Episode One/Part One: Neptune, California Population 15126
A/N A bonus chapter since the prologue was so short. The obligatory 'prodigal daughter returns' chapter.
'Neptune 3/4 miles' the green sign warns in white block print, but the blonde in the black 2008 Sebring convertible barely registers. She's driven this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway countless times before; knows the landmarks by heart. Pass up the first exit next to the giant boulder, and get off at the second, by the overpass spray painted with Raul + Belinda 4ever in large red letters.
Today, however, the girl feels the need to shake things up. She's a different person now, so when she sees the boulder, she makes a last-minute decision to exit the highway.
The origins of boulder itself are a Neptune mystery - the car-sized rock just appeared one night at the side of the highway, and not being an eyesore, nobody ever got around to having it hauled away. Only two members of the Fitzpatrick family know the rock marks the final resting place of Gustavio Toombs.
At the bottom of the ramp, the driver takes a moment to push a few loose strands of hair behind her ears, thankful that she secured her hair in a tight bun before departing San Diego. She plugs her iPod into the auxiliary port, and sets it to shuffle before making a left turn onto Oceanside Blvd.
Time...time...time...see what's become of me. The Bangles' 'Hazy Shade of Winter' starts up, and the girl behind the wheel can't help but press the gas pedal a little harder than necessary as she taps out a one-two one-two-three beat on the steering wheel.
To the right, the Albacore Club Marina stretches out in both directions as far as the eye can travel. The ocean is calm this morning, shimmering with a soft golden glow. The perfect day for boating, as evidenced by the countless yachts and sailboats already bobbing on the gentle waves.
A mile down the road, the driver makes another left onto Summer Heights Rd, drives under the highway overpass, and heads up into the twisting-turning roads of Neptune Hills. As she draws nearer to the heart of the 90909, the large houses give way to stately gated estates complete with stables and tennis courts. This is old money. Fortunes handed down for generations. Pomeroys. Gants. Those born here go on to become senators, philanthropists and publishing tycoons.
The Sebring turns right onto Brinsdale Gardens heading into new money territory. These sparkling estates are even larger, and populated by software moguls, producers, and self-made millionaires. Sports cars line nearly every driveway like neon signs saying 'midlife crises taking place here'.
The driver makes a left onto Wood Hill Drive and pauses across from number 4815 - a glass monstrosity and one of the largest houses in Neptune. A new family lives here now. The past has been overwritten. No secrets remain to be discovered in heating ducts or under loose paving stones. Even the pool where her best friend took her last breath had been dug up years ago. Nothing remains of Lilly Kane.
The car pulls away.
Inside 4815 Wood Hill, twelve year-old Carolee Berke, unnoticed in a dark corner of the library, observes her beloved father pressing himself against the rear of Louisa the housekeeper, while he gropes at her breast. Louisa's tightly clenched jaw and the tear running down her cheek are clear indicators that his attention is not welcome.
So much for the 'No means no' lectures.
At the stop sign, a right turn onto Westchester Way will lead all the way down into Neptune proper. The Bangles give way to Pink's 'Please Don't Leave Me' on the stereo, as the Sebring takes a left instead.
The girl behind the wheel is not sure why she parks the car outside of the gates of 118 Canyon View. There's nothing to see here but charred ruins.
This place had once been inhabited by the most vile excuse for a human being, and she should never have been drawn here. But some of her happiest moments took place here as well, during those idyllic two months before everything went to hell. Again.
She hasn't pined for him. She's moved on with her life in the last six years. She's dated, both seriously and casually. Had an intense, (somewhat) fulfilling career. Raised a few house plants. This blonde is not a piner.
But most people have that...someone. When it's late at night and you're too damn exhausted to keep up your guard, there's that one face that springs to mind. The symbol of roads not taken. And sure, sometimes she speaks his name to the air. Draws out the first syllable. It's a nice name. Feels good on the tongue.
For all she knows, He's long gone now. She's resisted any impulses to use her department resources to check up on him. She's turned off the TV the one or two times she's heard him mentioned.
His name is forbidden when she speaks to Mac, Wallace, or her father. She doesn't hate him - far from it - but what news could they possibly bring her? He's engaged? He's married? He has two kids? Or the opposite end of the spectrum: He's hit rock bottom? Succumbed to the alcoholism that was always a possibility? Graduated to harder substances? Either he's moved on spectacularly, or he's failed to. Either option makes her stomach knot up.
