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Josette Bettencourt stared at the group of workers gathered in front of her ancestral plantation home and for the first time in a long while, couldn't think of a single thing to say.
The crew leader, Ray, a Creole man who was probably in his fifties, stepped forward. "We need the work, Ms. Bettencourt, and the normal dangers of the swamp are things we're comfortable with, but not this."
She took a deep breath and blew it out. "I want you to explain to me again exactly what you saw."
Ray nodded. "We were repairing the fence on the north side of the property when we heard howling, but it weren't no swamp animal that we know. Then we heard something moving in the brushsomething big."
"Did you see it?"
"It came through the brush about thirty yards from where we were working. Looked straight at us, then ducked back in the bushes and disappeared."
"What did it look like?"
"It was taller than me by at least a foot or two and had long gray hair. It had a face like a monkey and yellow eyes."
Okay, it didn't sound any better the second time. "You're sure it wasn't a bear?"
Ray drew himself up straight. "I know bear, ma'am. I feed my family off of this swamp most of the time." He pointed to the crew. "All of them know bear, too. We all saw the same thing."
The men nodded and shuffled around, clearly uneasy.
"I don't know what to say," she said finally. "I will look into it with Emmett, but I'm begging you not to leave."
Ray looked at the men most of whom stared at the ground. "I can't speak for another man," he said, "but I will keep working for now. How many will stay?"
All of the men slowly raised their hands.
Josie felt almost dizzy with relief. "Thank you. Move your crew to the west side tomorrow and work there until I figure this out. Where's Emmett?"
Ray shrugged. "We haven't seen him since he got us started this morning."
She struggled to hold in her frustration. "If you see anything out of the ordinary tomorrow, come straight to me."
Ray nodded and started to walk away, then hesitated. "Is there something else?" Josie asked. "You grew up in this swamp, ma'am. You know the legends."
"The legends are stories made up by parents to keep their children from wandering into the swamp," she replied, stubbornly refusing to buy into age-old scare tactics.
"Perhaps, but what I saw today wasn't my imagination and it scared mea grown man. Stories that last so many years often have truth in them. You can choose not to believe, but please take precautions in the swamp."
Josie softened a little, realizing the man was simply worried about her safety. "Of course. Thank you."
Ray gave her a single nod and motioned the crew away.
She blew out a breath and strode toward the barn, wondering where her foreman had wandered off to this time. Lately, she spent more time looking for Emmett than she did working with him on the repairs needed at the plantation. He'd always been distant and short on words, but since her father's death six months before, he'd moved on to physically absent as well as verbally.
There was no sign of Emmett in the barn, and one look at the sky let her know that daylight was running out. She grabbed a flashlight and a shotgun from a gun rack near the barn door and headed out to the location in the swamp where the crew had been working on fencing.
The area the crew had worked in that day was in the denser part of the swamp surrounding the house. Fences already existed at the perimeter of cleared land, but given the many dangerous creatures living in the swamp surrounding the main estate, the bank was requiring her to maintain a second set of fencing deeper in the swamp in order to open the house as a bed-and-breakfast. The new fencing would also keep hikers from wandering into the more dangerous areas, and provide an extra line of defense for her horses, the only luxury she'd held on to after her father's death.
She pushed through the thick brush on the seldom-used trail until she reached the work area. Cypress trees rose in a thick wall around her and parted at the edge of the brackish water that comprised one of many ponds contained on her property. A stack of posts and barbed wire stood about twenty feet back from the edge of the water, the remains of the previous fence scattered in front of it.
She'd thought animals and the hurricane season had taken down that stretch of fence that her father had installed years ago, but what if she'd been wrong?
The silence of the swamp seemed to echo in her mind. How in the world could something so quiet cause so much unease? She crossed her arms over her chest, unable to remember a time when she'd ever felt at ease in the dense undergrowth. The myths and legends about the swamps of Mystere Parish were as long as the Mississippi River, and although her father had always dismissed them as the ramblings of superstitious swamp people, Josie couldn't help wondering if Ray was rightif those long-survived tales had some basis in truth.
She scanned the work area one last time and blew out a breath, unsure what she expected to find. There was nothing to see here but another afternoon of unfinished work. Another half day of lag to add to the week they were already behind.
