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Authors: J. J. Cook

Gator Bowl

BOOK: Gator Bowl
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Berkley Prime Crime titles by J. J. Cook

Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mysteries

THAT OLD FLAME OF MINE

PLAYING WITH FIRE

IN
HOT WATER

Biscuit Bowl Food Truck Mysteries

DEATH O
N EAT STREET

FRY ANO
THER DAY

Specials

HERO'S JOU
RNEY

GATOR BOWL

GATOR BOWL

J. J. COOK

 

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

GATOR BOWL

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the authors

Copyright © 2015 by Joyce Lavene and Jim Lavene.

Excerpt from
Fry Another Day
by J. J. Cook © 2015 by Joyce Lavene and Jim Lavene.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-15470-4

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime Special edition / January 2015

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

Version_1

Contents

Berkley Prime Crime titles by J. J. Cook

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Epilogue

Recipes

Excerpt from
Fry Another Day

Chapter One

Reading the confusing directions carefully, I used the seat belt to secure my new cat seat in the front of the car. My cat, Crème Brûlée, was completely unappreciative of my efforts. He rolled away from me and batted at my hands with his paws.

“Now what's wrong?” I impatiently pushed my curly black hair out of my face. “You didn't like the cat carrier, so I got you this cute little seat where you'll be safe and you can't wander around the car getting into trouble.”

My large white-and-tabby-colored Persian meowed and continued to play the new game he'd invented. Every time I put his paws in the holes where they belonged, he pulled them back out again. The netting stretched across his big furry tummy, holding him securely, but his back paws wouldn't stay where they were supposed to.

“All right. This is it.” I laid down the law for my stubborn cat. “If I can't get you strapped in, you have to stay with my mother. Don't look so upset. I warned you before. I won't be gone long—you won't starve.”

It was a credible threat. My mother frequently forgot she was pet-sitting when I left Crème Brûlée with her. As I knew it would, the threat to stay in Mobile, Alabama—our hometown—with my mother, who really didn't like or appreciate cats was enough to make him compliant.

“There!” I stood back and smiled at him. “You look so
cute
. And see, you can still wiggle your arms and legs, and your head is free to look around.”

He meowed again, and tried to push his paw against his head to scratch. It wouldn't reach.

“I didn't say it was perfect. Let's go before you need to use the litter box. Uncle Saul's place is only about an hour away. We should be good if we don't have to stop for anything and we drive really fast.”

It was a perfect day for a long drive. Blue Alabama skies were above, and a sweet breeze teased the trees. Uncle Saul, my father's brother, had promised me an Airstream motorhome to use as my new food truck. It was the second step on my road to independence.

The first step had been to quit my job at the Azalea National Bank. After being passed over for promotion dozens of times in the five years I'd been there, I decided enough was enough.

What I'd always wanted to do was own a restaurant and feed people. It had been my dream for as long as I could remember. My parents had laughed at me when I was a child. They'd pushed me into going to Auburn University when I was eighteen, and I went, even though I still longed to have a restaurant.

I'd learned a lot at Auburn—knowledge that would serve me well owning a business. My parents, Anabelle and Ted Chase, had gone from annoyed and concerned to angry and frustrated when I'd finally quit my bank job. That's when they realized I was serious.

It takes a lot with some people.

I didn't care. I had no experience in the food industry, except for watching hours of food television and working a few summer jobs. But I knew I could make my new business a success. The food truck industry was thriving in Mobile, with new trucks appearing every day.

The plan was to run my food truck until I'd made enough money to open my restaurant. I didn't know what my signature dish would be yet, but I was working on it. I hoped to get some ideas from Uncle Saul when I saw him. It was an important aspect of running a foodie business. The food I'd be famous for would also help me decide the name of my food truck.

Crème Brûlée meowed and swatted his big paws in the air.

“We're not stopping for a bathroom break yet,” I told him. “We're barely out of Mobile. Just sit back and relax. You'll be fine.”

The farther away we got from Mobile, the more he meowed and complained. I finally pulled over on the side of the road to let him out in some green grass. I put his leash on him so he wouldn't run away and then went through the lengthy process of taking him out of the cat seat.

“You know,” I blustered in the Alabama summer heat, “this looked a lot easier to use on the TV commercial.”

