The sun filtered through the leaves of the trees on the ridge, and the only sound was birdsong. Well, birdsong and McKay’s put-upon sigh.
“What’s he doing?” Evan Lorne, the park ranger, whispered.
“He talks to them,” McKay replied, not bothering to lower his voice. “You get used to it.”
John kept his focus on the body. The man’s identity was unknown, his body pretty battered on the rocks at the bottom of the gorge. He was dressed for a hike through the woods – boots, cargo pants, one of those moisture-wicking shirts – but there was no backpack, no water bottle, no phone.
“Sergeant Sheppard –”
“He’s all yours, Doc,” John said. He stood back up to give Dr. Biro room and rubbed his hands on his jeans. “Ranger Lorne, what can you tell me?”
“I found the body at nine o’clock this morning,” Lorne replied. He had a boy-next-door quality that made him instantly likeable. “I was checking the trails and just happened to look down at the right time.”
“Did you find anything nearby on the trail? Backpack, maybe?”
Lorne shook his head. “After I called you, I checked the trail for a mile in each direction. I didn’t find any personal effects.”
“Dr. Biro. Time of death?”
Biro huffed. “I’ve been here five minutes, Sergeant.”
“I can work with an estimate.”
More grumbling. “This is only a rough estimate, but I’d say time of death was between two and six this morning. I’ll know more once I get him on the table, if you leave me alone.”
John let out a sigh and rejoined Rodney, who looked distinctly unhappy standing around in the woods.
“What do you think, McKay?”
“Can’t argue with that,” John replied good-naturedly. “Let’s get back to the station. Work on finding out who this poor guy is.”
The hike out of the gorge wasn’t easy, particularly since neither John nor McKay had hiking boots on. McKay ended up having to be hauled up with ropes, grumbling all the way about how much he hated nature.
John’s Galaxie was parked on a gravel pull-off at the head of the trail, gleaming in the sun. The leather seats would be nice and warm.
“Can you please spare me the Johnny Cash?” McKay pleaded. “I’m begging you.”
John obligingly pulled out the Folsom Prison 8-track cassette and replaced it with Jerry Reed.
East bound and down, loaded up and truckin'
Oh, we gonna do what they say can't be done
We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there
I'm east bound, just watch ol' Bandit run
“I hate you,” McKay sighed.
John just grinned and turned the car back toward town.
“Long way from home,” John said. “Do we know what he was doing in Fullwood?”
Aiden Ford was the youngest officer in the department and had unmatched enthusiasm. There was a gleam in his eye that John was only just learning meant trouble.
“The Janus Treasure. Has to be.”
Before John could ask what that was, McKay poked his head into the office.
“Hoax,” he said.
“No, it isn’t!” Ford protested. “My grandma said –”
“You can spare me the Grandma Ford stories, thank you.”
As much as John was enjoying the byplay, there was a dead man to consider. “Someone want to tell me about this treasure?”
Between Ford and McKay, John was able to get the basics of what seemed to be a local legend. Jackson Janus had been an adventurer and outdoorsman, and when he was given a terminal diagnosis, he decided his legacy would be a treasure hunt. He published the information in the local paper, including clues, and what started as a local hunt turned nationwide. Janus had hidden his treasure in the eighties and it still hadn’t been found, and the man himself had passed away, taking his secrets to the grave.
“Because it’s a hoax,” McKay said.
Before Ford could renew his protests, John broke in. “Ford, did you contact Paris PD?”
“I did. Talked to Detective Ely. He’s going to contact Mason’s family and see if he can find out any additional information.”
“Good work. McKay, any word from Biro?”
“Not yet.” McKay studied him. “You think it was foul play?”
John wasn’t sure. All he had to go on was his gut feeling, and his gut was telling him that a man wouldn’t be out hiking in the woods without a cell phone at the very least.
“I don’t want to rule anything out.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time a treasure hunter died,” Ford said. “The really obsessed ones put themselves in risky situations.”
McKay snorted. “People are idiots,” he said, heading back to his desk.
“What if we find the treasure during this case?” Ford asked excitedly.
“It’s not a case yet,” John reminded him. “Let me know when you hear back from Texas.”
“You got it, Sarge.”
Ford turned on his heel and practically marched back out to the bullpen. John just shook his head. He appreciated the enthusiasm, but he preferred McKay’s more no-nonsense attitude.
That wasn’t the only thing he appreciated about McKay.
John turned to his computer and pulled up Google. He wanted to find out more about this Janus treasure hunt.
Dr. Biro gave John a withering look. “Would you like me to show you my qualifications as medical examiner?”
John took a deep breath. He didn’t know how he and Biro had gotten off on the wrong foot, but they had, and he didn’t know how to fix it.
“I wasn’t doubting you, I just…What was the cause of death?”
Biro gently pulled up one of Farrell Mason’s eyelids. “Petechial hemorrhaging.” She pointed out bruising on the throat. “Indications of strangulation. Mr. Mason was asphyxiated. He was dead before he ended up in the bottom of that ravine.”
“Can you tell what he was strangled with?”
“I’m working on it. I’ll let you know when I have something definitive.”
John walked back to the police station, taking his time. His instincts had been right. Detective Ely from the Paris PD had confirmed that Mason had come to Fullwood in pursuit of the Janus treasure. Apparently, he and his family made a hobby of trying to figure out the clues, and Mason had saved up to conduct a hunt in person.
Solving Mason’s murder was going to require the help of John’s whole department. He’d only been in Fullwood about a month, and still didn’t know all the ins and outs.
“Hey, Sarge!” Emmaline waved at him from across the street and waited for a couple cars to go past before she ran over.
She was Ford’s cousin, a senior in high school and the one person John was learning knew literally everything about the town she lived in. She also had a signature style, today wearing bright purple overall shorts with a green fabric hem sewn around the legs, and a bright pink tank top.
“Hey, kid. How’s it going?”
Emmaline fell into step next to him. “Good. My summer job starts next week.”
“The old folks’ home, right?”
“Elder care community,” Emmaline corrected. “I’ll be able to spend more time with Miss Minnie before I go away to college.”
Miss Minnie was her great-grandmother, often spoken about but John had yet to meet her.
“I heard you found a dead guy. Was he murdered?”
John gave her a stern look. “You know I can’t discuss an ongoing investigation.”
