In May, 2005, I posted a story entitled How High a Price - Another View about Early and Susan Conroy.
That story used a plot summary and characters of How High a Price, written by The Troubador. Other authors have also written stories based on the same theme and characters, all courtesy of The Troubador's excellent beginning. Those stories can all be found here at storiesonline, courtesy of Lazeez. Joesephus added two excellent stories to the anthology, which follow the branch of this literary tree I began with my version of the tale.
Cheating stories are always popular because so much of it goes on in real life, and the emotions are so visceral. Add to that the Troubador's almost mystical open-ended creation. Something keeps drawing me back to it. So I have written this story for the anthology.
It is not a stroke story. It contains little sex. It is the story of a man wrestling with the problems caused him by a cheating wife. You should read How High a Price - Another View first because this one is a direct continuation of it, and this one will not make any sense without the first one. For those of you seeking a story of Susan or of Susan and Early, this is not it. This is Early's story.
I always enjoy feedback, either positive or negative. I hope you enjoy my tale.
Early Conroy was in a deep sleep, the kind where the mind whirls but the body can't move. He was hot and breathing was difficult. He struggled, feeling bound and helpless. He heard a knock. He tried to crawl toward it. The knock became more insistent. He yanked at his bonds, twisting and turning. The knock became louder. Suddenly, he yanked, twisted his body, and rolled off the bed onto the floor with a loud thunk, but the bed covers flew off him. He sat upright, unable, for a moment, to remember where he was.
"Early!" a voice outside shouted. "Open the door!"
"All right," he yelled. "Hold on a minute."
The room was damp and hot. Early's clothes, which he had worn to bed, were soaked in sweat. His mouth was dry and he could still taste the bourbon he'd consumed. He stumbled to the door, undid the safety chain, and opened it. Bill Miller was standing there with two grande lattes from Starbucks.
"What?" Early demanded.
"We were afraid something had happened to you? Are you all right?" Miller asked.
"Fine, but you interrupted a good night's sleep."
"You've been in there twenty-four hours," Miller said. He handed Early a cup. "Strong and hot. Are you going to invite me in?"
"Yeah, sure," Early replied stepping aside. "What time did you say it was?"
"Saturday night. You forgot to turn on the air conditioner. Do you mind?"
"Go ahead. Did you say it's Saturday night?" Early asked.
The room air conditioning unit was on low fan only. Miller turned on the a/c to its coldest setting and clicked the fan to high. "Yes, Saturday. Drink the coffee," he said. "You need a shower, too. While you take it, I'll get housekeeping to put on clean sheets. Did you leave everything in the car?"
"Yes. I really wasn't..." He let the sentence trail away. "What's going on out there?"
"It rained," Miller said. "All future communications will wait until you can think, which is after the coffee and shower. I'll get your stuff. Where are your car keys?"
Early tossed Bill the keys. When Early went into to shower, Bill began unloading the car. Thirty minutes later, housekeeping had changed the bed and departed. Early was dressed in a sports shirt and jeans. His coffee cup was empty.
"I'm awake now, Bill. What's going on?"
"How much detail do you want?" Bill asked.
"A full report."
"I videoed you driving away last night. Then I called the police and an ambulance. I knew Stickner was in bad shape and I wasn't sure about your... Susan."
"The cop last night..." Early said.
"Sergeant Peter Simmons," Miller said. "He's a good guy and a good cop."
"Got it. Sergeant Simmons said I fractured Stickner's cheekbone."
"You did. It was a hell of a right cross, Early. Marciano would have been proud of you."
"How was his surgery?" Early asked.
"I don't know. Jim Anderson of their firm swooped in and locked everything down. They even got a judge out of his Saturday tennis game to sign an order prohibiting us from going anywhere near Susan, Stickner, and every one else at that firm. And the court ordered us to turn over all evidence in our possession." Miller grinned. "John Wells anticipated something like that. We delivered all the evidence, including the picture negatives and the video, to Mrs. Rodgers before we got the court order to deliver them to the court. We even got a copy of the video in Simmons' hands and he took it to the D.A."
