Some say life is a road whose forks are determined by an individual's decision from one moment to the next. If that's so, the choice that drove Ryan Gilchrist down a disastrous detour one day was a damn small one to have such an enormous impact. Maybe that's the way things always are. Who knows?
The owner of the house where Gilchrist's crew was renovating the garage into a spare bedroom had spoken enthusiastically to a friend of his about the quality of the work being done. Not quite understanding what was happening at first, Ryan took the owner's cell phone from his outstretched hand. He found the man's friend on the line and wanting an estimate on remodeling his kitchen. The friend said it would be an anniversary present for his wife. Ryan's small construction outfit needed the work, so he set up a meeting for just past noon.
The friend lived all the way across town and the most direct route came within a mile or so of where the Gilchrists lived. Even so, Ryan would not have dropped by the house if the red Taurus hadn't cut him off. Ryan had to dodge quickly into the left turn lane and, once there, he couldn't get back out. He had to make the turn. After that, it was actually easier to go by home and take another major east/west thoroughfare from there than it was to fight through the heavy noontime traffic back up to the street he'd been on.
He wasn't that upset. The laptop with its Excel spreadsheets and small CAD program would make things easier in the interview with the possible new client. He would use the former to work out an accurate estimate for the client and the latter would show the man and his wife a reasonably good 3-D representation of the finished kitchen.
Oh, yeah, he could have easily done without them. He knew the pricing calculations by heart and could have given them a pretty good freehand drawing instead. When you get right down to it, the decision to get the laptop from the house was an awfully little thing to change a man's life.
Coasting to a stop in front of the house, Ryan was surprised to see his wife's brown Toyota Corolla parked in the driveway. Carrie had found work as a teller in a branch office of a big downtown bank a couple of years ago. She was a hard worker and had already received a number of pay raises. The hours were okay; she only had to work half-days on Saturday, and even that only one in four weekends. This Saturday wasn't on her schedule, though, and today wasn't her day off even if it had been.
He didn't know why Carrie was home. It concerned him because it was so out of character for her. He walked quickly around the side of the house and in through the kitchen door.
The door hinges were well lubricated. After all, he was a building contractor. It was a matter of professional pride to make sure small repairs around the house were taken care of immediately. Everything was well maintained. He liked things that way; he hated squeaks, drawers that didn't open, windows that didn't close right...things like that drove him crazy.
Neither the screen door nor the kitchen door itself made any perceptible noise when he opened them. The couple he could see through the doorway into the living room probably wouldn't have heard him anyway. They were too involved with each other.
Ryan froze in his tracks when he saw them. He'd never contemplated seeing his wife in the arms of another man even kissing him...and he'd surely never thought to see another man cupping Carrie's bare right breast and working the nipple to a dark red erection with a rapidly moving thumb.
Carrie was naked to the waist. Ryan saw her blouse and bra draped across the couch just beyond her. Her skirt was hiked up past the crotch of her pantyhose and Ryan could see the man's other hand on her sex. The man's body hid Carrie's hands, but her upper right arm and elbow were quite visible. They were moving rhythmically back and forth. There was no doubt her hand was on the strange man's penis and giving him a slow hand job. Her partial nakedness said the hand job was only a preliminary.
"God, Carrie," the man said hoarsely, "I've waited so long for today. Don't tease me, okay?" His voice turned more than a little plaintive right at the last. Carrie giggled delightedly.
"Have you, Marshall?" she replied in a light, coquettish tone. She was playing with the man. She brought her hand up to his chest and ground her lower body against his.
"Was it worth the wait?" she asked seductively.
A red-hot fury engulfed Ryan. He didn't think; he couldn't. He could only react. One moment he was frozen in shock. With his next heartbeat, he was moving swiftly forward, striding purposefully through the kitchen and partway into the living room. Planting his left foot solidly on the carpet, his brought his right one up in a tight arc that ended in the man's crotch.
At the last moment, "Marshall" sensed something behind him...a whisper of Ryan's shoes on the carpet perhaps, or his looming presence. Without thinking, Marshall moved away from a threat he had not yet properly identified and into closer contact with Carrie. That was unfortunate for the woman. She probably wouldn't have been hurt if he'd kept still.
The instep of Ryan's heavy workman's boot smashed into the other man's testicles and drove the man's whole body forward and up. Ryan was a strong man and he'd had a few steps to build up momentum. It was only the steel-reinforced tip of the boot that slammed into Carrie's groin but it was more than enough.
Sensitive nerve endings fired instantly, sending simultaneous pain signals to two badly confused brains. For a long moment neither of them had any breath to scream; it had been driven from their bodies by the sudden intense pain in their abdomens. They stumbled against the sofa and clung to it for an instant.
Ryan had time to set his right foot back down on the floor and ready himself to deliver more punishment. His normally pleasant features were twisted into a rictus of tormented rage. He took a step deeper into the living room and closer to the pair of interrupted lovers. He'd been planning to do further damage to the man in front of him but it was abruptly clear nothing more was required.
Marshall, whoever he was...Ryan didn't recognize him...began to scream in a high-pitched voice that filled the room. Carrie's even shriller cries started a split-second later. Both of them collapsed to the floor and began to writhe in agony.
The excruciating pain was overwhelming, worthy of the Marquis de Sade's most inventive tortures. Marshall and Carrie were locked in their own private little universes, unable to do anything but scream so piercingly they were close to rupturing their vocal cords.
Ryan stood back, watching the two thrash around on the floor while the screams assaulted his ears. He saw his wife's breasts bounce wildly on her chest as her body jerked uncontrollably. Her lower body was exposed, though covered by her pantyhose. He could see her palms pressed tightly against her vulva. The other man's prick was still jutting obscenely from his zipper. There hadn't been enough time for the blood to leave it. It was still hard...still ready to be driven into Carrie's willing cunt.
The vulgar display sickened Ryan but something else was wrong too. He looked down. To his horror, he saw the bulge in his work pants. He realized his cock was hard, perhaps harder, longer, and thicker than it had ever been before. A deep shame overcame the anger in his mind, blanking the fury in the space between two heartbeats. He was mortified. His own body was betraying him.
He could not be aroused by the sight of his wife about to have sex with another man. It wasn't possible; he was not that kind of man. His roars, born of renewed fury and deep humiliation, blended with the agonized shrieks of the other two.
When he thought about the incident long afterward, Ryan saw he'd been doing everything he could to resist the urge to use the Glock Model 21 in it's holster. From time to time, he still congratulated himself for not yanking it out. At the time, every nerve in his body had cried out for him to use it to kill both of the people who had dishonored him. He wondered sometimes if he would have reserved one bullet for himself to cleanse himself of his own body's treachery. The gun held thirteen rounds in its magazine and he carried the weapon with an additional round in the chamber. The fourteen .45 ACP caliber bullets would have been more than enough...
The urge for violence hadn't bothered him at the time and didn't worry him overly much today. Ryan Lincoln Gilchrist had been raised by his grandfather after Ryan's parents had been killed in a fiery car wreck when he was seven. His mother's father was half Comanche and the old man had been close to his grandfather. Ryan had quickly learned his great-grandfather, twice removed, had ridden on any number of raids when he'd been a young warrior in the late 1800's. He and his fellow fighters had made any number of forays into central and east Texas from the Llano Estacado, the Staked Plains of West Texas. The warrior had died protecting that last stronghold of the Comanche from the soldiers who came to punish them for killing Anglos and Mexicans.
His grandfather had taken young Ryan camping up on the plateau many times. He'd show the boy secret places only descendents of the old raiders knew of...places Anglos and peoples of the lesser Indian nations still would not go. The wildness of those wind-swept high plains was still with Ryan. He loved the solitude of the rough country. It called to something inside him and there were many times he longed to return. Things would be so simple up there...just himself, the wilderness, and a need to survive.
No, that he had wanted to put an end to the two adulterous lovers didn't bother him. In fact, he'd been unhappy for a short time that he had not taken care of the pair. The feeling had passed. This was the 21st century, after all. One couldn't do things like that anymore.
