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Anywhere, Everywhere Chapter 1 Renee MacKenzie

Chapter 1

 

Gwen Martin paddled her kayak toward the marina, past the B-dock, approaching a lone brown pelican that was squatting on a piling. The wooden post was marred by streaks of gray and white bird droppings, proof of the pelican’s frequent presence. The large bird’s gaze followed her as she passed.

 

She rested the paddle across her kayak and watched as a slender figure walked down the A-dock. Without taking her eyes off the woman, Gwen yanked at the Velcro on her left glove, pulling it tighter, and then refastened it.

 

She smiled as the woman slowly advanced down the floating dock, pulling a large suitcase behind her. Gwen wondered if the size of the suitcase meant she was staying for an extended time or that she was just an over-packer. The woman paused in front of Eric Brown’s thirty-nine foot Bayliner and looked from the sleek boat to the paper in her hand. Gwen knew exactly what she was thinking when she reluctantly renewed her journey down the wooden planks of the floating dock.

 

Gwen lingered, curious about why her heart was pounding at the very sight of this woman. Get a grip, she chastised herself. She let her gaze travel along the lean legs, the long, dark hair, the swell of breasts under the just-tight-enough T-shirt.

 

She floated on the gentle water, not wanting to leave behind the image of this attractive woman. And, she was more than a little curious to see the beautiful woman’s response when she realized the boat she was looking for was the cement monstrosity at the very end of the dock. Gwen was pretty sure she was looking for Ruffled Feathers as no other boat could accommodate her massive suitcase.

 

The woman stared at the forty-one foot cement houseboat, and then glanced again at the paper in her hand. Her shoulders sagged when the key she pulled from her shorts’ pocket unlocked the door without a problem. Instead of opening the door, she pulled out her cell phone.

 

Cell phone coverage around the marina was spotty at best, and there was no signal at the end of the A-dock. Gwen was aware of every gap in coverage at the marina. And she knew the big, cement houseboat better than anyone else. The woman’s presence also explained why Walker had been airing out Ruffled Feathers a few days earlier.

 

She would have loved to keep watching the mystery woman, but she had to get to work. She pointed her kayak in the direction of the marina and paddled hard. After one last look behind her, seeing the woman staring at the boat with her hands on her hips, she drifted toward the boat ramp. She let her paddle drag just before she sent a gentle shower of water onto a black vulture.

 

“Shoo, sweetie,” she said in a low voice. “I promise not to take your fish head.”

 

The vulture hopped several feet to its left, still on the concrete ramp but out of Gwen’s way. She was always amused by the hunched, bald-headed scavengers. “Come back later and gross out the tourists,” she added.

 

Gwen climbed out of the kayak, careful not to slip on the scum-mottled ramp. She dragged her kayak the rest of the way up, then off to the side where it’d be out of the way of folks launching their boats. She slipped the paddle into the boat’s hull, then pulled off her fingerless gloves and shoved them into the back pocket of her Columbia shorts. She took the bandana from around her neck and retied it on her head, assuring her chin-length, blondish hair would stay out of her face and be somewhat protected from the incidental yuck always present at the marina. As she walked toward the ship’s store, she tucked her fishing shirt into her shorts.

 

She willed herself not to look back to the A-dock. Her resolve only lasted until she stepped between the live shrimp tank and the frozen bait freezer at the front door. She glanced to where she last saw the mystery woman and was disappointed when she didn’t see her. Gwen couldn’t help but wonder if the woman was inside the boat, appreciating the fine detail and workmanship of the interior, or was still disgusted by the not so fine details of the exterior of Ruffled Feathers. Her heart started pounding again and she realized she cared more than she could explain about what this woman thought of the remodeling work Gwen had done to the boat that had once belonged to her family.

 

Gwen checked the freezer door and gave it a push to close it the rest of the way. She hated that neither customers nor Herb, her boss, would take the moment needed to ensure that the freezer was completely closed. She pulled open the door to the ship’s store and steeled herself before walking in.

 

 I will not tell Herb to kiss my butt. I will not threaten to throw any tourists or fishermen off the seawall. I will not quit this job that I unfortunately need more than I care to admit, she thought, as she did each workday.

 

She rounded the fishing pole display and right away saw Herb kicked back in the chair behind the counter, his arms resting on his protruding belly, chin almost touching his chest, obviously napping. It was March, and things were starting to slow down, but it wasn’t off-season enough for him to already be pulling his sleeping beauty act.

 

“Shrimp been culled?” she asked, louder than necessary.

 

Herb’s head jerked up. “What?”

 

She stared at the brown snuff juice stain discoloring the deep line leading from the corner of his mouth and disappearing into his sagging chin. She cringed. “I asked if the shrimp’s been culled.”

 

“Nah, ain’t had time.”

