Veronica let out a heavy sigh as she settled in her chair at the front desk of the Mars Investigations office. Wednesday afternoons weren’t usually very busy, so she didn’t expect an especially intellectually challenging day, but that would be a nice respite from the exam period she’d just completed. She’d come here straight from handing in her last final of junior year (okay, straight from the sandwich place where she had decided to stop for a celebratory bite after handing in her last final of junior year) and was looking forward to letting off steam, but the piles of paperwork on her desk promised hours of calls and filing. Not her favourite method of relaxation, but at least it wouldn’t burn her out.
Her dad popped his head out of his office. “Honey?”
“Yep, just got here.”
“Think you can handle a case for me? It doesn’t look too complicated, the client just wants to track down something valuable for his family – should be a quick job.”
Veronica reached for the file he was holding and dropped it on top of her stack of paperwork. “I’d love to. All of this can wait for tomorrow, right?” she asked, gesturing to her overflowing desk.
Keith kissed the top of her head. “You can work through that tomorrow. Unless you’re spending it with Logan to celebrate the end of the year?”
She shook her head. “Nope, he’s on a surfing trip with Dick for the week. He finished yesterday, they left this morning.”
“Sorry to be leaving you all alone, then. I’ve got a lead in Nevada, so I’ll be skedaddling too.”
“Doth Alicia knoweth thou always abandonth her when taking fancy trips?”
“Your old English needs work, sweetie. And there’s nothing fancy about Reno.”
“Hey, I have very fond memories of the trip we took there when I was 9,” she called after her father as he made his way out of the building.
“Bye, Veronica,” he called back without turning around.
“Bye,” she grumbled once he was already gone.
She turned her attention to the thin case file her father had handed her and flipped it open. Then she turned it around a few times, because all there was in there was a single sheet of paper reading Last seen and a set of latitude and longitude coordinates. She turned the paper over and held it in the light to see if there were any more details, but that was it. No mention of what the object was, or even about the client. It wasn’t entirely unheard of for her father to remove clients’ personal information before giving her case files because apparently she had been known to snoop around people’s lives instead of investigating what they had been hired to investigate.
Still, it seemed like her father had removed a lot more information than necessary from this one file, so she went to his office to see if she could find whatever came with the geographical coordinates.
After fifteen minutes, she hadn’t come up with anything, so she resolved to think the client was just an eccentric. A little excitement like this could be exactly what she needed to occupy her afternoon.
She closed up shop – any other clients could drop by tomorrow instead – and got into her Saturn before entering the coordinates into her GPS. She had never been more grateful for having splurged for that small luxury.
The coordinates led her to a nondescript restaurant in Irvine after little over an hour of traveling California highways.
Oookayyy, Veronica. You’re here. Now what?
She felt suddenly dumb. The hour on the road hadn’t managed to impart her any wisdom besides that if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it and that Madonna shockingly only had 4 minutes to save the world (which she’d wasted singing), thanks to her radio. But nothing about how she’d find an object of which she had no description, last seen at an unknown time but apparently in that pitiful little building before her.
She couldn’t really imagine walking up to someone and asking if they had seen a valuable object, perhaps yesterday, perhaps fifty years ago. But she had no better plan so she got out of her car and walked up to the hostess stand.
Before she could say anything, however, the waitress asked her if she was with Mars Investigations.
“I am, yes…”
The waitress handed her an envelope. “This was left for you.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you.”
Confused, Veronica opened the envelope on her way to her car and pulled out a sheet of paper when she sat down in her driver’s seat.
A typed-up note – which was strange on its own, why not write it by hand? – awaited her, detailing her client’s misfortune when he tried calling the office and found that no one was there (well yeah, because you sent me coordinates as the only clue, smartass, I wasn’t going to just stay at the office), so he had to leave her a note in Irvine to tell her that he had remembered wrong – the last time his valuable object had been seen was actually at the Hilton Pasadena. Which – okay, restaurant in Irvine vs hotel in Pasadena, how did he mix those up? She was being unkind, but her sociology final had left her cranky, so she blamed the professor, not herself, for those harsh thoughts. But she had to give it to him, he was resourceful – he had correctly assumed she’d be heading to the coordinates and had gotten a note to her there.
Still, Veronica wished she hadn’t missed her client’s call, because going directly to Pasadena without a stop in Irvine would have saved her a few minutes, and she was now off for another hour on the road with no way to call back this oddity who was setting her up on what looked more like a scavenger hunt than a legitimate case to ask for more details.