There was a far worse problem he had to deal with. It made him a basket case after discovering Carrie's infidelity. It wasn't so much the mental pictures of the sex he'd come home to find his wife engaging in. Well, it was, they were terrible images for a man to live with...but at least as upsetting was his own body's betrayal. It offended him on a very deep level to have been physically aroused at the sight of his wife preparing to engage in sex with that other man. He hadn't understood it. It made him less than a man and he couldn't stand himself. He had been so filled with revulsion he again considered suicide.
It had been a painful six weeks before he'd found a psychotherapist who'd been willing to take him on in a long series of individual counseling sessions. The wildness in his eyes had unsettled two other counselors and they'd found they had no openings in their practice to see him. Doctor Christopher was in his seventies though. There wasn't much that could intimidate him. He turned out to be a godsend.
What it was, the doctor said, was a response his body made on a primordial level. Male animals, including human ones, have instincts hardwired into their brains that drive them to reproduce. It had to do with the propagation of the species, he told Ryan.
It was about semen competition, the doctor said. Many researchers even thought the male penis actually evolved as a "device" for a man to displace other male's semen from a woman's vagina and replace it with his own. The doctor explained how the shape of the penis, with its larger glans and comparatively narrower shaft, could function to displace existing quantities of semen in woman's vagina and "pump" it out.
Doctor Christopher explained to Ryan the instinct to displace another male's semen in a female's vagina was why he became aroused when he saw his wife's partially nude body and the other man's penis so openly displayed. Ryan was a civilized man, the doctor said, but no amount of civilization could overcome some of the most deeply ingrained primeval instincts. Ryan's subconscious, where mankind's most primitive instincts still lurked, had taken over when he came unprepared upon the illicit sex scene. Now that he knew what it was, it probably wouldn't happen again. The conscious mind could take precedence in such things.
Most of what he learned was a lot more information than Ryan ever wanted to know about such things. He found peace with the first revelation that it was a primitive response to a situation he'd not been prepared for. Everything else had been added information he had no need for. He assured the doctor it would most assuredly never happen again, period. Doctor Christopher had made note of the grimness of Ryan's expression when he said that. It was disquieting...that is to say, threatening.
It had been a rough four years. He and Carrie managed to stay together but it had been a near thing. His preoccupation with his own body's reaction had consumed him for a long while. When he came out of his bemusement a couple of months later, he found Carrie doing everything she could to show him she wanted the marriage "to work."
She showered him with affection, respect, and admiration, offering sex of all kinds and at all hours. She was, in short, doing anything and everything she could to keep him as her husband. She was deeply remorseful. Ryan didn't doubt that. He was angry at the deception and infidelity, but she was obviously repentant.
After a while, he'd stopped thinking of leaving her and asking for a divorce. A separation ended after a few weeks when Carrie tracked him down at a local motel and tearfully pleaded with him to come home. They went to marital counseling for more than a year to get their marriage back on an even keel and, when they examined themselves carefully, cracks in their relationship were still showing up years afterward the counseling ended.
Lovemaking never fully recovered, though casual sex did improve after the counseling the special sex they had to show their love did not. It was a year and a half before Carrie noticed Ryan did not like touching her right breast, the one he'd seen the other man fondling. She quickly figured out why...and then worked out the root cause for the fact that he didn't care very much for her taking his penis in her hands either. It had sparked another round of counseling, this time with each of them seeing their couple's counselor on an individual basis, in addition to the joint sessions. After a long time the sex got better, but things were never the same. Something at the core of their relationship had been shattered and never returned.
Carrie had demanded they buy a new home after she determined Ryan's love for the old one had died. There were just too many triggers in the one they'd bought as a "fixer-upper" and made a good home of. In unguarded moments, Ryan would find himself gazing at the area of the carpet where Carrie and her fuck buddy had writhed in pain that day. It was clear to both Ryan and Carrie he was never going to be able to come in the back door again without wondering what he'd see through the doorway into the living room.
The two-story house they found for a good price (and actually in a better neighborhood) had four bedrooms. In many ways, it was too big for the two of them and they were always behind on the housekeeping. They kept it though, saying they would grow into it.
For a while in their reconciliation, they actually talked about children, but Carrie didn't really want any...not right now, she said. Over the months, the discussions about having children gradually withered and died away again. They'd talked about having a baby right after they were married too, but Carrie had plans for a career and kids didn't fit into her vision back then...and they still didn't. When she let the subject die this time, Ryan decided he'd never raise the idea of having children again. The decision left him empty, but he didn't know what he could do about it.
Eventually, Ryan overcame most of his conscious and unconscious disgust with his wife's deceit and got beyond her adultery. He'd finally had to remind himself neither he nor Carrie had been virgins when they married. It wasn't easy, but he forced himself think of the man he'd caught Carrie with in the same terms as he considered the nameless ones Carrie had been with before he met her.
Things got better but Ryan couldn't get back to where he'd been with his wife. Something had gone out of the relationship, something he couldn't define but he knew it was missing. They never really sat down and discussed her adultery in spite of everything their counselors could do to promote it. Neither Ryan nor Carrie wanted to go into the details. Perhaps they should have. Ryan didn't know.
Ryan was going to be thirty-three in July and some days he felt every bit of it and more. Today was one of those days. He'd found a small patch of gray over each temple in March and it devastated him for a time. Carrie had just shrugged. They made him look distinguished, she said. Ryan had stared after her as she walked unconcernedly away.
Distinguished? That was the way young women described older men. It was the kiss of death in the mating game. Bothered by the implications, he'd brought the subject up again a few weeks later. He didn't need to worry about it, she'd assured him. He was a married man and wasn't in the game anymore. He'd felt better...not much...but a little.
He didn't feel good about it at all anymore. Oh, he'd learned to live with the gray hairs, but he become concerned about other matters in the late spring. He wasn't at all certain he was going to be married very much longer. Though affectionate and attentive for most of the time since Ryan had caught her with another man, there was something different in her attitude and behavior these days.
He didn't go off the deep end the first time she started an argument that didn't need to happen, the first time she criticized him unnecessarily, or the first time she seemed a little distant for no good reason. He didn't go crazy the first, or the second time he found out she wasn't where she said she'd be. After a number of such incidents, though, he knew in his heart what was happening. Soon, there was no doubt.
All the signs were there now; the signs that said she was cheating. They'd been there for three months now, beginning just after Carrie's latest promotion. It wasn't entirely unexpected. He'd been concerned it would happen again and he'd trained himself to watch for the first signal her conduct had begun to change.
He'd read books over the last four years--lots of books--most of them paid for in cash at a variety of used bookstores. Some of the books were by doctors of psychiatry or psychology, and others were written by licensed counselors with no other degree. Most of these delved into the psyche of a straying spouse and spoke of ways to recover from adultery. Some of them, though, were written by retired private investigators. It was this group of books that Ryan found most interesting...and the most useful.
These books told of ways to catch a cheater. They detailed indicators that should raise red flags in the mind of an alert spouse. Some of them had a hundred or more signs a wife or husband might be unfaithful. One of these was written by an investigator and a psychologist team and Ryan found that one very informative. Other books concerned themselves with techniques of spying; some of them even used that term, on a suspected cheating spouse.
He had a nice library of books like this now. He kept them hidden in a storage cupboard out in the garage where Carrie never went. The spider webs in that corner of the garage and the heavy, greasy rags piled in front of the bin repelled her and she shuddered anytime she came within ten feet of it.
Lately, he'd taken the time to review many of the books...just to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. Alarmed at the arguments about trivial matters and his wife's increasingly hostile indifference, Ryan hid a miniature, voice-operated tape recorder under the front car seat in his wife's two-year-old Celica. When he retrieved it early one Sunday morning--while his wife still slept--he discovered his suspicions were well founded.
He listened to two conversations with girlfriends who had been in the car with her, and a half-dozen one-sided cell phone calls Carrie made. They all included references to someone named "Sean." The last conversation on the recording, partially cut off by the end of the tape, confirmed Ryan's suspicion the man they were talking about was Sean Michaels, Carrie's immediate supervisor in the main offices of the big downtown bank.