“Ha. Murder. I knew it!”
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” John said. Not that it mattered, because Emmaline was far too smart for her own good.
“You should talk to Mr. Kavanagh. He can tell you everything about the treasure.”
John didn’t bother asking how she knew the death was related to the Janus treasure. He was learning that word spread fast in a small town.
“Who is he?”
“He wrote a book about the treasure. He owns the bookstore. Not very nice, but pretty smart.”
John made a mental note. “Thanks, kid.”
“Tell Aiden hi for me!” Emmaline gave him a wave and then diverted down a side street.
“He’s a supercilious asshole,” McKay said as John trolled for a parking spot near the bookstore. “Thinks he’s an expert on everything.”
“His book leans toward hoax,” John said. He finally found a spot and pulled in, making sure there was plenty of room between his car and the next one. “What do you think?”
“You already know what I think.”
“What do you think of Kavanagh’s book?” John clarified.
He and McKay got out of the car and headed down the street to the bookstore. It was shaping up to be a nice day, and John hoped it was a portent for how well the case was going to go.
“I think it’s garbage. He didn’t do any real research.” McKay’s body language and scowl were enough to show what he thought about that. “It’s all opinion and Kavanagh trying to convince people he’s smarter than he is.”
“Jeez. Don’t sugarcoat it, McKay.”
The building that housed Village Books had, at one time, been a modest food market. Someone had dressed it up to look like a quaint seaside cottage, with varying degrees of success. There was even a tinkling bell over the door that announced John and McKay’s entrance.
“Oh. It’s you.” The man behind the counter – thin face, glasses, dirty blonde hair in a ponytail, expression like he’d just sucked on a lemon – immediately dismissed them and went back to reading the magazine that was laid out next to the old-timey cash register.
Even if John hadn’t seen the man’s picture on the back of his book, he’d have known it was Kavanagh.
“Peter Kavanagh? Sergeant John Sheppard, Fullwood PD.” John flashed his badge. “Do you have a few minutes?”
Kavanagh sighed. “If it’s another complaint from Mary Graham, she’s clearly in violation of town statutes. I’ve notified the city council several times.”
McKay snorted. “I’ll bet you have.”
“We have rules for a reason,” Kavanagh said, glaring at McKay.
John ignored the byplay, pulling up a picture of Farrell Mason on his phone. They’d gotten it from his Facebook account.
“Mr. Kavanagh, have you seen this man?”
“Treasure hunter,” Kavanagh replied dismissively. “We get an influx every summer.”
“So you met him.” John had suspected as much. Anyone coming to Fullwood in search of the treasure would be likely be interested in chatting up the so-called expert on the subject. “What did you talk about?”
“The treasure, obviously.”
John could practically feel McKay quivering with anger next to him. He wasn’t all that thrilled with Kavanagh’s dismissive attitude either.
“Mr. Kavanagh, I’m investigating a suspicious death. So maybe can the sarcasm and stick to the facts.”
The man looked momentarily outraged before he visibly reined himself in.
“He came here four days ago to tell me I was wrong, that my book was wrong, and he was close to finding the treasure.” Kavanagh barely forced back a sneer. “They all say that. And they’re always wrong.”
They didn’t get much else out of Kavanagh. He didn’t know where Mason was going, or any details about the treasure or why Mason thought he was so close to finding it. He said he was in bed at the time of Mason’s death.
“What if someone does find the treasure?” John mused aloud as they headed back to the car. “Wouldn’t look good for the expert.”
“If you’re suggesting Kavanagh killed Mason, I’m fully on board and ready to stick him in front of a firing squad,” McKay replied. “The man is a pathological tattletale. Thinks he’s better than everyone else.”
“We’ll see what else pops up before we throw Kavanagh to the wolves,” John said, amused. His cell phone rang. “Ford. What’s up?”
We found out where Farrell Mason was staying. The Red Carpet Inn just outside town. Oh, and there’s a kerfuffle at Steven Caldwell’s place. Trespasser.
“Okay. McKay and I will head to the hotel. Have the forensics team meet us there. Can you handle this Caldwell business?”
“Thanks.” John ended the call. “McKay? What the hell is a kerfuffle?”
He had to deal with the kerfuffle before he could look through Mason’s effects properly.
“When I arrived on the scene, sir, Colonel Caldwell had Ms. Espinoza zip tied to his porch rail, and they were both screaming at each other,” Ford reported. “He accused her of trespassing. The thing is, the Colonel’s land abuts state land, and that piece of state land is reportedly part of the treasure trail.”
John frowned. The treasure again. “Another one hunting for untold riches? Put her in the interview room. I have some questions.”
“Odds are she knew Mason, at least in passing,” McKay said.
“Maybe she’s the one who tossed our guy in the gorge,” John mused.
McKay snorted. “You should be so lucky.”
“I didn’t know his stupid property line wasn’t part of the trail,” Deandra Espinoza said as soon as Ford brought her into the room. “But he didn’t have the right to tie me to his porch!”
“Have a seat, Ms. Espinoza,” John said.
“You can’t treat people like –”
“Sit down!” McKay snapped.
Ms. Espinoza dropped down into the empty chair, scowling. “I have rights.”
“And we’ll let you exercise them,” John assured her. “First, do you know this man?”
He showed her Mason’s photo.
Ms. Espinoza leaned over the table to get a closer look. John could tell she recognized him, but she sat back and shrugged.
“I don’t know. I might’ve seen him around.”
“Around where?” McKay asked.
Another shrug. “Just around town, I guess. Why? What did he do?”
“He died,” John said.
Ms. Espinoza visibly paled. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Did you know him?”
She shook her head and crossed her arms, and John knew they wouldn’t get anything else out of her about Mason. She also claimed to have been in bed during the time of death.
“You’re free to go, Ms. Espinoza. I’d recommend you stay away from Mr. Caldwell’s property. If he catches you trespassing a second time, you’ll be looking at a fine and possible jail time.”
John left her to Ford and had a few words with Caldwell. The former colonel, tall and bald and red-faced, wasn’t happy that Ms. Espinoza was being cut loose.
“I’m tired of all these damn treasure hunters tromping across my land!” He wasn’t much taller than John but seemed to tower over him, and John had to fight the old urge to snap to attention. “You better get your head out of your ass and start protecting the people that live in this town.”
