Chapter 34 Crazy Beautiful
Logan and Veronica slid into the Ferrari from either side and Logan hit the lock button. They turned to each other and simultaneously blurted "THAT WAS NOT MY FAULT!"
Veronica sat back in her seat in surprise. "Your fault? Of course it wasn't your fault."
Logan had slumped forward in relief, his forehead and hands on the steering wheel. "I thought for sure you would pin that on me." He lifted his head and looked at her. "I did not get Kirk plastered; he was three sheets to the wind when I met him."
"It never crossed my mind that you had anything to do with Kirk's condition." Veronica hastened to assure her husband. "And I never agreed to leave with that man!"
"Yeah, you didn't seem very gung ho about accompanying him." Logan grinned. "Good thing he had a glass jaw or we might have been in some real trouble."
"A glass jaw? Didn't feel like glass to me." She grumbled, absently rubbing her hand.
"Totally glass." Logan shook his head firmly. "I was just trying to distract him so we could make a run for it. I didn't think he'd go down like Aceveda with a gun to his head when I hit him. Of course, you softened him up for me, which was awesome, by the way! Is pasting guys in the face FBI protocol?"
"He assaulted and attempted to abduct a federal agent." Veronica said loftily. "He's lucky I didn't shoot him."
"You mean 'arrest him', don't you?"
"Maybe. Could be. He's lucky we didn't have to find out." She shrugged. "Why didn't you tell me it hurt so much to hit someone?"
"If it were easy, everyone would do it." He snickered. "The first time always hurts."
"First time? Try 'last time'. I am done with the fisticuffs. I'll leave that rough and tumble to you boy types."
"Jeez, some Uma you are." Logan frowned. "You'll never be able to punch your way out of the grave with that attitude."
"Sweetie, in real life, federal agents almost never find themselves buried alive."
"Not that we know of." He pointed out.
"Seriously; ow!" She shook her right hand again. "It felt like I broke something."
"Really?" Logan grabbed her hand and looked at it, turning it over. He visibly relaxed. "It looks fine."
"Not my ring, my hand."
"Oh." He looked genuinely surprised. Then he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it gently. "It might bruise a little but I'm sure it's nothing. Don't be so quick to give up. Surely you can think of something else that you didn't get right the first time but with a little bit of practice turned out to be lots of fun?"
She raised her eyebrows.
"You know," he prodded. "Like riding a bike…or something else."
"Please tell me you don't enjoy fighting that much."
"Nooo. It may be my second favorite way to blow off steam…" that got him another raised eyebrow before he continued, "… but it's not a close second."
The sound of approaching sirens reminded them that if they didn't want to get caught up in the inevitable but tedious aftermath of Logan's second favorite release valve, they'd best get a move on. Throwing the Ferrari into gear, Logan peeled out of the parking ramp so fast Veronica couldn't be sure, but she thought she saw a parking valet sitting in the open trunk of a Prius.
The success of her first night in the field had Veronica feeling giddy. Despite the abrupt end to the evening, she knew she had amassed a ton of information. She was excited to get to work collating the names and faces of the participants from the intel on her camera and she knew she could write a detailed description of the entire evening without resorting to the copious notes filling the margins of the catalogue but all of that would have to wait till morning. The way the event had ended had added a spice to the adrenaline coursing through her veins and she could hardly wait to get Logan home.
The fist fight and Veronica's obvious mood had their effect on Logan as well. After gliding the Ferrari into the garage, he was out of the car in a flash, opening Veronica's door and lifting her out into the clear, moonlit night. He spun his laughing wife across the lawn to the house.
"That was so much fun!" she said. "My hand hardly even hurts anymore."
"Next time, don't aim for his bone box," Logan told her as he spun her off her feet and onto the stone patio. "Go for the throat." He tapped his Adams apple just above the collar of his dress shirt. "Doesn't take too much power to have a devastating impact."
"Mmm," Veronica leaned into him. "Anything else I can do that will have a devastating impact without the need for too much power?"
"Don't kid yourself, Sugarpuss." Logan said, dropping a light kiss on her forehead. "You got plenty of power."
She wrapped her arms around his neck and proved him right.
When they came up for air, Veronica looked up at him, dazed. Smiling down at her in the light of the half moon peeking through the leaves, he looked like something out of a dream. She still had a hard time believing he was hers.
"You look so good in that tux." She sighed. It didn't begin to describe what she felt, but it was all she could think of to say. He just laughed and unlocked the back door. Inside, he turned on the light in the kitchen and went straight to the refrigerator where he took a long swig from a carton of orange juice. Veronica trailed along behind, stalking him like a predator.
"You thirsty?" he offered her the orange juice when he was done. "You want anything?"
"Nothing you've got in the fridge," she shook her head.
"There's a double meaning in that." Logan said, putting the orange juice back, letting the door close and leaning against it.
"That's what I like about you;" Veronica said, snapping her fingers. "You always catch my drift."
"I may be pretty but I'm not as dumb as I look and you're about as subtle as a sledgehammer." He said, eyeing her as she approached.
"Don't sell yourself short," she stopped right in front of him. "You are much more than just a pretty face."
"I like to think so." He said, dipping his head and shrugging modestly.
"You're pretty everywhere." Her eyes drifted south as she placed her hands on his chest, causing him to catch his breath. He grabbed her and pulled her closer.
"I'm gonna kiss you with every lip on my face." He warned her.
"Every lip?" She raised her eyes to his.
"Yep. Think you can handle it?"
"I don't know; that's a lot of lips." She said, wide eyed.
"Not really. Pretty much the average amount." He dipped his head but she placed a finger on his lips to stop him.
"Bone box?"She asked.
They were still giggling and making out in the front hallway when they heard footsteps running across the back patio. Without breaking their clinch, they looked across the kitchen and saw JR yank open the back door and skid inside. Shaking a finger at them, he exclaimed "THAT WAS NOT MY FAULT."
Up in their room later, Veronica was admiring herself in the full length mirror.
"It's such a shame to have to undo all of Candy's work," she said ruefully, "But I can't talk myself into wearing full makeup to bed."
Logan had carelessly discarded of his tux, leaving pieces strewn across the floor, stepping out of his pants as he entered the bathroom to brush his teeth. She removed her dress and hung it, carefully smoothing it down before placing it in the closet. She went into the bathroom to clean up and even in the harsher light, she looked incredible. She stared at her face in the mirror, fascinated. The work Candy had done was perfect; not a bit of it was smeared or faded. Logan finished brushing his teeth and whispered "Hurry up," in her ear as he returned to the bedroom.