It didn't surprise Ryan much. Carrie's first adultery had been with a co-worker at the bank where she'd worked at the time. "Marshall" had been the supervising teller on Carrie's shift. They'd grown close over lunches and during long, boring interludes of little activity. It wasn't a big stretch to understand Carrie would be unfaithful to Ryan again with another supervisor.
Once he made himself look, he found numerous signals she was cheating and all of them were mentioned in the books. Carrie thought she was being smart and hiding what she was doing. She thought she had him fooled. Instead, Ryan knew what she was up to almost as soon as she started trying to deceive him. Such knowledge must inevitably lag behind the events a little, but he caught on very quickly...faster than he could have without having gone through Carrie's first adultery and its aftermath.
Once he was sure of what was happening, he began detaching. He let each newly discovered deception wound him. He let the acid of betrayal eat at the love he had for his wife. It was a measured thing. He wanted it all to hurt. He wanted his feelings for Carrie to diminish as quickly as they could. It worked, and actually faster than he thought it would. Gradually, Carrie's adultery burned away his love for her. When he couldn't find a trace of love for her inside him--even in the lonely hours of the night--he knew he was ready.
"Hey, handsome...want a booth or a table?"
The friendly woman's voice brought Ryan back to his senses. He'd allowed his mind to wander a long way afield while he waited for the hostess to seat him. He was preoccupied a lot these days. He looked forward to getting his mind back. Not having himself under control bothered him.
"Oh...whatever," he replied, not caring in the least if he sat in a café booth or at a table. "How about some place near a window where I can see out, but where it's quiet too?"
"Sure," the short, rotund waitress shot back cheerfully. "Let's go...over this way."
Ryan followed her to a sunlight booth against the rear wall beyond the big group of regular customers and separated from them by a chest-high partition.
"Can I get ya some coffee, honey?" she asked while Ryan folded his 6 feet, 1inch frame into the constricted space between the tabletop and unmoving bench seat. It was tight for a big man getting in, but once there, the table was at a convenient height and a good distance from his body for eating or working on his laptop.
"Black, hot, and lots of it," Ryan returned.
The hostess/waitress smiled. Not that they had any of the designer brews here, but she didn't even like being asked for a "cappuccino" or the like. It made her wonder just how much of a man a guy could be to want to drink something with a name like that. Her approval showed in her eyes.
While she filled the insulated pitcher back at the counter, she let her eyes rest on the big man who'd begun coming in every morning and evening last Thursday. He owned a small construction company, she'd learned--one that specialized in minor renovations, interior remodeling, and some building restorations. He dressed well and usually in a tailored business suit, but his strong hands were callused. This man had worked hard with his hands in the past, and most likely still did on occasion. Yesterday morning, Sunday, he'd came in with blue jeans and a work shirt on that had seen a lot of use.
"What can I get ya this morning, sugar," she asked after pouring her customer his first cup. She put the pitcher on the table close enough for him to reach out with his long arms and far enough from his hands to not be in the way. He smiled his appreciation.
"Orange juice, western omelet, hash browns, biscuits, and a side of ham?" he answered, pointing at menu item number six. She'd expected that. His order hadn't changed the last three mornings. She took the refolded menu from his hands after writing up his order.
"Comin' right up," she told him and walked away. She'd love to stay and chat with the man. The more she saw of him, the more she realized how much she liked his clear blue eyes, the strong chin, and...well, he looked like he was a hunk under those clothes. She wondered...and then she made herself cut off that line of thought. She was seeing Fred...had been for near a year now...and she didn't want to get sidetracked. He was too young for her anyway.
Ryan watched her slide the check with his order under the spring clip on the shiny metal order wheel and spin it around so the cook could see it. The cook nodded his understanding he had a new order. The hostess rushed off to greet more customers.
The line was getting longer. It looked like most of the little town had decided to not cook their own breakfast this early Monday morning.
There was a rising buzz of affable conversation, punctuated with the sounds of pieces of crockery being bumped against each other and the occasional peal of laughter. The smells of cooking eggs, bacon and sausage, biscuits, and cinnamon rolls emanating from the kitchen was making him salivate.
Ryan smiled. He liked it here, and he was beginning to like the cheerful, pleasant waitress a lot. She seemed to typify the folks in this small town...a village really. There probably weren't five hundred souls in the whole place. Most of the people he'd seen here so far were a lot like the waitress...reserved at first...outgoing and friendly once she got to know you. Yesterday, Sunday, she'd sat down across the table from him and chatted with him for twenty minutes in a slow period. It had impressed Ryan no end.
There was a crowd of people trying to get seated now. It was early, but folks in rural parts of Texas still started their days early to avoid the heat of the day. It probably wasn't necessary anymore, and there would be even less justification once Ryan's crew upgraded the air conditioning in the old courthouse, but it was a thing their parents and grandparents had done. In the absence of any really good reason to change, they kept on as they always had.
Only fifty miles or so outside of San Antonio...a metropolitan area with 1.5 million citizens...this small town hadn't changed that much from the way it was in the late nineteenth century. Oh, the big slab of concrete that was Interstate 10 ran east and west just a couple hundred yards from the front door of the café, but the regulars hardly noticed.
He thought their grandfathers and grandmothers had probably taken as little note of the big herds of longhorns coming through after the civil war. For the umpteenth time since he'd come here, Ryan wistfully wondered what his world would have been like if he'd been alive back then. He'd always had this feeling he'd been born about 150 years too late.
He shook off the nostalgic mood. The hot coffee helped. He looked at it suspiciously. It looked, and tasted, strong enough to float one of the horseshoes another of his crews had dug up last Friday. They were clearing land out behind one of the local rancher's house to put up a separate garage and had come across a number of interesting finds. A second sip confirmed his first impression. It might even have floated a couple of the heavy iron shoes. He was glad he'd come to the little town to personally supervise a number of small-scale renovation projects. This was some good coffee.
Ryan Gilchrist was a small-time contractor, just as he'd been four years ago. He was still a little frog in a big pond but, that having been said, he'd grown quite a bit during that period. There were plenty of tadpoles swimming around in the pond that were a lot smaller than he was now. In fact, the operation had grown so large, he had to spend most of his time with his butt firmly fixed in a chair behind a desk. He'd had to rent office space in a big building downtown. He hated working there. He often told folks he'd given up doing useful work.
He'd finished up a degree at UTSA over the past four years, going to school at night mostly. He'd had to take time off from work and finish some courses in residence during the daytime toward the end. He came away with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Resource Management but it wasn't as useful a thing as he'd thought it would be.
When he'd been looking through the school's catalog, he'd thought the courses in this degree plan would teach him to better manage his burgeoning little company. Some actually had proven to be very useful and others were "okay" courses. Most of them though...well, he'd had to figure out how to "learn" any number of irrelevancies just so he could answer test questions correctly. More than once, he'd had to grit his teeth and select answers he knew were totally wrong in the real world. That had irritated him no end. It was all over now, and the memory of the aggravation was fading quickly. He knew, though, he'd never go back to get a higher degree.
His mind drifted from topic to topic...and then back again. He was waiting for his breakfast to be served in a warm café full of friendly people. He appreciated the warmth...and the friendliness. There was little of either at home these days. His thoughts automatically shied away from thoughts of home. He didn't really have one anymore. There were better things to think about.
His business...things were going pretty well with it, everything considered. He'd even had to hire a secretary just to field all the phone calls that were coming in. Between her and a part-time CPA, the payrolls were processed and sent electronically to the employees' banks on payday. All of the Federal and State reports were filled out and forwarded to the correct agency on time too. Ryan concentrated on scheduling, personnel issues, and getting all the logistical details taken care of. He had eight crews working for him now--fifty-two men and women all together. Half of them were ex-marines and soldiers.
