A Merciful Death – Kendra Elliot

Mercy Kilpatrick wondered whom she’d ticked off at the Portland FBI office. She stepped out of the car and walked past the two Deschutes County Sheriff SUVs to study the property around the lonely home in the wooded east-side foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Rain plunked on Mercy’s hood, and her breath hung in the air. She tucked the ends of her long, dark curls inside her coat, noting the large amount of debris in the home’s yard. What would appear to be a series of overgrown hedges and casual piles of junk to anyone else, she immediately identified as a carefully planned funneling system. “What a mess,” said Special Agent Eddie Peterson, who’d been temporarily assigned with her. “Looks like a hoarder lives here.” “Not a mess.” She gestured at the thorny hedge and a huge rusted pile of scrap metal. “What direction do those items make you want to go?” “Not that way,” stated Eddie. “Exactly. The owner deliberately piled all his crap to guide visitors to that open area in front of the house, stopping them from wandering around to the sides and back. Now look up.” She pointed at a boarded-up window on the second story with a narrow opening cut into its center. “His junk positions strangers right where he can see them.

” Eddie nodded, surprise crossing his face. Ned Fahey’s home had been hard to find. The dirt-and-gravel roads weren’t labeled, and they’d had to follow precise, mileage-based directions given to them by the county sheriff to find the house hidden deep in the forest. Mercy noted the fireproof metal roof and the sandbags stacked six feet high against the front of the house. The tired-looking cabin was far from any neighbors but close to a natural spring. Mercy approved. “What’s with the sandbags?” Eddie muttered. “We’re at an elevation of four thousand feet.” “Mass. Mass stops bullets and slows the bad guys.

And sandbags are cheap.” “So he was nuts.” “He was prepared.” She’d smelled a light odor of decay in the yard, and as she climbed the porch steps to the house, it slapped her full in the face. He’s been dead several days. A stone-faced Deschutes County deputy held out a log for her and Eddie to sign. Mercy eyed the deputy’s simple wedding ring. His spouse would not be happy when he arrived home with corpse scent clinging to his clothes. Next to her, Eddie breathed heavily through his mouth. “Don’t puke,” she ordered under her breath as she slipped disposable booties over her rubber rain boots.

He shook his head, but his expression was doubtful. She liked Eddie. He was a sharp agent with a positive attitude, but he was a young city boy and stood out here in the boonies with his hipster haircut and nerdy glasses. His expensive leather shoes with the heavy treads would never be the same after the mud in Ned Fahey’s yard. But they looked good. Used to look good. Inside the house, she stopped to examine the front door. It was steel. The door had four hinges and three dead bolts; the additional bolts were positioned near the top and bottom of the door. Fahey had built an excellent defense.

He’d done everything right, but someone had managed to break through his barriers. That shouldn’t have happened. Mercy heard voices upstairs and followed. Two crime scene techs directed her and Eddie down the hall to a bedroom at the back of the house. An increasing buzzing sound made Mercy’s stomach turn over; it was a sound she’d heard about but never experienced for herself. Eddie swore under his breath as they turned into Fahey’s bedroom, and the medical examiner glanced up from her inspection of a bloated body on the bed. Mercy had been right about the source of the noise. The room vibrated with the low roar of flies that had discovered the corpse’s orifices. She avoided looking closely at the distended belly that strained the buttons of its clothing. The face was the worst.

Unrecognizable behind the black screen of flies. The medical examiner nodded at the agents as Mercy introduced herself and Eddie. Mercy guessed the medical examiner wasn’t much older than she. She was tiny and trim, making Mercy feel abnormally tall. Dr. Natasha Lockhart introduced herself, peeled off her gloves, and laid them on the body. “I understand he was known to the FBI,” she said, lifting a brow. “He’s on the no-fly list,” Mercy said. The list was one of a few the FBI used for its terrorism persons to watch. Ned Fahey had been on it for several years.

The corpse on the bed had a history of brushes with the federal government. Sovereign citizens and right-wing militia types were his preferred company. From the reports Mercy had read on the long drive from Portland, she gathered that Fahey had talked the talk but had been unable to walk the walk. He’d been arrested several times for minor destruction of federal property, but someone else had always been the ringleader. Fahey’s criminal charges had seemed to slide off him as if he were coated in Teflon. “Well, someone decided they no longer needed Mr. Fahey around,” said Dr. Lockhart. “He must have been a sound sleeper to not hear our killer enter his house and place a weapon against his forehead.” “Against?” Mercy asked.

