One Dead Under the Cuckoo's Nest
“This won’t hurt.”
I looked at my well-meaning best friend and roommate, Miles Scarpello, then snorted immediately after he spoke the foolish words.
My second best friend and roommate, (Mile’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 in his 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, Pączki, 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, and allowed myself my usual internal moan at Daddy’s pet name for me. He had called me the enduring Polish term (which was a big fat round, often prune-filled Polish donut pronounced more like “paunchki”) since my birth, weighing 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, aka Mother, blew out a breath and said, “Really, Pauline Sokol. You are making a mountain out of a mole’s hill. 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 shear white ones each season. Yep. The world hadn’t ended and was still out there in full-force.
And I was officially thirty-five years old.
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 “very little 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 parent’s house, which, by the way was straight out of a “Leave It to Beaver” television set--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 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 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 see my family and wondered if Aunt Flo had been the only one with “those” genes. Daddy was licking cake frosting off his finger before my mother 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 ‘50s. 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’ uncle since Miles had been adopted into the Scarpello family) would call me.
Hey, I finished two cases and didn’t get killed once.
But, Nick had become a bit more than a peer. We’d recently started dating. Dating. A term I’d almost forgotten the meaning of. 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. As some might find him nice looking, dressed impeccably in camelhair, suede or expensive linen anything, as he was, I never got detonation--only a few shimmers. Nick was a doll and treated me as such though.
Still, across the table, and at the invitation of my mother, sat...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.
His attention caught mine. Our gazes 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 me 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 managed to have my pretty damn high IQ take 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.
Daddy jumped up. “Fire! Fire in the house!”
Mother shouted, “Calm down, Michael. There’s no fire. It’s only because there are thirty-five candles on Pauline’s cake, and that huge number set off the fire alarm.”