Emma Twiggs to the Rescue
An Emma Twiggs Mystery
“Can you find the way back to Otter Creek, Jim?” Emma Twiggs kept her voice cheerful as she balanced herself in the unsteady boat. Water sloshed against the sides.
“Absolutely, Aunty, and it won’t be a moment too soon.” James Galveston took the middle seat facing Nancy Barnes, the third member of their trio, and started to row. “Twelve hours of surveillance on this island is enough. I’m now fully acquainted with the reason it’s called Mosquito Spit.”
Emma peered into the wall of moist, white fog that lay over the water, closing them in. Sitting in a swamp in the middle of the night was definitely a damp experience. Her nephew’s well-groomed, carefully maintained good looks—along with his tan safari pants and formerly-crisp camouflage shirt—had gone limp.
I bet he’s wishing I’d kept my mouth shut, she thought, and recalled the conversation that had started their latest adventure. It had taken place two days ago, when Nancy had called the Galveston Investigations’ office, where Emma was temping during her absence.
“I’m staying in Florida a while longer,” Nancy had said. “There are strange lights and odd noises on the islands near Dad’s home, and I’m not leaving until I find out what they are.”
“Galveston Investigations to the rescue?” Emma said.
Nancy laughed. “I wish you were here, Em, but Jim and little rural Blue Sky would not get along. At all.”
“Please, Nance,” Emma said, “I cannot stand to have him in the office for another week. The database will be ruined—you can’t imagine the problems he’s already caused.”
The naked truth worked. Nancy gave in.
Selling the trip to Jim took more guile. Fortunately, she’d raised him from childhood, and knew what was required, so she was ready when he eyed her suspiciously and asked, “Is this a trick to get me to take a vacation, Aunty?”
“Of course not,” she said. “I’m sure Nancy can investigate quite well on her own.”
“Hmm.” He frowned. “Strange goings-on, you say? Book two reservations on the next flight while I go to Safari Anywhere and outfit myself.”
No wonder he’s unhappy, Emma thought now. Not a single odd occurrence since we arrived, and no place but a swamp to wear all the clothes he bought.
“Damn it,” Jim muttered, as the boat wobbled and headed for the far bank instead of down the center of the stream.
“Maybe we should float with the current,” Emma said.
He scowled. “Are you saying I can’t captain this craft?”
The canoe scraped against a sandbar and stopped.
Following Nancy’s lead, Emma chose silence as the best alternative as Jim used an oar to shove the canoe off the sandbar. The boat broke free and resumed its slow drift, water dripping from the raised oars.
Since Jim didn’t seem ready to thank her for the advice he was now following, Emma turned her thoughts to Nancy’s father, another impossible man. From the moment she’d stepped off the plane into the heat of a Florida August afternoon, Alvin Barnes had tried his best to get her alone. He appeared to believe he was a divine gift to women.
So far she’d managed to stay one step ahead of him by keeping Nancy and Jim within hearing distance. At the same time, she’d subtly questioned him about the mysterious happenings on the swamp’s deserted islands. Far better to thwart his advances by engaging him in small talk than embarrass Nancy by giving him the karate chop he so richly deserved.
As she contemplated the pleasing image of Alvin sprawled at her feet, a beam of light oozed through the fog. Emma leaned forward and pointed. Jim nodded, dipped the oars into the water and swung the canoe around. The bow nudged into low hanging branches, and Nancy grabbed a study limb and pulled them into the sloped, marshy bank. She took the rope Emma held out, and anchored the canoe to a bush.
The thick white mist cloaking the water thinned to a filmy vapor over the higher ground, making the dry land of the island stand up like a pimple on the face of the water. Emma stayed in her seat, clutching the sides of the canoe, while Jim stood and peered through the brush.
“The light’s moving,” he said, keeping his voice low.
A heavy rumble broke the still night air. “Is that a truck?” Emma asked.
“Something isn’t right,” Nancy whispered. “There shouldn’t be any vehicles on this island. The bridge isn’t safe. It’s been closed for months.”
“I’m going to investigate. I want both of you to stay here.” Jim jumped to the bank and disappeared into the dense foliage.
The moment he was out of sight, Emma said, “If we aren’t back in ten minutes, call for help, Nance.”
She stepped from the still-swaying canoe onto the marshy bank, pushed aside the entwining branches, and followed her nephew. She’d gone only a few yards when the heavy growth thinned into a small clearing. Headlights slashed through the trees, and a long, slat-sided truck swung into the open area.
