Billionaire Blend (A Coffeehouse Mystery)

BOOK: Billionaire Blend (A Coffeehouse Mystery)
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Berkley Prime Crime titles by Cleo Coyle

Coffeehouse Mysteries

ON WHAT GROUNDS

THROUGH THE GRINDER

LATTE TROUBLE

MURDER MOST FROTHY

DECAFFEINATED CORPSE

FRENCH PRESSED

ESPRESSO SHOT

HOLIDAY GRIND

ROAST MORTEM

MURDER BY MOCHA

A BREW TO A KILL

HOLIDAY BUZZ

BILLIONAIRE BLEND

Haunted Bookshop Mysteries

writing as Alice Kimberly

THE GHOST AND MRS. MCCLURE

THE GHOST AND THE DEAD DEB

THE GHOST AND THE DEAD MAN’S LIBRARY

THE GHOST AND THE FEMME FATALE

THE GHOST AND THE HAUNTED MANSION

BILLIONAIRE BLEND

CLEO COYLE

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.

Copyright © 2013 by Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

BERKLEY
®
PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks

of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

A COFFEEHOUSE MYSTERY is a registered trademark

of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62587-3
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Coyle, Cleo.

Billionaire blend / Cleo Coyle.

pages cm.—(A coffeehouse mystery ; 12)

ISBN 978-0-425-25291-8 (hardback)

1. Cosi, Clare (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Coffeehouses—Fiction.

3. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. 4. Mystery fiction I. Title.

PS3603.O94B57 2013

813'.6—dc23

2013032871

FIRST EDITION:
December 2013

Cover illustration by Cathy Gendron.

Cover design and logo by Rita Frangie.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

Version_1

Contents

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Cleo Coyle

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

 

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

Twenty-two

Twenty-three

Twenty-four

Twenty-five

Twenty-six

Twenty-seven

Twenty-eight

Twenty-nine

Thirty

Thirty-one

Thirty-two

Thirty-three

Thirty-four

Thirty-five

Thirty-six

Thirty-seven

Thirty-eight

Thirty-nine

Forty

Forty-one

Forty-two

Forty-three

Forty-four

Forty-five

Forty-six

Forty-seven

Forty-eight

Forty-nine

Fifty

Fifty-one

Fifty-two

Fifty-three

Fifty-four

Fifty-five

Fifty-six

Fifty-seven

Fifty-eight

Fifty-nine

Sixty

Sixty-one

Sixty-two

Sixty-three

Sixty-four

Sixty-five

Sixty-six

Sixty-seven

Sixty-eight

Sixty-nine

Seventy

Seventy-one

Seventy-two

Epilogue

 

Poem

Recipes

 

To Antonio A. Alfonsi—

A daughter may outgrow your lap, but she will never outgrow your heart. I love you, Dad. Rest now, and I will see you again.

Money often costs too much.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

P
rologue

Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?

—ALBERT CAMUS

“A
BOUT
time!”

The words were not spoken, they were screeched. Bianca Hyde’s shrill echo traveled down the quiet hallway of the Beverly Palms Hotel in an octave seldom heard outside of nursery school playgrounds or tween soccer matches.

Another potential scene,
thought the Visitor
. How charming.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, Bianca’s puce lipstick was smeared, her platinum hair sleep-mussed, her designer halter stained and wrinkled. Clearly, she’d been drinking (again) . . .

“So come in already!” Wheeling backward, Bianca released the self-closing door.

The Visitor lurched to catch the edge and wedge it back open. The slab of northwest maple was heavy and thick.
Thick enough to absorb a scream?
The Visitor began to wonder . . .

Inside the posh space, words were exchanged, bottles shoved over, caffeine ordered and delivered. Only after the room service waitress had come and gone did the real conversation begin—

“You’re making things far too complicated,” the Visitor argued. “The solution is simple: Occam’s Razor.”

“You want me to shave?”

“Occam’s Razor is a scientific rule of thumb, a heuristic.”

“A what?”

“Just go to rehab, Binky. All things being equal, it’s the only way to repair this relationship. If you fix what’s broken, all will be well . . .”

But Bianca didn’t agree. She wanted her freedom. And she wanted more money; lots more. The demands came after the whining and cajoling; then tears dried up and demands became threats.

“I’ll ruin you!” she promised. “I have the proof; you know it. I can ruin you for good!”

“Then you’ll ruin us both . . .”

The Visitor’s tone remained reasonable, but Ms. Hyde never had much use for reason. Despite her refined surroundings, the spoiled little plaything had cultivated a savage soul.

When her own threats were returned in kind, she lunged for a bottle. Not a room service baby but its grown-up sister. Strangling the neck, she swung it like a club.

The Visitor dodged the blow, simultaneously shoving and tripping the girl, perhaps a tad too violently.

On the way down, Bianca met the coffee table—or rather, her forehead did. The flow of red stained everything—the white blond hair and porcelain skin; the perfect breasts in the halter top; the cream-colored carpet; even the long-stemmed Blue Velvets, once stunning and rare, now a spilled tangle of petals among thorns . . .

The Visitor had become a slayer. For a moment, sheer panic set in. The impulse to dial 911. Then Occam’s Razor came sharply to mind. All things being equal, the coffee table had done what the coffee could not—

Shut her up.

Risks were considered, of course, loose ends and evidence. The Slayer could handle these. This mess could be tidied quickly, a new strategy devised, and in a few short hours, all would be well, for the best solution to this problem was to leave it exactly where it fell.

O
ne

As long as there was coffee in the world, how bad could things be?

—JUDITH RUMELT

“G
UESS
where I am? You can’t imagine . . .”

Pressing the phone to my ear, I waited for Mike Quinn’s gravelly voice to ride a cellular wave up the Eastern Seaboard.

“Given the choice,” he said, “I’d rather imagine . . .”

That shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, Michael Ryan Francis Quinn was a decorated narcotics detective, and if there was one thing the NYPD looked for when recruiting from their uniformed force, it was imagination—that and “inquisitiveness, insight, and an eye for detail.” (According to Quinn, the New York brass referred to these as “the four
I
’s,” although I had pointed out the last one started with an
E
.)

For the past six months, Quinn had been working in Washington, DC, where a U.S. Attorney had drafted him for a special assignment. He wasn’t permitted to tell me much about his Justice Department job, although I did deduce his Federal Triangle desk phone had caller ID because he always answered my rings with a husky hello reserved only for me.

Just the sound of his voice relieved the tension I’d been feeling about the night ahead. Of course, I didn’t have a clue what was
really
ahead. If I had, I might have gone straight home and pulled the covers over my eyes.

In a short space of time, I’d be bribing a Bomb Squad lieutenant, cracking a mathematician’s seventeen-digit password, and conjuring culinary ideas for a billionaires’ potluck. That I could handle. But battling a giant octopus; raiding a forbidden coffee plantation; defusing a nitro-packed knapsack; stopping a Slayer (while working with one); and fixing my daughter’s love life? I think even 007 would have flinched.

At this point in my story, however, my life was manageable, even pretty nice. I was sitting on hand-rubbed leather in a private limo, and a good cop was purring in my ear.

“Let’s see now . . .” Quinn continued. “I’m imagining you in your duplex above the coffeehouse. You just stepped out of the shower, and I’m holding your robe. I’ve got a nice blaze going in the bedroom, the champagne’s poured, and I’m about to—”

“Mike!”

“Yes?”

I glanced at the glass partition separating me from the male chauffeur. It wasn’t raised all the way.

Okay, phone sex in front of an audience (even an audience of one) might have been acceptable for your average world-weary urbanite—and, yes, after living in the Big, Bad Apple for years, I was weary enough for any middle-aged single mom. But I was still my nonna’s granddaughter. (Not that my dear daughter would agree. I could just hear her now: “That’s why my generation does
sexting
, Mom! Type it out and it’s totally private!”
Right, honey.
And nobody shares stored data in cyberspace.
)

“I’m not at home,” I explained to Quinn. “I’m on my way to dinner. You’ll never guess where—”

“You better just tell me, Clare. I have a conference call in twenty.”

The “boyfriend voice” was gone, the warmth chilling into a tone I knew far too well—stoic, emotionless cop.

I should have replied with something generally reassuring, like:
“I miss you”
(which I did);
“I wish you were here”
(ditto); or even . . .
“On your next visit, I’m baking you up a Triple-Chocolate Italian Cheesecake like the one you inhaled on New Year’s Eve”
(which I planned to).

But I didn’t say any of those things. My excitement level was so high that I simply blurted the news—

“I’m riding in a chauffeured limo, on my way to dinner at the Source Club!”

The silence stretched on so long I was sure our connection was lost.

“Mike?”

“You’re pulling my leg.”

“I’m not pulling anything.”

I couldn’t blame the man for doubting my words. Even I had trouble believing it. The Source Club was one of the most elite enclaves in Manhattan. With my anemic bank account, I was lucky to get into Sam’s Club, let alone a zillionaires’ club.

“So what’s the story? Did your former motherin-law give up and sell the Village Blend to a national chain?”

“Bite your tongue.”

“You inherited a fortune from a lost relative?” He grunted. “Maybe I’d better get you to the altar already—in handcuffs, if necessary.”

“It’s nothing like that, and I’d rather you kept those handcuffs on your belt, if you don’t mind. The last time you used them on me, I needed an ice pack.”

“Are you fishing for another apology, or another bunch of flowers?”

“Neither . . . although I did love the daffodils and white tulips.”

“I’m glad,” he said. And I was, too, because the warm tone was back, and on that blustery evening in late January, I needed all the warmth I could get.

Outside, frosty flurries were beginning to fall, and the inviting lights of my coffeehouse were no longer in sight; neither were the cozy pubs and intimate bistros of Greenwich Village. The golden glow of the historic district had been replaced with the silver glare of downtown skyscrapers.

“You would love the limo he sent for me, Mike. It’s an antique Rolls-Royce—or is it a Bentley?”

“A Bentley
is
a Rolls, and who is he?”

“It’s so British, like something the late Princess Diana would have ridden around in, but he’s modernized the inside with all these gadgets—”

“I repeat, who is
he
? And how did you end up in his limousine?”

“That’s kind of a long story.”

“Give me the short version.”

“You know part of it already. Remember that poor guy I helped out the other day?”

“The billionaire? I wouldn’t call him poor, Clare.”

“You know what I mean. This special dinner is his way of saying thanks.”

Suddenly I was listening to a whole new dead zone. The cellular waves kept rolling up from DC, but Quinn’s voice wasn’t riding them.

“Maybe you’d better give me the long version,” he finally said. “And start at the beginning.”

“I thought you had a conference call in twenty?”

“The Los Angeles District Attorney can wait.”

Uh-oh.
“It’s completely innocent, Mike. Why do you think I’m telling you?”

“Go on.”

