If Poppy didn't believe she was in too deep as the only female juror in a high-profile assault case involving an infamously hot-tempered crooner, she's sure of it upon meeting blast-from-her-past Rod Harper. A former TV costar from her short-lived acting days, Rod is as dashing as ever, and now he wants to partner again — this time to locate his missing daughter . . .
Returning a pampered songstress with a penchant for running away back home unscathed shouldn't be too challenging. But dodging Rod's charms while on the job is another story — and so is finding a dead body! When Poppy discovers a fellow juror face down in a swimming pool, she's unwittingly thrust into a murder investigation with sinister parallels to the troubled chanteuse's disappearance . . .
As Poppy struggles to survive a steamy love triangle while deciphering the connection between two seemingly unrelated cases, the Desert Flowers Agency must outsmart a ruthless killer who will do anything to keep hideous secrets hidden away . . . including ensuring Poppy becomes the next forgotten ex-actress to bite the dust . . .
Release date: December 31, 2019
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 320
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Poppy Harmon and the Hung Jury
“Mr. Cicci, are you a fan of Tony Molina?” the prosecutor asked as she crossed from her desk in the small courtroom and strolled casually over to the witness box. She was pint sized, barely cracking five feet, and she sported a giant mass of curly red hair on top of her head that threatened to swallow her up whole. She wore a smart gray designer suit and black dress shoes that looked more like what a man would wear. She was a tiny thing, but her abundance of confidence and ferocious, almost predatory attitude gave her an unexpected stature.
“Tony Molina was my hero,” Carmine Cicci spoke into the microphone that had been set up in front of him. He was plump and bald, wearing a purple tie and pink dress shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to show off his tattoos of various New Agey phrases and dragons and other symbols that he had collected in his fifty-some-odd years.
“When did you first see him perform live?” the prosecutor asked.
“Nineteen eighty-one at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never forget it. I went with my high school sweetheart Antonette. She got the tickets for my eighteenth birthday, and we took the train in from Massapequa Park to see him. When Tony sang, ‘My Heart Beats in Manhattan,’ I wept. I felt as if I was in the presence of greatness. Tony’s God-given talent was just so inspiring and overwhelming.”
“And for how many years after that night when you first saw Tony Molina in concert did you consider yourself an unabashed fan?” the prosecutor asked, leaning forward and placing her small hands on the witness box.
“My whole life. I saw all his movies and collected all his music. When I opened my first restaurant in the East Village, I invented a dish called steak Molina, named after him. Even now, seeing him sitting over there, my heart is racing and I’m . . . uh . . . well . . . I’m tongue-tied.”
The prosecutor chuckled. “That’s very sweet. But you are famous in your own right, are you not?”
“I’m just a chef lucky enough to have a few successful restaurants around the country, and who also gets to judge a cable TV food competition show for three months out of the year. Tony Molina is a legend. He’ll be remembered for generations. . . .”
Poppy Harmon, who was juror number four, was perched in the front row of the jury box. She glanced over to where Tony Molina was seated next to his defense team—three high-powered, impeccably dressed sharks. They all stared at the prosecutor, pretending to be unimpressed with her talents as an attorney. Poppy couldn’t help but notice how handsome Tony Molina, now in his midsixties, still was. He didn’t appear to be nervous that he was on trial. In fact, he seemed almost relaxed.
Tony noticed Poppy looking at him. He gave her a sexy smile and a suggestive wink. She quickly averted her eyes back to Chef Cicci, who was still testifying.
“. . . Which is why it’s so heartbreaking what happened,” Chef Cicci said quietly, lowering his head and looking down at his feet in the witness box.
“Were you expecting Mr. Molina to come into your restaurant that night?” the prosecutor asked.
Chef Cicci nodded and slowly glanced back up. “Yes, his assistant had made a reservation earlier in the day. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I wasn’t even supposed to be at the restaurant that night. My parents were having a party celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. But I cancelled because there was no way I was going to miss preparing a dish for the Mr. Tony Molina!”
“You sacrificed your parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary party to cook for Mr. Molina?” the prosecutor asked, glancing wide eyed at the jury, as if she was surprised to hear this news and hadn’t worked it into her prepared questioning of the witness.
“Yes. Of course, my parents understood. They knew how much I loved Tony . . . I mean Mr. Molina.”
Poppy glanced back over to Tony, who sat up straight, a stoic look on his face.
The prosecutor also looked over at Molina and shook her head, disgusted, before returning her attention back to Chef Cicci. “Take us through what happened after Mr. Molina arrived with his party.”
“Well, I greeted them personally and offered them drinks on the house. He was there with his wife. . . .”
