This is the latest chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE.
Sheriff Dunleavy’s car was one of about half a dozen parked in front of Sharky’s when I pulled up. I parked at the end of a row to make sure I wouldn’t have any trouble getting out, since I didn’t plan on staying long. Jenny cocked her head at me when I turned off the truck and opened the door.
“I thought you said you were hungry.”
“I am hungry,” I replied.
“Well, Sharky’s don’t serve food,” the girl said.
“How would you know? You ain’t never going to get old enough to go into a beer joint.”
“You act like anybody’s checked an ID in Sharky’s in, like, ever. All you need to get beer in there is have a single hair on your chin or on your—“
“I was gonna say legs, but that works too.” She gave me a saucy grin. “Now why are you really going in there?”
“Like I said, I think the good sheriff owes me an apology and a steak dinner for being rude to me earlier, and I plan to collect both of those things.” I closed the truck door with a hollow metal thunk and walked across the gravel parking lot to Sharky’s door. I looked down at what I was wearing and grimaced a little. I was in my normal weekday attire of a patterned shirt and blue jeans, with a pair of flat white tennis shoes. I didn’t look bad, but it wasn’t any real surprise from my wardrobe that I hadn’t had very many dates this century. Well, I wasn’t there to use my feminine wiles on the Sheriff, even if he was a handsome, strapping man with a conspicuous lack of a wedding ring.
Every head in the dim room turned to me when I pushed open the door. Sharky did a double-take, then jerked his head over to the right to where the sheriff sat in a booth with his back to the wall. It wasn’t like I couldn’t see him. Sharky’s place wasn’t very big, and there weren’t but about eight booths and four tables in the place. Somehow I would have been able to figure out where Dunleavy was sitting among the ten people that were scattered through the room.
Even so, I walked in that direction without bothering to pretend I was here to see anybody else. Hell, the only person besides Gene that I knew well enough to speak to in a beer joint was Edith Hardcastle, and she and I weren’t on the best speaking terms after she made disparaging remarks about my cherry cobbler three years ago at the Homecoming lunch after church. That biddy had the audacity to say I used a store-bought crust! I learned how to make that crust from my Gran in 1975, and have been rolling it by hand ever since I was tall enough to see over the counter. So I gave Edith a frosty nod as I walked over to see the sheriff.
“Bring me a bourbon, Sharky,” I said as I walked pas the bar. “And not any of that Ancient Age shit, either. If you’re out of Knob Creek, just bring me Turkey.”
I slid into the booth across from Dunleavy and gave him a smile. “Good evening, Sheriff. How are you doing?”
He just sat there, watching me with a baleful eye. “What do you want, Lila Grace?”
“Why do I need to want anything, Sheriff? Can’t I just come by and have a drink with a friend? Thank you, Gene. What do I owe you?” I said, taking my glass.
“Lila Grace, you know I ain’t gonna take your money,” Sharky said.
“I know, Gene, but it’s polite to offer, and I hold out hope that one day you’ll forget and let me start buying my drinks again.”
“Not gonna happen, ma’am. But thank you.” Gene turned and walked back to the bar, leaving me alone with the sheriff again.
“What did you do to him?”
“I think you mean ‘for,’” I corrected.
“I think you mean, ‘what did I do for him,’ Sheriff. His mama passed, and she couldn’t move on because she didn’t leave a will, and there was some dispute between Gene and his brother Robert about what to do with her property. I called the three of them together and relayed his mama’s wishes to them, and they got over their differences and did what she told them to do. Gene credits me with saving his relationship with his brother, which was rapidly deteriorating on account off the money involved.”
“So you drink for free?”
“That was my fee, Sheriff,” I explained. “I don’t often charge people for what I do. I barter a great deal, and sometimes people do give me money, but usually I do what I do for one of two reasons. Either I have an overwhelming sense of justice and cannot let a wrong stand if I have the opportunity to make it right…”
“Or I have got some damn fool ghost hanging around at all hours irritating the ever-loving pee out of me to make things right with their loved ones.”
“Which one is this?” He asked, sipping on his drink. It looked like a Jack & ginger from what I could see, and to smell his breath, it wasn’t the first sample he’d taken of Lynchburg’s finest since he’d got off work.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Which is this, Lila Grace? Are you poking around in Jenny Miller’s death because you can’t stand to see justice ignored, or because that poor dead girl won’t leave you alone?”
“I’m going to ignore that question, Sheriff, and move on to the reason I am here. I—“
“Don’t,” he said. He didn’t move, just sat there, his elbows on the table and his eyes trained on the glass in front of him.
