Excerpt for Killing Time in Paradise - A Daisy Greenwood Novel by , available in its entirety at Smashwords











Killing Time in Paradise

A Daisy Greenwood Novel












This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, businesses, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental. All trademarks, service marks, registered trademarks, and registered service marks are the property of their respective owners and are used herein for identification purposes only.
















For B.B.










Table of Contents


Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Epilogue








Prologue



One year ago, twenty-two minutes past sunrise on a bitterly cold Manhattan morning, I shot out of my lobby, eyeballs freezing upon contact with 20air, directly into an idling Lincoln Town Car. I was going to John F. Kennedy International for a 10:00 a.m. nonstop to Hawaii for a dear friends wedding. The only other person outside in the blue-green twilight was our Croatian superintendent, half-smoked cigarette dangling at all times from his lips, who was building a cheerleader-style pyramid on the sidewalk with garbage bags. He threw the flyer to the top and gave me a wave.

Jen, the bride, had been my best friend since nursery school. In the 8th grade we both had crushes on our sandy-haired English teacher Mr. Sawyer even though he wore nerdy cardigans with elbow patches. Jen said he was adorkable. After class pretending to ask a question about a passage in Night, shed flirt with him. Id wait in the hall, huffing my bangs out and thinking she was gross. In high school shed push me into maroon bathroom stalls to sneak a smoke with her. Im running track,Id say, always having an excuse.

We don't really have that much in common,I once pointed out. Yeah, were oil and vinegar,she replied. Oh boy. I figured she needed me.

Almost two decades later were still friends. On Saturdays we jog together in Central Park for about five minutes until she declares Endorphins released. Im done,sees a park bench, lights a cigarette, and begins her critique of passing male joggers. She has this theory that a mans jogging style is the same as his sex style. When hes running if he pumps his shoulders back and forth or tilts his head, thats exactly what hell do after he climbs on top of you. The facial expression will be the same, too. Basically this is your preview. Thanks to her I need therapy to watch the summer Olympics. She thinks Im inhibited and uptight. I think she secretly goes through my closet and throws away my turtleneck sweaters.

As the car pulled away I sank into the backseat and felt guilty about the mountain of garbage moldering on the sidewalk. If my building generates this much crap, imagine what all the five boroughs of New York City produce? In college for my study abroad program, I boarded with a snotty French family that each week produced only enough garbage to fill up a Tropicana juice carton. Everything else was recycled. But they were psycho. 

I did what I could for the environment. I take travel mugs with me to Starbucks, I drive a Mini, after work I wear the same black stretchy yoga pants replete with hole in crotch ten times before laundering them with chemicals that pollute the earth. I also discovered the way to offset your carbon footprint is to buy those big bottles of wine thats equal to two regular bottles. Less glass.

I imagine how cool it would be to live a low-carbon-footprint life, like in the TV show Tiny House Nation. Off-the-grid, au naturel, earth-mother-composter-style (this style can probably be accomplished simply by spending $1000 in Whole FoodsWhole Body department), where no one can bother me. No more marketing calls, junk mail, internet. No more make-up. No more stuffy suits. No more traffic. No more light pollution. But, I couldn't even imagine where to begin. 

At JFK my friend Ace met me at security. We used to date. Ace has green eyes and light brown hair pushed off his forehead. Hes good looking and good in bed. 

I remember the first time I saw him ten years agoit was all over for me. He pursued me but only because he loves a challenge. I could just tell he would never be mine. New York men have very short attention spans. If I got out quick, I reasoned, Ill never have to stand by and watch someone I was falling for become a stranger again. I ended things and he remained my friend. It was so My Best Friends Wedding. 

I asked him to come with me because the thought of attending a wedding solo was nauseating. When we arrived on the island we fell back into our old routine. It was exactly the kind of fun artificial-romance we both needed. We went hiking, had fireside luau dinners, make-out sessions under waterfalls. I admit I was nostalgicin the intervening years I hadnt liked anyone as much.

The wedding took place on the Hyatts lush tropical grounds. Jen had landed a nice normal guy who managed the Sternz Trust, which funded charitable causes like PBS, the World Wildlife Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. When they first met she didn't know it was his trust. Geoff Sternzs great-grandfather was known in certain circles as the quiet Rockefeller. Geoff loved to share his family history with anyone whod listen. In 1430 his ancestors made their first western migration from Russia to Bohemia, a land famous for its glass manufacturing. The Sternzs produced glass until their final western migration in 1807 to Pennsylvania, where they expanded into steel. Their claim to fame was supplying steel for the Empire State building. They couldn't fill the orders fast enough. Their beams were so fresh that even after traveling two hundred miles on the highway in the dead of winter, the beams arrived at the worksite warm to the touch. Lucky bitch.

Ace and I had never quite adjusted to the time change and even on our last day of vacation we awoke at dawn. Spurred by the runner in me, we began the day with a five-mile sunrise run along a black beach flanked by emerald green mountains and turquoise ocean. The scenery produced a calmness in me I hadnt felt in a long time. Id been having problems at home, if you call barely being able to drag oneself out of bed a problem. I was stressed and depressed. I didn't want to do anything anymore. I dreaded leaving the apartment. Dreaded the onslaught of people and crowds everywhere. I hated the cold. I hated the sirens blaring all night long. Being a New Yorker had been fun for a few decades but now I wanted to hear my thoughts. Feel solitude. I love the city that never sleeps. If only she would pass out occasionally.

I worked for the Michael Page employment agency and loved my job. I was an excellent career coach and considered it a privilege to help people realize their goals. When I began to head the Financial Institutions division, the pressure increased. I stopped working with people. Instead I became tied to a computer screen doing analytics. Over time I worked more and saw my friends less. I stopped going to movies, out to dinner, the park. 

After the sunrise run I took a shower and let the jets pound my head. Ace got in, put his hands on my hips and kissed my neck. He ran through our days schedule but I didnt hear a word.

Earth to Daisy,he said.

“Sorry.

Whats wrong?

