Dead to the Last Drop (Coffeehouse Mystery Series #15)

Dead to the Last Drop (Coffeehouse Mystery Series #15)

by Cleo Coyle

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Overview

From the New York Times bestselling author of Once Upon a Grind comes a new, all-American mystery...
  
When the White House asks coffeehouse manager and master roaster Clare Cosi to consult on a Rose Garden Wedding, she uncovers long-simmering secrets that threaten to boil over...
 
Clare’s Washington visit is off to a graceful start, when she lands a housesitting job in a Georgetown mansion and is invited to work on the Smithsonian’s salute to coffee in America. Unfortunately, her new Village Blend DC is struggling—until its second floor Jazz Space attracts a high-profile fan in the daughter of the President. But as Clare’s stock rises, she learns a stark lesson: Washington can be murder.
 
First a State Department employee suspiciously collapses in her coffeehouse. Then the President’s daughter goes missing. After another deadly twist, Clare is on the run with her NYPD detective boyfriend. Branded an enemy of the state, she must uncover the truth before her life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness come to a bitter end.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425276105
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Series: Coffeehouse Mystery Series , #15
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 72,863
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Cleo Coyle is a pseudonym for Alice Alfonsi, writing in collaboration with her husband, Marc Cerasini. Both are New York Times bestselling authors of the Coffeehouse Mysteries (Once Upon a Grind, Billionaire Blend, Brew to a Kill)—now celebrating over ten years in print—and the nationally bestselling Haunted Bookshop Mysteries. Alice has worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and New York, and has written young adult and children’s books. A former magazine editor, Marc has authored espionage thrillers and nonfiction for adults and children. Alice and Marc are also bestselling media tie-in writers who have penned properties for Lucasfilm, NBC, Fox, Disney, Imagine, and MGM. They live and work in New York City, where they write independently and together.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

May you eat, drink, and read with joy!
—Cleo Coyle

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Cleo Coyle

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Epigraph

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Chapter Thirty-seven

Chapter Thirty-eight

Chapter Thirty-nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-one

Chapter Forty-two

Chapter Forty-three

Chapter Forty-four

Chapter Forty-five

Chapter Forty-six

Chapter Forty-seven

Chapter Forty-eight

Chapter Forty-nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty-one

Chapter Fifty-two

Chapter Fifty-three

Chapter Fifty-four

Chapter Fifty-five

Chapter Fifty-six

Chapter Fifty-seven

Chapter Fifty-eight

Chapter Fifty-nine

Chapter Sixty

Chapter Sixty-one

Chapter Sixty-two

Chapter Sixty-three

Chapter Sixty-four

Chapter Sixty-five

Chapter Sixty-six

Chapter Sixty-seven

Chapter Sixty-eight

Chapter Sixty-nine

Chapter Seventy

Chapter Seventy-one

Chapter Seventy-two

Chapter Seventy-three

Chapter Seventy-four

Chapter Seventy-five

Chapter Seventy-six

Chapter Seventy-seven

Chapter Seventy-eight

Chapter Seventy-nine

Chapter Eighty

Chapter Eighty-one

Chapter Eighty-two

Chapter Eighty-three

Chapter Eighty-four

Chapter Eighty-five

Chapter Eighty-six

Chapter Eighty-seven

Chapter Eighty-eight

Chapter Eighty-nine

Chapter Ninety

Chapter Ninety-one

Chapter Ninety-two

Chapter Ninety-three

Chapter Ninety-four

Chapter Ninety-five

Chapter Ninety-six

Chapter Ninety-seven

Chapter Ninety-eight

Chapter Ninety-nine

Chapter One Hundred

Chapter One Hundred One

Chapter One Hundred Two

Chapter One Hundred Three

Chapter One Hundred Four

Chapter One Hundred Five

Chapter One Hundred Six

Chapter One Hundred Seven

Chapter One Hundred Eight

Chapter One Hundred Nine

Chapter One Hundred Ten

Chapter One Hundred Eleven

Chapter One Hundred Twelve

Chapter One Hundred Thirteen

Epilogue

Coffee and the Presidency

Abby Lane’s Playlist

Freedom of Information Act Resources

Recipes and Tips from The Village Blend

Prologue

HE stomped the brake and glared at the BMW swerving into his lane. I could smash this idiot’s bumper, but it won’t get me to her any faster . . .

Suppressing the urge to turn this SUV into a battering ram, he laid on the horn instead. It worked. The Beemer swung out of his path and he hit the gas, running the next two yellow lights.

Thanks to the Cherry Blossom Festival, the DC streets were flooded with a sea of rentals, complete with drivers rattled by Washington’s infamous traffic circles.

Built for an era of horses and buggies, the circles were a rite of passage for newcomers, as confusing as many of the rules for navigating this town. His first boss at Justice had tried to warn him about some of those twists and turns before the cancer killed him.

Now she was his prime concern.

Fingers strangling the wheel, he feared the worst, that he might be too late. Seeing congestion ahead, he cut the wheel, swinging onto 31st, a Georgetown residential street that gave him clearance to fly. Then two quick lefts and he was exactly where he needed to be, Wisconsin’s 1200 block.

He double-parked, reached into his suit jacket, and popped the thumb snap on his holstered Glock. Whatever it takes to keep her safe . . .

The Village Blend, DC, was beyond busy, its line spilling onto the sunny sidewalk—locals, college kids, selfie-taking tourists.

“Hey!” A boy with a backpack poked the air. “Cutting the line’s not cool. You can’t—”

A single, arctic stare was all it took to freeze the kid—because in this city, a dead-eyed look from a big guy in a suit meant one thing . . . federal agent. In this case, armed and pissed federal agent.

Inside the shop, he looked for her, his body and soul relieved to find her busy behind the espresso bar. Green eyes brightened at the sight of his approach. Lips parted in surprise and then melted into that special smile, the one reserved only for him.

“Mike, I’m happy to see you, but I’m in the middle of—”

“You’re coming with me.”

“What?”

“Right now, Clare.”

Confusion wiped her smile. She didn’t want to go. But she will, he thought, even if I have to cuff her and carry her out.

“Can you tell me why?”

“No time.” He extended his hand. “If you trust me, you’ll come . . .”

A moment’s hesitation and she took it.

He pulled her outside, practically pushed her into the vehicle, slammed their doors, and peeled out.

“Whose car is this?”

“Not mine and not yours—and that’s the point. If you have a mobile, we have to toss it.”

“It’s back at the coffeehouse, in my handbag!”

“Good. At least they can’t trace us. I’ve already disabled the LoJack.”

