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Taking the Drop

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It’s not like Veronica thought, while fighting tooth-and-nail to win a job at the FBI, that a law enforcement career would be glamorous. She assumed ‘high-risk’ and ‘life-consuming’ went without saying… but jumped in with both feet because everyone assumed she’d fail. Throughout those years she waged battles with a stacked system, though, to earn her gun and badge—she never once imagined the work would be BORING.

She’s currently reading email nine-thousand-three of more than forty-six thousand, however, so she can catalog contents to make a searchable database; and the sheer tedium has her reconsidering her position. Because sure, she MIGHT find the smoking gun in this stash, and put an international fraudster behind bars. But since right now she’s transcribing vet bills for a Pomeranian’s impacted anal glands, she has her doubts.

Voices filter back to her small and grimy cubicle, her reward for graduating Cum Laude from Columbia Law; she perks up as she hears the words, “…see if an agent’s available.” Since she’s fresh out of the Academy, and most junior on staff, Agent in Charge of Random Bullshit is usually her.

Approaching footsteps bolster this theory, so Veronica pitches her gum, straightens her somewhat-wilted blazer. Turns expectantly towards the entrance, alert-and-professional expression in place, just as Logan Echolls lounges against the frame.

He looks GOOD, she thinks illogically, even as she wilts like her sport coat. Tanned and buff and fifty times healthier than he should, considering those six years of tabloid-chronicled hedonism since she dumped him. He’s in old jeans and flip-flops, his ‘Live Fast, Die Young’ t-shirt both worn and snug; faint sun-wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepen when he notes her disappointment. Darla from reception waves and OH-MY-GOD’s behind him as he says, “Why am I not surprised you turned a felony kidnapping investigation into a job?”

“Why am I not surprised you’re still wasting your potential at the beach?” She gestures up-and-down at his ensemble. “And what on Earth are you doing in the San Diego field office, Logan? Are you planning to make another romantic drunken speech? Maybe you saw a joke flyer advertising kegs, and the metal detectors failed to deter you?”

“You wound me, Veronica,” he says, clearly not wounded, as she shoos away Darla. “You know full well I’m always the host. Like I’d deign to turn up at some random loser’s party.”

She snorts, and his grin faintly manifests. “Tragically, though, there’s a distinct lack of revelry and booze at this locale, so how about I cut to the chase? Can I interest you in a theory regarding bank robberies?”

Her eyes widen and she sits back, gesturing towards the uncomfortable guest chair. He unfolds from his lean and slouches into it, stretching out his long legs and making the cube feel minuscule.

“Now what would a boy like you know about felony theft?” She taps her lower lip while he crosses his arms, entertained. “I’m guessing very little, unless you learned on a film set—but I’ll admit you’ve disappointed me before.”

“I’m talking, specifically, about high-yield local jobs—the ones you guys have bungled like Keystone Cops for three years?” He bobs his brows, tone ever-so-slightly-patronizing. “The robbers wear Ninja Turtle masks, and collect massive hauls with a crew of four?”

“I may have heard a mention,” V says, with irony, because this case is the local Holy Grail. “As has every cable-news watcher in America.”

“Any lovers of partisan coverage realized yet the jobs only take place in the summer?”

She rolls her eyes. “Give us a little credit. We’re the FBI over here, not credulous guest stars on Scooby Doo.”

“And has it further occurred to you,” he leans forward intently, elbows on knees, “that these are the prime surfing months in So-Cal? For the rest of the year, surfers travel to the best waves…which costs more than people other than me can afford.”

He’s close enough now for her to smell his cologne, the sun-baked scent of his skin. Her voice, when she speaks, is husky. “Logan, what have you heard?”

Shrugging, he reclines against the wall, satisfied he’s piqued her curiosity. “Rumors,” he says, with a hand wave. “Nothing substantial. You know how it goes, when we reprobates toast marshmallows and gossip. High-denomination bills are turning up among locals, lately…and I’m the only guy who hasn’t spent his trust fund.”

