I once wrote a 50,000-word novel as therapy because I woke up angry one morning and needed to work some stuff out about my life. This novel is less personal, but it is shaping up to be therapeutic in a way, as I’m putting down a lot of stuff about things in American society I hate. So be prepared for lots of idiot rich kids, lying media outlets, and people who blame the victim in sexual assault cases. Hopefully, they’ll all get what they deserve in the end.
* * *
Frankie was invisible until I almost stepped on top of her. She might have said something to me when I walked in through the office door, but I kept staring at my phone, analyzing the pictures I had taken of the letters. When I reached a hand out to open my office door, I accidentally jabbed Frankie in the stomach.
She let out a small gasp of air, but otherwise didn’t seem to care about the impact. She was a short woman, but she had a sturdiness to her – not much heavier set than normal for a person of her size, but with just enough mass that it would take more than an inattentive bump to get her to move out of my way.
“I did the research you wanted,” she said in her matter-of-fact tone that didn’t give any hints as to the actual quality of her findings.
I put my phone back in my pocket, blinked, and took a second to shift gears. “Will I like what you found?”
“You might. I didn’t.”
She moved away from the door and walked back across the reception area to her desk. The long wooden L had a pair of computer monitors, a stack of papers, and more pictures of family members than I ever expected one person to have. She had at least one of just about everybody on her family tree, from third cousins on through. We had one other desk in the room, pushed against a wall. That had been held by my actual researcher, who had quit a week earlier and whose replacement I hadn’t yet hired. If I didn’t plan on filling the position quickly, I would have let the Szabo family tree have some furniture all their own.
A few taps on the keyboard brought up a video site I didn’t recognize. Frankie pushed right past my look of unfamiliarity and brought up a series of different videos, arranging them to play in a collage across the computer screens. Each video showed an amateur actor doing his best Cullent Wyatt impression, either playing out a bad facsimile of a scene from one of his formulaic romantic comedies or trying to simulate the deliberate elocution and careful delivery that made Wyatt a poor man’s Clark Gable.
“You wanted me to look for impersonators. This is what you get – a bunch of people in their living rooms trying to pretend they’re movie stars.”
I looked over the videos more closely. Some of the people bore a slight resemblance to my client, with olive-colored skin, Grecian features, and a thin goatee. Others had applied a little bit of stage makeup to increase the resemblance.
“I was hoping for people who might go out on the town looking like these folks.”
“Carlton, he’s not Elvis and this isn’t Las Vegas. Maybe when he dies he might get some imitators, but we’re long past the age when guys like him were so unique that you had people trying to look like him for a living.”
“Any of these folks live local to this area?”
“Finding that out would take some research – research that I’ll do if you want, even though it’s not technically part of my job description. What are you trying to do, anyway? You’re not really going to try to convince Ms. Madera that she slept with some sort of doppelganger, are you?”
“Who told you there was a tape?”
“Our contact in her lawyer’s office. From the sounds of it, it’s not something she has hold of – she just claims that somebody has it.”
“Then she’s throwing around baseless information in hopes of finding a fact to latch onto. But if that recording does actually show up, it’s our job to explain why somebody looking like our client might be on it.”
“Wouldn’t the obvious explanation be that he’s the guy on the tape?”
“Maybe, but we know that’s not a possibility.”
“Since he signed a contract with us to prove that it isn’t.”
She closed down the open windows on her computer. “What happens on the day when somebody who’s actually guilty signs a contract with us?”
“I wouldn’t know. All I know is that we’re being paid to find facts that tell a certain story. I’m not making anything up – the facts are out there.”
I took the check out of my pocket and put it on Frankie’s desk. Her hazel-colored eyes lit up like I had just pulled a live rabbit out of a hat.
“It’s about 3:00 right now,” I said. “I’ll have more stuff for you to pull together on Wyatt later. Right now I need you to draw up the contract for Elizabeth Montgomery. Get it to her as quickly as you can. Once it’s signed, deposit this check. You can knock off early if you get it all done by five.”
