My heartfelt thanks to Lewis Carroll for the quotes I pulled out of the Rabbit Hole.
The Secret Diary of Alice in Wonderland,
Age 42 and Three Quarters
Curious how our lives can take on the shadings of a fairy tale, the line between reality and fantasy becoming fuzzy.
New Year’s Eve morning, fourteen hours to a fresh start. I parked my Jeep at the far end of the mall lot and speed walked toward Macy's for a quick stop at the Lancôme counter to get my favorite wrinkle-poofer. The gentle Miami winter sun kissed my face.
A striped cat crossed in front of me, stopped and grinned. A full set of human teeth. I closed my eyes and shook my head. When I opened them, he was gone.
I heard the low idle of a car driving slowly behind me and looked over my shoulder. A dark limo with a tinted windshield was following me. Instinct kicked in and I broke into a trot. The limo moved forward. I had reason for concern. Two women had been murdered in separate incidents in that very parking lot the past year.
Halfway to Macy’s and still not sure if I was being followed; I zipped through the line of cars, stepped over the grass median, into the next lane, and ran.
The limo looped around. I fumbled in the side pocket of my bag and freed my cell phone, punching in 9 and 1. The phone slipped from my sweaty hand, hit my shoe and slid under an SUV. Screw it. Leaping over the bushy islands that stood between me and safety, I fell flat on my face, hitting my cheek against the turf. I pulled a clump of my red-blond hair away from my eyes.
I looked up at a man’s face in the window of the limo. He had a droopy, walrus-like mustache.
“Ms. Harte, we'd like to talk to you.”
“Call my office.” I threw him a pissy look as I scrambled to stand.
“It's about Leslie Archer.”
“Who?” I played dumb.
Before I could run again, two men stepped out of the car and grabbed me. Twins, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee dressed in dark clothes; both had noses that twisted to the right beneath scarred brows. They lifted me into the car by my elbows.
So this is how it ends. I flashed on the headlines – Alice Harte, Miami Real Estate Broker, 42 and Three-Quarters, Found Murdered at Biscayne Mall.
A stocky guy sat shotgun. He had slicked back hair, a hard-set jaw, bull-neck and sunglasses perched on large ears. One Tweedle took the driver’s seat and the other sat directly across from me in the rear-facing back seat. Next to me was the man with the walrus mustache, a portly guy with prominent front teeth, a derby and pince-nez glasses. He said, “Ms. Harte, I’m an attorney. My name is Walter Lewis. I represent Marc Hare.”
My heart rolled over. I knew the Hare name.
“We’re going after your employer, Leslie Archer, for fraud and racketeering, civil RICO. You’ll be testifying against him.”
“Look, whoever you are, I know nothing about Leslie Archer’s business. I just work for him. I've been trying to quit. He won't let me go. I'm no good to you.”
“Exactly why you are good to us – you're part of his inner circle. We want everything you can dig up on him. You will take the stand against Archer.” He poked his fat finger in my face.
I reached up and smacked his hand, hard. The backseat Tweedle grabbed my wrist and bent it. I yelped in pain.
The thick-necked man in the front passenger seat looked at me through his sunglasses. “Enough bullshit. You know the name Jug Hare?”
Jug Hare had been a small time contractor with a wife and five kids. He was found beheaded days after he filed suit against Leslie Archer.
“Jug was my baby brother. I’m Marc Hare. I’m sure you’re afraid of Archer, but he’s the least of your worries.”
Leslie Archer scared me in many ways. But who was Sunglasses? Why should I be afraid of him? He talked lawsuit, but he looked and acted like a thug. I’d met his kind before. I narrowed my eyes and said, I’m not going into court again, not for you, not for anyone.
I felt like I had stepped into a gangster film. All I wanted was face cream, now I'm some sort of witness against Leslie for a guy who acts like he might be even more dangerous.
My gut churned. “Leslie has won every lawsuit thrown at him. What happens when you run out of money and can’t keep your suit? Where does that leave me? He’ll kill me.”
Sunglasses answered not trying to conceal his venom, “I’m taking the bastard down, one way or the other. And if you had a hand in my brother's death, you’re going with him.”
My gut churned harder. For months I'd feared being accused of participating in Leslie's slimy and possibly illegal shenanigans. I looked at Marc Hare. Leslie was dead meat and I might be the side dish.
“You’re testifying,” Sunglasses said in a bone-chilling hiss.
I wanted out of that car. “When is this going to happen? I need to get away from him before it does.”
“You don't get it,” Walrus Mustache said. “You're going to continue working for Archer and keep your eyes open until your deposition.”
My stomach was like a washer on spin cycle. “Deposition?”
“It’s a proceeding where my partner and I and Archer’s attorneys question you about your testimony.
I wanted to barf on his shoes. Suddenly wrinkle-poofer was the least important thing on my list of things to do.
Sunglasses said, “You won't be hearing from us but we’ll be hearing from you. And find out everything you can about a company called Red Queen, Ltd.”
A thorn lodged in my throat. “You want me to spy for you?”
Sunglasses’ mouth curled up in the corners, but it was far from a smile. “It would be to your advantage to play ball with us. If you don't...” he slid his finger across his throat. “Get out.”
I stepped from the black car onto the surface of a marshmallow. My legs buckled. I leaned on the nearest vehicle and set off its alarm.
“You’ll need this.” One of the Tweedles handed me my cell phone. I took it with shaky hands.
Going to the office was out of the question. No one would miss me on New Year’s Eve day. I drove back to my house in Westminster Lakes, a gated community just outside Miami.
My garage door came down with a reassuring thud. It would be easier to think clearly within my own walls. And I had a lot to think about - Sunglasses, Leslie… and what the hell was RICO?
I walked into the kitchen, threw my bag on the counter and grabbed a bottled water from the fridge. My cat Gem and I share a large contemporary Florida house on a tiny pristine lake. It’s an island of security in a crazy world.
What did I know about RICO? In the back of my mind sat the slippery eel of a thought I had heard that word attached to Leslie before today. I work for Leslie Archer, the worst human being on the face of the earth. He develops upscale resorts; I brokered the luxury apartment buildings that sit on the land he owns, mostly to pension funds and investment groups. In his fifty-three years, Leslie has managed to insinuate himself into the top slot on some impressive enemy lists.
At my computer, I typed RICO in the search bar and like a slot machine, the tumblers spun. Up came a definition that fit Leslie like his spray-on tan: Racketeering. If Hare won under civil RICO, he would be able to get all Leslie's money, homes, and jets. Leslie was all about possessions. This was going to get ugly.
I was mouse-trapped. Leslie wouldn't let me out of my employment agreement with Archer Resorts. And now I was supposed to be an undercover snoop for some thug.