Undercover Cook Chapter One



 "COOKING LESSONS?" Detective Daphne Sparks paused with her coffee halfway to her lips and made an are-you-kidding face. "We have a missing, probably dead, informant, and your solution is cooking lessons."

 "Dumb idea," Marcus Jethro echoed from across the table.

 Nick Duncan kept his eyes on Daphne, his partner, because if he looked at Marcus he was going to say something he regretted.

"It's simple," he said. "I go with Granddad to the lessons at the catering kitchen, get the layout, figure how best to get at the company financial records." And from those, determine whether Tremont Catering, based in Reno, was laundering Lake Tahoe drug money. As he’d said.  Simple.

 He pushed his chair back slightly to make room for his legs under the small table in the back corner of a Virginia Street deli—the place where he and Daphne usually met for lunch in the late afternoon, after the noon-hour crowd was gone and they could talk.

 "How is it that the lessons happen to be at this particular kitchen?" Daphne asked mildly, pushing long black hair over her shoulders. Nick shrugged. "I see," she said, lifting her coffee cup in a small salute.

 "Any information you get that way is totally inadmissible," Marcus interjected in a superior tone, before adding a carefully measured half teaspoon of sugar to his coffee. He hated to be left out, and since he was a forensic accountant for the Reno PD, and because of that usually chained to his desk, he often was. Marcus had visions of crime fighting glory that weren’t quite working out.

 "I'm not going to seize the records," Nick said. "I'm going to examine them, see if we're wasting time on something that isn't going to pan out."

 He and Daphne had been working for months as Reno PD members of the Washoe-Tahoe Drug Task Force, trying to get a toehold into the drug traffic moving through the Tahoe Summit Hotel and Casino. They knew kitchen personnel were involved, and they'd gotten some indication of how the money might be moving. But task force funds were spread so thinly that after eight fruitless months of investigation, the Tahoe Summit had been shoved to the back burner…despite the fact that Nick and Daphne's twenty-one-year-old confidential informant, Cully, had recently gone missing. Nick thought that circumstance warranted further investigation. His lieutenant had disagreed. Strongly.

 "I don't like it," Marcus said.

 It didn't matter if he liked it, because Nick didn't answer to him. Technically, since his asshole lieutenant had suspended him for thirty days after their heated "discussion," Nick didn't answer to anyone in the department, which was why his investigation into Tremont Catering fell into the unofficial category. His own time, his own dime. But how the hell else was he supposed to get the answers he needed, not only to work on the drug trafficking, but to find out what had happened to Cully?

 "What do you suggest?" he finally asked Marcus, more to mollify him than anything. They needed his expertise once Nick got copies of the financial records.

 The accountant rolled his shoulders and then took on a thoughtful expression while slowly stirring his coffee. "If you decide to go with the cooking lesson angle, you could use it as a means to conduct an indirect investigation and try to determine if there are indications of expenditures exceeding legal income. Then go before a judge and ask for a warrant."

 "And perhaps wait for a glacier to melt in the process?" Nick asked.

 He flushed. "It's the only course of action that will lead to admissible evidence."

 "Look," Nick said. "I understand admissibility. And I don't like doing things this way, but I also don't want to waste time." He stabbed his fork into a bowl of ravioli, spearing one and holding it poised in the air. "I don't need to make a formal case. All I need is enough information to get Justin Tremont to roll and give me names if he's involved."

 "And if he isn't?" Marcus asked, putting the spoon on a napkin.

 "Then we're at a dead end. For now."  In Nick's last discussion with Cully, the CI had indicated that Tahoe Summit drug money was being laundered through a small Reno business. He'd sounded excited when he'd called to set up a meeting, and Nick had been relieved to finally get a break in the case. Chasing dirty money often resulted in a bust.

 But Cully never showed for the meeting. Or called.  Suspecting the worst, Nick and Daphne had started digging into small businesses connected with Tahoe Summit personnel. It hadn't taken long to discover that only one person on the kitchen staff had ties to a small business. Justin Tremont, part time pastry chef, owned a catering business with his two sisters.

 Marcus shook his head. "Risky. My way may take time, but at least you won't end up getting investigated by Internal Affairs."

