The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to focus on writing, not editing. The advantage and disadvantage of posting the draft online as I work on it is that I force myself into a non-editing mode. My last section ended on a sentence I really don’t like, but there’s nothing to do about it now that I’ve put it online. As a result, this section has some call-outs to myself to remind me that I need to edit liberally later on.
* * *
Murder. What a stupid thing to let myself think. One mysterious benefactor and I seemed to think I was some sort of hero detective.
Len’s reaction, however strange and unexpected, did not constitute a fact. He hadn’t personally given me a lot for my final report, but he hadn’t ruined my bullet points, either.
Unfortunately, those bullet points read like a politician’s endorsement: job creator, environmentalist, businessman. Lots of professional superlatives, but nothing to make a mama proud – if that was indeed what Mrs. Montgomery wanted out of all this. Even despite Len’s preferred terminology, though, I couldn’t include the word “entrepreneur” in the report.
I had developed a short list of people I needed to meet and facts I needed to dig up. I would have given that list to Frankie, too, if it hadn’t been for a certain woman waiting in front of the building where my office was located when I got back. She was a Hispanic woman in her mid-20s, with a body that seemed at once to have a certain allure to it while also bordering on unhealthily thin. The allure must have come from her eyes, which had a unique mix of sea green with flecks of gold in the irises. Those eyes turned into cold, hard stones when they landed on me.
“Carlton Hammond,” she said as soon as I got into earshot. “Do you know who I am?”
I said nothing, choosing instead to weigh my options. If I pretended not to recognize her, that would probably outrage her and extend the conversation by minutes that I preferred to save for literally any other purpose. On the other hand, if I saw very little benefit in admitting that I knew her as Carina Madera, the woman whose claims of sexual assault I had been hired to discredit. In the end, I chose to try to walk past her. That didn’t do any good, as she entered the building after me.
“Carina…” she began.
“…Madera,” I finished in resignation. “But we have absolutely no reason to speak to each other.” I strode through the building’s entrance and pressed the button for the twelfth floor.
She followed me step for step. I expected anger, but the tone of voice she reserved for me seemed less of a passionate rage and more of the kind of frustration you reserve for somebody who cuts you off in traffic – as though the trouble I had brought her was vexing but not entirely unexpected.
“I disagree,” she said. “You’re trying to tear my life apart. I would hope that anybody who tries that would also have the balls to talk to me in person.”
“Charming,” I noted as I waited for the elevator to respond to my call. “Do you usually get results when you attack the male ego like that?”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t usually have cause to question a person’s manhood. Most people don’t make a living going after women who have already been victimized.”
“Unfortunately, it’s more common than you think. Luckily for you, it’s not something I do.”
“Then what do you call taking on Cullen Wyatt as a client right after my story hit the press?”
The elevator door opened. I stepped in. Predictably, she did too.
“I call it basic business sense. Mr. Wyatt makes millions of dollars every year. He has a certain lifestyle to maintain. Your claims against him have already caused one studio to dump him from a project. He needs somebody who can respond quickly or his career could wind up dead in the water thanks to one lone voice.”
I took a position at the back of the elevator, staring up at the numbers above the door as they lit up one by one. She stood less than a foot away from me, trying to position herself in front of my face. Luckily, I was a head taller than her.
“Thanks to one rape,” she snapped, seemingly thinking that she was correcting me.
“So you say,” I responded without making eye contact with her. “But the facts don’t bear that out.”
“You wouldn’t know a fact if you fell backwards into one.”
She probably meant that to sound wittier than it came out. I let her have it. My only focus was trying to will the elevator to get to the twelfth floor faster.
“Ms. Madera…you waited fourteen months before filing your report.”
“Because I was a starving screenwriter and I was afraid of getting blacklisted. But now one of my friends is working on a new project that he’s a part of and I won’t have her exposed to the same type of treatment I experienced.”
“You have no physical evidence on your side, and a number of eyewitnesses saw you leave the bar with Mr. Wyatt willingly.”
“Look, if you’re trying to get me to admit that I have regrets, I have plenty of those. I should never have even let him buy me a drink, and I certainly shouldn’t have let him get me in private. But leaving a bar with somebody doesn’t mean anybody has given consent.”
The doors opened. I strode out, turned right, and made a beeline for the office. She followed lockstep with my every move.
“True,” I said. “But it doesn’t help your case, especially when there’s no facts on your side of the story.”
“Oh, I’m getting those facts together. I just want you to know, there’s a tape somewhere out there.”
I reached the door, paused, and looked into her face for the first time since we had started talking. She looked proud, like she had just pulled a coup by getting me to acknowledge her existence. But I was taking a mental note of something she said. A tape somewhere. That meant that, if it did exist, she didn’t know where it was.
