Along with her determination to find the mother.

She thanked the kind woman, who emphasized that Mercy was welcome to return at any time, but Hannah’s gaze faltered as the sentence left her mouth.

Unspoken words hung between them; if Mercy had to return, it meant there was a major issue with Morrigan’s mother.

TEN

Mercy drove to the medical examiner’s office, pleased that Morrigan was in a good place.

Eddie had texted her as she left Hannah’s home, asking her to meet him and Ava at the examiner’s office. The ME wanted to discuss her findings and had specifically asked if Mercy could be present since she’d been at the death.

Her cell phone rang through the speakers in her Tahoe as she drove. Mercy glanced at the screen on her dashboard. Truman.

Happy butterflies fluttered in her stomach. At what point in a relationship does that feeling go away?

Truman filled up the lonely and vulnerable parts of her brain. The subtle scent of his aftershave, the shadow on his jaw every evening, the heaviness of his hand at her waist. It wasn’t all physical. Truman understood her; he got her. He’d seen her deepest fears and accepted them. She didn’t scare him.

She accepted the call. “Hey,” she said. “How’s your morning?”

“Interesting. Yours?”

She gave him a positive update on Morrigan.

“Did you meet the reporter from The Oregonian yesterday?” he asked in a restrained voice.

Mercy looked at her dashboard as if she could read Truman’s face. “I did. Ava later vouched for him. Why?”

“He paid me a visit and suggested that the investigators look into a mystery visitor at Judge Lake’s office. He claims someone was there one of the days before he died and it was kept off the visitor log. He said the judge’s assistant knows more than she’s told investigators.”

“Why did he tell you? That makes no sense. And how on earth would he know that?”

“Trust me, I asked the exact same questions and got convoluted answers. Let’s just say it makes sense in Brody’s head. Can you pass the tip on to Eddie?”

“I’m on my way to meet with him and Ava now.”

“Good. Gotta go. I love you,” he said in a low, warm voice infused with innuendo.

Her face flushed with heat and her smile broadened. “I love you too.”

It was easier to say those three little words to Truman now than it had been two months earlier. Mercy had struggled with the simple oral contract of commitment. In her head she’d believed it meant she was reliant on him. A tough situation, as she’d promised to never allow herself to rely on anyone. This independent philosophy was the core of everything she’d learned as a child of preppers. To her surprise she’d discovered that loving Truman made her more confident, fearless. After she ended his call, a piece of her longed for him with an urgency that still unnerved her. That need for another person.

The instant love she’d felt for Kaylie had emboldened her to take that plunge with Truman. Her heart had easily expanded to make room for her niece and then expanded again as she repaired fences with her formerly estranged family. Being deliberately cut off from her family had left her with an empty heart for years, but since she’d returned to Eagle’s Nest, she suddenly had a small crowd to care about.

It hadn’t weakened her foundation. She was stronger.

Her oldest brother, Owen, had finally accepted her return, and Mercy had quickly added his wife and children to her “my people” list.

The only holdout was her father. She suspected it was pride that kept him from speaking to her.

One day.

She parked and strode into the ME’s building, where she spotted Eddie and Ava in the waiting area. She greeted them and recounted her visit with Morrigan. “Anything new on Salome?”

Ava looked grim as she shook her head. “There’s been no activity on her cell phone for three days. She has one credit card, and it hasn’t been used in months.”

Suspicion weighed heavy in Mercy’s gut. “Do you think something has happened to her?”

“We were just talking about that,” said Eddie. “We can’t rule it out.”

“I don’t want to discover that she’s the third victim,” Ava stated. “But damn, it’s not looking good. People don’t just vanish.”

“People vanish all the time,” argued Eddie. “Especially out here. If they don’t want to be found, we won’t find them.”

“I can’t believe she’d leave her daughter behind,” countered Ava.

“Maybe she feels her disappearance is protecting the girl . . . leading a killer away,” suggested Eddie.

Mercy’s brain spun with the possibilities, but in her mind only one thing mattered right now. “That poor child. She needs her mother.” What will happen to Morrigan if Salome doesn’t come back?

“Let’s hope we’re wrong. We’ll handle it if it comes to that,” Ava stated briskly, shutting down the topic.

Eddie cleared his throat. “We did find out that so far none of the knives tested positive for poison or blood. The lab was surprised to find how clean they were. Usually there’s something left on even the cleanest knives.”

“Maybe they’re never used,” suggested Mercy, remembering the rows and rows of blades. “Perhaps they’re truly a collector’s hoard.”

“I saw the pictures,” Ava said. “I’ve never encountered anything like that. It was creepy.”

Mercy silently agreed. “Say, Truman called me and said your reporter friend claims that Judge Lake had a mystery visitor at his office one of the days before he died. Brody claims this person was deliberately left off the logs and that the judge’s assistant might be covering it up.”

“Why didn’t Michael just tell me?” Ava sighed. “Never mind. I know he likes to do things his own way. I’ve learned not to question his actions.” She rubbed her neck, her gaze unfocused, as she considered Mercy’s statement. “The assistant, huh? Marcia Mallory. I talked to her. I thought she was very forthcoming. I guess I need to pay her another visit.”

“Are there video cameras in the judge’s office?”

“In the waiting area. Not in his chambers. We pulled the recordings, but they haven’t been reviewed yet. We went through the logs first. We were going to check the video if we found something odd in the logs.” She sighed. “I guess I better get someone on the recordings to compare them to the logs. Although I don’t understand why Marcia would hold back information that might help us find the judge’s killer. She seemed very devoted.”

“Maybe she worried this visitor would tarnish his reputation,” Mercy suggested.

“He’s dead,” Eddie pointed out.

“It can be important to some people.”

Dr. Lockhart appeared, looking more like a college student in scrubs than a medical examiner. The slick, perky ponytail added to the facade. “Come on back,” she said, directing the three of them through a door and down a hall to a large office. Mercy had expected the office to be extremely neat and organized. It wasn’t. There were stacks of files and journals on every available surface. A life-size skeleton hung from a stand in the corner. The lower half of its arm was missing and Mercy spotted it on a nearby stack of files, its bony structure looking lost and lonely. Boxes and thick textbooks were crammed into three crowded, ceiling-high bookshelves. Natasha’s framed degrees and numerous awards hung on the wall, and Mercy fought the urge to straighten the lowest one.

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