 

Gwen logged into the register and clicked on the total sales for the morning. $113.15 and he ‘ain’t had time?’

 

She grabbed a plastic grocery bag from the rack beside the register before heading for the door. “I’ll be culling,” she called out as she left.

 

She opened the lid to the shrimp tank and propped it up with a thin, metal rod. A quick assessment told her that the breeze wouldn’t be an issue. She hated windy days when the rod holding up the lid would often shift and the flimsy top would come down on her head.

 

Gwen stuck the plastic grocery bag into the small bucket, using the bag as a liner. Movement to her right caught her attention and she turned as an iridescent boat-tailed grackle perched on the side of the tank. “Don’t even think about it, buddy,” she said to the bird. The grackles were smart, and could get pretty bold. She’d seen them climb down the aeration tubing to the surface of the water in the tank and snatch shrimp right up. She’d also seen them perch on the side of a distracted fisherman’s bait bucket and help themselves.

 

“Shoo,” she said.

 

 It flew a few feet away and continued to keep watch.

 

She grabbed the net from the hook on the side of the tank and started scooping. As she picked out the dead shrimp, she counted them before throwing them into the bag. Gently releasing the live shrimp back into the tank, she scooped again, repeating the process.

 

“Hey, sweetheart, I’ll take five dozen of your largest shrimp.” The man set his bait bucket at Gwen’s feet as he leaned against the shrimp tank.

 

Gwen kept a silent count in her head as she pulled another dead shrimp from the net and tossed it into the bag. She glanced up and smiled at her uncle, Derek Hanes. When he lingered without showing any sign of recognition, she spoke.  “Good morning, Mr. Hanes. You can pay inside, then bring the receipt out with you.”

 

“What’cha doing with those dead ones?” he asked.

 

Ninety-one, ninety-two, ninety-three, she counted to herself.

 

“Oh, sorry, hope I didn’t make you lose count. Hey, didn’t the state buy this place?” he barked out.

 

Ninety-five, ninety-six. She smiled at him, preparing to answer the question he’d asked her every day since he’d buried his wife seven months earlier. “No, sir,” she said. “The county was going to buy the marina but the deal fell through.”

 

“How do you feel about working for the state?”

 

It’s the county, not the state, and it isn’t happening.

 

“I’m sure it’ll all be just fine. How about I get your five dozen shrimp for you while you go inside and pay?”

 

“Make ‘em big ones,” he told her as he pulled open the front door.

 

Gwen reached across the tank and knocked on the window with the end of the shrimp net. When Herb looked up she held up five fingers. She sighed. Her uncle Derek had really deteriorated during the past couple of years. Even though it wasn’t uncommon for people to be confused about who the marina belonged to after a few unrealized deals, usually she only had to correct them once. And it wasn’t just the same questions he repeatedly asked. The man’s personality had altered negatively as well. And then there was him not knowing who she was most of the time, despite the fact that she had lived with him and her Aunt Linda from the time she was seven until she turned eighteen and left for college.

 

She grabbed his bait bucket and dipped it in the tank to get some of the salty water, then she counted out five dozen shrimp, and added a few more lively ones for good measure.

 

She pushed the bucket of bait off to the side and resumed her silent count of dead shrimp.

 

“Twenty, forty, eleven,” a man’s voice teased her from behind.

 

“Screw you, Wyatt.” She didn’t even bother to look at her brother.

 

Wyatt laughed. “You about done?”

 

She threw one more into the bag. “One hundred and thirty three.” She tied the top of the bag and handed it to him.

 

“Thanks, little sister.”

 

“Just promise you’ll behave yourself.”

 

He gave her his trademark smile, the half-smile that was charming on him, but awkward on her. She’d tried most of her life to train herself to smile differently. Sometimes she managed, most times she didn’t.

 

“It ain’t about behaving, it’s about not getting caught,” Wyatt said.

 

“Yeah, and that attitude’s really gotten you far.”

 

“About as far as yours has, little sister,” he teased.

 

She dismissed him with a flick of her hand. “Now go. Take your smelly chumming shrimp and get out of my way. I’ve got filters to clean.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a slight bow.

 

“Oh, and Wyatt, could you keep an eye on Uncle Derek out there today?”

 

“He don’t even know who I am half the time. Besides, I ain’t nobody’s keeper.”

 

“Please?” she added.

 

He just scowled at her, but she knew he’d do it. She watched him retreat, thinking his hair, two or three inches longer than her own, was getting too shaggy. His stomach was showing a few too many beers. She hoped drinking was the only one of his vices in which he was indulging. At least now that Tracy was long gone from his life he was staying out of trouble for the most part. It saddened her that they had watched Wyatt’s girlfriend spin out of control with drug addiction, and how she’d almost dragged Wyatt down with her.

