CHAPTER NINE: ANSWERS ALL

. . . .

. . .

Meredith, nervous, and Allie, cranky, sat side by side in Interrogation A.

Chief Vick stood with Carlton and Juliet in Observation, studying the two young women. "You wouldn't rather talk to Meredith separately? She might be more forthcoming on her own."

"She might," Juliet agreed, "but we'd like Allie to show her true colors, and the best way to do that is to take some of her control away." She wished Vick wasn't standing so close to the table. The, er, sex table. She glanced over her shoulder at it and Vick followed her gaze, puzzled. Juliet hoped like hell she wasn't blushing.

Seeing nothing on the table (and since thankfully the aura of iniquity wasn't visible to the naked eye), Vick merely inquired, "Where are their lawyers?"

"Allie changed her mind, and Meredith's still dreaming of rainbows and ponies." Carlton flipped open the folder in his hand. "Allie Orson turns out to have a record. Four years ago she was involved in a college prank which didn't end well." Yet his tone, somehow, held grudging respect. "She and three other students blew up a giant squirrel."

"Come again?" Vick asked while Juliet laughed.

"It was in a parade over in Ojai. They said it should have been harmless but parts of the now-flying squirrel took out windows in a nearby office building and beaned a couple of onlookers in the process." He gave Allie a curious look suggesting maybe he could relate to her after all. "Says here the tail knocked a mime down a storm drain."

Juliet couldn't help but laugh—not at the fate of the mime (okay, maybe a little), but at the unmistakable (if muted) admiration Carlton now had for Allie. Even Vick seemed amused as she gestured to them to go in and get started.

"Miss Orson, Miss Forrest," Carlton said perfunctorily as he and Juliet seated themselves opposite the two 'hardened criminals.'

Juliet thought it was no mistake his foot touched hers briefly under the table, but with Vick no doubt watching from Observation, there was no repeat, and their chairs were a respectable distance apart.

"We'll get to the point," Juliet said. "We think you planned and implemented every act of pointless intrusion into John Galway's home and property. We're also pretty sure the Tanners were involved in some way. But since you can probably save us some time, and yourselves some trouble, we thought we'd start with you."

Meredith was already holding one hand up in protest. "Wait. I told you I'd explain everything."

"Meredith," muttered Allie. "Don't be stupid."

"Oh, come on, Allie." She faced Juliet. "Yes. We did it."

"Meredith!" Allie snapped. "Shut up."

Meredith glared at her. "Fine, then, I did it. I planned everything. I did all of it with no help, and certainly without Scott and Brett's help."

Allie rolled her eyes. "Like anyone's going to believe that."

"I might," Carlton said conversationally. "Why not? If you weren't up to the task, no reason Meredith can't have all the glory."

"She just wants to keep the Tanners out of trouble," Allie said with derision. "It's not like she could orchestrate anything more complicated than scheduling an appointment with a client. On a slow day," she added.

Meredith promptly swatted her on the arm. "You shut up, you harpie. You know I—" At Carlton's raised eyebrow, she subsided and faced Juliet again. "We just wanted a little payback for what John did to Scott. That's all."

"What's Keith's involvement in this?" asked Juliet.

"Nothing," Allie said at once. "He didn't do anything and you just leave him alone!"

Carlton smoothly opened the folder. "Says here, in your file…"

"You have a file?" Meredith was wide-eyed.

Allie remained grimly silent.

"… that one of the students arrested with you four years ago was a K.J. Maxwell. He ended up not being charged, but he was there. Sooo… I can't help but think he might have been in on this, too."

"You have to admit it'd be a pretty big coincidence for prisms stolen from his warehouse to turn up in Galway's place without Keith knowing anything. Unless you have some sort of illegal access to their computer system." Juliet smiled. "And we'd be happy to discuss that."

"What were you arrested for?" Meredith persisted, but Allie wouldn't meet her gaze.

"Homicide," Carlton said briskly.

"What!" Allie was about to get on her feet but a warning look from Carlton settled her back down. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"You did murder a giant squirrel," he drawled.

"It wasn't a real squirrel," Juliet explained to Meredith, who was about to pop.

Carlton shook his head. "Though I gotta say—"

"No, Carlton, you really don't." Juliet glanced at him, and knew he didn't miss her little smile. "Anyway, the point is—"

"All right!" Allie shouted. "I talked Keith into giving us the information about the damn prisms. He didn't do anything else, though. Not one thing."

Meredith was both relieved and sick. "The rest of it was us."

"And Brett?"

"No! I keep telling you, he had nothing to do with this."

