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Gravity Sings

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& & &

we make our own gravity to give weight to things
then things fall and they break and gravity sings
we can only hold so much is what I figure
try to keep our eye on the big picture, picture keeps getting bigger

& & &

 

“This is weird,” Veronica decided, leaning back against the car door, her hands smoothing down Logan’s uniform carefully. They were parked near the air strip at the Naval Air Station, his rucksack leaning against the wheel well beside them. “I always figured I would be Rosie-the-Riveter-ing it up in a bomb factory if I ever sent my man off to war.”

Logan gave her an amused look. “Please, you’d be halfway to occupied France by now with a hidden spy camera and a really bad French accent.” He was standing close, his hands clasped together at the small of her back.

“Hmm,” she considered, paying extra attention to his sleeve, since it really deserved to be flat against his bicep, “you’re probably right. I don’t like being left at the homestead.” She trailed her fingers along his arm, just because.

“The homestead, huh?” Logan grinned down at her, easing her closer so he could drop a kiss to her lips. “Good thing this war’s only scheduled for two weeks, then. Surely you can keep the home fires burning that long.”

His actual deployments were an exercise in patience and Skyping, but a two-week war games assignment in Nevada? She could probably handle that. Maybe. As it turned out, living with Logan -- being with Logan -- it was different from what she had expected during the early, heady days of finding each other again. They’d been so volatile as teenagers that some small, stubborn part of her had dreaded them flaming out again.

But now that they’d each wrestled the worst of their demons to a draw, their relationship just… worked. It presented its challenges, of course, but it was both exciting and familiar at the same time, like a pretty major piece of her life had snapped back into place.

And when they were apart, she missed him like crazy. But this was the life she chose, and the life she wanted, so she mustered a smile for him. “Rustle up some chocolate and silk stockings, and I’ll see what I can do about those home fires.”

Logan lifted his eyebrows and smirked. “If you’ll wear said silk stockings, I will happily procure them.”

Veronica gave him a disaffected shrug, the effect of which was probably offset by the way she was holding onto him so tightly. “Gotta come back to me before I’ll put ‘em on.”

“Me coming back, that’s the deal,” Logan answered, watching her carefully.

She knew he was about to pull away from her, to leave again, and she resisted the urge to wrap herself around him and protest. Instead, she leaned up and kissed him softly. “Love you,” she murmured.

His eyes were sparkling when she pulled back. Logan had always been more free and open with his emotions -- careless, even -- but he understood these days that the words were hard for her sometimes. And he clearly savored them even more when she offered them first. “Love you, too,” he answered, trailing his fingers along her jawbone. He stepped back, reaching down for his bag. “See you when I’m back.”

Veronica grinned. “Yeah,” she answered breezily. “See ya.”

He laughed as he walked away, half-turning once to offer her a jaunty wave.

Veronica couldn’t make herself get back in the car until he was out of sight. Reluctantly, she slid into the driver’s seat, ignoring the tightness in her chest. It was irrational -- he’d be back in two weeks, and being invited to participate in the Air Force’s international war games exercise was a pretty big honor. Yet more proof that Logan was a talented pilot, despite his strange tendency to downplay his military accomplishments.

Her phone buzzed before she even had the car in first gear. Wonder if there are conjugal visits during war games. Bet Nevada’s lovely this time of year.

If only it were occupied France instead of the high desert. she responded.

High maintenance, he answered promptly.

Veronica texted him a picture of the BMW logo on his car’s steering wheel without further commentary. Because she was the one who’d had to talk him out of a five-bedroom beachfront home in favor of a -- yes, penthouse -- condo at The Pinnacle, a new, secure, luxury building downtown. “High maintenance, my ass,” she muttered, without any actual malice.

Goddamn, she already missed him.

As she turned left off of the Naval base, her phone rang. Her father’s name flashed on the display, and Veronica answered. “Hi, Dad.”

“Hey, honey. Did you see Logan off?”

“Yup,” she answered, her voice almost rock steady. Almost.

“Dinner tonight?” he offered.

Aww, he wanted to cheer her up since her man was gone. Which was pretty sweet. Her father had pretty much done a 180 on Logan in the last year. Which was understandable, considering his long-held distrust for Logan was based almost entirely on the angry nineteen-year-old version. It had actually taken her father longer to accept Veronica’s decision to sit for the California bar and regain her PI license than to accept Veronica-and-Logan. Keith had been more than a little taken aback at the speed with which Veronica and Logan had moved from estranged to together, but he’d kept any doubts to himself. “Sure,” Veronica agreed. “Mama Leone’s?”

“Sounds good.”

Veronica knew from his tone of voice that he hadn’t just called about dinner. “And?” she prompted, smiling at the road even though he couldn’t see her.