She studied herself, trying to figure out exactly how Candy had done it. With one last, lingering look, she sighed, peeled off her false eyelashes and turned on the water.
"I feel like I'm about to deface a work of art." She muttered, clipping her bangs up off her face to wash it. Then she applied moisturizer and brushed her teeth. When she was finished she looked in the mirror and saw her old self looking back. God, my forehead really is three miles wide. She pulled the clip out of her hair, letting it fall around her face before returning to the bedroom.
"Now there's my girl." Logan grinned, crossing his arms behind his head as he stretched out on the bed.
"Here she is; clean, shiny, ordinary." Veronica shrugged as she made her way across the room, picking up pieces of Logan's outfit on her way and tossing them into a heap near the closet before dropping down on the bed beside him.
"You couldn't be ordinary if you tried." He scoffed.
"I'm glad you think so." She smiled. "But I did look pretty damned amazing tonight, didn't I? Candy is a genius."
"What? I looked fantastic tonight!" Veronica cried. "I've never looked better!"
"You always look fantastic. I've seen you prettier."
"You're thinking of somebody else." She declared, flopping down on her back.
"You looked beautiful tonight but it was…a Hollywood version of you. You know that's not my favorite version of anything." He rolled onto his side facing her, with his chin propped on his hand. "Your shining moment tonight was when you popped that guy. That's when the real you came out to play. You did look gorgeous but it's when that thing, that Veronicaness comes out…That's when you're the most beautiful woman who ever lived."
"Like when?" she honestly had no idea what he was talking about.
"Like…In the lobby of the Sunset Regent Hotel…standing on the balcony of the Camelot…screaming at me for pulling an empty gun in the River Styx…Alterna Prom…crying on the roof of the Grand…sitting in the back of a pickup out in the desert…swinging a crowbar with deadly intent…waking up on Catalina Island last May…" he lightly brushed a finger down her cheek. "Right now."
"Wow. I should have had that written into our vows." She chuckled, playfully shoving his shoulder.
"I'd say it under oath." He rolled over on his elbows so that he hovered over her, looking critically into her face. "Right now, scrubbed clean, nothin' but you…you're crazy beautiful."
"Seriously?" She wasn't chuckling anymore.
"Yeah! You can't honestly believe that I'd rather look at an air brushed mask of you than at your real face? Would you rather I got back into my tux for bed?"
"Uh…" she let her eyes trail down from his freshly scrubbed face across his shoulders, his well muscled back, firm butt and long, lean legs. She lifted her eyes to his again, then reached up and messed up his hair. "Noooo."
"I do like your new dress," He said, thoughtfully, "but the truth is, and I think I speak for all men here; I don't care what you wear most of the time, as long as you're naked some of the time."
She laughed and then looked at him. "Do you have any idea how much I love you?" She asked.
"I love you twice as much." He declared.
"It's not a contest."
"If it was, I'd win."
"No, you wouldn't."
"Yes I would. I love you more than any man has every loved anyone. Romeo and Juliet, Westley and Buttercup, Siegfried and Brunhilda, hell, Siegfried and Roy; Pikers."
So he did.
Veronica was at work on her computer first thing in the morning. While Logan read the Sunday paper and JR was joined by Bryn in fixing a nice big brunch, she was in their library office, running all the photos she'd taken the night before through a facial recognition data base. By cross referencing the guest list, the photos and government issued ID, she was able to begin matching names to the faces of the folks at the private auction. Referencing the notes she'd taken in the margin of her catalogue, she was hoping a pattern of behavior would emerge.
"I love being a fed." She chuckled, as yet another face was matched to a name. This was so easy it was stupid.
In the kitchen, Logan and JR were describing the previous night to Bryn, every aspect of which now struck them as hilarious. They were sitting at the large kitchen table, waiting for the muffins Bryn had whipped up to come out of the oven. The smell of warm bran mixed with the aroma of fresh bacon and coffee. Although the nights were beginning to get cooler, during the day, they still kept most of the windows in the house open. A fresh breeze wafted the smell of muffins through the house.
"I have to admit," Logan said, shaking his head at JR. "I was a little disappointed in both of you. Tucker's gonna be pissed that between the two of you, you couldn't take out Clooneytunes."
"I'm a little disappointed." Bryn agreed.
"Hey, he was big!" JR protested. "You didn't see him."
"Size doesn't matter." Bryn scoffed.
"Hear that JR? You can relax." Logan smirked as he raised the sports page.
"What are you talking about?" JR demanded of Bryn. "In some things, size definitely matters."
"That is why you fail," Logan sighed from behind the paper.
"No, it doesn't." Bryn insisted to her boyfriend as they both ignored Logan. "Stand up. You've got what, three inches on me?"
"And about six pounds," Logan offered, looking at his scrawny aide de camp.
"You're so big and strong," Bryn smiled up at JR as she took one of his hands in hers. JR automatically smiled back at her for a half a second before his face contorted and he sank to his knees with a loud yelp. Logan sat up, impressed, as JR knelt on the kitchen floor, shaking his right hand in pain.
"What just happened?"Logan asked Bryn. "How did you do that?"
"Where did you learn to do that?" JR asked Bryn, testing his thumb to see if it still worked.
"At the hands of my five brothers." Bryn reminded them. "We're Irish; I've been fighting for my life since the day I was born."
"You have five brothers?" Logan's eyebrows shot up. "I thought there were only three."
"Five." Bryn answered. "And don't even get me started on cousins."
"That's ridiculous!" Logan huffed. "Why would anyone have five brothers?"
"Hey, I'm with you but my parents wouldn't let me get rid of any of them." She defended her position. "It's not like I didn't try."
"Where do you think she learned to deal with Candy and Piz like she did?" JR asked Logan. "Of course, I could have handled those two and I've only got sisters."
"You knew about this?" Logan asked JR, accusingly.
"Relax, Moneybags; lots of people have brothers." JR said.
"Not five." Logan insisted. "That's just ridiculous."
"Tell me about it." Bryn said. "Every day for the first twelve years of my life, one or more of them tried to kill me. It wasn't personal; they tried to kill each other, too."
"Is it true that the Irish fight so much because you're all drunkards?" Logan asked, as if academically interested.
