I like to finish up NaNoWriMo early, lest I forget to update my word count or experience a computer crash on the last day and miss out on the sweet Internet glory. A long, frantic writing session has allowed me to accomplish this goal today, bringing my glorious mess of a novel to its conclusion. I’ll reflect on the month tomorrow, after I get some well-earned rest.
* * *
The sun set early, and I hoped that wasn’t a metaphor for my life. I left a letter for my lawyer and told Frankie where it could be found. Then I set off for the Montgomery estate.
I didn’t pull up down the road this time – after all, I was expected. I parked right next to the silver convertible that obviously belonged to Len. On the way past it, I leaned against the front window and did a visual scan of the front seats. If I got lucky and found a gun lying there unattended, I could breathe a little easier. I had no such luck, so I backtracked to my own vehicle and withdrew a handgun Frankie had acquired for me at a gun show earlier in the day. My hopes that it would be nothing more than a fun way to spend time at a firing range rapidly diminished.
I expected Ellen to meet me at the door and have it open before I knocked. Instead, I raised the brass knockers and hammered heavily or close to a minute before she finally opened the door. I could hear shouting coming from inside the mansion – although, given the size of the front hall, it might as well have been cries from another continent.
Ellen waved me inside, but stopped me in the middle of the front hallway, a handful of paces away from where I had stood the first time Mrs. Montgomery called on me. “Please wait here,” she said. Then, as an afterthought, she added, “It may be a little while.”
I looked again at the reality the Montgomery family wanted me to see. The marble pillars and gold rails remained as timeless and well-polished as ever. The green leaves of the houseplants drooped just a bit and gave off the autumn fragrance of foliage that was not long for this world. The crystal chandelier blazed overhead, bathing the room not in the artificial orange light I expected, but with simulated daylight. The sun, it seemed, never truly set on the Montgomery family.
I had dressed myself up as professionally as I could manage, given the circumstances of the past few days. My suit was freshly dry cleaned, my tie was held in place with a gold clip, and my short dark hair was as carefully coiffed as I could get it without going to a barber. The stitches along my face had done a decent job of holding the skin together, so I now had a maze of dark scratches rather than bright red scars.
Silently, I counted the time to myself between when Ellen left the room and when the sound of an argument from the other room died away. Based on the fact that I didn’t hear a swell of noise as the door opened, I guessed that the debate probably dissipated as soon as Ellen entered the room, as though the two held the illusion that none of us could hear what was going on as long as the words came from behind a closed door.
Ellen returned shortly afterward. “Do you mind if Mr. Montgomery attends this meeting as well?”
“Isn’t he dead and gone by now?”
She stared at me blankly. “Leonard,” she clarified.
“Yes, I know…never mind, it was a bad joke. I don’t have an issue with it. In fact, I was expecting it.”
“Then this way, please.”
We entered a room that I hadn’t been in before. It looked like a miniature reflection of the front hall, but with bookshelves standing in for plants. The shelves contained leather-bound volumes ranging from old encyclopedias and atlases to what looked to be original copies of Charles Dickens’ entire bibliography. Mrs. Montgomery sat in a wooden-framed chair with leather cushions. A blanket next to the chair didn’t quite completely cover an oxygen tank, though she wasn’t using it at the moment. Her son stood closer to the door, slouching casually but placing himself in such a way that I would have to walk near him in order to sit down in any of the three open chairs in front of me.
Ellen gestured stiffly toward Mrs. Montgomery and then left the room. I walked past Len, and he leaned in close enough that I could feel his breath on my skin. I lifted the binder I held under my arm and handed it to my employer. I stayed standing in front of her while she fumbled with the front cover. Len lurked behind me.
“Thank you for your thoroughness, Mr. Hammond,” Mrs. Montgomery began. Then she looked at the first page of the binder, found a check for more than my net worth, and furrowed her brow. “What is this?”
“That is the amount of the advance you paid me, which I am unfortunately forced to return to you. That’s standard policy when I’m forced to drop a job.”
I glanced behind me. Len’s face had broken into a smile so large that I was afraid the upper half of his head was going to flip backwards and leave the rest of his body behind. It gave me no small amount of satisfaction to bring him back to earth with a few more words.