He'd come to rely on their maturity and high sense of responsibility and they'd responded. Most of the projects Ryan turned up were based on word-of-mouth advertising. His ex-servicemen and the others easily impressed the company's clients with their dedication, attention to detail, and the overall quality of the finished product. Today, he had three crews here in this small Texas town, out away from the big city. They were all working hard.
He told himself, and anyone who would listen, that he was here in the little town supervising the joint effort. In fact, he was here hiding from his wife because he couldn't stand the sight of her anymore.
"No, no," he growled softly into his coffee cup. "Fool me twice...shame on me. Huh uh...no damned way that's gonna happen."
He wasn't about to accept a second adultery on Carrie's part. He wasn't certain why he'd stayed around the first time but whatever the reason had been, he sure wasn't going to do it again. He had a plan...and it was almost time for the endgame.
After he heard the first tape recording, he made a point of secreting the tape recorder with a fresh miniature cassette in his wife's Celica every morning, and listening to the used ones sometime later in the day. He was amazed to hear his wife deriding him, his small contractor company, their friends, and virtually every aspect of their lives together.
More than once he listened as she completely rewrite much of their history together. Some of the things she said he did, particularly anecdotes about how he treated her...damn it, they flatly had not happened. He'd never taken a hand to her, much less had he ever beaten her as she claimed. Most of the other remarks were similarly colored by revisionist history. He didn't understand why the woman he'd married was doing this.
Gradually, Ryan had begun to put things together. As vigilant as he'd been, certain things had gotten in below the radar. He realized now many of their friends had been exposed to a steady litany of complaints she'd thrown their way. He could see the effect of her lies in their eyes. Some of the couples he and Carrie had regularly socialized with now avoided him whenever possible. When he did attend a function, he understood why they were reserved, even withdrawn, around him. It had to be because of things Carrie was saying about him. He knew why his brother-in-law and both sisters-in-law avoided him now. He understood why his wife's parents would hardly speak to him these days.
Her disrespect changed what he intended to do. Before, he'd determined he would simply confront her with his knowledge and let her know he was leaving. Texas was a no-fault state. It would have been a simple matter of waiting sixty days for a judge's signature on a piece of paper.
Now...now, he wanted proof of her adulterous conduct. He needed to go through a divorce trial; he would demand one so he could tell his part of the story. He'd have his attorney challenge every motion made by hers. Ryan's lawyer would propose hard-to-meet conditions in return. The hearings, proposals, and counter proposals would go on indefinitely. It might bankrupt him but he didn't care. If his business went under, it would have the beneficial effect of keeping her from getting a share of the little construction outfit that was just beginning to grow into something nice.
He had no way to refute most of her allegations. Most of the things she said were going on simply had never occurred...and it was damned difficult to prove something didn't happen. One of the persistent themes was that he was physically abusive; she'd repeated that in several cell phone conversations he'd overheard.
That one he thought he could rebut. He had a persistent daydream of standing up in court and tearing off his shirt to show everyone the work-hardened muscles in his chest and arms. He was going to ask the judge whether he thought a 220-pound man with his obvious strength could possibly beat his wife, as Carrie told more than one of her friends, without putting her in the hospital for lengthy periods. It was only a fantasy. He knew it would never happen, but it kept him from freaking out in some of the darker nights.
Carrie's deceit ate at Ryan's insides. It was a thing that demanded punishment of some sort. He couldn't understand where her revisionist history was coming from. He didn't know why she felt compelled to destroy his image with her family and everyone they knew. She shouldn't be allowed to do this but he was helpless to do anything about it right now.
The helplessness only made things worse. The anger was building inside him and he didn't know how much longer he could go on. He knew himself fairly well. He just wasn't a man who could take something like this for very long without lashing out.
He chuckled as he stared at nothing outside the café window. He'd remembered something the psychotherapist said to him.
Doctor Christopher had told Ryan, while he was still a patient of the doctor's, that he was just a tad confrontation-prone. Ryan had laughed with his counselor. He knew the old doctor was absolutely right. In fact, he'd quit carrying the Glock a few weeks back because he was afraid he'd do something he'd regret.
Before he'd have used it to protect the love he had for Carrie. Now there was nothing left. She was no longer worth the possibility...the probability, more likely...that he'd spend a long term in the Huntsville prison if he shot her or her lover, Sean. She just wasn't worth it. He didn't want to go to prison.
His mind was still in neutral. There was nothing pressing he had to deal with and he didn't bother trying to keep his thoughts confined to one channel. He wasn't trying to think his way through his problems; his thoughts wandered a little further afield while he waited for his breakfast.
He didn't like jails. Even his slight acquaintance with them had soured him on them forever. The judge had given him an unbelievable light sentence for smashing his wife's first lover's balls and bruising Carrie's groin so badly. The prosecutor, knowing his jury pool, had opted beforehand to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor and the court had gone down that road with him. Seeing this, Ryan's attorney had talked Ryan into not asking for a jury trial.
The sentence had been 40 hours of community service and 30 days in the county jail, a far cry from hard time in one of Texas's prison facilities. On top of that, all but 7 days of the jail time had been suspended as a "deferred sentence." Even those 7 days had been pretty easy time. He'd only stayed in lockup at night and been released every morning to go to work. After 18 months with no additional violent incidents, the judge had vacated the rest of the sentence.
He'd already done the 40 hours of community service, of course and didn't regret it a bit. Those hours, and a couple hundred of hours extra, had been spent reading to children in the public library. He'd enjoyed that part of the sentence.
Ryan had heard through the grapevine that his wife's fuck buddy had been outraged at the light sentence Ryan received. "Marshall" lost one testicle and the other one healed very slowly. The man hadn't made any formal protest though. His wife had told him sweetly they already had three children and that was enough. Besides, she said, if he didn't shut up and start making things up to her and the kids, she was going to cut the remaining ball out of his scrotum and feed it to him for supper.
They moved to Denver when he was well enough. The first time he saw them on a restaurant menu, Marshall was physically ill when he realized exactly what "Rocky Mountain Oysters" actually were. The family had to leave the restaurant, with grinning apologies from Marshall's wife to the hostess who'd just seated them. The kids were just as happy to eat fried chicken at the KFC down by the Interstate anyway. Marshall never knew his wife passed the story on to friends back in San Antonio. The grapevine is a wonderful thing.
The smile the memory brought to mind faded slowly. Another recollection took its place.
On a business trip to Dallas a year ago, he'd found a store that was going out of business in a moderately rundown suburban strip mall. They sold all kinds of "spy" equipment but the location had been poorly chosen. The owner was going to relocate to one of the major downtown malls, but there was a gap between the ending of his lease there and the availability of space downtown. He was in a position where he had to get rid of his inventory at cut-rate prices or store it at ruinous monthly rates in a warehouse somewhere. Ryan picked up a dozen lipstick-case sized cameras, phone line recorders, binoculars, a good digital camera, three VCRs, and plenty of other supporting gear for professional-style surveillances.
He'd only used the equipment lately, within the last three months actually. It hadn't been necessary before. He'd hidden the small spy cameras upstairs and down, not knowing where Carrie would entertain her new lover if, and when, she brought him home with her. As it happened, she showed no scruples at all in taking Sean into her and Ryan's marital bed when Ryan went hunting one weekend with her father.
Ryan was bitter about her choice of places to have sex, but he'd almost expected it. Her lack of respect, her contempt for him lately almost dictated she'd do something like that. He'd covered the master bedroom with three of his twelve cameras and they caught all the action. Carrie and Sean's enthusiastic sexual antics in that room were featured in the tape Ryan began compiling for his in-laws and friends.
He also thought the bank, where Sean headed up a major department, would be interested in the videos Ryan had of a naked Sean working on his laptop in Ryan and Carrie's kitchen. Sean had plugged into the easily accessible phone jack beside the kitchen table. Ryan assumed...he thought it was a good bet...that Sean had logged in to the bank's server and was pounding out a little work while he waited for his body to recover from the excesses he was placing on it with his subordinate.
