by Mary Anna Evans
This story was previously published by Poisoned Pen Press in their Merry Band of Murderers anthology, and as part of Mary’s Jewel Box collection.
A composting toilet.
Garrett Levy already knew more than he wanted to know about composting toilets. Environmental engineering had sounded like a glamorous career when he signed up for it, but the reality had been…well, he should have known that cleaning up a planet wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Garrett had spent his years in graduate school learning how to treat various forms of toxic sludge, which meant that he’d spent an entire semester researching the intimate workings of composting toilets.
But he’d never seen one in a private home. Especially not a private home like this one. Congressman Joseph Swain lived in a rustic palace. A sprawling pile of wood and glass, it sat on pilings high above a riverine wetland. With broad eaves overhanging a vast outdoor living space, it was more porch than house. If there was a better place to host a hundred people for the weekend, Garrett couldn’t imagine it.
Congressman Swain’s voice echoed down the hall. “We wouldn’t think of installing a septic system out here, even if we could get a permit. This delicate ecosystem could never process the volume of human waste we’re generating here today. And people do seem to like my parties.”
The congressman arrived on the heels of his rumbling baritone. He appeared to spend most of those parties taking guests on tours of his environmentally perfect home. Garrett had trailed along after him long enough to hear the first part of his spiel, then drifted away to check out the plumbing. It seemed that his proud tour guide had caught up with him. The bathroom was spacious, but it wasn’t built for five. Garrett sidled toward the door, only to have his escape aborted.
“Welcome, Mr. Levy,” the politician said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “It’s so good to have a representative of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection among us.”
Garrett was impressed that the man knew who he was. He didn’t ordinarily party with the movers-and-shakers, but his friend Ken had invited Garrett to meet him out here. Maybe Ken had told Swain earlier in the week that he was bringing a guest. Garrett’s cell phone company had been a tad too slow in forwarding the message that Ken was home sick with the flu, so he was here alone, trying not to look like a short, balding wallflower.
“With your experience and training, Mr. Levy,” Swain continued, “you can appreciate the things we do here. Solar panels give us electricity, water from the sinks and toilets is treated and sent to our spray field, and all our biodegradable waste is composted —food, paper, even…well, maybe we don’t want to go into the details of this composting toilet.” A well-coifed redhead tittered.
“Composting toilets violate one of our most deep-rooted taboos—keeping our waste out of sight—but they make the best kind of sense. Why waste drinkable water for flushing? Not to mention the problems involved in disposing of treated waste from our sewage plants. Why not turn it into clean, sanitary compost, right in your own home, then use it to make the world around you greener?”
The redhead recoiled, then followed Garrett as he made his escape. “No wonder Wynnda hates this place,” she muttered under her breath. Realizing she had an audience, she turned her bleach-enhanced smile on Garrett. “Do you know that Wynnda says Joseph wants to be out here every single day the legislature’s not in session? She told him to make himself at home, but she’d be staying in Tallahassee, where she has air conditioning and the bugs stay outside where they belong. And where she has a toilet that flushes.” She shuddered and hurried downstairs to the bar.
Garrett strolled out on the balcony. He looked down at the throng gathered on the deck below. They milled around, like the insects that had converged on the congressman’s open-air buffet. Hell, everything was open-air here.
In the far corner of the deck stood a cluster of women who, like the congressman’s other guests, didn’t belong in the swamp. This was not a place for lipstick or toenail polish, but five women with colorful lips and toes stood heads-together, whispering as if they thought they might be heard above the din of the crowd and the soaring melodies of the bluegrass band standing twenty feet away. He recognized Wynnda Swain at the center of the group. Her straight ash-blonde hair framed flawless, pale skin. She was exquisite and so, to Garrett’s eyes, was this house and the wild land around it, but it was no setting for a woman like this one.
Congressman Swain led his tour group out onto the deck and gestured magnanimously toward the bar. He stood nearly a head taller than anyone else around him, and the sunlight caught his shock of white hair. Being handsome was a valuable political tool. Another bunch of sycophants clad in chinos and deck shoes gathered around him.
They were dressed appropriately for the boats that had brought them here, and those rubber-soled low-top shoes would carry them easily down the boardwalk leading from the river to the house, but they’d be wise to stay clear of the wetlands ringing the tiny, sandy spot of high ground that Swain had tamed. North Florida mud would suck the shoes right off their feet. Garrett didn’t think he’d seen anyone at the party, other than him, wearing solid, sensible boots.
