THE TALIONIC FILES is a crime suspense series that will follow a group of elite ATF agents in Chicago led by Valentino Masterson. The first book in the series, RETALIATORY JUSTICE, will pick up with Valentino and his crew of specialized agents being brought in on a case in New Orleans that links to their case in Chicago. During the investigation he meets the beautiful Dominique Walker, a chef working for the people he’s investigating. Things get complicated when he finds himself falling for her, unfortunately, he doesn’t quite know what side she’s on. Will his quest for vengeance, prevent him from accepting peace and love when offered, or will his need for justice end up costing him more than he’s willing to pay?
In a story where it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the bad guys from the good ones, you will be on the edge of your seat until the very final moment.
“Come on,” I grumble as my hand presses on the horn.
The driver casually flips me the bird, and just as I’m about to shout a few choice words, my phone begins to vibrate in my jacket pocket. It takes me a few minutes to dig it out as I maneuver around the slower vehicle, mouthing a not-so-kind word in his direction.
“Hello,” I answer quickly.
“Tino, where are you?” Claire whines immediately.
I smile at my phone. Claire was an unexpected miracle for all of us. My parents had me early in their marriage. Well, technically, I was conceived on their honeymoon and they didn’t have any more so I was basically an only child until mom turned thirty-eight and found out she was pregnant again. I was sixteen when Claire was born and I absolutely adore her. She is my angel, my little ball of sunshine wrapped in a bubbly seven-year-old body. Even though I don’t live at the house anymore, I spend almost every weekend there. I can’t imagine my life without her in it and she knows it. The girl has me wrapped around her little finger.
“Tino!” she yells, bringing me out of my thoughts.
“I’m on my way, Claire Bear,” I say quickly. “In fact, I’m in my car right now.”
“Hurry, daddy said we’re going to leave without you,” she says in a near panic.
“He’s just teasing you, Claire Bear,” I reassure her. “I promise, I’m only twenty minutes away.”
“He’s twenty minutes away,” I hear her yell over the phone before talking to me again. “I love you, Tino. You know, I don’t want to go without you.”
“I’ll be there. Tell dad not to leave without me,” I say laughing.
“Don’t leave without Tino,” I hear her say as she hangs up.
I smile and set the phone down. I step on the gas and maneuver in and out of traffic. I hate being late for things, especially when it involves Claire. And, today is extra special. We are going to a horse ranch just outside the city. Dad arranged to have us go on some sort of trail ride. It’s all Claire has been talking about for weeks, but she had insisted that I go with them. In fact, she made it abundantly clear that if I didn’t go she didn’t want to be there either. I couldn’t disappoint her. So, I asked for leave. Not a big deal considering I never take time off. Except the captain called me into his office just as I was heading out the door. So, here I am driving like a mad man to get there on time. I glance at the clock on the dash and grin.
“I can do it!”
I pull up to my parents’ house not even fifteen minutes later, proud of myself that I made it with five minutes to spare. I park across the street from the house and see Claire turn in the seat, bouncing up and down, she shoots her head around and I can see that she’s saying something to Dad and then she turns back to me waving excitedly. I smile and wave as I get out of the car and start to make my way across the street. Before I can get there though, I’m thrown ten feet away in the air.
“Sir,” I hear someone say beside me. “Can you hear me?”
My eyes slowly open and I see nothing but black smoke in the air. What’s going on? Something’s not right. There is a lot of noise around me but I can’t quite pinpoint where it’s coming from and I notice that people seem to be scurrying around frantically. I start to sit up and my head begins to spin, which makes me feel nauseous. Someone quickly makes me lay down again and I feel something on my chest.
“Are you injured anywhere?” he asks.
“My ears are ringing,” I say through a cough.
“That’s normal,” he reassures me. “It should subside on its own, but we still need to take you to the hospital to check if you’ve suffered any permanent damage,” he rambles.
I’m not listening to him. I’m sure what he’s saying is important, but I can’t focus on that right now. I need to check on my family. I push him out of the way and stagger up, tears streaming down my face as I see three bodies lying on the grass covered by a coroner’s blanket.
“CLAIRE!” I scream at the top of my lungs and try to run over there, stumbling as I go.
“Sir, you can’t go over there,” I feel strong arms around me holding me in place.
I elbow his gut and break free only to be stopped by Joseph.
“Valentino, stop,” he says in his always calm voice but his face reflects that he is anything but calm.
“I need to see them,” I cry, something I never do.
He’s shaking his head and I see tears streaking his cheek. “No, Son, you don’t. Please, stop.”
“No!” I stare at him, pleading with my eyes. “It’s a mistake. It’s not them. I… it’s not them,” I say shaking my head.
“Please, Valentino. Trust me. It’s them,” he says as he tries to hold me.
I start to go past him but stop; unable to move any further, I drop to my knees. I feel gutted, this can’t be happening, this is some bad dream. It has to be. But, one whiff of the smoke and death around me tells the harsh reality of the situation. My family is dead. My mind and body are overwhelmed with grief as Joseph’s arms envelop me. He holds me while my body convulses from the force of my sorrow until I finally give in to the darkness, letting it wrap around me like a warm blanket, protecting me from the emptiness I now feel in my heart.
“We’re so sorry for your loss.”
“He was such a good man.”
“Your family is with God now.”
“They will always live within you.”
One by one, my dad’s friends, all cops, shake my hand while I sit stoically in the front row. Kailee by my side, holding my hand tightly. I don’t say a word, not even when the captain hands me a flag, not even when everyone present breaks out in tears as the bagpipes play. When everyone is finally gone, Kailee leads me to the car and takes me home, laying with me as I wake up in the middle of the night screaming for the family I no longer have.
“Tino, Tino, WAIT!”
“What is it, Claire?” I ask, turning to face my sister.
“Tino, please stay and play some more,” she says with a pout.
“Honey, leave your brother alone. He has to go to work,” my mom says, coming out of the kitchen with my dad in tow.
“Yeah, sweetheart, your brother only comes over to eat because he needs all of his energy to protect us. And, you know he has absolutely nothing in his fridge,” my dad says with a wink.
“Hey, that’s not true!” I lie, because yeah, I have nothing in there.
He starts messing with her hair and tickling her while she giggles and squirms away from him. All the while, my mother is laughing in the background. I quickly snatch Claire up and swing her around as she laughs. I bring my forehead to hers.
“Don’t listen to them, Claire Bear. I come here just to see you, only you.”
She smiles and turns to our parents who are still laughing. “See, I told you!”
I set her down. “I promise, I will come back this weekend. The circus is going to be here and I want to take you to see the acrobats.”
I pull out two tickets and kneel, fanning them in front of her. Her eyes get wide and she starts bouncing up and down. I look up at my parents who are holding each other and grinning. I work extremely hard, so my time with Claire is special. It’s a constant reminder of why I do what I do, why I take the risks that I take, and why I put my life in danger. She renews my faith in humanity and makes me feel alive. She’s my angel and I’m not sure what I’d do without her.
“I love you, Tino. You’re the best brother in the whole entire world!”
I wake startled and in a cold sweat. Running my hand over the fuzz on my head, I sigh deeply as I try to get my dream out of my head. I jump up and out of bed, stretching and adjusting myself. Turning to my nightstand, I quickly grab a Marlboro out of the pack and light it, feeling the nicotine make its way into my lungs. I inhale deeply as I walk to my south wall, glancing at the Sicignano trail I have laid out. I have pictures and newspaper clippings, as well as charts outlining who does what and where. I have been on this case for nearly four years. I know I am missing something but I can’t figure out what it is?
“Tino, look, she’s so pretty! Can I do that when I get older?” Claire asks as she watches the acrobats swing back and forth flawlessly.
“Of course, you can do and be whatever you want,” I say as I kiss the top of her head.
“Damn it!” I yell to no one.
I snatch an empty bottle of Heineken off my dresser and flick my ashes inside of it as I gently roll my shoulders, trying to clear my head of thoughts of Claire. Taking another long drag, I contemplate my next move before dropping the butt in the bottle and immediately lighting another one. My hand moves up my neck as I continue smoking, trying desperately to relax but knowing damn well I’ll never be able to. I glance at the very first picture on the wall and frown as I exhale. I quickly drop my half-smoked cigarette in the bottle and immediately walk down the hall into my spare bedroom which houses my in-home gym, equipped with a punching bag tethered to the ceiling, a top of the line treadmill for when it is too damn cold to run outside, which, unfortunately, in Chicago is half the year, and my bench press. I hate working out with other people, which is why I don’t go to the gym. People always want to talk and I am not there to socialize.
