. . . .
. . .
The explosions were small, numerous, and centered around the tables where the committee minions were seated.
Smoke, fire, screams. Juliet and Carlton converged with Linda and Lenny and the uniformed officers who'd materialized from wherever they'd lurked, and all of them tried to contain the chaos.
There were numerous injuries but no fatalities; it took six ambulances (two from another town) and a couple of EMT trucks to treat and when necessary carry away the injured.
Carlton was furious. There was no time to talk, but Juliet knew he blamed himself—and Shawn—for not being prepared. Their backs had been turned (she could hear him thinking it, because she was thinking it too) when all hell broke loose. But she shouldered the blame herself: if she hadn't kissed him; if she'd just left him alone after breaking it off with Shawn… hell, if she'd told Shawn to get lost the minute he showed up. If they'd just done their jobs.
If Shawn hadn't made it impossible for them to do their jobs.
"I thought they checked the grounds for explosives?" Lenny asked grimly, helping Gretchen get to the EMTs.
Captain Travanti himself arrived, pissed off and worried as hell in equal measures. "What happened?" he demanded of Carlton.
"We'd like to ask you that," Linda Darrow intervened, wiping someone's blood off her face. "You said the grounds were clear. We were watching the people. No one seemed suspicious."
Juliet, standing slightly behind Carlton, gripped his wrist when he seemed about to heap more accusations on Travanti. He glanced at her, and relaxed. He knew. They were the ones on the scene. They were the ones who were supposed to catch what the guys on the outside couldn't see.
The fire marshal hurried over. "We've got it, Captain." He held up a small charred hunk of metal. "This is a napkin dispenser, the spring-loaded kind. Every one of them on the target tables was wired." He turned the ruined object over. "We've found evidence of timers, but really, this was all pretty primitive and low-key. I don't think they were designed to kill, but merely disrupt."
"Which they certainly did." Travanti walked toward 'ground zero,' and they followed. Five long tables had been lined up to seat the committee, plus the cheerleaders and football players from 1987. Each table must have had at least four napkin dispensers on it, and they had gone off at nearly the same time, when most of the designated seat-holders were enjoying their ice cream, much of which still lay melting on the ruined tables.
"They were brought in," Carlton said. "Whoever did the catering for the picnic. Someone who had access to their supplies."
"Monarch Catering," Juliet said, pointing to the name on the ice cream tent.
Travanti got out his cell phone and made a call back to the station. "We'll cross-reference their employee list with the attendees." He looked around the field, at the scattered and confused alumni and the fading dream of recapturing glory. "Guess the exhibition they got wasn't a football game after all."
. . . .
. . .
The evening's festivities weren't cancelled; so many people had come to town for the reunion and they had no place else to go, so the convention hall was filled with (somewhat subdued) fortysomethings who, even if they hadn't known each other well in school, certainly had the shared experience of the ice cream anti-social to talk about now.
Lassiter was exhausted and wanted a shower. He and Juliet and the others had stayed at the scene most of the afternoon, and then relocated to the police station to take and review statements, and their inadequate and long-ago dinner there of pizza and wings left much to be desired.
He looked at Juliet across the table; she still had a smudge of ash on her forehead and blood on her sleeves and blouse. She looked tired, but focused, frowning at the statement in front of her.
But she was beautiful, even tired, and she had kissed him today and implied there was something between them which would change forever their working relationship.
If she meant it… if she meant what he thought she meant… what he wanted her to mean…
Lenny clapped a hand on his shoulder. He and Linda were heading back to San Luis Obispo, and the four of them shook hands and agreed it had been an interesting weekend.
After they'd left, Juliet looked at him somewhat anxiously. "You're not going to make me get in a car and go back to Santa Barbara tonight, are you? I'm wiped out."
"You could sleep in the car," he suggested.
"You're wiped out, too," she retorted. "We're staying. I need sleep and so do you."
He was too tired to argue with her, and there wasn't enough coffee in this entire town to change that.
Travanti came into the room, grinning. "We got him. Actually her. One of the silent partners in Monarch Catering is Roxanne Shipley, who just happens to have been a 1987 Ashford grad, head cheerleader, bitter not only about the loss of the big game but also about the loss of her then-boyfriend to Susie Otten. That's what the catering staff scuttlebutt is, anyway. We're picking her up now."
