Runner-up for the I Am You Know awards for Best AU and Best NC-17.

The Price of Vengeance

Author: Trom DeGrey
Rating: R to NC-17
Distribution: Ask first please.
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters - they're owned by Mutant Enemy and Joss Whedon - and I'm not making any money off of them. I'd be a lot happier if neither of those statements were true.
Summary: Cranky, irascible private eye Tara Maclay must join forces with by-the-book Vice squad detective Willow Rosenberg to crack a white slavery ring and find a missing teenager. But when Tara's past begins to figure prominently in their case, the stakes turn deadly. Can the two women cooperate long enough to crack the case? Or will shadows from the past cost them everything?

Tara Maclay hated her job.

She was certain that no other profession was more misunderstood, vilified, glamorized, and just generally over-dramatized than that of private investigator. Her office wasn't some drab thing with a bottle of cheap whiskey in the desk and her name neatly painted on the door. She didn't even own a hat, much less a rumpled fedora. She answered her own phone, thank you very much. No need for a peroxide blonde sitting around doing her nails, harboring a secret crush for the PI and chomping her gum like a Wisconsin milk cow into the ears of clients when she did answer the phone.

Tara might not mind the crush though.

There was no Maltese Falcon, and no matter how many times she'd daydreamed about it, not once had some leggy dame oozed into her office, planted her perfectly toned ass on Tara's desk and breathlessly asked for help.

Who the hell used the word 'dame' anymore anyway? Just those stuffy Brits a quarter of a world away where it was some kind of title dropped on you by a queen who wasn't nearly as entertaining as America's queen, RuPaul.

If anything in Hollywood and pulp fiction was true about being a PI, it was the bitterness. There were only so many times you could pay off the sleazy junior vice-president at the bank for a peek at someone's anemic accounts or snap off a roll of pictures of a cheating spouse before you realized that people just generally suck.

Yeah, Tara Maclay hated her job.

But she was good at it.

Too good really. See, it was easy for her. It paid the bills and then some. It let her keep her own time. And it was easy.

And Tara had never been one to walk away from easy when she could find it.

This job had started out easy enough. A blonde with the equally blonde name of Buffy had skittered into her office two weeks ago. Too short to be leggy but a nice ass all the same, she hadn't been hard on the eyes. She'd been breathless too, but that was from fear and nerves not lust.

Another daydream shot down.

Seemed her kid sister had taken off and a week of searching on her own had turned up nada. Tara had tried to be as gentle as possible.

"Shit, do I look like Joe Friday to you? Call the police."

A charm school graduate she's not, our Tara.

However, her heart had softened and she had even managed to produce some tissues when Buffy had burst into tears. Between the sobs, hiccups and startling moose call of a nose blow, Buffy had explained why the cops couldn't be involved. Their mom had died, see, and rather than let Children's Services split them up they had taken to the streets together. Now the kid, Dawn, had gone missing.

Tara wrote down everything: names, numbers, addresses, favorite hangouts, nicknames, anything, everything. She assured Buffy she'd find her sister in no time. Finding runaways was her specialty after all. She knew how they thought.

But now, two weeks later, this easy job had turned into a total bitch. The kid had vanished. It seemed a lot of people knew her, some of them not the best people, but no one had seen or heard anything about her lately. Tara was a little worried now and just desperate enough to put in a call to the Head Snitch himself.

That was how she found herself here, sweating in her car, waiting in front of one of the nicer Italian places in town. As much as she hated him, she had to admit the little bastard had taste.

She glanced down at the file sitting in the passenger seat. A picture Buffy had given her was paper clipped to the outside. Tara picked it up and studied it for what seemed like the millionth time. A typical teenager stared back. Long dark hair framed a classic oval face and brown eyes sparkled over her laughing mouth. "Better times," Tara whispered.

She let the file drop back against the steering wheel with a slap. Blowing the damp hair off her forehead, she scanned the sidewalk again. "Come on," she growled in frustration and pulled her white cotton blouse away from her neck. As if on command, the Weasel materialized out of the crowd, looked at her pointedly and then shuffled into the restaurant.

