Fool Me Once

Chapter 01

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.

Chapter 02

“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.

Chapter 03

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?”

Ryan chuckled.

“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.

“Transfers?”

“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.

He laughed.

“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.

They laughed.

“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.

“Yeah…”

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.

The payments to the non-existent security firm he’d been making to avoid labor problems were illegitimate. He didn’t want the union in his shop and they were willing to look the other way for a consideration. He didn’t know if it was against the law to pay the extortion, but it was certainly unlawful for the union rep to ask for it. Ryan had cooperated to the extent that he had never complained to the authorities. This was way beyond that minor…involvement…with something illegal.

Could he live with this?

“It’s risky…” he said finally, “…awfully risky.”

He sat on the opposite side of the sofa and leaned his head back and closed his eyes to think.

“But…not too risky…if we’re smart,” he said at length, “and if we don’t get too greedy,” he added. He thought a moment longer.

“How would we set up accounts to send wire transfers to?” he asked.

Consuela gulped and didn’t answer for a moment. The comment, and the follow-up question, indicated Ryan had more than half accepted the premise of punishing the bank, Sean Michaels, and Carrie Gilchrist all at one time.

“My mother’s Uncle Roberto lives in Mexico City,” she said unsteadily. “He has an import and export company and he travels all over the Caribbean on business. He knows lots of people. Some of them have…contacts…”

Her voice trailed off. Neither commented on the implication her great-uncle knew people in both high and low places–people he could call on who knew how to keep their mouths shut…for a price of course.

“We know the passwords,” he mused, “but no one knows we do. Actually, no one could reasonably expect there would be any way in the world we could know.” He thought for a moment.

“Well, unless my video is shown somewhere,” he remarked. He opened his eyes and looked at Consuela. “This had better be worth me losing my revenge on my wife,” he told her quietly.

“Why?” she asked, confused at the comment. “You can still show the times when she was having sex with that man…it’s just the kitchen that you couldn’t show anyone.”

She stopped. Ryan was shaking his head.

“Nope. We can’t afford the possibility someone might wonder if I had spy cameras in one place, why wouldn’t I have cameras somewhere else. See?”

She nodded. It made too much sense to be debated. Ryan closed his eyes again and tilted his head to rest on the back of the sofa.

“I paid cash for the cameras and everything else,” he said reflectively. “That’s all they would accept. The guy was moving, liquidating a lot of merchandise, and needed cash quick. There were no credit card receipts with Ryan’s name on them…heck it was up in Dallas more than a year ago. There’s no paper trail at all really. They gave me a cash receipt but I know where it is. I can burn it and then there is nothing. He probably has a cash register record of the purchase…but it’s not linked to my name.

“Hell, he didn’t ask my name and I didn’t give it. He doesn’t know me from Adam and couldn’t identify me at this late date if the cops do find him and talk to him. There’s no problem there…”

“We can destroy the VHS tapes, the DVDs, the tape recordings, the cameras, tape decks…everything. All the equipment is one place in my garage and all the evidence I got with it is with me, out in my pickup,” he said. He was talking to the ceiling…think of all the details. “We can get rid of all of it some way…after wiping my prints off, of course.”

“I didn’t drill any holes in the wall to mount the cameras or anything,” he mused. “They were all just laying around…hidden in places I knew Carrie wouldn’t look.” He snorted. “Suzy Homemaker she is not.”

“Hmmmmm. What else? Am I missing anything?”

They talked for hours, finally winding down in the early hours of Saturday morning. Most of the discussion had involved how to dispose of all the gear and the mountain of evidence he had gathered on his wife. It was hard letting that go, but there could be no hint Ryan had any idea of what was going on, much less that he had done some personal investigating. If that was known, there might be questions about what he’d seen during those investigations. That was a long shot but there was no sense taking the chance.

Consuela had wondered how she would get access to Michaels’ laptop, but Ryan knew the answer to that already. Michaels and Carrie were in a hurry when they came in the house for their trysts. The laptop was always parked quickly on the sofa while the two adulterers rushed upstairs. It rested there until the first time one of them came downstairs.

He also knew how he could get himself and Consuela to the Gilchrist’s house without anyone upstairs knowing. There was a large swath of undeveloped land behind the house choked with scrub oak, some scruffy cedar, and lots of underbrush. Ryan had investigated it to some extent when they first moved into the new home. He knew how to work his way through from a street on the other side of the undeveloped land and right to their backyard. It was only a couple of hundred yards–five…maybe ten minutes, tops.

Once there, the chain-link fence around the back yard could be negotiated by anyone in reasonably good shape. He and Consuela were in excellent physical condition. It would be no problem for them to jump the fence.

At the house, the patio door rolled open and shut easily. It was silent for all practical purposes. He could leave it unlocked when he went to work. He’d make sure he left after Carrie…and he was willing to bet Carrie would never check it when she came home with her lover. The patio door opened into the dining room and it was only a few steps into the kitchen where the phone jack was. The sofa in the living room where the laptop would be sitting was just beyond the dining room through a doublewide doorway. Extricating themselves would be a simple matter of retracing their steps.

They didn’t know how long Consuela would have on the laptop. They’d made a note to themselves to use a stopwatch on the VHS tapes to figure out how long the breaks were that Michaels and Carrie took between couplings. They’d been thinking the amount of transfers Consuela could make would be limited by the time they had on the day they pulled this off. It had finally occurred to them, they could do this several times. Admittedly, it would have to be over a short time frame, say…a week, but that should be more than enough to drain enough funds from the bank for it to hurt.

Ryan had a fair idea Carrie would jump at the chance to invite her lover over if she thought Ryan was out of town. As a matter of fact, she had probably been doing Sean every day this week while he was gone. He’d know when he went home tomorrow. There’d be more videotapes to review because he’d left the all cameras and recording equipment in place.

They broke for the night, too tired to make more plans. Before they parted, they agreed once they started this operation, they would never again make notes on paper or on a computer. The ones they had already taken to remind themselves of things they needed to investigate further, and other notes they’d make when there was no alternative, would be strictly controlled. When their use was over, they’d be burned and the ashes disposed of somewhere safe.

They’d never make phone calls from phone numbers that could be traced back to either of them. They could never speak to anyone else about this, and most importantly, there was no way they could ever be seen in public together until this was over.

The last agreement hurt the most. They’d become comfortable with each other even though they’d only known each other for five days. It hurt to realize they couldn’t afford to attract attention by been seen together.

Ryan went back to his motel and Consuela went to bed after checking on Belinda. The little girl would be sad when she woke and saw Ryan was not there.

********

When he got home Saturday afternoon, Ryan found more proof of Carrie’s infidelity waiting for him. He wouldn’t have bothered watching it except he needed to time the gaps between the sexual bouts the two engaged in. He wasn’t interested in an average or a maximum period he and Consuela would have. It was the minimum amount of time they would plan for.

His review of the tapes showed they’d have a little more than twenty-five minutes each time for Consuela to do her magic. The sexual interludes Carrie and Sean engaged in were never less than thirty minutes…and there was only one time it was that short. Ryan figured if he and Consuela were in the house only twenty-five minutes, there was no way they’d ever be caught. They had a five-minute margin.

In the garage, he dumped all the tapes into a cardboard box along with most of the cameras, recorders, the audiotapes, and recorders. The box went into the passenger side floorboard in his pickup. It had been a year and more since Carrie had been near the truck so it was a safe hiding place for virtually anything.

Sunday afternoon, he drove to Austin and purchased half a dozen prepaid cell phones. Ryan and Consuela would use them to contact each other while they were avoiding each other for public consumption. They were untraceable and he paid cash for them at six different convenience stores to ensure the purchases were also untraceable.

Before going inside the stores, he checked to make sure those neighborhood stores had no security cameras. He smiled gently or kept his face comfortably blank, and was appropriately courteous everywhere. No one would have any reason to remember the man dressed in nondescript clothing.

When she wasn’t being cold and hostile, Carrie ignored him the entire weekend. That suited Ryan to a “T.” He had no intention of spending any time with her he didn’t have to, and sex was out of the question. It made him physically ill to think of making love to her.

She even slept most of the weekend. Ryan figured she was tired and he considerately left her alone so she could recuperate. He was beginning to relish the idea of what he and Consuela were going to do to Carrie and her Mr. Sean Michaels.

Chapter 04

Monday night, Consuela made a call from her Aunt’s house to her Great-Uncle Roberto, asking her aunt to leave the room for a short time. Her aunt had a bit of unrepentant larceny in her soul and would have loved to know what Consuela was planning. She was moderately disappointed Consuela wouldn’t share that information, but she understood. She figured she’d find out sooner or later.

Great-Uncle Roberto wouldn’t normally have accepted calls from an unknown number but now he was primed to answer when any of six numbers showed up on his caller ID after Consuela spoke to him. She ended the call by “padding” it with domestic chat she would normally have had with him on any other occasion.

Ryan had made one trip to her house in the late afternoon, driving a car loaned to him by one of his workmen. The man had needed the big pickup to go back to San Antonio to pick up a load of building supplies Tuesday morning and had actually suggested the switch.

Ryan made a mental note for him and Consuela to use rentals on their trips to and from his house. He didn’t quite know how he’d arrange for them without leaving a trail of credit card transactions, but he thought it could be done. Maybe he could reserve the car with a credit card and then pay the final charge in cash…or maybe he could make a large cash deposit for them. He’d see what turned up.

Belinda had been delighted when her mother left her at home with Ryan while she went to her Aunt’s. Ryan enjoyed it too. When Consuela got home and entered quietly through the kitchen door, she found her small daughter cuddled in Ryan’s arms while they both dozed in the big easy chair.

She watched them for a long time before waking them. It took that long for the unshed tears to dry up in her eyes.

********

Consuela spent every free moment the next week…not that there were many…speaking with her great-uncle. When he wasn’t talking to her, he was busy calling in favors with contacts he had in Belize, the Cayman Islands, Barbados, Bermuda, Antigua, Curacao, Aruba, Jamaica and in other places Consuela had never heard of. In days, accounts were ready for use in offshore banks that had reputations for maintaining extremely tight security on behalf of their clients. Most of the accounts had been there for a long time, sitting idle and waiting for someone to activate them. A very few were brand new.

By the time the preliminaries were taken care of, Roberto had set up a path for money to flow through such places as a London bank, to the always friendly Swiss Credit Bank, and from there to the Bank of Nigeria, and then back around to a Caribbean destination. He set up several hundred separate accounts because he knew whatever his great-niece was doing had a half-life of only a few days. There would be no time for the funds to accumulate and no way for typical investment transactions to be processed.

A week and a half after Great-Uncle Roberto finished setting up the routing and accounts, a smiling young Hispanic boy knocked on Consuela’s front door and handed her a rewriteable CD. Surprised, Consuela accepted the jewel case containing the CD. She looked up to find the boy had turned and left without saying a word.

The CD contained a spreadsheet Consuela and Ryan loaded on a second-hand laptop Ryan bought for cash. It was the only record they allowed themselves. There was no way to memorize all the accounts or they wouldn’t have had even this one piece of incriminating evidence around. The CD was sanded smooth, broken into small pieces, and melted before being dumped into the San Antonio River.

The revengeful pair anticipated having to let the money lay in an account somewhere for a couple of years or so to give the inevitable investigations time to die down. This was no real burden. They expected to be able to file civil lawsuits just as they’d planned anyway. They figured they had a good chance of winning them too.

The lawsuits would hurt the bank directly and penalize it for not enforcing their own contract’s morals clauses. Pilfering the accounts of super-rich bank customers was designed to create the appearance Sean Michaels and Carrie Gilchrist had conspired in bank fraud. The jail terms they would get were in lieu of being shot they way they would have been a hundred years earlier in this same city.

Ryan and Consuela reasoned the money looted from the rich bank account holders would be replaced by the bank. The bank couldn’t afford to lose their business if all the rich customers threatened to take all their funds out and those people could be relied upon to make exactly that threat. The loss to the bank would be a further penalty they’d just have to absorb. Next time, they’d make sure one of their senior supervisors didn’t sexually harass a single mother or help himself to another man’s wife on company time.

Consuela’s older second cousin, Richard, would store the laptop for them when she and Ryan finished the active phase of their plan. Richard was not computer literate and would have no interest in the laptop. He was also a recluse who had no friends. Actually, he associated with very few of the members of his own family.

He lived in a cabin with no conveniences back off behind a mesa and so far out in the sticks even the ranch’s cowboys never came there. He’d built there with the owner’s permission in compensation for a favor Richard had done him twenty years earlier. No one knew quite what it had been.

The only thing about Richard’s living arrangements that interested Consuela and Ryan was that his home was extraordinarily remote and no one could get near the place without Richard seeing them coming for a long way. No one visited Richard without very carefully identifying themselves at the edge of the parcel of land he considered his. He’d been known to take a shot at interlopers to get them moving along. The laptop was safe with him; Consuela was sure of it and she’d easily convinced Ryan.

A month and a half after Ryan and Consuela first met, all of the groundwork had been laid. The accounts were ready. The first pair of non-traceable cell phones they’d used to communicate with each other so far had been smashed and the component parts scattered in a half-dozen San Antonio dumpsters. All the gear Ryan had purchased from the spy shop and the recordings he’d made with that equipment had all been destroyed, burned, and the remnants deposited a city dump a hundred miles away. All their written notes had been burned and the ashes dumped in the San Antonio River south of town.

The storage bin in the garage where he’d kept the books had already been emptied and the contents carefully disposed of. He hadn’t wanted that area in the garage to stand out so he cleaned the whole thing thoroughly, using copious amounts of cleaning fluids and lots of elbow grease. They were as ready as they could make themselves.

Their plan called for Ryan to stay home for a week or two to interfere with the lovers’ trysts. He took off from work, telling Carrie he needed the time to recharge and rest after several months of hard work. She could hardly object; there was no good reason to shove him out of the house. Ryan was exceptionally attentive all week long; showing up several times at the bank to take her to lunch or just dropping by in the middle of the afternoon to show her a purchase, ask her advice on something, or just to chat for a moment on her break.

On Friday evening, he and Carrie attended a dinner hosted by one of the bank vice-presidents at one of the posh hotels down on the Riverwalk. It was an excuse for a formal evening out in the early fall to fill in the gap after Labor Day and before the traditional holidays. Ryan hadn’t gone to the one last year. He didn’t like many of the people Carrie worked with and he surprised Carrie this year with his enthusiasm about attending. She tried once or twice to dissuade him but Ryan wouldn’t hear of it.

He surprised her again when she saw the beautifully tailored tux he bought just for this event, along with the best accessories he could find. A visit to the barber that afternoon had corralled his unruly hair and he’d taken extraordinary care with his shave. She noticed his well-manicured nails and commented on them. In his line of work, keeping one’s nails long enough to manicure was difficult.

At the dance, Ryan stayed near his wife, though she tried a few times to divert him to other groups of partygoers. He smiled inwardly when she introduced Sean Michaels to him again. Ryan already knew who he was, from previous meetings, if nothing else…but it was interesting to look down into the man’s eyes and squeeze his pale hand when Carrie took him over to Sean and his cronies.

The slightly widened pupils and the distinct expression of pain when Ryan’s grip began to tighten were well worth the price of the tuxedo. Ryan hadn’t realized until now that his six feet, one inch frame was so much taller than Mr. Michaels. He could tell Michaels didn’t like it…and Carrie didn’t seem to appreciate the clear distinction between the two men either.

Ryan wandered away from Carrie’s side not long after that but he wasn’t alone for long. A number of women, unattached and otherwise, had noticed the byplay when Ryan shook Michaels’ hand and wanted a closer look at the winner of the contest. He noticed a look of irritation on Carrie’s face when she saw him across the room with three women vying for the attention of her tall, strong husband.

Carrie grew visibly more concerned when Ryan reintroduced himself to Sharon Michaels, Sean’s wife. He’d met her earlier in the year at one of the regular functions, but hadn’t seen her since.

The attractive blond spent a half hour chatting casually with Ryan. Near the end of their conversation, Sharon was distracted by something behind Ryan. He turned to see Carrie standing close to Sean and smiling up into his face. They were part of a crowd; there was nothing overtly suspicious about their postures or attitude, but Sharon was watching closely.

When he turned back to Sharon, a ghost of a frown was just fading from her face. There was a sadness in her eyes she couldn’t hide. Ryan didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know her well enough to say anything about what he knew. He wasn’t sure how she’d take it and now was not the right place or time to chance it.

All of the contrived interest in being with Carrie…Ryan thought of it as a smokescreen and bait for a trap…slowed in the second week. It had served its purpose. Carrie and Michaels were so spooked, they didn’t even try to arrange a rendezvous for fear Ryan would show up somewhere unexpectedly. Ryan did come by the bank again a couple of times, as he’d done the week before, just to keep the adulterous twosome off balance but they were short visits he made to and from other destinations.

It worked. By the end of the second week, Carrie was clearly frustrated and anxious. It was assumed Sean was in the same state of sexual dissatisfaction. Ryan and Consuela congratulated themselves. The pump had been primed.

********

It was even easier than Ryan had estimated to get into the house on Carrie and Sean’s first “date” on his first Monday back at work. Ryan had been able to orchestrate almost the exact time the time the pair of lovers would leave work for the afternoon by making a point of taking Carrie to an early lunch. He set it up on Sunday, telling Carrie he would come by to pick her up on his way out of town for a business appointment in Austin. She’d agreed–she could hardly say no the way Ryan put it to her–and suggested a Taco Bell near the downtown bank’s location. Ryan knew the proposal of a “fast food” meal was made to get it over with quickly and get Ryan out of town speedily.

