A down-on-his-luck lawyer finds himself involved in a financial scheme targeting the terminally ill. Unwittingly drawn into a perilous web of greed, blackmail and murder, he goes on the run—with a determined female prosecutor hot on his trail.
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Each time she broached the subject with her brother, Jason, he walked out of the room. Darlene, her best friend, suggested a girls’ night out with some heavy drinking. Aunt Flo urged her to spend more time in prayer.
Veronika knew she was wasting her time with this woman, too, but couldn’t help herself.
“My mother was murdered,” Veronika told the funeral home attendant. “But nobody believes it.”
The plump redhead with too much eye shadow glanced down at the papers on her desk, then looked up. “It says here that your mother died in the hospital. From brain cancer.”
“That’s not true,” Veronika snapped, her response a little too sharp and a tad too loud.
Yes, her mother had brain cancer, but she wasn’t on her deathbed. Not yet. They had just spent a long afternoon together, laughing and talking and watching All My Children. Veronika could not, and would not accept that the most important person in her life had suddenly died. She knew what everyone else refused to believe. Her mother had been murdered.
“Did they conduct an autopsy?” the woman asked.
Veronika sighed and looked away. There had been no autopsy because everyone dismissed her as a grief-stricken lunatic. When she reported the murder to the police, a disinterested cop dutifully took her statement, but she could tell that nothing would come of it. Without any solid evidence, she was wasting everyone’s time, including her own.
“No,” Veronika said. “There wasn’t an autopsy.”
The funeral home attendant smiled sympathetically.
Veronika let out a long, exasperated breath, overwhelmed by the futility of what she was trying to prove. “Never mind,” she said. “What else do you need me to sign?”
Later that night, Veronika lay in bed, drained from another marathon crying session. She rummaged through the nightstand, retrieved a bottle of sleeping pills and popped two into her mouth. She tried to swallow them dry, but her throat was too sore from all the crying.
Tears pooled in her eyes as she headed to the kitchen for a glass of water. “Don’t worry, Mama,” Veronika sniffed. “I won’t let them get away with it.”
Just as she reached the end of the hallway, a heavy gloved hand clamped down hard across her mouth as her arms were pinned behind her back. Panic instantly hurled her into action. Veronika tried to scream, but the big hand reduced her shriek to a mere muffle. She frantically kicked and wrestled and twisted her body, but her attacker’s grip would not yield.
When she felt her body being lifted off the ground and carried back down the hallway, she realized there were two of them and her terror level intensified. But so did her survival instinct. She continued to wildly swing her legs backward and forward, up and down, right and left, eventually striking what felt like a leg, then a stomach.
As they crossed the threshold of her bedroom, she heard a loud, painful moan that told her she had likely connected with the groin of one of her assailants.
“Cut it out!” said a husky, male voice. “Grab her legs!” he ordered his partner. “Hurry up!”
The men dumped her face down onto the bed, her arms still restrained behind her back. The big hand slipped from her mouth and Veronika’s first cry escaped, but was quickly muted when a much heavier hand gripped the back of her neck and pressed her face into the comforter.
Fearing her attackers were going to rape, then kill her, Veronika defiantly arched her back and tried to roll her body into a tight ball. At only 130 pounds, she was no physical match for her assailants. They easily overpowered her, forcing her back into a prone position. As one man sat on her upper legs, strapping her left arm to her side, the other man bent her right arm at the elbow and guided her hand up toward her forehead.
During the deepest period of her grief, Veronika had longed to join her mother. But now that she was face-to-face with the possibility of death, she fought valiantly for life.
That changed, however, the second Veronika felt something cold and hard connect with her right temple. She stiffened as one of the men grabbed her fingers and wrapped them around the butt of a gun. At that precise instant, Veronika knew with certainty that her suspicions were indeed fact. Her mother had been murdered and now the same killers had come to silence her before she could expose the truth. And just like her mother’s death, her own murder would go undetected, dismissed as the suicide of a grieving daughter. A conclusion no one would question.
As the man placed his hand on top of hers and prepared to pull the trigger, a miraculous, power-infused sensation snuffed out what was left of Veronika’s fear, causing her body to go limp. The heavy pounding of her heart slowed and she felt light enough to float away.
Completely relaxed now, Veronika closed her eyes, said a short prayer, and waited for a glorious reunion with her mother.
