A Merciful Promise – Kendra Elliot

Mercy held her breath and stepped back as they dragged the bleeding man past her. The other observers cleared a path, their faces solemn, their gazes locked on the moaning man. Two of the members, rifles slung over their shoulders, gripped the man’s upper arms and pulled him toward their commander, Pete, at the front of the group. They threw him to the ground at Pete’s feet, and he stayed down, curling into a tight ball, his gasps echoing in the forest clearing. What will Pete do? Pete’s stance was wide, his hands clasped behind his back, his spine perfectly straight. His chin jutted forward, and he stood immobile. Without moving his head, he lowered his gaze to the beaten man, and his mouth pressed into a thin white line. Disdain and disappointment flowed from him, and mutters sounded through the group, its own anger growing. The mob’s ire was palpable, slamming through Mercy’s skin and skidding up the back of her neck. Goose bumps lifted the hair on her arms as she stared at the man who stood in front of the group. Pete wore his usual dark-olive pants and shirt and a Glock on his hip. The weapon seemed to grow larger, almost pulsate with power, even though he didn’t move his hand in its direction. He didn’t need to demonstrate his authority. His people fell into line. They hung on his every word, and right now the group leaned forward, greedy for his decision.

Ed Merrick had broken a rule. Mercy knew the rules. Everybody knew the rules. What everyone didn’t know was the penalty for breaking a rule. Pete was judge and jury, and the punishments were his decisions. The muttering faded away, and absolute silence filled the clearing. Approximately forty people waited for Pete’s declaration. Most were men. A few dressed similarly to Pete, in olive from head to toe. They also carried weapons.

Either a handgun or a rifle on the shoulder. But most of the men wore jeans or rugged work pants. The weather was cool for late September, and everyone wore durable jackets, many stained with sweat and hard work. Mercy tried to make eye contact with a woman to her left, but the woman stared straight ahead, her brows raised, impatiently awaiting Pete’s declaration with the rest of the group. The few women in the camp had already shown Mercy that they did not speak out against injustice. This won’t end well. Foreboding filled the air, and Mercy shifted her balance to her toes. Her partner, Chad Finn, felt her move and tightened his arm around her, giving her upper arm a reassuring squeeze. She leaned into him, grateful for his touch, and rested her cheek against his shoulder. He smelled of sweat.

Everybody smelled of sweat. Showers were scarce, and the laundry system was primitive. Pete raised his gaze to take in the crowd. He scanned the group, and even Mercy felt anticipation of his words. He made eye contact with her and moved on, leaving her feeling acknowledged and included. It was one of Pete’s gifts. He looked at you as if you had a fascinating story to tell, as if you were relevant, as if you mattered. Everyone felt accepted. “Ed had a cell phone.” Pete’s calm voice reached every set of ears.

“You know cell phones aren’t allowed.” His gaze scanned the group again, and heads nodded. “If you need to make a call, you come to me. I will help you.” More nods. They believe he is generous, but he outlawed cell phones. “We all know what the phones can lead to. We can’t have that. We won’t be divided.” One of the men who’d dragged Ed to the front handed Pete an old flip phone.

Pete tossed it in his hand a few times, a crisp slapping sound against his palm. “Why did you break the rule, Ed?” Pete asked, keeping his gaze on the group. A collective intake of breath came from the crowd. Still in a ball on the ground, Ed shook his head, his eyes squeezed shut. Fresh abrasions covered one side of his face. The men who’d dragged him to Pete stared down at the victim, their expressions impassive. Pete and the crowd waited for Ed to answer. People shuffled their feet, glancing among each other. Some eyes were worried; some were eager. They all wanted something to happen.

To get it over with. Pete abruptly stepped back and pointed at a pole ten feet to his right. “String him up. Twenty lashes.” The two soldiers hauled him to his feet. “Pete! No! I won’t do it again!” “I don’t give second chances. We’ll dissolve into anarchy if everyone believes they can break the rules without consequences.” Ed shrieked as two men stripped off his shirt and tied his wrists to the pole, his back to the audience. Terror made Mercy straighten. I can’t just stand here.