 "That won’t happen," Nick said.

 "You hope." Daphne eyed him over the top of her coffee cup.

 "Stop being such a ray of sunshine," he muttered.

 "I vote against this idea," Marcus said, pushing his lank dark hair to the side of his forehead.

 "You don't have a vote," Nick said.

 "When you want me to look at the figures, you might change your mind on that."

 "All right, you have a vote. But it's still two against one."

 "Marcus," Daphne said, fixing her large, coffee-brown eyes on his face in a way that told Nick she was on her last nerve. Marcus was, of course, oblivious. "I have sworn to uphold the law. I truly believe in the law, but I want to get the sons of bitches that nailed Cully. Don't you?"

 "Of course I want to get them," the accountant said adamantly. He wanted anything that Daphne wanted—he'd had a wild crush on her since he'd first come to work two years ago.

 "Then man up!" she said, and Marcus went instantly red.

 "Fine," he sputtered. "I'll man up. I'm more than capable of bending the rules."

 “You don’t need to bend anything,” Nick said. "All we want is your unofficial expertise after I get the financial records in an unofficial way. All right?"

 Marcus was still red. He shot a quick look at Daphne who stared back impassively. "Yes. All right. But I'm not the dweeb you think I am."

 "No one said you were a dweeb," Nick insisted, since Daphne wouldn't. She had no patience with their colleague and Nick couldn't blame her, since Marcus was hell-bent on impressing her and impervious to hints—or blatant declarations—that she wasn’t interested.

 "You don't have to say it," the accountant said sullenly. “I can see what you think.”

 Daphne dropped her napkin onto her plate, obviously having had enough. She reached for her purse, took out a handful of one dollar bills and started counting them.

 "What are you going to do now?" Nick asked.

 "I am going to take my partnerless self back to the office to work on busting drug buys near the campus. Because it looks good in the newspaper." She raised her eyes. "I don't care how much of a jerk Lieutenant Davidson is, don't ever do this to me again."

 Nick pulled a twenty from his wallet. "I'll try very hard to never rile him again." Frankly, he wasn't normally the lieutenant-riling kind, but this Cully deal bugged the hell out of him. Yeah, Cully had been slick, but he'd also been a sweet, personable kid, with plans, no less. Both Nick and Daphne had, during weak moments, mentioned that as much as they appreciated what he brought them, he needed to find a safer line of work.
 Cully had laughed them off, saying that he was eventually going to Police Officer Standard and Training academy to become a professional undercover agent. He wouldn't have gone to ground without contacting either Daphne or Nick, and it had now been four weeks since they'd last heard from him.

 EDEN TREMONT KICKED off the killer heels she wore to all her client meetings the instant she stepped inside the back door of the catering kitchen. She sighed as her bare feet hit the blessedly cool tile floor, then reached for her orange kitchen clogs. It didn't pay to be short.

Sunday morning meetings were not the norm for her. Usually she spent that time prepping meals for the two families she cooked for on a weekly basis—the Stewarts and the Ballards—in addition to her catering duties. Today, however, was the only time a prospective bride with a vicious travel schedule could meet with her, and Eden went with it. Happily so, since she had a signed contract in her hand.
 No one was in the kitchen yet, so she stowed her portfolio and her purse in the small back office. Grabbing an elastic band off the top of her desk, she pulled her blond hair into a haphazard knot and secured it just as the rear door of the kitchen banged open, scaring the bejeezus out of her. Patty Lloyd, their prep cook, did not slam. Ever.

 Then one of the lockers next to the back door rattled and Eden let out a breath. Justin. Her brother. Who wasn't supposed to be in until early afternoon.

 "Why are you here now?" Eden demanded, leaning out the door.

 "Guess." Justin barely held back a yawn before pulling a white, jersey cotton stocking cap over his choppy blond hair. Sometimes Eden wondered if he still cut it himself, as he had when they were kids. It wasn't that he couldn't afford a haircut. He was just never able to find a barber who could give him the dangerous skater punk do he wanted.

 "You took a cake order when you shouldn't have?" Her voice dripped sisterly sarcasm.

 "Hey, you're one to talk. You volunteered to help with geriatric cooking lessons when you're swamped."