Was that it? It seemed so. Travanti thanked them for their assistance, offered them the last of the cold pizza (they declined) and sent them away.
Back at the convention center hotel, they walked by the main hall to see the uninjured and injured alike continuing with their big reunion. The music was perhaps muted, and the conversation not as raucous as one might expect, but there they were, and Lassiter had to admit they might have the right idea, celebrating this different kind of victory—survival. But then he was feeling a bit more optimistic than usual.
Juliet slipped her hand into his as they walked down the hall to their room. "I really am tired," she said softly, "but I'm glad I'm tired with you."
He clasped her hand firmly and used it to gently move her back against the wall outside their door. She sighed, her face luminous in the so-so lighting, and he kissed her because… well, because. Because he could. Because she was letting him. Because she was kissing him back and her lips were so sweet and her body so soft against his.
But that's all he was going to allow himself to do tonight. He released her and opened the door, urging her to shower and get ready for bed first, and when she emerged clean and damp and fresh, she had a light in her eyes which he suspected meant trouble. And as flattering… exciting… arousing as that promise of trouble was, this was not the night to explore it.
"Rest, Juliet," he said gently when she came to stand in front of him, the scent of her shower gel wafting along with her. "We have time. We need time."
After a moment, she nodded and kissed his cheek, and when he was out of the shower himself, she was asleep… but she lay in the middle of the bed, as if making sure he couldn't remain too distant from her during the night.
He carefully fit himself beside her, and she curved into his arms sleepily, murmuring his name.
. . . .
. . .
Halfway home on Sunday morning, Juliet asked the question—or one of them, anyway—which had been on her mind. "What do you think Vick will decide?"
Carlton looked over at her. His eyes seemed bluer than ever, here in the car, and she wondered if he had any idea at all how striking they really were. "Ego aside, I think she probably won't accept my resignation."
"Of course she won't," she said indignantly. "That's not even on the table."
He grinned. "Then you've already made up your mind what she'll decide."
"Well, not exactly. She could let you step down, and let me go with you, or she could let you step down and think she won't let me go with you but she's dead wrong about that, or she could have figured out a way to control Shawn so you can stay head detective."
"O'Hara," he scoffed, "there's no controlling Spencer. You know that. Hell, the man turned up in the middle of our undercover operation. He can't be contained, corralled, or threatened into acting like an adult. Nothing she's tried has ever worked. Nothing any of us tried has ever worked."
"But…" She stopped. He was right. Nothing had ever gotten through to Shawn. He might behave for brief periods, but it never 'took.' Never.
"I think she'll let me step down," he went on, level. "And I think she'll either promote you to head detective or partner you with the new one, and… I think… maybe that's for the best."
Juliet turned in her seat and stared at him in horror. "What? How is that for the best?"
He sighed, and kept his eyes on the road. "It's best for you. It's one thing for me to make this move but you're still on the way up. You need to keep going in that direction, not backwards with me."
Juliet was appalled. "Carlton Lassiter, you told me yesterday that you didn't want another partner. How can you—"
"I don't want another partner," he interrupted at once. "Even when I told Vick I did after I found out about you and Spencer, I didn't want another partner. Nobody, O'Hara, nobody has ever been or could ever be a better partner for me. You're perfect for me. You're… hell, you're just perfect, period."
He was blushing again, and now she felt her own cheeks warming. "I am not. But… Carlton. I'm not giving you up. Ever. I mean it. I don't care about a career. Whatever I thought I wanted when I made detective turned into simply wanting to be a detective. I want to do the best job I can and with you, I think I do. I think you've made me a good cop, if I am one, and I'm not done learning from you."
"It's just…" he trailed off.
"It's just nothing. You told Vick you wanted to get real work done. Well, so do I. You've been Shawn's target all these years but he gets in my way, too, you know. He's hindered us as much as he's helped and sometimes it seems like half our job is just trying to keep him from getting killed by way of his own recklessness. Who needs that? Let him be someone else's problem." She felt quite defiant saying it, and didn't miss Carlton's smile, which seemed to be part amusement and part pride.
"Loyal," he murmured.
"Loyal my ass. I'm practical in my own way, Carlton. I've been doing this long enough to know what's important, and what's important is having the best partner to do the best work with."
"And you choose me?"
"Yes. I do. Are you going to fight me on this?"
Slowly, he shook his head. "Nope."
