Read an Excerpt
My beach!” Stacey Manning cried. “My beautiful white sandy beach!”
Bess, George, and I didn’t know what to say.
We wished we could console Stacey as she watched clumps of oil wash up on her private beach, but we felt just as badly as she did.
It was “the morning after.” Just yesterday afternoon, a luxurious yacht had exploded off the coast, sending gallons of oil spilling onto the shores of Malibu’s rich and trendy Malachite Beach. Stacey, a celebrity event planner, had just returned from Las Vegas to check out the damage. The blackened sands and oil-slicked dune grass wasn’t much of a welcome, to say the least.
“No matter how I try, I can’t understand it,” Stacey said. “How can one burning yacht create such a major spill?” She held her nose to block out the acrid smell in the air.
“The yacht was carrying drums of diesel oil,” I explained. “When Bess and I were on the cruise, we found the drums underneath a tarp. Add the oil to the yacht’s own tank and kaboom!”
“You mean the cult cruise,” Bess said with a frown.
“Cult cruise” was right. I still couldn’t believe Bess and I had gone undercover to investigate a brainwashing cult being run right next door to Stacey’s beach house. Our vacation in Malachite had started out so perfectly. Stacey had invited the three of us—me and my best friends Bess Marvin and George Fayne—to spend a few weeks at her house while she worked an event in Las Vegas. Stacey had once worked with George’s mom, but Mrs. Fayne had lost touch with her over the years, until Stacey called out of the blue with her awesome invite to California.
At first we thought the beachfront mansion at the secluded end of the beach was some kind of trendy spa, but we soon found out the truth: Roland’s Renewal Retreat and Spa was a front for a brainwashing, money-stealing cult.
Stacey pulled out her smartphone to check for texts.
“Just when you think you know your neighbors,” Stacey said with a sigh, her eyes still on her phone. “Roland’s Retreat opened up less than a year ago. I hardly knew him and certainly didn’t know he was running a crazy New Age cult.”
“Bess and I found out firsthand,” I said, shuddering at the memory. “Roland made his followers walk across hot coals, verbally abuse one another, and meditate inside a tent that had to be over a hundred degrees.”
“Until we passed out,” Bess added. “Roland called it a sweat lodge.”
“You mean a death lodge,” George said. “If I hadn’t heard screams coming from the tent, I never would have called the police, and you guys would have been … I don’t even want to say it.”
Stacey gazed out at the smoldering yacht on the ocean. “The most important thing is that you were rescued, even if Roland did manage to take revenge.”
I watched as black oil washed up on the beach. After Bess, George, and I had blown the whistle on Roland, he refused to be taken alive. Before the police could come arrest him, he blew up his yacht—and himself. It was Roland’s way of going out in a blaze of glory. He got the blaze part—although I saw no glory in destroying a beach and its wildlife.
“Such a tragedy,” Stacey said, and sighed again. “No one will want to build or buy property on Malachite Beach now.”
She turned to us and said, “By the way … whatever happened to Roland’s second-in-command, Inge?”
“You mean his sidekick?” I asked. “Inge was taken in by the police yesterday. We saw it ourselves.”
Stacey stole another look at her phone before saying, “I never did like that silly woman. And to think she was once nominated for an Academy Award.”
I was surprised Stacey knew so much about the tall blond woman with the frosty voice—especially after admitting that she hardly knew her neighbors. But this was Hollywood, the land of celebrity gossip, where everyone knew everyone else’s business.
“An Academy Award?” Bess said, her blue eyes flashing. “Was Inge an actress?”
“A makeup artist,” Stacey said. “She worked on those low-budget horror movies. I think her biggest one was called Zombie Nightmare at Camp Telluride.”
I smiled. “Camp Terrified. We saw it a few Halloweens ago.”
“That creepy Eddy Fluegel with the worms crawling out of his ears gave me serious goose bumps,” Bess said, pretending to shiver.
“And you gave me scratches and scabs,” George said. “You dug your nails into my arm throughout the whole movie, Bess.”
I smiled at my two best friends. It was hard for anyone—even me sometimes—to believe they were cousins. George, with her dark hair and eyes, was a computer geek, and when it came to her clothes, comfort was essential. Bess’s closet was stuffed with clothes that never got dirty—even when she repaired cars or whatever else needed fixing. Unfortunately, Bess couldn’t fix Malachite Beach, and I wondered if anyone could. The coast guard was still working at extinguishing the last of the yacht’s burning debris.
“You know what’s even scarier than Eddy Fluegel?” Bess asked, nodding at the ocean. “The thought of Roland washing up onto the beach.”
“You mean his corpse?” I asked.
“She means don’t even go there,” George said. “Bess, Roland—or Marty Malone—is probably shark chow by now.”
“Did you say Marty Malone?” Stacey asked.
“That was Roland’s real name,” I explained. “We found out during our investigation. We also discovered his true occupation: career criminal.”
“I’m sorry those degenerates had to spoil your vacation,” Stacey said, again glancing down at her phone. “Let me just enter something into my schedule … eleven a.m., book return flights for girls …”
Bess, George, and I traded confused looks. Return flights?
“We’re not going back to River Heights,” George told Stacey.
Stacey looked up. “You’re not?” she asked.
I shook my head, though I had to admit River Heights was looking pretty good right now—especially after what we’d been through. I missed my boyfriend, Ned, and my dad with his lawyerly advice. And I totally craved our housekeeper Hannah Gruen’s comfort food and hugs, but my friends and I still had work to do—and this time it wasn’t detective work.
“We’ve decided to stick around and help clean up the beach, Stacey,” I said.
“Clean up the beach?” Stacey repeated slowly.
“We still have more than two weeks to go on our vacation. We might as well do something useful,” George said.
