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Series: Sacramento #3
Also in this series: Say You're Sorry (Sacramento, #1)
Publisher: Penguin, Berkley
Publication Date: August 3, 2021
Genres: Romantic Suspense
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Eden faces a final reckoning when the cult's past victims hunt them down in this explosive, high-stakes thriller in the Sacramento series from New York Times bestselling author Karen Rose.
For decades, Eden has remained hidden in the remote wilds of the Pacific Northwest, “Pastor” keeping his cult's followers in thrall for his personal profit and sexual pleasures. But the Founding Elders are splintering, and Pastor's surrogate son DJ is scheming to make it all his own.
When two of Eden's newest members send out a cry for help, it reaches FBI Special Agent Tom Hunter, whose friend and fellow FBI Special Agent Gideon Reynolds and his sister, Mercy, are themselves escapees of the Eden cult, targeted by the Founding Elders who want them silenced forever. The three have vowed to find the cult and bring it down, and now, they finally have a solid lead.
Neutralizing Eden’s threat will save captive members and ensure Tom’s new friends can live without fear. But when his best friend, ex-Army combat medic Liza Barkley, joins the case, it puts her life—and their blossoming love—in danger. With everything they hold dear in the balance, Tom and Liza, together with Gideon and Mercy, must end Eden once and for all.
WEDNESDAY, MAY 24, 8:45 A.M.
Special Agent Tom Hunter looked over his shoulder, unsurprised to see Special Agent in Charge Molina standing in the doorway of his office. He’d expected the visit from the SAC of the FBI’s Sacramento field office. Today was her first day back after the attack that had left her injured and several other agents dead. She looked paler than nor‑ mal and tired. But determined.
He automatically rose, because his mother had raised him right.
This put him more than a foot taller than his boss, which made her look up with an irritated glare. At six‑six, he towered over almost ev‑ eryone in the Bureau, which was a new experience. He’d been average height during his three years with the NBA. Shorter, in fact, than many of the men he’d met on the court. He hunched his shoulders a bit to offset the difference, but Molina’s glare did not soften.
As her chin lifted, her dark eyes bored into him. “What do you know?” she demanded.
Tom gave her a warm smile. “Good morning.” The woman wasn’t the coldhearted beast she wanted everyone to think she was. He’d watched her manage two crises in the past few months, and while she was quick‑witted, with razor‑sharp focus and an even sharper tongue, she did care. He suspected she might care too much and fought not to let it show.
He knew the type. He’d been raised by a wickedly smart group of women. His mother’s friends were cops, social workers, and attorneys. When pressure was high and risk to humans they cared for even higher, they’d pasted on the same face Molina wore right now.
He held out the chair next to his desk, motioning her to sit.
She shot him a dark scowl but took the seat, tugging at the jacket of her suit unnecessarily. No fabric worn by Tara Molina would have the nerve to wrinkle.
“I know a lot of things about a lot of things,” he said, retaking his seat as he answered her question. “But I’m assuming you’re specifically referring to Eden.”
The cult he’d been actively seeking since mid‑April. The cult that’d provided a hiding place for vicious killers for the past thirty years. Vicious killers who had abused two of the people who, in a short period of time, had become Tom’s friends. Both Gideon Reynolds and his sister Mercy Callahan had been children when they’d escaped Eden, but both were scarred for life, physically and emotionally.
Because the killers hadn’t simply hidden in Eden. They’d thrived there, starting a cult that condoned—no, encouraged—the rape of twelve‑year‑old girls by middle‑aged men, calling it “marriage.” They condoned the rape of thirteen‑year‑old boys, calling it an “apprenticeship.”
Gideon and Mercy had been only two of their victims.
“Yes. I’m talking about Eden.” Molina rolled her eyes. “And here everyone said you were some wunderkind,” she drawled, but her tone was light. Almost teasing.
“I don’t know about that,” Tom muttered, his cheeks heating. He was good at what he did—specifically hacking. He was very good at what he did, in fact.
The fact that he still hadn’t found the cult’s compound after months of searching left him thoroughly irked. But they had made progress.
“I got into their offshore bank account,” Tom stated. Which, under most circumstances, would have been cause for congratulations and maybe even a promotion. Or a prison sentence, if he hadn’t been work‑ ing for the good guys. Either way, it had been damn difficult to do.
“You did that three weeks ago,” Molina stated flatly, popping any hope he might have had for an attaboy. “My temporary replacement briefed me weekly. What have you learned about Eden recently?”