She's betting on married. Months earlier, during a phone conversation with her dad, he'd let slip the 'L-word'. She'd shut him down immediately, but couldn't stop herself from dwelling later in bed. He'd brought the name up out of the blue, which indicated news of some type, and his voice hadn't been dire, so it wasn't news of death or injury. He's probably married or about to be. That has to be it.
Does that mean he's still here in town?
Doesn't matter. She won't be seeking him out. Quite the opposite.
The Sebring backs out of the driveway, and this time when it comes to Westchester Way, it makes the right-hand turn. Follows the road as it twists and turns out of the hills, past 'Software Circle' where the technology firms surround their king. Kane Software - still thriving, despite the sordid past of its founder.
At this very moment, said founder sits behind his large mahogany desk in the largest office having his morning mope. It's the early hours - before the cubicles begin filling up with laughing employees, before the six hours straight of pointless meetings - when he counts his losses: Lianne - the love of his life, Lilly - the daughter who was his joy, Celeste - the wife who was his bedrock-
A tap on the door interrupts his reverie. "Mr. Kane? Can I get you some coffee?"
The road winds back towards the ocean.
Past the shopping district where upscale restaurants alternate with designer stores: Coach, Fossil, Louis Vuitton, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic.
Past the Neptune Grand, where the driver intentionally blanks out her mind. No point in dwelling on the past.
Inside room 212 - one of the smaller budget rooms - the hotel manager, Jeff Ratner wakes suddenly with a shiver and wonders why it feels like somebody just walked over his grave.
Westchester ends back at Oceanside - miles South of where she started - and the Sebring turns left.
'Panic Switch' by Silversun Pickups begins playing, and once again the driver feels the impulse to press the pedal to the metal. She indulges herself. It's open road here. No place for a speedtrap.
A miles and a half down, the Neptune Fairgrounds spring up to her right.
Set-up is already in progress for this year's Neptunalia - the annual two-day water festival. Crews of workers erect the midway game tents, while a larger crew constructs the main stage.
Danny Boyd runs wire to the immense speaker system and thinks about the tight ass on the fifteen year-old blonde he nailed last night. At least he hopes she was fifteen.
As the car passes the food midway, the driver's mouth nearly waters in memory: cotton candy, fresh-cut French fries, gyros, corndogs, fresh-squeezed lemonade, deep-fried everything. She might have to put in an appearance. And pray that she doesn't have any awkward run-ins.
The Sebring travels on, into downtown Neptune, making a left turn on Rosecrans Boulevard. Not the classiest side of town. To her left, the garish frontage of the Camelot Motel is unchanged with the passage of time. She smiles wistfully at the memory of too many nights parked out here on stakeouts. Sometimes she had company.
Inside room 226 on the second floor, Wesley Quaile, teenage son of a millionaire software developer, embraces Maria Perez, the gardener's daughter. By now, their parents have discovered they never came home last night. He promises her love and devotion and forever. They'll run away if that's the only way they can be together. He means every word. Maria smiles lovingly, and thinks about Juan, the boy she thought she'd marry someday. Before the PCHers got him killed. Wesley's a nice boy though. She could do worse.
Down the road, on the right, past sex toy shops and adult bookstores, is the Seventh Veil strip club. It's closed-up tightly this time of the morning, as is its neighbor, Body Shop.
In the back room, on a cheap cot, Loretta Cancun sleeps off last night's bender, knuckles bruised from her latest brouhaha.
At the next intersection, the convertible makes a right on Adams Avenue, as The Black Keys' 'Tighten Up' start whistling on the stereo.
One block up and to the left, it passes the Sac N' Pac.
The cashier, Kevin Smith, suppresses a laugh as he rings up a box of condoms for a pimply thirteen year old. He's all for safe sex and everything, but there's no way this kid is getting any.
Matt West knows what exactly what the cashier is thinking, but after last month's pregnancy scare, he's past worrying about what other people think.
On the opposite side of the street, gold leaf lettering announces the offices of Cliff McCormick, Attorney at Law.
Cliff won't be in for several hours. He's currently a little...tied up.
