Billionaire Blend (A Coffeehouse Mystery) (4 page)

BOOK: Billionaire Blend (A Coffeehouse Mystery)
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Anton frowned. “Eric had his reasons for allowing Ms. Hyde to insinuate herself into our lives. The end was messy, but it ended.”

“Yes, it did . . . which makes me wonder.”

“What?”

“I met Eric’s sister tonight. She warned me that bad things happen to the women around Eric. She said ‘women.’ Plural. She also mentioned something about a divorcée. Do you know what she meant?”

Anton appeared stricken for a moment, but quickly recovered.

“Eden was probably drunk. She’s very protective of her younger brother, and not very discreet when she imbibes.”

“But what she said sounded so . . . ominous. Was it a threat?”

“Pay no attention,” Anton insisted. “Bianca’s death was one thing, Charley’s quite another—”

“Charley?” I put down my coffee cup. “Are you saying that Charley, the ex-cop who died in the explosion—Eric’s dead driver—was a
woman
?”

T
hirty-six

“Y
OU
didn’t know this?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Charley was indeed a woman,” Anton confirmed. “An attractive one who intrigued Eric from the start. But Charley was not what she appeared to be . . .”

“Eric was intrigued? Then Charley and Eric really were . . .”

Anton nodded.

Well,
I thought,
at least now I understand
Braddock’s comment about Thorner sleeping with “the help”—not to mention Eric’s desperate behavior after the first explosion.

In the moment it took for me to process the fact that Charley was a woman, I almost missed the second half of Anton’s statement—almost.

“Not what she appeared?” I said after a pause. “You mean because she was an ex-cop?”

“No; Eric knew her credentials. That’s why he hired her, both to drive him and provide protection. But Charley had her own agenda, and she wanted the job for her own reasons.”

“And those reasons were . . . ?”

“Not for me to say.” Anton shrugged. “In any case, you have nothing to fear.”

“Excuse me?”

“You have no rivals for Eric’s affection, Clare. He has thought of nothing but you since he awoke from his operation.”

“But you misunderstand. I’m not interested in Eric. Not
that
way.”

Anton rolled his eyes. “Then why quiz me about his prior affairs?”

“After everything that’s happened tonight, I’m curious, that’s all. And I already
have
a boyfriend.”

Anton tapped the Omega chronometer on his own wrist. “Are you referring to the man who was supposed to call you at eleven?”

I slapped my forehead.
Not only had I forgotten Quinn’s call, I’d turned off my phone at the Source Club.

“I can’t believe I forgot. What’s Mike going to think?”

Anton mirrored his boss’s smirk. “He will suspect the worst, of course. Perhaps you should have told him you loved him before he hung up.”

I frowned. “Eavesdropping is bad form.”

“My dear lady, ears come with the job.”

“Apparently so do Ken dolls.”

“Snooping is bad form, too.”

“I’m sorry, but the door was open—and I thought you were inside.”

“Did you?”

“Okay, I was snooping. So what’s with the Ken dolls?”

He shrugged. “Understated luxury.”

“Excuse me?”

“It is my job to help Eric straddle two very different worlds. In this city run by money, the financial class dresses for success. The more tailored and elegant their attire, the more respect they garner.”

“That’s true.”

Anton paused to finish his own cup. “The situation is very different in his world of digital commerce and computer technology, where a fashion heuristic states that only two types of men wear suits and ties: funeral directors and assholes.”

I bit my cheek. “Who told you that one? Let me guess . . . Eric.”

Anton leaned across the table. “This is Eric’s world, not mine. I was born to an esteemed and aristocratic Spanish family. I attended military school and became an officer, like my father and grandfather before me. I grew to be a man around elegant things, and I understand the world of wealth and power in ways Eric cannot.”

He sat back. “So you see my dilemma. Two worlds, two cultures. But Eric must function in both of them, so I dress my man in clothes that are distinctive, casual, yet classic—and expensive enough to impress bankers and financiers, and their women.”

“Unless they
are
women.”

“Touché.”

“Those hand-sewn denims and the Florentine leather bomber jacket Eric wore when I first met him—your idea?”

“They’re all my ideas, Ms. Cosi. I order the outfits tailored in miniature, from the materials that will be used to make the finished product. I show the dolls to Eric, and he makes his selections.”

Anton owned his pride, and why not? He got to dress his own living, breathing, billionaire Ken doll.

“It’s a more efficient system than trial-and-error, Ms. Cosi, even if it’s not perfect.”

“What heuristic is perfect? A heuristic is basically just a rule of thumb, isn’t it? Helpful, maybe, but a rule of thumb is just an easy shortcut, like stereotyping. It doesn’t work all the time, does it?”

Anton smiled and nodded appreciatively. I glanced at my watch. It was after one in the morning. I thought about turning on my phone, but I knew Anton would eavesdrop on any call, and I didn’t want to deal with a concerned or angry Quinn until I had privacy.

“It’s very late, Anton. I’d better head home before the seams on this vintage dress give way.”

Anton rose. “I’ll drive you.”

“No, don’t leave Eric alone. I insist. Call me a cab and I’ll be fine.”

T
hirty-seven

W
AS
that a whimper?

As my taxi pulled away, I was buffeted by an arctic blast. My coat, more stylish than functional, leaked like a New Orleans levee, and the beads on my vintage Chanel dress felt more like ice chips.

The coffeehouse was closed, the shop dark, the newly installed French doors shuttered. I was fumbling for my key when I heard the sound, like a whimper of pain or despair.
A lost pet?

I moved to the dim alley beside the shop and tried to peer into the darkness. Then I heard it again. A sob, and definitely human . . .

It could be a homeless person or even a drunk, in which case I’d call the authorities for a non-emergency to help the person find shelter on this frigid night. But if this were a crime victim or someone who’d been seriously injured, he’d need help right away.

“Hello?” I called.

A large figure burst out of the shadows—so fast I had no chance to run. Heavy shoes scuffled on the cold concrete and thick arms wrapped around me in a crushing bear hug. I struggled and felt the delicate dress tear under my coat, but I couldn’t break free.

When I tried to scream, a gloved hand covered my mouth and nose. I could barely breathe, and within seconds I was seeing stars.

I looked down, hoping to spot a foot to stomp on or leg to kick.

What I saw were tan construction boots and dirty denim cuffs. Then something else tumbled into view—a red wool
Solar Flare
cap had fallen from my attacker’s head.

That’s when I knew the man holding me was the looter from the other night. And here I was, helpless as a bundled baby to do anything about it!

I groaned in frustration. He must have thought I was suffocating, because the glove came off my face.

“Stop struggling,” he hissed.

For the second time that evening, a noxious alcohol cloud wafted over me. This time it was cheap malt, not premium juniper berries.

“Okay,” I said, willing myself calm. “Do you want money? Jewelry?”

I couldn’t see his face, but he gripped me so tightly I felt his head shake.

“This is where it happened. This is where they killed her. You were there, right? You saw it?”

When I didn’t reply, he squeezed until my ribs bruised.

“Right, right!” I yelped.

“Now she’s dead and they’re looking for me.” His grip relaxed a little. I might have been able to escape him, but suddenly I didn’t want to.

“We can talk about it. Let’s go inside, have coffee—”

“No!” His cry was anguished. “It’s a trap. There’s someone inside already. It could be the police. They’re looking for me. They think I did it.”

“There’s no one inside. The coffeehouse is empty.”

“You’re lying!” He shook his head. “You saw how they killed her, right?”

“Charley?”

“Yes, Charley. Charlene Kramer Polaski; my ex-wife. She was too close to the truth so they murdered her.”

“What truth?’

“The truth of who
really
killed that young actress Bianca Hyde.”

“Are you telling me that Charley was the target of the bomb, and not Eric?”

“Yes. They didn’t know about me. They couldn’t. She was sending coded notes for safekeeping, deleting them from her phone before midnight.”

Midnight? Why? Was Charley a PI Cinderella?

I cleared my throat. “So who is
they
?”

Before he could answer, the sound of keys rattling in the Blend’s front door interrupted us. The man released me so fast that I nearly stumbled to the pavement. Snatching up his red cap, he took off, legs pumping, heavy construction boots smacking the pavement.

I lunged for the door just as Matteo Allegro yanked it open.

“Clare?!”

“Matt! I was nearly assaulted!”

“I knew it!” He took one look at my gaping coat and torn dress and (despite his sub-Saharan tan) turned redder than a chili pepper. “I don’t care if Thorner is a billionaire! I’m going to kill the little son of a—”

T
hirty-eight

O
F
course, I straightened Matt out and he calmed down—then he calmed
me
down. After plopping me on a stool at our espresso bar, he rummaged around for my container of homemade Kahlúa, and grabbed ice from the freezer and a bottle of vodka.

“What are you making?”

“Espressotinis.”

I rubbed my arm, sore from the manhandling. “Make mine—”

“A double. I plan to . . .”

As he mixed our drinks, I told him everything, starting with the Source Club dinner, the coffee showdown with Grayson Braddock, and the fact that Eric Thorner had endured excruciating pain—just so he wouldn’t miss the chance to embarrass a business rival who’d insulted him.

“Sounds like you had dinner in a shark tank.”

“More of a shark aquarium, complete with its own holo-fall.”

“Hollow-what?”

“It doesn’t matter. Let’s just say there were plenty of predators swimming in money, and Thorner must have been planning his ‘got-ya’ moment for some time.”

“The kid’s obviously very smart,” Matt conceded, straining my espresso martini into a glass crusted with cocoa and sugar. “Maybe too smart for his own good . . .”

I took a long sweet hit of refreshingly cool burn and kept talking, explaining how a group called Solar Flare had gathered to protest Eric (for
what
exactly, I still didn’t know), then I’d come back here, and—

“It was one of their members who grabbed me. The man outside claimed Charley—
Charlene
—was his ex-wife, and he was trying to tell me what he knew about the car bombing outside our coffeehouse, until
you
scared him off—”

“You think I’m sorry?” Matt snapped. “The guy was obviously unbalanced.”

“He was upset. And some of what he said didn’t make much sense. He’s mourning his ex-wife’s death, after all, and he thinks the police suspect him of being the bomber, but I don’t think he’s crazy.”

“He told you the police think he’s the bomber? Maybe he is, Clare, and the last thing you should have proposed was a one-on-one sit-down with him in this coffeehouse.”

“But I believe him. He said his wife was murdered because she was close to discovering the truth behind the death of Bianca Hyde. He also used the pronoun
they
, which implies a conspiracy, so I’m going to speak with Nate Sumner first thing tomorrow—”

“Mother’s old hippie friend? That geezer who teaches at the New School?”

“Yes.”

“Why? What does Sumner know about reality after all those psychedelic acid trips?”

“Nate is a member of Solar Flare; he was at the demonstration tonight; and the man who grabbed me was wearing one of their red caps, so Nate might know him—”

“I don’t like this.”

“Look, all I need to do is locate that man and get his statement to Quinn or Lieutenant DeFasio at the Bomb Squad. DeFasio owes me, and I know he’ll listen.”

“Well, don’t get your hopes up. Not after Nate saw you on a date with Thorner. You’re sleeping with the enemy.”

“I am
not
sleeping with—”

“In Nate’s eyes, you’re in bed with Eric—metaphorically, anyway, and before this is all over, who knows?”

“Stop it.”

“No. That Thorner kid got you into his bedroom tonight, didn’t he?”

“Well, truthfully, he did but—”

“I knew it!”

“It was only to help his butler administer medical aid!”

Matt smirked. “Face it, Clare, the rich are used to getting what they want, and from where I stand, that rich kid wants you in his bed.”

“I really don’t need your insulting negativity right now. What are you doing here, anyway? Don’t you have a wife . . . I mean
life
?”

“I’m here because
your boyfriend
asked me to check up on you. The flatfoot called me around midnight and said you
never answered your cell
. So he—”

“Assumed the worst?”

“He called me because he was worried about your safety. Are you going to call Quinn or what?”

“When I go upstairs and have some
privacy
. But since you’re here, we need to talk.”

“We are talking.”

“About something else—”

“You know, it’s odd how you claim that creep tore your dress under the coat. Are you sure you’re not making up a story to protect the boy billionaire?”

“Eric was a perfect gentleman, which is more than I can say for the guy who grabbed me. Or Grayson Braddock.”

Matt scratched his black beard. “Braddock’s a playboy, that’s true. Bree and I went to one of his parties at last year’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival. The guy lives large. A mansion playground in Coral Gables. Women. Fast cars. Kinky parties. A yacht called
Made in the Shade
—”

“Your eyes are glazing, Matt. Who are you jealous of, Braddock or Thorner?”

“Both, frankly, and I’m wary of both. Those men are players—in business and monkey business, too—and they play to win, so I wouldn’t believe what either one of them tells you. Thorner probably steered the police toward Braddock just to foul him up.”

“Don’t compare Eric to Braddock. I like Eric. He struck me as an earnest, trustworthy young—”

“Don’t waste your time selling me on the kid. Sell your flatfoot boyfriend.”

“Actually, Matt . . .” I took a long hit off my nightcap. “I do have to sell you.”

“Why?”

“Because tonight Eric offered us an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—”

“The answer is
no
!”

“Hear me out.” I gestured to the bar stool beside me. “Why don’t you sit? When you hear this, I think you’ll need to.”

Matt didn’t budge. Standing even taller, he folded his arms. “There’s no offer Thorner could possibly make that I would accept. Ever.”

I took another vodka-laced sip of courage and launched into my pitch (the one I’d rehearsed in my head on the cab ride home).

“Eric wants us to create the ultimate coffee. A world-class cup of excellence called Billionaire Blend. He wants us to use the rarest, best, and most exclusive coffee beans in the world. I do the roasting, after
you
source the beans.”

Matt snorted. “I’m supposed to go broke scouring the world at the behest of the boy billionaire?”

“Eric wants to pay for everything—up front. Money is no object. You can fly anywhere and pay any price; all you have to do is buy the best with Eric’s money, and I’ll do the rest right here in our basement.”

Matt went silent for a very long moment.

“So, what do you think?”

“I think I have to sit down.”

Yes!
“Does that mean you’re in?”

Matt raised a hand. “Not so fast. What about this ‘they’ the man who grabbed you mentioned?”

“What about it?”

“What if whoever ‘they’ are killed Charley to cover up Eric’s murder of Bianca Hyde?”

“You’re just saying that because you’re jealous of a handsome, young man who has it all, and earned it all, by himself.”

“And you’re just saying that because you
want
Eric to be innocent. Money changes everything, doesn’t it, Clare?”

“If that were true, I would have stayed to watch the sunrise in his Central Park bedroom.”

“You don’t think there’s even a
chance
Eric is guilty? Not even a little bit?”

“No. And try this on for size: you’re being incredibly selfish.”

