A Merciful Silence – Kendra Elliot

There it is. Eagle’s Nest police officer Ben Cooley hit his brakes, thankful he’d been driving a cautious thirty miles an hour. He squinted, trying to see through the smears created by his windshield wipers. Ahead of his car, one-third of the road was gone, washed down the steep side of the hill. It looked as if a monster had bitten a ten-foot-wide chunk out of the asphalt. The last three days had dropped several inches of rain in Central Oregon, and he could swear the cities were about to float away. This sort of continuous downpour happened all the time in the Willamette Valley on the other side of the Cascade mountain range, but not in his beloved—and usually dry—high desert. To the left of the road was a gut-turning drop-off that vanished into a forest of pines. On his right the rocky hillside sloped upward, and several impromptu waterfalls cascaded down, flowing across the road. The water was supposed to feed into the ditch and funnel beneath the road to flow safely out the other side, but the quantity of water had overpowered the culvert. “Don’t know how the other side of the state puts up with months of this rain.” No one was around to hear Ben mutter to himself. He made a conscious effort not to do it within listening distance of the other guys in his department. The last thing the police chief needed to hear was that his seventysomething officer was losing his mind. Ben hit his flashers, called in his location, and popped his trunk.

The highway department tried to keep up with the weather, installing nets and culverts and natural drains to keep the streets safe, but every year something happened to this poor road. And since its vehicle traffic was quite low, it ranked near the bottom of the state’s priority list. Ben set out cones and flares, wondering if anyone would even use the road before the flares burned out. He went back to his car and got Lucas on the radio. “We need the highway department out here to assess the safety,” Ben told the Eagle’s Nest dispatcher and office manager. “That bad?” asked Lucas. “Definitely. The guardrail along the south edge is gone. A car is going to come by, not see the hole in time, and end up forty feet down the hill, stuck in the pines. They need to close the road.

” “I’ll call it in.” “Send Royce or Samuel out here with some roadblocks right away because the highway department will take hours to get here. I’ve blocked the road in one direction with my car, but we need something else.” “Will do.” Ben carefully walked to the edge of the wide gap, always curious about the engineering of roads. He saw the dirt-and-rock support under the asphalt had simply washed away, defeated by the continuous power of the water. The thick border of the black asphalt looked like a broken Oreo cookie wafer. He moved as close as he dared, aware he didn’t know what supported the asphalt under his feet . if anything. Peering into the giant washed-out section, he spotted the edge of a huge concrete culvert six feet below the road.

A slow rivulet flowed out of it while a hundred times the amount of water surged outside the culvert. The culvert is probably jammed with rocks and dirt. He bent over, resting his hands on his thighs, and craned his head to get a look inside the culvert. His gaze locked on one round, pale rock. With eye sockets. And teeth. TWO Twenty-four hours later, FBI Special Agent Mercy Kilpatrick watched as bones were removed from the culvert. The Eagle’s Nest Police Department had reached out to the state police for help with the removal and investigation of the remains. The team from the state police had gotten a good look inside the large pipe and immediately requested a medical examiner, who had asked for a forensic anthropologist, who had then suggested the FBI be brought in. A long chain of requests for assistance had landed Mercy on the site.

Beside her, Eagle’s Nest police chief Truman Daly stood with his arms folded across his chest, his sharp gaze watching every move of the forensic anthropologist’s team. What had started as his case had ended up being Mercy’s. The chance of that happening had been small, and she was slightly amused, considering they’d been dating for about six months. Mercy had heard about the situation the moment Ben Cooley reported the skull to Truman and had been aware of every step of the investigation after that. A perk of sleeping with the police chief. “That’s the fifth skull,” she whispered to Truman, knowing he could count just fine. He nodded, his stance stiff. It looks a lot smaller than the others. A shudder rippled through her. The entire group of observing professionals was quiet and respectful.

