Whisper of a Moment
Copyright April 2003
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN. Chandler Ames and Kennedy Paris are the creations of Maddog and Rastro, of the Sunnydale Slayers.
He's up on the stage, strutting and grinning, and the women are just going nuts. I don't get it myself, and I keep looking him over, checking moves and form, trying to understand the appeal. Skinny, gawky, uncoordinated, decent muscle tone but not that much muscle, and the skateboard routine is way beyond lame. He's not in the same class as the beefcake delights that came before, so why are the women so crazy over him?
No inspiration, so I give up studying the guy and start scanning the audience, hoping I can learn something from their behavior. It's a cross-section, all ages and classes and even a few non-Caucasians (still having trouble getting used to seeing this many white faces all together), but they seem pretty unanimous in their response: crazy for the geek, go figure. One at a table by herself, dressed with a kind of understated class that to me screams trust-fund baby or professor type, she's watching him with a little smile and one eyebrow tilting up, and I can see she's enjoying the crowd reaction as much as the show. Two together, young brunette and older redhead (mother and daughter, maybe?), the brunette is whooping it up and grabbing at Mom's purse for dollar bills, and her mother or aunt or whatever is fending her off and trying to look embarrassed, but she can't keep her own eyes off the stage. Table of five, four Anglo and one Chicana but all of them classic Valley Girls, slamming back Blue Lagoons and mai tais and speculating loudly about what they might do if they decided to take Skateboard Guy home with them. Two of the larger tables shoved together, close to a dozen women, late thirties to early forties, PTA clear down to the toes; some are acting like the Valley Girls, but most are like redheaded Mom, nodding and smiling and having a high old time without getting intense about it. One in the corner, hanging back …
Danger prickles the skin on my arms and neck and I continue the scan, not letting it linger on the woman in the corner, suddenly understanding what's going on even while I wish I hadn't put off scrounging a weapon. Snapshot glimpse: pale hair, long and drawn back, pale eyebrows, dark haunted eyes, old-fashioned clothes that look stylish without being expensive. She's riveted on Skateboard Guy like he's an antelope and she's a cheetah, or maybe the other way around, but she's not enjoying herself, and that explains what I've been seeing till now. He's having fun, and it shows, and they're having fun watching him, and it just loops from them to him and back again, every female in the place except for me and that one.
This was supposed to be a side-trip, a little personal extra worked in while I was dealing with the main job. So how come all of a sudden I feel like I'm standing in a shooting gallery, trying not to go quack?
I'm already in motion, automatically seeking some spot where I can sink below her notice … but she's moving, too, and not in response to me, her eyes are still locked on the stage, it's more like she recovered from some solid shock and decided to make herself absent. Reassuring, at least a little, but I'm not letting it go, I shift my course to match hers at a position that should be just outside her peripheral vision. Even if this won't pose an immediate problem for me, I still want to get some idea of what currents are flowing right now.
I've been making the rounds of anarch-raves since I was twelve, so a light crowd like this shouldn't pose the least challenge … and it doesn't, but the pale woman still beats me to the exit with a bigger lead than she had at the beginning. She's not even hurrying, just gliding straight ahead in a way that somehow never intersects any of the people in her path. Maybe I could have kept up without attracting attention, but it ticks me that I should even have to try; whoever this woman is, she's better than me in at least one area of physical capability, and I'm just not used to that at all.
My pride carries a price tag: by the time I hit the parking lot, there's no sign of the woman. There are others here and there, leaning against various vehicles, talking and laughing and piping in particulate carcinogens for relaxation. Plenty of places for my target to be hiding, too, the poled lamps provide lots of light but also lots of shadows, hidden areas, blind spots between parked vehicles … but somehow I don't think so, her body language said she was running but not from me, and I don't know any way she could have spotted me. And, even if she did, I still want to know the shape of things here.