Emma dropped to the ground. When the engine died, a shaggy-haired man jumped down from the cab, followed by a tall, wiry youth and a grizzled giant carrying a rifle. Emma let out a gasp, and scanned the brush fringing the clearing. Almost directly opposite her, Jim crouched behind an oak tree.
As she started to crawl toward him, the giant raised the rifle, cocked it, pointed it at the tree where Jim was hiding, and shouted, “Come out of there with your hands up!”
Emma froze, her gaze on Jim. He hesitated, then stepped from behind the tree, his hands above his head.
“Get him,” the giant snarled, and the other two men grabbed Jim’s upraised arms and dragged him to the truck. The giant swung the gun in a semi-circular arch. When the blow landed, Jim crumpled to the ground.
Emma shrieked, leapt to her feet, and charged into the clearing. For the space of one unsteady heartbeat, all three men stared at her.
Then the giant said, “What is this? A party?”
The tall man said, “The old lady’s seen too much. We’ll have to take care of her, too.”
“My pleasure,” a familiar voice said.
Emma gaped as Alvin Barnes stepped around the side of the truck. He grinned at her, and clamped a hand over her arm. She kicked him in the knee, and raised her hand to give him the karate-chop she’d been fantasizing about.
The tall, wiry youth seized her arm, and his shaggy-haired companion grasped both of her legs, knocking her off her feet. She let out another shriek.
The tall man snarled, “Shut up…or else.”
She pressed her lips together and tried to calm her breathing. Jim lay still as a stone less than three feet away. Was he alive? She hoped Nancy had heard her screams, and had called for help…and that she would keep a safe distance until that help arrived.
Alvin opened the truck door, dug behind the seat, and emerged with a rope. He wrapped her wrists and ankles. “That’ll hold her.”
“We should shoot them both.” The giant’s dark eyes glittered in the moonlight, and his hands tightened around the gun.
“Don’t be stupid,” Alvin said. “I told you the gun’s for alligators, and even then only in an emergency. A shot might be heard. We don’t want the cops out here.”
“She could have friends,” the shaggy-haired man said.
Emma caught her breath. Alvin had to suspect Nancy was in the swamp with them tonight. Would he betray his daughter?
Alvin said, “If you’re worried, let’s drive to the other site.”
“Good idea,” the tall one said. “I’ll get a rope for the guy. We’ll take him and the snoopy old broad with us. We can drop them there. Give the ‘gators a feast.”
“I think we should leave them here.” Alvin stared at Emma.
She could imagine what was on his mind. As surely as she was lying with her back in the soft mud, he could not let her or Jim survive.
“No,” the giant said. “We’re not taking any chances.”
He picked Emma up and heaved her into the bed of the slat-sided truck. She landed on her tailbone beside an assortment of metal containers, and a second later, Jim landed beside her, still unconscious. The truck doors slammed, and the engine roared to life.
Tears slid down Emma’s cheeks as she stared at Jim. It was her fault they were in this predicament—and she had no idea how to save them. If Nancy had called for help, would it arrive in time?
She leaned against the containers that imprisoned her as effectively as a cage. Her stomach churned, and the lasagna she’d eaten for dinner—just a few hours ago, sitting across the kitchen table from a smiling Alvin Barnes—threatened to come up. She inhaled to keep it down, and gagged on the foul air. She shook her head, making herself dizzy. At the same moment, moisture seeped across the back of her pants, soaking into the rope that tied her hands and dribbling down her wrists. The pain was instant and sharp.
She twisted to look at the drum behind her. It was leaking. Where the rivulets of liquid ran, the paint blistered.
She rolled away, toward the back of the truck and the comparative freshness of the swampy nighttime air. She took a deep breath, then another. When her head began to clear, she swiped her wrists across the back of her pants to clear away the smelly liquid and ease the stinging. Then she braced herself against the tailgate and used her feet to shove Jim away from the ooze.
No wonder he was still unconscious. The fumes were thick enough to choke a horse.
She squirmed backward across the rough metal of the truck bed, and the damp fabric on the seat of her pants disintegrated. Her skin burned. As she leaned against the tailgate and eyed the barrels, wondering about their contents, the truck skidded to a halt. A moment later, the tailgate dropped open. Emma fell into the Alvin’s arms. He carried her to the edge of the woods and set her down against a tree.
She whispered, “Alvin…” as the other men dragged Jim over to them and dropped him beside her.