“Pleasant guy,” John said, watching Caldwell storm out. “Almost makes you look like Mr. Rogers.”
“Don’t quit your day job,” McKay replied, but his mouth twitched up like he wanted to smile.
Three days ago, Mason had checked into the Red Carpet Inn after driving up from Texas. His travel itinerary had been confirmed by his family. That same day he met with Kavanagh at the bookstore for what was reportedly a brief but heated exchange.
Two days ago, he’d breakfasted at the Peaceable Diner, where he’d eaten a Western omelet with rye toast and chatted up the waitress, Lena, about the treasure, and tried unsuccessfully to get her phone number. Mason told Lena he had an appointment with Riley Marquardt later that morning.
Marquardt was a plumber who gave tours on his free time. It was called Treasure Tours, and according to his sketchy-looking website, he gave a detailed history of both Janus and the search for his treasure, with visits to all the hot spots. He was proving difficult to track down for an interview.
Mason turned up again for dinner at the local steakhouse, where he racked up an impressive bill for just one guy. His waiter, Conrad, recalled that it seemed like Mason was celebrating. He’d left an oversized tip.
After that dinner, Mason didn’t show up on the timeline again until he was found in the ravine.
“What do you think, McKay?”
“I think Metzger is right, and the reasoning to remove Pluto as a planet was based on outdated thinking and sloppy research.”
He said it so matter-of-factly. There was a lot more to McKay than met the eye, as John was discovering. It wasn’t the first time he’d displayed an interest in science and space.
“The case, McKay.”
“I think we don’t have enough information. I also think Marquardt needs to be brought in as soon as possible.” McKay tapped his pen against the side of his Star Trek mug. “He could’ve killed Mason on the tour.”
“Bad day? Too much caffeine? Who the hell knows?”
“My money is on Colonel Caldwell,” Ford said, offering his unsolicited opinion. “He hates the treasure hunters.”
John shook his head. “Big step to murder.”
“I assume a military man would be better at disposing of a body,” McKay added. “Don’t you have work to do? Leave the homicide investigation to the grownups.”
“Play nice, children,” John said, never taking his eyes off the murder board.
It was a puzzle with too many pieces still missing. He couldn’t make out the picture. Not yet, anyway. It would come together eventually, piece by piece.
“He was flaunting it,” John mused aloud. “He was telling everyone he was close to finding the treasure. Chances are someone killed him because they want the treasure for themselves, or they don’t want it found at all.”
“Or it’s completely unrelated,” McKay said. “We don’t know enough.”
Ford returned. “Sarge? They found Mason’s car.”
“More clues, McKay,” John said cheerfully. “Let’s go!”
Out in the moonlight
Just hoping you may be
Somewhere I'm walking after midnight searching for me
“You have abominable taste in music,” McKay grumbled. “Why can’t we ever take my car?”
“Because you have abominable taste in automobiles,” John replied with a smirk.
They were headed back out to Hammond State Park, where Mason’s car had been found parked out on a service road by hikers. Ranger Lorne was waiting for them, and John couldn’t help wondering if that was coincidence or something more suspicious.
“Long time no see,” John said.
“We’ve been short-staffed,” Lorne replied. “All the Rangers are covering more ground than we’re strictly supposed to.”
McKay shot John a look. “What can you tell us about the car?”
“A couple of hikers found it and reported it. It hasn’t been touched.”
“Brave guy,” John mused.
“How so?” McKay asked.
“He drove this piece of crap all the way from Texas.”
Although jalopy might have been a better word. The only things holding it together seemed to be Bondo and duct tape and a judicious application of bungee cords. The passenger side door was open.
John and McKay gloved up and searched the vehicle from engine to trunk. For as junky as it looked on the outside, the inside of the car was meticulously tidy. The glove box held an envelope containing insurance information, registration, and oil change receipts going back three years. The trunk yielded jumper cables, a roadside kit, a mostly empty bottle of washer fluid, and a milk crate full of every type of car fluid possible to purchase.
“Not so much as a stray French fry,” McKay said disgustingly. “Who bothers to keep a crappy car so clean?”
John felt frustrated too. “What was he doing out here? And who was he with?”
The passenger door being open indicated a passenger. Unless he’d pulled something out of the car on that side. Like the missing backpack.
“Hang on,” McKay said. “There’s something jammed in the ashtray.”
Ah. The elusive ashtray. John hadn’t thought to check for one, even though his own vintage car was similarly outfitted. McKay fished out a crumpled piece of paper.
“Three guesses who wrote this,” he said, smoothing out the paper on the hood of the car before holding it up.
PRIVATE PROPERTY. NEXT TIME YOU’LL BE SHOT ON SIGHT.
The words were written in thick, angry black marker. John only knew one angry and potentially violent homeowner in Fullwood, and that was Colonel Caldwell. They’d have to talk to him again, but that was something John was willing to put off.
“It’s getting late. There’s not much else we can do today.” John closed the car door. “Forensics is on the way for the car.”
Fullwood didn’t have their own forensics lab – the population was too small to support one – so they shared one with Millsburg. Somewhat inconvenient but needs must.
“I’ll keep an eye on it till they get here,” Lorne said.
John nodded his thanks and walked back to his own car with McKay. “Tomorrow we’ll talk to Caldwell, who had a run-in at least with Mason’s car, and then we’ll track down Marquardt and see what he has to say for himself.”
“More Caldwell. That should be fun.” McKay slid into the passenger seat and glared at the 8-track player. “If I have to listen to Patsy Cline warble all the way back to town, dinner’s on you.”
“So what do you do on your day off?” John asked over garlic knots.
“Read through cold cases.”
John frowned. “You relax from a week of policing with police work?”
“You’d rather I had picnics in the park?”
McKay made it sound both incredulous and stupid. John had been on a picnic a time or two, and they weren’t so bad.
“I’d rather you gave yourself a break before you burn out.”
McKay snorted. “I have a genius level IQ, Sheppard, and that’s not idol bragging. My mind needs to stay engaged so it doesn’t atrophy.”
“Maybe try reading a book?”
“And how do you relax?” McKay shot back. “Listening to your twangy country music and drinking beer?”
John leaned back in his chair. “Sometimes I watch the NASCAR,” he drawled.
McKay rolled his eyes. “It’s a wonder you can rub two brain cells together to solve a case.”