I looked up at him with a head full of pink conditioner. If I tell you, dont laugh.

“Okaay.

“I cant go home,I said.

You cant go home,he repeated dumbly.

The thought is unbearable. Everyday when I come home from work I feel like I have Urban Stress. My brain becomes frozen. Someone talks to me but I cant comprehend, cant respond. Ill be watching TV and during the commercial I forget what show I was watching.

“Youre not making sense.

I told you, its Urban Stress. Its real. I looked it up. I hate my life and my job is so monotonous that if I have to keep doing it for the next thirty years Ill die. Ive been in New York forever. Im terrified of the thought that Ill live in only one place my whole life.

I got out of the shower, put on a sundress and towel dried my hair. 

Are you happy in New York?I asked him.

Of course. But I grew up in L.A. and I cant stand it there.

I opened the balcony slider, draped the towel over a chair and gazed at the ocean. Brightly colored birds flitted here and there. 

So my life was not glamorous or exciting. Plenty of peopleslives didnt turn out the way they hoped. I still have a good life. I have a roof over my head, my health, friends. In all of my adulthood Ive been in control of the key events in my life. I did well in my studies, I have a good career. I travel where I want. I can buy things. Im catching green lights. If Im not happy I have only myself to blame, right?

“Im not happy there anymore. It feels like theres a weight on my chest.

Ace took my hand. Everyone in New York feels the exact same way.Ace put an arm around my shoulders. Does your best friend getting married have anything to do with this? Would it help if I proposed?

I punched him. He feigned a wounded look and rubbed his arm. I mean it. Youre my best friend. I always planned to have you as my second wife. Thats the good one, you know.

Hilarious.

I did want to settle down eventually but for now I needed change.

I wish I could stay here. I loved the damp smell in the air, the shocking bright-green of the jungle, the call of the frogs, coqui, coqui.

I dread going home. I want to be somewhere warm. Im already considered middle-aged so I have only twenty summers left before Im considered old. Twenty. Its a shame each one will last just two months. 

I realized I don't have much time left.

Ace said, Come to think of it, I dont remember the last time I saw you smile.

I made a facial expression that said You see?

You should move.

Pfft. I cant just move. What abouteverything?

You just do it,he said. If its what you want go for it. Believe.” 

Ironically in my line of work I preached the same thing. If you dont believe in you neither will they. I made candidates affix Post-it notes to their bathroom mirrors: You are THE top quantitative analyst in the city. I had kite surfing posters on my office walls with hollow slogans like Do What You Love.

Why not? Why cant you?Ace pressed.

“Id like to move to a quiet small town. I just cant imagine how to go about it. Or my mothers reaction.” 

I imagined the conversation:

My mother: Why do you want to get away from us?

Me: I'm not trying to get away from anyone. I want to experience a larger world.

Mother: Thats so selfish.


Ace said, Youre a big girl. You dont have to do what you're told.

Well, not everyone can just up and move. Thats not reality. Id have to find a job. And what would I do? Im sick of head hunting. Plus, it took me a long time to find that apartment.

Ace replied, It is reality. People move every day. Life throws you curveballs. Sometimes you go with Plan B.

I tried to absorb this. I rubbed out the furrow between my brows and tried to relax my face. Id worry more if I got wrinkles. The image of my yoga teacher Sarah popped into my head. Shed say, relax the space between your eyes, now relax your jaw, your tongue…” This chick was so chill she could probably relax her earlobes.

As we left the hotel room and headed for the rental car I said, I think I know what to do.

Ace said, Don't waste your time complaining you don't like your life. Use the time you have left to make your life the one want.

Looking back on that trip I credit Ace for getting me thinking. I had a new vision of myself on a porch swing under a starry sky, palm trees rustling in the breeze.

We hopped into our rental car and drove to what the locals call da big rock. People at the wedding said jumping off was a bucket-list thing. I thought it was a great way to say goodbye to Hawaii. 

When we got to da rock I realized it was higher than Id thought. We climbed up the back. My heart was pounding.

People were milling around at the top, some sitting some standing. The atmosphere was pure adrenaline. I hung towards the rear. A little kid with black hair and caramel skin sidled up to me. You can do it,he said.

Ace had his arm around my shoulders and jokingly chanted my name. In short order the crowd joined him. Daisy. Daisy. Daisy.

I was horrified. My blood pressure dropped and I felt nauseated. Like an automaton I was passed along till I found myself standing at the edge.

The little boy said, Dont look down. Just jump.

I took a breath, raised my arms and leapt.

As I flew through air I heard absolutely nothing. 

Zhooosh. I splashed into the water. When I came up for air I had no stress or anxiety. It was like a cleansing, a baptism. It was so much fun I did it again. 

That afternoon I set a date in my head and a plan in motion. This time next year Id be out.










Chapter One



It was Monday morning and I was stuck in traffic on U.S. Route 41. Shoot. I didn't want to be late on the first day of my new job. I checked the dashboard clock, 8:21 a.m. and it had been bumper-to-bumper for the last ten minutes. My entire commute from Old Naples to Pelican Bay was supposed to be only ten minutes.

I thought leaving the hustle and bustle of the big city for small town life in Naples, Florida would be all Jimmy Buffet and cheeseburgers in paradise. Turns out, you can escape the bitter cold and frozen feet but never EVER the daily grind. Theres traffic and bullshit everywhere now. People are bitching and moaning in Papua, New Guinea right now. I guarantee it.

Someones exhaust pipe blew a cloud of fumes into my face. I waved my hand in front of my nose, powered up my windows, and cranked up the AC. So much for weaving myself back into the fabric of the natural world. Still, my dreams came trueI got my porch swing, the scent of ocean wafting past my window, and a mean annual temperature of 75.

My name is Daisy Greenwood and Im an accidental country girl. I escaped the New York trifecta of cold, crime and high prices for quiet life on the gulf coast. They cant make pizza or bagels here but theyre flush in peel neat shrimp.

The hardest part was not finding a job, packing up or saying good-bye. It was summoning the courage to let go of what was bad in my life. I had become accustomed to the feeling that something was missing and I hadn't had the will to reach for a different existence. Until now.

