A Merciful Truth – Kendra Elliot

Police Chief Truman Daly slammed the door of his Tahoe and raised a hand to protect his face from the heat of the fire. He took a half step back, bumping into his vehicle. Flames had engulfed the old barn and were stretched high against the night’s black sky. A total loss. He’d believed he’d parked a safe distance from the fire, but the toasting of his cheeks caused second thoughts. He pulled down on the brim of his cowboy hat to cover his face, ignored the flooding memories of a past deadly fire, and jogged toward the two Deschutes County sheriff patrol vehicles that’d arrived before him. The two deputies stood behind their cars, talking on their radios, eyeing the towering flames. There was nothing they could do. A faint siren sounded in the distance, but Truman knew the fire department was too late. Its goal would be to keep the fire from spreading to the woods and neighboring ranches. “Hey, Chief,” one of the deputies shouted over the roar of the fire as he approached. Truman recognized the older deputy. Ralph something. He didn’t know the other one. “Did you see anyone here?” Truman asked, knowing there was no way to check inside the barn.

“No one,” said Ralph. “We’ve been here fifteen seconds, and there was no chance in hell we’d try to look inside.” The young deputy next to him nodded emphatically. “Let’s walk the perimeter,” said Truman. “You go around to the right, and we’ll head left,” suggested Ralph. Truman nodded and headed around toward the back of the burning barn, putting plenty of space between himself and the hot inferno and welcoming the crisp November air. The fire has gotten bigger in the few seconds I’ve been here. In the last two weeks, three other fires had popped up around his small town of Eagle’s Nest in Central Oregon. He and the fire department hadn’t caught the serial arsonist, and none of the previous arsons had been on the scale of this one. The first had been an abandoned car.

Then someone’s trash. The last had been a small shed. He’s escalating. Sweat ran down his back, and it wasn’t solely from the fire. I hate fires. He jogged through the sagebrush and rocks, the ground well lit as he scanned for any signs of victims or a possible fire starter. Ponderosa pines towered about fifty yards away, and Truman was thankful to see the immediate area around the barn was clear of fuel for the fire. At one time there’d been a few small holding pens, but nearly all the fence rails had collapsed and rotted away. He doubted the old barn had been used in the last decade. This fourth fire was several miles outside his city’s limits, but as soon as he’d received word about it, he’d rolled out of bed and gotten dressed.

The arsonist had pissed him off, and Truman now took every fire personally. Truman could imagine the asshole’s glee as he sent police and fire crews scrambling to put out his handiwork. One of these times, he’s going to hurt someone. The fire engine sirens grew louder, and two gunshots cracked over the sounds of the flames. Truman dropped to his stomach and rolled behind a rock, his weapon in hand. Who’s shooting? He froze and listened, trying to hear past the roar in his ears. Two more shots. Was that a scream? His heart pounding, he called 911, reported shots fired, and advised the dispatcher to immediately let the approaching fire trucks know. He ended the call and slowly moved out of his hiding place behind the rock, his eyes peeled for the shooter. Who fired? Eagle’s Nest officers had never found anyone at the scene of the previous fires.

Why is this time dif erent? Truman resumed his circular path around the barn, his weapon ready, his focus on the shadows of the terrain beyond the barn. The light cast by the flames extended several yards into the dark, but beyond that the landscape was pitch-black. Anyone could be lurking just out of sight. He widened his circle to use the shadows for cover. His shirt soaked with sweat and his senses on high alert, he rounded the back side of the barn and spotted two figures on the ground. Motionless. In the flickering light, he recognized the Deschutes County uniforms. Please, dear Lord, no. He sank deeper into the dark and strained his vision, searching everywhere for the shooter. The flames created moving shadows in every direction, and his gaze shot from false movement to false shadow.

He pushed his anxiety away, knowing he needed to check the officers even through it would expose him. “Fuck it.” He dashed across the cleared area, feeling the heat singe his shirt, and landed on his knees next to the closest body. He shook Ralph’s shoulder, shouted, and then felt for a pulse in his neck. The officer had been shot in the head, and Truman averted his gaze after one horrified glance at the gaping exit wound in his cheek. I shouldn’t see teeth. He couldn’t find a pulse. Staying low, he scrambled to the next officer. Blood flowed freely from the young deputy’s neck, and his frantic gaze met Truman’s. His eyes were wide, his mouth silently opening and closing in frantic motions, but his arms and legs held still.

