Dangerous Minds

#2 in the series


It was a little after one in the morning when Riley Moon stopped struggling to make sense of the spreadsheet in front of her. She scraped her chair back from her desk, stood, and gave up a sigh. She was in a small room in a large mansion in Washington, D.C., and she was surrounded by boxes, laundry hampers, and black garbage bags that were filled with official papers. She’d been hired to untangle the complicated financial affairs of the Knight family, who for generations had been brilliant at making money and pathetic at keeping records. Riley had been on the job for almost two months, and she’d reached the conclusion that it would be best for everyone if she set the office on fire and destroyed every available document.

Her curly red hair was a rat’s nest from the recently acquired habit of raking her fingers through it. Her blue eyes felt bloodshot. She thought a martini would fix everything, but she didn’t have the energy to make one. She had two degrees from Harvard, a cute nose, a nice family back in Texas, and no social life. The closest she came to having a man in her life was her boss, Emerson Knight, a man known far and wide as an “odd duck.” True, he was rich, brilliant, and a totally hot-looking guy, but that didn’t alter the fact that he was quackers.

Emerson was the latest heir to the Knight fortune, and he had no interest in either making more money or keeping better records. He simply wanted to get his family’s affairs in order so that he could keep their many charitable trusts operating while he pursued a life of investigation.

Their backgrounds were world’s apart, Riley thought. Her father was the sheriff of a small, dusty town in north Texas. Her mother was a second grade teacher. Her childhood home was modest. It had unfashionable, comfortable furniture, a small backyard that was fenced for the family dog, a kitchen table that seated seven, and a dining room table that seated a tight ten but was only used for Thanksgiving dinner. Growing up she had to compete with her four brothers so she knew how to shoot, throw a punch, hit a hardball, and cuss.

Riley glanced at her office’s small window and considered her options. She could traipse downstairs, get into her black-and-white Mini Cooper, and drive home to her apartment on Monroe Street in the Mount Pleasant section of Northwest D.C., or she could select one of the many guest bedrooms just down the hall and sleep here at the Knight mansion, Mysterioso Manor.

“The answer is obvious,” Emerson said, standing in shadow on the far side of the room. “It would be more efficient for you to stay here.”

“Crap on a cracker!” Riley said, whipping around, hand over her heart. “You just scared the heck out of me. How long have you been standing there?”

“That’s an interesting question. On a quantum level, either always or never.”

“And on the level we all live on except you?”

“About twenty seconds. I was checking the security monitors and I saw your office light was still on.”

“I can’t reconcile money spent through your animal rights charitable trust with money received. You seem to have too much money, but I don’t know where it came from.”

“Is that a dilemma?”


Only one of many, Riley thought, looking at her boss. He had a peculiar intelligence that set him apart from other brilliant people she’d met. He was good at connecting the dots even when half the dots were missing. Unfortunately, he was also a charmingly annoying enigma with just the right combination of charisma and resourcefulness to convince her of just about anything. And if that wasn’t enough of a problem, he looked like a model for a romance novel cover. He was six feet two inches tall, with a lot of wavy black hair, smoldering dark eyes, and a hard-muscled, lean body. The dark hair and eyes he’d inherited from his Spanish mother. The muscle was the result of years of martial arts practice.

Riley agreed with Emerson that it would be most efficient for her to spend the night here. Problem was, the guestrooms were creepy. In fact, the whole mansion was creepy. It was a massive gray stone Gothic-Victorian architectural disaster with a wraparound porch, multiple chimneys, hidden passages, gargoyles, turrets, and lancet windows. It was filled with priceless bric-a-brac, elaborate woodwork, uncomfortable antique furniture, and heavy velvet drapes with gold tassels. Previous generations of eccentric Knights had lived in the mansion and filled it with their collected treasures, wives, and mistresses.

Riley was about to choose comfort over efficiency when Emerson’s house security alarm screamed out Intrusion, intrusion, intrusion.

“What the heck?” Riley said, clapping her hands over her ears.

Emerson tapped a code into his smartphone. The noise stopped, and images from the house’s security cameras appeared on the phone’s screen.

“Follow me,” Emerson said. “The game is afoot.”

“Really?” Riley said. “Someone just broke into your house and you’re quoting Sherlock Holmes?”

