A/N: About this chapter: This is not the entire update. Surprising absolutely nobody, the original chapter grew up beyond 22K words, and I decided to split it in half.
The back half isn't quite finished yet, but I figured I'd throw this out there. I'll try to complete the other half in the next few weeks.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17, 2013
It's the sound that pulls Veronica back from sleep. A wet, repetitive, sort of slurp-crunch, that is simultaneously revolting and strangely comforting.
She sits up, shoving aside the lightweight, green throw blanket. Her head throbs with that heavy, 'slept-the-day-away' feeling, and she lets it fall backwards on the couch.
Dust motes float in a beam of light above her, and if she had to guess the time from its angle, she'd say late afternoon.
Or she could just check her phone. As if on auto-pilot, one hand reaches toward the coffee table, before her brain catches up. It's not here. Vinnie had refused to return it this morning.
"Backup…" she groans, "Will you please stop chewing on your toenails?"
He tilts his head, as if saying, 'Huh?', and a smile tickles at the corners of her mouth. God, she's missed that goofball. Disgusting grooming habits, and all.
Other than the dog, the house is still. Silent.
Logan must've left while she was napping, and her dad's briefcase is conspicuously missing from its designated spot on the console table.
It's my birthday, and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry too, if it happened to you.
Veronica stands, presses hands to her lumbar area and leans backwards, arching and stretching her spine.
Everything after this morning's phone call with Mac feels like a blur.
In the aftermath of discovering the body, the hours of evidence collection, questioning, and sleep deprivation, Veronica hadn't once considered the impact of Madison's death on the Mackenzie family. Hadn't acknowledged that - thanks to some psychopath's obsession with her - Sam and Natalie Mackenzie, the last great parents in Neptune, would never get to know their biological daughter. Ryan would never get to know his sister.
She'd stumbled back into the living room, bone tired and soul weary.
Logan, in the midst of discussing some political action committee with her father, had sized-up her emotional state in a single glance, and lifted his right arm in silent invitation.
For once, she'd accepted, gratefully and without comment. Collapsing onto the couch next to him, she pulled up her feet, and curled into his side. She tuned-out their discussion, simply enjoying his warmth, the thrum of his voice against her cheek as her eyes grew heavier and heavier. She must've passed out within minutes.
It isn't fair of her to lean on him emotionally, while rejecting him romantically, and if she were a better woman, she might apologize. Promise to do better. But, while she can acknowledge she's in the wrong, she can't say she's truly sorry.
If she's an emotional vampire, Logan is her Renfield, giving of himself willingly and with open eyes. He wanted her to unburden herself, and she just might be a little better, having done so.
Grabbing the blanket, Veronica folds it into a rectangle, breathes in its fabric softener smell, before draping it over the back of the couch.
She returns her lock-box to the bedroom closet shelf, then heads to the kitchen, where she drinks the last inch of this morning's cold coffee before setting the empty mug in the sink.
The microwave clock reads 3:22 PM, and through the window above it, she can see her Sebring, surprisingly shiny in the bright sunlight, and parked right in front of the detached garage.
Logan's doing, presumably. Just one more advantage to having a friend in City Hall.
A folded note sits on the kitchen table, next to her cell phone and keys.
Heading in to the office for a 3:00 PM appointment.
Humor an old man, and keep me in the loop if you decide to go anywhere. I just need to know you're staying safe.
For once, she doesn't groan, or sigh, or roll her eyes. After this morning's confession, who can blame him for being overprotective? It's the primary reason why she hadn't spilled everything the morning she showed up on his doorstep. Why worry him unnecessarily?
Veronica long-presses her phone's power button, then drinks a small glass of tap water at the sink while she waits for it to boot up.
Her phone chirps with a reminder to check her notifications.
7 missed texts.
The first is from Joe, wishing her a happy birthday, and begging her to get in touch with him. Not gonna happen. She responds to this, as well as the ones from Jules and Diane, her cousins, Theresa and Angelina, and Edith, her old partner's long-suffering wife, with non-committal, 'Thank you!'s.
The last text is from Logan, and her belly does a little flip to see his name there again, after all these years.
At my strong encouragement (threats), Vinnie agreed to release your vehicle and phone. Don't worry, I curbed any impulses to snoop. Not that I would waste my time trying, since I'm sure you're that person who uses a crazy password, fingerprint verification and facial recognition all at once (which reminds me, this would be an ideal time to beef up my own password game).
You owe me a car wash. Feel free to wear something tiny. With strings.
Veronica grins. Tiny, with strings, huh? It would serve him right if she showed up with a bucket and sponge, wearing a friendship bracelet and baggy coveralls.
It bugs her, just a little, that Logan's text doesn't mention her birthday, despite the fact that he'd arranged this morning's chocolate chip pancake breakfast.
There's nothing from Mac, but that's to be expected. She's probably still with her family right now. No birthday wishes from Weevil, but they've never been texting buddies, and she can't quite picture him keeping a calendar.
The glaring omission - the one feels like a punch to the gut - is Wallace.
She'd been wrong not to warn him about Jackie, so she hadn't begrudged him ignoring yesterday's texts and sending all her calls to voicemail. But if he thinks she's going to spend what's left of her birthday begging him for forgiveness - especially after the night she had - he can keep dreaming.
So what now?
Staying home is a definite no. Free time and boredom will only lead to self-recrimination and second-guessing her choices.
Working is the one thing that keeps her sane when the world has gone mad.
・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・
In the bathroom, Veronica drags a cushioned brush through her sleep-tangled hair and splashes water on her face. She gathers her laptop and bag from the bedroom and returns to the kitchen for her keys.
Backup pads forward, stubby tail wiggling and eyes hopeful.
"Okay, but only for ten minutes." She snatches his thick, blue-and-silver leash from a hook, snaps it to his matching collar, and closes the front door behind them.
One house down, a Neptune Sheriff's cruiser sits parked at the curb.
She pauses on the sidewalk as the window rolls down, revealing an embarrassed Norris Clayton. "Hey, Veronica. I was sent to keep an eye on the house."
She tilts her head. "For my protection? Or to catch me doing something nefarious?"
"Both?" His mouth curves into a rueful smile. "Depends on whether you ask the mayor or the sheriff."
"Right." She sighs. "Okay, well, I'm taking my geriatric dog for a not-so-quick walk around the block, and then I'll be heading into the office for a few hours of work. I'll be sure to drive slowly, so you can keep up."
"Drive as fast as you'd like, but watch out for the speed trap on Third Street." He squints up at her, eyes twinkling. "Sheriff didn't say anything about following you."
"Noted." She smirks, and gestures behind her. "Well, the house is right there. I doubt it's going anywhere, but feel free to watch it."
They wave goodbye, and she continues on her walk.
Either Van Lowe is heavily invested in solving this case, or he hadn't appreciated her critiquing his interrogation techniques.
As a cop - ex cop - she understands the value in using different language to ask the same questions, but Vinnie takes it to a new level of absurdity. She must've repeated her story a dozen times last night.
At around 11:00 PM, I received a text message luring me to the home of Madison Sinclair.
No, I hadn't given her my phone number. I just assumed she'd gotten it from Logan.
Um…because I was worried about his safety, obviously?
Why would I assume it was a hoax?
We've only recently resumed our friendship after not speaking for six years. Nineteen year-old Logan occasionally abused alcohol. I have no references for adult Logan's habits.
Of course, I still care about his safety. I've known him since we were twelve years old.
Yes, we dated. Off and on.
No, it was amicable.
Because...I don't know. In order to move on, I needed to make a clean break.