It was icing on the cake that, while resting between sexual bouts, the adulterous couple also discussed both Sean's and Carrie's families and more than a few of the friends they had in common. Ryan planned to highlight these sections and distribute them to the family members and acquaintances who believed Carrie's lies about him. He looked forward to exposing the adulterous pair. He really did. He had everything he needed. It was just a matter of when.
"Excuse me, sir...sir?" The café's hostess was surprised when Ryan didn't respond immediately. He was usually very alert.
"I'm sorry," Ryan said. "I'm afraid I was drifting there for a bit."
He blinked. The distasteful memories and musings had a powerful hold over him. It wasn't the first time he'd found it difficult to snap back to the real world.
"Awwwww, no big thing, sugar," she replied. "Listen, honey, we're just about full up this morning, ya know? And I was wondering if you would mind sharing your table with Connie and little Belinda here?"
Ryan looked around, seeing for the first time the little restaurant did indeed have every table occupied, but there were other tables with open seats. He was a little surprised the hostess was talking to him about accepting strangers at his booth, but then, it probably was the largest table available. He wasn't in the mood, but he saw no way out of it.
His eyes fastened on the tall, attractive woman with long, jet-black hair standing at the waitress's shoulder and the little girl beside her. In the space between one breath and the next, his mood changed. He was very glad the hostess had singled him out.
Still not running on all cylinders, it took him a moment to respond. When he realized he was still sitting there like a bump on a log, he flushed and contorted his body to get up.
"I apologize," he said to the trio. "I was brought up to be polite...I want you to know that. I really was...but sometimes I'm just not as quick on the uptake as I could be," he added. He reached out and patted the waitress on her forearm.
"Uh...I'd be happy if...uh...Connie and...Belinda would join me," he said, thinking fast. He thought he remembered the names correctly.
"Thank you," the little girl trilled. Her high, small child's voice was clear, her words easily understood. Ryan had been expecting the woman to reply; he'd been looking at her and not at the young child. He glanced down, but the youngster had already walked around him and had climbed onto the bench seat.
"May I have my boos'r seat, please?" she asked sweetly. She held out her hand, pointing behind him.
Confused, Ryan looked around at the woman he guessed was the little girl's mother and then saw the booster seat the waitress was holding out to him.
"I'm so sorry," Ryan said contritely. He took the seat from the waitress and held it steady on the bench while the girl climbed in.
"Thank you," she said, smiling up at him.
Ryan stood back and was about to move over to the other side of the table when the youngster interrupted again.
"I want my mom to sit over there," she demanded. She pointed at the opposite bench seat. "You sit here." The little girl was pointing at a position next to her own seat. Ryan looked up at the girl's mother, confused and more than a little apologetic.
"She's soooo shy and unassuming, isn't she?" the woman asked in a soft contralto. Her lips parted in a wide grin. She gestured at him to go ahead and sit.
"If it's all right with you, I don't mind," she added. The little girl's matching grin decided the issue for Ryan.
"I'd be most happy to sit with you," he told the child with mock formality. He slid into the booth beside her. He could see the delight in her eyes and couldn't help but respond. It had been a long time since he'd felt welcome anywhere.
"I'm Ryan," he said, introducing himself.
"Connie...Consuela Robertson," the woman responded, "and that's Belinda, the terror of the Vargas Preschool," she added, motioning toward the towheaded youngster beside Ryan.
"Mommy!" Belinda protested, scandalized. "That's not nice."
Ryan chuckled, completely enchanted by the woman and her daughter. The woman extended her hand and they shook. He liked the feel of her hand in his. It was slender, very feminine, but it had strength too. He looked up at her.
"Do folks call you Connie...or Consuela?" he asked matter-of-factly. She hesitated, giving him with a vaguely hooded look.
"I like Consuela," she said, "but Connie is okay. Lots of people call me that," she added quickly.
"Consuela is a beautiful name," Ryan replied. "It...fits you better than "Connie," I think. Is it okay if I call you Consuela?" he asked.
He watched her for a reaction that didn't come for a long moment. He was beginning to think he'd made a bad mistake.
"I think I would like that," she said quietly.
They two matronly women in the booth behind Ryan stiffened slightly. They smiled knowingly at each other. Consuela had moved here just after her baby had been born, coming home after a bad marriage had ended in divorce. Little Belinda was four...four and a half, now. It was the first time anyone had seen any sign Consuela--Connie to some--had shown any sign of enjoying a man's presence. The two women sneaked looks at the three when they got up to leave. No one in the booth noticed.
Wednesday found Ryan waiting for Consuela and Belinda before he ordered breakfast. When they came through the door, Belinda shook free of her mother's hand and raced through the tables to him. Her last two steps included a little hop to launch herself into the air for him to catch her.
"'Linda!" her mother scolded when she caught up. "You know you're not supposed to do that."
"It's okay, Mommy," the four-year-old explained. "Mister Ryan catched me."
That settled it as far as she was concerned. She went on to another topic.
"I'm going to sit on his lap today and eat brea'fus," she announced.
"Honey, I know he catch...he caught you...but what if he hadn't seen you coming or something? Besides, you don't even know if Mister Ryan wants you to sit on his lap or eat breakfast with us."
Belinda looked into Ryan's face for a quick instant and then turned back to her mother.
"He does," Belinda said succinctly. There was no doubt in her voice. Ryan cleared his throat.
"It's true, but to make it official," he said, "Miz Robertson, would you and the charming Belinda care to join me to break your fast?" he said lightly. He and the woman shared a chuckle as they arranged themselves around the table they had this morning.
Belinda did sit on his lap for a good part of the meal, sitting up to eat morsels from his plate or hers, and then lying back to rest contentedly against his chest. Toward the end of the meal, she got restless. When one of her playmates came in with her parents, Belinda scrambled down to go visit. It left Ryan and Consuela alone for the first time.
Things were suddenly and unexpectedly awkward. Neither could find the proper opening.
"You don't remember me, do you?" Consuela asked unexpectedly.
Ryan cocked his head and looked closely at her. He studied her for a long moment. Her long, raven hair framed the finely molded features of her face. Her fair skin was flawless. She wore, and needed, only a small amount of makeup...only a little mascara on her eyelashes and lip gloss on her lips. Actually, her dark eyes didn't need anything more to make bring out their loveliness. Her lips were full and...he'd already admitted it to himself...very inviting. He knew when he stood, the top of her head was right at his chin; she was probably five feet and maybe six, seven inches tall. She had a slender body with generous curves at the breast and hips, and her legs...from what little he'd caught in quick peeks...were excellent...no, they were outstanding.
"Consuela," he said finally, "if I've seen you before, I'm reasonably sure I would remember it. I'm not in the habit of forgetting beautiful women," he said with finality. None of his words gave any hint of anything but a serious answer to a serious question.
Consuela colored slightly, both from his close examination of her before he spoke and the words he used.
"Well, it was only twice, and both were very quick," she said. "At the bank where your wife works?" she prompted. "A long time ago, the girl next to me cashed a check for you once while your wife stood with you. That was before I got transferred to Mr. Michael's section.
"Then, Carrie waved at me another day when you were there and you turned around to see who it was. Remember that? A year and three months, maybe year and a half ago?"
Ryan shook his head. He tried to place the woman sitting across from him in the bank setting, but failed completely.
"I'm sorry," he said. "If I was with Carrie, I probably was talking to her or listening to her...or trying to...or something," he said lamely.
"So you do forget women on occasion eh?" Consuela grinned to take away any sting in her words.
"I had to have been badly distracted at the time," Ryan protested, chuckling at the same time. "If I was with Carrie she would have been working hard to occupy all my attention...back then anyway."
"I know," Consuela said. She looked Ryan in the eyes for a bit. She thought she seen something when Carrie's name came up.
"How is Carrie these days?" she asked suddenly.
She nodded her head when a wall slammed down behind his eyes.
"You know then," she said in a sympathetic tone. Ryan frowned. Consuela shrugged.
"I was...I left there two months ago. Everyone at the bank...even all the customers who've seen them together...know what's going on."