Only the deputy’s eyes could communicate, and he was clearly terrified. Spinal injury? He knows it’s bad. Truman ripped off his coat and pressed it against the wound in the deputy’s neck. The fire trucks with their big tanks made their way down the long, rutted road to the barn, and Truman checked his surroundings again for the shooter. I’m a sitting duck. He wouldn’t leave the deputy alone. He looked the man directly in the eyes. “You’re going to be fine. Help just got here.” The man blinked at him, holding his gaze and gasping for breath.

Truman spotted his name badge on his coat. “Hold on, Deputy Sanderson. You’ve got this.” The man’s lips moved, and Truman leaned closer, but no sound came from Sanderson’s mouth. Truman forced a reassuring smile, ignoring the growing heat on his back. “You’ll be okay.” He looked up, thankful to see two firemen approach with caution, giving the fire a wide berth and carefully scanning the area. They got word about the shooter. A huge burst of air punched him in the back, lifting and hurling him past Deputy Sanderson. He hit the ground face-first, the force knocking away his breath and grinding gravel into his cheek and lips.

The sound of the explosion reached him and blew away his hearing for five seconds. He lay in the dirt, his ears ringing as he fought to get his bearings, and an old terror rocketed up from the depths of his subconscious. He battled it down and took mental inventory of his body, spitting the grit out of his mouth. I’m alive. Sanderson. He pushed up to his hands and shaking knees and spun around to look at the injured man he’d flown over. Vacant eyes stared past him. The mouth had stilled. “Noooo!” Truman lunged and shook the deputy, but the life he’d seen moments before was gone. The fire continued to roar.

The morning after the fire, Special Agent Mercy Kilpatrick stared at the smoking pile of burned boards. The old barn hadn’t had a chance. It’d been ancient, brittle, and dry when she was a child, so no doubt now, two decades later, it’d gone up in flames as if it’d been soaked in gasoline. A childhood girlfriend had once lived on the farm, and Mercy had spent several hours rooting around in the barn and surrounding grounds, searching for small animals and pretending the barn was their castle. After her friend had moved, Mercy hadn’t seen it again until today. Now she was an FBI agent assigned to investigate the murder of law enforcement officers. A very angry FBI agent. Cold-blooded murder of her fellow officers in blue did that to her. And to every other person in law enforcement. She wished she could return to playing princess.

Was the fire set to draw the deputies out here on purpose? She didn’t like to think such a thing could happen in her community. Truman was nearly killed. She shuddered and put the image out of her thoughts. Our relationship could have abruptly ended after only two months. She still hadn’t seen Truman. She’d talked briefly with him on the phone, relieved to hear his voice, but he’d been pulled in a dozen directions since he arrived at the fire at midnight. Thankfully he’d suffered only some minor burns. Last night she’d flown into the Portland airport at ten o’clock after two weeks of special training at Quantico. Not wanting to drive home to Bend in the middle of the night after flying all day, she’d slept in her Portland condo, which had been on the market for nearly a month without a single offer. Seller’s market, my ass.

The 3:00 a.m. phone call from Truman had immediately gotten her up and on the road for the three-hour trip home to Central Oregon, the news of the fire, shootings, and explosions driving all sleep from her brain. By the time she’d arrived at her apartment, her boss from the small FBI office in Bend had called. The two murdered county deputies were now her priority. As she surveyed the scorched disaster, a frosty breeze shot down the neck of her heavy coat. Thanksgiving was rapidly approaching, and hints of winter had been in the Central Oregon air for several weeks. She’d spent the first eighteen years of her life in the tiny community of Eagle’s Nest, but had never returned until she’d been assigned temporary duty in the Bend office for a domestic terrorism case and discovered she’d missed living on the east side of the Cascade mountain range. Less than two months ago, she’d decided to move from wet Portland to the high desert of Bend. Life in Central Oregon was different from life in Portland.

