WHILE the evening rush washed over Manhattan, the postwork crush swept through the Village Blend. Today the crowd was literally spilling out the front door. Feeling depleted and defeated, I waded through the mob, the rich, earthy scents of freshly roasted coffee beans leading me toward the espresso bar like a lurching zombie.
“Caffeine… must have caffeine.”
“Hey, Clare!” Tucker Burton called. “What’s up?”
“Hit me twice, Tuck. I need it bad.”
“You got it, sweetie.”
It was my day off, but I stepped around the marble counter anyway to check on the state of the shop. Tucker-my lanky, floppy-haired assistant manager-was in charge today, and we briefly chatted about the employees, the stock, and the machinery. The normalcy of it all felt reassuring, along with the news that everything in my house was under control.
Since my people were veterans at dealing with a postwork rush, I let Tuck shoo me away. Picking up my double espresso, I headed across the crowded room to a just-vacated caf'e table near the fireplace.
The Pisco Sour or Randall Knox (or both) had given me a slight headache, but the warmth of my double espresso was starting to cut through the bewildering fog of alcohol and vitriol. As my taste buds soaked up the nutty, caramelized flavors, my wedged platform sandals began tapping to the electronic drum machines of Tucker’s retro eighties mix.
Tuck must be psychic, I decided, because the titles playing over the Blend’s speakers were like a sound track to the events of my week: New Order’s “Blue Monday” followed by Boy George’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie to You,” and Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.”
“Okay,” I muttered, “if Cher comes on next with her eighties retread of ‘Bang, Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down,’ I’m going to lose it.”
But the next song I heard didn’t come from the Blend’s audio speakers. It came from my handbag. I pulled out my cell and silenced the ringtone, then checked the display and smiled.
“Hi, Mike. I knew you’d call when you had the chance.”
“Are you okay, sweetheart? Lori Soles just told me you witnessed a mugging today-in a restaurant bathroom. Is that right?”
“I’m fine, but it was an attempted murder not a mugging…”
I filled Quinn in on the details, along with my conversation at the Journal with Randall Knox and the little toast I spotted him sharing with Neville Perry’s mother. When I finished, Quinn remained silent for a few seconds.
“Knox sounds wrong, Clare. He has a strong motive to be involved with a revenge scheme. So does Mrs. Perry. But you need-”
“Evidence-I know! Have you gotten anything out of Stuart Winslow yet? Maybe they’re all working together.”
“Sorry, sweetheart. I don’t have good news for you on Winslow.”
I groaned, forecasting the need for another doppio espresso. Rapidamente. “Tell me.”
“When we got him down to the Sixth, he started talking without a lawyer-ranting, mostly. But he wouldn’t admit to anything. After a few hours of questioning, he finally lawyered up and clammed up.”
“Where does that leave us?”
“I can tell you where it leaves him. Free as a bird. He’s on his way to being arraigned right now. He should be out on bail very soon.”
“Oh no, Mike. Isn’t there any way to hold him? Charge him with attempted murder?”
“We searched his apartment, but that single bottle of OxyContin that he handed you was the only narcotic we found.”
“What about the other pills he had? I saw them!”
“Other than a little more OxyContin, we found zip. We raided his closet, but the only items in there were the kinds of supplements and herbal products you’d find in any health food store. He must have his dirty stash somewhere else, most likely under another name. We couldn’t find it in his residence, and he wouldn’t talk. So the only charge that stuck to him was one count of intent to distribute an illegal substance.”
“No murder weapon, either? No gun.”
“No weapons of any kind in his apartment.”
“What about all the other things he’s guilty of?”
“The DA’s office can’t charge Winslow for the robbery in Queens, or Monica Purcell’s overdose, or attempted murder of his ex-wife, because he wouldn’t admit to any of those things, and there’s no evidence that directly connects him.”
“And the Rxglobal Web site?”
“That’s an angle we’re working with the DEA, but that will take time. No judge will hold him without bail based on the evidence against him right now. And your testimony against him is just about the only thing we’ve got to even make the first charge stick. The prosecutor’s office wasn’t even comfortable charging him with conspiracy to commit robbery.”
“But he agreed on the wire! We have it on tape!”
“The rings were never actually stolen, and he never accepted them from you, just agreed to let you steal them. The defense will cry entrapment. It’s not enough for the prosecutor to go forward, Clare.”
I rubbed my forehead, tried to figure out a next step. “Winslow couldn’t have been the mugger at the restaurant,” I reasoned aloud, “because he was still in custody then. But if he’s going to be free soon, he might try to hurt Breanne himself.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I’ll try to reach Breanne and warn her. I’ll try Matt again, too, but he’s been unreachable for hours.”
I sighed. “It’s too long a story to explain now.”
“Fine, but you better suggest to Breanne that she hire a bodyguard.”
We signed off, and I rang Breanne. By now, she was out of the ER and back in her Sutton Place apartment-no hairline fracture, no damage to her vocal chords. She was just bruised, sore, and shaken. Before I could ask her about Randall Knox, she asked me about Matt.
“Have you heard from him yet, Clare?”
Bree’s typical cool, clipped tone was gone. Her voice sounded vulnerable and human. For the first time since Matt had announced their engagement, Breanne Summour sounded like a woman in love.
“I’m sorry,” I said gently, “he hasn’t come back yet. I can’t reach him on his cell, either.”