“You see,” I continued, “I’m obligated to step away from a job and inform the authorities when I come across evidence of criminal activity. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened in this case.”
Len’s hand landed like a vice on my shoulder. “You son of a bitch!” he shouted. “Mother, I told you he’d come in here peddling his lies.”
“Leonard,” I said, my voice veering into a dangerous lower tone that I reserved for very rare occasions, “I have pretty much reached my limit with you. If don’t move your hand off me right now, you’d better be willing to use that gun you’ve got tucked into the waistband of your pants or I’m going to make you eat your own knuckles.”
His grip tightened. I made a fist in anticipation of a fight. The old woman backed both of us down.
“Leonard!” she barked. “Shut up and sit down. You too, Mr. Hammond. Nobody is leaving this room until I have a good explanation of what is going on.”
We both obeyed. Len sat down to Mrs. Montgomery’s right. I sat on the left, shifting my chair so it was facing her more directly. She turned the page past the check and scanned a table of contents that held approximately 50 typed sheets of paper.
“So what’s all the rest of this?” she said.
“This is a summary of the work I did before deciding to terminate our contract. To begin with, it’s a picture of your sons as you might want to see them – Len as a successful businessman and a philanthropist, Jamie as a former all-state athlete and potential Olympian.”
Len’s eyes darted from the page to my face, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was all too happy to give him just that.
“Unfortunately, the best I could do with the time I had was find that the picture only looks good when you’re standing far away from it. Outside of the fortune that you handed Len when he set off in this world on his own, he’s done very little to actually earn his wealth. He’s the face of a corporation that has its board make virtually all major decisions. Philanthropy-wise, he donates a large amount of money to environmental causes but does so little research into what those charities do with the funds that it’s all but wasted. The foundation he had his accountants set up in his name has given less than 10% of its actual donations to charitable causes. His net worth is actually lower than it would be if he had taken the money you gave to him and put it in a savings account to let it generate interest. He holds celebrity status, but is currently in talks to allow reality TV crews into his place of business because the payday he’s agreeing to will help cover some of the horrible investments he’s made.”
Len leapt to his feet. I braced myself but didn’t flinch – getting punched in the face seemed like small potatoes these days.
“Sit!” ordered Mrs. Montgomery. “Leonard, you demanded to be here. Now you’re going to hear what Mr. Hammond has to say.”
“He’s lying,” objected Len. “Lying about all of it!” He finally did sit down, but added with an impotent hiss, “I’m bringing in the lawyers tomorrow, and I’ll sue you into the Stone Age.”
“This is a private conversation, and I have no intention of releasing this report to the public,” I retorted. “You don’t have a leg to stand on with either a libel or a slander case.” To Mrs. Montgomery, I added, “Page 12 begins a list of lawsuits which Len has filed over the past eight years. Most of them were thrown out in court, with very few settlements in his favor. Page 16 lists an estimate of the legal fees he’s accrued over frivolous lawsuits – more evidence that he squandered the gifts you’ve given him.”
I paused for effect and to let Len stew a little longer. Then I said, “Which brings me to the subject of Jamie…and of Della.”
Len leaped out of his chair and reached for his gun. I did the same. His weapon got caught on the back of his waistband, and mind came out cleanly. I trained it on him while he had his half-drawn. Over the commotion, I heard a shrill yell from Mrs. Montgomery. I chanced a glance out of the corner of my eye in her direction to find her lips quivering against a pale face.
Ellen entered the room at that time, catching Len and I in a pseudo-Mexican standoff.
I tried to remember the specifics of the gun Frankie had acquired for me. I recalled her mentioning a safety. I didn’t remember whether she mentioned if the weapon was loaded. I was decent at gun acquisition but bad at gun ownership and safety. Fortunately, I was also a good enough bluffer to freeze Len before he shot me dead right in front of his mother.
A long moment passed, during which time nobody moved. Finally, Mrs. Montgomery spoke. “Leonard, hand the gun to Ellen right now.”