The air smelled cleaner, the snowy mountain peaks were more plentiful, and traffic was a hundred times lighter, although the locals might disagree. Everything moved slower over here. The people were an eclectic mix of families, retirees, ranchers, farmers, cowboys, millennials, and business professionals. Farther out from the main city of Bend, the population drastically thinned and trended toward ranchers and farmers. Some people moved to Central Oregon to leave all society behind. If you weren’t picky about the location, a parcel of remote land could be purchased for a very reasonable price. Some wanted to live on their own terms without relying on the government for their safety or food supply. Sometimes they were called preppers; other times they were called unpleasant names. Mercy had grown up in such a family. Her parents had built a self-sufficient home and lifestyle and embraced the prepper label.

It’d been a good, down-to-earth life until she turned eighteen. After Mercy left Eagle’s Nest, she discovered she couldn’t fully cut herself off from the prepper lifestyle, so she’d created a balance to ease her mind. While she’d lived and worked in Portland, she’d maintained a remote secret getaway, spending weekends stocking and preparing her Central Oregon cabin. If disaster struck, she was prepared. She was always prepared. But no one needed to know that. Only Truman and some of her family knew she slaved like a madwoman in her spare time to ease her worry about a possible future disaster. Her new coworkers and even her closest workmate, Eddie, had no idea that she hid what she thought of as her “secret obsession.” It was her business. People were judgmental.

She’d seen it all her life and didn’t want that judgment aimed at her. Plus she couldn’t help her entire office if disaster struck and they turned to her because they knew of her resources. She believed in keeping her “wealth” hidden from onlookers. Her hard work was for herself and her family. She dug the toe of her boot into the wet ground, the area soaked with the thousands of gallons of water trucked in by the fire department. This rural area didn’t have fire hydrants every hundred yards, and thankfully, the fire hadn’t spread beyond the barn. Pines still stood proudly beyond the smoking pile of rubble. The usually brown ground was black and gray, from the burning of low brush and a thick coating of soot and ash. She watched the county evidence recovery team crawl through the barn’s remains and carefully search a large perimeter under the watchful eye of the fire marshal. Earlier they’d recovered four rifle casings that Mercy’s FBI supervisor, Jeff Garrison, had immediately sent to the FBI laboratory instead of the backed-up local labs.

Mercy had never worked a case involving a fire investigation, and she felt out of her element. Truman had been working several arsons around Eagle’s Nest, the first of which had occurred just before she went back east for training. Someone had set fire to an ancient abandoned Oldsmobile at the end of Robinson Street. Before the fire, nearby residents hadn’t called to have it towed away because they’d assumed someone would eventually come back for it. Truman had laughed as he repeated the words of an older witness to Mercy. “Hate to mess with someone’s car. That’s their transportation . maybe their livelihood . don’t want someone getting inconvenienced because I made a phone call to a tow company.” The car had been sitting there for six months.

People had more patience on this side of the mountain range. Truman had chalked up the car fire to bored teenagers. But then it’d happened two more times while Mercy was training back east. The tension in Truman’s voice had increased during their nightly phone calls. The second fire had been in a dumpster, and then the arsonist had burned a shed stocked with prepping supplies. Mercy’s heart had grieved when she’d heard about the supplies. The shed had belonged to a young family who’d worked hard to set aside food and supplies for their future. Mercy understood how much work and sacrifice went into being prepared. The thought of a fire destroying her years of storage work had made her stomach churn uncomfortably. Now the family was struggling to feel safe in their home and wondered if they’d been purposefully targeted.

“The first two fires were set to things people had abandoned,” Truman had told her. “But this third fire targeted the hard work of a family. I hope this isn’t the start of a new trend.” All his spare time during the last two weeks had been focused on the arson cases. No one had expected the arsonist to suddenly commit murder along with his fourth fire. Now everything had changed. Mercy stared at the dirt where the deputies’ bodies had lain, dark stains still soaking the ground. Had the arsonist planned to shoot whoever arrived? Or was he simply watching the flames and decided to shoot on a whim? One shot is a whim. Four focused shots are planned. Each of his bullets had found its mark.

