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Authors: Rhonda Pollero

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Knock Off

BOOK: Knock Off
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Knock Off

Knock Off

Rhonda Pollero

KENSINGTON BOOKS

http://www.kensingtonbooks.com

For my wonderful husband, Bob, and my precious Katie Scarlett—
thanks for giving me time, space, encouragement, and M&Ms.

In loving memory of Kyle McKinley Pollero (1985–1999)—I know
you’d be proud of me.

You’re never out of money until your

credit cards are maxed out.

One

If I could find a way to deep-fry chocolate, my life would be whole.

Or at least that’s what I told myself as I parked my BMW in its regular spot in front of the law offices of Dane, Lieberman and Zarnowski. I often muse about food when I’m in a funk.

It was a beautiful, sunny April morning, making it really hard for me to get excited about going to work. Okay, so I rarely got excited about going to work regardless of the weather. Then again, who does? I grabbed my adorable new Chanel bag, and with a quick, surreptitious glance, checked to be sure I was holding the pale pink bowling bag correctly. I was, and tugged it onto my shoulder.

It would be freaking embarrassing if my coworkers noticed the big black smear of God-only-knew-what on the lambskin leather. The smear would out me. I’d bought the damaged purse at the outlet in Vero Beach. I would take my secret vice to my grave.

No one would ever know that I, Finley Anderson Tanner, am a . . .
discount shopper.
And my other really huge fashion secret—I’m a tribute to Slightly Irregular. My wardrobe is a collection of the unloved cast-offs from the factory and/or the snagged and stained seconds discarded by the trendy stores, then sold at deep discounts. Thanks to the smudge, my new purse was marked down low enough to fit in my budget.

Well, that wasn’t
exactly
true. I didn’t have a budget so much as a propensity to carry just enough credit-card debt to force me to acknowledge that I have little if any shopping self-restraint.

Well, not just shopping. My excesses seem to be limit-less, guided only by my overwhelming desire to have it
now. It
can be anything. Anything I can pay for in install-ments, that is. My favorite word is
preapproved.
I especially like it when it’s stamped across a solicitation for yet another credit card.

So, that’s how I morphed into a twenty-nine-year-old woman who doesn’t technically own anything. My apartment is rented, my car is leased, and if we still had debtors’

prisons, I’d be serving life without parole.

Which is the reason I’m dragging myself into work when I’d far prefer to be headed for the beach on this spectacular South Florida Monday. I’d much rather be lying in the sun, listening to tunes on my almost paid-off iPod, wearing my five-percent-down, custom-made, barely there, body-hugging bikini and matching sarong, ignoring all the warnings about the dangers of sun exposure in favor of a bronze, blonde-complexion-flattering tan. Debt sucks.

Especially for a person like me, who—of my own voli-tion—has gone from moderate riches to heavily financed rags. The only high point of my week thus far has been finding a great deal on a solid screw-down crown on eBay for my build-it-from-parts Rolex project. Hey, everybody’s gotta have a hobby. Over the past year, I’ve acquired the pink mother-of-pearl face and a sapphire crystal. I figure by the time I’m thirty-five, I should have enough parts to assemble the watch of my dreams.

For today, I’m dependent on my really cute Kuber to let me know that I’m more than twenty minutes late.

Stepping into the ornate lobby of the firm made my watch irrelevant. I was instantly given the evil smirk by Margaret Ford. As always, the fifty-five-year-old receptionist was stationed behind the crescent-shaped desk, pen poised, Bluetooth tucked into her right ear.

Margaret’s crooked and overly thinned brows arched disapprovingly. “Nice to see you, Finley.”

Liar, liar, pants on fire.
I knew Margaret was the source of the unflattering nickname bestowed on me at the firm.

It wasn’t all that original, either. I think I was in elementary school the first time someone put my initials together and called me Fat. The only difference between then and now was that in elementary school, the kids called me Fat to my face. The receptionist and her pudgy posse didn’t have that kind of nerve. I greeted her politely, then asked, “Any messages?”

She shuffled through the neat stack of pink notes, looking completely put out by my very reasonable request. Then again, Margaret always looked put out whenever she was forced to deal with me. With a less than subtle “
Humph
,”

she passed four messages and a thin folder across the polished mahogany desk. “Mr. Dane left this for you to review.

