Veronica had wanted to make one more stop before heading home—the ATM at Plush—but she'd regretted the detour even before she went inside. The strip club was open and serving an early dinner buffet. It was both disgusting and sad. Lonely men eating chicken wings while leering at women who weren't people to them, only empty vessels for their sexual fantasies.
A hard-looking brunette, wearing dark-green booty shorts and matching lace bralette, took the stage to the opening guitar riff of Pour Some Sugar On Me- "love is like a bomb, baby, c'mon get it on." Veronica turned away from the performance. She rapped a knuckle on the cheap laminate to catch the bartender's attention and shouted to be heard over the music. "ATM?"
He nodded toward a small alcove tucked out of sight at the end of the long club- right next to the private rooms. The point of this excursion was unclear. She didn't really need to see the teller machine Karen had used before her murder, or to know they charged an exorbitant fifteen dollar surcharge to withdraw funds.
Karen had made a purchase at Wicked Venus, then, needing cash, ducked into the strip club to get money. It didn't have to be more complicated than that. Maybe Wicked Venus even sent their customers here. Veronica frowned at the logo on the ATM. Not a recognizable bank, but a privately-owned machine.
Hmm… Small bills. Frequent transactions.
The idea took hold, but she had no time for it now. She wanted to talk to the dancers, see if any of them were the former Shenanigans employees, or friends of Karen's, and then go home for a bacon-wrapped chicken dinner with her husband.
Veronica walked past the bouncer with a convenient lie about starting work as the new stripper; he didn't seem to care. Neither did the girls in the dressing room. They paid her little attention- less, once she started asking questions. A lot of blank expressions when she mentioned Karen's name, but one woman—slender, with hourglass-curves and the right 'look' for the clientele at Shenanigans—blanched when Veronica named the club.
"I don't know your friend, but that place…" She fell silent, and Veronica waited expectantly for her to continue. The pause turned lengthy as the dancer checked over her shoulder and shuffled a few steps to the right, moving out of earshot. "I auditioned there." Her voice, already a hushed whisper, dropped even lower before adding, "For a guy named Joey."
Veronica made a fast calculation on how to play the conversation and decided on conspiratorial. "Skeevy, right?"
Playing confidant was the right call; the woman visibly relaxed, nodding her head in agreement. "Yes! But not your regular type of perv." She waved toward the stage door and the buffet-eating crowd of regular pervs waiting beyond. "He got real personal, real fast, asking if I was single, if I was a local girl."
Local. There it was again. The hint of Joey—the Pied Piper of strippers—luring girls to Neptune. Veronica frowned. "Are you? From the area, I mean. Did you grow up here?"
"No?" The questioning lilt at the end of the word said she was confused as to why Veronica was asking.
"I was just wondering how you got an audition." The puzzled expression didn't leave the dancer's face so Veronica elaborated. "Karen said they like to hire girls from out-of-town."
"Why would that matter?"
You don't want to know. "So what happened?"
"They offered me a job- Joey and his partner." She shuddered at the mention of Sam. "But I was already having serious doubts, and when they started suggesting I could make extra cash…" She shook her head. "Pass."
Smart move. "Did they say how you'd be earning that extra money?"
"Not in so many words, but… come on, we both know what they wanted. Talking about private parties and 'entertaining' select clients." A look of disgust crossed over her face, but it was quickly replaced by concern. "Your friend- Karen, was it?" At Veronica's nod of confirmation, the dancer asked, "Is she missing?"
It was an interesting word choice. But what was more interesting was the logic jump- private parties to missing women. "Why would you think that?"
"Well, you're in here looking for her, right?"
Veronica chose to not dissuade her from the assumption that Karen was only missing. Karen's murder had made the papers, but obviously she wasn't making the connection, which was better for Veronica. The words 'dead' and 'murder' and 'police investigation' tended to make people nervous and nervous people didn't talk. "Karen was in here last week- Thursday afternoon, around this time, to use the ATM machine. I was hoping she talked to someone, or that somebody remembered her."
Veronica described Karen and received nothing but a blank stare until she mentioned the cast on her forearm and bruises around her neck, then the dancer's eyes rounded. Not in recognition but fear. She stumbled back a step, eyes darting down the hall toward the ATM and the bouncer. "You should just go."
For a second, Veronica considered arguing, but what was the point? She'd spooked the only person willing to speak to her, and no one else was stepping up to take her place. With a nod, Veronica thanked her for her time, then took her advice and left.