Two state police troopers were there to handle any traffic—which meant they stood around a lot. A forensics team from the state carefully removed the remains under the watchful eye of a tall, elegant black-haired woman Mercy knew was the forensic anthropologist, Dr. Victoria Peres. The anthropologist ran the scene, giving orders and being in three places at once. Mercy watched her gently accept the fifth skull and study it for ten seconds longer than she had the others. Dr. Peres’s jaw tightened, and she passed it off to one of her assistants. The rain had stopped overnight, and the water rushing under the road had slowed to a trickle. Mercy knew their respite wouldn’t last long. More rainstorms were expected, blowing in from the Pacific and down from Canada.

A double whammy of weather. At least it was better than ice. Or feet and feet of snow. Her thigh twinged, a reminder that she’d been standing in the same position for an hour and that less than two months ago, she’d been shot in that leg as she pursued a killer. She still couldn’t move as comfortably as she’d like and had learned the hard way not to ignore her body’s warning signs. “I need to sit down,” she whispered to Truman, hating her weakness. Truman jerked as if she’d shocked him. “Your leg?” Concern filled his brown eyes. She grimaced and nodded, looking around for a perch. The bumper of the medical examiner’s vehicle was the closest, and she took a seat.

She lost her good view, but she wanted to be able to walk tomorrow. She’d be no help to anyone if she couldn’t move. Was that last skull a child’s? “Well look at that, the FBI sitting down on the job again.” Mercy closed her eyes. She didn’t need to see Chuck Winslow to recognize his voice. The internet reporter had become a thorn in her side over the last two months. Truman claimed Winslow had developed an obsession with writing about Mercy. The reporter had published how she’d been shot in the leg and had strongly implied that it’d been her own fault for being friends with the shooter’s brother. He wove the facts to suit the story he wanted, even dropping hints in his story that Mercy had refused to arrest the killer for his first two murders because she knew him. Her integrity had been stung by that story, and Mercy knew she’d screwed up when she’d cursed at the reporter over the phone when he asked personal questions about Kaylie, her seventeen-year-old niece.

Winslow had gloated about it for weeks. He reminded her of a grade school boy who would punch a girl because he wanted her attention. She hadn’t read anything about her and Truman’s relationship in his articles. Anyone could find out that Truman spent a few nights a week at her apartment. Maybe Chuck was a bit lazy. It was a good thing she’d talked Truman out of confronting the reporter about his coverage of her, but Mercy knew that if Chuck included her relationship with the police chief in his stories—or personal details about Kaylie—she wouldn’t be able to stop Truman from losing his temper. She didn’t look in Winslow’s direction, keeping her gaze toward the recovery scene. Truman started to turn toward Chuck, but Mercy tugged on his sleeve. “Don’t give him the satisfaction,” she ordered. She knew the reporter was at least twenty feet away, behind the yellow tape, his view of the crime scene strategically blocked by tarps and tents.

“Asshole,” Truman muttered. “One of these days . ” “Careful!” the forensic anthropologist snapped at one of her assistants. The assistant didn’t flinch, but everyone nearby did. The two women had climbed up from the culvert to the blacktop, their hands full with buckets of dirt and bones. The state’s structural engineers had shored up one side of the washed-out hole and deemed the site safe enough for the bone removal, but one engineer had stayed at the scene, noting the dwindling runoff and keeping a sharp eye on the movement of the mud. Dr. Peres watched her assistant add the skull to the growing collection of bones and debris. The evidence would be taken to the medical examiner’s office, where the bones would be studied and hopefully reveal a lead for the investigators. Mercy had already pulled up a list of missing people from the immediate area.

Since she didn’t yet know the sex or age of the remains, it might turn out to have been a waste of time, but Mercy had felt the need to do something to get the case moving. “Dr. Peres.” Mercy pushed to her feet after her fifteen-second relaxation period. “I’m Special Agent Kilpatrick.” She held out her hand to the tall woman. An intelligent but impatient brown gaze met hers, and even though the doctor had been digging in mud for hours, there wasn’t a hair out of place from the large bun at the back of her neck. “No, I don’t know who these people are yet,” the doctor immediately stated. Extreme patience filled her tone as she shook Mercy’s hand, but Mercy saw her annoyance flash. Dr.

