“How do you plan to feed a child when you don’t have a steady job?”

“God made birth control for a reason!”

“You are now responsible for the livelihood of a child. Be a man.”

They didn’t care if the woman didn’t want to see Levi, but they expected him to provide for his child. Somehow.

Family first, community second.

Mercy’s parents, Karl and Deborah, lived and breathed by that credo and had built a small, tight community circle within the population of Eagle’s Nest. Everyone pulled their own weight and brought something useful to the Kilpatrick community. If you were a leech or unreliable, eventually your invitations to barbecues and picnics faded away. Karl surrounded himself with men and families who had a singular purpose: to survive whatever the world threw their way. They believed in preparation, personal health, and learning. Her parents’ mantras echoed in her head.

Seek doers, not talkers.

Choose friends wisely.

Be frugal.

Family first.

Except when it comes to me.

He sat in his vehicle outside the roadside motel, watching a skinny beam of light that shone between the curtains in room 232. Two hours ago Mercy Kilpatrick had arrived with the other agent. They’d talked for a few minutes outside her door, and then the male agent had gone to his own room. Mercy had briefly left her room to grab a bag out of her SUV, but he’d seen neither of them since then.

He’d idly wondered if the man would return to her room, but his room’s light had turned off an hour ago. An inconsistent faint flicker on the curtains told him the male agent was watching TV.

Eleven o’clock. Why am I still here? He shifted in his seat, flexing his toes in his boots, trying to warm them. It was fucking freezing, and he didn’t dare turn on his engine to warm up the vehicle.

Mercy’s light went off.

He stared at the large window covered by draperies. Is she going to sleep? Should I leave?

Then it happened.

Her door opened and she stepped out. Not in pajamas and a robe, ready to knock on her partner’s door for a rendezvous. She was dressed in black, with a small bag in hand. She closed her door and stood silently on the outdoor walkway, looking and listening.

He didn’t move, feeling as if she could see directly into his vehicle. He’d parked in the shadows, avoiding the hotel parking lot lights.

She can’t see me.

But she stared in his direction for a long time. His heart beat faster and small dots of sweat formed on his temples. She finally moved to the stairs and jogged down. He listened closely, but her feet didn’t make a sound. She unlocked her Tahoe and the cab light stayed off as she opened the door.

Smart.

She started the vehicle and pulled out of the parking lot. He turned his ignition and kept his headlights off as he followed, unconcerned about being seen by other vehicles. The local area rolled up its sidewalks at eight.

He immediately realized she wasn’t headed toward Eagle’s Nest. Or Bend. Forty minutes later he was eyeing the level of his gas tank and wondering if he needed to turn around. She’d led him toward the Cascades, following the foothills for a while, and then taking a dizzying course of turns. Her speed hadn’t changed the whole time, and he suspected she didn’t see him.

Where the fuck is she going?

He took a sharp right turn, expecting to see her taillights up ahead. They weren’t there.

“Shit!” He sped up, looking for a road she could have turned down. She’d led him to an unfamiliar and thickly forested area of the foothills that was crisscrossed with logging roads. Of course there were no signs anywhere.

It would be hell to find his way out.

He gambled and took another right turn. No taillights. With a curse he pulled over to the side of the road and stared into the dark.

Now what?

Did she do that on purpose? Did she spot me?

Pissed, he flipped on his headlights and pulled a U-turn. Tonight he wasn’t going to discover why she’d returned to Eagle’s Nest after fifteen years.

There was always tomorrow night.

SEVEN

The next morning Mercy and Eddie sat in a small but new-smelling meeting room at the Bend FBI office. Across the table sat Supervisory Senior Resident Agent Jeff Garrison and Intelligence Analyst Darby Cowan. The office had a total of five agents along with the intelligence analyst, a staff operations specialist, and an administrative assistant.

No wonder they’d reached out to Portland for support.

Clearly the Bend office had a casual dress code. Jeff was in jeans and Darby wore pants made of some high-tech weather- and tear-resistant material that Mercy had seen in outdoor stores. Darby didn’t look like a data cruncher; she looked as if she’d rather be climbing one of the Three Sisters mountains. A loose braid held back her long hair, and she moved with the athleticism of someone who ran marathons every weekend. Mercy guessed she was around forty.

Jeff Garrison appeared to be about Mercy’s age and seemed quite mellow for an SSRA. Shouldering the responsibility of the satellite office hadn’t given him the strained look Mercy recognized in many supervisors. In fact, he’d made her instantly relax the first time he shook her hand and smiled. Mercy was envious of the gift. He and Eddie had immediately discovered a shared passion for sushi and launched into a detailed conversation after Eddie asked for a restaurant recommendation. Mercy tuned them out, watching Darby deftly pass out papers.

“Since you’re from Portland, I’ve taken the liberty of giving a brief description of some of the groups of residents you’ll come across on this side of the Cascades. I hesitate to call them factions, because I feel that has a negative connotation and that label doesn’t apply to everyone,” the tall analyst said. “Then we’ll move on to how the victims’ associations might have made them targets.”

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