They're not going down without a fight.
When FDLE special agent Amy Larson discovers a small horse figurine amid the bloody aftermath of a gang massacre in the Everglades, she recognizes it immediately. The toy is the calling card of the apocalypse cult that Amy and her partner, FBI special agent Hunter Forrest, have been investigating, and it can only mean one thing: this wasn’t an isolated skirmish—it was the beginning of a war.
As tensions between rival gangs rise, so does the body count, and Amy and Hunter’s investigation leads them to a violent, far-right extremist group who are in no hurry to quell the civil unrest. With a deadly puppet master working to silence their every lead, it’s a race against the clock to figure out who’s been pulling the strings and put a stop to the escalating cartel turf war before the Everglades run red.
Release date: April 5, 2022
Publisher: MIRA Books
Print pages: 400
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The sun was out, inching its way up in the sky, casting golden rays and creating a beautiful display of color over the shading mangroves and cypress growing richly in the area. The sunlight touched on the streams running throughout the Everglades, the great “River of Grass” stretching over two hundred acres in southern and central portions of Florida, creating a glittering glow of nature.
The sky was gold and red at the horizon, and brilliantly blue above, with only a few soft puffs of clouds littered about. Diamonds and crystals seemed to float on the water.
Such beauty. Such peace.
Then there was the crime scene.
The bodies lay strewn and drenched with blood. The rich, natural earth hues of the Everglades were caught in a surreal image, greens and browns spattered liberally with the color red as if an angry child had swung a sopping paintbrush around.
Aidan Cypress had never understood why the mockingbird had been made Florida’s state bird—not when it seemed that vultures ruled the skies overhead. Never more so than today.
Now, as he stood overlooking the scene with his crew and special agents from the FDLE, trying to control the crime scene against the circling vultures, Aidan couldn’t help but wonder just what had happened and why it had happened this way—and grit his teeth knowing there would be speculation.
Stooping down by the body of a man Aidan believed to be in his midthirties—with dark hair, olive complexion, possibly six feet in height, medium build—he noted the shaft of an arrow protruding from the man’s gut.
All the dead had been killed with arrows, hatchets, axes and knives. Because whoever had done this had apparently tried to make it look like a historical Native American rampage.
Except the killers hadn’t begun to understand there were differences in the weaponry and customs between the nations and tribes of the indigenous peoples across the country.
In South Florida, the dead man’s coloring could mean many things; Aidan himself was a member of the Seminole tribe of Florida, though somewhere in his lineage, someone had been white—most probably from northern Europe originally. He had a bronze complexion, thick, straight hair that was almost ebony...and green eyes.
South Florida was home to those who had come from Cuba, Central and South America and probably every island out there. The area was truly a giant melting pot. That’s how his family had begun. In a way, history had created the Seminole tribe because there had been a time when settlers had called any indigenous person in Florida a Seminole.
But while the killers had tried to make this look like a massacre of old, the dead men were not Seminole. They were, Aidan believed, Latino. He could see tattoos on the lower arms of a few of the dead who had been wearing T-shirts; a single word was visible in the artwork on the man in front of him—Hermandad.
Spanish for “Brotherhood.”
“What the hell happened here, Aidan?”
Aidan looked up to see that John Schultz—Special Agent John Schultz, Florida Department of Law Enforcement—was standing by his side.
John went on. “It’s like a scene out of an old cowboys and Indians movie!”
Aidan stared at John as he rose, bristling—and yet he knew what it looked like at first glance.
“Quaking aspen,” Aidan said.
“Quaking aspen?” John repeated blankly.
“It’s not native to this area. Look at the arrow. That wasn’t made by any Seminole, Miccosukee or other Florida Native American. That is a western wood.”
“Yeah, well, things travel these days.”
Aidan shook his head. He liked John and respected him. The older agent was experienced, a few years shy of retirement. The tall, gray-haired man had recently suffered a heart attack, had taken the prescribed time off and come back to the field. They’d worked together dozens of times before. He could be abrasive—he had a sometimes-unhappy tendency to say what he thought, before thinking it through.
A few years back John had been partnered with a young woman named Amy Larson. It had taken John a long time to accept her age—and the fact she was female. Once he’d realized her value, though, he’d become her strongest supporter.
