"Time and tide can never sever
Those whom love has bound for ever,
Dear Lover of my Dreams come true"
Cavalcade ~ Noel Coward
Lord John Sheppard drained the last of his coffee and settled the cup back on its saucer. The room was quiet except for the steady ticking of the clock on the mantel and the faint rattle of a bus as it passed below the windows of his Piccadilly flat.
He lounged lazily into his chair, studying the page in front of him, and then grinned and sat forward. "Kismet."
He jotted the six letters into the final spaces of that morning's Times' crossword and tossed the paper to one side. The front page was announcing the major news of the day – the collapse of the Megatherium Financial Trust – in suitably sombre tones, and he reached for the breezier chatter of The Daily Shout. Megatherium's demise was headline news in this popular daily, too – the crash had caused some big ripples in the more speculative end of the stock market pond, and a few people had been left in pretty hot water. He skimmed down the page to where the secondary headline caught his eye.
'Noble Sleuth Solves Streatham Strangling'
The by-line named Cam Mitchell, and John scanned the article and nodded when he saw that his old Fleet Street contact had mentioned Dex and Scotland Yard's involvement in the case. He knew that his status as a 'gentleman detective' made for good copy, but he was glad to see that the hard work and diligence of the police, and his friend, Chief Inspector Dex, in particular, had been recognised. It had been a grisly case for everyone involved, and unfortunately it wasn't over yet. There was still one final death to come – by the hangman's noose.
John closed his eyes briefly against an image of a hooded figure jerking helplessly on the gallows – and at his part in putting him there. It was an old battle; the satisfaction at having helped to catch a murderer versus knowing that he was also, in some way, culpable in another death – even if it was only through the just process of the law. It wasn't an easy thing to come to terms with, and maybe that was the point; the loss of any life was a serious business – even one as psychotic as Acastus Kolya, who'd murdered without remorse or pity.
John knew that he had a reputation for being a little… different. People saw the title and the easy going attitude and passable good looks and thought they had him pegged, but then there was the whole 'detective' thing. Second sons of Dukes usually entered the church or the military, after all, and so his interest in criminology was definitely considered strange. However, most people tended to assume that his role as an amateur consultant to the Yard was just another rich man's fancy – an amusing diversion – and that he joked his way through cases without thinking of the consequences of his dabbling. They were wrong though. He did think about it – especially in a capital case – and he'd spent a lot of long nights staring out into the dark. In the end though, he knew that he was doing the right thing and he was happy enough to let people think what they wanted. Having people treat him like an affable toff who liked to play at being a detective tended to make them underestimate him and let their guard down – and then they gave away a lot more than they realised.
The door to the breakfast room opened, and Lorne approached silently, immaculately dressed as always, and with his usual air of calm capability. He was the perfect gentleman's gentleman.
"Excuse me, my lord. Will your lordship be requiring more coffee?" He picked up the crumb strewn breakfast dishes from the table and placed them deftly onto a silver tray.
John shook his head. "No, we should go. We don't want to be late getting down to the Caldwells."
Lorne's face was as respectful and expressionless as always, but John had known the man since he'd been John's sergeant at the Somme, and he caught the momentary humour in his eyes.
"Okay, that's not exactly likely, I know," John laughed. "Not at the speed that I drive, but we'd still better make a start."
"My lord." Lorne tipped his head. "I've taken the liberty of bringing the car around to the front in readiness. I've also included your lordship's tennis racquet along with the other luggage…"
"Oh, damn – couldn't you have forgotten that?" John groaned. "Of course not, you're infallible."
"Lady Elizabeth is particularly fond of tennis, I believe, my lord."
"She is, but you know how I hate being wheeled out to make up a double at these things."
John was spending the weekend down on the south coast at a house party held by his old commanding officer, Colonel Steven Caldwell. John had been a major in his regiment in the Great War, and they'd remained firm friends. After a stint out in India, Caldwell had returned to England and the family seat and had assumed the position of Chief Constable of Devonshire. His wife, Lady Elizabeth, was a lovely woman and a wonderful hostess, but she had a mania for organising people. She always wanted everyone to 'join in', and she kept trying to pair John off with eligible young things. He was very fond of her, but her attempts at playing matchmaker were pretty tiresome. Still, he hadn't visited for a while, and he was looking forward to catching up with Caldwell. Maybe he could unexpectedly sprain an ankle – or outwit Lorne and accidentally 'lose' his racquet – and avoid the team sports part of the weekend.
"Okay – the racquet goes with us. Who knows? Maybe I'll get lucky and escape this time."
Lorne nodded deferentially, but John could sense his amusement. "Maybe, my lord."
"Okay," John laughed. "Time to face the music – let's go."
The drive was uneventful – the Daimler Double Six quickly leaving the crowded streets of London behind and speeding through the countryside towards the coast. They stopped at a sleepy village inn for lunch – a very tasty turkey and ham pie made by the landlord's wife – and arrived at Crantock Court, the Caldwells' estate, in time for tea. The main house was seventeenth century, with a couple of wings added later on, and was set in expansive grounds with views stretching down to the sea.
"Sheppard! Good to see you! How've you been, man?" Caldwell met John in the entrance hall. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and his military background was clear as he strode over and clapped John on the back. A couple of black Labradors followed closely at his heels and snuffled around John's legs in interest. John ruffled their silky ears.
"Fine." John smiled and shook Caldwell's hand firmly. "How about you, sir?"
"Good, good," Caldwell said. He lead John through into a large, well-proportioned sitting room with full length windows that overlooked a terrace leading down to the rolling lawns of the estate and the sea beyond. "Had some flooding over at the Home Farm meadows during the winter, but I've got a new estate manager – smart, young fellow – and he's masterminding a new drainage system."
"John!" Lady Elizabeth was sitting by the fireplace, and she stood up as they entered. She was wearing a high-necked dress in a rich red tone that warmed her cheeks, and she looked as elegant and serene as ever.
"Elizabeth – you look wonderful." John bowed smartly and kissed her hand.
"And you're still a charmer." Elizabeth smiled and sat down on a wide, brocade sofa where John joined her. Caldwell stood by the fire and took out an old pipe and began to fill it, the dogs settling comfortably at his feet.
"So, how are you?" Elizabeth asked. "It's been far too long since we saw you."
"Yeah, I know. I'm good though – keeping myself out of trouble. Well…" John grinned. "Doing my best anyway, and Lorne keeps his beady eye on me and tries to get me to behave like a proper gentleman."
"You're incorrigible," Elizabeth laughed. "But do tell me – have you found anybody special yet? You're nearly forty, John. It really is time you settled down, you know."
"Lizzie!" Caldwell chuckled. "Give the man time to catch his breath. He's only just arrived."
"I know that." Elizabeth patted John's hand affectionately. "It's just that I worry about you. You deserve to be happy – and it's time that you found someone that you can be happy with."
"It's not like I'm some forlorn deb waiting to be asked to dance, Elizabeth." John grinned. "I'm fine. And anyway, I'm only thirty seven!"
Elizabeth waved his words away. "Don't you worry. We've got several interesting people here this weekend, and you never know who you might meet."
"Elizabeth…" John tried to sound like he wasn't whining, but he had to laugh at the twinkle lighting her eyes, all the same.
"I've been following your latest case. Strangler, wasn't it?" Caldwell asked, changing the subject. "Fellow by the name of Kolya? Sounds like a nasty brute."
John nodded, probably a little eagerly, glad that the conversation had moved away from his non-existent love life. He knew that fashionable society viewed him as an eligible bachelor and a good catch, and he'd had a lot of ambitious mothers hoping to make him their son-in-law over the years, but marriage wasn't for him. It wasn't that he had anything against settling down – it was just the 'with a woman' part that he had a problem with. He'd never actually viewed women as 'the fairer sex' – not because he didn't appreciate feminine beauty but because his ideal partner was definitely masculine.
It wasn't exactly a problem. There was no pressure for him to provide an heir, and homosexuality was something of an open secret in his social sphere – though he personally chose not to advertise. He couldn't deny that he was lonely at times though. He'd never been casual when it came to his heart, and he agreed with Elizabeth – he would like to settle down and be happy with someone. He'd just never been lucky enough to find that 'someone'.
They talked for a while – discussing some of the less graphic aspects of the case – and a maid brought in a tea tray.
"Thank you, Willis." Elizabeth smiled. "I'll see to it."
The maid bobbed courteously and melted away.
"Well, I'm glad that you're here now and away from all that unpleasantness," Elizabeth said, pouring the tea and passing John a gilt-edged china cup. "Hopefully there'll be no talk of murder this weekend, and you can relax and enjoy yourself. Well, no talk of real murder anyway."
John raised an eyebrow, and Elizabeth laughed. "We have a new neighbour – Sir Richard Woolsey, I don't know if you know him?"
John shook his head. It wasn't a name he was familiar with, but then he really wasn't interested in mingling with high society. He left all of that to his brother, David, who'd inherited the Sheppard estate and title when their father had died.
"Been out in Canada – made it big in gold," Caldwell said between long draws to get his pipe going. "Moved here a few years back. Bought Gull's Nest and did the old place up – all the latest gadgets and gizmos. Damn good wine cellar, too."
"He has a niece and nephew, and we've included them in our party," Elizabeth said. "You'll get a chance to meet them all at dinner this evening."
John grinned. "So, which one's the murderer?"
Elizabeth laughed. "Richard's nephew – Rodney McKay – is a novelist. He writes detective stories. He's very good actually, quite cerebral but not dry at all. I've read several of his books, and they're very engaging. I can never guess who did it."
John nodded. He'd heard of the name, but he tended not to read much fictional crime – dealing with the real thing was enough.
"He's actually some kind of doctor, I believe," Elizabeth continued. "Not a medical doctor – something theoretical instead. Chemistry was it, Steven?"
"Physics," Caldwell said, sucking on his pipe again. "He's a prickly fellow – bit of an acquired taste. Woolsey's a decent chap though – he's guardian to the girl. The parents were killed in an accident when McKay was up at Oxford and he had no means of taking care of her. Woolsey stepped in and took care of everything. He's the mother's brother. Of course, the girl's grown up now, but she's not married yet and still lives at Gull's Nest."
"And Jeannie," Elizabeth emphasised the name as she shook her head fondly at her husband, "is such a lovely young woman. So bright and modern. I understand there was an unfortunate engagement when she was younger, but that's all over now." She looked at John thoughtfully. "Jeannie really would make someone a wonderful wife."
John had never told the Caldwells that he favoured men, and, over the years, Elizabeth had gamely introduced him to a variety of women. He did wonder sometimes if she might have an inkling about his true leaning, but they'd never spoken of it, and it certainly hadn't stopped her from matchmaking.
"Lizzie!" Caldwell scolded with a gentle laugh. "Leave the man alone, why don't you. He hasn't come here looking for the love of his life!"
Elizabeth held up her hands and smiled, but John had a sinking feeling that it wouldn't be the end of the matter.
He was right; that evening John found himself being lead across the drawing room, his elbow firmly in Elizabeth's grip, to be introduced to Miss Jeannie McKay. She was a pretty girl with long, blonde hair and an easy smile, but they'd only exchanged a few pleasantries before John found his attention captured by a striking figure bustling into the room in a flurry of energetic motion.
"Doctor McKay!" Elizabeth took the new arrival's arm, guiding him between the groups of people chatting and sipping their aperitifs. "It's so nice to see you again."
So, this was Rodney McKay. John looked over at him thoughtfully. He was about John's age and height – maybe a few inches shorter – and the cut of his dinner jacket accentuated a really nice pair of broad shoulders. He had brown hair that, though neatly trimmed, clearly wasn't held in place by any of the oils or hair creams that were the fashion right now. John smiled to himself. His own hair was immune to being tamed and tended to just stick up in rebellious spikes instead – probably another bit of nonconformity that lead to his reputation as a rebel. McKay's hair looked really soft though, and John wondered how it would feel in his fingers. His gaze moved to McKay's face. He wasn't handsome in the conventional sense, but there was something that John found instantly appealing. Perhaps it was the wide mouth that slanted curiously to one side or the bright blue eyes that caught John's gaze for an intense second before turning back to their hostess. Or perhaps it was the whole, fascinating package. John wasn't sure and honestly didn't care all that much – he had the feeling that he was already hooked.
"Yes. Sorry I'm late," McKay said, and John saw him shoot a quick look at an older, stern-faced gentleman standing with Caldwell – Woolsey, presumably. "I'm afraid I was writing and lost track of time."
"I quite understand," Elizabeth said and patted McKay's arm. "You'll have to tell us all about your latest book. I'm sure it's very exciting."
"Yes, well… that would be… um." McKay nodded, looking as if that was the last thing that he wanted to do, and quickly excused himself and hurried towards where John was standing.
John's chest tightened for a second and then he laughed at himself; of course, McKay was hurrying to see his sister, not him.
"Rodney! Here you are at last."
McKay smiled – a crooked but strangely captivating smile – and nodded his head towards where Woolsey was apologising volubly to Caldwell for his nephew's tardiness, and Caldwell was waving it off with a good-natured grunt.
McKay rolled his eyes at his sister. "Looks like I'm in the dog house again."
"You know how Uncle Richard is about punctuality," Miss McKay chuckled. "And you did promise to be on time."
"I know," McKay sighed.
A footman appeared silently at McKay's elbow with a tray of cocktails, and McKay grabbed a glass of sherry and took a hefty swallow. "I wonder when we can go in? I'm starving."
"Rodney," his sister chided. "Manners."
"What?" McKay asked. "I'm hungry. I haven't eaten anything since breakfast – I got wrapped up in a big scene."
John took the opportunity to join the conversation; he wanted to have those bright blue eyes focused on him again. "You write detective novels, Doctor McKay?"
McKay nodded absently and then paused as he cocked his head to one side and seemed finally to notice John. "Oh, wait." He clicked his fingers a couple of times and pointed. "You must be Sheppard – the aristocratic saviour of Scotland Yard."
John ducked his head and grinned. "I suppose I must be."
McKay grinned back, and John was enchanted.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Miss McKay said, sounding embarrassed. "Lord John Sheppard – this is my brother, Doctor Rodney McKay."
John smiled at her before turning to McKay and offering his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Doctor McKay."
"Yes, well, you've haven't known me long." McKay shrugged and took John's hand.
John felt a flare of heat surge through him as their hands met. McKay's skin was warm and soft, and his hand seemed to fit perfectly against John's own. He looked into McKay's eyes and saw a surprised flash of recognition.
"Well, I look forward to changing that, Doctor." John could hear the growl as his voice dropped lower.
McKay didn't break his gaze, but his eyes widened fractionally and seemed to shine even brighter – and then the moment was broken as Elizabeth announced that dinner was served.
Around them everyone began to move towards the dining room, and John smiled as McKay remained still, almost frozen in place. "Looks like it's time to go."
"What? Oh!" McKay's cheeks flushed a dull pink that John found ridiculously charming, and he dropped John's hand. "Of course, yes. Dinner. Good, that's… um… good. I'm starving."
"So we heard," Miss McKay laughed, nudging her brother playfully and taking his arm.
John stood at Miss McKay's other side and waved them forward.
McKay caught John's eye again, giving him a soft – almost shy – smile, and then escorted his sister towards the dining room.
John grinned and followed them from the room.
However, any hope that John had of carrying on the conversation was frustrated when they all entered the formal dining room and he found that he was seated at practically the other end of the table from McKay. There was no chance of them speaking unless he could find a handy bullhorn. He stifled a smile as he imagined Elizabeth's reaction to that and took his seat. Miss McKay was seated, not surprisingly knowing Elizabeth, to his right, and Elizabeth, at the end of the long, mahogany table, was to his left. Peter Grodin from the Foreign Office – and an old schoolmate of John's – was seated opposite.
The soup course was served, and John glanced down to the other end of the table. McKay was sitting next to a pretty, dark haired girl who he recognised as the Caldwells' niece, Amelia, and was already tucking into his meal as if he hadn't eaten for a week. John smiled and picked up his spoon.
Unfortunately, things didn't get any better after the meal was over. The ladies retired to the drawing room, and the men headed to the billiard room for port and cigars. John had hoped to get the chance to talk to McKay once they were there but found himself being shanghaied by Caldwell who wanted to introduce him to Woolsey.
"Nice to meet you," John said automatically, scanning the room for McKay. He spotted him standing near the windows and, as John looked, he glanced up and their eyes met. John smiled and gave a little shrug. McKay smiled back, and John had the feeling that he was just as disappointed.
"A pleasure, I assure you," Woolsey beamed, and then nodded towards where John was still looking at McKay. "You know my nephew?"
"Oh, no." John dragged his attention away from McKay. "We just met earlier, over cocktails in fact."
"My nephew can be rather careless when it comes to punctuality, I'm afraid," Woolsey said, "and you must forgive his somewhat abrasive nature. Although he can be rather, well, opinionated, he is actually a good man at heart."
John looked at Woolsey, surprised at his candour, but even after such a brief meeting he could see what Woolsey meant – there didn't seem to be any falseness to McKay. "I've heard very good things about his work. I'll have to get copies when I head back to town."
"Oh, you must. They're very good. I probably don't tell him often enough, but I am very proud of him, and I know that his parents would have been, if they'd been alive today."
John was just thinking that if he couldn't talk to McKay then at least talking about him was the next best thing, when Grodin came over, bringing Ellis, an old friend of Caldwell's. The conversation quickly turned, for some reason that John rapidly lost track of, to a discussion about the current rumblings in Brazil.
John glanced across at McKay. He'd been collared by that old bore, Bill Lee, who John knew vaguely from the Ministry of Defence. John had to hide a grin as he overheard McKay giving Lee a lengthy explanation as to why most people were too 'incredibly stupid, stupid, stupid' to be able to cross the road let alone commit the perfect murder. It looked like Lee had made the mistake of asking McKay about his latest book.
The evening wore on, and John got dragged into a reluctant game of billiards with Grodin. He kept checking on McKay, hoping to grab a chance when they could get together, but his luck was out. It seemed that there wasn't a single second during the evening when they both weren't being monopolised by someone.
John's last hope came when they joined the ladies in the drawing room, but fate was against him there, too. Miss McKay had developed a headache and regretfully had to make her excuses and so, of course, McKay and Woolsey were needed to escort her home.
McKay shot John a wistful sort of half smile as he helped his sister from the room, and John nodded back. Hopefully Elizabeth had invited the McKays over for the rest of the weekend party. If not, then he'd just have to track McKay down for himself. He was a detective, after all, and he wasn't about to let this one get away.
John strolled through the french windows that led from the breakfast room out onto the sun terrace.
He'd spent a very pleasant night dreaming of blue eyes and a singular smile and had then woken early and gone to the stables to take one of Caldwell's hunters out for a gallop along the cliffs. The dew had still been wet on the ground, and the air was fresh with the tang of salt. He loved living in London, but it felt good to blow the cobwebs out from time to time. He'd stayed out longer than he'd planned though and it had been pretty late by the time he'd got back and cleaned up, and so he was the only one finishing breakfast at nearly eleven o'clock.
He headed around the corner of the house towards the sound of voices and found Elizabeth sitting with several of the other guests on the wide stone terrace that overlooked the tennis court. She was wearing a pretty dress in pastel colours and was shading her face from the unseasonably warm spring sun with a parasol.
There were half a dozen or so guests staying for the weekend, some of whom John had known for years, like Grodin, and others that he'd only met the night before.
"Oh, John!" Elizabeth waved him over. "Do come and have some tea."
John ambled over but shook his head. "Not for me, thanks."
Elizabeth indicated to her companion. "I think you know Reverend Halling, don't you?"
A tall, slightly stooping man with grizzled grey hair and kindly eyes stood up. "My lord, how nice to see you again."
"Reverend! How are you? It's been a while." John shook Halling's hand. Halling was the minister of the local parish of Crantock Parva and though slightly impoverished, as most country clergy tended to be, he had a good soul and would happily give his last shilling if someone needed it. "How's young Jinto doing?" Halling was a widower with an only son, James, who went by the nickname of Jinto.
"He's very well, thank you, my lord. In fact, he's due to go up to Oxford next year."
"Excellent. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." John was a Balliol man and knew the Masters of several of the colleges.
Laughter drifted up from the tennis court, and John glanced over to see a game of mixed doubles in progress. He noticed, with relief, that there were no unattached players, and then grinned as he saw that Amelia, Caldwell's niece, was being partnered by a rather out of breath looking Radek Zelenka who was wearing a strange mixture of a cricket jumper and baggy brown shorts that reached to his knees. Zelenka was a neighbour of the Caldwells and had arrived in England several years before as a fugitive from the turmoil in Eastern Europe. He had a shock of wild hair and a brilliant mind, and John knew that he was currently doing something hush-hush with the whiz-bang boys out at Martlesham Heath.
John looked across the court and saw Jeannie McKay chatting to a tall, rather pale looking man that he didn't recognise.
"Miss McKay looks better today. Who's that with her?"
"Oh, that's Mister Harwood," Elizabeth said. "Sir Richard's solicitor. I heard that he was down at Gull's Nest and so suggested that he might like to come over and join us for lunch and tennis." She smiled sweetly, but John was sure that she could sense his relief at not being roped into playing.
"That's why you're such a perfect hostess, Elizabeth," John teased. "You always think of everything."
"I'm just glad you haven't come hobbling out on crutches with your ankle wrapped in bandages and a note from Lorne excusing you from all physical activity." Elizabeth's eyes were bright with mischief.
"Please!" John smacked his hand to his heart. "You wound me, my lady."
Elizabeth chuckled and shook her head. "You really are impossible."
"I know," John laughed, glancing around the terrace. "Did anyone else from Gull's Nest come over?" He hoped that McKay had accompanied his sister and that he'd finally get the chance to have the man to himself for a while.
Elizabeth looked at him thoughtfully for a moment. "I believe that Doctor McKay is in the library. He declined to join us on the terrace – something about 'deadly rays of carcinogenic death'. Perhaps you could go along and see how he is, if it's not too much trouble? The two of you seemed to have hit it off last night…" There was something in her voice, and John felt his breath catch. It looked like he may have underestimated Elizabeth's perceptiveness. "It's good to see you looking so happy, John," she added softly and touched his arm.
John's breathing evened out. Although, he wasn't really surprised by her acceptance – Elizabeth was a lady in every sense of the word. And, for once, he was even thankful for her need to match-make. He shook his head. "No trouble at all." He kissed her cheek and smiled broadly before turning and heading back into the house.
The library was in the east wing, one of the later Georgian additions to the house, and John entered the familiar, wood-panelled room and closed the door quietly behind him. The walls were lined with bookcases towering from floor to ceiling, and the air held the heavy but not unpleasant scent of old leather and paper mixed with the faint whiff of mildew. Caldwell had a solid, rather orthodox collection, as befitted a gentleman of his standing, but John knew that there were also some pretty nice first editions that his father had collected.
There were a couple of comfortable, high-backed leather armchairs bracketing the fireplace, and John could see a few wisps of soft-looking brown hair peeking above the back of the nearest one.
"I'm not interrupting, am I?"
McKay looked up sharply from the large, leather-bound volume open on his lap. A scowl twisted at his features but vanished as he recognised John. "Oh, it's you." He sounded surprised but also pleased and that made John smile.
"Guilty as charged, m'lud." John grinned and then dropped into the chair opposite McKay, sliding down into the padded leather with an easy sprawl and hooking a leg over the chair arm.
McKay stared at him. "That can't be comfortable – and probably shouldn't even be physically possible. Not to us mere mortals, anyway – the limbs of the human body aren't meant to do that."