I was stopped at a traffic light so I slathered on the sunscreen. I have a fair complexion from my moms mom, hazel eyes from my dad, and light brown hair. Im five-foot-eight, a size six and I stay trim through daily 6:00 a.m. jogs in my neighborhood. Being outdoors is one of the reasons I love living in the South. If I ever go inside a gym you can bet an alien has taken over my body. Ive joined and quit enough gyms to know I hate fluorescent lights, the smell of black rubber flooring and having one single bench in a locker room crammed with fifty women. Also, standing in front of my refrigerator door staring at the gyms Pilates class schedule which is securely pinned under a Georgis Souvlakis Delivered! magnet does not burn any calories. Instead I own a wristband activity tracker and try to log no less than a gajillion steps per day.

Today I was wearing a formfitting lycra-y white tank under a buttoned blazer, slim white ankle pants and my favorite Manolos: the ladylike low-heel pump in black, of course. Id remembered to stash my raincoat in my tote bag. The rainy season had begun and little known fact: we get 100 days of thunder and lightning a year in western Florida. Its almost as bad as Seattle. Were also the lightning capital of the United States with 1.2 million strikes per year and more than double the number of lightning deaths than any other state. More hurricanes make landfall here than anywhere, and our extremes of rainfall, from droughts to floods, cause sinkholes to swallow people alive. Because you always have to watch the weather, everyone here is an amateur meteorologist. Our climate is violent, abrupt, and practically supernatural. 

But land is cheap. On Friday I signed the mortgage papers for my first house. I now own five times the space I had in Manhattan for the same price. 

My house is a single-level, modern take on Old Florida architecture, with impact-resistant windows and elegant white Bahama style hurricane shutters that extend out from the bottom. Its four blocks from the beach and from my porch I can catch a tiny glimpse of the sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico.

I am the new chief operating officer of a local non-profit organization called the West Coast Conservancy of Florida, aka WCC. Our charter is three-fold: buy virgin forests, meadows and wetlands to preserve in perpetuity; protect local wildlife; and operate a nature center located east of town, on the western edge of the Everglades amidst an ancient cypress forest. The nature center has a two mile boardwalk that meanders through four distinct ecosystems. The damp vine-draped forest and the sun-drenched savanna are my favorites. And the thing that drives the whole operation is money, which the WCC expected me to get. You see, Id spent years convincing banking institutions to take chances on unproven job candidates, convincing them to trust my vetting process, basically getting people to do what I said. Now I had to transfer these skills to a non-profit and convince people to part with their money.

To get the job, I also had a little help from Jens husband. Geoffs mother lives in Naples and belongs to the same country club as the WCCs septuagenarian founder, Evelyn Dunton. One day, Evelyn phoned Geoff to try to recruit him as her successor. He declined, but knowing I wanted to leave New York he threw my name in the hat. 

So, youre a headhunter? You must be a big ball buster,shed said in our interview.

“Im unflappable, I responded. Asking for a job on behalf of others is only a little less difficult than asking for yourself. Its a grueling uncomfortable task requiring a thick skin. So, Im tough. Disappointment and bad news are crunchy afternoon snacks to me.

Shed said, That will come in handy when asking for money. You cant take no for an answer.” 

I was hired and it was just what I needed to get out of my rut.

I oversee the charitys fundraising and day-to-day ops in both the head office and nature center. I admit Im not a longstanding environmentalist. But in another life I could have been because I love my new job. I have that high again. 

At 8:31 a.m. I arrived, drove into the covered garage and pulled into an empty space. I took a minute to corral sunglasses, cellphone and keys into my bag.

Beep-beep.” 

I looked in the rearview. There was a muddy pick-up truck behind me and within, a man leaned on his horn.

I put my palms up and gave a look in the rearview that said What do you want?

The man looked roughly my age and extremely tan. He gestured something with his hands. I gave a smile and a little wave into the mirror because I knew from living among New Yorks crazies they hate to be ignored. He narrowed his eyes, threw his clutch into gear and drove off.

I blew out my bangs and got out. The humidity weighed down on me like a dentists lead blanket. I started walking to the elevator. I passed the same man along the way. He had parked and was unpacking equipment from the flatbed. He was wearing a filthy t-shirt, cargo pants and a tattered baseball cap.

I smiled, said, Good Morningand walked by quickly.

“Youre in my spot,he said.

I stopped. I am allowed to park in the Conservancy section.” 

He took his cap off, pushed his hair back from his face and replaced the cap. For a second I thought he had a chiseled, gorgeous face until I reminded myself that he was dressed little better than a homeless man. He was a hobosexual.

“Listen,he said, I apologize if I was rude. Ive been up all night and Im late for a conference call. Take my space for today.” 

I nodded my head slowly. Sure, a conference call between you and all the other crackheads. This guy was probably crazy and I was starting to get a migraine behind my right ear, the sign I need caffeine.

I said, I hope you have a nice day. By the way, can you tell me if theres a Starbucks around here?But hed already turned his back to me. “Dont worry about it,I said, have a good day.


_____



Before I stepped into the office I whipped out my compact and checked my do. 

Cripes. My anti-frizz hair goop was powerless in this humidity, about as effective as wax paper on the space shuttle. I tucked flyaways into my ponytail and pushed in the plate-glass door to the reception area, expecting to see our receptionist Lanay. Instead there was a young man behind the desk. When I approached he was staring intently at the computer screen and tapping keys in the hunt-and-peck method. He was wearing camouflage pants with rubber fishing waders and a fishing vest adorned with an array of tackle. I wrinkled my nose. He smelled, I dont know, rotten. 

He looked up at me with friendly blue eyes and smiled with straight white teeth that reminded me of Chiclets. He had a slight overbite and an equine nose.

I know you,he said. These days everyone looks at your CareerConnexions page.

Hello,I replied. He turned his head toward the hallway and shouted, Miss Ev! Shes here.

