Celeste Kane has always had a certain way of saying Veronica’s name, her voice coldly descending from an anthill she believes is a mountain. But she pays well, so Veronica nods and invites her silently into her office.
“I’m sure you’ve heard that Duncan is running for the state legislature.” Veronica refrains from rolling her eyes. Celeste sounds arch and vaguely satisfied, but not particularly excited about the campaign; it’s just step two on the Duncan Kane road to the presidency. The Celeste excitement index doesn’t even begin registering for anything less than a US senate campaign.
“I’ve seen his ads,” Veronica says, aiming for neutral. Her dad had been so much better at this kind of thing, but she thinks she has done well enough.
“Over the past few weeks, we have received some disturbing information about the possibility of certain confidential documents being stolen and released. We would like you to prevent that from happening.” Celeste reaches into her purse and takes out a manila folder, placing it onto Veronica’s desk. She does so with a little toss that would be jaunty, except from her it seems more like she’s worried about getting too close to Veronica. “In there is the information we’ve collected on the people we believe were hired to commit the theft.”
Veronica takes a moment to flip through the file, recognizing each picture and some of the accompanying text that her eyes pick up. She looks back up at Celeste. She understands why the Kanes haven’t contacted the police, with the publicity and awkward questions that would bring, but she still has questions of her own. “Why come to me? Why not use your security?”
Celeste’s mouth twitches further into tightness, although Veronica isn’t sure whether it is from displeasure at the situation, or the fact that she hasn’t already obediently agreed to the job. “We’ve had some questions about the… trustworthiness of our staff. Whatever my…” Celeste inhales, arch and long-suffering. “Whatever my personal feelings about you, I don’t doubt your skills and reliability.”
Veronica sets the folder flat on the desk and places her hands on it for a moment, eyes on Celeste, before she turns to take a blank contract out of her drawer. Whatever her personal feelings about Celeste, she knows that she pays well and on time. Besides, the case seems like it might have something useful to it.
After Celeste has left, Veronica finishes a couple of background checks and some paperwork, but knows it’s only a matter of time before she gives in and examines Celeste’s folder, the most interesting thing in her office, more thoroughly. She manages to push herself to forty minutes before she picks it up again.
Two of them have been on her bounty board at one time, and she has narrowly missed getting one of the others before, but she has never had a reason to learn about them in detail until now. She turns to the first page.
The picture labelled Kendall Shiflett is the most up to date of the four; she clearly doesn’t have a problem being photographed. It would be hard not to be when all the men she has seduced needed her on their arm for their benefits and meetings of Affluence Really Not Anonymous. The sheet accompanying the photo lists a dozen aliases, but Veronica knows that there are more. She had been going by Crystal Wilson when she had been working on a CEO who Veronica had busted for filing false insurance claims. Veronica has a blurry memory of her in his office, slipping out the back door at the last minute as the CEO tried to grin his way out of trouble. She had spared a second glance for the slick stockings and shiny hair sliding out of the room, but, focused on her actual case, hadn’t realized until later that they belonged to anyone other than the girl on the side.
Veronica doesn’t really blame herself. Crystal, or Kendall, or whatever she was called, had avoided arrest and escaped custody in several countries and was apparently very good at what she did. There was testimony in Celeste’s file from the people she had grifted. They talked about her, slightly nostalgically, as if she were several different people, the world’s best mistress and wife and hooker and tennis partner, as attentive or smart or pretty as they needed, until she had what she wanted and was gone.
If Kendall had many names, the next picture belongs to someone who only had one. The woman is blonde, Veronica can tell that, and probably smiling, but she is blurred and hard to see, darting away from the camera. The photo caption says “Parker” with no last name, and the page is almost blank, just listing her known heists and particular skills. Veronica makes a note to do her own background work here.
There’s one name listed under Parker’s known associates: Logan Echolls. Veronica recognizes the name, and if she tilts her head she can see the face she had once known in her days of People magazine and Entertainment Tonight in the shadowed man looking over his shoulder in Celeste’s snapshot. There’s so much detail about him - his famous parents, his father’s murder, his mother’s suicide, his military career - that it takes Veronica a moment to realize that after his honorable but sudden discharge, he had basically slipped off the map. A dozen warrants and reports of assaults on a variety of unsavory characters, at least half of them while acting as muscle for sneaky, thieving Parker. There isn’t much mystery to why two criminals who usually worked alone would team up for a couple of years. Veronica can imagine them together, broad and lawless, famous Clyde and invisible Bonnie running around the world together.
The last picture is a driver’s license still, the teenaged version of someone who according to the information about her should have been over a decade older by now. Her small, serious face and blue streaked hair are familiar to Veronica. She checks to confirm, unsurprised when she finds that Cindy Mackenzie had been at Neptune High during the same time as Veronica herself; they would have sat a couple of seats down from each other at graduation. If she focuses, Veronica thinks she remembers having ninth grade computer lab with her before she was given permission to work on some independent study project for the rest of the term. If any of the jobs rumored to have been done by her actually were, the independent study thing really worked out.
Veronica actually finds herself impressed twice over: Mackenzie has apparently erased herself from the records of the California DMV, and Celeste has somehow managed to track down a tattered physical copy.
