This entry wraps up my opening scene. At over 3,500 words, it’s much longer and more deliberately paced than my usual style. Part of this is a genre choice – I’m going for an old-time detective story rather than the action-focused tale I normally tell. Part of it is the fact that it’s still early in the story and I’m still finding the characters and voice of the novel. In a future draft, a lot of the superfluous dialogue and description will get whittled down.
* * *
We waited in silence until her drink and money arrived – she seeming more at home humming at her roses and me having little to discuss beyond business with somebody at her level. When Ellen returned with a glass of wine and a leather-bound checkbook, I uttered a silent thanks to her before she disappeared back inside.
She took a small sip of her wine, although the amount of effort it required made it seem like she was intent on draining half the glass. Then her tongue probed the outside of her lips, capturing whatever sweetness the alcohol had left for her. Finally, with a little bit of a struggle, she bent over in her chair and set the glass carefully on the brick patio next to her seat.
“Let me be clear on something,” she said after finally determining that there was no flavor left to be had on her lips. “In my eyes, you are a storyteller. You can give whatever spin you want to your ‘facts,’ but your primary mission in life seems to be to tell the rich and powerful what they want to hear. Now I’m been a businesswoman since before businesswomen existed. I’ve seen every variety of yes-man around. If you listen to them long enough, you start to believe the fiction they spin. It can poison you if you’re not careful. But,” and here she faltered, “I’m a very old woman who won’t be around much longer. I don’t care what kind of poison I ingest anymore.”
“Then why arrange this meeting? If I’m just one yes man in a million, surely you can find somebody who costs less.”
“I can, but I can’t find somebody who puts together such a pretty story. Getting somebody to tell me what they want to hear is one thing. Getting them to provide proof – however biased that proof might be – is another thing. I’ve poked around, done some research on your agency. Frankly, some of the work you’ve done turns my stomach. That bastard actor, Wyatt, recently hired you—”
“I don’t discuss the details of my cases, especially not the ongoing ones.”
“I bet you don’t. But you’ve got a sobbing woman claiming that he abused her last year, and you’re going to turn her story into pure fiction.”
“I’m not going to turn it into anything at all. I’m going to arrange the facts and let them tell the story.”
“Yes, you will. Isn’t it convenient how the facts always seem to favor the people who line your pockets?”
“They’re the ones people usually try to squeeze with false accusations. As someone with a certain means yourself, I would think you could appreciate that.”
Normally, I wouldn’t spend my time arguing with a client, especially not when they hadn’t signed a contract. But a hint of color had crept into her cheeks as she made her accusations. The wilted roses no longer seemed as interesting, and her blue eyes danced with my every retort. She seemed to be hankering for a fight. If a bit of verbal sparring was what it took to get my check, I was happy to rise to the occasion.
“A certain means…pfah!” I think she would have spat, but her mouth didn’t have enough moisture. Instead, she bent over, picked up her wine glass, and took another drawn-out sip. “Do you know where my certain means have gotten me? Sitting alone in my yard and watching flowers die. My two boys are both idiots – spoon-fed imbeciles who haven’t accomplished anything of note beyond spending down their trust funds. My businesses have twisted and changed so much that I couldn’t even begin to tell you what goes on in them. I figure I’ve got a year to live, maybe less. When I’m gone, people will remember my name because I put it on the side of a bunch of skyscrapers, not for any reason worth a damn.”
“No one will remember my name, either. Obscurity’s not such a bad gig.”
She didn’t respond – just leaned over, her breath a little ragged, and grabbed her glass of wine. A sudden spasm in her fingers caused the glass to tilt, almost spilling over. She recovered and caught it just in time.
I let her have another awkward moment of silence. I had let her take me on this walk, and not just because she had offered triple my normal fee. Glancing back at the house, I made a mental wager that it had probably stood on this site since at least the Civil War. For generations, it fooled the Montgomery family into thinking they were eternal. I saw Mrs. Montgomery’s attitude in a lot of my older clients. The rich usually don’t realize how fleeting they really are until they’re almost staring Death in the face. It’s never a pleasant moment when you realize people will remember your things longer than they remember you as a person. That grapple with cosmic insignificance tends to come as a shock to them. The rest of us have our entire lives to get used to that realization.
