Authors: Phyllis Smallman
PRAISE FOR THE SHERRI TRAVIS MYSTERIES
“The Sherri Travis Mysteries started out well and have gotten better . . . The writing keeps getting tighter, and Smallman knows how to crank up the reader’s tension . . . One can’t help wanting more and anticipating the next book in this entertaining and fast-paced series.” —
“A series that gives the reader a casual style and storytelling with staying power.” —
“Florida has never seemed so appealing and appalling as it does in the Sherri Travis novels.” —
“In Sherri Travis, [Smallman] has created a sassy, plucky heroine who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and ask the questions that need to be asked.” —
Cozy Mystery Book Review
ALSO BY PHYLLIS SMALLMAN
Sherri Travis Mystery Series
Sex In A Sidecar
A Brewski For The Old man
Champagne For Buzzards
Sherri Travis Short Mystery Series
Bitty And The Naked Ladies
Jack Daniels And Tea
An Accidental Death
Short Mystery Story
Singer Brown Mystery Series
Long Gone man
Copyright © 2014
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by
any means—electronic, mechanical, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (ACCESS Copyright). For a copyright
Phyllis Smallman Publishing
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Regrets / Phyllis Smallman.
(A Sherri Travis mystery)
ISBN 978-1-77151-090-5 [print]
ISBN 9780992053642 [eBook]
1.Title. II. Series:
Smallman, Phyllis. Sherri Travis mystery.
PS8637.M36M375 2014 C813’.6 C2014-902764-8
Editor: Frances Thorsen
Proofreader: Vivian Sinclair
Cover images: Martini glass—sidewaysdesign,
Author photo: Jen MacLellan
This is for the other big men in my life,
Larry, Darryl and Tom Smallman.
Thank you for your love and support.
The Florida Everglades are a place of serene beauty and sudden death. Spread across one and a half million acres, they’re a wilderness where snakes and alligators rule—out there, mistakes can be fatal. It wasn’t a place where I, Sherri Travis, ever meant to end up alone late at night.
And it isn’t just nature you have to fear in the Glades. The people living in this inhospitable place can be just as dangerous. Down here we call them swamp rats, men who know every gator hole and every way there is to turn a dollar, both legal and illegal. They use the Glades to strip down stolen cars or use their airboats to pick up drugs dropped from the sky. And there are guys who find the swamp the perfect place to make unwanted people disappear. There’s not much evidence of a crime left after a body passes through an alligator or a python. The wetlands of Florida are a depository for all kinds of unwanted things, living and dead, a spot to hide a multitude of sins.
When I was eighteen I made my first solo crossing of the Glades, and my father, Tully Jenkins, laid out the rules for traveling Alligator Alley. Tully’s first rule was, “Never travel through the river of grass after dark. Leave it to the crazies and criminals.” This decree was followed by “Always keep your doors locked, and always have a full tank of gas.” And then there was the most important rule: “Don’t stop for anything.”
And even a dozen years later, I didn’t take that crossing for granted. I thought I had it all under control until that night when things went so horribly wrong.
I’d been down in Miami for a long-overdue weekend with a girlfriend, a situation that had created considerable tension between my fiancé, Clay Adams, and me. He didn’t understand the need to catch up with friends. He wanted me to buckle down and plan a wedding, the sooner the better, while he worked eighteen hours a day selling real estate. You see, for him, life wasn’t about enjoyment and good times but about winning. I’m not exactly sure what he was trying to win, but it had a lot to do with using money to keep score. The man had a plan and a driving need for us to improve ourselves. He was all about business, while I was all about partying. Right away you can see the problem.
Sunday afternoon, I called Clay to put off my return to Jacaranda because Kelly’s friends had suggested a sunset booze cruise. He wasn’t happy.
