"[McMahon] tells his story with flair."New York Times Book Review
The author of The Good Detective delivers a gripping and atmospheric new novel in which a cop takes on a harrowing case and confronts old personal demons.
What if the one good thing you did in your life doomed you to die?
A hard-nosed real estate baron is dead, and detectives P.T. Marsh and Remy Morgan learn there's a long list of suspects. Mason Falls, Georgia, may be a small town, but Ennis Fultz had filled it with professional rivals, angry neighbors, and a wronged ex-wife. And when Marsh realizes that this potential murder might be the least of his troubles, he begins to see what happens when ordinary people become capable of evil.
As Marsh and Morgan dig into the case, it becomes clear that Fultz's death was not an isolated case of revenge. It may be part of a dark web of crimes connected to an accident that up-ended Marsh's life a couple years earlierand that now threatens the life of a young child. Marsh veers dangerously off track as his search for clues becomes personal..and brings him to a place where a man's good deeds turn out to be more dangerous than his worst crimes.
About the Author
John McMahon is the author of The Good Detective. In his role as an ad agency creative director, he has won a Gold Clio for his work on Fiat, and he's written a Superbowl spot for Alfa Romeo. He currently lives in Southern California with his family and two rescue animals.
Read an Excerpt
The little girl knew things.
Her mother said it was because she was a good listener. Not just to the words that adults said, but to the words "in between the words."
The girl noticed small facial contours that telegraphed an adult's lie. She tracked changes in the music and cadence of a voice, like when someone left the room and those remaining decided that enough time had passed and it was safe to talk about that person.
But mostly-she'd just always known more than girls her own age.
At her old public school, the teachers had moved her ahead one grade. Then another.
The school recommended a third, but her mother said it was unnatural for an eight-year-old to be in junior high, especially with how petite she was.
And so the girl had easily noticed the car that had been following them.
A Toyota truck.
White, with one headlight out.
Her father had changed lanes twice in the last ten minutes, and still the white truck remained behind them. Hanging back by ten or twelve car lengths.
The girl sat in the back of her family's Hyundai, playing Minecraft on her iPad.
She had calculated that she would need one thousand planks of wood to build the house she wanted in the video game. And she knew that each oak log produced four planks, so she set out to cut down two hundred and fifty pieces of oak. A simple task, all thumbs and fingers.
That was when the truck began accelerating.
Eight car lengths back.
Six car lengths.
The driver made a strange move then, speeding up, yet leaving the road and driving onto the shoulder. And it didn't make sense to the girl. Until the front left corner of the Toyota swerved in and made contact with the back right corner of her family's car.
Her world spun.
She saw the dark shortleaf trees of the Georgia forest at the roadside. A glimpse of the Tullumy River, far down the incline. And the metal of an oncoming guardrail.
Her mother screamed. The girl was thrown against her window. And then there was one last image.
The face of the man in the Toyota.
Focused and steady. Not at all panicked. Staring right at her.
And then her family's car lurched off the road.
My finger tapped the trigger on my Glock 42, and four rounds of .380 flew through the air.
Pop, pop, pop, pop. All before I could let out my first breath.
It was a Tuesday morning in May, and my partner, Remy Morgan, and I were in the Georgia Safe, a gun range three miles east of Mason Falls.
I took off my brown sport coat and hung it over the divider wall between me and Remy. Placed my gun atop the small weapons ledge, pointing down-range.
Through the open air, I could smell scrambled eggs and chicken-fried steak, floating over from the gun range's office. The owner, a retired patrolman named Cooz, had never met a gravy dish he didn't like. He had the figure to prove it.
"So, Rem," I said. "You never told me about your date."
Remy was dressed in one of her go-to outfits: tan pants and an ironed white blouse that contrasted with her dark brown skin. She wore bookish glasses, which I've always thought was a ploy to play down her good looks.
"Saturday?" She shrugged. "We went to Forest Oaks."
I glanced at my partner. Mounted a new target in my lane and hit the button to send it away. "He took you to a cemetery?"
Remy hung her target in the next lane over. "We saw Blade Runner, P.T. They show old movies there. It's a thing."
There were a lot of things that were things now, but I didn't know a thing about them. Maybe that was me, not wanting to get used to what passed for my new life. My life since my wife and son were gone.
I loaded a magazine into my Glock. "We don't go to the morgue enough times a year? You gotta visit gravesites for date night?"
