Chapter One — Hardcore

Note that this book is still under construction


Note: Two of the characters in this story, Veronica Gianni, and Chris Szala, go by nonbinary pronouns, they/them/their. 

Part One
Chapter One

Sub Rosa That which is done in secret

V tikhom bolotye, chyorty vodyatsya A Russian saying meaning, In the quiet swamp, demons are found. 

Tuesday, February

Elizabeth, New Jersey 10:00 pm

Tanner Harrison unlocks the door of his house and throws the keys on a table. He’s on his phone and at the same time considering what he needs to do to go out later. 

The man on the other end of the call tells him, “So there’s this guy who’s been asking around about you.”


“Some guy named Gabriel Ross.”

“What? I thought he was dead.”

“Well, someone who says he’s Ross has been asking around.”

Angry, Tanner starts searching the small house. It’s a mess–a combination of young douchebag bachelor pad expensive items and middle-class conservative furniture. The house had been Tanner’s mother’s–until he conned her out of it. 

He keeps his guns in a steel case, like a footlocker. However, his key won’t open the padlock. “What the fuck?” He has a gun jammed down the back of his pants, and roughly yanks it out to check that it’s loaded. “What’s he asking about?”

“He said he wanted to discuss things with you.”

“He’ll be dead for reals, he comes around again.” Tanner speaks with the bluster and aggression of one who’s never been in a serious throwdown. “You see him, let me know.” Tanner ends the call, and kicks the metal box out of frustration. What the hell happened to the lock? Now he has to find a fucking hacksaw or bolt cutter. Maybe his mother had one in her utility closet. He stomps through the kitchen to check. There is a hacksaw, but the blade is missing. There’s a bolt cutter too, but when he picks it up it falls apart, getting rust on his hands.

Tanner curses more, calling his mother nasty names for the unspeakable crime of not having working tools for his use. He heads for the downstairs bathroom, dirt falling off his shoes onto his mother’s faded bathroom rug. He starts running water in the sink. When he reaches for soap, it suddenly occurs to him there is a man sitting on the toilet tank, feet on the bowl lid. 

Tanner whirls around. The man sitting on the toilet tank is Gabriel Ross. And he’s holding a remarkably large gun, a Glock 40. Remarkably large guns aren’t necessary to kill people, but they do have a psychological effect. 

As does a person’s reputation. Tanner is somewhat daunted, but not enough to think he can’t get out of it–his type never is. He puffs himself up to look badass. “What the fuck are you doing here? What do you want?”

Ross doesn’t move nor show any distress. Tanner is unnerved, knowing Ross was supposed to be hospitalized or dead. Yet here he is looking cold with a Glock. Tanner raises his hands but draws back his right elbow, preparing to reach back for his own gun. In the fantasy of his badassery, Tanner will get the drop on this guy and dump his body in the Passaic with the rest of the river’s corpses for the day. 

Ross is speaking: “Stop moving. This has a suppressor. And I can shoot all your joints and put wire through them like a regular fucking Pinnochio before you pull your piece out.”

Tanner quickly reviews what he knows regarding this New Yorker. Supposedly a do-gooder but not afraid of breaking laws, violence, or getting hurt. May have connections, serious connections. These include criminal connections but not the type of work Tanner is in. A friend of a friend who was locked up in Union County Correctional saw what Don Mathers looked like after a fight with Ross. Ross supposedly doesn’t kill, just like Batman. Or, he spread that rumor when actually he is a hired killer. Some think he took out mob assassin Stephen Cody and that’s why no one has seen Cody after his supposed escape. 

Ross speaks in a somewhat raspy monotone. “I want to know where you’re hiding the money you stole from your mother.”

Fuck you.”

“No thanks. The best thing you can do is take your scumbag self somewhere across the country and never bother your mother again. Tell me about the money and I will walk away.”

Tanner, in the manner that small-time criminals demonstrate a lack of critical thinking, decides that Ross isn’t for real and shifts his posture slightly, smiling. “Did she hire you? Fuck that. You’re not what they think you are. A real killer would have done something by now.” 

