After an entire night walking the seedier streets of North Las Vegas in stiletto heels, booty shorts, a scrap of cloth no one in their right mind would call a shirt, and fishnet stockings and freezing her ass off, Laura Cadman was tired, cranky, and hungry. She figured it was a gift from the gods, that when she got back to the precinct, Evan the Tart Boy was there with his glorious basket of baked goods.
“Hey, Cadman,” Detective Maxwell began, a mock-leer on his face, but Laura held up one of her stilettos to forestall comment.
“One word, David Ulysses Oliver Maxwell, and I will stab you through the eye with this.”
Maxwell shut his mouth so fast his teeth clicked. Using all three of his given names worked like a charm.
Detective Schbeiker raised her eyebrows. “Pretty sure that constitutes a terroristic threat.” She was sitting at her desk and typing away at her computer, a blueberry muffin next to her mouse.
Detective Catalonia came stomping in behind Laura. “Those cretins in Vice really need to start working their own cases.” She marched over to her desk and shrugged off the luxurious mink coat someone had requisitioned from the evidence storage locker.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about. You’re at least wearing a whole outfit.” Where Laura had gone undercover as a street walker, Catalonia had gone undercover as a high-priced escort.
Catalonia tossed her head, shaking out her long, glossy blonde hair, and snapped her fingers impatiently. “Tart Boy, over here!”
Calling Evan a Tart Boy was a bit of a misnomer, because he was probably older than both Laura and Catalonia, but after a burglary at his bakery back when Laura was still a beat cop, he had a standing order, every morning, to come by the precinct and deliver an array of baked goods. Evan never protested because he wasn’t much for words. Laura had initially thought it was because he was shy, and then she discovered: he was mute. He could hear just fine, but he couldn’t speak, and when his hands were full, he was effectively gagged.
He rolled his eyes at Catalonia’s imperious summons but obligingly brought the basket over to her. Laura batted Catalonia’s hand out of the way before she could get to the pain au chocolat.
“Dibs,” Laura said.
Catalonia narrowed her eyes at Laura for a moment. Then she sighed. “Fine.” And she selected a massive, buttery, flaky croissant. She plopped down at her desk.
It was Laura’s turn to roll her eyes. “Thank you, Evan.”
Evan shifted the basket so he had one free hand, pressed his fingers to his lips in a sign Laura knew literally meant true but also meant you’re welcome. Everyone around the precinct knew a few signs so as to talk to Evan.
Laura might or might not have looked up some ASL lessons on YouTube. Because Evan was really, really attractive.
Maxwell let out a very middle school oooooh when Detectives Chang and Yuy came slinking into the bullpen. Chang was covered in fake tattoos, wearing fake earrings, and dressed like a bad gang-banger extra from an episode of Hawaii 5-0. Yuy was wearing skintight ripped jeans, a mesh shirt, and eyeliner. So Laura and Catalonia weren’t the only ones who’d been conscripted to help Vice with a sting.
“You know what the worst part of last night was?” Chang headed over to Evan, who dug in his basket and came up with a couple of those red bean steamed buns only Chang liked. “Not that I had to pretend to be Yuy’s pimp, of all things.”
Yuy said nothing, merely grunted and held out a hand to Evan, and Evan handed him several green tea mochi cakes.
“It’s that everyone believed I was his pimp, because they can’t tell us apart.” Chang bit into his steam bun viciously, but then his expression smoothed out. “Evan, I officially nominate you for sainthood.”
“You’re not Catholic,” Maxwell said. “And what do you mean, they can’t tell you apart? You have black hair, Yuy’s is brown. Your eyes are brown, his are blue -”
“They can’t tell that he’s Chinese and I’m Japanese,” Yuy said flatly.
Maxwell’s gaze turned sly, and he opened his mouth, but Yuy said, “I swear, if you say we all look the same to you, omae o korosu.”
Maxwell swallowed visibly. “Right. Duly noted.”
“Again with the terroristic threats.” Schbeiker clicked her tongue disapprovingly.
Everyone froze when Detective Barton came into the bullpen. He was dressed like a clown, with a half-mask, a massively wide, starched ruffled collar, poofy green pants held up by suspenders, white gloves, and too-big clown shoes. And he was wearing a bandolier of knives.
“What the ever loving hell?” Maxwell yelped.
“Sting at Circus Circus. Caught the guy.” Barton tugged off his mask. “Sheppard took down that serial killer, by the way. I think it was a terrorist - the FBI was in on it, and there were all those power fluctuations earlier.”
Laura, who was perched on the edge of her desk and trying to summon the energy to go into the locker room and put on some real clothes, paused in her munching of her delicious pastry. “Wait, didn’t Sheppard quit? Pretty sure I saw him marching out of his office with nothing but his Johnny Cash poster and the clothes on his back earlier today.”
“Pretty sure Captain Hendricks is going to pretend he never got Shep’s resignation email,” Barton said. “He’s a hero now. Took some bullets taking down that serial killer.”
Laura swallowed down the last of her pastry, barely tasting it. “Bullets? Is he all right?” Sheppard had been her partner on the beat till she passed the detective exam. They’d banded together in the Academy, both of them the only former members of the Armed Forces in their class.
Barton shrugged. “He’s at the hospital.”
Laura dusted pastry flakes off her fingers. “Which hospital?” She stood up, headed for the locker room.
Laura was technically done with her shift, could write her report on the next shift. She was due to go home. Summerlin was in the opposite direction of her apartment, but she could go over there anyway.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder.
Evan held out a carefully-wrapped sausage roll. They were John’s favorite.
Warmth blossomed in Laura’s chest briefly. Evan was incredibly sweet. “Thanks. He’ll really appreciate it.”
Evan bobbed his head, and then someone hollered his name, and he turned away. More pastries to deliver.
She was composing a sassy greeting - John responded much better to sass than to boring politeness - when she heard voices in John’s room. John, a man, and a woman. Barton had said the FBI had been involved in John’s case. Were they still around?
Laura paused just outside the door, slipping back into old Marine-stealth with barely a thought, and listened.
“If he’s bothering you, John, I can ask him to leave,” the woman said.
“The person who ought to leave is you, because what we’re discussing is highly classified,” the man snapped.
John huffed. “Would the two of you just make out already? I’m an adult. I’m fine. I can make my own life choices.”
John didn’t sound too bad off, it was true. Laura reassessed the people in the room. Was the woman a girlfriend? John had always been too handsome for his own good. He knew he was handsome in an abstract sense, but he never seemed to notice when women were attracted to him. He was somehow able, however, to capitalize on the fact that women were attracted to him and, if Maxwell was to be believed, most of his civilian informant network was made up of women who were waiting for him to ask them out on dates. Or maybe just sleep with them.
“Begone, Nurse Ratchet,” the strange man snapped.
Laura launched herself into the middle of the hallway to make herself look like she was just a passer-by and saw a woman in blue scrubs come sweeping out of John’s room. The woman was slender, attractive, with glossy dark hair and big dark eyes. She might have been John’s type. Laura had never seen him follow through with any of his unintentional flirting to know what his type was.
Schbeiker joked that Sudoku was John’s type. Laura should have stopped by the gift shop and grabbed him a Sudoku puzzle book. He’d always had one of those tucked into a pocket for spare moments during, say, a stakeout.
As soon as the nurse was out of sight, Laura resumed her recon spot beside John’s door.
“Look, would you just reconsider joining us?” the strange man asked. His tone was much gentler for John than it had been for the nurse.
Oh, John, charming the men, too. He was probably completely oblivious to all the instances where that had happened, being former military and all.
“I’ve had enough stupid heroics for one lifetime, thanks,” John said, with that calm sarcasm that drove Captain Hendricks and Lieutenant Crawford insane.
“We can heal you up faster if that’s the pain talking,” the man said. “We have advanced tech for that.”
Laura heard the wheedling note in his tone.
“It’s not the pain talking,” John snapped, and Laura knew that angry edge in his voice, so she pasted on a bright smile and swept into the room.
The man beside John’s bed was attractive, despite his thinning hair - strong jaw, bright blue eyes, broad shoulders, incredible mouth. His mouth crooked into a frown at Laura’s entrance.
John was sitting propped up against several pillows, an IV in one arm, an oxygen monitor on one finger. He was pale, with dark circles around his eyes. Still damn handsome, though.
“Cadman, what brings you here?”
“Family only,” the man snapped.
“You’re not John’s family,” Laura said easily. “I, on the other hand, am.” She flashed the man her badge. “Can you catch?” she asked John.
“Catch!” Laura tossed him the sausage roll underhanded.
John managed to catch it in both cupped hands. He looked confused while he unwrapped it, and then -
“Is this what I think it is?”
Laura nodded. “Evan was at the precinct when Barton told us what’d happened to you, so he gave it to me. Knew I’d come see you.”
John bit into the sausage roll and moaned happily, eyes closing.
The strange man blushed.
“I’m Detective Laura Cadman.” She waved at him. “John and I were partners on the beat before we became detectives.”
“Dr. Rodney McKay,” he said.
“Oh. Are you John’s treating physician?” McKay was wearing an expensive suit but no doctor’s coat and had no hospital credentials.
“Not that kind of doctor.” Then McKay narrowed his eyes at her. “Cadman. You were a Marine?”
She nodded. “Yes, I was.” She glanced at John, wondering what John had said about her, but he was savoring every bite of his sausage roll.
“You did EOD and worked with the Secret Service.” McKay snapped his fingers. “I remember seeing your file. But you separated from service -”
“My file?” Laura echoed.
“I’m with the FBI,” McKay said.
“And you, what, vetted everyone who works at the precinct?”
“No, it’s - never mind.”
John finished his sausage roll. “So, when’s my not-really-a-surprise retirement party going to be? Because I totally want Evan to cater it.”
Laura sat down on the chair beside his bed, opposite McKay. “Are you kidding? After you stopped a serial killer terrorist attack, you’re a bona fide hero. No way is Captain Hendricks letting you go. At least not till after a fancy photo op with you in your dress uniform. Maybe a medal.”
“I sent in my resignation email.”
“Pretty sure he’s going to pretend he never saw it.”
Laura smiled. “It’s your own damn fault. You’re brave and smart, even if you have zero respect for authority. How the hell you made major continues to be beyond me.”
“I am a damn good pilot,” John said. “This from the woman who only made captain.”
Laura rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, rub it in.”
“So, no retirement party.”
“Better put that Johnny Cash poster back up.”
“Pretty sure it’s no more.”
John winced. “There was a bit of an explosion.”
“Explosion? Barton said you got shot.”
“Well -” John slid a glance at McKay.
“Classified,” McKay snapped. His cellphone rang, and he stood up, fished it out of his pocket, answered it. “Yes, I’ll be right there. No, he hasn’t agreed yet. We’re - in discussions.” He hung up and pocketed his phone. “I’m glad you’re all right, Sheppard.”
Laura was brought up short by the sincerity in his tone, the gentleness in his gaze.
John looked disconcerted, but he nodded. “Thanks, McKay.”
“No, John Sheppard. Thank you.” And McKay swept out of the room.
Laura rested her elbows on the edge of John’s bed. “Anything I can do to make your stay better? Anyone I can call?” John had always been reticent on the subject of friends and family.
He shrugged one shoulder, winced minutely. “I’m as good as I can be. Although I wouldn’t say no to another one of those sausage rolls another day.”
Laura wasn’t sure if he was being his usual casual Sheppard self or if he was angling for future visits. Either way, she didn’t mind, because it wasn’t like she had much to go home to besides her cactus and the pet rocks her niece had made her, and any excuse to interact with Evan was fine by her. “That can be arranged.” She thought of the card she had half-written and decided to save it for a subsequent visit.
“Oh, hey,” John said. “Did the Lieutenant throw out my copy of War and Peace? That would kill a few hours.”
“Like I said, the Captain’s pretending he didn’t get your resignation email, so your office is intact. I can grab it for you.”
John smiled, and there it was, the smile that drew female CI’s like flies to honey. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“All right. I’ll let the others know you’re okay.” Laura resolved to bring a Sudoku puzzle book for him as well, and then it was time to head home to her pet cactus.
She was pleased to discover, however, that her colleagues had signed the card she’d bought for John. When she headed up to his office, Lieutenant Crawford and Captain Hendricks were standing in the doorway, talking to an older, bald, bespectacled man.
Crawford noticed her first. “Detective?”
Laura inclined her head respectfully. “Lieutenant, Captain, I don’t mean to interrupt. I was planning on going to the hospital to visit Detective Sheppard after my shift, and he asked me to bring him a book.”
“You’re friends with Major Sheppard?” the bald man asked.
“Sheppard and I were partners on the beat before I became a detective,” Laura said. She liked John, but she didn’t think anyone in this town knew him well enough to call him a friend.
“Which book?” Crawford asked, heading deeper into John’s office.
“War and Peace.”
Crawford rifled through the desk drawers for a moment, then came up with a heavy volume. It was library-bound in clear plastic, and a joker card was sticking up from the pages about a fourth of the way in. She handed it to Laura.
“Detective Cadman is a fine investigator, and she has a great sense of teamwork,” Captain Hendricks said.
Something akin to recognition flashed across the bald man’s face. “Cadman, Cadman...Laura Cadman, United States Marines? Explosives expert, former Secret Service, also EOD?”
Laura blinked. “Yes, sir. And you are…?”
“Richard Woolsey, FBI.” He flashed her a terse, polite, but distracted smile. So he worked with McKay. McKay had known the same things about her.
Crawford handed Laura the book, and she tucked it against her hip. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Woolsey. Anything you want me to pass on to Sheppard when I see him?” She glanced at Hendricks and Crawford, studying their expressions.
Both of them looked - tense. Laura decided not to tell them about McKay at the hospital, trying to poach John from the Department.
“Give him our best wishes,” Crawford said brusquely, and Laura understood it for the dismissal it was.
She smiled. “Will do!” And she headed for the stairs and back down to the bullpen.
When she arrived, Evan was there with his basket of baked goods. He had, Laura saw, written a message in John’s card and even drawn a little sketch that was obviously of John, laid up in a hospital bed and surrounded by balloons. He was smiling when Laura approached him, and he held out a boxed-up sausage roll with John’s name written on it.
“Thank you so much,” Laura said. “He’ll appreciate it. The one I brought him yesterday really cheered him up. You’re the best.”
Evan ducked his head and blushed, but he was smiling, and he had dimples, and Laura was pretty sure she was blushing, so she was glad Evan wasn’t looking at her face. She patted his shoulder a little awkwardly - and behind her, Maxwell and Chang made muffled noises that sounded like laughter smothered in coughs - and then went back to her desk to log out of her computer and shut it down for the day.
She couldn’t begin to explain how lame it was that the three highlights of her day, every day, were seeing Evan, eating his pastries, and going home to her stupid cactus. That going to a hospital to visit an injured, laconic, sarcastic man she could barely call a friend was another high point in her day reminded her that she ought to get a hobby.
Pick back up with tap dancing, maybe. Surely there was an amateur troupe she could take up with? She’d danced with a troupe as a girl, but once she’d hit high school and college she’d mostly done solos.
When Laura had first moved to Las Vegas, after growing up in a small town in Nebraska and then spending most of her time on military bases removed from civilian life, she’d been dazzled by the traffic and the crowds and the people and the bright lights. They called it the city that never slept for a reason. It was like starlight had exploded all across the city, in thousands and thousands of colors, and she could see glimpses of it wherever she went. In her early days, she’d gone to the Strip a whole lot, not to gamble but to see the free shows, and some of the fancier concerts and musicals and permanent shows, like Cirque du Soleil. Other times she just liked to wander the Strip and people-watch, hear where they were from and why they were there, see them be wild and happy and free. After all, North Las Vegas wasn’t like the Strip, right?
