I love getting past the 45,000 word mark in NaNoWriMo, because it makes everything seem supremely manageable. I’m now at the point where I can probably finish up the whole thing with one busy day of writing – which is a good thing, since there are only two days left.
* * *
It was after lunchtime, and I could feel myself turning into a pumpkin. I sat in front of the desk of Louis Stein, CPA. He was a balding man with large red-rimmed glasses who, in his off hours, liked to be tied to a St. Andrew’s cross and jabbed in sensitive areas with stiletto heels. I felt like we were going to get along just fine.
Officially, I was meeting him because I claimed my aunt had died and left me a large sum of money. I needed tax advice to make sure the government didn’t take too big a bite. He appreciated the cover story. When I handed him my business card and swore I wasn’t there to blackmail him, he appreciated it even more.
Even remotely, Frankie performed her job well. She had been tracking Mr. Stein down for days, seeking to follow up on a possible connection between him and Della. It was amazing what some extra effort and a sense of urgency could accomplish.
“Just so you understand completely, Mr. Stein – I’m not a police officer. Nothing you say to me can be used against you, and this conversation will remain completely confidential.”
He nodded and tapped a finger nervously on his desk. “If Livia is trying to change things up, she should know I’m not interest in financial dom—”
“You don’t get a chance to read the papers very much, do you, Mr. Stein?”
He narrowed his eyes. “No…why?”
I took a deep breath and told him. He didn’t seem like the type to get violent, and the only window in the office was behind him. He took the news surprisingly well, with a muted sigh and little other reaction.
“I wasn’t really that close with Livia,” he said, noting my reaction at his lack of reaction. “But she put me in Della, and we talked once every couple of months because of that. She liked to keep tabs on how Della was doing – I think she was Livia’s special project of sorts.”
“And you do know that ‘Della’ is—”
“A man?” he interrupted. “Biologically, yes. And if you’re having trouble trying to get your head around that, I’m not sure if I can really be of much help to you. I don’t know anything about her other identity – just that she was learning about being a domme, and our arrangement was mutually beneficial.”
He spoke of the matter as though he were a doctor diagnosing a patient, as clinically and scientifically as I could imagine. Be his hand quivered a little bit as the topic continued, and a bit of red crept into his face. He kept looking to the door, as if to assure himself it was still closed and locked. He didn’t seem to be ashamed of his fetish, but he certainly did worry about the consequences of other people finding out about it.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how was it mutually beneficial?” I queried. “From somebody on the outside looking in, what do you get out of your meetings with Della, and what does she get out of them?”
“I’ve tried to explain this a thousand times to different people, but nobody ever understands,” he said. “I don’t think you would, either.”
“Please – try me. It may really be a matter of life or death.”
He looked over the rim of his glasses, then his eyes darted to the phone. I imagine he was wondering if he needed to call the police about the matter. Thankfully, he chose to indulge me for a bit longer.
“I’ll try to put it as simply as possible,” he said, lowering his voice enough that I had to lean in to hear him clearly. “The reason you don’t get it is because you think I’m getting tied up just for some sexual thrill. Sex is part of it, but it’s mostly about power and trust. When Della and I get together, I let her put me in a position where I’m completely helpless. She can do anything she wants to me, but she chooses not to do any real harm. I might come out with a few bruises, but never with anything that lingers, and never bruises in a place where people at work might see.”
He was right – I didn’t get it. But after the last few days, I did have to admit that being put in a situation where I could put more trust in people besides Frankie would be nice. “And what does Della get out of it?” I asked, matching the confidential volume of his voice.
“She could tell you that better than I could.”
“I haven’t had the opportunity to talk with her very much,” I responded. Silently, I added, At least not without trading punches or lying in a hospital bed.
“If I was to guess,” he said, “I would say she enjoys the trust I place in her. She gets to be powerful, and she gets to be in control. Most importantly, she gets to be with somebody who trusts her enough to give her that control. Do you have any idea how rare it is for two people to be together in an intimate setting where they can really trust each other, and where they aren’t fighting to get what they want instead of what the other person is willing to give?”
My own romantic prospects hadn’t been great, and they weren’t likely to get any better until my face healed up a little bit. As such, I let that question go without an answer beyond a grunt of acceptance. Satisfied that he had made his point – or at least that I didn’t have any sarcastic comments regarding his lifestyle – he leaned back in his chair and returned his voice to a normal speaking level.
