Feel the Heat (Hot In the Kitchen) - By Kate Meader

Chapter One

She should have been safely ensconced in the apartment above her family’s restaurant, scarfing down leftover pasta and catching up on the reality show glut bursting her DVR. Instead, Lili DeLuca was considering a 3:00 a.m. stealth mission down a dark alley, wearing shiny blue Lycra hot pants and a star-spangled bustier. As ideas went, this one was as smart as bait.

Peeling off her Vespa helmet, she sent a longing look up to her bedroom window, then peered once more into the alley leading to the kitchen entrance of DeLuca’s Ristorante. The door was still propped open. Light streamed out into the night. Brightness had never looked so wrong.

A busy Damen Avenue could usually be relied upon to assure an unaccompanied woman that she was not alone. Wicker Park, formerly a low-income haven for underfed artists and actors-slash-baristas, had grown into a dense jungle of expensive lofts, chic eateries, and shi-shi wine bars. Between those, O’Casey’s Tap on the corner, and the regular influx of suburbanite good-timers, the streets were always full and safe.

But not tonight.

The bars had dribbled out their last drunks an hour ago, and by now, the 708ers were snoring soundly on their Sleep Number beds back in the burbs. Despite the stifling ninety-degree June heat, her neighborhood had never appeared so stark and cold. Living so close to work might have its perks, such as a thirty-second commute and the best Italian food in Chicago, but it was hard to see the upside in the face of that damn kitchen door, open like a gaping maw.

Maybe it was Marco. Her ex liked to use her family’s business as his playpen, adamant that his investment accorded him certain privileges. A bottle of expensive Brunello here. A venue for an after-hours poker game there. Even a chance to impress, with his miserable culinary skills, the latest lithe blonde he was wearing. He’d cooked for Lili once. His linguine had been as limp as his…

Sloughing off those memories, she refocused on her current problem. Six hours ago, the Annual Superhero Extravaganza had seemed like a harmless way to rehabilitate her social life and get out there (oh, how she hated there). Guilting her into living was a favorite pastime of Gina’s, and her cousin had persuaded her to attend with honeyed words.

Time to get back in the game, Lili. No, your thighs don’t look like sides of beef in those shorts. The Batman with the wandering digits? He’s not fat—he’s just husky.

A husky Batman might come in handy right about now.

Leaving behind the safe hum of traffic, she crept toward the door. The garbage stench stung her nostrils. Something furry scurried behind one of the Dumpsters. A raucous riff from the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” swelled and filled the space around her. Insanity had its own soundtrack.

You might be dressed like Wonder Woman, but that doesn’t mean you should play the hero. Just take a look, then call someone.

She sneaked a peek around the door. Expensive kitchen equipment—her equipment—lay strewn with serving dishes, pots, and pans on the countertops. Renewed alarm streaked through her. This didn’t look like the handiwork of Marco, who thought a bain-marie was the name of a girl he’d like to date.

So much for the plausible explanation. Some shithead was burglarizing her restaurant to the strains of Jagger and Richards.

The next move should have been obvious, but her cinder-block feet and racing brain warred all the same. Call someone. Anyone. Her father. Her cousin. That cute chocolate-eyed cop who stopped in for takeout on Fridays and insisted she give him a buzz at the first scent of trouble. She swallowed hard, desperate to stop her heart from escaping through her throat. It settled for careening around her chest like a pinball.

A cautious sniff caught an astringent blast of bleach that competed with the lingering basil aroma of Friday night’s dinner service. Trembling, she nestled her camera, an eight-hundred-dollar Leica, inside her Vespa helmet, then squeezed her phone out of the tight pouch at the side of her shorts. She started to dial. Nine. One…

Her twitchy finger paused on hearing something more eerie than heart-stopping. From inside the walk-in fridge, a voice bounced off the stainless-steel interior. High-pitched. Indeterminate gender. Singing at the top of its lungs. It was also completely out of tune.

She repocketed her phone, pulled open the screen door, and quietly stepped inside. Damn feet had never known what was good for them.

Frantically, she searched for a weapon, and her gaze fell gratefully