Authors: Lori Avocato
This book is dedicated to Sal, Mario, and Greg. Thanks.
I asked myself, where would my Uncle Walt hide a keyâthen bent down and lifted the mat below my feet.
Well, I really had no intention of breaking a window or door to get inside. My heart sank, thinking I'd gotten this far and wouldn't get to snoop around.
I stood up and leaned against the door. “Ack!”
My world spun in a flash.
When I felt pain shoot up my back, I realized I'd fallen onto the kitchen floor when the door, which had obviously been left open, gave way. I couldn't move for several seconds and shut my eyes, waiting for the pain to subside. I sure as hell wasn't going to call out for help. How could I explain me on the floor of a dead man's house?
Then I heard a muffled sound approaching.
I opened my eyes to see a shadow standing above me.
A scream flew through my lips.
To Erin Richnow, my wonderful editor, who actually “edits!”
To Jay Poynor and Erica Orloff, fabulous agents. Again, thanks.
To Leslie O'Grady, Sharon Schulze, Nancy Block, and Suzanne Baneyâfellow writers who have taught me so much throughout the years.
And to all my readersâthere would be no Pauline if it weren't for you.
.” I leaned forward with my flashlight aimed into my friend Goldie's mouth. “Yikes.”
He opened his heavily mascaraed eyes and shut his coral-colored lips. I wished I looked that good in coral. Frankly, I wished I looked that good in anything similar to what Goldie wore.
“What does âyikes' mean, Suga?” he asked.
I touched his hand and had visions of all the times I'd done that with the many patients I'd taken care of in the past thirteen years. That is, used to take care of. I'd sworn off nursing months ago. I didn't miss my ex-career though. I'd burned out faster than a desert pine hit by lightning during a drought.
I rubbed his hand beneath the beautiful silver-and-turquoise bracelet that sparkled on his left wrist. As far as transvestites went, Goldie Perlman had class and damn good taste in clothes. I could learn from him where makeup was concerned, and actually had in the past. But, damn, I still couldn't wear coral with my pale skin and gray eyes. “Yikes means your tonsils look like giant zeppelins.”
He raised his eyebrows. “What the hellâ” A fit of coughing took his words.
“Remember the Hindenburg?”
“Before my time.”
“I know, but your tonsils are about that big, Gold. I could yank them out with my fingers. You need to go to a doctor ASAP.” I took my hand from his and set the flashlight down on his glass-and-chrome desk. Goldie had dynamite taste in furniture too, especially if you liked jungle themes. I flopped onto the zebra chair I'd grown so fond of since working for Scarpello and Tonelli insurance company.
I'd only been there a few months thanks to the connections of my roommate Miles, Goldie's boyfriend. Miles's uncle Fabio owned the place and after a “meltdown” of my previous career, I'd fallen into this new one. Working for Fabio. Ack.
“I hate doctors, Suga.”
I smiled. “Don't we all.” This after the doctor I used to date nearly killed meâand not from an error in treating me medically. Actually, it was more along the line of murder. “I'm guessing you need those tonsils yanked out as soon as the infection clears.”
He gasped a high-pitched sound. Very flamboyant. Gotta love him. I looked around the office. Giant ficus trees draped in moss gave the feeling of being transported from Connecticut to the old South, specifically Louisiana, Goldie's home state. As I tried to think of some words of comfort for my ailing friend, our boss walked in.
Fabio Scarpello. Yuck. Now
He glared at Goldie. “You look like shit.” Then Fabio handed him a file. “Here's your next case.”
Goldie reached out with a perfectly manicured hand, then fell back against the chair.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Fabio asked in his usual I-don't-give-a-shit tone. I think he reached down to adjust his crotch through his brown polyester pants, but I yanked my head to the side so I didn't have to watch.
I spun too fast, but the pain was worth not having to see Fabio. I hesitated, then without looking back said, “He's got tonsillitis, Fabio. He needs medial treatment.” I felt about ready to pop the guy, but figured my fist would slide off the grease on his chin, so instead I rubbed my now sore neck.
Normally I loved Italians. Miles was one, even though he had been adopted into the Scarpello family, but this Fabio guy got under my skin. He was the consummate Hollywood version of Italian right down to the “wifebeater” tee shirts I'm certain he wore under his polyester suit jackets. Plus, he always wore brown. That more than likely wasn't an Italian thing, but it was a Fabio thing.
He looked from Goldie to me, then yanked back the file. He turned to go, but not before he shoved it at me. “Here, newbie, get your feet christened with your second case. Prescription fraud. Two jokers to tail. Pauline Sokol, medical insurance fraud investigator extraordinaire, gets to prove herself yet again. Even though this case is way past your abilities, I don't have a fucking choice.” He shook his head. “Christ. This time, don't nearly get yourself killed.”