That was fine with him. His only goal in eating lunch with her had been to make sure she and Sean Michaels couldn’t leave work in the morning. Ryan and Consuela wouldn’t have to wait all day near the Gilchrist residence waiting for something to happen.

*******

Instead of renting cars to travel back and forth, Ryan and Consuela borrowed nondescript vehicles from Consuela’s family. They were in Consuela’s cousin Alfredo’s car today. The rest of the week they would have the loan of automobiles–a different one each day–from other individuals in Consuela’s family and friends of the family.

The way it worked was that Consuela’s Aunt had spoken with a number of people she trusted. She arranged for a gassed up, smooth-running vehicle to be sitting in an out-of-the-way parking lot with the keys under the mat each morning by 7:00AM. Consuela and Ryan, though Consuela’s Aunt had no knowledge he was part of this, had full use of the vehicle all day. When it was returned to the parking lot, it was understood there would be an envelope under the mat with the keys containing a few hundred dollars in twenty-dollar bills. No questions would be asked, and none answered.

Ryan had told his senior foremen he was going to continue his time off and go out to the deer lease he’d had for years up near the little town of Marble Falls. It wasn’t unusual, even though he’d already been away from the job for two weeks. Ryan always got some deer tags about this same time each year and took a little vacation time to drive north of San Antonio up to the cabin on the lease near Marble Falls. It wasn’t remarkable enough to even comment on. The business hadn’t been making enough money in prior years to permit the three-week vacation. Everyone wished him good luck in the hunt.

Consuela was sick. It was that crud going around, she told her boss…or maybe it was the flu. She really hoped it wasn’t a new strain because she hadn’t gotten a shot this year. Anyway, she was going to use some sick time. She hoped she’d be back in tomorrow or maybe the day after. The bank manager wished her the best and hoped she’d soon be feeling better.

Ryan and Consuela talked about anything that came to mind while they waited in the small BBQ restaurant’s parking lot. It helped pass the time and they were slowly coming to realize they enjoyed just sitting and talking. Just being with each other for any reason was beginning to be important to them.

Ryan had left one bug in place, a sensitive listening device taped to the back of a small table in the foyer that would tell them when Carrie and her boss came in. Consuela had gone into the restaurant and brought out a bag of pulled pork sandwiches. She and Ryan had each eaten a couple–he was still hungry after his rushed lunch with Carrie–but the primary purpose of the purchase had been to establish a reason for the thoroughly unremarkable auto to be parked in the restaurant’s parking lot.

“Well, it’s about damn time,” Ryan commented. He’d just glanced at his watch, thinking his wife and Michaels should have had enough time to set up their excuses after lunch and leave for a few hours of licentious pleasure. The key rattling in the front door lock was clearly audible coming from the speaker of the portable receiving unit resting on the dash. The excited voices that followed almost immediately made it a certainty. Carrie and her lover had arrived.

Consuela and Ryan got out of the big gray Ford quickly. They had no time to lose, but they were careful. Taking a slow look around to make sure no one was watching, Ryan led Consuela into the scrub oak and brush to the west of the restaurant. It was the same stand of stunted trees and heavy underbrush that ended just behind Ryan’s home.

They’d talked about dressing in black and maybe drawing a mask over their faces or something, but they’d quickly discarded the idea. Going about dressed like ninja wannabe’s would draw attention from everyone in sight. Instead, they settled for a wig to conceal Consuela’s true hair color; plain, faded baseball caps; and dark sunglasses, and thoroughly unremarkable clothing.

The colors in their shirts and pants were muted greens, browns, and dark grays. Their footwear was unremarkable, and dark colored. The sizes on the shoes and boots they’d bought for this job were varied. On one day, they could put up with too tight shoes for the short time they would need to. Another day, they would wear multiple pairs of thick socks in shoes that were too big.

Everything they wore was clean, but well used, and had been obtained from Salvation Army and Goodwill stores in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Nothing had been purchased locally. Each of the six sets…the five they thought they’d need plus a spare…of clothing and footwear would be burned at the end of the day in which they were used. The metal zippers, other bits of metal, buttons, sunglasses, etc., would be scattered in the deepest part of several regional lakes.

********

It took only ten minutes…maybe a little more…to negotiate the couple of hundred yards through the tangle of brush and undersized trees. They could have done it in less, but Ryan deliberately led Consuela on a roundabout route through places where they wouldn’t leave tracks. Actually, it wasn’t difficult to find stretches of hardpan soil, or stretches of bare rock where their shoes wouldn’t leave any tracks. They would come back the same way and Ryan would use a branch to sweep across the sections where they did leave a trail. They would use this particular path only this once. Nothing they could control was being left to chance.

At the edge of the woods, they took disposable latex gloves from their pockets and pulled them on. They checked each other’s appearance carefully to make certain their disguises, such as they were, remained intact. Ryan gave Consuela a thumbs up gesture and she returned it with a nervous smile. Without waiting any longer, the pair hopped the fence and walked purposefully to the patio door. They didn’t run. They’d planned their walk to appear as natural as possible.

They kept their eyes moving behind their dark glasses. They saw no one at the windows of the house they would be entering and nothing alarming from the houses to either side. Three steps into the yard, tall shrubs on both sides of the Gilchrist house hid them very effectively from anyone who might have been at the windows in the neighbors’ homes.

Ryan opened the patio door with the ease of long familiarity and slid it open in one sure movement. As he’d predicted, Carrie had not thought to make sure the house was secured when she came home in the middle of the day. Seconds later, the glass door was closed softly behind them. He and Consuela moved to the side, where they’d be out of sight from anyone outside and stood close together. They hardly dared to breath for a long moment.

Ryan looked at his watch and showed the face to Consuela. They’d decided they would be out of the house at the twenty-six minute mark no matter what they’d accomplished or left undone. The woman nodded her understanding. Ryan started the stopwatch function and let his arm drop to his side.

They spent a moment longer just listening. They were amateurs. Their hearts were in their throats and had been since they got out of the car. Their bodies had dumped quantities of adrenalin into their bloodstreams and their pulse rates were skyrocketing. They needed the moment just to focus on what they were about to do.

The moaning from upstairs told them the adulterers were already hard at it. The wet, smacking sounds of naked flesh slapping against flesh were clear.

“Oh, God, Sean,” Carrie screamed, “do that…it’s been so long, darling.”

Ryan’s forehead was suddenly creased with deep lines. He stood stock still in the kitchen doorway. The fury he’d felt to a greater or lesser extent since he’d discovered Carrie’s second infidelity had ebbed over the past couple of months while he and Consuela were working on this plan. The anger came flooding back as he listened to the pair of lovers up the stairway in front of him and down a short hall. This was too much.

He’d already shifted his weight to his left foot and was preparing to step off on his right to go up the steps when he felt the weight of Consuela’s hand on his forearm. He looked around. Consuela’s eyebrows were raised in question. They’d agreed they would not speak a word until they were safely back in the car. Her touch brought a measure of sanity back to him.

Suppressing the rage, Ryan gave her a strained smile and a weak smile. He took a shuddering breath. It wasn’t easy, but he settled back squarely on his feet and set himself to listen only for signs his wife and Michaels were about to come downstairs.

He checked. He was not aroused. The sexual activity in which his wife was engaged upstairs was not keying the primitive response he’d learned about. He’d beaten it.

He grinned at his partner and gave her a firm nod. Reassured, Consuela looked around the living room, spotted the laptop on the sofa, and walked carefully across the living room carpet to retrieve it. Ryan had taught her to walk the way his grandfather had showed him. It was the way Comanche warriors walked when they were stalking game or enemies. After some practice at odd moments over the past two weeks, someone walking beside her couldn’t hear her footsteps as she crossed a creaky hardwood floor. Ryan grinned wolfishly.

Consuela took the laptop into the kitchen and sat down at the table. In another minute, she was logging in to the bank’s server and entering Michaels’ password. They were mildly surprised when it worked. They knew the bank regulations called for all users on the institution’s server to change their passwords no less than every sixty days. Sean Michaels thought himself above all that though. He hadn’t bothered.

Flashing Ryan a smile, Consuela laid out the pages of a printed spreadsheet of account numbers set up by Great-Uncle Roberto on the table beside the laptop. The sheets of paper would be burned sometime tonight, along with the clothing they wore. They would rely on the digital version on the laptop cousin Richard was guarding and the backup Great-Uncle Roberto had. They had other printed spreadsheets, with other account numbers, hidden in Ryan’s pickup for the raids they would conduct on the bank during the rest of the week’s visits.

Consuela went to work locating the accounts of a number of very, very rich people who’d entrusted their wealth to Sean Michaels and Carrie Gilchrist. Soon she was typing commands into the system as fast as her fingers could move.

********

Back in the car, they couldn’t restrain themselves. They laughed wildly at each other’s comments, no matter how weak the humor was. Consuela kept reaching out to touch Ryan’s hand and forearm. She couldn’t help it. They’d conspired, and had now committed a serious crime. They needed the closeness to reassure each other. After a while, the adrenaline wore off and they were quiet. Her hand was still protected in his though. It was a comfort for both of them while the enormity of what they had done sank in. By the time they got to where they would exchange cars, holding hands just felt good, period.

Eva Tantric Massage London

They left the BBQ restaurant’s parking lot immediately, making a point of driving well within the speed limit along a route they’d mapped out a week earlier. It had been difficult, but they’d found a path through the city that dodged around all the places they could see had security cameras pointed at the street, or places they would reasonably expect such devices but couldn’t immediately find them.

With their dull, uninteresting car, their wigs, caps, dark sunglasses, and carefully unremarkable clothing, they didn’t think they’d catch anyone’s eye even if the tapes from every private home and business along that route were examined. They kept their caps pulled down and brought a hand up by their face whenever they could, just in case. There was always the incredibly remote chance someone either of them knew might see them as they drove by.

Back at the lot where Ryan and Consuela’s cars were parked, they stripped down to their underwear and put everything they’d used this day into a big trash bag. The bag went into the back seat of Ryan’s pickup.

They were mildly embarrassed at their partial nudity before each other. This was, after all, the first time they’d seen each other undressed. Neither noticed the other’s discomfiture. Each thought the other was calm and businesslike. Neither thought the other was in the least self-conscious.

They dressed quickly and departed in different directions. Consuela left to pick up Belinda from daycare and Ryan raced to get to the hunting cabin he was using in the hill country near Marble Falls. Tonight, he would burn everything in the bag and the ashes sifted for metal parts, buttons, etc.

Sometime around sunrise, he would get in the flat-bottomed 16-foot fishing boat he kept up there and dump the ashes and metal parts in the deepest parts of the nearby lake. He might even catch a bass or two for breakfast, who knew? There would be no evidence of anything he and Consuela had done left behind, though, and that was the important thing.

********

By Friday, it was a well-settled routine for Ryan and Carrie. It was almost boring. They had to work hard at reminding each other to not relax on the tight security measures they were practicing. They parked at different locations each day, somewhere close to the BBQ restaurant because the only good place to enter the brush was just off the restaurant’s parking lot. Their disguises, and carefully staged changes in their pace and posture, ensured no one would notice the same couple wandering around all week long.

Sean Michaels and Carrie Gilchrist found time to sneak off to the Gilchrist home every day that week. The times of their meeting varied, but they always made their rendezvous and it was always at the Gilchrist home. Ryan thought it was sad that Sean Michaels never sprang for a motel room, just for a change of scenery. The man was cheap; that’s the best that could be said about him. Consuela thought that there was nothing better to be said about the man was particularly sad.

Changing to their disguises on Friday took Ryan and Consuela less than half the time it had Monday. Parking just down the street from the BBQ restaurant, they strolled slowly toward it arm in arm…and walked past without stopping. Ryan let the earpiece from the remote portable receiving unit slip off his ear and tucked it into his breast pocket.

The two Bexar county sheriff’s patrol cars parked nose out in the parking lot were almost certainly there only because the officers were inside working their way through a big plate of ribs. There was no officious bustle of law enforcement officers coming and going…and no activity around the place that hinted of an ongoing investigation inside the restaurant or in the little patch of wilderness nearby. No one showed any interest as they passed by and no one pursued. None of that mattered in the least.

“Wave off?” Ryan said in a low voice a block away from the place. Consuela wasn’t familiar with the term, but it’s meaning was clear enough. She nodded imperceptibly beneath the floppy army surplus bush cap she wore today. At the corner, she turned back, seemingly to check the traffic before they crossed the street.

“No one coming,” she murmured. “Still…”

“‘Tis the better part of valor,” Ryan remarked.

“It’s an omen,” Consuela said decisively.

Ryan didn’t question her appraisal. Without appearing to hurry, they walked completely around the block and back to the borrowed car they had for today, got in, and left. They filled their last black trash bag with the clothing they’d just removed, added the sets they hadn’t used, and put the bag in Ryan’s pickup.

He put an envelope with three hundred dollars under the seat–there was no floor mat in this car–and got out of the area quickly, parting with a quick kiss both badly needed from the other. There was an urgency to their movements that hadn’t been there before. They told themselves nothing had changed from yesterday’s adventure, but the threat they felt from the inoffensive patrol vehicles gave the lie to their words. They were relieved this phase was over.

The next day, after “returning” from his supposedly unsuccessful hunt, Ryan removed the audio pickup near the front door. He crushed it under his heel on the concrete garage floor and carefully picked up all the pieces. They were placed temporarily into a trash bag and were dropped individually that night into a handful of dumpsters across the city.

That same Saturday evening, an hour after a late evening phone call from Consuela, Great-Uncle Roberto began spreading the word. The next Monday, at a myriad of banks all through the Caribbean, men and women with imminently forgettable faces and nondescript appearances began emptying accounts using passwords the banks “knew” only the true account owners could possibly know. They took the cashier’s checks, sometimes cash, and made their way to other private banks where they made deposits according to their instructions.

Secondary accounts suddenly flush from cashier’s check deposits were looted almost as quickly as computers could process the transactions. None of the accounts had a positive balance the next afternoon. From that point on, every deposit and withdrawal was in cash. Eventually, thousands of comparatively small amounts…generally in U.S. dollars…began to find their way to Roberto’s special number accounts in private banking houses.

********

Three weeks passed without a cry being raised. Ryan was sure he’d see something in the paper or on the radio as quick as something hit the fan. It would be the most significant event to hit down there in the history of the bank. He knew that because when Consuela totaled everything up, they found they’d sent just short of nine million dollars out of the country into offshore accounts.

None of that money was anywhere near where it had been sent initially of course, and investigators were going to find the trail quickly went cold. It was going to be all but impossible to track the money beyond the first or second deposit account. All the anonymous men and women who had emptied one account only to put the money in another account had done their jobs and were gone. They’d already melted back into the faceless mob in a double dozen of Caribbean cities, putting away their best suits and dresses for the next time they would be required.

They could not testify who had given them their instructions, even if they could have been coerced into doing so, because the instructions had been given them by other, unnamed and unidentifiable people, who also faded away into the population. By the time the funds had been moved a third and fourth time, there was no way anyone could trace their destination. There were just too many cutouts.

The money disappeared into the enormous pool of wealth floating between the banks in the Caribbean without making the slightest of impressions on anyone. The banks in Cayman Islands alone boast assets of over $800 billion and similar amounts rested in the remainder of the offshore banks. Nine million dollars didn’t even make a ripple as it was dropped in.

Each time the money was moved, of course, little nibbles were taken out. It didn’t matter. Even after everyone took their slice and Great-Uncle Roberto took his, there was still more than seven million dollars left over. That was plenty for Ryan and Consuela. The bank was burned…bad. They were sure that much of a loss was going to hurt. The funds began to arrive in Mexico City buried in routine transactions on accounts Roberto controlled.

The amount was phenomenal, considering Consuela had had to stay under ten thousand dollars on each transaction. They hadn’t wanted to start raising red flags by filing bogus Currency Transaction Reports, required for wire transfers of greater than ten thousand dollars.

Consuela had even managed to set up a vast number of automatic transfers that occurred after she went off line. Indeed, after the first day, this was how most of the work was done. It was all so simple. It was marvelous what one login name and a twelve-character password could do.

Oh, yes. When someone caught on, there was going to be a minor explosion down there inside the business district. It was only a matter of time. Ryan and Consuela continued living their lives as they always had. They had only to wait.

Chapter 05

“Hi,” came the tinny voice. The pre-paid cell phones didn’t have the best of components.

“How ya doing?” Ryan replied. He knew Consuela’s voice by now, even distorted as it was by the cheap phone. It was the time of day they’d set up to talk to each other, a thing they did nearly every evening now. They liked the contact, tenuous though it was.

“Good, real good…how ’bout you,” she answered.

“Doing great…tired of waiting, but good otherwise,” Ryan remarked.

That was as far as he would go. They would say nothing that anyone listening could interpret as being associated with the biggest bank robbery in Texas history, as they thought of it.

Today, he was in his pickup and driving on the southeast side of town, well away from his office and residence. Yesterday he’d called her from near his house. It wouldn’t do for calls from these numbers to be carried by cellular relay towers in every section of the city except those close to home or office. They were careful to plan their normality down to the last detail.

“Me too,” she said. There was a long pause and some muffled noise in the background.

“Hi, Mister Ryan.” Ryan’s features softened.

“Hi, Belinda. How are you?” he said gently.