John smiled and gave a shrug. "So, what are you reading?"
McKay held up the book. It was a weighty medical text, and John remembered that Caldwell's father had been a military surgeon out in the Crimea.
John grinned. "Just a little light reading?"
"Research," McKay said shortly and then grinned back unexpectedly. "Actually, that's just an excuse. I'm really avoiding Lady Elizabeth and her over-zealous need to have me flinging myself around a tennis court chasing a stupid little ball in the heat of the midday sun until I collapse and expire on the spot – which would be a grievous loss to both the scientific and literary worlds. How about you? What are you doing here?"
John laughed. "The same – hiding out from Elizabeth and the tennis party of doom." It was partly true, after all.
McKay chuckled and gazed at him, an assessing look in his eye. "Strange. I'd have pegged you more for the rakish, dashing young lord wanting to be centre court displaying his athletic prowess for the ladies. Well, perhaps not so much of the young," he added tartly, "but definitely showing off for a giddy bevy of admiring onlookers."
John felt his smile dim to the polite one that he wore in public.
It was true; a lot of people did expect him to conform to the stereotype of 'The Playboy Lord', but he'd kind of hoped that McKay would be different. He'd thought that he'd sensed a connection – some 'thing' – between them, and it had made him hope that McKay might be able to see through all of the smoke and mirrors. He was being ridiculous though. He'd worked very hard over the years at hiding himself – not just his sexuality but the real him – so he really was expecting too much from someone he'd only just met.
He looked over to see McKay still watching him.
"Or that's what most people think, I imagine, and you're happy to carry on the charade," McKay said, sounding thoughtful. He pointed a finger at John. "But I think there's more to you than meets the eye."
John felt his smile grow bright again. Maybe he hadn't been so wrong about McKay.
"You can't just be charm and hair, after all. There's got to be more going on behind that pretty face." McKay paused and then obviously realised what he'd said, and a look of dismay spread comically across his face. "Not that there's anything wrong with having a pretty face. Not that you do – have a pretty face, I mean. You're a man and of course men aren't pretty. What I meant was…"
John's shoulders began to shake helplessly until he finally had to give in and laugh out loud – a rowdy, honking noise that stopped McKay in his tracks.
"My God, what is that? You sound like you swallowed a bull elephant and it wants to get out!"
"Hey, what happened to me being pretty?" John snorted through his laughter. "I think I liked it better when you were being nice to me."
McKay looked surprised for a second and then he grinned. "Haven't they told you? I'm never nice. I'm a genius, of course, but most people don't like me, well, virtually everybody, in fact. Then again, most people are idiots and so I can't say that I care." He cocked his head to one side and looked at John again. "I think you may be different though – there's a brain behind that insouciant smirk, I'm sure."
John smirked – deliberately. "No, please don't sugar coat it, Doctor – do say what you think."
"Hah! You'll regret saying that once you get to know me better and realise that I always do." John liked the sound of that – both the getting to know McKay better part and his honesty. It was kind of refreshing. "And call me Rodney." McKay paused, looking a little uncertain. "That's if you want to, of course. I don't know – you are a lord – perhaps you don't do that kind of thing or it's not allowed unless there's a special decree from the King or something…"
"Rodney." John broke through McKay's rambling. "It's fine – and call me John, okay? There's no need for friends to stand on ceremony."
McKay's eyes shone very blue, and he smiled softly, almost shyly, like he'd done when they'd first met. "Oh, right. Good – that's good then." He gave a pleased little nod. "John."
John smiled, too. McKay was such a fascinating contradiction – one minute confident and brash and the next endearingly unsure and shy. He'd captured John's attention from the moment he'd first seen him, and John wanted to know more.
They sat and talked for a while.
"I was still up at Oxford when my parents died. Jeannie was just a kid – there are twelve years between us – and there was no way that I could look after her. My uncle stepped in and took care of everything. He's a bit of an old curmudgeon, and we don't see eye to eye on a lot of things, but he's a decent sort."
"We must have been up at around the same time," John said. "I'm surprised we didn't bump into each other. Where were you?"
"Christ Church – but I was in the year below and tended to bury myself in my studies. I remember hearing a lot about you though." McKay grinned. "Sheppard of Balliol and that famous century against Cambridge."
John was surprised. "Somehow I wouldn't have thought you were the cricketing type."
"I'm not, but it was the talk of the common room – the way you grabbed victory from the jaws of certain defeat and all that hyperbole. Personally I've never seen the fascination in whacking at a ball with a hunk of willow for hours on end, though at least they have the good sense to stop for tea and cake, but there you go – not everyone can be as devoted to the pursuit of genius."
John grinned. He'd never met anyone quite like McKay. "You didn't want to follow a career in science?"
"Is that your oh-so-tactful way of asking why I'm writing moderately popular fiction for the masses instead of hiding away in academia and following the pure path to enlightenment and higher levels of consciousness through the accumulation of knowledge?"
John laughed. "Um, yes?"
"Writing pays better," McKay snorted. "I still publish in scientific journals from time to time, but gruesome whodunits are what pay the bills, I'm afraid. Plus I've found that I'm remarkably good at it – hardly a surprise, of course, what with the whole genius thing." McKay's smile was smug, but John found it kind of charming. "Our parents weren't exactly well off – my father was an academic – and they didn't leave much for Jeannie and myself. My uncle is very generous, and I'm grateful that he takes care of Jeannie, but I like to make my own way. Not that I suppose you know much about that kind of thing?"
It should have stung, but John was becoming used to McKay and realised that it was a genuine question and not a jibe.
"I'm the second son – the spare." John smiled, mocking himself. "My brother took over the family title and estate when my father died and then thankfully provided three strapping sons for the succession. That left me in the clear and free to do what I wanted."
It had been a blessing. The life of a country Duke, with the occasional jaunt up to London to sit in the House, held no interest for him, but his own sense of duty and honour would have forced him to take a wife and produce an heir for the family line. Luckily, David had taken care of all of that, and although they weren't exactly close, he was honestly grateful to his brother for having been born first. Fortunately, John also had wealth of his own – he'd inherited a decent sum that he'd doubled several times over through sound investment – and so he was basically at leisure to spend his time as he liked.
"And what you wanted was to get involved with murder?" McKay laughed a little incredulously. "Really? I mean I enjoy it myself – obviously, considering what I do for a living – but purely in the theoretical sense. Planning a crime and following the plot through until the brilliant and unorthodoxly attractive genius detective unmasks the evil doer, etcetera, etcetera. I'm not so sure that I'd like to be face to face with the real thing though." McKay grimaced. "How did you get caught up in it anyway – working with the Yard and what not?"
John thought back to how it had all began.
It was the summer of 1920. The war had been over for two years but for him it was like it had never ended. It was so hard to shut out the noises in his head – the bombs and the bullets, and the cries of the dying as they lay trapped in No Man's Land. He kept reliving that one particular day – remembering over and over again how he and Lorne and a handful of others had crawled under the wire and out over the mud and the blood, and the bodies of the ones beyond help. How they'd dragged the wounded back, trying to get them to the trenches, and then how the shelling had gotten worse. John could only remember the rest as fragments, but he knew that a blast had blown him into a deep shell hole and that he'd been drowning in the mud and dead bodies that filled it higher than his head. Somehow Lorne had found him and pulled him free. John hadn't been able to escape the memories though, not even once it was all over and he was back home in the safety of his Piccadilly flat with Lorne watching over him like a mother hen. He didn't want to go out anywhere or to see anybody, and so he just sat with the blinds drawn staring into the fire.
Then one day Caldwell had called and insisted that he come and stay for a while. He hadn't been able to disobey an order from the Colonel, instinct had been too strong, and so he'd gone. During the visit, they'd been invited to dinner by some friends of the Caldwells, and while they were there a robbery had been discovered. A string of priceless pearls had gone missing, and, without quite realising what he was doing, John had pieced things together and identified the thief. That was how he'd met Dex, who'd been a freshly promoted, young Detective Inspector back then, and they'd become friends. It had all gone on from there, and John had quickly found himself as a kind of unpaid consultant to Scotland Yard. It had saved his sanity and quite possibly his life.
It wasn't something that he ever talked about though; another piece of himself that he liked to keep hidden. He looked over and met McKay's guileless, blue gaze and realised with a start that here was someone who he might actually be able to share it with. Not now perhaps, but one day.
"How did I get into the murder business? Well, I had to do something with my time," John drawled, "and becoming a detective looked like a lot of fun."
McKay laughed, but John caught a thoughtful gleam in that clear gaze, and he had a feeling that McKay could see right through him. He decided that he liked the idea.
John woke abruptly as a hand shook his shoulder.
"Sheppard. Sheppard! Wake up, man! Always said you could sleep through a damn bombardment."
He snapped his eyes open. It was Caldwell. Something must be wrong.
"I'm afraid something's happened over at Gull's Nest," Caldwell said gravely. "A police matter. I thought you'd want to come along."
Gull's Nest? John's thoughts flew immediately to McKay, and he prayed to God that he was all right. If the Chief Constable had been called out in the middle of the night then it must be serious. He threw back the covers and got out of bed. "What's happened?"
"I don't know the details, but Richard Woolsey's dead and it looks like foul play."
John felt relief flood through him as he heard that McKay was okay and then it was replaced by sadness. He hadn't really known Woolsey, but he'd seemed like a decent man who'd loved his family, and they would no doubt feel his loss. "Have you called the Yard?" He stepped through into the dressing room, leaving the door open enough to carry on the conversation, and splashed some water onto his face from the jug on the washstand.
"I thought it best. Murder is a little out of our league down here, I'm afraid. A spot of poaching and the occasional house breaking is more our speed," Caldwell said. "Dex and his men are already on their way. I've also called the local police surgeon to let him know that he'll be needed."
"Good." John hurried back into the bedroom buttoning up his shirt. He was glad to hear that Dex was on the case.
Lorne appeared looking as composed as always, the only concession to the unexpectedness of the hour being a solitary tuft of hair rising in an imperious question mark at his crown. John had no doubt it would be dealt with in short order.
"Ah, Lorne." John sat on the side of the bed and slipped into his shoes. "You didn't happen to bring your camera and other gear when you packed everything else, did you?"
John stood up, and Lorne took John's jacket from the hanger and helped him into it, brushing away specks of invisible lint as a matter of course.
"I knew that this was a social visit, my lord, but I did take the liberty of including our scene of crime equipment. Just on the off chance, so to speak, my lord."
"Excellent," John said. "I knew I could count on you."
A pleased flicker passed across Lorne's face. "Thank you, my lord."
"Load up the Daimler, and we'll be on our way."
"Very good, my lord." Lorne nodded and left the room.
"So, what else do you know, sir?" John asked Caldwell as they headed towards the main staircase.
"Not much. Just that Woolsey was taken ill last night. His doctor was called, but it was no good and Woolsey died. The doctor didn't like the look of things and so called the local police who called me."
The butler was waiting in the hallway with Caldwell's hat, overcoat and stick.
"Ah, Pargetter." Caldwell nodded. "I've told Lady Elizabeth that there's nothing she can do and that she should stay in bed, but you know how she is. Can you make sure there's a good fire in the morning room, and let Mrs Whiting know – some tea wouldn't go amiss."
"Very good, sir."
They hurried out into the night. It was still dark, and there was a damp chill hanging in the air. The Daimler was waiting with the engine already running and Lorne standing deferentially by its open doors.
"We might as well take my old puddlejumper," John said. "Save waiting for your man to bring the car around."
"Has your driving got any better, Major?" Caldwell snorted.
"Absolutely, sir!" John smirked. "Though I can't say that it's got any slower."
Caldwell rolled his eyes and climbed into the car muttering something about 'living to make old bones', and John jumped into the driving seat with a chuckle. He was never glad when a case involved murder, but he couldn't help the excited thrill of anticipation whenever he was called on to help with an investigation. Plus he was going to see McKay, and despite the circumstances, that made him incredibly happy.
Lorne closed the doors behind them and got into the back seat where John could make out a pile of vague shapes in the darkness that he knew were cameras and dusting kits and the other tools of their trade. As John's involvement with criminology had grown over the years, Lorne had proven that, as well as being a loyal and first-rate manservant, he was also an invaluable assistant in the art of detection. He was an excellent photographer with a very good eye for detail, and his skill with forensic analysis, fingerprints especially, had been of great use to John and to Scotland Yard.
Gull's Nest was a few miles along the coast to the east of Crantock Court, and the twelve cylinders of the Daimler purred smoothly as they whipped along the deserted country lanes.
The house was built on a small, stony island that was joined to the mainland by a short causeway. Twice a day, at high tide, it was cut off by the sea and could only be reached by boat but, luckily, the tide was out and John was able to drive across the polished stones of the narrow causeway and up a winding driveway to the house.
As the name suggested, Gull's Nest was perched on top of a craggy outcrop with panoramic views out to sea. Dawn was just breaking as they arrived, throwing the Gothic mansion into eerie silhouette against the blaze of pink and gold on the horizon. There were already several police cars in front of the sprawling, old house, and John parked the Daimler next to them. He and Caldwell hurried out as Lorne gathered the equipment.
The front door was open, spilling a wash of light out onto the pebbled driveway, and a uniformed police sergeant stood smartly to attention as they entered.
He saluted Caldwell. "Sir."
"Ah, Griffin." Caldwell nodded. "Has the Yard arrived yet?"
"They're in the drawing room, sir. Been here about a quarter of an hour."
"Good." Caldwell motioned along the hallway to John. "This way."
An ashen–faced older man dressed in butler's livery was sitting on a straight-backed chair beside a door, and he stood stiffly as he saw them approaching. "Oh, Colonel Caldwell, sir. What terrible news it is about the master."
"It is, Burrows. It is," Caldwell said gruffly. "He was a good man."
"That he was, sir," Burrows said and opened the door.
John scanned the room. There were several people milling around including a few policemen and some civilians that he didn't know, though he did recognise Harwood, Woolsey's solicitor, standing over near the window. There was no sign of McKay or his sister.
John turned and smiled as he saw the tall, somewhat imposing, figure of Dex striding towards him. Ronon Dex stood well over six feet and was built like a brick wall, and John had seen plenty of criminals turn pale when he'd caught up with them.
"Thought I might see you." Dex smiled and shook his hand.
"Glad you're here." He turned to Caldwell. "Chief Constable Caldwell – may I introduce Chief Inspector Dex of Scotland Yard."
Caldwell stepped forward and shook Dex's hand. "Good of you to come so quickly, Chief Inspector. Appreciate it. This is a rum do."
Dex nodded. "You knew the victim, Colonel?" he asked with his characteristic deep rumble. He was a man of relatively few words, but he had a remarkable ability to track down the truth and was one of the Yard's best men.
"That's right," Caldwell said. "We're neighbours and, in fact, Woolsey and his niece and nephew were just over at our place for dinner a couple of nights ago."
"So, what happened?" John asked, still wondering where McKay was and hoping that he was all right.
"The family and a guest – Harwood, Sir Richard's solicitor – all ate dinner together last night," Dex said. "Sir Richard then went to his study where he had a meeting with Harwood. He went to bed a little after that and everything seemed normal until he rang for his valet at around a half past eleven and said he felt unwell. His doctor was called. When he arrived, Sir Richard was vomiting violently. His condition grew worse, and he eventually lost consciousness and died."
"Any history of illness?" John asked. Woolsey had certainly seemed healthy enough when he'd met him.
"Nothing out of the ordinary. Doctor says he had a full check-up last month and was in good health for a man his age. That was what made the doctor suspicious. That and the symptoms."
The acuteness and severity of Woolsey's condition did seem to point to one thing. "Poison?" John felt his heart sink. Poison usually meant someone close to the victim – someone who would have the opportunity to administer it.
"Probably." Dex nodded. "We won't know for sure until after the post mortem."
"Where are the family now?"
"Doctor McKay is upstairs with his sister. She's upset."
John wasn't surprised. From what he'd seen, Miss McKay had seemed pretty close to her uncle, and he had helped to raise her when her parents died. He'd probably become a kind of surrogate father.
"My team will finish getting preliminary statements from the rest of the household," Dex said, indicating a small group of plain clothed officers talking to the servants. "I'll carry out more detailed interviews tomorrow," he paused and looked at his watch and then clarified, "later today – when everyone's had time to rest."
"Okay if I sit in on the interviews?"
Dex grinned and thumped John lightly on the shoulder. "Thought you would."
"Is the body still here?"
"Told them not to touch it," Dex said. "Waiting for the undertaker, and I guessed you'd want to see it first."
"Good. I'll go and take a look. Lorne's got his stuff with him, if that's all right?"
"Be my guest. Perkins has already gone over the scene." Perkins was Dex's forensics man. "Good to have Lorne's expert eye though – yours, too," he chuckled.
Dex moved away to continue with his work, and Caldwell accompanied John up a large sweeping staircase that lead to the upper stories of the house.
A fresh–faced constable was standing by an open door a little way along the first floor. He saluted smartly enough but looked a bit green around the gills.
"Noble, isn't it?" Caldwell asked. "First murder, eh?"
"Yes, sir." Noble nodded and then looked hesitantly at John and back to Caldwell. He swallowed awkwardly. "I'm sorry, sir, but the Sergeant said that I wasn't to let nobody in this room who I wasn't told to." He spoke with a soft West Country burr and was clearly terrified at having to challenge the Chief Constable of the entire county. "And he'll have my guts for garters if I mess this up, sir."
Caldwell gave the young man an appraising glance and then clapped him on the shoulder. "Quite right. Good man for sticking to protocol!"
Constable Noble's relief was practically palpable. "Thank you, sir."
"This is Lord John Sheppard," Caldwell said. "He's here assisting in the investigation."
John smothered a smile as he saw the young man's eyes widen. Clearly his fame had preceded him.
"Yes, sir, my lord," Noble breathed, sounding a little awe-struck.
They passed through into the room and all amusement was forgotten. The sharp scent of vomit hung in the air, and a shrouded figure lay in the centre of the large, oak framed bed. The sheets and blankets were soiled and lay twisted where Woolsey had obviously thrashed in distress. It looked like someone had been quick witted enough not to disturb anything though – the doctor perhaps, or maybe McKay.
John still hadn't seen McKay, and he really wanted to, but right now he had a job to do.
He drew the sheet back carefully from the body. Woolsey's eyes had been closed, and his face was pale and slack in death, but his pyjamas were tangled and twisted around his body and some of the buttons of the jacket had been wrenched off. The small fringe of hair circling his bald head was stiff with sweat, and there were remnants of dried vomit in the corners of his mouth. It was clear that the poor man had died in agony. John bent his head in respect for a moment and then gently replaced the sheet.
There was a small table next to the bed with Woolsey's spectacles, a book of poetry – Donne, John noted automatically – and a glass containing the remains of a cloudy liquid. A crumpled paper sachet labelled 'The Tonic' containing a few grains of a granular white powder lay by the glass along with a teaspoon. John knew Dex would be having the contents analysed. He motioned for Lorne to come in from where he was waiting in the doorway.
"Get some pictures of this – and the body and the usual stuff. And any fingerprints on the glass."
"My lord." Lorne nodded and set to work, setting up the tripod and sliding a photographic plate into the Leica that he favoured for indoor shots.
Away from the grim scene of the bed, the rest of the room was clean and well-ordered and pretty much useless in terms of providing any answers. There were no ashes or charred fragments in the fireplace and nothing in the wastepaper basket. John opened drawers and poked through closets, but apart from finding that Woolsey had a liking for rather loud pin stripes the search yielded nothing.
Dex entered, his bulk making the room feel suddenly smaller. "You done? They've come for the body."
John glanced again at the shrouded figure and nodded. There was nothing of help here.
Dex waved, and two constables stepped into the room carrying a stretcher. A serious looking man wearing a black frockcoat, presumably the undertaker, followed them. There wasn't a lot of space, and John ducked out into the hallway, leaving Caldwell to oversee the formalities. Dex followed him and raised a questioning eyebrow.
John shook his head slowly. "It all looks pretty normal, doesn't it? I assume you're having the tonic checked?"
Dex nodded. "Powder and glass. Doubt we'll find anything though."
"Yeah, that would seem kind of easy."
"Easy would be nice." Dex grinned. "I could use more 'easy' in this job."
"I thought you liked a challenge," John snorted. "Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Leave that to you," Dex said dryly. "I've already got a missing stockbroker, two jewellery robberies and a suspected case of arson waiting for me back at the Yard."
John quirked a quick smile and then began to think out loud. "So, if we assume that the poison –"
"If it is poison," Dex interrupted. "We won't know for sure until after the PM."
"Okay, if it is poison," John parroted. "But I think that's pretty much a certainty. So, if we assume that the poison wasn't in Old Professor McGonagall's Tasty Tonic for Perfect Posture and Glowing Skin." Dex rolled his eyes, and John grinned. "So, if the poison wasn't in the snake oil then where was it?"
"Good question. I've sent what's left of last night's dinner to be analysed, but if it was in the food then the whole household, including everyone in the servant's hall, would have been affected," Dex said. "So, that's probably out."
"Probably. We need to find out what else Woolsey ate or drank – something that no one else did."
"His man's making a list of any other pills or remedies that he was taking, and I'll check with the Doctor again and get it all tested. Not much more we can do until we question everyone fully though."
Caldwell stepped out into the hall. "They're ready with the body. Is there anything else that you need from me here, Chief Inspector?"
"No, thank you, sir."
"Then I'll be heading back – need to speak to the coroner and so on," Caldwell said. "I'll get one of my men to organise some billets for you and your team, as well. The Anchor does a particularly fine steak pie and a good drop of local bitter, I hear."
Dex smiled. "Much appreciated, sir."
"Sheppard, you staying?"
"Yes, I think I will." He wanted to see McKay.
"I'll get a lift from one of my lads then. See you both later." Caldwell turned smartly and marched away.
John turned at the shout to see McKay hurrying along the hallway towards him. He was wearing a disreputable old sweater over a pair of battered flannels, and his hair was standing up like he'd been raking his fingers through it. He looked completely – and adorably – rumpled, and John was so glad to see him that he had to stop himself from running over and kissing him on the spot.
John glanced at Dex. "I just need to…"
"I'll be downstairs."
John smiled and turned back to McKay but before he could say anything the door to Woolsey's room opened and the bearers began to bring the body out. McKay's face drained of colour as he saw the shrouded figure on the stretcher, and he looked as if he might be sick – or pass out.
"Just a second," John instructed the men, holding a hand out to McKay and effectively blocking the doorway. "Come on, McKay. Let's go and get a drink."
McKay glanced again into the open doorway and then looked back at John. He nodded quickly. "That sounds… yes, thank you. I think I'd like that."
John ushered McKay down the staircase and glanced around the formal entrance hall. He didn't know the house and definitely didn't want to take McKay to the hubbub of the drawing room. He had a sudden idea. "Where's the library?" McKay had retreated to the library at Crantock Court, and John had a feeling that he might be more at home amongst the peace and familiarity of books. It always worked for him, anyway.
McKay nodded vaguely down the hall. "Um, over there."
John smiled encouragingly. "Okay. Let's go."
McKay still looked a little dazed and so John dropped a hand to the small of his back and guided him into the library and over to an armchair by the fireplace. McKay gave him a confused look, and John smiled again and pushed gently at his shoulders until he sat down. John grabbed a decanter and glass from the sideboard and poured a healthy dose of brandy and handed it to McKay.
"Here, drink this."
McKay stared at him for a second and then took a stiff drink. "I don't remember you being this pushy," he muttered grumpily, but the colour was coming back to his face.
