Black Diamond

By: Susannah Sandlin

PROLOGUE


Dave Grummond always thought that when he died—which should occur no time soon since he was only twenty-five—he would experience a visual reel of his life followed by a beckoning bright light. He was no saint, but he figured he had time to right his wrongs and settle his debts before Saint Peter welcomed him to his eternal resting place.

Instead, as sinew and muscle ripped from bone and consciousness faded, his last, fleeting thought was of the robot in that old movie The Terminator, specifically Schwarzenegger’s glowing orange eyeballs. And there was no bright light that followed, just a black emptiness settling across his vision.

The day had started like most early March mornings in eastern Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana: damp and low forties, with a dense fog that shrouded the bayous and marsh. Within a couple of hours of sunrise, the chill would burn off and segue into an overcast day of about seventy-five degrees.

Not yet, though. He’d rolled out of bed at five thirty, sneaked out of the house without waking Rae, and stopped in the mudroom long enough to slip a dark-blue jacket over his lucky LSU sweatshirt and tug on heavy socks beneath his boots.

Saturdays needed rituals, and this was Dave’s. He’d go out early and catch a mess of catfish or, if he was lucky and had the energy to take his twenty-foot vintage Carolina Skiff down the bayou, he’d show up by midafternoon with a cooler full of whatever finfish was in season. Then the gang would get together and have a fish fry or, if it was a bad fishing day, a big iron pot of rich gumbo filled with turtle meat or whatever was in the freezer. There was always good bounty to be had in the freezer.

Yesterday, however, he’d had business farther up in the parish, so he’d borrowed his brother’s little fourteen-foot skiff, which he now maneuvered into the tangled, narrow waterways of Bayou Pointe-aux-Chenes, hoping to catch whatever he could find. Tonight, when all his buddies gathered, he’d pull out the engagement ring he’d bought on the installment plan for Rae. The last payment had laid waste to most of his Friday paycheck from the refinery, but he wanted to ask her tonight. He felt lucky.

Inside the left pocket of his jeans rested the tiny emerald-cut diamond ring nestled inside its velvet-lined box, the stone set in platinum. It was the most expensive thing he’d ever bought besides his boat.

He couldn’t wait to see Rae’s face fill with that look she gave him sometimes when she didn’t think he was watching. That look was love, and anyone who said that was too sappy had never seen it.

Dave picked out an isolated branch of the mazelike bayou, sank some lines, and settled back to soak in the first warming rays of the morning sun. He’d fallen half asleep when a hard jolt against the right side of the boat almost tossed him off his seat.

“What the hell?” He slid fingers around the worn leather cushion of the single captain’s chair behind the steering column, clenching his nails into the padding as the boat took another hit farther back, hard enough to turn the prow twenty or thirty degrees to the right and knock one of his three rods into the water.

Maybe he had drifted against a submerged cypress log; this wasn’t an area he’d fished before. Then again, there was barely any current, so the boat shouldn’t be moving this much.

A soft bump from underneath his feet again sent the vessel rocking gently from side to side. Dave jerked his gaze from one edge of the boat to the other, spotting nothing but a few bubbles. No way that had been a log.

Screw this. He could fish somewhere else; more than half the parish was bayou or lake or inlet. Nobody had to know he’d let himself get spooked by what was probably a damned turtle or even one of those hellacious gars that occasionally made their way this far south. Those fish could grow to ten feet long, could weigh three hundred pounds, and could easily pull a lone fisherman overboard. He wanted no part of a gar.

Leaning to the side, Dave reached forward and grasped the two remaining fishing rods, pulling them into the boat. He stood slowly, keeping an eye on the water, but froze at the sight of two round, hooded eyes rising above the bayou beside him, followed by a long, bony snout.

An alligator. He’d almost pissed himself over a damned stupid alligator. Probably a mama whose nest he’d accidentally approached.