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Marshland Justice Series (Book#4)
Many women went missing outside Mystic Glades. She escaped.
When he took the job, Zack Scott heard about the horrors waiting in the swamp. So when Kaylee Brighton dashed into the road like the devil was on her tail, the new police chief gave her a safe place to recover. Imprisoned for months, Kaylee could lead Zack to her captor. Though Zack swore to protect her, only Kaylee knew the darkness that awaited them if she returned. She couldn't begin to understand what drove Zack, but she knew the importance of having him by her side. Because it wasn't enough for Kaylee to have escaped. Now it was time to take back her life.
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The campfire crackled and cast eerie light and shadows on its young audience, their faces rapt with attention, eyes big and round as the storyteller wove his tale. Sitting on the opposite side of the fire a few feet away from the children, Mystic Glades Chief of Police Zack Scott and his friend, Collier County Detective Cole Larson, waited for the story to be over so they could escort their young charges back into town.
Just fifty yards away, beneath an alligator-shaped sign on an archway, was the entrance to the eccentric, quirky town of Mystic Glades. Hidden deep in the Florida Everglades, several miles from the section of I-75 known as Alligator Alley, the town was home to a couple hundred residents. Downtown consisted of one long dirt and gravel street with wooden clapboard one and two-story businesses lining both sides. And in front of the buildings was a wide, wooden boardwalk.
The whole setup screamed “Spaghetti Western,” an image that was enhanced by the fact that many residents wore firearms either holstered in plain sight or hidden in their pockets—a dangerous tradition that Zack was determined to change. But so far he wasn’t getting much traction, the argument being that the residents needed their guns because the snakes and alligators outnumbered them a hundred to one.
They had a point.
Everything that made Mystic Glades a difficult town, both to live in and police, made it “charming” and “interesting” to tourists. A recently created airboat tour company brought them up through the canals every morning and back home again at night, except for the few who stayed at the equally new Bed and Breakfast.
The town wasn’t on any map and was difficult to reach by car. The only reason that Zack knew about it was because his friend Cole had recruited him to become Mystic Glades’s first-ever official law-enforcement officer.
But as Zack sat on the rotten log, watching a mosquito buzz in front of his face—the same mosquito he’d been trying to swat away for the past two minutes—he was trying to remember why he’d thought that leaving his job a few months ago as a police officer in Murray, Kentucky, to come here had seemed like a good idea.
Smack! Got the bloodthirsty little sucker. He flicked the squashed mosquito off his arm then realized the clearing had gone silent. He jerked his head up. A dozen young faces stared at him, the storyteller’s spell broken. And on the other side of the campfire, gray-haired self-appointed town elder Buddy Johnson, the man in charge of tonight’s entertainment and the owner of the airboat company, narrowed his eyes with disapproval.
Cole gave Zack a shove. “You’re in trouble now,” he whispered. “Gandalf the Grey is not amused.”
Zack shoved him back. “I think I can handle the wrath of a man old enough to be my grandfather.”
“Don’t underestimate him. It might be the last mistake you ever make.” Cole waggled his eyebrows then laughed.
Zack shoved him so hard that Cole fell off the log they were sitting on. Zack smirked at his friend’s aggravated look. Cole was probably dying to let loose with a string of curses but couldn’t with the kids within hearing distance.
“Sorry, Buddy,” Zack called out as he offered a hand to help Cole up. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your story.”
Buddy shook his head as if he thought Zack was daft. “It’s not some made-up story. It’s the truth.” He waved his hands at the trees and soggy marsh of the Everglades surrounding them. “People disappear in these woods and are never heard from again. Mark my words. The Ghost of Mystic Glades is real.” He dramatically looked at each of the children until they were all focused on him once again. “And if you don’t mind your parents, and do your homework and your chores, he’ll come after you one day.”
Cole let out a deep sigh. Zack groaned. They both rose to their feet.
Zack could already see the kind of day he’d have tomorrow—an endless parade of concerned parents berating him for giving their kids nightmares. “I think we’ve had enough for one night. Thank you, Buddy, for…entertaining my future deputies.”
Cole snickered beside him. Zack would make him pay for that later.
“Let’s put out this fire and get back to town,” Zack said.
A collective grumble went up from the children.
“But I want to hear more about the Ghost of Mystic Glades,” one of the older girls in the group complained.
“Me, too,” the boy beside her called out, even though the wide-eyed look on his face said he’d rather go without dessert for a week than hear one more scary thing from Buddy Johnson. Zack figured the kid must have a major crush on the girl who’d spoken or he’d never have pretended his agreement.
