No, it isn't so hard to get close to me.
There will be no arguments -
we will always agree,
and I'll try and be kind when I ask you to leave.
We'll both take it easy.
Veronica Mars is twenty years old when her father has a heart attack at his desk. Lamb is the second on the scene, because Veronica is the one who finds Keith slumped over his files with the sunlight bloodying his face through the stained glass window. Yes, she does call him in to help. It's not really flattering; he hears the panic in her voice. She has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. He can see it when the Echolls boy tries to hold her -- the wall is completely built, the shell is constructed, Veronica is inside and not talking. Welcome to radio silence.
Three months later, she is gone. School unfinished, the Echolls boy broken-hearted, the apartment emptied out and most everything piled outside for the garbage truck. When Lamb thinks about her, which is not often, he misses her. She was smart and easy on the eyes. She made a good enemy. And it's harder to solve crimes in this town now -- Vinnie van Lowe is living in the Fitzpatricks' pockets, and there aren't any reputable detectives to run credit checks and the like. When Lamb thinks about Keith Mars, which isn't often, he hopes that Mars is up there somewhere, looking out for Veronica.
* * *
Five years later. Columbus, NM
* * *
"Damn it, Sacks, what are you saying?" Lamb's fury is rising with the temperature. It's 103 in the shade. He's been driving for what seems like a hundred years; Sacks passed out after Tucson. And now he's lost Brighid O'Neill. Could the day get any worse? Oh yes, yes, it could.
Sacks's earnest face is half worried and half frightened. His expression shifts from minute to minute. "Well, sir, no one's seen her. If she's come through town, the sheriff's office hasn't heard about it. The sheriff is real nice, but he's, you know ..." --hesitation-- "country."
"Yes, our proximity to Los Angeles and San Diego make us so much more urban." Lamb can feel a grating in his head, like something's fraying. Maybe it's his last straw. "Fine. Fitzpatrick said this was her contact point -- let's get out of the car and canvass some places. This is the only town in --"
"Twenty-five miles or so. We were in Deming back on the ten."
"Great. And Mexico is just a hop and skip away. That's where the drugs are coming through, so this is where she must be. Someone must have seen her." Getting out of the car and waving off Sacks's helping hand, he mutters, "And someone must have some Excedrin around here somewhere."
"I saw a drugstore a couple buildings down from the sheriff's office."
"Great! Go get me some painkillers." And a mute button for you. "And meet me in --" he points to the cafe across the street. Little towns always have a cafe named after a woman, and this is no exception. "Dolly's. I'll order for you."
"Just remember, I hate onions."
"Yes, Sacks, I remember." Sacks heads off at a trot, and Lamb walks over to Dolly's. He feels kind of unsteady on his feet. They have been driving so long, first the highway and then the bumpy, ill-paved state roads, that it feels strange not to be rolling. He pushes open the glass doors and for a minute he thinks the diner must be closed. Nothing really makes a sound; but then his eyes start to adjust and he sees an old guy at the bar and a stout woman with frizzy black hair is sitting behind it, reading a paper and smoking a cigarette. An old cash register sits on the bar, and behind it on the wall is a menu. Lamb walks up to the bar and clears his throat.
"Yeah?" says the woman, not looking up from her paper. Lamb can't help it, his mouth runs away with him.
"I thought small-town diners were always run by charming ladies named Lulamae."
She eyes him narrowly. "We ain't that kind of diner. Order up, hotshit, or leave."
He opens his mouth, but a smooth, perfectly familiar voice speaks from behind, cutting him off. "I recommend the macaroni and cheese. Not too much gravel in that."
"Hush, missy," says Lulamae (or whatever), but there's no heat behind it. Lamb hardly hears it; he's too stunned at the voice coming out of nowhere. Well, actually, out of the air by his right shoulder.
"Of all the diners in all the woild, he had to walk into this one," says Veronica Mars, hitching up a barstool next to him and smiling up in that way she used to have -- we're all friends here, can't you see we're all friends? Lamb is still not able to wrap his brain around her presence, so she turns to Lulamae and says, "He'll have the macaroni and cheese. And get Sacks a burger, extra cheese, hold the onion."
"How did you --" Lamb's headache seems to be getting worse.
"I saw him outside. Off running your errands, no doubt -- 'Sacks! Fetch me a Perrier! Sacks! I wish to have a pen that writes in red! Sacks, where are my riding lessons?'"
Lamb smiles at that; she's still funny. "You haven't changed," he says.
