It might never happen. My early retirement that keeps evading me like a crisp dollar bill in a windy parking lot.
I retired from SWEET after I lost my feeling of invincibility and realized the next bullet speeding my way at five hundred meters per second might manage to hit its intended target. SWEET is the government agency that plucked me from MP duty when I was a young marine, eager to help further their mission of thwarting terrorism. That’s not the real name, of course. Just an acronym the field agents like to use, which stands for Special Worldwide Unit for Entertaining and Exterminating Terrorists. It might sound strange, but part of my job as an undercover agent was to entertain the bad guys—even though the bosses called it infiltration. That’s why my handler signed Uncle Sam’s name to pay the tab for a few cosmetic enhancements, including a breast enlargement. Of course, I got to keep my round size D’s when I left the government, and I’ve grown quite fond of them. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had a chance to show them off in retirement, even though I bought fabulous new clothes without concern about concealing my .45-caliber handgun or my cleavage. Especially the cleavage.
I have been having something near panic attacks at the concept of leaving home without a weapon strapped to my body. Other retirees downsize homes. I could always downsize handguns, from the .45 to my new 9mm. A Ruger SR9, it’s slim and sexy and has a mag capacity of seventeen rounds. A lot of people, especially men, think they have to go for the largest-caliber weapon they can accurately handle. But Hydra-Shok ammo has stopping power at any caliber. Staring at the judge who’d come to meet me for lunch, I decided that the Ruger would be perfect for conceal carry in retirement. That mental hurdle crossed, I wondered exactly what it was that my judge friend wanted me to do. She knew I’d quit working. Or was trying to, anyway.
My most recent exodus was from my personal security business, the Barnes Agency, many of whose jobs are contracted by the government. Fortunately, my partners, Rita and JJ, have proved quite capable of handling things without me. I’d done okay with the government, and the small security agency is my retirement nest egg. Best of all, I am alive and have all my body parts—plus a few. I deserved to call it quits. Play on my boat. Take up golf or tennis. Do some traveling without carrying a dossier on a bad guy. Get a tan and slurp frozen banana drinks with a blissfully blank and worry-free mind-set.
The judge and I were perched on bar stools at the Block, staring at the Cape Fear River through a wide-open industrial-size garage door. At first, I thought she simply wanted to enjoy lunch with me. Laugh about old times and catch up on current news. Boy, was I wrong. She wanted a favor.
I tilted my head back and drank a third of my beer with two swallows. "You do know that I’m retired, right, Judge? There was a party with a cake and everything. Champagne toasts. Lots of witnesses. I’m pretty sure you got an invitation." The Block is a restaurant and pub situated smack dab in the middle of downtown Wilmington, right on the bank of the river. I bought the historic building when I first moved to North Carolina, and the upstairs apartment is where I live. My best friend, Ox, is co-owner and manager of the bar, but like the Barnes Agency, it pretty much runs itself. Every once in a while, it even surprises us by showing a small profit.
The judge laughed, deep and throaty. "The day Jersey Barnes retires will be the day hell freezes over."
Hauling building supplies, a flatbed barge glided by on the glistening strip of water outside. "Why does everybody keep saying that?"
A streak of sunlight moved across her cheek, casting a golden glow on cocoa-colored skin. She smiled. "Sometimes the truth is obvious to everybody except the one closest to it."
I took another swig of beer, reminding myself to sip instead of chug. I’m trying to cut down. "What’s so wrong with wanting to relax and enjoy life?"
"You’re too young and too good at what you do to retire." She bit a hush puppy in half and spread butter on the remaining piece. "Besides, you owe me a favor."
"I thought you owed me a favor, after I broke into your private chambers to give you a wake-up call."
She nodded, brown black eyes blinking in slow motion. "You’ll be happy to know the monster who was after me is back behind bars, where he’ll stay for life."
"That’s good to hear." Cracker ambled up to nuzzle my ankles. A solid white and very spoiled Labrador retriever, he wanted a dry-roasted peanut. I shelled one and gave him the two encapsulated morsels one at a time. He took them softly by sticking out the tip of his tongue.
"That favor made us even, to keep the record straight," the judge said.
"Great, then I don’t owe you. My retirement is intact." I shot her my government-learned bimbette look and stuck out my chest. "I can go hit an all-inclusive club in Cancún and see what transpires when I stuff these babies into a coconut-shell bikini top." One of my weaknesses is designer lingerie. I’m hooked on the stuff and like to wear it beneath everything—even frayed blue jeans and T-shirts. But I’ve never owned a coconut-shell bikini top. It could be fun.
The judge smiled, but her tone was serious. "This is my family, Jersey. I don’t know who else to turn to. Besides, you help me out with this, I’ll owe you a favor. Never know when you might need a state supreme court judge on the other end of that speed dial."
Even though she lives in South Carolina and I live in North Carolina, she was right. State supreme court judges have a lot of clout, regardless of where they oversee justice. I finished my Amstel Light, deciding it’s impossible to sip beer. Stupid idea. I’ve never mastered the art of sipping anything. "Okay, Judge. I’ll do what I can. Lay it on me."
