Businessman - stranger still

Whap! I wasn't expecting it, and the slap caused me to stagger back, my ears ringing. "What the hell was that for?" I shouted.

Wait, I need to go back a few weeks and explain a few things, or this won't make any sense.

I entered the house from the garage and walked into our kitchen shortly after 4:00 in the afternoon, when I usually get off from work. The company I work for has several clients in the UK, so I start work at 7:00 . every day to have a little overlap time with them. It took me a while to adjust to the schedule, but now I like it.

When I walked into the kitchen I instinctively glanced up at our message board, but the only notation I saw was, "Working late."

Damn, I guess that means I'll be eating alone again tonight.

Back when Ann and I were first married and living in that little apartment, we'd hung a chalk board on the kitchen wall as a way to coordinate our schedules. And when we'd bought the house, we kept the tradition going.

At first we used to leave each other embarrassing little love notes. I remember the time I left her a message reading, "I can't wait to get home from work, Cookie. I'm already missing you!" When I got home that afternoon, she'd written, "I miss you more - and don't call me Cookie!" We first met at a little bakery and I started calling her "Cookie" back then. Now that she was established, she didn't want others to know my pet name for her, but it was hard for me to break the habit.

Yeah, I know, the notes and the nickname all sound a little syrupy, but they meant a lot to me - especially so now that the syrup in our relationship seemed to have lost some of its sweetness. These days I'm lucky to find a terse note telling me what she'd be doing and when she expected to be home. Or, like today, just "Working late."

I'm not naïve. I know that even the shiniest gems lose their luster over time, and that routine and familiarity can dull the sparkle of new love. But for the last year it felt like more than just familiarity was changing our relationship. It wasn't just that we weren't leaving love notes for each other; things had devolved to the point where we hardly ever spent any time together.

My work schedule, of course, was part of the problem. On week days I left for the office well before she was even out of bed. But her work compounded the problem. You see, Ann is a realtor, and while her office has regular hours, she's basically at the mercy of any seller or buyer. Want to make an offer on a house at 9:00 .? Ann will drive over to your place to help you with the paperwork. Trying to sell your home? Ann will arrange an open house that will tie her up all afternoon on Saturday or Sunday. You get the picture.

But that's not the half of it. Two years ago, Ann got it into her head to run for the City Council seat in our district. I did my best to talk her out of it, but friends and associates kept encouraging her. I wasn't too worried at the time because our long-time councilman had gotten two-thirds of the vote in the last election. But half-way into this campaign, his wife suffered a stroke and he withdrew from the race to take care of her. Before I could comprehend what was happening, my wife was taking her seat on the City Council.

That, of course, resulted in a whole new load of responsibilities for her. It wasn't just the monthly Council meetings. Soon Ann was also meeting with constituents, serving on task forces and doing whatever the hell it is that elected officials do.

When I stood on the platform at the hotel with her on election night when she won re-election, I was proud for her and her success. When I saw how happy her new responsibilities made her, I was delighted for her. But as the weeks went by, the time we had together kept shrinking. When I tried to bring up the subject she got defensive, accusing me of jealousy and a lack of support.

All that would be bad enough, but over the past year I've seen a change in her attitude. It's not just that she seems cooler toward me; lately when we've had time together, I've sensed an attitude of condescension bordering on contempt. There hasn't been anything overt, mind you, just a feeling I've gotten.

With all the time I've had to myself, I've done a lot of brooding about the situation. You won't be surprised to hear that that's gotten me in a bad place. I've chafed at the loss of time together with her and resented the demands on her that have come between us. I still remember one evening when we were getting amorous with each other. We had just retired to the bedroom when the phone rang. You guessed it: it was one of her real estate clients with an "emergency" that she had to go fix. Even today, that one still rankles. But, to be fair, I also remember the time I had to cancel our plans for a weekend getaway when one of my company's biggest client had had a network outage.

Now I sat at the kitchen table and tried to sort everything out. Maybe I'm not being fair to Ann. Maybe I'm just jealous because other people need so much of her time.

