Author’s Note: Yet another one of my older stories. I wrote this, for what it’s worth, back before it was clear that the Kinsey Millhone stories were still set in the 1980s, so just ignore that minor nit, if you would . . .
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon owns the Buffy characters. Sue Grafton owns Kinsey Millhone.
X X X X X
It's been said that the truth will set you free, and until recently, I believed it.
Until recently, I also believed that the killers, kidnappers and assorted thugs who I typically encounter in my line of work were the worst things out there to deal with.
I was wrong on both counts. My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. Normally I operate out of Santa Teresa, 95 miles north of Los Angeles, but right now I was about the same distance on the southern side of the city. I'm thirty-four years old, twice married, no kids, unattached and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
This was supposed to be a simple missing persons case. John Muller had graduated from high school and, with his parents' permission, was taking a year off to see the country on the cheap, staying in campgrounds and driving an old beat-up trailer. Mom and Dad -- Jefferson and Elaine Muller, well-to-do lawyers -- were willing to foot the bills for his gas, food, and phone calls home. Which he made regularly, two a week like clockwork, until three weeks ago. The last call he made was from a campground on the outskirts of a small city called Sunnydale.
Since then, nothing. The County Sheriff's department had tracked him as far as the city limits, and the last time the Sunnydale Police Department had seen him he was in a local dance club called the Bronze. The locals knew nothing after that.
From all reports, that was a usual state of affairs. My God, the murder rate in this town was absurd. If it had been New York City, Rudy Giuliani would have been dragged into the streets by an enraged populace and beaten to death. How Sunnydale's Mayor and police chief had escaped that fate was beyond me.
Official police reports said that he had probably been killed by one of the many gangs on PCP that roamed the city. This was about as ridiculous, if a touch less tragic, than the high murder rate. There wasn't that much PCP in the whole state.
I parked my car and walked into the Sunnydale Police Station. For a town with such a high murder rate, there were awfully few police in sight. Maybe they were all out looking at murder scenes.
Walking up to the officer at the desk -- a thin, black-haired man, with eyes that had seen it all and weren't impressed -- I said, "Excuse me?"
"Yes," he said, thoroughly jaded.
I pulled out my ID and showed it to him while saying "My name's Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private detective looking for a missing person who was last seen in Sunnydale."
"Name?" This question was asked in a voice so monotonous that I couldn't tell if he was asking for mine again, the missing person's, or if he just said the word so often he was tired of it. I hazarded a guess. "John Muller." He pulled a small file box out from under his desk labeled, "Missing Persons --" it extended back 5 years, and to my great shock was nearly crammed with index cards. The officer began leafing through it and said, "That's Detective Manning's case."
"Is the detective in?"
"You're in luck," again in a tone that strongly hinted of immense boredom. Ben Stein should see this man for pointers. "She's just going off shift now. I'll see if she's willing to talk to you, Ms. Millhone." He picked up the telephone and pressed a couple of buttons. Not being a thumb-twiddler, I looked around the station a bit more thoroughly. Everyone in the room seemed to have the same attitude as the man in front of me. With the number of deaths and disappearances in the city, I would have expected them to be either frantic or numb, not bored. There was something very odd about all of this.
"Third office from the left," the man at the desk said. "Go on back."
I walked to the office and question and rapped twice on the door. A deep woman's voice called out, "Come in," so I did so. A short, stocky blonde was putting on a dark brown jacket. After a handshake and a quick introduction (her full name was Wanda Manning) I brought up John Muller.
"Muller, Muller," she muttered. "Oh yeah, a couple of weeks back. Kid from Santa Teresa, right?" I nodded. We went over the physical description, and I asked her if she'd had any leads in the interim.
"No," she said heavily. "Just like so many others around here." She seemed genuinely concerned, and my face must have reflected my puzzlement. "No, Miss Millhone, I'm not like most of the rest. I transferred in last year from Los Angeles. I was tired of the big city life -- all the death and mayhem. I figured here I'd be close enough to L.A. to still be in on the action, but far enough away not to be affected by the crime. How was I to know I was heading into the Twilight Zone? There are more freakish disappearances and deaths here than I saw in ten years on the LAPD. Every one I can't find --"
"I understand." And I did. But what is it about me that prompts people to have nervous breakdowns? "If it's so difficult staying, then why don't you leave?"
