Authors: Lori Avocato
Tags: #Suspense, #FICTION/General
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This novel is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or are used fictitiously.
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First Diversion Books edition June 2013.
I stared down at the Jagger-handwritten note that said, “Case number six. Practice your driving skills, Sherlock. We'll talk in the morningâat our spot.”
Suddenly the noise from Goldie's “nose-revealing” party in my parents' house brought me back to reality. My dearest roommate and second best friend was now celebrating the success (in his opinion) of his recent plastic surgery. Gotta love dear Gold. We all did, especially my other roomie, Miles. They were two of the best guys in the world, and although each had their own little quirks, I loved them dearly. The guys. Not the quirks. But I had to admit that on a daily basis I looked forward to seeing Goldie's outfitsâespecially when he wore Armani from the women's department. Then again, he looked handsome in men's Armani too, but when in his female mode, I always learned some fashion statement from him that I later stole for myself.
And since knowing Goldie, I was looking better and better.
Maybe there was hope for me yet.
I stared at the note again and decided I had to forget that Jagger had called Dunkin' Donuts “our spot,” as if he thought we really were an “our” (be still my foolish heart), and forced my mind back to case number six. That was my sixth medical fraud insurance case to investigate.
Practice my driving skills. Hmm. Okay, I'd be the first to admit I was no Mario Andretti, and, okay again, I admitted to closing my eyes when driving but only if something bad was about to happen. So what could case number six be about?
Me and Jagger racing in the Grand Prix?
I started to laugh when I felt a presence behind me. My hormones readied to explode and turn to see Jagger, but unfortunately, very unfortunately, I turned to see Fabio Scarpello. My boss. A definite misnomer.
Then the recent revelationâby none other than Jaggerâthat he was, in fact, a Tonelli, making
my boss hit me. Hard.
I grabbed and subsequently startled Fabio. “Is Jagger the owner of Scarpello and Tonelli Insurance Company? Does he own it? Do you? Is he my boss?”
Normally Fabio would have called me “doll” and brushed off any of my questions with a curse or two, but he looked directly at me. Damn. Was that fear in his eyes? No one had ever been able to say who Jagger really was. What was his last name? Or first name for that matter? And who he worked for.
However, I always figured Jagger intimidated Fabio.
“Well?” I yanked on the lapel of Fabio's dark brown polyester suit. “Weeeeeeell?”
“Ha? That's all you have to say? âHa' doesn't explain shit, Fabio. Tell me the truth!”
Finally he reached both hands up between my arms and pushed me until I lost my grip. While he tried to straighten out his always-wrinkled suit, he said, “
With that, he turned and walked down the steps, out to his car, and drove off with me standing thereâback to square one.
And here I thought I'd had some information on Jagger.
Not to mention that I thought he was my boss!
What a fool! No one got any information on Jaggerâunless
gave it to them.
The next morning I pulled into the parking lot of the local Hope Valley Dunkin' Donuts. Hope Valley was not exactly a booming metropolis, but it was where I was born, raised, and lived my entire life.
As a tiny, very ethnic town with a green in the center and bordered by Hartford, Connecticut, one of the largest insurance capitals, Hope Valley was the center of my existenceâwhich said a lot. Sad but true.
After burning out of a very successful nursing career, I decided to throw that profession out of the proverbial window and landed (through my roomie, Miles, who had connections all over town) this job. Pauline Sokol, ex-RN, medical insurance fraud investigator.
I smiled to myself as I watched Jagger's black Suburban pull into the spot next to me.
I licked my lips. Only because they were dry!
I couldn't eat a thing if my mouth dried like the Sahara each time the guy appeared. And appear he did. Mostly when I least expected him, but I will say, he'd taught me a lot of what I now knew about investigating medical insurance fraud.
Limited amount. Sure. But when he gave me his standard, “Atta girl, Sherlock,” I meltedâand knew I was learning and growing in this profession.
I rolled down my window. “Hey.”
Once he got out of his SUV, he nodded, paused, and when I got out of my Volvo, we both walked in to get our coffee.
Jagger did the orderingâas usual. The thing about that was, it always gave me a jolt that he knew exactly what I'd want. Hazelnut decaf, light and sweet with one Splenda, and either a Boston Cream donut or a French Csrueler. Today I was in the mood for French.