“Yep. Even under all the flies, I can see the tattooing of the gunpowder in the skin around the entry hole. One nice hole in and one out. Through and through. Lots of power behind the round for it to go through that cleanly.” Dr. Lockhart grinned at Eddie, who swayed slightly as he stood by Mercy. “The flies brush away easily enough. For a moment.” “Caliber?” Eddie asked in a strangled voice.

Dr. Lockhart shrugged. “Big. Not a puny twenty-two. I’m sure you’ll find the bullet burrowed in something below.” Mercy stepped forward and squatted next to the bed, shining a flashlight underneath, intending to see if the round had gone into the floor, but the space under the bed was crammed with plastic storage containers. Of course it is. She glanced around the room, noticing the heavy-duty trunks stacked neatly in each corner. She knew exactly what the closets would look like. Floor-to-ceiling storage neatly labeled and organized.

Fahey lived alone, but Mercy knew they’d uncover enough supplies to last a small family through the next decade. Fahey wasn’t a hoarder; he was a prepper. His life centered on being prepared for TEOTWAWKI. The end of the world as we know it. And he was the third Deschutes County prepper to be murdered in his own home over the last few weeks. “Did you handle the first two deaths, Dr. Lockhart?” she asked. “Call me Natasha,” she said. “You mean the other two prepper murders? I responded to the first, and an associate went to the second. I can tell you the first death wasn’t nice and neat like this.

He fought for his life. Think they’re connected?” Mercy gave a smile that said nothing. “That’s what we’re here to find out.” “Dr. Lockhart’s damned right about that first death,” said a new voice in the room. Mercy and Eddie turned to find a tall, angular man with a sheriff’s star studying both of them. His gaze grew puzzled as it lingered on the thick frames of Eddie’s black glasses. No doubt the residents of Deschutes County didn’t see a lot of hip 1950s throwbacks. Mercy made introductions. Sheriff Ward Rhodes appeared to be in his sixties.

Decades of sun exposure had created deep lines and rough patches on his face, but his eyes were clear and keen and probing. “This room looks like a tea party compared to the scene at the Biggs murder. That place had a dozen bullet holes in the walls, and old man Biggs fought back with a knife.” Mercy knew Jefferson Biggs had been sixty-five and wondered how he’d earned the title of old man from this sheriff who was in the same age group. Probably an indication of Biggs’s get-of -my-lawn attitude more than his age. “But none of the homes—including this one—showed forced entry, correct?” asked Eddie politely. Sheriff Rhodes nodded. “That’s right.” He scowled at Eddie. “Anyone ever tell you that you look like James Dean? With glasses?” “I get that a lot.

” Mercy bit her lip. Eddie claimed to be surprised by the comparison, but she knew he liked it. “But if there’s no forced entry here, and Ned Fahey was asleep,” she said, “then someone knew how to get inside the house or was also sleeping in the house.” “He’s wearing pajamas,” agreed Dr. Lockhart. “I don’t know the time of death yet. The putrefaction is very progressed. I’ll know more after lab tests.” “We examined the house,” said Sheriff Rhodes. “There’s no sign that anyone was sleeping here or of any forced entry.

There’s another bedroom, but it doesn’t look like it’s been slept in for a few decades. The sofa downstairs doesn’t have any pillows or blankets to indicate that someone else was here.” He paused. “Front door was wide open when we got here.” “I take it Ned Fahey was the type to keep his doors locked tight?” Mercy asked half in jest. The short walk through the house had shown her a man who took home defense very seriously. “Who reported his death?” “Toby Cox. He gives Ned a hand around here. Was supposed to help Ned move some wood this morning. He said the door was open and when he saw the situation he called us.

I sent him home a few hours ago. He’s not quite right in the head, and this shook him up something fierce.” “You know most of the local residents?” Mercy asked. The sheriff shrugged. “I know most. But who can know everyone? I know the people I know,” he said simply. “This home is far from any city limits, so whenever Ned had an issue, he called us at the county.” “Issue? Who’d Ned have problems with?” Mercy asked. She understood the politics and social behaviors of small towns and rural communities. She’d spent the first eighteen years of her life in a small town.