She said something under her breath, but I didn’t bother asking her to clarify. What she called me when I was out of earshot was her own business.
* * *
Once I closed the door, I let the stone crumble away from my face. I eased up on the businesslike tension, tossed my blazer across the back of my chair, and loosened my tie. I had iced myself over, making sure I acted as stoically and professionally as I could, under the assumption that the old lady wouldn’t just throw her money at me like that. But despite her runaround, despite the way she seized her moment to tell me off, she had practically fallen into my lap. I hadn’t really needed my song and dance; as long as I showed up with more than a martini and a smile, she would have handed me the job…and at far more money than I normally asked for.
Such a high payday for what she presented as a simple PR job meant she was desperate. Her desperation lingered like a sour pit in the bottom of my stomach. It left me a little nervous, but she had made sure to pay both me and my nerves very well.
I took my phone back out and looked over the letters I had photographed. Jamie Montgomery had the clumsy printing of a grade schooler, and his spelling hovered around that level, too. The actual name Della appeared in about four letters spread out over the course of eight months, all addressed to a woman Jamie seemed to be seeing. Hand-written love letters must have been her thing – I could practically hear the effort as Jamie put pen to paper and tried to produce something both legible and intelligible.
Mrs. Montgomery had offered up the name of this mystery woman as a footnote to the rest of the job, even though it would be the more challenging part by far. Even idiot trust funders give money to charity and help out here and there. I knew a social economist who could present hard numbers that the Montgomery boys made a net positive impact, even if they happened to be gangsters on the side.
The old lady had mentioned a grandchild. Both boys, to my knowledge, were in their late 30s and had never married. They showed up in the society section of the newspaper every once in a while and, more rarely, in the business section. For the most part, they served as the butts of the sick cosmic joke society had put in motion – people who became celebrities simply by claiming long and loudly that they were celebrities. Similarly, people accepted the boys as businessmen because they dressed like old money, even though their real net worth was probably just a fraction of the funds they had been handed by their parents. Leeches in society, except they fed on fortune and fame instead of blood.
I shook my head and looked outside. Bad thinking. If the old lady was going to pay me to convince her she had done right by raising those boys the way she did, I needed to buy into that reality. My meandering thoughts had almost led me away from the first rule of my job: start at the end and find the facts that can lead you there.
The boys had to transform. My thinking about them had to transform. So they weren’t leeches or parasites. They weren’t the end result of parents who gave them money instead of love. They were misunderstood. They were victims. The gossip rags and number crunches who made it look like they had driven dozens of real estate ventures into the ground were the real leeches.
“Ha.” I laughed the same dry, monosyllabic chortle Mrs. Montgomery had given. I could tell myself what I needed to think, but I couldn’t necessarily convince myself. I needed to meet them – drill down to whatever decent core they had so I could bring that out. There had to be something there. My previous thinking had just been twisted and poisoned by the same media that wanted the world convinced that the boys were feckless fools.
I pushed myself up from my chair so I could go tell Frankie to set me up with a meeting with the boys. But before I got halfway up, I found myself pulling out my phone again to check Jamie’s childish scrawl.
“Maybe you are right,” read the overly large printing. “Maybe it is time to tell her about Della. But I still don’t like it.”
Mrs. Montgomery had mentioned a possible grandchild. I looked at the letter and saw somebody worried about a mistress or a girlfriend his mother wouldn’t approve of. Was she creating a fiction based on what she wanted to see, or was I?
I pocketed my phone and made sure to push myself into a full standing position this time. Della was just a name, and I was a fact finder, not a detective. If I came across the girl, fine. But right now, I had a lot of convincing that I needed to do in my own head first.
* * *
I think Len Montgomery intended the airplane hangar of the office to impress me, but I just wanted to find a reason to think he wouldn’t choke on his own tongue if he didn’t have an army of servants to chew his own food for him.