The Sebring passes Kensington video, where John/Julia Smith used to drive ninety miles every week just to catch a glimpse of her son Justin.
Three more blocks up, the driver pulls to a stop in front of a pawnshop, glances up, and for the first time, feels the old tug on the heartstrings.
She'll be back later.
Pulling back out onto Adams, the car passes the car wash where its driver last saw Lilly Kane alive, and makes a right two intersections later onto Alberta Drive.
The vehicle slows to 20 mph for the Neptune High schoolzone, and it's a good thing it does, as Deputy Norris Clayton is parked behind the hedges with a radar gun. But eh...he'd probably let her go with a warning anyway.
Inside the school, Principal Van Clemmons comforts a tearful strawberry blonde office aide, as she relates her story of verbal abuse from two 09er boys. Some things never change.
The vehicle continues down Alberta, passing the new City Hall. One of Woody Goodman's victims burned down the old one after the truth of his sexual proclivities was publicly revealed. He was never caught.
The new structure fits better with the neighborhood anyway.
The County Supervisor - known to most as the Mayor of Neptune - is not yet in. He's not much of an early riser, but his assistant is already babbling on the phone to a girlfriend in a long-winded monologue.
Next door, at the Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Van Lowe stands outside of one of the cells making a mutually beneficial deal with a prisoner. All charges will be dropped, but he wants a cut of the action.
The Sebring makes a right at Sandpiper Drive, leading into the residential area for the lower income brackets. It passes North Oak Drive on the right, where Mac used to live with her parents. Armsby Park, where the Fennells live, is two more streets up on the left. Finally, five blocks later, the driver makes a right onto Atherton Street.
Six houses up and to the left, she pulls into the driveway of the small brick ranch home her father purchased several years ago with the proceeds from his book on the murder of Dean O'Dell. She shuts off the car.
Veronica Mars composes her face into something resembling normalcy before lifting her fist to knock. Taking a deep breath, and adding a smile to her façade, she raps on the wooden door. Having never lived in this house, she's not comfortable just walking in.
"Be right there," Keith calls out, opening the door moments later.
"Veronica?" Worry and delight battle for possession of his face. "What are you doing here? I wasn't expecting you."
"Hi dad!" She opens with a cheerful little finger wave. "I'm home."
"Well come here and give your old man a hug," he commands with a booming voice, opening his arms wide.
Veronica steps into his embrace, squeezing him back. She considers breaking down - no place is safer than her father's arms - but dismisses the idea. She's spent too many years suppressing her vulnerability. The mere thought of crying is exhausting.
Keith takes a step back. "Let me look at you," he says, bracing her face between his hands.
"You act like you weren't over for dinner only two weeks ago." Veronica pulls away with a sigh. She can't allow him to examine her too closely. He'll see right through her.
"You're my little girl. I don't get to see you enough. Come on, I'll make you a some coffee,"
She follows him to the kitchen, taking a seat at the small oak table, as he inserts a coffee pod into the machine she bought him for Christmas. The motor hums as it brews, releasing a strong aroma of hazelnut. Veronica inhales deeply. Instant mood lifter. She recognizes a set of blue decorative bowls from the old apartment. And the golden scrollwork circle up on the wall.
Keith places creamer and sugar on the table before retrieving Veronica's mug from the brewer. He fixes a cup for himself and sits opposite his daughter.
"So tell me what's wrong."
"Wrong? What makes you think something's wrong? Everything's fine."
"Veronica…" He levels his knowing gaze upon her. "Your dark circles say otherwise."
"Fine." She exhales a bit petulantly. "I was wondering if you'd let me stay here with you for a while?"
"Stay here? What about your job? Are you taking a leave of absence?"
"No, not a leave of absence." She laughs bitterly. "I quit my job."
"You quit your job?"
And there's the worry I was hoping to avoid.
"Yeah…" She flashes her brave-little-trooper smile. The one that buys her time when she really doesn't want to talk about something.
"Are you sure that was a good idea?"
"I've just...kind of had it. All of the death, day in and day out. Why did I ever think I could work homicide?"
"You caught a rough case?" Keith asks, and if anybody should know how a case could get under your skin, it's him. She'll spill all the gory details soon, but she's not ready yet.
"Something like that."
"You could always ask for a transfer to a different department," he suggests gently.