"Am I in the clear?"
"You need to call your attorney. And you need to check your cell phone messages. You've got it turned off," Miller replied.
"So, I'm not in the clear?" Early asked.
"I think you are, but you need to call..."
"My attorney. You don't have any more coffee with you, do you?"
"No, but Starbucks is only five minutes away. Want any bagels or muffins?"
"Two bagels with cream cheese and another double powerhouse latte," Early said.
"Don't leave and don't let anyone in while I'm gone," Miller cautioned. "I'm on guard duty."
As soon as Miller left, Early turned on his cell phone. He called his voice mail box to discover there were only five messages.
The first was from Catherine Means, his realtor. "Early, it's Saturday about one. An offer was made this morning on the house at full asking price. I accepted it for you as I'm required to do by law. So your house is sold. I've located some lovely town homes for lease that might appeal to you. Give me a call back when you can. I hope everything is all right."
The second was from Cynthia Rodgers, his attorney. "Mr. Conroy, we need to talk. Call me as soon as you can. My cell phone number is 555-1863."
The third was from John Wells. "Mr. Conroy, please call me back. It's urgent."
The fourth was from Susan. "Early, I am so sorry. I love you and I want you back. Please, let's talk."
The fifth phone call was from Cynthia Rodgers again. "Mr. Conroy, it's six o'clock on Saturday evening. I'm going dancing with my husband, then I'm going to bed. Please come to our house tomorrow morning at eleven thirty. We have a lot to discuss. Why don't you plan to stay for lunch? My husband cooks a mean omelet and I can pour orange juice with the best of them. I'm sure you can find my house. I live directly across the street from John Stickner in the stucco with the "R" above the gate. We'll see you then."
Early called John Wells back first. "Wells," he answered.
"Early Conroy," Early said.
"Are you all right?" Wells asked.
"I'm going to be fine. What's so urgent?" Early asked.
"Nothing now, but if you want to hang me, I put a rope around my neck for you."
"I contacted your attorney and gave her all the evidence without your authorization. I had no choice really. When it looked like we were staring at a court order..."
"You did the right thing, John," Early said. "Thanks for taking a risk for me."
"You're welcome. Damn but it sounded like a donnybrook the way Bill described it."
"I guess it was. Bill hasn't told me all of it. He's out getting coffee now."
They talked for a few more minutes before Early disconnected. Early was thinking about the legal situation when Bill Miller rapped on the door. Early let him and the men sat down. Early took a sip of coffee and thanked Bill for the sustenance.
"You were reporting," Early said as he lathered a bagel with cream cheese.
"Right," Miller said. "Stickner's wife was called by the paramedics. She was the one who called Anderson and got the legal ball rolling." Miller's eyes narrowed. "I know you told Simmons you didn't want to hear about Susan but I'm going to tell you."
"No," Early said.
"Yes," Miller said. "There are only two reasons why you don't want to hear. One is it hurts too much to even hear her name. You're a big boy. He can handle it." Miller took a sip of his coffee. "The other is you care about her and don't want to hear how you hurt her. You need to handle that, too." Miller waited until Early sat back in resignation. "Do you know which reason it is?" Miller asked.
"Just tell me," Early said.
"Susan fainted as you know. She was still lying there when the ambulance and police arrived. The paramedics took her vital signs and roused her. She was delirious, so they called for a second ambulance and transported her. She was admitted for observation."
Miller opened the small attache case he carried when he first came in and removed two photographs. "Besides, Jim Anderson, three people came to see her. Here are their photos." He handed them to Early.
Early looked at them. "This one is her mother," Early said. "And this is Cindy, her sister, and Jeff, Cindy's husband."
"Susan was released from the hospital this morning. Her mother took her home," Miller said.
"Why do you ask?" Miller said. Early came him a dirty look. "To Susan's home. The one you and she lived in. I don't know if they're still there. We got hit with the court order."
"Anything else I need to know?" Early asked.
