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 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 breakfast and midnight.
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!”
Missing? “Missing” in this type of situation usually meant the missing person was the perpetrator...or dead. I suddenly felt like I had a brick wedged in my stomach.
“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, but no one’s looking for him as a kidnapping victim.”
While I tried to process what she was telling me, 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 none that I saw.
But she cried when we said goodbye, and the memory of those tears clawed at my heart every single day. I told myself that if it was meant to be between us—if she still felt as strongly as I did once she was back home and wasn’t depending on me to get her out of a murder rap—I’d hear from her.
A text. A call.
But I hadn’t heard a peep from her since she drove out of my life. I figured she’d come to her senses and moved on with her life.
“I’m sorry.” The sob 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 have run 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,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I’m arriving.”
Her sigh of relief whooshed through the phone. “Thanks, Nick... Thanks.”
“No problem. See you soon.” 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.
I saw him first. He was wearing my favorite t-shirt—light blue and short-sleeved—that showed off his thick biceps as he pulled a suitcase off the conveyer belt. His buns of steel were covered by worn jeans he’d paired with cowboy boots.
As soon as he turned and my brown eyes met his blue ones, he strode over to me, sliding his arms around my waist, pressing me tightly to his body, his big hands scorching my back.
I curled 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. And those pheromones 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.
His body felt so good pressed against me, warm—like he’d brought some of the Texas heat with him—with hard manly muscles that gave a tiny bit under the pressure I applied. With Nick wrapped around me, I felt so cared for and safe. My eyes burned and I nearly cried with relief that he was here.
He tugged gently on a chunk of hair until I bent my head back and looked up at him. His eyes searched mine like he was doing an emotional scan of my brain, trying to determine how I was holding up.
And, in that perfect moment in Nick’s arms, I was one hundred percent certain that 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.
When I leaned my head to the right to see around Nick, I found a tall, leggy blonde with hair that swooped up high above her forehead—thumbing its roots at the law of gravity—then cascaded down in layer after layer of pure sexy.
Exactly like his last two wives.
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 only thirty-four—he’d already 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 with anyone else 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 obsessing about him, he hadn’t called or texted once. Instead, 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 it, but what right did this Marla have to dress Nick’s dog? I knew Marla 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 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? Truth be told, 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 sexy as Marla. I wished I’d at least worn heels 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 and hoodies, but now I felt like a schlub compared to sexy Marla.
I noticed Nick holding onto the passenger door armrest, mashing his imaginary brake, apparently not a fan of my driving. I jerked the car to the right, purposely cutting 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 heard an involuntary grunt 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, if that.
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. That would be creepy. Let’s just say, he was a beautiful baby, a cute kid, and by high school he turned into this smoking hot chick-magnet sitting next to me.
No awkward phase with braces on his teeth or bad skin. Certainly no extreme weight issues like the ones I’d had. And 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 last summer.
Make that, all the gorgeous blondes in Texas plus 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, assessing me.
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 was bad enough I cried the last time I saw Nick. I don’t know what got into me. I hadn’t cried since I was a little girl and my mom was murdered, except for a few months later when my dad wasn’t allowed back into the country after his own mother’s funeral.
But when it was time to leave Nick last summer, I blubbered like a silly teenage girl.
Pull yourself together, Paprika. My brain liked to annoy me with my real name when it thought I was acting stupid.
“My dad made a reputation 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-seat driving, his big boot was going to put a hole in my floorboard.
I ignored him and kept talking. “The founders of Microtology—Steve and Valerie Kaporsky—happened to be in Bogota a few months ago. Steve fell in love with my dad’s Triple Fusion Quiche when they ate at the restaurant where he worked. He offered him the head chef 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, a 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.
“The official name is the ‘Temple of Microtology.’ 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. Their dogma is kind of convoluted and secretive.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Welcome to L.A.,” he said.
“Hey, Bolo wasn’t exactly the bastion of normalcy.”
“You’ve got me there.”
“Anyway, my dad’s only been here a little over a month. Two nights ago, the head of security found his sous chef—Alberto Viera—dead and my dad was gone. He hasn’t been seen since Sunday afternoon when he was working with Alberto. They were still there when the rest of the kitchen staff left at three—the restaurant only serves brunch on Sundays. The medical examiner places time of death at around ten-thirty that night.”