“Rumors,” she repeats flatly, disappointment washing over her. Decides he looks and smells too lickable for pointless conversation to continue. “Well if that’s all you’ve got, no need to prolong the awkwardness. Thanks for stopping by–we’ll look into your allegations and touch base if necessary. Appreciate the good citizenship, blah-blah, God bless America.”

She finger-waves, and he stares for a moment, disbelief fading into cynicism. “Fine,” he says at last, pushing up out of the chair. “Your loss. I’ve had fun exchanging insults again, Veronica—it’s been a while since my last creative tongue-lashing. Good luck with the glamorous new career. Oh, and…excellent choice, reverting to shorter hair. There’ll be less to tear out when ignoring my clue gets you nowhere.”

He winks and strides away. She runs a palm self-consciously along one side of her sleek bob, and watches his back muscles shift as he goes.

XXXXX

Veronica submits a form detailing the interaction, per procedure, then tries to re-focus on the mind-numbing emails. The memory of Logan’s disappointed expression nags…but what did he expect, showing up out of the blue with no evidence? She WANTED to believe him; just like she wanted, once upon a time, to have faith he’d give up reckless self-endangerment. But leaping without looking is Logan’s thing–and the best way to protect him is to NOT inquire into crimes of his nearest and dearest.

She’s a professional, though, and the bigwigs want their database yesterday. So she dutifully enters emails till it’s eleven and she’s wiped. V then drags herself home to run on the treadmill, eat a frozen dinner, and feel both sad and glad she’s got no hungry dog waiting.

When her alarm goes off (too early) the next morning, she staggers into the kitchen to grab a bottled coffee; slumps half-awake at the breakfast table to chug. Mac’s gone for the day, probably practicing Tai Chi in the park, but the San Diego Union-Tribune’s on the table, neatly folded to show the front page. Veronica’s bleary gaze passes over it…then swings back, focuses. She grabs it in both hands, cursing.

The headline reads, ‘Wild in the Banks? Surf Wax Found at Multiple Robbery Sites, Source Claims’. The article beneath, written by some pompous windbag named Julian Grac, details the theory Logan laid out yesterday…along with several bits of evidence she’s sure were kept from the press.

“That asshole talked to the PAPER,” she mutters, crumpling newsprint in her fists. “When I kicked him to the curb, I should have kicked HARDER!”

Her rage sustains her all the way through her shower and commute. But when she gets inside the forbidding white-stone-blue-glass building, and finds a summons from Agent Morris waiting? Anger gives way to foreboding.

Morris still holds a teeny-tiny grudge about the whole getting-outsmarted-IN-RE-Duncan thing. And continues to view Veronica with unreasonable suspicion–which is troublesome because right now she’s V’s boss.

Her fearless leader’s planted on the desktop when Veronica enters, legs crossed casually, arms folded. The ‘lazy housecat, circling’ routine Morris uses to intimidate is getting old; so V goes full can-do chipper in response. “You asked to see me, ma’am?”

“Mars, am I right in assuming we work for the same department?” Morris arches one eyebrow, and Veronica has to bite her tongue to contain sarcasm. “It’s not something I hallucinated, due to lack of sleep from investigating bank heists?”

“Last time I checked, ma’am,” V replies breezily. “Unless there was a re-org this morning while I was stuck in traffic.”

“And when a potential witness for said case appears in said department…” Morris pauses, for dramatic effect, Veronica assumes. “Shouldn’t the interviewing agent, who’s incidentally my subordinate, notify me ASAP?”

“I passed the information up the chain as per FBI rules,” Veronica says. “And you must have received it, or I wouldn’t be standing here.”

“Yes, but if you had walked Mr…” Morris consults a sheet of paper on the desk by her hip, “Echolls upstairs personally, instead of sending him on his way and writing a bare-bones report, I would’ve received the information YESTERDAY. BEFORE he ran to the paper, and spilled critical intel to perps. I might’ve even convinced him silence is golden, since you didn’t find it worthwhile to try. Here’s a hint—fake sympathy and charm work wonders.”