“This is where it all happens, my man.”
He gestured around a board room that could have held the entire contents of my apartment and still had room to tap dance. The furniture was all polished wood done up in a classical style, but microphones and power jacks built into the table betrayed its more modern origins. Wide high definition panels screens hung from each wall. They each displayed a slideshow of tropical destinations, but at a moment’s notice they could switch to business presentations that would bore everybody in the room from every angle.
“When I’m really busy, this is basically my home,” he continued. “I can be in here eight, ten hours a day sometimes, making deals and bringing in the money. There’s even talk about bringing in a reality TV crew in sometime to show the folks at home how a real entrepreneur runs his business.”
I cocked my head. “Entrepreneur?”
He threw back his head an laughed. His mirth seemed very practiced, and I pitied the person who had to coach him on it. “Yeah, man. What else do you call somebody like me? I got a loan of just a couple million bucks when I was 21, and I turned it into a six billion dollar industry. Hell, I don’t keep he books – it might be even more than that.”
Len, the oldest of Mrs. Montgomery’s sons, wore a spray tan and carefully coiffed hair that kept him looking eternally 25. He dressed in a polo shirt and white slacks – attire that he seemed to consider business casual but which left the eternal impression that he needed to dash out in just a moment so he could catch his tee time. I had dressed down a bit myself. No longer trying to secure a job, I wore a checkered shirt without a tie or blazer. The less like a lawyer I looked, the more comfortable people tended to be when I started asking questions.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Entrepreneur sounds good. Let’s go with that.”
“Damned right we’ll go with that. The old lady sent you by to put together a puff piece on me, right? Why ain’t you taking pictures and writing stuff down?”
“I’ve got somebody else doing the basic information gathering for me. I just wanted to talk with you in person – hear about your accomplishments in your own words.”
“Sure, sure. You wanna catch some lunch or something? I can call the cook in here and get you a salmon dish that you wouldn’t believe.”
It was just after noon, two days since Mrs. Montgomery had officially hired me. Len’s secretary had managed to “squeeze me into” his busy schedule.
“No, I’m good,” I said, ignoring the twinge in my stomach. “I’m so used to burger joints at this point that a healthy meal might be too much of a shock to my system.”
He laughed louder and longer than the meager semi-joke called for. “Yeah, yeah. I get it.” His attention shifted suddenly as he dusted an almost-invisible speck of dust from the boardroom table. “This wood, man. Pulled out of the Amazon rain forest down in Guatemala or whatever. They only used naturally fallen trees to make the table. Better for the environment that way. And, if you can find the right accountant, you get a nice tax break, too.”
“Let’s focus on that for a little while – the environmental stuff. A lot of your earnings go to charities, right? Conservation groups, forestry services, stuff like that.”
“Oh yeah, yeah. The environment, that’s everything, right? I feel like I could live another 80 years or so, and I want clean oceans to swim in.”
“And your kids?”
“Surely you’re thinking about kids someday – somebody to pass all this down to when you’re gone.”
“Hey, don’t go pushing me into the grave just yet, man.” He tilted his head again and gave that laugh – louder this time, since it came from his own joke. “But yeah, sure. Someday I’ll be all about kids, I’m sure. But I’m in the prime of my life right now, so there’s no sense not enjoying what I’ve got.”
“Life is there to enjoy,” I agreed. As I spoke, I slipped my phone out of my pocket and typed a quick memo to myself.
“I thought you weren’t writing stuff down,” Len said.
“They’re notes for me to follow up on later,” I said, slipping the phone out of sight. “Your mother has asked me to be very thorough and to paint a very pleasant picture.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that, and I get the need for good PR and all. But what is this really? Do you work for a magazine or something?”
“I work for somebody who has taken a very big interest in seeing the best you have to offer this world. Most likely, my final report will highlight your donations to environmental agencies. Your net worth helps me highlight how much of a difference you make. Do you take a personal involvement in any of those activities?”
