“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
—King James Bible, Matthew 7:15
“This guy is dangerous?” Rachel Jessop studied the glossy black-and-white photograph her manager slid across the table.
The leather chair that bore Nate Ferrentino squeaked as he leaned back and locked his hands behind his head. “He doesn’t look dangerous to you?” One eyebrow arched enough to tell her he found her reaction amusing, but she couldn’t begin to guess why, and she’d worked with him long enough to know he wouldn’t explain, even if she asked. With short dark hair and green and gold flecked eyes, he had the face of a sensitive man who’d seen enough to make him cynical and the body of a soldier. Nate was a tempting physical specimen. But he wasn’t one to reveal much about his thoughts.
Rachel wished that was all she knew about her boss, but when she first started working at Department 6 eight months ago she’d been so convinced she’d found the one man she could love with all her heart she’d made a humiliating miscalculation. The embarrassment from that incident still burned so bright she could barely look at him.
Ignoring the way his T-shirt stretched over his clearly defined pecs, she kept her focus on Ethan Wycliff, the man in the picture. Wiry and with the appearance of some height, Ethan had polish to spare: high cheekbones, black hair, black eyes and a beguiling smile. He hardly looked like a criminal. “He’s too pretty to seem dangerous. He could be on billboards modeling suits for Armani. What’s he done?”
Except for possibly height, Nate was Ethan’s opposite. Although he wasn’t overweight by any stretch of the imagination, slender wasn’t an adjective that came to mind. Pretty and polished didn’t fit, either. He was handsome, but not in the classic sense of movie stars and models. His forehead was a bit too wide, his jaw too square. And he had too many scars—both from when he was a navy S.E.A.L. and after he left the military.
“Depends on who you talk to,” he said. “There’s a chance that none of it’s illegal, but the secrecy surrounding him and his group is making some important people nervous.”
Rachel shoved the picture in Nate’s direction, but he didn’t move to reclaim it. He let Ethan Wright’s image remain on the table, glassy eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling of the small conference room—one of several in the L.A. office. Unlike other security contractors, Department 6 rarely handled military operations. They specialized in undercover work, usually inside the U.S. It was rare that more than one or two people would attempt to infiltrate an organization at the same time, and the size of their conference rooms reflected that.
“What’s he suspected of doing?” she asked. “Laundering money? Smuggling drugs? Proliferating the sex slave trade?”
“He’s the leader of a religious cult about two hundred members strong.”
That was the last thing she’d expected Nate to say. Judging by Ethan’s elegant business suit, he had taste. He wasn’t sporting a scraggly beard, wasn’t beggarly or odd looking in any way. Neither did he come off smarmy like some televangelists she’d seen. Not in the photograph, anyway. “What kind of religious cult?”
“A Christian cult. Sort of. It seems to be a compilation of whatever Ethan wants it to be. He and his followers call their organization The Church of the New Covenant. One thing they believe is that the world is coming to an end very soon. Only those who are properly branded—”
“You mean tattooed?” she cut in.
“No, I mean branded–and baptized and living within the gates of their little commune—will rule with God.”
“That’s not particularly creative.” She’d heard plenty of the same rhetoric in her own house growing up. Her father and the leaders of his small sect had claimed for most of her life that the world was in its “last days.” They’d even named date after date when Armageddon would hit. Every one had come and gone. “How’d he get his start?”
“Five years ago, he was a popular frat boy at Cornell. I guess he and a few roommates went out in the woods and devised their own religion based loosely on the Old Testament’s patriarchal order. Our intelligence report indicates that it was originally meant to be a joke. Drugs were involved. They called it the “anti-religion.” But when they started gathering regularly, word spread among the college kids of Cornell and other colleges in nearby communities, somehow generating support, and it became serious.”
“Power is tough to resist, especially for an Ivy League frat boy who’s used to being on top of the world.”
“That’s my take, too.”
She glanced away from Nate so she wouldn’t squirm in her seat at the memories that assaulted her whenever their eyes met. “How many of his roommates still espouse the ‘religion’?”
“The original four are still with him. They’re called ‘spiritual guides’ now. A fifth, one that joined up a bit later, is dead.”
“Dead?” she echoed. “At twenty something?”