She swallowed hard and fought back another wave of boiling anger. Both deputies had families. Deputy Sanderson’s baby was three months old. His poor wife. A baby who’ll never know its father. She watched the fire marshal bend over the shoulder of one of the evidence techs, pointing at something in the pile of wooden debris. The wood all looked the same to Mercy. Wet and burned. “I wish I understood exactly what he sees,” said Special Agent Eddie Peterson. She hadn’t noticed him stop beside her, and the presence of her favorite agent immediately boosted her mood.

Eddie had applied for the other open position with the Bend FBI office, surprising everyone but the office’s intelligence analyst, Darby Cowen. “I knew Eddie liked it here,” Darby had told Mercy confidently. “I saw his eyes light up the first time he went fly-fishing out on the river and heard it in his voice when he talked about the skiing at Mount Bachelor. This area casts a spell over nature lovers. Even when they don’t realize they’re nature lovers.” Eddie was the last person Mercy would have identified as a nature lover. He was a city boy who paid a little too much attention to how he dressed and fixed his hair. But since he’d moved to Bend, she’d seen a side of him that appreciated the beauty of the area, and she was delighted he’d moved. To her he was a piece of Portland in Central Oregon. A small link to the good memories from the bigger city.

He’d jokingly suggested they rent an apartment together, but Mercy needed her own place. She had a teenage niece to take care of. Kaylie was seventeen and in her senior year of high school. She’d been abandoned by her mother when she was one, and her father had died recently. His dying wish had been for Mercy to finish raising his daughter. Mercy had reluctantly accepted, feeling as if she’d been thrust into a foreign world. Teenage angst, girlfriend drama, Internet predators, energy drinks, and celebrity crushes. Mercy’s teenage years had involved ranch work and hand-me-downs. “Do we know where the shooter was standing when he shot the officers?” Eddie asked her. His eyes were hard, his usual cheery persona buried under the rage directed at their murderer.

“They found the rifle casings over there.” Mercy pointed at a group of pines far to the left of the barn. “Holy crap. Someone was a good shot.” Eddie ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t like the thought of that at all,” he muttered. “No one does,” said Mercy. “I could never make a shot like that. And I’m pretty good.” “You’re much better than me,” Eddie admitted.

“I was raised around guns.” Mercy had heard the same compliment from several agents she worked with. Firing their weapons wasn’t their favorite thing. Most agents spent a lot of time sitting at a desk. “Everyone out here was raised around guns,” stated Eddie with a dour look, and Mercy wondered if he was second-guessing his decision to transfer to the area. The agent was her close friend, but he often made snap decisions. His grumpiness made her want to pat him on the head and hand him a cappuccino with extra foam. “But why shoot people who are coming to help with the fire?” Mercy said softly. “That’s what I don’t understand,” agreed Eddie, turning his focus back to the hot pile of burned wood. “Some of the wood looks like alligator skin,” he observed.

“I think I read that if those marks are large and shiny, it means an ignitable liquid was used.” “Untrue,” said the fire marshal as he joined the two agents. “That’s often repeated as a fact, but there’s no significance to the appearance of the alligatoring.” He shook hands with both agents as they introduced themselves. Bill Trek was a short man, maybe five foot six, but he was broad in the chest and spoke with a voice that sounded as if he’d smoked a thousand cigarettes. Or had been exposed to a thousand fires. His eyes were a clear blue, and he had a dusting of gray hair above his ears. Truman had told Mercy that Bill had been working fires for over forty years. She liked him immediately. “What are your first impressions?” she asked.

“It was a hot one,” he said with a half smile. “And I could smell the gasoline the minute I opened my truck door.” She and Eddie both sniffed the air. Mercy couldn’t smell it. “So definitely arson,” said Eddie. “Absolutely. Someone used a heck of a lot of gasoline. I can tell they soaked several areas of the barn, and I’ve barely started investigating.” “Did you find what caused the explosion?” Eddie asked. “I can see some remains of a propane tank.

