A Merciful Truth
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“This shouldn’t be a thing,” Kaylie muttered as she wiped her cheek.
“Damn right,” Truman agreed.
The parking lot was packed with a variety of patrol cars. He saw logos from Washington, Idaho, and Nevada. The majority were from Oregon’s east side of the Cascades, and his heart swelled as he spotted logos from tiny rural towns whose officers must have driven for hours and left their communities shorthanded to pay their respects.
When officers died, you did your damnedest to show up.
Kaylie’s attention wandered, and he noticed as she zeroed in on a tall young man, her steps slowing and her shoulders straightening. Cade Pruitt was up ahead with what appeared to be his parents. He hadn’t seen Kaylie yet, and he stopped to greet a cluster of people. Truman recognized Cade’s three buddies from the other night among the several older men in the group.
Truman tried to place the older members. More family? Some of them wore heavy camouflage jackets and carried their hats in their hands, appearing to be typical hardworking rural men. One or two of them looked slightly familiar, but not enough for Truman to remember names.
Cade stood out among the men of his age. He didn’t slouch, and he was wearing slacks where the others wore jeans.
Maybe Kaylie picked a decent one.
He saw Mercy’s gaze dart between her niece and the young man, two lines deepening between her brows.
They filed in and took their seats, Mercy sitting between him and Kaylie, his hand still tightly gripping hers.
The next forty-five minutes ripped out his heart.
The slide show of Damon Sanderson’s life. Images of him and his pregnant wife. And then pictures of his new baby girl. Ralph Long’s brother valiantly spoke without shedding a tear about Ralph’s love of his job, but left the entire audience holding wet Kleenex. A police soloist had been flown in from Seattle and made grown men weep with his version of “Amazing Grace.”
As they exited the building, Truman nearly asked Mercy to drive. He’d left his strength and heart on the floor in the auditorium. Even Kaylie appeared to struggle to hold up her head, her energy sapped.
“I feel like I just ran a marathon. Jenna and I probably won’t do much tonight,” Kaylie told the two of them as Truman drove toward her friend’s house. She’d made plans to spend the night with Jenna to work on a school project. Mercy had questioned letting Kaylie stay with a friend while she was still in deep water, but then she’d seen how much work was left on the presentation that was due soon.
They dropped her off, and Mercy gave the teen a hug along with a few stern words about staying put that night. “I have no desire to go anywhere tonight,” Kaylie told her. “We have to get an early start in the morning, so I need sleep.”
Truman couldn’t complain that the teen was gone for the evening. He was emotionally spent and selfishly wanted Mercy all to himself.
Mercy watched Truman check the doors of his house again. He hadn’t stopped moving since they walked into his home. So far he’d fed the cat, poured drinks for the two of them, straightened up the family room, and unloaded the dishwasher. She expected him to start vacuuming next.
She took a sip of the orange juice and vodka he’d mixed for her. It was extremely strong. Another out-of-character action of his. Or else he figured she needed it after the emotional freight trains of the memorial service.
She sat as still as possible at the dining nook table. As if her lack of movement could calm him and slow him down. His restlessness filled the house, and she had to fight to keep it from taking over her own energy level.
Simon hopped up onto the chair next to her and silently requested attention, her golden gaze fixed on Mercy’s. She stroked the cat’s silky black fur and wished Truman would sit down so Simon could settle on his lap and infuse him with some of her calm.
Truman strode back into the kitchen, spotted the cat, and stopped to scratch her under the chin.
“What’s wrong?” Mercy didn’t beat around the bush.
He kept his gaze on Simon. “It was a pretty crappy day.”
“I completely agree, but I feel like there’s something else eating at you.” She set the cat on her chair and moved to him, putting both of her hands on his upper arm. “Tell me.”
His throat moved and she saw a vein pulsate in his neck.
“I’m sure the memorial service was hard for you. You were there,” Mercy continued. “You were with both of them at their last moments.”
“It wasn’t just that,” he said, still petting Simon. “Something happened this morning.”
Mercy waited, fighting the need to stroke his arm as he stroked the cat.
“It was a simple traffic stop.”
“No traffic stop is simple. They are completely unpredictable.” She pulled him over to the couch and made him sit, positioning herself beside him, her leg pressed against his from hip to knee as she clasped his hands.
“I really don’t want to talk about this now.” His gaze wouldn’t meet hers.
“Tell me, Truman,” she whispered. He needed to unburden himself, and she wanted to be the one he sought for solace. The desire was foreign to her. Before, she’d wanted people to keep their problems to themselves and not disturb her life with their issues. But something inside her ached to know his pain. It was an intimacy she craved from him.
She touched the rough stubble on the side of his jaw. He flinched and took her hand, turning to face her. The shutters had vanished from his eyes and his agony slammed into her like a rock.
“The truck had two taillights out. Two of them.”
“So they definitely needed to be stopped,” she agreed. “They were a hazard on the road.”
“I pulled them over on the highway just east of town. You know where it’s two lanes wide and twists near the Polk farm?”
“Yes, there’s a nice wide shoulder for them to pull over. Plenty of room.”
“There is.” He looked straight ahead, his gaze distant as he remembered. “Everything was fine. I’d run their plates, called in my location, and had just approached the driver’s window.”
He stopped speaking, and she waited a long moment before prodding him again. “What happened?”
“It’s stupid. I look back now, and you can’t understand how pissed I am that I reacted the way I did.” His hand tightened on hers.
“Traffic stops can be anxiety producing.”
“Another car sped by as I reached the window, and its tires threw up a rock.” He looked down at their clenched hands. “I thought it was a gunshot when it hit the truck’s fender.”
“Ohhhh.” Now I understand. Her heart cracked for him.
“Exactly. I darted behind the bed of the truck and had drawn my weapon before I could think.”
“What did the driver of the truck do?”
“I don’t think he even noticed that I’d abruptly vanished. It wasn’t until I heard him swearing at his passenger about the rock hitting his fender that I realized what actually happened.
“I was terrified, Mercy. My fucking heart was trying to beat its way through my rib cage and I was sweating as if it was a humid day in Houston. Instantly. It all hit instantly. And it took me twenty seconds before I could even leave my position at the back of the truck.”
“Did you talk to the driver?”
“I could barely speak. All I wanted to do was get in my vehicle and leave. He must have thought I was an idiot. I had to ask him for his license twice because the first time I handed it back without even reading what was on it. My brain was short-circuiting. I finally gave him a warning and then sat in my vehicle for another ten minutes, trying to figure out what’d happened.”
“It’s totally under—”
“Don’t patronize me!” he snapped. “I fell apart over a rock. A damned rock! And then I could barely go back to work. An hour later I saw someone blow through a stop sign, and I couldn’t bring myself to do a damn thing about it. I just watched them speed off. I fucking froze.”
Her heart split in two, the ripping sensation as painful as the time she accidentally tore a huge hunk of skin off her thigh on a bolt. He doesn’t need me to tell him it’s normal after what he’s been through. He doesn’t need me to logically explain away his reactions.