Well, that was flattering. McKay had been prickly and difficult since John’s first day on the job, and not much had changed. There was something else there, though, a softness that peeped out in rare, random moments. John had spent the last month getting to know the job and the town, but now he was ready to get to know the people he was working with.
“So what’s up with the Pluto thing? You into stargazing when you’re not reading cold cases?”
“What’s with the twenty questions?” McKay asked suspiciously.
McKay’s eyes narrowed, but he answered John’s question. “I have a degree in astrophysics, so yes. I do some stargazing. I have a state-of-the-art telescope, in fact.”
“Astrophysics. Impressive. So how’d you end up being a detective?”
“You buying me dinner doesn’t entitle you to know everything about my life, Sheppard.” McKay polished off the last garlic knot, right before their entrees were delivered.
“Ferris wheels,” John said.
McKay looked up from his ravioli. “Are you having a stroke?”
“I like Ferris wheels. So now you know something about me, too.”
“Ferris wheels and country music. Weirdo.”
But McKay had that almost-grin on his face again.
“Colonel –” John started to say.
“My property line is clearly marked. I have the right to defend what’s mine. And I’m tired of these treasure-hunting assholes digging holes day and night, and nothing coming of it.”
“Did you have direct contact with Farrell Mason?”
“Where were you between four and six o’clock this morning?” McKay asked.
“Sleeping,” Caldwell snapped. “Are you charging me with something?”
“Just asking,” John said.
“Then I’ll be going. You want to ask me more questions, you can go through my lawyer.”
Caldwell stomped out of the interview room.
“He’s an angry guy,” John said. “What do we know about him?”
McKay pulled up a file on his tablet. “Retired Air Force Colonel. Spotless record while he was serving, if you can believe the military. Which you shouldn’t. He moved to Fullwood five years ago, and he’s been harassing treasure hunters ever since.”
Caldwell certainly seemed angry enough to lash out and hurt someone. But to commit murder over something as minor as trespassing? John wasn’t sure he could see that, but he supposed people had been killed for less.
John and McKay went back to the bullpen, and John added Caldwell to the murder board under ‘persons of interest’. It was a short list, which included Deandra Espinoza and the still-missing Riley Marquardt. They had very little to go on.
McKay sat at his desk, tackling a deep dive into the internet to see what he could turn up on Mason and all the persons of interest. John stood in front of Mason’s map, which had been hung on the wall, trying to make sense of it.
There were some GPS coordinates, and symbols that meant nothing to John without some kind of key. There was a trail marked with pink highlighter. How much was park and how much was Caldwell’s property? John made a mental note to have Ford get that information from county records.
“What did you think you found?” John muttered to himself. “Why were you so sure?”
“It works better if you question the people who are actually alive,” McKay commented.
John ignored him. The dead had plenty to say, they just needed someone to listen.
“Sarge?” Ford came in with a folder in is hand. “Dr. Biro’s official report.”
“Well?” McKay asked, not looking up from whatever was on his monitor.
John did a quick scan of the paperwork. “Tox is clean, aside from an over-indulgence of rum the night before he died. Death by asphyxiation confirmed. Nylon fibers under Mason’s fingernails.”
There was a bright pink post-it stuck to the inside of the folder. Victim strangled with nylon mesh, approx two inches wide.
“Looks like he might’ve been killed with one of the straps on his own backpack,” John said. “If it’s the murder weapon, maybe that’s why it wasn’t left lying around.”
“Find the backpack, find the killer?” Ford asked.
“Fair assumption.” John tossed the folder on Ford’s desk, which was closest. “I need you to get me a map of Caldwell’s property. I want to know exactly what’s his and what belongs to the park.”
“On it, Sarge,” Ford said, practically snapping out a salute.
There were still too many questions. Where was Mason killed, and why? Where was the backpack? Where was Marquardt? No-one had a concrete alibi for the time of death, because it was reasonable to assume they were asleep in their beds.
“Got him!” McKay said.
“Who?” John moved around behind McKay’s desk and leaned over his shoulder. He smelled like coffee.
“I pulled footage from the ATM machine outside the bank, and the surveillance cameras at the hardware store, the liquor store, and the car lot.” There were a series of still photos on the monitor, and Mason was in all of them. “This is why we need CCTV, but no matter how many times I bring it up at city council meetings I get hit with civil liberty concerns. Which is all well and good until someone –”
“He’s coming from the restaurant, here. Heading to the Wormhole bar.”
John nodded and leaned in a bit more, so that he was nearly pressed fully against McKay’s back. “He must’ve paid cash.”
“The Wormhole was having a treasure night,” Ford interjected. “They have one every month.”
John looked up at him. “What’s a treasure night?”
“Anyone interested comes to the bar and there’s Janus Treasure trivia and people discuss their theories and stuff. It’s fun!”
“You need to move out of your grandmother’s basement,” McKay said.
“I don’t live in her basement!”
John rolled his eyes. “So, Mason went to treasure night. Where did he go after?”
“There aren’t any cameras at that end of the street,” McKay said. “The last image we have is the ATM camera, and it’s partially blocked by Greta Happe’s big head. But look.”
John looked. And behind Greta there were three people standing together outside the Wormhole: Farrell Mason, Deandra Espinoza, and Peter Kavanagh.
If Mason had been killed on the trail, there was no sign of it. And it was unlikely he would have been killed elsewhere and then carried up the trail. What had happened between the spot he’d parked his car, and the bottom of the gorge? Had Mason willingly walked with his murderer? Or had he been taken by surprise by a stranger?
There were no answers. Just the smell of pine and earth, and the sound of birds and the odd chattering squirrel. The forest wasn’t giving up any of its secrets.
John headed back to his car, his mind drifting to other things. Like Rodney.
Rodney McKay was a problem, and John wasn’t sure what to do about him. He was smart, good at his job, incredibly handsome, and ornery in ways that John found surprisingly entertaining. He was also John’s subordinate as far as the chain of command was concerned, which came with its own issues.
Not to mention the big question: was Rodney even into guys?
That was a mystery that would have to wait. John decided to head back to Fullwood via Caldwell’s place, just to take a quick look around. An inspired decision, since he arrived in the middle of what Ford would undoubtedly call a ‘kerfuffle’.