More softly, she pressed on, "And are you going to fight me on the other thing?" Because what if he did? What would she do if he decided he didn't want her after all?
"The other thing?" He still wasn't looking at her, but his smile said he knew what she meant.
"The other thing. The… prospect of a… personal relationship." Which she knew now she wanted more than anything else, even more than the partnership.
"You could be on the rebound," he suggested gently.
"Am not. Oh, God, I'm not." She realized how shallow it sounded, as if Shawn hadn't meant much to her at all, but that wasn't true. It was only that right now she was riding on relief that the stress of the relationship was over. "Okay, maybe I should take a little time so that everyone else is sure I'm not on the rebound, but I'm already sure. So is this going to be a battle?"
He didn't answer right away, and before she could stop it, her own fears rose to the forefront.
"Carlton," she persisted. "Look, I know I'm probably not what you thought you'd ever want in a woman."
"What?" He gave her a sharp look, eyebrows high. "Wait—"
"I'm younger than you, though I don't think twelve years is that much and I am over thirty. And maybe you get tired of me talking, because I know I talk a lot, but I'm that way and besides, you're easy to talk to, though I suspect half the time you let me talk because you can't figure out how to ask me to shut up."
"And I'm usually in a good mood, which probably you find very annoying, but it's not that I don't take things seriously; it's just that there has to be a brighter side to even the darkest things or we'll go crazy, you know that."
"You need to stop talking now, that's for sure," he tried again, but he wasn't annoyed, and she couldn't stop anyway.
"You're a much more serious person than I am. I know you hated it when I let Shawn and Gus in on investigations and maybe you thought I was going behind your back, and God, I am still so sorry I kept my relationship with Shawn from you. I think I knew it was a bad idea and I knew you'd hate it and I was afraid you'd think I was a moron and then when you went to Vick for a new partner, I was sick, Carlton, I was so sick that I'd screwed everything up with you, but did I tell you that? No, I was stupid and acted like some kind of sullen teenager, and if I could go back, you know I would."
"O'Hara, listen to me," he said more firmly.
But she was on fire now with her self-recriminations. "What would freak me out is if you'd really rather just think of me as a friend or a sister and maybe you actually do want a new partner, someone you can take seriously, because I know my appearance makes it hard for people to take me seriously, but Carlton, you know me better than anyone else. Unless that's the problem. I mean, I'm not saying I'm a bad person or anything, but maybe I'm not the person you want. Maybe you—what are you doing?" She stopped, because he had abruptly pulled off the road into an abandoned gas station lot, and parked under a tree in the shade.
And then he was leaning over and pulling her into his arms, and kissing her hard, his breath hot and his mouth deliciously intent, and she curved her fingers into his soft hair and lost herself in the feeling of this-is-so-right-ness.
Cupping her face, he asked roughly, "Tell me now that I think of you as a sister or a friend."
She opened her mouth to speak, and he kissed her again, more deeply, stoking in her a fire she knew instinctively had not only been burning all the while, but would, without a doubt, burn forever.
"Well?" he demanded, caressing her cheek with his thumb, his blue eyes ablaze with, dear Lord, everything.
"I think maybe you should have stopped the car sooner," she said, laughing, and Carlton gave her a crooked grin and another, lighter, kiss.
"Let's just go home and deal with Vick before anything else gets said." He settled back into his seat, running his hands through his hair, leaving it in rather charming disarray. "Or done."
"There's a lot which could be done," she suggested breathlessly, patting her hot face, hoping to cool down.
"O'Hara," he said firmly, albeit after a deep and slightly ragged breath, "first things first."
"You're right. You're right." Damn him, her gorgeous blue-eyed cranky Irishman, he was right. As he'd said last night, they had time, and maybe they needed it, too.
All the same, she wasn't that patient: after they were back on the road, she pried his right hand off the steering wheel and claimed it as her own for the rest of the trip.
. . . .
. . .
When Lassiter and Juliet were called into Vick's office Monday morning, Henry Spencer was just leaving. He nodded at them both, not quite curtly, his expression impossible to read. Standard Henry, in other words.
After the door was closed, Karen sat down and said without preamble, "Although neither of you informed me of this, is it true Shawn went to Waverly and nearly blew your undercover operation?"