He was finally out of the car and in the patch of grass. I sighed and watched him swat at butterflies. “You're supposed to go potty, Crème Brûlée. We can't stop every few minutes or we'll never get to Uncle Saul's house.”

The highway was nearly empty that morning. Probably everyone else was working. I felt a slight pang for my cushy bank job that I'd left behind. It passed.

When he'd finally done his business, I got Crème Brûlée into the cat seat again and started off. While we were going, I told him all about my plans for the food truck and the restaurant. It was a good thing that he couldn't complain about how many times I'd told him the same things.

My boyfriend, Tommy Lee Elgin, had pointed out my single-minded fixation on many occasions. It hurt my feelings that he wasn't more supportive of my dream. It was probably hard for him to understand.

Tommy Lee was even more unhappy than my parents about me quitting my job. He was a handsome, charismatic investment banker who slept with his cell phone and tablet so he'd never miss anything. He expected me to be the same—at least for now. Then I was supposed to give it all up to marry him, have babies, and host parties.

Making food for my restaurant was definitely
not
on his agenda.

I saw a man hitchhiking on the side of the road. He was tall, well over six feet, and large. He had a black skull tattoo that covered the back of his shaved head and neck, and he was wearing a black leather jacket and worn jeans. He carried a threadbare black duffel bag that said
USMC
slung over his shoulder.

I started to pass him. He was kind of scary-looking—and yet I wanted to stop for him. There was something about him—the square shoulders and almost arrogant turn of the big head—that made me feel that he didn't care if I stopped or not. He'd keep walking until he got where he was going.

“I'm going to do something
really
stupid, Crème Brûlée,” I warned as I slowed down. “I'm going to give this stranger a ride. I know. It goes against all the rules. He might kill both of us. I don't know what I'm thinking, but I'm doing it anyway.”

Crème Brûlée yowled and tossed his head from side to side as though telling me not to do it.

“You know how Uncle Saul has that mojo about knowing if people are good or not? I think I have it, too. And I think this is a good guy. If I'm wrong, I hope he lets you go—although you might have to survive on mice for a while until some nice person saves you.”

He stared at me, eyes dangerously narrowed.

“You could force yourself to eat mice, if you had to. Don't look at me like that. We're doing this. Think of it as part of our new independence.”

I stopped the car and rolled down the window. The warm, moist air immediately flooded the interior. “Hello! I'm Zoe Chase from Mobile. I'm on my way to Farmville. Do you want me to give you a ride?”

The large man stopped walking and leaned in the window. “Hello, Zoe Chase. I'm Ollie. Farmville would be good. Are you
sure
you want to do this?”

I smiled, a little nervous. “Yes. I'm starting a new life, and taking chances is part of it. Nice to meet you, Ollie. I'm afraid you'll have to sit in the backseat. It took me half an hour to install this stupid cat seat. I really don't want to move it.”

He shrugged and opened the back door to my small blue Prius. “I'm fine with that, thanks. So you're from Mobile? Me, too.” He tossed in the duffel bag and then pushed himself after it.

“And you're headed to Farmville? Do you have family there?” I asked as I turned the car back onto the highway. “My uncle lives there. Maybe you know him.”

Ollie looked out the window. “Nope. Sorry. I don't know a soul out there. I'm just leaving Mobile for a while, you know? You get tired of a place and have to move on.”

“I know exactly what you mean.” I spent the next twenty minutes telling him everything about myself and my new independence. It just kind of bubbled out.

“Sounds like you've got quite a job ahead of you, young'un,” he remarked. “That's a lot of ambition for someone your age.”

My eyes—which some have called violet-colored—flared as I stared at him in the rearview mirror. “I'm going to be thirty next year, Ollie. I've wasted enough time talking to people about their money. I want to feed people. I want them to get real quiet when they sit down to eat what I've made. I want to make fabulous dishes, like Chef Art.”

“Oh yeah. Everyone knows Chef Art Arrington,” he agreed. “He's famous around these parts. I ate at his restaurant once when I was a kid. Best chicken in the world.”

“See? That's exactly what I mean. You remember eating his food when you were a child. I want people to think about my food the same way.”

Ollie's wide brow furrowed. “I remember another place—probably before your time. A man by the name of Saul Chase ran it. Best damn food I ever ate. Any relation?”