I took a closer look at the sheriff. He had aged since this morning. A fine brown-and-grey stubble poked out across his face. His shirt wasn’t creased, and there was a little gravy spot on his tie. All n all, it looked like he slept in his clothes, or didn’t sleep at all. I figured one of those was true. Sheriff Johnny spent more than one night laying stretched out in one of the two cells in back, trying to catch a few winks in the middle of a tough case. Looked like Sheriff Dunleavy was doing the same thing.
I thought for a moment before I spoke. “Don’t what, Sheriff? Don’t ignore the question that you only asked because you want me to feel as miserable as you do right now? Don’t come back here and try to help you because I have contributions to your case that nobody else has? Or just don’t act like I give a damn what happens to my town? What do you not want me to do, Sheriff? So I can be sure of exactly what I am telling you to kiss my ass over.”
His head snapped up and his brow furrowed, making a razor-sharp vertical line in the center of his brow. “Woman, I swear to—“
His mouth snapped shut and his eyes went wide as my palm cracked across his face like a rifle shot. “If I wanted to be spoken to like that, I could have married one of this rednecks around here. If you have something to say to me, you can call me Lila Grace, or you can call me Ms. Carter. But if you call me ‘woman’ like it’s an insult again, you can be damn sure there’ll be a matching handprint on the other side of your face.”
Dunleavy leaned forward, one elbow on the table, his eyes blazing. He stuck one finger out at me and started wagging it as he talked. “I should have you arrested for—“
“You want to keep that finger, you best put it away,” I said, my voice cold.
He stared at me long enough for it to be downright uncomfortable until he either decided we were both out of line, I was right, or that he wouldn’t likely be walking out of that bar full of hillbillies if he laid hands on the woman that taught most of them in Vacation Bible School when they were young’uns. He put his finger down and leaned back against the cracked and split red naugahyde of the booth.
“Lila Grace, I am starting to wonder if I was brought to this town as penance for something I did in a past life, because I cannot for the life of me think of anything I did to deserve you in my life.”
“Sheriff, I assure you, there is nothing that you could do to deserve me,” I smiled as I said it, and he just shook his head.
A rueful chuckle escaped his lips and he picked up the glass of brown liquid on the table in front of him and knocked it back. He waved at Sharky for another, then gaped at me when I shook my head. “What’s wrong, Lila Grace, you don’t approve of me getting drunk? I assure you I do not intend to drive home intoxicated.”
“Sheriff, as pleased as I am to hear that you do not intend to wrap your patrol car around a white oak tree between here and your house tonight, and as little as I would generally object to you crawling inside a bourbon bottle on your personal time, I am afraid that you have other obligations this evening. Obligations that require you to maintain at least a modicum of sobriety.”
He raised an eyebrow at me, then held up a twenty to Gene. The bartender nodded, and came over with the check. “That’ll be fifteen, Sheriff.”
“Keep the change, Sharky,” Dunleavy said. Gene smiled and nodded, then took away our glasses and headed back to the bar.
“What, pray tell, are these obligations, Ms. Carter?”
“You are taking me to dinner,” I said. The butterflies in my stomach were migrating north, south, and sideways all at the same time, despite my internal protestations that this was not a date, that I had no interest in this man outside the professional, and that all I wanted out of him was a free meal and an apology.
“I am?” Dunleavy asked with a slight smile. “Why exactly am I going to do that? And did you have a place in mind, or do I at least get some input?”
“You are taking me to dinner to apologize for your atrocious behavior this afternoon. You are paying for dinner and dessert to apologize for your behavior this evening, and no, you do not have any choice in where we go to eat. There are only five restaurants in this part of the county, as I’m sure you know, and only one of them can prepare a steak with any semblance of skill. So you are taking me to The Garden Cafe.”
“I’ve heard the spaghetti at the Pizza Empire is real good,” he countered.
“You are not apologizing to me at any place with checkered vinyl tablecloths. I will settle for nothing less than white linen. Or at least someplace with cloth napkins. Our choices are limited, after all.”
“Well, if that is what I must do, then that is what I must do,” he said, sliding out of the booth and standing up. He wobbled a little, not too bad, but just a little. “Why don’t you drive?” He said, putting a hand on the back of the booth seat. “I can pick up my car later.”
“Good choice, Sheriff. I would hate to have to report you to the authorities,” I stood up and preceded him toward the door. Every eye in the place was on us as we walked out, the crazy ghost lady and the new sheriff. This would be all over the grapevine, living and dead varieties, within the hour.
“Y’all come back soon,” Gene called as I opened the door. I threw a hand up over my shoulder in farewell and stepped out into the sunset.