Fingertips tapped lightly on either side of the rim of the steering wheel, a quiet expression of annoyance favored by FBI Special Agent Miranda Cahill when faced with a vexing situation over which she had no control. The current immovable object was the rental car that had buzzed along nicely from the Natrona County Airport just a short hop from Casper, Wyoming, where she had picked it up, to the spot where it had sputtered unceremoniously to a stop some fifteen miles from Pine Tree Junction.
At least, that was where the last road sign had placed her, but that had been close to half an hour ago. She wondered if perhaps somehow she’d taken a wrong turn. Tough to do, she thought wryly, when there had been so few turns to be taken.
She turned the key in the ignition one more time, praying for a smooth start. Her prayers were answered with the clack-clack-clack of an engine that steadfastly refused to turn over. Battery, maybe. Or perhaps the starter. Either way, the Taurus was dead. And that meant she would be walking the rest of the way to Linden, however far that might be, if she was going to get there today.
Cursing aloud, she got out of the car.
“I should leave you unlocked, you know that?” She spoke aloud to the car, pausing with the key in her right hand. “Let’s see how you like being abandoned out here in the middle of nowhere, all alone. Defenseless. May you be pilfered and vandalized.”
She locked it anyway, tossed her large brown tote bag over her shoulder, and set off on foot toward her destination. Hardly defenseless herself, she slipped her Sig Sauer into the holster that rode on her hip, just in case a mean-spirited rattlesnake or equally ornery cowboy crossed her path.
While she walked along the narrow shoulder of the road, she fiddled with her phone, found the autodial number she wanted, and hit Send. When there was no answer, she dialed a second number, never missing a stride.
“Please leave a message for John Mancini. . . .”
“Damn,” she grumbled. “I hate voice mail.”
She blew out a heavily agitated breath.
“John, it’s Miranda Cahill. I’m currently hoofing it up what I believe is still Route 387, but since there are no signs out here in the middle of No Where, Wyoming, that’s just a guess on my part. I’m due in Linden in twenty minutes for the meeting, but that looks way optimistic right now. I tried calling Aidan, but he didn’t pick up. If you or someone else could reach him, please let him know I’m going to be a little late. If he’d like to come and pick me up, even better. I’ll be the one walking along wearing a tan suede jacket and a we-are-not-amused expression.”
She ended the call, slipped the phone into her pocket, and hitched the bag a little higher. Her long legs ate up lengths of the road at a healthy clip despite the high-heeled boots, partly because her natural pace was quick, partly because the temperature was barely thirty degrees and certain to be dropping as the day began to fade. She was determined to reach Linden before that happened. If there was one thing she hated more than anything, it was the cold.
“Jamaica,” she mumbled under her breath. “Bahamas. Acapulco. Bermuda. The Keys . . .”
She tried to recall the words to some of the old Beach Boys surfer songs they played on the local oldies station, but the only song that came to mind was “Kokomo,” so she sang those few words she knew over and over—“Bermuda, Bahama, come on, pretty mama, to Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t we go”—hoping to mentally transport herself to some warm clime. But the wind began to pick up and blew her dark hair around her head, and the soft sands and blue waters faded away. She stopped, rummaged in her bag for an elastic, then pulled her hair back into a ponytail before moving on. She walked for nearly forty minutes before the outline of a building appeared in the distance.
“Please be Linden. Please please please . . .”
Ten minutes later, she found the building to be a gas station attached to the small diner that was her destination. She walked across the parking lot, which was little more than one large pothole, and smiled through a grimy window at the man who sat behind an old metal desk on the other side of the glass.
She opened the door and took a half step inside. “Hi. I don’t suppose you have a tow truck?”
The old man at the desk shook his head, struck dumb, no doubt, at the sight of the tall, willowy beauty who’d appeared literally out of nowhere.
“I was afraid of that.” She nodded and let the door swing closed behind her.
She walked a dozen more steps and entered the diner, pausing momentarily to look around. There were only two customers. Fortunately, they were the two people she’d come to see.
“Hey, Aidan.” She greeted fellow agent Aidan Shields with a pat on the back, then dropped her bag onto the floor before reaching out to hug his companion. “Mara, it’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you, too.” Mara Douglas stood and embraced her friend. “I couldn’t believe it when Aidan said you were on your way out here. It must be something really important.”