She leaned forward to look past Chad and froze. Someone had brought the children. Two women clutched small toddlers as a few children between five and ten silently watched the proceedings, their little faces blank. Surely Pete will send them away. “Hold still,” Chad hissed. His arm cemented her against him. The earlier care and affection gone. “He’s going to whip him,” she whispered back. “For a fucking phone.” “Ed knew the rules.

” She stiffened. “This is wrong.” “Shhhh!” Gripping her jaw, he turned her face up to meet his gaze. His green eyes were hard and cold. “Mr. Finn!” Pete snapped. Chad jerked his head toward Pete. “Yes, sir!” “Quiet your woman.” Pete’s impassive gaze met Mercy’s. Swallowing hard, she looked at her feet.

A rare second chance. She tamped down the fury in her chest and scanned the group, searching for someone, anyone who supported her. Fifteen feet away, Eden caught her eye. The teen read Mercy’s expression and held her finger against her lips, silently pleading for Mercy to be quiet. Then she drew the finger across her throat. Eden knows any protest will earn me a turn with the whip. Or worse. The whip cracked, and Ed screamed, his shrieks echoing through the tall firs. Mercy closed her eyes and turned into Chad, her knees slightly weak. How did I end up here? TWO Two days earlier “What does Jeff want?” FBI special agent Eddie Peterson asked Mercy as they simultaneously tried to pass through the conference room doorway.

Eddie stepped back, a laptop under one arm and two books under the other as he precariously gripped a cup of coffee by its lid. Mercy darted through before he lost control of the coffee. “I don’t know, but he told me to clear my afternoon.” Eddie frowned as he set the cup on the conference table. “He didn’t tell me that. I’ve got three meetings.” Mercy shrugged. It was part of her job to change direction on a dime, and Jeff’s vague message had perked up what had promised to be a dull day of paperwork. Mercy had been a special agent with the FBI’s Bend, Oregon, field office for nearly a year after spending five years at the big Portland office. Including her and Eddie, Bend had five agents, in contrast to the hundred agents in Portland.

But Bend was close to her heart. She’d been raised thirty minutes away in the tiny town of Eagle’s Nest, and until she arrived in Bend on a case last September, she hadn’t visited in fifteen years. After that case she left behind Portland’s hustle and bustle for the stunning vistas of the Cascade mountain range to Bend’s west and the wide-open plains to its east. Her boss, Jeff Garrison, entered the room with two official-looking strangers close behind him. Instinct told Mercy they weren’t FBI—but something about them felt very governmental, and she noticed instantly they were discreetly armed. The woman was tall, dark, and elegant—she could have been a model twenty years earlier, and her gaze zoomed in on Mercy, studying her from head to toe. After the moment of intense scrutiny, she gave Mercy a warm smile. Whatever evaluation she had performed, Mercy had passed. The male looked as if he could be Eddie’s brother. Young, hair too long, a bit of scruff.

He wore jeans and a light jacket. Jeff made introductions. Carleen Aguirre was the resident agent in charge from the Portland ATF office, and the man was ATF special agent Neal Gorman. As they took their seats, Neal frowned at Mercy, studying her in the same fashion that Carleen had. Mercy returned his stare as Jeff shut the door. “Nothing said in here leaves this office,” Jeff announced, looking directly at Eddie and Mercy. Mercy hid a small spark of irritation; she and Eddie weren’t gossips. She lifted a brow and gave Jeff her best side-eye, wondering if she should be offended or immensely curious. She decided on immensely curious and gave the ATF agents the same deep scrutiny she’d received. Carleen grinned and leaned forward, resting her arms on the table, her dark gaze holding Mercy’s.

