“Chief? You comin’ in?” Leighton called.

“On our way.”

“You sure he’s safe?” Mercy asked.

“He already said he wasn’t shooting at us.”

She fought the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m trusting you.”

“Good idea.” They continued their cautious wading to Leighton’s home. The house didn’t have a front porch. It had a small set of concrete stairs that led up to a larger concrete block in front of the door, which listed to the right. Leighton Underwood stood in the open doorway, his shotgun pointed away and tucked under one arm. It took Mercy a long second to recognize it as a peaceful pose. In Portland, seeing this stance in a doorway would have sent her in the opposite direction.

“My glasses busted.” Leighton squinted at them. He was tall and proud looking, with a thick mane of white hair that’d receded several inches from his forehead. As Mercy stopped at the bottom of the stairs, the man studied her from head to toe. His name wasn’t familiar to her. Even if he knew her parents, he probably didn’t remember her.

“Can we come in, Leighton?” Truman asked.

“Who’s this? You said another officer. Unless you hired a woman yesterday, I’m pretty certain there’s no women on the Eagle’s Nest force.” Skepticism filled his lined face.

“I’m with the FBI,” Mercy said. “We’re investigating the death of your neighbor, Ned Fahey.”

Leighton’s chin rose. “I heard that asshole got himself killed.”

“Now, Leighton—” Truman started.

“Any chance I could borrow a towel?” Mercy asked. “I fell in the mud when your gun went off.”

He squinted at her pants. “Of course. Come in. I apologize again for that, but I couldn’t see who was here. All I saw was those big black rigs you drove. And you know what that means.” He stood to the side and waved them into the home. “Don’t worry about your muddy boots. Stay on the hard floor and I’ll mop it up later.”

Mercy stepped inside and was overwhelmed by the odor of ground beef and onions. Her stomach rumbled. She followed the “hard floor” directly to the right and into a kitchen. No food was cooking on the stove. “What did our black vehicles mean to you?”

Leighton bustled past her and set his gun in a corner. He opened a closet door and pulled out a tan towel. She thanked him as he handed it to her. Its nap was nearly gone and it was mostly mesh, but she was grateful.

“You know what those trucks can mean. The feds,” he whispered. “They all drive around in those big black SUVs. Usually in a caravan of sorts.” He cackled. “I guess I was partially right, since you’re a fed.”

“Call me Mercy, please.” She rubbed at her coat, turning the tan towel dark with dirty water. “Why would you expect the federal government to show up at your house? And would you shoot first if it was the government?”

Leighton rubbed at his bristly chin. “Well, I guess shooting first wouldn’t be the smartest way to say hello. But I’ve been on edge lately. I’ve missed some payments on the mortgage and I’ve been getting those calls.”

“Those would be from your mortgage company, not the government. I don’t think the government sees your mortgage as their problem yet.”

“How far behind are you?” Truman asked quietly. “Do you need a small loan? Just until things are right again?”

Mercy looked at him in surprise. Would the police chief open his own pockets?

“I don’t need another loan,” snapped Leighton. “Got enough.”

“Did you know the town has a short-term emergency fund for problems just like this?” Truman added.

Hope appeared on Leighton’s face and then vanished just as rapidly. “I’m not in the city limits.”

“I’d call you an honorary resident. You spend money in Eagle’s Nest, right? I’ll put in a good word with the town treasurer for you.”

The older man seemed to shrink. “I don’t want to lose my house. Had to pay some medical bills and fell behind.”

Truman clapped him on the shoulder. “Happens to everyone. That’s why we set up the fund. Now . . . you’re one of the closest neighbors to Ned Fahey. Did you notice anything unusual over the weekend?”

Mercy admired the way Truman had addressed Leighton’s problem without making a big issue out of it and moved on as if making town loans was a daily part of his job. Maybe it was. She wondered how this mystery emergency fund was paid for.

“I can’t see Ned’s property from here. It’s at least a half mile away. Our properties are divided by a small stream that runs off the Cascades, but during the summer it turns into a dry wash. This fall when it started flowing again, it went a different way. It moved at least a hundred yards into my lower field. Ned said according to the land deeds, that meant he owned half my field. I don’t think so.” If steam could come out of human ears, a dense cloud would be surrounding Leighton’s head.

“That doesn’t sound very fair,” Mercy sympathized. Land was precious to the residents, and they guarded it fiercely. It didn’t excuse Leighton for firing when he’d thought they were government agents coming to seize his property, but it gave her a little more insight into what made him tick. “So you’re saying you haven’t been close enough to Ned’s property—his actual property—to see if anything happened over there.”


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