Poppy thought Chef Cicci had suddenly shifted gears to talk about what everyone had ordered before remembering that Tony Molina was married to a woman named Tofu, a songstress best known for singing the theme song from a Timothy Dalton–era James Bond movie. Like Cher, Rihanna, and Beyoncé, Tofu had at one time been popular enough to go by just one name. Tofu was not in attendance for the trial. In fact, the only family member present was Tony’s handsome twenty-something son from his first marriage, Dominick. He sat in the gallery, dutifully loyal with a look of dismay on his face, as if he could not believe his poor father had to go through all this drama.
Chef Cicci continued his testimony. “There was also his business manager, Mr. Kurtzman; and the stand-up comedian who always opens for him whose name I forget. . . .”
“Robby Stone,” the prosecutor offered helpfully.
“Yes, right, Mr. Stone. Oh, and also Mr. Molina’s two bodyguards, a man and a woman. I remember thinking how cool it was that Tony invited two of his employees to have dinner with him. It struck me as very nice and—”
The prosecutor was not happy with Chef Cicci complimenting the accused, so she promptly cut him off. “Then what happened?”
“I had some calamari sent over and told one of my waitresses, Mary Grace, to go over and take their order. Mr. Molina ordered the steak, not the steak Molina that I had named after him that is on all my menus at all my restaurants. He ordered the steak bordelaise, which is a New York steak with sautéed mushrooms, garlic, and a red wine demi-glace sauce.”
“And how did he request his steak be prepared?”
Chef Cicci frowned. “Medium well.”
“And was the steak medium well when it was served to Mr. Molina?”
Chef Cicci shrugged. “I thought it was. It was slightly pink when I last checked it and so I prepared the plate and gave it to Mary Grace to take it out to him.”
The prosecutor folded her arms and shot Tony Molina a knowing look. “What happened next?”
“The next thing I knew Mr. Molina came storming into the kitchen. He was carrying the steak in his hand and started screaming at me that I had overcooked it. Then he threw it against the wall. I thought he was going to bean our busboy Raul in the head but luckily the steak missed him by a few inches.”
“But you were not so lucky as Raul, were you, Chef?”
Chef Cicci glanced around at all the people in the courtroom, embarrassed. “No. I tried to apologize to Mr. Molina and I started to tell him that I would cook him a new steak, but he wasn’t interested in listening to anything I had to say at that point. . . .”
“What did Mr. Molina do?”
“He . . . he picked up a frying pan that was on the stove top and he hit me on the head with it,” Chef Cicci muttered.
Poppy looked around at her fellow jurors, all of whom, by the luck of the draw during jury selection, were men. She was the lone woman on the entire jury. Most of them had appalled looks on their faces as they listened to Chef Cicci recount the assault at his restaurant on the night in question, aptly named Cicci’s, one of the more popular Italian eateries in Palm Springs.
“Did he hit you really hard or, as the defense maintains, just tap you with it to show his displeasure?” the prosecutor asked with a smirk on her face because she was already acutely aware of his answer.
“He hit me kind of hard.”
“How hard, Chef?”
“The blow knocked me out cold,” he said softly.
“In fact, when you awoke hours later, you were in a hospital room, is that correct?”
Chef Cicci nodded and sighed, “Yes, ma’am.”
“The doctors informed you that you had a concussion!”
“All because Mr. Molina was unhappy with his steak!”
Poppy saw Tony Molina shifting uncomfortably in his chair as he rested his elbow on the table and cupped his hand underneath his chin as he gazed with sad, regretful eyes at Chef Cicci, perched in the witness box.
Chef Cicci noticed and appeared to be devastated that he had just delivered such damning testimony against his favorite singer in the world.
Poppy also liked Tony Molina. She must have played one of his ballads, “Lovely Girl,” a million times when it first came out in the late seventies. But now, the bloom was definitely off the rose because she staunchly believed Chef Cicci’s version of events. And the fiery prosecutor had already informed them during her opening statement that she would call to the stand Raul the busboy and a few other kitchen staff who were in the kitchen at the time of the incident to back up his story.
“Nothing further, Your Honor,” the prosecutor bellowed as she whirled around, threw one more disgusted look at the defendant, and crossed back to her table.
Judge Linscott, a dapper, refined, friendly man, leaned forward and in a sweet, unassuming voice said to the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s ten minutes to five so I am going to wrap this up for the day. We will resume tomorrow at nine o’clock. Please do not discuss any of the particulars of this case with anyone, not even with each other, until after closing arguments when you begin deliberations. Is that clear?”
Poppy nodded, as did the eleven men sitting with her in the jury box.
“Have a lovely evening,” the judge said before banging his gavel. “We’re adjourned.”