“Give her a French crueler,” I heard him say to the clerkâand didn't even blink my eyes.
However, there was no denying the little hormonal surge inside me.
It was always a yikes kinda moment, hearing that Jagger could just about read my mind. I turned my flushed face away from him so he wouldn't read
kinds of thoughts.
After we got our order, I followed Jagger to the last booth by the window.
Sometimes though our spot was out in the parking lotâin his SUV, which was big enough for a family of four to vacation in. I actually debated whether Jagger lived in the Suburban that wanted to be an RV.
But even if I asked as a direct question, there was no telling if he'd answer.
He was just that mysterious.
And I loved it. Damn.
He sat down and took a sip of his coffee. Black. Natch. Nothing pretentious about Jagger. “We start today on your sixth case, Sherlock.”
He used that little nickname for me in jestâat firstâsince I started out in the profession knowing nothing. But now he used it more as a term of respect for my learning the job.
At least that's how I chose to view it, and I was going with that permanently.
“Yeah, six.” I took a sip of my coffee, licked my lips, and broke off a piece of crueler, but before I shoved it into my mouth, I said, “What the hell did you mean about driving?”
He leaned back and looked around Dunkin' Donuts as if half expecting some spies to be nibbling muffins and sipping coffee and listening to us.
When he looked back at me, my hand shook, so I shoved the donut into my mouth. The shaking wasn't only because of him looking at meâthat was normal. This time it was how his eyes grew concerned that made me shake and eat. Jagger was going to fill me in on my next caseâand it troubled him.
You didn't want Jagger troubled. Although I had to say, I always felt safe with him.
I chewed and swallowed. “Come on, Jagger, tell me about my case. The driving bit. Etcetera.”
He sipped his coffee very slowly. Very deliberately. Very Jagger-like.
“Reports are that there is some suspicious activity going on that is costing the insurance companies money. Big money.”
“Then you're not talking about my case.”
“Actually I was serious. You know I never get the big money cases.”
Over his cup he said, “You have to start somewhere, Sherlock.”
And I did. With Worker's Comp fraud to plastic surgery fraud and now what? What kind of fraud involved driving?
“Oh, wait. Does this have to do with visiting nurses or something?” I looked at the rest of the crueler, thought about unbuttoning my size four jeansâbut only for a deeper breathâand while looking at Jagger, stuck the rest of it into the napkin, which I methodically folded up to save for my pup, Spanky. He was a doll, and I shared custody of him with my two roommates.
“So,” I said, still looking at Jagger. “You are telling me that my case number six is a big one? A costly one?” My heart started to pound when I thought I could make a killing on this case if the bonuses were in conjunction with the wins.
No one needed money like I did after co-signing a loan I got burned on and giving the term “shop until you drop” new meaning. I really couldn't swing a place of my own yet, and although I loved living with Miles and Goldie, as a thirty-something, I yearned for my own place and to give them privacy.
“I'm telling you we start tomorrow on your case, and it's the biggest one Fabio has given you yet.”
Ugh. Fabio. “So why are you telling me about it instead of Fabio doing the deed?” I still couldn't figure out Jagger's place in all of this. I'd learned over time not to even think about it, but on my last case he'd spilled some beans, and I thought I was cookedâ¦until Fabio added his two cents.
“He gave me the info since I had filed the report.”
I leaned forward. “You filed the report? What report?”
Jagger leaned back (no doubt to get out of my face or to make me get out of his face) and gave me a Jagger-look. You don't even want to know. “It was brought to my attention that TLC Air and Land is making way too much dough and maybe not on the up and up.”
“TLC? The ambulance company that has the market locked in on the northern side of Hope Valley?”
“Yeah. Apparently it's not exactly Tender Loving Care Express, Sherlock.”
“Wow. Uncle Walt has used that ambulance service a few times as have numerous friends of his. It's not safe?”
“Relax. It's safe enough, but someone is making money on itâ”
“Off the insurance companies,” I said, worrying about my favorite, eighty-something uncle.
My heart warmed like a puppy's (Okay, I was thinking man's best friend but not exactly a canine).
“So, TLC Air and Land is bilking the insurance companiesâ”
“For millions,” he said.
“Millâ¦ions? I'm getting a case to investigate medical insurance fraud in the millions?” Gulp. My mouth dried again.
