Hayley Falcon stood rigidly in front of another ‘No Trespassing’ sign.
This piece of coastal Georgia wetlands had remained untouched since the Revolutionary War, yet a developer was proposing to defile it with a nightmarish sprawl of luxury estates. Her stomach churned. She would gladly use her legal skills to save as much as possible.
She clenched her fists, resisting the urge to kick down the rusted marker. Years ago, when she was an idealistic teenager, she probably would have spent the day collecting the offensive signs and selling them to some scrap dealer. Now, vandalism was unimaginable.
On either side of her, aged oaks towered and intertwined to form a dense ceiling. She’d seen old oaks, but
nothing like these dinosaurs. Beauty. Grace. Magnificence. Nothing man-made could compare to such perfection.
The pungent aroma of marsh mud scented the warm September air. A coastal saltwater marsh was less than a quarter mile away. Birds chirped. Their songs mingled with the rustle of leaves to soothe her, though her mind fumed over what might happen to this place.
Her boots crunched decayed foliage as she walked to a tree so massive that she and three others could never get their arms around it. She stopped at its base and pressed her hands against the trunk. A sense of union with nature filled her.
This wild forest, home to innumerable species, was too precious to be abandoned to development. She shivered, but not from cold.
Endangered plants grew here. Bald eagles nested. Alligators sunbathed.
Paradise. She inhaled a deep breath, savoring the mixed aromas, then took one last mental snapshot, for future recall. Ageless southern wilderness unmarred by man.
With a purposeful stride, she headed down the property line, careful to stay on the public right-of-way.
Hayley scanned the limbs above. Gnarled arms draped with gray Spanish moss arched from furrowed trunks. She strained to see what might be lurking.
There. In the shadows.
A bald eagle watched her intently.
She tugged up her camera and zoomed the lens, but before she could focus, the eagle shrieked, beat its wings and lifted into the air. It circled, rising, then flew off through a break in the canopy toward the marsh. The shadows appeared empty.
She knew better. The forest teemed whether or not she saw the critters.
Hayley walked the border marked by the rusted signs and photographed several protected trees. Irreplaceable centenarian treasures. Not a place for mansions and country clubs.
Returning her camera to her backpack, she took a sip of bottled water, and hiked the narrow footpath back toward the dirt road she’d driven in on.
As she emerged from the tunneled path cut through a house-high rhododendron thicket, she froze. Her heart fluttered.
A hefty man with a sour frown and a rifle notched in his arm was standing next to her SUV. Who ... who was he? What was he doing here? What did he want? A hunter? Hunters didn’t wear city clothes.
His dark brown eyes were glinting with menace as they roamed over her, lingering where they shouldn’t.
Hayley glanced down. Her sweat-stained tee-shirt clung to her, revealing too much. Not good. Not good at all. Her body warmed. The forest quieted. Not a sound. Nothing but the quick thumping of her heart.
She cast a quick glance over the road to see if the gunman had a partner lurking. He appeared alone and she could see no vehicle nearby.
Hayley took a deep breath. Okay. First thing first. The rifle barrel was aimed downward. His trigger finger was pointed forward in the safe position.
“Can I he’p ya?” he asked in a scruffy, smoky voice.
“No.” She headed to the far side of her SUV, putting the truck between them.
He followed. “You’s that lady lawyer they told me ‘bout, aint cha? Well ya cain’t be here snoopin’ around. This here is private property, ya hear?”
She reached for the door handle, but his calloused hand grabbed her wrist. A shudder ripped through her, igniting the nerves on her neck like a fire ant bite.
Hide the fear. Don’t show weakness or vulnerability. Strength was her only weapon, her only deterrent. Being strong and forceful in the courtroom had not only won her many cases, they had won her the respect of others. Gain this man’s respect, now. She stared into his glinting eyes. “Is this your property?”
“No.” The harshness of his tone suggested he didn’t take kindly to challenge.
She tried to pull her hand away.