“Me? Selfish?!”

“Think about all the good you could do with Eric’s money.”

“What?”

“Remember that tribe in Uganda you told me about—the one without a washing station? How about those struggling farmers in Haiti? And what about Costa Gravas? They finally dumped their dictator, but that’s just a start. Their new democracy needs to rebuild its coffee industry from the ground up.”

“That’s true . . .” Matt frowned and took his own long drink as he thought about that. “Costa Gravas is so close to Jamaica, they have the same microclimate. In a few years, they could be producing beans with a rep that rivals Blue Mountain. But the farms have no infrastructure support, their situation is even worse than Haiti’s, they’ve got sinkholes for roads, antiquated methods—”

“Things you could help change by directing Eric’s money to the right places, to worthy people. A ten-thousand-dollar grant to every farm or cooperative you single out could help change lives.”

“As if Thorner would care.”

“I think he would, if you educated him. Offer to take him with you on your sourcing trips. Teach him how the farmers who grow coffee live, what they struggle against every day. Convince Eric that he can create real change in the real world simply by helping them.”

“Fine!” Matt threw up his hands. “You win, okay? I’m on board with the rich kid’s scheme—as long as the twerp doesn’t turn out to be a mad bomber.”

“He’s not.”

“Or a lady killer—literally.”

“He’s not that, either.”

“I know you, Clare. Your lips may say
he’s not
, but those worried green eyes say you’re not entirely sure.”

“What you see in my eyes is exhaustion. Let’s call it a night, okay?”

I closed and locked the door behind my ex, then headed upstairs.

Dreamland was calling, but the night wasn’t over yet. There was one more man I had to calm down, and (heaven, help me) ask for a favor.

T
hirty-nine

“C
LARE?”

“I hope you’re looking at your caller ID.”

“I am.”

“Then you know I’m home safe—and I’m so very sorry, Mike. Things got crazy, and I lost track of time—”

“I was worried. I called your ex-husband—”

“I know.”

“And DeFasio—”

“DeFasio? At the Bomb Squad? Why?”

“I told you, I was worried. I asked if there were any bomb scares in Lower Manhattan. He answered—and I quote—‘No, Mike. I swept Eric Thorner’s limo for devices myself before he picked up your lovely lady.’”

Oh, geez.
“So how angry are you?”

“What I am is a little embarrassed, but I’ll live.”

“You didn’t have to call him.”


You
could have called me.”

“Let’s not argue . . .”

I heard the hard exhale on the other end of the line.

“I love you, Mike, you know?”

“I know. And you know the feeling is mutual—otherwise, I would have waited for the morning news to see if you survived the night.”

“You won’t be angry all weekend, will you?”

“Does that mean you’re coming to Washington?”

“Yes, of course. It’s my turn to travel, isn’t it? I’ll be on the afternoon Acela—you can pick me up at Union Station. I’ll even bake you that Triple-Chocolate Cheesecake I’ve been promising, if . . .”

“There’s an
if
? After what you put me through, I don’t get the cheesecake free and clear?”

“I need a favor.”

“You’re pushing it, sweetheart.”

“True. But it’s for a good cause . . .”

I explained what I needed. By the end, I was so exhausted (from the day and the vodka), I nearly drifted off.

“No promises,” Mike said at last. “But I’ll see what I can do. Now, get some rest and do
me
a favor . . .”

“Anything.”

He lowered his voice. “Dream about me.”

“I plan to . . .” I said, then hung up and (on a stifled yawn) placed one last call.

“Clare?”

“I’m so sorry to disturb you at this crazy hour, but I need a very important favor . . .”

Madame listened to my request.
Yes
, she agreed. First thing in the morning, she’d call her old flame and invite him for coffee.

“Thank you,” I said.

Then I bid her sweet dreams and promptly passed out.

F
orty

“B
OOTSIE
Girl!”

Nathan Sumner’s cry interrupted the chatter of our late-morning rush. From behind our counter, I watched as the old professor, eyes only for Madame, strolled across our restored plank floor.

“Bootsie Girl?” Esther and Tucker said in unison before I shushed them.

Madame rose to greet the plus-sized man. He opened his arms wide, and they shared a lingering hug and affectionate pecks.

In his youth, Nate had been a passionate young man with a baby face, golden ponytail, and idealistic fire in his hard, brown gaze. The ponytail was still there, though shorter now, and as silver as Madame’s pageboy. He wore rimless glasses over those brown eyes, and his baby face now sported a close-trimmed white beard and more than a few creases. As for the rest of him . . .

“By God, Bootsie Girl, you never lost your figure, unlike we less fortunate ones.” Nate patted the wool vest jacketing his own impressive middle.

“You’ve gained more than a few pounds,” Madame conceded, still holding his hand. “You’ve also doubled up on the charismatic charm that bruised the hearts of so many young coeds.”

The tweedy professor was pushing seventy, but when he gazed at Madame, his dark eyes danced like a man in his lusty prime.

“Passing fancies,” Nate said with a wave of his wrinkled hand. “My heart was forever stomped by you, Bootsie Girl.”

My former motherin-law struck a coquettish pose and lifted her maxi-length lamb’s wool skirt just enough to display what I’d foolishly thought was a rare fashion faux pas—white, knee-length leather go-go boots with pointed toes and stacked heels.

From Nate’s excited reaction, however, I realized Madame was merely dressing to rekindle some provocative memories. (I also guessed it was Madame’s
boots
that had done some walking all over Nate Sumner’s heart.)

The pair returned to Madame’s quiet corner table arm in arm. I’d set a vase with a few blue roses on the table, and Nate eyed them suspiciously before slipping off his leather shoulder pack. As he pulled off his coat, he yanked a tall, brown paper bag out of one deep pocket and set it on the table.

“What’s this?” Madame pointed to the paper bag with disapproval. “Brought your own drink?”

“Oh, that’s just my favorite iced tea. I talk so much, I guzzle a dozen cans a day. Anyway, this one’s empty, and you know I’d never refuse a Village Blend espresso.”

That was my cue to enter the scene, bearing a tray with a
doppio
each for Madame and Nate—and a third for me.

“So, Blanche, what’s up?” Nate asked while I served. “We haven’t sat for coffee since we pressured the City Council to expand landmark zoning rules to the entire Village.”

“What a day,” Madame said. “The mayor was frothing at the mouth.”

“Flipping the bird to power is a blast, Bootsie. You should do it more often,” Nate said with a self-satisfied chuckle.

“Is that what you were doing in front of the Source Club last night?” I interjected. “Flipping the bird to power?”

“Oh, Nate,” Madame cooed. “Perhaps you know Clare Cosi, my manager?”

“Yes, I saw her just last night, though this is our first
formal
introduction . . .” Nate didn’t look happy to see me. I didn’t care—

“May I join you,” I said, sitting before Nate could object.

Nate sampled his espresso, drained the demitasse, and set it aside. “So, Ms. Cosi, you must have had an interesting dinner last night.”

“It’s what happened
after
dinner that concerns me.”

“Ah,” Nate said with a stubbornly proud smile. “My little protest.”

“Your mini riot, you mean.”

“Some of my followers are . . . enthusiastic. Things may have gotten out of hand.”

“Saul Alinsky tactics?” Madame asked, referring to the political anarchist’s notorious guidebook,
Rules for Radicals
(a sort of
Robert’s Rules
of
disorder)
.

Nate laughed. “They were General Patton’s tactics, Bootsie. We outflanked the enemy.”

“What were you protesting, exactly?” I asked.

The good humor drained from Nate’s bearded face. “The digital age, Ms. Cosi. The insidious use of computers to control populations. The cancer of social media in all of its forms.”

“Goodness!” Madame blinked. “And I thought you were an advocacy group for solar
power
.”

Nate patted Madame’s hand. “I chose the name
Solar Flare
because of my original concern. Our rush to computerize our infrastructure, to digitize our libraries, records, and financial transactions, ignores a hidden danger—”

“A solar flare?” I assumed.

“Precisely, Ms. Cosi. A solar eruption could potentially destroy all computers and the data they contain, obliterating two thousand years of human endeavor in an instant, should we abandon our history of traditional print and paper. Why, a solar hiccup could disrupt power grids for months, even years.”

“A terrifying possibility,” I acknowledged. “But like an asteroid striking the earth, what are the chances of it actually happening?”

“A valid point, which is why, in order to become more relevant, our group’s emphasis has shifted to the immediate and insidious threat of cyberization.”

“Cyber-
what
?”

“I coined the term to illustrate our increasing dependence on high-tech gadgets. We are becoming cyborgs, fusions of man and machine.” Nate pulled a small, thin hardcover from his shoulder bag and handed it to me. “I outline it all in my book—and I’d like you to give it to Eric Thorner.”


Cyberization and Control: The Totalitarianism of New Technology
,” I read.

The dust jacket art depicted a photo of a young man draped in technology. Devices covered his eyes, nose, mouth, even his arms. Wires rose from each machine, leading to crosshatched puppet master’s sticks floating under the title.

“At present, the man/machine commingling is only psychological. Separate any one of the customers around us from their smartphones and you’ll see what I mean. Within a few hours, they exhibit many of the same withdrawal symptoms as an addict deprived of heroin.”

“Heroin?” I echoed, slipping the book into my apron pocket. The statement seemed ludicrously extreme to me—although a few months ago, Matt
did
climb the walls after he’d smashed his own smartphone in a tantrum and had to live without it for all of a half day.

“The results of studies are disturbing,” Nate continued. “The Internet is turning into the new opiate of the people—especially young people. Privacy is violated, civil rights trampled upon. If we’re not careful, the digital domain is going to control our bank accounts, our thoughts, every waking moment of our lives—”

“You don’t think you’re overstating it?”

“What the future holds is terrifying. The cyber-world gives people the illusion of anonymity and power, but neither of those things is true. It takes away our power. It sells out our privacy. And as these clever devices insinuate themselves, tempting us with easy lives and glib replies, I believe we’ll become like machines ourselves. Soulless and sociopathic, if not out-and-out automatons.”

I saw the somber change in the old man’s demeanor and took a shot in the dark. “It sounds like you’re speaking from personal experience.”

“Yes, I confess: it
is
personal, Ms. Cosi. Eric Thorner, the man you dined with last night, is responsible for the death of my niece.”

F
orty-one

T
HE
statement shocked me. I assumed Nate was talking about Eric’s old girlfriend, the young actress Bianca Hyde. Before I could ask, however, Madame set me straight.

“You’re speaking about Eva, your brother’s child? I remember when she was born, but that must have been—”

“Eva would have been seventeen last month. She died almost two years ago.”

“I’m so sorry, Nate,” Madame said. “I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t know because my brother’s company transferred him. He placed Eva in an exclusive private school. Eva was the new girl, and the students there were cruelly cliquish. By the end of her first semester the cyber-bullying began.”

Nate told us how one of Eva’s female tormentors secretly took a candid photo of Eva half dressed in the locker room after gym class.

“The bully used Eric’s popular
Pigeon Droppings
app to place Eva in the game without her consent, and then spent an entire weekend circulating screen grabs among her friends. By Monday, one of the little sadists posted printouts all over the school. When Eva saw the pictures of her half-naked body covered in cyber-crap, she ran home and locked herself in the bathroom.”

Nate paused. When he spoke again his voice was shaking. “By the time the school alerted my brother, it was too late. Vince found his daughter hanging dead in the shower.”

Oh my God . . .

I heard the air leave Madame’s lungs in a rush, and her violet eyes welled. I felt tears welling, too, but I had to point out the obvious.

“I’m so sorry, Nate . . . what happened was awful,
criminal
, but the bullying was the issue. Eric Thorner only created the game, not the abuse.”

“The game became a tool for abuse, Ms. Cosi. As a society, we regulate tobacco companies, gun manufacturers, and distillers of alcohol because we know their products have the potential to do harm or be abused.”

“I see your logic, but how do you propose apps be regulated? The online shops that carry them do so already, don’t they?”

“Yes, but more must be done. Solar Flare has been effective in the past. We were instrumental in the banning of those vile
Pigeon Droppings
Tshirts. We made sure Thorner took a financial hit for those!”

“I’m sorry to tell you that Eric doesn’t see what you’re trying to accomplish. He believes you simply want his business to pay for your advocacy.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Nate replied. “Tobacco companies fund lung cancer research. Gun manufacturers are the leading promoters of firearms education, and alcohol manufacturers support substance abuse programs. Why shouldn’t tech companies like Eric’s fund Solar Flare, so we can effect much-needed change from within? We’re committed to our public protests against him until he pays up.”

I nodded like a good student—even though it seemed to me that Nate Sumner was treading a fine line between activism and extortion. But now was not the time for debate. Now was the time for me to find out what Nate knew about Charley’s husband.

With care, I shifted topics and told Nate about my encounters with the man in the red Solar Flare cap.

“I need to know. Is he a member of your group?”

“Yes, Joseph Polaski is a member of Solar Flare,” Nate said, “but I don’t know where you can find him, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did. I will also add that Joe is another victim of the digital domain.”

Nate then told me all about Joe and his ex-wife, Charlene Polaski. The two were once cops; they’d met on the job. He was the veteran, she the rookie. Things were fine between them until Joe’s retirement. He started drinking, and they began to drift apart. The marriage ended when Joe discovered Charley was seeing a lover she’d met on a website that facilitated extramarital affairs.

“Joe reacted badly. He slapped Charley, and she got a restraining order against him. Joe joined Solar Flare shortly after.”

“Is he a volunteer, or is he paid?”

“Solar Flare has no paid staff, Ms. Cosi. I run the organization with a few dedicated interns and many volunteers. Joe is a responsible member of the community. He prepares food at a Bowery homeless shelter, collects clothing for the local Salvation Army, and performs maintenance work for the Friends of the High Line Committee.”

“Does he build firebombs in his spare time, too?”

“Joe had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder of his ex-wife. He still loved Charley, and they’d recently reconciled—well, after a fashion. When Charley became a licensed private investigator, she asked Joe to help with her first major undercover investigation.”

Now
I understood. Eric’s butler, Anton, said that Charley was
not what she seemed
, and that she had
personal reasons
for taking a job at THORN, Inc. After what Nate just revealed, I easily guessed the rest.

“Charley was investigating Bianca Hyde’s death, wasn’t she?”

“She was.” Nate nodded. “From what Joe told me, the girl’s family hired her. They blamed Eric Thorner for what happened to their daughter, and wanted Charley to find proof that Thorner was responsible for her death. Charley knew Joe was a member of Solar Flare so she asked him to feed her information about Thorner’s company. But from what Joe told me the last time we spoke, it was Charley who was feeding him information toward the end—and lots of it.”

I leaned forward. “What kind of information?”

“You’ll have to ask Joe.”

“But you don’t know where he is?”

Nate shrugged. “Sorry.”

