I managed to keep relatively on track on NaNoWriMo through Thanksgiving, so that’s a reason to be thankful, isn’t it? This section is mostly exposition, but there’s more action around the corner.
* * *
“No police and no emergency crew,” said Len, pressing the barrel of his gun into Frankie’s back. “The only authorities that are going to come are the ones who will clear your bodies out after I report that I shot two burglars in self-defense.”
“The police have my number,” I said past the heart that had found its way into my throat. “Finding my body so soon will get them look a lot harder into any possible connection with Dr. Ortega.”
“Or they’ll figure you were breaking in then and you’re breaking in now, dumbass. Occam’s Razor and all that.”
Standing behind somebody with a gun to their back seemed to be Len’s favorite position. Unlike our meeting the other night, he didn’t have to worry about anybody hearing the inevitable gunshot. I would have thought that this would leave Frankie petrified, knowing that she was destined to receive the first bullet. Instead, her face grew flushed with anger. She didn’t turn around, but she clenched her fists as though she was about to hit Len, gun or no.
“Your brother’s dying, you asshole,” she snapped. “The longer we waste time with this macho crap, the less a chance he has of living through the day.”
“Let him go,” said Len. “The longer he lingers around, the more damage he does to this family’s reputation.”
“Reputation?” I asked. “Is that really the only thing you care about?”
He nodded curtly, but I could see doubt in his face. His eyes trailed to Jamie’s disguised face, and his own face fell.
“Jamie’s not dead yet,” I said. “An ambulance can make sure he lives at least through the night, if not longer. Put the gun down and I don’t have to tell your mother that you let your brother die.”
“The old lady’s not going to hear another word from you,” Len said, setting his jaw in determination.
“Then go ahead and shoot us,” snapped Frankie. “Your brother’s going to die, and it’s going to be an obvious suicide. And if you’re so worried about your reputation, you’re going to spend time washing makeup off a corpse and dressing him in new clothing. And even then, none of that will make a difference because the police will figure out the time of death and know you tampered with the corpse. You think we’re annoying? Wait until you have a police force crawling up your butt.”
“To top that off, my notes are incomplete,” I added. “Shoot me, and everything I have on file right now will go to your mother. She’ll find out everything I know bout Livia and Della—”
“Don’t say that name like she’s a real person,” Len snapped.
I looked at the dying person on the floor, then back at Len. “Della. She’ll have all my notes, which includes the fact that you pistol whipped me at Livia’s murder scene, that you probably snapped her neck, and that you and Jamie were both at her office the night after Jamie found out she was dead. Then you’ll have to worry about more than just your reputation – you’ll also have to worry about your mother cutting you loose. How long do you think your businesses will last if you’re the one who has to really make all the decisions?”
I wasn’t entirely sure he heard anything I said. Throughout my rant, he looked past me and to his wounded sibling. His mouth twisted through a contortionist’s show of different emotions, mostly focusing on rage and sadness. Finally, he pushed Frankie forward and lowered his gun, tucking it into the waistband of his blue jeans.
“We’re going to get him help,” he said. “But not the way you’re thinking. We’re going to check him in under an assumed name and make sure he gets treatment on the down low. And if I hear either of you suggest that we use Della as an alias, I will shoot you right between the eyes.”
“Which do you care about more,” Frankie spat, “your brother of your reputation?”
“I can have both,” he said. “Now let get going. We’re not calling an ambulance – you two are going to help me load him into a car. We’re going to bring him a change of clothes, and we’re going to a clinic of my choosing. Got it?”
“You’re taking his life in your hands by playing it this way,” I said.
“You know what?” Len responded. “Your opinion is noted. But since you’re not the guy with the gun, I don’t have to give a damn what you say. Now let’s get moving.”
* * *
None of us had paramedic experience, but Len had a gun and experience in taking lives. As such, Frankie and I had to muddle our way through the process of moving Jamie safely so Len could have his hands free to shoot us if he felt so inclined. We tried putting together a makeshift stretcher for him, but quickly realized that Jamie didn’t have time for us to figure out how to be carpenters. Ultimately, I took the arms and Frankie took the legs. We trudged out of the house and several hundred yards down the hill. My hands rested right under his armpits the whole way, feeling a faint pulse and hoping that the makeshift medical attention would see him through. We placed him in the back seat of my car, because Len didn’t want blood in his Mercedes.
The ride to the clinic only lasted a few minutes, but it was as awkward a length of time as any I had ever experienced. Some of that probably had to do with the fact that I had a dying person’s head in my lap. Frankie drove. Len kept his gun out and didn’t stop holding it with menace except for a split-second when he tossed me a cloth and told me to wipe Jamie’s makeup away.
