The custom-made brace strapped to my left leg made it difficult to navigate the mountain of steps that stretched up to the South Carolina state supreme courthouse, and as I neared the main doors, it occurred to me that I could have taken the zigzagging wheelchair ramp. I was not thinking like a handicapped person. Breathing deeply, I reminded myself to get into character.
Well concealed inside the brace, two pieces of a .410 derringer snugly taped to opposite sides of my knee were only slightly irritating. The barrel easily separated from the action and I’d timed myself reassembling it, in the dark. Three seconds. Five, if I also loaded the buckshot shotgun shells.
Hurried people glided around me as I paused at the top of the courthouse steps to admire the historic building. It was magnificent, really, from the engraved granite beneath my feet to the stately columns at my sides. I resituated my crutches and adjusted the shoulder strap of my leather attaché, deciding that the weather was perfect. It was a beautiful day to shoot somebody.
Smiling, I found the handicap-friendly door that opened automatically with the push of a lever and entered the huge, air-conditioned lobby. Directly in front of me, a wall was laden with framed portraits: a male-saturated time line of those chosen to judge the rest of us and decide our fates. To my left stood a well-groomed security guard wearing an expensive dark suit, his look screaming retired Secret Service. To my right were three state-employed security screeners. Two of them processed the flow of visitors through metal detectors while the third monitored an X-ray machine. A bored cop leaned against the wall, watching the activity around him, perhaps wondering what his wife would be cooking for dinner.
Struggling to stay upright while using the awkward crutches, I concentrated on walking toward the group. Plant the rubber tips of the supports, swing the bulky brace. Plant, swing. By the time I reached the screeners, I had a steady rhythm going and swayed when I stopped to hold up the press pass I’d made earlier that morning. I’d hung it around my neck and just for good measure, attached a few pins to the lanyard: a blue rotary club, a pink breast cancer awareness, and a yellow smiley face. The ID declared that I wrote for Business Track magazine.
“Good afternoon,” I said to a screener with a deep breath that made my size D implants arch out. “I’ve got a deadline to meet, but unfortunately, I’ve also got stainless steel pins in my leg. I’m pretty sure they’ll set off the metal detector.”
He gave me the once-over and grinned. “Heck of a getup you’ve got there.”
Smiling through a grimace, I noted that the other screener was paying zero attention to us. The private security guard, on the other hand, was covertly following our conversation. With a slight grunt, I shifted my weight on the crutches. “You got that right. Tore my knee up pretty good water-skiing. From now on, I think I’ll stay inside the boat.” I shook my head, as if remembering the incident. “Should I go around the tunnel?”
“I’ll have to use the handheld wand on you. Move over here, please, Miss . . .” He leaned in much closer than necessary to read the name on my press pass. “Miss Lawson. And put your bag on the table for X ray.”
When I removed the strap of my attaché, the tip of a crutch caught on the edge of the table leg. I rocked back and forth for a split second, trying to catch my balance, and fell hard onto the floor with a yelp. The attaché dropped from my grip and landed safely beyond the entrance to the tunnel.
Several men jumped to my assistance.
“Are you okay?” It was the Secret Service–looking guy. “Can you get up?”
I stayed on the ground, clutching the leg brace and biting my lower lip. “I think so. That was really stupid. I’ve got to learn how to use these damn crutches.”
He offered an arm, allowing me to hoist myself up at my own pace. With some effort, I managed to get back on my feet. Seeing that everything was under control, the crowd around me dispersed and the security screener handed over my crutches. Feeling foolish, I apologized.
“No problem,” he said, laughing in response to the awkward moment. He was just glad that I hadn’t hurt myself worse, he told me. He ran the handheld metal detector around my waist, beneath my arms, and up and down the outside of the leg that wasn’t encumbered by a brace. The private guy held the sign-in clipboard while I scribbled a signature, after which he retrieved my attaché and returned to his post near the front doors.
After thanking everyone and apologizing a second time, I hobbled around the metal detector and made my way into the handicapped stall of the first restroom I came to.