When All You Have Is Hope
Lawyers get a bad rap. Strip away the arrogance, the greed and the half-truths, and you’ll find a decent human being underneath. That’s exactly how Waverly Sloan saw himself. A decent guy who’d screwed up.
Waverly pulled his battered BMW into the parking stall outside his Culver City townhouse and turned off the engine. He dreaded going inside. All the way home, he imagined his wife’s face contorting in horror in reaction to the news he was about to deliver.
He closed his eyes and rehearsed the spiel in his head. I’m about to be disbarred, he would tell her. So you’ll have to stop teaching Pilates three days a week and get a real job.
Waverly exited the car and climbed the short flight of stairs to their unit. He was a large, solidly built man with skin the color of honey. Borderline handsome, his lopsided smile was the primary source of his appeal. It compelled people to like him.
“You’re home early,” Deidra called out the second he opened the front door.
Waverly found her in the kitchen, poised over a cutting board chopping carrots and bell peppers. He dumped his keys on the counter, walked up behind her and swallowed her up in a bear hug. “I’m home early because I couldn’t stand being away from you for another second.”
Deidra reared back to peck him on the lips, then returned to her chopping.
Resting against the center island, Waverly folded his arms and stared at his wife. At thirty-seven—five years his junior—Deidra had the firm, voluptuous body of a highly compensated stripper. Her long, auburn hair fell past her shoulders, perfectly accentuating her barely brown skin. After two years of marriage, Waverly still had no idea what her real hair looked like underneath the five-hundred dollar weave.
“Is everything okay?” Deidra glanced back at him over her shoulder.
His wife had good instincts, at least about him. Waverly eyed the knife in her hand. He had a mental image of Deidra accidentally chopping off a finger when she heard what he had to say.
“I love you,” Waverly said, not in an effort to sidestep her question, but because it was how he truly felt.
“Ditto.” She smiled, then waited.
Waverly had wanted Deidra from the second he spotted her walking out of a store on pricey Rodeo Drive weighed down with shopping bags. Instinct told him there was little chance that a woman like her would give a guy like him a second glance. He had only been in Beverly Hills for a meeting with an opposing counsel. Risktaker that he was, Waverly turned on his charm and, to his surprise, it worked. Too bad that same skill couldn’t get him out of his current fix.
He took a bottle of Chardonnay from the refrigerator and poured a glass for each of them. “What if I decided not to practice law anymore?” he began.
The pace of Deidra’s chopping slowed. “I thought you liked being a lawyer.” She placed the knife on the counter and turned to face him. “What would you do instead?”
He shrugged and cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking about insurance investments.”
Deidra put a hand on her left hip. “Insurance? That doesn’t sound very exciting. Can you make any real money from that?”
Waverly shrugged again. “I hope to find out.”
According to a guy he’d met at a legal conference, he could make a bundle in the viatical business. Waverly had no idea what a viatical was, only that it had something to do with insurance. He had an appointment to talk with the guy in a couple of days.
He could tell that his wife wasn’t happy about his possible change of professions. The men in Deidra’s life before him had given her whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted it. Waverly now worked hard to do the same, often placating her with promises of better things to come. Deidra enjoyed the prestige of being a lawyer’s wife and was banking on Waverly eventually landing a case that propelled them to the big leagues.
“This doesn’t mean we’ll have to put off moving, does it?” Deidra asked.
Waverly had agreed that she could start house shopping as soon as his next case settled. But even if he saved every dime he made for the next thirty years, he still wouldn’t be able to afford the gated communities where Deidra wanted to relocate.
“Maybe,” he said.
She was about to complain, but apparently noticed the angst on his face and retreated.
Waverly took a sip of wine and debated delaying his planned conversation with Deidra until he was absolutely certain about his situation. The written decision from the State Bar Court could arrive any day now. There was a slim chance that he might be hit with a suspension rather than disbarment. He’d hired Kitty Mancuso, a sixty-plus, powerhouse mouthpiece whose client base consisted exclusively of rich, white-collar criminals and lawyers who’d screwed up. If anybody could save the day, it was Kitty.
“I’m going to put on my sweats,” Waverly said, wimping out. “How long before dinner’s ready?”
“Not sweats,” Deidra replied. “Find some nice slacks. They’ll be here at six.”
Deidra smiled sheepishly. “Mom, Dad, and Rachel. Didn’t I tell you?”
No, because if she had, he would have faked a migraine. “Uh, I just remembered a motion I forgot to file.”
