Jessica Speart grew up dreaming of Broadway, preparing for the day she would portray fascinating women with all the nuance and grace of Meryl Streep.

A fiery redhead from New Jersey, Speart trained at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, which helped her to land parts in off-Broadway productions, television commercials and eventually the ABC soap opera One Life to Live, where she played the recurring role of Angela Foster.

But when success finally arrived, Speart was no longer content to play a role in someone else's adventure; she wanted the one life she lived to be her own.

"I had studied acting since I was 13 years old and I was as focused and obsessed with that as I now am with this," she says by phone from San Francisco, where she is researching her eighth wildlife mystery. "I loved it, but I just reached a point where I realized I wasn't going to be Meryl Streep. It just wasn't in the stars." But what was? She didn't have a clue.

Then life intervened.

"My epiphany came when I was killed off the soap opera by this one-armed scientist, and I thought, this is great, what do I do now? I had all these really crappy part-time jobs, I had broken up with my boyfriend, and I thought, something has to change. So I took all the money I had saved working catering jobs and I went to Africa I blew it on Africa." Her travels to Kenya and Tanzania ushered in a decade spent writing magazine articles about the plight of wildlife endangered by poachers, smugglers and corporate polluters. Speart was outraged to learn that wildlife crime, including the traditional Chinese medicine black market in everything from rhino horns to bear gall bladders, is a $12-$15 billion a year industry, second only to illegal drug and arms smuggling.

Through field research, she met and earned the trust of special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She found them as fascinating and imperiled as the endangered species they try to protect.

"It's a very closed, tight little network. They are basically battered by their own agency; there are very few of them, they don't get a lot of money or moral support, they're fighting their own administration, the bureaucracy, all the powers that be, the politicians. I have always been for the underdog and I really started to tell a lot of stories about what they were up against and the agents started to open up to me." Her desire to alert a broader readership to the plight of endangered wildlife prompted her to turn to fiction. Her 1997 debut, Gator Aide, launched her wildlife mystery series featuring Rachel Porter, a spunky Fish and Wildlife special agent who is equally at odds with both the bad guys and her own pencil-pushing superiors.

Coastal Disturbance, the latest entry in the series, finds Agent Porter up to her neck in trouble amid the swamps of southern Georgia, where she uncovers an illegal manatee water park. When the docile manatees start dying, she traces the source to toxic discharge from a powerful corporate polluter with sinister friends in high places including Porter's own agency.

"One of the reasons mystery writers become mystery writers is because they want to see justice done," Speart says. "You're really frustrated with the system." In the course of her research for the series, Speart has had a few brushes with Indiana Jones-style adventure: She's done tequila shots with a tattooed stripper, visited a drug smuggler's viper collection and entered a cage alone with two mountain lions.

These days, when this former actress dons a role, she's doing it for herself and her readers.

"Things that you would never do in real life, you do when you're researching. Rachel becomes a role; I become Rachel," she admits. "You trade one unstable future for another, but writing has definitely been better for me." Jay Lee MacDonald is a professional writer based in Naples, Florida.

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