He looked down on Swain as he beckoned to Wynnda. Wives could also be valuable political tools, and the congressman had somehow coerced his to attend this party, but he was powerless to make her look happy about it.
An olive-skinned man, short and stout with powerful shoulders, staggered out the balcony door and leaned against the railing, standing about six inches closer than Garrett would have preferred. His personal policy was to keep drunks at least a couple of feet away.
Garrett noticed that, below his khaki shorts, the man’s right lower leg was encased in white plaster cast and a sandal-like apparatus was strapped around his foot, presumably to protect the cast from whatever its wearer might step in. The other foot was clad in a boot even more worn than Garrett’s own. He rethought his snap judgement. Maybe the man wasn’t drunk. He might be staggering under the influence of his lopsided shoes.
Garrett re-revised his opinion. His companion was quite inebriated. Garrett, who’d learned not to encourage drunks who want to talk, allowed himself two words. “How so?”
“How else do you explain a hypocritical jerk like that one,” he said, gesturing toward Swain, “being blessed with all this?” A stubby hand waved through the air, encompassing the spectacular house and its overhanging live oaks. Maybe the beautiful wife, too.
Garrett studied the palm-adorned uplands and the marsh and swamp that surrounded them, sheltering a river that was just out of sight. Nestled into the trees below the balcony where they stood was the crown jewel of Swain’s property. In Garrett’s considered opinion, no one man deserved to possess a piece of nature so beautiful, though he would give the congressman credit for sharing it with his party-going friends.
From their perch on the balcony, Garrett and his drunken companion could gaze down into the opalescent depths of that jewel, a first-magnitude limestone spring. Glass-clear water poured out of the bowels of the earth into its basin, then overspilled into a channel that carried it through an open marsh, then into swampy woods and, eventually, into the river. Some of Swain’s guests had donned scuba gear to explore the cavern that disgorged all that crystalline water. They were dozens of feet below the surface, but Garrett could read the logos printed across the backs of their swim trunks.
Named McGilray’s Hole by a long-gone pioneer, Joseph Swain had had the great good sense to buy the property that sheltered it back when he was a very young man and treasures like this one were still undervalued.
The story of how he built his own personal paradise here was well-known to anybody who read Florida newspapers. Swain had immediately begun the house, doing as much of the work himself as he could. He had cut the trees himself, taking out as few as possible, and having them cut into the lumber that framed the structure that had become, for him, the ultimate recycling project. He’d taught himself to do construction work out of books. Then, when his legal practice took off, he had hired professionals to expand the original structure into the home of his dreams.
And he did it all before the wetlands protection laws went into effect that would have made building on this land impossible.
A thought struck him. Garrett squinted at the man at his side. “Did you say ‘hypocrite?’”
“I own the adjacent property, just upriver. Inherited it from my old man about ten years ago. I’d love to have a place like this.”
“But you can’t get a permit to build one?”
“Damn straight. As soon as Swain got his place just the way he wanted it, he spearheaded tough conservation laws through the legislature. No way he could build a house like this any more. Nobody else can, either. Look around. You see anybody else living out here? I can use my land for hunting and fishing, but that’s about it.”
Garrett looked across the pristine waters of McGilray’s Hole, deep into the trees beyond. The swampy woodland floor was alive with a yellow blanket of late-summer sneezeweed. Here and there, the foamy white flowers of water hemlock rose up on stalks as tall as a woman. Was it any wonder the Spanish called this place ‘La Florida—the Land of the Flowers’?
“How do the landowners in these parts feel about Swain’s approach to environmental protection?”
“Then why are you at this man’s party, Mr.—”
“Marquez. Stan Marquez.”
“I’m Garrett Levy.”
The man stuck out a hand dripping with water that had condensed on the surface of his mug. “Why am I here? For the free beer.” He chuckled. “I called all the landowners up and down the river when I heard Swain was having another one of his open-house shindigs. I told them that the congressman needed to see us, face-to-face. There would’ve been no need to say anything to him—-he knows who we are. I just wanted him to remember that we live here too, and that we vote. Nobody but me had the guts to show up.”
“Do you think it would have helped if your friends had come?”
