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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Fern Michaels
All rights reserved.
Cosmo Cricket looked at the Mickey Mouse clock on his desk, a gift from a grateful client. Because, as the client put it, what do you give to a man who has everything except maybe a part of his childhood to remember? For some reason, this particular clock meant the world to him and not because Mickey Mouse was part of his childhood — because he hadn't really had a childhood, at least not a normal one. Someday, when he had nothing else to do, he'd figure it all out. He wished he could remember the client, but he couldn't. Mickey told him it was the end of the workday. But the city that he lived and worked in, one that never slept, was about to come alive just as he was about to head home.
This was always the time of day when he sat back with a diet drink and reflected. On his life. On his work. On his past. And, on his future. He never reflected on the present because he knew who he was and what was going on, right down to the minute, thanks to Mickey. He'd known who he was from the day he was born. There were those who would take issue with that statement, but those people didn't know his mother and father. There wasn't an hour of his life that he didn't know about because his parents insisted he know everything. He always smiled when he got to this point in his reverie.
He knew he weighed fourteen whopping pounds when he was born and looked like he was already four months old. He knew that his parents fought over who got to hold him. And he was told that he was rocked in a chair from day one until he was three years old, at which point he'd announced he was no longer a baby and needed to be a big boy, and he wanted his own chair, which appeared within hours, thanks to his doting father. There had been a succession of rocking chairs as he grew. He was sitting, right now, this very second, in the last one.
The rocking chair was battered and worn, and was on its tenth, maybe even its twentieth, set of cushions, he couldn't remember. The chair was at odds with the rest of his plush office and a far cry from the kind of furnishings in the house he'd grown up in. Everything in this penthouse suite of rooms was elegant, as top-of-the-line as the decorator could make it. Ankle-deep carpeting, an array of built-ins, pricey paintings on the walls, soft, buttery furniture, and a view of Las Vegas that had no equal. The palatial suite had its own bathroom, where everything was oversize to accommodate him. He was almost ashamed to admit he never used anything but the towels. He did like the bidet, though. The suite was one massive perk arranged by the Nevada Gaming Commission to get him to sign on as their legal counsel. He'd argued over the Gaming Commission's contract, saying he wanted to be able to practice law with a few select clients and do some pro bono work, and he wouldn't budge. He'd actually walked away when they wouldn't cave in, but they caught up with him at the elevator and agreed to his demands, then threw in what they thought was the clunker, but to Cosmo it was the icing on the proverbial cake. He was to be on call to all the casino owners, who would pay him his six-hundred-dollar-an-hour fee for whatever work he did for them plus a yearend bonus. The only stipulation was that his private clients and the casino owners not interfere with the commission's work. It was a solid-gold deal that worked for everyone.
Twenty-three years later he had so much money, he didn't know what to do with it, so he let other people manage it, people who made even more money for him.
In the beginning, when the money started flowing in, he moved his parents to a mansion, got them live-in help, and bought them fancy cars all without asking them first. That lasted one whole week before they moved out in the middle of the night and went back to their little house in the desert, where they had lived out their lives. He still owned that house, and it was where he himself lived. He'd updated it and was snug as a bug in a rug.
Cosmo chuckled when he thought of the other perk he'd negotiated: acquiring the entire floor below his suite of offices. He'd been disappointed that he hadn't had to go to the mat on that one. The "powers that be" gave in meekly, and he rented it out for outrageous sums of money, which he, in turn, donated to his favorite charities.
Cosmo looked at Mickey again and saw that it was almost six o'clock, which meant it was almost nine o'clock back East. He looked forward to calling Elizabeth and talking for an hour or so. God, how he loved that woman.
Mickey told him he had fifteen more minutes to reflect before he headed home. Thinking about Elizabeth Fox made him smile. Never in his wildest dreams had he ever thought a woman like Elizabeth would fall in love with him. Or that he could love her as much as he'd loved his parents. It just boggled his mind.
Cosmo's smile widened when he remembered his parents sitting him down when he turned six and was about to go off to school. They told him how he was different and how the other children were going to react to him. He'd listened, but he hadn't understood the cruelty of children; he learned quickly. It hadn't gotten any better as he aged, but by the time he went off to college, he didn't give a shit what anyone said about him. He accepted that he was big and that his feet were like canoes and that he was ugly, with outrigger ears and a flat slab for a face, and that he had to have specially made clothes and shoes and a bed that would accommodate his body. He was comfortable in his own skin and made a life for himself.
And then along came Elizabeth Fox, or as she was known in legal circles, the Silver Fox. At first he couldn't believe she loved him, or as she put it, "I don't just love you, Cosmo, I love every inch of you." And she meant it. He was so light-headed with that declaration, he'd almost passed out. She'd laughed, a glorious, tinkling sound that made him shiver all the way to his toes. Then she'd sat him down and told him everything she was involved in.