”And I was hoping you’d have the bandwidth for a rather delicate missing persons case,” he said. “Will you be back in town before 3?” They still just called it Mars Investigations, and Veronica worked mostly traditional PI cases, with the rare legal case on behalf of their clients. The occasional lawyering didn’t add much to their bottom line, since their clientele was almost always from their own have-nots side of the train tracks, but it kept her legal skills... well, if not sharp, then perhaps less dull than they otherwise would be.

She glanced at the bridge, which looked reasonably busy for the time of day. “I think so.”  

They said their goodbyes and she ended the call. Veronica was curious about the case, of course, but the sight of fighter planes taking off from the Naval base distracted her, and she pulled into a random parking lot to watch until they were tiny grey dots on the horizon.

& & &

The man waiting in the office when Veronica arrived was roughly her age, tall, a little soft around the midsection, but handsome, with dark wavy hair and deep brown eyes. He was seated on the couch, wearing jeans and a simple t-shirt, a lightweight hoodie crumpled into a pile beside him.

Behind the desk on the other side of the small room sat Mac, who glanced up from her monitor and waved a clementine slice in Veronica’s general direction. “Hey.”

“Hi, Mac,” Veronica greeted her friend, glancing at the clock on the wall and then turning to the visitor, who stood as she approached. “I’m sorry I’m a little late.” She offered her hand. “Veronica Mars.”

“Hi, Berto Rodriguez.” He shook her hand. “Thank you for seeing me.”

“Of course.” Veronica glanced at Mac, who was frowning at one of her ridiculously oversized monitors, absently pulling apart the clementine resting on a small plate next to the keyboard. “Mac, is he--?”

“Out,” Mac answered without even glancing up. “Something about lockpicks, maybe?”

“Okay, then.” Veronica ushered Mr. Rodriguez into the inner office. “Please, have a seat.” Once they were settled on opposite sides of the desk, she said, “I’m afraid Mr. Mars didn’t tell me much about your case -- what can we help you with, Mr. Rodriguez?”

“Please, call me Berto,” he corrected with a half-smile, his accent slight and suggestive of a bilingual childhood. “Mr. Rodriguez is my father.”

“Berto,” she echoed with a nod, studying him as he looked down at his hands, apparently struggling with how to start. He was clearly a painter, given the rainbow of splatters and spots on his jeans and work boots. His t-shirt was unblemished, but his hoodie looked to have some telltale splatter as well. Veronica resisted the urge to tap her pen on the desktop, since her father always told her honey catches more flies than visible impatience. “I understand you’re looking for someone?” she prompted.

“Yes, my-- my sister,” he answered, fumbling in his pocket for a moment, then placing a small picture on the desk. “Please -- help me find Sonia.”

“Okay,” Veronica said, sliding the picture closer. Sonia was younger than Berto, probably early twenties, and pretty, with wide, expressive brown eyes and something almost sad about her smile. She was standing with Berto in front of a brick building, his arm slung around her shoulders, a beer dangling from his hand.

“When was the last time you saw Sonia?” Veronica asked. Berto looked away, his expression pained. “Berto? I’m sorry if this is difficult, but I need to figure out the best way to start looking for her.”

Berto nodded, looking down at his hands for a moment before meeting her gaze with sad eyes. “Almost six months ago. In Ceres.”

“Ceres?” Veronica repeated. She’d never heard of it, but assumed it was in California since Berto hadn’t said otherwise.

“Yes, near Modesto.”

Modesto was definitely in California, but Veronica was a bit hazy on its precise location. Somewhere east of Stanford and the Bay Area, but she hadn’t done much exploring past San Jose. “What happened the last time you saw her? What did she say?”

He grimaced, a flash of frustration there and then gone. “She said she was going to visit a friend for the weekend, in Sacramento.”

Veronica tried to cover her surprise. “And she just… didn’t come back?”

Berto nodded, his hands tangled in the hoodie crumpled on his lap.

Veronica absorbed the information, reassessing the case. Because if Wallace left town for a weekend and just never came back, she would have torn down the world by Thursday morning. Sonia Rodriguez had disappeared almost six months ago, and Berto was hiring her now?

Berto was watching her reaction closely, his expression guarded. “Sonia can be…” he hesitated. “Irresponsible. She drinks.”

“Ah,” Veronica said, ruthlessly ignoring the hit of recognition his words conjured up.

He nodded. “I thought she was just being Sonia at first, that she’d show back up and apologize and try to make me forgive her for her actions.”

“Okay.” Veronica considered that bit of information. “But she didn’t call this time? Or answer your calls?”

“She loses her phone sometimes. Especially when she’s drinking.”

He sounded a little defensive, and Veronica schooled her features back into mild interest instead of the skepticism that had apparently been shining through. “So you think she might’ve left to go -- what? On a bender?”

“I don’t know,” Berto answered, his voice tinged with sadness and something like frustration. “I mean, I thought that originally. She’s disappeared before, stopped answering her phone.” He shrugged. “But I always find her. I asked around, and when I could afford it, I took the bus to Sacramento to talk to Dahlia myself.”