Caldwell was standing on his front porch, armed with a shotgun and a furious expression. Facing down those double barrels was a group of people made up of three men and two women, one of the men standing in front and yelling at Caldwell. Parked at the end of the driveway was a white Suburban emblazoned with ‘Marquardt Plumbing and Treasure Tours’.
John put a quick call into the station, requesting backup and McKay, before he eased out of the Galaxie.
“I warned you!” Caldwell shouted. “You must be stick stupid to come back up here, Marquardt.”
“This is still a free country, Colonel!”
“Thanks to men like me who went out there fighting for it! And this is still private property, so I’m well within my rights to do this!”
Before John could intervene, Caldwell turned the shotgun on the Suburban and fired, blasting the windshield.
“Colonel Caldwell!” John called out sharply, and immediately those double barrels were pointed at him. It took a lot of effort not to show his nerves. “Please put down the weapon, Colonel. These people are all unarmed.”
“I’ve filed over ten complaints against this asshole in the last year,” Caldwell said, swinging the gun back to Marquardt. “Your office did nothing, so it’s down to me to protect what’s mine.”
“You can’t protect it from a jail cell, sir,” John pointed out. Marquardt started to chime in, and John turned on him. “Mr. Marquardt, you are under arrest for trespassing, as well as a person of interest in an ongoing investigation. So zip it.”
When he turned back around, John saw that Caldwell had lowered his gun. He looked pleased, and maybe a bit smug. He was less happy when McKay rolled in with backup – officers Ford and Babcock – and Caldwell was arrested for unlawful discharge of a weapon.
“I see you survived your first kerfuffle unscathed,” Rodney said wryly after everyone had been removed to the police station.
“It’s been an interesting day,” John agreed. “You have any luck?”
While John had been taking a walk in the woods, Rodney had called around to the Wormhole with the picture of Mason, Kavanagh, and Espinoza.
“Elise Pine, the bartender, remembers the three of them sitting at a corner table and having a heated argument. She didn’t hear the particulars.” Rodney leaned against John’s car, arms crossed. “I took the liberty of paying Kavanagh a visit, too.”
“I’ll bet he enjoyed that.”
“He’ll be filling an official complaint,” Rodney said, his crooked mouth twisting up in an almost-grin. “Police harassment. But in between all the bluster and threats, he admitted to meeting up with Mason at the Wormhole.”
“He say what they argued about?” John asked.
They should’ve been headed back to town, to deal with Caldwell and Marquardt, but he didn’t mind having a little extra time alone with Rodney. Then again, Rodney didn’t seem to be in any hurry either.
“Kavanagh claims he doesn’t remember. He got drunk after and the whole evening is hazy. His words.”
John rubbed the back of his neck. That was convenient.
“I’d say Mason was bragging. He thought he knew where to find the treasure. Fancy dinner and everything.”
Rodney nodded. “Which would make Kavanagh’s book null and void. Enough to spark a fight, but enough to commit murder?”
“Motives only need to make sense to the people who have them,” John said.
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Yes, very wise. Let’s go. I want to talk to this tour guide, see what he has to say for himself.”
He slid into the passenger seat of John’s car, having gotten a ride to Caldwell’s with Ford. Which meant John could gleefully subject Rodney to more of his favorite music.
"I can see by your outfit that you are a cowboy."
These words he did say as I boldly walked by.
"Come an' sit down beside me an' hear my sad story.
"I'm shot in the breast an' I know I must die."
“You really are the worst,” Rodney grumbled.
Marquardt’s tour group were equal parts decrying their knowledge of being on posted property and demanding their money back. Marquardt and Caldwell were still shouting at each other. And Farrell Mason’s brothers had driven up from Texas, to officially identify his body and make arrangements to take his body home. Unofficially, they wanted to know who’d killed their brother so they could enact some retribution.
“Quiet!” John shouted. Everyone stopped talking and turned to stare at him. “Babcock, take statements from the tour group and send them on their way. Ford, show Colonel Caldwell to the holding cell and then give Babcock a hand. McKay, get a statement from the Masons and take them to see Dr. Biro. Mr. Marquardt, you’re with me.”
“The Colonel is a menace,” Marquardt said as soon as they were in the interview room. “He could’ve killed someone today!”
“You were trespassing,” John pointed out. “Caldwell’s property is clearly and extensively posted. The only thing he’s missing is a searchlight.”
“His property is part of the legend, and people want to see it. It’s not right for him to chase us away.”
“Which still doesn’t excuse you trespassing.”
“Yeah, but –”
John interrupted. “What can you tell me about Farrell Mason?”
Marquardt seemed momentarily stymied by the change in topic. “Who?”
“Farrell Mason. Four days ago he booked a spot on one of your tours.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
John pulled up the picture on his phone. “Farrell Mason,” he said again. “He was going around Fullwood bragging that he knew where the Janus treasure was to anyone who’d listen.”
Marquardt studied the photo. Or made a show of it for John’s benefit.
“Oh, that guy. He wouldn’t shut up. I mean, a lot of the treasure hunters come up here thinking they know, but he was real cocky about it. Kept bragging he was gonna put me out of business.”
And there was someone else with motive, however tenuous. Mason hadn’t made many friends in his short time in town.
“Do the tours supplement what you make as a plumber?” John asked. He couldn’t imagine it did, having paid for a house call or two in his time.
“It’s just a hobby, really. Everyone around here knows about the treasure. The smart ones, like Peter and I, just capitalize on it. The Colonel could be making some scratch of his own if he let my tours through. People pay to get close to the action.”
“How close to the action did Mr. Mason get?”
Marquardt leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. Defensive maneuvers 101. He was also starting to sweat.
“Standard tour. I took him around, showed him the hot spots.”
“I dropped him back at his hotel. I offer door to door service, you know.”
John asked a few more questions, but Marquardt didn’t have anything else to offer. And he stuck to his story.
“Can I go now?”
“I don’t think so,” John said cheerfully. “Pretty sure Caldwell’s going to press charges. You’ll be our guest for the next little while.”
Marquardt looked stricken, as if it was the first time he was hearing about the trespassing charge.
“I have work!”
“Not right now you don’t.” John got up and opened the door. “Sit tight, Mr. Marquardt. Someone will be with you shortly.”
Caldwell did indeed press charges, and then complained bitterly when John issued him a hefty fine for discharging his weapon at an unarmed Suburban. McKay got the Mason brothers sorted out and settled in at the Red Carpet Inn, with a stern warning that any vigilante justice would be swiftly punished.
