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On a Monday morning in late September, Eddie Bardin and I donned our ballistic vests, slid our Glocks into our ankle holsters, and headed out of downtown Dallas in a plain white government-issue sedan that smelled faintly of French fries.
Eddie leaned toward the door and checked himself in the side mirror. "How do I look?"
What my response lacked in decorum it made up for in sincerity. "Like an idiot."
"Then it's the perfect disguise."
With the shiny gold chains, sagging jeans that exposed polka-dot boxers, and untied high-top basketball shoes, he looked like a hip-hop singer or a wannabe gangster. The disguise was a far cry from Eddie's usual attire of classic business suits and silk ties. I, too, wore a disguise, though mine was far more subtle. In blue jeans, sneakers, and a Dallas Mavericks T-shirt, I was undercover as a retail sales associate from a sporting goods store at a nearby mall. As a final touch, I'd pulled my chestnut-brown hair into a ponytail and topped it with a Texas Rangers baseball cap. Go, team!
We were two IRS special agents on a mission. Today's mission would be taking down a tax preparer who called herself the Deduction Diva. According to her glittery red advertising flyer, she provided clients with massage chairs and a complimentary glass of champagne while their returns were prepared. Hoity-toity, huh?
With tax law growing increasingly complex, more people were turning to professional preparers. Entrepreneurs looking for a niche figured they'd cash in on the trend. Unfortunately, too many had jumped on the bandwagon. Tax preparation services had become a crowded market and preparers had resorted to gimmicks to grab the attention of potential clients. But where these people came up with the gimmicks God only knows.
After merging onto the freeway, I glanced over at my partner. "Don't you dare touch that stereo."
I slapped his hand away as he attempted to eject my Tim McGraw CD and slip in some soft jazz. Eddie might be African-American, but he was much more Kenny G than P. Diddy. I, on the other hand, was much more Lady Antebellum than Lady Gaga.
Yep, in many ways Eddie and I were polar opposites. He was tall and dark, a father of two, who'd grown up and was now raising his family in the affluent North Dallas suburbs. I was a petite white woman, a recovering tomboy who'd grown up climbing trees, shooting BB guns, and swimming in the muddy creeks of the East Texas piney woods.
Dig a little deeper, though, and you'd find Eddie and I shared quite a few similarities. We'd both kicked academic ass in college, graduating at the top of our classes. We'd both taken jobs as special agents in IRS Criminal Investigations when we'd discovered that sitting at a desk all day didn't suit us. And we both wanted to see tax cheats get their due. Especially the Deduction Diva. She'd been cheating the government for years. The Diva's due was long overdue.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled the car into the lot of the suburban office park where the Diva's business was located and took a spot in the second row.
"Break a leg," I said. Given that my partner was in costume, the sentiment seemed appropriate.
Eddie opened the door and climbed out, a phony W-2 clutched in his hand. I sat in the car, snickering as he shuffled across the parking lot in his saggy jeans and entered the glass-front office space.
The audit department had referred the Diva's case to Criminal Investigations after examinations of several of her clients revealed a disturbing pattern. Each of their returns showed a significant loss on a vague "consulting" business. Suspiciously, the loss in each case was just enough to offset the client's other income, resulting in a refund of all taxes the client had paid in. When questioned by auditors, the clients pointed fingers at their tax preparer, claiming the Deduction Diva had devised the fraudulent scheme.
Though the Diva's clients were hardly innocent, as long as they made good on the taxes owed we'd let them slide with a stern warning. Criminal Investigations was more interested in nailing the preparer who'd perpetrated the fraud on a wide-scale basis. Besides, we'd need the clients to testify against the Diva should she plead not guilty. But just in case our potential witnesses decided to assert their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, we were here to collect direct evidence of the Diva's fraud.
Catching tax cheats red-handed was always a hoot. There's nothing quite as satisfying as seeing that oh-shit-they-got-me! look in their eyes.