But there was a seedier side to the entire culture on the Strip, and it spilled off of the Strip, into bars and clubs and cheap motels, cheaper casinos, and the lustre of the city had faded quickly. It had faded even more as Laura moved up the ranks to detective. The things she’d seen only brief glimpses of as a first responder to a crime scenes she saw in more ornate - grotesque - detail as a detective. The guy who’d been busted for smacking his girl was really the john busted for smacking around a prostitute, who was just one of many girls in a pimp’s stable, and that pimp was just a small fry in a gang that was involved in everything from petty thefts of bicycles to supplying weapons to terrorists. The city lights hadn’t looked the same since.
This time when Laura flashed her badge, the nurse at the desk on John’s floor waved her toward his room. Laura smiled at her and headed on to John’s room. Once again, she heard voices before she arrived - McKay and that female nurse, the slender, attractive one with the dark hair and bright eyes.
“Are you sure, John?” the nurse asked.
“I am,” he said calmly. “McKay’s kind of an acquired taste, but he’s not going to upset me so much he sets back my recovery.”
McKay spluttered indignantly. “You only wish you knew how I taste!”
“Indeed I do,” John drawled, amused.
The nurse cleared her throat. “So, it’s okay if I leave you two alone?”
“Yes,” McKay snapped. “I’m a professional who has a vested interest in his well-being. I’m not going to jeopardize that.”
“How vested?” John asked. “Because if it involves learning how you taste -”
“You’re insufferable, you know that?” McKay said.
The nurse - Laura still didn’t know her name - swept out of the room, irritation marring her brow. Laura rounded the corner.
“Hey, Shep. Who’s your favorite detective?”
“Seeing as how I don’t have a mirror,” John said, “I guess I’ll have to settle for you.”
Laura crossed the room and stood beside his bed, opposite McKay, who had his hands jammed into his pockets and looked - nervous. Shifty. Uncomfortable, really. “I’d better be your favorite after I brought you all this.” She handed him the card, the book, a Sudoku puzzle book, and the box from Evan.
“So Hendricks really didn’t empty out my office,” John muttered. His gaze lit when he saw the box, and he set the other items aside to tear into it.
“Should you be eating that?” McKay asked. “Pretty sure you shouldn’t be eating that. It’s probably bad for your heart. Full of - of fat and carbs.”
“I’ll have you know,” Laura said, “that everything that comes out of the ovens at Evan’s Bakery is organically grown, locally sourced, and made with love. It’s perfectly healthy. Besides, Shep has been through hard times. People recover from injuries and surgery better when the people around them are kind and supportive.”
“Kind is not the same thing as indulgent,” McKay said. “And I’ll have you know that organically-grown food is no better than regularly-grown food. Organic food still requires pesticides, and since organic pesticides are less effective than commercially-developed pesticides, organic food has higher levels of pesticides.”
“Relax, McKay,” John said. He took a bite of the sausage roll and closed his eyes, hummed happily.
McKay’s gaze snapped to John, and John blushed.
Well, that was new.
“Cadman’s a solid partner,” John continued.
“I got a bunch of people to sign the card,” Laura said, “but I cannot guarantee the content of the messages contained therein.”
“You should have gone to law school,” John said, and Laura huffed.
“Hey, no need to get insulting. How are you feeling today?”
John flicked a glance at McKay. “All right. It always helps to have company.”
McKay eyed Laura up and down. “Surely you have something better to do with your time.”
“Than stop by and check on a bona fide American hero?”
“Everyone loves a heroic cop,” Laura said, and John rolled his eyes.
“Right. How is George, by the way?”
“George is doing well and sends his well wishes.” George was the name of her pet cactus. “So do Lieutenant Crawford and Captain Hendricks.” To McKay she said, out of a perverse sense of amusement, “Mr. Woolsey says hello to you, by the way.”
“Was at the precinct today, talking to the Captain and the Lieutenant.” Laura watched John open the card, the emotions that played across his face. She could have recited the others’ messages by heart: stiff, formal sympathy from Catalonia; genuine sympathy from Schbeiker and her partner Merquise; friendly insults from Maxwell, and plain signatures from Barton, Yuy, and Chang.
McKay was peering over John’s shoulder. “That’s a pretty good drawing.”
John squinted. “It’s from...Evan? Really?”
“He likes you,” Laura said.
John eyed her. “Probably not as much as he likes you.”
“You are more people’s type than you realize,” Laura drawled, just to wind up McKay.
Sure enough, McKay demanded, “Who’s this Evan character?”
Laura smiled serenely. “The purveyor of those delicious, organic baked goods. Made with love.” And she winked.
McKay’s mouth pulled into a crooked frown. His mouth was fascinating. John didn’t seem to notice just how irritated McKay was by the notion of Evan.
“Thanks a lot, Cadman,” John said. “You’re a real pal.”
Laura offered him a sloppy salute, which earned her an eye-roll. “See you tomorrow, Shep.”
“With more baked goods?”
“You better believe it. When are they letting you out of this joint?”
“In about a day or so.” John shrugged one shoulder. “Sooner, if I had someone to babysit me, but unless you count George’s cousin Sal - and the nurses don’t - I’m in for a couple more nights.” John had a little pet cactus of his own.
“If I could, you know I would,” Laura said.
“I could,” McKay said.
John eyed him. “Don’t you have somewhere better you could be? Like...Quantico?”
McKay frowned. “What’s in Quantico?”
Laura straightened up, suspicious. FBI headquarters were at Quantico.
“Oh, yes, Quantico. You’re so funny, Sheppard.” McKay sighed, aggrieved. “This conversation isn’t over.”
“It could be,” John said. “You know, a little less conversation, a little more -”
“You’re not as charming as you think you are,” McKay snapped, “and you can’t distract me. You severely underestimate my intensity of focus if you think some insincere flirting will dissuade me from pursuing my ultimate goal.”
“I have no doubt about the intensity of your focus,” John said. “After all, you have two PhD’s.”
McKay blinked. “That’s true.”
“And what makes you think you know anything about my sincerity?”
McKay faltered. Something in John’s tone hadn’t been flirty then.
Before the awkwardness in the room could crank up to eleven, Laura said, “Anything you want be to bring you tomorrow?”
“A file in a cake would be nice.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Nice to see you again, Dr. McKay.” Laura waved and left the hospital and wondered just what the hell the FBI was doing, hanging around John and the precinct and looking not just at John but also her.
Yuy was a hacker of some skill, was often loaned out to the cybercrimes unit. If Laura wanted to know who’d been looking at her file, Yuy was the man to ask.
One random benefit of being on third shift was that she got to see Evan every morning (except Sundays when neither of them worked). He woke very early to open his shop and prep for the morning rush, and he usually ducked out after the shop opened to make the delivery to the precinct personally. He opened his doors at seven-thirty and closed them when he ran out of baked goods. In his spare time he liked to draw, paint, play football, and engage in other culinary pursuits. Laura had learned most of this about him under the guise of practicing her ASL (and okay, maybe learning ASL on YouTube was her hobby).
Once again, Evan had a specially-wrapped sausage roll for John when Laura arrived in the bullpen after a night out chasing leads on a carjacking. Laura thanked him and told him John was very grateful as well. Then she asked how Evan’s shop was doing. Evan actually set down his basket on Laura’s desk so he could sign to her. He signed slowly and carefully for her, but she still had to ask him to repeat himself a few times. He was very patient about finger-spelling words she didn’t know.
“I’m sorry,” Laura said finally. “Talking to me must be like talking to a toddler - or a really stupid tourist. But I’m glad your shop is doing well.”
Evan shrugged and picked up his empty basket, smiled. Then he leaned in, lips close to Laura’s ear and whispered,
“Thank you for talking to me like I’m a real person.”
Laura’s eyes went wide. Before she could form a coherent response, Evan straightened up and waved, headed for the door.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Schbeiker said, “Did he finally ask you out on a date?”
Maxwell snorted around a mouthful of blueberry muffin. “In her dreams.”
Laura mustered a half-hearted glare for both of them. “I just didn’t realize he could speak at all.”
“Absent his tongue being cut out,” Yuy said, “there aren’t many injuries, medical conditions, or other things that could deprive him of vocal speech completely. Seeing how he has no scarring around his throat -”
“Ignore him,” Maxwell said. “He’s not really human.”
Yuy muttered something under his breath in Japanese that was probably a terroristic threat.
“Evan’s a nice guy. His baked goods bring all the boys - and girls - to the yard. We appreciate him, and we’re glad he can talk even a tiny bit.” Maxwell smiled and nudged Schbeiker. “See? I can be sensitive and socially conscious.”
Schbeiker nodded grudgingly.
“Of course,” Maxwell continued, “we’d be even more glad if he and Cadman hooked up so she’d have more than a cactus and some painted rocks for her social life.”
Schbeiker rolled her eyes. “And you totally missed the mark on social appropriateness.”
Maxwell batted his eyelashes at her. “Yeah, but you think I’m cute.”
Schbeiker said, “I think Chang’s cute.”
Maxwell squawked indignantly.
Laura shook her head. “And that’s my cue to leave. Any last words for Shep?”
Chang said, “Tell him the next time he faces off against an armed serial killer, he should lead with his body armor.”
“Will do.” Laura headed for her, car treat and golf magazine in hand. Chances were John was probably almost done with the Sudoku puzzle book. He needed something to keep him busy, lest he irritate the nurses and one of them smother him with a pillow.
When Laura arrived at the hospital, she saw the nurse who was usually in John’s room lingering down at the reception desk. The nurse didn’t notice Laura, but for some reason Laura had made an effort to stay off her radar. Something about the woman was unsettling, to say the least.
John’s door was closed when Laura reached it, and she paused. Was he still asleep? Had he had a bad night? And then she heard the sharp cadence of John’s voice through the door. He sounded angry. Laura didn’t hesitate. She pushed the door open, her other hand going to her sidearm, Marine reflexes kicking in.
“ - Not who you think I am,” John snapped.
McKay stood beside the bed, hands curled into white-knuckled fists, his lovely mouth pulled into a dismayed frown.
“Whatever the hell you saw, whoever you met, you don’t know me.” John jerked a thumb at his own chest for emphasis. “There’s a reason I’m here and not out there like any of them.”
“You have the gene too,” McKay said.
“You’re a convergence point, like Daniel Jackson. Certain things happen around you because you’re a nexus. A node. The linchpin for success or failure, survival or defeat.” McKay’s eyes were wide and earnest.
John’s face was pale, drawn. And furious. “No,” he said, voice low and vicious. “I’m not.”
“Leave me alone.”
“John, please -”
“He asked you to leave,” Laura said.
Both men turned to look at her, startled. They had been so caught up in their argument that they hadn’t noticed her.
“Fine,” McKay said. “I’ll go. But this isn’t over.”
John’s expression was bleak when he said, “Yes, it is.”
McKay stared at him for a long time, then shook his head and swept out of the room. Laura poked her head out the door to make sure he got onto the elevator - he ended up taking the stairs - before she went to talk to John.
“Another sausage roll, courtesy of Evan. Plus a golf magazine. And I have a message from Chang.”
“Lead with body armor?”
“How did you know?”
John smiled faintly. “Had the same advice for him, once upon a time.”
“Ah. Good to know. Listen, are you all right? Do you need me to get a security detail on your room so that guy stops bothering you?” Laura nodded her head in the direction McKay had gone.
John’s gaze turned distant. “No, it’s fine. Doc says he’ll let me out tonight. I should be back on shift in the next couple of days. I’ll be riding a desk, but it’ll be better than nothing.”
“You should stay home and rest.”
“Yes, stay home and stare at my walls and go insane.” John flicked a glance at her. “You know what it’s like.”
One former soldier to another, neither of them had liked the wait part of the hurry-up-and-wait that was war.
Laura bit her lip. Maybe she was overstepping her bounds, but she was pretty sure John didn’t really have anyone else. She wasn’t sure if he even had any living family. “What does the FBI want with you, anyway?”
John shrugged, deliberately insouciant. “McKay thinks I’m some kind of hero. Like taking a bullet is the hardest part of the job.”
Most people were appalled, that John and Laura and others like them were willing to risk their lives on the front lines of battle in the sands of Afghanistan or the streets of Las Vegas. Physical pain wasn’t the hardest part. It was what you carried with you. John’s black mark, whatever the story behind it was (it involved dead bodies for sure). The times Laura had failed to disarm a device.
“Civilians,” Laura said, and John nodded. Laura added an ooh-rah! just to watch John make a face. But then he dug into the box for the sausage roll and told Laura he’d finished his Sudoku puzzle book and managed to read another hundred pages of War and Peace.
Not for the first time, Laura wondered what a man like John Sheppard was doing at a dead-end job like this, barely scraping by to stay a detective but with no discernible ambitions to advance. She wondered what it was McKay wanted him to do instead. She wondered how anyone could really know they were doing the right thing with their lives.
She chatted to John for a bit, about the golf magazine - he’d been playing since he was six, which hinted at a privileged childhood, if only for a while - and Maxwell and Schbeiker’s endless not-flirting, and then it was time for her to go home to George. John joked that George and Sal ought to have a play date sometime.
Laura smiled and waved goodbye and decided that she really needed something more in her life, and the next time she saw Evan, she’d ask him out on a date.
Yuy’s hands flew across his keyboard; if Laura didn’t know better, she’d have suspected he was just button-mashing. “I accept payment in baked goods and green tea.”
“How about an entire pan of green tea mochi?” Laura was pretty sure she could convince Evan to make her one. She’d pay for it.
Yuy glanced up at her, arched an eyebrow in amusement. He knew exactly how she’d procure it. “Sure. Beats me having to buy it. What is it you want?”
“Those FBI guys Sheppard was working with,” Laura said.
“On the serial killer thing?”
“Yeah. Somebody Woolsey and Rodney McKay. They looked into my file, too. I want to know what they saw, and also anyone else in the department they looked at.”
Yuy looked up at her fully. He had blue eyes, which was unusual in someone Japanese. Maxwell joked that it meant he’d never have a house fire. Yuy had kicked him sharply in the ankle for that comment. “You want me to hack the department, the FBI, and also possibly the military?”
“...Two pans of mochi.”
“I can swing that.”
Yuy’s smile was sharp and bright. Laura had never seen him smile quite like that and was discomfited by it. “I’ll have something for you by the end of shift.”
“Two pans of mochi, you said.”
Laura nodded. She headed back to her desk to place an order with Evan’s bakery. She had the number to his place memorized, but this late in the evening, no one would be there to answer the phone. She also had the website for the bakery bookmarked. It was a bit of a pointless gesture, since Evan made deliveries to the precinct every morning but -
But the website included a picture of Evan, smart in a white chef jacket, toque perched at a jaunty angle, smiling his dimpled smile.
“That’s creepy and stalkerish,” Catalonia said, peering over Laura’s shoulder.
Laura blushed but kept typing.
“Green tea mochi? You don’t like green tea or mochi.”
“Not for me.”
“You’re sweet on Yuy?”
“Buying a favor.”
Catalonia craned her neck to peer at Yuy, who was still typing fast enough to set his keyboard on fire. “Right. Well, I just got another lead on that carjacking. Witness ID’d a guy who hangs out at a bar this time of night. Place your order and let’s go.”