"I've been trying to," Detective Manning answered. "I've been looking for other positions for six months now. But working in the Sunnydale PD? It's like the kiss of death. I was passed up for a job as a deputy sheriff in Delano, for God's sake!"
I guessed being here, with its history, would be a large blotch on the resume of any police officer. Troubled as Wanda Manning was, though, hearing her confession was getting me no closer to finding John Muller. Gently, I reminded her.
"Nothing, unfortunately," she said. "He was last seen by a local high school student, one Buffy Summers, heading out into an alley. That's it."
"Where can I find Buffy Summers?"
"This time of night? Probably the Bronze. It's a local club most of the teenagers in town go there a bit. There's not really a hell of a lot to do around here." We walked to the door, and when we got there Wanda paused. "One thing. Buffy Summers has a reputation around town as being involved in a lot of the dirty and nasty stuff that happens in Sunnydale. Don't know if it's true, but I felt it fair to warn you." Then she described the girl in question. Short, blonde hair, green eyes, thin, and attractive if you liked that combination.
"Thanks. Good luck with the career." I hesitated, but figured she'd been helpful enough I owed it to her. "Look. If you can't find anything in police work you might want to consider becoming a private detective. It's not quite the same, but --"
"Thanks." She said it perfunctorily, but with genuine gratitude in her eyes.
There wasn't anything else to say. I told Detective Manning good-bye, handed her one of my business cards, and went out to my car.
Next stop: The Bronze.
* * * * *
The Bronze was located by the docks in a converted warehouse, next to what would have been the bad part of downtown had downtown been large enough to have bad parts. I checked the clientele for both age and looks I fit the latter, but not the former. My jeans and sweatshirt wouldn't stand out, but I was a good ten years older than anyone I saw but the doorman. I walked up and paid the cover charge the doorman eyed me suspiciously but said nothing. "Excuse me?" I asked. "Has Buffy Summers come in tonight?"
"I don't know most of 'em by name," he said.
"Short, thin, blonde hair, ...rep as a troublemaker?"
"Seen a few like that come in tonight."
This wasn't going to be productive, I could tell. I gave up and walked inside. You could tell it was a converted warehouse, but what it lacked in charm it made up in energy. Kids were dancing in places, sitting down and enjoying the band in others, and quietly chatting in others. A quick scan of the room revealed no one who obviously matched Buffy Summers' description, but there were a number of places I couldn't see from the door.
I made my way over to the bar. I bought a ginger ale and asked the bartender if he'd seen the Summers girl. No dice there. I was about to scan the room again when I heard a sarcastic, weary voice say next to me, "You're looking for Buffy?"
I turned and saw a darkly handsome man, dressed in black, probably in his early 20's. He had one of those grins which some women find irresistible, but just annoy the hell out of me. Instantly I took a dislike to him. Still, I didn't have to like him to get information from him. "Yes. I'm a private detective and she might know something about a case I'm working on."
"My name's Angel," he said. "I'm her ex-boyfriend. I think I can help you find her."
"Oh?" I asked. "How...if you're her ex?"
"I know where she hangs out," he answered. "See, she's never here at this time of night. Usually, she's at the cemetery now."
"Cemetery?" What would a teenage girl be doing hanging around a graveyard at night.
"She said it relaxed her. One of the reasons we broke up." He spiraled his finger around in one of those "she's crazy" motions. "If you really need to find her, I could take you there."
"That would be great." No, I didn't like the guy, but he didn't seem dangerous, and I'm no fool; on the off chance my instincts were wrong, I was carrying my gun. He led me quickly down the streets and through the back alleys; I was starting to get suspicious -- but then we finally got to a cemetery. I walked forward and looked among the gravestones; the place was oddly well-lit for a cemetery, and there were no short attractive blonde girls anywhere nearby.
To Angel, who had somehow gotten behind me while I was looking around, I said, "I don't see anyone."