“Are there any other suspects?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know. The police haven’t been very forthcoming with information. When they questioned me about my dad, though, it was clear he’s a 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 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, fifteen or sixteen 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 snottily. “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 sucked in a heavy breath. “Rika, I’m on your side, but I need to play devil’s advocate and learn everything you know so I can help.”
“All right.” I took a deep, calming breath, but a Krispy Kreme donut sign still called to me from the side of the freeway.
A donut was exactly what I needed right now. However, in addition to the five pounds I gained while eating Nick and LeeAnne’s meals in Bolo, I’d put on four more from pining over him since he’d sent me away last summer.
“What’s your dad’s name?” Nick asked.
“Diego Martín. He started as a cook when he first came to the country. Later, he enrolled in culinary school and graduated right before my mom died. A few months later, he went to see his sick mom in Colombia and stayed for her funeral. When he tried to come home, immigration wouldn’t let him back into the U.S. He worked his way up in restaurants and became known as a cutting-edge, creative chef in Bogota.”
“Not exactly Scarface, in other words,” Nick said.
I chuckled. Laughter was a surprise after how stressed I’d been. I was back to being glad Nick had come. “No. Besides, Scarface was a Marielito.
Nick raised his eyebrows.
Nick nodded thoughtfully. “Murder weapon?”
I pulled into the hotel driveway, then closed my eyes for several seconds. “Chef’s knife.”
Twisting in my seat, I looked directly into Nick’s eyes, expecting them to be the bright Bondi blue color I remembered most when I thought of him, 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 in the back seat.
“Good. 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 scrawny hotel clerk’s eyes slid to Marla and stuck there. He was in his early twenties and looked like he was wearing his dad’s hotel blazer. And he was clearly perplexed as to why I was springing for a separate room for the swimsuit model 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 me.
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 saw her long legs and voluminous blonde hair, I wanted to mash the accelerator and break the land speed record to get the hell away from her.
But then I realized she was crying and I’ve never been able to stand to see a woman cry. The memory of Rika’s tears running down her beautiful face before she drove away from me last summer had been stuck in neutral in my mind. I knew it wasn’t right to ask her to stay, but I didn’t want to let go of one memory of her.
Regardless, female waterworks could always tear a hole in my chest, and that day on the way to mom’s was no different.
Talk about a fatal flaw.
Next thing I knew, Marla—if that was her real name—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 for not showing up for the first day of work even though she called and told them what happened.
Sounds suspicious, I know. But Rika claimed a lot of bad luck, and all of hers turned out to be legitimate. I 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 sort 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 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 get 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 the rest of the sentence out of him. “...collaborate,” he finished.
Oh. 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, not that I cared as long as it kept 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 free vacation at the Omni Hotel to a woman I wasn’t even sleeping with.
The one woman I’d never regretted taking care of was Rika. When I’d seen her at the airport today, she’d been more beautiful than I remembered. I think she even put on the five or ten pounds I’d thought she needed to gain last summer, before I realized she was irresistible regardless.
That kiss we shared when I caught her in her super hero underthings was the hottest moment I’d ever had with a woman.
Any woman. Ever.
“Bye, Nicky,” Marla was saying.
I hated being called ‘Nicky.’ One of my exes called me ‘Nicky.’
“Say ‘bye-bye,’ Gucci,” Marla 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 and start speaking English.
This is the dog who 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 the other dogs looked at her when she barked, I wasn’t even sure she was fluent in her first.
“See you later.” I stepped back so Marla wouldn’t try to insist I give Gucci a goodbye kiss. She picked up her paw and waved it at me.
I turned to face the exit before I let my eyes roll.
“Fuck,” I muttered as I shook my head. Fuck.
“Where are we?” I asked when Rika pulled into the parking lot of a six-story building. The bottom floor was windowless and square. Each floor above it was a bit smaller than the one below, giving it a stair-step appearance. But the most striking thing about the building was its color—shocking, gleaming white like I’d never seen on a building before.
“The Microtology VIP Center,” Rika said. “I want to try again to get a look at the crime scene.”
We got out of the car and I followed her around back. My eyes caught on the tall fence blocking the main parking lot off from the back of the building where we were.
“Authorized personnel only. No trespassing,” I read off the sign. “Are we gonna be breaking and entering, too?”
“The gate’s open.” She gestured toward it. “And we won’t be breaking anything.”