I was about to suggest refills when I spied a trio of men in dark suits approaching our table. Alarmed, I slid my chair back and bumped into another man hovering behind me. More suits flowed out of the crowd, to surround our table. NYPD officers in uniform and several detectives followed. To my horror, one of them was Lieutenant Dennis DeFasio of the Bomb Squad.

The original trio displayed their FBI credentials.

“Nathan Sumner,” the one in the middle said. “You are under arrest for detonating an explosive device for terrorist purposes, and for the murder of Charlene Polaski.”

“No!” Madame cried, leaping to her feet to block the agents. “You’re making a terrible mistake. This man is innocent!”

One agent deftly pulled Madame aside while the other two cuffed Nate. The old professor seemed as stunned as the rest of us. He didn’t resist in the least, which made the regiment of FBI agents and NYPD officers there to arrest him look like ridiculous overkill.

One agent lifted Nate out of his chair; a second grabbed his shoulder bag.

On his feet, Nate quickly recovered some of his old spirit.

“Pass my book to your friend, Ms. Cosi,” the old professor told me quickly. “It has
good information
.”

The authorities who filled my coffeehouse pulled back, taking their prisoner with them. Moving toward the door, Nate cried out one last chant—

“Roses white and red are best!”

His words barely registered as my focus fixed on Lieutenant DeFasio, bringing up the rear. I rushed forward, grabbing his arm before he got out the door.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant?”

“The FBI has made an arrest,” DeFasio replied, tone stiffer than his military crew cut. Then he grabbed my arm and pulled me into a corner.

“Nate is no killer,” I hissed. “He’s an opinionated old man, that’s all—”

“An old man with a past that fits the crime.”

“What past?”

“We also have physical evidence.”

“What evidence?”

“I can’t tell you, not officially . . .” He lowered his voice and held my eyes. “I can only discuss the case with
Federal agents
.”

Quinn
, I thought.
DeFasio is telling me to talk to Mike.

The lieutenant hurried out to join the others—and I joined my own stunned customers, staring like zombies at the departing police vehicles. I noticed Tuck at the espresso bar, comforting a distraught Madame, and I wanted to do the same. For the moment, however, I couldn’t move that far. I simply sank back down at the table where they’d arrested Nate. In the process, I bumped his paper bag. It tumbled to the floor and an empty can rolled out—

Brooklyn’s Best Iced Tea.

I stared at the can.

Where have I seen that before?

At the Bomb Squad headquarters, I realized. Cases of the very same iced tea were stacked outside the kitchen where DeFasio claimed his people were
re-creating the bomb
!

Not just a bomb. A firebomb, using liquid accelerants, according to Sergeant Emmanuel Franco.

Oh my God. Whoever built that bomb used a can just like this one—Nate’s favorite brand. I just knew it wasn’t a coincidence.

Madame approached me, grasped my arms. “We have to help Nathan,” she said, drying her eyes. “He’s a good man and a gentle one. He abhors violence. You know he’s innocent, don’t you?”

“I do, Madame.”

“Then you’ll help him? You’ll find a way to clear him of these terrible false charges?”

“Yes, I promise—because I know exactly how he was framed.”

F
orty-two

“T
HEY
have Nate’s fingerprints,” Mike confirmed when I saw him that weekend. “They pulled the prints off recovered bomb fragments and singled him out as the person of interest very quickly.”

It had been less than a week since we’d last seen each other, but after Nate’s arrest, it felt more like a month, so I didn’t object when Mike asked if we could go straight back to his DC apartment.

Alone at last, Mike wanted to make love, but I was anxious to hear what he knew. “Talk,” I demanded, and he did. Unfortunately, I didn’t much like what he had to say . . .

“Enlighten me please, Mike. If the NYPD and FBI had Nate’s fingerprints so quickly, then why did they wait a week to arrest him?”

“Their theory is that Nate had an accomplice so they put surveillance on him. But after last night’s protest at the Source Club, they decided to take him into custody, try to break him in an interview.”

“This is so wrong! Nate didn’t set a car bomb to kill Eric Thorner or anyone else!”

“Getting emotional won’t help your friend.”

“I know. It’s just so frustrating.”

“Then what’s
your
theory, Detective?”

“Someone framed Nate—obviously.”

“How?”

“The killer must have watched Nate finish a can of Brooklyn’s Best Iced Tea and discard it, then recovered the can from the garbage pail. The killer then built the bomb using that can, knowing it would be linked back to Nate, who appeared to have strong motives to want to hurt Eric Thorner.”

Mike nodded. “I agree—and between you and me—DeFasio does, too.”

“What did he tell you?”

“They went back six months but found no records of the professor purchasing accelerants. They found nothing on his computer or cell phone that indicated he’d been planning a car bombing. They found no traces of bomb-building material where he lives or works or in the Solar Flare offices.”

“So why arrest him?”

“Because the agents and detectives running the investigation have enough of a case to pacify the politicians, public, and press who put the pressure on for an arrest.”

“So they’re betting on Nate confessing and naming an accomplice who built the bomb?”

“Yes.”

“He won’t, you know, because he’s innocent.”

“I’m with you, Clare, I am. But who framed him? And why?”

“That’s where your favor comes in. Did you do it for me?”

“I did. I spoke with a friend in the LAPD.”

“So you got the information?”

“It’s locked in my briefcase, but only one thing will persuade me to give up the combination.”

“Let me guess: my Triple-Chocolate Italian Cheesecake?”

“Okay, two things. Come here . . .”

*

T
H
E
next morning, I woke to the heavenly smell of buttermilk pancakes on the griddle. In a nice switch, Mike made breakfast for me. As I stuffed myself with comfort-food carbs, he retrieved his handwritten cop notes. Then I made a big pot of coffee and he sat down to give me the skinny on Bianca Hyde’s death and the police investigation that followed—straight out of the Los Angeles Police Department files.

“Okay,” he began, “Bianca Hyde died at the Beverly Palms Hotel via blunt force trauma. Officially, it was determined that Ms. Hyde was intoxicated, stumbled, or passed out; struck her head against a heavy glass table, and bled to death.”

“That much I knew from Tucker’s tabloid account.”

“Patience, Cosi . . . The investigating officer was convinced her death was foul play, and from the files he seemed eager to pin the crime on Eric Thorner.”

“His evidence?”

“They were recently estranged. He’d had enough of her drinking and insisted she check into rehab. She refused and checked into the hotel. The Beverly Palms had been sued the previous year and forced to provide camera footage for a divorce trial, so they removed most of their interior security cameras, promising discretion to future guests.”

“What about the elevators?”

“There were cameras in the elevators and in the underground parking garage. The police viewed the footage closely, but there was no visual evidence that Eric Thorner, Anton Alonzo, or any of Bianca’s other former boyfriends, who sometimes had jealousy issues, appeared on camera.”

“That’s it?”

“The police brought Thorner in for questioning. He claimed to be at his Silicon Valley residence that day, all day. It turns out that Mr. Thorner owns considerably more security cams than the Beverly Palms, and the LAPD quickly found time-stamped video images showing Thorner and his butler, Anton, at the residence in the hours leading up to Bianca’s death and many hours after.”

Mike set his notes aside to pour another cup of coffee. “That’s about as solid an alibi as you can ask for, so the LAPD had no choice but to back off.”

“Then Eric is innocent.”

“Maybe,” Mike said.

“Maybe’s pretty vague. What’s
your
theory, Detective?”

“I’ll put it to you this way: What sounds more believable to you? A chubby, out-of-shape old man like Nate Sumner constructs a bomb and finds some way to plant it in a car that’s always either in a secure garage or driven by a former NYPD cop? Or . . . a tech genius like Eric Thorner and a former member of Special Ops like his butler, Anton Alonzo, find a way to trick their own security cameras and falsify an alibi?”

I blinked. “You think Nate was framed by Eric and his butler?”

“I do.”

“You’re crazy.”

“And you’re willfully blind. Brush those dollar signs away from your eyes, Cosi, and maybe you’ll be able to see the truth.”

“Don’t be insulting. For your theory to work, that means Eric would have planned to kill Charley and almost kill himself.”

“Every insurance adjuster knows that the easiest way to appear innocent of starting a fire is to make sure you get burned in it.”

“I can’t listen to this!”

“DeFasio did.”

“You think Eric Thorner murdered Bianca Hyde and then—”

“Yes.”

“No, I can’t believe it.”

Mike exhaled. “More like you don’t want to believe it. Like that daughter of yours who broke up with Franco because of his salary.”

I held my head. “Don’t make things worse.”

“Sweetheart, listen to me. I know Nate Sumner got a raw deal, but it’s his problem now—and his attorney’s problem. I want you to stay away from Thorner.”

I swallowed hard. “I promised Madame I’d help. But even if I went back on that promise, I can’t live with the situation the way it is. I’m going into business with Eric, and I want to know the truth about him. I really don’t think he framed Nate.”

“Then who did?”

“I don’t know. We don’t have enough facts yet to conclude anything.”

“And how are you going to get your facts?”

“I’ll continue to work with Eric and keep my eyes open.”

“But I don’t want you
anywhere near
Thorner or his people. I’m worried about you.”

“Look, someone around Eric has to be guilty—someone close enough to know his schedule and get to his car without suspicion. I don’t know if the motive was personal or monetary, but I’m going to find the truth.”

“The truth? Okay, Clare, you think about this truth on your train ride home: the last person to investigate the truth around Eric Thorner was an ex-cop named Charley. And if you’re not careful, you’re going to end up where she did—on a cold, steel slab at the city morgue.”

F
orty-three

F
OR
the next few nights, I tossed and turned. Matt was off on his hunt for the best coffee beans in the world. Madame was inconsolable with worry. And me? I was feeling powerless and without a clue (literally).

To make matters worse, Eric himself remained out of touch.

He’d left the city upon Nate’s arrest and had yet to return. His behavior was beginning to feel suspicious, and I couldn’t help wondering whether Mike was right.

On Wednesday night, I tried to call Quinn. His voice mail declared that he was on an unexpected special assignment and temporarily unreachable. I lay awake, hoping he’d get back to me, my mind playing our last conversation over and over again . . .

“You’re willfully blind. Brush those dollar signs away from your eyes, Cosi, and maybe you’ll be able to see the truth . . .”

*

O
N THURSDAY
morning, Tucker took one look at my eyes and gave me a brotherly hug. He didn’t see dollar signs, he saw dark circles.

“Listen, CC, there are two remedies for insomnia: physical exhaustion or better
ZZZ
s through chemistry.”

I gave the former a try by taking a long afternoon swim at the 14th Street Y. By my tenth lap, I could swear I heard someone gurgling my name under the chlorinated water.

“Ms. Cosi!”

I popped up to find Anton Alonzo at the edge of the pool, wearing full chauffeur livery, standing stiff as a towel rack—complete with a fluffy, white one on his arm.

I climbed out of the water, and he wrapped the soft material around me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked (uncomfortably aware that a dozen of my fellow swimmers were wondering the same thing).

“I have something for you from Mr. Thorner.” He pulled a small, gold gift bag from his pocket and opened it. “Please . . .”

“But I’m soaking wet.”

“No matter.”

I dipped my hand into the bag and brought out a mobile phone, but not just any mobile phone. This was a prototype THORN, Inc., smartphone. The sleek, black design was beautiful, gently caressing my wet hand.

“This phone is shockproof, fireproof, and waterproof to a depth of one kilometer,” Anton briskly informed me. “All new data is backed up daily at midnight.”

“How do you turn it on?”

“Phone on!” he commanded.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Cosi . . .” I shivered at the familiar fembot voice, the one from Eric’s cyber-wired luxury apartment.

“It’s Miss House,” I whispered to Anton. “Now what?”

“Wait for it,” he whispered back.

The fembot spoke again: “I have an incoming call from Mr. Eric Thorner. Will you take the call?”

“Yes,” I said.

Eric’s visage instantly filled the little screen. “How’s my favorite coffee lady?”

“Dripping wet and dog tired.”

“Good,” he said with a feline grin. “You’ll get some good sleep tonight, and when you wake up, we’ll have a late breakfast meeting.”

“At the Village Blend?” I assumed.

“Anton will give you directions. Trust me, Clare, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Wait! I have some important questions for you—”

“If you do as Anton says, you can ask me anything.”

Then the screen wiped his image, and I shivered in my swimsuit, certain the billionaire’s Cheshire Cat grin was the last thing to disappear.

*

A
FEW
hours later, I was shivering again, this time from the winter weather. As snow lightly fell, Anton pointed to a rabbit hole in the form of a Gulfstream jet, sitting on the tarmac at Teterboro Airport.

“I should have taken the sleeping pill,” I muttered.

This was Eric’s private plane, I was told, which I would have guessed anyway from the THORN, Inc., logo of barbed-wire thorns stenciled around the G5’s blue and white tailfin.

“Where am I going?!” I called over nearby roaring engines.

“The pilot will answer your questions, Ms. Cosi! Please board now!”

The pilot answered none of my questions because he was busy flying the plane. The copilot, who acted as steward, wouldn’t tell me, either.

“It’s a surprise, Ms. Cosi,” he said. “My apologies, but I’m under strict orders from Mr. Thorner to keep it that way.”

The jet was set up like the cabin of a small yacht—all polished, blond wood and cream-colored cushions. Its small help-yourself galley was stocked for a baby billionaire: champagne, chocolate, caviar, Coca-Cola, Doritos, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups . . .

At the very back was a private bathroom, complete with a shower, and a bedroom with a large mattress and a flat-screen TV set up with high-speed Internet and a head-spinning selection from Thorner’s personal movie library.

I’d been told to pack light—a change of clothes, underthings, and a nightgown. I changed into sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt, collapsed onto the cloud-soft bed, and slept like a dead person.

Maybe it was the purring sound of those jet engines, maybe it was the relief that I would finally get a chance to question Eric about Professor Nate Sumner’s arrest, but my insomnia was officially over and my last thoughts before drifting off: a Ping-Pong match between “How cool is this?” and “What kind of
Interweb
did I get myself into?!”

F
orty-four

“B
ONJOUR,
madam . . .”

The sounds of our jet landing had woken me, but the airport didn’t look familiar. I washed up, changed into clean slacks and a sweater, and disembarked. As I knotted my topcoat on the chilly tarmac, a bulky man approached.

“Please to follow me,” he said, his breath steaming as he took my Pullman. He had a barrel chest and wore a microphone bud in his ear. From the cut of his jacket, I assumed he was carrying a shoulder-holstered gun—and I didn’t know whether to feel safe or threatened.

“Excuse me?” I asked him. “Are we in France?”


Oui
, madam.”

“Where?”

His reply was to pull open the back door of a black SUV. “Please to go inside.”

“Won’t you tell me where I’m going?”

