* * *
It’s easy to get a doctor quickly when you’re bleeding badly enough. It’s much harder making it all the way to the hospital when you have to jog through a half-mile of forest while loaded up with more glass than a mason jar manufacturer. Driving there isn’t so hair-raising – if you get too woozy from blood loss, you can always start swerving and let a cop pick you up under the assumption that you’re drunk.
I managed to get to the hospital under my own power. The relative quiet of the emergency room gave me time to think. Under doctor’s orders, I removed my shirt and pants and let them go to work picking shards of glass out of my sides and determining where I needed stitches.
“That must have been one hell of a window you fell through,” commented the doctor after my bleeding had finally subsided.
I simply nodded. No need to explain the details with them. If I was lucky, Jamie wouldn’t say a word of our encounter to anybody else. If I was unlucky, I’d wind up in jail by the end of the night under accusations of trespassing and assault. In that case, I would be best served saving my words for when my lawyer was present.
Based on the way our encounter quickly fell apart, I felt mostly safe in eliminating the possibility that Jamie was a murderer. He definitely had something to hide, and it didn’t seem like the connection between him and this Della person was the estranged father-daughter connection that Mrs. Montgomery had hoped. However, he probably wouldn’t have reacted with such raw passion when he found out that Dr. Ortega was dead. On the other hand, eliminating me as a possible witness by throwing me out a window wasn’t the worst idea out there. All it would take was some acting on his part to seem agitated. But nothing that had come from him earlier in our conversation indicated he had the ability to pull that sort of façade off.
My phone gave a single sharp ring to let me know I had received a text message.
“Can I get that?” I asked the nurse who was putting a stitch into my side.
“If you have to,” she said. “I’d rather you didn’t, but if you do just don’t squirm.”
Willing the rest of my body into statue status, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and checked the lit-up display.
Dinner tonight? read the message from Frankie.
I sighed. Details, I responded.
Madera is okay with meeting you at Chandler’s Bistro, 4:30 today.
That’s not dinner, I responded.
Close enough. Are you going or not?
I shifted my weight and then winced as the nurse slipped with her stitching.
“I warned you to stay still,” she admonished.
I’ll be there, I responded to Frankie.
* * *
The bistro was dimly lit, which helped to conceal the scars I had accumulated over the past 48 hours. It had a few people in for an early dinner, but was still an hour or more away from getting crowded.
I arrived a few minutes late, hampered by the fact that I still didn’t realize how much my injuries would slow me down. The stitches felt fine, but the muscles had now begun to stiffen up, requiring more effort with each step I took. Ms. Madera had already chosen a booth near the front of the restaurant. Considered the scars on my face, I counted it as a blessing that she recognized me enough to flag me down.
“I was wondering why you suddenly wanted to meet with me,” she said as I sat down. “I hope nobody went to town on you on my behalf. Then again, maybe I don’t hope that.”
I waved away a waiter who came by our table like he was an annoying fly.
“Not hungry?” asked Ms. Madera.
“Not in the mood for dinner,” I grumbled. “I’m still just gathering facts.”
“I thought you have all the facts you wanted out of me. Didn’t you decide I was already crying wolf?”
“I said the evidence pointed that way. It still does. But I want to make sure I cast a wide enough net. That means getting your side of the story, too.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I want to know as much as you want to tell – about your experience, about the woman with the camera, and about your reasons for keeping quiet. But we don’t need to discuss this in a public place.” I pulled a business card out of my pocket and placed it on the table in front of her. “You can email me the full account at that address. It’s secure, and I won’t share the information with anybody else, including my client. Or you can call my office when you’re comfortable and tell your story to either Frankie or I.”
She pressed her finger against the card like it was a bug that she wanted to squish. When it didn’t wriggle away from her, she finally picked it up and put it in her pocket.
“So why the change of heart?” she asked, eyeing me suspiciously. “Not too long ago you were willing to have the cops drag me off the premises. Today you’re treating me like an actual victim instead of a liar. What’s different over the past couple of days?”