The residents tried to make everyone’s business their own. Now she lived in a large, urban condo complex where she knew two of her neighbors’ names. First names. She liked it that way. “Someone broke into a couple of Ned’s outbuildings one time. Stole his quad and a bunch of fuel. He was pretty steamed about that. We never did find it. Other calls have been complaints of people hunting or trespassing on his property. He’s got a good ten acres here, and the borders aren’t marked very well.

Ned posted some Keep Out signs, but you can only cover so much ground with those. He used to fire a shotgun to scare people off. After that happened a few times, we asked him to call us first. Scared the crap out of a backpacking family one time.” “No dogs?” “I told him to get a few. He said they eat too much.” Mercy nodded. Fewer mouths to feed. “Income?” she asked. “Social Security.

” Sheriff Rhodes twisted his lips. Mercy understood. It was common for the antigovernment types to raise hell about paying their taxes or buying licenses, but don’t dare touch their Social Security. “Anything missing?” asked Eddie. “Is there anyone who would even know what’s missing?” “As far as I know, Toby Cox was the only person to step foot in this house in the last ten years. We can ask him, but I’ll warn you he’s not the most observant type.” Rhodes cleared his throat, a sheepish look on his face. “I can’t take it too seriously, but I’ll tell you Toby was terrified and rambling that the cave man had killed Ned.” “What?” asked Eddie. “A caveman? Like prehistoric?” Mercy simply stared at the sheriff.

Communities had their rumors and legends, but this was one she’d never heard of. “No, I gathered from my talk with Toby that it was more like a mountain man. But like I said, he gets confused easily. The boy’s not all there. I can’t give it any weight.” “Did he see this cave man?” Mercy asked. “No. My impression was that Ned had told Toby the story to scare the crap out of him. Seemed to work.” “Got it.

” “But we do have one interesting thing,” said the sheriff. “Someone broke into a storage unit outside. Follow me.” Mercy sucked in deep breaths of fresh air as she followed the sheriff down the porch stairs. He led them through the junk-lined funnel and fifty feet down the dirt road before veering off on a path. She smugly noted her toes were dry in her cheery rain boots. She’d warned Eddie to dress appropriately, but he’d brushed it off. This wasn’t rain on concrete sidewalks in downtown Portland; this was a rainstorm in the Cascades. Mud, heavy brush, wandering streams, and more mud. She glanced back and saw Eddie wipe the rain off his forehead, and he gave a wry smile with a pointed look at his mud-caked shoes.

Yep. They ducked under a yellow ribbon of police tape that surrounded a small shed. “The crime scene techs have already processed the scene,” Sheriff Rhodes advised. “But try to watch where you step.” Mercy studied the mess of crisscrossing boot prints and didn’t see a clear place to step. The sheriff simply walked through, so she followed. The shed was about fifteen by twenty feet and hidden by tall rhododendrons. From the outside it looked as if a strong wind would flatten the tiny outbuilding, but inside Mercy noticed the walls had been heavily reinforced and the room was lined with sandbags along the dirt floor. “Chain on the door was cut. I should say all three chains on the door were cut,” the sheriff corrected himself.

He gestured toward a big hole in the ground near the back wall of the shed. The lid to an ancient deep freezer opened out of the hole. Bodies? Mercy peered into the buried freezer. Empty. She sniffed the air, catching the minty odor of a weapon lubricant she knew some gun enthusiasts swore by, and a hint of gunpowder smell. Ned had hidden an arsenal in the ground. “Weapons,” she stated flatly. Fahey had had three guns registered in his name. He wouldn’t have worked this hard to hide three guns. He could have easily stored a few dozen in the huge freezer.

Mercy wondered how Ned had controlled the humidity for the guns. As far as weapons storage went, this wasn’t ideal. “There was one of those little cordless humidifiers in there,” Rhodes stated as if he’d read her mind. “But someone had to know where to dig to find the freezer.” He gestured at the piles of fresh dirt. “I wonder how well camouflaged the freezer was. This isn’t a place I’d come looking for weapons.” “Anyone know how many weapons he actually had?” Mercy asked. The sheriff shrugged and looked into the freezer. “Lots is my guess.