The convertible was waiting in a spot equidistant between the strip club and Wicked Venus. Veronica leaned a hip on the car door and contemplated the store- a nondescript brick building painted white, with plate-glass windows, and awnings the same deep-red as their shopping bags. A stylized-version of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus—a naked woman with long hair standing on a seashell—served as their logo. The Roman goddess of love and sexuality, open until eight, and selling stripper clothes. Who'd a thunk it?
Veronica unlocked the car and slid behind the wheel, foregoing her plan to visit the store. It was time for a break from this world of cheaters, criminals, and cons. She needed a reprieve in the shape of a dance-party-loving toddler and her equally charming little sister. Their father was nothing to sneeze at either.
Thinking about them made her smile, and made her forget about the speed limit in her haste to get home. Too bad she couldn't just as easily forget the day.
The more questions she asked, the further the answer seemed to recede. She needed a solution. Not just the identity of the thief and killer, but a way to nail Sam and Joey. It gnawed at her. The idea that they could get away with their crimes. That she might not be able to do anything about them.
And, if she couldn't, where would that leave Pam? Tyler?
They'd have to help Pam buy her way out. Even if Veronica couldn't get Sam and Joey arrested on the evidence she had, it would probably be enough leverage to force their hand and free Pam. But then what? Would Pam take Tyler and go back to Vegas? Disappear to parts unknown? What would that do to Logan? To lose his son?
Maybe there was a compromise to be had? That house at the end of the street, Pam's decoy hideout, would eventually go to auction. They could… She shook her head. Cart before the horse, Veronica.
Instead of making plans for the future of their family she should be thinking of ways to explain her feelings to Logan. Why Pam's arrival had left her so unsettled. And why she kept turning it into a competition. But first she had to explain things to herself. Because it didn't make sense. No matter what happened with Pam and Tyler, her marriage to Logan was rock-solid. There were no cracks in the foundation. They wouldn't give up on each other. They wouldn't walk away. They were both too stubborn to quit, or fail.
So what's your defect, Veronica?
The answer hit her as she walked through the front door. This overwhelming sense of well-being, of being home, was what she'd been so desperately trying to protect; and no matter how illogical, Pam's presence felt like it was threatening this security.
Veronica reset the alarm and headed for the kitchen in search of her husband. Logan was kneading a round of pizza dough. "That doesn't look like chicken," Veronica commented, dropping her messenger bag on the island.
"Wyatt saw it and was not happy, so before she could declare 'me no like,' I told her it was a pizza topping."
Smiling, Veronica wrapped her arms around his middle, giving him a squeeze, before resting her head on his back. "You know pizza isn't a food group."
"But ice cream is?"
Her smile widened. "You got me."
"This works out though." Logan enveloped her hands in his, loosening her grip so he could turn around to face her. "Because I can hide cauliflower under the mozzarella and sauce."
"On her slice and not mine, right?"
"Yes, dear." He kissed her nose. "Although it wouldn't kill you to have a vegetable."
"French fries are vegetables." Before he could make a wisecrack, she added, "And I eat salad."
"I'm not sure it counts when you cover it with bacon and cheese, then drown it in dressing."
Veronica shrugged, dropping her arms from his waist. "Where is the temperamental food critic anyway?"
Logan glanced at the clock. "Passing judgment on the poor-state of the California freeway system? Getting cranky because she's been stuck in the car too long and wants to run around?" He slipped on a potholder and removed a head of roasted garlic from the oven. "After mud-pies and an hour in the bath-"
With his gift for hyperbole, it was possible he was exaggerating about it taking an hour, but Veronica doubted it. Wyatt had probably rolled around in the mud like this was Charlotte's Web and she was Wilbur.
"-Pam stopped by with Tyler and volunteered to take them to Coronado for the afternoon."
Panic squeezed her heart. Pam, alone with the girls. Pam, who was partnered with a mobster, and who was being watched by said bad guys.
"Relax, Veronica. I wouldn't let her take the girls on her own; Dottie and Nick were done with apartment hunting, so they went along." Logan watched as she digested the information, eyes wary. When he seemed satisfied (by her lack of complaint) that she was okay, he opened the refrigerator and took out the rest of the ingredients for tonight's dinner- bacon, bell peppers, cauliflower, and asiago and mozzarella cheeses.
So much for her plan of incorporating Pam into their lives. Obviously there was going to be a steep learning curve. Veronica broached the subject anyway. "I stopped at the decoy house yesterday." She withdrew her laptop from her bag, plugged it in, and while waiting for it to start, she took a seat at the island. "I had Weevil get some furniture for it, so it would look lived in, but the thing is..."