Nevertheless, there was the small thrill of the chase, and maybe her dad had also found their client strange, and that was why he hadn’t given him her personal number or given her any tangible information about him.
As she tossed the envelope on the passenger seat, she noticed something else fall out of it. Bending to retrieve it from the floor of her car, she managed to identify a small eraser, probably no bigger than the nail of her thumb, shaped like a tiny ice cream, the kind she and Lilly collected as kids and never put to use to erase anything. (She was pretty sure it was 6th grade law that those cute erasers were to never ever serve their purpose.) She looked up at the restaurant frontage and saw no sign of anything related to ice cream or any kind of frozen treat. She shrugged. Probably something that had slipped into her envelope but was meant to entertain the kids waiting for their meal.
Once she was back on the highway and away from Irvine’s downtown area, she looked at the time. It would already be a bit late by the time she got to Pasadena, and if she had to investigate such a bizarre case, she might not be back on the road to Neptune before night.
I hope the forgetful weirdo knows he’s getting billed for my gas and whatever accommodations I need to sleep tonight.
Following the indications for the Pasadena exit, Veronica couldn’t help but think of Wallace as she passed signs indicating the direction of Caltech – he had been talking about grad school in Caltech for months, and raving about wanting to visit the campus there. She’d have to tell him she’d been to Pasadena before him.
Once she reached the Hilton, Veronica felt the same hesitation as previously at the restaurant in Irvine. Another letter sending her on a wild goose chase was probably not going to be handed to her when she walked in this time, but searching every single room for an unknown object didn’t seem like a viable option either, nor did asking some of the personnel if they had seen anything that looked valuable.
She bypassed the valet, parked the Saturn on the street a block away (even the non-valet parking was too expensive for her taste) and elected to take a look around the lobby until security decided she looked suspicious.
While she discreetly looked between cushions of the armchairs and couches adorning the lobby, she called her father on his cellphone. Maybe he’d have a bit more information to go by, or the client’s number for her to call.
She tried a few times with no success, and on her third try, she left a message on Keith’s voicemail.
“Hey, Dad, I’m at a hotel in Pasadena looking for clues – anything, honestly – to get me to the ‘missing valuable’ but I’m hitting a dead end over here. Do you have any more information on this client? A phone number so I can ask questions, any kind of gauge of when and what was lost…? Not gonna lie, Pops, I think he’s making fun of us. I don’t think I’ll solve that case tonight like planned. Good night.”
He was most likely driving, and for some reason he didn’t like to talk on the phone while driving, but he would probably hear her message and call her back when he could. In the meantime, Veronica had finished going through all the cushions and had moved on to the brochure stand. There, an envelope caught her attention, behind a stack advertising the Rose Bowl stadium. She slid it out, unsurprised to find the word Mars written in block letters in Sharpie on the flap.
Yeah, that guy is definitely making fun of us. But what the heck? This is kind of fun.
She got back into the Saturn a few blocks over before opening the envelope, much thicker than the previous one had been.
First she found a stack of printed directions – looked like someone was anxious her GPS would lead her astray – which she set on her dashboard while hoping they wouldn’t fall off (which time would later tell her they would, repeatedly). The last few instructions were vaguer than the rest, not taken from an online map with directions, but rather typed by the person who had placed them in her envelope, omitting any street names or addresses in favour of “the second right” and “the first roundabout”. Veronica checked her bag to make sure her taser and pepper spray were in place (they were) and started reading through the instructions to make sure she wouldn’t be taken by surprise by whatever awaited her at the end of the directions.
Besides the stack of papers, there was a tiny shampoo sample like magazines sometimes carried, lodged in the envelope.
What the fuck?
She turned it over, but there wasn’t anything written on the sample besides what had been printed. It was the marshmallow-scented shampoo she used to use, back in high school and middle school, before she found the slightly more mature scent she currently used.
She tossed the sample in the file to join the initial coordinates and the letter she’d found in Irvine.
Half an hour after she had hit the road, her phone rang. Without checking who was calling and expecting her dad, she picked up. “I’m driving so if there’s weird noise, that’s why,” she warned before even addressing him.
Instead of the expected reprimand about her greetings, Logan’s warm chuckle resonated in her car. “I’ll keep that in mind. How are you?”