“Fine,” the little girl answered. “When are you gonna come to see me?” she asked plaintively. It had been a while since Ryan had found an excuse to leave the city to go to her mother’s house.

“Oh, I think I’m going to be there on Sunday,” Ryan answered. He had a couple of crews that were going to go to the small town again on Monday. Several businesses along the main street had negotiated a special price with him for remodeled storefronts, a group rate of sorts.

He’d already told his wife he was going to go out a day early to survey them. Carrie didn’t mind. She was glad to be rid of him.

He talked to the four-year-old for a few minutes. He enjoyed conversations with her and she loved them because he didn’t talk down to her. Both of them looked forward to his clandestine visit Sunday evening.

“Are you still there?” Consuela asked when she finally was able to pry the cell phone from her daughter’s small hands.

Ryan chuckled. He’d heard the exchange that occurred while Consuela had been in the process of regaining possession. Belinda was not happy at having lost control of the phone.

“Uh-huh,” he replied, “I think she needs to be taken out to Baskin Robbins for an ice cream cone or something like that Sunday.” It was one of Belinda’s favorite things to do.

“Baskin Robbins?” Consuela said a little louder than she needed to. That was for Belinda’s benefit. “I don’t know…do you think she’s been a good enough girl for that?” The fussing in the background died away quickly. Ryan chuckled again. There was a small pause.

“I saw an interesting TV show last night,” Consuela said casually.

“Oh?” Ryan responded.

“Yeah, on channel 16,” she said, “at ten o’clock…it’s on every weeknight at that same time.”

“What’s the name of it?” Ryan asked curiously. He and Consuela talked about anything that came to mind, but she wasn’t usually so circumspect. He could sense something in her tone.

“It’s called ‘Busted’ and I think it’s a show taped up in Dallas…maybe Houston or somewhere like that,” she said a little nervously.

“Oh? What’s it about?” he asked.

“I’d rather you just take a look at it and tell me what you think,” Consuela countered.

Clearly, she didn’t want to discuss it on the phone. Ryan gave up trying to get anything from her and agreed to take a look at the show. They talked for another ten minutes and then ended the call when Ryan got into heavy traffic. They would see each other day after tomorrow. It would have to be soon enough.

********

He watched the television show in his study. With the door closed, it couldn’t be heard upstairs and he’d recently moved a new Lazy Boy recliner in. He wasn’t sure Carrie had even noticed. These days, she seldom visited any part of the house where he might reasonably be found.

Carrie had gone to bed early with yet another in an unending series of headaches. He could tell she was beginning to feel a little uneasy about Ryan’s continued lack of interest in sex, but she wasn’t alarmed enough to do anything about it yet. For now, she was content getting her needs for security taken care of by Ryan. Sean Michaels saw to her sexual and most of her emotional needs. She had her cake and was eating it too. There really was nothing about her life she wanted to change.

The TV program opened with information about a private investigation firm based in Houston. Ryan didn’t know the name of the agency but that wasn’t surprising. Anyway, this episode was taped in Austin and was about a young woman who’d become suspicious of her live-in boyfriend. They had a baby born only a few months ago. It seemed he was displaying a sudden irresponsibility and had grown distant with her. She thought he might be cheating on her and wanted “Busted” to investigate.

She was right. The boyfriend had found another girlfriend and was already sexually involved with the new woman. The host met with the girl one evening to show her video clips of her boyfriend kissing, hugging, and disappearing behind a motel door with the other woman. After a period of crying and obvious distress, the host took the girl and a film crew to the outdoor restaurant where the straying boyfriend and the woman were having dinner.

The boyfriend looked like a deer caught in the headlights when the camera crew’s started taping. He never recovered and meekly took a considerable amount of verbal abuse from both his significant other and new girlfriend for some time. The host said they would reveal the outcome of the confrontation later.

The second episode concerned a man in Houston who thought his wife might be having an affair with a man she’d met at the gym. Except for the changed roles and slightly different specifics, this one was a virtual repeat of the first installment. The final credits said the investigatory service the PI firm offered was open to anyone and, if they used the participants’ case on the TV show, it was free.

Ryan thought for ten minutes past the point where he was sure of what he was going to do, just to make sure it was the right decision. Then he picked up the phone to call the number shown on the screen.

Tomorrow morning he’d call an attorney and tell him, or her, he was sure his wife was cheating on him and what he’d done to expose the adultery. He knew what the TV show’s detectives would find out. The long wait was nearly over.

********

The night was dark and there was lightning building up off to the northwest. A storm was gathering strength up in the hill country and it was about ready to lash out at the big city in its path. It was warm…Indian summer had held on particularly long this year…with unusually mild days and cool nights. Everyone was in a light jacket or shirtsleeves, with raincoats or ponchos close to hand.

The host motioned to the camerawoman and she assumed a strong stance, setting her feet wide apart and making sure her knees weren’t locked. She’d seen a number of guys and gals working behind the camera fall flat on their faces when they passed out from decreased blood circulation. It was a revelation to her that people who faint invariably fall forward. She hadn’t known that. She would have been amazed to learn military personnel were regularly counseled to not lock their knees while standing at attention in formation and it was for the same reason she avoided the practice.

Once everyone was set, the host took Ryan by the elbow and tugged him close so they would both be in frame. He began to speak. He was sorry they’d had to ask Ryan to come back early from his business trip, he said. They had information on the case Ryan had brought to them. He was sorry, but tonight he had to tell Ryan his wife was indeed straying from her marriage vows.

Ryan was visibly dejected. He thought he did it very well but, on the chance it wasn’t working, he turned and walked away from the host and the camera for a moment. There was only his broad back to watch for a long moment.

Not wanting to overdo it, Ryan cleared his throat and went back to the host. He nodded a slow yes to the host’s question about seeing the video taped evidence he had with him. The tiny cameras the show’s detectives had shown him how to install in his bedroom had been exceptionally high-quality devices. The scenes of his wife having sex with her lover were sharp and clear. They were at least a full magnitude better than the videos he’d made with his own spy cameras.

Showing distress while he watched the tiny digital camcorder’s view screen, Ryan tugged on the beard he’d recently grown. The beard and a nice mustache were on his face to change his appearance. He’d grown them, and was wearing the Texas Rangers baseball cap, so the spy shop owner in Dallas wouldn’t recognize him. It was one of the myriad of “just in case” things he and Consuela had done over the past few months in the interests of securing their secret from others.

The beard and mustache would also serve to disguise his face from the people in the little town fifty miles outside San Antonio. He and Consuela hadn’t been together in the café or anywhere else in public, for that matter, for a couple of months but it didn’t hurt to be just that little bit more careful.

The host had known already Ryan was open to seeing the video, of course. The producer who’d called Ryan in Memphis two days ago had been properly apologetic but they were hoping Ryan could meet them Friday evening when they could get a full film crew down to San Antonio.

Ryan had told the producer on the phone he would come and agreed to the show taping him viewing the graphic videotape. The conference he was attending in Memphis wasn’t at all critical to Ryan. In fact, he’d only gone out of town to give Carrie a sense she was free to do whatever she wanted anyway. He quickly agreed to come home.

When the host asked the question he’d earlier told Ryan he would ask–the one about asking for an explanation from his wayward wife–Ryan had a sudden inspiration. He signaled frantically at the camera and the producer behind it.

“Wait…wait…I got an idea,” he told them.

The annoyance on the faces of the host and producer faded as Ryan explained what he had in mind. They knew he’d recognized Sean Michaels in the videos. He’d said so on camera. They hadn’t known Ryan was well enough acquainted with Michaels’ wife to phone her. They smiled broadly at his suggestion they call her and invite her along for the “confrontation,” as they called it. Someone handed Ryan a cell phone with the top already flipped open.

“Mrs. Michaels?” Ryan asked.

“Yes?” the feminine voice answered uncertainly.

“Sharon, this is Ryan Gilchrist,” he said somberly.

“Oh…hello Ryan,” she replied. There had been no pause. She’d remembered his name immediately, though it had been some time since their last meeting. Her voice didn’t sound happy though. Ryan decided to get to the point without sugarcoating anything.

“Sharon, I’m just as sorry as I could be to tell you this but your husband and my wife have been having an affair,” he said bluntly. There was the sound of a sharply inhaled breath but Sharon didn’t offer an immediate comment.

“Sharon?” Ryan said finally.

“Yes…yes, I’m here,” she said. There was a fatalistic note in her voice. “How long have you known?” she asked.

“I’ve suspected for months, but I saw proof of it this evening,” Ryan answered. He’d expected some form of that question and had an appropriately ambiguous answer ready.

“I see,” Sharon Michaels said uncomfortably. “Well, I can’t say it’s a big surprise,” she said with a deep sigh. “Damn him,” she added.

“Sharon…the thing is…”

Ryan didn’t quite know how to raise the next point.

“Well…I’ll just blurt it out,” he told her. “Sharon, I’m with a film crew from a TV show out of Houston…and…uh…we’re about to go surprise them on a date in a restaurant down on the Riverwalk.” There was silence on the other end of the line for a long while.

“Oh…wow,” Sharon breathed into the phone. Abruptly she giggled like a schoolgirl into the phone.

“You’re going to do a number on my dumb ass husband, aren’t you?” She laughed more heartily. “Serves him right, the jerk.”

“Yeah…uh…Sharon, I don’t know if I should say it this way, but I’m going to destroy him and my wife tonight,” Ryan told her. “I can’t imagine he’ll be able to keep his job and I’m sorry for what that will do to you.” There was a short silence.

“Nah…don’t worry about it,” Sharon replied. “He’s got a big ol’ golden parachute in his contract and he’ll get a nice settlement even if they fire him tomorrow morning. I’ll have all of that, and my pound of flesh too, before I’m through with him,” she added.

“Hah!” Ryan said explosively into the phone. He was grinning broadly. “I don’t blame you a bit, but…listen, Sharon, the last thing I have to say is…do you want to come with us and drop a double bombshell on these two…jerks?” Sharon was quiet for a moment longer.

“I…I hadn’t thought about that. I’m not sure I want my face plastered all over…you know what? I think that’s exactly what I need to get a little closure on this. Yeah, I’ll go with you. Where are you?”

“Let me have the producer tell you all the specifics about where it’s going happen and stuff like that,” Ryan said.

When she said okay, he handed the cell phone to the producer and let him set things up. It didn’t take long. When she got to where they were setting up, they would sign her to an agreement to use her voice and image on the TV production. Then they’d outfit her with a battery-powered lapel mic like the one Ryan had clipped on his shirt collar. The power pack was hooked on his belt in the small of his back. It had sharp corners; he had to be careful not to lean back against a solid surface.

********

There were four big cameras and it apparently took a crew of three to work each one. In addition to the man or woman operating the heavy video camera, there had to be someone to guide him or her around. Tugging on their clothing or guiding them with a hold around the waist, they made it unnecessary for the cameraman or woman to take their eyes from the viewfinder. The third individual carried a big boom mic he, and in one case, she could thrust close overhead to pick up everything the people in front of the camera were saying.

A group of guys and two women the producer identified as licensed private investigators accompanied the cameras and host. There were almost as many of them as there were people to record the event. The host kept referring to them as “security” and “detectives.”

The producer had gone into the rowdy nightclub beforehand and buttonholed the manager to tell her what was happening. The manager had seen the show before and knew the excitement it was going to bring to the club. She had no problem with it. Excited people were happy people. They ordered lots of drinks and that’s what she was in business for.

She told the bouncers what was happening and instructed them to stay out of the way and arranged for the camera crews to come in a side door. She turned off the automatic alarm opening that door would normally set off so they could get to the table near the dance floor that much quicker.

The host and Ryan walked swiftly from the door into the club’s interior. The camera operators and their handlers were right on Ryan’s heels, almost pushing him ahead in their eagerness to be ready to tape the action they knew was coming. As the club patrons recognized them, a raucous roar went up but the couple sitting at the side table didn’t notice. Carrie had her back to the approaching group of men and women while Sean Michaels was twisted around in his seat talking to a waitress in a short skirt, apparently signing a receipt. Neither noticed anything unusual until the primary camera crew turned on the big floodlight.

Carrie jumped in her seat and swiveled around to see what was happening. She was momentarily blinded and couldn’t see a thing.

“Hello, Carrie…what’s up?” Ryan said loudly. He did his best to keep the maliciousness he felt out of his voice. It wasn’t easy. This day had been a long time coming.

Carrie’s jaw dropped. Her eyes opened wide. She was caught off-guard, startled worse than she had been when Ryan walked in on her and Marshall more than four and a half years earlier.

“Carrie, I’m Johnny Waterfield from the TV show ‘Busted,” the host told her. She looked at him disbelievingly, not apparently comprehending his words. She seemed barely aware he was there.

“What?” she said faintly. The boom mic picked it up clearly though.

“Would you like to explain to Ryan what you’re doing here with this man?”

“I…we’re just friends,” she choked out.

“No, that’s not true and you know it,” Johnny retorted. “We have video tape of you and Mr. Michaels having sex in your own home on several occasions,” he told her. “Do you have anything to say to that?”

She shook her head. Her eyes were beginning to grow wild. She was a trapped animal. She wanted desperately to get away but she was hemmed in on every side by club customers and the camera crews. She could only stare in horror into the camera lens. She couldn’t seem to look away.

“We’re just friends,” she protested again. “We’re just having a few drinks and–“

“Is that right?” Ryan demanded loudly. “Just friends? How about talking to another of your friends?” he asked her and pointed beyond her off shoulder.

“Say hello to Sharon,” he snarled.

Ryan had been worried about not being able to react naturally, but it wasn’t necessary to fake anything now. He was genuinely enraged again at his wife’s unfaithfulness. He’d lived with it for so long. It was good to let it out.

Sharon Michaels had quietly slipped behind the table and “borrowed” a full pitcher of beer from an adjoining table. When the camera shifted slightly to center her in frame, she dumped the beer on her husband. Enough of the cold liquid splashed on Carrie’s gauzy white top to make the material nearly transparent. Her hard, erect nipples were suddenly poking a hole in the wet fabric. The view would be obscured by a blurred circle in the final cut but, at the time and place, Ryan and the club crowd could immediately, quiet clearly tell she was braless.

He took in her micro miniskirt and the high stiletto heels she wore and shook his head. A second camera crew had established themselves on the other side of the table and caught his disgusted expression perfectly.

“Have you even got panties on?” Ryan sneered.

Without waiting for an answer, he reached down to lift up his wife’s skirt to find she did not, in fact, have any on. The crowd–that part of it that was close enough to see–roared. It was another shot that would have to be edited with a blurred circle, but viewers of the final product would be able to easily figure out what hadn’t been there.

Carrie’s hand swept down quickly to yank the skirt back into place. She struggled to move, tucking her legs under the table.

Across from her, Sean Michaels was still struggling to wipe the beer from his eyes. He had yet to utter a word. His eyes were huge circles in a pale face. He was dividing looks between the camera lens and his angry wife. That he hadn’t yet said anything wasn’t keeping Sharon from haranguing him viciously.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” she demanded in a loud voice. “Speak up, you son of a bitch. What are you doing here with this slut?”

The crowd loved it and the noise level rose again. The producer had a beatific expression on his face. There would have to be a lot of editing on this, but it would be the best episode he’d put together in the last year and a half.

Sharon reached out and caught her husband’s earlobe between thumb and forefinger. She yanked him out of his seat and began dragging him toward the exit. It started a general exodus. Carrie lurched to her feet and struggled to push her way out of the club. She was in shock and wasn’t very steady on her five-inch heels. The club’s customers weren’t cooperating either. They resisted her attempts to get out quickly and a number of men took the opportunity to cop a feel or two on her journey to the front door. She never noticed.

Outside, the camera crew dogged her steps as she desperately trotted down the sidewalk. She abruptly realized she was going in the wrong direction and had to turn back toward the parking lot where she’d parked her car. Going back past the club made the patrons still gathered outside all that much happier.

The rain was causing her top and skirt to cling tightly to her body now. Her mascara was running and her hair was plastered to her head. She dodged into an alley and trudged down it, finally finding a doorway into some building where she could shelter for a moment.

“I can’t believe…” she breathed. The host was still with her, as was the main camera crew.

“What, Carrie?” Johnny asked interestedly. “Would you like to explain why you’ve been seeing another man behind your husband’s back? I’m sure he’d like to know.”

“I can’t believe he’d humiliate me this way,” Carrie wailed.

Johnny looked at her in disbelief for a moment, shocked out of his professional face. His line of patter failed him for a moment.

“Don’t you think you’ve been the one doing the humiliating, Carrie?” he asked at length.

Carrie didn’t answer. She might not even have heard him. She struggled to get past the host and continue down the alley.

When she got to her car, her shaking fingers wouldn’t cooperate. She had a hard time retrieving her keys from her small clutch bag and fitting them into the lock. Johnny finally took them from her and opened the door for her. She had to try several times to get them out of his hands before he finally gave them up. She wouldn’t respond to any of his questions. She just kept shaking her head no.

Ryan knocked on the window, letting his knuckles rap hard on the glass.

“Hey, sweetie,” he said facetiously, “what’s your hurry? The party’s not over yet…look what I have for you.”

His lawyer had been primed and ready since the morning after Ryan called the TV show’s producers but the paperwork sat in Ryan’s file, waiting for the right time to be brought forth. When Ryan heard from the producer two days ago, he called the attorney and set certain things in motion. The petition for divorce Ryan had already signed was taken to the courthouse and filed with the clerk of the court. There was a certain required formality Ryan had had to arrange and that was going to happen right now.

