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A large field full of overgrown grass flanked the road they'd stopped on. At the edge of it were trees. Iris couldn't tell as she approached them whether or not it was just a small strip or a forest. There weren't a lot of forests this close to their home. In fact, there weren't a lot of interstate exits that led to nowhere. The closer Iris got to the trees, the weirder this felt to her. She looked back. She could still see the car and hear the noise of cars on the highway. Traffic seemed to have started flowing again. Billy would be glad. If she ever found him. The grass reached to Iris' waist. She briefly considered heading back for the car, but where would that leave them? They'd be no better off then they were.
"Billy?" she called. "Where are you?"
Ugh. There were probably snakes in the grass. Big, long rattlesnakes. Or maybe pythons. No. She didn't think pythons were native to North America. But still. She couldn't see her feet. She was almost glad to reach the trees. Under the canopy of branches, there was no grass, just the crunch of dead leaves. And sticker bushes! Damn it. She was so busy trying to untangle herself, she didn't notice that the sound of the cars whooshing by on the highway had winked off like someone flipping off a stereo.
Free of the thorns, she was suddenly deeper into the trees than she'd imagined. She looked behind her, in the direction she thought the car was parked, and she couldn't see through the foliage. Maybe she'd got turned around somewhere. She rotated slowly, but she was completely surrounded by a sea of tree trunks. Shit. Billy was right. She was hell with direction. She'd walked a few hundred feet and she was completely lost. That was when she realized she couldn't hear the cars anymore.
Instead she heard dance music. Pulsing, jangly, bass-heavy dance music. Coming from . . . over there. She moved forward, pushing branches out of her way until she saw neon lights. She moved quicker then, and emerged into a clearing. There, in the middle of the woods stood—
A strip club?!
Iris groaned. Billy hadn't gone into this strip club, had he?
"Billy!" she yelled.
That fucking bastard. Iris marched into the clearing, onto the pavement, and up to the door. The strip club was a squarish building with no windows. The sign read (in three-foot neon purple letters) "Live Nude Girls." Iris was going to kill Billy. She swung the door open and stepped into a small room. A burly man sat behind a desk that looked too small for him. "Got ID?" he asked.
"Did a guy come in here a minute ago?" Iris asked. "Tall? Long, dark hair? Wearing a trench coat?"
The man shrugged. "Maybe."
"I'm here to fetch him."
The man laughed. "Go on in."
Inside the club, the air was smoky, and the lights dim. The back wall was made up entirely of mirrors. In front of the mirrors was a platform with poles running from ceiling to floor every few feet. Three women, in various states of undress, were on the platform. The one in the middle had somehow managed to hook her feet on the top of the pole and was dangling upside down. Iris cocked her head. How was she doing that?
Iris had never been inside a strip club. She gazed appraisingly at the women. Hell, she looked at least that good naked. Maybe even better. Guys paid money to see girls that looked like this without their clothes? They were pretty, sure. But they had flaws. One had love handles. Another had cellulite. And the third had breasts the size of walnuts. Iris thought strippers were supposed to have big breasts.
She scanned the tables that faced the platform for Billy. They were empty for the most part. This was apparently a pretty slow night for the club. Considering its location, Iris wondered if it ever got any business. Maybe there was another road that led to the club. But some of the tables were filled. A few men sat alone. One was watching a girl who was dancing on his table. None of them was Billy. Maybe he hadn't come in here. Iris approached the bar. The bartender's back was turned, but maybe he'd know if Billy had come in or not. The bartender turned. He was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen. Honey-colored curls framed his face. His eyes were the color of the stormy sky. He was wearing a white tank top that clung to every curve of his muscular chest.
"What can I do for you?" he asked. His voice was like velvet.
"Uh," said Iris, struggling to remember.
"Do you need a drink?"
"I . . ." Iris was having problems remembering her name. To steady herself, she put her hands on the bar. "I'm trying to . . ." To what?
The bartender took her hand and brought it to his mouth. He kissed it. No . . . he tasted it. Then he dropped it and backed away. "Ghoul," he said.
Suddenly, the bartender didn't seem nearly as attractive. Iris glanced about as it came crashing into place. "Black pixie," she said. "Where's my friend?"
If the bartender were a black pixie, then maybe the strippers were. No. Not the ones on the stage. You'd think they'd cobble together a better illusion than that. She pivoted, her back against the bar, and surveyed the room.
"I think it's time for you to go," said the bartender.
Iris flipped him off without turning around. There. A gorgeous blonde with high firm breasts and an impossibly flat stomach was gliding into a hallway. Iris followed her.
The bartender followed Iris. "You can't go back there," he said.
Down the hallway were several rooms. The signs on the doors marked them private dance. Three of the doors were open. The blonde entered the fourth, where the door was closed.
