A fishing guide and part-time investigator, Hannah Smith is a tall, strong Florida woman descended from many generations of tall, strong Florida women. But the problem before her now is much older even than that. And its consequences are lethal.
Five hundred years ago, Spanish conquistadors planted the first orange seeds in Florida, but now the billion-dollar industry is in trouble. The trees are dying, weakened by infestation and genetic manipulation, and the only solution might be somehow, somewhere to find sample of the original root stock.
No one is better equipped to traverse the swamps and murky backcountry of Florida than Hannah, but once word leaks out of her quest, the trouble begins. "There are people who will kill to find a direct descendant of those first seeds," she is warned--and it looks like those words may be all too prophetic.
That is, if the secrets she discovers in the Florida wild about a twenty-year-old murder don't kill her first.
Or the fifteen-foot-long Burmese python.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I was enjoying the conversation with a man I used to date, a biologist named Marion Ford, until the subject swung from Florida oranges to a giant snake. He’d seen it crossing a bay south of the island where I grew up and still occasionally reside.
“How far south?”
“A ways. We were flying back from Key West.”
“That’s where you disappeared to?”
“I’ve been traveling,” he said, which was typical. “It was a Burmese python—twelve, maybe fifteen feet long. Too big for a boa. Hard to be sure of the size because it was swimming, but that’s not the point.”
“It is to me,” I said. “If you’re trying to scare me into moving closer to your lab, I’m flattered, but I’d prefer the particulars first. There are better ways than inventing snakes.”
“Invent?” He was mystified. Marion has warmth, if you get to know him, but he is slow to recognize playful humor.
“I don’t doubt you saw it, but there’s a hundred miles of coast between here and the Keys. Was the snake closer to Naples or Sanibel Island?”
“Let me finish. I was making a connection between the parasites killing your orange trees and higher-profile exotics like pythons, boas, a whole long list of reptiles that are taking over the state. Not just reptiles, of course. Fire ants have all but destroyed the quail population. Brazilian pepper trees are another example, but they were intentionally introduced by state biologists, so—”
“Marion,” I said patiently, “you know I’m not fond of snakes, and you know why. Please stick to the subject.”
“I thought I was.”
“You were for a while. Now you’re not.”
I was aboard a tidy Marlow cabin cruiser that is my home, neatening up the galley, with the phone to my ear. As we talked, I could look out the cabin door and see the family dock built by my late Uncle Jake as it wobbled through the mangroves. Across the road, atop an Indian mound, was an old yellow-pine Cracker house with a tin roof and a wraparound porch. Veiled by screening were ceiling fans, a summer kitchen, and a hammock where, as a child, I had often slept on hot summer nights.
What I chose not to notice was a black Lincoln Town Car parked in the shade. For more than an hour, I’d been trying to ignore the thing. It belonged to an old-time Florida millionaire who, twenty years ago, had been my mother’s secret lover. Two brain surgeries and a fondness for smoking pot have not improved her memory, nor pacified her mood swings and sometimes wild behavior.
Better, I’d decided, to call a friend rather than fixate on what might be going on up there. Inside, it was just the two of them: my mother, Loretta, and eighty-year-old Harney Chatham, the former lieutenant governor of Florida, who was also a married man.
Not that anyone remembers lieutenant governors. Even Mr. Chatham’s recent prostate surgery had not made the news.
Ford asked, “Are you still there?”
I realized my attention had drifted. “I’m not one to interrupt, but that doesn’t mean I’m not listening. How big was the snake?”
Apparently, he had already covered that ground. Instead of sighing, as a normal person would, he calmly repeated the details—a quality that was admirable, I suppose, but also rankled me. It was as if he were a professor tutoring one of his slower students.
“Hannah,” he added, “I haven’t heard from you in more than three weeks—”
“You disappeared a month ago, so what do you expect?”
“I didn’t disappear, I was traveling,” he reminded me. “Now, out of the blue, you call to tell me the oranges in your citrus grove are dying. Why ask me for advice?”
“They’re withering,” I corrected, “with a sort of green mold on the skins, and the fruit’s bitter.”
“The entire grove?”
“The ones I care about. The honeybells and grapefruit, all my favorites. You can tell by the leaves. They start to curl up, with yellow streaks.”
“But not all?”
“I didn’t think to check.”
“You should. If some of the trees aren’t infected, I’d step back and ask myself what’s different about them? Less shade, more sun—a different soil or rootstock? But if the entire grove is diseased—”
I said, “It’s not big enough to be called a grove; not really. Just a few dozen trees my grandfather planted way, way back.”
“I know. All I’m saying is, you must have ties to people in the citrus business who can give you better advice than me.”
Again, my eyes moved to the black limousine. “Some of the biggest,” I replied, “but I do miss our talks. You’re a biologist, and it’s been a while, so I thought maybe you’d heard something new.”
