A Merciful Fate – Kendra Elliot

Shep had left him behind. Ollie didn’t worry as he hiked through the woods. Even if he had no idea where Shep was, no doubt Shep knew exactly where Ollie was. The dog had bolted out of the old truck’s cab when the teenager had opened the passenger door, and then he’d dashed from tree to tree, sniffing the air, his entire body quivering in excitement. Shep needed his wild dog time in the forest. Ollie needed it too. His years of living alone in the woods had made the real world loud and crowded. Or is this forest the real world? He rested a hand against the distinctive red bark of a ponderosa pine, looked up through its branches at the perfect blue sky, and inhaled deeply. Dust, pine, and earth. Nothing was more real than this very moment. The warm day in May was cooler in the woods and hills, and his heart felt lighter and his senses more focused in the quiet. He could think clearly out here. He sent a mental note of thanks to Christian Lake, who’d suggested that Ollie hike his property to get away from town. Hundreds of acres to roam. No one around.

Christian had been the first to hire him, giving Ollie a job in his sporting goods warehouse. Solid physical work that made Ollie feel good at the end of the day. After Ollie had driving lessons and passed his license test, he’d also been hired at a Chevy dealership. He moved, washed, and detailed cars. Or did whatever was needed. He loved the smooth feeling of a car’s shiny paint under his fingertips, and the excitement when he drove a car (ever so briefly) with three miles on the odometer. The smell of tires and oil had grown almost as addicting as the smell of the forest. Between the two jobs, his tutor, and online classes, Ollie’s days were full. But every week Ollie made time to explore Christian’s woods. It reset his soul.

Brought him back in balance. “Shep!” he shouted. Ollie listened for the familiar sounds of Shep tearing through the scrubby underbrush. Silence. “Shep!” There he is. Shep wasn’t a big dog, but when he ran, he stomped and plowed headfirst through whatever was in his way, making plenty of noise. Ollie turned west, following the sounds of Shep’s approach through the woods. “Here, boy!” The dog appeared, his eyes bright and excited, one of his floppy ears inside out. He slid to a stop in front of his master, dropped a stick, and looked expectantly at Ollie. “Good boy.

” Ollie rubbed his dog’s head and straightened the ear, scouting his surroundings for a good place to play a boisterous game of fetch. They’d have to move. He couldn’t throw the stick more than ten feet in this part of the woods. Giving the dog’s ears a scratch, Ollie picked up the stick. “Let’s go . ” The bark felt wrong to his fingers. Ollie stared at the stick in his hand, eyeing the shallow grooves and smoothed ridges. One end was slightly pointed; the other end was slightly bulbous. Bone. He blew out a breath and gave a short laugh.

It’s from an animal, of course. Photos of bones from an old magazine flashed in his head. He’d read his grandfather’s small stack of National Geographic magazines dozens of times, memorizing the fascinating images. Ollie’s education had been . limited . sporadic. But he clearly remembered one photo of a skeleton in Africa. What if it’s human? He waved the bone in the direction Shep had appeared from. “Let’s go, Shep. Where’d you find this?” The dog bounded off and Ollie followed.

As if he understood what I said. He scrambled after Shep, who appeared to be on a mission. The dog never looked back. A few minutes later, Shep vanished through the open front door of a cabin with a collapsing roof. It was tucked among several tall pines. Ollie stopped and stared. No paths or driveways led to the pine needle–covered cabin. The stillness and lack of upkeep indicated it was empty, but Ollie wanted to make sure. “Hello, the house!” Shep appeared in the doorway, his tail wagging in an invitation for Ollie to join him. “What did you find, boy?” Ollie moved closer, judging the stability of the roof.

A sharp pang lanced his chest as he thought of the cabin where he’d lived alone for two years after his grandfather had died. Where he’d read old books and played card games alone every night because there was no electricity. Where he’d brought Truman after rescuing him from men who’d wanted to kill him and where he’d then nursed the police chief back to health. After he’d agreed with Truman that he needed to attend school and rejoin society, Truman had taken Ollie to pack up his belongings. The cabin he’d built with his grandfather was smaller than his new bedroom in Truman’s home. It’d felt claustrophobic, and the small room of belongings seemed cheap and shabby. Truman had noticed his hesitation over packing up his grandfather’s battered books. “The value isn’t in the books’ condition, Ollie. The value is in the memories they awaken in your heart and mind.” Truman had been right.