“He was killed in a drunk-driving accident following a meeting. There’re a few unanswered questions but no real proof that it was anything other than it appeared.”
She considered what she’d just been told. “What’s so appealing about his religion that others are interested in joining up?”
“It’s mostly familiar stuff but with a modern twist–it includes extra-marital sex and drug use. And its leader has a few assets–besides his looks–that make him more dangerous than most cult leaders.”
Ignoring his reference to her appreciation of Wycliff’s appearance, she scooted closer to the table. But the instant she caught scent of Nate, that mix of clean male and leather that would forever differentiate him from every other man, the memory of slipping into his bed to “surprise” him came to her as vividly as the day she’d done it. Would the mortification never go away?
He gave her a speculative look, as if he could suddenly sense an added level of discomfort, but she was determined to pretend she’d forgotten all about her terrible faux pas. As a child, she’d been sheltered so long she hadn’t grown up with the usual interplay between the sexes and, apparently, she hadn’t read his signals correctly. She’d thought he wanted the same thing.
Keeping her gaze steady, she struggled, once again, to forget that night. “And those assets are…”
“More charisma than a man has a right to, at least a man who once idolized Charles Manson.”
“Charles Manson? Are you serious?”
He chose a file from a stack he’d brought in with him, and thumbed through it while he talked. “Dead serious. Wycliff corresponded with Manson regularly for years. I’ve got copies of some of those letters here.”
“Was their correspondence a joke at first, too?”
“He played if off that way, used to read Manson’s letters aloud to various people he knew. His mother said he liked the shock value. His father claims he’s always been fascinated with killers. Especially Manson, because of the brutality of the Tate murders and the power Manson held over those who committed them.”
She shivered. “That makes me more than a little nervous.”
“It should’ve made everyone nervous.” He offered the file for her perusal.
Being careful not to brush hands with him, she accepted it but merely placed it in front of her because he was still talking.
“At first, they seemed to become great friends. Then something went wrong and the relationship ended. Now Ethan has set himself up as a prophet, the Holy One, the man to lead all Christians to enlightenment.”
“Let me guess—enlightenment happens after this life.”
“I see you’re familiar with the dogma.”
Far more than she wanted to be. She’d tried hard to distance herself from the brainwashing she’d experienced as a child, but it wasn’t easy to put so many hours of religious instruction behind her. Not when there were a number of lasting effects, some of which she blamed for the terrible blunder she’d made with Nate that night six months ago.
“Sounds as if he’s as whacked as Manson,” she mused. Or, like her father, his religious devotions could be similar enough to more mainstream religions to fall within what society deemed “normal.” Not that her father’s level of “normal” was normal to most people. From the moment she got home from school each day, Fredrick Jessop had basically kept her under lock and key, forced her to read the Bible for hours on end and go to church three or four times a week. Until she’d left home at seventeen, he’d had complete control. Even after she was on her own, she’d been so well trained she was twenty-five before she lost her virginity, at which point she finally slept with a man just to punish her father after an argument. That turned out to be such a bad idea she hadn’t had sex again until she met Nate. But, in ways, her encounter with Nate had been even more disappointing than the other one.
“It’s possible he’s crazy,” Nate said. “But making up your own religion isn’t a crime.”
Exactly. Her father and his cronies had done it, hadn’t they? “So what law has Ethan broken?”
Nate’s broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. “That’s the point of this assignment—to find out.”
She’d already guessed as much. But she wasn’t excited about the religious element. Her experience dealing with religious zealots had taught her there was no way to win, no way to argue any doctrine logically because people like her father always referred to the illogical to back up their beliefs.
“Do you think I have the experience for this?” she asked. Before coming to Department 6, she’d worked undercover for the L.A.P.D., playing prostitute as well as helping in some drug busts. Since hiring on at Department 6, she’d continued with drug enforcement, generally contract labor for the DEA. Bottom line, she’d already specialized in something that was more black and white and easier to fight. And she liked it that way.
“You have as much experience with this type of thing as anyone else at Department 6,” he said.
That was probably true. They all did drug work more often than anything else. “There must be something besides his affiliation with Manson that’s brought this man to Milt’s attention,” she said. “I’m guessing there are a lot of whack jobs who’ve contacted Manson over the years.”
