How High a Price - Droit Du Seigneur by Seigneur Daghda Jim
"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
"When first we practice to deceive."
-- Sir Walter Scott
Droit Du Seigneur, French for the lord's right, is popularly used to describe an alleged legal right allowing the lord of an estate to take the virginity of the estate's virgins.
Eight months after Early Conroy had walked out onto that patio, he sat in an upscale Portland restaurant on a Friday evening. He was going to dine with a man he had been making miserable for several months.
The strains of the breakup of his marriage had soured Early on his firm.
In the middle of his crisis with Susan, on the next day after the confrontation, they called and insisted that he fly off on another troubleshooting task. He had told them he had serious family problems and could not leave.
They had pressured him, suggesting there was a Vice Presidency for the man who saved their bacon. He said that was not as important to him as his marriage, shaky though it might be. They had thrown in the name of Fred Alvarez, supposedly his chief rival. If Early would not go, Freddy would, and would reap the rewards for success.
Despite the seriousness of his personal crisis, Early had unable to resist laughing out loud. He had been on the phone talking to the CEO of his firm at the time.
Then he got serious. "Carleton, you go ahead and send Freddy Alvarez, with my blessing. Maybe Freddy will amaze us all and rise to the occasion. If he does, make him your VP. Maybe he will rise to the challenge of that level, too. Maybe miracles will happen. Maybe the Peter Principle doesn't apply to your firm.
"And maybe the Great Fucking Pumpkin will come on Halloween and reward all the good little boys and girls. But I'll tell you what, Carleton, whatever wonders do happen, I won't be there. All these petty pressure tactics sicken me.
"Watch for my next and last email, just to put it in writing. I hereby resign. Give my best to Freddy!"
He had indeed resigned, and was the Marketing Director and chief troubleshooter for another firm now: Tate Systems, Inc. Tate's direct and most prominent competitor was Morrison Electronics; he had chosen to go with Tate for that very reason.
He had become such a gadfly that Mr. Roland Morrison, President of Morrison Electronics was meeting him. Early had outmaneuvered Morrison Electronics and had been poaching clients left and right to the point that Roland Morrison, their president, desperately wanted to get Early Conroy out of the competition by hiring him away.
Early had been working toward that end for almost seven months. He expected that Roland Morrison was planning to use this dinner to make him an offer.
He didn't think that it was going to work out the way quite the way that Morrison did. Oh yes, he would consider jumping over to Morrison, for a price. But would Roland Morrison be willing to pay the high price that Early had in mind?
Morrison came in, apologizing for his tardiness. He was a bit wary and tentative as he sized up Early Conroy. Early, on the other hand was relaxed. He knew a great deal about Morrison Electronics and Roland Morrison. He also knew a great deal about Geraldine Morrison, Roland's attractive wife.
Geraldine Morrison, the attorney.
Geraldine Morrison, Susan Conroy's mentor at the law firm of Jenson, Sharone, and Anderson.
The two men shook hands and went about the business of ordering and eating a meal. They were careful to stay away from the reason for the meeting as they ate, so they made small talk about local politics and sports teams and the unusually dry weather.
After they ate, Mr. Morrison waited for the dishes to be cleared and then got to the point.
"Let's not beat around the bush, Conroy. Since you've been with Tate, you've been killing us. We have always had our problems, and you have feasted on them. You've been bird-dogging damned near every single one of our clients and underbidding us.
"Frankly, you have hurt us. I've had to lay off staff and am thinking about closing up one facility. I've finally come to the realization that the only way I can get you to stop bleeding us dry is to hire you away from Tate and bring you onto my team. I need you to help me improve where we are weak.
"Unless you have some special tie to Tate, I assume that you are motivated by ambition like anyone else. I want to make you my VP for Marketing and Business Development. You'd be my Number Two man. Let me know your price.
"I just can't afford to have you against me any more. You'll put me out of business.
Early took a sip of his wine.
"Roland, I'll be happy to discuss your offer and the things that I think I can bring to Morrison."
