Pauline Sokol, ex-RN turned medical insurance–fraud investigator, finds herself embroiled in a scam at a weight loss clinic in the scenic New Mexico desert. As if going undercover in a heavyweight body suit isn’t bad enough, she’s not allowed to eat sweets . . . and her roommate turns out to be a mysterious—and very hot—man.
It seems to be an open-and-shut case, but Pauline isn’t the only undercover investigator on the scene. And when a reporter turns up dead, it’s up to Pauline to solve the case—with a little help from her handsome, but incorrigible, colleague, Jagger. Pauline knows the clock is ticking—and it’s not just counting down the minutes until she can eat chocolate again.
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"What the hell do you mean, I am too thin to assign a multimillion dollar fraud case to?" I looked at my sleazy boss, thinking he'd finally flipped. Then again, he was never flipped correctly to begin with. "That's got to be politically incorrect on so many levels." Which, in fact, did not surprise me at all about this guy.
"Look, doll —"
I leaned forward and squinted at Fabio Scarpello, unfortunately the owner of the Scarpello and Tonelli Insurance Company, and said, "If you ever call me 'doll' again, you'll be wearing your lip-chewed cigar up your —"
I swung around to see my best friend and fellow PI, Goldie Perlman, waltz into the room as if he knew I needed saving. Well, not exactly saving. Over the last six cases I'd gotten pretty damn good at bailing out myself — okay, at least keeping myself alive — but that had to account for something since I'd only been doing this job for six months. I'd burned out of a thirteen-year nursing career and Fabio, in his infinite wisdom, always assigned me the medical fraud cases.
Sure it made sense on an intellectual level, but I hated donning my scrubs!
"Hey, Gold," I said, admiring his black pinstriped (skirt) suit, gold silken blouse, blonde wig which had been fashioned into a chignon that looked oh-so-real (not that I was an expert on wigs, but Goldie's were always made of human hair. Had to be.), and his snakeskin black spike heels that made my feet ache in my Nikes. "What brings you in here?" He leaned over, kissed my cheek, and whispered, "Apparently to save your ass, Suga. And your job."
I groaned. He was right. If I pissed Fabio off, he could fire me on the spot. Heaven knew I needed the money after the fiasco of a co-signed loan that left my bank account pale and my ex-friend the owner of a Lexus, I didn't even know the color of. The one thing I had going for me though was that I'd solved more medical fraud cases for Fabio in the last six months than the other investigators had in a year.
Except for Goldie.
Oh, yeah and Jagger too.
Ah, Jagger. He'd become an enigma around here. A mysterious hunk of a guy with either a first name and no last name or visa versa. Each time he sauntered into a room (yes, Jagger only sauntered), my heart went pitter-pat, then my mind would scream that we were co-workers and my Catholic School–Induced Conscience (CSIC) would kick in — and my hormones would kick out.
Ah, Jagger. Sorry, but that was worth repeating.
"Look, dol — Sokol, I ain't got all day. You want this case, you gain about fifty pounds," Fabio said as if that was the be all and end all of the job. "Fast."
Goldie looked at me. "Huh?"
"Fabio has a huge case in a weight loss clinic in New Mexico. Mega bucks being stolen. I want to go there undercover as a patient."
Gold looked at my size four body. "Never in my wildest imagination would I say this, Suga, but he's ... correct. You'd stand out like a sore pinkie on the fist of an ape."
"What the hell does that mean?" I asked.
Goldie chuckled. "Never mind. You have to be overweight to go there. But," he turned and aimed his words at Fabio, "you are not going to risk your health by gaining weight."
"Then the assignment gets passed on to Myrtle. Her butt size will keep her from getting noticed." Fabio chewed more on his cigar. Thank goodness he nibbled it down enough so it went out and didn't stink up his office.
"Myrtle doesn't know shit about medical fraud. Pauline Sokol does." Goldie took me by the arm. "I'll handle it. Have Adele book us into the clinic." With that he guided me out the door with my mouth hanging open.