All that and it wasn’t even lunchtime.
“Wonderful,” McKay said when John added Marquardt to the person of interest list. “We’re lousy with suspects, and not much else.”
John studied the murder board. “Maybe we’re looking at the wrong thing.”
“You thinking it’s not related to the treasure?”
John grinned. McKay really was a genius. It was nice working with someone who got on the same page as him so quickly.
“Maybe we’re too focused on the treasure. Could be another angle, something we’re missing. His brothers give you anything?”
McKay shook his head. “I get the impression the whole family is very tight-knit. And not very well off. Mason was going to use the treasure to help them all out. They all put in to send him here. Pretty stupid, pinning your financial well-being to a mythical treasure.”
“You prefer savings bonds?” John asked jokingly.
“No. I bury all my money in coffee cans in my backyard,” McKay quipped in response.
“Let’s call the Mason boys back in tomorrow. They might be our best chance at cracking the code on their brother’s map.”
Ford, who’d been at his desk on a phone call, stood up. “Sir! We may have found the backpack!”
“Everything inside and out has been sanitized,” McKay said disgustedly. “We’re not going to get anything useful.”
The straps were missing, cut off with surgical precision. And there was no way to know if anything had been removed from inside, besides the obvious absence of a cell phone. John had the Mason brothers in to take a look, but they hadn’t been able to help.
“Why return it?” John wondered aloud, looking at the contents spread out on Ford’s desk, everything individually sealed in evidence bags. “What message are they sending?”
“It’s a ‘fuck you’, obviously,” McKay said. “Same as with the car.”
John picked through the evidence bags. Water bottle, bug spray, trail mix, wallet with identification and ninety-seven dollars, county map, flashlight, folding shovel, bottle of ibuprofen, Houston Astros baseball cap, several used tissues, a pack of cinnamon gum, and a compass.
“This stuff is useless.” John sighed. “Just another dead end.”
“Cell phone could be something. I’m requesting calling records and text message detail from Mason’s service carrier.” McKay was tapping away at his keyboard. “There must be something damning on it to keep it from having been returned.”
“Why not just do a factory reset if that’s the case?”
“Maybe the killer couldn’t unlock it,” Ford said. “If they don’t know what’s on it, they wouldn’t chance returning it.”
McKay snapped his fingers. “Yes! You know, sometimes you demonstrate a glimmer of intelligence.”
Ford rolled his eyes. “Don’t strain yourself with the flattery.”
“So either there’s something on the phone, or nothing on the phone.” John knew which way it was probably going to go.
He was getting frustrated. They should’ve been able to make more headway on the case by now. Instead, they had a list of possible suspects with alibis that couldn’t be corroborated because of the time frame, one possible motive – the treasure – and no physical evidence.
“Don’t get pouty,” McKay admonished. “Your office.”
John didn’t care to be ordered around, but he followed Rodney back into his office, raising an eyebrow when Rodney closed the door behind them.
“I don’t pout,” he said, just to set the record straight.
“Tell that to your face.”
John glared. “Is there a reason we’re in here, McKay?”
“I ran a background check you didn’t authorized,” McKay said. “But I thought you should know about it.”
“The friendly park ranger.”
That took John by surprise. “Why did you run him?”
“You seemed a little suspicious when he was at the car. I thought it was worth looking into.”
“Did you find something?”
“Obviously I found something. Why else would I pull you in here?” McKay dropped down in the chair in front of John’s desk. “I may have done some hypothetically illegal hacking, so some of this is inadmissible.”
John sighed again. He sat behind the desk and propped his booted feet up on it. “Do I want to know?”
“Well, he’s ex-military for a start. Like you.”
“Please tell me you didn’t hack the US government, McKay.”
“I’m not that stupid, thank you very much.”
John was very glad McKay was working as a crime fighter, because otherwise he’d have made a formidable criminal.
“His military record is sealed, I assume because whatever work he did was highly classified,” McKay said in hushed tones.
“That doesn’t make him a homicidal maniac.”
McKay frowned. “I didn’t say it did, and don’t take it so personally. I know not all servicemen are crazy. Just most of them.”
“He’s on some pretty serious medication, including antipsychotics. And yes, I’m well aware that mental health issues also aren’t an indication of homicidal tendencies, but I think he should at least be a person of interest. He was the first one on the scene, and he got to the car before we did.”
John rubbed his hand over his face. “Lorne would’ve had to disclose his medical condition when he was hired to be a park ranger. And he’s been nothing but helpful so far.”
“Too helpful, maybe,” McKay said. “Look, I know he’s a nice guy, and you don’t want to think badly of a fellow pilot and everything, but he bears looking into.”
He was right. Lorne needed to be investigated the same as everyone else. John remembered his earlier suspicions about the man, though he’d done nothing that outwardly raised any red flags. Maybe it was all a coincidence, like Lorne had said. The park was understaffed, and he covered a lot of ground.
“If Lorne is involved,” John couldn’t help pointing out, “why would he have called in the body? He has full access to a wilderness area. He could’ve easily hidden Mason’s body and no-one would be the wiser.”
“People are stupid,” McKay replied. “If they weren’t, we’d be out of work.”
“Right. Okay, we’ll add him to the suspect list. Just…No more hacking, if you don’t mind.” John looked at his watch. “You want to grab dinner?”
That was a rhetorical question. McKay was always hungry.
“I was thinking I could grill a couple steaks.”
John and McKay had eaten together plenty of times, but always out in public. He’d never had McKay over to his house, and it was probably a mistake to do it at all, but John wasn’t getting anywhere with the case; maybe he could get somewhere with his personal life.
McKay gave him an assessing look. “I’ll bring some beer.”
Having McKay there made every space feel smaller.
“Housewarming gift,” McKay said, thrusting a small kraft-colored gift bag at him before wandering around the living area. “I’m going to assume none of this stuff is yours.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Too feminine. And there’s too much of it. You seem more like a minimalist to me.”
John huffed out a laugh. “I had no idea you were an interior decorator as well as an astrophysicist.”
He pulled an 8-track tape out of the gift bag and couldn’t stop the grin spreading across his face. “Star Wars?”