He pulled an envelope from his jacket and slid it across the table to the older men. "This spells out what I want in the way of compensation and authority. I don't think there's anything in there that will surprise you or put you off.
"However, my price includes something that is not in this envelope. It's a simple thing, really."
Roland mentally braced himself.
"I want you to listen to a story. I want your word that you will hear me out all the way through to the end and that you will not interrupt."
Roland was mystified, but willing to do almost anything to hire Early Conroy. He gave his word and settled back in his chair.
The first part of Early's story was The Troubador's How High a Price?
The second part went like this:
Early Conroy walked to the edge of the patio, out to where he could just see the waters of Lake Washington through the trees. His mind was racing at 10,000 rpm, or so it seemed.
Before he walked out, he had been grasping at straws, trying to come to grips with the crisis that Susan had brought home. He had been thinking and talking off the top of his head. Susan was a sobbing unresponsive mess, unable or unwilling to answer him or explain herself in any way that made sense. So he had taken the lead.
As a troubleshooter and negotiator, that was the way he worked when a situation was fluid and difficult: come up with workarounds, stopgaps, get things organized, get things moving. Action, any action is better than inaction. Any plan, however sketchy is better than no plan. Afterward, there would be time for course corrections and longer-term solutions.
He had just told Susan that they could face this problem together, in this house, as long as she was willing to work with him. That they could try to reopen communication. That they would sleep apart for now. He had automatically treated it as if it were a business problem.
Now, not ten minutes later, he was having second thoughts.
This was not a company that had a cash-flow shortfall, or a distribution glitch, or a public relations problem. This was his marriage ... their marriage, and Susan had dealt it a catastrophic blow. Their entire relationship had been based on faith and trust. She had broken that faith and given up any claim to his trust.
And she didn't seem to have the slightest understanding of what she had done. A brilliant intuitive woman and yet all of her feeble explanations and repeated protestations of love rang hollow and phony.
One of the last things he had said to her was;
"Somehow, if we work hard at it, we may be able to get through this; if we both want to make it work. At the moment I wonder if you do."
And that last was the crux of it.
He had ended by saying, "Susan, I love you." And that was true.
But nothing, not even his love for her, was infinite. And each lie that she had effortlessly thrown in his face these past several days had chipped away at that love in some small, incremental way. The crushing sexual betrayal in her actions and evasions had broken away large chunks.
And he could only wonder how many other lies and betrayals there might be; ones that he had not yet caught her in. Having to consider that they might exist eroded his love even more.
He was no lawyer, but he recalled that lawyers often told juries they were entitled to apply an old legal principle to any witness: falsis in unum, falsis in omnibus — false in one thing, false in all things. If jurors determined that a witness was untruthful in one material statement, they were justified in dismissing the witness's entire testimony.
Susan had been false in so many things.
He felt deeply dishonored and shocked by Susan's deceptions and betrayals, and even more distressed that she did not seem to understand what she had done. She had wronged him and lied to him and torn a huge hole in their marriage. And she didn't seem to comprehend that.
She had given her body to another man, freely, and all she could say to explain herself was that it didn't mean anything, that it had nothing to do with Early, or their marriage. Worse yet, she'd said that it was something that she had felt that she had to do.
She had felt that she had to spread her legs for another man? And could not give him a coherent reason for such a betrayal?
How could they possibly get through this crisis if she would not acknowledge that what she had done was inherently wrong?
She seemed completely blinded to the enormity of her mistake. Oh, just now she was overwhelmed at having been caught out and pressed for explanations that she did not have. Right now she was wounded and sobbing, and all fallen apart. But as far as he could tell she didn't think that she had done anything wrong. She had not said she was sorry or shown the slightest remorse.
He knew Susan. Or he thought that he knew her. Obviously not as well as he had once thought, but well enough to know that she would pull herself together. She would regroup.
She was, after all, a lawyer, ambitious, and highly competitive. In the face of adversity, she would do whatever it took to overcome all obstacles.
She had once told him that her goal at Jenson, Sharone, and Anderson was to be the youngest women to ever make partner.
