The man standing before Bailey’s desk was tall, well over six feet, and had thick auburn hair that he’d combed into strict obedience, with a respectable part down one side. Only the tiny, rebellious wave over his ears gave away the true nature of the strands he’d wrestled into respectability.
He had deep-set, sexy green eyes, a firm, square jaw, and lips that looked as if they were in a permanent pout. Glancing down his aristocratic nose, the man eyed Cliff as if he were a particularly unattractive weed in his favorite flower garden.
Blood closed the distance between them and offered the marshal his hand. “Cliff Blood. Nice to meet you.”
Scott inclined his head, reaching for the offering with an imperceptible grimace.
Despite the cold greeting, the marshal gave Cliff’s hand a squeeze, his vibrant green gaze assessing as he said, “So you’re the bounty hunter?”
Cliff figured the man thought he was addressing Matt, but he went with it. “And you must be the marshal.”
Scott held his gaze for a long moment and then smiled, just a slight uptick in the corners of his sexy mouth. He dipped his head so briefly Cliff thought he might have imagined it. “I’ve heard about you,” Scott finally said.
“Actually, I’m guessing you’ve heard of my brother, Matt. I just recently joined Bailey Bonds.”
The Marshal’s green eyes widened slightly and he smiled again. This time the smile seemed to hold a secret.
Bailey apparently decided it was time to pull their attention back to him. “Marshal Scott is under the mistaken impression that I’m ripping people off for their bond collateral.”
“What are you basing this suspicion on?” Cliff asked him.
“His signature on the powers of attorney for five people who subsequently lost their homes and vehicles, and in one case a 401k.”
Cliff was shocked speechless. He studiously avoided looking at Brent. “You have his signature?”
Scott opened his mouth to respond.
“No. They don’t. They just think they do.” Bailey said.
Cliff slanted Brent a look. “Can you give me more detail?”
Bailey dropped into the chair behind his desk and rubbed his face, which had turned a strange green-gray and had developed scaly undertones.
Cliff widened his eyes as the snake man’s eyes started to change, but Deputy Marshal Scott wasn’t looking at Brent Bailey. He was still staring at Cliff. Unfortunately, Cliff was starting to have trouble breathing under the intense perusal. Was he imagining the heat in that gaze?
“You remember I told you about Jake Franks?” Bailey asked.
Blood frowned. “Your partner?”
“Ex!” Brent glanced at the marshal. “He’s my ex-partner. I haven’t seen or talked to him in months.”
“He got you started in the business, right?”
Marshal Scott finally slid his intense gaze back toward Bailey as Cliff asked the question. Cliff expelled a soft breath in relief.
“Yes, years ago. But I figured out he couldn’t be trusted and I left. Went out on my own.”
“What does he have to do with this?”
Marshal Scott’s intense gaze skimmed back toward Cliff. “He’s running a bail bonds scam. And Mr. Bailey is working with him.”
“What makes you think Brent is working with this guy? You heard him… Franks is crooked.”
“He bilked me out of thousands of dollars in skip fees,” Brent agreed. “I would never work with him again.”
Marshal Scott held Cliff’s gaze as he responded. “I can’t imagine your motivations, Mr. Bailey. All I know is that I have your signature on the powers of attorney for these people.” He finally looked at Brent. “Five families destroyed, Mr. Bailey. Five. All they were trying to do was help loved ones, and you and Franks took advantage of them, robbing them blind. It’s reprehensible…” Scott’s glare slid to Cliff as if he found the employee of the reprehensible one reprehensible too. “I have a handwriting expert examining the signature as we speak, Mr. Bailey. When I get the results back, coupled with the positive identification I expect to get from the victims, I’m sure I’ll be taking you into custody. In the meantime, don’t leave town.” He inclined his head toward Cliff, “Mr. Blood. I’ll be seeing you.”
Cliff wasn’t sure if it was meant as a threat or the promise of a date. He and Brent watched the tall, sexy marshal stroll out of the office and close the outer door quietly behind him. Then Cliff turned to his boss. “Tell me you had nothing to do with this scam.”
