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Tracy Wiley is back. Her mediation between a runaway girl and her family leads to a cult in the Everglades.
Following her adventure in the world of international intrigue, Tracy Wiley joined her lover, Alex Laughlin, in opening a private law practice where she could apply her skills as a problem solver to help people with non-legal issues. Within a few months, however, she becomes bored with nothing to do except play receptionist, especially when a flirtatious TV star hires Alex to negotiate her contract and then monopolizes his time and attention.
Enter Tracy’s first client whose stepdaughter, Betsy, joined the True Brilliant Path, a cult dedicated to improving the human race. Tracy goes to visit her at the compound in the Florida Everglades to learn if Betsy is there of her own free will. The following day, Betsy’s ravaged body is found on a roadside with Tracy’s business card in hand. The leader of the cult swears Betsy left with her boyfriend who has gone missing, as has Tracy’s client. Although not a suspect, Tracy becomes involved with the investigation by the sexy, enigmatic detective in charge, whose amorous advances she finds hard to resist in light of Alex’s involvement with his glamorous client.
Then her role in the case takes a staggering turn, and Tracy becomes victim as well as investigator. Dealing with her own trauma, the chaos of her relationships, and a sense of responsibility for Betsy, she must put on her game face and employ all her resources to find justice and unearth the deepest secrets of the True Brilliant Path.
A Simple Job
August midday sunshine poured through the front window and ruined my aim. If I realigned my office chair or repositioned the picture taped to the wall, I would have to work out the trajectory of my paper wads all over again. I really wanted to claim one bull’s eye by five o’clock, but the sun would continue to be a problem until well after that. I heaved a sigh, made the necessary correction to my position, and tried again. Place paper wad at edge of desk blotter, curl thumb and index finger into a circle behind it, flick wad with index finger.
“Not bad,” I muttered when the harmless missile bounced off the forehead of KiKi Morino as she planted a smooch on the mouth of attorney Alex Laughlin. “And the crowd goes crazy,” I added, imitating a sports announcer.
Encouraged, I pulled half a dozen sticky notes from the pad to make more “bullets,” but then a shrill beep announced someone coming through the front door. Afraid it might be Alex returning, I leapt out of my chair, covered the target with the usual calendar, and kicked thirty-odd paper wads under my desk.
“Anyone here?” a male voice called.
I squared my shoulders and walked out to the reception area at the same moment the door shut off the hustle and bustle of Little Havana outside. A wave of residual street heat caused the air conditioner above the door to grumble to life.
My visitor appeared to be in his late fifties to early sixties, well dressed and distinguished, quite attractive in a fatherly way. I noted a touch of world-weariness around his eyes, but he certainly was not the typical sort of client who wandered in from Eighth Street.
“Mr. Laughlin is not in the office right now,” I announced in my best receptionist voice. “I’d be happy to set up an appointment for you.”
His broad, tanned face drew into a bewildered frown. “I’m looking for Tracy Wiley.” His deep, resonant voice and proper diction suggested a cultured man.
“Me?” I asked, and then recovered from shock. “I mean, I’m Tracy Wiley.”
“George Wardell,” he greeted while showing a mouthful of perfect white teeth. He extended a hand.
“Mr. Wardell,” I repeated. As I shook with him, I noticed he wore a heavy ring capped by a huge diamond. His clothes looked custom-made by a really expensive tailor. There was genuine warmth in his eyes. “What can I do for you?”
“A mutual friend suggested I talk to you,” he stated and folded his hands in front of him. “I was told you are an expert problem solver.”
I quickly ran through a mental list of people who might characterize me that way against ones who would be acquainted with someone as wealthy as Mr. Wardell appeared to be.
“Does this mutual friend have a name?” I questioned when I could not come up with a candidate.
“Let’s just say he’s a company man.” He added a grin and a wink.
