I sensed that something was bothering Paula almost as soon as she came through the door. It's something you pick up after almost twenty years of marriage.
"Is something wrong, Paula?" I asked as I watched her fidget with the dinner preparations.
"No, nothing at all," she responded, perhaps too quickly.
The other thing I had learned in my time with Paula was that she could not be pushed into revealing something until she so desired. To hassle her would be a waste of time, at best, or lead to an argument in the worse case scenario. I set the table and kept my mouth shut.
"Tomorrow evening, I have to go back in to work around seven for a short while, Bill," revealed Paula. "I have to meet with some parents to go over the lack of progress their children are making."
"No problem," I replied as I recalled the conversation I had with Tim Brown earlier that same day.
Tim was the head maintenance man at the high school where Paula taught. He had been in my body shop getting an estimate on repairing a ding in his fender from an all too common interaction with a deer.
He had explained how ridiculous he thought it was to evacuate the entire school tomorrow evening while some special haz-mat guys removed about four inches of asbestos insulation found on a heating pipe in the bus garage. The garage was almost a hundred yards from the school building, but the people in power were taking no chances that any problems would come from the removal. Hence the decision was made to vacate the school, including the nighttime custodial staff.
Now Paula was telling me that she had an appointment at the school that evening? It made no sense. Paula never lied about anything, and especially anything this trivial. Then it occurred to me. It may not be trivial at all. Where was she really going and why? Why did she feel the need to lie? I mulled it over during dinner, and well after. I finally came to a decision and turned my attention to enjoying my wife and our two teenage daughters the rest of the evening.
The next day I asked my newest employee, Steve Milko, into my office and explained what I wanted him to do.
"Just follow Paula and see where she goes and who she meets, Steve. She hasn't met you yet, so she'll have no reason to suspect you. I know this isn't part of the job description, but it'll be doing me a favor and I'll pay you overtime for the time you actually spend doing this for me," I added.
"That's a deal clincher, Boss!" chuckled Steve. "I won't have any trouble recognizing your wife from all the pictures you have of her and your kids here in the office. I'll follow her and give you a full report tomorrow morning."
I didn't like what I was doing, but I felt I had little choice. Paula was lying to me. I had to know why. In all my years with her, I had never suspected her of not telling the truth. Now those years of trust were being eroded.
"Well, Boss, I did a pretty good job last night, but you won't like what I found out," began Steve as he sat down in the chair in front of my desk. "Your wife met some slick looking dude at the Dew Drop Inn. They sat at a booth in the back, so we bought a couple beers and sat in the next one."
"Just who the hell is 'we', Steve?" I demanded. "I assumed that you understood that this was a sensitive matter and that I didn't want the whole town to know about it!"
"Shit, Boss. How long have you been married? I can't just get up and walk out the door anytime I want without telling my wife where I'm going, and what I'm doing. If I try to lie to her, she'll know it and then my ass will be in a sling. Once Marcie heard what my orders were, there was no leaving her behind. It worked out good because she hears better than I do, and she's a hell of a lot smarter than I am, although I'll never admit it to her," confessed Steve.
"Just get on with the story, Steve," I responded curtly.
"When I sat down, I noticed the guy had some old magazines on the table. I couldn't tell what they were, but I know what was in them," continued Steve. "The prick was blackmailing your wife, Boss. He told her he'd show the pictures in the magazine to you and your kids, and even send some to your wife's boss if she didn't cooperate."
"How much money did he ask her for? What were the pictures? How much time did he give her?" I asked in rapid succession. "What did Paula tell him?"
"Now, Boss. Remember that I'm just making my report here. Don't kill the messenger, okay?" replied Steve. "He told her that he wanted her to be his mistress and gave her till Monday to make up her mind. Your wife begged him to accept money, but he just laughed at that suggestion. With all due respect, Boss, he told her he wanted to fuck her whenever the mood struck him. There were no options. I had to hold Marcie to keep her from going back and breaking a beer bottle over his coconut. She was hot!"
I considered what Steve had told me. Blackmail was easily thwarted. All it took was the truth. What truth could be so bad that Paula would even consider such a contemptible proposal? Who was this miserable bastard?
"I don't suppose you caught the name of this guy?" I asked hopefully.
"Boss, we did get his first name. It was Tom. That was all your wife called him," replied Steve.
"Well shit! That rules out Dick and Harry, but there's shit-load of men named Tom in the area," I bitched. "Can you tell me what he looked like?"
A slow grin came to Steve's face when he heard my question.
"I told you that Marcie was a lot smarter than me, Boss. Before they broke up their little confab, Marcie had the bright idea of me standing up so she could take my picture with her cell phone. The only thing is she missed my handsome mug and took a picture of the asshole blackmailing your wife. I have it right here," grinned Steve as he pulled a phone from his pocket, punched a couple buttons, and held it in front of me. "Here's the dude!"
The light in the photo wasn't the best, but I recognized the man immediately. It was Thomas Mann, educator of the year in 2000, and newly appointed vice-principal of the high school where Paula worked. He almost didn't get the post because Paula had complained about what she felt was inappropriate behavior between Mann and a freshman girl last year. He told Paula at the time, in private, that she would regret her actions. Apparently he was trying to make good on his promise.