The client will be here in”—she paused for effect—“twenty minutes.”

Twenty minutes? Damn. Barely enough time for a decent couple of cups of coffee. Still, I smiled, thanked her, and collected the stuff before heading toward the elevator.

The Estates and Trusts Department of the firm occupied the entire second floor of a six-story building in West Palm Beach. Several secretaries—oops—administrative assistants were arranged in a cluster around various fax machines, laser printers, networked computers, and incessantly ringing telephones. None of them so much as looked up when I passed, exiting to the right and heading down the corridor toward my office.

Thanks to one of those plug-in things, my space smelled faintly of mango. I went about my usual morning ritual— flipping the light switch, opening the blinds to my stunning view of the parking lot below, turning on my coffeepot, then jiggling the cordless mouse to awaken my hibernating laptop.

I slipped my purse into the desk drawer and reached for the telephone. Maudlin Margaret took messages only from people who were too impatient or too incompetent to leave a voice mail.

“You’ve reached the desk of Finley Tanner. Today is Monday, April second. I’m in the office but unable to take your call right now. Please leave a message, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. If you need immediate assistance, please press zero for the receptionist.”

I checked my voice mailbox and scribbled the gist of the message from the court clerk regarding the D’Auria estate.

Being far too impatient to wait for the coffeemaker to finish, I filled my mug with coffee sludge before turning my attention to the file I’d brought up from Reception.

It was unusual for Victor Dane to assign a case to me.

He was a civil trial attorney and I was an E&T paralegal, so rarely—thank God—did our paths cross. Victor is a total asshole. Worse even, an asshole with money, dyed hair, and a passion for man-toys. His latest toy is a black Hummer.
A freaking Hummer!
I shook my head at the thought.

Who needs a Hummer in the flattest state in the country?

The same guy who has his nails buffed and his teeth bleached at regular intervals, I suppose.

So, thanks to Vain Dane, I opened a new document on my computer and began entering the data before Stacy Evans arrived. I got as far as the basic information off the death certificate before my intercom buzzed.

“Yes?”

“Mrs. Evans is here. Should I send her in?”

“Yes, thanks.”

I stood and went toward the door to greet the grieving widow. It was something I’d grown pretty good at during the past seven years. Florida had a goodly amount of grieving widows, most of whom fell into two general categories.

Real widows were normally over sixty and devastated by their loss. Faux widows ranged in age from mid-twenties to early forties and had dollar signs embossed on their pupils.

One look at Stacy Evans told me she was a real widow.

Her slender shoulders were hunched forward, and her sunken green eyes were red and puffy. She looked frail and fragile.

After showing her into my office, I discreetly moved a box of tissues to within her reach. “I’m Finley,” I began, bracing myself for the possibility of a crying jag. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” she responded in a flat voice. She clutched a large leather tote to her chest. Two thick manila folders peeked out from the bag.

“Would you like some coffee? Tea? Water?”

She shook her head. Mrs. Evans was a golfer. She had the brown, leathery skin, a no-frills haircut, and wore those horrible little socks with tiny golf tees rimming the ankles.

I’m going to hell. Here this woman was in the throes of despair and I’m ragging on her socks.

I pointed at the files she held, prompting, “Mr. Dane asked you to bring along your late husband’s will?”

I took a sip of Kona macadamia nut coffee while she eased the folders from her tote. She placed them on my desk but seemed reluctant to completely surrender them to me. Instead, she placed her palms on top of them and met my eyes. “My husband didn’t die.”

I almost choked on my own spit. I had a copy of his death certificate. Marcus Evans was very dead. So dead, in fact, that he’d been cremated. Now I understood why Vain Dane had passed this woman off to me instead of meeting her himself. Weenie.

“Mrs. Evans,” I said, donning my most compassionate expression, “perhaps you’d be more comfortable if we put this meeting off for a little while. There’s no hurry, and it sounds as if you need—”

“He was murdered,” she injected, her face suddenly animated. “Marc would never fall asleep behind the wheel of a car. And he most certainly wouldn’t do it at nine in the morning.”

“Accidents happen,” I suggested gently. Bad idea. The woman across from me suddenly looked seriously pissed.

