C4 Chapter 4
By the time Leila pulled up to the Stillwater Bar and Grill, with the windows rolled down in her beat-up old Chevy S10, because the air-conditioner had never worked, she could already smell that Clyde’s body had been removed. Stale blood still permeated the air and lots of it. It seemed he had been practically exsanguinated by whomever or whatever took his sorry life. Leila felt bad that she didn’t feel bad the man was dead. But she knew many others in the small town felt the same way.
The gravel lot was empty beyond several police cruisers, Sterling’s Ford heavy duty truck, and Zenia’s old tan VW bug. Was it bad that the last thing on her mind should be if Sterling’s large truck was a good comparison to the size of what was between his legs? She somehow doubted he was overcompensating for something. Not that she would be in Stillwater long enough to find out.
Leila lost faith in Stillwater’s finest rather quickly, when despite the lot being overpopulated with law enforcement vehicles, she made it out of her truck, and around the back of the bar before she was stopped by a deputy. Not before her eyes took in the yellow police line framing an area near the dumpster where a chalk outline was upon the concrete. The shape, of what she assumed marked where Clyde had been found, was also adorned by numbered yellow cones. But more importantly was the vast amount of blood surrounding the outline. So much, it hadn’t all dried in the shade of the building, despite the hellish heat already that morning. She wondered if Clyde was feeling another kind of heat that morning, down even further south than Florida. The bugs were already swarming the sticky mess, leaving a deputy to swat at them with lips curled in disgust.
“Bar is closed. You can’t be back here. Can I help you ma’am?” asked the deputy.
He was young. Average looking with a buzzed haircut and a still toned physique. Probably a rookie or close to it. His dark skin shimmered with a sheen of sweat, not all that unappealing. Leila wasn’t exactly a sucker for a man in uniform, but she found herself being converted a bit more today.
“I work here. I got a notice on my door from the sheriff’s office wanting me to contact them, and then I got a call from a friend, so I figured I would just come on down here sir,” explained Leila.
Her dark hair was down, she hadn’t even brushed it. Soon it would be a frizzy, giant mess thanks in part to the humidity. She realized maybe she should have at least brushed it and made herself look a bit more presentable. At least she had brushed her teeth before she’d made a mad dash out of the house in a t-shirt that said “Larry’s sausage is the best” and pair of sweats she usually slept in that read #juicy down the hip. The back of the shirt was even worse really, it read “So meaty and juicy. Give Larry’s sausage a taste. Everything’s bigger in Texas.” She had gotten it when she worked at a college bar outside of Dallas which was famous for its sausages, cheap beer, and cheap girls.
“What’s your name ma’am? Let’s go on inside out of this heat. I’m deputy Clayborn.”
“I’m Leila Dupree. I just moved here about a month back. It’s nice to meet you.”
Leila followed the deputy gladly. The scent of Clyde’s blood was overwhelming her senses and giving her a headache anyway. Not to mention all the bugs it was attracting. Leila was still healing from all the scratches and bug bites she had received in the swamp this morning. In her wolf form she healed even quicker, on two legs she would be healed by late evening at the most. Of course, deeper wounds took longer and could be fatal. Werewolves were not indestructible, just harder to take down in wolf form, but you didn’t need a silver bullet to do the trick. She had developed an allergy to silver since being turned, it caused burning welts to appear on her skin.
The air-conditioner seemed to have died again. That was the explanation Leila’s stressed brain conjured up to explain why Sterling Mount was sitting in a barstool naked from the waist up. She swallowed hard as she took in the beauty of his exposed chest. It was just as she had imagined. Hard, solid ridges of tanned muscled goodness. She tried to scold herself for checking out his shirtless form and imagining running her hands or tongue over the contours of his naked skin in the middle of a murder investigation. But she couldn’t bring herself to feel any shame.
When Sterling’s eyes met hers, he got to his feet, the relief visible on his face. She began to automatically make her way towards him, as if drawn by forces outside of her conscious control. But a man in uniform stepped in front of her path. He widened his stance and made it clear he meant business. His hair was salt- n- pepper, his eyes dark, and his middle protruding over his belt. He seemed to be a bit in denial as some of the buttons on his uniform seemed strained, begging for the next size up.