 "I'm not as swamped as you, I have help with the lessons and it's only for six weeks." She folded her arms. "Besides, it's community service and that's not only great for the soul, it's excellent public relations." She cocked her head, scowling at her brother. Sometimes she honestly worried about him. "How late did you get in last night?"

 Just in shrugged into a chef's jacket with a blue food color stain dribbled down the front. His favorite jacket. He said it unleashed his creativity. "Two? Two-thirty?"

 "So you got what? Three hours sleep?"

 "I'm too tired to do the math," he said as he headed past her to one of the two stainless fridges and pulled open the door. A weary smile transformed his angular face as he glanced over his shoulder at Eden.  "Did I tell you that I love Patty? That I'm going to make her my bride?"

He pulled out a stainless steel bowl of what had to be cake filling, and held it up. "One less thing to do. If I play my cards right, I may be able to sneak in a nap before I head back up to the Lake." The Lake being shorthand for Lake Tahoe, where Justin had his second job. By day, Justin was the Tremont Catering dessert chef, but he also worked three nights a week at a Lake Tahoe resort hotel as the pastry chef, and, in spite of those two jobs filling much of his time, he kept making high-end cakes. The more he made, the more the orders poured in as word spread. And they all seemed to be rush jobs. If they weren't to begin with, then by the time Justin fit them into his jammed schedule, they became rushes.

"You've got to stop doing this," Eden muttered. Her words were barely audible, since she knew they would do no good. She'd been saying the same thing over and over again for how long now? Since he'd taken that first emergency cake order for a bakery that'd had an electrical fire. Even on that first order he'd been pushing things. They'd had three big catering events that week, yet he'd still somehow pulled off a masterpiece. And Eden knew the argument she'd get in return—the cakes brought in a lot of extra income. Some old equipment had finally been replaced, thanks to those cakes, and Justin had been able to refurbish the classic Firebird he'd bought from one of Eden's clients. Plus he was socking away money to make a balloon payment on his condo.

At some point all this was going to catch up to him, physically, if nothing else. It would, even if he did have Patty. When, exactly, had she made the filling? She was supposed to have gone home shortly after Eden left. Obviously she hadn't. Their prep cook needed to be needed, and with their sister, Reggie, out on maternity leave, and Justin's ridiculous schedule, Patty was working at the right place.

"When's this cake due?" Eden asked as she started breading beef for stew. She made five days of container meals for the Stewarts and the Ballards every Sunday and delivered them late Sunday evening. During the remainder of the week, between catering events and prep, she planned menus and typed up reheating instructions, which she saved to her computer for repeat performances. She had the personal chef gig down to a fine science now.

 "Tomorrow," Justin said. "I have Donovan coming over to help me deliver."

 "Then I can have the van tonight?"

 "All yours," Justin agreed.

 "Great." Eden hated delivering in her small Honda Civic.

 "Am I making crème brûlée for the Wednesday deal?"

 "Yes. And mini tarts."

 "Got it." Justin disappeared back into the alcove known as the pastry cave, and turned on his music. Eden chopped vegetables in time to classic Green Day songs as she browned the sausages for the lasagna the Ballard family requested as a weekly staple. Easy for two teenage boys to fill up on.

 By the time Patty came in at eight-thirty, Eden had every burner on the stove going, as well as two ovens. She tended to hog the kitchen on Sunday, which was why they avoided Monday events if at all possible.  Today was officially Patty's day off, so she would be coming in for only one reason….

"Good morning," she said, pulling a scarf from her permed curls. "I thought I'd stop by and see if Justin needed some help."

 "You know he does," Eden said. "How late were you here last night?"

 "Only until eight, but I didn't put down the extra hours. It was my choice to stay."

 "Put down the hours," Eden said. "It comes out of the cake money, since that’s what you were here for."

 "If you insist," Patty said. "Even though I'm happy—"

 "I insist. But, really, you shouldn't stay late to help Justin out of situations he gets himself into."

 "It's for the good of the company."

 "Yes." Hard to argue with that.

 "The oddest thing happened last night," Patty said as she tied on her oversize apron. "When I went out to my car, there was a young man hanging out in the alley near the van."