"Oh, come on, you didn't just pull that security code out of your butt. Uh… sorry," he said, having the grace to look a touch embarrassed.

"Sure she did," Allie said sarcastically. "She's so talented at everything else."

Meredith nearly snarled, "Oh, shut up. Like being a bitch is really working out for you."

Meredith got game, Juliet thought. "Here's what I think."

"I don't care what you think," Allie interrupted. "We got the code from Brett, but he didn't know what we were going to do with it."

Meredith put her head in her hands, sighing. "I'm going to be sick."

Allie moved her chair further away. "Tell them, dumb-butt."

"I love girl fights," Carlton said dryly. "They're so classy."

"Oh, they're rookies," Juliet assured him.

"Okay, we were really upset about what John did to Scott. I told you that." Meredith sat up, composing herself. "We were talking to Brett one day and said we wished we could somehow give John a taste of his own medicine. He said the only thing he wanted to do was get into his house and paint everything orange because John loves blue so much. He kinda laughed about his dad having the code from a few years ago and how he'd never had the nerve to try it out himself. He found it on a notepad in his dad's home office."

Juliet studied both girls, trying to figure out if this was true. "Scott said Galway told him he changed the code. Galway said so too."

Allie curled her lip. "John Galway is the most rigid, unbending, change-hating robot there ever was. The minute Brett rattled off that code, I knew there was no way he'd ever changed it."

"We made a dry run a few weeks ago." Meredith was twisting at her sleeves again. "After Miss Sharpshooter here took out the streetlight with her brother's BB gun."

For the first time, Allie smiled, but it was still grim. "Worked like a charm. And worth it, before you ask. So worth it. The whole thing."

"Then came the master plan?" asked Carlton. "To drive him nuts?"

Meredith nodded. "Prisms because he's obsessed with the sea, blue gazing balls because of the color. The numbers because he's—"

"—an ass," Allie finished. "So yeah. There you go. Like I said, it was worth it. Watching that cold-hearted butthead about to have a breakdown was way more fun than I ever dreamed it would be."

Juliet thought there might be more. "And the Tanners knew nothing?"

"I swear. To God. No."

"We couldn't tell them anything!" Meredith insisted. "Brett's had a hard enough time anyway and the last thing we wanted was to jeopardize his scholarships and academic standing. And Scott's just so nice and he's worked so hard to get back from where John put him that we didn't want to involve him at all."

"They talked to you about what was happening, though, right?"

"You know what? I don't think they did." Carlton tilted his dark head and studied Allie carefully. "How did you know what effect you were having on Galway?"

She looked uncertain. "Scott told us."

"Really? He gave two receptionists all the details of his neighbor's problems?" He turned to Meredith. "Did Brett stop by and mention what was going on?"

"Of course. I mean, he told us what his dad said after John talked to him."

Interesting, Juliet thought. Even Meredith seemed a bit uncertain now. She looked over at Carlton, whose frown was reminiscent of the way he looked when he knew someone was lying, and knew how to prove it, but couldn't believe he was going to have to make the effort.

Slowly, he pushed Allie's file to where Juliet could see it, and tapped a section of the page.

She read silently, and made the connection, while the two young women frowned at this delay. "You're part-time at Hughes & Fenner, Allie?"

"Yeah, thirty hours a week. I'm in grad school."

"You took a four-year break?"

"People do that sometimes."

"You're going for a Ph.D in, oh look here, psychology." Juliet smiled.

"So?" But Allie's casual question didn't match her guarded expression.

Carlton said, very deliberately, "I bet that if we went over to Galway's house right now, we wouldn't just find gazing balls, prisms, confetti and painted grass. I bet we'd find something else he didn't put there himself. Would you take that bet, Allie?"

She blinked; Meredith looked at her nervously.

He waited a moment, expectant, dark eyebrows way up, blue eyes fixed on her relentlessly. "No? Too bad. O'Hara, let's send a team over there to find the cameras Allie planted so she could watch Galway's reactions directly and also collect data for her coursework."

Meredith was shocked. "What? Allie, you put cameras in his house? What's wrong with you? That is so illegal!"

"Shut up!" Allie rubbed her temples hard, reminding Juliet of Carlton when he was especially aggravated. "Like stealing gazing balls and deck prisms isn't illegal!"

"Don't forget shooting out streetlights," Carlton added helpfully.

Juliet asked him with faux innocence, "Shouldn't we also send a team to Allie's place to collect her computer and the video footage?"

"Son of an ever-lovin' bitch," Allie snapped, which also reminded Juliet of Carlton. (She set aside for now the possibility that she was love-addled enough for even toast to remind her of Carlton.)

