“What do you think?” asked the deputy.

Bolton and Mercy exchanged a glance. “I think someone enjoys their hobbies,” stated Bolton. “Unusual hobbies in our eyes.”

“It’s definitely interesting,” agreed Mercy, wondering if Olivia dabbled in old-fashioned healing arts. Spells. Or maybe something else. She eyed the dried beetles and assorted other bugs as fairy tales of witchcraft buzzed in her head. Ridiculous.

“I don’t see blood on any of the blades, but I’ll have the techs take a closer look,” said Bolton. “I don’t think our murder weapon is here . . . although it could have come from here.” He pointed at a jar. “Are those chicken feet?”

Mercy smiled. Clearly Bolton wasn’t a farm boy. “Yes.”

He sighed. “I’ll find out how the techs want to handle this room.” He motioned for Mercy to leave ahead of him. In the hallway she spotted Natasha Lockhart, the medical examiner, with her black bag in hand. Her face lit up at the sight of Mercy. “Were you the FBI agent that I heard found the body?” she asked after a greeting.

“That was me. She was still alive when I got here.”

“Oh, good. You’ll make my job easier.” The tiny ME gestured for Mercy to follow her into the room where Olivia’s body waited. Detective Bolton stood silently in the doorway, his eyes missing nothing, and the deputy who’d found the knife room stayed solemnly behind him. Inside, the ME stopped and took a slow scan of the scene. The tech who had photographed Mercy waited in the room, his camera ready to shoot any photos requested by the ME.

Mercy swallowed and looked at Olivia. The crime scene team had rigged up a light, and its bright glare cast harsh shadows on the peaceful face of the dead woman. Mercy’s multiple field dressings still lay on the woman’s body, their edges turning brown as they dried. The woman had been slashed at least a dozen times. Deliberate torture or just rage? The quilt covering her legs had a wedding ring pattern, its lovely pale-blue and lavender pieces forever stained.

“What’s her name?” Natasha asked as she slipped on her gloves.

“Olivia,” Mercy said and then looked at Bolton. I never knew her last name.

“Olivia Sabin,” he answered.

The last name was faintly familiar to Mercy, which didn’t surprise her. She’d lived in the nearby tiny community of Eagle’s Nest until she was eighteen and had personally known a large percentage of the surrounding population. Her world had been much smaller back then.

“Is that your work?” Natasha gestured to the bandages.

Mercy nodded, unable to speak.

Natasha lifted the bandages and towels from the woman’s chest and stomach, softly clucking her tongue in sympathy. With gloved hands she probed at the deep slash in the abdomen. “Was she conscious?”

“For a few moments.”

“I suspect I’ll find a nicked artery. Just enough for her to slowly bleed out. Or possibly the trauma was too much for her heart.” She looked over her shoulder at Mercy, her gaze direct and firm. “I don’t think there was anything you could have done to change the outcome,” she stated, continuing to hold Mercy’s gaze.

Message received. The knot in her stomach loosened at the ME’s statement but didn’t fully unravel. She’d always have a sliver of doubt.

“Could she have cut herself?” asked the deputy.

“Only if the knife walked away on its own,” replied Bolton.

“The girl could have hid it,” suggested the deputy.

Mercy doubted it. Morrigan would have mentioned it.

Wouldn’t she?

Natasha’s hands moved deftly across the woman’s body, pressing here and there and bending the woman’s fingers, testing the range of movement.

“What time did she die?”

Mercy looked at the old, yellowing clock on the wall. “Just after three.”

“I’ll still take some readings to confirm.” She lifted a large thermometer out of her bag.

I’m out of here.

Mercy pushed past Bolton, then strode down the hallway and out the door. Outside she spotted Morrigan talking animatedly to a deputy, waving her arms as she spoke, clearly excited as she gestured to the woods. Mercy watched. Kids are resilient. She took in the rest of the property. A small pen with a chicken coop was to her left and a good-size barn to her right. The barn looked newer than the house. Its wood was freshly painted and its door hardware gleamed in the growing sunlight. The clearing surrounding the home was covered with footprints. The snow had been well trampled by the occupants of the house. There was little hope of finding the tracks of a killer near the home. They’d have to search deeper into the woods. Unless he came by car.

“You good?” Bolton asked, stopping beside her.

“Yes.” She didn’t look at him, choosing to keep her gaze on Morrigan.

“I’d like to talk to the girl now if you’re up to it.”

“Her name is Morrigan,” Mercy said sharply. “And yes, I’m up to it.”

THREE

Truman Daly checked his phone for the twentieth time as he strode toward the police station.

Mercy still hadn’t replied to his good-morning text.

It was their routine. After the nights they didn’t spend together, they texted each other in the morning. She should have been up by now. He knew she had planned to spend a few hours in the evening at her cabin, and that those visits often went past midnight, but she never overslept.

A subtle uneasiness stirred in his belly.

He kicked a clump of dirty packed snow off the sidewalk and pulled open his department’s door, a small sense of pride shooting through him at the sight of his name below the Eagle’s Nest Police Department logo. Police Chief Truman Daly. He loved his job and considered it an honor to help the people of his tiny town. He’d given big-city police departments a try; it wasn’t for him. He enjoyed the closeness of the community and had learned nearly every resident’s name over the last year.

“Morning, boss,” Lucas said, his big bulk squeezed behind his desk. “Nothing urgent yet this morning.”

“Thanks, Lucas.” Truman eyed the bright-red reindeer on his office manager’s sweater as he took off his cowboy hat. “You know Christmas has been over for a month, right?”

The nineteen-year-old man glanced down. “I like this sweater. It’s fucking cold, so I wore it. Makes more people smile now than when I wore it in December.”

“Good point. Who’s here?”

“Royce went out to a car accident, and Ben should be in any minute.”

The uneasiness in his belly grew. “Any injuries in the car accident?”

“Nah, a fender bender and then one slid into a ditch. Both men are fine.”

His tension loosened. Not her. Mercy had been in a horrible car accident last November, and her silence this morning was deafening to him.

He headed down the hall to his office, texting Mercy’s niece Kaylie as he walked.

Tell Mercy to check her phone.

The response was immediate.

She’s not here.

Where is she?

His phone buzzed in his hand as Kaylie called.

“She wasn’t here when I got up this morning,” the teenager told him.

“What time did she leave last night?”

“Around seven. Right after we ate. She said she’d be back after midnight.”

“Did she come home and then leave early this morning?” Truman’s uneasiness blossomed.

***

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