It’s dark once she has finished reading through the details and making some additions of her own. She figures she probably has a day at least to figure out the when and where of the job, so she flips off the lights in the office and goes home.
The smells, warmth and garlic, drift down the hall as she walks up toward her apartment, and Veronica smiles. She raps her knuckles against the door once and walks in.
“Something smells good,” she says, a smile lilting its way into her voice. Across the living area she can see Wallace in the kitchen mouthing the phrase mockingly along with her.
“One of these days I’m going to light a marinara scented candle and take myself out for dinner,” he says, even though they both know her plate is waiting on the counter.
“Make sure to do it on National Make Veronica Cry Day.” She drops her bag on one of the chairs and moves around Wallace to grab the knife and cutting board, and then reaches into the fridge.
“That’s in January, right?”
She spreads her hands and gives him a come on look. “Um, next week. Better get your candle.” She shoves his hand away, a moment too late to stop him from grinningly dropping a cube of cucumber into his mouth. “Speaking of which, rent’s due then too. How’s the roommate hunt going?”
“I think I’ve gotten to the certifiable candidates. Wish I could go back to the eccentrics. Guy who wanted to hang up his duck hunting memorabilia isn’t looking bad now.”
“I’ve always said that you would sleep better with stuffed Daffy above your bed.” Veronica finishes chopping the vegetables and rinses the cutting board as Wallace, finished draining the spaghetti, puts their plates on the table.
“And it’s you saying weird stuff like that that stops us from being roommates.” He peers, grinning, through the cutout separating kitchen from living area, and Veronica stands, head tilted, blinking for a moment, thankful all over again that he has been beside her for so long.
She had thought that things were bad when her dad had been recalled over his failure to either solve or agree to pretend to solve the E String Strangler case, but it had been laughable in comparison to what she had gone through after her dad had been murdered on a stakeout just after her graduation from high school.
She had been dating Duncan Kane for a year by then, but he had stayed only a few days after the funeral; there was a senate internship waiting for him across the country. Wallace had stayed over every night until she didn’t need him anymore. He had pushed her to classes when college had started in the fall, and had brought her over for dinner with his family every Tuesday and Sunday. He had been beside her through every nightmare, and she was still struck every so often by how lucky she was to have him, and by how he would laugh her thanks off as unnecessary if she were to express it to him.
“What?” he asks, his grin pinching in just a little. She has been looking at him for a few seconds too long.
“Just thinking about all the roommate pranks you’re missing out on with those standards of yours,” she says, knowing that her voice is too gentle to really carry the teasing through. “Your students would like you so much better if your slides featured those vacation pictures of you at the beach.”
Wallace shrugs, flexing a little. “Physics for the physically fit.” Veronica picks up the salad bowl and pokes him with the tongs on her way past.
“I’m already typing your To Catch a Predator application.”
“Girl, just sit down, eat your food, and tell me about your day.”
Veronica knows that he’ll get Wallace-exasperated as soon as she tells him that her new case involves the Kanes. He already tosses chips at the TV when Duncan’s ads come on touting him as the loyal, hardworking candidate. So as spaghetti snakes into her mouth, she tells him the boring outline of her day and looks at his face and doesn’t think about the file in her bag at all.
She pretends to be Michelle from the Neptune High reunion committee with Cindy Mackenzie’s mother and only feels bad about it because of how excited Mrs. Mackenzie sounds from the idea of her daughter interacting with people. In the moments while Mrs. Mackenzie goes to find Cindy’s contact information, Veronica idly imagines an over-the-fence conversation with a neighbor (“Gloria! Cindy has friends!”).
Given that Cindy Mackenzie was probably at a mind-melding level with her electronics, just calling and expecting her to pick up for a quick chat with a stranger on the top-ten most robbable places in Neptune seems a little basic.
“And does Cindy usually stay with you when she comes to town, or should we include a hotel brochure with the materials we’ll be sending her?”
"Oh, she always stays in the Elmwood Suites when she comes to town." Mrs. Mackenzie sounds like perhaps she would like to talk about why this is, her forlorn tone curving into the phone, but Veronica places herself firmly in the camp of letting shrinks do the shrinking, so she thanks her, hangs up, and smiles for the first time that day.
All things considered, the next part is easy. Glasses, a wig, and a half hour pretending to be a hospitality student gets her a look at the Elmwood Suites guest registry. A list of female computer geniuses helps confirm that Cindy Mackenzie aka Mac aka (for now) Ada Lovelace is registered and sitting pretty with a fourth floor room facing the parking lot. The worst part is the waiting, bored hours in the car before the light in room 408 goes out and a hooded female figure comes into the parking lot. Veronica smiles, slick and targeted, and follows the other car to a warehouse. She sits and watches as Mackenzie walks inside. Twenty or so minutes later, the door opens again, and Mackenzie comes out, taking a few minutes to walk around the building, pausing every so often.
Veronica follows her back to the hotel, watches as room 408 lights up again, and considers her options. She wants to go back and examine the warehouse, but is reasonably certain that Cindy Mackenzie is now playing Big Sister through her internet connection. She wouldn't trust a tracker in the wheelwell of Mackenzie's car to go undetected either. She looks down at her watch. If Mackenzie was the advance team, there is almost definitely enough time to make a quick trip home before settling in for the long haul.