"Haven't I?" She tips her head up and he sees that yes, she has. Gone is the long girly hair (too bad), replaced with a butch shag. She has put on some weight, not a lot, but enough that she doesn't look half starved. And her biceps are -- for someone who probably weighs a hundred and ten -- huge. She is wearing a dusty green tank top, dusty black jeans, and boots. She looks older. She looks the same. She looks different.
"A little," he concedes. Looks around behind her. "You all alone?"
"No sir, sheriff," she says faux-perkily. "Got me a bodyguard and everything!" She points and Lamb sees an enormous man in a black tank top, sitting in a back booth, munching stolidly on a burger.
"That's Manuel. He's the guy that opens my peanut butter jars."
"You got a guy for the jelly too?"
"Maybe." Just then Sacks huffs through the door with a drugstore bag. "Here you go, boss, here's your --"
"Hey, Deputy," says Veronica.
"Veronica Mars! I'll be damned!" Sacks's face breaks out in a genuine smile -- like a rash -- and Lamb is annoyed to see Veronica's fake smile turn genuine as well. Then Sacks asks the question that Lamb's been meaning to ask -- would have asked -- if he hadn't been so poleaxed.
"What in the hell are you doing out here?"
"I'm looking for someone."
"That's such a coincidence, so are we!" says Sacks. Lamb starts feeling like a real bystander. Then Sacks blurts out, "A niece of the Fitzpatricks', runs heroin -- Brighid O'Neill. We've been chasing her for a solid week -- we drove through Arizona and, well, our car broke down in Tucson...."
He probably would have gone on like this for a full hour, but Veronica interrupts him. "Gosh, what a small world!" She's back to perky mode, and Lamb knows in that instant exactly what she's about to say. "I myself have driven here in search of that very same person! Of course I can't disclose my clients, but they have a vested interest in Ms. O'Neill. And you say you're looking for her too! We'll have to share information!"
Sacks is looking alarmed (too late) and he opens his mouth, but Lamb stops him with an inelegant snort. "Number one, 'sharing' information with a Mars is like putting your hand in a crocodile's mouth. Number two, clients? Are you telling me you're still in the detective business? What is this, Detective Easy Rider?" He looks around the diner again. "Am I on candid camera or something?"
Sacks is still looking like he wants to say something, but then Lulamae comes up and plunks their orders down on the bar. "Eat," orders Lamb, pointing to the burger. "No onions. And give me my damn Excedrin."
While he finally gets two painkillers down his throat, Veronica lays a card down on the bar. "Here you go, sheriff! I'm all legal and everything. License to carry's in my wallet if you want it."
The card is plain and white; in block letters it has a phone number with an area code he doesn't recognize and
in block capitals.
"You're selling bathtub cleaner?" says Lamb, handing the card back. He's not on his game, though -- she just smiles. It's a meaner smile than the one she used to have, and it's sexier too. She was pretty and smart back in college, and sometimes had flashes of sensuality, but she always seemed sort of militant (in a scary way) about sex.
Now she shifts her stance and holds Lamb's stare, planting her feet a little wider, and Lamb suddenly notices how her hips are flat in the front and round on the sides. Intentional, of course, but he can't stop looking upwards, past where a seam has ripped in the tank-top's side, showing an inch of white skin, to the lipgloss she is wearing in spite of her dust: it is an edible dark raspberry. Her skin is tan; not southern California princess tan, but the tan of real work in the sun. He should stop looking at her; she always could play him.
Her smile has slipped slightly, but not her patter. "Oh, you. I offer provident solutions to clients who don't want to -- shall we say -- do footwork."
"Are you telling me -- " says Lamb, thinking of ordering a whiskey or something to cap off all this surrealism -- "that you're a bounty hunter?"
"I'm a jill of all trades," she says, and laughs. "And although this little reunion is so sweet, and gosh, I'd just love to hear how everyone in Neptune is doing, I'm afraid I have to get going. Why don't you two just go on home and I'll make sure Ms. O'Neill gets safely into custody."
"I think not." He realizes that he is still basically staring at her mouth. And Sacks is staring at him. And he has no idea what to do next. Veronica solves the crisis by tucking her card under his plate of mac and cheese.
"Let me know if you have any more information pertaining to my case." She throws some money down on the bar, nods and smiles at Lulamae, and saunters out the door. Over in the corner, Manuel wipes his fingers with a napkin and follows.
As the door bangs shut behind them, Lamb says slowly, "That was just ...."
"Amazing?" says Sacks helpfully, through a mouthful of fries.
"Not the word I was looking for," says Lamb. At least his headache is simmering down a bit. The mac and cheese looks good too. He feels like he hasn't eaten in weeks. The afternoon sun comes in from outside and bounces off the dusty bottles at the back of the bar, lighting them up one by one, white and red and gold.