Veronica finds this claim dubious, but all she says is, “Ma’am, he was passing along rumors. He didn’t give names or offer proof. And I doubt he’s a witness to anything but his own moral decline.”

“Be that as it may,” Morris says. “He HAS made the acquaintance of this pain-in-my-ass Julian Grac. Who somehow knows about the beeswax residue at six of nine robbery sites–the chemical composition of which matches a well-known surf product. Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax, to be precise. Bubblegum scent.”

Veronica contains an eye-roll. “A detail which was kept out of the press.”

“Right.” Morris levers herself up to standing. “My question is, HOW does Grac know? Did he learn this tidbit from Echolls? And if so, where’d Echolls hear?”

“Logan parties a lot.” Veronica shrugs, hoping she comes off unaffected. “And snoops. Probably he stumbled into the wrong crowd and overheard a conversation. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Yes, I was interested to learn you and Echolls share a history.” Morris consults the paper again; Veronica wonders whether it’s a car-wash receipt or actual research. “He was your boyfriend after Duncan Kane fled the country, correct? It’s great you didn’t disappear him, too, because we can use that relationship to get close to his sources.”

“Logan Echolls isn’t big on being used,” Veronica says, lightly. “You might not find him accommodating.”

Morris sighs. “Look, Mars, we’ve been praying for a break on this case for years. And, as I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn, none of our agents surf. He does, though—Echolls—I understand he’s pretty good. He also trusts you enough to hand you dirt on guys he knows. It might be…” she trails a finger along the edge of her desk, slants V a sly look, “…advantageous to your career to demonstrate team loyalty, Mars. Convince the guy to be our confidential informant. Get an introduction to some surfers, find out who’s flashing mystery cash. His social circle’s no doubt heard about your turbulent former romance. He could help us infiltrate the locals-only crowd, none of whom like talking to Feds.”

“But if I go undercover,” Veronica tries to conceal her mounting excitement, “who will log the last thirty-thousand Sanderson emails?”

“Let me put it this way, Mars.” Morris smirks. “If you DON’T go undercover? I got a server in today from Atlanta containing another hundred-k.”

“You know I’m a professional, ma’am.” Veronica folds her hands behind her back to conceal the involuntary fist. “Whatever my task may be, I’ll work hard to exceed expectations.”

“So you say.” Morris lays the paper, gently, down. “I’d rather you prove ‘my task’ means ‘anything the FBI asks’. Not ‘whatever I feel is right, even if it’s against the law’.”

Veronica nods, giving away nothing. Morris contemplates her in silence. “We’re working on an alternate post-Hearst background for you,” her boss continues, after a tense thirty seconds. “You’ll have it by the end of the day. I’ve also called in a favor from the owner of Neptune’s Net, a local surf hangout—congratulations, you’re waiting tables. You’ve got a month to produce actionable evidence, plus I want weekly reports, in person. And Mars…from now on, don’t leave ANYTHING out.”

“I would NEVER.” Veronica presses a palm to her heart. Morris narrows her eyes, then waves a dismissive hand.

XXXXX

Once back at her desk, V pulls up tools that make Prying Eyez look like a toy and researches Logan. Within two minutes she’s got a list of his petty crimes, including one drunk-and-disorderly sophomore year and two expunged charges…destruction of a police vehicle, and assault of Mercer Hayes. But since junior year at Hearst, Logan’s flown under the radar. He earned a political science degree, with honors, followed by a Masters in English from YALE; and then…he bought a house in San Diego by the water, and a dog from the SPCA. She copies down the innocuous address, cracks her knuckles and considers.

High-tech’s getting her nowhere, so Veronica decides to Google; finds a ‘What happened to Logan Echolls?’ article which reveals precisely nothing. Next she turns her attention to Julian Grac, which at least has the benefit of novelty. It yields links to crime stories in the Union-Tribune, and an article about ‘ten great authors you’ve never read’.