"No." Bryn scoffed. "That's just stupid. We don't fight because we're drunk; we drink so it doesn't hurt so much when we fight."
"I wish I was Irish." JR said wistfully, considering the bruises he'd attained the night before.
"I think maybe I am a little Irish." Logan said, thoughtfully.
"Show me some more of your moves." JR challenged Bryn.
"At breakfast? I think not!" Logan gasped, feigning offended propriety.
"Her self-defense moves." JR clarified.
"Well, I'm a girl, so I fight dirty." Bryn started. "But we all used a bunch of horrible maneuvers on each other that I'm pretty sure aren't allowed under the Marquis of Queensbury rules."
"You mean like biting?" Logan wrinkled his nose. He really hated the idea of biting.
"Ech, no. I Don't bite!" Bryn shook her head. "You don't know where they've been."
"I know, right?" Logan nodded sympathetically. "I tried only fighting vegetarians but it was just too complicated and awkward."
"So no biting; what then?" JR asked, ignoring Logan's nonsense.
"Well, there's the ever popular Spock-bite." Bryn placed her hand right where JR's neck and shoulder met, then dug her thumb under the tendon, making JR squeak in pain and twist away from her.
"Hey, I like that!" Logan said, impressed. "Show me that thing you did to him before."
"That was the thumb screw," Bryn hooked her forefinger under JR's thumb and used her own to press down on his nail, using her finger as a lever. "It's a great way to deal with grabby guys."
JR screamed as a sharp pain rocketed up his arm. "STOP THAT! OW!" and yanked his hand away from her.
"That's awesome!" Logan guffawed. "You gotta show me how you do that!"
"…Monkey bumps…" Bryn made a fist, with her middle knuckle sticking out and aimed at JR's forearm.
"NO." he jumped up away from her, laughing. "You're killing me! Don't demonstrate on me anymore!"
"Show me!" Logan held his arm out for her.
"Moneybags! This stuff hurts." JR warned him.
"Don't be such a pussy." Logan dismissed his henchman's warning and two seconds later, was sucking air in through his teeth, watching a sharp welt rise up on his arm where she'd rapped him with her knuckle.
"See? Who's the pussy now?" JR shook his head as Logan rubbed his sore forearm.
"And those are just the run of the mill moves." Bryn said, shaking her head. "Rib knuckles are worse and if you ever really want to hurt someone; go for the wire."
"What, like piano wire?" Logan asked, thinking of the Sopranos.
"No; we didn't know it was called an Achilles tendon, we just called it your wire."
"What did you do to it?" JR slowly asked, not at all sure he wanted to know.
"You don't have to do much," Bryn said, "In fact, in didn't take very long where I could end a fight just by threatening to pinch their wires."
"You…pinched…your brothers' Achilles tendons?" Logan asked, horrified.
"Well, see; that's the beauty of the wire pinch; you only ever have to do it once." Bryn explained.
"That's…the worst thing I've ever heard." He said in awe and then rubbed his palms together in melodramatic delight. "How marvelous!"
At that moment, the oven dinged, signaling that the muffins were done. Bryn hopped up from the table and JR watched her as she and went to take them out of the oven. Logan turned his attention back to the comics.
"She is so far out of my league." JR sighed, gazing adoringly at Bryn as she handled the hot muffins.
"I won't tell her if you don't." Logan murmured, offering his fist for JR to bump in solidarity.
The combined smell of bacon and bran muffins was too much for Veronica to resist. She closed her computer and ran through the living room, to be greeted by the startling sight of her husband sitting at the kitchen table with his fingers entwined with those of the very pretty brunette beside him. Seeing Bryn and Logan intently holding hands made the bottom drop out of her stomach but before she could even remind herself not to be so stupid, the jealous flare was replaced by shock as Logan shrieked and slid out of his chair.
"Well, this clearly isn't what it looks like." Veronica announced. "What's going on?"
"I told you it hurt." JR said smugly, sitting back in his seat with his arms folded, watching as Logan shook his arm out, laughing in spite of himself.
After cleaning up breakfast, Bryn and JR were off to a street festival out west of town.
"You guys want to come along?" Bryn invited Logan and Veronica. "It's really fun; folks dress in period costumes and sell all kinds of handmade arts and crafts. And don't get all snobby on me; they're really good. There are booths, games, gifts, clothes, music, lots of entertainment. And the food is outstanding. There's fencing and jousting on horseback!"
"Sounds like you're really into it." Veronica laughed.
"The Renaissance Festival is where I first fell in love with folk tales." Bryn admitted. "The whole idea of an earlier, simpler society struck me as completely romantic. A world where princesses were real! For a while I flirted with the idea of auditioning a character myself. I thought I could read fairy tales to kids but it was all a lot more work than I counted on. The audition process is really cut throat. It's a great way for actors and artisans in the Midwest to showcase their talents but it doesn't pay much. The money is all in the booths."
"Actors and artisans in the Midwest?" Logan mocked.
"I know you left coasters think all theatrical talent resides either in Hollywood or New York but you're wrong." Bryn defended her native artistic community. "We've got plenty of talent right here. You'd be surprised."
"I would." Logan smirked.
"Don't be a snob." Veronica elbowed her husband. "Where does this Fair take place?"
"It's out in Shakopee. About ten miles straight south of the Arboretum."
"The Arboretum?" Logan perked right up as that word rang a bell. "What's that?"
"Oh." Bryn sighed and rolled her eyes, ecstatically. "The Arboretum is one of my favorite places on earth! It belongs to the University of Minnesota and it's where all their agricultural and botanical research takes place. Basically, it's an enormous agrilab masquerading as forests and gardens."
"Yeah, it's incredible." JR nodded. "She took me there a couple of weeks ago."
"It'll be even prettier now," Bryn said. "The colors are peaking. But you should see it in the spring when the peonies and apple trees are blooming! And every year, they have a different art experience spread throughout the property. Last year, it was Fairy Gardens. My favorite!"
"It does sound great," Veronica said, reluctantly. "But I really just want to get back to work."
"She's like a dog with a bone," Logan explained. "Give her a case to chew on and it'll take a lot more than flowers and fairies to pull her away. And 'Shakopee' sounds like something that happens to recalcitrant patients in the psych ward. That's not someplace I want to go."