Tom could only imagine what Molina’s temporary replacement
had told her. He and Agent Raeburn had not gotten along well at all. “From their bank account, not much,” he admitted. “No money’s been moved either in or out, not since they pulled all of Ephraim’s money out of his personal account and back into the main Eden cof‑ fers, three days before he was killed.”
It was Molina’s turn to grimace. “I must say that I hate the sound of that man’s name. All of his names,” she added bitterly.
Ephraim Burton, a Founding Elder of the Eden cult, had been born Harry Franklin, under which name he’d earned a record as a bank robber and murderer, before going into hiding thirty years ago. Bur‑ ton had other aliases that had allowed him to mingle in the real world during the times he left Eden.
Which wouldn’t be happening ever again, because Burton was dead. Tom wished that he’d been the one to do the honors, but one of the other cult elders had killed Ephraim Burton, possibly to keep him from telling the FBI of Eden’s whereabouts. A lot of people had died in connection to Eden. The stakes were high. Its bank accounts held in excess of fifty million dollars.
It was more likely, though, that the other elder had killed Ephraim to keep him from spilling the biggest secret—that two of the cult’s runaways hadn’t died trying to escape but had been living free for more than ten years.
Gideon and his sister, Mercy, had been abused by Eden in their youth but were fighting back now, helping the FBI track down Eden and end it, once and for all. Tom respected the siblings more than he could say.
“I put an alert on the offshore accounts,” Tom said. “If they move any money, we’ll know.”
“But they haven’t yet.”
“Not yet. However, someone resembling DJ Belmont did withdraw some cash from a different bank account outside Mt. Shasta an hour after Ephraim Burton was shot.”
“Belmont?” Molina hissed, anger flashing in her eyes.
Belmont was second‑in‑command to Eden’s leader, a charismatic man known only as “Pastor” to his followers. Luckily the FBI had learned a bit more than that. Pastor’s name prior to his starting the Eden cult had been Herbert Hampton. Prior to that he’d been Benton Travis, serving a sentence in a federal penitentiary for forgery and bank fraud.
They knew the identities of the cult leaders. They just didn’t know where the cult was. It was a small community that moved around re‑ mote sections of Northern California, and they were clever at evading detection.
Belmont was more than Pastor’s second‑in‑command, though— assuming he was still alive. He was a dangerous, ruthless, alarmingly competent killer who’d taken out five federal agents, most of them SWAT. He’d also fired the bullet that had taken Molina out of commission for the past month, so her reaction to his name was understandable.
Tom pulled up a file on his computer, then turned the screen to show her the photos taken from surveillance cameras. “The resolution of the bank’s drive‑through camera is good, but he was wearing a bandana over his face, sunglasses, and a cap with a wide brim. Facial recognition couldn’t pick up anything useful. The body type and size fit Belmont’s description, though.”
“If he didn’t withdraw cash from Eden’s offshore account, which account was it?”
Tom gave her a sideways glance. “I thought you got weekly briefings from Agent Raeburn.”
Molina’s eyes narrowed. “I did. I want to hear your version.” Tom managed to hide his wince. “My version?”
“Yes,” Molina said coolly. “Agent Raeburn’s version was less than satisfactory.”
Well, damn. “I figured as much,” Tom muttered. “He’s . . . well, he’s not very flexible.”
Her brows lifted. “He is a damn good agent.” Careful, careful. “Never said he wasn’t.” “You thought it.”
Tom pursed his lips, unsure if Molina was amused or upset. It was often hard to tell. But of course he’d thought it. Raeburn was by‑the‑ book to a fault and left no wiggle room for the humanity of any situation. He wasn’t going to say that out loud, though. He was aware that Molina knew he bent the rules every now and then.
He had, in fact, bent the rules often since his first day on the job. Which seemed like it had been a year ago, even though it had only been five months. There was something about Gideon Reynolds and Mercy Callahan that made him want to help them, to ease their fears—even when he technically wasn’t supposed to. But the brother and sister had been through too much abuse.
Tom knew abuse. He still bore the scars from his own biological father’s cruelty. He knew heartache, far more recently. He knew that sometimes rules needed to be bent or even broken in order to do the right thing.
But he also knew that if he wanted to continue helping Gideon and Mercy, he’d need to toe Molina’s line. Or appear to, at least. Which meant not badmouthing her temporary replacement, who was still technically his direct supervisor.
