HOUSE OF CARDS
By Kim Stagliano
Release date: January 2012
Bounty Hunter Stephanie Plum would think her life is easy compared to Kat Cavicchio's. When a car crash with a New England Patriot lands her sister in the hospital, Kat has to move in with her brother-in-law to take care of her young niece and nephew – with autism.
The windfall accident settlement should turn around her financial woes and help the kids too, until the football player kicks his last field goal in a gruesome murder that lands Kat's entire family in the cross hairs of a drug dealer who thinks she is hiding something from the football player that he wants. Can a sexy State Trooper throw a Hail Mary pass and save her life before the clock runs out on her life?
The cloying smell of a caramel apple wrapped in candy floss announced that Janelle Goldman from accounting lurked near my cube. I don't know when perfumers decided to drop the millennia-old floral concept and replace it with the scents of food groups favored by small children (like vanilla, strawberry and the ouch-my-teeth-ache sugary aroma of Janelle's so-called "perfume"). If I wanted to smell like candy all day, I'd let the damn M&M's melt in my hands, not in my mouth. She was looking for my time sheet, and I was nowhere near finishing it. As usual.
I turned to my computer, pretending to get down to the drudgery of writing press releases for the planet's most boring company, in the hopes that Janelle would see a busy little bee and leave me alone. Or at least toddle off to report to my boss, Margaret, that I was hard at work. Janelle is such a boss's pet. Two weeks ago, I'd been summonsed into the corner office for a dressing-down over late projects, unbilled hours, and an unfortunate difference of opinion on what constitutes a full work-day. Janelle didn't bother to hide her glee that I'd been put on probation.
There's no good way (or time) to lose your job. From this I know. About eighteen months ago, I earned an "early retirement" from a competing PR firm for late projects, unbilled hours and—well, you get the point.
I wasn't looking forward to another pink slip.
As Miss Hostess Snowball and her saccharine bouquet drifted off, I breathed a sigh of relief and got back to business: my own. I logged onto online banking. Checking accounts are similar to the press releases I write, in that red ink on the screen means "you need to change this." Only I couldn't edit my checkbook into the black. My car payment had bounced by $7.32. Close, but Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp. was not going to cut me any slack. The rent had cleared. Thank God I'd paid it as soon as direct deposit hit my account. The Maxima was too small to live in, and I loved my house.
The paltry $65 in my wallet had to last until the next pay day, which was (I clicked to my calendar) eleven days off. I transferred $200 from my dwindling savings account into my checking to cover the car payment and my cell phone bill, again breaking my promise to my parents that I'd tidy up my finances.
Oh, well. I always managed to land on my feet and walk away whistling. This month's worries would work themselves out too.
My name is Kat Cavicchio, and I'm the youngest in a family of four kids. I call my sisters and brother "good, better and best." You can see where that leaves me. I'm the only female in two generations to have been divorced. I had split with my college sweetheart at age twenty-eight after three "un" years with him. Unhappy. Unfaithful. Unreproductive (thank God.) I dumped every reminder of him possible, including his ludicrous last name—Sprenkle. What the hell was I thinking when I married him anyway? Kat Sprenkle. It sounded like a brand of kitty litter.
Despite her liberal bent, my mother lived in fear that I'd never find another husband and would end up lonely and poor. You can take the Italian out of the old country, but blah, blah, blah.
My constant money woes troubled my father, who had never made a fortune as a college professor but had taken appropriate care of his finances, allowing us kids to have a happy childhood, and him and Mom a comfortable pre-retirement. I had a tendency to eat more meals in his kitchen than my own, which was all the proof he needed of my near-insolvency. He was concerned that I'd hit up my 401K money once my savings were gone. I was about six months shy of calling Fidelity. I'd have to put off quitting my job until another day, or decade, unless my next interview panned out.
With any luck (except my own), my days of writing press releases for Acme were coming to an end. No more writing sentences like: "Acme Computer Systems seamlessly integrates high-level platforms, software, and services into high-value, low-risk information infrastructure solutions that help organizations maximize the value of their information assets and automate more of their overall infrastructure." Can anyone actually read a sentence like that without drifting into the ozone?
I was actively looking for a new job. How long can a girl dream up gobbledygook for dry-as-toast clients? In Boston, where I was born and raised, a huge chunk of the available biz was in the medical, biotech or software industries.
I wanted to work for a consumer-goods company. You know—write about a product I could actually use and understand. But there weren't any tanning-bed companies in Massachusetts. By the grace of God, and monster.com, I'd just spotted the perfect job opening at a toy company that had relocated its sales and marketing staff from Providence, Rhode Island to a new office complex, minutes from my house in Newton, a suburb west of the city.