“I’m offering you a sizable sum, yes?” she asked after the pause.
“Significantly more than my usual fee, with a portion of it up front. But you haven’t really told me what you want out of me.”
“I’ll get to that. The money guarantees that you’ll give my case top priority?”
“I suppose, as long as you’re not asking me to drop another case or to give up any of my clients’ confidential information. My services are for sale – I’m not.”
“Fair enough. I’m not asking you to do anything outside your normal range of operations. This is a relatively simple task; the money’s just to make sure you get it done quickly. What do you know about my sons?”
“Very little, but I can learn quickly. Is one of them in some sort of trouble?”
“Oh my, no. I wish they were. I wish they did anything other than show their ignorance. But I want you to get to know them. In fact, I want you to know them better than me, which admittedly shouldn’t be very hard. I look at them and I see a pair of idiots who have run every project I’ve ever handed them into the ground. You like to deliver a pleasing reality to your clients – I want you to give me mine. Show me a world where they’re accomplishing great things. Give me evidence that the boys I raised will make this world better when I’m gone.”
I waited for her to say more – to give me a list of crimes they had been accused of or hint at a blackmail letter she had come across. But she closed her eyes and smiled in a sad but satisfied manner, telling me she had said her piece in its entirety.
“Done. If you give me access to any important family archives, I can have this wrapped up even quicker.”
She opened her eyes halfway and started fumbling with her checkbook. “There’s just one more thing: see if you can find something about Della.”
“Della? Any more details on that?”
“That’s all I have – a name. It came up in some old letters of my son’s I found. He seemed quite taken with someone named Della. Wrote about her often. Then…nothing. Any mention of her ended about three years ago.”
“Can I have copies of these letters?”
She nodded. “Ellen should be able to provide them. I’d like to know more about who this person is.” She let out her caw’s crow of a chuckle again. “Maybe she’s an illegitimate child. I wouldn’t mind being a grandma, even if it was to a bastard.”
She finished writing the check, tore it out of the book with a flourish, and dangled it in front of me. I let it hang there for a moment.
“I really wish you hadn’t dragged in a complete unknown into the equation.”
“What’s the matter? Too much work for you?”
I shook my head. “I just need to let you know the risks. You ask me to find information to make your boys look like angels, that’s easy. I can get to know them, can find out what good deeds they’ve done. But asking me to follow up on a name mentioned in a letter – that’s work for a police officer or an investigator. If you send a fact finder out blind like that, I may find some facts that you don’t like.”
“You’re a storyteller. Find the facts and then tell me a good story.”
“I usually don’t omit unpleasant truths just to make people feel better.”
She drew her lips across her teeth like a smiling wolf. “Of course you do. That’s the only way you’d manage to do your job successfully, even if you have to lie to yourself about it afterward.”
The check drooped as her fingers loosened, as though the offer would be off the table if the shred of paper hit the lawn. My hand darted forward and grabbed it from her. The money landed in my pocket in one fluid movement.
“I’ll hold the check until you’ve officially signed off on the terms of business – my assistant will send over the contract later today. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks at the most, Mrs. Montgomery, and I’ll have a grand story to tell.”
I bowed to her again, then turned away to walk back into the expansive house. To my surprise, Ellen was already outside, only a few feet away.
She reached out a hand and crooked a finger toward me like she was a magician beckoning me to the stage. Uninterested in theatrics, I walked past her and strode toward the door.
“I was told you had some letters I could look over,” I said when we got inside.
“Letters? Oh…you mean the ‘Della Files.'”
“Whatever you want to call them. I also need to speak with Mrs. Montgomery’s sons. Any suggestion as to which one I should talk to first?”
She put a finger on her chin and looked toward the chandelier, making a show of thinking through the question. “Start with Bryce. He’s the one with a brain or two in his head.”
“And the other one?”
She gave a wan smile. “You’ll get a feel for Jamie when you read the letters.”
Ellen winked at me and then trotted back up the stairs, eventually disappearing into one of the multitude of doors leading away from the balcony overhead. I stood alone again, a temporary speck in a house that tried its best to last forever – and which had let its inhabitants borrow that illusion for a time. Too bad for both that illusions, like people, have a finite lifespan.