His kiss was nothing like Truman’s.
Chad had a short beard, and the odd sensation of the bristly facial hair distracted her from the tongue that had skillfully entered her mouth. After a long moment, he pulled back and held her face in both hands, giving her a warm smile as he examined her. She concentrated on smiling back, dying to wipe her mouth.
“Damn, it’s good to see you.” Then he kissed her again. A hand ran down her back and pressed her hips to him.
She stiffened and then relaxed. He released her mouth but kept her in a tight embrace. Chad was taller than Truman but had the same lanky yet muscular build. His eyes were a vivid green, and the hair visible below his cap was a light brown. He no longer looked like a cell phone salesman. He was all Eastern Oregon rancher. Dust on his boots, sweat marks on his cap, and faint stains on his jeans. He smelled of motor oil and fresh-cut wood. Not horrible scents.
He slung one arm over her shoulder and turned her toward the other man. “Ed, this is Jessica.”
The driver touched the brim of his cap and nodded solemnly. “Ma’am.” Ed looked to be in his late forties and was small and trim. Unlike Chad, he had a close shave, his leathery skin indicating many years of sun exposure.
“Nice to meet you.” Mercy gave him her best smile. She and Carleen had agreed Jessica needed to appear trusting and willing to follow orders. She was to fly under the radar. Gain everyone’s confidence. Be unthreatening and reliable.
Ed climbed back in the truck, his movements quick and precise.
Chad pulled Mercy to him in another passionate hug. “What happened?” he said softly in her ear.
“Shingles,” she whispered back.
He kissed her on the mouth and then picked up her bags. He tossed the duffel in the open bed of the truck and handed her the purse. Mercy climbed into the cab, pretending not to feel awkward as she sat between the two men on the wide bench seat. Chad took her hand, intertwined their fingers, and held it in his lap. Ed focused on the road.
“You’re going to love it out here,” Chad said in a cheerful voice. “It’s the peace we’ve always wanted. Lots of wide-open space and nothing but good, hardworking people.”
He launched into a description of the last vehicle problem he’d fixed, and Mercy pretended to listen in fascination, schooling her expression into one of adoration.
He lobbed a few easy questions her way, and Mercy answered comfortably, using his reactions and eye contact as guidance. So far it’d gone well.
After the second kiss in the cab, Ed muttered, “You better dial it back with the kissing shit. Pete’s not gonna go for that.”
“I’m getting it out of the way, Ed,” Chad replied with a deliberate kiss on her neck. “Give me a break. I haven’t seen my woman in months.” He winked at Ed. “I know you can handle it for an hour.”
“An hour?” Mercy asked.
“Yeah. It takes a while to drive to the camp. Out in the boonies and the roads are curvy and slow. Borders the national forest. It’s the only way to have some privacy.”
“I tried to call you,” Mercy told Chad. “You told me the reception was horrible, but I was starting to worry I had the wrong day.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ed shoot a look at Chad.
“No phones allowed in camp,” Ed announced.
“What?” asked Mercy. She’d prepared for Jessica to be surprised and slightly resistant to this detail. “You’re joking.”
“You didn’t tell her?” Ed asked sharply, leaning forward to glare at Chad.
“Didn’t come up,” he muttered.
“You said the lack of reception at the camp was why you rarely called,” Mercy said in her best disgruntled-girlfriend voice.
“That’s true. There’s virtually no reception up there, but that’s not the point. People don’t focus on what’s important when everyone’s got a phone in their hand,” answered Ed. “They’re huge distractions. And we don’t want strangers showing up because someone posted about our home on Facebook.” He was stern. “Everybody who joins us is highly vetted. We don’t let in every Tom, Dick, and Harry. You have to prove yourself.”
“I’ve never been without my phone before.” She gave a nervous laugh. “Might be a bit addicted.”
“Pete will ask you for it,” Ed told her. “It’d really impress him if you handed it over with no fuss. Good way to make a first impression. Shows him you want to be here.”
“I do want to be here. Chad, is that the best way to handle it?”
“Yeah. It’d probably be a first for Pete. I’ve seen new people get pretty upset about the phone rule.”
“What if someone has an injury?” asked Mercy.
“Pete can make a call in an emergency,” Ed told her.
“If he drives out of the compound a ways,” Chad added. “Takes a while to find a signal.”
“I guess that’s better than nothing.” She sat silently for a long moment, as if struggling to accept the rule. “I didn’t realize how exclusive it was here,” she said. “I’m flattered I was accepted. I can live without my phone.”
Ed beamed. “Good girl.”
Yep. That’s Jessica. Rule follower.
She snuggled up to Chad. “I can’t wait to be with you all the time.”
He coughed. “I know I told you we’d have our own place, but it’s not quite ready yet. Until then you’ll have to bunk with the other women.”
“Oh.” Mercy wondered how long Chad had known that. She and Carleen had counted on joint living quarters for the two of them to have some privacy.
“Soon,” Chad promised.
“I’m disappointed, but I get it. I don’t mind sleeping somewhere else for a little while. You’re worth it.” She beamed at him. Chad Finn—whatever his real name was—was a good-looking man, but for the first time she saw a hint of stress in his eyes. She didn’t blame him. Being surprised by a new agent while deep undercover would stress her out too.
The rest of the trip was quiet. Mercy rested her head on Chad’s shoulder, her hand still in his as her mind raced. She had two objectives. Find out about the big plan against the ATF and discover what weapons the camp had, where they’d gotten them, and what they planned to do with them.
And Chad had been there for a month. She needed to know why he hadn’t answered these questions yet.
The truck wound its way up into the hills and then down again. It finally stopped at a metal gate across a side road. Two men slid out of a pickup parked nearby and approached, rifles in hand. Both wore camouflage BDUs, fatigues rarely seen since the military had replaced the forest-green pattern in the mid-2000s. Mercy mentally dubbed the men Bubba 1 and Bubba 2. Both were big men with bushy beards, their jackets unable to button across their bellies. They stopped ten feet from the vehicle and pointed their weapons at the cab.
Ed raised both hands from the wheel as if in surrender, and Mercy caught her breath.
“Password,” ordered Bubba 1.
“Twenty, September, evening,” answered Ed.
Both men lowered their weapons. Bubba 1 took a few steps closer and eyeballed Mercy. She stared back but then looked down, deciding the action was too aggressive for rule-following Jessica Polk. The password was the date and month, but evening didn’t make sense. “It’s not evening,” she said lightly.
“Evening tells him nothing is wrong in the vehicle,” Ed answered. “If I’d said morning, he’d know someone was holding a gun on me.”
Bubba 2 dragged the gate across the packed dirt road. A thin metal pipe gate that Mercy doubted would stop a small Toyota.
Ed drove through, lifting one hand at Bubba 2. Mercy looked over her shoulder to watch the man drag the gate back into position.
“Welcome to America’s Preserve, Jessica,” said Ed.
No going back now.
Britta was waiting on the front porch when Truman and Evan Bolton approached.
“She’s flighty,” Truman said in a low aside to Bolton. “Don’t push.”
“Doesn’t look flighty,” came his reply.
Truman had to agree. Britta stood at the top of the steps with her arms crossed and Zara at her side. The dog’s happily wagging tail was a contrast to Britta’s scowl. The tall woman had shed her black jacket from that morning and now wore a sleeveless black T with a Led Zeppelin logo.
“Britta, this is Detective Bolton.” Truman held her gaze, trying to communicate his confidence in Bolton. “He’s one of the good guys.”
She gave Bolton a short nod. “I’d offer coffee, but I only have tea.”