This, he found humorous. “The parasites that spread citrus greening don’t have fins, and they don’t swim. I’m a marine biologist. All I know is, they’re exotics, and they’ve damn near ruined a billion-dollar industry. Is that really the reason you called?”
I was about to cover my deception by shifting topics when I saw Loretta charge out of the house wearing a housecoat and fluffy pink slippers. Her mannerisms were frantic as if she were being chased, or had suffered a second brain aneurysm. She bounced on her toes and flapped her hands in my direction, then charged back onto the porch.
“Something’s wrong,” I said.
“Nothing we can’t fix, Hannah, if you’re willing to—”
“Not us, my crazy mother,” I interrupted, and went out the cabin door in a hurry.
The former lieutenant governor was either dead or in a bad way. I knew it when Loretta blocked me from the porch, saying, “Even as a child you had a selfish streak. Now you refuse to do me this one little favor?”
The favor she had demanded was, “Go away, and, for god’s sake, don’t call the law. It’s too late to save your mama from sinning . . . But you didn’t hear that from me. I’m not gonna confess to anything.”
I felt a little dizzy when I heard those words. “Where is he, Loretta?”
“You don’t think I recognize his car? If Mr. Chatham is sick, we need to do something. Please tell me something terrible hasn’t happened.”
She stared at the Lincoln Town Car and hyperventilated.
“Loretta, move. If Reggie’s sleeping in the backseat, go bang on the window and get him up here. I’ll look for myself.”
Reggie was Mr. Chatham’s limo driver.
“Not until I think this through,” she snapped, and squared herself in front of the door. Loretta isn’t a large woman—not compared to me, her only child—but she has a magic way of puffing herself while her bright blue eyes catch fire. “For once in your life, do something to make me happy, Hannah. Just go away and leave us be.”
“I’m not leaving until—”
“Do as you’re told, young lady!” she hollered, and glared with those wild eyes of hers.
For an instant, I was a child again, standing in the same doorway of the same house that hadn’t changed much since my mother had stung me with similar words many times, over many years. But that girl was long gone, along with her timid nature. “If you don’t move, I’ll go ’round to the back door. Or pick you up and carry you to the couch. Is that what you want? The two of us wrestling around like crazy people while we could be helping?” Then I called over the top of her head, “Mr. Chatham! Everything okay in there? It’s me, Hannah Smith.”
On the mantel above the fireplace is a cherrywood clock my great-grandfather made when he wasn’t fishing mullet, or selling rum and egret plumes. The clock’s ticking was the only reply.
“My lord,” I murmured. “Loretta, talk to me. Please tell me you did not do something crazy. You didn’t stab him, did you?”
“Stab him! ’Course I didn’t. In my own bed? What do you think I am?”
“My lord,” I said again. “Is that where he is?”
With a dazed look, she turned toward the hall, her bedroom beyond, then appeared to wilt and stepped away. “When the law comes, I suppose you’ll tell them the governor ain’t the first man I killed.”
Kilt is the way the word is pronounced in the small fishing communities of Southwest Florida.
“I believe he is,” was her cryptic reply, “but Harney’s not the type to give up all at once.” She began to sob.
I rushed into the house to where Loretta’s recliner faced the TV, which wasn’t blaring soap operas for a change. Nearby was her walker. It was covered with a caftan as a vanity. Aside from confiding to a few women friends, she won’t admit she needs help getting around, not even to our handsome UPS man, let alone a former lover. I slid the walker within reach and hurried down the hall, calling the governor’s name.
The door to my old room was open, nothing I recognized on the walls or desk. Loretta’s door was shut tight, which was normal. As always, I could feel the privacy of shadows and forbidden drawers radiating from within. Twice I knocked, then bumped the door open. After a look, I hollered, “Call nine-one-one. Hurry!” but didn’t budge for a moment because my legs felt watery, like in a bad dream.
In life, Mr. Chatham was an imposing man with oversized accomplishments. He favored Western-cut suits, string bolo ties, and the only time he removed his hat was when entering a house, or greeting a lady, or before sliding into the back of his limo.
His cowboy hat—“my John Wayne Stetson,” he called it—was the only reason I knew for certain the man who lay there, toes up and naked with vomit crusted on his chin, was the former lieutenant governor. My mother, despite her panic, had had the good manners to place the hat strategically over his pelvis. The Stetson tilted, as if on a peg, the man’s two long, heavy legs sticking out. I charged in and did what I’d been taught in a CPR course I had to take when I’d upgraded my captain’s license. Mr. Chatham’s neck was as white and cool as clay when I felt for a pulse. Glassy eyes failed to respond to my shouting, nor when I hammered a fist on his chest.
Next step: clear the airway, then begin mouth-to-mouth. Practicing on a CPR dummy had not prepared me for the realities involved. But I did as I’d been taught. Billowed two breaths into his lungs, then shouted out the compressions in a robotic way while I pumped his chest. This helped stem a blooming nausea.