“I thought you were my dad,” Veronica apologized. “Didn’t expect you to call while you were dominating the waves.”
“I’ve always got time for you, sugarbun.”
She laughed. “Alright, Romeo. What’s up?”
“Not much. Just wanted to check in with you after your sociology final. Where are you driving? I thought you were supposed to be working with your dad this afternoon.”
Veronica merged onto the rightmost lane. “Yeah, but he got a lead in Nevada, so he left, and I got a puzzling case.”
“Well, I’m certainly passing time while you’re gone, that’s for sure. Some weirdo client is currently making me drive from Pasadena to Malibu, I think. I’m not one hundred percent sure it’s Malibu. Hey, is your mom renting her place to anyone right now? Do you think I could call her and ask for her address to crash at her beach house for the night?”
“The Malibu beach house? No idea. I don’t think there’s keys anywhere near the beach house though, her realtor’s in L.A. and she’s in Neptune, but I’ll call her for you and check.”
“Thanks. Tell her I’ll clean up after myself and everything.”
Logan laughed. “I don’t think my mom would be worried at all about you in one of her houses.”
“What can I say, I’m charming that way.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to your driving and call my mom. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Bye. Love you!”
Veronica disconnected the call and focused back on the road. She probably had another half hour before she reached her destination, and she was growing antsy. This client was either fucking weird or… or nothing, that seemed like the only likely possibility.
Well, there was also the possibility that she had picked up an envelope not meant for her in Pasadena, but it was a damn big coincidence if it wasn’t there for her. She was almost certain that strange scavenger hunt was hers to follow.
She slowed the Saturn when she got to the last part of the directions, cautious in case someone ambushed her or she missed a turn, especially since the sun was already setting and it would be harder to see anyone trying to sneak up on her. She was led into the kind of street she never really went to anymore, full of sprawling mansions resting on enormous plots, ornate outdoor pools, and she even spied one stable behind one set of high gates and trimmed bushes. Logan still hadn’t called her back, and neither had her father, but the latter was probably still on the road and the former might not have gotten hold of his mother yet.
The “third property on the right” as detailed in her directions was a gleaming white three-storey building sitting right on the beach, once one got past the long driveway and closer to the stylish floor-to-ceiling windows and lavish staircase. The gates were open, Veronica presumed for her, so she eased her noticeably out of place car into the empty driveway.
Curiosity mounting, Veronica grabbed her bag from the passenger seat and stored her file and the directions in the glove compartment before getting out of her car and locking it. In this neighbourhood, stealing her car would probably be the dumbest move a thief could make, but she couldn’t be too safe. (Her dad would be happy to know she did pay closer attention to security nowadays, regardless of his – and Logan’s – habit of telling her she was putting herself in danger too often.)
She contemplated walking up the stairs and ringing the doorbell, but something caught her eye on the side of the house. One hand in her bag just in case she needed to quickly grab her taser, she walked around the mansion, following the soft yellow lights that had attracted her attention and the subdued music accompanying it.
Probably she should have known from the very beginning, but somehow she hadn’t, and she removed her hand from her bag when she reached the wide patio and took everything in. Fairy lights and wisteria hung from the pergola above her head, the fading rays of the sun casting a pink glow on the young man standing at the middle of it all.
“Logan,” she exhaled, putting her bag down beside her. “I thought you were in Mexico.”
He smiled crookedly. “Looks like I’m not.”
Veronica returned his smile with careful confusion. “Hi.”
What the hell is going on?
“Hi.” Logan took a step forward. “Are you going to stay standing there?”
“No, yeah, I’m still kind of wrapping my head around what’s going on.” She walked to him and folded herself in her boyfriend’s arms. “I have a lot of questions.”
“I figured,” Logan nodded, kissing the tip of her nose. “Ask away.”
“You – wait, is this your mom’s Malibu house?”
Logan laughed. “Yeah, I kind of panicked when you brought it up on the phone. But you’d never seen it in person, so I was safe after all.”
Veronica nodded thoughtfully. “You left the gate open for me?”
“You left that envelope for me in the Pasadena hotel?”
“I did, and thank God no one picked it up before you. I had to call you to check you’d gotten it.”
“So the one in Irvine, too?”
“Did my dad know?”
“That it wasn’t really a very unspecific and anonymous client? Yes.”
“What was up with the eraser and shampoo sample?”
Logan chuckled at that. “Thought those up at the last minute to confuse you some more.”
