Author: Trom DeGrey
The Screamin' Mimi was one of the crappier clubs in one of the crappier parts of town. Willow guided her sleek car into a spot just behind a convertible Mustang with three large men lounging all over it. They whistled and hooted quietly at her as she approached them. She walked up to the largest of the three and produced a bill from her pocket.
Looking pointedly at the Jag, she said, "Fifty bucks if it stays that way."
He smiled lasciviously and said, "Fifty bucks and a kiss."
Willow pushed her jean jacket aside and acted as if she was scratching her back. The gesture revealed her gun in its holster under her left arm.
"Fifty bucks it is then," he said and planted himself on the hood of her car. Willow smiled a cocky smile and went inside.
The doorman made to pat her down, but she put an immediate stop to that by flashing her badge. He frowned darkly. "I'm just looking for someone," Willow said, trying to appease the gorilla-sized bouncer. "You seen Snyder?"
He snorted and said, "Little shit's awfully popular tonight. He's here, usually by the back bar."
Willow walked into the club and rolled her eyes. She hated places like this. There were two levels, five bars scattered throughout, and a huge dance floor currently teaming with writhing bodies. The music all sounded the same to her and if she stayed long enough the lights would give her a spectacular migraine. She was sure they were exceeding their maximum occupancy, there probably weren't enough exits, their liquor license was most likely obtained with a bribe, and she had absolutely no doubts that there were drugs and prostitution going on all over the place. Willow idly wondered if there was a person in here that didn't have some sort of record.
She pushed her way toward the back bar, desperate to talk to her little toady and get the hell out of here. She waved down the barkeep and shouted over the noise, "I'm looking for Snyder!"
He frowned and yelled back, "You're the second person in here tonight looking for him! What'd he do?"
"Nothing," Willow hollered back, "I just want to talk to him! Who else was looking for him?"
The bartender shrugged. "Some blonde! He didn't look like he wanted to go, but she dragged him out back!" He pointed toward the back door.
Willow nodded her thanks and made her way to the door. It opened into an alleyway behind the building. There wasn't much light, but Willow could just make out a woman of about her height in jeans and a long sleeved shirt shoving a smaller man against the brick alley wall. His bald head caught the light and Willow knew she had found her man.
She edged closer to try and see who had gotten to her snitch first. As the two jostled around, the woman's face came into stark relief in the unflattering artificial light. Willow stopped short and swallowed hard.
Private Investigator Tara Maclay.
Willow's face scrunched in distaste. The few times she had had to cross paths with Maclay had been annoying and uncomfortable at best. The PI was unorthodox, unruly, disrespectful, cocky, and, well, if truth be told...
...sexy as hell.
Willow frowned and ran her hands through her hair. Dealing with Tara Maclay was definitely an unforeseen entanglement.
"C'mon, Snyder, I know you're lying to me. You only blubber this bad when you're trying to cover your sorry ass. Now what's with the what?" Tara demanded. She hadn't thought he would know anything, but as soon as she said Fin, his eyes had bugged and he had started to sputter. That was when she had dragged him out back for a little one-on-one questioning. Tara hated places like this dump anyway. She couldn't hear herself think.
"I'm telling you, Maclay, I don't know anything!" he whined.
She shoved him hard against the wall again. "I'm losing patience," she menaced.
"Maybe you should let a professional interrogate him then," a voice purred from her left. Tara looked up to see none other than City Police Detective Willow Rosenberg herself walk into their little halo of light.
Tara let her head roll back on her neck before letting out a long low groan. "Oh, god, not you."
"Pleasure to see you too, Maclay," she said wryly. "Mind if I borrow your boyfriend here?"
Tara glared. "You can shine his little chrome dome for the rest of the night if you want, but not until he tells me what I want to know," she growled.
"I'm telling you! I don't know anybody named Fin!" he screeched.
Tara bared her teeth at him. She didn't want Rosenberg to know they both had information from Harris. Willow, for her part, looked confused.
"What the hell do you know about Fin?" she demanded.
"NOTHING!" Tara and Snyder shouted in unison.
Willow crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow at the PI. Tara sighed heavily and shoved Snyder back against the wall one more time for good measure. She turned to face the detective.