Mara’s eyes were shining with hope.
“It is, but I’m afraid it’s not what you want to hear, honey.” Miranda pulled a chair over from a nearby table and sat down. “I’m sorry, Mara, I wish I could tell you that we’ve been able to confirm that your daughter and your ex-husband are part of the group out at the Valley of the Angels, but they are not.”
“But we—Aidan and I—have tracked them here. Jules is here; he’s got Julianne here with him.” Mara’s eyes widened. “We had a credible tip—Aidan, tell her. . . .”
“We did have a credible tip.” Aidan Shields nodded slowly. “But, Mara, I told you that we weren’t sure how old that information was.”
“But . . .”
“Miranda, why don’t you tell us what you’ve heard?” Aidan covered one of Mara’s hands with his own.
“Jules is working with Reverend Prescott in some executive capacity, we do know this. He’s apparently involved with their finances, but right now, we’re not sure exactly where he is. He has been here, at some time, but I’m afraid that neither Jules nor your daughter is with the movement here in Wyoming.”
“How do you know?” Mara fought to control her emotions. “How can you be certain?”
“All I can tell you at this time is that the Bureau has someone inside the compound. She has confirmed that they are no longer here. Unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to find out where they went when they left, but she’s still working on that. She has asked that you and Aidan leave the area. The interest you’ve shown in the movement, the questions you’ve been asking of the members when they come into town . . . it’s been noticed. Our agent is afraid you’ll call unnecessary attention to the group and, sooner or later, to her.”
Mara looked at her blankly.
“In other words, back off, because we could jeopardize the life of our agent.” Aidan summed it up.
“That’s exactly right.” Miranda nodded. “I’m sorry, Mara, I know how hard this has been for you—”
“No. No, you do not.” Mara pushed herself away from the table slowly. “With all due respect, Miranda, you have no idea how hard this has been. If you’ll excuse me for a minute . . .”
When Mara passed through the door to the restroom, Aidan turned to Miranda and said, “Who’s inside?”
“The boss sent his wife?” Aidan’s brows lifted in surprise.
“Who better to look into a phony religious movement led by a bunch of self-appointed apostles who seem to be attracting a lot of runaways and street kids? All adolescent girls, many of whom seem to have disappeared into thin air?” Both agents knew Genna Snow’s story. As a child, she’d been abused by a pedophile who masqueraded as a man of the cloth. Twenty years later, he’d been released from prison and had tracked her down. She’d taken him out with one shot through the heart, but not before he’d engaged in a bloody business that had left few survivors. “We think some of these kids are being sold over the Internet. It’s a very ugly business they’re running out there. Valley of the Angels, my ass. More like the Valley of Lost Souls.”
“Why don’t we just go in and shut it down?”
“So far, the Bureau is apparently long on suspicion and short on facts. We’ve been trying to get into their computers, but someone inside has been remarkably good at erecting firewalls around firewalls.” She toyed with her hair. “Funny, but we originally started looking at Prescott because we’d traced Jules Douglas to him in Colorado. Then, the agent who went in noticed all of these messed-up young girls coming in, staying for a while, getting their acts cleaned up, then just disappearing. When he asked, the only thing he was told was that the girls had been ‘cleansed’ and sent on their missions.”
“A lot of them come in drugged up, dirty, sick, right off the streets. The movement promises them a new life, new hope. They get them clean, perhaps brainwash them a bit, then sell them to willing buyers.” She made a face that spoke volumes of her disgust. “God only knows what happens to them after that. It’s no secret that there’s a huge market for underage kids. From your basic pedophile to the porn industry, there’s a long line of hungry buyers just waiting for the right girl to come along. Reverend Prescott is getting very, very rich making sure that everyone finds the right girl to suit his—or her—needs.”
“Genna’s found Jules and Julianne in there?”
“Are you sure you want to know?” Miranda raised one eyebrow. “Could you know and not tell her if she asks?”
Aidan mulled the question over.
“I knew as soon as I got the call that you were on your way that we must be very close this time.”
“Closer than you know, pal.” Miranda leaned back in her chair and watched his face.
He sighed deeply.