Peres seemed to be the type of person who just wanted to do her job and not be bugged by the police until she was ready. Mercy raised a brow. “You’re not a miracle worker?” “Not today. Try me next Tuesday.” Mercy leaned closer. “Was that last skull from a child?” she asked in the softest possible tone. Dr. Peres gave an imperceptible nod. “How many more are in there?” The doctor glanced from side to side, checking for listening ears. Truman had stepped away a polite distance.

“I believe we’ve found them all, but I won’t guarantee that until the culvert is completely empty.” “Just this end was blocked, right?” “Correct. It appears that three-quarters of it was empty. We’ll need to check the surrounding area too.” She sighed. “There’s no telling how much of the remains have washed away.” How can the doctor put together this puzzle when several pieces might be missing? “Do you have an age and sex on the last skull?” The doctor’s large brown eyes narrowed, her lips thinning. Mercy pushed on. “I’m not asking for perfect answers, but I know you have a rough idea. I’m simply looking for a place to focus my efforts while I’m waiting for your report.

I’m trying to save some time.” Dr. Peres’s face softened, and she looked over at the vehicle holding the bins of recovered bones. “That last skull belonged to a child between the ages of five and eight. I’m leaning toward female, but I’m not positive yet.” She met Mercy’s gaze. “Sexing a skull is hard at a young age. Clothes and hair help, but we’ve found neither. One of the other skulls belongs to a young person too. I estimated in their teens.

” “Five skulls.” “So far.” Dr. Peres gestured toward the downward slope of tall pines. “Who knows what we’ll find down there?” The scope of the search suddenly hit Mercy. Acres and acres of dense sloped woods and rushing water. “It could take days,” she gasped, overwhelmed by the task. The anthropologist simply nodded. Her eyes looked tired, but Mercy believed she wouldn’t give up until she was completely satisfied. She’d heard rumors about the state’s Bone Lady.

Tough. Brass balls. Ice princess. Damn good at her job. Mercy wouldn’t mind the descriptions for herself. “Are you taking the remains back to Portland?” Mercy asked, wondering how many trips to Dr. Peres’s office at the medical examiner’s building were in her future. “I’m going to use a facility here at the county morgue,” Dr. Peres told her. “I prefer to be close to a scene like this.

Especially when it could take quite a while to get all the missing pieces.” “That will make it easier on me too.” Mercy paused but couldn’t stop herself from asking the question. “Have you seen anything to help us yet, Dr. Peres?” “Call me Victoria. Did you get a look at any of the skulls?” “Only from a distance.” Bones didn’t make Mercy squeamish. In fact, she found them fascinating and wished she knew how to read them the way this doctor did. “It appears they all had powerful blows to the head in the temple area. The teeth have been forcibly broken.

Someone took a hammer or club and bashed them in the mouth several times.” Mercy’s teeth and jaw ached. “Postmortem?” “I suspect so, but I’m not positive yet.” “Were they trying to hide the identity?” “They didn’t do a very good job if that was their goal. There’s plenty of teeth left, and people can even be identified by the roots of the teeth if we have previous dental X-rays. I’ve called for a forensic odontologist to come take a look.” “Which skulls?” The idea of the child being hit in the mouth made her queasy. “All of them.” “Wait—what? All of them had the same injury?” A memory started to poke and prod in the back of her brain. Victoria nodded.

“All.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied Mercy’s face. “Why?” Mercy simply stared back at her, her mind scrambling to uncover the memory emerging in her mind. Broken teeth. Smashed in the mouth. It rushed to the surface. It’d happened before. A family who’d been murdered in their home. Mercy had been in grade school, but she’d overheard her parents discussing the brutal destruction to their mouths. The imagery had horrified her and stuck in her young imagination.

Then it’d happened again two months later. Two families murdered. She’d never heard of that type of mass injury again until this moment. THREE “Grady Baldwin was arrested more than two decades ago for the murders of the Verbeek and Deverell families,” Mercy informed the other agents in the meeting room at the Bend FBI office. “I checked, and he’s still in the Oregon State Pen in Salem.” “What was his motivation?” asked Special Agent Eddie Peterson. He leaned forward, his elbows on the table and his fascinated gaze locked on Mercy’s face, clearly wishing he’d caught her case. “Baldwin claims he had no motivation because he didn’t do it,” Mercy said. “The state argued that he was attracted to Maria Verbeek, hit on her, and she’d turned him down. He was a handyman of sorts and had worked on both the Verbeek and Deverell homes during the six months before they were murdered.