Deidra squinted and playfully pointed the knife inches from his nose. “Don’t even think about it.”
By the time their dinner guests arrived, Waverly was seated in the den, insufficiently buzzed and ready for the show. Watching his wife’s dysfunctional family was better than reality TV.
Leon Barrett, Deidra’s pint-size father, strutted in and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He waited all of three beats, then started boasting about his new sixty-inch flat screen. Rachel, Deidra’s older sister, showed off a diamond bracelet a new boyfriend supposedly gave her.
Leon spotted Waverly sitting in the den and made a beeline in his direction.
“How’s the law business these days, counselor?” Leon’s thumbs hung from his belt loops like a cowboy and he rocked back and forth from heel to toe.
Waverly didn’t bother to stand. “I’m making it.”
Leon walked over to the sliding glass door and surveyed their small patio. Waverly wondered what he would criticize first.
“So when are you two going to give up this place for a real home?” Leon joked.
Instead of answering, Waverly reached for his wineglass and took another sip. The thought of Leon Barrett finding out that he’d been disbarred made him want to puke.
“They’re building some new homes in The Estates,” Leon continued. He always referred to Palos Verdes Estates as The Estates. Waverly figured he’d moved there just so people would think he lived on an estate.
“If you’d bought over there when I told you to, you’d have nothing but money in the bank.” Leon owned a small construction firm that had done well, in part, because he was a major tightwad.
The wine was doing nothing to reduce Waverly’s irritation level. Too bad his own father was dead and gone. Henry Sloan wouldn’t have just thought about telling Leon Barrett to kiss his ass, he would have done it.
The evening plodded painfully along as it always did. Deidra’s father and sister talked nonstop about themselves while Deidra’s mother Myrtle, smiled and nodded like a big bobble head.
“I have to go to Paris at the end of the week to interview a bunch of obnoxious designers,” Rachel said, feigning annoyance. She was a fashion editor for Vogue. Like her sister, Rachel was a good-looking woman, but she lacked Deidra’s talent for capitalizing on her beauty.
“I hate you,” Deidra exclaimed. “I’ve been dying to go back to Paris.”
“Why don’t you come with me?” Rachel prodded. “I’ll be there three weeks. It’ll be fun.”
Deidra gave Waverly a hopeful look.
Having Deidra out of town for a few weeks would give him time to get a backup plan in place. But the funds for a ticket to Paris didn’t exist. His face must’ve conveyed that.
“If you can’t afford it,” Leon said facetiously. “I’d be glad to pick up the tab.”
Waverly smiled across the table at his father-in-law. “That’s a very generous offer.” He paused to take a sip of wine. “And we’d love to take you up on it.”
A razor-sharp silence whipped around the table. No one was more dazed than his blowhard father-in-law. Leon Barrett frequently offered to share his money, but never actually parted with any. Waverly thought the man might actually choke on his toothpick. Deidra shot Waverly a look hot enough to scorch his eyeballs, but he pretended not to notice.
Pleased with what he had just pulled off, Waverly got up and retrieved another bottle of wine from the wine rack.
The minute her family walked out of the door, Deidra went off.
“What in the hell was that about?” she shouted. “How dare you let Daddy pay for my trip?”
Waverly headed back to the den with Deidra on his heels. “Well, he did offer.”
“He’s offered to pay for a lot of things, but you’ve always refused. Are we having money problems? Because if we are, I need to know.”
“Cases have been a little slow coming in, that’s all.”
“So slow that you can’t come up with four or five grand for a trip to Paris?”
Four or five grand? He wanted to laugh. “Look, I’m working everything out. Just give me some time.”
“Well, you better figure something out fast because this is not what I signed up for. We were only supposed to be living here for a few months and it’s been two years. I’ve never lived in a place this small before, but I did it for you.”
Small? Their townhouse was more than two thousand square feet.
“And now you’re telling me that we’re basically bankrupt.”
“We’re not bankrupt.” Not yet.
“If we can’t blow a few grand on a vacation, that’s bankruptcy as far as I’m concerned,” Deidra barked. “And please don’t embarrass me in front of my family like that ever again. If we’re having money problems, I should know about it before they do.” Deidra stalked out of the kitchen.
Waverly opened the cabinet over the bar, grabbed a fifth of brandy and took a gulp straight from the bottle. His wife’s little tantrum was really uncalled for. But what the hell? He had never expected to keep a woman like Deidra happy forever.
