“He’s a real estate agent,” she said in surprise as she reached Eddie.

“Who?”

She brought him up-to-date.

“Sounds like you need to find out who his client is,” said Eddie. “Unless he’s one of those agents who personally buy property as an investment.”

“She really should sell,” Mercy said. “I don’t think she should be living alone.”

“Does she need to sell to afford to move?”

“I didn’t ask. From our conversations, she implied it.”

“Do you want to call and ask who his client is or set up an appointment to talk to him?”

“I’m always about asking first,” said Mercy. “Why jump through hoops if people will tell you what you want to know over the phone?”

“I’m always shocked by the personal stuff people tell me,” Eddie said. “I’ll call to ask a question about a purchase they made and get their life history.”

“Every time,” Mercy agreed. She dialed the number and the agent answered the phone.

“Jack Howell here!” he said with gusto. “What can I do for you today?”

Mercy identified herself. “Tilda Brass said you were interested in buying her property.”

“Brass . . . Brass . . . ,” he muttered. “Oh! The spread out east. Oh yes. That’s a great piece of land. Way too much for her to handle.”

“You know Tilda?” Mercy asked, slightly irked that this stranger had voiced a judgment about the woman.

“I met her twice,” he said. “Lovely woman, but she seemed overwhelmed by the amount of land she had to manage.”

Such a salesman.

“How big is the property?” Mercy asked. She faintly remembered that her parents had talked in awed tones about how big the property was when her childhood friend lived there, but she’d assumed it’d been sold in parcels and winnowed down over the decades.

“Six hundred acres.”

Mercy had to agree with the agent that it was a bit much for one woman to handle. “Who are you representing?”

Jack was silent for a moment. “Are you interested in buying the property?”

“No, I’m interested in who you’re representing.”

More silence. “Well, my buyer has asked to remain anonymous,” he finally said. “I’m sure you can respect that.”

Mercy’s interest level quadrupled. “Actually, Mr. Howell, I can’t. We’re investigating the two murders of police officers on the property, so I’m sure you can respect that I’d like to know the name of the person who was interested in buying this property before its barn was set on fire.”

Listening, Eddie grinned and gestured with his hands for her to keep it up.

“Can I call you back?”

“Have you forgotten the name of your buyer?”

“No . . . I need him to tell me it’s all right to tell you his name. He’d been very emphatic about his confidentiality.” His earlier gusto had evaporated.

“You do realize I can get a warrant for the information, right? But I’d much rather spend the time working on the deaths of these officers instead of filling out paperwork.”

“I understand.” Judging by the amount of discomfort in his voice, he was squirming in his seat and reluctant to let his buyer know the FBI was demanding his name. “You’re creating an ethical issue for me. When a client asks me to keep—”

“Mr. Howell.” Fury filled her. “I don’t give a damn about your code of ethics at the moment. I care about finding a killer. I’ll give you five minutes to call your client and get back to me.” She rattled off her number and ended the call.

“Nice,” said Eddie with an admiring grin. “I suspect he’s dialing as fast as he can.”

“Jerk. Who do you think his client is?”

“I suspect we’ll know in five minutes.”

They continued to the end of the target range, and Mercy had to agree with Eddie that whoever had used the range was an excellent shot. Five minutes came and went. And then ten.

Mercy called Jack Howell, and the call went to his voice mail. She dialed again with the same results.

She fumed as they traced their steps back to where Truman and the others had just finished picking up the shells.

“Nice timing,” he told her as he deliberately stretched his back.

“Sorry.” She told him about her phone call with the real estate agent.

“Sounds like you need to pop into his office and have a chat with him,” said Truman.

“It’ll be my next stop.”

Truman shook the door handle of Jack Howell’s real estate office. It was a one-man shop, and it appeared the agent had stepped out for a midmorning coffee. He glanced at Mercy; she was ready to strangle someone.

“I left two more messages,” Mercy stated. “Clearly he’s avoiding me.”

“Not for long,” Truman said.

“Damn right.” She stared at the name on the glass door as she chewed on her lip. Inside they could see two desks, but only one had a computer set up. Flyers advertising homes for sale papered part of the building’s windows. The office was a tiny storefront in a small strip mall that also housed a vape shop, a pawn shop, and a Hispanic bakery.

“Hungry?” Truman asked as the smell of fresh pastries reached his nose. He knew the bakery was a good one. He tried to stop by whenever he was on this side of Bend.

“No.” Mercy scanned the parking lot, looking frustrated. “I’ll get his home address and pay him a visit.”

“Why do you think his buyer would want to stay private?” asked Truman.

Clear green eyes met his. “They have something to hide.”

“Or maybe they had a bad history with Tilda or her husband and were afraid she wouldn’t sell to them,” he suggested.

“Could be. But she’s been adamant that she doesn’t know of anyone who’d burn her barn, so I don’t know if there is someone she’d refuse to sell to.”

“Are there any financial issues with the property?”

“I don’t think so. I know Bill Trek investigated any possible liens and title issues on his end. He said there were no problems.” She checked the time and made a sour face. “I need to get back to the office.”

“You’re not the only one,” said Truman. He hesitated, enjoying their time together though they were hunting for a Realtor who clearly didn’t want to be found. They’d had too little time together lately and he didn’t like it. He took a quick look around the parking lot. Seeing they were alone, he kissed her, a lingering kiss with his hands on her face. She leaned into the embrace and sighed.

“When this is over . . . ,” he started.

“We’ll find a place to relax. Together,” she finished.

He reluctantly let her go, promising to meet up later.

TWENTY-ONE

Tom McDonald watched the woman carry the coffee across the yard as if it were liquid gold, knowing he could easily meet her halfway, but not wanting to. Laurie handed him the mug, and Tom thanked her as if she’d handed him a hundred-dollar bill. Her eyes lit up and she whispered, “You’re welcome.” She dipped her head and dashed off the front porch of the farmhouse, headed back to the mess hall, where the scent of bacon still hovered outside.

He took a sip of the coffee, watching as she hustled away. Laurie must have noticed that he’d missed breakfast. The drink was hot and dark and bitter. He smiled. He liked that the women on the ranch respected him and tried to anticipate his needs. They kept the mess hall clean and always had hot food ready when needed. The kitchen in his farmhouse had a small refrigerator and microwave, but no working stove or oven. He’d decided funds were best spent building one large, central kitchen. One day when he had more money, he’d get the house’s small kitchen up and running, but right now it wasn’t a priority. His priority was to create a place where men wanted to live and work.

Food, shelter, and community. These were men’s core needs. Provide those three items along with a desirable goal and he’d have plenty of happy followers. He was working hard on getting their shelters built. The bunkhouses were bare bones, but over time he planned to add small houses and more luxuries. The men who stuck with him from the early days would be rewarded first. Newcomers would start in the bunkhouses and see the rewards they could earn if they worked hard.

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