Then why don’t I feel any better?

“Am I too cautious? Does it affect my work?” he asked.

“Too cautious? You?”

“I ran back to get the fire extinguisher the night Officer Madero died instead of getting her away—”

“Stop it!” she ordered, and he slammed the door on the horrific memory of responding to a car fire nearly two years ago. The guilt had nearly ended his career in law enforcement.

She put both hands on his cheeks and pulled his face close to hers. Her pupils were huge, and anger hovered around her. “You know you’re exhausted and not thinking straight. You need sleep. Your perspective will be better tomorrow.”

His mind had started to slide down a pessimistic narrow tunnel. One where he second-guessed every decision he’d ever made. He recognized the dreaded slippery path but still struggled to break out. She’d seen his spiraling mind-set and knew he needed to snap out of it.

“Sleep,” she ordered. “No more discussions. We’ll talk about it all you want tomorrow. Now come to bed.”

She didn’t need to ask twice. He shed his jeans and shirt as she lay down and then slid in beside her. At the touch of her cool skin, every cell in his body relaxed. She snuggled up to him and rested her hand against his cheek. More stress evaporated.

He closed his eyes and felt himself drifting away. “I needed to be next to you.”

“Then you got your wish,” she said against his neck. Her lips pressed into his skin.

“I missed you, Mercy.”

“I missed you too.”

“Don’t leave town for a while, okay?” he muttered, struggling to form words as he felt himself sucked deeper into sleep.

“I’ve got no vacation plans.” Humor filled her words. “Are you sure you don’t need something for the pain?”

“Absolutely. Everything’s perfect now.”

FOUR

Officer Ben Cooley was covering the night shift.

To be fair, it wasn’t a night shift in the true sense. Usually that meant actually driving to a job with a crappy shift from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Eagle’s Nest simply had one officer on call from midnight to 8:00 a.m. He didn’t mind taking the shift—they all had to cover it at least once a week—but usually he got to sleep in peace. Not much happened in the middle of the night in his quiet town, and getting paid for sleeping in his bed wasn’t a bad deal, but lately fires had been on everyone’s mind.

Sure enough, at 4:00 a.m., a little more than twenty-four hours after the fire and shooting on Tilda Brass’s property, he got a call that suspicious persons were snooping around Jackson Hill’s outbuildings. Hill was out of town, but a neighbor had seen someone where there shouldn’t be any people. Nothing was on fire, but knowing a young prepper family had already lost supplies and that Jackson was a known prepper, Ben pulled his old bones out of bed.

His wife of fifty years was still sound asleep. As was his custom when leaving to work, Ben kissed her tenderly on the cheek and told her he loved her. Then he got dressed and wished there were a coffee drive-through between him and the call. Instead he heated up the leftover coffee in the pot, poured it into a travel mug, and got into his patrol vehicle. He blinked hard as he headed out of town, trying to get the sleep out of his eyes. He called the dispatch center and flirted with Denise for a few seconds as he let her know he was en route to the call. He knew all the dispatchers at the Deschutes County 911 center. Over the years they’d come and gone, but Denise had been around for a good five years and always laughed at his jokes.

“Busy night?” he asked.

“We’ve taken just over five hundred calls in the last twenty-four hours, so technically that’s a slow day for us.”

Ben couldn’t imagine. Feeling guilty, he quickly got off the call so she could help someone else and turned his concentration to the dark road. He’d been a cop in Eagle’s Nest for over thirty years. In that time a lot of things had changed, and a lot were still exactly the same.

Fights between spouses? Exactly the same. Couples still got drunk and tried to beat the hell out of each other.

Drug abuse? Not much change. The only change was in which drug was popular at the moment.

Drunk driving? Not much change. Even with the big push for awareness over the last several decades, he still pulled over too many drunks each week. Although he’d noticed they were older than they used to be. Perhaps the younger generations were getting the message not to drink and drive.

He still loved his job. He didn’t want to do anything else. He liked talking to people and he liked helping his neighbors. Most folks in the area respected his badge. There’d always been a few who didn’t, and in the past he could knock respect into their heads, but that was frowned upon these days.

Besides, he didn’t have the strength he used to. Didn’t have a lot of what he used to. His joints hurt most of the day, and his back had given him grief for the last ten years. His doctor bitched at him to eat better and get more exercise, but Ben didn’t see the point in eating boring food and visiting a gym for what he had left of this life. One of the perks of being a human being was eating delicious food. And if it was delicious, that meant his doctor was against it. Ben would rather enjoy his meals than try to please his doctor. His wife was an incredible cook. He patted his bigger-than-it-should-be belly. A badge of honor.

He turned off the two-lane highway onto the narrow road that eventually led to the Hill home. A person lurched out of the darkness and into his headlights, waving their hands for him to stop.

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt!” Ben swore. His car skidded as he braked hard.

A moment later he recognized Jim Hotchkiss. The neighbor who’d called in the prowler.

Ben lowered his window. “You waiting for me, Jim?”

“Yep. Took you long enough.” Jim was wearing his usual overalls and a heavy canvas coat. The thin man had lost most of his teeth a few decades back and rarely wore his dentures.

Ben put on a patient face. “Came as fast as I could. What’d you see?”

“Two men poking around Hill’s three outbuildings. With the fires of the last few weeks, I thought I’d let you confront them first instead of me just scaring them off.”

“See any weapons?” Ben asked.

“Too far off. Too dark. And there might have been more than two people, but I saw two for certain.”

“Head back home, okay?”

Jim looked out at the highway. “You got some backup coming?”

“They know I’m here. I’ll radio if I think it’s something I can’t handle.”

The skepticism on Jim’s face stung Ben’s ego. He waved off the man and rolled up his window. The chill from the night air had frosted the dried grass along the road, and his headlights gave it a silver cast. In just the short moment he’d had his window down, the interior of his car had completely cooled. He cranked up the heat and cautiously drove on, turning on his brights and watching both sides of the road for anyone else who decided to leap out of the darkness.

“Jim’s older than I am,” he mumbled. “Jerk doesn’t think I can handle myself.”

The ruts in the dirt road made his vehicle bounce and jerk, and he heard packed dirt scrape his undercarriage. One of these days, everyone in the department will have four-wheel drives. Right now, the department could afford only two.

He turned off the road into the Hills’ driveway. Someone had nailed two hubcaps to a pine, marking the driveway. Tacky, but effective, even in the dark.

Keeping his heat blasting, he lowered his window and listened as he drove. Ahead the Hill home was dark. Beyond it Ben could see the outline of a wide, low outbuilding and two small sheds beyond it. Ben stopped the car next to the house, but in a position where he could see all three buildings. He turned off the engine, but kept his lights on and listened again.

Quiet.

Too quiet?

Any moonlight was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. Ben’s headlights were the sole source of illumination, and he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

They could have driven away in the other direction and not been seen by Jim.

Ben grabbed his big flashlight from his console and stepped out of the car. This wasn’t a job for the tiny LED flashlight on his belt. The big one felt good in his hand. Secure and powerful. It was a good friend. It’d been used to bust car windows, pound on doors, and even knock a guy in the temple. A dozen years ago a meth-head had rushed him, and since Ben had the flashlight in hand, he’d used it. The druggie had sunk to the dirt as if his bones had dissolved. Ben transferred the flashlight to his left hand, rested his other on the weapon at his hip, and walked toward the house.

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