“You remember, don’t you? This all started with a coffee drink order.”

“A coffee drink order?”

“Actually, more like two dozen coffee drink orders . . .”

T
wo

“H
E’S
early . . .”

With my crack-of-dawn shift over, I was about to head upstairs for a long, hot (hopefully) rejuvenating shower when Esther Best sounded her alarm—

“Like the aftertaste from a bad sidewalk hot dog, I knew he’d come back!”

“He” was the eccentric customer I’d been hearing about for going on two weeks now, and this was my first chance to see him in action.

Like clockwork, the man came in every afternoon and proceeded to drill my baristas on the prep steps of some obscure coffee drink. It’s no wonder they’d labeled him the “Quiz Master.”

With the coffeehouse still packed from the lunchtime crush, Esther pointed him out in our long line. At first glance, I was surprised by his appearance. Given the accounts of his perplexing behavior, I was expecting a middle-aged malcontent with Einstein hair and a shopping bag. Not so.

Nearly as tall as Quinn, the “Quiz Master” had boyishly handsome features complete with dimpled chin, yet his expression looked determined and mature, and he carried himself like my police detective boyfriend, with confident authority.

His age was closer to thirty than twenty, so I doubted that he was an undergrad. With the intelligent look about his gaze (cold-fused to his smartphone like most of my customers his age and younger), he could have been a Ph.D. candidate, except Esther didn’t recognize him from campus.

His physique appeared quite solid, not street-tough pumped, but the kind of athletic body that came with a personal trainer—well-developed swimmer’s shoulders, trim waist, and a lean pair of hips clad in what appeared to be artfully faded designer denims.

He wore a common Yankees baseball cap slouched over surfer-shaggy golden locks, his bangs pushed to one side. But his shearling-collared bomber was far from common—I’d bet real money the jacket’s gorgeously distressed leather was stitched together in Florence.

Finally, this guy’s skin had a healthy, sun-kissed glow while most New Yorkers—from subway-trekking office workers to academics toiling in cramped college cubicles—displayed complexions with less color than the walking dead, especially in the dead of winter.

Add it all up and the sum spelled
rat
.

“Calm down,” I told my staff, who were already buzzing about the man’s approach. “Handle him just as you would any other difficult customer.”

“You don’t plan to wait on him?” Esther asked, her tone almost pleading.

“I plan to
watch
him.”

Over the last six months, two major West Coast coffee chains had tried to reverse the Gold Rush by coming East to dig for consumer treasure. One of their major hurdles had been finding well-trained baristas.

This “dude” had California written all over him. Combine that with the “coffee quiz” act he’d been performing going on two weeks now, and his intentions seemed clear: he was coming here to evaluate and poach my employees.

Well, I wasn’t going to stand for it, and the way I was going to accomplish that (whether Esther understood or not) was to
sit
.

Gritting my teeth, I grabbed a newly vacated stool at my own crowded espresso bar. With a sound between a huff and a grunt, Esther pushed up her black-framed glasses and set a freshly pulled espresso in front of me before her ample hips carried her off again.

“What’s bugging Esther?” the man beside me asked.

When I failed to reply, Matteo Allegro’s long thumbs paused over his smartphone. His espresso dark eyes studied me from under a head of bushy, black hair.

“Okay,” he said, “forget Esther. What’s bugging
you
?”

“Me?”

“You’ve got that stressed look again.”

Matt was my partner in this coffee business (and former partner in the business of marriage). His great-grandfather had started this century-old concern, and over the past few years he and I had found a way to make our “new normal” work—i.e., our divorce, his remarriage, and my move from Jersey back to Manhattan to manage the family business again, this time for a piece of the equity.

No matter our past difficulties, I couldn’t deny that my ex-husband was one of the most accomplished coffee hunters in the trade, and this shop was lucky to have him as its buyer.

Last night, he’d arrived from a sourcing trip looking like the subject of a documentary on South American refugees, yet he’d spent the better part of this morning using state-of-the-art software to move thousands of pounds of green coffee beans to clients around the planet.

But then Matteo Allegro always had been a collection of contrasts, and today was no exception. Stubbly and unshaven in his natty New York style, he displayed a deep, East African tan all winter. Between his hands, he worked a top-of-the-line communications device, while around his neck the open collar of his Egyptian cotton shirt revealed a worn leather cord with a tiny charm vial from the Ayacucho region of Peru. The overall effect was an undeniably attractive cross between a counterculture hipster and an Ivy League anthropology professor (who’d gone slightly native).

“Are you really interested in why I’m upset?” I asked him. “Or is this your way of changing the subject?”

(And, yes, I admit, I was the one now changing the subject, primarily to prevent Matt’s typically hot head from causing a scene. If he knew what this golden-haired poacher was up to, he’d lose it. And with all the cell phone cameras in this place, I could just imagine the Facebook fallout: “Rumble in the Village! Coffee Hunter Takes Swing at West Coast Customer!”)

Matt’s brow wrinkled. “What are we talking about? Not all that DIY stuff you brought up this morning?”

“More like all the
major
repairs
I brought up this morning . . .”

The wiring on the second floor was going glitchy, the building’s wood-plank floor and brick exterior needed repairs, our espresso machine was becoming a nightmare to calibrate, and my roaster’s exhaust system was begging for an overhaul.

“Given our landmark status, this is much more than a ‘do-it-yourself’ project,” I said. “I wish it could be fixed by magic, but it can’t, and I don’t want to see you treat this place like you did our marriage.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Worthwhile things require
maintenance
.”

“I told you, Clare, I’m overextended. Until my international clients pay up on this quarter’s shipments, the cupboard is bare; and are we forgetting the major hit I took with the hurricane damage to my Red Hook warehouse?”

“Excuses won’t fix a leaky roof. How about a short-term loan?”

“Don’t you have a credit line at the bank?”

“That line is in place to support the shop’s cash flow for stock and payroll. There’s not enough for capital improvements.”

“My mother’s still the owner. Talk to her.”

“I did . . .”

Unfortunately, Matt’s elegant mother was on a fixed income. Oh, sure, the annuity she collected, courtesy of her late second husband, was generous, but her real assets were tied up in property, and she wasn’t about to sell the Fifth Avenue penthouse she’d inherited or the artworks she’d collected over a lifetime of running this café—and I wouldn’t let her, anyway. Cashing those works in for maintenance was akin to selling your baby’s bronzed booties to get your toilet fixed.

A small-business loan seemed logical, but the bank officer suggested a mortgage instead, using this landmark town house as collateral.

Madame’s response was a visible shudder.

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be, dear, and do you know why? Because in borrowing, you give the lender power to control you. The Village Blend is my life’s legacy. I am resolved to bequeath it to you and Matteo, just as you both are resolved to leave it to your lovely daughter—my dear granddaughter. One does not cart a precious family heirloom to the pawn shop!”

“I tried talking sense into her,” I assured Matt. “I told her that she was being overly cautious, but you know her history . . .”

He grunted. (Matt-speak for:
You don’t have to tell me.
)

As a young Parisian girl, Matt’s mother never expected German tanks to roll past the Arc de Triomphe. But they had, and in a short, brutal window of time, Madame had lost her mother, her sister, and everything she recognized as home.

Somehow she’d found the courage to survive and the spirit to build a new life in America. Like flowers in a ravaged garden, she even found the optimism to cultivate love and happiness again. But those shockingly sudden losses had altered her. Never again would she trust the wind not to sweep in and tear up everything she’d grown. As a result, she met nearly every transaction, business and personal, with a slightly skeptical eye.

On the other hand, I needed cash on the barrelhead now, and (as I’d told her) last I checked, panzers weren’t blowing by the Washington Square arch.

“What did she say to that?” Matt asked.

“She told me to talk to you.”

T
hree

“W
ELL?”

Matt said nothing, and simply refocused on his smartphone screen. He might as well have slammed down a gavel and declared, “Subject closed.”

Maybe for
him
.

I was about to try again when Esther approached us.

“The Quiz Master’s getting closer to the counter,” she said in a whisper that wasn’t. “What humiliation does he have in store for us today, I wonder?”

“Who are we talking about?” Matt asked, swinging on his stool.

“That dude in the Yank-me cap,” Esther replied.

“Stop staring, both of you,” I whispered (in an actual whisper).

Matt made a strange face then turned to me. “Come on, Clare, you don’t know this guy?”

“No. Do you?”

Matt didn’t affirm or deny it, just asked: “What’s his game?”

Esther leaned in. “He started showing up two weeks ago, armed with a mean game of Stump the Barista. Every day, he asks us if we know how to prepare a collection of obscure, off-the-menu coffee drinks—then he orders a double espresso.”

“Why would he do that?” Matt asked.

“To make fools of us, but . . .” Esther snapped her fingers. “I pity the tool / who thinks he’s cool—”

“Without the rap, please.”

“The dude’s got mental health issues, IMO, a chronic need to feel superior.”

I could see why Esther held that opinion, but in my “O,” the Quiz Master had stumped her the previous afternoon, and she was still smarting from the encounter. She wasn’t the only one, either, judging by the speed at which Nancy Kelly, my youngest barista, scurried off to scour the bathroom.

Esther jerked her thumb in the wake of the girl’s flying wheat-colored braids. “You can’t blame Nancy for running. The Quiz Master took her down on his very first visit.”

“What did he ask her?” Matt asked.

“If she knew how to make Norwegian Egg Coffee.”

Matt glanced at me. “You’ve heard of it?”

“Of course. It’s just Cowboy Coffee with an egg broken into it.”

Esther gawked. “Why break an egg into a perfectly good pot of coffee?”

“If you do it correctly, the proteins in the egg help the grounds to flocculate—”

“To
what
?”

“Clump together,” Matt supplied.

“Yes, but
why
would you do that to good coffee?” Esther pressed.

“You wouldn’t,” I assured her. “That method should only be used for less expensive coffees that are brewed in large quantities. The egg removes bitterness by binding to the polyphenols—”

“Ex-squeeze me!” Esther pointed to her Edgar Allan Poe tattoo. “But do I look like a chemistry major?”

“Ladies,” Tuck excitedly interrupted, “he’s getting
closer
!”

Lanky Louisiana-born Tucker Burton was my assistant manager—by day, anyway. When moonlight came, he was a cabaret director, playwright, veteran of off-off-Broadway, and occasional PSA announcer. With showbiz on the brain, Tuck was convinced the Quiz Master was an undercover talent scout hunting for a new reality show cast—that, or he was a Food Network producer. Either way, our resident thespian was determined to pass the audition.

Esther waved a finger at him. “You are
waay
too confident.”

“He can’t stump me.”

“The dude who thinks he knows it all / is doomed to take the hardest fall.”

“Oh, stow it, DJ Jane!”

Matt elbowed me. “Come on, Clare, you
must
know something about this guy?”