He squeezed tighter, pinching her fingers.
“This is a county road. Do you work for the county?” she asked as firmly as she could manage, hoping to mask her pain, her fear.
Hayley used her other hand to peel his fingers away. She summoned her strongest tone. “I didn’t trespass and I was just leaving.” With a knot in her stomach and a trembling, aching hand, she opened the door. Though her SUV was parked on public property and she hadn’t actually trespassed, she had to be wary of a man with a rifle, an unknown purpose, and who-knew-what for brains.
The stranger pointed to the trail head. “What wuz ya doin’ back there?”
“Ya take any pictures?”
“No.” The word caught in her dry mouth.
“Mind if I have a looksee in ya knapsack?”
“I mind very much. Whatever I have in my bag is none of your business.” Her voice crackled with nerves.
Nostrils flaring, he raised the rifle barrel to her chest. “Lady, don’t gimme no trouble.”
She held up her hand, palm out to him. “Okay. Just put the gun down.”
He lowered the rifle, but a twisted, ugly smile threatened. “The bag.”
Relieved that the rifle no longer seemed an immediate danger, she eased the pack from her shoulders and opened the top.
How many times had she thought about this very moment? How many times had she practiced her move, her response, her self-preserving defense? But target practice was just holes punched through paper. Reality had come. The game had started. It was time to test her skills, her courage.
Hayley searched her bag until her trembling fingers found the familiar, cold, knurled grip.
It was a one-way street. Once entered, she couldn’t turn back. What if he reacted and tried to shoot her? It could go either way. Him or me.
But, she was a Falcon. Falcons didn’t retreat or cower in fear. Falcons led, challenged, and fought for righteousness. Settle down. Do it ... and do it right.
In one fluid motion, she brought out her .38 snub-nosed revolver, cocked it and aimed at his face. “Now, bubba, unless you’re ready to die to see what’s in this bag, get out of my way.”
“S ... sure, lady.” Fear filled the stranger’s eyes and erased the smile. He backed off, rifle still lowered.
“Who are you?” Hayley asked in a voice gaining confidence from the strong feel of the gun in her hand.
“Who do you work for?” she asked, keeping an eye on his trigger finger.
“You’ll have to shoot me.”
“Why are you here?”
“If I were you, I’d delete them pictures and never come back.”
“Well, bubba, you’re not me. And Miss Colt and I will go wherever we please. You got a truck close by?” she asked. His type always drove trucks, complete with fancy gun racks for their Bambi-killing pea shooters.
The small handgun became heavier in her extended hand. Her shoulder muscles burned.
“Back the road a bit.”
“Throw me the keys.”
He shook his head.
Hayley lowered the gun and tightened her finger on the trigger. Bam! The gun jerked. Dirt flew up between his feet.
Eyes wide, staring at the raised barrel, the man dug into his pocket and tossed her the keys.
The smell of cordite excited her, elevated her courage. The gun seemed lighter, an extension of her being, her purpose. She was a part of the club now.
“Now your rifle, on the ground.”
He held the rifle close. Hesitated.
She wiggled her revolver. “Looking stupid is not your fault, but being stupid is a choice, a deadly one.”
He placed his gun on the road.
“Keys and rifle will be on the hood of your truck. Now, take a hike.” Hayley waved the revolver dismissively.
The jerk took off, head down, trudging out the road, muttering indecipherable words.
Years of making cases for clients reminded her that hard data, proof, was indisputable.
Hayley laid her gun on the hood, pulled her camera from the backpack, and yelled, “Hey. Bubba.”
Not more than twenty yards away, he turned.
She snapped his picture.
Glaring, he gave her the finger, turned and kept walking.
Her adrenaline rush mixed with fear created nausea along with the shakes. She stumbled behind the truck. Grabbing the bumper to assist her weak knees, she bent and vomited her gyro sandwich. She spat acidic bile from her mouth, wiped her face on her tee-shirt sleeve and walked back to the passenger’s door.