"'Bout fucking time," she muttered as she rolled out of her car. She turned and activated the alarm on her baby before strolling into the eatery, right past the prissy hostess that managed only to sputter when Tara brushed her off and to the table in the darkened back corner where the snitch of all snitches sat huddled. She made a huge show of sitting down and putting her sandal shod feet up on the chair next to him.

He twitched like a freshly caught trout.

He looked around nervously before glaring at her. "Jesus, Maclay, give me a break here," he whispered, leaning across the table. "You know my information gathering skills have made me enemies everywhere."

Tara took in the sweaty sheen of his splotchy face, the greasy black hair hanging in his eyes and the badly wrinkled brown Hawaiian shirt before answering, "Gee, I thought it was just your funky smell."

He leaned back in disgust, his paranoia never letting his eyes rest anywhere for very long. "Insults will get you nowhere," he grumbled.

"True," Tara sighed, straightening in her chair and picking a piece of lint from her tan linen pants, "but an obscenely expensive lunch from this place will get me what I want, right?"

His smile in reply reminded her of an oil spill. Rolling her eyes, Tara waved down a waiter.

Tara picked at her food as she watched him eat.

It was a train wreck and there were bodies everywhere.

As he chipmunked his cheeks with another meatball, she forced herself to look down at her own plate. The salad was good, not twelve bucks good, but good.

She had gone vegetarian not out of any tree hugging-Earth Mama-animal rights consciousness; she basically thought cutting meat out of her diet might help her chill out a little. Seven years later, Tara was convinced it had just made her meaner.

Her inner demon wanted a greasy cheeseburger.

She flipped her long blonde ponytail back over her shoulder and sipped her grossly overpriced iced tea as he wolfed down some frothy concoction of a dessert. Tara could be patient. He might be a disgusting toad, but Xander Harris always had the best information. He leaned back with a less than discreet belch. It seemed food had lowered his defenses.

"Please tell me feeding time at the zoo is over," Tara said wryly.

He smiled his nasty smile at the waiter and said, "Coffee." The server hurried away, no doubt glad to be out of Harris' greasy orbit.

"So," he said, leaning toward her, "what do you want?"

"The last hour to be seared from my memory," she said as she tossed him the file.

He only snorted before looking at the picture. Harris was suddenly all business. He had been a street kid himself. "Cute kid," he murmured. "What's the deal?"

She watched him carefully as he looked through the file. "Her older sister showed up in my office. Kid's been missing about three weeks now. I've followed everything I could for the last two weeks and come up with vapor. I've never seen anyone disappear like this," she said, letting some of her frustration show in her voice.

"No cops, huh." It was a statement more than a question from him. The two just shared a knowing look.

He sighed heavily, closing the file. "Well, Maclay, unfortunately, I don't know the kid and haven't heard anything specifically about her. However," he leaned in close then; the paranoid snitch was back, "I've been hearing some nasty stuff the past month or so; something about a white slavery ring. Street girls with little or no family have started turning up missing. Just a few here and there, but enough to get mouths moving. I got it on a good enough source that I actually went to our mutual friend in the Department with it. The name I keep hearing is Fin, whatever that means."

Tara frowned darkly. "Fin, huh?" she sighed. "And it was real enough for you to go to Rosenberg with it?"

Her face scrunched in distaste at his nod. She had only crossed paths with Detective Willow Rosenberg a few times, but that had been enough. Maddeningly cool and calculating, the detective went by the book to the point of being clinically retentive.

She also grinded Tara's gears.

Tara knew herself well enough to admit she'd love nothing better than to mess up the straight-laced cop's perfectly coifed hair, smear her lipstick with an earth-shattering kiss and find out just what it would take to make her howl at the moon.

Yeah, if she could solve this one without having to come in contact with the delectable detective, it would make her life much less complicated.

Tara tossed her credit card at the waiter. She didn't even want to see the bottom line.

They emerged together into the late afternoon sun. Harris' head immediately dropped down between his hunched shoulders as if he was expecting to get clobbered from behind at any second. She deactivated the alarm on her baby.

"I thought PI's were supposed to drive something discreet," he said incredulously. "How the hell do you stake anyone out in that thing?"