It takes two hours of solid questioning before they find the delivery boy at the tiny mercantile who is willing to give them directions to Brighid's house. He'd delivered groceries to her not a day ago, and he also had two salient facts. One, he had already told this information to a petite, "very uh ... good looking" girl in dusty black jeans, and two, they had better hurry, for after dark "you kinda need a gps out there to find your way." He draws them a map on the back of an old flyer, and they purchase an enormous amount of water from the mercantile and begin the drive, which takes them another two hours, because they have to cross and recross the state road before they can find the turnoff. It is so faint as to be nonexistent, and it jars the police cruiser unmercifully. The car is made for the smooth streets of southern California, and so when the road gives way to an even fainter sand track, Lamb decides that it's time for a little hike.
The map says they are only "a couple miles" from their destination but it seems to take hours to hike, keeping the sun firmly behind them as they travel east. Sacks, a good companion for all that, doesn't complain about the heat or the sand. They both carry water bottles and Sacks even sticks a reflecting blanket in his pocket. And finally, as the sun sinks below the horizon (Sacks's watch says 8pm, California time), they spot the house. It is a little dark ranch house -- but next to it is a good-sized barn, and in it, the lights are blazing.
"Do you think the shipment's already come?" whispers Sacks. "Five hundred keys, they said."
"We'd have to be damn lucky to intercept that much," Lamb whispers back.
"Maybe it's our night." In the dark, he can hear Sacks smile. They creep further, trying to suss out what's going on in the barn without noticing. There is damn little cover, just rocks and the occasional bush and fencepost. Luckily there don't seem to be any perimeter guards posted. As they approach, Lamb can see a truck backed up to the barn. And he can hear voices. Closer, and closer still. Finally they are as close as they can get, and Lamb swears very very softly. He can see four men, packing something in boxes, and behind them, Brighid O'Neill, smoking a cigarette with an AK-47 over her knees.
He feels sick at the sight of her, with her black curly hair and skin that would never tan in the California sun. Brighid O'Neill, who took his heart by storm and then broke it as easily as glass when she had what she wanted from him. Lamb had vowed on a day many months ago that he would never stop looking for her, and he would not let her go once he found her. He wouldn't mind taking her in dead, but alive would be better.
"Four," Sacks whispers. "And O'Neill."
"Shit." Lamb sits down on a convenient rock, still warm from the sun, and thinks. Takes out his cellphone and tries it, but there is no service, of course.
"What if Veronica is around here somewhere?" asks Sacks. "We could ask her to --"
"No," says Lamb. "You're going to have to go for backup. We need the sheriff's department down here." There is a pause, during which Sacks is probably swearing in his head, and Lamb adds, "I'm sorry, bud. I'm not letting her out of my sight."
"And if you die while I'm gone?"
Lamb grins into the dark. "Then I'll save a spot for you in Hell." If there is a Hell that isn't New Mexico. Lamb asks for, and receives, Sacks's sidearm, and then Sacks slides away and there is no sound beyond the crunch of his footsteps, moving away, and the yell of coyotes, way out in the distance.
He stuffs the sidearm into the back of his pants and begins moving slowly toward the barn, crouched down as far as he can. He wants to hear what they're saying. Now that she's in his sight, he wants to hear what she's telling them. But somehow he miscalculates, and as he steps around the back of the truck, a big Mexican man with a big gun in his hand detaches from the shadows.
"Freeze, gringo," he says and grins hugely. Lamb is torn between running and shooting, both of which will likely be fatal. He doesn't want to die, but it seems pretty inevitable. Things begin to happen very quickly -- Lamb drops his gun, the man raises his, and then from off of his right, Lamb hears a 'zip' and then a thunk like someone hitting a watermelon with a hammer. The guard, as surprised as Lamb, falls over dead.
Lamb hears faint footsteps and has only time to think, "Oh no," and then he feels Veronica Mars pressed up to the side of him, from the top of her shoulder almost all the way down to her boots.
"The cavalry's here!" she hisses at him, up on her tiptoes, grinning that huge grin of hers. Lamb looks down and sees that she's carrying a sleek, silenced pistol, some kind of 9mm.
"Where's your special forces?" he hisses back.
"Don't you worry about us," she says. "Your assignment is to take the one on the left. Where's Sacks?"
"I sent him for backup."
He can feel her chuckling silently.
"Lamb, don't you realize that we're in Mexico?"
He pauses for a minute, but thinks up a good retort. "If they'll deliver groceries down here, they'll send the sheriff. Now what was that about the guy on the left?"