Every time Ollie touched the books, he remembered them in his grandfather’s rough hands and heard his low voice as he read to Ollie each evening. Ollie suspected this cabin’s roof wouldn’t fully collapse anytime soon, so he tentatively stepped through the doorway. The door had been bashed in at one point. The wood frame was splintered and broken where the lock would have been. The floor was dirt. What a piece of crap. The whole thing appeared speedily thrown together. Plywood walls, studs too far apart. A large hole in the roof allowed in sunlight that worked its way down through the trees and lit the interior. Water damage streaked and stained every wall, but the interior was currently dry.

It smelled of decay, mold, and old dirt. Shep whined and padded to the far corner. He halted and looked over his shoulder at Ollie, who stepped closer. Ollie squatted and studied the items in the corner. The bones were intertwined with scraps of dirty and stained fabric. Rotting Nike tennis shoes. The man had lain down and never gotten up. In place of the right eye socket, the skull had a giant rough hole. Ollie automatically looked up and spotted the bullet hole in the wall of the cabin. At the height of a man’s head.

Eagle’s Nest police chief Truman Daly hated the crumbling cabin on sight. Dread stirred in his stomach and expanded as he stepped inside. Molding odors slapped him in the face and threatened to set loose buried memories. Focus. He squatted next to some rotting lengths of fabric on the floor, eyed the long zippers, and realized they’d once been sleeping bags. The stuffing hadn’t decomposed; it’d just flattened and turned brown, making Truman wonder what sort of hardy fibers had insulated the bags. Besides the sleeping bags and the remains, there was little else in the cabin. A few rusted food cans that had lost their labels. Two plastic gallon jugs of water—still full. A rusted can opener.

A bag of plastic spoons, forks, and knives. They didn’t plan to stay long. “There’s a ring of rocks outside that could have been a firepit,” said Deschutes County detective Evan Bolton, standing behind Truman. “Let’s see,” Truman said, grabbing the excuse to get out of the cabin. Outside, Ollie, Christian Lake, and two Deschutes County deputies waited. Ollie had called Truman as he hiked back toward Christian’s home, unable to get cell service at the body’s location. After hearing Ollie’s description of the remains, Truman had notified the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and requested a detective. Everyone had arrived at Christian Lake’s rugged forest mansion at nearly the same time, ready to hike to the location. Christian had insisted on accompanying the group, emphasizing that the land was his. When they’d arrived at the shack, Christian had shaken his head.

“I had no idea this existed. I’ve never been out this way.” Detective Bolton had raised a brow at him, and Christian had stared back. “Do you have any idea how much untouched land is out here?” the millionaire had asked. Christian had been silent since, quietly listening and observing, staying out of the way. Truman wondered what was going on in Christian’s head, considering one of his employees had been murdered on his property about four months ago. Truman liked Christian; the sporting goods store owner and Truman’s fiancée, Mercy, went way back. “Over here,” Bolton indicated, and Truman followed him to the far side of the shack. Next to the ring of large stones were a few rusting tin cans showing through the layers of pine needles and dirt. “Why do I get the impression they weren’t used to roughing it?” Truman murmured.

“Agreed,” said Bolton. “Cans, plasticware, sleeping bags. Weekend getaway, I guess.” “Wasn’t a fun weekend for the guy inside,” added Truman. “Are you sure it was a male?” Bolton’s brown gaze met Truman’s. “There’s no wallet.” “Not completely. I’m no bone expert. But there were a few things I spotted . The shoes were men’s .

The belt looked male—” “Neither of those rule out female.” “True.” Truman took a deep breath and went back inside the cabin, breathing lightly through his mouth, telling himself that the scents of this cabin and those of the one he’d been chained up in two months ago were distinctly different. No shit or piss odors. No constant smell of rain that I can’t drink. His heart pounded in his ears, he closed his eyes, and he was back in the past. Chains. Cuffs. Beat to hell. A broken arm.