The Deduction Diva wasn't the only abusive preparer in the Dallas area. There were dozens on the IRS radar and hundreds more across the country. Abuse had become so prevalent, in fact, that the agency had enacted a number of measures to crack down on preparer fraud, including background checks and competency testing. Whether these new regulations would reduce fraud remained to be seen.
Our boss, Lu "the Lobo" Lobozinski, had decided that the most efficient way to deal with these cheats was to perform an intense, concentrated sweep. She'd paired up the special agents in the office and handed each team a list of preparers to investigate and arrest. Eddie and I were halfway through our list. We'd already taken down several abusive preparers, including a moron who called himself the Weapon of Mass Deductions and advertised on television, wearing combat fatigues and army boots in his cheesy commercial.
With the October 15th extension deadline rapidly approaching, the summer lull was over. Tax preparers were busy with clients who'd requested more time to file their returns, some because their finances were extensive and complicated, others because they couldn't get their act together by the April deadline. I suspected most of the Diva's clients were of the latter variety.
While the Deduction Diva prepared my partner's tax return, I sat in the car playing Scrabble on my cell phone and tried not to think of the major case Eddie and I had pending. We'd dealt with some pretty nasty people in our investigations, but these guys were by far the nastiest we'd faced. They were heartless, cruel, and extremely violent, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, in their attacks, with no thought to the lives they'd ruined, to the innocents maimed and killed as collateral damage.
Just the thought gave me acid reflux.
A half hour later, I'd just earned a triple score with the word "FUNGUS" when Eddie emerged from the Diva's office, walked around the corner of the building, and sent me a text.
The Diva had done it again. Eddie'd gone into her office with a decoy W-2 showing thirty-five thousand in earnings from a purported job as a DJ at a local nightclub. Given the amount of tax withholding on the W-2, Eddie should have owed $38.76 in additional tax had the Diva properly prepared his return.
I tugged on the hem of my jeans to make sure my ankle holster wasn't exposed, slid my phone into my purse, and headed inside with my false W-2. Mine showed I'd earned twenty-eight grand, with just enough withholding to cover my income taxes. If the Diva prepared my return correctly, I'd be due a whopping fourteen-cent refund.
I pushed open the glass door and stepped inside.
The office looked like a brothel. The walls were painted a deep scarlet. The cushy black velvet massage chairs featured red satin pillows. A pole lamp with a red fringed shade stood between the chairs. Over the gray industrial carpet lay a large fluffy red rug. Barry White's deep voice crooned softly from a stereo in the corner.
A young African-American receptionist sat at a desk chewing on the end of a yellow highlighter, a college textbook open in front of her. Accounting 101, an introductory class. She wouldn't have learned enough yet to know her boss was up to no good. The girl's casual coed attire clashed with the seductive office motif, but for ten bucks an hour who wanted to suffer in heels and panty hose? On the corner of her desk was a silver champagne bucket that contained partially melted ice and a half-empty bottle of cheap champagne.
Behind the receptionist were two doors. The one that read "Diva" in sparkling red paint was closed. The other one, which was unmarked, was cracked open a few inches. Through the open door I could see a trio of young girls seated at long portable tables, earbuds in their ears as they input data into computers. The Diva's production staff, no doubt.
The receptionist removed the highlighter from her mouth. "Can I help you?"
I held up my W-2. "I need to have my tax return prepared."
"Fifty dollars per form," the girl recited. "Ten percent discount if you pay cash."
I had a sneaking suspicion the fees paid in cash went unreported. "Great. Can it be done while I wait?"
"No problem. It'll just take a few minutes." She reached into a small cabinet behind her, retrieved a plastic champagne flute, and poured me a glass of bargain-brand bubbly. "Enjoy."
"Thanks." I traded my W-2 for the champagne. As I took a seat in one of the massage chairs, the girl carried my W-2 through the open door.
I looked down at the magazine offerings on the coffee table. Ebony. Essence. Oprah's magazine, O. I picked up the O magazine. I had a lot of respect for Oprah Winfrey. She was a ballsy yet classy broad, fighting for justice and fairness and generally making the world a better place. Though I shared her admirable aspirations, I could never be as classy as Oprah. I found it hard to be consistently well behaved.
