“You think he’s taken on someone else’s identity,” Chad said. “Hang on. I’m going to email you the driver’s license photo we have on file from twenty-five years ago. I think it’s the same guy in every license photo we have, but maybe you’ll disagree.”
“How far back do you have photos?” Truman asked.
“I’m sending you the oldest one.”
Truman opened his email and spotted Chad’s address at the top of his in-box. He clicked. “Yes, that’s him.” McDonald was younger in the photo, but still had the heavy beard he wore today. “He’s supposed to be forty-five in this one. I don’t see that. He looks younger than you or I right now.”
“I agree. But the beard makes it hard to estimate his age. He’s worn it in every photo we have.”
The men were silent for a long moment.
“If this isn’t his identity, he’s been using it for a long time,” said Truman. “I don’t even know where to start to figure this one out.” How am I going to dig around in another state?
“I have some ideas,” said Chad. “One of our reserve officers would get off on solving this puzzle. He’s semiretired and there’s nothing he likes better than to research this sort of thing. He’s damned good at it. Let me talk to him for you.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
Truman ended the call after a few more minutes. Frustrated, he sat silently at his desk, hating to wait on someone else to do his work for him. How long will it take to get results? What if he can’t find anything?
Was it relevant if Tom McDonald wasn’t who he said he was? If he had used an assumed identity, it didn’t change what he’d been up to. Clearly the man had been living as McDonald for a very long time.
Maybe he’s wanted for an old murder.
Truman let his mind wander for a long moment, listing reasons for someone to assume a new identity. None of the reasons suggested a moral purpose.
He pulled up the McDonald property on a map on his computer, studying the surrounding landscape. McDonald had picked a very rural location. His large piece of land was surrounded by either a dense forest, steep hills, or a river. If Tom had wanted isolation, he’d found it. The best route in was the horrible road that fed in from the south that Truman had driven earlier that day. The only other way into the property followed winding roads that added ten miles and crossed a river. Truman shifted the map so he could follow the winding roads and land to the west of the property. He traced the long way in with his finger, starting at Tom’s property and working his way out.
Only someone with too much time on their hands would try to use this road.
His finger finally reached a country highway. He paused with his finger on the screen, staring at the number that labeled the highway, knowing he’d recently visited a home with that highway address.
Tilda Brass lived on that highway. He searched for her property lines. Her acreage turned out to be one of the oddest-shaped properties Truman had ever seen. It was long and narrow and curving.
But it shared a property line with the McDonald ranch.
Mercy was in her vehicle when Truman called. She pulled into a fast-food restaurant parking lot to give the call her full attention, and ignored the heavenly smell of frying beef.
“I just had an interesting call with a buddy of mine in northern Idaho,” he started. He proceeded to lay out his theory that Tom McDonald wasn’t who he claimed to be.
Mercy listened in shock, letting the concept sink into her brain.
I’m glad I parked before I heard that bit of information.
“I can see how you came to that conclusion,” Mercy admitted. “McDonald doesn’t look as old as he should. And the fact that he has absolutely no record? That tells me he’s been trying extra hard to stay clean over the years. Do you think his real past is hiding something horrible?”
“I don’t want to jump to conclusions,” said Truman. “Let’s wait and hear what this officer in Idaho finds. We could be way off course.”
“And does it really change what’s happened here?” she asked. “The deputies are still dead, and we don’t know who set two of the fires. Past or no past, something is up. Although I think it’s an excellent theory, and I’ll mention it to Darby. Maybe she can help your Idaho guy.”
“I went out there today.”
Mercy tensed. “Went where?”
“The McDonald ranch.”
“Why?” Her boss’s warning about not going out to the ranch alone echoed in her head. Male or female, he hadn’t believed it was safe, and Mercy agreed.
“The truck that ran you off the road was found today.”
“I heard they found a truck. I wasn’t going to pay much attention until the evidence proved it was the right vehicle.”
“Well, I went to check out the truck. There’s black paint on the front right corner. That was good enough for me.”
“Who does it belong to?” She took a deep breath, suspecting she knew the answer to her question.
“Joshua Pence. And it was found less than ten miles from the McDonald place, so I decided to go see if they knew anything about it.”
“Did they still deny that he worked there?”
“Yep. I had a short chat with Tom that went absolutely nowhere. And Mercy . . . Owen was there.”
“He was standing behind Tom like one of his lackeys and pretended he didn’t know me.”
Mercy closed her eyes. Why, Owen? “I can’t control what he does.”
“Of course you can’t, but you should be aware that if we find dirt on Tom McDonald, it could affect or incriminate a lot of his followers.”
In other words, Owen will have more reasons to hate me.
“He’s chosen his path. I’ve done what I can.”
“I’m sorry, Mercy,” Truman said gently, and his soft tone nearly broke her heart.
“I’m doing the best I can with my family. Owen has been the hardest to get to talk to me, let alone accept that I’ve returned. I think I have to stand back and just let him have his anger. He knows I’m here when he’s ready to talk.”
A long silence dragged out between them.
“Anything new in the cases?” Truman asked.
“The dirt bike treads from Landon’s home don’t match the ones at the fire scene where Joshua Pence was found.”
“That was fast work.”
“According to one of our lab techs, it was a no-brainer. He took one look and knew it didn’t match.”
“What about the weapons and shells?”
“That takes longer. This isn’t TV, you know.”
“No one knows that better than me,” said Truman. “But I’m still waiting for my hot FBI girlfriend to show up in heels and low-cut blouses.”
Mercy laughed. “Are you making fun of my boots?” She glanced at the heavy-treaded boots she’d slipped on that morning to wear while searching Landon Hecht’s home. There was nothing glamorous about them; glamorous was a word never used to describe her. She preferred being comfortable and practical.
“Of course not. I find you particularly attractive in jeans and boots. Especially when you’re swinging an ax. That whole look works for me.” He gave a low chuckle that curled her toes. “Have you heard from Jack Howell yet?”
“I haven’t. I should stop by his office again.”
“Something tells me he’s going to be out for the rest of the day.”
“You’re probably right. I suspect it would be a waste of my time, but I’m going to continue with my phone messages every few hours. That should get under his skin a bit.”
A beep sounded in the vehicle, and she saw she had an incoming call from Rose.
“Truman, Rose is calling.”
“I’ll let you go.”
She ended his call and picked up the second. “Hi, Rose.”
“Mercy? Is that you?” asked a high-pitched voice that didn’t belong to Rose.
“Mom?” Mercy caught her breath at the stress in her mother’s tone.
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