The big guy didn’t answer. He just slid behind the wheel and took off, but when I saw the sign for the A1, I knew: we were driving into Paris.

*

A
S WE
rolled through the early traffic of tiny cars and giant trucks, all I could think of was Joy. Whatever Eric wanted me to do here, I would absolutely insist on the chance to see my daughter before we left.

As billionaires go, Eric would likely be staying in the center of the city at an ostentatious hotel, something near the majestic Palais-Royal or Champs-Élysées, maybe the Hotel Le Meurice along the Tuileries Gardens.

Frankly, all I cared about on this bright, winter morning was how far we would be from Joy’s restaurant.

Could she get a few hours off for a visit? Would Eric let me make the time . . . ?

I prayed it would all work out.

Nose pressed to the car window, I watched the egg-like domes of the Sacré-Coeur basilica draw closer—and closer! With growing excitement, I realized we were heading into Montmartre, where Joy lived and worked.

Tears filled my eyes as we moved through the narrow, cobblestone streets. Then my heart was in my mouth. The SUV pulled up right in front of Les Deux Perroquets!

I burst out of the car before it fully stopped. The restaurant wasn’t yet open, but I saw her immediately, sitting in her chef’s whites at a table near the window. My daughter rose, opened the front door, and then her arms—

“Mama!”

“Joy!”

Together at last, we held on tight.

F
orty-five

“M
OM,
I can’t believe you’re here!”

I couldn’t, either, and it was hard to find my voice.

As we headed into the restaurant, arm in arm, I tried to sense how she was doing. Her chestnut hair appeared shorter than the last time I’d seen her (nearly four months ago), and was presently scraped back into a kitchen-ready ponytail. Her curvy figure was hidden by the blocky chef’s jacket, but it was her face that worried me. It looked thin and pale. Shadows under her eyes and a tightness around her mouth made her look older than her years.

In my view, there were two likely causes for this: anxiety about her work or love life (or both).

I was about to launch into a battery of Mother Hen questions when a gentleman roughly the height of the Eiffel Tower rose from a table to greet me.

“Good morning, Ms. Cosi. How was your flight?”

The last time I’d seen this man, he’d been having dinner with Eric Thorner’s half-crocked sister in the Source Club’s River Room.

Eric had described Garth Hendricks as his medicine man—after a fashion. He’d replaced
medicine
with the Greek term for wisdom, but “Metis Man” was a title I’d never heard before. And I still didn’t understand his function at THORN, Inc.

“Sometimes
I think of him as the Energizer,”
Eric had attempted to explain,
“because he inspires me and my staff. Sometimes we joke that he’s the Ventilator—because he allows my people to vent. He’s like a father confessor and court jester rolled into one . . .”

Given Garth’s penchant for brightly colored clothing, the court jester part was easy to believe. I recalled the jacket he’d worn in the Source Club’s formal dining room—shiny, turquoise silk with a Nehru collar.

On this morning, he stood before us in billowing, black slacks and a shocking red Indian kurta with gold embroidery around the dipping neckline. His long, salt-and-pepper ponytail was held in place by a beaded leather tie that caught an eagle feather in its webbing.

Despite his odd attire (for a Caucasian man in a Montmartre eatery, anyway), Eric’s consigliere radiated confident authority.

“Where’s Eric?” I asked, glancing across the leather banquettes and brass rails of the empty dining room.

“Busy in meetings,” Garth replied, “but he has a View-Mail message for you.”

“View-Mail?”

“Check your THORN phone, Ms. Cosi.”

I pulled the sleek, black smartphone from my bag.

“Phone on!” I said (a little too loudly).

“Mom,” Joy whispered, “are you crazy—oh, wow . . . cool phone!”

Miss Phone lit up and with my command to play new messages, the device displayed Eric’s image in a prerecorded visual communiqué.


Bonjour
, Clare!” he began (that cryptic grin back on his face). “Did you get what you wished for?”

A chill went through me. On the night of our dinner, I had indeed wished for this chance—an opportunity to speak with my daughter face-to-face about her life and the direction it was taking.

Eric’s View-Mail continued: “I can’t imagine either of you would be able to concentrate on the little assignment I have for you both—”

Assignment?
I thought.
For us both?

“—So please, take the morning to catch up and enjoy each other’s company. Joy is off today; I’ve arranged it with her employer—”

“Oh, my goodness, thank you!” Joy told the recording.

“I’ll see you both tonight for dinner. My treat,” Eric cooed. “Until then,
au revoir
!”

During the playback, I noticed Garth seemed distracted, glancing several times at his very own THORN, Inc., “Dick Tracy” phone watch on his skinny wrist. When my own phone’s screen went black, I turned to him.

“Mr. Hendricks, will I get a chance to question Eric?”

“Question him?” Garth’s skyscraper body stiffened. “About what, if I may ask?”

About his feelings on Nate Sumner being arrested,
I thought, but said: “About . . . what we’re doing here. About this secret ‘assignment’ for me and Joy?”

“Ah, I see . . .” His posture appeared to relax. “Patience, Ms. Cosi. Enjoy this bit of time with your daughter, stretch your legs after that long flight, and walk these beautiful, old streets, and I’ll catch up with you both this afternoon.”

“Where?” I asked. “What time?”

“When the time comes, I’ll find you.”

Then Garth Hendricks left the restaurant, folded himself into the SUV that had brought me, and spoke intensely into his wrist phone while the armed chauffeur drove him away.

*

“M
OM,
who was that odd man?”

“His name is Garth—”

“I know his name, he introduced himself, but what is going on? He showed up an hour ago, spoke to my boss, and the next thing I know I’m having coffee with him and answering questions about living and working here. Then he tells me, ‘Your mother is going to pay you a visit this morning.’”

“What else did he tell you?”

“That his boss is a client of yours. Who’s his boss?”

“His name is Eric Thorner. He’s a very successful young businessman who hired your father to source the most expensive coffee blend on the planet . . .” (I conveniently left out the stickier aspects of the story, including Quinn’s theory that Eric killed his actress-model girlfriend then doubled down by blowing up the ex-cop who’d been hired by the girl’s family to investigate.)

“Wow, that’s so exciting, Mom, tell me more!”

“Later. Right now all I want to hear about is you . . .”

F
orty-six

J
OY
and I did exactly as Garth suggested. We walked and walked and talked—and talked . . .

The crisp winter air felt refreshing in our lungs and on our cheeks as we traversed Montmartre’s hilltop maze of quiet cobblestone streets. Every so often, Joy would sing “
Bonjour
” to a neighborhood acquaintance while we strolled past town houses rich with the patina of age and galleries tucked into tiny storefronts.

The legendary painters who once lived in this arrondissement had different names than those of my storied New York neighborhood—Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, Dalí—but the sensibilities were the same, and (like my own Village, an ocean away) Montmartre remained a magnet for the young, the artsy, and the offbeat, be they iconoclasts or romantics.

I wasn’t surprised my daughter was having the time of her life here. Joy was a true Allegro. Though she had my green eyes, chestnut hair, and heart-shaped face, her height and gift for languages, not to mention her audaciousness, ambition, sense of adventure, and headstrong stubborn streak were totally Matt—and his intrepid, French-born mother.

But the need to climb mountains wasn’t always a blessing, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that Joy’s daily life was far from perfect.

“We’re grossly overworked,” she confessed.

“In Montmartre? In
winter
?

“The news is getting out. We received a Michelin Rising Star award . . .”

This was a rare honor for this district of the city, which was known for cheap eats, not fine dining. I was so proud when my daughter told me she’d made contributions to the new menu. Clearly, she’d played an important part in the brigade that was getting this coveted recognition.

But even that shining news had a dark side . . .

The Rising Star honor was really a public challenge. The Michelin guides gave such restaurants a two-year window of evaluations to bring their menu and service up to star level.

Joy’s executive chef was determined to earn that star—but the pressure was driving everyone to drink.

“And that’s really what led to his second-in-command losing it,” she told me. “The perfectionist pressure!”

Apparently all of the Paris food world had heard of the Bresse chicken-throwing incident, thanks to a television news report—and that crazy story brought even more customers to Les Deux Perroquets.

“We’re killing ourselves every night in that kitchen. Our hours are longer, we’re open seven days instead of six, but the owner refuses to bring in more help for the brigade . . .”

An hour later, Joy thanked me for listening to her vent—in English and French. (Like her father, she sometimes switched out of her native tongue without even noticing.)

Finally, she suggested we warm up at a café.

With my fingers, toes, and cheeks thoroughly chilled, I quickly agreed.

*

J
OY
chose a little café on the Place du Tertre, an open square of cobblestones where artists (good and not so good) set up chairs and easels all year long. In the rainy spring, they placed large umbrellas over their little spaces. In the dead of winter, they bundled up and drank steaming cups of coffee.

At a café table near the window, Joy ordered us our own coffees and a plate of her favorite French pastries:
canelés
, small cakes made with rich egg batter and laced with the fragrance of vanilla and rum.

Like French madeleines, our
petit
canelés
were baked in special molds. A mixture of beeswax and butter painted on the molds was the secret to the cakes caramelizing in the oven. The result was a Proustian-like treat that would forever remind me of this sweet morning with my daughter—crisp as winter on the outside with a texture that made getting to the inside even more warm and tender.

Cozy in our battered, cane-backed chairs, I finally turned our conversation to a more tender topic (or at least a more delicate one): Joy’s love life.

“So, what’s going on with Franco?” the Mother Hen in me prodded.

Joy’s mood shifted with the subject. The buoyant color that had reappeared in her cheeks began to fade, her shoulders slumped. “I don’t know what to do, Mom. I think he must hate me.”

“Hate you? Joy, Emmanuel Franco is devoted to you.”

“Oh, come on . . . how would you even know that?”

“Because two weeks ago, on Hudson Street, I watched two gorgeous, young women throw themselves at him. He couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. He wants you, Joy; he loves you.”

Joy turned down her emerald gaze, as if searching for her lost steam in the coffee cup. At last, she confessed what I already knew—

“Manny and I had a terrible fight when he was here over the holidays . . .”

I poked her for details, and finally it all poured out. Her best friend, Yvette, had been pressuring Joy to date a well-heeled cousin of her wealthy fiancé . . .

“We went out a few times—but as a
group
. The last time, Yvette and her fiancé found a reason to leave us alone, forcing me into a date with his rich cousin. He was a total jerk, Mom, so arrogant, completely in love with himself, but Yvette wouldn’t let it go. She kept saying I wasn’t giving him a fair chance because of my long-distance relationship with Manny. Then when Manny came to see me over the holidays, she showed him a cell-phone photo of me and this Frenchman. She said I was ‘going out with him,’ which made it sound like I was dating him, which I wasn’t! She told Manny that if he broke things off with me, it would ‘free me’ to hook up with this wealthy Frenchman who ‘has the means to make life much easier for me.’”

“What did you say to that?”

“I didn’t even know the conversation happened until after Manny left! I could have murdered Yvette when I found out! While he was here, he started acting tense, prodding me with questions. What did I want out of our relationship? Was I ever coming back to New York . . .”

“What did you say?”

“I said I couldn’t give him a timetable! Not yet! Our Rising Star designation threw everything out of whack. We were getting flooded with new customers, and my boss revoked half my holiday vacation. It was a major mess—and from the semi-hostile way Manny was acting, I thought he wanted out. I told him he could break it off if he felt this long-distance thing was too hard. Then we parted bad . . . and I decided that maybe it was for the best. Maybe he changed his mind about me.”

“Well, he hasn’t. Look . . . I know the kind of guy Manny Franco is. He’s sown his wild oats, and now he’s fed up with cotton candy. He wants something lasting and sustaining, and if you truly reject him now, he’ll move on, find a life with someone else. The question is—are you all right with letting him go? You’ve sown your own wild oats, as I recall, and had a lot of bad boyfriends.”

“Manny is the best. I know that, Mom. He’s patient and loving and so brave. He makes me laugh and our physical chemistry is . . .” The color came back to her cheeks. “Well, it’s amazing. Anyway . . . I never met anyone like Manny Franco, and I just love being with him—and I do love him. But that’s not the issue.”

“That’s the only issue.”

“Look, he’s there, and I’m here—and I
need
to be here at least another year. We have a chance to earn that star designation, and if we do—oh, Mom, I could write my own ticket back in New York, and I’ve worked so hard for this!”

“Then give Franco a chance to wait for you. I think he’s willing. He just has to know you are.”

“I am.”

“Joy, you know that old saying ‘All that glitters isn’t gold’?”

“Mom, I don’t need—”

“Just listen. Real gold doesn’t start its journey in a display window at Tiffany. It’s dug out of the dirty earth. Sometimes true gold doesn’t glitter. It may need a little polishing, but don’t let that bit of needed patience or effort trick you into discarding what could be the greatest treasure of your life.”

Joy said nothing to my little lecture. She simply sipped her coffee, nibbled her
canelé
, and gazed into the square, as if thinking things over.

I gazed out, too, watching artists’ pencils sketch lines—some with subjects, some without. Only time would tell what the finished drawings would be . . .

“Would you like to light candles at the Sacred Heart?” Joy finally asked.

“Very much,” I said. Then we finished our cakes, drained our cups, and stretched our legs one last time.

*

W
E RODE
an electric tram they called a funicular up the steep hill to the basilica. This was the “mount” in Montmartre, which made the Sacré-Coeur the highest point in Île-de-France, and one of the prettiest views in all of Paris.

“I’d like to see you walking down an aisle like this one day,” I whispered to my daughter inside the quiet, century-old church. We’d lit candles and said prayers together. Now we were walking out.

“I want that, too, Mom,” Joy said. “For you.”

“For me?”

“How are you and Mike doing? I noticed you haven’t mentioned him.”

“We’re . . . working things out.”

“Long-distance relationships aren’t easy, are they?”

“No. I guess that’s clear enough with what you and Franco are going through. But then, you know what my nonna used to say?”

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder?”

“It does for me. I miss Mike every night. But that’s not exactly how the Italian proverb goes. For two lovers, it’s more of a warning.”

“What does it say?”

“Absence is the enemy of love.”

F
orty-seven

A
S
we moved outside the church into a cloud of chattering tourists, a strikingly tall figure approached us wearing an Eskimo parka and a placid smile.

“Mr. Hendricks!” Joy sounded amazed. “How did you find us?”

Garth Hendricks’s little smile grew wider. “Oh, I had a feeling you’d come up here . . .”

And I had a feeling my THORN phone was broadcasting a GPS tracking signal. Uneasy with the continued weirdness of all things Thorn, I opened my mouth to ask for some answers when Joy beat me to the first question.

“So what is this secret ‘assignment’ for me and my mom? The one your boss mentioned. I’m dying of curiosity here.”

Garth looked to me. “Check your phone’s messages, Ms. Cosi.”

