Chapter 1 of City of Angels, released June 7, 2010
A joyful sob mingled with the happy chatter of birds in the outdoor restaurant. “Yes!” the woman three tables down on my right cried out, just before leaning to drop a kiss on the man kneeling before her. The proposal and acceptance earned a gentle clap from older couples at surrounding tables.
Ah, romance. Something about it brought people together in ways that bank teller lines, traffic jams, and cramped movie theaters couldn’t hold a candle to. There was just something about a proposal that made all the witnesses feel like they were friends for the evening, even if they might flip each other off the next day on the freeway.
In truth, the ambience of the outdoor restaurant was perfect for the romantic retelling of a proposal story. Lighting was provided exclusively by the sun or candle light, and the hanging canopies gave every table the illusion of privacy. Very swank. Add that to the fact that Little Bo Peep’s was surrounded by lush botanical gardens, and you had the go-to place for creating a cherished memory. Proposals, anniversaries, celebrations . . . things like that.
And my date was late.
“He’s fitting the bill so far,” Kyp’s voice said in my ear. “I especially like the discrete exit ten feet to your left.”
I nodded, knowing he could see my acknowledgment from the camera I’d attached to a rose stem directly behind me that was now broadcasting into his van and recording my every move. Turning my attention back to my phone, I pulled up YouTube and typed “handcuff escape” in the search box.
I’d been on a kick recently to find the easiest way out of handcuffs. All considered, if you had the right tool, it was ridiculously easy. Paper clips, bobby pins, playing cards, and a dozen other everyday objects could do the job. I just wanted to find the least conspicuous one before I made the tool that would attach on my favorite bracelet of all time. It was amazing how functional jewelry could be when you put your mind to it.
“One o’clock,” Kyp said in my ear. “Waiter with a wine glass and rose. I think this is our guy.”
My heart pounded a few times before I settled it down again. Calm. Timid. I had to look like a pushover or my “date” might back out. I wasn’t good at meek, so I hoped my new clothes and Pollyanna hair were helping me out on that front. A Norma Kamali long-sleeved empire dress served as my attire that evening. A Walmart special. It screamed, “Poor as dirt, but trying to hide it” Especially compared to the finery surrounding me. The tablecloth was worth more than my dress, for crying out loud. The ill-fitting cut felt awkward when I moved, but I figured it should get the job done.
“Agatha?” the waiter inquired when he reached my table, using the name I’d given out online.
“That’s me,” I said, trying to put some farm-girl innocence into my eyes.
“I’ve been asked to bring this to you,” the waiter said as he placed the glass and rose in front of me. “Your date has been detained and should be here shortly. He sends his apologies.”
“Thank you,” I said as I reached for the drink.
“Is there anything else you would like while you are waiting? An appetizer, perhaps?”
Why not? “Sure. How about a glass of water, no ice, and your feta wraps.”
He nodded, his eyes taking note of my dress, probably calculating his tip in advance. “I’ll bring those right out, ma’am.”
I watched him go and then looked down at the white wine in front of me. From a distance it might look like water, especially in poor lighting, and that’s exactly what I was banking on. But first I needed to make sure I had my smoking gun. Reaching into my purse, I pulled out a packet of little strips. The sole purpose of my strips was to test for two of the most popular date-rape drugs, which were also the drugs the man I was hunting had used on his previous victims: ketamine and gamma hydroxybutyrate, aka GHB.
The test is simple, really. You drip a part of your drink onto the tester strip. If it turns blue, you know you’re in trouble. If it doesn’t, all is well.
“What’s the verdict?” Kyp asked even though we both knew the answer. This guy wasn’t varying his MO. He thought that using different restaurants and finding girls on different Internet sites kept him safe. Maybe it would have, but he’d messed with the wrong girl along the way. And that girl’s dad had hired me.
“Blue,” I said, dropping the strip into my purse and picking up my phone. Little Bo Peep’s, I typed into a new text. Pick up case summary on right rear tire. It’s going down now. Tag. You’re it. After pressing “send,” I set the phone down on the table.
