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Blood spread down the back seat of the Lexus. It pooled in congealing clumps, gleaming black on gray leather. The victim's shirt was soaked in red splashings. His battered ruined face and lolling head looked like road kill. Little bubbles of gore flared from his swollen lips with each tortured breath. One eye was beaten shut, the other a white slit under a partially closed lid. His hands were behind him, held together with bailing wire that had cut deep into the wrists, coloring the steel a dark copper red.
A fat man sat next to him. He was bulky-muscled fat-with a long beefy arm pressing on the victim's shoulder, holding him down on one corner of the back seat. The scarred-knuckled hand resembled a great shovel blade against the side of the bloodied shoulder. The fat man stared out the window as night shadows flew out from the twin circles of the headlamps. His eyes stared from deep craters in a face with skin like compressed raisins. They held no emotions, no curiosity, and little intelligence. Certainly no pity for the demolished human being next to him. It's just a job, he thought.
The driver held the wheel loosely with his right hand; the left disappeared down his side to rest on the interior panel of the door. He kept the speed at a steady eighty; the deserted road straight, long, and numbingly boring. Traffic didn't exist at this hour. Certainly no chance of getting pulled over. An occasional eighteen-wheeler trying to make time toward an early morning delivery in Naples or Fort Myers, the only thing to break the monotonyof Route 41, the Tamiami trail in the Everglades.
The driver was another hired hand, maybe higher up, but still a hired hand. His dark face shone in the reflected light of the instrument panel, his thin mustache a black line above the slash of a mouth. His eyes drew attention. Slightly bulging lids gave him a bit of a bug-eyed look. The nose with its flaring nostrils betrayed mixed blood of Cuban Latino and Miami African-American heritage.
The passenger next to him wore the uniform of a Collier County Sheriff's deputy. The tag above the brown pocket read "Smith." His bulk filled the generous bucket seat. His stomach was beginning to build over the beltline, and a lower roll of fat rested against the regulation nine millimeter strapped in the holster at his belt. A crewcut with military style whitewalls topped a face partially hidden by the shaded glasses. Under the lenses, two small eyes peered out in a porcine face that screamed redneck. His hands fidgeted as he sat and darted quick glances in the rear view mirror at the fat man, with his victim. None of this bothered him. Dealing with Taylor made Smith nervous. He was glad Taylor didn't come tonight.
Smith believed William Taylor was the second scariest man he had ever encountered. The first being that damned Richard Daniels with his Special Forces and Karate shit. Best thing about Daniels; you rarely ever encountered him.
Taylor could be something else. Smith had dealt with him much too often for comfort since he got on his payroll. He smiled at the thought of the weekly envelope stuffed with six greenbacks, all with pictures of Grant.
"Left turn coming up," said Smith.
The driver slowed the car as the sign appeared, shining green and white in the headlights. EVERGLADES CITY, ROUTE 29.
The Lexus turned left heading west between the Visitor's Center and the all night Texaco. The headlights cut a swath in the surrounding dense vegetation without penetrating its blackness.
"Fucking boonies out here, gives me the creep," said the fat man.
"Wha'd you wanna do, dump him in Miami Square? Heads up, there's a trail coming up; you're going to make a right," said Smith.
The Lexus slowed as the little trail appeared, nothing more than a lighter spot in the thick jungle. The Lexus turned into it, the suspension moving the car up and back as it negotiated the bumps and sand holes at walking speed. Branches rubbed against all sides of the car and wheels, making scratchy squealing noises. Smith thought it was like driving in an inkwell with ghosts on all sides.
The trail became wider as mangrove trees seemed to spring around the Lexus. The vegetation and leaves twined above them in a black canopy that ended at the edge of a natural canal. Across the canal, no more than a dozen feet away, the eyes of an alligator glittered like diamonds in the headlights.
The driver opened the door and got out. His feet sank a few inches in the unseen muck. It was so dark, it seemed dawn might never return. All around the car, cicadas, frogs, and God-knew what chirped and chattered. Something screeched in the distance, answered by a nearby splash in the canal. The alligator suddenly disappeared in a swirl of sooty black water, and a slight breeze carried the scents of wet tropical vegetation.
The fat man opened the rear door and dragged the passenger out. He fell to his knees and pitched down, face first in the grassy muck. A gurgled moan escaped from the swollen lips as he sprawled in the illuminated oval of the Lexus' interior lights.
"Just do it now," said the driver.
"Where the hell's the Indian?" asked the fat man.
"He'll be here, guaranteed," replied Smith.
"Yeah, but he ain't here now."
The fat man reached into his pocket and pulled a small nickel-plated automatic, a .22 Caliber Saturday Night Special. Cheap and accurate to a maximum of about twenty feet, it glinted in the reflected light like a snake's fang.
"Jesus, not now, not when I'm here," said Smith.
The driver looked at him and laughed, a joyless barking noise.
"What do you think? You don't like, see it, it means you ain't involved Mister Deputy Fucking Sheriff? You'll fry with us, maybe worse. They expect this shit from people like us, not from you."
Smith turned his head. His face flushed, and his eyes burned. He could feel his hands shaking, a nervous tremble that soon spread to his forearms. All around them the rich smell of decaying vegetation and tidal-flat mud bathed them in a miasma of alien scents. The driver leaned down and jammed the barrel of the .22 against the base of the man's skull and pulled the trigger. There was a loud wet plopping noise, like a champagne cork popping in a bag of jelly. The man's body settled into the black mud, inert as a sack of rocks. That was the beauty of the .22. Enough power to penetrate the skull and rattle around causing massive damage with no exit wound. A momentary silence enveloped them, as if all the night creatures of the great swamp had paused to watch.
The fat man reached down and put two fingers around a thick silver chain tight on the dead man's neck. He tugged, cursing when the chain didn't break.
"What the hell are you doing?" asked the driver, "Don't take shit from the man you just whacked. You wanna carry evidence on you?"
He shrugged and took his hand off the corpse's neck.
The Indian came up out of nowhere. He had been part of the surrounding blackness, just another unmoving shadow upon shadows. He was tall, with rangy muscles like knotted steel cables, dark face hidden in the night, and head covered with a formless bandanna.
"Shit, what the--" said the driver, jumping back. His hand went to the butt of the .357 Magnum in the shoulder holster. The Indian ignored him, stepped around the Lexus, picked up the corpse by both arms, and dragged it away into the night. A human panther slinking off with its kill.
"Lets get the hell out of here. This is too fucking weird," said the driver.
The fat man shrugged and got in the back. Smith became aware of a stinging pain in the palm of his hand, and he realized he'd gouged out a little chunk of flesh with his nails.
At that moment, Smith felt a tilt in his world, something running below his normal senses. Grateful for the darkness hiding the shudder passing through his body, he got back in the car.