us, by the time we followed the victims had wised up. They cleared out of our way with helpful, speedy respect.
In a flash of painfully intense yellow light, I caught a glimpse of the expression on Sandy's face. She looked so scared I almost felt sorry for her, despite knowing what she was and all she'd done.
After all, this demon had to kill to survive. Decency was not an option.
Unlike that miserable old bastard we'd left upstairs. I didn't know quite what we'd do about him. I could hardly kill some helpless wheelchair-bound old guy in cold blood, and I doubted we'd find any way to pin the murders of the dancing girls on him, considering his connections and our lack of any evidence we could reasonably show the police that would stand up in court.
Distracted by my thoughts, I collided with one of the dancers, getting a completely unintentional handful. I leaped back, stuttering apologies, but not before her hand cracked across my face in a reflex slap.
The girls sure did have good reflexes at this place.
I distinctly heard Wesley, behind me, snigger.
I reached the edge of the platform. Before I jumped down into the crowds, where the general head-height was far enough above my eye-level to obscure my view, I saw Sandy, about twenty yards away, throw herself at one of the bouncers, sobbing. I couldn't hear what she said, but I could see her lips moving frantically and I could hazard a good guess. She took refuge behind the guy, her face tear-stained, and then slipped away into the crowds at his back as he squared himself up to block Faith's path.
Idiot. I only caught glimpses of what happened next through small gaps in the moving crowds - brief, flashing snapshots of actions as Faith floored him with a single, brutal, effortless punch to the jaw and continued after Sandy without breaking her stride.
Beside me, Wesley staggered as his cane slipped on the smooth floors and I gripped his shoulder, keeping him on his feet. I caught his gaze as I did so. "This is way too public!" I yelled over the noise, indicating Faith where she moved purposefully and single-mindedly, her attention fixated only on the chase.
He nodded, and I saw my concern reflected in his expression. "We have to get to her, before she does something we'll all regret!" he yelled back.
Bodies were shifting, the crowds pulling back from the mounting commotion, allowing me a view of what Sandy was up to now. She had turned her efforts to the clientele and was standing in a circle of guys, her mouth working frantically as she pleaded for their help. Evidently they'd seen what had happened to the bouncer who'd gotten in Faith's way, though. That, combined with the expression on her face right then, I think was enough to convince them it was more than their lives were worth to interfere.
Giving up, Sandy just turned and ran. She must have known she couldn't make it. She was running through the dense press of clientele that cleared quickly after her passage in anticipation of Faith following.
She got as far as the queues beyond the main doors. Faith, only yards behind her now, leaped up to grab the top of the door frame and swung outside in an athletic arc. Each foot connected precisely with the face of a bouncer moving to stop her on her way to the ground.
Wesley and I picked our way between the unconscious bodies, stumbling in our haste, although I was aware, sickly aware, that we were not going to reach her in time.
Faith hit the concrete, rolled, and came to her feet directly behind Sandy. Turning, seeing her there, the demon started to cry out "No -!" even as Faith's hands shot out, twisting as they grasped.
The snap rang out on the night air, witnessed by dozens of appalled eyes... Wesley and myself among them.
Faith looked up, an odd expression in her eyes as she met the watching crowds with a kind of surprised wonder... as though she'd no idea why they should have any problem with what she'd just done. I couldn't tell how much of it was acting. "Hey," she said defensively. "She jumped the queue."
"Shit!" I snarled under my breath.
"I can't believe she just -" Wesley's own groan cut off abruptly and I followed his gaze back to Sandy.
The corpse was shrivelling even as Faith released it. By the time it hit the floor, it appeared as the body of an ancient old woman. A second later, there was nothing there but dust.
Of course, nobody believed what they'd seen. After a couple of seconds' shocked pause, some of the queuing people even burst into a smatter of applause as though they thought the display had been part of Halo's floor show. And Faith just stood there looking bemused and lapping up the attention, even giving a theatrical bow... until Wesley and I caught hold of an arm apiece and hauled her away to the car.
I watched from the window as Colridge left the office building and walked across the street. And I wondered, guiltily, whether I had done the right thing. Or whether I could've done anything else.
While Kate knew the truth, the police, as I'd thought, couldn't prosecute Harper Senior, and it looked like the case would remain 'unsolved'. No official connection had been made between the aged bodies found and the missing dancers. Although possibly a few people had their suspicions and private explanations like poor old Perry... I hadn't liked him, but he'd been trying to do the right thing, and he hadn't deserved to die like that.
I turned the cheque over in my fingers regretfully. Much as we needed the money, I'd felt pretty bad taking it, when all we'd done was find her dead. I shoved it into a pocket and traipsed out into the office reception.
Wesley was sitting collectedly in a chair flicking through old accounts with a mildly interested expression on his face, while Faith was adorning a desk with her bored, stretched out, leather-clad form.
"Better take this to the bank," I said, retrieving my jacket from the back of Wesley's chair and shrugging it on over my shoulders. "You guys wanna come? We could pay a visit to a pub or ten on the way back." I didn't say anything about celebrating a case closed and a fee paid. There wasn't a whole lot to celebrate there, far as I could see.
Well, maybe we could drown our sorrows instead.
"I suppose so," Wesley allowed, rearranging the papers into a neat pile as he switched his attention to me. "So long as we don't stop by Halo."