The man was gone. She tucked the revolver into her waistband, and threw her knapsack, his keys and the rifle into her SUV. She got in, keyed the engine, and drove away.
She passed the jerk a half mile down the road and found his truck just a quarter mile beyond. She placed the rifle and his keys on the hood and took a picture. Then she went around to the back of his pickup and snapped a shot of his license plate.
No doubt the guy had made a note of her license number and would report the incident. She might have to explain. But, she was prepared for him, his bosses, their lawyers and the Planning Commission. She had more than enough pictures of the forest to illustrate to the Commission exactly what was at stake in this case.
* * *
“Your strategy to deal with Kincaid’s proposal to develop the Tybee Marsh property is brilliant,” Jake Sutherland said from across Hayley’s desk. He smiled, revealing perfect teeth. Jake was, as usual, impeccably dressed.
Hayley nodded as she put her coffee cup down. She’d known Jake, a wiry legal affairs manager for the Sierra Club, for years.
“Regardless, he’s got a good shot at getting Planning Commission support,” she said.
His round dark eyes widened. “Why’s that?”
His mouth twisted. “Payoffs?”
“You have evidence?”
“Nothing that would stand up in court, but only money would hire a thug to follow and harass me.”
“Kincaid’s been clean until now.” Jake shook his head, his blond hair dancing over his shoulders. “What changed?”
“A backer with big money on the line.”
“Not sure.” She reached for her cup and took a sip of lukewarm coffee.
“Don’t think so.”
“Legit doesn’t threaten.”
His brown eyes narrowed. “Mob?”
“Could be.” The answer was as lukewarm as her coffee. But it was all she had. At the moment. She’d been up most of the night trying to find a connection and hadn’t found anything firm.
Jake shifted in his chair. “If a fix is on, that makes protecting the wetland much harder.”
“This is important to me. I’ll do my best.”
He nodded. “That’s why we use you, Hayley. Slow them down. Compromise if you have to, but protect as much of the marsh as you can.”
She straightened in her chair. “I appreciate your confidence.”
“Speaking of which.” Jake pulled a letter from his briefcase, reached across the desk, and handed her the document. “We’d like to put you on permanent retainer.”
Her jaw dropped. This ... this opportunity was the last thing she had expected. This meant she could focus all her energies on this one special case. She could bring in others. What a game changer.
Hayley took the agreement and read it. The fee wasn’t exceptional, but it would do. Material things weren’t high on her priority list. Satisfying work was.
She’d successfully completed occasional legal work for the Sierra Club over the past three years. And now they wanted to make the relationship permanent. Yeah. She grabbed her pen and signed the agreement with a flourish.
Jake leaned forward on bronzed arms. His eyes darkened. “About the Kincaid business.”
“Yes.” “If the mob is involved . . .?”
“Jake. There’s no the mob. There’s Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Columbian, Mexican and who-knows-who-else organized crime. ‘Mob’ doesn’t cut it.”
“Okay, Hayley. If Kincaid is involved in organized crime, his backers won’t play nice.”
“I’ll be careful.” Hayley pulled her purse, with the Colt revolver, closer, reassured by the security of a weapon she now had confidence in using. Her killing would be limited to paper targets, hopefully.
“You do that,” Jake said. He paused for a long moment, then asked, “Why do you do this work?”
“Because I care.”
“You said there was a man with a gun out there. You were alone. You put your life on the line because you care?”
“Of course. Otherwise criminals would overrun our city. That’s not going to happen.” She sat back and looked out the bulletproof window, toward the tree-filled square where the weathered statue of her ancestor, Amos Falcon, stood. “You see that statue out there. That’s one of my ancestors. My family has been in Savannah for nearly three hundred years. Many have put their lives on the line for this city. My grandfather did and then he taught me to do the same. The people of Savannah deserve justice, and I’ll do what I can to make sure they get it.”
“You can’t save the world.”
“I know.” She smiled. “But I can make our corner of it a little safer, and more peaceful.”