I waited in the driveway for a while.
No, I just listened to music.
Of course, I didn't beep the horn. Would anyone at that time of night?
Let me clarify. Would anyone with common decency beep their horn at that time of night, knowing the neighbors would be trying to sleep?
After several minutes, I got tired of waiting and went up to the front door.
No, I didn't ring the doorbell, I figured she'd left the door cracked for me on purpose.
I don't know, there could be lots of reasons. Maybe she didn't want her dog to start barking?
I'm aware NOW she didn't have a dog, but I wasn't at the time.
I entered the house and immediately started calling out for Logan.
No. I never said I was afraid of a dog attacking me. Forget the stupid dog. It was a hypothetical.
She texted me. I showed up. The door was cracked. The obvious choice is to go inside.
When Logan didn't answer, I went looking for him.
No, I did NOT brutally stab Madison after finding her having sex with Logan. Logan wasn't even there.
Because nobody was answering my calls and I could see light under the bedroom door.
I called 911 immediately.
Yes, I believed they were having sex, due to the music and candlelight.
No, I do NOT make a habit of spying on people having sex.
As I've mentioned multiple times, I believed Logan was inebriated, and needed to make sure she wasn't taking advantage of him.
Yes, a woman CAN take advantage of a drunk man. What the hell is wrong with you, Vinnie?
No, Logan is only a friend. Again, we haven't dated for more than six years.
Because I knew if he did, he would regret it later.
No, it doesn't matter how attractive she was. It's not a decision he would make sober.
And so it went. All night long, and into the morning.
The only upside was that Vinnie didn't know about her and Logan hooking up. Twice. And there's no way for him to find out. Unless he talks to Gia. Or Mac or Weevil. Was Wallace even there when Gia outed us? Oh, and then there's the Ferris Wheel operator. And the killer, of course.
She whimpers, internally.
It's not like she's withholding evidence - her sex life has no bearing on the case - but if she were on the other side of that table… No, she can't think about that right now.
"Let me guess." Veronica pauses in the office doorway. "Your client was a woman. Mid-to-late fifties, and working class."
Her father glances up from a document, amused. His pen rolls across the page, as he pushes back his leather chair and stands. "Close. But I'd say early-sixties. How'd you guess?"
"She left her perfume behind." She enters the room, scrunching-up her nose and fanning the air around her. "Cheap. Sickly-sweet, with over-powering notes of cherry. Clearly, a holdover from the 1980's."
Dropping her bags on one of the visitor's chairs, she leans over, managing to make out the words, 'grifter boyfriend' on a client contract before her dad closes the file folder.
He circles around the desk, drawing her into a tight hug. "My daughter, the bloodhound. How're you feeling?"
She steps back, rocks her hand in a 'so-so' gesture. "I'll be alright. I just needed a distraction from…everything. So, here I am."
"Tell me you're not planning on going after this psychopath." He braces her arms and searches her eyes.
He isn't exactly restraining her. Nevertheless, his proximity makes her feel claustrophobic. Lowering one shoulder, she twists and pivots out of his grasp. "First of all, I'm an experienced homicide detective, not a helpless little girl. And secondly, I won't make a promise I can't keep."
He grimaces, and she adds, "But, if it makes you feel any better, I don't intend to do anything today. First, I need to find out what the Sheriff's Department knows, and whether he left any evidence behind this time."
Her father sighs his frustration, and her shoulders buckle under the weight of his disappointment. As if she didn't feel shitty enough for bringing her problems to his doorstep.
To escape his piercing gaze, she drifts over to the corner bulletin board, where a bright green flyer stands out among the white documents and yellow sticky notes.
'A CONVERSATION WITH COUNTY SUPERVISOR ECHOLLS' is spelled out in the same preternaturally-uniform block letters Gia Goodman used to doodle in senior Health class. Dated for June 28th.
How could she have missed this? Three times, at least?
If only she'd noticed it on her first visit to Mars Investigations. She could've prepared herself. She wouldn't have waltzed into City Hall blindly, and she certainly wouldn't have ended up on top of a desk, ripping Logan's clothes off.
And if she hadn't climbed him like a tree that first time, it never would've crossed her mind to drag him onto that Ferris Wheel the second time. She could have avoided everything, if only...
If the sinking sensation in her chest is any indication, the thought bothers her more than she'd like to admit.
She wants to regret sleeping with Logan. She should regret it. But she can't.
In what can only be described as the blackest period of her life, he's been the lone pinprick of light.
It would be easy to attribute that to the sex - the production of endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, the way he plays her body like a virtuoso plays a symphony. But that's not really it. Nor is it his faith in her instincts or his unwavering support, as much as she appreciates both.
It's what his renewed presence in her life has shown her about herself.
She may be suffering from depression. She may be numb, and exhausted, and five inches away from her breaking point. But she's NOT broken yet. She's still capable of emotions beyond anger and fear. Long-dormant emotions. Desire. Passion. And yes, even blind jealousy.
She still gives a shit, and she's no longer content to pull into her shell and hide. She wants to fight. She needs to fight.
So no, whatever the consequences, she wouldn't take back anything that's happened between them this past week.
She just can't afford to let it happen again.
Veronica pulls out the red plastic thumbtack, glances over her shoulder. "Any reason you're keeping this town hall flyer from two months ago?"
Her dad is standing in the far corner of the office, with his back to her, and answers without turning his head. "You know it goes. The moment you hang something on a cork-board, you develop selective-blindness to its existence. You can toss it."
There's something sneaky and furtive about his movements.
"What are you up to?"
Now he glances over his shoulder. "Who, me?"
The shredding machine makes a zip-whir sound as she feeds the page though it, a rustling susurration, as paper strips slide to the bottom of the receptacle.
He turns around, shifting his hands behind him.
Nice try. Veronica lifts her chin. "Whatcha got there?"
"Don't play dumb, old man. You're hiding something behind your back."
"Oh. You mean this?" Crossing the room, he presents her with a liter of bottled water.
"Aquafina? Why all the mystery?"
He rotates the bottle, revealing a shiny silver stick-on bow. "Happy Birthday."
"Ummm...thanks. It's just what I've always wanted?" She accepts it from his outstretched hand. "Just so you know, if you switched-out the water for vodka, you've got the wrong Mars woman."
With a self-satisfied grin, he lifts his arm and presses a button on a tiny remote control.
"Just so you know," Veronica's own voice echoes from behind her, and she spins around to find her own image - or at least a section of her shirt - displayed on the wall-mounted office television."…if you switched the water for vodka, you've got the wrong Mars woman."
She turns in a circle, gaze sweeping the room for hidden cameras. Then it clicks. She lifts the bottle to eye-level. Her onscreen image does the same. "No. Freaking. Way. The camera's in here?"
"Guessed it in one. Sam at the spy store demoed it for me yesterday afternoon. It's motion-activated and can get up to ten hours of battery life." He takes the bottle from her, opens it, and holds out both pieces for her inspection.
The underside of the lid is a hidden battery, with slots for charging and a micro-SD card. A nearly transparent wire runs from the cap down into the bottle where the tiny camera is camouflaged behind the label.
Veronica bounces on her toes, already imagining the possibilities. "Do you know how useful this will be? Everyone expects the secret cell phone video these days, but bottled water is ubiquitous. Practically invisible."
"Glad you like it." He reattaches the lid. "Just be careful not to leave it anywhere it might get tossed out. It wasn't cheap."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
Veronica tilts the bottle right and left, peering inside from several angles while her dad disconnects a cable from the television and gathers accessories from one of his desk drawers – a box, instruction booklet, and charging cords.