“Oh, really? Well, perhaps “they” did not tell you about my secret weapon.”

“What’s that, assh–”

The gun smashes against his face. Tanner cries out in pain, and is in shock that Ross had not even gotten up. 

It’s not him. Another figure has come up from behind him. Tanner tries to flail around but the other person simultaneously pulls the gun from his pants and punches him in the kidneys, causing him to fall in the bathtub. He looks up, gasping. The other figure is all in black, a hoodie covering their head, wearing dark glasses and a neck gaiter.

Ross seems impassive. He hasn’t moved. “You can still tell me before it gets worse.”

“You’re not going to kill me,” Tanner croaks. “I’m gonna have you arrested for trespassing.” 

“No, you won’t. We’re here with permission, to protect the property. You don’t have a title to the house, and therefore you are trespassing.”

Tanner slowly sits up, his face and back throbbing in pain. He’s used to getting his way through bullying and yelling, and being defied makes him snarl like a cornered dog. “She’d never fucking do that. Never.”

“Yeah, I know what you told her, that you were in debt to a drug dealer and needed her to hide in a nursing home so she wouldn’t be hurt. But for her own good, she’s not handling this right now.”

“What–” Tanner starts to get up, but the other person in black points his gun at him. He stares up at the figure, still trying to grasp the situation. “So…what, my sister? You think I’m gonna listen to her?”

“Yeah,” Gabriel says. “A court did. So you will. Better you leave now.” 

Tanner lifts his hands like he’s surrendering. “Fine. Whatever. Let me get my stuff. I’ll get that bitch later.”

“What does your ‘stuff’ consist of? We can put it out on the lawn.”

“My bag! Just my bag.”

Gabriel moves off the toilet and leaves, presumably to check out the bag. Tanner starts to get up. “Stay the fuck out…” he stops when then black-clad figure raises the gun towards him. 

“Jesus,” Gabriel says from another room. “So many things here to get you arrested.” He picks out a set of keys and checks them out. “A storage unit. Interesting. This looks like the one you got your mom to pay for, so her name is on it but she’s never seen it. I bet that’s the place to check for the money. Time to move.”

The other person motions with the gun, and Tanner carefully climbs out of the tub. He limps to the hall, and then the living room, with the other person behind him. Gabriel is by the front door with the bag at his feet. He holds up another gun he took out of Tanner’s bag.

“You have a license for this?”

“Fuck you.” 

Gabriel shrugs and takes out the clip. Tanner notices he doesn’t move fast. The other person seems androgynous but Tanner suspects it’s a woman. To Tanner, if the person was that confident in their abilities, they wouldn’t have dressed to disguise. 

Tanner makes a final play, and he has a  surprisingly good move. When Gabriel drops the empty automatic in the black bag, Tanner lets his voice get whiny and says, “Hey, be careful.” He bends over to pick up the bag, but then swings it hard against Gabriel’s legs and carries the motion to smack into the person behind him.

Gabriel loses his balance and the figure in black stumbles back. An opening but not much; the person in black has fast reflexes. Tanner makes a grab for the gun in Gabriel’s hand.

A strange second that seems to last for an hour as the two men hold onto a gun both with and without thought for what it would do. The gun moves like a needle in a dial between the two of them. The figure in black grabs Tanner’s arm and moves up to his hand, trying to push him away from the gun. 

Three people struggle over the gun, sweating. Fear and panic send hot wires of energy in Tanner’s arm and his hand trembles as he’s made the lizard-brain choice to shoot no matter what. 

Sensing this, Gabriel and his companion inch closer to him, with the gun’s trajectory ever so slowly creeping past vital points. The person in black puts their knee on Tanner’s right calf and pins him to the floor. Gabriel uses that leverage to push him against the wall. Through their dual pressure, they work on prying him away from the gun. The sweat makes it hot and slick work. Any second, the gun might go off.