I studied him. “You say that like I should.”

Before Matt could explain, Tuck waved for my attention. “How do I look, CC?” He flipped back his floppy brown mop and smoothed his apron. “He could be recording me with a hidden micro camera.”

Esther rolled her eyes.

By the time the Quiz Master reached the front of the line, our coffeehouse was the picture of normalcy (as normal as we could get, anyway). Esther quietly stacked demitasse cups. Matt was hunched over his glowing smartphone screen, and a beaming Tuck greeted the ball-capped mystery man.

“Welcome back to the Village Blend, sir!” With a lilt sweeter than a pecan praline, he began rattling off some of the obscure drinks the Quiz Master had requested.

“How’d you like a Chocolate Dalmatian today? Or maybe a Lillylou? Perhaps you’d prefer a Green Eye or a
Café Noisette
? I pour a mean Peppermint
Affogato . . .

The Quiz Master’s response was a dispassionate smile and a completely different request. “I’ll tell you what I’d like—
if
you know how to make it.”

“I’m sure I can. Hit me!”

“One
Yuanyang
, please.”

Tucker’s confident expression fell, and his narrow shoulders sank. The Quiz Master had scored another victory. He’d finally stumped my assistant manager.

Looking suddenly helpless, Tucker glanced in my direction.

Matt nudged me.

“It’s all right,” I whispered, rising from the stool. “I’ve got this.”

“I know you do,” Matt replied, looking strangely amused.

I ignored him, threw Tuck a nod, and approached our so-called challenging customer.

It was time the Quiz Master met his match.

F
our

“E
XCUSE
me,” I said in my best customer-friendly tone. “If you’ll step out of the line, I’ll assist you.” Gritting my teeth, I motioned for him to follow me to the other end of the shop—far away from Matt.


Yuanyang
is a coffee drink,” I explained to the man, “but it doesn’t happen to be on our menu.”

Though I’d judged the Quiz Master’s age as thirty-something, the superior grin he flashed looked more like the smirk of an adolescent boy—and, brother, did I want to slap it off.

It took me three months (at least!) to train a rookie barista. Factor in the years of knowledge I’d shared with my people about what a Manhattan clientele loved (from music to muffins) and what they loathed, and you had an extremely valuable employee crop, ripe for the picking.

Stealing that human investment out from under me would be a blow, but it wasn’t what boiled my soup. I had great affection for my staff. I cared for them like my own kids, and I didn’t want to lose them.

“How about a
Ying Yong
?” the Quiz Master countered with a look that said,
You’re stumped, admit it.

“Sorry,” I said, “but we both know it’s the same drink.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. Three parts coffee; seven parts Hong Kong–Style Milk Tea, and to save you the effort, we don’t serve CoffTea or Tea Espress, either, since they’re also the same beverage.” I shrugged.

He laughed. “I’m Eric.”

“Clare.”

The shake was firm. The cold superiority in his expression had tempered into something warmer, yet far from warm.

“So, Clare,” he said after a pause. “If you don’t serve coffee-tea mixes, does that mean you won’t make me a Zebra Mocha? Unless”—the challenging smirk was back—“you’ve never heard of it?”

I met his gaze.
So you’re officially quizzing me now?
Well, bring it on
.
When I’m done with you, you’re going to make me a job offer—and I’ll have the grounds to kick your designer denim–clad derrière out of my shop for good!

“The Zebra is a simple mixed mocha,” I told him flatly. “You start with quality dark chocolate and blend it with white chocolate.”

“Fun drink,” he replied. “Like those old deli counter black-and-white milkshakes—but with an espresso kick.”

“Some customers call it a Penguin Mocha or a Marble Mocha. Add raspberry syrup and you’ve got a Red Tux.”

“Thanks, Clare, but I think a Bombón might be worth a try. Do you know how to make it?”

“It’s an espresso served with sweetened condensed milk.”

“An
Antoccino
?”

“A single shot with an equal amount of steamed milk—the drink will give you the taste and texture of a double-shot latte without the high caffeine level.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

His smile was real now, too, displaying openly amused interest, but the quizzing didn’t stop. We covered the Gibraltar, Cortado, and Shakerato. Then we came to the Guillermo.

“The drink consists of an espresso shot or two poured over slices of lime. It’s very good sweetened; it can also be served on ice and with a touch of milk.”

He made a face. “Coffee with lime? Who likes that?”

“You never heard of
Aguapanela
?”

He shook his head.

“It’s practically the Colombian national drink—a hard, brown sugarcane is grated into boiling water. It’s delicious cold or as a base for coffee or hot chocolate, and sometimes lime is added. In the summer, I do a chilled version. Or I’ll use lime sherbet and do it as an
eiskaffee
.”

“You mean ice coffee?”

“I mean
eiskaffee
.”

His confident expression faltered. “I’m not familiar with—”

“It’s a popular coffee drink in Germany that includes ice cream.”

“Oh? Germans aren’t tea drinkers, like the English?”

“Per capita, Germans consume more coffee than Americans. But they’re not number one in world coffee consumption. Do you know who is?”

Eric blinked.

“Scandinavians,” I informed him.

For a prolonged moment, he stared intensely at me with an almost rude fascination, like a little boy pinning a new butterfly to his board. “Do you do that a lot?” he finally asked.

“What?”

“Invent new drinks based on existing ones?”

“It’s a standard technique for recipe development.”

One eyebrow rose. “A barista heuristic?” he said, almost to himself. “Intriguing . . .”

Oh, please,
I thought.
Make me an offer already. Better yet, beg me. Beg me to work for you, Eric. Then I’ll pin you—right to the wall.

But he didn’t make me an offer. He reached for his smartphone. “Excuse me a moment . . .”

Forcing a smile, I waited. One minute . . . two . . .

“How about I make you that
doppio
now?” I offered.

“What’s that?”

“Isn’t that one of the things you always order here? A double espresso . . .” (
To test the most basic abilities of my baristas? That seemed the obvious reason.)

“Just a sec . . .”

“Our machine’s a bit temperamental today,” I went on, trying to provoke a reaction. “Of course, if I had a Slayer, I wouldn’t mind . . .”

His head jerked up. “What did you say?”

“Just thinking out loud—when it comes to a Slayer, more like wishing out loud.”

He gawked, looking less than pleased. “You’re wishing for a
killer
?”

“A killer
espresso
. That’s what comes out of a handmade espresso machine.”
What kind of coffee pro has never heard of the
Slayer?

“Oh, I see . . .” he said, looking almost relieved. “The Slayer is a brand of espresso machine.”

“More like a dream machine.”

“Why is that?”

“A barista can adjust it on so many levels that it can make the same handful of coffee beans taste completely different with every espresso pull.”

He began staring again. “I wonder, Clare, have you heard of a rare, single-origin coffee called Ambrosia?”

Was he kidding? I was the one who’d coined the name—after Matt had sourced the exquisite cherries and became the exclusive world supplier. Unfortunately . . .


Ambrosia
was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sorry, Eric, but you missed it. The farm that produced it is on lockdown, courtesy of the Brazilian authorities and the DEA.”

Rather than looking disappointed, he seemed pleased. “Clare, I want to thank you for your patience with me. The truth is . . . I had very good reasons for asking my questions.”

Finally! Here it comes.

“I’d like to make you an offer . . .”

I knew it! This jerk was out to steal my staff! Well, now I’ll make him an offer—

But I never got the chance. A pounding shock wave rattled my frame. The blast vibrated through my muscles a microsecond before the noise hit my ears. Tables rocked, chairs toppled, and the windows facing Hudson Street blew inward bringing freezing winter air and deadly sharp shards of glass.

My body reacted faster than my brain. My torso doubled over, my arms flying up to shield my face and head. As vibrations shook our wood-plank floor, I was gripped with a horrible thought. Was my basement roaster responsible for this? Had our own aging gas main finally blown?

It was Matt’s shout that set me straight. “That was a car bomb!”

My partner had seen his share of violent acts in his travels, which was why he knew what it was—and what more it could be. A secondary blast was possible now, an explosion as dangerous as the primary.

“Everyone on the floor!” Matt shouted. “Drop and stay there!”

This was one time I didn’t argue with my ex.

I hit our plank deck.

F
ive

M
Y
staff obeyed Matt’s command. The customers did, too.

All except one.

In disbelief, I realized Eric was milling around, mumbling to himself.

“Hey, get down!” I shouted up at him. “Get down on the floor!”

Ignoring me, he stumbled toward the shattered front window.

Oh, man!
I got up fast and went to him. “Get away from the street, you idiot! Don’t you understand? It’s still dangerous out there—”

As I gripped his shoulder, something warm and wet sprayed my face. I touched my cheek and my fingers came away sticky with blood. But it wasn’t mine.

Eric’s face was suddenly pale, his slate gray eyes wide. “My Charley . . . My Charley is in the car—”

I didn’t reply. I was too busy staring at the ragged strip of broken glass sticking out of Eric’s body. The shining shard, less than an inch from his carotid artery, went right through a flap of skin at the base of his neck. The slightest jarring could move the glass and sever the vein.

Good Lord.
“Listen to me, Eric, you’re badly injured. You have to stop moving and remain perfectly still.”

Eric’s hands moved to the area of pain. “Oh no . . .” Realizing the danger he was in, he wavered, weak at the knees.

If he falls, he’ll die.
“Stay calm, okay? Lean on me . . .” I draped his heavy arm over my shoulder. Straining under his not-yet-dead weight, Eric and I sank to the floor together.

His skin felt cool, and I was sure he was going into shock. But when I carefully slipped out from under his weight, my first concern was that second explosion, and how I was going to protect this wounded man from the blast.

As I looked around for help, Nancy stumbled out of the restroom, dripping wet, her hands over her ears.

“Holy smokin’ rockets, what the heck blew up?”

“My car,” Eric murmured.

Matt dragged my youngest barista to our floor—just in time.

The second, fiery blast was more light and heat than sound and fury, but was no less dangerous. It came so fast I had no choice but to shield Eric with my own body.

Splinters of glass and pieces of wood and metal filled the air. As the shrapnel bit into my flesh, I bit my cheek. If I shouted or screamed in pain, this man could move suddenly and die, so I squeezed my eyes shut and swallowed the dozen bee stings. Then black, sooty smoke flowed through the empty window frames, filling the shop with choking smog.

Still on my knees, I turned to look at the burning pyre, now visible through my beveled-glass front door, which hung crookedly by a single hinge. Eric’s vehicle was nothing more than a silhouette inside a red-hot inferno. My shell-shocked ears began to detect other sounds: the moans and cries of my customers, the shouting and screaming in the street, the car alarms howling up and down the block.

“Charley, Charley,” Eric kept moaning. “What about Charley?”

“Stay still,” I warned. “Help is coming, but you have to
keep
still . . .