“Okay. Bad cop?”
“Always bad cop.” Catalonia tossed her head. With her long, silky blonde hair, sharp features, and aristocratic poise, she did bad cop elegantly. Male suspects were usually so attracted to her and so afraid of her that she could get them to say just about anything she wanted. Luckily for Laura, all Catalonia ever wanted was the truth.
Laura placed the order - luckily she knew her credit card info from memory - and then she stood up, tugged on her jacket, and followed Catalonia out to the parking lot.
Catalonia’s personal car was a hideous golden sedan. It was literally gold, like it had been gold-plated by a drunken Ancient Egyptian, and it was an eyesore. It was only rivaled by Detective Merquise’s Pepto Bismol pink affair. Luckily for Laura and her admittedly snobbish car tendencies, they could take an unmarked department car, a sleek dark Dodge Charger.
When Catalonia walked into the bar, she owned it immediately. Heads turned, so Laura could trail in after her a lot more unobtrusively, hands in her pockets, chin down. Catalonia went straight for the suspect, a wiry man with a badly-trimmed mustache and a receding hairline. What followed was almost comical, it was so like a TV stereotype. The suspect took one look at Catalonia and made a dash for the door, only he ran straight into Laura. She caught him by the collar and hauled him out back. Catalonia followed. Laura pinned him to the wall - he wasn’t particularly heavy or strong - and he looked ready to wet his pants when Catalonia planted herself in front of him.
She started off by telling him the things she knew about him - what car he drove, where he lived, his favorite drink, where his mother lived, where his sister and her four kids lived. It beat her asking about the crimes he’d probably committed and him lying about them.
After that, he was more than willing to come to the station for a little chat. Laura explained, in gentle, friendly tones, that he wasn’t under arrest, that he was free to go whenever he wanted, but he insisted that he very much wanted to cooperate with Las Vegas’s finest. For all that he was scared, his gaze drifted down to Catalonia’s ass while they walked him back to their cruiser. Catalonia had no children as far as Laura knew, but she certainly had eyes in the back of her head, and she explained in calm tones that she had such a finely sculpted posterior because she’d grown up doing fencing, and she could cross a room and gut a man with a saber before he could blink.
The suspect - Ritchie - looked ready to wet himself all over again.
Laura murmured an aside to Catalonia that maybe they should have gotten a towel for the back seat.
Lieutenant Crawford peered over the tops of her glasses at Laura and Catalonia but said nothing as they led Ritchie to one of the interrogation rooms. She knew the score. Ritchie was genuinely free to leave, if he wanted to. The first time he asked to go, Catalonia would ask if he was going to his mother’s, his girlfriend’s, or his old high school buddy’s to crash for the night, and then he’d change his mind.
Laura brought Ritchie a cup of the not-so-bad coffee and sat opposite him while Catalonia loomed behind her, taking the lead on questioning him for ‘helpful information’. The rhythm was familiar, calming. Laura had had a similar rhythm with John when they were on beat - how to respond to a call (always Laura on the radio; John hated the way his voice sounded), how to approach a suspect (again Laura taking lead, because as a general rule male criminals saw her as less threatening), how to enter a building, how to clear a room. The rhythm with John had been familiar because it had been military, but with him being Air Force and her being Marines they’d had to blend what they both knew with what they’d learned in the Academy, and what they made was their own.
Laura’s rhythm with Catalonia was one they shared with no one else. Sure, Laura could work a suspect over with Maxwell or Yuy or Barton, but what she and Catalonia had going for them was like clockwork. Laura had been afraid she’d never find that comforting clockwork again after the Marines, and then she’d found it in John, and after she passed the detective exam and he didn’t she’d feared it was lost once more.
She hadn’t expected to find it in Catalonia, who was the daughter of some European aristocrat and a Boston Brahmin but was somehow better suited to practical shoes and a handgun than high heels and mink coats.
After their extended chat with Ritchie, who was definitely involved in the carjacking but hadn’t been working alone - he wasn’t that smart - they sent him on his way and set to running down more leads, most of which involved Laura and Catalonia huddled around Laura’s computer while they ran Ritchie’s narrative against the timelines they’d received from the victim and witnesses.
They’d hit a dead end, squabbling over a Google Earth image of the street where the carjacking took place, when Laura realized.
Her shift was almost over. She had an hour to do up her documentation - interview notes, investigation notes, make sure the recording of the interview was tagged and attached to the note file - and then head home.
Not the hospital. John had probably been released hours ago, gone home to sleep in his own bed.
“I have a double order of green tea mochi for Laura,” a man said, and Laura turned.
The pretty dark-skinned man standing in the doorway with a basket of baked goods was distinctly not Evan.
Others turned to look at him, gazes sharp and assessing. The man - he was young, in his mid-twenties - flinched under the scrutiny.
“Laura?” he asked again.
She rose up and crossed the bullpen. “Yes, that’s me. Where’s Evan?”
“He called in,” the young man said. “I’m Chris.”
Laura smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Chris. Tell Evan we hope he gets well soon.” She signed the credit card slip Chris handed her, then turned and headed over to Yuy’s desk.
Yuy barely glanced at the mochi as he accepted it. “I found what you wanted.”
“And neither Rodney McKay nor Richard Woolsey work for the FBI.”
Laura frowned. “What? But Lieutenant Crawford and Captain Hendricks both -”
“They’re both civilian contractors with the Air Force, very classified stuff. I couldn’t get near it.” Yuy kept his voice low.
“Shep was with the Air Force.”
“But you weren’t. From the precinct, they looked at you, and they looked at Shep - and they looked at one more person.”
“Who?” Laura didn’t know anyone else in the detective ranks who’d been in the Armed Forces.
Laura blinked. “Evan? But he’s not one of us.”
“We have a file on him, from when his bakery was broken into,” Yuy said.
That was the first time any of them had met Evan, investigating the broken window and raided cash register.
“He wasn’t in the military, was he?”
“Culinary art school.”
Laura said, “I’m going to check on Shep. What’s his address?”
“You don’t know it?” But Yuy was already typing rapidly.
“We were beat partners, not friends.”
“You visited him at the hospital.”
“Who else would have?”
“Point.” Yuy scribbled the address down on a sticky note, peeled it off the pad, and handed it to Laura.
She glanced at it, memorized it, tucked it into her wallet. “Thanks.”
There was every chance McKay had just been jealous of Evan after the way John reacted to him and his baked goods - McKay seemed intense enough to do something like look up Evan - but something about the entire situation felt odd to her. Especially since McKay was lying about being with the FBI. Did John know the truth of who Mckay and Woolsey were?
Laura contemplated as she drove, listening to the eerily polite electronic voice on her phone giving her directions. When she arrived at John’s place - precisely the kind of small, slightly rundown little bachelor apartment she’d imagined for him - she could see through the front window that the television was on and John was sitting on the couch. He might have fallen asleep while watching, so she knocked on the front door instead of ringing the doorbell.
But she heard soft, slow footsteps, and then John pulled open the door. His hair was even crazier than usual (it needed washing) and his eyes were bloodshot.
“Hey, Cadman. How’d you find me?”
“Ah. No further explanation needed. Want to come in for, um, I think I have cups for water?” John was wearing a faded Patriots t-shirt and threadbare sweats.
“I just wanted to make sure you made it home all right,” Laura said. “I’m surprised McKay isn’t here harassing you. Doesn’t the FBI have anything better to do?”
“I’m sure he knows where I live,” John muttered. “But apparently he’s finally found something better to do with his time than waste it on me.”
Laura knew John wouldn’t have slipped like that if he weren’t tired and in pain, wouldn’t have been so open with his emotions but she saw the way his expression flickered when she said FBI. He knew who McKay and Woolsey really worked for, or he at least knew it wasn’t really the FBI.
“Anything you need?” Laura asked. “Since all you have is water and maybe cups.”
“No alcohol for the foreseeable future, even though I needed a drink a week ago.” John swiped a hand over his face. “I’m going to try to sleep, and I’ll be back on deck for third shift with you, all right? Captain Hendricks is sticking me on light duty down in the bullpen so as to keep an eye on me, make sure I’m not overdoing it.”
“I’m surprised he’s even letting you back into the building.”
“Well, I agreed to ride a desk in the bullpen.”
Laura studied John for a long moment. “All right. See you there.”
John nodded, flashed her a pale imitation of his usual Han Solo-esque smile. “Yep. On the dot.”
Laura waved and turned to go, and John said,
She paused, glanced over her shoulder.
John scrubbed a hand over his hair, looking discomfited. But he said, “Thanks. For, you know. Caring.”
Laura smiled at him. “We scrubs have to stick together, don’t we?”
It was what he’d said when he’d plopped down beside her on that first day in the Academy.
John nodded, and then he watched to make sure Laura made it to her car, still an officer and a gentleman after all these years.
Laura went home to George - and to surf the Internet and see if there were any amateur tap troupes looking to take on new members.
Merquise brought John a cup of coffee, and then when he was seated at his desk, Lieutenant Crawford brought him a stack of hard files from archives to scan into the digital archives. It was work a lowly desk sergeant or admin clerk could have done, but it was something that would keep John busy, and since Yuy had also put a scanner on John’s desk, he wouldn’t have to move around much to do it.
Maxwell perched on the corner of John’s desk with his own cup of coffee. “So, a serial killer? What was that like?”
“It was a pain,” John said, deadpan, and Maxwell laughed.
“The guy shot you?”
“A whole bunch.”
“What was this I heard about an explosion?”
“That wasn’t my fault,” John said.
“The FBI was involved, right? Was your serial killer a terrorist?” Maxwell leaned in and lowered his voice, but not low enough that no one else could hear.
Everyone else in the bullpen, like Laura, was pretending to work but listening in.
“That’s classified,” John said.
“How did you get clearance?”
“I was already on the guy’s tail. If they wanted my help, they had to read me in.”
Maxwell nodded. “Why did you want to quit?”
“I’ve never much been one for following rules,” John said. “Broken them before, been sent down. Decided to get out before I was kicked out. Only this time I succeeded, so I guess I get to stick around.”
Maxwell tilted his head. “What rules did you break?”
John lowered his gaze for a moment. “Did that old gumshoe thing - followed my gut. Against all rational judgment, admittedly.”
“But you were right in the end,” Maxwell said.
“Lucky, I suppose.”
For once in his life, Maxwell was serious. “You’re a good detective, Shep. And also a hero. There’s probably a photo op and a handshake with the brass in it for you.”
John made a face, and Maxwell laughed, and then Yuy was hollering for him to grab his coat and go, they were needed at a crime scene, and Maxwell hopped off of John’s desk and headed for the door.
Predictably, John was bored by the time they were halfway to what third shift considered lunch, and he’d abandoned his scanning to wander around to the other detectives. Chang and Barton were working up a burglary case to send over to the DA’s office. Merquise and Schbeiker were writing up reports from witness interviews they’d conducted on an assault case. They showed him the best of the footage from the interviews, during which one of the witnesses had been so busy ogling Merquise that he’d about had a heart attack when Schbeiker arrived with coffee, sliding up behind him silently and looming over him till he noticed her.
When lunch rolled around, Catalonia and Laura took John to an all-night diner. He didn’t eat nearly enough, picked at a pathetic-looking salad, but he drank a lot of water and coffee. He listened to them hash out their carjacking case. Something about it wasn’t sitting right with them, but neither of them could figure out what it was.
“She’s in on it,” John said.
Catalonia, who’d been summarizing the victim’s statement to him, paused. “What do you mean?”
“Her statement is too perfect. Chronological. Lots of detail. Think of every other victim of a violent crime you’ve ever interviewed. Everything is jumbled, scant at first. A lot of them suffer from weapon-focus, can describe every detail on the gun or knife but not the color of their attacker’s skin.”
Laura thought back to what she knew about how the brain worked during a traumatic event. “You’re right. Her story is - rehearsed.”
Catalonia eyed John, thinking. “Let’s get her back in, interview her again.”
“She’s trying to lead you in the wrong direction,” John said. “Chase after the wrong person. Bet the guy she led you to is in on it, too. He’s probably a patsy - seems like the perfect suspect, but at the last minute he’ll have a magic-bullet alibi. I’d look at her brother or boyfriend or something.”
“Your gut instinct is pretty good.” Laura arched an eyebrow at him.
But sure enough, when Catalonia and Laura did some digging - checked the victim’s Facebook page, ran the names of her male acquaintances - more than one of them came back with records, and several of them had grand theft auto and similar crimes on their rap sheets.
“Question is,” Catalonia said, studying the information on her computer screen, “what is she trying to distract us from? Why invent a carjacking at all?”
That was the sixty-four-thousand dollar question.
Lieutenant Crawford swept through the bullpen more frequently than usual, ostensibly to check up on the latest case Yuy and Maxwell were working, but everyone knew it was really to make sure John wasn’t straining himself. John always happened to be scanning paperwork dutifully whenever she came by for an inspection. He was even reading a few of the files idly, sharing some of the weird and funny moments aloud.
“This is just special,” he said, leaning over toward Laura and Catalonia. “This guy gets busted with meth crystals in his pocket, and his story is these aren’t my pants.”
Laura snorted. “What was he doing, that he ended up in someone else’s pants?”
“Having a lot more fun than we’re having,” John drawled, and even Catalonia displayed a hint of amusement.
Everything was proceeding as normally as it could, what with John acting as a glorified admin clerk and Lieutenant Crawford hovering like a mother hen, when the end of shift arrived and Maxwell and Yuy returned.
Maxwell’s expression was blank. Yuy’s expression was thunderous.
Laura caught Maxwell’s eye, raised her eyebrows. He shook his head.
Yuy threw his jacket down at his desk, fired up his computer to make his notes, and then he said, “I’m hungry. Where the hell is the food?”
And Laura realized - Evan wasn’t there. She glanced at her watch. His delivery was overdue.
“Want me to call down to the bakery?” Schbeiker asked.
Yuy blinked, and he looked at John, then at Laura.
Laura said, “They might just be super busy. Everyone, give me your orders and I’ll run down and grab the stuff.”
Catalonia flashed Laura a knowing smirk, but then John was on his feet, shrugging on his jacket.
“I’ll come with. I want to thank Evan in person, for the sausage rolls.”
“Sure thing. Let’s go.”
Evan’s Bakery was one block west and two blocks south, well within walking distance. Laura liked the warm summer night air. She modulated her pace, watching John out of the corner of her eye. He moved confidently enough, but she’d walked beside him enough to know he was being cautious, was still in pain. She hoped Lieutenant Crawford didn’t come to check on him while they were out.
A line stretched from the door of the bakery and halfway down the block, but this early in the morning people were eager to get their breakfast fix before work, so that wasn’t so unexpected.
“You stay in line,” Laura said, out of deference to John’s state, “and I’ll go inside and see what’s up with Evan.”
Judging by John’s smirk, he assumed he knew what her ulterior motive was. He was only half right.
Laura wasn’t above flashing her badge to get in through the door and up to the counter, where Chris and a woman she didn’t recognize looked very frazzled, Chris bagging and boxing up orders, the woman ringing people up.
“Hey, Chris,” Laura called above the din. “Just came to see what was up with the delivery for the precinct.”
It took Chris a moment to recognize her. “Yes. Detective. Yeah, Evan’s not answering his phone. He usually vid-calls to let me know what’s up. Yesterday after closing he sent me a text message to say he needed me to run the shop for the next little while, but he isn’t responding to calls, and I have finals coming up, and so does Sheila, and I’m honestly kind of worried about him.”