Marquez snorted. “Hell, no. He doesn’t need us, and we all know it. Swain built his career on the environmental vote, and he gives them what they want. You know what he’s pushing these days?”
Garrett just shook his head.
“He wants to buy some land to make a wildlife corridor. I got nothing against that idea. If we keep paving Florida, there won’t be any wild land left except for a few parks here and there. Swain wants to buy land to connect the parks we got, so that the animals can have more space to roam. Makes sense to me. But do you know how he wants to pay for those corridors?”
Garrett shook his head again.
“Property taxes. He wants me to pay more taxes on property that I can’t use.” He pushed away from the balcony railing and headed back inside. “I think I need a little more of Swain’s free beer.”
Garrett circled McGilray’s Hole. It was gorgeous, but it had hardly been treated like the prized possession of a sincere environmentalist. The rampant vegetation that should have lined its banks was gone. Unless Garrett missed his guess, Swain kept the larger plants knocked back with herbicide, then fertilized the swathe of green lawn that set off the spring’s blue-green glow so perfectly. He had no choice but to fertilize. The natural soil around the spring was almost pure sand; it could never support the kind of grass Americans liked to walk on. The excess nutrients in the fertilizer obviously washed into the water. Where else could they go? Garrett thought about the downstream damage to the river caused, year after year, by pouring chemicals in water where they didn’t need to be.
He had no sense that the other guests noticed their host’s attack on the environment that he loved so loudly, but Garrett’s job made him sensitive to such things. It was impossible to work for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection without being acutely aware of all the ways humans could spoil the landscape that had attracted them to Florida in the first place.
He was tempted to stroll up to Congressman Swain and ask, “If you can spray poison anywhere you like, how come Wynnda can’t have an air conditioner?” Not being the type to cause trouble, he decided to take a walk instead. He was ready to escape Joseph Swain’s well-manicured version of nature, so that he could spend some time soaking up the real thing.
The real Florida wasn’t far away. Before long, Garrett was picking his way down a lightly traveled trail that led from the sandy uplands down into the surrounding marsh. Waist-high maidencane brushed against him on both sides. He wished for his snake leggings, but they weren’t ordinary party attire, so he’d left them at home.
When the land turned liquid beneath his boots and the swamp tupelo reached up high enough to shade out a portion of the late summer sun, he made himself a bet. If any of Congressman Swain’s guests had ever left a party and ventured this far into Florida’s more inhospitable territory, then he would, by God, eat those ancient leather snake leggings.
Garrett was never so at home as when he was deep in a swamp full of treacherous snakes and reptiles that would like to kill him. He could think of nothing that would lure him back to the den of human treachery at Swain’s party…nothing but the double gunshot that split the humid summer air.
The bark of two nearly simultaneous shots sounded wrong. Not being a gun person, Garrett had only television shootings to go by, but he didn’t think he’d ever heard a television star squeeze off just two rounds on an automatic weapon. If forced to guess, he would have said that this sounded like two people firing at almost the same time—like a shootout at the OK Corral. More likely, he’d heard two hunters trying to fell the same deer. This sounded like bad manners to Garrett, who had never hunted in his life. Wouldn’t they have had some agreement beforehand on who took the shot? Otherwise, how would they know who bagged the trophy?
Garrett had no doubt that hunters prowled the woods in these parts, in and out of season, but the shots sounded way too close. Hunters had ears like rabbits. They would have heard the twanging music and the rumble of the crowd. There was plenty of wilderness around here where people weren’t. Hunters would have steered clear.
Wishing harder for his snake leggings, Garrett struck out through the marsh in the direction where he thought he’d heard the shots. Within minutes, he had reached the bank of a large creek. Judging by the direction of its flow, he guessed that it was a tributary of the river that fed the wetlands stretching in every direction, as far as he could see. He imagined that the creek had once been a meandering rill, nourishing vegetation on its banks and along its bottom. It had once birthed damsel flies and apple snails and plump silvery fish, but not any more. It had been raped.
Dredges had gouged out its bottom and bitten into its banks, ripping away the natural meanders into a straight and muddy channel. Two large power boats were moored at a floating dock. A tank was bolted to the dock, and its nozzle was hemorrhaging fuel, one drop at a time. The setting sun lit up a rainbow slick that lay atop the water in a broad circle centered on the tank and its nozzle. There had been no attempt to hide the brown and withered weeds along the water’s edge. Someone had sprayed herbicide along both banks, with gusto.