She had a formidable reputation as a courtroom and boardroom warrior, and that part of her would emerge. And if she could not defend herself, she would go on the offensive. And in that mode, she would concede nothing, apologize for nothing, and delay, distract, avoid.
It was a brilliant mode for a litigator and counsel. It would be a devastatingly bad choice of action for her, at this time, in this crisis. Early was not a jury to be swayed. He was her husband and had been wronged. And until he understood the why of it, and knew that she understood how badly she had wronged him, they were finished. Until he knew that she felt sincere remorse, he would never accept being a cuckold. He would turn his back on everything that they had shared and walk away.
And so far he had seen no understanding of her offense and no remorse. All he had seen was an unreal belief that what she had done was somehow right.
He had been obliquely watching her through the undraped window. After some time, he saw her begin to get control of herself and try to get a handle on her situation. She went to the kitchen and blotted her face with wet paper toweling. Then she walked around inside their house, pulling back the rest of the drapes and curtains, opening up the inside of the house to the strong just-past-noon sunlight.
Then she sat down again and looked out at him, squinting against the light. He imagined her trying to see what he was doing or possibly divine what he was thinking. There were no more tears now, merely a look of purpose.
He knew she was beginning to change herself into her litigator mode; he could see it in the set of her face. He knew her mind would be going over every word that had been exchanged between them from 9:20 PM on Thursday evening up to now.
From 9:20 PM Thursday on, because that was when he would first have known she was lying. She would be looking at everything said, every fact, looking for loopholes in what he knew or what she thought he knew. Looking for any angle of defense, any edge.
Early's transitional glasses had long since darkened from the light and he knew she could not see his eyes. He was sitting at an angle as if he were looking out toward the lake, but his eyes were sideways, fixed on her. His heart was sinking as she sat, planning her next move.
Susan, Susan, Susan, he despaired; your next move has to be to admit you were wrong. We can get into the how's and why's of it after that, but you have to concede that you have wronged me and jeopardized us.
And he knew; hope fading, that Susan would not do that.
And another small piece of his love slowly chipped off and fell away.
She picked up the cordless phone. Then she darted a sudden glance outside, realizing that he might be watching her. She got up and walked into the dining room and out of his sight.
Early got up and went to the patio phone. It was shielded against the elements and off to the side, out of sight of the big picture windows. If Susan were to walk back into the living room, she would not be able to see him.
He picked it up and didn't hear a dial tone or dialing, which meant that she had not yet pushed the PHONE on button. He could envision Susan taking a moment, thinking, planning what she had to say to whomever she was about to call. Probably John Stickner, her recent lover.
Still, whatever had delayed her was a break for him. He quickly unscrewed the mouthpiece and ripped the small microphone from its soldered connections. She and her confidante, whoever it would be, would hear no noises. He took out his cell phone. It was an expensive high end models and he had chosen it for features that most phones did not yet have.
At last, he heard her come on the line and the rapid-fire beeped notes of a speed-dial number. Early switched his cell phone to Record Memo Mode and held it against the earpiece. It would record about 8 or 9 minutes of audio.
The phone rang a couple of times.
Then it picked up and a man said, "Susan? Did you leave something beh..."
Susan's voice overrode the man's. "John! Stop talking! Listen to me! We are in deep trouble. My marriage is going up in flames and I'm about to lose the only man that I have ever loved."
Early heard a gasping sound from the other end. He had always wondered what one of those sounded like. Now he knew.
"Early was here when I came home this morning. He's been home since Thursday."
"WHAT? SHIT! You said he..."
"SHUT UP and listen, John. He knows. Or is pretty certain. He was here Thursday night and last night. You heard those phone conversations we had, where I bullshitted about cleaning up the kitchen, and complained about having to sleep in the big old cold lonely bed?
"Well he was here, looking at that kitchen and later sleeping in that bed. He listened to me lie and lie and lie in two calls over two days and never let on that he knew they were lies. God, when he said something offhand about knowing how lonely such a big bed could be, I thought there was something odd in his tone, but I didn't pick up on it. You were licking my nipple and I was distracted.
