Book Nine: Murder Al Dente

Nicoli Hunter Mysteries

by Nancy Skopin

Sample Chapter

CHAPTER 1

It had been almost nine blessedly boring months since I’d worked on a homicide investigation and since anyone had tried to kill me or my dog, Buddy. This was a good thing, because all my free time during those months had been dedicated to keeping my best friend, Elizabeth Gaultier, from losing her brilliant, though obsessive, mind during the planning of her upcoming wedding. Today was Thursday, June 7th, and Elizabeth and Jack’s wedding cruise was scheduled for June 23rd. You’d think that by now everything would have been finalized, but you would be wrong.

Elizabeth was currently tormenting herself by second guessing the menu she’d chosen for the reception buffet, as well as her choice of flowers, the cake she’d ordered months ago, and whether or not it was practical to use Buddy as the ring bearer. Buddy is a two-year-old, hundred and thirteen pound Ridgeback and Golden Retriever mix. Basically, he’s a big, shiny, red dog with a loving heart and an IQ that’s probably higher than mine. Elizabeth would have used her cat, K.C., as the ring bearer, but K.C. doesn’t abide by social niceties, especially if there’s smoked salmon on the buffet table.

I was in my office doing my best to finalize a bar and restaurant survey for one of my clients, with Elizabeth on speaker phone at the same time, whining about not having enough appetizers.

“We’ve invited thirty people and I only ordered sixty devils on horseback. What if the first fifteen people at the buffet table take more than two each? There won’t be enough!”

I wanted to be a supportive friend, but my patience was wearing thin.

“Not everyone likes bacon-wrapped prunes stuffed with almond chutney, honey. I’m sure you’ll have enough.”

Before Elizabeth could find something else to fret about, someone knocked on my office door.

“Sorry, honey. I’ve got a visitor. Keep breathing.”

I disconnected the call and got up to unlock the door.

My name is Nicoli Hunter. I’m a PI licensed to practice in the State of California specializing in bar and restaurant employee surveillance. My office is on the first floor of a marina complex in Redwood City, where I also live aboard my Cheoy Lee Motorsailor with my significant other, RCPD Detective Bill Anderson, and my dog Buddy. I’m thirty-seven years old, five-foot-seven, and curvy, but fit, with sea-blue eyes and long, curly, chestnut brown hair. Today I was in my usual office attire of cargo shorts and a white, short-sleeved cotton shirt.

I unlocked and pulled open the door to find Chet Fortune smiling flirtatiously at me. I motioned him inside. Chet is a fellow boat owner, though he doesn’t live aboard as many of my neighbors do. He owns a hundred-and-two-foot Feadship Arcadia, a monster of a motor yacht he’s christened “Wet Spot.” She’s docked on an end tie because the yacht’s too big to fit anywhere else in the marina.

A few months ago, I was walking Buddy up to shore for his morning constitutional when I caught sight of Chet on the deck of his yacht hosing out what appeared to be an anatomically correct inflatable doll. He was out in the open where anyone could see what he was doing and, presumably, comprehend why. Ick.

I’d mentioned the incident to my friend Lily, another boat dweller, and Elizabeth’s maid of honor, and she’d told me that Chet owned a company which manufactured sex toys and he liked to test the new products personally. After that the name of his boat made a lot more sense to me.

“Hi, Chet. What can I do for you? You want coffee?”

“Coffee sounds great,” he said, easing into one of my visitors’ chairs and giving Buddy an ear scratch.

Chet’s just over six feet tall and rangy, in his early fifties, with greying brown hair and twinkling steel-blue eyes. He’s the only man I’ve ever seen wear cowboy boots on board a yacht. Today he was dressed in shorts, boat shoes without socks, and a purple Tommy Bahama camp shirt. Chet has a Southern drawl that may or may not indicate his origins. He’s generally a cheerful guy, but today I noticed dark circles under his eyes.

“Cream or sugar?” I asked.

“Black is fine.”

I poured us both coffee, adding lactose-free milk to mine, handed him his mug, and sat down behind my desk.

“You look tired,” I commented, taking a sip of the rich Kona brew.

“I think someone’s trying to kill me,” Chet said, matter-of-factly.

I set my cup on the desk, grabbed a fresh legal pad, and asked the obvious question. “What makes you think that?”

“Someone drilled a hole in the brake line of my Audi. It was a slow leak. I’m lucky I was driving uphill when the brakes failed, or I’d probably be dead in a ditch right now.”

“How do you know someone intentionally created the leak?”

“Had my mechanic check it out. He showed me the hole in the brake line. He said it looked like it was made by a small drill bit.”

“Did you talk to the police about it?”

“Yeah, I filed a report. My insurance agent said I had to. They dusted the brake line for prints but only got a few smudges. So, I was thinking maybe you could look into this for me.”

I glanced at my schedule of restaurant and bar surveys. When my mentor, Sam Pettigrew, was murdered last year, my friend and fellow PI Jim Sutherland and I had split his clients, so in addition to my own regular clients I now had half of Sam’s. Fortunately, this being a Thursday, my schedule wasn’t too hectic.

“I’d be happy to help,” I said.

Chet and I spent the next hour going over the details of his life. Who his friends were. Who he did business with. Anyone who might have a reason to want him out of the picture. Turns out his ex-wife, Vanessa Poneke, was the CFO of Chet’s company, and the divorce had been acrimonious. Chet had caught her having sex in their cabana with the pool boy. I know. Such a cliché.