Lifting the glass, I swirled the liquid, supposedly to check for residue, as I calculated what to do next. My guy was already at the restaurant. He had to be. It was the only explanation for my drink being drugged, because I wasn’t buying for an instant that the waiter had been slipped a twenty to do the deed.
So Mr. Bad was here and most likely watching me. I would have been watching me if I were him. Was he at the bar or peeping through one of the windows from the main building? Had he ordered the drink as if he were going to bring it to me himself and then pretended to chicken out and asked the waiter to do it for him while he pulled himself together? The drink only needed to be unattended for two seconds for him to do what he needed to. No one would suspect a thing.
I really needed the waiter to come back with my order, but in the meantime, I got ready for the switch. I had a little thermos for the wine in the Manhattan-sized handbag I’d picked up with the dress. I removed the thermos and hid it in my lap, ready to capture the wine as evidence. Now I just had to figure out how I was going to do it, seeing as how my “date’s” eyes were undoubtedly glued on me by this point, and anything suspicious might scare him off. On the other hand, it was April, and the sun was already disappearing behind the horizon. It was nearly dark. What if he just couldn’t see me for a moment? The entire place was candlelit, and I was in a corner with rose bushes, so I didn’t have to be worried about being backlit.
The plan was still formulating when the waiter returned.
“Your wraps, ma’am, and a water with no ice.”
“Thank you. This will be great.”
He looked hesitant to leave. “I’m sure your date will be here soon,” he said apologetically. I smiled, regarding him as a witness and wanting him to remember everything as clearly as possible. I shot him a lazy smile.
“He’s ten minutes late,” I said, checking my watch. “Would you keep me waiting that long?”
He swallowed. “No, ma’am, I don’t think I would.”
Really? Even with my hair like this? He was blushing. How cute. “Tell me,” I continued. “Should I wait? Do you think this guy is worth waiting for?”
His focus shifted to the side, and I could tell he was recalling the man who sent me the drink. When he looked back at me, he gave a small shake of his head. “I think you can do much better, ma’am.”
I let my eyes warm as I gave him a once over. “Well, thanks for thinking so.”
He nodded and stepped away, not knowing I had just permanently sketched the face of my perp into his brain.
“Should I call the police?” Kyp asked.
“Not until he shows himself,” I muttered, trying not to move my lips.
Kyp didn’t like my reply. “The guy drugged your drink. That’s grounds enough to arrest him. Why shouldn’t we call the police? The waiter knows who he is.”
I sighed. Some people had no sense of adventure. “Still, wait until I’ve secured the suspect. It’s more tidy that way.”
“Rhea, that’s the police’s job,” he cautioned.
“If the police show up, he’ll bolt. We’ve got to close the deal now.”
I heard him sigh. “The police aren’t going to like you today.”
They never did. “Ready?” I said, then conveniently sneezed right onto the candle as my hands dumped the wine into the thermos, twisting the lid on and dropping it back in my purse. I stood, motioning for the waiter to re-light my candle while pouring some of the water from my regular glass into the wine glass to replace what I’d dumped. It took less than five seconds, which hopefully wouldn’t spook my guy. Time would tell.
Once my candle was glowing again, I tested my water in the wine glass, just to be sure, and found it drug-free. I downed it, grabbed a feta wrap and my phone, and settled in to wait for my guy while watching some man with a German accent on YouTube explain how to use two paper clips to make handcuff keys for police-grade cuffs. I already knew that one.
“Are you timing me?” I asked Kyp, not looking up.
“Yeah, we’re at five.”
According to my research, it was reasonable for me to show strong reactions by the ten-minute mark. And with me sitting and given my low body weight, going to sleep was a distinct possibility. Softening my body language, I tried to give the impression I was going lax while watching a kid escape trick cuffs. It went against my instincts not to keep an eye on my environment, but that’s what Kyp was for. He was my eyes so I could play my part and not clue this guy into who he was dealing with.
Deciding YouTube had nothing for me, I shut down my browser and placed the phone in my purse while casually pulling out my police-grade cuffs and setting them in my lap under the table.
One minute later, I started blinking drowsily. When Kyp whispered, “Ten,” in my ear, I let my head fall to the side. The stage was set. The question was, would my date bite?