“All right, then.” I shrugged. “Lead the way.”
I’d seen this determined look on Rika’s face last summer when she informed me that if she couldn’t count on the shady sheriff to prove her innocence, she’d solve the case herself. She almost got herself killed, although her instincts were right on when it came to catching the accomplice and recognizing a clue that I didn’t think would lead anywhere.
Regardless, whatever she needed to do now, I was in. If there was a chance in hell my dad was alive, I’d break into Fort Knox to find him. And, deep down, I wanted to be the guy who helped Rika get her father back.
Strange how you could still miss someone you hadn’t seen since you were a kid. I couldn’t visualize my dad anymore. I had to rely on pictures, and that bothered me.
Rika had been separated from her father for most of her life. She deserved more than a month of face time with him.
As we came around the dumpster behind the building, I saw an open back door, manned by a twenty-something male in a dark blue uniform and shiny badge.
Shit. A cop.
“Hey, J!” Rika called.
Hearing the casual, borderline affectionate way she addressed him made me take a closer look. He was about five-foot-ten, several inches shorter than I was, but still quite a bit taller than Rika.
His physique said Gold’s Gym, but as we approached, I noticed his face looked like it was swiped from a member of a ’90’s boy band.
A strange sensation sliced through me. My jaw clenched and my hands fisted involuntarily. I hadn’t felt this way since the night Rika came home from Barr’s and informed me JimBob McGwire had mauled her in the parking lot.
I experienced an irrational urge to punch this cop in his poster-boy face.
“How are you holding up?” he asked Rika sympathetically.
As she reached him, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her in a hug that lasted over seven seconds.
Sympathy hug. What a lame move.
I flashed back to how great it had felt to have Rika in my arms when she greeted me at the airport. I certainly didn’t squander my chance to hold her when I could. So, could I really blame this guy?
He finished off the hug with a kiss on her cheek.
Oh, yeah, I could blame him all right. Who the hell was this guy to her?
When he finally let go of her, Rika glanced at me. “Julian, this is Nick Owen. Nick this is Officer Julian Suriano.”
As we reached out and gave each other the obligatory handshake, I watched him take stock of me. Sure, I was taller and probably better educated, but I wasn’t certain I could compete with this warm, maybe Italian, maybe Latin vibe he was giving off.
Had they slept together? My gut clenched at the possibility.
I squeezed his hand harder than necessary in a ridiculous macho-man move I’d never even considered before. Then, I reminded myself I was here to help Rika find her dad, not run off her potential boyfriends like I was her dad. I released him and we both looked at Rika.
“Is there any way we can get in to see the crime scene?” she asked.
“Sorry,” Boy Band replied. “CSI’s back in there today. Not sure why.”
Rika’s shoulders dropped as she exhaled on a frustrated sigh. Boy Band’s body tensed as he shifted from one foot to the other.
Yep, he wanted her bad, and it was bothering him that he was so useless to her. I was enjoying his discomfort, although I did wish he had more information about the case.
“Can you get me copies of the crime scene photos?” Rika tried again.
“I’m not a homicide detective,” he said. “I don’t have access to the murder book.” But when Rika’s big chocolate eyes shone with disappointment, he added, “I’ll try to get copies for you, if I can.”
She smiled gratefully at him. I wanted to swipe that smile from her face and stick it in the front pocket of my jeans where Boy Band wouldn’t dare go after it.
“Have you heard any talk?” Rika asked. “Were they able to lift fingerprints?”
“They think the killer did some cleanup afterward because the knife handle and some other items at the scene were wiped,” he replied. “It’s going to take a while for the lab to process the DNA they found in the kitchen and on the victim. Plus, the detectives are going to have a hell of a time getting it sorted because of the number of people who’ve been in and out of there on a regular basis.”
Disappointment registered on Rika’s face again for a split second before she willed it away. “Thanks for keeping me informed,” she said. “If I need to talk to someone I can’t track down on the internet, can you get me their phone number and address?”
“Sure,” he replied, clearly dazzled by her pearly whites. But who could blame the guy? My heart seemed to trip over itself every time she aimed that smile at me. “Do you still have my email and cell number?”
“Yeah, I do. Thanks, J.” She stepped forward.
Seriously? They had to hug again? The last hug was only three minutes ago!
I closed my eyes automatically. My teeth clenched as I entertained a fantasy that involved knocking Boy Band on his ass.