For a brief, stabbing minute, Veronica feels the renewed grief that her father isn’t there to switch off with her, or sit beside her cracking jokes to pass the time. She hopes that doing this, keeping the business running cleanly under the Mars name, is what he would have wanted, although she suspects that it is exactly the opposite of the normal life he had imagined for her when she had graduated high school. She had hoped to convince him otherwise, but there hadn't been time.
She shakes herself and starts the car. He would have liked this case, though. A little challenge and a big paycheck at the end. Just a little while longer.
Hours later, she half wishes she had convinced Wallace to come. She’s tired, irritated that she has to nap in ten minute increments, and incredibly bored. That had been the best thing about this case: it was interesting where the appeal of busting cheating spouses and two-bit business scams had long grown dim. And now the shine has dissolved, and it is just another endless wait in the car while Wallace snuggles in his bed for the eight to ten he needed to teach Neptune's best and brightest. (And the dumb and dumber. No use pretending they were all superstars.)
She is unscrewing the top of her coffee thermos, hoping to stave off her yawn, and debating just going home when she hears the first of the cars rolling gently down the street. She sits up, reaching instinctively for her camera. If things work out the way she wants them to, she won’t need pictures, but they can’t hurt.
She gets half a dozen shots of each of the three cars that pull up, and then shadowed ones of the four people who step out of them.
"Apparently someone's been embracing the inconvenient truth of the carpool." She guesses it would be Echolls and Parker. From what she's gathered, the group as a whole doesn’t play well with others, or doesn’t want to.
She calls the sheriff's department before crossing the street, letting Norris, her favorite deputy, know that she’s going to need a squad car within the next few minutes. She knows Celeste doesn’t want them involved, but while she can hold them off from stealing whatever they’re stealing, even she knows that she can’t bring in four big name criminals by herself.
Plus, those four fat, official bounty checks are going to land so nicely in her bank account.
Ten years ago, when she was still in high school, she helped a city hall employee get custody of her daughter from a brutal father. Amy sends her pictures every year even though she doesn’t ask for them, and is still grateful enough to do a late-night run to scan some plans of a run-down street in the warehouse district. Veronica glances at the schematic on her phone once more and enters the neighboring building. It’s unlocked, so she’s worried for a moment that someone might be camped out there, but it’s silent and empty. The basement passage between the two is dim, and she uses her cell phone to guide her. The lock between the two warehouses takes a minute to pick, even squinting, and then she’s through. She sweeps her phone around the new room, eyes sharpening as she takes in the situation down there. She picks up her pace, and prays for silence as she steps onto the narrow stairway that leads to the main level.
“You didn’t have a boob job scheduled or something? You had to come with?” Veronica doesn’t know which of them sounds so nettled, only that it’s not Echolls, and that it’s covering whatever faint sounds her steps are making.
“What, they’re not perky enough for you?” She still can’t see them, but her gut tells her that the syrupy-sharp voice belongs to Kendall. “I’ll tune them up for you once I’ve gotten my money.”
“We’ll send you a check.”
“No, I keep my eyes on the…” Kendall’s voice is a scathingly raised eyebrow. Veronica almost smiles. “Prize.”
“Do I get a plaque for being part of a cliche?” That’s Echolls, dry like hostility is too much effort.
“It’s being engraved,” Veronica says, coming up behind the group of them silently. She has traded her phone for her gun, her grip comfortable. She shifts her stance. They are all standing pretty close together, which is helpful. The one she doesn’t recognize, so she guesses Parker, is crouching by a safe, stuffing files into a bag slung over her shoulder. “Let’s go for the bonus cliche: put your hands up.”
Kendall looks like she wants to stamp her foot. Mackenzie puts her hands up and looks half weary and half triumphant, as if she might whisper “I told you to stay home” to Kendall if she weren’t focused on Veronica and her gun. Echolls, hands in the air and equally focused on Veronica, steps forward.
“That was your one step,” Veronica says, meeting his eyes and aiming for center mass.
“I’m being polite. You can retract the claws.”
“My definition of polite doesn’t include theft. I’ve read your file. You get close enough, by the time the cops get here, they’ll be doing the ‘she should have known better’ head shake over my body. So we’ll wait for them together, and you’ll stay right over there. Although if the bomb in the basement is going to go off before they show up, maybe I’ll let us go outside.”
Mackenzie’s eyes move to Veronica’s face. The fact that she’s taking her eyes off the gun seems unsettling. “The what?”
“Bomb. Downstairs. Wires and hopefully a timer? A little flashy, but it gets the job done for evidence cleanup.”
“We didn’t set up a bomb.” Mackenzie takes a couple steps back, looking very cooly panicked.
Despite herself, Veronica is disappointed. She had wanted the rush from figuring out a puzzle, from outthinking a group of criminals with rap sheets long enough to ride the big roller coasters without a parent. Now she’s facing a woman who’s pulling the criminal equivalent of faking cramps to get out of gym.
