“And the casing was for a nine millimeter, correct?” asked Eddie.

Jeff agreed.

Two different weapons . . . two different shooters? “One shooter missed Ben Cooley, and at the previous fire one shooter hit his targets four times,” Mercy said, thinking out loud. “Two different marksmen? Or possibly markswomen?” She updated the group about Clyde Jenkins’s observation.

“Your opinion on the quality of the witness?” Jeff asked.

“Solid,” said Mercy. “He wasn’t positive about what he’d seen, but he felt strongly enough to let us know.”

“The descriptions of suspects we’re looking for keeps expanding,” complained Darby.

“We need to consider that we could be looking at a group,” added Mercy.

“I hope it’s a group,” said Darby. “They’ll start to rat each other out at some point. Or they’ll become disenchanted with their leader and start talking. I’ll take that over one secretive introvert any day.”

“Ted Kaczynski,” added Eddie. “He was a loner. It took nearly twenty years to find him.”

Darby nodded, scowling at the mention of the domestic terrorist.

“Any word on the identity of the victim with the cut throat?” their boss asked.

“Not yet,” said Mercy. “I know the ME sent over his prints, and we’ve forwarded them to our lab.”

“He could be an innocent victim or one of the arsonists,” Eddie pointed out.

“I suspect he’ll turn out to be one of the arsonists,” said Mercy. “Even if he didn’t fit the description from Clyde Jenkins. I’m keeping an open mind, but the fact that no one can place him indicates he’s not from around here . . . therefore, he was at that location for a purpose.”

“And someone turned on him?” asked Darby. “In their opinion, he did something that he deserved to die for?”

“Possibly,” said Mercy. “Maybe he wasn’t happy with the murders or who they targeted with the fires. Maybe he wanted out of the group. Assuming there is a group.”

“Assume nothing,” Jeff stated. “Let’s back up a bit and take a fresh look at the beginning. I want new interviews with the victims of the first three small arsons, and I want it done tomorrow. I’ll let you decide who talks to whom.” He stood and pulled his papers together. “Anything we missed?” he asked without looking up.

Eddie and Mercy exchanged a look. “No,” they said in unison.

“Good. See you tomorrow.”

“I’d like to talk to the prepper family,” she told Eddie.

“You got it, and if you buy coffee all next week, I’ll interview the other two victims.”

“Deal.”

Mercy pulled into the driveway of the double-wide mobile home and parked. Julia and Steve Parker had agreed to see her that evening. They’d been pleased to hear the FBI had an interest in their fire. When Steve told her the location of their home, Mercy had realized they lived less than a mile from her parents’ home. As she’d driven past the familiar farmhouse, it occurred to her that she hadn’t seen Rose in three weeks and promised herself to correct that.

As soon as her case lightened up.

Since she’d been back in Eagle’s Nest, she and her sister had developed a routine of meeting for coffee once a week after one of Rose’s preschool classes. They’d meet at the Coffee Café and chat for a solid hour, and then Mercy would drive her home.

Rose’s facial scarring had faded. She still had some pink lines, but most had disappeared completely. Mercy hoped the remaining lines would completely fade . . . Rose might have some thin silver scars, not that her blind sister would ever be able to see them.

Rose would have another permanent reminder. One she was excited to love and raise.

Mercy’s love for Rose’s unborn baby was rapidly growing. What she’d once believed would be a burden she now saw as a blessing. Any child would be lucky to have Rose as their mother.

When she dropped off Rose after their chats, Mercy’s mother occasionally came to the door and waved. It was awkward, but less awkward than meeting Mercy’s father face-to-face. Her mother had shown some spine when it came to their third daughter. She’d even met with Mercy a time or two for an infusion of caffeine. Her mother was careful in their conversations . . . never discussing Mercy’s father or anything from the past.

It was better than nothing.

A single light bulb shone over the door of the Parkers’ home, casting a small cone of light that barely lit their stairs. Mercy sat in her vehicle for a long moment, straining her vision to see the rest of their property in the dark. It was difficult. She could make out the faintest outline of what appeared to be a small stable and paddock beyond the house, but she had no idea where the shed that had caught fire had stood.

She slid out of her SUV and made her way to the house, thinking about the location in relation to the other fires. She’d already stared at a map, searching for a pattern among all five of the incidents, but she’d come up with nothing. She knocked. The front door opened, and a very pregnant young woman greeted her.

“Agent Kilpatrick?” Julia Parker had impossibly straight blonde hair that hung nearly to her waist. She looked too young to be pregnant, although Mercy already knew she was twenty-two.

Still too young.

A toddler appeared and hugged her mother’s leg, frowning at the approaching stranger. Her hair matched her mother’s, and her blue eyes were as round as marbles.

Mercy held out her hand. “Call me Mercy.” She grinned at the tiny girl, who ducked her face into her mother’s pants.

“This is Winslet.” Julia patted the top of the toddler’s head and ran a supporting hand below her own huge belly as she grimaced. “This elephant will soon be Lola.”

“Two girls,” Mercy commented. “How lovely.” I never know what to say to pregnant women. Or toddlers.

Julia led her into the cramped home. She pushed aside a high chair and gestured for Mercy to take a seat at the kitchenette table. Three ceramic Thanksgiving turkeys stood in the center of the table in the middle of a wreath woven from dried leaves. The house had little room to maneuver in, but Julia’s personal touches gave it a homey air. Winslet demanded to be on her mother’s lap, and Mercy held her breath as Julia lifted her up. Please don’t go into labor. Julia deftly balanced the girl on the minuscule amount of lap she had beyond her belly. Winslet turned suspicious eyes on Mercy.

She’s darling. But the intense stare unnerved her.

“Steve will be in soon. He’s finishing up some things in the barn. Oh!” She started to move Winslet off her lap. “I didn’t offer you anything to drink.”

Mercy held up a hand to stop her. “Don’t get up. I’m fine. I just came from a long meeting where I held a cup of coffee and didn’t drink a sip of it.”

Julia settled back in her chair, looking relieved, and Winslet leaned against her mother’s tummy and stroked it with a tiny hand as if it were a kitten. A door at the back of the home opened and Steve Parker came in, removing his boots just inside the door and greeting Mercy in stocking feet. He looked nearly as young as Julia and had a baby face with full pink cheeks. He took Winslet off Julia’s lap and sat with the toddler in another chair, giving Winslet a plastic book to play with. “I’m glad to hear that the police aren’t done with our fire,” he said. “We had a lot of work stored up in that shed. Not that finding the arsonist can replace it, but it’d make me feel a heck of a lot better.”

“I completely understand,” said Mercy. “I know you haven’t lived here that long, but have you met the Kilpatricks down the highway? They’re my parents.”

Understanding crossed his face and his eyes lit up.

Bingo. We have something in common.

“We lost a year’s worth of canning,” Steve said. “Along with bins of medical supplies and garden seeds.” He placed a kiss on the top of Winslet’s head. “It hurts when you sink hard work and money into preparing for your children and someone destroys it.”

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***