*This is a first draft, unedited sneak peek at Dead Men Donít Eat Quiche, copyright, 2016 Nina Cordoba
I flipped over on my left side for the dozenth time since I'd gotten into bed.
Sleeping still didn't come easy, although the reason for my insomnia had changed a few months ago. Johnny Chavez had won his appeal and that was definitely a load off my conscience.
Truth be told, though, his face had already been replaced much of the time in my nightly visions with a prettier one. One with big, beautiful eyes the color of chocolate.
My cell phone rang. I turned over and stared at it for a few seconds wondering who could be calling at this hour. Even mom liked to limit her "emergencies" to between the hours of nine a.m. and eleven p.m.
Had to be a wrong number.
I picked up the phone, checked the name on the screen, then blinked a few times to make sure I hadn't conjured it up with wishful thinking.
As soon as I confirmed I wasn't hallucinating, I tapped the screen to answer the call.
"Rika?" My voice came out higher pitched than I was comfortable with, maybe a little desperate. I wished I could have a Mulligan on answering.
I sat up straight at the distressed sound in her voice. "What's wrong?" I said. "Are you okay?"
"Yes. It's my dad. He's disappeared."
"In Colombia?" I immediately regretted that I didn't know any more than any other dumbass American about Colombia--let's see, coffee...cocaine. Yep, that was it.
"No, he was here...in L.A." I'd never heard her sound so panicked, not even the night she nearly got blown up by the boss of our local crime ring. "He moved here a month ago. Now, his co-worker's been found dead and he's missing!"
"Are the police looking for him?"
"Yes..." The word came out as a sob. "But they're looking for him as a suspect! He wouldn't kill anyone, Nick, but no one's looking for him as a kidnapping victim."
As I tried to process everything she was saying, I heard her clear her throat. She took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly and I knew she was pulling herself together. The Rika I knew last summer was not a woman who cried easily. She made it through her bogus arrest, a shooting attempt with her as the target, and a bomb she had to disarm herself, all without shedding a tear, at least one that I saw.
But she cried when we said goodbye, and the memory of those tears clawed at my heart every single day.
"I'm sorry." The cry was gone from her voice. "I don't know why I called you. It's just that you were the only person I..."
She seemed to be out of words, and I didn't want her to hang up before I told her I was coming.
"I'll catch the first flight I can get on," I said. "Text me your address. I'll let you know when I'm arriving."
Her sigh of relief whooshed through the phone. "Thanks, Nick... Thanks."
"No problem," I said. Then I hung up and grabbed my laptop to start searching for flights.
I tried not to look into my rearview mirror as I gunned the accelerator, preparing to muscle my way into traffic on the I-10 freeway.
Forty-five minutes ago, I met Nick in the baggage claim area of LAX and everything was exactly as I imagined it. When he saw me, he strode directly to me, sliding his arms around my waist, pressing me tightly to his body with his big warm hands.
I wound my arms around his neck, resting my cheek against his chest, sucking in all the Nick pheromones I could fit into my needy olfactory glands. They were still delicious, even if they weren't coated in the scent of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls as they often were when I stayed with him last summer.
In that perfect moment in Nick's arms, I knew everything would be okay.
Until a syrupy, twangy voice broke in, full of faux-enthusiasm mixed with pseudo-sympathy.
"You must be Rika!" It said.
I opened my eyes and encountered a tall, leggy blonde with hair that swooped up high above her forehead--thumbing it's roots at the law of gravity--then cascaded down in layer after layer of pure sexy.
Just like his last two wives.
Holy mother of Zeus! Someone please tell me Nick didn't get married again already!
Six months ago, after we'd discovered who the killer was and the charges against me had been dropped, Nick sent me away, citing his recent divorce and the fact that, even though he was thirty-four he'd been married three times, as the reasons we shouldn't be together.
Like he wasn't relationship material.
And for the past six months, I couldn't bring myself to have a relationship because all I could think of was Nick. Nick barefoot in his kitchen making me breakfast. Nick in court in his perfectly tailored suit, mesmerizing the jury with his deep voice and striking eyes. Nick, shirtless, in his jeans and cowboy hat, holding his extra-long hose.