“Just wait for the cops,” she admonishes tightly. She wishes once again for her father, for someone to act as backup, a second gun and a steady presence at her shoulder.
“Look, of all of us, who can set up a bomb?” Mackenzie is speaking quickly now. “Me, and maybe him.” She indicates Echolls, who says nothing. “But he doesn’t really seem like a think-ahead guy. I know I didn’t set one up.” She keeps her hands up, but starts backing away from Veronica toward the door.
“I will shoot you,” Veronica says.
“I can probably survive that. The bomb, not so much.”
Veronica squares the other three in her sights, saying nothing. She is touched with doubt. She doesn’t want to take the gun off of Echolls. She tries to listen for sirens. Mackenzie is almost at the door.
“Sorry,” Parker says, shifting her hands a little further in the air, turning it from caught criminal to antsy kid. “I’d really like not to die today. Can we go outside? We’ll keep our hands up, and Logan can walk in the middle.”
Echolls throws a muffled glare, and his momentary distraction along with the sound of sirens shrilling at the edge of her hearing, makes her say, “Okay, walk.”
They’re a dozen feet past the door when the building explodes behind them.
Veronica stumbles but keeps control of her gun. Twenty-six thoughts run through her head even before her hearing comes back, but one comes out: “Everyone in my car.” They all pause, blinking toward her. “We don’t have time for this. Someone tried to blow me or one of you up, and I want to figure out who. You’re my witnesses and my evidence.” Kendall’s face turns from stunned to sneering, but Veronica interrupts the transformation. “It’s me or the cops.” The sirens are close now. She can see the calculations in their faces. The police are a known quantity. They’ve all had experience with that; they’ve all been in custody at one time or another only to slip out somehow. They know that they’ll probably get out this time too. But none of them got into their line of work by going for the safer route.
Veronica makes Echolls get into the trunk before they drive away. It takes Parker to convince him, but in another minute Veronica has Mackenzie in the driver’s seat, Parker riding shotgun, Kendall in the opposite seat in the back, and herself with the gun aimed at them all as best she can. Things have gone far past out of control.
They slide onto the street as a sheriff's department cruiser skids around the opposite corner. Veronica hopes that the deputies will be too distracted by the giant fireball to notice them.
"Where now?" Mackenzie says. She's calm, her hands steady on the wheel, but there's something forced in her eyes as Veronica glances in the mirror. Probably not a lot of bombs popping out from the computer screen.
They go to the Camelot and steal a room. Veronica lets Mackenzie have her laptop for just long enough to break into the computer system and change the status to occupied, which is about twenty-six seconds.
"Okay, talk," Veronica says when she feels reasonably safe. She is sitting at the farthest corner of the room. The four of them are on the bed. The gun is somehow still in play, trained on Echolls, but at some point Veronica is probably going to have to face up to the idea that they've gone beyond that.
"Talk about what?" Kendall, busy looking disgustedly around the room, does not even direct the question fully at Veronica.
"Who hired you, who knew you were at the warehouse. An abbreviated list of people who might want you dead."
“You got a pen hidden somewhere?” Echolls speaks for the first time. Veronica wishes he’d kept his mouth shut. He raises his hands at her glare, too casual for her comfort. “Even the abridged list is long. Didn’t want to tax your brain.”
“Start taxing,” she says acidly.
“I don’t have enemies,” Kendall interrupts. She’s been trying to touch the bed as little as possible. Veronica would poke at her for that, and for the idea that a grifter with twenty years of experience has racked up no enemies. But she remembers the way Kendall’s marks spoke about her and holds her tongue.
“I haven’t even taken a job in months. I was on vacation!” Kendall finishes.
Something sparks in Veronica’s mind. “So what got you to take this one?”
Kendall’s face doesn’t soften but she looks pitying. “Huge paycheck for an easy job? Barbados will always be there.”
“Who hired you to pull the job?”
Kendall shrugs. “Anonymous. Someone got in touch, gave me a $10,000 advance to break my rule and be a team player.” She examines her fingernails, apparently unbothered by Veronica or her gun.
“I only got eight,” Parker volunteers.
“Same deal?” Parker nods. Veronica looks at the other two. Echolls nods once, firmly, Mackenzie more hesitantly.
“I tried to trace the payment back. Lots of proxies and shell companies, but I think it came from around Neptune.”
“Who hired you?” Parker asks Veronica, managing to sound like she’s having a casual conversation.
Veronica considers lying or reminding them that she’s the one with the gun, no matter how Captain Phillips that sounds. But she wants to figure out why they were almost blown up tonight. “Celeste Kane,” she tells them. “Have any of you ever done a job for her, or where she was a mark?”
“I knew her,” Echolls says. “Or at least her son Duncan. The good lady Celeste mostly just had her nanny hand my nanny juice boxes.”
Parker elbows him. “Hey, if I had known it was going to be a reunion, maybe it wouldn’t have been so much trouble to get you to come along.”
“You were the one they approached?” Veronica asks.
“Yup.” Parker’s ponytail bounces as she nods. “They said they’d heard Logan and I were good together. They wanted me to bring him along. Confirmed it a couple of times, actually.”