I cast about for help and saw Matt, Esther, and Nancy busy giving aid to other injured customers, so I worked alone, carefully lifting Eric’s long legs and elevating his feet on an overturned chair.

The blood flow seemed to be increasing, and I grabbed a wad of folded towels from behind the counter. I tucked a few under Eric’s head and saved one to use as a compress. Taking a deep breath, I pressed the clean cloth to the wound, praying I wouldn’t cause more damage by applying pressure.

“Clare . . .” Eric’s intense, little-boy stare was back, but much different now. I could see it in his eyes:
I’m scared.

I took his right hand and squeezed. “I’m going to get you through this. I promise. It’s going to be all right . . .”

His eyes filled and he squeezed my hand back. Then his muted voice mumbled something. His left hand rose weakly, as if he wanted me to take the smartphone still in his grip.

“Nine ones squared,” he said.

That’s when Tuck appeared next to me, describing the scene—and Eric’s injuries—to an emergency operator.

“Nine ones squared,” Eric repeated.

I leaned close. “We’ve already called 911. Hang on now, help is on the way.”

“No . . .” Eric shook his head, like I’d missed something. “Nine ones . . .” Then the smartphone tumbled from his hand and he slumped back, his breathing shallow. His hands felt like ice, and I knew he’d gone into shock.

The next thing I heard was the wail of approaching sirens. Within minutes, paramedics were pushing through the broken door, coughing from their brush with the burning car at the curb.

I moved aside as the medical technicians took over Eric’s care. They immediately staunched the bleeding, started an IV, and strapped him down on a stretcher a fourth man had wheeled in.

As quickly as they arrived, the first group of medics were gone, even as a second ambulance team began to check out the rest of my customers.

I took a step toward Matt, but a paramedic stopped me.

“Whoa, where are you going?” she said. Flipping her short pageboy, the woman laid a gloved hand on my back. I felt a sting and yelped. Her hand came away bloody, and this time the red stuff was mine.

“Oh, hell.”

The medic swept debris off a chair and sat me down. Dizzy and queasy, I didn’t argue. Seconds later, I was clutching my blouse, sweater, and bra to cover my naked form while she gently probed lacerations on my bare back.

“No deep punctures, so that’s good,” she said. “Do you remember when you had your last tetanus shot?”

“Last summer—ouch!”

“I’m sterilizing the wounds, so this is going to sting,” she explained, too late. Finally, the paramedic applied several small bandages across parts of my back, and a bigger one behind my right shoulder.

“You’re going to need help changing those—”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“You don’t want to go to the ER?”

“No, absolutely not . . .” Gritting my teeth, I scanned the chaos. “I’m staying.”

“I need help over here!” Esther cried as she examined a tear in Nancy’s pants. “This girl has cut her knee on broken glass.”

“I need a towel, too,” Nancy called. “When I heard the boom, the toilet kind of blew up in my face.”

“Oh, yuck,” Esther cried, jumping backward.

“It’s okay. There was nothing in it but water.”

Still, Esther eyed me. “All of us deal with crap at retail, but that’s above and beyond.”

“You’re right,” I said, tugging my clothes back over my injuries. “Nancy, you’re getting a big bonus in your next paycheck.”

“Wow, thanks! That kind of makes it worth it . . .”

Tuck handed Nancy a wad of paper towels. “Miracle of miracles,” he said, “except for cuts and bruises, everyone seems okay.”

Not everyone.
One poor soul had been in that car, someone Eric knew and cared about.

But Tuck was right about the rest of our customers. Most had come through with minor scrapes. A group of them had moved to the front of the shop, where they began talking and tweeting, cell phone cameras snapping the scene as firemen doused the blazing car with smothering white foam.

Our coffeehouse had been lucky (if you could call it that). Eric’s car had been double-parked at the time of the explosion, so an SUV sitting by the curb had absorbed much of the blast coming our way.

As the flames were extinguished, smoke began drifting into the shop. Working together, Matt, Tuck, and Esther herded the customers out. When the Village Blend emptied of everyone but staff, Matt approached me, expression serious.

“Are you okay? I saw that paramedic working on you.”

“Just a few cuts, no danger of rabies,” I said, ignoring the pain.

“So, what did he say to you, Clare?”

“What did who say?”

“Your Quiz Master.”

“Excuse me?”

Matt scooped up the fallen baseball cap. “The guy who owns this hat.”

“Eric?”

“Yes. What did he say to you?”

“Not much. I stopped him from going outside, that’s all. He went into shock after that and didn’t say much of anything, except that his Charley was in the car.”

A thin ribbon of blood trickled from a cut above Matt’s hairline. Frowning, his eyes scanned the shop’s shattered interior. “Whoever blew up the billionaire’s car sure did a number on our Village Blend.”

“Wait. Who are you talking about? What billionaire?”

“Clare, the man they took away in the ambulance is Eric
Thorner
, founder and CEO of THORN, Inc.”

It felt like a second bomb.

Apple, Google, Facebook, Thorn;
everyone
, including me, knew those names.

“Your Quiz Master is an Internet wunderkind, Clare, a
billionaire
. And you just saved his life.”

“What?”

There was no time to say more, not with the
crash
that ensued.

Three burly guys, axes in hand, burst through what remained of our door. For a crazy moment, I thought some wild barbarian horde had invaded Manhattan, but the helmeted men weren’t Vikings. They were members of our city fire department.

“This area is being evacuated!” announced one of them. “Everyone out, now!”

S
ix

W
ITH
our door off its hinges, Matt stayed behind to keep an eye on our place while I herded our staff into a nearby pub. Huddling our group together, I treated them to a few rounds of warm apple cider until we were allowed to return to the coffeehouse. Then we crunched across the broken glass and went to work cleaning the mess.

By now, the boxy, blue and white trucks of the New York City Bomb Squad had joined the knot of emergency vehicles. With the fire out, these specialized detectives were gathering evidence.

For a time, all of us were silent, unnerved by the violent explosion that had occurred just steps from our front door. Finally, Esther hugged herself against the tiny snowflakes drifting through our broken windows and cried—

“It looks like
The Hurt Locker
out there!”

I couldn’t argue. Outside, a bomb technician in a padded suit and space helmet examined the smoldering wreckage of Eric Thorner’s luxury limo; inside, my shop exemplified the word
trashed
.

The French doors were shattered, leaving glass everywhere, along with a lot of broken crockery. Tables and chairs were overturned, the shop’s shutters were scorched, and so was the woodwork on the façade facing Hudson—which did look somewhat like Kandahar, but with a fairy dusting of snow over the debris.

Even more distressing, Con Edison had cut off our electricity because of damage to the lines. While insurance would cover many of the repairs, my head spun thinking about all the red tape, the cash-flow problems, the construction, and the fact that I lived upstairs—now without electricity for lights or even my refrigerator.

I tried hard to think of a silver lining, but . . .

Nope. Nothing.

As Matt set the front door back on its hinges, he continued the discussion we’d begun earlier. “Clare, I can’t believe you didn’t know who Thorner was.”

“Honestly, Matt, I doubt I would have recognized Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerman if they’d come into the Blend arm in arm.”

“Gates isn’t a boy wunderkind anymore,” Matt said. “And
Zuckerberg
isn’t one of
Money and Finance
magazine’s Most Eligible Bachelors of the Year. That honor went to Eric Thorner.”

“Sorry, that issue of
Money and Finance
eluded me.”

“Yeah, I missed that one, too,” Esther added. “Along with
Investor’s Daily
,
Hedge Fund Fun
, and
Fat Cats ’r’ Us
.”

Suddenly Nancy stopped sweeping. “Holy smokin’ rockets! Are all of you forgetting about
Pigeon Droppings
?!”

Pigeon droppings?
I frowned. “We’re going to board up the broken windows, Nancy. No birds will get in—”

“Not
real
pigeons! I’m talking about the app game!”

Esther knocked her own head. “Of course! I should have remembered! I see that stupid ThornE barbed-wire logo every time Boris plays
Pigeon Droppings
, which is constantly, by the way, because my boyfriend is absolutely obsessed with that game.”

Nancy’s head bobbed up and down. “So are a million, billion other people. It’s like the number-one entertainment app.”

“How did I never hear of this?” I asked no one in particular. “What’s the point of a pigeon dropping game, anyhow? I mean, how do you even win?”

“You get points when your pigeons drop all over people,” Nancy explained. “Sometimes you miss. Sometimes the person opens an umbrella, splats your dropping, and you lose points. It’s really fun, and in the premium version you can add phone photos of yourself or your friends, and have the birds drop all over them, too.”

Esther snorted. “Talk about a photobomb.”

Photobombs? Crap-loaded entertainment apps? Wow, was I out of touch.

“Come on, boss,” Tuck said, “don’t you remember that mess at the Clothing Corral stores last summer? They made a whole line of
Pigeon Droppings
kids’ Tshirts with vaguely vulgar slogans printed on them.”

I blinked. “Define ‘vaguely vulgar.’”

“Let’s see . . .” Tuck tapped his chin. “‘My teacher is full of
drop
.’ ‘This is bull
drop
.’ And my favorite, ‘I used to give a
drop
.’”

“That’s not
vaguely
vulgar, that
is
vulgar.”

“Parent groups agreed,” Tuck said, emptying a dustbin into a plastic bag. “Teachers were outraged, too—”

“And ThornE made a fortune,” Esther noted.

Matt finally finished fixing the door while I’d closed the shutters against the draft. I had yet to find the chiming bell that had hung over the entrance for the past five decades, and asked everyone to keep an eye out for it.

Together Matt and I began to right the overturned café tables. When he realized the legs were bent and wobbly on one of them, he grabbed our toolbox from the pantry and set to work adjusting the ancient bolts.

“What were you and Thorner talking about before the blast?” Matt asked.

“Coffee. He quizzed me, like everyone else. I thought he was a competitor out to steal our staff.”

Tucker perked up. “Really?”

“Forget about it. I would never have let Eric Thorner poach you.”

“Well, not for nothing, CC, but there are worse fates than pulling shots at a billionaire’s espresso bar. Imagine the tips!”

“I don’t know,” Nancy said. “His games are fun, but that guy was a royal pain at our counter. Every day, another weird drink order! Why? What for?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Matt replied. “Given the fireworks outside, I doubt you’ll be seeing the Quiz Master back here anytime soon.”

“Coffee’s ready,” Esther called from the counter.

Miraculously (or more like ironically), the century-old gas lines I was most concerned about had held fast against the blast, which meant we had boiling-hot water for a French-pressed pot.

While Esther poured, I dug out every last treat in the pastry case. (Why not? We weren’t going to sell them anytime soon.) And Matt coaxed our fireplace into giving up more heat. Then we all huddled up.

