Gutsy, relentless, wisecracking Boston P.I. Fina Ludlow is back with her most hard-hitting case yet in the critically acclaimed series by Ingrid Thoft.
When soccer mom Liz Barone is attacked in her kitchen and left with a life-threatening injury, Fina Ludlow is hired by Liz’s mother to identify her attacker. It’s unusual for Fina to take a case that isn’t connected to the family firm, Ludlow and Associates, but Liz was in the process of suing her alma mater, New England University—a suit that could be a legal gold mine.
Twenty years earlier, Liz was an NEU soccer star known for her physical toughness; however, a serious cognitive decline has soured her soccer memories. She’s convinced that her aggressive style of play—and the university’s willingness to ignore head injuries in favor of a win—has put her health and her future in jeopardy, and someone needs to be held responsible.
Was Liz attacked to stop her lawsuit, or were there other secrets in the seemingly innocent woman’s life? Fina convinces her father and boss, Carl, to take the case, and discovers that wading into the financially lucrative and emotionally charged world of collegiate sports requires nerves of steel. As the list of suspects grows and hidden agendas are revealed, Fina wonders if any game is worth the price.
About the Author
Ingrid Thoft, author of the critically acclaimed novels Identity and Loyalty, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and is a graduate of Wellesley College. Her interest in the P.I. life and her desire to create a believable P.I. character led her to the certificate program in private investigation at the University of Washington. She lives in Seattle with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
“I can’t believe Haley is missing this,” Fina Ludlow said, crumpled in a ball in a snowbank. “You all right, buddy?” she asked her youngest nephew, Chandler, as he burrowed out from underneath her.
“That was awesome! Let’s go again!” He grabbed her hand as she struggled to her feet. A chunk of snow had wormed its way up her parka and into the small of her back. Fina looped the rope attached to the toboggan around her free wrist and struggled to fish the snow out. Some had already melted and was making a cold, wet trail down her butt. She was having fun, moving into the hot and cold sweaty phase that marked any good sledding excursion.
At the top of the hill, her brothers Scotty and Matthew were prepping for another run. Scotty had his middle son tucked between his legs. Matthew was lying chest down on the sled, head first. Scotty’s eldest son was lying on top of him in the same position.
“You’re going to allow that?” Fina asked Scotty. “Patty would not approve.” Scotty’s wife had married into the Ludlow family, thereby rendering her the rare voice of reason. Patty had opted to stay home with their niece, Haley.
“She won’t know,” Scotty said.
“Not until you call her from the ER,” Fina commented. “Did you guys bring any business cards? There must be a market for sledding-related lawsuits.” Her brothers grinned.
“Don’t spoil our fun,” Matthew said, pushing off, his nephew clinging to his back like a tortoise’s shell.
It was the rare day that the Ludlows had a couple of free hours together, when the demands of the family firm, Ludlow and Associates, didn’t take priority. Winter had been a bitch so far, dumping snow and caking ice on every surface, prompting the governor to close down government offices and delay court business for days. Fina’s father, Carl, had grumbled about the loss of billable hours, but his children and grandchildren were happy to have a brief reprieve from the daily grind.
Fina sat down behind Chandler and shoved off the icy surface and over the crest of the hill. Their ride was fast and bumpy, the boy hollering all the way down. As they approached the bottom of the hill, Fina tipped to the side; rather than let the ride peter out, they rolled over and off the sled in a dramatic wipeout. Chandler was elated.
Fina was cleaning snow out of her boot laces when her phone rang from the inner pocket of her parka. If she were in a different line of work she might ignore the call, but as a private investigator, she never knew who might be on the other end of the line. Fina had to welcome every potential job and every potential lead, even if nine times out of ten it was a telemarketer trying to sell her aluminum siding.
“Fina Ludlow,” she said, wiping at her runny nose. She listened to the caller for a few moments before hanging up.
The reprieve was over.
Although most of Fina’s cases came through Ludlow and Associates, she didn’t have a dedicated space at the firm. She used conference rooms and empty offices on the premises as needed, but she preferred to meet clients—especially potential clients—on their own turf or at least a turf of their choosing. She learned a lot about people from their environments and how they interacted with them. That’s why she was happy to meet her caller from the day before at Mass General Hospital, despite her general dislike of hospitals.
