“Caliber?” Eddie asked in a strangled voice.

Dr. Lockhart shrugged. “Big. Not a puny twenty-two. I’m sure you’ll find the bullet burrowed in something below.”

Mercy stepped forward and squatted next to the bed, shining a flashlight underneath, intending to see if the round had gone into the floor, but the space under the bed was crammed with plastic storage containers. Of course it is.

She glanced around the room, noticing the heavy-duty trunks stacked neatly in each corner. She knew exactly what the closets would look like. Floor-to-ceiling storage neatly labeled and organized. Fahey lived alone, but Mercy knew they’d uncover enough supplies to last a small family through the next decade.

Fahey wasn’t a hoarder; he was a prepper. His life centered on being prepared for TEOTWAWKI.

The end of the world as we know it.

And he was the third Deschutes County prepper to be murdered in his own home over the last few weeks.

“Did you handle the first two deaths, Dr. Lockhart?” she asked.

“Call me Natasha,” she said. “You mean the other two prepper murders? I responded to the first, and an associate went to the second. I can tell you the first death wasn’t nice and neat like this. He fought for his life. Think they’re connected?”

Mercy gave a smile that said nothing. “That’s what we’re here to find out.”

“Dr. Lockhart’s damned right about that first death,” said a new voice in the room.

Mercy and Eddie turned to find a tall, angular man with a sheriff’s star studying both of them. His gaze grew puzzled as it lingered on the thick frames of Eddie’s black glasses. No doubt the residents of Deschutes County didn’t see a lot of hip 1950s throwbacks. Mercy made introductions. Sheriff Ward Rhodes appeared to be in his sixties. Decades of sun exposure had created deep lines and rough patches on his face, but his eyes were clear and keen and probing.

“This room looks like a tea party compared to the scene at the Biggs murder. That place had a dozen bullet holes in the walls, and old man Biggs fought back with a knife.”

Mercy knew Jefferson Biggs had been sixty-five and wondered how he’d earned the title of old man from this sheriff who was in the same age group.

Probably an indication of Biggs’s get-off-my-lawn attitude more than his age.

“But none of the homes—including this one—showed forced entry, correct?” asked Eddie politely.

Sheriff Rhodes nodded. “That’s right.” He scowled at Eddie. “Anyone ever tell you that you look like James Dean? With glasses?”

“I get that a lot.”

Mercy bit her lip. Eddie claimed to be surprised by the comparison, but she knew he liked it. “But if there’s no forced entry here, and Ned Fahey was asleep,” she said, “then someone knew how to get inside the house or was also sleeping in the house.”

“He’s wearing pajamas,” agreed Dr. Lockhart. “I don’t know the time of death yet. The putrefaction is very progressed. I’ll know more after lab tests.”

“We examined the house,” said Sheriff Rhodes. “There’s no sign that anyone was sleeping here or of any forced entry. There’s another bedroom, but it doesn’t look like it’s been slept in for a few decades. The sofa downstairs doesn’t have any pillows or blankets to indicate that someone else was here.” He paused. “Front door was wide open when we got here.”

“I take it Ned Fahey was the type to keep his doors locked tight?” Mercy asked half in jest. The short walk through the house had shown her a man who took home defense very seriously. “Who reported his death?”

“Toby Cox. He gives Ned a hand around here. Was supposed to help Ned move some wood this morning. He said the door was open and when he saw the situation he called us. I sent him home a few hours ago. He’s not quite right in the head, and this shook him up something fierce.”

“You know most of the local residents?” Mercy asked.

The sheriff shrugged. “I know most. But who can know everyone? I know the people I know,” he said simply. “This home is far from any city limits, so whenever Ned had an issue, he called us at the county.”

“Issue? Who’d Ned have problems with?” Mercy asked. She understood the politics and social behaviors of small towns and rural communities. She’d spent the first eighteen years of her life in a small town. The residents tried to make everyone’s business their own. Now she lived in a large, urban condo complex where she knew two of her neighbors’ names. First names.

She liked it that way.

“Someone broke into a couple of Ned’s outbuildings one time. Stole his quad and a bunch of fuel. He was pretty steamed about that. We never did find it. Other calls have been complaints of people hunting or trespassing on his property. He’s got a good ten acres here, and the borders aren’t marked very well. Ned posted some Keep Out signs, but you can only cover so much ground with those. He used to fire a shotgun to scare people off. After that happened a few times, we asked him to call us first. Scared the crap out of a backpacking family one time.”

“No dogs?”

“I told him to get a few. He said they eat too much.”

Mercy nodded. Fewer mouths to feed.

“Income?” she asked.

“Social Security.” Sheriff Rhodes twisted his lips.

Mercy understood. It was common for the antigovernment types to raise hell about paying their taxes or buying licenses, but don’t dare touch their Social Security.

***

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