” “You said there were three chains locking the door?” Eddie asked. “To me that screams, ‘I’ve got something valuable in here.’” He pointed at a narrow steel rod on the dirt floor. “If I broke through three sets of locks and chains and found an empty shed, I’d start plunging that into the ground until I hit something.” Sure enough, there were narrow holes in scattered places across the floor of the shed. “He’s a prepper,” Mercy stated. “It’s expected he’d have a stash of guns somewhere.” “They didn’t have to murder him in his bed to steal his guns,” Rhodes pointed out. “They?” asked Mercy, her ears perking up. The sheriff raised his hands defensively.

“No proof. Just going by the amount of work I see here and the number of footprints found in front of this shed. The techs are running a comparison on Fahey’s and Toby Cox’s boots to see what’s left. They’ll let us know how many people were here.” “Can’t rule out Cox,” Eddie pointed out. Sheriff Rhodes nodded, but Mercy saw the regret in his eyes. She suspected he liked this Toby Cox who wasn’t “right in the head.” Mercy mentally placed Toby Cox at the top of her list to interview. TWO “I want to see the other two murder sites,” Mercy told Eddie as she drove toward Eagle’s Nest. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him nod as he focused on a file in his lap.

“They’re both on the other side of Eagle’s Nest,” he replied. “I’ll pull up the location of the first.” The two agents had driven directly to Ned Fahey’s hideaway from Portland after Mercy’s office exchanged several phone calls with Bend’s supervisory senior resident agent (SSRA). The other two murders had taken place closer to the city of Eagle’s Nest, but the locations were still a good half hour from the Bend office. The Bend office needed help, Mercy’s supervisor had explained as she told the two of them about their temporary assignment. It had only five agents, a few support staff, and no domestic terrorism agents. “Because of the victims’ histories, the large number of missing weapons from all three murders could point to someone preparing for a domestic terrorism event.” Her boss’s words rang in her head. Several dozen guns were missing from the first two murder sites, and Ned Fahey had buried a large illegal stash on his property. An event.

A calm way of saying a group might be gearing up to overtake a federal building. Or worse. The rain clouds had blown off as they left Ned Fahey’s home, and now blue sky peeked through as they departed the denser forest, headed for lower altitudes. As they pulled away from the foothills, Mercy spotted the white mountain peaks of the Cascades in her rearview mirror, thrilled she could see several at a time. She’d taken the sight for granted as a kid. In Portland she saw primarily one peak; on a clear day she might see one or two more. But in this part of Central Oregon, where the skies were often blue, multiple peaks gleamed. The air felt cleaner too. She headed down a straight stretch of highway, tall pines towering along both sides of the road. “Hey.

The trees changed color,” Eddie said as he stared out the window. “They changed back where we crested the Cascade Range. Those are ponderosa pines and they’re a paler green than the firs you’re used to on our side of the Cascades. The trunks are redder too.” “What are the silvery, scrubby-looking bushes everywhere?” “Sagebrush.” “The forest feels different over here,” Eddie remarked. “There’s still giant green trees everywhere, but the underbrush isn’t dense at all like on the west side. Tons of rocks here too.” “The pines will thin out soon. And you’ll see acres of ranchland and lava rocks and brush depending on where you go.

” Mercy noticed her knuckles were white as she gripped the steering wheel. She drove without thinking, instinctively heading toward the town where she’d spent the first eighteen years of her life. “Turn at the next left,” Eddie instructed. I know. “I grew up in Eagle’s Nest.” Eddie’s head jerked up, and she felt his stare bore into the side of her head. She kept her eyes on the road. “I don’t believe that you remembered that particular fact two seconds ago,” Eddie stated. “Why didn’t you say something? Does the boss know?” “She knows. I left home when I was eighteen and haven’t been back.

Family stuff, you know.” He shifted in his seat to face her. “I hear a good story percolating, Special Agent Kilpatrick. Spill it.” “No story.” She refused to look at him. “Bullshit. You haven’t been home since you were eighteen? Did they beat you? Do they belong to a cult?” She gave a short laugh. “Neither.” Not exactly.