Maybe Tanner subconsciously gives up. Maybe the two get the best of him. Maybe an invisible force intervenes. Something happens, and Tanner’s fingers slip from the gun. Gabriel immediately backs up as the other person puts a disciplined hold on Tanner’s arms. 

Gabriel slowly gets up. He feels every bit of his injuries. But he holds the gun firmly. “Get out. Now.” 

Tanner recognizes the end of the line. He has enough self-preservation to crawl away, reach for the bag, and then stumble out of the house.

Gabriel and his companion follow, to watch Tanner peel out in an old Mustang with rust on the panels.

The two collapse on the small cement porch. Veronica pulls the gaiter down from their face. “You going to call the highway patrol on him?”

“Yeah, just a minute. I want to get in touch with actually still being here.”

They still have some things to do. Go to that storage unit, come back and change the locks, install a security system, notify the client of the happenings. But for now, just to appreciate being alive. 

Wednesday, February 

East Village, Avenue A, Manhattan  

Veronica arrives at Gabriel’s apartment building around 7 pm the same night. Their hands tremble slightly, from exhaustion. Before heading downtown, V followed the tussle with Tanner by visiting two of the agency’s more important clients to make sure security procedures were running smoothly. That involved checklists, oversight, sometimes arguing with staff who do not seem to believe V’s in charge.

It’s been a year since Gabriel was shot. He’s not 100% physically, but has a strong will to heal. In the meantime V has free reign to come and go representing their two-person agency as needed, and to run the agency until Gabriel has fully recovered. In the elevator on the way up, V takes a last look at a task list on the iPad. A cigarette would be good right now. Sometimes V lights an incense stick and pretends it’s a cigarette, just to have the feel of it in their hands–something about holding a cigarette gives one a sense of control. But they’re old enough to be more cautious about the health effects of smoking, and so V has given it up for the last six months.

V fell asleep late last night watching one of those YouTube videos from the perspective of a train, going through snowy wilderness in Norway. They look like the beginning of a movie. In a subsequent dream V was watching the train in person, and then trying to get to one of its stops, a rural shack painted red to stand out against the snow. V is carrying a giant backpack, and slogging through the snow, her injured leg aching. The train slows and an angry horn blows. 

Fuck. I’m going to miss it. And V can’t miss it. Everything will fall apart. They do their best to run, and just clear the red shack when the train slowly begins pulling forward. No no no nonononono….V runs for the train, dropping the bag. It’s a sacrifice. Catch the train. When V was young, they used to be fast. This would be nothing then to run next to a slow-moving train and jump for the open door. The iron handle, coated with a million layers of black paint is under their fingers and V steels themself to jump…

V woke up before being able to get on. Disappointment flooded like a sneeze that fails to manifest, or perhaps the occasional orgasm that says, nah, not this time, yo. Stress dreams…even actual sleep is problematic these days. Often unable to return to sleep, Veronica will spend time reviewing client files, logistics of all the jobs Gotham Investigations was handling, the agency’s budget, checking accounts and credit cards. Over and over to ensure nothing is missed that could cause huge fuck-ups. Even after giving themself a headache from the minutiae, V doesn’t feel entirely confident. But it is what it is. 

But now it’s time to put the job away. Bob Jarvey, one of Gabriel’s close friends, is leaning against the wall next to Gabriel’s apartment, messing with his phone.  

He greets Veronica with an affectionate smile. “Hey, Wonder Woman. What’s happening?”

Veronica smiles back, grateful for Bob’s help coming here from Paterson, NJ to act in an unofficial capacity as bodyguard. Bob’s hours as an addiction counselor for ex-offenders were recently cut back, and V has paid him to help out. Even if V didn’t pay, Bob can always be counted on to lend a hand and V needs that. 

“Hey, Buckaroo Banzai. How’s it going?”

He rolls his eyes. “Our problem child is still in his funk.”

Veronica sighs, now feeling twice as tired.  

Bob nods. “I know.” He feels better himself that Veronica is here. V has managed to make a thousand details of this situation all work. Bob always liked Veronica, above and beyond his ribald nature. But in witnessing their perseverance, he’s gained a new level of respect.

