Sweet Smell of Death





Chapter One

     Marlon Gravelle crouched low in the small, aluminum boat, pulled a cell phone from his pocket and punched a pre-programmed number.  Even with the drone of the plane’s engine overhead, he lowered his voice.
     “Trent.  I found it.”
     “Marlon?  Why are you whispering?  Where the hell are you?”
     “I’m on Bayou Creevé.  Spotlights marked the target.  A Piper or Cessna made the drop.”
     “Dammit.  I told you never to go out without me.  Get your ass out of there.  Now!  You hear me?”
     “Yeah, but...  Lights coming.  Gotta go.”
     Marlon dropped the phone at his feet and frantically paddled for cover.  A searchlight scanned the bank no more than a hundred yards to his right.  The gurgle of a motor at idle speed drew near.
     Come on!  Come on!
     Knowing he wasn’t going to make it, he grabbed the phone and slipped it into the black water.  A second later, light targeted him.  Fear shot through his body.  Perspiration streamed down his face.
     The motor stopped.  The boat drifted closer.
     “Hold it right there.”
     Marlon’s heart pounded in his ears, but something in the voice sounded familiar.
     “Would you get that God awful light out of my eyes?”
     There was no answer, only the unmistakable sound of a rifle being taken off safety.  Then, a split-second flash when it fired.

* * *   

Trent Harrington ran down the rain-slicked pier toward the burly frame of Sheriff Philip Lemoine.  “Where’s Marlon?” he shouted.
     The sheriff tied off his bowline and pointed downstream.  “With the coroner in Louis’s boat.”
     “What happened?”
     “He took a bullet, not a pretty sight.”  The sheriff glanced back toward the building at the end of the pier.  “Never thought I’d be hauling Marlon’s body into his own marina.  Wasn’t easy to tell Laney, either.”  The sheriff narrowed his eyes.  “She’s the reason I called you.  She wanted you here.  Said she didn’t want her dad to be alone.  What the hell, it was the least I could do for her.”
     Trent knew all too well how much Laney and her father meant to each other.  “Did she say when she’d get here?”
     “No, just that she would take the first flight out of Los Angeles.  I offered to send a deputy to meet her in New Orleans, but she said she’d rent a car.  Laney ain’t changed a bit--always one to do things her way.”
     If Trent had learned anything from Marlon, it was that Laney took pride in her independence.  He reflected on their brief meeting a few days ago.  The way she tossed her long auburn hair and the fire that flashed in her green eyes signaled defiance.
     “I think I’d have to agree with you.”
     Right now Laney’s independence was the least of Trent’s worries.  Something bigger stabbed at his gut--her last words to him.  She had tugged gently at his sleeve when she told him goodbye and said, “Take care of my dad.”  He sure in hell blew that.  
     “You mentioned Louis.  I can’t place him.”
     “The Wildlife and Fisheries agent.  Hunters flagged him down this morning before he could back out of his boat slip.  Took him a while to calm them down and get the straight of it.  I had him seal off the area until I could get there.”
     The sheriff heaved a sigh of exasperation.  “Damn.  You could put a saucer through the hole in Marlon’s back.  My guess is a deer hunter shot him.  Stupid sons-of-bitches never learn.  They hear a sound, see a movement, and bam!  Happens every year.”
     Trent pictured Marlon alone in the darkness, surrounded by the swamp and the thick aroma of cypress needles.  To some, the fragrance mimicked a Christmas potpourri.  For Marlon, it was the sweet smell of death.
     Had Marlon recognized anyone?  Said anything?  Did he know the moment of his death?  His vision of Marlon faded into the iridescent colors of an oil slick that shimmered around a piling, and the smell of gasoline brought him back to reality.
     Raindrops pocked the surface of the water and splattered against the wooden planks of the pier.  A taste of winter had suddenly come to the bayou.  Whipped by a north wind, a chilling mist crept beneath his poncho, but it was no match for the coldness he felt inside.
     The fear in Marlon’s voice echoed in his mind, and he clamped his teeth together.  Muscles in his neck quivered like the tendons of a cat poised to attack.  The sheriff was wrong.  Marlon’s death was no accident.  What ate at Trent now was whether he could have saved him.
