Two of my published novels began as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The goal of the challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month. For most people, this means plunging into a story while forcing the inner editor to take a back seat. While the final versions of my novels often wind up heavily edited, NaNoWriMo is very useful for turning on the creativity.
For the past few years, I’ve kept my NaNoWriMo works to myself. However, I find that I write more effectively if I put my work out there in front of an audience, even if it’s in a rough format. With that in mind, I’ll be presenting my November novel here for the next 30 days, with the caveat that it is in a very rough format.
Here’s day one of what I am currently calling Untitled Noir Story.
* * *
Bright autumn light spilled across a two-story entrance hall and let me know what reality I needed to see. Marble pillars supported a distant balcony with polished gold rails, from which I expected my new employer to hail me at any moment. On the ground floor where the peasants entered, a forest of green leafy houseplants lined either side of a scarlet-colored carpet that led to the main staircase. Natural light spilled in through bay windows so immaculately cleaned as to be almost invisible. A crystal chandelier loomed above me, ready to bathe the hall in simulated candlelight glow the moment the sunlight faded. The designer had created every single piece of this place to be timeless, capable of existing in virtually any era. Presidents would come and go, civilizations would crumble into dust, but the mansion would remain eternal.
I was a creature of the present, dressed in a professional style and carrying technology that would fade into obscurity over the course of a few years. Leather shoes, a fine black suit with a red silk tie, and a well-pressed shirt that had set me back but probably cost less than the lightbulbs on the chandelier. I didn’t mind being the least expensive thing in the room. If this job came through, the six-figure payday would almost certainly assuage my ego.
I felt a buzz against my thigh and glanced quickly around the room. The butler who had greeted me at the door hadn’t returned yet. I seemed to be alone, although there was certainly enough space and concealment for somebody to ambush me if they really wanted. Satisfied that it wouldn’t interrupt anything, I reached into my pants pocket and checked my phone.
She says there’s a sex tape, flashed a message from my receptionist. Frankie loved to drag a conversation out of people by being cryptic, whether in person or remotely. Still new to the job, she hadn’t gotten to know me well enough to realize how much that habit irritated me.
Details, I responded.
The Madera woman. She says there’s a tape that shows her and Cullen doing the deed.
I placed the phone in my left hand and pressed my right index finger against my temple. Another high-paying case, with a spanner in the works at a time when I needed to focus on other things. An actor walks into a bar and has a few drinks with a lady. They walk out together, but later on she cries rape. With nothing but hearsay, most people think the truth is hard to find. Their problem is that they’re looking for it rather than manufacturing it.
With the benefit of a few seconds to clear my thoughts, I went back to the phone.
Get me some information on Cullen Wyatt lookalikes, I wrote.
Why? she asked.
I let the conversation drop there and put my phone back in my pocket. Frankie would either do her job or it wouldn’t be her job for very long. I had other business to attend to.
The door at the top of the stairs creaked open. I placed my hands behind my back and space my feet out a bit so I stood at parade rest. If the butler noticed the bit of formality, she didn’t show it. She just looked at me through dark little eyes that reminded me of a crow.
“Mrs. Montgomery has decided she’ll meet you out back,” she said. She looked like she was in her early 30s, but her voice had the formality of a much older woman.
I looked helplessly at the half-dozen doors that lay past the potted jungle. “You’re going to have to help me…I’m afraid I’ll get lost if I go searching on my own.”
“Of course, sir.” She started going down the stairs and sighed with a weariness that made it sound like I was asking her to kill her firstborn.
I almost reached for my phone to tell Frankie I had found her soulmate.
* * *
Green leaves still clung to the trees outside, ignoring the natural progression of autumn and insisting on remaining as timeless as the mansion whose landscape they decorated. Next to the expansive interior of the house, the yard outside felt small and cramped. A black iron fence restricted the recreational area to a few hundred square feet, letting the property beyond it grow thick and wild. Vines and brambles wrapped along the fence posts, trying to force their way into the yard. A skilled groundskeeper had cut them off – literally – at every turn, leaving a few severed stems as a warning to the rest of the greenery.
The butler led me along a wide stone path that led to a latticework folly near the far fence. An old woman – my potential employer – sat under a blanket and atop a cushioned lawn chair. She had positioned the chair so it faced the walkway, but very deliberately kept her head turned away from my approach, instead paying an awful lot of attention to some dying roses nearby. A metal walker lurked nearby like a ghost she wanted desperately to forget.