Lassiter was surprised, and then realized Spencer must have told Henry, who would have told her. "Yes, but the explosions started right after he left, so it became irrelevant." He couldn't help but wonder if Spencer had also told Henry about witnessing the dartboard kiss, but knew that could be easily passed off as part of their undercover work. Unless he'd seen the other kiss… crap.
Karen tilted her head quizzically. "I don't consider it irrelevant. How did he know where you were?"
Juliet was tense beside him. "He broke into my desk drawer and looked at my day planner to figure out where I'd gone. I don't know how he found us at the reunion, but I'm sure it involved some other sort of unethical and most likely illegal behavior as well."
Sighing, Karen nodded. "All right. That actually lends support to my decision." She sat back in her chair. "I don't want you to step down, Carlton. You're not only an excellent detective with a very impressive record, you're also organized and efficient and keep the entire detective squad focused and productive. If you could just keep your gun in its holster, and maybe not be quite so quick to assume the worst about people, you'd be damn near perfect." She smiled faintly. "Don't let that go to your head."
He was trying to beat down the instinctive blush: while his work-related ego didn't usually need any help being puffed up (a fact he'd told a psychologist once with reasonable calm), it was still unexpectedly nice to get unsolicited praise from his superiors. "I won't," he assured her, and could almost feel Juliet's smile, though he would not look at her.
"And you, Detective O'Hara, seem to be the partner best suited for Lassiter. The differences in your personalities complement each other and while I'm sure you'd make an excellent partner for any of my detectives, I have no good reason to separate you from this one as long as it's working so well."
Juliet murmured, "Thank you, Chief." Her relief was palpable.
"So that brings us to Mr. Spencer." Karen shook her head slightly. "First, let me apologize to you, Carlton, for my role in this."
He started to protest; he thought he'd made it clear no one had to fight his battles for him.
But she overrode him. "You were right to say his behavior makes the whole department look bad. By not stepping in—by letting myself believe your personality conflict was the root of the problem, and there's no mixing oil and water—I am guilty of letting an unacceptable situation get progressively worse. I allowed the working conditions for my best detective to degrade to the point that he considered quitting a viable option, and I am, quite frankly, appalled that I dropped the ball to that extent."
Lassiter was at a loss. She was saying, very sincerely, what he hoped he would say if he were in her position, but there was no idea in his head as to how to respond.
Leaning forward, elbows on the desk, Karen went on. "Now, since you were prepared to either step down or quit, I'm going to assume you're willing to make at least one significant compromise instead."
"Yes," he said at once. "Name it." Nothing could be that bad after what she'd just said, unless fate really had it in for him.
"When Psych is needed on a case, you'll pass it off to another set of detectives. Without question, without hesitation. No matter how big, how flashy, how career-making, you and O'Hara will pass the case off immediately and Spencer will work with that team." She looked at him steadily. "We have a lot of good detectives in the squad and there's no reason they can't get some of the glory, as well as some of the experience of working with Shawn."
He glanced at Juliet. "It's your career too, but I say yes."
"I told you, I don't want a career. I want to be a detective." She gave him a little smile and he felt a bit as if she'd kissed his cheek.
To Vick, he said firmly, "We accept. What else?"
She glanced at Juliet, who nodded as well. "All right, good. Now, I'm aware that Shawn has a tendency to show up at crime scenes before we know whether we need him, so my solution for that problem is more direct. If he hasn't been called in, he's not welcome. It will be a standing order among all crime scene personnel to treat him as any other interfering civilian if he doesn't have preauthorization to be onsite. He will be removed immediately. This goes for Guster, too."
Lassiter stared. It was Christmas. In July.
As if sensing his masked enjoyment of this, Karen allowed a hint of a grin to show. "Second offense, removal plus a fine to Psych. Third offense, suspension of their services for three months. Fourth offense, we sever our consultancy arrangement with them completely and look to other area psychics for assistance if we need them. That'll be Henry's purview."
Oh, Henry wouldn't like that, Lassiter knew, and how did one go about seeking out hyper-observant non-psychics anyway? Henry might as well just hire himself.
"Finally, there is the matter of how Spencer conducts himself during investigations, which is ultimately the reason we're having this conversation." She looked rueful. "We can set the rules on his access and who he works with, but I'm not sure anyone will ever be able to control his speech. If he had his father's self-control, maybe, but he's thirty-five so somehow I doubt we should expect him to develop that skill now."
Juliet muttered something which sounded like "damn straight," but Lassiter couldn't be sure. It might have just been that he was thinking it himself.