“Some guys came around here yesterday, wanting to talk to him,” Chris said. “Federal agents.”
“FBI?” Laura asked.
“Let me guess, one short and bald and bespectacled, the other blue-eyed and fast-talking?”
“How did you know that?” Chris paused mid-scoop of a pastry, stared at her.
“FBI’s been around the precinct,” Laura said. “Did they say what they wanted with him?”
“They said it was classified.” Chris bit his lip. “But you’re here about the precinct delivery. It’s boxed up in the back. I was going to run it over once things slowed down, but with just the two of us -”
“I can grab it.” Laura smiled, but her mind was racing. Of course Evan would video-call his employees; all of them knew rudimentary sign language; it was a condition of working at the bakery, which made perfect sense.
So the Air Force was interested in Evan beyond McKay’s petty jealousy. Laura didn’t think Woolsey would do something like indulge in McKay’s crush on John, especially since they worked with the military, and the military had its regs.
Chris finished helping his current customer, ducked into the back, came back with a familiar basket. Laura promised to make sure the basket was returned, and then she stepped out of the bakery.
John had only moved up a few paces. “So you got the food, but what about Evan?”
“Oh. Must be his day off. Guy’s gotta take a vacation sometime. Sorry.” John sounded sincerely apologetic for Laura’s disappointment.
Laura glanced at him, and they started back for the precinct. “The kid at the counter said the FBI came around asking to talk to Evan. The two agents match Woolsey and McKay’s descriptions.”
John frowned. “What? That makes no sense. Evan’s just a baker.”
“I know,” Laura said. “Let’s get these pastries over to the others before Yuy starts committing cannibalism.”
“What could McKay possibly want with a baker? Unless - do you know where Evan lives? I’d like to talk to him. About McKay.”
“I’m not that much of a stalker,” Laura said.
John arched an eyebrow.
“But we probably have his address on file from when his bakery was broken into.”
Yuy pounced on the basket before Laura was fully through the doorway, and the rest of the detectives swarmed around it, flies to honey.
“What was the hold-up?” Maxwell asked.
“Evan’s not there, and his staff can’t reach him,” Laura said.
Yuy, who’d wolfed down half a dozen pieces of green tea mochi, paused. Now that his hunger was sated, he was rational again. “Is he sick?” He caught Laura’s gaze, raised his eyebrows.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was thinking I’d go - check on him. Now that my shift is done. We have his address, right? From that old burglary.”
Schbeiker looked disapproving. “Misusing police resources to fuel your crush -”
“Evan’s baked goods are necessary to the continued functioning of this department,” Catalonia said smoothly. “It’s to everyone’s benefit that he’s all right. As Cadman is finishing her shift, it makes sense that she goes to check on him.”
“We’re all finishing our shifts,” Merquise pointed out, and Schbeiker nodded her agreement.
Yuy, a mochi cake in his teeth, was bent over his keyboard, typing away. “Yeah, but his place is on the way to Cadman’s. Most efficient use of resources is to send her, yes? So the rest of us don’t have to go out of our way.”
“I’ll go with,” John said. “I still want to thank him in person. For the sausage rolls.”
Yuy didn’t look like he believed that for one second. Maxwell was attempting to convince John, via very poor charades, to call him after and report, because Laura wasn’t supposed to know there was a betting pool as to when she asked Evan out on a date.
Laura pretended she didn’t see Maxwell, instead accepted the sticky note Yuy handed her with Evan’s address on it.
“Can I catch a ride with you?” John asked. “My car got blown up, and I haven’t had a chance to find a new one.”
Laura, fishing in the basket for a pain au chocolat, paused. “How did you get here?”
“Called a cab.”
“From way out there? Jeez, Shep, if you’re going to be sticking on third shift with us, carpool with me,” Laura said.
He ducked his head. “If you’re sure -”
“Your car got blown up?” Maxwell shook his head. “Your car was -”
“Pretty damn sweet, I know.” John looked aggrieved. He followed Laura out to her car, slid into the passenger seat.
She handed him her phone and told him to program in the address from the sticky Yuy had given her, that he could pick the soundtrack to go with the navigation. She supposed she ought to count herself lucky, that the Johnny Cash album he chose had a bunch of covers that she liked.
Evan lived about halfway between the precinct and Laura’s house in a modest bungalow with a neat lawn and brightly-painted shutters. There was a car parked in the driveway.
Laura parked on the sidewalk and strode up to the house, doing her best to look like a casual visitor and not a detective pursuing a lead. She knocked on the door, but there was no answer.
“If he’s sick, he could be napping,” John offered. He hung behind her, watching her six, maintaining the tactical L even if they weren’t approaching a hostile scene.
Laura tried the doorbell, waited, but there was still no answer. So she knocked louder, used her cop knock, the kind that usually preceded a drug raid. Still no response.
“He’s not home,” John said.
“Is that his car, though?” Laura had never seen Evan’s car before, because he always walked to the precinct.
John fished his cellphone out of his pocket. “Let me get someone to run the plates.”
Hidaka on first shift was already there, and he ran the plates right away.
“Thanks, Ken,” John said. He closed his phone and nodded to Laura. “Yeah, that’s Evan’s car. Could be a friend drove him to the doctor, if he’s feeling sick.”
Laura eyed him. “I don’t like this.”
“Did you know your friends McKay and Woolsey pulled my file?”
John frowned. “You? Why?”
“I thought it was because I was the only other ex-military in our division,” Laura said. “They both recognized my name, knew stuff I don’t really advertise around the station.”
“Like that you used to work for the Secret Service and ATF in their bomb disposal unit,” John said.
“Like that. But they also pulled our file on Evan, from that burglary at his bakery.”
John narrowed his eyes. “How do you know that?”
“Yuy looked it up for me.”
“So you think Woolsey and McKay are - what, responsible for something happening to Evan? You and I are still here, aren’t we?” But the gears were turning in John’s head; Laura knew that look on his face.
“For my peace of mind,” she said, “let’s do a quick recon of the house, and then I can take you home. Chalk it up to me being irrational because I have a crush on Evan.”
The corner of John’s mouth curved up. “So you do have a crush on him.”
Laura rolled her eyes. “You go left, I’ll go right.”
John nodded and set off. Laura headed in the opposite direction, circling around the house. Evan’s backyard wasn’t fenced in, so Laura followed the little cement path along the side of the house to the back lawn. Evan had a cherry tree and a little vegetable patch, a covered wooden deck, and -
The french doors had been smashed in.
John stood on the back deck just at the edge of the scattered glass. Laura moved to stand beside him. The den was a wreck - overturned furniture, books and pictures spilling off the shelves, more broken glass.
“Call it in,” John said.
Detectives Hidaka and O’Hara arrived about five minutes after that, with a crime scene van right on their heels.
“What have we got?” O’Hara asked. Ono led him around back to see - and to get advice about where to cordone things off for the crime scene techs - and Hidaka spoke to Laura and John.
John caught Laura’s eye, raised an eyebrow. She gestured for him to take the lead. John explained why they’d come to check on Evan - precinct courtesy, more than anything, since he was always so generous with his baked goods, and also he’d been extra kind to John while he was convalescing. He left out any mention of Woolsey, McKay, or the FBI (or who they really worked for). He also left out any mention of Laura’s crush on Evan.
Hidaka took notes in a little flip-cover pocket notebook, old-school, but he listened attentively. He wrote down what information Laura had about Evan’s employees at the bakery - Chris and Sheila, last names unknown, students - and the bakery’s hours.
“Should we just go?” Laura asked, scanning John’s face. He was looking a little pale. “I’m sure Hidaka and O’Hara have everything under control.”
John shook his head. “No. If something strange is going on - if McKay’s involved in this, I need to know.”
Laura wondered if she should tell John she knew who McKay and Woolsey really worked for. They lingered in the backyard next to the vegetable patch while crime scene techs in gloves and booties walked the scene, Hidaka and O’Hara trailing after them. A photographer was tip-toeing through the debris, snapping pictures while another tech sketched and made measurements with a laser.
Hidaka fired off a text message to John, asked him and Laura to canvas the immediate neighbors - including the ones who lived in the house behind Evan’s - to see what, if anything, any of them knew.
All of them were stay-at-home mothers whose children were at school, and they all knew Evan. None of them had heard anything strange in the last couple of days, nor had they noticed anyone hanging around the house who ought not to have been there. One woman had said she noticed Evan had some visitors. John’s expression turned grim when the people she described matched Woolsey and McKay. All of the women were concerned about Evan’s welfare. Apparently he was good friends with all of his neighbors and often shared his baking tips with the women, and all the neighborhood kids had a standing invitation to draw on his driveway and sidewalk with his impressive array of sidewalk chalk and play football in his backyard. That Evan could have been kidnapped without any of them noticing made them concerned for their children’s safety.
John assured them that their children would be safe, but encouraged them to be cautious and keep an eye out for strangers or prowlers. He and Laura left them business cards in case they remembered anything more, or their children or spouses recalled seeing or hearing or noticing something that might be important.
John’s smile was charming when it wasn’t sarcastic, and all of the women assured him that they would let him know as soon as they learned anything, and they were sure that the police department was doing everything they could to make sure Evan was found unharmed.
They headed back to Evan’s house and round the back to where the crime scene techs were boxing up their gear and went to report in to O’Hara and Hidaka.
Both of them were standing with a crime scene tech, the three of them paging through some kind of notebook laid carefully on the deck table.
“Just how well did you know the vic?” O’Hara asked.
“He brought a basket of baked goods to the precinct every morning,” John said. “Has done for - oh, a while now. After we worked a burglary at his bakery.”
“He ever get - overly friendly or familiar with you?” Hidaka’s blue-green eyes were shadowed, solemn.
Laura glanced at John, who shook his head.
“No,” she said. “He’s always been pretty friendly. I mean - he’s mute. He only signs. And most of the time he’s carrying a basket, so he doesn’t really - talk. Why?”
Hidaka spun the notebook toward her, and Laura saw that it wasn’t a notebook but a sketchbook.
The sketches on the open page were mostly of Laura. Nothing creepy or invasive. More like - studies. Her eyes. Her hands. Her face. A bunch of different hairstyles, usually the practical ones where she kept her hair up off her neck and out of her face. Her hip, where she wore her badge and gun.
“He’s talented,” John said.
Laura tugged on a glove, flipped through the other pages. “Okay, see, look, there’s the MGM Grand, and the Luxor, and the Bellagio, and the Statue of Liberty outside the New York New York, and Chris and Sheila from the bakery.”
O’Hara raised his eyebrows.
Admittedly, the majority of the drawings were of Laura.
“Maybe he’s sweet on her,” John said.
Hidaka raised his eyebrows.
“What?” John protested. “She’s pretty. Objectively speaking.”
“I’m right here,” Laura said. She kept flipping through the notebook. Evan was very talented indeed. She knew he drew and painted for fun, but she’d never expected that he was quite this talented. Yes, he was an amazing baker, but -
A photograph fell out of the back pages, fluttered to the ground. Laura scooped it up.
It was of McKay. He was wearing a blue and gray windbreaker with a patch on the left sleeve that looked like the Canadian flag and he was smiling, talking to someone.
Laura held it out to John. “Is McKay from Canada?”
“Yes,” John said. “He’s irritatingly proud of that fact.”
“Aren’t Canadians supposed to be polite?” O’Hara asked.
John’s brow furrowed. “I suspect he missed the memo.”
Hidaka peered over John’s shoulder. “You know this man?” He flipped to the back of the sketchbook, and all four of them stared.
Evan had collected a handful of photographs and polaroids. There was one of John, sitting at his desk back at the precinct - most likely a candid shot, as John’s hair was messier than usual and he had his sleeves rolled up and a familiar harried look about him, like he’d been working on a case late into the night. Laura, younger, wearing a lab coat and safety classes, gear she hadn’t worn since her earliest days with EOD.
A baffling photograph of Laura sitting at a laptop, McKay behind her, wearing that same unfamiliar outfit, and the weird thing was that Laura was wearing a t-shirt the same color as McKay’s, some kind of uniform.
Another photo, of John, Laura, and McKay, perhaps mid-conversation? All of them wearing similar uniforms. John, wearing tac gear. And, bafflingly, Evan. Wearing a similar uniform, grinning at the camera. Perched on a desk in an unfamiliar place. In full tac gear, looking calm and comfortable with a P-90 clipped to his tac vest.
There was a photo of John and McKay in silhouette, having some kind of conversation or confrontation. No uniforms, there, but suits. Laura had never seen John and McKay standing together; John was a few inches taller than McKay.
There was a polaroid of Laura, calm and casual, her hair down, longer than she’d worn it since college, smiling at someone off-camera. There was a postcard of North Las Vegas, and another photo of Vegas with something dried and green splashed across it.
And there was another photo of - Laura wasn’t sure. Something out of a video game, maybe? Or perhaps some new model of oil rig? It was a structure, tall and spiky and metallic, set in the middle of the ocean, glittering with lights at night, almost like a floating Las Vegas.
John stared at it, all of the color draining out of his face.
“Do you recognize it, Sheppard?” Hidaka asked.
John nodded. “I need to make a call.” He spun away, reaching into his pocket for his phone.
“Do you recognize it?” Hidaka asked Laura.
She shook her head. “No. But then half of these I don’t recognize. Not even some of the ones I’m in.”
John paced back and forth along the edge of the yard, just out of earshot to make out any words. His voice rose sharply a couple of times; he sounded angry. Finally, he stormed back toward Laura.
“You want my help? You help me first. Oh yeah? Well, I didn’t ask you to. Be there. Yesterday.” John shoved his phone into his pocket. “Let Hidaka and O’Hara finish up here. You and I are going back to the precinct. McKay and Woolsey will meet us there.”
“Who are McKay and Woolsey?” O’Hara asked.
Laura pointed to one of the pictures. “That’s McKay.”
“Cadman,” John shouted, and Laura hurried to her car.
Hidaka protested, and Laura called over her shoulder, “We’ll compare notes later, I promise!”
Schwartz and Murase looked very surprised when John swept into the bullpen, Cadman on his heels.
“Hey, Shep,” Murase said. Her partner, Kudoh, was nowhere to be seen. “You working first shift?”
John lifted his chin. “Is there an interview room open?”
Schwartz blinked. “Yeah, but -”
“Great. I'm taking it. Which one?”
“Room three. But -”
John headed for chat room three.
Laura paused at her desk to clock back in out of habit.
“Cadman?” Murase asked, “what’s going on?”
“I was following a lead kind of off the books - casual inquiry, after hours, and it turned into something bigger.”
Schwartz leaned on, lowered his voice. “I heard Shep almost died. Is he all right? He seemed -”
“Angry,” Murase said.
That was one word for it. John had been tense, to say the least. Laura smiled tightly. “Like you said, he almost died.”
Murase cast a worried glance at the door to the interview room. “Shouldn’t he be taking it easy?”
Schwartz huffed. “Good luck telling him that.”
“We’re expecting some persons of interest for interviews,” Laura said. “Chances are they ask for Shep, not me. Send them straight back.”
Murase nodded, and Laura flashed her a grateful smile before crossing the bullpen to join John.
He was standing in the observation room talking on his phone. “Yeah, thanks, I appreciate it. I’ll try to record it, but we may run into some classified issues that the witness will kick up a fuss about. Since he has Hendricks and Crawford in his pocket, we may have to do it off the record.” John glanced at Laura and said, “Yeah, send them to Cadman too, just in case. Thanks, and, uh ditto, Hidaka. Really.” He ended the call and tucked his phone away.