Iris turned to the bartender. "Is my friend in there?"
"You need to leave," he said.
She threw open the door. It slammed into his nose. He backed away, whimpering.
Billy sat inside the room on a plush chair. He wasn't wearing his trench coat, or his pants. Both articles of clothing were draped over the back of the chair that he just sat in, wearing nothing but his t-shirt and boxers, looking relaxed, with a silly smile on his face. Two women, one with long red hair, one with brown, both naked, writhed against him. Their skin was creamy, smooth, and flawless. They had large breasts and ample behinds. They were perfect. Artful. Beautiful. Iris had never been attracted to other women in her life, but staring at these two, she felt a sense of longing tug at her. She almost wished they were touching her. The blonde who'd just entered shed her tiny sparkling bikini and kneeled in front of Billy. She threw back her head and then sank her teeth into Billy's thigh. Billy sighed in pleasure. The other women latched on as well.
"Get off him!" Iris screamed.
The three women turned their heads towards Iris leisurely, nonplussed. Billy's blood trickled out of their mouths. They chewed at stared at her.
"Off," Iris repeated.
The redhead swallowed. "Or what?"
"Iris?" Billy murmured.
"Billy, they're black pixies. We've got to get out of here."
When Billy didn't move, Iris lunged at the blonde stripper and tackled her. The stripper's head slammed against the floor.
"Ow," said the blonde.
Iris kicked her.
"Stop that," said the redhead, pulling Iris off the blonde. Iris hit her over the head with Buckingham's flashlight.
"Chick fight!" yelled a male voice.
Iris caught sight of a crowd of men rushing to the open doorway to watch before the brunette grabbed her hair and yanked her head back. "Bitch," said the brunette.
Iris pulled the brunette's hair. "Stripper black pixie," she returned.
The strippers ganged up on her. Iris elbowed them, raked her nails against their creamy skin, and used the flashlight as best she could, but they overpowered her. They knocked her on her back. The blonde and the brunette held her down and the redhead straddled her. Iris struggled and swore.
"You want us to leave your boyfriend alone?" said the redhead. "Fine. We'll play with you." She bared a row of razor sharp teeth.
"Bite me," Iris spat at her.
The redhead lowered her head to Iris' neck. Iris felt the scrape of her teeth against her skin.
The redhead scrambled to her feet. "She's a ghoul," she said.
The other strippers let go of Iris. Iris stood up, brushing herself off. She grabbed Billy's wrist and yanked him to his feet.
"You can keep your stupid boyfriend," said the blonde.
"He's not my boyfriend," Iris muttered.
Billy looked at her through half-closed eyes. "I'm bleeding," he said.
"No shit," she said, reaching down to grab his clothes and throwing them at him.
The crowd at the door parted to let them through.
"You are the stupidest, most idiotic bastard in the world," Iris was saying as they fought their way out of the trees. "I cannot believe you went in there. My God! Men and naked chicks. None of you have any brains in your heads. You all think with your dicks, and it almost got you fucking killed. Do you realize that, Billy? They were going to eat you. Eat you."
"Shut up," said Billy darkly.
They emerged into the field.
"I will not shut up," said Iris. "You are just really lucky that I happened to come after you, because otherwise—where's the car?"
A few moments earlier, Buckingham and Jaq had been standing outside the car, leaning against it, wondering if Iris and Billy were ever going to return. Buckingham was getting a little worried. Jaq had suggested going after them. Buckingham had said they should wait a little longer. Jaq had begun to protest, when they saw the headlights of an approaching car, which appeared to be slowing down.
It did slow down and parked just behind them. The headlights still blaring, the figures of two men got out of the car and slammed its doors in unison.
"You folks having car trouble?"
"No," said Buckingham. "One of our travelers is off in the woods using the restroom."
"Hey," said one of the men. "Is that you, Buckingham?" He and his companion stepped out of the headlights and came forward. "It is! It's me, Michaels, and my partner, Gibbs."
The two men shook Buckingham's hand.
Buckingham looked at them blankly.
"I used to work under you in research," said Michaels.
Magic Management officers! Damn. If they recognized Jaq, there was no telling what they'd do. He needed to convince them to be on their way. "Oh," said Buckingham. "Oh yes. Well, as you can see, I've got everything under control here. So, there's no need to—"
"Heard you got fired," said Gibbs. "Tough break."
"Who's the girl?" said Michaels.
Buckingham thought frantically. "My niece," he said. "She's very shy. She doesn't like to look at people." He shot a pointed look in Jaq's direction.
Jaq snapped her head down, eyes wide.
"She looks familiar," said Gibbs.
"She does . . ." said Michaels. "Buckingham, you sly dog. You were trying to bring her in yourself. Bargaining chip to get your job back."
"No," said Buckingham. "She's my niece. Her name's Olivia."