Evelyn came out of her office, straightened her Chanel jacket and rushed toward me, wrists dripping with diamonds.

She said, Tsk, Clifford. How many times do I have to tell you not to shout? Pick up the phone and press one. It couldnt be easier.

“Sorry.

I extended my hand but she grabbed my arms and gave me a stiff little hug. Im so glad youre finally here. This job is getting in the way of my bridge.

Evelyn Dunton was the socialite heir to a Lake Michigan coal and shipping fortune. She had a platinum bob, petite figure, and perpetually sunny demeanor. She and her late husband were noted philanthropists; they had a wing named after them at Naples General.

Evelyn was a long-time admirer of the legendary Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Miami journalist best known for her 1940s campaign to preserve the Florida Everglades and her poetic book about it, The Everglades: River of Grass.

Evelyn established the Conservancy with a chunk of her fortune and worked there for fun.

 She said, Daisy, this is Snake Tuck-, I mean Clifford Tucker.

Snake winked at me and said, Dont listen to her. Call me Snake.He extended his arm and shook my hand. Nice to meet you.His handshake was bone crushing. He must be one of those catfish noodlers. Would explain the smell. 

I don't know why but I instantly liked this Duck Dynasty cracker with the toothy grin and sunburnt cheeks.

Evelyn said, Clifford is one of our nature guides and our helper when Lanay is out sick.Behind Evelyns back Snake mimed a person chugging a bottle then passing out.

I gave Snake a knowing nod. Id met Lanay when Evelyn sent her to my house with a bankers cardboard box full of job-prep reading material. She showed up wearing a see-through crocheted top over a hot pink bra and cut-off shorts. Her bleached blond hair was frazzled, her burnt ends almost white. She had delicate, birdlike featureswide-set eyes and a narrow nose. She was typical Floridaskinny, tan, blond and neon. A self-professed cracker and proud of it.

That day, Lanay had dropped the box on the floor, scanned my discombobulated home and gave me the hard once over. You got any friends here?

“Not yet,I said defensively.

Her head tilted and she looked at me with eagle eyes. So whyd would you move here?

I dont know. I guess I wanted something new.I pushed some boxes against the wall. I had the same job for a decade. Saw the same people. Walked the same sidewalk.” 

“‘Round here we call it same-shit-different-day-itis. You sound like a baby. Can I have a tour?

“Help-“ yourself, is what I was going to say but she was already gone, helping herself. 

She came back. How about you get out of those clothes, put on something nice, and come to Bunco night with me. Darlenes hosting.

I looked down at my clothes. These are nice.

Next thing I know were standing in my closet while Lanay inspected every thread I own. One by one she scraped hangers across the rack. Black, black, black, gray, black, navy. Why do you wear such ugly colors?

Technically only one of those is a color. Thats how I used to dress for work.

“Youre in the South now, Sugar. This is just-

She picked up a beige mock turtleneck and said, Are you a psychopath?She threw the top on the floor. Your entire wardrobe is the gateway drug to no sex.

I picked up the top and folded it. The ugly shirt made me think about my old life. I missed my friends, my family. 

Lanay was self-obsessed. She held my Prada pencil skirt to her boney hips, preened in the full-length mirror and proclaimed, This is okay. But your tops, gross. You need color. You need cleavage.She gestured to my wardrobe, and with big emotionless eyes and a deadpan voice she said, You dress like a man. Are you a man? Do you have like a penis?

I looked at my clothes. She was right. I dressed like an old Italian widow. Before we left for Darlenes Lanay ordered me into a red tank top that I considered an undergarment and some wedge sandals. I was lucky she didn't use her bare hands to rip my full-length jeans into Daisy Dukes with me still in them, scratching my legs to bloody shreds in the process. With that hideous trendy needlepoint manicure of hers Id bleed out in seconds.

We got into her beat-up Supra and I Googled bunco on my phone for the basic rules.

But at Darlenes house I learned that, in addition to three dice, Bunco consists of: 1.) a dozen women in short shorts and cropped or low-cut shirts divided into teams, 2.) everybody talking over each other, and 3.) tequila, lots of tequila.

Game night was one part gossipsex, STDs, whose boyfriend is good-fer-nuthin(not Darlenes, hes almost off drugs and only one month away from his divorce); one part blustering (Im not scared of you, Megan/Jaqui/Ashley); and one part absolute chaos where Im body-slammed by drunk women shaking dice, shouting out numbers and jumping up to scream BUNCO!


——


Evelyn showed me into an office adjacent to hers. I sat at my desk and stashed my tote in the bottom drawer. She hitched a thumb in the direction of her office. Im finishing a meeting. Get settled in, grab some coffee and Ill be back tout de suite.

The first thing I did was open my window. In my old office the windows were sealed shut like I was a vacuum packed peanut. Next, I took out my phone and played Carly Simons Let the River Run. On the occasion of starting a new job I had to channel Melanie from Working Girl.

Next, I completed the Volunteer Wildlife Officer application for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or FWC. While I was scanning it to them with a photocopy of my license, I wondered how Id look in that ugly uniform. I was accustomed to designer duds, black as they were. I smiled to myself imagining that Victoria Beckham or Stella McCartney had redesigned all the ugly police uniforms out there.

I turned on the computer, logged into the email system and scanned subject linesbenefits enrollment, New Exhibit for Nature Center, Setting up your printer, Welcome (a message from our staff botanist, who was presently out in the field collecting pleopeltis polypodioides samples), and Panther Hunt. The last email from staff biologist Dr. Benjamin Mason advised when and where I should report for an upcoming three day panther expedition. In other words, swamp camping. At night. With alligators and Lord knows what else.

My forehead became cold and clammy. According to Evelyn my duties did not include field work. I would organize telethons, stroke big donorsegos, run numbers, monitor HR, procure supplies, plan fundraisers, oversee the Nature Center. That was enough. City girls dont camp. They dont even glamp (glamour + camping). Well, perhaps I could if the glamping is done Meryl Streep/Out of Africa-style with huge tents on platforms, real furniture, gourmet meals on bone china and let's not forget Robert Redford in my tent.