“A woman by the name of Martha Wilson recently escaped from the commune,” Nate explained.
Now they were talking. “Another interesting word choice, seeing that ‘escaped’ has the connotation of being held by force.”
“Her word,” he clarified. “She claimed Wycliff punished her for sleeping with her own husband.”
“I thought sex was dealt with in a more liberal fashion in this commune.”
“It is. But she was on ‘restriction.’”
Because it was beyond awkward to talk about sex with Nate after what’d occurred between them, Rachel tried to cover her anxiety by toying with the edge of the file in front of her.
“Nope. Otherwise, sex is open to anyone, married or unmarried, as long as both people are consenting and of age.”
“Now I see why Ethan’s drawing converts. Religious endorsement of drugs and sex. No willpower required. What’s not to like?”
His lips quirked into a wry smile. “It’s not quite as simple as it might sound.”
“With religion, it never is,” she grumbled.
“Only those who are called–and agree–to live various ‘higher laws’ gain the benefit of doing so. But there’s a cost. Once you join up, you begin a journey of sorts which culminates in embracing certain rituals that go with these laws. We’re not sure what these rituals entail. We gained most of this information from what was reported in the papers. Martha was vocal about the group’s abuse, but not so much about their beliefs.”
“And Milt can’t get more?” Milton owned the company. Slightly eccentric, he was basically a wealthy businessman who’d never spent a day in the field. At forty-five, he drank and smoked so much he probably couldn’t run the 40-yard-dash. But he had an eye for talent and a talent for making money.
“He’s relying on us to figure out the rest.”
“Do you know what the prize is?”
“The prize?” he repeated.
“What they get for living the higher laws? There’s always a carrot for good behavior. It’s usually called salvation.”
“They’re admitted into The Holy One’s inner sanctum and become sanctified like he is. Or something like that. Again, there might be more.”
Thinking of what she’d been taught regarding the few elect who would rule with God, she made a face. “How do people fall for this crap?” She’d been steeped in it and still couldn’t buy it, although there’d been plenty of times she’d wished she could. It would’ve made her life so much easier.
“I think psychologists say they’re not happy with the world in which they’re living. Some are looking to prove how unique and special they are. Others are just hoping to feel as if they belong.” He thrummed his fingers on the table. “But who really knows? Motivations are as different as people.”
“Doesn’t sound to me like the world they’re building will be any better than the one we’ve got.” No matter how hard her father and brother had tried to convince her that the afterlife was all that mattered. “How badly did Ethan Wycliff beat the woman who escaped?”
“She claims it wasn’t him who inflicted the damage. It was a public event—a stoning modeled after those in the Bible.”
She stiffened. “Stoning is a death sentence in the Bible.”
“Martha managed to escape.”
“We don’t know, exactly. But she claims Ethan’s getting crazier by the day. She says everyone in the church will wind up dead if someone doesn’t do something soon.”
Rachel glanced at the photograph again. This time, Ethan’s black eyes appeared far colder than they’d seemed before. “I guess my job’s about to get interesting. Again.” Interesting and potentially dangerous. The dangerous part never changed. But she didn’t mind. It kept her mind fully occupied, kept her from having to acknowledge the fact that she had nothing else in her life except the satisfaction of doing a job most people couldn’t. “When do I leave?”
“We leave in the morning.”
Her eyes riveted on his face. They never worked the same case. He made sure of it. And they both knew the reason. So why the sudden change of heart? “You don’t think I can handle it on my own?”
“Milt’s decision, not mine.” His response was matter-of-fact and revealed nothing of his own reaction. But she could easily guess how displeased he’d been when he heard the news. He probably feared she’d try to seduce him again. He’d made it very clear that he wouldn’t want that.
“What about Rod?” she asked, trying to control the inflection of her voice so it wouldn’t reveal her panic. “He could go with me.” More than the typical coworker, Roderick was one of her best friends. She’d feel far more comfortable with him.
“Rod’s on another job. So are Jonah, Drake and Kellen.”
“Then maybe Angelina would be a better choice for you to take—”
He stretched his neck. “She’s too new.”