It’s Gabriel’s birthday. He didn’t have much of one last year, hospitalized after being shot, technically died at point, for weeks bedridden and nearly insensate with pain. When he had come back to life from some other place–Veronica felt his return in a sense, and also felt that the return tore him up physically and psychologically.  

Bob says, “There’s a lot of people coming around today, although I think we all know each other. That guy John Dell let me know he’ll be here to help.”

V nods, their eyes going back and forth, mentally confirming a checklist. “That’s great; I want to keep the protection going.”

Bob glances at the door. “I’m a little worried about that.”

“I know,” V says. “And Baby Boy will shape the fuck up or else. I think he’s angry with me because I dared to have some time to myself this past week.”

“I’ll back you up on that,” Bob says. “And how are you, anyway?”

For a moment Veronica is confused and then finally laughs. “I guess I’m okay.”

Bob smiles again, wryly. “And I guess no one asks you too often.”

“Geneva does, Michaela does. But yeah, I’m failing the Bechdel test miserably.”

Bob looks at V closely. “You’re more worn-out than usual. I can see that. What happened in Jersey today?”

Veronica starts to answer and stops when hearing footsteps pause at the front door. The problem with hallways is that conversations carry into the apartments. 

The apartment door creaks open. Joel sticks his head out. “Oh, you’re here,” he says in a fake tone of surprise. “When I didn’t hear from you last night I thought something might be wrong.” He’s heard enough to be troublesome. Veronica is already resigned that their goal of Joel not finding out about today will fail.

“Yes, I’m here. When you texted–at 2 am–I was asleep,” V replies, with a touch of sarcasm.

“So now you’re just hanging out here in the hallway?”

V steps closer to him. “Hello. How are you, Veronica? Glad to see you, Veronica. I appreciate you being here and handling this, Veronica.”

Joel’s expression morphs into guilt. “Well of course I’m glad, V. How are you?” He kisses their cheek and ducks back inside, temporarily embarrassed. 

Veronica sighs and turns back to Bob. “So about what happened today? We kind of got in a fight. Obviously we won, or we wouldn’t be here. But still…” She briefly recaps the incident with Tanner.

Bob shakes his head, grimacing. “Get some rest tomorrow, then. What do you do in your time off for fun?”

V has to think about it. “Some writing on magic. Researching history is soothing somehow. Geneva and I are going to handcraft some books on magic. We also have our site up and running on crowdsourcing information regarding crimes against trans persons. Chris helped on that, and we’ve seen a good response thus far.”

Bob nods approvingly. “Let me buy one of the books, especially if you have naked witch ladies in it. I don’t believe witches are evil. You aren’t.”

“You sure can. I’m not really a witch, now, I’m pagan. My mom fancies herself Wiccan these days, though I’m not taking naked pictures of her. Okay, I’m going in.” Veronica opens the door and walks into the apartment, Bob following.   

A second later V is swarmed with affection from various friends who are setting up the apartment for a righteous party. Their former girlfriend and Gabriel’s New Jersey attorney and sometime employer, Michaela Connor, Ellen Pollan and Evelyn Pollan, wife and sister of Jim Pollan, Gabriel’s New York attorney and sometime employer. Veronica is up for as many hugs as they can get. Geneva Lennon, their roommate, is here too. Geneva was originally a friend of Joel’s, then a client of Gabriel’s, and then moved in with Veronica when both of them needed a new place. Veronica, a non-binary person, and Geneva, a trans woman, have quickly grown close. Geneva picks up on Veronica’s exhaustion and gives them a quick massage.

In the living room Joel, Gabriel’s significant other, is now slouched in a chair messing with his phone. He doesn’t look up. When he texted V in the middle of the night, in that way he does now, Hey, u happen to be up? the phone did wake V up but they ignored it, and managed to sleep again until the train dream. V can tell he is still irritated they did not answer.

