That wasn’t supposed to happen.
His gaze leaping from monitor to monitor, Truman saw the agents on the perimeter of the compound enter and methodically start clearing the buildings. Bodies were strewn about the gate, their blood spray appearing black on the snow. Sporadic gunshots cracked in the air as other residents inside the compound continued to fire at the invading agents.
Pain shot up Truman’s arm. Eddie’s fingers had dug into his bicep, his eyes wide behind his glasses, staring at the monitors. Truman unhinged his grip, and Eddie blinked in surprise.
On the screens the compound members inside finally dropped their weapons, their hands in the air. They moved to their knees and stomachs on command and were searched by pairs of agents.
Within ninety seconds, the agents had cleared all the buildings, started aiding injured compound members, and rounded up the uninjured who were secured in the mess hall.
“Outside,” Eddie told Truman, pushing him toward the RV door. “The vehicles with the kids will be back here any minute.”
How had I forgotten that?
He bolted out the door, jogging through the snow toward where the three SUVs would appear with their precious cargo, Eddie right behind him.
“Oh my God,” Eddie said as he caught up. “What the hell happened up there?”
“Who shot Trotter?” asked Truman. He was out of breath, and it wasn’t from the short jog.
“I couldn’t tell. Where are they?” Eddie looked impatiently down the road that wove through the trees in the dark. “What’s taking them so long?”
“Maybe they had to stop to administer medical care.” Truman’s throat constricted. Only a few children had been in the vehicles when the shooting started.
Who was hurt?
“Headlights!” Eddie exclaimed as a soft glow appeared in the distance.
The engine sounds were the best noises Truman had heard in months. Beams of light lit up the trees around him and Eddie, and three sets of headlights came into view. Truman was opening doors before the vehicles had fully stopped. Children were crying, but he couldn’t stop to comfort them. He searched faces.
He raced to the next SUV. The driver had already hopped out and was helping the hugely pregnant woman. “She’s in labor!” he announced, his eyes wide. “Get medical.” The woman’s face contorted in pain as she stepped down.
Mercy wasn’t in this one either.
“In a minute,” said Truman, already moving to the last vehicle. Dread crawled up his spine. Was she shot?
At the third SUV a toddler was shoved in his arms as the women helped the children out. His gaze locked on one figure. Tall, slender, dark haired, and holding the other toddler.
His heart stopped. He couldn’t breathe.
It wasn’t Mercy.
He’d been wrong.
Jeff had been wrong.
The ground seemed to melt away under his feet.
Is she still inside the compound?
Hours later, Truman gave a wide berth to the bodies scattered in the snow at the gate. Seeing the deaths in person was overwhelming. A million times worse than viewing it on a monitor. He looked away as bile climbed in the back of his throat.
He was nauseated, sorrow and anger waging war in his brain and body.
After an initial search of the compound, Mercy was still missing.
“Lord help them,” Eddie murmured beside him as he took in the destruction.
Many men had died near the gate, ripped apart by bullets from SWAT and HRT. Truman recognized the overweight bearded man he’d watch limp and struggle to catch his breath during the march to the gate before the horror began. Now his pale-blue eyes were open, staring at nothing, his beard bloody.
The scene crawled with agents. They’d shifted into investigation mode as the SWAT and HRT men were debriefed back at base camp. Someone had transported the lights from the base camp to help illuminate the scene. “We need metal detectors,” one agent said as Truman passed by. “The hot shells sank in the snow.”
Conditions were far less than ideal in the steady snow and poor light.
SSA Ghattas looked as nauseated as Truman felt. “Who fired?” he asked a group of investigators as Eddie escorted Truman past. “Who fired the first shot at Trotter?”
The agent had been asking the same question since the gunfire had ceased. No one had a definite answer yet.
Truman pitied the SSA. The operation had flipped upside down and gone to hell within a tenth of a second, and Ghattas would be held accountable for it. The story would rip through the media like a wildfire. No doubt rumors had already started, because three injured men from inside the compound and the pregnant woman had been rushed to the hospital.
Questions would be asked.
Answers would be presumed.
Conjecture would reign in the public domain.
No agents had been hurt; that was the only bright side. Two had been hit, but their vests had stopped the rounds, and now they nursed sore ribs. Jason Trotter’s life had also been spared due to the ballistics vest Ghattas had made him wear.
Ten yards inside the gate, Truman paused. Pete Hodges lay faceup in the snow. He’d been shot in the face and the chest, but his vest had stopped the shot to the chest. Truman had been told he was the only person in the compound wearing body armor. His men had been unprotected.
Truman despised the man for that fact.
More than he already had.
He suspected Hodges had ordered Trotter shot if he revealed that he hadn’t shared what he knew with the investigators. When Trotter had answered Hodges by stating that he’d maintained his right to remain silent, the trigger had been pulled with the intent for his knowledge of the compound’s illegal activities to die with him.
Another backup plan of Hodges’s that had failed.
Truman pulled his gaze from Hodges as they continued deeper into the compound. His feet were heavy, his muscles begging for rest. Part of him wanted to find a dark place and hide for twenty-four hours. The other part of him wanted to rip the compound apart until he found Mercy.
She had to be here somewhere.
A fresh grave would be hidden by the snow.
He moaned and pressed his temples with both hands, and Eddie glanced at him.
“You okay?” he asked.
Eddie nodded, and they continued their trek. Their destination was the mess hall, where the remaining members were being held and questioned. At least there was light inside the buildings of the compound, Truman thought as they entered the mess hall. Weak, yellow light, but it was better than nothing.
The men and women had their wrists zip-tied behind their backs. They sat on the floor, leaning against the walls, carefully watched by armed agents. Three other agents were individually interviewing the residents, taking them one by one to the back of the mess hall for privacy, where their neighbors couldn’t hear who was lying and who was telling the truth.
Eddie stopped near the closest agent standing guard. “Any results?” he asked in a low voice.
The agent was grim. “Nothing on our missing agent.”
Her name is Mercy.
“No one here will verify that someone of her description was even in the compound,” the agent added.
“Did she not make it to the camp?” Truman suggested. “Did something happen before she arrived?” His head throbbed at the thought. If she hadn’t made it to America’s Preserve, where was she? Why hadn’t she called?
“Crap,” agreed Eddie.
Mercy’s identity was no longer a secret to protect from the compound members. Finding her was the priority.
A snow-covered agent appeared at the mess hall door, and Truman’s heart gave a wild kick at the concern on his face. “I need an ax,” he shouted, gasping for breath and stomping the snow from his boots. “Where can I find an ax? Or bolt cutters?”
“There’s axes in those,” said a younger militia member, jerking his head toward a row of rickety cabinets. All the doors hung open; the contents had been searched. Truman caught his breath at the rows of gas masks on the shelves.
What emergencies was this compound prepared for?
The snowy agent grabbed two axes from a bottom shelf and dashed out the front door.
Eddie and Truman exchanged a look and ran after him.
They followed the man, running south across the snow. He caught up with five agents jogging in the same direction, most of them carrying flashlights. Truman recognized the large bulk of Ghattas in their midst. He and Eddie joined the tail end of the group.
Something is up.
Several minutes later they entered a large clearing. Ahead was the largest building Truman had seen on the compound. “That’s the new one that Agent O’Shea couldn’t get into, right?” he panted at Eddie.
“I think so.”
The men reached a side door. The agent with the axes handed one off and entered first. The rest filed in, their flashlights roaming over two parked vans and a wall with shelves and storage units.
“That smell . . . ,” said one of them, covering his nose. The odor was coming from a storage unit.
Truman recognized the odor of death. Dizziness swamped him.