“Nick, are you all right?”
I opened my eyes to find the two of them had disengaged and were staring at me.
“I’m great,” I said. “Let’s go.” I gave Boy Band a half-hearted chin lift and turned toward the car.
I tried not to let my disappointment get the best of me as Nick and I climbed back in the car.
Focus. I needed to focus.
But my mind had been jumping back and forth between trying to determine the next logical step in finding my dad and fighting off the idea that I’d never see him again.
Just like my mom. She was abducted when I was eight and that was it. No more mom.
People were always talking about karma, but I didn’t believe in it. I mean, what did I ever do to deserve having two parents taken away?
I started the car and headed to the exit.
“So, how do you know Ricky Martin?”
“Huh?” Had I zoned out on a conversation we were having about pop music? Not that I didn’t have feelings about Ricky Martin. On one hand, as a Latina, I was proud of him for breaking through as an international artist. On the other, I was annoyed that he’d sold out and dropped the accent from the name Martín. On the third hand—a third hand was the super power I’d wished for since I was nine, so I could hold a Colombian beef empanada, a Mexican empanada with pineapple filling and a Hostess Ding Dong, all at once—
Wait, what was I thinking about? I’d gotten distracted by the carbs dancing in my head. Oh, yeah, on the third hand, I admired Ricky for coming out publicly as gay, an extra difficult thing for a Latin pop star to do.
But none of this had anything to do with our visit to the center. “What does Ricky Martin have to do with anything?” I asked Nick.
“You know, Boy Band, back there at the door.”
Oh. I pictured Julian’s face. He did look like he could have been a member of Menudo, the boy band my mom and aunts were crazy about when they were young.
“Julian and I were in a criminal justice class together at the community college before I moved to New York,” I explained.
At the time, I’d been working as a receptionist and online skip tracer for a private investigation agency, trying to get my boss to take me seriously and let me work in the field. Then I moved to New York with my boyfriend Brandtt where I’d ended up as an E.coli tester in the lab at a meat packing plant—not as glamorous as it sounds.
When Brandtt broke up with me and I finally got back to L.A., I would have preferred working at a different agency, but the only PI firm job I could get was at the same place with the same sexist boss I had before I went to New York.
At least he was fine with me taking time off now, although he didn’t offer me any help at all, since he knew I couldn’t pay for it.
“Has he asked you out yet?”
I pulled into traffic and flicked my eyes at Nick. His voice was super-casual but his body seemed tense.
“Who? Julian?” What did Nick care about my love life? He’s the one who had me and threw me back. Well, he didn’t have me as in have me-have me, but he could have had me. Instead he let me drive away.
Maybe he was asking about my love life so he could assuage his guilt over allowing me to fall for him. Hard.
I mean, if he wasn’t going to seal the deal, the least he could have done last summer was avoid removing his shirt when I was in the vicinity. My recurring dreams about Twinkies, Ding Dongs and donuts were now interrupted by memories of Nick’s hot Texas sweat riding his ab muscles like a roller coaster. And had he really needed to flex his biceps so tightly while lifting his extra-long hose?
Oh, yeah. We were talking about Julian asking me out. “I was already dating Brandtt when we met,” I replied. “And I didn’t see Julian again until my dad disappeared and I tried to get into the crime scene.”
“Well...” Nick was looking out the passenger window, but, when I glanced at him, I saw a muscle jump in his jaw. “He will.”
I rolled my eyes. Nick was being ridiculous. Julian was way too hot for me. Of course, I’d thought the same thing about Brandtt when we met. Weird how he got less and less good-looking, the longer I knew him.
“Where are we going now?” Nick asked.
“My Lita’s house.” I nosed my Honda through the stop-and-go traffic to the left lane.
“My grandmother’s. I’ve been staying there since I got back to L.A. I have some information we can go over there.” I’d meant to bring my laptop with me, but had gotten so excited about the idea of seeing Nick again, I’d forgotten it.
I merged onto the 101 as Nick stared over his left shoulder, clearly not trusting my merging skills, and headed East. Lita had insisted I stay with her when I moved back from New York, citing my cruel abandonment of her in favor of that careculo Brandtt, as she called him. She wasn’t letting me forget that I’d been away on the opposite coast for an entire year for nothing, as it turned out.
