“Married?” asked Jeff.
“Divorced. I contacted the ex-wife. She hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks.”
“Are we sure he wasn’t killed in the burning building?” Jeff frowned.
“We aren’t sure,” said Mercy. “But Jack’s car wasn’t at the office, and the owner of the vape shop said Jack always parks in a particular spot. The fire marshal says he won’t know if there’s a body inside until the building cools down enough for him to go through the debris.”
“Does he believe it’s arson?” asked Jeff.
“Bill Trek wouldn’t give me a definitive answer on that because he hadn’t done the inspection yet, but he pointed out the gasoline odor. It was overwhelming even with the smell of the smoke.”
“Do you think Jack burned down his own office and left town?” Jeff asked.
“Who’d leave their dog locked in the house?” Eddie pointed out.
“A person who is scared,” said Mercy. “Someone who’s not thinking straight.”
“Just what did you say to him?” Jeff leaned forward. “Did he burn it because we asked him some questions?”
“All I asked about was his purchase offer for Tilda Brass’s property. I didn’t threaten him at all.”
“Then what did he hide by burning the office?” Eddie shrugged his shoulders. “Did we open a can of worms that we simply aren’t aware of yet? Was Jack running something illegal through his office and was paranoid that we knew about it?”
“Keep digging into him,” ordered Jeff. “Something made him cut and run. I want to know what it was.”
“I called Tilda a little bit ago and asked if she had any idea who the mystery buyer could be. I wanted to know if there was someone she’d refuse to sell to for whatever reason,” said Mercy. “She couldn’t come up with any person who would stay anonymous to buy her land. She stated again she doesn’t have any enemies and would sell to anyone who offered her a decent price.” Mercy paused. “Unless they were followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. She was very adamant that she wouldn’t sell to anyone associated with him.”
The office was silent.
“Who?” asked Eddie.
“Didn’t he die thirty years ago?” asked Jeff in a stunned voice.
“Something like that,” said Mercy. She smiled at Eddie’s confusion. “He was an Indian guru whose followers took over a small town not far from here in the nineteen-eighties. It got ugly. I think Tilda feels it happened a lot more recently than that.”
“I think I read about it,” admitted Eddie. “Rolls-Royces and red pajamas?”
“That was him,” said Mercy.
“I think we’re pretty safe that the buyer isn’t associated with them,” suggested Jeff.
“I agree,” Mercy said. “While I was talking to Tilda, I wondered if the anonymous buyer burned down the real estate office. Maybe he didn’t like that Jack told him the FBI wanted to know his identity.”
Eddie stared at her as the theory sank in. “That would be one very nervous buyer,” he said slowly. “That sounds a bit extreme, don’t you think?”
“Maybe Jack knows more about the buyer than he should. Or maybe the buyer panicked when Jack said the FBI was asking questions.” The theory was growing on Mercy. The more she thought about it, the more she liked it. “Someone set Tilda’s barn on fire. It seems logical they’d revert to fire again to take care of another problem.” She paused, her brain rapidly processing. “It’s all connected somehow . . . I can’t see it yet. But the fires are a common denominator.”
“I agree,” said Jeff. “But whether Jack set this latest fire or not, we still need to locate him.”
“Is there any connection between Jack Howell and Landon Hecht?” Mercy wondered out loud. “Could our presence at the Hecht home this morning have set something in motion?”
“Ask Hecht and his mother if they know Howell,” ordered Jeff. “You’re right. We’re missing some pieces here. Anything else I need to know?”
Mercy and Eddie looked at each other and then shook their heads.
“Get back to work.” Jeff waved them out of his office.
“I thought you were coming over this evening,” Kaylie said into her cell phone as she lay on her bed, staring at her ceiling. Frustration shot through her. Cade didn’t sound like himself.
“I am. I need to run out to the ranch for a bit first,” Cade answered in a consoling voice.
Kaylie wasn’t consoled and wondered if he was avoiding dinner at her house. Uncertainty shot through her nerves. “It’s your day off. Why would you go out there on a day you don’t work?”
“I won’t do any work.” Cade hesitated, and she felt his discomfort through the phone.
“What’s going on?” Is there someone else? What isn’t he telling me?
“It’s nothing. Just something I need to check out.”
“Then do it tomorrow when they’re paying you to be there,” she argued. “I don’t understand why you’re cutting into our time like this.”
Cade was silent.
“Cade?” Her voice caught. “Is there someone else?”
“Oh God. No! Don’t think like that, Kaylie!”
“Then why won’t you tell me what you’re doing?” She cringed at the nagging-girlfriend tone in her voice.
He sighed into the phone. “It’s not another girl. It’s work stuff. I need to go look for something . . . I saw something the other day and then it was gone. I need to know what happened to it.”
“Like you lost some tools?” She tried hard to sound patient, but he was being deliberately vague.
“Something like that.”
“Are you nervous you’ll get in trouble if they find out you lost something?”
He paused again. “Not quite.” He lowered his voice. “I think something illegal might be going on at the ranch.”
Kaylie swung her legs over the edge of her bed and sat up, her anxiety skyrocketing. “Illegal? Should you be going back out there? Is it dangerous?”
“I think I’m okay. I don’t think it’s dangerous. The owner likes me; he says I have a good work ethic.”
“Then what are you nervous about?”
“I came across a whole bunch of dynamite.”
A large chunk of her anxiety vanished. “That’s not a bad thing. My grandpa keeps dynamite in his barn. Says he’ll never know when he might need it. He always made us grandkids stay away from it, although one of my cousins got into it one time. Grandpa was furious.”
“I know. But this was a lot. And then when I looked for it again, it was gone.”
Kaylie still didn’t see the problem. “So they moved it. Or they got rid of it.”
He exhaled impatiently.
He’s still not telling me everything. “Why are you worried?”
“I heard some stuff.”
“I heard the guys talking about your aunt showing up at the ranch and asking questions. They didn’t like it.”
“That’s her job. She can’t help it if her questions make people uncomfortable. She’s trying to find out who set those fires and killed three people.”
Cade was silent.
“Oh my gosh! You think some guys at your ranch had something to do with those deaths?” Kaylie pressed her phone against her ear, tension making her heart race.
“Isn’t that why your aunt went out there? Looking for answers about one of the victims?”
“I don’t know. I don’t keep track of what she’s doing. But what did you overhear?” Something is making him very nervous.
“I’m not sure. Could just be a bunch of guy talk. Trying to sound tough. But someone said Josh Pence paid the price for screwing up.”
“His death was the price?” she squeaked.
“Or he just got fired,” Cade assured her. “I could be reading too much into it.”
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