It’s buried under the debris, but that matches up with the description of the explosion.” The investigator looked regretfully at the pile of wood. “I was told the owner doesn’t have previous pictures. I guess I’ll never know what the barn looked like before.” Mercy looked past the smoking heap, focusing on the image in her brain. “It was two stories. The second level was a loft with a low ceiling. A man wouldn’t be able to stand up straight except in the center at the peak of the roof. It had a huge opening on the second level directly over the front double doors. And double doors in the back.

” Bill narrowed his eyes at her. “Been here, have ya?” “I played in it as a kid when someone else owned it.” She paused. “Truman—the police chief —said the entire structure was on fire when he arrived.” She ignored Eddie’s raised eyebrow as she fumbled her words. “Do you know how long it would take to get to that point from when the fire was started?” Bill stroked his chin, considering her question. “A lot of factors would affect that. Right now I can’t even guess. Why do you want to know?” “I’m wondering about the anonymous phone call that reported the fire,” Mercy explained. “It was called in from a gas station pay phone five miles away.

Did a passerby report it or did the arsonist set the fire and wait to see that it’d caught sufficiently before he called it in? Then did he come back and wait for the officers to arrive? I’m just thinking out loud here, but he could have just watched it burn, never caring whether anyone showed up or not.” “Firebugs like to watch the reaction of the responders,” Bill stated. “I’ve met enough of them over the years. They can seem like perfectly ordinary folks, but start them talking about fires and they get a weird look in their eye . like they just popped a happy pill.” “Did you go to the other arsons that happened in Eagle’s Nest recently?” Mercy asked. “I briefly visited the burned-up shed.” Bill shook his head and clucked his tongue in sympathy. “I felt bad for that couple, but they’re young and they’ll soon rebuild what they lost. Wish they had some insurance, though.

I saw the pictures of the burned Oldsmobile and the dumpster fire. My first thought was kids, but you never know.” He turned and looked back at the smoking pile. “This was different,” he said softly. “I suspect we’ll find that setting the fire was only part of his intention.” TWO Truman found Tilda Brass fascinating. He and Special Agent Jeff Garrison sat in the woman’s living room, waiting to ask her about the fire, since it’d occurred on her property. The eighty-year-old woman had answered the door dressed in men’s faded jeans and a denim shirt pinned closed with a half dozen safety pins. Her rubber boots looked far too big to be a woman’s size, but she wore them gracefully. She had long gray hair, and her manner was that of a society belle—quite at odds with her clothing and boots.

Operating on two hours of sleep, Truman had felt his early-morning adrenaline rush fade away hours ago. The EMTs had applied something that numbed the burns on the back of his neck and then bandaged them, warning him of infection and ordering him to see his doctor as soon as possible. Truman didn’t have time. He took some Advil and pushed on. A doctor’s visit could wait. Now he was simply putting one foot in front of the other, running on sheer determination to get to the bottom of his arson mystery. Murder. What’d started as pesky arsons had suddenly blown up into the murder of two law enforcement officers. Deschutes County Deputy Damon Sanderson had been twenty-six and married for two years. His wife had collapsed at the news of his death.

His three-month-old daughter would know her father only through pictures. Deschutes County Deputy Ralph Long had been fifty-one and divorced, with three grown children and four grandchildren. Truman had once bought him a beer at the bowling alley after his team lost to Ralph’s. When the call went out last night that officers had been shot at the location of the fire, every on-duty officer in a thirty-mile radius headed toward the scene. Granted, this was a rural community, so two Oregon State Police troopers, three other county deputies, and two of Truman’s officers who got out of bed composed “every on-duty officer.” They established a perimeter as the fire department soaked the crumbling building and surrounding brush with the water from its trucks, and then they attended to the murdered men. There was no sign of the shooter. By the time the sun came up, Truman had been interviewed by the county sheriff and by Jeff Garrison, the supervisory senior resident agent for the Bend FBI office. Frustration had boiled under his skin all night. He’d been a hundred feet from the murders and hadn’t seen a thing to help the investigators find the shooter.

