Authors: Jana DeLeon
"I don't know The agency never heard from her again, and they never located her."
"He killed her."
Dorie blew out a breath. A drug dealer suspected of multiple homicides-his first as a minor-had stopped off in her town. This week was going to hell in a handbasket.
"I guess we'd better start right away," she finally said. "God knows, you need my help. At the rate you people are going, I'll never get you out of my town."
Ten minutes later, they were bouncing down the logging trail to Maylene Thibodeaux's house. For some reason Dorie couldn't fathom, Richard wanted to see the pool where the alligator had been found. If this was the way the DEA performed an investigation, it was no wonder they hadn't caught Roland. What a waste of time. Roland had never been in Maylene's swimming pool. If he had, Maylene would have bagged him and probably had him mounted on the wall over her portable television.
Still, Maylene might be a quick way to get rid of Richard. No, that was even too cruel for Dick. Best keep him away from Maylene's brew.
Dorie pointed to the house as they approached. "There's the house. And I'm giving you fair warning. Maylene is a widow on search for victim number two. Do not drink anything she has to offer."
Richard stared at her, a confused expression on his face, but nodded. "Okay. I promise I won't drink anything."
They walked up the steps to Maylene's house, and Dorie knocked on the front door. They waited a moment, but heard no movement. She knocked again, harder this time. Finally, they heard rustling inside.
"I'm coming," Maylene yelled. "I'm coming."
The door flew open and Dorie smiled. Richard's first look at Maylene Thibodeaux was a doozy. She had obviously been asleep. Her choice of nightwear consisted of a belly shirt and G-string underwear. Of course, on Maylene, there was a lot more belly than shirt and that string on her underwear was probably lost forever.
"Damn it, Dorie. It's after five. You know I've been at happy hour since three. What the hell is so important that you're banging on my door after working hours?" Then Maylene caught sight of Richard. "Well," she changed her tone from angry to her version of sexy. "This looks important. You bringing me gifts, Dorie?"
Richard looked alarmed and took a step back, just out of Maylene's reach. Dorie bit her lip and tried not to laugh. "No, Maylene. He's not a gift. This is Richard Starke. He's with the DEA in D.C., and he's here about the drugs we found on the alligator."
Maylene looked disappointed. "City dude. Hmpf. City dude would never be able to keep up with me. Guess you better come on in since you're not going away."
"That's all right," Dorie said. "We really wanted to take a look at the pool. I just didn't want to go into the backyard without your permission
Maylene waved one hand in the air. "Go on then. I'm going back to bed." She gave Richard one last lingering look. "Tell you what," she said. "I'll let you have one bottle of brew for the road. If you like it, you know where to find me." She reached for a table next to the door, picked up a bottle and handed it to Richard. "Come back soon. Plenty more where that came from." Maylene stepped back into her house and slammed the door behind her.
Richard looked at the bottle and sniffed the top. His eyes began to water. "What the hell is this stuff?"
Dorie laughed. "Maylene's man-catching brew. But don't throw it away. I use it to strip the paint off my boat, and Maylene won't give any to women."
They walked behind the house to the pool and Richard took a look around. "How far away is the nearest water supply?" he asked.
"About a mile in any direction you choose. You got the Gulf south of here and a number of bayous every other direction."
"A mile?" Richard said, obviously surprised. "That alligator traveled a mile out of the water?"
"Yeah. Surprised me, too, until I found the drugs. Gators run fast, though. I figure when the initial high hit him, he took off and ended up at Maylene's before he crashed."
"So you definitely think the alligator was from around here?" Richard asked as they began walking back toward the jeep. "Could he have come from outside Gator Bait?"
"Could have, but he didn't."
"How do you know?"
"I recognized him. He's a local."
Richard stared at her, clearly amazed. "You've included alligators in the local population?"
She climbed into the jeep. "Not really. It's just that this one had a scar on his leg from getting caught in a broken trap at the shrimp house. I remembered the scar."
Richard shook his head. "So do you have any idea where this alligator's hangout might be?"
Dorie started the jeep and gave him a broad smile. "Why, Dick? You planning on questioning him?"
Because it had been a long day and because Richard needed to consider the information he had so far to know which direction he wanted to go next, he asked Dorie to call it quits. She looked more than happy to dump him in front of the motel and sped off without a word.
He stared at the retreating lights on the jeep for a moment and shook his head. Dorie Berenger was a study in psychology. Helpful one minute and sarcastic and brooding the next. Richard didn't quite know what to make of her, and wasn't sure he had enough years left of life to figure it out. He looked at the run-down motel and thought about the long night ahead of him.
The neon light from Pete's Bar flickered in the comer of his vision. What were the odds of making it in and out of that place twice? Everyone in town probably knew he saw the sheriff about Dorie before they even got back to Gator Bait. Was all that hassle really worth a beer?
He'd just have to take his chances. Boredom was a bigger threat. Loneliness was the biggest threat of all. No one had told him how lonely this job would be. It was his only regret about his chosen profession. Hoping his luck would hold another night, he pulled open the door to the bar and stepped inside.
The night crowd hadn't made it in yet, so the room was sparsely populated. Richard recognized the same bartender from the other night and took a seat in front of the register.
The bartender, who was pouring peanuts into plastic baskets, looked up as Richard sat down. "You need a menu again?" he asked.
Richard held in a sigh. "No, I'll just have a beer."