"The damage was done by then, only I didn't know it. The last thing he said last night was that he HAD loved me more than his own life. I should have heard that past tense and reacted to it, but you were sliding your cock in me just then and I wasn't thinking clearly."
There was dead silence.
Early could barely keep his knees from collapsing. He could not have spoken if he had ten microphones before his lips. He wondered how his heart could keep on beating after what he had just heard. But it did.
John said, "Susan, I don't understand. If he's that quick, how could he not have said something if he knew you were lying? I'd have been screaming accusations."
"John, Early is a negotiator. He troubleshoots problems for his company. Almost every day he sits across the table from people who lie with a straight face and he reads their lies in their faces and their voices. He doesn't react. He has trained himself not to react. He builds his case and ties up their lies in a bundle and later makes them swallow it. He's ruthless behind that pleasant smiling face."
"Christ! I thought we were being so careful, Susan. What did he say when you came in this morning?"
"That he knew I was lying about being home those nights and that he didn't think that the bed I was in Thursday and Friday night was all that lonely. Then he asked me to explain myself.
"John, I was stunned. This was my worst nightmare. All could do was keep babbling that I loved him and only him and that what I had done had nothing to do with him or us or how much I loved him. I said it was just something I had to do.
"I said that I had to repay you and that what I did was something that I felt I owed you and that you deserved for helping me with Melrose. I knew how weak and stupid it sounded even as I said it, but I simply wasn't prepared. I couldn't tell him it was advance payment for ... you know."
"Christ!" John groaned.
"He asked me to explain how betraying him and our marriage and cuckolding him had nothing to do with him and didn't affect us."
There was more silence.
"Susan, this is very important. Did you outright admit that we had sex? The fucking and oral and anal and all that?"
"No, not specifically. But I didn't deny it when he assumed that I had. In his own words, he called it betraying him and cuckolding him. I repeated that I did what I did to repay you for what you did for me. It's hard to think that he wouldn't take that as an admission that we had sex."
John was muttering something indecipherable. Then: "Does he know who you were with?
"I said the name John. I'm certain that I never said your last name. But Thursday night when he was wondering why he couldn't get me at the office that day, I said I was tied up with you during the day. I know I said "John Stickner" then. Today he asked me exactly what I felt I owed Stickner that warranted breaking my wedding vows."
"Shit. I thought he might not be able to connect it to me."
"Why? What difference does it make?"
"Jesus, Susan. I've seen Early. He's got that friendly sunny smile look on his face, but anyone who looks closer can see he's intense down underneath. He's a dangerous man. And now he knows I'm the man who cuckolded him. That's what you said he called it: 'Cuckolding.' That's a very old fashioned word and it reeks of retaliation.
"Susan, is he violent?"
"How the fuck would I know, John? I know he has a box full of military medals and ribbons in his dresser, but I don't know what he did to get them.
"I've never seen him really angry in our whole time together. But before this whole thing started, I'd never cheated on him, either. That's how he'll see this — cheating. If there's anything that might make him violent, it's betrayal. And he doesn't even know about Tim, yet. That'll be twice I've betrayed him as he will see it. I don't know what he will do."
"God," John said, "I have to get the other partners in on this; we need a plan to deal with him."
There was silence except for Susan's ragged breathing.
"Listen, Susan, you say he's a negotiator. Maybe he will be open to negotiation on this. No matter how personal it feels, ultimately this is Civil Law 101. You get hurt; the law uses money to make you whole. Every hurt can be salved or smoothed out somewhat with enough money. It's what Tort Law works with.
"Maybe if we can get him to sit down and talk to us, maybe we can work something out, maybe reason with him."
"What, sit down with the two of us? The two fucking adulterers? Are you insane John?"
"No, no, I mean with the whole partnership. Boardroom setting. Neutral ground. Tim and Geraldine and the others with serious game faces on. Cooler heads. As long as he doesn't find out about you and Tim."
"I don't know, John. I could see how furious he was getting as I tried to explain and rationalize. He holds it in with me; I don't think he would ever hurt me. But he is going to get angrier and angrier as he chews on this."
