“We’re going the wrong way,” she tried to point out. “The Crooked Nail is right by the boathouse.”
“We on the right path, lady,” he said through a grin.
The woods grew cooler in the gloaming, but the bugs grew bigger and bolder. Josie slapped at her skin and longed for air-conditioning and a good shower. She didn’t even want to consider snakes and alligators. “Where are we going?”
“Shh.” Toby held her behind him, then whistled.
Josie waited, glad for the cover but confused about what exactly they were doing in this soup bowl of humidity and humming, hungry creatures.
An answering sound echoed over the still woods.
“Let’s go,” Big Toby said, still protecting her with each step.
Finally, they reached a clearing, and she saw what must be the pirogue Connor had told her about earlier. “Where is he?”
“I’m right here,” Connor said from the shadows. “Hurry.”
Josie mowed around Toby and hurried to the boat, relief washing her in a hot glow. “Are you all right?”
Connor stood behind a giant cypress tree. A few yards away, two more men stood guard with Mama Joe. Even though she had her own big gun, too, Mama Joe stepped forward with a package. “Your clothes. I cleaned them.”
Apparently, the swamp had its own code of justice and a washing machine, too. Josie didn’t want to ever be on the bad side of these people. But right now, she thanked God for them.
“I’m fine,” Connor said as he pulled her close. “I was worried about you but then I figured you’d gone for your gun.”
“Yes.” She still had the safety off. Suddenly, she didn’t trust anybody. “Yes. I’m okay.”
He reached out and brushed damp hair off her forehead. “Don’t ever scare me like that again, Agent Gilbert.”
Josie swallowed, tried to breathe. The humidity was doing strange things to her. She felt hot and faint and disoriented.
Or maybe it was the way Connor was looking at her. His eyes held hers, roving, searching, sending her some sort of message.
“Let’s go,” she said, trying to find her business persona again. Trying to stop her heart from jumping out of her chest.
“We’ve got supplies and we’re ready,” he said. He guided her to the squat little boat and sat her on a narrow bench seat. “We have an escort waiting at the next pickup site.”
“How will we get out of here?” she asked, glancing around. The water and woods were already drenched in darkness. The big live oaks and cypress trees loomed like gray giants standing in a cluster.
“By memory,” he said. Then he took a long wooden pole and pushed it off into the murky black water, a tiny battery-powered light rigged at the front of the boat his only guide. Josie sank down on her seat and saw Big Toby standing on the shore, watching them. He waved to them. Josie waved back, then saw Mama Joe on the shore.
“We’ll pray you home,” Mama Joe called, her hand up in farewell.
That gave Josie some comfort while she sat there wondering how Connor would ever find his way out of this inky, wet blanket of darkness.
* * *
A few minutes later, Connor turned the boat down a narrow channel. He knew this route by heart, but it was still hard to see much past the bow of the boat. A light off in the distance beckoned. The next pickup point.
“We’re almost there,” he told Josie. She’d been quiet. Too quiet.
“Who were they?” she asked, her mind obviously putting things back together.
“Two armed men, dressed in camouflage. They got a little too close, but Mama Joe’s guys tracked them. Got off several shots before they got away.”
“They got away?”
“Yep. The boys had them cornered up by the road. But they managed to escape through a heavy thicket of trees. We heard an engine roaring, so they had a truck waiting.”
She let out a frustrated breath. “So we don’t have any evidence and no way of identifying them.”
“No. And no reliable eyewitnesses, since it was dark and they blended in with the swamp.” He moved the long pole back and forth. “What we can assume is they weren’t here for the social hour. They knew we were here and they came to kill us. And one of them is a bad shot or I’d be dead right now.”