"If I had known how to do Bryn's thumb hold last night, I just may have gone with Mr. Silver hair." Veronica told Logan when she took a break and joined him on the patio a few hours later.
"WHAT?" Logan lowered his Golf Digest and glared at her.
"I can't deny that part of me was very curious as to what he had up his well dressed sleeve." She said, innocently.
"With no briefing, back up or exit strategy?" Her husband cried. "Just try something like that, Missy and you'll learn the meaning of 'grounded for life'."
"Oh relax, dad." She assured him. "My assignment was only to get inside and watch what happened, not to approach or confront anyone. If they had thought there was any danger at all, I'd have had backup. This was nothing more than information gathering. That shot I took of the full guest list and all the folks at the private auction has yielded a treasure trove of info."
"I love Big Brother." Logan mumbled.
"I've been matching names to faces and later," Veronica opted to ignore him, "I'll write my report and we decide what to do next, if anything."
"How much are you going to put in your report?"
"Everything. Right up until the moment Kirk hit the floor. I'll leave out the part where you knocked one of the patrons on his ass but the rest may be important."
"You gonna admit to hitting that guy yourself?"
"I don't see how that's pertinent." She said, and then giggled. "I'm not sure I want to admit that I hit a guy and he didn't even notice! They might not let me back out in the field alone."
"You weren't alone."
"You know what I mean. Either way, I have no intention of setting your antics down in an official document."
"A decision that I'm sure the passage of time will render ever wiser."
"He seemed pretty set on my leaving with him," Veronica mused. "I hope I didn't blow my chance to uncover a white slavery operation or anything."
"So when you have his name, run a background check and see if anything sticks." Logan suggested.
"Anything like what?" she cocked her head at him.
"Um…monthly trips to Bangkok. Huge sums of money showing up mysteriously in his accounts. Lots of foreign 'nieces' applying for student visas…Stuff like that?"
"Is that what white slavers do?"
"Why are you asking me?" He looked at her.
"Seems like the sort of thing you'd know about." She shrugged, thoroughly enjoying the look of alarm on his face.
"You've got some pretty weird ideas about what I do in my free time." He muttered.
"Report." Section Chief Larson looked at his Assistant Director, Dru Johnson.
Without consulting his notes, Johnson rattled off the state of the dozen or so cases the field agents under his supervision were working. Dru Johnson was a short, slightly pudgy, fair complexioned, balding middle aged man who could blend into any crowd in the western world. He could easily pass as a soccer dad or a Washington diplomat. He was the guy standing next to you in line that you would never remember seeing. He was so blah that if you rode an elevator with him, you'd remember it as being a solo trip. He rarely initiated conversation and spoke as though words were a rare and expensive commodity. He had closed an impressive amount of cases by keeping his mouth shut and letting felons talk themselves right into prison. He also had a mind like a steel trap, a photographic memory and an easy going management style that made him a favorite with the field agents who reported to him.
"So what do you think of Agent Mars?" Larson asked, after Johnson's litany of case briefs.
"Impressive." Johnson said with a nod.
"Paperwork's all in order," Johnson began. Getting the receipts and reports from field agents was a daily headache for those who ran the bureaucracy.
"Her experience as a P.I. ingrained some good habits," Larson mused. "The self employed know the value of organized paperwork. She's definitely got a leg up on most rookies."
Veronica's receipts had included not just the voucher for the three tickets to the gala but the fruits of her wardrobe credit card as well. The gal in the accounting office had raised her eyebrows when Veronica had dumped the bag of used makeup, nail polish and a pair of stiletto heels on the counter, along with all of Candy's receipts for supplies and services rendered but as far as Johnson or Larson were concerned, as long as she had dotted her I's and crossed her T's, those details didn't matter.
Johnson grunted at the suggestion that Veronica merely had a leg up. "She turned reconnaissance into background checks."
"She's two steps ahead." Johnson explained. "Event was Saturday night. By Monday a.m., she had the start of a comprehensive list of names, running checks to sort the clean and dirty laundry. She's already working up a list of Persons of Interest. Kid doesn't waste time."
"Direction?" Larson asked Johnson what orders he'd given the young agent.
"Unnecessary." Johnson replied. "She knows the drill."
"Good!" Larson nodded. So far, Agent Mars was proving to be quite an asset to the agency.
"I spent the day running background checks on my list of names from the auction and so far, no obvious red flags have come up; nothing that screams "Money launderer" or even "Shady Character" but one strange and interesting item has already come to light." Veronica told Logan that night at dinner. "It seems one of our fellow art lovers was arrested late Saturday night, trying to break into a room at a five star hotel downtown."
"Really?" Logan looked up from his salad with a minimum of interest.
"Yes." Veronica said with exaggerated interest. "Care to guess which one?"
"If she has any taste at all, it was the Ivy."
"Good guess!" Veronica pretended to be impressed.
"It is the best hotel in town." Logan shrugged off the no brainer.
"She claimed to have been invited by a guest but the hotel manager says the key card she tried to use was six weeks out of date."
"Huh." Logan helped himself to a chunk of baguette. "That is certainly strange but why is it interesting?"
"What if I pointed out to you that the room she was trying to get into just happened to be the very same room reserved back in August for one Stosh Piznarski?" His wife asked, regarding him with her head cocked to the side.
"Hmmm." Logan raised his eyebrows. "That's mildly interesting but it's not like there are that many five star hotels in Minneapolis."
Veronica sighed. If she couldn't get a straight answer to a crooked question, she was perfectly willing to ask straight up.
"You want to tell me how some babe from the auction got her hands on the key card Parker left in our guest room?"
"Moi?" Logan said with a grin, "what in the world makes you think I know anything about it?"
"Pulling stunts like that is no way to win friends among the artsy crowd." Veronica shook her head. "You're going to get a reputation as a trouble maker."
"I'm pretty sure that ship sailed long before Blondie got arrested."
"So you knew she was blond!" Veronica pounced.
"They were all blond." Logan pointed out.
"Did you make the date before or after you punched out Mr. Glass Jaw?"
"Ah yes; the guy you made late night plans with." Logan reminded his little wife that he hadn't been the only one at the auction fending off unwanted attention.
"I did not!"
"He thought you did. You know perfectly well I had time for nothing but the exit after I cancelled your date."
"Well, I didn't get him thrown in jail." Veronica tried to point the conversation back at Logan's behavior.
"No, just the emergency room."