 

Gwen reached into the back corner of the tank and pulled off the filter. Then she grabbed the one in the other corner and carried them both to the fish cleaning station. Moments after she turned on the hose, an immature brown pelican landed in the water in front of her. As she watched him swim back and forth, begging for a handout, his anxiety washed over her, manifesting itself in a slight prickling in her arms. She wondered what that was about. She hadn’t even touched him.

 

“Come on, you goof. Bobbing around down there just makes you gator bait.” Gwen kept her voice gentle, but on the inside she raged against the idiots who fed the pelicans, making the big, awkward birds vulnerable by getting them to hang around in the brackish water where the gators prowled. She should show tough love to the pelican, but couldn’t bring herself to spray it with the hose or do anything else to drive it away.

 

She kept one eye on the bird as she rinsed out the strips of blue filter material littered with mushy shrimp waste. As she reassembled the filters, she watched the pelican fly to the nearest dock. The chunky bird waddled around the B-dock until it found just the right spot to settle.

 

She saw her uncle walking toward the boat that he probably shouldn’t have been driving.

 

“You’re a good girl,” he called to her. “I hope the state gives you a big raise.”

 

“Thank you,” she answered, not bothering to correct him. “Good luck out there.”

 

Gwen made her way back into the store after reattaching the shrimp filters, thankful when she saw that Herb was nowhere around. She pulled up the shrimp inventory spreadsheet on the desktop and entered her count from earlier. She noticed Herb had added a large number to the dead column the day before. There was a note in the column next to it that they had had a massive die-off, maybe due to the water in the tanks getting too hot. That just meant Herb was trying to hide the fact that he charged people for their shrimp and pocketed the money instead of ringing it up. She just shrugged it off. The last person who had told the owner about the skimming had been fired by Herb in less than a week. If the owner was going to tell Herb everything the employees told him, Gwen would just continue to let Herb steal from him. It wasn’t her problem.

 

She turned around when she heard a clank on the glass countertop by the register. “Hello,” Gwen said to a man she thought she recognized. Some folks she knew by name, some by face, and some not at all, but she tried to make everyone feel welcomed. She scanned the barcode on the six-pack of Corona and took his money.

 

“Have a great day,” she said.

 

He held up the beer. “I will now,” he said with a scowl.

 

Gwen hung around the register until Herb reappeared, then went out to sweep the sidewalks. She’d just finished the front walk and rounded the corner to the side facing the docks when she saw her. The mystery woman was walking slowly down the wood planks, staring at her cell phone as she went.

 

“No signal yet, babe,” Gwen whispered as she leaned against the broom, watching as the woman paused again in front of Eric’s slick boat. She slowly continued to sweep while keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the woman’s long legs. “Go toward the mangroves,” she quietly coached her.

 

The woman stepped off the dock and turned to the right.

 

“There you go. A few more steps.”

 

The woman took three more steps and stopped near the mangroves. She dialed. Gwen watched as she spoke into her cell. Her free hand gestured in a manner that told Gwen the woman was not happy.

 

A breeze blew through and the woman ran her hand over her blowing hair. Gwen wondered how that hair would feel between her fingers. She unconsciously adjusted the bandana on her own head as she briefly entertained the idea of bringing the woman a ball cap from the ship’s store as a welcome-to-the-marina present. Thinking the woman might have just packed heavily and would only be there a few days, she quickly dismissed the idea.

 

“Hey, honey,” Herb’s deep voice boomed.

 

Gwen bristled at the greeting. “Hey,” she answered.

 

“When you get done out here, someone tracked mud all through the store.” He took several steps in her direction as he spoke. She took a few steps backward, keeping the broom in position between them in a silent quest for space.

 

“I really like that color on you,” he said as he motioned to her bandana. “It brings out the green of your eyes.” His gaze traveled much lower than her eyes.

 

She decided to burn the bandana when she got home.

 

“But those shorts.” He smiled, revealing tobacco-specked, stained teeth. “They’d be nicer if they were a little shorter.”

 

She cringed. Go away, go away, go away, she chanted in her mind.

 

“I’m leaving. Don’t forget the beer guy will be here tomorrow. Get the cooler cleaned up before then.”

 

She concentrated on sweeping around what appeared to be snuff spit on the sidewalk. “Yeah, sure,” she muttered.

 

She swept for several more minutes before Peter, a regular customer, handed Gwen his bait bucket. “The last batch all died. That happens a lot. Do I get these ones for free?”

 

“You’d have to talk to Herb. He’s already left for the day.” She took the bucket to the shrimp tank and dipped it in for some of the saltwater.

 

“No water. Just shrimp,” Peter said.

 

“Have you been putting the shrimp in your live well?”

 

“Yeah,” he muttered.

 

“Using that water?” she asked.

 

“Ah, yeah – duh,” he said.

