“He could lead the police to me.”

“I think they’re already watching you, Tom. You’ve been visited by every agency in the area.” Owen panted in deep gasps from the ground. He scooted another foot away from the body.

“I needed to eliminate any links between me and the fire at the Brass property.”

“The one where the deputies died?”

Tom didn’t answer, keeping his gaze on Jack. The agent’s body was impossibly still as blood slowly oozed from the red circle in his face. I thought dead men don’t bleed. As if it read his thoughts, the bleeding stopped.

“Are you responsible for those deputies’ deaths?” Owen hissed in a low voice.

Tom stayed silent as he turned his attention to Owen. Sweat covered the man’s forehead. “Get up,” he ordered.

Owen stared at him for a moment but obeyed. He slowly moved to his feet, his gaze alternating between Tom’s face and the weapon in his hand.

“There’s a ravine about a hundred feet in that direction.” Tom pointed, keeping his gun neutrally at his side with his other hand. “Drag him up there and throw him over. The wildlife will make short work of him.”

“No.”

Don’t disappoint me. “What will you do? Go to the police?”

Owen didn’t say anything. Tom saw the indecision in his eyes.

This is his make-or-break moment.

Tom moved his finger back to the trigger. “You don’t know this, but I spent time in this area several decades ago. I knew your dad, Owen. And I knew all your uncles on your mother’s side too.”

He had Owen’s attention.

“I know what you’re made of. I know the thoughts in your head. I know how you were bred. It’s why I was willing to bring you into my circle so rapidly. Most men spend years getting to the level of trust that I have in you.”

“Why me?” he breathed.

Tom knew Owen balanced on a tightrope, ready to leap off. But he paused, wanting Tom to convince him that everything would be okay. Tom was an expert at that sort of thing. He had the skills to show men like Owen what they really wanted.

“I just told you. I know your blood,” he said earnestly. “This country was built on the backs of men like your relatives. You can be one of them too.”

“Murder makes us no better than the ones trying to change us.”

“Sometimes you have no choice.” He kept his tone soft, regretful, knowing occasionally sacrifices had to be made for the greater good.

Owen weighed his words. “You had no other option?”

“None.”

Owen broke eye contact and stared at the body, his face expressionless. “I’ll help you this once. But then I’m done. This isn’t what I signed up for.”

Tom released the magazine from his pistol and popped the round out of the chamber before handing the weapon to Owen, who refused to take it. “Look closely at it,” Tom suggested.

Owen looked and turned a pale shade of green. “Is that my gun?”

“It is.” Tom thrust it at him again and watched Owen’s gaze go to the thin leather gloves on Tom’s hands. He saw the moment Owen realized that the only prints on his gun would be his own. His gaze shot to the body.

Yes, your bullet is in his brain.

“I assume there are plenty of bullets from this gun in that homemade firing range at the back of your property.”

Owen stared at him, and Tom could see the gears spinning in his brain, searching for a way out.

But Tom had already covered all the exits.

“Al and Deke will swear they saw you shoot him.”

“But I didn’t—”

Tom held up his hands. “It doesn’t need to come to that. No one can trace Jack Howell to me.”

“They can pull his phone records.” Owen still wasn’t sold on Tom’s plan.

He needs another small push.

“Nothing illegal about talking to someone on the phone.”

Owen opened his mouth to argue and then shut it. Again he looked at the body on the ground. “How many men have you killed, Tom?” he asked quietly. “How many men have died because of what you’re trying to do?”

Tom didn’t reply. His answer wasn’t relevant. Right now it was important to bind Owen to him.

“I have faith in you, Owen. I know you’re the type of man I need at my side. We both want to do away with the police running wild all over our civil rights. Together we provide a united front. Once the government realizes we’re capable of policing ourselves, they’ll back off. Hell, we’ll be saving them money.”

He wasn’t seeing the confidence he needed from Owen, so he pulled out the last weapon in his arsenal.

“I know your wife and kids will support you.”

The fear in Owen’s eyes pleased Tom.

Tom pointed at the body. “I’ll wait right here while you dispose of that.”

Mercy decided to swing by Jack Howell’s office after her gut-wrenching encounter with Rose and her parents.

She was still seething over her father’s comments, but knowing Rose saw right through his blustering gave Mercy some calm. One day she and Rose would stand up to her father. Rose was quite good at calming him, but Mercy knew her sister couldn’t change his beliefs, and Pearl and her mother would never be any help.

Or would Pearl?

Working at the coffee shop had given her a confidence Mercy hadn’t seen in the two months she’d been in Central Oregon. But Mercy didn’t know if Pearl could ever supplant her need to be the peacemaker. It was odd how all the women in her family were adept at calming the people around them. Her brothers had never acquired that skill.

Maybe it’s not that odd.

Mercy stopped in heavy traffic a block from Jack’s office. She leaned to the left, trying to see around the truck in front of her. As far as she could tell, drivers were rubbernecking at something. Her vehicle slowly crept forward, and she spotted the fire trucks in the parking lot of Jack Howell’s real estate office. Thick gray smoke oozed from the collapsed building.

No. It can’t be.

Mercy ignored the police officer gesturing that she couldn’t enter and pulled into the lot.

The real estate office was gone. Her stomach churning, Mercy got out of her vehicle and stared at the destruction. Next door the vape shop was nearly decimated, but the pawn shop and the bakery had escaped unscathed.

Did I pressure the Realtor to do this?

“Hey! You can’t park—”

She held up her FBI ID to silence the approaching officer. “Who’s in charge?”

He pointed. “Sergeant Herscher.”

Mercy strode in the sergeant’s direction, wondering what his reaction would be when she informed him the fire was now part of an FBI investigation.

What did I stir up?

TWENTY-SIX

Hours later and smelling of smoke, Mercy joined Eddie in her boss’s office. She glanced at the time, feeling her exhaustion down to the marrow in her bones, and considered calling Kaylie to cancel the late dinner for Mercy to officially meet Cade. Mercy knew it was important to all three of them that they get their relationships back on the right track. She needed to see how Cade acted around her niece instead of standing on a remote ranch with a couple of belligerent construction workers. And it would be a good time to question him about activities at that ranch.

Mercy wished she’d grabbed a cup of the horrible office coffee before sitting in front of Jeff’s desk. Their primary concern was that no one could locate Jack Howell.

“How many times did you call the Realtor?” Jeff asked her.

“I don’t know. A half dozen? I was annoyed that he hadn’t called back when he said he would. But I left only two messages,” she pointed out.

“So the rest of the calls were just harassment?” Jeff tapped his pen on his desk, his mouth in a grim line, avoiding her gaze.

“I thought of them as polite reminders to return my call. Maybe he has short-term memory problems.”

Jeff finally looked at her, and she raised her eyebrows in an innocent expression.

“I requested his phone records. Hopefully we can trace who he called or his location before the fire.” Eddie broke the tension. “When I went to his home to notify him of the fire, no one was there and his car was missing. I’ve requested an APB on the vehicle. A dog barked like crazy when I knocked, and when I peeked in the window by the door, I saw the dog had wet on the floor. I have to think that Jack planned to come back and let the dog out. I left a patrol car in front of his house to wait to see if he returns.”

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