Frowning, she clicks through, only to realize it’s name confusion. But the phrase ‘a writer who prefers obscurity’ catches her attention, so she speed-reads the autobiography of one Julien Gracq; a turn-of-the-century novelist who rejected awards, refused to do book tours, and lived as a hermit. His masterpiece, ‘Chateau D’Argol’, was about a rich man whose best friend brings a poor girl into their social circle. After which the girl seduces, then ruins, them both.

At this point Veronica throws her pencil holder across the room. Because this is EXACTLY the kind of pseudonym Logan Echolls would adopt, and smirk about regularly, knowing few had the insight to penetrate his ruse.

She doesn’t need to use the search tools on Grac, at this point; but doing so reveals his paychecks languish in a shell account. Suspicions confirmed, she picks up the phone. Adopts the sugariest Southern accent she can muster, just because, and spins a tale to the Trib’s receptionist about the tip of a lifetime for ‘Monsieur Grac’. The voicemail box she’s transferred to boasts an inspirational quote (‘All news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit it are old women over tea’), recited in a drawl she recognizes. She hangs up, high on triumph, and decides a long-distance chewing-out won’t serve.

XXXXX

Veronica leans against a lamp post across the street to wait; within half an hour, Logan bounces out of the brown skyscraper housing the Union-Tribune. He loosens his tie as he walks, laughingly calling goodbyes to co-workers. He’s in designer flat-front slacks and a white oxford, hair mussed like he’s been running his hands through it–his impersonation of clean-cut and trustworthy is so cute she has to grit her teeth not to smile.

The street is packed with cabs, so it takes him a minute to notice her. When he does, he pulls a theatrical double-take before jaywalking, hands in pockets, smiling wryly.

“So,” she says, as soon as he clears the road, “Can I interest YOU in a theory about people who lie to FBI agents?”

“I didn’t lie, per se,” he counters, rocking back on his heels as his grin grows Grinch-like. “I just wore my weekend clothes and kept my mouth shut. The Veronica Mars Express Train to Paranoia-ville did the rest.”

“This is a serious federal investigation, Logan,” she chides, folding her arms. “Bringing evidence to the authorities isn’t a game for personal amusement.”

“What, exactly, are you mad about?” He lifts his brows. “That I gave you a hint instead of handing over story notes? That I failed to shout my job history from the rooftops? Or maybe you’re just pissed I’m not an alcoholic loser, since it makes you ditching me seem…selfish?”

“I could’ve had you subpoena’d and interrogated under oath,” she says, faux-thoughtfully. “But browbeating you in person seemed much more fun.”

He laughs. “THERE’s the Veronica who ran afoul of the Russian mob. So what convinced you my theory was worth pursuing, sugarplum? Not my charm, surely. Some fact in the article your colleagues missed, perhaps?”

“Like I’d discuss cases with a reporter,” she scoffs. “Why’d you go with ‘robberies only happen in summer’ when you had physical evidence in reserve?”

“Like I’d reveal my sources.” He grins. “Gosh, Veronica, seems like we’re at an impasse.”

“My supervisor wants to use your connections.” She goes sardonic in response to his glee. “I’d ask if you have experience undercover…”

“…But you know first-hand my skills are professional-grade?”

She narrows her eyes. He cocks his head, amusement warring with calculation. “If I help you, what do I get?” he asks.

“First crack at the story immediately following arrests,” she says. “With our full cooperation. And any information you gather solo you can use…unless, of course, it’s classified.”

He removes car keys from his pocket; stares, considering, into the distance as he flips them around one finger. Returns his gaze to hers and locks on, Logan-style. “I assume my role is to introduce you to suspicious surfers? Since I further assume you won’t let me handle this and report back?”

“You know what they say about assumptions,” she says, by way of answer. “Of course, you’re an ass already, so maybe you don’t care.”