After months of not needing it, Truman immediately launched a silent anxiety mantra. Name one thing you can see. The fucking gigantic hole in the roof. Name two things you can hear. Bolton talking to Ollie. Shep’s panting. Name three things you can smell. Dirt, rot, dust. Truman opened his eyes. I’m not in that prison.

He sucked in a deep breath and concentrated on the crime scene before him. He and Bolton silently stood next to the pile of bones. Some connective tissues were still attached, and Truman spotted little gnaw marks here and there. “All the tiny hand bones are gone,” Truman pointed out. “Vermin, probably.” He didn’t want to touch the old Nikes; they weren’t empty. “Damned scavengers.” “The skull doesn’t look feminine,” Truman stated. Bolton waited, looking at him expectantly. “See those big ridges above the eye sockets? And how the forehead slopes back? I think that means it was a man.

Mercy and I have talked about the differences before.” “Sounds more like a Neanderthal.” Truman snorted. “Maybe he was.” Someone had believed the man should die. One of the eye sockets had been destroyed— probably the bullet entrance—and there was a large hole in the back of the skull. Truman imagined that was the exit wound, but he could be wrong. Had the man been shot in the face or from the back? The medical examiner would know how to tell. The bullet hole in the wall gave Truman the creeps. It was at his eye level, and he could see directly through it.

“Hey, Truman, are you about done?” Ollie asked, standing just outside the door. He’d refused to enter the shack when they’d returned. “Something bad happened in there,” he’d repeated several times to Truman. “I saw enough.” “Give me a few more minutes.” Technically the murder case was Bolton’s since it’d happened outside the Eagle’s Nest city limits. But Truman had a vested interest. It had been found by Ollie, Truman’s . What is Ollie to me? A ward? A friend? Truman shook his head. He’d asked himself the question a dozen times over the last two months since Ollie had saved his life in the woods.

What do you call the person who saved you from dying multiple times? To him there was no word to describe the bond he felt with the teenage orphan. Anyway, Ollie had found the remains; therefore, Truman was interested. No weapons were in the shack. No personal items. And clearly a lot of time had gone by since the death, because most of the bones were bare and the fabrics had nearly disintegrated. Possibly decades had passed. “Look here,” said Bolton. Truman turned at Bolton’s sharp tone. He had lifted part of a sleeping bag with a stick in his gloved hand. The rotted fabric fell into tiny pieces, but the filling stayed intact.

Truman spotted what had caught Bolton’s eye. There were several small, flat bags under the sleeping bag’s remains. They looked heavy duty, made out of a vinyl that hadn’t decomposed. Bolton slid one out with his foot. It wasn’t much bigger than his shoe and had one zippered side. Truman could make out the faded logo. A big number one. Below the logo it read FIRST INTERSTATE BANK. Bank money . or money on its way to a bank.

Curiosity got the better of Bolton and he unzipped it. “Empty.” He checked the others. “All empty.” Truman glanced back at the remains in the corner. “We may have found the motive.” “And I might have to hand over this case.” Bolton sighed. “If this is related to a bank robbery, it belongs to the FBI.” TWO FBI special agent Mercy Kilpatrick hid her excitement as she headed toward the meeting room.

She’d never landed a notorious case before. A nearly thirty-year-old armored car robbery. A murdered driver. Multiple missing suspects. And now a dead body who might be one of those suspects. Fascinating. In the Portland FBI office this case would have gone to the violent crimes department, but here in Bend’s tiny office, everyone did a little of everything. She’d studied all the photos that Deschutes County had sent over from the cabin. A few minutes of investigating had pointed her toward the most likely source of the money bags. The more she dug, the bigger the situation got, and the more questions she had.

Adrenaline buzzed in her veins. But first she needed to update her coworkers. “Someone looks excited,” said Special Agent Eddie Peterson as she entered the meeting room. He’d followed her lead by moving to the small Bend office from Portland. The young urban agent had discovered a love for the outdoors. “I thought I was hiding it,” Mercy confessed as she set her notes on the table. “You are. But your eyes give you away.” “Did Jeff tell you to meet him here?” “Yep. I suspect he wants me to give you a hand.