“Young lady,” she began, her colorless lips pulled taut,

“do not dismiss me. I may be old, but I’m not senile.” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I tried to tell Victor my husband was murdered during our telephone conversation.”

Victor?
Oh, crap.
It would have been nice for Vain Dane to tell me the woman was a personal friend. Time to back pedal. “Mrs. Evans, I’m sorry if I’ve upset you.”

“My husband’s murder upset me,” she fired back. “You are just annoying me.”

“I’m truly sorry.” I sat back against my vented leather chair, folding my hands around my now tepid coffee mug as I bought some time. “Why don’t we start from the beginning?”

“Marcus was murdered.” She took a sheet of paper, neatly typed on both sides, from one of the files and slipped it across my desk, then remained as still as a statue while I scanned it. The official accident report. If there was something wrong, it sure as hell wasn’t jumping off the page at me. I figured maybe I was just having a prolonged blonde moment, so I read it again. That seemed to please Mrs. Evans.

At nine-o-five on the morning of March twenty-seventh, Marcus Evans had driven his Cadillac off I-95, down an embankment, and landed—roof down—in a canal just south of Jupiter. The official mechanism of death was drowning. The manner of death was accident.

Mrs. Evans wasn’t senile so much as she was just plain wrong. Or maybe psycho? All I knew for sure was Vain Dane had handed her off to me. Which was just the kind of thing I should have expected.

“Have you spoken to the police?” I asked with due seriousness—due, that is, to my boss being a chickenshit, cowardly asshole for palming his psycho friend off onto me instead of handling it himself.

Eyes narrowed, Mrs. Evans pursed her lips. Apparently I wasn’t the first person to ask. “They dismissed me.”

Waving one hand—the one sporting a five-carat, emerald-cut diamond—she deposited her bag in the second chair and leaned closer to me. “It had to be murder,” she said, speaking in a conspiratorial tone.

In the library? With a wrench? By Professor Plum?

“Was the car examined for mechanical defects?”
Have you
been examined for psychological defects?

Which wasn’t really fair, I had to admit. The woman was
grieving.
I got that. But couldn’t she have worked through that before coming to see me? It was hard trying to have a rational conversation with someone who wasn’t in the here and now. I felt bad for her, but, really, she should be telling this story to the police— Oh yeah. They didn’t believe her, either.

It took everything in me not to sigh. I folded my hands on my desk and gave her my I-am-hanging-on-your-every-word look that I’d perfected over the years. I was pretty good at it. I’d used it frequently during bad dates.

“Not by the police,” she said flatly. “Something about the witness statements supporting their theory that it was an accident, and they claim that no further investigation is warranted. I had his car towed to Palm Beach Motor Specialists on Okeechobee Boulevard,” she explained. “I need you to arrange for an expert to inspect it. Again. Marc took care of his car. Never missed a single service appointment. Someone tampered with something, maybe the brake lines. I don’t know what, specifically, but something must have been done to the car, and I fully expect you to get to the bottom of it.”

Stacy smoothed her hand over her functional yet expertly coiffed pale brown hair while I tried to think of the best course of action.

I read the determination in the set of her jaw that was mirrored in her narrowed eyes. I also reminded myself that she was a personal friend of the senior partner. Which meant my first priority was to appease the client. It didn’t matter that my investigatory skills were pretty much limited to researching clear title to effect a transfer of real property. For two hundred dollars an hour, if she wanted me to do a Nancy Drew, so be it.

“I should make copies of what you have,” I told her, watching the tension drain from her shoulders as I spoke.

I pulled a retainer agreement from my desk drawer and passed it to her. I recited the high points of the agreement by rote. “This case may necessitate the hiring of a private investigator as an independent contractor,” I explained, “any of those charges are considered separate from and not included in the hourly rates charged by Dane, Lieberman and Zarnowski.”

“What about you?” she asked pointedly.

“Excuse me?”

“Well, why was I relegated to a paralegal? Shouldn’t a real lawyer be handling a murder case?”

Yes,
I thought,
a murder case would be handled by an
attorney. The paranoid delusions of a grieving widow are,
however, my cross to bear.
“I work under the direct supervision of an attorney,” I told her as I started affixing “sign here” flags to the signature lines on several forms with a little more pressure than necessary. “Mr. Dane is and will continue to be personally involved.”

BOOK: Knock Off
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