“Tino, will you ride the elephant with me?”
“Oh, Claire Bear, your brother’s too big for that,” I tell her with a laugh.
“That’s not true,” she says nudging me.
“Are you scared to ride with me?” she asks, arching her brow and I can’t help but laugh. Where the hell did she learn to do that?
My forehead creases as the memories keep coming, invading my mind ferociously. I immediately go to the punching bag and hit it as hard as I can. It bounces back from the motion of my hit but I can’t stop. I hit it repeatedly until my arms are sore and sweat is dripping down my face and off my back. My head rests against the soft leather as my breathing picks up. My eyes squeeze shut as tears threaten to break through. Tears I won’t allow myself to shed.
“Get a damn grip, Masterson!” I tell myself before glancing at my treadmill.
Jumping on it, I crank it up to eight as I break out into a run without warming up at all. I run and run until my legs can’t move anymore and I must stop, stumbling off the track. My legs feel like jelly as I walk to the small fridge in the room, pulling out a bottle of water. I slide down the wall, sitting back with my eyes closed. My arms can barely lift the water bottle to my mouth. My chest is heaving as I pull my shirt off and wipe my face. This is not working. Rubbing my temples, I sigh. I need a drink, a real drink. I glance at the clock on my wall. One a.m. Jack is still open. I chug the rest of my water and go shower quickly.
“Masterson!” Jack shouts across the room when I walk in. I give him my standard head nod.
“The usual?” He asks, looking me up and down.
“You look terrible,” he says and I can see that he has concern on his face as he pours my Jameson.
“I feel terrible!” I sit on one of the stools and down the Jameson in one swift move, motioning for another.
Jack runs a little dive bar in downtown Chicago called The Den. We became acquainted after I started working for the Feds five years ago. I needed a place to chill and relax where no one would recognize me and where I could let off a little ‘steam’ now and again. He and I hit it off immediately and I suppose he could be considered a friend of mine. If I allowed myself that luxury.
“I’ll buy that,” a sweet voice says to my side, drawing me out of my thoughts.
I glance at Jack, who motions with his eyes. Turning my head slightly, I see a tall, blond woman leaning against the bar. I smirk at her and think why not. Maybe a good roll in the hay will ease my mind. I nod at her in thanks and down the drink that Jack set in front of me, never breaking eye contact with her. With a snap of my fingers, I motion to Jack to pour me another. It takes more than a couple of shots for me to feel a buzz. I’ll definitely need to feel a buzz if I plan on getting back to sleep some time tonight.
“What’s your name?” She asks, batting her lashes.
“Does it really matter?” I reply, moving in the stool so that I am now facing her.
I flip the hood of my jacket off and stare at her, grinning when I see her take a sharp intake of breath and I know in that instant that I can have her if I want her. I lift the corner of my mouth into the smirk that I know will get me what I want and roll my tongue over my lips, tasting the fine whiskey still present there. Her expression goes from flirtatious to feral in an instant. Her now dark eyes tell me all I need to know. I wrap my hand around her waist and move her in between my legs, pressing her against my crotch while my mouth goes to her neck. I begin kissing her feverishly from her ear to the top of her shoulder, turned on by the fact that she doesn’t know me, yet she is letting me do this to her. She is breathing heavily as I move my hands over her rear and pull her even closer.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” I ask, nibbling on her earlobe.
She moans and nods and I can’t help but grin again. I down my next drink before standing abruptly, wrapping my arm around her shoulder, and leading her to the back of the bar. She looks up at me, confusion on her face. Yeah, honey, we aren’t going to my place and we’re certainly not going to yours. What I need to do I can do right here. I push through the men’s restroom and then lock the door. She starts to say something but my mouth is on hers before she can. I quickly move her against the wall, grinding against her, my mouth ravishing hers. I don’t want or need to know anything about her.
“Do you want to have sex?” I whisper against her mouth.
She swivels her hips against me as her eyes close tightly. That’s all the confirmation I need. She is wearing a tight pair of jeans with a tank top. I quickly move my hand over her shirt and squeeze her ample breast while my other hand unzips her pants. Breaking from our kiss, I push her jeans to the ground. I flip her around and place her hands on the wall. She looks over her shoulder at me and I give her my best sex look and her eyes flutter closed as she turns back towards the wall. Resting my forearm between her shoulder blades, I dig a condom out of my wallet, quickly ripping it open with my teeth. My knee spreads her legs apart while I wrap my hands around her waist, yanking her away from the wall slightly as I push into her.
“Mmm, do you like that?” I grit out through clenched teeth.
“Yes,” she moans out, as her head lulls forward.
She is moaning and gasping as I pump into her with force. She is nothing but a means to an end for me and I don’t care if she is satisfied. I feel myself building and grab the back of her hair pulling her head to the side as I bring my mouth down on her neck. I pull out of her and push into her again quickly and roughly, chasing my release. After sucking on her neck roughly for several minutes I move my mouth to her shoulder, drawing her flesh between my teeth while she cries out, in pain or pleasure I don’t know. I begin grunting loudly as the force of my thrusts push her against the wall causing a loud thumping noise to echo in the room. I continue until a string of profanities flows against her flesh as my release comes and my breathing finally settles, before remorse can kick in, making me feel horrible about what I just did. I pull out of her and rip the condom off, tossing it in the trash as I reposition myself back inside my pants.
“Thanks for that,” I say kissing her shoulder where she now has a wicked hickey forming and then step out of the bathroom before she is even dressed.
I walk to the bar and Jack just stares at me. I motion for him to draw me another drink and place a hundred-dollar bill on the bar as I toss my drink down my throat quickly. I close my eyes for a moment, trying to swallow the bile rising up within me. I know this life I’m living is wrong but I can’t seem to bring myself to stop.
“Make sure she gets home okay,” I tell Jack.
He nods and glances towards the bathroom just as she walks out and towards the bar. As she gets to me, she has that look on her face, the one they always have, that look that says they want more from me. Ah hell… I muster up a weak smile and then kiss her passionately, whipping my tongue around her mouth until she is out of breath and then I step away from her and walk out the door. I am not worried about Jack. I treat him well and know that he won’t give any of my information to her. The reality is, I have no time for a relationship. My work keeps me very busy. Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t even want a relationship at all. A quickie here and there is enough for me. I have no desire to care about anyone.
Leaning back against the elevator wall, I glance at my reflection in the mirrored door. I am in standard attire, black slacks, white button down shirt, my Glock nuzzled in my shoulder holster as well as one in my ankle holster and my ATF badge on my belt. I started keeping my hair somewhat short because if I don’t, it grows wild and crazy, like I just had sex or something. It’s hard to be taken seriously when it appears like you just rolled out of bed after engaging in some form of sexual relations. I also hated that I often heard the words ‘pretty boy’ attached to me. So, a few weeks ago I shaved it all off. Why? I don’t have a great answer to that. I think ultimately I just needed a change. I have let it grow slightly but not much, just enough to get that standard buzz cut, little longer on top, and short on the sides. I kind of like it this way. It makes me look badass. The only downside is I can’t run my hand through it like I used to do. I move my head from side to side and touch the stubble on my face. I hate shaving but I will need to by tomorrow or I am going to look one step closer to being a damn caveman.
I readjust my jacket slightly so that my gun is completely concealed. When I first became a field agent five years ago the other agents teased me relentlessly, always telling me I was in the wrong department; that the FBI was in another building. I don’t care though. I prefer to wear a suit. It gets me more information than any of these assholes ever get in their cargo pants and ATF t-shirts.
I have worked extremely hard to get where I’m at, receiving my Bachelors in Criminal Justice in only three years and then joining the police academy immediately after. I was a cop at age twenty-two, too young by most standards but I didn’t care. I had always wanted to be a cop, to follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. I figured I would spend five years on the beat and then take the detective’s exam, maybe work some cases with my dad and his best friend who happens to be my godfather. But, life dealt me a crappy hand and the next thing I knew I was going through the ATF National Academy. The elevator dings and I head out towards our morning debriefing.