Hungry hands reached for cookies, muffins, and tarts. After a few quiet minutes of famished chewing and swallowing, my curiosity got the better of me.

“So how do you know so much about Eric Thorner?” I asked Matt around a mouthful of happiness—a Cinnamon-Glazed French Apple Cake Square (a new addition to the pastry case thanks to a recipe from my aspiring-chef daughter).

“I went to one of his product launch parties last fall,” he replied between bites of Pumpkin Spice Latte Bar.

“Really? You never mentioned it.”

Matt shrugged.

“Why didn’t he recognize you?”

“The party was held at Versailles, Clare. I was there with fourteen hundred of the man’s closest friends.”

“But if you were invited, he must have known your name.”

“My wife’s name—and her European trends editor’s. Bree and her employee were really the invitees. I went as Guest.”

“So what exactly was this lavish party for? Not another bird-poo game.”

“No . . .” Matt touched the screen of his smartphone and handed it over. “This is Thorner’s latest product.”

I looked at the logo. “
App-itite
?”

“Enter the zip code on the right. Use those three dropdown menus to pick a cuisine, a specific dish, and distance you’re willing to travel, and you get the details about every eatery that serves what you want.”

“So it’s just a restaurant guide?”

“More than a guide. You can make reservations, read reviews, write reviews, link to the eatery’s website, get directions from a Google map link, and ask the app questions about the menu. Don’t recognize an exotic dish, an oddball cocktail, or fine wine? Thorner’s app makes you an expert on it in seconds.”

“Didn’t I read something about THORN, Inc., buying some prominent guidebook company?” Tuck asked.

Matt nodded. “
Marquess Guides
—a French-based food and travel guide for all of Europe. He rolled the content into his European app. There’s an
App-itite Asian
, and an
App-itite Latin America
, too.”

“But it’s still just a restaurant guide!”

“You said that, Clare. What’s your point?”

“Thorner’s not a defense contractor, or even a computer designer. He makes foodie apps, for goodness’ sake—”

“And gaming apps and learning apps,” Matt added. “His company and its subsidiaries are the largest independent app creator on the planet.”

“So why would anyone want to blow him up?!”

My question hung in the air.

Tucker, our resident curator of celebrity gossip, offered a theory, his own smartphone now in hand. “TMZ has archived stories. I’m skimming the history . . . it says he’s a recluse. He has a rep for being a geekish tech nerd, but Thorner does have a dark spot. His former girlfriend, Bianca Hyde, was a bikini model turned indie film actress. Now, she had a
much
higher profile—”

“Wasn’t she the one who killed herself at the Beverly Palms?” Matt asked.

Tuck’s finger swept across the tiny screen. “According to these e-tabloid headlines, it was ruled an accident.”

“An accident?” I asked, hairs prickling. “Did it add up?”

“What do you mean?” Tuck asked.

“I mean, were there any suspects who may have contributed to her death?”

“Suspects? Sure—two pints of vodka, three-quarters of a mini bar, one coffee table, and gravity,” Matt added.

“But how long ago did this happen?” I asked Tuck.

“About a year ago—”

“And did Bianca Hyde have any friends or family? Someone who might have blamed Eric for her death?”

“Don’t answer her,” Matt commanded Tuck. Then he eyeballed me. “I don’t want you getting involved with this.”

“Involved with what? I’m only asking a question.”

“I’m curious, too,” Esther said in my defense. “After all, I’ve heard of violent rappers, but never violent
appers
.”

“I don’t know . . .” Tuck arched an eyebrow. “That Facebook founder does wear a hoodie.”

“Rich and powerful people are targets; I get that,” Nancy said. “What I don’t get is the car bomb. I mean, why not just shoot the guy and avoid hurting innocent bystanders?”

Matt shook his head. “You’re expecting compassionate consideration from a madman bent on murder? I think the words
mad
and
murder
answer that. Don’t you agree, Clare? You’re the one with the cop boyfriend . . .”

I didn’t reply. For the first time since the explosion, I wasn’t thinking about Eric Thorner, or bombs, because I’d spied a familiar face through one of our still-intact windows, a formerly loyal customer, one who hadn’t stopped by our shop since late December. And I wanted to know why.

I set my empty cup down and grabbed my coat.

“Where are you going?” Matt asked.

“The bank,” I lied. “I want to make sure my line of credit is long enough to cover repairs until the insurance company reimburses us.”

Matt nodded and went for another pastry, obviously relieved that I’d given up on Thorner’s case. Good thing, too, because if my ex-husband knew who I was going to speak with and why, I’d have another explosion on my hands.

S
even

T
IGHTENING
my scarf, I stepped onto the cold sidewalk.

The cops had closed Hudson Street, creating a snarl so bad it would have made the news even without a car bomb. A wall of waiting vehicles idled beyond the sawhorse barricades, their drivers curiously watching the NYPD load Eric Thorner’s (practically) cremated limo onto a flatbed truck.

The frosty air reeked of burned rubber and scorched metal, and I crunched through the snow, skirting yards and yards of crime scene tape before reaching the man I’d come out here to see.

Emmanuel Franco was stationed on the next block. In his lemon yellow vest, the young police sergeant was hard to miss. Loitering in front of a French bistro, he’d attracted a fan base—a pair of stylish females. This was no surprise. No other cop at the Sixth Precinct could fill out a traffic vest quite like Manny Franco.

“Can’t you tell us what’s going on?” asked the brunette, sprucing her hair with a leather-gloved hand. “It’ll be on TV tonight, anyway. We won’t tell anybody before those news reporters do.”

The blonde was bolder. “They closed the office, so we’ve got the afternoon off, and we don’t even know why! If we buy you a drink, will you tell us about it?”

Franco shook his head. “Girls, what makes you think I know anything?”

The blonde narrowed her eyes. “You look like someone who knows plenty.”

“I’m just a guy in uniform.”

“I’d like to see what you look like
out
of uniform,” the brunette purred.

Franco took a step backward, palms up. “You know what? This has been lovely, and you ladies are charming, but I’m going to have to ask you to move on.”

Reluctantly, the girls headed off toward the subway. I waited until they were out of sight before I caught Franco’s attention.

“Hey, Coffee Lady.” His smile was sincere—yet a little nervous.

Well, he has good reason to be.
“I thought you worked undercover, Detective?”

“Those were the days,” Franco said wistfully. “Things have been quiet in the OD Squad lately. Too quiet.”

“That’s hard to believe . . .”

The OD Squad was Mike Quinn’s NYPD task force, and Franco was a handpicked member. The team was responsible for following up on drug-related deaths throughout the five boroughs. Before Mike took over, the squad had had a low profile. After he was put in charge, they were making major cases and national news. That’s what brought Mike to the attention of the U.S. Attorney who’d drafted him.

“Mighty Quinn kicked ass when it came to pursuing leads. He was gung-ho on cutting through red tape, too. But our interim leader, Detective Sullivan . . .” Franco paused to tug his hat against the wind. “Let’s just say he lacks initiative.”

“That’s pretty vague for you, Sergeant.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Sully’s a good cop, but for him the squad is just a job, not an adventure.”

A horn blasted nearby, and Franco gave the driver the fisheye. “Anyway, given the lack of action on the squad, I’m grabbing odd jobs at the Sixth. Like today, when the fit hit the shan, the captain needed manpower so I’m back in the bag.”

“Are you telling me that Mike is completely out of the picture? And you’re in uniform again?”

“Quinn’s been AWOL for over a month.”

“Define AWOL.”

Franco shrugged. “When your boyfriend first started in DC, he checked in almost daily. But the Federal Triangle is starting to look like the Bermuda Triangle—a place where people mysteriously disappear . . .”

This was news to me. And not good news.

Quinn had put his second-in-command in charge of the daily operations. But if his squad was flagging, and Quinn was neglecting it, the NYPD brass could replace him. Then what? Would my boyfriend stay in DC when his year’s assignment with the Justice Department was done? What would that mean for our future?

“Sorry for the crap news, Coffee Lady, but I should be disappearing, too.” Franco gestured to the blocked street. “Any minute now, this traffic’s going to start rolling again.”

“Not so fast, Sergeant.” I poked his hard chest. “First, you’re going to tell me why you haven’t come to my coffeehouse since your trip to visit my daughter in Paris.”

“Well, uh . . .” He shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “I’ve been meaning to drop in . . .”

“Haven’t you at least needed a caffeine fix?”

“Actually, I sort of got hooked on these.” He pulled out a shiny brown bag and flashed the logo.

“Perky Jerky?”

“Turkey Perky Jerky,” Franco said with an enthusiastic nod. “Traditional meat jerky laced with the pep of an energy drink. They make beef with a buzz, too, but I like turkey best.”

“You and I both know your absence has nothing to do with your sudden addiction to Perky Jerky. What
happened
in France? Come clean. If you broke my daughter’s heart, I swear—”

“Hey, hey! I would never hurt Joy, and that isn’t what happened.”

“So what did?”

Franco sighed, looked away. “Ask her.”

I blinked. “What?”

“I’m not the one with the problem. Talk to your daughter.”

My head was spinning. Last I’d heard, Joy was smitten with Franco, completely in love. She’d admitted as much—to her grandmother, of course. (Joy would never share such personal things with me. I’m only her mother.)

“Look, Sergeant, right now I’m talking to you. What happened?”

“Joy said she was ‘conflicted,’ that she wasn’t sure she wanted to date a cop. She wasn’t even sure she was coming back to New York. That
maybe
she’d rather stay in Paris . . .”

I suddenly felt Franco’s pain.

Unlike Joy’s disastrous past boyfriends, Emmanuel Franco was a good man. He wanted only to make her happy; and my daughter had been hooked on him, hinting at marriage and future plans, and suddenly she was pushing him away? Why?

Getting the truth out of my daughter wouldn’t be easy. Over the last few months, most of our “conservations” had taken place via texting, cell phone photos, and social media updates.

I wanted to talk to my girl—really talk to her, see her body language, gauge the look in her eyes, and
not
let her cut me off until I got to the bottom of what was really going on. Gritting my teeth, I made a heartfelt
wish
in that moment.
I wish I had the money to charter a flight to Paris right now, this minute!
But the expense of such a trip and my responsibilities here made that impossible.

“I’d like to see her one more time, try again,” Franco admitted, “but I have no idea when she’s coming back for a visit, and booking another international flight is more than I can afford—that’s another reason I’m back in this bag.” He tugged his vest sadly. “My credit card is maxed out. I need the overtime to pay for the last trip.”

A loud rumble interrupted us, and we both watched a police flatbed haul away Eric Thorner’s burned-out car. Franco frowned down at me.

“So is everyone okay at your place? That blast was pretty close.”

(At last, a subject we could both feel comfortable about getting to the bottom of . . .) I told him about the damage and mentioned the name of the intended target. Like me, Franco knew little about the young billionaire.

