Authors: Jana DeLeon
"Like a body?"
Dorie laughed. "We should be so lucky."
Joe gave her a solemn look, threw some bills on the counter, and headed out of the cafe. She was certain he hoped the fingerless man was in a hell of a lot of pain for what he was about to make Joe do. With a shake of her head, Dorie put her money on the counter and followed him out the door, unable to help feeling the same way.
Sunday morning was bright and beautiful, and Dorie was two minutes late for service. As the choir began to enter the church, she slid in the very back pew next to Joe. He looked miserable, and she was pretty sure he wasn't faking. She gave a small sniff of amusement. Joe couldn't possibly be as miserable as she was, unless he had on pantyhose.
She crossed, then uncrossed her legs, trying to find a comfortable position in the offensive garments, but finally gave up as Joe leaned over and whispered, "I checked at least twenty people before service and crossed them off the list."
"Who do we have left?"
Joe passed her the sheet of paper. She scanned it and decided they weren't in a bad position at all. Only twelve names remained, and she'd bet a year's pay that all of them were in church this morning. They'd had a huge success at Pete's on Friday night-well, in crossing off names anyway. But so far, neither Joe nor Dorie or the hospitals had turned up any news on Missing Digit Man.
"I think they're all here," Joe said, "but a few came in late and a couple others are in the choir. I guess we'll have to wait until service is over." He sighed and sat back in the pew, tugging at his shirt collar.
Dorie shook her head. "No waiting required," she whispered. "I asked the song leader to change the opening hymn to 'How Great Thou Art.'"
He looked at her, a new respect in his eyes. "That's pretty good."
She gestured toward the pulpit and gave Joe a quick nod and a wink as the song leader took the stage and said, "Turn in your hymnals to page one hundred eighty-three. And let's all stand and lift our hands to the heavens. Direct our attention to the one on high."
The piano player began the intro and every hand in the church went up in the air. Dorie moved quietly to one side of the pew and scanned hands all the way to the front of the church. She looked over at Joe, standing at the other end of the pew, and nodded. He nodded back, and they hurried out of the building.
"Whew," he said as they stepped outside. "That was worse than the bar. At least I can drink at I Pete's."
"Stop whining," she said and smiled. "You only had to listen to opening announcements. You didn't even have to sing a song. How did it look on your side?"
"All fingers accounted for. The ones that were there before yesterday, anyway."
"Yeah, my side was clean, too. I figured as much. No one from Gator Bait is stupid enough to let an alligator get the best of him. Especially not with a healthy sum of product and money tied up in the gator's mouth."
Joe nodded, and placing one hand over his forehead, looked out at the bayou. "So what's the plan for today?"
"It's Sunday. It's eighty-five degrees outside, and the sun is shining." Dorie grinned and waved one hand at the clear blue sky. "I'm going to head back home, clear off the lounge chair on my deck, pull a six-pack of beer out of the fridge and pretend to fish. Probably be some of the best sleep I've seen in weeks. Why? You interested in coming along?" she teased, knowing full well that Joe would be headed into the diner as soon as she pulled out of the parking lot.
"Nah," he said, fidgeting a little. "I thought I might stay in town a while. Grab a bite to eat or something."
She gave him a knowing look. "It's just as well, since my 'fishing' tends to make you uncomfortable." She walked down the church steps to her jeep.
"You talk to the sheriff yet?" he asked.
"No. Not yet. I guess I'm waiting for things to get worse. He's just too difficult to deal with. I'd like to avoid it as long as possible."
He considered this for a moment and nodded his agreement. "You think we should call in the feds?"
Dorie stopped and glared at him, certain he'd lost his mind. "No way. I'm not dealing with any big-city prick telling me how to run things in my town. You know better than that."
Joe shrugged. "I know, but we did run the print. The likelihood of a big-city prick showing up here anyway is pretty high. I still don't buy that anyone hauling around that much product and money is a first-timer."
The people in this town are simple, not stupid. They're not going to give away anything to an outsider without telling me first. You can take that to the bank."
"Maybe so, but you know if the feds come here, they're gonna want to take over the investigation. Start giving orders and throwing around insults."
Dorie grinned and jumped into her jeep. "I'd like to see them try." She pulled on her sunglasses and backed out of the parking lot. "Say hi to Jenny for me," she yelled as she started down the road, leaving Joe standing in a cloud of dust, a chagrined look on his face.
DEA agent Richard Starke took his first look at the town of Gator Bait and immediately knew he was going to hate it. Bunch of rednecks and idiots, he thought as he scanned the street in front of him. The average blood alcohol content was probably higher than the median IQ. Every building was rundown, the paint peeling from constant exposure to saltwater, and from his position at the end of the street he could make out a couple of the faded wooden signs.
On the right was the sheriff's office, with a big CLOSED sign in the window. A grocery store shared one wall of the decrepit building, and a cafe shared the other. On the other side of the street stood a run-down motel next to a boat shop with a bar on one side and, ironically enough, a church on the other.
Parallel to the dusty road and behind the side with the church was a bayou that ran down past a large metal building set apart from the others. Unfortunately, he was downwind from that building, and the general odor permeating the air told him it wasn't a place he wanted to see any closer.
He considered his options again. What the hell kind of place closed their entire law-enforcement facility on Sunday? He'd driven into Hicksville thinking he'd march straight into the sheriff's office and quickly deal with his problem. Obviously, he was-wrong.
