Authors: Jana DeLeon
Richard shrugged. "I'm not exactly sure. Right now, I need to know everything I can about the bayous around town. What size boats can run in them. Where they begin and end. That sort of thing."
"Hmpf You best make friends with Dorie then. She knows more about these bayous than the gators. Only person that knows more is the sheriff."
Great," Richard muttered. "What is the deal in this town with Dorie Berenger? You'd think she was some sort of god."
"Damn near it. Dorie keeps this town running. Keeps it protected. Keeps the bayous and marshlands safe. Without Dorie and the sheriff, Gator Bait might have gone away a long time ago. She may not be a god, but she's damn close." The bartender walked away, obviously done talking.
Richard took another swig of beer. He was out of options and more than a little pissed off that his boss had been right about the townspeople. They'd proven to be even more demented than the law enforcement. First thing tomorrow morning, he would have to worship at the throne of Dorie Berenger, and that left an awful taste in his mouth. Still, if it was the only way to catch Shawn Roland, he would do it with a smile.
He slammed the remainder of his beer and tossed some money on the counter. A god with large, perfect breasts, a small waist, tanned body and mean as a snake.
What the hell. He'd seen worse.
Dorie was at the sheriff's office before dawn the next morning, hoping to get a grip on everything before Richard showed up and started making demands. She'd wrestled with the problem of Richard Starke and his drug dealer most of the night, never quite getting any real sleep. Every instinct told her that the DEA agent from hell was trouble, and she was going to regret getting involved with him, even if only on a professional level.
She blew out a breath and punched the button on the coffeepot. Unfortunately, there wasn't any real choice in the matter. Even if her legal position hadn't been made painfully clear, there was still her dad to consider. He wasn't coming out of that wheelchair. Ten years of tests and therapy hadn't made a lick of difference and living at Southern Retirement didn't come cheap.
Without Dorie as deputy, the town wouldn't keep electing her dad sheriff. Without her dad drawing the salary of sheriff, he couldn't afford to stay at Southern Retirement. Not that Dorie resented the situation or her dad-that just wasn't the case. She resented being backed into a corner by the uptight, self-righteous Richard Starke. Backing Dorie into a corner was never a good idea. She usually came out swinging.
Resigned to her position, she turned on her computer and started to research the heroin trade. Arm yourself with information. That's what her dad always said, and he was right. Information beat out instinct every time. The screen swirled and presented her with a host of data. Settling down in her chair, she began to read.
She hadn't even poured her first cup of coffee when Richard walked through the door. Every muscle in her body tensed, including some that she would have preferred not respond to Richard in that way. Why in the world did this one man make her so jumpy, so unsure of her self-control? Just thinking about it made her even edgier. She barely nodded as he crossed the office to stand beside her desk.
"I was surprised to see your lights on this early," he said.
Dorie stared at him a moment, trying to temper her feelings. His voice was entirely too polite for six A.M., and that irritated her even more. "I'm always up at dawn, but I'd appreciate it if you'd hold off on giving orders until I've at least finished one cup of coffee."
"No problem," he said easily. Too easily. "Mind if I join you?"
Dorie narrowed her eyes. "What's the catch?"
Richard gave her a wide-eyed innocent look. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you're being too damn nice, and I don't like it. What are you up to?"
Richard sighed. "I knew this wouldn't work." He ran one hand through his hair. "Look, I hung out at the bar last night, and it was made really clear to me that if I wanted help, you were the only one who could give it to me. I also figure if you won't help me, no one else in town will either."
Dorie tried unsuccessfully to hold back a smile. "You went in Pete's Bar? Alone?"
Richard nodded and her opinion of him rose a fraction of a point.
"I'm surprised you made it out alive." Dorie poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Richard, then poured another for herself. "I've been thinking on the matter, and I've about decided that the best way to be done with you and the trouble you're chasing through my town is to help you catch your bad guy."
He started to speak, but Dorie cut him off with a wave of her hand and pointed a finger at him. "But-I still have a job to do. Two jobs, as a matter of fact. I cannot chase your man twenty-four hours a day. If duty calls, I have to respond."
It was as good a deal as Richard was going to get, and Dorie was pretty sure he knew it. Especially since he'd been in Pete's.
Finally, he nodded and stuck out his hand. "Deal."
She shook his hand and dropped into a chair, motioning him to take a seat on the other side of the desk."Well, it happens I don't have anything pressing this morning, so first off, I want a little information about the man we're trying to catch. I can't help you corner him unless I know what his objectives are."
Richard shook his head. "I'm sorry, but it's confidential. I can't tell you anything."
Dorie stared at him in amazement. "Are you trying to make me mad, Dick? I can't work without information. I'm not about to waste tax dollars hunting the Invisible Man."
The pleasant expression Richard had pasted on when he walked into the sheriff's office changed to the look of a hardened, and very miffed, professional. "You know good and well that I can't give that information out. You're going to have to trust me. After all, this is my investigation."
Dorie shook her head, absolutely certain he'd lost his mind. "Trust you? I don't even know you. All I know is that you work for the government in D.C., and that in itself is enough to make any smart person leery. What proof do I have that you'll protect me from being injured when you won't even start by letting me know what I'm up against? Can you handle what we're up against?"
