“Well, things aren’t looking so good for you, are they?” John asked, squatting down in the reeds by the riverbank.
“What the hell are you doing?”
John scratched the back of his neck. There were too many mosquitoes for his taste. “Just having a chat with Mr. Lasher.”
“You’re talking to the dead man.”
Detective McKay sounded derisive. In the ten minutes John had known him, he’d also been disgruntled, annoyed, and combative.
“Death is no excuse not to be friendly.” John drew out his natural drawl and threw in a smirk, just to see McKay’s already crooked mouth twist down even further. “So what do we know?”
“Suicide,” Sergeant Sumner said shortly. The only read John had gotten off him so far was anger and suspicion.
John looked up at the bridge that spanned the Peace River. Ironic name, under the circumstances. Suicide was certainly a possibility, but he didn’t like to make assumptions right out of the gate. At the very least, they needed to wait for the postmortem results.
“He could’ve fallen,” McKay said. “Cal Lasher was a drunk.”
“Are you done chatting with the corpse?” Dr. Biro, the medical examiner, had been standing by less than patiently while John examined the body. “I’d like to begin my examination.”
“Sure thing. Thanks.” John stood up, swatting at another mosquito. “Detective McKay. With me.”
McKay and Sumner exchanged a look. John outranked both of them, which was probably another reason they weren’t happy to have him in Fullwood. Well, John wasn’t there to make friends. He was there to possibly solve a murder and evaluate Sumner’s ability to do the job.
He walked off, heading back to his ’67 Galaxie. John wasn’t a sentimental guy, he didn’t keep things for attachment’s sake. The car, though. It had been his grandfather’s, and John had spent over a year restoring it. Two-door hardtop, in Tahoe Turquoise. He loved it like the child he never had.
“Is that an 8-track player?” McKay asked incredulously as he slid in the passenger side.
“Sure is,” John said proudly. He reached into the case in the middle of the bench seat and pulled out one of the bulky cassettes. “You like Country?”
John popped the cassette in, and it started in the middle of a song.
Then the sheriff said boy I'm gonna watch you die
Got 19 minutes to go
So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye
Got 18 minutes to go
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” McKay said, sounding horrified.
John just grinned, turned up the volume, and put his foot on the accelerator.
The son, Chad Lasher, who according to local gossip had borne the brunt of his father’s drunken rages for years. And who recently had borne the brunt of his father’s disapproval of his girlfriend.
Pamela Clifford, Chad’s girlfriend, who was being threatened by Lasher senior. She was a nurse at the local hospital and had been supplying Chad with Oxy, and somehow Cal Lasher found out about it.
Bette Marsh, Cal Lasher’s sister-in-law. Her sister, Eleanor, had been killed in an unsolved hit and run ten years earlier. She, like everyone else in Fullwood, seemed to be in agreement that Cal had been responsible for his wife’s death.
Ben Prescott, who may or may not have been having an affair with Eleanor Lasher and reported she’d come to him the night she’d died, bruised and afraid. He’d offered her sanctuary from her abusive husband, but she’d declined and walked back home. She never made it.
Sergeant Sumner himself was also a suspect. He’d bungled the investigation into Eleanor Lasher’s death, and it was entirely possible that he’d killed Cal Lasher as a twisted way of rectifying things.
Some cases were bare bones, no suspects at all. This one had an abundance of them. They needed to refine the timeline, re-examine the evidence, dig deeper. He knew from experience it would take just one thing, one small link, to bring the proper suspect into focus.
“Done,” McKay said, dropping a flash drive in John’s lap.
John had tasked him with going through the boxes of paperwork they’d taken from Cal Lasher’s house. It was an important, if tedious, task, but John wanted to see how McKay took direction and how efficiently he worked.
“That was quick. What’ve you got?”
“I scanned everything and created an algorithm to search common terms and flag them.”
McKay sounded smug, and well he should. It had taken him less than three hours to complete a job that would’ve taken anyone else days. John was impressed. Fullwood Police Station had a one-man tech team, one with a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue.
“Lasher was conducting his own investigation into his wife’s murder,” McKay reported. “And I hate to say it, but he was more thorough than this department was.”
“Not something a guilty man would do,” John mused, rolling the flash drive over his fingers. “Did he find out anything?”
McKay shook his head. “All we have are copies of his end of the correspondence. No replies. Sheppard…I know you think Sumner is too involved in this, but –”
“He’s dying, you know,” John interjected.
It was clear McKay didn’t know from the sincere amount of surprise that showed on his face. “What?”
“Cancer. I inadvertently found out when I was at the hospital talking to Pamela.”
Interesting that Sumner hadn’t confided in McKay. The Fullwood police department was small, and they’d have worked fairly closely together. If he hadn’t told McKay about his terminal cancer, it wasn’t likely that Sumner had told him about his possible involvement in the Lasher case, either. McKay hadn’t been on the force ten years prior.
Perhaps if he had been, the Lasher case would’ve had a totally different outcome.
“We’re missing something,” John said, getting back to the topic at hand. “You feel like taking a ride?”
“Not if it means more Johnny Cash music,” McKay said with a frown.
“How do you feel about Steve Miller Band?” John asked as they headed out the door.
