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.
I found it.”
Why are you whispering? Where
the hell are you?”
on Bayou Creevé. Spotlights
marked the target. A Piper or
Cessna made the drop.”
I told you never to go out without me.
Get your ass out of there. Now!
You hear me?”
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.
on! Come on!
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.
motor stopped. The boat drifted
it right there.”
heart pounded in his ears, but something in the voice sounded familiar.
you get that God awful light out of my eyes?”
was no answer, only the unmistakable sound of a rifle being taken off safety. Then, a split-second flash when it fired.
* * *
Harrington ran down the rain-slicked pier toward the burly frame of Sheriff
Philip Lemoine. “Where’s
Marlon?” he shouted.
sheriff tied off his bowline and pointed downstream.
“With the coroner in Louis’s boat.”
“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.”
knew all too well how much Laney and her father meant to each other.
“Did she say when she’d get here?”
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.”
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.
think I’d have to agree with you.”
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.
mentioned Louis. I can’t place
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
her alongside,” the sheriff called out.
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
this?” the man asked the sheriff.
Harrington. I told you about him
on the way out. Remember?
Trent, this is Dr. Landry, the coroner.”
nodded in response to the introduction.
doctor stared at Trent, but didn’t offer his hand.
Instead, he called down to the agent. “Hand me my backpack.”
the coroner reached for his gear, the sheriff motioned to his deputy.
“Get in there and help Louis.”
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.
Louis Blanchard.” He extended a
hand to Trent. “I believe I met
you on the water with Marlon.”
shook hands, and recognition seeped in. “About
a month ago, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Man, I can’t believe this.”
the moment, the rain had stopped. Trent
pushed back the hood of his poncho and looked down at the covered remains of
like to have another look,” the sheriff said.
“I couldn’t see much at the scene.”
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.
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.
exactly did the bullet enter?” the sheriff asked.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
I’d say he’s been dead about eight hours.”
Dr. Landry eased Marlon onto his back.
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
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
seen enough,” the sheriff said.
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.
sheriff pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt and relayed the message to his
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.”
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
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.
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?
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.”
Louis and the deputy pulled away, Trent turned to the sheriff.
“Did you find anything unusual among Marlon’s personal effects?”
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
because I’m a writer that I ask so many questions,” Trent replied, a
little more sharply than he intended. “Well?”
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?”
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.”
didn’t answer. Marlon was
hunting all right, but it wasn’t for deer.
And he definitely didn’t want to be seen.
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.
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.”
have to find someone else. Right
now I can’t think about that.” Trent
lied. That was exactly what he
was thinking about.
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.
Emile?” Trent pictured the
short, dark haired Cajun who worked in Marlon’s bait shop and general store.
to business. Said he didn’t
want to remember Marlon all shot up.”
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.”
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.
you check to see what boats left before daylight?
Who was the last person to see Marlon?”
Trent, I ain’t had time to do shit. Why
all the questions? You know
something I don’t?”
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.”
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
That poncho didn’t do much to keep you dry, did it?”
He grinned. “Come on.
There’s nothing more you can do here.”
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
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
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
can tell you’re not in a good mood. You’re
also past your check-in time.”
Steven. I was just about to call
you.” Lying came easy. Anyway, it was the answer Steven expected to hear.
there a problem?”
a brief pause, Steven’s voice exploded.
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.”
know damn well the smugglers killed him.”
the hell was he doing out there without 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.
can’t believe he’d tell them anything.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.
can pull this off, Steven. More
than that, I want a chance to nail the S.O.B. who shot Marlon.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
he blurted out. “Not this