I put it out of my head.

Next to my desk lay a stack of Evelyns mail and the local newspaper. I scanned the headlines. Red Tide Shuts Down Residents Beach. Naples Youth Sailing Foundation Holds Fundraiser. Councilman Stewart ChipWilson Found DeadProbe Ongoing.

The last headline jarred me. Apparently, the deceased councilman allegedly received bribes from a shady developer seeking to buy public land for a fraction of its value upon which he would build cheap condos. The developer would have made a fortune off the backs of the taxpaying public.

In the grainy black and white photo the dead councilman looked kind, albeit with a balding pate and pot belly.


Naples Councilman Chip Wilson was found dead last week in his home on Tall Pine Lane. He suffered a "single devastating gunshot woundaccording to Collier County coroner Dr. Alfred Thomas. Dr. Thomas said that he requires the findings of the joint investigation by the Naples Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to rule whether death resulted from homicide, suicide or an accident. Wilson, who was embroiled in a bribery scandal, had stepped down from public office due to an indictment on racketeering and receipt of illegal incentives charges which he denied. Naples P.D. spokesman Detective Martin Rudinsky said the councilman's death is being investigated as a homicide. Wilsons alleged conspirator, condominium developer Robert Swindell, was also under indictment in connection with the bribery. The indictment alleges that Swindell attempted to convert municipal-owned park land to private use by executing a land swap and paying a nominal fee. Swindell was charged with racketeering and illegal compensation. Per his indictment Swindell was accused of depriving the citizens of Collier County of the honest services of government officials by offering incentives to green-light his purchase of public land for below market value and for favorable treatment of associated construction applications.Through his lawyer Swindell denied the charges and involvement in Wilsons death despite speculation that Wilson was poised to turn states evidence. Both men had been released on bond pending trial.

As previously reported Naples residents were surprised when the city council voted in February to accept the swap, citing restrictions in the subject parcels deed, namely its official designation as Green Acres which requires it to maintain a park-like atmosphere for the perpetual benefit of the citizens of the City of Naples.

In recent years Naples and surrounding environs have seen an uptick in land conservation efforts which require extensive funding. Several recent preservation projects were accomplished through a combination of public tax propositions and fundraising by not-for-profits. Naples P.D. has yet to release details of its investigation except to confirm Swindell is a person of interest in the Wilson death. A second councilman and long-time leader of Floridas Cuban-American community David Cruz has recently faced scrutiny in connection with the land swap but charges have not been filed.


Through the wall agitated voices from Evelyns office startled me.

An accented male said, Do you really put me on par with Wilson?

I stood next to the wall.

Evelyn said, Shh! You voted with Wilson for the townhouses. You used to be our biggest supporter.

The man said, Give me time. I can explain everything.

I dont know what youre involved in, David.

Their voices went down a notch.

I stared at the wall in disbelief. It was the councilman mentioned in the paper.

I went down to reception to talk to Clifford. Or Snake. He was still scowling at the computer screen.

I gestured toward Evelyns office. Hi. Whats going on in there?Then I gave a sideways glance at his boots. And why are you wearing waders?

He looked up, still repeatedly tapping enter on the keyboard.

He said, I gotta make sure my time sheet gets to payroll.

I think youre good.

Snake looked down at his feet. Yeah, boots.He wriggled out of them. Me and Dr. Mason were out pulling an all nighter in the Ten Thousand Islands. Docs our biologist. All this week were catching Kemps Ridley sea turtles to put satellite tags on. That tells us about their migration and how they adapt to things like water temperature. Doc takes a lot of time to do his work. He weighs em, takes samples, prepares the shells for the tags, writes a million notes. I just help out and drive the boat. Mostly I fish.

He removed the waders and stashed them under the desk. He nodded toward Evelyns office and frowned. Now, whats going on in theres been going on a long time. Lets get coffee. Ill fill you in.

Snake led me to the break room which was outfitted with an espresso maker. I did a mental happy dance. There was a legit breakfast spread on the countercroissants, tiny jars of jam, a fruit platter, a basket of bagels and a tray of smoked salmon. I put fruit into a bowl and made a double shot latté, knowing Id revisit the buffet soon enough.

I took my coffee and fruit to a table and Snake sat across from me with a plate of croissants. He put three heaping teaspoons of sugar in his coffee, looked at me to see if I was looking, then poured in another couple teaspoons.

Notwithstanding the election-rigging that done in Al Gore, Floridas the most corrupt state in the union. I read that in the New York Times. Someone did a study. Incidentally, Floridas also the most haunted state and has the highest number of resident circus freaks.

Snake read the Times? I didnt read the Times. Maybe as part of my new life I should get my head out of the sand, read a paper once in a while, take fiber supplements and schedule a physical.

Corruption? What corruption?I wasnt phased by the most-freaks-per-acre claim.

Snake ticked fifteen towns whose politicians had been convicted of fraud or racketeering.

I didnt know about this seedy side.

Yup. Our own Chip Wilsonbig Conservancy supporterwas going behind everyones backs to green-light projects that destroyed forest. It didnt go unnoticed. People were starting to suspect. Plus, you take notice when someones fortunes change overnight.

He explained, He started out in politics driving a Camry. Next thing you know hes in a Mercedes. He used to live in the Ixora condo complex on Broad. Then he moves into the Wilderness development where the buy-in alone is sixty grand. It was common knowledge that if you wanted to build something in this town you saw Chip. Everyone in Naples is sick of overdevelopment, sick of high rises and sick of traffic.

The man in Evelyns officethats David Cruz, right?

Yes, they are close friends. He was real upset about Chips death. But I digest.He took a bite of his croissant and slurped his coffee.

You mean digress,’” I said.

No, digest. These croissants are great. You should have one.

Tell me about Cruz.

David? Half Cuban half American. He represents the Cuban communityits a big voting bloc. But hes extremely popular with all Neapolitans. Hes the latin Kennedy. Gonna be mayor soon.

“Hes in todays paper,I said.