“Hey, Val!” I hear the minute I enter the room.
I nod to Hoffman and sit down next to him. Clayton is probably the only one that will work with me. Everyone else thinks I’m a jerk. Well, they are right about that, but the reality is, they’re all idiots and I work better alone. I met Clayton a few years ago when he transferred here from Omaha. When we first met, the only visual I had was him chucking hay one night and then tossing quarterbacks for the Huskers on the next. He’s huge and when he wants, he can look as fierce as a bear ready to attack but generally, he is all smiles and jokes.
“So… Kailee and I went to Norfolk this weekend to see my folks,” he says looking at my blank expression. “Remember, I told you we were doing that?”
I shrug and sigh. “Yes, I remember you saying something about that. And…”
“And… I asked her to marry me,” he says quietly with a big smile on his face. “And, she said YES!” he whispers to me.
“No shit?” I lean back in my chair and cross my arms.
“You’re okay with that, aren’t you?” He looks nervous all of a sudden.
“Um… yeah, of course,” I punch him in the arm because, well, that’s what guys do, but damn, it’s like hitting a wall. “Congratulations, man. I’m happy for the two of you.”
“Thanks,” he says grinning from ear to ear.
Huh! I never would have thought Kailee Thompson would get married. She always told me she never would. Kailee’s parents, Joseph and Lynelle, were best friends with my folks. Of course, they tried hooking us up at one point but Kailee is not my type. She is too much maintenance for my liking. Not that we didn’t make out a few times, just to try it out, but yeah, that didn’t stick. It felt wrong and we never did anything else. She’s probably the closest thing I have to a best friend. Clayton met her one day when she and her parents came by to take me out to lunch. That was about eighteen months ago and they have been together ever since.
“All right, all right… settle down, ladies,” Area Director Benjamin Anderson says as he walks to the front of the room.
Everyone quiets down and looks at him. He’s a tall African American man with a medium build. He rose through the ranks in a time where that didn’t happen very frequently for black men. He has a reputation as being short and to the point, and above all, he does not tolerate insubordination. He adjusts his suit jacket and straightens his tie before staring at all of us. We all sit up straight and pay attention; he simply demands it of all the people that work for him.
“We have new Intel that suggests that the Sicignano family is setting up some kind of operation in New Orleans, but the trail starts here in Chicago. We are assuming guns, but it could be drugs as well.”
The minute he utters the word Sicignano, my face and body immediately become tense. Clayton nudges me and when I look at him, he has a serious expression on his face as well. There is muttering in the room as everyone begins to grasp the implications of this. Carmine Sicignano and his brother, Enrico, run one of the largest gun trafficking businesses in the world. Carmine is the man in charge and takes care of operations in New York. There is an uncle named Salvatore in Los Angeles but he is nothing to talk about and there’s an uncle named Francisco that died recently. Chicago is the base of operation for Carmine’s younger sibling, Enrico who is extremely dangerous. He always seems to have something to prove. Their cousin, Gino, and his daughter, Aryana, lead his guard. Gino is Enrico’s right hand man, and Aryana, well, she is crazier than anything I have ever seen before. She likes to dabble in explosives and has been known to blow up buildings and not care if there was anyone in them or not. She has no qualms about killing innocent bystanders, even children if they get in her way. Her motto seems to be ‘kill first, who cares about questions’. We have been trying to arrest the whole lot of them for years but no one will go against them, and the people that might always end up dead.
“Masterson,” Anderson states distinctly and I blink several times, trying to focus on him.
“Yes, sir,” I reply.
“I want you to oversee this investigation as you are already well versed in Enrico’s operations here in Chicago. We believe he is the one that will be running things in New Orleans, but knowing Enrico, he already has someone down there doing his dirty work. We just don’t know who all the players are yet. You will need to coordinate with the New Orleans’ field office as well as our FBI brethren and local law enforcement if necessary. You will not be running solo on this. Do you understand me, Masterson?” He states with authority.
“Yes, sir,” I say, breathing in deeply, my heading spinning.
“This case is too big for one man and one agency to take down. Don’t make me regret this decision, Masterson. I can’t have any of your vigilante bullshit on this case.”
“You won’t, sir,” I say assuredly, running my hand through my non-existent hair.
“If I do, Masterson, I swear you will be out and I don’t mean off the case, I mean out of the agency all together. I don’t care how good of a damn agent you are. Do I make myself clear?” He continues sternly, placing his hands on his hips for emphasis.
“I understand, sir. No solo missions. I get it!” I reply annoyed at him for calling me out in front of everyone like that.
He stares at me for a moment, presumably assessing whether I’m capable of handling an operation of this magnitude without going off half-cocked. He crosses his arms, his eyes narrowed and I shift in my seat uneasily.
“Pick four other agents to assist you. I want a preliminary report by the end of the week. That’s all,” he says authoritatively and then walks out of the room.
Everyone turns and looks at me expectantly. I can’t even think straight right now. This is my first lead investigation and, to be honest, it might be my only opportunity. I don’t always play well with others so I know this is a huge test for me. Anderson wants to see if I’ll mess up or not. But, I can’t think about that right now because the only thing I can focus on is that this is probably going to be my best chance to take down the man who destroyed my life. I feel my chest heave as I sit up determinedly. I will bring them down if it’s the last thing I do!
“Val, can you believe this?” Clayton asks beside me.
I nod haphazardly, trying to concentrate on the task at hand. I need to select four agents but I need people who can help me on this mission that won’t annoy the hell out of me in the process. I look up and a large crowd has gathered around me. They all want in, but they all hate me, so screw ‘em. I think for another quick moment, scanning in my head the bios of everyone in the room.
“All right, I want Hoffman, O’Neal, Jones and Paulson. The rest of you get the hell out of here. I want to use this room,” I say decisively.
I hear a lot of mumbling and then see Jeff Paulson smirking as he motions with his hands in a shooing manner to the other agents. He’s a hot head and I’m not sure how well he and I will get along, but the man is brilliant when it comes to explosives, and knowing Enrico as well as I do, Aryana will be a factor on this case, which means I need an explosives expert on my team. Jeff flips off a couple of other agents as they scowl at him. Man, I hope this is a good decision. I turn to Clayton who moves his chair around and sits with his large arms crossed on the back of the chair looking at me expectantly.
“Look, you all know I am not much of a people person and generally don’t like working with anyone,” I start and catch all but Clayton nodding in agreement.
Clayton turns and shoots them one of his ‘don’t you say anything or I’ll pound you into the ground’ looks and they all stiffen and sober up completely. I have no regrets having him on my team. Not only does he work well with others but, there isn’t a gun made that he doesn’t know about. It will also be nice to have someone on my team who doesn’t hate me or want to beat the crap out of me. Bottom line is, I know he’ll have my back, always.
“Let’s get started.” I say authoritatively. “All four of you have different areas of expertise which means you will look at this case from a different angle. I want to hear your initial thoughts first and then we can start figuring out where to begin.”
“Guns,” Clayton says first. “Word on the street is that they are trying to get their hands on this modified assault rifle that’s being manufactured in Europe somewhere. I’ve heard Russia but I also heard somewhere in the Middle East.” He pauses for a moment, looking at all of us. “Word has it that Carmine pissed off one of the families out there, not sure which one, but they are tying his hands and cutting off his supply. That’s got to have him pissed off. Maybe he found a way around it. Some sort of side deal or something,” he finishes with a shrug.
“I don’t know,” Agent Michelle Jones interjects. “Carmine has been trying to expand their drug smuggling for a while now. If I were to venture a guess, I would say that whatever is about to happen it’s going to be drug related.”
Michelle is a recent transplant to the Agency. She transferred here from the Bureau three months ago. She said she was tired of their bullshit and wanted to be on the front line, which sort of makes sense, but I know there is something else going on with her. She worked undercover for a few years in New York trying to get close to Carmine but was never able to break through. I heard that something went down that made her move to Chicago, but I don’t know what that was. Overall, she seems rather hostile to everyone, but she has better knowledge of Carmine’s practices than most, so I want her. I can handle hostility. Hell, I’m a pro at it myself.
“What do you mean?” I question.
“The whole time I was trying to get close, the ruckus was between the brothers,” she clarifies. “I don’t think they were on the same page but Carmine was very determined. I think he is behind it and will have Enrico set up some sort of drug ring, maybe getting supplies from the south and shipping them up here.”