"I needed some information from the Weasel about a case I'm working on. He mentioned the name to me and that even though that was about all he had, he'd trusted the source enough to go to you with it," she said, short on patience and long on irritation.
"So, what? You were trying to avoid me on this?" Willow asked.
Tara looked at her like she was the dumbest thing on two legs. "Well, duh!"
Before Willow could reply, Snyder tried to sneak away as the two women verbally sparred. "No you don't!" they both yelled and each woman grabbed an arm. Snyder whimpered.
"What's the problem here? Just tell us what you know. Or would you rather I run you downtown? The lieutenant is just looking for a reason to make this case official," Willow threatened.
Snyder sighed. "You two are gonna get me killed. Look, all I know is that whoever or whatever Fin is, they're moving some serious cash through the city right now," he said.
"How do you know that?" Willow asked.
"Sometimes I run packages for the Accountant," he whispered.
Tara arched an eyebrow. The Accountant knew about all of the financial dealings in the city, especially the not-so-legal ones and was very particular about couriers.
"Sounds like you're stepping up in the world," Tara said absently; a plan was forming.
"You wanna fill me in?" Willow asked.
"No," Tara snapped.
Willow rolled her eyes. This wasn't getting them anywhere. As much as she dreaded it, she was going to have to go out on a limb here.
"Have you had dinner yet?" she asked.
Tara came crashing back down to Earth from her little planning party. "Why?" she asked suspiciously.
"Why don't we exchange information? Maybe we can help each other out," Willow said.
Snyder slithered away as Tara considered her options. Her inner demon was screaming at her to run far, far away from the temptation of Willow Rosenberg, but she was also desperate to find Dawn. She decided to test the good detective first.
Tara looked pointedly at the other woman's chest before asking, "What if I have more to offer?"
Unsurprised by the PI's forwardness, Willow arched an eyebrow and slowly ran her tongue over her lips. "I'll find a way to compensate."
Tara's inner demon howled. It knew it had just lost the game. "You've got yourself a date, Detective."
The two women emerged from the alley and started to move toward their respective vehicles. They both stopped and looked at the other's car. "That's yours?" they both asked.
They shared a sly grin before Tara said, "Gotta love a woman with excellent taste in cars." She changed direction and moved into Willow's personal space. "So, where to?" she purred.
Willow stood her ground and took a long slow tour of the blonde's face, lingering on her full lips before saying, "You pick. I buy."
Tara bit her lip and let herself sway a little closer to Willow before cocking an eyebrow and turning to get in to the Mustang.
Once settled behind the wheel, she tugged at her suddenly too tight jeans and muttered, "Holy shit."
Willow closed the door of the Jag as a shudder rolled through her and her nipples tightened. "Wow," she mumbled.
Tara led Willow on a short trip south and pulled up in front of The Jade Dragon. She waited on the sidewalk as the detective pulled the Jag in behind her baby and enjoyed the view of jean-clad legs unwinding from the low car. She suddenly turned away.
"C'mon, Maclay," she muttered, "you're doing this for the kid not for yourself. Get your information and get the hell out of Dodge."
Willow allowed herself a better look at the blue muscle car and its' owner's lovely rear end. She took a deep breath. Focus! The lieutenant wants more than a name and some rumors, she chastised internally.
The two women wordlessly entered the restaurant. The low lighting showed the fifteen tables scattered through the room, but not the ratty looking carpet on the floor. The place smelled of soy and felt humid from the day-long steaming of rice. A voice suddenly rang out from the back.
"You! Get out! Get out now!"
An elderly Asian man, not much more than five feet tall skittered toward them gesticulating rather wildly with a sizable meat clever.
"I say get out!" he yelled again, marching right up to Tara and glaring at her venomously.
Tara reached out and took his head in her hands, placing a soft kiss on his forehead. "I've missed you, Papa Yu," she said sweetly.
"Bullshit!" he exploded. "You don't come visit anymore."
"I'm sorry Papa Yu, I've been busy with a very important case," she replied.
The old man's face softened. He knew that was code for a missing kid and he could never hold anything against her when that was what kept her away. He grabbed two menus and headed toward her usual table.
Once settled, Tara asked, "How's Mama Yu?"