I jabbed the button on the chair control and the entire seat began to vibrate. The movement made it a little difficult to sip the champagne without spilling it on myself, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from enjoying the stuff. It reminded me of the spiked 7UP my friends and I used to drink back in college.
"This is g-g-great," I told the receptionist, my voice quivering along with the chair.
She smiled. "Sometimes clients fall asleep there."
I could see why. Between the effects of the champagne and the gentle rocking, I was tempted to take a nap myself. The Diva was definitely on to something here.
I was halfway through an article on the merits of regular colonoscopies when one of the girls from the back room came out of her door with a piece of paper in her hand. A draft of my return. She pulled a black earbud out of one ear. Katy Perry's voice came through the tiny device, singing about hickeys, streaking through a park, and dancing on tabletops. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. The girl rapped softly on the Diva's door.
A husky woman's voice called, "Come in!"
The coed stepped inside for a moment, then came back out, closing the Diva's door behind her. She returned to her spot at the portable table.
Not long after, the receptionist's phone buzzed. A voice came over the speaker. "Miss Henry's return is ready."
Yep, my alias was Anne Henry, a combination of the names of my two cats. I'd wanted to go with something more clever like Gwen Down, a veiled take on "Going Down," but Eddie'd feared it might be too obvious.
The receptionist slipped into the Diva's office and came back with my tax return.
I turned off the massage chair and looked over the paperwork she handed me. The return showed I was due a refund of fourteen cents. Damn! The Diva had computed my taxes correctly. I felt cheated that I hadn't been cheated. Silly, huh? But it didn't matter that she'd prepared my return accurately. We had more than enough evidence of her large-scale fraud to take her in.
"That'll be fifty dollars for the preparation service," the receptionist said as she slid back into her chair. "We can e-file it for you for another twenty-five."
I stood, pulled out my phone, and texted Eddie. 14 cent refund.
He texted back. U want a big refund, u gotta ask for it.
So that was where I'd gone wrong.
I'm coming in, he added.
The receptionist stared up at me, waiting for me to pay my bill.
"You said fifty dollars, right?" I asked, stalling for time as Eddie returned to the office.
The girl nodded.
I reached into my purse, but instead of removing my wallet I pulled out the leather holder that contained my special agent badge. Eddie opened the door and came back inside, his badge at the ready.
"We're from the IRS," I told the receptionist. "We need to see the Diva."
"Uh … okay." The girl's expression was equal parts confused and surprised as we knocked on the Diva's door.
"Come in!" the woman called.
We opened the door and stepped inside. The Diva's office was just as gaudy as her foyer. Red wallpaper with thick gold stripes graced the walls, and her windows were covered with red satin curtains. She sat behind a shiny black lacquer desk in a high-backed red leather chair.
The Diva was a light-skinned black woman, with shiny swirls of dark hair swept into an elegant, curly updo on her head, like a pile of chocolate shavings. Her makeup was heavy yet impeccable, from her perfectly lined crimson lips to her glimmering burgundy eyelids. Her long acrylic fingernails were painted a shiny ruby color. Her voluptuous body was packed into a low-cut red dress, the bustline around her double Ds trimmed with black faux fur.
She looked like a movie star on Oscar night. But she wouldn't be going home with a bag of pricey swag or a gold, man-shaped trophy, her photo featured on the cover of People magazine. Nope, the only things she'd get today would be a mug shot, a body cavity search, and a one-size-fits-nobody jumpsuit.
At our unexpected intrusion, the Diva stood from her chair, her expression as surprised and confused as her receptionist's. "May I help you?"
Eddie and I flashed our badges.
"We're from the IRS," I said. "Criminal Investigations Division."
Now her expression was only surprised. The confusion was gone. She knew exactly why we were here. But that knowledge wasn't going to prevent her from feigning innocence.
"What do you want with me?" She put one hand to her chest, pointing to herself. The other hand went for her bulky electric stapler.
At point-blank proximity, I wasn't able to fully avoid the stapler she hurled at me. I only had time to duck. The device bounced off my back and onto the floor. Thanks to the padded Kevlar vest under my Mavericks tee, I hardly felt the impact.