“Mike, what is going on?”

He swung off the crowded avenue and zigzagged his way toward the Potomac. “Open the glove compartment.”

She did, saw a travel guide, sunglasses, and a .45. “Now you’re scaring me.”

“Why? I taught you to shoot. You don’t have to be afraid of it.”

“I’m not afraid of it. What’s scaring me is you!”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but lives are in jeopardy.”

“Whose?”

Ours. And we’ve only got a narrow window to change that.”

Glancing her way, he saw her struggling to process his words. For a rare minute of time, he realized Clare Cosi had been rendered speechless.

The afternoon sun was unforgiving, revealing the crow’s-feet at the edges of her eyes, the tiny wrinkles around her downturned mouth. But the golden light also burnished the red strands in her dark chestnut hair. And though her ponytail was coming undone, she wasn’t.

The woman he loved was strong, one of the most resilient spirits he knew, and one of the most stubborn, but it was her loyalty that made her one of the best partners he could have in this situation—that and her innate nosiness.

“Clare, I need you to talk to me about Abby.”

“Abby? You mean—”

“I need to know everything.”

“But you know most of it already.”

“Most of it, not all of it, and I need you to go over it all, even the parts you think I know. No matter how trivial a fact may seem, tell me. Remember, Clare, details matter . . .”

Leaning back, she took a breath. “Then I suppose I should start with Nox Horrenda.”

“What?”

“It’s how I think of it: that horrible night.”

“The night of the first homicide?”

“Yes—although I didn’t know it was murder. Not then. And it wasn’t the first time I saw the victim, that was a week before. The same night I spotted two armed men in my coffeehouse.”

“Back up, sweetheart. What armed men?”

And that’s where her story began . . .

One

“GARDNER, get off the phone.”

“Why?”

“Just do it!”

Still panting from my upstairs sprint, I counted the seconds, waiting for my young co-manager to end his call.

Like the rest of this former bakery, the top floor of our rented building felt as big as a barn. Tall windows bathed the place in sunshine—when the sun was up, that is. Nights were a different story.

None of the fireplaces were working yet, which made this high-ceilinged beauty impossible to properly heat; and on this moonless February evening, in heels, hose, and a little blue dress, I hugged myself to suppress a shiver.

Our DC location hadn’t always been a bakery. Around 1865, it became a confectionary shop with an ice cream parlor so beloved that the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History preserved a portion of its interior in its Hall of Everyday Life.

My everyday life wasn’t nearly so fixed.

At first my move here had been a joy. My elderly employer had found me an elegant situation, house-sitting a historic Georgetown mansion.

Madame Dreyfus Allegro Dubois had made flocks of influential friends in her eighty-plus years running her New York coffee business, so I wasn’t surprised that among them was the absent owner of said mansion.

Madame had even bunked with me for a few weeks to help us open our DC doors—and cut some red tape for a temporary liquor license. Then she headed back to New York, and for the next two months, I settled into a routine with my co-manager, a talented African American jazz musician named Gardner Evans who’d worked for years as a part-time barista in our New York shop.

Hailing from the Baltimore area, Gard had harbored a childhood dream to open a jazz club in Washington; and, given the longtime success of the legendary Blues Alley (just down the avenue from our DC digs), our elderly owner was thrilled to give the concept her blessing, as well as her funding.

After all, Georgetown was a picturesque, historically preserved neighborhood with collegiate ties and bohemian leanings, much like the Greenwich Village location of our original Village Blend. It seemed the perfect way to expand our century-old family business, a dream Madame had been fostering in recent years.

As for my dream, it had less to do with business than a man named Michael Ryan Francis Quinn—NYPD detective by trade, training, and instinct—who was now on temporary assignment at the United States Department of Justice.

The protracted duration of Quinn’s supposedly “transitory” duty was compelling enough for me to relocate. In plain speaking: I missed the man. As a result, I’d agreed to help Gard get this DC branch of our Village Blend coffee business up on its feet—unfortunately, after eight weeks of coaxing, this promising baby was still on its knees.

I handled the day-shift coffee business on the first floor, which was decent, but it wasn’t brisk enough to carry the jazz club, which was hemorrhaging money.

Gardner managed the club, and we agreed the music wasn’t the problem; it was the food. (One recent devastating print review and a dozen online reviews concurred.) That’s why he’d asked me to stop by this evening and evaluate the menu issues, which I’d been doing, table by table—until I spotted the man with the gun.

Keeping my cool, I moved slowly to the stairs and raced up them.

Now I stood before Gardner in our small office on the third floor. He and I shared the space. The rest of this large top floor served other purposes, including a small apartment that Gard used and a “greenroom” for the performers he booked. At the moment, however, I regretted the floor plan didn’t include an armory.

“Okay, talk to me—” Gardner said, putting down his phone. “What’s up?”

“I think we’re about to be robbed.”

“What?!” His espresso-hued eyes went wide. “Have you called the police?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“Because nothing’s happened yet.”

“Then what makes you think—”

“Remember that holdup in the news last week? The bistro on Connecticut Avenue? Two armed men took wallets, smartphones, and jewelry at gunpoint. The perps waited at separate tables for the right time to strike. Well, I think I’ve spotted them downstairs.”

“In the coffeehouse?”

“No, the club. As I was chatting up customers, I came upon this man, sitting alone, wearing a baseball jacket. He’s not eating or drinking alcohol, just sipping a Coke. He’s scanning the room, hardly paying attention to the stage.”

“Is that all?” Gardner smoothed his goatee. “There could be any number of reasons why—”

“Except a big, bald guy, at the opposite end of the room, is doing the same thing—and making occasional eye contact with the first man. When I moved closer, I saw the gun in the big guy’s suit jacket!”

“He’s strapped?”

“Yes!”

“Did either of these guys notice you noticing them?”

“I could feel their eyes on me as I crossed the dining room, but I don’t know that they know I know.”

Now Gardner was on his feet. “Do they look Middle Eastern?”

“Why does that matter?”

“You never heard of prejudiced profiling? We call the cops and we’re wrong, they could sue us for discrimination, defamation, harassment!”

“I suppose the guy in the baseball jacket could pass for a Saudi.”

Gardner moaned.

“Let’s not panic,” I said. “We’ll have to involve the police, but we can do it carefully. Business has been pretty lousy around here without bad publicity killing it completely—”

“Or a lawsuit!”

“I have an idea.”

“I’m all ears.”

I explained my plan, and Gardner nodded. “Let’s do it. But I still hope you’re wrong.”

“That makes two of us.”