“Dahlia’s the friend she was visiting?” Veronica guessed, taking notes.

“Yes.”

His tone of voice had shifted, turned harder somehow, and Veronica looked up. “You don’t like Dahlia?”

Berto’s mouth tightened. “She’s a bad influence.”

Interesting. “And what did Dahlia say this time?”

Berto shrugged helplessly. “She was gone. They both were.”

Veronica scanned her notes, and then asked, “So if this wasn’t just some fun adventure away from big brother like she’s had before, do you have any idea why she would have left Ceres this time?”

The question seemed to throw Berto for a moment. “I think maybe she wanted a better life,” he answered slowly. “We were struggling, she complained a lot -- she had trouble keeping a job.” He gave an embarrassed shrug. “The drinking. But I always took care of her.”

“Okay.” Veronica took notes as she went through some basic questions about schooling, about prior jobs, about their family, but he seemed uncomfortable, offering just one- or two-word answers. She placed the pen down and folded her hands together. “Berto, I can’t help you if you’re not truthful with me.” He nodded, but didn’t speak. Veronica sighed. “I’m willing to help you try to find your sister, but whatever you’re not telling me--”

“We’re here illegally,” Berto interrupted, watching her closely for a reaction to the news.

Veronica dipped her chin. “Ah.” That would explain his reticence. “Okay.” She didn’t have a lot of experience with illegal immigration, and wasn’t exactly sure what the appropriate reaction was -- or the appropriate follow up questions.

To be honest, she wasn’t even sure whether helping Berto find Sonia would be entirely legal. Ethically, Veronica was comfortable helping a brother locate his missing sister, but law school had a way of making you paranoid about every little action, because even the unintended fallout could affect your future. Her foray into Ruby Jetson’s apartment notwithstanding, Veronica was trying very hard to stay in bounds these days.

“Yes.” Berto shifted in his seat, seemingly nervous. “Our parents came here when we were very small, but we were born in El Salvador. I don’t remember anything about Santa Lucia, but...” he shrugged.

“But you don’t have citizenship here, either.” Apparently, this was what her father had been alluding to when he said it was a delicate case, and probably the cause of Berto’s unease. Veronica knew a lot of cities in California had so-called sanctuary laws in place, which meant the police wouldn’t inquire into a person’s immigration status while investigating unrelated crimes -- or missing persons. In reality, though, this theoretical don’t ask/don’t tell policy didn’t matter much to undocumented immigrants who were taught to fear the police -- and with good reason.

She wondered how much courage it had taken Berto to ask anyone at all for help.

Veronica reviewed the questions she’d been asking in light of this new information. “So no government-issued ID,” she surmised, realizing her go-to first steps on any missing persons case weren’t going to do very much to help her find Sonia Rodriguez. “Could Sonia be going by a different name? Using someone else’s papers or anything like that?”

“Maybe.” Berto nodded. “I think she may be living with her aunt. But,” he shrugged, “it’s hard without papers. Lot of moving around. Easy to lose people.”

Veronica wrote “her aunt” on her notepad, but didn’t comment on the strange attribution. “Aunt’s name?”

“Estefania Orellana. I think she used to live in Long Beach, but I couldn’t find her, either.” He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, blinking rapidly against the tears welling in his eyes. “Please, I haven’t seen Sonia in so long, and that’s why I came down here.”

“To Neptune?” Veronica asked. Something wasn’t sitting entirely right with her, but she couldn’t pinpoint it. “There are probably private investigators in Long Beach.”

“Yes, but there was work here,” Berto explained. “I don’t have a car, so I can’t afford to go looking for her myself. But I came south from Ceres to find Sonia.” His voice broke on her name.

Veronica nodded, adding to her notes. “Has Sonia ever been arrested?”

“No,” Berto answered. “Neither of us.”

So basically no government records of any kind. Good, then. Nothing like a challenge to keep Veronica’s mind otherwise occupied while Logan was off playing war games. “Okay, Berto. Could you write the names of any of her friends you can think of, anyone she might have gone to for help?”

He nodded, accepting the pen and paper, jotting down a series of names, plus a phone number. “That’s all I have,” he said apologetically.

She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. Veronica skimmed the information. “I’ll start with this.”

Berto smiled. “Thank you, Mrs. Mars.”

Startled, Veronica shook her head. “Oh, no -- Keith Mars is my dad, not--”

“Oh, sorry.” Berto flushed a bit, and offered her a rueful smile. “I just assumed. I mean, you’re so--”  

“Yeah, no. That’s -- it’s fine.” She stood and offered her hand.

Berto rose and picked up his hoodie. “Please let me know how it goes,” he said, shaking her hand, firm and decisive.

“Of course,” Veronica said, and watched him leave, her curiosity piqued. Where had Sonia Rodriguez gone, and why hadn’t she contacted her big brother? What kind of trouble could she have gotten into?