It took him a few seconds to evaluate his options. With my gun still pointed at him, he decided to stand down and do as his mother said. It was the first time that Len had backed down from me. I got an understanding as to why people felt empowered when they had a gun on hand.
I lowered my gun so the barrel pointed to the floor as soon as the threat of Len shooting me was out of the way. Mrs. Montgomery wasn’t interested in letting things stay that way.
“Mr. Hammond,” she said. “Hand my butler your weapon. She knows how to use it. You, obviously, do not.”
Part of me wanted to pull the trigger while the gun was pointed downward just to see if the safety was on and if Mrs. Montgomery had realized that. The more rational part of me transferred the weapon to my left hand. Holding the grip by two fingers, I passed the gun to Ellen.
“Very good,” Mrs. Montgomery said. “Now, Ellen, please put those in a safe place. Lock this door and call the police.”
“This is ridiculous,” Len said. “I’m leaving.”
“If you leave,” his mother warned, “You won’t get a chance to refute any of Mr. Hammond’s claims.”
“He doesn’t have any way of doing that,” I said, sitting back down. “He’s been spending the week threatening me, trying to bully me off my investigation. He could have spent his time covering up for his crimes or gathering information that would give him ammo to refute my claims, but that’s not in his nature.”
Len walked to the door as the lock clicked from the outside. He remained standing as I continued.
“There’s a reason you hired me, and it had nothing to do with trying to make it seem like your kids fart sunshine,” I said to my former benefactor. “You wanted to know about Della, and I think you had a darned good idea that there was something fishier there than getting a stripper pregnant or something of that kind.”
“You’re a fucking dead man,” hissed Len.
If his mother heard him, she didn’t seem to care. She just tuned the page.
“Your son Jamie is also your daughter Della,” I said. “That’s probably a reductive way for me to put it, but the point is that you need to talk to your child. Right now, he’s in a clinic on West 23rd Street under an assumed name because Len forced me at gunpoint to keep his suicide attempt quiet.”
“He’s just jerking you around now, mother,” said Len. “Give me the word and I’ll throw him out on his rear.”
She said nothing in response – she just turned the pages to skim through the evidence I had put together. Copies of the letters to Livia. An account from both Frankie and I about our visit to the hunting lodge. And, most significantly, the reports about Livia’s murder.
“As you can see from my report here, my assistant and I illegally entered the hunting lodge where Jamie was staying. That’s how we found your son on the floor with his wrists cut. I’ve checked on this, and the property is under your name, not your children’s. If you choose to press charges on that, I’m willing to admit to my actions in court.”
“Oh you’re going to face a lot more than—” began Len.
“But,” I stressed, cutting him off, “there are more serious legal matters on hand. The reason I’m forced to send this report to the authorities is that my information on Len is going to be of major relevance to the investigation into Livia Ortega’s murder.”
“Bull,” said Len. “You’ve got nothing to go on except for your word against mine. I’ve got ten different people who can give me an alibi for that night.”
“It’s very possible,” I said. “And I’d very much like to have hard evidence that can bring you down. But all I have are the facts I’ve gathered and the story they tell. My assistant is delivering a copy of the relevant parts of this report to the police as we speak. It’s not hard evidence – as Len pointed out, I can only go on my own blurry eyewitness account and a circumstantial bruise on Len’s jaw. But that’s enough to suggest a connection between this family and Livia. Forensics can help determine the killer’s approximate height and weight. Detective work can put those alibis of yours to the test. And you fired one gunshot that went through the window. I’m reasonably sure that the police have dug the bullet out of the alley wall where it landed. If that bullet were to match up to the gun you’ve been so keen to wave at me…”
“Why are you bringing this before me?” asked Mrs. Montgomery. “This type of thing is exactly the opposite of what I asked of you.”
“You’re not wrong,” I said. “And I considered giving you a nice little fiction that would leave you with a smile on your face. But I still deal in facts, even if I’ve misused them from time to time. And I can’t hide evidence of a murder, no matter who the victim was. Besides, I’ve felt from the beginning that you wanted something more out of this job. You far exceeded my fee, and even though you name-dropped Della like it was an afterthought, it seemed to me that you were interested in that first and foremost. This is a gamble on my part, but it’s a calculated one.”