Ryan stepped back to allow the older man in a western suit and an expensive looking, cream-colored Stetson get closer to the door. The short, slender man showed Carrie his process server’s badge and identification. He was only another private investigator Ryan had hired, but the badge looked very official. She stared in confusion for a long moment. Finally, at the man’s gesture, she rolled down the window.

“Carrie Denise Gilchrist?” he asked formally. She nodded.

He slipped a sheaf of papers from his inside pocket and slapped them into her hand.

“You are served,” he said succinctly and backed away.

He sniffed, certain he was going to catch a cold from all this. Opening an umbrella, he walked back out to the street where he’d parked his car. One of the cameras caught a view of his slow walk down the sidewalk, but it didn’t make the final version of the incident.

Carrie was still holding the documents that had been thrust into her hands. She looked as if she’d lost the capacity to be anymore shocked. Her expression was lifeless, uncaring.

“Carrie!” Ryan said sharply. She turned to look at him.

“Don’t bother going home,” he growled. “The locks on all the doors were changed twenty minutes after you left the house this evening for your rendezvous with your “friend.” I hired a bunch of movers to pack everything in your closet and the boxes will be delivered to your parent’s place in an hour or two.

“I don’t care where you go, Carrie. I loved you, but that love is dead. You killed it and it won’t ever come back…never!

“Don’t call me, don’t write me, don’t try to get hold of me in any way, shape, form, or fashion. Understand?” he said harshly. “I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want to hear about you. You’re trash and I should have kicked your ass out the first time you cheated on me. Just looking at you makes me want to throw up.”

His mouth worked for a moment as if he might actually vomit. He struggled to find more words but none came to him. He turned and walked away, leaving his soon to be ex-wife sitting frozen in her seat. The camera crew hurried to catch up.

Somehow, the cameras had all lost track of Sean and his wife. It wasn’t known until much later that they found out she’d whisked him into a cab she’d called for before entering the club and took him home. Neighbors heard Sharon berating the man until the wee hours of the morning.

When the producers came by a week later to inquire on the status of their relationship, she bullied Sean into signing a release so the show could use his image. There was a little suspicion on the part of the producers the man never knew what he was signing. He had only one chance and that was to do exactly what his wife wanted, every time she wanted it. When Sharon thrust a ballpoint at him, he signed where her finger pointed.

Ryan went home and shaved off both mustache and beard. They’d served their purpose.

Chapter 06

The morning after the TV show was videotaped, another attorney Ryan had hired showed up at the bank and settled into one of the overstuffed easy chairs in the big, well-appointed suit where the most senior officers had their offices. When Jon Harrison…the bank president…walked in, he asked why Carlton J. London was sitting there with three of his law assistants in attendance.

Harrison knew exactly who the attorney was. They were both members of the same art groups and charitable organizations in San Antonio. London was also one of the finest civil law attorneys in the state. Slim and dapper, he was tough as shoe leather in the courtroom or in the saddle at the ranch he had out west of Abilene.

Mr. Harrison flinched and his face paled when he was told London was representing Mr. Ryan Gilchrist, husband of Mrs. Carrie, a senior manager in Sean Michaels’ section. Mr. Gilchrist had filed suit against the bank for failing to enforce it’s own morality clauses with a number of specifications.

Mr. Gilchrist was suing under the common-law tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress claiming the bank knew of his wife’s affair with a junior vice-president, did nothing about it, and attempted to cover it up in spite of the morals’ clauses in both their contracts. The suit claimed the institution had thus fostered a climate in which Mr. Gilchrist’s marriage had been irreparably damaged.

With the preliminaries over, Mr. London announced he would be pleased to see Mr. Sean Michaels’ personal records. Locating the supervisor of the Human Resources department, the attorney presented him with the first in a stack of subpoenas signed just this morning by a friendly judge.

The president called his senior managers together to find out just how deep in the excrement they were wading. The HR director was pulled out of the meeting twenty minutes into the meeting. He came back in a few minutes later pale and trembling. With the whole bank hierarchy in the meeting, a junior in his department had come by and noticed the subpoena lying on his supervisor’s desk.

Not knowing the legal department had not yet seen the writ, the junior employee had produced the requested records and two of Mr. London’s assistants had used the high-speed copier in the junior’s own office to make a duplicate of every document in the file. Another of Mr. London’s assistants had departed the building immediately with the duplicates in hand while Mr. London was scrutinizing the originals in the small conference room.

Did anyone know if the Human Resources director could get some of the security guards together and forcibly remove the file from Mr. London’s hands. Just because he had a subpoena, was that the final word? What could they do about the copies that were already out of the building and beyond their control? No one in the room would look at the HR manager, or the bank president.

Before anything could be done, the phone in the corner rang and the most junior of the executives answered. After listening for a long moment, he told the president Mr. London had let loose a string of four-letter words while going through Mr. Michaels’ personnel record and hadn’t stopped mouthing them for a long while.

Now Mr. London now asking for the records of all sexual harassment complaints in the bank for the past two years. He was saying something about getting a subpeona duces tecum, whatever that was, to make that happen. The junior executive wanted to know if this was important.

Three levels of management had a simultaneously urge to throw up their breakfasts.

********

Ryan and Consuela had discussed the TV show as a way of replacing the confrontation Ryan would have had with Carrie in family court using his own video recordings. Then, based on what she knew of the banking industry, they’d quickly realized not only would the episode of ‘Busted’ accomplish that aim, it would almost certainly spark an audit of Michaels’ entire stewardship of the personal wealth division. It did.

A week after Ryan’s attorney filed the suit against the bank, Consuela got a late evening call from an excited friend still working at the bank. The building had gone into a virtual lockdown just before lunch. Apparently, it was all coming from what was discussed in a panicked meeting upstairs that had begun shortly after the big bosses came in. Ever since noon, an army of men and women in expensive suits and carrying voluminous briefcases had come into the bank and disappeared into the express elevators to the top floor.

Just at closing time, a second, smaller, army of people in cheaper suits had arrived. This group glanced about with hard eyes and one of the tellers had seen two of them show FBI credentials to the guard before he would let them in. Other people with different looking badges had come in right behind them. No one…no one…looked happy.

Someone was even saying the senior vice president in overall charge of the investment and personal wealth divisions had had to be restrained when he tried to open a window on the twenty-second floor. That was probably just a rumor, but wow! Could Consuela believe all this, her friend asked.

Consuela thanked her girlfriend and begged off, saying she needed to get Belinda to bed. Seconds after hanging up, she used the disposable cell phone to call Ryan’s throwaway with the news.

They discussed destroying the pre-paid cell phones but decided not to until one or the other got some indication they were even suspected of being in contact. They couldn’t bear to lose the one way of communicating with each other they had left. The sound of each other’s voice was becoming increasingly important to them.

They would limit the use of the cell phones though. It was the smart thing to do.

********

“Mr. Gilchrist?

“Yes?” Ryan answered absentmindedly. His attention was on the quarterly inventory he was studying and not on the two men who had wandered in his office’s open door.

“Special Agent Thomas, Special Agent Williams, Federal Bureau of Investigation. May we speak with you?” the taller agent asked.

“You’re in now, I reckon you might as well,” Ryan answered, glancing up at last to show them an irritated scowl.

He was truly annoyed with the two agents, though not for the reason they suspected. Instead of being unhappy they were there, he was upset they hadn’t come by several weeks earlier. Waiting had never been his strong suit.

He motioned with his free hand. The agents shoved their badges closer so he could see them.

“Nah, I don’t want to see your badges,” Ryan growled. “I can buy ones that look just like that in the toy section at Walmart. Show me your ID cards, gents.”

The agents looked at each other, faintly surprised. Very few citizens asked for the hard-to-reproduce identification but the agents were obligated to produce them upon request. They did.

Ryan examined them for a moment, and then picked up the office phone. Looking in a phonebook, he had a number for the local FBI office in seconds, called them and had a short conversation with the Special Agent In Charge of the San Antonio office. He admitted they did have two agents fitting the description Ryan gave and with those ID card numbers. Ryan grunted, thanked the agent in charge, and hung up.

“Okay,” he said, “you’re real…what can I do for you.” His eyes and forehead had cleared and his voice was friendlier.

“You have had occasion to doubt the validity of a federal officer, Mr. Gilchrist?” asked the older agent. Ryan nodded.

“Two…maybe two years and three months ago, some jerk came around wanting to talk to all of my workers about some “anti-racketeering” complaints or something like that. He flashed a badge around and had my boys wandering around wondering who ‘Rico’ was.” Ryan grinned at the agents.

“Turned out he was a union organizer come down from New York, New Jersey or somewhere. He thought he’d do a little bit of intimidation…figuring if I was scared enough, I’d let the shop go union and so on and so forth. He’s still in a federal prison somewhere, I think. I had to testify at his trial.”

The agents glanced at each other, a habit that was slowly beginning to get on Ryan’s nerves. He wondered if they were even aware of it.

Actually, both were thinking there had been an entry in Gilchrist’s file to the effect that he had indeed cooperated in a sting operation some years ago. The special agent who’d been in charge of that had made a number of glowing comments about Gilchrist.

“So…who’s doing some racketeering now?” Ryan asked, trying to get things moving.

“No, no,” Special Agent Thomas said. “We’re part of a joint task force organized under the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury. We’re investigating allegations of money laundering at the bank where your wife works…formerly worked.”

“Hah!” Ryan snorted explosively.

“Have you boys done your ground work? Don’t look at each other dammit! One of you just answer,” he ordered them peremptorily.

Startled, the two agents threw another fleeting look at each other before facing back to the man they were supposed to be interviewing. They both flushed slightly. Ryan shook his head and sighed loudly.

“If you have investigated anything about me,” he said in a disillusioned tone, “you already know I won’t have a wife when the judge lifts the continuance my so-called wife’s lawyer asked for,” Ryan added.

“We do know that, Mr. Gilchrist. We know other things too. We’re aware the divorce is held up pending the outcome of the criminal investigation…and maybe the trial…but we think you might have information that might assist in the investigation. Is there anything you’d like to tell us?”

That was from Agent Thomas. It was accompanied by a glowering look intended to frighten the guilty into spontaneous confessions.

Ryan was unimpressed. His only reaction was to show them a confused frown.

“Gents, I can spell bank, and on a good day, I can write both “money” and “laundry” down on paper without hurting myself too bad, but that’s about it. How the dickens can I help you with what’s going on down there. Shoot, I don’t hear anything from there, now that me and the wife are on the outs,” he said forcefully.

Ryan sighed when the agents shot another look at each other before either spoke. He wasn’t all that impressed with his first visit from law enforcement about the bank fraud.

The FBI agents accepted a cup of scalding hot, almost bitter, coffee from the urn in the corner and continued questioning Ryan for another fifteen minutes without the agents learning anything of interest. They tried every angle they could think of but neither got any signals from the guy that he had anything at all to contribute.

********

“What do you think?” Agent Thomas asked his pardner as they drove away.

“I didn’t get anything,” Williams replied.

“Me either,” Thomas replied, “the guy’s a little bit of a rube, don’t you think? I don’t think he’s got the smarts to be mixed up in this.”

“Nope. I don’t think that at all,” Williams shot back. Stan Williams had been in the Bureau for twenty-two years and had seen a lot more people come and go than his junior pardner.

“Gilchrist is plenty smart. Watch his eyes if we talk to him again and you’ll see what I mean. He’s sharp, but he doesn’t mind folks underestimating him. Gives him an edge,” Williams commented.

“But…I doubt he’s involved in this,” Agent Williams remarked. “All he’s got is a BBA and a grand total of two or three night courses in elementary banking practices some years ago. I don’t see how this guy could be part of it.”

“Uh-huh,” Thomas said. “Yeah, he doesn’t even have a passport, no indication he knows anyone in the Caymans or anywhere else down there, no unexplained money, no unusual debts…and none that are putting a strain on him or his business. If he’s part of it, he’s damned good.”

********

Ryan told Consuela of the visit, using his pre-paid cell phone, that night. She was wondered nervously what the agents knew, but Ryan dismissed her fears.

They were just fishing, he told her. If they’d had anything, they would have asked specific questions about his work, where he’d been during the important dates when the funds had gone missing, who he talked to on those days…stuff like that.

He told Consuela he’d waited for even a hint of a suspicion about his connection with her but none had come. He put it stronger. They’d asked no questions that might even possibly develop any information leading in her direction. He’d made sure of that.

It was clear there was nothing to the visit, he told Consuela. They were just filling squares in the investigation so the defense could not say they’d “rushed to judgment.” Ryan and Consuela would need to be concerned only if they came back armed with search warrants wanting to search his office or something like that.

However, that really wasn’t a problem, he told her…not when you thought about it. Even if they did come back with search warrants, Ryan said, they would find absolutely nothing.

What was there to find? The only incriminating physical evidence was the laptop a hundred miles away out on the prairie under Cousin Richard’s guardianship. Everything else was smashed, burned to oblivion, and the unidentifiable remains dumped in lakes for a hundred miles around.

Even if they found out about Consuela, whatever anyone had seen would be assumed to be an affair of the heart and not at all suspicious, given the state of Ryan’s marriage. There would be some people at the café who could testify Ryan had had breakfast with her a couple of times, but that was all they could say.

None of her relatives would talk, and few of them knew anything anyway. The cars had been arranged through her aunt and no one else had a clue. Her aunt wouldn’t even consider cooperating with the police. She still seethed at the treatment her son had received in a DUI arrest seven years ago.

Everything considered, he didn’t expect anyone would ever to Consuela with questions. He assured her he wouldn’t allow even a hint of suspicion to come her way.

********

The bank’s senior negotiators asked for Ryan and his attorney to a conference to discuss an early settlement on Ryan’s suit. Ryan had no problem meeting with the bank’s representatives. He was relaxed and completely at ease when he strolled into the bank’s conference room.

“Mr. Gilchrist, my clients feel your claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress does not, in fact, have any merit in a legal sense, but we agree there may have been some minor irregularities in the supervision of some employees and I…”

“Mr. Gilchrist? Is there something wrong?”

Ryan had gotten out of his chair and was straightening his suit coat and buttoning it. He looked at the attorney for the bank. He’d introduced himself as Darrin Estrada.

“Well…you said the lawsuit doesn’t have any…uh…merit, right? Isn’t that what you said? Heck, if that’s the case, I figured we were all done. I was just going to go home and wait for the judge to set a court date,” Ryan told Mr. Estrada.

“Ah…perhaps you would like a moment to confer with your counsel?” Estrada asked nervously.

Ryan looked around at his attorney. Mr. London was also standing, having risen an instant after his client. He’d been surprised, but not overly so, that his client was taking the lead in the discussion.

“Nah,” Ryan replied. “I know Mr. London pretty well now. He’s been working for me since late last year. Good man. He’s given me all kinds of good advice,” Ryan said contentedly.

“Ah…yes, I’m sure,” Estrada replied. “Well, I’ll get right to the point if you’d like. Would you care to have a seat, Mr. Gilchrist?” Ryan shrugged.

“If you’re through wasting everybody’s time…sure.”

“Fine,” Estrada said in a jovial voice. “I’m sure we can conclude our business shortly,” he added.

“Good,” Ryan responded, “I’m scheduled to testify in a sexual harassment case up in the Dallas Federal Court building this afternoon. If we can wrap things up here purty quick, I’d sure ‘nuf be obliged. I’ve kinda taken an interest in that case, if you know what I mean.” The exaggerated southern accent provoked a faint flush to creep up Estrada’s neck.

Estrada’s lips tightened and a nervous tic started on the left side of his neck. He knew the case Gilchrist was referring to. A man in a chair set in the corner of the room shifted in his seat. He didn’t say a word but Estrada reacted to the slight movement.

“Yes, I’m sure we can get you out of here in plenty of time, Mr. Gilchrist,” he remarked, shuffling through a mass of documents in his briefcase.

“Mr. Gilchrist, let’s…uh…get to the bottom line, here, okay? My clients would like to offer you–“

Ryan made a chopping gesture with his right hand. He let his irritation show.

“Come off it. Look, this bank is being whipsawed,” Ryan said impatiently, “between the United States Attorney for this district and Texas Attorney General on the issue of sexual harassment on the part of senior officials in this lending institution, Mr. Estrada. It’s grown to epidemic proportions in the last three years and now all it’s all coming home to roost. On top of that you’ve got Federal agents crawling all over your offices, trying to find a zillion dollars one of those same senior officials sent to secret banks overseas.

“You didn’t have your investment divisions and personal wealth divisions sufficiently separated like normal banks do and, as a result, you’ve got auditors coming out of your ears. On top of all that, I come along and I want a chunk of your ass because I can trace, with great specificity, sir, the failure of my marriage to your senior officers’ failure to supervise her and one of your vice-presidents.”

Ryan leaned back in his seat and looked coldly at Mr. Estrada’s pale features.

“I can read, Mr. Estrada,” Ryan told him, “and darned nearly everything I mentioned is in the newspaper. The part that isn’t is on the public record in the documents filed in the harassment case or my own suit. Why are you so surprised I have a good handle on all this? Is there anything I missed, Mr. Estrada?”

“Err…I think you’ve summarized some of the issues quiet well, Mr. Gilchrist. I–“

The man sitting in the corner groaned and sat up straighter in his straight-backed chair. His face had been partially hidden in a shadow; it was now visible. The man stood and came to stand beside the table.