"You go left, I'll go right. Manuel takes the middle." She puts her hand on the back of his neck, forcing his head down toward her ear, and he shivers at her whisper.
"Don't get shot." For a second he can only stand there, speechless and shaky, and then he realizes she is gone.
"Left. Okay." He crouches down, retrieves his firearm, and begins to duck-walk into the barn. Luckily there is a lot of cover, in the form of boxes and boxes full of -- probably -- heroin. It sure as hell isn't food for the orphans. He can now hear Brighid ordering the men around, and through the cracks in the boxes he can see three men. So he and Sacks had counted right, which was good.
He moves fast, so that he can be the first to shoot. He would rather be a target than let Veronica take a bullet. When he hits a clear spot, he stops and looks -- they are all packing boxes, and don't seem to have noticed their friend's disappearance. He takes a deep breath, says a short prayer to anyone listening, and then steps out from behind the boxes.
"Neptune PD, folks. Just drop your --"
They all bring their guns up at once, so he shoots at the one on the left and then dives for the boxes. He hears a yell, then some shots, and then Brighid's panicked voice shouting, "Don't shoot the drugs, you fucking morons! Find him!" and then another 'zip' and a gargle. Veronica seems to have spent some time on the firing range.
"Shit!" says Brighid. Lamb peeks around a stack to find her and the last man standing back to back, pointing their AKs randomly. They are moving in a small cirle, but they both look panicked.
"Hands in the air!" he shouts. "Do it now!"
The last man is speaking to Brighid rapidly in Spanish, something about getting to a radio, and Lamb can't let that happen, so he gets ready for another move, but before he can, there's a crack from outside, a soft whine and the last man falls to the ground, leaving Brighid holding the AK with murder in her eyes.
Lamb hollers, "Drop it, Brighid! I will shoot you!" And she does, immediately, shading her eyes with her hand and peering around as if she can find him.
"Don? Is that you?" Her voice sounds very sad, but he's heard it all before. Brighid O'Neill is a very thin layer of acting laid over a very deep core of unpleasantness.
"Yeah, honey. I told you I'd come." He stands up and goes over to her, cuffing her immediately, reeling off a quick Miranda and not really listening to see if she understands her rights. Five hundred keys of heroin, you don't have rights anymore.
Veronica appears again, this time on top of a pile of boxes, and punches a knife through a brown-wrapped parcel, ignoring Brighid's squeak of anger.
"Good stuff," she says, licking her fingers. "Not too sweet."
"Mars, will you quit tasting the heroin and get down here?"
"Sure, sheriff. Catch me?" He knows she's flirting with him now, but he can't figure out why. He catches her anyway when she jumps, wondering at himself and why he's such a sucker. As he lowers her to the ground, Manuel comes into the barn, holding a sniper rifle over his shoulder.
"Perimeter's clear, boss," he says.
Veronica dusts her hands off -- job well done. "Great. Why don't we go in and see if she's got any food? I'm really starving. And we can call for a copter."
It isn't until they have Brighid securely tied to a chair inside her ranch house that Lamb realizes what she's said.
"What do you mean, a copter?"
"My client wants Ms. O'Neill secure. He's willing to send air forces if necessary."
"Mars, just who the fuck are you working for? Donald Drumpf?"
She smiles, an I'm-better-than-you smile. "Can't reveal that information."
"Well, it doesn't matter, because I'm taking her back with me to Neptune. We don't have air accommodations, but we can make do."
"No you're not."
"Yes I am!" He's shouting now and Manuel is starting to look a bit threatening. Veronica notices too.
"Don't worry about him, Manuel. He's just a big puppy dog. Now, let's see." She starts opening doors that lead off the living room, and then beckons him over. "Why don't you step into my office?"
It really is an office, with a desk and a computer and seating and everything. Lamb sits on a red leather couch, thinking vaguely that he should go through the files in the desk drawers, but Veronica is advancing on him with fire in her eye.
"I don't even want to have this discussion, Lamb. We were here first."
Lamb grins at her, feeling reckless. "Sacks will be coming with backup any minute. I'm not letting her go."
"We both know Sacks couldn't find his ass with both hands!" says Veronica, and she's lost her cheerful grin entirely. She looks ... worried? Lamb keeps pushing.
"I'm not leaving here without her. I am not, Mars. I am not, and that's the end of it."
"Why? What could she have done that's so damn bad that you'd leave your cushy office chair to chase her across three states?" Her eyes narrow and she stares at him. "This is personal, isn't it? You weren't sleeping with her? She's Liam Fitzpatrick's niece! Weren't there any pretty cheerleaders you could screw?"
