Authors: Carole Fowkes
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Culinary, #Women Sleuths
Bake Me a Murder
The Terrified Detective: Book Three
Monday, 8:00 p.m.
eople ask plumbers and carpenters for free help all the time. It’s a well-known fact. In response, these tradesmen either do the favor or learn how to refuse. A lesser known fact is, as a private investigator, nobody, except for the panhandlers at 9
and Euclid in downtown Cleveland, ever asked me for anything. So, when Ed Horwath, my sometime employee and full-time security guard at Triton Pharmaceuticals, requested my help, it shocked me.
To explain, I better go back to the beginning, meaning from the start of this case.
Since the Joey Corroza incident, Cleveland Police Detective Brian Corrigan and I had gone on two dates, enjoyable ones, I might add. For our third, my dad invited us to his place for dinner. Since my mother died he’d become a great cook and his manicotti was delicious. Aunt Lena, my late mother’s sister and owner of
one of the best bakeries and cafes in the Cleveland area, had brought her chocolate chip caramel brownies.
Brian and I had been in the kitchen doing the dinner dishes. When we returned to the dining room, Aunt Lena and Ed, who had been dating since that same Corroza case, sat at my father’s heavy, dark-wood dining room table. They were making eyes at each other while my father squirmed and cast his glances everywhere but at the two lovebirds.
In a voice sharper than I believe he meant, he said, “Lena. Ed. Not in front of the kids.”
Lena snorted and tilted her head toward Brian and me. “Frank, those two haven’t been kids for a long time.”
My dad responded, “They still don’t need to see a fiftyish woman and her young man playing cootchy-coo with their eyes.”
I laughed. “It’s okay, Dad. We’re all adults here. Besides, there’s only six years’ difference between them. I think I can speak for Brian, too, when I say we’ve both seen worse things.”
My attention drifted to the brownies stacked on a serving plate. A wistful pang hit me. If I’d inherited my dad’s metabolism, I could have downed half the pan and arm-wrestled anyone else for the remainder. Since I put on weight like other people put on clothes, I’d have to restrain myself and only have one. Or two. I consoled myself with staring into Brian’s blue eyes. I have to admit, my eyes couldn’t resist traveling past his cute dimples down the full length of his hot body. My Aunt Lena had no qualms about her robust figure. She snatched the biggest brownie. But she cut it in quarters and fed it to Ed as he gazed at her.
Okay, this was one of the worst things I’d seen.
I glanced at Brian in case he had a notion to do the same, but he was staring at his phone. He then frowned and excused himself.
As if on cue, Ed’s phone rang too. His voice boomed. “Hey buddy, what’s going on?”
I couldn’t hear the other man’s exact words but he sounded pretty upset. Ed turned pale and lowered his voice. “Slow down, Merle. When did this happen?”
He listened for a moment. “Okay, I’m going to give the phone to a private investigator I work with, Claire DeNardo. You tell her what you told me.”
Ed held his phone out in my direction.
I waved my arms like windshield wipers and shook my head. I was on a date and didn’t want to think about business. But Ed’s eyes pleaded and I broke down. “This is Claire DeNardo. How can I help you?”
The caller’s voice kept breaking up, and I had to ask him to repeat himself several times.
“Her name is Coco Sanchez. I hadn’t seen her for a while but she just called, asking for help. Then the line went dead. She’s in trouble. I know it.”
Telling him to go to the police would have been the most sensible advice, but I didn’t do it. The cops might treat it as a case of a former girlfriend changing her mind.
Ed stared at me, as if by his sheer will, I would take Merle’s problem on.
I sighed. “Okay, I’ll be in my office at 8:00 a.m.” I gave Merle my office address and handed the phone back to Ed.
I tapped my fingers on the table until Ed ended the call. “Thanks a bunch.” My words dripped with sarcasm. I have a hard time saying no to people in need, but hated being put on the spot like that.
“I owe you, kiddo. Merle’s my cousin, the best of the bunch, far as I’m concerned. He’s come through for me so many times I’ve lost track. Didn’t inherit the family’s good looks and never had any luck with women. But that seemed to change when he met Coco. Gorgeous dancer, legs up to her neck...”
Ed caught himself and added, “Not that Coco could hold a candle to you, Lena. You’re twice the woman.” He brushed his lips across the top of her hand and she blushed. “Anyway, Coco disappeared on him about four months ago.”
I wondered if Ed meant Aunt Lena weighed twice what Coco weighed. Regardless, Ed amazed me with his sweet-talking way. Brian could take lessons from him.
Speak of the devil, Brian returned at last from making a call. The frown on his face said it all. We wouldn’t be having any sort of romantic interlude.
Brian shook my dad’s hand. “Thanks for dinner, Frank. Wish I could stay longer, but duty calls and calls right now.” He squeezed my shoulder. “Hate to do this, Claire, but could you find your own way home?”
“I can take you home before I drop off Lena. Matter of fact, we need to leave too. I gotta work tonight.” Ed’s phone rang again and he moved into the living room, away from my aunt’s radar ears.
My father slipped into the kitchen and returned with a dish filled with leftovers. My aunt, not to be outdone, topped that dish with a tower of her brownies. You’d think Brian was departing for a prisoner of war camp.
My father said, “Now, Claire, don’t keep Brian at the door too long.”
Brian laughed but I steamed. “Don’t worry. I didn’t bring any chains with me to hold him.”
Out of my father’s sight, Brian managed to give me a quick kiss without dropping anything. “I’ll call you later, Claire.”
When I returned to the dining room my mood was anything but cheery. Never known for good timing, Aunt Lena started in. “He’s a good-looking boy. Why didn’t you dress nice for him?”
I grabbed another brownie. “What’s wrong with what I have on?”