In hindsight, I realized my two-year relationship with Brandtt had been based on him liking the way I looked standing beside him in photo ops—he was only five-nine, but I was still quite a bit shorter than him, even in heels. He also liked the contrast between his blonde hair and blue eyes and my brown hair and dark brown eyes. It would have annoyed him to have another blonde next to him, outshining his blondness.
As for me, after finally dropping half my body weight, I think I was so flattered to have a man as good-looking as Brandtt romancing me, I overlooked the clear signs we shouldn’t be together. Like the fact that he hated both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises as well as the Terminator movies.
Okay, maybe the later ones that James Cameron didn’t direct, but how do you hate Judgement Day, with Linda Hamilton all buff, ready to kick ass and blow up Cyberdyne?
“So, I’ll be meeting your grandmother?” Nick asked pulling me back into our conversation.
Ha! No way did I want him meeting my grandmother. “No, she’s out of town with my aunts right now.”
I’d lucked out on that one. Lita had this trip planned for a while. Ever since she won a five-night stay for four—in a vineyard bed and breakfast in wine country—at the church fundraiser.
According to Tía Margo, my grandmother bid twenty-five dollars for the prize in the silent auction, then hid the card so no one else could outbid her.
Lita defended her actions by pointing out that she’d been a devoted volunteer at the church for thirty years, and she’d never even been awarded the volunteer of the year plaque.
In other words, they owed her.
I’d turned down the offer to go, dying to have some time alone in the house, so Lita had invited my two aunts and her best friend and neighbor, Mrs. Ruíz.
When my father disappeared, they were already packing for the trip. I decided to keep the information to myself. My dad was the only man in the world the women in my family thought highly of, and I couldn’t bear to tell them he’d vanished, like his wife—their daughter and sister.
Not only would they be shocked and broken-hearted, but the house would become Grand Central Station, full of worried friends and relatives and friends of friends and friends of relatives. We were Latin, after all, and my grandmother had lived in this neighborhood for decades. Everybody knew her.
I needed space and quiet to figure things out, so I let them go on their trip without telling them, hoping I could find some answers by the time they came back. They left early this morning, none the wiser.
I stopped the car in front of my grandmother’s stucco, Spanish Revival style house on a corner in a neighborhood the locals called “Ale,” pronounced “Ah-leh.” It was short for the word Alemania which means Germany in Spanish.
According to my grandmother, the houses were bought new by German families in the 1920’s after some Ku Klux Klan members took over the local government in the mostly German city of Anaheim and started giving Catholic Germans a hard time there. A few years later when the Klan threat seemed thwarted, the German families moved back to Anaheim, but the name “Alemania” stuck, even though nearly everyone around here was Hispanic now. Mostly Mexicans, with enough El Salvadorians, Guatemalans, and Colombians to keep the soccer bets interesting.
As I unlocked the front door and Nick followed me in, I wondered if the house seemed claustrophobic to him. It wasn’t tiny by L.A., regular people standards, but compared to his huge ranch-style in Texas, the rooms looked small and packed with furniture.
My grandmother’s affinity for floral patterns and obsession with knickknacks didn’t help any. More specifically, angels—cherubs, golden-haired angels, Gabriel blowing his horn, and one I was pretty sure was the Greek God Hermes, but I guess the wings on his feet were enough to qualify him as an angel in Lita’s book. The miniatures and not-so-miniatures covered nearly every surface in the living room except for the spots that were cluttered with family photographs.
I’d been coming to, or living in, this house my whole life, so it never struck me before that large floral patterns and miniature angels didn’t go together, aesthetically speaking, until I saw the room the way I thought Nick would view it.
To the left of the living room was the dining area, still in the same room. A shiny walnut six-person table with matching chairs took up nearly every bit of the dining space. The table could be expanded to fit two more people, which meant over a dozen people could eat at that table, based on how my grandmother and her Latino friends allotted space.
Plus, when you’re Latin, virtually any excuse for a get-together will do, so my grandmother kept twenty folding chairs and two folding tables in the garage for outdoor parties. She had four bar stools at the counter separating the living-dining combo from the kitchen, when it was clearly meant for two stools.
I’d seen as many as forty people happily crammed into the kitchen-dining-living room with overflow on the front and back porches.