“It popped into my head. It seemed appropriate.”

“Hiding in the closet and waiting for the police seems more appropriate.”

“We would have a very long wait. The alarm system isn’t connected to the police. I have my own top men who handle these sorts of problems.”



Vernon was Emerson’s cousin from West Virginia who’d taken up semi-permanent residence in a monster RV he kept parked behind the mansion. He was a big, good-natured guy who had a way with the ladies and preferred fishing to thinking.

“If there was any danger, Vernon would be here,” Emerson said. “He has unagi.”


“It’s a state of total awareness. Only by achieving true unagi can you be prepared for any danger that might befall you.”

Riley followed Emerson to the stairs, arming herself with a massive two-handed sword she’d appropriated from a suit of armor guarding a bedroom.

“First, Vernon doesn’t have unagi,” Riley said. “And second, there’s no such thing as unagi. You heard about it on an episode of Friends. An episode we watched together last night!”

“If there is an intruder I’ll use my powers to cloud his mind so he won’t see me,” Emerson said.

“Awesome. Great plan. And what about me?”

“You have a big sword.”

Riley mentally acknowledged that she did indeed have a big sword and that Emerson did have an uncanny talent for sneaking up on people.

They stopped on the second-floor landing and looked over the railing at a little man standing in the foyer below them. Bald head. Short. Asian ancestry. Orange monk’s robe. Jesus sandals.

“Hello, Wayan,” Emerson called down to the little man.

The man raised his eyes and smiled. He put his palms together, fingers up, and bowed his head slightly in greeting. Emerson repeated the palms-together greeting and went down the stairs to meet him.

“This is Wayan Bagus,” Emerson said to Riley. “He’s the Buddhist monk I studied with during my voyage of discovery.”

“I thought your mentor was Thiru Kuthambai Siddhar.”

“There are many paths to enlightenment,” Emerson said. “The Siddhar was also a mentor.” Emerson turned to the little monk. “How did you get here?”

“I walked,” Wayan Bagus said.

“From Bali?”

“I walked onto a boat. Then I walked onto a plane. Then, when the plane landed in Richmond, I walked some more.”

“Richmond is more than a hundred miles from here,” Riley said. “How long did it take you?”

Wayan Bagus smiled politely. “Buddha tells the story of a granite mountain that reached many miles into the sky. Every hundred years it was wiped with a silk cloth held in the mouth of a bird until the mountain was worn away to nothing. So, not so long.”

Riley suppressed a grimace and managed a tight smile. She didn’t want to be rude, but criminy wasn’t it bad enough she had to endure this philosophical baloney from Emerson?

“I suppose everything is relative,” Riley said to Wayan Bagus. “Still, it had to have been a long, difficult trip. And how did you manage to get into the house once you found it?”

“The universe provided a way. Also, the door was unlocked.” He turned to Emerson. “I need your help. The island I was using as a hermitage is missing. I think it was stolen.”

“Define ‘missing,’” Emerson said.

“Gone,” Wayan Bagus said. “Vanished without a trace. Although I did find a few coconuts bobbing on the waves. And a wooden bowl I used for my morning meal.”

“Islands normally don’t go missing,” Emerson said.

“Nevertheless, it is missing just the same,” Wayan Bagus said.

“Fascinating,” Emerson said. “Where exactly did you see it last?”

“It was right where I’d left it. About two hundred miles north of Samoa.”

“And what makes you suspect it’s stolen and not just lost?”

“For the love of Mike, Emerson,” Riley said. “You can’t steal—or lose, for that matter—a whole island.”

“That’s exactly what makes it so intriguing,” Emerson said.

“Last month some men appeared on my island and told me I had to leave,” Wayan Bagus said. “When I objected they forcibly removed me and placed me on a different island. By the time I found my way back, my island was gone.”

“What did these men look like?” Emerson asked. “Did you know any of them? Were they Samoans?”

“They were wearing khaki shorts and funny hats. Only one man spoke to me, and he spoke in English. Another man gave me an injection, and I woke up hours later.”

“Was there anything special about your island?” Emerson asked.

“I know of nothing that would be of extraordinary value. It was typical of the hundreds of uninhabited, unmapped islands around Samoa. It had a mountain and beaches and rainforests. It was a very nice place for a hermitage, except for the volcano.”