“I’m Parker Winston,” he said by way of introduction. He didn’t offer his hand. “I’m from Chicago,” he said. He didn’t explain the implications of that statement. Ryan knew the corporate headquarters were in Chicago. Ryan looked at attorney from the big office with interest.

“Estrada,” Winston said coldly, “you just told our friends Mr. Gilchrist and Mr. London we have so many problems we don’t know where to start fixing them.”

Estrada’s face took on a stricken look.

“Get out,” Winston ordered harshly.

For a long moment, the attorney and his assistant didn’t move. Then Estrada and the man with him…Estrada hadn’t introduced the man…hurriedly gathered their papers and left the room.

Winston looked at Ryan for a long moment without speaking. He was a man used to power. He expected Ryan to look away after a short time. When Ryan did not, he began to speak in a precise, measured tone.

“In ten minutes you can walk out of here a rich man,” Winston told Ryan. “You get rid of your lawyer…make it just between us two and we can do this in a lot less time than it takes to say,” he offered. Ryan looked in the man’s eyes for a long moment.

“Mr. London?” Ryan said without looking at his attorney. “I wonder if you’d mind excusing us for just a moment?” London nodded, stood, and walked to the door. He left his briefcase behind. He intended coming back. The door closed with a solid thump.

Winston sat in the unused chair at the head of the conference table. He was relaxed, confident.

“What will it take, Mr. Gilchrist?” he asked suddenly. “I want you and your suit to go away and we’ll pay you well to make that happen. That idiot Estrada thinks you’re a damned cowboy but you’re smart enough to know this bank can’t handle much more bad publicity. You have us by the short hairs and we know it. How much?”

Ryan gazed at the man for a long moment. Judging by Estrada’s reaction to the man’s preemptory order, this man was an extraordinarily powerful man in the bank’s head office. He wanted this case to “go away,” as he put it and he wanted it bad.

“I don’t believe in being too greedy,” Ryan said, “but I want this to hurt bad enough that your fine institution learns a real good lesson,” he mused. Winston’s lips thinned another micro millimeter.

“My price is four million dollars,” Ryan said quietly. ” One lump sum…tax free. That is…you pay the tax on it by giving me enough over that to leave me four million when it’s all over” he told the banker. “Unless, by some miracle Congress revises the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 so IIED cases are not taxable again,” he added.

“Have they done that today and I haven’t heard about it?”

Winston’s eyes narrowed. The man hadn’t stumbled over the lengthy name of the applicable act and the acronym for “intentional infliction of emotional distress” had rolled easily off his tongue. This minor contractor knew an awful lot, when you got down to it. He reaffirmed his judgment this country bumpkin needed to be out of the bank’s business…now.

“Done,” Winston said.

Ryan shook his head and held up his right hand. His pinky finger was folded into his palm.

“Don’t be so quick to agree, Parker, old bean. You might not like the whole package. That was just the first condition…and that one is in addition to paying my lawyer’s fees, by the way. Any objection so far?”

Mr. Winston waited a moment, staring Ryan in the eyes and trying to read the mind behind them. He shook his head.

“Okay, second, the bank settles out of court with all eleven of the men and women who’ve alleged sexual harassment in the case up in Dallas without making them go through a trial,” Ryan said.

“Out of the goodness of your heart, their compensation for their suffering will be five hundred thousand dollars, one lump payment…and tax free in the same fashion mine is, and you’ll pay their attorney’s fees too.” The ring finger on Ryan’s right hand was wiggling slowly in the air to show Winston the condition was still unfinished.

“In addition, if they’ve quit or been terminated, you’ll offer them their jobs back and restore them to their previous positions if they want them with suitable promotions they would have otherwise have been eligible for. They’re entitled to back pay for the entire period backdated to the date of termination.

“Those who stayed with the company are due all the back wages up to the present date for the difference in what they did earn and what they would have earned with promotions they weren’t considered for because of the harassment recriminations.

“You’ll expunge any and all poor performance reports if they were given during the period, or immediately after the alleged time of harassment. If the bank gave any poor recommendations to any of the eleven who quit, those recommendations will be rescinded and new ones issued with apologies for the misunderstanding to the businesses where they now work.”

Ryan let his ring finger fold itself into his palm.

Third, you will pay Mrs. Sharon Michaels an amount equal to ten years of his salary, plus any other compensation he would, or most likely would have earned, had he remained in the position he held before he was indicted for fraud and money laundering. It will be, as with the rest of us, a one-time payment and “tax free” like we’ve already discussed.

Fourth, Mr. Winston, I and everyone concerned will get a written apology from the CEO of this bank for the pain inflicted on us because you people can’t keep your house in order.

Fifth, in return, Mr. Winston, we will agree to not pursue any future litigation in connection with the incidents alleged in the documents already submitted to the court and we will agree to sign nondisclosure agreements and not go public with any part of the settlement…including the apology.”

All five of Ryan’s digits were doubled into his palm. His let his fingers and thumb tighten into a clinched fist he held motionless for a long moment. Then he dropped his hand gently to the tabletop.

Winston was silent, staring at Ryan for a long while. He clearly didn’t like the terms that were being dictated to him.

“Come on, Mr. Chicago lawyer-banker man,” Ryan said in a derisive tone. His eyes were cool, mocking. His lips were curved slightly in an amused smile.

“You know damn good and well, the award to me for the IIED isn’t limited by any current statuette,” Ryan said.

“I’ve got a real good lawyer working for me. If you don’t go for this, my award alone will be twenty or thirty million…maybe more, and you know it won’t be overturned on any appeal. I’ve looked at the stats on the last fifty such cases and they were all confirmed except for that one with incomplete documentation. You’ve also got to pay your own attorney fees on top of that…I know you can draw this out for years, but it’ll be costing you an arm and a leg just to keep the lawyers working. You can avoid all that. Don’t pass up the chance, pardner.”

Winston was still silent, considering his alternatives. The man across from him was laughing at him. Gilchrist had the bank, and its officers, by the scruff of the neck and he knew it. Still, he delayed, hoping against hope something would happen to turn this all around.

“What’s the bad publicity worth that you’re going to get every day though my trial and theirs, Mr. Winston?” Ryan said softly. He leaned closer.

I promise you,” Ryan almost whispered, “my attorney will be giving a press conference out on the courthouse steps every single day right after court adjourns. Can you think he’ll forget to mention the evil bankers from the north who’ve come down to corrupt our innocent women and idealistic young men in any of those little talks, Mr. Winston?”

Parker Winston glared at Ryan with menacing eyes until it was clear it had no affect.

“Agreed,” Winston said abruptly. He didn’t look any happier than he had a moment earlier. He had an air of resignation about him though.

“Let’s get London back in here,” Winston said. “You tell him what he’s supposed to know and he can draft up the paperwork. We’ll have to get the individuals who filed lawsuits alleging harassment to agree, but I expect they’ll accept that deal in a heartbeat. Estrada will call them up in Dallas as soon as we’re done here. I think we can get to them before the first one goes into the courtroom.

“I’ll tell Estrada and the people upstairs they’re to sign the agreement with you without delay. All payments will be computed and delivered by courier made not more than ten work days after that signature…same for the harassment cases. Agreed?”

Ryan hesitated, looking at Winston intently for a long moment. He nodded.

Chapter 07

“I’m going to get five hundred thousand dollars?” Consuela asked wonderingly.

“Yep,” Ryan assured her. She looked at him with a bemused expression.

“Actually something more than that…for lost wages and stuff,” he added.

“And you’re getting four million?”

Ryan nodded.

“Pretty cool huh?” he said.

Consuela nodded. She still had a dazed expression on her face. She looked around the living room in a too-small house she would not have to live in again. She didn’t know what to say, or do.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

“Well,” Ryan said reflectively.

He untwined Belinda’s arms from around his neck for a moment. She was holding on so tight he was having trouble breathing. It had been a long time since Ryan and Consuela had thought it safe to meet and Belinda was afraid he was going to leave again.

“How about we go see what dinner’s are like at the café these days?” Ryan suggested.

Consuela’s eyes widened. She knew the significance of being seen in public together. It was no longer dangerous to be together. She smiled happily.

“Yaaaaaaeeee…” Belinda caroled.

It took almost longer than the four-year-old’s patience could bear to transfer Belinda’s car seat from her mother’s sedan to the big pickup. Eventually, it was installed and they got on their way. It was a happy ride.

The café regulars watched the trio’s arrival with surprise. This was not a chance meeting at breakfast, and anyway, Ryan and Consuela hadn’t had breakfast together there for a long time. When everyone saw how contented and affectionate the three were with each other, even the most doubtful was won over. Smiles were directed at them from all corners of the room.

Ryan was accepted without question into their midst. Several couples and families dropped by on their way out to chat with Consuela and to be formally introduced to Ryan. Everyone told them they shouldn’t be strangers.

********

They got home just before midnight. The dinner had led to a visit to Baskin Robbins, and that evolved into a trip to the movies to see a children’s movie for Belinda. Everyone had been having a good time and no one wanted it to end.

Exhausted, Belinda fell asleep in the truck on the way home and only murmured faint protests when Ryan took her out of the car seat and carried her into the house. Consuela loosened the small girl’s clothing, took off her shoes, and tucked her into bed while Ryan watched with an affectionate smile.

Ryan backed away to give Consuela space to come through the doorway. Consuela closed the bedroom door behind her and looked up into Ryan’s smiling face without saying anything.

Releasing the doorknob, she moved close to Ryan and wound her arms around his neck pulling his head down for a long kiss. The movement was so smooth, so natural, Ryan had no time to step away…even had he wanted to.

His hands went to the small of her back so he could pull her tighter against him. They broke the kiss, only to start another. It wasn’t their first kiss, but this time it was special and they both knew it.

“I’ve wanted that for a long time,” Ryan told her when they stopped to breathe. Consuela smiled up at him without speaking.

“Me too,” Consuela said. She touched his cheek with her right hand and traced the outline of his jaw with her fingers. Ryan caught her hand in his and tenderly kissed her fingertips.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen, you know,” she said quietly, unexpectedly. Ryan looked down at her and cocked his head to one side without saying anything.

“We were just going to work with each other to testify for each other,” Consuela explained. “I’d tell the judge at your divorce hearing Sean made a lot of passes at me…and you’d tell the judge when my suit came up that he seduced your wife and we’d each get what we wanted.”

She raised her lips for another kiss, stopping her explanation for a long while.

“Then we were going to teach them a lesson by getting them in trouble…and the bank too,” she said softly. This time Ryan started the kiss.

“We did it,” Consuela said, resuming after a moment. “We did exactly what we set out to do and we got away with it. And all the time, you stood there like a big wall to make sure if they did ever figure out anything about you, they’d still never find out about me.”

Ryan shifted slightly. Consuela was a strong-minded woman. He hadn’t thought his attempts to see nothing would ever lead back to her in all of this had been all that obvious. There was a chance she would resent it.

“Foolish man,” she whispered when she saw the momentary hesitation in his expression. “I saw what you were doing and I knew you were doing it for Belinda and me. Did you not know I would see that?” she asked gently.

Ryan didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.

“You were so strong all along,” she said in a wondering voice, “so gentle and kind to me and my baby. Did you think I wouldn’t see how Belinda was beginning to love you…and you her?”

“How could I not love her?” Ryan countered in a soft voice. “She’s a part of you…and I love you more than living…you didn’t see that?” he whispered tenderly. “Didn’t you know what was happening to me?” She nodded, laying her head on his chest for a long moment, listening to his heartbeat.

“You know I love you that way too?” she asked after a short, comfortable silence. She pulled back and looked up so she could see his eyes. Ryan shook his head slowly.

“I was only hoping,” he said gently. He bent to kiss her again, more firmly this time. His tongue slipped between her lips to find a welcoming tongue ready to dual eagerly with his. Their bodies were suddenly straining together.

Breaking away from him, Consuela stared up at the man she loved and who she knew loved her. Smiling tenderly, she took his hand in hers and led him into her bedroom.

She stopped just short of the bed and turned around to face him. Suddenly shy before him, she raised her hands to the back of her neck to unbutton her dress. It was awkward and she did not want it to be this way the first time with Ryan. The button would not come undone.

Ryan saw her frustration and immediately guessed the reason. Taking her hips in his hands, he turned her gently around. The buttons quickly yielded to his fingers and he soon had the top of her dress off her shoulders and draped about her waist. With his hands caressing her shoulders, he bent to trail butterfly kisses up her neck to just behind each ear. Her deep sigh and quickened breath told him he was doing the right thing.

Stroking her back, he found out her bra was one that fastened in front. He reached around her to unfasten her bra with fingers whose deftness would have amazed him if he’d taken time to think of it. He lifted the cups from around her breasts and spread it wide. The straps slid off her shoulders and the bra fell to the floor between them.

He massaged her breasts gently and returned to kissing her throat. He’d known Consuela had large, well-formed breasts, but the knowing was so much less a thing than finally feeling their soft firmness in his hands. He cupped them, hefting them in his big hands.

Her nipples began to swell. They hardened and lengthened as his thumbs fondled them. He captured them between a thumb and finger of each hand and twirled them slowly, pinching them gently every so often.

Consuela moaned softly. She couldn’t help it. Her pulse began to race every time her lover touched her in a different place. Her chest began to heave in her need for more air.

Ryan tugged her dress down her hips and down her legs to pool around her feet. Consuela stepped out of it and took a moment to kick off her high heels. They thumped on the carpet somewhere in the corner as she turned around to face Ryan and stepped back up to him. Her lips sought out his in the dim light coming from the living room and captured them in a demanding kiss.

His hands came up to cup her breasts again, but he found he could only do one at a time, standing as they were, so close together. With his left hand cupping her right breast, his right hand began stroking her back and ass. He squeezed her left butt cheek, fondling it and massaging while pulling her lower body more tightly against his. After a moment, he let his right hand find its way to her left breast and his left explored her back and buttocks.

Abruptly he tired of such half-measures. He knelt and planted little kisses down the middle of her body to her bellybutton while pushing her panties down to her ankles. They fell to the floor and Consuela slid her right leg a few inches to the side after pulling her foot out of them. Consuela’s satin-smooth legs needed no stockings or pantyhose; she rarely wore them and had not tonight.

Ryan continued kissing her soft underbelly and beyond. His hands stroked the back of her bare thighs and calves. When his lips touched the top of her damp slit, she shuddered with pleasure.

“Darling,” she whispered, “I can’t take too much of that. Please…?” She caught his forearms in her hands and gently pulled upward, urging him to rise. He stood without a word and began to unfasten the buttons on his shirt.

“No…” Consuela said softly, “I want to…”

Ryan dropped his hands to his sides and let her remove his clothing as he had hers. While she unbuttoned his shirt, he worked his boots off somehow and kicked them away. He couldn’t explain how he’d gotten them off when she asked him later.

Consuela worked more quickly than Ryan had. There was a feeling of urgency building in the little bedroom.

His shirt and slacks joined her dress somewhere on the carpeted floor. Consuela sat on the edge of the bed. They laughed together when she tapped each knee in turn so she could remove his socks. It could have been an uncomfortable moment. Instead, it was a warm, loving one.

She half-rose to meet his lips in a long kiss. Her hands caressed his chest muscles and paused to thumb his nipples into instant hardness. She stroked down across strong abdominals and hooked her thumbs into the waistband of his boxers. She slowly slid them down over his hips and let them fall. Balancing briefly on his right foot, he nudged the boxers out of their way. Consuela didn’t notice.

Her attention was on Ryan’s erection. It bobbed in front of her, longer and much thicker than she had thought it would be. Wrapping the fingers of her right hand around it, she bent forward slowly and kissed the tip of it. Ryan groaned.

“Honey, I can’t take too much of that either…I’d love for you to keep going, but…” Ryan said quietly.

“I love you,” Consuela whispered.

Without waiting for him to tell her what she already knew, she scooted slowly backwards on the bed. She hadn’t released her hold on his penis and drew him after her down onto the surface of the bed.

“No,” she said softly when he would have knelt to let his lips explore the place where her slim legs met. She put her hands on the sides of his face and urged him higher.

“I need you inside me,” Consuela murmured. “Please…now?”

Ryan knee walked his way between Consuela’s spread thighs until his groin was poised above hers. Consuela reached between them and grasped his hard cock again. She guided the tip closer and rubbed it gently up and down her slit. Her pussy juices were flowing and had been for a long while. Her vagina was more than ready to receive him.

Consuela positioned him at the entrance to her vagina and adjusted her position slightly. She pulled him into her and lifted her legs so her knees lightly touched the outside of his hips.

Ryan let his weight fall slowly. He pressed inside her smoothly and firmly. He felt his cock enveloped in a heated tightness that spread open for him as he plunged deeper.

Consuela moaned softly as her lover’s cock drove into her. Her hands caught the back of his arms and pulled him tighter against her. She locked her heels behind his back and dragged him deeper inside.

In a short moment, they found a rhythm of thrust and withdrawal that suited them. Ryan repositioned his knees, moving his body higher so there would be even more contact between his cock and her clitoris as he rammed his hardness deeper inside Consuela’s cunt.

She groaned out loud and threw her head back. Her eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling overhead. Her hands were on his hips now, yanking him forward with each down stroke and lifting him slightly as he withdrew.

Their pace quickened. Ryan tried for a slow tempo. He wanted to make this first loving last as long as he could make it, but their bodies’ needs began to overwhelm them.