Jagger shook his head. See, when he did that once, he was perturbed. Twice meant exasperated. Three times and, well, I better get the hell away from him!
He leaned forward, took a drink of coffee until his cup was empty, set it down, and looked at me. “Someone inside TLC reported billing fraud. Claims of charging for oxygen that was never used, and the law only allows a flat rate charge anyway, billing for advanced life support that was never given, air ambulance charges for statute miles rather than air milesâ”
I wrinkled my forehead.
“Statute, on the ground miles. 5,280 feet. Twists and turns on streets add plenty of mileage, which adds up. In the air would be a lot less.”
“Makes sense. Wow. How crooked.”
Jagger merely looked at me, as well he should. Every suspect I'd investigated was crooked. Duh.
Suddenly it hit me. Jagger knew way too much about my case. Jagger talked way too much about my case.
Jagger thought he was going to be part of my case.
“You're not helping me with this one.” The words actually came out sounding very sensible (to me), logical, and firm.
“Tomorrow you report to TLC.”
“Oh, good. You're not going with me.” Phew. I really didn't want to work with him. “Am I going to be doing the receptionist job orâ”
Looks really do say everything. I figured that out in seconds when I stared at Jagger.
He was working with me on this one.
He'd gotten me to don my nursing scrubs and head back into a profession I'd burned out of.
working with me!
Oh great, Jagger and me riding in close quarters for an entire caseâ¦on the old Tender Loving Careâ¦or should I say Tough Luck Charlie Ambulance Company after we got through with them.
Scrubs. Ick. I hated wearing them, and yet I had on my bright pink ones today. Reminded me way too much of my past careerâthe one I wanted nothing to do with now yet kept getting thrown back into.
This I blamed on none other than Jagger.
Okay, it wasn't always his fault, but the guy had broad shoulders (sigh) and could handle anything. Sure it made sense that I would investigate the cases involving medical fraud.
That didn't mean I had to like itâor the damn scrubs.
I headed out of my bedroom and down the stairs.
Lying on the couch with a cold pack on his forehead was none other than my darling Goldie.
“Hey, suga',” he mumbled.
“Sinuses acting up again?” I thought about all the suffering he'd recently gone through for the “new” nose, and how maybe that caused him more sinus problems. “May is always a bad month for you, Gold. You taking your daily local honey?” He peered out from under the icepack.
“Gold, you have to take it! It's like desensitizing yourself to the pollen.”
“Why you dressed like that?” he mumbled, ignoring my sage advice and more than likely expecting me to give him the horticultural lesson that bees pollinate the flowers, and when the pollen gets into the honey and we take it in small daily doses, it's just like getting a shot at the allergist's office.
I sat on the edge of the white couch Miles so lovingly picked out for our snowy decorated living room. Sometimes I needed sunglasses, but the guy had exceptional taste in dÃ©cor.
“Shit, Gold. I'm back to work already. Newport is barely a distant memoryâ”
Goldie shrieked but not too loudly. Guess he didn't want to scare Spanky, who was nestled beneath his arm. “Please don't remind me of that debacle. Let it fade into the sunset.”
“It was only a few weeks ago, so I'm guessing fading is going to take some time. Either way, Gold, I start work today at TLC.”
He dropped the ice bag to the side, landing it smack on Spanky's paw, causing him to spring up and jump off the couch before Goldie or I could catch him. I waved my hand at Goldie who was apologizing to the absent pup.
“He's afraid if a paper falls. Don't sweat it. Andâ” I leaned forward, inches from his perfect nose “âwhat's
look for? What do you know about TLC that I need to know?”
Goldie knew something about everything, but not in the same way that Jagger did. Let's just say, Goldie was always on the side of the lawâwhile Jagger walked a fine line between right and wrongâbut never got caught.
Gotta love both of them.
“Come on, Gold. Spill.”
He lifted the ice bag to his forehead. “Word on the street is they've been in much better shape financially since the nephew took over.” Leaning back into the white softness of Miles's silk pillows, Goldie sighed. “Payne Sterling.”
“The nephew? I'm guessing he is going to be a pain to deal with and is not exactly sterling.” I laughed.
Goldie glared at me with a perfectly mascaraed eye.
“Okay. Okay. That was lame. I know. But Gold, I'm going back into
(To my ears that last word came out like the Exorcist's tone)! Cut me some slack here.”
