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Gator Country
About the Author: John M. Floyd is the author of more than a thousand short stories in publications like AHMM, EQMM, Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Best American Mystery Stories, and Best Mystery Stories of the Year. John is an Edgar finalist, a Shamus Award winner, a five-time Derringer Award winner, a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the author of nine books. He is also the 2018 recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer.

I was thirty miles west of town when I saw the body.

It lay at the foot of a long slope beside an empty stretch of two-lane, and at first glance was just a flash of blue shirt with what looked like a head and arm sticking out. The rest was in the water, which wasn’t too surprising—much of this part of the country is water. It took me less than a minute to pull off the road, back up, hop out, and make my slippery way down the hill.

The half-submerged body at the edge of the swamp was face-down and motionless, but after being hauled out onto the bank and rolled over, it twitched a bit—and groaned. To me, who had more than enough troubles of my own that day, it was a welcome sound.

Eventually two eyes opened, squinting up into the afternoon sun. “Am I alive?”

I couldn’t help smiling. “Guess so. But you got a pretty good knot on your head.”

“Think I hit it on a rock.” The man on the ground—he was big, and tall too—winced and shifted position. He was soaking wet from the chest down. “Just my luck—I read someplace there weren’t any rocks in South Louisiana.”

I glanced at a muddy chunk of stone four feet away, at the water’s edge. “It’s not a rock. It’s a cinderblock.”

“Great.” He gave me a pale, bleary look. “Who are you, by the way? Clark Kent?”

“Daniel Douglas,” I said. “Call me Danny.”

“I’ll call you my guardian angel. Help me up, would you?”

Once the guy had his feet under him, we trudged together up the slope to my little Nissan. A small travel-bag with a shoulder strap lay in the grass by the side of the road. The rescued man—his name was Brian Hunter, as it turned out—said he’d been hitchhiking here beside the highway half an hour ago when a car swerved and almost hit him. After dodging it, he slipped, fell off the embankment, and rolled all the way to the bottom. The driver, probably drunk as a skunk, kept heading west.

“Hell of a note,” Hunter mumbled, after fetching his bag and settling his wet seat onto some plastic I had spread out on the Nissan’s passenger side. “Here I am with a ride, and I didn’t even have to use my thumb.”

I smiled again. “You must’ve had it stuck up your ass, to have this happen to you.”

Hunter chuckled. “You’re right—I was daydreaming.” He paused and gently touched the reddish lump on his forehead. “Just standing there waiting for a kind-hearted soul to drive by, and this guy starts weaving and heads straight for me. Guess I was lucky.” He added, “Speaking of luck—when I was walkin’ along the roadside fore it happened, I saw a couple gators down there in that swamp I fell into. One of ’em looked longer than this car.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said. “We grow ’em big here.” We were rolling now, with the A/C going full blast. The two-lane highway was as deserted as before.

“My point is, pulling me outta there when you did … I expect you saved my life.”

“Truth is, I was scared to death.”

That prompted a weak grin. “So I assume you’re not a paramedic by trade.”

“I’m a pharmaceutical rep. The only people I save are the folks who take the pills I sell to doctors’ offices.” Which was true. And now that the excitement was over, I remembered my own worries, so many they made my shoulders sag. I half wished I’d been the one to fall into the swamp. “What do you do for a living?” I asked.

Hunter snorted. “Not much, as you prob’ly guessed. I was once in the army though—military police—and then worked ten years for the state of Florida.”

“What kind of work?”

“The hard kind. Prison guard. Place called Raiford.”

“Whoa,” I said. “So now, you’re what? Retired?”

“Let’s just say ‘no longer employed.’ And touring the country at minimal expense.” He shrugged. “Fact is, I’ve probably read too many Lee Child novels. Jack Reacher did the same thing, you know—former MP, current hitchhiker. A new adventure every day.”

“I don’t recall him swimming with alligators,” I said. We exchanged a glance. His color was a little better now.

“I’m used to it,” he said. “I’ve been married twice.”

This story appears in our DEC 2023 Issue
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