The word count requirements of NaNoWriMo can be very helpful when developing characters. The need to push through to a certain word count by the end of the day means that I add in a lot of extra details to keep things moving. While some of these words will wind up on the cutting room floor during revision, they give useful insight to the characters and their mannerisms that can be used later on.
* * *
When you’re rich enough, you can afford a license to kill. I’m just happy that most of the wealthy prefer to hunt animals; I’m sure there are plenty of jurisdictions that would turn a blind eye toward homicide as sport.
The hunting lodge on the hill looked like a mini-resort. The only thing it looked like it was missing was an outdoor Jacuzzi. I didn’t know why a person who could afford that kind of luxury hunted in the first place, but I was absolutely sure that the idea of “roughing it” didn’t factor in. Then again, maybe it did – maybe at a certain income level, you were roughing it by relying on satellite TV and having to occasionally step outside to take pot shots at a potential meal.
I approached the camp through the woods, making a token attempt at sneaking up on the place in case its inhabitant didn’t want to speak to me. At the same time, I tromped across broken leaves in a pair of heavy work boots and wore a bright yellow vest. Despite a desire for stealth in case it was necessary, I also didn’t want to spook somebody with a loaded weapon and wind up with my head mounted on a wall.
If I was in my right mind, I might have taken some time to enjoy the day. The weather had turned cold overnight, but not so much that it made me curse Mother Nature. The slight frost left a silvery white glimmer on the leaves and branches, and the autumn carpet looked genuinely breathtaking to those who took the time to enjoy the sights instead of focusing on business. The sun fell across aged trees and orange leaves with a type of practiced casualness that painters could only hope to catch. And through all of this came grumpy-looking me, crunching across terrain that would preferred to have remained unspoiled and wearing the type of frown that comes from getting shot at the night before…and who was moments away from getting shot at again.
I didn’t see the person before they drew a bead on me. I didn’t see anything until a crossbow bolt appeared with a whoosh and a thud in the tree trunk about a foot in front of me, right at eye level. I froze, my insides suddenly wrenched up in nervous knots. Only when I tried to trace the trajectory of the bolt back to its source did I notice the glint of sunlight across the front of a sighting scope. The owner of the crossbow, crouched next to a tree almost 100 feet away, wasn’t reloading – a fact that I might have been thankful for, had he not come so close to putting a piece of lumber through my skull. When he saw that he had my attention, the hunter lowered his weapon, threw back his head, and laughed in the same annoyingly insincere manner that his brother had.
Jamie Montgomery wore a pair of sunglasses, a camouflage hunting outfit, and a black baseball cap. He seemed very pleased with himself. Part of the pleasure seemed to come from his aim – he had placed the shot close enough to frighten but far enough away not to kill. The other part of his amusement must have come from the paleness of my face, or maybe from the faint but distinct tremor that ran through my body. I had now been shot at twice in 24 hours, and I was sure I would never get used to it.
Scratch that – I hoped I would never get used to it. If I ever found myself facing peril frequently enough for it to become routine, it meant I had definitely made mistakes in my life that were too serious for me to even contemplate.
I didn’t move until Jamie lowered the crossbow and beckoned me forward with a wave of his arm. He didn’t wait for me – once he saw that I hadn’t been permanently paralyzed with fright, he started tromping up the hill toward his palatial lodge. It never seemed to occur to him that I might not want to follow the man who had nearly shot me.
I turned toward the poor tree that had the shaft of a crossbow bolt sticking out of its trunk. I wondered how long it would take me to start really hating my job. Then I pulled the bolt out of the tree and started walking up the hill. At this rate, it wouldn’t be long at all.
* * *
Based on his letters and Ellen’s jaded description of the young man, I expected Jamie Montgomery to be a musclebound meathead. In truth, he was much smaller and thinner than I expected. Admittedly, he was still about an inch taller than my six-foot height, but I probably had a good twenty pounds or more on him. His face looked lean and hungry, and he had about as much hair on his face and forearms as a twelve-year-old boy.
“So what brings you to here?” he asked from behind a bar in the kitchen. He had left the crossbow propped carelessly next to the door, peeled off his camouflage jacket, and seemed to be mixing up a margarita in the blender. “If you’re looking to get some hunting in, this is all private property. My ma and I own every animal in the woods here.”
“Hunting?” I asked. “Don’t you know why I’m here?”
He laughed loudly. “No. I don’t even know who you are.”
“You…seriously? Nobody in your family has been in touch with you? You never got any calls from my assistant?”
He held up a finger to stop the flow of questions, then ran the blender for a good thirty seconds. After he was finished, he dipped a finger in, found the taste wanting, and started looking for some more liquor to add to the concoction.
“I’ve been…out of touch lately,” he said. “I decided I needed some R&R. You know…I don’t think I ever figured out what those letters mean.”
“Rest and relaxation.”
“Yeah…yeah. That makes sense. I thought it might be recreation. And I guess it is, in a way. You get some rest, and it re-creates you.”
“I’m still a stranger, here.”
“Right. My name’s Jamie Montgomery. And you are?”
