Beta credit goes to Sarah, Amy, and Joey.
"Miss Mars, what are you doing here?" Donna Anderson asked calmly, appearing to force away from the initial alarm that had shown in her eyes. She met Veronica at the end of Balotelli's driveway, the golden retriever sitting down happily by her side.
"Funny, I was about to ask you the same question," Veronica replied, trying not to jump to conclusions as waves of suspicion rolled over her. A distraught person could have many different faces and moods to cope with a particular situation, she reminded herself. It was just difficult to hold back the accusatory tone.
Donna flinched, but she ignored the comment. "I know you need to question everybody in my life, but Joey had nothing to do with taking my son. I know"
"How can you be so sure?"
"Joey's the one who convinced me to hire a private investigator in the first place," Donna replied, folding her arms. "He doesn't trust cops, especially Neptune cops."
The fact that Balotelli had wanted her to hire a PI didn't mean a damn in the grand scheme of things.
He could be guilty.
She could be guilty.
Hell, they could even be in this together.
How many times had a client of Mars Investigations turned out to be the perp? Veronica thought as she took in Donna's defensive demeanor. Many perps foolishly thought that if they appeared to want to help solve the crime, they wouldn't be suspected themselves. In some cases, it just made the suspicion even greater.
But now wasn't the time to interrogate the woman, Veronica decided, even though the shadow of doubt remained. She couldn't go on pure speculation. That was the Neptune PD's MO. There needed to be hard evidence before she would accuse a mother of doing something to her missing child. "Okay, but like you said," she replied, "I have to question everybody in your life. Is Balotelli inside? Her eyes darted to the bungalow as she took a step.
"He's working a doubt shift," Donna said, stepping back as the canine by her side tensed and stood up in a protective stance. "I take it you already know he's a paramedic."
Veronica gave a slight nod. "And I know he has done time for manslaughter."
Donna shook her head. "You know that's what the cops think—that I'm having a tawdry affair with an ex-con, so I must've gotten rid of my son." She scoffed and then continued with a hoarse tone. "Of course, none of that is based on facts or reason, you know. It's just based on bullshit from the twisted mind of my husband." She wiped away a few tears with the back of her hand.
And just like that, the woman was back to sounding distraught. The pieces to the puzzle were yet to fit. "How do you know Balotelli then?" Veronica asked.
"We were neighbors growing up." Donna sighed. "He was best friends with my older brother and then when Jimmy OD'd the morning of their high school graduation, Joey became a second brother to me. He feels like Jimmy's death is his fault, like he could've stopped him from that path. So, he took on the responsibility of looking out for me, from helping me become the best softball pitcher on my team to warning me against marrying James, uh, which, obviously, I didn't listen to," she regretfully said. "It's just the first of many reasons James despises Joey."
Veronica raised a brow. "To what degree?"
Donna gave a slight smile, kneeling down to stroke the golden retriever's back. "Ethan begged for a dog for Christmas last year, and James was away on active duty, but I asked him if he was alright with it during a video chat He just shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn't care, that he wasn't the who was gonna clean up after the beast. So, Joey took Ethan and me to the animal shelter. It was like love at first sight for Ethan when he saw Freddy."
A tail started wagging and a big set of adoring brown eyes looked up at Donna. "For about a month, the two of them were inseparable. And then James came home." She took a deep breath. "In his excitement when telling his dad about Freddy, Ethan mentioned that Joey helped us bring him home. Right then and there, James went off the handle and ordered me to get rid of 'it' despite Ethan's cries. Joey ended up with Freddy and Ethan still gets to see him when his father isn't around." As her fingers dabbed at her damp eyes, Donna asked Freddy, "You miss Ethan, too, don't ya?" After a moment, she stood back up and pleaded to be believed, "I swear the only affair I had with Joey is in my husband's head and Joey has turned his life around." She exhaled as if she released an unwanted weight from her lungs before she continued. "Just—just please find Ethan."
Veronica wanted to believe her, but she needed to remain objective. "Finding Ethan is my main priority."
"Look," Donna said, "there's another vigil tonight at the elementary school…um… I feel like I have to be there despite the dozens of cold eyes that already think I'm guilty. Anyway, Joey will be there if you want to talk to him."
Veronica did want to talk to Balotelli, but this he-said-she-said with the Andersons was going nowhere fast. She had to revise her strategy. What she needed to do was take a hard look at the surveillance video of the woman picking up Ethan from school. With any luck, she could develop a clearer image of the kidnapper. Veronica would then have an opportunity tonight. Vigils were known as hot spots for criminals. They couldn't help but to observe the aftermath of their destruction. Hopefully, this kidnapper had this vile compulsion
"I'll be there."
