“I’m so sorry.” The tender way he looked at his daughter and pregnant wife ripped at her heart. Is that how my father felt about his preparations? That they were primarily about his family?

Guilt was bitter on her tongue. She’d never thought about it that way. Her father’s obsession had always felt a bit self-centered to her.

She turned to Julia. “I read in the police report that you spotted the fire around one a.m. from a window?”

“Yes. I saw the flames out the window above the kitchen sink.” A sheepish look crossed her face. “I was getting something for heartburn. Either heartburn or my bladder interrupts my sleep nearly every night now.”

“When are you due?” Mercy asked.

“Four weeks.”

“A Christmas baby?”

“We hope. That would be really special.” Julia and Steve exchanged a look that made Mercy feel like an intruder.

“You told the police you didn’t hear or see anything before the fire, correct?” Mercy asked.

Steve looked to his wife as Julia frowned. She said, “I didn’t say anything at the time, but I swear I heard children laughing.”

Mercy stared at the pregnant woman. Children?

“But it was before the heartburn woke me . . . I think I was dreaming. I swear I’ve had the weirdest dreams while I’ve been pregnant with this one. But it felt so real at the time.”

“So there’s a possibility you heard laughter outside,” Mercy said as her brain tried to digest this new bit of news. Clyde Jenkins had heard laughter, so Julia’s story wasn’t that odd.

“Maybe. I know that’s not very helpful, but I wanted to tell everything. I should have mentioned it to the police chief when he was here, but it felt ridiculous talking about a dream.”

“Not ridiculous,” said Mercy. “Please share everything.”

“Well, that’s the only new thing that’s occurred to me.” Julia rested her arms on her belly.

“Would you show me where the fire was?”

“I’ve cleaned up most of the debris,” Steve said. “There’s just a concrete pad and some boards left.”

“I’d still like to look around.”

He stood, handed off Winslet to Julia, and gestured for Mercy to follow. He stopped at a cabinet in the kitchen and grabbed two flashlights, handing her a black one and keeping the Minnie Mouse one for himself.

Outside, Mercy could see her breath. The temperature had dropped rapidly, and she zipped up her coat to her chin. The shed was about a hundred feet from the home, closer to the main road. Steve was right. There was just a concrete pad and a neat pile of singed lumber. A faint scent of smoke still hovered.

“I salvaged what I could from the shed itself,” he said, kicking the edge of one board. “I can rebuild it after I get some more lumber. And the supplies will eventually be replaced.” He shot Mercy a rueful glance. “It just stings, you know? I didn’t want to mention it in front of Julia, but it makes me feel unsafe. Julia has enough problems sleeping at night, and this has added to them. Especially after the murders the other night.”

“That’s completely understandable.”

“I’ve added heavier locks on our house and barn and wired up motion-detector lights that we turn on at bedtime.” He gave a short laugh. “It wasn’t the best idea. Now we’re woken up by lights every few hours as a rabbit or deer runs through the yard. I need to rethink that one.” He paused, staring at the concrete pad. “At first I assumed it was stupid kids who didn’t care if they caused damage to other people’s belongings.”

“And now?”

“I don’t know what to think since those two deputies were killed. That doesn’t sound like kids fooling around to me.”

She circled the rectangle of cement, searching the packed dirt with her flashlight, not knowing what she hoped to see. “Have you had any run-ins with people who didn’t like the fact that you’re preppers?” she asked quietly.

“Not here.” Steve pressed his lips together. “My father was a bit of an ass about it, but he’s in Arizona. It’s one of the reasons we moved to Oregon. To get away from him and the heat.”

“Have you found . . . a supportive community here?”

He met her gaze. “We have. Your father has been instrumental in introducing us to people. I like that your mother is a trained midwife.”

So they’ve joined my father’s circle.

“What do you do, Steve?”

“I’m a journeyman plumber. Pretty good at construction too. I have a knack for it.”

Preparedness wasn’t just about accumulating a pile of stuff. People needed practical skills that took training, study, and practice. Anyone could buy up a pile of guns and canned goods, but without the skills, they wouldn’t last long. Steve and his family were committed.

That would be reason enough for my father to add him to his small circle of people who have agreed to band together if disaster strikes. Steve’s specialized skills would be useful in TEOTWAWKI.

The end of the world as we know it.

Her parents were considered wealthy by prepping standards. They had four vehicles: one powered by gas, one by diesel, one by propane, and one by electricity. Folks just starting out, like the Parkers, probably had one diesel-fueled vehicle, the versatile choice to start with. Mercy suspected the young family was dedicated for life, and had been happy to join the tight-knit prepper community that her father had organized.

“I’ve met your siblings,” Steve said. “Winslet adores Rose. But I don’t recall your father mentioning an FBI agent in the family.”

“He wouldn’t bring it up.” Mercy turned and shone her flashlight on a copse of trees a few yards away, wanting to look anywhere but at Steve’s questioning gaze.

It’s a small town. Time to get used to people asking about my father and me.

“So since you moved here in April, have the people you met have been good to you?” Talk about anything but my father. “No arguments with neighbors? No problems with people on your acreage?”

“No problems at all. It’s very quiet out here. If we don’t go into town, we might not see another person for days.”

“That’s why my father originally built in this area,” Mercy said.

“It’s a good location,” Steve agreed. “A bit cold and dry in the winter, but the rest of the year’s weather is good for growing and getting work done. We considered the west side of the Cascades in the Willamette Valley, where the weather is milder, but the cost was too high. And there were too many people.”

She wanted to tell him that there was more to life than judging an area by how ideal it was in case of a natural disaster or government meltdown. Try to enjoy life now. Don’t focus entirely on what hasn’t happened yet. Don’t ignore your children for the sake of an obsession.

She remembered how he’d looked at his daughter and wife. There’d been genuine love and affection. Had her father ever pressed his lips against the top of her head when she was a child? Surely he had.

Hadn’t he?

She couldn’t remember any outward signs of affection from the man. Ever.

Steve Parker wasn’t her father. Yet.

“You have a beautiful family,” she told him. “Lola will be very lucky to join it.”

Even in the poor light of their flashlights, she could make out his happy reaction. “We can’t wait. I don’t care that it’s another girl. Girls are awesome.”

“I agree.”

EIGHT

Kaylie silently closed the door and tiptoed down the apartment stairs, excitement rushing through her veins. Freedom gave her a heady rush as anticipation about seeing Cade made her feet move faster. She hit the sidewalk and jogged through the dark night to their usual rendezvous spot, her breath creating big clouds in the cold air.

Am I in love?

No matter what this sensation was called, she felt fantastic. The energy bubbling through her was oblivious to the fact that it was one in the morning. She and Cade had been dating for over a month. He was three years older than she, and she’d known who he was for a long time, but they hadn’t spoken until she waited on him at the Coffee Café early one morning on his way to work. He came back three mornings in a row and finally asked her out.

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