"So that's a yes to… let's see… oh yeah, everything," he said sardonically. "Okay, ladies, let's take it from the top."

"Wait." Meredith seemed anxious. "I would really really like to know about the squirrel."

. . . .

. . .

Arrests were made, reports were filed. Incidentally, a thumbprint found on the bottom of the vase in the actual murder they'd been half-investigating while dealing with the Galway nonsense turned out to match one of the suspects in that case, so things were definitely looking up work-wise.

And Juliet was beautiful when she was keying in reports.

The last pieces of information the girls provided were that it was Allie who shinnied up to the roof, having learned a few climbing tricks from her bud Brett Tanner, and left behind the purple fiber. All they'd done at 10:13 that night was shine the light (Meredith) and break the window (Allie); the prisms were already in the house (hidden during a previous foray), and as soon as Galway fled and they were sure he hadn't called the cops, they used the code to re-enter, placed the prisms among the shards of glass, giggled (well, Meredith admitted to giggling; Allie just rolled her eyes), and ran off to get hammered (Allie).

Juliet was also beautiful when she was passing by his desk on her way to Booking, casting a slow and promising smile his way.

It had taken a few weeks to collect the gazing balls, work out the 'crop circle' plan, and acquire enough numbers to cover the front lawn. Allie kept saying it was worth it. Lassiter suspected she had backup copies of the video she'd recorded, but he didn't care enough to force her to turn them in. Galway had annoyed him too much.

Juliet dropped a file on his desk and brushed his forearm casually without anyone seeing, sending his senses rocketing back to their lunch break.

Lassiter left it to Chief Vick to notify Galway about the arrests; it went without saying that the cold little dork would be pressing charges, but Lassiter wasn't concerned about this either. He had the signed confessions, and the alien confetti crap was over. Besides, these charges weren't going to amount to much and neither girl was likely to do time. Unless the mayor made a stink about it, the girls would make restitution and move on. Whether Hughes & Fenner felt they would continue to make good receptionists was not Lassiter's business, and anyway, there should be consequences to criminal activity, no matter how well-intentioned… or how ridiculous.

What was on his mind now was Juliet, tonight, and the talk which had to come between.

She followed him to his place and into his apartment, sank into his arms for a lovely long kiss, and was very surprised (so was he, and kind of impressed with himself for possessing the required fortitude) when he set her away from him, led her to the sofa, and made her sit at the far end while he took the armchair.

He turned on the lamp by the chair and took off his tie. "We have to talk."

She nodded, slipped her shoes off, and got comfortable.

But now he was silent. So much for his big plan. Plus now he was remembering her bare feet sliding up his calves.

"Carlton?" she prompted.

"Look, I know you're a—" He stopped. He couldn't say 'nice person.' She was, but she would take it the wrong way. "Are you on the rebound from Spencer?" Crap. Why the hell had he said that?

Juliet blinked. "No."

"You're sure?" Crap! Why was he allowed to talk?

"Yes, I'm sure. Carlton, why would you think that? Honestly, I was getting over Shawn while I was still with him, and don't forget, I'm the one who broke it off."

He noted her frown, and regretted having caused it. "It's just that of all people to give me a chance, it makes sense that it'd be you, but I don't understand why, after all these years, now you're— " Again he stopped.

"There's really no 'now' about it," she said softly.

Well, he had no idea what to say to that, so he changed tack. "We're partners, and we can't be discovered to be in a relationship. I mean if this is a relationship. I don't want to… presume."

"We had sex at work," she pointed out. "I can't imagine doing that with anyone I wasn't in a relationship with."

"Did you and Spencer ever—oh, God, don't answer that," he said, horrified. "Damn, I'm sorry, please don't—dammit, I'm such an ass!"

Juliet was smiling. "You're not an ass. Okay, sometimes you are, a little. But to answer the question, no. And I'm only answering it because I want you to understand that none of this is typical for me—you're not just some guy, okay?"

"Then what am I?" he asked quietly.

She looked at him for a long time, and he wanted to feel hope but didn't dare.

"Juliet," he persisted. "I know what a bad catch I am. I'm the one who gets thrown back in the water. Sometimes with a scream. I don't want you to—you don't have to—hell, I don't know what I'm saying."

Shaking her head, she whispered, "I am never throwing you back in the water, Carlton."

He stood up abruptly and pulled his jacket and holster off, but she didn't move, staring up at him with those perceptive eyes. "The other night. Our first night. You said something." He sat down again, restless and unsettled.

"I said a lot of things, if you count orgasmic babblings."