I promised Clay I’d be home before midnight, but then, when I was already late leaving Miami, Kelly suggested a martini at a hot new club. What’s another hour? Besides, how many holidays did I take in a year? This was the first time I’d gone off on my own since Clay and I moved in together. I deserved it. At least, that’s what I told myself.
When I left Miami, not quite sober, it was already nearly twelve. I was well behind schedule. I checked the gas. Half a tank if I looked at it optimistically, just over a quarter if I broke the mold I came from and was honest. Okay, even with a quarter of a tank, it should be no problem making it to Naples, the first spot for gas on the west side of the Glades. After all, it wasn’t like the old days when Dad’s crapped-out piece of junk got ten miles to the gallon. A quarter of a tank was enough. I’d be fine.
As the lights of civilization faded to the darkness of the wilderness, kamikaze bugs threw themselves against the windshield. I turned on the wipers and sprayed a weak stream of water at their bodies, turning them into a gelatinous smear of mush. “Shit.” The windshield washer was nearly empty of fluid from the trip over, insects being one more of the nasty things that live in the big swamp. I should have refilled it. I sighed out loud at this further evidence of my failure as a responsible adult.
I turned off the wipers, which were just making the huge smear worse, and cursed my failure to prepare, but no way was I turning back. I was already late and needed to make up time.
I drove a little faster just to compound my stupidity.
Not entirely comfortable with my decision, I glanced down at the gauge. Definitely well below the line. Tully’s warning buzzed around in my head like a demented bee, calling me a fool.
A weathered billboard loomed out of the night and proclaimed,
LAST GAS BEFORE NAPLES
. It probably wasn’t true. Billboards in Florida aren’t known for truth in advertising. What really caught my eye was the little white add-on at the bottom:
OPEN 24 HRS
. I slowed, trying to decide. I was at the turnoff before I really made up my mind.
It was the name of the road that caught me and pulled me in. It was called Last Chance Road. Silly and laughable—last chances don’t come with signs—but I braked and pulled onto the narrow strip of pavement leading away from the highway, hoping for one final opportunity to get it right.
Only inches above the water, the long dark road was a narrow chute through six-foot-tall grasses. Devoid of buildings and leading nowhere but to the gas bar, it had an ominous and lonely quality. It made me feel trapped.
Red eyes shone in my headlights. A gator. I slowed, barely at a crawl as I went by him. If I hit the twelve-foot-long monster . . . not something I wanted to think about. When I was a kid, alligator sightings were much rarer. Now, after thirty years as a protected species, they’re everywhere, including the roads.
I drove on towards the faint light glowing above the grasses to my right, wary and cautious. A litany of scary possibilities could be waiting at the end of Last Chance Road. If the station was closed, I’d have wasted precious resources. There was no place to pull over or turn around. Going back wasn’t an option until I got to the end. Last Chance came with no choices.
I was half expecting the sign to be lying, but when I swung into the small clearing, created from a mound of shells scooped out of the swamp, I saw two pumps and a small store. The lights were on; it seemed a normal, everyday gas station. While the bright neon was reassuring, there was no vehicle anywhere on the parking apron. Was the building empty? Were the pumps working?
The sound of gas actually running into the tank brought a heartfelt sigh of relief. I hadn’t made a mistake. I congratulated myself on getting something right for a change.
While the tank filled, I pulled my top loose from my body, shaking it to let the hot night air circulate over my skin, and then leaned back against the pickup to study the soft spring night.
March is the dry time of year in Florida. Wildlife moves into areas where there is water, becoming concentrated and dense. Gator holes are surrounded by wading birds and all manner of mammals taking advantage of the water. It would be worse this year. We hadn’t had any real rain since October.
Five months, and the Glades were drying up in an alarming way. But everything would be reborn when the rains came. Nothing stays barren for long in Florida; it teems with life and fecundity and new beginnings. With the monsoons beginning in May, rivers would pour south from the upper parts of Florida to flood the southern tip of the state and lay down a foot of water over the Everglades. In another month or so, it would go from sand-dry, with grass crackling and breaking under your every step, to swamp-wet and impossible to pass through without watercraft.