“One of our agents is undercover in a militia-slash-conspiracy-theorists-slash-arms-selling group outside of Ukiah.” Mercy blinked. “That’s a mouthful.” “Where’s Ukiah?” asked Eddie. “About thirty miles south of Pendleton. It’s a tiny town. About two hundred people,” answered Neal. Mercy followed a road map in her head. “That’s a good four hours northeast from here.” Neal nodded.

“Just west of the Umatilla National Forest. If you’re looking for a good place to escape society, this is it. No one will bug you here.” “But clearly something about this extensively labeled group bugged you enough to embed an agent,” Eddie stated. “They call their compound America’s Preserve. The group has approximately forty people living in an abandoned campground,” Carleen told him. “The camp is the type of place churches rent for retreats. It has several cabins with bunk beds and a large hall with a kitchen for meetings, but it hadn’t been used in twenty years until this group took up residence about a year ago. The property is owned by a Ukiah resident who gave them permission to move in.” Carleen grimaced.

“The ATF doesn’t want to reveal our interest, so no one has talked to the owner, but the general word in Ukiah is that the group is repairing the buildings in exchange for living there.” “And you embedded an agent because of the arms-selling aspect,” said Mercy. Selling guns secondhand wasn’t illegal. The ATF was holding something back. Both agents nodded. And didn’t expand. Mercy waited, but neither Carleen nor Neal jumped in to fill the silence. Or the holes in their story. But Eddie did. “What do you need from us?” Carleen took a deep breath.

“We need Mercy. Tomorrow a second agent was to join our undercover agent and pose as his girlfriend, but she came down with shingles.” She turned pleading eyes on Mercy. Sweat started under her arms, and her pulse pounded in her ears. They want me undercover in an arms-selling militia? Last winter she’d gotten uncomfortably close to a budding militia outside of town and nearly paid for it with her life. It wasn’t something she cared to do again. Jeff met her gaze. He knew how dangerous her last experience had been. His eyes were sympathetic, but he sat silent, allowing the agents to ask. “Get someone else,” Mercy forced out.

“It doesn’t have to be me.” Carleen and Neal shot each other a look. “We’ve searched,” Neal told her. “You are the only federal agent similar in looks and build to our agent.” “Expand your search,” Mercy argued. “I can’t be the only tall female with long, dark hair.” “We’ve searched the ATF and FBI in the Pacific Northwest. You tick every box—not just in looks. You’re conveniently close, you know this state, and from what I’ve read, you know the surrounding culture. Our undercover agent has convinced the leader that his girlfriend will be an asset to America’s Preserve.

Reportedly Jessica Polk—that’d be you—has medical experience.” “I don’t have med—” “Says the woman who kept me from bleeding out from a gunshot wound four months ago,” muttered Eddie. “You know how to handle medical emergencies. There’s no question. But why am I here?” “You’ll be taking over Mercy’s caseload while she’s gone,” Jeff answered. Eddie groaned as Mercy replied, “If I go.” Neal slid a photo across the table. Mercy looked at it but didn’t pick it up. It showed a greeneyed, dark-haired woman in a polo shirt with the ATF logo on the chest. Eddie had no qualms about picking up the picture.

“The two of you could be related, Mercy. Actually, she looks a lot like your sister Rose, but yeah, they have a good match here.” He crinkled his nose as he looked from the photo to her and back again, his gaze curious behind his thick-rimmed glasses. More uncomfortable scrutiny. “We need someone tomorrow,” emphasized Carleen. “We worked for months to get our agent inside. The leader of the group doesn’t let his people out in public often, but our agent has permission to pick you up at the bus station.” “Tomorrow.” Mercy sucked in a steadying breath. “I don’t have time to prepare.

I’d make a mistake . I’d say something wrong.” “We’ll work with you. The agents’ histories have been carefully created and vetted.” Carleen shifted forward in her chair, a hint of desperation in her tone. “We’ve spent a lot of time, effort, and money to get two agents into this camp. Chad—that’s the undercover name of our agent—says the leader, Pete Hodges, won’t let any more men join right now, but women are a different story. We might not get another chance.” “Of course he lets in women,” said Mercy, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “With a big group of men, you need cooks, cleaners, and someone to keep your bed warm.