Remy rolled her eyes. My partner was twenty-six, more than ten years younger than me. "Don't be an old man, P.T."
She put cans on her ears, and slammed the six-bullet magazine into her weapon. "Plus, old people usually aren't good shots," she hollered. "The eyes start to go."
I grinned. "We betting on this? 'Cause as far as I can remember, your partner's still the best shot in the department."
My cell buzzed in my pocket, and I took it out. Typed a quick response to the message and put the phone away.
"Loser buys dinner," Remy mouthed. "Best out of twenty? Four rounds of five?"
I got into a fighting stance and aimed my Glock 42 at the target. My partner can be a little chesty sometimes. The kinda person who can start an argument in an empty house. Then again, that's what I like most about her.
I tapped-one, two, three, four, five. Hit the return and faced Remy, not even looking as the paper target came back.
"I like steak places, you know," I said. "Expensive steak places."
The paper target stopped, and I lifted a corner of the printed silhouette. "Five out of five, rook."
Remy wasn't a rookie detective anymore. Which was why I said it.
She placed her right foot toward the back of her lane and extended her right arm straight. Her left arm supported it with a bent elbow. This was a different shooting stance than mine. It was called the Weaver and was taught to cadets in the last decade.
Remy threw her hair out of the way, over her left shoulder. My partner had the sculpted cheekbones, dark skin, and wavy curls of a fashion model. She exhaled and took aim, letting out five quick blasts. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.
She hit the return button with her open palm, and the target drifted toward us. "Tofurkey," she said.
The corners of the paper fluttered in the air-conditioning inside the range.
"Tofurkey?" I mouthed.
Five out of five shots were in the center of Remy's target. Two were inside a white area called the "inner ten." The center of the center.
Remy inspected her own results. First round in the books, and we were even.
"There's a really good vegan place off 85," she hollered at me. "When I beat your ass, we'll drive down there. Great tofurkey."
My phone buzzed again, and I glanced at the screen. Scanning the two texts sent to me in the last few minutes. My partner wasn't even vegan. She was just busting my balls.
"Rain check." I held up my phone, showing Remy a text from the chief.
We packed up and hurried outside. And I squeezed my six-foot-two frame into Remy's red '77 Alfa Romeo Spider.
My name is P. T. Marsh, and Mason Falls, Georgia, is my town. Lately we top out at a little under 130,000 souls. It's that interesting size-small enough for families to feel like they've escaped the sprawling urban buzz that is Atlanta, but large enough to keep a four-detective homicide squad overworked and underpaid.
"What does it say?" Remy motioned at my cell.
"To drop the rookie off. Despite her shooting skills, grab a more experienced detective."
Remy shot me the bird with her free hand, and I glanced down at my cell.
"Chief Pernacek has a friend," I said.
Remy smiled. "It's good he's making friends."
Jeff Pernacek had become chief of police back when I was a rookie, but had retired about a decade ago. With our recent chief having left office, Mayor Stems had called Pernacek back in as the interim boss.
"Is his friend dead?" my partner asked.
While Remy's point was that we worked homicide, it was also true that Pernacek had reentered the department with a specific opinion: that we'd become sloppy in his absence. We needed orders, and a lot of 'em.
When I saw his first text, asking if we could drop by a citizen's house to do a welfare check, I'd typed back a short note.
"Did you tell him we were getting weapon certs renewed?"
"I did," I said. Staring at my text exchange with the chief.
"What'd he say back?"
I showed Remy the chief's response, which was three words:
Order equals structure.
Which meant: Do what the hell I say-even if you think I'm sending you on some boondoggle errand.
Remy put her foot to the floor, and out the window a forest thick with loblolly pines flew by. In the foreground, weedy green kudzu climbed out of the Georgia mist, covering the pine trees like an old sock.
While she drove, I rang up the chief, who told me that a close friend hadn't shown for a monthly bridge game.
"Before you make some smartass remark, P.T.," Pernacek said, "it's worth noting that the mayor and I have played bridge with Ennis Fultz for ten years. Same restaurant. Second Tuesday of every month."
"And he's never missed one?"
"Not without calling," Pernacek said. "But Ennis can be a little eccentric, so I don't want to send some blue-suiter I don't know."
"Sure," I said.