Truman numbly accepted a cup of hot coffee that Tilda had insisted on brewing. He took a sip and it burned its way down his esophagus in a satisfying way, momentarily distracting him from the burn on his neck. His pain relief was running out. He’d heard about Tilda from the police station’s previous manager, Ina Smythe, but he’d never met or seen the woman. Ina said Tilda didn’t come into town as much as she used to but made good use of her phone to keep up with the local goings-on. Truman inferred that Ina and Tilda were part of the same gossip tree. “You didn’t know about the fire until one of the county deputies stopped by?” Jeff asked the woman. “That’s correct,” Tilda said as she took a sip of coffee from her elegant tiny cup. Each of their cups had a different image of a flower, and the rims appeared to have once been painted with gold . or gold-colored paint.

Truman could have finished the contents of his tiny cup in three swallows, but he took another minuscule sip, mindful of the temperature. “I heard the sirens,” she added. “But I ignored them. That barn isn’t anywhere near the house. I had no idea that’s where they were headed.” “Did you use the barn for anything?” Jeff asked. “Nope. It hasn’t been used in years. We bought the property nearly twenty years ago. My departed husband”—she silently crossed herself—“used to store some things in there, but it never held livestock.

It wasn’t convenient, since it was such a far trek from the house. Now I just pay to have the brush cleared away from all my outbuildings in case of wildfires.” She solemnly shook her head. “I never dreamed someone would deliberately set one of them on fire.” “Do you know if there was a propane tank stored in the barn?” asked Jeff. Tilda thought for a moment. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there was, but I can’t say for certain.” “Did you recently see any strangers on any of your property who shouldn’t have been there?” “Of course not. Charlie keeps away any intruders. One footstep on the property and if his bark doesn’t send them running, then one look at his teeth will.

” Truman glanced around for a dog. “Dogs are excellent alert systems. Has anyone come to the door in the past week? Perhaps tried to sell you something?” “No, I haven’t had anyone try to sell me something in ages. I used to have a regular Avon lady stop by, but she died several years ago. Oh! There was a man who stopped by to ask if I’d seen his dog not too long ago. He said it’d run away when his son left the door open.” “Your dog didn’t scare him off?” Jeff asked. Tilda gave him an odd look. “I haven’t owned a dog in years. My last dog was Charlie.

That’s him right there.” She dipped her head at her fireplace. Truman spotted a photo of a German shepherd on the mantel, and a sinking sensation started in his stomach. A minute ago she told us the dog was alive. He stood and stepped closer to take a good look. The photo was quite faded, and Truman recognized the car in the background as a Ford Mustang from the eighties. “That’s a good-looking dog,” he said. He exchanged a brief glance with Jeff. The FBI agent looked grim. Their witness had lost some of her reliability.

“Do you have any other sources of protection in the house?” Truman asked. He took a long look at the woman, wondering if she had a touch of dementia. Have we wasted our time? Exhaustion crept up his spine, threatening to make him close his eyes while listening to Tilda’s voice. “I’ve got my husband’s old guns. I practice target shooting every now and then, but I haven’t needed to use them recently.” She tilted her head. “When those loud teenage boys would ride their four-wheelers on my property, I’d get out a rifle. I never shot at them,” she added quickly. “One look at me with the rifle and they’d head back the way they came.” She sniffed.

“They left tire tracks everywhere.” “How long ago was that?” Truman asked, wondering if any of her answers were reliable. Tilda sighed and took a sip. “Let’s see. It was definitely hot, so it was during the summer.” “This past summer?” he asked faintly, wondering if the woman’s memory of time was accurate. “Yes.” She nodded with assurance. “I’d like to take a look at your rifles,” Jeff stated, rising to his feet, a pleasant smile on his face. Tilda immediately rose and led them down a narrow hall to a bedroom.

She moved spryly, making Truman doubt his earlier thoughts about her memory. The bedroom smelled like lavender and he spotted a dried bouquet of the purple flowers next to the bed. The room was clean and airy, but a thin layer of dust covered the nightstands and bed frame. She opened a closet to show a rack with five weapons. Dust covered each one. Truman sniffed, searching for the odor of a recently fired gun. All he smelled was lavender. If one of Tilda’s guns had been used, it wasn’t in this closet. “Do you have others?” he asked. “I keep a pistol in the drawer by my bed,” she said.