Two

I led the way down the stairs to our second floor Jazz Space. Sweet music flowed from the low stage, where three members of Gardner’s own band, Four on the Floor, were wrapping up their first set.

We entered the dining area behind the polished coffee and wine bar. Our young, Italian bartender was helping out on the floor, along with our sole server for the evening.

To keep us from spooking these robbers, I directed Gardner to turn his back on the customers and gaze instead into the ornate mirror mounted behind the long bar. The LED light star field on the twilight blue ceiling and opposite wall were reflected there, along with tonight’s sparsely occupied tables.

As Gardner prepared a drink, I pretended to help.

“Where do I look?” he whispered.

“By the exit to the restroom. See the big bald guy in a suit? He’s the one I know is armed . . .”

As Gardner observed the man, the band ended their set.

Stan “Sticks” McGuire, the band’s wiry new drummer, grabbed his Hoover cane. Stan had a permanent limp, unruly brown hair, and tremendous energy. Despite his leg injury and visual impairment—a blind eye, which he masked with a Captain America eyepatch—he moved smoothly off the stage, unassisted.

Jackson placed his bass into its stand and grabbed the microphone.

“Thanks, folks. Now it’s time for us to clear out so you can listen to our Open Mike favorite. Join us on a musical stroll down the piano keys with the extraordinary fingers of Miss Abby Lane.”

Gardner nearly dropped his glass.

“Don’t panic,” I cautioned. “You might alert the robbers.”

Gardner didn’t reply. He simply melted into barely stifled laughter.

“Have you lost your mind?”

He shook his head. “Clare, I’m sorry. I was burning up the phone lines, looking for next Saturday’s replacement act, and I forgot Abby was playing tonight.”

“Abby? The girl at the piano?”

A serious-looking young woman in a long, funereal black dress sat down behind the Steinway. Her pale features were obscured by black glasses with thick, retro-1950s horn rims and a curtain of shiny ebony hair. With a silent dip of her head she acknowledged the applause, which was enthusiastic.

Clearly, Abby had a small but loyal following. As she began to play, I knew why. Her music immediately captivated, her style was playful yet soulful. And she was a delight to watch. The notes seemed to illuminate her spirit with a joy so radiant that it burned through the industrial-strength eyewear.

I faced Gardner, who’d finally managed to tamp down his uncontrolled mirth.

“I’m confused,” I said in a loud whisper. “Why are you laughing?”

“Because we’re not being robbed.” Gardner’s gaze met mine. “Take another look at the woman behind the piano—a good look.”

Still baffled, I faced the stage again.

The young musician appeared blissfully immersed in her music. I noticed the hint of a tattoo peeking out from under her sleeve, but lots of young women had tattoos, so it wasn’t much of an identifier.

“Is she a celebrity? A famous musician?” I snapped my fingers. “That’s it! She’s a musician, and the two armed men are really her bodyguards.”

“You’re half-right. So you don’t have to worry. We’re not going to be robbed by a pair of Secret Service agents.”

“Secret Service?”

“That’s right.”

“Then the young woman, onstage . . .”

When words failed, Gardner finished for me.

“She’s the President’s daughter.”

Three

AFTER watching Abby for fifteen minutes, I tugged Gardner’s sleeve. I had a potful of questions and didn’t want our conversation overheard, so we climbed back up to our third-floor office.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m sorry, Clare. I wanted to, but . . .” Gard leaned back in the desk chair and rubbed his long neck. “Knowing the truth about Abby comes with a lot of responsibility—rules and worries and procedures. You already had your hands full with the dawn-to-dusk coffee business on the first floor; and Abby only comes to the Jazz Space at night. I wanted to spare you.”

“Do your bandmates know?”

“They didn’t at first, but they do now . . .”

He leaned forward and switched on the house speakers so we could hear more of the live performance of First Daughter Abigail Prudence Parker, who apparently enjoyed appearing at the Village Blend, DC, under the stage name Abby Lane.

“Has she been performing long?”

“She showed up at our very first Open Mike. But she didn’t sign up until week two. She’s played every week after that.”

“She obviously has passionate followers. I tried to engage a middle-aged couple, ask them about our menu, but they insisted they were only here for Abby Lane.”

“I didn’t notice them,” Gard said.

“They were sitting next to the star field wall, near the stage. The man looked East Indian. Beautifully tailored suit, monogrammed tie. The woman was a brunette; hair pinned up; wrapped from head to toe in House of Fen; and her bag was that new five-hundred-dollar Fen Pouch fashionistas are drooling over. A real power couple.”

“Sounds good . . .” My co-manager nodded. “Maybe they’ll tell some of their well-heeled friends about us.”

“And did you notice that olive-skinned hipster with the gray beard and ponytail? He couldn’t tear his eyes away. I’ve never seen him around, either, at least not in the coffeehouse.”

“I know that guy. He only comes on the nights Abby performs. Always alone. Last week he sat at the front table.” Gardner snorted. “Fan or not, he’s in for a surprise if he tries to get any closer to that girl.”

“What do you mean?”

My co-manager replied with the story of how he discovered Abby’s true identity . . .

“The first time she got up the nerve to play at our Wednesday Open Mike Night, I was impressed with her ability. She stayed for the Open Jam Session and Stan worked with her, helped ease her into improvising with other musicians. Over the next two weeks, I noticed she came by to listen to my group. After her third Open Mike, I decided to invite her for a talk over coffee. But when the Open Jam Session ended, she hustled down the stairs and out the door. I hurried to catch up, down to the street, where I saw her climbing into the backseat of this big SUV. I called out her name and ran toward her . . .”

He shook his head at the memory. “Huge mistake! Two beefy guys came out of nowhere, and wham! I got T-boned and then pinned to the pavement. Man, I hurt for a week.”

“What happened next?”

“Well, there I was on the ground, rasping like Louis Armstrong, and suddenly Abby is standing over us screaming, ‘Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him!’

The overzealous Secret Service agents released Gardner, and the misunderstanding was cleared up.

“Now I don’t feel so bad,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“You didn’t recognize Abby’s bodyguards as federal agents, either.”

“Don’t worry about it. They’re trained to mingle with the public.”

“I would have expected navy blazers with joe-obvious earpieces, you know the kind, with curly wires running into hidden radios—”

“They have wireless earpieces now, shoved so deep into their ear canals they have to be removed with magnets. And their jackets do hide communications equipment—smartphones. That’s how they talk to each other.” He snorted again. “Thanks to Abby, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about the dos and don’ts of the Secret Service.”

“I gather you and Abby had that coffee talk, after all.”

