This spiritual thriller, set in Tampa and the wild heart of Florida, follows a young woman who flees from a powerful Ybor City Mafia capo after witnessing a brutal murder. She finds temporary sanctuary in Florida's pristine wilderness, leading to the surprising climax of the novel when the killers make their move.

Chapter 2

 Black Water Slough

© Michael C. Rudasill 2003

Numb with fear, too shocked to feel her cuts and abrasions, Jamie slowly slips through the root-stained waters. Buoyed by the viscous, blood-warm slough, she is as she always has been.

She is the sole survivor.

She is the last one standing.

Or at least, that is what she thinks.

Holy Mary . . . full of grace . . . blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

As the young woman prays, she is awash in a profound, mysterious peace. The staccato gunshots and the brittle percussion of splintering glass, like the terror of that moment, are perceived from a distance, filtered through fragmented chambers of memory. Yet a deep, unknowable peace rolls through her like a river, momentarily taking away the pain.

Johnny's wretched shrieks, accompanied by the shooter's cruel laughter, are refracted in the chambers of her memory. But even in the midst of such wrenching remembrance, she feels, somehow, secure.

She would remain in these thick, musty waters if she could. She feels safe with the alligators for company, hidden here among the hyacinths. But her mind is clearing, and she knows what she must do.

She must keep moving.

The broad lake is preternaturally calm. It lays flat and still, clean and black beneath the thick strands of fog and the trembling sheets of delicate mist: a pristine oasis of silence in the middle of a chaotic nightmare.

The lake is a jewel in the heart of the Florida scrubland, a slinky, steamy sheet of warm black liquid that ripples softly, glinting dully beneath the dazzling, unfathomably profound clouds of shimmering stars. The lights tremble above her, far beyond her reach.

The stars are alive tonight, revealing themselves with unsullied clarity: breathing pale, sweet light like the dust of living diamonds set in an ocean of night. They are beyond the touch of cruelty, buried safe in the bottomless vault of the deep: breathtakingly beautiful, pulsating pinpoints of cold white fire extravagantly strewn across the darkened face of the heavens.

The shadowy shoreline framing the wild lake sings with jubilant life. The quiet of this place and the purity of the moment are not touched by the evil that has just sprayed death into her young life. But the dim glow of lights beyond the shoreline - and the distant, angry shouts - remind her that she cannot remain for long in this place of solace and refuge.

She must keep moving.

She can, and she will, keep moving.

Her pursuers do not know it, but they have selected unlikely prey. If there is anything that Janelle James knows, it is how to survive.

The men have their guns and their trucks, their planes and cars and anger fueled by greed, but Jamie has her wits and her prayers for deliverance. She waits patiently, treading water in the middle of the lake until headlights begin to approach: sweeping through the distant scrub oaks, see-sawing up and down.

A Land Rover emerges on a piece of high ground and begins to drive around the edge of the lake, following behind a man who walks ahead to ensure that the soil is solid enough for the heavy vehicle. Someone in the Land Rover pans a spotlight across the top of the water. Seeing this, Jamie swims softly for shore, sliding through the lily pads, back the way she came.

As she silently slips into the shallows near shore, the sound of the frogs is almost thunderous. They rhapsodize in astonishing synchrony, creating a pulsating amphibian masterwork of chirps and whirs and strange, metallic clacks that blend seamlessly in the hot, humid air.

The air is pregnant with hostile life, thick to the touch, weighted with droning clouds of remorseless, ravenous mosquitoes that painfully pierce her silence. She sneaks stealthily from the water, her feet making small sucking sounds in the fragrant Florida mud.

As the men in the Land Rover rendezvous with others on the distant side of the lake, she is creeping quietly away, dripping muck, breathing raggedly, creeping stealthily through the weedy ditch, past the bloody Plymouth, up to the cars that are parked near the airplane in the middle of the road. There are four cars clustered around the streamlined turbo-prop and the slick tractor-trailer, but only one has keys in the ignition - due to the carelessness of its fearless, arrogant owner. The car with the keys is a tan Lamborghini.

Before the men realize what is happening, the powerful engine roars to life and the Lamborghini spins in a tight circle, blasting off into the darkness, whipping past a drug mule who stares transfixed, gaping into the oncoming headlights. The girl leaves the stunned sentry floundering in her backwash like a torpedoed shark as she rockets away down the weed-bitten, cracked asphalt byway that leads to town.

As Janelle James races down the road, a fractured mosaic of unwanted memories returns in force, painfully assaulting her consciousness. The events of this evening have been too much to handle.

She begins to feel the pain and attempts, one last time, to suppress her emotions. But the pain builds in spite of her efforts until, like waters breaching a dam, the floodgates finally burst.

With the wail of a hopeless animal, she begins to weep in desperate abandon. Her shoulders shake spasmodically; her entire body is wracked by the onslaught of grief. She cries for herself and for Johnny, for her friend lost forever. She weeps for their closeness, for the words and the silences they shared, and for the precious gift of the friendship lost. It is too much to bear . . . too much lost too suddenly, for no good reason. The pain of it almost drives her mad.

But, in spite of her tears, Janelle James is escaping.

Homeland Estates has become her private racetrack. The sports car whips past the pines and palmettos, leaving fireflies whirling in its wake. It screams down mile-long straight-aways, winding noisily around hair-pin turns as she rips through the gears like a professional, down-shifting as she approaches every bend, kicking the gas pedal down to float lightly out of each body-slamming turn.

The killers have no hope of catching her. Their prey has fled like a deer through the net, playing them all for fools.

The girl, Janelle James, has escaped.

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