Authors: Heather Graham
For the Florida Everglades, the Miccosukee, and Debbie Craig
HE WINDSHIELD WIPERS SQUEAKED
in a monotonous rhythm as Whitney Latham sat tensely hunched over the wheel, her knuckles white from the tightness of her grip, her bright green eyes wide and glued to what she could see of the road. The storm, which had been only a light patter of rain when she had left the civilization of Ft. Lauderdale behind, now thundered upon her with a ferocity as savage as the primitive swamp that flanked each side of the two-lane highway known as Alligator Alley.
A jagged streak of lightning blazed with sudden brilliance across the black sky, followed immediately by an ominous roar of thunder. Whitney emitted a startled cry and the wheel twisted violently in her hands, causing the car to jackknife on the slick pavement. “Damn!” she muttered, fighting to bring the auto back into control. She should pull off the road, but she was afraid to try. She might pull right into a canal!
“Some ‘two-hour’ drive!” she moaned aloud, remembering the words of the friendly waitress who had suggested the short cut rather than an extra drive of thirty miles down to Miami and the Trail. But in daytime, with a sunny sky overhead, it probably was a pleasant and short enough excursion. She had only herself to blame for rushing onto the highway with darkness—and the rain—descending. Her eagerness to manage her new job efficiently had prompted her to reach her final destination, Naples, with all possible speed, and consequently she had shunned the idea of staying in Ft. Lauderdale for the night. It had not occurred to her that the road, which cut in what the map showed as a straight line across the Everglades, could possibly offer mile after mile of absolutely
It seemed like endless hours ago that she had passed the last signs of humanity—an Indian restaurant and a billboard that announced WILLIE’S AIRBOAT RIDES. That had been before the total blackness of the stormy night had fallen. It had been a good thirty minutes now since she’d even seen another car! But then the natives of the area were probably bright enough to stay off the road in this type of weather.
“I’m going to make a marvelous public relations director!” she mocked herself lightly, aloud again to bolster her morale. “I don’t seem to know a thing about the land that’s going to be in question!”
She really didn’t know if she was even near the land that interested her. When she had been offered the new position, she had said yes without hesitation. The job would take her away from the slush and snow of a Richmond winter—and away from Gerry. As an ex-husband, he had become as paternal and protective as a second father. She didn’t need a second father. One—who had failed to realize that she was twenty-five, a college graduate and a mature, competent woman—was enough!
A smile twisted her lips despite her predicament at the thought of her father and Gerry. She would never—never, never!—tell them that she had “maturely” and “competently” driven herself into what was appearing to be the Twilight Zone. They would surely shake their heads and attempt to shackle her back to the kitchen!
Her grin faded as her gaze focused briefly on the gas gauge. The needle was bouncing below the reserve line. “Oh, God!” she groaned reproachfully, directing her comment to the divinity as if He were seated beside her in person. “Why are you doing this to me?” She could hardly see ahead of her; how would she ever find a service station if there was one to be found?
Again she berated herself for not doing a more thorough study of the area and the problems she would be called upon to solve. In theory her idea of reaching her destination and learning the particulars of the job in the city where she would be headquartered had seemed sound. She would have a whole week to study the situation up close before her first meeting was scheduled. She knew the basics. Her firm, T and C Development, had purchased land from the federal government The company was planning a wonderful family community, but now the land was in dispute. The Seminole Indians were claiming that prime portions of the land belonged to them. Rather than anticipate long years of court battles, T and C had decided first to attempt to deal with the Indians on their own. Hence the PR.
Whitney didn’t doubt her capabilities for a minute. She loved dealing with people, and with T and C behind her, she was sure she could work out a deal beneficial to both parties. In her two years with the company she had worn down the top brass of some of the nation’s most influential corporations; surely she could handle a small tribe of Indians!
Although Whitney wasn’t aware of what it was that made her so perfect for her work, an outside observer could have easily told her. Of medium height and slight build, she was a willowy beauty. Her face was a classic oval, her nose pert, her chin determined, her large green eyes vivacious and sincere. The dark brunet hair that framed the alabaster skin of her features was styled in a long, feminine, feather cut that thoroughly proclaimed her a woman, while the dignity of her stature, movements and cool, quiet voice announced that she was not one to be dealt with lightly. She tackled each new problem with vital energy, intuitively looking beyond the obvious, objectively open to thoughts and ideas other than her own.
Whitney was inching along now, the rain having become a solid sheet of gray which her bright lights illuminated but failed to penetrate. The car practically came to a stop as she chewed her lip nervously and decided she would have to pull off the road and onto the embankment. Carefully she braked and hedged the wheel to the right. She breathed a sigh of relief as the auto halted without sinking into the muck. The ground of the embankment was sturdy.
Leaving the emergency blinkers on, she switched off the ignition and fumbled in her purse for a cigarette. She had been craving one for an hour but had been afraid to lift her hand from the steering wheel long enough to light it. Now she inhaled deeply, flexing her long, taut fingers. Once the rain cleared, she would be fine. She had to be close to Naples. And somewhere along the road there
to be a service station.
