Fun fact: even though the BDSM stuff here is more window dressing than anything else, I felt the need to look through bondage gear listings on Amazon.com. A writer’s web browsing history is filled with lots of…interesting…things.
* * *
I was no coroner, but I knew a dead body when I saw one. She looked like an abandoned doll, save for the purple marks around her neck. Blonde hair spilled across the floor and concealed the side of her face. One eye had closed, and the other hung halfway open, thoroughly bloodshot. Her skin already had the pale color of alabaster and seemed to get whiter by the second.
I held my breath for a long moment. My attention lingered on the corpse of what I assumed was Dr. Livia Ortega. Anything else in the room, from the storage boxes to the bondage equipment, disappeared. Save for wakes and funerals, when professionals can pretty up just about anything, I had never been this close to a dead body before.
I knelt down and almost touched her, realizing my mistake only when my fingers were a finger inches from her skin. The last thing I needed to do was implicate myself as a potential murderer.
Still, the proximity of my skin and hers told me that there was still warmth coming out of her body. The life was already gone, but it hadn’t left long ago. I straightened up again and tilted my head, craning my neck to the same angle as hers. I felt my muscles pull, and then realized that I couldn’t put myself in the exact same position at all. Somebody had broken her neck.
The rest of the room snapped back in place for me the moment I made another realization: somebody had broken her neck, and they were probably still here. She couldn’t have been dead for very long, and nobody had passed me in the hallway.
I glanced toward the window, which was streaked with the rainstorm that had now passed. Against the shadows and faint illumination of distant streetlights, I saw the black metal frame of a fire escape. But the window was closed and locked from the inside. That left the potential killer one of two ways out: either sneaking around behind me or going through me.
A footstep behind me told me which one the killer had chosen. The jab of a gun barrel in my back let me know exactly how outmatched I really was.
I raised my hands slowly, showing that I didn’t plan to make any sudden movements. The seconds slowed down to a crawl as I contemplated my choices. In between instants, I realized I had no agency in this situation. The man with the gun at my back had the choice of either killing me or leaving. All I could do was hold my breath and hope for the best.
My eyes darted across the room, taking in all the details I had missed when I noticed the dead body. The room had a stack of boxes labeled as paper and office supplies, but two large cabinets pushed against the wall. Both of them had the same sturdiness as the door and locks near the handles. The chrome on the locks was tarnished, smeared with fingerprints from frequent use. Somebody went into those cabinets often, but they still felt the need to keep them locked tightly.
The faint shadows cast by the ceiling lamp told me the person who had the drop on me was a little tall than I was and male. Based on the formation of the shadows around his head, I guessed that he wore a baseball cap and some sunglasses, but I couldn’t be sure.
I waited for him to say something. Maybe he was waiting for me, too, because he just stood there. It would have been a funny kind of awkward silence except for the fact that he had a gun to my back.
I took a step forward, hoping to gain some distance between myself and the intruder’s trigger finger. It was a poor move on my part, but one that thankfully didn’t have the fatal consequences it could have. My vision exploded with light and color as I felt a sharp pain on the back of my skull. Instead of squeezing the trigger and ending me, the gunman had decided that a pistol whip would do. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor with blood on my scalp.
Little beads of light danced across my hazy vision, but I wasn’t unconscious. With my adrenalin up, I jumped to my feet and threw a punch, literally swinging blindly. The impact had left me with blurry vision and caused my eyes to water, which left me with little more than a large silhouette for my target. It was enough. My hand stung from the impact as I felt the satisfying crunch of his jawbone against my fist.
As my vision cleared, my eyes stayed focused on the gun. He had kept it low after clubbing me with it, but now raised it, deciding that whatever satisfaction my blind punch had given me would be short-lived. I darted backwards as he aimed it and pulled the trigger, but no amount of adrenaline in the world could make me move faster than a speeding bullet. Fortunately, my luck and a little bit of clumsiness combined to save my life. My feet bumped against the dead woman’s shoes and then got tangled in her legs as I continued moving backwards. I tripped and fell, and the bullet that would have gone right through my brain instead passed overhear, breaking the window and ricocheting off the fire escape.