“You never know who might decide to visit an old lady in the middle of the night. I don’t have anything worth stealing, but people do stupid things. Especially the ones on drugs.” She whispered the last word as she leaned close to him and Jeff, her faded blue eyes deadly serious. Truman fought to keep from smiling and silently wished for more pain relievers. And his bed. Mercy glanced at the clock on her vehicle’s dashboard and pressed harder on the gas pedal. She’d told her boss she wanted an hour to handle a personal errand. She needed to pick up her niece. Kaylie had spent two weeks with her aunt Pearl and a cousin while Mercy was training back east.

Mercy knew from frequent phone calls that Kaylie was at her wits’ end. Kaylie was used to being the only child and living with her father, so being with the lively male cousin and an overly attentive aunt had turned her world inside out. “I can’t get any peace,” she’d grumbled to Mercy. “Each time I tell Aunt Pearl I need to be left alone, she spends the next hour asking me if I’m okay.” Mercy had sympathized. She liked her alone time too. But Kaylie’s father had just been murdered, and Mercy wasn’t comfortable leaving the seventeen-year-old by herself. Pearl had reported that there’d been some crying sessions, but she felt the teenager’s overall mental health was solid. Mercy had taken her niece to a therapist after Levi’s death and was pleased that Kaylie was still going every other week. She parked in front of her sister’s rural home and stepped out of her Tahoe. The odor from the pig barns wasn’t nearly as strong as it’d been earlier in the fall. Kaylie emerged from the house, a backpack slung over one shoulder. She hugged her aunt and dashed down the porch stairs in one leap. “Let’s go,” she said as she gave Mercy a brief hug, and then hopped in the passenger seat, clearly eager for them to be on their way. Mercy looked back at Pearl, who watched them from the porch. Her sister held up a hand in acknowledgment. Mercy’s legs froze in place. She’d been about to walk up to her sister and at least have a short chat, but Pearl’s hand gesture indicated it wasn’t necessary. I guess I’m done here. Getting to know her siblings after a fifteen-year absence hadn’t been easy. Mercy’s fight with her father when she was eighteen had led her family to cut all ties with her. Mercy had never regretted her stance in the argument, but she’d regretted missing out on the lives of her siblings. When she’d been temporarily assigned to a case in Eagle’s Nest two months ago, she’d been sick with worry about bumping into people from her past. Now she viewed that case as fate intervening and giving her a second chance with her family. Not all of her family had accepted her return, but Mercy believed things were moving in the right direction. Pearl had embraced her on the first day but kept her distance after that. Phone calls were the best way to communicate with Pearl. She was almost chatty on the phone. The oldest sibling, Owen, still refused to talk with Mercy and kept his wife and kids from doing so. Her other sister was the Rose she’d always known. Wide open, loving, and accepting. Her love kept Mercy sane and optimistic for some sort of relationship with her other siblings. Mercy had been in town less than a week when Rose was kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer, and the slashes on her face were now a constant reminder of his abuse. The killer had been the target of the FBI’s hunt after a string of prepper murders in Central Oregon. Her blind sister was also two months pregnant with the dead man’s baby. Levi. Her heart lurched as it always did at the thought of her murdered sibling. Rose had survived, but Levi had not. Mercy would always feel slightly responsible for Levi’s murder. The death of his killer at her and Truman’s hands hadn’t given her much peace, but raising his daughter did. She’d learned to be grateful for every day she had with this living piece of Levi. To her surprise, Mercy had deeply missed the teenager while she’d been gone. She turned her back on Pearl and climbed in the Tahoe. Kaylie immediately switched on the radio as Mercy started the vehicle. The girl punched buttons until she found a song she liked. Mercy grimaced and turned down the music. They had an agreement: Kaylie picked the station, but Mercy was in charge of the volume. It was one of many small issues they’d had to figure out in their first month of living together. “Ready to go home?” Mercy asked. “More than ready.” The teen pulled back her long hair, using a band from her wrist to fasten it in a knot on top of her head. The red stud in her nose twinkled in the sunlight. “I think the coffee shop is going to be okay. Aunt Pearl seems to enjoy it.” Mercy