Authors: Jana DeLeon
"You coming?" Richard asked.
Joe sighed and stared at Dorie's retreating figure. "Yeah, I suppose. The sheriff would never forgive me if I drove trouble out here and didn't even say hello.”
"I'm only trying to do my job," Richard said as they walked toward the building. "I resent being referred to as trouble."
"Then stop resembling it," Joe shot back and pushed the door open for them to enter.
Sherry greeted the deputy as soon as he walked in the door. "Why, Joe," she said, smiling happily, “we haven't seen you in here for a while. The sheriff has been complaining. What brings you around?"
"Business, unfortunately," Joe replied. He pointed a finger at Richard. "This is Dick from D.C. He thinks Dorie's unqualified to assist on his investigation and has requested the sheriff's help instead."
"Is that what all the stomping was about?" Sherry gave Richard an up-and-down look. She didn't seem impressed with what she saw "You disturb my patient, and I'll have your hide, son. I don't care how old you are or where you're from. You understand me?"
"Yes, ma'am," Richard replied, wondering what the hell he'd gotten himself into now.
"This way," Joe said and headed off down a corridor. Richard took one last look at the frowning Sherry and followed Joe down the hall.
When they reached the end of the building, Joe knocked on a door, and Richard heard a voice call for them to enter. Joe shot Richard a dirty look that clearly said this was not going to be pleasant and it was all Richard's fault, then pushed the door open.
The man in the wheelchair was in a tiny living room just off the entry. Richard took one look at him and held back a string of curse words. The man was paralyzed. And apparently the two assholes he'd ridden over here with had found that information unnecessary to pass along despite his comment back at the sheriff's office. He barely controlled his anger as he scanned the rest of the room.
Dorie sat in an overstuffed chair, arms crossed in front of her, a resolute expression on her face. A collection of military weapons that would have made a third-world country envious hung on the wall behind her, and a huge alligator head was perched above the fireplace, its glassy eyes seeming to glare at him. The wall next to him contained photo after photo of camouflage-clad men, and in the center hung a single medal. Upon closer inspection, Richard realized he was looking at a Silver Star and turned his attention back to the man in the wheelchair, trying not to show his surprise at finding a war hero in such an unlikely place.
The man, whom Richard now presumed was the sheriff, had shouted at Joe as soon as they entered the room and was currently berating Joe on his visiting habits. "Joe, where the hell you been?" the man said. "You haven't been to see me in almost two weeks. It better be that pretty Jenny that's keeping you away."
Joe stared at the man in obvious dismay. "How'd you know about Jenny?"
The man snorted. "Hell, boy, everyone in town knows how you feel about Jenny, except for Jenny. Did you really think I got this far in life being shortsighted?"
Joe sighed. "No, I guess not."
"Well? Have you been seeing her?"
Joe shook his head.
"What the hell are you waiting for? If you hold off until you're comfortable enough to ask, Jenny'll be married and have five kids. You want to live in that town for the rest of your life with another man married to your wife?"
"No, sir," Joe said and shifted his feet, obviously uneasy at the thought of Jenny married to another man. "I know it's more fun picking on me, but we've got a situation here that needs your attention."
The man in the wheelchair looked at Richard. "Are you the self-righteous son of a bitch?" The man pointed to Dorie. "Her words."
Richard stared at the man, unsure how exactly to reply to the question, and Joe nodded. "Yep, this is Dick with the DEA. He wants to see you about Dorie's refusal to follow his orders and her apparent inability to do her job in general." Joe waved a hand at the man in the wheelchair. "Dick, this is Sheriff Berenger."
Berenger?" Richard looked at the sheriff, then Dorie and back to Joe, a feeling of dread creeping over him. "Dorie's father?"
Joe gave Richard a huge smile. "The one and only. Go ahead and tell him all about his incompetent, bullheaded daughter. I'm going down the hall to find some of those chocolate-chip cookies Sherry keeps at the front desk." He sauntered out the door, whistling.
"So, Dick," Sheriff Berenger said, smiling. "I hear you been giving my daughter a hard time."
Richard stared at the sheriff in dismay. This was not going at all like he'd anticipated. He cleared his throat and addressed the man. "It's Richard, and I don't think I've been giving her a hard time. Not near as hard as the time she's giving me. I'm only trying to do my job."
The sheriff pointed to the couch and Richard took a seat as far away from Dorie as he could manage. "And that job would be using Dorie or anyone else in this town to find your man," the sheriff continued, "but not letting them know the where, when or why. Right? And just what makes you think I'd condone that kind of nonsense?"
Richard sighed. "Look, Sheriff. Surely you've been around long enough to know what kind of information I can and can't give out. This isn't personal. I have my orders the same as anyone in law enforcement."
Sheriff Berenger leaned forward in his wheelchair and looked intently at Richard. "Lemme ask you something, and I want an honest answer. Do you think my daughter is stupid?"
Richard blinked in surprise. This wasn't what he had expected at all, and he had to think for a moment to find a politically correct answer, especially since Dorie was armed and sitting only eight feet away. "No, sir," he finally said. "From what I've seen, she seems very qualified to handle the town!”
Dorie snorted. "Ha."
"I see," the sheriff muttered, and Richard knew that neither of them was in the least bit fooled by the duplicity of his reply.
"Qualified to handle Gator Bait, but not anything outside of the town, right?" the sheriff continued. "You think we're all a bunch of small-town hicks, capable of competence only in our own neck of the woods."