“Nursing on ambulance runs will be different, suga'. Especially flying in those air ambulancesâ¦”
I knew Goldie was talking. His mouth kept moving, but my mind wandered down the air ambulance road. Just exactly how many near fatal orâ¦eeksâ¦fatal helicopter crashes occurred per year? Weren't those air ambulances caught up in telephone lines pretty regularly?
I jumped. “Hmm?”
“You're as white as this freaking room. Stop worrying. The cruise ship didn't sink in the Bermuda triangle, and the helicopters are not going to crash.”
He knew me so well. I did shiver at the thought of the cruise ship we'd taken a few months back when I was assigned a case on it. Actually it turned out to be great fun.
“Gold, Miles and I had a nursing friend named Hilly Wentworth. She joined the Air Force after leaving St. Greg's Hospital. All I remember from her emails to us was that there was an Air Force regulation that said the fire truck had to be called to the helipad each time the helicopter was going to land!”
“Wow,” Goldie mused. “Wouldn't make me feel very safe.”
“No,” I mumbled.
Goldie grew serious.
I was not liking this. Not liking it one bit. “Gold?”
“You're correct. Payne really is not exactly sterling. Took over the business and, well, no one likes him. Now I know that's not reason to give the guy a bad name, but there is something about him that begs for dislike. Almost hatred.”
“Yeah. Nephew Payne makes money, but I'm not sure how much on the up and up he is. Anyway, that's the street talk, and you know how reliable that can be.”
Suddenly the pit of my stomach knotted. Yikes again.
“What do you mean you are not flying?” Jagger asked, looking at me from his SUV. Well, not exactly “asked.” More like threatened, although I'll never know how he could turn a question into a threat.
Then again, I was talking Jagger here.
I leaned closer to him before we got out of his Suburban. “I'll do the ambulance runs, but I'm not setting foot on any helicopter. They're not safe.”
Until my dying day I'll never really know if the look in Jagger's eyes was pity for me (my best bet), fear that I'd get hurt or worse (okay, also a best bet), or accusing me of being a wuss (oh so very Jagger-like), but whatever intent he had, I was standing firm.
“Come on, I'll introduce you to the pilot you'll be flying with.” With that he got out of the SUV, didn't wait for me, and walked into the main building of the TLC property.
Three gigantic garages bordered the place while ambulances and vans sporting the TLC logo, “Ride in style and comfort” were painted on the sides.
I couldn't help but wonder if accident victims even cared about comfort or style and why the heck would an ambulance company advertise that? I was thinking more along the lines of “speedy delivery,” but the late Mr. Rogers only came to mind. I loved him!
On the north side of the complex (and it was large enough to call it one) was the helipad with two copters sitting at the ready.
When I turned back, Jagger was staring.
“I'm not riding in them,” I said and walked in front of him to the door marked entrance. The way my cases usually went, I was certain they were expecting me for my first day of dutyâand that Jagger had all the kinks ironed out of the plans.
At the door, I grabbed the handle, but Jagger's hand covered mine before I could yank. “What?” I said, turning. “Are you suddenly turning into a gentleman and opening doors for me? I laughed. Sounded more like a snort. To ignore my burning complexion (Yeah, he still had the power to embarrass the hell out of me), I pulled my hand from beneath his, ignored the fact that I wanted to rub it, and stood there speechless but with my shoulders straightened to show it was my choice.
He opened the door, walked inside, and over his shoulder said, “If the case calls for it, you'll fly on them, or you'll drive an ambulance in necessary.”
Speechless was an understatement.
I followed him inside, biting my tongue although I really had no snappy comment other than “no I won't” but felt it would have come out sounding like a kidâand my foot would stomp all on its own.
The room hummed with phones ringing, air conditioning clicking on and off, and the sunlight streaming in through bay windows that overlooked a fountain (of cupidâ¦geez) and the rest of the complex. All in all a nice office.
They really must have been raking in the dough.
Before I could turn to see whom Jagger was talking to, I heard, “
!” The French Canadian version of “that sucks!”
I knew this just as I knew who'd said it because Lilla Marcel was sitting directly before meâbehind the reception desk.
An obvious Jagger-plant even if an illegal from Canada.
