A Merciful Silence Page 1


There it is.

Eagle’s Nest police officer Ben Cooley hit his brakes, thankful he’d been driving a cautious thirty miles an hour. He squinted, trying to see through the smears created by his windshield wipers. Ahead of his car, one-third of the road was gone, washed down the steep side of the hill. It looked as if a monster had bitten a ten-foot-wide chunk out of the asphalt. The last three days had dropped several inches of rain in Central Oregon, and he could swear the cities were about to float away. This sort of continuous downpour happened all the time in the Willamette Valley on the other side of the Cascade mountain range, but not in his beloved—and usually dry—high desert.

To the left of the road was a gut-turning drop-off that vanished into a forest of pines. On his right the rocky hillside sloped upward, and several impromptu waterfalls cascaded down, flowing across the road. The water was supposed to feed into the ditch and funnel beneath the road to flow safely out the other side, but the quantity of water had overpowered the culvert.

“Don’t know how the other side of the state puts up with months of this rain.” No one was around to hear Ben mutter to himself. He made a conscious effort not to do it within listening distance of the other guys in his department. The last thing the police chief needed to hear was that his seventy-something officer was losing his mind.

Ben hit his flashers, called in his location, and popped his trunk.

The highway department tried to keep up with the weather, installing nets and culverts and natural drains to keep the streets safe, but every year something happened to this poor road. And since its vehicle traffic was quite low, it ranked near the bottom of the state’s priority list.

Ben set out cones and flares, wondering if anyone would even use the road before the flares burned out. He went back to his car and got Lucas on the radio.

“We need the highway department out here to assess the safety,” Ben told the Eagle’s Nest dispatcher and office manager.

“That bad?” asked Lucas.

“Definitely. The guardrail along the south edge is gone. A car is going to come by, not see the hole in time, and end up forty feet down the hill, stuck in the pines. They need to close the road.”

“I’ll call it in.”

“Send Royce or Samuel out here with some roadblocks right away because the highway department will take hours to get here. I’ve blocked the road in one direction with my car, but we need something else.”

“Will do.”

Ben carefully walked to the edge of the wide gap, always curious about the engineering of roads. He saw the dirt-and-rock support under the asphalt had simply washed away, defeated by the continuous power of the water. The thick border of the black asphalt looked like a broken Oreo cookie wafer.

He moved as close as he dared, aware he didn’t know what supported the asphalt under his feet . . . if anything.

Peering into the giant washed-out section, he spotted the edge of a huge concrete culvert six feet below the road. A slow rivulet flowed out of it while a hundred times the amount of water surged outside the culvert.

The culvert is probably jammed with rocks and dirt.

He bent over, resting his hands on his thighs, and craned his head to get a look inside the culvert.

His gaze locked on one round, pale rock.

With eye sockets. And teeth.


Twenty-four hours later, FBI Special Agent Mercy Kilpatrick watched as bones were removed from the culvert. The Eagle’s Nest Police Department had reached out to the state police for help with the removal and investigation of the remains. The team from the state police had gotten a good look inside the large pipe and immediately requested a medical examiner, who had asked for a forensic anthropologist, who had then suggested the FBI be brought in.

A long chain of requests for assistance had landed Mercy on the site.

Beside her, Eagle’s Nest police chief Truman Daly stood with his arms folded across his chest, his sharp gaze watching every move of the forensic anthropologist’s team. What had started as his case had ended up being Mercy’s. The chance of that happening had been small, and she was slightly amused, considering they’d been dating for about six months. Mercy had heard about the situation the moment Ben Cooley reported the skull to Truman and had been aware of every step of the investigation after that. A perk of sleeping with the police chief.

“That’s the fifth skull,” she whispered to Truman, knowing he could count just fine.

He nodded, his stance stiff.

It looks a lot smaller than the others. A shudder rippled through her.

The entire group of observing professionals was quiet and respectful. Two state police troopers were there to handle any traffic—which meant they stood around a lot. A forensics team from the state carefully removed the remains under the watchful eye of a tall, elegant black-haired woman Mercy knew was the forensic anthropologist, Dr. Victoria Peres.

The anthropologist ran the scene, giving orders and being in three places at once. Mercy watched her gently accept the fifth skull and study it for ten seconds longer than she had the others. Dr. Peres’s jaw tightened, and she passed it off to one of her assistants.