Stacey stared at us silently. “You’ll be wasting your time. There’s no way anyone can clean up this disaster in two weeks—”
“Stacey!” a voice shouted.
Stacey frowned at the interruption. I did too when I saw who it was—the famous Casabian sisters walking over from their own private beach.
Not that I wasn’t happy to see the über-glam Mandy and Mallory. We had become friends with the sisters when we tried to rescue their younger sister, Mia, from Roland’s cult. What I wasn’t happy to see was the producer and camera crew from their reality show, Chillin’ with the Casabians.
Hurrying to catch up with them was Mia. She had been totally brainwashed in Roland’s cult, but the glazed zombie look in her eyes seemed to be gone.
“Okay, everybody!” Bev, the producer, shouted. “Group hug for the camera. Group hug!”
Stacey seemed to grit her teeth as Mandy and Mallory wrapped their arms around her.
“Oh, Stacey, isn’t it just horrible?” Mallory cried, flipping her long dark hair over her shoulder. “Our beach on Villa Fabuloso is a gross mess too!”
Bev stared at Mandy as she pointed to the camera.
“Oh, yeah,” Mandy blurted as she seemed to remember. She looked directly into the camera and quickly added, “But wait until you hear our big news!”
“What is it?” Stacey sighed.
“We’ve called a meeting of our Malachite neighbors at two thirty this afternoon,” Mandy explained. “To talk about the oil slick and what we can do to help.”
“Will it be on your reality show?” I said, hoping not.
“Isn’t everything?” Bev asked.
“Here’s the fun part,” Mallory said, smiling at us. “You guys are invited to the meeting too.”
“Seriously?” Bess gasped.
“Sure,” Mallory replied. “You’re our neighbors, even if it’s just temporary.”
Bess squeezed my arm in excitement. A meeting of Malachite residents meant celebrities!
The three of us were totally amped, but when I looked over at Stacey, her mouth hung open in astonishment.
“A meeting to save the beach?” she asked incredulously.
“That’s right,” Mandy said. “We thought you’d be pleased, Stacey.”
The camera was on Stacey as she shook her head. “People on Malachite don’t do a thing for themselves,” she said. “Do you really expect them to pick up clumps of oil and dead fish?”
I couldn’t understand why Stacey wasn’t more supportive or even excited about the party. Didn’t she want to save her own beach and property?
“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” I told the Casabian sisters. “You never know what people are willing to do—even those from Malachite—unless you ask them.”
“If you ask me, we’re wasting our time,” Stacey said as she entered the meeting into her phone. “But I’ll be there.”
Without saying good-bye, she walked toward her house. She didn’t realize that Bev and the camera crew were trailing her halfway up the beach.
“Somebody didn’t have her coffee this morning,” Mandy said when Stacey left.
“Right?” Mallory agreed. “What’s up with her?”
“Come on, give Stacey some slack,” George said. “She’s seriously upset about her beach. I’d be too if our river at home looked like the inside of a sewer.”
Bev hurried back with the crew. She motioned to Mallory and whispered, “Bring up the doctor … the doctor.”
“Oh—yeah!” Mallory said. She threw back her shoulders. “I am happy to announce that I have an appointment with Dr. Raymond today—he’s a world-famous Beverly Hills plastic surgeon.”
“Plastic surgeon?” George groaned. She looked the sisters up and down. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Never! It’ll probably be a little nip here, a tuck there. You know—that kind of stuff,” Mallory answered.
I rolled my eyes. Mallory was fine just the way she was—but this was Hollywood, where fine never seemed to be good enough.
“Dr. Raymond has his own reality show too,” Mandy went on. “So our reality show will be on his reality show.”
“And vice versa,” Mallory added.
“Cut!” Bev shouted practically in my ear. “I have the shots I need. Let’s go back to Villa Fabuloso and talk about the next scene.”
“Good riddance,” George said under her breath.
I was happy the crew was leaving. They were like an annoying mosquito you couldn’t swat.
Mandy and Mallory followed Bev and the crew back to their own beach house. Mia lagged behind to stare at the oily crud scattered on the beach. She had been so quiet all this time that I’d almost forgotten she was there.
“How do you feel, Mia?” I asked.
Mia had been severely dehydrated after Roland’s sweat lodge, just like Bess and I had been.
“Much better.” Mia smiled at us. “That brainwashing serum they injected me with is finally leaving my system.”
“We can tell,” Bess said cheerily. “You’re no longer talking like a—”
“Like a robot?” Mia cut in with a laugh. “That must have been pretty freaky.”
“You couldn’t help it,” I said. “Luckily, you’ll never have to worry about Roland again. The coast guard can’t find a trace of him after the explosion.”
“As Roland said himself,” George said with a smirk, “garbage in, garbage out.”
I cringed as George repeated the words Roland’s followers had chanted as they prepared to dump garbage from his yacht into the ocean. According to Roland, the trash-dump exercise reflected the release of negative thoughts. Not only had Roland messed with people’s minds, he’d also messed up the ocean. In fact, our whole investigation had started when George accidentally stepped on a washed-up hypodermic needle.
“Thanks for helping me, you guys,” Mia said. “And everybody else in that crazy cult.”
As Mia made her way to Villa Fabuloso, I heard a familiar chop-chop-chop noise. I looked up and saw several helicopters hovering overhead.
“Probably news crews,” I decided.
“They should get a shot of that.” Bess pointed to the dead fish on the beach. “I have a feeling this is just the beginning.”
Bess and I were about to decide what to do with the poor fish when I heard George shout, “Whoa!”
“More dead fish?” I asked.
“More dead something,” George replied.
She wasn’t kidding: Washing up onto the beach was … a coffin!
© 2011 Simon & Schuster, Inc.