After flailing around for a few days and trying to find my direction, I’m back into a groove with today’s NaNoWriMo. However, fair warning: there is a suicide attempt in this section. If you’d rather not read about that sort of thing, come back tomorrow.
* * *
We decided that if somebody was going to shoot us, it would be accidental. Rather than the bright yellow clothing I wore to make sure I stood out to potential hunters, I opted for a dark brown coat and green pants. Frankie, who seemed to have a preparation kit for virtually every situation, stopped by her house and got a camouflage jacket and baseball cap. Our clothing choices didn’t allow us much concealment on the technicolor floor of fallen autumn leaves, but it was better than nothing.
For a woman who looked much heavier set than I did, Frankie moved like a ballerina, barely making any sound as she crept toward the hunting cabin on the balls of her feet. I settled for lagging behind her a little bit – whenever I tried to pick up my pace and catch up to her, the leaves under my sneakers made a loud crunching sound that I swore would give us away.
The lodge looked as palatial as I remembered it, but also somewhat resembled a ruined fortress now. A tarp covered the broken window, and we chose to approach from that angle. Other windows on the same wall made it possible to see us coming, but we hoped that the slight impairment in the field of vision would give us some sort of advantage.
As it turned out, we didn’t need the advantage. When we got to the front of the building, the door was locked and the lights were all out. Peering through the windows showed us a place in disarray. It seemed that Jamie had taken my escape poorly, smashing dinnerware, knocking the TV off the wall, and tossing sofa cushions after I had gotten out of punching range. If he had made any attempt at all to pick things up afterward, he had failed miserably.
I tried the door, and it was locked. Then I turned to Frankie and asked, “How far are you willing to go?”
She gestured toward the broken window and said, “I came out here, didn’t I?”
With a nod, I pulled out my switchblade and cut a strip out of the tarp. Jamie had knocked the remaining shards of glass out of their frame, leaving jagged pieces scattered across the ground but few in the window itself. With a little boost from Frankie, I managed to climb over the windowsill and into the hunting lodge.
Once inside, I crouched low and listened carefully. I didn’t hear any noise outside my own breathing, nor did I see any lights. I kept the switchblade out but low – not a visible threat to anybody who caught me inside, but still present enough that I had a defense from a potential attacker.
I reached the front door and gave two quick taps – an impromptu signal that Frankie and I had worked out in the car. After giving her time enough not to instantly pepper spray whomever opened the door, I swung to portal wide, allowing her access inside.
She scanned the room in a casual manner, as though she were on a house inspection. When she saw the crossbow mounted on the wall, she gestured to it and whispered, “You know, if we get in trouble for breaking and entering I’m going to claim you forced me into this.”
“That’s grand,” I shot back. “I’m going to say you blackmailed me into it, myself.”
I shut the door as carefully as possible, making sure to lock it. Somebody with a key would still be able to enter within the span of a few seconds, but I hoped that would give us enough warning to make a mad dash for the open window if we needed.
The dreary light left a gray pall over everything in the room. I debated whether I should turn on my flashlight or rely on the interior lights. Frankie made the decision by flipped a light switch and flooding the lodge with a white fluorescent glow.
“What?” she asked when I gave her a sour look. “It’s going to be a lot easier if the person coming back here sees the light and figures he forgot to turn it off rather than noticing a few shadowy figures and the beam of a flashlight inside.”
I nodded, conceding the point. I also did my best to keep myself from speculating about how or why Frankie had thought through this process.
The lodge looked like a two-bedroom affair with plenty of places to sit and relax after a hard day of shooting at deer from the front porch. I had only been in the front hall and the living room before my previous undignified departure. With nobody home, we had the whole place to ourselves but a limited time to explore it.
Out of a need for self-preservation, we checked the gun racks first. The crossbow and all bolts were accounted for. The living room had a gun rack with an old-fashioned muzzleloader locked behind glass. Other than that, there were a few combat knives in similarly locked cases but no other firearms that we could tell. As long as Jamie practiced halfway decent gun safety – which admittedly didn’t seem like a terribly strong possibility – it seemed like we wouldn’t have to worry about a gunman at our backs.
“What are we looking for, exactly?” Frankie whispered.
“A lead of some sort,” I responded. “Information about this Della Diamond person, so anything that could shed some light on Livia’s death.”
“You realize nothing we find can be turned over as evidence to the police, right? None of it would stand in court.”
“Given the high profile of our potential killer and possible conspirator, I’m not sure the police would be of much use, anyway.”
“Then what’s our end game?” she asked. “If we find evidence that these guys are responsible for murder, who do we present it to?”
“You’re pressing me for details I haven’t necessarily thought all the way through,” I said as I checked some kitchen drawers and found nothing other than fine cutlery. “But my best guess is that we go to the old woman with it. She wants to know about what her boys are up to. It’s not a result she’ll necessarily like, but it will be the truth. And then…well, if they get cut loose from their mother’s purse strings, suddenly they’re a lot more vulnerable to the criminal justice system, aren’t they?”
“I supposed,” Frankie whispered. “But I’ve got to say, a part of me wishes you had left me at the office looking through BDSM sites.”
We crept down the hall and found three doorways, all closed. The first one we tried opened to a lavish bathroom whose interior designer seemed to have fallen in love with gold shag carpet. The bathtub was no Jacuzzi, but it could easily fit a couple people with room to spare.
“You don’t want me to look through his medications, do you?” Frankie asked.
