A Merciful Fate Page 1


Shep had left him behind.

Ollie didn’t worry as he hiked through the woods. Even if he had no idea where Shep was, no doubt Shep knew exactly where Ollie was. The dog had bolted out of the old truck’s cab when the teenager had opened the passenger door, and then he’d dashed from tree to tree, sniffing the air, his entire body quivering in excitement.

Shep needed his wild dog time in the forest.

Ollie needed it too.

His years of living alone in the woods had made the real world loud and crowded.

Or is this forest the real world?

He rested a hand against the distinctive red bark of a ponderosa pine, looked up through its branches at the perfect blue sky, and inhaled deeply. Dust, pine, and earth. Nothing was more real than this very moment.

The warm day in May was cooler in the woods and hills, and his heart felt lighter and his senses more focused in the quiet. He could think clearly out here. He sent a mental note of thanks to Christian Lake, who’d suggested that Ollie hike his property to get away from town.

Hundreds of acres to roam. No one around.

Christian had been the first to hire him, giving Ollie a job in his sporting goods warehouse. Solid physical work that made Ollie feel good at the end of the day. After Ollie had driving lessons and passed his license test, he’d also been hired at a Chevy dealership. He moved, washed, and detailed cars. Or did whatever was needed.

He loved the smooth feeling of a car’s shiny paint under his fingertips, and the excitement when he drove a car (ever so briefly) with three miles on the odometer. The smell of tires and oil had grown almost as addicting as the smell of the forest.

Between the two jobs, his tutor, and online classes, Ollie’s days were full.

But every week Ollie made time to explore Christian’s woods. It reset his soul. Brought him back in balance.

“Shep!” he shouted.

Ollie listened for the familiar sounds of Shep tearing through the scrubby underbrush.



There he is. Shep wasn’t a big dog, but when he ran, he stomped and plowed headfirst through whatever was in his way, making plenty of noise. Ollie turned west, following the sounds of Shep’s approach through the woods.

“Here, boy!”

The dog appeared, his eyes bright and excited, one of his floppy ears inside out. He slid to a stop in front of his master, dropped a stick, and looked expectantly at Ollie.

“Good boy.” Ollie rubbed his dog’s head and straightened the ear, scouting his surroundings for a good place to play a boisterous game of fetch. They’d have to move. He couldn’t throw the stick more than ten feet in this part of the woods.

Giving the dog’s ears a scratch, Ollie picked up the stick. “Let’s go . . .”

The bark felt wrong to his fingers. Ollie stared at the stick in his hand, eyeing the shallow grooves and smoothed ridges. One end was slightly pointed; the other end was slightly bulbous.


He blew out a breath and gave a short laugh. It’s from an animal, of course.

Photos of bones from an old magazine flashed in his head. He’d read his grandfather’s small stack of National Geographic magazines dozens of times, memorizing the fascinating images. Ollie’s education had been . . . limited . . . sporadic. But he clearly remembered one photo of a skeleton in Africa.

What if it’s human?

He waved the bone in the direction Shep had appeared from. “Let’s go, Shep. Where’d you find this?”

The dog bounded off and Ollie followed. As if he understood what I said.

He scrambled after Shep, who appeared to be on a mission. The dog never looked back. A few minutes later, Shep vanished through the open front door of a cabin with a collapsing roof. It was tucked among several tall pines. Ollie stopped and stared. No paths or driveways led to the pine needle–covered cabin. The stillness and lack of upkeep indicated it was empty, but Ollie wanted to make sure.

“Hello, the house!”

Shep appeared in the doorway, his tail wagging in an invitation for Ollie to join him.

“What did you find, boy?” Ollie moved closer, judging the stability of the roof.

A sharp pang lanced his chest as he thought of the cabin where he’d lived alone for two years after his grandfather had died. Where he’d read old books and played card games alone every night because there was no electricity. Where he’d brought Truman after rescuing him from men who’d wanted to kill him and where he’d then nursed the police chief back to health.

After he’d agreed with Truman that he needed to attend school and rejoin society, Truman had taken Ollie to pack up his belongings. The cabin he’d built with his grandfather was smaller than his new bedroom in Truman’s home. It’d felt claustrophobic, and the small room of belongings seemed cheap and shabby. Truman had noticed his hesitation over packing up his grandfather’s battered books. “The value isn’t in the books’ condition, Ollie. The value is in the memories they awaken in your heart and mind.”