& & &

The comfort food at Mama Leone’s was kind of magical. Veronica felt stuffed with carb-tastic pizza, and warm and happy talking to her dad. Logan’s absence was still palpable, pressing against her ribcage, but it was a manageable ache, at least for the moment.

“So, honey,” her dad said, and Veronica’s focus sharpened. Apparently he’d had ulterior motives for this dinner date. “Do you have a couple free hours this Saturday?”

Veronica lifted her palms and shrugged. “I mean, I guess Mac and I can push the desert raver back a day.”

He rolled his eyes, but otherwise ignored her joke. “I’ve got a couple new places I’d like to look at, and I could use another opinion,” he explained, his tone carefully neutral.

Veronica blinked, putting her last piece of pizza back down. “New places? A new -- house?”

“Yeah.” He took a sip of his soda. “The rental house is great, but it’s a bit much for just me.”

Veronica studied him for a moment, evaluating what he wasn’t saying. And then she got it -- they weren’t bringing in that much more than he had been before her abrupt return, and Veronica had actually tripled the Mars Investigations payroll by effectively hiring herself and then bringing on Mac. She’d done her best to minimize her own salary, but the federal government was surprisingly insistent upon graduated students paying their student loans every month. “Oh, Dad, no. I’m sorry -- we can figure out the money stuff--”

“It’s not about money, Veronica.” His expression tightened. “I don’t need that much space.”

Okay, she’d be willing to buy that it wasn’t just about the money, but she wasn’t convinced he was telling her the whole truth, either. “I don’t understand.”

He took another bite of pizza. She waited impatiently, knowing he was playing for time. “You’re here,” he said, finally. “I don’t need a guest room if my only guest lives in the same city.”

Oh. Well… that made sense. And she supposed it meant he really had come to terms with the idea of her being here for the foreseeable future. Of course-- “That’s a study, Dad. The house isn’t crazy big or--”

“It’s still a little much these days,” he interrupted, using his conversation over, because I’m the dad, that’s why tone. Which hadn’t worked on her since she was maybe seven years old.

Veronica wondered if part of his concern was upkeep. The worst of his injuries had healed over time, but there were aftereffects. She knew he had lingering pain in his hip, and these days he got headaches whenever he was tired. But she’d learned her own stubborn independence from him, and considering she’d absolutely refused Logan’s suggestions that they get a maid service at their place, she knew better than to broach that topic with her father.

Plus, between the two of them, they couldn’t really afford hired help. Same as it ever was.

Veronica chose to let sleeping dogs lie, at least for the time being, and nodded. “Where are you thinking of moving? Beachside condo?”

Her dad laughed. “You know me, never more comfortable than in swim trunks.”

“Dad.” Veronica wrinkled her nose. “Come on.” She wiped her hands on her napkin and pushed her plate away. “Sure, I’ll help you--” She broke off when her phone buzzed in her pocket, pulling it out to check the display. She gave her dad an apologetic look. “It’s Logan, or I wouldn’t--”

“Take it,” her dad said, waving off her concern.

Veronica stood and moved towards the door, accepting the call. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Logan answered, and all of that missing him that she’d managed to tamp down over dinner flared right back up again. “So,” he continued, “it turns out the military takes its war games pretty seriously.”

Veronica smiled, leaning against the rough brick exterior of the building. “That is surprising. They’re usually such a cavalier bunch.”

He chuckled. “So, good or bad news first?”

“Bad,” she answered immediately, turning away from a small family as they neared the entrance to Mama Leone’s.

“Of course,” Logan responded, amused. She’d always been the just-rip-the-damn-band-aid-off-already type. “Well, to imitate real-world wartime conditions, we’re going radio silent to the outside world for the duration.”

Veronica’s mood fell. She wondered if six months with semi-regular multimodal communication would turn out to be less frustrating than two weeks of total deprivation. “Oh.” She traced nonsense letters on the bricks, eased her fingertip along the scratchy surface of the grout.

“Yeah,” he said, and she could hear the disappointment in his voice, too. “Sorry.”

“Stupid Navy,” she said. “Wait, are they listening? Hi, Navy!”

“I don’t think the NSA plays well with others, so you’re probably fine. Though this decision is squarely on the Air Force.” Logan paused. “On the other hand,” he continued, his voice suffused with amusement, “the Air Force clearly got wind of my misspent youth and has assigned me to the red team.”

“You’re a commie?” Veronica shot back. “I wouldn’t have guessed your Marxist leanings from your amassed wealth and privilege.”

“Smartass,” he answered, and she knew he was smiling. “And not specifically Russian or anything, just representing foreign enemy MIGs during the dogfights.” He sounded almost gleeful when he added, “I get to go up against the F-22.”

“Which is totally badass,” Veronica surmised. If she didn’t persuade him she remembered enough about the F-22, he’d spend precious conversational time describing its aerodynamic capabilities to her. As it turned out, Logan was kind of a geek about airplanes. It would be endearing if it didn’t mean long, romantic conversations about ailerons and thrust capacity.