I rubbed my palm across my eyes and a flash of the dead therapist crossed my mind. “A change of philosophy,” I answered. “Short-term, at least. We’ll see if it develops into a change in my business strategy. Suffice it to say that you caught me at the right time. And if I’m more thorough with my fact gathering, everybody benefits. The truth gets exposed in clearer contrast, and there are fewer victims in the future.”
“Fair enough. So is that all you wanted to talk to me about? If so, why bother coming all the way out here in person, especially in your, um…condition?”
“Face to face is a good way to do business, don’t you think? It lets you look into my eyes and figure out for yourself if I’m being honest.”
“And you don’t want me to go into this right now because…”
“For starters, I figured you wouldn’t be comfortable with telling somebody who’s been antagonistic toward you a very personal story in the middle of a crowded room.”
“It’s not that crowded…but you’re right.”
I pressed my hands flat against the table and used them to push myself into a standing position, wincing only slightly as I did so. “Thank you for the meeting, Ms. Madera. I hope you have a good evening.”
“Wait,” she said as I started to turn away. I stopped and turned back to look at her. “Is…is Wyatt okay with you getting my side of the story?”
“He’s asked me to gather facts. He doesn’t govern the way I do business. Good evening, Ms. Madera.”
I turned again and walked toward the exit. In truth, Cullen Wyatt hadn’t spoken to me in about a week. The fact that he wasn’t pressing me for results meant either that he was convinced Ms. Madera wouldn’t take the matter further into the public eye or he had other pressing concerns.
Of course, it could have also meant that Ms. Madera was right and there was an actual tape out there and out of everybody’s control, but that was one possibility I still didn’t want to think too much about.
* * *
“Holy hell, what happened to you?” asked Frankie when I finally reached the office again.
“Shouldn’t you be gone by now?” I asked, pointing to the clock on the wall that read well after closing time.
“You gave me too much interesting work,” she defended. “I like doing this sleuthing – we should look for the actual truth more often. Plus, if I didn’t wait around, I wouldn’t be able to ask you why it looks like you lost a fight with a wolverine. Go on…tell me I should see the other guy.”
“Your compassion for me fills me with hope for the human race.”
“Well? Are you going to clue me in or do I have to drag it out of you? It looks like one jab in the right place would send you right to the floor.”
“I finally tracked down Jamie Montgomery. He didn’t take the news of his therapist’s death well.”
“He attacked you?”
“Well, not at first. He started off by cordially shooting at me with his crossbow. That was his idea of a greeting. Then we started talking, and then he attacked. Then a window attacked. Then a couple dozen tree branches. And I think there might have been a gopher somewhere in there.”
“Well, it’s good to see that while he can hurt your pride, he can’t touch your sense of humor. So what now…did you call the police?”
“I don’t see how giving one of her boys a police record would help Mrs. Montgomery sleep better at night. Plus, I’d rather not place myself at the scene of too many violent crimes, even if I happen to be innocent.”
“So you’d rather cover for the guy who beat you up and threw you out a window?”
“He didn’t throw me out a…look, I don’t really need to explain this stuff. I’m looking to gather all the evidence I can find before I put together the final picture.”
“Evidence? What happened to facts?”
“You just said we were gathering evidence. Pretty much every time you ever talk about our work, you refer to it as facts.”
“They’re the same thing.”
“No they aren’t. Facts are completely unbiased. Evidence suggests something that you’re going to present as a way that proves somebody’s guilt.”
“Yeah, well…depending on who I make the presentation to, it might be evidence and not just regular facts.”
“You are you making the presentation to? You’re doing this for Mrs. Montgomery, right?”
“I was. I am. But if there’s a crime involved here, then it becomes something we have to hand over to the police.”
“And beating you up isn’t a crime?”
“You’re really hung up on that, aren’t you?”
She smiled and made a scene out of whistling nonchalantly.
“For right now,” I said, “let’s just say I agitated him a little. Going any further than that isn’t really productive.”
“What if he kills you next time? Would that be productive enough for you?”
“Did you get in touch with Cullen Wyatt?” I asked, seeking to change the subject.
“I got in touch with his people, at least. He’s out of the country until the end of the week. From the sounds of it, they expect you to have all your ducks in a row once he gets back.”
“That would be a lot easier if I could talk to him first.”