“Because the wild goose chase was so straightforward.”
“Right. Well, the ice cream eraser… You used to have a drawer full of those tiny cutesy erasers in junior high. And we were eating ice cream when I asked you to be my girlfriend, sophomore year of high school.”
Veronica’s eyes widened. “I would not have guessed that meaning. I can’t believe you remember that.”
Logan leaned down to kiss her softly. “And the shampoo… It was ‘cause of a bottle of that shampoo that you told me you loved me for the first time.”
“You’re so weird,” she replied affectionately. She had to make a rectification, though: “It wasn’t because of the shampoo. It was because of the gesture, that you’d bought a bottle of my shampoo for your shower.”
“I have very fond memories of that smell regardless.”
She rolled her eyes and reached up to kiss his cheek. “Well, I can certainly say that I spent an interesting afternoon thanks to you, although I’m still kind of confused.”
“Yeah. I imagine you are. This wasn’t very… well, it wasn’t very conventional. I was scared you’d give up and tell your dad a psychopath was stalking you. So, I’m glad that didn’t happen.”
Veronica laughed softly and cupped Logan’s cheek with her hand. He looked preoccupied. “You okay?”
“Never better. There’s just something I need to tell you. Veronica… It’s borderline ridiculous how in love with you I am, but you know that. More than that, I like you, I respect you, and I admire you. You’re not just the love of my life, you make me want to be a better person and you humble me. I love the way you laugh, the drive you have to pursue your cases, the way you’re the only one who’ll banter with me and mean it, the way every part of you fits perfectly against every part of me and how you call me on my bullshit. Any day I’m not with you is just wasted, and I don’t want to waste any more time. You’re the only one for me and I hope you’ll let me show you every day for the rest of our lives how much it means to me that you let me love you, which is why I devised this ridiculous plan to get you all the way here. So, you’ve asked all those questions, and you can ask as many others as you want, but I only have one.” He nervously looked down and they both held their breath as he pulled out a box from his pocket. “Is your left ring finger busy? ‘Cause I think I might have something for that if it’s not.”
The ring box in his hand flipped open and Veronica laughed as she let out her breath and smacked his chest. “Can’t even propose properly,” she tutted with a shake of her head.
“Kinda leaving me hanging, here,” Logan pointed out, his thumb toying with the velvety cushion holding the ring in place.
“Yes,” she said quietly, her answer bright in her eyes. “Wait, hold on, I didn’t even look at it properly, let me see what I’m agreeing to.”
Logan raised the box he was holding in his hand down at hips’ height, all the way to Veronica’s eye level and kissed her forehead in relief as she examined the ring he’d picked out, taking the box from his hands.
“Do I have to put it on myself?” she asked coyly after a few seconds.
He ducked his head to capture her lips, and she felt all the love he’d just declared poured into his kiss. Careful not to drop the ring, she got up on her tiptoes to press her lips more fully to his and draped her arms around his neck, her question forgotten for the moment.
“No, I can do that,” he finally replied, reaching behind his neck to take the box from her. “Just to make sure…” Logan explained, getting down to one knee in front of Veronica while keeping her hand in his as he looped it around his head then cautiously taking the ring out of its box, “the ring comes with the downside of having to marry me.”
He slid it on her ring finger just as she grabbed his collar using her right hand, destabilizing him as he stumbled upright. “Shut up,” Veronica declared, kissing him again, quickly. “You’re the upside. The downside is how complicated it’ll be to wash my hands now.”
“Didn’t think of that.”
“Men rarely do.”
“So, no regrets?”
“No,” she assured him.
“So I can call your dad and everyone else to come join us?”
“Who’s everyone else?”
“My mom, Alicia and Darrell, Wallace, Mac, Dick…”
“Where are they? There weren’t any cars in the driveway, not even yours.”
“We all parked in the neighbour’s driveway. Told him I needed to propose to my very observant girlfriend with a suspicious nature, who would immediately recognize all our cars, and he agreed. The perks of gated communities where neighbours are incredibly far away from one another.”
“And he didn’t tell you to stay away from that trouble and save that proposal idea for someone else?”
“No, but I wouldn’t have cared if he had. I only want you. Besides, no one else would have willingly followed a trail with no real clues or clear objectives just for the sake of it. I would’ve stood here alone forever.”
“Did my dad know know? Like the whole plan? And he agreed?”