I know how he thinks.” During the militia incident last winter, a sexual hunger had frequently burned in a few of the men’s eyes when they’d looked at her. If the situation had escalated, none of them would have cared about consent. She shuddered. “This sounds volatile.” Eddie planted his forearms on the table and glared at Jeff. “Why on earth would you even consider this?” “You don’t know all the facts,” Jeff answered quietly. “Then tell me,” Mercy stated. “Because I’m about to return to my desk.” The two ATF agents and Jeff exchanged a glance.

Mercy started to stand. “Wait!” Carleen asked, holding up a hand and rising from her own chair. “Give me a moment.” She leaned close to Neal, and they shared rapid, quiet words. “You don’t have to do it,” Eddie said in a low voice to Mercy. “It’s just a favor for the ATF— a dangerous favor, it sounds like. Don’t let them pressure you.” She glanced at the whispering couple across the table. “Does it feel like they’re desperate?” Both agents had appeared cool and calm, but an air of urgency simmered around them. “I’m getting that vibe,” he said softly.

“This must be bigger than they’re letting on. It’s not illegal for private parties to sell guns.” “Okay.” Carleen cleared her throat, and her dark eyes focused again on Mercy. “You deserve to know what you’re walking into.” “Damn right,” muttered Eddie. Mercy ignored him, trying to read the body language of the ATF agents. It was impossible; both held perfectly still, their faces expressionless. They’re trying too hard. It’s big.

“We followed a buyer. A local guy. A small-time rancher. He bought a few guns from another undercover agent. Small stuff. Nothing to write home about. But he talked during the transactions, dropping a few references that we followed up on.” Carleen took a deep breath. “Now we’re looking for a big seller, and his lead has pointed to this group. We’re not positive who the big seller is—our assumption is it’s the gang’s leader, Pete Hodges, but that is not confirmed.

” “A big seller of what kind of weapons?” Mercy asked. Carleen’s story was still missing a few big pieces. Carleen pressed her lips together. “We had a theft about eight months ago—” “I heard about that,” Eddie interrupted. “Two of your agents died. A stockpile of weapons the police had removed from the streets in the Southwest got intercepted in transit with a big shoot-out in Nevada.” He looked at Mercy. “Some of the weapons collected are not legal in the US.” Aha. Murdered agents and illegal guns.

“The guns were probably back on the streets within days,” Eddie continued. Every agent’s nightmare. Mercy tilted her head, watching Carleen. “We think most of the guns, including the illegal ones, ended up with this group, and possibly America’s Preserve was behind the attack.” “And behind the deaths of your agents,” Mercy supplied as pain flashed in Carleen’s eyes. “Tell me about Pete Hodges.” “He’s been on our radar for a while. He emerged back east several years ago when he was associated with a militia group out of Pennsylvania. He split from them after publicly arguing with their leader.” “What was the problem?” Eddie asked.

“The militia group had decided to stand up for and protect all free speech—not just the free speech they agreed with.” “As they should,” Mercy pointed out. “Well, their idea of protecting free speech was to send their armed, fatigue-wearing members into the center of pro-immigration rallies to stand between neo-Nazi protesters and the organizers to protect both sides’ rights to speak.” “They were acting as police,” Eddie said. “Good intentions, but that’s not how it’s done.” “Correct, and Pete Hodges didn’t like this First Amendment stance one bit,” Carleen continued. “He’s quoted as saying, ‘You either fight fascism or you enable it.’ He said there is no neutral peacekeeping. This didn’t sit well with the leadership of the group, and Pete left. Before that he was associated with the Three Percenters.

” Eddie raised a questioning brow at Mercy. Since she’d worked domestic terrorism for years, the group’s name was familiar. “The Three Percenters have strong opposition to gun control laws. All of the laws,” she emphasized. “They’re very vocal.” “Yes,” said Carleen. “Pete Hodges refers to the ATF as out-of-control gun cops.” “So it’s not surprising that he would have stolen an ATF stockpile of weapons,” said Mercy. “Illegal arms, remote antigovernment group.” Eddie lowered his voice as he looked at Carleen.