But Amy wasn’t here today.
And Aidan missed her. She softened John’s rough edges.
She was still on holiday somewhere with Hunter Forrest, the FBI agent she’d started dating. They were off on an island enjoying exotic breezes and one another’s company minus all the blood and mayhem.
Aidan stopped lamenting the absence of his favorite FDLE agent and waved away a giant vulture trying to hone in on a nearby body.
Half of the corpses were already missing eyes and bits and pieces of skin and soft tissue.
Aidan sighed and looked around. There were twenty bodies, all of them male, between the ages of twenty and forty, he estimated.
Because he’d noted the tattoos on a few of them, and using his own years of experience, he theorized the dead were members of a gang. Florida had many such gangs. Most were recruits from the various drug cartels, resolved to hold dominion over their territories.
He looked at John, trying to be patient, understanding and professional enough to control his temper. “You know, you may be the special agent, but I’m the forensics expert, and this was not something perpetrated by any of the Florida tribes—or any tribe anywhere. I can guarantee you no one sent out a war party to slaughter some gang members. Someone tried—ridiculously—to make this look like some Natives did this.”
“Hey, sorry, you’re right. Forgive me—just...look around!” John said quickly and sincerely. “It’s just at first sight...well, I mean—wow. You’re right. I’m sorry.”
The apology was earnest. “Okay. Let’s figure out what really happened.”
The corpses were in something of a clearing right by a natural stream making its way through hammocks thick with cypress trees and mangroves and all kinds of underbrush.
While the area was customarily filled with many birds—herons, cranes, falcons, hawks and more—it was the vultures who had staked out a claim. The bodies lay with arrows and axes protruding from their heads, guts or chests, as if they’d fought in a bloody battle. And now they succumbed to decay on the damp and redolent earth.
John followed Aidan’s gaze and winced. “It’s a mess. Okay, well...all right. I’m going to go over and interview the man who found this.”
“Jimmy Osceola,” Aidan said. “He’s been fishing this little area all his life, and he does tours. Two birds with one stone. Members of his family work with him and all of them fish and take tourists out here. He has a great little place right off I-75. It’s called Fresh Catch, and his catch is about as fresh as it gets. Catfish. He’s a good guy, John.”
“I believe you. But we’re going to need a break here—you and your team have to find something for me to go on.”
Aidan stared at him, gloved hands unclenching at his sides.
John was rough around the edges and said whatever came to mind, but he was a good cop.
He’d be hell-bent on finding out just what had gone on here.
Aidan told him what he’d heard. “Jimmy was out with a boatload of tourists—they’re right over there. See—two couples, a kid who just started at FIU and two middle-aged women. The first officers on the scene made sure they all stayed. Go talk to them. They look like they came upon a bloodbath—oh, wait, they did.”
John arched a brow to him and said, “Yeah. I got it.”
He headed off to talk to Jimmy Osceola and the group with him.
Aidan studied the crime scene again, as a whole.
First, what the hell had all these men been doing out here? A few of them looked to have been wearing suits; most were in T-shirts and jeans.
The few bodies he had noted—not touching any of them, that was the medical examiner’s purview—seemed to bear that same tattoo. Hermandad.
That meant a gang of enforcers in his mind, and he was sure it was a good guess.
Had a big drug deal been planned?
They were on state land, but it was state land traveled only by the local tribes who knew it. The park service rangers also came through, and the occasional tourist who arranged for a special excursion into the wilds.
Bird-watchers, often enough.
All they’d see today, however, would be the vultures.
He heard his name spoken by a quiet female voice and he swung around.
Amy Larson was not enjoying an exotic island vacation.
She was standing just feet from him, having carefully avoided stepping on any of the bodies, pools of blood or possible evidence. She was in a navy pantsuit, white cotton shirt and serviceable black sneakers—obviously back to work.
No matter how all-business her wardrobe, Amy had blue-crystal eyes that displayed empathy and caring. She was great at both assuring witnesses and staring down suspects.
“What are you doing here, Amy?” Aidan asked her. “You’re supposed to be sunbathing somewhere, playing in the surf with Hunter.”
“So what happened?”
“It was great. Champagne, chocolates, sun, surf, sand...” She sighed.