My head practically turned a circle as I examined the room. The hunting lodge looked about as posh inside as it had from the outside, with all the amenities of a five-star hotel and only a few animal heads on the wall combined with some rustic-looking furniture to give even the thinnest veneer of an actual hunting lodge. Despite this, the one obvious weapon in the entire room was the crossbow lying against the wall next to me. If I was looking to rob or murder, he was making it too easy for me. Maybe he figured that he had already scared any danger away with his crack warning shot.
“Carlton Hammond,” I responded. “I was hired by your mother to put together some information for her. Basically, I’m looking to give her a presentation on what wonderful, upstanding citizens her sons are. By way of introduction, I’ll do you the favor of ignoring the way you recklessly endangered my life a few minutes ago.”
“Ah, dude, you weren’t in any danger. The scope on that thing is amazing. I bet I could shoot the wing off a fly if it would hold still for me.”
The blender came on again and ran for another half-minute. I waited patiently for the noise to end and his explanations to begin. Before we resumed our conversation, though, he had to take the time to make sure he had put together a passable cocktail.
“Mmm…this is good,” he said after pouring half the contents into a pint glass and taking a sip. “You want some? It’s nice and sweet.”
“No thanks. I’m not much of a cocktail person. Could we talk about you for a bit?”
“Um…” He suddenly looked a little embarrassed. His remarkably well-defined cheeks flushed and he avoided eye contact. “I’d rather now. Can you just make up some stuff and tell my mother about this? I mean, if she’s trying to cut me or Len out of her will or something, that’s different. But if you’re just looking for something to put in the back of a magazine or whatever, Len’s way better at that stuff than it am.”
“I’ve already spoken to Len. I’ve been trying to speak to you for about a week now, but nobody’s been able to tell me where to find you. I guess when you’ve got enough money coming in and no real day job, you can afford to drop off the map when you feel like it.”
He grinned. “Gotta keep up on my hunting. It’s the one sport I still do.” He flexed one bicep for me. His arm was well-toned and certainly beyond what most people possess in terms of muscle, but not to the human Adonis level he seemed to expect. “I used to be able to crush rocks with these guns. Let it all go, though. Sports just don’t seem to be worth it after you get to a certain age, you know?”
“I wouldn’t really know.” I felt a sudden jolt of anger stab at my insides. Something told me this was going to wind up just like the verbal ego stroking with Len, but focused on physical prowess instead of supposed business acumen. “I’m surprised even somebody like you can decide to up and disappear like this, though. Neither your mother nor Len knew where to find you, and anybody I called just seemed to assume you would crop up in a few weeks like nothing happened.”
“Yeah, I guess that happens here and there. I like to get out and about, you know?”
“Without telling any family members or friends. Or maybe…lovers?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I backtracked, trying to play things closer to the vest. “Why don’t you do me a favor and tell me about yourself in your own words?”
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You didn’t really come all the way out here just to ask me that, did you?”
“Your mother’s paying me a lot of money,” I defended. “A decent paycheck gets me very motivated.”
“How did you find me here?”
“I did a search of property owned by the Montgomery family. Most of it is pretty accessible by car and phone.”
“Hey, I have a phone here,” he said, although the way he looked around made me believe that he wasn’t sure exactly where it was. “I’m just…not exactly sure where.”
I waved my hand, moving the conversation along. “This was the one local place that was relatively…” I paused to glance at a plasma TV hanging above the fireplace. “Very relatively… off the grid. You were either here or off in the Caribbean somewhere, and your mother told me that you’re not much of a traveler.”
His face darkened. “My mother doesn’t know everything about me.”
“I’m sure she doesn’t. But she does know about Livia…and Della.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” If he had been a better liar, I might have believed him. Instead his eyes got wide before his face scrunched up as a way of overcompensating for his obvious tell.
“She found some letters addressed to Livia. They mentioned Della. She doesn’t know more than that yet. I think I do, but I want to make sure I know your side of the story first.”
He rubbed a hand over his face. The action highlighted a small bruise on the side of his cheek that I hadn’t noticed earlier. “I…look, if anybody hears the truth about Della, I’ll put an arrow right through your head.”
“You’ve definitely shown the aim for that. But look, your mother wants to know more about you. If she doesn’t get enough from me, she’ll just hire somebody else. It’ll help you now if you tell me everything you know. Then you won’t have to worry about somebody else finding out later.”
He sighed and started in on his story. “Look, what you need to understand about Della is…”
He trailed off and then grimaced at me. “Wait a minute. How do I know you actually realize what you’re getting into? Why don’t you tell me about Della first?”
I made a mental note that he was playing the pronoun game with this Della person – not referring to the individual as either a he or a she. That might have been nothing, but it also served as a possible clue to hold onto for later.
“Let’s talk about your involvement with Livia. What kind of person was she?”
“She was…” He frowned deeply, with a couple of his lower teeth pressed against his upper lip. “Wait a minute…was?”
Now it was my turn for an awkward silence. The simplistic language Jamie had used in his letters had led me to think I was dealing with a child. I had gotten overconfident, and now had the choice between lying to cover my tracks or filling him on details that he probably deserved to know.