I’m trying to set up an interview with him.” “All those children,” data analyst Darby Cowan said quietly as she made notes on her laptop. “Exactly,” said Mercy. Between the two families, four children had been murdered with their parents. Mercy pulled up the photos of the families on the big wall screen. The Deverell family photo showed everyone in red pajamas in front of a Christmas tree. Happiness and mischief radiated from the family. The father held mistletoe over his wife’s head and kissed her cheek as she laughed at the camera. Ten-year-old Michelle and twelve-year-old Glenn had their arms around a black Lab wearing a Santa hat, and Mercy idly wondered if someone had adopted the dog. It’d been over twenty years.

Odds were the dog was also dead. The Verbeek family picture was more sedate, shot outdoors in front of a river. Dennis and Maria Verbeek stood formally behind their three blonde daughters. Only the children smiled, and Mercy couldn’t look away from one of the daughters, Britta, a fifth grader who had been a year ahead of Mercy in grade school. Mercy remembered the shock and astonishment from the other students and teachers when the family was killed. The other girls, twins Astrid and Helena, had been in first grade at the same school. “Which girl survived the attack?” asked Eddie. “Britta. The oldest,” answered Mercy. “She was hit in the temple with the weapon but survived the blow.

He knocked out several of her front teeth, but she must have been unconscious during the blow and didn’t react. He probably assumed she was dead.” “Blessed Jesus Christ,” Darby murmured. “The world we’re in . ” “Where does she live?” asked Jeff. Mercy took a breath. “I looked her up. She moved to the outskirts of Eagle’s Nest last summer. Before that she lived in Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.” Everyone at the table exchanged glances.

“She lives here now,” repeated Darby. “After how many years of living away?” “As best as I can tell, this is the first time she’s been back. An aunt in Nevada took her in after the murders years ago.” The room was silent. Mercy’s stomach had done a small spin when she learned Britta Verbeek had returned after decades of living elsewhere. She suspected the other agents were feeling the same thing. “Weird,” Eddie finally commented. “That’s putting it mildly,” said Darby. “I’m trying to reach her,” said Mercy. “And we still don’t have a lead on the identities of our current case?” asked Darby.

“Those remains were all bone, so they’ve been dead for a while. Who doesn’t report an entire missing family?” “Don’t assume it’s another family,” Jeff pointed out. “It could be a mix of individuals.” Mercy nodded. Individuals had been her initial thought, and she’d considered that the site might have been a serial killer’s dumping ground. It wasn’t until she remembered the past family murders that she’d wondered if this was another family. “I pulled a list that includes missing children between five and twelve in our county. Dr. Peres—the forensic anthropologist—gave me a narrower age frame, but I widened it a bit, and I went back thirty years. I wanted to include the time frame of the other murders.

” Eddie sighed. “How many names on the list?” “Five for Deschutes County.” “Only five children unaccounted for in thirty years?” Jeff asked. “That’s not horrible.” “Unless you’re one of their parents,” added Darby. “Touché,” admitted Jeff. “You’ve been in contact with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children?” “Yes,” Mercy stated. “I’m waiting on a callback.” “Do you know how difficult it will be to follow a trail thirty years old?” Eddie’s eyes were hopeful, but he slowly shook his head in sympathy. “I do.

” It was a challenge. One she wanted to tackle. “I’ll help you look into Grady Baldwin’s family and friends,” said Darby. “And get an indepth history on Britta Verbeek.” “Thank you,” said Mercy. “I know he has a brother still in the area. Don Baldwin.” “When will the road be open?” asked Jeff. “They can’t get started on repairs until the medical examiner releases the scene,” Mercy stated. “And that won’t happen until we’re positive we have every shred of evidence collected.