"You're gonna need my expertise, Suga."
That hurt. Goldie was saying he didn't think I could handle this case on my own. Damn. And here I thought my best friend and roomy — along with his lover, Miles, my other best friend and roomy — had more confidence in me. Actually, Miles and Goldie recently celebrated a civil ceremony of marriage and he'd recently returned from their honeymoon. Maybe that's why he was acting this way. Hopefully.
At the end of the hallway Goldie stopped, took me by the shoulders and said, "I'm surprised at you, Suga. You know me better than to doubt my suggestions."
"Or to doubt your abilities. I know you can do a bang-up job. I'm not Jagger going there to make sure your ass doesn't get busted ... er ... or worse, I'm going there to help you stay in character."
"I think I'm going to topple over, Gold," I shouted as he zipped the back of my "outfit" up and I hit the sidewall of the dressing room. "Ouch!" "Sorry, Suga. We're going to have to give you some lessons on walking and wearing that thing. Must have something to do with physics or gravity or poise. Maybe all three." He stood back after propping me up and said, "That's why you need me."
"Thank God for you, Gold." I held onto his arm and looked in the mirror. "Oh ... my."
The full-body padded suit, including chubby arms and legs, transformed me into someone even I didn't recognize. The beige color was just light enough to blend with my Slavic completion. The damn thing even had darker areas on the breasts that I assumed the designer thought looked like nipples. Chestnuts came to mind.
"I can't wear this. It's insulting to people with real weight issues, Gold. I can't."
He gave me a motherly-Goldie look. Only my real mother, Stella Sokol, who would be horrified at the comparison although she loved Goldie and Miles as evidenced by giving them condoms as stocking stuffers each Christmas, ever accomplished a more intense, yes-you'll-do-anything-I-say-cause-I'm-your-mother look.
"Suga." Goldie tried to hug me but even being his svelte six feet only managed to get halfway around. "I know you have that nurturing nurse's nature and would never intentionally hurt or insult anyone, but I also know that if you don't get into that clinic and find out who is committing fraud and how, lots of folks are going to be affected."
"Insurance premiums will skyrocket," I mumbled. "And there are so many who really need the weight loss help."
"True, Suga." Goldie held me at arm's length. "We need to work on your face. Way too thin." He waved his hands in the air. "No problem. I have connections."
Suddenly I pictured myself as Robin Williams doing Mrs. Doubtfire, somehow including latex and fake teeth. "How will I be able to work with all this costume stuff on?"
"Like the pro you are, Suga. Like the pro you are."
I nodded, very weakly, and then a thought hit me that nearly made me topple over again.
What if Jagger sees me in this?
Jagger leaned forward, just enough so that his beige chambray shirt didn't get dunked in my mother's gravy (since she had the gang over for my bon-voyage night) and said, "You gain some weight?"
I tried to look horrified since I didn't even have the body suit on. "Didn't your mother ever teach you it's not polite to ask a lady that question?"
My mother shoved the dish of roast pork (today was Thursday which meant pork since my mother cooked the same meal on the same day of the week, forever) toward my father and said, "He's right, Pauline. No harm in pointing out the truth."
Why doesn't she just stab me with the cutlery? I thought. Then again, mother was never violent. With her knack for reading children's minds, she didn't need to be. My two sisters, two brothers, and myself never had a chance against mother.
Daddy silently ate after she lobbed a scoop of mashed potatoes, which he never asked for, onto his dish. Although a strong man, daddy never had a chance against Stella Sokol either.
Goldie and Miles remained silent after my mother's comment, since I knew where they lived! With me!
Uncle Walt, my favorite uncle who'd resided with us all my life, took a forkful of pork and said, "Leave the girl alone, Stella. Men like heavy sometimes."
Thank you favorite uncle.
