Into the Abyss
Copyright August 2014
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon,
Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
The first time I saw him was as a silhouette, because I keep the lights low in my sanctuary (to make it easier to read the computer screens, I explained to occasional visitors, but the truth was that I drew comfort from the darkness and seclusion), and when he opened the door he was backlit by the brighter illumination of the hallway. At his appearance I felt a momentary stab of … something, not fear but perhaps a brief, wordless uncertainty as to whether I should feel alarm. Which was ridiculous, and I allowed none of my baseless uneasiness to show as I asked with controlled politeness, "Can I help you?"
"I, um, I'm not sure." His voice was soft, cultured, resonant, hesitant, and British. Quite a lot communicated in five syllables. "I, that is I was told, er … this is the, the 'morgue'?" He still stood in the doorway, as if not feeling himself permitted to enter without an explicit invitation. "They gave me directions, but I'm afraid I got turned around."
Reassured, I smiled. "Yes, that's the labyrinth." I beckoned him inside with a quick finger-flick, adding, "And this is the Abyss. Abandon hope, and all that."
"The —?" He shook his head and stepped into the room, but still stood well outside anything that could be construed as my personal space. Considerate of him. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's what they call this place." I gestured at our surroundings. "Not sure how it started — maybe because we're in a sub-sub-basement, and so few people come down here —" (or because I keep it dark to discourage visitors, not that I need to try very hard) "— but it caught on. And I'm the lucky custodian." I shrugged. "And now you're here. On purpose, apparently."
"Well, yes." I could see him more clearly now: a few years older than me, early to mid-forties; formal suit with an actual vest (and was that tweed?); unruly short hair, wire-framed eyeglasses, firm chin, alertness in his eyes. Not quite in sync with the occasional stammer, and I cautioned myself not to take anything for granted. "I made enquiries upstairs, and was told I should come here to consult with you." He eyed me appraisingly. "That is, of course, if you're the Ms Schoeren I was to see."
"I'm Jane Schoeren, yes." I pulled a swivel chair from the next table, turned it toward him. "Have a seat. If you actually came looking for me … well, nobody comes looking for me. So now I'm curious."
Most people were uncomfortable, trying to deal with another person under circumstances that called for office-social etiquette, but with lighting so subdued as to communicate an instinctual this is not normal awareness. If he felt any such uneasiness, it didn't show; he sat in the offered chair, somehow managing in the act to scoot it backward a few inches so as to put us less nearly knee-to-knee, and favored me with a tiny smile of his own. "I suppose I should introduce myself: my name is Rupert Giles. I'm here because … well, I asked upstairs about the particulars of an article that appeared in yesterday's paper, and was told that you would be the one most likely to have all the facts at hand." One of his eyebrows rose. "The young woman spoke of you with obvious respect, but still I got the sense that … er, that in sending me here she was …" He came to a halt, still looking for a polite way to finish the sentence.
"You were being given the brush-off," I confirmed for him. "You didn't have anything to offer them, dealing with you would use up their time, so they sent you to me. And they were right to do that." I smiled again, to show that no offense was felt. "My time really is less valuable than theirs, and I really do have quicker access to more consolidated information than anyone else here. Which is why they call on me whenever they need something."
"Ah." He glanced at the equipment with which I had surrounded myself. "You are a, um, computer virtuoso, then?"
"I wouldn't say that," I replied. "But I've been down here for nearly twelve years, and I've got to where I know all these files really well. Really, really well."
He was nodding even as I finished. "In an organisation whose very purpose is to always pursue the news of the latest moment, you provide an … institutional memory, so to speak."
"More than that," I told him. "I'm the city's memory." I sat back in my chair. "You know why they use the word 'morgue' for the place that stores a newspaper's previous issues? Because, in this business, an issue is dead the day after it hits the streets. Old news, yesterday's news … it doesn't matter, it isn't important, it doesn't exist anymore. Unless someone needs it, in which case I'm here."
Again he was nodding. "I need no convincing of the importance of history. And yet, er … from things several of my students say, I would expect your co-workers to be convinced they could find whatever they needed via …" His lip actually curled at the next words. "… Internet searches."
"A lot of them do," I agreed. "And they're the ones who don't deal with me. But most here see this office — and me — as a resource they can use to good effect." I tilted my head as I studied him. "But you said something about your students. Mm … College instructor? I'm thinking a private academy, not well known but well funded, and with some prestige among the circle that know about it. Am I close?"
"It, um …" He blinked, suddenly flustered. "You flatter me. I'm, I'm actually here on leave from a small high school. Near Los Angeles, but far enough away to, to not be considered a suburb."