Who would've thought that chasing a cotton-candy fueled toddler around Chuck E. Cheese for three hours was almost as grueling as some hair-raising missions across the Pacific? Logan mused as he plopped down on the sofa with a hefty sigh. Noah was now napping with Pony in his room. Thankfully, the sugar high had worn off by the time they'd arrived home.
Not that Logan was complaining, he loved the little guy. Noah's giddiness as he'd run from game to game had been infectious. For those few hours, Logan had felt like a kid again, not that he had too many memories of pure joy as a kid. The shadow of Aaron Echolls had always been hovering, ready to pounce at any semblance of happiness it seemed. It didn't matter whether it had come from verbal lashes or lashes from a belt. Each blow had torn away at Logan's innocence.
Maybe it had been the lack of innocence, but he'd never thought of becoming a father himself. It wasn't necessarily a fear of being like Aaron. He just had never pictured a life with children.
Not until Veronica.
Specifically, not until Veronica had popped back into his life after a nine-year-long absence. They'd finally found a solid foundation that had been missing in their teens. They actually worked through the hiccups and snags that rose between them instead of taking the easy Splitsville route. Suddenly, the thought of kids in their future had become as exhilarating as riding a big, powerful wave. He imagined a little face having Veronica's blond locks and blue eyes along with his sly smirk.
And When Veronica had finally accepted his proposal, that future had seemed within his reach.
Until that bomb.
Logan knew that he was lucky to be alive, He was more than grateful for that fact, but the foundation that had seemed so solid crumbled beneath his feet. Now uneasiness and uncertainty tugged at the forefront of his mind, a voice taunting him again and again. — "Hey, Logan. You don't deserve a long and happy life. It's not in the cards for you, son. Forget it."
Therapy helped keep that voice at bay, but he was nowhere near ready to imagine becoming a parent. It wasn't fair to put it all on Veronica when he was struggling as well.
It wasn't fair to bring a child into the world with their fucked-up luck. He was unsure that—
The doorbell jingled.
Logan squeezed his eyes shut and sighed, breaking out of his reverie before going to answer the door.
"Please enough with the jingle bells!" Logan shouted as he peered through the peep-hole and then opened the door.
"Hey there, Logan," Keith smiled.
"Look, it's my favorite father-in-law." He smirked and raised his brows. "What are you doing here? "
"I just saw Veronica at the office and she told me that you guys were watching Noah," Keith snickered. "I told her I'd check-in to see if you were still standing. Where is the little man?"
"Naptime." Logan smiled and moved back for him to come inside. "You've already got your bounty? I'm impressed."
Keith shook his head. "It seems the jumper came back by his own volition."
"Hmmm, likely story."
"You don't believe me?" Keith asked, following Logan into the kitchen.
Logan shrugged. "You got Veronica on the Anderson case. Wasn't that the point?"
"I'm offended by your insinuation that I'd lie to my daughter to get her to work on a case," Keith replied without very much punch. "I thought you knew me better than that by now, Logan."
"Okay, sorry, my apologies." He held up a fresh pot of coffee as a peace offering.
They both sat down at the table with steaming mugs. Logan welcomed the distraction. He hated when he was alone too long with his thoughts. They never led to anything good lately.
Logan narrowed his eyes at Keith. "You didn't just come to check-in, did you?"
"I just wanted to let you know that Susan helped me send out the invitations yesterday."
Logan gulped down some coffee before saying, "I'm sort of hurt that your girlfriend is taking part in our male bonding experience. This was supposed to be our party, Keith."
His father-in-law rolled his eyes and sighed. "It becomes clearer every day why you and Veronica are the perfect fit."
"Why thank you, Keith." Logan's mouth tilted up.
"It's not necessarily a compliment," the older man replied, wryly. "Now back to the party, you need to intercept the Fennels' mail before Veronica sees the invitation."
"I think I can handle that."
Logan turned his head toward the kitchen archway where Veronica stood. Her eyes moved back and forth between him and her dad as her mouth slightly perked up.
Keith jumped in with a reply, "Noah, I was giving your husband advice about how to get Noah down for a nap faster." Before she could question further, he changed the subject. "What do you have in your hands there? Is that the mail?" His eyes snapped to Logan.
"I already brought the Fennels' mail in today," he quickly replied, watching his wife's gaze zero in on them and freeze for a few lengthy seconds. Yeah, she knew something was up, no doubt about it.
"Great, now that we all know the mail is safe and sound," Veronica said dryly, "we can relax." She then lifted up her hand and took out a picture from a large, vanilla envelope. "This is a shot of Ethan's kidnapper."