“Fox?” Following my misadventure last spring in the world of international intrigue, I had thought I would never see or hear from my favorite government employee again. I felt flattered the dashing C.I.A. agent once assigned as my bodyguard held my unique skill set in such regard. “How is Kevin?”
“As aloof and irritable as ever,” Wardell answered with a chuckle.
Proof positive he knew Kevin. I sat in one of the molded-plastic visitor chairs in the reception area and gestured for him to do likewise. “If your problem is legal in nature, that’s Alex’s area since I’m not a lawyer.”
“It’s not,” he affirmed. He perched on the edge of the seat as if afraid he might break it. “I have a family issue that requires a neutral intermediary. The situation has become, how shall I say, acrimonious, and everyone involved would be more comfortable with an outsider coming in.”
“I see.” He gave all the signs of true sincerity, and it sounded like easy money. “Just so you know, my fee is a hundred dollars an hour plus expenses. This consultation is not included, but if you want to continue on that basis, I’ll give you a short agreement to sign, outlining all the terms and rates. Once we start discussing details, we go on the clock. Okay?”
“Fair enough,” he agreed and smiled. “I like your up front statement of terms. It’s very refreshing to not hear someone dance around the subject.”
“I save my dancing for nightclubs.” I stood. “Let’s go to my office. It’s less roomy but has better chairs.”
George Wardell sat before my desk while I settled in behind it, thus filling the office to the point where one of us would have to get up and move to shut the door if desired. He bent over for a moment and then dropped a paper wad on my desk. I handed him the one-page contract form to read.
My so-called office had once been a closet, literally. Alex, my lover for the last three years, found the storefront location in Miami’s Little Havana around the same time I was trying to cut loose from the sphere of Elena Griegos, the infamous smuggler who could have passed for my twin sister. Alex had surprised me both with his heroism in coming to my rescue and his sudden resignation from his law firm, an about-face from his previous conservative, careful ways.
As it turned out, my quitting my customer service job to join him in his practice had proven essential. He had no clue whatsoever as to how to set up his business. Drawing on my experience at resolving issues at Metro Centro Convention Center, I managed to find furnishings for cheap, arranged for utilities, created dignified stationery and advertising, and all the other details. As the attorney, he got the bigger office, and my closet conversion had been my idea, mainly to avoid having to sit out front like the de facto receptionist I played most of the time.
For the first couple of months, things could not have been better. Pretty soon, though, I got bored in the office all day with nothing to do while Alex went to traffic court or gave advice to kids who messed up and found themselves arrested. The situation went from bad to worse when he went on retainer for KiKi Morino, beautiful but air-headed television diva, to help her battle with producers for a better contract to play a bad-girl seductress on the daytime soaps. From then on, everything started going sour.
Finished reading, Mr. Wardell nodded vaguely, signed his name, and slid the form across the desk to me.
“Here’s my situation,” he began. “My stepdaughter recently ran away with her boyfriend and joined some kind of cult. They absolutely refuse to allow any family members to see her, but they will allow an outsider, an intermediary, to come in and speak with her.”
“That’s where I come in,” I surmised. “Doesn’t sound like much.”
“Well, it is a delicate matter,” he countered sheepishly. “She’s twenty-one years old and legally able to make her own decisions, but my main aim is to open a dialog here. All I want is to understand why she left and let her hear my side of the argument for coming back home.”
“Basic mediation,” I summed up. “What kind of cult? Religious?”
“When you get down to it, aren’t they all?” He sighed. “Some New Age sort of thing. They think they’re uplifting the human race by setting an example of how people should live. They call themselves the True Brilliant Path.” He made a mirthless smirk at the floor. “Isn’t it amazing the grandiose titles they think up for themselves?”
I shrugged. “They wouldn’t get many followers with the False Stupid Path.”
He laughed lightly. “No, I suppose not. They have a compound out west of here, a miraculously dry patch in the middle of the Everglades. It can be quite a trek back and forth.”
“Not a problem. Goes with expenses.”
