A Fine Balance

A Fine BalanceMy hero, Jack Morgan, is a former LAPD undercover detective: divorced, back home in Mendocino, and after saying no a dozen times to his friend, the local sheriff, has agreed to help him out–temporarily.

Jack is tall, dark, to-die-for handsome with blue, blue eyes and a hard-bodied maleness that melts female hearts and other susceptible body parts.

Right now, he’s busy with three different women in addition to his work schedule. Lucky the guy can multi-task.

All the best,


Reader Reviews:

“Jack is like Rafe but with an AK47 and a badge”

“The narrative is crisp and staccato. That is Susan’s trademark style. The book was a page turner from start to finish, all 450+ pages of it.”

“Very intense and intriguing story”


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Chapter 1

North Coast of California, Western Boundary of Prime Weed Country

September 14, 7:21 PM

Luis had lived with fear all his life. But this was different. If his brother didn’t come back tonight he’d be on his own. Totally.

He knew the drill by heart. Every step, every instruction etched in his brain. Jorges had seen to that.

If I’m not back by dark–take off.  You know where to go.  Cover your tracks like I taught you.  Then stay put til they stop looking.

Luis had been watching the setting sun slide into the ocean with growing apprehension, his gaze seesawing between the golden glow on the horizon and the dirt trail leading up to the pot field clinging to the mountainside. Please God, help me, he prayed although God had never done much for him. But he was desperate.

Then the last sliver of sun dropped beneath the waves.

It was time.

He came to his feet, picked up his backpack and after a final look at the campsite that had been home for the past six months, Luis Mata, age nine, walked to the small stream running down the mountainside and stepped into the water.

Chapter 2

At five-thirty in the morning the line of customers waiting for their caffeine fix at Moody’s ran out the door and down past the windows of the toy store. Most regular jobs were a two hour commute over the mountains to Santa Rosa. It was jacket weather. Foggy as hell. Driving Highway 128 was going to be an adventure today.

“I hear Ray’s back,” a voice in the crowd announced.

“Who said?”

“Barney. Wade flew him in from Oakland last night.”

The local airport consisted of one runway long enough for private planes to land and take off, although the take-off was dicey for small jets. The redwoods at the end of the strip scarred the shit out of those pilots.

“Anyone seen him?”

“Sherry was manning the phone at the airport. She said Ray was limping and he’d lost a lot of weight.”

A well-known black SUV with a hand-built engine pulled into a slot in front of the postage-sized coffee shop. Every head swiveled. As the driver’s door of the Porsche opened and the deputy sheriff stepped out, all eyes–including those of the two baristas looking out the window–were fixed on him. Jack Morgan didn’t look like a sheriff. He looked like everyone else if you discounted his size. An NFL star before a helmet took out his knee, his body still linebacker hard. All muscle, no fat. He wore jeans, a Save the Whales t-shirt, hiking boots, a blue fleece jacket with his badge in the pocket.  He only flashed it for the occasional difficult tourist.

“Don’t ask,” Jack said as he crossed the pavement, his surfer drawl matching his heavy-lidded gaze. “I haven’t seen him yet. I haven’t talked to him. And when I do, it’s none of your damn business anyway.”

Everyone smiled. They knew Jack. They knew he didn’t really mean his last remark. Or at least not very much.

“Sherry said Ray didn’t look so good when he got off the plane.”

Jack shrugged. “Three weeks in a Bangkok jail. Who would?”

“Glad he’s out anyway.”

“Amen to that.” Leaning down, Jack picked up a New York Times from the rack outside the door. “What’s the scone this morning?” he asked, signaling an end to the topic.Acknowledging the answer with a dip of his head, he walked to the end of the line and began reading the paper.

The conversation swirled around Jack as he scanned the headlines. Everyone knew everyone in the town of eight hundred; although the population exploded on week-ends, holidays and during summer vacation. The entire town was a national trust, the Victorian architecture carefully maintained. Like a time warp movie set only real. And upscale. Five star restaurants with thirty page wine lists that read like novels, art galleries by the dozen, a large independent bookstore, gift shops that sold anything from t-shirts to fine jewelry, a noted regional theater, even an opera company. You couldn’t spit without hitting a B&B.