And had no more business in this line of work than Rachel did. He didn’t have to say that. Rachel knew he didn’t approve of having females take on the dangerous stuff. “Then I can handle it alone,” she argued. A homicidal maniac drunk on his own power would be easier to face than daily association with Nate. “It’ll be more difficult for two strangers to gain the trust we’ll need.”
“Milt wants us to go in as a couple.”
“What?” This went beyond going undercover together as…say… friends or acquaintances. What did it mean? Would she be sharing a room—a bed—with Nate?
She couldn’t do it. Not after she’d thrown herself at him six months ago. “How will we get them to accept us?”
“They hold meetings they call Introductions. I’m not sure where. But they’re open to the public. Once we find out where to go, you’ll attend one, feign interest, and drag me back. We’ll go from there.”
The plan already seemed set in stone, but surely there had to be a way out. “Where is this cult? Not here in Southern California….”
“No. Paradise, Arizona.”
Allowing the name to distract her, she rumpled her eyebrows. “That’s the name of the compound?”
“That’s the name of the town they’ve taken over and has been since it was founded over a century ago.”
“Ironic, to say the least,” she said. Especially because it wouldn’t prove to be Paradise for her.
“In more ways than one. Arizona and paradise are an oxymoron, at least this time of year.”
“So it’s as barren and hot and dry as the last place we worked?”
“Nevada? It’s just as barren. But it’s hotter and dryer.” He lowered his voice. “And there are a lot more snakes.”
The guys she worked with would never let her live down her frightened reaction to the pet Boa Constrictor Drake had put under her desk a few weeks ago. In a group of hard asses, any weakness was to be exploited, if only for the sake of enjoyment. But she got the impression Nate wasn’t needling her for fun. He didn’t like the idea of working together any more than she did. He wanted her to fight this assignment, to go outside the chain of command, if necessary, straight to Milt.
For a moment, she considered doing just that. But she was relatively new and still trying to prove herself. She couldn’t risk getting fired, not with her mortgage. Besides, if there was any way to change Milt’s mind, Nate would already have tried it.
“I can take snakes,” she lied. “I just wasn’t expecting one to come slithering up my leg.”
“I’m not talking about pet snakes. I’m talking about rattlers.”
His jaw tightened. “This will be dangerous, Rachel.”
“Our job always is.” She liked it that way. It kept life simple. She didn’t have to worry about heaven and hell, her father’s disapproval or anything else—just surviving from one day to the next.
They stared at each other in a silent standoff. She wasn’t sure what to do about this, but she wouldn’t let him manipulate her into causing trouble inside the company. That would only prove that she was as whiny and hard to please as the guys feared a female would be. “I’m not quitting. Or getting myself fired,” she said.
He cursed under his breath, but she ignored it.
“So where are we going, exactly? Paradise must be south of the Flagstaff area if–”
“It’s in the southeast corner of the state, not far from the border of Mexico and New Mexico. Used to be a ghost town. Until Wycliff decided to revive it, there weren’t more than a handful of people living in the area.”
“Are those people still around?” Or did they bug out when the Covenanters moved in the way she wanted to flee at any mention of prophecy, scriptures or the end of the world?
“For the most part, he either converted them or bought them out.”
She wiped damp palms on her denim-clad thighs. She was the only female operative at Department 6 with any field experience. That was why Milt had chosen her. They were barely beginning to hire women. But who said this assignment required a particular gender? Maybe Nate could go in alone. “Where’s Ethan getting the funds to buy land and build a town?” she asked, stalling.
“Like any good cult, he requires converts to forfeit all their wealth for the greater good. And he makes everyone work. They sell cheese, for one. He also has other resources.”
“A trust fund.”
She sat up straighter. Now Ethan’s suit and polish made sense. Apparently, he hadn’t attended Cornell on student loans. “He comes from money?”
“You could say that. His father is Robert Wycliff.”
The name meant nothing to her. “It’s not as if you just said Bill Gates, Nate. Who’s Robert Wycliff?”
“The owner of the eighth largest engineering firm in the country. Gets big government contracts, makes the Forbes list every year.”
She whistled. “I see. So…who wants to know what little Ethan is up to? The government? Or Daddy?”