Ryan snorted softly and shook his head. His eyes were clouded and troubled.
"They're not even trying to hide it huh?" She shook her head.
"They did for a while but most of us could see what was happening. From what I hear from a couple of friends who are still working there, it's gotten more and more..."
"Obvious?" Ryan suggested.
"Worse. Brazen was the word I was going to use," Consuela replied. "For what it's worth...I'm sorry. Everyone down there thinks Mr. Michaels is a real ass. No one knows what Carrie sees in him."
"Yeah, I'm sorry too," Ryan said quietly. "I've suspected it for about three months and I've been collecting proof for the past couple of weeks," he told her. "I think I have enough now to hang the both of them," he added. Consuela looked at him in surprise.
"An interesting choice of words," she said finally. Ryan could see an excitement building quietly. Her eyes were bright, she was breathing quicker. She glanced quickly around to check on Belinda.
"I...I didn't leave my job in San Antonio exactly the way I...implied I did," she said finally. "I left because I filed a sexual harassment complaint against Sean Michaels and...it went up all the way to the main headquarters in Chicago," she said.
Ryan waited. He'd been waiting since Monday for Consuela to open up. He'd known there was something.
"After a while...a few months...the complaint came back down. The Chicago office said the complaint had not been substantiated and they couldn't act on it."
Consuela's face flushed with anger at the memory. Her dark eyes flashed lightning.
"After that, I got a couple of bad performance reports. Three times, the accounts I was handling had minor...and very temporary...balancing problems and they wrote me up," she said bitterly. "A little research and they all came into balance but that didn't seem to matter. They didn't do anything to anyone else for differences that had to be researched, but of course, me...me, they slam."
Consuela shifted in her seat for a long moment, fuming at the way she been treated. It had humiliated and infuriated her at the same time. Ryan nodded encouragingly to get her to continue.
"They shifted me over to the investment banking division for a while, but a woman came back from her maternity leave and all of a sudden, there was no slot for me. After a while, they made it clear I would have to go back to working as a window teller. Not only that, I would be working every weekend and I was going to be moved eventually to a special late shift they were setting up so they could advertise the drive-through was open late. They knew I had a young daughter and there was no way I could take those hours."
Consuela's voice was strained. She was frustrated and mad. She looked around and forced a smile when she caught Belinda's eye and the little girl waved.
"They let me go easy, I guess," Consuela continued. "I'll give them that. Nothing was ever said, but it was plain I could quit and they'd give me good references. If I stayed, I'd see my daughter so seldom she'd forget what I looked like...and if I pushed the complaint, I'd be blacklisted and never work in a bank again."
She was breathing deeply; she couldn't sit still. Her fingers twisted and twinned about themselves in her lap. Consuela's pain and anger were ghosts sitting at the table with them. They joined the ones Ryan brought in every morning with him. All of them were so real they could have reached out and touched them.
Consuela shut her eyes tightly, willing herself to be calm. It took a while but the trembling slowly eased. Her face relaxed; her shoulders slumped.
"Hi, Mommy," the little voice came as a shock. Neither of them had noticed Belinda coming back to the table. "Mommy?" Belinda asked worriedly. "Are you crying?"
Consuela's eyes had snapped open at Belinda's first words. Now she leaned down and opened them wide to show her daughter there were no tears. She forced a gentle smile onto her lips.
"No, honey," Consuela said. "I just had them closed to think a little bit," she explained. Belinda looked doubtful, but she let it pass.
"Tasha and her Mom and Daddy are eating so I came back," she told her mother.
"And I'm glad you did!" Ryan exclaimed. He swept the little girl up in his arms and pulled her onto his lap. "Now..." he said, "I'm still not quite sure where it is that you're ticklish."
Belinda began squirming on his lap, already anticipating being tickled. Her tiny hands flew up to her neck to protect the sensitive flesh there. Ryan's hands darted to her ribs and tickled the small child for a few seconds. When Belinda dropped her hands, he shifted to her neck and Belinda shrieked.
"'Linda!" Consuela said quickly. "You can't..."
"It was my fault," Ryan interjected.
"I know better, don't I, Belinda? Give me a hug and I'll quit," he told the little girl. She didn't want him to stop but she knew what she was supposed to do. She wrapped her arms around Ryan's neck and hugged tightly.
"I have a confession to make," Consuela announced. The noise from the children racing through the large plastic tubes overhead was almost deafening. She had to lean close to Ryan to make herself heard without shouting.
Ryan had suggested the McDonalds out by the Interstate after asking them to dinner. He'd known Belinda would love the playroom. She'd barely been able to sit still long enough to eat her three chicken nuggets and a couple of french-fries.
This was the first time Ryan had seen the mother and daughter except over breakfast, and also the first time they'd been together twice in the same day. Wednesday was turning out to be a day of firsts.
Ryan looked at Consuela for a bit, digesting what she'd said.
"You'd been wanting to tell me about Carrie and also about your sexual harassment complaint since Monday?" he guessed. Consuela's eyes widened, and then narrowed again.
"You knew?" she asked in a tight voice. He could tell it wouldn't take much to light up a temper that was easily sparked anyway. He'd only known her three days and he knew that much about her already. To save himself, he shook his head.
"I knew there was a reason Trish sat you at my table," he said carefully.
Trish was the head waitress and hostess at the café who'd taken Ryan under her wing at the café. Trish had taken the time to talk with Consuela and Ryan for a long while when they paid their breakfast bill this morning. It had been a nice exchange.
"I hoped it was because of my masculine beauty at first...but then I got a look at myself in the mirror," he said. His tone was light and cheerful.
"That left only that you'd asked her to put you with me because you wanted to talk to me about something...or wanted something from me, once I eliminated a couple of less savory possibilities. They just didn't fit who you are," he said quietly.
"I figured you'd get around to it sooner or later...and in the meantime, I was having more fun with you and Belinda than I've had...in so long I can't remember the last time."
The woman flushed faintly. It looked good on her.
"That's part of it. I guess I should have just come out and told you when I recognized you Monday," she mumbled.
She tried to get mad because Ryan had guessed she had a reason for seeking him out the last couple of days...but it wasn't happening. He was so disarming with his candor she couldn't summon even a tiny kernel of anger.
"I didn't mind," Ryan assured her. "I enjoyed your company...I already told you I did." He looked at her speculatively. "What is it you think I can do for you?" he asked. Consuela took a deep breath.
"Well, we didn't get to everything this morning. I don't just have a sexual harassment complaint anymore. I have a suit I filed in Federal court three weeks ago. I was wondering...I was hoping...I could get you to testify to...the fact that Sean Michaels is having an affair with your wife," she said.
"My attorney doesn't know about you yet, but she's told me in the past if we could show Mr. Michaels has continued to do the things he tried to do with me, we have a chance to..."
She threw her hands up in the air, giving up the explanation. She looked at Ryan for a moment.
"Me too," she added diffidently. Ryan's eyes scanned hers. A blank, confused look came over his face while he wondered what he'd missed.
"I enjoyed...me and Belinda have enjoyed having breakfast with you too," Consuela offered by way of explanation.
Ryan's features cleared and he smiled.
"I'm glad," he said quietly. There was a small silence.
"If it will help for me to tell what I know about the affair...sure," he said, returning to the original conversation. "I'm not up on lawyer things but I'll testify to anything I can," he told her.
"You know for sure?" Consuela said in a low, intense voice. "You can say you know Michaels is...is...that he's..."
"Actually having sex with my wife?" Ryan asked. Consuela nodded, too embarrassed to speak.
"Oh, yeah...I can testify to that," Ryan assured her. Consuela sat quietly, her eyes holding his. Hers were filled with a sudden sympathy.
"Maybe not," she said hesitantly. "Maybe you shouldn't...it might not be a good thing...there'd be questions...and..."
Ryan smiled. It was the predatory smile of a shark nosing in for the kill.
