A TOXIC First Date
Food always plays a big part in my writing. From a major role in my “romance with recipes” series like Dinner at Home, Dinner at Fiorello’s, Dinner at Jack’s and Dinner at the Blue Moon Café to less obvious reading in genres like horror, psychological suspense, mystery and thriller titles, food is always present in one way or another.
Why? Because it’s one thing this author always looks for as a reader or viewer. I want to know what the characters are eating if there’s a scene where a meal is being consumed. For example, today, I was watching an old episode of the great TV series, Mad Men, and two characters met up for lunch…and I was crushed. They didn’t eat! Don Draper had two Old Fashioneds and the woman he was with had only coffee, which she didn’t touch. I was ready to yell at the screen, “but why didn’t you eat?”
I digress. Today, I want to talk about my thriller, Toxic. Now, Toxic doesn’t revolve around food, but food plays an important role. Toxic is about a man coming out of a long-term relationship, going online to look for love, and finding poison instead, in the form of a catfishing villain pretending to be someone he isn’t.
The first date between Connor, my lovelorn and bestselling mystery author, and Trey, beautiful on the outside, but rotten to the core on the inside, is typical of how I handle food in my work. Right off the bat, we see that there’s something off about Trey, but Connor, naïve, gullible, and hopeful, misses all the hallmarks of a catfisher because he’s been off the dating market for so long.
Connor’s plan is to take him to one of Seattle’s more trendy and expensive restaurants, the Asian fusion gem called Joule, but changes his mind when Trey arrives.
Trey walked in. Connor had to admit he was a little disappointed in how he’d dressed for their first date. Normally, it wouldn’t matter, but Joule was a smart place, trendy, and he wondered if they’d fit in. Trey had worn gray sweatpants, running shoes, and a University of Washington purple hoodie. Now, he did look good. The man would have looked good in a burlap bag, but still.
Connor grinned. “You know what? How about we try someplace more casual?”
“Oh? What did you have in mind?”
“The Pacific Inn is just as close.” The restaurant was a divey joint near Lake Union at the end of Stone Way. It was small, with just a few booths and a bar. In the summer, their outdoor patio was lively, but right now, summer was a dream, a mirage.
The locale for the first date could have been a good litmus test, because it’s so intimate and unpretentious, yet there are still more signs that this is a relationship destined for trouble.
The Pacific Inn was unpretentious, coming from a time before Seattle was the gentrified, high-tech city it now was. It was the kind of place workers on fishing vessels would have ended up for beers and fish and chips. And those fish and chips were some of the best in the city. But at least there, Trey’s ensemble wouldn’t attract any undue attention.
“Never heard of it,” Trey said. “But I’ll try anything once.”
“You’ll love it.”
And things do go relatively well—at first—and the horrible events that eventually transpire could have been avoided if Connor had just made note of the red flags Trey gave off, but he didn’t, not until it was almost too late.
The Pacific Inn was a good choice, Connor thought. Maybe better than Joule, especially for a first date. The Friday night crowd was lively, but he and Trey were able to snag one of the booths just as two women stood to leave.
The table was littered with stocky cocktail glasses, rumpled napkins, and wicker food trays. He smiled at Trey as he sat across from him. “I know it’s not morning or anywhere close to brunch, but they make a wonderful Bloody Mary here.”
A young guy in jeans and black-and-red flannel came over to clear the table. He wiped it with a rag. “What can I get you boys tonight?”
Connor looked to Trey. “You want to try the Bloody?”
“If you recommend it, I gotta see what the fuss is.”
“Two bloodies, please.” He looked again to Trey. “Spicy okay?”
Trey looked at their waiter, a gorgeous blond-bearded hipster, and winked. “The spicier the better.”
Connor also ordered the Cajun shrimp and a side of Tater Tots with tartar sauce.
“Tartar?” Trey asked as the waiter walked away.
“That’s how they do ’em here.” He smiled. “So here we are. I know a little about you from your profile, but why don’t you tell me what makes you tick. Who you are.”
“Oh my god,” Trey said. “Is this a job interview?”
“No, no. Just making conversation.”
Their drinks arrived, and Connor hoped he wasn’t getting off on the wrong foot.
“Maybe we don’t need the third degree, then.”
“I’m sorry.” Heat rose to Connor’s cheeks.
Trey sipped the Bloody and smacked his lips. “That is good.” He eyed Connor. “Hey, I was just fucking with you. I always want so much to get the first-date awkwardness out of the way, to just be three months in the future where we can be comfortable with each other.”
“Oh god, that’s exactly how I feel. I don’t do much socializing in my line of work, so I’ve kind of gotten rusty as how to act in a situation like this, to be honest. Add in that I am very newly single after almost twenty years, and you have a guy who is really operating on hope and a prayer. When I met my Steve, Internet dating was just heating up.”
Trey said, “It’s okay. Let’s just relax and see where the night takes us. Steve, huh?”