While she boxes up the components, he pulls his phone out of his pocket, thumbs dancing over the screen. It buzzes a moment later, and he types some more.
He's probably texting her.
Veronica can keep her opinions to herself, but it doesn't mean she has to watch.
"I'm suddenly thirsty. Need anything from the fridge?"
"I'll take an iced tea, if you're heading that way."
"Sure thing." She heads to the office kitchen and opens the fridge. Shoving aside a styrofoam container smelling heavily of garlic and oregano, she grabs the last two bottles of iced tea, and returns to her father's office.
When she returns, he's standing in front of the tall office bookcase. "Ready for more presents?"
"Born ready. What have you got?" She sets the beverages on the desk, drops down into a visitor's chair and holds out both hands. "Gimmeeee."
"You could at least pretend to be excited," he deadpans, retrieving a large turquoise gift bag printed with a silvery fish-scale pattern from behind a row of fake vinyl binders. He places it on the desk before her. "Nothing big. Just a few small items. Birthday stocking-stuffers, of a sort."
Veronica peeks inside, sifts through opalescent tissue paper, and extracts a black, hinged glasses-case. Opens it.
"Aviator glasses?" Not her first choice of frame style, but they're not unattractive. She tries them on, surveying the office through the polarized glass. Her dad's desk, his chair, the bulletin board, the office safe, her father, waving from the doorway behind her.
"What the…?" She removes the glasses, examining them closely. "They're mirrored." Or rather, the outer third of each lens is.
"Useful for when you suspect someone might be following you, but don't want to turn around and give yourself away."
"Extremely useful, in my case."
Man, she could have used these over the past year. How many times had she sensed His presence behind her? Long before she connected the murders, she'd known she was being watched. Followed.
She returns the glasses to their hard case, and reaches back into the bag.
Her dad explains the remaining gifts as she pulls each one out.
A fancy, silver executive's pen. 'Emergency taser. Hold the clicker down for three seconds, and it'll emit an alarm and a small amount of voltage. Enough to shock and run."
A JFK fifty-cent piece. "There's a nearly-invisible seam down the middle. If you pull it apart, there's a hidden blade inside. Could be handy for cutting through rope or tape."
A Chanel lipstick container. "Pepper spray."
A brass, cylindrical object. "Hold it up to any peephole, and it'll reverse the visibility. You can see in, but they can't see out."
Her final gift is a unicorn key-chain, white and rubbery, with a short-legged, roly-poly body, pastel-striped mane and tail, and a smiling cartoon face.
Cute. Twelve year-old Veronica would have loved it. If she'd owned any keys.
"Mind if I show you something?" Her dad holds out his hand and she places the figure in his open palm.
He thumbs a recessed plastic switch on the underside of the belly, then twists the tail counter-clockwise. The silver steel horn shoots out two inches like a switchblade.
He twists the tail clockwise, the horn retracts, and he hands it back to her.
Veronica repeats his gestures. "You know, I've always regretted unicorn-stabbing Mercer Hayes in the leg."
"Really?" He raises a skeptical eyebrow.
"I should have aimed for the balls." She thrusts her arm toward an invisible enemy, crotch height, and flicks the trigger. "Every woman in California would've thanked me. Think the prison allows visitors?"
"Veronica…" Her dad sighs.
"Well, I thought it was funny." Standing, she circles around the desk and throws her arms around him. "Thank you! I love my gifts!"
"You're very welcome."
"I feel like Mata Hari with all these new gadgets, and they're a lot more practical than that giant hamster ball you used to threaten me with."
"Hey, just be glad I didn't follow my initial instinct and hire a bodyguard."
"Excuse me?" She takes two steps back, eyebrow lifting.
"Relax. Logan talked me out of it." His expression is neutral, but he's clearly laughing on the inside.
Snagging the case file from his desktop, he walks it out to the reception area filing cabinet, raising his voice to be heard. "I got the distinct impression he was speaking from experience."
Veronica trails him to the doorway. "It nearly broke us up in college."
Maybe it had, ultimately. If Logan hadn't misinterpreted her anger about the bodyguard as a rejection of him and everything he had to offer, he never would've ended up drunk and lonely in Aspen over Christmas break.
"Sounds like he's matured, after all. Talking sense into you, of all people." Veronica pauses, as tendrils of dread tickle the back of her neck. "Come to think of it, did Logan's reaction to my story seem a little…passive?"
Her dad slams the filing cabinet drawer and returns to his office. "Passive, how?"
"I don't know, maybe I'm just being paranoid. But it's not very Logan-like to just do nothing after somebody hurts me."
"I'm confused. Is passivity a good thing, now?" He cocks his head. "If I recall, that was one of your biggest complaints about Pete."
"That was different. A passive Logan is a good thing."
"Well, if that's the case, you're not going to like what he did this afternoon."
"Oh God, I do not want to know!" A sinking sensation fills her gut, and she lifts her hand, warding off the truth. Drops it again. Exhales. "Fine. Just tell me."
"I can do better than that." Keith picks up his universal remote. "I saved it to DVR."
・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・
Veronica reaches across the desk, tugs the remote control from her father's hand, and rewinds Logan's press conference for a fourth viewing.
Part of her is proud of him. He's fearless and confident behind that podium, emanating strength and power and undeniable force of will.
His sheer animal magnetism calls out to something deep and primal inside her. Something she'd buried years ago. Something that whispers to her even now, urging her to go find him, roll him to the ground, to claw and bite him. Just the way he always liked it.
But the other part of her…
"I'm going to murder him." She drops her face into her hands, somewhere between laughter and hysterics. "He's offering himself up as bait to a serial killer. Why am I even marginally surprised?"
Her dad sits, chair tilted back, and one foot propped on the corner of his desk, watching the screen with a contemplative expression.
Veronica lifts her head, sighs. "What?"
"I never saw it before. I mean, I knew the kid was in love with you back in college, but that man right there…" He points to the television. "…he would defend you with his life."
"That's the problem! I don't want him to."
"It's not exactly a bad quality, Veronica. At least from a father's perspective."
"Well, you don't know our history. You don't know the risks he's already taken to get me out of scrapes." Veronica closes her eyes, swallows. "He nearly died in college. While I was in Virginia, interning for the FBI, Logan was in the hospital, recovering from an attempted murder."
Her dad drops his foot and leans forward. "Veronica…"
"The guy's name was Gory Sorokin, and he publicly humiliated me and Piz." She lifts a hand, forestalling her father's questions. "Don't ask. I won't tell you. Let's just say that for once, I couldn't retaliate - he had mob connections. I tried to warn Logan off, but he didn't even care. Tossed the guy around the cafeteria like a rag doll."
"Sounds like that was his decision. You can't blame yourself for the consequences."
"That's just it! When it comes to me, Logan makes really shitty decisions."
"Like drawing fire from the Casablancas boy when he was trying to force you to jump off a roof?" He arches an eyebrow. "Do you think Logan regrets that decision? Or any other that resulted with you being here today? Alive?"
"Probably not." She pokes out her bottom lip, just to make sure he knows she's pouting.
"Listen, I know you're afraid for Logan's safety, but personally, I think it's a sound plan. If he can lure that maniac out of hiding, he has the size, the physical strength, and the resources to deal with him. Of the three of us, he's best equipped to take this guy on."
Veronica groans in frustration. Grabbing her handbag from the desktop, she digs through the inside zipper compartment until her fingers close around her keys.