“You don’t want another Ruby Ridge incident.” Desperation flashed on Neal’s face. “Why does everyone bring up—” “No one wants another tragedy like Ruby Ridge,” Mercy answered quickly, attempting to check Neal’s response. Three people—including a child—had died in the eleven-day rural siege that had grabbed the attention of the nation decades ago. “That was one family with one minor weapons purchase. The similarities between this case and that one aren’t that close, but I understand why the memory pops up. The case will always be a shadow over the ATF and FBI. Both agencies learned to do better.” She met both Neal’s and Eddie’s gazes. Neal looked away, and Eddie grimaced.

This wasn’t the time for an interagency argument. “So now you see why we need more people inside,” Carleen went on. “We need to tread carefully because it is an unpredictable situation.” She paused. “Our agent told us he heard rumors of a big plan. Something targeting us.” “Us?” asked Mercy. “The ATF.” “Define ‘big plan,’” added Eddie. Carleen met his gaze.

“Something to cripple the agency. I know that’s vague, but all Chad could say was that explosives had been mentioned.” The room went quiet. “I know some of these types of groups feel the ATF treads on their constitutional rights by enforcing current gun laws,” Mercy said slowly. “Crippling your agency would make this faction heroes to certain populations.” “But how could they actually affect the workings of the ATF?” muttered Eddie. “A cyberattack would probably be the most effective, but I assume that’s not their forte. Blowing something up would make the largest visible message—I’d guess that’s their goal. Something splashy.” “We want our agents to be safe.

That’s our main objective.” Carleen looked at Mercy. “We need to know what’s going on in that compound.” She pressed her lips together for a long second, and Mercy knew she didn’t want to say the next sentence. “You won’t be allowed to tell your family what you’re doing or where you are. We can’t risk an accidental leak.” “Are you kidding me?” asked Eddie. He turned to Mercy, shaking his head, concern in his brown eyes. “Truman will never go for it. Not after what happened to you last winter with that militia.

” “I don’t need Truman’s permission,” Mercy said, but the thought of being completely out of contact made her light-headed. Truman was her rock; their wedding was in three months. Carleen raised her chin and looked away from the FBI agents and out the window. “There are several children in the compound,” she said softly. Shock filled the room. “Aw, shit,” mumbled Eddie, slumping back in his chair. Images flashed in Mercy’s mind. Weapons. Explosives. Children.

Bitter, suspicious adults. A recipe for tragedy. Mercy’s doubts were shattered by a crushing mantle of responsibility. “I’ll do it.” THREE The rest of the day was a whirlwind. Mercy felt as if she were cramming a semester’s worth of information into five hours and the final was tomorrow. The FBI conference room table was now cluttered with files, notebooks, and photos. Mercy had read and reread each one. A dry-erase pen in hand, Mercy stood at the whiteboard as Carleen drilled her on the history the ATF had created for Jessica Polk. “Where did you get your associate’s degree in nursing?” Easy one.

“Big Bend Community College. Moses Lake, Washington. Where I grew up,” she added. “Work history,” Carleen requested. “Uh . ” Mercy turned to the board and made a list to keep it straight in her mind. “Three different nursing homes in Moses Lake. Good Heart, A Place to Rest, and Sally’s Home.” She emphatically underlined the last, pleased she hadn’t mixed up the names this time. “I worked at each one for about two years.

I left Sally’s Home about six months ago and have been waitressing at the Lake Diner ever since.” “Parents’ names and professions.” “Douglas Polk. Plumber. Susan Polk. Housewife, but she also worked at the Dollar Tree. Both passed away in a car accident ten years ago.” She raised a brow at Carleen. “Convenient.” “Just keeping it simple.