I nod, that could very well be true. Carmine does like the drugs. He thinks they are lucrative, which I suppose they are, from a business standpoint but Enrico, well, he loves the guns, always has. I glance to the side and see that Zachary O’Neal has this contemplative look on his face. One of his curled fingers traces his pursed lips slowly. He looks like he wants to say something but doesn’t.
“O’Neal, what are your thoughts?” I ask.
His brows furrow and he doesn’t say anything right away. I haven’t decided if I like O’Neal or not. He’s one of those all-American guys that most people trust immediately. He sets people’s minds at ease and they often just spill whatever it is he wants to know. I have yet to see him get angry and a cool head is a good thing to balance my crazy, jump in guns a blazing, attitude. Also, based on things I have heard him say in meetings, he has an exceptional analytical mind. He is careful with his thoughts and can connect dots others don’t always see.
“I think Carmine is very smart, calculating,” he starts while tapping his lips lightly. “He wants what he wants and won’t stop even if that means plowing over his brother to get it. Family isn’t important to him, power is. Now the question we should be asking is, is Enrico strong enough to go against what Carmine wants? I don’t know. I used to think he wasn’t, but now Enrico seems to be very driven and it wouldn’t surprise me if he tried to take his brother out.”
“You think he would do that? Go against Carmine?” Clayton asks stunned.
“Yes,” I interject. “Enrico wants what Carmine has, complete power and control, but he will never have it while Carmine is around.”
We all sit in silence for a moment, absorbing that thought and what it might mean. We have seen the Sicignanos take out an opposing family before. They did it with such viciousness that we were all left dumbstruck because it happened so quickly we had no time to respond. By the time we got there, all that was left was rubble. But, if they turn on each other, I have no idea what could happen and the collateral damage that would ensue would be insurmountable.
“Well, if Aryana comes across my path I am ready for her.” Paulson, finally says, breaking the silence in the room. “I swear, I’m gonna nail her for the St. Francis bombing,” Jeff spits out with venom, his face hard.
We all turn to see him looking down, his brows furrowed. He was on the case when Aryana blew up the St. Francis church. There was a christening happening and one of their enemies was there. Aryana made sure to blow the place up with everyone inside just to prove a point that they would kill anyone who got in their way. Sixty-seven people died that day, including twenty-three children. Jeff was the first ATF responder on the scene and through his hard work, we were able to identify a signature. We just can’t connect it to Aryana; at least not yet.
“All right,” I say clasping my hands together. “Let’s see if we can start linking things together.”
I walk to the large board and draw two circles on top, placing Carmine’s and Enrico’s names in the circles. From memory, I start replicating some of the information I have on my personal Sicignano wall but mostly I want their feedback. It’s obvious that I’m missing something and maybe they can help me find out what that is.
“Dominique, make sure that the fish chef knows about the change?” Chef Sampson orders, looking at his clipboard.
“Yes, sir,” I reply dutifully.
I walk up to Tyler. “There was a problem with the catfish; we had to switch it up, going with the trout instead.”
“Really?” he asks annoyed.
I shrug and notice he looks a little off. “Hey, you okay?”
He waves me off so I shrug again and turn around, following Chef Sampson around, making sure I have everything down that is supposed to be going on. That is one of the responsibilities of the sous-chef, to make sure the kitchen is running smoothly. As his assistant, I do a lot of the menial tasks but I am also learning about the intricacies of managing a kitchen, which is something I will need to know if I am ever going to have my own restaurant.
Within the hour, our dinner service is in full swing. So far it is going well. We are very busy and there has been only one complaint related to the lack of catfish that was originally advertised. I glance around and smile. This is what I love the most, the point when everyone is running around doing their part. It’s like a well-oiled machine. I am helping on the vegetable line because they have a new chef who is not used to our fast pace, when I glance up. Much to my dismay, I see Tyler sway while his hands grip the counter. I rush over there but by the time I get there, he is on his knees.
“Tyler, are you okay?” I ask frantically.
“I feel dizzy,” he says swallowing hard.
I grab a cloth from my pocket and pat down his forehead. “You should probably lie down.”
“Dominique, take over for him. Donald, get him out of here, Trina take over for Dominique,” Chef Sampson hollers over the commotion.
I jump up, washing my hands swiftly before I begin plating the ticket in front of me. I am moving quickly as we don’t want there to be a delay in getting the food to the customers. I start directing people, concentrating on the special, a blackened Cajun trout over rice, which is one of my favorites, while the other fish cooks deal with our regular fish fare. By the time the dinner rush is done, I am high fiving the crew.
“Dominique, come with me,” Chef Sampson says crisply.
“Umm, okay,” I look at him hesitantly not sure what’s going on or if I did something wrong.
“Mr. De la Fosse, Chef Dominique,” Chef Sampson states motioning to a man at a table.
“Chef Dominique, it’s a pleasure. I am told you are responsible for the exquisite trout this evening,” he says with what I identify as a distinct Louisiana French accent. He must be from the area.
I open my mouth to say something just as he stands. Oh, lord! This man is gorgeous. His bright green eyes a stark contrast against his dark skin. He is wearing a very expensive Armani suit with a simple maroon silk tie and a very distinct tie clip that has a strange symbol on it. He straightens his jacket and smirks, knowing that I am admiring him. He reaches his hand out to me, which I take.
“Thank you, sir. I’m glad you enjoyed it,” I reply sheepishly, knowing that a slight blush is creeping across my cheeks.
“Sit,” he offers, pulling out the seat in front of me.
I panic and look up to Chef Sampson for some guidance. But he doesn’t say anything; instead he turns and starts walking back to the kitchen. I turn back to the handsome man before me and he gives me a smile, showing off a perfect set of pearly white teeth.
“I apologize, Mr. De la Fosse but…”
“Phillipe, please, call me by my given name,” he says with another bright smile, once again motioning to the chair.
I sit hesitantly. “Phillipe, I must return to the kitchen. Thank you for requesting to meet me. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“Perhaps another time,” he says as I stand.
I don’t say yes or no. I just give him a small smile to which he nods slightly. Practically running back to the kitchen, I push through the doors and ignore the looks I’m getting from the other chefs. It’s rare that someone asks to meet a line chef so I know what just happened is unusual. I sigh and snatch the next ticket at my station. By the end of the night I am exhausted. We were so busy and being down one chef made it difficult. I can’t wait to get home and throw my feet up.
“Dominique,” I hear as I exit the back door.
“Mr. De la Fosse,” I yelp, startled.
“I thought I asked you to call me Phillipe?” he teases.
“I’m sorry,” I reply with a smile. “How can I help you, Phillipe?”
“I would like to take you out for drinks,” he smiles brightly and then adds, “to discuss a business proposition.”
“It’s kind of late. I should probably be heading home.”
He laughs. “Dominique,” he says with a grin as he places his hand on my shoulder and winks. “We are in N’awlins, the night is still young.”
I push my hair behind my ear. “I’m not dressed to go out.”
His smile is literally blinding. “Your beauty is enough.”
I open my mouth to say something but then close it. I stare at him for a long moment weighing the possibilities. He could be a rapist or a murderer but he doesn’t seem like that. I don’t know, I suppose he is just used to getting his way, most handsome men are. He must sense my hesitation because he places his hand over his heart as he turns me in a different direction.
“I promise you that I will be the perfect gentleman.” He then bows for emphasis.
I giggle involuntarily and finally nod.
“Wonderful,” he says with another hearty laugh.
We walk a few blocks until we reach the Bombay Club. Oh, man, this is not good, people normally dress up when they come here, whether it’s late or not. I’m still sorely underdressed. I nervously bring my jacket around me tighter, frowning.
“What’s the matter, Dominique? Do you not approve of my selection?” he asks with a smirk.
“I’m not dressed up enough to go in there.”
“Nonsense,” he says as we approach the hostess.
He asks for a table in the bar and she directs us to a small booth, eyeing me a couple of times. He motions for me to take a seat, which I do, and immediately pick up the Martini menu. The Bombay Club is known for making some of the best martinis in New Orleans and since I am there, it seems a pity not to try one. As I am deciding my selection, the waitress comes over and I hear him ordering.