Immediately after the gunshot, I heard voices nearby. Then I remembered that there was a shop downstairs, with its lights still on and people inside. That was probably why he hadn’t killed Dr. Ortega with the gun – why risk the attention when he could snap her neck instead? But I hadn’t gone down as easily as he wanted, and now he had the whole block’s attention.
My must have made the same realization I did, because he dashed out the office door without lining up another shot. It was my lucky night – I had a mild concussion and was lying next to a mangled corpse, but at least I didn’t have a hunk of lead lodged in my skull.
I sprang to my feet and took a step toward the door, ready to give chase. Then my brain took over and told my nerves to back off. I had done plenty of stupid things in my lifetime, and I planned to do more in the future. If I took off chasing after a man who had already shown no qualms about shooting me, I wouldn’t get another chance at my special brand of glorious idiocy.
I also didn’t need to get caught fleeing a crime scene. The smart thing to do was to wait for the police and give my side of the story. So instead of running after my own death, I turned my attention toward the woman who should have had it earlier: Livia Ortega.
I considered ways I had wasted time earlier in the day, such as my arguments with Ms. Madera and Frankie. I had missed the moment of Livia’s death by a matter of minutes. If I hadn’t wasted time on stupidity, this woman might have lived through the night.
I heard more shouts outside, followed by another gunshot. Seconds later, sirens started wailing in the distance. I gave them a good listen. Police, not ambulance. I crossed my fingers and hoped that the gunman was as bad a shot as he had been when he aimed at me.
As the adrenaline died down, the feeling that I had fallen backwards into some other world remained. Stopping by to ask a few questions, even after the end of the business day, should not have led me into a gunfight and the murder scene of some sort of secret bondage therapist. I crouched down next to the body and scanned the floor around her. Eventually, my eyes fell upon a glint of metal that had fallen under the bench, presumably when she hit the floor. Picking it up, I found that it was a small gold key. My first instinct was to test it in the handcuffs, but it didn’t fit that lock. As a result, I turned toward the locked cabinets.
Opening the cabinets brought me further into that other world. The shelves contained a variety of riding crops, handcuffs, and a square device that looked suspiciously like a car battery. I didn’t need to know how she got her thrills, although why she kept the equipment at work did beg raise a variety of questions. I was more interested in a stack of appointment books tucked away on the top shelf.
Picking the one at the top of the stack, I found myself sifting through last year’s dates. Various names, all written in pencil, all using only a first name and last initial. Each of them came after normal office hours, usually after 10 PM. She must have kept the most recent book somewhere else, and anybody penciled in for tonight or any day in the future was in for some severe disappointment.
A cursory glance through the book didn’t lead me to any Jamie Ms, and that led me to breathe a sigh of relief. True, he could have used a pseudonym, but finding that I wouldn’t have to tell Mrs. Montgomery about anything I saw here provided some comfort despite the other events of the night.
Then on the final page, just a few days before last Christmas, one name caught my eye. “Della D.”
Flipping forward into the next week, I saw three more appointments with Della D between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Then…nothing. Without the most recent book, I had a most of a year full of questions.
Footsteps coming up the stairs alerted me that I wouldn’t get a chance to find my answers.
I stepped away from the cabinet and walked back toward the fallen woman, kneeling over her corpse. I didn’t think about how bad it might look. Somebody had died because I spent fifteen minutes too long arguing semantics and hearsay. Now I had a choice between leaning on what was technically true – that I didn’t know for sure that she had any connection to my job – and following up my intuition by making an inductive leap.
I wish I could have said that I knew in that moment exactly what I was going to do. But instead I stood up and raised my hands, facing the police with a million questions swirling in my brain.