” “Nothing about this is simple.” “Your college mascot?” Mercy stared at Carleen, her mind blank. “Seriously?” “Seriously,” she said calmly, suddenly transforming into every instructor Mercy had disliked in college. The Avengers. “Thor—I mean, Vikings for Big Bend.” “High school mascot? “Something with feathers.” Carleen made a face. “Chiefs.” “Chiefs,” Mercy repeated as she slumped into the chair by Carleen. “This is ridiculous.

” She picked up a photo of her “boyfriend,” Chad Finn. “Chad and I met two years ago at a Kenny Chesney concert in Seattle,” she muttered. Carleen wouldn’t tell her Chad’s real name, and Mercy was not to tell him hers. The man in the photo was clean-shaven and wore an ATF polo. He looked like a Verizon cell phone salesman. His fake backstory included ranching and work as a mechanic. Carleen said that in real life, Chad was one of those guys who always had his head under the hood of a car. He’d repaired a truck at the group’s camp and impressed them, and now he was in charge of their fleet—which was about five vehicles. Supposedly Chad had convinced Mercy—Jessica—to leave her miserable waitressing job in Moses Lake and come live with him and his like-minded friends at the compound for a new beginning. Every woman’s dream.

“Chad knows there’s been a change in girlfriends, right?” Mercy asked as she tossed his photo back on the table. “No. We don’t have a way to get ahold of him.” Mercy spun her chair toward the agent. “What?” “I told you there were no cell phones. The arrangements to bring in Chad’s girlfriend were made on a pay phone in town two weeks ago.” “I have to instantly convince Chad that I’m her replacement? Possibly with other people watching?” Mercy leveled a stare at Carleen, stunned at the lack of communication. She felt unprepared and untethered, as if she were floating high above the earth without a landing site. “I look a little like your agent, but we’re still different. What if they’ve seen pictures of her?” “Fake Jessica’s social media is being altered as we speak.