At the ICU reception desk, she encountered an administrator who could have blocked for the Patriots, so advanced were her skills.
“Who are you here to see?” She peered at Fina.
“Liz Barone.” That wasn’t strictly the truth, but, oh well.
“Are you family?”
“I’m her cousin.”
The receptionist printed out an ID badge, which Fina affixed to her jacket. She gave Fina a stern lecture that cell phone use was not allowed and pointed her to a small waiting room.
The space overlooked an inner courtyard, and although the windows promised natural light, it was nearly impossible to see the sky given the size of the building. Across the courtyard, hallways and rooms were brightly illuminated, offering a montage of hospital life.
Fina took off her coat, stuffing her gloves and scarf into her pockets before taking a seat in a straight-backed chair. A woman of about forty was lying on a sofa wrapped in a thin blanket. She appeared to be sleeping, but every couple of minutes, she would toss and turn on the unforgiving couch. A Japanese family occupied the chairs opposite Fina. They were deep in conversation, their voices low but insistent.
Rather than contemplate the personal disasters that had brought her roommates to this place, Fina scanned the landscape across the way. In one room, a man sat up in bed, eating off a tray, his eyes trained on the TV mounted on the wall. A woman sat in a chair next to him, flipping through a magazine. Another room held half a dozen people, their smiling faces amongst a sea of flowers and balloons. Fina pondered the vista offered by the waiting room. It seemed cruel to force devastated family members to gaze upon others’ more mundane, joyful recoveries.
Fifteen minutes later, Fina was thoroughly engrossed in a CNN story about national tortilla chip day when a woman entered the room. She was dressed in street clothes rather than medical attire.
Fina stood and offered her hand. “Yes. Are you Mrs. Barone?”
“Call me Bobbi.” Her handshake was firm, but her skin felt dry. “There’s a meeting room that we can use.”
Fina followed her down the hallway, trying not to stare at the occupants of the glass fronted rooms. In some cases, it was difficult to even see the patients amidst the medical equipment. Machines and endless tubes and cords snaked around the beds that seemed as large and as complicated as luxury sedans. Each room boasted a dedicated nursing station right outside its door. The level of care and attention was extraordinary. If you had to be in critical condition, this was the place to do it. In the hallway, a uniformed Boston Police officer sat on a chair, flipping through the Herald.
Bobbi led her to a small nondescript room with a round table and four chairs. There was a poster on the wall about patients’ rights and another extolling the virtues of hand washing, but little attempt had been made to decorate or warm up the space. If you were sitting in this room meeting with doctors, the life of your loved one was in serious peril. No one was going to pretend otherwise.
“Do you want some coffee? Water?” Bobbi asked.
“No, thank you, but can I get you something?” Fina sat down across from her. “I should have offered to bring in some food. I know that hospital food can get old fast.”
“I haven’t felt like eating. This is the most successful diet I’ve ever been on.” She gave a wan smile. Bobbi Barone looked to be in her sixties with short, dark brown hair, and a complexion that was more olive than fair. She was very attractive, with smooth skin and lovely teeth. Her face was round, but not chubby, and her features were delicate. Fina guessed she was about five feet five inches and carried a bit of extra weight evenly throughout her body. A modest diamond ring and wedding band encircled her left ring finger.
“Is Liz’s husband going to join us?” Fina asked.
“He’s getting some coffee, but we can start without him.” Bobbi squeezed her hands together as if trying to warm them. The ICU was chilly, which brought to Fina’s mind a morgue.
“So what can I do for you?” Fina asked, pulling a notebook out of her bag. She had a tablet computer with her, but she still liked pen and paper when conducting interviews.
Bobbi took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you’ve been reading the papers, but my daughter was attacked a couple of days ago.”
“I did see that.” Fina had only glanced at the item in Friday’s paper, but had gone back and read all the coverage after Bobbi called her. Liz Barone, a thirty-eight year old married mother of two, was attacked in her home in Hyde Park. She’d suffered a major head injury, and her prognosis was uncertain. “How is she?”
“She’s in bad shape. She suffered a subdural hematoma,” Bobbi gestured toward her head, “and there’s a lot of bleeding in the brain.”