“Humor me.” John patted the empty half of the blanket, grinning when McKay reluctantly lay down next to him.
The Peace River wasn’t very deep under the bridge, the water moving almost musically over and around the rocks. Lying on the bank where they were, John could see part of the bridge, some trees, and a decent sliver of the early evening sky.
“What’s the point of this?”
“The point is, at night there’d be an excellent view of the sky from this spot. Little ambient light.” John pulled up a photo on his phone. A picture of a photo, actually, one that he’d found at Cal Lasher’s house. “Cal and Eleanor, before they got married. Leonid meteor shower.”
The nice thing about McKay was how quickly his mind worked. He nodded thoughtfully.
“He was killed during this year’s meteor shower. That means something.”
“He also collected meteorites,” John said. “He’d have come here every year. Anyone who knew him well enough would know that.”
McKay studied the picture, his hand covering John’s to steady the phone. John ignored the buzz of electricity that moved up his arm at the touch.
“He doesn’t look like an abuser. They look…happy.”
“No-one ever looks like an abuser, McKay. Or a murderer.” But John had been thinking the same thing himself. Eleanor had never come forward to accuse her husband of abusing her. There were no hospital visits, no police reports.
“I’m not an idiot.”
“Never said you were.”
It was oddly companionable, lying there shoulder to shoulder. John chose to ignore the danger signs and just enjoy the moment.
John stared at Sumner in consternation. It was an unprompted confession. And it was impossible to catch him in a lie, because he knew all the details of Lasher’s murder. It was a bullshit confession; John could feel that in his gut.
McKay looked betrayed.
John had no choice but to put Sumner on ice in the cells.
“He’s covering for someone, McKay. I can feel it.”
“Bette Marsh? She’s done nothing but tell Sumner what a shitty job he did with her sister’s case.”
“Maybe he feels like he owes her.”
There were still too many unknowns. Chad had given Pamela a black eye when she cut him off from the Oxy; he clearly had anger issues. There was the issue of the missing coat that Eleanor had been wearing the night she was killed that had never resurfaced, a coat that had belonged to her husband. And the fact that a man who worked so hard to find his wife’s murderer clearly hadn’t killed her, like everyone in Fullwood had always assumed.
“We need to dig deeper.”
“I’ll go back to Lasher’s house,” McKay said. “He has to have responses to his letters there somewhere. I’ll find them.”
“Take an officer along,” John said.
McKay’s eyebrows went up. “I can handle myself, Sheppard.”
That earned him an eyeroll, but McKay pulled Officer Ford to accompany him back to Lasher’s house. And returned half an hour later with a file folder of paperwork and an encrypted CD that had been stashed under the floorboards. It didn’t take long for him to de-crypt the CD.
“I knew it! Let’s go, McKay.”
“She’s making a break for it!” McKay said.
“No shit.” John gunned it, the Galaxie chasing the Cessna down the runway.
“We’ll never catch her!”
“The hell we won’t.” John knew she’d have to turn the plane on the runway, take off into the wind. There was still a chance.
He pushed the Galaxie to the limits, and then spun the wheel, blocking the narrow runway. Bette was headed straight for them, but he was out on the tarmac, gun in hand, ready to play a game of chicken with her. McKay was using the open passenger door for cover, ready to provide backup.
“It’s over, Ms. Marsh!” John shouted. “Shut it down!”
He had a moment to doubt his plan, when the propeller got way too close to his person, but Bette finally admitted defeat and shut down the engine, glaring at John through the windshield.
That was the end of it. Bette admitted to killing her sister, albeit accidentally. She’d come home early from an out-of-town conference and saw who she thought was Cal walking down the road in the dark in his distinctive jacket. When she’d realized her tragic mistake, she took the coat and disposed of it, hoping the blame would fall on Cal.
She’d killed Cal as well, after he’d finally gotten confirmation of his suspicions regarding Eleanor’s death and called Bette to let her know the jig was up, claiming to finally get justice for the way he’d treated her sister. Only she found out during the course of the investigation that her hot-headed nephew Chad, not her brother-in-law, had been responsible for the abuse, for Eleanor’s bruises and her fear.
Bette had done it all for nothing.
“You’re smarter than you look,” McKay conceded. “It wasn’t terrible, working with you.”
John saluted him with his bottle before taking a long swig.
“So what’s next for the intrepid Sheppard, righter of wrongs?” McKay asked.
That was something John had been thinking long and hard about all during the Lasher case. He’d come to Fullwood to find out if Sumner needed to be relieved of duty, but the truth was he was also at a kind of crossroads. He’d been getting burnt out in the city and he was looking for a change.
Fullwood, and possibly Detective Rodney McKay, might be just the change he was looking for.
“I thought I might stick around,” John said casually. He watched McKay out of the corner of his eye, saw the way McKay ducked his head to hide his grin. “There’s an opening in the department, after all.”
Sumner was retiring. His life expectancy was short anyway, and now his record wouldn’t be tarnished by his involvement – or lack thereof – in the Lasher case.
“Be a big change, leaving the city,” McKay said.
John bumped him with his shoulder. “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
“That’s pretty deep for someone with such ridiculous hair, and a physically painful taste in music.”
But McKay looked pleased, and he ordered the next round of drinks.
John was pretty sure he was going to like living in Fullwood.