The mere thought of not having to ride the lumbering 502 bus from Newton Corner into Copley Square every day made me smile. The bus itself wasn't so bad, thanks to my Sirius app, but the 15-minute walk from Adams Terrace up to the bus stop in rain and snow was tedious.
The prospect of free toys was also appealing. Most of my friends were popping out babies with alarming regularity, and my sisters each had two of their own. Every month, it seemed there was a birth, birthday, Hanukah or Christmas, all requiring a gift from old Auntie Kat. Plus, the salary at the toy company was $17,000 more than I was making on the agency side. That's a lot of toys. And black coffee for me.
I packed up my bag and headed into the lobby to sneak out for my interview, hoping to avoid my boss. My luck held until the elevator doors opened, revealing a heavy-set older woman in a khaki-colored pashmina that encircled her bulging torso like a boa constrictor.
"Kat! Off for an early lunch?"
"Er, hi, Margaret. No, I have a dentist appointment today. I sent you an email, and I have my laptop, so I can work on the Pettengill new product release from home."
"Of course. Goodness, your teeth have been bothering you lately, haven't they?"
BUSTED. Think fast.
"It's my wisdom teeth. I might have to have them pulled. The dentist referred me to an oral surgeon, so I've had a couple of appointments. I'll call you later."
As the doors closed, I sighed. I needed another story to cover my interviews. By now I could have had a full set of dentures.
Once I escaped my office, I walked to the parking garage on St. James, enjoying the crisp fall air. Since the 502 non-stop bus only runs at rush hour, I had to drive in and park on interview days. I grabbed a twenty-dollar bill from my purse to cover the exorbitant daily parking fee. "Hi, Gus," I said to my beloved, white Nissan Maxima. Gus was four years old, and I still had another year's worth of payments. I needed the job at Child's Eye Toy Company.
The sky was bright blue and the temp hovered around 50 degrees, a perfect late-autumn morning. We'd be peeling off layers by 2 PM., as Indian summer warmed the final days before winter started encasing us in freezing gloom. Cruising out the Mass Turnpike west, toward the hotel over the highway that marked my exit, I groped for my Bluetooth in my purse to call my pal Connie Waldstrup.
"Hi, Kat, what's up? I'm between meetings for a few minutes." Connie was a lawyer with one the biggest firms in Boston.
"I'm on my way home for my interview and thought I'd check in. I'm a little nervous."
Connie laughed. "With your interview track record you ought to be. You need to relax and just be yourself. Or maybe just be a quieter version of yourself. You tend to ramble, Kat. You'd die a thousand deaths in a courtroom."
"That's why I didn't go to law school, but thanks for the Dear Abby moment, Miss Smarty Pants. And listen to you—you haven't had to interview since Harvard. Trust me, it sucks. I get flustered and my mouth takes over my brain. Damn!"
"What's up? Traffic?
"No, there's a car in my spot. I'm home. I'll catch up with you after my interview."
"Good luck, Kat."
Adams Terrace was a dead end, with two duplexes on it. Since college, I'd lived happily in one half of the first duplex. It was a tight squeeze when I was married; my ex-husband Jeff took up far too much space just by standing in a room. The house was perfect for a single, not-so-tall gal like me, with five rooms, including a cozy master bedroom (especially since I was the master) and a slant-roofed, third-floor aerie.
My mother's grandparents had lived in this very house as newlyweds, when they first came to Boston from New York back in 1916. Their marriage had stood the test of time a hell of a lot better than mine. Then again, the lifespan of the fruit fly was longer than my marriage. How they had seven kids in the tiny duplex was beyond me. My great-grandfather found a job in a knitting mill in Fall River, and they moved out of Newton shortly after my grandfather, Augustus Romano, turned six. Mr. D'Alessandro, my landlord, who lived in the duplex next door, had been Papa's playmate back when there was a chicken coop and coal bin in the yard. Mr. D, as we called him, was a lifer in "The Lake," which is what people called Nonantum, the Italian section of Newton.
The other half of my duplex was inhabited by interchangeable college kids, who came and went with the semesters. Once I'd crossed thirty a couple of birthdays ago, even the good-looking guys became less interesting to me, and I'd become invisible to them.
Mr. D., a nonagenarian widower whose fading memory meant I could pay my rent a few days late when necessary, was leaning against the railing on the stoop of his house just a car's width away from mine.
"Hi, Mr. D., how are you today?"