"Why are you defending him? This is Logan 'Every-Father's-Nightmare' Echolls. You tossed him out of our apartment for breaking a lamp. Remember?"
This is both ancient history and irrelevant to the topic at hand, but she's counting on her dad's preconceptions to keep her strong. For him to continue being the sailors to her Ulysses, tying her to the mast and saving her from Logan's siren song.
"I remember, and I'm certainly not going to lie and say he's my first choice for you. But then again, look how things turned out with the men I did approve of." He lifts both hands, palms up, in a 'what do I know' gesture. "So, maybe, I'm not the best person to give out romantic advice."
"Well, considering your own terrible dating choices." She grabs a brown staple-remover from the plastic desk organizer, jamming its pointy metal teeth between the loops of her key ring.
Keith ignores the barb. "Just let me say one thing, and I'll let the subject drop."
"It's not like I can stop you." She gestures for him to continue.
"If you're not in love with Logan, or if your differences are simply too strong or numerous to overcome, then I wholeheartedly support your decision to keep things platonic. And that goes for any man, by the way."
"But?" Ensuring the safety is switched on, she wiggles her new killer unicorn onto her old keychain.
"But if you're avoiding connection out of some misguided idea that you're doing him a favor? That his life would be worse for having you in it? You would be wrong. And that would make me very sad."
The words hit too close to home. She doesn't answer. Can't answer, with the huge lump constricting her throat.
"As your father, I want you to embrace happiness wherever you can find it. Even if, as I suspect, that's with Logan Echolls."
"I'll keep it in mind." Avoiding his gaze, Veronica stuffs her remaining birthday treasures back into the gift bag. "And with that, I should probably get back to work on the Cook case."
"Good idea. Want to talk about it?"
She weighs her itch to escape against her father's invaluable knowledge and reaches for her laptop bag. "Yeah. Sounds good."
"Oh! That reminds me. A messenger delivered a copy of the July 26th, game tape." He opens his bottom desk drawer and produces a large brown envelope with a string closure. "Want to watch it together?"
"I'm not sure how useful I'll be. Despite your best efforts, I never really caught the baseball bug."
"Well then, I guess your old man is good for something, after all." He crosses the office to the television, still frozen on footage of Logan's press conference. While her dad unhooks one set of cables and plugs in another, Veronica opens her laptop and connects to Wifi.
She navigates to her personal cloud-storage site, logs in, and exhales in relief to find hundreds of photos of the Madison Sinclair crime scene lined up in neat rows of thumbnails.
She hadn't been certain they would be there.
One Night Earlier - Sinclair Residence
The 911 operator is still speaking, but Veronica isn't listening. Her eyes dart to the open doorways lining the hallway. What, or who might be lurking in those dark rooms?
Her gun is in the car. She hadn't even considered the possibility of this being a trap. Shit!
"I have to hang up," she whispers.
"Ma'am, I need for you to stay on the line."
"I can't. Look, I've given you the address and told you everything I know. Now, I need to make sure the perp isn't still in the house with me."
"Ma'am. That's not safe. I-"
"It's okay. I'm a cop. I'm trained for this." It's only a partial lie. No one else knows she's permanently retired, and not just weighing her law enforcement career options. "I'm hanging up, now."
She disconnects the call, declines, when they call back, silences the ringer, and shoves the phone into her left pocket.
Heart pounding in her throat, she eases her way down the hallway, passing each doorway slowly, with her back to the opposite wall. She makes it to the front entrance without incident, flicks on the porch light, and sprints to her car, sliding behind the wheel and flipping on her brights.
Nothing moves in the beam of her headlights.
Safe for the moment, Veronica finally acknowledges what she'd been avoiding thinking about. If Logan isn't here, where is he? She dials his number with shaking hands, listens to it ring and ring, disconnecting when it goes to voicemail.
Please be safe, Logan! I couldn't handle it if...
She takes 30 seconds to collect herself. To calm her racing pulse and regulate her breathing. Then, she goes to work, slipping back into cop mode like an old pair of jeans.
Secure the scene, preserve the evidence, emotionally detach.
Veronica grabs her handbag from the passenger seat, locates the hidden zipper behind the gusseted front pocket, and eases her Glock out of its snug, thickly-padded compartment.
Last summer, she'd winced upon receipt of the leatherworker's quote for a custom-designed handbag. She'd never been one for designer statement bags, and the thought of handing over a month's rent on a fashion accessory was hard to justify. But in the year since, she hasn't once regretted the expense. Without having a safe method of transporting her weapon while off-duty, it would be locked up at home right now.
Twisting her hair up into a bun, she secures it with one of the pale hair ties looped around the car's gear shifter, tugs on the spare pair of nitrile gloves she always keeps in her bag, and retrieves two flashlights from the glove compartment.
She stuffs the mini Maglite in her right pocket as she exits the vehicle. Pulls up her hood to further prevent crime scene contamination.
Hair lifts on the back of her neck. That old familiar feeling of being watched.
She thumbs-on the large flashlight, sweeps the beam across the front lawn, the street, the sparsely wooded area opposite the house. Nothing. Too many places where the shadows pool. He could be watching her from any of them, virtually invisible, while the light over the front door illuminates the semi-circular driveway and makes her an easy target. In a sudden burst of trepidation, she shines the beam through her car's back window. Empty.
Great, Veronica. What kind of idiot doesn't check the back seat first? You know better!
Returning to the house takes significantly more time than her exit. Is he inside? Or somewhere out there in the dark? Guessing wrong could leave her back unprotected.
She moves the flashlight's beam in all directions as she cautiously approaches. Front. Right. Behind. Left. Front.
With the lights off, inside, the large picture window reflects like a mirror, and Veronica uses it to her advantage, aiming her weapon straight ahead while watching closely for anyone sneaking up behind her.
Once back inside the house, she eases the door closed, holding the knob. Silently turns the lock. If he is out there, he can forget about sneaking in behind her.
Music still pours out of Madison's bedroom, and the eerie trip-hop beat does nothing to ease her frazzled nerves.
She locates the switch for the foyer and turns it on, illuminating the ultra-modern chandelier mounted above her, moves from room to room, weapon raised and turning on lights. The home's open floor plan allows for few hiding spaces, and it takes mere minutes to secure the common areas.
She conducts a more thorough search in the bedrooms and bathrooms. Inside closets, under beds, behind shower curtains.
With the interior secure, she unlocks the sliding door to the patio, flips on the light and moves the flashlight's beam across the terrain. Nothing.
Wherever he is, he doesn't want to be seen, and that's fine with her right now. She has work to do.
She closes the door and relocks it.
Vinnie VanLowe believes in one thing, and it's a lot closer to green than blue. He'll never give her access to the case file and evidence, even as a courtesy to a former cop.
If she ever hopes to catch this psychopath, she'll need to make do with what she has available right now: a better-than-decent cell phone camera and ten minutes of privacy, give or take.
She begins with a cursory examination of the body. Not Madison Sinclair, high school mean girl, and possibly repentant adult. It needs to be 'the body' now. That's the only way she can get through this.
The body is still warm. Appears to be stabbed or sliced, but the sheer amount of blood makes getting a closer look at the wounds virtually impossible - even with her mini-maglite clenched between her teeth.
Moving clockwise around the bed, she methodically photographs each region of the body, visually inspecting the skin and fingernails for trace evidence, bruising, or defensive wounds.
She backs up and photographs the corpse from multiple angles. The positioning appears natural, versus staged, and the blood pooling around the body indicates it wasn't moved here from a secondary location.