I quickly stripped down. The brace came off. A small tool kit was transferred from the hollow handle of a crutch to my handbag. The derringer was assembled and placed into an ankle holster beneath tan slacks. The white athletic shoes were exchanged for black leather flats. The bright red blouse came off to reveal a solid black silk T-shirt and a lightweight cropped white blazer. The bobby pins came out of my reddish brunette hair, allowing it to fall loosely around my shoulders. I removed the brown contacts to reveal my God-given hazel-green irises, and flushed the lenses down the toilet, using my foot to depress the handle. Last, I wiped away my fingerprints, including those on the stall’s doorknob, the crutches, and the brace.
As soon as the restroom was empty, I shimmied beneath the stall door, leaving it locked from the inside. I taped a note to the outside, declaring the toilet out of order. Maintenance probably wouldn’t get around to investigating until later that evening, after the courthouse had closed. Even then, they wouldn’t know what to make of the bulky leg brace and crutches that rested in one corner, or the bright red sweater that hung from them.
Entering the bathroom, I’d been a reporter with a knee injury. Leaving it, I looked like any other professional. A casually dressed attorney, businesswoman, or a paralegal, perhaps.
Getting into the courthouse had been surprisingly easy. Getting into the judge’s chamber was even easier. I’d correctly guessed that her entry code would be the same as her home security alarm code and I didn’t have to use my tool kit. Six-two-eight-seven. Oats. Short for Oatmeal, the name of her Yorkshire terrier.
There were two entry doors into the judge’s chamber and I had to wait only forty minutes before I heard the electronic beeping of a code being punched into one of them.
I stood and aimed the gun. “Bang. You’re a dead woman.”
She let out a shriek and spun around to face me. When she realized who I was, the look of fear on her face morphed into a mixture of relief and anger.
“Good Lord, Jersey,” she said, holding a hand over her heart. “You scared me to death.”
I dropped my stance, letting the gun point to the floor, and smiled. “That was the idea, Judge. You need to be a little scared. Your security around this joint sucks.”
She looked at the gun with a raised eyebrow and loosened the collar on her black robe. “Tell me that thing isn’t real. Surely you didn’t get a real gun through security.”
“Of course it’s real. And very effective at close range, especially when loaded with shotgun ammo instead of .45 longs. A staggering drunk could hit you with this. Not to mention the escaped animal who has methodically murdered five women.”
She paled beneath cocoa-colored skin and took another look at my gun.
“It’s not loaded, Judge. I got the ammo through security, too. But I’d never point a loaded weapon at you.”
She sat down heavily. “That’s good to know.”
“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t aim a weapon at anyone unless I fully intended to shoot them,” I said with a shrug. “But I needed to make a point.”
“You’ve made it.” Studying me, she frowned. “How did you get in here?”
“Piece of cake.”
“Good Lord,” she said again. “You’re a harmless-looking petite thing. You can’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds.”
“One twenty-nine,” I corrected. “And five feet, eight inches tall isn’t petite. Sometimes, if I wear heels, I actually tower over most people.”
“Well, you look like a damn Barbie doll. And you just waltz into a state supreme courthouse, right through top-notch security, with a deadly weapon. And then you mosey on into my chambers, where incidentally, I just had new electronic locks installed.”
“That’s why I earn the big bucks,” I told her, twirling a chunk of my hair and shooting her a dumb-blonde look, even though my hair was currently a mahogany red. I actually had been a blonde on many occasions with the government.
She smirked at me. “You do the bimbette look well, Jersey. But seriously, isn’t there anything you’re afraid of?”
“Chickens. Put me in a yard full of clucking chickens and I’m totally freaked out.”
“I’m serious. Can’t stand to even look at a picture of one.” I had a vague childhood recollection of my father making me watch my grandfather slaughter a chicken for dinner. After he chopped the head off using a hatchet and a tree stump, he threw the bird to the ground and laughed as its decapitated body continued running. In the nightmares I had afterward, a headless chicken chased me incessantly around the house.
