A Merciful Truth
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“Nope. It hasn’t been used in years. We bought the property nearly twenty years ago. My departed husband”—she silently crossed herself—“used to store some things in there, but it never held livestock. It wasn’t convenient, since it was such a far trek from the house. Now I just pay to have the brush cleared away from all my outbuildings in case of wildfires.” She solemnly shook her head. “I never dreamed someone would deliberately set one of them on fire.”
“Do you know if there was a propane tank stored in the barn?” asked Jeff.
Tilda thought for a moment. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there was, but I can’t say for certain.”
“Did you recently see any strangers on any of your property who shouldn’t have been there?”
“Of course not. Charlie keeps away any intruders. One footstep on the property and if his bark doesn’t send them running, then one look at his teeth will.”
Truman glanced around for a dog. “Dogs are excellent alert systems. Has anyone come to the door in the past week? Perhaps tried to sell you something?”
“No, I haven’t had anyone try to sell me something in ages. I used to have a regular Avon lady stop by, but she died several years ago. Oh! There was a man who stopped by to ask if I’d seen his dog not too long ago. He said it’d run away when his son left the door open.”
“Your dog didn’t scare him off?” Jeff asked.
Tilda gave him an odd look. “I haven’t owned a dog in years. My last dog was Charlie. That’s him right there.” She dipped her head at her fireplace.
Truman spotted a photo of a German shepherd on the mantel, and a sinking sensation started in his stomach. A minute ago she told us the dog was alive. He stood and stepped closer to take a good look. The photo was quite faded, and Truman recognized the car in the background as a Ford Mustang from the eighties. “That’s a good-looking dog,” he said. He exchanged a brief glance with Jeff. The FBI agent looked grim. Their witness had lost some of her reliability.
“Do you have any other sources of protection in the house?” Truman asked. He took a long look at the woman, wondering if she had a touch of dementia. Have we wasted our time? Exhaustion crept up his spine, threatening to make him close his eyes while listening to Tilda’s voice.
“I’ve got my husband’s old guns. I practice target shooting every now and then, but I haven’t needed to use them recently.” She tilted her head. “When those loud teenage boys would ride their four-wheelers on my property, I’d get out a rifle. I never shot at them,” she added quickly. “One look at me with the rifle and they’d head back the way they came.” She sniffed. “They left tire tracks everywhere.”
“How long ago was that?” Truman asked, wondering if any of her answers were reliable.
Tilda sighed and took a sip. “Let’s see. It was definitely hot, so it was during the summer.”
“This past summer?” he asked faintly, wondering if the woman’s memory of time was accurate.
“Yes.” She nodded with assurance.
“I’d like to take a look at your rifles,” Jeff stated, rising to his feet, a pleasant smile on his face.
Tilda immediately rose and led them down a narrow hall to a bedroom. She moved spryly, making Truman doubt his earlier thoughts about her memory. The bedroom smelled like lavender and he spotted a dried bouquet of the purple flowers next to the bed. The room was clean and airy, but a thin layer of dust covered the nightstands and bed frame. She opened a closet to show a rack with five weapons. Dust covered each one.
Truman sniffed, searching for the odor of a recently fired gun. All he smelled was lavender. If one of Tilda’s guns had been used, it wasn’t in this closet. “Do you have others?” he asked.
“I keep a pistol in the drawer by my bed,” she said. “You never know who might decide to visit an old lady in the middle of the night. I don’t have anything worth stealing, but people do stupid things. Especially the ones on drugs.” She whispered the last word as she leaned close to him and Jeff, her faded blue eyes deadly serious.
Truman fought to keep from smiling and silently wished for more pain relievers. And his bed.
Mercy glanced at the clock on her vehicle’s dashboard and pressed harder on the gas pedal.
She’d told her boss she wanted an hour to handle a personal errand. She needed to pick up her niece. Kaylie had spent two weeks with her aunt Pearl and a cousin while Mercy was training back east. Mercy knew from frequent phone calls that Kaylie was at her wits’ end. Kaylie was used to being the only child and living with her father, so being with the lively male cousin and an overly attentive aunt had turned her world inside out. “I can’t get any peace,” she’d grumbled to Mercy. “Each time I tell Aunt Pearl I need to be left alone, she spends the next hour asking me if I’m okay.”
Mercy had sympathized. She liked her alone time too. But Kaylie’s father had just been murdered, and Mercy wasn’t comfortable leaving the seventeen-year-old by herself. Pearl had reported that there’d been some crying sessions, but she felt the teenager’s overall mental health was solid. Mercy had taken her niece to a therapist after Levi’s death and was pleased that Kaylie was still going every other week.
She parked in front of her sister’s rural home and stepped out of her Tahoe. The odor from the pig barns wasn’t nearly as strong as it’d been earlier in the fall. Kaylie emerged from the house, a backpack slung over one shoulder. She hugged her aunt and dashed down the porch stairs in one leap. “Let’s go,” she said as she gave Mercy a brief hug, and then hopped in the passenger seat, clearly eager for them to be on their way. Mercy looked back at Pearl, who watched them from the porch. Her sister held up a hand in acknowledgment.
Mercy’s legs froze in place. She’d been about to walk up to her sister and at least have a short chat, but Pearl’s hand gesture indicated it wasn’t necessary. I guess I’m done here.
Getting to know her siblings after a fifteen-year absence hadn’t been easy. Mercy’s fight with her father when she was eighteen had led her family to cut all ties with her. Mercy had never regretted her stance in the argument, but she’d regretted missing out on the lives of her siblings. When she’d been temporarily assigned to a case in Eagle’s Nest two months ago, she’d been sick with worry about bumping into people from her past. Now she viewed that case as fate intervening and giving her a second chance with her family.
Not all of her family had accepted her return, but Mercy believed things were moving in the right direction.
Pearl had embraced her on the first day but kept her distance after that. Phone calls were the best way to communicate with Pearl. She was almost chatty on the phone. The oldest sibling, Owen, still refused to talk with Mercy and kept his wife and kids from doing so.
Her other sister was the Rose she’d always known. Wide open, loving, and accepting. Her love kept Mercy sane and optimistic for some sort of relationship with her other siblings. Mercy had been in town less than a week when Rose was kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer, and the slashes on her face were now a constant reminder of his abuse. The killer had been the target of the FBI’s hunt after a string of prepper murders in Central Oregon. Her blind sister was also two months pregnant with the dead man’s baby.
Levi. Her heart lurched as it always did at the thought of her murdered sibling. Rose had survived, but Levi had not. Mercy would always feel slightly responsible for Levi’s murder. The death of his killer at her and Truman’s hands hadn’t given her much peace, but raising his daughter did. She’d learned to be grateful for every day she had with this living piece of Levi. To her surprise, Mercy had deeply missed the teenager while she’d been gone.
She turned her back on Pearl and climbed in the Tahoe. Kaylie immediately switched on the radio as Mercy started the vehicle. The girl punched buttons until she found a song she liked. Mercy grimaced and turned down the music. They had an agreement: Kaylie picked the station, but Mercy was in charge of the volume. It was one of many small issues they’d had to figure out in their first month of living together.