Theres a lot with Chips murder. The town is going crazy. But I don't think Davids involved. Evelyn would've said something. Dr. Mason doesn't like him.

Why not?

Doc says Cruz votes with Wilson, who was Swindells puppet maybe. See, our job is to keep land out of the developer hands. Doc says Swindell and others are doing the future a disservice. Says overdevelopment hurts the public good. He says Cruz was in with Wilson and Swindell.

Does Cruz have an explanation?

Sure. He says some land swaps are favorable, that he can make a developer improve a public asset like widen a road or redo a playground.

It was common knowledgeeven for newbies like methat overdevelopment was killing the Old Florida way of life. Our brochure listed the facts: Florida loses two-hundred acres of virgin forest every single day. Half of the original Everglades is gone and development will consume the remainder. Entire species including the Florida panther and manatee are nearly extinct. The diversion of fresh water and increased fertilizer run-off has killed untold wildlife and permanently damaged the Florida Keys reefs and her fisheries.

Evelyn entered the break room with Cruz. There was no picture with the article and Id assumed he was paunchy and gouty-looking like Chip. Instead I came face to face with the finest Latin man Id ever seen. He had black eyes, a straight nose, chiseled cheekbones, caramel skin and a lot of black wavy hair. He looked like my Hollywood crush Benjamin Bratt.

Evelyn introduced us (and showed no sign of distress). David Cruz, this is Daisy Greenwood. Davids a wonderful supporter of our work.

Cruz shook my hand and placed his free hand on top of mine for the politicians handshake. I snatched my hand back a beat too soon.

As Evelyn spoke Cruz kept his eyes on me. His gaze made me nervous and I found I suddenly didn't know what to do with my hands. I tried placing them on my hips but that felt standoffish and unnatural. I clasped them in front of my abdomen and tried not to look bungling and awkward. All I could think about while I turned red was the Seinfeld episode where Elaine argues about grace during her job interview:

Interviewer: Not many people have grace.

Elaine: Well, you know, grace is a tough one. I like to think I have a little grace. Not as much as Jackie O...

Interviewer: You can't have a little grace. You either have grace or you don't.

Elaine: Okay, fine. I have no grace.

Interviewer: And you can't acquire grace.

Elaine: Well, I have no intention of getting grace.

Interviewer: Grace isn't something you can pick up at the market.

Elaine: Alright, alright, look, I don't have grace, I don't want grace, I don't even say grace, okay?

Interviewer: Thank you for coming in.

Elaine: Yeah yeah.


I snapped out of my thoughts when Evelyn spoke, Daisy, why dont you connect with David on the fundraiser. David is honorary co-chair. Our fundraisers are world class events. You wouldn't believe the crowd that turns out for natureeven our most reclusive Port Royal blue bloods come out and attempt to one-up each other.

David said, Why dont we meet and Ill bring you up to speed?

Evelyn said, This is a priority.

Of course.

Well, then, Ill see you all tomorrow. Im off!Her index finger made a curlycue in the air and she left.

I was handing my card to David when Evelyn stuck her head through the door. Daisy, I forgot to tell you, youre going on the swamp safari with the biology team on Thursday. They tag panthers. I want you to see our work in action. See Ben when you're done here. His office is next door.To Cruz she said, Ill speak with you soon?She turned on her coral Hermès flats and left.

David grabbed my hand. It was a pleasure to meet you. Ill phone later to set something up.

I was still jarred by the swamp safari. I stuttered, Y-yes, of course. My pleasure, as well.

I sat down. Snake was slathering strawberry jam on his third croissant. Im psyched. Dont you love camping? You look pale. Are you okay?

No. This was supposed to be Pleasantville, but things were starting to come back in color. Of course, I was stunned that my organization could be affected by a murder scandal (poor Chip!), but more importantly I was freaking out about sleeping outside with snakes and alligators. I could feign illness to avoid it but that would be too Threes Company-y. I heard a mans voice behind me.

Did I hear my name in here?

I turned to look and a sick feeling lurched in my stomach.










Chapter Two



Snake said, Hey, Doc. Have you met Miss Greenwood?

“Youre Dr. Mason?

Dr. Benjamin Mason walked to the coffee machine. The one and only. And you are Miss Greenwood. He gave me a tight smile.

This was not the same redneck from before. This version was straight out of a magazine. Morphed from hobosexual to metrosexual. Hed showered and poured well-defined shoulders into a fitted navy polo. Jeans and espresso OluKai loafers completed the picture. His complexion was smooth, his hair dark blond, clean-smelling and tousled to one side.

In our meetings Evelyn had spoken highly of her entire team, especially Dr. Benjamin Mason. And during my research on wetland ecology and the local land-use politics Id turned to his articles stored in the bankers box.

Mason was a staunch protector of wildlife and virgin forest. Prior to working for the WCC, Mason was a top-ranking biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (aka FWC), where he oversaw research on species from bears to panthers to Everglades minks.

He frequently contributed to newspapers on development and land-use issues. His editorials lambasted greedy agricultural polluters and commercial developers. He targeted cane growers and big Agbecause it infuriated him that corporate playboys who call themselves humble farmers have never been physically acquainted with dirt.

I remembered his writing for the Miami Times:

Years ago Big Sugar hired lobbyists and in exchange for campaign contributions were awarded wholly unnecessary price supports, aka subsidies. Our tax money is also loaned to Big Sugar through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and if sugar prices fall below $.20 per pound, growers repay those loans not with money but with raw sugar, resulting in a repurchase of sugar by taxpayers. Its a double windfall for a tiny few billionaires. The U.S. government proceeds to offload the loan repayment sugar at a discount to other campaign contributors, specifically ethanol producers, who turn around and jack up fuel prices. The federal sugar program costs taxpayers $1.9 billion annually and to boot your elected congresspeople limit your access to cheaper foreign sugar via tariffs. If we abolished these tariffs consumers and sugar-using manufacturers could save a billion dollars, spurring domestic economic growth. One university study suggests that doing away with this racket would save consumers untold billions and add 20,000 new jobs to sugar-centric industries. In addition to stealing our tax money, cane growers steal billions of gallons of public freshwater for irrigation. Then they dump billions of gallons of fertilizer wastewater into our ecosystem without paying to clean it first. Senator Rubio (R-Fl) asserts that the sugar program is necessary for national security because we need food securityand he never asks his donor-friends in Big Sugar to assume the cost of draining the peoples aquifer or cleaning up their waste. But you are free to take your son or daughter fishing in our Methylmercury-contaminated waters.