 

“That water isn’t salty enough to keep the shrimp alive until you get out to the gulf. The problem hasn’t been the shrimp, but the water. That’s why we always try to give you some of our water with the shrimp.” She kept the water in the bucket. “How many?”

 

“Three dozen.” He crossed his arms in a move that always made Gwen think of grown men pouting like children. “Thanks,” he muttered almost under his breath.

 

 

“My God, Jeremy, what were you thinking? I’m in the middle of nowhere and the boat you rented is hideous.” Piper Jackson turned toward the houseboat and cringed. At first glance, the boat appeared to be made of plaster, but the closer she looked, she saw that it was cement. While all the boats around it were slick and shiny, this one was dull and faded. It was mostly a whitish color, but with faded red or brown on the lower fourth and the trim.

 

“Hey, I’m trying to take care of this,” Jeremy said. “Now, quit your bitching. It was you who wouldn’t back down on that story. It’s you they want dead now. I’m just trying to keep you alive. I told you to leave Bronson alone, Piper.”

 

“Yeah, after you put me on his trail. You’re the one who told me something hinky was going on with Bronson. And you know how I get when my curiosity is piqued. I’m like a dog with a bone.” She held the cell phone with one hand and fended off a fly with the other. “And it’s not Piper, remember? Hell, you’re the one who came up with PJ,” she said.

 

“Well, just lay low down there. Please, PJ?”

 

“Lay low?” she growled. “How can someone lay low on the most conspicuous boat in the marina?” She swatted at a fly. Pesky, but nothing compared to the mosquitoes the past summer in Virginia.

 

“I didn’t know anything about the boat. The friend of a friend of a friend rented it to me at a really good price. And it was as far away as I could get you without you having to learn a foreign language.”

 

“Don’t be so sure of yourself. I got lost in Miami on my way down here and couldn’t find anyone in any of the drug stores, fast food joints, or gas stations who spoke English.” She swatted at the yellow fly that kept going for her eyes.

 

“But you got there safely and that’s what counts. You left the car in the car lot in Naples and took a cab to the marina, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Is the boat that bad?” Jeremy asked.

 

She looked at the atrocious cement houseboat. “Yes.” When she thought of the built-in bookshelves, the ornate headboard, the fact that the inside had obviously been redone recently, she softened. “Okay, maybe it’s not that bad.”

 

“Just make the most of it for now. Please?”

 

She sighed. As her best friend and ex-husband, Jeremy just wanted what was best for her and she knew that. “I’ll be fine here. At least it has a microwave.”

 

“See, there’s a plus. And please be careful. I mean it.”

 

“Yep. Careful.” She took a deep breath and let her gaze travel across the marina to where the woman she’d seen earlier wielded a broom. She had also watched the woman when she’d held the broom between her and a large man, almost as if she was protecting herself with it. Piper had studied them. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the big guy was a bullying creep, and the hot woman was working hard to keep her distance without insulting the man who probably signed her paycheck.

 

A breeze caught Piper’s hair. It felt wonderful, but after only a few moments it turned into wind. She decided to quit bitching at him and go inside her cement abode. “Okay, Jeremy. I’ll call you tomorrow.” She looked around her at the unusual mix of retirees and salty fishing types, the juxtaposition of old boats like her temporary home and the expensive, brand spanking new ones. “This is a strange little place.”

 

“Just don’t become complacent. Bronson’s goons are dangerous people. As you well know.”

 

A shudder passed through Piper. Yes, she had seen just how dangerous they were. “I’ll be vigilant. I promise.”

 

“You’re my favorite ex-wife and I love you.”

 

“I’m your only ex-wife. Unless something has happened between you and Anthony?”

 

“No, we’re great.”

 

“Good. And I love you, too.”

 

She glanced one last time at the marina employee as she disconnected. She made her way down the dock to the houseboat, noting the building clouds in the direction where she imagined rested the Gulf of Mexico. She grabbed the aluminum railing as she stepped up onto the walkway that went most of the way around the boat.

 

Inside, Piper powered up her laptop. Maybe she’d play some solitaire to pass the time. She really wanted to find some Wi-Fi and get online. Her curiosity about this part of southwest Florida was getting the better of her. She’d go crazy if she didn’t at least look into the area.

 

She missed Jeremy. They hadn’t been apart more than a week at a time since the sixth grade. When Piper’s family moved in next door to Jeremy’s, the two became instant best friends, and inseparable in their small town in Virginia. They went to prom together, and fell into bed afterward. That summer, when Piper learned she was pregnant, Jeremy proposed. His proposal was awkward and cryptic. He told Piper he loved her and wanted to raise their baby together, but added that she had to know up front that he was who he was and wouldn’t change. She’d had no idea what he’d meant. So, they married, him assuming she’d always known he was gay, and her assuming that their marriage would be fine even though they hadn’t had sex since their drunken romp on prom night.

