A smartphone dating game turns the Village Blend into a hookup hotspot--until a gunshot turns the landmark coffeehouse into a crime scene.
As Village Blend manager Clare Cosi fixes a date for her wedding, her ex-husband is making dates through smartphone swipes. Clare has mixed feelings about these match-ups happening in her coffeehouse. Even her octogenarian employer is selecting suitors by screenshot! But business is booming, and Clare works hard to keep the espresso shots flowing. Then one night, another kind of shot leaves a dead body for her to find.
The corpse is an entrepreneur who used dating apps with reckless abandon--breaking hearts along the way. The NYPD quickly arrests one of the heartbreaker's recent conquests. But the suspect's sister tearfully swears her sibling was framed. Clare not only finds reason to believe it, she fears the real killer will strike again.
Now Clare is "swiping" through suspects in her own shop--with the help of her globetrotting ex-husband, a man who's spent his life hunting for coffee and women. Together they're determined to find justice before another shot rings out.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Shot down again . . ."
My ex-husband dropped his hard body onto the soft stool at our crowded coffee bar, the thorny end of a long-stemmed rose still pricking his hand.
"Three strikes in one night," I said. "Does that mean you're out?"
"No, Clare. That's another kind of ball game."
"I hope you're talking about the Yankees."
"What do you think?"
"I think you should give up pitching woo and pitch in behind this counter . . ."
We were short-staffed this evening with every caf table occupied, the coffee bar packed, and a line of customers spilling into the chilly West Village night. Couples who couldn't find seats were sipping their lattes on the cold sidewalk.
According to my young baristas, the reason for this bounty of business was a hot new "dating game" application for smartphones. Hot was the operative word, since the app was called Cinder. This one included "user ratings" for the best public meeting places in the city, and we currently ranked in the top three.
Now that our landmark coffeehouse was a hookup hot spot for digital dating, my quiet evenings at the Village Blend displayed all the tranquility of a Times Square crosswalk.
"I'll work a shift," Matt told me. "But I'm not aproning-up until you caffeinate me."
"You want a single?" I asked.
"Make it a Red Eye."
The Red Eye aka "Shot in the Dark" was the barista's answer to the bartender's boilermaker, a jolty combination of espresso poured into a cup of high-caffeine light roast. It wasn't for the faint of heart. But then neither was my ex-husband.
A legend in the trade, Matteo Allegro was among the most talented coffee hunters in the world, as comfortable on a yacht floating in Portofino as in a muddy Jeep flirting with the edge of the Andes on Bolivia's infamous Death Road.
Adrenaline wasn't his only drug. During our marriage, he became addicted to cocaine while partying too hard below the equator. I helped him kick that deadly habit but failed to dent his other addiction-women.
Matt generated enough heat around the world's coffee belt to increase global warming, which is why I made the mature decision to put our marriage on ice. Even so, his behavior tonight seemed excessive. Who makes three dates in one night? And how could Matt have possibly struck out on all of them?
The very idea was (I had to admit) amusing. Not that anyone's rejection deserved to be mocked. On the contrary, I did my level best to suppress the surging wisecracks.
My raven-haired barista Esther, on the other hand, did not share my overactive conscience. From her perch at the register, she propped a hand on her ample hip and targeted Matt through her black-framed glasses.
"Did I hear right?" she asked. "The prince of passion was passed over? The sultan of seduction shunned? The archduke of desire dumped?"
"Hard to believe, I know . . ." With a smirk, Matt pushed his sweater's sleeves up tanned and sculpted forearms. "But even the best swingers foul out from time to time."
"I saw your first two dates vacate your table," Esther said. "I lost track of the third. What was the reason for the last heave-ho? She's a vegan and you eat veal?"
"No. The vegan was Mindy, an hour ago."
"What about the redhead at eight thirty?"
"She said I reminded her of her ex."
"And the little blonde who just left? Why didn't she like you?"
"Actually, she did. I reminded her of her father."
I tried not to laugh-and failed.
Matt noticed. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"I'm sorry," I said. Hoping to make it up to him, I slid over his Red Eye. "Here you go, made with love."
Matt took a long hit and sighed. Then he laid his rosebud on the counter like a carnation on a coffin-and picked his smartphone back up.
"Hey! You agreed to help us back here, remember?"
Matt's focus didn't falter. "Just one more check of my Pumpkin Pot."
Esther rolled her eyes. "He's talking about that stupid Cinder app."
With a deep breath for patience, I went back to work behind the espresso machine. Three cappuccinos and two hazelnut mochas later, the man was still swiping.