“We’ll have an order of the calamari and mussels. I’d like Grey Goose, straight and my lady would like…” he pauses and turns to me, nodding his head slightly.
“I’d like one of the breathless martinis.”
“Excellent choice, ma’am,” she answers with a smile.
I watch the waitress leave and then glance around the bar. They have a nice set up. The jazz band in the other room is playing a lively tune and I find myself bobbing my head slightly to the beat filtering into the room. There are a few people inside, another couple at a table a little bit away from us and three people at the bar. One is a business man who is nursing his drink and a little further down the bar is a couple embracing. He is sitting on the stool and she is standing between his legs, her head nuzzled in his neck while he rests his head near her ear. I watch them for a while as he whispers in her ear and she throws her head back laughing, her long hair falling down her back. Feeling eyes on me I turn away from the couple and find Phillipe watching me. His eyes are now slightly darker then they had been.
“You are quite beautiful, Dominique.”
“Thank you but you aren’t exactly catching me at my best,” I say, bobbing my head again and taking a deep breath.
“Then allow me to catch you at your best?” he counters smoothly.
“Phillipe,” I say turning away from him but don’t finish my sentence.
I am not trying to play hard to get but I am not interested in a relationship right now and one-night stands aren’t my thing. I know Santiago will probably rail on me about this, saying I should just go for it, but going for it in regards to men rarely works out well for me.
“Where did you train, Dominique?” he asks, apparently trying a different tactic.
I turn to him just as the waitress brings us our drinks. I smile as I take a sip of the chocolaty goodness. Wow, this is really tasty. Moments later the waitress is bringing us our food. The calamari is very good, although I probably would have done it a tad different. I glance at Phillipe and notice he is still waiting for a response from me.
“On the job mostly, I started cooking as a child and it sort of came naturally for me,” I set my food down and give him a very serious look, “but I have worked extremely hard to move up the line. No one has handed me anything. I have earned it.”
“I believe that, Dominique,” he smiles and takes a sip of is vodka. “Are you happy at Arnaud’s?” he queries with a slight nod.
“Yes, of course, why would you think I wasn’t?” I answer, somewhat defensively.
He leans back and laughs as he pulls out his phone, which is buzzing. He looks around the bar still grinning like the Cheshire cat. What the hell is so damn funny about what I just said?
“I like you, Dominique,” he laughs again and then checks his phone once more, frowning at whatever the text says.
“You don’t really know me,” I counter, miffed.
“Of course, you’re absolutely right. I don’t know you at all.”
He watches me for several minutes. Long enough to make me feel a bit uneasy before he smiles and takes a sip of his drink. Okay, this is getting weird. I should text Santiago, have him come get me. Maybe I was wrong about this guy. He clears his throat and I glance at him again. He has a thoughtful expression on his face.
“I only ask about your training because our restaurant is opening in a little over two weeks and we have yet to find an executive chef that fits our needs. I would like you to prepare a meal for myself and my associates to determine if you would perhaps be a good fit for us,” he says very seriously. The flirtatiousness is gone. He is all business.
“You want me to audition for you?” I ask stunned.
“Yes, Dominique, I would like you to audition,” he says and pulls out a business card from the inside pocket of his jacket. “Are you interested?” he asks and I can hear the cockiness back in his voice as he hands me the card he’s holding.
I nod as I look at it. It says Le Creole and under that, it has his name, Phillipe De la Fosse, owner. This is it. My big break. The opportunity to have my own kitchen; to be an executive chef in New Orleans. I glance at him with wide, determined eyes.
“Yes, I’m very interested.”
“Outstanding. We would like you to be at the restaurant Thursday. There are three of us so prepare accordingly.”
“Santiago, what do you think?” I ask anxiously.
He takes a moment while I nervously chew on my bottom lip. He is taking his time, tasting each piece, humming as his head tilts from side to side. He’s driving me crazy. Will he just tell me already?
“Well?” I ask impatiently.
“It’s divine, Dominique,” he says with a smile.
I finally breathe out. “Divine enough that they will hire me on the spot?” I ask with an uneasy laugh.
“Of course, and…” He rises and takes my hands in his. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”
“No, you haven’t,” I grin and then chuckle. “I take that back. There was that time you told me to give Frankie ‘the spitter’ White a chance,” I say with a wink.
“Well, technically…” He pauses and then laughs. “Yeah, I was way off on that one.”
We both giggle as he gives me a tight hug. Santiago has been my best friend since grade school. We grew up in the small town of Ormant, Mississippi. He was the bright and vibrant little boy that lived across the street from me. He bounced over to my house and introduced himself the day my dad, Artie Walker, took the job as Ormant High School’s principal. We were best friends from that day forward. Throughout school he was always more of a fashion icon than I was. I preferred the simple things in life, i.e. jeans, sneakers, and a plain old t-shirt. He tried to help me see the errors of my fashion ways but it never stuck for long. He still holds out hope for me but I think it’s a lost cause. Although, in my defense, I have been known to throw on a dress or frilly blouse if the occasion called for it.
My parents divorced when I was eight. My mom left me and my dad so she could live her dreams. I never quite knew what that meant but a few years after that I discovered cooking as a way to deal with the loss of a mother in my life and also so I didn’t have to eat hot dogs, beans, and macaroni and cheese every night, which seemed to be the only things my father knew how to make. By the time I graduated high school, I had decided to pursue cooking as a career. So, with Santiago in tow, we headed to New Orleans and have been here for nearly five years. Unfortunately, my father was unable to pay for me to go to culinary school, as most are very expensive. I had to learn on my own, self-taught so to speak. Of course, not having that formal culinary education has been a hindrance to say the least. But, I’m not giving up. I know I can do it.
I worked at a lot of small restaurants the first three years in New Orleans, gaining experience on how a kitchen is run and learning everything I possibly could. Cooking is natural for me, just as fashion is for Santiago. Through an extreme amount of hard work, I landed a job as a line cook at Arnaud’s restaurant, one of the premier restaurants in the great city of New Orleans. Over the past couple of years, I have worked myself up to becoming an assistant to the sous-chef and hopefully one day I will run my own kitchen. Of course, I might just get that sooner rather than later if this audition with Le Creole goes as I hope it does.
“What kind of wine are you going to serve with this?” Santiago asks, bringing me out of my thoughts.
“I was thinking, a Louis Jadot Gevrey-Chambertin. I love the raspberry fruity taste it gives once the earthiness passes. What do you think?” I ask a little unsure.
He nods. “That will be good.” He gets a thoughtful look on his face, “Dominique, do you need any help paying for all this?”
I shrug. “No, I got it but I think we will be eating ramen noodles for a few weeks.”
He breaks out into a shrill laugh. “Well, knowing you I am sure you could vamp it up.”
There is a knock on the door and Santiago smiles widely. He runs to the door and swings it open. He immediately wraps his arms around Jackson, kissing him passionately. When they come up for air, Jackson waves at me, as red creeps up his neck.
“Hey, Dominique,” he says in his straight Louisiana drawl.
“That smells great. Is that what you’re making Thursday?” he asks stepping inside.
I nod. “Yes, would you like a taste?”
“You bet I would,” he answers, dragging Santiago back inside.
He smiles as he takes a seat at the table. He cuts a small piece and then moans in delight, giving me the thumbs up sign. What I have found is that Jackson always seems to know when I am cooking. He has liked everything I have made so I’m not sure he is the best judge. God bless him though as he is a real sweetheart. He and Santiago have been together for a year now. Santiago never had a boyfriend when we were younger. He came out to me when he was twelve. I didn’t care. He was my best friend, whatever made him happy was cool with me. The town however was too small minded for him to go out with anyone, so I was generally his ‘date’ for prom and everything else, which of course I didn’t mind at all. Since moving to New Orleans though, he has dated a lot, but this seems different. He is really smitten with Jackson.
“Don’t wait up,” he sing-songs as he takes Jackson’s hand and leads him out the door.
“Behave!” I shout at his retreating figure.
He spins and winks at me. “I will make no promises.”