She turned back to the binder. Len sank back in his chair, glowering at me but otherwise resigned to calling this a defeat – a temporary one, perhaps, if he had the type of legal clout he claimed he did, but a defeat nonetheless.
Then Mrs. Montgomery turned back to the first page and broke the silence with a clean tear of paper. I looked at her hands and saw that she was ripping up the refund check I had cut for her.
“You don’t need to pay me back, and you shouldn’t view this job as a failure,” she said. “I got what I wanted.” She glanced toward her son and breathed a heavy sigh that seemed to take some of the life out of her. “I know what my legacy will be with this one…and I know that I need to reach out to Della while I have the time left.”
I nodded and stood up. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to wait for the police outside. Your son and I have had our problems recently, and being in the same room with him makes me nervous.”
She nodded and waved her hand as though we were in a royal court and she was dismissing me. “Ellen,” she called loudly, “it’s okay to unlock the door now.”
I stood and walked quickly to the door. A click on the other side let me know I was free. The door swung open, and I walked through, moving briskly toward the front door. I didn’t think to close it behind me.
Outside, a light rain had fallen while we were busy inside. I stood on the steps of the front porch and breathed in the smell of air that felt cleansed by the passing storm. I heard a siren in the distance, and a second later saw the blue light of a police car poking through the bare branches of the trees that concealed the distant road.
The roar of shouting was unsurprising for me to hear, but when it came from somebody other than Len I turned around. He had pushed past both his mother and the butler, and now came charging toward me with his gun back in hand.
I reached for my own weapon, only to feel sickening realization set in when I came up empty.
I stepped backward and found myself stumbling as I tripped my way down the stairs. I shut my eyes as I landed hard on the walk at the bottom. A series of shots went off at the same moment that I hit the ground.
My ears were ringing when I realized that I had closed my eyes. I didn’t feel like I had any holes in me, but sometimes it’s hard to tell. Picking myself up from the wet walkway, I was never so happy to feel aches and pains. It meant I was still alive to feel something.
I looked back through the open door of the mansion to find Len face down in a pool of blood. He was saying something, muttering under his breath as he went into shock from the bullet wounds in his back. Behind him, still holding the gun that Frankie had given me, was Ellen. Mrs. Montgomery stood next to her, a hand on her shoulder as though the butler was an extension of her own will. Tears shone in her eyes, but her face remained as impassive as granite.
“Thank you, Ellen,” she said. “That will do.”
I looked at the marble pillars, stained with flecks of blood. The house would continue to stand eternally, long after Len and everybody else in this fiasco was gone.
Eventually, the police arrived.
* * *
Two weeks later, I sat in my office, tracing my finger along scars on my face that still hadn’t finished healing. I had beaten Frankie into the office – it was becoming a race between the two of us to see which one could get to work earlier. Pretty soon, I expected that one of us would sleep at our desks.
I didn’t normally buy newspapers, but the morning edition had an editorial about the Montgomery family. This one tried to absolve Len of the crimes he would soon face trial for. It spent a good 500 words disparaging Livia Ortega, regurgitating facts about her that sounded all to familiar and which painted her as a seductress who had twisted Jamie and others around her deviant little fingers before Len finally put a stop to her. I considered responding with a letter to the editor of my own. The case had become a hobby of mine, even though it was no longer officially on my plate, and I had a few facts of my own that I could counter with.
The knock on the door told me that Frankie had arrived. The stack of papers in her hands when she came through told me that she had probably been in for quite a while. The dismayed expression when she saw that I was in told me that I had still won our little contest.
“Researchers,” she said, dropping the papers on my desk. “Here’s the information you asked for on the final candidates.”
I nodded and moved the papers to my inbox. “Anything else?”
“Carlton Wyatt’s lawyers still want you to burn at the stake. You sure you want to try to bring somebody else on when you’ve got a lawsuit that might shut this place down for good?”
That matter. Frankie had done her job as well as I expected. By looking into the past instead of the present, we dug up five other women who had come forward with similar accusations as Rosalyn Madera over the past decade. Each had made a ripple in the media before disappearing and never working in the business again. So naturally that job, just like the Montgomery case, had wound up in a police station on suspicion of a major crime being committed. I would have told Wyatt that he should have worked out a meeting with me, but I had only spoken to his lawyers over the past couple of weeks.
