The Smuggler’s Daughter
Red Adept Publishing, LLC 104 Bugenfield Court
Garner, NC 27529 http://RedAdeptPublishing.com/
Copyright © 2020 by Claire Matturro. All rights reserved.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
Gulf Coast of Florida, Spring, 1992
Kate Garcia’s feet hit Dauphine Key beach with a steady slap, slap as waves pooled and eddied in the wet sand beneath her. Her dark hair, captured in a long ponytail, snapped against her tanned shoulders as she ran. She kept her eyes straight ahead, ignoring the sunset and dodging the other runners, joggers, and shell gatherers. Her narrow face was sticky with sweat, her arms pumped at her sides, and her mouth hung open as she gasped in the heavy salt air.
Across from CeCe’s Bed and Breakfast, she paused long enough to study the crowd gathered on the deck. CeCe, her white-blond hair blowing across her face in the gulf breeze, floated from guest to guest.
Still breathing hard, Kate wiped her face on her sleeve and turned away. She crossed the two-lane road that divided the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico side of Dauphine Key from the bay side with its restaurants and T-shirt shops. On the bay side, she walked down the city pier. Bleached gray by years of sun and salt, the pier was deserted as the beachgoers crowded the other side of the island to watch the sunset.
At the end of the pier, Kate stopped and stared out across the bay at the mangrove shoreline of Dolphin Cove Fishing Village. The fetid, fishy smell of low tide and trapped trash rose with the almost visible humidity. She took off her sunglasses and gazed at the dark green of the land’s edge.
Squinting, she could just make out the house across the bay where she had grown up. CeCe’s house had been on the same block, but it was gone, not even rubble left to mark its place. Kate snorted and shook her head, flinging beads of sweat off her face. It was 1992, and she was two decades gone from the Cove. No point in looking back.
Beneath her, the bay waters hit the pilings of the pier with the same persistence as the waves on the beach. In the lapping, she heard her dead father’s voice.
“Go, gal. Get out of here. Run.”
Kate rubbed her eyes, turned, and walked back down the pier. Once across the street, she headed toward the beach. Inhaling a lungful of the salt air, she resumed running. She intended to go the two miles back to her car as flat out as she could stand.
CARTER RUSSELL TUGGED at the tie he rarely wore and looked around at the clock on the wall between the six-point buck’s head and a painting of the crucifixion of Christ. He turned back to the small crowd in the side room of the Riverside church and rubbed his damp hands on his best pair of dress pants. The muscles in the back of his neck throbbed. More people had shown up at the gathering to discuss how to stop the proposed phosphate mine than he’d expected, but he had to leave.
“Meeting’s over. I’ve got to go now.” He hurried toward the door as people shifted in their folding chairs and started to rise.
Outside, he went over to stand in the fading light under an ancient live oak. He lit a cigarette and drew the smoke in deeply.
A man in a frayed cotton shirt hurried over to him. “Glad you came, partner. You really know your stuff about phosphate,” the man said. “But I got to ask. How come you hate those mines?”
Carter blew the smoke out slowly before he answered. “Those mines tore up my childhood, ruined my granddaddy’s farm, and killed my daddy with lung cancer from inhaling toxic shit from digging up the stuff.”
Carter could have ranted some more, but he needed to leave if he were to make his late meeting with Alton Weaver, the state attorney, at the Calusa County courthouse. Waving the man off, Carter hopped into his car. He slipped out of Riverside in a few minutes and was soon in the country. The golden glare of the setting sun blurred his vision as he drove west, his shoulders tense. Hot, damp air blew in through the windows, smelling of orange blossoms from some nearby grove. He was humming to the song on the radio when a pickup came up behind him, already running its headlights in the dimming day. Carter slowed, waiting for the vehicle to pass, but the driver of the truck braked too. Carter sped up, hitting the gas harder than he meant to.
The pickup rushed Carter’s back bumper then swung wide and passed him. The driver swerved in front of Carter before slamming to a stop. Carter braked hard and veered off to the right. The front of his car left the roadway, dug into the dirt and brush along the road, and spun. His vehicle clipped a tree and came to a stop just off the pavement, in a clump of palmettos and mud. The seat belt jerked Carter back, snapping his neck as the pickup continued up the road and disappeared around a curve.
Carter unsnapped his seat belt, leaned over, and opened the glove compartment. He reached in for his .38, but the gun wasn’t there. Dread hummed inside his brain. He rifled through the glove compartment, pulling everything out and scattering the accumulated detritus on the floorboard. Next, he bent over and felt around under the passenger seat. Nothing.
Sweat pooled over his upper lip, and steam clouded the corners of his glasses. He sat back up behind the wheel, hoping to get back on the road and away from the isolated spot. His tires spun as he tried to steer out of the soft dirt off the shoulder. He got out of the car and looked up and down the two-lane road. No pickup.
He weighed his options. Walking beside the road made sense as long as the pickup didn’t return. The other choice was the scrublands and cypress swamp around the watershed of the Calusa River, which wasn’t a place he wanted to walk in at dusk, wearing only loafers and having no weapon. He glanced to the left. Silhouettes of cypress trees trailing gray moss loomed above the sharp blades of the palmetto thickets. To the right, the landscape was less dense but still filled with the palmetto shrubs that were favorites of rattlesnakes.