"That's because you don't know me very well," John smirked, mimicking their first conversation.
McKay's eyes widened, and then he smiled softly. "Well, I look forward to changing that."
John felt a thrill as McKay played along. He ducked his head a little, smiling at McKay through his lashes. "Me, too."
McKay's smile grew wider, and he took another drink.
There was a fire laid out ready in the hearth, and John crouched down and struck a match. The kindling caught instantly, and he added a few lumps of coal from the scuttle, and the blaze quickly began to chase the chill from the room.
John sat down in the chair across from McKay.
"Thank you – for all of this," McKay said, waving his hand around vaguely. He scrunched his face up a little, and John couldn't help but find it enchanting. "I want you to know that I don't usually behave like such a damsel in distress though. I'm actually made of much sterner stuff."
"Hey," John said gently. "You've had a shock. It's understandable. I'm sorry about your uncle."
McKay nodded. "Thank you. It was just so unexpected and so… horrible. Chuck – Charles – my uncle's valet fetched me, and I could see straight away that it was serious. I sent for the doctor, but it was all over so quickly. I didn't even have chance to wake Jeannie. I had to – after, of course, and now she's angry and blaming me because she didn't get a chance to see him and say goodbye. Though he was in so much pain that I don't think he knew where he was let alone who was with him." McKay sighed. "Anyway, I don't care that she's angry with me – I'm glad that she didn't see him. I don't think she would want to remember him like that."
"For what it's worth, I think you're right," John said. "Memories like that are hard to forget. Sometimes it's better never to have to try."
McKay looked at him carefully, and John felt it again – like McKay could see right inside him.
"Ypres?" McKay asked quietly.
So, McKay really did understand. Not that he was all that surprised – there'd been some kind of connection between them since they'd met. John shook his head. "The Somme. You?"
"Passchendaele. I was in Intelligence, but they needed every man on the ground before it was over," McKay said, sounding weary, and then added more caustically, "So, it's hardly like I'm a novice when it comes to death. I really shouldn't feel the need to swoon into the strength of your manly embrace."
John's face grew hot – actually he had no objection at all to McKay swooning into his arms, but he didn't say so. "Don't be so hard on yourself. It's different when it's someone you know – someone close to you. Especially when it's so sudden."
McKay nodded, but his eyes looked haunted. "The police think that he was poisoned, don't they?"
"It's looking that way – the symptoms suggest it."
"I thought as much," McKay sighed. "So did Beckett – Uncle Richard's doctor. I made sure that nothing was touched – in the room, I mean. Just in case. I know it's procedure – I suspected that there'd need to be an investigation."
"I'm sorry to have to ask, but can you think of anyone who might have a reason to murder your uncle? Did he have any enemies?"
McKay looked up sharply. "What? Oh – you're here to help the police, aren't you? I thought… never mind. How stupid." He shook his head dismissively. "You're a detective – of course you're just here to catch whoever did it."
"Rodney," John said softly. "I won't lie to you. I am here to help with the investigation, but there is another reason that I came. A more important reason – to me, anyway." McKay's eyes were very blue as John stared into them. "I'm here because of you. You were the first person that I thought of when I heard that something had happened." The words tumbled out of him. "I was worried that something might have happened to you. I… I don't think that I could have stood it if anything had."
McKay looked shocked, and he opened his mouth and then closed it again without saying anything.
John's heart sank. He'd thought that they'd both been on the same page with whatever was happening between them, but clearly he'd been wrong, and now he'd said too much and ruined everything. This was why he kept his feelings to himself – he was useless at trying to put them into words. "Look, forget that I said that. I really am just happy that you're not hurt and…"
"No," McKay cried and then added more hesitantly, "I don't want to do that – forget, I mean – if it's okay with you. In fact, I'd like to make a point of not forgetting."
"Really?" John knew that he was probably smiling like an idiot, but he was too relieved to care. "It's definitely okay with me."
"Right, right, that's… okay then. Good." McKay took another hefty gulp of brandy and swallowed quickly – obviously too quickly as he began to cough violently.
John hurried over and rescued the glass from McKay's flapping hands and slapped him helpfully on the back a couple of times.
"Thank you," McKay spluttered when he finally stopped coughing. He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped at his watering eyes.
"That was smooth, Rodney – very smooth," John joked.
"Huh, you can talk – you're the one flirting when there's just been a murder." McKay grinned for a moment and then blushed bright red. "I mean, ah… that is…"
John laughed, glad that McKay felt comfortable enough with him to tease and also because he'd been right after all. It looked like they really were both on the same page.
McKay stopped rambling and glared at John. "I knew it!" He pointed an accusing finger. "You were flirting with me!"
John shrugged and smiled sheepishly.
McKay's glare melted away. "Oh. Well, that's… ah… good to know." He ducked his head, a pleased smile warming his face.
John felt a bubble of happiness threatening to burst out of him, and he wanted to shout or jump around – or grab McKay and kiss him and never stop. He couldn't though. McKay was right – the timing was wrong. He had a murder to solve… and then, hopefully, he and McKay would have time to explore the feelings that were growing between them.
"Doctor Beckett, can you tell us what happened last night please?" Dex asked.
John was in the drawing room at Gull's Nest with Dex and Carson Beckett – Woolsey's doctor. He'd stayed talking with McKay until the adrenaline of the night's events had begun to wear off and McKay's eyelids had started to droop. John had sent Lorne to commandeer tea and crumpets and, after they'd been polished off, he'd persuaded McKay to go back to bed for a few hours. John had then spent the morning catching up with everything that Dex had found out from the staff and other residents of the house. He'd also – unable to withstand Lorne's mute disapproval any longer – made a brief dash back to Crantock Court for a shave and change of clothes before returning to Gull's Nest.
Now it was nearly midday, and Beckett had just arrived after completing his morning rounds. He was a softly spoken Scot with a kind face and a competent air about him. He wore a brown tweed suit and brogues, and it amused John that he looked exactly the way that someone would expect a country doctor to look, even down to the bulging medical bag monogrammed with his initials.
"Aye. I was called to Sir Richard last night. I live just over the causeway in Salmouth. Unfortunately, it was high tide and I had to come over by boat, but even so, I was here within about twenty minutes. Sir Richard had already begun to vomit violently by the time that I arrived though, and he was complaining of severe stomach pains. His pulse was thready and rapid, and his temperature was elevated. His abdomen was very painful to the touch, but I couldn't find anything to indicate appendicitis or peritonitis and so, at first, I suspected a possible gastric attack. I gave him something to try and ease the vomiting and give the poor man some relief."
"What?" Dex asked, as blunt as always.
"Just a soothing medicine – a mixture of potash and bicarbonate." Beckett shook his head sadly. "Unfortunately, it had no effect. Sir Richard lost consciousness, and his pulse became very weak. I'm afraid there was nothing that I could do for him, and he died soon after."
"And there was no existing illness that could have caused these symptoms?"
"None that I know of." Beckett shook his head firmly. "Sir Richard was a very healthy man for his age – just the odd touch of gout now and then when he over–indulged with the port but nothing serious. His heart was strong, and he could have lived another twenty years, by my reckoning."
"Was it you who suggested calling the police, Doctor?" John asked.
Beckett turned to face him. "Aye. There was no reason for a previously healthy man to suddenly be afflicted in this way, and the acuteness and severity of the symptoms were highly suggestive." He paused for a moment before continuing gravely, "I believe that Sir Richard may have been poisoned – most probably with arsenic and a hefty dose of the stuff, too. I didn't say it in quite those terms to Doctor McKay, of course, as he was obviously affected by his uncle's death, but I did indicate that I thought there might be a need for the police to take a look. He agreed with me immediately and suggested that nothing in the room should be touched – beyond covering the poor old gentleman with a sheet for the sake of decency, of course."
Dex passed a typed page to the doctor. "You were right, Doctor. This is the post mortem – Sir Richard had ingested over eight grains of arsenic sometime in the two to three hours before his death."
"Eight grains!" Beckett looked horrified. "My God, man. That's enough to kill a bloody horse!"
"Yes." John nodded. "It looks like whoever did this wanted to make sure that Woolsey would die – and die very quickly." He didn't add that whoever had done it had also seemed not to care that Woolsey would die in a particularly painful way. There were other poisons that acted much more quickly; cyanide could finish off a man in minutes.
Beckett shook his head. "Sir Richard was a kind-hearted and decent man. I can't imagine the kind of vile character that could do such a terrible thing. It's unconscionable."
There was nothing more that Beckett could add, and Dex thanked him, and he took his leave.
"I'll just ask – but there's no doubt that it is murder?" John said. "It couldn't be suicide?"
"No note, and the valet says that the old man didn't know what was happening to him. That was confirmed by Beckett and Doctor McKay when I spoke to them last night. Said the old chap seemed genuinely confused about what was going on – muttering something about the fish being off."
John quirked an eyebrow.
"No – everyone at the table ate it, and they're okay. Good piece of halibut, apparently. Looks like suicide is out."
"Thought so. Just thinking out loud."
"Look, Sheppard. I know you know the family. If it's going to be a problem and you want to sit this one out…"
John shook his head. "No. I want to help."
"Even if this goes somewhere you don't want it to?"
"I know what you're getting at," John sighed. "That the murderer was probably someone close to Woolsey – someone who knew his routines and could get close enough to administer the poison without arousing suspicion. Someone who no one would give a second thought to if they were seen poking around in the kitchen or wherever."
Someone like McKay maybe.
John knew that Dex had to be considering the fact that McKay – or his sister – might be responsible. Dex was an excellent policeman, and John trusted him with his life, but this wasn't about him – it was about McKay. John needed to be involved in this investigation. He had to be – for McKay.
John looked Dex squarely in the face. "I need to do this, Ronon."
Dex looked back at him thoughtfully for a few seconds, and John wondered what he was seeing – what he might be giving away – and then he nodded, obviously satisfied with whatever he saw. "'S good enough for me, John."
"Doctor McKay. Thank you for joining us," Dex said as McKay appeared in the doorway of the drawing room. "I know this is a difficult time, but I hope you understand that we need to get a clearer picture of what happened to your uncle." He indicated the tray that the maid had brought in a few moments before. "Would you like some coffee before we start?" John had never heard Dex say so much in one go, and he appreciated the effort he was making.
"No, no – I'm fine, thank you." McKay shook his head absently and sat down in a chair across from Dex. He'd shaved and changed into fresh clothes, and although he looked a little better than he had earlier, there was still a weariness lining his eyes that made him seem incredibly fragile. It was just so wrong – McKay was usually so robust and full of energy – and John had to shove his hands down into his pockets to stop himself from just going over there and wrapping him in his arms and telling him that everything was going to be okay.
"His lordship is helping with our investigation," Dex said, indicating to where John was leaning against the fireplace.
McKay looked across at him.
"I can go – if you'd prefer me not to be here." He really wanted to stay, but he didn't want to make McKay feel uncomfortable.
McKay shook his head and smiled – just a little. "No, I'd prefer it if you were here. If you don't mind?"
"No problem." John smiled back and tried to look reassuring.
"Doctor McKay," Dex began, "I'm sorry, but the post mortem did show arsenic in your uncle's body. With nothing to indicate suicide, we are currently regarding the death as murder – though it will be for the coroner to decide at the inquest, of course – and I'd like to ask your permission to conduct a search of the house."
McKay nodded vaguely. "I expected as much, Chief Inspector. Please carry on. I want whoever did this brought to justice. Search wherever you like."
"Thank you, Doctor. Can you tell us about last night – starting before dinner."
"Yes, yes. Of course." McKay seemed to take a moment to gather himself before continuing in a more sure tone, "There's not much to tell though. I didn't see my uncle before dinner. I'd accompanied my sister to a tennis party…" He glanced over at John, and his voice softened a little. "Over at Crantock Court. We arrived back rather late and so we went straight up to change for dinner."
"And that was the usual routine?"
"Oh, yes. My uncle was a stickler for protocol. I don't really see the point of it myself and would happily slop around in a comfortable pair of old bags but that wouldn't do for Uncle Richard – the customs of polite society had to observed at all times."
"This bothered you?" Dex asked mildly.
McKay sighed and waved his hand dismissively. "I just thought it was a waste of time, but that was his way and so I put up with it."
"What happened next?"
"I went down to dinner – well, cocktails first, of course. There was myself, my sister, my uncle and my uncle's solicitor, Harwood." There was something a bit off in the way that McKay said the solicitor's name, and John had the feeling that he didn't think much of him. "We had a pleasant enough meal –"
"And everybody ate the same thing?" Dex asked.
"Yes." McKay nodded. "Soup, fish, roast duck and then apple tart and cheese to finish. After dinner, my uncle and Harwood went into his study; I understand they had some business to attend to. I kept my sister company for a while in the parlour – she wanted to listen to the gramophone – and then I went up to bed."
"And you didn't see your uncle again until you were called to his room when he became unwell?"
"You don't live at Gull's Nest?"
"No. I have a flat in Bloomsbury." McKay glanced at John again. "Mecklenburgh Square. But I come down fairly often to see my sister and uncle. My sister comes up to town quite a bit, too – for shopping and the theatre, that kind of thing – and she stays with me when she does."
"Can I ask if you know who benefits from your uncle's death, Doctor?" Dex asked.
"Well, me, I suppose," McKay said. "As I understand it, my uncle left the bulk of his estate to be shared between myself and my sister – with Jeannie's share to be put in trust until she marries."
Dex shot John a look. McKay had just given himself a pretty solid motive. "Can you think of anybody who might want your uncle dead?" John asked.
"No one – I told you before. The old man could be a bit trying at times, but I can't imagine that anybody would want to hurt him."
"Thank you," Dex said. "We'll need to speak to Miss McKay when she's feeling well enough."
"Yes, of course. I'll go and see how she is. This has shaken her up pretty badly."
"No rush, sir – whenever she's ready."
"Right. So, is that it then? Is there anything else I can do?"
"That's all for now, sir – thank you," Dex said and turned away and began to jot something down in his notebook.
McKay stood up, but his shoulders were sagging, and he looked so lost that this time John did go to him.
"You did great, Rodney." John smiled and squeezed McKay's shoulder. "Why don't you go and take a break. Have you had anything to eat? You look tired."
"I can't. There's too much to do – people to notify and arrangements to be made."
"I'm sure they can wait a little while," John said gently. "Isn't there someone who can help you?"
McKay rolled his eyes. "Only Harwood and – no. Really – just no."
"You don't like him much, do you?"
"You could say that." John was surprised by the sudden anger in McKay's voice and then it was gone and he sounded tired again. "Look, I really have to go and make a start on everything, but… I hope I can see you later? If you're not too busy?" He looked hesitant and hopeful at the same time.
John smiled broadly. "It's a date."
Mister Percival Harwood walked into the drawing room. He was a tall man with an unusually pale complexion, except for a few odd freckles across his cheeks, and sleek blond hair combed back from his face.
"Sit down, Mister Harwood." Dex waved to the coffee tray. "Coffee?"
"Thank you." Harwood nodded and helped himself to a cup, adding three lumps of sugar.
"You're Sir Richard's solicitor?"
"I am. As was my father before me," Harwood agreed. He took a sip of his coffee and added two more sugar lumps and stirred vigorously. "I took over when my father passed away and have been taking care of Sir Richard's affairs for the last five years as both his solicitor and man of business." His speech was precise but rather unctuous, and it set John's teeth on edge.
"And you're currently staying as a guest at Gull's Nest?"
"That is correct. My home and offices are in London, of course – this is just a short visit."
"And you're here in your role as Sir Richard's solicitor?"
"Well, I do like to think that the family regard me as, ah, something more," Harwood said, giving a self–deprecating little nod. "But, yes – Sir Richard invited me down in a professional capacity. As he grew older he became disinclined to come up to town very often, and I was, of course, more than happy to oblige. We had a short business meeting last night, in fact."
"And what business was that?"
"Oh, just some routine matters: a review of the tenancy agreements for some of Sir Richard's properties, the sale of some stocks, and so on. Nothing out of the ordinary, I can assure you."
"So, there was nothing in his business dealings that might have been worrying Sir Richard or causing him any concern?" John asked.
Harwood looked at him sharply and then smiled. It was an oily kind of a smile, and John could see why McKay didn't like him. "Nothing at all, my lord."
Dex looked over at John curiously for a moment before continuing. "Did Sir Richard eat or drink anything during your meeting, Mr Harwood?"
"Why yes, he did. He had a martini."
John glanced at Dex. This was news – perhaps the arsenic had been in the martini.
"In fact, we both did – Sir Richard mixed them himself. He was quite the cocktail aficionado, and it was something of a 'party piece' for him, I think. He liked to make a little performance of it – measuring and mixing and so on. There was something missing though – a lemon, I believe – and he was rather annoyed as he had to ring for Burrows to bring a fresh one. I think he felt that it had held up the show," Harwood commented. "Anyway, Sir Richard had him stay until he'd mixed the drinks and we'd tasted them – just in case there was anything else amiss."
John felt a stab of disappointment. While anyone with knowledge of Woolsey's habits could have put arsenic in the gin or vermouth, it was highly unlikely as the damn solicitor had drunk it as well and hadn't been affected.
"And Sir Richard didn't eat or drink anything else?"
"Not to my knowledge, no." Harwood steepled his neatly manicured fingers together, as if in thought. "Of course, Doctor McKay would know more than I. He saw Sir Richard after I left."
"What?" John fought to keep the surprise from his face. McKay had said that he hadn't seen Woolsey again until he'd been called to his room.
"Oh, yes – didn't he mention it? That's very strange," Harwood said, almost archly. "It was after my meeting with Sir Richard. I was on my way to choose a book from the library – a little bedtime reading." His smile was smarmy. "And I saw Doctor McKay going into Sir Richard's study. I passed by again a little later on my way back from the library. The door was closed, but I could hear them talking – not the details, of course, just the sound of their voices. I'm afraid to say, but I think it may have been a rather heated discussion."
"Why was that?"
"Well…" Harwood's tone turned grave, but there was a falseness to it. "Because their voices were raised. It sounded as if they were arguing."
"But you couldn't hear what about?" John asked.
"No, as I said, the door was closed."
"Thank you, Mister Harwood," Dex said. "You've been very helpful."
"My pleasure. I am only too happy to help in any way that I can. I'm sure that we are all hoping for the speedy apprehension of whoever committed this terrible act."
It was obvious that Harwood already knew that they suspected murder, but then probably so did half the county by now. News always travelled fast in these big, old houses, and the communication network below stairs could easily rival that of the Secret Service.
"One more question," John said as Harwood stood. "As his solicitor, you obviously know the terms of Sir Richard's will?"
Harwood inclined his head in agreement. "Indeed." He glanced across at Dex. "I see no reason not to disclose the essence of the contents as they will soon become common knowledge after the reading, and this is a criminal case, of course… There are a few minor bequests – to the servants and charitable ventures and so on – totalling a few hundred Pounds at most, but the bulk of Sir Richard's fortune is to be divided equally between his nephew, Doctor McKay, and his niece, Miss McKay. Miss McKay's share being put into trust until the time of her marriage – with the trust to be managed by Doctor McKay." Harwood looked directly at John. "In fact, now that Sir Richard is dead, Doctor McKay is a very wealthy man."
"Thank you, Mr Harwood." John smiled politely, but he had a sudden urge to punch Harwood's teeth right down his scrawny, pale neck. "Oh, by the way – who's the executor of Sir Richard's will?"
Harwood smiled thinly. "I have that honour."
Dex escorted Harwood to the door and closed it behind him. "Looks like McKay has a lot to gain from Woolsey's death, and he saw him after dinner and lied about it." He looked at John carefully. "It doesn't look good."
"I know," John sighed. He may not have known him for very long, but there was just no way that he could believe that Rodney McKay was a murderer. There had to be some other explanation. "I really don't think he did it though."
"I know he's a friend…"
"That's not it."
Dex raised a sceptical eyebrow.
"Okay, that's part of it." John shrugged. "But it's more than that. I can't see McKay doing something like this; he's too straight forward, and he really doesn't strike me as a killer. Plus, there's something about this Harwood that doesn't sit right with me. He makes my skin crawl."
Dex snorted. "He did seem pretty keen to serve McKay up to us," he said thoughtfully. "There could be something there. You know that I'll still have to talk to McKay again though."
"Yeah, but I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation. I think it might be a good idea to take a closer look into Harwood's affairs while you're at it, too."
"Will do. He's a solicitor though and so it won't be easy, but I'll make some enquiries."
"Yeah, he seems pretty slippery. Let me know if you need any help – a less orthodox approach might work better." John grinned.
Dex rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me – I don't want to know."
John winked. "Probably for the best."
There was a knock at the door, and Constable Noble entered at Dex's command. "Excuse me, sir, my lord, but there's something you need to see. In Doctor McKay's room."
John glanced sharply at Dex and they headed upstairs.
Sergeant Perkins was standing by an open door, presumably McKay's room, and he waved them over. "In here, sir, my lord."
The room was large and well-appointed. There was a scientific journal open on the bedside table, and a portable typewriter set up on the writing desk with a stack of handwritten notes beside it, but the room still had the temporary, unlived–in feel of a guest room. The wardrobe doors were standing open, and the drawers of the dresser had been pulled out. Perkins motioned to something in the top most drawer. John looked closer and could see a small, glass bottle in the farthest corner.
"We found it under these," Perkins said, indicating a stack of folded undershirts.
Dex took a pencil from his pocket and hooked the bottle and carefully lifted it out. It was practically empty, but there were a few grains of a fine, white powder in the bottom. A label was stuck on the outside – the kind used by pharmacists – and, though most of it had been torn away, the letters 'SENIC' were still clearly visible.
A hard, cold ball settled in John's stomach. It would have to be tested, of course, but it looked an awful lot like arsenic had just been found hidden in McKay's room.
"Can you explain this, Doctor?" Dex asked, more brusquely than before, pointing to the small bottle that had been found in McKay's room.
They were back in the drawing room, with John in his customary place leaning against the fireplace.
McKay looked at the bottle laid out carefully on a handkerchief. He seemed confused and was obviously still very tired, but John couldn't see any deception or evasion in his face. "I don't know what you want me to explain. It's just a bottle. What is it?"
"It was found in your room," Dex pressed.
McKay's eyes widened. "What?" He reached to pick up the bottle, but Dex held up a hand.
"I wouldn't do that, Doctor."
"Why? What is it?" McKay asked again. He was starting to look worried.
John shoved his hands down more firmly into his trouser pockets.
"Most likely arsenic," Dex said bluntly. "And it was found hidden at the back of one of your drawers."
"What? No! That's ridiculous." McKay shot John a panicked look. "This isn't mine."
"Can you tell us about your meeting with your uncle, Doctor – the one you had last night?" Dex asked, changing the subject. He was trying to throw McKay off balance, and it looked like it was working.
John felt like hitting something.
"What? I didn't have a meeting with my uncle last night. I saw him at dinner and then when I was called to his room later, after he fell ill," McKay said in a puzzled tone. He paused and then snapped his fingers. "Wait! Was that last night? Oh, right – I forgot. I thought that was the night before. Being up all night and then all this business with making the arrangements and so on – I must have mixed the days up. Yes, I did see my uncle after dinner. Only for a few minutes though. I was going up to bed, and he called me into his study as I walked past."
Dex nodded, but John could see his disbelief that McKay had 'conveniently' just remembered the meeting. He could understand Dex's suspicion, but, weirdly, it did sound like something that McKay might do. He already knew that it wasn't unusual for McKay to forget about eating or getting to dinner on time, and he wouldn't be surprised if McKay forgot other everyday things like when he last saw someone.