"Menopause sucks," he snapped.
She quickly changed the subject. "How's Lily then?"
He puffed up proudly. "Accepted to graduate school," he announced.
Tara smiled as she handed him her menu. "I'm glad to hear it," she said.
"Usual?" he asked. Tara shook her head. He turned his attention to Willow. "And what can I get you, Miss?" he asked, careful to enunciate each word.
Willow swallowed when his sparkling dark eyes came to rest on her. She doubted Papa Yu missed much. Handing over her menu, she said, "I'd like the sesame chicken, please."
"Very good," he said, smiling. He turned to Tara again, cocking an eyebrow.
She resisted the urge to duck. There was mischief in those eyes.
"She's much prettier than the last few!" he announced.
Tara closed her eyes as the heat swept through her face. She kept them closed until she heard his laughter recede into the back kitchen. She finally opened them to find dancing green eyes and an elfin face fighting a grin. Tara ducked her head, aggravated that she was so embarrassed. He always gave her hell.
"So, you want to tell me how you were adopted by a little Asian man with a big American attitude?" Willow asked, valiantly fighting a laughing fit.
Tara chuckled. "About seven years ago, their daughter Lily took off," she said. "I tracked her down and have been their red-headed stepchild ever since."
"Lucky you," Willow said with a grin.
"I think so," Tara replied honestly. She dropped her eyes back to the tablecloth, picking nervously.
Willow studied the PI's profile when she turned and picked up a bottle of soy sauce, her blue-grey eyes flitting over its label. The soft light overhead threw the blonde's face in shadow, lending mystery to her smooth features. Willow wondered why she hadn't realized just how beautiful she was before now.
Probably too busy being infuriated by her, she thought.
Tara was distinctly aware of the microscope she was under and it made her squirm.
Get on with it! she ordered herself. Clearing her throat, she asked, "So, you wanna go first?" She was nervous about telling the detective about Dawn. She knew it could make Rosenberg's investigation official and maybe her own a little easier, but Tara had promised Buffy no cops would be involved.
Willow hesitated, but then decided a little trust was in order. This had been her idea after all. She reached into her inner jacket pocket and produced the scant paperwork she had on the name 'Fin'. "Since all Harris could give me was a name, I ran it to see if anything interesting popped up. It's been pretty much a dead end for me thus far," she said, tossing the papers across the table.
Tara began looking through the sheaves, seeing if it added anything to her investigation. As she perused the names, she decided to engage Rosenberg in some conversation. She could still get her information as well as a few jollies outta this, right? "So, the Weasel called you, huh?"
"Yeah, still had to take the little bastard out to lunch though," Willow groused.
Tara looked up and chuckled at the detective's face. It looked like she'd just eaten a lemon. "I'd have shook it out of the nasty toad," she said.
Willow's face contorted further. "I'd have to touch him," she pointed out.
"So instead, you got to watch him eat," Tara countered.
Both women shuddered. "True," Willow agreed, "but his info is usually worth it."
Tara nodded in agreement. "Where'd you have to take him?" she asked, studying the rap sheet of one of the gang members.
"Misha's over on Fifth," she said. "I didn't think one face could handle that many meatballs."
Tara dropped the papers on the table. "You're kidding me!"
Willow's eyes widened in surprise at the other woman's outburst.
"That son of a bitch," Tara muttered. "That's where I had to take him too. When did you go?" she asked.
"Monday," Willow said.
"Twice in one week," Tara said incredulously. "God, do I feel like I've been conned."
Willow chuckled. "I guess that makes two of us then. At least you didn't have to see him in that putrid brown Hawaiian shirt of his," she said.
Tara's face fell. "You mean at least you got to see him in that shirt two days before I did," she said.
Willow shuddered violently.
Papa Yu appeared with their dinners. They waited until the old man walked away before looking at one another and then pushing their plates aside. Talk of Harris could do that to a girl's appetite.
"Well," Tara said, picking up the paperwork again, "I can take two more of these names off the list for you." She pointed to one of the gang names. "He's dead too," she said. Willow produced a multicolored pen, clicked on the red and neatly wrote 'Deceased' next to the name. Pointing to one of the real names, Tara said, "And Marcus Fin isn't capable."