Sheriff Berenger glanced over at Dorie, who shot him an I-told-you-so look. The sheriff blew out a breath and sat back in his wheelchair, apparently in deep thought.
I’m not trying to insult anyone," Richard said finally, trying to smooth things over. "But yes, I do feel Dorie may not be the most qualified person to assist in an arrest on this particular crime. It's a very complicated case."
"Uh-huh," the sheriff said. "So if the local law is so ‘unqualified’ as you say, why doesn't your department send in more men?" He gave Richard a keen look, and Richard was certain he already knew the answer to that question.
Richard blew out a breath. "My boss feels that too many agents in such a small place would draw attention to our investigation and cause our target to flee."
"And he's right," the sheriff said. He looked over at Dorie and back at Richard. "Seems to me that the two of you have a problem. You're stuck with each other until this man is caught or out of Gator Bait. That seems to be the directive from both your superiors." He gave Dorie a hard look and she dropped her eyes to the floor.
"But," the sheriff continued, "I would never ask an officer under my command to go in blind. That goes double for my daughter. I saw enough of what happens when you go in unprepared during 'Nam." He pointed at Richard. "You better figure out a way to loosen your lips. At least enough for Dorie and Joe to feel safe helping you."
Richard thought for a moment about the time and money the agency had invested in capturing Roland.
Don't hold your breath.
"I'll see what I can do," he said.
Dorie shot him a look that said she wasn't buying a word of it, and Richard decided it was time to leave. He'd been reading people long enough to know when he could push them around. Sheriff Berenger may as well have been a brick wall. The fact that Dorie was his daughter made the situation that much worse. He wasn't likely to give at all on his direction, and Richard knew he was fast running out of options where catching Roland was concerned.
He rose from the couch and extended his hand to the sheriff, who gave him a bone-crushing handshake as he cast a final glance at the glassy-eyed monster over the fireplace.
"She's a beautiful specimen, isn't she?" the sheriff asked.
For a moment Richard thought the sheriff was talking about Dorie. Then he realized the man was looking at the alligator head. "Yes. She's a beauty," Richard replied, unsure what to say exactly about the head of a dead animal serving as decoration. "Did you shoot it?"
Dorie laughed and the sheriff gave Richard a withering look. “Wouldn't have been much sport in that, would there?"
Afraid to ask how he managed the monster's death without use of a firearm, Richard decided it was time to make his exit. "Thank you for your time," he said. "I'll see what I can do about getting a release for information."
Sheriff Berenger nodded. "Do that, and I promise, you won't regret it.” He looked out the apartment window, a faraway expression on his face. "I always try to help with the law." He looked back at Richard. "It never leaves a person, you know, even if the person has to leave the law."
Richard gave the sheriff a nod and left the room, more frustrated than ever about Gator Bait and Dorie Berenger.
Dorie watched Richard's retreating figure until the front door had closed behind him before she turned to her dad. "He'll never get clearance to give me information and you know that. What are you trying to accomplish?"
Sheriff Berenger laughed. "Maybe I just like seeing you squirm a bit."
"Please." Dorie gave him a disgusted look. "Like I find Dick threatening. He's about as dangerous as a seagull."
The sheriff shook his head. "Dick may well be the only man on earth brave enough to stand up to you."
Dorie rose from the couch and leaned over to kiss her dad on the forehead. "Don't confuse being foolish with being brave," she said and left the apartment, certain that her dad had only succeeded in aggravating an already impossible situation.
Richard decided the ride back to Gator Bait was as entertaining as a funeral. It was as if everyone in the truck had taken a vow of silence, all of them determined not to be the first one to speak. Dorie stared out of the passenger window, her back turned slightly to him, but it hardly mattered to Richard, who wasn't feeling especially talkative after his less-than-stellar run-in with the sheriff.
The only one who didn't seem bothered by the almost offensive silence was Joe, but Richard had gotten the impression early on that the less he spoke around Joe, the happier the man would be. Which was yet another thing that troubled him. Joe seemed to resent his presence only because he believed it caused Dorie problems. And since most everyone in town kept throwing Jenny in Joe's face, he figured it wasn't jealousy that made the other man mad.
Richard sighed. Too many mysteries. Who would have believed such a small place could have so much angst? And he'd thought big cities had issues. He shook his head and focused on his conversation with the sheriff. Better to stick with what he knew. Sordid small-town relationships were beyond his scope.
Finally, Joe parked in front of the sheriff’s office. Dorie jumped out of the truck and announced over her shoulder that she needed a part for her boat and would be in the office in a minute. Without even a backward glance, she headed across the street to the boat shop.
Richard took one look at her retreating figure and sighed. Getting answers from Dorie was not going to be easy. And despite her father's edict that she was required to help, he didn't think she would make it pleasant for either of them.
He turned around and looked at Joe, who was checking the air pressure in his tires. "What did Sheriff Berenger do in Vietnam?" Richard asked, curious about the man and the rare medal that hung on his wall.
"Sniper," Joe replied, still leaned over, studying the tire.
Richard blew out a breath. That certainly explained his comment about shooting the alligator, and gave a whole new meaning to the collection of weaponry hanging on his wall. It also gave him a lot more incentive to tread lightly where Dorie was concerned. "How long has he been like that?" Richard asked, wondering briefly if the chair made the man less dangerous or simply frustrated him, making him more dangerous.
In a wheelchair, you mean?" Joe straightened up and put the tire gauge in his jeans pocket. "I guess it would be about ten years or so, maybe closer to eleven. Heart problems left him partially paralyzed."