“Of course I know her. Why do you ask? Who’s talking about that girl?”

“No one’s talking about her. I just met her.”

“She’s here? In town?”

“Yes. Is that a bad thing?”

His vehicle grew silent. “Ina? You there?”

“Yes. I’m thinking . . . I’m trying to remember the whole story . . . but there’s pieces missing.” She colorfully swore, making Truman grin. “I’m trying to get the tale straight in my head, but my memory isn’t what it used to be.”

“Who is she?”

“Why, she’s Karl and Deborah Kilpatrick’s youngest girl.”

Truman nearly missed his turn. He’d heard about only four Kilpatrick siblings. They were very active in the Eagle’s Nest community. No one had breathed a word about a fifth. Mercy wasn’t Kaylie’s mother; she was her aunt.

“But she hasn’t been in town since she finished high school,” Ina continued. “I can’t remember why she left, but everyone in her family was angry and I suspected something was hushed up . . . dammit. What did that girl do?” Ina made a sputtering noise in the phone. “It was something juicy, I’m certain, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well, you answered my question. You can get back to me about the gossip.”

“What’s she doing here?”

“She’s an FBI agent out of Portland. She’s been assigned to Jefferson’s death along with the deaths of Enoch Finch and Ned Fahey. You heard about Ned, right?”

“Of course I did. My memory might not work that great anymore, but my ears work just fine. That old cranky coot probably waved his ax at the wrong person.”

Truman wondered if the ax was a habit of Ned’s he hadn’t heard about.

“But little Mercy Kilpatrick is an FBI agent, you say? That’s got to stick in her father’s craw. He’s not a fan of the federal government.”

“I wouldn’t call her little.” Mercy could nearly look him in the eye. He knew Karl and Deborah ran a small ranch just outside town, and their blind daughter, Rose, lived with them. Their other three adult children were scattered around the county.

And then there was Mercy.

Truman grinned. Mercy hadn’t said a word when Toby brought up Kaylie; she’d pretended not to know whom he meant. In other words, she wasn’t broadcasting her relationship to the Kilpatrick clan. Why?

“And Ina, could you keep it to yourself for a bit? I don’t think she wants to advertise that she’s in town, but please let me know when you remember what happened. I’d like to hear the story.”

Ina huffed but reluctantly agreed. “Is Lucas still doing a good job?” she asked. “Not slacking off yet, I hope. I knew he’d be a good replacement for me when I watched him reorganize all my recipes when he was fifteen. Did I tell you he put them on one of those tablet things? I can make the words nice and big so they’re easy for these old eyes to read.”

“Your grandson is a good fit,” said Truman. “And he likes his job.”

“Good.” Satisfaction rang in her tone.

“One more thing, Ina. Have you ever heard a rumor of a cave man who lives in the forest around here?”

“A what?” she asked.

“Cave man,” Truman repeated, feeling a flush cover his face.

“Can’t say I’ve heard that one mentioned in the last forty years.”

“You have heard of him?” Truman’s voice shot up an octave.

“I can remember hearing about some old mean man who lived in a cave. He hated children and would kill any who stumbled into his domain,” she mused. “Terrified me when I was a kid, and as I got older it kept me from ever venturing too far into the woods alone. But I suspect that was the intention of the story. To scare kids out of stupid behavior.”

“Like when a parent tells you to be good or the bogeyman will get you.”

“Yes, something like that. Might be originally based in some fact. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were a few unsocial types illegally roughing it in the state forest.”

Is there a grain of truth to the cave man story?

Could the preppers have been murdered by an angry mountain man who wanted their weapons?

He didn’t know what to think.

Truman ended the call with a promise to visit next weekend. He tried to have coffee with Ina Smythe once a month. The woman had been close friends with his uncle Jefferson. Sometimes Truman had wondered how close, but neither of them had ever hinted at a romantic relationship. Truman had made teenage assumptions based on looks. Looks exchanged between the two of them during the summers he stayed in Eagle’s Nest, and the feeling that permeated the air when the two of them were in the same room. As a teen Truman had twice been hauled into the Eagle’s Nest police station for some juvenile prank, and Ina had always stuck up for him and then gotten him released from the holding cell after four hours.

Last month during coffee, he’d asked her why she hadn’t gotten him immediately out of the jail cell. She’d cackled and replied, “You deserved those four hours in that cell. Probably more. I figured it was a good place for you to think about the stupid things you’d done.”

She’d been right.

He frowned. Ina didn’t have memory problems. She never missed a beat when reciting some random incident that’d happened forty years before. Or remembering one of her eighteen great-grandchildren’s birthdays.

***

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