As she stood up to leave, Poppy couldn’t resist peeking one last time over at Tony Molina, who was now on his feet, conferring with his three high-priced lawyers. Almost as if on cue, his head turned and he focused right in on her and offered a dazzling smile. No doubt a bid to charm the lone female on the jury. Fearing the judge might notice her gawking star-struck at the incredibly handsome defendant, she quickly turned away and ran right into the back of juror number seven.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered as she filed out of the courtroom, determined to follow the judge’s instructions and not discuss the case with anyone, least of all her friend Iris Becker, who just happened to be the biggest Tony Molina fan on the planet. Iris had made no secret that she was supremely jealous that it was Poppy and not her who had received the fateful jury duty summons that had landed her on the high-profile criminal trial of her favorite celebrity.
“My Tony could never do such a vile, vicious act!” Iris bellowed, having just arrived at the garage office of the Desert Flowers Detective Agency after playing eighteen holes of golf in her white polo shirt, yellow skirt, and matching yellow visor. “I believe that overrated cook is making the whole thing up just to get more publicity for his restaurants and TV show.”
Poppy, who sat behind her desk, threw up her arms and said, “I’m sorry, Iris, like I already told you a hundred times, the judge has given us strict instructions not to discuss the case with anyone!”
Violet, who was at the coffee machine in the small kitchenette, brought Poppy a cup of coffee and handed it to her. “I saw on the news that there were about a half-dozen witnesses in the kitchen who saw Tony do it, right, Poppy?”
“I am not allowed to talk about it!” Poppy wailed.
Violet’s twelve-year-old grandson, Wyatt, who worked part-time for the agency after school and was completely bored, totally uninterested in some case about an ancient crooner he had never even heard of, stared at his computer in a trance-like state playing some kind of video game.
“Well, I certainly hope you are planning to vote not guilty. I mean, let’s be honest, no one with the voice of an angel like Tony Molina deserves to go to prison even if he did do it!” Iris huffed.
Poppy, mouth agape, and with a disbelieving look, simply stared at Iris. She could not imagine why, despite her pleas, Iris refused to drop the matter.
Always the peacemaker, Violet finally intervened. “Iris, I think we should respect Poppy’s wishes and stop talking about the Tony Molina trial.”
Iris finally got the hint and muttered, “Fine! I was not aware that it is now against the law to offer one’s objective opinion!”
“I hardly think your opinion is objective, Iris,” Violet laughed. “You own every album the man ever recorded.”
“Nobody asked you to tell us what you think, Violet!” Iris snapped.
Whenever Iris barked loudly at her, dear Violet became, well, much like her namesake, a shrinking violet. She quickly retreated to her corner of the room, desperate to avoid any further confrontation.
Poppy sighed, stood up, and was about to demand the two kiss and make up when mercifully the door to the garage office attached to Iris’s midcentury home flew open, and the ladies’ fourth partner in their detective agency, Matt Cameron, hustled in with a big grin on his face. Matt was impossibly handsome, an aspiring actor who was toiling part-time as the “face” of the Desert Flowers Detective Agency after it became painfully apparent that not a lot of potential clients in the Coachella Valley were eager to hire three capable women north of sixty to solve their various cases. Hence, Matt created the persona of crack investigator “Matt Flowers,” relegating the real brains behind the operation—Poppy, Iris, and Violet—to pose as his loyal assistants. The whole setup, in Poppy’s mind, was right out of Remington Steele, a popular detective show starring Pierce Brosnan from the 1980s, long before he played James Bond, but surprisingly it worked. Matt’s gorgeous face and appealing personality were actually drawing in business on a regular basis.
“Good afternoon, ladies, I’m pretty sure I just wrangled us a brand new client and he’s got deep pockets!” Matt declared as he ambled over to the minifridge and opened it. “Is it too early for champagne?”
“Who is it? He didn’t leave a message on the office voicemail,” Poppy said, surprised since that was how most potential clients contacted the agency.
“He contacted me directly through my Facebook page,” Matt said proudly before adding, “Did you know my Matt Flowers fan page has almost four thousand ‘likes’ already?”
Poppy refrained from rolling her eyes, choosing to stay positive and supportive. “That’s wonderful, Matt. So who is this new client?”
“Rod Harper,” he said.
The room fell silent except for Wyatt, who continued playing his video game, which seemed to have a lot of retro-futuristic sound effects.
Poppy was stunned. She had not seen Rod, her former costar on the popular 1980s detective series Jack Colt, PI, in almost ten years.
“Rod reached out to you?” Poppy asked, incredulous.
“Yes, what a nice guy,” Matt said. “He’s on Instagram, too, so I started following him. He has all of these photos of himself running on the beach shirtless with his dog, and, man, he still looks good for an old-timer.”
“He’s only two years older than I am,” Poppy said, seething.
Matt’s eyes popped open as he realized his faux pas and tried to quickly recover. “I forget because you look at least ten years younger than your actual age.”
“Nice save,” Iris sneered.