"And what happened?"
"Nothing. We wished each other a good night and then I, ah… I left," McKay said, pushing his chin out, but it was clear that he was hiding something. The man wore every emotion as plain as day right across his face, and John couldn't help smiling just a little. There was no way that McKay was the murderer – he couldn't bluff his way out of a paper bag.
"We heard that there had been raised voices," Dex said.
"Rodney," John said quietly.
McKay's head came up, and he looked at John with a mixture of misery and bewilderment.
John walked over and sat on the edge of the table, and dropped a hand onto McKay's shoulder. He gave a soft smile. "Why don't you just tell us what happened."
McKay's eyes were so very blue as he stared up at John, and then he sighed and seemed to deflate. "Okay. Yes. There were raised voices – well, sort of. Actually that was mainly me – I… ah… can get a little worked up at times – but it wasn't an argument. And it's nothing like you're probably thinking," he sighed, cutting a look at Dex. "I didn't want him dead or anything. Despite appearances to the contrary, I was actually quite fond of my uncle. He was a priggish, old buffer, but he was devilishly good at chess, and he looked after my sister – and me – when our parents died. We disagreed about a lot of things, but I cared about him, and I'm sorry that he's dead."
"What did you disagree about last night, Rodney?" John asked gently.
"Well, that's it – it wasn't actually a disagreement. I thought that it was going to be, but then it wasn't."
"Rodney," John coaxed, "just tell us what happened."
"That's what I'm doing!" McKay said indignantly, and John wanted to kiss him.
"No, Rodney – you're really not."
"Well, I would be if you didn't keep interrupting," McKay snapped, but his gaze never left John's and there was no heat to the words. "It was about my sister, Jeannie," he sighed. "That's why I didn't want to talk about it. It's what the romance contingent of my profession like to call 'a delicate matter'." He sighed again. "I had a suspicion that someone highly unsuitable was trying to court her."
Okay, John hadn't been expecting that. "Who?"
"Harwood, that odious, damn snake of a solicitor," McKay spat. "He's been coming down here and sniffing around her for months. Anyway, when Jeannie and I were in the parlour she told me that he'd asked her to go out with him. Nothing scandalous, of course, just a concert in the park, but Jeannie hasn't had the best of luck with suitors in the past, and I just don't trust the man."
John could understand McKay's protectiveness, especially as they'd lost their parents so young. He didn't have a sister of his own, but if he did he wouldn't want someone like Harwood taking an interest in her either.
"So, when Uncle Richard asked me to come in for a nightcap I may have raised my voice a little while I was telling him exactly what I thought about the matter," McKay said. "But we didn't argue."
"What was your uncle's reaction to the news?" John asked.
"Actually, now I come to think of it, that was a bit surprising." McKay tapped a finger against his lower lip. "Uncle Richard's always seemed to like the damn fellow – though I can't think why – and I must admit that I'd expected to get some ridiculous old guff about Harwood making a good husband or some rubbish like that."
"But he didn't. He actually seemed quite put out – angry even – when I told him, and he said 'we'll see about that' or words to that effect, anyway."
"Do you know what made Sir Richard change his mind about Harwood?" Dex asked.
McKay swung around as if he'd forgotten that Dex was there. "I have no idea at all – which is hardly a normal state of affairs for me, I can tell you."
John smothered a smile. Coming from anyone else it would have been sheer arrogance, but John could see that McKay was simply speaking the truth as he saw it. "How had your uncle seemed at dinner? Were things okay between him and Harwood then?"
"Yes!" McKay clicked his fingers. "They were – everything seemed to be fine."
"So, whatever happened to change his opinion must have happened at the meeting they had after dinner," Dex said.
John nodded. "Looks that way. Did your uncle say anything about it or give you any idea what had happened?"
"No." McKay shook his head. "I wish now that he had."
"You said that your uncle asked you in for a nightcap," Dex said. "What did you drink?"
McKay waved his hand dismissively. "Oh, nothing in the end. Uncle Richard had been mixing some more of his bloody cocktails – martinis, I think – and he will insist on adding a twist of lemon." He blew out a breath, as if this explained everything.
John smothered another smile. "And?"
"And?" McKay cried, his eyes going wide. "And I'm deathly allergic to citrus, of course! One drop of lemon juice and my throat closes up, and I could be dead within minutes!"
"Okay, so that explains why you didn't have the martini," John said, "but it's not like we know about your medical history," he chided gently.
"Well, now you do." McKay glared at him, but John could see the vulnerability behind the bravado. There was so much more to McKay than the bluster that he showed the world, and John wanted to discover every last thing.
"Okay. I'll remember in future – no citrus."
"Hmmph, see that you do," McKay huffed, but there was a hint of a smile curling the corners of his mouth.
"So, you and your uncle didn't eat or drink anything while you were in his study," Dex clarified.
"No. I just went in, we had our discussion and then I left." McKay paused and then clicked his fingers – a gesture that John was becoming very familiar with. "No, actually, I poured him a drink and then I left."
John's breath caught in his chest. "What drink, Rodney?"
"Oh, whatever was left in that damned cocktail shaker – the martini or whatever it was. I just poured it into a glass – very carefully I might add because of the whole possibility of certain death thing – and took it over to him. I thought it might help to settle his nerves after he'd got worked up like that."
McKay had poured a drink for Woolsey and that meant that he'd had the perfect chance to add the poison.
"So, is that all? I'm very busy at the moment." McKay looked totally oblivious to the bombshell that he'd just dropped. "I'm still trying to make all the arrangements, and, of course, we'll have to wait for the inquest before we can go ahead with the funeral which complicates things no end, and I'm also right in the middle of writing a particularly ingenious denouement to the murder in my current novel and so…"
"That's all." Dex broke in on McKay's rambling. "For now."
"Right. Good." McKay glanced at John and smiled and then left with a little wave.
John sank down into a chair and dropped his head to his chest. McKay clearly had no idea of the severity of what he'd just said – he now had both motive and opportunity for committing the murder.
"It's not looking good, John," Dex said quietly. "He's just admitted that he gave his uncle a drink but didn't have any himself – and he profits in the will."
"I know." Of course, that's how Dex would see it. Hell, John could see it, too, but he had something that Dex didn't – an unshakable belief that McKay was innocent. He'd seen the look on McKay's face when they'd brought the body out – the shock and grief had been too real. McKay hadn't been faking; he was sure of it. "Did you test the martini?"
"My boys have already combed the study, but the glasses and the cocktail shaker had been cleared away and washed up last night before Woolsey was taken ill."
John sighed. Damn the efficiency of the English country house parlour maid. Now they couldn't know for sure if there had been arsenic in the martini or not. Of course, if there had been, it still didn't mean that McKay had put it there.
"Have you tested the bottles – the gin, vermouth?"
"And every other bottle in the place – nothing."
"So, we have no way of knowing if the martini was poisoned."
"If it was then it must have been done after it was mixed because there's no arsenic in the bottles. So, that points to McKay adding it to the old man's glass when he was there because the solicitor drank the same stuff out of the shaker and didn't get sick."
"The solicitor could have slipped something into Woolsey's glass," John suggested.
"No he couldn't – he says the butler was there the whole time that Woolsey was mixing the cocktail and while they both took a drink. I'll double check, but I doubt it's a lie – it's too easy to get caught out on," Dex said. "And what's his motive anyway? McKay stands to inherit a fortune, but the solicitor doesn't get a thing."
"So he says."
"It's true. There was a copy of the will in the safe in the study. It's just like Harwood said."
Damn. It really wasn't looking good for McKay.
John left the drawing room and went to find McKay. He checked the study first, thinking that he might be dealing with some of his uncle's affairs, and then went up to McKay's bedroom, but he was out of luck. He was about to flag down a passing footman when he gave himself a mental slap for stupidity and headed back down the staircase.
McKay was in the library. He was standing by the long windows that overlooked the cliffs, staring out at the ocean, and John walked over and stood silently by his side. Of course this was McKay's safe retreat.
McKay didn't say anything for a while and then he turned to look at him.
"I really am a genius, you know," he said, surprising John with the apparent non sequitur. "It's not just arrogance. The problem is though that most of the time my mind runs so fast – ideas, thoughts, theories – that I don't always see what's going on around me… the mundane details, you know?" He gave a helpless kind of shrug. "It's been pointed out that my genius doesn't always stretch to the everyday workings of life and that sometimes I can be a little, um, oblivious? And so I don't always see what's in front of me." He paused. "But I was just thinking it over and…" He sighed heavily. "Well, I suppose things are looking pretty bad for me, aren't they?"
John shrugged helplessly. "Dex can't ignore the arsenic in your room."
"Which isn't mine," McKay said tartly. "What's his theory? That I slipped it into Uncle Richard's martini or something like that?"
"Something like that." Of course McKay had worked it out.
"Is that what you think?" McKay asked softly, and there was so much more to the question.
John shook his head. "No. That's not what I think, Rodney. Not at all."
McKay's gaze softened, and he gave a small nod. "I know what it looks like." He began to pace. "There's the arsenic in my room and the fact that I'm a major beneficiary of the estate, not to mention that I have a reputation for being, shall we say, difficult." He was getting more and more agitated. "But I didn't do it, John. I didn't kill my uncle!"
"Hey! I know that." John reached out and dropped his hands onto McKay's shoulders, and McKay stopped moving. "I believe you, Rodney." John stared straight into McKay's eyes. "I know you didn't do it." And he did – with all his heart.
McKay was standing so close, and John could feel the heat of his breath as he exhaled in a long, rushing sigh.
"Thank you –" McKay broke off awkwardly before starting again. "I… that means a lot to me. Thank you."
John let his head drop forward a little. "You don't have to thank me." It would be so easy to kiss McKay - no, Rodney - now. To lean in and close the distance… the last few inches that separated him from that sweet, crooked mouth.
"John?" Rodney's eyes were so very blue, and his face was completely open and trusting as he stared back.
It would be so damn easy… "Rodney – I…" John sighed. He shouldn't. Now wasn't the time. Rodney was too vulnerable, and John didn't want him to do anything that he might regret later when he was thinking more clearly. He didn't want Rodney to hate him for taking advantage. Rodney was what was important right now – his own feelings would have to wait.
John squeezed Rodney's shoulders, relishing the feel of warmth and firm muscle, and then he dropped his hands and slowly stepped back, putting some distance between them.
Rodney looked bewildered for a second, and John saw his eyes fill with hurt before he turned away sharply.
"Rodney." John tried to explain. "I just don't want us doing anything that might lead to any regrets later on."
Rodney snorted and turned back around. "Of course not," he snapped, voice faltering between anger and humiliation. "You don't want to risk getting involved with a potential murderer. That really wouldn't do, would it? Especially with you being a peer of the realm and all. How very undesirable. Imagine the scandal. What would people think?" His mouth twisted into a spiteful smirk, but John could see the pain in his eyes.
"Rodney, that's not it," John said, frustrated that he'd managed to mess it up even when he was trying to do the right thing. "That's not it at all. For one thing, I know that you're not a murderer and for another – and I know we haven't known each other long but I really thought you'd have worked this out by now – you have to know that I don't give a damn what people think about me. I thought you were the one who was supposed to be so clever, Doctor I'm Such A Genius – I'm surprised you missed that."
That got Rodney's attention and he stuck his chin stuck out belligerently. "I'll have you know that I am a genius. In fact, I –"
John cut him off. "Well, not from where I'm standing or you'd realise that the only reason I'm not kissing you right now is because I don't want you doing something in the heat of the moment and then regretting it later. And if you're the genius that you say you are then you'd also realise that I'm halfway crazy in love with you and have been from pretty much the moment that we met!" He didn't add the 'so there', but it was a close thing.
Rodney's mouth dropped open and his eyes were impossibly wide as he stared at John.
John folded his arms and nodded – and then he replayed the last few seconds in his head and felt the self–satisfied smirk slide right off his face. Damn. So much for keeping his feelings to himself.
"Okay, you need to forget everything that I've just said," he said quickly. "It's not important and –"
"Not important?" Rodney's voice seemed to have gone up an octave, and his eyebrows were practically touching his hairline, and John really shouldn't be thinking about how adorable he looked – not when everything had just gone to hell in a hand basket. "You declare your undying love for me and then try to say that it's not important?"
John ducked his head. "I don't think I actually used the phrase 'undying'," he muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets and definitely not squirming.
"Oh, please! It was implied," Rodney snapped. "And what is it with you and your compulsion to keep telling me to forget things? I will not forget this, in fact…" A faint blush stained his cheeks, and he grew hesitant. "Well, this is another thing that I'd quite like to remember, thank you very much. If you… ah… have no objections?" His smile was tentative but hopeful, too.
There was no way that John was strong enough to turn him away for a second time, and he felt a bright bubble of happiness swelling inside him. "No – no objections."
Rodney's smile grew until he was beaming. "You love me? Really?"
John laughed. "Yeah, insane as it sounds, I really do."
"Good, and actually I happen to think that it shows remarkable intelligence on your part," Rodney said smugly before his expression grew more serious. "I know that we've only known each other for a few days and that I'm not always that in touch with things like emotions and, well, feelings and that kind of thing…" He paused. "But I do, too – ah, love you, I mean," he finished softly.
John felt his heart flutter and took a second to mock himself for being so ridiculously sentimental before deciding that he didn't care; Rodney loved him and that was all that mattered.
"'S really good to hear." John smiled. "But I still mean what I said – about not wanting you to do something now, in the heat of the moment, and then regret it later."
Rodney rolled his eyes.
"I mean it, Rodney. This is a really difficult time for you, and I don't want to take advantage."
"Oh, for God's sake, John! I told you – I'm not some swooning damsel in distress."
"I know that, but I just need us to wait. Please, Rodney – I want you to be sure," John said softly. "I don't think I could stand it if you hated me later."
Rodney shook his head, and the unspoken 'you're an idiot' was clear. "Well, I happen to think that I'm sure now." His tone was long-suffering, but his smile made John's chest tighten again. "But I suppose if it will make you happy then I can wait a while longer."
"Once this is all over, Rodney…" John promised.
"I'm going to hold you to that."
They held each other's gaze for a long moment and then Rodney clapped his hands together briskly.
"Right! It looks like we've got some work to do."
"We?" John asked absently, still a little lost in the blue of Rodney's eyes.
"Yes, we," Rodney repeated, his tone suggesting that arguing was pointless. "I happen to have a vested interest in helping you to solve this case: one, I'd quite like to not be hanged for murder – especially as I'm completely innocent – and two…" Rodney looked at John, and his gaze was full of so much longing that John couldn't help the heat that flooded his cheeks. "You have a promise to keep. So, chop chop! Where do we start?"
They decided to start in Woolsey's study.
"So, talk me through what happened when you saw your uncle," John said.
"The door was open, and he was sitting behind his desk here. He called to me as I was walking past, and I came in, closing the door behind me."
"How did he seem?"
"Fine." Rodney shrugged and then paused. "Though actually, now I come to think of it, there was something unusual."
"He had his collar stud unbuttoned, and his tie was loose around his neck."
"And this was unusual?" John hated being throttled in evening dress and often undid his tie and collar – much to Lorne's resigned dismay.
"Definitely. Uncle Richard was very particular about that kind of thing. He never appeared anywhere less than perfectly dressed – even at home."
"So, why would he open up his collar?"
"Why would he? Well, I hate the things – feel like I'm being strangled half the time – maybe he wanted to breathe more easily?"
"Perhaps because he was already feeling unwell," John suggested.
"Yes!" Rodney clicked his fingers. "You know, he did look a little flushed. I think I just assumed that it was because he was angry, but he didn't really get angry until after – when we were talking about Harwood. So, that means…"
"That he'd already been poisoned before you came in to the room."
"Oh," Rodney said faintly. "Perhaps I could have done something – helped him – if I'd seen what was happening…"
"It's not your fault." John squeezed Rodney's shoulder. "There was no way that you could have known."
"I just wish I could have helped." Rodney's eyes went a little shiny, and he coughed and cleared his throat. "I really did like the pompous, old fool, you know. He didn't deserve this."
"We'll find who did it, Rodney – I promise."
Rodney looked at John and smiled, and John lost himself for a moment before remembering that they had work to do. "So, if your uncle was already feeling the effects when you saw him – where was the poison?"
"It couldn't have been in anything we had for dinner because everyone ate the same thing…" Rodney clicked his fingers again. "It was in the martini – it had to be!"
John shook his head. "That won't work. Ignoring for a second the fact that Harwood drank the martini, too – there was no arsenic in the gin or vermouth bottles."
"Pah!" Rodney waved John's objections away. "Someone could have easily switched them afterwards – in fact, I've used a similar idea in one of my books. The murderer injects liquid arsenic into the bottle through the still sealed cap using a narrow gauge syringe and then after the victim is dead he replaces the bottle with a fresh one, after pouring out just enough of the contents to make it look like the original bottle. Simple!" He looked at John. "What? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Rodney," John said slowly. "You've written a book about poisoning someone with arsenic?"
"Yes, 'Strong Poison' – one of my best sellers, actually." He stopped abruptly. "Oh. That's not a good thing, is it?"
"Not really," John sighed. "Not only was arsenic found in your room and you're the major beneficiary, but it's also on public record that you know about poisons and how to use them."
"Oh, God." Rodney sank down miserably into the nearest chair. "I'm going to hang."
"No, you're not," John said, anger clipping his words. "Don't you dare say that." There was no way that would happen – he wouldn't let it.
"Let's face it, John – the evidence is pretty damning."
"And most of it's circumstantial."
Rodney shrugged. "A jury's not going to care about that. Plus, I know I'm not exactly a likable kind of person – they'll hate me and happily believe that I offed my rich uncle to get my hands on his money."
"I like you, Rodney. And I'm not going to let you give up – even though the deck seems stacked against us and –" John stopped as a thought struck him.
"Even though the deck is stacked against us," he repeated. "Rodney, doesn't it seem strange how everything in this case seems to point directly to you being the murderer?"
"I definitely think it's strange," Rodney snorted. "Seeing as I happen to know that I'm not the murderer."
"Me, too." John grinned, feeling more hopeful than he had all afternoon. "I know that you're not the murderer. So, that leaves us with only one other option – someone is trying very hard to make everyone think that you are."
"Someone's framing me?"
"It looks that way."
"Damn it!" Rodney got up and began to pace. "But even if that's true, which it must be because 'hello – innocent man here', it still doesn't explain how Uncle Richard was murdered. Remember – that weasel Harwood drank the martini, too, and so we know that the poison couldn't have been in there. It's like we're going around in circles and always coming back to the prime suspect – me!"
"Okay, let's take this one step at a time. If we can figure out who's trying to frame you then we'll probably have found our killer – and once we know that, we can work out how they did it. Agreed?"
Rodney gave John a long look. "You know, you really aren't just the rakishly good looking, noble layabout that you pretend to be, are you?"
"Nice of you to notice," John smirked, dropping his head a little and looking up through his lashes. He knew he was being unfair, but he couldn't help himself.
Rodney held his gaze and then groaned. "Oh, my God – you are such a tease! I may just die of frustration before all of this is over and save the hangman the price of a rope!"
John felt his smile drop away. "Don't joke about that, Rodney – not ever. Please."
"I'm sorry. I won't," Rodney said, instantly contrite, and he put a hand on John's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Don't worry – you're not getting away from me that easily."
"Good." John reached for Rodney's hand and turned it over until their palms were touching and… there was that indefinable something again.
They stayed like that for a moment, their bodies almost close enough to touch, and then Rodney pulled his hand away with a reluctant sigh. "Tease, tease, tease."
"Sorry." John grinned sheepishly and took a step away to give them both some breathing room. "Okay, back to business. So, why does someone frame someone else for murder? Revenge? Hatred? Gain?"
"I'll be the first to admit that I've probably left a trail of bruised egos and hurt feelings from Land's End to John o' Groats – well, I would have if I'd ever been to John o' Groats – but I can't think of anyone who'd hate me enough to actually want me dead. Well, I suppose there's always Kavanagh. I did eviscerate the more preposterous of his theories at the last symposium at the Royal Society, but I doubt the little whinger would have the gumption for something like this, and the last I heard he was on some extended expedition to the interior of Africa. Some hare-brained hypothesis about measuring the next Transit of Venus," Rodney snorted.
"Isn't that only due to happen again in about another hundred years?"
Rodney clicked his fingers and pointed at John, giving him an impressed smile. "Exactly! So, he'll have a long wait! Heh, I think that means we can rule him out, anyway."
"Okay, let's forget that. Who stands to gain if you die?"
"Well, only Jeannie." Rodney shrugged. "I've left her everything in my will. Not that I have that much; writing novels allows me to live comfortably, not extravagantly. But that's ridiculous. We have our share of sibling squabbles, and she'll happily slap me around the head when I'm being particularly obnoxious, but there's no way that Jeannie would ever really want to hurt me, and she could certainly never have hurt Uncle Richard."
"You say that you haven't got much to leave, but, if you were found guilty of murdering your uncle, your half of his estate would revert to her –"
"Oh, I hadn't thought of that – because a murderer can't profit from his crime." Rodney nodded. "But even so…"
"And that means that she'd have the entire fortune to herself instead of having to share it with you. And if you were then hung for that murder, she'd also get any money that you have, too. Right?"
"Well, yes," Rodney agreed reluctantly, "but you can't really be suggesting that my sister killed my uncle to frame me for the murder, so that I'd hang and then she'd get all of the money? That's ridiculous! And remember, Uncle Richard's money is to be held in trust until she gets married – there's just a modest monthly allowance until then."
"I don't think Jeannie is behind this, Rodney," John said, his mind grabbing at stray thoughts and pulling them together. "But think – you just mentioned marriage. What if someone else did all of that – killing your uncle and framing you for his murder? And what if that someone then married your sister? That someone would then have access to everything – and that someone would be a very rich man." He gave a tight, hard smile. "Can you think of anyone who might fit that description?"
Rodney's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Harwood! That bastard!"
"Got it in one."
"It has to be," Rodney said. "There's no one else who'd know the provisions of Uncle Richard's will or who could have access to the house. I knew I was right not to trust that toad!"
"Me, too," John agreed. "Problem is – I have no clue how he pulled the damn thing off."
"Exactly," Rodney muttered, shoulders slumping.
"Luckily, I know a world famous crime author who also happens to be something of a genius – or so he likes to keep telling me, anyway." John winked.
Rodney's chin came up, and his gaze sharpened. "And fortunately, I've recently made the acquaintance of Scotland Yard's favourite consultant criminologist, and – despite appearances to the contrary – he's actually pretty smart," he added with a smirk.
"Sounds like a match made in heaven. The perfect partnership."
"I couldn't agree more." Rodney's smile was warm and knowing, and John felt almost giddy. "So, to work?"
They were going to clear Rodney's name and nail that bastard Harwood to the wall in the process. There was no way that John was going to let Rodney slip through his fingers – not now that they'd finally found each other. He met Rodney's gaze and grinned. "To work."
They were heading back towards the library when Dex intercepted them.
"Doctor McKay? A word please?"
They followed him into the now empty drawing room.
"The initial stage of our enquiry is done, and the coroner has set the inquest for next week. You and several members of the household will be called on to testify, but for now you're free to go – just don't leave the country."
Rodney nodded impatiently. "Yes, yes – number one suspect here. I get it. Can't have me fleeing the long arm and flat feet of Scotland Yard and living out my days in blissful freedom on a beach in Bora Bora, now can we?"