There’s something here, something big and threatening, but Veronica isn’t quite sure she has all the pieces yet. She turns to the last member of the group.
Mackenzie wrinkles her mouth. “I’ve never done a job for her,” she says reluctantly. “But I might have…”
“Liberated?” Veronica suggests, eager to get on with things.
“Let’s go with that,” she agrees. “I might have liberated some files from the Kane Software servers. And I haven’t looked through them all, but from what I did see, they might have contained the kind of information you don’t want to come up at your annual shareholders meeting. Or in a conversation with any kind of law enforcement.”
“What does that mean?” Echolls asks, steel-jawed, and Mackenzie explains.
The pieces fall into place.
Veronica kind of hates champagne. She’s gotten good at fake sipping it, though, using the motion as a cover as she looks around the crowded party.
“Normally I’d play ‘How many cars is that dress worth,’ but it’s not as fun to do with a trust fund baby who steals for a living,” she says idly, not looking over at Echolls.
“Actually, my history of Hermes burp cloths and having gotten my hands on a couple of Monets gives me the advantage. For example,” he tilts his head with a flourish toward an artificially young woman to their left, “the classic banged the nanny bracelet is probably a car and a half.”
“She should have held out for the two-car.” Shaking her head with mock sorrow, she steers him away from the wide windows of the Kane mansion. Outside, she can still see an older couple arguing with the rent-a-lackey. Getting a copy of the guest list and stealing the e-invites of Mr. and Mrs. Donaldson was the easiest part. Veronica had thought that Mackenzie was going to go comatose when she found out that the party security was so low-tech and she wouldn’t have to do anything with fingerprint records or facial recognition software.
She does sound less disappointed, though, as she hisses through their earpieces, “Heading toward the danger zone.” Echolls turns smoothly in the same second that Veronica does, and they head away from Celeste Kane. As they move, Veronica can see the single calla lily pinned to Celeste’s brocade jacket. It was fairly well-known that it was her accessory of choice for nearly any function. She typically said that it was in remembrance of her daughter who had died in childhood, drowned in the pool at age eight. Veronica tended to think it was in remembrance of the pool fencing ordinance that Duncan had been encouraged to work toward passing when they were in high school, the first local campaign that led to the greatness of tonight’s fundraiser. Still, it was helpful when they were planning, regardless of motivation. All they’d needed were Parker’s quick fingers and subtle hair tossing abilities, and the florist had been distracted for long enough that she could slip a tracker right by the pin.
“You’re safe,” Mac reports as they walk past a monitor showing rotating footage of Duncan doing various senatorial things - wearing a hard hat and looking at a building plan, pressing a crooked knuckle forward for emphasis as he gives a speech - and toward server carrying a tray of something wrapped in pastry dough. Veronica had originally thought to come in as waitstaff, until it turned out that they were being screened more carefully than the guests were. Celeste apparently didn’t want anyone stealing the silver...or stabbing her husband. Just because the woman who’d done Aaron Echolls in had been an LA waitress didn’t mean the billionaires of Neptune were safe.
Grabbing a puff off the tray, Veronica uses it to hide her mouth as she says, “Okay, is everything in place?”
“All systems go,” comes Parker’s voice, cheerful, although a little strained.
“She likes to stretch before a job,” Echolls explains out of the corner of his mouth, looking fond but in a friendly way that makes Veronica question her original analysis of their relationship.
“Everything’s ready as long as you still want Kendall as your lynchpin,” Mac adds.
Kendall snaps, “You remember giving me an earpiece too, right? That didn’t escape your mind between a Star Trek recap and wondering if all virgins really do go to heaven?”
“Steel trap,” Mac snaps back. “Don’t worry.”
“Okay, we’re done,” Veronica says, although Kendall has been pain-in-the-assing all afternoon and it would be more than a little gratifying to let Mac continue the smackdown.
“Perfect timing,” Parker says. “The fox is headed toward the henhouse.”
“I’ll get anti-anxiety pills and a round of shots for the hens later,” Echolls mutters and then looks surprised when Veronica laughs.
She is surprised as well, but covers it, saying “Let’s go,” quickly and listening for responses from the others. Echolls just gives a nod, and they move to their position by the hallway to the kitchen.
“How did you get together with Parker?” she can’t help but ask as they try to look casual yet like the kind of people who should be avoided.
“We were at college together. Something bad happened to her,” he says simply, eyeing a man walking past them. There’s no reaching for a weapon or flexing of muscles, but the man walks a little faster. “I was there for it.”
The nosy - interested - side of her wants to get the full story, but just then the flat screens around the room switch from the Duncan Kane highlight reel to closed-circuit footage from the kitchen.
Celeste is in the midst of dressing down the head server about, from what Veronica can tell, appropriate garnish proportions and hors d'oeuvres circulation timing and whether it’s really so hard for the staff to smile like they mean it, she’s already had two people mention that they didn’t feel entirely welcomed. When she has finished, she leans carefully back against the counter and sighs deeply, as if bossing the help just takes too much out of her. She lifts a distracted finger and requests a glass of ice water. It is brought with such haste that Veronica and Echolls trade glances.