I am so nervous. The last couple of days seem to have sped up. Once I tweaked my meal, I bought everything I would need. Mr. De la Fosse had advised me that I would have full use of the Le Creole kitchen, which is completely stocked. I went by yesterday to acquaint myself with the facilities and make sure they had everything I would need to prepare my meal, which of course they did. Phillipe told me he would like me to serve the meal at six sharp so that’s what I will do. I have asked Santiago to help me today, not that I really need him physically, but he has a tendency to calm me down when I start getting too antsy. I turn and glance at Santiago, as the Black Eyed Peas blast into the kitchen. He shrugs at me and turns back around, moving and swaying to the music as he dices vegetables. I glance at his cutting board and shake my head as I walk over to him.
“It needs to be smaller, Santiago. Like this.” I take the knife and demonstrate how I want him to cut my mushrooms.
He nods and smiles as I finish prepping my quail. Once that’s done, I go back to my clams, mixing ingredients together so that I can bake them. I glance at the clock and sigh, thirty minutes. Why is it that no matter how much time I allot myself I always seem to cut it close? Maybe that’s true of all chefs. I get my cake ready and shove it in the oven, timing it so it will be ready while they are eating their entrée, which will give me time to plate it and get the Café Brûlot ready.
“Oh my God, is that him?” Santiago says, peeking out of the kitchen. I nod disinterested. “Holy crap! He’s gorgeous. Tall, dark and handsome,” he sighs dramatically.
“Excuse me; are you lusting after my potential boss when you already have a boyfriend?” I ask as I plate my baked oysters.
“Hey, I can look, I just can’t touch,” he declares to which I roll my eyes. “So why didn’t you go out with him? He’s obviously interested in you,” he asks.
“Because I don’t want a boyfriend and he’s very, I don’t know, pushy,” I reply, flustered that we are having this conversation right here and now on the biggest night of my life. “Besides, I’m not ready to date again.”
He starts to reply but the door opens and Mr. De la Fosse steps inside. “It’s almost six o’clock, Dominique, please tell me you’re ready?” he asks all silky smooth.
I smile. “I am Mr. De…” I stop when he gives me that look. “Phillipe, I’m ready.”
He turns to Santiago and offers him a smile before exiting the kitchen. I glance at Santiago, he is standing there with his mouth open and all I can do is roll my eyes again. For crying out loud. He’s just a guy, albeit a good-looking guy, but a guy nonetheless. Nothing to get carried away about.
“Get the wine, Santiago,” I say shaking my head.
He blinks several times and grabs the ice bucket with the already open wine bottle. “Did you see his eyes, they’re freaking green. I’ve never seen a black man with green eyes.”
“But his eyes,” he whispers backs to me.
“Santiago, get your act together,” I say under my breath as we come through the door.
I walk into the dining room where Phillipe is sitting with two other people, a slim man with brown wavy hair and a woman with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. They are both impeccably dressed and I get the distinct feeling that I’ve seen them somewhere. Santiago offers them a smile as he tilts the wine in their direction to determine who will be the taster. Phillipe’s associate raises his glass. Santiago smiles and carefully pours a small sample into his glass. The man tastes the wine and proceeds to motion his hands in a way that indicated he would like Santiago to pour for the rest of them.
“Chef Dominique, I would like to introduce you to my associates, Marshall Beauchamp and Whitney Badour,” he says, motioning to the people across from him.
“It’s a pleasure, ma’am, sir,” I say with a slight bow.
Marshall reaches out his hand, shaking mine and tracing his finger along my palm. “It is our pleasure, Chef Dominique. Phillipe has talked our ear off about you and I must say you are much more stunning up close,” he says before kissing my hand.
I am a bit thrown by his remark. I am auditioning to be a chef not a model and what the heck is Phillipe saying about me to these people and what on earth does this guy mean by saying, ‘up close’. I glance at the woman and she is eyeing me as if I stepped in something disgusting. Great! The woman already hates me. I remove my hand and smile at them all, stepping back as I prepare to give my spiel.
“I would like to thank you for allowing me this opportunity to serve you,” I begin. “We will be starting out with baked oysters,” I set the plates before them. “First we have Oysters Bienville made with shrimp, mushrooms, green onions, herbs and seasonings in a white wine sauce, second we have Oysters Kathryn made with artichoke hearts, garlic, fresh parmigiano-reggiano and extra-virgin olive oil and lastly we have Oysters Ohan made with eggplant and Andouille sausage.”
I step back and watch them taste the oysters while Santiago goes back in the kitchen. A few moments later he brings in a cart that has their entrée’s on it. He carefully removes their appetizer plates before setting a plate in front of each person.
“Those were exceptional,” Phillipe says to me with a beaming smile, that’s full of joy.
“Yes, very good, Chef Dominique,” Marshall adds but the woman says nothing.
“Thank you,” I reply, stepping up to the table again. “For your entrée I have made you Roast Louisiana Quail Elzey. It is partially deboned and filled with Foie Gras Mousse and Mushroom Duxelle and then wrapped with country-smoked bacon. It is served on a bed of Truffle-infused Bordelaise Sauce with lightly seasoned Roma tomatoes and shredded yellow squash,” I state proudly.
Santiago and I look at each other as they devour the quail. They are all smiling and whispering to each other. Even the woman, Whitney, looks pleased. I motion for Santiago to top off their wine while I go back in the kitchen to plate the desert.
“Oh my God, Dominique, they are saying how splendid everything is. I think you got this,” he says grabbing my arm as he comes back inside the kitchen.
My whole body is shaking as a blow out a steadying breath. “All right, one more thing.”
He nods as we get everything together for the dessert. We then place it on the cart and head back out there as they are finishing the quail. I immediately set everything up for the Café Brûlot. Santiago removes their entrée plates and then sets their desserts in front of them while I prepare the drink.
“For dessert I have made you a Chocolate Devastation cake with Belgian dark chocolates and espresso and it will be served with Café Brûlot which is made with coffee, lemon and orange rinds, cloves, cinnamon sticks and Orange Curacao.”
I love making Café Brûlot because it is a sight to behold. I glance at my pot and see that the sugar is completely dissolved so I tilt the pan slightly and light the liquid, watching as it flames up beautifully. Phillipe claps immediately and tilts his head proudly as I pour the flaming liquid into coffee cups, placing a cinnamon stick on the saucer plate and an orange rind, curled to perfection in the drink itself.
“Enjoy,” I say with a smile.
Santiago and I walk back to the kitchen and I seriously want to pass out. Santiago holds my shaking body as I try to calm down. I am so excited. I can’t believe I did it. Suddenly, Phillipe bursts through the door, smiling brilliantly and clasping his hands together.
“Dominique, that was exquisite. We want you. We don’t want to interview anyone else.”
He nods at me and I turn to Santiago and then back at Phillipe before running up and giving him a hug. He doesn’t waste any time as he immediately wraps his arms around me pulling me closer to him. He then moves his mouth near my ear and breathes heavily.
“I can’t wait to work with you, Dominique.”
The week flew by. The team I assembled is perfect. They all work extremely hard and I am finding it less difficult to get along with them. So far everyone has the same goal, bringing down Carmine and Enrico. We have started an extensive chart on the white board, linking everything we know so far. Unfortunately, our preliminary report amounted to not much more than speculation that Enrico would be either setting up some form of drug ring, narrowing it down to a new strand of cocaine that is running through Europe right now or they are looking at bringing in a military style assault rifle that is currently being used by insurgents in Afghanistan and Kuwait. Anderson did a lot of head nodding as I went over everything we knew so far but somehow I don’t think he was very impressed with what we had. Not that I blame him. It was measly, to say the least, but we are still working on it. I know that we will gather more Intel over the coming weeks.
My mind is lost in thought as I drive the winding road towards the large white house at the end. A house I spent a lot of time in as a child. The trees are full and blowing gently in the wind. Bringing my cigarette to my mouth I see that it is nothing but ash. Perfect! Flicking it out the open driver’s window, I pull into the semicircular driveway and notice several cars already parked. Looks like a full house. I light another cigarette the minute I step out of my car, leaning against the door, not ready to go inside and interact with people just yet. A moment later, I hear the front door close behind me and then the distinct clink, clink, clink of stilettos approaching. I don’t need to turn to know who it is.
“That stuff will kill you,” Kailee says leaning up against my ride.
“A lot of stuff will kill me.”
