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Marshland Justice Series (Book#3)
Publisher – Harlequin Intrigue
Availability – ebook or paperback
A detective needed a mysterious woman's help—even if she had secrets to spare…
In the heart of everglade country, Detective Colton Graham lays his plans to catch a robbery kingpin. What he fails to plan for is Silver Westbrook. Proprietress of a local B and B, Silver is as sharp-witted as she is easy on the eyes. But Colton senses Silver is hiding something. Suspicious that she might be harboring the very criminals he's tracking, Colton keeps a watchful eye on her. It doesn't take long to learn her true motives and her involvement in the case. But unfortunately for both of them, attraction can be the deadliest distraction.
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Colton shook his head in disgust and thumped the NAV screen on his Mustang’s dashboard. It had to be broken. Either that or the GPS tracker he’d tucked under Eddie Rafferty’s bumper in Naples was on the fritz. Because if the screen was to be believed, the budding young criminal had driven his car off the highway and directly into south Florida’s million-and-a-half-acre swamp known as the Everglades.
Driving a car into the saw grass marsh and twisted islands of mangrove and cypress trees was impossible unless the car was sitting on pontoons. And Eddie’s rusted-out vintage Cadillac boasted bald tires just aching for a blowout. Not a pontoon in sight.
Colton pulled to the shoulder of I-75 near mile marker eighty-four, just past a low bridge over a culvert. This was the last location where the navigation unit showed Eddie’s car before it had taken the turn toward the swamp. So much for using technology to follow the suspect. He should have stayed closer, keeping Eddie in sight instead of relying on the GPS tracker. But when the kid had taken the ramp onto the interstate, Colton had worried that Eddie might get spooked seeing the same black Mustang in his rearview mirror the whole time he was on the highway. So Colton had dropped back a few miles.
Where was the juvenile delinquent now? Certainly not on the highway, and not on the shoulder. Heck, even if the GPS was right and he had pulled off the road here, there was nowhere else to go. Eight-foot-high chain-link fencing bordered this east-west section of I-75 known as Alligator Alley. The fence kept the wildlife from running out onto the road and causing accidents. And yet the dot on the dashboard screen still showed Colton’s prey continuing south, past the fence.
He eyed the tight, solid-looking chain-link mesh twenty feet away. No holes, no skid marks on the asphalt to indicate that a vehicle had lost control. The safety cable along the bottom was intact. But he supposed that could be misleading.
Twice now, that he knew of, vehicles had managed to go airborne after clipping a guardrail and had sailed over the cables and slid under the chain links—without triggering the cable alarms that would automatically notify the police and the department of transportation to send help. Had the same thing happened to his burglary suspect? If it had, the GPS would show him as stationary. And yet that dot just kept moving. Had a gator swallowed the tracker on Eddie’s bumper and was swimming down one of the canals?
Determined to figure out exactly what was going on, Colton got out of the car and stepped to the edge of the road. And that was when he saw it. Another road. Single lane and parallel to the highway, it was set at a slightly lower elevation than I-75, making it nearly impossible to see when driving past unless someone was specifically looking for it. The road turned a sharp right before the fence, heading back in the direction that Colton had just come from. It went down an incline, toward the culvert beneath the bridge where wildlife could cross to the other side of the highway without interfering with traffic.
The culvert, of course.
That must be where Eddie had gone. Maybe Colton hadn’t been as subtle as he thought he’d been when following the kid back in town and Eddie realized he had a tail. So he’d hidden out down there, waiting for Colton to pass him by.
An even better scenario would be that Eddie didn’t know he was being followed, and he’d just accidentally led Colton to his secret hiding place for his stash of stolen goods. This could be the break Colton had been looking for. If he caught Eddie red-handed, he would have the leverage to coerce him into revealing the identity of the burglary ring’s leader. The case could be wrapped up in a matter of days. And then Colton could go back to his normal life for a while, at least until the next big assignment came along and he had to go undercover again.
Excitement coursed through his veins as he ran back to his car. He hopped inside and yanked his pistol out of his ankle holster, automatically checking the loading before placing it in the console. He didn’t think Eddie had crossed the line yet to becoming a gun-toting criminal, but he wasn’t betting his life on it. Be Prepared might be the Boy Scouts’ motto, but it was Colton’s, as well. He had no desire to end up on the wrong side of a nervous, pimply-faced teenager’s gun without firepower of his own at the ready.