“Before I answer, let’s make sure we’re both on the same page.” I watched his face, hoping I could gauge his level of surprise with my next few words. “Were you seeing Dr. Livia Ortega?”
“What is this? Are you a…” He finally stopped himself, long after his mouth had run him past the point of no return. Still, he tried to recover with a simple, “No.”
“Then her death would mean nothing to you.”
“What did you say?” His voice gained a degree of menace. I shifted my position to make sure I was standing between him and the crossbow.
“I’m sorry that this is the way you had to find out. The police are investigating her murder. It happened last night. I’m sure there would be no way for you to find out because nobody would know to contact you.”
“How do you know this? Are you with the cops?”
“No. I stopped by her office shortly after it happened.”
“You did it, didn’t you? And now you’re coming for me.”
“No…I’m just a fact finder.”
His face got redder by the second. “No…you’re some sort of spy or cop or something out to get me. She’s not even dead, is she? Is she?!”
Jamie knocked his glass over and it shattered on the polished wooden floor. I took a step toward the door. Obviously, I had misplayed this hand. My best hope, I figured, was to get out of the house and regroup.
Jamie wasn’t having any of it. He leaped onto the kitchen bar and then took a flying jump toward me. He fell well short, sliding on the floor and landing off-balance. Still, he was close enough to me that I wasn’t sure I would have the time to turn around, throw the door open, and make a run for it. Instead, I tried to circle around him, moving deeper into the cavernous lodge and looking for a back door.
“Jamie,” I said as I moved. “You need to calm down. I have nothing to gain from lying to you.”
“You have everything to gain!” Yelled Jamie, catching his balance and spinning in my direction with the grace of a figure skater. “Mother dropped a fat check in your lap to get me away from Livia, or Len told you to expose me, or somebody got wind of the whole affair. But it doesn’t matter, because I don’t believe you. Livia’s not dead!”
He charged at me, and I didn’t dodge in time. Both his arms landed around my lower torso and his forehead slammed itself into my sternum. As the breath came out of my body, I realized that I had put myself in a series of very bad situations over the past few days.
We hit the floor and he clambered up my body until his knees were pressed against my waist and his hands were wrapped around my neck. He definitely didn’t have the muscle that he claimed he once possessed, but it was enough to make the blood rush to my head.
He hadn’t pinned my shoulders, though, so I was free to fight back a little. I boxed him on the ear with my left fist, knocking him off balance and giving me enough leverage to push him off me. Then I sprang back on my feet and made a mad dash to the front door.
“Livia brought out the real me.” I could practically hear Jamie’s breath on the back of my neck. Suddenly I had landed in a nightmare where the monster chasing you is just a step behind you and you can’t get away. Unfortunately, I didn’t wake up before he caught me. “Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you can take her away from me!”
He caught me in another tackle and knocked me to the floor just a foot away from the front door. I flailed backward ineffectively and then shielded the back of my head with my right hand. The last thing I needed was a solid shot to the back of the skull again.
Luckily – or maybe unluckily – Jamie didn’t seem to be interested in pummeling me. Instead, he tried to choke the life out of me. This time, he pressed his fingers against my windpipe and twisted like he was trying to wrench my head right off my body. I felt a pop in my neck and panicked.
The door was still out of my reach, but the crossbow wasn’t. The bolt I had brought in with my lay just next to it, and my desperate fingers closed around it. I might have given Jamie a word of warning, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to speak for a couple of weeks after this encounter. Instead, I jabbed the point of the crossbow backward, stabbing just above the elbow. The pain brought a howl from Jamie’s frothing mouth. More importantly, it got him to let go of my neck and shift his way, giving me the leverage I needed to push him off of me.
I tried to pull the bolt out of his arm, but wound up breaking the shaft instead. Rolling back to my feet, I wound up in a situation where, once again, he was between me and the door. This time I backed toward the windows that overlooked the serene autumn scene outside the lodge.
“Ja…Jamie,” I croaked. “I’m trying to…”
He had no words left for me – only rage. Ignoring the damage I had done to his arm, he bull rushed me. I was woozy enough by this point that my dodge came far too slowly, if my exhausted limbs were going to respond at all. The force of his attack sent me tumbling backward. I tripped over an ottoman and then crashed straight through a large window.
The brain does miraculous things when it experiences trauma. Yesterday it had shut down parts of my vision and feeling so I didn’t realize how badly my head really hurt. This time it scrambled to shut down my senses, forcing my mind into a sort of fast forward that ignored the bulk of my agony. I was aware of large shards of glass slicing through my skin and clothes, of the branches and leaves that whipped across my face as I fell down the steep hill on the south side of the lodge. I fell for what felt like 100 feet, but I wasn’t content to stay lying down when I finally came to rest. Forcing myself to my feet despite a dozen or so deep cuts and even more small lacerations, I noted with relief that Jamie wasn’t following me. He watched me from the broken window, using a surprising amount of forethought to realize that jumping through after me wouldn’t be to his advantage.
Running as quickly as my dead legs would take me, I prayed that he was too blinded by rage to remember that he had a crossbow with a scope that could place a bolt between my shoulder blades from 100 yards. I also pushed myself to get well over 100 yards away as soon as humanly possible.