The butler introduced us with a practiced wave of her arm. “Mrs. Montgomery, Mr. Hammond.”
“Carlton,” I said, extending a hand toward Mrs. Montgomery. When she didn’t move to accept the handshake, I turned it into an awkward flourish and bowed.
She smiled, apparently satisfied with my improvisation. “Thank you, Ellen,” she said through thin, colorless lips. “Give us twenty minutes.”
The butler nodded curtly and looked at me once more through her bird-like eyes before walking stiffly back along the stone path and into the boundless interior of the mansion.
As she disappeared from our claustrophobic outdoor world, I turned my attention back to wooing my hopeful business partner. She in turn spent a moment sizing me up, and for a moment neither of us said anything. I waited patiently for her to break the silence, and she eventually obliged.
“So…you’re the claims adjuster,” she said with a little bit of mockery in her voice.
“I guess that’s one way to put it.”
“But you would phrase it differently?”
“My business cards say fact finder.”
“And is it very hard to find facts?”
“Not really. The hard part is getting people to use them properly.”
“Enlighten me…how does one properly use a fact?”
The line of discussion made me furrow my brow. Most people who hired me already knew damned well what I did – and those folks didn’t offer a huge signing bonus right up front. Still, I didn’t have much choice but to play her game. After all, if I didn’t my guide might abandon me when I got back to the indoor jungle.
“You use facts to build a reality – the reality you’re looking for.”
“Please…explain.” With her crooked nose and thin white hair that left her skull almost completely visible, she suddenly looked like a vulture – though I still wasn’t sure what she wanted to prey upon.
I squinted at her. “If you’ll excuse me a moment, miss…you offered me a lot of money for a potential job. Surely you already had an idea of what I do.”
She let out one chuckle, almost like the caw of a crow. “You’re worried that I’m going senile. Don’t worry – I’m not that far gone just yet. I just want to hear you explain your business in your own words.”
“Fair enough. I help people find the truth – the truth they want. A woman finds lipstick on her husband’s collar – there are a hundred possible explanations, but it’s impossible to separate hearsay from reality. Someone like me can sift through the facts and find the answer you want to hear.”
“Isn’t that the equivalent of a private investigator?”
“In some ways. But an investigator only gives you more facts. He can tell you who the man was with, whether he got in a car with another woman. But then you’ve got a list of ingredients with no recipe to use them with. I give you that recipe. I hand you a narrative to go along with the facts.”
“And is that narrative always to your client’s liking?”
I made a show of thinking it over for a moment, then nodded. “If the facts are there, then it usually lines up.”
“So you’re really in the business of telling people what they want to hear.”
“Not at all, ma’am. People will only take what they want to hear anyway. That woman with the cheating husband? If she wants to believe he’s unfaithful, that marriage is doomed from the start. If she’s desperate to keep him, it won’t matter if he’s sleeping with half the county. She’s already made her decision – she comes to me for confirmation. Sometimes it’s not there, but I’m very good with finding the right facts.”
“And you’re not worried about bias?”
“We’re human beings. We’re always biased. But facts are facts. My only job is to find the pieces of cold, hard reality that confirm your bias. You want a happy ending? I’m the person who puts together the pieces of reality you need to make it happen.”
She folded her hands together and leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes. She sat still for so long that I almost thought she might have fallen asleep. Had it not been for the steady rise and fall of her shoulders, I probably would have worried that she had died on me.
“Thank you for your candor,” she said without opening her eyes. “Now tell me one more thing…what do you think I called you here for?”
I shrugged. “I admit, there are a million different possibilities running through my head. But even though you hinted at a big payday, I haven’t received my fee yet so I haven’t started putting the facts together.”
Her eyes opened and she turned her pale blue irises to meet directly with my darker gaze for the first time since we had started talking. “Very well. Let’s discuss it over a drink. Do you enjoy wine?”
“I’m a beer person myself, but even so I don’t drink during the day.”
“Suit yourself.” She pursed her lips and gave a high-pitched whistle. From the other side of the yard, Ellen emerged from the house. I would have been put out at being called like a dog, but her face might as well have been made of wax.
“Ellen dear,” she said, her voice carrying quite well despite her apparent frailty, “fetch me a glass of the Montrachet…and my checkbook. Mr. Hammond and I have some more business to discuss.”
Image: Hodson’s Folly and the Cam, by John Sutton