Consuela’s breath came quick and shallow. Control of her body was slipping away, lost in the passion and pleasure of their coupling. Her hips began to rise, thrusting upward to meet Ryan’s cock ramming deeper into her cunt. She ground her pubic mound against him, seeking even the slightest increase in contact.

Ryan could feel his climax coming fast. He panted harder; his lungs were beginning to starve for oxygen. His lower body was on fire as he drove his cock inside Consuela’s vagina harder and faster. He wasn’t able to slow himself much. She didn’t want him to.

Her hot cavern was squeezing his cock, gripping it as it slid inside and only reluctantly releasing it when he pulled back. Her cunt seemed to be trying to milk Ryan’s cock; the undulations of muscles rippled rhythmically from back to front and back again. Consuela began rotating her ass in a tight little circle. After a couple of circles in one direction, she stopped and went the other way and then back again.

Suddenly, Consuela’s orgasm was almost there, full-blown and irresistible in its power. She bucked, surprised that she’d not felt it coming. Losing her momentary wonder, she shuddered, her hips writhed uncontrollably.

Ryan’s caught his lover’s new excitement. He began to plow his cock remorselessly into her. They were animals now; the slow buildup to making love had been forgotten. They were caught up in the sheer pleasure of the sex and pounding each other hard in order to cum.

Ryan was sent into a delirium. The sensations emanating from his cock overpowered his conscious mind. The exquisite sensations of having his cock squeezed tightly in her cunt in motion almost made Ryan cum right there. Somehow, he managed to hold off.

Powering in and withdrawing slowly in a quick, steady rhythm, he let Consuela sling her ass around any way she wanted. Every time he slammed his hips forward, she gave out a low moan or grunt as his pole rubbed against sensitive nerve endings.

After another moment, Consuela stopped whipping her hips around so wildly and began to simply thrust back up at Ryan as hard as he was shoving into her. There was no art or grace to it. The rhythm built faster and faster until both of them were having considerable trouble breathing. Had there been anyone to see, their faces would have been flushed a dark red.

“Unnngh, unnngh, unnngh, unnngh, unnnnnngh…” Consuela was gasping for air now. She couldn’t get enough. She began to strain hard for her release.

Ryan was almost at the end of his endurance too. The violence of their exertions dictated a quick ending, simply because they couldn’t sustain it for much longer. He plunged his cock into Consuela’s cunt at a faster pace, striving to jam himself even deeper inside her.

Ryan could feel the tightening in his balls as his semen pumped upward. He felt the muscles in his groin and lower abdomen nearly cramp as the thick fluid was channeled into the tubes inside his penis. He couldn’t stop it; the liquid heat was propelled down the length of his cock as he pushed into Consuela’s pussy.

“ARRRRGGGGHHHHHH!” Ryan tried to muffle his bellow as he found release. He buried his face in the pillow beside Consuela’s head.

A great gob of his cum spurted out and splashed against the walls of her vagina deep inside. Ryan hunched his hips once, twice, and then again. A second spurt fountained out to spew across her cervix. He managed to hold back a third gushing for a time, but it was only long enough for Consuela’s climax to begin to take hold.

Her orgasm built until she was beside herself with the need for completion. Her legs splayed wide on the mattress as she shoved her groin up at her lover while he thrust down into her cunt. She was doing everything she could to get the cock inside her rub harder against those especially sensitive places just inside her pussy. When her Ryan’s hot cum began to spurt into her, she screamed out her need, pushing back and rotating her hips one last time.

Ryan’s hips jerked and a fourth upwelling of sperm squirted inside Consuela. In truth, it was more a flow than a forced eruption. It was thinner than the previous ones had been. Consuela had milked everything he had out of him.

Consuela jolted to a stop, her body freezing in place with the intensity of her ecstasy. Unable to consciously move any of her limbs, she felt her tummy muscles contracting in time with the ripples spreading through her cunt. Her leg muscles spasmed, jerking uncontrollably. The intense sensations emanating from her vagina slowed, lessened, and finally gave up their lock on her body. She drew in as much air as she could, gasping desperately in her need for oxygen.

Exhausted, Ryan slipped his cock out of Consuela’s pussy and collapsed to the bed beside her. It was a long while before their hearts slowed and their lungs finally filled with enough air.

“So…?” Ryan asked lazily. “Think you’ll want to keep me around…you reckon there’s a chance we could be…compatible?” Consuela patted his arm and turned to face him. Their breath mingled. Their passion gone for the moment, they kissed gently.

“Mmmmmmm,” Consuela purred. “You just try and get away from me.”

Ryan chuckled quietly. They were quiet for a time.

“Ahhhhhhh?” she murmured.

“Hmmmmmm?”

“In a minute…when you’re ready…can I be on top?” She giggled in the dimness.

“I’m ready,” Ryan whispered enthusiastically, “anytime you are.”

There was no more talk for a long while.

Chapter 08

The trials for Sean Michaels and Carrie Gilchrist were relatively short. There wasn’t much evidence for the United States Attorney to present, but it was all extremely compelling, very damning. The first witnesses were banking experts called to testify on the process of setting up accounts in overseas banks and how it was usually done to hide income otherwise taxable in the United States or send fraudulently obtained funds out of U.S. jurisdiction.

A severely dressed woman from the State Department testified none of the accounts to which the funds were funneled had a dime in them any longer. The governments in the various Caribbean countries had cooperated to the extent of confirming that, though they would not go further. It was typical of those countries, she said.

Special Agent Williams got on the stand to explain he and his partner had noticed a bank-owned laptop computer in defendant Michaels’ possession when they took him into custody. They’d taken possession of it and labeled it as evidence. Yes, that was the evidence label and that was his signature on it.

A computer and software expert testified there was a variety of programs loaded on the laptop and one of them was a proprietary program used by the bank to connect to the bank’s server from remote locations. He explained how it worked and showed the jury a few shots of some of the initial screens, including the one where the user entered their login name and password.

A representative from the phone company presented the telephone records for the phone registered to Ryan and Carrie Gilchrist and pointed out specific periods when the phone line had been in use for periods ranging from twenty-one to twenty-three minutes. The prosecutor wrote the times and dates on a big whiteboard brought into the courtroom for that purpose. No, he told the jury, there was no evidence the Gilchrists had ever had a wireless network setup.

A representative from the cable company told everyone the modem given to the Gilchrists was only connected to the big Dell computer in the home office. There were no connections set up for modem use on any of the other cable outlets in the house. Besides, their records showed there had been no traffic over that modem except for network initiated pulses during the times on the whiteboard.

Then, the Information Technology manager for the bank testified that Mr. Michaels’ login name and password had been used to access a number of high-dollar accounts he was responsible for managing. Wire transfers, some of them set up programmatically to continue after the laptop’s operator had signed off, had been started during specific timeframes. Yes, those exact times were the ones annotated on the whiteboard. The funds from the looted accounts had been forwarded to IP addresses identified as belonging to offshore banks.

The defense objected, saying the IT manager could not know that for a fact. Such things were outside his field of expertise. The IT manager was annoyed and said he could look up an IP with the best of them and what he’d just testified to was God’s own truth. The judge allowed the testimony.

In any event, the next witness, a specialist dispatched from the Treasury Department reiterated the same information. He said he spent half his time creating lists of bank IPs of interest and the identified addresses most certainly did correspond to the offshore banks in question. The defense did not object. They had no questions for this witness.

When the prosecution finished with their presentation, the defense had little room left in which to maneuver. They tried to make the point no one had seen Sean Michaels actually enter the transfer information into the system. They said it could as easily have been Carrie Gilchrist who did it…or maybe someone else. The Gilchrist home didn’t have a security system. Anyone could have been in the house. Who knew?

In the process, the defense conceded Sean and Carrie had been involved in lengthy affair. It was unavoidable. Sean and Carrie had given videotaped statements early on and both had readily admitted it.

There was no point in denying it. The TV show had been played numerous times by now. Excerpts had been shown several times on local commercial TV. The network had privately told the prosecutor when a copy was delivered to him, that it was one of the most watched episodes every time they replayed it.

The defense took every opportunity to slip in questions about whether anyone actually thought people going somewhere to have sex would actually take breaks to work on a computer? Mr. Michaels and Mrs. Gilchrist could have conducted the fraudulent transfers from the office, counsel for the defense said. They didn’t need to sneak off to the Gilchrist home for that. What kind of sense did that make?

The prosecution didn’t bother to answer the defense’s question about why the adulterers had gone to the Gilchrist home to commit their fraud. There was no need. The facts were what they were.

The circumstantial evidence had mounted too high for the defense to answer. It was overwhelming. That none of the funds could be shown to have been forwarded to an account either party was known to have personally established made no difference. Nor was it pertinent that there was no evidence to show the two had actually spent any of the gains from the theft. The assumption was they hadn’t had time.

In their rebuttal case, the prosecution brought an FBI criminalist in from Quantico, Virginia, to testify they had found no fingerprints anywhere in the house which couldn’t be accounted for. None of the doors or windows had been forced open and there were no footprints below the windows or around the doors to indicate anyone had loitered there, waiting an opportunity to break in. There was absolutely no forensic evidence of any kind, he said, that even might support the defense claims there had been someone else, other than the home’s occupants, known visitors, and Mr. Michaels, around the house at any time.

In the end, Michaels was found guilty on all counts. He broke down at the defense table and cried piteously. He was a broken man when the Bexar County sheriff’s deputies took custody of him from the bailiffs and marched him off to the jail to await sentencing.

Carrie had been smart in her initial interview with investigators and absolutely denied knowing Michaels’ login and password. Though Michaels’ lawyer did everything she could to show Carrie actually did have both…several people at the bank were sure they’d seen her enter Michaels’ information into the system on occasion…the attorney was never able to shake Carrie’s denial. It probably saved Carrie from a charge of conspiracy in Michaels’ fraudulent scheme.

Carrie’s only real problem was that she got caught in a lie by one of the investigators interviewing her a month after the inquiry had begun. It had been a silly thing to do. Her lie was about a trivial matter and the charge about the false affidavit had been put on the list of other charges at the last moment just to be complete.

The jury was pretty sure Carrie had been in on the fraud but there just wasn’t any evidence to show that Carrie even knew it was going on, though they tried hard to find some in the prosecution’s case. The false statement was firmly established and they found her guilty on that one count. There was no deliberation on that charge beyond a call by the foreman for a vote on her guilt.

In the sentencing hearing for Michaels, the only mercy the jury offered was a recommendation to the judge that the sentences all run concurrently. The judge agreed and sentenced the man to twenty years with the location of his incarceration to be determined by the prison system. Carrie got one year.

As Michaels walked disconsolately from the defense table toward the side door leading to the holding cell, he came close enough to Ryan for easy conversation. At that moment, one of the bailiffs was preoccupied looking over his shoulder at one of the reporters who had thrust a microphone in his direction. The bailiff’s steps slowed and he fell behind. For one short moment, Michaels had only one man escorting him and he was on the opposite side. Ryan leaned over the railing.

“That’s what you get for fucking another man’s wife,” he said softly. Only the convicted felon heard.

Michaels took two more steps before the words penetrated. He stopped, making the chains on his feet jangle musically. Not believing what he’d heard, he turned around to stare at Ryan. His eyes widened and grew wild. Alarmed by the rattling chains, the bailiff lagging behind made a belated attempt to catch up. It was too late.

Michaels lunged at Ryan. Brought up short when the bailiff still with him yanked him back, Michaels began screaming imprecations no one could understand. He was dragging the much bigger bailiff across the hardwood floor.

It eventually took four officers to control him as he struggled to get to Ryan. He was still shrieking at the top of his lungs and fighting his restraints as they carried him out.

********

“Well, good afternoon, Special Agent Williams. What can I do for you today?”

Answering the knock on the outside door to the office, Ryan had been a little surprised to see the FBI agent, but not overwhelmingly so. His eyes flicked down the hallway in each direction to see if the agent was accompanied by his partner…or a whole crew of Federal agents. Other than the one agent, the hallway was empty.

“Come in, come in,” Ryan urged. “You mind if I lock the door again?” It was well past normal business hours and Ryan had secured the door when his secretary left. He didn’t like open doors when there was no one in the outer office. He had a problem with people coming up on him unawares.

“Not at all,” Williams replied courteously. “Just wanted to clear up a couple of things, if that’s all right with you?”

“Sure, whatcha got?” Ryan shot back briskly. “Want some coffee?” he added. The urn on the side table in the secretary’s office was still half full.

The FBI agent hesitated. The first time he’d been here, he’d sampled some of the strong brew and it had nearly done him in. He decided to go for it. He was tough; he could handle it.

“Thank you…yes,” Williams said. He took the heavy mug filled to the brim with the dark liquid and cradled it in his hands. It looked almost as strong as it had the first time he’d visited here. He tentatively took a sip. It was scalding hot. He tried another swallow.

“What I’m here for, Mr. Gilchrist, is a statement you made to Mr. Michaels. It’s been relayed to us through his attorney.”

“Oh?” Ryan answered. His brow furrowed in concentration and surprise, he waited for Williams to continue.

“Michaels says you told him at his trial that you wanted him to know you arranged for all of this to happen. He accuses you of having set him up by stealing his laptop and entering the wire transfers to offshore accounts.”

Williams stopped and watched Ryan Gilchrist closely for his reaction. There was nothing for a moment. Not for the first time, Williams made a note Gilchrist would make a fine poker player.

Ryan let his eyebrows rise.

“That’s it?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, that’s the meat of the information,” Williams answered. Ryan snorted derisively.

“Bull shit! First of all, I never spoke to him at his trial. I was never anywhere near the asshole. Now, at his sentencing hearing, I did remark, as he passed by, that…uh…what was it…something to the effect that ‘this was what you get for fucking my wife’ or something like that. That’s all I said. He went ballistic right then and they carried him out and…that’s the last time I saw him.”

“I see. Would you care to explain that statement, Mr. Gilchrist?”

“Statement?” Ryan asked. “What I just said?” He let a confused expression settle over his features.

“No, that what…well, that the sentence was what he got for having sex with your wife.”

“Well…I don’t know what you want from me. I think what I said was pretty self-explanatory, Agent Williams. I’m not real happy with the jerk and I think the time he’s going to spend in a Federal prison is absolutely fantastic. What goes around, comes around…isn’t that what they say? Damn straight!

“I thought it was damned ironic he was getting twenty years for crimes he committed while he was having nooners and quickies with my wife and I told him so. Does that explain it any better?”

Ryan let his eyes flash a little with suppressed anger.

“I see,” Williams said, shifting the coffee mug from his right to his left hand before taking a sip of the hot liquid. It was a delaying tactic, something to distract Ryan’s attention for a moment and give the man time to cool down.

“So if Mr. Michaels alleges you had anything to do with appropriating his computer and actually committing the offenses he’s being imprisoned for, you deny that?”

Ryan snorted again.

“Yuh think?” he said contemptuously. “You’re darn right I deny it,” he said formally.

Williams watched Ryan over the lip of his mug as he took a couple of swallows. Other than irritation, he saw nothing in Gilchrist’s body language to indicate Gilchrist was lying.

He toyed for a moment with the idea of asking the man to come down for a polygraph examination. Then he discarded the suggestion. In his present mood, Gilchrist would refuse out of hand…and it wouldn’t mean anything except he was pissed off.

“Okay!” Williams said abruptly. He stood up. “I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, Mr. Gilchrist. If we have anything else, we’ll get in contact with you, okay?” He looked around for a place to leave the mug.

Ryan nodded, still visibly annoyed, but trying to suppress it. He took the mug from Williams’ hand and put it on the credenza at the side of his desk.

“Oh!” he said. “I’m going to be taking a few weeks off and I won’t be here in the office.”

“Where will you be, Mr. Gilchrist?” Williams asked automatically.

Ryan’s eyes narrowed.

“Why do you care, Special Agent Williams?” he asked aggressively, ready to explode again.

“I was told I should stay in town as long as there was an active investigation going on, but that was months ago. The trials are done, two people are going to prison, and it’s all over, right? Are you investigating me, Agent Williams?”

“No, sir,” Williams answered forthrightly. “I–“

“Are you telling me I need to stay where you can find me at a moment’s notice?”

“No, sir,” Williams replied. “There’s no need for that. You’re quite correct. There is no active investigation being conducted by the joint task force at this time. The Treasury and State Departments are still trying to find the funds down in the Caribbean banks, but they aren’t having any luck…and that’s all that’s happening.”

Ryan stared at the FBI agent for a long moment. He sucked in a long breath and held it. His jaw muscles clinched and then relaxed. He let out the air he’d been holding in.

“Okay…sorry. One reason that I’m taking some time off is that I’m losing my temper too often and for really trivial reasons when I look back on them. I really need to recharge the batteries…know what I mean? It’s been a pretty rough year, everything considered. Uh…if I was out of line, I apologize, okay?”

“No, no…not at all,” Williams hurried to reassure Ryan. “I understand completely.” He did, he realized. The man had had to deal with a cheating wife, had been involved in a devastating exposé on that TV show, actually seeing video of his wife screwing that Michaels guy, the trials…yeah, Williams could see where he might be wound a little tight.

“Actually, you can always get hold of me,” Ryan told the agent, unbending slightly. “I won’t have my cell phone turned on all the time, but I’ll check it regularly…you have the number, right? I don’t know where I’ll be…probably just driving up to my hunting cabin up by Marble Falls…but I may take off. Oh, heck, I don’t know. I might even take a driving trip out to the Grand Canyon or something. I just want to get away, ya know?”