“You want me on deck with you in there?” Laura asked. Per department policy, all interviews of suspects on felony cases had to be tape recorded. It often helped to have a second detective observing, to catch nuances the interviewing detective might miss, especially if an interview wasn’t being recorded.
“I’ve got this,” John said. “See how McKay likes it on my home turf.”
Before Laura could question John further, her phone buzzed in her pocket. She fished it out and saw - photos. Hidaka had sent her pictures of the photos they’d found in the back of Evan’s sketchbook. Laura flipped through them. Apparently they had found more scattered through the pages of the sketchbook. one of them was of Laura in her old Marine uniform, still a lieutenant, and Evan in one of those strange uniforms. It had no military rank but it did have an American patch on one shoulder. He and Laura were walking side-by-side through a lovely green meadow, she armed with a P-90 and sidearm, he carrying an RPG launcher. It made no sense at all. Was it photoshopped?
The intercom on the wall buzzed. “Detective Sheppard?” It was Banks, the desk sergeant.
John tapped the button to respond. “Go for Sheppard.”
“A Rodney McKay from the FBI is here to see you.”
“Send him back.” John headed into the chat room himself. A moment later, Schwartz ambled across the bullpen, a harried-looking McKay on his heels. McKay’s suit was pristine compared to how he’d looked at the hospital first thing in the morning - or at the end of the long night. For a man who worked for The Man he rocked a pretty well-cut suit.
McKay burst into the chat room. “So, have you finally come to your senses? You’re going to join us?”
John fixed McKay with an inscrutable look. “Where is Evan Lorne?”
McKay blinked. “Who?”
“You and Woolsey were the last to see him before he disappeared,” John said.
Realization crossed McKay’s face followed by something resembling hurt. “Evan Lorne the - the pastry guy? Who was your second-in-command in - is this interview being recorded? Because that would violate at least a dozen federal and international laws.”
John rolled his eyes. “I’m not insane. But Evan is missing, and -”
“And you think we had something to do with it.” McKay pressed his hips into a thin line. “He’s of no use to us, not with his handicap.”
Laura bit back a reflexive defensive comment on Evan’s behalf.
“Why were you digging up info on Laura Cadman?” John pressed.
“Same reason we checked into the baker." McKay shrugged. “Look, if something happened to the guy, I don’t know anything about it, and I don’t have time to waste -”
“He was kidnapped. The house was trashed.”
“Kidnapped? Did someone get a ransom call?”
John fished his phone out of his pocket, unlocked it with a swipe of his thumb. He turned it around for McKay see. “Is this what I think it is?”
McKay went very still. “Where did you get that?”
“Found it at the scene of the kidnapping.”
Laura couldn’t tell which photo it was.
Mckay reached out, grabbed John’s wrist and dragged the phone closer. “You mean Evan had these?”
“Tucked into his sketchbook.”
“Tell that to the gaggle of detectives and crime scene techs who -”
“How many people have seen this?” McKay’s eyebrows nearly flew off his face.
John smirked. “Like I said, a gaggle.”
“You can't show these to anyone else.” McKay jabbed at the phone, attempting to delete the photo.
John didn’t try to stop him. “That is not the original. And it is certainly not the only copy.”
“John, you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re playing with fire -”
“I have no idea? I was the one who got shot out there in the desert, who nearly bled to death and nearly got blown up and nearly had the life sucked out of me while you stood by in your perfectly-pressed suit and had ego pissing contests with other scientists.”
McKay’s expression was pinched and pale.
John’s expression was too calm to be real. He was furious. “I’m in these photos,” John said. “You’re in these photos. Evan is in these photos. And Laura is in these photos.”
“Right. Marine. EOD.”
Laura was still creeped out that McKay had pulled her file.
“This Laura person isn’t missing too, is she?” McKay asked.
“No,” John said.
“I didn’t kidnap her either,” McKay said huffily.
“If you didn’t kidnap Evan, why were you so curious about him? You went to his house, went to his bakery.”
“Interest does not necessarily lead to kidnapping,” McKay snapped.
“And yet only after you and Woolsey poked around did he go missing.”
McKay frowned. “How do you know that if he’s missing?”
“I’m a detective, remember? There were witnesses. We interviewed them.”
“Who is we?”
“The aforementioned gaggle,” John drawled. “Why did you pull Laura’s file?”
“Like I said, same reason we -”
“You didn’t interview Laura,” John said.
McKay rolled his eyes. “She doesn’t have the gene.”
John raised his eyebrows. “But Evan does?”
What gene? This was the second time she’d heard about it.
“Yes,” McKay said. “After you and two program personnel who shall remain nameless, Evan’s got the strongest gene expression on the planet.”
John pocketed his cellphone. “But you didn’t want him?”
“As previously mentioned, his handicap is a liability. In the field.”
Laura no idea what was going on. She was tired, cranky, and worried about Evan.
“Anyone else interested in this gene?” John asked. “Who cares less about the physical capabilities of the possessor.”
Mckay started to shake his head then paused.
John pounced. “Who, McKay?”
“The NSA. In other realities they’re called the NID.”
The who? Laura had never heard of them. And did he just say in other realities?
“If they have access to certain tech, only a gene-carrier can activate or initiate it.”
“Could you have led them to him?” John asked.
“No - yes. Maybe.”
“Will they come after Cadman?”
“If they know she doesn’t have the gene, no.”
“You’re a cop. Too high-risk a target. The baker boy was ideal.”
“You didn’t see his place,” John said. “He put up a hell of a fight.”
“I’ll get some people on it. Thanks for letting me know -”
“We’re on it,” John said. “We’ll be faster than whoever you assign.”
McKay shook his head. “No. We have access to classified -”
“You said we were on a team together. Out there.” John’s voice was soft, almost wistful. “You want me a join you? Prove I should. Help us.”
“Me and Cadman, of course.”
McKay spun to face the mirror. “You said you weren’t recording this -”
There it was, John’s infamous smirk. “Always have backup, McKay. Departmental policy.”
McKay turned back to John, and for the first time he seemed uncertain. “John, do you really mean it? If I help you with this, you’ll join us?”
Laura was suddenly glad they weren’t recording this, because Hendricks and Crawford would have had a fit.
“Read her in,” John said.
When had he become John and not Sheppard? That first time at the hospital, McKay had called him Sheppard.
McKay stepped closer to John, reached out like he was going to touch John’s face, faltered.
“I’m not him,” John said. “But maybe I can learn how to be.”
McKay nodded. “All right. Let me call Woolsey. You had better sign the paperwork this time. Your friend Laura, too.”
“She will,” John said, casting a significant look at the mirror.
Laura remembered what McKay had said about this reality and wasn’t sure she wanted to be read in.
McKay immediately got on his cellphone to Woolsey, and John got on his cellphone to Hidaka and O’Hara to tell them he and Laura were going to follow the McKay angle, but there were some classification issues. Laura hoped Evan was all right, wherever he was.
She stared at the photo of him, hands in his pockets, grinning at the camera, and wondered what she would do when they found him.
He had arrived at the precinct in one of those black government SUV’s driven by an anonymous suit-clad federal agent-looking young woman who was obviously packing heat.
Laura, John, and Rodney were driven far out of the city, across the burning sands to a fenced facility with an awful lot of security for a shed and a couple of hangars.
“I know you’re not really FBI,” Laura said, while the SUV bounced along a dusty road.
Woolsey arched an eyebrow but said nothing.
The majority of the facility was underneath the hangar. Laura wasn’t surprised. It didn’t look much like an Air Force installation, though. Too many scientists, not enough military personnel.
“What is this, Area 51?” Laura asked, scanning the cement halls and locked metal doors.
“Yes,” McKay said. “Area 52 is in Colorado.”
He didn’t sound like he was joking, but he could have had epic deadpan. Laura glanced at John, but he just shrugged.
And then she was seriously weirded out. Between that this reality comment and the Area 51 thing, Laura was afraid her worldview was about to be permanently destroyed.
So when she and John were seated opposite Woolsey in an interrogation room and he pushed the paperwork toward her, she paused.
But then she thought of Evan, and those strange, impossible photos, and she accepted the pen McKay offered her.
As it turned out, she shouldn’t have been afraid of what was out there so much as being bored. Laura wasn’t stupid. She had done well in school, had a mind for science. McKay did not have a knack for telling stories. What could have been awesome and terrifying - aliens and interstellar travel and alternate dimensions - was instead horrifyingly boring, a long-winded lecture on stable Lorentzian wormholes, Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek mythology, archaeology, linguistics, and Einstein-Rosen Bridges.
McKay was either railing against or praising - it was hard to tell, given his propensity for backhanded compliments - the international cooperative efforts of some alphabet soup agency when Laura couldn’t take it anymore.
“So long story short: aliens real, wormholes real, alternate dimensions real, and in an alternate reality me and Shep and Evan are part of your Stargate Program,” she said.
McKay sighed and rolled his eyes. “Long story short, yes.”
“Special alien technology requires a special gene to use, and Shep and Evan have that gene,” Laura continued.
“And people here who know about that tech stole Evan for his gene.”
“And you think consulting an alternate reality can help us find him.”
Laura glanced at Shep.
Laura smiled at McKay. “All right. Let’s do it.” She stood up. “In an alternate reality, do I outrank Shep?”
“You’re not one of the people we usually inquire after when we reach out to an alternate reality,” McKay said. He led John and Laura out of the interrogation room and down yet another cement corridor, leaving Woolsey to deal with the paperwork. “Certain people - myself, Samantha Carter, Daniel Jackson, John Sheppard, Jack O’Neill are integral to the program’s success in every reality, so they’re who we check on first.”
“Not me or Evan?”
Laura wasn’t sure what she expected of an interdimensional communication device, but it should have looked more impressive than a really big computer, shouldn’t it?
The man operating the interdimensional communication device had wild brown hair, glasses, and was muttering under his breath in a foreign language. He barely acknowledged them when they entered, instead launched a volley of conversation at McKay that was numbers, Greek letters, and heavily accented English.
“Zelenka,” McKay said, “I need you to make a call.”
And then Zelenka actually looked at them and blinked. “Ah. Yes. Colonel Sheppard. Lieutenant Cadman.”
“Major, retired, in this reality,” John said sharply.
Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose. “Of course. Which one do you want me to call?”
“Pick one of the ones with its own Echo Project,” McKay said. To Laura, he added, “This is Dr. Radek Zelenka. He’s my second-in-command, as it were.”
Laura smiled at him. “Nice to meet you, Dr. Zelenka.” She fought back a yawn. “Is there any coffee around here? Scientists live on coffee, right? Just like cops.”
“Cops?” Zelenka echoed. His hands danced across half a dozen keyboards, pressing buttons, flipping switches, and typing at a mile a minute. Did he have more than two hands?
“Detective Cadman works with Detective Sheppard.” McKay’s tone spoke of infinite, possibly patronizing patience. “One of their cases has intersected with our interests, so they’ve been read into the program.”
“I hope we can help you solve it.” Zelenka’s smile was surprisingly sweet. He had dimples. And light blue eyes. “Ready?” he asked McKay.
McKay nodded. “Fire it up.”
Laura braced herself for something earth-moving to happen. Instead, a gentle hum filled the room, and then a series of beeps emitted from the speakers attached to Zelenka’s computer.
His monitor was dark, blank.
Zelenka peered at a different monitor, this one displaying a series of wavy lines. Radio signals?
“Receiving alt dimension telemetry,” he said. “Sending code.” He typed. There was another pause, and then he leaned into his microphone and said, “Atlantis, this is Dr. Radek Zelenka from Earth 616.”
John snorted in amusement. McKay rolled his eyes.
“I know,” McKay said. “We let O’Neill choose it.”
“I don’t get it,” Laura said.
“Comic book joke.” John smiled. “Glad you guys have some sense of humor.”
“Yes. Haha. So mature.” McKay’s tone was loaded with sarcasm.
“Don’t listen to him,” Zelenka said softly. “He calls this place The Batcave.”
McKay blushed. He looked good with high color. John noticed it too. Laura filed that away for later.
A man’s voice, slightly fuzzy, came over the speakers.
“We read you, Dr. Zelenka 616. This is Atlantis 615,” the man said. “Shall I patch you through to Director Woolsey?”
Zelenka glanced up at McKay, who pondered, then nodded.
“Woolsey?” Laura whispered.
“He’s the director of Atlantis in their reality,” McKay said.
“Just a moment,” the man said. “You want to open a video feed?”
“That would be nice,” McKay said, loud enough to be heard.
“Oh, hey Rodney,” the man said. “All right. I’m opening a feed now.”
And then the screen blossomed to life. The man on the other side of what Laura realized was an interdimensional portal had a pleasant face, brown hair, brown eyes, and a familiar-looking grey-blue uniform. His jacket had green patches instead of the blue she’d seen in the photo but also a Canadian flag.
A moment later, Woolsey appeared, and it was disconcerting to see him, because Laura knew he was in some other room on the base, but this Woolsey was wearing a the grey-blue uniform, only with red panels on the jacket and an American patch on the sleeve.
“Drs. McKay and Zelenka, Colonel Sheppard, Lieutenant Cadman, what warrants such a long-distance phone call?”
“We’ve run into a bit of a situation on our end,” McKay said.
Woolsey raised his eyebrows. “Not related to that Wraith attack, I hope.”
“No. I’m sure everything’s fine. As long as you notify your Earth that the Wraith may have learned of its location -”
“Already done, and Charlie O’Neill is sitting in the Ancient Chair, ready to defend the planet.”
“And you moved the Chair from Area 51?”
“Yes indeed. What else is going on?”
“A known gene-carrier has been kidnapped. We were wondering if your reality’s counterpart to this person might have some insight,” McKay said.
“Anything to help after you warned us about a possible Wraith attack on Earth,” Woolsey said. Woolsey from another reality. “Who shall I send for?”
“Major Lorne, please.”
Laura blinked. Major?
Woolsey nodded. “Of course.”
But then the man with the green-paneled jacket was tapping his radio. “Control for Major Lorne.” He paused. “Hey, Major. You’re needed in Control. Phone call for you.”
McKay and Woolsey chatted about how things were going in their respective realities. Apparently Woolsey’s McKay was making progress on some kind of new generator. Laura tuned them out, her mind spinning. Evan was a major in that alternate universe. In multiple universes, apparently. Was he in the Marines, like Laura? She thought of that one photo, how they’d been wearing different uniforms. She couldn’t picture him as a soldier, even though she’d seen that other photo, of him in tac gear, casually handling an assault rifle. Evan was gentle and sweet, artistic, thoughtful -
And coming up behind Woolsey and the operator man, wearing that same uniform, a radio at his ear, a pistol strapped to his thigh.
“A phone call, sir?” he asked Woolsey.
Laura blinked. His voice.
Woolsey nodded to the screen. “From Earth 616.” He stepped aside, and Evan stepped up, leaned in.
“Oh, hey McKay, Zelenka, sir. Cadman. What can I do for you?”
And Laura did feel the earth shift under her.
“Bad news, Major,” McKay said. “The you in this reality got kidnapped, we think for his gene. Anyone ever attempt to nab you while you were in, say, Vegas?”
“I haven’t been to Vegas in years, Doc.” Evan’s voice was warm and light, a pleasant tenor. But something in his eyes was - harder. And his expression was one Laura had never seen on the Evan she knew but that she’d seen on many a soldier, that mixture of worry and tension and the need to be doing something urgent. But then he smiled, and there, Laura knew that smile, those dimples, that sparkle in his eye. “What am I doing in Vegas? Having a good time, I hope. Not a shotgun wedding?”
