A Merciful Secret Page 1

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ONE

Mercy thought it was a deer.

But it was a girl who burst out of the brush along the dark road and into the headlight beams of her SUV. She stomped on the brakes and jerked the steering wheel to the right. Spinning sideways, her vehicle shuddered as her tires bounced along the snow-packed ruts of the road’s shoulder. It rocked to a stop, and she clung to the wheel, gulping for breath.

I didn’t hit her.

Hands slammed against her driver’s window. “You’ve got to help me! Please!”

Red smeared the glass, and terror shone in the girl’s wide eyes.

Someone hit her and left.

Mercy threw open her door, and the shivering girl lunged into her arms. “Please help her! She’s dying!” Her hands were red with blood, and streaks of it covered her cheeks. She couldn’t have been older than ten, and her short-sleeved T-shirt was deadly wrong for the freezing night air. She grabbed the front of Mercy’s coat and yanked her toward the road. “She’s this way!”

“Wait! Are you hurt?” Mercy snagged the child’s wrist and examined her bloody hand, and then turned the girl’s face toward her, searching for a source of the blood. The child fought to get out of her grip.

“It’s not my blood! I’m not hurt, it’s my grandmother! She’s dying!” Her feet scrambled as she tried to pull Mercy away from her vehicle. “You’ve got to help us!”

“Where is she?”

“This way!” Her gaze pleaded with Mercy to follow.

Her heart racing, Mercy firmly led the girl to the rear of her Tahoe and grabbed a duffel bag from the back. “Won’t it be quicker to drive to your grandmother?”

“The shortcut through the woods is fastest.” The child froze and eyed her bag with hope. “Are you a doctor?”

“No.” Mercy pulled out her cell phone. No service. Dammit. “Did you call 911?”

“We don’t have a phone.”

Who doesn’t have a phone these days? She took a closer look at the girl. She needed a haircut, and her jeans were two inches too short. Her face was thin, with delicate features, giving her an elfin cast. “My mom has one, but she’s not home. Can you hurry, please?”

Her terrified eyes nearly broke Mercy’s heart. “I need one more thing.” She glanced around at the towering pines on both sides of the road. Ten minutes earlier she’d left her cabin, but she was still in some of the densest woods on the east side of the Cascade mountains. The road rarely had traffic, and since it was nearly three in the morning, she knew no one else would be coming. She returned to the driver’s side and grabbed her purse with its hidden weapon pocket and gun, wishing she’d worn her shoulder holster.

She slid the purse inside the duffel and looped the heavy-duty strap over her shoulder. She adjusted her balance for its heavy weight. “Let’s go.” The girl spun and dashed through the snow toward the brush where she’d first appeared. Mercy remotely locked her truck and fished a flashlight out of the duffel’s end pocket.

I’ll do what I can and then go for help.

The first aid kit in the duffel wasn’t the type bought in a Walmart. She had scalpels, surgical thread, needles, epinephrine, and lidocaine in addition to the usual assortment of bandages and tape. She mentally took inventory of her duffel as she darted into the forest after the girl. Emergency blanket, fire starter, headlamp, hatchet, tarp, protein bars, water-purifying tablets. Mercy knew better than to blindly plunge into the woods without supplies.

She pointed her flashlight after the girl. She’d vanished. Mercy’s beam scanned the brush where she thought the child had gone. “Hey! Wait up! Where’d you go?” I don’t even know her name.

The elfin face suddenly appeared in the light. “Hurry!”

Mercy jogged after her, her boots sinking into the six inches of snow. “What’s your name?”

“Morrigan.” She dashed ahead of the flashlight’s beam, nimbly avoiding fallen branches and big rocks.

Mercy tried to light both their paths, but Morrigan appeared to have the night vision of a cat. Mercy gave up and focused on not spraining an ankle. No one knows where I am. Her gut twisted at the thought, but she set it aside. Her boyfriend, Truman, and her niece Kaylie knew she’d gone to her cabin for the day, and her vehicle was parked on the side of the road. If someone looked for her, they’d find her.

Hopefully in one piece.

“Morrigan, what happened to your grandmother?” She pushed to keep up with the child.

“I don’t know! She had blood everywhere.”

“How far away is it?”

“We’re almost to the house.”

“We should have driven,” she muttered.

“No, the road to the house twists way up to the north. This way is quicker. There it is!”

Mercy raised the beam of her flashlight. Far ahead she could make out the outline of a small ranch-style home. A dim light shone in one window. No outside lights. She’d never known there was a home in the area. For years she’d driven the old rural road and never seen a hint that someone lived in this particular section of the woods. And I thought I valued my privacy.

The girl dashed up a few crooked concrete steps and pushed open the door. “Grandma!” she shouted.

Mercy paused at the bottom of the steps and checked her cell phone for service. Nothing. How am I going to get her grandmother to the Tahoe? I should have insisted on driving.

She carefully entered the dark home, following the sounds of Morrigan’s soft sobbing. She turned on a light switch, but nothing happened. Her flashlight lit up each corner of the room, as she was unwilling to enter the unknown. It smelled of old dust, as if it’d been abandoned for years, but it was fully furnished and there were clear signs of habitation. A book on the end table. A mug next to a stack of magazines. To her right was a minuscule kitchen, its limited counter space crowded with a dish rack and slow cooker.

“She’s in here!” Morrigan called. “Hurry! Please!” The fright in her voice pushed aside Mercy’s common sense, and she plunged down a dark hallway. Following the child’s sounds, she found Morrigan in a bedroom that was poorly lit by a hurricane lamp. Her grandmother sat in an ancient easy chair, its back reclined forty-five degrees. She was a very thin woman, her body barely taking up a fraction of the big chair. A quilt covered her from the neck down. Even in the dim light, Mercy saw it was soaked with blood.

The woman’s head had turned ever so slightly as Mercy entered, and she made a pleading sound. Mercy’s fingers found another useless light switch, so she dropped her bag next to the overstuffed recliner and went down on a knee. Stop the bleeding. “Where are you hurt?” she asked as she gently took the woman’s wrist to check her pulse. It felt like the weak fluttering of a baby bird. The woman made more pleading sounds and tried to sit up. “Hold still,” Mercy told her. “Bring that lamp closer,” she ordered Morrigan. “And hold my flashlight so I can see better.” The girl obeyed, and Mercy caught her breath as she met the woman’s desperate gaze. She pawed Mercy’s arm, her fingers fumbling to grip the fabric of Mercy’s coat as their gazes locked. Her eyes were wet, her lids wrinkled with age, and her sounds grew more urgent.

Can she speak?

Mercy gasped as she slowly pulled back the wet quilt, and Morrigan’s grandmother let out a small cry.

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