The rain had stopped overnight, and the water rushing under the road had slowed to a trickle. Mercy knew their respite wouldn’t last long. More rainstorms were expected, blowing in from the Pacific and down from Canada. A double whammy of weather.

At least it was better than ice.

Or feet and feet of snow.

Her thigh twinged, a reminder that she’d been standing in the same position for an hour and that less than two months ago, she’d been shot in that leg as she pursued a killer. She still couldn’t move as comfortably as she’d like and had learned the hard way not to ignore her body’s warning signs. “I need to sit down,” she whispered to Truman, hating her weakness.

Truman jerked as if she’d shocked him. “Your leg?” Concern filled his brown eyes.

She grimaced and nodded, looking around for a perch. The bumper of the medical examiner’s vehicle was the closest, and she took a seat. She lost her good view, but she wanted to be able to walk tomorrow. She’d be no help to anyone if she couldn’t move.

Was that last skull a child’s?

“Well look at that, the FBI sitting down on the job again.”

Mercy closed her eyes. She didn’t need to see Chuck Winslow to recognize his voice. The internet reporter had become a thorn in her side over the last two months. Truman claimed Winslow had developed an obsession with writing about Mercy. The reporter had published how she’d been shot in the leg and had strongly implied that it’d been her own fault for being friends with the shooter’s brother. He wove the facts to suit the story he wanted, even dropping hints in his story that Mercy had refused to arrest the killer for his first two murders because she knew him. Her integrity had been stung by that story, and Mercy knew she’d screwed up when she’d cursed at the reporter over the phone when he asked personal questions about Kaylie, her seventeen-year-old niece. Winslow had gloated about it for weeks.

He reminded her of a grade school boy who would punch a girl because he wanted her attention.

She hadn’t read anything about her and Truman’s relationship in his articles. Anyone could find out that Truman spent a few nights a week at her apartment. Maybe Chuck was a bit lazy. It was a good thing she’d talked Truman out of confronting the reporter about his coverage of her, but Mercy knew that if Chuck included her relationship with the police chief in his stories—or personal details about Kaylie—she wouldn’t be able to stop Truman from losing his temper.

She didn’t look in Winslow’s direction, keeping her gaze toward the recovery scene. Truman started to turn toward Chuck, but Mercy tugged on his sleeve. “Don’t give him the satisfaction,” she ordered. She knew the reporter was at least twenty feet away, behind the yellow tape, his view of the crime scene strategically blocked by tarps and tents.

“Asshole,” Truman muttered. “One of these days . . .”

“Careful!” the forensic anthropologist snapped at one of her assistants. The assistant didn’t flinch, but everyone nearby did. The two women had climbed up from the culvert to the blacktop, their hands full with buckets of dirt and bones. The state’s structural engineers had shored up one side of the washed-out hole and deemed the site safe enough for the bone removal, but one engineer had stayed at the scene, noting the dwindling runoff and keeping a sharp eye on the movement of the mud.

Dr. Peres watched her assistant add the skull to the growing collection of bones and debris. The evidence would be taken to the medical examiner’s office, where the bones would be studied and hopefully reveal a lead for the investigators. Mercy had already pulled up a list of missing people from the immediate area. Since she didn’t yet know the sex or age of the remains, it might turn out to have been a waste of time, but Mercy had felt the need to do something to get the case moving.

“Dr. Peres.” Mercy pushed to her feet after her fifteen-second relaxation period. “I’m Special Agent Kilpatrick.” She held out her hand to the tall woman. An intelligent but impatient brown gaze met hers, and even though the doctor had been digging in mud for hours, there wasn’t a hair out of place from the large bun at the back of her neck.

“No, I don’t know who these people are yet,” the doctor immediately stated. Extreme patience filled her tone as she shook Mercy’s hand, but Mercy saw her annoyance flash. Dr. Peres seemed to be the type of person who just wanted to do her job and not be bugged by the police until she was ready.

Mercy raised a brow. “You’re not a miracle worker?”

“Not today. Try me next Tuesday.”

Mercy leaned closer. “Was that last skull from a child?” she asked in the softest possible tone.

Dr. Peres gave an imperceptible nod.

“How many more are in there?”

The doctor glanced from side to side, checking for listening ears. Truman had stepped away a polite distance. “I believe we’ve found them all, but I won’t guarantee that until the culvert is completely empty.”    

Next page