“Sorry. I promised myself and my daughter I would not bring him up tonight. I definitely didn’t want to be that guy, the one who goes on a date and then won’t shut up about his ex.” Connor sighed. “But it’s hard when someone has been such a big part of your life for so long. So apologies and excuses in advance.” He smiled. “I’m sure it’ll happen again.” This was so not where he wanted to take things, so he asked Trey to tell him about his work as an attorney. “That must be exciting. Remind me what kind of law you practice again.” Connor wasn’t sure it was in Trey’s profile, but at least the ‘remind me’ was a good way to cover if it had been.
“Actually, it’s duller than dishwater. I kind of regret my choice of profession, but what can I say? It pays the old mortgage.” Trey sipped his drink.
“Well, is it too late to do something else? You’re young enough to make a change. What don’t you like about it?” Connor asked. He was surprised when Trey abruptly changed the course of the conversation, throwing it back to him.
“Ah, I don’t want to talk about my dull job. You’ll die from boredom.” He rolled his eyes. “But you? Mr. Famous Author! That must be amazing. Making a living from telling lies.” He chuckled.
Connor wished Miranda hadn’t outed him as an author so quickly, but he hadn’t thought about warning her before Trey arrived. “Never really thought of it that way, but I suppose you’re right. People tend to think I have this glamorous life—all the fame and fortune, you know? But the truth is, it’s mostly me and a blank screen with a blinking cursor waiting for me to get started.”
“You obviously get started…again and again. How many bestsellers have you written?”
Connor often got questions like this, along with where he got his ideas. He thought the question was a little out of line, like asking what his income was, so he said, “You know what? Even I’ve lost count. A couple dozen books, I guess. I don’t kid myself. People enjoy them. People also enjoy Burger King and Taco Bell.”
“And they’ve all done well?”
Connor thought, but didn’t say, that after the first couple books were out, his books had done spectacularly well.
A first date that should have been a last date is how I might characterize this initial meeting between our hero and his eventual nemesis. But if characters didn’t act human and make mistakes, especially out of hope for love, we wouldn’t have many stories to tell. When their awkward dinner comes to a close, there’s another red flag when the check arrives.
When the bill came, Connor reached slowly for his wallet. He didn’t mind paying, not at all, especially since this was a pretty cheap dinner date, but he wanted to see if Trey would at least offer. But Trey seemed oblivious to the bill lying on the table between them, his gaze suddenly transferred to the TV screen above the bar, where a Seattle Seahawks game was being replayed.
“Let me get this,” Connor said, smiling.
Trey glanced down at the check, then back at the screen.
Just when Connor had given up on him making an offer, Trey turned his attention back to what was right in front of him. “You sure?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” Connor gave him a tight-lipped smile.
Trey burst into laughter. “I have a confession to make. I left my wallet back at my place…totally by mistake. I was too embarrassed to say anything.” He winked. “I’ll get it next time, and I promise we’ll do better than this dump.”
A first date, like a job interview, can tell someone a lot about the person he’s interested in, but like job interviews, first date dinners leave room for misinterpretation, forgiveness, and patience. The latter two are good qualities, but not when applied to someone who is showing you who they actually are, if you’d only listen.
Conner doesn’t listen… And he ends up jeopardizing his own life and that of his beloved daughter. Whether either or both of them does make it out alive is something I won’t reveal. You’ll have to read Toxic to find out if good or evil triumphs.
Thanks for stopping by to share your food for thought, Rick!
Rick R. Reed is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than fifty works of published fiction. He is a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Entertainment Weekly has described his work as “heartrending and sensitive.” Lambda Literary has called him: “A writer that doesn’t disappoint…” Find him at www.rickrreedreality.blogspot.com. Rick lives in Palm Springs, CA, with his husband, Bruce, and their rescue dogs, Kodi and Joaquin.
"Rick R. Reed's TOXIC is a smart, nuanced novel of dark and compellig relationships with sparks of wicked humor - all hallmarks of a writer at the top of his game. TOXIC is an unmitigated triumph by a master of twisted suspense." ~Gregg Olsen, #1 New York Times bestselling author
Connor Ryman thought he had it all - a successful career as a mystery novelist, a condo with stunning views of Seattle's Lake Union, a supportive and long-term partner, Steve, and a loving daughter, Miranda, who was following in her father's creative footsteps.
It all went bad when Steve left the family suddenly. Jilted and heartbroke, Connor begins to search for love online. So long off the market, he enlists his daughter's help in crafting a dating profile.
His prayers are answered when Trey Goodall, smart and handsome, answers his ad. He's witty, urbane, a wealthy attorney, and his sex appeal is off the charts. But he's a liar, a monster under a pretty mask. Miranda sees through the red flags and senses soemthing very wrong beneath the facade.
Can she convince her father to save himself before it's too late? Or will Trey, a master manipulator with a very tainted history, play upon Connor's innocense to ensnare him in a web of deceit, intrigue, and, ultimately, murder?