Dex remained impassive, and Rodney just rolled his eyes. "Don't worry – I'm not going anywhere. Though I assume this means that I can tell Harwood to trundle off back to town?"
"Mr Harwood will be needed at the inquest, but there's no need for him to stay in the county."
"Good," Rodney said firmly. "Then I'll send his murderous hide packing and well away from my sister."
Dex raised an eyebrow in John's direction, but John just shook his head. "Rodney – Elizabeth suggested that Jeannie might like to stay with them for a while; get away from here, you know?"
"I'm sure she'd like that," Rodney said. "It would definitely put my mind at rest, too, to know that someone was looking after her, and it means that I can come up to London to help you with the investigation."
Dex made a slightly choked sound, and Rodney waved him off. "Not your investigation, Chief Inspector. We happen to have an idea who the real killer is, thank you very much."
John decided that a distraction might be needed before Rodney succeeded in talking himself into a set of handcuffs. "How about you go and check on Jeannie? See if she wants to go over to the Caldwells?"
"What? Oh yes, I can do that. Oh, and by the way, Chief Inspector – did you get the results back from the forensic analysis on that bottle that was oh-so-conveniently found in my room?" Rodney obviously didn't think it was unusual for the chief suspect to be asking questions like this.
Dex eyed him closely and then nodded. "Positive for arsenic. No fingerprints though."
"Hah! So, I'm enough of a criminal mastermind to wear gloves but then I go and hide the murder weapon in my own dresser where any imbecile carrying out even the most cursory search can find it? I assure you that if I ever were to commit a crime then it would be flawless, and I certainly wouldn't make the kind of obvious mistake that frankly even a rank amateur would know to avoid."
"Rodney," John soothed, the handcuffs seeming more like a possibility with every word out of Rodney's mouth.
"I know, John – but I happen to be an innocent man."
"I know that, too. Remember?"
"Oh. Yes, of course." Rodney paused and then gave him a soft smile – crooked and sweet – and nodded decisively. "Right, I'll go and talk to Jeannie."
"You do that." John smiled, hoping that he didn't look too much like the lovesick fool that he actually was. "I'll see you in minute."
Rodney left the room.
Dex raised an eyebrow. "Your own investigation?"
John held up his hands. "I know how it looks, Ronon, but McKay's innocent – I know he is."
"I don't disagree with you," Dex said evenly, "but I have to follow the evidence, John. You know that."
"I know, and I wouldn't expect you to do anything else," John said. "I promise we'll share anything that we find with you."
"McKay's a genius – if anyone can help crack this case then he can."
"And how does he feel about you sharing your findings with the police?"
"Believe me," John chuckled, "he can't wait to prove you wrong. It's going to make his day."
"I assume this has something to do with Harwood?"
"Have you thought this through, John? What about if McKay's trying to use you? Sending you – and the police – chasing off after a mare's nest to save his own skin?"
John rubbed the back of his neck. "Look…" He blew out a breath. "I know what you mean, but he's not like that – he's too honest – and I believe him when he says that he didn't do it. Come on, do you think I'm that easily fooled?"
"Not usually – but then usually your feelings aren't involved."
John looked at Dex sharply, but he could only see concern behind the words.
"Just be careful, John. You're a good friend. I don't want to see you hurt."
John nodded awkwardly. "You, too, Ronon – and I will… be careful." He coughed and straightened his shoulders. "But I think I'm in safe hands."
Dex studied him for a moment and then nodded. "So, I can just put my feet up for a few days and wait for your call to go and make an arrest?" He sounded amused.
John cocked a finger at him and grinned. "Absolutely."
John lifted the sash and opened one of the tall windows that looked out onto Piccadilly. A fresh breeze rustled at the curtains, and the noises of London rose to meet him, the cheery calls of a newsboy touting for business on the corner of Half Moon Street mixing with the rumble of the traffic as it trundled past.
John had come back to town the day before, after Miss McKay had been safely escorted to the Caldwells, and he and Rodney had parted with plans to meet and begin their investigation into Woolsey's death. He knew that things weren't looking good right now, but he was sure that between them they'd be able to clear Rodney's name. John honestly didn't think that fate could be cruel enough to let him find Rodney and then lose him so quickly. It wasn't going to happen – he'd make sure of it.
The ringing of the telephone interrupted his thoughts, and he heard Lorne's muffled but respectful enquiry from the hallway before he appeared at the door. "The Honourable Aiden Ford on the telephone for you, my lord."
"Good. I'll take it in here."
"My lord." Lorne nodded and withdrew.
John went over to the bureau and picked up the heavy black receiver. "Bodger! Thanks for getting back to me. Have you got anything?"
The Honourable Aiden 'Bodger' Ford was a bit of an ass but a whiz when it came to anything financial. He was well connected in the City, and if he gave you a line on something then you could bet it was right. John had contacted him the night before to see if he'd heard anything on the grapevine about Harwood.
He listened and nodded a couple of times as Ford spoke. "Okay, thanks, Bodger – I owe you one. I'll stand the drinks next time at the club."
John set the receiver down and wandered over to the window again, thinking about what Ford had just said. It was a beautiful day and, across the road, children were playing in Green Park and couples were strolling arm in arm in the sunlight. He glanced along the street and spotted the unmistakable figure of Rodney hurrying from the direction of Dover Street Tube station. He was side stepping pedestrians with ill-concealed impatience, and it looked like he was muttering to himself. If he had to guess, John thought it was probably something along the lines of 'not everyone having time to meander along aimlessly, blocking the way for people with Important Things To Do, thank you very much'.
John grinned, feeling suddenly and giddily happy, and he leaned out of the window. "Hey, McKay!" He hung out further and waved. "Up here! McKay!"
Rodney stopped abruptly in the middle of the pavement causing a severe-looking young woman in a mannish Gabardine suit and trilby to nearly crash into him. Rodney seemed not to notice, and the woman tutted in annoyance and moved on.
Rodney looked up, shielding his eyes from the sun. "What are you doing hanging out of the window? Get back inside before you break your ridiculous neck!" But he was smiling.
John laughed, touching his brow in a quick salute and swinging back inside to meet Lorne's impassive, but somehow still disapproving, stare. Obviously, this wasn't the kind of behaviour expected of a member of such an ancient and noble line as the Sheppards. Then again, Lorne really should know better after all these years. John grinned. "Doctor McKay's here – how about you go and let him in?"
"Indeed, my lord," Lorne observed with a solemn nod and left the room.
Rodney arrived a few minutes later. "You're an idiot, you know that?"
"I missed you, too, Rodney."
"Yes, yes." He waved John's words away but looked pleased all the same. "You could have slipped and ended up as a broken but probably still unfairly attractive corpse in the middle of Piccadilly," he huffed and glanced around the room. "Nice place. Family heirlooms and priceless antiques, I suppose?" He waved a hand lightly at the elegant bookcases lining the walls and then boggled slightly at a particularly large – and admittedly pretty ugly - Regency rosewood chiffonier in the corner.
John shrugged. "Mostly." Duke's Mortimer – the ancestral home of the Sheppards – dated in parts from the twelfth century and was filled with the accumulated chattels of generations. John's mother, the Dowager Duchess, had used it to furnish various family homes over the years, including John's Piccadilly flat when he'd bought it after the war. He'd been in no state to bother about anything back then and had happily let her see to it – though he'd never been all that interested in money and possessions; well, except perhaps for when it came to cars. He did like the freedom of driving very – very – fast. "Hey - I've got news."
Rodney's face lit up. "Really? Then I declare our council of war officially in session – tell me everything!"
John waved him over to the armchairs bracketing the fireplace, and they sat down.
"Do you want anything to drink? I can call Lorne –"
"Just get on with it!"
"Okay, okay," John laughed and then settled down. "So, I got on to a pal in the City who made a few discreet enquiries about our friend Harwood." Rodney pulled a face. "The word is that things haven't been going all that well at Messrs Harwood and Son 'Solicitors and Commissioners for Oaths' since old Mister Harwood died and young Percy took over. Apparently, Harwood junior has made some pretty poor investments over the last couple of years – both privately and professionally – and things have finally come back to bite him hard now that Megatherium has crashed. Looks like Harwood had dumped a load of cash into Megatherium hoping to make one big score and clear his debts but then it all went belly up leaving him in even more trouble. There are whispers about misuse of clients' money and nasty words like fraud and embezzlement."
"Hah!" Rodney thumped the arm of his chair. "I knew it! I knew that little bastard was no good. I bet he's been siphoning off money from Uncle Richard's accounts, and he killed the poor old sod to stop him finding out and then planned to marry Jeannie and use her money to cover his tracks."
"Could be." It definitely sounded plausible. "But so far all we have are a bunch of rumours and theories, nothing definite."
"He did it, John! I can feel it in my gut!"
"Unfortunately, your gut's not admissible in court, Rodney. We need proof – hard evidence. There has to be a paper trail – stock certificates, invoices, that kind of thing."
"Can your friend help us with that?"
"No. He's only heard rumours – nothing concrete, but…"
"We need tangible proof of what Harwood's been up to so that we can at least show that he had a motive for killing your uncle, right?"
"So, where's the most likely place that Harwood would hide that kind of information?"
Rodney frowned a little. "It would have to be somewhere secure, and it would also make sense to keep it close at hand."
"So, that means that it's probably at his home or offices, yeah?"
"How about hiding it more or less in plain sight? Like in a solicitor's deed box? Or there's always the old stand-by of a safe."
"Both sound good. I'd say check the office first – plus that's probably going to be easier anyway."
"He's hardly going to invite us round and feed us tea and sticky buns while we rummage through his private documents, John."
"I know – that's why we're not going to ask him," John smirked. "I'm going to break into good old Harwood and Son's tonight and find out exactly what Harwood's been up to."
"You're what?" Rodney yelped. "Are you insane? You could get caught and brought up on charges. You could go to prison!"
"I could, but I won't, and anyway, I'm not actually going to take anything – more just have a look around, you know?"
"Somehow I doubt that the upstanding members of His Majesty's Constabulary will recognise that fine distinction – and let's not forget that there's still a little thing called 'breaking and entering'."
"I'm going to do this, Rodney," John said firmly. "I told you that I'd clear your name, and I always keep my word. I want to do this. I have to – for you, okay?"
Rodney's gaze went soft and he smiled at John. It was a big, warm smile – and just a little dopey – and John had to smile back. Then Rodney's mouth firmed into a resolute line. "Okay." He nodded. "If you're hell bent on going ahead with this then I – and I can hardly believe that I'm saying this – am coming with you."
"What? No – I can't let you take that risk, Rodney."
"But I'm supposed to let you?" Rodney asked incredulously. "I don't think so – either we both go or the deal's off. This is a partnership, remember? And let's face it, if anyone should be considering this ridiculous scheme then it should be me – it's my neck on the line here… quite literally."
John didn't like it – he didn't want to put Rodney in harm's way. He gave Rodney a hard look but Rodney glared back at him with a 'just you try and do this without me, buster' expression on his face. John sighed. He was quickly realising that arguing with Rodney McKay was like trying to reason with an avalanche or a hurricane. Rodney was his very own force of nature, and John had the sense to know when he was beat. "I wish you wouldn't, Rodney."
"I know you do, and I know why – which is very noble of you, thank you - but I'm doing it and so that's that."
John decided to give in gracefully – well, a little sarcastically. "Okay, so do you happen to have any experience in B and E? Maybe a Master Safe Cracker's diploma tucked away somewhere? I know you're a genius and all."
Rodney gave him a sour look. "Well, no – I was assuming that you'd have the requisite skills. Perhaps from a misspent youth raiding the kitchens at Harrow for midnight feasts or whatever."
John couldn't stop his laughter. "Not exactly – and it was Eton – but I do know someone who should be able to help us." He looked at Rodney again. "You're sure about this?"
Rodney just rolled his eyes.
"Okay, okay!" John held up his hands in defeat. "Grab your hat, Rodney – we're going to Whitechapel."
"Whitechapel?" Rodney repeated weakly. "Um, why?"
"Because that's where you find a better class of lock picker, of course."
Rodney's eyes widened comically for a second and then he sighed heavily. "Of course it is," he muttered and followed John out of the door.
They hailed a taxi – it seemed like tempting fate to take the Daimler – and quickly left the muted, leafy elegance of Mayfair and St. James's behind. The streets grew steadily narrower and the buildings more crowded and dilapidated as they passed from the City through Aldgate and on into the heart of the East End.
The taxi pulled up beside a narrow alleyway. It was filthy, and the driver looked around dubiously. "You gents sure this is the place you wants to be going?"
"We're sure," John said, paying the fare and adding a decent tip.
"We are?" Rodney squeaked.
"We are." John grinned and hauled him out onto the pavement.
The taxi sped away, and John pointed down the alleyway towards a narrow courtyard. "This way."
Rodney muttered something that sounded like 'murdered by foot pads and cut throats' and trudged along at John's side.
"Cheer up, Rodney." John bumped their shoulders together. "I promise that you're in for a surprise."
They crossed the courtyard and ducked through another alley that led to a small yard lined on all sides by the red brick frontages of a single building. It looked different from the other buildings that they'd passed; the windows were clean with cheery curtains visible inside, and the yard was swept and tidy. There were small tubs of crocuses and pansies on either side of the entrance, and a neatly painted sign, 'Myrdle Lane Orphanage and School', was hanging over the door.
"Okay," Rodney said, gazing around. "You're right. I'm definitely surprised. What does an orphanage have to do with us turning to a life of crime and," he lowered his voice, "breaking into Harwood's office? Are we going to send some scruffy urchin down the chimney and get him to open the front door for us or what?"
John snorted. "Where do you come up with this stuff, McKay? Of course not." He composed himself and added as earnestly as he could. "We're going to get the school mistress to teach us how to crack a safe, of course."
"We're what?" Rodney's eyebrows were jostling at his hairline again, and John grinned.
"It's okay – all will be revealed. Let's go."
The hallway smelled faintly of carbolic as they walked inside, and the walls and floors were freshly scrubbed. A murmur of childish voices reciting times tables drifted from a nearby classroom as they walked by and in the distance there were snatches of hymns.
"So, what is this place, and why are we here?"
"I told you, Rodney – we're here to learn how to pick a lock and I'd have thought it was obvious – especially to someone of your intellect – that this is a school," John teased.
"I can see that! So… what? This is an academy for safe breakers? Start 'em young or something? Like a real life Fagin's Den?"
"No, Rodney. This is a good place. It's not like a lot of orphanages or poor houses. The kids get a real, loving home here, and they get an education and then the chance at a proper job. Teyla makes sure of that."
"That's who we're coming to see. She runs this place."
"But she's also going to teach us how to break into Harwood's office despite you insisting that 'Breaking and Entering' isn't part of the curriculum?"
John stopped and put a hand on Rodney's arm. "Okay, look. I met Teyla a few years ago, and let's just say that we were on opposite sides of our mutual business."
"Opposite… oh! She's a crook?"
"Was – she's gone straight now and has devoted herself to this place. She's wonderful with these kids and is really making a difference – a lot of them probably wouldn't be alive without her. She's definitely put her past behind her."
"But she's going to show us how to crack a safe anyway. What? For old times' sake?" Rodney sounded sceptical.
"There've been a couple of occasions when her specialised know-how has been useful with a case."
"So, it's a 'for the greater good' kind of thing?"
"Exactly!" John pointed. "That's exactly what it is."
They passed along a short corridor, and John knocked at a white painted door.
"Lord John!" Teyla's face broke into a wide smile as she opened the door. Her copper-brown hair was fastened in a neat twist at her neck and she looked as composed and lovely as ever. "This is a surprise. How wonderful to see you. I trust that you are well?" She ushered them into a small but scrupulously tidy office.
"I'm good, thanks." John turned to indicate Rodney. "Miss Teyla Emmagan – Doctor Rodney McKay."
"Doctor McKay – how nice to meet you. Please do sit down." Teyla waved them over to a small desk with a few chairs placed around it. "Welcome to our school."
"Thank you," Rodney said, but John thought he sounded a little stiff. Perhaps he'd never met an ex-thief before – especially one like Teyla. She had the willowy figure and grace of a dancer – or the cat burglar that she'd once been – and her face held the delicateness of a china doll.
"Can I get you gentleman some refreshment? Some tea perhaps?"
John looked at Rodney who shook his head. "We're fine thanks, Teyla. I'm sorry to just stop by like this, but we need your help."
Teyla inclined her head, and John thought, not for the first time, how regal she looked. "Whatever I can do, you know that I am only too happy to help." She sat down, and John and Rodney did the same.
"It's all perfectly legit – well, kind of," John started, and Teyla smiled serenely.
"I would never doubt that. I know that anything you ask is only to allow justice to be served."
"We need to get in somewhere and have a look at some stuff, but we don't actually have the keys to any of the locks – including the front door – and so we were hoping that you could give us a few tips."
Teyla's gaze sharpened. "What kind of locks?"
"Just the standard – front door to an office and then deed boxes, probably. Possibly a safe, too, but we won't know until we're there."
"The door and box locks will be easy enough, I am sure, but the safe could cause some problems. How long do you have?"
"We really need to get in tonight – there's a tight deadline." The inquest wasn't far away.
Teyla nodded calmly. "That does not give us very much time and so we must not waste any of it. Let me fetch my tools, and we will begin."
John watched Teyla leave the room and then turned to find Rodney staring at him. He looked... odd somehow.
"There's nothing to worry about." John tried to put his mind at rest. "Teyla was the best in the business. It was pretty much luck that I managed to catch her when I did. We're going to be fine; you know that I wouldn't put you at risk, Rodney."
"I'm not worried – genius, remember? I'm sure I'll take to this lock picking business like a felonious duck to water," Rodney said and then added more quietly, "She's very, um, beautiful, isn't she?"
"Yeah." John nodded absently. Rodney was right. Teyla was beautiful. However, what made her truly exceptional was her compassion and strength of character – it seemed to radiate out giving her an almost other worldly glow.
"Beautiful and charming – and obviously good with children. Personally I can't stand the little monsters – what's the point of them until they're old enough to have a proper conversation anyway? But I'm sure Teyla loves them, and they love her. Lots of people must love her…"
John looked at Rodney again. The words were right – the sniping and sarcasm – but he looked all wrong – sort of hunched and unhappy. What was the matter with him? Oh! "Rodney, are you jealous?" John asked slowly. Subtlety really wasn't one of Rodney's skills. "Do you think I'm in love with Teyla or something?"
"What? Of course I'm not jealous," Rodney said hotly, but he wouldn't quite meet John's eye.
"You are – you're jealous," John laughed. He couldn't help it; the idea was just so unexpected – and totally ridiculous. "Rodney – you really have no reason to be. Yes, Teyla is beautiful and I care for her as a friend, but, believe me, there's nothing else going on."
"Well, I wouldn't exactly blame you," Rodney hedged.
"Rodney?" John waited until he got Rodney's full attention. "It would never happen; even if I weren't totally in love with you, which I am, it would still never happen."
Rodney's eyes shone a little at John's words, but he still looked uneasy. "Because of the friend thing?"
"Because of the female thing."
"Oh, oh right. So, it really is just men for you? It is for me, too – men, I mean – but I wasn't sure, and I know that some people…"
"Yeah, just men – though it's really just 'man'. I want you – only you," John mumbled. It felt strange to be talking about his feelings and especially in Teyla's office, of all places.
Rodney's cheeks turned pink, and he gave a pleased little smile. "Really?"
John nodded. "And when we've solved this damn case I intend to show you exactly how much."
"Oh – well, that sounds… Just me, really?"
"Yes, really. So, it's about time you started believing me."
"I've been a bit of an idiot, haven't I?" Rodney sighed.
"You could say that. Kind of a new experience, huh?" John teased.
Rodney gave a snort. "In my defence, I am slightly – well, hugely – overwhelmed by this whole thing. I'd heard of the concept of love at first sight, obviously – if nothing else it seems to be the mainstay of the entire romance publishing industry – but I have to admit to being highly sceptical. And then you come along and part of me can't quite believe that I haven't just dreamt you up. I mean, you literally are the dashing lord charging to my rescue." Rodney pulled a face. "And, yes, I know that makes me sound like some swooning heroine who's going to have an attack of the vapours at the sight of your manly chest but, unfortunately, it's true. Well, not the vapours thing, obviously."
John laughed and then smiled softly. "I'll happily be your white knight, Rodney. Or you can be mine – because I happen to think that you're saving me just as much."
"You're being framed for murder, too?" Rodney asked dryly.
"No, but it doesn't mean that I don't need saving."
Rodney's gaze softened, and he smiled. "Well, then it's a good job that you've got me around."
"It is, and I intend to keep you around for a good, long time."
"Yeah," John smirked. "I was thinking of, oh, I don't know – how about forever?"
Rodney's smile grew wider. "I think I can manage that."
"Good." John smiled back happily. "Because you're stuck with me, Rodney. Just accept it."
Teyla came back into the room. She looked at them both and quirked an eyebrow. "Are we ready?"
Rodney coughed awkwardly, his colour still a little high, and John grinned. "Ready and able!"
Teyla looked amused. "We shall see about that." She placed a small leather pouch tied with twine onto the table and unrolled it – inside were a dozen thin wire hooks bent into various shapes. "Gentlemen, these are picklocks and by the time we are done there should not be a lock in London that you cannot open."
"Just sore." Rodney sat up straighter, rotating his shoulders and groaning again. "How about you?"
"Yeah," John sighed, "same here." They'd been sitting at the desk in the tiny office for the last couple of hours practising with the various lock plates and padlocks that Teyla had provided. It was easy enough to open a lock when you could see the barrel and the spring, but a whole other game when you had to work blind – like it would be with a working lock fitted on a door. John had slowly gotten used to feeling and hearing his way though, instead of relying on his eyes, and was now managing to open any lock in just a minute or two. He'd also been working on some combination locks that Teyla had set up, and between the two of them, he and Rodney should be able to handle anything they came up against at Harwood's office. He hoped so anyway.
His back was starting to protest though, and it was definitely time to take a break. He stood up and reached his arms above his head and slowly stretched out the aching muscles of his spine, dropping his head back and moaning as cramped joints popped and straightened.
Rodney made a choked, strangled kind of noise, and John looked up quickly. "You sure you're okay?"
To John's surprise, Rodney shook his head and chuckled. "You honestly have no idea, do you?"
"Look at you! You're so gorgeous, and you don't even seem to know it – or have any clue about the effect you have on us poor flesh and blood mortals!"
John ducked his head. He really didn't know what to say to that.
"And there – with that! The dipping your head and looking through your eyelashes," Rodney laughed. "That's even more… I don't even have the words for what that is! It's like you're some kind of… of mythical creature casting your spell and bewitching and ensnaring anyone who looks at you. You and your damn magical slinky powers!"
John felt his ears flaming. "Is slinky even a word?"
"Yes, it is, and a perfectly good one in this situation, thank you. Trust me – I'm a writer, and I know these things."
"Yeah, okay," John grumbled, though actually he was secretly pleased. Rodney thought that he was gorgeous and that he had magical powers… "Hey!" He put his hands on his hips and glared. "Did you just call me some kind of fairy?"
Rodney's eyes widened and then he snorted with laughter. "That's right – that's exactly what I did." He grinned. "Tinkerbell."
John drew himself up to his full height. "That's Lord Tinkerbell to you."
They stared at each other for a split second and then both collapsed helplessly, John's honking laugh competing with Rodney who was making a weird sound like a cross between a hiccup and a cackle.