He rubbed his hands together, sudden nervousness obvious. “There’s something else you should know. The True Brilliant Path has had its share of controversy in years past. Never anything illegal, but they give an overall impression of being mysterious, secretive. That aura is part of the reason I’m worried.”
I studied him, curiosity running amok with questions about the whys and wherefores of his family problem as well as this cult. “What’s your stepdaughter’s name?”
“Betsy. Elizabeth Rachman.”
“Any background on why she left? Like maybe some conflict over her boyfriend?”
“I have no problem with Gordon. He was her high school sweetheart, but then he got her into this cult stuff and I fear he led her astray.” He shifted in his chair. “You see, Ms. Wiley, Betsy has always been an impressionable girl who has a tendency to become excited and act impulsively. Her parents divorced some years ago, and Betsy rebelled against her mother marrying me. Since Johanna passed away eight months ago, it’s been an uphill battle between us. I know I can’t expect her to accept me as anything but an interloper, but I feel a sense of responsibility for her. Unfortunately, prior to her becoming a legal adult, she chose to demonstrate her disdain for me by getting into trouble, and I’ve had to bail her out many times.”
I wanted to ask for an example, but I figured there was a good chance he would choose something mild, watered down. I could not blame him. We did not know each other well enough for him to open the closet and show all the skeletons.
“Then six months ago, a week after her twenty-first birthday, she simply up and vanished, without a word,” he continued. “I even went so far as to call her father, although he and I are not on speaking terms, and he directed me to True Brilliant Path. My attempts to see Betsy were rejected, but she did send a couple of letters saying she was there by her own choice and requesting I leave her alone.”
“Do you believe that?” I asked. “That she’s there by her own choice?”
“I don’t know,” Wardell said morosely. “My great fear is that Betsy may have been brainwashed by these people. Those letters she sent were…odd. Disjointed and fanciful and not entirely coherent. I feel fortunate she agreed to have someone like you visit her, and I hope you can make some judgment about her state of mind.”
“I’m not a shrink,” I countered. “And I have no basis for comparison with how she used to be.”
“Understood, but you would be able to tell if she seems to have lost touch with reality based only on the sorts of things she talks about. I guarantee, if she speaks to you in the manner of her written notes, you’ll be able to tell. She sees me as the enemy, but you, as an outsider and a woman, well, I hope it will make her comfortable enough to talk openly and honestly.”
All things considered, it seemed a simple sort of job, and since I had nothing else to do besides sulk around the office, there was no reason to say no. His calling the organization mysterious and secretive sent up no particular alarms because no cult worth membership lacked those qualities.
“Will they let me in if I show up unannounced?”
“Mmmm, it’s better to make an appointment,” he answered. He pulled a business card from his pocket and jotted on the back. “The only way onto the compound is by some kind of boat, so you should probably call ahead.”
“Can I tell them the truth about why I want to see her?”
“Oh, absolutely,” he replied. He handed me the card. “There’s no reason for secrecy or subterfuge. Of course, Betsy might also change her mind and refuse to see you, and then I’m sorry to say, we’re done.”
“All righty then,” I said as I rose from my chair. “Unless there’s anything else I need to know, I’ll get something set up as soon as possible and let you know what I find out.”
He stood also and reached across the desk to shake hands. “You know, I must say, Kevin Fox’s opinion of you is quite warranted. If your partner’s legal services are half as good, I may have to stop in here the next time I need some.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Wardell, although I haven’t really done anything yet.” I followed him out to the front, buoyed by a sense of pride and a touch of excitement at finally fulfilling the role I had agreed to take on in Alex’s private practice. “I’ll be in touch with you as soon as I have something to report.”
He turned and was about to open the door to leave when the beeper sounded and Alex walked in.
“May I help you?” Alex questioned as he sized up the other man.
“No, thanks,” Wardell said pleasantly. “Got what I need. Good day.”
Alex moved out of the way and watched after Wardell when he turned eastward on the sidewalk. “Who was that?”