By the time the latest high school soccer and football games had been discussed as well as the gossip concerning another tourist who’d been rescued by the volunteer fire department after drifting too far out to sea in his rented kayak, Jack was at the counter and his eye-opener–a triple espresso over an inch of ice–was waiting for him.

He smiled at Hannah Ewing. Her blonde curls were frizzed from the steam of two coffee machines going full out. “Add two scones and the paper.”

“I’m glad he’s back,” she softly said, shoving two olallieberry scones in a bag and ringing up the purchase. “Tell Ray ‘Hi’ when you see him.”

“Thanks. I will.”  Jack handed her a bill.  “Stop by in a week or so.” His brother, Wade, had filled him in this morning on their younger sibling’s health. “Ray should be in better shape by then.”  Hannah was a family friend. She was also one of Ray’s special friends–the list was long. Although all the brothers were babe magnets; tall, dark, to-die-for handsome with blue, blue eyes and a charismatic maleness that melted female hearts and other susceptible body parts.

Taking the change, Jack dropped a five in the tip jar, smiled again and made his way past the line crowding the narrow doorway with a few nods and good-mornings and a couple shakes of his head when he was asked about his wayward brother.

Then he drove through town to the Headlands, parked in the lot at the ocean’s edge, turned up the radio, drank his espresso and watched the sun begin to shine through the haze. He liked to start his day here.  His form of meditation he supposed. Not that he actually believed in meditation. But even if he hadn’t been a cynic, the business he was in nullified presumptions of spiritual fulfillment.

Leaning his head back, he quietly exhaled.  God damn it was a beautiful morning. A thin line of pink on the horizon was visible below the lifting fog, fresh air off the ocean drifted in through his open window, waves softly crashed against the rocky shore.

That Ray was back safe was an added bonus.

Although he’d told him not to go. He’d told him he could be killed doing what he was doing for the people he was doing it for. Stupid idiot. Leaning over, Jack cranked up the volume on the radio. The drum solo in The Who’s Won’t get Fooled Again was kick-ass. And afterward, while the local station played five more fantastic songs in a row as if karma really existed, Jack ate the two scones, allowed the caffeine to mainline into his blood steam and surveyed the news of the day.

When his phone rang, he glanced at the caller ID, dropped the paper, drained the rest of his coffee in one gulp and answered, “Where?”  The sheriff didn’t call at this hour of the morning for the hell of it.

“On the dump road. Just outside the gates.”

He’d already fired up the engine and was backing away from the ocean. “I’ll be there in ten.” They always kept their conversations short. There were too many techies and busybodies out here; the air waves weren’t secure. Swinging the SUV onto the strip of asphalt bordering the ocean bluffs, he punched the accelerator. High octane fuel sprayed from over-sized fuel injectors, compressed air spooled through twin turbos, the mix poured into the manifold, slammed dished pistons through bored out cylinders and 2.8 seconds later the speedometer was at sixty and spiking.

Morrie was already there when Jack pulled up, along with the forensic team such as it was in a county with budget issues and job furloughs.

As he broke through the fog and approached the crime scene, Jack drew in a small breath. Jesus. Morrie should have said On the gates. The poor bastard had been wired to the seven foot high cyclone fencing with barbed wire. A human crucifix with an oily rag stuffed in his mouth and a computer printed message staple-gunned to his chest. AMERICA FOR AMERICANS! A bloody crown of thorns nailed the guy’s head to the gate. The eyes were wide, not flattened yet, the blankness of death chilling, the utter finality always like a punch in the gut. The throat had been savagely ripped from ear to ear. Not a precision cut, an assault fueled by rage. The Oakland A’s T-shirt and psycho print-out were soaked with blood, the dark stains trailing down the jean-clad legs. The body was still warm he guessed from the color of the man’s skin.

Morrie and Nibs, one of the other deputies, turned when Jack strode up. Bits of vomit spattered Nibs’ beard. He always barfed. He was in the wrong business. Jack nodded at the dead man. “Who found him so early in the morning?”  The road was still swirling with fog, shadowed, the sun not yet risen above the tops of the scrub knob cone pine.