"Not too good, Katharina. Not too good. My son is here..." That explained the car. Rocco, the jerk, was in from New York. Rocco was like a velvet Elvis painting come to life. He wore a jet-black toupee, a Diamonique stud in one ear, and a gold chain that could have tethered the QEII to a dock. He was in his early sixties and claimed to have made his money in produce. Only if they sold oranges at the Belmont Park race track, I figured. I had to go through Rocco to get anything fixed in my house. Rocco thought I'd repay him for his work in warm, soft currency.
Like the time right after my ex-husband moved out, when my dishwasher broke, and Rocco schlepped up from New York to confirm that I wasn't just angling for the thrill of a new Kitchen Aid before he authorized the repair.
"Hi, Rocco," I'd said. "Come on in. Mind the puddle on the floor."
"Usually the puddle is there after I'm done," he answered with a creepy leer.
I shot him a dirty look and went back to washing the dishes in the sink. I thought he'd just open the dishwasher, pronounce it dead and go back to his dad's.
"I think I can fix this, Kat. Just let me reach under the sink here to..."
"Get your freaking hands out from between my legs, Rocco!"
The guy had a double-digit cringe factor. But his Dad was a nice old man and we considered him family. Rocco? Not so much.
Mr. D'Alessandro's reedy voice trailed off, and he raised his hand to stop himself from saying any more. "OK, Mr. D., I'll talk to you soon." I smiled at him and darted into my house to freshen up for my interview.
My closet was crammed with clothes, half on hangers, half shoved on shelves. Why line up the clothes perfectly if you're just going to pull them down in a few days? Let's see, what's the best choice to wear to a toy-company interview? I opted for a navy dress with matching swing jacket and added knee-high boots with a medium heel to up the funk factor. The jacket hid the fact that the dress was loose on me. I'd lost a few pounds off my 5'3" frame, dropping to 111 pounds, and I'm not bragging. I have uncooperative curly brown hair that's only revered in New Jersey malls, circa 1988, and my feet are an ungainly size 8. When I get too skinny, I resemble a Q-tip with feet.
Twenty minutes later, I skipped out to my car only to find I'd been partially blocked in by a gleaming Lexus SUV. The driveway hadn't seen that much traffic since Mr. D'Alessandro had set his pot of linguine on fire two months ago, and half the Newton fire department showed up. I squeezed past the SUV, aware that it cost more than I made in a year. I caught sight of the license plate which read, "ISEL4U." A realtor? Plus the greedy son and the failing landlord who occasionally thought I was Katherine Hepburn? Uh oh...
I hopped back into my car, full of dread and empty of stomach. What was a realtor doing at MY HOUSE!?
A quick stop at the Dunkin Donuts at the end of Adams Street for a tranquilizer with chocolate jimmies and another coffee calmed me a smidge. I pulled into the parking lot at Child's Eye around 12:20 PM. My meeting with John Rosetti, HR Director, was scheduled for 12:45.
I sat in the car, gathering my thoughts for the interview, which was about as easy as chasing a newspaper in a windstorm. Child's Eye was in a converted shoe factory in Newton Highlands, near Route 128. The three-story, red brick building was old but updated with funky windows and a fresh, kid-color paint scheme of yellow, red, and blue. A huge blue eye stood (rolled?) at the entrance to the building. It looked like a giant child had ignored his mother's admonitions and put out his eye with a very large stick. This kind of creeped me out, but hey, who was I to tell them their logo looked like something out of a horror movie? I'd wait until they hired me.
A rearview-mirror check revealed smeared blue liner. The Clinique saleswoman at Bloomingdale's had promised me the dark blue would make my light gray eyes pop. Maybe—if it ever stayed where it belonged. I wiped it off with a tissue, reapplied a pink gloss, and ran my tongue over my teeth before setting out to the entrance.
I stopped at the security desk, crunching down four Tic Tacs to wipe out my coffee breath. "Good day, dear," said the wizened security guard who looked like his first toy might have been a dinosaur bone.
"Hi. I have an interview at 12:45."
"I'll need to see some ID please," he wheezed at me as his fingers fumbled through a stack of plastic visitor name tags. He handed me a tag and took my license in his hand. "I'll call upstairs for you, dear."
I wouldn't say I was panicked, but I had a certain blob of emotion hunkered down in my gut. Call it desperation. Although more likely it was the donut having an argument with the large black coffee I'd slurped down on my way over. I found my way upstairs. The HR assistant looked up as I entered the waiting area.
