He nodded in approval. “I didn’t think so. Waste of money.”

“I’d like to take a gamble on her,” muttered her dentally challenged guard.

“Show some respect,” barked McDonald, surprising Mercy and the guard.

“She’s a lying fed,” argued her admirer. “You said the women were here for us. I’d think this one should make the full rounds.”

Just try me. Keeping her lips closed, Mercy ran her tongue over her teeth and paused on a particularly sharp canine. I’ll use whatever I can as a weapon.

“Not now,” huffed McDonald. His face was redder than when Truman had cuffed him earlier. “We’ve got other problems. Go help find that police chief,” he told the frustrated man. “But first tell Owen Kilpatrick I want to see him.” He jammed his hands in the pockets of his coat and focused on Mercy again.

Mercy briefly closed her eyes. What will Owen do?

“Where’s the chief?” he asked her.

“Like I would know. You saw how your men yanked me back into the room.”

“Who else is here?”

She smiled. “I expect the FBI and Deschutes County to be here any minute.”

McDonald held her gaze, assessing her. “I want a dozen men covering the road,” he said over his shoulder. “Tell them to move some vehicles to block the entrance. No one gets in.”

One of the men darted down the hallway to carry out his command. He returned five seconds later. “They found the police chief’s truck!”

“Where?”

“Right with all the others. They want to know if they can break in.”

“Of course not!” McDonald shook his head in exasperation. “No one touches the truck until I say so.” The messenger dashed away again.

McDonald pulled on his beard as he looked from Mercy to the two waiting men. Frustration emanated from him, and he paced in a small circle, continuing to stroke his beard and take quick glances at Mercy.

The two men left in the room exchanged confused looks, and Mercy wondered if they’d never seen their leader struggle with a decision.

She considered his options. Believe her story that more police were on their way and get ready for a standoff. Kill her and prepare for a standoff.

Or give up.

She wasn’t sure if he’d kill her first in the giving-up scenario. Probably not.

“Get her up. Take her to the mess hall.”

The men each grabbed an arm and hauled her to her feet. She deliberately met the stare of one of them; he looked away after a few seconds and shot a glance at McDonald, who ignored him.

That’s right. Your leader is losing ground. You can feel it.

She walked slowly, making the men try to drag her. As they took the gravel path toward the mess hall, McDonald shouted into the dark, “Hey, Chief Daly! Your woman is about to provide entertainment for my men this evening!”

Mercy stumbled, tripped up by the memory of a man who’d once tried to force her. He’d died as a result.

But the terror he’d created had never died. It’d simply gone underground in her psyche, waiting to pop out in moments like this.

No one responded to McDonald’s taunt from the shadows.

Breathe. She worked to control her breaths, which deepened and slowed. Searching for calm.

“Did Joshua Pence have a final walk like this?” she asked her escorts. “Did two men lead him to his murder?”

Hands tightened on her arms. “Shut up,” muttered the man on her right. He smelled of cigarettes.

“Is that a sore topic for you?” she hissed at him. “Maybe you’ll be next if you don’t toe McDonald’s line. He seems the type to simply eliminate anyone who disagrees with him.”

“I suggest you keep your mouth shut,” Tom McDonald said from behind her. He shouted his taunt again.

“I know how your type operates,” said Mercy over her shoulder. “You’re the big cheese. Everyone around you is terrified you’ll hurt them if they don’t jump when you say jump. But you know what? That gets old after a while. Pretty soon people get tired of jumping for no reason.”

Cigarette Breath dug his fingers under her bicep. Pain shot to her brain.

“Joshua Pence went rogue,” announced McDonald. The men escorting her solemnly nodded.

“How is that possible? Don’t you run a tight ship?” she prodded.

“My men have free will,” McDonald stated. “They make their own decisions.”

“And what happens when one makes a decision that goes against what you’ve decreed?”

“They’re asked to leave.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Cigarette Breath exchange a look with her other handler.

“What did Joshua Pence do?” she asked.

“He shot those deputies.”

“And how did he end up with his throat slit?”

“I don’t know the answer to that,” McDonald said. “I ordered him to leave my ranch when I heard about it.”

“If he murdered the deputies, why didn’t you turn him in to the police?”

“It wasn’t any of my business.”

“Was he killed by someone wanting revenge for the deputies?”

“Probably,” agreed McDonald. “To me that would indicate another cop caused his death. I’ve noticed you aren’t investigating his death as heavily as the two deputies’. No doubt you’ve already realized it was an inside job.”

Her escorts gave fierce nods in agreement.

“We have no leads that Joshua Pence was killed by a cop in revenge for the two deputies.”

“Maybe you need to take a closer look at your own kind.”

“Was the Brass fire started because you were trying to intimidate Tilda to sell to you?”

McDonald laughed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Again, Cigarette Breath exchanged a glance with his coworker.

You guys need to take a class in reading body language.

They arrived at the mess hall, and Cigarette Breath yanked open the door, pushing her inside. Mercy was immediately hit with the odor of sweaty men. The room was large, but there were enough bodies inside to make it smell like a men’s locker room. Every one of them turned to stare as she stumbled through the entrance. The attention brought her to a halt, her mouth going dry.

There are so many of them.

And each one is angry.

She searched for her brother’s face, wanting to see his eyes in the crowd. Surely he wouldn’t be looking at her with the anger and disgust of the dozens of other men right now. She fought to keep her knees from shaking. She met several stony gazes and was overwhelmed by a thought: she knew these men. They were the type of men she’d grown up with, been raised by, and encountered every day of her youth. She’d always felt safe around them . . . these men with their canvas coats, boots, and callused hands. They were the salt of the earth, people who loved to work the land and respected their neighbors.

But she’d never felt threatened until now.

There was no comfort in their familiarity.

Unshed tears burned.

How can they turn on me?

I’m one of them.

Or had it been too long? Her clothes had changed, and some of her beliefs had changed. When they looked at her, did they see only these changes? Someone who didn’t belong? Someone who threatened their way of life?

The irony nearly made her laugh.

She gave a coughing hiccup, and the hands on her arms tightened again.

The staring men took a collective step closer, and terror settled in her heart.

THIRTY

Truman tried to catch his breath. The aftereffects of Owen’s body slam made it feel as if his ribs were poking into his lungs. The two men had darted away from the farmhouse and into the woods, circling back to a forested area far from the vehicles. Truman leaned against a tree, wrapped an arm around his rib cage, and tried to ignore the painful stabbing.

Owen huddled behind a second tree, watching the flashlights hover around Truman’s truck and keeping a sharp eye out for followers.

“When’s your backup getting here?” he hissed at Truman.

“Any minute.” I hope. He pulled out his phone. No service. “I don’t have service.”

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