Willow looked up. "Why's that?" she asked.
Tara sighed. She had grown up with Marc. "Deal gone bad about three months ago. He took a bullet in the head, but lived. Marc can't even wipe his own ass now," she murmured.
Willow was a bit startled by the pain in the other woman's eyes, but decided not to ask. Instead, she clicked on the blue in her pen and wrote 'N/A' next to Marcus Fin's name. "What about the rest of them?" she asked.
Tara shook herself from her grief. "I don't know any of those names right off the top of my head, but I bet I could point you in the right direction as far as the gang members go. That other guy though, Riley Finn, I have no idea who he is. I didn't see a rap sheet. I assume that means his record is Juvie?" she asked.
"Yep," Willow said. "Sealed."
"Becky Walters still work the Juvenile Files desk?" Tara asked, a devilish grin lighting her face.
Willow narrowed her eyes. "Yeah," she said suspiciously.
"So go flirt with her a little, Rosenberg. She'd let you have a peek at his record," Tara said, knowing what was coming.
Willow sat back, crossed her arms and frowned darkly. "That's against the rules and you know it, Maclay," she lectured.
Tara allowed herself a hearty laugh. "How'd I know you were going to say that?" She tossed the papers back across the table and pulled her plate of Chinese vegetables in ginger sauce over. She broke out her chopsticks and began eating without another word. Tara was stalling and she knew it was obvious, but she was trying to decide just how much to tell the detective. She didn't see how she could leave out much other than names. Maybe if she told Rosenberg everything she'd let the rules slide just a bit and not try to bring Buffy in. Tara wasn't hopeful though.
Willow pulled her plate of sesame chicken to her and unwrapped a fork. Maclay was stalling, probably trying to figure out how much she could leave out. She'd just have to be patient.
Five minutes passed in a waiting silence before Tara put down her chopsticks. She was ready to talk.
"First things first," she said matter-of-factly, "I'm not giving you any names." Willow already didn't like the sound of this. "Secondly, if you run me in for what I'm about to tell you, or not tell you, I'll make your life hell." Willow cocked an eyebrow at the PI's even tone. "Third, no, I won't talk to Rupert about it, period." Both of Willow's eyebrows shot to her hairline. How in the hell did Maclay know her lieutenant?
"Fine, what will you tell me?" Willow huffed. This exchange was really starting to suck.
"I've got your missing person," Tara said.
"What?" Willow barked.
Tara launched into the tale, leaving out names and places where she could. She detailed her investigation and how after nearly three weeks, she was completely empty-handed.
"These might not even be related," Willow pointed out.
"I think they are," Tara replied.
"Why?" Willow asked, intrigued by the woman's confidence.
"Because the kid is still in the city," Tara said knowingly.
"Even more reason for them not to be related," Willow reasoned. "If someone really is taking street girls and selling them, why the hell would they keep them in the city for this long? You said it yourself; it's been almost a month since she went missing. And for that matter, just how in the hell do you know she's still in the city?" Willow demanded.
Tara sighed heavily. "Look, Rosenberg..."
"Willow," she interrupted.
Tara took a deep breath and tried out the name. "Willow, right." She liked the way it rolled around in her mouth. "Look, no one knows the underside of this shitter of a city better than me. They might be able to hide her someplace here, god knows there's enough places to move her to to keep me running like a rat for weeks, but there's no way they could get her out without me finding out about it. I'll bet my car she's still somewhere in this city. They're probably trying to get enough girls together to send out a bunch of them at once," she said.
Willow sat back to think. She had some of the better street sources in Vice squad, but she was sure they were nothing compared to what Maclay had. The more the PI talked, the more Willow became convinced that she was right and the only way this ring was going to get busted up was if she went along with Maclay's restrictions. She knew getting this kid's sister to come in and file a Missing Persons would give her more official resources, but she wasn't into breaking up families either. She would talk to the lieutenant tomorrow, but she had to make a decision now.
"So, what do we do?" Willow asked.
"What's this 'we' shit?" Tara scoffed.
"I'm in this, Maclay," she said, thinking her tone brooked no arguments.