"So I'm going to apply the same rules regarding his access to his mouth. If he publicly insults you or any other officer in the course of doing your jobs, he'll be removed, fined, suspended and later, er, severed, in that order. But be warned, Detective Lassiter, that you are expected to rise above the temptation to respond to anything he might say. When I ask witnesses about any verbal altercations between you, I expect fully to never hear that you behaved in anything other than a completely professional manner. That means no return fire, no gloating, nothing but neutrality. Always. Understood?" She waited for his nod. "Obviously, whatever you say to each other in private is between the two of you, but I'd strongly advise you to always be the better man, because even in private, Carlton, your first responsibility should be to the department and its good name."
Lassiter believed that was true. "Agreed. I promise you'll never hear anything negative about my behavior toward him."
"I'm glad to hear it, because if you don't comply, it'll turn up in your performance review—for starters." She sat back again, seeming to have come to an end. "I'll be meeting with Spencer, Guster and Henry later today to lay out these new protocols. It's certainly in Shawn's best interests, for his livelihood, to comply. I'll let you know if he doesn't."
Lassiter looked at Juliet; they both looked back at Vick.
"Any questions?" she asked mildly.
"No, ma'am," he said.
"Then you're dismissed. There's plenty of work to be done and you're just the people to do it."
He and Juliet stood, and he thanked her quietly for her consideration.
Karen nodded, and when they were nearly to the door, said, "Oh, and Carlton, for what it's worth? I know you can beat the crap out of him, but be sure you can make good on that promise of not leaving a mark." She was grinning.
He heard Juliet laugh a little, and thought—though he could not repress a smile—that he should perhaps only say, "Understood," and leave it at that.
. . . .
. . .
Juliet stood at Carlton's desk, beaming up at him. "That went very well. I knew she wouldn't let you step down."
"Will her plan work, though?"
"It can. We just have to give it a shot."
His expression was bemused as he studied her. "You make it easy to believe in miracles."
"Are you talking professionally or personally?"
Carlton turned slightly to lean on the edge of the desk, and just happened to brush his hand against hers. "Both."
She managed to brush his back nearly as subtly. "But you're right to wonder. There's no telling what Shawn will do."
Quietly, he asked, "Have you heard from him since Saturday?"
"He's called," she admitted. "But… I'm done, Carlton. I'm sorry, and I'm not proud of hurting him. I wish I'd been able to end it without anger and I know things could be really awkward now. But it's over. Even if you…" She hesitated. "Even if I had no hope with you, I'd still be out of that relationship. If not now then eventually."
His tell-tale blush was back, but he spoke to the carpet. "You can have every hope you want with me, Juliet."
She felt giddy. "Including getting you to use my first name."
Carlton laughed a little. "Give me time."
"All that you want, Lassiter. All that you need."
He looked full at her, eyes alight. "So I was thinking I might ask you to dinner now and again, over the next few weeks. Maybe spend some weekend hours with you. Try this discreet dating thing while we wait for the fallout of Vick's decision. And incidentally to show a little compassion for the guy, because contrary to popular belief, I am capable of that where he's concerned."
Juliet considered this carefully. "That sounds very logical and sensible. Taking our time, making it clear neither of us is rushing into anything, maintaining privacy and respecting Shawn's feelings. Of course I agree." She moved as close as she dared, to speak very softly. "I just have one question."
Carlton, who had taken a sharp breath at her approach—and whose eyes now betrayed some desire—managed to inquire as to her question in a reasonably steady manner.
"What are you going to do if I drive to your place tonight, park in the back, and knock on your door wearing only a trench coat?"
He swallowed, and that jaw muscle was twitching again. "I… uh… I'd invite you inside to… uh… help you warm up."
"That's nice." She smiled with deliberate sweetness and started to leave.
"O'Hara," he said more briskly, stopping her. "That was a hypothetical question, right?"
Juliet grinned. "What do you think?"
His blush was immediate and deep. "I… um… just… drive carefully, okay?"
It was hard not to giggle all the way back to her desk, where she immediately texted him that she was a safe driver and she'd be there at eight.
When he was composed enough to text her back, his answer was, "Seven."
. . . .
. . .
T H E
E N D
[Shout-out to 'kateandharvey' for the class reunion subplot: this probably wasn't exactly what you had in mind, but it's how my warped mind worked!]