"That was all you, too, Sugar Britches."
"Art is fun." He sighed, happily.
"Do you really think we're going to skip the part where you invited a woman to meet you in a hotel room?"
"Should I have invited her back here?" He asked.
"Not unless you were planning on burying her in the garden." Veronica cheerfully explained.
"That's what I thought." He nodded. "Don't try to pretend you think for even one second I considered actually meeting her there."
"I know. I understand why you don't want the world at large to know we're married but do you think you could not ask women on dates while you're out with me?"
"I did NOT ask her out. She did the asking...actually, the insisting. I told her I was tied up later in the evening and she wasn't impressed. I didn't set up an assignation; just a humiliation. I never thought she'd get arrested but I hope she learned to take 'no' for an answer. So the hussy spent the night in jail; don't cry for her, Argentina."
"Maybe you're the one who barely escaped a meeting with white slavers." Veronica mused. Then she frowned. "You probably shouldn't meet with any art-loving babes without back up."
"If word gets out about how that particular art-loving babe's attempt at after-partying with me went, I don't think we need to worry." Logan smirked.
"You're going to get a reputation as a tease." She giggled.
"That'll confuse people, won't it?" Logan looked very pleased by the idea.
"You did manage to throw her off the scent." Veronica nodded with approval. Then she sighed and shook her head. "It's just too bad that I didn't get to see how the last few canvases sold. I can't help feeling like I may have missed something big just because Kirk can't hold his whiskey."
"Oh! Well, maybe I can help."
That afternoon, Logan had returned to the Art Institute to retrieve the gun he'd forgotten about in their mad dash for the exit. While he was there, the curator had informed him that a low key, informal gathering was being set up to finish the sale of the works that had still been available when Saturday night's event had crashed and burned. If he was still interested, his name was on the short, exclusive list of patrons being invited to bid on such important pieces before they were made available in general. Logan had given a non committal answer, having no idea whether or not he was interested.
"If you think it's important, we can go." He told her.
"But no one is bringing a date." Veronica pointed out.
"I'll get you in." he assured her. "But that's not the only item of interest I discovered this afternoon."
He told her that Kirk's cryptic utterances had stuck in his head and he'd remembered it after Bryn mentioned the Arboretum.
"In addition to the University's gardens, there's a gallery in the Visitor Center that features different shows that run a few months." He told Veronica. "Kirk said something that made me think it might be worth a look."
"Plus, I hear the colors are peaking this week."
"Hmmm. That could be very informative." Veronica nodded. "And I can't help it if it's fun, too."
"There's a restaurant on site, too."
"Even the Bureau has to acknowledge that a girl's gotta eat."
"It's a date."
Tuesday morning Veronica only spent an hour or so at the office, then logged out to further explore the local art scene. She and Logan took the Ferrari out high way 5 to the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, referred to in local shorthand simply as the arboretum. Turning off the road, which had dwindled to merely two lanes by the time they reached their destination, they went up a winding wooded drive to a sentry shack, paid the daily admission and continued on to the parking lot. That short drive was enough to reveal that they had timed their visit well; the trees were at their autumn peak. Even the parking lot, just past a tree shaded pond, was gorgeous. Each row of cars was separated by a wide bank of trees, all glowing with color.
They walked toward the large Visitor Center adjacent to the parking lot. In front of the rambling, two story building was a garden, surrounded by a topiary hedge in which the slim trunks had been woven into a natural fence. Autumn blooms of every description vied with the colors of the turning trees. Beneath a sky so blue it seemed solid, the colors were almost too much.
It was such a lovely morning that they decided to see the gardens before going in search of the gallery, so they turned left and went through the gates to the left of the Visitor Center front patio. They followed the stone walk beneath the trees to the formal gardens beyond. There they found sculptures, banks of flowers, an herb garden, a knot garden, a floating bridge, waterfalls and fountains complete with lilly pads and frogs.
"Could this be any prettier?" Veronica asked as they reached the end of the first formal garden.
"Turn around." Logan nodded to the north.
Down the hill, the highway could no longer be seen through the colorful trees. About a half a mile from where they stood was a wide, glorious view of Lake Minnewashta. It looked like an illustration by Maxfield Parish or N.C. Wyeth.
"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" Veronica breathed.
Logan craned his neck, searching the sky.
"What?" Veronica asked.
"I'm looking for the giant pink bubble with a good witch inside."
Across the narrow road, they found the large Japanese garden which included little temples, a large coy pond with a waterfall, an herb garden, a rose garden a fraction of the size of the one by Lake Harriet and beneath the canopy of the forest, a hosta garden containing dozens of varieties of the plant. The road led through the woods in a three mile loop that visitors could drive or walk and in the winter was a popular trek for cross country skiers. Skiing was the last thought on either Logan or Veronica's mind as they were drawn deeper and deeper into the woods where they saw a pond beside which a bronze sculpture of a long legged heron permanently watched over the fish. Signs informed them that to follow a wood chipped path into the woods would bring them to a wild flower garden and to stay on the road they would find themselves at the shade tree exhibit. Following the road, they went up a hill to a spot where a well placed bench afforded a wonderful view of another larger pond.
"Anywhere else in the world," Logan said, gesturing at the pond, "They'd have built vacation homes around that. Here, it's not even big enough to be designated a lake."
The road curved away from the pond and through the woods. On a Tuesday morning, there were a few cars that slowly passed them but they saw no other pedestrians. It was easy to imagine they were the only people in the world.
"This looks so familiar." Veronica said, looking up into the red and golden canopy of the maple forest about them.
"Oz?" Logan suggested.
"No, better." She said. "Lothlorien!"
"Ah! Where the only evil that exists is that which you bring with you." Logan nodded. "No wicked witches."
They strolled past a hill covered in a dozen different species of shade trees, each with a bench beneath the canopy with a placard describing the tree. Another wide loop brought them out of the woods to walk along the foot of a broad hill covered in grass and wild flowers. They passed a field filled with nothing but weeping trees. Around another bend, they found a second, much larger rose garden in which the bloom laden bushes were laid out in curving beds surrounding a large, flat pool where a bronze sculpture of two children dangling their feet in the water sat right beside a sign asking that people refrain from actually wading in the pool.
"Talk about mixed messages." Veronica laughed, looking at the clear, cool water.
"What?" Logan was already ankle deep in the pool, his discarded sandals in his hand.