"Regular beer or light beer?"
"Regular beer. It's been much too long of a day to drink light."
The bartender gave him a satisfied look. "Now you're coming around. We mostly stock the light beer for women. They like to watch their figures. No self-respecting man in Gator Bait would be caught dead drinking light beer. Except, of course, if there was nothing else."
The bartender popped the top on a bottle of beer and slid it across the counter. "Word has it you saw the sheriff today. Did he put his daughter straight, or did he put you straight?"
Now Richard did sigh. "If you already know I saw the sheriff, I'm sure you also know what happened."
The bartender grinned. "'Course I do, but it's much better hearing the story from the losing end. They usually have a creative way of putting a spin on the whole thing. Kind of like a fish story, you know?"
Richard downed a quarter of the beer. "Not exactly. But I guess stories about the one that got away are fairly popular here."
"You have no idea."
Since the bartender was pleasant enough, Richard decided to go out on a limb. He extended his hand across the bar. "My name's Richard Starke, by the way. I don't think we were formally introduced."
The bartender snorted, but shook Richard's hand. "I'm Pete. This is my bar." He gave a small laugh. "Formally introduced. That's a good one."
Richard laughed also. "Yeah, I guess it didn't take long for word of me to get around."
"Word? Man, except for that locked briefcase of yours, we know everything about you down to your underwear brand. Designer label." Pete leaned over, elbows on the bar, and studied Richard. "Now why does a man want to wear designer drawers when Wal-Mart is much cheaper and no one sees 'em anyway?"
Richard considered the question and his answer for a moment. Was it really worth pursuing? Of course, on the other hand, Pete was being fairly chatty. Maybe if he told the man about his underwear, he'd give him a rundown of the people in the town. It would save him the time and trouble of asking Dorie. Mostly the trouble.
"You see," Richard finally said, "it's like this. The cotton in designer underwear is a much finer fabric. It feels better on the skin and causes less chafing."
Pete narrowed his eyes at Richard. "Finer fabric? You ain't one of them kind of guys, is you? 'Cause I don't want word to get around that I was talking to one of them kind of guys. I gotta live in this town."
Richard stared at Pete, confused. "What exactly is 'them kind of guys'?"
Pete pulled himself upright. "You know-them kind of guys. The kind that like opera and call sewing material 'fabric.'"
Richard caught on and gave the man an amused smile. "No. I'm not one of them kind of guys." Pete gave him a suspicious look and Richard held up one hand. "I promise," he said. "I've never found another man even remotely attractive."
Pete studied him a moment more and finally nodded. "Guess it's all right, then. Not that I agree, mind you. I'll just stick to Wal-Mart or Sears when it comes to underwear. Just don't see a good reason, 'fabric' or not, to pay a lot of money for something that's going to rub on my butt all day."
Richard held in his smile until Pete turned back toward the cash register. In a strange, redneck sort of way, the man did have a point. It wasn't like anyone was actually seeing his underwear-well, except apparently housekeeping at the motel. In fact, it took him a minute to remember the last woman he'd had the pleasure of showing his finer fabric.
Shaking his head, he downed the remainder of the beer, his mind made up. When this was over and Roland was behind bars, he would have to consider a new profession. His work was thrilling and meaningful and made a difference, but ... And that was where the problems were. The but.
Since joining the DEA, Richard couldn't remember a single relationship that had lasted more than three months. Women didn't like a man disappearing for long stretches of time, especially when he was unaccounted for. It was the stuff of nightmares for anyone with a suspicious mind. And Richard hadn't met a woman yet that didn't have a suspicious mind.
In the beginning, some had said they understood the work, but all had eventually left, claiming they couldn't exist in a one-person relationship. They wanted family suppers and weekend baseball games. And kids. How in the world could he be a decent father when he only made it home to his apartment five days out of any given month? He couldn't even keep a cactus alive.
The whole situation depressed him. "Give me another one, Pete," Richard said.
Pete, now finished with the peanut baskets, popped the top off another beer and handed it over. "What are you in Gator Bait for, exactly? If you don't mind my asking?" Pete leaned on the bar, elbows resting in front of Richard, and stared.
"I don't mind your asking," Richard said. "I just can't give you all of the facts. Most of the information is classified."
Pete snorted. "Yeah, we already heard about the classified part. Got you a visit to the sheriff, which got you nowhere fast." He reached up with one hand and rubbed his jaw. "Still, Dorie took you out to Maylene Thibodeaux's this evening. I don't figure it was a social call."
Richard quickly shook his head. "No way. That woman is frightening. I was just doing a little looking around."
Pete nodded. "Yeah, the swimming pool with the high gator. Wouldn't of believed it myself if I hadn't seen the pictures over at the grocery store."
Richard groaned. "Everyone knows about the drugs?"
"Of course. You think Maylene was gonna keep gossip that good to herself? The ole gal wasn't that drunk. You don't know much about small towns, do you?"
So much for undercover," Richard muttered. He looked back up at Pete. "Well, since you already know what I'm after, maybe you can tell me who has a problem with drugs in Gator Bait."
Pete stared at him in obvious surprise. "Drugs in Gator Bait? No way, man. There's never been anyone with a drug problem in Gator Bait. Strongest stuff we got here is Maylene's brand, and everyone knows better than to drink that. This is a beer and cigarettes kind of town."