A Merciful Truth
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“Heading back through the orchard toward the highway.”
“You didn’t try to get a look at their vehicle?” Truman leaned forward and rested his forearms on his desk, his entire focus on Clyde.
“I had a fire to take care of,” Clyde pointed out. “This might be November, but with our dry spell it could have spread like crazy.”
“Not doubting your judgment,” Truman told him. “Just hoping you had a vehicle description for us. Did you hear it leave?”
Clyde thought for a moment. “No, all my attention was on the fire.”
“What did they do after you fired your gun?” Mercy asked.
“Could you make out anything they said? Or see what they wore?” she continued.
The older man closed his eyes. “All I saw was silhouettes. No features. I’m not even certain about how many people. I think there were two or three of them. Could be others I didn’t see.”
Mercy thought of the large man from the early-morning fire. “Any of them heavyset? Super thin?”
“Average size. I feel like they were younger because they could move so fast, you know?” He opened his eyes and tipped his head in thought. “They ran as fast as they could once I fired. It’s been several decades since I was able to run like that.”
“If someone fired at you, you might surprise yourself,” Truman suggested.
“Good point.” He frowned and opened his mouth to speak but closed it. His thick brows came together, and he picked at a button on his coat.
“What is it?” asked Mercy.
“I could be wrong,” he started.
“We’re interested in anything you can suggest,” Mercy said.
“Well, I think one of them was a woman. I swear I heard a woman’s laugh that night.”
Mercy couldn’t get Clyde’s words out of her mind. A woman? A woman might have done these fires and shootings?
She and Truman had puzzled over it for a good ten minutes after Clyde left, getting nowhere in their theories except in realizing they needed to be more open-minded. They couldn’t assume the shooters and fire setters were all male.
“I feel like I haven’t seen you since I got back,” Mercy said to Truman as he drove them out to the site of the deputies’ murders. They’d grabbed a quick lunch after Clyde left and made plans to meet the fire marshal at the remains of Tilda Brass’s barn.
“I’m pretty sure we slept in the same bed last night.”
“Briefly. And you passed out within minutes.”
“Are you complaining?”
“Maybe a tiny bit.” She took a closer look at him, noting the bandages on his neck looked clean and fresh. “You still look exhausted, which doesn’t surprise me, since I think you’ve had five hours of sleep in the last two days. How do the burns feel?”
“Uh-huh.” She dug some ibuprofen out of her bag and handed it to him. The fact that he accepted them without protest gave her an idea of how the burns really felt. He swallowed them with a swig from the travel coffee mug in his cup holder. Mercy tried not to think about how old the cold coffee might be.
“What are your thoughts on one of the arsonists being a woman?” she asked him.
“You mean one of the murderers?”
“I don’t see why not. I’m more hung up on the fact that Clyde saw them sprinting through his orchard. The body I saw this morning hadn’t done any sprinting in decades. And he was definitely not of average size.”
“Maybe we’re looking at more than two or three people.” Mercy let that idea simmer in her thoughts. A group of people starting fires? She’d been under the impression that arson was generally a single-person crime, unless it was a case of a radical group like the Animal Liberation Front or the Earth Liberation Front. “I can’t see the motive yet,” Mercy said slowly. “In a case like this, I have to ask, ‘Who benefits?’ And so far I haven’t seen benefits for anyone. No one’s getting rich. No one seems to be the focus of revenge.”
She’d read Truman’s reports on the three small fires. None of the victims had any ideas about why they’d been targeted. There’d been no associations found among them; the arsons had seemed extremely random.
According to what she’d read about arsonists, they loved to see the flames and feel the power of destruction. They could target their fires to hurt someone, but more often it was about self-gratification. And they typically didn’t shoot the first responders. They liked to watch the responders in action.
Their arsonists—murderers—were still a mystery to her.
“I can’t see the benefit either,” Truman said. “The fire at the Brass farm changed it up. You know as well as I do that there’s been a backlash against law enforcement in several cities in our country. We can’t ignore that.”
She couldn’t ignore it; it was in her thoughts every day.
His focus was on the road, his profile to her, so she took a long moment to savor the sight of him. Was it wrong that she was thankful he rarely wore a uniform? His badge was on his belt along with his weapon, but at first glance Truman Daly did not look like law enforcement. To her he seemed safer not wearing a uniform that announced his profession. The same went for her. Unless she was wearing an FBI jacket with the letters emblazoned across her back, no one could guess what she did for a living.
Am I a chicken?
Appreciating the anonymity of their jobs when many good men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day made her feel sick to her stomach.
Who am I fooling? Truman Daly has COP written on his forehead.
“I really hate the theory that the fire might have been set for that purpose,” Mercy said.
“You and me both.”
“That doesn’t happen out here.”
He lifted a brow at her unlikely claim. “It can happen anywhere,” he stated.
I know. It doesn’t mean I like it.
A long silence filled the vehicle. Pines and rocks and sagebrush flashed by as they sped down the highway. Mercy waited until they rounded a bend in the road and then leaned forward to look out Truman’s side of the vehicle. The Cascade mountains were glorious. The sky was a hazy gray instead of the intense blue of summer, but the peaks were loaded with snow, looking much more white and full than when she had arrived in September. She never tired of looking at them.
She’d considered buying a home, but hadn’t rushed into it. The reasonable person inside her wanted to see how things played out with Kaylie, her job, and Truman. Neither she nor Truman talked about the future; it was way too early in their relationship. But she had a good feeling about him. He hadn’t raised any red flags for her. Yet.
Sometimes he seemed too good to be true.
He had demons. But he worked to keep them at bay. Who doesn’t have a demon or two under their bed?
Even she had a few. Ones that made her chop wood half the night and obsessively watch the international stock markets.
She hid nothing from him. He knew it all. Every worry and burden.
But do I know all of his?
For the most part the man was an open book. With Truman, what you saw was what you got.
But she still watched him, waiting for the bottom to fall out. She couldn’t help it; it was part of who she was.
“Have you made Thanksgiving plans?” he asked in the silence.
“When is it?”
He gave her a side-eye. “Next Thursday. Tell me you knew that.”
“I can’t remember the last time I had Thanksgiving plans.”
“Are you kidding me?” The Tahoe swerved slightly as his gaze left the road and he gave her a wide-eyed stare. “Are you anti-American?”
That stung. “No, I haven’t been around family in fifteen years,” she snapped.
“Thanksgiving isn’t only about family. I’ve celebrated Turkey Day with all sorts of people during the last decade. It’s been pretty rare that they’re related to me. Usually I don’t have the time to fly to see my parents for the actual day.”