“I’m quite fond of volcanoes,” Emerson said.

“They are interesting,” Wayan Bagus said, “but I find the energy can be disruptive to meditation.”

* * *

When Wayan Bagus was comfortably settled in a third floor guestroom, Emerson and Riley made their way to the library. It was an enormous room with an intricate parquet floor, hand carved oak bookshelves, and a second level balcony. Newspapers and magazines were neatly stacked on the floor, and half a dozen whiteboards were scattered about. The whiteboards were covered with Emerson’s cryptic notes. Some of the notes were devoted to the tangled estate left behind when Emerson’s father had died under mysterious circumstances the previous year. Most notes were simply concerned with whatever sparked Emerson’s imagination, ranging from quantum physics to tarantula crossings. A weather-beaten Coleman tent had been erected in front of the massive stone fireplace. Buddhist prayer flags hung from a line stretched between the tent and the fireplace mantle.

Emerson crossed the room, climbed a rolling ladder, and inched his way along, clearly looking for a specific book in the science section.

“It’s almost two in the morning and the crazy little monk is asleep in bed,” Riley said. “Why are we here in the library?”

“Wayan Bagus is many things,” Emerson said. “Crazy isn’t one of them. His mental and emotional acuity are superior. If he says his island is missing, then it is most certainly missing.”


“And we’re going to help him find it.”


“I’m changing your job description to amanuensis so you can assist me in the search. You served as my amanuensis once before, and the results were excellent.”

“We were almost killed!”

“The key word is ‘almost.’ We survived and, you have to admit, it was exhilarating. This will give us an opportunity to once again marry our abilities.”

“It wasn’t exhilarating. It was terrifying. And I don’t know about the marry thing.”

“I’m using the term ‘marry’ in the broad sense of the word, as in ‘join together.’ I’m brilliant and intuitive and you’re practical and have a driver’s license. We’re the perfect team.”

“Of course.”

Emerson continued his search. “I thought I should clarify,” he said over his shoulder, “because I recently read a book about body language and nonverbal cues, and I decided you find me irresistible.”

“What? I don’t think so. If anyone is irresistible here it’s me.”

Emerson paused, seeming to have found what he was looking for. “The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but we need to maintain the sanctity of the amanuensis-client relationship despite our deepening physical attraction.”

“Aha! So you do find me irresistible.”

“Not at all. ‘Irresistible’ would indicate a lack of control, and I have control in spades.”

Emerson reached for a book, his shirt rode up, and Riley sneaked a look at the bared skin and perfectly toned abs. She narrowed her eyes slightly and thought that she had pretty good control too. Otherwise her hands would be all over those abs.

“Look through this book for the section on Samoa,” Emerson said, passing Riley a copy of National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Nautical Maps of the Pacific. “I’ll be right down.”

By the time Emerson joined Riley at the desk, Riley had found the chapter. It was page after page of detailed maps, with information about water depths, latitudes and longitudes, natural and manmade hazards, currents, and anything else you would need to know if you wanted to navigate by boat through the Samoan island chain.

“As your amanuensis, I have to tell you this is insane. A bunch of men wearing khaki clothes stole an island? I mean, who’s your prime suspect? UPS?”

Emerson flipped through the pages. “We would have to consider UPS. They’re always losing things.”

“What of yours have they lost?”

“Ice skates. A volleyball. A sculpture I’d created.”

“And they never found any of it?”

“To be honest, Tom Hanks did personally deliver the sculpture to my house, but that was seven years later.”

Riley smacked her forehead. “You couldn’t possibly be confusing your life with the movie Castaway, could you?”

Emerson stopped flipping. “That explains a lot. I always thought it was weird that Tom Hanks would just randomly show up at my front door and give me a package.”

“You’re a very strange man.”

“My Match.com profile says I have a quirky sense of humor.”

“You have a Match.com profile?”

“Actually, no,” Emerson said. “I just have a quirky sense of humor.”

Riley stared at him for a couple beats thinking it was a good thing he had great abs because he wasn’t going to get far with the quirky humor. She turned her attention to the book in front of Emerson. It was opened to a map of the Pacific Ocean, showing an area about two hundred miles northeast of Samoa.

“There must be at least a hundred islands,” Riley said. “Any one of them could be your monk’s island.”