“I’ll spare you the details,” Logan said, his tone warm. “Look, I hate to do this, but--”

“You have to go,” Veronica interrupted, because it was easier, somehow, if she was the one who said it. “Okay. Well, happy hunting, Comrade.”

Veronica hung up, studying his picture on her phone until it timed out. She took a breath, pushed away from the wall, and headed back into the restaurant.

& & &

On the plus side, trying to distract yourself from missing your boyfriend makes it really easy to throw yourself into a puzzling missing persons search, Veronica thought, taking another sip of wine and wriggling further into the warm, leathery embrace of the couch.

Two days in, and Mac and Veronica had been unable to unearth a single trace of Sonia Rodriguez, or her aunt, or her friend Dahlia. Veronica supposed the lack of progress wasn’t that surprising, considering the circumstances. All she knew of Sonia Rodriguez other than her name and age was that she loved gardening, she’d always wanted a kitten, she’d had jobs off and on at various dry cleaners in and around Modesto, and her parents had both passed away when she was a teenager.

Not exactly the kind of information that would lead Veronica unerringly to a kitten-filled garden hideaway.

It was too late to still be in the office -- particularly on a Friday night -- but here they were anyway. “The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat,” Veronica muttered.

Mac tilted her head to see Veronica past the monitors. “What are you on about?”

“Sorry.” Veronica grimaced. “You know Logan’s aphorisms. Seemed appropriate.”

“Uh-huh,” Mac said.

“I think that’s Confucius,” Veronica added, even though Mac was no longer paying attention.

Behind her wall of monitors, Mac was -- well, Veronica wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing, but it was complex, something about self-executing scripts and backdoors. And still, when Mac typed in the last few items and hit enter, she watched the screen for a moment, then visibly deflated.

“Nope,” she said, way too apologetically for someone not at all at fault, “nothing here, either.”

Not surprising, since they were searching databases fed mostly by government data for information on someone who meticulously avoided any contact with the government. But it was still frustrating.

“Well, I mean, obviously there are people with these names, or variations on these names,” Mac added, “but the rest of the context is off.” Mac shrugged. “Unless she’s actually a 58-year-old registered Republican voter in Miami.”

“Who’s a registered Republican?” Wallace asked, as he appeared in the doorway. From his loose t-shirt and jeans, Veronica knew he’d hit the gym after school. Which meant he was probably starving, and would hustle them out of here pretty quickly.

“Wallace!” Veronica greeted. She lifted the nearly empty bottle of wine in his direction. “Join us! We could use a fresh set of eyes.”

“On a Republican?” Wallace shot back, skeptical. He dropped onto the couch, rubbing his quad carefully with one hand. “No, thanks.”

“You okay?” Veronica asked.

“Yeah, just tweaked a muscle,” he answered.

“Uh, Veronica?” Mac interrupted, tilting at an acute angle in order to see them both clearly around her monitors. “A fresh set of eyes on what? We’ve got bupkis.”

“Bupkis?” Veronica repeated, laughing. She adopted her favorite screwball comedy rapid-fire delivery, “Say, now, wait one minute -- we got zilch, zip, diddly-squat. Why, I oughta--”

“Settle down, Bogey,” Wallace interrupted, bemused. “What’re you working on?”

“Bogey?” Veronica scoffed, though she thought maybe she should slow down on the wine for the moment. “That was clearly Katharine Hepburn.”

“We’re trying to find a missing person,” Mac explained, ignoring Veronica’s antics. “but she’s an illegal and--”

“I think they prefer undocumented,” Wallace pointed out.

“She’s undocumented,” Mac corrected with a quick nod, “and not in any of the databases I can access, so all of our usual tricks are just not working.”

“Methods,” Veronica said. Mac made an exasperated face, and Veronica added, somewhat defensively, “I mean, they’re not actually tricks. Not usually, anyway. Besides, methods sounds more professional.”

“Sure,” Mac said, with a pointed look at Veronica’s nearly empty wine glass. “Much more professional.”

“Hey!” Veronica protested.

Wallace turned sideways, propped his legs lengthwise on the couch, ignoring Veronica’s exaggerated sigh as she shifted away from his shoes. “That sounds like a pretty tough nut to crack.” He considered for a moment, his gaze drifting up toward the ceiling. Then he nodded. “Yeah, I don’t know how you’d find anyone other than, you know, shoe leather.”

Mac nearly choked on a sip of wine. “Shoe leather?” she repeated, coughing. She set the wine glass down with a decisive clink.

“Yeah, you know -- boots on the ground” Wallace said. “Shoe leather.” When both women continued to simply stare at him, he rolled his eyes. “I’m saying maybe you can’t figure this one out on the internet. You might actually have to, you know, go look for her.”