Garrett wished for a camera. He would have to report this flagrant violation of environmental law. It was his job and, what was more, he would have reported it even if it weren’t, simply as an enraged citizen.
Upstream, above the point where the environmental carnage ended and nature’s creekside weeds began, sat a small man holding a long cane fishing pole.
“Did you hear those shots?” he called to the fisherman, choking back the question he truly wanted to ask. Did you do this? Why would you murder this slice of creation?
“Hunters,” the man said, reaching down and lifting a stringer of sunfish out of the water. “Most of them’s got good enough sense to stay clear of people, but not all.”
The fisherman’s frayed clothing and patched boots told Garrett that he didn’t own the power boats or the dock where they were moored. There was no other, more modest, boat in sight, and there was no other way to reach this spot, but Garrett knew that Stan Marquez had told the truth. Swain’s house was the only one for miles around. Well, it was the only one built with a legal permit. So where had this guy come from?
“My name’s Garrett Levy,” he said, putting out a hand. “Do you live around here?”
The other man stuck out the hand that wasn’t holding the pole and the stringer. “Frank McGilray. And, yes, I do live around here.” He lifted his catch for Garrett to see. “I got carried away and caught way more fish than I can eat before they rot. I’ll clean ‘em and cook ‘em, if you’ll help me eat ‘em.”
Garrett took a split-second longer to respond than was strictly polite. He was assessing the cleanliness of the water where the fish were caught, which wasn’t bad, as opposed to the cesspool a few dozen yards downstream. He decided that no self-respecting fish who had a choice would spend time in water that bad, so these were perfectly edible. Probably.
“I’d love to.”
He followed Frank down a path that ended at a small clearing. There stood a tiny cabin inhabiting fewer square feet than the extensive vegetable garden beside it. The cabin had to be a hundred or more years old, and so did the outhouse behind it. Frank McGilray would have enjoyed a composting toilet in a way that Wynnda Swain couldn’t. Such things depending on one’s point of view.
This cabin’s roof had no solar panels like the ones that powered Swain’s naturalist fantasy. There was no glass in its windows to divide its inhabitant from nature, just rusted and patched screens. Garrett had amused himself many times by imagining a life this close to the land, but he knew he wasn’t tough enough to live it. Five minutes ago, he would have said that no American was tough enough, not any more. Apparently, he was wrong.
The fried fish had been delicious. The home-brewed whiskey, while not delicious, had gone a long way toward explaining why Frank’s corn patch was so darn big. Garrett consumed nearly a tumblerful of the stuff before he got the nerve to ask the question that had been bugging him for hours.
“You don’t seem like the creek-dredging type, Frank. And I’ve watched you swat mosquitoes since sundown. If bug spray’s not your thing, then I don’t think it was you who doused the whole countryside with weedkiller.”
Frank upended his own tumbler. “It all started when Swain got attacked by a bull gator.”
“How come he’s still alive?”
“A smart man don’t walk through these swamps unarmed. Being smarter than Swain, I shot the gator. Swain lost a hunk of meat out of his thigh, but he healed.”
“When was this?”
“About ten years after he bought this property from me. I enjoyed that first ten years, and I think he did, too. He hired me to stay on as a caretaker, since he couldn’t live out here, not and keep his job. All week, he’d work in town being a lawyer, so he could afford to come out here on the weekends. This land is the only place he’s happy, I’d say. He’d tie his boat up, throw his sleeping bag on the floor right there, then we’d get to work building his house. Took us a lot of years, and when he was done with it, our friendship was done, too.”
Garrett looked around the cabin. There were gaps in the walls big enough to let in the most monstrous palmetto bugs. The whole room smelled like Frank, and Frank smelled like a man who’d never had running water in his life. It was a warm, earthy smell that wafted out of Frank as if it were embedded into his skin, and Garrett liked it, in a weird sort of way. It was real. Swain had been comfortable with this cabin and its funk for years. Why did he suddenly start trying to tame the wilderness?
A vision of the denuded and maimed creek rose in front of his moonshine-addled eyes. “The gators. He’s destroying their habitat so that they’ll stay away.”