The same voice, deeper and more menacing, growled, "I hope not." I whirled. His face looked different, somehow, but I couldn't quite place why. "Otherwise I've dragged you across this little shithole of a town just for the exercise." I reached for my pistol, but faster than I could see he leapt at me and swept it out of my hands as he grabbed me with surprising strength.
The bigger they are -- I brought my knee up as hard as I could. He grimaced and loosened his grip just a little. Taking advantage, I yanked myself free and crashed to the ground by a gravestone. As I tried to roll to my feet Angel was on me again, shoving me down to the ground.
Right then, a strangely chipper female voice called out, "You know, I thought I'd find you here..." I was dropped roughly to the ground as Angel turned to face whoever this new threat was. I looked up and saw a short, thin blonde girl. She couldn't face down this guy for long. I scrambled around and looked for the gun. The two of them exchanged insults and bitter recriminations like they'd done this a hundred times before. The girl sounded a lot more hurt by Angel's words than the reverse.
Surprisingly, the two of them were fighting on about an equal level. Angel struck Buffy in the face as she kicked him in the side. Possibly I wouldn't be needed after all...right then I found the gun.
And just in time, too, as the girl slipped on a wet patch of grass. I ran around to face the young man -- there was DEFINITELY something wrong with his face, extra ridges, protruding teeth. It gave him a very demonic appearance. He moved in and said, "You know, lover, I was going to save your death for a special occasion." He looked around. "Night. Special enough."
"Back off, "I shouted, using my firmest, loudest voice. He looked up. "Oh, damn," he said. "I was hoping to take you home to use as a midnight snack." Clearly he wasn't impressed by the gun. I began to see why the rumors about gangs on PCP were so prevalent, though Angel was far too rational to be on drugs. I couldn't figure out the face or the odd strength...in either of them.
Perhaps even then I was starting to understand at least part of the truth.
"Guns don't scare me." Then he ran towards me, but this time I was ready. Backing up, I fired once, then twice. Again, he was faster on his feet than anyone had a right to be, and I KNOW I hit him with both shots. I'm no hard-boiled detective, to fire my gun on a regular basis at charging thugs, but I AM a good shot. But all Angel did was wince twice and grab my wrist and bend it back hard.
Then he staggered forward and was forced to let me go, as Buffy Summers kicked him in the back. "Guns don't scare vampires," she said. "Slayers scare vampires." I had no idea what the girl was talking about, but was grateful for the reprieve. As the two of them faced off I carefully leveled my gun, this time at Angel’s head. I had no idea what kind of body armor the man was wearing, but I was sure it didn't extend to his face. I'm not fond of killing shots -- I hate them, in fact -- but what else could I do? Letting myself get mangled had not been on my list of things to do today when I woke up this morning.
"Seems like we have the advantage here, lover," Buffy said, trying to sound heartless and failing miserably. "So why don't you take off and I'll try not to kill you?"
"You don't have the heart to kill me," he said, fading back into the shadows. "You love me." Then he vanished entirely.
"Loved," she said, almost to herself. "Loved." Her voice was despondent, but her actions didn't match the sadness in her words. Looking at me, she said, "Thanks for trying to help. But you'd better get out of here in case he decides to make a return visit."
I looked her over carefully. She'd just been through a slugfest, with a man taller and heavier than she was, and she was barely breathing hard, and her face showed only fading marks -- like she'd been punched last week instead of five minutes ago.
Those would probably have to remain mysteries, intriguing as they were. As she turned to go I asked, "Are you Buffy Summers?"
Her suspicions were raised immediately. She said, "Um, why do you want to know?"
I pulled out my license, gingerly, and showed it to her. "My name's Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator looking into the disappearance of a boy named John Muller."
"Doesn't ring a bell, sorry," she said.
"I was told by the police that you were the last one to see him alive...as he was leaving that club, the Bronze?" She shrugged, but there was a slight hesitance to it. Immediately I got suspicious. "Here," I went on, "Let me show you a photograph." She looked at it and I KNOW I saw a shock of recognition in the face. John Muller wouldn't have been hard to miss; he was six and a half feet tall and built like someone who looks down on weightlifters.
Buffy looked up at me sharply. "He won't be coming home. Don't ask me any further. Please." As she started to walk away again, I grabbed her shoulder and said, "You know something. What is it?"
