One Red Cent, Chapter One

This fun short story is only available in the Killer Beach Reads anthology.

Chapter One

“Have you been here before, Sarah?” Christian asked, leaning across the table toward me, his artfully mussed hair highlighted by the sparkling hand-blown glass lights hanging above our table.

I shook my head and didn’t bother to answer. The restaurant was packed with the Friday night crowd and the conversations bounced off the brick walls and the concrete floor. It was so loud, I could barely hear my date across the tiny table.

This wasn’t a huge loss, because he wasn’t much of a conversationalist. He was pretty to look at, and probably handy to have around if you needed to move furniture, but I didn’t expect Christian Morris to keep me interested through dessert. I’d turned him down, gently, when he’d asked me out last month at the gym. But he’d bounced back from that with a shrug. Since then, he’d made it a mission to chat me up whenever he saw me. It was sort of sweet, but he just wasn’t my type.

“I’ve been doing the Paleo diet,” Christian said.

Oh, crap. I didn’t want to talk about that. I didn’t really want to talk at all.

Not that Christian noticed, as he was busy checking himself out in the giant mirror along the other side of the restaurant. I had to admit that it was a good view. Christian, with his high cheekbones and pretty blue eyes and eyelashes so thick that I could see them in the reflection across the room. My best friend Miranda had nearly walked into a treadmill when she saw him doing bicep curls in the gym.

And I knew I cleaned up nice enough. I’d kept my look simple, but stylish—my long black hair parted on the side, silver hoop earrings, and a simple loose sheath with a black and white block pattern. I’d kept my makeup light because it was another hot summer day and why fight the sweat? I had lined my eyes because Christian had complimented me on them. Actually, what he’d said was that Asian chicks had the best eyes. It was probably too much to hope that he meant our vision.

I feigned interest in his fad diet and studied the menu. Nom was the stupid name of the most popular restaurant in the city right now, and the food was supposed to be out of this world. That would normally be enough to lure me to its door, but I had another reason for wanting to get into the hottest new bistro in town—the chef.

Eddie Lucas was a major player in the local culinary scene—owner of three popular restaurants, each one bigger than the last. He was also a potential witness in the case of the People vs. Leo Adler, and my boss, Rob Fogg, represented Mr. Adler. Inside my sleek clutch purse was the subpoena that I’d been trying to serve on Eddie for the last two weeks. My task became more urgent when I saw him pick up passport forms at the post office earlier in the week and overheard him asking about expediting the process. It sounded like Eddie was heading overseas, and conveniently right around the time that his former business partner was going on trial for arson. But Sarah Mei Girard had never failed to serve a subpoena, and Eddie wasn’t going to be the first to beat me. I had a reputation to maintain.

So when Christian asked if I wanted to go to dinner at Nom on Friday, I’d hesitated only a second before agreeing to meet him here. That probably made me a bad person. But it made me a good legal assistant. And I suspected that Christian wasn’t so much interested in me, but just saw me as a challenge after several rejections.

The waitress came over and leaned down so she could take our order, which we nearly had to shout in her ear. Tables at Nom weren’t impossible to get, but nearly so. I’d been surprised when Christian said he had a reservation there. We’d ended up at a table near the swinging door to the kitchen, so in addition to the din of other tables’ conversations, every couple minutes the door would open and a wave of kitchen sounds would drown out our conversation.

It was probably the worst table in the house, but it was perfect for me, because I could see Eddie back there, barking orders at his staff and screaming profanities at the waiters. He wasn’t a tall man, but had broad shoulders and a midsection that looked like he truly appreciated his own cooking. Eddie’s thinning hair was plastered to his forehead with a combination of hairspray and sweat. And he had a permanent expression that varied only in degrees of a snarl.

How someone that coarse could create the mouth-watering dishes for which he was semi-famous was beyond me. But the proof was paraded by our table as the wait staff brought a plate of pan-roasted salmon in a champagne saffron broth to the table next to us. I watched it go by, sniffing at the wafting scent of fresh herbs.

I smiled at Christian and hoped that I looked semi-interested in whatever he was talking about. I was pretty sure it was about his job at a mortgage brokerage firm, but I had tuned out the last time the door had opened and I’d seen Eddie waving a chef’s knife at an employee.

“…my new supervisor thought he’d be changing the policy after he got promoted, but well, that was just the way things were done from the gecko.”

My head snapped back to Christian. “Uh, I’m sorry. What did you say? The gecko?”

He nodded. “Yeah, it’s a saying. You know, like, from the gecko.”

I paused, unsure if he was serious. “I think you mean from the get-go.”

He laughed. “That doesn’t make sense. Get go? What does that even mean?”

“No, ‘from the gecko’ doesn’t make sense,” I said. Was I really having this discussion?

“It means from a long time ago. You know, when the geckos ruled the earth.”

“Uh…” I had no idea what to do with this.

Christian nodded, his handsome face quite serious. “They’re, like, dinosaurs.”

The door swung open and I saw Eddie wipe his hands on his chef’s jacket and walk toward the back door of the kitchen. Was he leaving? I grabbed my purse and smiled at Christian.