The questions were many. What was he using to blackmail Paula? Why the old magazines? How would Paula respond to this threat? Would she come to me for help? Could she? Would she submit? I knew the answer to the last question ... over my dead body!
It was Thursday morning. I had a few days to consider the situation and try to come up with a good solution. If it came down to it, I'd visit the prick Monday and end any dreams he had of sleeping with my wife, or any other woman! It just seemed like a bad idea for me to risk being arrested. Then whatever he was using to blackmail Paula would become public knowledge. How does one thwart a blackmailer?
That evening Paula was quiet and preoccupied. Even our daughters noticed it and asked her if something was wrong. Paula offered some lame excuse about thinking of new ideas for a literature course she was teaching. Somehow, the girls accepted it.
That night in bed, Paula was all over me. She gave me everything a man could ever ask from a wife and would have continued, if I had been able. Afterwards, she put her head on my shoulder and proclaimed her unending love as she clung to me tightly. This thing had her concerned that she might lose me. I could see that much quit clearly.
The next afternoon, just after I got home, there was a knock on the front door. My older daughter, Chris, answered it and called for me. It turned out to be a courier with a package for me, and one for my daughters, Chris and Lisa. By the time I had signed my name, Chris had her package open and was going through the contents.
"These are old magazine pictures of naked women, and one of them is mom!" shrieked Chris.
"Let me see!" insisted Lisa as she grabbed the pages from her sister. "Wow! It is mom, and she's showing everything!"
"Look how young she is! She was beautiful!" gasped Chris as she looked over her sister's shoulder. "Dad, when did mom have these taken? Why didn't she ever show them to us? Why did we get them in some generic package?"
"Your mother will be home soon. You need to ask her those questions. Now let's sit down and calmly look this stuff over and discuss what we think about everything," I suggested.
Twenty minutes latter, Paula came through the front door and sighed. It looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Then she noticed the three of us sitting on the couch with the pictures spread over the coffee table.
"Oh no!" was all she could manage as realization of what we were looking at washed over her. Tears began streaking her cheeks.
"Mom, come over here and look at these pictures we had delivered a little while ago," urged Chris. "You never told us about these and we're all pretty upset about it."
"I am so sorry, Chris! Those horrid pictures were a huge mistake that I made many years ago. You should never have seen them!" cried a very distraught Paula.
"Mom! You're so beautiful! We're upset that you never told us about them and never showed them to us. We want to make copies and put them on our wall. I can't wait to show my friends how hot my mom was!" exclaimed Chris.
"Yeah, Mom. Dad says that you were even more beautiful in real life than in these pictures. Why didn't you tell us about them, Mom? You are so cool!" giggled Lisa as she ran to her mother and hugged her.
Paula was obviously stunned for the second time in as many minutes. Her tears had slowed as her daughters showered her with love and compliments. She turned her attention to me.
"Darling, you're still beautiful," I told her as I stood and walked to her. "In fact, you look even hotter today than you did all those years ago, and that's saying a lot!"
I took her in my arms and hugged her to me. She buried her face in my chest and sobbed for a short while and then looked up at me.
"You don't hate me, Bill?" whispered Paula. "You still love me?"
"More than ever, Sweetheart," I laughed as I kissed her hard.
"Now that we have all that mushy stuff out of the way, Mom, come over here and tell us all about these photos," insisted Chris. "We're dying to hear the story behind these pictures in these magazines. Were you a model or something?"
"My father died when I was a freshman in college. Remember I told you about that, girls? I told you that I worked my way through my first three years of college because my mother wasn't left with very much money. Well, I posed for photographers that sent pictures into these magazines, and for those calendars men like to look at. They weren't exactly respectable family magazines. But they weren't the really bad ones either," Paula quickly added.
"Posing for these pictures and working weekends as a waitress, was pretty much how I got through college. At the end of my junior year, an uncle I had never met died and left me over ten thousand dollars. I was able to quit posing for those pictures. I kept my job as a waitress and graduated the next year," concluded Paula.
"Why didn't you ever tell us about that? Why didn't you show us the pictures, Mom?" asked Chris. "You look amazing! I hope I have a figure like yours in a couple years!"
"I think that's obvious, Chris. I'm not proud of what I did. I feel like I betrayed you kids, as well as your father, even though I didn't know your dad at the time, and you two certainly hadn't yet been born," explained Paula. "I was determined to get a degree and a decent job no matter what it took. I compromised my future by being so determined to have one. I have been living in fear that your father would someday find out the truth and leave me. I wouldn't blame him if he did,"
"You don't seem to know very much about Dad," laughed Lisa. "He couldn't stop looking at these pictures and telling us how incredible you were, and are. He said we should be very proud to have such a beautiful, smart mom."
"He said that, did he?" marveled Paula. "All these years I have been worried about him finding out and it turns out that it turns him on?"
"Mom!" squealed both girls in unison.
"We're just little girls, Mom," laughed Chris. "Save that stuff for the bedroom, please!"
"Sorry, girls. Bill, will come with me and help me get this zipper down on my dress?" asked Paula as she took my hand and headed for the bedroom.