Standing there I thought of all those things and more. Where would Clay and I be when the rains came? I became aware of how badly I’d screwed up, or maybe it was just the regret and depression that follow too much alcohol. Whatever it was, it actually had me considering an alteration in my life; the party girl was starting to seriously consider leaving the festivities. Over the weekend, even at the height of the good times with noise and laughter all around me, I found myself feeling lonely, and realized I was missing Clay. It was an uncomfortable surprise. Still, it hadn’t stopped me from going for that last martini, had it? That old saw “I can resist anything but temptation” should be tattooed on my forehead.
The buzz of insects making nice with each other all around me underscored my conviction to put things right in my own life. I needed to get home and make nice. Big-time.
I was hanging up the nozzle when a harsh yowl, almost like the sound of a human in pain, rose from the wilderness. It had been a long time since I’d heard that sound. Tully had taught me to identify that wail while we were sitting around a campfire and I’d never forgotten it. That call had terrified me back then, but now the panther’s cry brought a smile to my lips.
Perhaps the panther was calling for a mate. March is mating season for the panthers, their time for making nice, and in three months there would be a couple more blind little kits out there in their natural habitat to defy the doomsayers. The experts keep telling us that panthers have disappeared from the wild, that there are less than a hundred left. I’ve lived all my life in Florida, trekked the backcountry with my father, and only seen two panthers. One was at nightfall on a narrow trail in the Myakka Wilderness Preserve; the other was dead on the road near Everglades City. But panthers travel mainly at night, bedding down on hammocks and sleeping during the day. I want to believe that’s the reason we don’t see them.
“Keep on screaming, baby,” I whispered to the far-off animal. “Don’t die on us.” I leaned against the truck and waited, but there was no answering call in the night. Maybe I was hearing a lonely howl of frustration in a world only one panther occupied. Ain’t that a bitch? Being the last one of your kind gives loneliness a whole new meaning.
I cleaned the windshield and waited some more, but the panther stayed silent, so I grabbed my purse and headed in to pay for the gas.
The front windows of the building were plastered with posters and flashing neon, advertising brands of beer and high-caffeine drinks guaranteed to keep you awake for a week. I couldn’t see inside but I wasn’t worried by that. It was just the normal, everyday kind of spot we all need and use safely without thinking. Nothing told me there was anything unusual happening in there—no hair raising on the back of my neck to warn me.
As I stepped inside and the door sighed shut behind me, the two people in the store looked up with panic-struck expressions. The dread was so strong on their faces, I looked back over my shoulder to see what had caused it. Nothing. When my eyes turned back to them, they’d relaxed. I wasn’t the person they were waiting for, so they ignored me and returned to their conversation—or, more accurately, their argument. I watched and tried to decide what was happening. The guy arguing with the clerk behind the glass enclosure was in his late teens. Lightning bolts were shaved in his close-cut hair. His feet were bare and his jeans were wet to the knees.
I’d expected to be the only customer in the store because there were no cars out front. Where had he come from? He must have pulled around to the back of the station, because no one walked to this lonely place, but why would he hide his car around back?
“Help me,” he said in a voice full of fear and panic.
My senses went on high alert. Something bad was happening here. Alarm filled me. I glanced around. My instinct was to get out of there, but I told myself that was ridiculous, told myself I had too much imagination. Whatever was happening, it wasn’t my problem and in two minutes I’d be gone. I’d just grab an iced coffee and get a Popsicle out of the chest freezer and then I’d be on the road again. The weekend was catching up to me, leaving me snoozy for the long drive ahead, although the shock of their conversation had woken me up a bit. Still, it would be a roll-down-the-windows-and-crank-up-the-music trip home.