And there was something in his phrasing that told me he had just dodged my question in some way, though I wasn't sure quite how, but I let it go for the moment. "Very well, Mr Giles. What, in this city, could interest a high school teacher from a not-quite-suburb?" My own thought was research of some type, an educated man pursuing some personal, abstruse project of his own. If so, I would aid him to the point where I lost interest, then briskly move him along, I had my own interests just now —
"The profile on the homeless women, found dead in the last few days," he said, and suddenly my interest was quite a bit sharper, because this was not woolly-headed collection of esoteric minutiae. "I had hoped to speak with the author of the article, but was shunted to you instead. And, if you do indeed have the pertinent facts to hand, that will be eminently suitable to my purposes."
I regarded him with a calm assessment that allowed me to organize my thoughts before speaking. "And what is your purpose here, exactly?"
His smile was small, rueful, and self-deprecating, but I could see that it was reflex rather than a true reflection of his own feelings; there was something going on behind those eyes, something that ran so deep that I knew he was giving me only a part of his attention. "The way that Americans handle certain … social disruptions, differs substantially from the way such things are dealt with in British society, enough to intrigue me. I simply wish to learn enough of the particulars to enable me to … to slot these differences into a meaningful context."
He was lying, and normally that in itself would be sufficient to have me cut him off and send him away with nothing. However, "You mentioned the homeless women," I observed, watching his reaction to the words. "Not the 'important' people who've been getting all the attention this past week. Two local bigwigs go missing and it grabs all the headlines, while nobody's paid any notice to these nameless bag-ladies even though they were murdered. That was the whole point of the article, the contrast in publicity … and yet you're the exact opposite, it's the nobodies who interest you. Why is that?"
He looked back with what seemed to be a small but genuine bewilderment. "Because, as you say, the 'nobodies' were killed. Rather brutally, it appears. By comparison, celebrity escapades are inconsequential, at least as they currently stand."
I arched one eyebrow. "Two prominent women disappear, for no known reason, and without leaving any word or clue. And you call that inconsequential?"
And there it was, something fleeting in his gaze or the set of his mouth: he had reasons for what interested him and what didn't, and he didn't want to talk about those reasons. "To the extent that the case of the more well-known women needs or deserves attention," he said with precise control, "it is, as the article in question points out, receiving more than sufficient. In addition to that, the disappearances are a mystery but … but a mystery without details, whereas the killings doubtless have a great deal of detail, about which I wish to learn. It is, if you will, a more rewarding focus of study."
And he was lying again. He expressed it well, with a quiet intensity that should have been convincing, but I simply knew better, as if attuned to him in a way that allowed me to see deeper truth. This unexpected affinity made me feel somewhat disoriented, but I had some experience in hiding my feelings. And, though he had given me triple justification to expel him without information, there were now things I wanted to know. So it was decided.
"I'm due for my 'lunch' hour," I told him, air-quoting the word in recognition that it was late evening rather than mid-day. "Did you see the coffee shop across the street?"
He nodded. "Yes, I did."
"Get me a cup and a cream cheese Danish, and I'll be able to join you in ten, fifteen minutes. It'll take me that long anyway to collect and print out the … the 'particulars', as you call them."
He was already standing. "I recognise that my interest has no especial importance to you," he said. "I deeply appreciate your assistance in this matter."
"Don't thank me yet," I told him. "This is a weird one, and I'm not sure that the facts I can give you will be much help."
"It will be more than I had," he replied. "Again, you have my gratitude."
Then he was gone, and I settled in to gather the promised background information. I had enough familiarity with the files and systems that I could do it almost automatically, leaving more than enough of my mind free to wonder just what he was doing here. And why.
It was actually more than twenty minutes before I joined him at the coffee shop; good as I've come to be at what I do, I had quite a lot to take care of in a very short period, and even with the overtime I still slid into the seat across from him in the booth feeling like I'd just run a marathon at triple-speed. Paradoxically, however, the demand for total concentration had allowed a background portion of my mind to work undisturbed, so that when I arrived I already knew what I was going to say to him.
Which was, "Are you with the police?"
He paused in the act of pushing toward me the coffee and Danish he had ordered at my request. "I beg your pardon?" he asked.
"You were telling the truth about where you were," I went on. "But you still let me think you were a teacher. With your credentials, you could have come in as an automatic adjunct professor anywhere in the UC system, and that would still have been a step down from your position at the British Museum. I can't imagine what would move you from that, to high school librarian. In Sunnydale."
An eyebrow lifted minutely. "You've been … quite industrious," he observed with unruffled calm.
Oh, I had. Along with the newspaper's channel through AP and Reuters and UPI, I had also used every online search engine available to me: Lycos, Hotbot, Yahoo, Webcrawler, Excite, AltaVista, Infoseek, Inktomi, Metacrawler, even a beta I was testing for a new one calling itself Google. Not having time for real in-depth digging, I'd just cast the widest net possible and snatched at the scattered facts I was able to scoop in on the first try. "Don't worry, I got the information I promised you." I put one hand on the manila folder I'd set on the tabletop. "But I wanted to have some idea who I was dealing with … and right off the bat, I could see you were ridiculously overqualified for what you're supposed to be. So, what, then?" I shook my head. "Interpol? Even MI-6? But even that wouldn't explain why you're here, asking about this. It doesn't make sense."