Disgusted by his lack of choices, he sighed. The cafe was probably his best bet. If he turned up anything useful, he could always get a room later at the Fleabag Inn. His skin already itched in anticipation. Studying the cafe, he mentally assessed the few people he saw through the plate-glass window. With a final disgusted look at the sheriff's office, he started across the street.
No way was this town of morons getting in the way of his finishing his job. It had already gone on too long, and he was ready for it to end.
No matter who he had to roll over to get it done.
Joe took a seat at the counter in the cafe and pretended to read the menu board, while casting sideways glances at Jenny, who poured coffee for a group of fishermen at a table in the corner. This was it. Today was the day he'd ask Jenny out and put a stop to Dorie's nagging. He would not fail this time.
A minute later, Jenny headed over his way and he felt his throat go numb.
"Hi, Joe," she said, flashing him a bright smile. "Would you like a cup of coffee this morning?"
He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Damn it, this was not going to happen to him today. He tried again, but even the words, "yes, thank you" were unattainable. Finally, he just nodded, too embarrassed and frustrated to try anything else.
Jenny stared curiously at him for a moment and turned to retrieve a cup of coffee. He slumped back in his seat and tried to get a grip on himself. It must be his allergies. He could never talk right first thing in the morning because of his allergies. Only problem with that theory was that it was already after eleven o'clock, and he'd been up and talking for hours.
Jenny set the cup in front of him and pulled out a pad. "You want the breakfast special or are you interested in lunch?"
He took a big gulp of the coffee and burned his tongue. "Special's fine," he managed to blurt out. Jenny jotted a note on her pad, gave him a smile and walked over to the grill. Glancing up at the chalkboard on the wall, he gave a mental groan. Grits were on the breakfast special. He absolutely, positively hated grits.
If he didn't learn to speak around Jenny, he would starve to death. What the hell, he thought, giving the board another disgusted look. After that first drink of coffee, I don't have any taste buds left anyway.
Jenny scrambled eggs in a bowl and dumped them onto the grill. "You been working this morning?" she asked.
"Yeah," Joe managed. "Just a bit." Then curiosity got the better of him, and he found his voice. "Why do you ask?" Jenny had never asked about his job before, and it struck him as a bit odd.
Jenny blushed a little, or maybe it was just the heat from the grill, and said, "It's just that you're wearing dress clothes. There's not a wedding or a funeral, and everyone knows you don't go to church anymore, so I figured if you were there this morning, it was because of work."
Joe glanced down a moment and shook his head. He'd completely forgotten he was dressed up. The tie had immediately come off after exiting the church and was stuffed in his pants pocket, but that still left him with tan Dockers and a white button-up shirt. Not his normal dress, for sure.
"Is Dorie coming in, too?" she asked.
"No," he replied, trying to sound natural. "She went fishing as soon as we were done with business. It being Sunday and all."
Jenny nodded and stirred the eggs around on the grill. Everyone in Gator Bait knew Dorie fished on Sunday. Everyone also knew she absolutely never caught a fish. But the townspeople respected her request for solitude and played along with the fishing game. No one called Dorie in for work on Sunday unless there was no other choice.
Jenny slid the plate of food in front of Joe. "Anything else?"
He looked down at the plate of steamy food, complete with the icky grits. "No," he said and tried a smile. "I think I'm good."
"Okay," Jenny said, and moved to the far end of the counter where she started restocking catsup bottles, obviously readying herself for the after-church lunch rush.
Fifteen minutes later, Joe was halfway through all he wanted to eat, when the bells above the cafe door jangled.
The sound of low talking at the front of the cafe just reached him, but the words weren't clear. He was busy stirring the grits in a small circle, trying to make it look like he'd eaten some of them, when he heard a man right behind him say, "I'm looking for the sheriff."
It wasn't a voice Joe knew, and he turned around in his seat to see the man it had come from.
He didn't like what he saw.
The man pulled a badge from his suit coat pocket and flipped it open. "My name is Richard Starke. I'm with the DEA out of Washington, D.C. Do you know where I can find the sheriff?"
Disgusted, Joe blew out a breath. This had been quicker than expected. "I'm Joe Miller. Deputy Miller. I guess you're here about the print"
Richard gave Joe a look up and down. "Yes" He cocked his head to one side and studied Joe's face. "You don't seem surprised"
Joe returned the look. High-dollar suit, alligator shoes, two hundred-dollar pen, perfect hair. Damn, he thought, remembering Dorie's comment about big-city pricks, that woman is always right. This guy looks like a walking hard-on.
"Actually," Joe said when he finished his assessment of the other man. "My boss was expecting you. Just maybe not this soon."
Richard raised his eyebrows. "Your boss was expecting me, specifically?"
He gave Richard another quick look. "Yeah, pretty much."
"I'm intrigued," Richard said and gave him a polite smile. "So can I meet this boss of yours, the sheriff, I presume?"
Joe shook his head. "Nope. Sheriff's on medical leave. Deputy Berenger is in charge during his absence. That's who was expecting you."
Richard began to tap his foot, clearly impatient. "Great. So where exactly is this Deputy Berenger, or does he have a medical malady also?"
Joe slouched back in his stool, unimpressed with the man in front of him and already irritated by his attitude. Working with him may be inevitable, but there was no need to make it easy. "Well, you see the problem is that Sunday is Deputy Berenger's day off, and no one disturbs the deputy on Sunday. It's a general rule."