” The rugged slope of the hill flashed in her mind. “It will be a difficult scene to process. How far down do we look for evidence? The water could have washed it miles away.” “We’ll have to work with what we have,” said Jeff. “I think the skulls found so far will be very helpful. When will the forensic anthropologist have an initial report?” “Tomorrow,” said Mercy. “But I’m going to stop by there tonight to meet the odontologist, and I’ll try to get more information from Dr. Peres.” Jeff glanced at the time and tucked his pen in his pocket, signaling the meeting was over. Eddie and Darby immediately headed out the door, Darby typing one-handed while she walked, balancing her laptop on the other hand.

“Any work getting done on your cabin?” Jeff asked Mercy conversationally as he shoved in his chair. Mercy swallowed hard. Her boss hadn’t known she owned a cabin in the Cascade foothills until it recently burned to the ground, destroyed by her friend’s brother during his hunt for a woman he believed had ruined his life. The woman had survived; Mercy’s cabin had not. A decade of Mercy’s prepping and hard work had gone up in flames as her cabin burned. It’d been the source of her sanity, a place she could run to if the world started to crumble. A safe house. Prepared with years of food and fuel and a solid defense. Mercy had grown up looking over her shoulder for the end of the world. Her parents had ingrained in her to take nothing for granted and taught her the skills to feed and protect herself in a crisis.

Jeff thought she had a mountain getaway. A place to escape for a weekend of skiing. He didn’t realize she had created a fortress with enough stores to last at least five years. She didn’t correct Jeff’s thinking; she didn’t correct anyone’s assumptions. Her secret was hers. If the United States’ food sources or power grid collapsed, she couldn’t save everyone. For the sake of her own survival, only Truman and her family knew her secret. “All the burned rubbish has been hauled away,” she told him. “The area has been cleared and prepped to start building again. But they can’t get started for another month or two.

” Against her instincts, she’d hired a builder. She’d wanted to tackle the project herself, keeping her secret hidden from the world, but Truman had put his foot down, logically pointing out that it could take her a year to simply build the frame. She relented and hired a builder to do the basic structure; she would do the customizations herself. Along with Truman. Luckily her barn of supplies hadn’t been touched, but she still felt naked and exposed without her cabin. She’d rapidly outfitted the barn with a sleeping area, but it was rough. No running water or heat. But it settled her anxiety. A bit. She wouldn’t relax again until she had her hideaway.

Who am I fooling? I never relaxed to begin with. There was always something to improve or prepare. Together she and Truman had gone over the cabin plans. It would be bigger than her previous A-frame . but not too much. A bigger house took more fuel to heat. The home would have a true second story, not just a loft. Truman had suggested a safe room, believing it would appeal to Mercy’s protective nature. She’d violently disagreed, imagining being trapped in a box as her home burned around her, unable to fight and defend herself. They’d compromised on a hidden closet big enough to hide in if immediately needed.

The same type that had protected her niece in the barn when the killer had come hunting. “The builder promises to have it done by the end of summer,” she added. “Then I’ll finish the interior myself.” “Perfect. Just in time for skiing. Will your leg be ready to hit the slopes?” Jeff asked with concern. The same man who had burned her cabin had shot her in the right thigh. The residual pain from the injury still woke her up at night, along with nightmares of how defenseless she’d been as he’d aimed his gun at her head. In her dreams she died, but in reality he’d been shot a split second before by his brother. Mercy had no intention of skiing.

“I don’t know. It hasn’t healed as quickly as the doctor expected.” “It hasn’t even been two months. You had a huge hole in your leg. Give it time.” “I’m trying to be patient.” Mercy smiled, feeling like a liar. She couldn’t run, she couldn’t walk very far, and she could barely do the stairs to her home. The first week she’d overworked her leg and received a stern lecture from her doctor and Truman along with more nights of agonizing pain. It’d been a tough lesson to learn, so now she tried to listen to her body instead of pretending a bullet couldn’t slow her down.

“You’ll have to throw a housewarming when your cabin is done.” “We’ll see. It will be pretty bare bones. Just the basics, you know,” she hedged. The idea of people congregating in her hideaway created an itch deep inside her skull. Rule one of a secret hideaway: keep the location a secret. “But I’ll figure out something,” she added noncommittally. “Great. Let me know what you find out from the odontologist about the skulls.” “Will do.

” She exhaled a sigh of relief as her boss left the room. I hate lying to people I trust.


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