“His name’s George Wardell. He signed up to have me handle a situation for him. Play intermediary with his estranged stepdaughter.” I added what Wardell had mentioned about legal services in the future.
He beamed at me and kissed my cheek. “That’s great, honey. Looks like a well-to-do guy. Could turn into a nice piece of business.”
Another example of the changes in Alex over the last few months, his seeing everything in terms of how it could make money. While we both wanted to get the business rolling and make enough to live on, his assessing everyone in terms of how rich they might be had started to get on my nerves. Was he the same man who always claimed he wanted to help people and make a difference?
“You back for lunch?” I asked in lieu of editorial comments.
He moved past me and went to his office. “Not exactly. I have to meet KiKi in less than an hour. Lunch at The Ocean Club with some people from her show.”
I stood in his doorway and watched him take off his suit jacket and shirt. The sight of his naked torso, not exactly ripped but trim and taut, caused the familiar heart flutter. Imagination taunted me with a vision of KiKi Morino with her arms around him.
He bent down to pluck a fresh shirt from the drawer and removed the laundry-service wrappings. “Did we get any more laundry back? This is my last clean shirt.”
“I was going to pick it up on the way home tonight.”
The pale blue shirt accented his eyes. He opened one of the wall cabinets that bore a mirror on the inside of its door and ran a comb through his wavy, sandy hair. I tried to remember the last time he had been that concerned about his appearance around me.
“What time do you think you’ll be back?” I asked without hope of getting a definite answer.
He shrugged as he buttoned up. “Can’t say for sure. You know how it is with KiKi.”
Yeah, I know how it is with KiKi. She says jump and you ask how high. I bit my tongue, determined to keep my jealousy under wraps. “I’m going to see if I can start on this Wardell thing this afternoon, so I might be late if I wind up driving out there.”
“That’s fine, honey,” he said in a way which made me wonder if he had heard me at all. He came around the desk and granted me another cheek kiss before hurrying out.
For a moment, I stood staring at his desk, recalling how excited he had been when I brought in all the furnishings from a real estate office going out of business a few doors down the street. After moving it all into place, we had celebrated with take-out chicken and wine at his new desk. Then we made love on it. Tucking the memory away again, I returned to my own cubbyhole.
The woman who answered the phone at the number Wardell had written down sounded more suited to taking calls on one of those X-rated phone sex lines. I gave my name and stated my business.
“Well,” she said in a breathless, husky coo. “I will have to get clearance from the Director and from Sister Elizabeth herself. I see your number here on my phone. Is that the best place to reach you?”
“Will it take long?”
“Perhaps an hour.”
“In that case, I should be back from lunch and waiting right here.”
I ducked out and jaywalked to a place that made Cuban sandwiches and took one of those and a large horchata back to the office. The phone rang precisely fifty minutes after I hung up before.
“Sister Elizabeth will see you this afternoon,” the phone-sex lady husked. “Do you have something to write with? I will provide directions.”
I scribbled down her concise instructions, all the while half expecting her to ask for my credit card number.
Half an hour later found me cruising along the Tamiami Highway into the Everglades region. I scarcely noticed the diminishing signs of civilization, pondering instead about Alex. For two people who lived and worked together, I had seen relatively little of him since KiKi Morino became his client, all the worse because of the picture of her kissing him which appeared in the tabloids two days later. He had tried to explain that she did it on impulse because she saw the paparazzi out there, but it still chafed. Me, I got cheek kisses and praise for things that made money, and reminders to pick up this or that, pay bills, call people to cancel appointments, like he saw me as his secretary.
“I’m not jealous,” I said aloud to begin the discussion I had with myself on a daily basis. “I feel neglected, taken for granted.”
I had read in the tabloid story that went with the famed photograph that KiKi was about twenty-seven, six years younger than me but almost ten years younger than Alex. But what really got my temper cranked up was the fact that once I had gotten used to the idea of making a commitment to him, one blond starlet with gimlet eyes waltzed into our lives and stole his full attention.