He seemed to have become distracted, looking at the shifting images on the room’s various slideshows. “Hm? Oh yeah…I do these charity golf tournaments once in a while. Give big checks to a couple charities my board picks out, that sort of thing. Anyone who shows up gets a lot of free merch, too.”
“Do you do any personal volunteering? Ever show up to clean up an oil spill or pick up some trash once in a while?”
“What? God, no. Why would I do that? I’m management, man. There are all sorts of people who get off on getting their hands dirty. My job is to point ‘em in the right direction. They need a leader, you know?”
“Oh, absolutely. And what sort of direction do you point them in? Tell me a bit about your leadership skills.”
“I dunno, man. You can talk to my PR team about that.They’re the ones who choose the charities and all that stuff. I just show up and rally the troops. Get them inspired to change the world and all.”
“Mm-hm.” I didn’t bother making any notes about that part. My immediate thoughts were not productive.
“Anyway, man…you want to see the executive suite? It makes this place look like a shack.”
I checked my watch. I had been given half an hour with Len, and we were already over time…in more ways than one. “Better not,” I said. “I think I’ve got a good start, and I still need to track down your brother.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He leaned forward, and his voice took a confidential tone. “Hey man, you gonna compare us to each other? And if you are, how much does it cost to put me in a better light than little Jimmy?”
I raised an eyebrow. “No comparisons. It’s not a contest.”
“Ha!” He clapped me on the back hard enough that I felt the red outline of his hand that would soon form on my skin. “That’s why I’m here and you’re the one writing about me, my man. Everything’s a contest. You just gotta know who the judges are.”
I nodded curtly and held my hand out. He gave me the same alpha male handshake I had received when I met him – a hard squeeze and a yank on my arm to pull me in closer than I was comfortable with. I let him have it. I didn’t have anything to gain from getting into a dick-measuring contest.
I got all the way across the room before pausing. When I turned around, it looked like he had already forgotten I existed. Half of me wanted to go find his secretary and ask him what he had booked behind me. Again, I put the unproductive thought out of my mind.
“Just one more thing,” I said. “It almost slipped my mind entirely. Your mother mentioned something – she maybe saw it in an old letter or heard a bit of conversation somewhere. Do you know of anybody with the first name of Della? I’m just wondering if she’s somebody who might be able to give me another angle that I can use to chat you guys up.”
His mask slipped, just for a second. When I looked into his face, I didn’t see the attention-starved, nonchalant blowhard who had just puffed smoke at me for the past forty minutes. He stared at me as though his gaze was made of stone and could push me forcibly out of the room. The look passed in an instant, but even when the blowhard returned he didn’t have quite the wide smile and back-slapping sense of friendliness that he had possessed before.
“No,” he said robotically. “Never heard that name before. Now, I’ve known plenty of Stellas, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m almost certain that I don’t. And in this case, maybe ignorance is bliss.”
“Ha!” He tried to force a hearty chuckle out of his throat, but he only got the bird-like caw that his mother had given me. Maybe I just had that effect on people. Then again, maybe an uncomfortable laugh was the one trait this family shared.
“Maybe she heard you talking about Stella and just mixed up the name.”
“Yeah…wouldn’t be the first time, you know? The old lady likes to think she’s as sharp as ever, but just between you and me there’s a reason she handed the family business over to me.”
I happened to know perfectly well that the family business he had his name on was a fraction of the actual Montgomery portfolio, but I let him have that one.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Montgomery.”
“Ha…for you, it’s Len.”
I let him borrow my warmest, fakest smile. “Thank you, Len. That means a lot.”
I stepped out of the board room and went about my day. I had one more note, but I didn’t write it down. Out of all my unproductive thoughts about this family, the one I most desperately needed to forget was the possibility that one or all of them might have committed murder.