“Hold on, I’ll call him to let him know they can start moving over, then we’ll explain everything.”
Before everyone arrived, Logan showed Veronica in which of the numerous rooms his mother’s house counted he had stored some of her clothes, that he had brought over for the celebratory soirée and for the night – and the next few days if she wanted to stay. The bedroom he had chosen for them was on the third floor, with a thick plush carpet, a canopy bed and a plunging view of the strip of beach beneath them and the cerulean sea.
“How didn’t I notice you taking all of that? I left after you this morning.”
Logan smiled and kissed the tip of her nose. “I went back after you left to make extra-sure.”
“I know how sexy you find sneaking around.”
“That’s you, honey. Just you,” Veronica replied with mock condescension.
“Darn. Missed my shot?” Logan asked, leaning in for a kiss.
Veronica granted it to him. Pulling back, she tilted her head to ponder. “Eh, you did okay.”
She changed into the short blue dress Logan liked so much (he insisted it had nothing to do with the low neckline, she called him a liar and slipped the bodice on as slowly as possible just to see his reaction), and he shrugged into a button-down shirt and a pair of slacks, then they mutually agreed to get in some kissing down on the patio to wait for the others and had to straighten out their brand-new getups and jump apart like schoolchildren when Wallace cleared his throat.
“Be happy it was me and not one of your parents,” he said at their guilty look.
Veronica just hugged him quickly. “Thanks, bro.”
Logan held his promise, explaining exactly what every single person involved knew. (They all knew Logan was proposing, but most of them only found out when he asked them to come to Malibu; Wallace knew beforehand in case Veronica asked him to join her on her quest so he wouldn’t discourage her from the seemingly pointless and hopeless sleuthing; Dick knew the surfing trip wasn’t real but was only told why once he and Logan were on the road towards Malibu that morning, because he wasn’t sober often enough to trust him not to let the secret slip out; Keith knew most of the details of the operation and Logan had told him about wanting to ask Veronica to marry him several weeks beforehand.)
Alicia asked to see the ring (“I’m sure this fine young man has impeccable taste, but between us ladies…”), Lynn welcomed Veronica in the family with a hug and an assurance that she would have still liked Veronica the best of all the girls Logan had dated if she had turned him down (which Logan didn’t especially appreciate because of the implications that it was a possibility that Veronica would have – and still could – turn him down), Keith pretended he didn’t cry, Dick pretended he liked Veronica for the evening and she extended the courtesy, champagne was wheeled out for everyone but Darrell, Wallace ate most of the chocolate-covered strawberries except the vegan ones he left for Mac, and Logan kept an arm around Veronica the whole evening, which she had to nudge upwards and away from her ass a handful of times.
Once the party died down and everyone went inside to be led to their rooms for the night, Logan and Veronica decided to take a stroll down the beach. It was completely dark outside, the sea was rolling in and the only sound was its periodic crash against the sand. They walked hand in hand, shoes forgotten somewhere at the beach house, hips bumping into each other over and over.
“I think you’re kind of drunk,” Veronica told her fiancé – fiancé! – while clinging on to his shirt, rumpling it in the process, but it made the ring on her finger catch the faint light of the stars reflected on the waves so she didn’t let go.
“Now where you would be getting that from?” he asked, taking her hand away from his shirt to raise it to his lips, missing his goal of kissing her knuckles and kissing the outside of her thumb instead.
She giggled. “You’re swaying and there’s no music.”
“There could be music. Close your eyes.”
She looked at him dubitatively but obliged, then felt Logan’s arms around her, gently maneuvering her in a slow rhythm, left and right.
“Love you,” she whispered, following his movements even if she had no idea what song they were supposed to follow.
“Love you too.”
He kissed the tip of her nose, then each of her eyelids and she opened her eyes just in time to see him kiss her cheeks delicately, one at a time.
“What’s your favourite letter?” he asked her.
The question didn’t strike her as absurd in the moment, so she replied seriously, “X.”
“Because it’s mysterious and useless.”
Logan nodded, like it made perfect sense.
“What’s yours?” Veronica asked.
“E. Because if you remove it from your name, it’s just Vronica and that sounds like a car motor.”
“That’s a terrible choice.”
“It’s an excellent choice.”
“You’re drunk,” Veronica noticed again.
“You’re drunk too.”
“There better be champagne that good when I marry you.”
“To the champagne?”
“To the wedding.”