She flung a box of paper clips at Eddie. He batted them away with both hands.
I reached down my leg and pulled my gun from my ankle holster. I really didn't want to draw on the woman, but the way she was acting left me no choice. "Put your hands up!"
She yanked open her desk drawer and pulled out a metal letter opener, clutching it in a loose fist, her long fingernails preventing her from fully closing her hand.
I aimed my gun at her. "Drop it, Diva!"
"No!" She swung the blade around as if she were a Jet and Eddie and I were Sharks. But this was East Dallas, not West Side Story. And I certainly hoped none of us would end up dead like Riff, Bernardo, or Tony. I preferred happy endings.
In a move that would make Chuck Norris proud, Eddie stepped forward and brought up his right arm, knocking the letter opener out of the Diva's hand. The blade sailed through the air, bouncing off the wall and falling back to the fluffy rug. Before she could retrieve it, Eddie ran around one side of the desk, I ran around the other, and together we tackled the Diva to the floor.
On her back now, she kicked and rolled side to side, trying to loosen our hold on her. Her boobs swung side to side, too, though they followed a second or two after the rest of her body. Eddie slapped them away just as he'd done with the paper clips.
"You touched my breasts!" she shrieked at Eddie.
It was kind of hard not to touch them given that there was so much fur-trimmed cleavage heaving to and fro. She raised a knee and rammed it into Eddie's groin. He rolled aside, retching and grabbing his crotch in agony.
Poor guy. Looked like his wife wouldn't be getting any for a while. It also looked like I'd have to handle the Diva by myself now.
The woman spun away from Eddie. Once she'd gotten herself up on all fours, I grabbed her right wrist from the back and yanked it out from under her. Ha! Roughhousing with my two older brothers as a kid had taught me some good moves.
The Diva fell onto her face on the rug, sputtering and spitting fuzz out of her mouth. I climbed onto her back, straddling her as I grabbed her arms and pulled them up behind her.
"Let me go!" she yelled, squirming under me.
"Yeah," I said, "that's not gonna happen." Two clicks later, I had her hands cuffed.
The Diva's four employees stood in the open doorway, mouths hanging open.
"OMG," one of them said.
"Totally," said another.
The third nodded her head in agreement. "Totally OMG."
"Does this mean we won't get our paychecks?" asked the receptionist.
The Diva had ripped off the IRS, but I didn't want these hardworking college kids to get ripped off, too. It hadn't been all that long ago that I'd been a starving student, eating ramen noodles for dinner three times a week. "I'll let her make out your checks before we go. But cash them immediately. We'll be freezing her accounts later today."
Realizing she was now in deep doo-doo, the Diva switched tactics, boo-hooing and promising to be a good little girl from now on if we'd only let her go. "I'll pay back every penny!" she cried. "I swear!"
Eddie shot her a pointed look from where he stood, hunched over, hands on his knees. "You should've thought about that before you busted my balls."
Was it just my imagination or was his voice an octave higher?
I removed the right handcuff so the Diva could make out her employees' paychecks, clicking the cuff onto the arm of her chair lest she attempt a last-ditch effort to escape.
While the Diva made out the payroll, my phone beeped, indicating an incoming text. I checked the screen. The message was from Nick, a coworker on whom I had a hopeless crush. The text included a discreetly snapped photo of a man dressed in an Elvis costume wearing handcuffs. The man was being led out to a marshal's car. A sign on the office building behind him read: "REFUND-A-RAMA."
Can u believe this shit? the text read. One more idiot and I will lose it.
Nick wasn't exactly known for his tact. What he was known for were his spectacular pecs, whiskey-colored eyes, and take-charge style. I texted him back: Eddie took a knee to the nuts.
The reply came back in seconds. I'll count my blessings.
Once the Diva finished, I cuffed her wrists back together and handed out the paychecks.
"Sorry about this, girls," I said. "But let this be a lesson to you. Keep your noses clean."
Copyright © 2013 by Diane Kelly