A Merciful Truth
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He checked the security of the front door and shone his light on all the windows as he circled the home. Everything was intact. Heading to the largest shed, he shone his light as far left and right as he could. The powerful beam was penetrating, but all he saw were fences and bushes. He reached the barn, hollered his identity again, and then slid the giant door open, surprised it wasn’t locked. His flashlight revealed several empty stalls, and the strong scent of hay and livestock reached his nose. He strolled in, senses fully engaged, watching for prowlers.
A faint whoosh sounded outdoors. Ben spun around and darted back to the front of the shed, peering quickly around the corner before stepping out into the open. A faint flickering light reflected off the back of the house.
One of the other sheds has been set on fire.
“Eagle’s Nest Police Department!” he shouted.
The noise of a dirt bike engine reached his ears. Its sound grew fainter, heading away. Ben took that as a sign the firebug was taking off and stepped out of the low barn to assess the fire. One of the small sheds had just started to burn, and Ben smelled gasoline. He called dispatch for backup and fire support. He spotted a watering trough close to the small burning shed and went to disconnect the hose to play firefighter, suspecting he could have the fire out before backup arrived.
Something whirred by his face, and its wind brushed his cheek. Then he heard the shot.
He dropped to the ground and turned off his flashlight.
He shot at me!
Images of the dead deputies from the other night’s fire flashed in his memory. Thank the heavens above he missed. His wife’s face popped into his head, and he nearly wept with relief that he’d told her he loved her before leaving.
You never know when you won’t return.
He called dispatch again, adding that there was an active shooter on the property. He recognized Denise’s voice but didn’t bother to flirt. Her efficiency calmed him.
“You okay, Ben?” she asked after relaying his information.
“Just need a clean pair of pants.”
“Stay low.” They ended the call.
He rolled closer to the watering trough and started to crawl around to the other side to put some metal between him and the shooter and get out of the light from the fire. His breath came in short pants, and his knees ached from the cold of the ground. Far off, the dirt bike engine started up again. He hadn’t noticed it’d stopped before the shot.
Did someone that far away take a shot at me?
Are they gone now?
He didn’t feel like sticking his head up to find out. He cursed, glad his wife wasn’t in earshot, as he realized his trusty flashlight had been a beacon to guide the shot. He was crawling into the pitch blackness on the other side of the trough when his hand touched something warm and solid.
He jerked back his hand and strained to see in the black. The dark was too dense.
His heart tried to pound its way up his throat. He pushed the lens of his flashlight into the ground and turned it on, casting a faint glow behind the trough.
Sightless eyes stared back at him. No, he’s dead. The corpse was heavyset and thickly bearded, and Ben didn’t recognize him.
But the blood that slowly oozed from the long gash in his neck told him the man had been recently murdered.
Mercy slept like the dead, opening her eyes only as Truman kissed her forehead.
He was fully dressed and had deep circles under his eyes. She blinked. How did I not hear him get up?
“What time is it?” she asked, squinting at her clock.
“Almost five in the morning. Someone took a shot at Ben this morning.” His grim tone sped up her waking process.
“Is he all right? What happened?” She sat up and shook the sleep out of her head.
“He’s fine. Pissed but fine. He was responding to a prowler call and found a small fire. Then someone shot at him.”
“Did he catch the shooter?”
Truman sighed. “No. But they left behind a body. We don’t know who he is yet, but someone cut his throat.”
Now she was fully awake. “Do you know anything about the body?”
“I know he was murdered at the site moments before Ben found him, and Ben estimated the victim to be in his sixties. A big guy with a lot of graying facial hair.”
“Ben didn’t know him? Ben knows everyone around here.”
“Exactly,” Truman said. “Now I’m wondering if our arsonist is from out of town.”
“This incident has to be related to my case.”
“Our case,” Truman corrected her.
She looked sideways at him. “Technically the murdered officers are my case. And now another officer has been shot at? I suspect Jeff will see that as belonging to me too.”
“I was already investigating the fires. This is another fire. Sounds like it’s a small one . . . more like the first two.”
She didn’t see the point in arguing details with him; they were both working toward the same goal. She slid out of bed and started rooting in a drawer for clean clothes. “What was set on fire this time?”
“The shed of another prepper.”
Mercy froze. And then turned to look at him, dread growing in her stomach.
“Jackson Hill. Know him?”
“I don’t think so. How much did he lose?”
“He didn’t lose anything. Ben was right there when the fire was started and managed to put it out with Jackson’s own hose before the fire department arrived.”
“That’s good. Ben Cooley is an efficient cop,” Mercy observed. She’d liked the older officer from the moment she’d met him. He had a fatherly vibe about him, and she wondered when he would retire. Truman would lose an important asset the day he did.
“He sounded exhausted. I don’t blame him. Someone tried to shoot him, he had to put out a fire, and he found the body. Not your average day around here.” He took her shoulder and turned her to him. “I’m headed out. I’ll catch up with you later.”
She kissed him and noticed he smelled of fresh soap and stale smoke. He’d showered but put on his smoky clothes from the day before.
Two days before. He’d never made it home yesterday after the shooting.
“You need clean clothes.”
“I have some at the station. I’ll change there after I check out the scene.”
“The crime is over. The scene can wait fifteen minutes. Go change,” she ordered.
He smiled, kissed her good-bye, and left. She grumbled to herself, knowing he was driving straight to check on his officer.
How can I complain about a man who does that?
She went to the kitchen to start her coffeemaker and noticed dirty footprints near the fridge. Did Truman do that last night? She frowned as she spotted the distinctive tread of Kaylie’s tennis shoes in the dirt. I don’t recall that mess when I was making dinner last night.
Mercy slid her coffeepot into place in the brewer and headed down the hall to Kaylie’s bedroom. The girl’s door was open a few inches. She pushed it open the rest of the way and tiptoed in to check on the teen. Kaylie slept on her back. Her mouth was wide open and her arms were flung above her head. Mercy had learned this was her normal sleeping position. At first she’d frequently checked on the teen in the middle of the night, unaccustomed to being responsible for another human being. After a week she’d realized she didn’t need to make sure that the girl was still breathing each night.
The sight of the sleeping girl touched something hidden deep in her chest. She’d done it. She’d made a home for the girl, who seemed to be functioning just fine. Kaylie’s limbs were still all intact, she hadn’t pierced anything, and she seemed happy.
Maybe Mercy didn’t suck as an aunt-slash-mom.
The scent of perfume made Mercy’s nose twitch, and her moment of basking in pseudomotherhood evaporated. She leaned closer to the girl and the perfume grew stronger. Mercy turned on her phone’s flashlight, pointing it away from Kaylie’s face, but adding enough light that she could see the girl’s heavy eyeliner and eye shadow.