Few people are really paying attention to the screens as more than just a gaffe to laugh over for a minute before going back to small talking. Then Kendall’s voice comes from somewhere off to the side. Veronica can identify four men and two women who break off their conversations at the first word she speaks.
“Did it ever occur to you to ask your guests about allergies? Because I’ll die if I have any sesame and you have it on half the things here. It’s like you’re trying to kill me.” She steps into the picture, cocking a hip so her ivory dress falls in satiny ripples. “Although I guess blowing up the building you thought I’d be in was pretty convincing on that score too.”
“I’m sorry—” Celeste starts but Kendall waves a hand.
“Save it. You absolutely know me, the help that you haven’t scared out of the room is all the way over there poking pins into their voodoo dolls of you instead of paying any attention, and you’re not going to call security until we’ve talked. It was great to get the formalities out of the way. Let’s get to the part about how much you’re going to give me to keep this quiet.”
The screens have split to show Celeste’s face on the left and Kendall’s, blinking and smiling with false brightness, on the right. Very few people are focused on anything else by now. “It was ten grand to help steal some files. So we’ll say ten million for me to leave and not say anything to the cops or the press. Money transfer is fine, but I’m going to have to watch you.” Kendall shrugs elaborately. “I might have been in the car instead of in the building exploding in front of me, but you broke the trust.”
The move between flustered pressing backward and attack happens so quickly that Veronica shifts involuntarily. Kendall keeps her smile, untroubled as sky. “You’re not going to say anything. People don’t believe lying criminals. I won’t be threatened by you.”
“Maybe not, but I think they’ll believe lying dead criminals.” Kendall examines her nails. “That geek that you sent, Apple or PC or whatever her name was, she left behind some interesting files she found about your daughter. Her name was Lilly, right?”
“How dare—” Someone has finally thought to find Jake and Duncan outside and they rush in, just in time to see Kendall cut Celeste off.
“Her name, my filthy mouth...okay, false outrage over. We really have to hurry this along or all those people out there will start wondering where you are. You know, the people who came to get in good with your son.” Veronica’s eyes meet Duncan’s in the second before Echolls grips at his neck and Duncan slides to the floor. The idea that she once loved him feels far away, already half drained by the way he left when she needed him to rely on, the other half by the discovery that he’s been letting his parents cover up for him nearly his whole life. “I just noticed that for all those times that he’s talked about his poor, dead sister, he never really mentioned his memories of what happened.” Jake goes to do something, to make an announcement or unplug all the screens where everyone is riveted to the most interesting drama to hit Neptune since Aaron Echolls died. But then Aaron’s son puts a hand on Jake’s shoulder and he slides downward too. “What kind of epilepsy does sweet Duncan have? Type four? The kind where you can drown your sister in a pool, have your parents lie about it, and not remember it happening?”
“He was a child,” Celeste says hoarsely. “He had a condition.”
“Still has, but whatever,” Kendall says brightly. “Maybe things would have been fine if you’d said something at the time, but all the lying...it doesn’t really look good for anyone. And the getting rid of anyone you thought might know anything, like childhood friends or high school ex-girlfriends or sneaky little computer geeks or people who might have been in your husband’s office late at night - that doesn’t look good and I take it personally.”
Celeste’s elegant jaw trembles, then tightens. “Fine,” she says quickly. “Just let me go upstairs and I’ll handle things.”
Kendall brushes a hand against the counter behind her, examining her fingers before allowing herself to rest her palm there. “That’s not how I saw this going. You guys are so tech-yay, I’m sure you have a mobile hookup. Just log into your account, we’ll do a quick transfer, and I’ll be out the back door without anyone knowing something was wrong.” Veronica can’t help shaking her head as Kendall reaches down the loose cowl neck of her dress and pulls a slip of paper from her cleavage. Like she couldn’t carry a bag. Veronica glances over at Logan to see his opinion on this move; he appears to still be surveilling the room, although he does a quick double eyebrow lift when he sees her looking. She turns back to watch Kendall, who is holding the paper, still folded in half, protectively in her hand.
“Is that the account number?” Celeste has her phone out, but one eye sharp on the fence of Kendall’s fingers. “My information is here. Why don’t you enter it?” Kendall looks at her, then shrugs and takes the phone. Something spikes in Veronica’s stomach, seeing Celeste’s hand disappear behind her back. Her expression isn’t unfamiliar - Veronica remembers the false, pasted-on neutrality, the restraining of whatever she’s actually feeling, from any time she came to see Duncan - but there’s something more delighted, more nefarious here that seems to bode ill for Kendall. She looks over at Logan again, sees him braced.
“A drink?” Celeste asks, casually holding up a glass of water. Veronica’s instinct is to smack it out of her hand, but she reminds herself of her place in all this.
Kendall, still entering numbers, holds out a distracted hand. “Sure. This is thirsty work. It’s good of you to understand.” She takes a sip.
There’s a half-second where she puts in the last couple of numbers. Veronica stays tensed, watching smugness slip-slide on and off Celeste’s face. Her instincts are right, too: the next second, Kendall’s breathing goes ragged. She drops the glass, pressing a neat hand to her throat.
“What did you do?” she gasps, staggering, barely missing the water and shattered glass on the floor.