     The sound of motors drifted across the water, and two men in a large v-hull boat approached with Marlon’s outboard in tow.  A uniformed officer followed behind them in a small bateau.
     “Bring her alongside,” the sheriff called out.
     Trent spotted the Wildlife and Fisheries logo on the bow and on the driver’s jacket.  A black body bag, wet from the rain, glistened beside the console.  When the starboard side scraped against the pier, a small, thin man grabbed hold of a piling and stepped up onto the weathered structure.  He slapped his rain soaked hat against his legs and glanced up at Trent.
     “Who’s this?” the man asked the sheriff.
     “Trent Harrington.  I told you about him on the way out.  Remember?  Trent, this is Dr. Landry, the coroner.”
     Trent nodded in response to the introduction.
     The doctor stared at Trent, but didn’t offer his hand.  Instead, he called down to the agent. “Hand me my backpack.”
     When the coroner reached for his gear, the sheriff motioned to his deputy.  “Get in there and help Louis.”
     The two men lifted the body bag and laid Marlon on the pier.  Then, Louis mumbled a grunt and hoisted himself up between the coroner and the sheriff.
     “I’m Louis Blanchard.”  He extended a hand to Trent.  “I believe I met you on the water with Marlon.”
     Trent shook hands, and recognition seeped in.  “About a month ago, wasn’t it?”
     “Yeah.  Man, I can’t believe this.”
     For the moment, the rain had stopped.  Trent pushed back the hood of his poncho and looked down at the covered remains of his friend.
     “I’d like to have another look,” the sheriff said.  “I couldn’t see much at the scene.”
     “I suppose.”  The doctor slipped on a pair of latex gloves from his satchel and unzipped the bag.  The pungent smell of death pierced the air.
     Trent knew the damage a high velocity rifle could inflict.  He planned to spare Laney this memory of her father.  She might ask, but he’d skirt the gory details.
     “Where exactly did the bullet enter?” the sheriff asked.
     Dr. Landry pointed to a small entry wound.  “Almost dead center of the chest.”  Then he turned the body to reveal the gaping hole in Marlon’s back.
     The bullet had exploded on impact and cut a wide path of destruction though the body.  Like a window to his death, the large exit wound exposed the carnage.  Pieces of vital organs and the shattered remains of his spinal column protruded from the opening.  Trent winced.  He hoped Marlon never saw it coming.
     Trent had seen it all--bodies mangled, limbs torn apart, intestines and brains splattered everywhere.  Until now, the victims had all been strangers.  Except for....  No, he didn’t want to go there.  But Trent couldn’t shut out the painful memory, the one he kept buried deep inside.
     His hand moved to his cheek.  The crease of a small scar triggered the sounds and horror of that night.  Tires screeched against wet bricks.  A car careened around a corner in the French Quarter.  Shots echoed down the narrow street.  A bullet meant for him missed its mark.
     He had sat on the pavement in a blinding rain and held his fiancée, Susan.  He couldn’t close the hole in her back, couldn’t stop the endless bleeding.
     Trent looked down at his hands.  Even now he felt her blood run through his fingers.  He had pleaded for her hang on.  Assured her she’d be okay.  Lies.  All lies.  He watched her die, and the truth of how much he loved her rocked him.  When she slipped away, she took with her all the love he had to give. 
     “Offhand, I’d say he’s been dead about eight hours.”  Dr. Landry eased Marlon onto his back. 
     The coroner’s voice jarred Trent back to the present.  He shook his head and pushed the painful memory from his mind.  He needed to focus.  His watch showed nine o’clock.  That would put Marlon’s death about one in the morning, the exact time of his phone call.
     While the doctor speculated on facial bruises and discoloration, Trent studied Marlon’s aging but sinewy body.  Wet khaki pants and a t-shirt clung to his lean, muscular frame like a second skin, and the razor-thin bridge of his nose jutted out sharply between prominent cheekbones.
     “I’ve seen enough,” the sheriff said.
     “Then I’ll be on my way.  Tell the attendants to bring the gurney.”  The coroner zipped the body bag closed, but the stench of death remained.
     The sheriff pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt and relayed the message to his deputies. 