Tara looked lovingly at the metallic blue Mustang convertible. Slipping on her sunglasses, she turned to Harris and said, "Who the fuck cares as long as I look fabulous behind the wheel?" She laughed like the devil himself as she made her way to the car.

By the time she was settled in, Harris had already melted back into the mass of humanity moving along the sidewalk. As she lowered the top on the Mustang, Tara decided to talk to Buffy again and hit all her street sources one more time.

This time though, she was armed with a name - Fin.

Willow Rosenberg loved her job. It appealed to every part of her. Crime scenes demanded she use all of her senses. The paperwork involved at every level of police work tested her considerable organization skills. The psychology of a criminal fascinated her to no end. She was comforted by a system of rules and regulations and followed them zealously. And nothing got her heart pumping like a good old-fashioned foot chase.

But most of all, Willow Rosenberg loved being one of the good guys.

Sure, there were days when she thought people just generally sucked. You could only bust so many pimps and drug pushers and gang bangers before it all started to wear on you, but those days were rare for her and the thrill of getting another sleaze ball off the streets far outweighed the low points of the job.

That was why she liked working Vice so much. Her parents had wanted her to go to the FBI or US Marshals, but Willow wanted to help street kids. She wanted to help the ones that fell between the cracks and ended up being prostitutes or worse. That was why the current case, non-case really, on her desk was bugging her so bad.

Xander Harris, the Head Snitch himself, had called her earlier in the week saying he had information for her. Though she found him odious at best, Willow knew meetings with Harris were hardly ever a waste. His information had been sketchy, but enough to make her go hunting.

She had gone to her lieutenant with what she had. Lt. Giles had said it wasn't enough to open an official investigation; it wouldn't be until someone filed a Missing Persons report, but she could dig into it a little more if she wanted. He trusted her enough to give her free reign on most things. Something as serious as the possibility of a white slavery ring in their city was more than enough for him.

She chewed her lip in frustration as she looked through the file again. Harris had given her the name Fin. She had run it and come up with two real names and at least seven gang names with that word in it. Three of the gang members were in jail. Another one was dead. She was having a hell of a time tracking down the rest.

"What's the matter, Rosey? Are the bad guys not playing nice with you today?" Meers sneered.

Willow just gave him a one-fingered salute in answer. Detective Warren Meers was the cop the whole Vice squad loved to hate. It was widely agreed upon that he had only gotten this far in the Department because his father had once been the chief. Otherwise, the sniveling little twerp never would have made it past being a beat cop. Willow found him especially distasteful.

She was one of only six women on the Vice squad and Meers loved to harass all of them, but because of her by-the-book attitude and her exemplary arrest record, he loved to bug Willow most of all. She was generally able to avoid him and regularly embarrassed him with his own incompetence when she couldn't get away from him. So he got back at her by being petty. He knew she hated that nickname.

"What? No special assignment from one of Daddy's cronies for you this week?" she asked without raising her head.

The squad room collectively Oooooh'd and cackled over her low blow. They all liked Willow. She was tough, hard working, smart and caring. All the officers that knew her felt better if they knew she was the one cop covering their back. Vice squad also loved to watch her belittle Meers, especially if she used vocabulary he had to later look up.

He glowered at the rest of the squad room before planting his bony butt on the corner of Willow's desk. "If you're having such a hard time with that case, why don't you let one of us boys handle it?" he said in a saccharine tone that made the bile rise in Willow's throat.

She closed the file and stood up. Tucking a lock of her shoulder length red hair behind her ear, Willow looked him square in the eye. "Because I'd like for it to get solved. And if I really need help, I'll go ask one of the men, thanks."

The room erupted again in hoots and catcalls as Willow unlocked her desk drawer, pulled and holstered her weapon, pulled on her suit jacket and grabbed the file. She blew Meers a kiss as she made her way out of the squad room, the laughter following her out.

She had a street source that she hadn't talked to yet, so she decided to go home and change out of her black pants suit and then hunt up Snyder. Her thick heels snapped smartly on the pavement as she walked up to her car in the parking lot. She deactivated the alarm on her British Racing Green Jaguar XKR convertible and slid in behind the wheel. She took a deep breath and smiled serenely. "God, I love this car," she sighed.

Continue to The Price of Vengeance Chapter Two

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