I gave them a pass and headed for the back of the store, hurrying past display units that jutted out into the aisles so that you almost had to turn sideways to walk down them. The whole place was like that, a tiny warren of narrow aisles. Wire shelves holding two-day-old white bread crowded up against shelves of jars of peanut butter and headache pills. Glass-fronted fridges containing six-packs of beer and soda lined the far wall. It was an uncomfortable and claustrophobic place.
Back at the counter, where merchandise crowded the narrow entry and left room for only one person at the glass partition, the boy turned sideways, making room for me at the clerk’s window but blocking my way out. Even though he made room for me, he didn’t stop arguing. “C’mon, Angie, you gotta.”
The girl, pretty and Hispanic, had a small ring through her bottom lip and a silver stud in her nose. Her hair was long and straight and black. Focused on the boy, she acted as if I didn’t exist. She hissed something at him in Spanish and huddled as far away from the window as she could get.
I cracked the Popsicle in half on the edge of the counter and waited. What made their problems more important than my needs, their lives more immediate than mine? Annoyance hummed through my veins. It was the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, and I still couldn’t get served. It seemed the anthem of my life. I read a big sign warning that the clerk’s cage was locked and all cash went immediately into a locked box the cashier couldn’t access.
“No one will find out you helped me,” he said. “Please, you got to help me, Angie.” He reached out his hands in desperation and panic, planting his palms and forearms on the glass as if he could touch her.
The girl, secure between the cigarettes and lotto tickets behind the glass, replied, “He already called . . . knows you’re headed here.”
“Excuse me.” My voice was too loud in the small room with all of us crunched up together. I didn’t care. I wanted their attention. More than that, I wanted out of there. Whatever was going on here, I wanted no part of it. It was definitely something bad they were talking about, a problem that was going to end violently. “Can I just pay for my gas?”
The boy swung to face me. His large black eyes were full of tears. He swallowed and stepped aside. It was almost a courteous act.
I held up the orange Popsicle. “Just the gas and these . . . my dinner.” They didn’t smile. In fact, they looked like they’d never smile again. But then, my words were a pretty pathetic attempt to lighten the mood.
The girl ignored me and launched herself to the edge of the counter. “I’m not getting involved in this.”
If the girl was afraid, I was terrified. I didn’t know who was coming, but I didn’t want to be there when they arrived. I put my credit card away and dug through my wallet for cash while the boy pleaded, “Let me take your car.”
“I can’t get mixed up in this.” Her voice was harsh in its intensity.
The boy laid his cheek against the glass and whispered, “I saw. They’ll kill me.”
I glanced frantically around, hunting the danger. For the briefest second I considered leaving without paying for my gas, but that was stupid and would only lead to more trouble. I fumbled the cash onto the counter.
“They’re on their way.” The girl leaned back again, distancing herself from whatever risk he represented, and bumped up against the shelves of cigarettes.
He slapped the glass with his palms and pressed his chest against the surface as if to break in. “You told them,” he screamed.
“Get out of here while you still can. They’re coming for you.” She pointed to the door and yelled at the guy, “Get out of here, now!”
“But how?” he wailed. “Please, Angie.” He banged his fist on the glass, making it tremble, and shouted, “You have to help me.”
She wrapped her arms across her chest, cradling herself. “Hide in the grass until it’s safe.”
He shook his head frantically. “Not good enough. I’ve got to go farther.”
I slipped three twenties into the trough under the glass.
Wound tight as a spring and in deep despair, the boy with lightning in his hair watched me out of the corner of his eye while pretending not to, freaking me out even more.
I slid past him without waiting for my change. As I went out the door I dug my keys out of my shoulder bag and headed to the truck at a jog, glad to be out of there before anything happened.
Putting them out of my mind, I calculated how long it would take me to hit Fort Myers and how angry Clay was going to be with me when I finally got home. I opened the door of my pickup and threw my purse inside. That’s when the guy with lightning in his hair hit me from behind and knocked me to the concrete.