“That very night. That’s when Abby told me who she was, and swore me to secrecy. And the band, too, once they figured out the score.”

“When did they catch on?”

“A week after I did. It was Stan who saw it first.”

“Saw?”

“That’s right, Clare. For a near-blind guy, he never misses a trick.”

“Did Abby tell you why she’s keeping her identity a secret?”

Gardner shrugged noncommittally, but I got the impression he knew more than he was letting on. Meanwhile my own mind was racing.

A piece of news like this, released into social media, could go viral—even global—overnight. My eyes glazed envisioning the paparazzi and journalists of this town lining up at our door, not to mention the curious public. We’d be packed for a long time to come.

“Is there any chance Abby would be okay with us telling the truth about her Open Mike appearances?”

“Doubt it.”

“Would you at least let me ask her?”

“I don’t know, Clare . . .”

“Please?”

Gardner released a hard breath. Then he fell silent, tuning back in to Abby’s performance. Finally, he cocked an ear at the speaker. “She’s about to finish her set.”

“How do you know?”

“She always wraps with ‘Cool Reception.’ It’s an original piece.”

I listened until the final notes of the haunting song faded into applause. Though the crowd was small, the reaction was wholehearted.

Gardner rose. “Let’s go . . .”

“Back downstairs?”

“Yeah, it’s time you met our First Daughter.”

Four

AFTER introductions were made, we led Abby upstairs for a break in our greenroom. Not that it was completely green. I’d painted lush trees against walls of a pale, powder blue that turned luminous when the sun poured through the skylight. At night, stars twinkled above and the room’s floor lamps bathed the space in a warm glow.

Couches and armchairs littered the perimeter of the room, but we all took seats around the circular dining table. Gard called refreshment requests down to the bar and kitchen. His band settled in, and Abby fidgeted in her chair, still pumped from her performance.

I started off by asking the young woman about her musical training.

“I’ve studied classical piano since I was six, Ms. Cosi. Once upon a time, I dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. But as my mother loves to say, ‘Most dreams turn into nightmares, Abigail. Better to keep both eyes open . . .’”

Stan gave a disapproving grunt.

Either he didn’t care for her reference to both eyes being open—given that his military service left him with only one—or he disagreed with the statement philosophically.

I absolutely disagreed with it philosophically but, for the moment, I held my tongue. Gardner had more experience with DC than I did, and he advised me early on to keep my opinions to myself. “If you want to stay in business in this town, Clare, don’t stir the pot. Just pour from it . . .”

In theory, I agreed. Factions came to Washington from every state in the union and every region of the planet. But I wanted our DC Village Blend to remain a blend, true to the basic principle our country was founded upon—

Everyone was welcome.

Unfortunately, everyone included disapproving bodyguards, like the young female Secret Service agent posted next to the greenroom’s open door.

The athletically built woman had been among the downstairs audience from the start, but in her jeans and Windbreaker she blended in so well that I hadn’t noticed her until she introduced herself as Secret Service Agent Sharon Cage and insisted on checking the greenroom before Abby went up.

With a golden ponytail as high and tight as her on-duty posture, Agent Cage’s frowning gaze studied everyone at the table, though she focused most of her attention on me. Obviously the woman didn’t care for my questioning Abby.

Well, last I checked, the First Amendment was still in force . . .

I asked about her studies, and Abby told me she was a political science major at American University. I couldn’t hide my surprise.

“You’re not pursuing a degree in music?”

The girl shrugged. “It’s no use.”

“Why?” Gardner jumped in. “Come on, Abby, admit it. You’re great and you know it.”

The girl laughed. “So you say. No offense, Gard, but I’ve had some of the best instructors in the world, and the consensus was always the same. I’m good, but nowhere near good enough to be taken seriously.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Everyone who enjoyed your music tonight certainly took you seriously. And anyone can see you love playing.”

“That’s true, Ms. Cosi. Music touches me the way that nothing else does.” She hugged herself, one hand absently touching the musical notes tattooed on her arm. “I have a digital piano in my dorm. I’ve used it for years. It’s got hammer-weighted keys so it’s got the feel of an acoustic . . .” She shrugged. “I always play with the headphones on, you know, so I won’t bother anyone . . .”

When her voice trailed off, I leaned closer. “You know, Abby, back in New York City, I employ young artists. They work as baristas to make ends meet while they pursue their love of painting, acting, writing, dancing. And do you know what I’ve learned from them?”

“What?”

“The practice of any art is a worthy pursuit. Whether you’re the world’s best at it or not is beside the point.”

“Excuse me?” Abby’s brow knitted. “But isn’t that the whole point? Aren’t we all supposed to be striving to be The Best?”

Stan grunted. “You mean like the best rental car company?”

“Or best football team?” Jackson laughed. “We’re number one! We’re number one!”

Stan pulled out his sticks and found a beat. The band hooted and clapped and chanted in time. “Best, best, best of the rest!”

Abby laughed, and they finally settled down—all except Stan, who launched into a Miss America drumroll. “Step right up, son, and accept the prize for The Best Half-Blind Jazz Musician to Play the Table in a Washington, DC, Coffeehouse, hooah!” The room fell silent, and he grinned at Abby. “At last, my life is complete.”

“All right, you got me.” Abby returned Stan’s smile. “I never thought of it like that.”

“Well, you should,” Stan said. “There is a massive metaphysical difference between striving to be THE best and striving to be YOUR best.”

“Darn right.” Jackson held out his fist and Stan bumped it. Then Theo did.

But Gard didn’t join his band. Instead, he folded his arms.

“You don’t agree?” I asked.

“I do. But let’s face it, most of the public doesn’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Stan challenged.

“It means, as much as I hate to say it, Abby’s point is valid. The public’s been conditioned to think of every art form as some kind of sport.” He exchanged a glance with me. “Or political race.”

Abby nodded. “Sometimes it feels as though everyone and everything in this country is rigged to be in some kind of competition.”

“Not everyone,” Stan insisted. “And not everything. True art is not about competition. It’s about expression.”

I leaned toward Abby. “That’s exactly what the people in my New York coffeehouse community believe. If art feeds something inside you, then you should practice it. That’s it. That’s the only measuring stick you need.”

“Look, I can see you’re all trying to help me with this, but . . .” She shook her head. “Coming here was a real leap for me. Gard and Stan and the other Open Mike musicians have all been really supportive, and I’ve been so happy playing. But this can’t be part of my real life.”

“Why not?” I pressed. “I’m sure Gardner is dying to give you a paid performance slot.”

Gardner nodded. “That’s true.”