Veronica listens and chats while noting Gabriel is not evident, but apparently in his bedroom; she can hear his voice and Jim’s. On the way to Gabriel V walks by Joel and kicks his chair leg. He looks up, frowning. Catching their stink eye Joel actually blushes.

In a sense, he’s become their problem child. V bends over to say in his ear, “Get the fuck outta that chair; setting up isn’t women’s work.” 

“I’m not like that, don’t be unfair.” He jumps up and heads over to the group bustling around Gabriel’s kitchen.  

This is true, he’s not like that. But V had to shake him up to get him going. Veronica goes into the bedroom and takes Gabriel’s head in their hands. “Happy Birthday, baby.”

V feels the warmth of his scalp. His hair has grown back appreciably from when he was kidnapped–when he was forcibly sheared to what is called military, mental patient, or male-pattern baldness short. He’s trying hard to stay in shape with rehab. Aside from the scars on his chest and his vocal problems (from an operation that had complications) his face carries some somber shadows from the experience. 

Tonight he’s also sore where Tanner punched his ribs, and winces when he turns too fast. “Jesus, looks like I picked…”

“…the wrong day to stop smoking,” V finishes with him. “Hey, at least there is cake, and it’s not cake or death.”

“I don’t know, it looks a little gay,” Gabriel jokes. The giant cake was a weekend project Ellen and Evelyn took care of. It has six colors of frosting to correspond with pride flag colors. 

“Mikki said she brought champagne. It will be the highlight of the day to have cake and champagne for dinner.”

“For me too.”

Veronica glances out the door. Having pulled glasses from the cabinet and sliced some cake, Joel is in the kitchen frowning at some messages which keep the iPhone dinging. Each time it dings, V’s hands twitch. Two years ago he couldn’t be bothered to let people know he was alive. Now he lives on that fucking phone, going through a batting lineup of contacts constantly: Gabriel if they aren’t together, V, Chris Szala, an old friend of his from his teen years on the street, Geneva, Isabella, his old friend and art agent, Travis Churchill, his patron, and a mix of a few other people. When he’s desperate for contact, his mom will even go on the rotation as pinch hitter. 

V steps out of the bedroom and turns on Gabriel’s stereo, hooking up an old iPod with a playlist then making a beeline for the kitchen and Joel.

“We’re not working today, right?”

“Some issues at the art fairs.” His grouchy mumbling irritates V further.

“Isabella can handle it. That’s what she’s paid for.” Veronica’s tone turns distinctly sharp, like a knife hitting bone. Isabella was invited, but is in Miami at the moment. Joel squints at the intensity of V’s glare. 

“What issues?” Gabriel is behind Veronica.

“Uh, nothing major.” Joel starts to lift the phone again but relents under Veronica’s volcano glare and puts the phone in a drawer. He takes Gabriel’s hand. “I think that some major reviewers aren’t going to like the collection.”

“Fuck ‘em.”  

Joel shrugs. “Controversy helps. But I just don’t want it to affect what’s upcoming in Venice. Someday I’d like to be part of the Biennale Arte, but right now I have a chance at one of the better nearby gallery shows and get some foot traffic…” 

Gabriel’s tuxedo cat, Archie, jumps up on the counter to check if the sink might be dripping some cold water, and meows to add to the general melee of sounds–music, the apartment door opening, people talking. Gabriel cups the cat’s face and whispers to him. Joel tries a smile on Veronica.

V’s glare can frost or burn as they choose, and Joel’s feeling both. He then makes a show of putting his phone away and turning back to Gabriel. “Well, then, no more of this shit tonight, right? Today we’re all about you.”

For a moment, the three of them in the kitchen make an intense triad. A little over a year ago, they were in one of the most dangerous situations they could be, isolated and holding on to one another in a metaphorical foxhole relationship. How that moves on into the future is still up in the air. Things have changed, and yet things are also still the same. 

Veronica isn’t sure it can go on, for various reasons. But they aren’t going to get into that today. It’s a party, so they can Masque-of-the-Red-Death it up tonight.