 Eden looked up from the carrots she was dicing. "Just…hanging around? Loitering?"

 Their Reno neighborhood was a quiet one, consisting of a couple small bistro type restaurants that were open only for breakfast and lunch, law offices and boutique stores in refurbished houses, and a quiet, upscale lounge two blocks away. They didn't get many people lingering after hours—especially in their alley, which was dead-end.

 "Yes. I thought it was strange, but I just walked straight to my car, got in and locked the doors. Once I had it started, I checked and saw the man slipping into the space between our building and the law office, apparently on his way to the street. When I pulled out of the alley, he was gone. Or he may have been hiding between the buildings."

 "Any chance it was—"

 "It wasn't Ian," Patty said in a definite voice, referring to Eden’s ex-boyfriend.

 "Hey, Justin?" Eden called, loudly enough to be heard over the music. Her brother came out of the pastry room, stainless steel spatula in hand. "Patty said there was someone hanging around the van last night when she left. Maybe you should take a look at it, see if he tried to pry the doors open or something."

 "Yeah. Sure." He put the spatula down on the counter nearest him and headed for the back door. "Any chance it was Ian?"

 "Patty says it wasn't," Eden answered wearily.

 A few minutes later he was back. "Nothing. Maybe just a homeless guy looking for a place to sleep."
 "Probably," Patty agreed.

 "But maybe you should park out front on the days you're working late," Eden said. "And keep an eye on your surroundings, all right?"

 Patty sniffed. She was the designated lecturer.

 "For your safety," Eden added. Ever since Reggie—her and Justin’s older sister—had started maternity leave, Patty had all but declared herself a full partner in Tremont Catering. Granted, they needed her. She was dependable and honest, and without her Justin would be in deep trouble. But she did have a few quirks, control issues being at the top of the list.

"I'll watch myself," she said. "And I am positive it wasn't Ian. This man had dark hair."

 Eden gave a quick nod of understanding before she walked into the dry storage area. She hated that Patty was so aware Ian would be her number one suspect. Eden very much liked to keep her private life private. It was her own fault, though, that Patty was so well informed on the ex-boyfriend front, since Eden had taken a strip off his cheating hide when he'd had the audacity to show up at the kitchen with flowers  and an apology, delivered with the perfect combination of sincerity and humility.

 Eden hadn't budged, and after a few words it became clear that he didn't think coming on to his best friend's wife in the guest bedroom at a dinner party counted as cheating. He had, after all, been drunk, and they hadn't done anything but a little kissing and groping. It was all a big misunderstanding. Surely Eden could see that? His friend understood, so why didn't she?

 Shattering her trust? No big deal. Being drunk? Hell of an excuse.

 Eden dragged the stepladder from one end of the metal shelving units to the other and started climbing so she could get two large cans of fire roasted crushed tomatoes. After a stressful childhood with a father who said anything to keep people happy, then did as he damned well pleased, she had no tolerance for subterfuge, lying or "misunderstandings." Which was why she didn't care how many bouquets of flowers or apologies Ian sent her way.

They'd dated once before and he'd left her, shortly after college. It'd taken her a long time to get over him. When he'd appeared back in Reno six months ago, he'd come to see her. Apologized for being such a short-sighted jerk. Asked her back into his life. Eden had taken a chance, thinking they’d both grown and that Ian had dealt with whatever issue had caused him to leave her in the first place.

 And the flame had burned hot.

 Now it had abruptly gone out, and that was it. Over was over, and he needed to get that through his thick head. Unfortunately, Ian hated to lose. That probably made him a good  lawyer. It also made him a pain in the ass.

 Amazing just how quickly things changed once a person discovered that the guy who was supposed to be watching her back was actually more interested in someone else's boobs.

 "WHAT DO YOU mean, you aren't taking the cooking lessons?" Nick stared at his stubborn grandfather, who stood next to the patio door of his small apartment wearing his favorite plaid flannel shirt and baggy police tactical pants. A couple quail ran across the courtyard lawn outside.

 Gabe pulled the door open. The quail instantly took cover in a juniper bush. "Why in the hell would I want to take cooking lessons?" he asked as he grabbed the bag of seeds off the bookcase by the door.