“And a little red horse—like the one from last month’s crime scene—delivered right to the room,” she said.
“I’m surprised you’ve agreed to talk to me,” Hunter Forrest told Ethan Morrison.
The man was being held in jail pending trial.
Morrison was rich—he could pay whatever was asked. But sitting across the table from Hunter, he didn’t appear to be worth much. He was just a middle-aged man in a prison suit.
He’d waived his right to have his attorney present while speaking with Hunter.
The whole thing seemed to be a game to him. Ethan Morrison believed that the astronomical price he was paying his army of lawyers would get him off.
But it wouldn’t. There was a slew of evidence against him and he was facing state and federal charges for murder and conspiracy to commit murder. And the feds were even weighing a charge of treason, since Morrison had used privately run immigrant detention centers to acquire his victims.
The man had created a cult peopled by the desperate and the hungry, ready to do his bidding to reach a nirvana Morrison promised.
He had ordered the murder of two women who were seeking asylum after having his sons kidnap them from a detention center. Both women had been killed in the manner of some obscene rite. And Morrison had been seeking a third sacrifice, a woman who had escaped him, when he’d decided he needed to kill Amy, as well.
But Amy had challenged him, Hunter thought. She was a law enforcement officer—not desperate and afraid, which didn’t connect in Morrison’s misogynistic mind.
In the end, his attempts at murder had been witnessed by many law enforcement officers. He would go down, along with his sons and those others he had brought with him on his murder spree.
There was no such thing as a good murder, but Morrison’s crimes had been especially heinous; the women had suffered horribly.
The judge hadn’t given an inch. Morrison was welcome to every high-priced attorney out there, and they could try every defense under the sun. Morrison’s attorneys had tried everything.
But the judge had the right to hold him until trial, and the man was still being held. And the same high-priced attorneys were still assuring him that once he got to trial he would be deemed innocent.
Still, it appeared that having lost his appeal for bail, Morrison was taking it all in stride. He sat across the table from Hunter in the interrogation room with a casual air and a smile on his face.
“I’m entertained when I speak with you, Special Agent Forrest,” Morrison said. “Frankly, I’d rather speak with that Florida girl, Miss Special Agent Larson, but can’t say it’s all that interesting in here, so...well, you’ll do!”
Hunter shrugged. “I doubt Special Agent Larson has any interest in seeing you. You tried to kill her.”
“She’s so elegant—and kick-ass at the same time. I must admit, I haven’t met many women like her. You can break them all, though. But I guess you’re enjoying that? Of course, you’re both so professional, but...is she kick-ass in bed? I’ll bet she is.”
“What she is happens to be nowhere near you, Morrison. She’s busy. You tried to kill her and you failed. She’s on to other matters.”
“And I’ll bet you were one of those other matters she was on!”
Hunter again ignored him. Morrison wanted a reaction.
“Now, let’s see. You killed two women and were attempting to kill a third innocent victim and Special Agent Larson at the same time. I’m not an attorney, but I know whatever help you give us just might keep you from a needle in the arm.”
“I didn’t kill anyone.”
“Two women were killed under your order—that means you’re as guilty of the murders. I’m sure you know already, conspiracy to commit murder draws the same consequences.”
“If someone can prove it. Seriously, how can you prove it?”
“That will all come up in court. But there’s more going on. You could make life a little easier on yourself if you wanted to talk to me about what is happening now.”
“What’s happening now?” Morrison asked innocently.
Hunter laughed softly. “Mr. Morrison—”
“Pastor Morrison. I was ordained.”
“It’s real,” Morrison said, his tone still pleasant.
“So, you had yourself ordained online for a makeshift religion to suit your purposes,” Hunter said.
“Ah, my purpose is to bring forgiveness and goodness to all.”
“By murdering people.”
Morrison shrugged and smiled. “Again I say, I didn’t murder anyone.”
“Well, I’d say half your congregation is now sitting in jail awaiting trial, as well. You really want this life—” Hunter paused and swept his arms out, indicating Morrison’s imprisonment “—for your sons? They did kill people, and the attorneys are still debating on adding more federal and state charges, but this state still has a death penalty, so...”
“We’re going to be all right,” Morrison said smugly.
