Chapter One Men from my
past keep reappearing in my life. First it was my best friend from high school, twenty years after we’d been abruptly split apart when we both joined the Marine Corps. Duke Oxendine, a full-blooded Lumbee Indian whom everyone calls Ox, went through a divorce when he took his twenty-year retirement from the military. It took only three or four tequila shots to convince him to manage my bar, which occupies the lower level of a historic building known as the Barter’s Block, or more commonly, the Block.
Next it was my father, who’d abandoned my mother and me before I’d even hit puberty. A retired cop who’d lost his driver’s license due to deteriorating eyesight, Spud appeared on my doorstep a few years ago and moved into the efficiency apartment that is connected to mine, both of which are on the upper floor of the Block, directly above the pub.
And now it was my handler. Three years into my stint with the marines, I’d been plucked from active duty as an MP to go to work for an antiterrorism tentacle of the government the agents called SWEET—when there weren’t any superiors within earshot. The acronym stands for Special Worldwide unit for Entertaining and Exterminating Terrorists. It sounds strange to those who don’t know, but often, part of a SWEET agent’s job is to entertain the bad guys—even though the bosses prefer to call it infiltration. It was in SWEET that I learned very cool things such as how to identify explosives and carry out surveillance, alter my appearance, meld into an undercover environment, and kill somebody with seemingly innocuous everyday items. In addition to paying for my specialized training, taxpayers also footed the bill for a pair of perfectly round size-D breast implants. They were enhancements, my bosses explained at the time, which along with a brow lift and periodic injections of cosmetic filler into my lips, would help me do my job. I no longer subject myself to the prick of a needle in my mouth— your body reabsorbs the stuff at an amazingly rapid pace anyway— but I do retain the store-bought boobs and have grown rather fond of them. Regardless of my current hair color, I have the dumb blond routine down pat and can turn it on or off with a mental flip of the light switch in my government-conditioned brain.
Moving slowly down the stairwell that leads from my apartment to the Block, I studied Ashton to make sure it was really him. Gazing at the Cape Fear River, he lounged at the bar and blended with the locals and tourists who found temporary haven in the Block. One of my favorite things about the Block, and quite possibly the reason I bought the old building in Wilmington, is the huge industrial-size garage doors that can be opened to take advantage of river-scented breezes and the view of boats gliding by. Unless it is blowing rain or unusually cold, the doors are open every day and today was no exception. It was midday and quite warm outside, but the overhead fans made it comfortable inside the Block. the last person I expected. I hadn’t seen him in person for five years—since I lost my sense of invincibility and retired from the government to open my own security agency.
I slid onto the vacant bar stool next to the man and checked out his profile. He’d gained some pudginess and his pale skin made a double chin stand out more than it should have. But Ashton had aged from more than just the passage of time. He turned to study me—face down to my sandaled feet and back up again—before speaking.
"Jersey Barnes." He took a healthy swallow of beer from a frosted mug. "You look just as fabulous as you did five years ago. North Carolina must agree with you."
He stuck his hand out and I shook it, warmly. He’d done a good job of looking out for me during my stint with the government, even through all the dangerous assignments and seemingly absurd plans of action. I am alive, and for that I will always be grateful to him. "Thanks, Ash. I really love it here. The people, the climate, this old building, everything."
Cracker ambled up to sniff my visitor’s shoes and wait for a treat.
"This must be your dog. Yellow Lab?"
"White Lab, actually. My father named him Cracker because he is too white to make a good hunting dog."
Ashton didn’t give the dog a peanut, and with an audible sigh, Cracker moved on in search of a more promising human, a regular customer who would scratch him behind the ears and shell a few peanuts for him.
Ox placed a beer in front of me and I automatically reached for the glass. It tasted good, better than beer should to a woman who’d vowed to quit guzzling the liquid as though it were sparkling water from the fountain of youth.
Ashton and I drank. There was a reason he’d appeared in my bar and sooner or later I would find out what it was. It came sooner.
"We need you back, Jersey, for a onetime assignment," he said. "Could take a few months, maybe more."
The beer floating happily in my stomach threatened to inch back up my throat. "What?"
"The agency needs you back."
I kept the brew down by drinking some more, and shook my head. "I don’t think so, Ash, but thanks for the offer. I have a standing date with Incognito
, my boat. I might even learn how to play golf. I’m not working any longer, not even for my own agency. I just brought in another partner to work with Rita."