The Fabulous Ladies Night Club sits by itself just off the highway a few miles outside Oxnard, but there's a mini-mart/coffee shop about a hundred feet up the road, close enough that the pale woman might have gotten there and slipped from sight if she'd increased her speed when she got outdoors. I quickfoot across the scrubby grass intervening and transition to the crushed rock of the shop-mart parking lot. I've come up on the back of the building, and I swing around the east side to emerge at the front, eyes sweeping the bright-lit lot and the highway beyond for some glimpse of my unexpectedly elusive quarry …
A low chuckle ghosts from the shadows behind me, and I jump like a tasered ferret, spinning and cursing myself for a dozen different kinds of idiot, amateur, slackwit, disgrace, waste of living space … Okay, so it's not quite that bad, I should be wiped for stupidity but this isn't a trap, just a momentary annoyance. A piece of the side wall juts out past the face of the main building, and tucked back into the semi-alcove it forms is a parked motorcycle, and the no-doubt-owner coming to his feet with a lazy menace that I can tell is really supposed to impress me. Young, lean, hard muscle and tattoos and scars and leather and chrome … I truly don't know whether to yawn or laugh. Make no mistake, I can see at a glance that this specimen is perfectly willing to carry me off by force, terrorize me and rape me and maybe snap my neck in the mellow afterglow and tootle on his way musing happily on how grand life can be; I just have trouble taking him seriously.
"Hey, there, sweet cheeks," he says with the mandatory leer, making a show of stripping me with his eyes. "Wanna straddle my hog?"
The material has a smitch of originality, but he loses points for the delivery. " 'Hog?' " I repeat, and punctuate it with a phtt! of derision. " 'Little piggy' would be more my guess." I swivel to head back across the grass, adding, "Go knot yourself, nadless."
As expected, his hand is on my shoulder before I finish the first step, and his voice is ugly with anger. "You ain't goin' nowhere, cu–"
I follow the direction he started when he pulled me around, continuing across the front of the shop-mart and letting my eyes register the interior — no sign of the woman — without actually turning my head to look. Behind me Little Piggy croaks and thrashes on the ground, which can't be doing his leathers any good. I'm not in the best mood right now, but I behaved myself; I didn't quite blind him, he'll be able to resume breathing in another minute, and the thumb will probably be usable again after a few weeks in a cast. (He may or may not need surgery on that knee, though.) Damn it, where could the woman have gone? There are two possibilities here, and I don't know which thought pleases me less: that she could have picked up on me despite my care, or that she could have vanished so thoroughly and effortlessly without even knowing I was there.
I don't like mysteries and I'm not exactly long on patience, but I give myself a mental smack and head back across the grass to FLN. It's time to get myself under control; I'm here on a mission, stopping by to see the geek was an indulgence already and I've compounded it by honing in some weird woman watching him. The thick-neck at the door doesn't ask to see the little stamp on my hand, just steps out of my way, maybe he remembers me or maybe some of the kick-the-crap-out-of-somebody frustration I'm feeling shows in my face. For that thought, I apply another internal smack: Pull it together, togglehead!
I can't have been outside for more than a minute or two; up on the stage, Geekboy is winding up his routine, so many bills stuffed into his jock he looks like he's wearing shrubbery. What is it with this guy? The files told me where I'd be able to find him about now, but there were no reports of him being stalked by some nameless, mysterious female …
I sit at the only empty spot immediately in view, the second chair at the little table occupied by the woman I marked down as a college professor. I don't look at her, I keep my face toward the stage and let my face settle into the open, happy smile I see all around me. Basic camouflage, I've got my bearings back and now I'm just staying under the radar while I sort out the last of it.
'Nothing in the files', oh yeah. Which of the files don't have one supernatural woman or another fixating on him? This boy is the Bermuda Triangle of normal relationships, a moving centerpoint of perpetual chaos. If the pale woman is undocumented it's because she's not significant, just one more piece of wreckage rolling in his wake. I can relate, but it doesn't mean I care, I'm light as long as her agenda doesn't cause any complication or inconvenience for me.