By now most Floridians are aware of the pollution and hypocrisy and are angry. People move here to enjoy the boating lifestyle so they took notice when life in the bays below Miami died in the salty nitrate water. But the millionaires keep getting richer. One south Florida sugar family (which controls one-quarter of Americas sugar) collects over 30 million dollars a year in taxpayer subsidies. Unfortunately Mason cant stop subsidies and hypocrisy but he tries to get corrupt people off our backs.

He wrote another doozy about an island in the Florida Keys owned by a pharmaceutical company that bred monkeys for sale to medical laboratories. The whole thing went haywire. The monkeys mated rapidly and troop numbers swelled. The unprecedented quantity of monkey feces produced choked and poisoned the trees and shrubs. Any mangroves that survived were eaten. You can own a private island but the shoreline mangrove remains protected by the federal government. Without the mangrove the island eroded into the ocean. In other cases, many poor or ethnic landscape workers were prosecuted and sent to jail for mangrove cutting. Mason wondered why company executives did not suffer the same fate. Similarly, a few miles north at the Upper Keys Yacht Club, home to corporate millionaires, upon orders workers chopped down mangrove that blocked membersvillasocean views. No Club exec received jail time.

Florida was a pay to play state. The sugar lobby can buy subsidies from corrupt legislators, big Ag pollutes the water for free and rich people never have to do time.


_____


After Snake made formal introductions a chill hung in the air. I started to apologize for the earlier weirdness. The parking lot. Im sorry…”

His hand flew into a stop gesture cutting me off. Forget it,he said.

I was incensed. I hate when people dont let me finish. Plus, I was a bundle of nerves, it being my first day. I narrowed my eyes.

“Well, anyway, I didnt know.

Clifford chimed in nonchalantly. Oh yeah. Lanay told me to call you at home but I forgot. Your spot is number eight. You gotta look down. Its painted on the ground. Then Snake returned to his breakfast, his mouth covered with crumbs.

Mason made his coffee and picked up his mug. His jaw was set and he didn't make eye contact. In a neutral voice he said, Were glad to have you and walked out.


_____


Five minutes later I knocked at his door. Can we talk about the upcoming panther hunt?

He waved to a chair. Of course.

He was compliant but cool. He should grow up. Instead of reacting I set my mind to behave exactly how I advised job candidates. Whether scooping ice cream or running a meeting, do it attentively and stoically. Keep your head down and your nose to the grindstone.

I get why I was being included in this excursion. But I am a girly girl to the core and the first to admit my body is unqualified for such a practical undertaking. The only reason I would ever go camping is to prove to a boyfriend how low-maintenance I am.

Mason gave me the lowdown on what to bring and when to be ready for pick-up. We would trek through swamps on specially designed buggies and make camp at night. He handed me a research paper written on the status of the local panthers. The statistics are grim he said. The population had declined due to loss of breeding ground and vehicular collisions. Panthers from Texas were introduced to bolster the locals in-bred genes. He said the hunt would be led by the FWC with the WCC and other wildlife organizations donating various resources. The team, essentially a mobile veterinary unit, was comprised of biologists, technicians, a veterinarian, assistants, and a hounds man and his dogs.

Why dogs?I asked.

Because over several millennia, in order to get food Pleistocene canids evolved the ability to sniff out prey and execute long-distance olfactory hunts. Dogs and cats arent natural enemies like in cartoons. Everything is prey to a dog. Canidae are a naturally aggressive and voracious species. Have you ever noticed how all dogs are always hungry? Conversely, over thousands of years the felidae family adapted to this danger by evolving very sharp claws and climbing ability. They evolved into master climbers and can literally run up a tree. Thats where teamwork comes in. The hounds can suss out a cat and track it for miles until its treed. When we catch up a technician shoots a sedative into its leg and the sedated cat falls into a specially designed air bag on the ground. The feline vet treats the cat for any illnesses, takes blood and tissue samples, and attaches a radio collar.

You know what? Ill just go over this report at home. I don't want to take anymore of your time, I said.

Fine by me. Im just doing what Evelyn asked,he said.

I tugged my blazer down and squared my shoulders. Look, Im sorry we got off on the wrong foot.Id been in Naples barely three weeks. How did I make an enemy already?

He replied, For the record I dont think you should be a part of the hunt. It wont be a fun little adventure. Its for experienced vets and biologists. Its physically demanding. You wont be able to keep up.

Well, if Evelyn wants me to see our work first hand then I intend to respect her decision.

You better bring a thermos then.

Why is that?

Because theres no Starbucks in the Everglades, he said snidely. There are 12,000 Starbucks in the U.S. and 19,000 worldwide. Each year they use five billion paper cups made from thousands of acres of virgin forest. At WCC we dont support that kind of destruction.He turned away and stared at his computer screen.

I thought, Im never gonna make it. Nothing is ever going to be right. He called my name and I had a glimmer of hope.

“Yes?

“Heres a list of camping gear you need. You can expense it.

“Oh.

Have a nice day,he said.

I retreated to my office. Maybe I wasnt the hippie-crunchy hardcore environmentalist he was but at least I wasnt a judgmental ass. The nerve! Implying Im not serious. Saying I cant cut it. He pegged me for a city slicker because I enjoy a consistent cup of coffee?

My weakness was caring about what other people think. I hated when someone didnt like me. I had to let go of that starting with Mason.

Okay, starting now.

I spent the rest of the day delving into the administrative tasks Evelyn didnt enjoy. Snake came in and asked if I wanted to buy produce at the farmers market. I was more in the mood for a fatty pastrami sandwich but said sure.