“Come on, you guys know why I can’t do that.” Abby glanced around the whole table, then at me. “You know who I am, Ms. Cosi.”

“I do now.”

“So you know I’m not a private person anymore. I live in a bubble and I have a responsibility to my family, my country, and someone else, too. I can’t embarrass them. They know best, and they want something better for me.”

“What on earth could be better for you than something that makes you so deeply happy?”

My blurted words appeared to cast a serious shadow across Abby’s face.

For heaven’s sake, I thought, how could the simple idea of being “deeply happy” bring on such darkness in a bright young woman?

Then Abby’s hand slid down her tattooed arm, and for the first time I noticed something that shook me up—and shed some light.

Raised white scar lines marred the tender skin of Abby’s left wrist. The girl was right-handed and those scars were unmistakable. Abby had attempted suicide.

There was one more thing I noticed: the lines were vertical.

When Abby tried to end her life, she meant business.

Five

I said nothing, but I couldn’t stop the shock from crossing my face.

Thankfully, Gardner spoke quickly to cover my reaction. “I think what Ms. Cosi meant is that you’re very talented, Abby, and it bothers us all to see you belittling your gift.”

“Really, you’re fussing too much. I’m nothing special.”

“But you are,” Gardner fired back. “The people in your past who decided you weren’t good enough were judging you by the wrong music. You told me you’ve been studying jazz on your own, and it shows. Replacing Bach with bebop is exactly what you needed.”

“It does feel good. I mean, I love the improvisation with jazz, you know? It’s so freeing.”

Gard nodded his approval. “Just keep up your playing with other musicians—instead of all alone in that dorm room—and you’ll be a shining star. You aren’t going to ‘embarrass’ anyone, if that’s what your family is worried about. They should be proud.”

“If you were my daughter, I’d be proud,” I assured her. “Consider us your musical family—and if you ever want to perform a full evening of jazz, we’d all be thrilled to host you.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really!” Gard and I practically shouted together.

“I can’t promise anything, but . . .” Abby chewed her bottom lip. “I will think about it.”

“No,” Stan said.

No? Stunned at Stan’s discouraging word, I opened my mouth to argue until I saw the young man’s hand reach across the table to affectionately squeeze Abby’s fingers.

“Don’t think about it,” he said. “Because jazz isn’t about thinking—”

“—it’s about feeling,” she joined in, finishing the saying in unison. “About taking what you know and letting go.”

As the pair laughed together, Agent Cage redirected her frown from me to Stan.

Abby didn’t appear to notice. She just continued laughing. Then she started talking with Stan about a duet they were working on. I noticed how animated she became and felt myself smiling—until she brushed away an errant strand of dark hair and I caught another glimpse of those pale white scars.

I didn’t know much about the First Family. President Parker had been a centrist senator for years, rising in his party, and taking the White House without much drama. During the election cycle, it was Abby’s handsome, outspoken older brother, Kip, who’d been the media darling. Abby had remained far in the background—quiet, studious, private. The photos I did recall of her had little in common with her current look, and I couldn’t remember any stories, positive or negative, about her personal history.

My thoughts were interrupted by Luther, our older assistant chef, who appeared with a big smile and a generous tray of savory selections from the kitchen: Sticky Chicken Wings glazed with his special sweet and tangy Carolina Mustard Barbecue Sauce; hot, crispy steak fries; fat, crunchy onion rings; Mini Meat Loaves with Smashed Baby Reds and Roasted Garlic Gravy; Sweet-Hot Honey-Chili Chicken; and, for dessert, Coffee Cups of Warm Apple Crisp with an Oatmeal Cookie Crumble Top, each waiting to be finished with a scoop of his No-Churn Cinnamon and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.

I wasn’t surprised that Abby and the band had chosen items from Luther’s Wednesday chalkboard specials. Most of our customers were doing the same, and I didn’t blame them, given the items on our young executive chef’s fussy, pricey standard menu—

Pork Belly & Octopus on Black Rice; Honeycomb Tripe in a Chorizo-Pimento Nage; Oslo Creamed and Pickled Herring; Tuna Burger with Wasabi Mayo; Olive Oil Gelato with Rosemary Shortbread . . .

Not that I had anything against bacon and seafood, cow’s stomach, Norwegian delicacies, or a tuna puck with green mayonnaise. And truth be told, the man’s olive oil gelato was absolutely delicious.

But receipts didn’t lie.

While five years ago Manhattan’s food critics may have crowned Chef Tad Hopkins a “culinary prodigy,” here and now, in our Georgetown Jazz Space, the man’s gourmet fare was a resounding flop.

The only nights that our kitchen made a profit were Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the chef’s days off, when Luther ran the kitchen—and whipped up his down-home daily specials.

Several times I tried to speak to our executive chef about his menu, but he refused to listen. So tonight, I’d come in to hear customer feedback with my own ears.

In the meantime, I noticed Stan talking into Gard’s ear. A few minutes later, my co-manager swallowed the last of his sticky wings, wiped his lips of the tangy-sweet goodness, and cleared his throat.

“So, Abby, what do you think of coming back next Saturday night? To perform, I mean?”

“But there’s no Open Mike on Saturdays.”

“Our headliner canceled, so this would be a paid gig. Besides, Sticks insisted I ask.” Gard nudged the drummer until Stan grinned behind his Captain America eye patch. “I think he’s hot to play that duet you two have been working on.”

“Oh, that would be awesome!” Abby cried, then turned to Stan. “But are we ready? There are still some rough spots.”

Stan shrugged. “So we’ll practice every day. We have a week.”

I could see the excitement in Abby’s eyes. “I’d like to . . .”

“Then do it,” Gardner said. “You’ve got the chops—”

“And the butts,” Stan added.

Abby blinked. “Butts?”

“Butts in the seats!” He leaned close. “You have fans, girlfriend. If Gardner puts up a sign downstairs that Abby Lane will be playing a full set next Saturday night, these folks—and more—will be back to hear you perform.”

“Say yes,” Gard urged. “My band can back you, right, guys?”

“Heck, yeah!”

Abby grinned and silently nodded. Yes!

“See that, Clare, my booking problem is over . . .” Then Gard gave them a taste of their future introduction. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the world premiere of Abby Lane with ‘Three’ on the Floor!”

As the boys applauded, I joined in. Only one person in the room lacked any cheer—Agent Sharon Cage.

The wider Abby grinned, the deeper the Secret Service agent frowned.

Six

“AND you only learned about Abby that night?” Mike Quinn pressed, eyes on the road. “You weren’t aware she’d been coming to your Jazz Space for weeks?”