     “You know the morgue’s not equipped with a viewing room,” Dr. Landry said.  “Laney will have to see her dad at the funeral home, after I’ve finished the autopsy.”
     The paramedics secured Marlon’s body to the gurney and rolled the cart toward a waiting crowd.  Dr. Landry followed behind, his footsteps silenced by the clatter of wheels against the wooden planks.
     When they reached the store, deputies cleared a path through the gawking spectators and helped load the victim into the ambulance.  A short burst of the siren, and the heavy vehicle rumbled onto the highway.  Though gone, Marlon’s image lingered in Trent’s mind, along with unanswered questions.
     Why the hell had he gone into the swamp alone?  And what had happened to the phone?  By venturing out on his own, Marlon had broken their agreement and turned maverick.  Had he also told his daughter about their arrangement? 
     “Well, let’s wrap it up here,” the sheriff said to his deputy.  “Impound Marlon’s bateau in a locked slip.  I’ll go over it for evidence in a little while.  Louis, you might want to give my man a hand.”
     “Sure thing.”
     After Louis and the deputy pulled away, Trent turned to the sheriff.  “Did you find anything unusual among Marlon’s personal effects?”
     The sheriff paused and gave Trent the once-over.  “You sound like you know the routine.  Sure you’re a writer?  Come to think of it, you don’t look the part.  I would’ve pegged you for a professional athlete, a fullback maybe.”
     “It’s because I’m a writer that I ask so many questions,” Trent replied, a little more sharply than he intended.  “Well?”
     “Outside of his hunting equipment, all he had on him was a watch, his wallet and some change.  You know what bothers me?  If Marlon intended to go on a morning hunt, and I assume that’s what he was doing, why the hell did he leave out so early?  It would have been hours before he could get off a shot.  And why hadn’t he worn his hunter’s orange?”
     The sheriff shifted his weight to one leg and hooked a thumb over his belt.  “Marlon was too good a hunter to ignore safety precautions, yet I found his hat and vest in the bottom of the boat next to his rifle.” 
     Trent didn’t answer.  Marlon was hunting all right, but it wasn’t for deer.  And he definitely didn’t want to be seen.
     What worried Trent was Marlon’s frantic call.  Did he have time to dispose of the phone?  If not, the drug smugglers had only to check the last number, and Trent could kiss his cover and ass goodbye.
     “Since you brought up your writing, let me ask you something.  How you gonna finish your book without Marlon’s help?  He knew more about this area than anyone.”
     “I’ll have to find someone else.  Right now I can’t think about that.”  Trent lied.  That was exactly what he was thinking about.
     When Marlon had contacted the New Orleans’ Drug Enforcement Agency with claims of drug smuggling, Trent drew the assignment.  Posing as a writer provided the perfect cover and gave him an excuse to hire Marlon as a guide. The arrangement had worked well, but now the swamp could prove a formidable foe.  No way could he learn in a few months what had taken Marlon a lifetime.  With endless waterways and countless places to hide, he would need help to finish his investigation.
     “Where’s Emile?”  Trent pictured the short, dark haired Cajun who worked in Marlon’s bait shop and general store.
     “Tending to business.  Said he didn’t want to remember Marlon all shot up.”
     “Was he here when Marlon left?”
     “No.  When he opened the store, Marlon’s boat was gone, and he didn’t think anything of it.  Marlon seldom missed a chance to hunt during deer season, and there was no reason to think he was in any kind of trouble.”
     “I reckon.”
     Trent realized that Emile, more than anyone, wouldn’t question Marlon’s comings and goings.  But with plenty of hunters launching from the marina, maybe someone saw something.
     “Did you check to see what boats left before daylight?  Who was the last person to see Marlon?”
     “Hell, Trent, I ain’t had time to do shit.  Why all the questions?  You know something I don’t?”
     Trent had pushed too far and needed to back off.  He didn’t want the sheriff questioning him.  “No.  Just looking for leads to whoever did this.”