“I understand completely,” Agent Williams said sympathetically.

After a couple more minutes of casual chat, Ryan let the FBI agent out and locked the door behind him.

********

It wasn’t until Williams was fitting the key into the ignition that he became troubled.

“Shit!” he said vehemently.

He looked up the side of the building to the windows he knew opened into Gilchrist’s office. Had Gilchrist just maneuvered him into revealing the status of the investigation into the lost funds? He couldn’t decide, but Gilchrist had definitely gotten Williams to feel sorry for him and completely deflected Williams’ inquiries into a safe zone. He started the engine. He shook his head, still looking up at the windows. Was Gilchrist that smart…that good at manipulating people?

A germ of doubt was planted in his mind. There was no basis for it beyond an unsupported…he admitted it…an unsupportable suspicion. The investigation was dead, but Special Agent Williams would play his hunch. He’d be looking for anything coming down the pike that didn’t look right. He put the transmission in gear and drove out of the parking lot and into the late evening traffic.

********

Ryan leaned against the wall near the door for a long while after the FBI agent left. It took some time before his racing heart calmed enough for his pulse to quit pounding in his ears. He’d been concerned he might be giving something away to Williams so he’d let the anger swell up and take control. The anger had been real, but it had been at himself for being afraid, not the agent or the circumstances. It seemed to have worked.

After a while, he was composed enough to return to his desk and finish the last stack of papers he needed to sign. His secretary would be in tomorrow for half a day and was specifically expecting them to be finished. It was the last thing he was going to do before leaving for the few weeks he’d told the agent about.

In a way, he was glad the FBI agent had come by. It had given Ryan a glimpse into their operation and thinking. It was clear the agent hadn’t had anything substantial to go on. If Williams had anything at all, he’d have brought the long awaited search warrant with him. He hadn’t. That was a good sign. With all their resources, law enforcement hadn’t been able to collect enough probable cause to get a judge to sign off on even a preliminary search.

In fact, the only search warrant ever served on him in all of this had been for his home and that had been expected. After all, that had been where the crimes had been committed. The house had been turned back to him months ago.

On top of that, Consuela hadn’t been contacted by anyone connected with the investigation. There was no sign the authorities knew she existed. He thought they might be able to start relaxing a little more…not much…just a little. He looked forward to seeing Consuela and Belinda more often.

********

“Quiet honey,” Consuela told her daughter. “Momma needs to talk to Ryan right now. Ryan will look at your drawing in just a minute.”

Belinda wasn’t happy with that. She wanted to show Ryan a picture she’d drawn of her mommy and Ryan. To her mind, it needed to be seen immediately. She flounced through the doorway into the kitchen. Climbing back up on her chair, she began embellishing the drawing by coloring in the clothing of the figures she’d drawn. In moments, she’d forgotten her mother had preempted the drawing’s presentation.

“So…you don’t think he had anything to go on?” Consuela asked Ryan.

“Nah…he wasn’t even really fishing,” Ryan answered. He was relaxed and unconcerned.

“If they thought they really had anything, they’d have come to the office with search warrants for my office, home, pickup truck, every jobsite I’ve got working, and probably the hunting lease up at Marble Falls too. He doesn’t have a thing to go on and I don’t see how he could ever show enough probable cause to get search warrants for any of those places.

“He even admitted the investigation is closed as far as San Antonio is concerned. There’s still some work going on overseas, he said, but I gathered there wasn’t a chance in hell it was going to go anywhere. All he really asked was what I’d meant by what I’d said to Michaels at the trial, I told him, and that was the end of it.”

“Okay…that’s good,” Consuela whispered in a preoccupied tone. Then she brightened.

She’d grown wary over the last few months. More often than not, she regretted her initial enthusiasm to cut that cabron down to size. The plan had worked, but she’d still been worried most of the time there would be a preemptory knock on her door one day. Today, the possibility of that happening seemed very remote. She relaxed and tilted her face up for a kiss from her man.

********

“But, Mommy,” Belinda pleaded with Consuela, “ever’body else’s ‘ll be there.”

The little girl, her fifth birthday was only two months ago, was almost in tears when Ryan walked in the kitchen door. It was his fifth day here. He’d given up even the pretense of staying at the hunting lease.

He’d been next door talking to the old woman who lived there. She used a walker almost constantly and had taken a break trying to get up the steps to her porch. She’d nearly fallen and Ryan had left Consuela’s front door on the run to help the woman.

“Uh oh,” he said, concerned at the obvious unhappiness in the room. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, it’s her kindergarten class,” Consuela said, giving him a troubled glance. “They’re having a “dad and daughter” event tomorrow morning and she…well…you know. She doesn’t understand…”

Ryan nodded. He did know.

Now he was as dejected as the other two. He knew Consuela had divorced Belinda’s father more than four years ago…just after the toddler was born, in fact. She’d immediately moved back to her hometown with her baby. There were half a dozen attempts by the father to see the child early on, but there’d been no calls or letters…much less visits…in the past three and a half years.

Ryan looked away, pretending an interest in a dog barking outside. There was a thing he’d been planning to do. He took a breath, held it, and let it out slowly. There really was no point in prolonging it. Belinda was so unhappy. She was heartbroken. It was so unfair…so completely beyond her control. He hated that.

Deciding abruptly, he walked back out the kitchen door and around the house to the driveway. He opened the passenger door and retrieved a small box from under the front seat. He checked it to make sure the contents were okay before carrying the box back inside.

Consuela and Belinda met him at the back door, curious about his sudden departure. He hadn’t said a word before walking out and it concerned both mother and daughter.

“What…?” Consuela started to ask. Ryan smiled enigmatically and took her hand to pull her gently into the living room. He sat on the couch and patted the sofa cushion beside him.

“Honey, what is it?” Consuela insisted, wondering what was on Ryan’s mind. He didn’t normally act so enigmatically.

Ryan cleared his throat. He wished he’d thought to grab a coke from the fridge or something. It was too late now.

“I uh…we…well, we’ve come a long way since that day when we met in the…at breakfast in the café,” he stammered. “I haven’t been real good about asking you what we should do next, or whether you wanted to do it. I mean…I never asked you how you felt about things much. We just seemed to slip from one thing to the next without a lot of discussion or anything. Uh…I think I made it pretty clear though…anytime you didn’t want to start something new, you knew I wouldn’t push you into it…right?”

“Ryan, I’ve never said you were “pushing” me into anything,” Consuela told him. “You couldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do…I wouldn’t let you,” she assured him.

“Yeah…I know,” Ryan said. “I’ve counted on that all along.”

“But now,” he shifted on the couch, moving to the edge of the cushion and facing the woman more directly. “Now, I have to ask you something because we both have to know where we stand before we do this…next thing.” Reaching across her body, he captured her right hand and held it in his, then released it. He felt around on the couch behind him with his other hand.

Consuela’s eyes searched his. She was a little impatient. Suddenly, her eyes widened. She yanked her hand from his and covered her suddenly quivering lips with both hands.

“Oh my God,” she whispered.

“Consuela,” Ryan said huskily, “I’ve found out…over the last few months…that I love you more than I know how to say. I want you to be…I…I mean…will? I wonder if you will be…”

“Yes,” Consuela whispered softly.

Ryan stared at her blankly for a long moment. He’d nerved himself for a longer, far more coherent speech and maybe some coaxing too. He couldn’t adjust all that quickly.

“You will? I mean…” he asked awkwardly, just to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood. Consuela nodded, her eyes beginning to fill with tears.

Ryan found the small box with his left hand and brought it around his body. He fumbled the box open and pulled out the diamond ring. It had looked good in the jewelry store, the stone was big enough, he thought…but suddenly he wasn’t sure. Maybe he should have…

Screwing up his courage, he took Consuela’s left hand in his and began to slip the ring on her ring finger. When it was settled into place, Consuela began sobbing.

Nonplussed, Ryan put his arms around her and patted her on the back. He didn’t quite know what he’d done, but she wasn’t rejecting his touch. That was probably a good thing, he thought. He wasn’t sure.

“Mommy, what’s wrong?” Belinda asked. She had suddenly appeared at Consuela’s knee. She looked ready to cry herself.

Belinda had wandered down the hall to her bedroom to play when it appeared her mother and Ryan were going to sit on the couch and talk for a while. She’d come back when she heard her mother crying.

Consuela turned to her daughter, still crying. She took the little girl in her arms to pull her up on her lap.

“See what Ryan gave me?” Consuela asked her young daughter, holding her left hand out to display the white gold ring with the big diamond. “Isn’t it pretty?”

“Uh huh,” Belinda said dubiously. “Why did Ryan give it to you?”

“Because we’re going to get married, honey,” Consuela said, kissing Belinda’s cheek. “Isn’t that great?” Belinda thought about it for a moment.

“I guess. What does ‘marri’d mean?”

Consuela laughed and hugged her daughter tighter.

“It means you and me and…Ryan are going to live together from now on. Is that okay?”

Belinda understood that. She began to smile.

“Ryan won’t ever have to go home at night again?” she asked happily.

Ryan and Consuela had settled on a routine in which Ryan spent the night with her, but got up in the predawn darkness each morning, took a quiet shower, changed clothes from the cache he kept in Consuela’s closet, and laid down on the sofa in the living room. When Belinda awoke, it was as if Ryan had just arrived and was waiting for her and her mother to wake up.

Consuela shook her head at Belinda’s question.

“Never again,” she promised, “our home is going to be his home too.”

“Okay,” Belinda said brightly. She thought for a moment, her eyes on her mother’s face.

“But why were you crying, Mommy?” she asked again.

“‘Cause I’m so happy,” Consuela said, smiling down at the child. Belinda considered the answer for a long moment.

“Well, I won’t ever cry when I’m happy,” she decided almost crossly. “I laugh when I’m happy,” she added. She started to get down from her mother’s lap. Ryan stopped her.

“Belinda?” Ryan said gently. The five-year-old looked around at him.

“There’s something else.”

“What?” she asked.

“Well…if I marry your mother, then that means I’m going to be…” He let the words tail off and looked at Consuela over the little girl’s head. His eyebrows arched with an unspoken inquiry. Consuela nodded, her eyes brimming with tears once more.

“What?” Belinda demanded. Five-year-olds are impatient. Ryan took a deep breath.

“Well, that means I’m going to be your daddy,” he said slowly, “if that’s all right with you,” he added.

Belinda looked at him with a serious expression on her little face. Her eyes looked enormous. She looked up, leaning back to look at her mother for confirmation.

“Really?” she said, coming back to Ryan. “You’ll be my daddy?” She said it so sweetly, Ryan could only nod. Abruptly, he was too choked up to speak. He cleared his throat.

“If you want me to be,” he replied at length. The child had no problem deciding.

“I do,” little Belinda said.

She held out her arms and leaned toward him. Ryan took his stepdaughter into his arms for the first time. He kissed the top of her head and she looked up smiling. Impulsively, she wiggled around until she was on her knees and able to throw her arms around his neck and hug him tightly. Ryan lost his ability to speak again. The lump in his throat didn’t go away for a long while.

When Consuela was tucking Belinda into bed, she reminded the little girl that now she had a daddy to take her to father-daughter day the next morning.

Belinda’s eyes got huge. She’d forgotten. It took her nearly an hour to calm down enough to sleep.

When Belinda woke the next morning, she immediately made her way into her mother’s bedroom. Consuela and Ryan had decided to discontinue their usual routine and Ryan had spent the whole night with his new fiancé. It didn’t faze Belinda in the least. Tommy and Maria and Lisa, she said…they were friends of hers at kindergarten…had all told her that their mommies and daddies always slept in the same bed.

Ryan was tempted to ask how the subject came up but Consuela’s elbow in his ribs dissuaded him. In retrospect, he was glad he hadn’t been able to get the question out. It was probably best not to know.

Belinda could hardly contain her excitement long enough to eat breakfast. She played with the bowl of fruit loops long enough to convince her mother she wasn’t going to eat anything more. She managed to drink all of her milk, but that was the extent of Belinda’s patience. She danced down the sidewalk to Ryan’s pickup.

At the school, she refused to release Ryan’s hand for even an instant. She marched the two of them around the room, introducing all the young children and her teachers to him.

“This is my new daddy,” she proudly told everyone.

Chapter 09

“I…I don’t know how to start, Ryan…I guess…just thanks for coming?” Carrie said hesitantly. She was sitting at the small picnic table in the shade of the big pecan tree. The visitor area for the prison camp was a pleasant, well-maintained grassy area between headquarters building and one of the dormitories where the inmates were housed.

“The only condition your attorney insisted on finally was that I was to deliver your copy of the decree to you personally,” Ryan replied in an even tone.

He was trying hard not to interject any acrimony into what he was sure would be the last time he would see his ex-wife. The provision for him to deliver the documents to Carrie had, in fact, been the only thing she’d asked for.

She hadn’t attempted to get in touch with him after the night she and Sean Michaels had been ambushed at the nightclub. Even when she’d been indicted, she’d never tried to contact him. That had been Ryan’s wish, though he’d been a little surprised she hadn’t at least tried.

“And now I find out I can’t actually do what you wanted me to do,” Ryan remarked. “The visitor regulations won’t allow me to bring in any paperwork or…well…anything but about what I’ve got on,” he explained.

“Yes, I learned about that after I got here,” Carrie replied, “and they already told me you got special permission to just drop it off with the staff instead of mailing it like the rules say. I appreciate that. I really do.”

Ryan shrugged uncomfortably. What Carrie appreciated was of no concern to him anymore. Her betrayal had pushed him away from her and he no longer cared.

He glanced around the visitor’s area. Bryan Women’s Federal Prison Camp was a minimum-security prison. There weren’t any of the watchtowers, tall fences, and barbed wire he’d thought he would see. The only thing separating the facility from the surrounding community was a standard chain link fence no different from those found dividing one back yard from another in a suburban neighborhood.

The outside walls of all the buildings were a beige stucco with red tile roofs, typical of southwest architecture. The grass was lush and green, the trees tall with spreading boughs that provided abundant shade beneath them. The grounds were well kept. He couldn’t see a scrap of paper or debris of any kind. The place looked pleasant and low key. Ryan wondered what it was like from the inside.

“So…what do we do now?” Carrie asked softly.

Her hands were in her lap and she sat erect with her back straight. According to the rules, she wouldn’t have been allowed to touch Ryan after a brief hug. She’d known Ryan wouldn’t have put up with that, so they’d settled for murmured hellos. Carrie was highly conscious of being under the scrutiny of the prison staff.

We don’t do anything, Carrie,” Ryan replied quickly, shifting his gaze back to her. “There is no “we” anymore. That’s what a divorce is all about.”

Carrie’s eyes dropped. She was disappointed but not devastated. It had been expected.

“Ryan, I’m really, really sorry I’ve screwed things up for us. What I did was wrong and I’m sorry for having done it. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Please believe me…I never meant to hurt you.”

Ryan shrugged. He adjusted his sunglasses. The sun was high overhead and reflected off the pale walls into his eyes.

“I’m a little confused, Carrie,” Ron replied. “Since you want to talk about it…exactly how did you think screwing your boss would not hurt me?”

Carrie winced. She bit her lips for a moment.

“You weren’t ever supposed to find out, Ryan. I know that sounds stupid now, but I thought if you didn’t know about it…then it was like…”

She broke off, trying to find the words to express what she was feeling.

“No harm, no foul?” Ryan suggested.

Carrie nodded slowly after thinking about the phrase for a bit. She wasn’t happy with the expression, but it did say sort of what she’d felt at the time.

Ryan snorted softly. He swiveled his body around on the bench and tucked his knees under the table. For the first time, he faced his ex-wife head on. He didn’t know her. In her neatly pressed, issue khaki pants and green shirt, she was alien to him. He didn’t know if he’d ever seen her in a shirt with all the buttons done up before.

Her face was thinner than he remembered. The faint freckles across her nose seemed darker somehow. Her green eyes seemed too big for her face now. Her blond hair, cropped even shorter than she’d worn it on the outside, was limp and lifeless. He’d noticed her five foot, three-inch frame seemed slightly stooped, as if she carried an enormous load. She was a stranger, a stranger who had wronged him.

“What you did was still wrong, Carrie,” he said brusquely, “whether I knew or not.

Ryan stopped and shut his eyes. He tried to control his breathing. This wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.

“Sorry…I don’t know why I bother,” he said after a bit. “I get pissed when I hear people say what someone doesn’t know won’t hurt them. It does hurt, it’s just that someone hasn’t realized it yet.”

“I know,” Carrie said delicately. “I didn’t know it then…but I do now.”

Ryan shrugged.

“Too little, too late, Carrie,” he said. There was no sympathy in his voice. Carrie winced.

“Yes…you’re right,” she said unhappily. “I can’t change what I did, hon…Ryan. But, I’m being punished big time now. I guarantee you, it won’t happen again.”

Ryan shook his head.

“Huh uh. You’re being punished for lying to a Federal investigator, not for wrecking our marriage…and Sharon Michael’s marriage. Don’t even go there.”

Ryan shifted his body around and prepared to get to his feet.

“And if you’re talking about our divorce…that’s just an administrative detail…that’s all there is to it. It’s not punishment. You killed our marriage. I just got a judge to confirm it with his signature on a piece of paper, that’s all.” His face held compassion at all.

Carrie looked at him unhappily. Unshed tears glistened in her eyes.