“Okay, so maybe I am a little jealous. It’s just not fair.”
Once I passed the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, I kept an eye peeled for the mile marker where I would be met by someone from True Brilliant Path. The phone lady had told me that no roads led into the compound in the middle of swampland, and only flat-bottom skiffs and airboats could navigate the way. Sinkholes and wild animals made foot travel too dangerous even for experienced hikers.
As promised, a level patch of gravel widened the shoulder of the road to provide visitor parking under good shade. A man in olive-green coveralls and a billed cap sat atop an airboat where the extended roadbed turned into swamp. He had his arms folded across his midriff, chin down by his chest, obviously catching a nap. He came to life when my car crunched to a halt, and he jumped down to come meet me.
I got out after braiding my hair to keep it under control and then reached into the backseat for my protective gear. A khaki hat and loose shirt jacket made of material designed to deflect ultraviolet rays would prevent more freckles than I already had. I tightened the string on the hat securely under my chin and approached the airboat. My shirt began to cling to my arms in the humid heat.
“Tracy Wiley?” the man drawled. His skin was very tan, his face like stretched leather.
“That would be me.”
“You’ll need hearing protection,” he warned. “These rigs are noisy.” He dug in a breast pocket and handed me a sealed plastic packet with foam earplugs inside. Then he turned back and waved an arm for me to follow.
I clambered up into one of two seats behind his and found a seatbelt to fasten myself in. As I opened the earplug packet, I noticed two bizarre-looking firearms strapped to the back of his seat.
“What are those?” I asked as he settled in.
“Net gun and tranq pistol,” he replied over his shoulder. “In case we meet up with gators or bears.”
I found new appreciation for my high perch. I stuck in my earplugs as the engine wailed and the craft surged forward.
Skimming along above the watery landscape, tall grasses and cattails largely blocked my view of the horizon. Dragonflies and wading birds took flight as we passed. I scanned around for signs of alligators, but we were moving too fast. I had to put one hand on my hat to keep it in place against the stiff breeze, but at least it provided cool relief from the heat.
After around ten minutes of scudding through the wetlands, I got my first glimpse of the True Brilliant Path compound. A dome-shaped structure, like the pointy end of an egg, loomed above the saw grass. Sunlight gleamed off the very top which appeared to be mostly glass. With nothing in the way of reference for its size, I was amazed at how far we still were from it. By the time my escort slowed the boat on approach to a shore-hugging dock, the structure towered above us, easily five or six stories tall not including the four “legs” which held it above the land.
And there was land. It rose up out of the swamp as though manmade, which if true, meant a tremendous amount of fill had been moved there. Along the gently sloping shoreline, grass sprouted through a meshwork of hardened black plastic set into the ground, which I assumed dealt with preventing erosion. Ten feet farther inland, the lattice patchwork gave way to all grass forming a perfect manicured lawn, which would have been the envy of any golf club greens keeper. White stepping stones made serpentine paths among short turf, trees, shrubs, and flowers in endless variety. The undulating grassy area stretched away to a distant stand of pear-shaped trees, and I had the impression it continued on the other side of them. Judging only by what I could see, the place had to have cost millions to construct. Many millions.
While the boat man tied up to a post at the dock, I jumped down onto it and had to catch myself when it proved to be floating atop the water. I pulled my earplugs out, and bird and insect noises filled the air.
“Keep on the walkway until you cross the barrier,” he called after me.
I recovered my balance and caught the knack for walking on the boards until the dock tilted upward and became fixed to the island. It then made a hard turn and became a bridge across the lattice, guarded at each end by a small gate, and ended at a path of loose fine pebbles.
The oppressive humid heat forced sweat from my body and made my clothes stick to me. I pulled a water bottle from my shoulder bag for a drink, and in so doing, a piece of tissue got loose and fluttered away.
It landed on the lattice-shrouded shoreline and disappeared in a poof of smoke.