     “Look, I want answers as much as you do, and I intend to make a thorough investigation.”  The sheriff pushed his damp hair from his brow and heaved a sigh.  “That don’t mean it’s going to be easy.  Obviously, the shooter doesn’t intend to come forward, and you can bet he’s covered his tracks.”  The sheriff put his hand on Trent’s shoulder and ushered him toward the store.  “Damn,” he said, looking up.  “How tall are you, boy?  Six-foot three, four?”
     “Close enough.”
     “Figures.  That poncho didn’t do much to keep you dry, did it?”  He grinned.  “Come on.  There’s nothing more you can do here.”
     Trent left the sheriff at the store and strode across the parking lot.  He yanked the vinyl slicker over his head, shook off the water, and rolled it into a ball.  Wet jeans clung to his thighs.  With each step, muscles bulged against the denim.  Anger raged inside him.  His friend was dead, and Trent wanted revenge.  He unlocked his Blazer, tossed the poncho on the floor, and slid behind the wheel.
     “Why, Marlon?”  Trent slammed a fist into the dash.  Eyes that sparked with hatred glared back at him from the rearview mirror.  “I’ll get ‘em, buddy.  I promise you that.”
     When he pulled onto the highway, his cell phone rang.  Caller ID flashed a familiar number.  Trent had anticipated a call from his supervisor, but his timing sucked.
     “Hello,” Trent snapped.
     “I can tell you’re not in a good mood.  You’re also past your check-in time.”
     “Sorry, Steven.  I was just about to call you.”  Lying came easy.  Anyway, it was the answer Steven expected to hear.
     “Is there a problem?”
     “Yeah.  Marlon’s dead.”
     After a brief pause, Steven’s voice exploded.  When?”
     “Some time after midnight.  Hunters found his body in the swamp.  The sheriff called me only as a favor to Marlon’s daughter.  He thinks a deer hunter accidentally shot him.  I saw the wound.  I’d guess a 30-06.  Opened a frigging canyon in his back.”
     “What’s your read?”
     “I know damn well the smugglers killed him.”
     “What the hell was he doing out there without you?”
     “You think I haven’t asked myself that?  We had agreed we’d do this together.  I don’t know why he took off on his own. Something must’ve come up, and he didn’t have time to wait for me.”
     “Yeah?  Well, we don’t know what happened out there.  Do we?”
     “I can’t believe he’d tell them anything.”
     “You didn’t believe he’d go off without you either.  Marlon’s dead because he screwed up, and I can’t leave you there without backup.  I’m sending in someone.”
     “You know the situation here--the community’s too small.  Do that and you might as well pull the plug.  If my cover had any holes, they would have tried to take me out before now.  They must still be convinced I’m a writer.”
     “You willing to bet your life on that?”
     “Yes.  I know I can nail these bastards.  My gut tells me Marlon was killed close to the drop site.  Just give me a while longer.”
     Now was not the time to mention Marlon’s early morning phone call. Steven didn’t need another reason to shut down the operation.  Whatever prompted Marlon to go out alone, Trent felt sure Marlon had tossed the phone.
     “I can pull this off, Steven.  More than that, I want a chance to nail the S.O.B. who shot Marlon.”
     He waited and hoped his supervisor would go along with him.  If he didn’t, Trent would have to cross the line, do it his way.  More than ever, he needed to break the smuggling ring.  Otherwise, his new friend would have died for nothing.
     “Okay, I’ll cut you some slack, at least for now.  But you miss touching base, and I’ll have someone up your ass before you can turn around.”
     “You got it.  Look, I need to go.  I’ll get back with you.”  Trent broke the connection and tossed the phone on the passenger seat.
     He wondered when Laney’s flight would arrive and what the hell was he going to say.  He definitely didn’t look forward to answering her questions.  Trent worried, too, about Marlon’s close relationship to his daughter.  If the smugglers thought Marlon had confided in Laney, her life would be in danger.
     Trent drew his mouth tight.  “Just get her through the funeral and on a plane back to California,” he mumbled.  That couldn’t come soon enough for him.
     Then another thought crossed his mind.  What if she decided to stay and run the marina?  Trent squeezed the steering wheel until his knuckles whitened.  Through the eyes of the killer, he saw Laney’s face in the cross hairs, a finger poised on the trigger.  His gut wrenched.
     “No!” he blurted out.  “Not this time.”




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