“I think they’re about twenty minutes out.”
“I also let Jeff know what’s going on,” Mercy said. “He’s sending a team in our direction. Anytime I mention McDonald’s ranch to him, he gets antsy.”
“I think he has good reason.”
Mercy shifted in her seat. “Kaylie told me Cade was scared of some of the men he works with. He also told her he heard that Pence paid the price for screwing up. That statement has to refer to his murder.”
“That’s a steep price for messing up. What could he have done to deserve that?”
“Who knows? But he’s dead, and I think someone out here knows what happened.”
“What do you think McDonald is doing on this ranch?”
“According to some of what Cade shared with Kaylie, it sounds like he’s forming his own militia. Our office has heard chatter of a new militia in the area. They also heard about plans to blow up a bridge. When Kaylie told me about the dynamite, it raised an alarm in my head.”
Truman’s gut told him she was right about McDonald’s plans for a militia. He’d seen the signs. The growing group of men. McDonald’s constant guards. His attitude toward law enforcement. The rumors surrounding his ranch. He had the ego and the personality to drive men to do what he desired. Could he inspire men to kill for him?
Mercy scanned an email on her phone. “They didn’t find a body in the ruins of Jack Howell’s real estate office.”
“Now he’s another missing person.”
“I think he torched it and left town.”
Truman suddenly remembered what he’d discovered about a piece of real estate earlier that day. “Did you know Tilda Brass’s property shares a border with the McDonald ranch?”
“What?” Mercy’s entire body swung toward him. “Where did you hear that? That can’t be possible. They’re miles apart.”
“I looked it up. Her property is a weird shape that follows the creek. The far east end butts up against a remote part of the McDonald ranch.”
He could nearly hear the gears spinning in her brain. “Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“I just did. I found out today.”
“Could he be the anonymous buyer for her property? Wanting to expand his own?”
“Seems a logical guess. Although I think his ranch is big enough. Why does he need more?”
Mercy slowly slid back into her seat, her fingers beating a rhythm on her thighs. “That’s a question I’d like to ask McDonald. I can see him remaining anonymous during real estate negotiations. He seems to appreciate his privacy.”
“Based on my phone call with my deputy buddy in Idaho this morning, McDonald is a very private person. Too private. I suspect the reserve officer is going to dig up some interesting dirt on Tom McDonald.”
“If McDonald is the buyer, would he torch the real estate office?” Mercy suddenly asked. “We’re already considering that he had Joshua Pence killed at that other fire. Is he our fire starter?”
“I think Landon Hecht is our firebug,” said Truman.
“Me too, but even he said he didn’t start the fires on Tilda’s property or where we found Pence’s body.”
“If you’re suggesting Tom McDonald started those fires, then he might have shot the deputies.” Truman’s stomach seethed with acid as his anger built.
“If he’s forming a militia, he may not have any regard for law enforcement,” Mercy stated. “He ignored my FBI visit and didn’t feel a need to be respectful during your visit.”
“I don’t know.” Truman’s mind tried to catch up with Mercy’s theories. “We’re making a lot of assumptions.”
“I’m thinking out loud.”
Truman slowly drove around the last bend to the McDonald property and spotted a few building lights. “We need to wait for our backup. I was ready to knock on doors and ask about Cade, but now I don’t think that’s the best course of action.”
“Absolutely not. Park at the edge and we’ll sit tight until they get here. I have no desire to confront some wannabe militia members in the dark.”
Mercy sat in the dark next to Truman, her eyes straining to see through the night. Truman had stopped near the vehicles parked farthest from the buildings, not wanting to stick out by parking alone. The ranch was silent. They’d cracked their windows, and the lack of noise made her want to crawl up the inside walls of the vehicle. Truman sat quietly, his focus and calm keeping her nerves from leaping out of her limbs.
No anxiety in him this evening.
She could see a half dozen lights on different buildings. The brightest was on the farmhouse in the distance. It was after 9:00 p.m., and no silhouettes moved in the shadows. Is everyone in bed already? Her gaze traveled over the small bunkhouses. Cade had told Kaylie that McDonald planned to house more than a hundred men.
The thought made her insides shudder.
“What’s that?” Truman whispered. “Over there. By the king cab truck.”
Mercy stared into the dark. Sure enough, she spotted the outline of a figure darting between the vehicles, working toward their end of the parking area. “It’s moving this way.”
Truman touched the handle of his door.
“Wait,” Mercy said almost silently. The figure passed between two trucks, a brief silhouette in the night. “It’s a woman!” she exclaimed under her breath. Disappointment filled her chest. She’d hoped it was Cade.
Hunched over, the woman dashed through the dark, using the vehicles as cover. As she drew closer, Mercy saw she carried a duffel bag and glanced over her shoulder several times. She’s scared.
“I’m going,” she said. “Don’t let the inside lights turn on when I open the door.”
“They’re off, and I’m going with you.”
“I’ve got you covered.”
Mercy opened her door as quietly as she could and breathed a sigh of relief as the Tahoe’s cab lights stayed off. The woman reached a nearby car, and Mercy heard the grate of a key sliding into the lock of the door. She took several steps toward the woman, stopping with twenty feet between them.
“Excuse me,” Mercy said as calmly as she could.
The woman whirled around, her hand pressed to her chest, her terror apparent in the dark.
Mercy raised her hands. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said kindly, as every piece of her focused on the position of the woman’s hands. She hasn’t reached for a weapon.
“You scared the crap out of me,” the woman said. The dim light lit her blonde braid, and she was nearly as tall as Mercy. She squinted in the dark. “Who are you?” Her voice shook, and she reminded Mercy of a doe ready to bolt at the slightest hint of danger.
“I’m looking for a friend.” Don’t scare her away.
“This isn’t a place to find friends,” the blonde stated. “I definitely wouldn’t come here alone. Especially as a woman at night. You’re just looking for trouble.”
“I’m not alone.” Mercy tipped her head in Truman’s direction. “He’s helping me.”
The woman took a half step back as she spotted Truman’s tall shadow for the first time. She glanced at Mercy. “He’s safe?”
“Yes. Are you worried for your safety?”
“Not anymore. I’m out of here.”
“Why are you leaving?” Truman asked.
“I’m done working for this guy.” She opened the passenger door, quickly tossed her bag inside, and shut it, keeping the noise to a minimum. She moved like a bird, rapid and fluttery.
“McDonald?” Mercy asked. “What did you do for him?”
“Cook. Clean. Whatever was needed. I thought McDonald was okay at first . . . but now I have my doubts. He’s good at presenting an honest front, but behind the scenes he’s ruthless. He’ll do whatever it takes to get what he wants.” Her voice lowered and she glanced behind her. “People have died. People who crossed him. But he claims he had nothing to do with it.”
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