"Not from me, but I'm sure your attorney has a lot to tell you."
"Now what?" Early asked.
Miller could tell Early meant more than what information could be provided. Early meant what was going to happen in his life. Miller decided Early was depressed but not despondent. He didn't mention Early's guns he still had in the trunk of his car. He didn't want Early to have them.
"Unless you need a babysitter, I suggest you turn off our meter," Miller said. "We've done all for you we can do."
"I can always call you again if I want further investigation, like looking into Susan's background."
"If you want to know, ask her. My guess is you can tell if she's lying or telling you the truth," Miller replied.
"Can you tell with your wife?" Early asked.
"Yes, I can. I always could, which is the reason I divorced her the first time I caught her cheating," Miller replied. Miller grinned wryly.
"Well?" Early asked.
Miller reddened slightly. "Her name's Susan. Yeah, I know. Strange, isn't it. We were childhood sweethearts and married pretty young. She gave me three wonderful kids."
"But she cheated and you took her back?" Early said. Miller nodded. "Why?"
"I loved her. I guess I always did. She still cheats, goes out and fucks herself silly on some other guy's cock every, oh, I'd say every year to eighteen months. I can tell when the urge is coming and when the affair is over." Miller snorted in a self-depreciating way. "I'll say this. When she comes back, she is so guilty she can't do enough for me, in bed and out. Apology sex can be fantastic."
"I couldn't take her back. I just couldn't," Early said.
"That's what I said for two marriages and seven years," Miller said. "But I could and I did. I've never been happier." He stood, exhaled loudly, and said, "Well, I guess I'll be going."
"Did you ever cheat, Bill?" Early asked.
"Sure, but not on Susan," Bill replied. "My second wife was one of those women who'll fuck you like crazy until she gets a wedding ring, then has no interest in sex. I cheated on her every chance I got. The third was into drugs and I didn't know it until after we married. She was picked up for possession of cocaine in our third month of marriage. I dumped her immediately. Then Susan called me and asked me to take her back." Miller shrugged.
"So, you're telling me to give my Susan another chance?"
"Is that what you heard?" Miller asked.
Early was surprised and it showed.
Miller smiled knowingly. "Good luck to you, Early. Call us if you need us." The men shook hands before Miller quietly let himself out.
The air conditioning was doing its job. The room was cooler and the humidity reduced. Early started to pour himself a drink, but decided that wasn't a good thing to do. He never overindulged and he didn't want to start. He turned on the television but his mind wasn't on it. He thought about calling a friend, but his friends were either from work or friends of his and Susan's. He didn't want to talk to any of them.
He decided he needed exercise. He went to the gym he and Susan used, changed into his workout clothes, and went to the small, indoor track. He couldn't lift weights, use the punching bags, or even shoot some hoops. His right hand was too sore and swollen. But he could run. He stretched, limbering up, and then he ran.
He ran mindlessly round and round the track as his brain whirred like a computer lost in a "do loop." The weight of his emotions slowed him. Several times he wanted to stop, but he gritted his teeth and pushed onward. He ran until he was exhausted with his legs as heavy as lead and his breath coming in great gasps. He sat in the steam room for twenty minutes, took a shower, and redressed.
Early went to Outback, had a steak, French fries, and two cold Budweisers. He stopped at a convenience store, picked up a six-pack of Coke, some potato chips and pretzels, and returned to his motel room. He left a wake-up call for nine in the morning and turned on the TV.
Early drove down the same roads he had used to find John Stickner's house as he drove to the Rodgers' home on Sunday morning. That made him antsy. When he saw Stickner's house, he had a strong urge to blow it to smithereens, but he didn't. He turned into the driveway with the "R" above the gate. He parked in front and rang the doorbell.
The woman who answered wasn't what Early expected. From her voice, he would have guessed she was in her forties. This woman was older, only about five two with a matronly figure, short gray hair, and soft, knowing brown eyes. She wore a modest pants suit.
"Early? I'm Cynthia Rodgers," she said, extending her hand. "Roy's in the kitchen."