I didn't even want to go there, knowing Jagger had finagled something to get Lilla working on the inside for us. Her mother was Adele Girard, Fabio's receptionist and ex-con. I curled my lips at the thought. Adele was like a second mother to meâwhich would make my first one gasp if she saw the “hooker” attire that dear Adele wore. After getting her hands burned in prison (after she'd committed fraud to get money for her mother who was dying of cancer), Adele always wore gloves. White ones. Looked great with her spiffy, usually black and white, skin-tight, polka dotted outfits. And very fifties.
I loved Adele.
And after recently meeting her daughter, Lilla, I had taken to her too. I pushed past Jagger. “Lilla! Great to seeâ”
Before I could finish, I'd been yanked away toward the doorway where Jagger leaned into me and said, “Are you nuts, Pauline?”
When he called me by my real name, Jagger was dead serious. Suddenly I realized he was correct though. I should have pretended not to know Lilla. Damn. Sometimes I sunk back into Nurse Pauline instead of Investigator Pauline.
I pulled free of Jagger and rubbed my arm as if it hurt. That always got a look of concern from him. “Sorry. I slipped. I'm human, ya know.”
I turned to go back to “meet” Lilla and heard a mumble of “don't I know it.”
Of course that could be what I
I heard, but I was going with it. See, with Jagger, I had to sometimes take leeway with interpreting thingsâto sway them in my favor.
The guy was a veritable closed book.
I walked up to the reception desk and tried to ignore Lilla's beauty (sometimes that could be very intimidating) and the fact that she wore some kind of Victoria Secret's outfit all in black (which, in fact, was even more intimidating).
Jagger, too, usually wore black.
It dawned on me that Lilla was a bit of a female Jaggerâbut when we first met, I immediately liked her.
“Hi, I'm Pauline Sokol.” I held my hand out to her. “And you are?”
I noticed her nails, the length of some heroine-addicted Asian warlord's, as she shook my hand and without a beat pretended not to know me.
“Nice to meet you, Pauline.” She held up a clipboard with several sheets of paper on it. In her thick French Canadian accent she said, “Please to fill these out.”
I smiled, winked, and took the paperwork. New hire. Eeks. I wanted to shake my head and run. How the hell was I getting back into nursing again?
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jagger approachingâwith another fantastically gorgeous guy in tow.
Perhaps I'd died on the way to work here and this was Heavenâwhere males out-populated the females two to one. Wait, surely there couldn't be that many men in Heaven.
Where Jagger's hair was a deep brown, this other guy's was light sunshineâand nearly shoulder length. All right, it fell below his eyes and had some fantastic waves that any women would envy. Deep brown eyes matched Jagger's, but where Jag's were mysterious, this guy's were friendlier. Sparkling. He stood about 6'2.”
I swallowed hard and told myself to cool off, or I'd never make it on this case.
Silently I said a Hail Mary to my favorite saint, Saint Theresa, that this guy was not going to be working here with me.
“Sky Palmer, Pauline, the pilot of one of the choppers,” Jagger said as if in a dream.
I was hung up on the closeness of the two hunks, my hands shaking, my knees knocking, and my hormones on speed dial (with a busy signal).
I had to getâ¦you knowâ¦soon.
Slowly I held out my hand since the guy next to Jagger had his in front of me. I felt a nudge on my left arm and heard a “what the hell is wrong with you?”
Jagger had pulled me back to reality. Delicious reality.
“I'm sorry. I didn't get your name?” Proud that I'd managed a logical sentence since our hands still touched, I smiled like a fool.
“Sky. Sky Palmer,” he said in this Texas drawl that had me nearly drool as if I'd just bitten a juicy rib-eye. He let go of my hand.
I tucked mine into my pants pocket and readied to reply but was cut off by Jagger's “And don't go joking about Sky and pilot. He's heard it all. Sky is his real name.”
I bit back the joke I'd had ready to say, turned to Jagger, and mouthed “No kidding,” then looked at Sky. Who the hell named a bouncing baby Sky? “Great to meet you. Texas? Huh?”
“Yes, ma'am.” He winked and smiledâI think at the same time, which had me nearly in a pile of liquid like the melted Wicked Witch in Oz.
“Oh, no need for the âma'am.' Just call me Pauline. I'm so looking forward to flying with you, Sky.” Quickly I turned to Jagger and mouthed, “Shut up.”