From the passenger seat, I shook my head. “My primary management responsibility was the coffee shop trade—early in the morning to late afternoon. I was only there that night to help Gard sort out the problems with our dinner menu.”

“It’s hard to believe nobody recognized her.”

“No, it isn’t. Not with those big, retro glasses. And her hair was so different. In the few photos I remember from her father’s campaign, she had curly blond hair. As Abby Lane, her hair was straight and ebony black . . .”

As I paused to clear my throat, I tumbled into a tailspin of coughing.

Quinn reached a hand into the backseat and produced a clear plastic bottle. “Sip this, Clare. You’ve been talking nonstop since we left Washington . . .”

The stark glare of the setting sun rays revealed the deep lines etched into his face. Brown stubble, a shade darker than his sandy hair, now dotted his jutting chin. I knew he was getting tired, but his steady blue gaze never left the windshield.

I stared at the bottled water he’d given me. “I’d really prefer a double espresso with my primo Sulawesi.”

“If you crave caffeine, we can stop at one of those places.”

Quinn jerked his head in the direction of a billboard for the most ubiquitous coffee and pastry franchise in the USA.

I frowned. “You said making a stop would be dangerous. In this instance, I agree.”

He cracked a smile and then the window, filling the vehicle with the cool whistling wind of fresh country air.

I unscrewed the bottle and took a gulp. The water was lukewarm, but it soothed my talk-tired throat. Quinn must have been reading my mind.

“You want to give your vocal cords a rest for a couple of minutes?”

“What I want is for you to do some talking.”

“Me?”

“I’ve shown you plenty of trust. How about you return the favor?”

On a long exhale, Quinn nodded and finally gave me a briefing on our situation. And brief was the word.

In a nutshell, I was a wanted woman.

Now most women my age would consider that a compliment. I would, too, if it didn’t involve the possibility of a “Wanted” bulletin being issued to every police precinct in the country. To be painfully specific, Mike learned that I’d become the primary suspect in a case of cold-blooded murder.

And that was the better news.

“What else?” I pressed. “You’re holding something back.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but the feds want to bring you in for ‘questioning,’ too.”

“On what? The DC murder?”

“No. Conspiracy to kidnap the President’s daughter.”

“What?!”

We discussed the situation for many more minutes. But the bottom line was an ugly truth—the local charge would reinforce the fed’s belief that I was a “bad guy.”

“If it were only the homicide charge, I would have brought you a top lawyer,” Quinn said, “but the federal involvement makes it too heavy. Once they take you in for something like that, I’d have no chance of contacting you, helping you sort out the real truth, and . . .”

“And? And what?”

He took a breath, blew out air. “I know the kind of tactics they’d use to loosen your tongue.”

“Aggressive interrogation?”

“I can’t let you go through that. Or let them railroad you on a set of circumstantial evidence.”

“They’re going to find us, Mike. They’re going to track us down. You know that, right?”

“I know. But this little flight of ours will buy us time.”

“Enough time to find answers? To hand the authorities the truth instead of me?”

“And me. We’re in this together now. I’m helping you evade the police. Whatever they think you did, they can call me an accessory . . .”

I squeezed my eyes shut, wanting to scream. Instead, I filled my lungs with the fresh country air.

I hated that Mike was putting himself in jeopardy like this. But I trusted him. If we were on the run, then we needed to be—and there was no easier way to straighten out this colossal tangle.

When my eyes opened again, I felt calmer, though there wasn’t much to see. A lonely stretch of trees and guardrails. A small town came and went. Weeds, guardrails, and more weeds—fitting, since we were in them. Then a sign appeared, and Quinn made a turn.

“What’s our destination?”

“Baltimore.”

“Baltimore?!”

We’d been on the back roads since we left DC. Certainly, the Baltimore–Washington Parkway would have been a much easier route. I mentioned that to Quinn.

“Easier to be found, too,” he said. “Remember, this isn’t my vehicle, and that should keep us off the radar. But the feds have facial recognition tools and ungodly tracking resources. If they see us on a highly traveled highway, we could be tracked by helicopter, traced by a Stingray tower, or pursued by a drone.”

At a red light, Quinn turned to me. “They’ll be looking for us on those main highways. It’s the last place we should go.”

Quinn continued to stick to the roads less taken.

“So what’s in Baltimore?” I finally asked.

I heard a crack as Quinn stretched his neck.

“Rest and a change of vehicles—”

“Speaking of which, whose SUV is this, anyway? I hope to heaven you didn’t steal it.”

“Borrowed. A co-worker had to take personal leave unexpectedly—flew to another state to be with a sick parent. I agreed to get his vehicle out of the shop for him, so I had his keys. No one else knows.”

“We’re car thieves, too?”

“I fully intend to get his property back to him.”

“Without bullet holes, I hope.”

“That’s the idea.”

“Is that all we’re after in Baltimore? Rest and a new vehicle?”

“There’s a good lead, too, I think . . .”

He took back the bottle and drained it.

I touched his arm. “The tension is tiring you. Why don’t you let me drive?”

“What I want is for you to grab another water from the backseat, and tell me more.”

“About Abby?”

“About the second time you saw her. When was it exactly?”

“A week and a day after I met her. Remember Nox Horrenda? Well, this was that horrible night.”

“What night of the week was it?”

“Thursday—and it didn’t start off badly. Gard and I had talked all day about Abby’s big headliner debut on Saturday. We were ready, except for the fact that our menu was still a major problem, which is why I broke into my own coffeehouse.”

“You what?”

“Okay, technically I didn’t. But I did.”

“What happened? Did you forget your keys?”

“On the contrary, I brought every passkey with me.”

Quinn shot me a glance. “Okay, Cosi, I’m officially intrigued. Better take it from the top.”

After a long swig of water, I did.

Seven

WEARING black boots, black jeans, and a black trench coat, I disarmed the security system and slipped through the front door.

The table and chairs on our deserted first floor appeared cobwebbed with shadows, but I avoided turning on any lights; and when a Metro DC police cruiser rolled down Wisconsin, I hid in the gloom until it slipped out of sight.

While I had a perfect right to enter the business I managed, tonight I didn’t want witnesses. So I moved with extreme stealth until a noise on the second floor froze my feet.

First came laughter. Then a few bright bars of jazz . . .

Gardner and his bandmates must be having an after-hours jam session.

Explaining to Gard what I was doing here would be uncomfortable, but it was far better than another shouting session with my hotheaded chef, who I prayed was long gone.

Moving to DC seemed an exciting change, and I naively assumed that things would go swimmingly. They might have, too, except for one giant shark in the tank—a beady-eyed shark with a blond buzz cut, a juvenile smirk, and a great white jacket.