"Roy?" Early asked.
Cynthia threw back her head and laughed. "Yes, he's Roy Rodgers, but he spells it with a d. I'll give you ten dollars if you can up with a new Roy Rogers joke because we've heard them all. Come on in." She led him through the living area to a large and well lit kitchen. A tall, thin, balding man in slacks and a polo shirt was taking ingredients out of the refrigerator. He gave Early a warm smile and hearty handshake as Cynthia introduced them.
"First things first," Cynthia said. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"Just orange juice, thank you," Early replied.
"Are you hungry?" Roy asked.
"Starved," Early replied.
"Great. I'm the world's second greatest omelet cook, so name your poison. I've got all the trimmings from anchovies to zucchini," Roy replied.
Early put in his order for a four-egg omelet with sausage, bacon, and cheese. Roy turned on the gas under the omelet pan.
"Roy is my law partner as well as my husband, so anything said here is confidential. He is up to speed on your case, so feel free to talk," Cynthia said, handing Early a tumbler of orange juice.
"Where are we?" Early asked.
"Have a seat and I'll tell you," Cynthia replied. They sat down at the kitchen table. "Do you know Jim Anderson?" she asked, referring to a named partner at Susan's firm.
"I met him at the Christmas party," Early replied.
"He's an excellent attorney. All of the people at that firm are. However, he overstepped himself yesterday. He went to Judge Parsons for a court order to seize your evidence and he got it. Fortunately, John Wells transferred all the evidence to us so when he received the order, there was nothing for the court. I met with the judge and Anderson yesterday afternoon. When Parsons heard your side of the situation, he withdrew his order and ate Anderson out like you wouldn't believe. He even threatened him with contempt of court for misleading the judge in his request for the order. So that's behind us."
"Good," Early said. His grin was broad, reflecting his delight that Susan's firm got their hands slapped.
"We've got a lawsuit from the firm and John Stickner and Susan Conroy as individuals. They want to block any distribution of those pictures and shut us up so this doesn't become public," Cynthia continued.
"Like cats covering their leavings," Early said.
"I would have said 'covering their shit'," Roy commented. "There is a successful suit from a Michigan court where the husband distributed videos of his wife fornicating with another man. The wife won three million dollars in that one, so their suit isn't entirely rubbish."
"Have you shown the photos to anyone?" Cynthia asked.
"I haven't even seen them all myself. All I saw was a dozen the Wells' firm sent to me. I gave those to Susan."
"Those are the photos lying around her after she fainted in your front yard?" Cynthia asked.
"Exactly," Early said.
"Have you told anyone why you're getting divorced?" Roy asked.
"Catherine Means, my realtor."
"Is she a gossip?"
"We can live with that," Cynthia said. "They couldn't win a slander suit, but they could come after you for invasion of privacy, so we need to be careful about who we tell."
"How about the criminal charges?" Early asked.
"I talked to the Assistant District Attorney who's handling the case yesterday. She had seen the video. She thought it was perfectly clear you were walking away and Stickner assaulted you from behind. I told her to take it to the D.A. on Monday. Their firm has a lot of power and I don't want a political decision overturning a legal one. Don't get me wrong. We would win. I just don't want it to come up."
Roy put a platter of hot toasted English muffins garnished with fresh strawberries on the center of the table. "Something else to drink?" he asked.
"No, thanks," Early replied. "I've sold the house."
"I know," Cynthia replied. "Susan bought it." Cynthia was watching Early's reaction to the news. She saw him flush and his jaw set. "There isn't anything you can do about it, Early," Cynthia said. "She agreed to all the sales conditions. Unless she can't get a mortgage, it is hers." Cynthia leaned toward Early, forcing him to meet her eyes. "Tell me why that bothers you," she said quietly.
"I don't know. It just does," Early replied honestly.
Roy sat three plates heaped with well-stuffed four egg omelets on the table "Eat up. It shouldn't get cold," he said, as he sat down to join them.