“I should warn you, a lot of our high-school classmates have stuck around.” He holds his tie down with one palm as a breeze shifts it sideways. “This may suck for you, but you’ll have to pretend we’ve reconciled.”

She nods, and he extends the non-key-containing hand. “Give me your phone.”

V shouldn’t violate protocol; but Logan’s trustworthy, within limits, so she types in the code and does. He enters his number in the contacts and gives it back. “There’s a party tonight at Black’s Beach—should be locals-only, very exclusive. Text me an address, I’ll pick you up at eight. Oh, and dress like a surf bunny, even if doing so offends your sensibilities. Not all these people are stupid, you’ll need to blend.”

“Gee, I was hoping you’d refuse to cooperate,” she says wistfully, pocketing her cell. “Then do something worse than jaywalking, then flee, so I could knock you down and cuff you.”

“Maybe later, if you’re REALLY nice,” he says, leaning confidentially towards her ear. Then walks off, whistling, while she tries to purge the image from her brain.

XXXXX

Veronica’s sitting on the porch of her rented condo when Logan pulls up at 7:55—in a dusty black vintage Range Rover, not the shiny orange Porsche she envisioned. She considers, as she stands, whether she also makes too many assumptions. But his appreciative whistle while he opens her door is distracting.

“Guess it slipped my mind how much you love playing dress-up,” he murmurs. She doesn’t miss the quick once-over he gives her as he releases the brake. “You look great, Veronica, love the sarong. And friendship bracelets are a nice touch.”

“This is actually a tablecloth.” She strokes the fringed white linen, embroidered with red roses, she tied over one hip so she’d feel less naked in her green bikini. “I favor a no-nonsense black wardrobe these days, because Cup ‘o Soup stains don’t show.”

“Wise,” he says, and clears his throat. He’s in linen too, a short-sleeved, half-buttoned summer shirt over cargo shorts; she notes with amusement the shark’s tooth necklace has reappeared. “I figured we’d start at the top of the food chain and work our way down, since most surf crews around here are big on punching but short on brains. Brains being a prerequisite for smoothly-planned bank jobs.”

“Sounds fair,” she agrees, watching his arm muscles shift as he changes gears. “This party is where we’ll find apex predators?”

“Black’s has the most challenging waves in the area—ten, twelve footers courtesy of an offshore trench. It takes stamina to swim out and ride, so this spot attracts real athletes…the ranked surfers that compete on TV. And Zen masters, who just want to be one with the ocean.”

She makes a face, and he says, serious, “It’s not a joking matter to these people, Veronica. They don’t welcome posers in their midst. I vividly recall you disapproving of fistfights and vandalism, so be warned; the elite surfing community makes me, way back when, look like a piker. Crews are similar to those biker gangs you inexplicably love, although these are black sheep from MIDDLE-class homes–plus more ethnically diverse. This particular group is Mother Nature mystical in a way you’ll loathe and mock; so expect pot and hallucinogens, free love interspersed with showdowns. Stick close to me or you’ll be propositioned…and whipping out a taser would break your cover.”

“Understood.” She studies his face, surprised to see concern there. Gentles her tone in response. “I’ve gone undercover before, Logan. And agents are extensively trained in hand-to-hand combat. I can handle myself in a fight now.”

“Like you couldn’t before?” A smile plays across his lips; a street lamp illuminates his face as they pass beneath, then he’s cast again in shadow. He turns into a parking lot at the edge of a cliff and kills the engine. “I’m not worried about your moxie, Veronica. I just don’t want you to mouth off and find yourself surrounded. Out here, surfers make the rules.”

“I have full faith in your ability to fight dirty defending me,” she says softly. He laughs, gaze tracing her face, and she’s reminded of previous evenings with him in a parked car.

“Nice to see some things don’t change,” he murmurs, then climbs out to help her down. His hands linger on her waist as he lifts her from the seat, skin-to-skin.