"Hi, you must be Katherine. I'm Shelly Cohn. Please have a seat. Mr. Rosetti will be with you shortly."
I pulled out my resume and stared at the paper while I waited, my snack battle waging on in my belly. All I could see was that license plate ISEL4U.
Right on time, John Rosetti opened his office door and came out to greet me. My donut became a pancake and flipped.
Wow. He stood about 6'2" tall, maybe 210 lbs. of lean, mean HR machine. Hire me! Fire me! Do something to me! He had luxuriant brown curls cropped close to his head, dark brown eyes, a strong but not Jay Leno-ish chin, and straight white teeth that bespoke good orthodontics, not caps. His midnight blue suit looked custom tailored to his broad shoulders. This man was scary good-looking. I had to find a way to collect my thoughts (the clean ones) and present myself as a well-spoken professional. He introduced himself.
"Katherine? I'm John Rosetti. Come on in." He held out his hand.
"Hi. And please call me Kat. It's nice to meet you, Mr. Rosetti." I shook his hand with a firm grip that I hoped wasn't slimy with sweat. We turned to walk into his office at the same time and almost got stuck in the doorway.
"Please, after you."
He smelled great. CK One? Whatever the scent, it distracted me just enough that I snagged my heel on the small Boston University carpet in his doorway, launching myself into and practically over the chair across from his desk. I grabbed the chair to catch my fall and tumbled onto the floor.
Mortified, I picked myself up, turned him and said "So, I hear you offer dancing lessons as a benefit?"
He laughed. "Are you OK?"
He spun the chair around and set it in front of his desk, motioning for me to sit. My face burned with embarrassment. He was still chuckling when he sat in his own chair. All of a sudden, he wasn't that handsome. We danced the HR meet-and-greet. Some questions were easier to tackle than others.
"So, Kat. I see you've got a strong resume in tech PR, biz-to-biz writing. How do you think that will translate to consumer goods?"
I thought quick. "I don't foresee any problem. After all, the mechanics of alerting the media to news events is similar and I hope you'll agree that my writing is strong overall, from the samples you've read."
"Yes. But we sell toys here. Not flux capacitors."
Ouch. I wondered if the steam starting to come out of my ears would fog up the picture of him at a company event with a one of Child's Eye's signature characters: a seven foot, talking baseball bat. I'd bought that same toy for my nephew Dom last Christmas, but he'd yet to hit a ball with it.
"I do think I can segue from the drier writing of tech work to consumer work. I'm really looking forward to it, in fact. I've watched my nieces and nephews play with so many of your products, and I remember some of the classics from my own childhood, of course." (Shovel, anyone?)
Of course, I neglected to tell him that my niece and nephew were more likely to line up the toys and spin them then use them for their intended play purpose. I filed that little oversight under, "need to know." I knew I needed the job.
The interview slogged on for about twenty minutes. Rosetti stood to walk me back to the waiting area. I managed to remain upright, and stomped on the stupid BU Bulldog's face as I left his office. When I shook his hand goodbye, I kind of hoped it was sweaty.
"We'll be in touch with you, Kat. Thanks for coming in today. Be careful leaving," he said, with a playful grin that I found incredibly annoying.
I let my anger go for a mo' as I thought of the $17,000 pay raise and easy commute.
"Thank you, Mr. Rosetti. I'll look forward to hearing from you."
I thanked Shelly (I'd been the front-desk girl and it always paid to be kind to her) and on my way out the door checked that the security guard hadn't died of old age at his desk.
I decided I needed a pick-me-up to quell my embarrassment and a proper lunch. My sister lived right around the corner.
My Bluetooth was buried in my handbag. By the time I found it, half a CVS drug store was on the passenger seat. I slipped the hideous device over my ear and called my sister.
"Gina? It's Kat. Where are you?"
"Where am I? I'm at the Ritz spa getting my nails done and then I have a private tennis lesson with a handsome pro named Sven."
"I gather you're home then, Gina?"
"Please. Of course I am. I'm just finishing up baking the kids' bread for the week. You at work?"
"I just finished another catastrophic interview. At Child's Eye, so I'm near you. Can you meet for lunch? I'll swing by and pick you up."
"Love to. I need to get out of here. See you in a bit."
My sister, Gina Carducci, was three years older than I. If anyone needed a lunch out it was Gina, mother of two autistic kids.
I let myself in at the side door. Gina was wearing a black pantsuit that emphasized her slender waistline and set off her shiny, shoulder-length, auburn hair. She got the good hair, unlike my dark tangle of corkscrew curls that reflected light about as well as a vampire reflected anything at all in a mirror.