“Then what? You’ve talked to them, right? E-mails? Texts? Leaving home means you simply didn’t return to the town, right?” He looked out the windshield at the trees. “I haven’t seen anything out here to make me want to drive the four hours.” Mercy pressed her lips together, wishing she’d not started the conversation. “There’s been no contact at all. Nothing.” “What? Do you have siblings?” “Four.” “Four? And you’ve never called or e-mailed any of them?” She shook her head, unable to speak. “What’s wrong with your family? My mom would fry me if she didn’t hear from me at least once a month.” “They’re different.” Understatement.

“Can we not discuss this right now?” “You brought it up.” “I know I did, and I’ll tell you about it later.” Maybe. She took the final turn into Eagle’s Nest and drove down the two-lane road she knew would take them through the center of town. She slowed to the posted twenty-five miles per hour. The lofty name Eagle’s Nest implied that the town sat on a hill, grandly overlooking a valley. It lied. Eagle’s Nest sat on the flat. The town’s elevation was three thousand feet, but so was that of the hundreds of acres surrounding it. She drove past the schools, craning her neck to get a good look.

According to the rusting signs, the older building still housed the high school, while the larger “new” building still held K–8. The “new” building had been constructed in the seventies, before she was born. Behind the old building she saw the lights for the football field and stands. New red bleachers stood on one side of the field. September. Should be a football game this weekend. “Did you go to school there?” Eddie asked. “Yes.” The road took a sharp turn. On her left the sawmill was still closed.

Its roof sagged more than she remembered, and weathered plywood covered all the windows. The familiar sign was gone. The mill had been abandoned when she was quite young, but it’d always had a big sign with a message board out front. In her teens the town had used the tall message board to post event dates in mismatched letters, but for a long time before that it’d simply proclaimed: We’ll be back. All that was left now was a jagged, broken metal post, and Mercy felt a small pin stab her heart. It’d been everyone’s habit to check the board to keep a finger on the pulse of the community. Senior citizen birthdays. Fairs. Bake sales. Now they probably post on the city’s Facebook page.

Everyone in the community had sworn the lumber mill would reopen. She’d heard it over and over. At one time the city had kept the mill’s property free of dumped garbage and replaced the windows broken by stupid kids. “Someone will buy it. We simply need the right business to come along.” The missing message board said the town had lost faith. The mill was a victim of poor economics, federal policies on tree harvests, and increased conservation measures. Now it looked like a good location to create a Halloween haunted house. She kept driving. Suddenly one- and two-story buildings lined both sides of the street.

She scanned their signs. Several were new to her, but some hadn’t changed. Eagle’s Nest Police Department, Eagle’s Nest City Hall, Grand Movie Theater, Post Office, John Deere Dealership. She noticed a church had been converted to a senior center. The old Norwood home now called itself “Sandy’s Bed & Breakfast.” Eddie pointed at a tiny shop. “Hey, that looks promising. I need caffeine. Pull over.” Mercy pulled into a slanted parking space, remembering how she’d had to learn to parallel park when she moved to Portland.

It wasn’t a skill needed in tiny towns. The Coffee Café occupied a building where she’d once spent hours as a teen browsing used books. It looked fresh and updated, and the Illy brand coffee sign in the window suggested the owners took their coffee seriously. The store was a small, bright flower in the depressing gray of the streets and tired buildings. She glanced up and down the street. A few trucks drove past, but no one strolled the sidewalks. The bell jangled as they pulled open the door. Mercy unzipped her jacket, appreciating the rush of heat and coffee scents. “Hi there.” A teenage girl popped out of a doorway behind the counter.

“What can I get for you?” She was cute and smiley, with a perky ponytail. She regarded them with faint curiosity, but she was polite and kept her questions to herself. Mercy studied the chalkboard menu just inside the door as Eddie stepped forward and ordered something with a triple shot. The girl started his espresso, and Eddie looked over his shoulder at Mercy. “She could be you twenty years ago,” he said in a low voice, a question in his eyes. Uh-oh. Mercy moved to get a better look at their barista. The girl’s hair was lighter, but the eyes and the shape of her face were spot-on. Pearl’s daughter? Owen’s? She admired the small gemstone stud in the girl’s nose. Whoever she was, she had a rebellious streak.