“Don’t worry,” Alvin said. “It’ll be over soon.”
“Come on, Barnes. Give us a hand with the barrels,” the shaggy-haired man snapped. “We’re late, and we want to get out of this mud hole tonight.”
Alvin walked back to the truck with the three men. The giant leaned the rifle against the side of the truck and lowered the tailgate, and the four of them began strong-arming the barrels onto the ground.
“Keep them out of the roadway so we can turn around.” The giant pointed to a stand of cypress, where dozens of other drums lay in haphazard disarray all over the marshy ground. “Roll them over there, with the rest.”
It wouldn’t take them long to empty the truck. And then they’d turn back to their prisoners.
Emma struggled against the ropes binding her wrists. It loosened, as she’d hoped, due to the soaking from whatever was in the barrels. She rubbed the rope against the tree bark, up and down in a sawing motion. The strands parted, then separated, and she was free, her skin raw and abraded and throbbing. A moment later, she had her ankles untied.
Across the clearing, the men grunted and cursed as they unloaded the barrels.
Hurry. Have to hurry.
She shoved Jim into the undergrowth surrounding the tree. Then she crept to the front of the truck, and hid behind the over-size front tire. She unscrewed the valve cap, and used it as a tool to loosen the valve stem. The resulting slow leak was silent—yet would stop the truck before it left the swamp. She and Jim might not emerge from the swamp, but neither would their killers.
Emma duckwalked toward the open tailgate, her heart pounding like a boombox at high volume. She peeked around the back of the truck as the men returned from dumping the last barrel.
“Do you have my money?” Alvin asked.
The giant snapped, “Got your payoff right here, Barnes,” and threw a roundhouse right that landed squarely on Alvin’s chin and snapped his head back.
Alvin sagged to the ground.
“That’ll teach him to be greedy,” the tall man said.
“We gonna leave the jerk here?” the shaggy-haired man asked. “Alive?”
“Yep. He might be missed, and anyway, he’s in over his head. He won’t dare tell the cops a thing.” The giant gestured toward the woods. “You two grab the old lady and her friend. I’ll get the rifle, and we’ll dump them where they’ll never be found.”
Emma’s mouth opened, but no sound emerged.
“Hey!” The tall young man shouted. “They’re gone!”
As the giant spun to look, Emma grabbed the edge of the tailgate to pull herself upright–and came eye to eye with the rifle, leaning against the truck where the giant had left it. She snatched it and leapt from behind the truck.
The three men whirled to face her.
“I mean it.” The gun trembled in her hands as her aching wrists protested against the strain. “Don’t move.”
“We won’t, lady. Please don’t shoot.” As the tall youth spoke, his gaze shifted over her left shoulder.
Emma shied sideways, and Alvin said, “Take it easy, Emma. I’m working with the sheriff.”
She pressed her finger more tightly against the trigger, trying to cover all of them. “Put your hands up and join your buddies, you miserable traitor.”
“Move!” She gestured with the rifle, then whirled as the giant took a step toward her. “Not you! You freeze!”
“She can’t shoot us all,” the shaggy-haired man said. “It’s one against four.”
“Only if you don’t count me,” Nancy said. “Along with the sheriff, and her deputies.”
“And me,” Jim said, his voice weak but determined.
The first silvery light of Venus was in the eastern sky before the sheriff finished clearing the crime scene and had time to recount Alvin’s role in the undercover operation.
She said, “About a month ago, Alvin noticed strange lights on the island. The next day he found the first batch of barrels. When he informed me, we decided he should pose as a greedy landowner who was willing to let his property be used for an illegal dump.”
“For a fee, of course,” Alvin said.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Dad?” Nancy asked.
“I couldn’t. It was far too dangerous. I never dreamed you’d investigate on your own. I tried to tell Emma so I could convince her to take you home, but I could never get her alone.”
Emma remembered the karate chop she’d wanted to give him when she thought he was making advances. She tightened her hold on the sweater he’d given her to cover the hole in the back of her pants, and was grateful she’d exercised restraint.
Alvin said, “One of the deputies wondered who unscrewed the valve stems. That was good thinking, Emma.”
“Don’t heap accolades on her.” Jim touched the bandage on the back of his head. “She displayed a definite lack of perception.”
“I what?” Emma stared at him.
He scowled. “Aunty, we both know you should have gone for help as soon as you saw me acting like I was unconscious.”
“Acting?” Emma raised an eyebrow. “If that was acting, Jimbo, I nominate you for an Oscar.”