"And for good reason," Giles observed. "I am, in fact, neither a member of, nor affiliated with, any law enforcement agency whatsoever. American, British, European, or otherwise. And my … regression, from associate curator to high school librarian —" His lips bent in a rueful quirk, convincing if not necessarily genuine. "That may be a matter of minor embarrassment to me, but it is decidedly not part of any deception I am working upon you to your detriment. I am, as I told you, seeking to learn more about those events" (a nod toward the folder) "purely from my own personal interest. If you are willing to help me, you have my gratitude. If not, I shall simply enquire elsewhere."
I looked him over closely, as if concentrated vision could allow me to peer beneath outward appearance to the underlying truth. "I only have your word for any of that."
"True," he acknowledged. "But, to be frank, why should it matter? I was directed to you as, as a resource person, a guide to a central repository of facts held by the larger organisation. What would you, individually, have to fear from a request for information that does not directly pertain to you?"
"Good point," I said. "Only, maybe not as reassuring as you would think."
"Really?" His tone, and eyes, were level. "Why not?"
"Because I've been wondering if the local police would come asking me questions," I told him. "Or, if they don't, whether I should go to them."
His gaze on me hadn't sharpened, but I could feel it … increase, somehow. Even if he hadn't seemed inattentive before, I definitely had his full focus now. "Yes?" he said. "Why?"
"Two reasons." I kept my tone calm, both to match his and to keep close control of myself. This man was … dangerous … in ways he himself might not recognize. Might. "You need to understand: for most of my life, I intended to be a reporter myself. I learned, eventually, that I just don't have — quite — the right set of skills to succeed at that: hence, where I am now. But I still know how it works, I have the instincts and training that let me recognize the potential for a good story. So, now and then, looking at all the news that passes in front of me, I'll make a suggestion to some of the regulars upstairs. And now and then — especially if it's one of those who've learned that I can know what I'm talking about even if I'm not one of them — a reporter or columnist will follow out on one of my suggestions."
This time he only nodded — I'm following you, go on — so I did. "Well, one of the suggestions I made was about the article that brought you here. Drawing a contrast between the reaction to the disappearance of these high-profile women — the official reaction and the one from the media — with the nothing reaction to the deaths of women nobody knows or cares about? that was my idea."
He was quick to see there had to be more to it than that. "Yes?" he prompted. "And?"
"Another idea was a series of profiles of local success stories. People who'd made it big from modest beginnings. Not exactly rags-to-riches, but definitely pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps stuff." I shrugged. "That one, Connie took in another direction. Dropped some of the people I'd lined out, brought in some of her own, and made it more 'look how great this city is, we have such successful people here!', where I'd been thinking 'look what people with talent and drive and luck can accomplish in a city like this'."
"A distinction that might seem too subtle to matter," Giles noted. "And yet I can see how it might make a considerable difference indeed." He gave me a slanted glance. "And?"
"Well, the idea I sent up was based on profiling five or six successful women. I only offered a couple of examples, and only one made it into the series Connie wound up doing; she did seven features in all, and five of them were men. Only … the two women who have disappeared, they were the two I mentioned in my first idea." I raised my eyes to meet his. "And, if I remember it right, they went missing in the same order I listed them out."
~ – ~ – ~
He was silent for nearly a minute, his gaze focused elsewhere while he visibly ran through multiple lines of thought. At last he said, "I can understand why you found this matter troubling. Even why you worried that you might, yourself, come to be subject of police enquiry." He took a sip from his own coffee … no, the liquid I could see in the cup was so light in color, I decided it must be tea. "But, why did you not go to the police yourself?"
"Because it's all so recent," I said to him. "And so vague. Danica Carlisle and Amelie Linden … nobody knows where they are, but likewise nobody knows for sure that anything has happened to them. For all we know, they're off together at some private spa, sipping mojitos and dishing about their love lives. And the dead homeless women really should be the bigger story. This whole thing could just be some freakish coincidence." I bit my lip. "That's what I keep telling myself. But …"
"But it troubles you," he finished for me. "The, the instincts to which you referred, tell you that such a coincidence is at the very least suspicious, and at the very least warrants closer inspection." He wasn't even looking at me, but it certainly seemed that he was fully engrossed in the situation I had sketched out for him. "Whether or not it means what you think it might, it certainly seems to mean something. And so you feel compelled to look more closely."
I took a bite from my Danish, and a sip from my coffee, before asking, "Are we still talking about me here?"
His gaze returned to me almost with a start. "I beg your pardon?"