“Yes, well, I figured you’d prefer this to Beethoven’s piano sonatas,” McKay said with a shrug. “Now you can play something acceptable when I’m forced to ride in the car with you.”
“And here I thought you were starting to warm up to Johnny.”
The nervousness John had felt about having McKay over to his house melted away, and he was able to settle into the usual banter. Only this time it was tinged with a little extra warmth because of the more intimate surroundings.
McKay hung out on the tiny back porch while John grilled the steaks, nursing one of the bottles of beers he’d brought.
“I can’t see Kavanagh getting his hands dirty,” he said. “He’s an asshole, but the kind that tattles and lets someone else carry out the punishment.”
“Doesn’t mean he couldn’t have influenced someone else,” John pointed out. “Espinoza, maybe.”
“That only makes sense if Mason found the treasure and she killed him to steal it. But if that were the case, why keep poking around Caldwell’s instead of leaving town?” McKay gestured at the grill with his beer. “You can flip mine. I like it medium rare.”
John dutifully flipped the steak. “What about Marquardt?”
“The plumber? He rates high on the idiot meter but killing Mason doesn’t make much sense. He’s got a full-time job. The stupid tours are just a hobby.”
“Maybe,” John said, “but he didn’t back down from Caldwell when he had a shotgun aimed at his face.”
“Caldwell has the ability to kill someone, I have no doubt about that. He redefines the concept of anger issues. And he hates all the treasure hunters.”
Which left Lorne, who gave off a boy-next-door vibe.
“He has the least motivation for killing Mason,” McKay said. “Means and opportunity, yes.”
John pulled McKay’s steak off the grill. “Unless we get a confession, or a handy piece of evidence presents itself, we might not be able to solve this one.”
“You had many cases go cold?”
“Not when I could help it.” John pulled his steak and shut the grill down.
“Yeah. You don’t seem the type.”
When John made to go back inside with the food, McKay held his hand up.
“Listen, Sheppard. I don’t know what this is all about.” He waved his free hand between them. “I don’t know if you had ulterior motives inviting me here but –”
“I assure you, your virtue is safe with me.” John felt himself flushing, which added an extra layer to his embarrassment.
McKay raised an eyebrow. “Too bad,” he murmured, and preceded John back into the house.
Okay, that new information was helpful. John felt fully justified ogling McKay’s ass as he followed the man back into the kitchen. In one swift move, John set the plate of steaks on the counter and boxed McKay in against it, arms braced on either side of him. McKay didn’t look concerned by the turn of events, just looked back at John expectantly.
“We work together,” John said.
“We’re off the clock.”
“I’m your superior.”
“Only on paper,” McKay replied with a smirk.
John stared at his engagingly crooked mouth. “This could complicate things.”
“Probably.” McKay licked his lips with deliberation.
“I’m gonna kiss you.”
“About fucking time.”
As first kisses went, it was successful on all levels. McKay was an eager participant, setting aside his beer bottle to grab hold of John’s hips, pulling him flush against McKay’s body. There was no hesitation, no awkwardness, no knocking teeth or bumping noses.
McKay pulled back first, face flushed and eyes dark with lust. “Just so you know, I don’t put out on the first date.”
“Are we dating?” John didn’t wait for a response before he leaned in again, licking his way back into McKay’s mouth.
It had been a long, long time for him. Too long. All his nerve endings were tingling.
McKay poked him in the stomach. “You want to keep doing that, then yes. We’re dating. And I’d like to eat my steak before it gets cold.”
“Who says romance is dead?” John quipped. He stole one last kiss before he moved aside.
They kept the conversation light through dinner, nothing about work, and then McKay insisted he needed to go home.
“Sure you don’t want dessert?” John asked, waggling his eyebrows.
“How the hell are you in charge of anything?” McKay replied, though his lips quirked up in a grin.
“So what would a second date entail?”
“Set one up and find out.” McKay pulled John in for a brief but heated kiss. “Goodnight.”
As distractions went, it was successful in keeping John from thinking about the Mason case for the rest of the night.
“So what’s the game plan today?” McKay asked. “We do have other cases we need to work on, you know.”
“Homicide takes precedence,” John reminded him. “And actually, I have an idea how we might move things along.”
The idea had come to him in the shower, and he knew it was unorthodox. But it was better than the nothing they had at the moment.
“I’m not going to like this, am I?” McKay asked with a sigh.
“Well, get it over with.”
John pulled the pictures of their suspects off the murder board and tossed them on McKay’s desk. “I want to get them all up on the trail, where Mason was murdered.”
McKay studied the pictures before turning his piercing gaze on John. “You’re not Hercule Poirot, you know that, right?”
“We’re not getting anywhere talking to them individually. If we take them back to the scene of the crime, we can see how they feel about it, and how they interact with each other.”
It was a Hail Mary pass, no question. But John honestly thought it was their best option. He wasn’t letting Mason’s case go cold.
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.” McKay sounded disdainful, but the way his mouth was twitching said otherwise. “What are we supposed to do, ferry them all up to the park?”
“What’s up, Sarge?”
“Get Marquardt out of holding, we need him and his Suburban. I want it outfitted with a couple GoPros. I want eyes and ears on every seat.” To McKay he said, “We pile them all in and take them on a field trip. This’ll work.”
“You better hope so.”
It took a while to round everyone up. John made sure to keep them all separated from each other until it was time to leave. He also had Babcock call and request that Lorne meet them on the trail, under the guise of needing to consult him again about how he found Mason’s body.
John watched closely as all their suspects were brought out to the Suburban. He didn’t have to be an expert in facial expressions to see Caldwell’s anger at Marquardt, and Kavanagh’s suspicion of Espinoza.
“You said you did theater in high school, right?” he asked McKay. “This is gonna be fun!”
McKay shook his head. “There’s something really wrong with you.”
It was the perfect opportunity for the truth to slip out.
Lorne was waiting for them, eyebrows raising when he saw John had brought seven other people with him. It was the only surprise he showed, his expression returning to vague interest almost immediately.
“Morning, Ranger,” John said.
“Good morning,” Lorne replied. “Are you conducting a tour?”
“Something like that. Okay, everyone, gather around.” John clapped his hands to get their attention. “Detective McKay? You have the floor.”
McKay gave him a dark look as he stepped forward.
“As some of you may know, and one of you is intimately aware, this is the spot where we think Farrell Mason was murdered.”
