The agent swung the ax at the first storage unit’s padlock. The clang of metal on metal echoed in the large space. The padlock didn’t break. He swung again with the same results. Truman’s mind screaming in alarm, he shoved forward and grabbed the second ax from an agent waiting to take a turn at the door. Foreboding choked him.
“Get back,” he ordered as he strode to the unit. The agent who had swung at the lock took one look at his face and leaped out of the way.
Anger and fear fueled his swing. The lock split and scattered across the floor.
Truman froze, the ax clenched in his grip as he faced the door.
I can’t open it.
A hand on his shoulder gently pulled him back. Agent Ghattas stepped past Truman and opened the door.
Flashlights lit up the interior as a putrid wave of odor hit the group. On the floor a man lay facedown wearing only underwear. His back was a rotting mess.
Truman’s knees became water, relief and dread battling inside him.
Where is she?
“What happened to his back?” asked an agent.
“I think he was whipped,” answered Ghattas. “Some of the interviews mentioned whipping as punishment, but no one has said these storage units are prison cells.”
Truman whirled back to the group. “Open the other doors,” he croaked.
The next two rooms were empty.
Truman stared at the padlock on the fourth door.
I’d know if she was gone. I’d feel it.
But right now he felt nothing. Nothing but nausea.
An agent swung, and the padlock on the last door flew off.
A long exhalation escaped him. Eddie met his eyes, his relief reflecting Truman’s.
Ghattas stepped into the last unit, his flashlight focused on the floor. He bent over, staring at something. Truman couldn’t stay back. He slipped through to the front of the group that had gathered at the fourth unit. On the concrete were dark-brown smears.
“They were locking up their own people,” Ghattas spit out. “After they tortured them.”
Truman’s gaze locked on the unit’s floor.
Caught in the dried blood were several long, black, wavy hairs.
The screams in his brain started again.
The compound was a snowy landscape, buried under nearly a foot of white fluff. And it continued to fall as Truman wearily strode up the steps to the mess hall. The morning had brought much-needed light to the investigation, and the compound had been searched from top to bottom again. Truman had joined the team of agents who’d scoured the buildings in the daylight.
But there had been a huge breakthrough. The women who had left with their children verified that Mercy had been in the compound. They claimed Noah Trotter would have died if Mercy hadn’t insisted he be taken to the hospital. One woman said she’d heard the men grumbling about her pushy ways, but no one had seen her since she was escorted to the command center after breakfast the day before yesterday.
She’d gone in and never come out.
Pete was dead. His interactions with Mercy forever silenced.
Why did no one else admit she’d been in the compound?
Truman paused and turned around, one hand on the mess hall door. Tall firs surrounded the compound, many of their branches coated in snow, drifts forming against their trunks. A thorough outdoor search was nearly impossible and might be delayed until spring.
His heart couldn’t wait that long.
Numb, he stepped inside and took a seat at a table where a few agents were eating breakfast. The smell of eggs and coffee turned his stomach.
The FBI had started to transport the militia members off the compound. Several were still in the mess hall. Overnight, blankets and pillows had been brought in from the cabins for the detainees, and agents had supervised bathroom breaks. The interviews had continued through all hours of the night. Everyone in the mess hall—men and women—had denied meeting anyone named Jessica. No matter that the half dozen released women back at the base camp claimed she’d been there.
Did Pete order that she not be discussed?
The rest of the agents had been informed of Truman’s relationship to Mercy, but it wasn’t mentioned during the interviews. The members of the compound knew only that the agents were searching for Jessica Polk—not why.
Not long after the storage units had been discovered, the agents had found enough C-4 in the adjacent vans to destroy a large building. The militia interviews had uncovered a plan that had been scheduled for last night to destroy the ATF office in Yakima. The appearance of the ATF with a radio and questions at the America’s Preserve gate had halted the plan.
“Why that building in Yakima?” Eddie had asked the agents during a break from conducting interviews. “It can’t be that important. It’s a small satellite office, and the explosions were supposed to go off at night—chances were no one would be hurt. I don’t get it. That was the big plan we heard rumors about?”
Ghattas had been grim. “For some reason they believed it was an important hub for ATF servers, which it’s not, but the driving force behind their plan was to destroy what they believe was illegal information on gun owners that was stored on these nonexistent servers. It was to be a Second Amendment victory. One to be celebrated across the US. They thought they’d be heroes.”
“Where did they get that false information?” Eddie had wondered out loud. “Why did they deem it reliable enough to risk going to prison?”
“I don’t understand how a lot of these people think,” Ghattas answered. “We’re not dealing with the sharpest tools in the shed here, and they are as uncooperative as possible. Most of them won’t tell us their names or how many men lived here. I’m not even sure we have the right names for the dead.”
Truman had listened but didn’t say a word. He didn’t give a shit about the militia’s plan or the names of its members.
He had one mission.
Truman eyed the three female compound members who were still in the mess hall. They sat together against the wall, wrapped in their blankets, slightly separated from the men. Two looked at the floor, occasionally glancing up with fear in their wide eyes. One caught Truman’s gaze, and terror flashed before she immediately focused on the floor again. The third woman had her chin up and glared at everyone who walked by. She was horribly thin, and the yellow cast to her skin disturbed Truman. He estimated she was in her sixties but then wondered if her poor health made her appear older than she was.
“She didn’t say a word in her interviews,” said a female FBI agent at Truman’s table, noticing his consideration. “Her name’s Vera. She’s got the brand, so I’m not surprised she’s staying silent.”
The agent touched her own wrist. “Right here. Hodges’s most loyal followers wear his brand. I can’t imagine allowing someone to do that to me. Even if my husband suggested it as a sign of commitment, I’d say, ‘Hell no.’”
Truman stared at the woman on the floor in wonder. “But he’s dead. Her allegiance to Hodges goes beyond the grave?”
“It appears to be that deep for a few of them. They’re completely closemouthed. Eventually they’ll come around.” She took a bite of scrambled eggs. “The other two women talked a little bit, but nothing useful.”
“I’d like to talk to the three women together,” Truman said.
The agent scrutinized him. “Don’t think that’s gonna happen. You’re an observer, nothing else. I’m sorry about your fiancée, Chief, but that doesn’t mean we don’t follow procedure.”
Truman mulled this over.
“It can’t be against the rules to openly speak to them,” Truman suggested. “I’ll just ask them if they need anything else—bathroom break . . . coffee . . . tea.”
The agent scratched at her neck. “We’re all fucking exhausted, you know. Right now I can’t focus on anything beyond my breakfast.” She concentrated on her plate, scooping up more eggs, avoiding Truman’s eyes.
He went and poured a cup of coffee at the counter. Instead of returning to his seat, he sat on the end of a bench close to the women and faced them, keeping the coffee for himself. All three averted their eyes. Even Vera did after giving him a hard glare. He sipped his coffee, and his gut burned with acid. The other two women appeared to be in their thirties. One redhead and one brunette. All three wore grungy clothing and had their oily hair pulled back in ponytails. Their life at the compound hadn’t been an easy one.
“I’m looking for my fiancée,” he said in a quiet, calm voice. And waited.
Ghattas will have my head for revealing that.
Confusion crossed the faces of the younger women, and each stole a glance at him. Vera stared into the distance.
“We’re getting married in December.”
Satisfaction flashed on Vera’s face, and fury flew up Truman’s spine.
She knows what happened.