He wheeled the car around and followed the mysterious road that he must have passed a hundred times over the years and never known was there. But after reaching the bottom of the hill, instead of continuing, the road turned a sharp left and dead-ended at the chain-link barrier with a line of tall bushes directly behind it. And the culvert on the other side was clearly empty. No sign of Eddie or his car.
Colton’s earlier excitement plummeted as he pulled to where the road stopped so he could turn around. But before he could back up, a section of the fence started rolling to the right, along with the bushes, which he now realized had been cleverly attached to what was actually a gate. The bushes must be fake, since they weren’t planted in the ground. And they were obviously someone’s attempt to obscure the view, so others wouldn’t realize what Colton could now clearly see—that the road did indeed continue south into the Glades.
It was narrow, and mostly gravel, but it was dry and elevated a few feet above the marsh that bordered it on both sides. It curved into the saw grass, probably by design to help hide it. But a section of it was just visible about fifty yards away, where it headed into the pine and live oak that began a thick, woodsy part of the Glades.
Figuring the gate might close on him while he pondered his next move, he pulled forward to block the opening. Then he called his friend and supervisor in the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, Lieutenant Drew Shlafer. After bringing Drew up-to-date on the investigation and the discovery of the hidden road, Colton was disappointed in Drew’s lack of surprise.
“You know this road?” Colton asked. “You know where it leads?”
“You said it’s just past mile marker eighty-four, right? Opposite a culvert?”
“Ever heard of Mystic Glades?”
“Rings a vague bell. Isn’t that where some billionaire crashed his plane a few months ago?”
“Dex Lassiter. He ended up smack-dab in the middle of a murder investigation, too. But that’s a story for another day. Mystic Glades is the small town at the end of the road that you found, the same town where Lassiter ended up, a few miles south of the highway. The residents are a bit…eccentric…but mostly harmless. From what I hear.”
“Mostly? From what you hear? You’ve never been there?” Colton accelerated through the gate. Just as he’d expected, it slid closed behind him as he drove down the winding road.
“Never needed to. It’s rare for the police to get a call from a Mystic Glades resident. They tend to take care of whatever problems they have on their own. There have been a few hiccups recently, like with Lassiter. But other than that, the place is usually quiet.”
“There’s no permanent police presence?” Colton glanced at the NAV screen as he headed around another curve. The screen blinked off and on. He frowned and tapped it again.
“The people of Mystic Glades don’t really cotton to outsiders, or police. Although I hear they’re starting to cater a bit to tourists that have heard about the place because of Lassiter’s case. Still, I wouldn’t expect them to exactly welcome anyone unless they bring the almighty dollar with them and plan to leave without it. But don’t worry. You’re in an unmarked car and you’ve gone grunge, so I doubt they’ll even look twice at you. They might even think you’re one of them.”
Colton rolled his eyes and glanced at his reflection in the rearview mirror. Grunge wasn’t his thing, but the description wasn’t too far off for how he looked right now. Since going undercover, he’d let his dark hair grow almost to his shoulders and worked diligently every morning to achieve a haven’t-shaved-in-days look without letting it get out of control and become an itchy beard. His usual military-short hair and clean-shaven jaw would be a red flag to the types of thugs he’d been hanging with lately. They’d smell “cop” the second he walked through the door, thus the unkempt look. His new look did have the advantage of making getting dressed every morning a no-brainer. A pair of jeans and a T-shirt and he was good to go. Not like his usual fare of business suits that he wore as a detective.
“Just how far off the interstate is this place? I’ve gone about three miles and all I see are trees and saw grass.” A black shadow leaped from the ditch on the right side of the road just a few feet in front of his car. He swore and slammed his brakes, sliding to a stop. But whatever he’d seen had already crossed to the other side and disappeared behind some bushes.
“You okay?” Drew asked.
“Yeah. Something ran out in front of me. I’d swear it was a black panther, but that doesn’t seem likely. They’re pretty rare around here.”
“Nothing would surprise me in Mystic Glades. But I’d be more worried about the boa constrictors people let loose out there once they get too big and eat the family dog. And gators, of course. Watch your step when you get out of the car.”