The judge frowned, determining if I was trying to be funny or not.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, “and dead people. I’m terrified of dead people. It’s irrational, obviously, since a dead person can’t hurt you. But I’ve never been to a funeral. I can’t even stand to be at a crime scene before the bodies are carried off.” I shrugged. “So there you have it, the dirt on Jersey Barnes’ phobias.”
“You’ll take on terrorists, but you’re afraid of live chickens and dead people.”
I smiled but my mood turned serious. “This security breach was a freebie for a good friend. You saved my ass once, Judge. And now I’m trying to save yours, by giving you a wake-up call. He is a ruthless killer who hates women and you are the female who put him behind bars for life. It could have been him standing in your chambers instead of me. Or someone he hired.”
She nodded, but was still not accepting reality. “My private guard is quite good. He used to be—”
“Let me guess. Secret Service? Tall dude in the navy suit, stationed in the lobby?”
“Nice guy,” I said. “He’s the one who helped me up after I fell, and handed me my attaché. Which, by the way, holds a package of what looks very much like plastic explosives along with a motion-activated timing device. It was never X-rayed.”
The judge sat down, stood up, paced, sat back down.
“See, Judge, if I was the bad guy and was worried about not being able to get away after shooting you, I’d blow you up instead.” I pointed to the case. “I could stash it beneath your chair one night and be slurping an icy margarita in Cancún by the time you sat down to read the day’s docket and activated the motion sensor.”
“Unlikely anyone besides you could get in here. Especially not that monster. Everyone’s on the lookout for him.”
I took a deep breath and studied the ceiling. It was a shade of drab beige.
“The man has money. Why chance getting caught when he can hire someone to kill you?”
A translucent tear slid down her cheek as she stared at the top of her desk. I’d finally gotten through to her. She knew that to him, it was all a game. There was no telling when, how, or where he would strike. If I could get to her so easily, so could someone else. And I’d been welcomed like a buyer on a car lot. They all but fawned over me.
After checking her appearance in a compact mirror, the judge called her private guard. Seconds later he entered her chambers and stood at attention while she cut into him. He launched into an explanation of how he was on the lookout for the escapee, not a female.
“And you were Secret Service?” I said.
His face colored.
I explained how I’d gotten in with a simple diversion, one of the oldest tricks in the book. The judge’s humbled daytime guard listened with half-shaded eyes as I rattled off a rundown of precautions they needed to implement. I relayed that, before I flew home, I would meet with Axis Security to discuss the judge’s overall protection plan, including her private residence in Columbia.
“Thank you, Jersey,” the judge said when her retired Secret Service fellow left the chambers. “I protected your cover when you were involved with busting that warden who was on the take, sure. But you really may have saved my ass today with your . . . ‘wake-up call,’ as you put it.”
“You put yourself in danger to keep my cover that night, Judge,” I countered. “You could have been killed, were I found out.”
Transitioning back to her normal tough demeanor, the judge dismissed my comment with a wave of her hand. “I’d do it again to help put that loser on the right side of the prison bars.”
I sat across the desk from Pete Hammons, owner of Axis Security. Axis was a small but prestigious security contractor that specialized in personal protection for high-profile clients, and they were the folks who provided the judge’s private bodyguards. After landing in Atlanta, I’d headed straight to his office, hoping we could get the meeting over with quickly. I wanted to catch a five o’clock return flight to Wilmington, North Carolina, to make my dinner date with Bill.
Pete and I made small talk until another man joined us. After introductions, I learned that he was Pete’s new man in charge of recruiting and training. He was ex-military and had an impressive pedigree. He was also the person who hand-selected the private guard who had ushered me through courthouse security.
“So as not to waste your time, gentlemen, I’ll make it short. Earlier today, I entered the judge’s private office with a .410 derringer, a handful of shells, and an attaché packed with what looks very much like plastic explosives and a detonation device.” I smiled at their reactions. “You can imagine the judge’s surprise when she came in to find me waiting on her.”