They pass, in the moonlight, a brown sign that reads ‘stairway unstable due to rains’. He walks behind her down a narrow path with a rotting rail, hand on her shoulder like he’ll catch her if she falls. It’s nice, this unwavering focus, his concern for her well-being despite angry words. She used to take it for granted, the way she drew male eyes. But she’s grown up, post-Hearst; and she realizes now most men don’t pay attention as completely as Logan did.

At the base of the cliff, past a saucer-shaped observation tower, a bonfire sends smoke spiraling into the sky; loud music blasts, Dick Dale with the bass maxed. Seventy-ish people cluster near the crackling flames–on either side, a ribbon of sand stretches off into the dark. The water looks black, boasting military-formation-regular waves, and the rock wall at her back is smooth, forbidding.

The crowd’s uninhibited as advertised, drinking and making out, smoking and laughing. A few guys dance in a circle with much hilarity, like they’re having some Lord of the Flies moment or praying for rain. A knot of humanity encircles loose boulders at what’s clearly the party’s center.

It’s obvious Logan’s no stranger, despite his current respectability. He greets people with grins and backslaps, jerks of his chin, less unaffected than he seemed addressing work colleagues. Almost, he slides back into his high-school persona—the 09’er general who dictated popularity, who slashed tires and started shit when his judgments were questioned. But there’s a watchful tension to the set of his shoulders, and he glances left frequently to make sure she’s beside him. That, more than words, convinces her there’s danger.

They take an indirect path to the cluster by the boulders; Logan accepts a shot en route, which he tosses back, unhesitating. Cracking his neck, he meditatively surveys the throng, then coughs to get her attention as a gap opens.

“Guy holding court at the center,” he murmurs, indicating a ropily-buff Asian man with longish hair and ratty swim trunks. “That’s Bodie Chang, he was a year ahead of us at Neptune High. You remember?”

Veronica nods, watching Bodie gesture lazily from his semi-reclined position. Watching the crowd guffaw when he speaks, soak up his every word. “He’s come a long way since I interviewed him for the school paper. I remember Chang being shy.”

“He’s one of the top twenty-five surfers in the world, now.” Logan shoulders aside a drunk dude-bro to attain the inner sanctum. “In this place, he’s King.”

She opens her mouth to reply; but Dick Casablancas erupts from a log like the Ghost of Shitty Memories past, and drapes a wasted arm around her partner-in-crime. “Lo-GAN!” he shouts, like Logan’s not next to him. “Mr. Echolls in the house, now the party can START!”

“Enticing ladies again with the scents of puke and Jagermeister, I see.” Logan shoves Dick off, not without affection. “I thought you weren’t coming tonight, dude. Something about college cheerleaders and a hot tub?”

“They had emergency PRACTICE.” Dick accompanies a raspberry with a thumbs-down. “Seriously, how much do you need to rehearse waving pom-poms? It’s not like anybody looks at the props. Hey, who’s the wahine?” He squints, attempting focus. “Nice boobs, looks sort of familiar. Maybe I’ve seen her in a por…oh, holy SHIT! Dude, why the FUCK did you bring V…”

“Hey ECHOLLS!” a voice calls, mercifully drowning out Dick’s fit. Logan spreads a palm across V’s back to steer her–towards Bodie Chang, his summoner, and the makeshift royal throne. The King of Black’sBeach looks them both over impassively. “Thought you were too busy for our modest shindigs these days, man.”

Logan shrugs, nonchalant, but shakes the proffered hand. “You know how it goes,” he says, easily. ”All that money to spend, all those waves to ride. Plus too much temptation here to drink to excess. My body’s a fine-tuned machine.”

“I can respect that,” Bodie says, with a faint smile that reminds Veronica forcefully of Agent Morris. “Looks like maybe you’ve had other distractions lately, too. Who’s your date?”

“This,” Logan says, pairing a smile with a warning glance, “Is Veronica Mars.”

Then he snakes an arm unexpectedly around her waist. His hand finds the gap in her makeshift sarong, cups her hip; he pulls her flush against his side and adds, “My girlfriend.”