 Because I want to take them. "Lois says you guys need to eat better. This is one way to do that."

 "I'm eating just fine."

 "You're downing too much salt and fat. She said your blood pressure has redlined a couple times. If you don't start eating right, she's going to sentence you to the cafeteria."

 "When did this happen?" Gabe asked, shaking his head before reaching into the bag and tossing a handful of seeds out into the grass.


 "When did I hit the point in my life when I have to be treated like a damned child?" He didn't look at Nick, just threw more seeds, his movements jerky. Angry.

 Nick didn't have an answer for that. His grandfather was a seventy five-year-old heart attack survivor. After the heart attack it became apparent that living alone in his north Reno home was no longer a possibility, so Nick had helped him sell the house and move into the Candlewood Center, an assisted living facility that would allow him the most personal freedom. It cost a bundle, but Gabe had made a huge profit on the house, which allowed him to pay the fees and still have money in the bank.

 Not a bad outcome, except for the part where Gabe resented being told what to do.

 He did okay with community living, and had made several friends. But while he happily played poker, took the weekly trip to the golf course, sat in front of the huge TV and ate low sodium popcorn while watching sports with his friends, he steadfastly refused to partake in the meal plan offered by the facility.

 After Gabe had balked, so had a couple of his new buddies. Their rebellion was driving the woman in charge of health care in Gabe's block of apartments crazy as their blood pressures inched up. Fortunately, Lois was no pushover and had come up with this cooking lesson angle as a way to get the guys to eat healthier meals. And when she'd mentioned her plan to Nick—in hopes that he'd convince his grandfather, the ringleader, to cooperate—he'd had the happy suggestion that perhaps she'd like to contact Tremont Catering, which was less than a mile away, and see if they could rent their large kitchen for the lessons. It made more sense than trying to squeeze all the participants into the relatively tiny cafeteria kitchen at the facility.

 The only downside was that instead of simply renting the kitchen, the Tremonts had insisted on being involved with the lessons. Nick would have preferred to have the place to himself, in order to snoop around while Lois did her thing, but this was definitely better than nothing.

 "I'm not going to live forever," Gabe said, pushing the door shut. Little quail heads appeared out of the juniper. "But while I am alive, I want to eat decent food."

 "That's what the class is all about. Taking stuff you love and making it healthier."

 "Making it taste like cardboard, you mean. Your grandmother went on a health food craze twenty years ago. Let me tell you, that stuff she made with those healthy—" Gabe's mouth twisted into a disdainful sneer  "—recipes was awful. And your grandmother was a damned fine cook."

 "Things have changed." Nick assumed they'd changed, anyway—hadn't everything changed in the past twenty years? He knew nothing about cooking, other than frying up the occasional steak. Everything he ate came from the freezer or a take-out bag. "I was kind of hoping you'd take the lessons for my sake."

 “Your sake?” Gabe sounded surprised, then his expression shifted. “There’s no possibility that an attractive woman might be teaching these lessons, is there?”

 Not that again.

 Nick toyed with the idea of simply saying yes, but heaven only knew what his grandfather would do then. Nightmare scenarios shot through his head. Nick’s wife, Miri, had died more than two years ago in a car accident and Gabe, who’d adored her, had grieved along with Nick. But after a year and a half had passed and Nick had remained buried in his work, with no social life and showing no sign of changing his ways, his grandfather had grown impatient. It was time for Nick to move on, “join the land of the living” as Gabe put it.

 Nick was in the land of the living; he’d finally gotten over the raw pain of losing his wife, but he felt no desire whatsoever to try to fill the void she’d left in his life. Yes, the void was dark and unfulfilling, but it didn’t hurt. Why fill it with something that might cause him pain later?

 “I want to learn some cooking techniques, Granddad,” he said in an exasperated voice. “Not flirt with the instructor.”

 Gabe’s mouth twisted in annoyance. "Take your own damned lessons, then. Leave me out of it."

 "Damn it, Granddad. Stop being so effing stubborn."

 "Effing? In my day, we just came out and said—"

 "I'm trying to be polite."

 "Why aren't you at work?" Gabe suddenly asked.