Careful not to disturb the scene or any fingerprints, she moves outwards, snapping pictures. The sheets - nudging aside any folds with the tip of the flashlight to inspect the valleys. Where's the murder weapon? Both nightstands and the contents of their drawers. Madison's cell phone (plugged in to its charger).
Outwards. The pale carpet. Vacuum lines. Of course. The lit candles. A high-end sound system, playing something atmospheric - Massive Attack? - through unobtrusive ceiling speakers. A folded comforter on a stuffed chair. She runs a gloved hand inside the folds. Where the hell is the murder weapon?
She moves into the roomy in-suite bathroom, snapping photos. A sleeveless turquoise dress draped over a tufted vanity stool. Did Madison wear it for her date with Logan? Snap. A lavender bath sheet hanging inside the bath enclosure. Damp and recently used. Snap. A ring for a hand towel next to the sink. Empty. Snap. An off-white guest services menu for Spa Enchanté, sitting on the vanity. Snap. A tiny ceramic step-to-open trash can. Snap. She steps on the pedal, it opens. Snap.
Behind her, in the bedroom, the song changes, and every hair on Veronica's body stands on end. It can't be a coincidence. No possible way.
Was he there Friday at the Neptunalia? Did he see her get on that Ferris wheel with Logan? And how long it took them to get back off? Did he see the carriage rocking while this song blared from the speakers?
Upon closer examination she finds that the sound system is powered off. So where is the music streaming from?
She returns to the cell phone on the nightstand, touches the power button, and swipes up, glove dragging against the glass. It's locked, and she has no time to guess the password. She checks the back and yes, there is a fingerprint reader.
Disconnecting it from its charger, she turns to the bed and presses it to Madison's lifeless index finger.
I am SO going to hell for this.
The phone opens to the Messages app, featuring the outgoing text to Veronica's phone number. Her skin crawls with the urge to delete it.
Leave it, Veronica. It's your explanation for being here.
Like her own phone, long pressing on the home button opens a list of apps running in the background.
She switches to Spotify and pauses the music. The room goes silent.
Her attention shifts from the lowerhand music controls to the center of the screen and she drops the phone like it's on fire.
WHAT. THE. FUCK.
She presses a hand to her pounding heart, closes her eyes and takes five deep, controlled breaths.
If she'd had even a inkling of a doubt that this was personal…
With trembling hands, she retrieves the device from the floor.
The playlist is titled "Not As Smart As You Think", it was created by a user named VeronicaMars90902 and, most disturbingly, its cover art is a photo of her. A painfully-wistful profile shot of her staring at someone. The object of her attention is only a sliver at the right side of the frame, but she would know the back of Logan's neck anywhere. Colorful lights in the background pinpoint the photo's location to the Neptunalia fairgrounds, and her neat hair and unsmudged makeup narrows the timeframe to before their little interlude on the Ferris Wheel.
Just how many people were following us around with cameras?
And what exactly is the psycho hoping to accomplish with this stunt?
Madison spent the evening on a date with Logan. It's common knowledge that Madison was partially responsible for their final college breakup.
Veronica had been perceived as being jealous during their encounter at Java, and the rumor mill has already twisted Madison's accidental fall next to the Sebring into Veronica knocking her down. She'd dropped everything to come running tonight when she thought Logan needed her, and anyone who knows Logan - Siobhan Fitzpatrick, for example - could identify him as the person she's staring at with such unmistakeable yearning in that photo.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! This is very very bad!
She opens Spotify on her own phone, searches by playlist title and hits "Follow".
On Madison's device, she goes into the playlist's menu and hits "Stop Following", then opens the Spotify settings and deletes the cache.
Now set the scene back to the way you found it, Veronica. You told the 911 operator you followed the music.
What song had been playing during the call? It'll be audible on the recording.
Veronica scans the tracklist on her own phone, locates the Portishead song that lured her down that hallway. The Garbage song is four positions down from that, and if she knows anything about this guy, it's that he would not have left that little gotcha up to chance. He played it sequentially.
Following that assumption, she narrows the 911 call song down to "Destroy Everything You Touch" by Ladytron.
Ouch. That's just mean.
Back on Madison's device, she inputs the title, analyzes the search results, and chooses a playlist as similar as possible. She hits shuffle and music issues from the ceiling speakers.
What now? Preserve the scene. Return things to the way you found them.
She brings the messaging app back to the forefront, and plugs the phone back into its charger. Releases a sigh of relief.
What if she hadn't investigated the playlist? What if she'd been too squeamish to unlock the phone? She doesn't even want to think about what could've happened.
Back to work. Outwards from the master bedroom.
A home office. Snap. A simple desk with a small pile of unopened mail. She fans the envelopes out to display return addresses. Snap. Snap. A locked filing cabinet. No time to pick it. More carpet lines. Snap.
Lauren's bedroom. Snap. No carpet lines. He didn't need to erase himself in here.
Guest bathroom. Snap. A fresh bottle of hand soap and crisp, untouched towels.
She continues through the home, photographing each room. The twin wine glasses in the family room. One marked with lipstick. Snap.
The knife block in the kitchen. All slots accounted for. Snap. He must've brought the weapon with him, but why take it away? Can it identify him in some way?
The attached garage. Snap.
With the exception of the master bathroom, all garbage cans are empty. No bags. All windows and doors are closed and locked. No sign of forced entry. There's no overturned furniture or any other signs of a struggle.
At the first hint of distant sirens, Veronica steps outside and takes a seat on the front stoop.
Opening her Photos app, she hits refresh a few dozen times, as if that might make the cloud backup go faster.
She logs out of the cloud site, disconnects the account in her phone's main settings, and frantically goes to work deleting each photo of the scene.
By the time Deputy Sacks steps out of his cruiser, she's cleared out her phone's cache, has deleted her browsing history, and the device is finishing its reboot.
Ready to be surrendered.
But anxiety gnaws at her. Did the photos upload in time? Could an expert determine what she'd done? Are there digital footprints leading to her cloud storage account? Can they prove she'd tampered with Madison's phone?
She tries Logan one more time. Voicemail.
Fuck! Don't you dare leave me!
Hanging up, she stands, brushes any dirt off the back of her pajama pants and goes to greet Deputy Sacks.
・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・
"Ready for me to press play?"
Veronica startles at the interruption. Exhaling hard, she logs out of the cloud storage site, lowers her laptop lid and forces a smile. "No time like the present."
Her father watches the footage with the rapt attention of a true baseball fan, stopping frequently to rewind, and playback in slow-motion.
By the end of the game, his notepad is covered with a messy diagram of a baseball field, and some kind of scoring system. He makes a few calculations, lips moving silently, then circles three names.
"If I had to guess, I would go with the first baseman, the starting pitcher, and the catcher."
Veronica pulls up her own digital case notes and compares roster information. "Well, whaddya know? Enbom, Bakeman and Walters. It always comes back to them. Guess Shaw knew what he was talking about."
"Shaw? The short stop?"
"Yeah. He called me yesterday. Seems these three have been throwing money around lately, and he insinuated they might be hitting the juice. And by juice, I don't mean Vitamixing."
"Well..." He gestures to the paused screen, where Jeremy Enbom's arm is pulled back to throw. "It doesn't take much imagination to suspect steroids, there."
"So, we agree? Enbom, Bateman and Walters rigged the game?"
He hesitates. "I'd put money on these three being pawns in somebody else's scheme."
"Pure instinct - coupled with the fact that juiceheads aren't known for their mental faculties and planning skills. Have any other suspects?"