“Incoming,” Kyp whispered just before I heard footsteps. They stopped at my table and paused a moment before someone blew out the candle lighting my table. My corner was officially dark, and my pounding heart had started the job of pumping adrenaline into my system. The footsteps moved behind me, and the side gate to my left squeaked open, propped open by a rock. No one around us noticed my date’s motions, focusing instead on their hushed conversations.
“I knew it,” Kyp hissed, and I could tell he wanted to beat this man into the ground. We both read the reports. He knew as well as I the state he had left his previous “dates” in. One false move and I would happily take this guy down myself.
Coming to my side, my suspect caressed my face and spoke.
“You don’t look anything like your picture, Agatha.” His voice was intimate, soft, almost seductive. He pinched my arm and I nearly flinched. He was testing to see if I was faking and nearly succeeded in outing me. Underneath the tablecloth my left hand gripped the cuffs. “You’re very strong,” he said, stroking my arm. “Why do women today try to make themselves into men?”
In one motion I placed the heel of my right palm across the back of his hand, pushing his hand toward his wrist as I stood and cranking his arm behind his back until he was standing on his tippy toes, instinctively positioning himself so I wouldn’t break his wrist.
“We’re strong so we can protect ourselves against men like you,” I said, snapping one of the cuffs on his wrist. He tried to struggle, but did not cry out when I kicked the back of his knees to make him fall forward. When his other arm flailed to fight for balance, I caught it, yanked it back with his other one, and cuffed it as well. I looked around, making sure no one had noticed us. They hadn’t. We were just a lone couple in a dark corner while the rest of the establishment ate on.
“You do so much as take a deep breath and I will break you,” I whispered into the man’s ear. “Do you understand?” To my dismay, he didn’t even offer a token resistance. He just nodded like a man who’d been praying to be caught. I liked it better when they fought.
Leaning away, I spoke again, keeping my voice soft. “Kyp, have you called the police?”
“I’m talking to them now.”
“Tell them I’m taking him out the back gate and we’ll wait for them by the pepper gardens.”
Maybe I’d make the guy eat a few while we were waiting. Some were strong enough to make an elephant cry.
“Should we bring an ambulance?” Kyp asked. “Did you break anything?”
“Not a scratch,” I replied, looking over the man that had brought so much heartache into the world. Dark hair, receding hairline, normal face. Just your average, everyday guy trying not to hyperventilate. Why couldn’t sick men like him just walk around wearing a sign or grow the same facial hair or something?
“Fine,” Kyp said. “I’ll get the camera and meet you once I get off the phone with them.”
“I’ll be waiting,” I said, wrapping my hand around my date’s thumb and pushing the bone straight into the hand joint until he gasped in pain. I had his attention. “We’re going to leave quietly now. Do you understand?”
When his head nodded vigorously, I pushed a little harder so he wouldn’t get any ideas. “Okay, stand on three. Ready? One, two, three.”
He stood, no tricks, and was as docile as a lamb as I led him out the back gate and kicked the rock away from the door to let the gate shut behind us. When I reached out to stop the door from clattering shut and disturbing the diners, he made his move. It was smart of him to wait until I was multitasking, but it was also very predictable. When he chose to rush me rather than just run, I think it was his goal to smash me against the fence and daze me before running for it. Or maybe he hadn’t thought that far in advance. I’d never ask, but it was easy enough to twist out of his way and let him run face first into the fence before spinning him around and dropping a strike on the top of his sternum. Air rushed out of him in a sob as he sunk to his knees and fought to remember how to breathe in again. He’d figure it out.
“Upsie daisy,” I said, pushing up on a nerve bundle in his armpit. “I said we’d be by the peppers so we’ve got a little ways to go.”
Breaths tripping over each other, the man stood and stumbled forward as I pushed from behind. Kyp and the police would be along any minute and relieve me of this guy, but long before I heard either of them, I heard something infinitely more familiar. It was the voice of a woman I’d known since college, saying:
“This is Kathryn McCoy, coming to you live from a small restaurant in Pasadena, where a serial-rapist has just been apprehended . . . ”
Tag, Kay, I thought. You’re so it.