Anyway, that’s why I couldn’t tell my grandmother about my father going missing. Sympathy parties drew even more people than soccer finals and quinceañeras, since it would be wrong to stay away from a friend in her time of need. Genetically, I was one hundred percent Colombian, but the American in me couldn’t think straight with all that commotion around.
At the back of the living room was a short hall that led to my room and the downstairs bathroom. I was originally upstairs, but when I was a freshman in high school, my grandmother noticed me huffing and puffing as I climbed up to my room and told me I could have the one downstairs.
I jumped at the chance—not literally or it would have registered on the Richter Scale—because the downstairs bedroom had been my mother’s when she was growing up, and I’d always felt closer to her when I was in it.
Now, Nick followed me toward it, but my steps faltered as I reached the open doorway. My eyes paused on my Ms. Pacman comforter, flicked to the Hogwarts Express bookends on the shelf above it, then slid over to pause on my Wonder Woman desk lamp. God, I hoped he wouldn’t look in the bathroom and see my Doctor Who Tardis shower curtain and matching toothbrush holder.
Embarrassment prickled over my skin. Nick was the polar opposite of geek.
“Um...I’m back in my childhood bedroom until I find an apartment,” I said breezily. It wasn’t a lie. I had been a child when I moved into this bedroom. However, I bought the lamp and bookends well after I qualified as an adult.
Nick already knew I was a geek, but that’s different than exposing myself to him with the full-frontal geekiness of my room.
His eyes swept around, not missing a detail. His lips were pressed together, fighting off a grin.
I hadn’t ever seen his childhood bedroom at his mom’s house, but, assuming it was still intact, it was probably full of stupid football trophies. Not nearly as cool as my stuff. Depending on your definition of “cool,” that is.
He strolled over to my bookshelves. “A helicopter?” he said as he picked it up from the top of the shelves.
“It’s a mind-controlled helicopter,” I replied. “I’m testing and reviewing it.”
“Is this a job?”
“No. I review for an online company that sells geek stuff. I get to keep everything they send me for free.”
“Like this?” Nick glared at the copter. “There’s no such thing as a mind-controlled helicopter.”
“There is,” I said. “You’re holding it. You put that headgear there,” I pointed to the electrode cap, “on your head and fly it using brainwaves.”
“And you’ve gotten this to work?”
“Yes, well...” I was pretty sure it worked, but I’d only had the chance to try it once before I’d found out my dad was missing. “I got it to lift off the ground and back down without crashing, but I couldn’t get it to fly anywhere,” I said. “I just need more time with it.”
“Huh,” Nick replied. “I think you’re going to be glad you didn’t pay money for it.”
This annoyed me, since Nick wasn’t nearly as knowledgeable about technology as I was and had no business pre-judging something I was supposed to judge scientifically. However, he had flown all the way to L.A. to help me so I was in no position to be snooty with him. Not at the moment anyway.
I rolled out my desk chair and asked him to sit down in front of my twenty-four-inch HD computer screen. I already had my laptop plugged into it. When I was home, I often used the big screen for my skip tracing or online classes while I used the laptop screen to stay on top of social media.
Standing over Nick, I clicked open a file. “These are the Kaporskys—Steve and Valerie—the founders of Microtology,” I explained. Steve’s head was always the first thing that jumped out at me, since it was shaved completely. While on most men, this tended to emphasize the roundness of their heads, his looked almost square. Valerie wore a bob that had been bleached white. Not blonde. White. Like a piece of printer paper.
Both of them had dark brown eyes. Valerie’s were warm, but Steve’s fell somewhere between David Koresh and Charles Manson. Each time I saw his picture, I thought he was a man capable of anything, and I didn’t want to imagine that he had possession of my father.
Nick stared at the screen. “Unusual-looking couple.”
“Not for Microtologists,” I replied. “They believe that shaving or bleaching hair is the best way to deter external parasites and other microorganisms. It’s not required, but it is encouraged that they do one or the other to all the hair on their bodies.”
I clicked to the next picture. “This is Alberto Viera, the victim.” The photo was from when Alberto was still alive. He was gasp-worthy handsome with smoldering black eyes and dark hair, cut purposefully messy by some hairstylist who knew what he or she was doing.
I expected Nick to comment on this, but he didn’t seem to notice the hotness of the victim. I guess when you were as gorgeous as Nick, hotness was just a fact of life.
“His hair is dark brown,” Nick pointed out. “Does that mean he was only an employee, not a member?”