Veronica scans her notes. "Well, there's the anonymous call I received the night before last. Whoever it was, disguised their voice and pointed the finger at Luke Haldeman. Apparently, he's broke and pawning his possessions for cash."
"This guy? The assistant coach?" Keith skips back 30 seconds and pauses on Luke's image.
"That's the one. We went to school together. Not the brightest bulb, but he always seemed nice. For an 09er."
"You think he's capable of masterminding something like this?"
Veronica considers. "My gut says no. Not unless he leveled-up his acting skills since high school. If he were desperate enough? Possibly. But the Luke I remember would be sweating bullets and jumping at shadows. Just waiting to be caught."
"If it helps, he was the second person I ruled out." Her dad rewinds the tape, skips forward a few seconds, and hits play. Gestures to the screen. "Look at that. Unless he's a thespian, he's way too upset here to be faking it."
"I'm not ruling Luke out, entirely. If he is guilty, it wouldn't be the first time he was connected to steroids. But I agree. That's not the face of a man pretending to be angry."
Onscreen, Luke emerges from the dugout, hands raised in disbelief, and storms over to have words with the umpire.
"Wait a minute." Veronica navigates to Friday's notes from the Rough Riders' clubhouse. "Here it is. When I asked Luke who he suspected of the fix, he blamed the umpire. Did he tweak your radar?"
"His calls were suspicious." Her dad does another calculation. Jots something down and meets her gaze. "Highly suspicious."
Veronica updates her case notes, quickly summarizing his conclusions, and then excuses herself to use the restroom.
She finds a Costco-sized bottle of Ibuprofen, shakes two tablets onto her palm and dry-swallows. Closing the medicine cabinet door, she stares into the mirror.
Yesterday, after running into Carmen Ruiz, after cataloging the telltale signs of abuse written across her old friend's features, Veronica had been horrified to discover the same traces in her own reflection.
Now she can't unsee it.
She's washed out and pale, as if she's trying to blend into the wall behind her, and there's a hunted cast to her red-rimmed eyes, like a rabbit, too frozen to run.
And He feeds on that. It makes him stronger.
Every time she cries, or spends the night tossing and turning, every time she cowers at shadows or hides behind her long hair and bulky, shapeless, sweaters she's letting Him win.
She locates a bottle of Visine in her bag, tilts her head back, and squirts a drop in each eye. Blinks several times.
Abusive men, like Tad Wilson, maintain dominance by isolating their wives from friends and family and controlling the purse strings. By keeping them helpless, broke, and dependent. By breaking their spirit.
Yet somehow, Carmen Ruiz hadn't broken. Last night - even knowing she was in for the fight of her life - she'd found the courage to take her kids and run.
Assuming Tad was telling the truth, and she's not buried in some shallow grave.
Veronica's stalker doesn't have nearly that kind of access to her life. Sure, he'd invaded her apartment multiple times, cost her her career as a homicide detective, and followed her home to Neptune.
But she isn't powerless - not while she's earning a paycheck. Not while she has her father, her friends, and her allies. Not while she's back on her home turf.
And that has to chafe at him. He wants her helpless, alone and terrified. He's probably, at this moment, picking at the seams of her life. Looking for weaknesses and opportunities to undermine her. To drive wedges between her and the people she loves.
That's why he came at me through Logan.
Even if they hadn't been seen together at Neptunalia, her history with Logan isn't exactly a secret.
The teenage private eye who'd cracked the murder of the century while dating the killer's son had made for explosive headlines back in high school. Logan's subsequent murder charge, the events on the roof of the Neptune Grand, and the Hearst serial rapes put them back in the news again and again.
You could make the case that Veronica Mars and Logan Echolls were Neptune's most notorious lovers.
And now that the volatile, unpredictable, jackass-with-a-hero-complex, Logan Echolls is back in her life, her stalker must be pissing himself.
Veronica turns off the bathroom light and returns to her dad's office.
He's rewatching the game tape, and pauses it at her approach. "So, what's next, protégé?"
"On the Cook case? I'm going to need to run background checks on the players, Enbom, Bakeman, and Walters. The assistant coach, Luke Haldeman, and the umpire, Hugo Davis. I've hired a part-time hacker, but seeing as she's Madison Sinclair's little sister, I doubt she'll be available for a while."
"Poor kid." He sighs. "First her mother, and now her sister."
"I know. My heart breaks for her."
My heart breaks for Madison.
As much as she despised Madison in high school - and later, after she slept with Logan - nobody deserves to have their life snuffed-out on a whim. Especially as a pawn in a game she never asked to play.
Rage bubbles-up in Veronica's belly. So hot and intense that she's nearly blinded. And she knows.
She's done playing defense.
"Hey, dad? I know I've only been here for an hour, but do you mind if I take off? I need to go run some errands."
"Of course. It's your birthday. Go have some fun."
"Don't worry if I don't come home for a few hours. This is going to take me awhile."
・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・
Jackie answers her cell on the second ring, her soft voice echoing through the Sebring's speakers. "Hey, Veronica."
"Hey...Are you busy right now? I could use your expertise."
"Not really. Dana took Michael to the movies, and I'm just relaxing around the house. What's up?"
"I'm heading over to that new shopping district right now."
"I'm listening..." Jackie responds, interest piqued.
"I have a couple free hours, a high-limit credit card, and I'm ready to reinvent myself. Interested?"
"I'll be there in fifteen."
・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・
The large wooden structure is colorful, vaguely familiar, and, most importantly, seems to have sprouted up on her father's front lawn in the hours since she left home.
Note to self: check pockets for magical beans.
At first glance, Veronica's convinced she's on the wrong street and drives right past the house.
She turns around in a neighbor's driveway and pauses next to the parked Sheriff's cruiser to lift a questioning eyebrow at Norris Clayton.
He mouths, 'The Mayor,' with an exaggerated shrug and Veronica responds with a resigned shake of her head.
Poor guy. He has a long and boring evening ahead of him. She'll have to bring him out some coffee later.
She parks at the curb behind a shiny blue BMW.
She can't say she's surprised to find him here. She'd suspected he might show up on her doorstep tonight, which might have influenced her decision to change into this new outfit before heading home.
Even so, she's suddenly, inexplicably, nervous.
Flipping down her visor mirror, she checks her reflection one more time.
Did she go too far? Is her hair too…different? Is her eyeliner too extreme? Jackie had described her cat's-eye flick as 'sharp enough to stab your enemies with', but lately, if she manages anything more than lip gloss and a swipe of mascara, she considers it a win.
Logan saunters over as she's climbing out of the car. He's traded this morning's suit for slim jeans and an indecently-snug black tee shirt.
Sweet mother of mercy. Happy Birthday to me!
Veronica gathers her shopping bags, closes the door and runs an uncertain hand over her hair. It's SO short. Nine inches shorter, to be exact, cut in a shaggy, layered bob, with side-swept bangs, rocker-chic texture, and jagged, choppy ends. To mirror her soul, naturally.
She couldn't hide behind this hair, even if she wanted to.
Logan doesn't speak right away. He appraises her, gaze travelling from the top of her head, down over her leather motorcycle jacket, strappy tank top, skinny jeans, and heeled black boots, then all the way back up, again.
"Welcome home." His eyes glint with approval and pride, and he skims his fingers over her hair, testing the edges. "I see we're going into battle."
And she loves him in this moment. Purely and completely.
He gets it - gets her - and if his reaction is any indication, he doesn't intend to stand in her way.
"There's something missing, though. Your armor's incomplete." Logan rubs his chin as if puzzling something out.
