Seller’s market, my ass.
The 3:00 a.m. phone call from Truman had immediately gotten her up and on the road for the three-hour trip home to Central Oregon, the news of the fire, shootings, and explosions driving all sleep from her brain. By the time she’d arrived at her apartment, her boss from the small FBI office in Bend had called.
The two murdered county deputies were now her priority.
As she surveyed the scorched disaster, a frosty breeze shot down the neck of her heavy coat. Thanksgiving was rapidly approaching, and hints of winter had been in the Central Oregon air for several weeks. She’d spent the first eighteen years of her life in the tiny community of Eagle’s Nest, but had never returned until she’d been assigned temporary duty in the Bend office for a domestic terrorism case and discovered she’d missed living on the east side of the Cascade mountain range. Less than two months ago, she’d decided to move from wet Portland to the high desert of Bend.
Life in Central Oregon was different from life in Portland. The air smelled cleaner, the snowy mountain peaks were more plentiful, and traffic was a hundred times lighter, although the locals might disagree. Everything moved slower over here. The people were an eclectic mix of families, retirees, ranchers, farmers, cowboys, millennials, and business professionals. Farther out from the main city of Bend, the population drastically thinned and trended toward ranchers and farmers.
Some people moved to Central Oregon to leave all society behind. If you weren’t picky about the location, a parcel of remote land could be purchased for a very reasonable price. Some wanted to live on their own terms without relying on the government for their safety or food supply. Sometimes they were called preppers; other times they were called unpleasant names. Mercy had grown up in such a family. Her parents had built a self-sufficient home and lifestyle and embraced the prepper label. It’d been a good, down-to-earth life until she turned eighteen.
After Mercy left Eagle’s Nest, she discovered she couldn’t fully cut herself off from the prepper lifestyle, so she’d created a balance to ease her mind. While she’d lived and worked in Portland, she’d maintained a remote secret getaway, spending weekends stocking and preparing her Central Oregon cabin. If disaster struck, she was prepared.
She was always prepared.
But no one needed to know that. Only Truman and some of her family knew she slaved like a madwoman in her spare time to ease her worry about a possible future disaster. Her new coworkers and even her closest workmate, Eddie, had no idea that she hid what she thought of as her “secret obsession.”
It was her business. People were judgmental. She’d seen it all her life and didn’t want that judgment aimed at her.
Plus she couldn’t help her entire office if disaster struck and they turned to her because they knew of her resources. She believed in keeping her “wealth” hidden from onlookers. Her hard work was for herself and her family.
She dug the toe of her boot into the wet ground, the area soaked with the thousands of gallons of water trucked in by the fire department. This rural area didn’t have fire hydrants every hundred yards, and thankfully, the fire hadn’t spread beyond the barn. Pines still stood proudly beyond the smoking pile of rubble. The usually brown ground was black and gray, from the burning of low brush and a thick coating of soot and ash.
She watched the county evidence recovery team crawl through the barn’s remains and carefully search a large perimeter under the watchful eye of the fire marshal. Earlier they’d recovered four rifle casings that Mercy’s FBI supervisor, Jeff Garrison, had immediately sent to the FBI laboratory instead of the backed-up local labs.
Mercy had never worked a case involving a fire investigation, and she felt out of her element. Truman had been working several arsons around Eagle’s Nest, the first of which had occurred just before she went back east for training. Someone had set fire to an ancient abandoned Oldsmobile at the end of Robinson Street. Before the fire, nearby residents hadn’t called to have it towed away because they’d assumed someone would eventually come back for it.
Truman had laughed as he repeated the words of an older witness to Mercy. “Hate to mess with someone’s car. That’s their transportation . . . maybe their livelihood . . . don’t want someone getting inconvenienced because I made a phone call to a tow company.”
The car had been sitting there for six months.
People had more patience on this side of the mountain range.
Truman had chalked up the car fire to bored teenagers. But then it’d happened two more times while Mercy was training back east. The tension in Truman’s voice had increased during their nightly phone calls. The second fire had been in a dumpster, and then the arsonist had burned a shed stocked with prepping supplies.
Mercy’s heart had grieved when she’d heard about the supplies. The shed had belonged to a young family who’d worked hard to set aside food and supplies for their future. Mercy understood how much work and sacrifice went into being prepared. The thought of a fire destroying her years of storage work had made her stomach churn uncomfortably. Now the family was struggling to feel safe in their home and wondered if they’d been purposefully targeted.
“The first two fires were set to things people had abandoned,” Truman had told her. “But this third fire targeted the hard work of a family. I hope this isn’t the start of a new trend.” All his spare time during the last two weeks had been focused on the arson cases.
No one had expected the arsonist to suddenly commit murder along with his fourth fire. Now everything had changed.
Mercy stared at the dirt where the deputies’ bodies had lain, dark stains still soaking the ground. Had the arsonist planned to shoot whoever arrived? Or was he simply watching the flames and decided to shoot on a whim?
One shot is a whim. Four focused shots are planned.
Each of his bullets had found its mark.
She swallowed hard and fought back another wave of boiling anger. Both deputies had families. Deputy Sanderson’s baby was three months old.
His poor wife. A baby who’ll never know its father.
She watched the fire marshal bend over the shoulder of one of the evidence techs, pointing at something in the pile of wooden debris. The wood all looked the same to Mercy. Wet and burned.
“I wish I understood exactly what he sees,” said Special Agent Eddie Peterson. She hadn’t noticed him stop beside her, and the presence of her favorite agent immediately boosted her mood. Eddie had applied for the other open position with the Bend FBI office, surprising everyone but the office’s intelligence analyst, Darby Cowen.
“I knew Eddie liked it here,” Darby had told Mercy confidently. “I saw his eyes light up the first time he went fly-fishing out on the river and heard it in his voice when he talked about the skiing at Mount Bachelor. This area casts a spell over nature lovers. Even when they don’t realize they’re nature lovers.”
Eddie was the last person Mercy would have identified as a nature lover. He was a city boy who paid a little too much attention to how he dressed and fixed his hair. But since he’d moved to Bend, she’d seen a side of him that appreciated the beauty of the area, and she was delighted he’d moved. To her he was a piece of Portland in Central Oregon. A small link to the good memories from the bigger city. He’d jokingly suggested they rent an apartment together, but Mercy needed her own place. She had a teenage niece to take care of.
Kaylie was seventeen and in her senior year of high school. She’d been abandoned by her mother when she was one, and her father had died recently. His dying wish had been for Mercy to finish raising his daughter. Mercy had reluctantly accepted, feeling as if she’d been thrust into a foreign world. Teenage angst, girlfriend drama, Internet predators, energy drinks, and celebrity crushes. Mercy’s teenage years had involved ranch work and hand-me-downs.
“Do we know where the shooter was standing when he shot the officers?” Eddie asked her. His eyes were hard, his usual cheery persona buried under the rage directed at their murderer.
“They found the rifle casings over there.” Mercy pointed at a group of pines far to the left of the barn.
“Holy crap. Someone was a good shot.” Eddie ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t like the thought of that at all,” he muttered.
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