This section brings my NaNoWriMo project above 25,000 words. From here on out, my words written will be higher than my words remaining. That’s a major hurdle to pass, because now it really feels like the finish line is in sight.
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I should have known that combining a lack of sleep with pain medication and a shaken worldview would cause problems. But the Montgomery job had gotten in my head and raised questions that I couldn’t ignore. It had also raised the specter of doubt about the way I did business as a whole, and I didn’t feel like any of that would resolve itself until I got to the bottom of things.
The police line told me not to cross back into Livia Ortega’s office. My pocket knife had other ideas, and with a few clean cuts of yellow tape I slipped back in through the front door.
I walked into a skeleton of a room. Shining a flashlight about the place, I could see the faint outline of where boxes and belongings had been, but anything that might have been evidence in the open murder case had disappeared. All that remained was a few pieces of furniture and an eerie coldness.
The back room had been cleaned out as well, with the majority of the boxes that I had seen earlier existing as nothing more than whispers and memories. The cabinet I had opened up still hung open, but the contents – including the appointment book – had been completely cleaned out.
So I was left with nothing but silence and contemplation. I told myself I had come back to the office to investigate, but my flashlight kept drifting back to the spot on the floor where I had found the dead body.
I used facts to dispel rumors – I didn’t normally investigate crimes of any sort, let alone murders. Outside of wakes and funerals, I had never been close to a dead body – and certainly not a body that had died so recently that the warmth was still coming off her skin.
Death can change people. I knew that. But I hadn’t expected to change based on the death of somebody to whom I had never even spoken. In the time it took for the life to escape from her body, I had gone from somebody who defended my clients tooth and nail against any and all accusations to someone who was starting to ask far too many questions.
I poked through desk drawers and empty cabinets for a good 20 minutes, finding nothing. Every few minutes, I stopped and stared back at the blank spot on the floor where Livia had drawn her final breaths. My mind started to concoct reasons I should stop caring about her. She was a therapist who had bondage gear in her storage room – that called into question her professionalism, at the very least. Certainly, she would have lost her license if any of that came out, especially if she was having sex – or whatever else went on in there – with her patients. The fact that she kept an appointment book separate from her professional files indicated that that might be the case.
“Wait a minute,” I muttered to myself, happy to break the oppressive quiet in some way, “Where were her professional files?”
When I first came in, I was looking for the woman herself, not proof of her doing business. She had a simple reception area but little else in her office. Did she really have a career here, or was this place a front?
I knelt down on the floor and placed my flashlight lens-down, darkening the room except for a small halo of light on the carpet. Then I pulled out my phone and typed out a message to Frankie.
Tomorrow morning – pull any credentials/news articles we can find on Dr. Ortega.
About ten seconds later, Frankie sent me a response.
Fine. Now quit working and get some sleep!
The ring of the phone that accompanied the incoming message seemed too loud for the quiet, death-haunted place. I turned the ringer off, tucked the phone back into my pocket, and reached for my flashlight. Then, just as I was about to pick it up, I heard footsteps approaching the front door of the office.
I clicked the light off before lifting it off the floor. Without my flashlight on, the room was bathed in nothing more than the light of a gibbous moon, which itself was distorted slightly by the broken window where a bullet had cut through the glass not so long ago. Still crouching, I backed toward the far wall in an awkward sort of duck walk. Once there, I crouched low in the corner between the cabinet and the wall, thankful that I had changed out of the bright yellow vest that had made me an easier target earlier in the day. Wearing a pair of gray slacks and a dark brown sweater, I could blend in fairly well with the shadows as long as nobody looked directly at me or turned on the light.
The footsteps ended at the office door. The knob turned and the door creaked open. As the newcomer stepped into the suite and closed the door, I realized that the cut police line almost certainly raised his suspicions. I told myself that next time I would remove the tape entirely, then admonished myself that, if I was lucky enough to get out of this alive and without being arrested, I would make sure that there wasn’t a next time for me to trespass on a crime scene.
As though I had been blessed by the crime gods, my fellow trespasser didn’t turn on the lights, either. He was a tall, thin-bodied man, and that’s about all I could tell from the silhouette. He seemed bereft of a flashlight, and I wasn’t about to let him borrow mine. Instead, he stepped through the office like a bat flying through the night, magically dodging furniture and obstacles as he made his way through the front area and into the back room where I was hiding. The uncanny navigation told me that he either had excellent night vision, in which case I wouldn’t be hidden for very long, or had been through the area enough to know if by memory.