Geez. I'd tried the last few weeks to eat a bit more so that I could avoid Goldie-fashioned-facial-Latex and maybe it was working. Still, I just knew he wouldn't let me get away with chubby. I'd have to be more than chubbette size to meet his high standards. Ironically, I'd learned oodles of makeup tricks from Gold, but gaining weight on purpose was a new one on me, and I don't think even Goldie could help me this time.
As if it wasn't bad enough that Jagger noticed, I wondered if my current beau, ER Dano, would. Dano was very similar to Jagger in demeanor (okay close to being clone-like) but I liked the guy and he took my mind off of Jagger most of the time.
And then there was sex. Yes, sex, which I'd completely forgotten about, proving the old adage, "what you don't use you lose," prior to meeting Dano. Oh, I'd had boyfriends, but if they weren't trying to kill me (an obvious hazard of this trade) they were jerks. Losers. Men.
I made a mental note to myself to let ER Dano know that I'd be leaving in a few days to go to The Rancho Mirage Slenderizing Clinic located in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico.
I'd never been out west before! Living in Hope Valley, Connecticut all my life, traveling was never a priority. Hell, the ethnic town had so many different people around that as a kid I'd pretend I was in Europe. But this assignment would be fun and, I was certain, not dangerous like the others.
I mean, who kills people at a weight loss ranch?
ER Dano put his arms around me and pulled me closer. "Wow. You must have been hungry. You ate like a guy." He chuckled. "Good to see. I hate when women are always watching what they eat."
As his lips touched mine, I wondered if he'd be able to reach around Body Suit Pauline. Would he care if that were really my body? Two hundred and fifty pounds of it?
He started to whisper in my ear.
Naw. He wouldn't care what I looked like. ER Dano, a burned out paramedic who still worked as one, was a decent guy — and a hunk, as I'd said. I think Uncle Walt was correct. Some men liked heavy.
After a few kisses (initiated by me) and a few hands over bodies (initiated by him) we eased back from each other, and I told him about my next assignment.
I'd met ER Dano on the last case when I'd investigated ambulance fraud at the company he worked for. Yikes. That one, I had to admit, was a pip. A real pip.
"How long will you be gone?" he asked then nuzzled my neck.
Gulp again. Why does he insist on talking? I wondered. I could think of a hell of a lot better things to be doing.
Suddenly I pictured Sister Mary-I-can-do-what-I-want-with-my-ruler, wagging her finger at me and all sexual thoughts vanished.
Damn, she was good.
"I really don't know, but from what I've read of the case, not too long. Should be a slam dunk."
I stepped out of the taxicab from the airport once Goldie was able to give me a good shove from behind. Clearly I hadn't had enough time to practice living in the body suit, and clearly I needed him along if for nothing else but to stop me from making a fool of myself — or accidentally hurting the feelings of any of the real patrons. I couldn't help but worry about insulting anyone if I was found out. I truly did not want that to happen.
Geez. I had to stop to catch my breath, which turned out to be a perfect time to observe my surroundings.
The backdrop of deep, rugged canyons flanked by high, remote spires made a spectacular view. Rust-colored stucco buildings lined the perimeter of the campus along with a huge western-style building in the center. Saguaro cacti stood motionless with arms extended as if welcoming all visitors to Rancho Mirage.
"It's beautiful," I whispered to Goldie.
Before the cabbie figured out our change and was about to get our luggage out of the trunk (mine very full with the plus sized outfits I had to invest in), a young man, wearing red silken shorts that wanted to be a Speedo scurried toward us.
"Welcome. Welcome." He grabbed my arm, nearly knocking me off my precarious, as it were, balance. "I'm Henry. I'm the welcome mat!" He laughed hysterically so Goldie and I chuckled. He looked at Goldie. "You must be the cousin who she needs for family support. Way too thin to be a client! I'll show you both around."
Goldie held onto my arm to catch me from falling and said, "Thanks, bro. We'll be fine. Just give us a map. Ah, yeah, I'm the cousin."