Brent’s eyes had lightened even further, becoming almost colorless, with a narrow black slit in the center. His skin was raised in scale-shaped bumps, and his nostrils had tightened to slits. Cliff fought a grimace of distaste. He hadn’t seen his boss’s snake form since the night they’d met.
He hadn’t enjoyed it then, either.
“I’m telling you the truth, Blood. I’d rather eat my rat cooked in Szechuan sauce, with a ssssside of parsley, than work with that asshole again. Snake’s honor. Besides, I don’t need this shit right now. The Elitper Council just informed me that I’ve been withdrawn.”
“Withdrawn? You mean you have to go back to Elitper?”
“I’m not going. I don’t care what they sssssay.”
“We’re only allotted ten years. There are a lot of Elitperions who want to come to Earth. It’sssss nicer here. We don’t want to overwhelm the ecosystem ssssso we come a few thousand at a time in ten year shifts, chosen by lottery.”
Cliff sighed. “How much time do you have?”
“I passsssed the deadline last week. They’ve sssssent an enforcer to get me. I’m on borrowed time.”
Cliff sighed. “Okay, one battle at a time. We’ll deal with that as soon as we get this problem taken care of. How did this thing with Franks happen?”
“Easy. Franksssss came to me a few weeks ago…”
Cliff lifted a hand to stop him. “Wait a minute. I thought you said you hadn’t seen him in months.”
Bailey shrugged narrow shoulders, his long body shifting in an unmistakable slithering movement. “I lied.”
Frowning, Cliff shook his head. “I’ll need full honesty from you if I’m going to be able to help.”
If Brent had had any eyebrows left on his snaky face they would have lifted. “That’sssss what I’m giving you, Blood.”
“And he had that already, didn’t he? From your partnership agreement?”
Expelling a breath, Cliff sat down in the chair across from his boss. “Go on.”
“He sssssaid he’d figured out a way to make a lot of money and asssssked me if I wanted in. Naturally I didn’t trust him ssssso I said no. He tried to talk me into it but I resisted. When he finally left I was relieved. Turns out I shouldn’t have been. He apparently decided he didn’t need me… he only needed my sssssignature.”
The snake sitting in the office chair nodded his huge head. “Yesssss.”
“And you want me to do what, exactly?”
Bailey’s snake form slithered sideways and disappeared beneath the desk. The office chair slammed backward just before Cliff heard the meaty sound of the snake’s body hitting the floor. Cliff barely resisted the urge to lift his feet and shriek like a girl as Bailey slithered across the dusty carpet toward him, his heavy body making shush, shush sounds againstthe rough fibers. Bailey slithered in his direction, nearly toppling a small, metal trash can as he slid past, surprisingly quiet given his size.
Brent Bailey had never been respectable as a human, but he made a decidedly respectable snake. Twenty-five feet long from his snout to the tip of his tail, Bailey’s enormous body was three feet around at the widest part and Cliff guessed he weighed three hundred pounds.
The snake had a tan body with black stripes over its back, and light brown eyes that were even more eerie because they blended into the rest of him. A slash of black, strangely pitchfork shaped, rose up from his flat nostrils, between his eyes.
Bailey curled himself around Cliff’s chair and stopped, his big body quivering. The wood of the chair started to creak and Cliff flew out of it, leaping onto his feet just as the frail wood shattered.
Bailey tended to compress things when he was nervous.
Dropping to his ass on the edge of the desk, Cliff glared down at his boss.
“Just tell me what you need from me and I’ll be on my way. I’m sure you have tiny Japanese people to terrorize and defenseless rodents to swallow whole.”
Did Cliff imagine that gleam in the scary, light brown eyes?
Cliff glared down at the snake and the snake glared up at him. “And?”
“Addresssss. On desssssk.”
Cliff scanned the surface of his boss’s messy desk and found a slip of paper with Jake Franks’ name on it and an address.
“Find him.” Bailey said.
Cliff jumped down from the desk and strolled toward the door. “Yesssss,” he told his boss with a smile.