As she turned to leave, a twig snapped behind her. She whirled around and looked across the pond where the noise had come from. The sun was setting, creating a dim orange glow over the pond. She peered into the foliage on the opposite bank, but didn't see anything.
You're spooking yourself.
She let out the breath she'd been holding, chastising herself for getting worked up. It was probably just a deer. Then the bushes on the opposite bank parted and a head emerged. It was completely gray and neither human nor animal. Yellow eyes locked on her and she froze. One second, two seconds, three.
And then as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared in the brush without a sound.
The Tainted Keitre.
For a split second she wondered how something so big could move through the dying brush without so much as a whisper of noise, but then common sense took over and she turned and ran down the trail to the plantation as fast as her legs would carry her.
Josie clenched her hands down by her sides, afraid that if she lifted them above her waist, she'd punch Bobby Reynard straight in the mouth. The fact that he was currently the sheriff probably wouldn't play to her favor.
"So you're not going to do anything?" she asked, trying to keep her voice calm.
He puffed out his chest, which still didn't force it to extend beyond his belly. "I am an officer of the law. I don't waste my time and taxpayers' money by investigating the ridiculous claims of a bunch of superstitious swamp people, especially when it's all happening on private property. You got a problem at your houseit's your problem, unless there's a crime."
"A brand-new section of my fence was torn down three times in the last two weeks. Vandalism was against the law the last time I checked."
He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets and stared past her out the window, clearly bored with the conversation. "A bear is probably tearing down that fence. Sounds like you're fencing what he considers his territory. Problems with the local wildlife are not problems for the sheriff's department."
She glanced down at his protruding belly and then back at him. "Looks to me like nothing but drinking beer down at the Gator Bar is your business."
His face reddened and he drew himself up straight, trying to suck in the gut and failing miserably. "You better watch your mouth, sweetheart. Everyone may have kissed your butt in high school, but this is the real world now and you aren't any better than anyone else in this town now that all that family money is gone."
"Oh, I imagine I'm still better than some," she said, then whirled around and left the sheriff's office before he could retort.
Not that there was any danger of him coming up with something witty in the next hour or so. Bobby Reynard had been a bully and an oaf in high school and he'd made a profession out of it as an adult. She only hoped some desperate woman didn't marry him so that the cycle could end with him.
"Don't let him get to you, honey, or he wins."
Josie stopped digging for her car keys and looked up to find Adele LaPierre standing in front of her. The spry, little silver-haired woman claimed to be sixty-five, but Josie's mother had always said she was every bit of eighty.
"You're right," Josie said. "But it's just so stupid. High school was ten years ago and he's still stuck there."
"Some things never change. You were the most beautiful girl in high school and you had no interest in him. Now you're the most beautiful girl in the Honey Island Swamp and you're still not interested in him."
Josie smiled and gave Adele a hug. "You always know the right thing to say."
"You're a good girl, Josette. Your parents would be proud of the way you're trying to save their home. Don't let anyone make you feel differently."
She sighed. "All my work is going to be for nothing if I can't stop the vandalism. The crew is already spooked and threatening to quit. Without the crew, I'll never have the house ready to open for New Year's, and without that revenue, the bank will start foreclosure in February. And all that is assuming the work they do isn't destroyed by whoever is doing this."
Adele narrowed her eyes. "Whoever or whatever?"
Josie stared at the sidewalk for a moment before lifting her gaze back to Adele. "I haven't told anyone, but I went into the swamp that day and I saw what the men said was out there. I can't afford to tell the truth. People will think I'm crazy. If that story gets back to the bank, they may take away my extension. I shouldn't even have tried convincing Bobby, but I was desperate."
"What if I told you I knew someone who could help? Someone who would believe the real story and find out the truth?"
"I'd say that's great, but I don't have the money to pay trappers and hunters."
"It's a detective agency I have in mind, not hunters."
Josie blew out a breath. "At this point, I'm willing to try anything, but I don't have the money for a detective any more than I do a trapper."
"Don't worry about the money, dear. I've got some savings and I don't think the people I have in mind would try to gouge you."
Josie shook her head. "I can't take your money."