Colton could hear the laughter in Drew’s voice. He could just imagine the ribbing he’d get at their next poker game if he did manage to tangle with a snake or gator. Assuming that he lived to tell about it.
“You sure you don’t want to trade places?” Colton asked. “You sound as if you’re having way too much fun at my expense.”
Drew didn’t bother hiding his laughter this time. When he quit chuckling, he said, “You couldn’t get me out there if you held a gun to my head. There’s a reason I traded undercover work long ago for an office. I like my snake-free, air-conditioned, pest-free zone. Did I mention how big the palmetto bugs are in the Glades? It’s like they’re on steroids or something.”
“Don’t remind me. That’s why my last girlfriend left me. She couldn’t handle the humidity or the giant bugs here in Florida.”
“Serves you right for dating a Yankee. And for picking up a woman while on vacation at Disney World. What did you expect? Wedding bells?”
Colton grinned and started forward again, keeping his speed low so he wouldn’t accidentally veer off the narrow path into the water-clogged canals now bordering each side. He didn’t mind Drew teasing him about Camilla. Dating her had been a wild whirlwind of fun. Exactly what each of them had wanted. Neither of them had expected it to last. He had no intention of ever leaving Florida and offered no apologies for his modest, blue-collar roots. And Camilla’s perfectly manicured toes were firmly planted in the upper-crust society back in Boston.
It had been a hot, sweet, exceptionally pleasurable three weeks and they’d parted friends, but with no plans to reconnect in the future. With the kind of life he led, that was for the best. Disappearing for months at a time while undercover didn’t create a foundation for an enduring relationship. And he loved his job far too much to consider giving it up, at least not for a few more years.
“Another thing to look out for,” Drew said. “I’ve heard that electronics go kind of wacky around there.”
Colton thumped his GPS screen, which alternated between showing a moving dot and blacking out every other second. “Yeah, I see that.”
“Cell phones are especially unreliable out there. Except maybe in a few choice spots. You might not be able to get a call out for backup if something goes wrong. Keep that in mind before jumping into anything. When you check back in with me, you’ll probably have to head outside Mystic Glades to do it.”
“Understood.” He drove around another curve and then pulled to a stop. Directly in front of him on an archway over the road was an alligator-shaped sign announcing the entrance to Mystic Glades.
He inched forward, then stopped again just beneath the archway, blinking at what seemed like a mirage. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said into the phone. “Mystic Glades looks like someone took an 1800s spaghetti Western town and plopped it right into the middle of the Everglades. I’m at the end of a long dirt-and-gravel road with a line of wooden buildings on either side. Instead of sidewalks, they’ve got honest-to-goodness boardwalks out front. Like in horse-and-buggy days.”
The phone remained silent. Colton pulled it away and looked at the screen. No bars. No signal. The call had been dropped. Great. He put the phone away and checked the GPS. That screen was dark now, too. Useless, just as Drew had warned.
He debated his next move. Going in blind didn’t appeal to him, with no way to let his boss know if he needed help. But working undercover often put him in situations where he couldn’t call for days or even weeks at a time. So this wasn’t exactly new territory. Plus, the kid he was after was just a few days past his eighteenth birthday and still had the lanky, gangly body of a teenager. Physically, he wasn’t a threat to Colton’s six-foot-three frame, and probably had half his muscle mass, if that. But if Colton discovered the other members in the burglary ring out here—and their leader—he could be at a huge disadvantage by sheer numbers alone, not to mention whatever firepower the group had.
His undercover persona so far hadn’t managed to get him inside the ring, but he’d been living on the streets in Naples where most of the burglaries had occurred, developing contacts. And he’d heard enough through those contacts, along with his team’s detective work back at the station, to put the burglary ring at around fifteen strong, possibly more. He even knew the identities of a handful of them. But without being sure who their leader was, and having evidence to use against him, Colton needed some kind of key to break the case open. Right now that key appeared to be the group’s weakest link, Eddie Rafferty. A small fish in the big pond, Eddie would be the perfect bait to draw the others out. But to use him as bait, first Colton had to catch him.
Even though he didn’t see the rust-bucket Caddy anywhere, he might have caught the break he needed. Because little Eddie Rafferty had just stepped out of a business called Callahan’s Watering Hole and was sauntering toward the far end of the street.
Time to go fishing.