The weekend saw me absolutely swamped by kids’ sports, my wife’s birthday, and paid writing projects. Advancing my NaNoWriMo plot in a coherent manner became a struggle with all these other obligations. I focused on pushing through and at least getting my plot so far straight in my head so I could work on pressing onward when I have more time.
* * *
“No offense,” Frankie said after she entered my office the next morning, “but you look like you slept on the floor last night.”
“Hotel room,” I muttered, rubbing my temples. “I swear the bed was made out of concrete.”
“Well, I’d ask if your wife kicked you out, but…” she trailed off and cleared her throat, apparently deciding that whatever joke she was about to make wasn’t in good taste – or, even if it was, wouldn’t get a lot of appreciation from me. “What happened?”
“The problem with letting a murderer know that you’re onto him is that you know he’s already capable of killing people he doesn’t like.”
Any trace of a smile dropped away from Frankie’s voice, “Pardon?”
“Len Montgomery killed Livia Ortega. Why, I don’t know yet. But he knows I know.”
“How does he know that?”
“Because I met him at his mother’s house and practically told him.”
“And how do you know that he did it?”
“Because I tattooed the gunman before he took a shot at me, and Len’s got the exact right bruise on his jaw.”
“That doesn’t sound like it would really hold up if you gave it as testimony.”
“It wouldn’t. If Len hired me to discredit me, it would be the easiest job in the world…unless you factored in the stuff that I found out when I wandered into a place where I wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Yeah. Back at Livia’s office. I snuck in, then Jamie did. Then Len did, and he had some unkind words to say to his brother. He definitely had a part in this, and I’m almost certain he snapped Livia’s neck. He did it because of this Della person has some sort of secret Len’s willing to kill to keep. Jamie’s the connective tissue between it all, but he’s so unstable that he’ll probably put an arrow in my head if I talk to him again.”
“So you have an active night, I take it?”
“You could say that…it just wasn’t the kind of active I usually enjoy. But it definitely seemed to please the old woman.”
“Mrs. Montgomery? How did it make her happy?”
“That’s the million dollar question. Whatever I hinted at, she seemed to follow along with. What’s more, she wasn’t the least bit surprised, even when I mentioned a dead body.”
“So what’s the plan, boss man?”
I rubbed my hand across my face. “If we come across a crime during our investigations, company policy is to report it to the proper authorities. But we don’t have anything more than hearsay and circumstance to go on right now.”
“We have probable cause for an investigation, though. A couple of anonymous tips could go a long way.”
“They could also blow everything up for us, too. If we bring up charges against the Montgomery family, we’d better make sure we’ve got all our loose ends tied up. They’ve got the money and influence to make anything but an airtight case go up in smoke. If we take a shot, we need to make sure we knock them out cold.” I tapped my fingers on my desk, furrowed my brow, and then added, “We’ll have to go with standard operating procedure for right now.”
“Wouldn’t that involve forgetting everything about the murder and going back to making the boys look good for Mommy?”
“Standard operating procedure is to take copious notes on everything – keep a record of what we’ve done and what we’ve uncovered so far. I’ll punch up a report focusing on just facts, then on my interpretation of them so far. Just like we’ve done for the Madera job.”
“The Madera job? I thought it was the Wyatt job.”
“I’ll keep that under consideration. Let me know if she gets in touch with us. And if you can find time for me to meet with Wyatt, make sure that gets done. But most importantly, try to find this Della Diamond person. Don’t use your name, my name, or anything tied to our agency on this. We’re looking to make sure we stay totally unconnected from the Montgomery family as far as Della’s concerned.”
“You think she’s more likely to come out for a complete stranger?”
“I hope so. Because honestly, I’d rather not have anything to do with the Montgomery family at this point, myself.”
* * *
Most of an hour later, after plenty of starting and stopping, a break for coffee, and a moment where I just stood up and paced the length of my office for a good five minutes, I took a look at my factual analysis of the job.