“In this reality you never joined the Air Force,” McKay said. “You suffer from polymicrogyria and cannot speak, so you became a baker.”
Evan blinked. “Oh, well, hey. Baking is something I’m good at, right?”
The operator man nodded fervently.
“So no one’s ever tried to kidnap you?” John asked.
“Not on Earth.”
“Oh, well. Thanks anyway.” John smiled tightly.
He must have been at least as weirded out as Laura by hearing Evan actually talk.
Evan smiled ruefully. “Sorry I couldn’t be more help but - hang on.” His brow furrowed. “A couple of months back, Charlie O’Neill and Ash Mitchell and Lara Ford and some of the younger crowd were down in Vegas because they were helping Colonel Carter with something at Area 51. They were given passes to go off-base and a guy did get into it with Charlie. Not sure if it was an attempted kidnapping. If it was, it wasn’t a very good one, because Mitchell and Ford jumped in and it was foiled pretty quickly. Cops were called. Guy was busted for a drunk and disorderly, I think.”
“Do you have a report on that?” McKay asked.
“The full police report is on Earth, but we have the incident in O’Neill’s file,” Evan offered. “Chuck, can you -?”
Chuck the operator man nodded. “Transmitting data now, Major.”
“It’s not much,” Evan said, “but I hope you rescue me! Good to see another version of you as always, sir, and you too, Cadman.”
Sir. John in that universe outranked Evan, who was a major. Everyone kept calling John Colonel.
“Anything else, Doctor?” Woolsey asked.
Zelenka murmured confirmation that the transmission had come through.
“That’s everything. Thanks for your time.”
“Always glad to help. Atlantis 615, signing off.”
Zelenka’s screen went dark once more.
He typed rapidly, and the background humming faded.
“Send me that -” McKay began.
“Already on your datapad.” Zelenka pushed his glasses up with a smirk.
“Detectives,” McKay said, like they hadn’t just spoken to an alternate reality, “let’s go.”
That alternate Evan’s voice rang in Laura’s ears. She nodded and followed McKay and John out of Zelenka’s lab, down yet another cement corridor.
McKay was facedown in his datapad, fingers dancing across the screen. Laura glanced at John. Yes, Evan had been nice to him while he was recovering, but she had a feeling that his investment in this investigation had more to do with McKay than Evan.
John looked - pale. Tired.
“Hey, Shep, when was the last time you ate? I mean, besides one of those pastries from the bakery. Did you even get one?” Laura glanced at her watch. Damn. She’d been in detective mode for eleven hours now. Her and John’s shift had ended over three hours ago. She was supposed to be in bed over an hour ago.
John arched an eyebrow at her. “What are you saying, Cadman? That I look like crap?”
McKay surfaced from his datapad long enough to say, “You look fine.”
“I’m saying you look like you’re three hours overdue for bed and you just got out of the hospital a day and a half ago after being shot and blown up,” Laura said.
McKay paused, peered at John a little longer. “Coffee? Mess hall’s this way.” He executed a sharp quarter turn down the left corridor at the junction they’d reached. How he didn’t walk into anything or trip spoke volumes about how often he wandered around like this, distracted, reading and typing.
The mess hall was a lot more familiar to Laura, had the same tables and uncomfortable chairs and eyesore-colored cafeteria trays as other bases she’d been stationed on. Scientists and uniformed airmen and Marines were seated in clusters - together, oddly enough. Not segregated into their own groups.
McKay made a beeline for the coffee bar on the far side of the room. There were half a dozen coffee makers all running at once, more impressive than the coffee bar in the break room at the precinct, which was saying something. There were dozens and dozens of ceramic coffee mugs on racks next to the machines. So the military was finally interested in being environmentally friendly.
McKay poured a cup of coffee and thrust it into John’s hands, then served up himself. There was an awkward pause before he gave his mug to Laura - which he’d already sipped out of - and then served himself another.
“Thanks,” Laura said. She knew, intellectually, that men didn’t have cooties, but she was hesitant to drink the McKay coffee anyway. Till she took the first sip, and it was good coffee, and then she drank it all, and five minutes later, she was feeling much more awake.
“Well?” John asked. He and Laura had refilled their mugs, then drifted through the corridors behind McKay to what turned out to be his office. The man had two PhDs hung on the wall, three undergrad majors listed on his college diploma, and some random certificates, like gate rated and foothold prepared.
His desk was scrupulously organized - papers, pens, stapler, paper clips. He circled around it, sank into his desk chair without looking up.
“So, what does the report say?” John asked.
“Apart from an unnecessary blow-by-blow description of how O’Neill Junior, Mitchell Junior, and Ford Junior Miss beat the hell out of a drunk guy, there aren’t a lot of details. No organizational affiliations, no - hang on. Kavanagh?”
“Who’s Kavanagh?” Laura peered at the datapad.
“Peter Kavanagh. One of my scientists. Not always the brightest tool in the box, whiny and insubordinate, but generally competent, with the occasional bout of brilliance that makes it worth keeping him on staff. In this world. Who knows who he was on 615. Never thought to check on him, given how often he washed out of the program.”
“This guy Kavanagh much of a fighter? This - Charlie O’Neill is a soldier, right? For him to take on a soldier sounds like a poor choice,” John said.
McKay hummed thoughtfully. “Yes, that is a new level of stupid, even for him.”
“Does Kavanagh still work for you on this Earth?” Laura asked.
“So he knows about your fancy alien gene tech?”
“And he would know about Evan?”
“Would he try to kidnap Evan?” Laura asked.
“Not personally,” McKay said.
“He’d hire someone.” John sipped at his coffee. He looked less pale. “Let’s get a warrant and check his financials.”
McKay snorted. “Warrant? Who do you think I work for, the cops? Let me go find one of our hackers.”
“McKay, I get that I spend a ridiculous amount of time in VR and surfing cyberspace, but even I understand that people are people. Look at them! They’re exhausted, and not even all the coffee in the world will have them operating at peak performance. You’ve overclocked their processors, and they need to be shut down for a while. Take them to the crash bunkers and leave them there for at least six hours before you reboot them.”
McKay eyed John uncertainly. “You feel all right, right?”
“Just fine,” John said, but he was looking a little pale around the edges again.
The teenager - Naoe - actually stomped his foot and pointed at the door. “The bunkers. Now! I won’t lay out a single keystroke till they’re both snug as bugs in rugs.”
“We’re adults,” John said. “We can take care of yourselves.”
“Just because you’re adults doesn’t mean you can take care of yourselves. Look at you. All three of you! You look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet.” Naoe crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his foot, waiting.
“Who’s been teaching you American idioms again?” McKay demanded. “Was it Zelenka? Because -”
“I said go. I’ll wake you when I find something.”
“I don’t need sleep,” McKay protested. “I always look like this.”
Naoe rolled his eyes. “Please, as if no one on base knows you’ve been keeping embarrassing all-night vigils at the hospital for that one super-sexy chopper pilot.”
McKay and John both turned fascinating shades of red.
Laura stepped up, smiled tentatively before either man could get defensive and upset the person whose help they needed to pursue Evan’s case. “Naoe, is it? Which way to these crash bunkers?”
He handed her a datapad with a map on it. “I’m glad one of you sees sense. I’ll make sure the quartermaster has dopp kits and clean clothes for you by the time you wake. Now, off you go.” And he shooed her toward the door.
John and McKay followed, blushing hard and not looking at each other. Laura thought she was navigating the base admirably, especially since the datapad had a built-in tracking function that showed her where she was on the map, but she must have been more tired than she realized, because the place where she ended up didn’t look like any crash bunker she’d ever seen, those anonymous bunks on base where anyone could sleep off a nasty double-shift. It looked like someone’s bedroom.
McKay said, “I sleep on base a lot. Some experiments take all night, and there’s no point in driving all the way to my apartment in Summerlin and then back every four hours.”
There were two queen beds, one of which looked like it had recently been slept in, the other of which was covered in brown files with the Stargate Command logo on them. McKay gathered them up hastily and set them on the desk in the corner, which was littered with the same coffee mugs they’d gotten from the mess hall, sandwich wrappers, and plastic cutlery.
“You can have the, uh, fresh bed,” McKay offered.
Laura nodded and sat down on the edge of the bed, took off her shoes and socks.
“You want to go into the bathroom to change?” McKay asked.
Laura glanced over her shoulder at him. She’d shrugged off her jacket and was wriggling out of her slacks. If she was going to sleep, it was going to be comfortably. She wrangled her bra out from under her blouse. “You know I’m a cop, right? And before that I was a Marine? Not many ladies’ locker rooms to be had on the sands of Afghanistan or at the police station.”
Now that she was sitting on the edge of a very soft bed, she realized just how tired she was. She crawled under the covers, slid between the crisp, cool sheets, and fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
She was walking through an unfamiliar building, all soft, muted colors - rust red, periwinkle, blue, green, lavender. Only she wasn’t in her own body, she was in someone else’s. A man’s. McKay’s. Rodney’s. And he was - she was - they were dying. One of them had to give up, give in.
She was walking through the grass on a meadow, on an unfamiliar planet. Another planet. And that cute doctor, the one with the Scottish accent, was walking with her. And then she heard it, the high, buzzing whine that meant danger. Death. Wraith.
She and Catalonia were sitting in an interrogation room, at the table, splitting a blueberry muffin between them and mourning that Shep was gone, Shep was dead, had died in a gunfight or an explosion or something. His case had been tangled up with the FBI, serial killer or terrorist or both. He’d died a hero, albeit a reluctant one. He’d hate the fuss made at his funeral. None of his family would be there.
She was standing beside Chuck at the Control console in Ops when Dr. Lindsey came through the gate with the news: Lorne and his team were missing. She was waiting beside Chuck when Sheppard and his team returned with further news: Lorne and his team were dead.
She was leaning in the doorway of John’s hospital room, watching McKay and John converse, John sitting propped up against his pillows, voice strained, McKay perched on the edge of the bed beside him, close enough to speak softly, to kiss if one or both of them leaned in.
“Thanks for reading her in. I - she’s worried about him. And she’s a damn good detective. We’ll figure this out faster, with her here.”
“She’s not a convergence point, not like you and I.”
“Doesn’t mean she’s not smart.”
“Do you really mean it? That you’ll join us after we solve this case?”
“You read us in without being sure I meant it?”
“I - hoped.”
“How unscientific of you.”
“I’m not just a scientist. I’m also a man. Science is what I do, not who I am.”
“I’m not a chopper pilot or a cop either. Those were just jobs. I’m just...me. I’m bad at talking to people and I have no friends and it’s a wonder Cadman put up with me for as long as she did.”
“Well, if my interdimensional research is any indication, the only person in the multiverse who can put up with me long-term is...you. That one universe where I married and divorced Samantha Carter notwithstanding.”
“If she divorced you, it wasn’t long-term.”
“You were married and divorced, in other realities.”
“What? To who? Not - you?”
“In the realities where we could marry, we stayed married. But - before that. To a woman named Nancy. Never did learn her maiden name.”
“In a couple of universes you stayed married to her, but those were rare.”
“Even though those other universes are real, they’re not this one. I’m not any of those John Sheppards.”
“But in a sense, they’re all one John Sheppard. They’re all he is and all he could have been. All you are and all you could have been.”
“I am what I am, no more, no less.”
“You think less of yourself than you ought, because you’re more than you know.”
“Now you’re starting to sound like a drunk philosophy major.”
“Naoe was right, insufferable teenager that he is. I’ve over-worked you. Get some sleep. Doctor’s orders.”
“You’re not that kind of doctor.”
But John’s eyes fluttered closed when McKay leaned in and kissed him ever-so-softly.
And Laura slipped into deeper slumber, where she walked beneath the city lights that floated like stars overhead, hand-in-hand with Evan and heading for the sunrise.
Laura sat bolt upright, reaching for her gun.
On the other side of the room, John did the same.
McKay, who’d been pretzeled across two chairs pushed together in front of the desk, floundered awake and nearly fell onto the floor.
Naoe stood in the doorway, datapad in hand.
“Well, I’ve found a series of locations where he might be being kept. You’re not going to like why, though.”
Laura deliberately removed her hand from her gun. “For his fancy gene, right?”
“Then for what?” John asked. He was reaching for his pants, but then he saw, folded neatly on the nightstand, sweats and a USAF t-shirt.
Someone had, of a kindness, given Laura some USMC gear.
“Data’s on your tablet,” Naoe said to McKay. “If you need me to hack into anything else, let me know. I need coffee, though. And lots of it.” He backed out of the room, then turned and scampered down the hall, his footsteps fading rapidly.
“Dibs on the shower,” Laura said, heading for the ensuite.
“Why? Ladies first?” McKay groused.
“Because,” Laura said sweetly, “I’m faster than you, Shep, while you’re injured, and McKay, I can kick your ass with one hand tied behind my back. No one stands between me and my hot water. And I once stood between the president and stray bullets.”
McKay blinked at her. “Duly noted.”
Laura scrubbed up fast, as a courtesy to John and McKay. She was so glad someone had found her a dopp kit, because her mouth felt fuzzy and strange, and she desperately needed to brush her teeth. She felt her best when she was well-rested and clean, and she did her best when she felt her best, and Evan deserved the best. They were going to find him and rescue him.
When she stepped out of the bathroom, freshly dressed and scrubbed, steam wafted after her. She smiled at McKay and John, but they were both sitting up on the bed, heads bent close together, fingers tangling as they tried to control who looked at what on the datapad. They probably didn’t even notice how close they were sitting, so intent were they in wrestling for control of the datapad.
And then she decided to play up the tomboy card. She’d learned it growing up with a bunch of boy cousins, perfected it while in the Marines, and polished it while with the NLVPD.
“Hey, boys, why don’t you get a room? Oh wait, you already have one.”
They jerked apart, wearing matching guilty expressions.
And Laura realized - they liked each other.
John Sheppard, who broke women’s hearts left and right with his smile, liked Rodney McKay, who cut a fine figure in a suit but spoke a mile a minute and cared more about his datapad than people.
“Just kidding,” she said lightly. “You gonna let me in the loop, or is this club no girls allowed?”
“John can fill you in. I’m going to wash up,” McKay said. He dropped the datapad on John’s lap and rose, rummaged around in a duffel bag in the corner and hurried into the bathroom, closed the door a little too loudly.
Laura sat down on the edge of the bed, peered at the datapad. “So, Shep, what have you got?”
He eyed her, wary of some kind of additional comment about him and McKay, but she just gazed at him earnestly.
“Come on,” she said, “show me. We need to find my boy.”
“Your boy?” John echoed.
And Laura grinned at him. “When we’re done, you can have your boy.”
John blushed brighter, but the tension in his shoulders eased. Then he turned the datapad so she could see it and explained.
One of Rodney’s minions - he was Rodney now - was looking to outshine Rodney, because scientists had massive egos, and apparently Rodney had bruised his ego (a bunch of times) - which was not that unexpected. This minion, one Peter Kavanagh, was a fairly nondescript guy: glasses, narrow nose, pale blue eyes, very lame ponytail. He was tall and could have been strong, if he didn’t spend his entire day hunched over computers and laboratory instruments, taking readings and analyzing data. He’d worked on the interdimensional communication device with Rodney and had, under guise of late-night research (which was very common fare among scientists), been making un-sanctioned, un-recorded calls to alternate dimensions, looking for tech not yet discovered in this dimension that he could present to The Powers That Be to overthrow Rodney.