“Mama—you’d best be dialing that damn phone! Carry it outside while you talk, and bring Reggie fast as you can.”
There was no need to add this because the chauffeur was suddenly beside me, hands on my shoulders, and cooing in his gentle Southern way. “You done what you could, Miz Hannah. Go on now, girl, an’ leave the rest to me.”
I stepped back and brushed hair from my face. “He’s got no pulse. Did Loretta call nine-one-one?”
Reggie, a tiny, wiry man, was wearing the same blue cap he always wore. “All taken care of,” he said. Then he removed his driving gloves and yelled, “Governor! Wake up, sir. This is ain’t no place for this to be happening.”
He plopped down, grabbed the man who’d been his employer for decades, shook him by the shoulders, and looked up at me with wide eyes. “Lord God, he’s cold as death, Miz Hannah. His heart done stopped. I knew this was gonna happen.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“Cold as he is? Honey, he’s been gone a while.”
“We have to keep doing compressions until—”
“I know, I know,” the little man said, yet sounded resigned. “I took that course for my chauffeur’s license, but the governor wouldn’t like it, you seeing what I gotta do first.” He glanced at the Stetson, as if to convey his meaning, then hunched his back and continued CPR. Between breaths he told me, “Leave us alone, girl. It’s what he’d want.”
I was duty-bound to stay but suddenly in need of air. In the bathroom, I left the water running to cover the sound of my nausea, then washed my face and went searching for my mother. She was on the porch, rocking and staring past the mangroves that fringe our dock. It was a cool, bright afternoon in February, with the sky too low for soaring gulls and frigate birds. When I covered her legs with a blanket, she spoke in a monotone. “No need to badger me, I know it’s my fault. He warned me often enough.”
“Don’t fret about that now.”
“I’m being punished for doin’ what I knew I shouldn’t do. I, by god, deserve whatever hell has to offer, ’cause that’s where I’m headed.”
“Don’t say such things. Do you mean Mr. Chatham mentioned he had heart problems? I think that’s what happened. He had a heart attack.”
“It wasn’t him who warned me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Never mind. The governor’s problems always started way south of his heart. We was both that way, God help us. That’s why he had that thingamabob installed. I knew we was playing with fire but couldn’t stop myself.”
Rather than endure further details, I offered to make a pitcher of sweet tea. My mother rocked and stared.
“Earthly pleasures are a trap, Hannah. Chastity might seem its own punishment—until you accept a man from the spirit world. That’s when our behavior is supposed to change. Oh, I knew what I was doing.”
There is often no making sense of her babbling. I hugged my mother close as she cried, her shoulders bird-like. “I’ll call the home health nurse and have her come early. Or would you rather I have the ladies come keep you company?”
I was referring to Loretta’s friends from childhood, Epsey Hendry, Becky Darwin, and Jody Summerlin—all widows. Once a week, they would gather on the porch, with cookies, or a pie or brownies, and wait for the church shuttle to carry them to bingo.
There would be no bingo on this Friday night.
I gave her another hug, called Becky Darwin without explaining why she was needed, then went inside to check on Reggie. In the hall, I stopped out of respect. He was weeping, but in an angry way, and speaking in low tones to his former employer. Eavesdropping is not something I normally do, yet what I heard was so unexpected, I found myself drawn toward the open door.
I heard the chauffeur mutter, “Where the hell is the damn shutoff valve? I ain’t gettin’ paid to put my hands on your . . . no, I ain’t. I warned you, Governor—by god, I warned you—now here we are. And who gonna explain this to that bitch you married if I can’t . . . ? Shit fire! How’s this damn contraption work?”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great book! Hannah Smith is one strong woman. The story is full of all kinds of twists. It had me trying to figure it out until the end. I love how Randy Wayne White can write about Florida. You can imagine the area from his descriptions. And the way this ends, has you wondering what's in store for Hannah in the future. I love this series.
The protagonist, Hannah Smith, is an incredibly talented fishing guide whose success in the industry is widely recognized and publicized. Having a dear friend who happens to be a widely recognized and publicized female fishing guide, this book hit close to home for me. Author Randy Wayne White did an incredible job writing for this character. The book begins with Hannah helping in the cover-up of her mother's deceased lover who happens to be a prominent government figure. During this time, and by accident, she meets an attractive orange grove manager who reveals new and lucrative possibilities pertaining to the Florida orange crisis (and finding a fix). The story turns into a tangled web of greed, deceit, murder and mayhem as Hannah advances in her quest to find an antidote that could possibly save the Sunshine States orange industry. He attraction to Mr. Grove Manager also develops but her independence tells her to back away. This book will have you up until the late night hours flipping page after page. A real hair raiser all the way up to the last few words.