I laid a few Polaroid photos on his desk. One was a shot of me relaxing in the judge’s chair, aiming the gun; I’d used the camera’s timer. The second shot was of my attaché, opened and resting beneath her desk. Just to be cute, I’d written “BOOM!” on a Post-it note and stuck it to the base of her desk chair.
“Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch,” Pete said, shaking his head.
The other man paled but remained silent.
“How do you do it, Jersey? I’ll be a son of a bitch,” he repeated.
He did a mental fast-forward of what would happen were the judge to be murdered. The repercussions would be ugly. A few minutes passed before he slowly shook his head at me. I gave him my smug smile. After a successful security breach, I always felt a little cocky, like an athlete who had just completed a marathon in the front of the pack. Dinner with Bill later would be great, and the sex after that would be even better. I glanced at my watch. I had only half an hour before I needed to be back at the airport to make my Wilmington flight.
“The courthouse screeners need to be much better trained in hand-checking items like crutches and walking aids,” I told them. “For example, had they handled my set of crutches, they would have noticed that one was much heavier than the other. Also, they need to pay more attention to people in wheelchairs who don’t go through the tunnel.”
Just last month, my associate, Rita, posed as a disabled retiree in a wheelchair and wore a silver wig, old-age makeup, and a colostomy bag complete with a faint fecal odor. Since the chair’s frame would have set off the metal detector, she was pushed around it. She was asked to lean forward in the chair and after receiving a hasty scan with the handheld wand, a helpful guard escorted her right into the courtroom. Problem was, Rita had a Colt 9 millimeter tucked into the waistband of a girdle. It wasn’t loaded because the thought of ammunition that close to her reproductive parts made her nervous, but it very well could have been.
I explained to Pete how Rita got through last month and how I’d done it today. Axis’s head of recruiting and training melted into his chair. He studied something, invisible to me, on the carpeted office floor.
“They weren’t on the lookout for a grandmother in a wheelchair or a female reporter on crutches,” Pete’s associate finally said.
“Don’t you think an assassin might be a little sneaky?”
Pete sighed. “Don’t have to be a smart-ass.”
“Can’t help it,” I said. “Sarcasm runs in my family.”
He handed me a plain envelope. This job was a freebie, but I knew without looking that the envelope held a several-thousand-dollar check for a previous job. I almost regretted my decision to retire.
“I’ll FedEx the full report with recommendations to you tomorrow and, as always, yours is the only copy,” I told him. My clients always got the originals and I always got a paycheck. With the type of jobs I did, trust was priceless.
Pete studied me briefly then burst into laughter.
“It’s a good thing you’re straight, Jersey. I wouldn’t want you working for the enemy.”
“Actually, I won’t be working much for anyone anymore. Didn’t you get the word? I’m retiring.”
His head jerked as though I’d sucker punched him. “What?”
“You know, retiring. Not working anymore. I’m gonna tinker on my boat, maybe do some fishing, and spend more time with Bill. He keeps pestering me to settle down and marry him.”
“Retiring to get married? No way, not you, Jersey Barnes. You’re the only person I know who enjoys this business more than I do.”
“It’s true, Pete. The letter already went out to my clients. I want to travel and relax and live a normal life. Might even decide to adopt a kid and do the mom thing.”
“But . . .”
“My partner, Rita, is taking over for me, and she’ll bring someone else on board as soon as we find the right woman. I’ll still be around to put in a word or two when needed.”
I really didn’t plan to be around much at all but it sounded reassuring, especially to clients who hadn’t yet established a relationship with Rita. Besides, I would be available by telephone. Sometimes.
“Rita isn’t as good as you,” he complained.
“Yes, she is,” I said without hesitation.
“Ah, well,” Pete said, rebounding in the quick manner of a successful businessman. “Gotta do what you gotta do. But don’t rush into the marriage thing. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Copyright © 2007 by T. Lynn Ocean. All rights reserved.