- Jamie Montgomery had a relationship with Dr. Livia Ortega, who is listed as a family therapist and marriage counselor. The professional or personal nature of the relationship remains unknown.
- Dr. Ortega asked J. Montgomery to write several letters to her, most of which focused on an unknown woman named Della. Several of those letters were left in a cabinet which came into E. Montgomery’s possession.
- E. Montgomery contacted this agency under the official request to find facts that emphasized her sons’ achievements in the world, demonstrating that she had succeeded as a mother capable of creating a positive impact on the world. She offered an amount of money that significantly exceeded the normal fees charged by this agency. The existence of Della was mentioned as an afterthought, and E. Montgomery suggested that she believed the Della in the letters might be an illegitimate child born out of an affair between J. Montgomery and Dr. Ortega.
- Dr. Ortega was murdered by an unknown assailant. Cause of death was a broken neck. The killer’s motives were unknown. There were no signs of a robbery. The murderer possessed a firearm but chose not to discharge it until under duress, opting or physical force instead.
- Both J. Montgomery and his brother Len took an interest in Dr. Ortega’s murder. Shortly after this event, L. Montgomery spoke to E. Montgomery and voiced his concerns about this agency’s fact finding procedures. E. Montgomery chose not to alter the existing contract at this time.
From there, I take a moment to add some mental notes, point by point:
1: I still don’t know what Jamie’s relationship with Livia was, but people don’t generally enter an uncontrollable rage when their therapist is found dead.
2: The letters held incredibly sensitive, albeit vague, personal information that Jamie didn’t want his mother to see. How, then, did he accidentally deliver them into her hands? He had agreed to tell Mrs. Montgomery about Della, but said he didn’t like it. Was revealing the letters an accident, or was that his way of avoiding a difficult conversation? After all, instead of having a discussion with her son, Mrs. Montgomery chose to hire somebody to investigate the link. The odds of that family even sending Christmas cards to each other, let alone sharing intimate personal details, seemed far-fetched at best.
3: How much money does it cost for one of the most successful businesswomen in the world to hire a good PR team to give her warm fuzzies before she dies? She had dropped a fat check in my lap, then mentioned Della off-handedly, even though it was obvious from the start where the real mystery lay. She knew that Della was the place where I would earn my pay – did she know that there was something shady going on there, or did she really wish to become a doting grandmother?
4: “Unknown assailant.” I had to use that terminology because I couldn’t afford to accuse Len Montgomery of assault and murder in any official documentation I had. A concussed glimpse and a matching bruise didn’t prove anything, but this was one time when I didn’t need a trail of breadcrumbs to come to the right conclusion.
5: Even as things started going sour, Mrs. Montgomery chose to keep me on. She never, to my knowledge, asked Len about his bruise. Nor did she press any further on the feeble explanation I gave for my face. But she was still willing to trust me over her son.
On the record, off the record. I decided to keep my interpretation of the facts hidden for the time being. My head had taken its shots, but there were certain things that were burned into my brain by now – like Livia’s broken expression and the absolute certainty that Len had created that permanent stare of death.
The intercom buzzed, and I answered. Frankie’s voice came through the other line.
“Len – feel like a distraction?”
“I would welcome it with open arms,” I said.
“Well, be careful what you wish for. I’m through to Wyatt, and he’s able to squeeze you in for a late lunch today. You in?”
“Is he going to club me over the head, shoot at me, or throw me down a hill?”
“He didn’t say. Should I ask?”
I got up and reached for my coat. “No need. I’ll just let him surprise me.”
I strode out of the office and past Frankie’s desk. She raised a hand in an attempt to get me to pause.
“Where are you going? I said a late lunch. He’s not going to be in town to meet with you until 2:00.”
“I know,” I said. “But I’ve still got some legwork to do. Stick to the priorities you’ve been given. If Len stops by the office, call the police immediately. If he calls, take a message. And if I’m not back here by noon and don’t answer my cell phone, call the police.”
“You’re not doing much to make me feel comfortable, you know.”