 

Piper lost the baby two months after they’d married. She’d gone on to get her education at the local community college, and he’d moved up in the ranks at the local furniture store. Life was comfortable. Then she caught Jeremy in bed with a man. She was hurt and confused, but they got through it. She’d had to admit to herself that, in her heart, she’d known he was gay, she just didn’t want to give him up. Or face the truth about herself.

 

They’d stayed comfortably married. Their marriage fooled his bigoted family, and helped her business. It seemed to Piper that the people in their town who could afford the services of a professional photographer loved the idea of having a gay man arrange the flowers, but didn’t want a dyke pointing her lens at the young, innocent brides. But then Jeremy met Anthony and Piper just felt in the way. So, they’d divorced. He had stayed with Anthony. She had plenty of women in her life. And Piper and Jeremy remained best friends.

 

A clap of thunder rattled the windows of the houseboat. She let out a nervous chuckle at how she’d jumped at the crashing noise. “Don’t get spooked,” she told herself. “Vigilance is not the same as paranoia,” she chastised. “Damned Bronson.”

 

Piper took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself. Instead, her mind rammed back to the night her life had changed so drastically.

 

She’d been sitting in her Dodge Dakota half a block from where Bronson’s meeting with an informant was going down. She’d already taken good identifying photos of the informant, Bronson, and two of the latter man’s goons. It was the beginning of March and quite cold in the car. She didn’t dare leave it running with the heat on, not wanting to give away her location. She’d smelled pizza and wished that whatever was going to happen would just hurry up and happen so she could get a hot, cheesy medium pizza with black olives and mushrooms.

 

When the muscle-bound goon slammed the balding informant against the rough, brick wall, Piper’s hunger went into check and her instincts kicked in. She took shot after shot of the muscled guy and his skinny cohort punching the informant. Then, in perfect telephoto focus, Bronson shot the man between the eyes.

 

Piper zoomed in close on the man and took a shot of his face. She knew the second she took the photo that he was dead. She sent anonymous copies to the police three days before the local paper published the story with her byline. She was naïve enough to think that Joseph Bronson would be behind bars before the story ran. But Joseph Bronson went underground. And Piper was running for her life.

 

The roar of rain brought her out of her reverie.

 

 “What have I done?” she asked herself. Her first attempt at photojournalism and it had to be a murder? She was way out of her league. She should have stuck to photographing snobby weddings, even if the bridezillas drove her crazy. She’d just been so intrigued when her camera captured the perfect, tell-all, smoldering look between the groom and one of the bridesmaids. She couldn’t keep herself from including the shot with the others she sent to the bride for proofing. She’d known from the moment she saw the image of the inappropriate exchange between the groom and bridesmaid that simple wedding photography would never again be enough. Surely, freelance photojournalism would be the answer to all her problems.

 

Then it became her biggest problem. Bronson was out there somewhere, and he wanted her dead. She shivered. What if the cops couldn’t find Bronson before he found her? Another noise startled her. She took a deep breath before pushing the curtain aside and peering out of the galley window. The woman at the marina was securing the trashcans outside of the store. Sheets of rain assailed the blonde, plastering her bright green bandana to her head.

 

Piper couldn’t help but appreciate how the woman’s drenched fishing shirt clung to her, showing the outline of a tank top and well-toned arms. Maybe she’d found just the distraction she needed to keep her mind off her problems. Ah, she could hope…

 

 

Gwen wiped the rain from her eyes and squinted in the direction of Ruffled Feathers. She saw the curtain part and felt the mystery woman watching her. She hated that Herb had interrupted her study of the woman earlier.

 

She stole another glance toward Ruffled Feathers and wondered what the mystery woman was doing inside. She felt the familiar bitterness rise in her as she reformed the thought into wondering what the woman was doing inside her boat. Their father had put Ruffled Feathers in Wyatt’s name right before he was busted. Wyatt was only seventeen at the time. Just a kid. And he didn’t take care of the houseboat. Then, two years ago, Wyatt offered half the boat to Gwen. He told her if she remodeled the inside, when she was done he’d make her co-owner and let her live on it. She’d worked hard for more than a year to get it fixed up. She’d had to work slowly since she didn’t have a lot of money to invest. So, as she got the cash, she’d put it and a bunch of elbow grease into the interior of Ruffled Feathers. When she finished, she found out that Wyatt had lost the boat to Arnie Walker in a poker game. Her investment of time and money was for nothing.

 

By the time she flipped the closed sign on the front door of the store, the rain had stopped, as had the lightning. She didn’t mind paddling in the rain, but knew better than to be on the water in a thunderstorm. She gave the floor a quick sweep after reconciling the cash register, then cleaned the bathrooms. After a final, visual once-over, she locked the store behind her.