“Is there anything they can do?”
“They’re considering surgery to relieve the pressure, but we’ll have to see.”
“I’m so sorry,” Fina said. “What can I do for you?”
“Well,” Bobbi said. “I want to know who did it.”
“Of course.” Fina paused. “I assume the police are investigating?”
“Which division is handing the case?” Fina asked.
Fina felt a mixture of relief and dread. Lieutenant Marcy Pitney was the head of major crimes and Fina’s sometime nemesis. Detective Cristian Menendez was also a member of the unit. He was Fina’s good friend and sometime date.
“Lieutenant Pitney?” Fina asked.
“Yes. Do you know her?” Bobbi looked searchingly at Fina. The woman was desperate for a shred of hope.
“I do, and she’s an excellent detective, as are her colleagues. I’m not sure what I can do for you that they can’t.”
“I don’t mean to question their skills, but there are only so many hours in the day, and they have so many cases. I want someone who’s focused only on Liz.”
Fina had heard this before. Clients generally trusted the police, but they couldn’t accept their limited resources in terms of manpower. Like most things, if you were willing to throw money at a problem you got more—though not necessarily better—results.
“Okay. Well, tell me about your daughter.”
“She’s married with two kids and works in a lab at New England University.”
“Has anything unusual happened in her life recently? Has anyone threatened her or has she been engaged in any conflict you can think of?”
Bobbi shook her head. “The only thing that’s different is the lawsuit, but I can’t imagine that has anything to do with it.”
“What lawsuit?” Fina asked just as the door swung open. A man in faded jeans and a black pullover sweater walked in and dropped down into a chair. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.
“This is Liz’s husband,” Bobbi said. “Jamie Gottlieb.”
Fina extended her hand. “Sorry to meet under such difficult circumstances.”
“I was just telling Fina about the lawsuit,” Bobbi explained.
Jamie made a gesture indicating she should continue. Fina listened and studied him at the same time.
She’d done some preliminary research on Jamie in preparation for the meeting. He was a project manager at a local interactive firm, but most of the information Fina found online was related to his band. Jamie was the guitarist for the group, which had enjoyed modest success in the 90’s, but seemed largely inactive these days. They were called Wells Missionary, a name that made no sense to Fina, but was probably an ironic reference to art and the capitalist machinery. Jamie was trim with longish brown hair that dipped down toward his eyes. He wasn’t traditionally handsome, but with his square jaw and hazel eyes, he looked slightly tortured, which for some reason was often a draw to the opposite sex. Sitting across from him, Fina could imagine he attracted the ladies when armed with a guitar.
“Liz was working with an attorney,” Bobbi continued. “She was going to sue New England University.”
“Why?” Fina asked.
Jamie studied his fingernails.
“She played soccer there when she was a student, and she’s developed health problems. She thinks they’re related to her time on the team.”
“What kind of problems?” Fina thought she knew what was coming next, but she wanted to hear it from Bobbi.
“Cognitive health issues. MCI to be exact.”
MCI was mild cognitive impairment, the diagnosis most often given to athletes who suffered sports-related concussions. It was the affliction that so many NFL players were contending with, and although mild was part of the name, the impairment could be devastating.
“I’m familiar with MCI. What sort of symptoms was she experiencing?”
“I don’t see how this is relevant,” Jamie interjected. He bared his teeth in a look between a smile and a grimace. “This has nothing to do with her current situation.”
“We don’t know that, Jamie,” his mother-in-law insisted.
“This is a waste of time, Bobbi. No offense,” he said to Fina.
“None taken. What do you think happened?”
“I have no idea, but the world is full of crazy people. Liz didn’t have any enemies. This had to have been random. She probably opened the door to the wrong person.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Jamie,” Bobbi said.
“I know you want to do whatever you can, but I don’t see how hiring her,” he gestured at Fina, “is going to help.”
“I don’t expect you to pay for it,” Bobbi said, a touch of irritation creeping into her voice.
“That’s not what I meant,” Jamie said.
Fina knew that some people didn’t like the idea of an investigator snooping into their lives while some people were more private than others. Then there was the group that actually had something to hide. Fina wondered which category Jamie occupied.