At the back of the rose garden, through some trees, there was a long, broad staircase down the hill for any hikers who needed a short cut back to the Visitor Center. With no reason to hurry, they headed back out to the road where every bend brought more breathtaking views.
In the distance, above the bright tapestry of autumn colors rose a golden hill. Perched on the crest, blazing against the blue sky was a bright red barn so perfect that it looked like it had been painted onto the horizon.
"That can't be real!" Veronica laughed.
"What? You think someone put that there just for us?" Logan grinned.
"It's…it's just crazy!" she shook her head. "Did we walk through a poppy field when we weren't looking?"
"A poppy field? Make up your mind; are we in Oz or Middle Earth? Or maybe you think we're in Afghanistan?"
"Are we dreaming this?"
"Want me to pinch you?"
"No, if it's a dream I don't want to wake up!" she danced up the road.
"Me neither," He followed her. "I can't wait to see what's next!"
Beyond the rose garden was a dahlia garden, a field of apple trees of all descriptions, a woods made up entirely of maple trees, and a hedge exhibit. At various intervals along the walk, they caught glimpses of the red barn on the hill to the east which looked so perfect there in the autumn sun that Veronica couldn't help but ask "Are we in Heaven?"
"We're not even in Iowa." Logan answered.
They walked along the road with the sun warm on their backs, feeling like the only two people in Eden. Eventually, they found themselves beside a hedge maze, complete with a tall wooden lookout. They climbed the stairs and looked out across the maze.
"This…is so cool!" Veronica cried.
"Time me." Logan said, bounding down the stairs to the gate that opened into the maze. Veronica stayed in the perch and was entertained by Logan's efforts to navigate his way through the maze. Eventually, he made it back out and they sat laughing on a bench in the shade of the trees beside the maze.
"Kids must love this place." Logan said. "Did you know that Bryn has five brothers?" he asked, holding up his hand for emphasis. "Five."
"I know how many five is," she laughed at his outspread fingers. "So?"
"So, it's not unheard of to have a lot of kids. People are still doing it. People besides Fitzpatricks and Mexicans, I mean. Bryn's cool and Finbar is a genius."
"A genius?" Veronica raised an eyebrow.
"According to JR." Logan said it as though that were the last word. "And he's the youngest of six."
"That it's possible to raise a houseful of normal, better than normal, smart, cool kids. If the Malloys can do it, we can do it."
"Of course we can! Anyway, they only have six." She teased. "I thought you wanted seventeen."
"I'd be willing to see how the first six go," he shrugged, "And then take the next eleven one at a time."
"I'd kinda like to take them each one at a time, if you don't mind."
"That doesn't seem very efficient." He shook his head.
"Really?" she looked at him. "Do you think the production will become onerous?"
"Not unless we're doing it wrong." He joked but noticed a cloud pass over his wife's face. "what?"
"What if…" she bit her lower lip, suddenly very aware of the evil she had brought into Lothlorien. "… I can't get pregnant?"
"Ronnie, we haven't even been married for six months."
"I know! And we agreed to let nature take its course but…"
"Did you want me to knock you up right away?" He asked, surprised. "'Cause I can take you back into that maze…"
"No." she laughed and shook her head. "No, I was hoping to have maybe a year…or even two all to ourselves, first. Get a few closed cases under my belt before taking any maternity leave. It's just that we..uh…"
"Do it all the time? I know." His voice was smug.
"And now that we…"
"Do it all the time?"
"It just seems really unlikely that I'm not."
"There could be a million reasons for that."
"I know. And one of them could be..."
"You were treated for that." Logan couldn't bear to hear her utter the word. He would never get over the pain of knowing that she had been raped and infected with an STD.
"You've had a clean bill of health for years." He took her hand. "And infertility is a very rare complication, usually only if the infection goes untreated."
"I know." She squeezed his hand. "I wasn't even remotely worried about that until…"
"We started doing it all the time?"
"I had it, undetected, for two years."
"And then modern pharmaceuticals knocked it right out of your system. God bless Eli Lilly! You're fine."
"I'm sure you're right," she admitted "but I'm scared."
"Why?" he ran his hand through her hair. She looked up at him.
"Because it's something we both want." She whispered. "We want it so much that it would make up for everything we lost. I know how important it is to you; it's that important to me, too. A family is the one thing I can give to you." She chewed on her lip. "But what if I can't?" She was on the verge of tears by the time she finished, so she was a bit surprised by his reaction to her confession. He pulled her close as he started to laugh.
"You already have, stupid." He said, dropping a kiss on her forehead. "I'll tell you what; If, in a couple of years, after you've closed a dozen or so cases and been promoted to Assistant Director, you're still not pregnant, we'll adopt. There's gotta be some kids out there who wouldn't mind having us as parents."
"You'd be okay with that?"
"I'd rather have a dozen or so little clones of you but if we have to outsource, I can see the appeal of a horde of little African, Korean, Russian or Chinese kids calling me 'Dad' and obeying my every whim."
"Brad and Angie got nothing on us." She laughed, unreasonably relieved.
"Has anyone ever told you that you worry way too much?"
"I've heard a rumor that I'm a bit of a control freak," She conceded, "but it's completely unfounded."
Back into the woods, they passed along the edge of the bog which had its own boardwalk trail through and around it. Finally, they found themselves at the bottom of a hill, with a stream on the left and a pond on the right. A pavilion overlooking the pond was occupied by what looked like a class of school kids on a field trip. Up the last hill, they were back between the first rose garden and the formal gardens surrounding the Visitor Center. They had taken their time exploring the walk so it had taken them well over two hours to cover the three miles. They were starving.
It was easy to find the restaurant; behind the Visitor Center, nearly in the garden itself, was a veranda covered with tables beneath green umbrellas. There were a few folks sitting out enjoying food or drinks but not too many, since it was long past lunch time.
The restaurant was set up cafeteria style, offering things from ready made salads and sandwiches to hot soups, pizza and sandwiches. There was a large, lovely room filled with tables for indoor eating as well but Logan and Veronica took their lunch out onto the patio.
"I feel like we probably should have looked at the gallery first," Veronica said, digging into her salad. "How are any paintings going to stack up against what we've just seen?"
"I think we should come out here and wander around before ever buying another piece of art," Logan said, eating his pizza. "Puts things in their proper perspective, you know? Although in all honesty, this place really isn't any more spectacular than the lakes. We've just gotten kind of used to them."