“I haven’t been able to verify that either way yet.” I appreciated the fact that Nick already had his thinking cap on. “This is Jason Kim,” I said as I moved on to the next photo. “He’s the one who found the body. He left the military after two tours and got a job in the VIP Center kitchen.” Jason was Asian and, like Alberto, exceptionally good-looking, even sporting a white mohawk. I wondered if there was an appearance requirement for Microtologists and their employees. Maybe the best way to get new people into a cult is to have hot people hanging around the facility.
“Was he working in the kitchen that day?”
“He doesn’t work in the kitchen anymore. After the Kaporskys got to know him and his history, they made him Head of Security for the VIP Center and he’s worked his way into their inner circle. I’ve been trying to talk to him, but, no luck, so far.”
My phone let out a hungry zombie sound and Nick jerked back before he caught himself and reacquired his cool. I stifled a laugh. I’d never gotten to be one of the cool people, so I kind of enjoyed it when they lost it, if only for a second.
“What the hell was that?” Nick asked.
“Incoming email,” I replied.
“They offer that sound as an alert tone?”
“No, I jailbreak my phones so I can customize them however I want.”
I’d noticed that Nick had gotten himself a phone like mine since I last saw him. He probably thought that made us even, but my phones would always do more than his.
I reached past Nick, clicking over to my inbox. It was an email from Julian, so I opened it right away.
I only got copies of the first three pictures, Julian had written. I’ll try to get you more later.
I double-clicked the attachment. This time, I was the one who jerked backward.
The body looked worse than I’d expected. Once handsome Alberto Viera was crumpled on the floor with his legs bent underneath him as if he’d fallen to his knees first. One of his hands was on the large chef’s knife protruding from his chest. He’d grabbed the blade instead of the handle and it appeared that his hand had bled along with the wound in his stomach. The front of his body was covered in blood and it pooled on the floor next to him. Lots of blood. More blood than I’d ever seen. His other arm was bent at a right angle as if he was waving.
I imagined him putting his hands up at the last minute to try to defend himself, then forgetting about his left hand completely as his right hand grasped at the knife in his gut. His eyes were open and vacant.
Nick and I studied the image in silence for several seconds before I clicked the next attachment—a tight shot of two quiches side-by-side, one slice missing from each of them. There didn’t seem to be much to see there so I went on to the third—a delicate silver chain with a heart pendant which held a tiny colored stone.
He bent down to get a better look. “Well, there’s something new,” he said. “We didn’t know there was a woman on the scene.”
“Yeah, it looks like one of those you buy in twos and share with a best friend or someone you love,” I replied. “Which means someone has the other heart. Teenage girls love that sort of thing.” Oh, how I yearned for a friend I could give a BFF necklace to when I was a teenager.
“It looks like a cheap piece,” Nick said. “Not exactly platinum.”
I rolled my eyes inwardly, sure that Nick knew about expensive platinum jewelry from buying it for at least two of his wives.
And maybe Marla.
Suddenly, the front door rattled and I heard women’s voices.
Very familiar women’s voices.
“Oh, shit!” I whispered. “Why are they back?”
Nick looked at me with curious eyes, clearly ignorant of the catastrophe that had befallen us.
“Stay here,” I whispered as I jumped off the bed and hurried to the living room.
My grandmother was standing next to the sofa, putting her keys back into her purse. Tía Margo was coming through the door. Tía Madi, the youngest of the three daughters my grandmother gave birth to, had already flopped down on the couch and pulled out her cell phone.
“Lita? What are you doing here?” I blurted in my grandmother’s direction.
She let her purse strap slide down and rest on the crook of her elbow. “Madre de dios!” she cried. “We’ve been sitting in traffic all day!”
Tía Madi looked up from her phone. “Wildfire,” she said.
“They’ve closed off the road.” Tía Margo added. “God’s punishing mamá for stealing the vineyard vacation.” Margo always goaded my grandmother, taking opposite positions to annoy her.
Tía Madi claimed her sister Margo suffered from MCD—Middle Child Disorder. When they were young, Margo pointed out the most ridiculous slights, like how Mariana—aka Mari, my mother, the oldest—and Madison, the youngest had been given multiple syllables in their names, while Margo only got two.