“View-Mail?” I assumed.

After a swift greeting, Eric Thorner’s prerecorded image began to tell us a story: “Every year, on the first of May, a group of very wealthy and very influential people in the world of food and drink get together for a . . . well a sort of potluck dinner—”

“Ohmigawd, Mom!” Joy cried, tugging my coat sleeve. “He’s talking about the Billionaire Potluck!”

“You’ve heard of it?”

“It’s legend in the foodie world! I didn’t know it was
real
!”

“The dinner is one of the most prestigious and exclusive meals on the planet,” prerecorded Eric continued. “No amount of personal wealth can buy you a ticket, yet I would
very much
like a ticket to this dinner. Garth will tell you the rest. I’ll see you tonight, ladies.
Au revoir!

“Why does Eric want in to this Billionaire Potluck?” I asked Garth. “For culinary kicks?”

Metis Man stepped closer. “Eric has a business proposition he is pursuing that involves many of the regular attendees of the Billionaire Potluck. He would like to propose this business in a casual way at this exclusive dinner. It will give him a much better chance of achieving his goal than approaching each particular attendee alone—in less cordial circumstances.”

“So how does Eric get into this dinner?” I asked.

“The same way everyone gets in. He must be invited.”

“And how do you get invited?” Joy pressed.

“It involves some tasteful politicking,” Garth admitted. “But one requirement for the invitation is unavoidable: the attendee must offer to bring an item to the potluck that these gentlemen and ladies would like to eat or drink.”

“That’s a tall order for people who’ve likely eaten and drunk the world,” I said.

“It is,” Garth agreed. “It’s a matter of exotic ingredients used in an intriguing way. And we’re more than halfway there. The Billionaire Blend is a coffee no one will have tasted but Eric, Mr. Allegro, and you, Ms. Cosi. Now Eric would like you two—mother and daughter—to put your heads together, master roaster and apprentice chef, and come up with a few dishes that would highlight the one-of-a-kind Billionaire Blend that Mr. Allegro is sourcing right now. Blue sky, ladies; money is no object.”

“Wow . . .” Joy’s wide-eyed gaze appeared to drift away to the view of Paris stretched out below us, but I suspected her mind was already retreating into culinary dreamland, working on the problem.

I looked to Garth. “You have no other guidance?”

“A note of interest, perhaps, and one of advice.”

Joy appeared to tune back in.

“First, the note of interest,” he said. “The attendees of this dinner believe the best dishes have stories attached. Like the story behind Joy’s connection to the restaurant where she works: Les Deux Perroquets—the two parrots.”

“You know about that?” I asked in surprise.

He nodded. “Such memories make for memorable meals.”

“And the advice?”

“The same Eric gives to his employees, especially in the mobile gaming division. In his parlance: all things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.”

“That’s pretty vague,” I said.

“In these fast-moving times with complex problems, we must be nimble to succeed. We must be open to the unexpected, hone our problem-solving abilities to adapt and overcome.”

“Sorry, but that seems pretty vague, too.”

Garth smiled with strained patience. “That’s because the specifics are up to
you
. You have your assignment. You have your deadline. Eric will expect your answer at dinner this evening.”

With a snap of his fingers, the armed chauffeur was back in my life. “René will drive you to a place where you can prepare for dinner.”

“What do we wear?” Joy asked.

“Eric has taken care of that. Just remember Occam’s Razor, ladies.”

“Occam’s what?”

“It’s a heuristic, Miss Allegro. There is an optimum solution to releasing the Gordian knot. We can waste valuable time attempting to untangle ourselves and possibly fail or we can cut through it with a single slice. And from what I understand, Miss Allegro,” he tossed over his shoulder before heading off, “you keep your knives quite sharp . . .”

I froze at that—and it had nothing to do with the weather. Hendricks had just made a reference to a time in Joy’s past when one of her very sharp knives had gotten her into terrible trouble.

Thankfully, the barb didn’t register with Joy. She appeared distracted again.

But I wasn’t.

While Joy began dreaming up gourmet delights, I began worrying about that big, fat folder the Bomb Squad discovered on Eric’s smartphone, the one labeled
Clare Cosi
. And I couldn’t help wondering what else from my past Eric Thorner planned to make use of in the future.

F
orty-eight

“L
ADIES,
you look luminous . . .”

We felt mighty luminous, too, after spending hours at a day spa being exfoliated then primped, painted, and petted. Designer shoes and dresses arrived (French, of course, and speedily fitted to perfection), then Eric picked us up in a rented Bugatti and we were off—mother-daughter Cinderellas for one night.

The antique French car turned heads as René drove us through the Paris streets. For a good hour, we toured, sipping champagne as we circled the Eiffel Tower, rolled under the Arc de Triomphe, and passed over the city’s graceful bridges, so beautifully lit with glowing
bateaux
bobbing along the dark waters like diamonds drifting on a black velvet pool.

Finally, we pulled up to the Place des Vosges, a palazzo-like structure across from a lovely tree-lined park. Our destination was a restored seventeenth-century town house that once belonged to the Duke of Chaulnes.

Joy literally squealed when she saw it. Housed inside was one of the most respected fine dining establishments in all of Paris. The eatery had served royalty, heads of state, and at least one U.S. president. (And a dinner for two here would set mere mortals back a cool thousand bucks.)

When I saw the
name
of the restaurant, however, alarm bells sounded. L’Ambroisie—the food of the gods—was the French translation of Ambrosia, the very term Matt and I had chosen for the rarified Brazilian coffee, which was now all but extinct.

This can’t be a coincidence,
I thought.

Once again, it appeared Eric was planning a cunning chess move. I just prayed the result would not be an ugly scene—not involving my daughter, because I wouldn’t stand for it.

*

I
NSIDE
the restaurant, the décor was as grand as the palace of Versailles with crystal chandeliers, antique mirrors, and Louis XIV gilded consoles, yet the space itself was cozy with no more than forty seats.

Near the start of our meal, Eric waved over the sommelier and sent a bottle of wine to a nearby table of three formally dressed gentlemen—two trim and middle-aged; a third older and more heavily set. After dessert was served, the head waiter stopped by to whisper in Eric’s ear.

“Oui, merci,”
Eric replied, then turned to us. “Would you ladies excuse me a moment?”

Joy and I watched as he moved to that table with a trio of gentlemen.

The men spoke to Eric in French, and he appeared to be as fluent as Joy and my ex-husband. To my surprise, he turned and casually pointed to our table.

Joy and I smiled politely at the nodding gentlemen.

“Pardonnez-moi,”
Eric said and came back to retrieve Joy.

With curiosity, I watched as Eric introduced her to the VIPs.

The heavyset older man with apple cheeks turned out to be a sixth-generation vintner from a renowned French family, and the two trim, middle-aged men were equally distinguished. One was France’s Deputy Minister of Tourism and the other editor in chief of the
Marquess
Guides
—the highly respected publications that Eric’s company purchased to roll content into
App-itite
, his new mobile phone app for foodies.

The quiet dining room had become even quieter, and I realized Joy’s mother wasn’t the only one interested in hearing this conversation.

After the introductions, the Deputy Minister of Tourism asked Joy about her relationship to Les Deux Perroquets. With bubbly enthusiasm, my daughter told the story that Madame had conveyed to both of us many times—how she was related to Bettine, a young woman who’d scandalized her wealthy family back in the nineteenth century by running off to Rome with an Italian painter.

“When the young painter tragically died of influenza, Bettine returned to Paris,” Joy explained in French, “but her family refused to take her back, so she began dancing at the Folies Bergère, where the owner of a nearby brasserie saw her, fell in love, and married her. Bettine kept two pet parrots, a gift from her young Italian lover. Respecting that love, which in its own twisty way led the woman of his dreams to him, the Frenchman renamed his Montmartre brasserie Les Deux Perroquets.”

During the story, the three men nodded and began to smile and exchange pleased glances. Of course, I thought. What Frenchman wouldn’t appreciate such a tale of found love? And what Frenchman wouldn’t appreciate a beautiful young woman telling them the tale—especially one with a French heritage, who had a clear connection to the legend.

Joy herself appeared to have a grand time conveying Madame’s family history—even if it had been scandalous at the time. Eric seemed pleased, too, and I caught him a few times observing me watching my daughter shine.

I admit, my Mother Hen radar was up.
There must be a strategic reason Eric is doing this, but what?

Eric spoke again. “Joy is
also
the daughter of the man who sourced Ambrosia. Her beautiful mother, Clare, roasted it to perfection.”

Eric gestured toward me, and the men shocked me by lightly applauding. (Later, Eric informed me these men had sampled my coffee at this very restaurant last fall—at fifty-five dollars for each rare, imported cup—and raved.)

I smiled in thanks and lifted my wineglass.

Finally, talk turned to the special blend Matt was sourcing, and I realized Eric was subtly pitching these VIPs on our Billionaire Blend. They asked him a few more questions and he turned once more to Joy.

“How would you use your parents’ rare blend in your cooking, do you think, Joy?”

There it is . . .

Eric was asking my daughter for our solution to his assignment, which meant one or more of these men had the power to unlock the door to that Billionaire Potluck.

F
orty-nine

J
OY
understood immediately what was happening, and played her part to perfection, beginning with her inspiration from New York’s Chinatown.

“A chef there had an interesting way of smoking duck with tea—and I’ve always wanted to try it. But I would use a Bresse chicken breast and smoke it using my parents’ special coffee blend, infusing the succulent, French bird with the essences of earthy coffees sourced from the most remote regions on the planet.”

“What then?” the vintner asked, eyes bright. “How would you serve it?”

“To start, shaved thin as a carpaccio with a dollop of crème fraîche, a drizzle of truffle oil, and a garnish of coffee caviar. I’d arrange the slices as petals, a blossoming flower of flavor on the plate.”

The Deputy Minister of Tourism raised an eyebrow. “Did you say coffee caviar?”

“Oui
,
monsieur . . .”
Joy briefly described a technique of molecular gastronomy, which allowed a chef to create tiny spheres of flavor from almost any liquid.

They asked her for more ideas, and she gave them—coffee and cream
lunette
, little, domed pasta circles with a filling of the same coffee-smoked Bresse breast shredded and tossed in French butter and black truffles. The delicate pillows would then be placed on a mascarpone-based cream sauce and finished with shavings of white truffles . . .

“Interesting use of Bresse chicken,” the vintner said. “But you must promise not to follow your colleague’s example and throw the poor birds back at the farmer!”

Everyone laughed, and Eric was now beaming.

My daughter and I had done what Garth suggested—created dishes around stories. I agreed with the Metis Man on that one: cuisine was lifted by the conversation around it, which made for memorable meals.

“What about dessert?” the editor of the
Marquess
Guides
prompted. “What sweet would you make us,
mademoiselle
?”

“Coffee gelato, I think, made fresh from my parents’ special blend. I’d use it as the center of a tiny bombe, layer that with crushed hazelnut praline and another layer of mascarpone gelato laced with Ugandan gold vanilla beans—my father told me about those,” she proudly added.

“I’d create a thin espresso-infused sponge cake on the bottom layer and once the tiny layered ball was frozen, I’d finish the outside with a magic mocha shell using Chef Thomas Keller’s famous method—Valrhona chocolate, cold-pressed coconut oil, and my parents’ special coffee blend. I’d also want to emboss the chocolate with a design.” She smiled politely at Eric. “For Mr. Thorner here, I might use a rose with thorns circling the bombe and paint it in using edible gold leaf.”

A hush fell over the table as the group considered Joy’s double reference to a bombe.

Touché
, I thought.
If Garth can bring up Joy’s explosive past, she can bring up Eric’s . . .

Luckily, Eric saw the humor. (We’d set him up for the perfect punch line.) “It sounds absolutely delightful, Ms. Allegro,” he declared. “As long as
your
bombe does not go off.”

The table of men burst out laughing, and Joy glanced back at me.

Brava
, I mouthed and lifted my glass again.

Finally, all three men glanced at each other. The vintner locked eyes with Eric. “I would very much like to taste this new coffee.”

“I agree,” said the Deputy Minister of Tourism. “And those dishes sound delightful,
mademoiselle
.”

“I would like to taste them also,” the vintner declared.

“So would I.”

Joy turned to see who had spoken last. It was L’Ambroisie’s own chef
.
Joy greeted him with a touch of awe, and he invited her to see his kitchen. With a silent glance of elation back at me, she followed him out of the dining room.

When Eric returned to our table, I leaned close.

“Merci,”
I whispered.

“No, Clare, thank you,” he softly replied. “You and your daughter sealed the deal. On May first, I’ll be bringing your coffee to my very first Billionaire’s Potluck.”

It was another elaborate setup, of course, another play by a young master player. I was grateful for the time spent with my daughter. Given the events of the past two weeks, however, I was now anxious to question Eric privately.

I tried to enjoy our coffee and dessert, but it wasn’t easy.

I couldn’t stop thinking of Madame and her worry for her old friend; of Nate, the earnest professor, sitting in jail; and of my own Mike Quinn with his dire warning.

More than ever, I needed to know . . .

Is Eric Thorner, the master strategist, also a mastermind of murder?

F
ifty

T
HE
night had been a grand success and Eric was jubilant. After dropping Joy off at her apartment, Eric told his driver to take us “home,” which turned out to be a charming town house on the Left Bank.

Eric’s butler in Paris, an older man named Hervé, showed me to my room and quickly disappeared. My small suitcase was on the floor, my things unpacked.

I was about to change when I heard a light knocking at the door.

“Care for a nightcap?”

It was Eric, still in his formalwear. He shrugged, smiling like a schoolboy. “I’m still so juiced. I don’t think I can sleep.”

“It was exciting, wasn’t it?”

“It was. Come on, let’s talk in my room—”

“I would like to speak with you, Eric, but not in your bedroom—”

“Clare, it’s a suite with a sitting area. Come . . .”

Now was my chance to question this man, really question him. With the amount of alcohol he’d consumed, I was fairly sure he wouldn’t be able to lie without giving himself away, so I followed Eric down the hall.

True to his word, he fixed me a drink in a comfortable sitting area. If there was a bed, it was beyond one of the three closed doors off this space, which put me at ease.

A fire crackled in the hearth and Eric handed me a snifter of an obscenely delicious Armagnac. I had no doubt the vintage was rare and the price equally obscene.

“To the Billionaire Potluck,” I said, tapping my glass to his.

“Where I’ll debut the most expensive app ever marketed.” Grinning, Eric set his snifter aside and leaned close. “I’ll bet you never heard of the
I Am Rich
app?”

“You’d win that bet.”

“It’s real, Clare, or it was. The app cost a thousand bucks to download, but had no function at all. Eight people bought it. Some of them complained and it was taken off the market. The whole thing was crazy, but it got me thinking.”

“About scamming people?”

