Today's Reading

Sam had been walking behind them. Embarrassed, he tried to offer Jessie a weak smile. He hadn't come from money, and he had lost his folks right after his twentieth birthday, but he was working in a coffee shop, dreaming he'd get to where he could work, go to college and have time left over to be with the woman he loved.

He had given the man a dollar and wished him well.

Jessie had turned away from her father.

It was the last time Jessie saw her father. Despite the man's efforts to break her and Sam up—or because of them—Jessie and Sam had eloped. The plan was to both get jobs and finish college through night school. Her father had suspected her pregnancy; he'd wanted her to get over Sam and terminate the baby.

Jessie quickly made friends at a park near their cheap apartment. They were old flower children, she had told Sam. Old hippies, he'd liked to tease in return. But those friends had been happy, and they'd talked to Jessie about the beauty of their commune, far from the crazy greed and speed of the city.

In the beginning, Brother William's commune did seem to offer it all: happiness, unity, love and light.

But now they knew the truth.

Brother William—with his "deacons," his demands on his "flock" and the cache of arms he kept stowed away as he created his empire—was demanding absolute power for himself, complete obedience among his followers. And it became clear Brother William's will was enforced; he had those deacons—Brothers Colin, Anthony and Darryl, and the squad beneath them. They received special treatment.

Sam clutched his family as he strained to hear any unfamiliar sound in the woods. Were those footsteps? Was the rustling of branches just the breeze?

He had to stop dwelling on fear.

He had to stay strong. Maybe not ruminate on what they'd been through.

But there was nothing else to do while they waited, barely breathing.

Think back, remember it all.


1

Now
Late summer

The woman had been strung up on a cross, her wrists and ankles tied in that position.

And a spear had been run through her, right in the region of the heart. The weapon appeared to look something like a medieval javelin.

Blood dripped from the body and the stake, only half-congealed in the damp heat of the day.

Her head hung low in death and a wealth of dark brown hair fell around her face, tangled and matted with blood. Slashes had been cut through her cheeks, and an eerie mask had been painted on the woman's face, creating a jester's oversize smile and giant, red-rimmed eyes.

A cloud of insects made a strange, buzzing halo around her head.

Special Agent Amy Larson absently swatted at one of the flies that had deserted the corpse and was humming near her ear. She was aware somewhere in the back of her mind that she was going to be bitten to pieces by the time she left the crime scene. Amy had been called to several murders during her time with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but none so grisly, so gruesome a display.

They were almost in the Everglades but not quite. This stretch of old road had once been the main connection between the extreme south of the state of Florida, Central Florida and all the way on up to the north and connecting with east-west highways stretching out to either coast.

People enjoying the beaches on those coasts probably had little knowledge—nor would they care to have any—regarding the whole of the state. Here was this no-man's-land that was at the edge of the Everglades, dotted with sugarcane fields, churches and cows.
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