 

She took a deep breath as she pulled on her paddling gloves. She loved the smell after a good rain, as well as  the mist off the brackish water and the way the sun glinted off all the wet surfaces. After a last glance in the direction of the houseboat, she pushed the kayak to the edge of the water. As much as she got irritated with tourists and fishing guides, and as much as she disliked being around the lecherous Herb, she knew that not everyone had the good fortune to live in such a gorgeous place and to be able to kayak to work. She smiled as she climbed into her kayak and pushed off from the boat ramp.

 

She drifted past the three docks that stretched out like fingers and turned her kayak to face down the canal. Balancing her paddle across the top, she removed her bandana and pulled the fishing shirt over her head, leaving on her snug tank top. After she stuffed her clothing between the seat-back and life preserver, she combed her fingers through her hair and ruffled it. She squared her shoulders and grabbed her paddle.

 

She paddled hard until her arms burned and shoulders ached, then she paddled harder. This was her favorite part of the day. Nothing was more cleansing than working out hard and sweating out all the psychic toxins that had accumulated throughout the day. The burn in her arms intensified and she bore down with her legs against the inside of her boat. The sun on her face and the water running off her paddle into her lap brought a smile to her face. She lived for this feeling of strength and freedom.

 

As she neared home, she let up on the paddling and let her body start to cool down. She raised her arms above her head and smiled when the paddle dripped the brackish water down on her. After stretching out her arm muscles, she lowered the paddle back into the water, then dug deep with the left end of the paddle to turn the kayak toward the small break in the mangroves where she always beached. Just as she was about to make the push onto the dirt, she saw him. Justice. Fourteen feet of cantankerous fierceness, Justice could lay his alligator self anywhere he chose to and get away with it. On this day, it seemed, he wanted to lie just enough in her path to make her uneasy about landing there.

 

“Come on, isn’t there somewhere else you can sunbathe?” She sighed. Apparently not.

 

She backed the kayak up several feet – the farther from the mangroves, the fewer the bugs – and waited. Since it was getting late, she hoped Justice would be moving on soon. The growling of her stomach drove home just how much she hoped he’d tire of sunning there sooner rather than later.

 

A Carolina skiff made its way in her direction, going faster than it should. She would never get what part of no wake these people didn’t understand. She recognized the driver as one of the regulars from the ship’s store. He always bought the newspaper, a coffee, and two dozen shrimp when he came in.

 

When he waved, she resisted the temptation to yell at him. Instead, she nodded as she tried to keep her kayak facing into the wake. Choose your battles, Wyatt always told her. For once, she would listen to him. She gritted her teeth until the boat was gone and the water had settled.

 

Gwen was growing tired of the waiting game. She looked from a different angle to see if maybe she had more room between Justice and the mangroves than she thought. Not so much. Another belly rumble and she decided maybe she was wrong. She took in the position of his body, the set of his head, staring until he blurred in her vision and she felt his indifference. He wasn’t interested in her as a meal, but didn’t want to feel challenged by her either. She steeled her nerves and took a deep breath. She paddled with short, choppy strokes, keeping as far to the right of the path as she could as she beached onto the sand and shell path. Exiting on the right, she kept the kayak between her and Justice and dragged it up the bank.

 

Justice never budged. It was unnerving how still an alligator could remain. She cringed as she remembered a close call she’d witnessed the year before. A group of tourists had stopped their car half-on-half-off the road—ugh, one of her biggest pet peeves—and were taking pictures of what they must have believed to be a road-kill alligator. When they positioned Grandma close by for a photo and the creature moved, much screaming and scrambling for the car ensued.

 

Gwen carried the kayak farther up than usual, so as to keep it handy as a shield. When she was a safe distance from Justice, she dropped the kayak and whispered thanks to him. He made a growly-groany sound.

 

“You need to learn to share,” she told the large reptile.

 

He let out a low, deep growl again, and launched himself off the bank and into the water.

 

She turned and jumped at the unexpected sight of her brother.

 

“Hey, little sister,” Wyatt sang out from beside his truck.

 

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

 

“Is that any way to treat someone who comes bearing gifts?” He pretended to pout. “Here, take some of this fish.”

 

She eyed the red snapper. It was at least twenty inches long, so at least he was legal in that sense. “No, thanks.”

 

“Come on, I was respectful when I caught it.” He flashed a smile.

 

She studied his face and the twitch below his left eye gave him away. “Liar.”

 

He laughed. “Your loss. Take it or it’ll be wasted. I don’t think Mother Earth would like it to just get thrown away.” He shoved it toward her.

 

“Stop it. I said I don’t want it.” She was about to slap his hand away when an alligator bellow got their attention. The deep, guttural noise was followed by a splashing ruckus. Gwen couldn’t help herself. “Fucking or fighting?” she asked in their customary way.