"That's Jaqueline Schmerfeld," said Michaels. "Don't worry, we'll put in our report that we found her with you." His hand went to his belt.
"No!" said Buckingham. "Jaq, run! Get down!"
Jaq lurched forward. Stumbled. Righted herself.
Michaels drew his gun from his belt and leveled it.
Jaq sprinted into the field.
The gunshot echoed, sound bouncing off the trees. Jaq stopped in midair and crumpled to the ground. Buckingham ran forward to the body. He knelt beside her and felt for a pulse.
"You-you-you idiot!" he raged at Michaels, who'd followed him to the spot where Jaq lay.
Michaels stood over him, sneering. "Come on, old man. The jig's up. There's a court order out on her. I was doing my job."
Buckingham drew himself to his feet. "She was innocent."
Michaels laughed. "Good one. I always liked you, Buckingham." He reached down, seized Jaq by the wrists and began dragging her body through the field. Her head flopped forward lifelessly. "Hey Gibbs! Little help here?"
Buckingham stared as the two carried the body back to their car and flung it into the trunk.
"Don't worry," said Michaels. "We'll make sure Price knows you found her."
They drove off.
Buckingham sat down in the field, covering his face with his hands. What had he done? How could he have let those two goons execute Jaq? He should have stopped them. Somehow, he should have kept them from doing what they'd done. From shooting her down like a dog. An innocent woman was dead, and it was his fault. Why hadn't he kept his mouth shut about Tanner and Jordan after seeing them in the coffee shop? If he had, if he hadn't followed Tanner that night, none of this would have happened. He'd caused it all, and what had it gotten him? He was unemployed, with the blood of an innocent on his hands. He was an idiot.
He'd thought he was so smart, following lead and questioning Price. He'd thought he had the whole case figured out. But he hadn't understood it at all. And because of his meddling, Jaq was dead.
He could still see her body falling lifelessly to the ground. The image would haunt him, probably for the rest of his life. And when Tanner and Jordan returned—
A sardonic chuckle escaped his lips. They certainly wouldn't trust him now, would they? And probably, they shouldn't. He stood up. He wouldn't tell them. He would leave. He'd go back to his house, do what research he could, and hope he could redeem himself by helping them in whatever way he could. But he couldn't wait here for them.
Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he just couldn't bear to look at their faces when he told them what he'd done. Maybe that was it. But from what he thought he knew of Billy Jordan, if he were waiting for them when they emerged, with the story he had to tell, Jordan might very well kill him. Buckingham got in his car and sped off. He made only one stop, at the first pay phone he came to. There he made one long phone call. Then he continued on his way home.
Iris and Billy sat on the side of the road smoking cigarettes. The road in front of them was narrow and painted with fading, cracked yellow lines. Behind them was a field of tall grass. In front of them was a field of tall grass. They could hear cars whizzing by on the interstate, but beyond that, there was no sign of civilization near.
"I knew we couldn't trust him," said Billy."
"Whatever," said Iris. "This is your fault, you know. If you hadn't gotten all, 'I want to see naked chicks—'"
"I wanted to use their bathroom."
"Sure, that's why I found you in the bathroom." Iris took a deep drag and expelled the smoke noisily. For a long time, there was no sound but their smoking, and the distant whirr of passing cars.
"You still haven't thanked me," said Iris.
Billy made a dismissive noise.
"I saved your life," she said.
"Thank you," said Billy, but he didn't sound very sincere.
Iris stubbed out her cigarette and inspected her fingernails. There was another long silence. She stood up. She gazed down one side of the road and then the other. What the hell had happened to Buckingham and Jaq? Was Billy right? Had Buckingham been fooling them, trying to gain their trust? If so, what had he done to Jaq?
"Maybe they're coming back," said Iris.
Billy laughed. "Face it, Iris, we're screwed."
Iris lit another cigarette. She sat back down. What were they going to do? How many times had they been stranded on a road somewhere in the past couple of days? Too many.
"Do you think he—" Iris broke off. "Do you think Jaq is okay?"
Billy massaged the bridge of his nose. "I don’t know."
Iris took a long drag. It caught in the back of her throat and she started to cough. Billy patted her back. A car was coming down the interstate ramp. Iris hastily threw up an illusion. They were now mohawked kids in leather.
"Oh," said Billy. "This will get us a ride."
"Do we want a ride? The last couple haven't turned out so well," said Iris.
The car pulled to a stop in front of them nonetheless. The driver reached over and opened the passenger side door. "Get in," he said.
It was Scott.
Iris was wary. She didn't know if they should trust Scott. After all, the pixie police had interrogated him.
"Mr. Buckingham send me," said Scott. "Get in."
"Where is Buckingham?" Billy wanted to know. "It's a long story," said Scott. "Get in. I'll tell you on the way."