The conversation switched to the Seattle Seahawks as they talked and ate. Early was surprised Cynthia was a big fan and they had season tickets. They were talking about her garden, when a thought struck Early.
"How did you know Susan bought the house?" he asked.
"She told me," Cynthia replied. "We had a short talk. Actually, she talked and I listened, but she had some things she wanted to say."
"Such as she wants you back. 'Tell him I'll walk naked through downtown carrying a sign that says I'm sorry, ' was what she said. She said she'd sign the divorce papers as written if you give her three hours."
"Three hours of what?" Early demanded harshly.
"Conversation. I suggest you take her up on her offer. It is a lot easier and cheaper than going to court," Cynthia said.
"No way," Early snapped.
Roy said, "Early, if we fight this thing out, our additional fees will exceed thirty thousand, or ten thousand for each hour she wants to talk to you. At that rate, you should be able to sit in Hell and converse with the Devil."
"That does makes sense," Early admitted.
"In your head but not your heart," Cynthia said.
"Too true," Early said.
"Roy and I have been handling divorces for over forty years. I think we've seen it all. Your heart and your head need to be in balance."
"Do you still love her?" Roy asked.
"Of course not," Early said decisively.
"Then you never loved her," Roy said in the flat tone of a man stating a simple and well-known fact.
"Yes, I did," Early snapped angrily.
"True love doesn't die that quickly," Cynthia said. "True love is strong and deep and as tough as anything Mother Nature ever made. It can take the worst of times and never falter. Think about it. You would literally give your life to protect her. If she murdered someone, you would spend your life savings defending her. If she was dying of cancer, you'd die in her place if your could, but you can't, so you'd spend hours nursing her and then sob by her graveside. You'd starve so she could eat, get wet so she'd stay dry."
The Rodgers watched Early and his reactions. They let him digest what had been said before Roy said, "Maybe your marriage was more a partnership. She was fun to be with, was good in bed, and paid her part of the expenses. Neither of you had to go home to an empty house at night. A lot of marriages are based on convenience rather than love."
"We weren't like that," Early said.
"What were you like?" Cynthia asked.
"It's in the past and I don't want to discuss it," Early said.
"You need to discuss it," Roy said. "You need to make sure in your own mind and you're not. You won't find any two better people to discuss it with then Cynthia and me."
"What were you and Susan like, Early?" Cynthia asked quietly.
"What difference does it make?" Early asked. He was unable to hide his irritation at their discussion.
"No two marriages are identical, but they all have something in common. They all have a coping method, a way of dealing with problems that arise in all marriages. One of those problems is infidelity. I like to think most marriages are still a husband and a wife, and adultery is a no-no, but I'm not even sure of that," Roy said. He took a sip of coffee. "Some marriages have the old double standard, where the wife is faithful and when the husband cheats, she knows and never mentions it. Some have a 'don't ask, don't tell' rule. Some are swingers, wife-swappers if you will. Some are open marriages. The Stickners are like that. He screws who he wants, she screws who she wants, and she goes both ways."
"The arrangement the spouses have is the key. But when one of them violates whatever arrangement they have, what does the other one do?" Cynthia said.
"He divorces her," Early said.
"Just like that?" Cynthia asked as she snapped her fingers.
"Just like that," Early replied, snapping his fingers.
"Let me say it again. I question if a man who divorces his wife 'just like that' actually loved her," Roy said. He saw Early bristle, but ignored it. "Maybe he saw her as his property, like a dog or cat. Or he's insecure and can't take the realization his wife might find someone else sexually attractive. Or maybe, as the Hispanics put it, he's macho."
Early had a strong desire to tell Roy to fuck off, but he bit his tongue.
"Of course," Cynthia said. "Learning of a spouse's adultery can be the beginning of the end of love, a blow from which love never recovers. We've seen that too often. Then the thousand little things that a spouse does that had always been overlooked suddenly become irritants. Tensions rise and the relationship breaks down."
"Why are we discussing this?" Early asked, clearly irritated.