When I asked why he’d allowed her to continue working at his company he told me, “There was a clause in the prenup that stated that if she was unfaithful she would receive no monetary settlement should we divorce. She’d basically be leaving the marriage the way she came into it. That little affair cost her millions. I thought firing her on top of that would be unnecessarily cruel.”

What a guy.

Chet had an adult son from a previous marriage, Chance Fortune, whom he referred to as, “that cock-wit.” Chance was twenty-five years old and, according to Chet, had never held a job. Chet had recently cut him off financially, and Chance had no idea he wasn’t going to inherit anything.

The list continued to grow. The pool boy in question was Ray Hardwick, whom Chet had gotten fired by the company that employed him; and there was a former manager at Chet’s Polk Street store in San Francisco, Marty Aptus, who had been caught till-tapping. Even though Chet had elected not to press charges, anyone who called for a reference on the former manager got an earful, so Marty was now pretty much unemployable. I noted the names of the four subjects, and any contact information Chet had for each of them.

“When was your divorce final?” I asked.

“Six months ago, why?”

“Have you changed your will since the divorce?”

“Um … huh. I should have thought of that. No, not yet.”

“What assets does Vanessa stand to inherit?” I asked.

“Well, everything, I guess.”

“So your house, your boat, all your liquid assets, and any investments you might have.”

“Yeah. Guess I’d better call my lawyer.”

“You should do that immediately. Have your will updated and let Vanessa know you’ve cut her out. That way, if she’s the one trying to get rid of you, she’ll be less motivated.” I smiled to soften the blow. “What about your company?”

“What about it?”

“What happens to the company if something happens to you? Would Vanessa assume control of that as well?”

“I’m not sure. The company isn’t actually mentioned in my will, but she’s the CFO, and I don’t have a VP, so maybe.”

“You’ll want to list the company among your assets in the revised will, to make sure Vanessa has nothing to gain from your death.”

“Good idea. I’m in the process of selling forty-nine percent of the company to an equity group, but that hasn’t been announced yet, and it still leaves fifty-one percent of a very successful business.”

“Does Vanessa know about the upcoming sale?”

“Of course. She’s the CFO and the sale of shares will require an audit. She has to prepare for that.”

“What’s your company called, by the way?”

“Dr. Feelgood. You know, like that Motley Crue song.” Chet smiled, clearly impressed with his own ingenuity.

I was familiar with the song. It was actually on my iPhone’s treadmill playlist, but I didn’t mention that to Chet.

“Do you have life insurance?” I asked.

“Yeah. But it’s only a million dollar policy.”

Only a million? Holy shit, Chet, how much are you worth?”

“I don’t keep track day-to-day, but probably around five hundred million.”

My mouth dropped open. “All from manufacturing sex toys?”

Chet chuckled. “Not all of it. I own some property in Texas with a couple of producing oil wells. I guess you could say I’ve been lucky.”

“Until recently, at least. I assume Vanessa is the beneficiary of your life insurance policy?”

“Yup.”

“After you call your lawyer you need to call your insurance agent. Is there someone you’d want to leave everything to?” It was none of my business, but I was curious.

Chet looked down at Buddy and a soft smile crossed his weathered face. “I’ve always been partial to dogs. Maybe I’ll leave everything to the humane society.”

“That’s a lovely idea,” I said. I Googled the contact info for the nearest location and printed it out for Chet.

“Thanks, Nikki.”

I made sure he had my business card with my office and cell numbers, then printed two copies of my standard contract. I signed both and handed them to Chet. He read the fine print, and when he signed I noticed for the first time that he was left handed.

After he’d written me a check for my retainer I sat back in my chair and looked him in the eye. “You know, Chet. This marina isn’t the most secure location for someone with a target on their back. Maybe you should hide out at home for a while. Where do you live?”

“Portola Valley,” he replied.

“Do you have an alarm system on your house? Is it gated?”

“No. It’s never been an issue before.”

“Have you considered hiring private security?”

“I’m glad you’re taking this seriously, Nikki, but don’t you think hiring a bodyguard is a little extreme? I mean, all they’ve done so far is cut my brake line.”

“And that doesn’t worry you?”

“Honestly? It scares the shit out of me. But a bodyguard? Really?”

“Do you own any guns?” I asked.

“A few. I’ve got a Glock forty-two, a Smith and Wesson Model Ten, a Colt M1911, a Mauser bolt action rifle, and a Mossberg Maverick eighty-eight shotgun.”

“Nice. Do you have a carry permit?”

“I do, actually.”

“And are you currently armed?”

Chet lifted his Tommy Bahama shirt to show me the holster strapped to his belt and the Colt M1911 secured therein.

“Excellent. I assume you’ve spent enough time at the range to know how to use that.”

“Darlin’, I’m from Texas,” he said, as though that would put any concerns I had about his marksmanship to rest.

“Okay then. So that’s a no on the bodyguard idea?”

“I really wouldn’t feel comfortable having someone watching me twenty-four seven, but maybe I should anchor out until you get this thing resolved.”

“Might be a good idea. At least that way you’d see your enemy coming. Keep your radio on so I can contact you.”

“I’ll do that, but my boat is equipped with a receiver and transmitter that beam my cell signal up to a satellite and then to my carrier, so you can just call me on my cell phone.”

“Damn! It must be nice to be rich.”

“It is,” he said, and winked at me.

Chet collected his copy of the contract, gave Buddy another ear scratch, and left my office.

I immediately composed an e-mail to CIS, aka Criminal Investigative Services, asking for a full background including financial and criminal records on Vanessa, Chance, Ray, and Marty, and promising a bonus for speed. Chet could afford it.

I entered his cell number into my iPhone and double checked my schedule for the day. One of my clients had requested a late lunch survey.