One thing he’d found from just one other dimension was -
Laura couldn’t even really wrap her head around it.
“An alien city?”
“But not like Atlantis. Best as Rodney can tell, the aliens are city-shaped entities. They’re massive and powerful and can handle interdimensional travel at the drop of a hat. They start as a spark of intelligence, or something, and they - gestate, for lack of a better word, inside their mother cities. And then they build themselves from the ground up, and then populate themselves with - people. I mean, they look human, but they’re sort of the equivalent of bacteria in our bodies. Tiny. Insignificant. Expendable. But also vital to daily operations.”
“Except this one looks like Atlantis.”
“This one was incubated in an Atlantis in another dimension, and when it was time for it to get born, it was that dimension’s Evan Lorne that helped reunite it with its mother.”
“Okay. So, Evan has midwife training, or just badass alien babysitting skills.” How were these words even coming out of Laura’s mouth?
“Apparently midwife training is important for gate teams.” John looked a little poleaxed himself. “Anyway, since these creatures travel interdimensionally, this baby alien - toddler alien? - has been hopping from dimension to dimension, helping out alternate Evan Lornes with - things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Well, the city has the firepower of the Death Star. One universe is Wraith-free because of it,” John said.
“So this Kavanagh character thinks he can use our Evan to lure the baby alien here and use it?”
“That’s about the size of it.”
Naoe had dug up logs of Kavanagh’s illicit interdimensional calls, his research notes on the alien city, and his finances.
Laura scrolled through them. “He doesn’t have nearly enough money to build an interdimensional communication device on his own, even though he helped build the one here on base. How does he plan on calling this alien?”
“By all accounts, other Lornes haven’t been deliberately summoning the alien. It just responds to a sort of subconscious distress signal.”
“It doesn’t discriminate between different versions of Evan?” Laura kept scrolling, and there - a medical report by a Dr. David Glennie, who’d interviewed the Evan Lorne who first interacted with the alien. There was a supplemental report by Dr. Heightmeyer, a psychiatrist, who was apparently the base psychiatrist for the Atlantis expedition in that dimension (and alternates of her served the same function in other dimensions). “Shouldn’t a super-advanced city alien be smarter than that?”
“They perceive things differently, I suppose. In one sense, every Evan is one Evan. Everything he is, has been, or could be.”
Laura paged through the medical report. There were photographs of swirly paintings that were nonsensical, some of them with weird symbols scratched into the paint in the center. There was a recording of Dr. Glennie’s interview with Major Lorne, a hypnotherapy session with Dr. Heightmeyer, and even video footage of some of Major Lorne’s activities during the whole alien baby city event.
People could send emails across dimensions. How intense was that?
“Dr. Naoe said he knew where Evan is being kept.” Laura raised her eyebrows at John. “Can we rescue him?”
“Not quite.” John scrubbed a hand over his face. “Looks like Kavanagh has hooked up with a local Yakuza gang for financial backing. They have properties all over the city, and any one of them could be where they’re stashing Evan. Even if we mobilized the entire NLVPD and SWAT squads, it’d be days, maybe even a couple of weeks before we found him.”
“We can’t let this creep Kavanagh get his own semi-sentient baby Death Star,” Laura said. “And who knows what he’s doing to Evan in the meantime?”
John put a tentative hand on hers. “We’ll figure something out. We always do.”
“Well, we as in me and Rodney. Apparently. In other universes. Rodney thinks Kavanagh will have to bring Evan here onto the base to make contact with the alien entity through the interdimensional drive. Rather than going on a city-wide man-hunt, we’ll wait for Kavanagh to bring Evan to us. That way we can catch Kavanagh and whoever’s working with him.”
“What makes you think Kavanah is bringing Evan here?” Laura asked.
John patted her hand a little awkwardly, then tapped the datapad so she could see. “Rodney says Kavanagh has scheduled a pretty large delivery for next Friday. All the paperwork is normal, everything is in order - except no such device exists.” He showed Laura some kind of very complicated order form. It was, ostensibly, for a lab instrument.
Laura knew that high-level lab instruments were much bigger and much, much more expensive than microscopes. She scanned the form. “Is it just me, or are the dimensions of that box -”
“Big enough to hold a human body? Yes.”
“Can we see where the package is coming from? That’ll be where they’re keeping Evan.” Laura scrolled through the form, but according to the paperwork, the instrument was coming from a company in Germany.
“Naoe’s running checks on all of the guards on duty the night the delivery is scheduled, the lab staff for the same night, and pretty much everyone on base that night. Kavanagh couldn’t pull this off alone. He’s using the Yakuza money to grease the wheels. Hopefully we can figure out who he’s got in his pocket.”
Laura sighed and rubbed her eyes. “So do they even need us?”
“We’re the ones who figured out Evan was missing,” John said. “They need us.”
Laura huffed. “This is like some kind of terrible young adult novel. Evan’s the chosen one and also the damsel in distress, and you’re all heroic and I’m your sidekick and McKay’s - what, your Hermione? You’re Harry, with that hair. Does that make me Ron?”
John stared at her confused.
“Of course you’ve never read Harry Potter. You’re reading War and Peace.”
Rodney said, “Evan Lorne’s not so much the Chosen One so much as the guy who stood up and said pick me.”
Laura and John turned.
“And I will need you,” he said. “For your super sleuthing skills. We need to lay a trap for Kavanagh and make the noose as tight as possible. But we also need as much evidence against him as possible so that when it comes time for him to face the music, he won’t have any choice but to tell us everything we want.”
Rodney in khakis and a t-shirt that read I’m with Genius and an upward pointing arrow looked a lot more approachable than Dr. McKay in his fancy suits and dark shirts and ties. He was rubbing a towel over his thin hair absently, and his hair stuck up all over the place, fluffy and soft-looking.
John nodded. “We can do that.”
Laura nudged him. “Your turn to shower.”
John rose up, scooped up his clean clothes and dopp kit. “Did you leave me any hot water?” he asked as he squeezed past Rodney.
“Of course I did.” Rodney rolled his eyes. “I’d never do anything to harm your delicate skin.”
“My skin isn’t delicate.” John’s protest went muffled as he closed the door.
“He’s not lying,” Laura said. “Showers in A-stan were half sand bath.” She stood up, handed Rodney his datapad. “You got somewhere John and I can set up shop? To run this investigation.”
Rodney paused to think. “I’m sure we can spare a conference room.”
“Thanks. We’re pretty low-tech. Paper. Tape. String. Once John is done with his shower, we should get food and coffee.”
The mere mention of coffee made Rodney smile. Laura wondered what else made him smile, and if John knew about it.
“It’s nicer than saying chief hacker,” Naoe explained. He, Laura, John, and Rodney were in the conference room Woolsey had set aside as their War Room.
On one wall was a picture map of Kavanagh’s connections - the delivery and receiving personnel most likely to be on the take, the lab personnel on the take, and his Yakuza connections.
Laura had called out to Chang and Yuy, who’d gone undercover for the vice squad looking to crack open a local Yakuza prostitution ring, and they’d helped point her and Naoe in the right direction as far as tracking financials. Between Laura and Yuy, they’d worked up a list of likely suspects who might have assisted with Evan’s kidnapping. Yuy and Chang reported that the rest of the crew on third shift were itching to help with the investigation. Woolsey had pulled some strings with Hendricks and Crawford to keep Laura and John on the case, but due to the classified nature of the investigation, the ‘FBI’ would be handling the rest.
Yuy even sent along a list of known hangouts for everyone on the kidnapping list, which narrowed down the places where Evan might have been being held, but it was still too long a list to search, especially since Kavanagh was probably going forward with his plan in the next week, judging by when he had his suspicious delivery scheduled.
While Laura, Yuy, and Naoe did their best to work the Yakuza funding angle, John and Rodney worked on a plan to ensure that Kavanagh would be caught red-handed and that Evan wouldn’t be harmed.
Laura had felt like a bit of a creep, listening to the recording of Alternate Major Lorne telling his tale of the alien city, but they had to know what they were up against (truth: they weren’t entirely sure). She felt like even more of a creep, listening to the recording of his hypnotherapy session. Apparently contact with the baby alien city nearly fried his brain.
So Laura watched the video of his therapy session to see just what that entailed.
As soon as the connection with the baby alien city hit, she could see it. It was like he was being electrocuted, rigid in his chair, head thrown back. And then he started to shake. Blood started to pour out of his eyes and ears and nose and mouth. It was like a horror film.
Laura yelped and dropped the datapad, eliciting an irritated hey! from Rodney, but Naoe peered over her shoulder.
“Is that what happens when the baby alien talks to him? We’ll need a medical team on standby.”
Rodney lifted his head from his datapad. “Is what what happens when he connects to the juvenile alien entity?”
He and John came to crowd around the datapad, and they all watched in silent horror as Major Lorne, still bleeding, slid out of the chair and onto the floor. The blonde woman - Dr. Heightmeyer? - dropped to her knees beside him, hands fluttering, not sure if she should shake him or attempt CPR.
She tapped her radio, demanded a medical team.
“That doesn’t look pleasant,” Rodney said.
“Doesn’t look pleasant?” Naoe echoed. “Talk about understatement.”
John said, “Well, that answers that. We’ll have to spring the trap before Kavanagh gets him hooked up to the machines. If this is from same-dimension contact with the alien, imagine what interdimensional contact will do.”
Laura didn’t want to imagine it.
Someone - Laura didn’t know who, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know - had gone to her house to get her some overnight supplies, including clean (and stylish) clothes, and she’d been assigned to a room of her own so she didn’t have to share with John and Rodney anymore (and no one blinked twice about John and Rodney sharing a room).
What followed was strangely normal. Working a case. Calling out to contacts, following up on leads. Sitting with Naoe at a computer instead of Catalonia or Yuy. Naoe was easygoing and good to work with. He always had some kind of music emitting from his headphones, but after the first day he switched to something less annoying than hour-long techno remixes of Top 40 hits.
Instead of pastries from Evan’s Bakery, the four of them took regular breaks in the mess hall to get food and coffee. Rodney and John were coordinating the on-base Marines and Airmen to make sure that neither Kavanagh nor his cohorts could escape once the trap was sprung.
In the days leading up to Kavanagh bringing his plot to fruition, Laura and Naoe worked endlessly to vet the base personnel so Rodney and John knew who to use for their plan. Rodney and John made sure they had all their tactical bases covered. Naoe and Rodney worked together to ferret out all of the other dubious side-projects Kavanagh had going on. He’d started and abandoned several, all of which involved illicit use of classified technology. Laura and John coordinated with Yuy and Chang on the outside to pin down as many of the Yakuza members as possible for a double-play.
Hidaka and O’Hara had turned their investigation over to Yuy and Chang, but they’d sent copies of all their reports and findings and photographs and recordings of evidence to Laura so she could give them to Naoe and Rodney to analyze.
Laura worked hard, worked tirelessly. It was like being on her first big felony case, barely sleeping, doping up on coffee, elbow-to-elbow with her follow investigators. If she focused on how blue Naoe’s eyes were, his rampant abuse of American idioms, she didn’t have time to think about how blue Evan’s eyes were. If she noticed how close John and Rodney sat when they worked, how they looked at the each other when they thought no one would notice, she wouldn’t have energy to think about how Evan had smiled at her, had whispered to her.
But sometimes, when Rodney was snoring over his datapad, when John was tucking a jacket around his shoulders, when Naoe was hopped up on caffeine and spinning and spinning and spinning in his chair while his computer ran a search algorithm, Laura huddled in a corner and flipped through those photos they’d found in Evan’s sketchbook, of her and John and Rodney and Evan from another dimension (Rodney still had no explanation as to how Evan had acquired those). After John slumped over a the table beside Rodney, when Naoe’s chair stopped spinning and he tipped his head back and started snoring softly, Laura fired up the datapad and listened to the interview of Alternate Major Lorne, the cadences of his voice, its rises and falls, its warmth and its harshness and its tension, its humor.
Once they got Evan back, Laura would never hear this voice again. She wanted to be able to imagine it, when Evan signed to her.
Someone - maybe Rodney, maybe Naoe - must have figured out what Laura was doing, because the next time she went to open up what she’d mentally dubbed her Evan folder on her loaner datapad, there was a new file in there, a video file.
Of yet another alternate Evan Lorne, still an Air Force major, but a sign language interpreter, signing as he spoke to someone off-camera. Someone named Jonathan. He was smiling and laughing, expressions mobile and animated as he signed.
Laura wondered if the Evan she knew had ever been able to speak, if he knew what his own voice sounded like, or if she was hearing something that had never existed in her own universe.
She’d rarely thought much beyond her own posting - base or precinct, city, state, country - and for her to be thinking beyond her own planet, her own dimension of reality, was mind-boggling and a little exhausting.
She wasn’t the only one who fell asleep at the table in the War Room. She didn’t know who covered her with a blanket.
Friday dawned too early, as far as Laura was concerned. She, Rodney, John, and Naoe had slowly drifted onto the same schedule, which was essentially third shift. Granted, they worked far past the time their shift would end, but they were on the same schedule (as much as they could be, with Naoe the teenager slamming back energy drinks like they were water), and so they could better coordinate with Chang and Yuy, who were also on third shift back at the precinct. So waking up at three in the afternoon, hours and hours before she had to, was a bit of a misery.
Laura opened her eyes and stared at her blank ceiling and tried to will herself back to sleep, but it didn’t work.
After an eternity of counting sheep, attempting to meditate, and some deep breathing, she gave up, hauled herself to her feet. She pulled on the USMC shorts and t-shirt someone had given her, and went for a run on the indoor track with some other Marines. She showered, she got some food, and then she wandered the halls. Aimlessly.
This was it. Tonight was the night. Their best chance to get Evan back. Catalonia, irritated at being without a partner, had allowed Chang and Yuy to borrow her services, and she had been out on the streets with Yuy conducting inquiries and mini-raids on known Yakuza hangouts while Chang coordinated from the bullpen.
Usually on the night before a big raid, Catalonia got all her paperwork in order, sat at her desk with her hair perfectly coiffed, drinking tea out of a ridiculously fancy china tea cup and barely speaking to anyone. Chang meditated a whole lot at his desk, seemingly immune to the chaos around him. Yuy put in extra time at the shooting range, even though he was one of the best marksmen Laura had ever known. Laura suspected that for him, shooting was meditation.
And Laura? Usually she just pretended everything was normal. She’d been a soldier once. Doing a big raid was no more intense than launching an assault on a strategic target. Sure she was a bit tense - it was human to be tense - but she kept on working. Paperwork. Phone calls. Interviews. Research.
This wasn’t any other raid. This was intergalactic, interdimensional.
And it was Evan.
Laura saw him every day - had seen him every day for over a year, up until he went missing. He was part of her life, one of the best parts of her day, and even though on average she only exchanged a smile and two words with him, he was -
“You have a crush,” Naoe said, jolting Laura out of her reverie.
She was standing in the War Room, staring at the picture map on the wall.
“It’s kinda cute.” Naoe leaned in the doorway, sipping energy juice from a garishly-colored can. “I mean, McKay and Sheppard are so cagey that you’d think they were double agents in a spy novel meeting on the sly and not two brand new lovebirds. Their paranoia would make the NSA weep with envy.”
“Is it because they’re together in other realities?” Laura asked.
Naoe raised his eyebrows. “How do you know that?”
“I - one of them must have mentioned it.”