Richard laughed. "Isn't that question a bit ironic coming from you-the half-dressed, pink-nail-polished sun goddess who claims to have been left in charge? How do I know you didn't feed the sheriff to one of those swamp monsters and crown yourself 'Princess of Hicksville'?"
Dorie drew up straight in her chair and slammed her coffee mug on the desk, sloshing its contents on her calendar. "Is this your roundabout attempt at an insult, Dick? Hell, without even knowing the guy you're after, I've managed to get more of him than you have. Unless, of course, he's missing more digits that I don't know about."
A flash of red crept up Richard's neck and he narrowed his eyes at her. "You don't know anything about me or my job."
Dorie gave him a sweet smile. "Yes, Dick, that's exactly my point. Or is your short-term memory so bad that you've already forgotten what started this little discussion?" She leaned forward in her chair and looked at him eye to eye. "Do you even remember who you're chasing? Or is that why you can't give me information?"
Richard rose from his chair and glared down at her. "I've had it with your attitude and your mouth. I can only assume from your reluctance to actually perform your job that you lack the ability."
Dorie jumped up from her chair and had just squared off in front of Richard when Joe strolled in the sheriff's office, whistling. It took him only a moment to realize that the situation in front of him didn't call for a song. More likely, it called for Mace or pepper spray.
Joe looked from one face to the other then threw his keys on the desk in disgust. "What in the world is going on with you two this damned early in the morning?"
Dorie nodded her head toward Richard, then looked back at Joe. "Genius boy over here says I'm not qualified to handle my job and has even accused me of killing the sheriff in order to obtain my position as 'Princess of Hicksville.”
Joe stared a Dorie for a moment, a flicker of disbelief in his expression, then he shifted his gaze to Richard and all disbelief was gone. "Jesus H. Christ. One of you is no less impossible than the other." He gave Richard a hard look. "What's your problem? Didn't your trip to Pete's teach you anything?"
"Obviously not," Dorie threw in. "All that time he spent 'investigating' would probably have been better spent drinking. Maybe a hangover would loosen up his tight ass."
Joe shook his head. "Nah, he was drinking last night and it didn't do any good at all. He was still as stiff as ever." He looked back over at Richard. "So do you want our help or not?"
Richard crossed his arms in front of him and rocked back on his heels. "I think I've decided on not. If someone will direct me to the sheriff, I'll be happy to leave you to whatever it is you usually do for your salary, and I'll take my tight ass to discuss business with someone who has a better understanding of the law and respect for their fellow lawmen."
Joe stared at Richard as if he'd lost his mind. "You want the sheriff's help? The man's on medical leave."
Richard set his jaw "Is he comatose? Bedridden?"
"No," Joe answered, "but that's not the-"
"Unless he's paralyzed," Richard interrupted, "I'm sure he'll be all the help I need."
Dorie laughed and Joe glared at her. "Fine, Big City," Joe said. "We'll take you to the sheriff and you can have all the time in the world with him. How's that sound?"
"Joe, are you crazy?" Dorie asked.
He shook his head. "Not at all. I'm just following protocol. City here is stuck on the rules, so we'll play by them. Seems he's deemed you and me unqualified to assist on this case. If he wants to work directly with the sheriff, that's his right. Let him have it."
Dorie stared at Joe for a moment, but she knew he was right. She had no authority over Richard and was well aware of it. Maybe a trip to the sheriff wasn't the worst idea, even if it hadn't come from her. "Fine," she said finally, "but I can't take him there. No transportation. I came in my boat."
"Well, shit." Joe stared at Dorie in dismay. "My pickup only holds two people comfortably." He looked pointedly at Richard.
"I don't care," Richard said, still glaring at Dorie. "I'm the one who needs to talk to him. We can take my car. Leave the princess back here with her reptilian court."
"Hell, no!" Dorie said and shoved her pistol in the holster at her side. "You want to talk to the sheriff, you do it in front of me." She pointed at the truck outside. "But I am not riding bitch and there's no way I'm getting in a car with you." She gave him a disgusted look. "Foreign piece of shit. Who the hell drives a Honda except someone with a stick up his ass?"
Fine!" Richard said. "I'll sit in the middle. I'll ride in the back. I don't really care as long as I get the help I'm due."
"Good!" Dorie said and gave him a parting smile as she headed toward the front door. "Then Joe can shift that five-speed monster in your crotch and not mine." She strode out the front door, letting it slam shut behind her.
Joe stared after her in dismay. "See what you've done?"
"I only want to conduct my business here and be gone," Richard said. "If that means going over her head to do it, I won't hesitate."
Joe shook his head. "Sure, and if for some ungodly reason this foolish quest of yours is successful, I'll fit you with a bulletproof vest when we get back here. You're gonna need it."
The three of them sped down the highway in complete silence, Richard wondering all the while when they were going to stop and why the sheriff was this far from Gator Bait. Of course, there was no hospital in Gator Bait, and the sheriff was on medical-leave. Maybe his condition was serious.
Maybe he'd had a run-in with one of those finger-snatching monsters.
As they drove through the gates of the retirement home, he looked at Joe in surprise. "Retirement home? I thought the sheriff was on leave?"
Joe glanced over at Dorie, who remained silent, staring out of the passenger window. "Sort of."
"What do you mean, sort of?"
"You'll see. Go inside and talk to the man."
Joe parked the truck and Dorie immediately jumped out, slammed the door and stalked toward the entry of the building.