“He wasn’t about to leave his own private paradise. What else was he going to do?” Garrett thought of the alligators of Florida, lurking like black, lumpy logs in every wet patch they could find. Trying to drive every last one of them out of any swamp was an act of supreme hubris, but then, Swain was a politician, wasn’t he? Hubris was his birthright.
“What about you, Frank? You watched the alligator attack Swain. Do gators scare you now, the way they scare him?”
“They don’t bother me none. I think they kinda like me. When I wade out in the water, they swim over toward me a little ways, then they stop. It’s like they want to visit. Maybe they like my smell.”
Garrett had heard of stranger things.
At daybreak, Garrett found that Frank’s homemade whiskey didn’t just taste like jet fuel, it left behind a hangover with the power of a just-lit afterburner. He was lying, fully clothed, on the hand-hewn planks of Frank’s cabin floor, wanting only one thing…to go home. He could do it, too. Too cautious to commit to an entire weekend of open-air partying, he had brought his own boat, instead of relying on Swain’s flotilla of pontoon boats. It was moored to the expansive dock that stretched along the riverfront boundary of the congressman’s land. The hangover might force him to ooze on his belly like a snake through the marshlands that separated him from Swain’s house and the river beyond, but he wanted to go home bad.
Using the kitchen table to pull himself to his feet, Garrett found that he could actually walk. Frank was passed out on the couch, so he grunted politely in his host’s direction and staggered out the door and through the marsh.
He found Swain’s house awash in sleeping people. There were sleeping bags thrown willy-nilly across the decks and on the porches and balconies, and all of them were occupied. Hammocks hung from trees, and tents had been pitched beneath the encircling trees.
Garrett was seized with the desire to see McGilray’s Hole one more time, now that he’d partied with McGilray’s descendant and heir. He walked through neatly trimmed greenery to the water’s edge and stared down deep into the spring’s cold blue depths. A massive alligator swam down toward the chasm that disgorged all that water, day in and day out.
Clamped in the gator’s jaws was a man with a gleaming shock of white hair.
The only vestige remaining of Garrett’s hangover was the nausea, and there could have been other explanations for that. Perhaps it stemmed from the exertion of racing to the house to wake the scuba divers who might stand a chance of saving Joseph Swain. Would they have brought spear guns with them? Could you bring a twelve-foot gator down with a spear gun? He didn’t know.
Deep down, he knew that these were empty questions. Every Floridian knew that gators liked to drag their living victims into the depths, roll them over and over, then wedge them under something that would keep them underwater until their dead body ripened to reptilian tastes. So perhaps Swain could have been saved when the gator first grabbed him, but not now. No living man would have hung so passively from those powerful jaws, arms and legs trailing through the water like eelgrass.
Perhaps the nausea stemmed from his single glimpse of Wynnda Swain’s haunted face as she raced to the water’s edge, clad in an incongruously delicate nightgown the same shade of silken gold as her toenails.
Or perhaps his stomach continued to heave because of the role he’d played in fetching Swain’s body. The scuba divers had donned their gear lightning-fast, but Frank McGilray had been faster. Alerted by Swain’s screaming guests, Frank had traveled the trail from his house at a dead run. He had pitched a weathered shotgun at Garrett, bellowing, “If the gator surfaces, shoot him.” Then he dove into the depths of McGilray’s hole with a smooth grace that left Garrett confident that he could shoot the gator if need be.
As Frank swooped down through the water, the gator’s jaws loosened and Swain floated free of its wicked teeth. The beast backed away, deliberately but steadily, giving Frank space to grab the dead man and head for the surface. When his head broke the water, Garrett threw the gun aside and helped haul the men, one living and one dead, onto dry land.
Swain’s body, sprawled on the spring’s bank, looked…wrong. There was very little blood staining the puncture holes in his shirt, and there were few other obvious wounds, except for a grievous injury to his head.
Would a gator’s teeth have done that kind of damage? There was a single hole in Swain’s left temple, but the right side of his head was effectively gone. Garrett was no expert, but he would have guessed that the man was shot.
Stan Marquez was standing beside Swain’s shoulder, staring down at his busted skull with the intense concentration of a man doing calculus in his head. Garrett remembered that Marquez was a hunter. He had no doubt seen what bullets could do to animals. He’d surely recognize a gunshot wound when he saw one.