“The city’s Bomb Squad is headquartered in your precinct,” I noted. “Have you heard anything about the explosion?”

“I overheard two guys from the A-Team. They said no dynamite or TNT was used—”

“What? That can’t be right! I heard the explosions myself. There were two, a big one and then—”

“It was a firebomb, Clare. The Bomb Squad recovered pieces of an aluminum can that contained the accelerant.”

“Didn’t you once tell me that fingerprints could be taken off bomb fragments?”

“Good memory. That’s true.”

“Well, if I know that, the bomber might, too, right?”

“A friend in the Bomb Squad doesn’t think so.”

“What does that mean?”

“If the perp had access to real explosives, he would have used them, which means he’s an amateur. And if he’s an amateur, then he probably doesn’t know that his fingerprints could be had, so we may get lucky.” Franco paused. “I heard something else, too.”

“Give.”

Franco glanced around and lowered his voice. “One of the Bomb Squad guys thinks the killer wanted to do more than just get Thorner out of the way. He must have had a real hate on for his victim, and I’d have to agree.”

“Why is that?”

“Because the device wasn’t designed to blow up the car so much as roast the occupants alive. And burning to death is one hell of a horrible way to die.”

E
ight

H
OURS
later, I was gazing at flames again, but (thank goodness) this roaring fire didn’t come from a bomb. This blaze emanated from my bedroom’s comforting hearth. Unfortunately, my thoughts about today’s violent act were far from a comfort. Most troubling of all were Franco’s final words.

Who hated Eric Thorner enough to want him roasted alive? And what had sparked that animosity? Was it something in Eric’s public life? Or was it more private?

I’ll admit the young billionaire was a thoroughly smug individual. In the few minutes we spent together before the bomb went off, even I was dying to smack the smirk off his face. But such a superficial encounter, even a dozen of them, would not be a reasonable motive for murder.

Whatever the reason, the bomber was sure to be exasperated by tonight’s news. After emergency surgery, Eric Thorner was expected to make a full recovery.

If the bomber knew he had failed, would he—or she—try again?

It was a dark thought, but it had been a dark day; and in winter, night arrived early in Manhattan. The moment the sun dipped below the horizon, the towering steel-and-stone skyline speedily slipped from twilight blue to solid black. Now electricity was tasked with the sun’s job and the city was illuminated by the golden glare of lightbulbs, millions of them shining in countless streetlamps and apartment windows. Unfortunately, not one of those bulbs was working in mine.

Along with my phone line, the power was out, and the only light in my duplex apartment came from my two fireplaces, a few battery-operated hurricane lamps, and a dozen votive candles.

Earlier, Matt had offered to stay with me, and his mother invited me to move into her penthouse, but I turned them both down. This was my home, and I didn’t want to leave it. Besides, an NYPD patrol was posted on our block, and I had my cell for emergencies.

As the night wore on, however, having no heat or electricity made me feel vulnerable, and I
hated
feeling vulnerable, so I turned up the classical music on my battery-powered radio and cooked dinner (mercifully, the ancient gas lines had weathered the blast). After a few bites, I paced the floor. Several times, I crossed to the window and peered outside, watching for Quinn.

By eleven, I gave up and tucked myself into bed. Thirty minutes later, over the quavers and sways of a Beethoven piano sonata, I awoke with a start. Was someone on the back stairs? I bolted upright on the four-poster and threw the snuggly coverlet aside.

Animated by my own frantic movements, Java and Frothy bounded at my heels, furry cat tails high. I hurried down the carpeted steps and across the chilly parquet floor, cell phone in hand—911 on speed dial.

But there was no need to call the cops. One was at my door.

Peering through the peephole, I sighed at the sight of Mike Quinn’s broad-shouldered silhouette filling the shadowy landing. I unlocked the door.

“I’m so glad you made it! Are you hungry?”

Quinn didn’t reply, except to inhale sharply. His arctic blue eyes melted with sweet appreciation, and I remembered I was wearing my threadbare Pittsburgh Steelers shirt, a few bandages underneath, and little else.

On my next breath, his arms were around me; and while I badly wanted Quinn’s embrace, its aggressiveness surprised me—the man not only squeezed the air out of me, he was stinging the lacerations on my back. But I didn’t care. By the time he let me go, I was feeling no pain.

“Ready to take off your coat now?” I smiled. He returned it, and I began undoing his buttons.

I’d hardly had time to hang the thing up before he was cornering me again. When we broke our embrace, his tie was askew and his eyes were vibrant behind a veil of fatigue.

I touched his rough cheek. “Slow down, we have all night.”

“I hope so,” Quinn replied.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing, don’t worry about it . . .”

But I couldn’t help myself. Quinn had been summoned back to DC on his last weekend visit, right in the middle of our Sunday-morning brunch—a “break in the case” that wasn’t. The false alarm cost him an afternoon with his kids. I did my best to make up for it, but I was a poor substitute. While Molly had a fine time window-shopping along Fifth, Jeremy sulked. He missed his father.

“My boss has been putting on the pressure,” Quinn admitted, checking his phone for messages.

“No personal life allowed?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Don’t you want to be?”

“Clare, when the Homeland Security alert crossed my desk, I nearly lost it until I heard your voice.
Of course
I want to be here—I want to be with you, wherever you are.”

Now I felt guilty. This weekend had been my turn to travel, and I’d been ready to hop my usual Friday-afternoon train to DC, but not after the bomb. I refused to leave my ravaged coffeehouse, and I told him so over the phone. That’s why he’d changed his own plans and caught a late flight.

“So how about dinner?” Hooking an arm around his waist, I steered him toward the kitchen. “I didn’t have time to bake lasagna, but I did a shortcut skillet version for you, and it’s pretty tasty, if I do say so. With no electricity, I couldn’t use my mixer, so there’s no Triple-Chocolate Italian Cheesecake, but I’m going to wow you with my Baileys Irish Cream and Caramel-Nut Fudge. I don’t know about you, but I could use a little Irish comfort—”

“Good, because I’m ready to provide it—and not in the kitchen.” Mike pulled me in the opposite direction, toward the bedroom. “Let’s lie down by the fire . . .”

It was a genuine thrill to be desired, but there was a note of urgency in his manner that made me wonder if things were really all right.

Quinn’s temperament was naturally circumspect. He felt things deeply and was rarely impatient. In fact, he told me that waiting was a detective’s game—waiting for witnesses to tell their story, for suspects to incriminate themselves, for forensic labs to deliver the kind of results that could nail a case closed.

Mike’s police academy instructor had driven that point home with a test for his class of eager, young cadets. “Go into your garage and sit alone in your car for twelve hours,” he’d ordered them one Friday night. Those without cars were instructed to stay awake in their bedrooms. “Remain alert and respond immediately to a mock distress call from me, when and if one comes.”

In the wee hours of the morning, that call came for Police Cadet Quinn, and he’d not only been ready, he’d beaten every other member of his class to the rendezvous point.

Likewise, his steady, determined nature helped him build a solid career in the NYPD. I’d watched him make his cases, painstakingly working them for weeks, months, even years. But that was before he’d gone to Washington.

At first, things had been fine—sometimes better than fine. I enjoyed my trips to see him, and we’d shared some lovely weekends, including romantic outings in Maryland and Virginia. But the last month had been trying; Quinn was drinking more and acting chronically impatient.

I’d been making excuses for him, but Franco’s revelation made me realize something. A new supervisor had come on board for Quinn around a month ago, the same time he stopped regularly checking in with his squad. Were the two events related? It seemed to me they were.

While I was itching to discuss this with Mike, by now we’d reached the bed, and the last thing I wanted was for his work to come between us. He clearly felt the same.

Too bad his new boss didn’t share our feelings.

As Mike’s mouth began nuzzling my neck, his cell phone buzzed.

“Son of a—” He froze and closed his eyes.

“It’s past midnight,” I whispered.

Mike’s expression was stoic, yet his jaw was clenched tight, and I knew he was warring with himself, part of him wanting to throw the phone through the window. In the end, Cadet Quinn and his lifetime in professional law enforcement won out.

“Quinn,” he answered, half turning his back on me.

His shoulders slumped as he listened for a long moment.

“I’m in New York,” he protested. “I’m sorry that Tom didn’t place my weekly update in the case file, but I just got here, and I’m not doing a turnaround—”

Interrupted, Mike listened, his frown deepening.

Can this boss actually expect Mike to fly back to DC to retrieve a file? That’s ridiculous . . .

Mike thought so, too. His shoulders squared and he pushed back.

“Look, the situation report is fairly routine. Call me again on a secure line and I’ll summarize the salient points.
Or
you can get Tom on the horn and tell him to open his safe in the morning.
Or
you can wait until Monday morning, when I’ll be back in Washington.”

After impatiently enduring another long response, Mike’s reply was icy.

“I’ll speak with Tom to make sure this doesn’t happen again. You’ll have that report on your desk Monday, first thing.”

He ended the call and slammed the phone on the dresser.

We sat in silence for a moment. “Your boss is calling you at midnight?” I whispered. “Over paperwork?”

He turned on the bed to fully face me. “Forget it, sweetheart. I’m going to.” He touched my cheek. “We have all weekend now, and I’m going to make sure it stays that way.”

This time Mike’s hug caused me to yelp—he’d pressed too hard on one of my cuts.

“Clare, what is this?” He found the bandages on my shoulder.

“I caught a little shrapnel today. Flying glass.”

Mike spun me around, pulled the tee up to my neck, and examined my naked back.

“There’s fresh blood on one of these dressings!”

“Oh, right. The paramedic told me to change them—”

I hardly got the words out before Mike peeled off my shirt completely.

“Don’t move.”

He went to the bathroom and returned with my first aid kit. Soon the man’s firm but gentle hands were stripping off the old bandages and applying new ones.

“That’s it,” he said with a sigh. “You’ll take it easy tonight. No physical activity.”

I felt a stab of disappointment and turned to face him. His eyes took in my naked curves, and the expression in them changed. Concern melted into something else, something that prompted me to meet his gaze and smile.

“You really mean it?” I pressed. “No physical activity?”

“Well, you can’t lie on your back—”

“No I can’t, but—” I grabbed the man’s tie and rolled him onto the bed. “You can.”

Mike’s grin nearly outshined the glow of the fireplace.

N
ine

“A
RE
you there? Can you hear me?”

A whisper in the dark.

With my back in its current crappy state, I was lying stomach down on the mattress, one arm dangling over the edge.

“Mike?” I yawned, rubbing my eyes. “Was that you?”

Silence.

The room felt cold; the hearth was barely glowing. I swung my arm back and connected with Mike’s solid form. He lay still as a stone beside me, breathing with the regular rhythms of comatose sleep. But if Mike was sleeping, then who was whispering?

“Mom, pick up!”