Violet, who was done hiding in the corner, scurried back over, curious. “What kind of case is it?”
“Missing person,” Matt said excitedly as he bent down to peer inside the minifridge. “Oh, hey, my lucky day. There is a bottle of bubbly in here.”
He yanked it out and then began unwrapping the foil from around the cork.
“Who is missing?” Violet asked.
“His daughter, Lara,” Matt said.
“Lara? I remember when she was a little girl. She was so shy. She used to hide behind her father’s pant leg whenever they were in public. Oh my, she must be in her early twenties by now,” Poppy said, smiling at the memory.
“She’s a singer, or trying to be,” Matt said. “Rod saw her a few weeks ago and after that she just seemed to vanish. He hasn’t heard from her since.”
“Did he go to the police?” Iris asked.
“No,” Matt answered.
“Is that not what most people would do first?” Iris scoffed, shaking her head.
“I guess he has his reasons. I didn’t push it because we could really use the hefty retainer fee that I quoted to him and that he’s totally offering to cough up, like right now if we decide to take the case.”
Poppy smiled to herself. This young man, who should be in Los Angeles auditioning for guest parts on TV shows but instead was in Palm Springs fronting a detective agency run by three women old enough to be his grandmother, was looking out for their livelihood, and she deeply appreciated it. But she did have questions.
“Rod lives in LA. Why does he want to hire a Palm Springs–based firm?” Poppy asked.
“I’m not sure, but he has a house out here and mentioned that he had read some local articles about our first case and me being the big hero and all. I told you that publicity would be invaluable. We can find out all the details tomorrow when you and I have breakfast with him,” he said pointing at Poppy.
“Matt, I have jury duty,” Poppy said.
“I know, that’s why we’re doing it really early,” he said with a wink.
“I see,” Poppy said. “Does Rod know that I’m a part of Desert Flowers?”
“Of course he does,” Matt said. “But don’t worry, I let him believe that this was my agency and you were just a hired hand, like we agreed.”
Matt was only doing what Poppy had ordered him to do. Keep the idea alive that he was the one in charge. But it bothered her on some deeper level mostly because Rod Harper had played Jack Colt, a crackerjack private eye, and she had toiled as his loyal secretary Daphne for three seasons. And now, decades later, Rod, who had always been somewhat of a male chauvinist pig, to coin an old phrase, was under the impression that Poppy herself was still consigned to that same familiar role in real life. In his mind, she was exactly the same, except with many more years under her belt.
Still, once Matt told her the five-figure retainer fee he was willing to pony up the following morning at breakfast once they officially accepted the case, Poppy was able to put her ego aside.
Having a wealthy new client was far more important. Let Rod Harper assume that Matt was the Flowers in the Desert Flowers Detective Agency.
Rod Harper placed a big, strong hand over Poppy’s much smaller one that rested on the table and gently squeezed it. She looked up from the small pad of paper on which she was jotting down some notes, startled.
“Look at her,” Rod seemed to say to no one in particular. “She’s just as beautiful today as she was when we worked together back in the eighties.”
Matt couldn’t resist cracking a smile. “I caught some old episodes of Jack Colt on the Nostalgia Network recently, and I could not agree more.”
Poppy was more embarrassed than flattered by the free-flowing compliments, and so she was relieved when the perky waitress appeared with their breakfast. They were dining at Spencer’s, part of the Palm Springs Tennis Club that was nestled against the soaring San Jacinto Mountains. It boasted an elegant outdoor patio surrounded by large banyan trees. Poppy and Matt were seated with Rod at a corner table that was hidden enough so they would not be bothered by any old fans who might be excited by this Jack Colt, PI cast reunion.
When Poppy and Matt had first arrived at the restaurant to find Rod already at the table waiting for them, she was struck by how much of a star he still was. It wasn’t just his ruggedly handsome good looks that had aged so well or his intoxicating masculinity; he still had that swagger and confidence that had made him so popular in the 1980s. As they quickly caught up on their lives, Poppy learned that Rod was still a working actor, appearing occasionally in some TV movies for cable, mostly Westerns and detective retreads that were reminiscent of his glory days playing Jack Colt, only more age appropriate. His last role was as a sixty-something CIA spy with heart problems and early signs of Alzheimer’s who was forced to recruit his antigovernment son to help him carry out his last mission. Matt had seen it on Netflix and gave it a rave review, although Poppy suspected he hadn’t really watched the whole thing and was just using that as an excuse to butter up their new client.
Rod kept holding Poppy’s hand as the waitress set the breakfast plates down, and it was only when she reached for her fork to eat her eggs over easy that she managed to slip her hand out of his warm grip. She glanced up and found him staring at her, beaming. She looked to Matt for help in steering the conversation back to the case of his missing daughter.
Matt dov. . .
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