Buddy waved his hands again, like a wizard casting spells—or an old man who should have known better than to terrify middle schoolers. “About five months ago, the Ghost of Mystic Glades kidnapped a woman named Sue Ellen Fullerton. She was never heard from again. Three months ago another young woman disappeared after going for a walk down a nature trail in the Everglades just a hop-skip down Alligator Alley from here. Her name was Kaylee Brighton. She just…vanished, without a trace. No one has ever heard from her again either.” He waved his arms with a flourish and the kids made “ooooh” noises.
Cole started laughing.
“Enough,” Zack called out to Buddy, then frowned at his friend. “Help me get them back to town before Buddy tells them the Loch Ness monster is lurking in the swamp. If we don’t nip this disaster right now, I just may set the world record for shortest career ever as chief of police.”
“Nah.” Cole motioned for the children to come over to them for the short trek back into town. “Your job is safe. No one else wants it.”
Zack sighed. Cole was teasing, but the words he’d said were true. It had taken several disasters, and a brand-new influx of tourists over the past few years to finally convince the hermit-like but growing town to admit they needed their own police force, instead of relying on Collier County or Broward County Police to step in when things went south. With Mystic Glades set so far back from the interstate, response times from both counties could range from twenty minutes to an hour depending on how far away any available deputies might be.
Even though they’d hired Zack to do the job, he met with opposition and resentment every day from the majority of the residents. Many preferred their previous, lawless existence. The rest of them seemed to consider him a necessary evil and a hindrance. And they went out of their way to remind him that even though his presence was a necessity, that didn’t mean they were happy that he was there. They’d expressed their discontent by super-gluing the front door shut on the brand-new police station.
And by switching the hot and cold water taps in the station’s only bathroom.
And, the prank that had garnered the most laughter and amusement, at his expense—sneaking a black panther into his bedroom while he slept—after taking his weapons out of the room to protect the panther. Never mind protecting him. He’d later found out that the panther—affectionately named Sampson—had no teeth and was the semi-tame pet of the woman who owned The Moon and Star just down the street from the station. But no one had bothered to tell him that the panther was harmless. He still flushed with embarrassment when he remembered how fast he’d broken out the bedroom window and hauled butt down the street to escape—key word being butt, as in butt naked.
“Who plays caboose this time?” Cole asked.
Buddy was already leading their little troop in a single-file line back to town, with the girl who’d been interested in hearing more of his stories at the head of the line beside him. From the animated look on the girl’s face, Zack could only imagine what kinds of tales Buddy was sharing with her now.
“I’ll get the fire. You can be the caboose,” Zack said.
“Having you do all the work is fine by me.”
Cole waved and hurriedly took his place at the end of the line to make sure that no one ventured off the path. Zack imagined the real reason Cole was so happy to shepherd the kids back to town was because it meant he could go home to his new bride that much sooner. He and Silver owned and lived in Mystic Glades’s only B and B.
Zack grabbed the bucket and shovel that he kept stored near the clearing for dousing the weekly campfires. He scooped up some swamp water and poured it on the fire then stirred the embers with the shovel, repeating the process until everything was cool to the touch. By the time he was satisfied that the fire was dead and out, with no potential to flare up later and endanger anyone, the line of children had long ago passed beneath the archway into town.
He stowed the bucket and shovel by an old oak tree for the next story time, optimistically assuming that there would be a next time after tonight’s scary-story fiasco. Winning over the children was part of his plan to win over their parents and was one of the reasons that he’d started story times and hiking and camping activities with the kids. The sooner he could get the residents to support his role as chief, the sooner he could sleep without one eye open, dreading their next prank.
Of course, if he didn’t fill the two open deputy positions, there was no chance of running a viable police force and gaining the respect of the citizens. Hopefully, at least one of the candidates that Cole had helped him line up to interview tomorrow in Naples could be convinced to move to Mystic Glades to take up a position. All of the previous candidates had bolted after reaching the part of the interview where Zack gave them the lowdown on life in his town. He was starting to think he should just lie and trick someone into moving here. After all, that was basically what Cole had done to him.
Cole’s wife’s inn had only recently been rebuilt after a drug-runner, using Mystic Glades as his personal home base, had burned it to the ground. The drug runner had been dealt with—thanks largely to Cole—and the town was a safe place to live once again.
But since Cole worked quite a distance away in Naples, he wanted to make sure the town, and the woman he loved, always had someone nearby to maintain order. So he’d ruthlessly used the town’s gratitude toward him to pressure them into putting up the funds to create the Mystic Glades Police Station and everything that entailed. In return, they’d made him promise to bring in someone worthy of the job as Chief who could then bring in the staff that he needed to get the job done. That’s why Cole had contacted Zack.