But as a network engineer, I've developed the ability to identify problems based on seemingly insignificant symptoms. And my instincts were telling me that there was more at work here than the factors I'd considered so far.

It wasn't just our crazy schedules that were causing me so much discomfort. It was, I realized, her attitude toward me. When she first became a councilwoman, she was so eager to tell me about everything going on with the Council and the Mayor's Office. But now she never brought them up anymore. Was it just that the "new" had rubbed off, or had she decided I was just not worth talking to? That possibility really stung.

Suddenly, a truly dark thought hit me: what if she was having an affair? I immediately rejected such a vile idea; my Cookie would never cheat on me. But I couldn't seem to get the notion out of my mind because it seemed to answer so many of the questions I'd had. What was she really doing all those nights she worked late? She could be seeing clients, but she could also, I realized, be seeing a lover. Why wouldn't she tell me where she was going anymore? Was it because she just couldn't be bothered, or was it because she didn't want me to know. Why was she so condescending to me whenever we were together? Has she grown contemptuous of me now that I'd become her unwitting cuckold?

The longer I sat there thinking, the more I could feel myself spiraling downward in angry suspicion. I've got to do something to break this train of thought before I do something stupid and irreversible. So I got up from the table and put on some old work clothes. Then I got out the mower and attacked our lawn until it was too dark to see anymore.

The physical exercise had helped a little. I still couldn't help thinking about the situation, but I calmed down enough to come up with a plan of action. When a network starts having problems, my first step is to perform a number of tests to track down the cause. I need to do the same thing with my marriage: do the diagnostics and find out what's gone wrong.

Over a dinner of leftovers, I thought about what diagnostic tools I might use. I'm pretty familiar with many of the electronic wonders out there that make spying on someone easy. But the more I thought about it, the trickier the problem became. Sure, I could put microphones and cameras around the house, but with as little time as Ann spent at home, that seemed unlikely to turn up anything useful. It was the time she spent away from home that worried me.

I thought about putting a tracer on her car, but what good would that do? Between real estate showings and City Council meetings, my wife was on the move more often not. Parked at a hotel? She was always attending luncheons and holding meetings in hotel conference rooms. Miniature recording devices? Trying to tap all the phones she uses? Nothing seemed very promising.

I knew the answer, but I hadn't wanted to use it because I figured it was likely to be expensive. But hiring a professional was clearly the way to go, so I sat down at my computer and did a search on detective agencies. Well, that didn't help - there were dozens of them out there. Some had ratings, but I've grown pretty skeptical of online ratings and user recommendations. Too easy to fabricate those. Is there a section of Craig's List for detective agencies? Angie's List? Damn!

Then, further down my search, I noticed an entry for a Channel 9 News story. When I clicked on it, I found they'd done a feature on local detective agencies a year ago. Channel 9, hunh? I went to school with Amy Howard, the gal who's now the news director for the station. We'd even dated some back in college. It hadn't been serious but we'd parted as friends. I called her.

"Hey, Amy, long time no see. Any chance you could have a beer with me after work today?"

She was pleasantly surprised to hear from me. "I think I can get away, Dave. It's a slow news day, so unless something big breaks, I'll be there."

When she walked into the lounge, I remembered why I'd been interested in her. She was still just as attractive as when we'd dated, but now she had the confident style of a successful professional. It looked good on her.

We chatted for a while, getting caught up on mutual friends and our lives since college. But eventually I subtly changed the topic. "Didn't you guys do a piece on local detective agencies a while ago?"

She looked at me shrewdly. "Oh, Dave, I'm so sorry. I was wondering why you haven't mentioned Ann. Are you looking for a recommendation?"

Busted! I hung my head and nodded.

She paused for a moment to think. "Given your wife's position in town, I'd steer away from the big agencies. The fact that they have more employees just increases the possibility of someone gossiping. Does that make sense?"


"And you probably don't want a one-man shop because getting what you need in a timely manner can be a problem. It's hard for the owner to juggle more than one or two cases at a time."

I nodded. That also made sense.