"Jesus, Susan, this has to be the worst thing that's ever faced the partners. I have to get them involved.
"Susan, where is he now and what's his mood? What has he said about the two of you? Any ultimatums? Any decisions?"
"He went outside. To get some air, I guess, and to think. He said we would not sleep together tonight or at least for now. That he wanted to see if we could work things out, but then he said something about doubting that I wanted to. That means he wants me to tell him everything. And you know that I can't. He'd never accept or understand our partnership fast track system.
"This scares me, John. I'm terrified of losing him. Fuck the partnership and fuck the firm, but I cannot lose Early. He's my life. John, this is all blowing up on me. This is your partner fast-track system and you assured me that it would never hurt my marriage."
"Well, listen Susan, I mean, there can never be guarantees."
"Bullshit, John. Now you listen and listen hard, because I'm not going to lose everything without retribution. I taped the conversations when you and Geraldine explained the arrangement and made the partnership offer. I have her assurances on the record and your voice was on there too."
"Taped? Susan, that's unethical."
"Unethical? So is requiring prospective partners to fuck their bosses, John. You didn't worry about ethics when you set this little system up. You hire beautiful brainy associates, and after the best of them show their mettle, you offer them the deal. A partnership in exchange for a few days with each interested partner, and that's it. A rite of passage, you called it. Droit Du Seigneur, Tim called it."
"Susan, I'm sorry. This has never gone bad like this, ever. We've had associates who turned down the arrangement, but we always helped them transition out of the firm and into another one. We bought their silence. Or if we couldn't buy them off we threatened their careers. No one's spouse ever found out before.
"Look," John's voice said, "Let's look at damage containment. You say you didn't really admit to having sex. What exactly did you admit to?"
"I told you, nothing specific. Just that I did what I did to thank you. What I did was unspecified."
"So you didn't say what we did. You didn't say that we fucked or that we did oral and anal?
"No. Not specifically. But Early knows me, John. He knows how I get. He'll know it was everything. If I gave in, I'd have given it all."
"Maybe not. I have an idea, Susan. We'll make something up. Something that is borderline cheating but not real intercourse. Something Clintonesque. We need to buy time to get the partners in on this.
"We'll say that I'm in mourning for my wife. That she died of cancer last year. That you and I worked together for a long brutal stretch on Melrose, and afterwards we celebrated with the whole team. Lots of relief and lots of booze and lots of happy feelings. And then it was just us: you and me.
"So I was depressed about going home to my cold empty house, and your maternal instincts kicked in and you offered to stay with me for awhile the one night, just to keep me company.
"Nothing sexual was intended, just companionship. But when we were together, I said that I was just so envious of you and Early and your happiness. You were trying to comfort me and we wind up sitting together, closer and closer, cuddling. And we were drinking some more, after a lot of drinking at the little celebration.
"Then you got worried that you hadn't heard from Early. And you took out your cell phone and called the hotel and found that he'd checked out.
"You were worried and feeling a little guilty that you're here with me, even though it's innocent. So you called him on his cell and when he asked you where you are, you told a little white lie to avoid any misunderstanding or difficult questions.
"So you elaborated on the lie about cleaning up the kitchen and how lonely you were. It didn't seem all that big a deal, and you were pretty tired and blitzed. If you'd told the truth, that you were at my house, alone with me, you figure he'd have blown up.
"When you hung up, you were depressed yourself, because of the lies, so then we were comforting each other. We talked and drank some more, sitting side by side. We got close and started to cuddle, and that led to kissing, and the situation just escalated. I fondled your tits and my cock was out and my hand was under your skirt and we masturbated each other.
"That's all we did, fondling and mutual masturbation. It was done, and we both were upset and feeling guilty and depressed and there was no more harm done by staying together another day and keeping on with it. It was just for the two days, and no real sex happened. And it was over.
"That's our story. What do you think?"
"I don't know, John. It's bad, but not as bad as the reality. Early will be furious. He's furious now but I think ... well, maybe this is manageable. And I think we can get over it and through it. He loves me and I love him. Hell, I'll subjugate myself and wear sackcloth if that's what it takes.