“Excuse me. I’m going to find the ladies’ room. I’ll be right back.”

Our table was close to the hall that led to the restrooms, and I’d noticed that there also appeared to be a door to the kitchen off the short hallway. I was halfway down the hall when I saw Eddie stalk out of the kitchen and turn away from me. I followed him past the doors to the restrooms, around a corner and watched as he slammed open a door to the alley that ran behind the restaurant. A blast of warm summer heat escaped into the air-conditioned restaurant, and I wrinkled my nose at the scent of old hot Dumpster that accompanied it.

I stepped out into the alley and looked around. Eddie was lighting a cigarette, and I hung back until he put the lighter back in his pocket. Then I snapped open my purse, took out the folded papers and held them behind me, then walked toward him.

“Hi,” I said with a bright smile.

He looked surprised that there was anyone else in the alley, but didn’t say anything. “You’re the chef, right?”

Eddie squinted. “Yeah.”

I gave him a wide smile. “I thought so. Eddie Lucas, right? I’ve seen you on TV. You made some pasta dish on the morning news. It looked so good.”

He gave me a short nod and took a long drag on his cigarette, the red tip lighting up in the fading light of alley.

“I’m Sarah,” I said, stepping forward and extending my hand. I added a shake of my hair, just in case he hadn’t caught on to my flirting. He seemed distracted. Not to sound vain, but that usually didn’t happen to me.

He shook my hand and when I didn’t let go right away, he gave me a once over and a confused look. I let my clutch dangle from my left wrist, held the subpoena and tried to slide it into his right hand.

“Eddie Lucas, you’re subpoenaed to testify at—”

He jumped back as if he’d been scalded and the subpoena fell to the ground.

“Bitch!” he spat out, then threw his lit cigarette at me and ran toward the end of the alley. I picked up the folded subpoena from the ground and took off after him.

Damn it. I hadn’t expected him to run. My kitten heels were entirely the wrong shoes for the rutted alley. The one thing I had going for me was that I was in better shape than the portly chef, and I didn’t smoke. But that would only help if we were going to be running a long distance, and I prayed that wasn’t his plan.

Eddie was surprisingly fast for a guy with his bulk, and he made good time toward the dark end of the alley. When he reached the end, he’d have to go left or right, or straight into traffic. He glanced back and saw me chasing him, and his expression changed from anger to surprise and then to fear.

At the corner, he wobbled, seeming uncertain which way to go. I figured he’d turn right and run down the street away from the restaurant and toward the parking lot in the rear of the neighboring building. But the little man in the white chef’s coat went left, heading toward the front of his restaurant. I followed, my ankles objecting to the uneven terrain, the subpoena gripped in my fist. I’d never failed to serve a subpoena in the five years I’d been working for Rob Fogg. I was not about to be outrun by the tubby chef.

I rounded the corner at full speed, just in time to see Eddie plow through a line of Nom customers. The people scattered, and I had to scramble to get through, spinning around a woman carrying a massive bag, then ducking under a tall man’s elbow.

Thanks, mom, for forcing a dozen years of ballet on me. She’d never approve of how I used those lessons, but then again, I wasn’t about to tell her.

Eddie was struggling to get through the crowd, but I could tell he was aiming for the other corner. He pulled his car keys from his pants pocket, and then I saw the corresponding flash of lights in the car parked in a reserved space at the curb.

I made a desperate grab at his arm, ignoring the shouts and gasps from the crowd around me. My fingers gripped the fabric of his coat and he yanked his arm, but I held tight and stumbled after him. But Eddie really didn’t want that subpoena in my other hand because he swung his arm back at me. I barely got out of the way of his elbow and had to let go of his jacket.

I recovered quickly and started to go after him again, but Eddie had a few surprises left in him. One, he turned and came at me. And two, he raised both hands and shoved me. I briefly wondered what those in the crowd and the outdoor diners at the patio tables thought of the middle-aged man aggressively pushing a young woman. A well-meaning bystander jumped in with a shout and tried to keep Eddie away from me, but his efforts just propelled me backward. I took a step back and tried to catch my balance, but my legs hit a low box-planter that edged the dining patio and then momentum carried my body backward over the top of the rosemary shrub.

I landed amid a tangle of screaming women, who moments earlier had been enjoying a nice girls’ night out, until I literally crashed the party.

“He’s getting away!” someone yelled. “Call the police.”

I cringed and struggled to get up. That was the last thing I needed. I pushed a chair off my legs and tried to stand, but before I could get to my feet a pair of strong hands reached down and easily plucked me out of the carnage.

“Sarah?” Christian said, his expression even more confused than usual. “What’s going on?”

The sound of car wheels screeching away answered the question for me. Eddie had gotten away without the subpoena.

Now it was personal.

* * *

Want to read more about Sarah’s pursuit of Eddie? This 15,000-word story is available in the Killer Beach Reads anthology, a USA Today best-selling collection of summer-themed mysteries. Check it out at these booksellers.

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