"And why not? My money's as good as the bank's, and if I can't help my oldest friend's daughter, then what in the world do I have left to do with it? We can work out a payment plan later on, after you get the bed-and-breakfast going."
Josie sniffed, touched once again by Adele's huge heart. "I don't know what I'd do without you. You've been such a rock since Mom and Dad passed."
"Your mama was a good woman. One of the best I've ever known. It makes me proud to see her daughter grow up like her. I've got my sons, but if I could have had a daughter, I would have wanted her to be like you."
"Oh, Adele, you completely undo me." She wiped a tear from her eye. "I really appreciate the thought, more than you can ever know, but I can't imagine a detective agency would care about a case that seems nonexistent."
"This one will. An old friend of mine who died years ago had a daughter who just opened a detective agency in Vodoun with her husband. They specialize in things the police won't bother with. I think they'll take your situation seriously."
A tiny sliver of hope ran through Josie for the first time in days. "If you think they can help, then I'd like to try."
Adele nodded. "I'll call the daughter, Alex, as soon as I get home and explain things. She'll want to talk to you, I'm sure, to get more particulars."
"Of course. Have her call me at home."
Adele patted her arm. "Don't you worry, honey. We're going to fix this." She crossed the street and climbed into an ancient Cadillac.
Josie lifted a hand to wave at her as Adele drove off.
What in the world had she just agreed to?
Tanner LeDoux stood on the dock, staring at his two half brothers, certain they'd lost their minds. "Absolutely not," he said.
"You said you were interested in working for the detective agency," argued Holt, the oldest of the three brothers.
Tanner shook his head. "Not if it means going back into the Honey Island Swamp. I left there when the last day of high school was over and have no intention of returning. Not now. Not ever."
Max, the middle brother, jumped into the fray. "Look, I get it. I wasn't happy about my first case, either, but it turned out fine."
Tanner laughed. "You ended up back in your hometown and acquired a wife. I call that a living nightmare, not fine."
Max shrugged. "Before now I would have, too. Things change and this time it was for the better."
"The bottom line," Holt said, "is that we need you. I'm already committed to another case that's keeping me hopping. I have two cases in the pipeline, but you are the most qualified to handle this one. Max is a good tracker, but he's not you."
Tanner looked over at Max, expecting his brother to launch an argument on that assessment, as he had done since they were kids, but he just nodded.
Well, didn't that just beat all?
Tanner shoved his hands in his jeans pockets, trying to come up with a reason for refusing that sounded even remotely sane. He wasn't about to tell them the truth. The two men standing in front of him had their lives together. The more difficult the task, the more excited they'd be about it. They couldn't possibly understand the baggage he carried around with him that he was unable to release.
Finally, he sighed. "You really think I'm the best person for the job?"
"You're the only man for the job," Holt said. "This case is time-sensitive and we can't afford to lose even a day."
"Fine," Tanner said, "I'll do it." Holt and Max both broke out in grins.
"That's great," Max said.
Tanner wished he could share his brother's enthusiasm. "So, are you going to tell me what I'm tracking?"
The grins vanished from their faces and Holt glanced at Max, who looked off down the bayou. A bad feeling washed over Tanner. What in the world had he just agreed to?
"It's not a what," Holt said. "It's a who, maybe."
"You don't know what I'm tracking? You said this was a vandalism case. It shouldn't be hard to determine animal from human destruction."
"This case isn't that cut-and-dried."
Tanner felt his frustration with the stalling increasing. "Just spit it out, already."
"The eyewitnesses saw something that matches the description of the Honey Island Swamp Monster."
Tanner stared at his brother. "You have lost your mind. I suspected it earlier, but now I know for sure."
Holt held up a hand. "I know how it sounds, but the vandalism is real and the witnesses are credible, especially the one who hired us. Whether it's a man trying to scare her or a real monster, we need to know and we need the vandalism to stop."
"Her? The client is a woman?"
"Josette Bettencourt. She inherited her family's plantation when her dad died and is turning it into a bed-and-breakfast. Do you know her?"
Tanner nodded, afraid the flood of emotion that coursed through him would filter out if he spoke. Yeah, he knew her, all right.
She was one of the main reasons he'd vowed never to return to the Honey Island Swamp.