“About an exclusive app for the superrich. A portal to purchase certain high end products that can’t be put on the mass market because of their limited availability. My blue roses. THORN smartphones. The Billionaire Blend—”

“Advertising!” I cried. “That’s why you wanted into the potluck.”

He nodded. “The billionaire app is not something that can be sold in a magazine ad. But the potluck will involve importers, purveyors of specialty foods, vintners, people who will want to be included in the app. Billionaires who own hotels, casinos, and restaurants will hear about the app via that potluck dinner and they’ll want it for themselves, for their managers, their chefs, and sommeliers. Once word gets out, the app becomes a Veblen good—the more expensive and exclusive it is, the more the wealthy and influential will covet it.”

And the more Eric will profit. From the sale of the app, and from a small percentage of cash he will garner from each transaction.

“You made your fortune in mobile gaming. Are you going to give that up?”

“Game apps will have their day, become passé, and pass away,” Eric replied “I want to grow something more permanent, create something my father would have understood and been proud of.”

“You never speak about your parents.”

“My dad was a sweet man. A big Santa Claus to his employees.”

“He owned a chain of regional restaurants, right?”

“Big Billy’s All-Nite Brunch. Twenty-four locations in the Midwest. The menu was comfort food—mac and cheese, meatloaf, roast chicken, spaghetti, twenty-four-hour breakfast.” Eric drained his snifter. “Dad just wanted to make people happy.”

I knew that Eric sold his father’s regional restaurant chain for seed money to launch THORN, Inc. Now I wondered if that end to his family’s legacy haunted him. Or was it something else? Guilt, perhaps . . .

“Before he was arrested, Nate Sumner told me the story of Eva’s bullying, and her death—”

“Did Nate tell you how I changed the game after that poor girl’s suicide? How I gave a million dollars to a nonprofit anti-bullying group?”

“He didn’t.”

“Of course not.” Eric rose and began to pace. “I was devastated, Clare. It was like an ugly nightmare flashback . . .”

“Flashback?”

“With all my physical problems, I was bullied, too.”

“You?”

“I suffered from Scheuermann’s kyphosis. The older I got, the more twisted my spine became. The other kids called me Humpty-Dumpty because they were too ignorant to call me Quasimodo. The way my peers saw it, I was always falling off the wall and being put back together in the operating room. Even my sister joined the chorus.”

“And your parents?”

“Dad did all he could. Spent a fortune on doctors—”

“And your mother?”

“When mother was sober, she looked at me like I was a freak. When she was drunk, she didn’t see me at all. I hated it, Clare.”

“Did you hate Nate Sumner for reminding you?”

Eric snorted. “Nate? No way. That poor old man was framed.”

I blinked, astonished by his answer. “I agree. But who framed him?”

Eric poured another drink. “From that doubtful look on your face, you probably suspect me.”

“You have to admit, it’s ingenious. Framing Nate slows down Solar Flare, an organization that cost you money last year because of their protest against those
Pigeon Droppings
Tshirts. It also gets rid of Charley, who may have found out things you didn’t want her to know . . .”

“Believe me, Clare, I had nothing to do with any of that. And I can prove to you that I didn’t frame Nate in one sentence.”

“Go for it.”

“I’m paying my company’s law firm to defend him.”

F
ifty-one

E
RIC
informed me that a few hours ago, a judge in New York City denied Nate Sumner bail. The old professor was stuck in Rikers, but Eric’s lawyers were already crafting an appeal.

“If Nate is innocent, who’s guilty in your eyes?” I asked.

“You forget, Clare. My car was supposed to be parked at the server farm when the bomb went off, not in front of your coffeehouse. My servers were the target. Grayson Braddock wanted to shut them down. I don’t think he intended to kill Charley, but that’s how it turned out.”

“You don’t think Braddock set the bomb himself, do you?”

“He was an Outback punk once upon a time, so I wouldn’t put it past him. But Braddock is smarter now, so he no doubt hired someone.”

“Someone who knew how easy it would be to frame Nate? Someone who had access to your schedule and could get into your car without suspicion?”

Eric frowned. “Yes. Which means Occam’s Razor would be the wrong approach to take in this case.”

“Run that by me again.”

“Occam’s Razor dictates that when you hear hoofbeats behind you, you should think horses, not zebras. But what if you’re on the African veldt?”

“I get it. You’re saying the police went for the obvious suspect when they grabbed Nate, because they thought they had physical evidence and a motive—”

“But I believe we’re in Africa, Clare. The hoofbeats we hear are not horses, they’re zebras. And the guilty party has a first name that’s muddled those black-and-white stripes—
Gray
Braddock. I’m not going to let him get away with murder.”

“Gray didn’t do it without help. It looks like an inside job.”

Eric shook his head. “The officers of my company are the only people with that kind of access. They’ve been with me from our start-up days. They’re like family and I trust them.”

“Garth Hendricks wasn’t around when you were a start-up. How much do you trust the Metis Man?”

“Garth is my mentor, Clare. He became my mentor before we ever met.”

“I don’t understand.”

“My life changed when I read his book. I used his principles to grow my company. I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for Garth’s teachings.”

“That must be some book. What’s the title?”


Puncturing the Donut: Thinking Outside the Corporate Pastry Box
.”

I laughed. “Garth Hendricks used to be a baker?”

“No, and that’s not funny. The title is a business metaphor. Garth compares corporate cultures by postulating how different organizations might approach the problem of putting holes in donuts.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I’m not. Garth showed how one company might create the hole before baking. Another company might cut a hole after frying, while a third company might use donut holes to make another product. The problem comes when a corporation builds their philosophy around manufacturing the hole—which, if you think about it, is the creation of nothing.”

“But a very important nothing,” I interjected. “You can’t have a donut without the hole.”

“Now you’re thinking like Garth Hendricks.”

I frowned. “I thought I was making a joke.”

“Garth’s philosophy is no joke,” Eric shot back. “I used his basic tenets to make
Pigeon Droppings
a hit.”

“When Braddock cornered me at the Source Club, he said you would never share that secret with me.”

“’Why not? I have nothing to hide.”

“Then tell me, Eric.”

“In his book, Garth said that performance is nothing without performance art, and he was right. I launched THORN, Inc., with my college friends, and for a solid year we did the best work we’d ever done to make the best mobile game ever. We went on sale the same day as eleven hundred other apps, just one of the crowd. Sales were modest but steady, but it couldn’t sustain our company for long. I soon realized the performance was over. Now it was time
for
performance art
.”

Eric poured his third Armagnac and rubbed his stiff neck.

“Back in those days, I ate a lot of meals at Dimmy’s, an all-night diner in Bel Air. So did Judd Rogan, the director who made all those raunchy teen comedies ten years ago . . .”

I shrugged and shook my head.

“Anyway, I chatted up the waitress, found out Rogan called ahead to reserve the corner booth. Svetlana agreed to call me whenever that happened, and the stage was set.”

“Stage?”

“When Judd Rogan showed up that night, the tables around his were filled with people playing
Pigeon Droppings
on their phones.”

“Who were these people?”

“My staff. Me. Our friends. Even family. Once we hired actors. We put on that show three times before Rogan noticed. In the middle of the fourth act, he cornered Minnow, my chief programmer, and asked her what she was playing.”

Eric paused. “Two days later, Rogan’s agent called to ask if the director could put my app in his next movie.
Fake ID
was a huge hit for Judd Rogan, and because of the exposure,
Pigeon Droppings
became the fastest-selling app in mobile gaming history. All it took was a little street theater . . .”

“Street theater? More like a sting, It was trickery. You made Judd Rogan think he was buying into the hottest game app ever—”

“And he did, ultimately. No harm, no foul, as Garth would say.”

Garth again.
It was beginning to sound like the Metis Man was a bad influence.

“How long ago did you hire the Metis Man?”

“I know what you’re thinking, Clare, but I trust Garth. Look elsewhere.”

Eric’s tone made me think that he had someone else in mind, but before I could press him, he groaned.

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s been a long day and my pain meds are winding down.”

“I’m not surprised. You’ve been pacing since you started telling me your story.”

“My shoulder is killing me and I sent my butler to bed. Could you help me off with this damn jacket?”

He turned and led me through a door, into a bedroom nearly as large as the sitting area. Eric lifted his arms while I unbuttoned the jacket and slipped it off, to reveal a crisp white linen shirt.

As I hung the jacket, I spied a blue velvet gift box on Eric’s nightstand.

“Oops. You weren’t supposed to see that until tomorrow. Might as well open it now.”

“You have to stop giving me gifts—”

“It’s not a gift. It’s test marketing. I expect a report.”

Inside I found a pair of black gloves. The Italian leather was supple, and they were my size. “They’re lovely, and I thank you. But who test markets a pair of gloves?”

“You’re the first. That’s the only pair in existence right now.”

“It’s more than a pair of gloves, then?”

“It’s a phone, Clare. Put on the left glove, place your thumb on your ear and speak into the little finger. Miss Phone will answer. It’s already programmed and ready to use.”

While he spoke, Eric moved stiffly to the dresser and popped a few pills, chasing them with the last of his Armagnac.

“Could you please help me with this shirt? I can’t bend my arm enough to work the buttons.”

That was obvious, so I took over.

Eric moved slowly as I pulled his arms free. Bare chested, I could see the bandages were gone, but an ugly scar remained.

I was about to back away when Eric suddenly shifted into high gear. Before I could stop him, he crushed me in his arms and kissed me.

“No, no, no . . . Eric, this can’t happen . . .” I pushed until he released me, stepped back, and wiped my smeared lipstick with the back of my hand.

“You and I . . . we’re
meant
to be together.”

“Eric,” I said evenly. “You know I love another man—”

“But I love you, Clare!”

“No, you don’t—”

“I do, and it makes perfect sense. Garth says two things cause people to fall in love—intensity or propinquity. I fell for you when you looked into my eyes after that bomb went off and promised to take care of me. That was
intensity
—”

“More like infatuation, a passing fancy. You’ve had too much to drink tonight, Eric, that’s all.”

He seemed unsteady now that the painkillers were catching up to the Armagnac. Instead of arguing with me this time, he just shrugged, his energy drained.

I swung into Mother Hen mode, pulling down the blankets and rolling him onto the bed, tugging off his shoes and socks. Eric didn’t fight me, and he didn’t get fresh—though I did draw the line at his request to help him off with his pants!

When he was snugly tucked, I grabbed the gloves and moved to the door. “Get some rest, I’ll see you in the morning.”

“For me it was intensity, Clare. For you it will be propinquity . . .”

I shook my head.

“We just need to spend more time together, you’ll see!” he called before I left his room, went to mine, and locked the door behind me.

F
ifty-two

B
ACK
in my room, I tried to call Mike Quinn—using my THORN phone, not the gloves, which I shoved into my coat pocket. Unfortunately Miss Phone gave me major attitude.

“Call cannot be completed as dialed,” the digital vixen declared. “Please try again later . . .”

Funny how Matt Allegro had no trouble getting through five minutes later. The connection was lousy, but there was a good reason. Matt was calling on a satellite phone from Africa.

“I talked to Eric this afternoon,” he said. “He’s planning to fly you to Saint-Tropez. No doubt his final destination is a topless beach. Well, forget it, Clare. At this time of year it’s cold and rainy. The weather’s much warmer here in Uganda.”

“Uganda!”

“You sold me on helping coffee farmers. Time to deliver. Get Eric down here.”

“How?!”

“Easy. He’ll go wherever you go, and I plan to take him places baby billionaires never go. This will not be ‘glamping.’ I’ll e-mail you a list of things you should bring, and I’ll tell you right now don’t skimp on the aspirin, Pepto-Bismol, insect repellent—with DEET—and mosquito netting. Call me when you touch down in Tororo.”

*

M
ATT
had no trouble finding us at Tororo Airport—there was only one runway, and it was unpaved.

The town was unimpressive, too, resembling a suburban strip mall surrounded by dirt roads instead of concrete. Though areas of the Tororo District boasted panoramic views of Uganda’s Mount Elgon, it took us four grueling hours to drive to the coffee growing region in the foothills.

During the long, bumpy ride, Matt told Eric that 90 percent of Uganda’s coffee output was Robusta, easy to cultivate, but not prized due to its high acidity and bitterness.

“The small amount of Arabica produced is not held in high regard, either,” Matt explained. “Farming standards are poor, and the beans aren’t always picked at the optimum time, so the end product contains rotten cherries and underdeveloped beans. But what’s really hurting quality and production is dry processing.”

Matt told Eric that sun drying beans was labor intensive, because the beans have to be raked constantly, or they will develop molds that give the finished cup a metallic taste. Water processing was more efficient, but more expensive, too, requiring an investment the impoverished farmers didn’t have.

The obvious question occurred to Eric. “If Ugandan coffees are unspectacular, why are we here?”

“Because on one small family farm in the foothills, something remarkable happened.”

We finally arrived at a yellow wooden house clinging to the side of a hill, where Matt introduced us to the family matriarch. A cheerful woman with deep wrinkles, she served us roasted ground nuts—good old-fashioned peanuts, an important source of protein in this part of the world—along with boil-brewed cups of pan-roasted coffee.

Eric smacked his lips. “This coffee tastes like vanilla! Is it flavored?”

“Bite your tongue,” my ex replied.

Matt explained that vanilla beans were Uganda’s second biggest cash crop, and there were vanilla fields in the hills around us. Matt wasn’t sure if it was cross-pollination or absorption of chemical properties through the roots, but the result of their proximity was a coffee with pronounced and pleasing vanilla notes.

After a lunch of
ebinyebwa
(a savory peanut and chicken stew that’s native to the region), we toured the coffee fields and viewed the crude wooden drying platform. An ancient woman supervised a dozen children of various ages, who used long wooden poles to rake the coffee cherries drying in the sun.

“Where are all the men?” Eric asked.

“Most have jobs in the city,” Matt replied. “Needless to say, they can’t commute from Tororo so they’re only home a few days each month. Their absence doesn’t impact coffee production. In Uganda women and children do the farming.”

“But these kids should be in school.”

“There’s a school down in the valley. But like I said, dry processing is labor intensive so they’re needed here.”

Eric nodded. “I propose we buy this season’s harvest—the entire lot—at a fair market price. On top of that, I’ll throw in a washing station. That way these kids can get an education.”

“I’ll make the deal,” said Matt, hiding his delight.

I caught Matt’s eye and smiled.

Good job, Allegro . . .

*

I
’D
been seat hopping during the entire flight to Thailand, trying to avoid sitting beside Eric, who couldn’t keep his hands off me, much to Matt’s amusement.

Eric continued the chase for hours, until he finally got bored and talked shop again. “What do you know about that coffee they mentioned in the movie
Bucket List
? Cat poop coffee, they called it.”