It was Chef Tad Hopkins who pushed me to this new low in my management career—snooping around my own coffeehouse.

I passed through the swinging kitchen doors, turned on the lights, and blinked against the fluorescent glare.

I was now in forbidden territory.

After our disagreement earlier, Hopkins barred me from his kitchen “for life.” There was little I could do about that banishment, or anything else I saw as wrong. As the loudmouth chef pointed out, he was under a two-year, ironclad contract, which included “complete control” of the kitchen and costly penalties if we “violated his terms.”

The problem was: I didn’t hire the man, and I couldn’t fire him. That privilege belonged to our employer, Madame Blanche Dreyfus Allegro DuBois, who was presently far away from the fuss, in her New York penthouse.

It wouldn’t be easy changing Madame’s opinion of this twenty-nine-year-old “prodigy” who she’d been tickled to “hook.” But if I could find evidence that Hopkins had violated his contract, then we could kick him outta here, and a better man could run the kitchen—namely, Luther Bell.

Though Luther was the assistant chef, he was much older than Tad—not that chronological age was the issue. The problem with Tad Hopkins wasn’t age, it was his lack of maturity.

Luther was a well-grounded gentleman who could stay calm and focused, even in the face of Tad’s tirades. Luther also possessed a kindness in his soul that everyone responded to, and that sweetness was reflected in his cooking.

Like the passionate notes of jazz playing every night on our stage, each bite of Luther’s food seemed to carry the love of the man who prepared it.

Sure, Chef Hopkins was talented. But ambition and ego had blinded him, and his loss of perspective had become toxic. This wasn’t a trait he’d revealed initially, which is how my kindly old employer had been fooled. The chef could be funny and charming when he needed to be; and for far too long, I believed I could penetrate his thick shark skin.

That belief ended with our first argument of the day.

Once I show Tad the evidence of his failed menu, he’ll change his tune!

Or so I’d thought. But the hotshot chef didn’t see his menu as a failure. He blamed Gardner and me, claiming we weren’t attracting the right kind of clientele who would appreciate his cuisine.

“What the Village Blend really needs is intelligent management and a highly paid publicity team,” he’d declared and named two of his friends for the job.

Ready to strangle him, I not so gently pointed out that this was a club that showcased jazz, not a temple to one gourmet chef.

My observation didn’t exactly help the situation, and the chef promptly barred me from his domain.

But with Abby’s big debut coming up, I was determined to feature Luther’s down-home chalkboard specials on Saturday—our busiest night.

So despite our nasty encounter that morning, I waited until late afternoon before pushing my way through the swinging doors of Tad Hopkins’s kitchen, for one more try at talking some sense into our senseless chef . . .

*   *   *

“CLARE! Where have you been keeping yourself? It’s been too long!”

The warm greeting didn’t come from the chef. It was Luther who’d welcomed me with a broad smile and a voice that rumbled low under the high clatter of stainless steel.

“We both know Chef Hopkins doesn’t like me butting in,” I reminded him.

“Well, I don’t feel that way. And the chef isn’t in the kitchen right now, so come on in!”

I hesitated. My business was with the chef, not his assistant. On the other hand, I hadn’t eaten in hours, and the sizzling skillet was sending out tempting aromas.

Without thinking, I moved forward like a thirsty nomad toward an oasis, licking my lips with anticipation . . .

Eight

WITH a rainbow of splashes decorating his white jacket, Luther’s russet brow glistened from the heat, and his cropped silver hair displayed the same hue as the lid he used to clap over his giant skillet.

“Do I smell wine?” I asked.

“Hard cider.”

With a wink he lifted the pan’s lid and revealed culinary magic: chopped bacon, Vidalia onions, and bright red peppers, all blended with pounds of fresh green string beans caramelized in a succulent, sweet-tart glaze.

“You want a taste?”

“Does a cat want nip?”

Luther directed me to a corner table, where he proudly presented me with a sample bowl.

The first delicious bite made my mouth salivate beautifully. The sweet-tart flavor came from a combination of hard cider and sweet apple juice, a brilliant pairing with the smokiness of the bacon, richness of the caramelized onions and slight crunchiness of the al dente beans.

Next, Luther set down a plate of Buttermilk Fried Chicken Wings.

“Is that a combo, or what?” he crowed. “I must have made fourteen tons of coleslaw working at those federal cafeterias. Now, don’t get me wrong—nobody can say that Luther Christian Bell doesn’t enjoy a good slaw. But it might be time for a change, and I think these string beans pair perfectly with my grandmother’s buttermilk fried chicken. I did wings to keep the price down, and it gives the folks more pieces on their plates.”

I nodded. “Little bites on the plate work much better for a nightclub.”

Luther’s instincts were spot-on, but then he’d been working in the food preparation business for thirty years; first in the Marine Corps, then in New Orleans, and finally at various United States government cafeterias in the DC area, including a stint at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and the famous U.S. Senate Dining Room.

His natural home was the kitchen, and I never knew anyone who enjoyed cooking more. According to Luther, that love was born on the knee of his great-great-grandmother, a former slave from South Carolina.

“These are scrumptious,” I managed between chews. “The chicken is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. And these string beans? That fresh brightness with all those vibrant flavors is the perfect complement to your fried chicken.”

Luther’s smile outshined the gleam of the spotless kitchen.

“So when are you adding these Hard Cider Green Beans to the menu?”

“Next week. Tonight is a test run for the staff dinner.”

“Why not try them out for tonight’s chalkboard specials?”

“That’s not up to me, Clare . . .”

Of course, I knew that. When Chef Hopkins was working, he created the specials. But they never sold as well as Luther’s.

“So what are Chef Hopkins’s daily specials?”

Luther suppressed a chuckle. (I suspected he got a kick out of my endless rounds with Hopkins over the menu, and he likely knew the specials were going to ring the opening bell of our next toe-to-toe match.)

“As I recall, the first special is Pomegranate Pork Chops.”

“With or without those annoying crunchy seeds?”

Once again, Luther suppressed a laugh.

“What else?”

“Squab with Black Pepper–Strawberry Compote.”

I turned away, pretending to be ill.

Luther snorted.

“Okay, I’m over it. Hit me with another one.”

This time Luther held my gaze, expression deadly serious. “He’s got Sea Trout Stuffed with Cranberry Chutney in the freezer, ready to go.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Do I look like I’m kidding?”

