“How?” she asked, unable to stop the question. What makes you so special?

“Well, I was going to gift him enough weapons to arm an army. I was already on that track when I got a look at the arsenal Enoch Finch owned. What does one old prepper need with so many weapons? Joziah wouldn’t have been able to ignore me after that. We’ve got to be prepared for anything, you know. What if the government comes in and decides to take our land? But your sister ruined my plan. Now I’ll just have to convince him I’m the most qualified.”

“You knew Enoch?”

He laughed. “I knew them all. I carefully cultivated those old men, feeling them out to see who was hoarding weapons. They’re lonely. They say they hate people, but get a little alcohol in them and they talk and talk. I spent many evenings in their homes with a bottle of booze, talking about the society that we should have, and them showing me their preparations. Their arsenals. It was easy enough to slip something stronger in their drinks so I could load up their weapons. But I couldn’t let them wake back up.

“It was perfect. No one suspected me. I’d been a part of this community for decades.” His hand ran over her long hair. “Your hair is so beautiful. You’re the type of woman we’ll need after TEOTWAWKI happens, Rose. You’re skilled. You listen to your man and do what you’re told. We’ll need women for support positions. A bunch of men living together makes a huge mess, you know? Tempers get hot too. Women know how to cool us down.”

Is that what I’ve been raised to do?

“Women like your sister—well, they just cause trouble. There’s a reason God gave men the strength and women the ability to bear children.” He caressed her stomach and she froze. “I don’t understand how your father could let her run off and become an enforcer for the government. That’s wrong on so many levels. Your father must be humiliated.

“She stole my guns,” he muttered. “Those were my property. My ticket to impressing Joziah. She’s not a real woman. She’s pretending to be a man. Probably can’t get laid.”

Through her cheek, she felt the muscles of his stomach harden. She cringed. Not again.

THIRTY-NINE

The area around Ned’s house felt different from when Mercy had first visited last Monday. Today it was sunny; no clouds anywhere. The puddles had dried, and leaves rustled in the light breeze. A far cry from the wet, dreary weather that’d been present on her first day.

Stepping out of Truman’s Tahoe, she had a moment of anger with the perfect weather. The world had the nerve to move on as usual. Sunshine, birds, warmth. Doesn’t it know Rose could be dead?

The sun highlighted the disrepair of Ned’s home. Warped boards, curling shingles, weeds. But Mercy knew its looks were deceiving. It was a fortress, designed to project an image of disarray and poverty: Move along, there’s nothing of value here.

Mercy studied the familiar front yard of junk piles and hedges, remembering how she’d corrected Eddie’s comment about its seemingly chaotic structure. The house was quiet, and she wondered if Toby’s ghost had been a feral cat.

“The front door is closed,” Truman pointed out as he walked around to the passenger side. “Toby said he left it open when he ran out.”

True. The hair on her arms lifted, her senses shifting to a higher level of alertness. “Let’s stay on this side of the vehicle for now.”

Truman cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello! Anyone home?”

Silence.

“Your thoughts?” she asked.

“I think Toby may have been hearing things,” he admitted. “He hasn’t gotten over finding Ned’s body.”

He yelled at the house again with no results.

“Let’s try the front door,” Mercy suggested.

Truman paused, and she could see him weighing the idea. “I’ll let Lucas know we’ve arrived and are going in.”

“If we can get in,” she added as he made the call. “Ned had an impressive number of locks on a very heavy door.”

He led the way, his hand near the weapon at his side. Mercy followed, unzipping her thin jacket for access to hers. “I feel like I’m being herded to slaughter,” Truman muttered as they rounded the second pile of junk along the path.

Mercy kept a careful eye on the windows of the home, searching for any sign of movement.

Something shifted at an upper boarded-up window, and Truman jerked backward, crying out.

Then she heard the crack of the shot.

Truman dropped and Mercy dived behind a pile of rusting metal. Her training took over and she stretched out, dragging Truman through the dirt to cover, and then spun around to aim at the window where she’d seen the movement, her vision laser-focused on locating the threat. Where’d he go?

Nothing.

Her heartbeat pounded in her ears and sweat ran down her back as she scanned the house. Behind her, Truman gasped for breath, swearing like an angry redneck. She whirled back to him, ripping off her jacket, ready to apply pressure where he was bleeding. Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! His head was tilted back, his heels digging into the ground, his teeth clenched in pain.

She couldn’t see blood. “Where is it?” Her hands scrambled across his chest and neck, searching for the bullet hole.

I won’t let him die.

He ripped open his buttoned-up shirt, exposing his vest, and dug at its right side with frantic fingers, struggling to catch his breath.

Mercy spotted the flattened slug and elation ripped through her.

***

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