“If you heard your son was amassing weapons and explosives, and you knew he had a relationship at one time with Charles Manson, wouldn’t you be concerned enough to find out what’s going on? Mr. Wycliff doesn’t want anyone hurt. And he’d rather not see his only child in prison.”
She wondered if part of Robert’s concern stemmed from a desire to protect his family name. It would certainly be a consideration for her own father. He was always asking her to make him proud. She’d just never been able to do it. “How’d he lose track of Junior to begin with?”
“He said there’s always been something different about Ethan. Their relationship was strained almost from the beginning, but it’s gotten worse with time. They’ve been completely estranged for over a decade. Ethan dropped out of college, would never work, never apply himself. Robert claims he did what he could to turn his son into a productive individual. I get the impression he would’ve done more if Ethan’s mother hadn’t stood in his way. She insisted their son was fine, that he just needed to be himself and live his own life.”
“Classic denial,” she said, but she was intrigued in spite of herself. “So Robert backed off?”
“He immersed himself in his own work and let her deal with sonny, until Ethan started to preach in their own neighborhood and town. They finally drew the line, so he left to take his followers to a place where they would be ‘unmolested.’ Robert was confident he wouldn’t be able to make it work. He thought Ethan would eventually be forced to come home, hoped he’d finally quit with all the oddities and be the son they’d always hoped for.”
“That didn’t happen.”
“No. For months, they had no idea where he’d gone–until an assistant Robert hired to follow the money flowing from Ethan’s trust fund sent a clipping from a Tucson newspaper. It was an article about The Church of the New Covenant taking over Paradise.”
She opened the file in front of her and flipped through photocopies of several letters, all written in the blocky print so typical of males. But because she was still hoping to duck this assignment, she wound up closing the file without bothering to read them. “Are the Wycliffs aware of the woman who claims to have been stoned at their son’s command?”
“I can’t speak for Valerie. Robert is. But he’s also aware that the police have visited Paradise and found nothing to substantiate Martha’s claims.”
“So he’s still hoping for the best.”
Rachel tucked her hair behind her ears, but it was so thick she knew it would only come out again. “What did Martha’s husband have to say to the authorities?”
“His name’s Todd. He said the same thing Ethan did. That she wanted to watch the children instead of work in the cheese factory and grew disenchanted when she was denied. He told the police that he was disappointed in her, that she wasn’t worthy of enlightenment if she could become disaffected so easily and make up such terrible lies.”
“She had to sustain those injuries somehow,” Rachel mused.
“No one seems to know anything about how she might’ve been hurt. And unless someone is willing to talk, there’s not a whole lot the police can do.”
A growing sense of injustice, the kind that’d fueled her desire to get involved in undercover work in the first place, began to percolate in Rachel’s blood. Society had to take a stand before these cancers grew out of control. And she was willing to be part of the solution. At least this was a fight where she could hold nothing back, the complete opposite of what she’d experienced with her father. That call to duty tempted her. She wanted to infiltrate the Covenanters and stand up for the woman who’d been stoned, put an end to Ethan’s reign of terror—if that was indeed what it was. But she couldn’t fulfill this assignment pretending to be Nathan’s wife. There was too much residual emotion between them. “Is there a reason we need two people on this?”
His eyelids lowered to half-mast. “If you don’t want to do it you should talk to Milt.”
Of course. They were back where he’d been trying to lead her all along. “Why bother? You’ve already tried, haven’t you?”
He didn’t respond.
“I’ll take that as a yes. What did he say?”
Stretched out his legs, he crossed them at the ankles. “He said Ethan likes women. Pretty women. He said you’re the bait that will get him to bite off on both of us.”
Here was the difference between Milt and Nate, Rachel thought. Milt would send his own wife undercover if there was something to be gained by it. But it was Nate’s job to make sure everyone remained safe, which was why he wasn’t thrilled that Milt had begun using women in the field. He came from a conservative family where he’d been taught to protect the fairer sex. And his S.E.A.L. training supported his upbringing.
“That’s a pretty clear no,” she said.
Nate’s eyes nearly drilled holes into her. “You could always quit. Someone as qualified as you would have no trouble getting back on the police force.”
And lose her house to the bank? No, thank you.