But while I was obsessed with him, he'd moseyed right along and found himself another...what?
How would I know? He'd introduced her by her first name with no further explanation.
I lost control of my eyeballs and they flicked to the rearview mirror. Marla sat in the back seat of my Honda Fit with little Gucci, Nick's Maltese--an unwanted residual from his last wife--in her lap.
Gucci was decked out in a pink and black zebra striped dress with a black tutu for a skirt. A pink bow adorned the ponytail on top of her head.
If there were ever a dog meant to wear clothes, Gucci was certainly it, but what right did this Marla have to dress Nick's dog? (I knew it was Marla who did it because I was absolutely certain Nick would never be caught putting clothes on a dog.)
My hot Latina blood--which I'd discovered was really a thing when I caught Nick withholding evidence from me last summer--boiled up into my brain.
Marla. Who named their daughter "Marla"? I mean it just sounded like a bitchy name, didn't it. Okay, I'd never thought about it being a bitchy name before, but now...
I peeked at her again. She was wearing a slinky, blood red dress. Unless she was on her way to the Grammy Awards, it was cut way too low in the front and slit way too high on her left thigh. Plus, she was too tall. When we were standing near each other waiting for her three--yes three--checked bags to come around the carousel, I felt like one of the seven dwarfs.
Grumpy. Definitely Grumpy.
The two Nick ex-wives I'd seen in Bolo were nearly as tall and every bit as blonde and bombshell as Marla. I wished I'd at least worn some kind of heel so I could give my five foot five--okay, five foot four and a half--inch frame a boost. I'd worn flip-flops, jeans, and what I thought was a flattering peasant top instead of my usual geeky t-shirts, but now I just felt like a schlub compared to stupid Marla.
I noticed Nick holding onto the passenger door armrest, mashing his imaginary brake, apparently not a fan of my driving. So, I purposely cut off a red Lamborghini, no doubt being driven by another asshole who had three blonde exes under his belt.
Nick had been trying to control his reactions, but I was sure I heard a gasp escape his lips at what probably looked to him like a near-miss, since he'd spent the past few years in a town that only needed one stoplight.
Ha! Serves him right.
When I called him night before last and he agreed to come, I felt such a sense of relief, I actually got a few hours of sleep. Nick Owen was coming to help me. We made a great team, and having him nearby made me feel safe and, by extension, my dad would be safe.
My eyes flicked to the mirror again, then sliced over to view Nick's ruggedly handsome profile, which only pissed me off more. No one should get to have a face that good, a freaking eight-pack of abs and be as smart as Nick was. And from the pictures I saw at his mom's house, he'd been hot his whole life. Well, I guess hot wasn't the right word for his whole life. He'd been a beautiful baby, a cute kid, and by high school he'd turned into this smoking hot chick magnet.
No awkward phase with braces on his teeth or bad skin. Certainly no extreme weight issues like the ones I'd had. Then, I was pretty sure he'd gotten to work his way through every gorgeous blonde in Texas.
Huh. I remembered that Texas Ranger-slash-super model "friend" who Nick called in on my case.
Make that all the gorgeous blondes and a few sultry brunettes mixed in as palette cleansers.
I jerked the steering wheel to the left unnecessarily. Marla's body flopped over to one side. Nick flung his hand out and braced on the side of my backrest to keep himself upright.
Stifling my satisfied smile as best I could, I said, "Sorry. It was a motorcycle. Came out of nowhere."
"I didn't see a motorcycle," Nick replied.
"I'm not surprised." I shrugged. "It must have been weaving through traffic at a hundred miles an hour. Thank goodness for my lightning quick reflexes."
"Yeah." Nick's voice was tinged with sarcasm. "Thank goodness." His face had turned completely toward me and I could see his narrowed eyes in my peripheral vision.
Fine. Let him wonder why I was pissed. I didn't care.
"Do you want to fill me in on what happened?"