The music flares as he leaves the stage with a grin and a wave and one last exaggerated grind of the hips, and a lot of happy satisfied women sit back and call to have their liquor replenished. There's one mystery settled, then: just going by his yearbook photo, I couldn't figure how a dweeb like that could be so popular at a place like the Fabulous Ladies Night Club. Now I know, some freaky personality chemistry between him and the audience, probably the first time in his life he ever got anything from female onlookers besides groans and snickers. Still a lot of questions up in the air, but a fair return for a spur-of-the-moment recon.
A glance at the clock over by the bar reminds me that I have actual business scheduled for the evening. No real crunch, still twenty minutes before we're due to meet, but it won't hurt to check in. I flip open the little StarTac and punch in the contact number I set into the speed dial earlier today. Hold the receiver to my ear, half-turn to signal one of the servers for a drink …
Two feet away, Professor Jane is pulling a cell phone from the small, classy handbag in front of her, and through the festive chatter around us I can hear the thin breeep! of the ring. She pauses for a second as our eyes meet, takes in the phone I'm holding, and then presses the TALK button on hers. Through the StarTac and across the table she says, "Harry Doyle."
"Right," I say into the phone. "I was going to confirm our meeting, but I'm guessing that won't be an issue here." I break the connection and fold away the little cellular. "Wasn't expecting to run into you in this joint, but then nobody told me Harry was a gal's name on the West Coast."
"It probably wasn't until I got here." Her phone goes back into the handbag, and she favors me with a serene little smile. "This looked like a fun place to wait until we were due to meet … and you have to admit, the show was entertaining."
"Skateboard Guy?" I snort at that. "Yeah, he's running some juice, but I'm damned if I can say just what makes it work." I nod at her instead of offering my hand; this is a professional meeting, even if the setting is casual. "I'm Dina Musci, but I'd say you know that already." I pronounce it Mew-see; don't want to get too close to the actual word, she's one who might recognize it.
Her return nod is equally brisk, as if to say, Okay, we can keep this impersonal, if that's how you want it. Fine, because I do. "Your e-mail inquiry intrigued me, Ms Musci. Not many people know of my area of study."
"Word gets around," I reply. "And the word is that you bring a new perspective to cataloguing demons."
"It's true that I don't quite follow the traditional track," she agrees. "I'm more concerned with learning the ways different demon species have adapted to the modern world, than with studying old histories and battle reports in hopes of finding new techniques for killing them."
I keep a sympathetic, approving expression on my face, like I agree that killing demons is gauche behavior. "So what can you tell me about Skira'ads, in general?"
She considers the question, and me, with level eyes and no particular hurry. It would be easy to underestimate this woman; behind the pleasant features and fine bone structure is a methodical mind that weighs each step before taking it. "What precisely is your interest in this matter, Ms Musci? Ethno-demonology is a small and rather insular field; we don't get many outside inquiries, so we generally want to know the asker's agenda before we start reeling off data."
That brings a smile. "Afraid I'm a stringer for the Weekly News of the Warped? Sorry, I don't do the Ames-and-Paris thing." As a stab at humor, I could have managed better. She'll have already checked out the credentials I formulated so meticulously, so it'll be my motives that she'll want to clarify.
"Lurid publicity would be unwelcome," she acknowledges, that level expression not shifting by a thousandth of an inch. "But I was actually thinking more in terms of exploitation. I don't want to be reviving myths about demon-derived aphrodisiacs, rejuvenation serums, cursing fluids or undetectable poisons, and I don't want to offer aid or encouragement to anyone seeking such ridiculous and wasteful trivia."
Quietly as she says it, I can still see I won't be able to dodge here. She'll get an answer that satisfies her, or she won't play. "There's a research group in Australia's Northern Territory," I tell her. "They've been running a biosphere study for close on three years now, tracking how some of the lesser … 'non-mundane life forms', they call them … interact with terrestrial flora and fauna in a sealed ecology. They've gotten some indications that a Skira'ad might be settling in nearby in the next few months, and naturally there's some interest in whether they can set up wards and keep the environment uncontaminated, or if they'll need to relocate. That's why your name came up: you're more likely than most to give us a reliable forecast on the thing's probable behavior."
"I heard of something like that," she says. "Is Dr. Pearson still project coordinator?"