"From the elementary school security video?" Keith asked. "But the woman never faced the camera."
"For a brief three seconds, you can see her left side profile," Veronica replied as she placed the blurry still on the table. "I watched it about fifty times before I noticed this," Her finger pointed to a speck by the individual's temple.
Logan studied the image. "That could be a mole or birthmark."
"Or a blip in the video." Keith countered. "And that could be a dark wig."
Veronica sighed. "Well, it's the only semi-lead we have right now."
Logan looked up at her. "What happened with Balotelli?"
"He was apparently at work," Veronica replied as she took a seat. "Donna Anderson was at his house, though, taking care of his dog. According to her, they're just long-time friends."
"Do you believe her?" Keith asked.
She shrugged. "I don't know. At first, I was taken aback by her sunny appearance, but we can't just go by appearances or what the Andersons say. It's wasting time. The kid is still missing. I'm a bit rusty, but I know when it's time to find a different angle. There's gonna be a vigil tonight.' Her eyes stared at the photo, and she said fervently "I'm hoping this woman will be there to bask in the worry and sorrow that she's causing."
"It's a long shot, you know," Keith replied, "but maybe she will."
"I'll come with you," Logan told Veronica. "We can call Noah's regular babysitter and see if she is free tonight."
"Don't be silly," Keith said. "Susan and I can look after him."
Veronica shook her head. "Dad, we appreciate the offer, but Noah can be a little rambunctious."
"What?" Keith put a hand over his heart as if she wounded him. "I'm not a feeble man yet, Veronica. Besides, it'll be like a test run if you guys ever give me a grandkid or two."
Logan glanced at his wife and she glanced back, but neither gave a retort, not even an automatic smartass-gripe.
In the end, they just accepted Keith's babysitting offer.
As the hazy sun dipped below the horizon, a stream of glowing candlelight spread throughout the parking lot of Neptune Elementary as a minister stood at a podium reciting a prayer. With Logan by her side, Veronica scanned the faces of the crowd, looking for a woman with a mark by her left temple, but all she saw was the toothless grin of Ethan Anderson gazing back at her from t-shirts and posters.
Donna was at the back of the crowd with a burly guy which Veronica assumed was Balotelli. They walked over to them and made introductions.
"I understand you want to speak to me," Balotelli said to Veronica in a matter-of-fact tone.
She nodded. "I do, but first I want to show you guys something." She handed them each a flyer with side-by-side shots of the kidnapper and Ethan. Before coming to the vigil, Veronica and Logan had printed out hundreds of flyers, asking the public to call the authorities if anyone had seen the suspect with the boy. A list of characteristics was given along with a sizable reward. "I wish the image of the suspect was clearer, but this is better than nothing."
"I don't recognize her," Donna sighed, staring down at the flyer as if trying to conjure up a different answer. "Why would she take my son?"
Balotelli rubbed her shoulder. "She doesn't look familiar to me, either."
"Maybe it'll come to you," Logan prodded.
"It's okay," Veronica replied. "We'll go to the media and —."
A fist flew right at Balotelli's face, knocking him to the ground. "YOU SON OF A BITCH!" The voice of Lieutenant Anderson echoed through the night. "WHERE'S ETHAN?!"
Veronica quickly stepped back, grabbing Donna's arm and pulling her out of harm's way.
In seconds, the two men exchanged blow for blow as they scuffled on the pavement, capturing the attention of onlookers.
"Oh, my God!"
"What the hell are they doing?"
"Get him, lieutenant!"
Flyers scattered to the ground as Logan dove into the middle of the brawl. Veronica winced as a fist connected with his nose, but he swung back. Hard. Somehow, he pulled the lieutenant and Balotelli apart, gripping them both by their collars, using each of his hands like a meat hook.
"Gen —gentlemen." Logan breathed heavily, blood dripping from his nostril "You're making a scene."
"Fuck, let me go!" The Lieutenant gritted his teeth through a swollen mouth and swung a fist toward Logan.
He dodged it. "Not until you calm down," he replied as if speaking to a rebellious child.
Out of the corner of her right eye, Veronica saw an auburn-haired woman in a beige jacket bend down and pick up a flyer several feet away. Veronica snapped her head toward her as the individual started walking shiftily in the opposite direction of the commotion, across the baseball field.
As a cool breeze prickled at her neck, Veronica slowly followed her.
The woman walked faster.
Veronica began to run.
The woman stepped off the curb and quickly glanced back before hopping into a grey SUV and speeding away.
Into the night.
But not before Veronica saw it.
A mole by her left temple.