Henry looked wounded. At first glance I thought he may be gay, but then I didn't get that take when a rather beautiful and definitely slender young woman, close to Henry's age I guessed, walked by. Walked might not have been the correct word. I don't think walking involved so much butt swinging. Nope. Not gay. Nerdy, yes. Poor taste in shorts, yes. But definitely a straight Henry.
The young woman he called Rosie waved to him as a gentleman stuffed her suitcases into the back of a white Expedition.
Henry blew her a kiss. "Take care!" Then he turned to Goldie and me and said, "You can, no, will look like Rosie when we are done with you, Pauline." He glanced at his paperwork. "Sokol, is it?" I nodded. "Yes, Henry."
Two more women who looked like Stepford wives next to Rosie came out, waved, yelled to Henry and got into waiting vehicles.
"Do you have some kind of regular health club here too?" I asked.
"Nope." He scurried around to the driver and told him where to take our luggage. "Nope. Those women came here looking —" he glared down at my new body and finished with, "very much like you. Rosie weighed in at three forty."
Suddenly I wondered why people blinked when they were shocked. It really didn't help anything at all. "Excuse me, Henry. Just how long did they stay here?"
I envisioned ER Dano meeting someone else, marrying and having two children (by then in college) and a yellow lab before I got back. Slam-dunk? Maybe not.
"Oh, they've been here about two and a half months each."
Two and a half months only?
My body tensed as fear will make it do, and I just knew there was a hell of a lot more to this case than darling Fabio had shared with me.
Slam-dunk was clearly going to be overtime.CHAPTER 2
"Gold, this place is gorgeous," I said as I lifted my suitcase up onto the bed to unpack. After a few huffs, I sat down for a second and observed the Navajo rug hanging on the wall.
Intricate yet simple in design. The southwestern décor gave a homey, intriguing western feel to the room. Local pottery in browns and blacks sat on shelves above a fireplace with an opaque stained-glass sunrise scene as a cover when the logs were not burning. Above the mantel, in a glass box, was a decorative knife. Inlaid turquoise, a silver handle, and the lettering for Rancho Mirage in more silver set off by some black stones, made it look expensive.
"Damn, this bodysuit is heavy. Makes me S.O.B ... Short of breath that is."
Goldie, lounging on a deep cranberry-colored chair near my window — much like a lizard on a hot rock in the Caribbean sun — opened one eye and said, "Why the hell don't you take that thing off in here? No one will see." With that he shut his eyes, and I think let out a soft snore.
I shook my head even though he wasn't looking. Seemed as if it'd give my words more punch. "Can't. Wouldn't be fair, and I need to be fair to those who legitimately need to be here. To be in their shoes, I have to keep this on all the time." Even my legs hurt, so I sat back on the bed and lifted them up with a grunt.
"Very noble. Very noble indeed." He cleared his throat, shifted toward the sun from the window and said, "Very Pauline-like indeed."
I threw a pillow at him but said thanks, as he was being kind. "I'm not trying to be noble. You know that I mean it. I'm here to fight fraud, which means more money saved for insurance customers. However, I'd give anything to help the clients who come here to change their lifestyles and lose their weight. It's unhealthy on so many levels. Heart, diabetes, achy legs —"
Before I knew it, Goldie had me in an embrace. "My Suga never will change. I get it. There's more at stake on this case than the others you've worked. Health trumps money every time."
I gave him a squeeze then pulled back. "I just love you and truly appreciate you coming here with me ... especially since you are a newlywed!"
With that we danced around the room until I stumbled in my weighty awkwardness and landed in a pile on the hand-woven rug. "Oh, gosh. I may never be able to pull this off."
Goldie reached down to help yank me up. I noticed he had to stabilize himself with a foot against my bed and made a vow to myself to help as many people here as I could.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dead Weight"
Copyright © 2010 Lori Avocato.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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