Too bad he hadn’t listened to his father. After divorcing his third wife, Henry Sloan swore off pretty women. Way too much work, he’d told his son. Find yourself a basic broad and she’ll ride with you until the wheels fall off.
Waverly chuckled to himself. Right now he could use a woman who could hang, because the ride was about to get rocky.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Evans entered a conference room on the eleventh floor of the federal courthouse on Spring Street and slapped a thick stack of papers on the table. The rest of the newly formed task force was already assembled.
“Hey, Angela, what are you trying to do, blind us?” Zack Hargrove, another AUSA, shielded his eyes with his forearm. “How about turning down the wattage on your ring finger?”
The entire team—Zack, a paralegal, two case agents, and a junior attorney—erupted in laughter.
“Alright everybody, that’s enough.” Angela pretended to chuckle along with them. “This is really getting old.” Her three-carat, princess-cut diamond was still the butt of jokes even though she’d been wearing it for almost six months. Would it ever stop?
She actually considered the ring embarrassingly pretentious, but her fiancé, Judge Cornell L. Waters, III, was all about the show. So she quietly concealed her disdain and responded to his proposal with a soft yes, when she was actually thinking, I’m not so sure.
“So where’s my wedding invitation?” Zack asked, refusing to lay off.
A pretty boy with blue-green eyes and well-moussed blonde hair, Zack enjoyed being the center of attention. As usual, his Ralph Lauren suit and Italian shoes made him look more like a big firm partner than a government lawyer.
Angela winked at him. “Your invitation’s in the mail.”
She took a seat at the head of the table with a confidence gained from nearly a decade of putting criminals behind bars. First as a deputy district attorney and now with the U.S. Attorney’s office. Tough, smart and passionate in her professional life, her personal life was another story.
“Let’s get started.” Angela’s hair was a crinkly mass of natural curls that resembled a limp afro from a distance. Her narrow face and wide brown eyes were striking enough to grace the cover of a fashion magazine.
She eyed the box of Krispy Kreme donuts in the center of the table. It wasn’t even two o’clock yet and she only had nine Weight Watcher points left for the day. One donut would wipe out seven of them. Maybe stuffing her face with donuts was the easiest way out. Sorry. Couldn’t shed the twenty pounds. Have to call off the wedding since I can’t find a dress that fits.
Angela directed her attention to Tyler Chen, who’d just joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office after three years at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “Tell us what you found out.”
“The U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Las Vegas, New York and Miami are close to returning indictments against a company called The Tustin Group,” Tyler began. “The company is pressuring terminally ill people to sell their insurance policies.”
“Sell them?” asked Salina Melendez, a paralegal who was attending Southwestern Law School at night. “Who would buy somebody’s insurance policy?”
“An investor,” Tyler said. “It’s called a viatical settlement and it’s sort of like a reverse mortgage. Except these companies trade in people, not property.”
Angela nodded. “Say, for example, you’re dying and you’ve got a policy worth a hundred grand,” she explained. “A viatical broker will go out and find somebody willing to pay you a portion of the face value. All you have to do is name the investor as your beneficiary. After you die, the investor collects the full value.”
“Six months ago,” Tyler continued, “one of The Tustin Group’s principals began operating in California under the name Live Now, Inc. It stands to reason that if they’re pressuring people in the other states, they’re probably doing the same thing here. Main Justice wants to make this a multi-district indictment.”
“Sounds like a sad way to make a buck,” said Jon Rossi, a case agent with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. He was a forty-plus, rail thin, vintage car enthusiast. The AUSAs always worked their cases with agents from one of the federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI or DEA. “But then again, if the people are dying and need the money, maybe it’s a good thing.”
“It would be if Live Now was playing it by the book,” Angela replied. “But they’re targeting people too sick to know what they’re signing and convincing them to take peanuts for their insurance policies. Once we catch them in the act, it won’t be hard to get an indictment.”
Criminals didn’t realize that no matter what the offense, the feds could usually nail them on mail, wire and internet fraud charges since they routinely used these methods of communication to further their fraudulent operations.
“I wish this case had more pizzazz,” Zack sulked.
Angela ignored the comment. Zack was still put out that she had been selected to head up the task force even though he had a few more years of practice.
“Any complaints filed yet against Live Now?” asked Jon.