Garrett took a breath, ready to cry out, “Did anybody besides me hear shots last night about sundown?”, but he stifled the question. If Swain had indeed been shot, the odds were good that there was a killer among them.
Questions boiled out of the crowd. “Who saw him last?” and “Can anybody tell if he’s been dead long?” and “Who’s going to call the sheriff?”
Garrett had been to campouts like this one before. At sundown, people withdrew to their tents and hammocks. Guitars and banjos came out. So did liquor bottles. Partiers sat huddled around bonfires and camp lanterns in clusters of four or five or seven. It was absolutely possible that Swain could have been gone without being missed since sunset…since those gunshots sounded.
The only discordant note in that theory was Wynnda. She would have known that he didn’t sleep in their bedroom. Wouldn’t she have gone looking for him? Ordinarily, yes, any woman would worry if her husband didn’t come to bed. Unless she was accustomed to it.
Garrett cried out, “I’ll call nine-one-one,” fetching his cell phone out of his pocket. Glad to have an excuse to back away from all the people and find a quiet place, he ducked behind the house and called the emergency personnel.
When the dispatcher heard where Garrett was, she let out a little puff of breath. “It’ll take at least an hour to get somebody to you, maybe a lot more. Do you want me to stay on the line?”
“No, but you better send the sheriff along with the paramedics. Some of us think it was murder.”
Garrett was surprised at his need—-no, his deep-seated drive-—to find out who killed Joseph Swain. He hadn’t known the man, and he hadn’t liked what he’d seen of him, but his sense of justice was strong and it had been offended today, as surely as it had been offended by the environmental murder of the little creek that he’d seen the day before.
And perhaps his sense that this death was a puzzle to be unraveled, like a knotty thermodynamics problem, was rooted in his engineering training. If he was right in his suspicions, Swain had been dead all night. The evidence was deteriorating, fading into the marsh as each second passed. Spatters of blood were being consumed by insects.
Spongy soil was springing back into shape, obscuring footprints. Each tick of the clock gave the killer time to obliterate any traces left behind. Justice couldn’t wait for an hour.
If Swain had been killed when those shots sounded at dusk, then he had been deep in the marsh. Garrett bolted in that direction, intent on finding the spot where the congressman had died. It must have been somewhere near the creek where he’d met Frank. He stumbled when he realized what that meant. Frank could have been Swain’s killer.
Garrett reasoned that Frank couldn’t be eliminated as a suspect-—nobody could at this point—-but his gut said the man was innocent, for two reasons. First, Frank had had countless opportunities to kill Swain and he would have countless more. They were routinely alone together in the deep wilderness. Under those conditions, Frank could have had every expectation of getting away with murder. Why should he kill Swain now, with a hundred witnesses nearby?
What was more, Garrett had seen Frank’s face when he pulled his longtime friend out of the water. There had been a tenderness there, a grief more heartfelt than even Swain’s wife showed. Which begged the question of whether Wynnda Swain might have pulled the trigger on her husband. Her unhappiness was palpable. Murder was certainly not the only option in escaping a bad marriage, but Garrett had friends who had been divorced from lawyers. The results were never pretty.
“Hey, Garrett! Hold up!”
Stan Marquez rushed toward him. The cast on his leg flashed white against the rank undergrowth hampering his progress. His injured leg gave him a lopsided, galloping gait, but it didn’t seem to slow him down. Garrett realized that his subconscious had been considering and casting aside suspects, while his conscious mind focused on which soggy bit of land was most likely to support his next step. He hadn’t considered Stan because he’d doubted that the man could have hobbled out to the murder site. Perhaps he’d been wrong.
Stan was a hunter. He knew how to use a gun. He knew how to get around in the swamp. He had ample reason to hate Swain. And he was running headlong toward Garrett.
A cold sweat prickled Garrett’s backbone. He’d been treating the situation like a problem with a solution that could be neatly calculated. Now he might be alone in the wilderness with a hunter whose freshest kill was human.
Stan was twenty feet away and moving fast, until his bad leg went down ankle-deep in a mud hole.
“Damn. My doctor’s going to kill me. My wife, too.”
The cast. It had been clean when Garrett first spotted Stan, and he’d watched it grow progressively dirtier with every step. It would have been impossible for the man to have hiked out to the creek, shot Swain, and returned to the party without completely trashing the white plaster cast. Stan didn’t kill the congressman.