"Because your marriage to Susan changed so quickly from 'great' to 'dead.' We think you need to think about it longer. Officially, we're advising you not to meet with Susan for at least two weeks, and, preferably a month," Cynthia said. "Unofficially, I'm advising you to get out and meet some women, see what's out there. Talk to others about divorce and marriage."
"There's a club called The Green Room. Every hear of it?" Roy asked.
"It's a pick up joint," Early said.
"Yes, it is, the biggest one in the area. Go there and see what you can find," Roy said.
"I don't need help getting laid," Early replied.
Roy grinned and said, "You don't have to have sex with all the wives out looking for some strange. Just talk to them. See what's going on in other marriages."
"Think about marriage, about relationships, about women. Don't think of them as sex objects. Think of them as life partners, someone to help and care for you, someone for you to help and care for," Cynthia said.
"I thought you were my attorneys, not marriage counselors," Early said.
"If we were marriage counselors, we would be saying that both parties to a divorce bear part of the blame. There is something she needs that you weren't giving her. Maybe she wanted rough sex and you were always gentle. Maybe you were too possessive and she felt she was being smothered, or maybe you gave her so much freedom, she thought you didn't care," Cynthia said.
"I don't believe the shared blame theory is always correct," Roy said. "I've seen too many divorces where one party clearly had all the responsibility for the marriage's failure."
"Like mine," Early said forcefully.
"Perhaps. That's what you need to think about," Cynthia said.
"I can chew on all this crap until I'm blue in the face, and it won't change a thing. She cheated. That's it," Early said.
The Rodgers didn't respond to Early's terse and emotionally made statement. They waited until he relaxed. "How about some coffee, honey?" Roy said to Cynthia.
Early declined their offer to stay and watch a game on television. He went back to his motel, took a short nap, and then went to the gym to run. He had run almost three miles when he realized he hadn't told them to set up the meeting with Susan to get the divorce papers signed. He ate dinner Sunday night at a good quality restaurant on the water front, eating broiled fish and red potatoes as he looked out at the water and boats and families. Each time he thought of Susan and wondered what she was doing, he mentally kicked himself.
Early loved his work. He didn't consider himself a workaholic, but he knew some people who thought he was. He usually arrived at the office about seven a.m. each day, but at five Monday morning, he got a call from his boss, David Williams, who was the company's chief production officer, asking him to come to work as soon as possible. He was there by six a.m. and found a note on his desk to come to the conference room.
When he entered the conference room, Early saw David, Mark Goldman, the company controller and chief accounting officer, and Malcolm Goodnight, the company president, at one end of the big table with papers spread around them.
"Ah, here he is," Goodnight said. "Grab a cup of coffee and join us, Early."
Early got a mug of coffee and sat down at the table next to David.
"We've got a problem in New York," Goodnight began. "Michael Phipps called David Friday afternoon to inform him he thought something was wrong with the inventory and the books. Michael, David, and I talked on Saturday. Sunday morning, Lionel Stream awakened me at home to tell me he was resigning. And this morning, Kyle Ferrell didn't come into work."
Early knew all the players. Phipps was the regional operations manager and reported to David Williams. Stream was the regional vice-president reporting to Goodnight and Ferrell was the regional controller reporting to Goldman.
Goodnight said, "I sent Steve Majors (the company's security chief) out yesterday and he took two of his people with him. The outside auditors put a team in this morning." Goodnight's eyes narrowed. "Steve told me you called him in the middle of the night to get the name of the private investigators we use. Is there anything I need to know?"
"Susan and I are getting a divorce," Early said.
Williams and Goldman were obviously surprised, but Goodnight showed no emotion. Williams said, "Jesus, Early. You're the last person I thought would do that."
"Will it affect your work?" Goodnight asked.
"No, sir," Early replied.
Goodnight smiled. "I didn't think it would. All right then. I want you to go to New York to take over the investigation and the problem. You report directly to me on this one. I'll keep David in the loop when necessary. Betty Strong from Marks's team is going with you and will report to you. You know her, don't you?"
"Yes, sir. She worked with me on the Preston deal in Atlanta two years ago," Early replied.