“You must be Miss Leila Dupree I assume. It seems you weren’t home this morning when my deputy stopped by. I’m Sheriff Thorne and I have a few questions for you. If you would like to have a seat Miss Dupree.”
The sheriff pulled a chair out from a nearby table. It wasn’t a question or a request. Quite the gentleman. But Leila wasn’t fooled. His tone, his posture, gave him away. A man with too much power and an overinflated sense of self. She was good at reading men. It was a skill she had developed since being turned.
She forced a smile and took a seat. Her eyes glanced over to Sterling’s again. He had sat back down and was stirring his iced tea vigorously. As if he needed something to do with his hands in his bar now filled with deputies. It seemed the whole force of Stillwater was in the room, all ten of them. Her heart went out to Sterling, he looked exhausted and heartsick as he rubbed his face in his hands. Leila wondered where Zenia was. She could smell her scent still in the bar.
“Miss Dupree, if you are ready to begin,” said the sheriff.
He grabbed a pen and pad from his breast pocket and flipped it open. Leila reluctantly drew her gaze from Sterling and back to the sheriff. He had sweat stains spreading beneath his armpits. He didn’t smell so nice and fresh either.
When the young deputy passed by the table, Thorne caught his attention. “Clayborn check that damn a.c. again. I’m sweating like a bitch in heat in here. And bring me some water.”
“Right away Sheriff.”
She disliked Thorne even more even though she was attempting to be nonjudgmental. It was no accident his choice of words referring to a bitch. He was probably the type to treat women as beneath him, like a woman’s place was in the kitchen or at his feet. But Leila was a bit biased she would admit as she had few good experiences with men in her adulthood.
“So, Miss Dupree can you tell me what was the nature of your relationship with Clyde Morten?”
“Nonexistent sir. Other than me serving him beer during my shifts. Clyde comes in here every night.”
Leila fiddled with her hands in her lap. Her heart slammed into her ribs. How would she explain where she was last night? It was not like she had anyone to back up her alibi. She only had superficial friends in this town really, she had never hung out with anyone outside of the bar.
The sheriff sighed. “There’s no need to play coy Miss Dupree. From what I hear from several sources, it seems you and Clyde Morten were involved in a sexual relationship. That you and Clyde got in a lover’s tiff night before last. Would you like to tell me about that incident?”
Her nails clenched into her palms and she felt physically sickened. The sheriff already had his mind made up it seemed about her. She doubted anything she said to refute his absurd and disgusting claims would change his hardheaded opinions on the matter. She could feel the blood began to well up beneath her nails.
“With all due respect Sheriff, Clyde Morten and I were not in any relationship, sexual or otherwise. He has a problem with keeping his hands to himself. Night before last he put his hands on me without my consent again and said sexually inappropriate things. I asked him to let me go. Sterling witnessed it and asked Clyde to leave the bar. Clyde made an inappropriate comment and Sterling defended me and kicked Clyde from the bar.”
Leila gritted her teeth. She now realized how bad it seemed that Sterling had gotten into a fight with Clyde two nights before his murder. She hated to admit it, but it was motive. She had smelled Sterling’s scent out near the dumpster and the pool of blood, but that was nothing. Sterling went out to that dumpster daily. And his scent wasn’t the only one. Every person who worked at the bar’s scent was out behind it. Even Peggy’s, not that she ever took out the trash, but it was her preferred spot for her multiple smoke breaks every shift.
“I’m assuming you’re referring to the night Mr. Mount physically assaulted Clyde Morten, and then forcibly removed him from the bar, are you not Miss Dupree?”
The deputy sat a glass of water in front of Thorne and offered Leila a glass of her own. She shook her head and declined politely. The sheriff didn’t utter a word of thanks to the deputy. He took a gulp of the water with a sucking noise that turned Leila’s stomach. He certainly put the ass in assume. He seemed to be full of assumptions.
Leila took her hands from her lap and folded them on the table.