“It’s been more than seven years since Mara’s ex-husband took their daughter and disappeared with her. It’s ripped her apart. She won’t stop searching for Julianne until she finds her. I promised I’d follow every lead with her, do whatever it took to find her daughter and bring her home. I didn’t figure on having to withhold information from her.”
“How do you feel about outright lying to her? If she asks you point-blank if you believe that Julianne is not in the compound, what will you say?”
“I don’t like the idea of lying to her. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I don’t know if I could do it. On the other hand, if she knew for a certainty that Julianne was in there, she’d walk right into the compound herself.”
“That is precisely what we’re afraid of.”
“Let me ask you this. How much danger is Julianne in?”
“My guess is that her daddy has been able to shield her so far. Which makes me think that old Jules is performing some big service to Prescott. We suspect he’s found a way to launder some of those dirty dollars,” Miranda said softly, even as she smiled gently at Mara’s approach, “But we’re still trying to build the case.”
“Hungry?” Miranda asked as Mara sat back down.
“Not really.” She shrugged.
“Well, I am ravenous.” Miranda caught the eye of the tall blonde waitress who was leaning against the counter, watching them. “As long as we’re here, we might as well eat. Then, if it’s okay with you, I’ll hitch a ride to the airport with you.”
“We’ll need to check on a flight, I suppose,” Mara said, grim defeat drawing down the corners of her mouth.
“Taken care of.” Miranda patted her bag. “Compliments of the federal government.”
“You knew we’d leave with you?” Mara asked suspiciously. Her sister was a profiler with the FBI, and Mara knew sometimes things weren’t exactly as they seemed.
“I picked them up when I made my own flight arrangements. I figured . . .” Miranda paused and smiled as the waitress approached, paper menus in hand, which she distributed silently.
“Thanks, Jayne,” Miranda said, noting the waitress’s name tag. “We’ll let you know when we’re ready to order.”
“Not very friendly, is she?” Mara frowned when the waitress had disappeared into the kitchen.
“Oh, I’m sure she has her good points.” Miranda skimmed over the menu.“Anyway, as I was saying, I figured you’d be wanting to go back east. I mean, why waste precious vacation time on a dead lead, when a live one might pop up later on?”
Mara pondered the logic. It did make sense.
“Okay, if you’re sure.” Mara turned to Aidan. “You’re sure, right? That it’s the right thing to do? You’re convinced that Julianne is not with Reverend Prescott’s group?”
“I am absolutely convinced it’s the right thing to do,” he told her, choosing his words carefully. “Miranda wouldn’t have come all this way to turn us in the wrong direction.”
“Okay.” Mara sighed, shaking her head slowly. “You know, I felt so sure this time—”
“I know, baby.” Aidan rubbed her shoulders. “Maybe next time.”
“It’s been maybe next time for seven years now,” she reminded him.
Aidan looked at Miranda through guilty eyes, and appeared about to say something when Miranda’s phone began to ring.
“Cahill, it’s John. Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I just got out of a meeting and heard your message.” John Mancini, head of a special crimes unit within the FBI, sounded uncharacteristically tense. “Are you still—what was the phrase you used—hoofing it down Route 387?”
“No, right now I’m sitting in Ye Old Bumfuck Falls Café with Aidan and Mara, about to order lunch. Then, because my car rolled over and played dead about six miles back, I’ll be getting a ride to the airport with them. You might want to have someone pick up the car and return it, by the way. It’s charged to the Bureau.”
“Mara’s agreed to leave?”
“Not a problem.” Miranda studied the chipped polish on one of her fingernails.
“Have you told Shields the truth?”
“I didn’t have to.” She rested the phone on her shoulder and motioned to Aidan to order her a roast beef sandwich by pointing to the specials board. The sandwich was the only special.
“Good, good. Well, try not to miss your flight, Cahill. You need to be in Fleming, Pennsylvania, by noon tomorrow.”
“What’s in Fleming?”
“An old friend of yours was just released from prison.”
“Old friend of mine?” She frowned.
“Archer Lowell. Ring a bell?”
“Sure. Amanda Crosby’s stalker. What’s he up to?”
“That’s what you’re going to find out.”
Excerpted from Dead Even by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2004 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.