When I was younger, Margo and my grandmother were constantly at odds over me. My grandmother believed the best cure for my sadness over losing my parents—one to a killer and one to Homeland Security’s post nine-eleven immigration policy—was fatty, carby meals followed by ice cream or pan dulce from the Mexican bakery a few blocks away.
Margo, on the other hand, thought I should be living with her and my cousins Sofia and Max, eating low-fat meals and exercising.
My grandmother won, which is why I went through junior high and high school with nicknames like “Hindenburg” and “Megaton.”
Now, Lita was giving Margo the death stare. Her daughter was not allowed to call her a thief, regardless of how the vacation was obtained. Margo glared back at her, clearly in the mood to rumble.
It was never a great idea for the two of them to be stuck in a car for hours together.
Madi chuckled. I was never sure why she found their bickering so funny. I typically found it stressful, but maybe that was because so many of their arguments had been about me.
My grandmother looked at the ceiling and mumbled something in Spanish about God helping her with her ungrateful children.
Suddenly, both my aunts’ gazes jerked up, focusing on the doorway between the living room and hall, and stuck there.
My own wildfire broke out in my stomach as I turned to look over my shoulder.
I sat at Rika’s desk for a couple of minutes, wondering what I should do. Would it be better to walk out and greet everyone? Or to let Rika bring them in here where I’d be staring into the computer, making it clear I was just working on the case?
The longer I sat here, the creepier it seemed that I hadn’t made my presence known. Finally, I got up and walked to the living room.
A moment after I entered, Rika glanced back at me as if verifying what two of the other three women in the room were staring at.
The look on her face told me she was not the least bit happy to see me in here. But what was I supposed to do? Jump out her window like some horny high school kid?
One woman’s back was to me, but I could see the faces of the other two. Both bore some resemblance to Rika, the most notable feature being their unusually big brown eyes. One had a fuller figure than Rika, her hair cut shorter, at shoulder length. The younger one, on the couch, had bright red lips and hair so black it might have been dyed that way. Since she was wearing a black t-shirt and black skinny jeans, she may have been going for a goth look, but she was too attractive to be scary-looking. In fact, she looked a lot like Morticia Addams in the old TV show re-runs.
Both women were way above average in the looks department, like Rika was. In fact, if the three of them were taller, they might be mistaken for a room full of models.
I realized while I’d been checking them out, their eyes were turned up, looking at me, shock apparent on their faces.
The other woman followed their gazes, then whipped around to see what they were staring at. When she saw me, her body tensed as if she were preparing for hand to hand combat.
As she examined me from the top of my head to my snake skin boots, I examined her right back.
She had the big eyes like the others, but darker, and was probably a looker in her day. Her hair was nearly as black as her younger daughter’s except for the two streaks in front that had turned snow white. She was wearing a hot pink polyester pantsuit that looked both brand new and like it was designed in the 1970’s.
Between that and the pink floral top she wore under it, she should have seemed approachable, but her nearly black eyes—along with the rest of her face—scowled at me with such intensity, I felt like I was getting a hex put on me right then and there.
Her lips parted and she glanced back and forth between Rika and me. “What is this?” she demanded. “What was this man doing in your room?”
Rika winced. “Lita...” she began, her voice higher pitched than usual, “this is Nick Owen. Nick, this is my grandmother Dolores Delacruz, and my aunts, Margo and Madison.” She gestured to each in turn.
Wow, her aunts, huh? I would have believed her if she said those two were her sisters.
I offered her grandmother my hand to shake. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Delacruz.”
Her eyes darted down to my hand suspiciously, then back to my face again. “Why are you in my house?”
“Nick Owen?” Margo said. “Isn’t he the lawyer from Texas?”
I nodded and started to smile at her, but she’d narrowed her eyes and was staring at me as suspiciously as her mother was.
Mrs. Delacruz drew herself up to her full five-foot-zero. “The man who took her and kept her at his house last summer?”
Madison sighed and rolled her eyes. “The one who defended her for murder for free and saved her from a sniper.”
Mrs. Delacruz ignored her and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” to me.
I turned to Rika. “What did you tell them about me?”
“I just told—” Rika began.
“Are you one of those child predators who molests little girls?” Mrs. Delacruz’s glare was burning a hole in the space between my eyebrows.
“Mamá! She’s been an adult for, like, six years now.” Madison said. “Besides, he’s hot. If he molested her, she probably enjoyed it.”