"I see that you are both hard at work?" Teyla observed with a wry smile as she came back into the room carrying a tea tray.
"S–sorry," John chuckled, and Rodney flapped his hands as he tried to catch his breath.
They both calmed down – though they didn't dare make eye contact – while Teyla poured the tea and cut slices from a deep Victoria sponge that was making John's mouth water.
"Do you mind if I ask how you came to work here?" Rodney asked politely, still firmly avoiding looking at John.
Teyla passed him his tea. "Of course I do not mind." She glanced at John and then turned back to Rodney. "This sanctuary exists purely because of John's kindness and generosity.
"Teyla…" John didn't whine and definitely didn't fidget in his seat.
"John bought the building, paid for its refurbishment and now funds all of the costs, as well as helping to provide suitable work placements for our children as they grow and go out into the world. This sanctuary would not be here if it were not for his patronage, and many children would end up living on the streets or worse. John is a true life saver."
John squirmed and stuffed a bite of cake into his mouth.
"Though, I am not surprised that he did not mention it," Teyla smiled. "He is a man of many layers – some quite unexpected."
John shot a quick look at Rodney who was watching him with a thoughtful expression.
"Yes. I'm beginning to find that out." Rodney smiled, and John couldn't do anything but smile back.
They needed to wait until it was dark before putting their plan into action and so they had dinner at a small restaurant near Oxford Circus. They passed an enjoyable few hours there, and Rodney declared that the lamb chops were officially the best in London. John just nodded and grinned – they were really good.
After dinner, they took a taxi to High Holborn and walked from there. The offices of Harwood and Son were on Bedford Row, close to Gray's Inn, and at that time of night the area was virtually deserted. Rodney had suggested earlier that perhaps they should use boot polish as camouflage to avoid being seen, but John had pointed out that two gentleman walking along a London street with blackened faces might arouse more suspicion. Rodney had rolled his eyes and conceded with a muttered 'Hmm, possibly', and John had barely stopped himself from just giving in and grabbing him and kissing him – a temptation that was happening more and more frequently.
"I think this is it," John said as they came to a stop at the end of the terrace of tall, double–fronted houses that stretched the length of Bedford Row. A discreet but highly polished brass plate confirmed that they were in the right place. Rodney had gone unusually quiet. "You don't have to do this, you know. You can wait outside – be my lookout," John joked.
"No. We're in this together. It's just that now that we're actually here it's… ah…"
"Kind of scary? Yeah, I know what you mean – I'm usually on the other side of things."
"Me, too. I mean, with my novels – I may write about crime and murder, but the person I identify with is my fiercely intelligent, crime–fighting protagonist: the highly acclaimed academic, Doctor Templeton Blake. Um, just slightly, of course." Rodney coughed.
"Well, perhaps a little more. I did say that he was fiercely intelligent, didn't I?"
John grinned. "Sounds fair enough to me. So, are we ready, Templeton?"
Rodney looked up and down the empty street and then took a deep breath. "Not really, no, but we might as well get on with it. Hung for a sheep as a lamb, eh?"
John squeezed Rodney's shoulder. "Nobody's getting hung, Rodney – except maybe Harwood. Remember that."
Rodney gave a quick smile. "Okay." He squared his shoulders. "Let's do this."
John checked the street and surrounding houses. There was no one about and no lights in any of the windows – it was a business district with no private residences – and luckily the streetlamp was far enough away that they were in the shadows. He slipped on a pair of thin, black leather gloves as Rodney did the same, and then took the roll of picklocks from his pocket. Three minutes later, they were safely inside.
"You know, it's shocking how easy it is to do that," Rodney muttered as they felt their way along a darkened hallway. "I'm getting brand new locks fitted as soon as I can. In fact, I may have to design my own to make sure that they're completely burglar proof… oh, I think this is it."
They entered an outer office that had a window looking onto the street. There were a couple of desks, presumably for Harwood's clerk and secretary, the one with a dark, lumpy shape that looked like a typewriter under a cover. A huge set of shelves ran along one wall, stretching from floor to ceiling, and each shelf was piled high with deed boxes.
John shone his torch towards the first stack, making sure that the light didn't go anywhere near the window, and Rodney joined him, the beams of their torches criss-crossing as they checked the name on each metal box. They found boxes for Amersham all the way to Zinke but no Woolsey.
"Damn! It isn't here," Rodney whispered loudly.
"Maybe he keeps it in his private office? It would probably be easier to cook the books that way."
There was only one other door in the office, and anyway, the brass nameplate proclaiming Percival T. Harwood made it kind of hard to miss.
Harwood's office was at the back of the premises and wasn't overlooked. John decided to risk turning on the brass lamp that stood on the large desk, and its green glass shade cast just enough light for them to see around the rest of the room. The walls were lined with bookcases filled with various leather bound legal texts, and there was a grand-looking fireplace with an intricately carved panel above the mantelpiece with a fresco of fruit and flowers.
"Right. Where first?"
"How about I check the desk and you see if you can find your uncle's deed box? There has to be one."
"Unless Harwood's got it at home," Rodney muttered, turning his attention to the nearest bookcase.
"We'll cross that bridge if we need to."
"You're one of those annoying 'glass half full' kind of people, aren't you?" Rodney sighed, but he was smiling.
"Not half full – overflowing," John winked, "and with scotch – a nice ten-year-old single malt."
Rodney chuckled and moved on to the next bookcase.
The desk was clear except for the lamp and a writing stand. John checked the stand, but there was nothing there, and he moved on to the drawers but, apart from the usual stationery, they contained nothing of interest either. Though it looked like Harwood had a secret sweet tooth because there was a stash of chocolate cream and toffees hidden under some envelopes in the top drawer. John dutifully sifted through everything in case there was anything else there and groaned as something sticky attached itself to one of his gloves.
"What's the matter?" Rodney sounded a little alarmed.
"Sorry, s'nothing." John wiped the mess away with his handkerchief. "Seems Percy boy likes to munch on sweets when he should be working, and I just got a handful of something sticky – uh, I think it's Turkish Delight."
"Yuck. I hate that stuff. It's so ridiculously sweet and cloying, and it's covered in all that powdered sugar – end up looking like a mime when you're done."
John grinned. "Find anything?"
"Nothing – oh wait, hang on. Pass me that chair, will you? I just want to make sure that there's nothing on top of this cupboard."
John slid a sturdy straight back chair over to Rodney, and he climbed onto it carefully.
"You okay? Want me to do it?"
Rodney glared down at him. "I know that you're the more heroic half of this partnership, but don't let that whole white knight thing go to your spiky head. I think I can manage to check a shelf, Sir Lancelot, and –"
A cat screeched loudly outside the window; Rodney jumped and with a startled shout began to over balance. John grabbed at his waist, but it was no good, and they both ended in a rumpled heap squashed together against the side of the fireplace.
"Ow," Rodney moaned, wincing and rubbing at his elbow.
"Yeah." John could feel the heat of Rodney's body where they lay twisted together, and he straightened up quickly before he could give in and press even closer. He'd made a promise – to himself and to Rodney – and he intended to keep it. Besides, this really wasn't the time or place. He held out a hand and helped Rodney up. "Oh hey, look at that."
The carved panel above the mantelpiece was now standing open and behind it was a second, plainer panel fitted with a keyhole.
"Oh my God!" Rodney groaned. "I don't believe it. Harwood is so gauche he even has a secret compartment! It's like something from a third rate, so-called 'mystery novel'."
John could hear the implied quotes as clear as day. He actually thought the secret compartment was pretty clever and suspected that Rodney would, too – if it were anyone but Harwood. "Yeah, but aren't we glad that he does?" John reached for the lockpicks again. "Opening up this flimsy thing is going to be a lot easier than trying to get a proper safe open."
"True," Rodney conceded. "He obviously thought that no one would be able to get past his ingenious hiding place and so didn't even bother fitting a good quality lock, the cheapskate. Hah! He obviously didn't expect an adversary of such superior intelligence, superlative investigative skills and unsurpassed manual dexterity."
"Rodney – a second ago you were saying that any fool could see through such a cheap gimmick, and anyway, you fell off a chair and accidentally bumped the panel open. We're hardly talking great detection here, Sherlock."
"Hmmph! Highly overrated, in my opinion. And anyway, I know that I'd have figured it out sooner or later. This has just speeded up the process."
John grinned and opened the inner panel with a flourish. "And now let's see what young Percival's been hiding."
The hidden cupboard wasn't very large, but it contained several bundles and rolls of papers tied together with ribbon, and they took each out in turn so that they could replace them in exactly the same position. There were various documents including share certificates and transfers, receipts for securities, bills of sale and other transactions. Most of the amounts involved were of moderate size – a hundred Pounds or so at a time – and were signed in the name of Richard Woolsey, but there were also a couple of bills of sale which, though listing Woolsey as the seller, were unsigned.
"Did you know that your uncle had been selling a lot of shares lately?"
"No. But then he didn't tell me much about his business affairs. Hang on – look at this." Rodney held up one of the unsigned bills of sale. "This is for the proposed sale of his summer house in Deauville. He doesn't visit… I mean, didn't visit –" He paused, as if the words had caught in his throat, and swallowed thickly.
John leaned in a little and pressed his shoulder to Rodney's. He felt Rodney pressing back, and they stayed like that for a while, a line of heat between them, and then Rodney gave him a wobbly smile.
"Sorry – I'd forgotten for a moment."
"It's no problem."
Rodney smiled again, more firmly this time. "So, as I say, he hadn't visited much in the last few years, but I can't imagine that he'd ever sell the place – especially without at least mentioning it to me or Jeannie first. We spent summers there when Jeannie was small."
"Maybe that's because he wasn't planning to sell it – Harwood was." John pulled out a sheet of foolscap. It was covered in copies of Woolsey's neat, looping signature – line after line of them.
"Harwood had been forging Uncle Richard's signature! But he couldn't hope to get away with it. I mean he could hardly expect Uncle not to notice the next time he decided to take a constitutional over on the Continent and found Monsieur and Madame Who the Hell Are You living in his house!"
"Unless Harwood could find a way to make sure that your uncle never found out."
"Like killing him," Rodney spat. He sounded angry and frustrated but also just really sad.
John wished that he could make it better. He picked up another sheaf of documents. "Huh, share certificates for Megatherium – in Harwood's name. It looks like we were right about that." He whistled as he read the sums involved. "Harwood invested really big and lost it all. Ford said that he'd had a string of bad investments over the last few years. It looks like he tried to cover those losses by using clients' money to invest in Megatherium and then when that crashed he lost his only hope of repaying it. He must have known that it was only a matter of time before he got found out. So, he killed your uncle, framing you in the process, and then planned to marry your sister so that he'd have control over everything and no one would ever find out. This is it, Rodney – we've got Harwood's motive and the proof that we need. We can tell Dex about all of this, and he can get a search warrant…"
"I know that he's a friend, John, but he's going to need more than our word – you know that. Plus we still don't know how Harwood did it, and without that the police aren't going to want to listen – no matter how compelling the argument – friend or not."
Rodney was right, but at least they knew that they were definitely on the right track. The rest would fall into place – he was sure of it. "Look, now we know the who and the why we'll figure out the how, Rodney. I know we will. Hey – Templeton Blake's on the case, remember?"
"Actually, I think I'd prefer to put my money on Lord John Sheppard. I understand that he's got a soft spot for helping lost causes."
"You're not lost, Rodney. You're right here – with me, and we make a pretty terrific team."
"You think so?"
"I know so." John nodded firmly.
He expected an argument, but instead Rodney looked at him for a second and then smiled. "Okay then."
"Okay. So, what do you say we put all this back and get out of here? We should have enough to work with."
"True, and we probably shouldn't push our luck any more than we have done. We don't want some inquisitive bobby on the beat to decide to stick his nose in."
John started to replace the papers, but something at the back of the cupboard caught his eye, and he pulled it out. It was a white paper sachet. There was a label stuck to it with 'La Pharmacie' and address in Lille printed in one corner but no indication of the contents. One end of the sachet had been opened and then tucked back in, and he pulled it free. He felt his heart begin to pound – the sachet contained a fine white powder; about three ounces of the stuff, at a guess.
John held out the sachet, and Rodney peered into it.
"Do you think that's…?"
"Yeah, I do." John smiled. This was it – the nail in Harwood's coffin. "It could be dope, but somehow I don't think so. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that this is arsenic."
"When you buy commercial arsenic from a chemist here, it's coloured with charcoal or indigo to avoid being mistaken for salt or sugar or something harmless like that. But the label's French, and I know they dispense white arsenic on the Continent."
John cocked his head and stared. "You know, you really do know a lot about arsenic, Rodney."
"I should hope I do – I did write a book about it," Rodney smirked and rubbed his hands together briskly. "So, not only do we have proof of motive but now we also have the murder weapon." The smile slid from his face. "It's just a pity that we don't know how he managed to use it."
"One step at a time, Rodney." John grinned and tipped a few grains of the powder into a handy envelope. "I'm sure that Percy boy won't mind if we borrow some of this and get it tested." He tucked the envelope over carefully and put it into his pocket and then placed the sachet with the rest of the powder back into the cupboard. He checked that everything was exactly as it should be and closed and locked the cupboard and swung the outer panel shut. It clicked smoothly back into place, and no one would ever be able to guess that a treasure trove of incriminating evidence was hidden inside. Thank God for Rodney whacking his elbow.
They checked the room one more time, turned off the lamp and crept silently out of the building.
John took a deep breath as they stepped out into the night air.
"I can't believe that we just did that!" Rodney sounded giddy. "We broke and entered – and, thank God, managed to get out again without getting caught!"
"So, you thinking about taking up a life of crime if you ever get bored with writing?" John bumped his shoulder against Rodney's, adrenaline making him feel almost light-headed.
"Not a chance," Rodney snorted. "Once was enough."
John stripped off his gloves and stuffed them into his pocket. "Probably for the best – I don't think the world is quite ready for Doctor Rodney McKay: master criminal."
Rodney laughed, and they began to walk casually along Bedford Row. It wouldn't do to attract any unwanted attention now as John still had a set of lockpicks in his pocket – a burglar's tools – and the unidentified white powder.
"I don't know about you, but I could do with a stiff drink. I live just around the corner – if you, ah, fancy a nightcap?" Rodney asked, fidgeting with his gloves and sounding a little flustered.
John reminded himself that it was just a drink and nothing more – not yet. "Sounds like a plan. And maybe we can make a start on figuring out how Harwood did it."
It was nearly midnight, and the streets were quiet except for the occasional taxi passing by. They crossed Theobald's Road, and as they made their way into Great St. James Street a constable on the beat was walking towards them. John felt Rodney's steps falter as they drew closer, and he hooked his hand surreptitiously under Rodney's elbow.
John smiled pleasantly. "Nice evening, Constable."
The policeman nodded and carried on along the street and then turned the corner out of sight. John looked at Rodney who was staring back at him with huge eyes and then, as if on cue, they both dissolved into gusts of breathless laughter.
John clapped Rodney on the back. "That was close."
"Too close!" Rodney croaked. "I definitely need that drink now!"
They hurried on and arrived in Mecklenburgh Square a few minutes later. Rows of Georgian houses bracketed the square on three sides, and a dark shadow enclosed by railings – the residents' garden presumably – made up the final side.
"Over here." Rodney led the way to a house in the middle of the farthest terrace, and they climbed the half dozen tiled steps to a smartly painted black door. Rodney fished around in his pocket for his keys and let them in to a well-lit entrance hall. The hall was small but tidy with an aspidistra in a heavy brass pot, an umbrella stand – holding a walking stick and a couple of rolled umbrellas – and a row of wooden pigeonholes on one wall with neatly written labels for each tenant.
"I'm on the first floor."
They made their way up the stairs, and Rodney unlocked a second door – 42B – and ushered John inside. "I've got all of this floor to myself, and luckily the chap upstairs is as quiet as a mouse – a poet or something. I used to have rooms in Doughty Street, and there were a gaggle of Bolsheviks who held huge parties from morning till night – it was like living in Waterloo Station." He led John through into a comfortable-looking sitting room.
John wasn't surprised by the rows of bookcases lining most of the walls, all pretty much full to bursting, but the Steinway Grand near the window was a little unexpected.
Rodney's cheeks turned pink. "Ah, yes… well, not really – just a little."
John raised an eyebrow. It seemed unlikely that anyone would have a piano – especially such a good one – filling up nearly half of an only average-sized room if they simply had a passing interest.
"I can get by but that's it," Rodney said dismissively.
"Will you play for me sometime?"
"I told you – I'm not very good," Rodney sighed before adding, like he was repeating something by rote, "My playing, while technically competent, lacks emotion. It has no heart."
It was unusual for Rodney to admit to being anything less than brilliant at something, and John wondered what the story was behind it – because there was a story, he was sure. He hoped he'd find out one day but, for now, he just smiled gently. "I don't believe that. You have more heart than anyone I know, Rodney."
Rodney looked surprised, and his mouth slanted into a pleased, little smile. "Oh, well, that's ah… Um, thank you… So? Ah, drinks?"
"I think we've earned it."
Rodney huffed out a laugh and then chafed his hands together. "God, it's cold in here." He went over to the fireplace and knelt down and struck a match. "Shouldn't take long to get going. So, what can I get you? Scotch? It's not ten-year-old malt, I'm afraid. Or there's brandy. I don't think there's any gin left…"
"Scotch is fine – thanks."
Rodney crossed to the sideboard and sloshed out a couple of good measures and handed one to John. He raised his glass. "Cheers."
"To breaking and entering." John grinned and knocked his glass against Rodney's, and they both took a long drink.
"I'm definitely not cut out for a life of crime," Rodney groaned and sank down into a chair by the fireplace, cradling his glass against his chest.
"You mean you didn't have fun tonight?" John smirked and took the chair opposite. He settled into the deep cushions and hooked one leg over the arm in a comfortable sprawl.
Rodney looked at John's leg pointedly, and so John swung it backwards and forwards a couple of times, making Rodney roll his eyes.
"Go on, admit it," John teased. "You had fun. I know you did."
"Well, I suppose that certain parts of the evening weren't too horrible," Rodney admitted begrudgingly. "The company for one…"
"Hey, be careful – all that flattery will go to my head."
"It would never make it past the hair," Rodney sniffed.
John quirked an eyebrow, and Rodney chuckled and took another drink.
Silence stretched between them, but it wasn't the awkward kind that people feel the need to fill with banal small talk. It was what it was – an easy, comfortable peace – and John felt strangely at home. Or maybe it wasn't that strange – he and Rodney had pretty much clicked from the moment that they'd met, after all.
The fire was taking a hold now, and the logs were starting to crack and spit, sending fiery splinters to mix with the long curls of smoke that disappeared up into the darkness of the chimney.
Rodney had closed his eyes and tipped his head to rest against the back of the chair, and John took the chance to watch him unobserved. He looked younger, and his mouth had lost the tenseness that it often held, though it was still a little lopsided and John found that he loved the slight imperfection. The glow from the fire was casting a shadow across his face, and his eyelashes – so long for a man – looked like smears of charcoal smudged across the delicate skin of his cheeks. John imagined how it would feel to touch his lips to that skin and to learn its softness with his tongue. Soon, he hoped… soon.
"So, how do you think the bastard did it?" Rodney said, opening his eyes, and John took a drink, not wanting to be caught out in his fireside dreaming.
"Honestly? I don't know. We know that he had access to the arsenic – well, assuming that the white powder he has hidden away behind that secret panel is arsenic."
"Which I think we can – assume, I mean. I don't see what else it's likely to be. He's hardly going to be keeping a secret horde of sugar in there. What's the point? And he doesn't exactly strike me as a dope fiend."
"So, we can assume that he has the arsenic, and we know that he has a damn good motive. So, how did he poison your uncle?"
"Unfortunately for us – well, for me mainly as I'm the police's prime suspect – the answer to that rather pertinent question is that we don't have a clue." Rodney began to tick things off against his fingers. "We know that it wasn't in the food because everyone ate the same thing at dinner. Or in the wine because that was shared, too."
John had a thought. "What about before dinner? What did Woolsey have to drink then? The post mortem says that the arsenic was administered in the two to three hours before his death; so, it's possible it could have been just before dinner."
"That's no good, either – he had sherry, same as myself and Jeannie. I saw Burrows decant a fresh bottle. It couldn't have been in the sherry."
"Did Harwood have any?" There was a stray thought itching at the back of John's mind but he couldn't pin it down.
"No, said something about wanting to keep a clear head for the business later. He didn't have any wine at dinner either, now that I come to think of it."
"But he did share a martini with your uncle after dinner? Why?"
"I have no idea. Probably just sucking up to Uncle Richard because he'd made the cocktail? Damn it! If Harwood wasn't such a slimy little toady then the martini wouldn't be in the clear." Rodney sounded frustrated.
John knew how he felt. They were missing something, he was sure of it, but what was it? There was something in what Rodney had just said and something else from earlier, but he couldn't think what. The adrenaline crash after the excitement of the evening's activities and now the warming soporific of the scotch and the fire were starting to fog his brain.
"So, we know that Uncle Richard had a second martini – the one that I poured – and that he then went to bed where he took one of those useless tonic powders that he always swore by and that are probably nothing but ground up chalk… I'm assuming that the police checked the tonic?"
"Yes, no poison and pretty much what you said – a mix of Epsom Salts and a few harmless herbs."
"Typical," Rodney muttered. "I used to tell him that those things were a waste of time, but he never would listen." He voice was a little choked, and he coughed and took a swift drink.
In all of the frenzy of the investigation, it was easy sometimes to forget that Rodney wasn't only trying to clear his name but that he was also grieving for his uncle.
Rodney sighed and sagged down farther into his chair, his shoulders slumping. "So, we know everywhere that the poison wasn't and still have no idea where it was." He looked exhausted, and now that his face was turned into the full glare of the flames John could see the deep lines of worry in his brow.
"We're going to figure this out, Rodney," John promised. "But I think we need to take a break. How about we sleep on it and come at it again in the morning with a fresh set of eyes? What do you say?" Rodney wasn't the only one who could use a good night's sleep. John needed a chance to clear his head, too.
"I don't know, John – it's looking more and more like we're never going to prove how he did it. And if we can't do that then the police are going to charge me with murder and then –"
"No," John said sharply. He sat up and leaned in closer. "I'm not going to let that happen, remember?" He held Rodney's gaze. "We're not going to let that happen; you and me. Now, you're going to finish your drink – then you're going to go to bed and get some sleep and in the morning you're going to come round to my place and together we'll figure this whole thing out."
"I'd forgotten how bossy you can be," Rodney muttered, but his eyes had lost some of their bleakness, and his lips were quirking in that curious smile that made John's heart beat a little faster. "But I suppose you're right – I could do with some sleep." As if on cue, he gave a loud yawn and they exchanged grins. "Tomorrow then."
"And if you come round before ten you can have breakfast. Lorne makes a pretty spectacular omelette."
"Will there be bacon?"
"Absolutely." John beamed. "As much as you want."
Rodney's face broke into a broad smile. "Then expect me around nine."
The doorbell rang, and John glanced at the clock and smiled; it was a minute after nine – Rodney was right on time. There were footsteps on the stairs, and Lorne showed Rodney into the breakfast room.
"Doctor McKay, my lord."
"Morning, Rodney!" John smiled and waved Rodney over to the table where Lorne had set a second place opposite John's own.
Rodney was looking a little bleary-eyed, like he hadn't had quite enough sleep, and he made a beeline for the coffee pot. "Is that coffee? Tell me that's coffee."
