A Merciful Truth
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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.
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 different?
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.
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.
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.