"Consuela, my marriage is over. Our vows were broken before...they've been shattered now. My marriage was over the minute she began a relationship with Sean Michaels. I've been collecting evidence to show a court to prove her infidelity. I'm going public with it to show God and everybody what she's done...what she's doing. I'm getting a divorce from Carrie to make everything official, but it's been over for a long time.
"I've spent the last few months watching her and letting her burn the love I used to have for her out of my soul. I don't care for her now, and nothing can embarrass or humiliate, me anymore than she already has. I'm going to lower the boom on her and her...friend...and I'm going to do it hard."
Consuela looked at Ryan, seeing something in him she'd not noticed before. His blue eyes had gone an icy shade of blue as his anger built. She believed him. He was going to make a believer of Sean Michaels too. She smiled slowly.
"It takes a lot of strength to do what you're going to do, Ryan. I think you are one hombre Mr. Michaels should never have messed with," she said softly.
Ryan was startled at the comment. It broke his concentration and his rage ebbed away. He smiled at the beautiful woman sharing his table. As he looked, her face changed.
"You have proof, you said?" she demanded. "You have pictures or something?" Ryan nodded.
"I've got video tape of them together, tape recordings of cell phone conversations, and other tapes of her talking to girlfriends in her car about her lover...heck, I got a bunch of things," Ryan told her. "I know the cell phone conversations can't be used for much...maybe not the tapes from the recorder I put under her car seat, unless she gets on the stand and denies the conversations ever took place. Then they can be used to impeach her, I'll bet.
"The videos? Well, the videos I have of her hugging and kissing that asshole inside the bank, on the city streets, and I've got them walking arm in arm with him into our house...those can be used. I'm almost certain the ones of her and Doofus in our bed are legal too. I think I have a perfect right to videotape things that go on inside my house. They're pretty...graphic...as they say.
"Oh, wow..." Consuela whispered. "Oh goodness, I'm sorry. It's so sad you had to see things like that, but you've got her good, don't you?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, drawing out the last word to emphasize his satisfaction. "Got him too," he added.
"I haven't seen a lawyer yet, but I have my own suit to file, you know. I re-read Carrie's contract and there's a morals clause right there in big black letters on the second page. It's not even in the fine print. I don't see how there would not be a clause just like that in Michaels' contract too. That should mean the bank is...uh...liable if they don't enforce their own rules and regulations, right?"
Ryan thought for a moment.
"I...like I said, I don't do lawyer stuff...but I think we can help each other out on these things. You can testify in my civil suit that...what do they call it? Uh...something about establishing a pattern of conduct or something like that? Hmmmmm...and how about not taking action to...uh...well...stop it. What are the legal words for saying that, I wonder?"
He grinned and made a mental note to call a lawyer and run these things by him or her. For the first time in a while, he saw a way he might be able to keep his little contractor firm afloat after his wife took her pound of flesh in the divorce proceedings.
Texas family law was structured so that property settlements were affected by such things as adultery on the part of one of the spouses. He'd already been counting on that and now there was an even better chance of getting enough cash from a settlement to buy out whatever percentage Carrie's share of the business was.
Thursday was a disappointing day in the café. Ryan was there, as the locals had come to expect, but Consuela was not. It was because, as Ryan knew, Consuela had to go in early to open up the small town bank where she was the assistant manager. The crowd of regulars thought it was sad he was sitting alone, but they really should have noticed he'd brought a book to read while he waited for his omelet. He wouldn't have done that if he'd thought he'd have company for breakfast.
The book was a western by Louis L'Amour. Ryan loved westerns. They were about a day when a man could make a place for himself through sheer force of will, courage, and an attitude of being unwilling to accept a slight at the hands of another. It worked for L'Amour's heroes again and again. In this novel, one of the minor players was a young married woman who had taken a lover--a bad man who was good with a gun. Her farm boy husband had tried to use his gun on the bad man, but he'd had no chance. The simple farmer died a painful death when the wife's lover shot him.
Ryan identified with the farm boy. Regardless of the consequences, he'd taken up an unfamiliar tool, a pistol, to defend the marriage and his personal honor. It hadn't been smart, but Ryan could see where the man hadn't been willing to live with the alternative. Ryan understood the man; he understood him well.
The omelet was especially good that morning. Trish had given the high sign to the cook to include extra amounts of the mushrooms and sausage that Ryan especially liked. He was being given privileges some long-term regulars still didn't get. A few people noticed the fat omelet and knew the head waitress and hostess had given Ryan her seal of approval.
At her suggestion, Ryan and Consuela met Thursday night at a Golden Corral restaurant a little further out of San Antonio. The chances of contact with anyone they knew were slim. They'd agreed this was better than being seen together. After all, he was still a married man and people wouldn't understand they were planning two lawsuits against a multi-national banking institution, its regional headquarters in San Antonio, and a number of its senior officers.
Ryan commented on the fact that Consuela asked questions and talked while waving her fork around like a symphony conductor's baton. It was her Latina heritage, she said. Her grandmother had been raised in a small village in the south of Mexico. She needed her hands in order to speak properly. Ryan teased her, saying if her hands were tied behind her, it would be the same as putting a gag in her mouth. She thought about it for a moment, then stuck out her tongue at him. He laughed out loud. He couldn't remember when he'd last done that.
She was surprised, in turn, by the fact that his great-grandfather had been a full-blood member of the Comanche nation. She studied his face closely, remarking the only contribution she saw from that side of the family that she saw was his high cheekbones. His blue eyes and blond hair certainly came from somewhere else. They'd ended by deciding contributions from the Scots and the Irish overwhelmed most of the genes in both their ancestries.
Consuela asked if Ryan knew there were more than a few Irish Dance schools around San Antonio? Did he know they held an annual Feis, a contest, in one of the downtown hotels? Ryan did not. Consuela told him he should go next October. He said he would if she would go with him. She said she would.
There was a pause while they both paid attention to their plates.
"Will the videos and stuff be admissible in court...even in divorce court?" she asked finally. Ryan shrugged.
"I'm sure a good lawyer will find a way to get them introduced somehow," he replied after a while. "If not, I'll make copies of the DVDs and mail them to her family and all our friends as Christmas presents," he added with a grin.
"I thought you said you had video tapes," Consuela remarked idly, after finishing a bite of Caesar salad.
"I did...I do," Ryan replied. But I bought a really fast computer a couple months ago for the office and I loaded a program on it to convert movies from a digital camera to a DVD...uh...format." He saw her confusion. "Oh. First I had to play the VHS tapes and record from the VCR to my digital camcorder," he explained.
"Sounds like a lot of work," she commented.
"Yeah...not a very elegant solution," he replied, "but I'm doing all this spy work on a shoestring and I didn't want to get advice from anyone, considering the subject matter. I had to find a few workarounds."
"I think you did very well," Consuela said quickly. "You've got a lot more proof for what you want to do than I have," she added.
Ryan took a moment to absorb what she'd said. It felt good to be complimented for something he'd done instead of having faults pointed out, as Carrie invariably did these days.
"Well," he said after swallowing a chunk of rare steak doused in A1, "I think I can do some things for yours and my case...I've got a couple of shots of the dork sitting at our kitchen table, naked as the day he was born, but working on something on his laptop."
"No!" Consuela exclaimed. "Really?" She flushed faintly as her delight fought with embarrassment at the mental picture Ryan's words built.
"Oh yeah," Ryan replied, "signing on to a network, logging in to a server it looked like, and then doing some transactions...what is it he does anyway?"
"Oh, he runs the division that does high-end personal wealth management," she said. "He manages accounts for the very, very rich customers...makes investments for them if they've authorized him to...keeps track of trusts...sends transfers to other banks if they ask him to...stuff like that."
Ryan nodded. His brow furrowed.
"Wire transfers," she explained after a sip of ice tea.
"Like...oh...Western Union, say?"
"Oh...yeah...kinda sorta...but on a much bigger scale," she explained. "Millions of dollars are sent and received every day."
"I see," he replied. "They trust him with that huh?" he said speculatively.