Lorne, ever vigilant, headed him off neatly and instead helped him into his chair. He unfolded the starched linen napkin and lay it on Rodney's lap, and then moved to take the coffee pot before Rodney could make another grab for it and simply serve himself.
John watched the little tableau with a grin; it was unusual to see anybody get the best of Rodney – but then Lorne was pretty formidable in his own way. "Oh, I'm fine, that's really nice of you to ask thank you, Rodney. Yes, it is a lovely morning, isn't it?" he said dryly.
Rodney shot John a sour look and buried his nose in the coffee that Lorne had just placed by his hand. He took a drink and then sat back with a long, satisfied sigh. "Yes, yes, good morning." He waved airily. "It's a lovely day – birds singing and flowers blooming and all that stuff." But his smile was warm and somehow intimate as he looked at John over the rim of his cup.
John felt his breath catch for a second, blind-sided by a wave of affection and want, and he returned the smile, helpless to do anything else. They stared at one another, still smiling, and John wondered what Rodney was thinking. Rodney's cheeks began to flush slightly, and John hoped it was because he was feeling the same way.
"So, right," Rodney said a little breathily. "Yes. I was led to believe there would be breakfast? Omelettes and bacon were mentioned, I think?"
John let his smile slip into a smirk. "I did say that, didn't I? Well, I don't want to be accused of getting you here under false pretences." He nodded at Lorne who had been silently blending into the background and who now began to serve breakfast.
By tacit agreement they didn't mention anything about the case and concentrated instead on the food and easy conversation, before sharing The Times over a second – or in Rodney's case, third – cup of coffee.
John felt relaxed and content, and he sipped his coffee slowly, ignoring the newspaper, happy to watch Rodney instead. There was a smudge of newsprint on Rodney's cheek, and he was muttering something uncomplimentary about the government's latest stance on something or other as he turned a page, struggling slightly with the unwieldy broadsheet. John smothered a smile and, with a start, realised that he could quite happily spend the rest of his life doing this – just sharing the tiny, everyday moments of life with Rodney. He really hoped that he would have the chance.
Lorne appeared at his elbow with a fresh pot of coffee.
"Will there be anything more, my lord?"
"Hmm?" Rodney looked up absently from the paper. "Oh, yes – more coffee… Wait – you've already…" He waved in the direction of the coffee pot. "No. No, I'm fine then." He went back to his reading
John smiled, completely and ridiculously enchanted, and nodded at Lorne. "It looks like we're done."
"My lord." Lorne began to clear the table. He took the cream jug and sugar bowl, leaving just the coffee pot and cups, clearly having noticed that Rodney took his coffee black, as John did.
"That'll be all for now, Lorne, thanks."
Lorne nodded courteously and took the breakfast tray and left, closing the door silently behind him.
"This coffee really is good, you know," Rodney said.
"I'll tell Lorne – it'll make his day. He'd never admit it, but secretly I think he's pretty proud of his coffee."
"With good reason." Rodney took another gulp and made a happy sound. "And you weren't wrong about the omelettes either – you know, I think you'd better hang on to him."
"I'll make sure I do," John said wryly, amused at how Lorne had obviously found the way to Rodney's heart – well, his stomach anyway. John was hoping that he'd be able to claim Rodney's heart for himself.
Rodney drained his cup and clattered it to the table. "So…" He folded the paper and tossed it to one side. "I suppose we'd better get on with it. Have you had any bright ideas?"
He was right. Breakfast had been a nice, little interlude, but now it was time to get back to business – and to clearing Rodney's name.
Despite feeling exhausted, John hadn't been able to sleep the night before, and he'd spent hours in his library poring through volumes of forensic medicine and reports of some of the biggest poisoning trials of the last century. He'd read until the words had turned into a blur, trying to pin down the elusive 'something' that had been nagging at him, but with no luck. He still had no clue how Woolsey had been poisoned. "Not exactly, no."
"So, it wasn't Harwood in the conservatory with the arsenic then?"
"I'm sure it was Harwood and the arsenic but how? We're missing something, I know we are. You said something last night. I know it was important… I just need to remember –"
"Good God, John – I say a lot of things, and I happen to think that they're all important." Rodney quirked a half-smile. "Can you be more specific?"
"Okay. So, it was last night… We were in Harwood's office and we saw something, I think – and then later on you said something. If I could just remember and make the connection… God damn it!" He jumped out of his chair, suddenly frustrated as hell, and paced over to the window and back again, his steps quick and angry. This was Rodney's life on the line here – why couldn't he think?
"John. It's okay." Rodney came over and put his hands onto his shoulders, forcing him to stand still. "It's okay. It's not your fault, you know."
Blue eyes stared steadily at him, and it was the mirror image of how they'd stood that day at Gull's Nest, and like then, John wanted to close the distance and wrap himself around Rodney and just lose himself. He could see his own longing mirrored in Rodney's face. "Rodney… I… we can't."
"I know, I know – you don't want to take advantage of me while I'm in a 'vulnerable state'," Rodney said tartly, but his smile softened his words.
He was still holding onto John's shoulders, and John could feel the heat from his big, unexpectedly strong, hands bleeding through his shirt and warming his skin. He let himself relax into Rodney's strength. It was going to be okay – they were going to figure this out, and Rodney would be cleared and then they'd finally get to do this for real.
John let out a long breath and dropped his head and looked up through his lashes, purposely coy. "You know, sometimes I really do wish I wasn't so damn noble," he sighed.
Rodney's eyes went wide for a second and he laughed. "Yes, it must be so terrible being you. What an ordeal."
"You have no idea," John said mournfully, pushing out his lower lip a little.
Rodney shook his head. "You are such an idiot." He was still laughing though.
"Sweet talker." John grinned.
Rodney let his hands drop and stepped away, and John immediately missed his closeness, though it helped to see a flicker of regret in Rodney's face, too. Okay, the faster they got this whole mess sorted out then the faster he and Rodney could finally – hopefully – do something about this thing between them.
"So, Harwood has means and motive. We just need to figure out the opportunity."
"How though?" Rodney asked. "We've already been over everything that Uncle Richard ate and drank, and it's all in the clear. If only Harwood – the pale-faced, toadying bastard – hadn't sucked up to Uncle Richard and shared that damn martini in his study then it would be obvious that he must have put the arsenic in there! Well, he needn't think that he's going to get his hands on Jeannie. I'll make sure that he never –"
"Wait! What did you just say?" Fragments of thoughts and stray comments were spinning through John's brain, and the vague, foggy ideas that had been taunting him began to grow brighter and blink into focus.
"I said," Rodney grumbled, "that there's no way I'm letting that odious bastard anywhere near my sister, and if he thinks –"
"Pale-faced." John snapped his fingers and pointed at Rodney. "You called him pale-faced." Half-remembered facts and details from court reports – Maybrick, Seddon, Armstrong – surfaced from his memory, and suddenly everything began to click into place.
"Well, he is," Rodney said irritably. "Pale as a sheet except for those ridiculous freckles – who does he think he is anyway, Pollyanna? He ought to know better, a man of his age, and there's that hair of his, as well, all sleek and shiny like some tuppenny-ha'penny matinee idol…"
Rodney rambled on, but John felt like the sun was exploding behind his eyelids as the most improbable, most ridiculous, most insanely perfect idea coalesced in a triumphant roar in his mind.
"Rodney. Rodney!" He couldn't stop himself from grinning like a mad man. "You're a genius!"
"What?" Rodney stopped and glared at John, his hands frozen in the middle of emphasising something undoubtedly Very Important. "Well, yes, of course – obviously! Um, how am I? I mean, this time in particular?"
He was aiming for casual but was, as usual, missing by a mile, and his eyes were shining so blue, and he was pouting – just a little – and it was all so utterly adorable that it was only through a monumental act of self-control that John didn't just grab him there and then.
"You know, I really want to kiss you now."
"Oh, God – I wish you would," Rodney moaned and swayed closer.
"I want to – I really, really want to – but I can't… not right now," John said, regret mixing with elation and the overwhelming certainty that everything was finally going to be all right.
"What? Then what did you say that for? This is getting beyond a joke, I mean you say that you want to kiss me and then you say that you can't. Why not? Why can't you ditch your ridiculous and completely frustrating code of noble ethics and just do it?"
"Because…" John paused. He knew that he was teasing, but he thought Rodney would forgive him when he explained – well, hopefully.
"Yes, yes?" Rodney made an impatient 'get on with it' gesture. "Because?"
"Because… I've just worked out how he did it." John guessed that he looked as smug as he felt right now – and that was pretty damn smug. "I know how Harwood poisoned your uncle."
"What? You? Wha… How?" Rodney was practically speechless, and John doubted that that happened very often – or pretty much ever. "How did he do it?"
"It's going to sound unbelievable and completely insane, but I know that I'm right, Rodney. It's like your friend Holmes always says, 'When you've eliminated the impossible then…'"
"Yes, yes. 'Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.' Trite, over-rated hogwash in my opinion," Rodney sniffed, but he was almost bouncing with anticipation. "But what does that have to do with my uncle's murder?"
John grinned, happiness and relief flooding through him. He'd done it – he'd cracked the damn case. "I'll explain it all, I promise, but I just need to check a couple of facts first." He dropped down into his chair and sprawled back, smiling his biggest and most cocksure smile. "So, Rodney – tell me everything you know about arsenic."
Rodney actually did a double take, but his face was bright with excitement and hope, as if John's elation was catching. There was something else there, too – trust. Rodney was taking John at his word and believing him when he said that he knew how it had been done. Rodney had faith in him, and John suspected that that was probably a pretty rare gift. He wasn't going to let Rodney down.
"Everything?" Rodney sat down across the table. "You do remember the part about me being spectacularly clever and knowing virtually everything about, well, virtually everything? Arsenic included?"
John already had a pretty good idea how Harwood had done it. He just needed Rodney to help fill in the last few details and then they'd have him. Harwood was going to swing for what he'd done.
"I know." John nodded. "In fact, I'm counting on it. Now, tell me about how arsenic works in the body…"
Some time later, John made a phone call to Scotland Yard.
"Dex? Sheppard. Good, thanks. Look, did your men make a list of the contents of all the rooms when they made the search at Gull's Nest? Good. Can you let me have a copy of what they found in Harwood's room? Nah, just need to double-check something. And can you get in touch with the butler, Burrows, and ask him about the missing lemon? Yeah, that's what I said. He should know what it's about. Thanks, Dex. Oh, definitely – I'll be in touch soon. You can count on it."
A little while after that, John rang for Lorne.
"Lorne. I've got a job for you."
"Indeed, my lord."
"How do you feel about a little bit of sleuthing?"
"I am always ready to assist in any investigation, as your lordship knows."
"I was hoping you'd say that. Do you think you can find a way to have a chat with someone on the staff at Mister Percival Harwood's house? I don't know if he has a valet, but if not there's bound to be somebody – a housekeeper or a cook, somebody like that?"
"I had been wondering if your lordship might require some 'inside information', so to speak, about that particular household; and so I have already taken the liberty of making the acquaintance of Mister Harwood's man, Parrish. He seems a most upstanding and genial young man and is frankly less than happy in his current situation. I understand that Mister Harwood is not the easiest – or pleasant – of gentlemen. I am certain that he would be able to furnish any information that your lordship may require."
Lorne withdrew, and Rodney shook his head in admiration. "I mean it – don't even think of letting that man go. He's a marvel."
John grinned. "I know."
John heard the doorbell ring and glanced at Rodney. "Looks like it's curtain up. You okay?"
Rodney was sitting across the hearth from John. He looked nervous but determined. "Yes. I just want to get it over with now."
"I know what you mean." It had been nearly a week since John had had what Rodney liked to refer to as his 'McKay–induced epiphany', and they'd been working since then to put all of the pieces together. John reached across and gave Rodney's hand a quick squeeze. Now it was time to finish the puzzle. "After tonight, it'll all be over. Trust me, okay?"
Rodney held onto John's hand as he moved to pull away and linked their fingers together. He gave a small, slanted smile, and John felt him relax. "I do."
There were footsteps in the hallway, and John smiled and squeezed Rodney's hand quickly before standing up.
"Mister Harwood, my lord," Lorne announced solemnly.
John pasted a polite and completely fake smile onto his face and walked over and shook Harwood's hand. "Harwood, good of you to come." He waved to the chairs by the fire. "You know Doctor McKay, of course?"
Harwood looked surprised to see Rodney but recovered quickly enough and smiled obsequiously. "Doctor McKay – how nice to see you again. I didn't, ah, realise that you would be here. I hope that you are well? And your dear sister, of course. I can only imagine how distressed she must be at the loss of your uncle."
John shot Rodney a quick look, but Rodney's face didn't flicker. In fact, he was looking at Harwood with something like bored indifference, but John knew it was an act. Usually Rodney couldn't keep from showing everything that he was feeling – that emotional honesty was one of the things that John loved about him – but they both knew how important tonight was. They were playing a game of cat and mouse – with a particularly deadly mouse – and they couldn't risk giving anything away.
"Please take a seat," John said, at his most charming. "I expect you've already dined, but how about some coffee? I've been told my man makes a good brew."
Rodney turned his head, and John saw a flicker of amusement light his eyes.
"That's most kind of you, my lord," Harwood simpered. "I must say that I was a little surprised by your invitation."
Lorne entered with the coffee tray. He poured black coffee for John and Rodney and then placed a cup, along with the cream and sugar, on a small table at Harwood's elbow. He also added a plate of sweetmeats to the table and then left the room, leaving the door slightly open.
"Oh, Turkish Delight!" Harwood cried, looking more animated than John had ever seen him; it was actually a little disturbing. "Well, I must admit that this is a particular favourite and so I trust that I may indulge?"
"Help yourself." John poured a couple of brandies and handed one to Rodney. He took the other and ambled casually across to the fireplace and leant against the mantel. It was a warm evening, and the fire was unlit. He glanced at the clock as Harwood stuffed a piece of the white, powdery sweet into his mouth.
"The authentic Eastern variety, too – this is a treat." Harwood took another piece. "As I was saying, I was rather surprised when I received your letter. I'm not sure exactly how it is that I may be of help?"
"See, here's the thing." John smiled a little apologetically, playing the part that people tended to expect of a man with too much money and probably not a lot of brains – what Rodney had coined as his 'good looking, noble layabout'. "You probably know that I like to poke around and help Scotland Yard out now and then?"
Harwood was obviously buying the act as he nodded and gave a superior smile, as if indulging John in his fancy. "As a legal man myself, I can't say that I approve of amateurs getting involved in police matters, of course, but I'm sure it can do no real harm."
John laughed, but he really felt like punching the supercilious little bastard in the face. Rodney coughed quietly into his fist, and John had the feeling that he was reading his mind, but it was a good reminder that Rodney wasn't the only one who needed to keep his head in the game. He wasn't going to be outplayed by Harwood.
"So, anyway," John continued genially, "I got Doctor McKay on board, and we thought we'd take a look and try and find out who murdered his uncle."
"It is definitely murder then? I had heard rumours, of course. Do the police have a suspect?" Harwood very obviously didn't look over at Rodney.
"Yes, they do as it happens." Rodney nodded. "It was death by arsenical poisoning, and it's the strangest thing, but the police seem to think that I did it. That I'm the one who killed my uncle."
"Well, that certainly is a surprise," Harwood said gravely, "and obviously, as your uncle's solicitor, if I can be of any help at all in this difficult time…"
John had to hand it to him – the man had got a nerve. Not only had he killed Woolsey and framed Rodney for the murder, now he was offering to represent him. "I'm sure that Doctor McKay is really grateful for that kind offer." John heard Rodney snort quietly. "But I don't think that will be necessary. You see, Doctor McKay didn't do it."
"Indeed, and you know, of course, who did?" Harwood eyed John sharply.
John shrugged his shoulders and gave a little 'who me?' grin, playing up to his role. "Well, Doctor McKay and I have had this little idea, and we thought we might run it by you, you know – with you being a legal man. If you don't mind?"
Harwood looked alert, but he didn't seem alarmed. The smug bastard obviously still thought that he was beyond suspicion. "If I can be of any help, then please, by all means, do 'run it by me'." He smiled unctuously and settled back into his chair to listen, stuffing another piece of Turkish Delight into his mouth and wiping the excess sugary powder from his fingers with his handkerchief.
John glanced at the clock again and then began. "The problem with this case has been finding out how Sir Richard took the arsenic." He glanced across at Rodney.
"Exactly." John saw Harwood start a little as Rodney joined in. "You see, there were literally a bevy of places that the arsenic couldn't have been but apparently nowhere that it could."
John pointed at Rodney. "Like the dinner."
"Precisely. We all ate the same thing – soup then fish –"
"Halibut, wasn't it? I heard it was pretty tasty."
"Very. And so was the duck." Rodney nodded, playing along. "It was the same for the sherry and the wine, too – Jeannie and I shared that with Uncle Richard." He sounded like a professor giving a lecture. "In fact, the only thing that he had that no one else did was his nightly tonic."
"Nah, no good." John jumped in. "The police checked it and gave it the all clear."
"That is disappointing," Rodney sighed dramatically.
John glanced at Harwood – he was chewing on another piece of sticky sweet and looked like he was enjoying their little performance. Good – let him get nice and complacent.
"Oh," Rodney added, as if a thought had suddenly struck him. "But I'm forgetting the martini. Uncle Richard drank a martini when he was in his study after dinner."
John snapped his fingers. "The martini! How could we forget that? I bet that would be a great place to put arsenic."
Harwood coughed politely. "If I might interrupt, my lord? I'm sorry to pour cold water on your little idea, but I'm afraid that you are forgetting one thing – I also drank the martini and as I suffered no ill effects then the poison could most definitely not have been in that beverage." There was just a hint of malice in his smile as he tipped his head in apology towards Rodney.
"He's right," John sighed and then pointed at Harwood. "But how about, just for now, we say that the arsenic was in the martini, huh?"
"I am sorry." Harwood bristled. "But I can assure your lordship that it most definitely was not. I distinctly remember Burrows, the butler, being present when Sir Richard mixed and poured the martinis and also when we both drank them. There could have been no opportunity for any poison to have been added to Sir Richard's glass without myself or the butler having seen it."
"Yeah, it was funny how Burrows came to be there, wasn't it?" John said lightly.
"I don't see why," Harwood said, and there was a touch of impatience in his tone. "It was all perfectly simple. Sir Richard found something amiss with the cocktail ingredients and so he called Burrows to bring what was needed. A lemon, I believe."
"It was funny though," John pressed, "because Burrows is willing to swear on oath that he'd put a fresh lemon along with glasses and other stuff on the drinks' tray in Sir Richard's study just before dinner. It looks like someone took the lemon on purpose."
For the first time that evening Harwood began to look a little wary. "Well, I can't imagine why anyone would do such a thing… unless it was for some kind of practical joke. It hardly seems of any importance." He snatched up a piece of Turkish Delight and stuffed it into his mouth almost automatically.
"But it is," Rodney said. "The fact that there was no lemon would mean that my uncle would have had to ring for Burrows." He paused for a second. "And that meant that there would be a witness when the cocktail was mixed."
"Are you suggesting, Doctor McKay," Harwood said slowly. "That I – and as I was the only other person present I assume that you must mean me – would have some need for a witness to swear that I did not contaminate your uncle's cocktail? And so I removed the lemon to facilitate that end? Surely that would suggest an almost prescient level of forethought."
"It would, wouldn't it?" John said. "But then, why would you need a witness? What motive could you have for wanting Sir Richard dead anyway?"
"Indeed." Harwood nodded stiffly and folded his hands.
"Of course, it would be different if you were having money troubles," John said, and Harwood looked up sharply. "Say you'd had a run of bad luck on the stock market and had borrowed from some of your clients – like Sir Richard, for example – to try and cover your losses, and you'd put everything into one last-ditch attempt to make the money back." He took a drink and leaned back against the mantel. "Yeah, I can see how that might make a difference. Especially if your scheme failed – I mean, how were you to know that Megatherium was going to crash like that? – and then you were left with all that missing money and no way to replace it."
Harwood seemed frozen in place, and John hardened his gaze. "So, what happened? Had Sir Richard started to get suspicious? Is that why he asked you to go down to Gull's Nest? To give you a chance to explain? He was a decent, trusting kind of man, and I bet he thought it was just some mistake – an accounting error – but you knew that you couldn't cover it up any more. So, what? You had to kill him? Then I imagine you had the good idea of framing Doctor McKay for his uncle's murder. Kill two birds with one stone, wouldn't it?"
"Literally," Rodney added dryly.
John shot Rodney a grin and carried on. "So, Woolsey's dead and can't tell anyone about the embezzlement, McKay goes to the gallows leaving all of his – and the residue of Woolsey's – money to his sister. Yeah, and you've already been laying the groundwork there, haven't you? Meaning that you can drop by and play – excuse the pun – the solicitous friend. Be a shoulder to cry on and then sweep the poor girl off her feet and marry her? That way you have the money and you're home free – and no one will ever know what happened."
Harwood's face had drained of what little colour it had, but he was keeping his head remarkably well in the circumstances. He smiled tightly. "While this is all very interesting and, might I say, ingenious, my lord, I think that you should be very careful before you repeat this kind of accusation anywhere outside of these four walls. I have no idea where you got this scurrilous idea, but I should warn you that slander is a very serious matter."
"But it's not slander if it's true," Rodney snapped. "I understand that the police are very good at tracking down this kind of thing – false accounting, invoices, stock certificates, etcetera, etcetera – and their searches are surprisingly thorough. Oh, and apparently judges can be very understanding about issuing warrants and so on when there's good cause."
"This is preposterous! Even if any of this were true – which it most definitely is not – how do you propose that I administered the poison? You have said yourselves that Sir Richard didn't eat or drink anything that cannot be accounted for."
"True," John said. "Which is why I think that it must have been in the martini."
"Well, if it was," Harwood said hotly, "then it must have been added sometime after I left Sir Richard. Perhaps you should be asking Doctor McKay, as I hear that he himself poured his uncle a drink," he sneered, scowling in Rodney's direction.
"So, you heard about that," John said. "I bet that was a bonus, wasn't it? You could arrange for Burrows to be a witness that you didn't add anything to Sir Richard's drink, but there was no way you could engineer McKay into seeing his uncle later and then admitting to giving him a drink."
"Precisely. Which proves how ridiculous this theory of yours is." Harwood nodded, regaining some of his composure, and took another piece of Turkish Delight.
"I can see your point," John drawled, "but it's still no good. You see, McKay didn't put the poison in his uncle's drink."
"And you know this how exactly?"
"Oh, because he told me."
"And you believe him?" Harwood cried.
John smiled at Rodney as he answered. "Absolutely."
Rodney smiled back softly.
"Well, I hardly think that your belief will stand up in court." Harwood's tone was snide, and he was looking more relaxed again.
"So, anyway," John carried on as if he hadn't heard, "I'm thinking that the arsenic was definitely in the martini that Sir Richard made – in the vermouth or the gin. It would be easy enough for you to switch out a poisoned bottle for a clear one and then put the original back later – especially with all the fuss going on after the death."
"And if I did as you claim, are you also suggesting that I drank the poisoned martini, too?"
"Of course he is!" Rodney said, rolling his eyes. "That's got to be obvious – even to someone like you."
"Rodney," John soothed.
"Yes, yes," Rodney muttered, sitting back in his chair.
"And then how, may I ask, do you explain the rather inconvenient fact that I am not dead?" Harwood crowed. "Was the volume of poisoned gin somehow miraculously transported from the cocktail shaker into Sir Richard's glass alone – so leaving my own glass poison-free?"