“Is there anything else I can help you with, Mr. Hammond?”
“You said that Livia made Della her project. What does that mean?”
“She was teaching her the ropes, so to speak. I don’t know much about Della, but she definitely seemed confused. She wanted the lifestyle Livia offered, but she was hesitant about it. It took her time to find a comfort zone.”
“And you have no idea who she is when the wig and makeup are off?”
“Does it really matter?”
“I suppose not, in your case. Thank you for your time, Mr. Stein.”
I started to get up, but Mr. Stein raised a hand to stop me.
“Wait a moment,” he said. “The police must be investigating Livia, right?”
“I would assume so.”
“Should I be expecting a visit from them?”
I scanned his face carefully. He wasn’t sweating and didn’t seem overly nervous, although his thick glasses distorted his eyes enough that it was hard to be sure. He seemed curious and concerned, but not worried for himself.
I shrugged. “It’s possible. If I was able to find you, surely they can as well. But there weren’t any last names in Livia’s book, and I imagine she used aliases for at least some people – not sure about you, exactly. In the end, I guess it depends on what the rest of their caseload in like.”
He didn’t offer any more objection to that, so I stood up and moved toward the door.
I stopped just before turning the knob and said one more thing: “Like I said, Mr. Stein – this is completely confidential. Unless it turns out that you’re involved in the actual crimes around Livia’s death, I don’t have to tell anybody anything about this. You just keep living your life, and do what you need to in order to be happy.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Crimes? Has there been more than one murder?”
“Hopefully not,” I replied. Then I headed out the door.
* * *
Power and trust. I didn’t understand why somebody who had the former needed the latter. At the same time, I tried to consider how much power Jamie really possessed.
I knew from my research that he had been an athletic darling during his college days – indeed, it wasn’t like he had the ability to keep his grades up without help. But he had slimmed down following graduation. His physical gifts had dwindled over the years, and although he still had plenty of muscle and speed, he wasn’t the human Adonis he must have considered himself to be when he was younger.
On the family side of things, the amount of power he actually possessed must have been open to some debate. Len definitely had his own view of how things needed to be, and he was willing to kill people to maintain the family’s reputation. At this point, the fact that he knew about Della but had left Jamie drawing breath probably meant that he had at least a little love for his brother…or he just hadn’t figured out a way to get him out of the picture without putting the family under more scrutiny than he wanted. After all, Frankie and I had had to work hard just to keep him from allowing Jamie to bleed out on the floor of a hunting lodge.
As to the other members of his family, his mother definitely had more control than she let on. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the old woman had deliberately set me on this course – not necessarily knowing that people would wind up dead, but knowing that something was up with this Della person. In a few hours, I would get the chance to explain exactly what I had found…even if it potentially killed me.
As I hit the sidewalk and glanced at the afternoon sun, I pulled my phone out and dialed Len’s number.
“I’m just about set to deliver my report to your mother,” I said after his secretary transferred me in. “I just have a few last questions about you and your brother.”
“What kind of questions could you possibly have left at this point?” he asked, mentally determining how long he was going to let me live.
“It’s the human angle,” I told him. “I need to hear about the good relationship between you two. Unless you prefer me to ask Jamie…”
“No, I’ll feed you your story,” he replied hastily. “What do you want to know?”
“Not over the phone,” I said. “I’m big on confidentiality, and phone records are accessible to people who know where to look. Make an appointment for me to come by your office in an hour. We’ll talk there. Hopefully, the reality TV crews haven’t started just yet.”
“Whatever you say, my man,” he growled.
* * *
Frankie shuffled into the coffee bar about ten minutes after I entered, sweating and out of breath.
“I think I overdosed on caffeine,” she explained. “The staff started looking at me funny when I tried to climb the walls, so I decided I’d take a walk outside instead. I think I’ve done about twenty circuits of the block since lunchtime. No sign of Len yet.”
“Nor will there be,” I said. I ordered some decaffeinated green tea for the both of us and then waved Frankie over to the table I had staked out. “He’d have to have a heart before he started caring about his brother.”
“So is Jamie safe?” Frankie patted her knees in a catchy rhythm, working her excess energy out through her hands.