"But John, it's shaky. We can stick to it, but Early's not stupid. He might check into the wife story and find she's alive and well and in Europe. Then I'm dead. It's over. If we're caught lying about it, he won't accept that it wasn't sexual.
"He'll walk out and file a Petition for Dissolution. He won't quibble over the equal division of property, he just won't care. And I can't contest it. Three months after the filing I'll be divorced."
"Susan, no, it won't ever get to that. I told you all we need is some time to get the partners in on the damage control.
"First thing, you tell him that you'll tell him the whole story, but you need a day to pull yourself together.
"That gives us a day to get the partners on board. I'll call Geraldine and Tim and we'll have everyone at my place tomorrow and we'll figure how to handle this. If they agree with my strategy, you'll tell him the cover story and explain what happened and how you were kind of guilty, but really didn't go all the way and that's why you lied about where you were. So he'll be mad, of course, and you'll have to eat crow for a while, but it'll all blow over. He really loves you, and that'll keep him from doing anything drastic.
"I'll make myself scarce, in case he wants to come looking for a piece of me. So then when he's cooled down a little, we'll set up a meeting with you and the partners. I'll have to sit that one out, of course. Then we'll offer him a buyoff to assuage his feelings ... to show we are sorry."
"John, I hope and wish it'll work, but I have a hard time seeing Early being bought off." Susan sounded dubious.
"Trust me, Susan; we'll put it that the firm was at fault for letting something like this happen, due to a project. You know, proximity, lack of people around as a buffer, and all that. We'll say we want to make it up to the two of you.
"Don't worry; Susan, everyone has a price. He loves you very much, and he'll want to avoid any scandal. And what we supposedly did is bad, no question, but it's not as if there was any intercourse. Fooling around is one thing, but it's intercourse that would be the biggie.
"The partners will back us in this, Big time. They have a lot at stake. No law firm can afford a sex scandal."
They said their goodbyes and broke the connection.
As that phone conversation unfolded, Early knew that his marriage was over. He knew what Susan had done and how she had lied to him, and how she was going to continue to lie. The pieces were falling out of his love in bigger and bigger chunks now. In their places were growing voids filled with the dark matter of anger, pain and mistrust.
He walked a long slow loop around the neighborhood. It was so unthinkable. A system of sexual harassment that was willingly entered into, because the reward was supposedly so great. A fucking Law Firm Partnership! As if that was the be-all-and-end-all! And Susan had been a willing participant. No, an eager one. Others had been approached and had turned it down. Not Susan Conroy, the woman who wanted to be the youngest partner at Jenson, Sharone, and Anderson.
When he came back to the house, Susan said she needed a day to compose herself. Then she would explain. Early could barely control himself, but grimly nodded.
Playing out the scenario, he thought. He went up their bedroom and packed a bag. "I'm sleeping elsewhere tonight," he told her. "You know where this is going, Susan."
As he climbed into his Mercedes, he caught a glimpse of her wan frightened face as she stood in the doorway and watched him leave.
Once in his hotel room, Early checked his cellphone's electronic memo pad to see how much it had recorded. It only could hold about 8 or 9 minutes, but that included the remarks about licking Susan's nipples and John sliding his cock in, and the admission of fucking and oral and anal sex. It also contained the essence of the partnership fast track system.
The only grounds recognized in Washington State for divorce was that a marriage was irretrievably broken. Evidence of serial adultery with multiple partners was ample proof of that, he grimly concluded. And a whopping law suit for revenge, too. He didn't know what charges he could file under, but he'd leave that to his lawyer.
The partners meet that day at John's house, and Susan sat in. They rejected the lesser sexual dalliance idea. That would make Early too angry.
Instead, Geraldine Morrison concocted a safer, blander story of a secret Government project involving legal analysis. It arose from the work on Melrose, and had a short fuse deadline that kept them away for the two days. They and a few others were sequestered in a hotel some miles to the south. They all drove there in their own cars so they could all drive back to their homes when it was over.