“You’re referring to Kopi Luwak,” Matt said, frowning. “And it’s an Asian palm civet, not a cat.”

“You don’t sound impressed.”

“I don’t want to pooh-pooh the whole Kopi Luwak phenomena, but there’s a lot of fraud out there,” Matt said. “Twenty years ago it was bogus Jamaican Blue Mountain and Kona. Today it’s phony Kopi Luwak.”

Matt explained that traditional methods were simple. Civets ate the largest, choicest coffee cherries for their juicy pulp. The bean went through the animal’s digestive tract, where it fermented. Enzymes seeped into the beans, making the coffee milder, smoother, less acidic. The civets’ excrement was then collected, the beans retrieved and roasted.

Bad changes came after Kopi Luwak was “discovered” in the 1980s, when old methods were replaced by intensive farming. Today, civets are fed a diet of coffee cherries and not much else, so they’re far less discriminating and eat all the fruit, not just the choice ones. The natural selection process that occurred in the wild is bypassed, and so is quality.

“On top of that, fifty times more Kopi Luwak is sold than is actually
produced
, so most of the stuff available commercially is counterfeit,” Matt concluded. “But if you’re still interested in a not-so-crappy crap coffee, I say we go bigger. Much, much bigger.”

F
ifty-three

T
WELVE
hours later we arrived at an elephant refuge in the lush green hills of Northern Thailand. The sun blazed hot, but a jasmine-laced breeze off a nearby creek cooled the air.

Around a wicker table under a tall shade tree, we cupped Black Ivory while two dozen Thai elephants munched coffee cherries on the other side of a flimsy wooden fence.

“This stuff is preternatural,” Eric gushed. “The smoothest coffee I ever drank. It’s earthy, yet floral. And there are flavor notes I’ve never tasted . . .”

Matt informed us that the cup we’d just consumed would cost fifty U.S. dollars, and the roasted beans were priced at over five hundred dollars a pound.

“At the moment, Black Ivory’s only available in high-priced resorts in Thailand, the Maldives, and in Abu Dhabi.”

Cultivated on the same principles as Kopi Luwak, Black Ivory was considered to be superior because the beans passed through the elephant’s digestive system at a slower rate, fermenting up to seventy hours. The enzymes broke down the coffee protein, making the finished cup sweeter and less acidic. Other ingredients in the elephant’s stomach added interesting and unique flavor notes.

Black Ivory was prohibitively expensive because it took seventy-two pounds of raw coffee cherries to recover just
two
pounds of intact, digested beans. But we all agreed the final result was worth it.

“But the best part of all is that these elephants are all rescue animals,” Matt said. “Some of the profit from the sale of Black Ivory is used to protect at-risk elephants in captivity and in the wild. They’d love to expand this herd, save more at-risk elephants, and double the production capacity, but right now funds are scarce.”

“Do they take donations?” Eric asked. “I’d sure love to help . . .”

*

O
UR
next trip took us from the elephant refuge to Thailand’s Golden Triangle, where poppies were grown to make opium. In that area notorious for narco-trafficking and gang wars, a new kind of coffee trade—and a new kind of coffee
trader
—were flourishing.

Matt brought us to a tribe in the mountains who had taken complete control of their coffee business. They cultivated the fields, reaped the harvest, accepted orders by satellite phone or over the Internet. They roasted the coffee in a small facility on top of the mountain where it was picked, sealed the finished beans in valve-bags, and shipped them all over Asia.

It was the exact opposite of conditions in Uganda, where every step in the coffee production process was fraught with difficulties, and the middleman took most of the profit.

“The difference is infrastructure,” Matt said. “Uganda’s is primitive, here it’s practically state-of-the-art. As communication grids improve across the world’s coffee belt, this operation in Thailand could become the model for twenty-first-century coffee production.”

*

A
FTER
stops in Jakarta and Hawaii, we moved to Central America, where we sampled cups from the
Cinturón de Oro
, the “Golden Belt” of El Salvador’s coffee growing industry. There we discovered a remarkable bean growing on the slopes of the Ilamatepec volcano.

The Caribbean was next, with short stays in Haiti, and bordering Jamaica. Our final stop in this region was Costa Gravas.

Once racked by political strife that halted the nation’s coffee production, the island country was now at peace, but still backward, even by the region’s low standards.

Primitive or not, Costa Gravas was also one of the most beautiful islands in the blue-watered Caribbean. Eric was immediately smitten by this “paradise.”

After a long hike, we stood on a promontory overlooking the ocean. Eric managed to slip his arm around my shoulders while I concentrated on the view.

“A man could set up an amazing life here, away from it all . . . if he had someone to share it with . . .”

Matt couldn’t hide his “I told you so” grin.

I shrugged off Eric’s arm and faced him. “This is hardly paradise. There’s no Internet, and I doubt the average citizen ever saw a personal computer or a smartphone.”

“It wouldn’t take much to fix that,” Matt added. “Thanks to satellite communications, Costa Gravas has cell phone access. Adding an Internet component shouldn’t be too hard, and it would also be a necessary step before resuming the coffee trade.”

I discovered how well the phones worked when Tucker interrupted me with a call.

“Hate to ruin your vacation, but preparations for this Appland party are getting brutal. You
do
remember we’re scheduled to cater it?”

“Of course, Tuck. How can I help?”

“First of all, do you want guests to dip the Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies in your homemade Chocolate
Reese’s Nutella, or your Almond Joy Nutella?”

“Both.”

Tuck sighed. “And what in the whole wide world are Nuts on Horseback?”

“It’s my own invention. You’ve heard of Angels on Horseback, right? It’s just oysters wrapped in bacon. Devils on Horseback replaces the oysters with dried fruit. Well, for Nuts on Horseback we’re going to make bite-sized pieces of butternut squash, wrap them in bacon, and roast them with maple syrup.”

“Oh, yum! Very tasty! Last question now . . . What in the world is Paleo Pizza?”

“No grains. It has a crust made of cauliflower.”

“I don’t live on that planet, CC. You better get back here and help us with this stuff.”

I silently concurred. I wanted to attend that party because it was my best chance to get to know—and possibly interrogate—some of the employees in Eric’s mobile gaming division.

“Tour’s over,” I announced when I hung up. “I have to get back to NYC.”

Matt protested. “But what about South America?”

“We’ll do it later,” Eric replied. “I have business in Silicon Valley this week.”

Eric shook Matt’s hand. “It was a great coffee tour, Allegro, but digital duty calls.”

F
ifty-four

M
Y
baristas were delighted that I was back. Nancy, Tuck, and Esther crowded around me as I handed out little souvenirs I bought for everyone. (While I was sure they were glad to see me, I had a sneaking suspicion they were so flummoxed by some of my catering instructions that they were simply relieved to have me take over.)

After fielding a few dozen questions, I headed upstairs to my second-floor office. When I opened the door, I was bowled over by a sickly sweet smell rising from a vase of red and white roses—dead roses.

I looked for a note while I called Tuck downstairs for answers.

“The flowers came while you were in Africa,” Tuck explained. “Esther did what she could. She took good care of your kitties, and changed the water in the flower vase daily. But you were gone so long there was no hope of preserving them.”

I finally located the note and read it.

“The flowers are from Mike, but he only wrote one line: ‘Roses white and red are best.’ Why does that sound familiar?”

“It’s from a Rudyard Kipling poem,” Tuck replied. “I can look it up if you want.”

“Thanks but I’ll take it from here.” I hung up and used my THORN phone to speed-dial Quinn in DC.

“This call cannot be completed as dialed . . .”

I screamed and tossed the smartphone on my desk. Using the landline, I tried again.
This time
I got right through, but reached an assistant who told me Mike Quinn was on a classified retreat with Homeland Security.

“Mr. Quinn’s boss has an assistant who might be able to get a call through. Let me talk to Ms. Lacey’s secretary—”

Ms.
Lacey?! “Excuse me, did you misspeak? I thought you said
Ms.
Lacey?”

“Yes. Miss Katerina Lacey is Mr. Quinn’s supervisor.”

A woman?
I sank into my chair.
Mike never once mentioned that Lacey—the boss who was always trying to lure him back to DC—was a woman!

My shock was interrupted by a familiar voice. “Clare? Is that really you?”

“Yes, it’s me! Oh, Mike, it’s good to hear your voice. Why haven’t you replied to my messages?”

“What messages?”

“I’ve been calling and calling, sending e-mails and texts—”

“I never got them. When I tried to reach you, I always got a message that said you were out of range . . .”

Oh, God. My THORN phone must have blocked all messages to and from Mike.
That was the only explanation possible. Eric made sure I could never reach Mike for the entire trip, while he pulled his “propinquity” stunt.

Oh, I wanted to scream!

“I’m so, so sorry, Mike. There was a problem with my phone. If I can’t get it fixed, I’m tossing it into the Hudson River and buying another.”

“I’ve been missing you.”

“Me too. I wish we were together, right now.”

“Did you get my roses?”

I stared at the faded blossoms. “Yes, I did.”

“And . . .”

“And—” I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but I couldn’t help myself. “Why didn’t you ever tell me your boss was a woman?!”

A long pause followed. “It’s irrelevant, Clare.”

“No it is not! You should have told me.”

“I didn’t because I knew this was how you’d react—”

“But—”

“Calm down, all right. She’s a battle-ax.”

“I’m sure she’s not.”

He fell silent, and I took a deep breath, listening to my inner voice.
You and Mike are finally talking again. Don’t blow this now . . .

“Look, I’m sorry I sound suspicious. I know I have no right.”

“You can say that again.”

I closed my eyes, considering his point of view. “Let’s not do this over the phone. Can you come to New York this weekend?”

“I’m sorry, Clare, but I can’t. First you had to go away. Now I have to. After this conference, I’m flying to London for meetings with MI-6. Secured meetings—that means no computers, tablets, or smartphones. I’ll be out of touch for several days.”

“Is the ‘battle-ax’ going with you?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you hang her up in the Tower of London with the other medieval torture devices?”

Mike actually laughed, and I realized how much I missed that sound.

“You’re obviously excited, Clare. I do love it when you’re excited, but not about silly things like this.”

“It’s not silly—” I stopped myself, and smiled for the first time in a long while. “Listen, if you like me excited,
come home
. You’ll see me more excited than you can handle.”

“Can you hear me smiling?”

“I love you, Mike.”

“I love you, sweetheart, and I promise I’ll come back soon. Tell you what—I’ll arrange a special dinner date. It’ll be a surprise. Something to celebrate our reunion.”

“I can hardly wait . . .”

When we finally ended the call, I felt much better, despite the fact that Mike had kept me in the dark about his boss. I understood his reasons—I was
trying
to, anyway.

The phone buzzed again. This time it was Nancy.

“Hey, boss! I have a question about this weird Paleo Pizza.”

“I’ll be right down.”

Duty was calling for me, as well as Mike. It was time I focused on the party at Eric Thorner’s mobile gaming division—aptly named
Appland
.

F
ifty-five

T
HE
East Coast headquarters of THORN, Inc., was officially open for business.

While Eric’s staff oriented themselves to the new digs, my people prepared treats in the company kitchen for the opening-day celebration. Invited guests would arrive around noon, when my baristas were scheduled to roll out the snacks.

I was responsible for catering, and the recipes were my own. But there was more to do than serve up goodies. Tuck would be hosting an espresso-making demo, while Esther would give lessons on how to create latte art.

I was on the hook for a dessert performance, and was all set to fry up fresh, hot batches of my nonna’s Italian donuts (as a little tribute to Eric, and his love of the Metis Man’s “out of the pastry box” philosophy). Despite my schedule, I refused to allow work to interfere with my
unofficial
duties.

I intended to finish what the late Charley Polaski had started. I would continue her investigation into Bianca Hyde’s death and uncover the identity of Eric’s car bomber—hopefully
without
ending up in the morgue.

Grayson Braddock had the strongest motive for setting the car bomb and framing Nate—but billionaires like Braddock were big-picture men. They wouldn’t purchase their own groceries or drive their own cars, let alone plant an explosive device to blow a competitor sky-high.

Braddock would have used an accomplice, most likely a mole inside THORN, Inc., to provide inside information about Eric’s whereabouts, to access restricted areas like the server farm, and to plant the bomb.

So how does a coffeehouse manager uncover a corporate spy turned assassin?
Okay, that’s one I haven’t figured out yet.

By the time I arrived at Eric’s shiny new office building, housed in what was once an old toy factory, the sidewalk was crowded by gawkers watching animated light sculptures of flying dragons projected onto the company’s twelve-story glass façade.

With the exception of THORN’s high-tech display, this quiet, tree-lined Manhattan neighborhood of modest, low-rise structures (once tenement buildings and small factories) looked nothing like what it had become—part of the second largest technological hub in the world, a little Silicon Alley to California’s legendary Silicon Valley.

Google, Mashable, and Bluewolf, Inc., all had offices here in Chelsea, and Tumblr was just down the block. These companies were attracted by the district’s charm, and the availability of old buildings with high ceilings and plenty of natural light.

Ironically, during the twentieth century, this little area had been the center of America’s toy industry—and in my view, nothing had changed much in the twenty-first. Apps, e-games, digital devices, and social media sites were the toys of our time.

I pushed through the gawking crowd, then THORN, Inc.’s glass doors. After clearing security, I noticed Esther in front of the company logo.

“Hi, boss. Isn’t this a cool place?”

“How’s it going so far?”

She shrugged. “Everything’s copacetic inside the castle—”

“Castle?”

“You’ll see. Oh, and there’s a woman with Ashleigh Banfield glasses and a T-shirt looking for you.”

I scanned the people around us. “
All
of these women are wearing horn-rims and tees. How will I recognize her?”

“This one is Eric’s sister.”

I wondered if there was another Thorner sister, because Esther’s description didn’t come close to matching the evil glamour queen I’d argued with at the Source Club. Either way, it didn’t matter. Since Eden was near the top of my to-be-interviewed list, I headed upstairs.

Stepping off the escalator, my jaw dropped. The entire second-floor gallery was taken up by a full-sized replica of a medieval castle topped by a sawtooth battlement.

I recognized Eric’s sister as she approached me through the arched portcullis.

Esther’s description had been on target. Eden Thorner had swapped her contacts and slinky dress for chunky glasses, snug denims, and a form-fitting white tee emblazoned with the word
Milady
. She offered me her hand, and a (surprisingly) welcoming smile.

“It’s nice to have a second chance to meet you, Ms. Cosi. Please allow me to apologize for our first encounter—”

“No need to apologize.”

“Yes, there
is
, Ms. Cosi. You have to understand, I was frantic with worry that night. First someone tried to murder my kid brother, and then he decides to check himself out of the hospital
against
his doctors’ orders.” She shook her head. “When I saw him dining at the Source Club, I thought he’d risked his health, possibly his life, simply to indulge another one of his reckless infatuations.”