Logan stopped grating the head of cauliflower to give her his full attention.
"I think Pam might actually be staying there." Veronica laid it out for him- Pam's panic after Karen was killed and her 'maybe I should leave Dick's' comment; the very cozy front porch setting; and, the recent absence of her driving Dick's Hummer.
He frowned. "Do you think she's got Tyler with her?"
"Doubtful." Veronica booted up the surveillance video from the house, starting with the camera from the bird feeder. It had the best view of the street. "Pam's too worried about him to put him in danger, and, make no mistake"—she raised her head, gaze locking with his—"staying there is dangerous."
"I'll talk to her," is what he said, but from his grim expression, Veronica guessed he didn't hold out much hope of changing Pam's mind. He resumed shredding the cauliflower into unrecognizable pieces, and jutted his chin at the computer. "What are we watching?"
"We?" she asked, but still angled the screen so he could see it better. "I planted cameras so I could keep an eye on the house."
Logan smiled. "That's my girl- always thinking ahead."
Now to see if that planning had paid off. She pulled the DMV reports for her remaining suspects and made a list of their registered cars. Sam's Maserati wasn't his only vehicle, there was also a Bentley. Veronica rolled her eyes. A Bentley on surveillance? And she thought the BMW didn't blend.
After maximizing the video window, she pressed play and was rewarded with an unobstructed view of the road. She stole a chunk of the mozzarella from the cutting board, and settled in to watch a lot of nothing. It wasn't a very busy street. The entire neighborhood was quiet. A big selling point for a house-hunting pregnant-Veronica, who had wanted a good place to raise a baby. But a complete snooze-fest for detective-Veronica, who could use a little action, and maybe a clue or two.
She stole another piece of cheese as a dark gray, or silver, Audi cruised down the street, slowing in front of the house, and then hitting the gas. Not on her list of cars, but definitely suspicious.
"So… are we going to talk about it?" Logan asked, pulling her focus away from the video. He was neatly arranging slices of bacon on a foil-lined baking sheet, and shooting glances in her direction. "This morning's no condom?"
No, we're not going to talk about it, is what she wanted to say, but she knew her husband too well. He wasn't going to let the subject drop without an exhaustive exploration of their feelings. She swallowed a sigh. "Does it need to be a big deal?"
"You going from no more kids, ever, to let's have a baby, IS a big deal, Veronica."
The dark gray Audi made another pass down the street. She paused the screen. "It's good, right? This life, us, the kids?"
"It's better than good." He stroked her cheek and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"So why fight it? Maybe we have another baby, maybe we don't." She shrugged, faking nonchalance, and resumed the playback on her laptop. "We'll just see what happens."
From the corner of her eye, she saw him shake his head, gearing up for more discussion. There had to be words to explain what she was feeling. Too bad they didn't seem to exist in her vocabulary.
On the screen, the Audi made a third pass in front of the decoy house. The camera angle didn't capture a license plate, or a view of the driver's face, but from the size and shape, it was clearly a man behind the wheel.
"Hey, Echolls." Logan didn't look up from his chicken dicing. Veronica put a hand on his arm, stilling his movements. "In for a penny, remember?"
His answering smile was slow and tender. "In for a pound."
Romantic shorthand was her specialty. Good thing Logan was fluent in Veronica-speak and she didn't have to say more. A callback to their no-birth-control conversation after Wyatt's birth was enough for him to understand this wasn't about Pam, or Tyler, or any outside influence. This decision was about the two of them and their family. Period.
She scrawled a note to have Mac look into vehicles owned by family members of her suspects in search of the dark-colored Audi, and then changed the subject. "I saw Casey Gant today."
"Is he still a pompous dick?" Logan asked, exiting the pantry with two jars of Rao's pizza sauce.
"Now is that any way to talk about your dear friend? The one who misses you terribly, and wants you to come surfing with him?"
"Why? So he can show off his key to Black's Beach?"
"You know about that?" At his nod, she frowned. "Casey made it sound like you guys haven't talked in a long time."
"We haven't, but word travels."
The 09ers were still an exclusive clique. Money and power had that effect. Like attracts like. "Heard any other rumors about the Gants?"
"Uh… Gant Publishing posted losses in all four quarters last year, because the digital revolution is marginalizing traditional publishers."
"Thanks, Fortune 500," she said, dryly. "I meant on a more personal level."
Logan shrugged. "Juanita is staging a coup to take over as chairman of the Neptune Community Foundation board; she thinks Celeste has overstayed her welcome."