"You can walk away from me right now, Cosmo, and I will understand. If we stay together, you will know I'm breaking the law, and so will you. I'm giving you a choice."
Like there was a choice to be made. He'd signed on and never looked back. He was now a male member of that elite little group called the Vigilantes.
Cosmo looked over at Mickey and saw that it was time to fight the Vegas traffic and head for home. He looked around to see where his jacket was. Ah, just where he'd thrown it when he came back from lunch, half on one of the chairs and half-dangling on the floor. He was heaving himself out of his rocking chair when he heard the door to his secretary's office open and close. Mona Stevens, his secretary, always left at five o'clock on the dot because she had to pick up her son from day care. Mona had been one of his pro bono cases. A friend of a friend had asked him to help her out because her husband had taken off and left her and her son to fend for themselves. He'd hired her once he'd straightened out her problem and gotten her child support, and he paid her three times what other secretaries earned on the Strip. She was so grateful and loyal she would have brushed his teeth for him if he'd allowed it.
Cosmo opened the door to see a woman sitting primly on one of the chairs. She looked worried as well as uncomfortable. When the door opened she looked up, a deer caught in the headlights. "Can I help you?"
She was maybe in her mid-forties — he was never good at women's ages — well dressed, with a large leather bag at her feet. Her hair looked nice to his eye, and she wasn't slathered in makeup. All in all a pleasant-looking woman whose husband had probably gambled away their life savings and the house as well. He liked to think he was a good judge of character and always, no matter what, he waited to see a client's reaction to meeting him for the first time.
This lady, whoever she was, didn't flinch, didn't blink, didn't do anything other than ask, "Are you Mr. Cricket?"
"I am. I was just leaving. Do you have an appointment I forgot about?"
"No. I did call three different times but ... no, I don't have an appointment. Should I make one and come back? If I do that, I might not ..."
"I have time. Come on in," Cosmo said, stepping aside so the woman could enter. He knew little about women's fashions and wondered what she carried in the bag that was heavy enough to drag her shoulder downward. He wasn't even sure whether the bag should be called a handbag, a backpack, or a travel case. His mother always referred to her bag as her pocketbook. It was where she kept a fresh hanky with lace on it, a small change purse, a comb, and a tube of lipstick. This woman's bag looked like it contained a twenty-pound rock and maybe the hammer she'd used to dig it out. He felt pleased with his assessment when the bag landed next to the chair with a loud thump.
Cosmo made a second assessment. The woman didn't want to be there. But she was, and she'd called three times, and had hung up probably because she lost her nerve. For some reason women did that when their problems involved errant husbands. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a clean yellow legal pad and a pencil. He never used pens, just in case he had to erase something. His first rule was: never commit something to paper you don't want anyone else to see.
Pencil poised, Cosmo spoke, his tone gentle for such a big man. "We've established that I'm Cosmo Cricket, attorney-at-law. Who might you be?"
"Right now I'm Lily Flowers. Last week I was Crystal Clark. Before that Ann Marie Anders. And before that I was Caroline Summers. I don't care to tell you at this time what my real birth name is. I have" — she bent down to poke in the bag at her feet, her voice muffled as she fumbled around for what she wanted, finally finding a small envelope and spreading the contents out on Cosmo's pristine desk — "a passport in each name, a driver's license in the same name, along with a credit card that matches the picture ID on the driver's license. Each one of these identities has a bank account with minimal activity, rent receipts, and utility receipts. In different parts of the country. And a birth certificate," she said breathlessly.
Cosmo made no move to inspect the documents on his desk. "I assume you got these," he said, pointing to the lineup on his desk, "illegally."
"It depends on your definition of the word 'illegal.' That's me in every photo. Just a different hairdo, a little spirit gum here or there to alter the facial features, a little shoulder padding, but it is me."
"At the outset I say to all my clients, 'Tell me the truth, or I can't help you.' I'm sure you are aware of the confidentiality agreement between client and lawyer. If you aren't, what that means is I can never divulge anything you tell me to a third party. So whatever you say to me today, here in this room, I cannot tell another soul. Whatever your secrets are, they are safe with me. Having said that, I now need to ask you why you feel you need four identities other than your real one? What kind of trouble are you in?"
The woman of many names drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Right now I am not in any trouble, but I will be very shortly. I'm here because ... because ... I want to know if there is any way I can head it off. What my options are, assuming I have any."
"Okay. But you have to tell me what type of trouble you think is headed your way."
Lily Flowers took another deep breath. "You don't know who I am, do you?"