"That's kind of silly." John smiled. "You drank the martini, of course – and the poison."
Harwood's eyes darted nervously from John to Rodney and back again, but he carried on gamely enough. "And how do you account for my survival? I'm afraid that your interesting – and I must say, highly entertaining – theory appears to be less than watertight."
"No, actually it's not," John said, suddenly becoming serious. "And you have Doctor McKay to thank for spotting the vital clue that gave you away." He gave Rodney a little smile.
Harwood shot Rodney a vicious look but held his tongue.
"You have very pale skin, Mister Harwood – clear, too."
"And what, pray, has that got to do with anything?" Harwood asked, obviously surprised by John's apparently random observation.
"Well, by itself probably nothing but then there are the freckles – and your hair; you know, it really is shiny. They're just small things, but when you add them up, it's kind of obvious, isn't it?" John shrugged. "So, how long have you been taking arsenic? From about the time when things started to look black at Megatherium, I'd guess."
"What?" Harwood choked. "I have no idea what you are talking about. I categorically deny it! I have never taken arsenic in my life!"
"It would only be a little at a time, of course," Rodney said, in what John was coming to think of as his lecture tone. "Too much would be dangerous – but after a while the human body can build up a remarkable degree of tolerance, and people can regularly take surprisingly large amounts and not feel a thing. Apparently, it takes about ten weeks for arsenic use to show up in the hair and nails – it should be easy enough to test for, of course."
"This is a lie! Why on earth would I choose to willingly ingest arsenic?" Harwood laughed weakly, but his top lip was beading with sweat.
"I know, it sounds crazy, doesn't it?" John nodded. "It's pretty interesting though – Doctor McKay was telling me all about it – there's a long history of people eating arsenic. It's supposed to be medicinal or something. It has some pretty obvious effects like sleek hair and a clear complexion – but the arsenic does tend to pigment the skin… like those little marks you have on your cheeks." John paused and added more seriously, "I don't think that's why you took it though."
"Then why? What reason could I have to do such a thing? Which I did not, I might add," Harwood blustered. "Why would I take arsenic?"
"I'd have thought that was obvious," Rodney said coldly, "You needed to build up enough tolerance so that you could poison my uncle's martini with a fatal dose of arsenic and still drink it yourself with no ill–effect." He paused. "Though I imagine that you did vomit as soon as you were back in your room. Alcohol can speed the uptake of arsenic to the kidney, and you'd had to use the martini, of course. By the way, the police did find the Ipecac hidden in your room."
Harwood swallowed nervously. "I suffer from a gastric condition that requires the occasional use of an emetic," he protested, but it was hardly very convincing. "You have no proof…"
"Yeah, about that." John shrugged. "There is that packet of arsenic in the cupboard at your office."
Harwood looked stunned. "I – I don't know what you or the police may have been planting on my property but…"
"We didn't plant anything," Rodney sniffed. "And the police are already checking with that little pharmacy in Lille. I'm sure a foreigner making that kind of purchase will be easy enough to remember."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Harwood spluttered feebly. "I have never purchased nor taken arsenic…"
"Look," John drawled, "you can keep on denying it all you want, but can you just explain something first?" He checked the clock one last time. "How come that while you've been here this evening you've managed to swallow down a dose of arsenic large enough to kill a man stone dead, but you're still standing?"
Rodney looked contemptuously at Harwood. "That disgusting Turkish Delight that you've been gorging on since you got here is covered in white arsenic. By rights, you should be dead by now – or at least rolling around the floor in agony. The only way that you're not is because you've developed a tolerance through your arsenic habit. That means that you were perfectly able to drink the poisoned martini that killed my uncle and remain unharmed." He gave a small nod and smiled smugly. "I'd say that's game, set and match, wouldn't you?"
Harwood stared stonily at Rodney for a few seconds and then his face contorted in rage, and he let out a strangled yowl of fury. He lunged from his chair, grabbing the heavy brass poker from the fireplace, and charged towards Rodney, screaming and swinging the poker clumsily at his head.
Rodney cried out and pressed back into his chair, and John leapt forward and made a desperate grab for Harwood's arm. He managed to catch his wrist and twist it behind his back, making Harwood bellow and drop the poker as he tried to lash out. John caught his foot neatly around Harwood's ankle and tripped him and pushed him face down into the floor, pressing a knee into his back and holding both of his hands tightly. Harwood cursed and thrashed, but John had him pinned.
Dex, Lorne and two burly constables came running in from the hallway.
"Need some help?" Dex grinned.
"Oh, only if you're not doing anything better," John smirked, a little out of breath, as the constables hauled Harwood up.
John dusted himself down and glanced across at Rodney, grinning, but Rodney was staring at Harwood. His eyes looked huge, and he'd gone very pale.
Harwood was still spewing profanities and screaming as he struggled between the policemen holding him. "You arrogant bastard! This should be you – you deserve to die, just like your stuck-up old bastard of an uncle. All that money and what good was it to him? He wasn't doing anything with it." His usually clipped and precise speech was gone as he railed at Rodney. "It was a perfect plan, and then you and your tame little lord had to ruin it." He voice dropped to an ugly sneer. "I know about you and your kind –"
"That's enough of that," Dex said, snapping the handcuffs onto Harwood's wrists. "It would be better for you if you kept your mouth shut."
Harwood didn't seem to hear, or maybe he didn't care any more. His face was red from screaming, and there was a vein bulging nastily at his temple. "You think that you're so bloody clever, but I had you fooled! You and everyone else!" He was raving now, spittle flying from his mouth, and it was horrible to watch as he lost control. "I'm glad he's dead, and I'm glad I killed him, and I'm just sorry that I won't get to see you swing! I should've offed you, too – while I had the chance!"
"Enough," Dex shouted. "You'd think being a solicitor he'd know better, wouldn't you?" he sighed. "He's talking himself straight into the noose."
"Have you got everything you need?" John asked.
"Everything," Dex said and nodded towards the door. "I had a front row seat for the show. Though you'll both need to give a statement later."
John glanced at Rodney again. He was still sitting by the fire, and though he wasn't pressed back into the chair any more, he was way too still and quiet. John gestured towards Harwood who was still cursing loudly. "Get him out of here, will you? I'll talk to you later."
"Just out of interest." Dex leaned in. "Have you been feeding him arsenic all evening?"
"Course not." John grinned. "It was just ordinary sugar. McKay's idea – clever, huh?"
Harwood stopped shouting, staring at John in disbelief, and John raised an eyebrow and stared back. Harwood opened his mouth a couple of times like a landed fish and then screamed in outrage before collapsing and hanging down between the two constables with his head lolling in despair. Dex barked out a sharp laugh and shook his head. He grinned at John, and the strange, little party left the room, Lorne following behind and closing the door quietly.
John walked over and crouched down in front of Rodney's chair and put a hand on his knee. "You okay?"
Rodney shook his head. "Honestly? I don't know. I can't quite believe everything that's happened…"
John squeezed Rodney's knee lightly. "It's all over now, buddy. Harwood will be charged with your uncle's murder and…" He broke off as he felt Rodney begin to tremble - probably from shock - and got up quickly to fetch some more brandy, but when he looked Rodney was clenching his fists hard, his knuckles turning white. "Rodney?"
"He sat there, John," Rodney said brokenly. "He just sat there and watched as Uncle Richard drank that damn cocktail, and all the time he knew exactly what was in it – what he'd put in there. He knew what it would do and he sat there – probably offering a toast as he drank his own glass and –" He stood up, his movements stiff and jerky, and though his face was still pale there were angry spots of colour burning on his cheeks. "I don't know how I managed to stay civil this evening. Uncle Richard didn't deserve what happened to him – he was a harmless, old dodderer who wouldn't hurt a fly." His face twisted with grief. "And then having to sit here and listen to Harwood with his faux platitudes and that damn condescending smile – and all the while he was stuffing his face with that bloody sticky mess, and I just wanted to ram it down his lying throat until he choked…" He looked at John. "I could've killed him, John – I really could. I wanted to." He sounded scared.
John took Rodney's clenched hands in his. "No, you couldn't."
Rodney stuck his chin out stubbornly. "Why not?"
"Because you're better than that, Rodney." John kept his voice quiet and steady. "Because you're a good man."
Rodney stared at him, and John felt his fists slowly unclench and the tension begin to drain away. "You don't know that," Rodney murmured.
John smiled gently. "Yeah, I do." He squeezed Rodney's hands. "Your uncle knew it, too – he told me."
Rodney's head came up. "He did?"
"Yeah, and he said that he was proud of you – and that he should probably tell you more often."
Rodney gave a sad smile. "We didn't ever really talk about…" He swallowed heavily. "Thank you though – for telling me."
"I know it's not much help."
"No, it does… it helps." Rodney smiled again – but this time it was happier. "Thank you." He looked down at their joined hands and said slowly, "It really is over, isn't it?" John could hear the finality in Rodney's voice.
"Yeah – yeah it is." The threat of the gallows was gone, and Rodney was in the clear and free to do what he liked now. He didn't need John's help any more. "It's all over," he said softly.
He'd been waiting for this moment – for the case to be over – and all of that time he'd been thinking about how it would mean the chance for him and Rodney to finally be together. Now they were here though, he realised that it wasn't that simple. He knew that Rodney had said that he wanted him – loved him – but that had been when he had a murder charge hanging over him. Emotions had been running high, and John would never try and hold him to a promise made under those kinds of circumstances. It would – was – breaking his heart, but now that it was all over he had to do the right thing and give Rodney a way out.
"So, you probably want to go – see your sister or, you know… do all the stuff you haven't been able to while this has been going on." John began to turn away.
"What are you doing?" Rodney held onto John's hands and pulled him back. "And go where? What are you talking about?" His eyes widened. "Oh my God! You actually are as stupid as you pretend to be, aren't you?"
"Hey!" John pulled free. He was trying to do the right thing here.
"Oh, don't you 'hey' me, mister," Rodney huffed and put his hands on his hips. "Not when I know exactly what's going on in that spiky head of yours. You think that now all of this is over, that that's it, and I'm just going to waltz off into the sunset with a quick wave and a 'Thanks for saving my life but see ya around!'"
"Well, I'd understand if…"
"Oh, please! How can anyone so astoundingly intelligent – and heart-stoppingly beautiful, I might add – also be so monumentally dense?" Rodney shook his head wearily. "This relationship really is doomed if I'm the emotionally articulate one… And I'm still mystified how I've managed to spend most of my life quite happily having no clue whatsoever what other people – and sometimes even myself – are feeling, and yet here I am somehow having a direct line to the ridiculous ideas lolloping their way through the no doubt sun-dappled meadows of your mind." He paused and took a deep breath.
"Heart-stoppingly beautiful?" John repeated, feeling stunned but also kind of hopeful.
"Yes! Oh, and as if you didn't know it already. Trust you to pick up on that – vanity thy name is Sheppard. Anyway, that's not the point," Rodney snapped, but he was blushing now.
John started to smile. "So, what is the point, Rodney?"
"What's the point? What's the point?" Rodney threw his hands up. "The point is that you've been stringing me along since I met you, saying that you want me but holding back because of your, admittedly somewhat flattering, sense of honour, and now that the nightmare is over and we can finally be together you're having doubts! Some ridiculous idea, I would theorise, about me only offering you my manly virtue as some kind of barter or payment for your help and that now I'm finally a free man I'm not going to want you any more! Which is frankly preposterous because, really, who wouldn't want you? But also, I have to say, says a lot about your psyche – and by the way, I may never forgive you for making me use the word psyche – and anyway, I seem to recall you saying something about it being my genius that helped in cracking the case and so…" He stopped and looked at John in confusion. "Um, what was I saying?"
"You know something, Rodney?" John grinned. "Life's never going to be dull with you around." He could finally relax – Rodney really did want him.
"I'd have to agree with that, of course, as personally I think that I'm endlessly fascinating – though strangely not many people seem to agree – but I was in the middle of something important here, thank you very much and… Ah?" He trailed off again, and John took pity on him.
"Well, after the thing about offering me your manly virtue," John laughed, "I think you were pretty much telling me that it was time that I put up or shut up."
"I was? Really?" Rodney's eyebrows shot to his hairline. "And how would you, ah, feel about that?"
John dropped his head a little and looked up through his lashes, smirking. "I think it could be arranged…"
Rodney's gaze turned hot and he grinned smugly. "Thank God! It's about time." He grabbed John's biceps and tugged sharply.
John stumbled forward, dropping his hands to Rodney's hips, and his breath caught as his body pressed against the heat of Rodney from chest to knee. "Hey," he whispered, smiling, his face only inches from Rodney's.
"Um, hey?" Rodney said, strangely shy after all of his bluster.
John was pretty certain that he already knew the answer, but he couldn't resist teasing, just a little. "So… you're sure about this? Really?"
Rodney's face was a picture of exasperation and then his eyes narrowed. "Oh, I'll show you sure…"
John thought for a second that Rodney was just going to go for it and smack him with a kiss, and, while that would no doubt be great, he felt a little disappointed somehow. Rodney didn't though; instead he paused and just looked at John and then he smiled. It was a soft but really intense, little smile, and John could see everything right there in Rodney's eyes.
John felt his breath catch again. It was like he was standing on the top of a precipice and any second he was going to step out over the edge…
Rodney leaned in, close enough that their lips were only a whisper apart. "I'm sure, John. I've never been more sure of anything in my life."
John had a moment's notice – a warm puff of air ghosting across his lips as Rodney exhaled softly – and then Rodney was kissing him, and he was over the edge and falling, and the rest of the world was just slipping away…
Rodney was kissing him – finally and perfectly – and it was hardly his first kiss but somehow it was… He struggled to keep his eyes from fluttering shut, but he couldn't help it – the touch of Rodney's mouth on his left him blind and deaf to everything else.
Rodney's lips were soft, pressing lightly at first and then with more force, and John sighed, opening his mouth and feeling a jolt of heat as Rodney's tongue slipped inside. He tilted his head and pushed closer, teasing at Rodney's tongue with his own and then sucking lightly.
Rodney groaned and slid his hands into John's hair, holding him in place as the kiss deepened, and John felt as if he'd been waiting his whole life just for this moment. Words like destiny and fate popped into his head and then he was laughing at how ridiculous he was, but he really didn't care because Rodney was still kissing him, and everything was all right.
"What?" Rodney asked, lips barely moving from John's mouth.
"Nothing," John sighed, pressing closer and wrapping his arms around Rodney's waist. "Just happy."
Rodney pulled away – just far enough to look at John – and smiled. "Me, too. In fact, I may have to redefine my whole understanding of the term."
"Really?" John drawled between slow, soft kisses.
"Definitely," Rodney said, "but you can't rush this kind of thing. I foresee a lot of intense research into the subject."
John laughed and nuzzled closer. "Sounds good to me."
"And you know that thing that you said before?" Rodney sounded a little hesitant. "Down at Gull's Nest? And then what I said, too?"
John could feel the heat of Rodney's blush, and he pressed his lips to his cheek, dropping kisses on the overheated skin. There was no reason for Rodney to blush – and then he got it. "Oh. That thing that I said about me being in love with you?" And okay, maybe John was blushing a little, too, and he buried his face in the soft skin of Rodney's neck.
"Hey." Rodney tugged on John's hair until he had to look up.
"Ow," John laughed and rubbed at the side of his head.
Rodney rolled his eyes and dropped a kiss to the offending spot and then his expression turned more serious. "Yes, that thing about you being in love with me, and I said that I was, too – in love with you, I mean. Anyway, I just wanted to say it again now that I'm not being accused of murder – so you'll know that I really mean it and so, ah…" He squared his shoulders and took a breath. "I love –"
John smothered the last word with a kiss; he couldn't help himself – Rodney loved him! There was no murder or police or anything else hanging over them any more – it was just the two of them, and Rodney loved him.
He pulled Rodney in, holding on tightly, and added his own promise to the kiss. "Me, too, Rodney. Me, too."
It looked like they were definitely falling together.
Epilogue ~ six months later
John stood by the tall window in the library and stared out into the night. The new house in Audley Square had a large garden at the back that ran down to the mews behind, and its screen of oaks and poplars made it unusually peaceful. It was a clear night but cold, and a thick shimmer of frost was blanketing the ground. There were still a few hours until dawn, but a movement caught his eye and he watched as a fox stalked silently through the bushes before vanishing into the depths of the shadows.
He was glad of the quiet.
Harwood would be hanged in the morning. There'd been no plea for clemency, and the execution was due to go ahead as planned. John couldn't feel any sadness for the man – Harwood was a cold-blooded murderer and still completely unrepentant. He'd killed Richard Woolsey without remorse and then tried to murder Rodney by proxy – so, no, he couldn't feel sorry that he was going to hang. He wasn't sorry for his role in putting the noose around Harwood's neck either. If he hadn't done what he had then maybe it would be Rodney standing on the gallows tomorrow.
He felt his stomach roll painfully, and he rested his brow against the smooth coolness of the window pane and took a few slow breaths. He didn't know why he was torturing himself like this – maybe it was penance for his part in another death.
Soft footfalls padded across the rug behind him and then Rodney was standing at his side.
"I thought I'd find you in here," Rodney yawned. His hair was pushed up on one side, and he had a pillow crease down his cheek. "What are you doing in the dark?" He moved closer and dropped his head to John's bare shoulder.
Rodney was like a wall of heat all down his side, and John shivered.
Rodney straightened up and put his hands on John's arm and chest, and John shivered again. "Oh my God, you're freezing! Look at you – what on earth are you doing down here in the middle of November in the middle of the night with the fire gone out and you just wearing pyjama trousers and nothing else? You haven't even got anything on your feet!" He untied the belt of his ratty, blue dressing gown and opened it up, wrapping one side around John's shoulders and pulling him in tight.
"Mmm, you're warm." He hadn't realised how cold he'd gotten just standing here for so long. He put his arms around Rodney's waist and snuggled closer.
"Yes," Rodney huffed, "because I'm not half-dressed, that's why." He rubbed his hands up and down John's arms. "You really are ridiculous, you know," he chided, but John could hear the fondness as he fussed. "I woke up and you were gone – what are you doing down here anyway?"
Rodney sighed and held him a little tighter. "About Harwood, I suppose. It's tomorrow, isn't it?"
"Yeah. I don't know – I just get kind of mixed up inside when it finally comes to it, and I can't switch off." John couldn't really explain it – not even to himself.
"I'm sorry that you had to get involved – for what it's doing to you." Rodney's voice was unusually gentle. "Part of me wishes that you hadn't…"
"God, don't say that." He didn't care what it cost him now; he could never regret what he'd done – not when it meant that Rodney was safe, and here with him. "Don't ever think that. It's just hard, you know? After the war, I thought that I'd be done with death, but it's like it keeps following me around." Though that wasn't strictly true – he did seek it out, too. He wasn't sure what that meant, exactly.
"It's lucky for me that it does," Rodney said softly. "Without you it would probably be me up there tomorrow."
John didn't know what to say. He shouldn't really be so surprised - of course Rodney had thought about it - but suddenly his throat felt tight and he couldn't squeeze any words out. He just tucked his head into the warmth of Rodney's neck and held on instead.
Rodney looked down at him, and there was that look in his eyes again, and it really was like he could see right inside his head. Maybe he could – Rodney seemed to have a knack of understanding John when no one else ever could. Somehow he just knew how John's brain worked – and his heart.
"And lucky for you that it's not me up there – lord knows what kind of scrapes you'd be getting yourself into without me to keep an eye on you," Rodney tutted, wrapping the dressing gown more securely around John's shoulders, but his eyes were filled with warmth. "I mean like right now – you'd be on your way to double pneumonia – or worse – if it wasn't for me."
John smiled, letting Rodney's words – and love – wash over him. What was done, was done – Harwood wasn't his concern any more and it was time to try and let it go. He had Rodney in his life and in his arms and that really was all that mattered.
"My hero," John chuckled, pressing a kiss to the soft skin of Rodney's shoulder, and then a huge yawn caught him off guard.
"Okay, your lordship," Rodney sighed. "Time to come back to bed."
John nodded, suddenly dead on his feet, and leaned more heavily into Rodney's side.
"Woah – definitely time for bed," Rodney laughed and took John's weight, steadying him and guiding him towards the door.
They passed Rodney's piano, and John ran his hand along the smooth, polished wood. "Play something for me? I love listening to you."
"It's three o'clock in the morning, John," Rodney said fondly. "We'll wake Lorne and Parrish and then there'll be hell to pay in the morning with disapproving stares and cold coffee."
John grinned but let Rodney steer him past the piano. "Come on – you know they're both way too professional for that. Though I think that Lorne has finally given up on ever making me behave with what he thinks is appropriate decorum. Not now you're here, too. You're a bad influence."
Rodney snorted and led them into the hallway. "I think Parrish feels the same way, but he's just resigned himself to me being completely untrainable. I imagine he cries inconsolably in the kitchen, and Lorne has to comfort him with tea and crumpets and the fact that at least we're as bad as each other."
"We're a sad loss for gentlemen's gentlemen everywhere," John agreed mournfully as they climbed the stairs.
"Luckily for you, you're the only gentleman that I'm bothered about," Rodney squeezed John's waist.
"Oh, really?" John lifted an eyebrow and leered suggestively, before ruining the effect by nearly falling over his feet as they got into the bedroom.
Rodney laughed and shook his head. "Though I use the term gentleman very loosely, of course."
"Well, take me to bed and we can see just how loose I can be – I'm known for my… flexibility." John batted his eyelashes and tried to look alluring but was caught by another huge yawn.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Bed - now that's a good idea. I wonder why I didn't think of that?"
"That's why you need me, Rodney – I'm full of good ideas."
Rodney just smiled and guided John over to the side of the bed. "I knew there must be a reason I kept you around. Now – into bed." He pushed at John's shoulders, and John fell back onto the mattress with an oomph. "And that's an order!"
John sprawled back against the pillows and looked up through his lashes, pushing out his bottom lip. "You know, I don't remember you being this pushy." It had become a running joke between them.
"Not the eyes and the pout, too," Rodney laughed. "And you really must be exhausted if you don't remember that." He leaned over and dropped a kiss to John's mouth.
"True." John pulled Rodney down for another kiss. "It is kind of who you are."
Rodney took off his dressing gown. "That's me - Doctor Pushy." He slipped into bed, and John slithered over and wrapped himself around him, throwing an arm and a leg over the solid heat of Rodney's body.
"Slinky," Rodney murmured and pulled the blankets up over John's shoulders.
"Lord Slinky," John smirked and pressed a kiss to Rodney's chest.
Rodney chuckled and put a hand to John's head, running his fingers through his hair, and John sighed and relaxed into his warmth. He could feel himself hovering on the edge of sleep, and it looked like any investigations into flexibility would have to wait for the morning. At least they didn't have to get up early.
"We don't have to start off until late, do we?" Rodney yawned, reading John's mind.
"Nah, we can leave it till lunch."
They were going down to Gull's Nest for the weekend to stay with Jeannie and her husband. Caleb Miller was Reverend Halling's nephew and a don at one of the smaller Cambridge colleges. He and Jeannie had met at one of Elizabeth's infamous tennis parties. It had been love at first sight, and they'd been married in the summer. John was happy for them, and despite his grumblings about his brother-in-law's field of study – Miller was a classicist – he knew that Rodney was, too.
"Good," Rodney murmured, sounding sleepy. "Plenty of time then…"
John listened as Rodney's breaths became heavier and slowly turned to soft snores. He smiled and snuggled closer.
Yeah, they had all the time in the world.