“Wait, Stan. If you come any further, the mud’ll suck that thing off your leg altogether.”
The big man stood still. “But you need help. I’d bet money that Swain wasn’t killed by any gator. Somebody shot his head nearly off. I heard shots late yesterday and, judging by the directions you’re headed, I think you did, too. Nobody at the party paid much attention, figuring it was hunters, but I wondered. I can’t let you go out there alone.”
“I’ll be okay. The killer won’t be standing on the spot where he killed Swain, waiting for me. But you can help. Go back to the party and look for tracks. The soil around McGilray’s Hole is light and sandy, but the rest of the dirt around here is black muck like this.” He gestured at the heavy mud coating their boots. “If you see mud anywhere near the house, we’ll want to know who tracked it back to the party. Check the decks, especially. This kind of muck will be obvious on the bare wood.”
He tried to think like someone with something major to hide.
“Look on the banks around the spring and along the river, too. You could rinse off the top layer of mud by just wading in the water, but it would take soap and a scrub brush to get really clean. So check everybody’s feet.”
“Only a nut would go wading around here after dark. That’s when the gators come out.”
“True, but check anyway. And check the dock and the boats. See if it looks like somebody cleaned up out there. They would have needed to stash their dirty clothes somewhere, and the river’s spring-fed, so it’s too clear for them to sink the evidence.”
Stan looked pensive. “The killer’s in a real hole. The only safe place around here to hide dirty clothes and boots is in the swamp, and he’ll get muddy again, trying to get out of the swamp.”
“Or she,” Garrett said, thinking of Wynnda. “I’ll take the house. I’ll need to check the bathrooms for—-”
“Bathtub rings. Dirty towels. Stuff like that.”
The spot where Swain died hadn’t proven hard to find. He’d left a trail behind him. Blood and tissue had spattered onto a nearby tree. And the broad, wallowed-out trail of a gator led toward the nearby creek.
The site told him nothing about who killed Swain or why, but it might reveal far more to forensics experts. Garrett stayed well clear, doing his best to avoid contaminating any evidence. At least he’d be able to get the investigators here quickly. He headed back to the house, hoping to uncover something that would point to the guilty party.
The yard around Swain’s house was filled with people who had clean feet. The porches and stairs and decks were tracked with only grass and sand. The floors inside were clean, because Swain’s guests were well-brought-up. They wiped their feet on the doormats provided. The doormats were free of mud, until Garrett wiped his own mucky feet on them.
Stan rushed up and whispered, “The dock was clean. So were the boats.”
Garrett thanked him and continued his methodical search of the house. The bathrooms were as clean as could be expected, considering that a hundred people had been present for twenty hours. The composting toilet offered an interesting twist for an amateur detective. An ordinary toilet might have concealed some evidence of a killer cleaning up evidence. A dirty washrag could be flushed. Even muddy socks could go down the sewage pipes, one at a time.
A composting toilet, on the other hand, stored waste in a holding tank, until it was treated and ready for removal. A dirty washrag and a pair of socks could be waiting in one of the toilets’ tanks, but Garrett considered retrieving them a job for the police.
Single-minded in his search, he burst into the master bedroom, only to find Wynnda standing at the window, weeping. She was still wrapped in the gold silk she’d slept in, and she still looked as out-of-place as a porcelain doll floating in a mud puddle. Women like Wynnda had always made Garrett feel like his voice was too loud and his feet were too big. Today, his big feet were coated in muck.
“I—-I was looking for a bathroom,” he croaked.
She pointed with a neatly manicured hand, and he stumbled into a room where every porcelain surface gleamed. Wynnda had not scrubbed half a swamp’s worth of mud off her body in here, but he’d known that as soon as he saw her.
Garrett had spent a life enjoying nature, then washing it off himself when he got home. He wore high-top hiking boots when he went into wetlands. Nevertheless, when he got home, there was invariably soil ground into his heels. Muddy water always sloshed over the tops of his boots, leaving black dirt clinging to his cuticles and the rough skin on the ball of the foot.
If Wynnda had ventured out into the marsh last night to kill her husband, she could have spent the whole night with soap and a scrub brush and nail polish remover and cuticle moisturizer, but the creamy skin on her feet would still not have the flawless sheen he’d just observed.