"If they could seem him trying to enter his password three times and screaming like a spoiled child at his laptop when it won't take, I'm not so sure they'd trust him very much at all." He laughed again. "He might send a rich guy's money off to Timbuktu or something, instead of Tucumcari...he's really not very good at doing computer stuff."
Consuela laughed with him.
"Putting in his password three times huh? You saw him do that?"
"Yeah...once he tried again and again and it never did process," Ryan remarked. "Carrie came downstairs once, naked as he was, the little...well, anyway, she input his password for him. That's a no-no I'll bet the bank won't want anyone to see."
He thought for a moment.
"I have a feeling all of a sudden I won't have to go to court at all...and maybe not you either," he said. "The people down at the bank are not going to want any publicity on this. When I tell them what I have, they're going to fall all over themselves trying to get me...and you...to settle out of court. How 'bout that?"
"You might just be right," Consuela agreed. "You can see him entering the keystrokes...and Carrie knows his password too?" she asked idly.
"Sure do," Ryan replied.
Consuela snorted her contempt.
"The idiot," she said contemptuously. "I had a security level that only allowed me to do small-time stuff. His access level lets him work on all the accounts and do all kinds of magic with them," she said. "Only a fool allows someone else to know their password," she added. "The other person might be as honest as the day is long, but..." She shrugged her shoulders expressively.
"Yeah, that's a fact," Ryan agreed.
"Good thing Carrie hasn't used what she knows," Consuela said after another swallow. "She could ruin him if she did."
"Yeah, I guess she could," Ryan said. He thought for a while. "Actually...so could I," he said thoughtfully. "'Cause I know his password too, you know. I watched him type it often enough."
"Darn good thing you're an honest man," Consuela remarked with a quick grin.
Ryan shook his head.
"Huh-uh...he shouldn't count on that too much," he said. "I don't like him one damn bit...or her," he added.
"You like Louis L'Amour?" she asked. Ryan had brought the book inside to read while he waited for her to arrive. She'd said she might be late.
"Oh yeah," Ryan said quickly. "He and Tom Clancy are my favorite writers...both of them are natural storytellers."
"Uh-huh," she answered. "I like Tom Clancy...what's Louis L'Amour about?"
They talked for another hour. They had to tip the waitress well. She'd cheerfully brought let them sit unmolested, except for refilling their iced tea glasses, when they lingered a long while after eating as much as they could.
On her way home, Consuela Robertson ran over the conversations she'd had with Ryan Gilchrist this evening. It was more than enjoyable to be in the company of a good-looking man after so long. It took her years to get over her divorce. She hadn't trusted men in general for a long time, but she did this one.
He listened to her, and he was big...very strong...she thought. But he was incredibly gentle with Belinda. He didn't think he was handsome at all...he'd said something about it last night...but he was. He spoke so well too. He didn't seem to need to rush to contradict her, to correct things she said he thought were wrong. It was good to be with him.
Her thoughts were all over the place as she pulled into the gravel driveway. She sat in the car for a long moment with the lights off. It was a thing she'd learned to do while living in Albuquerque when she first got married. Their house had been right at the edge of one gang's territory and too close to another. The sounds of shooting could be heard most weekends. She'd learned to look into the shadows before getting out of vehicles. It was necessary to see who was there before exposing oneself.
There was no one in the shadows here. She knew there was some gang violence in San Antonio but it hadn't spread out this far yet. It wasn't a very "pretty" neighborhood but her neighbors were all retired folks or hard workers at a variety of jobs in the area.
She sighed. Sometimes she thought this neighborhood was a metaphor for her life. She was nearing thirty years of age. Time was passing her by just as it was the houses on her block. The houses were a little rundown, in need of some care, and the atmosphere was a little desperate because that care was slow in coming. Some of her neighbors had already given up. She rolled her shoulders and shook her head to shake off the mood. She got out of her nine-year-old Mercury and trudged next door to Mrs. Alvarez to pick up Belinda.
A little while later, as she was getting her little girl into pajamas and her teeth brushed, Consuela found herself staring into space. A thought had occurred to her...a plan that blossomed and matured in the space between two heartbeats.
There was a way to get some payback. The trouble was, what would Ryan think of her idea? What would he think of her? His opinion meant more to her than she'd realized until just this moment.
"You want to look at the DVDs?" Ryan asked. He was confused. It was Friday night, a night for partying, but that wasn't Consuela's way...what he knew of her anyway. And there was the baby in the bedroom just a few steps away.
Belinda had been sent to bed but she hadn't gone willingly. She hadn't wanted to go to sleep at all with Ryan there. It had been the first time Ryan had been invited here. Belinda had climbed into Ryan's lap when he got there and had resisted every attempt Consuela made to get her to leave Ryan alone for even a moment. Ryan hadn't cooperated with Consuela's efforts very much. The little four-year-old was making a deep impression on him.
"Lady, those aren't for casual viewing you know? It's a lot of...sex...and talking about sex...and them disrespecting everyone in their little world. They just not--"
"I know, I know," Consuela exclaimed. She was fighting to keep the redness visible in the hollow of her throat from spreading. Ryan studied her briefly, then grinned.
"On second thought, none of the videos are really good porn. Most of them are pretty boring actually. If you want to watch them I guess it's okay with me."
He was teasing. He didn't think she really wanted to watch the sex. There was another reason he hadn't figured out yet. He watched as the red spread from her neck to her ears.
"No, no," she protested. She searched for the words she needed. She tried again.
"Look, Ryan...remember we talked about the book you had with you last night, right?"
Ryan pursed his lips. He still didn't see where this was going.
Consuela wet her lips with the tip of a pink tongue. The sight caught Ryan's attention and nearly distracted him from what she said next.
"You said you understood why that farmer boy tried to kill his wife's lover, right?" she asked. "And you told me you don't know how you did not kill your wife's first lover...didn't you tell me that just last night? And you had to quit carrying your gun because you were afraid of what you'd do about Sean Michaels if you ran into him or something?"
Ryan nodded. Their conversations had traveled pretty far afield last night. He'd told Consuela many things he'd never told anyone else.
Consuela got up to pace. Her house was small. There were only three steps from couch to TV. Her pacing was quick and nervous.
"There is a way to make this...this cabron a lot more miserable than just losing his job," she said.
Ryan grinned in astonishment. She'd said the word cabron with considerable fierceness. The word's literal translation from Spanish was "a male goat." In slang, though, it meant something more like "asshole fucker bitch." It was not used lightly by a woman as well bred as Consuela was. It was an indication of how furious she was at the man.
He took a moment to consider his alternatives while she continued to walk up and down the living room. Consuela was concerned only with getting some retribution from Mr. Sean Michaels. She was incensed at Michaels' request six months ago that she meet him for sex in an apartment he maintained close to the downtown bank. He hadn't accepted "no" for an answer and had badgered her for weeks before trying to get her fired.
Ryan, on the other hand, was more furious at his wife's betrayal than he was at the man she'd done it with. That was not to say there wasn't enough rage left over for Michaels though. Carrie had not bothered to take off her wedding band to fuck Michaels. It had been clearly visible in all of the videotapes Ryan had of the pair of adulterous lovers. Even had he not known Ryan, and they had met on several occasions, Sean Michaels had known quite well he was having sex with another man's wife.
In another day...in the days of Ryan's great-grandfather, twice removed, for instance...Ryan would have been completely justified in hunting Michaels down and shooting him where he stood. Abruptly, the scenario in the Louis L'Amour book he'd read came to mind. Ryan had always considered himself a throwback to an earlier time. He could do with a little payback directed against the man who had dishonored him. He grinned fiercely.
"What did you have in mind?" he asked.
"So...what do you think?" Consuela asked nervously. She sat perched on the edge of the sofa cushion. Consuela looked at Ryan uneasily. She didn't know how he would feel about her idea. It was, after all, dangerous...and highly illegal.
It was Ryan's turn to pace up and down for a long while. He was a reasonably honest man. He wasn't a fanatic about it though. If nothing else, his contacts with the local union when his little company had gone over 35 employees taught him there was a little avarice in everyone. (next Chap 2)