“Well, what do you want? Would you prefer I book you a flight to Italy and get you a pass onto the movie set?”
“No,” I said, realizing how tired I was before evening had truly begun to set in. “You’re doing a fine job.”
“Better than fine, I bet.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
“You haven’t heard my reason for staying late just yet. I’ve spent the majority of my day in fetish chatrooms – which, thank you, by the way.” She rolled her eyes sarcastically.
“You could have left when office hours ended. And I specifically remember asking you to let me know if it made you uncomfortable.”
“Well, there are different degrees of discomfort, you know? This wasn’t too bad – it was more or less like sitting next to a strange guy on the bus. But it was…educational. I feel like I’m more educated on certain matters than I ever wanted to be.”
“And did you find anything?”
“Well, yeah. It’s not like I was trying to infiltrate the yakuza or anything. If you ask around on the right sites, people direct you pretty well. And I found a dome in the area who goes by the name of Della Diamond.”
The Della D that had shown up in Dr. Ortega’s appointment book. If only I had a contact with the police who could get me access to her calendar from this year.
“Wait…domme?” I asked.
“The person who takes charge in a BDSM relationship. Get with the times, will you?”
“Don’t give me that,” I retorted. “You didn’t know anything about any of this until ten hours ago.”
“But now my eyes have been opened, you prude.”
I sighed. “Whatever. Did you get a chance to talk to Della?”
“No such luck. She has these regular stomping grounds in a few online communities, and she takes on local clients here and there – only a few over the past year. But nobody’s seen her in a few weeks now.”
“Any idea where she went?”
“Well, that’s the thing – unless somebody was in touch with her in person, nobody online knows anything about her. She could even still be around, just lurking under a different screenname.”
“And I don’t suppose you got me contact information on any of her local clients?”
“Oh yeah, sure. I put them right next to their social security numbers and mothers’ maiden names.”
“How many people who go to anonymous chat rooms want people to know who they are? Some of them are people with husbands or wives and children. Some of them would lose their jobs if their employers found out about their inclinations. This Della Diamond person spent months active within the community before she set up her first meeting with somebody in person. Heck, from the sound of it, even getting her for a video session was like spotting Bigfoot.”
“So the end result is we’re closer to the solution but without a solid lead to bring us home?”
“Well, what do you want out of me? I’ve only been at this for a day.”
“Well, my little online vixen, I’m not interested in you crippling my cash flow with too many overtime hours, so it’s time for you to punch out.”
“If you say so, but I’d probably get some decent results if I stuck around after dark.”
“What you do on your own time is your business, not mine.”
“Fine.” She set her computer to shut down and started packing up her things. “But I hope whatever you do on your own time involves plenty of painkillers and Epsom salts.”
“I’ve already taken care of my medical issues. Now shoo.”
I waited until Frankie had finally left the office before crashing into the chair behind my desk so I could begin sketching out a mental road map that would lead me to my next move.
For what surely wouldn’t be the last time, I wished I was a police officer. If I had access to some information about Dr. Ortega, I might be able to make heads or tails of the situation. Instead, all I knew was that the woman had a double life outside of her profession – or maybe in conjunction with it. She had died for reasons I couldn’t yet comprehend, and a person I needed to paint as an angel was connected, if not involved directly.
Jamie’s surprise had seemed genuine, but it would have been hard for me to spot a ruse while tumbling head over heels down a hill with a pound of glass sticking out of my skin. And while I desperately wanted a hot shower, a few shots of bourbon, and a long nap, I also wanted very much to find out why Livia Ortega had been murdered.
Good business would have involved dropping the matter and focusing solely on the puff piece of the rich kids that Mrs. Montgomery had paid me a pretty penny to put together. But standing next to a fresh corpse changed my view of what good business really meant. Suddenly, every perception had become skewed. The only thing I wanted to accomplish when all was said and done was to make sure that my willingness to turn a blind eye didn’t lead to anymore death.
Somewhere in all the questions, I nodded off and fell into a light, fitful sleep. When my eyes snapped open again, it was well past dark. I got out of my chair and headed for the door. But I knew before I touched the knob that I wouldn’t be heading home for a while yet.