I shook my head. “Not from Len, and certainly not from himself. Della is more than an alter ego – she’s part of his head. Heck, she’s part of his life now. I’m not a therapist, but I think he needs a way to incorporate her into his life. I don’t know if it would be full time or not, but I know it’s going to kill him if he has to keep her inside.”
“Do I keep watching him, then?”
Instead of answering, I reached into my jacket and withdrew an envelope bulging with several typed pages. “No; I don’t think there’s anything else we can do for him right now. Bring this to the medical staff. It’s my report as it pertains to Jamie.”
She took the envelope and slid it into her purse. “Nothing incriminating, I hope?”
I shrugged. “I’m not a cop or a lawyer; I don’t know exactly what is and what isn’t incriminating. But it doesn’t place him at Livia’s office, before or after her death. It’s just what I know about him and Della. We’ll let the doctors figure out the rest.”
“Len’s not going to be happy about this, you know.”
“As far as he’s concerned, the more miserable the better. But if hasn’t gone checking in now, he won’t until after I turn his report in to his mother. I’m meeting with him shortly, then I’m wrapping this whole business up.”
“And what am I supposed to do while you’re sticking your neck on the chopping block?”
“Try to get me another meeting with Cullen Wyatt. And when he blows me off again, do some digging into his past. See if there are any other people with stories similar to Ms. Madera.”
“You’re pushing me off to our other job? At this point?”
“Like it or not, we’ve got another job. And that job involves a woman who might have been raped.”
“Are you siding with her now?”
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter who I side with. When we have all the facts, we’ll know. But when you look at the accuser’s side of things…well, the what-ifs start to pile up.” I laughed bitterly. “Looking to deeply into the accusations was the exact thing I avoided as a policy. It kept things much simpler.”
Frankie put her hand on mine. I pulled it away.
“There’s one thing I need you to do before you get back to the Wyatt job.”
“You’re the person who knows about self-defense. I need you to get me something.”
* * *
I showed up fifteen minutes early to my meeting, and Len made me wait for thirty minutes before letting me into his boardroom. Rather than take the meeting in the office, he made me come back to the fancy rainforest-made table and LED displays that he had shown off just a few days earlier. He lounged at the far end of the table, leaning back as far as his leather seat would take him and resting his feet on the table itself. The soles of his finely-polished shoes faced me as I entered the room.
“Close the door and sit down,” he ordered. I have expected him to get up and piss on me as a way of showing his dominance.
I obeyed, but made sure to make my movements slow and deliberate. A lack of brevity was about the only way I could salvage some dignity out of the situation.
I sat down and folded my hands on the table directly across from him. Looking into his face, I saw that he had used some concealer to cover up the bruise. Given how the color didn’t quite match the shade of his skin, I thought he could use some makeup advice from his brother.
“Where’s your report?” he asked me.
“I don’t have it yet,” I responded. “Remember? I need to know about your relationship with your brother first.”
He put his feet on the floor and leaned forward, sitting as straight and tall as possible while he did so. “Look my man, don’t bullshit me. You can write whatever you want about my idiot brother and I – just make it look pretty for the old lady. But if you ever had any trust with me, you’ve run through that currency long ago. I want to see what you’re going to tell her, or else.”
I shook my head with a smile. “Are you going to shoot me right here, Lenny? I’d get my blood and brains all over your fancy table.”
He glowered and said nothing.
“The thing about people who say, ‘or else,’” I continued, “is that they don’t usually have any specifics in mind regarding what that ‘or else’ really is. The time to shoot me would have been in the woods, when it was just you, me, my assistant, and your dying brother. But you had a little bit of a human moment in there – you cared enough about Jamie to let us live. That’s the material I need if you want me to write a good report to mother dearest. I need to know you’re something other than a thug who likes to hit the golf course.”
“You think I need a gun to kill you, my man? I could break you in a million different ways. Or, if you played ball, I can make your life a paradise. If you’re playing hardball and trying to hold out for more money than what the old lady’s offering you, I’m willing to negotiate.”
“Now you’re asking me if I’m trying to blackmail you,” I responded. “There’s no need to jump from crime to crime – I’m just going to keep doing my job. Now please, tell me about you and your brother.”