“I’m sure that’s part of it,” Naoe said. “But McKay really did keep an embarrassing vigil in the hospital, kicked up a huge fuss to get Sheppard rescued, get him the best medical care in two galaxies.”
“They’ve only known each other for a little while,” Laura said.
“Yeah, but what’s happened between them has been intense. And besides, with Project Echo, McKay sees the universe in a whole new way. Sees people in a new way. He sees possibilities, potential. Might also be a physicist thing.” Naoe shrugged.
“What about me and Evan? In other universes?” Laura asked.
“Like McKay said, he’s never asked, but as far as I know, no. Usually it’s you and that Scottish doctor - they always ask about him. He’s not a nexus but he’s important all the same. Has the Gene.”
“Yeah. Carson Beckett. Real stand-up guy.” Naoe drained the last of his drink and crumpled the can in his fist. “You ready for tonight?”
Apart from having been dragged out of sleep by her own anxiety, Laura felt ready. Alert. For all that Rodney was loud and bossy, he was exacting and a perfectionist, and with John at his side, Laura was pretty sure their plan was foolproof. Of course, plans were plans, and it was people who messed them up, and Laura knew that whatever could go wrong would likely go wrong, but John was taking no chances, and unless Kavanagh could secretly teleport, he wasn’t escaping.
The one uncertain factor was Evan. Would he be able to assist in his escape? What condition was he in?
“As ready as I can be,” Laura said. “Kavanagh’s a scientist. He’s not a hostile Afghani insurgent with IEDs. And while his Yakuza buddies are tough customers, they’re not making it past the fence. Evan put up a hell of a fight, too. When they tried to take him. Place was a disaster. Part of it was they were tossing the place, but part of it was definitely related to a struggle.”
Naoe smiled. “I suspect, even if he’s not a soldier in this universe, he is pretty tough. Can’t imagine a wimpy guy could keep up with the likes of you. So, want to show me how to use a gun?”
Laura blinked. “What?”
“Just kidding,” Naoe said. “I don’t need a gun. I’ll be running things from my precious computer.” Soft piano strains drifted from his ubiquitous headphones.
“Right.” Laura managed a smile. She still didn’t quite get Naoe’s sense of humor.
Naoe looked her up and down and said, “So you can assemble a P-90 in under ninety seconds blindfolded. How are you at Tetris?”
Laura shrugged and didn’t mention that she’d gotten awful good at it, because one of the men in her platoon had had an X-box in the central tent to share. “I suppose I’d be all right.”
“Good. Then let’s go play a few rounds.” Naoe beckoned, and Laura followed him out of the War Room.
“You know,” Naoe said, “I was prepared to go easy on you because you’re an ex-Jarhead, but you scammed me.”
“I said I was all right at this game.” Laura got a line and drove it home, sent another five lines onto Naoe’s side of the screen.
“You said I suppose I’d be all right, which implied you’d never played the game before.”
“I used to do EOD,” Laura said. “I have damn good hand-eye coordination.”
“So,” John drawled, “this is where the kids are hiding.”
Neither Laura nor Naoe dared look away from the screen.
“Took you old farts long enough to wake up,” Naoe said.
“Not so much with the old, if you please,” Rodney replied.
The game ended when Laura hit Naoe with a dozen more lines, and he flopped back in his chair with a noise of disgust and a muttered Japanese word that Laura recognized as a curse.
“You ready?” John asked. He was wearing, Laura noticed, a familiar-looking gray uniform, complete with tac vest, pistol strapped to his thigh, and a P-90. If Laura hadn’t known better, she’d have thought he’d stepped right out of one of Evan’s photos, out of a different reality.
“We have a similar uniform for you,” Rodney said. “Since neither you nor John are actually enlisted.”
“Commissioned, is the term for officers,” John said.
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Signed up. C’mon, Cadman.”
She followed him to the locker room, where a uniform like John’s was waiting, only it actually looked good on a woman. Rodney departed, and Laura changed quickly. Then John, Rodney, and Naoe all accompanied her to the quartermaster, who issued her a tac vest and weapons.
Kavanagh’s delivery was scheduled to arrive in thirty minutes. For the past week, Naoe and Rodney had been careful to ensure that Kavanagh thought John was hanging out on base being Walking Gene, while Laura was on base for her EOD skills. They’d created false video feed to loop into just Kavanagh’s computer, so as far as he knew, Laura spent most of her time in a lab with Dr. Zelenka and John spent most of his time in a lab with Rodney.
Now they had to ensure that all of the support troops were hidden so Kavanagh’s delivery made it through the corridors to his lab undisturbed, but that the troops were strategically placed so that as soon as Kavanagh closed his door, everyone could be in place.
Laura was outfitted with a radio and earpiece, just like John, Rodney, and Naoe, and she took up post with a squadron of Marines just outside of Kavanagh’s lab. John and his Marines were on the other side of the lab. A young Marine captain named Ford was heading up the third squadron, so all the entrances to the lab were covered. Multiple fire teams of Marines were stationed in the rooms that had vent access to Kavanagh’s lab. Yet more teams of Airmen were poised to arrest Kavanagh’s co-conspirators.
Rodney and Naoe split away as soon as Laura’s Marines joined her. They, with Woolsey, were coordinating the entire operation from Rodney’s lab.
“Delivery truck has arrived,” someone said over the radio.
“Roger that,” Rodney replied. For a scientist, he was very competent with radio voice protocol.
“Package is loaded onto a flatbed cart and is on its way up the cargo elevator. We’re taking custody of the delivery driver and the other receiving staff in three, two, one -”
There was a curse and a muffled thump, and then that line went quiet.
It was go time.
There was a crackle of static, and then, “We have them in custody, Mr. Woolsey.”
Naoe said, “Search the truck for a GPS module. We need the truck’s point of origin so NLVPD can handle things on their end.”
“Roger that, Dr. Naoe.”
Laura’s pulse started to pump in her ears. The rush of adrenaline through her was familiar; she forced herself to remain still and breathe in fours, calm herself as much as possible.
“Package has reached sub-level seventeen,” Rodney said. That was the floor Kavanagh’s lab was on.
Laura heard some of the Marines behind her hold their breath, and they all listened to the rumbling and rolling of the wheels as an innocuous-looking fellow - a young Marine, just a corporal - ambled along the corridor, pushing a flatbed cart with a massive steel crate on it.
Laura watched it pass, her hands going white-knuckled on her weapon. Evan was in that crate.
The Marine - who was complicit in Kavanagh’s scheme - knocked on the door, still casual.
Kavanagh poked his head out. “What?” He sounded just as impatient and brusque as Rodney did sometimes.
“Delivery for you, Doc.” The Marine held out a clipboard.
Kavanagh signed quickly and gave the clipboard back. “Help me get it inside.”
The door closed, and Laura signalled for her Marines to approach the door. They were supposed to grab the corporal when he emerged, before he could alert Kavanagh.
“And we are patched to the security feed in Kavanagh’s office,” Rodney said.
“He’s got it on a loop, but I bypassed the loop,” Naoe added. “We are recording the real deal.”
“There’s Evan. He’s unconscious.” Rodney sucked in a sharp breath. “He doesn’t look good.”
Laura bit her lip.
John said, “How bad is not good?”
“Face is bruised. Some blood around his hairline. Looks like he’s been knocked around. Think he’s been drugged. He’s pretty limp while they manhandle him,” Naoe said.
Laura swallowed hard.
“Where’s the corporal?” Ford asked.
“He’s helping Kavanagh load Evan onto a workbench,” Naoe said. How could he sound so damn calm? Laura wanted to scream.
“Okay. Here we go,” Rodney said. “Go in on three, two - sacre bleu! Did not see that coming!”
“Do we go or not?” Ford demanded.
“Go, go, go!” Naoe said, and Laura signalled to her squadron.
She was first in, high and to the right. The next came in low and to the left. Marines spilled into the room and Laura saw -
Kavanagh, slumped on a workbench, and the corporal, draped over the steel crate.
Evan stood in the middle of the room, breathing hard.
“Clear!” Laura shouted. “Secure Kavanagh and Corporal Lawrence.” She crossed the room to Evan. “Evan, are you all right?”
He blinked at her muzzily. Had the drugs worn off? Had they given him the wrong dose?
Laura put her hands on his shoulders, shook him. “Evan, can you hear me? Are you hurt?”
Evan blinked again, and then he smiled weakly, lifted his hand and signed O K.
“Let’s get you to the base infirmary,” Laura said.
Evan nodded, let Laura tug him out of the room. Ford and his Marines were gathered at the doorway; John and his were hanging back in the hallway.
Evan waved dazedly at John, and Laura tapped her radio.
“Which way to the infirmary?” she asked.
“I’ll steer you there,” Naoe said. “Well, that was a really long run for a really short slide.”
“What happened in there, exactly?” Laura asked.
Evan made a sign she didn’t recognize.
Naoe said, “Apparently Evan Lorne is an MMA fighter in his spare time. Whoever did recon on him must have missed that part. He has a membership to an MMA gym in town, but he hasn’t gone for, oh, about a month now.”
“Kavanagh and Lawrence are in custody,” Ford said.
“Take them to the holding cells,” Woolsey instructed. “I’ll be right there.”
Dr. Jennifer Keller was in charge of the infirmary. Someone must have radioed ahead about Evan, because she had an exam table all ready for him, was wearing gloves and prepared to draw blood so they could see what drugs he had in his system. A nurse was on hand to treat his wounds.
“We have it from here, Detective,” Dr. Keller said, capping a vial of blood. “You can go now.”
Laura nodded. Evan. He was alive. He was okay. He looked tired and pale, but he was nodding and listening to the nurse, turning his head this way and that so she could look at his injuries. He was in capable hands.
Laura turned to go.
A hand curled over her wrist.
She paused. Evan was looking right at her. Talk for me? he signed.
Laura nodded. “Yes, I can do that. Dr. Keller, do you have an interpreter for him?”
Dr. Keller paused. “He’s not hearing-impaired.”
“He’s speech-impaired,” Laura said.
I’m right here, Evan signed, frowning.
Laura winced. “Sorry. Do you want me to stay? Dr. Keller, he’s been through a lot. A familiar face might -”
Evan tugged on Dr. Keller’s sleeve and finger-spelled slowly, I want Laura to stay.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand - yes, please, stay, Detective Cadman.” Dr. Keller tapped her own radio. “Can I get someone from the quartermaster up here to relieve Detective Cadman of her tac gear? I need her to stay with my patient. Thank you.”
Evan signed to Laura, You’re beautiful.
Laura knew with her hair tied back, she looked severe, but she signed back, Thank you.
And Evan signed back, True.
Dr. Keller handed the blood samples off to the nurse, who bustled away with them, likely to one of the many labs on base.
“Now, Mr. Lorne, what can you tell me about what happened to you?”
This would, Laura realized, double as a witness interview. She ought to be recording it or taking notes. Instead, she watched Evan’s hands, slow and careful for her benefit, and told his tale.
Maxwell was perched on the edge of Laura’s desk. “So the guy just let you go?”
John was standing beside Evan, translating very carefully for Evan, who was signing one-handed.
“After I kicked his ass, yes.”
Maxwell slid his glance over to John. “But you can’t tell me why you were kidnapped in the first place? Because it’s classified?”
“Well, I’m glad we got you back,” Maxwell said.
Evan raised his eyebrows.
“I mean, I’m glad you were rescued and that you’re unharmed,” Maxwell amended hastily.
Schbeiker said, “What he means is that he missed your baked goods and your minions aren’t nearly as good at baking.”
Evan laughed silently. Maxwell plucked a blueberry muffin out of the basket, handed it to Schbeiker, and selected an apple turnover for himself.
“It really is good to have you back, Evan.” Maxwell bit into the turnover and sighed happily. “Yeah. Really good.” And then he noticed Laura. “Heeeey, Cadman, still helping Vice?”
Schbeiker made a chatting motion with one hand. “Insert inappropriate workplace flirting and terroristic threats in here, and skip to the good part.”
Laura crossed the bullpen to her desk, and she leaned in, kissed Evan hello.
He kissed her back, and when they separated, she was smiling.
Maxwell almost dropped his apple turnover.
Chang and Barton exchanged money.
“Well,” Schbeiker said, wide-eyed, “that is the good part.”
Evan signed, “Are you cold?”
“Yes. Very,” Laura said. “Once I get changed I need to make my preliminary report, and then you can take me home and warm me up, all right?” She winked at him, and he blushed.
Schbeiker said, “This is fast becoming a hostile workplace. Good thing we’re given regular doses of sugary baked goods to boost morale.”
Catalonia swept into the precinct. She looked like a million dollars in a slinky red dress, killer heels with red soles, and a fur coat that probably cost more than Laura made in a year. “Sheppard, your fashion choices leave much to be desired, and that’s saying something, given what Cadman is wearing.” She fluttered her fingers at Evan in greeting, selected a cream cheese kolache delicately, and perched on the edge of her desk. The slit up the side of her dress revealed a creamy expanse of leg that had more than one coworker admiring until Schbeiker cleared her throat pointedly.
And then Laura noticed - John was wearing familiar gray pants, a slightly darker gray shirt, and a gray jacket with black patches. One of those uniforms. From Evan’s photos.
Photos he’d been taking over the past year with a camera he’d modified while communicating with the baby city alien (tentatively named Alterra for now). Photos of another universe.
“Turned in my official resignation to Hendricks,” John said. “On paper, with witnesses, so he can’t pretend he didn’t receive it.”
“Joining up with the FBI, then?” Catalonia asked.
“Something like that,” John said.
“Well,” Catalonia said, looking him up and down, “I’ll miss your face.”
Chang snorted. “Not his personality?”
“No,” Catalonia said. “Just your face. It’s very pleasant to look at.”
“Thanks, I think,” John said.
And then Rodney swept into the bullpen. He, too, was wearing a familiar uniform, his with blue patches.
“Matching outfits,” Maxwell muttered. “Not gay at all.”
Schbeiker clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “And now there’s homophobia in the workplace.”
“What?” Rodney asked. “Oh, no, John and I are pretty gay with each other. Uniforms notwithstanding.”
“Uniforms?” Catalonia asked, intrigued.
“Since when does the FBI wear uniforms?” Maxwell asked.
“That’s classified,” Rodney said breezily. He turned to John. “Everything’s all squared away with Captain Hendricks. You’ll box up John’s apartment and send his things to him, right, Cadman?”
“Yes, Rodney, for the thousandth time.”
And then Rodney noticed the basket of baked goods. He started to reach for one, hesitated. “None of these have citrus in them, do they?”
“Some of them do,” Evan said.
Rodney frowned. “Best not to risk it. Well, it was a pleasure to meet all of you. John, let’s go, we have things to do and places to be - saving the universe and all. Glad you’re in one piece, baker man. It was a, er, pleasure, working with you, Cadman.” He grabbed John’s wrist and towed him out of the bullpen.
John barely managed a bye! Before Rodney hauled him out the door.
“He’s an interesting man,” Schbeiker murmured.
“Who, Rodney? Or Shep?” Laura asked.
“Both,” Schbeiker said.
Evan set the basket down and signed fully to Laura, “Go, get changed, write your report. And then I’ll take you home and warm you right up.”
Laura smiled. “Sounds perfect.”
She headed to the locker room to change, and then she emailed her preliminary report to the guys and gals in vice while Evan wandered the bullpen, distributing the last of the baked goods. He returned to her desk just as she was hitting the send button, and then they walked, hand-in-hand, into the summer sunrise.