Veronica considered his point. He was almost certainly right -- and it’s not that she didn’t expect to have to knock on doors for this case, but she usually had something more specific to go on than the town the missing person had lived in six months ago and the city that may or may not have anything to do with her aunt. Plus-- “The client isn’t really paying us enough for a lot of trips to Long Beach and Sacramento.”

Wallace shrugged. “Maybe you guys need to charge people more.”

If only it were that simple. With a sigh, Veronica drained the rest of the wine in her glass and pushed herself off the couch. “Okay, it’s Friday night. Let’s at least go have a dinner somewhere not here.”

“Before we go to bed at 10:30, like the tired 29-year-olds we are now?” Mac guessed, a resigned smile on her face.

Veronica and Wallace exchanged glances, then shrugged.

“Yeah.”

“Probably.”

& & &

Veronica paused partway down the stairwell of yet another mediocre, slightly-past-its-expiration-date apartment complex, pulling out her small notepad. She squinted at her hastily scrawled notes. “Wait, Dad?”

He stopped three steps down and turned to look up at her. “Yeah?” She could see the strain in his face -- he was tired and probably a little sore, but she thought maybe it was more than that.

“Was this apartment the one with the gross stovetop? Or was this one the tiny bathroom?” They’d been to five places so far, none of which she would consider good enough for her dad. He loved the garden at the house; he’d spent hours out there during his recuperation, and it made her depressed to think of him with a couple sad potted plants lining the windows of an apartment.

The actual apartments they’d looked at weren’t awful -- probably a small step up from Sunset Cliffs, where they’d lived before she left for Stanford. It was just that her dad had been through a lot, and she wanted him comfortable and happy.

Why was that so impossible in Neptune?

Her dad sighed. “Does it matter?”

“Dad--”

“Really, Veronica, I’m a simple man,” he said, starting back down the stairs. She narrowed her eyes and took note of the way he was favoring his right side. “Safe and clean are my must-haves. I don’t need a palatial estate.”

She blew out a frustrated breath and took the last few stairs at a faster pace. “Would you at least look at a couple of these other places?” She’d printed out some listings in a slightly higher rental bracket, but he’d brushed off her suggestions. “In neighborhoods where you won’t have a rat problem.” He gave her a warning look and kept walking, so she followed him to the car. “I just don’t understand why--”

“Because, Veronica, I can’t keep working forever, and my 401(k) isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with retirement money.” He dropped into the driver’s seat and closed the door with enough energy to register his irritation.

Chastened, she opened the passenger door and slid in, turning over his comments in her mind while he started the car and backed out of the space. “Dad, you could always—”

“No,” he interrupted, rolling down his window to let fresh air into the overheated interior.

She would have laughed if she weren’t so frustrated with him. He wanted nothing but the best for her, but never seemed to understand why she’d want the best for him, too. “You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“I’m not taking Logan’s money,” he answered, his tone brooking no arguments.

“I didn’t--”

“I’m happy that you’ll be taken care of, honey,” he continued, talking over her protests, “but that’s not--”

Taken care of?” Veronica snapped. Despite her less-than-tangible contributions to her and Logan’s living arrangements and expenses, Veronica would not be some kept woman, and her father damn well knew it. “I’m not some gold-digger trying to marry my way into a life of--”

“I’m sorry.” Her dad patted her knee with his free hand. “That’s not what I meant.” She was mollified for a moment, until he glanced over at her with raised eyebrows. "Marry?"

"Figure of speech," she waved away his point, ignoring the tight feeling in her chest. "What did you mean?”

He sighed, driving silently for a couple miles until he said, “Look, getting crushed by a truck tends to bring some things into focus.” He glanced at her, then back to the road. “I wasn’t paying enough attention to what happens next, Veronica. I wanted to be sure you were okay, safe and happy in your life, and even while you were growing into this woman -- this self-sufficient woman,” he added, the hint of a smile on his lips, “I didn’t really pay much attention to the fact that I was getting older, too.”

Veronica punched him softly in the arm. “Come on, you’re not getting old, Dad.” Because he wasn’t, and he couldn’t, and she wouldn’t let him.

Keith smirked and ran the palm of his hand over his head. “Reality would disagree.” He slowed for a red light. “Really, sweetheart, it just makes sense to live a little more within my means, save some money for later. It’s good, Veronica.” He grinned at her. “I plan to be around for a long time.”

Veronica made a mental note to ask Logan’s finance guy if there was a way for her to add money to her father’s accounts without him knowing. That had to be possible, right? Not that she was rolling in disposable income herself.

“Okay, but--” Veronica’s gaze caught on a sign across the street -- black letters on light grey, airbrushed to look like old English tattoo script. “Wait -- is that Weevil’s place?” she asked, pointing past her father.

Keith glanced over. “Navarro’s Auto Body? Yeah, that’s Eli’s. Why?”

The light turned, and her dad eased off the brake. Veronica pondered for a moment. “Wait, Dad, can you circle back?” she asked. “I want to talk to Weevil.”