He nodded knowingly. "Joan Jackson, also known as JJ. Started as an army sharpshooter. She’s done some freelance work for us on occasion. Likes to use the lobbyist-slash-activist cover. As I understand it, she actually got some stem-cell research legislation shoved through the system last year. Good choice. She’ll do well with the type of clients your agency takes on."
I gave him my patient smile. "You’ve been checking up on me."
"Far as the agency is concerned, we never stop keeping tabs."
"Should I be flattered or pissed?"
He drank some beer. "Standard operating procedure for all agents of your caliber, active and retired. Doesn’t necessarily require an emotional response of any kind."
Ashton always had been dry to the point of seeming callous. I looked more closely at his face and detected something off in his eyes. Worry? Exhaustion? Something else? He laid a sealed manila envelope on the bar. "Take a look at this."
"A file loaded with top secret intel, of course. The theatrics are mildly amusing, but as I said, I’m not interested. Notwithstanding the utmost respect I have for you, I don’t want an assignment. Seriously, I’m retired." I slid the envelope back toward him.
"During the tenure of the assignment, you’ll work on a contractual basis and will be paid one lump-sum check upon completion. Plus, there’s an upfront hazard-pay bonus."
I almost wanted to learn more but quickly regained my senses. I had zero desire to do another job for the government. Especially when the words "hazard pay" were involved. "I’m not a wealthy person, but I live comfortably. The Barnes Agency doesn’t advertise, yet we still have to turn away business. The Block breaks even, and even surprises us once in awhile by showing a small profit. And I’m happy. You see, I have all the money I need. I got tired of playing chicken with the Grim Reaper. That’s why I retired so young."
He smiled, tolerant to the point of condescendence. "I’m not here to ask. I’m here to facilitate."
"What the heck does that mean?"
"You don’t have a choice, Jersey." He pushed the envelope back in front of me. "I’m going to order some food and eat while you throw your eyeballs on this. What’s good here?"
I passed a menu to Ashton. "The beer-steamed shrimp is excellent, as are the crab cakes. Hush puppies are a house specialty. Burgers are good. And you can’t go wrong with whatever the specials of the day are."
"Gumbo, served over brown rice with a side of collards. For the appetizer, spicy fried sweet pickles," Ruby said, hustling by with a plate of hot wings. A fifty-something veteran waitress, she is famous for eavesdropping without being obvious about it.
"Fried what?" Ashton said.
"Southerners will deep fry just about anything. Pickles, jalapeños, tomatoes, squash. You name it."
Without opening it, Ashton returned the menu to Ox. "Think I’ll pass on the specials. I don’t even know what a collard is. But an order of the crab cakes would be great. Maybe some hush puppies with that."
"You got it," Ox said from behind the bar, his luscious mouth twisting in amusement at me and my rapidly changing retirement plans.
The food issue settled, Ashton returned to business. "Did you read your contract, Jersey? The one you signed when we first recruited you?"
"I’m sure I did." I was young and green back then, three years into my required six with the marines. At that point in my life, I’d have signed anything to get out early.
"You still have it?"
"Good," he said, watching a barge progress slowly beneath the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. "Read page twelve, paragraphs two through five. You can be called back into service at any time for thirty years after your initial service date, and you can be utilized in a consultant capacity up until your death. As long as you are in good physical health and you’re of sound mind, you belong to the agency on a per-assignment basis if the situation warrants." Until death?
Mind racing, I reached for my beer and frantically tried to think of a way out. He’d said something about good health. Surely I could fake an illness if I had to. I have some doctor friends.
"Don’t even try," Ashton said. "We have all your current medical records, right up to your last doctor’s visit and pap smear results."
"Crap," I mumbled to myself.
"Guess you’d better postpone your upcoming shuffleboard tournament," Ox said, passing by with two frozen drinks. "Might want to cancel your bingo dates, too."
I glared at him. Wicked grin spread across his face, he kept walking.
Like a bad slow-motion scene in a movie, I felt my hands retrieve a file from the manila envelope. I wasn’t sure if I’d been reading for a few minutes or half an hour, but when I finished, Ashton was devouring a plate of crab cakes. Ox had served him a small side dish of collards as well.
"What is it that you want me to do?" I heard myself ask after I’d watched him eat for a moment, my ears ringing with a steady buzz, as though the bomb just dropped on me had already exploded.
Ashton sprinkled hot-pepper vinegar on the collards and took a tentative bite before nodding with palatal agreement. "You’re familiar with the Sunny Point ammo dump?"