"Sure," I said. A lump formed in my throat, but I didn't want to cry in front of Marla. It's bad enough I cried the last time I saw Nick. I don't know what got into me, since I hadn't cried since my mom was murdered and my dad wasn't allowed back into the country after his own mother's funeral. But when it was time to leave Nick, I blubbered like a silly teenage girl.
"My dad made a name for himself as head chef of one of the best restaurants in Bogota," I began. "He specializes in these fusion dishes, combining the flavors of other countries with Latin American ones. He's known for reinventing the quiche." Traffic ahead stopped suddenly and I came to a screeching halt six inches behind the car in front of us.
Marla's head flopped forward, then back again. My lips tried to turn up into an evil grin, but I squelched it before anyone could see.
"Shit!" Nick said. If he didn't stop with his passenger-side braking, his big foot was going to put a hole in my floorboard.
"The founders of Microtology--Steve and Valerie Kaporsky--happened to be in Bogota and fell in love with my dad's Triple Fusion Quiche when he ate at the restaurant. He offered him a job here at the VIP Center and pulled strings to get him a quick green card."
"Back up a minute," Nick said. "What's Microtology, some kind of company or...?"
I eased up a few inches, then turned my head to look at him. "You haven't heard of Microtology?"
He shook his head.
"It's the latest Hollywood fad religion. From the research I've done, they seem to believe humans' negative behavior is being controlled by tiny microorganisms and parasites living in and on us...or something. Their dogma is kind of convoluted and ridiculous from what I can tell."
Nick rolled his eyes. "Welcome to L.A.," he said.
"Hey, Bolo wasn't exactly the bastion of normalcy."
"You've got me there."
"My dad's only been here a little over a month. Three days ago, the head of security found his sous chef--Alberto Viera--dead and my dad was gone. He hasn't been seen since Saturday night when he was working with Alberto. They were still there when the rest of the kitchen staff left just before midnight. The medical examiner places time of death at around twelve-thirty a.m."
"Are there any other suspects?"
"I don't know. The police haven't exactly been forthcoming with information. When they questioned me about my dad, though, it was clear he's their prime suspect."
"And why do you believe it wasn't him?"
Was he serious? I turned to look at him. Then slammed on the brake when I saw the traffic stopping in my peripheral vision. Nick's head jerked forward and I was okay with that.
"Did you come all the way from Texas just to side with the cops?" I yelled.
He lifted his hand and massaged his whiplashed neck. "I'm just wondering what you know about him, considering you've been in the States and he's been in Colombia for the past, what, seventeen years?"
If I wasn't strapped in and driving in heavy traffic, I would have climbed onto Nick's lap and strangled him with his safety belt.
"Ya know," I said. "There are millions of people in Colombia and the vast majority are not dealing drugs or assassinating judges. They have teachers and doctors and lawyers, just like here."
"You're pretty keyed up," he replied. "Maybe I should drive."
"Hah! Like you could drive in L.A."
Nick took in a heavy breath. "Rika, I'm on your side. I just need to play devil's advocate and know everything you know so I can help."
"Okay." I took a deep, calming breath, but a Krispy Kreme donut sign still called from me from the side of the freeway.
A donut was exactly what I needed right now. But, in addition to the five pounds I gained while eating Nick and LeeAnne's meals in Bolo, I'd put on four more pining over him since he'd sent me away last summer.
"My dad had just finished culinary school here before he went to see his mom in Colombia that last time--well, actually, that was for her funeral--then immigration wouldn't let him back in to the States. He worked his way up in restaurants and got a reputation as a cutting-edge, creative chef in Bogota."
"Not exactly Scarface, in other words," Nick said.
I chuckled and it surprised me after how stressed I'd been. I was back to being glad Nick had come. "No. Besides Scarface was Cuban."
Nick nodded thoughtfully. "Murder weapon?"
I pulled into the hotel driveway, then closed my eyes for several seconds. "Chef's knife," I finally replied.
Twisting in my seat, I looked directly into Nick's eyes, expecting them to be the bright Bondi blue I remembered most, but found them gray-blue and contemplative. "We'll figure it out," he said gently, and I realized he was searching my eyes for something. I wasn't sure what.