Carter started walking down the road. Minutes later, as he stumbled on some loose gravel, the pickup came back, rounding the curve and heading straight toward him. The bright headlights caught Carter in his eyes with such a flash that he dove into the ditch beside the road. Slipping in the mud, he tried to find traction with his feet so he could be ready to flee.
The pickup stopped when it reached Carter’s car resting in the brush. A broad man with dark hair crawled out of the cab, a rifle swinging at his side.
Carter ran. He ignored all the advice he’d learned growing up about where one did and didn’t put one’s feet when traveling through the scrublands, swamps, and hammocks of Florida. Don’t pick up firewood. Don’t put your foot down on the other side of a log without looking first. Stay out of ditches. Don’t stick your hands down gopher tortoise holes. Don’t go into the woods or the swamps alone. Don’t go at dusk without a good gun. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. The litany repeated in Carter’s mind in an odd rhythm, almost like a forgotten mantra, as he stumbled and thrashed like any amateur alone and scared in a cypress swamp.
With barely enough light left to see by, Carter slowed and glanced back to see if he was being followed.
With the rifle still swinging at his side, the man strode through the thickening undergrowth, carefully stepping on the spots of dry leaves and matted fiber, leaving no obvious trace, unlike the wild steps Carter took.
Just as recognition struggled out of his subconscious, Carter tripped over a decaying log and fell into a patch of dank moss. As he put his hand down under the outer ledge of the log to push himself up, he heard the rustle of leaves and a hiss.
Carter flailed and jerked back as fangs sank deep into his right hand. A burning jab hit him as he started rolling away from the snake. Even in the failing light, Carter couldn’t mistake the rows of diamond-shaped brown markings outlined against the cream-colored scales. He was close enough to see the white oblique stripes on the side of the rattler’s face.
Lie quiet. Don’t move. That much of the childhood lessons came back to him. Already his hand was swelling with pain that leapfrogged up his arm. Be still. Don’t provoke it.
The man with the rifle stepped up and stopped a few feet away.
Carter waited for the bullet.
The man snickered. “Damn if this isn’t working out even better than I planned. I thought I was going to have to shoot your ass, but maybe now I won’t. I can let that snake do my killing for me.” Carter didn’t move, even when vomit filled his mouth.
“Yes, sir. A fine mess. Now an eastern diamondback’ll sure hold its ground and strike if you piss it off. It can even bite you twice if you rile it again. But you know that, don’t you, being an old Florida cracker?” The man’s boots, camouflage military-style, heavy and thick soled, eased into Carter’s field of vision. “So I reckon the trick here is to not piss off that big snake. And I got to tell you, it’s a beaut. Must be four feet.”
Carter’s hand and arm were on fire, the pain streaking through his whole body as his heart pounded too fast. Keep still. Slow the heart rate. The faster his heart beat, the quicker the venom would spread through his body.
“I got to say, I admire how quiet you’re lying there.” The man stepped closer. “So if you’re not going to piss off the snake again, I guess I will.” He raised the rifle and held it out at arm’s length. With the tip of the barrel, he nudged the log by the snake’s head, shaking it until the snake coiled into a striking position. “Got you.”
Carter barely heard the words before the diamondback sank its fangs into the side of his cheek below his left eye. He screamed, vomited, and jerked away.
The man chuckled. “Ain’t true a rattler got to rattle, is it? That one sure didn’t bother. Makes you think the ones that don’t rattle don’t get found and killed and live to get bigger. You think on that a while, boy, in the time you got left.” The man walked off, humming.
Get back to the car. But then what? I’m forty-five minutes from the nearest hospital. Even if a car comes by and stops. But forty-five minutes is enough time. Get up. Get to the car.
He moaned as he tried but failed to sit up. A shadow, like a ghost, hovered in front of him. It was the girl, the one with a sprinkle of freckles on her pale face and the long white-blond hair. “CeCe,” he whispered.
Raymond Slaverson sat on the weight bench in his spare bedroom, breathing deeply and preparing for his next set. Sweat dripped down his wide face, and a lock of his thick graying hair stuck to his broad forehead. The phone rang, and brushing his hair back with one hand, he tugged his wet T-shirt away from his chest and answered, hoping it was Kate with an invitation to come right over. He thought of the engagement ring he’d bought. Maybe I’ll ask her later tonight.
“I’m not Kate. Sorry,” Luke Latham said.
Ray grunted, running his free hand over the barbells as he sat back on the weight bench. He knew he wouldn’t get to the next set. He and Luke had been friends for what seemed like forever, both of them long-time officers with the Concordia Police Department. Recently, they’d become partners in the detective squad.
“We got a big one,” Luke said. “I need your help.”
Running his tongue over his teeth and his hand over his face, Ray hoped he’d have time to shower and shave. “Who is it?”
Behind Luke’s breathing on the phone, he could hear other voices. Somebody cussed at somebody, and the talking got louder.
“Alton Weaver. Mr. State Attorney himself.” The judicial circuit’s boss prosecutor and a man Ray and Luke had both worked with over the years.
“In his office. Once in the head. Nice and neat. Efficient.” “Okay, I’m on my way.”