Mercy’s parents would have ripped the stud out every time they saw it. “I’ll take an Americano. Do you have heavy cream instead of half-and-half?” Mercy asked as she stepped closer. The barista met her gaze, nodded enthusiastically, and went back to creating heaven in a cup. Whoever she was, the sight of Mercy meant nothing to her. Mercy breathed out a sigh of relief. “Do you live in town?” Eddie asked the barista as Mercy silently cursed him. The agent liked people and enjoyed hearing their stories. He’d start up a conversation while waiting in line at the grocery store. The girl smiled.

“Just outside of town.” “You aren’t working here alone, are you?” At the flash of alarm in the barista’s eyes, Mercy punched him in the arm. “I mean . I’m not a weirdo. I’m wondering about your safety,” Eddie said lamely. “Ignore him,” Mercy said with a smile meant to calm the startled girl. “He means well and he’s harmless.” “My father’s in back,” she said tentatively. The sunshine drained out of her face, and she eyed Eddie with caution. “That’s good,” admitted Eddie.

“Didn’t mean to freak you out.” The barista held up their cups. Mercy reached for both, and watched the girl’s gaze shoot to Mercy’s left side under her jacket. “You’re law enforcement,” the girl said as she nodded toward the weapon. “Doesn’t everyone around here carry?” asked Eddie in a joking tone. “Usually revolvers, not Glocks.” Interest lit up her eyes. “Is this because of the men that were murdered recently? I heard Ned Fahey was found dead this morning.” The gossip chain was in full swing. “Kaylie? Everything okay?” a tall man asked sharply as he stepped into the doorway behind the barista, his broad shoulders filling the space. Mercy’s heart stopped as she locked eyes with the man. Shock swept his face. “Holy shit!” he muttered. “Dad!” “Sorry, hon.” He was big and dark haired, with a thick beard that hadn’t grayed. Mercy had never seen him with a beard, but she recognized her brother instantly. She didn’t speak, letting Levi decide what to do. He looked from her to his daughter and then back again, taking in Eddie in the same glance. “You from out of town to investigate the murders?” he asked Eddie. “I didn’t realize the FBI was involved. That seems odd.” Mercy swallowed. Her brother had ignored her. But he knew they were FBI. That meant he knew what she did for a living. He hadn’t abandoned her completely. “We come when our help is requested,” Eddie replied noncommittally. “Didn’t know anyone had asked,” said Levi. He looked at Mercy, all recognition gone from his eyes. “Coffee’s on the house today.” “We appreciate it, but we’ll pay,” said Eddie. He pulled cash out of his wallet and gave Mercy a side-eyed questioning glance. What the fuck is going on? She couldn’t move. Or speak. Her fingers had frozen to the hot cups in her hands. “Have a good day,” Kaylie said automatically as she handed Eddie his change. He dropped it in the tip jar. “You too.” He took his cup out of Mercy’s hand, his gaze still questioning her. Mercy took one last lingering look at her niece and then at her brother. Levi turned and vanished without acknowledging her again. She followed Eddie out into the cold and got in their car. She held her coffee with both hands, unable to look at the other agent. “That guy clearly knew you but didn’t say anything,” Eddie stated. “And since the barista who looks exactly like you is his daughter, I assume he’s your brother?” His voice cracked on the final word. Mercy nodded and sipped her coffee. Damn. She’d forgotten to add the heavy cream. “Who doesn’t acknowledge his sister? Not that you said anything either,” he muttered. “So I assume whatever the issue is, it goes both ways? Did you know that was his coffee place?” “No.” Eddie sighed and took a long swig out of his paper cup. “Sorry, Mercy. None of my business.” He paused for all of two seconds. “Tell me you knew that was your niece.” “No. I suspected it once you pointed it out, but I didn’t know which sibling of mine she belonged to.” “You knew this brother had kids, right?” “One.” “He didn’t wear a wedding ring. Was he married?” “No. When I left, his girlfriend wouldn’t let him visit their one-year-old daughter. I guess that changed.” Mercy set down her cup and started the car. “Let’s get going to the other crime scene before it’s full dark.” She backed out of the parking space. Embarrassment with a small spark of fury flushed her face. She hadn’t heard a peep out of her family in fifteen years. What other surprises waited for her in Eagle’s Nest?

.

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