Faith, the See chapter 1 for disclaimers.
Vampire Slayer Exotic Dancer
See chapter 1 for disclaimers.
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 nothing 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."