Hunter leaned closer. “You really think no one will break? That they’re completely loyal? I mean, it might have been something when you were free—and they were free—and you had a goal in front of you, but now... Your boys had everything they could desire all their lives—you think they’re going to be happy with prison, facing the death penalty?”
Hunter thought he saw a slight crack in the smiling facade Morrison was giving him.
“We’ll be all right,” he said.
Hunter nodded thoughtfully and grinned slowly himself. “I see. You really buy the whole ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ thing. Or do you? You think you’re going to be saved because you gathered up a few souls, tortured a few sinners to death?” Hunter was no stranger to the logic abused by apocalypse cults, and he could debate this all day. He leaned closer still. “Hallelujah. If you’re embracing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you seem to have a lot of your messages mixed. Bad things will happen—but that sure doesn’t mean good things for the people causing the bad things. Think about the rest of the New Testament. The message about kindness to one’s fellow man. You’re not ignorant. You can’t think it won’t matter if you—or your sons—face lethal injection and the years of prison time it will take to get to that lethal injection because you’ll be honored in another life? Please!”
“You have to prove—”
“Oh, trust me. In court, it will be proven your sons killed two women.”
Morrison shook his head.
But Hunter continued to smile. The man’s face had changed. He definitely doubted he would wind up sitting on golden clouds. He was buying the concept his lawyers would get him off.
For years, his money had bought him anything he desired.
He didn’t sound quite so certain when he spoke again.
“I’ll give you nothing—I have nothing to give. I didn’t kill anyone, and my attorneys will have to see what so-called proof you have against my boys.”
“You’re a smart man, Morrison,” Hunter said. “You know we have a stack of witnesses. Your boys are facing lethal injection. But if you can tell us what else you know that might allow us to save the lives of others, we might be able to keep them from the death penalty.”
“My boys will not die. None of us will even be incarcerated after this sham is over,” Morrison said.
Hunter decided he should get to the point.
“You heard about the men who were found murdered in the Everglades?” Hunter asked. The massacre was already on the news. The offices of the FDLE and the FBI had put out statements, but details were withheld until next of kin had been notified.
Morrison started to laugh. “A massacre in the Everglades! Cool. They probably deserved to die, but then again, so do their killers.”
“And who were their killers? You seem to know,” Hunter said.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Morrison told him. “Just...well, what did they say? The bodies of twenty men? Had to be gang members up to something. They all deserve each other. And they have absolutely nothing to do with me.”
“I think they do.”
“I’m in here—how could I have done anything?”
“Voices carry, right?”
“What? Are you getting poetic on me, Special Agent Forrest?”
“We all know prisoners communicate with each other, and that in the United States even a man like you has legal rights. Far more than the women who died in your sacrifices.”
“Ah, but I’m a prisoner, and everyone you think I’m associated with is also in jail—facing the death penalty, as you say. So...couldn’t have anything to do with me.”
“But you’re involved.”
“And what makes you say that?”
“A little red horse,” Hunter said. “When we found that poor woman on a cross out in the Everglades—your doing—we found a little white horse. Then, in the Bahamas, Amy and I received a little red horse.”
“You—and Amy! Aw, see, what are you bitching about? You met that sweet little piece investigating me!”
Hunter felt his temper soaring. The man was trying to get a rise out of him. He wouldn’t reward him with any reaction. Turn the tables.
“I know you’re involved. But I think someone else is pulling your strings. Someone way bigger than you is in charge of this. You’re just one of his marionettes, dancing at the will of someone controlling it all. But you could save yourself by helping us.”
Morrison’s face tightened; Hunter had hit a nerve. The threat of lethal injection didn’t bother the man because he couldn’t believe that he, Ethan Morrison, would ever face execution.
Being called a puppet...well, he didn’t like that.
Morrison started to stand, but he had shackles on his wrists attached to a metal bar secured to the table.
“I’m done talking to you,” he said. “Guard!” he called.
Hunter sat back. There was nothing he could do. Morrison did have rights; it was surprising they had gotten this far.
The door to the room opened; a guard had arrived as summoned.
But as he was led away, Morrison called back.
“Bring the kick-ass cutie to see me! Maybe I’ll talk to her.”
Hunter didn’t respond. He waited until Morrison had been taken away, then he rose and left the room. ...
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