Veronica nodded in agreement. Forget limiting it to the foundation, Celeste had overstayed her welcome everywhere. If this were the old west, Veronica would saddle up and join the posse bent on running Celeste out of town. Neptune ain't big enough fer the both of us.
"Oh, and now that Juanita is occupied elsewhere, I hear Bill has a new mistress- a very young blonde he euphemistically calls his assistant." Smirking, Logan took the bacon from the oven. "Shocking, right?" He transferred the slices to a paper-towel-lined plate. "It's not exactly a love-match; she doesn't even seem to like him much. My guess- she's in it for the money." He hummed a few bars of the Pink Floyd song.
"Or maybe because she doesn't have a choice," Veronica murmured, silencing Logan's humming. She opened her Gmail account in search of the video files from Mac. "I don't think it's guns, or drugs, they're trafficking."
"If not those than…" It didn't take him long to connect the dots. She knew the moment he reached his answer by the spark of anger in his eyes, and the clenching of his jaw. "Are you fucking kidding me? You think they're SELLING women?"
Veronica nodded. "Joey's trips to different cities? He wasn't looking for dancers, he was shopping. And the women he chose are like Pam- on their own, estranged from their family. No real ties and no one to miss them if they disappeared."
"And you think Bill Gant's mistress is one of the girls from Shenanigans?"
"Maybe?" She told him about the million dollars Bill had paid to the club. "It could also explain why he was so willing to help push through the zoning variance- Sam was supplying women for him and his rich cronies." Cyn's words from days ago came back to her: if they wanted someone at home who would let them get their kink on, they had enough money to make it happen.
"The dancers who quit—the ones you had Mac looking for—do you think they've been sold?"
"It would explain why Mac is having such a hard time finding them-and why the one I talked to earlier was terrified I might tell Sam where to find her." Veronica frowned.
During the meeting with Haley, she'd been positive the dancer was withholding information- the fits and starts, the abrupt shifts in conversation. Haley had looked incredulous at the idea of gun trafficking, and when Veronica had asked about Aimee, another girl who left the club, Haley had started to say something, she didn't- What? She didn't quit? Was it possible Haley knew exactly what was happening at Shenanigans?
The thwack of a knife against the wood cutting board interrupted her thoughts and returned her attention to Logan. Anger pinched the corners of his eyes and drew his lips out in a thin, hard line, and he was attacking the green bell pepper as if it had personally offended him.
"You know this is only a theory, right? I could be wrong." He nodded, but remained silent, working through whatever dark thoughts he was having. Veronica reached over and touched his cheek, bringing him back to her. "Not that it happens often- my being wrong- it probably coincides with that comet, once every seventy-five years or so."
His answering smile was slight, but his shoulders relaxed. "And if you ARE right? What's the plan? How are we going to nail them to the wall?"
His use of 'we' made her grin, but it was short-lived because she didn't have a plan. Not yet anyway. "Working on it," she said, opening the video file from Mac. First she had to figure out who had killed Karen, then she could concentrate on bringing Sam down. Veronica pressed play.
Mac's fears about the Apple Liquors camera not having a view of the street were unfounded. Located on the corner of the building, it was angled down to capture the sidewalk in front of the ATM machine, but its field of view was set wide enough to record the road leading to Karen's. The video wasn't grainy, but the vehicles were the size of Matchbox cars in the corner of her screen.
Veronica eyed her still-brooding husband. "Think you can identify a car from just its shape? While it speeds? On a black-and-white video? When its image is no bigger than your thumb?"
"Sounds like the premise of a bad video game."
"Well, here's your chance to earn the high score." She vacated her seat. "You watch, and I'll put the pizzas together."
They switched places. Logan pressed play on the video, and she assembled the two pies -one with chicken, bacon, and the dreaded cauliflower, which she dotted with slivers of red bell pepper, and the other without any vegetables. Logan smirked at the pizza with the telltale peppers. "That's some complicated secret code you have there."
"Good enough to fool a two-year-old," she said with a shrug. "Now how 'bout you just pay attention to the screen." Veronica tapped the monitor for emphasis. "And stop watching what I'm doing."
"But you're absolutely riveting." He grinned at her eye roll. "Besides, I'm finished. Leveled-up, and beat the boss." With a nudge of the external mouse, he woke the computer. A still from the liquor store footage filled the screen. "This car—a Mazda Miata—passes the camera at one-thirty, heading toward Karen's, then makes a reappearance thirty minutes later, traveling in the opposite direction." Logan pointed to the time-stamp in the bottom corner. "And based on your list, I'd say this 2016 blue MX-5 belongs to Siobhan."