She leaned forward to prove that she wasn’t intimidated by him. “Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s my life and I’d rather get paid well for the risks I take.” She also liked having a clearly defined target for the legacy of anger her father had left her, and she had a bit more latitude working for Department 6. “If you’re afraid you can’t effectively manage me or Angelina or any other woman Milt might hire, maybe you should be the one considering a change of profession.”
The silence stretched. Clearly, he wasn’t happy with her challenge.
“I’m staying,” he said when he’d let her squirm long enough for her impertinence.
No surprise there. He was the central piece of the puzzle, the muscle with the cool head purchased by Milt’s financing. Nate had all but built Department 6 into what it was. Rachel couldn’t see him leaving.
“Then we’re stuck. But you don’t need to worry about me, so spare yourself the headache.”
When he simply stared at her, she sat back and moved on. Glaring at each other wasn’t going to help the situation. “What names will we use in Paradise?”
A muscle flexed in his cheek, but he revealed no other outward sign of disappointment or anger. “We’ll keep our first names. Our last will be Mott.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Mott.”
Still hoping to create a situation more to her liking, she blew out a sigh. “We don’t have to say we’re married, you know. We could go in as brother and sister.”
“That wouldn’t enable us to share a room. I need to be close. Just in case.”
Close was exactly what she hoped avoid. Close would bring turmoil. “Just in case…what?” He hadn’t been there to protect her on the last drug job. No man had. And she’d managed just fine.
“Just in case,” he repeated.
Obviously, she wasn’t going to get a better answer. “How long have we been married?”
He shoved a manila folder at her. “Here’re the details Milt has provided so far.”
Irritated that she couldn’t take the assignment on alone, she grabbed both files, put them in her leather satchel and found her feet. “The Arizona desert in the middle of July. Sounds great. When do we head out?”
His eyes glittered with frustration. “First thing tomorrow morning.”
Rachel felt some of the determination leak out of her. “That soon?” Usually they had a few days to gather facts, get into character, make travel arrangements.
“Robert Wycliff has offered Milt a hefty bonus if we make quick work of it. He knows he’s already late on this one.”
And far be it from Milt to let any consideration outweigh remuneration. “I see.”
Nate collected what was left of the documents he’d brought into the room with him. “I’ll pick you up bright and early. Six sharp.”
At five foot seven inches and 125 pounds, she felt dwarfed as he stood. It was all she could do not to let her mind flash back to how the difference in their respective sizes translated horizontally. “We driving or flying?”
“Driving. It’s a good ten hours from L.A., but having a rental car in such a remote area will be too conspicuous. I figure we’ll want a vehicle that’s broken in, one that doesn’t scream Hertz.”
Just the mention of it evoked the scent of engine grease and pine air freshener. It also brought back the acute shame and disappointment that’d swamped her when he curtly explained that she’d supposed too much and took her home the morning after their night together.
“I’ll be ready.” With a mock salute, she started out of the room, but he called her back.
“I almost forgot.” He skirted the table to hand her a small, crushed velvet box pulled from the front pocket of his jeans.
Rachel didn’t need to open it to know what was inside. As much as she told herself she’d learned her lesson, she still sometimes dreamed of getting a ring from him.
But not in one of those dreams had it ever happened like this.
Without even looking at it, she started to shove the box into her satchel with the files when he stopped her.
“Don’t you think you should see if it fits? You’ll need to wear it tomorrow.”
It felt as if a giant rubber band was squeezing her chest, but she forced herself to open the velvet box and peer inside.
The diamond was tiny, the band plain. A similar ring could’ve been bought at any number of stores for around $500, even less at a pawn shop. But she would’ve been happy to receive a plastic ring from a gumball machine, if only it contained any of the usual symbolism.
After taking the ring from the small slit that held it in place, she slid it easily onto her finger. It was loose but, with a little tape, she could fix that. “This the best you can do?” she said with a grimace as if she hated the ring as much as the thought of wearing it.
He gave her a grin that wasn’t engineered to be sexy but managed to come off that way. “What can you expect from a lowly cement contractor?”
She’d figured he’d have to choose a job that included manual labor. How else would he explain all those muscles? “Can you actually pour cement?”
“I can do anything,” he said.
She knew he was teasing, but from what she’d seen, that was true. He was Superman. Just as appealing. And just as out of reach.