They’d met three years ago at a law-enforcement seminar in Nashville and had become fast friends. Cole knew that Zack was a career officer, hungry for advancement. So he’d dangled the carrot of becoming chief of police, of starting his own department from the ground up, betting that Zack would bite. Which he did, resigning his position and moving to Mystic Glades without even having visited the area first.
He should have been furious with Cole for tricking him, for painting the town to be a tropical paradise with a supportive township that would welcome his presence. Nothing could be further from the truth. But he knew how deeply Cole cared for Silver. His love for her had been clear over the phone, and painfully obvious once Zack had seen the two of them together. That was when Zack’s anger at his friend’s trickery had dissipated. Because Zack knew what it was like to love a woman that way. He’d found his soul mate right out of college. But before they could begin to plan their life together, she’d discovered she had breast cancer.
Four months later she was gone.
Zack closed his eyes, his body going rigid as pain washed through him. It had been five years since he’d lost Jo Lynne, and still the memories hit him when he least expected, making it hard to breathe. Coming here, leaving behind all of the places that constantly reminded him of her, had been even more of an incentive than becoming chief of police. But he was finding that age-old saying to be true—you can’t run from your past.
Especially if you carry the scars around inside you.
A high-pitched shriek shattered the night. Zack’s eyes flew open, his hand going to the pistol holstered on his hip as he studied the trees and bushes, turning a full three-sixty, trying to figure out where the sound had originated. Everything was quiet and still. Even the crickets. But not for long. They started up again, their rhythmic chirps punctuated by the occasional deep-throated croak of a bullfrog. But that shriek, the sound that had the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end, didn’t repeat. And the acoustics in this swampy, tree-filled part of the Glades made it impossible to pinpoint the direction where the sound had come from.
What had he heard? Could it have been a scream? As far as he knew, no one else was out here. The town was isolated, nothing around it for miles. And the residents knew better than to roam the swamp at night. There were far too many four-legged critters scavenging for food to make that safe. So what could have made that screech?
A swishing noise had him jerking his head up to see a large brown owl overhead, flapping its wings and gliding into the clearing. It landed on a cypress stump about ten feet away, blinking its dark, round eyes and watching him with lazy curiosity. The tension drained out of him and he let out a shaky laugh. An owl. He’d nearly drawn his gun on a bird. He shook his head and dropped his hand from the butt of his pistol. If his brothers back in Murray, Kentucky, could see him now, they’d laugh their fool heads off.
Having grown up painfully poor in the eastern part of the state, there’d been no video games or cable TV to keep him and his three brothers out of trouble. So they’d chased away boredom by playing cops and robbers in the thick woods and hills, or hide-and-seek in the twelve-foot-high rows of cornstalks on their daddy’s farm.
As they’d grown older, they’d learned to track and hunt, doing their part to thin out the herds of deer that would otherwise suffer and die of starvation or disease—or destroy the crops Zack’s family depended on to keep their bellies full and a roof over their heads. So he was quite familiar with the kinds of wild animals that roamed that part of the country, from the tracks they left to the sounds they made. But two months in southern Florida was hardly enough for him to get used to the wildlife around here. He’d just have to assume that the screech he’d heard had been made by the owl that was still blinking at him, as if wondering if he’d make a good next meal.
Maybe he’d Google owls later and figure out what kind this one was. But he’d have to wait until tomorrow morning’s planned trip into Naples. He certainly couldn’t search the internet here. Mystic Glades was notorious for interfering with the signals of electronic equipment, and he’d long ago given up trying to surf the net on his laptop. Even the GPS in his pickup truck rarely worked out here. Which was another reason that prospective deputies weren’t keen on moving to the Glades.
Living life without internet was inconceivable to many, downright prehistoric to others. He was still in withdrawal himself. Snapping a picture of some crazy thing he’d come across in the swamp and texting it to his buddies back home or his family was so second nature that he still found himself pulling out his phone several times a week to do just that.
Until he remembered he was living in the land that time forgot.
He started down the path again, but he kept a close eye on his surroundings. While residents of this backwater town, including the children, understood the dangers and took them in stride, this was all new to him. He was still learning how to acclimate himself to the hostile environment so he didn’t become a gator snack or experience the painful, possibly poisonous bite of a snake. Cottonmouths and rattlers weren’t uncommon out here.
But it wasn’t reptiles or the slithering inhabitants of the Everglades that had him studying everything with a keener eye than usual.
Buddy’s outlandish stories about monsters and people disappearing in the swamp had obviously gotten to him just as it had the children. Because even though he knew that mournful, terrified-sounding screech had to have come from the owl, he couldn’t help a niggling doubt that kept running through his mind.
What if I’m wrong?