I did a quick check of the room without bothering to open the medicine cabinet. The standard toiletries – deodorant, toothpaste, and electric toothbrush, shaving cream. A first aid kit under the sink. A woman’s razor in the shower next to a bottle of expensive conditioner. Nothing really raised my eyebrows or seemed too out of place. I shook my head at Frankie and gestured that we should move on.
I had my hand on the next door when we heard a thump from behind the door of the room we were saving for last. It sounded like a body hitting the floor, but I quickly chastised my imagination for being too morbid. We heard a second thump, fainter than the first, and then silence again.
Frankie took a step backward toward the exit, ready to jump out the window at a moment’s notice. She looked at me for direction, her eyes pleading that it might be a good idea to bail out now. My hand hovered over the brass doorknob it had selected before moving away. With my mouth locked into a frown, I moved toward the door where the noise had come from.
I lingered there for a moment, trying to decide whether I should knock. My mind raced to come up with a satisfactory answer that could explain to Jamie or anybody else inside as to why we had broken in in the first place, but I drew a blank. With a deep breath, I twisted the knob and pushed the door open. I was immediately glad I did, though not for good reasons.
I never knew that blood had a smell before my nose wrinkled at the scent as I entered the room. Lavender bedsheets were covered in fresh red blood, and a woman’s body on the ground next to the bed lay in a spreading pool of it. My heart did a somersault, and it wasn’t until I could analyze the scene later that I came to the sickening realization that the thing which stood out in my mind the most wasn’t the immediate danger the woman was in but rather the fact that I was about to find myself at two murder scenes in the same week.
“First aid kit,” I said to Frankie. “In the bathroom. Go get it. And call 911.”
“How do we explain our presence here?” she asked.
“We can figure that out later,” I said, taking a step toward the body. “Now hurry.”
The woman wore nylon stockings and a corset that looked like it probably came from Livia Ortega’s not-really-an-office. She had a tousled head of red hair, and the blood seemed to be pooling mostly around her arms. With a deep breath in and a silent prayer, I rolled the body over to reveal a face of smeared makeup. The lipstick and rouge did little to hide the fact that, like Livia before her, the color was draining out of her body.
Unlike Livia, her heart was still beating – although it wouldn’t keep doing so for very long. A broken razorblade lay underneath her body, and vertical cuts along her wrists told me that this wasn’t a homicide. She had cut herself deeply, right along a blood vessel. As I rolled her over, one arm flopped limply to the ground. A spurt of blood shot directly into my face, leaving a line of red across my cheek.
“Is there any damned reception here?!” Frankie shouted impotently from down the hall.
I tried to remember if I had made any calls or texts from the lodge, but couldn’t recall much more than my fight with Jamie. “Never mind that – get the first aid kit!” I shouted.
I needed to stop the bleeding sooner rather than later, so I grabbed one of the blood-stained sheets and tore it. The strips became makeshift tourniquets. I tied them tightly around the woman’s arms and was rewarded with results as the rush of blood slowed – though I wasn’t sure whether that was from the tourniquets or simply because she didn’t have much left in her.
Frankie crouched down beside me, and we each started work patching up one of the arms with what basic medical training we each knew. As soon as we stopped the steady flow of blood, Frankie jumped up again and marched through the house, waving her phone in the air in a vain attempt to find a signal while she kept one eye out for a landline. She was shaking and her face had gone so pale that I worried she might pass out. Luckily, she managed to keep herself together in a time of crisis – one of the reasons I was thankful to have hired her. Still, bringing her along with me to see this scene felt like one more in a string of terrible decisions I had recently made.
I pressed my head against the woman’s chest, hoping to hear a steady heartbeat. I wound up disappointed – the heartbeat was there, but faint and irregular. But placing my head on her chest alerted me to something else as well.
I sat up and furrowed my brow. I heard Frankie’s voice in the bathroom, and it sounded like she had finally gotten in touch with somebody, albeit through a very poor connection. Hoping that she wouldn’t walk in and see things out of context, I pressed my palm against the dying woman’s right breast and gave it an experimental squeeze. I withdrew it almost immediately lest somebody see, but the feel confirmed something to me: the woman’s breasts weren’t real.
Everything had happened so fast that I hadn’t been able to ask essential questions. Who was this person, and why had they attempted suicide in the Montgomery hunting lodge? How had she gained entrance in the first place? The tarp had been intact and there were no other signs of forced entry when Frankie and I had come in.
I examined the dying face carefully, searching for signs of familiarity. Beneath a thick layer of makeup and what I now recognized as a red wig, I saw Jamie Montgomery.
“Della?” I asked the room.
The moment hit me like a plunge into icy water. For a long time, there was no sight other than Jamie’s unconscious face, and no sound beyond the pounding of blood in my ears. I tried to put the pieces in front of me together but failed. There was no getting distance from this – no seeing things objectively.
I didn’t hear the front door open. I didn’t hear Frankie give a cry of surprise as she dropped her phone.
By the time my mind cleared, I sensed somebody standing in the room behind me. “Frankie…this is Jamie,” I said without looking.
“I know,” came a familiar male voice.
Not moving away from Jamie’s side, I shifted to see the newcomer. Len Montgomery stood tall behind a petrified-looking Frankie, wearing a gray sweatshirt and a baseball cap that I remembered seeing the night Livia died.
His hand was initially hidden behind Frankie’s back. When he saw that I was finally looking, he raised it high enough that I could see his gun, just to make sure we were all on the same page.