Faith snickered, rolling off the desk, twisting and landing neatly in an athletic little move. Her two-day turn as one of Halo's dancers, short as it had been, seemed to have had something of an impact on her moves, I noted. "They wouldn't let you in anyway, now your posh pals have rumbled you. You do know Colridge told them you're Doyle's secretary?"
"What?" He looked appalled and turned on me, standing up, indignation clear in every line of his abruptly very Watcherly posture. "You told him -"
"Uh, calm down there, man," I said quickly. "I didn't tell him anythin' of the sort... He made the assumption!"
Wesley drew himself up even taller, folding his arms in disgust, and peered down his nose at me. "Well, personally, I thought I did rather better at the undercover work than some people I could mention..."
"Only 'cause you enjoyed hobnobbing with the rich and snotty," Faith pointed out.
"So what if I did?" he protested, slightly too guiltily, turning his disapproval onto her instead. "After some of the places you've dragged me to in this dreadful country, perhaps it made a pleasant change to socialise with a few people with some culture."
"Your 'cultured' buddies there were payin' to gawk at your slayer and those other gals barin' all," I pointed out.
"Well, yes, there is that," he allowed with a sigh. "Anyway, Faith, after the things I heard went on, you can't claim you didn't enjoy 'hobnobbing' with those young ladies."
Bad subject. Faith's mouth tightened into a scowl and she didn't reply.
He eyed her for a moment, then retrieved his cane and jacket, and sensibly changed the subject, "I rather thought we were going to the bank."
"Yeah. You go on ahead, Wes, and wait for us downstairs. I'll lock up the office."
I think he got the message. He retreated quickly enough out of the door, at any rate. I collected my keys and herded Faith out. A quick look around reassured that Wesley was using the elevator to descend to the foyer. I opened my mouth as I turned the keys in the lock, but she got there before me.
"Something to say?" she asked sarcastically. She was leaning back against the wall at my side, and her body language was defensive. "Very subtle getting shot of Wussley there, by the way."
I frowned at her, and asked hesitantly, "You are... all right? About Sandy, and all that?"
Her gaze was level, and impenetrable. Like it had been while Wesley scolded her for risking slaying Sandy in public. "I'm fine," she said. "You worry about yourself, Doyle, and let me worry about me. That's the way I operate, that's the way I like it, I keep things that way and everything stays five by five."
She said it as though she was trying to convince herself. Not many people had gotten under that tough skin, I reflected, and wondered why Sandy should, in so short a time. Maybe there'd been something in what she'd said about their being kindred spirits. That thought made me shiver.
"No offence," I said. "I'm just... I just..." I just do worry. But I couldn't say that. I reached out a hand and moved a stray lock of hair back out of her face, my fingers brushing against the skin of her cheek. She flinched her head back out of my reach, but then relented.
"I liked her," she said, after a moment, without inflection. "She was a big murdering demon in disguise. I'm a slayer. I slayed. Job done, no big deal... let's go get drunk."
"Now there's a plan I can live with," I agreed, as she slung her arm in mine and we headed for the stairs down to the foyer. After a moment I added, innocently, "Maybe we could even go do somethin' *boring* to round off the night."
I happily watched her eyebrows shoot up through her hairline in realisation.
A couple of days after we'd closed the case, I was catching up on some paperwork in my office when I heard the door open. The hurled newspaper landed in front of me before I could raise my head.
"Headline news," Wesley said curtly. He sounded annoyed. "How did you do it?"
I stared down at the black print. In bold big letters, the headline read, 'Disabled War Hero Dies in Tragic Accident'. I read further. 'Well known public face, club owner Jacob Harper', it turned out, had fallen in his wheelchair down the elevator shaft of his sparklingly expensive apartment in the early hours of that very morning. Technical problems with the elevator had apparently caused the accident, all very clear-cut. There wouldn't be an investigation into it.
All a little too convenient, though, knowing what we knew.
It was like a punch in the gut - though not entirely an unexpected one. "I didn't do anythin'," I choked, unconvincingly.
"You're lying..." he started slowly, as though hesitant of making that accusation. Comprehension dawned in his eyes after a moment, and then the accusation was there full-force. "What did you tell Colridge? I did wonder how you managed to persuade him to pay us when the girl remains officially listed as missing and we have no proof of what happened to her beyond what most people would dismiss as fantasy."
"I didn't tell him anythin'... I jus' gave him the tape. And it wasn't about the money, besides..."
"The tape... y'know... when we talked to Harper and he was gloatin' happily away about his involvement. You still had that bug on you, an' that little device I was using..." I dug it out of the drawer to show him the slot where the cassettes went. "'Course, I edited out the references to demons and suchlike. Just gave him enough to prove she was dead, and Harper was responsible for it. Hell, money issues aside, the poor guy deserves to know what happened to his lady love. And to have opportunity to do somethin' about it.
"I didn't think he'd kill him," I added.
"That's weak, Doyle," Wesley said disgustedly. "You must have known the possibility was there. In case you've forgotten, we're not in the business of killing people. Not that Faith cares one jot, of course, but I thought you did."
I met his gaze with silence. I didn't really have anything to say. Couldn't explain to a furious Wesley that I knew what Colridge felt. That I'd thought the guy deserved his shot at the revenge I'd never gotten for Harry. That I knew, technically, I was in the wrong - and though I might feel guilty as hell over it, I would do just the same over again.
I wordlessly rose from my desk, paper in hand. Leaving Wesley standing there, I headed down to my apartment to find something to drink.
I dropped the newspaper into the waste bin on the way.