"Enough!" I grabbed the phone.
That got his attention. "What's with the hostility?"
"I'm not hostile!" A few heads turned, and I lowered my voice. "Okay, maybe I'm a little hostile. This swipe-to-select coupling, and all these amped-up matches-it's like romance on Red Eyes. In my view, love should not be a sport."
"Not a sport, Clare, a game . . ." Snatching back his phone, Matt waved me closer. "Check this out-"
Like a little boy with a new toy, he showed off the screen. The word Cinder crackled in red letters, tongues of flame licking the edges. Below the logo were colorful animations-a glass slipper, fluttering fairy, and pulsing pumpkin-floating as innocently as Disney props.
Matt's finger stroked the tiny pumpkin. It jiggled and bounced, then grew and grew. Fairy dust fell from the digital sky, and the pumpkin transformed into a royal carriage with a purple banner reading-
Thumbnail images of a dozen women flew out the carriage door and formed a grid pattern. Matt tapped one of them, and a profile opened, showing an attractive woman with a forced coquettish smile, bangs arranged over one eye with great determination.
"I just swiped this Ella into my Pumpkin Pot. If she swipes my profile right by midnight tomorrow, I'll get a Tinkerbell notification."
"It means she sent him a Glass Slipper, dear." The reply came not from Matt but from his mother-Madame Dreyfus Allegro Dubois.
The beloved octogenarian owner of this century-old family business was in fine form this evening, sporting tailored wool slacks and a cashmere sweater the color of textured latte milk. Her silk scarf, printed with Edgar Degas's Dancers in Violet, brought out that very hue in her eyes, which appeared livelier than usual in our shop's soft evening light.
As Matt greeted his mother with a kiss on both cheeks, I pulled her a fresh espresso. "What brings you here so late?"
"I have a rendezvous!"
"With Otto?" I assumed since she'd been seeing the gallery owner for some time. But she shook her head.
"Otto's consultation work in Europe is ongoing. He and I agreed to keep things loose. And you know I'll need an escort for your wedding-once you and your blue knight finally decide on a venue."
"Believe me, we're trying."
"So . . ." She waved her smartphone. "I'm swiping to meet!"
"You're using Cinder?"
"Don't be silly! I use the Silver Foxes dating app. That software allows either sex to make the first move."
Matt's eyebrow arched. "Maybe I should try it."
"Heavens no, it's not for children! The user age starts at sixty-five."
Esther snorted. "Hear that? In twenty short years, Mr. Boss will have a date."
Matt waved his phone. "More like twenty seconds."
"See!" he said with renewed vigor-and thumb typing.
"What just happened?" I asked Esther.
"Cinder sent him a Tinkerbell notification."
"Of what? The approach of Captain Hook?"
"It's just a glorified text message," Esther explained, "telling him a woman wants to communicate with him. In Cinder-speak they call it a Glass Slipper. Only a Cinder-ella can send a slipper to a Cinder-fella. That's one reason the app has become so hot."
Matt nodded. "Contrary to the Connie Francis song, boys go where the girls are, and more women are on Cinder than any other app. They feel safer making the first move, and I'm happy to let them. Once they swipe me right, Tinkerbell alerts me, and we can set up a date to see if-"
"The Glass Slipper fits. I get it."
"And if it does . . ." Matt grinned. "We're on our way to the . . . uh-hem ball. That's Cinder-speak for going to-"
"I get that, too. But what happens if Ms. Pumpkin Pot swipes left on you instead of right?"
"Then we're done. Accept-Reject. Win-Lose. It's that simple."
"Simple? Or reductive? The decision to accept or reject a human being is being made on a few pictures and a paragraph!"
"So?" Matt halted his thumb-typing. "Look, it's no different than meeting a prospective partner in a bar or at a party. You check each other out, flirt a little, and you hit it off-or you don't. The app just makes the party bigger."
"One must keep up with the times, dear," Madame advised with a wink. Then she finished her espresso and tossed us a farewell wave. "My Silver Fox is in the coop!"
"I don't disagree with your mother," I told Matt when he finally joined us behind the counter. "Keeping up with change is smart-from a practical standpoint. But there are larger issues to consider."
"Like change isn't always for the better, especially when it involves human nature."
Matt scoffed, but Esther countered-
"Ms. Boss ain't wrong. I read an article by a social scientist who believes these dating apps are artificially turbo-boosting the 'hit-it-and-quit-it' culture, devolving excessive users into the addictive cycle of Skinner box animals."