“Neither can I. You’ll let me know when he shows, won’t you?”
I told Breanne about my visit to Knox’s office, including the Miriam Perry appearance. I also warned her about gossip boy’s declaration that he’d be publishing a scandalous story on Monday, something that included an angle on the stripper Hazel Boggs.
“Whatever this story is, he promises it’s going to upset you a great deal. So brace yourself.”
Breanne had little to say after that, just thanked me for informing her. Finally, I told her about her ex-husband being released on bail.
“… and since Matt isn’t there with you, Mike Quinn strongly suggests you hire a bodyguard.”
“I already have,” she said. “He’s outside my apartment door right now.”
It’s about time. “Okay, Breanne, just make sure you show him a photo of your ex-husband, so he can stop the man the moment he comes near you. Would you do that?”
“Good idea, Clare. I’ll do that right now.”
I hung up, went back to the bar for another double shot, and sat back down near the fireplace to continue thinking things through. When the bell jangled over the door a few minutes later, I glance up and noticed an African American woman walking in.
“Janelle!” I waved her over.
Janelle Babcock waved back and crossed the wood plank floor, her ample hips smoothly negotiating the crowded caf'e tables.
“Espresso?” I asked as she sat down across from me. “Latte?”
“No, thanks, Clare.” She smiled.
Like the city she hailed from, Janelle had a smile that was warm and easy. Her flawless skin was the shade of a lightly creamed cup of Sumatra, and her features were Creole, not surprising since she’d grown up in New Orleans. She’d learned French there, too, along with the building blocks of French cooking, which is what led her to her first professional bakery job and eventually to a plane ticket to Paris, where she’d studied at the Cordon Bleu.
“I’ve got to get back to my kitchen,” she said. “I just came to drop off some more samples…”
Beaming with pride, she pulled three white bakery boxes out of her large tote bag and set them on the marble-topped caf'e table between us. We glanced at each other in silence, then I peeked into the first box with nearly infantile excitement.
“The anginetti! Oh my God, Janelle, they look spectacular! What did you do with them since the last batch?”
“I adjusted the ingredients slightly, and instead of making the ring with a small rope of dough, I used a pastry bag. Now each cookie ring is made out of eight little mounds that touch. See…” She pointed to the delicate cookie. “During the baking, the small mounds create a single ring that looks just like a miniature coffee cake.”
“The white glaze and nonpareils really complete the effect.” I picked up one of the tiny cookies and examined it. “Amazing. It’s like a miniature work of art, but then all of your samples have been.”
“Thanks, Clare. You always say the sweetest things. You know, for fun, I pulled out my food coloring and made a few anginetti with purple, green, and gold glaze. See…”
She handed me one of the alternate samples.
“Oh my God! It looks just like a tiny king cake! You could sell these for Mardis Gras parties next year!”
“That’s what I was thinking. If I can figure out a few more novelty cookies, I could even set up a mail-order business online. But I really need more catering clients in New York first.” She squeezed my arm. “I can’t thank you enough for getting me this job on your ex-husband’s wedding. My whole family’s waiting for Trend to come out so they can see my name in the caption under our tablescape.” She sighed and smiled. “Imagine, my little pastries showcased around Nunzio’s Lover’s Spring, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art!”
My phone rang again. “Excuse me, Janelle. This shouldn’t take long.” I pulled out the cell, hoping it was Matt. (I’d left him five messages by now.) But I didn’t recognize the number.
“Clare? Clare Cosi?”
The voice was deep and male, betrayed an Italian accent, and was (regrettably) recognizable.
“Yes. This is Nunzio, right?”
Janelle’s big brown eyes widened. “Nunzio!” she whispered. “He’s on the phone with you now?”
“Omigawd!” Janelle bounced up and down. “Nunzio! Omigawd!”
“Si, bella…” The Italian sculptor’s voice was low and silky, like my cat Java’s purr. Unfortunately, a few hits of Pounce treats weren’t going to satisfy this smooth-coated predator. “Breanne, she tells me you are coming to see me this evening? She says you are willing to discuss my concerns about my Lover’s Spring. You do still wish for me to lend you my beautiful fountain, si, Clare?”
“Yes.” I cleared my throat. “Breanne told me about your, uh… situation.” (I’d almost said proposition-only it wouldn’t have been much of a slip.)
Glancing at Janelle, I tried to decide what to do. She was grinning at me, but that was only because she hadn’t heard that Nunzio was balking on his deal to lend us his fountain, and unless I could find “some way” to change the man’s mind (in his hotel room, no less), Breanne was dumping our tablescape out of Trend.
“I was wondering, bella, what you are drinking when you come to see me. Is champagne to your liking?”
God, it was so humiliating being put in this position, but if I hung up on the guy now, without even trying to persuade him, I’d feel far worse. The Village Blend didn’t need a Trend splash page, but Janelle did. I had to do this, I had to try to persuade the man to change his mind, or I couldn’t live with myself.
“Yes,” I told Nunzio through gritted teeth, “I like champagne.”
“Bene. My room number is 5301. See you soon, bella, eh?”
I checked my watch. “Right. Soon.”
He hung up, and I hung my head.
“Hey, girlfriend, you look upset? Anything wrong?”
I massaged my eyes. “Let’s just say this has been a very long day-and it’s about to get a whole lot longer.”