“God damn it…” His eyes darted to and fro as he mentally tried to plan out his next move. Finally, he seemed to settle on something. I just hoped I could outmaneuver him on whatever it was. “Fine,” he said at last. “What kind of stuff are you looking for? You want me to talk about how I used to read him the Grinch on Christmas Day? The time I taught him how to drive when that dumb oaf could barely figure out a blinker? What?”
“For starters, I’d like to know why you kept him alive. I mean, you certainly half-assed it, with your priorities focused on keeping his other life away from the cameras, but you still took the trouble to get him to some help. If you’re so willing to kill just to keep your reputation intact, you could have shot us and left Jamie for dead.”
“Look – you really don’t have a clue, do you? What, you think I’m some kind of axe murderer who gets rid of everybody in my way? I don’t need to do that, you idiot. I’ve got an army of high-price lawyers and enough pull in this city to squash City Hall itself if I ever needed to. I’m not some kind of monster. And I may hate my brother, but I don’t want him dead.”
“But you had no problem snapping the neck of Livia Ortega…or trying to shoot me when I found her body.”
His mouth hung open for a moment. Then he gave a small laugh that sounded like a squeak coming from a much smaller creature. “That’s when you decided to come after me? Hell, man – I thought you were looking to dig up dirt from the beginning, with that random question about Della.”
“Your mother asked me to look into Della. The way you reacted at first, I thought either you or Jamie had murdered somebody. I didn’t know that the actual murder was only a few days away.”
“Look, my man…you need to keep a few things in mind when it comes to that woman. On the record, if you bring up me and her in the same breath, I will make sure the slander hammer comes down on you so hard you’ll have to pick your teeth off the ground. Off the record, it’s not like the person you’re so concerned about was some sort of upstanding citizen who had a lot to offer this world.”
The last sentence seemed familiar, and not in the way I liked. “Please, explain,” I said.
“Come on – don’t play dumb. You know what she did, don’t you? She was a recruiter of deviants. She took normal, happy people like my brother, and she presented herself as somebody who could serve as a headshrinker. And then she introduced them to this fucked up gender-bending world filled with whips and chains. That woman was about as sick as they came. You want some proof that I loved my brother? You could point to that if you had a shred of evidence that put me at the scene of her death. But even if you put me on the stand and forced me to give an opinion on her, I would absolutely say that whoever killed her was a God damned hero. She was sick, she was preying on people, and it was only a matter of time before her ‘exotic tastes’ went somewhere even worse. Maybe kids, maybe animals, I don’t know for sure. All I know is that the world’s better off without her. As for Jamie, now that she’s gone he can get all this Della nonsense out of his system.”
“So that’s what Della is to you? A phase that will pass?”
“What the hell else would you call it? You did the research, didn’t you? You saw the trophies Jamie won when he was in school. The kid could have been an Olympian if he could listen to his coaches once in a while. How does somebody like that one day decide they want to wear leather and a wig so he can whip horny men? That woman got her hooks in him and she twisted around his brain. She probably enjoyed it. Now I’m enjoying the fact that she’s probably burning in Hell.”
I felt a spasm in my stomach. Bile rose in my throat like I was about to be sick. It had nothing to do with his words, but it had everything to do with his words. The picture he had painted of Livia was strikingly similar to the type of image I might have put forward in one of my reports. I remembered the reason Mrs. Montgomery had hired me: to paint a picture of her sons that would put a smile on her face on the way to the grave. Until the sight of a dead body turned my world upside down, Len had put forth the exact kind of picture of Livia as a predatory monster that I would have presented. It suddenly became very easy, using facts alone, to paint Livia Ortega as somebody who had tried to destroy Jamie Montgomery. Likewise, it became easy to paint Jamie as a strong young man who would emerge from this trial better than before…and to present Len as a hero for saving his brother, no matter what the cost.
“All right, then,” I said after a long smoldering moment. “I think you’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you very much. Hopefully, we won’t have to speak again.” I got up and turned to leave.
“Oh, we’re going to talk again, I guarantee you.” He stood up and crossed the room toward me. He stopped just a few inches inside my personal space – far enough away that an onlooker wouldn’t hear alarm bells, but close enough that he knew it made me uncomfortable. “And what’s more, if I don’t like what I hear tonight, I’m going to bury you. Whether I mean I’ll flex my muscles and get the police crawling up your ass for wrongful accusations or whether I’m just going to break your body and leave you in a ditch…well, I’ll let you think about that.”
