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One Dead Under the Cuckoo's Nest
by Lori Avocato
Avon, 2005

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Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

"This won't hurt."

I looked at my well-meaning best friend and roommate, Miles Scarpello, and then snorted immediately after he spoke the foolish words.

My second best friend and roommate (Miles's significant other), Goldie Perlman, joined in. "Really, Suga, it won't hurt. Blow." He waved his hand in the air like a magic wand but only managed to snag his lovely ecru silk scarf with a long, coral-painted nail. Goldie looked lovely in ecru. Matched his skin tone and made his golden-haired wig look more real.

Then again, Goldie looked beautiful in any color.

And always real.

My father added, "Come on, Paczki, I want a piece of cake."

Everyone in the room leaned near, as if a budding thirty-five-year-old didn't have the wind to blow out thirty-five stupid birthday candles. I groaned at Daddy's pet name for me. He had used the endearing Polish term (for a big, fat, round, often prune-filled Polish donut, pronounced more like "paunchki") since my birth, when I weighed in at a svelte ten pounds, five ounces. Okay, maybe svelte wasn't exactly the correct term, but I remember seeing myself in the reflection of the metal bars of my bassinet and thinking I looked svelte and the nurse probably had her finger on the scale when she had weighed me.

My mother, Stella Sokol, blew out a breath and said, "Really, Pauline Sokol. You are making a mountain out of a molehill. Turning thirty-five is not the end of the world."

I looked out the window of my mother's house. It wasn't hard to do from my seat, since she pulled back the "winter" drapes to let the sun shine through the sheer white ones each spring season. Yep. The world hadn't ended and was still out there in full force.

And I was officially thirty-five years old.

And single.

And childless.

And in a profession I knew very little to nothing about -- but wouldn't trade for the world. Sure, I had thirteen years experience as a registered nurse, but being a "slightly experienced" medical-insurance-fraud investigator was just fine with me right now.

It was this stupid birthday thing that bugged me.

I looked around my parents' house, which, by the way, was straight out of a Leave It to Beaver television show -- with color added -- and thought some days I might go insane.

Not that insanity ran in my family, but then again, there was that aunt back in Pennsylvania who used to wear five dresses at once when she traveled to Hope Valley, Connecticut, to come see us. Aunt Flo had insisted her dresses wouldn't get wrinkled in her suitcase if she wore them all in the car. Once, when she'd had surgery on her knee, she put three fitted sheets on her bed so that post-op, she could peel one off each week, and she wouldn't have to do a lot of laundry.

I thought that was very clever.

I turned back to look at my family and wondered if Aunt Flo had been the only one with "those" genes. Daddy was already licking cake frosting off his finger before my mother even had a chance to pick up the knife. He reached out again. She swatted his hand away.

Uncle Walt, my favorite uncle, who had lived with us since I was born, slept soundly -- in his seat at the dining-room table -- with telltale frosting on his lower lip, too.

Miles and Goldie giggled like little kids while pouring each other champagne into the crystal goblets my mother had had since the fifties. Wasn't love grand?

The room was full of nieces, nephews, siblings and their spouses. I tried not to look.

Next to me at the table was Nick Caruso, a fellow investigator. Okay, I was stretching it. Nick was truly an investigator. Me, I was still a "newbie," as my seamy boss, Fabio Scarpello (Miles's uncle, since Miles had been adopted into the Scarpello family) would call me.

But hey, I'd finished two investigative cases, and didn't get killed once.

As for Nick, he had become a bit more than a peer. We'd recently started dating. Dating. A term I'd almost forgotten. It hadn't taken me long to get back into the swing of it, pretty much like riding a bicycle.

But, and I have to be honest here, Nick didn't "do it" for me completely. Some might find him nice-looking, dressed impeccably in camel hair, suede or expensive linen anything, but I never got detonation -- only a few shimmers. Nick was a doll, though, and treated me as such.

Then still, sitting across the table, and at the invitation of my mother, was . . . Jagger.

Oops. There went my heartbeat in a pitter-patter rhythm, and I hadn't even looked at him that closely.

Jagger'd worked on my two cases with me, although, to this day, no one, including moi, knew who the hell he worked for. FBI. Insurance company. PI. No one knew, and Jagger didn't share . . . anything. But he was darn driven.

Our eyes locked. Make that his locked mine as usual, and he gave a slight smile. I'd never done very well with that body language stuff, and trying to read Jagger was like fingering Braille. Not a clue. For all I knew, the smile could've come from some thought he'd just had -- and not one about me.

He looked toward the cake, whose frosting was now nearly covered in wax. For a second I thought about those wildfires that burn across millions of acres out west.

"Blow, Sherlock," he said.

Sherlock. Damn. He used that pet name on me and each time my pretty damn high IQ took a nosedive to zero. And that "blow" part didn't exactly have me thinking birthday cake.

Nick touched my arm. "Go ahead, Pauline."

I yanked my eyes from Jagger to smile at Nick. Then I turned toward the cake, and puffed out my cheeks.

Eeeeeep! Eeeeeep!

Excerpted from One Dead Under the Cuckoo's Nest by Lori Avocato. Copyright © 2005 by Lori Avocato. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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