“I know, Ryan, I know. I’ve really screwed things up and there’s nothing I can do to fix it,” she said in a low voice. She was trying to keep from crying.

Ryan’s shoulders lifted and fell in a long shrug.

“Life’s about choices, Carrie. You made a bunch of bad ones and now you have to live with them,” he said. He made sure his tone wasn’t accusatory. There was no point.

“There’s no chance we…after I get out…could…?” Carrie blurted.

Ryan shook his head decisively. He took off his sunglasses for the first time. He put them carefully down on the tabletop.

“I don’t really want to be cold and…mean spirited, I guess are the words to use,” he said slowly. “There’s nothing to be gained and it would be a waste of time.”

“Look, Carrie…uh…I’ll be getting married next week.”

Carrie was taken aback, shocked at the news. She hadn’t expected this. It had never occurred to her Ryan would move on…and if it had, she wouldn’t have thought it would be this soon.

“I…I don’t know what to say,” she choked out. “I hope…I hope you’ll be very happy,” she finally said. The tears were threatening to cascade from the corner of her eyes and down her cheeks.

“I didn’t mean it to come out like that,” Ryan said in a half-apologetic tone. “I thought I’d seen you a letter some time in the future and…oh, hell…I don’t know what I thought.”

After a long silence, Carrie got control of herself. It was something she couldn’t have done before. The discipline here at the prison was having an effect on her only a short time into her sentence.

“I…I do hope you and…what’s her name?” she asked. “If that’s not too…?”

“Consuela,” Ryan answered. “Consuela Robertson.”

“Consuela…that’s a beautiful name,” Carrie said with no bitterness in her voice. “I really do hope you’ll be very happy,” she said, trying to smile.

A confused expression came over her face and Ryan nodded when he saw it.

“You know her,” he said quietly.

“She used to work for the bank. She was one of that group of men and women who filed sexual harassment suits against him and the others. My lawyer dug up a lot of information on them. We…Consuela and I…met, and the rest is history, I guess.”

Ryan had half-expected the subject of his impending marriage to come up in his meeting with Carrie. Any comments would naturally have included his fiancée’s name. The well-crafted statement was not technically incorrect in any respect. Neither was it in the least accurate.

Carrie looked at Ryan a long time without commenting.

“Well…I still…I hope you’ll both be very happy,” she said finally. “I’m sure she won’t hurt you like I have,” she added. A trace of bitterness was in her words this time as well as her tone.

Ryan ignored it. Carrie had lost the right to be bitter about his choices. He stood but didn’t immediately leave.

“I won’t be coming here again,” he said. “Consuela and I …well…you know.” Carrie nodded her understanding. “Well…goodbye, Carrie,” he said. “I hope…I hope when you get out of here, things turn out good for you.”

“Thank you, Ryan. I appreciate that,” Carrie replied. She stood also but made sure to keep the picnic table between them.

Ryan nodded and turned away. He took a step and halted. After a long moment, he turned back to face his ex-wife.

“Carrie…there’s something I don’t understand. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to…but…why? Why did you even take up with that jerk in the first place?”

Carrie had expected this to be one of the first questions Ryan asked. She’d thought she would be a little careful with her answer, but there was no longer any reason for that. Ryan had made it clear there was no future for their relationship as she’d hoped. Still, she hesitated for a short while.

“I didn’t start out to cheat on you,” she said frankly. “I was happy. It looked like we were getting back to where we were before…before the first time.”

She glanced up at her ex-husband guiltily. So far this afternoon, they hadn’t explored the fact that this was the second adulterous affair she’d engaged in.

“I concentrated on just us for the longest time,” she said, plowing on.

“Then I got a nice promotion at the bank…and then I lucked into a couple of other things…more responsibility and the perks to go along with them. I…well, Ryan, I liked being in charge of things and I could see where I could go higher in the…management there.”

She lifted her hands helplessly. Her face was twisted with distaste.

“It was so wrong, but I figured out Sean Michaels was my ticket upstairs and I…I decided I’d let him…that I’d have sex with him. The money was getting better–almost as much as you were bringing home, you know?

“It wasn’t like he was a very good person, Ryan. I never thought he was. I was never in love with him. In fact, he was a pretty rotten individual…I read somewhere that people always “affair-down.” They…we…have affairs with people who make ourselves look good by comparison. I guess that’s true. It’s what I did.

“Once involved with him…it was easy to get on an ego trip, Ryan,” she said wearily. “I started to believe the world I shared with just him was fine. I thought he and I knew who we were and exactly what we wanted out of life. I had this confidence I didn’t have before…you see? It wasn’t true, but that’s how I felt.” Carrie’s face and tone showed a deep unhappiness.



“It…I can’t justify it, Ryan. I was caught up in getting that next promotion and being happy with someone else giving me attention. I think I went a little crazy. I’m sorry, I really am.”

Ryan took a moment to digest what she’d said. He shook his head.

“And the things people have told me about the way you talked about me…about our life together?” he asked carefully. He had to phrase it that way. There was no way he could even hint he’d heard her spiteful remarks on the tape recorder and the videos he’d made of her and Sean early on.

Carrie stared at him in surprise. She’d not anticipated this. She thought for a minute.

“I…well…guilt, I guess,” she said finally. “I didn’t feel good about what I was doing at first…I think I started picking fights with you and stuff so I could just keep going. After a while, it didn’t…I didn’t feel so guilty anymore if I could blame you…you know?”

“I began to see everything a different. Every time you were short with me or didn’t agree with me…whether it was real or imagined…it gave me an excuse to see one more thing in a bad light. It got to be easy to make myself the victim. I started seeing you as holding me back, pressuring me to be something I couldn’t be. I saw you still weren’t trusting me from the first affair and I began to resent it. I thought you were trying to control me.

“Then, in my mind, what I was doing wasn’t so bad. I mean, if I made myself believe you were the bad guy, then how could I be at fault, right? It helped make my guilt a little less each time I did something I shouldn’t. I needed that. I couldn’t have kept on without it…and I had to keep on. It was like an…uh…a compulsion or something.

“I…I don’t know what else to say, Ryan. It was wrong, but I couldn’t see it at the time. It was like being in a fog…and I couldn’t find my way out. I didn’t mean to put my husband second to another man, but I was delusional. I did it…and I’m so ashamed.”

Ryan gazed at her a moment longer. He shook his head.

“You rewrote most of our history together,” he told her, “from what I’ve been able to gather. Some of our former friends have told me a lot of what you said was pretty damned vicious.” He looked at her unhappily. “And it was all because you were wanting to prostitute yourself to get ahead huh?”

“What?” Carrie protested, shocked. “I never…”

“Sure you did,” Ryan shot back angrily. “A hooker fucks other men for cash; you fucked Michaels…and whoever else…because you wanted a bigger paycheck. There’s no difference. You just did it with a better dressed clientele, that’s all.”

Ryan’s voice was heavy with revulsion and suppressed anger.

“My wife the whore,” he said thickly. “Good riddance…”

He turned and strode quickly across the yard to the nearest control point. He didn’t look back.

********

In the middle of the night, Carrie sat bolt upright in the darkness on her cot.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” she screamed. In her sleep, her sub-conscious mind had made a connection she hadn’t seen while awake.

Carrie had realized almost immediately Ryan’s fiancé once worked in Sean Michaels’ division when Ryan gave her Consuela’s full name, but it hadn’t seemed worthy of comment. It had taken her until now to remember Consuela had the knowledge to access the bank accounts and would have been able to do what everyone said Sean had done.

Now, while she slept, Carrie’s unconsciousness connected that fact to what her lawyer had relayed to her weeks earlier. Sean Michaels had claimed Ryan was somehow responsible for everything. His attorney had tried to get a new trial for Sean based on the new “evidence,” but the motion had been summarily dismissed by the judge who heard it.

Her shouts created a disturbance in the dorm. There was a restless stirring. A number of the women got up to use the restroom and a guard came to Carrie’s room. Carrie was warned. She would be punished. Would she like being transferred to a higher security institution?

It took her forever to get back to sleep. She wondered if her attorney would come up to Bryan if Carrie called and asked for an immediate meeting. She was excited for the first time in a long while.

********

Her optimistic mood didn’t survive the first bright flash of sunlight the next morning. A feeling of impotent hopelessness came over her as she washed up. She’d heard Sean’s accusation hadn’t gone anywhere. This wouldn’t either.

Carrie knew her husband…her ex-husband. He would never have mentioned his new wife’s name if he’d thought something might come of it. He’d done it deliberately, knowing she’d make the connection eventually. Ryan was smart enough to have already made sure his tracks were covered. No one would be able to figure out how he and Consuela had managed this…no one would be able to prove it anyway.

She grimaced. Ryan had said the divorce was not punishment for cheating on him. It was just an administrative detail. That’s what he said. The humiliation the night the TV show’s lights and cameras had caught her and Ryan…that was just another detail. She saw that clearly.

No, this was her punishment. Along with spending a year in prison, she’d have to live with the knowledge he’d known all along about her cheating, that he’d somehow set her and Sean up, and she couldn’t do one…damn…thing about it.

Biting her lips, Carrie made herself get up and walk to the dining facility. She would be on yard detail today and she needed the calories. They would be digging three new vegetable gardens and one flower garden in front of the main building.

This evening after dinner, she would permit herself to put a big black ‘X’ through today’s date on her calendar. Three hundred and nineteen more days to go.

Epilogue

In accordance with Texas law, thirty-one days after Ryan’s divorce was finalized, he and Consuela were married in the little town where Consuela had been born. Most of the town’s residents attended the reception that immediately followed in the VFW hall down the road.

A few hours after he proposed, it had occurred to Ryan to ask when they would be married. What did they need to do to start planning the whole thing? Consuela told him her mother and she had already done most of that already. All they had really needed was a date. Smiling at the shock on his face, she assured Ryan she and her mother, and most of her other relatives, had known he was going to propose a long time ago. It had only been a matter of when.

Stunned, Ryan had begun to glimpse what he was getting into. After a while, it didn’t bother him. Consuela loved him, he loved her, and they both loved Belinda. That was enough for any man. He did rent a copy of “Steel Magnolias” from the local video store though. He needed to know where to set his boundaries.

Three weeks after the wedding, Ryan and Consuela took the official copy of their marriage certificate to an attorney specializing in such things and Ryan began the process of adopting Belinda. The little girl’s birth father was located easily enough near Santa Fe, NM. He’d fallen on hard times, as the saying went, and he was happy enough to sign the adoption papers for fifty dollars and two bottles of cheap Mogen David wine. Neither the money nor the wine appeared in the videotape the private investigators took the precaution of making of the event.

Belinda’s biological father was found three years later, face down in a dry arroyo that had run brimful a week earlier with runoff from a heavy thunderstorm. His passing generated only a two-line obituary in the local newspaper.

Belinda adjusted easily to having two parents. Ryan and Consuela had worried for a while because the little girl had spent her entire life up to this point with only her mother around. While she couldn’t articulate any such feelings…she was only five-years-old, after all…she obviously considered it an opportunity to be loved by two people rather than having two people around who were there to discipline her. She took full advantage of the situation.

After a year of Belinda having her new father all to herself…Consuela thought her daughter deserved that much time to “catch up,” as it were…Consuela got pregnant with the first of three more children. Jeanette, Rosita, and Roberto were born fourteen to sixteen months apart from each other.

Belinda, instead of resenting them, considered them additions to the family as a whole. She told Trish at the café that “we” were pregnant again when Consuela started showing with Roberto. Trish blinked in surprise, then grinned delightedly.

Carrie Gilchrist served the rest of her time quietly at the confinement facility. Her sentence was too short to qualify for a furlough to a halfway house at the end, so she spent the entire 365-day sentence in FPC Bryan, TX.

When she got out, she found Ryan had been more than generous with her. Half of the proceeds from the sale of their house, its furnishings, along with some other property and vehicles was waiting for her in an interest bearing account. She took the money, bought a beauty salon in Fort Worth, and threw herself enthusiastically into a new career. The felony conviction on her record prohibited her from resuming her profession in the banking industry but in truth, she didn’t miss it much.

Without completely understanding why, Carrie never mentioned her suspicions about Consuela. Many years later, she decided it had been a part of her atonement for the way she’d lived her previous life.

Sean Michaels didn’t take well to prison life and he had a rough time of it at first. He didn’t like the staff at the prison, particularly the management, and he treated the guards with ill-concealed contempt. After a few months in a medium security facility, and left unprotected from the general population by those guards a number of times, Michaels changed his tune and became a model prisoner.

He was transferred to a low security prison, and then a minimum-security institution where he spent the last sixteen years of his confinement. He found he enjoyed teaching other inmates such things as mathematics, along with reading and writing skills. Having found something more rewarding than anything he’d ever known before, he became an advocate for inmate rights.

Sharon Michaels stayed with her husband, primarily for appearance’s sake, all the way through the trial. Once the sentence was imposed, however, she divorced him and moved back home to Colorado to be close to her parents.

A few years later, she met a Colorado State Patrol lieutenant and, after a lengthy courtship, married him. She made sure her new husband agreed with a number of limits in their marriage before she accepted his proposal. Specifically, she told the man if he ever strayed, she was going to do a “Lorena Bobbitt” on him…only no one would ever find the offending organ to sew it back on. It was unnecessary. He couldn’t imagine cheating on her and never did.

Special Agent, later Special-Agent-In-Charge, Stan Williams never quite lost the itch at the edge of his consciousness that told him there was something about Ryan Gilchrist and the bank fraud that hadn’t yet come to light. Even after being transferred to Bureau offices in other cities, he kept himself apprised of developments, of which there were few. None of them, even Ryan’s marriage to Consuela, were sufficient to reopen the case. He eventually retired from the FBI and founded a small security firm in up state New York.

Consuela’s Great-Uncle Roberto found out his niece and Ryan had named their youngest child after the old man and he was profoundly touched. He came north from Mexico City on every occasion he could to see the baby. He doted on the young boy and, indeed, formed tight bonds with Ryan and the other children too.

The bank never recovered any part of the nine million dollars that had flown from the bank’s accounts to offshore accounts all over the Caribbean. Eventually they wrote it off and got on with the business of making more money. Administrative changes were made in the organizational structure of the San Antonio regional headquarters. Two years after the incident, none of the bank officers who’d been at the bank when the theft occurred remained in any level of management. Parker Winston became the Chief Financial Officer when the incumbent retired and he served in that capacity until he retired to the Bahamas.

The seven million dollars, give or take, that Great-Uncle Roberto collected in accounts he controlled in Mexico City never came north of the border. With the settlements from the bank, Ryan and Consuela didn’t need the money and didn’t want it. The retribution against the bank and the adulterers had been completed long since. Wanting to know what to do with it, Roberto had taken a number of suggestions from the Gilchrists and used it to promote some of Roberto’s most ardent causes.

Three years after the case was closed in the United States, a tramp freighter crept close to the Venezuelan coast. Lighters unloaded a multi-million dollar cargo of modern arms and gear to equip a small, but growing, guerilla unit fighting the communist dictator’s army. A few months later, the guerillas took a provincial capitol and began consolidating their gains. At last word, things looked very hopeful for them. The CIA and other intelligence agencies never discovered who funded the delivery of weapons. Of course, they didn’t try that hard either.

Consuela’s second cousin Richard had joined Ryan in cheerfully destroyed the laptop they’d left with him. The two men used the hard drive as a target, pulverizing it with rounds from three high-powered rifles. They buried the leftover bits of smashed metal at the bottom of an old mine and, using a few sticks of dynamite Richard had, caved the whole thing in on itself. They did that just for fun and because Richard wanted to get rid of the old explosive.

Ryan and Consuela were never quite able to feel guilty about having stolen the money. They’d done it more to get their revenge for wrongs committed upon them and they always believed they’d been completely justified. Just getting the pair fired when the TV show aired wouldn’t have been enough. It was the prison sentences that were the important things and the bank fraud had been key in sending Sean and Carrie down that path.

That the two adulterers survived at all was a blessing, Ryan and Consuela decided…something the pair of cheaters should have been grateful for. The prison sentences were much easier to bear than what would have happened to adulterous couples a hundred years earlier in this same town. Ryan commented on a number of occasions that in an earlier day, he would have been expected to shoot both Sean Michaels and Carrie Gilchrist dead in the marital bed they’d profaned. The harsh retribution against the adulterers had been necessary for both Ryan and Consuela and now they could get on with their lives. All the accounts had been settled.

When the first baby arrived, Ryan and Consuela bought out one of the local ranchers and moved their family a few miles out of town. Ryan’s little construction company leveled the existing buildings and built their first full structure, a rambling ranch style home designed by an architect Consuela hired and worked closely with until he had everything exactly the way she wanted it.

Once the children were old enough, the family began to spend some of their summer vacations camping in the most remote parts of the Llano Estacado where Ryan showed them the secret places his grandfather had shown him. Belinda came to love the high desert so much she studied archeology in college, specializing in old American Indian lore. She married another student in the same discipline a few years after they graduated and they spent much of their time in complete isolation up on the big plain.

Though he often got choked up when he saw how much his oldest daughter loved him, Belinda only made Ryan cry twice in her life. The first was when Belinda began introducing him to her kindergarten class as her daddy. That time, he managed to hold back well enough so only the closest of observers were able to detect the moistness in his eyes. On the second occasion, tears flowed down his cheeks when Belinda invited him into her hospital room to introduce the newborn child in her arms, a boy she said she was naming Ryan.