"My ass, you are," Tara laughed. She knew she was being difficult. In her heart of hearts she had known when she agreed to this little dinner date that she was about to pick up a partner. Sometimes that damned demon was right. She wasn't going to make it easy though. And she certainly wasn't going to admit to herself or anyone else that she might just need Willow Rosenberg.
"Look, I'm not after these kids, okay? We find the little sister. They disappear. I just want this ring broken up before they get too many of these girls," Willow said. "My investigation doesn't have to go official. Giles will let me run with it, but you're not getting rid of me. You just picked up a stray dog, Maclay, cause every time you turn around I'm gonna be right at your heels."
Tara sat back. There was no light here and her face was completely obscured. She smiled. So, the detective had spunk. She knew she was playing with fire, but if they had at least some of the Department's resources at hand they might get this over with faster. She might also get Willow to loosen up some.
A whispered word came at Willow from the darkness across from her.
"Tara," Willow experimented. The name came out like a sigh.
Tara leaned back into the light. "Since this is unofficial, I assume you'll have to keep up with your regular caseload?" she asked.
"Yeah," Willow sighed, "but I've only got a couple right now, and I can get the lieutenant to take me off Debbie Duty for a couple of weeks."
Tara arched an eyebrow. "Debbie Duty?"
She could see Willow's blush even in the low light. "Yeah, you know those movies. Debbie Does whatever city. It's our euphemism for solicitation stings."
"Does that mean you dress up like a hooker to bust johns?" Tara asked coyly.
"Yessss," Willow hissed.
Tara sat back into the darkness again letting thoughts of a scantily clad redhead flit through her head. She frowned. One, she didn't like the thought of Willow all tramped up leaning into some guy's car and two, she much preferred the natural, comfortable looking woman in jeans and a t-shirt sitting across from her now. The two just didn't go together and, if anything, Tara could just imagine how uptight Willow got over having to play Dress-Up Floozy Barbie. It gave her an idea.
She leaned forward again, crooked grin firmly in place. "I might just pay to see that," she purred.
"And the minute you did, I'd arrest you for it," Willow replied with a smirk.
Tara started laughing then and Willow couldn't help but join in. They both felt an uneasy truce forming. They laughed together for a moment more before Tara sobered. "So, you don't think this will be too much on your plate then?" she asked.
"You worry about your kid, I'll worry about me," Willow said. Tara shook her head, trying to convince herself to do just that.
"So, like I said, what do we do?" Willow asked.
"Follow the money trail," Tara said. "We go see the Accountant."
Papa Yu walked up then with the check in hand. He thrust it at Tara. She pointed across the table at Willow who held her hand out for the bill. Papa Yu looked at her, grunted and jammed the piece of paper into his pocket.
"Hey!" Tara protested.
Papa Yu grinned at Willow before fixing his adopted daughter with a stern glare. "I like her. She makes you laugh," he said. He winked as he walked back toward the kitchen.
"Meddling old fart!" Tara called after him.
Willow chuckled. "He's cute," she said.
"Pain in the ass," Tara said with a grin.
"So, just who in the hell is the Accountant?" Willow asked, back to business.
"She owns a club, but she's made it her business over the years to know about all the financial comings and goings in the city - especially the illegal ones. She's probably got enough dirt to bust every drug ring and politician in a 200 mile radius," Tara said.
"So when do we go talk to her?" Willow asked.
Tara pulled her poker face. She didn't want Willow to know what kind of mischief she was up to. She could just make a phone call and they could go in through the back door, but Tara wanted to test her new partner. If she could dress up like a hooker, what else was she willing to do? Tara knew she'd catch hell later, but she just couldn't stop herself now.
"Well, she won't talk to just anyone. I mean, if she knew you were a cop she'd have us tossed out, and we can't just waltz in there. We don't want to attract too much attention. I mean, you know, we don't even know who we're dealing with. This Fin could have people everywhere. We don't want to tip off the bad guys," Tara said, looking as if she were trying to come up with a way to get them inside.
"Can't we just dress for the club and weasel our way in to see her?" Willow offered.
"That'd probably be our best bet," Tara drawled. The trap was set.
"So what's the problem?" Willow asked.
"Well, Detective," Tara said, looking Willow square in the eye, "do you happen to own a rubber dress?"