“That’s fine. I’m not doing much to make me feel comfortable, either.”
I stepped out the door and didn’t realize I had my fingers crossed for luck until I pulled them out of my pocket. Listing the facts out hadn’t done much to clear the job up in my head, but it did let me narrow my suspicions down some. Now I just needed to hope I could find some answers without landing myself in the emergency room for a change.
I was too tired to be of much use to myself, so I decided to do some of Frankie’s work for her. I had her mostly occupied with the Montgomery job, which left a gap with Cullen Wyatt. A lack of evidence would assuredly stall that case out in everything but the court of public opinion. My job was essentially to discredit Rosalyn Madera and provide Wyatt with enough evidence that he could counter any claim she made. I had enough ammunition to do that job. At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to gather all the facts, even the ones that didn’t align well with my client’s goals. If Wyatt’s case was strong enough to stand on its own, it didn’t need to worry about a few stray facts knocking it down.
I had known Lucy O’Brien for about five years, but we didn’t talk very much. The fact that she worked for a gossip rag meant that most of my jobs focused on defending people from her more salacious claims. But she never viewed me as an enemy – once a story was out, her editorial team didn’t worry too much about whether it was proven true or not. She also never missed an opportunity to say hi to an old friend – or to enjoy a free brunch that included a bit of bourbon.
Lucy had the appearance of someone who had paid a good amount of money for what passed as beauty. That included obviously dyed blonde hair and a dark tan that had obviously come as a result of hours at a tanning salon. In her mid-30s, she had the skin nd face of a much older woman, though she was apparently willing to deal with melanoma spots and aged skin later in life for a little bit of superficial beauty right now.
“We’re all watching the Wyatt case with a great deal of interest,” she said, sipping a cocktail as we waited for our food at the bar and grill. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing much there right now. A case of he said/she said doesn’t play well in the press. I prefer to focus on he said/they said.”
“Is there a they?”I asked. “I need to know if there are other people coming down the pipeline who I should be aware of.”
Lucy laughed and shook her head, apparently amused by my naivete. “There’s always a they,” she said. “They just don’t always know who they are.”
“And that means…?”
“Honey, why do you think the term power couple came about? It’s referring to a pair of people who are on equal footing in the celebrity world – same amount of money, same amount of power. And that type of thing needed its own special term because it’s so rare. Instead you get movie stars hitting on screenwriters and young starlets. You get politicians fooling around with interns. Hell, you get old rich people fooling around with their maids. You think there’s something about people who are young, struggling, and trying to break their way into the big time that makes them irresistible to people with money and power?”
“I never really thought about it.”
“Most people don’t, unless they work for what you so charitably refer to as rags, even though we barely publish traditionally these days. People love Cinderella stories so much that they jump all over the equivalent of a boss dating his employee. At the same time, they feel connected with the people they see on their TV screens all the time, and they don’t want to hear about them doing any wrong. That means a lot of blind eyes get turned, which means that a lot of people get to act without any consequences. And just think – what would you do if you had the power to do anything you wanted combined with the knowledge that nobody would call you on it?”
Len and Jamie Montgomery would probably be fitted for caskets, I thought before chastising myself for going to such a place.
“So you’re saying you think the accusations against Wyatt might be true?”
“I always think they might be true, darling, but that’s mostly my wishful thinking talking. I’m not going to sell stories about the alternative. I’m just saying he’s definitely taken advantage of his position, and you could probably paper your walls with dossiers of struggling actresses or interns or screenwriters who have had a fling with Carlton Wyatt. The only question is how smooth he is with his operating.”
“And by that you mean…?”
“I mean people in his position aren’t used to hearing no. Hell, when they do hear that word, they usually convince themselves that it means something else entirely. He obviously dazzles the ladies when he’s out about town. He’s obviously charismatic enough to get them home with him. If he comes on too strong when they’re alone with him, he might hear that dreaded ‘No.’ And he might ignore it or convince himself that it’s all part of a game. That’s where the troubles begin. Or, in your case, it’s where you get some work coming your way.”