"Vaguely. The Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point, or MOTSU. Largest ammunition port in the nation. Army-owned. About sixteen thousand acres, just south of Wilmington." I felt myself slipping back in time, to when my knowledge on various subjects was persistently tested. Back then, though, I had a desire to excel by pleasing my bosses and answered their questions with the eagerness of a puppy in training, awaiting praise. Now I was just stuck in a bad dream.
"Right," he said and forked another wad of collards. "It is the Army’s primary deep-water port and the only DOD terminal set up to accommodate containerized ammunition."
I waited for the rest.
"We’ve picked up some high-frequency chatter, which may indicate that one of our nation’s ammo dumps is targeted by a terrorist cell. Sunny Point ranks highest on the probability reports and we need you to be a set of eyes and ears. A position in food services has become open, as the current employee will be out on medical leave."
"You want me to work in a cafeteria?" My afternoon had plummeted from pleasant to dreadful and it still hadn’t hit bottom.
"You’ll actually be working what some folks affectionately term the roach coach. It’s a mobile meal truck run by Mama Jean. Makes the rounds by construction sites in the afternoons and has been a fixture at Sunny Point every morning for years. Just about everyone coming or going stops for breakfast, plus you’ll get some local drive-by traffic. The truck isn’t allowed inside MOTSU but there is a nice scenic spot near the entrance where Mama Jean always parks." His Adam’s apple moved rhythmically as he finished the rest of his beer and pushed a napkin across his mouth. "In any event, you will make egg biscuits, hash-brown patties, that sort of thing."
"You have got to be kidding me."
"Negative. The position gives you flexibility and the opportunity to gather information in an informal environment. It’s a great cover, since Mama Jean has already told the regulars about her scheduled hysterectomy. She’ll be out for at least a month, maybe more. And you don’t have to do the afternoon construction-site runs, unless you just want to see some sweaty bodies in hard hats."
"Seriously. We’re turning over all income to Mama Jean, and she’d probably appreciate the lunch income. So, feel free."
Yeah, right. "Am I the only one?"
"Of course not. Other agents are being utilized as eyes and ears in and around Southport."
"What positions? Anybody I know?"
Ashton frowned. His way of telling me I wouldn’t have access to that information, unless I needed it. The government never did like for its left hand to know what its right hand was doing. God forbid the two should actually hold the bat at the same time and swing at the ball together.
"I’ll need a car," I said. "Anything armored that’s being pulled from service and going to auction?" It’s how I’d acquired my Mercedes-Benz S-series for a ridiculously low price. Of course, it helped that I am friends with the man in charge of the auctions and had sent him a case of his favorite bourbon.
Ashton grinned. "First of all, we’re making a few revisions to the mobile meal truck to give it surveillance capabilities and offer protection, just in case you find yourself in an unpleasant situation. Second of all, you’re not in a position to bargain. But just out of curiosity, what happened to the Benz?"
It was my turn to grin. The government obviously hadn’t been keeping that close of tabs on me. "It got shot up last month by a crazy woman and her boyfriend." I didn’t mention that the fellow had also been my boyfriend. The betrayal still stung, if I let myself think about it too long. "Bullet-resistant glass and armored plates did their job, but the hood and door panels look like Swiss cheese and the windshield is a connect-the-dots puzzle. Car’s not worth what the repair bill would cost. Anyway, I’ll need something to drive when I’m not slaving away over a hot grill in the back of a truck."
He pushed his empty dishes back and drummed some fingers in thought. "Tell you what. I’ll authorize you as a bidder on any current auction vehicles. Get what you want, but you pay out of your own pocket."
"Floyd still running things there?"
"Affirmative. I’m sure he’ll take good care of you, just like he did with the Mercedes."
"At least buy me a set of new run-flat tires with Uncle Sam’s checkbook." When the set that came with the Benz wore out, I replaced them with much cheaper, regular passenger tires. But I’ve since decided that there is no use tooling around in an armored car if your tires could easily be shot out.
Frowning, Ashton shook his head.
I twirled a strand of hair around my forefinger, arched out my chest, and produced a sexy bimbette look, complete with fluttering lashes. "Puhlleeeze?"
Ashton held my raised eyebrow stare. He nearly smiled. "I taught you that look and it doesn’t work on me. You report for work on Monday. Your name is Jill Burns."
"Can’t it be something a little more exotic like Marilyn Tulika or Giana Brenneka?"
He dropped some bills on the counter and stood to leave. "Good to see you again."
"Wish I could say the same."
Excerpted from Southern Poison by T. Lynn Ocean.
Copyright © 2006, 2008 by T. Lynn Ocean.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.