Then he was gone and all was right with the world.
Except that now I was facing my next assignmentâalone. I'd only worked for Fabio once, and that case was a piece of cake. Workers' Comp. Tail a suspect. Take pictures. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. Okay, I won't go into detail about how the first set of pictures I took was of the suspect's butt. Suffice it to say, the camera was camouflaged as a beeper, and it hadn't occurred to me to take it off my belt.
I learned my lesson though, and was readyâto work alone.
Perfect, since that first case had been “hindered” by none other than the mysterious Jagger. Be still my heart. Jagger was an enigma in the investigation field, even if no one knew who the hell he was, what his last name wasâor his first for that matterâor whom he actually worked for.
Me, I really didn't care.
There went my heart againâand something else. Okay, so the guy revved my engine, but, being the consummate professional, I never made a pass at himânor he at me. Shit. Wait, there was that one kiss under the mistletoe at my mother's house, but she'd egged him on, so it didn't count.
Goldie started to cough. I looked at him. “You have a fever.”
He rolled his eyes upward. “How can you tell?”
“Your eyes are all glassy, and a ruddy hue the likes of my mother's Christmas tablecloth is showing beneath your pancake makeup.”
“I'm dying,” he muttered.
I gave a soft laugh and a cluck of my tongue so as to convince him that he wasn't nearly deceased and opened the file. “Oh.”
Goldie looked at me. “Oh? That's your most professional assessment of your second case?”
I looked up. “Well .Â .Â . shoot, Goldie.”
He sat bolt upright. “What is it, Suga?”
I leaned closer to look at the file. I flipped several pages, leaned farther down to look at a photo and the name. “I think one of my suspects is already dead.”
“That'll mean less work.”
I looked up into his watery, feverish eyes. “True. But it's Mr. Wisnowski.”
“Wisnowski. One of my Uncle Walt's cronies from the senior citizens center.”
“So, old people die.”
“Uncle Walt's been, well, for the last few days, he's been insisting that Mr. Wisnowski .Â .Â . he was .Â .Â .
After consoling Goldie and his tonsils until he fell asleep on his zebra couch, I walked out of his office. Slowly I turned to shut the door without waking him. I'd promised to come back in a few hours and take him to the Hope Valley walk-in clinic. Mondays were usually busy, so he'd chosen to nap first and avoid the morning rush. Mondays were also senior citizens days. Well, truthfully, every day was senior day at the clinic.
Being a recently hired employee at Scarpello and Tonelli Insurance Company, I didn't have my own office. Fabio had said I had to work through my probationary period, which was probably a year, before he'd cough up the furniture and space. Goldie had been sweet enough to let me use his office and equipment when necessary, but it didn't make me feel as if I really belonged. As if I was truly a medical fraud insurance investigator.
I still felt like a burned-out ex-nurse working on a temporary job. Because, and this part wasn't in my plans, as much as I wanted to get out of nursing, my last case had dumped me right back into my old scrubs, working undercover at a clinic. That, of course, was because of the overpowering persuasion of none other than Jagger. With my help, he had cracked a multimillion-dollar medical insurance fraud case.
But two people had died in the process. Thankfully, I wasn't one of them.
I had made a sacred oath to myself that
was going to get me back into nursing.
I headed down the hallway and into the receptionist's little cubicle. I imagined Fabio had promised her a bigger space years ago, but here she sat in a tiny eight-by-four room. “Hey, Adele.”
She swung around, her earphone catching on the knob of the desk, yanking her back toward the wall. “Oops!”
I jumped up, but before I could untangle her, she'd reached up a gloved hand to do the job. Adele always wore white silken gloves. At first I'd thought it odd, but soon came to love the eccentricities of the displaced Canadian woman, who had become like a second mother to me.
Well, looking at her streetwalker-tight pink suit and bright pink lips that matched her nails, I knew my real mother would die at the comparison. You can't judge a book by its cover was a clichÃ© proven every day around here. From flamboyant Goldie with a heart of gold to greasy Fabio with the Godfather complex, to darling Adele Girard, who often spoke of herself in the third person, to Nick Caruso, with his leading-man good looks, the cast of characters often made me feel as if I were working on some movie set.
“You all right, Adele?” I plopped down on the nearby gray desk chair.
She smiled and spun around until she twirled back with a coffee in hand. She held it out toward me. I still had a hard time believing this woman was an ex-con. But she'd had a good reason for doing what she did. I can still hear her explaining, although I hadn't asked. “
My old lady was sick. The big
Ate her up to nothing. And, to boot, no medical insurance. I needed that money. The jury was right to convict me. Don't matter the need, you can't steal.
” She'd held up her gloved hands for me to study. “
Burned in the joint.
I looked over to see her watching me.