Matt waved away my concern. As he tied on his apron, he pointed to his mother, who was already happily on her way out the door with her dapper-looking date. Then he challenged me to prove this "devolution" theory with a concrete example.
I couldn't. Not then. Within the hour, however, one of our customers did it for me . . .
I was sipping an espresso on a much-needed break when-
The sound of a single gunshot tore through our upstairs lounge.
Looking back, I shouldn't have been so shocked. A new mate with every swipe meant the old one was tossed away. When it happens enough times, anyone's candy-store excitement could turn sour, even bitter. Binary code could connect continents, but it couldn't reprogram people, delete our fears and frailties. Or erase our potential for violence . . .
At the sound of that bang upstairs, everyone on the main floor quieted, the sea of faces going blanker than a dead smartphone screen.
Was that really a gun?
BANG! BANG! BANG!
With three more shots, chaos ensued. Freaked-out bodies stampeded the exit in unstoppable waves, and I bobbed amid the panic like a cork in the Atlantic.
"Clare!" Matt shouted, leaping over the counter. "Where are you?"
"I'm here!" I jumped up to show him and, on the next bounce, screamed a gentle suggestion to-
"Call the police!"
As frantic patrons flowed around me, I noticed something disturbing (apart from the gunfire and mass exodus). Not a single person had come down from the second floor.
I pushed my way through the crowd until I'd reached the bottom of our spiral staircase. It stood like a wrought-iron sculpture, still and empty. Peering up, I saw no one and quickly climbed three steps for height.
Across the retreating sea of humanity, Matt was calling 911. When our eyes met, I pointed to the ceiling, my meaning clear-
I'm going up!
Matt's eyes bugged and he fervently shook his head.
I knew he wanted me to wait for the police, but I couldn't sit by and do nothing. One of my other baristas, Dante Silva, was up there, along with a floor of innocent customers.
Was this a hostage situation? Or someone's idea of a joke? Were people terrorized and injured? Or was this simply a misunderstanding?
Whatever was going down, I was determined to have a look, and (if possible) try to help. This was my coffeehouse, my staff, my responsibility.
"You take the service stairs!" I mouthed to Matt before starting my climb.
As I crested the top, I slowed my movements, entering the lounge in a crouched position. I spotted Dante's shaved head and tattooed arms in a small crowd of gawking patrons.
Finally, I saw who they were gawking at.
A slender woman stood near the middle of the room. She was about my daughter's age. Her white silk blouse looked virginal over her pink flowered skirt. Honey blond hair fell to her twenty-something shoulders.
I'd seen her several times in our coffeehouse. She seemed a shy type, always sat alone-though she sometimes conversed with Tucker Burton, my assistant manager. On those visits, her willowy arms had sported a fashionable handbag or tote. Tonight, those limbs appeared to be accessorized with a semiautomatic handgun.
"DON'T YOU EVER LAUGH AT ME AGAIN. GOT IT?!"
Her shrill threat was directed at a man in his thirties. Cornered and cowering in a high-back Victorian chair, the guy appeared to be dressing for success in a designer skinny suit and open-collared shirt. His brown hair was threaded with salon-golden highlights, and the cut looked trendy-close-cropped on the sides with the thick, longish top slicked back.
I'd seen this man a few times over the past week-in the company of several different women-though I couldn't be sure, since his hands were raised in front of him and his head was turned at an angle that effectively hid his face.
"I'll shoot you next time instead of the ceiling! How would you like that? A bullet right into your heart. Or maybe your smirking mouth. Or better yet, how about down there?"
Wisely, Mr. Bullseye elected not to take the multiple-choice quiz.
"Maybe I should shoot you down there. Then you'll know how painful it is to be shot down!"
The man's smartphone had fallen onto the ground and lay near his expensive loafers, along with a pen and a few bits of paper. When it sprang to life, so did he. In a stunningly brainless move, he lunged to answer it.
"No! Don't you touch that phone!!"
With a savage kick, the young woman sent the device flying. Then she slapped the man's head with her gun. He gave a yelp and curled back farther into the chair.
"I won't let you degrade another woman. I'd rather see you dead! Do you understand? DEAD!"
About then, I noticed something that alarmed me (even more than this mini Italian opera). My barista Dante began to inch closer to the female shooter and her loaded gun.
This young woman hadn't shot anyone. Not yet, anyway.
Was she disturbed? Yes.
Enraged? Absolutely-at the guy in front of her, and that was the point. She was obviously reacting to some kind of rejection from this man, which made me certain that another man wasn't the answer to helping her see reason.