"Pearson keeps up the staff inoculations," I say, letting myself sound annoyed. "Overhardt is the guy making most of the decisions. Look, I don't blame you for being cautious, Dr. Doyle —"
"Just Harry," she says.
"Okay, then, Harry. Careful is good, I'm fine with careful. But think about what I'm asking here: I'm not pumping you for weaknesses, habitats, physio-glandular makeup, any of that. I just want to get your read on whether the Skira'ad is likely to disrupt the operation. Will it be aggressive, intrusive, easily provoked, territorial, what? I want to know what kind of behavior they may have to deal with. That's all."
She gives me another nod, of considered acceptance, and I chalk up a score for advance prep. You always want to mix in as much truth as you can, which means knowing the facts and keeping them straight. Besides, I didn't actually say I worked for Overhardt's bunch.
"I don't suppose it really matters," she answers at last. "It's impossible to predict these things with complete certainty, Ms Musci, but offhand I don't foresee any problems for your project. Skira'ad are typically quite gregarious, for demons. Not with each other — unless it's their mating cycle, and that's only three weeks every twelve years — but they're totally captivated by the intricacies and contradictions and irrationality of human social behaviors. As a rule they'd be uninterested in the kind of remote location you're describing; if one did show up there, it would probably be because he was deliberately seeking solitude, which means he'd shy away from the area once he discovered it was occupied."
"Huh." I weigh the information. "They like human contact?"
"In much the same way some humans like origami or video games or model trains." She smiles at the blank look I can feel on my face. "Skira'ad enjoy playing at human conventions, which makes it easy to think of them in human terms; but we have to recognize and respect that they're not human, never will be, and don't really want to be. When I'm studying any demon culture, I keep telling myself over and over, Their ways are not our ways. Partly for safety, but mostly so I look at what's actually there instead of attributing what I see to some familiar human motivation." Her face is animated as she warms to the subject. "For Skira'ad, the closest parallel, and still a clumsy one, would be those stereotypical English squires that live only for their dogs and horses. It's more than a hobby to them, almost a mania, but it's still only a small aspect of their total nature. They're them, we're us, and we may have some things in common but we'll never be the same."
"Okay," I say. Her obvious enthusiasm makes me suspect I might be able to coax more out of her. "With that kind of difference, I have to wonder how they go about satisfying this urge to mix with the pink primates."
She shakes her head. "Skira'ad have developed a knack for making themselves useful, and there are always going to be people who don't care about the species of who they're doing business with, as long as the transaction is advantageous. Real tolerance is rare, mostly there's a profit motive in there somewhere. As a result, the kinds of humans that typically associate with them … well, let's say they're not exactly exemplars of polite society."
Makes sense; cocktail parties aren't really designed for seven-foot, mustard-colored warty anteaters. "So, basically, one of these things would be more comfortable in a semi-urban area, and he'd be mixing with some pretty unconventional citizenry?"
Her manner cools by a degree or two; I'm not asking quite the right questions for what I'm supposed to be. "Not many demon species can pass for human, even briefly. One that wants to deal with humans must, by necessity, focus on those that aren't too choosy about the company they keep." She stands, picking up the handbag. "I hope I've satisfied your concerns, Ms Musci. Now if you'll excuse me …"
"Yeah, sure, thanks." I should be peeved — I had hoped to get a little more from her, and it's not good that I let my character slip when I should be focused — but I can't really make myself care. She's not my only source, and I have other things on my mind, and the more time I spend with her the less I feel like extending the experience. "You've been a big help. I'll pass the news. If I need to reach you again for anything, will that number still be good?"
She nods without pausing, and is headed for the door in the next second. I'm definitely winning friends and influencing people tonight; my game is way off, and worse, it doesn't bother me near as much as I know it should. I'd never have sold my people on sending me here if I'd done this poorly in mission prep; something is messing me up tonight, and I really can't say what it might be.
I should work on figuring that out. Really, I should.