My father threw up his hands. “Lena, stop. Claire, you look fine. Doesn’t she, Ed?”
Ed returned from the living room and was putting his phone away. He barely glanced at me. “You look smokin’. Now if it’s okay, we better take off so I can get to work for the night shift.”
I climbed into the back seat of Ed’s car, allowing Aunt Lena to sit next to her
. We’d only been gone a few minutes when Ed gazed at me through his rear view mirror. “Hate to bring Merle up again, but…”
I didn’t want to talk about his cousin’s missing girlfriend, but at least he wasn’t asking for a raise. I didn’t earn enough to pay myself. I thought the publicity I’d gotten from an earlier case would improve business, but it hadn’t. I was still forced to take cases like Hank Dorkowsky, who wanted me to find out which neighbor’s dog kept pooping in his yard. What a pile of crap!
Whatever Ed needed, he was serious so I gave him my full attention. “Spit it out, Ed.”
“Help Merle. He’s as straight an arrow as they come.”
If Merle was anything like Ed, a little rough, but loyal and dependable, Coco missed out on a solid guy. But Merle’s character wasn’t an issue in my decision on taking his case. The potential danger was. I was a confirmed coward and, after the last case, leery about taking on another scary piece of business. I wasn’t cut out for those. Just because I’d taken over the private investigation business from the now-retired and in Miami, Gino Francini, my father’s second cousin, didn’t mean danger was my middle name. Chicken was more like it. I preferred cases solved without the threat of bodily injury,
my bodily injury.
I know I shouldn’t be in this business, but how easy would it be to find a job with my master’s degree in art history?
My stomach tensed. “So what do you have in mind?”
Ed tapped a soft rhythm on the steering wheel. “Find Coco for Merle. I’ll even throw in my time.” He stuck a toothpick in his mouth as if that was that.
“You’ll work for me for free?”
“That’s what I meant.”
Aunt Lena grabbed onto Ed’s sleeve. “It won’t be dangerous will it, Ed?”
He patted her arm. “Nah, Coco’s phone probably just died. Or she changed her mind about reaching out to Merle. Everything’s probably hunky-dory.”
I stopped myself from guffawing.
Nothing was ever that simple.
But I’d talk to Merle and see if a case even existed. I’d already had two cases that had frightened the fat out of my fat cells. Another one would be like a death wish. Avoiding those types of cases was how I planned to stay in this business. No bullet holes or stab wounds for me.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Tuesday, 8:00 a.m.
The next morning, I walked into my tiny office and frowned as I surveyed the place. My business furniture shouted financial deprivation. I couldn’t afford to replace the sagging sofa nor the client chair with its fabric held together by duct tape. I worried about becoming malnourished. My office was well on its way to being malfurnished.
A knock at my door interrupted my thoughts and a tall, string bean of a man entered. “I’m Merle Pokov. Am I too early?” He pushed back his dark, fly-away hair. “Can I come in?” The hair flopped back onto his forehead.
“No, not at all.” I gave him my most professional smile.
Merle looked like the kind of guy kids and puppies warm up to in an instant. “After you and me talked, Ed told me you were new at investigating and a little skittish, but you could help me.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Ed needed to use more discretion in talking about my idiosyncrasies.
Oblivious, Merle continued. “Doesn’t matter to me, long as you can find Coco. Make sure she’s okay.”
“Have a seat and tell me about her.” I directed him to the scruffy chair across from my desk. I jotted down her information, full name, age, last known address. The usual drill.
He handed me a photo of a young, long-haired woman hugging a man. “That’s me and her a year ago. Only picture I got of Coco.”
“She’s pretty.” She was, except for the noticeable mole above the left upper lip. But identifying marks can help during searches. Speaking of identifying features, she had to be a 44DD.
They can’t be real.
Merle smiled. “Yeah. She’s originally from Pittsburgh. Then she moved to Florida to be a dancer. From there, she came to Cleveland and last I seen her, she was working as a waitress at The Fried Egg on Memphis Avenue. We were in love. Least I was.”
His face fell. “Four months ago she stopped answering my calls, texts, everything. Cleaned out her apartment, and didn’t leave a forwarding address. She even came over to my place when I wasn’t around and picked up the things she’d left.”
“Did you talk to her after that?”
He glanced up at the ceiling, like he was struggling to hold it all together. “No. That call was the first I’ve gotten from her since she disappeared. I was shocked to hear from her. Happy, even. See, when we met it was like fireworks.”
“What did she say on the call?”
“Not much.” He scratched his head. “Asked me to help. Then started crying. Hurt me right here.” He poked his finger at his chest.
“She didn’t indicate why she needed help?”
“Nope. I asked but either she hung up or someone did it for her.” He massaged his knuckles.
“What about her family?”
“Both her parents died when she was young. She’s got one brother, Tony. He tends bar at the West City Lounge on Lorain Avenue. I talked to him when she took off, but he hadn’t heard from Coco either. Not that I expected her to get in touch with him. They weren’t on real good terms, know what I mean?”
My mind whirled, debating if I should take this case. My gut churned the toaster pastry I had for breakfast. I weighed the possibility of danger versus paying my bills. Taking care of my bills won. Plus, Merle, who seemed like a nice guy, was Ed’s cousin and I owed Ed.
He leaned forward. “Do you think you can find her?”
I studied Coco’s picture again. “I’ll do my best.”
After Merle signed the contract, he provided me with his contact information and paid me half-down. I began my internet search for Lourdes Maria Sanchez, aka Coco. Interesting stuff. Merle and Ed both said she danced. Either they didn’t know, or didn’t want to tell me, she paraded around topless at The Venus Trap, a club in Tampa. If the place was as classy as the name implied, she probably met some unsavory characters working there. I wondered if anyone there remembered her or had anything to do with her disappearance.