Morrie jerked his head toward Carl Wilson who lived on the dump road. He was telling his story to Jeannie the dispatcher who was getting a video of the conversation with her cell phone. “Carl’s dog was barking so loud he came out to investigate.”

Jack jabbed a finger at the blood stained message. “Think that’s for real or bogus?  The Mexican gangs usually bury their kill in the woods.”

Morrie shrugged. “Who knows. We got red necks here too.  Could be a different kind of crazy this time.”  He sighed. “Or someone’s idea of clever.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any ID.”

“Course not. The victim won’t be in the fingerprint data base either. He’s just another poor farm hand brought up from Mexico to mind the crop. Either the color of his skin pissed off someone or he got caught in the crossfire. I hate this time of year.”

Harvest time always swelled the murder rate. Rival gangs hijacked each other’s crops. It saved a lot of work if you didn’t mind dying. “So, what’d you think?” Jack said. “Should I go up into the hills? See if I can find anyone who might have known this guy?”  The Mexicans would hide but he knew more than they did about where to hide. He also was fluent in Spanish, unlike the others in the sheriff’s department.

“Let’s wait a day or so in case anyone comes in to claim him.”

“Claim him? Jesus, Morrie. What’re you smokin’?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” The sheriff exhaled a long-suffering sigh pungent with coffee. “But the DEA helicopters are so fucking busy flying back and forth, everyone’s gone to ground anyway. We might as well wait a day or so. He ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Morrie looked tired, but then he always looked tired. He was pushing sixty-five, overweight, over-caffeinated and predictably–an insomniac. He liked to talk about why he didn’t sleep. Everyone always began inching away from him when he did. But he ran a Live and Let Live department, was decent to everyone, innocent and guilty alike, and had been for thirty years.  Those who didn’t know him claimed he ran his county in a semi-coma, but the truth was he could pull rank like a five star general if he had to.

“Want me to go up in a couple days then? I could check things out at night when the DEA dick heads aren’t flying.”  There was no love lost between the feds and local law enforcement.

“Yeah. Do that.  See if anyone should be notified–family, friends, girl-friends.  He’s practically a kid–twenty at the most.  Damn, I hate this crap.” Morrie had run a nice quiet county for years. If people kept to the unspoken rules, he didn’t mess with them.  “It makes you wanna bring out the big artillery for these scum bags.”

A good idea on so many levels. “We could,” Jack murmured.

“If only,” Morrie said with another sigh. “Don’t get any ideas. We do that and we’ll be clusterfucked by the feds. They’ll claim this murder’s initiated over state lines–which it probably is–and we’ll lose local jurisdiction. They’ll park their asses in my office on my chairs, stir up trouble and act like their usual asshole-selves. No, this is our party. We’re keeping it to ourselves.  End of story.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”  Morrie’s dislike of the feds went way back. Years ago some overzealous Bureau suit took issue with Morrie’s laissez faire attitude to the local weed culture and tried to have him indicted for aiding and abetting drug trafficking. The charge had gone nowhere because Morrie had friends where you needed friends–starting with the state attorney general and going up the judicial chain to judges on the Ninth Circuit. Those guys knew that Morrie always settled matters his own way, never took money and in general saved their jurisdictions a helluva lot of time and court costs.

As for Morrie’s view of the forty-years-and-counting War on Drugs, he consigned it to the pain-in-the-ass category. He also considered it an affront to the intelligence of anyone who could add up the billions spent for failure. And when it came to the DEA cowboys who occasionally tried to tell him how to run his county, his favorite reply was–Blow me.

“Let’s go for breakfast,” Morrie muttered, bent out of shape like he always was when talk of the feds came up. “We’re done here. The crew can bring in the body.”

“Give me a minute.”  Jack moved closer to the dead man, slowly scanned the body from head to toe, squatting at the last to take a closer look at the unshod right foot.  He glanced at the Nike that lay on its side a good three feet away, then returned his gaze to the bare foot. Had the shoe come off in the struggle? Had it been kicked off deliberately? The laces were still tied. It sure as hell hadn’t fallen off…

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