“Sheriff, Sterling stood up for me and all the woman in his bar that Clyde Morten has touched inappropriately. It was hot that night. Sterling isn’t the type to fight. It was the first time I’ve ever seen him throw a punch,” explained Leila.
Thorne finished his water and clinked it back against the table. He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his bulging middle. He didn’t scribble anything on his open pad before him. He had a smug look on his round face.
“Miss Dupree, I know you want to protect Mr. Mount. From what I hear, Mr. Morten isn’t the only one you had intimate relations with at the Stillwater Bar. But do yourself a favor Miss Dupree and be straight with me. I already know what happened the night Mr. Mount assaulted Clyde Morten. I just wanted to hear your side of the story. So now Miss Dupree why don’t you tell me your whereabouts last night?”
Leila could feel her wolf clawing inside her. How dare this stupid, sexist, disgusting pig accuse her of being the slut of Stillwater Bar, based on his own biased opinions and hearsay. She had never fucked anyone in this town. And even if she had, so fucking what! How many people had the sheriff himself fucked? Probably in his youth but still! If Leila had a penis, he would not be talking to her like this! Excellent police work indeed when the foundation was laid by fucking gossip, mistrust of an outsider, and assumptions of a misogynist, small minded Sheriff. God bless America!
“I was home in bed alone last night Sheriff. All night. This morning I got up at dawn for a morning run. I’m not now, nor have I ever dated or had sexual relations with anyone in this town,” declared Leila.
She tried to hide the seething anger from her voice. Tried to keep her wolf at bay.
“There’s no need to get upset Miss Dupree. Is there anyone who can verify you were home all night?”
He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. Unspoken words in the air. Any man who could verify she was home last night. She took a deep, calming breath. Her eyes glanced over to Sterling. A deputy was sitting by him, talking to him in hushed tones. But he sensed Leila’s gaze on him and turned to look at her. He looked distressed, but not for himself he seemed. Sterling must have overheard the way the Sheriff was talking to Leila. But there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. He was in the hot seat as well.
But that didn’t mean no one had Leila’s back that morning. Because Zenia Valdez emerged from the kitchen of the bar with a deputy hot on her heels. She stormed into the main barroom.
“Our interview isn’t over yet Miss Valdez,” snapped the older deputy pursuing her across the room.
“Like hell it isn’t. It’s been hours. I’m starving and exhausted. I know my rights! I wasn’t even here last night! My sister found the body and yet her questioning ended over an hour ago! Any more questions and you can contact my lawyer!” said Zenia.
She was dressed in daisy dukes so short the white pockets could be seen peeking out the front. Her black tank top stretched across her ample chest, her light brown breasts peeking out the top. There was no mistaken which Valdez twin it was.
She walked over to the table that Leila sat at with the sheriff. She leaned down and gave Leila a hug. She smelled of smoke and blood. Clyde’s blood. Leila shivered. But it didn’t mean anything. But she didn’t work last night. Zanna had said her twin was out in the swamps doing rituals on the night of the full moon. So why would Zenia have the scent of Clyde’s blood on her? She could have picked it up from hugging her sister or something.
“It’s good to see you girl. But don’t let them bully you Leila. It’s bullshit!”
The sheriff got to his feet lazily to assert his authority. He adjusted his belt which held his holster and a baton.
“Miss Valdez you aren’t impeding an official police investigation now are you? If you’re done answering questions, you can leave. Deputy Clayborn will escort you out and we’ll be in touch.”
Zenia eyed Thorne defiantly. “Actually Sheriff I have something to say. I know where Leila was last night. I can vouch for her. She was with me. Out in the swamps.”
Leila tried to keep the shocked look off her face and her mouth from hanging open. Why would Zenia be her alibi? Sure, they were sort of friends, but not the you help me hide the body kind of friends, but rather more of acquaintances. She looked at the other girl.
“If you were with Miss Valdez last night, then why did you lie to me Miss Dupree? Lying to the police is a felony.”
They were waiting for her answer. Even Sterling was glancing in their direction.