Truman had been right. Every time Ollie touched the books, he remembered them in his grandfather’s rough hands and heard his low voice as he read to Ollie each evening.

Ollie suspected this cabin’s roof wouldn’t fully collapse anytime soon, so he tentatively stepped through the doorway. The door had been bashed in at one point. The wood frame was splintered and broken where the lock would have been. The floor was dirt. What a piece of crap. The whole thing appeared speedily thrown together. Plywood walls, studs too far apart. A large hole in the roof allowed in sunlight that worked its way down through the trees and lit the interior. Water damage streaked and stained every wall, but the interior was currently dry. It smelled of decay, mold, and old dirt.

Shep whined and padded to the far corner. He halted and looked over his shoulder at Ollie, who stepped closer. Ollie squatted and studied the items in the corner.

The bones were intertwined with scraps of dirty and stained fabric. Rotting Nike tennis shoes. The man had lain down and never gotten up.

In place of the right eye socket, the skull had a giant rough hole.

Ollie automatically looked up and spotted the bullet hole in the wall of the cabin.

At the height of a man’s head.

Eagle’s Nest police chief Truman Daly hated the crumbling cabin on sight. Dread stirred in his stomach and expanded as he stepped inside.

Molding odors slapped him in the face and threatened to set loose buried memories.


He squatted next to some rotting lengths of fabric on the floor, eyed the long zippers, and realized they’d once been sleeping bags. The stuffing hadn’t decomposed; it’d just flattened and turned brown, making Truman wonder what sort of hardy fibers had insulated the bags. Besides the sleeping bags and the remains, there was little else in the cabin. A few rusted food cans that had lost their labels. Two plastic gallon jugs of water—still full. A rusted can opener. A bag of plastic spoons, forks, and knives.

They didn’t plan to stay long.

“There’s a ring of rocks outside that could have been a firepit,” said Deschutes County detective Evan Bolton, standing behind Truman.

“Let’s see,” Truman said, grabbing the excuse to get out of the cabin.

Outside, Ollie, Christian Lake, and two Deschutes County deputies waited.

Ollie had called Truman as he hiked back toward Christian’s home, unable to get cell service at the body’s location. After hearing Ollie’s description of the remains, Truman had notified the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and requested a detective. Everyone had arrived at Christian Lake’s rugged forest mansion at nearly the same time, ready to hike to the location. Christian had insisted on accompanying the group, emphasizing that the land was his.

When they’d arrived at the shack, Christian had shaken his head. “I had no idea this existed. I’ve never been out this way.”

Detective Bolton had raised a brow at him, and Christian had stared back. “Do you have any idea how much untouched land is out here?” the millionaire had asked.

Christian had been silent since, quietly listening and observing, staying out of the way. Truman wondered what was going on in Christian’s head, considering one of his employees had been murdered on his property about four months ago. Truman liked Christian; the sporting goods store owner and Truman’s fiancée, Mercy, went way back.

“Over here,” Bolton indicated, and Truman followed him to the far side of the shack. Next to the ring of large stones were a few rusting tin cans showing through the layers of pine needles and dirt.

“Why do I get the impression they weren’t used to roughing it?” Truman murmured.

“Agreed,” said Bolton. “Cans, plasticware, sleeping bags. Weekend getaway, I guess.”

“Wasn’t a fun weekend for the guy inside,” added Truman.

“Are you sure it was a male?” Bolton’s brown gaze met Truman’s. “There’s no wallet.”

“Not completely. I’m no bone expert. But there were a few things I spotted . . . The shoes were men’s . . . The belt looked male—”

“Neither of those rule out female.”

“True.” Truman took a deep breath and went back inside the cabin, breathing lightly through his mouth, telling himself that the scents of this cabin and those of the one he’d been chained up in two months ago were distinctly different.

No shit or piss odors. No constant smell of rain that I can’t drink.

His heart pounded in his ears, he closed his eyes, and he was back in the past. Chains. Cuffs. Beat to hell. A broken arm. After months of not needing it, Truman immediately launched a silent anxiety mantra.

Name one thing you can see.

The fucking gigantic hole in the roof.

Name two things you can hear.

Bolton talking to Ollie. Shep’s panting.

Name three things you can smell.

Dirt, rot, dust.

Truman opened his eyes. I’m not in that prison. He sucked in a deep breath and concentrated on the crime scene before him.

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