"Really?" She aked. "You think?"
"Yeah." He shrugged. "The gardens here are great but none of them are any better than the rose garden at Lake Harriet. The view of that lake is gorgeous," he nodded toward Lake Minnewashta "But it doesn't beat the view out our front window. How about the Tin Fish from across Lake Calhoun, with the downtown sky line behind it? Come on."
"I guess you're right." She conceded. "But this place is pretty damned impressive, you must admit."
"I do. It is. There's only one thing that could make this any better."
"Oh yeah? What?"
"Amy's Ice Cream."
When they'd finished eating, they dumped their trays in the return bins and went downstairs, prepared for an anticlimax when they reached the gallery behind the gift shop.
The Reedy Gallery in the Visitor Center consisted of a long, broad hallway behind the spacious front lobby. It was a well lit, forty foot long space with high ceilings and plenty of room to step back and take a good look at the two dozen or so paintings that filled the walls on both sides. Sometimes the gallery exhibited works by various artists that conveyed a specific theme, sometimes it featured different artists who painted in similar styles or subject matter, sometimes it was a mishmash of wildly different canvases and occasionally the entire space was devoted to the work of a single artist. Today was one of those times. The walls were covered with oil and watercolor paintings by the same local artist, Richard K (unpronounceable). The theme of the show was plein air. Every painting had been done on location, somewhere in the metro and nearly every one of them was at the edge of water; a lake, creek, pond or waterfall.
"OH. Pretty!" Veronica cried.
Logan felt like he'd been hit in the midsection with a two by four. He experienced an acute case of déjà vu.
Years ago, his parents had taken him to Paris for a week after school let out. He'd been pissed off that they'd dragged him away from home during summer break when he'd rather have spent the days surfing. To make matters worse, while Aaron had worked, Lynn had forced him to sight see. At thirteen, he had been unimpressed with anything the City of Light had to show him, since he was too young to get into the Moulin Rouge. On the last day, they'd dragged him bitching and moaning to the Musee D'Orsay. Lynn had wanted him to see a real Monet, up close and personal. He remembered that he'd liked the statues of naked ladies in the center gallery of the main floor but had been bored nearly to death before they reached the permanent collection on the fifth floor. Getting off the elevator, he'd perked up slightly at the information that there was a café at the far end of the galleries. He hadn't expected to be knocked off his feet a few seconds later. But he'd turned the corner into the gallery only to be pummeled by the sight of the gigantic Sorolla that spanned an entire wall. It depicted a fishing boat being towed to shore by oxen, the sails filled with wind and sunshine, the ocean's horizon glistening in the back ground. He had felt clobbered as he stood there staring at the larger than life painting.
"I know, honey!" His Mom had squeezed his shoulders as she stood behind him. "Didn't I tell you it would be worth it? Can't you just taste the salt water?"
He had turned and smiled at her, feeling for the first time in his life like they understood each other. Standing in front of that enormous, magnificent painting, he had felt connected to his Mom.
"Yuck." Aaron had said, wrinkling his nose. "Who wants to look at a wet cow? You two knock yourselves out. I'll be in the café." Logan had seen the look of hurt cross his mother's face and for the first time consciously admitted that he hated his father.
The small scale paintings in the Reedy Gallery were nothing like Sorolla's larger than life seascape but once again he was overwhelmed with a feeling of kinship with his Mom.
Slowly, he walked the length of the gallery, studying first the paintings on one long wall, then the other, shaking his head. Finally, he turned to his wife.
"Ronnie, this is the guy." He whispered.
"The guy Kirk told you about?" she asked. "I know. Isn't that why we're here?"
"No, no! This is the guy my Mom found twenty years ago. This is the guy who painted the one she bought!"
"You mean our watercolor?" Veronica looked more critically at the works covering the gallery walls. "Yes, it does look like it may have been done by the same hand. They have the same…esthetic."
"May have been?" Logan demanded. "Look at the signature! That same scribble is on ours. I never thought I'd see his stuff again but this is it! He's right here!"
"Yep." She nodded. "All over the walls."
"I was little when Mom first started buying paintings…before kindergarten but I remember how excited she was this one time, she had been back in Chicago doing a TV show and she said she discovered a brilliant artist. I don't remember anything else she said but she was sure she had gotten the bargain of the century. I remember because when the painting was delivered, Aaron said something that made her cry. She hung that painting in her dressing room. Now it's in our living room. This is the guy."
"Well," Veronica turned over the brochure she'd picked up out in the lobby. "He lives in Chaska, which is…about a mile from here. His influences are Homer, Turner and Sargeant. It shows. I didn't know people painted like this anymore."
"They don't. These are for sale." Logan was peering at the cards attached to the walls beside the paintings. "I'm gonna buy them."
"What, all of them?" Veronica asked, alarmed. The prices on the paintings ranged from $700.00 for a small 8X10 watercolor to $4500.00 for the larger oils. "Do we have the wall space?"
"I'll buy a bigger house."
"I like our house." Veronica objected as Logan stalked the length of the gallery, mentally adding up the price of the paintings.
"I can't buy all of them." Logan admitted when he came back to her side.
"No, you can't." Veronica agreed.
"Three of them have already sold." Logan sighed. "Besides, the remainder of the show would set me back about $36,000.00. Horshack would shit a brick if I spent that much especially since I already used the investment angle on your ring...hmmmm..."
"My ring?" Veronica said, ominously. "What does a hundred and thirty dollar ring have to do with spending $36 thousand on paintings?"
"What?" Logan looked surprised, caught thinking out loud. "Your ring didn't cost a hundred and thirty dollars."
"You said it was practically free." She reminded him, a hollow feeling opening up in her stomach.
"It was. I liquidated some of our precious assets and converted them to jewelry. Our bottom line didn't change by so much as a dime."
"H..how much is that ring worth?" she demanded.
"A hundred and thirty."
"Thousand?" she squeaked.
"It's a pink sapphire, Sugar Puss. They don't exactly grow on trees."
"You stuck?" he asked, amused.
"The ones at the mall!" she cried.
"Were synthetic. Nothin' but the real McCoy for you, Dollface." He looked at the paintings on the walls. "Nothin' but the real McCoy for us."
"I feel sick." She murmured. Alarmed, Logan helped her to a small bench beside a wall. She put her head between her knees. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was afraid you'd freak out. Clearly, I was mistaken." He said, dryly. She glared at him from between her knees.
