She kept her gaze straight ahead. Holidays were awkward. And a bit of a sore spot that she preferred not to poke.

“My department in San Jose had a sign-up sheet for people who were looking for something to do on Thanksgiving. It was a different crowd every year and it was always a blast.”

“My Portland office had something like that,” Mercy admitted. She’d never signed up. Thanksgiving had always been a rare four-day weekend for her, and she’d spent it working at her cabin. Alone.

“I assume you haven’t heard from any of your family about the holiday?”

“No.”

“Then let’s make our own plans. I don’t suck as a cook, and we can do it at my house.” Enthusiasm filled his voice and the vehicle. “Kaylie might have a friend or two that she’d like to have join us. I can smell roasting turkey already. That’s the best part of Thanksgiving . . . the way the house smells all day.”

She remembered that smell, triggering memories of the holiday with her four siblings and their parents around a crowded table. Would they celebrate together this year? Would they even think to invite me?

They hadn’t for the last fifteen years. Why start now?

“That sounds good,” she told him, feeling a tiny degree of his excitement for the day. “Kaylie would love to bake the pies.” Dirty footprints in her kitchen popped into her head. “Crap.” She’d forgotten her plans to confront the teen.

“What is it?” Truman asked as he turned off the highway and down the road to the Brass farm.

She told him about the footprints in the kitchen, the makeup, and the perfume.

“You think she snuck out last night?” He sounded skeptical.

“Of course I do. And I assume it has something to do with a boy, since she wore perfume and a ton of eye makeup. I didn’t even know she owned perfume.”

“Hmmm.” He scratched his jaw.

“What? Am I overreacting? I’m sorta new to this parenting thing, you know.”

“Didn’t you ever sneak out as a teen?”

“No!”

He shot her a look that said he didn’t believe her.

“I didn’t! Are you saying all . . . or most teens do?”

“You might have been a very good girl while growing up, Mercy Kilpatrick, but I guarantee those two brothers of yours probably snuck out of the house a dozen times or so.”

“So it’s a male thing.”

“Well, when I did it, it was to meet a girl. So, I’d say it’s a fifty-fifty split.”

She sank into her seat. “I was a good girl. So were both of my sisters. That doesn’t mean I should overlook what Kaylie is doing now.”

“No, you shouldn’t. You need to make certain she’s not doing anything stupid.” He coughed. “Is she on birth control?” he asked weakly.

Mercy covered her eyes. “Oh sweet Jesus.” Her hands slid to her ears. “Stop talking.”

“I’ll take it that means you don’t know. Might be a discussion the two of you need to have, considering her age.”

I have to talk about sneaking out at night AND birth control?

“But my point about her sneaking out was to suggest that you don’t confront her in anger. A lot of kids do it, and I’m not saying it’s right, but you need to understand that it’s not unusual behavior for her age.”

“Next you’ll tell me the exact same thing about teens and sex.”

“Don’t put your head in the sand,” he advised. “Kaylie’s a smart girl and has a lot going for her. A little guidance from her aunt for her teen years could go a long way.”

“Noted.” She was relieved as they pulled into the drive that led to the burned barn. She spotted Bill Trek’s red pickup.

Truman parked and sat motionless in his seat, staring out the windshield at the destruction. He swallowed, and she noticed his hand shook slightly as he turned off the truck.

“Does it feel different in the daylight?” she asked.

“Very. It’s like looking at a sketch of a scene from a movie that I already experienced in 3-D. Still raises all the same feelings, though.”

She squeezed his hand and met his gaze. “It’s done and over. Nothing will change.”

He nodded, and she saw protective walls rise in his gaze as he prepared himself to face the remains of the hell he’d been in thirty-six hours before.

She didn’t blame him one bit.

They got out of the vehicle and headed to where Bill Trek dug through the debris. He used a snow shovel to move the piles of ash and wood chunks and was dressed in protective coveralls and a mask to keep the clouds of soot from getting into his lungs. As they approached he pulled off the mask and worked his way out of the pile. It was a contrast to the extreme care and precision Mercy had usually seen in evidence collection. Maybe arson was handled differently.

Fire investigation was a dirty job. Ash covered him from head to toe, but he grinned as they walked up and gestured that he didn’t want to shake hands. “Don’t touch me,” he warned, showing them his soot-stained gloves.

“Not a problem,” agreed Truman. “What’s with the shovel?”

“I need to see the floor,” Bill said, using his forearm to wipe away the sweat that ran through the ash on his forehead. “Can’t tell what happened without getting a look at it. It’s an important part of my map.”

“What have you found so far?” asked Truman.

“Basically I’ve found support for my original hypothesis. Someone soaked the outside walls with gasoline and did the same with everything inside. They were determined to make it burn big.” He gave them a serious look. “I spoke with the owner, asking her what was stored in the barn, and she claims that there wasn’t really anything that she was aware of, but I’d like to hear that from some of her friends or relatives too.”

“Why?” Truman asked. “I honestly don’t think she’s been to the barn in years.”

“If I get a relative that tells me there was a boat or expensive farm equipment stored inside, then we have a problem.” Bill looked pointedly at the burned remains. “Clearly there wasn’t anything like that left here.”

Mercy suddenly understood. “Someone would have moved things they wanted to protect if they’d set the fire themselves . . . if they were hoping to get the insurance payment for the structure they set on fire.”

“You’d be amazed at how many ‘accidental’ home fires are missing the big-screen TV the neighbor says was in the living room. Or the antique gun collection that just happened to be moved to storage the week before. They want the insurance payout for an accident, but they can’t help but first move their favorite belongings. A dead giveaway when a relative tells me the antique gun collection has had a place of honor in the den for twenty years.”

“I don’t think Tilda Brass set the fire,” Truman said.

“I agree. But I need to make certain all my t’s are crossed.”

“What else do you do outside of examining the actual scene?” Mercy asked with curiosity.

“Well.” Bill paused. “A lot. I’ll talk to the insurance company and the friends and neighbors. I’ll check with the hospital and clinics, looking for someone with burns or inhalation injuries. You’d be surprised how many get burns on their hands or their ankles. The fires always catch faster than they expect. Especially with the gasoline they used here.”

Mercy looked at the section of concrete pad Bill had cleared. The patterns meant nothing to her. “The gasoline was also dumped inside the barn? Not just around the outside?” she asked.

“Yep.”

“So they must have seen that there was a propane tank inside.”

“I assume so,” agreed Bill. “Either they didn’t care or saw it as a bonus. It wasn’t a big one.”

“Big enough to knock me a few feet and shoot burning debris onto me,” Truman pointed out.

“It was positioned against the wall you were closest to,” Bill agreed. “If it had been on the other side of the barn, you wouldn’t have felt the same strength of the blast.”

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