Aside from the intimate personal aspect, there is also a certain ominous undercurrent to the festivities due to having a designated security person–first Bob then John Dell, moonlighting from his regular job as a police detective in Wayne, NJ. Both of them, in addition to V and Geneva and Joel, will check out the apartment and the hall outside. 

Someone tried very hard to kill Gabriel last year, and that person was not caught. The person was smart enough to lure Gabriel into a trap. That kind of forethought means a real possibility exists that they will try to do so again. No one has tried up to now, as far as they know, but they’ve been through too much to ignore the danger.

The triad is broken when Gabriel’s father Jeffery, out of town on business, calls Gabriel to wish him well. Jeffery then speaks to Veronica to thank them and check on security. A former military special ops officer, he is also very much aware of the danger.    

The night goes well nonetheless. The Billionaire Boys Club visit for a bit. The BBC consists of Travis Churchill, software company owner and primary patron of Joel’s art, and Andy Davidson, an English expat who owns the city’s second main newspaper, the Herald-Standard. Andy is also a client; Gotham Investigations was contracted to supervise all sorts of security features for the media outlet. It’s the type of contract that can make a business solvent for the foreseeable future so keeping it is important. Veronica spends much of their working time taking care of specialized security operations for the Standard, such as handling sub-contractors and vetting policies and procedures, background checks, investigations, tech installation, tracing threats and so on. When Gabriel was hospitalized, V handled both those tasks in their expertise, and crash-coursed the aspects they were not familiar with. 

Walter Cleveland arrives soon after, making the apartment seem like a Vanity Fair event, as Walter writes for the mag, and Travis and Andy have been profiled in it. Walter is a well-regarded society and true-crime writer who has formed a bond with Gabriel over recent cases, and in essence has become part of the family. Walter talks to Gabriel and the other guests with true affection, recounting inside stories about writers, filmmakers, and politicians. 

After cake and champagne, in a brief lull where everyone is feeling full, Walter catches Gabriel and V in the dining area off the kitchen.

“Maybe this is inappropriate during a party, but how are you doing in looking out for what happened to you?”

Gabriel looks away for a moment. “I’ve…I’m not sure. I don’t know where to start and it’s been hard.”

“Okay, I get that. If I can be any help, let me know. Oh, and also not appropriate, but I know someone who wants to hire you.”

Gabriel shrugs. “Always gotta be hustling. What’s the story?”

Walter is an older man with neat graying hair, round glasses, and tailored clothes. He pulls at his sleeves, hesitating. “The host of the Crime/Wise podcast contacted me.” 

He looks up quickly. Gabriel is neutral, Veronica starting to smile. Jess Jensen is the host of that podcast. It is one of the more prominent true-crime hot tickets on the airwaves. Both Gabriel and Veronica and true-crime aficionados–it what they talked about the first night they met at a private investigation and security convention. Over time for both, the fascination with criminals evolved into empathy for the victims. A good deal of crime podcasts seem to promote a cynical or even irrelevant attitude, almost comedic, when describing truly horrible acts, which neither can stand. Crime/Wise, to be fair, doesn’t do that. Jensen uses a lot of charm, but also good knowledge, research, and careful inquiry for various cold cases and conspiracies. She hustles for publicity, but that’s par for the entertainment biz.

She has tried to get Gabriel for an interview several times due to his area notoriety. It’s why he and Walter got to know each other. But Gabriel doesn’t want to re-tread these areas, especially that of last year. Jensen has tried to get him to go on the show to at least give expert opinion on other crimes, but he’s felt, forgive the expression, gun-shy. 

But he’s listening, taking his cues from V’s expression. “Okay…”  

Walter begins his narrative; he’s a talented speaker as well as a writer, and has a new pod of his own. Gabriel and V are automatically drawn in to listen intently. “So there’s this New Jersey mom who contacted her, to try to get some attention for her daughter’s case. Her daughter and a friend disappeared 15 years ago. I got the impression the police were not especially helpful. Jess Jensen asked me to consider if you’d take on the case.”