"'The trick to wearing fur is to wear it as though it were cloth'." He explained with a shrug.
"Coco Chanel. She said that's the trick to wearing fur. It's even easier if you think its fake fur."
"She also said that the trick to wearing cloth is to wear it as though it were fur." Veronica straightened up and glared at him. "I can't believe I was wearing the price of a house on my hand the other night and you didn't tell me."
"Weevil's house, maybe." He said with a moue of distaste.
"I hit a guy with that ring!"She groaned.
"Should've hit him with a bigger house. You'd have flattened him."
"What if I'd broken it?" she demanded. "What if I'd lost it?"
"You usually lose your jewelry?" he asked. "It's insured. Besides, I've seen the lengths you'll go to recover what's yours."
"Logan. Darling. Sweetie. Love of my life. I don't want to be responsible for a 130 thousand dollar piece of jewelry!"
"Ronnie, Sweetie, love of my life; you're not. It's back in the bank, locked up in our safety deposit box. JR and Wells Fargo are responsible for it."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?!"
"Yes, and if you'll stop over reacting and think about it in a rational manner, you will feel better."
Since there were few things that bothered Veronica more than being accused of being over emotional, she took several deep breaths and tried to be rational.
The ring is an investment. It's locked up safe. I don't have to worry about it. I did enjoy wearing it. My God, it's a beautiful ring. Logan has been wanting to give me something extravagant since we got engaged. I own a seven carat pink sapphire. Omigod. I own a SEVEN CARAT PINK SAPPHIRE.
She looked at Logan again and took a deep breath. "How much did that dress cost?"
"Twelve grand." He said, shrugging one shoulder like it was twelve dollars.
"OMIGOD." Her head went between her knees again.
"It's an Oscar de la Renta, Ronnie. And you rocked it like nobody's business. It was worth it! You looked and felt like a million bucks the other night!"
"Well, I SHOULD have." She said.
"Yes." He insisted, holding her gaze. "You should. All day, every day."
They stared at each other for a moment, in a silent battle of wills until it suddenly occurred to Veronica that there was nothing to fight about. She loved wearing that dress and she knew damned well they could afford it.
"Are you really going to buy all the paintings?" she asked.
He looked around the gallery again. "No. Not today. It just seems wrong to buy art in bulk. You pick out your favorite and I'll pick mine."
In the end they bought three. Two oils; one of the cherub fountain at Lake Harriet and another of a waterfall and a watercolor of a silvery pond in a spring time woods. He really liked all of them but Veronica convinced him not to buy any more until they knew exactly where they would hang them.
They agreed to allow the paintings to remain with the exhibit as long as it ran. Logan gave the curator his black Amex and JR's contact information to have the paintings delivered when the show was over. Their paintings were all marked 'private collection' by the time they left the arboretum.
Having acquired three remarkably beautiful landscapes for slightly under nine thousand dollars, they didn't feel remotely tempted by anything being put on the auction block on Thursday evening when Mr. Echolls and his assistant were among the select group admitted to the Target Atrium for a very below the radar auction. This time, there were no parking valets, no waiters, no crowds, no party, no artists; just potential buyers. And of course, an open bar.
Veronica followed her husband up the walk from the parking ramp to the small building behind the Institute with no fear at all of being recognized.
Last weekend, she had appeared as a long legged, glamorous vision on Logan Echolls' arm. Tonight, with her hair parted in the middle and gelled severely back off her face, untouched by makeup and half obscured by a pair of large, black rimmed glasses, dressed in a plain white, buttoned down shirt, a tight gray vest over dark gray flannel pants and flat, black loafers, she looked as tiny and uninteresting as a human mouse and was nearly as invisible as Jeff Ratner.
"Mr. Echolls!" the Stork Lady greeted them as they came in the door, "We are so happy you decided to join us this evening."
"Maybe we can prevent this trip from being a complete waste of time," Logan said, his voice bored beyond measure as he waved away the brochure and bidding card Stork Lady tried to give him. "Ms. Argen will take care of those."
Stork Lady smiled at his rudeness and handed the items to Veronica saying "Here you are, then."
Veronica glared at Stork Lady so fiercely the poor woman flinched.
"Don't talk to her," Logan warned. "She's brilliant but she doesn't interact. Aspergers."
"OH, I see…I'm…sorry." Stork Lady said to Logan. She then silently handed the auction items to the girl still glaring at her like an angry tweety bird.
"Come on, Tina!" Logan barked, snapping his assistant's attention away from Stork Lady, to scamper up the aisle after her employer.
Logan made some perfunctory but unenthusiastic bids as his weird little assistant scribbled furiously in her notebook, occasionally leaning over to whisper words of advice in her employer's ear. Just for fun, he got into a brief bidding war over Kirk's last canvas with the very same woman who had admired Veronica's ring at the party. His 'brilliant' assistant advised him during the brief but exciting back and forth as the price of the canvas soared higher and higher. Those watching the exchange naturally assumed she was feeding him intel on the artist's reputation, the prices he was currently commanding and the likelihood of the value of the piece increasing over the next few years.
What she actually breathed into Logan's ear as the bidding soared close to seven figures was "If you bring that fugly thing into my house, you're sleeping in the garage."
Terrified of missing out on a chance to nab an early work by 'the next big thing', several other buyers had joined in the bidding by the time Logan threw down his paddle, ungraciously conceding defeat. The blond woman held her ground, beating out two other buyers to take the Sorenson for $910,000.00
The winner of the bidding war was appropriately smug while Logan's short laugh was misinterpreted as bitter disappointment. In truth, he was disgusted. Thinking about the price he'd paid for the beautiful paintings hanging at the arboretum and the fortune Kirk's hideous canvas had just garnered, he thought it was no wonder Kirk drank. The world might be crazy beautiful but the artist had been correct when he said it was stupid.
Logan left the Institute empty handed once again. He nodded curtly to the curator as he walked out, his mousy assistant nearly running to keep up with his much longer strides.
They managed to keep their laughter bottled up until the Ferrari hit the highway.
All in all, it was a fun evening and no one from the auction, had they happened to be at the Fine Line on Saturday night, enjoying Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers in concert, would have entertained for even a moment, the thought that the hot blond dancing with Mr. Echolls was in fact his intense, mousy little assistant.
To be continued...