_____


The market is held in the parking lot of the Presbyterian church and despite the afternoon hour it was a buzzing social scene. As we walked the aisles I marveled at the selection. Back home there was no sweet local fruit off-season. I stopped for lettuce. Picking it up I thought aloud, Wonder what precautions they've taken to prevent e. coli and listeria?

Snake whipped his head around and said, Shh! You can't talk like that around here. These are upstanding organic farmers. For pete sakes, youre part of the community now.I looked around to see the fleeing masses in which Id instilled the alleged contamination hysteria threatening to destroy small organic farmers, but the pitchfork lynch mob wasnt heading my way.

Organic shmorganic. Bacterias on every farm.

“Its fine.He gave me a dirty look while I paid for the lettuce and handed over a twenty. I gave him the lookright back. It seems Id traded the kosher (deli) nostra for the organic racket. With his mouth full of free pickle samples, Snake let me know he was leaving to go see about a boat.

I spent the next several minutes by myself, staring at a selection of fudge. In the corner of my eye there was a titter in the crowd by the Empanada truck. I walked toward it. It was David Cruz surrounded by an entourage.

He spotted me and broke away from the crowd. His eyes were soft and sexy in the afternoon sun.

How do you like our little local market?

“Nice.

Personally, I miss the supermarkets cut up fruit on the styrofoam tray with too much plastic wrap.

I laughed. You cant do that. Wasteful packaging. Shame on you,I said.

What? The packaging added a nice chemical flavor to the fruit,he said. I shook my head in mock disapproval. I love a man with a sense of humor.

David steered me to his favorite vendors and we sampled jams, kettle corn and pickled beets. I bought a small kettle corn, thanked Cruz for the tour, and excused myself to head over to the sporting goods store.I need to get some camping gear,I said.

He smiled and shook his head. I felt his eyes on my back as I walked away.


_____


When I got home I dropped five bags of camping gear on the living room floor, kicked off my shoes, plugged in my phone and plopped onto the sofa. I took a beat to recharge my brain pan then padded into the kitchen and put Stouffers French Bread pizza in the oven.

I took my dinner to the front porch to see the last remnants of the sunset. Pink and blue bands of light lay stacked across the horizon. There were evening noises in the neighborhood. People coming home, pots banging through a neighbors kitchen window, someone calling their pets name, kids riding bikes on the sidewalk. Despite the noises, the evening felt quiet. It was like the beach. You lie down surrounded by a thousand noisy people at mid-day, yet theres an overwhelming sense of quietude that lulls you to sleep.

My mind drifted to Mason. Boy was he mean. It was too bad because he was gorgeous. I decided Id show him I could handle a few days in the Everglades. I was gonna channel my inner Demi Moore and totally G.I. Jane that trip.

When it got dark I went in and put on the tea kettle. I put my tea cup, a sleeve of cookies and the stack of reading material from Mason onto a wooden tray and brought everything to my bedroom. I propped up a pillow, lay back, turned on the TV for company and started my reading:


Fifteen thousand years ago the last ice age began to retreat northward leaving a cool, dry climate in North America. For up to 10,000 years, low sea water exposed a region around the Bering Strait called Beringia. The previously submerged land connected Siberia and North America. On the western side of Beringia tribes from the west and tribes from southeast Asia converged, uniting bloodlines. During that era animals were the first creatures to cross to North America. Following them the new Beringians crossed the strait over land. (And, when snow or ice was high, by ultra light canoewatercraft made of thin wooden frames wrapped with giant, tightly-stretched walrus skins. Today, people in that region still produce this canoe, the lightest watercraft in existence to date.)

Beringians are the direct ancestors of Native Americans (and their numerous progeny who traveled south to colonize Central and South America before Europeans). There is a popular Native American tenet passed down from one generation to the next about where they believe their origins lie. When asked from where do his people originate, a Native American says they arent from anywhere else, theyve always just been here. His grandma or great grandpa told him this, as did their elders, and to an extent this belief is true. Geneticists have discovered that nowhere in the world except in the Americas does Native American, or blended Eurasian/East Asian DNA, exist. Not even in the eastern region of the Bering Strait, where the two peoples once converged. They all crossed, and none stayed behind.

After crossing the Beringians followed their prey all over, even into southern Florida. By 12,000 B.C.E., Beringian progeny, the paleo-indians, had settled Florida which back then was twice as wide as it is today and much colder thanks to sea levels up to one hundred meters lower. The west coast of Florida was eighty-six miles seaward of its present-day location. Present-day Fort Myers Beach was once an inland hilly area. That may be why paleo-indian archeological sites have not been discovered in Floridathey are submerged beneath the ocean, miles offshore.

With the Ice Age coming to a close, the Continental Ice Sheet melted, seas rose and the Florida peninsula shrank. Newly-created savannas supported a plethora of oversized pleistocene monsters: mastodons, woolly mammoths with sixteen-foot tusks, giant ground sloths, giant tortoises, armadillos and saber-toothed tigers.


I was enthralled. I tried to imagine the Paleo-Indiansmental state amidst these predators. How does one contend with a saber-toothed master killer or a Mastodon three times the size of an elephant?

At one time, in the exact spot where I now lay in my bed extinct mega-creatures co-existed with the earliest American settlers. Battling the elements without modern shelter and being stalked by insanely huge creatures sure puts modern problems into perspective. I popped a cookie and kept going:


About 8,000 B.C.E., with temperatures rising, South American cougars (the relatives of African Cheetahs) migrated to North America.

With the ice age over, tree life thrived. Vast forest covered Missouri and Arkansas, and thick cypress swamp dominated Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. One contiguous pine forest stretched from the Carolinas, Georgia, and all the way down the Atlantic Coastal Ridge to Miami. As recently as one hundred years ago, that 1,800 mile-long multi-state forest was the panthers original home-range, and it took a panther forty hours to traverse. Today, due to profound deforestation, the few remaining panthers are squeezed into a 200 square mile portion of Southwest Florida.


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