” Mercy should have figured that. If this case was what she believed it was, more than one agent would be needed to work it. Their boss, Jeff Garrison, entered with Darby Cowan and Melissa. Jeff was Mercy’s age, tall, and the most competent supervisor she’d ever had. Darby was an amazing data analyst and always dressed in practical clothing that suggested she was minutes away from taking a fifteen-mile hike. Mercy suspected the older woman worked only to support her outdoor pursuits of camping, skiing, and kayaking. The office manager, Melissa, was a little younger, cheerful and chatty, and wore a smile every single day. Everyone took a seat and looked at Mercy expectantly. “You’ve all heard that empty money bags were found with remains in a shack about an hour out of town,” she started. Everyone nodded.

“From my preliminary investigating, I believe those bags are from the armored car robbery near Portland’s downtown First Interstate Bank nearly thirty years ago.” Jeff already knew this fact, but Melissa and Eddie leaned forward in their seats. “The Gamble-Helmet Heist?” Eddie stumbled over the words. “That was one of the biggest robberies in the Pacific Northwest. Everyone has theories about what happened to the thieves and money. It’s second only to the D. B. Cooper case.” “Cooper was the guy who hijacked a passenger jet and then jumped out with a bunch of money and was never seen again, right?” asked Darby. “I know about that one, but why haven’t I heard of this Gamble-Helmet case?” “I remember when the Gamble-Helmet group robbed the armored car,” said Melissa.

“I was just a kid, but it was all over the news for weeks. Wasn’t one of the drivers murdered?” “Yes,” answered Mercy. “Five men robbed the truck, and the one who shot the driver was caught. Shane Gamble. He’s currently in the Two Rivers prison in Umatilla. The other four men vanished along with the money. Nearly two million dollars.” “My brothers used to search in the woods for the Gamble-Helmet money when we went hiking,” Melissa added. “They were convinced it’d been buried somewhere in the forest.” “The escape vehicle was last seen headed east along I-84 toward the gorge.

We were lucky that Gamble was caught at the scene and gave the names of the other men; otherwise we might have never found out who did it. These are the only pictures from the robbery.” Mercy turned her laptop around for everyone to see. “They’re all wearing freaking motorcycle helmets,” muttered Eddie. “Hence the Gamble-Helmet name for the heist,” said Darby as she made notes. “Why wear helmets? Wouldn’t the limited vision and hearing put them at a disadvantage? There has to be an easier way to hide an identity.” “The armored truck had stopped for a scheduled pickup, and the thieves immediately moved in, catching the first man off guard as he opened his door and dousing the driver with pepper spray,” said Mercy. “Presumably the helmets were to protect them from the pepper spray—it travels.” “I don’t know if that’s brilliant or stupidly risky,” said Darby. “The whole operation was risky,” said Mercy.

“Four men swarmed into the truck, shoved what they could in their own bags, and ran to a waiting car with a driver. The first guard drew his weapon as Shane Gamble exited the truck, but Gamble fired first. The guard’s return shot brought Gamble down, the escape vehicle left without him, and he was caught at the scene.” Mercy took a deep breath. “The guard died before the police arrived. Gamble healed, went to trial, and was convicted.” “And the other four drove off into the sunset with a lot of cash,” finished Jeff. “Like Eddie said, this robbery is almost as big of a legend as D. B. Cooper’s airplane jump.

That means lots of media interest.” Everyone groaned. “All media calls go to me,” stated Jeff, looking at Melissa. “No one needs to know which agents are working the case or how it’s proceeding.” Melissa nodded. “My phone is going to ring nonstop. Since the day it occurred, everyone has speculated on what happened to the other four thieves.” “I suspect the body in the woods will turn out to be one of them. With Gamble in prison, that leaves three more to find,” Eddie stated. “And money.

A lot of money to find,” added Mercy. “Two million doesn’t go very far when divided between three or four people,” argued Eddie. “It’s got to be long gone. It’s been nearly thirty years.” “Maybe only one of them ended up with the money, and there could be more bodies,” suggested Mercy. “I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m waiting on final confirmation that these are some of the missing bags from the robbery, and if so, I plan to interview Shane Gamble first thing tomorrow morning.” “The Two Rivers Correctional Institution is over two hundred miles away,” said Jeff. “I figure it’ll take me three and a half hours—maybe less.” “No speeding tickets on company vehicles.