 

“Fighting,” Wyatt answered without missing a beat. “Definitely fighting.” And with that, one of the large gators made a bee-line away from its adversary. “I guess you’ve noticed the hot chick renting Ruffled Feathers?”

 

Gwen acted like she didn’t hear the question.

 

“Oh, don’t even try to tell me you ain’t noticed her.”

 

Gwen shrugged as she looked directly at her brother. His half-smile egged her on. Finally, curiosity got the better of her. “So, what’s her story?”

 

“I don’t know. Nobody seems to know anything other than she’s hot,” Wyatt said.

 

Gwen walked toward the front door of her small home.

 

Her brother called after her. “I got first dibs!”

 

She waved him off without looking back. She tried to convince herself that the sudden pounding of her heart had nothing to do with the mention of the mystery woman. Gwen glanced at the shed that served as her woodworking shop. Ever since losing some of her tools, then Ruffled Feathers, she hadn’t been in the mood to coax birds or animals out of the wood.

 

Once inside her small house, she opened the refrigerator and for just a moment wished she’d taken the fish. She pulled out two eggs. An omelet with free-range eggs and organic veggies would be perfect. Who cares if she’d had that for dinner just the day before?

 

 

Piper ran her fingertips across the nautical rope serving as trim on the kitchen cabinets. She liked those little details. And the ornate wood paneling on all the walls was gorgeous. She glanced at the couch. She’d been sleeping there instead of the queen-sized bed in the bedroom. With it being just her, she couldn’t make herself sleep in the bedroom. The bedroom was smaller, about eight feet by eleven, and made her feel trapped. Sure, the couch was right by the door, which could make her vulnerable, but it still felt safer than the bedroom. But if she had the company of the marina woman it’d be a very different story. She’d gladly partake of the bed if she had the hot blonde there with her.

 

Piper sighed. If the marina woman was half as hot up-close as she was from a distance, then…yum. She’d seen the woman fiercely paddling her yellow kayak just an hour earlier. After stripping off her over-shirt and bandana, the woman had stretched tanned, muscular arms. The edges of a tattoo peeked out from under the tank top, adorning shoulders that looked powerful. Piper wanted to run her fingers over those muscles. A twinge of desire shot down her abdomen to settle between her legs.

 

She stood and paced the best she could in the cramped quarters. “I can’t believe I’m hiding in here. I’m a hack,” she said in a low voice. “I am a hack in way over my head.” She stopped. Did she just hear something? No, of course not. “And now I’m a paranoid hack.”

 

“Hello, aboard Ruffled Feathers,” a man’s voice called out.

 

She jumped. She double-checked that the door was locked before peeking around the edge of the curtains covering the round, porthole window.

 

“Hello,” the man said, looking at her through the small opening in the cloth. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

 

The man wore nothing but cargo shorts and flip-flops. With one hand he stroked a tuft of hair beneath his lower lip, the other grasped a can of beer.

 

Her first thought was that he wasn’t one of Bronson’s goons because he couldn’t possibly be concealing a weapon. Her second thought was that she hoped he wouldn’t create a scene or draw any attention to her.

 

She pulled the curtain open a few inches and looked around, trying to ascertain if the man was alone.

 

“I was wondering if we could talk. My name is Wyatt. We’re neighbors, sort of.”

 

“I’d kind of just like to be left alone,” Piper said.

 

“Give me a few minutes of your time and then I’ll go away. I promise.”

 

She fidgeted with the cell phone in the front pocket of her shorts. It wouldn’t do her any good since she couldn’t get a signal on the boat or the dock anyway.

 

“Come on out.” He gestured around. “There are people around to make sure I don’t do anything out of line.”

 

She walked to the front of the boat, where the controls were, and reached to move aside the curtain there. Several men were gathered around the fish cleaning station. Judging by their hand movements, they were all telling their own versions of the fish that got away.

 

Might as well talk to him so he’ll go away, she thought.

 

 She unlocked the door and started to open it. It caught and wouldn’t slide. She was getting tired of its resistance every time she tried to leave the boat.

 

“Here,” the man said. He grabbed the edge of the wood door and lifted it. “This door is a little touchy, is all. Pull up on it as you begin to slide it open.”

 

Piper stepped back when the door slid open toward the back of the boat. The man stood there smiling at her. He stepped back a few steps, making room for her to step down off the boat onto the dock. When he reached out his hand as if to help her, she grabbed the railing instead, then stepped onto the dock.

 

“Like I said, my name’s Wyatt and we’re sort of neighbors.” He shifted his can of beer to his left hand and reached out his right one.

 

Piper hesitated before taking his hand to shake. “Hi.”

 

He held on to her hand. “This is where you introduce yourself.”

