A Merciful Truth
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“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.”
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.
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.”