* * *
It must have been a cold day in Hell, because I beat Frankie into the office the next morning. This irritated her at first – she took pride in the fact that she was usually at her desk working away like an annoyingly chipper bird while I spent my bleary-eyed mornings stumbling for the coffee maker. Her irritation vanished when she found out that I had a head injury. That seemed to balance the scales appropriately.
“What on earth did you get yourself into?” she asked after I began a brief rundown of the previous night’s escapades.
I had left the lights off to help hide from the constant ache inside my skull. My computer screen was still on, forcing me to squint as I did my work. “Nothing,” I responded. “Officially, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s no evidence yet that any of this has a connection to anything we’re doing. I’m going to give my statement to the police and tell them I was trying to speak to Dr. Ortega about a business matter, which is true. And from an official standpoint, that business matter wound up being a dead end…both literally and figuratively.”
“What about from an unofficial standpoint?”
“Unofficially, I think the police are having a good laugh as they speculate about my sexual fetishes.”
“Dr. Ortega has a side business.”
Side business? Was that the right word? The fact that she had some equipment in her office space indicated that she shared more than professional advice with her patients. But was that really the case?
“What kind of side business?” Frankie asked.
I finished my typing and gestured toward the computer screen, pointing Frankie toward a BDSM chat room. “This kind,” I said. “And, unless it leaves you feeling uncomfortable, I need you to spend some time in this chatroom and other sites like it, trying to find somebody who could go be ‘Della D.'”
“You’re actually going to pay me to look up porn?”
“it’s not pornography…not all of it, at least. I’ve only spent a couple of hours poking around sites like these, and a lot of people seem to be there to fill some sort of psychological need, not just their sexual fetishes.”
“A couple of hours? Did you sleep at all last night?”
“Somebody pistol whipped me in the back of the head and gave me a concussion. Sleep wasn’t something that came easily last night.”
She reached out to touch my head. Then she thought better of it and her hand retreated. “Okay,” she said, “I’m willing to surf through BDSM sites for you – it will be a change of pace for me. But what’s the end game on this? How does it connect to the Montgomery job? I mean, assuming that we find a Della D and find out that she has some connection to the family, do you include that in your report? If this was a feel-good piece of Mrs. Montgomery, I’m not sure telling her that her kids are involved with somebody in a latex dungeon is going to bring a smile to her face.”
“Montgomery hired us as fact finders. We’re here to find all the facts we can. I’ll figure out how to put it together in a coherent story later.”
“I thought she paid you to make sure you told her a story that would let her die happy. Wasn’t she pretty explicit about that?”
“Hopefully, this will wind up going nowhere. But if there are facts to be found, we should investigate them.”
“This same time yesterday, you would have called this stuff irrelevant and made sure we turned a blind eye to it. Just saying.”
“This time yesterday, there wasn’t a dead body involved.”
Frankie’s forehead creased along with her chin as her whole face folded into a deep frown. “Okay, I see that. Good point.”
“Before you get started, I need you to do a few more things for me.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“See if you can get in touch with Rosalyn Madera and arrange a meeting with her. Preferably today.”
The frown gave way to a look of genuine shock. Frankie jumped back about a foot, as though she had just found a poisonous snake on the carpet. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Public place, preferably, so she won’t feel like I’m trying to intimidate her.”
“Last time you were within five feet of her, you wanted police intervention.”
“It would be beneficial to get her side of the story on the Wyatt job.”
Frankie turned her head left and then right, doing a mock sweep of the room to see if we had been bugged. “What, did Mr. Wyatt break the contract or something?”
I chuckled, leaned back in my chair, and rubbed my eyes. My vision blurred for a moment, but then snapped back to normal. “I’ve got this theory…tell me if it’s crazy. What if we investigated a matter thoroughly, found all the information, and then drew educated conclusions from that information instead of cherry-picking the information we like best?”
