A Merciful Truth
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“Well, yes, but I imagined it’d be over dinner somewhere,” Mercy managed to say. “I didn’t know you worked here.”
Cade looked from her to Eddie in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
“We’re here to talk to Tom McDonald,” Eddie told him. “Not you.” He turned to Mercy. “This is the guy who Kaylie snuck out with?” He gave Cade an evil eye. “How old are you?”
“She’s in high school,” Eddie pointed out, still using his tough-cop voice.
“Stop it,” Mercy interjected. “This isn’t the time or place. Is Tom around?”
“What’s going on? Everything okay, Cade?” A new voice spoke as two men came around the building. Like Cade, they wore tool belts, but they were at least a decade or two older. One was short and wiry, while the other was a few inches taller and hung back, looking slightly uncomfortable at the sight of visitors.
Mercy immediately disliked the shorter man who’d spoken. His eyes were mean and squinty. “We’re looking for Tom,” she said pleasantly.
“Who’s looking?” said the jerk as he crossed his arms and challenged her with those eyes.
“The FBI.” She smiled, showing all her teeth, as she introduced herself and Eddie.
“Tom’s not here,” answered Squinty Eyes.
“He went to Salem,” added the second man in a friendlier voice. “He said he might not come back today.” He received a glare from Squinty for sharing the extra information. Or for being helpful.
Eddie held out the photo they’d lifted from Joshua Pence’s old DMV records. Mercy estimated he weighed quite a bit less in the photo, but the hair and beard looked about right. “Know this guy?”
Squinty glanced at the photo and looked away. “Nope. Never seen him before.”
The second man shook his head while keeping his gaze on the picture.
Too chicken to challenge Squinty.
Eddie held the photo so Cade could see it. Cade studied it for a few seconds and frowned. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly. “Did something happen to him?”
“He’s dead. Murdered. We’re trying to find out where he lived and worked for the last six months.”
Cade paled. “That’s too bad, but I don’t pay much attention to the people who come visit. A lot of guys drop in here.”
A safe answer.
“Why is that?” Mercy asked. She made a show of looking around the property. “Tom sell cattle or pigs? I don’t see a lot of livestock. What causes all the traffic?” She smiled innocently at Cade.
“Not livestock. I dunno, I guess. I just work here and don’t ask a lot of questions.” His gaze dropped to his feet, and he kicked some gravel in the dusty dirt. “I haven’t been here that long. I just do my job.”
“What exactly is that?” Eddie asked.
Mercy watched Squinty out of the corner of her eye as Cade answered. The man had shifted his weight to his toes and leaned forward an inch, his intense stare on Cade as he spoke.
“Construction.” Cade pointed to the building that smelled of fresh wood behind him.
“And you two?” Eddie asked the other men.
“Same. Construction,” answered Squinty. The other nodded silently.
“Tom must have some big plans,” Mercy stated, taking an obvious look at all the new buildings.
No one answered her.
Fifty yards away a woman stepped out of another building. Her braids were tucked inside a man’s heavy canvas coat, and she wore camouflage pants with heavy boots. She glanced at the visitors and proceeded to empty a large pot of water a few feet away from the door, then disappeared back inside.
“We’d like to show this photo to a few other people,” Eddie said.
“I’m not comfortable with you walking around Tom’s property when he’s not here,” said Squinty. “I don’t think he’d like you to interrupt his employees while they’re working. I’m sure he’d be happy to set up a time to meet with you.” Squinty decided it was his time to grin at Mercy.
She held eye contact and ignored his crooked teeth with the black bits of chewing tobacco stuck between them. “We’ll leave our cards, and you can pass them on to Tom. Tell him to give us a call when he gets back.” She deliberately handed the cards to Cade, who reluctantly accepted them, as if he were getting a traffic ticket. She didn’t let go until he raised his gaze to look at her. She met his confused look and then released the cards.
“Nice meeting y’all,” said Eddie with a little wave as they turned to leave.
“Where’d the Southern accent come from?” Mercy muttered to him as they headed to her vehicle.
“It felt like the right thing to say at the moment.”
“Were you expecting a ‘Y’all come back now, ya hear?’ in reply?” She yanked on the handle to her Tahoe.
“A man can hope. Think Cade will reach out to you?”
“A woman can hope.” She started the vehicle, pulled a tight U-turn, and headed out in the direction from which they’d come. “Actually, I’m certain I’ll hear from him soon.”
Twenty-five years ago
“Hold steady, honey.”
Mercy could smell pipe smoke on Uncle John’s breath as he crouched behind her and moved her eight-year-old arms and hands into the correct position on the big rifle. Straw from the bales of hay poked the skin of her stomach and knees as she knelt on one to properly reach the weapon on the gun rest.
Behind her Owen muttered about her turn taking too much time.
“She’s faster than you were at this age,” Uncle John informed her brother. “Better shot too.”
Mercy smiled but kept her eye turned to the sight. Sixteen-year-old Owen could do everything better than she. But if her uncle said she was a better shot than he at her age, then it was true.
“Just let her shoot, Owen,” Rose added. “Your turn was a lot longer.”
“But it’s useful for me to learn. It’s stupid for a girl.”
“Back off for a minute,” her mother’s brother said in her ear.
Mercy took her finger off the trigger and looked over her shoulder. Owen wore his pouty face, and Rose was shaking her head. Beside her Levi crouched, ignoring the small squabble and drawing something in the dirt with a stick. It was a rare moment when all the siblings got along. Discord between at least two of them was the norm.
Her uncle John stopped in front of sixteen-year-old Owen. “You don’t think your sisters deserve to learn to shoot?”
Owen shrugged. “I don’t see the point.”
“What if they’re out hiking and come across a pissed-off bear? What if someone breaks into their home when they’re adults and tries to attack them? What if their husband is hurt and unable to defend them?”
Owen looked away and gave a smaller shrug. “I guess.”
“Everyone benefits from learning to shoot. Being able to defend ourselves is our right.”
“It seems stupid to teach a child.”
Uncle John slowly shook his head, and disgust filled his tone. “How do you think you learned? Your dad and my brothers agree it’s best to learn early respect for weapons to eliminate the fascination of the untouchable. A kid who’s taught the proper respect is less likely to cause an accident. This is serious business, and I’m proud your daddy let me have a hand in teaching all of you.”
“Even me,” Rose said. She’d learned right alongside all of them. Studying the weapons with her fingertips, learning the recoil of each gun. She couldn’t hit a target, but she knew how to fire, and their uncle had said she just needed to fire in the right direction to scare off any threat.
“That’s right,” he said to Rose. “You never know when a person will have to take up a weapon to defend themselves,” he told Owen. “Maybe even defend yourself from your own government. I hope it never comes to that one day, but if it does, we’ll be ready.”