I smiled unconvincingly. “Thank you for your time.”
I turned my back to him and walked out the door as quickly as I could without running. When I got back to my car, I was happy to find that nobody had stuck a knife in me.
* * *
I returned to my office with a raincloud following me. Frankie saw the grayness in my hacked-up face and let me have a few moments in my office. But she couldn’t let me stay alone forever. The clock was ticking.
“No answer from Wyatt – I think he’s pissed off at you for not contacting him personally. I did dig up some information you might be interested in about his past.”
I might have heard half of what she said. “Did you find anything else out about lookalikes or impersonators?”
She furrowed her brow. “No…should I have?”
I shrugged. “It probably wouldn’t make a difference.”
“Look…I know you’re not okay, but is there anything you want to talk over with me?”
I felt like putting my head on my desk. Instead, I just shook my head. “There’s not much time, but see if you can find me more information on Livia Ortega. Criminal records, anything like that.”
“You’re not trying to throw her under the bus, are you?”
“I’m trying to think. Gathering all the facts won’t hurt.”
“Are they really facts, though?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She just walked out and got to work.
Facts…I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what facts were anymore. They didn’t lie – I had always told myself that. But the right ones used in the wrong way could ruin a person’s life. And too many facts created a confusing narrative – a roadmap that could lead anywhere.
If Livia hadn’t died…if Len had just hired me to discredit her in order to keep her away from Jamie, I probably could have found enough information to ruin her life.
I stood up and paced the room. I paused and looked over the top of my desk. Finally, my eyes landed on my business cards. “Factfinder.” I picked up one of the cards, then crumpled it and tossed it into the wastebasket. Mrs. Montgomery had been right when she first met me – I was a storyteller. I did find facts, but I used them to build fictions.
There were certain principles I had stuck to all along, though. Crimes got reported to the police. Cases got terminated when they ran up against the law. By the terms of my business, I should have canceled this job the moment I realized Len had been involved with Livia.
Regardless of Livia’s background, there were certain facts that I couldn’t avoid. Murder was never okay. Len, as he had been so keen to tell me, had the juice to do basically whatever he wanted when it came to ruining somebody’s life. He could have fed a story about Livia to the media. News that an unlicensed therapist was running a sex training camp above a sporting goods shop would have blown up enough to ruin her. There might even be a chance that the police would find legitimate crimes to pin on her. Even if Jamie’s name did come up in connection with her, big man Mr. Montgomery could have squashed any of that leaking to the press. But it would have required some effort on his part. Apparently, jumping her in the dark and breaking her neck was much easier.
The other fact I was trying to avoid: this whole case wasn’t really about my guilt regarding Livia. It was about the specter of the damage I might have done to others. I didn’t look back when a job was done; I just moved onto the next one. I had discredited people alleging sexual harassment, wrongful termination, and, in the case of Ms. Madera, rape. A look at my own past probably would have left me feeling even closer to Len in terms of sin.
“Maybe I should spend a week looking through my own closet,” I said to nobody. And maybe I would. But that wasn’t going to solve anything regarding either the Wyatt or Montgomery jobs.
I opened the door. “Frankie.”
Frankie stopped digging through old news articles on her computer and put a hand to her ear.
“You can stop what you’re doing right now.”
“The day’s not over yet, boss. What am I supposed to do to keep busy? I’m not the type of gal who enjoys playing solitaire, even if you’re okay with that.”
“I’ve got a meeting with Mrs. Montgomery in a little over an hour. We need to get a report together and make it as comprehensive as possible.”
“I’m not done researching Livia Ortega. You just asked me to dig up dirt on her like five minutes ago, remember?”
“My head’s not in the game right now,” I replied. “I’ve been saying some dumb things lately.”
She stuck her tongue out at me. “Lately?”
“Watch yourself,” I warned, a smile creeping onto my face. “You don’t have that much real estate with me.”
“So what goes into the report? Any changes from this morning?”
I considered where we had left things as of this morning. The report in its current state read like a sordid tale of sex, deception, and murder – definitely a far cry from what Mrs. Montgomery had asked for. On the other hand…
“It’s the truth – all the facts we’ve managed to find so far,” I said. “Print it.”