I glanced at Crème Brûlée to let him know that he'd been wrong about stopping for this hitchhiker. “I
knew
I was right giving you a ride, Ollie. Crème Brûlée wasn't sure, but he's not so trusting. I'm going to see my uncle, Saul Chase, in Farmville. That's where he lives now. Small world, huh?”

“I'll say!” Ollie laughed, a big hearty guffaw. “What a coincidence. With that kind of genetics, you're bound to be a hit, Zoe.”

“You should come with us, since you're getting out of town for a while. Me and Uncle Saul are gonna be cooking up a storm. He promised to help me figure out what my signature food should be. It's really important because you can only have a few things on the food truck menu. And there's the name, too.”

“I'd like that,” Ollie said without hesitation. “Sounds like exactly what I need. Are you sure I won't be imposing?”

“Not at all—although Uncle Saul might strong-arm you into helping us work on the Airstream he's letting me use.”

Ollie shrugged. “That would give me a chance to pay for my room and board. Thanks.”

“We won't be there for more than a few days.”

“I don't have a timetable. Whatever it takes is fine.”

I grinned at him. “What about your job and your family? I have a phone if you need to contact them before we get to Farmville. There's no cell service once we get there.”

“Nah. I'm free as a bird. Glad to be part of your new dream, Zoe.”

“Thanks.” Crème Brûlée was asleep, his cute head bobbing with the movement of the car.

It wasn't long after that I saw the turnoff for Farmville.

Ollie reminded me a lot of Uncle Saul. Both men were independent and self-sufficient. Uncle Saul had always shunned the family banking business. He'd moved out of Mobile, away from the family, to live a less complicated life. I couldn't remember, but I'd heard talk that he'd just walked out of his restaurant one day and never went back.

Some old friends of his said it was because of a woman. I'd never asked him. He was a kindred spirit—much more so than my mother and father. I didn't want to remind him of something painful in his life.

Ollie was asleep in the backseat. His hands were spread across his wide chest. He looked to be in his forties, possibly. His face had more than a few scars, with a weather-beaten appearance as though he'd spent a lot of time outside.

I wondered what his story was, though I'd never ask a stranger. That would be rude. I was raised better than that, despite my recent activities.

My phone rang. It was Tommy Lee. I knew we were close to the area where cell service just seemed to vanish. I could always call him back when I was ready to leave and head back to Mobile. Our recent arguments had been heated. For the first time since I'd met him, I wasn't looking forward to talking to him.

“Need me to get that, Zoe?” Ollie asked.

“No. I think I'll skip this argument. My boyfriend is a little upset about me quitting my job. He doesn't get the whole
food obsession
, as he calls it. We'll work it out later. I don't want to spoil my trip.”

“Dump him, young'un.” Ollie didn't even open his eyes. “If he doesn't get you, cross him off the list. There are plenty of other men out there who'd be glad to marry a good cook.”

“Thanks.” I smiled back at him, but he still wasn't looking. “We've been together for a long time. Our families are already planning our wedding.”

“Who cares? Always choose happiness, Zoe. Nothing else matters.”

With those words of wisdom, Ollie fell asleep again, his loud snores filling the car.

Farmville and my new food truck lay ahead of me. I didn't plan to make any decisions right away. First, I needed that one special food that I made better than anyone else. And then I needed a cute name that would draw customers to it.

Tommy Lee and my parents would come around in time. When I was famous someday, we'd all look back on me setting up my business and laugh.

Farmville was a tiny spot on the Alabama map—probably why they had no cell service, cable, or much of anything else. The sign on the way into town declared the population to be 961.

I thought that was optimistic of them.

Uncle Saul had said the area was in a floodplain for the Tensaw River. It flooded regularly, leaving swamps and mosquitoes behind. The area seemed to be home to hunters, anglers, and homesteaders who were intent on living their lives outside the bounds of society.

The main street of downtown Farmville was filled with canoe rental stores, bait shops, and places to buy tobacco. There was also a National Guard armory with a tank in front. I assumed it didn't work, though some people I'd met here might be tempted to drive it to Mobile. They seemed very antiestablishment.

The speed limit through Farmville was ten miles an hour. My car barely idled down the street. I sighed as the world went slowly by. People standing on the street corners stared at us like they'd never seen a car before. I'd never seen a car here besides mine, either—everything was a truck or a four-wheeler, of one kind or another.

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