Cosmo shook his head. "No, I don't recognize you. Should I? Have we met somewhere? Right now you appear to me to be a potential client in distress. Like I said, you have to tell me your problem; otherwise, I can't help you."
"I operate the Happy Day Camp for Boys and Girls in Pahrump. Until a month ago, our revenues exceeded those of Sheri's and the Chicken Ranch. Uh, that's according to my accountant."
Shit! Good judge of character, my ass. "Prostitution is legal in Pahrump, which is over sixty miles from Vegas. What's the problem? Did your girls fall short of the medical requirements?"
"No, nothing like that. I operate the cleanest, safest brothel in the state. My girls are the highest paid in the state. My problem is that some of my powerful, wealthy clients asked me to branch out for special occasions. They arranged all the details, a rustic atmosphere, right down to the summer camp theme I operate here. There was nothing in my name. I made sure of that. My girls are independent contractors and pay their taxes and everything that goes with it. As you know, there is no state income tax here in Nevada. I can give you an operations lesson later on. Right now word has filtered down to me that I'm likely to be arrested for my activities. Not here in Nevada but back East."
Cosmo felt his stomach muscles tie themselves into a knot. "Where back East?"
"The nation's capital. That's where all the action went down for Happy Day Camp. The clients, or johns, if you prefer, were all politicians. After the election a few months ago, when our first female president was sworn in, things went south with the opposition and quite a few of the current members of the new administration. They've been trying to keep the lid on it all, but word leaked out. It always does.
"It wasn't all that long ago that the woman they called the D.C. Madam supposedly killed herself. And just for the record, I don't believe that for one minute, and neither does anyone else who is in this business."
By then Cosmo felt like he had an army of ants squirming around in his stomach. "Why did you do it? You could operate safely here. Why go to a place like D.C. of all places?"
"Believe it or not, I didn't want to. I called a meeting of my girls, laid it all out, and — like a fool — allowed them to make the decision. I can understand how none of them wanted to say no — the money the clients were offering was outrageous. A few of the girls planned to retire when they got back. We only did it twice. Once before the election and once again afterward. 'Celebrations,' for want of a better word.
"The minute word came down to me, I closed Happy Day Camp and sent the girls off to a safe place to await instructions from me. I traded in Crystal Clark and went back to being Lily Flowers five days ago. I put a sign up that said Happy Day Camp was closed for heavy-duty plumbing repairs. This is the fifth day, and my phone has been ringing constantly. People are looking for me. That's why I'm Lily Flowers at the moment. I want to know if I should join my girls or stay and fight it out."
Cosmo twirled the pencil in his hand. He licked at his dry lips and bit down on his bottom lip. "What do you want to do?"
"Anything but go to jail. The johns get off scot-free, and the women go to jail. Tell me where the justice is in that? Will they extradite me back to D.C.?"
"Yes. And I am not licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia."
"I thought that's what you were going to say. Okay, that means I have to take off and hope for the best. But I want to leave something with you for safekeeping. I'll pay your retainer if you agree."
Cosmo watched as Crystal again started digging around in the oversize bag. She finally came up with book after book, and plopped them on the desk, one on top of the other. "My check registers, my little black books. My business cell phones, all my records. And here," she said, counting out bills from a stack of money in a brown envelope, "is your retainer. Do not let those books fall into the wrong hands. Will it be all right if I call you from time to time to see ... you know ... how things are going?"
"Look, Ms. Clark, I know quite a few very good attorneys in Washington, D.C. One in particular who is excellent. Any one of them can help you. You really should think about this before you make a rash decision."
"I did think about it on the way here. No way am I going to let them come after me. Let them go after the johns. Why should they get off with no penalties? Do you really want to pick up the paper some morning to read that I killed myself? That's what will happen if I go there and lawyer up. You didn't answer my question, Mr. Cricket. Will it be all right for me to call you from time to time, and will you keep all these records safe until such time as I want them back?"
Every bone, every nerve in Cosmo's body wanted to shout no, no, no. "Yes," was his response. "Will you be okay?"
The woman of many names laughed. At least Cosmo thought it was a laugh. "I'll be just fine. I knew this day might come, and I've prepared for it."
Cosmo watched as she gathered up all her identity papers and shoved them into the bag, which now sagged together on the sides, then plopped it on top of Cosmo's desk. "What about money?"
"It's offshore. I'm not stupid, Mr. Cricket. Like I said, I prepared for this day a long time ago. And those records," she said, pointing to the pile of black books and check registers teetering precariously on his desk, "are the originals. The phones are real, and I have no others. The duplicate books and records are in safe hands and being delivered to the intended recipients, that's as in plural, as we speak."
Excerpted from Razor Sharp by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2009 Fern Michaels. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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