“You thought I was some kind of gold digger?”

“Yes, frankly. I’d never seen you before, and I had no idea Eric had important business with you. I feel terrible. I behaved like a monster, Clare, because I thought
you
were a monster.”

“Let’s forget the whole incident and start over, okay?” I smiled (guardedly). I still wasn’t sure if this woman was friend or foe—to me, anyway. She seemed protective of her brother, so I doubted very much she was helping Grayson Braddock sabotage him . . .
Or was she? Could Eden have a motive to double-cross her brother? How forthcoming would she be if directly questioned?

I cleared my throat to find out: “I take it Eric’s had some problems with his past . . . infatuations?”

“My brother’s a genius in some things, but not all things.”

“‘All things’ being women?”
Bianca Hyde came to mind, but I thought it best not to mention her—yet.

“It’s understandable, my brother’s naiveté, given what he went through growing up. While his peers were attending school, learning to drive, and going out on dates, Eric was stuck in hospitals and rehab facilities.”

“It must have been difficult for him.”

“His computer was his only friend. I guess it paid off, but Eric can be gullible where women are concerned.”

“Where is Eric, anyway?”

“He flew back to the Silicon Valley offices. Eric was away so long he has to play catch-up.”

“Oh, too bad.”
Okay, I was fibbing
. I was incredibly relieved Eric wasn’t going to be here. I wanted to question his people without the boss hovering. (I also hoped someone here could figure out how to
unblock
Mike Quinn’s calls on my THORN phone!)

“I didn’t know this was going to be a theme party,” I said, still studying Eden. “I do love the décor.”

“We’re rolling out a sword and sorcery game app in June, so we decided that should be the theme. Just be thankful it isn’t
Pigeon Droppings
.”

Oh, Lord, what a thought.
“My Italian grandmother thought bird droppings were lucky,” I confessed, “but I’d hate for anyone to wonder if that dollop of white in their espresso macchiato was something other than steamed milk.”

We both had a laugh.

“Pardon me, Milady.”

The youth interrupting us was tall enough to be a center on the Knicks basketball team. Lean and gangly, he self-consciously swiped at straight black bangs, then tugged at an oversized black tee with
Slayer
spelled out in fiery letters.

“It’s party time, boss. Everyone’s waiting for the hostess.”

“Tell them I’ll be right there, Darren.”

“Yes, Milady.” Darren bowed deeply before departing. “Your wish is my command.”

“‘Milady,’ huh? That’s an interesting title.”

“I know, it’s a little childish. Darren’s the one who gave it to me. He has a romantic streak—and he’s obsessed with sword and sorcery games.” She shrugged. “You have to admit, it’s more impressive than ‘Senior Projects Manager.’ And ‘House Mother’ just sounds pathetic.”

“Hear ye! Hear ye! Let’s party!” an amplified voice proclaimed.

“That’s my cue, Ms. Cosi. I’d better go.”

“Can we speak again after the party?” I asked “I may need help with a project.”

“Of course, Ms. Cosi,” Eden replied. “Anything I can do to help.”

“Please, call me Clare.”

“Only if you call me Eden—
and
give me first dibs on those freshly made Italian donuts on your menu.”

I watched Eden go, realizing that Eric had been right about one thing: I did find her likeable.

F
ifty-six

T
HE
castle’s courtyard was convincingly medieval, with a faux-stone floor and a “keep” where our food and drinks were served, buffet style.

Everything else was right out of downtown Tokyo.

High-definition computer monitors had been mounted along the foam castle walls, displaying big-screen versions of the game apps developed by THORN, Inc.

Pigeon Droppings
was represented, side by side with its 2.0 and 3.0 upgrades.
Plague Me
was another gross-out game (“Cure patient zero before you catch the plague”);
Spaghetti Bender
and
Bear Trap
were strategy games (“Smarter than wildlife, or are you
game
?”).

I was more comfortable with the foodie apps.
App-itite
in all of its international permutations, and
U R What U Eat
were both impressive.
Count Calorie
also conveyed vast amounts of useful information, though I certainly wasn’t the demographic for a calorie-counting app with a vampire mascot and the tagline
This Doesn’t Suck
.

I did very much like the Jackson Pollock–sized wall canvas for finger painting—with light. Using just their digits, staffers were able to create doodles and drawings on the wall via a projection device the size of a clock radio. Like many of Thorner’s apps and devices,
Handpainted
was voice activated. All the painter had to do was request the color he or she wanted.

Meanwhile in the center of the courtyard, Eric’s staff had activated something they called a Spectrum Digitizer. The device, about the size of a small refrigerator, projected holographic sculptures all around it. And when two young men called up the
Dojo
program, I knew I was witnessing the future of gaming and entertainment.

In a burst of floating color, a full-sized 3-D ninja materialized and crouched down in a fighting stance, waiting for action. The two human players began battling the holographic ninja, leaping, ducking, punching, and kicking at the warrior of light, while a mechanical voice kept score using words like
Strike! Dodge! Wound! Miss!

At the side of the courtyard, a line of standing consoles displayed other inventions. One held a full-sized holographic computer keyboard—a projection in midair meant to serve as an accessory to Eric’s advanced THORN phones. As I tested it, sensors picked up the movements of air molecules around my fingers, deciphering and processing each keystroke.

I was air typing a test text message to Esther when I noticed a pair of lurkers intensely watching me. In their twenties, they looked so much alike they had to be brothers—or sisters. With oversized
Slayer
tees and matching unisex haircuts, it was tough to determine gender. A quick Adam’s apple check revealed they were likely a brother and sister. They whispered to each other and disappeared.

My skin prickled, and I listened more closely to the conversations around me.

This was supposed to be a party, yet the tech staff seemed stressed about their projects. The event sounded less like a fun get-together and more like a group debate in the basement of a college computer lab.

“Look at that! The image
still
pixelates in the third quadrant!”

“Play testing revealed some issues.”

“Issues? It’s buggy!”

“The Go-Board rejected my design document. I hate educational games.”

“So tweak the refresh rate—or adjust your meds!”

Over the arguments, I heard a familiar voice and spotted Garth Hendricks in the crowd.

The Metis Man had gone totally native for today’s celebration—Native American. A buckskin jerkin encased his torso, and brown, leather pants covered his legs. His feet sported moccasin boots with Navajo designs, and his pierced ear displayed a tiny dangling dream catcher.

He was holding court with a cluster of teenagers—boys, mostly, but a few girls, too. With oohs and aahs, the group watched a series of videos showing amateur rockets launching from fields, backyards, school playgrounds, and parking lots.

When the Metis Man noticed me, he turned things over to Eden’s intern, Darren the Giant.

“Who are those kids?” I asked.

“Our Junior Rocketeers,” Garth proclaimed like a proud father. “Each one designed and built a rocket that’s reached a thousand feet into the air and returned to Earth with its payload—a single egg—intact.”

“That’s impressive.”

“Thank you. And I’ve heard impressive things about you—and your daughter. Paris was a great success. Eric was very pleased with your performance.”

“Eric was the performer. I was just trying to help.”

“Are you having fun helping us today?”

“I’m technically working, and so is everyone else, it seems. Eric’s staff is clearly obsessed with their work.”

“I take responsibility for that!” Garth beamed as he said it. “The real goal of management should be to make
meaning
, not money. Tasks should be presented as existential challenges to engage the employee’s imagination.”

“Oh?”

“People working toward a meaningful goal will not stop. THORN’s technical staff puts in twelve-hour days, and they come in on weekends, too, because their only goal in life is to meet the challenge, solve the problem.
This
is the new workplace model!”

I considered the building we were standing in and thought about the workers in the toy factories of the previous century. They worked ridiculously long hours, too, but in those days it wasn’t called “the new workplace model.” It was called a sweatshop.

Hearing shouts of warning, I looked up to see a pair of young women sliding down a spiral chute through a rabbit hole in the ceiling. A few people scattered so they could land on their feet.

“Eric told me I’d see sliding boards here, but I thought it was a metaphor.”

“When work is fun, we
want
to do it,” Garth declared, “seven days a week, if we can . . .”

So it’s a “fun” sweatshop.

“Eric’s people do work hard, but we help them make it
feel
like play.”

“I see . . .”
No time for a personal life, but that’s okay, you have a sliding board.

Putting Metis Man’s philosophies aside, I began to wonder which one of these hard workers would benefit most if Eric were out of the picture. And if he
were
out of the picture, then who could do Eric’s job? The Metis Man? Garth Hendricks could lead a company, but he wasn’t a programmer.

Eric’s sister Eden shouldered leadership responsibilities, but they were organizational. Did she have the technical knowledge to effectively steer a digital company?

At a dead end, I simply asked Garth. His reply . . .

“Minnow could do it. She’s Eric in distaff.”

“Minnow?”

“Wilhelmina Tork. She’s close to Eric, one of the original founders of the company. And Minnow already heads the Game Development Division, which was Thorner’s old job. Now that he’s a corporate officer, Eric can’t do everything, so before we moved East, he promoted Ms. Tork.”

I scanned the crowd. “Where can I find Minnow?”

“In her office on the tenth floor.”

“She’s not attending the party?”

“Minnow is not a party person.” He lowered his voice. “A high IQ combined with anger issues.”

“I have a barista with a mild case of the same, but I love her dearly.”

The Metis Man nodded approvingly. “Understanding goes a long way in this world. Understanding inspires tolerance, and an open mind is a creative mind.”

Applause interrupted him. “I’d better get back to my kids.”

“First, could you point the way to the elevators?” I asked. “Or should I just climb the sliding board?”

F
ifty-seven

T
HE
elevator opened and once again I came face-to-face with the Unisex Twins.

The pair perked up when they saw me. “Oh, hi!” they chirped in (yes) unison.

“Hello.”

They exited the elevator, flanking me the way my cats do when they’re hungry. Two pairs of big, brown eyes gazed at me expectantly. I eased past them, into the elevator.

“Bye,” I said.

“See you later!” they peeped, waving to me as the elevator closed.

Okay, that was creepy.

I turned my attention to the layout of the tenth floor, a huge open space filled with natural light. Crossing the restored old planks, I passed a dozen workstations with state-of-the-art computers. The only “office” on this floor was more of a large cubicle, situated in a corner beside the massive window.

As I approached, I heard the tapping of keys. The view overlooking Madison Square Park was spectacular, but the woman behind the desk only had eyes for the data dancing across four huge LED screens.

I knocked on the partition.

She whirled in her chair and appeared startled at the sight of me. Slowly she slid her chunky, black glasses down. Her blue violet eyes were as vibrant as Madame’s and they were staring 3-D daggers at me.

“What do you want?”

“Sorry. I’m looking for Wilhelmina Tork?”

“Minnow.”

“Yes, I’m looking for Minnow.”

She sighed with annoyance. “My
name
is Minnow.”

“Hello,” I said, stepping inside. “I’m Clare—”

“I know who you are.”

Uninvited, I sat down. “Then you know I’m a friend of Eric’s.”

Her frown deepened and her eyes dropped to a desk littered with little toys and figurines. I recognized Jack Skellington from
The Nightmare Before Christmas
, and an array of resin dragons, but the rest of the characters (Anime? Comic book? Video game?) eluded me—with one exception. I recognized a plastic
Alice in Wonderland
, dressed in iconic Disney garb, but there was no White Rabbit, no Cheshire Cat, and
this
Alice grinned like a psychopath and clutched a bloody knife.

“Garth tells me you were with Eric’s company from the beginning. I also heard you’ve been promoted.”

She looked up then, and I realized that hidden behind the heavy, black eyewear, Minnow was striking. With a triangular face and delicate features, her pale, flawless skin made for a stunning contrast to her raven black hair—a tangled, frizzy riot that could have doubled as a wig for Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna (an ancient, cultural reference for Minnow’s generation—although they
could
Google it).

Frowning, Minnow reached for a bone gray disposable cup from Driftwood Coffee and smugly waved my competitor’s logo in front of me like it was Kryptonite and I was Superman (at last, a reference both our generations would get).

Taking a long gulp, she drained the contents.

“You could get a refill at the party,” I suggested. “We’re serving an Almond Joy Latte with homemade Coconut-Chocolate-Almond Syrup. There’s a Reese’s Cup Latte, too; we make it with our own Chocolate–Peanut Butter Nutella. And if you prefer dairy-free—”

“I only drink lattes from Driftwood Coffee,” she sniffed.

“How about something to relax you?”
(You look like you can use it.)
“I can pour you a very pretty Cloudy Dream or how about a Hazelnut Orgasm?”

“What are they?”

“Pousse-cafés—delicious layered drinks with tasty liqueurs, the kind usually served with after-dinner coffee.”

She actually look tempted for a moment but then shook her head and tugged at the hem of her baggy tee. “I’m very busy, Clare. Could you please get down to business?”

“I understand THORN, Inc., is rolling out a new game in June—”

“At E3.”

“ET?”

“E-
Three
, Clare. The Electronic Entertainment Expo. It’s the annual industry showcase where new digital games and devices are introduced.”

“And your THORN app is going head-to-head with Grayson Braddock’s rollout of a similar game, right?”

Minnow smiled. “Kind of.”

I blinked. “Could you please elaborate?”

She shrugged. “Two years ago, Eric picked up an advanced reading copy of
Dragon Whisperer
at Book Expo. As soon as he read it, he knew the novel would be hot. Eric’s a genius about things like that.”

Wow, a first.
Minnow had briefly shed her disdainful tone when she spoke about Eric.

“I know the book,” I said. Practically overnight,
Dragon Whisperer
had made dragons more popular than sexy vampires, walking zombies, comic book superheroes, and boy-wonder wizards.

“Yes, but there was a massive problem. Grayson Braddock controlled the licensing for
Dragon Whisperer
through his publishing division. Eric had us develop the game before he secured the rights to the dragons, characters, and storylines. He was sure Braddock would be thrilled with our prototype and instantly grant our request for rights. But when the idea was presented to Braddock, the Aussie shut us down.”

From what I knew already, the conclusion seemed clear. “After Braddock saw what you developed, he decided he could create a game on his own, and keep all the profits?”

Minnow nodded. “But he can’t. Braddock doesn’t have the platform to launch an app game; he’s never done it before.”

“What if he hired Donny Chu?”

“Donny has the skill to build a game, but sell it?” Minnow shook her head. “You need a genius like Eric for that.”

There’s that word again.
Minnow was clearly impressed with her boss.

“We have
Pigeon Droppings
,” Minnow continued. “Which means we own a chunk of the market already, and we can use that popular and established game to launch a new one. You see? Get it now?”

“Yes. And I assume, because Braddock wouldn’t sell Eric the gaming rights, Eric changed
Dragon Whisperer
to
Slayer
, and used generic dragons and heroes to get around Braddock’s copyright?”

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