“I was ashamed Sheriff. I was helping Zenia out in the swamps. She was introducing me to her religion, but I’m not sure it’s a good fit for me sir. I was raised protestant, so I’m conflicted about Santeria and its rituals.”
Leila let her gaze go down to the floor. A classic sign of shame and guilt. The sheriff exhaled loudly out both his nostrils like an enraged bull. Placed his hands on his wide hips.
“I don’t want you all out doing your pagan rituals in the swamps in my town, you got it. Next time you go across the county line to do your devil worshipping voodoo crap. You understand me?”
Leila looked up to meet his gaze and nodded meekly. Zenia looked to have a sharp retort on her tongue, but Leila gave her a look. It said not now, don’t make trouble. Zenia bit the inside of her cheek and held her tongue.
“Yes sir,” she said bitterly.
The sheriff seemed to be done with both women for now, as it seemed unlikely he would gain anymore salacious material. He swaggered over to the bar where Sterling was sitting and had words with the deputy who seemed to be in charge of watching over the young bar owner. That deputy switched places with Thorne and came over to the table where Leila sat, while the sheriff escorted Sterling from the room. Leila got to her feet, her heart pounding painfully in her chest. But she didn’t see any cuffs on Sterling’s wrists, nor did she hear the back door shut to signify they had left the building. It seemed as though the sheriff was just taking him somewhere more private. That didn’t make her feel any better. She had images in her head of crooked cops beating people into confessions.
The deputy proceeded to ask Leila some more questions which she only paid half a mind to as her ears strained to listen to what was going on behind closed doors. It was hard to attune her ears to the sound of the sheriff and Sterling’s voices among everything else going on in the hot bar. Some deputies had even resorted to opening the windows to help some air circulate. Leila began to feel her own clothes begin to stick to her body, but at least the deputy in front of her remained professional. His eyes stayed on her face.
She didn’t hear the sound of flesh meeting flesh or smell any fresh blood. So at least the Sheriff didn’t seem to be roughing Sterling up physically at least. But his questions were leading and brash. It seemed he had his mind set on Sterling being the killer and would make the evidence fit if he had too. Lead Sterling into implicating himself by a slip of the tongue.
After a couple more hours, the deputy told Leila and Zenia they were free to go and escorted them out of the bar. Leila was leery about leaving Sterling behind and alone. But had little choice in the matter. To circumvent the rule that they needed to leave the property, she and Zenia parked their vehicles in a gravel lot just across the road which wasn’t technically a part of the property. It still offered them a vantage point of everything that went on at the bar. They watched and waited in Zenia’s Volkswagen with the windows rolled down.
“Why did you cover for me?” asked Leila.
“I think a thanks is in order.”
She had one of her bare feet hanging out her window and the other on her dash. Sweat pooled on the hallow of Zenia’s breasts and she had pulled her curly hair up off the nape of her neck. Leila could feel her own sweat pooling in cracks and crevices.
“Thanks. I’m sorry. I’m just not used to people doing things for me without a catch,” admitted Leila.
“Who said there’s not a catch involved?” asked Zenia. Then she broke into a grin. A no good, trouble grin at that. “I’ve been experimenting. Finding out what I like. You seem like a nice girl. You’re hot as hell. Would you be game?”
Leila’s already reddened cheeks bloomed even more. She had thoughts of what it would be like with another woman but had never actually tried any of them out. Unless you counted that time she kissed another waitress she worked with. It had been a one-time performance fueled by tequila. In fact, all her post pack sexual escapades seemed to be fueled by tequila. Zenia began to cackle.
“I’m just kidding Leila. You should have seen your face though. I don’t expect anything from you other than friendship. Friends have each other’s backs. Sheriff Thorne is a misogynist prick. I couldn’t leave you at his mercy.”
“I appreciate it Zenia. I owe you one. Now what are we going to do to help Sterling? You and I both know he didn’t kill Clyde.”
“Yes. Ster wouldn’t hurt a fly. I should know, I’ve been trying to corrupt him for a couple years now. Haven’t even managed to get him to take a single shot, or a single ride in all that time. I almost thought the man was gay, at least until you showed up.”