"Oh yeah?" Veronica raises her eyebrows in challenge. "And what, in your opinion, would make it complete? A big tough man, perhaps?"
"I am but a lowly soldier in milady's army." Logan whispers, all fluttering lashes and dramatic wistfulness. "Close your eyes."
"You? Lowly? Next, you'll be claiming that you're humble."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Close your eyes."
"Whatever you're planning to give me? I'm sure it's very generous. but I can't accept a gift from you. Not right now. It wouldn't be right."
"It's not a gift. Promise. I can't give you something that already belongs to you."
"Is it your heart?" She claps her hands together with cloying enthusiasm. "Because I have just the place for it on my mantle."
"Smartass. Are we going to do this all night?"
"Fine. You win." Veronica makes a show of closing her eyes, covering them with her left hand.
She leans back against the Sebring. Heat from the engine warms her legs, while a gentle breeze carries an incongruous aroma of spun sugar. A heavy truck rolls past, shocks squeaking. Somewhere nearby, a group of children erupts into excited shrieks, taking her back to her own childhood. Hide and Seek. Sprinting toward home base, the seeker right on her heels.
Logan's breathing is shallow, and she imagines pressing her hand flat to his chest, feeling it rise and fall beneath her palm. Drifting off. Contentment.
Something cold touches the hollow of her throat. She shivers at the brush of Logan's knuckles against her skin as they slide around to the nape of her neck. He lifts her hair and spends a moment manipulating a clasp.
A necklace, then.
His hands drop and he steps back. "You can open your eyes."
Veronica glances down, but the chain must be too short to see from this angle.
She lifts her head, and mindlessly obeys his instruction as he takes a picture with his cell. The flash flickers and he reviews the results, grins, and passes the phone over to her.
It's a nice photo, her smile wide, and her new haircut giving her an edgy sex appeal. She zooms in on the necklace with her thumb and index finger and then gasps. Presses a hand to her mouth.
Logan toes at the ground. "The Neptune Grand staff found it buried in the couch when I moved out and mailed it to me. I remembered how much it meant to you, so I had the clasp repaired and held on to it."
"For all these years?" Her stupid eyes are welling up again. How many damn tears can she possibly cry today?
"Only the odd numbered ones." He smirks.
She wants to crush him in an embrace.
Thank you! For returning something precious to me. For trusting and supporting me, when my own partner of years would not. For instinctively understanding what drives me, and not standing in my way.
She settles for a gentle hug. Awkward and tentative, yet sincere.
Pulling back, she swipes at a tear stain on his shirt. "Sorry. I made a mess on you."
"S'okay, I've made bigger messes on you."
"Gross." Veronica wrinkles up her nose, gives him a little shove, but if his aim was to relieve the tension, he succeeded.
She clutches the pendant, presses her thumb to each of the five points. "You're right. My armor is complete now."
Even in his late twenties, Logan can still pull off that disarming, 'I've-been-a-good-boy' smile.
"So…is this what I think it is?" Veronica waves a hand toward the freestanding carnival game erected in her front yard.
Logan tilts his head. "Depends what you think. It's not a pony."
"You know, my dad is going to kill you for messing up his lawn."
"Your dad texted me with the go-ahead to start setting-up when you showed up at the office."
"Traitor." She offers him a begrudging smile, switches her shopping bags to her other hand and takes Logan's left elbow. "Well, let's see what you've cooked up."
"Hold on. There's a proper way to do this." Logan taps his phone screen and lifts it to his ear. "Hey. We're ready." He hangs up and shoves it in his pocket.
"Whoo boy. I'm afraid to ask."
"Have a little faith." Logan guides her over to the driveway's apron. Sliding behind her, he places both hands on her shoulders and turns her to face the street.
"Well, this is a blast." She blows out a breath. "Are you planning on issuing a citation for those two driveway cracks? Or are we staking out Mrs. Monahan's garden gnome? Because, despite glorifying recreational drug use, I don't think you can actually charge Old Snow Beard for possession of a fake hash pipe."
"Patience is a virtue, Mars."
"Who says I'm virtuous?" Veronica winks at him over her shoulder, and his hands tighten reflexively.
A truck rolls up and stops in front of them. A food truck, to be specific, but not Pete's Concessions. This one is a bit smaller, with pink and purple airbrushed letters spelling out, "Sweets-N-Treats."
She turns to Logan, her mouth inching up at the corners. "Really?"
"Why not?" He shrugs. "It seemed appropriate."
The truck's side window pops up on hinges, and tantalizing aromas waft through the opening - popcorn and fried dough, lemons and cinnamon and sugar.
"Hello, there!" A rotund, yellow-aproned woman with florid skin, two rope-thick blonde braids and a huge smile greets them. "I'm Hulda Järvinen, and you must be Veronica?"
"I...am. Pleased to meet you."
"And you, as well. Happy Birthday to you!"
Veronica can feel her cheeks warming. "Thank you."
The woman bends over and heaves a huge, cellophane-wrapped gift basket onto the counter. "From your friend, Mr. Echolls."
Veronica shoots a glare at him, but curiosity wins out, and she leans in, inspecting the contents.
Mountains of candy. Lollipops by the dozen, standing erect on multiple levels. Huge, round lollies in bright fruity-colored stripes, long taper-shaped lollies in rainbow swirls, crystalline rock candy on wooden sticks.
Pixie sticks, licorice sticks, Lemon Heads, Runts, Nerds, Dots, Sour gummies.
A collection of flat-ish round hard candies feature a yellow star in the center and her name circling the perimeter. They're obviously handmade and cut in cross-section from a single log, in a technique resembling millefiori glass.
"You're such an ass!" She turns to Logan, laughing. Punches him lightly on the arm. "You knew I wouldn't be able to refuse this."
Lifting up on her toes, she kisses his cheek, momentarily relishing the feel of his late day stubble against her lips. "Thank you."
"Any time, but I didn't actually do anything, other than point out the stuff I remember you liking." He presses his lips to her temple. "Go ahead. Order anything."
Veronica scans the painted menu board. Too many choices, each more tempting than the last. But she should probably save some appetite for later. All signs point to Logan taking her out to dinner.
She exhales. "Cotton candy, please. Pink. And a large lemonade."
"Make that two lemonades," Logan says. "And another cotton candy. I promised Keith I'd save him some."
"Any food for you?" the woman asks him.
"He'll have one of those candy apples." Veronica points to a bright red one in the display behind the counter.
"Nah, I'm good." Logan tilts his head, smirking. "But I am amused by your commitment to putting apples in my hand."
"Temptation should always carry an apple." She shrugs. "I don't make the rules."
"I see." His smile widens. "In that case, I'll have one candy apple. For later."
"Coming right up."
"Looks like somebody went on a shopping spree today." Logan angles his chin at the collection of bags hanging from her right elbow. "Those look heavy. Want me to take them in the house for you?"
"Sure, if you don't mind." Veronica hands them over, then retrieves her keys from her pocket, singling out the silver house key.
Logan grabs the gift basket from the counter. "Be right back."
Hulda Järvinen sets to work, cutting lemons, placing the wedges in two large cups, and covering each with a scoop of sugar She slides the first cup under a steel contraption with muddler at the end, pulls the long handle a dozen or so times, and then repeats the process with the second cup. She fills both with ice and filtered water, snaps on the lids, and - covering the holes with a gloved finger - shakes vigorously.
Veronica retrieves the ice cold drinks from the glass counter, pokes a straw in each. and hands the second one to Logan as he rejoins her.
"Hope it's okay that I let Backup out in the back yard. It looks like it's entirely fenced in."
