Authors: Jessica Speart
Tags: #Mystery, #Wildlife, #special agent, #poachers, #French Quarter, #alligators, #Cajun, #drug smuggling, #U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, #bayou, #New Orleans, #Wildlife Smuggling, #Endangered species, #swamp, #female sleuth, #environmental thriller, #Jessica Speart
“YOU KNOW WHAT, SANTOU?
“Until I find out there isn’t a tie-in between this dead gator and your dead hooker, I’m taking it for granted that there is—and I’m going to find out what it is. Until then, don’t even consider telling me how to do my job.”
I shoved my way past the crowd of cops, but Santou caught up with me as I reached the door.
“Hold on, Rachel. I don’t come up against much of this wildlife stuff. But you’re right. It’s your job, and if I was out of line, I apologize.”
I didn’t comment as he shifted from one foot to the other.
“What say we pool our information? You poke your nose around and learn something, you tell me, and I’ll do the same by you. Maybe you’re right—maybe there is a tie-in here.”
“What makes you think I could possibly have access to any information you might want in my little old wildlife job?”
Santou arched an eyebrow, acknowledging the dig. “
, you strike me as a wolverine. You got something in your craw, you won’t let it go till you’re good and ready. I’m placing odds it’s better to have you as an ally than an enemy.”
I liked that.
A Rachel Porter Mystery
To my husband, who believed in my dream.
Thanks go to Ken Goddard for his help, encouragement, and quirky sense of humor, to Jo Tyler for her insightful eye; and to all the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents who continue to fight against the odds.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of the author.
Copyright © 1997 by Jessica Speart
All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law or with the prior written permission of the author.
Inside cover author photo by George Brenner
Cover design by Pickle Group (
eBook editions by eBooks by Barb for
Published by the author
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 97-93010
ISBN: 0-380-79288-5 (paperback)
First Avon Books Printing: September 1997
The marsh air hung hot
and heavy, providing the perfect breeding ground for a battalion of mosquitoes that dive-bombed my body as if it were a fast-food stop. The wooden seat of the boat added further to my discomfort, biting through my pants and into my skin, while the humidity permeated my shoes and clothing to lodge solidly in my bones. Closing my eyes against the darkness of a lazy overdue dawn, I let my mind wander, bringing homespun memories of the angry honk of horns, the persistent shriek of fire engines, and the relentless racket of garbage trucks clattering down streets like heavily armored tanks. Taking a deep breath, I filled my lungs with the gas emissions and stench of New York City. But in my heart I knew better. I was stuck in a pirogue in the marshes of southern Louisiana, listening to the demented cries of nutria—fifteen-pound rodents that would have been taken for overgrown rats in New York. Shrieking like women gone mad, they led the chorus as the marsh became alive with the sounds and sights of ducks, egrets, ibis, and herons. It was the start of another steamy day.
Sitting in the small wooden boat, I tried to remember lines from off-Broadway plays, bit parts in soap operas, even the occasional commercial I’d been in that had somehow brought my life around to this, when I finally heard the sound I’d been waiting for. BOOM! The blast of a shotgun in the distance, followed by another volley reverberating in the morning air. Paddling through tall cordgrass, I tried to follow its echo, but a black Labrador saved me the trouble. Crashing through weeds and water, intent on finding its prey, the dog barely gave me a second glance as it picked up the duck in its mouth and, with a dumb smile plastered on its face, headed back to its master, anxious for a few words of praise. I was certain the dog had to be a female.
Hidden away in the intricately woven one-man blind sat Billy Paul Cochrain. We had met under similar circumstances before. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and a duckbilled cap, he was just reaching for the duck when he caught sight of my boat and looked up to see me watching his every move. He quickly pulled back his hand.
“Ain’t my duck.”
Once again I had blown it. Worse yet, Billy Paul knew it, too, as the same stupid grin that the Lab wore now spread across his face. He patted the dog on the head as it insistently tried to ply him with the dead bird.
“Jennifer, I keep telling you to leave them ducks alone.” He chuckled as he pushed the offering away.
A female. I knew it.
I’d been based in southern Louisiana for six months now. It was my first assignment as a full-fledged special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If I had known what I was getting into, I might have stayed in New York City with my defunct career as an actress. But at thirty-four years of age, you begin to panic. Not that far off from thirty-five, then forty, and finally menopause. I had thought it was time for a life change. My name is Rachel Porter, New York City born and bred.
“What we do now, Porter?”
Billy Paul grinned at me like an imbecile. I was asking myself the same question.
“You wanna take me in?”
I sighed deeply, thinking of the last time this had happened. It had been my first run-in with the senior resident agent, who also happens to be my boss, Charlie Hickok. I had hauled Billy Paul in, proudly presenting him to Charlie as my first bona fide poacher, and then waited for a few words of praise.
“You got the ducks?” Charlie asked, as he tilted his body back into a chair that creaked in protest against his 235 pounds.