“Let’s assume that my lawyer’s right and this will come to an out of court settlement,” I said. “That’s why we haven’t touched the Montgomery money in our budgets – it’s the buffer that will keep this office afloat after he tries to cripple us with legal fees.”
“And you’re okay with letting this job die in the courts?”
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m not pretending that we’re going to bring down Carlton Wyatt, and I’m not even operating under the delusion that Len Montgomery will see the inside of a jail cell in my lifetime. But since these guys seem to care more about their reputation than human lives, we can at least leave a few scratches before they shake us off.”
“We do have more cases coming in, you know. Your new screening process is slowing us down.”
“Do you have a problem with us checking out the people we want to represent before we enter into a binding contract with them?”
Frankie grinned. “No. I just love to hear the sound of my own voice, especially when I’m complaining to you.”
“That’s lovely,” I replied. I pushed the newspaper, still open to the op-ed on Len, toward her. “Here’s some more material for you to complain about to me later on. Now I’m going to go about trying to hire somebody that we can both beat into the office on a daily basis.”
She picked up the paper, scanned the opening lines of the editorial, and shook her head at it. Then she turned and headed for the door.
“One more thing,” she said before exiting. “You know you should be expecting a response on your licensure today, right?”
“I’m more than expecting a response. I’m expecting an approval.”
“Oh? Confident, are we?”
“I’ve had the qualifications to become a professional investigator all along. I just didn’t go after it because I didn’t want people to come to me with their legal messes.”
“And now you do?”
“Now I’m interested in taking a longer look at the people who hire me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past month, it’s that not looking closely enough at all the angles can be very painful.” I stretched and felt a twinge where I had bruised my hip falling down the mansion steps. “Very painful.”
“That’s just step one, though. You know that, right.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve built some time into this week’s schedule to head to the shooting range. But you know I’m not going to actually carry a gun, right?”
“From what I hear, that’s best for everybody involved,” Frankie said. “Mrs. Montgomery told me about your little showdown with Len that night. I’d give you points for the quick draw, but you’d lose all those points and then some for not knowing the basics of how a safety works.”
She finally left me alone, giving me a chance to reflect – an opportunity that, admittedly, I had had a lot in recent weeks. A dead body, a violated woman…I had evidence of at least two mistakes I had made in my fact finding. And that wasn’t even factoring in all the collateral human damage. I at least had the news that Jamie had pulled through and been discharged from the hospital – and that his mother had finally talked with him directly about Della. I counted it as a victory, although I couldn’t help but wonder if Jamie valued reputation as highly as Len did. If he did, it seemed extremely likely that the problems in the Montgomery family were at the beginning, not a midpoint.
I shifted my attention toward the files Frankie had given me. It looked like I would spend the day trying to put together interviews for a new researcher – who, if they did their research properly, would soon find that the future of this little agency was far from assured.
I glanced at the record on top of the pile and stopped. Then I got up and, taking the cover sheet with me, brought it out of the office and to Frankie’s attention.
“This one wasn’t in the candidate list I put together,” I said, waving the paper in front of her face.
“Hm? Oh…right,” she grinned like a cat who had been left unsupervised at an aquarium. “She was a later applicant. Probably would have turned in her resume earlier, but she’s been dealing with some things. I thought you’d be interested.”
“There’s no way she’s qualified.”
“Oh? Check her resume.”
I headed back into my office and looked through the rest of the paperwork. The candidate had a degree in criminal analysis and three years working with a police department before she left the field in hopes of becoming a screenwriter for police procedurals.
“Insane,” I muttered. Nonetheless, I made a note to contact Rosalyn Madera to discuss the position further.
The morning sun was still fighting to make its way past the horizon, and it left an uncomfortable glare through my window as it did so. My face hurt, my back ached, and I the massive payday I had worked so hard to achieve would soon vanish in a cloud of legal fees. Nonetheless, it seemed like a good morning, and I felt happier about my lot in life than I had in a very long time.