“Reputation,” murmured Frankie, oblivious to the gun pointed in her direction. “Do you know what reputation is? It’s just words. You’re wasting lives over some damned words.”
Len snorted. “What does this guy pay you to break into people’s homes and file his paperwork – thirty grand a year? You know how much time it takes me to make that much money? Like ten minutes, tops. I get that luxury because I have my reputation. I get to do what I want when I want because people look at me and see somebody with power. They hear my family name and they know we can make or break them based on a whim. And you get that type of power by maintaining your reputation. Money doesn’t mean jack unless you have the image to go behind it, lady.”
“And what harm was Livia Ortega doing to your reputation?” I asked, dabbing lipstick off of Jamie’s face.
That almost got him. He turned halfway around and pointed the gun right at my face. His mouth opened to talk more trash, but he stopped before any words came out.
“Nice try,” he said, returning to a fully seated posture. “But you’re not smooth enough to get me to admit to anything. As far as my story goes, you’re talking to me about somebody I’ve never even met.”
“Yeah…of course not,” I muttered. The part of me he couldn’t hear taunted him that he had already given me plenty of ammunition for later
* * *
“You’re going to hand your report to the old lady over early,” Len told me from the clinic waiting room. “It’s going to be the type of glowing praise she was expecting. But you’re not going to mention a damned thing about Della or any of this fiasco. As far as anybody’s concerned, that’s something that nobody will ever know the truth about.”
“And when your brother comes out and tells her the truth?” I asked. “How are you going to hide from it then?”
“That’s a family concern,” he warned. “None of your business. And it’s not going to happen anyway. The woman who helped create Della is dead. I’m going to get these crazy notions out of my brother’s head, and we’re all going to go on with our lives the way we’re supposed to be. My bro and I will be watching people like you from the top, and you’ll be happy with whatever paychecks you can scrape together. And if you ever step out of line again and get big enough for your britches to try to threaten me, I’ll put two bullets through each of your eyes. Got it?”
I folded my hands and looked at the floor. I didn’t nod or shake my head. Sitting next to me, Frankie bit her lower lip but kept the same lack of eye contact that I had.
“Good,” he said, mistaking our silence for compliance. “Now I’m going to get my car from the lodge. When I get back and check on my brother, neither of you will be here. Got it?”
“Hey, Frankie,” I said when we were alone. “Take the rest of the day off – the rest of the week if you want it.”
“I’ve got a lot of stuff to do back at the office,” she said. “Just remember this kind of stuff when it comes time to talk about my salary.” She stood up and slid her purse onto her shoulder. I handed her my car keys. “We’re not–?”
“No,” I said. “We’re not…no matter what that blowhard has to say.”
I kept my hands folded and waited patiently for word that I could speak with Jamie.
* * *
The departure of Frankie and Len left me as the person in charge by default. Not that there was much to be in charge of – we had checked in Jamie under the name of David Warner, and the doctors handled the rest. We were in an emergency room, just a low-key one without the high-priced doctors usually preferred by those who can afford them. Standard practice was to check in people of Jamie’s stature under an assumed name to keep the paparazzi at bay. Since I wasn’t technically a reporter – I didn’t know exactly what I was these days – I didn’t get shooed away by those in charge.
Against all probability, Frankie and I had saved a life with our frantic first aid. I didn’t count Len into the final equation on that matter – had we brought an ambulance and a team of paramedics out to the cabin, we probably could have avoided some long-term damage. But had we pushed Len much further, both Frankie and I probably would have wound up with nasty wounds of our own, and there would be a total of three corpses on the day.
As the lone person willing to wait, the doctors deferred to me when Len finally came around. Jamie could barely speak and had been left extremely anemic from the loss of blood. He still had the smudge of rogue on his cheeks from where I had failed to remove the makeup. I sat down in the chair at the foot of his bed, and he didn’t shout or try to have me removed. I considered this a small victory and pressed my luck further by asking the attendant to leave the room.
“I had this friend,” I began slowly, hoping that Jamie would indulge me. “Years ago, when we had both graduated from high school. He got trapped in a relationship – a bad one, with the type of woman who preyed on your weaknesses just because she was proud of herself for identifying them. Then one day he calls me up from jail.”
Jamie just looked at me, mouth drawn into a straight horizontal line, with no real expression on his face. I took that as an invitation to keep telling my story.