“And those are just the mapped islands. There are probably a hundred more that nobody’s ever bothered to survey.”

“It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” Riley said.

“Then let’s find the needle.”

“You don’t find the needle,” Riley said. “It’s a metaphor for an unsolvable problem.”

“Ah, but the problem isn’t unsolvable,” Emerson said. “When Wayan Bagus told me he was going to spend a couple years living in solitude on a deserted island I sent him an emergency satellite transponder. Fortunately he brought the transponder with him, and he gave it to me before he went to bed.”

Emerson pulled from his pocket a small orange device that looked a little like a walkie-talkie.

Riley turned the transponder to the on position. This one had more bells and whistles than the ones she’d used hiking the Texas backcountry with her father and brothers, but it operated on the same basic principle: to send out a beacon signal with GPS coordinates so that first responders could locate you.

“What am I looking for?” she asked.

“The data history. We should be able to use it to track Wayan Bagus’s movements over the past couple months.”

Riley read off the first set of GPS coordinates, and Emerson plugged them into his laptop.

“That one is Rock Creek, Maryland,” Emerson said. “Mysterioso Manor, to be more precise. They’re in reverse chronological order. Skip backward until you find a period of time where he was in just one place for a while. We can assume anything else is him traveling to America.”

Riley scrolled through the data. “He was at 8° 24’ 34.2648” south and 115° 11’ 20.1084” east for a couple weeks.”

“That’s a small island off the coast of Bali,” Emerson said. “That’s where he went after he was evicted from his stolen island. How about before that?”

“He was at 11° 3’ 36.3544” south and 171° 5’ 39.2232” west for six months.”

“Bingo,” Emerson said. “That’s in the middle of the ocean, about two hundred miles from Samoa. He was either floating around in the Pacific for half a year or that’s his deserted island hermitage.”

Riley put the transponder on the desk and traced her finger down the map in the book to 171° degrees west, looking to see if there were any islands in the approximate area. “Here! There’s a little unnamed island, labeled with those exact coordinates.”

“Odd,” Emerson said. “This island had obviously been surveyed at the time of the book’s publication ten years ago, but the image from Google Earth shows nothing but ocean at that location.”

“Not surprising,” Riley said. “Google Earth also shows an empty field where my parents live. Everybody knows it’s just a compilation of various satellite images and still photographs. It’s notoriously inaccurate when it comes to rural and unpopulated areas.”

“Perhaps,” Emerson said, accessing the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration website. “Let’s check out the most current nautical maps. These were revised last year.”

Riley looked over Emerson’s shoulder as he found the set of online maps that corresponded to page 233 in the book.

“There’s nothing at 11° 3’ by 171° 5’,” she said. “In fact, there’s not even anything close to that location, except water. It doesn’t make sense. The island was there five months ago. Wayan’s emergency transponder proves that. And the NOAA mapped it more than ten years ago. So why isn’t it on the most current NOAA maps?”

Emerson smiled. “There’s only one explanation. Someone erased the island from the NOAA database.”

“Why would someone do that?” Riley asked.

“For the same reason a murderer hides the body,” Emerson answered. “To cover up a crime. Someone stole Wayan Bagus’s island. Tomorrow we’re going to hunt it down.”

Riley woke up at eight in the morning, stretched out on the giant sheepskin rug in the library. She was still wearing yesterday’s clothes, and Emerson had obviously covered her with a comforter and put a pillow under her head sometime during the night. The NOAA book was lying next to her, still open to the last page Riley had read before falling asleep.

Her first thought was that it was sweet of Emerson to tuck her in. Her second thought was that there was something stuck to her forehead. She reached up and removed a Post-it note.

There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way and not starting. Having breakfast with Wayan.

Riley sat up and looked at the comforter Emerson had draped over her. It was covered with more Post-it notes. Emerson had been sticking notes on her while she slept as if she were a refrigerator. Most of the notes were work-related. A couple were personal reminders like “Find socks” and “Eat more vegetables.”

“The man needs a keeper,” Riley said to the empty room. Oh crap, she thought, that would be me. I’m his keeper.

Emerson’s Aunt Myra was also his keeper. She was Vernon’s mom and Emerson’s father’s sister. She was a no-frills, practical woman who’d stepped in when Emerson’s father passed. She could usually be found in the kitchen, but this week she was in West Virginia tending to a sick relative.