"Boy, you got dressed fast. How are you?" We kissed hello.
"Hi, Kat. I had an IEP meeting this morning for Dom so I was dressed like a grown-up instead of my usual Mom garb. Look! No permanent stains!" She brushed some flour off her pants and pushed the bread machine back into its corner.
"What's an IEP meeting?"
Gina snorted, "It's when every human who works with your kid at school gangs up on you and tries to deny your kid an extra hour of speech therapy to save the district a couple of bucks. Of course, the morning had already started out in the usual Carducci way: chaotic. Dom locked himself in the shed again."
"He's done it before? How? And why?"
"I finally figured out today that he thinks it looks like the train depot on Sodor Island. He goes inside looking for the trains and the door shuts behind him."
"You want to run that by me again, Gina?
"You know Thomas the Tank engine?" (How could I not? The boy carried the toy with him everywhere he went.) "I think that's what Dom is looking for when he goes into the shed, which is green, like the garage or whatever the heck you call it. He figured out the latch Vince put on the door. I guess we'll need a key lock now."
"Jesus, Gina. Did you panic when you couldn't find him?"
"Sure. But the front door was still bolted, so I knew he'd gone out the back. Vince checked the shed right off and found Dom. This is what panicked me even more." She slid a magazine toward me. "Check out this article on stress and aging."
I scanned the article, which described a study that measured the genetic material of women with chronically ill kids. The Moms of the special-needs kids (they mentioned autism by name) were "older" by about a decade than Moms of typical kids.
"Isn't that lovely?" Gina muttered as she reached for her purse. "Even my chromosomes are aging faster than the speed of light. By the time I hit 40, I'll look 110."
At 35, my sister was a knockout and getting better-looking every year. She got the height, the hair and the boobs. I got the long legs, the short temper and the snarky attitude. Gina was much nicer than I'd ever be. I tried to make her feel better, though.
"Gina, you haven't even come close to your peak. And Vince knows it."
"I'm not sure if Cards (she used her husband college nickname) knows I'm alive anymore. He's bogged down with problems at work and I'm 24/7 doing something for the kids. We're like ships that pass in the night these days. We could use a little alone time. Wanna laugh? I had a better sex life in high school. And you know I graduated a virgin. How's that for depressing?"
"I'll file that under, ‘TMI,' Gina-Bobina. How about if we go to the Marriott? I've got a yen for their Cobb Salad. You want me to drive?"
"Sure. I just want to sit quietly, even if it's just for a few minutes."
We drove out to Route 128, toward the Marriott. "I had my own scare today. I think my landlord's son might be selling my house. Rocco was there with a realtor."
Gina opened her eyes and looked at me. "Bummer. Well, Kat, you can always move in with us."
The mere thought of leaving my house and moving into Gina's nearly made me swerve off the highway, but I said nothing. I made my way over to the right-hand lane to get off at the tangle of an exit to Route 30. "Thanks Gina, but I don't think that will be..."
"Kat! Look out! He's sliding right into us!"
A hulking, black SUV sideswiped us with a crash, and sent us skidding into the guardrail. I heard the metal give way with a thwack and the car lights shattering on impact. Gina screamed. I might have made a noise, I'm not sure. We teetered on the twisted guardrail and I thought of the Charles River below us. No one in Boston went into that muddy water voluntarily.
The airbag detonated into my face. I struggled for ragged breaths that seared my torso and chest. Sirens wailed in my head. I couldn't turn to see Gina. I tried to call her.
"Gina? Please. Are you..."
I heard a sound that was half cough, half gurgle.
A virtual tour of my family clicked on behind my eyes. My mother twenty years younger, covered in orange Bain de Soleil gel on the beach at the Cape. Dad handing me the keys to the Taurus the day I got my license. Gina's wedding day and how we laughed as she tried to lift twenty pounds of gown to sit down on the toilet. The hustle and bustle of the hospital nursery when Dom was born. His round, red face peeking out from a swaddling blanket. Just born and full of promise and winning ball games and valedictory speeches.
I heard the crunching metal of my car door ripping open.
"Get her out and into the ambulance. There are two! Get the jaws over here!"
Arms cradled my body, lifting me out of the car and onto a stretcher. I opened my eyes and saw a tall blond man standing next to me. No wings on his back. No horns on his head. I'm not dead. I barely registered the voice of the EMT who popped the stretcher into the ambulance.
"Miss? Miss? Can you hear me? Can you hear me? I want you to listen to me."
"My sister. My sister..."