"One second you were focused like a laser," I said to him. "The next, I could practically see your mind going somewhere else." Actually, it was a bit reassuring, in that his allowing himself to muse on issues of his own gave me more reason to believe he wasn't here investigating me personally. Still, I made it almost a demand: "What was that all about?"
I watched him measure his thoughts before responding. I was gaining an ever clearer sense of what kind of person I was dealing with, but that didn't help me guess what was running through his mind. "You are very perceptive," he answered at last. "Yes, you caught me in a moment of distraction, which has to do with my reasons for being here." He looked into the depths of his tea. "There is a group of, of students who work with me in local community service projects. Nearly two months ago, several members of that group were attacked while meeting in the library. One person was killed, two hospitalized, and one, er, briefly kidnapped. And one … she was found at the scene, with the body of the girl who had been killed, and, unfortunately, fled when challenged by the police." His eyes rose to meet mine. "We haven't been able to find her since. She left a hasty note to her mother, but she's been … 'off the radar', since that night."
"No surprise," I observed. "With the police hunting her, she'll be keeping a low profile."
"Oh, they aren't," he corrected me quickly. "That misunderstanding was dealt with almost immediately: the survivors' testimony made it clear that she'd had nothing to do with the attack, or the death." His next words had the faintest dry undertone. "I believe the official conclusion was that the guilty parties were 'gang members on PCP'. Quite a bit of that in Sunnydale, apparently."
I know about pulling information out of a source, and I know how it works. He had just said something meaningful, and was watching to see if I was one of those who understood the meaning. I wasn't, and that annoyed me, so I aimed my next words to sting. "So now you're, what, driving all over California trying to find her? The two of you are … close?"
"We are, yes, but not in the way you obviously mean." It hadn't flustered him even for a second. "In point of fact, I am in regular communication with her mother, keeping her apprised of the results of my search." He sighed. "Or non-results, at least so far."
"Wait," I said. "You're here, because of the murders we've been talking about, thinking that will help you find a runaway schoolgirl? What kind of sense does that make?"
"The logic is strained and roundabout," he admitted. "But the more familiar approaches have borne no fruit, and so I grasp at such straws as I can see." His lips bent in something that was both pain and amusement. "And Buffy has a, a deep and abiding sense of responsibility. These murders caught my attention, and so might have attracted hers as well. At least, that is the thread I am attempting to follow."
('Buffy'? Had he actually just said 'Buffy'?)
"This is the biggest put-on I've ever heard," I said to him. "But you're not putting me on at all, are you?"
"I am not," he answered. "I am genuinely concerned about the deaths of these unfortunate, anonymous women, and genuinely hopeful that Buffy may have been attracted by the same articles that caught my notice."
And we had entirely dropped the subject of taking my information to the police. Maybe I hadn't been supposed to notice. Fat chance.
"In that case," I said, "we have some work to do." I pushed the manila folder across to him. "You can start with that, and I'll have more by the time I get off at eight. Are you staying at a hotel, somewhere we can meet?"
"No," he said. "I've not had time to make arrangements. Or cause, till now." He studied me with a seeming doubtfulness that I didn't understand. "I'm afraid that's immaterial, however."
I frowned. "I'm sorry, what?"
"The issues you have raised are, are provocative, but ultimately don't concern me. They still pertain to the upper-crust women currently missing, while my interest remains toward the two nameless women who were murdered." He shrugged, half-apologetically. "Nothing links these disparate strands except the article which caught my attention. In other words, the only connection between them is you, and even that is tenuous and apparently coincidental."
This was unexpected, and I was still adjusting to the sudden change of direction. I could feel my face stiffening, but I did my best to keep my tone civil. "I see."
"I do apologise," he said, standing and picking up the folder of information. "You have been inordinately helpful, and normally I would feel, feel obligated, to aid you in return. In point of fact, the situation would normally call for further investigation on its own merits." He shook his head, sighed. "Currently, however, I have other obligations, and I'm afraid they take precedence. Over my own inclinations, even over the genuine debt I owe you. I'm sorry."
"Okay," I said. "Fine." I stood as well. "I guess we're done, then."
He looked for a moment as if he wanted to say more, but he didn't; he simply nodded with grave courtesy, and left. More than he seemed … and I had a hunch our business together wasn't finished yet.
Maybe more than a hunch.
Technically, I still had half my 'shift' to go tonight, but nobody really cared which hours I followed as long as I kept things running smoothly. I returned to the morgue only long enough to lock it, then I drove home: home being a small rental house, I'd found some years back that apartment living didn't agree with me. It was earlier than my usual schedule, but I straightened and arranged things for awhile, and spent some more time working out just what it was I needed to do next; and at last, when I felt sleepy enough, I finally went to bed.
Given the circumstances, I expected the next day to be busy. As it turned out, it would be quite a bit more than that.