“What? Zenia don’t be silly. Sterling looks at a lot of girls like that. I’m no one special.”
“Like a dog in heat you mean? No my friend. I’ve known him a lot longer than you have, and trust me girl, Sterling Mount has never looked at another girl the way he looks at you. I mean what more do I have to do to get the two of you together? I duck out early with lame excuses after closing time to give you two some alone time, and still nothing. No signs of wild crazy sex the next morning.”
Leila cracked her window farther. Watched across the street as a couple of police vehicles left the bar. But no sign of Sterling or Sheriff Thorne. She turned her attention back to the girl looking at her from the driver seat with an expectant expression.
“Sorry to disappoint you, but things aren’t like that between Sterling and I. We are friends, barely even that. Now can we focus on what we intend to do to clear his name?”
“Ok sure,” said Zenia with a knowing smile, “I guess we could start with getting into the morgue to see Clyde’s body. By the time I got here, it had already been loaded into the coroner’s van. I asked Zanna, but she was too shaken up to give me any details.”
Leila leaned forward. Her legs were sticking to the seat beneath her. Something had to give soon, like her exiting the car or Zenia breaking down and turning on the air. Or Leila stripping down naked. Maybe Zenia wouldn’t mind anyway. Leila had lost a great deal of her modesty after forcibly changing into a werewolf every full moon and waking up all natural afterwards.
“Do you have any idea on how we could get into the morgue to see the body?” she asked.
“Honey, did you happen to forget which Valdez twin you were talking to?” Zenia adjusted her bra until her breasts were at maximum cleavage without showing nipples. “I’m armed with more than just Jesus and his mama on my side.”
Leila laughed. She felt like she had a true friend in Zenia, and not just because the girl had lied for her, but because she felt a connection to her no matter how different their backgrounds. Zenia told her it was best to wait until tomorrow night, because by then less personnel in the morgue, and less law enforcement officers around. By then the autopsy would probably be done, but that meant a report too. And if Clyde had died in the manner Ginger Holcomb had stated, those wounds would still be visible anyway.
So for now their focus was to lie and wait. Wait for Sterling to exit the bar either a free man or in handcuffs. And it took several hours for that to happen. In fact, twilight had fallen before Sterling Mount walked out of his bar, escorted by the sheriff. Zenia had left to run and grab them some dinner. That just left Leila on surveillance duty. Sterling wasn’t in handcuffs, nor did the Sheriff escort him to the back of the patrol car. She took that as a good sign and started her truck. She drove across the street into the lot, pulling in by Sterling’s truck. He looked so exhausted and defeated in the harsh beam of her headlights. Her heart ached for him.
She immediately exited her truck, ignored Thorne screeching about how she shouldn’t be on the premises, and hugged Sterling before she could stop herself or consider why it was probably a bad idea. He felt just the way she imagined. Solid and warm. Just right. He gave her a real hug. He was musky and sweaty, but Leila didn’t mind. She breathed him in as her head rested against his bare chest. She heard his heart pick up its pace. She knew it was because of her. She knew she shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t want this, shouldn’t want him, but at the same time she couldn’t bring herself to let him go. His hands fisted the back of her t-shirt, like he didn’t want to let her go either.
This couldn’t end well. Leila couldn’t stay in Stillwater permanently. And if that selfish part of her lingered here too long and Ulric found her, it would also inevitably lead him to Sterling. Mercy was not something the Alpha was capable of, and it wouldn’t matter that he had cast her aside. In his mind and the minds of his betas, Leila still belonged to the pack. It didn’t matter what she wanted, she had no rights, no voice in their eyes. Sterling would be tortured and slaughtered slowly, piece by piece by the Blackwood Pack under the command of its sick Alpha.
Until now, Leila hadn’t found any reason to want to stay in any of the towns she had passed through before. But she was a wolf through and through, even without her old pack. That alone still ran the risk of someone getting hurt. But Sterling gave her a reason to want to stay.
Right now, that made Sterling Mount the most dangerous thing in this swamp.