They’re doing a little Photoshop to the few pictures of her online.” Mercy sighed. “Any other big things you haven’t told me? What does your agent do if he’s in trouble?” “There is a satellite phone hidden outside the compound. He knows where it is. It’s for emergencies only. If he is caught with it, they’ll probably kill him.” Mercy said nothing, searching Carleen’s brown gaze. She spotted a flicker of the woman’s concern for her agent before it vanished. Carleen was fully aware of the danger and the unknowns. “We considered sending in a backup battery with you for the satellite phone. It has one, but another can’t hurt.” She grimaced. “I was voted down. Too risky if you’re caught.” Great. “How did Chad use a pay phone?” “A perk of being the guy in charge of maintaining the vehicles. He drives into town occasionally.” Neal entered the office with an ancient duffel over his shoulder. “I added a heavier coat,” he said as he dropped the bag on the floor. “It can get cold at that elevation at night.” Mercy stared at the ugly bag. “What is that?” “Your belongings,” he answered, his hands on his hips. “No fancy polycarbonate hard-sided suitcase when you’re roughing it.” “Oh no you don’t. I pack my own stuff.” Mercy was instantly on the ground, digging through the duffel. “We were very particular about what we chose for you,” Carleen said. “This has been worked out for weeks. Everything you need is in there.” “No gloves, no poncho. Not even a first aid kit,” Mercy muttered as she scattered the belongings. “I’ll bring my own underwear, thank you very much,” she said, tossing used underwear into the wastebasket. “They’re new,” Carleen clarified. “But they’ve been washed.” “Still . I’ll wear my own shit.” She set aside three pairs of pants. “These aren’t my size. I’ll grab my own tonight.” She held up a sweatshirt, eyeing the proportions. “This works.” “Don’t pack designer jeans,” Neal told her. “Jessica wouldn’t have the money for those. Pack old stuff. There’s little power out there, so that means no hairdryers or curling irons. And you can expect your belongings to be searched by members of the group—possibly a few times. Privacy won’t exist.” “I know what to pack when roughing it,” Mercy stated. She wasn’t surprised by the prospect of multiple searches. Paranoia was rampant in that type of crowd, and it started with the leaders, trickling down to everyone else. “I need my own bags from my vehicle.” Mercy was always prepared. She’d grown up the child of survivalist preppers and had never been able to shake the compulsion to plan for disaster. Any disaster. Fires, destruction of the nation’s electrical grids, attacks from foreign governments. Even attacks from her own. Secreted in the Cascade mountain foothills, she had a cabin prepped and ready if she and her loved ones needed to hide. They could survive for years. Maybe decades. “No. Everyone is allowed a single bag of belongings.” “Then I’ll cram my contents into this.” Mercy looked up from the floor. “It’d be stupid to show up without appearing semiprepared.” An idea struck her. “My person has a medical background. She’d have some supplies on hand.” She spoke quickly before Carleen could disapprove. “I’ll let you examine what I choose to take with me, and you’ll see it’s not out of character.” The ATF agents exchanged a glance. “We’ll take a look,” Carleen agreed. Mercy tossed her key fob to Neal. “Black Tahoe. Second row. There’s a backpack and a medical kit in the back.” He spun and left without saying a word. Mercy continued to empty the duffel. “Jessica isn’t stupid,” she mumbled. “She grew up in the center of Washington State. She’d know how rough the weather and land can be. She’d be prepared for that.” I don’t even see a Leatherman tool. Carleen was silent as she watched Mercy root through the bag. Mercy kept the socks, the Tshirts, two sweaters, and a jacket. She approved of the bare-bones plastic bag with basic hair products, toothpaste, and toothbrush. Neal reappeared with Mercy’s GOOD (Get Out of Dodge) bag and medical kit, both of which she always kept in her vehicle. She thanked him and proceeded to dissect the contents of the GOOD backpack, weighing what was most important. Neal opened the medical kit and inspected each item. He set most of the products to the side as she watched out of the corner of her eye, clamping her lips shut. That was her equipment. Her lifelines. Her preparations. And he was artlessly dividing them up. He might as well be slowly removing each of her fingers. Neal eyed the packs of large syringes full of tiny white tablets and tossed them in the reject pile. Her heart jumped. “No!” Mercy shuffled over on her knees and grabbed the packages, shoving them into the duffel. He stared at her. “What are they?” “Fucking lifesavers,” she told him. She’d plunged the tablets of crustacean shells into a gunshot wound in Eddie’s chest. They’d expanded, stopped the bleeding, and saved his life. She wouldn’t leave them behind. Ever. Neal sat back and let her sort. Bandages, tape, Benadryl, ibuprofen, an analgesic inhalant, scalpels, supplies for stitches, and on and on. She mentally grappled with leaving any of it behind. The old duffel was nearly bursting at the seams by the time she was done. She’d also added water purification tablets and a few MREs, crossing her fingers that food wouldn’t be an issue at the camp. She’d wear her own boots and heavier coat, but she still needed space for her own pants and underwear. Screw their one-bag rule. She had a casual shoulder bag with a deceptive amount of storage. They’d expect a woman to have a purse. She sighed and sat back on her heels, feeling satisfied with her preparations. Her earlier sensation of floating in the air had been tempered by the act of packing. Neal and Carleen silently regarded her. “What’s next?” she asked. Neal removed a folder from his case. “Time to learn about the people you’ll meet in America’s Preserve.” “I thought you didn’t know much about anyone beyond the leader, Pete Hodges.” “We don’t. This intel has been gleaned from Chad’s reports and the few background checks we’ve managed to do. A lot of these guys have changed their names several times.” “Great.” Mercy checked the time. It was nearly eight o’clock. “One more hour. Then I’m going home.” Carleen nodded. “We’ll pick you up at six a.m. tomorrow and take you to the bus station.” Mercy exhaled and looked at the remains of her GOOD bag, feeling as if she were leaving half of herself behind. Jessica. My name is Jessica. How will Truman react to my no-contact assignment?

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