Garrett backed out of the widow’s marriage chamber, mumbling apologies. There was only one person whose feet were dirty enough to be the killer of Wynnda’s husband. Remembering the double-shot he’d heard, Garrett finally realized why Swain had been killed, and that motive affected him so personally that he had no choice but to confront the killer. And he felt reasonably sure that he’d be safe in doing so.
Frank sat in the spot where Garrett first saw him. Raising a hand in greeting, he said, “I’ve been waiting for you. I knew you’d figure it out, and I wanted to say good-bye.”
“You saved my life.”
“I loved Swain in my own way, even after he raped my land and killed my creek, but I couldn’t let him shoot you. It was so hard to pull that trigger on my friend that I was almost too late. My bullet caught him just as he fired on you but, thank God, his shot went wild. Do you understand why he wanted you dead?”
“He knew I worked for the state environmental agency, and he knew what would happen if I saw what he’d done to the creek. That’s the worst case of illegal dredging I’ve ever seen. The agency would have hauled him into court. The fines and the cost of restoration would have been astronomical. More to the point, his political career would have been in the toilet. Has he carried a gun ever since the alligator attack?”
“Yep. And I always have. Cottonmouths in these parts are worse than gators. When I saw him draw a bead on an unarmed man, I had no choice but to drop him. You’d have done the same.”
The part of him that abhorred guns and what they did to people said, “No,” but the part of him that craved justice nodded in agreement.
“I wish I didn’t try to hide it yesterday, though,” Frank went on. “I should have told you what I’d done, soon as I saw you. Instead, I left him laying there, because I was scared. Then I took you back to my house so you wouldn’t stumble on the body. When it got light, I left you drunk on the floor and went looking for Swain, so’s I could bury him, but he was gone. For a gator to get him, even after he was dead…well, that’s the worst thing he could have imagined. I didn’t wish that on him.”
“What will you do now, Frank? The sheriff will be here any minute.”
“I won’t be here when he comes. Nobody but you and Wynnda know I was ever here, and she won’t talk. Many’s the time Swain brought her out here, then took off in his speedboat to enjoy nature and shoot a few gators. Wynnda needs someone to talk to, and sometimes I was all she had. You might think about telling her what happened. ‘Course, if you tell the sheriff, I guess she’ll find out from him. It’s your call.”
Frank eased himself down into the creek and started wading upstream, away from the carnage left by Swain’s dredges and herbicides and into the fresh clear water where sunfish and alligators lived.
“The sheriff will find your house,” Garrett called after him. “They’ll be looking for you.”
“Swain’s held title to my house and property for more’n thirty years. He promised to let me live on it for life, which he did, and he promised to take care of it, which he didn’t. Here’s what I figure,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “The sheriff will see that my cabin’s been lived in, and he’ll figure a bum’s been squatting there. Maybe he’ll figure the bum killed Swain, but that’s as far as he’ll ever get.”
“Everybody saw you haul Swain out of the water.”
“Did they get my name? Does anybody but you and Wynnda know it? Anyhow, the sheriff can’t track me out here, so go ahead and tell him what you know, if it’ll make you feel better. I got no reason to ever set foot in civilization again. I’m not a hundred percent sure I’ve even got a birth certificate, so who’s he gonna look for? I hear that smart folks like you have just about paved all of Florida, but there’s enough land like this left where I can live just fine.”
Frank was hip-deep in the creek, so he was leaving neither footprints that a man could track nor a trail that a dog could follow. A gator slid on its belly into the water and swam in Frank’s direction, following him at a respectful distance.
“If you decide not to turn me in, take the whiskey jug out of the cabinet and put it on the table. I’ll come back in a while and see whether you did. I’d like to live out my days here, where my daddy and granddaddy were born and died. If that jug’s on the table, I’ll know I can.”
“But you killed him to save me. Why don’t you just stay and explain things to the sheriff?”
Frank’s laugh echoed on the water. “Look at me. I’m dirty. I smell. I killed a rich politician. If they catch me, they’ll put me under the jail. I’ll take my chances out here with the gators.” As if called, a second gator eased into the water, following Frank upstream. The reptilian form of its long leathery body reflected in the calm water, doubling its primeval power.
Later, when the sheriff and his people had come and gone, Garrett would ask Wynnda if she’d like to help him leave the moonshine jug out for Frank.
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