The interim chief was a political animal of a specific type. When the mayor said "frog," he jumped. But it was good to be trusted by the chief. A quick welfare check, and we'd be back at the range.
Ten minutes later we exited SR-906, and my partner accelerated up a gravel road that was never intended for a late '70s Italian sports coupe.
"Well, we're not in the middle of nowhere," I said.
"But we can see it from here." Remy finished my thought.
She slowed, and the dust caught up to us like a tan canopy. Through the haze, a home came into view.
The house was two-story and custom-built, constructed log-cabin style, out of red oak. But the way it was positioned was odd. Unless I had the geography wrong, the Condesale Gorge was two hundred feet to the north and offered a gorgeous and expensive view.
But whoever had built this place had made a decision to face the road.
We parked in a gravel area out front and got out. Knocked on a large wooden door.
"What's his name again?" Remy asked.
"Ennis Fultz," I said.
I scanned the trim line of the house. No security system. No doorbell with built-in camera. And no gate coming off the highway and onto Fultz's giant plot of land.
I walked back to the gravel area where the Alfa was parked while Remy headed around back. East and west of the house stood a line of ponderosa lemon trees with green branches and waxy white blooms. Beyond them, the forest grew thick for half a mile in each direction, curving with the natural topography of the gorge.
"P.T.," Remy hollered.
I rounded the corner of the house and glanced up. A stairwell ran up to a small second-floor landing, where my partner crouched.
"Come look at this."
I walked up the steps and found Remy by a second-story back door. Her fingers ran along the wood near the doorknob.
The molding had been torn apart, a slice made in between two pieces of wood. It was a common way to break in, using something simple, like a painter's five-in-one tool.
I banged on the back door. "Mr. Fultz?"
A couple hundred feet behind us, the land curved down at a slight angle at first, and then dropped precipitously into the canyon.
"It's not exactly exigent circumstances," Remy said.
Sure, I thought. But the chief had been calling his buddy all morning.
I held the doorknob at the edges and turned. The place was unlocked.
"Mr. Fultz?" I called out.
I took a few steps inside a home office. The place was wall-to-wall wood, ornately carved from oak and stained an espresso color. A box beam ceiling. Built-in desk and cabinet.
I passed through the office and onto a second-floor landing. A large open space was downstairs. A combined kitchen and living area with no expense spared. A Sub-Zero fridge. A Wolf range.
As I turned back to Remy, I saw the door to the other upstairs room was ajar.
A man who looked to be in his late fifties lay there, buck-naked and faceup on a king-sized bed. His freckled skin was the color of an iridescent pearl.
"Damn it," I whispered. Not looking forward to a call to the chief.
I walked outside and shook my head at Remy.
"Bullshit," my partner responded. The day had started pretty lighthearted, and now that was over. A man was dead.
I called up the precinct. "Put me through to the chief."
While I waited on hold, we walked back down the stairs and around to the front. In the distance, dust kicked up into the air. A car was coming.
"You expecting someone already?" Remy asked.
I shook my head, holding the phone to my ear.
The car slowed as it got closer. It was an old beater from the late '90s. A faded yellow Mazda Protégé.
Chief Pernacek came on the line. "What is it?" he said curtly, as if he'd forgotten why he sent us here.
"Jeff," I said, "I hate to tell you this. But we're out at the gorge. Your friend is dead."
According to DMV records, Ennis Fultz was sixty-eight, a good decade older than I'd guessed from the brief glimpse I'd caught of him upstairs.
By ten a.m., a squad car had parked in the open gravel area next to Remy's Alfa and the yellow Mazda. As did a white van that read Medical Examiner on the side.
As it turned out, the Mazda that drove up belonged to Fultz's cleaning lady, a redhead in her late fifties named Louise Randall. She went by the name Ipsy.
Sarah Raines, the local M.E., hustled up the steps with her gear, and Remy opened the front door for her. Sarah was dressed in a bulky one-piece disposable jumper that matched her blue eyes but didn't do much for her thin figure.
"Morning," she said to me and Remy, her eyes hanging on me. Sarah and I had been seeing each other for about five months.
We moved inside, heading up to the bedroom, where I got my second look at Ennis Fultz. He was five foot ten with short white hair and two days of growth on his face. A sheet covered half his body, but his upper frame was muscular, his biceps and chest toned.
We took pictures of the body, circling the bed to see the victim from each angle.