"Um...there might have been some bad blood there at the end." Veronica stares at her hands.
And a broken nose.
Keith nods in understanding. "Well, you're welcome to stay here indefinitely. Is there anything else I can do to help?" he asks.
"I don't suppose you're hiring?" she asks with a hopeful expression. "I could use a job."
"There will always be a job for my beautiful and brilliant daughter. You're planning to stick around in Neptune?"
"Can't say for sure." She takes a sip from her coffee. "If it feels right. If I'm going to start-over, might as well do it where I have a built-in support system."
"That you do."
They talk for a while about inconsequential things. Thanks to Keith's proven track record on high-profile cases, business is booming. He's had to turn potential clients away recently, so Veronica's arrival could not be more fortuitous.
When she yawns, he gets up from the table. "Come on, let's get your room ready."
Veronica follows her father to the hallway where, after grabbing a clean set of sheets from the linen closet, he opens the door to the guest room.
The room contains a twin bed, two nightstands and a dresser. Nothing else. The lack of any decoration has never bothered her before, but she'll have to do something about it now that she'll be staying on a more long-term basis.
"The movers should be bringing my stuff tomorrow," she says, as they work together to strip the bed and put on clean sheets. "I'll have to rent a storage locker for my furniture."
"There's a place not far from the office. We can check it out later if you'd like, but you go ahead and take a nap now. You must have headed out at the crack of dawn."
Veronica wakes refreshed, an hour or so later, and brews herself another cup of coffee. Canned laughter from the TV, tells her that her father is still home. She'll join him in a moment, but first she needs to check in with Wallace; see if he wants to get something to eat later.
Retrieving her cell from her purse, she finds the battery drained. Damn. She'd had it on the car charger the entire ride here, but lately, the cord has been acting up.
She reaches for the landline, but doesn't get a dial tone.
"Dad, what's wrong with your phone?" she asks, wandering into the living room.
"The landline?" He glances up from the television. "We had that storm two days ago, knocked out the phone service. Somebody's coming to fix it tomorrow."
"Oh…" Veronica says, reaching for his cell on the coffee table. "Well my battery is dead, so I need to use-"
"Wait!" Keith protests in obvious alarm, but it's too late.
Veronica presses the power button. The screen lights up displaying a photo wallpaper of a happy looking couple mugging for the camera. Her jaw drops.
"What the hell is this?" Her eyes narrow and she enunciates every word separately.
Keith sighs. "I've been meaning to tell you for a while."
"How long?" Her voice drips with ice. "How long has this been going on?"
He looks at the floor. "About a year."
"A year?" Veronica nearly shrieks. "You've been hiding this from me for a year?"
"I wanted to tell you, but I knew you'd react this way."
"I just...I can't deal with this. This is not going to work."
Keith stands now, looks her in the eyes, and speaks firmly. "This is not up for discussion. We are two single adults in a loving, committed relationship. You do not get a say in this."
"Loving? After everything-"
"People change." He reaches for her hand. "Veronica, I love you, and I know I gave you too much leeway to dictate my love life when you were a teenager. You do not have that right anymore."
"Don't you want me to be happy?"
"Not with her."
"Just keep her away from me."
"I will. For now. Eventually though, we're going to have to deal with this. You're both very important people in my life."
"I always thought you'd end up with Alicia," Veronica says with a pout.
"I don't think her new husband would appreciate that very much," Keith answers. "They're very happy. As am I."
Veronica swallows her nausea and turns away to dial the phone. Wallace answers on the second ring.
"That'll be Ms. Mars to you," she answers, already feeling her tension loosen at the sound of her BFF's voice. "So guess what?"
"What?" He asks, in an exaggeratedly excited voice.
"I'm home. You want to get something to eat later?"
Wallace suggests a steakhouse recently opened in the shopping district, and offers to pass the word along to Mac and Weevil, since she's never memorized their numbers. After finalizing their plans, she hangs up and tosses the phone back to her father.
"No." She holds up a hand. "Let's not discuss this anymore. I have a few hours to kill before dinner. Want to go to the office?"
Mar's Investigations is exactly as Veronica remembers. She lingers for a moment in the puddles of colored light streaming through the stained glass windows. She's always loved those windows.
"So…" she begins. "What am I supposed to do for a desk?"