 Nick rolled his eyes. He wasn't going to explain about his tool of a lieutenant or the reason he’d been suspended. For one thing, it was embarrassing. For another, Gabe would want every detail leading up to the suspension, and Nick wasn't discussing the matter. Nick did not have a short fuse, but he'd been hot with the lieutenant. A little too hot.

 He honestly had a soft spot for the kid who’d been feeding them information and had then so abruptly disappeared. Wanted to look into the matter instead of having it shoved onto the back burner in favor of easier and more high-profile case—such as busting drugs near the campus. Maybe they hadn’t made much headway in eight months, but in light of what had happened, pulling them entirely off the case made no sense either.

 "Different assignment, different hours," he said dismissively. Gabe narrowed his eyes thoughtfully and Nick was suddenly reminded of all the times he’d unsuccessfully tried to pull a fast one on the old guy when he’d been a kid. "Come on, Granddad. Take the lessons. I want to join you, since I know jack about cooking, and I can't if you don't."

 "You want to take the lessons? You want to learn to make old-people food?"

 "I want to learn to cook something healthy so I don't end up having a heart attack."

 Gabe scowled at him, then shoved a hand through his thick white hair. "That's dirty pool."

 "Only two of the guys have signed up, but more will if you do. And I honestly want to go."

 Gabe grunted, setting the birdseed bag down on the small table next to the window. "Sign me the hell up, then. You're not going to rest until you do."

 "No. I'm not. It's a win-win."

 Gabe then said the word that Nick had avoided in the name of politeness.

 NICK WANTED TO take cooking lessons? Ha. Nick wanted to maneuver his grandfather into doing something he didn’t want to do and wasn’t above using emotional blackmail. Gabe still wasn’t quite sure why he’d let himself get wrangled into these lessons, except that it was obvious Nick had an ulterior motive and Gabe was curious as to what it was. Too bad it wasn’t the one he’d suggested—a cute teacher his grandson wanted to get to know.

 Nick had changed since his wife had died. Drawn into himself, which was to be expected under the circumstances, and thrown himself into his work to deal with the grief. But after two years, he was still withdrawn, still totally focused on work and nothing but work, which worried Gabe.

 He’d done the same back in his prime, after his wife had left him. And the result had not been good—in fact it had cost him dearly—and now here he was, alone, stuck in an old folks’ home. And he didn’t even have any decent memories to keep him company. The only thing that helped was that he was with some of his own kind. Lenny Hartman, the old son of a bitch, had been in law enforcement down in Vegas, and Paul Meyer had been a firefighter until he retired. Both men had checked into Candlewood voluntarily, after their wives had passed away, something Gabe would never understand. He’d hung on to his independence until the last possible moment—where it was either Candlewood or Nick moving in with him after the heart attack. Nick had offered. Gabe had declined. His grandson needed to be in a position to get on with his life, and living with a cranky grandfather was not conducive to bringing home a hot woman.

 Gabe walked over to his computer and brought up a screen, pleased that he was feeling a lot more comfortable using the contraption. For years he’d put off learning to use one, had allowed himself to be intimidated even though Nick had given him a laptop, until that damned Lois had forced him and the other guys into taking a basic class just a few months ago.

 He couldn’t remember seeing a more intimidated group of men than he and his fellow inmates when they’d first settled in front of the computer screens at the community college technology lab. Lenny’s first  official act had been to pour coffee over his keyboard by “accident,” only to find that all the instructor had to do was unplug that keyboard, set it out to dry and plug in another.

 After that they decided resistance was futile and discovered, grudgingly, that, yes, a computer could change a guy’s life. Open his world.

 Make it seem less like he was in stir.

 Gabe sat in his chair—an ergonomic model Nick had given him for Christmas instead of the recliner he really wanted, a blatant effort to get him to learn to use the laptop. He had to admit, though, that he liked the chair and because of it spent more hours on the computer than he had ever expected.

 Which was how he knew that Nick didn’t even have a Facebook page.

 How in the hell was he going to socialize if he didn’t have the gumption to sign up for a social network?

 Somehow Gabe had to come up with a way to kick his grandson in the ass and make him get on with his life—to not make the same damned mistakes Gabe had made in the name of professional achievement.

And fear.

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