That takes him aback -- he has to sift through his memories of years ago to figure out what she means. "That's old news, Mars. You still holding grudges from high school?"
"We're all still making bad decisions, aren't we?" She still has that narrow-eyed look; he almost feels compelled to explain himself.
"They own the town now, Mars. It's not the same as when you left. The mayor isn't a Fitzpatrick, but he might as well be one. Brighid was pretty, and it was part of the game for awhile, and ..." he runs out of words to explain the situation. "Sheriff is a tricky position, you know that. She said she could help me."
"But it didn't end up that way, did it?" She suddenly looks a lot calmer, like she knows exactly what he's talking about.
"No. It didn't."
"Good old Neptune, still doing more harm," she says. "You ever want to leave, I'll give you a job with me."
That makes him laugh, and he smiles up at her. "I'll be Starsky, you can be Hutch."
"What?" she says. "I'm strong. I'm an army of one." She puts up her arm, flexing her bicep, and from his vantage point he can see straight up the tank-top to where she is wearing a red lace bra. Somewhere along the line, he forgets to breathe, and when he drags his gaze back up to hers, she is looking right at him, and she doesn't seem to be breathing either. He takes that as a yes. Her mouth is soft and sweet when she isn't talking, and she likes to use her teeth. Lamb doesn't complain.
Eventually, the army of one is sitting in his lap, shirtless, and trying to remove her boots while he runs his hands over some red lace.
"These stupid things," she says, and she sounds giddy, completely un-Mars-like. "Twenty pounds apiece and really only good for kicking the shit out of stuff. But try and take them off -- "
"I can cut the laces," he says. He runs a finger down her stomach and into the waistband of her jeans, and she hisses.
"Fuck it," she says, "just take your shirt off, Lamb. I don't have all night here."
Eventually, she does cut the laces with her own pocketknife. When she finally gets him down to his skin, she smiles, and this smile is perfectly genuine: it says, you are mine for tonight. And no matter how trite it is to say, that smile makes him happier than he's been in a long time.
She strips off the red lace, rises up on her knees and kisses him like a hurricane; he feels like he's been hit by a forty-mile-an-hour wind. It rushes through his head and he can't remember anything; not the ranch house or the dark night outside, not the woman in the other room, and certainly not even his own name.
A few hours later he wakes up on the couch, tangled up with her, covered by an afghan throw she had found in a closet. It cold outside the blanket, and dark as hell, though he has enough night vision to make out the top of her head, pillowed on his chest. Through the window, a million stars kiss in the night sky. Lamb is startled to realize that he might be thinking in poetry.
He touches her bare shoulder, just lightly, enough to reassure himself that he's not dreaming, and she shivers and comes awake.
"Hi," she whispers.
They are both silent for a minute, and she creeps her arms up around his neck. He can't believe that he is in New Mexico, hugging Veronica Mars. Naked.
"Where do you live now?" he asks.
"Dallas. For now. We move around quite a bit."
"Do you ... work for the government?"
She laughs quietly. "No. I'm a freelancer. I have a bit of a reputation. You've never heard of me?"
"Not lately," he says, but in a nice way.
"Well, I only advertise by word of mouth. Maybe you'll get a call from me one day."
"Mars, I'd be so happy to help you with anything you needed." And he means it; he has always, somewhere underneath, wanted to help her.
"Except for Brighid," she says.
"Veronica -- I -- " but she stops him with a kiss on his collarbone.
"Call me Mars. I like that." And then she slides up toward him again, and just like that, like it was natural, he flips her over and starts kissing her while his hand searches down below the couch for the condoms she had in her wallet.
"Okay, Mars," he says, and his voice sounds odd -- sounds joyful. And here, in this time, he takes what she's willing to give.
In the morning, he wakes up alone (as he mostly suspected he would). He stumbles into his clothes and washes his face in the sink, and then blearily notices that he is not really alone -- Brighid O'Neill is sitting on the couch, tied hand and foot, looking very unhappy. Next to her is a note. As he picks it up and takes it outside to the porch to read it, he hears sirens in the distance.
Dear Sheriff (it reads):
After some consultation with my superiors, they have conceded that as long as O'Neill is in jail, they are satisfied. Therefore, I present to you your criminal, tied up all pretty-like. We will pick up Sacks (I'm sure he hasn't gone far) and alert the authorities on our way out of town. Thank you for your cooperation. I hope you meant what you said about our ability to help one another out.
Lamb smiles. If nothing else, Veronica has helped him out. And he doesn't just mean the sex, though that seems to have cleared out his head (and his heart; Brighid looks pretty tawdry in the daylight).
"Give me a call, Mars," he says into the wind, and steps outside to meet the coming day.