"So if you're looking for something in between, we got good reports on the Masterson Agency. They're not the cheapest shop in town, but the customers we talked to said they were thorough, professional and got results in a reasonable period of time." She paused. "Dave, the PI business is a little sleazy by nature, but you could do a lot worse than go with Masterson."

That sounded good to me, so I thanked her. But as I got up to leave, she reached across the table and squeezed my hand. "It was good to see you, Dave. I hope everything works out for you. Keep me posted."

I promised her I would.

As I drove home, I thought about our conversation. Damn, so much for keeping my marital problems confidential! I just hope Amy will be discrete.

Her recommendation still made sense to me the next day, so I called the Masterson Agency to set up an appointment. As luck would have it, the woman I spoke to told me I could see Mr. Masterson himself if I could come in first thing in the morning. "I'll be there," I promised.

For a change, Ann came home on time that evening, and we had dinner together for the first time in days. Given what I was about to do, I was nervous about having to make conversation with her. But I needn't have worried. She spent the whole evening ranting about the nerve of some businessman who was considering opposing her in the next election. I didn't have to do a lot of talking - or acting.

The next morning I got up early and skipped breakfast so I'd be sure not to be late for my appointment. After leaving a note on our message board for Ann, I hopped in my car and drove downtown. To my surprise, traffic was light and I wound up arriving earlier than I expected.

I checked the Masterson Agency's address again and realized it was close to my favorite coffee shop: Stranger Brew. When the place had opened a decade ago, there was a lot of talk about the name and what it meant. Some people believed it reflected the unique blend of the house brew; others swore that the new owner was an ex-hippy with a sense of humor. But Ann had checked the records at City Hall and found that the owner's name was Joe Stranger. Whatever the case, Stranger Brew had it all over the big coffee house chains as far as I was concerned.

Clearly, I wasn't the only one who liked the place. Even at that early hour I was lucky to find a seat when I got there. More customers kept coming in as I sat sipping my coffee and eating a breakfast sandwich.

Suddenly there was a clamor at a table near me, and I looked up to see a large, red-faced man yelling at a young Latina sitting by herself. "Aren't you finished yet? What gives you the right to hog a table when other people want a seat?"

The young woman sat silently, obviously stunned by the man's sudden outburst. This seemed to infuriate her accuser even further. "You're a goddam Mexican, aren't you? I'll bet you're a goddam wetback. First you come in and take our jobs, now you're taking up a table in my coffee shop. Why don't you swim back home across the Rio Grande where you belong?" He reached down and swiped his hand across the table, spilling her coffee all over the floor.

I was up and moving before I even thought about it, stepping between the woman's table and the man. "Why don't you leave her alone? She was here before you were, and she has every right to that table. You need to buy her another cup of coffee and apologize to her for insulting her!"

The man's face turned even redder, and I braced myself, expecting him to lash out at me. But his eyes suddenly shifted to something behind me, and when I looked back I saw the owner standing there. Stranger's not a big guy, but he was brandishing a sawed-off pool cue. "You," he barked at my antagonist, "get out of my shop and don't come back. You have no right to try to bully one of my customers, and I sure as hell don't need your business."

I thought the man might still decide to start a brawl, but he looked at Joe's pool cue, then at me again and finally decided not to risk it. "Fine," he shouted as he stalked out of the coffee shop, I'm glad to go. This place sucks anyway."

As the hubbub subsided, I turned to the shaken woman. "I'm so sorry that happened, Miss. Can I get you another cup?"

The woman looked up at me shyly. "You don't know me - why did you do that?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I hate bullies and bigots."

She smiled and extended her hand. "Well, I am Maria Elena Alvarez, and I am very grateful for what you did. There are many who do not feel the way you do, and even fewer who would intervene to help a stranger."

"You're very welcome, Maria Elena. I'm David Davis, and I'm just glad I was in a position to help."

Just then, Joe came hustling back with two cups of coffee. "I brought a fresh cup for each of you. I apologize for what happened, and I hope you'll feel comfortable coming here in the future."

We assured him that we'd be back, and then Maria looked at me. "Would you care to have your coffee with me? It would free up your table for others."

"If you don't mind the company, I'd be glad to join you."