That was no whisper. My daughter was shouting at me through the cell phone on my nightstand.
How did she manage this?
I didn’t care. (Mother’s Calculus: When your child is calling, you don’t ask questions. You lunge for the phone.)

“Joy, honey? What’s wrong? Where are you?”

“The airport.”

“Charles de Gaulle?”

“I’m in New York. You have to come. There’s a bomb.”

“What?!”

“There’s a bomb on my plane.”

*

“N
OW
boarding at Gate 91 . . .”

I must have dressed and hailed a cab, but I couldn’t tell you how. Between a moment and an instant, my dark bedroom transformed into the bright bustle of JFK, and I was running through the crowded center aisle of Terminal One.

“Last call for Air France, Flight 911 . . .”

Joy’s flight!

I careened down the corridor, counting gate numbers aloud, arms flailing like a
Sesame Street
Muppet.

“51 . . . 52 . . . 53 . . .”

I pushed through a knot of travelers, shoving aside backpacks, kicking over suitcases. People turned, stared, and cursed.

“There’s a bomb!” I shouted. “A bomb on my daughter’s plane!”

Then I was moving again, through the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties. At Gate 89, the phone in my hand vibrated again.

“Mom? Are you there?”

“I’m here, honey! Where are you?”

“On the plane. I’m buckled in. They want me to end my call—”

“Don’t turn me off! Listen to me, Joy, please, listen . . .”

By now, I’d reached Gate 91, but the gangway door was locked. I ran to the terminal’s picture window, and saw the jumbo jet pulling away.

I spotted Joy’s face through a passenger window, the round glass receding like a collapsing telescope. Every yard the plane moved, her face grew smaller and (somehow)
younger
. . .

There she was at her high school graduation, laughing in cap and gown, handing out Diploma Fortune Cookies. Another yard and she was blowing out candles on a Sweet Sixteen cake she’d insisted on baking herself, dancing with her father like she was all grown up. Another and she was fifteen, crying over a bully boy’s hurtful remarks. Back she moved until she was winning the Tri-State Junior Gingerbread House Challenge; marshaling fellow Girl Scouts to stage a Thin Mint–palooza in front of the local supermarket. Finally, she was waving at me in her tomboy braids and braces, looking just like she did in my little Honda when we moved out to the suburbs; mom and daughter together, taking on the world—starting with New Jersey.

“Stop!” I pounded the glass with my fists. “Come back!”

But my daughter’s flight seemed inevitable.

“Excuse me, ma’am, what’s wrong?” A steward approached. The young man’s shaggy, golden hair and winning smile looked oddly familiar—like Eric Thorner’s.

I grabbed his arm, dragged him over. “You see that plane? We have to stop it!”

“I’m sorry, Clare, but you missed the plane. You’re early.”

“Early? What do you mean
early
?!”

Air-France-Eric shrugged and pointed. I followed his finger to the terminal wall. A huge clock hung there, hands moving counterclockwise, noisy ticking growing louder
.

“Mom! What do I do?”

Tick, tick . . .

“Stop your flight, Joy. Come back to me!”

TICK, TICK, TICK . . .

Finally, it happened. The blast was massive, severing the jet, savagely breaking its solid, silver body in two. Flames erupted, igniting both halves of the plane, incinerating every helpless passenger.

“NOOOO!”

The destructive energy moved in almost visible waves across the tarmac, shaking the high window, and driving me to the floor. Then the glass splintered and a thousand brittle shards arrowed toward my back.

I squeezed my eyes shut and screamed.

T
en

I
opened my eyes.

Pain.

Sometime during the night, I’d shifted off Quinn’s sturdy chest and rolled onto my ravaged back
.
Gritting my teeth, I sat up. The events of my nightmare may have been a grand illusion, but the pain was undeniably real.

I checked the glowing digits on my alarm: 3:55
AM.
With a deep breath, I tried closing my eyes—

“I’m sorry, Clare, but you missed the plane. You’re early.”

“Early? What do you mean
early
?!”

Tick, tick, tick . . .

The images would not go away. Neither would the stark feeling of terror. It flooded my waking mind; dislodged bits of memory: the fear in Eric Thorner’s eyes; the blood seeping from his wound; my landmark shop, wrecked and damaged; and the charred black body of that firebombed car, human remains trapped inside.

“Charley” was just a name to me, remote and unknowable. Like the subject of a TV news reports, he was just another casualty of war or random violence. Yet Eric’s chauffeur was a person, a fellow soul, and his senseless murder
should
have mattered more to me. I was ashamed to say it didn’t.

“Mom! What do I do?”

TICK, TICK, TICK, TICK!

Maybe that’s why I dreamed of my daughter suffering the same fate. If
she’d
been in that car, the paramedics would have had to sedate me.

I glanced across the mattress. Quinn was still sleeping, so I slipped quietly out of bed.

I have to call Joy . . .

I knew my nightmare wasn’t real, but my heart was still hammering, and I wasn’t closing my eyes again until I made sure my daughter was safe. Tying on my robe, I stepped into slippers and shuffled down to the kitchen.

*

“M
RRROOOOW . . .”

My little, furry raptors wasted no time circling my legs.

“No,” I firmly told the pair. “It may be morning, but it is
not
time for breakfast.”

Java and Frothy begged to differ—in stereo—and loudly enough to send me groping through the cupboard for a giant can of Savory Salmon.

Reading the label made my stomach rumble, and my mind conjured a brief, happy vision of Murray’s pink-smoked salmon glistening on a toasted bagel with a snowy schmear of cream cheese. Despite knowing the difference between premium lox and Fancy Feast (really, I did), by the time I dished up their grub, I was salivating.

Ignoring my pangs of hunger, I sat down at the table and hit the first number on my mobile phone’s speed dial. Joy’s voice mail asked me to leave a message. Instead, I placed another call—to Joy’s best friend.

“Bonjour!”

“Yvette?”

“Oui?”

Yvette’s name might have been French but she was as American as mass-produced soft ice cream—a product that had made her family a small fortune. She and Joy had been friends since their first day of culinary school. Now they shared an apartment in Paris.

“You can speak English, Yvette, this is Joy’s mother. I tried her cell, but she’s not picking up—”

“Joy’s at work, Ms. Cosi, and she never answers calls at work on pain of a Gallic tongue-lashing. Have you forgotten the time difference? You’re six hours behind us in New York, and—”

“Joy is on the dinner brigade. Her shifts don’t begin until two o’clock, your time.”

“Her day starts earlier now.”

“I see. But she’s all right?”


Mais oui!
I just stopped by the restaurant to talk to her and she’s perfectly fine—considering the incident.”

I tensed. “Incident?”

“Last week the sous chef went a little
fou
.”

“Crazy? He went
crazy
?”

“The Bresse supplier shorted the restaurant on
poulardes
for, like, the third time in six weeks. So the chef drove all the way to Bourgogne, got into a shouting match with the chicken farmer, accused him of taking a bribe from a rival restaurant to sabotage their menu. They hurled insults at each other, then vegetables, then
poulardes
, then it really got ugly.”

“Joy wasn’t with him, was she?”

“No, but she totally heard all about it. They called in the gendarmes. It took, like, four to pull the two apart. So now the sous chef is stuck in the country, charged with assaulting an officer and cruelty to poultry, which in Bresse is a huge deal.”

“What does all this have to do with my daughter?”

“After the executive chef had a meltdown, he revised half the brigade’s duties. The saucier was promoted to sous chef, and Joy is now the restaurant’s new saucier, at least until the sous chef gets out of jail for assaulting the policemen—and the farmer.”

“And the chickens.”

“Especially the chickens. Joy’s thrilled, of course; it’s a promotion, even if it is temporary. She’s getting a bonus, too, but she has to start work much earlier in the day.”

“Will you tell her to call her mother as soon as she’s able?”

“Oh, sure, Ms. Cosi, no problem.”

I was about to sign off, when I remembered the little talk I’d had on Hudson Street with Sergeant Franco. Since I couldn’t be sure Joy would be forthcoming about her love life (and I didn’t have the bank account to hire a private eye), I took a chance . . .

“Yvette,” I said, “before I let you go, would you help me solve a little mystery? I understand things didn’t go so well on Manny Franco’s last visit. Do you have any idea what went wrong?”

Dead silence.

“Yvette? Are you there?”

“I’m sorry, Ms. Cosi, but . . .
um
, why do you care?”

“Excuse me?”

“I said, why do you—”

“I heard what you said. I just can’t believe you asked a question like that. I
care
because Joy is my daughter. And I
like
Franco.”

“Ooooh, that’s right.
You’re
dating a cop—so you would.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“No offense. It’s okay for you. I mean, you’re divorced, you know? And of a certain age . . .”

Oh, for the love of—

“. . . but Joy’s got her whole life ahead of her. She doesn’t want to make a mistake, you know?”

“No. I don’t know. Why is Franco a ‘mistake’?”

“Oh, come on. You have to admit the guy’s salary is a joke.”

“A joke?”

“Yes, and if Joy walked down the aisle with a man like Franco, the punch line would be a lifetime of sweating in kitchens like the ones she’s in now. There’s no way a young couple can make it in New York on a cop’s wages.”

“Your definition of ‘making it’ and mine are apparently different.”

“Apparently.”

“And my daughter has ambition. She has dreams. She
wants
to be in that kitchen because she wants to own and run her own restaurant one day.”

“Exactly! A boyfriend with
real
resources
could help her do that a lot faster. Franco’s sweet, I’ll give him that. He makes Joy laugh and he’s got great abs, but he’s not going anywhere. Like I said, she can do better.”

“Well, I’ve had enough of this conversation.”

“If you say so.”

“Please tell my daughter to call me as soon as she’s able.”

“I will, Ms. C.
Au revoir!

I flipped my cell closed, but it failed to satisfy.
Oh, for the days when I could slam down a receiver!
Instead, I kicked the table leg.
(Bad idea in fabric slippers.)
Big toe throbbing, I frowned in fury at the tabletop, until a deep voice interrupted my mental tantrum—

“So? What’s
the joke
?”

Quinn was leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed. I had to admit, the sight of him standing there bare-chested, wearing nothing but a curious, slightly bemused expression and low-slung pair of panda bear pajama bottoms (a gift from his kids) did wonders for soothing some of my ire, but far from all of it.

“You heard the call?” I presumed.

“Only your end, something about a joke?”

“Franco’s salary . . .
apparently
.”

“Joy said Franco’s salary is a joke?”

“No. Her roommate did.”

Yawning, Mike rubbed his newly stubbled jaw. “And this is something that couldn’t wait till morning?”

“I had a bad dream. I wanted to make sure Joy was okay.”

“Is she?”

“Yvette says she’s fine.”

“So what did you dream that upset you so much?”

“It doesn’t matter—because that call upset me more.”

“Go on.”