"She'll coordinate with the auditors and serve as interim regional controller until we get our hands around this. Do you need anyone else?" Goodnight said.
"I don't know," Early replied. "I'll call if I do."
"Good. My secretary will make your reservations at the other end. The Sabreliner is at SeaTac warming up for you. Get your bags packed and get on the road," Goodnight said. Early stood and shook their hands before starting toward the door. "Early," Goodnight called. Early stopped and looked back at them. "If there is anything any of us can do on your divorce, let us know. We'll help however we can."
"Thanks," Early said.
As Early drove back to motel, he thought about Malcolm Goodnight's offer of assistance. He knew Jenson, Sharone, and Anderson, the law firm Susan worked for, was general counsel for Early's company, which meant the company paid the firm substantial fees each year. Goodnight was friends with most of the senior partners there.
Early packed his bags and checked out of the room. He loaded those personal belongings he wasn't taking to New York in the trunk of his Mercedes. On the way to the airport, he called Cynthia Rodgers to inform her he was going to be out of town indefinitely, so any meeting with Susan would have to wait. He also told her to advise Susan not to contact him.
Betty Strong and the two pilots were waiting for him at the fixed base operator's office when Early arrived. "We'll get your bags," the chief pilot said. "Betty's things are already on board. Are you ready to go?"
"Do you have plenty of coffee?" Early asked jokingly.
"All you could want and enough food for a small army," the pilot said with a grin.
"When will we get there?" Early asked.
The pilot checked his watch. "With a five hour flight and a three hour time change, about four p.m. New York time. You'll get to your hotel about five."
"Let's go," Early said.
The company's Sabreliner was configured to hold eight passengers in more comfort than first class on a commercial jet. Betty and Early sat in two seats facing each other with a pull out table between them.
Betty Strong was forty-four, had a Master of Professional Accounting degree, and was a CPA. Her title was Assistant to the Chief Accounting Officer, but that disguised her importance in the company. She was a very competent professional who had been Assistant Controller before Mark Goldman asked her to work with him on special projects. Now, she was a troubleshooter like Early, except, while he was operations, she was financial.
She wore her black hair short and didn't dye away the few gray strands appearing in it. She exercised regularly to maintain an attractive and healthy figure. She dressed professionally, which means she looked feminine but not sexual, with appropriate makeup. That day she wore a light gray pants suit with a white blouse. Betty had a twenty-four-year-old daughter, but she never discussed her marriage or her husband. She raised her daughter as a single parent.
Early and Betty had known each other for years and respected each other's abilities. Early found Betty to be business-like with a keen mind and cool demeanor at work. The three weeks they spent in Atlanta two years ago was the only time they had been together for any length of time. There, Early and Betty had dinner together every night before going to their separate rooms. Away from work, she had a quick wit and a ready smile. Betty was a woman Early liked and respected. She felt the same way about him.
As soon as the plane took off, both Early and Betty opened the packs of information given them by corporate. The packs contained operating and financial information on the Company's eastern region headquartered in New York. The flight time was consumed by analysis and discussion, with nary a personal word mentioned. Even when they ate, they worked.
Technically, the "New York" office wasn't in New York. Like many companies, the office was actually in the suburbs to save the time and money of having the main office on Manhattan. Their office was in Stamford, Connecticut. The plane landed at Teterboro, New Jersey, the airport owned by The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who owned all the major airports in the metropolitan area. Teterboro was the designated airport for corporate and private planes landing in the New York City area. A limousine was waiting to drive them the approximately thirty miles to Stamford.
After he helped them with their luggage and closed the doors behind them, the limousine driver said, "Your company's arranged long-term corporate housing near your office. I'll be driving you there."
Early and Betty barely heard him. They were deep into the financials and their minds were occupied.