I feared the former as he approached the cabinet. He seemed to be walking directly toward me, as though he knew I was there. But then the trick of paranoia and perspective went away and I saw that he was heading for the cabinet itself, possibly drawn there by the fact that the door still hung open.
He ran his hands along the inside of the cabinet, as though he hoped to find something by touch that his eyes wouldn’t show him. He stood only a foot and a half away from me at this point. Every short breath I took sounded like a windstorm to me. I expected him to turn and find me at virtually any moment.
As loud as I thought I was, though, he never looked at me. Instead he walked toward the bench where I had found Livia’s body. He pressed his palms against the bench and then let out a loud, ragged sob.
The sob trailed off in an instant, because yet more footsteps came up the stairs. The first – second – intruder straightened up and looked about the room, possibly seeking a hiding place.
Despite the tension of the situation, I almost laughed out loud. I envisioned a scenario where my flimsy hiding place got discovered only because the next trespasser chose the same spot and strategy to stay out of sight in what was quickly becoming a criminal convention. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that – the other man froze as soon as the beam of a flashlight fell across his face.
“I knew I’d find you here,” the newcomer said. I couldn’t see either of their faces, but I did recognize the voice immediately – Len Montgomery.
“How did you know?” Jamie’s voice confirmed the identity of the other intruder, though he still had his back toward me. “I didn’t even know I’d be here.”
“I’ve been stopping by here in the evenings, watching for your car,” Len said. “It was only a matter of time until word got to you that she was dead.”
“She…she can’t be gone,” Jamie said, sounding for all the world like a scared child. “Della needed her.”
“Stop mentioning that name, damn it! The whole…thing…it’s nothing. You need to grow up before your bullshit ends up bringing this whole family down.”
“I don’t want to keep hiding—”
Len grabbed his younger brother by the collar. “It doesn’t matter what you want, you idiot! This is not the time for your dramatics. Mother’s sent someone to look into our family affairs, and there’s a limit to what we can afford to let him know.”
“Is that…is he the person who talked to me at the hunting cabin?”
“How the hell should I know?! If it’s somebody poking their nose in where it shouldn’t be, talking about either Livia or Della, then yeah, it’s probably him. But it doesn’t matter, because he’s not a cop. We don’t have to tell him anything. And by that, I mean that you won’t tell him anything. Believe me, brother of mine, I would rather shoot you and leave you in a ditch than open the paper to see you dressed up in bondage gear, let alone any of that other weirdness you’re into.”
Judging from the way he stepped back as though somebody had just punched him, the words hurt Jamie significantly. But he gave a loud sniff, rubbed his nose across his sleeve like a child who had just been crying, and said, “Okay…you win. Let’s go.”
“No, to hell with that. We’re not going anywhere except back to my car. Then you’re going to tell me whether there’s any possible way that the cops figure out a connection between you and Livia.”
“They won’t, I promise.” Jamie’s voice took on a high-pitched pleading quality. “I was really, really careful.”
“Good. Because if you’re wrong, I swear that I will cut you up into little pieces and airmail your body across the globe so nobody can ever categorize you as anything but a missing person. And now you’re going back to the lodge, and you’re going to lay low there until I call for you. Don’t talk to the police, don’t talk to mother, and definitely don’t talk to some guy named Carlton Hammond.”
It really seemed like a good time for me to step forward and say something dramatic, but I had no idea where to even begin. Was I supposed to make a citizen’s arrest here? And if so, what charge would I use?”
Len grabbed Jamie by the back of his neck and shoved him toward the office door. He did one quick sweep of the room with his flashlight, which left me trying to make myself as small as possible behind the open cabinet door in order to avoid the beam. I succeeded, and the two brothers left the office, headed outside. If I was going to have any luck getting answers tonight, I would have to follow one of them.
Rather than go through the front door, I opted for the fire escape. This meant having to cut through another police line, but the damage was already done on that front.
Before I left the office for the last time, I tiptoed my way to the front door and made sure it was locked. I couldn’t help but observe that my heart would have had many fewer shocks during the night if a police officer had just remembered to do that in the first place. Then again, in my state of mind I might have broken the lock to get inside. As it was, I was about to shadow somebody in an attempt to get to the bottom of a mystery that would almost certainly damage my business.
With a sigh, I climbed out onto the fire escape. I needed to get going. It was going to be a long night.