“Oh my, it was sesame you were allergic to?” Kendall’s eyes go wide at the dripping sympathy in the words. She turns toward the door, takes a step, and falls onto the kitchen tiles. Her hand spasms around the phone once, and then she is still.
Celeste lets herself breathe deeply and casually dispose of the bottle of sesame oil before she removes her phone from Kendall’s hand and calls an ambulance.
Veronica finds that she can’t look away from the limp fingers, the slackened muscles, of the woman she sent into that kitchen. The instrument of her revenge, fallen on the floor.
“Shit,” she whispers. Logan nods. Hearing about a murder cover-up from a decade ago is one thing, but watching Celeste basically poison a good-looking white woman - even if she was a blackmailer - is apparently another. People around them are starting to realize what’s just happened and deciding panic is the best response.
Kendall is still on the floor, face turned from the camera, hair spilling dramatically.
The doorway that leads to the kitchen is conveniently well-hidden to keep guests from remembering that there are actual people making their food and cleaning their messes. A few people find it or blunder by, but Logan tucks them into a discreet panel closet alongside Jake and Duncan. He jerks his head, and Veronica nods. Things are going south quickly. They’ll need to exit soon, preferably amidst the chaos.
The paramedics, two women in caps and bulky polyester jackets, barrel through the staff entrance seconds later. They mostly ignore Celeste’s fluttering hands and stiff attempts at tears.
“Allergic reaction?” asks the shorter one, barely allowing Celeste to answer.
“One milligram epinephrine,” says the other one. A blond braid slides from beneath her collar, snaking over her shoulder as she pulls out a needle from her kit and moves Kendall’s dress up her thigh. She stabs the needle in. Kendall remains still.
“Get her on the backboard,” says the short paramedic. “We’ll keep administering along the way,” but her voice sounds bleak.
Celeste keeps her voice nearly flat as she asks, “Will she survive?”
“I’m not sure, ma’am,” says the blonde paramedic. “But things aren’t looking too good right now.” She sniffs a little, and then says, “I don’t know why this happens to people so young, and who spend so damn much on designer dresses.”
“Excuse me?” says Celeste, blinking, but they’ve already loaded Kendall’s limp body onto the stretcher and wheeled her out the door.
People have their cell phones out, and Kane staff is milling around trying to figure out what to do without instructions. “We’ve got to go,” says Veronica quietly. She takes her hair down from its updo, changing aspects of her face and dress, and strips Logan’s jacket off, arranging it over her shoulders. Without being told, he wraps an arm around her, leaning over so their real heights are obscured.
They leave the same way they came in: through the front door. They barely acknowledge the police car and ambulance screeching their way up the street. The couple whose digital invite Mac stole for them is still arguing with security as they pass.
“So, scale of one to ten, how’d that match up to your usual scheming?” Echolls sounds just this side of exhausted as they return to the agreed-upon rendez-vous at the Camelot. Apparently attempted murder and then attempted revenge within a day and a half get the best of even ex-military hitters.
Veronica pretends to think and then says, in a falsely cheery voice, “Um, snowflake.” The smile he glances over at her is a waiting sort of thing, as if he’s ready to like whatever she says as soon as he understands it. “My first time planning something like this. You need a new scale.”
“I think it rates at least a not total disaster from me,” he says, and pushes open the door.
“—And you had to throw in that little quip about the dress,” Kendall is saying disgustedly as they walk in. “I needed couture to blend. And now you’re a little less than forgettable, so maybe you should be listening to me instead of laughing at yourself.”
“Hey, I almost laughed too,” Logan says mildly to Parker.
She grins at him from her place on the bed. “Oh, an almost laugh from Logan Echolls. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
Kendall, ignoring them, twists in front of the filthy mirror, her dress hiked up high. “God, did you have to stab the needle so hard? I’ve got a bruise the size of a martini glass. I told you, people believe everything’s like TV. She would have believed it without you putting all your muscle into it. Do you know how much it took to stay still?”
“First I’m not authentic enough, then I’m too authentic? An all-lose situation isn’t it?”
“Did you transfer the money?” Veronica interrupts, trying to get down to business, although she can guess the answer from the way Mac is looking at her computer.
“Yes, I can press a button while falling.” Kendall lets her dress fall in disgust.
“See, that A you got on multitasking day at hooker school is paying off,” Mac says cheerfully, still typing.
“And you’re sure they can’t track the money?” Veronica says loudly, overriding Kendall’s complaints.
“I am totally positive.” Mac closes up her computer as she speaks, standing. “You can each check the accounts I set up for you. Your cut is safe and sound in there. The Kanes can’t touch it.”
Logan leans against the doorframe to the balcony, an orange glow falling on his face from the nearly spent bulbs in the lights of the Camelot parking lot. Dramatic bastard. “Even if the wheels of justice are a little rusty?”
Mac shrugs. “With the video from the party, the witnesses, plus the files I sent along to the cops, it all ties things up pretty neatly. But even if they walk - plenty of it will be inadmissible, and also it’s Neptune, and the Kane money can talk pretty loudly - we’re all safely millionaires. Don’t worry.”