“I had been told of your claim,” I said, putting my hand on the door. “But usually, you reserve that kind of boast for something you actually have in your possession.”
Her smile became a frown, and I opened the door.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have business to attend to and you have new excuses to concoct.”
I stepped into the office. Frankie looked at who came in after me and paled. Her mouth didn’t quite drop open, but her jaw shifted and her faced twisted in confusion and something else I couldn’t put my finger on – embarrassment?
“Just because I don’t have it doesn’t mean I’m lying about it,” said Ms. Madera. “He had a friend there – a woman, I think. She was filming in the corner of the room with an old-fashioned handheld video camera.”
“Good to know. If that’s true, I encourage you to talk to the police about it, or maybe a lawyer. I don’t investigate crimes, Ms. Madera.”
“Of course you do. You just do it with a more mercenary attitude than the police. I’m going to deal with this situation in court, sir, but in the meantime I’m not going to let you drag my name through the mud just so you can play PR toady to somebody with deep pockets.”
“Ms. Madera, we really have nothing to discuss. I’m going to have to ask you to leave the premises.”
“I’ll leave when I’ve had my say.”
I turned toward Frankie, who looked as though she had just come home from high school to find her parents fighting. “Frankie, please call the police and let them know we have an unwanted person trespassing in our office.”
She looked as though I had just ask her to put down the family dog. Her hands stayed hovering above her keyboard, unmoving.
“I’m trying to defend myself and others in this,” Ms. Madera insisted. “I’ve already gotten some death threats over this, and I’m wondering how people found my information.”
“It’s easy enough to find information on just about anybody if you look hard enough these days,” I said. “If somebody threatens you, I suggest you report it directly to the police. But there’s no way anybody learned your information from us. This company’s policy prevents the sharing of anybody’s personal information – victim, accuser, or otherwise. Now, since you’re still not responding to my request to leave and you don’t have any business with me, I’m going to ask you again to leave this office. And then I’m going to look very hard at my assistant…” I turned and glared at Frankie. “And tell her to listen to me when I speak and report a trespasser. Right. Now.”
Slowly – far more slowly than I found acceptable – Frankie’s hand started to creep toward the phone on her desk. She spoke up just before it got there. “Well, maybe we should—”
“I know I didn’t stutter,” I said with a hint of menace to my voice. “So I expect you to do what you’re paid to do and listen to what I say. As for you,” I turned back toward Ms. Madera, “I don’t want you threatened, and I don’t want you hurt. If Mr. Wyatt didn’t make some offhanded comment to the press, nobody would even know I was involved. All I’m doing is looking for facts that prove my client’s innocence. To be frank, there are plenty so far. You came onto him in a bar, you left with him of your own free will, and then you stayed quiet about any misconduct until long after your story could be proven one way or another. You’re throwing accusations against a man with no history of this behavior outside of a few rumors spread by people like you trying to force a payday out of him.”
“What are you saying? Are you trying to tell me I’m a liar, or that I deserved what I got?”
I paused long enough to take a deep breath. “If you had any evidence in your favor – or even some basic common sense – you would be discussing this case with a lawyer rather than a third party who’s only interest is finding the truth that you want buried. And Frankie, if you don’t pick up the phone right now, I’ll find somebody to sit in your place who will.”
Frankie already responded to my order, but it was already too late.
“Don’t bother,” said Ms. Madera, smoothing some wrinkles out of the front of her shirt. “I can tell this is going nowhere.” She turned and stormed out of the office, slamming the door hard enough to rattle the glass on a picture frame on the adjacent wall.
I turned back to Frankie, whose face had taken on a bright crimson hue.
“We’ll talk about this later,” I growled before stalking off to my office.
* * *
I gave myself twenty minutes to calm down and decide how I wanted to talk to Frankie about what had just happened. Frankie gave herself less time. While I was still in the midst of a fuming mental muddle, she knocked on my door and then opened it before I could respond.
“Are you going to quit?” I asked. “Because I can’t think of another reason for you to open that door without my say-so right now.”
“I could,” she answered. “I’ve got enough savings to keep myself afloat for a month or two. I bet you’d even give me a good reference once your ego stopped doing the talking. By that time, you’d realize that I’ve been doing two jobs for the past couple of weeks and I’ve been a good soldier for you the whole time.”
“Except when it comes time to make a simple phone call.”
“You asked me to call the police on a woman who was angry and absolutely no threat to you. You basically wanted her thrown out on her ear because she got you miffed.”
I leaned forward in my seat and folded my hands on top of my desk. “I’m trying to avoid a precedent that allows anybody who doesn’t like a client we’ve taken on from waltzing into this office and trying to intimidate me or my staff.”