When the limo arrived at the corporate housing, Early and Betty discovered it was a four-story older hotel that had been recently remodeled and renovated. The facility had no dining room or café but eating establishments abounded in the neighborhood. It did offer free coffee and pastries in the lobby each morning. Their accommodations were a suite. There was a good size living room with two bedrooms. Each bedroom had its own bath. The living room and each bedroom had wired hi speed Internet connections and a wi-fi connection. There were televisions in each of the three rooms. The living room had a wet bar with refrigerator.
It was four forty-five in the afternoon when Early and Betty checked in. Steve Majors had left them a note requesting they notify him as soon as they arrived. Betty accompanied the bellman to the suite while Early called Steve on his cell phone. When Early arrived at the suite, the bellman was gone and Betty was in one of the bedrooms unpacking her belongings.
Betty came into the living room and asked, "What are the plans?"
"We've got a meeting here at seven with Steve and Mike Phipps. Have you met him?" Early said.
"No, I haven't," she replied.
"He's the regional operations manager here. Goodnight thinks he's one of the good guys, so he's in our loop. Brian Coolidge with the auditors will be with them. They're bringing Chinese food."
"Sounds exciting," Betty said sardonically.
To an outsider, flying off to New York to seize control of a significant business operation and turn it around sounds romantic. To the insider, it is brutal. The days are long and intense. The food isn't at one of New York's many fine restaurants. It is sandwiches or take-out at a desk or conference table. The mental and emotional energy consumed leaves the participants exhausted and lifeless as they fall asleep each night too tired to go another step.
Betty and Early arrived Monday afternoon. They worked long days, often sixteen to eighteen hours. They worked through the first weekend and into the second week. It was a blessing for Early. The concentration required for the business problems at hand let him keep Susan from his conscious. By the end of the second week, the problem was under control but there was much work left to be done. They worked through another weekend.
On Monday of the third week, Early, Betty, Michael, Steve, and Brian, the outside auditor, met for breakfast of Danish, orange juice, and coffee in the suite.
Early said, "Yesterday, Paul Landon flew in. Betty and I met with him and attorneys from a law firm here in New York all afternoon." The group knew Paul Landon was senior vice president and general counsel for the company. "Paul will be meeting with them again today and Betty and I will be with them. Malcolm's flying in tonight."
The mention of Malcolm Goodnight, the company's president and chief executive officer, made the others tense. They knew if he were joining them, quick action would be taken. "We're going to have plenty to do. Look, I know we're all exhausted. I think the team needs a long weekend to recharge their batteries."
The group muttered their agreement.
"Malcolm will be going home tomorrow night. We can address issues Wednesday and Thursday morning. Let's break starting at noon Thursday. We can meet back here on Monday and see where everything stands," Early said.
The team was visibly relieved, as happy as prisoners learning of their parole date. Michael, Steve, and Brain starting talking about spending time with their families as the meeting terminated. Early went into his bedroom to finish his morning routine. When he reentered the living room, Betty was waiting.
"Are you going home to Seattle?" she asked.
"No. I'm going to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. There's a charter leaving a 2:15 Thursday afternoon."
"Where are you staying?" Betty asked.
"I don't know yet. Goodnight's assistant booked me into a place called The Ocean Club. I told her I didn't want anything fancy, just someplace to crash and rejuvenate myself."
"Want some company?" Betty asked.
Early hesitated only a second before saying, "That would be nice."
In the instant before he spoke, Early thought of Betty in a sexual way. In the moments after he spoke, he realized it was the first time he'd had any sexual thoughts since learning of Susan's infidelity. He couldn't remember having an erection during that period. That was the bad side of the coin. The good side was he had given little conscious thought to Susan. But Early knew his subconscious had been dealing with Susan and her infidelity. It was too important to stay buried long.
By Wednesday night, the hard part was done. Malcolm Goodnight had returned to headquarters in Seattle. Paul Landon and Brian Coolidge had been to the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. to discuss with them the break down in internal operating and accounting systems that allowed the embezzlement to occur. Attorneys from the New York law firm had met with the New York State attorney's office to discuss criminal charges against the employees who participated in the embezzlement. The losses had been stopped. Now the hard part would began. Someone needed to rebuild the eastern region.