“I know fresh sea trout was delivered yesterday, because I paid the supplier—” Too much, I silently added. “How and why are they suddenly frozen? Is freezing some step in Chef Hopkins’s ‘prodigy’ preparation?”

Luther folded his corded arms. “All I know is the chef loaded the trout into his minivan last night. When he came back this afternoon, he stuffed the freezer with preprepared servings.”

“That makes zero sense. How does he want you to cook it?”

“He told me to zap it in the microwave. The chef said the trout steams in the bag.”

“You’re telling me all that lovely fresh trout is now encased in plastic? To be steamed—in a microwave? And why would he take the fish away, only to bring it back?”

Luther showed me his palms. “It’s his kitchen.”

“For now,” I said. “Would you mind showing me that fish?”

Luther waved me to the walk-in. Shivering in the big freezer, I glanced over the preprepared fish, trying to weigh it with my eyes. It seemed to me this was roughly half the order I paid for.

“What are you doing?” Luther asked.

“Checking something . . .” I unwrapped one of the chef’s prepped fish and frowned. Freezer burned? In less than twenty-four hours? I don’t think so . . .

Despite the walk-in’s zero degrees, my blood started boiling.

“Luther, where exactly is our executive chef?”

“He had a personal appointment,” Luther replied. “Said he’d be back later.”

Now, why is my highly paid executive taking personal time during dinner prep? And why did he take these fish off the premises? Where is the other half of the order? And why do these fresh mid-Atlantic catches look like they were sitting in a North Pole snowbank for the past month?

At that point I made a vow to get some answers, and hung around after my day shift to confront the chef when he finally showed up again.

No surprise, Hopkins blew his stack for a second time. He absolutely refused to allow Luther’s specials to go on Saturday’s menu, or explain his suspicious activity with all that beautiful sea trout.

And that was why I returned to the coffeehouse in the dead of night. If Chef Hopkins wasn’t giving up answers, I’d sniff them out for myself!

Nine

AT 1:00 AM, I was back in Hopkins’s kitchen.

Except for the soft hum of refrigerators, the room was quiet—and spotless, I had to give him credit for that.

I passed the gleaming silver counters, the heavy-duty ranges, and the dumbwaiter that took food up to the second floor. Rounding a corner, I stepped into a short hall, where Chef Hopkins had turned a small storeroom into a private office, which he always kept locked.

But I’d come prepared with my giant ring of manager’s passkeys, all twenty-two of them. I inserted the key into the knob lock, but it didn’t turn.

Oh, you’re kidding me. It appeared the chef had changed the doorknob and lock.

I was already suspicious of Hopkins. Now alarm bells were going off in my head, until I heard an even more startling sound—

Bam!

Bam-Bam-BAM!

Someone was pounding on the back door, and I immediately recalled a story Gardner had told me.

Coming down from his third-floor apartment in the wee hours, he found the kitchen occupied by Chef Hopkins, who was speaking in hushed tones with a thuggish, middle-aged man in a long, black leather coat. This man had pale, craggy features, a receding hairline, and an Eastern European accent.

My co-manager asked the chef what was up and was immediately told to “forget what he saw and mind his own damn business” (that’s the sort of charm Chef Hopkins exudes).

Of course, Gardner recounted the incident to me.

After years in New York, I’d learned about chefs who did quasi-illegal things in this insanely competitive restaurant trade.

One head of a Michelin-star Manhattan kitchen traded in smuggled caviar from Russia. Another illegally demanded a cut of his waitstaff’s tips. And then there was the proprietor of a Chelsea gastropub who obtained certain items at a cut-rate price, after they “fell off” a big restaurant chain’s trucks.

Now I knew the Village Blend didn’t serve caviar, bilk its baristas, or pay off truck drivers to misplace a case of frozen lobster tails.

So who was the strange Eastern European man? What was his business in my coffeehouse? And could that be him at the back door right now, looking to find Chef Hopkins for some nefarious purpose? Like, oh, say, buying up a big order of fresh sea trout at a discount price—and covering the crime by replacing it with half the amount of cheap, prefrozen fish?

Expecting to discover the truth, I decided to answer the back door (couldn’t wait, actually). If I could subtly question this mystery man, I was sure I could get him to reveal some kind of net to catch and cook our resident shark.

First I grabbed a big meat cleaver (in case the man got nasty). Then I released the door’s dead bolt. The loud click sounded, and the pounding abruptly stopped. But before I could pull the steel door wide, it burst inward.

On a cold blast of night air, a well-dressed gentleman rushed inside with astonishing force, slamming me backward. My rear hit the deck and the cleaver flew out of my hand and across the spotless floor.

With his eyes wide and hands shaking, the intruder stared down at me.

His face was clean-shaven, his features refined, his skin a milk chocolate hue. He looked East Indian, maybe Pakistani—and definitely not the pale, leather-jacketed thug whom Gardner had seen come through this back door.

He also reeked of alcohol!

“I am s-s-o s-sorry,” he slurred, “but I’ve got to find it! I know it’s here . . .” (The words came out sounding more like “I gosh to fine ish”—but I got the message.)

I raised myself on both elbows and met his ink-dark gaze. He wore no coat, just an exquisite pin-striped suit, yet his shirt was sloppily opened with a few buttons missing. His thick, dark hair was disheveled, the white dress shirt matching his temples, a sharp contrast to his dark complexion.

As his undone tie slithered to the floor beside me, I realized—

I’ve seen this man before!

“Who are you?” I asked, trying to sound calm. “What do you want?”

“I’ve gosh to fine ish,” he simply repeated and frantically scanned the kitchen. When he spied the swinging doors leading into the coffeehouse, he bolted.

Ten

“WAIT!” I cried, but the man shot past me, colliding with a food caddy on the way. A stainless steel shower of forks, knives, and spoons pelted me as the cart toppled.

Undeterred, he crossed the kitchen in a weaving run and plowed through the swinging doors.

I was on my feet and on his trail, bellowing—

“Help! Gardner! Anyone!”

Bursting out of the kitchen, I spotted the maniac man heading for the staircase.

“Help!” I called again. “There’s a crazy drunk in the coffeehouse!”

The second floor is where we kept the alcohol, and I assumed he was heading to the bar.

As I raced up the steps after him, I heard a table crash in the Jazz Space, followed by an ominous silence. I hurried through the archway to find a shocking tableau in the middle of the dining room—

Stan “Sticks” McGuire was holding the intruder at bay with his white Hoover cane. Onstage, First Daughter Abigail Prudence Parker stood fearfully, mouth agape.

What in heaven’s name is Abby doing here at this hour?!

My frantic scan of the room gave me another shock, a dreadful one.

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