“Speaking of the cops,” Parker starts.
“Oh, right. Yeah, we’re all dead according to them. Player’s choice on what you want to do with that.” Holding her laptop carefully against her, Mac goes and shakes Veronica’s hand. “Nice plan. Thanks for not arresting us.”
“I’ll learn my lesson for next time,” says Veronica, but she smiles.
It’s close to midnight when she gets home, or Veronica would go talk to Wallace right away. Getting things straightened out with the cops, on the other hand, can definitely wait until tomorrow morning.
She spends a while communing with her bed, not sleeping, just delighting in sheets that have a higher thread count than they do a disease count, before she gets up the energy to shower. She’s asleep about four minutes after she comes out. At two AM, she wakes up and instinctively grabs her gun from her bedside table.
“Hands, air, et cetera,” she says, yawning, trying to see who’s there using only the moonlight from the window.
Logan Echolls steps forward, hands up. “I thought we were past this part of the relationship,” he says.
Veronica groans. “And I thought it would be at least a day before we were back here.” Still, she makes sure the safety is on and puts the gun down.
“I had to talk to you before you made your excuses to the cops,” he says.
“Because it’s easier to kill me and wear me as a skin suit if the cops don’t know to be looking?”
“No. Because it’s easier for you to join us if they don’t know to be looking.” She turns on the light so he can see her skeptical face. He only takes a second to adapt to the brightness, speaking through it anyway. “After you left, I talked to the others. Because I wanted to see if they liked tonight the way I did.”
She holds up her hands. “If this is going to get personal—”
“Not the way you mean.” He takes a breath, eyes flicking downward. “I was in the Navy. I signed up to try to do some good, and maybe there was some sins of the fathers thrown in there, but I really did think I could make a difference.” Veronica is still, covers tucked around her, watching him. “We were given targets and expected to fire on them without question. But after a while…” He fidgets. “After a while, I started to ask why this one place that we kept targeting looked like a bunch of sheep and women and kids who had never heard of a terrorist. But even when I saw the pictures of what we’d done - just cell phone pictures on a blog, but I knew it was the place - I thought it was a mistake. So I kept asking. Because I signed on to help, to keep from making mistakes like that.”
Veronica has a list of his crimes, pictures of people he’s hurt. She knows he’s dangerous. And still he flinches as he says, “They discharged me because they knew I could get people to listen. But by then I didn’t want to talk to people. I was just angry. So when I found Parker, I got to use that anger to keep her safe. I’m good at it. And tonight I got to use what I’ve learned for something actually good.”
“Did you know Lilly Kane?” Veronica asks.
He shakes his head. “A little. From when we were kids. I remember Duncan and I were just...she was fearless and funny and the world's darker without her. I didn’t know anything about how she died. But she deserved justice. She deserved for people to know what really happened, instead of her family getting to climb the ladder using her death. So I asked Parker and everyone if they would want to keep working jobs like tonight. We're already pretty set for life, anyway, and maybe we could use what we know to help people who deserve it instead of just to get paid.”
“I assume Kendall was able to multitask and look up spas while she laughed at you?”
“She’s in it more for profit than ideals,” Logan admits. “But we need someone who’s good on the grift, and there’s no one better.” Veronica tilts her head, acquiescing. She doesn’t know anyone who could have been totally casual and still planted the right clues - the sesame allergy, the slight reluctance to give over the bank account number - the way Kendall had. She followed Veronica’s directions perfectly, made Celeste pick up just the right things and think they were her idea.
Logan looks at her squarely, and she thinks it might be the first time since she first aimed a gun at him that they’ve locked eyes instead of going for sideways glances or quick glares. “And we also need someone who can do the planning, and I can’t think of anyone better than you.”
“Sure, I can see where you got ‘private detective’ and ‘criminal mastermind’ confused,” Veronica nods.
“You’re basically a criminal mastermind, just without the criminal part, which is just what we need.”
Veronica narrows her eyes. “Is this because I caught you all? Because just finding the four of you doesn’t actually make me a genius.”
“No, smartass, it’s because you found us, then used the four of us and a laptop to uncover a twenty year old conspiracy and frame a guilty woman for a faked murder.” He leans forward, hands between his knees. “So, come on. Play dead with us for at least a little while.”
She thinks of Wallace, and what her dad would say, and the next thirty, forty, fifty years of cheating spouses and petty theft cases waiting in her office. She thinks of the gut-deep satisfaction of tonight, watching her whole plan come together, everything falling into place just like she’d laid out. In for a penny. Or several million pennies, I guess. “Three conditions.”
“First, I get to tell my best friend I’m not dead.” Logan starts to interrupt, but she talks over him. “He deserves it, and he’s trustworthy.” He nods, or at least seems to. She’ll keep an eye on Wallace anyway to make sure nothing happens to him. She isn’t losing her mind just because she’s losing her mind and agreeing to work with these people. “Second, I pick the jobs. And third, Kendall’s out as soon as we find a grifter who only bitches ninety-eight percent of the time.”
He grins, not widely, but genuinely, a strangely goofy smile for the son of movie stars.
Dad would hate this, she thinks, and still can’t stop herself from grinning back.