They knew that they had to make the story consistent, so they storyboarded it from beginning to end. They used large poster boards and set down the time line scenario of the cell phone calls and what had been said at each time. They followed up on what Susan had said to Early when she came home and he confronted her. The cover story was built around what she had said. Susan had called Thursday and Friday night on her cell, so Early couldn't know where she was calling from.
The story went that Susan and a few others were working with John to save his ass because he had saved hers on Melrose. That was the repayment; what she owed him.
Susan was unable to explain in the evening phone calls because it was a government job and had to be kept a secret. So Susan had to tell some white lies to keep Early out of it.
"So we didn't do anything sexual?" Susan asked.
"No you just worked round the clock hush-hush," Geraldine Morrison said. "You were promised the partnership for coming through on that, we'll say. You say that Early knows how ambitious you are. But it had to be kept secret. That's why all the subterfuge. And when you came home you didn't have a cover story, because you never were supposed to encounter Early home so soon. But you knew you were supposed to keep it secret. A secret Government Project."
The weak point was that Early had accused her of sexual misbehavior and she had not denied it.
Specifically, he had said: "How can your cheating on me, cuckolding me, not have a thing to do with us?"
"Tell me why you felt what you 'owed" Stickner' that warranted breaking your wedding vows to me?"
And Susan had responded to that with: "You are making this all sound so tawdry! It wasn't like that! It was something he deserved! I keep telling you, it had nothing to do with you and I ... with us."
Early had said: Since you are so upset that my description of your tryst makes it sound tawdry and slimy, does this mean it was beautiful to you?"
"Oh Susan, how can you say one thing, then another so contradictory. Can't you see the contradiction? You gave the one thing that was most important to me, the one thing in the whole world that I felt most proud of, yourself. You gave it to another man. And sitting here, listening to you talk, I am beginning to believe you hold intimacy with yourself of little value. You gave it to a man you say hadn't even asked for it. To hear you talk, I am beginning to think you had to beg him to take it."
"You just returned from spending two nights in another man's bed. You were doing things, intimate things with another man, things that should only be shared with someone you love."
"How many nights were you with him, Susan? Was it only those two? How many more were there?"
"And so help me, Susan. I can't help wondering how many other men "deserved" to be rewarded with what was mine! You tell me you are mine. Then you casually give yourself away!"
"If you suggest I go out and cheat on you, that that would balance the scales, we are through. First, if you have so little interest in my fidelity it tells me how cheap you hold fidelity. Second, two wrongs do not make a right. Two wrongs are twice as bad as one."
Those were difficult things to explain away. She had never contested his presumptions or denied his accusations. The tough question was: why hadn't she?
They brought in a well-known popular psychologist, Dr. Alice Tanner. This woman had been accused of plagiarizing portions of her most recent best-seller. Jenson, Sharone had successfully defended her. She was extremely grateful.
They went over the salient points with her, and she came up with a different scenario. Based on her insights and counsel, the group decided on a variant of the secret project cover story.
Dr' Tanner's emphasis was on Susan's state of mind. She had been worn out and weakened by the strain of the two difficult projects back-to-back. She had been drawing close to a breaking point. In this scenario, her lack of denials was explainable by her psychological state.
Thus weakened, she had been so shocked at the whole thrust of Early's initial attack that she had frozen and locked up. She literally did not hear most of what he had said and accused her of. All she could think of to say was that she had been involved in helping John out of gratitude and that she loved Early.
That this was her work and it had nothing to do with him or her love for him. In essence, everything that she had said that morning amounted to variations of that.
The psychologist kept stressing one key point: that Susan had never actually heard Early's specific allegations. She had not heard what he had said about the cheating and cuckolding and the tryst and spending nights in another man's bed. She had been emotionally frozen and blocking all that out!
She had been in that locked up zone she had not understood the specifics. That was why she had never refuted or countered them. So when she said that it wasn't tawdry, she hadn't really heard what he had charged.
Dr. Tanner would be prepared to testify to the likelihood of that frozen state scenario as a friendly witness in any meeting or hearing. She assured them that there was ample scientific literature that she could cite to support the scenario.