"Let's see how things go." Keith answers, leaning on the arm of the couch. "The place next store is vacant. If you decide you're going to stick around, maybe we can knock down a wall and expand."
She contemplates this. Doesn't seem like an altogether bad idea.
"For now?" Keith shrugs, leaves the room, and returns a moment later with a box. "Let's clear off Terry's desk for you."
He begins clearing items from the top of the receptionist's desk, and Veronica jumps in to help.
"How about you finish this up, and I'll go buy a smaller desk for Terry?" He looks around. "We can put it over there." He points to an area between the door and the small kitchen.
Keith leaves, and Veronica continues to clear off the desk, already lost in thought. How had she lived without this all of these years? Why had she ever thought a regimented environment would be a good fit for her? This is where she belongs. This is her calling.
The desktop emptied, she cleans off the top with a Clorox wipe, before retrieving her laptop from her bag, and plugging it in.
She loses track of time, reviewing case files she'd swiped before quitting her job. When she hears the door open, she glances up, expecting her father. Instead, a stunning black woman enters with a cute little boy of around eight years old. Her long hair is pulled back on the sides, and she wears a classic wrap-dress in a shade of emerald.
"Jackie Cook!" Veronica says, walking around the desk to greet her. "Fresh from the Sorbonne?"
Jackie flashes an embarrassed smile. "Good to see you, Veronica."
"Hate to break it to you, but we're supposed to be aging. You don't look a day older than you used to."
"Like you're one to talk." Jackie grins and pulls Veronica in for a hug, and then gestures to the boy. "My son, Michael."
"Pleased to meet you, Michael," Veronica says, and is surprised by his firm handshake.
"How can I help you, Jackie?"
"I'm here to hire you."
"Were you staking out the office or something?" Veronica asks wrinkling up her face, "Because I just got back into town today."
"No, just a coincidence. I only got back today as well."
Veronica offers Michael a seat on the couch and brings him some printer paper and a pencil to keep him occupied.
"So what's going on?" Veronica asks, sitting across the desk from Jackie.
"It's my father. He's being framed."
"Shocker. What for this time?"
"Um...didn't he come right out and admit to the game fixing?"
"In the past, yes. He's completely innocent this time."
"He's been coaching baseball over at Hearst for the past few years. It's not glamorous, but it at least allows him to work with his passion again."
"So they played their annual rivalry game a few weeks back against Balboa U. Hearst was the clear favorite to win. They were undefeated for the season, and Balboa has an abysmal record."
"Well, Hearst not only lost, but lost badly. Bad pitches. Nobody could catch a ball."
"And based on your father's history, they assumed he bet money against the team and fixed the game."
"Exactly. He's been fired, and might be facing criminal charges."
"You're positive he didn't rig the game?"
"I'll see what I can do." Veronica rises to retrieve a contract from Keith's desk.
"So how've you been these days?" she asks, as she fills out the form. "Married?"
"No, never married. You?"
"Only to my job." Veronica answers. "But we're in the middle of an ugly divorce right now."
Jackie winces in sympathy.
"So…" she starts.
"Wallace?" Veronica guesses.
"I'm that transparent?"
"It's only natural you'd ask. He's still in town. Divorced. He was married to Jane Kuhne for a while, but she went a little batty. Became scarily possessive towards the end."
Jackie has the good judgment not to comment. She's experienced Jane's jealousy.
"Hey, I'm having dinner with Wallace this evening. You should come along."
Momentarily, Jackie's eyes light up, but she stuffs it down. "Wallace never wants to see me again."
"He said that?"
"That's the last thing he ever said to me. Do me a favor. Don't mention to him that you've seen me."
"I know he's your best friend, but why hurt him unnecessarily?"
"I'll keep quiet on one condition."
"I'm afraid to ask."
"You contact him yourself."
Jackie sighs. "Give me tonight to think about it, okay? I'll let you know tomorrow."
"I can give you tonight," Veronica agrees.
They conclude their business, and Veronica promises to stay in contact.
Keith returns minutes later dragging a small pressboard desk behind him. "Found it at a garage sale," he says excitedly, "Ten bucks!"
Veronica groans and shakes her head. "Well, at least it's not a water bed."
A/N Alright, I know a lot of you don't like Jackie, but she only plays a small part in this fic. And hey, I made Duncan bearable, right?