“This woman had accused him of raping her,” I continued. “That was her way of brushing him off. First there was a fight, then there was make-up sex, and then she started crying and yelled at him to leave the house. He did, and less than half an hour later he was handcuffed in the back of a police van. I found out all this by talking to the both of them and then quizzing them on the inconsistencies of their stories. The police could have found it out, too. But here’s the thing – the dumb idiot never defended himself. He stood up in front of a court and pled guilty because he couldn’t stand to argue with this woman. He thought he would somehow do her a disservice by disagreeing with her as she dragged his life through the mud. Or maybe he figured that getting locked behind bars was the only way he’d ever really escape that fucked up relationship.”
I drummed my fingers against the rail on his bed. “You could argue that this was the reason I started doing this whole fact finding thing, but it’s honestly something I hadn’t thought of for years until after I got the business license. The point I’m trying to make is that if you take one story out of a person’s life – if it’s the right story – you can pretend to know everything about somebody. But people are more complex than that. And as I think about it, my job has basically been to take out of context stories about people and try to convince others that those breadcrumbs are the whole picture. So, this…the suicide attempt, your relationship with Livia, your brother’s attitude…” I sighed. “I’m trying to do more than collect pieces of the puzzle, okay? I’d like to get the whole story.”
“You weren’t trying to get the whole story when you told me about Livia, were you?” he croaked.
“I was. I might have been unartful about getting the information out of you, but in my defense you did put a crossbow bolt dangerously close to my brain.”
He gave a chuckle that sounded like a rusty door hinge. “Heh. Good shot, you have to admit.”
“I don’t have to admit anything. What I need to do is try to get you to explain why you tried to leave this world, and why you chose the exit you did.”
He clammed up at that. Suddenly, the spots on the ceiling became very interesting to him. “You haven’t earned that from me,” he muttered. “Nobody has.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “But somebody should get the story from you. Winding up in an emergency room might not seem like a blessing right now, but it’s better than making an appointment in a graveyard – no matter what you think right now.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “You just mill around with your own little problems and you think those are the biggest things in the world. People like you can’t see a bigger picture.”
“Don’ go assuming that things happening on a bigger scale for you financially makes your problems bigger than the common folk,” I responded. “Not all of us have the ability to disappear to a private palace for a few weeks when things get tough.”
He shut his eyes and let me have that one. I didn’t take it as much of a victory – especially since him closing his eyes indicated that he wasn’t going to continue our verbal repartee any longer.
“You don’t want to talk? That’s fine by me,” I said. “I didn’t take a beating from you and your brother without paying a little attention to the details around me. Just close your eyes and listen. Stop me when I’ve got something wrong. Remember, this is for posterity.”
He kept his eyes closed, but he didn’t reach for the call button so he could get somebody to toss me out of the building. That seemed like progress.
“I don’t know how you came across Dr. Ortega, but I’m assuming you met her after the ‘Dr.’ part of the title became more about her degree than her profession. She let her license expire without putting up a fight. My guess is that there were already a few stories floating around about her getting a little too personal with her patients – or maybe just suggesting some very unorthodox treatment. She could either go through the scrutiny and background checks necessary to renew her license or she could quietly let those problems fade away. Her real profession wasn’t something that she needed licensure for, anyway. She stopped advertising as a therapist but kept her office open for the sake of having a place of business. If somebody had come by asking questions, they probably could have shut her down even at that level. But she kept a low profile and recruited people whom she felt needed her own brand of special treatment.”
His eyes became slits – basically closed off to the world, but now focusing on me just enough that I could see I had his attention.
“You made a good patient for he,” I continued. “You needed her help because you didn’t know who you were. You still don’t. I mean, yes, you’re a successful businessman and functionally a celebrity in modern society. But that’s all stuff you inherited – stuff that sort of got forced on you whether you wanted it or not. Maybe you feel like you didn’t really earn any of what you have, or maybe you feel like somebody else forced this hand on you. You’ve got everything you could ever need, but in order to keep it all you need to keep up your reputation. If you’re not who people think you should be, you’re suddenly nobody.”
I paused and considered Frankie’s angry words that she had shot at Len in the car.
“Reputation isn’t just words, is it? It’s also other people’s determination of who you are in society. And if you’re in the spotlight but not giving the people what they want, it probably feels like the whole world is turning against you.”
He shifted away from me, looking toward the wall to see if he could find any distraction from my words.
“In your case, you’re not sure who you are or what you want to be. I’d like to hear more about that, but I don’t think you’re willing to tell me about it just yet.”
His continued silence confirmed my suspicions.
“You found yourself drawn to this woman, a woman whose…proclivities fulfilled your desire to let go and give up control. Somebody who could tell you what to do and make it feel good instead of painful. Somebody who made you feel powerless, but put you in control of that powerlessness to some degree.