Crap, like he needed that memory in his head to distract him. "You said, 'it's you.'"

Juliet smiled. "Out loud?"

"At a crucial moment," he said, but he didn't mean it to be funny.

Still she smiled. "Ah. I thought it was only in my head." She paused, and then added matter-of-factly, "Give me four negative adjectives to describe yourself."

Lassiter wasn't expecting the lane shift. Full of surprises, Juliet O'Hara. "Negative? You need reminding of my negative qualities?"

"Yes." She sat up a little and took off her jacket, and set her gun on his end table. "I know you're not wonderful 24/7 but right now all the ways you can piss me off seem pretty inconsequential."

"Fair enough." And thank God for that. He tilted his head back, relaxing some, because the main problem here was keeping the list down to only four. "Paranoid, socially awkward, hostile, prick."

"Prick is a noun."

"Take it or leave it."

"Prick it is," she said smartly. "Okay, what I meant that night was that I realized you—Carlton Lassiter, a paranoid, socially awkward, hostile prick—were…" She hesitated. "What I'd been waiting for. All this time. It was you."

He must have misheard. "Come again?" Not that he would be able to hear her answer, what with his heart pounding like a marching band drum operated by a gorilla on Benzedrine.

Juliet got up, crossed over to him, and deposited herself gently in his lap before whispering in his ear. "You are the one, Carly. It's you."

For a long moment they just stared at each other—blue to blue, searching.

Then his heart took over, and though he was never sure, after, how exactly it happened so fast, they were somehow entangled on the sofa making love, surrounded by discarded clothing.

He was alive and yet on fire; burning and yet so damn happy. He pressed himself to her and she pressed back and they melded their bodies together in this sudden rise of passion, and he couldn't get deeply enough inside of her, body and soul, but he did his best.

He was almost to the brink, almost… Juliet was looking up at him with utter YES in her beautiful blue-gray eyes… when he told her he loved her. Twice.

And then he was gone, gone with her over the edge into a place of pure sensation and needs fulfilled.

When he came back to his senses, he knew with clarity that he'd said those words.

And in the moments before she spoke, he was glad he had and knew it (almost) didn't matter whether she loved him back. What mattered is that he'd told her, because it was true, and he didn't want to hide behind his uncertainty anymore. Not with her.

What she said, when she did speak, was simple.

His name, plus three more words.

Well, four, because she stuck a 'too' on the end.

And then she couldn't stop kissing him. His mouth, his face, his temples, his throat, his shoulders. She was covering him with kisses and he was murmuring to her, holding her, and she couldn't seem to stop. But he knew the feeling; the urgency—he loved her skin and her scent and her eyes and her lips and her teeth and everything else, all points south, all of them.

He said, "Easy, girl, I'm not going anywhere," and rolled her onto her side so he could bring her fully to him.

She sighed, and the sound of it against his chest left him unutterably content.

"I love you," she said again, dreamily.

He felt damned dreamy himself. "But why?"

Juliet laughed. "Why do you love me?"

"Why wouldn't I? You're wonderful," he said, and he meant it. She was wonderful. She'd been wonderful every day of every year he'd known her, even on the days she hadn't been terribly wonderful at all.

"So are you."

"Not true. Not even close to true. So far from true, it can't even see true. If it could see true, it wouldn't even understand what it was, that's how far—" he stopped when she put her fingers over his mouth.

"You're wonderful to me," she said seriously. "And I'll explain all the reasons why over the next few years."

"Years," he repeated.

"Decades. Are you going to kvetch about that, too?"

"What about work?" he persisted.

"Apart from this week, we are both capable of behaving professionally, and we will." She turned pink. "I still can't believe what we did in Observation."

Neither could he, but it had been spectacular. "So you want to just… be discreet?"

"For as long as we can, and the minute we think someone suspects, we'll go to Vick, and if she tries to separate us, we'll—well, we'll deal with it when it happens."

"We'll deal with it," he repeated, "when it happens?" Alarms were sounding.

"Yes," she said, glowing with happiness.

"So you're asking me—Carlton Lassiter—to… wing it?"

Juliet was delighted. "Yes! Yes, I am!"

"O'Hara, you know me better than that. I don't wing it very well."

"I know! But you'll try?" She kissed him. "I could reassure you on an as-needed basis."

"You'll have to," he said somewhat grimly, but she distracted him by draping her leg over his thigh and nuzzling his ear. "Ahh… yeah… that'll work… mmmm…"

She reassured him long into the evening, and Lassiter's life was officially permanently changed for the better.

And the next time they went to Flanagan's, Mac bought them both a drink.

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