Instead I start drinking. Even in a regular bar I wouldn't have any trouble being served; I look older than I am (one reason Harry Doyle was ready to accept me as a globe-trotting trouble-shooter, plus I had already dressed professional casual in anticipation of the meeting), and I paid for top-quality work in my ID. Here, with the pre-screening at the door and the crush of festive women inside, it's dead easy to keep 'em coming. I'm no connoisseur and I'm not too butch for girlie drinks, I go for the fruity frozen kind — margarita, melon margarita, piña colada, strawberry daiquiri — in quick succession, guzzling all four in not much more time than it takes to mix them.
By the time I finish the last one, I have the mother of all brain-freezes and I'm battling an urgent impulse to leap up onto the stage and start singing. (Something from the Morisette oeuvre, maybe, or Etheridge after she hit the skids and turned bitchy.) This isn't what I was aiming for, I wanted to get looped but now my head is clanging and my belly is churning and I'm feeling surlier instead of tranked. Whatever is eating at me, hooch isn't the route to burying it. Time to bring all this fun to a halt and call it a night.
I'd thought the cooler night air outside might help clear my head, but that's not how it works, there's a heavy, humid wallop to it that almost makes me gag. I move away from the building and off to the side, trying to get enough distance that I can maybe find a little breeze. Not in the cards. I hear the words — "There, that's the bitch!" — and swing to face the sound, and maybe things are finally looking up.
Little Piggy is back with reinforcements, two sweaty meatsacks in almost exactly the same outfit he's wearing: one has a brushy beard and one wears a big gold hoop earring, but otherwise they're cookie-cutter identical. " 'S'matter, boys?" I throw some extra slur into the words, and act like I'm just managing not to stagger. "Zookeeper run outta bananas or somethin'?"
Piggy uses a word I don't recognize, then to the others he says, "Look at her, drunk off her ass. We'll never get anything out of her like this."
"So we'll use her ass for somethin' else till she sobers up." This is the bearded one, and instantly I know he's the one to watch. Piggy has his hand splinted with duct tape and what looks like corrugated cardboard, he still sounds raspy from the shuto to the throat and he's keeping his weight off the leg I damaged; he won't be much of a problem, and Earring is waiting with the vibrating eagerness of a born follower. No, Brushyface is the alpha here, his next words more like passing sentence than giving orders. "We'll work her slow, soften her up and have some yucks while we're at it. Time we're done, she'll be cryin' to give up her boyfriend, count on it."
That one throws me for a second. " 'Boyfriend?' You guys dipped or something?" Then I get it, and the laugh bubbles out of me. Little Piggy would never admit a woman painted the pavement with him, so he invented some bruiser I'd sicked on him. Which also means his buddies won't be remotely prepared for what I can do, so that's how I play it. "I'm unescorted at the moment, boys, but that don't mean I'm looking for your charming faces."
Even before he moves I know how it's going to happen, I've read their postures and attitudes and I already have it planned. Brushyface starts for me with his face clouding into a scowl and I quickshift to my right to keep him between me and Earring, then slam a raking kick down his shin with the edge of my shoe, hardly any structural damage but the unexpected pain will paralyze most men for a second or two. Before he can recover I nail him at the hinge of the jaw with a foreknuckle strike, Earring is still trying to dance around his falling leader and I vault straight over Brushyface to take out the second banana before he can set himself, and Piggy's on his own now and he's just starting to realize what kind of deep goo he's standing in —
That's the theory, anyhow. What actually happens is this:
Brushyface starts for me with the predicted scowl, I start the right shift, and something crashes into him at an angle from the rear. He's jolted straight into me while I'm still trying to correct my original motion, and all three of us go down — me, Brushyface, and whatever lunatic decided to deal himself into this scenario. My balance was headed somewhere else, I'm not ready, I lose all my air and damn near crack ribs when I hit the pavement, bodies tumbling over and off me. I've been trained hard, though, I bull through the pain and surprise and I'm back up on my feet, and again I'm shoved off balance, and a shaky voice is saying, "Stay behind me. It'll be okay, I promise —"
Oh my God. It's the geek.
Crap. Crap. Crap.