“When I…well, when I came across Livia’s body,” I continued hesitantly, even though he was obviously in no condition to start throwing punches at me again. “I found an appointment book in her cabinet. I’m sure the police have it now, although I’m not sure they’ll know what to do with it. But it had a number of different names in it, including one your mother was so keen on…Della. She helped you create that identity – somebody you could be when you didn’t want to be yourself anymore. I’m not sure whether you feel like a woman on the inside or wanted to create an identity as different from yourself as possible, but Livia helped you create Della. That’s what the language in the letters referred to, but you kept it vague enough in your letters that your mother thought you were talking about an illegitimate daughter.”
“I don’t…” Jamie cleared his throat. “Never wanted kids,” he murmured.
“But you’re not going to contradict me on anything I just said, are you?”
He remained silent.
“So that leaves the matter of Livia’s death,” I continued. I stalled for a moment at this point, trying to figure out whether telling Jamie that his brother was a murderer would make things better or worse. “Believe it or not, I didn’t kill her. I had never even spoken to her in person. But somebody had already gotten there when I stopped by to speak to her. They clubbed me over the head and probably would have gotten away clean if I hadn’t put a bruise in the right place for me to recognize it later. I don’t have the evidence to go with it just yet, but I know who killed Livia.”
Jamie’s eyes finally opened wide. “Who?” he asked.
I took a deep breath and decided to go for it. “Len did it,” I said. “Technically, I only have the barest of cases against him, but he’s smug enough that he hasn’t denied any of the evidence I’ve brought forward. He doesn’t think I can bring him down, even with something as serious as a murder charge.”
The shock on Jamie’s face last for almost a full minute. But, as it lingered, I could see gears turning behind his eyes, putting everything in place. Finally, he closed his eyes and nodded, silently accepting that my story might be true.
“It’s funny…when I asked him about Della, he looked so seriously at me that the only thing I could think of was that she was a woman who had been murdered by either you or Len. I didn’t know the murder hadn’t happened yet. I don’t know if he started planning it because he knew your mother was having somebody look into the matter or if he had this in mind well before then. From his end, it’s an easy crime to get away with – with no criminal record or military service, there’s no chance the police match any fingerprints or DNA to him. With no real connection between Livia and the Montgomery family, there’s no reason for the police to even consider you folks people of interest.”
“He’s going to get away with it all,” said Jamie without opening his eyes. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“There’s one thing he cares about more than family and even more than wealth – his reputation,” I said. “I know he’ll kill to keep it. He cares about being the macho alpha male ideal that people look up to. And he’ll throw you, your mother, and everybody else under the bus if he needs to. But there is something you can do – you can stay alive. If you care about Livia and want to see her avenged, make sure you’re alive to tell the full story. I don’t know if you’re Jamie or Della or somebody in between, but you do matter. You should get a chance to figure out who you are. If you listen to me, you might just get that opportunity. At the very least, I bet it would make Livia proud.”
“It’s pointless, though,” he objected. “I lost the person who was helping me find my way. You think somebody else is going to come along and deal with all my baggage?”
“I think you’re going to work through your baggage, with or without the help of somebody else. I think you’re stronger than you want to think.”
“And Len,” he continued, ignoring what I said, “if Len finds out about any of this, he’ll kill me himself. You’re putting me in a place where I’m a dead person no matter what.”
“You love Della, right?”
“In your letters to Livia, you said you loved Della but were afraid of what your mother would think if she found out. Do you still love her?”
“You love her enough that you were willing to die with her. That’s why you dressed up like you did before cutting your wrists – you wanted to kill both of you at the same time. And if you had succeeded, it’s fairly likely that your mother would have found out about Della’s existence posthumously.”
“Post…what? What does that mean?”
“Don’t worry about it.” I took a small spiral-bound notebook and pen out of my pocket, then started scribbling down some notes. “If anything I’ve said makes any sense to you – if you want to see somebody pay for Livia’s death – make sure that you keep Frankie and I on speed dial.” I tore off a page from the notebook and placed it on the tray table next to his bed. “These are our personal numbers. I’m taking a leap of faith that Frankie won’t kill me for offering that to you, but I think I have a pretty good read on her by now. I can make sure that you aren’t alone with Len if you feel threatened by him. He already killed Livia and I know he’s threatened you about your other identity. Your goal for the foreseeable future should be to stay alive.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to finish finding the facts, then present them to the people who need to know.”
“Then it sounds like you’re in more danger from Len than I am. I can always tell him that Della’s dead.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Can you lie to your brother that convincingly?”
Rather than answer me, he stayed silent. Finally, with a nod of acceptance, he reached toward the tray table and grabbed the paper.