 

She pulled her hand away from his. “I’m PJ. And like I said, I’d rather just be left alone.”

 

“Vacationing?”

 

She gripped the door frame. “Yeah, vacationing.”

 

“If you step on out of the boat you could shut the door and keep from air-conditioning the entire Ten Thousand Island area. Or you could invite me in,” he said with a smile.

 

He laughed when she quickly stepped onto the floating dock and slid the door shut behind her. “So, are you out here alone?”

 

She hesitated.

 

“I’m not asking so I can come back after dark and do terrible things to you. Unless you want me to.” He laughed. “I’m asking ‘cause I was wondering if you had any protection.”

 

“Protection?”

 

“Like a gun. Do you have a gun?”

 

“I—do I—?”

 

“Do you want one?”

 

“Should I?” she asked.

 

“I know I wouldn’t want my girlfriend out here at night without one.” He gestured toward a truck. “Let me show you what I would recommend you have out here if you were my girlfriend or sister or whatever.”

 

Piper watched as he ambled down the dock. It crossed her mind to just go back on the boat and lock the door behind her, but she had to admit she was curious about this guy. And he did seem harmless enough.

 

Wyatt grabbed a towel-covered bundle from the cab of a beat-up, old pick-up truck. He finished off his beer and threw the can in the bed of the truck before starting back down the dock.

 

“It sure would be better if we did this inside,” Wyatt said.

 

Piper glanced at the boat, then at the men at the cleaning station. No one was paying them any attention. “Here’s fine,” she said.

 

He laughed. “Suit yourself.” He squatted and placed the bundle on the dock. He unwrapped a revolver and a shotgun.

 

Her heart started to pound. He picked up the revolver. “If you’re gonna wander around at night, I’d say go with this .38.”

 

She saw an image of Bronson shooting the informant in the face and felt her breath catch in her chest.

 

“But if you’ll be mostly staying put on the boat at night, the shotgun is a good choice.” He stroked the length of it. “And I can give you a really good deal on this one.”

 

As Wyatt showed her how to operate the shotgun, she kept sneaking peeks at him. His wavy, sun-bleached hair hung almost to his shoulders. Just below a crooked smile was a soul patch, that little area of hair below a man’s lower lip that she always found herself watching if she spoke to someone with one. Soul patches distracted her as much as facial piercings did.

 

“If you don’t pay attention, you ain’t gonna know how to use it when you need it,” Wyatt said.

 

The heat rose on Piper’s face. God, she hoped her studying him didn’t give him the wrong idea.

 

“You married?” Wyatt asked.

 

“No.”

 

“Boyfriend?”

 

“No.”

 

“Girlfriend?” As he asked the question, his attention turned to an old man struggling to pull a boat alongside the seawall by the marina.

 

“Not at this very moment.” It flashed through her mind that the old man was at the spot where the marina woman had been cleaning something and talking to a pelican earlier.

 

Wyatt continued watching the old man. Piper was surprised by the ease at which he asked about a girlfriend, and equally surprised by how he didn’t react to her answer. She shrugged it off, not even knowing if he’d heard her.

 

“So, what do you think?” Wyatt asked.

 

“About the gun?”

 

“Yeah,” he smiled. “About the gun.”

 

“I don’t know.” She looked around.

 

“It’s amazing how much a person can relax when they know they can protect themselves,” Wyatt said. “Seventy-five bucks is a real bargain. I’ll even throw in a box of shells. And a free tutorial if you ever want a lesson on shooting it.”

 

She glanced toward the door to the houseboat.

 

“Tell you what,” Wyatt said. “You take it now, and I’ll come back tomorrow for the money.” He smiled. “You know, after you’ve had a chance to go to the ATM.”

 

“Okay,” Piper answered. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll pay you then.” She had the cash hidden under the couch cushion on the boat but wasn’t about to let this guy know that.

 

“And can I be of any further service to you?”

 

“Can you tell me where to get decent coffee around here?”

 

“Define decent. The ship’s store has fresh, no frills coffee all day.”

 

“I guess there isn’t a sushi bar with Wi-Fi anywhere around here?”

 

Wyatt gestured past the store. “The hotel right through there has a restaurant and bar. And Wi-Fi.  Problem is the restaurant is iffy, the bar is expensive, and the Wi-Fi is for guests and needs a code.”

 

“Good to know,” Piper said.

 

“Go into Naples or Marco for the sushi. A couple of the restaurants in Everglades might have Wi-Fi.”

 

“Everglades? As in the swamp?”

 

“No, as in Everglades City. Just east of here. But beware the drug smugglers.”

 

“What?”

 

He laughed. “A joke. I was poking fun at the outside world’s stereotypes of people from Everglades City. Humor?”

 

Silence.

 

“Never mind,” he said.

 

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