“I want to get back to Liz,” he said and rose from his seat. “Do what you think is best,” he said to his mother-in-law before leaving the room.
The two women sat in silence for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” Bobbi said. “We’re under a lot of stress, and clearly, he doesn’t want to hire you.”
“Why is that, do you think?” Fina asked.
Bobbi tipped her head back and studied the ceiling. “Jamie tends to take the path of least resistance in life. Right now he doesn’t have the energy or the emotional resources to do more than sit by Liz’s bedside.”
“But you do? You still want me to investigate?”
She met Fina’s gaze. “Absolutely. She’s my child. I’d do anything for her.”
“What about Liz’s father? Is he in the picture?”
“My husband died five years ago. Thank God for small favors; this would have killed him.”
Fina stashed her notebook in her bag and pulled out her business card. “Do you have an email address?” Bobbi nodded. “I’ll send you my rate information, and I’ll get started as soon as you say the word,” Fina said.
Bobbi folded her hand around the card, as if it were a talisman.
“I’ll want to speak with you again—and Jamie. I’ll try not to irritate him too much.”
“Good luck with that,” Bobbi murmured.
“I’ll also need the contact info for the attorney Liz was working with. He’ll be a good place to start.”
“He’s in Natick. Thatcher Kinney.” She laced her hands together. “You don’t think I’m wrong about the lawsuit being an issue?”
Fina stood. “I don’t know, but it represents a change in your daughter’s routine and contacts. It would be foolish to dismiss it without taking a closer look.”
“Thank you,” Bobbi stood and gave Fina a hug. It wasn’t the usual way her meetings ended, but this was an unusual circumstance. Bobbi Barone needed a hug, and Fina was happy to oblige.
“Hang in there,” Fina said, after pulling away.
“I am. By a thread.”
In the hallway, Fina headed for the exit, and Bobbi went in the opposite direction, presumably toward her daughter’s room. Fina hit the button that unsealed the hermetically sealed unit and took a deep breath once the doors closed behind her. That medical purgatory gave her the creeps.
Most of Fina’s caseload came directly from Ludlow and Associates, but occasionally, she tried to throw in a job independent of the firm. There were a few reasons she might seek out other work: a case was interesting on its own merits; a case offered a potential payoff for Ludlow and Associates down the road; Fina felt like pissing off her father and asserting her independence. Liz Barone’s case hit all three of these marks, though Fina would emphasize the potential payoff when selling it to her father.
Ludlow and Associates was located on the 48th floor of the Prudential building. Carl had started the firm not long out of law school and built it into not only a family business, but one of the most successful personal injury firms in the country. All four of the Ludlow children had followed Carl’s footsteps to law school, with varying degrees of success. Rand, the eldest, was a successful lawyer whose recent bad behavior had landed him in a family-enforced exile in Miami. Her other brothers, Scott and Matthew, were partners in the family firm, but Fina hadn’t made it past the first semester of law school. Instead, she found her niche as the firm’s investigator. It was a competitive, lucrative and sometimes distasteful line of work, but it was theirs, and they were good at it.
Fina breezed past the pretty receptionist at the front desk and wound through the hallways to her father’s office. Since it was Saturday, his assistant wasn’t in, and Fina strode directly into his office. It wasn’t as much fun when she didn’t have to evade his gatekeeper.
Her father was seated behind his desk, his brows knit together as he studied his computer screen.
“Look at these,” he commanded his daughter.
“You know Dad, other people say ‘hello’ and ‘please.’”
“You’re lecturing me on manners?”
Fina walked behind her father. She leaned over his shoulder and looked at the screen. It was odd being in such close physical proximity to him. Her parents weren’t huggers. In fact, Fina couldn’t remember the last time she and her father had embraced.
“What am I looking at?”
“Your mother’s birthday gift.”
“Don’t you think you should ask Patty?” she said, referring to Scotty’s wife. “She has a better eye for these sorts of things.”
“I don’t have time for that.”
Fina scanned the bracelets on the Tiffany’s website. Her relationship with her mother was difficult, at best. In Fina’s estimation, coal was always the perfect gift for Elaine.
“She likes blue,” Fina noted, pointing at a delicate bracelet of diamonds and sapphires.