"That's fine. Thank you."
The motor whirs to life on the cotton candy machine, and Hulda pours pink sugar from a carton into the funnel shaped center-hole.
Veronica sips lemonade through her yellow accordion-shaped straw. Delicious. "I can't believe you did all this."
"Are you mad?" Logan slides a hand over the back of his head. "I started planning this on Friday night. Texted Gia from the Neptunalia to get the ball rolling."
'Minor setback,' he'd told her that night, as they walked away from the game, 'Don't think I'm giving up yet.'
Veronica shakes her head. "Well, I can't say you didn't warn me."
"You should know that I thought long-and-hard this morning about calling the whole thing off. I didn't want you to think I was pressuring you or anything. That's the last thing you need."
"What stopped you?"
"Honestly? You've been through hell. If this could take your mind off everything for just a little while? Give you a reason to smile? Maybe it's worth it." He shrugs, glances over at the game structure.
Veronica nods thoughtfully, watching mesmerized, as Hulda spins a paper cone through the candy floss. "I'm glad you didn't cancel it. This is nice." She touches her star pendant again. "Wait. I'm not going to find a Ferris Wheel in my backyard, am I?"
"You wish!" He rolls his eyes. Mumbles something about permits and bureaucracy under his breath.
"Are you saying there are limits to your mayoral powers?" Veronica pretends to be shocked.
"Speaking of…" Logan pulls out his phone, and fires off a text message. Moments later, as Hulda hands Veronica her giant cone of cotton candy, Norris wanders over, hands tucked in his pockets.
"I invited Deputy Clayton to order anything he'd like. On me." Logan addresses Hulda, then turns to Norris, gesturing from the food truck to the structure in the front yard. "All of this stays out of your report. Understood? My friendship with Veronica has no bearing on the Sinclair case."
Norris's mouth quirks up on one side. "Understood, sir. Thanks for including me. Happy Birthday, Veronica."
Logan grabs the plastic container holding his candy apple and pinches her dad's cotton candy between his thumb and index finger. He nudges Veronica with his arm. "Ready?"
"Yeah." She calls over her shoulder to Hulda. "Thanks again. This was...sweet."
・・・・・・ ・・・・・・ ・・・・・・
"Well, hello again, Veronica." The same scrawny game operator from Friday night stands inside the four-sided Ring Toss booth. "You're looking especially lovely tonight."
"Hey." She waves her hand in a half-arc. "I can't believe he talked you into this."
The man shrugs. "What can I say? I'm a sucker for a love story."
Logan gives him a tiny 'zip it' head shake.
What's that supposed to mean? Suddenly, this isn't a love story? Did she finally find his breaking point?
Settle down, Veronica, and stop looking for rejection where there isn't any.
No man arranges something this...elaborate for a woman they don't have feelings for.
Veronica shoves a wad of cotton candy in her mouth, letting it dissolve on her tongue as she takes in the scene before her.
A hundred stuffed bears dangle from the ceiling of the game enclosure. Not the cheap, bulk-buy ones from last Friday, these are high-quality bears. Gund quality bears. Some are tiny, some are the size of her bag, a few are as large as Backup.
Each and every one wears an I Love You Beary Much tee shirt. There is some variation. A heart substituted for the word, 'love', or a nauseatingly-cute spelling, but all satisfy the requirements of last Friday's bet.
"This is disgustingly adorable." She turns to Logan, a smirk pulling at the corner of her lips. "You realize if anybody catches sight of us, they'll revoke our memberships in the Cynics of America and Too Cool for School clubs."
"Speak for yourself." He scoffs. "You gave me a Herculean quest. I was honor-bound to fulfill it."
"How'd you pull it off? Did you raid every carnival on the West Coast?"
"Nah." He hangs his head with a too-satisfied-with-himself grin. "I found a business that mass-produces tiny tee shirts, and made it worth their while to bump me to the front of the line."
"Sneaky." But points for ingenuity. She waves a hand at the rows of green glass bottles. "Well, by all means, start tossing rings."
One dinner date won't kill her. Especially after Logan went to all this trouble.
A bronze, curly-haired bear catches her attention, and something about it tugs at her heart. It's bigger than a cat, smaller than a beagle, with dark soulful eyes and way-too-big-for-its-head ears.
That's the one.
Assuming Logan manages to win the game some time in the next week, that is.
To say he isn't very good at ring-tossing would be an understatement. Even using the carny's special, bouncier rings.
Norris carries his snacks back to his cruisers, the Sweets-N-Treats truck pulls away, and Veronica finishes her cotton candy.
Logan keeps tossing. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty.
After twenty-six minutes of failure, lots of laughter and good-natured ribbing, he manages to ring two in a row.
"One more, for the win!" the game operator says, "The pressure is on."
Logan exhales a sharp breath, narrowing his eyes in concentration.
"Hey." Veronica tugs on his arm, then lifts up on tiptoe and presses a chaste kiss to his lips. "For luck."
Logan smiles as she pulls away. That same cocky-jackass smile she fell for years ago. The one that still makes her insides flutter. Gaze locked with hers, he releases the ring with a negligent flick of the wrist.
"OHHHHHHH!" The game operator shouts. "Holy shit!"
"You did it?" Veronica spins around to find his green ring encircling the front-right corner bottle. "You DID it!"
She claps her hands, bounces on her toes, and throws her arms around Logan's neck.
He hugs her back, lifting her off her feet and spinning her in a circle.
"That was amazing." Veronica says when he puts her back down.
"It was just…luck."
Scrawny Steve sweeps out a hand. "Pick a prize, young lady!"
"That one!" Not bothering to conceal her enthusiasm, she points directly to Ole' Big Ears. "Mine!"
"Excellent choice." The man unclips the bear and passes it over to her.
He offers his hand to Logan. "Pleasure working with you, sir. I'll make sure the rest of these make it to their next destination."
Logan shakes. "Good man." Addressing Veronica, he asks, "You want to play for a while?"
She considers for a moment."I'm good. Don't forget, I already won you a bear last Friday, and I'd rather quit while we're still having fun."
"Yeah, I'm sure."
As if by silent signal, a truck pulls into the driveway and a small bearded man gets out. He smells of mustard and a large yellow splotch mars his tan polo shirt.
He joins the game operator, and they begin cleaning-up with an efficiency that only comes from repetition.
Logan walks Veronica to the front door, hands shoved deep into his pockets. "Cute bear you picked."
"I think so. He reminds me of one of my favorite people" She hugs it to her chest, its curly fur even softer than she'd imagined. "So, I guess I owe you a date, huh? Should I change into something…dressier?"
"Nah. Forget about it."
"What I'm wearing is fine?"
"No, I mean, forget about the date. The entire bet. I'm calling it off."
Veronica narrows her eyes. "I don't think you understand the concept of winning."
"You're here. I'm here. You've won me this bear that meets my very demanding specifications - I didn't think it was possible, honestly. And you've clearly shrink-wrapped those fancy biceps into their most flattering packaging. So what's the problem?"
Logan snickers, peering down at his tee shirt, as if trying to see it from an outside perspective. "It's not about winning, or that stupid bet. It's about you. Like I said earlier, I only wanted to make you smile. To remind you how much you matter."
It's a sweet sentiment. So why does disappointment curl like fingers of smoke in her belly?
"I would like to share a pizza with you, though." Logan glances up from under his lashes. "If that's okay. Just to talk."
"That sounds great." Veronica can't stop herself from beaming as she takes his hand. "Come on in. We'll order delivery from Cho's."