I glance at her and she is truly a vision to behold, flawlessly outfitted in a dress that highlights every asset of her voluptuous figure from her ripe and full breasts to her shapely hips to her long and luscious legs accented by her four-inch stiletto heels. Her blonde hair is in some sort of exquisite up-do that makes her look like a starlet from days gone by and I can’t help but think that she could give Marilyn Monroe a run for her money. She is quirking her perfectly sculpted eyebrow at me as I bring the cigarette to my lips, inhaling deeply before blowing out the smoke from the corner of my mouth. She grins, taking it out of my hand and bringing it to her ruby, red lips.
“I thought you quit?” I ask curiously.
“I did,” she says through a cloud of smoke. She smiles and hands it back to me. “Come on, you are fashionably late as usual.”
“Is Lynelle upset?” I ask, pushing off the car and taking one last drag before dropping the cigarette on the ground and smashing it with my shoe.
She links her arm with mine and laughs. “Mom could never be angry at you. Anyone else, yes, she would be livid that they were holding up her production, but not her sweet little Valentino,” she says, tapping my cheek with her free hand.
I roll my eyes as we approach the entrance to their three-story home. I remember as a child thinking that this house was some sort of castle like the ones in the books my mom used to read to me but she said no, that Lynelle was simply accustomed to nice things. And nice this home is. It’s huge. Kailee and I spent countless hours exploring the many rooms. We were always joined at the hip, inseparable, that is until we both turned twelve. At that point she was ushered to the women and I was ushered to the men where I would find out exactly where and what my father and Joseph did whenever we spent time here.
“Son, hold on,” my dad says as we approach the house.
I stop and look at him. Mom stops too and then smiles as she walks inside the house to greet Lynelle and Kailee. Joseph comes barreling out with a huge smile on his face. He hugs my father and then me before kneeling slightly so that we can be at eye level.
“Are you ready to join the exclusive ‘Four Aces’?” he asks with a wry smile.
I look to my dad and then Joseph. “What’s that?”
“I’ll show you,” he says, winking at my dad.
We walk to the side of the house and down concrete steps to a locked door. I am bouncing on my feet, excited but also a little scared. I don’t understand the secrecy but my dad seems to be okay with it so it can’t be that bad. As I step through, my mouth drops. It is one huge room that spans probably the entire first floor of the house. There’s a pool table to the left, a bar to the right, darts on the back wall and a large round table with six very comfortable looking chairs around it, right smack in the center of the room. Two of my dad’s friends are already at the table. They smile and give me a head nod. My dad leads me to the table and takes a seat, then pats the chair next to him.
I shake my head out of my thoughts and take a deep breath as we reach the front entrance and glance at Kailee. She is still smiling at her wittiness earlier. She swears that I can do no wrong in Lynelle’s eyes but I don’t think that’s true.
“Screw you, Kailee,” I finally say, opening the door.
She throws her head back and laughs as we step inside. “No, I’m sorry, but that right is reserved solely for my Clayton,” she says kissing me on the cheek.
“Is Valentino here?” I hear from the dining room, but before I can retort Lynelle walks into the foyer.
Lynelle Schell-Thompson, my godmother and entertaining extraordinaire. Her long blond hair falls past her shoulders and is curled exquisitely. She is also impeccably dressed in some sort of formal dress that comes just below her knees. She went all out for today’s engagement dinner because she is decked out in her diamonds. She’s probably wearing the equivalent of my yearly salary around her neck.
“Valentino, son, I’m glad you could make it,” Joseph says before Lynelle embraces me.
Joseph Thompson, my godfather and father’s best friend. He is probably the most laid back man I have ever met. He always has a smile on his face and is ever the optimist. He and my father went to school together, from Kindergarten straight through to the police academy. He is dressed nicely in a pair of slacks, button down shirt and a corduroy dinner jacket. He seems a little underdressed for one of Lynelle’s shindigs but I guess this is a pass for him.
“You need to shave,” Lynelle says as she rubs the scruff on my face.
I frown. “I just did the other day.”
She giggles. “You’re like one of those, oh what’s it called, Joseph sweetheart,” she glances at him.
“A chia pet,” Joseph offers and I roll my eyes.
“Yes, a chia pet, except, why won’t you let this grow out?” She questions while running her hand over my head.
I step away from her. “I like it.”
“Oh calm down, Valentino,” she grins at what must be the frown on my face.
Kailee comes to my defense. “Mom, leave him alone. He thinks he looks dangerous like this,” she says before winking at me. I shake my head at her, annoyed.
Finally, Clayton emerges and walks up to me briskly. “Masterson, I need to talk to you,” he says in a serious tone as he grabs my arm and brings me into the room adjacent to the foyer.
“What?” I ask, my face and posture hard, and ready for news I would assume relates to the case.
He smiles. “Nothin’, just thought you needed rescuing,” he says with one of those ‘farm boy straight out of Nebraska’ smiles. All he needs is a piece of straw sticking out of his mouth.
“Oh hell,” I punch him in the arm, feeling nothing but muscle. I then glance in the foyer to see Kailee, Lynelle and Joseph watching us. Hmm, maybe I did need rescuing. I turn back to him and give him a smile. “Thanks.”
Joseph directs the women out of the room and glances over his shoulder to give me a wink so I know he knows what Clayton just did. I turn back to Clayton and he is fidgeting with his tie uncomfortably and I laugh as I start fiddling with it.
“I hate this dang thing.”
“You better get used to it, man,” I tell him with a grin. “You are marrying into money.”
He frowns while I fix his tie. Lynelle is an heiress to the Schell fortune. She met her husband on a chance encounter on one of her shopping sprees downtown. She stumbled with her bags and he helped her. It was love at first sight or so the story goes. Of course, her family was upset that she would fall head over heels for some blue collar nobody, their words not mine, but Lynelle had always done her own thing and married Joseph despite her family’s disapproval.
“Yeah, well, how come Joseph doesn’t have to dress like this?” Clayton asks, bringing me out of my thoughts.
“Because Joseph is, well, Joseph,” I say tactfully.
“What kind of answer is that?”
I laugh. “Look, when Joseph met Lynelle he made it very clear he was not the dressing up kind of guy. He was a cop and at the time they began dating he didn’t even own a suit. Lynelle tried to play dress up with him,” I motion my hands emphasizing his own ensemble, “as I see Kailee has done with you but it never stuck. He dresses up when needed for their charity stuff but other than that what you see him in now is probably the dressiest he gets. Lynelle accepts that.”
Clayton sighs and scrunches his lips together. “The last time I told Kailee no for something, she wouldn’t have sex with me for a week.”
“Yeah, well, first off that’s definitely too much information and secondly, I guess you got yourself a problem there, Clayton,” I say between laughter and then tap his chest a couple of times. “Come on, man, I’m hungry.”
Sitting on the recliner in the ‘Blue Sanctum’ as I have grown to call it, I sip my whiskey slowly. Today has been pretty good, overall. Lynelle outdid herself, the food and decorations were magnificent, and Kailee looked mesmerized as Clayton toasted the ‘love of his life’. But a part of me had trouble being around it all, being a part of all that happiness and mirth made me a bit uneasy so I found myself down here. I swallow the rest of my whiskey as I look at the poker table in the center of the room. I had so many wonderful memories here. Being a part of it all with my father and Joseph by my side.
“Read ‘em and weep fellas,” I say slapping my cards down. “You’ve just been schooled!”
“Ah shit!” Officer Buckley says, turning his cards over.
“Damn it!” Joseph states, dropping his cards down.
My father laughs and begins to gather everyone’s cards as I pull the chips over to me, stacking them neatly. My dad begins to shuffle the deck as he glances at Officer Ward and nods slightly.
“Any word on CS?” my dad asks as he continues to shuffle the cards.
“Nothing yet, the whole lot of ‘em are as slippery as a bunch of snakes,” he replies.
I casually stack and restack my winnings and try to decipher who they are talking about. They always talk about work down here. For as long as I can remember they have discussed cases they are investigating and have never paid attention to my presence. My father pulled me aside a few years ago and told me that I could never talk about the things I might hear in here, that the room was a sanctum of sorts, a place where they could talk freely. I feel honored to be a part of the crew, so to speak, and can’t wait until I have something worthwhile to share at the table.
“Well, we’ll get ’em,” my dad says and they all nod their heads as he starts dealing the cards.
“How about a game?” Joseph asks, bringing me out of my memory.
I look up and give a small smile. “Sure.”
