Why is it so hard for Jersey Barnes to retire? When a state supreme judge calls in a favor, she tells herself (again) that this is her last case. She must investigate the judge's brother, Morgan, and his newly-inherited business. When Jersey realizes the DEA is checking on Morgan, too, she finds herself in the middle of a twentyyear- old mystery and a drug ring investigation. Still checking up on her geriatric father and his trouble-making friends, negotiating the steamy friendship/relationship with her bartender Ox, and dodging the flirtacious sparks flying back and forth with the cute DEA agent, Jersey begins to wonder if retirement is ever in her future. On the heels of the lauded Southern Poison, readers will welcome another hilarious, suspenseful, and sun-soaked adventure from the unforgettable Jersey Barnes.
About the Author
T. LYNN OCEAN is a shooting sports enthusiast and certified firearms safety instructor. When not vacuuming up pet hair, she loves to cook and pretends to be a photographer. She lives in Myrtle Beach, SC with her husband and a few furry critters.
A freelance writer for more than ten years, T. Lynn Ocean has published in magazines nationwide. When not vacuuming pet hair, she enjoys doing absolutely nothing anywhere with a terrific view, eating out, and shooting sporting clays. She is the author of the novels Fool Me Once, Sweet Home Carolina, and the Jersey Barnes mystery series. She lives in South Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
A Jersey Barnes Mystery
By T. Lynn Ocean
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 T. Lynn Ocean
All rights reserved.
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.CHAPTER 2
Morgan had the unique skin color that results from a bi-racial union, and he reminded me of a male version of Halle Berry. His eyes were the same brownish black as his sister's and, coupled with an angular face, gave him an alluring look. Were it not for the underlying distress and the too-thin build, he'd have been a real stunner. Definitely somebody I'd sneak a second look at, were I not completely enamored of Ox. We'd finally slept together, and it was hands-on, mind-blowing sex with the added benefit of friendship. But lovemaking with my best friend had altered the status quo. A few magical hours in bed had changed everything, and the jury was still out on whether or not it would be for the better. I mentally reprimanded myself for daydreaming. But then, getting Ox out of my head would be impossible. Not to mention that we co-owned the Block. And that I've always relied on his help with assignments.
The skin between Morgan's eyebrows folded into three vertical rows. "So you're friends with my sister. I get that. But what do you want from me?"
"The judge is worried about you, Morgan. She senses you're having a problem with something and thought that I might be able to help."
I drank some iced tea and looked around Argo's. The tea was freshly brewed and perfectly sweetened. The restaurant was closed and quiet. I imagined that it filled up very quickly each evening, as soon as the doors opened at five. The building overlooked Bradley Creek on Wilmington's north side and had a spectacular view through a wall of ten-foot-tall windows. To those who aren't familiar, the word creek might be misleading. Large vessels can navigate Bradley Creek. Just beyond the restaurant, a marina docked rows of private yachts, some in the neighborhood of seventy feet long.
Morgan's eyes darted to a corner table that was surrounded by glass on two sides. Sitting up two steps higher than the rest of the restaurant, it had its own level. A solid wall on the third side held a display of framed artwork and created a private sort of alcove for the occupants. "Well, anyway, I don't have a problem. I'm sure my sister intends well, but she's being paranoid. Even growing up, she was overly protective." He smiled for my benefit and forced out a laugh. "Typical big sister."
"No problems with the takeover of the restaurant, then?"
His eyes went back to the elevated corner table, and he seemed to be staring at the bright day outside. "As I said, no."
I pointed to the corner. "I'll bet that's the most popular table in the place."
His head jerked my way. "What about the table?"
I drank more tea, imagining that it would go well with the cashew-ginger fresh greens salad and a loaf of hot bread. And the broiled wild-caught Alaskan salmon served on a bed of dill mashed potatoes, garnished with white truffle slices. I'd seen both on the evening specials board when I'd first walked into the restaurant. Taste buds watering, I pointed to the far corner. "That table over there. I imagine that everybody wants that table when they make reservations. It has the best view and its own little room, sort of."
He forced another chuckle. "You're right. We call that the Green Table. Jonathan Green was a friend of my father's and his all-time favorite artist. Those two paintings you see are original oils. Worth a chunk of change, I'm told. The other three in the matching frames are signed lithographs."
"Bold and colorful." An art critic I'm not, but the portraits of women in big hats and children dancing emanated a delightful, genuine feel. Something a person could gaze at, on and off, for hours.
"Green is known for creating cross-cultural fine art." Morgan smiled and for an instant looked like an ordinary business owner with no worries. "Between the ornate kidney-shaped table, the artwork, and the view of the boats, it does make for a unique dining experience. Everybody asks for the Green Table, but we keep it on reserve for our more well-known patrons."
I tried to read the thoughts behind his near black irises. "Well, you certainly sound like a seasoned restaurateur, even though your past career was corporate accounting."
"Luckily, all the staff stayed on after Garland passed away. Even the servers. And I'm a quick learner. Basically, I keep the books and pay the invoices, which is accounting. And of course, I get out and greet arriving customers. Like Garland and Mom used to do. Piece of cake."
While the judge referred to their father as "Dad," Morgan preferred to use the elder man's first name, Garland, as though the two were acquaintances instead of family. Interesting. Although the judge had said that father and son were estranged before Garland died.
Somebody in the kitchen had begun prep work, and the smell of onion and spices made my stomach growl. "Do you get along well with your sister?"
Excerpted from Southern Peril by T. Lynn Ocean. Copyright © 2009 T. Lynn Ocean. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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