“And you can’t just call him?” Her father grumbled, but obligingly pulled onto a side street to turn around.

“It just occurred to me,” she admitted, her mind racing. “Plus, I want to see his shop.” Which was true, actually. She’d been so excited for him after their brief conversation at the reunion, but the situation with Celeste Kane had pushed Weevil back into his old life, at least a little. And as much as Veronica wanted to help (assuming she even could help), she’d been wary of getting sucked back into the PCHers’ legally grey areas -- or of getting anywhere near their patently illegal car stealing operation.

“It’s Saturday, Veronica,” her dad pointed out. “He may not even be there.”

“Oh, he’ll be there.” Her dad shot her a skeptical look, and she added, somewhat darkly, “He learned his lesson a long time ago about leaving underlings in charge.”

“I wasn’t aware chop shop owners had underlings,” her dad commented, pulling into the lot, easing the car into an open space that was only half-blocking one of the five garage doors.

“It’s not a chop shop, Dad.” Because Weevil was too smart to run illegal activities through his own legit business. She hoped. Veronica popped open her door and stepped out, squinting in the sun. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Navarro’s Auto Body was larger than she’d imagined, with a blindingly white stucco exterior. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected, exactly, but not this -- though she supposed it would look a little uninviting to paint an entire building black. There was a small office to the right that looked pretty empty, and three of the five garage doors were open. She could see four cars inside, in all different stages of repair.

Before she reached the nearest open garage door, Weevil appeared, wearing tan, oil-stained coveralls and a skeptical expression. He wiped his hands on a rag. “Oh, good,” he said in lieu of a greeting, giving her dad’s old Crown Vic a grimace before turning back to her, “you’re in the right place to get a decent paint job on that thing.”

“Eli,” Keith said, before Veronica could answer.

She turned back to find her dad joining them, and flashed him an exasperated look. Like she had anything to fear from Weevil or his band of scary mechanics.

“Sheriff,” Weevil answered.

“Weevil, this place is great,” Veronica said. It was true enough -- she was pretty proud of him for having built something of his own, possible extracurriculars notwithstanding.

One expressive eyebrow arched. “Yeah, huh? What do you need, V?”

“What makes you think I’m here for a favor?” she tried, but then shrugged. Why bother with the protestations when he was right? “So, what are the chances that you or any of your boys have contacts in LA?”

“I’m assuming you mean the Lakers.”

She pressed on. “Remember way back in high school when your friend, Gustavo, was trying to get his mother out of LA and resettled in San Francisco?”

Weevil lifted his chin and tilted his head in that sarcastic way of his. “Yeah. You looking for Mrs. Ortiz’s horchata cake recipe?”

“Oh, man, I forgot about that cake.” Veronica paused, remembering that particular barter exchange as one of her favorites. “Delicious. But, no -- I’m looking for someone, and I’m not sure where to start. Mrs. Ortiz and Gustavo were undocumented, right?”

“Oh, I see.” Weevil crossed his arms. “Probably all us illegal brown folk know each other.”

Since the shooting, his combative tendencies were back in full effect, and the content, enthusiastic Weevil she’d seen at the reunion seemed to have disappeared. Veronica made herself count to ten -- well, three at least -- before replying. “I’m just curious if Gustavo or any of your new and improved biker gang pals would have any idea where to start looking for someone in the undocumented community in LA, or possibly Long Beach.”

“It’s not a biker gang,” Weevil answered, unable to repress a smirk. “It’s a social club.”

“Oh, yeah?” Veronica shot back. “You guys motor out to Indian Wells for a couple rounds every Saturday morning?”

“Didn’t say it was a boring social club.” Weevil shifted, glancing at her father before continuing. “Look, V, I’m not illegal and I’m not from LA. Not sure why you think I can help.”

“This girl is 24,” Veronica explained, rifling through her bag for the printed copy of Sonia’s picture. “She’s Salvadoran, undocumented, and missing. Her brother is worried about her.”

Weevil’s sour expression softened a degree, and he accepted the picture, studying it for a moment. But when he handed it back to Veronica, he simply shrugged. “I’m Mexican. So is Gustavo.”

Veronica’s jaw clenched in irritation. “That’s your answer?”

“No,” Weevil snapped back. “That’s some context for this: My boys aren’t just gonna magically know some Salvadoreña you’re looking for, but,” he raised his voice over her protestations, “I’ll ask around, let you know if I hear anything.”

She nodded, took a deep breath before answering. “Thanks, Weevil. I appreciate it. I just need a place to start.”

He considered her for a long moment. “And what do I get if I find you something?”

Keith interjected, “There’s no reward money if that’s what you’re asking.”

Weevil jerked his head to indicate the garage doors behind him. “Yeah, ‘cause I’m really hurting for money these days.” He turned back to Veronica. “I’ll take the chit for now, yeah?”

“Sure,” she agreed. Then she wrinkled her nose, pointing at the tan coveralls he was wearing. “They don’t make those in black?”