Every Friday night my dad and his friends, all fellow cops and later detectives, would meet here for hours. They would play cards, drink, and talk all night. During football season, they added Sunday to the mix. Over the years I grew to know all those men and at my graduation from the academy they were quite possibly the loudest people present. I also know that my desire to be a cop stemmed from the many nights I spent here, listening to their stories of life on the beat. I never wanted to be anything else, well, until ‘it’ happened, then my priorities changed and suddenly I had a new mission in life.
“I miss him too,” Joseph says dealing our cards.
I don’t say anything, just scrunch my brows together and glance at my cards. I shove a couple of chips in and then put two cards down. He doesn’t say anything as he deals me two additional cards. We play in silence for a while. We are both lost in our thoughts, our memories. I hate this, I hate remembering my father and imagining what things could have been like for us. I glance at Joseph before I finally clear my throat.
“Has Clayton been initiated into the ‘Four Aces’ fellowship?” I ask, trying not to smile.
“Not yet, but I suppose it should happen soon, don’t ya think?” He asks with a wide grin.
“Yeah, probably,” I reply with a chuckle.
“How’s your case coming along?” he asks casually as he deals us another hand.
I shrug. “Nothing new.”
“Well, you’ll catch him, son,” he says as he looks at his cards.
“That’s what my dad thought too,” I reply disheartened.
Phillipe had told me to come by Saturday to get the lay of the land, and sign some paperwork, which is what I’m doing now. After signing all my employment papers, I headed straight to the kitchen. Le Creole is something else, completely modern with the finest kitchen imaginable. My hands run along the stainless-steel counters while my smile spreads. I’ve always wanted this. Cooking has been an escape for me. I never feel more alive than when I’m experimenting and trying new things and somehow all the bad things in life feel more manageable when I am in the kitchen.
“Is everything to your liking?” I hear beside me.
I turn to see Mr. Beauchamp watching me. “Yes, it’s all perfect. I still can’t believe this is mine.”
He chuckles and steps closer. “Well, technically it’s mine.”
I smile uneasily and nod. “Of course, I meant no disrespect, Mr. Beauchamp.”
He gets a predatory look in his eyes before gently moving my hair over my shoulder. I feel a chill go through me as I step away from him which causes his lips to form into a small smile.
“Please, call me Marshall.”
“What’s going on?” Ms. Badour coolly asks from the entrance of the kitchen.
“Nothing, my love,” Marshall turns with a beaming smile.
I glance at her and she is giving me a look that makes me feel like cowering under the sink. She turns to Mr. Beauchamp and touches his face tenderly.
“Phillipe is looking for you, darling.”
He nods and takes her hand but she smiles sweetly at him. “I’ll be there shortly.”
His lips twist into a smile and his eyes darken before he kisses her in front of me. I turn quickly, not sure what to do as I can’t leave at this point. I walk down a bit further and inspect the other stations. When I cooked for them I didn’t use everything and wasn’t trying to become overly familiar since I wasn’t sure if I’d get the job or not.
“May I?” I hear behind me and turn to see Ms. Badour staring at me.
“May you what?” I ask confused.
She motions to my knife kit. I flinch for a moment because no one ever touches my knives. I worked hard to save up enough money to buy them and they’re perfect. They are special, they are mine, and, at this point, it’s as if they were made for only me. Unsure what to do, I set my case on the counter and open it up, hoping that will be enough to satiate her curiosity. She starts to touch one and my hand instinctually goes underneath hers halting her movement.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I, umm, I don’t like people touching my knives. I hope you understand.”
She smiles but her eyes are dark and unwavering. “I understand completely. No one likes people touching what isn’t theirs to touch.”
I stare at her wide eyed. Mr. Beauchamp touched me. He was unprofessional, not me, yet she is staring at me as if I copped a feel of her man. She brings her hand to my cheek and taps it lightly before breaking out into a high-pitched laugh.
“I’m glad we had this little chat,” she says before walking past me and out of the kitchen.
Blowing out a breath, my palms hit the counter top. “What the hell did I get myself into?” I mutter.
It’s been nearly a week since I was officially hired as the executive chef of Le Creole and I’ve had no further issues with my three new bosses. Luckily for me they have been busy interviewing people and hiring so I have been pretty much left to my own devices. I spent that first week preparing the menu for the restaurant, which will be straight Louisiana cuisine along with my own little touches here and there. They hired the last of my line cooks yesterday, which is good because I plan on teaching my line chefs how to make everything tomorrow. The kitchen is well stocked but now that I have my menu prepared, I need to get the other ingredients. I head towards the back of the building where the office and storage room is located so that I can go over the procedure for ordering food. Seeing all three of them inside, I steady my breathing and knock.
“Come in, Dominique,” Phillipe says standing and motioning for me to enter.
“How can we help you?” Marshall asks with a smirk.
I glance at Ms. Badour and she is arching her brow at me. Swallowing, I hand each of them the menu I created for their approval. All three of them take a moment to study it while I chew on my lip nervously. This is my first attempt at making a menu of my own so I hope it meets their standards.
“This looks very good,” Phillipe says with a smile.
“Thank you,” I reply happily.
“Yes, quite good,” Marshall concurs and turns to Ms. Badour. “Whitney, sweetheart, what say you?”
She nods. “It looks good. Do you have the specials decided as well?” she asks, eyeing me speculatively and I get the distinct feeling that she wants me to be unprepared.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, reaching in my pocket and pulling out a typed list of the specials.
She looks it over and nods, handing it to Marshall who in turn hands it to Phillipe. Damn it! I should have printed out three copies this morning.
“I will print a list out weekly for each of you,” I say quickly.
“We will only be open Thursday through Sunday, so prepare accordingly,” Marshall says casually.
“Oh, okay. I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Well, now you are,” Whitney snaps crisply.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say glancing down for a moment.
My God! This woman seriously has it in for me. It’s her man she needs to keep on a leash not me. All right, Dominique, just deal with it, this is your opportunity to be an executive chef, don’t blow it. I just need to steer clear of her and her crazy boyfriend, lover, whatever the heck he is to her and do my thing. Just think of this as a temporary assignment, learn everything you can and if it gets bad you can leave.
“Is that all, Dominique?” Phillipe asks bringing me out of my thoughts.
“No.” I clear my throat and continue. “I need to order supplies so that I can prepare the line chefs for…”
“I will do all the ordering,” Marshall interrupts me.
My brows furrow. “But, I’m the executive chef. That’s part of my responsibilities. I need to know what I can get or not get and change the recipes on the fly. If I can’t order the food I won’t be able to do my job effectively.”
He stands abruptly and in one stride is directly in front of me. “Are you questioning my authority?”
I cower back slightly and hear a chair move. In lightning speed Phillipe is right there and although I can’t see Whitney I can hear her snickering.
“Dominique, will you excuse us?” Phillipe orders and the gentle flirtatiousness he always has in my presence is completely gone.
I slip out and immediately hear yelling from the room. I know I shouldn’t eavesdrop but I can’t stop myself. This pertains to me after all. I lean against the wall and face the door, bringing my thumb to my lips I begin gnawing on my nail.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Phillipe yells.
“I’m not having her order anything. She will interfere,” Marshall spits back just as loudly.
“I don’t trust her. She’s already challenging us,” Whitney adds.
“Stop, both of you. I’m the one that was selected to be in charge and I say we let her do the ordering. We can work around it,” Phillipe says casually but with a hint of authority.
“Well, yes, sir,” Whitney replies mockingly.
I hear movement and head out of the hallway and towards the kitchen. What the heck is going on here? I turn quickly when I hear footsteps approaching me only to find Phillipe stepping into the kitchen. He is all calm, cool, and collected with that flirtatious smile on his face again. Oh, great, now what?
“I apologize for my colleagues’ behavior, Dominique. I assure you it won’t happen again. There are some issues with the ordering so I ask that you submit to me what you need and if there are any problems you and I can discuss it privately,” he finishes with a smile.
I nod even though I don’t like this at all but they have made it abundantly clear that I am not going to get what I want in this scenario so I’m going to have to make the best of the situation. This is my first opportunity to be an executive chef. I can’t blow it before we are even open for business. I can make do.
“Yes, of course.” I finally say.
“Wonderful,” he replies, clapping his hands together.
He walks out of the kitchen with an extra beat to his step and all I can do is shake my head in disbelief. Well, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected everything to go smoothly.
to be continued in