“Why then, I suppose people could legitimately call use fact finders. But I also think we’d wind up with a lot less business and fewer high-profile clients.”
“How would that make you feel?”
She touched a finger to her chin, giving my question some legitimate thought. “I guess maybe I’d sleep a little better every night…until this business went other and I had to find a new job, that is.”
“Well, you might not have to worry about that. Odds are we keep doing what we’ve been doing and you wait until you can’t tolerate anymore before finally quitting. But this time there’s a dead body involved, so let’s roll with my change of heart for a few more days. I want to make sure we get everything right. After all, the information we find might wind up as part of a police investigation now.”
“That might be true of the Montgomery job, but what about Wyatt?”
“It has the benefit of being in the right place at the right time for my change of heart. Make the appointment if Ms. Madera will see me. Then make an appointment with Mr. Wyatt a day later so I can make sure I have all my facts straight.”
“I thought facts were facts, and that you couldn’t come to the wrong conclusion as long as you did your job.”
I groaned and rolled my eyes. “Those were the good old days, back when I had a margin of error and fewer stitches in my scalp.”
Satisfied that I was done giving orders, Frankie nodded and headed slowly to her own desk. I stopped her just as she left my office.
“One more thing – if the police call for me, forward the call to my cell.”
“Your cell phone? Not your office number?”
“I’m not going to be in very much today.”
“I’m going to finally get that meeting with Jamie Montgomery.” Or die trying, I added silently.
Of course, there was still one meeting I had to make first.
* * *
“State your name and occupation,” said the detective once we had sat down in the interrogation room.
“Carlton Hammond. I run a small fact finding agency on 21st Street.”
The office cocked an eyebrow. “Fact finding?”
“Personal investigation, to an extent. I examine the truth behind certain compromising situations and highlight the relevant facts to my clients.”
“Mm-hm,” said the officer skeptically. He was a drooping mustache and the attitude of nonchalant boredom that comes from somebody who thinks they have much more common sense than the next guy. “And your relation to the victim?”
“I hadn’t met her and didn’t know her. I stopped by her office in the hope of asking her a few questions related to a job I had taken on. Found her office open and ran into trouble once I got inside.”
“I’ll say you got trouble. There are some who might have pegged you as involved in the murder, Mr. Hammond.”
“Well, that’s one of many reasons I appreciate you waiting until after I got treatment for my head injury before taking my statement.”
The detective looked unamused. Then again, I wasn’t in the laughing mood, either.
“What job did you need to speak with Dr. Ortega about, Mr. Hammond?”
I slowed down my speech to make sure I chose my words carefully. A slip that gave away the Montgomery family would probably get me in hot water with the old lady, and she was one person who I knew couldn’t have committed the murder. “I’m trying to find a person of interest, but I only had a first name to go on. My leads led me to somebody named Livia, and I reasoned that somebody might be a therapist. From there, I literally picked her name out of a phonebook. Didn’t get a chance to talk with her about it, but I’m assuming that she wasn’t the person I was looking for after all.”
“And what makes you so sure of that?”
“The person I’m looking for has a heartbeat.”
The detective grunted, pulled a sticky pad and a pen out of his pocket, and jotted down a note to himself.
“And after you visited the office, somebody snuck up behind you and put a gun to your back?”
“And you have no way of identifying this person?”
I shook my head. “Didn’t speak to me, and by the time I was face to face with him I could barely see thanks to the knock on the head. I did manage to get him with a solid punch across the jaw.”
“You’re sure it was him?”
The repartee continued for about 25 minutes. I made a poor conversationalist, but the detective made a worse one. It didn’t help that neither of us was willing to give up certain bits of information. He wasn’t exactly going to let me look through his casefile, and I didn’t have to mention the Montgomery family unless he had a warrant or I was convinced they were involved.
As I left the police station to start the real legwork, I reminded myself again that they couldn’t be involved. At the very least, it would be very convenient to me if that was true.