” “Of course not.” “Eddie will be working with you,” said Jeff. “Divide up the load and stay away from the media. We’ll keep Deschutes County in the loop about the body since it’s their jurisdiction. Have you been in touch with the original lead FBI agent on the robbery case?” “Art Juergen,” answered Mercy. “He retired last year, and they’re getting me his current contact information. He’s a good guy. I worked with him for a few years. A lot of agents worked the case thirty years ago, but Portland’s ASAC says Juergen knew it inside and out. He’d told the ASAC that he regretted not solving it before he retired.

” “And one year later we have a hot lead,” said Eddie. “This could make Juergen’s day. I’ll dig up background on the guys Gamble named as his associates.” Eddie looked at a piece of paper Mercy had shoved across the table. “Ellis Mull, Nathan May, and Trevor Whipple.” “What’s the name of the fifth person?” asked Darby. “No one knows the full name of the getaway driver,” said Melissa. “I remember angry wives and girlfriends would turn in their significant other to get the men investigated and humiliated. What a waste of investigator time.” “Melissa is right,” said Mercy.

“From what I’ve read, no one knows who the fifth person is. Shane Gamble claimed Trevor Whipple brought the fifth man into the plan at the last minute to drive the car, and called him Jerry. Gamble didn’t know anything else about him.” “Hopefully that’s not Jerry up in the cabin,” said Eddie. “I think we can determine if it’s Mull, May, or Whipple, but figuring out if it was the unknown driver will be a challenge.” “The body could be a random hunter,” Darby pointed out. “Let’s get that final confirmation on the bank bags before we jump to conclusions.” Mercy met Eddie’s gaze. Her gut told her the dead body was part of the Gamble-Helmet Heist, and based on the smug smile on Eddie’s face, he suspected it too. Not again.

This was the fourth car in two weeks. Sandy Foster tuned out the words of the furious man with her behind the Eagle’s Nest bed-andbreakfast. She didn’t blame him as they stared at the glass on the pavement. She’d be pissed too if someone had broken her car window. From the way he spoke, he seemed to believe that the two-yearold Honda was a rare, valuable car. It was a nice car, but she saw a dozen of them every day. “I’ll get the police over here,” she promised her customer. “And I know the owner of the auto glass repair shop in Bend. He’ll have someone here this afternoon.” I hope.

Her relationship with the auto glass shop owner had formed out of necessity, and she wondered if he had a “break ten, get one free” program. Her lips twisted at the thought. “This isn’t funny,” the customer snapped. “I’m not laughing,” she assured him. “Believe me, this makes me furious. I want a safe place for my visitors to park. Incidents like this don’t make anyone feel safe.” “At least nothing was stolen,” he muttered. He crossed his arms, and his mouth sagged in a frown. “Let me buy you dinner at the town diner tonight,” Sandy offered.

Her breakfast buffet was included in the price of a room; otherwise she would have offered that. Instead the cost of his and his wife’s dinner would come directly out of her cash. “It wasn’t your fault,” he admitted. It was the nicest thing he’d said in the last five minutes. “I want to do something to make it up to you. Were you driving anywhere this afternoon?” He sighed. “Just to dinner in Bend a bit later.” “I bet it will be repaired by then,” she said, forcing herself to sound cheerful. “I hope so. We’ve been looking forward to trying the seafood place in the Old Mill District.

” He gave her a sideways look. Shit. “They have fantastic food. I’ll pick up the dinner tab for you.” He brightened. “That’d be great. I’ll go tell my wife.” He took off toward the back door of her bed-and-breakfast. Sandy sighed and closed her eyes for a long moment. The seafood restaurant would cost five times as much as a meal at the diner.

If her customer decided to push the boundaries and order lobster and multiple bottles of wine, it could be much more. I wouldn’t put it past him. She slid her phone out of her back pocket to call the Eagle’s Nest Police Department and her auto glass contact. Regret jabbed her in the chest. She adored her bed-and-breakfast. It was the result of years of backbreaking labor. She wanted the best experience for her customers and paid attention to every detail. Fine linens on the beds, updated huge bathrooms, spotlessly clean floors, and a breakfast buffet that made clients rave. She never took a day off; the old restored home was the pride of her heart. I love what I do, but if this damage keeps up, I’ll be broke.

Then what?


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