He bent his mouth into a smile that was convincing because he’d practiced making it so—a side benefit of heartache. People didn’t ask you questions if you smiled and looked happy.
“The account Belmont withdrew money from at the ATM was an individual checking account in the name of John Smith,” he said, shifting them back on topic. “Assuming this is him in the photo, he withdrew the cash about ninety minutes after he fled the scene at Dunsmuir.”
DJ Belmont’s shooting spree in the forest two hundred miles to the north had left five bodies on the ground that day—the FBI SWAT members and a special agent named Schumacher. Molina had been lucky. Her injuries at Belmont’s hand had “only” hospitalized her for a week and required physical therapy for three more.
Unfortunately, Belmont had also taken out Ephraim Burton that day. They’d hoped that Burton might have led them to Eden, to the people who lived under Pastor’s authoritarian rule.
The adults who’d followed Pastor had perhaps been misled, but they’d made their choice. The children of Eden, however, had not chosen and many were being abused every single day.
But federal agents hadn’t been Belmont’s only victims that day. Tom pointed at the ATM photo. “Belmont was driving an old box truck that was later reported stolen by the surviving family of an itinerant farm picker. He was shot in the head twice with Agent Schumacher’s service weapon.”
“So he didn’t shoot Schumacher from afar, like he did us.” From a tree, far enough away that the SWAT team hadn’t been able to locate him before he’d shot them all. Far enough away to reveal Belmont’s impressive, albeit terrifying, sniper skills. “He took her weapon after he killed her.” Molina swallowed hard. “She was a good agent. A good person.”
“I know. He killed the picker, stole his truck, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.”
“Maybe Belmont’s dead,” Molina said hopefully. “Maybe.”
She studied him. “You don’t think so, though.”
“I don’t know,” Tom said truthfully. “We can’t assume it, though. He wanted to kill Mercy and Gideon that day. If he is alive, he has too much at stake not to try again.”
“You’re right that we can’t assume. Did the picker’s truck have GPS?” “It didn’t. It was twenty‑five years old.” Tom had to draw a breath, the memory of the man’s grieving family still clear enough to make his chest ache. He’d accompanied Agent Raeburn to inform the victim’s wife and five kids. It had been his first time delivering such news, and Raeburn hadn’t been overly sympathetic. Tom figured that was how the man coped, which might be better than the nightmares that still plagued his own sleep. “The family was poor. The truck was all they owned.”
Molina was quiet a beat longer than necessary. “Agent Raeburn said that the family received a gift from an anonymous benefactor a few days later, through their parish priest.”
Tom didn’t blink. That the money had come from his own bank account was a fact he was not prepared to admit. “I hadn’t heard that,” he said mildly. And he hadn’t actually heard it, so technically he wasn’t lying.
“Raeburn said the amount was enough for them to live on for several months, plus a bit more than their funeral expenses.”
He could feel his skin itching, like Molina could see his every secret. But still he didn’t blink. He knew he couldn’t replace every victim’s losses, but he could help that family. So he had. It hadn’t made a dent in his bank account, flush after his three years in the NBA. Being able to help people like that was one of the best things his time as a professional basketball player had done for him. He’d never planned to make the NBA a career, always knowing he’d join the Bureau, but he’d been young and better than decent on the court. It had seemed a shame to waste the talent he’d been given—or his earnings. He’d donated a fair bit and saved the rest.
He was grateful for those years, even if after his fiancée’s death he hadn’t had the heart for it anymore and had retired early. Now he kept his tone bland. “That was a nice thing for someone to do.”
Molina rolled her eyes, but her tone was almost sweet. “Don’t make it a habit, Tom.”
He blinked, unprepared for her use of his first name. “Make what a habit?”
She shook her head. “You know, when I was told I was getting a hacker rookie, straight out of the Academy, I was not happy. When I found out you were a former pro athlete, I was unhappier still. I didn’t have the time to train an agent wet behind the ears. Or one with an ego the size of Texas.”
Tom frowned. “I have an ego the size of Texas?”
“No. I assumed that you would, but I was pleasantly surprised on that score.” One side of her mouth lifted. “I’m glad you’re here. If only so I can toughen up that soft heart of yours so you make it to retirement. I’m not kidding, Agent Hunter.”
Tom bit back his own smile. “So noted, ma’am.”
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Hmm, this sounds intriguing but dark.
I would love to read this.