“Come on…she wasn’t trying to intimidate anybody.”
“It doesn’t matter what she was trying to do. A guy going 90 down the highway isn’t trying to kill anybody, but the police still pull him over to keep other people from getting the same idea.”
“She’s angry and probably a little scared, if people really are threatening her. And if there is actually a tape, it might prove her right—”
“There isn’t, and it won’t.”
“Okay…just bear with me and pretend for a moment that you aren’t completely infallible and that sometimes people who hire you might actually have done something wrong. But even if there is a tape, that doesn’t mean things are happy go fun for her. That means there’s somebody out there that she probably doesn’t know who has video of her in a compromising situation. And, even if she winds up taking this whole thing to court, she’s already flushed her career down the drain. You think anybody wants to hire a screenwriter who causes a star this much trouble?”
“You’re taking an awful long time to get to a point.”
“And you’re being awfully defensive for somebody who’s convinced he’s right all the time.” Although her arms stayed by her sides, she made a pair of fists, then relaxed them. “The point is that she’s feeling threatened and vulnerable right now. You’re neither, so you don’t need to go flexing your muscles as either somebody who can trust the police to protect them or a guy who has the ability to fire people willy-nilly.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I said, feeling my blood pressure return to normal as we debated using adult voices. “From my perspective, I see a woman who’s angry because her attempt to extort money out of a celebrity is doomed to failure. She came to me to vent her frustrations and try to get an emotional appeal out there. I managed to keep my head, but you were swayed by the passion of her argument and made an error in judgment by not doing what I asked.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Just like us women, huh? Always thinking with our emotions instead of our head.”
I opened my mouth to respond, then thought better of it. Instead, I placed my hands flat on my desk and made sure that when I did speak, it was with as even and measured a tone as possible. “That’s a trap.”
“It’s one you walked right into,” she shot back.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is let a situation pass. That’s what I decided to do. I leaned back in my chair and waited for Frankie to leave. After an awkward silence, she decided to get one more shot in.
“I just want you to know, I’m not in the business of letting people embarrass me…at least not in a professional setting. If you have a problem with the way I’m doing things, you can take it up with me when we’re alone. If you really want to dress me down again in front of a stranger, I’ll make sure I have a letter of resignation on hand for you.”
Part of me wanted to ask her who she thought she was. The other part of me remembered that I had a pair of high-paying cases on my plate and a tiny staff to work on them. I could take this matter up with her when I had some extra researchers and assistants on hand if I really needed to. When I noticed her turning around to go back to work, I decided to switch gears as well.
“Frankie, do me a favor?”
She turned back toward me, a frown on her face. “What kind of favor?”
“Your job. Whatever. Look, just check through Rosalyn’s old files and make sure none of them have been accessed since she left.”
“You think someone might have actually given out Madera’s info?”
“No. Rosalyn left on good terms for a better job, so she’s got no reason to carry a grudge. On the other hand, it pays to be safe. I’m betting that if Ms. Madera really did get any threats – and mind you, I’m not taking anything she says at face value – it’s probably from some social media goons who take Wyatt’s movie personas too seriously. But it never hurts to take a good long look at yourself.”
“You’re telling me.”
“And after you’ve done that, do what you can to set a meeting with Jamie Montgomery again.”
“He hasn’t returned any of my calls.”
“Then find another way to track him down. Treat this one as time sensitive.”
“That’s a lot of urgency for what you said was pretty much a fluff piece.”
Len’s hard glare flashed in my mind’s eye. Not murder, I reminded myself. “I want this wrapped up so I can deliver something to Mrs. Montgomery that will make her happy. Then we can both get a big fat bonus and move on.”
“Yeah, one more thing. Don’t mention the name Della to anybody – not even a member of the Montgomery family if they call asking about it. As far as I’m concerned right now, looking further into that name is a wild goose chase that will only distract from the job at hand. Got it?”
She gave me a sloppy, sarcastic salute. “Aye-aye, sir.”
Once Frankie had left, I closed my eyes and ran through my discussion with Len again. A bunch of vapid nothingness for the most part, but with a few threads I could follow up on. Once I had a meeting with Jamie, everything else would probably boil down to research. I could turn a report in to Mrs. Montgomery within a week and be done with the whole thing.
Except, of course, for the name Della. The word appeared like a ghost out of some letters written to an anonymous source. Mrs. Montgomery had it in her head that she had an illegitimate grandchild out there somewhere. I had pegged it as a mistress of some sort. Len’s reaction, though, said something else. There might just be something more there after all – something that somebody didn’t want uncovered. Now it was just a matter of figuring out how deeply I wanted to pursue the matter, and if I was prepared for the consequences of pushing too hard.