Shadowed Paradise

By: Blair Bancroft

1





Author’s Note





A surprising amount of this book is true. After all, how could anyone make up such a bizarre incident as a snake climbing a typing stand after a terrified tree frog? It happened to me while I was writing this book. The bridge washout, the car trapped in the gap, occurred about a mile and a half from my house. Spiders the size of saucers, alligator attacks, jungle rivers the color of strong tea, a “city” with a thousand roads to nowhere—they all exist on Florida’s gulf coast. A great deal more of the story, including the serial killings, are based on fact, but, beyond that, I leave it to the reader to guess where truth ends and fiction begins.





Chapter One





Somewhere behind the waterfall there was a road. The Toyota’s wipers, valiantly slashing through the deluge, allowed Claire intermittent glimpses of gold reflectors crouched on the center line like an undulating row of one-eyed alley cats waiting to pounce. To the right was her other lifeline, the white stripe marking the edge of the pavement and the deep drainage ditch just beyond.

In the three miles since she turned off U.S. 41 Claire had seen only one other car. Obviously the natives had sense enough to stay home in a monsoon. Or perhaps no one was out there at all. No reassuring glimmers of light shone from the houses whose dark deserted shapes loomed behind the curtain of water, their snowbird owners flown safely north well in advance of the scalding heat and daily downpours of summer along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

A blue-white flash of lightning illuminated the scene in stark relief, revealing the looming shadows as nothing more sinister than modest ranch-style homes with neat lawns, swaying palms, massive live oaks. Thunder crashed down, enveloping the car in a reverberating roar of protest from the seared black clouds around them.

From Claire’s right came a small whimper, quickly choked short.

“It’s all right, Jamie,” she said brightly, eons more confidently than she felt. “We’re almost home. They have storms like this all the time in Florida. We just have to learn to get used to it.” If there was one thing her son didn’t need, it was more fear.

Claire gripped the wheel so tightly her knuckles ached. She allowed herself one tiny glance away from the road. Jamie’s frail shoulders were rigid, his eyes glued to the steady swish of the wipers struggling to part the waterfall on the windshield. His small hands clutched the shoulder strap in front of him.

Claire winced. Eight-year-olds should not have to suffer from white knuckles. What were they doing out here?

Simple. She had succumbed to the sight of Jamie’s chin sagging toward his small chest as he heard the TV weatherman announce the possibility of record rainfall. It had been raining for three days—not the area’s usual late afternoon thunderstorms, but solid, hour-after-hour driving rain. Claire went off to work each morning, leaving Jamie and his great-grandmother to endure the tedium of no sun, no beach, no walks along the Intracoastal Waterway. Smitten to the heart by her son’s silent endurance, Claire had proposed an excursion to the latest Harry Potter epic. And was amply rewarded by a wide-eyed, “You mean it, mom?” followed by a whoop of joy and a beatific smile.

Such a simple outing. Now, too late, Claire recognized her Florida newbie mistake. While she and Jamie sat enthralled by Harry’s adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the storm had increased from downpour to torrent. And now they were fighting their way home through a nearly impenetrable wall of water.

Jagged lances of lightning stabbed the swirling clouds, exploding into great sheets of light. Thunder enveloped them. Claire heard Jamie draw a deep breath, that heart-rending gasping sound that said he was going to be brave, no matter what. Her visibility worsened in a sudden misting of her eyes. Guilt swept over her. Not even Harry Potter was worth the resurrection of Jamie’s terror.

Lightning continued to flicker like an erratic neon sign, illuminating the drenched world around them with eerie intensity, shimmering off the waving palms, the Brazilian peppers, the swaying Spanish moss dangling from gigantic oaks. Off the tangle of mangroves.

Mangroves.

Claire slowed from a determined twenty miles an hour to less than fifteen. Although she was a new resident, she had visited the area all of her life. Mangroves grew in salt water or the brackish places where rivers met the sea. Their octopus-like roots anchored the soil and provided a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. Mangroves meant they were entering the causeway leading to the bridge over Heron Creek.

The narrow two-lane causeway, about the length of a football field, crossed the estuary where Heron Creek emptied into the bay. Usually, the creek was a placid band of water meandering through mud flats and mangroves. Tonight, each flash of lightning revealed roiling waters on both sides of the road. White caps swirled, splashing against the embankment. Suddenly, directly in front of them, the golden cat’s eyes winked out, drowned under a blanket of water. The white line disappeared.

Water over the bridge.

Fearful of braking on wet pavement, Claire took her foot off the gas. The lightning, capricious as always, moved out into the Gulf, leaving nothing to illumine the bridge but the Toyota’s headlights.