“I will, but first I’m reheating that dinner we never ate.” I pointed to Java and Frothy, still smacking their lips over the Savory Salmon. “They’re not the only ones who need sustenance. I’m starving.”

“Me, too . . .” Mike sauntered into the room and took a seat at the kitchen table. When Frothy curled her little white body around his leg, he picked her up and scratched her ears. “I don’t have to meow, do I?”

“Not unless you want a cat toy.”

E
leven

S
KILLET
Lasagna turned out to be a great idea for a postponed supper. For one thing, the dish tasted better reheated: just a splash more sauce and a fresh sprinkling of cheese. The mozzarella bubbled under the heat, becoming somewhat crusty as it cooled; but when you got below that crust, you were rewarded with a world of soft, gooey goodness (the culinary equivalent of my longtime relationship with Mike Quinn, when you got down to it).

“Smells fantastic,” Mike declared, inhaling the tangy tomatoes and floral oregano. Then he picked up his fork and dug in.

Since my building was still without power, I’d cranked up the oven for warmth and lit a few candles for light. The little kitchen felt cozy, even romantic, and for a few minutes, I enjoyed our silent munching of ricotta-enriched noodles. Then I began to unload, filling Mike in on my talk with Franco and my call to Paris.

“It’s obvious now. The problem between Franco and Joy is
Yvette
. She’s been talking trash about Franco, filling Joy’s head with offensive ideas, and—”

“And why would Joy allow her roommate’s opinion to sway her?”

“Because she’s close to Yvette. They’re like sisters.”

Given Mike’s twenty years as a detective, I shouldn’t have been surprised when he asked, “Particulars please?”

“The two shared an apartment here in New York during culinary school. So, of course, they’ve been through ups and downs together, parties and Pilates, crushes, breakups, and—”

“And if you know that, why is the situation upsetting you? Has something changed?”

“Yes, Yvette’s changed! She never talked like a brat before. Until that phone call, she’s been gracious to me and generous to Joy.”

“Sometimes ‘generosity’ comes at price.”

I thought about that. “You’re suggesting Joy feels obligated to her? That she’d dump Franco just to please her rich girlfriend?”

Mike gave a half shrug.

“Look, I know my daughter. I didn’t raise her to judge people with such superficial yardsticks. She never cared if a friend—boy or girl—had money or not. And she’s never been a gold digger.”

“Maybe Yvette’s not the only one who’s changed.”

My fork stilled in midair. I set it down. “Don’t even
think
that.”

Mike held my gaze. “Then how do you explain what Franco told you earlier today?”

I shifted on my chair, not liking the question. “Why are you so prickly? Is it that remark Yvette made about a cop’s salary? Are you taking it personally? Because I don’t feel that way.”

“But it seems Joy does—or she’s willing to consider it, based on her roommate’s opinion.”

“We’re going in circles. I need to talk to Joy, find out—”

“Find out what, Clare?” His tone was sharp. “You found out. You just don’t like what you found out.”

I stared across the table. A shadow had crossed Mike’s face. The room felt colder all of a sudden, and the candlelight didn’t seem so romantic anymore.

“Whose side are you on?”

Mike exhaled tension. Then he leaned forward, out of the shadows. “I’m on your side, sweetheart. I’m always on your side. I’ve just run enough investigations to know we can’t change facts—as much as we’d like to sometimes.”

“I don’t care. I’m still going to talk this out with my daughter.”

“Of course you are . . .” He leaned back again, picked up his fork. “Just don’t do some kind of hard sell on Franco. You shouldn’t try to defend him.”

“Why not? He’s the best thing that’s happened to my daughter in a long time—and she said so herself. Don’t you like him?”

“It’s because I like him that I’m saying this.”

“Excuse me?”

“Police work is a worthy profession, but it’s also a demanding one. Franco should have a woman in his life who understands that, one who’s proud to stand by him. No man wants to hook up with a partner who looks down on his work—or his income.”

“You
are
taking this personally,” I said and he shot me a look that confirmed it.

Given what Mike had been through in his marriage, I shouldn’t have been surprised. His ex-wife had never liked his profession—not its demands, its sacrifices, or its salary. But then, the two never should have married . . .

Leila had come to Manhattan as a privileged, out-of-town girl. Her family had pulled strings to help start her career in modeling. When she wasn’t at photo shoots, she was partying in bars and clubs with such frequency that she attracted a stalker, a real creep who’d beaten and nearly raped her. Mike had been the street cop who saved her and put the rapist behind bars.

Rattled by the attack, Leila clung to him. They dated for a short time before tying the knot. At his wedding, Mike’s precinct buddies made him feel as if he’d won the lottery; he had a gorgeous model for a wife, one who was completely infatuated with him—until the shine wore off.

In a short space of time, Leila had gone from glittering parties and Manhattan shopping sprees to changing diapers in the “wrong part” of Brooklyn. Gone were the designer clothes and exciting photo shoots, nightclub passes, and fawning men buying her overpriced drinks in trendy bars.

As the danger of that rapist became a distant memory, so did the reasons she’d married her husband. Mike the Blue Knight became a square-jawed bore. She didn’t understand his dedication to police work and didn’t want to hear his sordid stories of dealing with lowlifes. He couldn’t afford lavish vacations or gourmet restaurants. She couldn’t even depend on him to come home on time.

The way Leila saw it, Mike was cheating her; so she felt
zero
guilt when she began cheating on him.

Right from the start, Mike knew—he was a detective, after all. He’d tailed her a few times, saw the pattern: she would travel to Manhattan on some pretense or other, buy something sexy, wear it to a stockbroker bar, and relive those years when she was young and happy.

He once told me what it felt like, the first time she’d cheated—a nuclear explosion in his gut. The second, third, and fourth times had struck him with lesser impacts—a grenade, a gunshot, a firecracker.

Then came a fifth time, and a sixth . . .

When he stopped counting, he stopped feeling.

Confronting Leila hadn’t helped. She lied to his face, claimed his job made him paranoid. He showed her the credit card bills, recounted her movements. She accused him of trying to control her.

Mike didn’t want to face the mistake of his marriage so when Leila promised to stop, he looked the other way. If stepping out was something she needed to do, then he’d let her do it as a kind of therapy, a way to help her feel young, pretty, and special again. In Mike’s mind, she deserved better than he could give her, anyway, and he was “fortunate” she chose to come back to him again and again.

Then he met me.

A case of homicide brought us together, and we got to know each other solving it. After that, he became a regular at my coffeehouse.

When he found out I’d navigated through a difficult marriage, he began to confide in me about Leila. For years, he’d kept his troubles private. He’d been ashamed to tell friends, family, or the guys on the job who continually told him how lucky he was.

I enjoyed pouring his coffee and listening to him talk, not just about personal things but also his cases. Given the NYPD’s continual public scrutiny in the news from “stop and frisk” policies and traffic ticket quotas to frame jobs on suspects, Mike was surprised to find a civilian who admired his vocation—who actually
liked
hearing the particulars of police work.

I looked forward to our time together, and he did, too, until finally Mike realized that maybe
he
deserved better.

Still, Mike’s venal wife and toxic marriage left him with more than literal debt. Leila had forever branded her husband with a deep-seated feeling that he wasn’t good enough.

“Look . . .” Mike finally said after a long exhale, “if you want me to admit that my base salary is a sore spot, I’ll admit it. Do you remember that crack your ex-husband made before I took this job in DC—that comment about my civil servant pay?”

I racked my brain. “I don’t remember Matt saying anything about—”

“Allegro can be a class-A jerk, but that’s not my point. The man wasn’t wrong.”

“I don’t understand.”

“As a Fed, I’m finally making good money, Clare,
very
good and it
feels
good.”

“Wait. You’re not saying . . .” I studied him. “Please tell me you’re not considering staying in DC beyond your one-year commitment.”

Mike leaned forward, reached out for my hand. I pulled it back.

“Answer the question.”

“I can’t answer it—because I don’t know the answer. Not yet.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true. My new boss has changed the game plan. We’ve been directed to expand our case, cast a wider net.”

I stared. “How long?”

“There’s no set time frame. The sooner we close the case, the sooner I get the bonus.”


Bonus?
What bonus?”

“Lacey, the new boss, struck a deal with me—if I agree to the wider net, which will help Lacey’s career, then I’ll get a bonus—a very big one—when the case is closed.”

“Since when do you make decisions based on money?”

“Don’t you think it’s about time? Like I said, your ex-husband can be a jerk, but he was right about my base pay. I want to send my kids to college, Clare. I’m their father, and I want them to know that it’s
me
writing the checks, not their new, investment banker stepdad. You can understand that, can’t you?”

“To quote you, doesn’t that money come ‘at a price’?”

He fell silent a moment, gave me an expectant look. “Does it have to?”

Oh no, you don’t!
“You are not turning the tables on me!”

“When I started this assignment, you said you would stick by me—through thick and thin. Was that idle talk? Maybe you’ve changed your mind. Maybe these woods are getting too thick and you want to turn back, go AWOL.”

That did it.
I was on my feet. “I’m not the one going AWOL! Franco told me you haven’t checked in with the OD Squad in weeks!”

Mike blinked, clearly taken aback. “I’ve called in. Sully’s been assuring me everything is A-okay.”

“Maybe for Sully they are. According to Franco, your cases are being poached by rival jurisdictions. Things are so slow that Franco’s started volunteering for uniform duty just to earn overtime.”

Mike frowned. “I admit I haven’t been stopping by to review cases in person. I figured Sully would step up, handle any jurisdictional beefs. He’s a trustworthy guy.”

“Sure he is. Franco says he’s a
real nice
guy, too. So nice that he’s refusing to step on toes to keep new cases. Why should he stick his neck out? It’s your team. He’s just babysitting.”

Mike blew out air, massaged his forehead. “I wasn’t aware things were slipping.”

“The squad, me, your kids . . . it’s all starting to add up. All these problems started a month ago, when this Lacey person became your new boss and began pressuring you—and I know why.”

“Oh, you do? I wasn’t aware you worked for the Justice Department.”

“Well, you’re aware I’m a
boss
, aren’t you? And as a boss, I know how important it is to keep good employees. This
bonus
you’re being promised with no time frame is only part of the plan.”

“There’s a plan?”

“Of course! Open your eyes, Mike: If your life here in New York gets disrupted often enough, your boss knows you won’t have a life to come back to. Your only alternative will be to stay in DC.”

The room fell silent after that. Mike simply sat, studying me. Finally, I threw up my hands. “Don’t you have anything to say?!”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

He leaned forward, dropped his voice. “I think you’re overwrought.”

“Overwrought?!”

“Anyone who’s been through what you have in the past eighteen hours would be a little emotional, even a little paranoid, and—”

BOOK: Billionaire Blend (A Coffeehouse Mystery)
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