Weevil half-laughed. “See ya, V,” he said. “Sheriff.”

“Eli,” her dad answered, then turned back toward to the car.

& & &

Sunday passed in a long, tedious, lonesome fashion.

Falling back into habits ingrained during his long deployment, she composed a cheerful email to Logan, attaching a picture Mac had taken Friday night of Veronica and Wallace jostling for the last bit of chocolate lava cake. She assumed that the war games communications blackout included email, but it felt wrong and uncomfortable to be cut off from him, so she sent the email anyway.

Now she just needed to convince herself not to expect a response.

With absolutely nothing better to do, Veronica used her frustration with all of the dead ends in the search for Sonia Rodriguez to fuel some much-needed housework. Not that their condo was that difficult to keep clean. It wasn’t too outrageously large -- the spacious living room was separated from the kitchen by a granite-topped breakfast bar, and there was enough built-in storage to keep clutter at least out of sight.

The two bedrooms and the small study were less neat, but Logan was surprisingly ascetic these days -- she supposed the military had something to do with that -- so aside from the multiple gaming systems and boxes of games in the guest room/game room, they were mostly able to keep things presentable.

But cleaning had always calmed her when she was upset. Sending wistful emails into the abyss and being unable to find Sonia Rodriguez had left her with quite a bit of frustration to work out with a sponge.

Also, she figured since she was the one who refused to accept the intrusion of a maid service, she should probably own the lion’s share of the housework. Though she still collapsed into laughter each time she caught sight of Logan -- Logan Echolls -- holding a mop or a dustpan. And then he would grin at her, with a broom tilted at a jaunty angle, and let her laugh until she’d had her fill -- or jumped him.

And there she was, missing him like crazy again. Veronica grabbed the sponge more tightly, scrubbing the tiled walls of the shower with what was surely excessive force. She added more cleaner, probably too much cleaner, since it was starting to make her throat burn, and put a bit more elbow grease into it.

She was tilted at an impossible angle, balancing her weight on one knee and a hand so she could clean the caulk in the corner of the tub, when she heard her phone.

“Shit.” It wasn’t Logan, obviously, but -- what if it was? She had mentioned in her email that she’d asked Weevil for some help -- it wouldn’t be terribly surprising for him to call and protest the arrangement. She pushed herself upright, tossing the sponge into the tub and sprinted into the living room.

Veronica swallowed her disappointment and accepted the call, breathing a little heavily when she answered. “Hey, Weevil.”

“Am I interrupting your Pilates class?”

Veronica snorted, then rubbed at her nose, which was still tingling a bit from the overwhelming scent of cleaning products. “I prefer yoga -- you know how I like to meditate.” A little belatedly, she wondered why, exactly he was calling. As much as she needed a lead on Sonia Rodriguez, if he’d managed to track her down in a day, Veronica might start to question her own PI cred.

“So I don’t have anything real specific for you,” Weevil said, “but tell me you’re not planning to walk your lily white ass into East LA and just hope for the best.”

“Of course not!” She was mildly offended that he thought her so incompetent. Dropping into the armchair near the windows, Veronica stared absently into the partially constructed building across the street. It was slated to open in a few months, which she hoped meant that the early morning construction noises would finally, blissfully be a thing of the past. “And actually, my client mentioned Long Beach.”

“Oh, much better,” Weevil answered. “You still speak that flawless Spanish?”

“Si?” she tried. If he were there in person, she would have added a winning smile as punctuation. Maybe bat her eyelashes a little.

“Look, V, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go poking around places you don’t understand.”

“Weevil--”

“Let me finish,” he interrupted, frustrated. “We need some stuff for the shop. I was gonna send Eduardo tomorrow, but turns out the shop’s in Inglewood. Not exactly where you want to be, but I figure we can combine trips.”

“I…”  Veronica honestly didn’t know how to react to his unexpected offer. They hadn’t quite fallen into their old favors-for-favors relationship since she’d been back in Neptune, but if he wanted to help, she could certainly use it. “That would be great, actually.”

“Been a long time since my little stint as your dad’s helper, so I’m just there for muscle. And Spanish.”

Veronica grinned. “You really are a sweet guy, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, don’t go telling people that nonsense,” he answered gruffly. “And don’t even think we’re taking that BMW -- I’ll pick you up.”

“I don’t drive the BMW,” she protested. “That’s Logan’s car.”

“Oh, yeah? You rockin’ a Ford Fiesta now?”

“I drive a used car, thank you very much.”

“Yeah?” he challenged. “What make?”

She paused, but there was really no way to save it. She sighed and admitted, “An A4.”

Weevil actually snickered. “Yeah, we should probably leave your Audi in Neptune with your boy’s Beamer.”

“You’re a riot, Weevil.”

“I’ll pick you up around 9. Be sure to have a half-caf skim latté waiting for me.”

& & &

END CHAPTER ONE