blew out a breath of relief. The fate of her brother’s Coffee Café in Eagle’s Nest had been the subject of many long conversations among her, Kaylie, Pearl, and Truman. Mercy had assumed they would sell the cute store, but Kaylie’s emotional attachment to her father’s store, where she’d helped since she was ten, had halted those plans. Then had come the discussion of who would run it. Kaylie had insisted she could do it alone, but no one agreed with that plan. Pearl had stepped forward, pointing out that she had spare time. “She’s finally mastered most of the drinks,” added Kaylie. “And she lets me handle the baking, like she should. She really wanted to do that part, but it’s mine,” Kaylie said emphatically. “I created most of the recipes and designed the bakery menu. I wasn’t about to let her fool with that. I think she enjoys the social part of the café too. She already knew most of the customers, and they like talking with her. That’s important.” Mercy glanced at her niece, happy to hear the satisfied tone in the girl’s voice. Kaylie had been pessimistic about her aunt’s involvement in her father’s legacy, but it appeared the two of them had worked out a system that gave both what they needed. “Is Samuel much help in the shop?” Kaylie sighed loudly at the mention of her cousin. “He’s okay. You have to tell him to do everything. He can’t see for himself what needs to be done.” Is that a boy thing or a teenage thing? Judging by Mercy’s struggles to get Kaylie to clean up her things around their apartment, it was a teenage thing. Thank goodness Kaylie was a girl. At least Mercy had been one and had an idea of how girls’ brains worked. She would have been clueless about a teenage boy, other than knowing to constantly shove food at him. That much she remembered from having two brothers. Please don’t let me mess up with Kaylie. She wanted to get it right for her brother’s sake and for Kaylie. It was a tough world for a teenager without a family. Mercy was determined that Kaylie would never feel the abandonment she’d felt at eighteen when she’d parted ways with her family. At the very least, Kaylie would always know Mercy would be there for her. Am I exaggerating the benefit of a slightly paranoid, workaholic aunt? It was better than the complete absence of family she’d experienced. “I’ll drop you off at the apartment, and then I have to go back to work,” she told the girl. “I haven’t even unpacked my suitcase yet.” “I heard about the fire and dead officers. That’s horrible. Aunt Pearl said Truman was there too. Is he okay?” “I talked to him on the phone. He got some small burns from the fire and banged his head, but he’s fine.” Is he? Mercy knew his history with fire and burns. Just over a year ago, he’d been too late to get a fellow officer and a civilian away from a burning car before it exploded. He’d been severely burned in the blast, and the stress of the deaths had nearly made him give up law enforcement. He still had bad dreams. Her heart ached with the need to see him in person. The quick phone calls during the morning had assured her only that he was still upright and functioning. He’s going to crash tonight. Possibly in more than one way. She’d been away from him for the last two weeks. Their relationship was still in an early stage. She firmly believed in taking things slow . tortoise slow. If Truman had had his way, she’d be living with him. Kaylie too. He liked the girl and teased her as if he were a good-natured uncle. But Mercy wasn’t ready for living together. Hell, they’d only known each other two months. “What?” Kaylie hollered. Mercy nearly drove off the road as she frantically looked from side to side for what had made her niece shout. “What happened?” she gasped. “Did you hear that?” Kaylie stared at the Tahoe’s radio. “What the announcer just said?” “No.” Mercy took a deep breath and focused on slowing her heartbeat. “Please don’t yell when I’m driving.” “Sorry. But he just said some local idiots are claiming the shooting last night was justified. That the deputies deserved it.” Mercy’s heart sank. No. Not here. Not in my state. “That’s asinine.” Kaylie leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms. “People are stupid. Who thinks like that?” “Sadly, quite a few people.” Mercy knew all too well that there were some residents who would prefer the government stay out of their lives. But usually they didn’t act so violently on their beliefs. “Do you think they’re the ones who shot the deputies?” Questioning eyes turned toward Mercy. “This is your case, isn’t it? Are you going to find the guys who said that shit?” “Don’t swear.” “Sorry. It makes me angry.” “It makes me angry too. And yes, someone will look into it.”

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