Riley left the library and checked out the dining room and the kitchen. No Emerson. She helped herself to coffee and a piece of leftover pizza and set out for the conservatory. If Emerson wasn’t in the library or the kitchen he was almost always in the conservatory, which was actually an immense greenhouse located a short distance behind the main house.

The garages and Vernon’s RV were also behind the house. Riley was about to walk past the RV when its door crashed open and two young women in skimpy black maid’s uniforms popped out, followed by Vernon. Vernon was buck naked except for a John Deere hat covering his privates. He was holding a feather duster in his free hand.

“Thanks for helping me clean up my RV,” Vernon said. “Appreciate you ladies showing up on short notice. Hope you don’t mind the job took so long.”

The women giggled something that Riley couldn’t hear, got into a Prius, and drove away.

Riley clapped a hand over her eyes. “For the love of Mike, Vernon. Put on some clothes.”

Vernon looked down at himself. “I got all my nethers covered.”

Riley peeked at him from between her fingers. “I’m looking for Emerson. I think he’s having breakfast in the conservatory.”

“I’m powerful hungry,” Vernon said. “Wait up for me, and I’ll go with you.”

Two minutes later Vernon was dressed in jeans, cowboy boots, a tight-fitting white T-shirt, and he had the John Deere hat on his head.

“This here’s my lucky hat,” Vernon said, joining Riley.

“Apparently so. Did you hear the alarm last night?”

“Oh sure. But Emmie texted me not to come unless my unagi told me to. And I wasn’t getting any unagi danger signals, which was a good thing being that I was busy with the maid service.”

“They were here all night?”

Vernon grinned. “Turns out we had a lot to do, cleaning-wise.”

“Good grief.”

“It’s not what you think,” Vernon said. “Most people gotta pay for ladies in maid suits, but Jolene and Mary Beth and me went to high school together back in Harrisonburg. They live in D.C. now, and they come over on occasion to tidy up and enjoy my bachelor amenities.”

Don’t ask, Riley told herself. Best not to know too much about his amenities.

The grounds surrounding the main house and the conservatory were tended by a well-meaning but partially blind ninety-two-year-old gardener. The result was a riot of grasses and flowering plants run amok. Riley thought it suited the property perfectly because everything about Mysterioso Manor was amok. It was an extravagant display of wealth and bad taste set in a heavily wooded area of Rock Creek Park, in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. It was horribly wonderful.

Riley led the way along the stone path to an elaborate iron and glass structure topped with a Victorian-era cupola. It was almost as large as the main house, and it contained a jungle of exotic tropical plants and fruit trees. It was, on one hand, a magical place. On the other hand, it was a living minefield. Spiders dropped from trees, birds shot through the air, assorted rodents and small animals scurried across walkways, and a larcenous colony of monkeys howled and screeched at visitors.

Benches were sprinkled throughout the conservatory, usually beside a small fountain or hummingbird feeder.

A larger sitting area had been placed in the middle of the greenhouse, under the cupola. A pretty wrought iron table with four chairs held court in the center. More fancy wrought iron chairs and benches were stationed along the perimeter.

Riley watched for mice and spiders as she made her way to the sitting area, and Vernon held on to his hat for fear a monkey would steal it.

“I don’t know why Emmie likes this place so much,” Vernon said. “Looks to me like a swamp. And I don’t know why he puts up with the monkeys. They’re all a pack of thieves. Especially that Mr. Manfrengensen. He’s the worst. He takes anything not nailed down, and he don’t even care if you yell at him.”

“He listens to Emerson.”

“I reckon. Emmie has a way with dumb animals.”

Riley squelched a grimace. She hoped she didn’t fall into that category.

Emerson and Wayan Bagus looked up from their breakfast when Riley and Vernon stepped into the clearing. Mr. Manfrengensen was on a nearby bench, eating a slice of dragon fruit.

Vernon pointed two fingers toward his own eyes and then one finger at the monkey. Mr. Manfrengensen kept eating.

“I’m watching you,” Vernon said.

Nothing from Manfrengensen.

Dangerous Minds Copyright © 2017 by Gus Group, Inc. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Random House, Inc., 1745 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10019