Carl grunted. “It’s a little understated for your mother.”
Fina reached for the mouse and scrolled down the page. She inhaled her father’s cologne, crisp and faintly woodsy. Carl was a handsome man who put a lot of effort into his appearance. He was trim, with a muscular upper body and thick salt-and-pepper hair. Carl was also charismatic. He had a “take no prisoners” attitude people found immensely appealing. Most people wanted to believe that someone, somewhere, was in charge.
Fina bypassed all the tasteful, elegant options and clicked on a chunky diamond bracelet interspersed with gold Xs. “That looks like something she’d wear.” She stood back and took in the astronomical price. “But doesn’t she have a diamond bracelet already, Dad?”
Carl clicked on the purchase button and directed her back around the desk.
“She has a few, but she can never have too many. So what’s going on?”
Fina sat down in the chair across from him. “I’ve got a potential case that I thought might be of interest to you.”
He frowned. “Not one of our clients?”
“No, but there may be something in it for us.”
“Have you heard about the woman who was attacked in her Hyde Park home last Thursday?”
“It’s vaguely familiar.”
“Well, her name is Liz Barone, and I just met with her mom and husband at MGH. Liz is in ICU.”
“That sounds like a criminal matter,” he said. “Nothing to do with us.”
“Just wait,” Fina said, rising and walking over to the small but well-stocked bar on the other side of the room. She pulled a diet soda from the fridge and returned to her seat. “She was working with an attorney before she was attacked. She was planning to sue New England University.”
“For what?” Carl’s eyes flicked from his phone to her, his curiosity piqued.
“She played on their soccer team twenty years ago and has since been diagnosed with MCI.”
Carl tapped his fingers on his leather blotter. “Who’s representing her now?”
“A guy named Thatcher Kinney in Natick, but I gather that her mom isn’t happy with the job he’s done.”
“Never heard of him,” her father said, indicating that Thatcher Kinney couldn’t possibly be important if he weren’t on his radar screen. “Does the mom think the attack is linked to the lawsuit?”
“She doesn’t know, but she wants someone to investigate, independent of the cops.”
“She doesn’t trust the cops?”
Fina shrugged. “She does, but she’s doing anything she can to help her daughter. I think she wants to feel useful.”
“Why’d they contact you?”
“Because I’m the best.” Fina pulled out her elastic and gathered her hair into a tidier ponytail.
Carl gave her a withering look.
“And because of all the press from the Reardon case,” she admitted. Fina’s most recent case had involved the murder of a prominent Boston businessman. The case generated a lot of press, and Fina and the firm got their share of ink.
“And why would I want you to spend time on this?” her father asked. Carl liked to do this. He liked to make you state your case and win the argument, even if the argument was obvious, and he’d already been convinced.
“Because if I figure out who attacked Liz Barone, her family will be eternally grateful, thereby wanting us to represent them in the case against NEU. A case that has potential to be huge, given all the athletes who are reporting cognitive issues due to sports injuries.”
“What about the husband? You haven’t said much about him.”
“He seems reluctant to have me involved, which is peachy as far as I’m concerned. Maybe he did it, and I can wrap this thing up pronto.”
Carl considered her for a moment. “Fine. Take the case, but I still may need you for something else.”
Fina rose from her chair. “Of course, Father.”
“Smart ass,” Carl murmured as she turned to leave.
She smiled. That was practically a term of endearment in the Ludlow family.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Ingrid Thoft “Kinsey Millhone, you’ve got competition. This firecracker of a series starter is a perfect summer read. It introduces Fina Ludlow, the in-house private investigator for her family’s ethically shaky law firm. What starts as a search for her missing sister-in-law uncovers bombshells and twisted family secrets.” —Entertainment Weekly “Thoft skillfully balances the array of business, family, and cryobank-related motives, and she crafts a great climax. Scrappy Fina’s character is uncommonly fully realized. . . . Readers will find plenty to love about her.” —Booklist
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I finished the three because the plots were varied and exciting. Unfortunately no one in the family, especially Fina was not changed in any way. She acted and reacted the same. Her mother and father were the culprits in every instance. Her lovers likewise barely moved forward. Milloy throughout, and Christian only a bit at the end of book three.