"We're here," I said, feeling weird about gazing into each other's eyes with Marla watching.
"Okay, I'll be back as soon as I check us in."
The word "us" jumped out at me and I clamped my teeth together. "Sure," I said. "No problem."
"Did you say two rooms sir?" The skinny, young hotel clerk's eyes slid to Marla and stuck there. He was clearly perplexed as to why I was springing for a separate room for the pinup girl hanging onto my arm.
"Yep. That's what I said." I pulled out my credit card and laid it on the counter.
His question was understandable, so I tried to keep the annoyance out of my voice as I fought the urge to shake Marla's hand off.
Yeah, she was beautiful. But that didn't keep me from trying to ditch her and come to L.A. alone.
I still didn't understand how this kept happening to me. Just like with my last two exes--BreeAnne and Megan--I found Marla on the side of the road when I was on my way to help out my mom. Marla was clearly having car trouble, but I swear to God I had no desire to stop this time.
In fact, when I first saw her long legs and voluminous blonde hair, my first instinct was to mash the accelerator and break the land speed record to get the hell away from her.
But then I saw she was crying and I've never been able to stand to see a woman cry.
Talk about a fatal flaw.
Next thing I knew, she was staying at my house, waiting for her car to get fixed. Then, her last paycheck from her previous job hadn't been auto-deposited into her account and her employers weren't returning her calls. Then, her new job in Corpus Christi fired her before she got there for not showing up the first day of work.
Sounds suspicious, I know. But Rika claimed a lot of bad luck, and all of hers turned out to be legitimate. I just didn't have the heart to fill Marla's tank with gas and tell her to hit the road when she said she had nowhere to go.
After several weeks, though, I started to wonder if she was some kind of con artist. And still, I was willing to leave her alone in my house with all my belongings and fly to L.A. to help Rika.
Nothing in the world would stop me from going to Rika if she needed me. The idea of getting away from Marla was just icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, she caught me putting my bag in the truck and was thrilled at the idea that we were going to Los Angeles. She had her bags packed in ten minutes.
"So...would you like one key or two keys to each room?" The clerk's wide blue eyes shifted back and forth between me and Marla.
What kind of stupid question was that? "Why would I buy us two separate rooms if we were going to have keys to each other's doors?"
"Well...um..." His brows lowered as his face reddened. "A lot of men come on business trips with their, um, assistants," he glanced at Marla again, "but they ask for an extra room key in case they want to..." The pause was so long, I found myself leaning forward as if that would draw it out of him. "...collaborate," he finished.
Oh. I got it. People used work trips as excuses to have affairs, but needed to book separate rooms for appearance sake.
I didn't have time for this shit. Rika was waiting in the car.
"I need to get going," I said to Marla.
"That's okay," she replied cheerfully. "Gucci and I will keep busy with a massage and room service." At my expense, of course, not that I'd care if it would keep her occupied and out of my hair for a few hours.
I turned back to the clerk. "Can you get someone to help her to her room and leave my bag in mine?"
"Just charge everything to the room," I told Marla, effectively giving her permission to go hog wild spending my money.
My friend Gabe was right. I needed professional help. My--according to him--pathological need to take care of women now had me providing a woman I wasn't even sleeping with a free vacation at the Omni Hotel.
"Okay, Nicky." God I hated to be called Nicky. One of my exes called me Nicky. "Say bye bye, Gucci," she baby talked to my Maltese.
Yeah. I have a Maltese. Don't ask.
"Come on, Gucci! Tell Nicky bye bye!" Marla watched Gucci as if she expected her to open her tiny mouth any minute and start speaking in English. Considering the fact that Gucci once spent thirty minutes barking at one of my old sneakers, I didn't see a second language in her future. And, by the way other dog's looked at her when she barked, I wasn't even sure she was fluent in her first.
"See you later," I said with a side to side wave that encompassed both of them, so Marla wouldn't try to insist I give Gucci a goodbye kiss. She picked up Gucci's paw and waved it at me.