“I’m not in the business of taking on guilty clients. I’m looking to clear names, not give the devils of the world a license to walk around freely.”
She finished her drink in one long swallow and then held up the glass to get a waiter’s attention. “Good luck with that, sweetie.”
* * *
The surprising news came through just after brunch and before I started the car.
No license, Frankie’s number said.
I groaned. I was in no business to play “follow the white rabbit” thanks to her weak attempts to get me to waste words with her more often. What do you mean? I texted back.
LO – she let her license expire three years ago, came one reply.
She never even sent in the application, came another.
Deciding there was nothing else to do, I locked the car door and dialed my phone so I could get in touch with Frankie by voice.
“But she advertised as a therapist,” I said the moment I heard the line pick up.
“No,” replied Frankie. “She opened up an office that said therapist on the door. She barely put any money into the therapy business at all. And, as it turns out, this state doesn’t have a law stopping you from doing that. I could open up an office that says neurosurgeon on the door, but I’m not in any trouble until I actually start trying to convince people to let me tinker in their brains or start billing for consultations.”
“Any idea why she never applied? Did she have some disciplinary action coming up against her or something?”
“Nope – she was clean, at least as far as a public records and legal search shows me. Maybe a dominatrix makes more money than a family therapist does? Please tell me to do some research on that.”
“On your own time, if that’s how you really want to spend your off hours. So Jamie was seeing a therapist who wasn’t a therapist–”
“No, she was a therapist, just not one licensed to actually practice anymore,” Frankie corrected.
“Po-tay-to–” I began.
“Po-tah-to,” Frankie finished. “Yeah, I know. But is it, really? I mean, she had an office set up – not a dungeon, not a workshop, not a boudoir. If you’re going to do that type of stuff for money, there’s a very specific way to go about it. She doesn’t match the MO of a full-time domme, and there’s better way to sell toys if that’s all she wanted to do.”
“So you’re saying maybe she was practicing as a therapist – just an unlicensed one, and not somebody who actually provided psychological advice. More like somebody who helped her clients find…something else inside them?”
“I mean, I guess that’s one way you could put it,” Frankie replied. “I don’t know – but there’s definitely a link between sex and mental or emotional needs sometimes. I mean, think about how many people pay prostitutes just to talk.”
During the long silence that ensued, I considered turning on the car radio just to break up the awkwardness of the situation. “And how many people do pay prostitutes just to talk, Frankie?”
“…Some, I guess.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Look, you’re the one who got me started looking into fetishes, which led me into the culture and business of sex. This stuff is absolutely fascinating, when you get right down to it.”
I thought back to the letters. Jamie had mentioned Della as a person he loved, even though he felt uncomfortable talking about her. What would the connection be between those feelings and the equipment I had stumbled across in Livia’s office?
“Do you have anything for personal defense, Frankie?” I asked.
“Some pepper spray in my purse. Why?”
“Do you feel like taking a field trip?”
“I mean, I guess I could. Are we going to break into someplace together?”
“No…but I want to pay a visit to Jamie again, and it would help if you were there to kick his butt if he puts me down for the count.”
“Your confidence in me is absolutely stirring.”
“Close up the office. I’ll be outside in about 15 minutes.”
“Sure,” she said with a resigned sigh that failed to disguise the fact that she seemed genuinely interested in joining me. “Sounds like fun.”
“Frankie – one more thing.”
“Sure, it’s your dime…or it would be if we lived in that era.”
“During your time at this office…have you ever felt…?” I drew a long breath and shook my head. “Never mind. That’s a conversation for another time.”
“Okay…if you say so.”
I hung up the phone and tapped the steering wheel until I cleared all the doubts out of my head. It took much longer than I thought it would. I usually didn’t pay much mind to the gossip Lucy tossed my way, focusing on the stuff she could prove instead. But maybe this time – and perhaps just this time – she might have a point.