Gabriel nods toward Veronica. “Veronica may have much of the burden here. I’m getting better, but it’s been a long time since we’ve done something with missing persons.”

Veronica shrugs. “I just got licensed in New Jersey, actually, to make it easier for us to operate and work with Michaela.” 

Walter nods. “As a matter of fact, Jess seems to be interested in you as well. Maybe you’d be willing to discuss occult crimes.”

Gabriel makes a face briefly. “Veronica should go. I get it, publicity means business. But see, with this kind of thing, it’s gonna be either disappointment if we can’t find anything, or it gets more complicated. Jensen is going to follow it on her show, and maybe turn it into a six-part series on a streaming network.”

V says, “Some have suggested we do this ourselves–start a podcast or a YouTube channel.”

Gabriel winces, but sees Veronica is serious. “Um, I don’t feel ready for that, maybe I’ll never be. But you should do it if you want.”

“I’ll have you as a guest on mine,” Walter adds.

“All right, perhaps so. Geneva is willing to do that with me. In the meantime, let’s just hear Jensen out, see what happened to the girl.” 

Walter texts Jess Jensen for a meeting. Gabriel and Veronica agree that they prefer to meet in person rather than Zoom or FaceTime. It’s better to assess someone when actually in their presence. Since this isn’t an actual client to meet, but more a third party vetting them for a client, Walter is invited along for the discussion. 

After a couple more hours, people start to drift home, which is all right with Gabriel. He’s hiding how rough he feels from the morning tussle. Veronica does more heavy lifting and ensures the remainder of the party is gradually cleaned as the attendance dwindles, without seeming to. Joel catches on and helps. Soon, Veronica is the only guest left, and they begin packing up their bag to go.

Gabriel is checking on his black and white tuxedo cat, Archie, who is sitting on a radiator, watching the proceedings. Joel touches base with him, then notices Veronica hunting for their leather jacket.

“Surely you’re not leaving…”

“I am, and…”

“Don’t call them Shirley,” Gabriel finishes. Doesn’t matter how corny it is, Airplane quotes reign.

Joel doesn’t change expression. “Okay, but you don’t have to leave, right?”

Veronica pauses in the middle of adjusting their jacket and looks up, and then at Gabriel and Joel. What he means is obvious.

“Well, we’re all kinda tired.”

“I can handle it.” Gabriel allows. 

Veronica considers whether it is time to have a conversation that has been running through their head for a few months. Doesn’t really feel like a birthday party conversation, but Joel is going to be insistent they stay over. 

“It is always up to you, Veronica. You are welcome.” Gabriel is sincere, but Veronica is trying to read the subtext, if any. 

Joel has no subtext. For him it’s cake having and eating, and he sees no reason to change. He moves to stand ostentatiously between them. “What is it?”

Veronica steels up to go ahead and put it on the table. “I didn’t want to get into this, but if we must…”

Gabriel interrupts. “Not Veronica’s fault. I pushed too hard today with our Jersey case.”

“How so?” Joel frowns. 

V makes a snap decision. “Okay, I’ll stay over for the birthday’s sake, hey what?”

Joel is instantly distracted from the Jersey question. Nothing happens that the participants don’t want, and even becomes otherworldly due to V’s new fascination with Hans Zimmer soundtracks. But V is doubtful about sustainability and Gabriel is hiding his exhaustion.

Nonetheless, the three engage in a round of forget-about-the-future. The kind where in the midst, one can feel like hey, I can work with this. I don’t need anything else.

The morning comes slowly and languidly, with the three in the new king bed (Joel’s contribution to renovating the apartment), waking from cake, champagne, sex to figure out the day. 

Gabriel rises, visits the bathroom, and heads toward the kitchen to make coffee. Archie bounds in front of him expectantly. 

Joel and V sit up sharply upon hearing a loud thump.

Gabriel has collapsed in the living room. 

“I’m okay,” he says into the rug he’s collapsed upon. 

But he’s really not, and doesn’t argue about the ambulance arriving.