The rest of the day they went over and over the key elements, prepping Susan on every possible aspect and angle of attack that she might anticipate from Early. The main thing that they had going for them was that Early had no tangible information. He knew nothing of what had really happened.
He had suspicions, and had said them, but she hadn't ever comprehended them so as to refute them.
Susan began to think that she had a chance of pulling it off. She said she liked that better than having to admit she'd jerked John off and let him frig her.
That was the story Susan planned to tell Early the next day. The partners and she had fleshed it out and made it sound plausible. Any of them, if questioned, would back it up, as would the psychologist. The hotel manager would back it up for such good clients. It was foolproof.
They also told Susan that under the circumstances, she would be made partner with no further hurdles or tests to meet.
When Early came back Sunday night, Susan asked him to sit with her at the kitchen table. She said she was ready to tell him everything ... the whole truth.
He reached across and took her hands in his.
His eyes bored into hers.
"Susan. Before you say a word, you must understand something. If you tell me the truth, I will work with you and go to counseling, and do everything in my power to get past this and stay together with you. But I must have the truth, however sordid it is. I will accept no lies, no evasions, no lawyerly ploys.
"Assume that I already know everything. Your job is to tell me ... to confirm what I already know. Because perhaps I do. This is like the courtroom oath: The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Anything less than that, and we cease to exist as a married couple.
"Do you understand me? Do you understand that this makes or breaks our marriage?
Susan had sat down confident. Now she was a bit frightened. She had never seen Early looking so grim. But she knew she was armed with a foolproof story.
She told him about the secret project and how she had pitched in to repay John for all his help on Melrose. "I owed him big time for all the help he gave me," she said.
Early sat, his face impassive. He nodded for her to go on.
She told him of the hotel where they had camped out to do the work. It was about 25 miles southeast of Belleview, "Far enough that we could get away from the office," she said.
He asked how they had gotten there, and she said, "We drove, of course."
"Anyone car-pool?" he asked, seemingly irrelevantly.
"No," she said. "When we were done, I wanted to be able to rush home. But I was sworn to keep quiet about the project, and when I called those nights, looking for you, that's why I lied about being home. So I had egg on my face when I came in and you told me you'd been there all along.
"And this started on Thursday?" Early asked.
"Yes, right after we wrapped up Melrose. We all grabbed some casual clothes from home and met there in the afternoon."
"And you drove out there and stayed there from Thursday through Saturday morning?"
Early stared at her with no expression on his face. It was his negotiator's façade.
"Susan, I drove by John Stickner's house Friday, three times spaced over four hours. Your car was parked there by his garage. I could see his car inside the garage.
"I took pictures with my cell phone."
He took out the prints, each time and date stamped: one at 10:43, the next at a little after 1PM. "Your cars are still there. The third is at 2:55. Still there.
"You and he were there alone in his house, not miles away with other team members at a hotel."
Susan sat very still, unable to speak.
Early stood up and paced. He took out his cell phone and dialed a number. "Mrs. Beller? Early Conroy, here. You said I could call you at home? Yes, well, I'll take that apartment.
"When can I get the keys? Tomorrow? Fine, I'll be there some time in the afternoon."
He dialed another number. "This message is for Mrs. Naramore. Early Conroy confirming that appointment for 9AM Monday. You can reach me on my cell phone if you need me."
He looked down at his silent wife.
"And that is the end of us, Susan. I'll take some stuff with me and get the rest during the week.
"I told you that nothing but the truth had a chance of saving us. You chose to lie.
"Mrs. Sarah Naramore is my attorney for this. Don't try to call me; communicate through her. She's in the book."
He went up to their bedroom and nearly 15 minutes later came down with a couple of packed suitcases. He placed them by the door and went into the den for his laptop.
For once, Susan could not find anything to say. She simply watched him as he passed through the room.
When he came out he said, "Susan, I loved you. I would have done anything for you. I would have given up my life for you.
"You couldn't even stop lying for one hour for me.
"Good bye, Susan. I hope the partnership was worth it."