I sat down with her and we began to chat as we sipped from our steaming paper cups. She shook her head ruefully. "It was only by chance that I was in here. I'm starting a new job nearby, and I arrived early because I didn't want to be late for my first day." She took another sip and looked at me. "Do you come here often?"

"Not as often as I'd like. Actually, I've got a meeting about some, uh, personal business first thing today, and I didn't want to be late either."

She nodded and then glanced down at her watch. "Actually, I probably need to get going." She stood up and extended her hand again. "Thank you again, David, for coming to my rescue. It was a pleasure to meet you, and I won't forget what you did."

I shook her hand and watched as she walked out the door. After taking one more sip of my coffee, I decided it was time to get going myself.

Once outside the coffee shop, I started off down the sidewalk toward the address for the Masterson Agency. Looking up, I noticed Maria walking ahead of me in the same direction. When she stopped for a traffic light, I caught up with her at the intersection. She noticed me, smiled and nodded. After crossing the street and walking a little further, she looked back and saw me following her. A frown crossed her face. Damn, I don't want her to think I'm stalking her!

Then, to my consternation, she entered the lobby of the same building where I was headed. I deliberately waited a bit longer, hoping she would be gone when I entered. But when I pulled the door open I saw her standing in the lobby, her arms folded and her face concerned. "Look," she said as I hesitantly approached her, "I truly appreciate what you did back at the coffee shop, but that doesn't mean you have the right . ."

"No, no," I interrupted. "I promise I'm not following you. At least not intentionally, anyway. It's just that my appointment is in this building."

She looked at me skeptically, then turned and walked over to the elevators. I followed, and when the door opened, I went in too. She pushed the button for the fourth floor and then turned toward me questioningly. "I'm going to the fourth floor," I told her helplessly.

She frowned again but said nothing.

I hung back when she got off on four, but she began walking down the hall in the direction of the Masterson Agency. As I slowly followed, she turned and scowled. Suddenly, as we approached the door to the agency, a look of comprehension came over her face, and her frown dissolved. She stopped in front of a door marked Employee Entrance and turned to me. "Good luck with your . . business, David."

Now I understand. I nodded at her. "Uhh, thanks. And good luck with your new job, Maria."

As I walked in the main entrance to the agency, all I could think was, Damn, I'll bet she's got a pretty idea why I'm here today. Now I've got two people who know I need a detective.

After I gave my name to the receptionist, it wasn't long before I was ushered back to the office of Bradley Masterson. Well, I don't know how good the agency is, but at least I'm getting the head guy, so that's something.

If ever there was someone who fit the name Masterson, it was him. He definitely looked masterful. I'm a little above average in height, and when he stood I was looking up at him. Not only that, but he was built like a linebacker. I felt a little intimidated.

Once we shook hands and I began to explain why I'd come to see him, however, he quickly put me at ease with his professionalism. Skillfully he led me through a series of questions about my wife, my suspicions, her habits and a number of other factors I probably wouldn't have thought of. This guy really knows his stuff.

After half an hour of discussion, he leaned back in his chair. "The fact that your wife is a councilwoman actually makes the job a little easier. She's used to being in public and having people she doesn't know around her. Surveillance should be no problem."

A warning bell went off in my mind. "Your people need to be careful. If it got out that I was having her followed, it could set off a big political scandal."

He smiled like a used car salesman. "Mr. Davis, we pride ourselves on our discretion and our professionalism. Your wife and those around her won't have the slightest notion she's under surveillance."

I still wasn't convinced. "So what kind of techniques will you be using: audio, video, GPS tracking?"

He leaned forward, crossed his hands and fixed me with a piercing stare. "I'm not going to answer your question because I don't want you to be looking for watchers or devices. I've had clients blow weeks of work when they inadvertently alerted their spouse." Then he scowled. "Furthermore, I don't want you attempting any surveillance on your own. You need to follow your normal routine during the next two weeks and act completely normally in your wife's presence. We're professionals; we don't need any help, and for damn sure we don't need any amateurs getting in the way. Do I make myself clear?"

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