I'll be posting a chapter from "Murder in Half Moon Bay" every day until the end of the month. Enjoy!
Two green, life-sized cardboard frogs, dressed in mariachi costumes, greeted me at the front door of the taqueria. Tiny white lights adorned the windows and Mexican music played softly as I entered.
A middle-aged grandpa held the door open for me right before he left himself.
I smiled and thanked him and went in. I didn’t see any of my friends yet, so I sat on the dark wooden bench near the cashier and waited.
Señor Pico’s boasted bright ultramodern décor with festively painted red concrete floors. Plastic tablecloths of shocking green, stoplight yellow and bright blue covered the tables. Decoupaged chairs in the same blinding colors sat randomly around them. To put it bluntly, the place was garish–just the sort of garish one would expect to find coupled with a fiery, spice-laden cuisine.
Paintings of tropical getaways hung on the walls with artificial palm trees and tropical plants rounding out the “South of the Border” theme.
Families and couples sat munching and conversing at the larger tables while singles of all ages swiveled on round seats at the bar. Everyone seemed jovial and as the servers brought people their orders, my mouth began to water. The food actually looked and smelled delicious.
A group moved in from the front door and I recognized my friends among them. They smiled, glad to see me already in line for a table.
The server seated us and handed us tall menus decorated with parrots, cockatoos, and shade palms on some dream desert beach paradise.
“Talk about mood.” I beamed. “This has cheered me up more than I thought possible. Thanks for coming to dinner with me.”
Ann spoke after setting her menu down. She always knew what she wanted. She spoke as adamantly as I’d seen her do before. “Jillian, we’re a team, and we will find whoever took your dog.”
I was in the mood for chile rellenos. I didn’t feel jubilant enough for spice, or my favorite–juicy fish tacos.
“I hope Teddy’s all right. If they’re mean to him, he just might bite them.” I smiled. “I’m worried about him, of course, but I’m really more concerned that we find the killer. What I’m really hoping is that Teddy will lead us to whoever it is.”
I glanced out of the corner of my eye to the back left corner of the room. I thought I recognized a young man seated alone, partially hidden by a palm tree. Deputy Cortez was in street clothes.
He nodded a gesture of greeting, but didn’t attempt to come to the table and have a conversation. He must be my “tail” provided by the chief.
I turned back to Ann, who started to speak.
“I called a friend of mine that Evelyn mentioned she knew over at the Rutherford House Society, Sharon Gillespie.”
The handsome, dark-haired server placed a glass of Chardonnay before her.
“And what did she say about Evelyn?” I plucked a crisp thin tortilla chip from the serving basket and popped it into my mouth.
“She asked how Evelyn fared after the death of her son and if she still needed to take a lot of sleep medication. Evelyn had complained about the headaches it caused.”
It reminded me about all the alcohol that the Westovers consumed the night of Regina’s murder.
“Ann, see if you can find out what she takes and when the last prescription was filled. You know, all the details.”
Something felt strange about the Westovers’ actions that night.
“I’ll call her tomorrow.”
The server brought a huge plate of nachos topped with jalapeños with a decorative side of salsa.
“Everyone help yourself.” Dominique grinned. “My treat.”
I certainly needed this. The food was delicious and the overall atmosphere with the bright colors and festive music was just what I needed to relax a little.
I might as well get what enjoyment I could, since I knew the ordeal of losing Teddy wasn’t over. Losing my husband was extremely painful and I felt the same emptiness opening up around me again. The room began to lose a little of its color and started to fade away.
I’d been there before, so I prayed.
Lord, please get me Teddy back. Let me find a way.
I glanced over to where Deputy Cortez had been sitting. In his place was a heavyset, foreign looking man staring back at me. My heart sank to my stomach and my stomach sank to my knees. I didn’t want to let him know I’d seen him so I smiled at Nicole and picked up a nacho, trying to remain calm.
The man hadn’t ordered anything but a beer and just sat there drinking it, glancing my way occasionally. It was all I could do to choke down the food and act as if nothing was wrong. The spice and savor of my steaming dish lost its flavor. Where was Deputy Cortez? This man could be a murderer.
The server brought our bill. No one seemed to suspect anything out of the ordinary. I glanced again toward the corner, but the man had disappeared. Oh, great. Now not only could he be close, I didn’t know where he was. I would just have to make sure my friends accompanied me to my car.
The host thanked us for coming and offered us some thin mints in shiny green foil wrappers. I declined, feeling like I could throw up any minute. I could not face the parking lot in the dark.
Fear began to get the upper hand of me. I started shaking and collapsed onto the wooden bench by the front door. I whipped out my cell phone.
Nicole didn’t miss that my fingers shook as I pressed the numbers. It took me a few tries to dial correctly.
“Jillian… what’s the matter?”
I ignored her. It wasn’t nice, but I was in a panic.
“Chief Viscuglia, here. How may I help you?”
“Are you in trouble?”
“Do you have any idea where Deputy Cortez is?”
“He checked in about a half hour ago. He’s checking out a backup call over on Capistrano Road. What’s wrong?”
“Was he supposed to be tailing me?”
“Yes, he was. I’m sorry, Jillian.”
“Well, I think I just saw the heavyset man Cecilia described here at the restaurant, but he seems to have disappeared, and I’m afraid to go to my car.”
“You stay put. I’ll be right over to check it out. I’ll alert an officer to have the area staked out just in case he’s still there.”