Allowing her mind to wander as she watched the pelting rain pummel the windshield, Whitney idly began to wonder about the man who would be her main opponent in the land deals. All she really had to go on was a name: Jonathan E. Stewart. He sounded like a crusty old crusader, some ranting do-gooder determined to hold sacred the cause of the Indian. Oh, well! she thought philosophically, it was her job to deal with difficult people. She hoped she would be able to convince old Jonathan E. that the proposed community would valuably aid the Seminoles both economically and socially. Jobs, schooling, and better housing would be available to all.
Crushing her cigarette into the BMW’s compact ashtray, Whitney smiled gratefully as she realized that the rain was finally slowing to a drizzle. Ricking the key in the ignition and switching the brights back on, she noticed a broken sign lying haphazardly on the ground not twenty feet away. The heavy rain must have torn it from a post. Straining her eyes, she could just make out the blessedly wonderful word GAS and an arrow that pointed into the swamp.
Frowning, Whitney scanned the dark, cropped embankment and the fields of high sawgrass that loomed beyond in the night. She switched to her low beams and then back to her high beams. Yes, just past the sign there was a road. Creeping slowly to it, she discerned that it was solid—just dirt and gravel, but mercifully unflooded. And in the distance, peeking dimly but surely, glowed a sure sign of life—light! Almost giddy with relief, Whitney eagerly began her drive through the swamp.
With the rain receding, she rolled down her window and welcomed the fresh night air that washed through the small car. Along with the air came the eerie sounds of the primitive environment—the low, musical chirping of a thousand insects, the guttural croak of a bullfrog, the high-pitched and mournful scream of a startled bird.
The darkness, compounded by the sawgrass that bordered her, rising several feet higher than the car in spots, suddenly caused chills of fear to creep along her spine. She was facing danger, she realized for the first time. The longer she drove, the farther away the light seemed. She was truly in no-man’s-land. Legends she had heard of the Glades came to her mind—legends of alligators, snakes and quicksand. In the sterility of a Richmond high rise, the stories had seemed things of the past—fairy tales as extinct as dinosaurs.
But she was driving into reality—a very present reality. She could well imagine being lost in this desolation, dying a slow, agonizing death of snakebite and wandering mile after dismal mile in the sweltering bog. …
Stop it, girl! she warned herself with a firm shake. She was in a car on a high road. Alligators did not attack BMWs. Nor did snakes climb through moving windows. Now as to quicksand …
The light was standing still, increasing in brilliance. Within minutes she would reach it. Not even a half-mile farther—
But the BMW sputtered, choked and died, rolling to a standstill. Damn! Whitney’s hands fruitlessly crashed onto the steering wheel, accomplishing nothing but causing tender spots that would turn to bruises. Knowing that it was her own stupidity that so thoroughly infuriated her, she still swore a spate of oaths to the betraying machinery. She had to yell at something!
Sitting perplexed, in disgusted disbelief she watched the slow tick of the second-hand dial on the dashboard clock. It was nine o’clock. The first pink streaks of dawn were still a good ten hours away.
“You deserve the mess you’re in!” she told herself crossly, not relishing spending a night in the car with the frightening noises cascading around her. She didn’t relish the thought of sleeping in the car, period! Having been raised in a distinguished old Virginia home by moderately wealthy parents, Whitney was admittedly accustomed to all the creature comforts.
“Competent and on my own!” she chided herself in exasperation. “Oh, for a shower and a Holiday Inn!” She extinguished the lights and curled her leather shoulder bag into her arms to form a pillow as she stretched as comfortably as possible across the front seat. “One day I’ll be able to laugh about all this!” she assured herself glumly. “Now sleep! You have no choice …”
But as soon as she closed her eyes, visions appeared before them—visions of her running through the Everglades, lost in the woods, shrouded in darkness, deadly menace lurking everywhere …
Snapping back to a sitting position, she blinked in the darkness. The noises coming through the window were a cacophony that rose shrilly in her ears. Were birds supposed to shriek like that in the night? Chills flooded down her spine again in a mad race, numbing her. Something stung her nyloned leg and she feverishly slapped at it. A mosquito, she told herself, only a mosquito … but she couldn’t see anything. Rolling up the window and turning on the lights simultaneously, she stared at the palm of her hand. Definitely a mosquito. A very squashed one. Breathing deeply in the small confines of the car, she tried to calm her growing unease and convince herself to turn the lights off again. If she didn’t she would have a stone-dead battery by morning.
Turning the lights off, she lay back on the plush interior. The car had been a present from her father, and for normal driving it was the utmost in luxury. Unfortunately, for sleeping it was too small and cramped!
Whitney couldn’t keep her eyes closed. The scary, rustling sounds of beasts and foliage bore down upon her loudly despite the closed window. And now the closed window was adding another element of discomfort; it was confining her to a prison of humid heat.
Emitting a resigned whistle, Whitney sat back up. Try as she would, she couldn’t sleep. Part of the problem, she was sure, was the hour. She hadn’t been to bed at nine o’clock in years.