Iris and Billy looked at each other, shrugged, and got in the car.
"All right," said Scott as he turned the car around. "I've got some really bad news."
Scott told them that Buckingham had called him and told him to go pick them up. Then he told them what had happened to Buckingham and Jaq. Buckingham wanted them to know they were welcome at his house, but he would understand if they didn't want to see him. He would still research Zain and help them if they'd allow it.
Stunned, Iris didn't say anything.
"Fucker's lying," said Billy. "He shot Jaq himself."
"I don't think so," said Scott. "You didn't hear him on the phone."
"Yeah? Well, how do we even know we can trust you?" said Billy. "He got to you once. Maybe he threatened a court order and you were just too happy to scamper around doing his dirty work."
"Dude, I'm doing this for Iris," said Scott. "She's helped me out a lot and I owe her big time. I hear that you're upset. But I didn’t do anything."
"Sure," said Billy. "Sure. You know what? Take me to his house. I'll kill the fucking bastard."
"No," said Iris.
"He deserves it," said Billy.
"I mean that we shouldn't go to Buckingham's house. We don't know what he's up to. It could be a trap."
"Scott could be a trap," said Billy.
Iris had thought so too, earlier. But seeing him now, she knew differently. The pixie police might have questioned him, but he'd done his best to tip her off when she'd called. "Scott wouldn't do that to me," she said. She turned to Scott. "Can we crash at your place?"
"Sure," he said.
Iris nodded. She looked out the window blankly. Tears were starting to slip out of her eyelids. She let them roll down her cheeks, not bothering to wipe them away.
Jaq was dead.
Shit. Jaq was dead.
They'd walked right by the place where she'd been shot, and they hadn't even noticed anything. She'd been too busy yelling at Billy.
She tried to cry silently, but her breathing betrayed her, catching, skipping a beat.
"Stop it," Billy snapped. "You don't get to cry. You didn't even like her."
"I—" Iris really did start to cry then. Audible sobs.
"I'm sorry," said Billy. "I'm . . ."
None of them spoke during the rest of the ride back. Iris' sobs punctuated their silence.
Back at Scott's, they discussed sleeping arrangements in flat voices. Iris would take Scott's bed. Billy would take the couch. Scott would take the floor. Iris tried to get Scott to keep his bed. She didn't mind sleeping on the floor. Billy wanted to take the floor. Iris shouldn't sleep there.
No decisions made, Iris and Scott had a dinner of diseased livers. Scott was raiding the transplant section of the hospital. Billy went for a walk, ostensibly to get something to eat, but he wasn't hungry. He was angry.
He roamed the streets and alleys aimlessly, fantasizing about different ways he could kill Buckingham. But it didn't matter, really, because in the end, it wasn't really Buckingham's fault. It was his. Iris was right. When she'd said it, she hadn't meant that it was his fault that Jaq was dead. They hadn't known yet. But it was still true. If he hadn't gone off into the woods and wandered into that strip club, Jaq would still be alive. They wouldn't have been there when the pixie police showed up. And if they had, he could have thrown up an illusion. He could have stopped it.
Deep down, he did believe Buckingham's story about the officers showing up. After all, Buckingham didn't have a gun. He couldn't have shot Jaq. But it was easier to hate Buckingham than it was to hate himself. He wandered into a bar. Bought himself a pack of cigarettes and a few shots. If anything, alcohol made the pain more acute. He left the bar. Beyond the incident at the strip club, if he'd never busted Jaq out of jail, this never would have happened. God, he'd fucked up her life. His proposing to her had gotten her locked up for a crime she didn't commit. His attempt to atone for that, freeing her, had gotten her killed.
In a way, he was somewhat responsible for Kei's wanting to destroy the human race. Really, all of this was his fault. He'd fucked up everything.
For the second time in two days, Billy felt tears threatening. This time he didn't fight them. He didn't know if he was crying for Jaq or because he felt sorry for himself. He didn't particularly care. He just walked, barely able to see through his tears. Somehow, he ended up back at Scott's place. Iris was outside, smoking.
She looked up at him, saw he was crying, and rushed to him. "Billy," she whispered, reaching for him.
He ducked out of her grasp, scrubbing at his eyes with his palms. He wiped his nose on the back of his hand.
Iris flinched and pulled back. "Sorry," she said.
"No," he said. "Don't—no."
She started backward, her face falling in embarrassment. He reached out and caught her wrist. Pulled her towards him. "Don't be sorry," he said.
Iris stared up at him. Her blue eyes welled up. "Jesus Billy," she said.
She was so close, her body inches from his own. She looked so small. Fragile. His hand moved from her hand to her waist, and suddenly she was in his arms. She blinked. Tears spilled out her eyes.
He kissed her.