“Thank you, Chief.” Gratitude flooded my tone. “Is there any word on Teddy?”
I had to ask, but the question caught in my throat a little.
“I’m sorry, Jillian. We talked to Cecilia and took her statement. She promised to come down to the station if we get a lineup to identify the man she saw.”
“I suppose…that’s something.” The news was bitter, not what I really hoped.
“Chief, she said that his sandals looked ‘native ’so I’m wondering if there’s a connection with Dr. Nagera–he may know something. I hope nothing happens to him.
“Would you ask your FBI friends to do something? See if they can match the description Cecilia gave you with anyone on their files in connection with the Brachystegia spores. Maybe they can get a match from the footprint to a specific type of sandal.”
“I’ll ask them right after I hang up. Now, stay put and I’ll be there soon.” He used his voice of authority.
I was happy to comply.
“What was that all about?” Ann, Dominique and Nicole all wore the same questioning look.
“Let’s just say it isn’t safe to leave yet. I recognized a man back inside who fit the housekeeper’s description of the dognapper. He was sitting across from us.”
”Jillian!” Dominique almost yelled. “This is getting way too serious. First, someone knocks you down, then Teddy disappears, and now some criminal type is hounding you. Maybe we should all go home.”
“Really, Jillian,” Nicole chimed in, “do you think it’s worth risking your life, and Teddy’s, over some international plot that belongs in the governments’ hands to take care of?”
Actually, they were asking good questions, questions I’d begun to wonder about myself. After all, did I really want to grieve another loss? Did I really need to sacrifice myself when Chief Viscuglia, Deputy Cortez and the forensics agents were all working so hard and using their official training to find the killer? Why did I think I was qualified anyway? I sighed, and faced them. Not just my friends, but also, the bitterest of my doubts.
“Ladies, I think we need to think about patriotism here. We’ve waved flags and shouted “God Bless America” after 9-11, but are we really as patriotic as we say we are? Are we willing to sacrifice for our country? To put our personal safety, or even our lives on the line?
“This may sound harsh, but I don’t think we deserve the freedoms my husband died for unless we are willing to do the same.
“I think that, and I’ve always thought that. We may be just a few old busy bodies, but since we do love to get together and talk about everything and everyone under the sun, let’s use our information gathering and deductive reasoning skills to save our nation.
“It’s what we do, so why not use it to do good? Sure, I’m too old to be shoved down by someone, but the day I’m too old to stand up for what’s right, too old for a little adventure, is the day I’d rather not keep on living.”
My friends, those dear friends of so many years stared at me in that Mexican taqueria for a good minute before any of them spoke.
Finally, Nicole spoke for them, “You know you’re right. We’re with you, Jillian, all the way.”
Ann reached over and grabbed my shoulder, squeezing it to indicate her belief in what I’d just said. Dominique couldn’t help a little humor. “Well I don’t know about you, but I’m not that old.”
We all laughed. She wiped her eyes, now moistened with bittersweet tears. “But I do admit, I love to gossip. Oh, sorry, Jillian, as you say, ‘it’s not gossip, it’s just discussing the facts.’”
“That’s right.” I felt a strange power now, standing in the restaurant waiting area with my friends. I wasn’t alone. I gazed out the window and I felt like no one would dare attack me right now, during this self-revealing moment.
A young family left after paying their bill and lumbered to their Ford Expedition with kids in tow. The father hoisted the youngest child up and fastened him into his car seat. He couldn’t have been more than two. Wondering if maybe I had blown all of this out of proportion, my reflection came to a sudden halt. I glimpsed a dark figure moving between two cars toward the back of the lot.
Just then, I saw the chief pull his car in slowly and drive through the lot to check it out. He came back to the front of the restaurant and parked in the only space left. I kept watching where I had seen the movement as the chief came through the front door, but I saw nothing else.
“Jillian!” The chief sounded relieved.
“Thanks for coming so quickly.” I was equally relieved that he was with us.
“Deputy Cortez called. It was a false alarm.”
“They probably wanted him out of the way to get to me.” I started shivering again.
Two more patrol cars entered the parking lot and began searching.
Ann gave me a shoulder hug. “We’ll head back to the hotel and wait until you call us.”
“Thanks, Ann. Keep an eye on everyone, especially the hotel people. Someone may have coded keys to get into Regina’s room and mine too.”
They left and the chief motioned me forward. “I need to take a break and check in on my wife. My men will keep me posted if anything turns up on Teddy. Are you ready for that pie?”
“I’ll say. That sounds exactly like what I need right now.”
“One of my men will drive your car back to the hotel.”
I gratefully handed him my keys.
If you like to read about lovely places and fabulous cuisine, enjoy the Jillian Bradley mystery series. Book 1 MURDER IN HALF MOON BAY for your e-reader is free!
All books are G-rated and contain no profanity.
See you in my books!
Mystery novelist Nancy Jill Thames has published Christian fiction since 2010. The author of seven books in the Jillian Bradley series, she is an award winning blogger and listed numerous times on the Author Watch Bestseller’s List. In addition, she won first place in her church's 4th of July celebration for her chocolate cream pie.
When she isn’t plotting her next book, she spends time with her six grandchildren, tags along with her husband on business trips, and plays classical piano for her personal enjoyment. She is an active member of the Leander Writers' Guild, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), CenTex Chapter-ACFW, and supports the Central Texas SPCA with a portion of her book sales. She resides with her husband in Leander, Texas.
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