She petted Cracker’s snout, and he instantly angled his wide head so the judge’s hand was rubbing his neck. "Morgan is seven years younger than me. My only brother."
I motioned the bartender with my empty bottle and she replaced it with a fresh, frost-covered one. "Any sisters?"
The judge shook her head. "Just me and Morgan. We used to be really tight, when he lived in Columbia. We were twenty minutes apart and got together every week for dinner. When he moved to Dallas, Texas, for a better job, we stayed in touch by e-mail and Christmas cards."
"My father recently passed away. In the will, he left Argo’s to Morgan. I thought Morgan would sell the business, but instead he moved here, to Wilmington, to run it."
I studied the judge. "The restaurant Argo’s?"
"The legendary Chef Garland was your father? If I had known that, I would have stopped by once in a while to say hello. And score a free appetizer or two." Argo’s patron list is notorious. It’s where all the beautiful people go to mingle with visiting celebs and Wilmington’s elite. The last time Ox and I ate there was two years ago, to celebrate our lieutenant friend Dirk’s promotion with the Wilmington Police Department. I enjoy rubbing elbows with the town’s glitterati just as much as the next person, but a fifty-dollar plate of seafood and eight-dollar bottled beers make my wallet cringe, even if they are served on square china plates with red cloth napkins.
"I thought it was common knowledge that Dad owned Argo’s. Of course, he had a head chef, so mostly he schmoozed the customers." The judge ate another hush puppy. "Anyway, he and Morgan never did have a traditional father-son relationship. Dad always expected Morgan to do better, and Morgan thought he could never do anything right in Dad’s eyes. They used to fight all the time, and eventually they quit talking."
I never had a traditional relationship with my father, either. He walked out of my life when I was still wearing pigtails and didn’t reenter it until six years ago, when he appeared on my doorstep like a stray cat. Spud now occupies the efficiency apartment next to my place above the Block. Our kitchens are connected by French doors that always remain open. I think we put up with each other out of curiosity. Someday I might ask why he disappeared, way back then. For now, it’s not so important.
"What did Morgan do in Dallas?"
"Corporate accounting. Which is why it seems crazy to me that he’s going to keep the restaurant. He has zero food service experience Although it’s been two months since Dad died, and so far, Argo’s still has a wait list every night. I guess that’s something."
"The head chef stayed on?"
"That’s a good thing, then. Sounds like Morgan wanted a career change and maybe the opportunity to do right by your father, so to speak," I reasoned. "What’s the problem?"
She frowned. "I flew in a few days ago to surprise Morgan. He’s not himself. He’s lost weight and he’s constantly fidgeting, like he’s worried about something. You ride in a car with him and he keeps looking in the rearview, like he’s checking to see if he’s being followed. And somebody broke into his place last week."
"What was stolen?"
"He said they took cash and a few things from the dresser. His town house was trashed. I saw it. Busted furniture, bathroom mirror shattered, TV screen smashed in."
"Sounds like somebody wanted to scare him. Or else they were searching for something. Maybe both."
"That’s what I said. But Morgan swears it was common burglars who got mad when they didn’t find valuables."
"Hmmmn." Run-of-the-mill thieves looking to steal collectibles or jewelry or money wouldn’t risk the noise. They’d simply get out and move on to their next target. "Anything else unusual happen with your brother lately?"
The judge frowned. "I’m not sure, Jersey. I just know that something bad is going on. Before Morgan moved to Wilmington, he was fine. He’s always been extremely shy. Introverted. But he’s never been like this. He won’t admit it, but he’s scared of something. Really scared. I’m wondering if it has something to do with Argo’s."
"Why do you say that?"
She frowned. "He was fine in Texas. Calm, stable, his normal self. The problems started after he moved here. And Argo’s is his only tie to Wilmington."
I felt bad for the judge and her predicament but didn’t see where my happily retired self fit into the equation. "What is it you want me to do?"
Her eyes locked on mine. "Fish around until you find out what’s going on."
I thought about telling her to hire a private investigator. I know a few good ones.
Something powerful and discerning wrapped around me as the judge awaited the answer she wanted to hear. I’d hate to be the person on the other end of that same gaze in a courtroom.
"It will require a background check on your brother," I told her. "A magnified look into his personal life, hobbies, finances, relationships. If he’s involved with something illegal, I’ll find out about it." Which would present a dilemma. The judge had taken an oath to uphold the law, and her family members weren’t exempt.
"Morgan is a good person."
"Good people often make bad choices."
She gave my hand an impromptu squeeze, and again, I felt the commanding energy that radiated from her. "You find out what’s going on. I’ll figure out a way to play the hand that’s dealt, regardless of the cards you turn up."
I hoped, for the judge’s sake, that there would be a simple explanation for Morgan’s odd behavior, even though logic told me otherwise. The judge is a very intuitive woman.
Excerpted from Southern Peril by T. Lynn Ocean.
Copyright 2009 by T. Lynn Ocean.
Published in July 2009 by Minotaur Books.
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.