One sad duck loaded with enough birdshot to resemble a piece of Swiss cheese had been my total body of evidence.
Hickok shook his head in disgust. “That’s it? Then you ain’t got him. Don’t bring me any more of these puny, dumb-ass, nitty-picky cases wasting my time like I got nothin’ else better to do.”
Billy Paul’s face had lit up like a jack-o’-lantern with a candle stuck inside as Charlie waved him out the door.
“You just learned your first lesson here, Bronx. One duck out of season ain’t worth the trouble it takes to write it up.” I hated it when he called me Bronx. Charlie knew that. I had carefully explained that I’m from Manhattan, but he didn’t much care.
Glaring at Billy Paul now as I tried to wrest the duck from the Lab’s mouth, I could see that he’d just begun his morning round of hunting. There would be no other ducks inside his boat.
“This is a warning, Billy Paul. The next time I catch you, I’m hauling you in.”
“Anything you say, ma’am.” Still grinning, he rowed away, with Jennifer splashing in the water after him.
The only thing I hated worse than being called Bronx was being referred to as “ma’am.” It made me feel older than I wanted to be. I’d learned a lot in my first six months here. I’d finally discerned that even when you catch someone red-handed, hunting an obscene number of ducks far over the legal limit, it didn’t mean they were going to jail. It would have been mind-boggling if they even received a fine. Southern Louisiana meant dealing with country parishes, which meant local judges, small-town district attorneys, and rural lawyers. If they weren’t related in some way to the defendant, it didn’t much matter. The local lawyer won every case anyway. It was easy. They were all fixed.
Hauling the pirogue onto land, I dragged it into the weeds before jumping into my VW bug and heading off. Pink fingers of light jabbed into the blue of receding night as I bumped along a rutted road badly in need of repair. I had thought New York City streets were rough until driving down here.
Considered a demon speedster by friends and family alike, I was at home with my hand on the horn, daring taxis to pass me. While the West Side Highway is considered a motorist’s nightmare, I knew most of the potholes that never got fixed. A New Yorker’s badge of pride comes with being able to drive from Fourteenth Street to the George Washington Bridge while keeping their car in one piece—unlike outsiders, who hit hole after hole, knocking out tires and denting frames. City kids lie in wait for the uninitiated to pull off the road, where cars are stripped with such speed and fury that the owners are barely even aware of what’s happened. This was general knowledge, and something I had been smug about all my life. No ruse could get the better of me—until I hit Louisiana and learned firsthand how it felt to be a greenhorn. Down here, road signs are considered unnecessary and directions given are as marginal as my grandmother’s recipes.
My secondhand car didn’t help. Taken in by appearances, I had thought it seemed too good to be true when I stumbled across it for sale. An inveterate bargain hunter, I was sure I had lucked into the steal of the century. I had. A large chunk of my hard-earned savings was legitimately stolen by the slickest car dealer south of New York City. My turquoise car was quickly turning to rust. But the major problem was the stick shift. Namely, that I’d never driven one before. Since buying the VW, which had 125,000 miles on the odometer before my foot even touched the pedal, my life had become a series of double clutches. I was a big-city rube, no two ways about it. After a night of sitting on a hard plank of wood in the middle of the water, my car, with its bad springs and thinly padded seat, offered little consolation. But I’d had a tip on some illegal duck hunting that might be taking place near Des Allemandes this morning. Besides, I needed to dry out for a while.
My life hadn’t always been like this. After a twelve-year romance with an acting career that had lurched along almost as badly as my VW, I’d spent five months as a wildlife inspector at JFK Airport. It seemed I had the right qualifications for the job. None. Just two weeks of training was all that was needed. I had envisioned sifting through passengers’ souvenirs while ferreting out wildlife contraband. Instead, I found myself digging through boxes of snakes and lizards on cold, dirty warehouse floors and clearing shipments of tropical fish to be rushed to the nearest pet store.
I had known there would be a problem when I decided to quit acting: what to do with my life now? Tired of worrying about frizzy hair while competing against every other actress in New York to sell GLAD Wrap, I had begun to cringe at the thought of one more audition where I was expected to be younger, shorter, prettier than I ever had been or ever could be. The relief of no longer turning myself inside out to deal with the demands of agents and casting directors was almost more than I could handle. I nose-dived into a three-month depression that found me spending my days at the Bronx Zoo, eating box after box of Crackerjacks. Twenty pounds, three months, one boyfriend, and two shrinks later, I discovered that what I related to best were animals. But I still needed a challenge, something in which my competitive nature would know no bounds. I found my calling one night watching an Audubon special on TV that focused on the illegal wildlife trade, and one man’s exploits in fighting it—Charlie Hickok, Fish and Wildlife agent extraordinaire. This was what I aspired to be. I figured after all my years of dealing with the horrors of showbiz, taking on the poachers of the world would be a breeze.