She ripped out of my grip and began saying angrily, "I said --" before she stopped and said, "move!" As I dove to one side she pulled out a long, wicked-looking pointed stick and thrust it...towards a woman with a deformed face who had somehow crept up on us from behind. Her face looked almost identical to Angel's, in a way. Her clothing, though, looked new but quite dirty... like she'd just dug her way up from under the ground...
This fight was a lot shorter than the earlier one. The strange woman howled an inarticulate scream of rage and swung her fists at Buffy, who nimbly dodged and said, "You know, you're not even worth a witticism." Easily avoiding another blow, she reached out with the stick...and stabbed the woman through the heart. Before I could get over there -- to protest, to check on the woman’s' condition -- she exploded into a cloud of dust.
Buffy looked up at me. Turning to the girl, I said, far more calmly than I felt, "That's what you meant by he'd never be coming home, didn't you? You killed him...just like you killed whatever that was." Whatever that was had once been a human woman.
"I don't suppose you'd go along with the theory that they were gang members on PCP?" she asked hopefully.
"No," I said. "Not with those faces, not with that ability to survive bullets, and not with that burst-into-powder routine I just saw. You killed him, didn't you?"
"Yes," she said, heavily. "And by the way, they're vampires."
"Vampires." I didn't want to accept it. Now I could see why the reports of gangs on PCP were so easily accepted. Anything was preferable to believing that vampires actually existed.
But one thing I've always prided myself on is my ability to look at things the way they are. No illusions.
"Would you tell me what happened?"
"It's the same damn story over and over again," she answered. "He came to town, a vampire followed him out of the Bronze, drank his blood, and turned him. I got there too late to save his life too late, in fact, to do anything but chase off the vampire that had killed him."
"Yeah. Unfortunately, Angel had apparently been in need of some spare cash, because he heisted the guy's wallet. They kept him in the morgue until they could find out who he was. But he woke up first."
"You were waiting for him," I said with a certainty. Somehow it didn't seem like killing vampires was just a sideline for this girl.
Buffy nodded. "Yeah. They're easiest to kill if they're rookies."
"Isn't there anything that could have been done?" I asked.
A look of tragedy passed over her face and I was immediately sorry I'd asked the question, even though it made perfect sense. "No," she finally answered, with a crushing finality. "Once the demon takes them over...there's nothing that can be done but give them a quick death." I pressed no further. Angel and Buffy had had a history, but it was none of my business. And my job was done anyway, though I had no idea what I'd tell Jefferson and Elaine Muller.
We took a circuitous route back to my car, still parked not far from the Bronze. We chatted a bit after I found out that she was called "The Slayer," though, I asked for please no more details on vampire hunting. So we passed the ten minutes in small talk.
As we got to the club, four people were walking in when they saw Buffy and shouted out hellos. She turned to me quickly and said, "They're my friends. They know what I do. Sometimes they even help."
"And they don't have your skills?"
"No. They're just...my friends," she said as if that explained everything. And maybe it did. We quickly said our goodbyes before we reached the quartet. As I pulled away I saw them all laughing and cheerful...
Buffy's smile seemed rather forced.
X X X X X
I reported failure to the Mullers. The police were likely right, I said, but there was no way to be certain. They tried to pay me the full fee, but given the circumstances I couldn't accept it. Their son was dead, and they would never -- COULD never -- learn the truth behind it. John Muller had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In other words, he'd been in Sunnydale. The when was unimportant.
I also got a phone call from Wanda Manning. Two days after I left town, she resigned from the Sunnydale Police Department and is now pursuing a career as a detective in Los Angeles. She seems a great deal happier. That makes one of us.
Despite that she had to stay there and battle the vampires, in a way I envied Buffy Summers. She had people she could share the information with -- friends and allies. But who'd believe me? Not that I'd ever try to convince anybody, of course. Still, it's distinctly unnerving to know that there is an evil greater than anyone's ever known lurking out there in the darkness, and that there's nothing I can do about it. They say the truth will set you free. All I know is, I now know the truth about what happened to John Muller -- and I feel more limited than ever.