“Just one.” Angela pulled a document from the stack of papers in front of her. “It’s actually a little strange. The daughter of a woman who sold her policy through Live Now claims her mother was murdered and thinks the viatical broker or the investor are responsible. Says they killed her to get a faster return on their investment.”
Zack had been staring off into space, but immediately perked up. “How did the woman die?”
Angela perused the complaint. “She had brain cancer. The hospital where she died found no evidence of foul play.”
“It wouldn’t be in the hospital’s interest to find any,” Salina said.
Zack’s face blazed with interest. “That would certainly be a clever racket,” he mused. “Invest in the policy, then kill the policyholder. The police wouldn’t waste much time looking into the death of somebody who was already dying. Are we investigating that angle, too?”
Zack the Hack, as everyone called him behind his back, was always on the hunt for a high-profile case that might evolve into a highly paid talking-head job. He actually told people he was going to be the next Anderson Cooper.
“Murder is the D.A.’s jurisdiction, not ours,” Angela said. “Besides, the police don’t buy the daughter’s theory and there’s been no evidence of anything like that going on in the other states.”
“It might not hurt to talk to the woman,” Zack pushed. “We may find some information that could strengthen our case.”
Angela pursed her lips in frustration. Maybe appeasing Zack on this would make him more cooperative down the line.
“Salina, why don’t you talk to the woman over the phone? See if you think there’s anything to her allegations. If there is, I’d like you and Jon to interview her in person.” Angela slid a folder across the table. “Her name is Veronika Myers. Here’s a copy of her complaint.”
“I’m on it,” Salina said.
Angela handed out a three-page document to the team. “We have a lot of work to do over the next few weeks. This memo lays out everyone’s role. We received the go-ahead to stage a sting operation.”
“How’s the sting going to work?” Salina asked. “Is somebody going to go undercover as a terminally ill patient and see if they get the screws put to ’em?”
“That’s exactly how it’s going to work,” Angela said.
Jon smiled. “Sounds like fun.”
“Glad you feel that way because I think you’d be the perfect undercover patient.”
“Hold on.” Zack turned to Rob, the case agent sitting to his left. “I think Rob could also do a pretty good job.”
A smile masked Angela’s true feelings. The ultimate designation of their undercover patient would be made by the Postal Inspection Service. Still, Angela planned to lobby hard for Jon. Rob was way too passive for a case like this. He hadn’t even opened his mouth during the entire meeting. On top of that, he was basically Zack’s puppet. With Rob as the undercover plant, Zack would effectively control the investigation.
“Jon has more experience doing undercover work than anybody else in this room,” Angela said. “He just helped snag two big-time drug dealers.”
“Rob’s had his share of undercover cases, too.” Zack gave him a fatherly pat on the back.
Rob, in turn, looked admiringly at Jon. “Not nearly as many as Jon.”
Zack’s face reddened and he glared at Rob.
“Then it’s settled,” Angela replied with glee. “Jon’s our choice. Now we need a name for our task force. Any ideas?”
“I’m way ahead of you.” Jon paused for dramatic effect. “Operation Death Scam.”
They all groaned in unison.
“Too depressing,” Angela said.
“It should be depressing,” Jon protested. “It’s a depressing business.”
“How about Operation Buying Time?” Tyler offered. “That’s really what these people are trying to do. Many of them use the money for experimental medical treatments in hopes of extending their lives.”
They all paused to mull over the suggestion.
“Too bland,” Zack said. “We need something with some real punch to it.”
“I like it,” Angela said, overruling him. “Operation Buying Time it is.”
Zack muttered something under his breath as Angela dismissed the team.
“Who wants to join my pool?” Zack asked, as everyone headed out. “I’m taking bets on who the President’s going to name as our new boss.”
Six weeks ago, U.S. Attorney General Stanley Harrison was caught leaving a penthouse suite on the Vegas strip with a high-priced call girl. If he hadn’t paid for the room with his government credit card, he might still have a job.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you propose illegal betting in the workplace,” Angela chided him.
“Aw, lighten up,” Zack replied. “You can be such a killjoy sometimes.”
Angela gathered the rest of her papers and headed back to her office. While Zack’s bravado often got on her nerves, she otherwise liked working with him. He was smart, tenacious and had good instincts. But as the lead attorney, she’d probably have to spend as much time containing Zack’s ego as she did managing the case.
Considering the fragile state of her personal life, she didn’t need the added hassle of any headaches from Zack Hargrove.