John watched their suspects process that information. Marquardt looked interested, no doubt thinking about his tours, and Caldwell continued to look as murderous as he had when he’d been summoned for the excursion. Espinoza looked a little pale, but everyone else was maintaining a poker face.
“This is a waste of time,” Caldwell grumbled.
“Shut up. It was very early in the morning,” McKay continued. “The sun was just coming up. And Mr. Mason was hiking up this trail with his backpack, certain he was going to find the Janus treasure. He was confident. Self-assured. And then he met one of you on the trail.”
There was some head-shaking, and suspicious looks being shared among the suspects. Kavanaugh’s lips had pressed into a thin line and Marquardt seemed to finally realize he was being considered a murder suspect. Lorne continued to be a passive presence, watching with interest that may or may not have been feigned.
McKay, on the other hand, was really warming up to his presentation, and John had to forcefully keep his focus on the suspects.
“Maybe one of you followed him, wanting to track him to the treasure. Maybe you crossed paths coincidentally. But one of you met up with Mr. Mason on this trail, and his body ended up in the ravine below. Sheppard?”
John pulled a backpack strap out of his pocket, similar to the ones that would’ve been on Mason’s, and handed it to McKay.
“Ranger? Could you give me a hand with this next part?” McKay in turn held out the backpack strap to Lorne, who studied it for a long moment before taking it. “Good. Now, there was an altercation of some kind. An argument, maybe things got physical. Maybe Mason was pissed off that he’d worked so hard to solve the puzzle and one of you wanted to just swoop in and take what was rightfully his.”
Kavanagh snorted. “There’s nothing to take! The whole treasure is a fraud, any intelligent person can see that.”
“You’re a fraud!” Espinoza countered hotly. “I was there! You wanted to write another book, about Farrell and how he’d figured out the clues!”
John raised an eyebrow. That was an interesting piece of information. Kavanagh flushed, but didn’t deny the accusation.
“At least I was upfront about it,” Kavanagh shot back instead. “You were the one trying to romance the treasure out from under him!”
Espinoza tried to storm off, but Ford dissuaded her with a stern look and his hand on the butt of his gun.
McKay looked at John, a question in his eyes, and John nodded. Things were going along just as he’d hoped, and they needed to see it through to the end. Someone would crack and give themselves away.
“During the fight, one of you picked up Mr. Mason’s backpack and slipped the strap around his neck. Ranger?”
Lorne obediently stepped forward and put the strap around McKay’s neck, holding it there loosely in both hands.
“One of you strangled Farrell Mason, and then tossed his body into the ravine. It wasn’t planned, but it was murder. And his family deserves to know the truth.”
John turned away to look at the suspects, try to get a read on them, and in that quick second he saw widening eyes, and both is officers pulled their weapons.
Lorne was actively trying to strangle McKay with the backpack strap.
“Ranger Lorne, stand down!” John barked, pulling his own weapon. “That’s an order!”
Lorne shook his head, his expression a mask of anger and despair. “I didn’t mean to!”
McKay’s hands were scrabbling at the strap as his face turned an alarming shade of red. John hadn’t anticipated things would go so wrong, hadn’t considered Lorne a viable threat, and if anything happened to McKay…Well, he’d have to make sure nothing did.
“Major Lorne! Stand down! Now!”
Lorne immediately dropped the backpack strap and took a step back. He looked like he was trying to stand at parade rest, but his whole body was shaking, and tears were running down his face.
McKay was bent over, coughing and trying to pull in gasping breaths, but he gave John a thumbs up.
“I came up here to be alone,” Lorne said in a voice thick with emotion. “So I wouldn’t have to be around people.”
John reholstered his weapon. “And then there were cutbacks.”
“There was automatic weapons fire that morning. I heard it, I swear I did! The next thing I knew…this guy was dead.”
John felt an unexpected surge of sympathy for Lorne. Whatever had happened to him during his time in the military had obviously fucked him up. The meds alone were evidence of that. And he’d tried to keep people at arm’s length because he didn’t know what would set him off.
“Did Mason have a gun?”
Lorne shook his head. “No, sir. I didn’t find a weapon on him. But I heard it. I heard it.”
“We’ll get this figured out,” John promised.
He cuffed Lorne, read him his rights, and sent him back to the station with Ford and Babcock. He told the others to stay available, because he wanted their full statements this time, and not the abridged versions.
“You okay?” he asked McKay when it was just the two of them left on the trail.
McKay rubbed at this throat, which was red and still bore a faint imprint from the backpack strap. “I’ll live.”
John pulled him in and kissed him, hands fisted in McKay’s shirt.
“I’m taking the rest of the day off,” McKay said when they surfaced for air. He had his arms wrapped around John. “I need some hot tea.”
“Take all the time you need. I can wrap this up.”
When they drove back to, John put the Star Wars 8-track cassette in.
He and John were sprawled on McKay’s couch, having enjoyed both the pizza John had brought with him and the heavy petting that had happened after.
“According to the Mason brothers, it was a celebratory thing. They all have the same app on their phones. It plays different gun sounds.”
McKay nodded, his fingers stroking along the strip of bare skin beneath the hem of John’s shirt. “So he thought he found the treasure, but all he did was trigger the ranger into strangling him to death.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
John had returned Mason’s things to his brothers, along with an explanation of why their brother had died. Lorne made a full confession. He didn’t remember killing Mason, but he was prone to lost time as part of his PTSD. He’d only returned the backpack out of guilt, because he wanted the family to have it back.
“And the ranger?”
“He’s scheduled for a psych eval. His lawyer is going to recommend treatment in a secure psychiatric facility in lieu of prison time, with my support.”
“Champion of lost causes?” McKay teased.
“He was black ops,” John tried to explain. “He saw things, did things. Had things done to him. No-one deserves to have to deal with that on their own, not when they were just following orders.”
“Never thought I’d be attracted to a bleeding heart like you.”
“Hey,” John protested. “I have layers!”
McKay pushed his hand further up John’s shirt. “And I’d sure like to see them.”
Arousal hit John like a fist. “This our second date?”
McKay’s kiss was full of fire and promise, his wandering hands making John’s whole body flush hot.
“Let’s get complicated,” John murmured, and felt McKay’s lips curl up in a smile.
Life in Fullwood was about to get more interesting.